Rule Of Thumb

Principles, rules and laws are essentially the same thing. I won’t bother you with a paraphrasing of my recent reading list, which includes Plato, Kepler and Douglas Adams, but for a freelancer, it’s important to differentiate what is what, especially for the Other Guy.

A principle is a lighthouse on the horizon, and it’s OK to veer left and right, or even ignore it altogether. That’s one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the Law, which, to quote Morpheus, will break you if you try to break them (and get caught, obviously).

There are varying degrees of rules in between, from the rule of thumb to the house rule. Which apparently is akin to law. Or so I’m told.

Moving on…

Developing a program is kind of a ninja split between the two: some rules are unbreakable, because of maths, and contracts and stuff, and some people try to impose on us rules that can (and sometimes should) be gladly ignored. Just look at some interface designs blatantly ignoring the rule that someone somewhere edicted, and look just plain awesome. Right?

I took a roundabout way to make that point but programmers tend to consider rules with a clear downshift on the “have to” slider.

But, as computers are very attached to their governing rules, humans go a long way to actually enforce them. Case in point: you’re asked to make a mockup app that will illustrate some concept or something. It’s about as easy as making a working prototype, sometimes, so we bend the Prime Beancounter Directive: we go beyond what’s asked. But it’s not what was covered in the Contract. So we don’t get paid. Or at least it’s very hard.

So the appreciation of this particular rule was apparently wrong.

The problem is twofold: the question of the rigidness in the expression of the rule, and whether the Other Person tends to respect the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of it.

For the second part, it’s a lot easier to hide behind wording and you-have-to-s than to imagine what the intent of the rule is. That’s how we get “warning hot” on coffee cups (wait, what? I specifically ordered a lukewarm boiled cup of coffee, not that seemingly delicious cup of joe!), or “do not dry your pet in it” on microwaves (I won’t even bother). As weird as it sound, stupidity is foolproof. Adhering completely to blatantly stupid explicit rules is what makes the world tick smoothly it seems. For more on that, see the Miss Susan vs Jason, in Thief of Time.

You soon learned that ‘No one is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard’ was a prohibition that a seven year-old simply would not understand. You had to think, and rephrase it in more immediate terms, like, ‘No one, Jason, no matter what, no, not even if they thought they heard someone shouting for help, no one – are you paying attention, Jason? – is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or accidentally fall on the door handle so that it opens, or threaten to steal Richenda’s teddy bear unless she opens the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or be standing nearby when a mysterious wind comes out of nowhere and blows the door open all by itself, honestly, it really did, or in any way open, cause to open, ask anyone else to open, jump up and down on the loose floorboard to open or in any other way seek to obtain entry to the Stationery Cupboard, Jason!’

Loophole. The Dreaded Word by the Rulemakers. The Golden Sesame for the Rulebreakers.

But the power of a loophole relies solely on the fact that the rule is rigid to the point of absurdity. Of course, there should be an unbreakable rule that states that it’s not allowed to come to my home and take my hard-won computer for themselves. Of course there should be one for being able to tell a power hungry person that they overstep said power.

I guess the whole point is finding out where the rule protects a group of people from others and also from themselves. But when we’re talking about breaking a rule, in order to make something better for everyone, it’s an epitome of everything that’s wrong with our reasoning abilities.

And yet… I hear some of you think along the lines of “yea but if some rules should be put aside, how can that not be an argument for that there should be no rule, at least with some people?”. Strictly respecting all the rules makes it easier to have others respect all the rules as well, right?


Again, I think it’s a matter of harm. If by breaking a rule you harm no one (including yourself) in any way (except maybe their ego, but that has nothing to do with anything), then the rule is stupid. And should be ignored. Like, say, going beyond expectations. Actually, breaking a stupid rule should be grounds for an award, a compensation, something stating “wow, that rule was stupid. This awesome programmer deserves a raise. And he’s so cute too… <fawns>“.

Ahem. Anyways…

So then, I hear you think from here on my spaceship, how do you know you’re doing no harm? to anyone?

Dude, the daily personal and professional interactions we have are rarely a matter of life and death for entire nations. Business laws are supposed to protect me from getting screwed over by customers with no scruple. Not to prevent me from doing my job better than I’m supposed to. Fact is, most of the time, to enforce a “common sense” rule (getting paid for a job), I have to go through stupid rules first. And since the Other Guy is usually better equipped than I am to handle these first stupid hurdles, they win the race. So it spirals down: stupidity being the most efficient way, it becomes the norm. And we have to edict new rules to kind of balance the most stupid of our actions, or to close the loophole. Oh wait, another set of stupid rules to follow!

Stupidity is recursive. Thinking is hard.

The end doesn’t justify the means. Life shouldn’t be a permanent chess game either.


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