Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

The best is the enemy of the better

Is the best your goal? Your standard? Is omniscience your goal? Your standard?

For many people, this is true, or at least they think it is. Children's television is a great way to observe a cornerstone of current thought in developmental psychology and how kids' futures may be determined by what influences them. It used to be "Everyone is special", sometimes with the added "in their own special way." Recently it has been "Just do your very best", sometimes with the added "and try try again!" I don't know the most modern phrase. There are two obvious sillinesses here: if everyone is "special", "special" loses its meaning and you might as well say everyone is Gorp. If you do your best, what makes you think trying again will produce any results if you're not improving?

The best is not my goal, nor omniscience itself, but appearances of both can provide some direction. If I had omniscience, I'd still look for something better. Where my philosophy lies is that I'm not seeking the best, merely the better. I'm not even sure there's a best. But hypothetical omniscience often serves as something I can point to showing that there is something better. Some place I can keep moving towards, cheaply, through learning.

Omniscience is something I can point at as being a hypothetical "best" in terms of knowing things. The laws of physics suggest it's an impossibility, but it's still there to suggest your knowledge can always improve. There are very few things I think are the best, and even then it may only be because I'm ignorant of something better.*

One root for this desire for the better is a dislike for complacency and false excuses. "I was doing my best", or "I was trying to do my best", aren't excuses nor are they good mind habits. They're just as bad as "I was just following orders." If you're constantly believing yourself to be the best or doing the best or even just trying to do the best, you can't ever be or do or try better, and you'll never improve.

Sometimes attempts at doing better end up being worse than not doing them, but that's okay, because you'll have the knowledge that a particular change is clearly not better and won't try it again. A poetic quote is "Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is necessarily a change." In order to improve you have to take the risk that every so often some of your changes won't work out favorably. You also take the risk of one small change causing a cascade of improvements and changing your person almost entirely in a short time. (There are of course changes that can cause drastic damages, but if you keep to the mindset of becoming better, you won't be trapped forever in a damaging well even if you think you like it there.)

A popular viewpoint, especially among programmers, that I like is "the best is the enemy of the Good Enough". The best is also the enemy of the better. It's this second viewpoint I kind of liken to a possible atheist's journey. Becoming an atheist can be crushing if you believed all meaning and value and so on come from God, then you sit with the Nihilists at lunch under the illusion that there is no meaning/value/etc and suffer. It is only through a second viewpoint can the atheist progress and be happier than s/he was as a religious follower. "The best is the enemy of the Good Enough" can be similarly dangerous as an initial view, because you suddenly have a great quote as an excuse for mediocrity and indifference.

The "Good Enough", typically interpreted to indicate the least amount of work, is also the enemy of the better, but a 'proper' interpretation of "Good Enough" can be harmonious with a search for the better. It recognizes the existence of diminishing returns. You may be able to squeeze out some betterness for this particular thing, but there's likely something else you could make a lot better more cheaply. Perfection is a good goal to shoot for even if it can't be reached, but being near-perfect in one small thing while being abysmal everywhere else doesn't seem better than being "Good Enough" across the board.

What's with these 'proper' interpretations of things? Perl culture has the three programming virtues of laziness, impatience, and hubris, which may sound somewhat questionable as virtues. (Indeed, the Japanese edition of the camel book explicitly added in "This is a joke" at their discussion.) But with a proper interpretation, which is hinted at by saying the three virtues are more like industrious laziness, patient impatience, and humble hubris, they become very good virtues. Hobbits would make good programmers. Good programmers automate away the boring parts that eat up a lot of time, and as such are lazy. Bad programmers interpret lazy in the laziest way possible and use it as an excuse to copy and paste blocks of code, never refactor, etc. It's this duality of interpretation and the caricatures of 'good interpretations' vs. 'bad interpretations' that I'm getting at which makes "Good Enough" kind of like a Frienemy of the better, as opposed to an enemy like the best.

There is one other thing that's the best, though! Python. Or is it Scheme...

* Is there something better than Bayesian Reasoning and the various approximations for computational efficiency, for whatever purposes such things are good at? (Such as rational thinking and rational inductive reasoning.) Maybe, and I'd strongly suspect it would highly resemble Bayesian Reasoning; the Cox Theorem is very convincing. Right now though, my understanding of the math can be improved much easier and more reliably than improving the math and core ideas themselves. Where low hanging fruit still may hang is in the computational improvements of the algorithms across massive amounts of data, and the foundations for that has been done very recently. (By IBM and a Seattle Startup independently, with a single academic paper arriving at a similar method for one of the necessary parts published earlier this year.)

Posted on 2011-09-02 by Jach

Tags: philosophy


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