Deirdre Saoirse Moen

Sounds Like Weird

Premature Optimization

17 February 2014

“Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” — Donald Knuth

Case in point.

  1. An ex-SFWAn and some colleagues put up a petition about feared changes in editorial policy of the SFWA Bulletin. Link.
  2. The Internet reacts. Including me.
  3. Some of the people sympathetic to the petition signers, but not to those in step 2, counter-respond. Link.
  4. One person in particular says a bunch of stuff that, frankly, can’t be unsaid. This person happens to work at the publisher where the person (who happens to be a woman) he’s saying something about is being published.

People have lost their jobs over about as much. Case in point.
And—to what purpose? Really?
I get that, as science fiction and fantasy writers, “if this goes on” is one of our primary memes. It’s the launching point for many book ideas. We’ve all got more than a little Philip K. Dick in us. Institutional paranoia isn’t a bad thing to have, up to a point.
I understand the very real sexism of aiming that fear at the highest woman on the SFWA board at one point—and not at her male peers. Mary’s post is worth reading. As is Scalzi’s. I get the sexism, especially after as long as I’ve spent in the computer industry.
No one is obligated to like anyone, but Mary is a colleague of ours, and I expect Mary to be treated with the same professional courtesy that (most of) you would treat your favorite of the genre’s masters if they were suddenly to walk into your living room.

Premature Optimization

I can’t help but think, though, that if premature optimization weren’t such a human tendency, none of this would have happened.
Knuth’s point about premature optimization is about wasted effort. Many engineering projects fail because a lot of effort is spent optimizing in area A when area B is a substantially more significant problem in the actual use case. It’s just that area A’s problems were seen earlier.
In the current SFWA thing, the premature petition put a drag on all of our time and energy due to the very real problems that surfaced as a result of the initial premature optimization. I’m being kind here: the petition itself was ill-conceived, and quite a few people spent time working on it that they undoubtedly could have better spent doing other things.
Look, I know it’s a Myers-Briggs J vs. P approach to problems thing. Truly I do. Even as someone who is very, very P, I sometimes have to tell myself “Wait.” Still.
When it comes to events here in reality, respond to reality.


You can spend a lot of effort heading off potential problems that would never become actual problems.
There is a long tradition of lobbying against laws being passed, and that’s arguably not premature optimization when we have the text of the proposed bill. But there’s also the fact that every single progressive mailing list I’m on has asked me to rail against certain proposed bills that had no chance of passing. Unfortunately, some bills we thought had no chance of passing occasionally do anyway.
It’s a different thing when a law passes than when a relatively small organization makes a structural change, though. I’m not going to say that SFWA is agile, but it’s at least arguably more agile than a government.

And Yet

Worth reading: Mark Tiedemann, “On The Extraction of Feet From Mouths”. I’m glad something good came out of all this. (Note: post is from last June, so is about the issue that the current controversy is responding to, not the current controversy per se).
Popehat writer Ken White gives an awesome legal analysis of the defamation lawsuit threat.

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