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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Optimal is Not Optimal: The Sweet of Suites

Heh. Clever. But I believe...
A generalist knows more and more about more and more
until eventually s/he knows something about everything.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-- Robert A. Heinlein

If one's only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
-- The Law of the Hammer

Avoid optimization; Learn to love redundancy.
-- From Nassim Taleb's Phronetic Rules

Optimal is Not Optimal: The Sweet of Suites

Let's get it said, upfront. I'm a Generalist. Jack of Many Trades. Proud Master of None.

I'm much less drawn to Rules than to Rules of Thumb. I admire precision, but prefer the loose fit. I'll take one-size-fits-most over tailor-made any day of the week. 

So here's the problem with Optimal. It is by definition the very best solution for a particular problem. Often very particular problem. A problem one can foresee with great confidence and specificity. A can opener. A mouse trap. A barrel bolt. These things have solutions that are pretty durned optimal and are notoriously hard to improve upon.

But problems abound, and each has its own, special way of driving us bugnutz.

Generalized (sub-optimal) tools and approaches cover a much wider range of problems. So wide that they often spill over into other whole species of problem. A suite of generalist tools - especially those which work well together - cover a very wide range indeed.

In discussions I read on the subject, Specialized vs General evaluations tend to measure in degrees of Success (often vs Failure). For example, a Specialized tool has a high degree of success, but only at a narrow task. The Generalized tool is assessed at some lower degree of success, but over a swathe of loosely related tasks. Most such writers argue for the General.

What I think is often missed is that Efficiency is a much better standard. The Generalized tool will succeed... it just takes longer for a small fraction of that range. That it does so over a wider range of problems is a better measure of its advantage over Optimal. It is less efficient at one particular task, but more efficient overall.

Veritas rabbet planes

Consider the Rabbet Plane vs the Chisel.

I'm not knocking the Rabbet Plane. This one by VERITAS is a well designed thing of beauty and a boon to the task. If your life calls for a lot of rabbets, it may pay its way. But it's not happy performing most of the other chores one asks even of a plane. Very bottom line, it's a specialized Chisel.

But which fits better into a limited space toolbox? Which is less expensive to purchase? To replace or repair? Can it do any single thing a chisel cannot? No. Can a chisel do things it cannot? Let me count the ways... (okay, I won't... you get the picture).

Another important consideration is reliability. Given quality components, this is the product of simplicity (less to go wrong) and imprecision (loosely 'coupled' components).

Okay, I once said, I get KISS. But imprecision is a virtue??? 

Turns out that precise, tightly coupled systems are prone to failure. The kind of failure that chewing gum and baling wire can't fix. A little sand in the finest Swiss watch and it will drop to merely semidiurnal success. But one can make a sundial with a stick stuck into sand. If it gets kicked over, stick it again and recalibrate. [We can also use that stick to lean on, plant a seed, pry a up a rock, bind a tourniquet, whack a mole...]

Efficiency, as I mentioned, is a factor here... that sundial has its limitations in this regard. Cost / benefit analysis is the guide. That stick is very efficient, in its modest way.

A final point I seldom if ever see discussed is how well tools (or approaches) work together in suites (combinations). What I call the sweet of suites.

Simple, generalized tools can join forces to accomplish almost anything! Their areas of efficacy overlap, affording redundancy and  choice. A heavy screwdriver can be a prise bar can be a chisel can be a lever can be a...

NOTE: We are strictly warned against abusing a tool beyond its designed purpose. HA.

A sweet suite of tools, skills, approaches, methods, guidelines... what-have-you... covers the ground. Covers it better, to my mind, than any ungainly heap of one-shot wonders.


NOTE: I realize that all this is, in fact, a spectrum. At the KISS extreme, brain + opposable thumbs are as simple as it gets, and all the others are to some degree specialized. The kind of optimal we look for will always be the happy middle ground.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

OVERVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


Words to live by.
Words to die by.

Really, what's the difference?

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

See also this review by Maria Popova

All boldface below are quotes from Dr. Gawande's book.

In Being Mortal, Dr. Gawande writes:

This is a book about the modern experience of mortality -- about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.

Our main take-aways from the book:

Quality of life is preferable to mere quantity for the vast majority of us.

Care should be determined - in discussion with one’s family, doctors and care-givers - by asking...

  • What is our understanding of the situation?

  • What do we fear?

  • What do we hope for?

  • What are the trade-offs we are willing to make?

  • What are the trade-offs we are not willing to make?

  • What is the best course of action which serves this understanding?

Consider, answer and communicate, if possible, before the onset of care…

  • Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops?

  • Do you want aggressive treatments such as intubation and mechanical ventilation?

  • Do you want antibiotics?

  • Do you want tube or intravenous feeding if you can’t eat on your own?

Hospice approaches and attitudes appear to serve the terminal patient much better than standard medical interventions.

In the Epilogue, Dr. Gawande writes:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. 

Those reasons matter

not just at the end of life,

or when debility comes,

but all along the way.