974: The General Problem
This comic features Cueball sitting down to a meal and requesting that an off screen person pass him the salt. The off screen person (OSP) then proceeds to solve the problem...generally. Cueball's implied/specific request was "Can and will you pass me the salt immediately?" However the OSP begins to solve the salt problem generally, without regard for time, context, the specific heat of the meal, or what some would call common sense. For the next 20 minutes, while Cueball nibbles at his bland, cooling meal, the OSP works on a device that will pass condiments more quickly than possible by the OSP. The problem, obviously, is that building then using the machine is much slower than just manually passing the salt. This is why in the title-text Randall states that when someone uses a lot of time to do an easy task when the task is needed to be done quickly he considers them a perfectionist (since they are unable to do something inefficiently even if it satisfies the other person) with no ability to prioritize. Yet if the "perfectionist" were to have completed this machine previously, he would be impressed when the creation passed him the salt. The OSP's argument for taking so much time is that in the end if he were to add up all the time he saved by no longer needing to pass condiments it will equal more time than it took to build the machine, and thus in the long term he will have saved time and solved the general problem of passing condiments.
This situation would be akin to a major website performing maintenance during peak hours instead of waiting till traffic was lower. From the perspective of the person trying to check their email, the upgrade would seem ill-timed and unnecessary. However if the person were to instead log in not till the following day, he would think the upgrade was masterful and full of great insight.
The title text carries perhaps the more important point, for which of course this case is a trivial and hence humorous example: most pure and some applied research does not look like it is a reasonable use of one's time. Therefore, only in retrospect, when something has in fact resulted in a generally recognized useful product, can one justify the time and resources consumed. Until then it looks like self-indulgence.
- [Cueball sits at a table, eating a meal.]
- Cueball: Can you pass the salt?
- [Cueball pauses, a bite of food on his fork, silently.]
- [Cueball still has fork in mid-air.]
- Cueball: I said-
- Off-screen person: I know! I'm developing a system to pass you arbitrary condiments.
- Cueball: It's been 20 minutes!
- Off-screen person: It'll save time in the long run!