The rule of opposites

Thinking out loud...

Here's a curious thing. The basis on which one can best understand modern life is by understanding opposites.

The Way of Life

For example, Lao Tzu, in his Tao Te Ching, said:

"Those who know do not talk, and talkers do not know."

He was referring to spiritual enlightenment, but the same principle applies in other spheres.

The Yin-Yang symbol

The Yin-Yang symbol


Another example: when, several years ago, the Government in England introduced a policy called "Supporting People", in the area of social care, I knew immediately that they intended to reduce the help available by cutting the funding available. I was right. Presumably the support was achieved by making people (the elderly, and people in general who could not live independently) stand on their own two feet.

This is what Stephen Potter, in "Supermanship" (one of his follow-up books from One Upmanship), referred to as "the petrification of the implied opposite".

Parkinson's Law

The "opposites" phenomenon is also acutely observed in Parkinson's Law of reception areas. He notes that you can tell when an organisation is past its peak when they refurbish their reception area. He comes to this conclusion by stating, correctly in my opinion, that when an organisation is thriving nobody has the time to worry about what the reception area looks like.

He wrote his book before the world wide web was invented, but I believe that the same applies to websites. When an organisation or an individual suddenly unveils a sparkling new website, I always think to myself that they can't have much work coming in. I know I make changes every so often, but I don't usually have the time to just get on with it really quickly, because of other pressures (deadlines, for instance).

Introverts and extroverts

In her seminal work on introverts, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes the point that it is often the quietist people in a meeting or company that come up with good ideas, not necessarily the ones who do all the talking. (I'll be reviewing that book and her follow-up one shortly in these pages.)

Web pages and programs

In ICT and Computing, the simplest programs are often the most elegant and efficient, while simple websites, ie those without unnecessary animations or sound effects, provide the most pleasant user experience.

Therefore I think a good motto for kids to abide by when it comes to such things is "less is more". There is too much of a tendency these days to try and create a Swiss army knife out of every application, that is to say, programs are written that are bursting with features. (I have the sense that this trend is reversing, which would be a good thing.) When I was teaching, I always encouraged my students to write programs that did one or two things really well, rather than loads of things in a mediocre way.

I also tried to led by example. For example, I created a calculator in Visual Basic that was designed specifically to help me work out VAT on my departmental purchases (the school I worked in had to pay that tax). Another program I wrote was a project manager specifically for managing educational ICT projects. Yet another application (using VBA) was designed to work out the rota for manning the help desk each week.

These applications were very successful because I resisted the temptation to keep adding features that would be nice to have, but which would possibly never be used. I can't prove it, but I had (and have) the feeling that when you add features, the complexity of the program increases in a geometrical progression, not an arithmetical one. For example, if you add two features, the program suddenly becomes four times as complex. (I know the relationship is not as precise as that statement implies, but hopefully my meaning is clear.)

Once again, the law of opposites is at work: by attempting to make the program better by adding more features, you potentially make it worse: slower, and with more potential for going wrong.

An earlier version of this article was first published in my newsletter. See the newsletters page for details.

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