974: The General Problem

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The General Problem
I find that when someone's taking time to do something right in the present, they're a perfectionist with no ability to prioritize, whereas when someone took time to do something right in the past, they're a master artisan of great foresight.
Title text: I find that when someone's taking time to do something right in the present, they're a perfectionist with no ability to prioritize, whereas when someone took time to do something right in the past, they're a master artisan of great foresight.


This comic features Cueball sitting down to a meal and requesting that an offscreen person pass him the salt. The offscreen 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 system that will pass condiments more quickly than possible by the OSP. The problem is that developing and then using the system is much slower than just manually passing the salt.[citation needed]

In the title text, Randall states that when someone uses a lot of time to do an easy task right in the present he considers them a perfectionist with no ability to prioritize (since they are unable to do something inefficiently even if it satisfies the task at hand much quicker). Yet if a perfectionist had done something right in the past he would be impressed and consider them a master artisan of great foresight.

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 system, and thus in the long term he will have saved time and solved the general problem of passing condiments. This could also be spread out to many people all over the world, and thus save a billion times as much time, if a billion people in the world have both condiments and an adequate food supply to use them on...

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.

Put simply, the comic draws attention to the fact that humans are very adept at things that can be difficult to teach machines. We learn as children how to pass arbitrary things to someone who asks. However, to design a 'system' to do this, can be quite difficult - dealing with recognition, shape, size, temperature, etc. There is an engineering joke here that novices often attempt to solve general systems problems that seem trivial at first sight, but can end up taking years to solve. The superficial joke is that a human would have to think at all to do this, let alone 20 minutes.

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.

See also 137: Dreams, 1205: Is It Worth the Time?,1319: Automation and the Time management category.


[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!

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He should have waited until after the meal to start organizing the condiments. --Jimmy C (talk) 18:47, 14 November 2012 (UTC)

There is a later comic that deals with how much time can be spent developing a system to deal with recurring time-taking chores (if that sentence made sense). I may find the number and enter it in, but I may spend time doing this generally first. --Quicksilver (talk) 18:09, 17 August 2013 (UTC)

Title text could be augmented with "Hindsight is 20/20." Krishnanp (talk) 18:46, 7 March 2015 (UTC)

This looks suspiciously like nerd sniping to me..... Dontknow (talk) 04:58, 7 May 2017 (UTC)

Edit Summary, Apr 2015

system ≠ machine; the OSP is not making a machine 05:18, 3 April 2015 (UTC)

I think the Title Text gives the real meaning of the comic - if nobody ever TOOK the TIME to think a problem through and create a new, better solution then nothing would have ever come of our civilization - we'd still be picking up stones to crack a nut. Yet somebody took a time to sculpt a piece of rock and kept it with him, then added a stick as a handle, dug and melted swamp iron to create metallic tool etc. Yet the most instant and obvious solution in the moment would be to keep using any rock you seen near by. Every sys.admin knows how often it seems easier to do stuff instantly, by hand, and get it over with, one often has to force the thought that this situation keeps coming up so I should probably take the time and automate it, hence creating technological advancement. That's how anything gets thought out and built. 11:22, 4 December 2015 (UTC)