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Dave and Anke
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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 is 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.


    I am reminded of John Micheal Greer, the former Arch Druid of the Arch Druid Report, on preparing for the slow motion collapse of western civilization. If your Optimal solution is required to work under any foreseeable condition, it is probably going to sacrifice some efficiency.

    1. Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for the link. Great to hear from you!

      Greer, as usual, puts it exceptionally well.

      Here are a few points that stand out for me:

      "We can informally define efficiency as doing more with less."

      "...Resilience is the opposite of efficiency."

      "Like any project worth doing, a good [fill in the blank] has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense to others of equal importance."

      Oooh... does that ever apply to boats!

      "It's only by making steep cuts in our personal demands for resources that its possible to make room for inefficiency, and therefore resilience."

      "...Inefficiencies... are measures of resilience. They define your fallback options... ."

      To anyone following this, I definitely recommend the whole essay. It offers a vantage point from which to view a great swathe of current goings on.

      Meanwhile, Dennis, any updates forthcoming to your blog? Thinking of you often in this time of covid.

      Dave Z

  2. Dave,

    Been meaning to comment for a while, its good to see you posting again.

    Agree with much of your post. Too often little value is accorded those with the vision to adapt, repair, repurpose, or build something from nothing. Practical problem solvers with creative minds and gifted hands.

    I don't like the expression 'Jack of all trades', its purpose is to demean, to undervalue what is in truth, a wealth of knowledge and experience. A pejorative label designed to keep a worker in their place. I like to appropriate the pretentious rebranding as used in academia, rather than 'Jack of all trades' I would call this person a 'Renaissance Man or Renaissance Women', having "acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field".


    1. Hi Matt,

      Posting slows as life accelerates!

      I, too, love the idea of the Renaissance aspirations, but alas... neither 'profound' nor 'proficient' apply to our case.

      Out here on what's left of the frontier, "Jacks and Jills of All Trades' are (mostly) admired. Specialists come and go (and are appreciated), but it's the Generalists with can do / make it work approaches that live the day to day. It ain't often purty, but gits us by.

      One term I relate to is 'Tinkerer'.

      Spiraling the Generalist path certainly interconnects and deepens understandings!

      Dave Z

  3. The idea of "a specialist", is to make people feel they can't do anything except what they have been taught. I general this is false and dangerous too. This means (for example) that a brain specialist will not notice that all the patients with a similar problem also have GI (Gut) problems. Being able to work across many specialties leads to solutions that are more accurate and more likely to be effective. It also means looking for solutions rather than deciding A) this is within my specialty so it is not solvable or B) it is outside my specialty so it is someone else's problem.

  4. Hi Len,

    Weeelll... not sure I'd go that far myself, though I think you point out a tendency that can be all too common.

    Maybe it's the individual's degree of in-the-box thinking? While specialization may tend to stuff one's head deep into some provided box, the same can happen to generalists... just more boxes.

    The willingness to look up and around from any given box or set thereof - to question authority and trust one's own thinking (assuming due diligence!)... I think that benefits us all.

    Meanwhile, I'm in full agreement that specialists more often suffer from tunnel-vision, and often hubris.

    Your A is indeed a problem. I can live with B, so long as a referral is forthcoming.

    Dave Z