Perpendiculous Programming, Personal Finance, and Personal musings

2008.05.13

The Cost of Inaction

Filed under: Personal Finance,Programming — cwright @ 7:08 pm

In computer science, there is a technique called “Lazy Evaluation” that finds use in performance saving and error avoidance. It works by holding off on performing calculations until it is known for certain that the results are needed. Typically, the calculations involved are complex, so preventing them from happening at all can provide massive time-saving benefits. The disadvantage to such systems is some sophisticated book keeping and sometimes-complex algorithms to handle when/if evaluation should occur.

While I wasn’t exposed to the term until much later in life, I had discovered the technique while I was very young. I didn’t necessarily apply it to programming exclusively though. It also had several applications in real life. For example, if a certain piece of homework wasn’t required to get my target grade, it could be left “unevaluated” (incomplete), and there would be no harm to my target GPA. By my final school years (7th grade and later), I discovered that if I set my target GPA to zero, _All_ homework assignments became “optional”, and I had lots of free time to pursue programming and video game pursuits. Not a good idea for scholarships, mind you, but it worked for me — in reality I probably spent the saved time yelling at my mom over bad grades and how I would never amount to anything because I thought that doing 80 x+y math problems was going to guarantee not amounting to anything anyway, but I digress…

But through all this, there are times where Eager Evaluation is beneficial. In this model, you do something as soon as you know what to do. A couple weeks ago, I presented one such Eager Evaluation opportunity (Free $25 till May 15th). Much to my surprise, exactly one person actually signed up and took advantage of it. The rest of my readers have since chosen to talk at length (digitally as well as in person) about the contents of other posts I have made, but not to act on this.

The opportunity cost of such an exercise was something like half an hour of your life. For me, that’s a pretty fair trade, especially when I can decided whenever that half hour is (as long as it’s within the offer’s valid dates, which was something like 14-18 days). Yet no one took it (the one that did received in-person pestering while on the job, so I don’t think it was purely blog-based influence). Crazy.

Perhaps it was fear. Online banking is still scary to many people. Perhaps it was the fear of spam. Disposable e-mail accounts are difficult to come by, from what I hear. I only have 2 or 3 of them. Most legitimately, perhaps it was the sharing of more personal information. For this, I don’t really have a smarmy rebuttal; it’s a valid concern. Though I’d wager that close to the same amount of information is disclosed with facebook, myspace, and college entrance records, not to mention car paperwork, loans, housing paperwork, employment info, and more.

Perhaps people mutilated the link so as not to grant me credit. I can see this as possible, but I don’t necessarily see a motive for it.

Perhaps registration failed. If that’s the case, it’s a legitimate failure on the part of the service, and there isn’t really any problem and this post is in vain.

Or perhaps it’s simply too easy to be passive. Inaction, like lazy evaluation, can have its costs too though.

A few months ago, I was having a somewhat mildly heated discussion with a business major (MC) on the concept of opportunity and “creating luck.” I’m personally of the opinion that we largely create our own luck, and we largely create our own opportunities. MC’s on the other side of the fence, citing “big breaks” as the only opportunities that people have for getting ahead in life. I explained a few examples from my own life, but even I don’t necessarily support anecdotal evidence as legitimate in the face of overwhelming statistics. I don’t have any statistics for such a discussion, but I’ll explain some thoughts at length (which are, as I said, somewhat anecdotal).

First, some basic numbers. These may be used incorrectly, but they seem to make sense.

In 2006, the world GDP was something like $65.95 trillion. That means that for each and every one of the 6.5 billion people on the planet, $10146.15 were generated/created. Low for an American, certainly, but for much of the world, that’s a lot of cash. For a family of 3, that’s a touch over $30,000/year, which is basically livable even in the states. (it’d probably be a bit of a stretch). If you just take the United States, the GDP is a bit over 13 trillion, bringing the average up to $43190.78 per person. So the financial opportunity is out there.

Each year in the united states, over 600,000 businesses are started. For each of the 300 million people here, that’s 1 for every 500 people, with men being about twice a likely to start a business as a woman. Most of those fail (I’ve heard something like 2/3), but there are also many that succeed. The opportunity is there, and isn’t even out of reach or unlikely.

Now for Personal Experiences.
The amount that I participate in groups is inversely proportional to the size of the group. Above about 3 or 4 people, I become a passive observer, choosing to watch people rather than interact with them. As such, I usually come off as very shy, and very few people know me, even though we may be in close proximity for long periods of time. Red Head is one such example — it wasn’t until I shared some batteries for photographing Phil that “the ice” was broken, nearly a year after our initial introduction. The Statistician goes back even farther, as does the Mane Maintainer. The latter two probably don’t even remember me pre-departure in 2005, even though I knew them and could tell you basically what they were involved in at the time. The Ice breaking events in our lives don’t need to be huge or anything, just simple small acts that lead to friendships and associations. The opportunity was simply to do something for someone, even if it was small or silly (or, lead to me not being able to take more pictures).

The Kineme Project is an example of a project that has received no formal advertising. But because I’ve participated in the parent product’s mailing list (Quartz Composer) for a long time (even sounding like an idiot from time to time), I’ve become somewhat known for it, and people have come use parts of the project on their own simply by word of mouth. While I wouldn’t call all of kineme my greatest work, there is a lot of polish on many parts, and because of that, people notice. Loving what you do, and doing what you love, leads to products that cannot be matched. The opportunity here was to do work, and demonstrate close interpersonal communication while working on custom projects, as well as giving generally helpful advice once a certain level of adeptness had been attained.

Around new years, the Mane Maintainer started issuing challenges to me (first, to simply change where I was, then, to change how I interacted with people). These simple changes lead to a massive change in personality and social adeptness. In this case, the opportunity was to do things differently, and take someone’s advice on what to change.

Really, there are opportunities all around us, all the time. It’s not possible or practical to take advantage of all of them, and many of them don’t even work out in the end. But by not taking a chance, there’s always a guaranteed 0% chance of having them succeed for you. Inaction in these cases can never pay off. (The science of taking these opportunities is often called “calculated risk.”)

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