Making Principled Unprincipled Choices

I like principled decision making. Indeed, few things inspired me as much as this quote from Leibniz:

if controversies were to arise, there would be be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two calculators. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands and to sit down at the abacus, and say to each other (and if they so wish also to a friend called to help): Let us calculate.

Alas, there’s no decision making situation where this vision holds, even in principle. But still, I like my decisions to conform to some articulable rationale, preferably in the form of some set of general rules.

But some of my rules are meta-rules which focus on resource use. Obviously, one goal of decision making rules in to maximise the chances of making the “right” choice. But for any metric of rightness (let’s say, an appliance with the best value for money) there’s a cost in the effort to assure the maximum (e.g., research, testing, comparing…lots of shopping). That cost can be quite large and interact with subsequent satisfaction in a variety of ways. I’m prone to this and, indeed, end up in decision paralysis.

In response to this, one of my meta-rules is “don’t over-sweat it”. So, for small stuff, this reduces to “don’t sweat the small stuff”. But, because of my anxiety structures, I tend to see certain classes of small stuff as big stuff. So, I dedicate some effort to seeing small stuff as small. Sometimes, this means making it invisible to me. Poor Zoe often has to make the actual purchase after I’ve done the research, or even make the decision after I’ve done the research. For various classes of minor, irrevocable sub-optimal decisions, I prefer not to know about them. I will obsess, and that doesn’t help anyone.

When the decision is essentially arbitrary (because all choices are incommensurable in toto, or their value is unknowable at the moment), I try to make myself flip a coin (metaphorically, at least). What I try to avoid is building a fake rationale (except when that enables the choosing or makes me happier with the arbitrary choice).

Technical (or teaching) decisions often are best treated as arbitrary, but we have tons of incentives to treat them as requiring a ton of analysis to make the “right” choice. At the moment, I’m evaluating what Python testing framework to use and teach in my software engineering class. I currently use doctest and unittest and have a pretty decent lesson plan around them. doctest is funky and unittest is bog standard. I’d consider dropping doctest because I need room and we don’t do enough xUnit style testing for them to really grasp it. They are also built into the standard library.

But then there’s pytest which seem fairly popular. It has some technical advantages, including a slew of plugins (including for regression testing and BDD style testing). It scales in complexity nicely…you can just write a test function and you’re done.

But, of course, it’s a third party thing and needs to be installed. Any plugins would have to be installed. Is it “better enough” to ignore the built in libraries? Or should I add it on with the builtin libraries? AND THERE MIGHT BE SOMETHING YET BETTER OUT THERE OH NOES!!!!

No. The key principle here is a meta-principle: Don’t invest too much more effort. Make a decision and stick with it. In the end, any of the choices will do and a big determiner will be “does it spark my interest now?” while the other will be “how much extra work is that?”

And that’s fine.