Guidelines and Trimming the Hedges

I was recently reminded of scene from a pretty average movie (Stealing Harvard) that shouldn’t have been as funny as I found it, but it still cracks me up.

John and his goofy landscaper friend Duff are chatting. Duff has a rope pulled taut across the top of a row of hedges he’s trimming. Presumably to guide him as he trims them.

Duff instead goes to town on the hedges with the landscape world’s equivalent of a chainsaw.

John: Uh, Duff? Don’t you think you’re taking too much off the top?
Duff: Look, John, I know what I’m doing– I have to taper it so the sunlight will reach the lower leaves during the growing season.
John: Then what about this string?
Duff: The string is a guide, John. It’s just a guide.

Revisiting this scene reminded me of the strange “guides” that steer our own decision-making. Some of which we adhere to too strictly, others of which we veer from too often. There’s a great thread on Quora that addresses a similar question of guidelines and frameworks. Writer Venkatesh Rao provided the following as a decent cross-section of principles to consider as worthwhile guides:

  1. “Premature optimization is the root of all evil” — Knuth, computer science

  2. “Follow the information” or “what are the primitive random variables?” — information theory, control theory, statistics

  3. Procrastination principle: “Most problems confronting a network can be solved later by others… don’t do anything that can be done later by users.” (an idea from a 1984 paper by Clark, David Reed and Jerry Saltzer).

  4. Never design a law with the worst case in mind — law/legislation

  5. Release early and often — software engineering

  6. Think aspirin, not vitamins — marketing

  7. Start with the simplest problem that you don’t know how to solve — general advice in technical PhDs

  8. Start with a contradiction: “X but also Y” where X and Y are in conflict: many artistic fields such as script writing (this is a useful method for creating character-driven plots, by defining the central tension that drives a character for example)

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