Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…

10% of everything is not crap


I finished the book. A few of Bach’s points stand out as especially significant to my own life. But first I want to talk about his story about his fellow testers at Apple.

At first I thought I would learn a lot from the other testers. There were more than 400 of them in my building. But talking to them revealed a startling truth: Nobody cared.
Almost nobody. In the first six months I worked at Apple, out of all the testers in the software testing division, I met maybe 10 who were also reading testing books. The rest muddled through without much ambition to master their craft. It was clear that catching the college kids would not be difficult, after all.

The pattern I experienced at Apple would be confirmed almost everywhere I traveled in the computer industry: Most people have put themselves on intellectual autopilot. Most don’t study on their own initiative, but only when they are forced to do so. Even when they study, they choose to study the obvious and conventional subjects. This has the effect of making them more alike instead of more unique. It’s an educational herd mentality.

This is almost right.

I have been thinking a lot recently about Sturgeon’s Law. Theodore Sturgeon is a science fiction writer who was once on a panel with other writers from other genres. One of his fellow panelists threw out the observation that

90% of science fiction writing is crap

To which Sturgeon replied

90% of everything is crap

Most people understand Sturgeon’s Law as a pessimistic observation of the rottenness that surrounds us: 90% of teachers are crap; 90% of software professionals are crap; 90% of restaurants are crap; 90% of beers are crap; 90% of tv shows are crap. But I prefer to think of Sturgeon’s Law as a strategy for avoiding hasty judgment in an unfamiliar domain.

If you are at the top of your game in software testing (or science fiction or beer drinking or whatever), you probably surround yourself with other people who think like you and have similar interests to you. When you compare your own circle (beer drinkers in Portland; historical fiction writers) with an unfamiliar circle (beer drinkers in Denver; science fiction writers), you are comparing the best of your circle with the average of another circle. That’s not a fair comparison because, if 90% of everything is crap, the average is crap too.

Sturgeon’s Law is about the 10% that is not crap. You have to go find the best before you decide that college graduates are all automatons or that beer drinkers in Denver drink piss or that video games are mindless (compared to movies) or whatever.

Some consequences:

If you are a liberal and all your liberal friends are smart, you need to go look for some smart conservatives before you pass judgment on conservatives as a whole.

If you are a responsible software tester, go look for some smart software developers before you decide that all developers are irresponsible.

I could go on.

I have a hunch that this observation explains a whole bunch of phenomena: kids these days aren’t as smart as they were in my day; Women can’t change a plug; recent immigrants are stupid and lazy; and, of course, 90% of science fiction is crap.

None of this conflicts with Bach’s observation about his fellow testers at Apple or his advice that, with just little effort, you can be better than 90% of your co-workers. But it should make you pause before you decide that your group is better, in some way, than some other group.

One other observation and then I am done with buccaneering for a while.

Bach describes a strategy for learning that is very similar to my own. He talks about building a schema for a new topic before he goes about learning the details. I do that too.

When I am learning a new subject, I want to have a theory for what it’s about as a whole before I start learning the particulars. It’s a bit more iterative than that, of course: particulars help me understand the whole and the whole helps me understand the particulars; but my initial goal is to develop a theory for how everything hangs together rather than learn any particular detail.

I sometimes wonder if the people who study for exams miss this.

Having never studied for an exam (except for Latin O Level), I don’t quite know how studying works but I suspect that the studiers are trying to fill their heads with facts rather than build a skeleton understanding of the subject. It’s inevitable that they’ll forget everything almost immediately because the soft tissue of facts has no bones to cling to. If you have understanding, you can’t help but learn the facts as an accidental byproduct. Learning is about growing the tree, not about pinning the leaves on.

I have been trying to teach this to my son but, since he doesn’t study for exams either, he probably knows it already. I hope so. I expect he’ll turn out to be a buccaneer scholar too, even if he doesn’t know it yet.