joe moon

Rat Holes

Rat holes I’ve fallen into:

Rat holes I’ve got one foot in, but haven’t fallen all the way into, but might still:

I eventually settled on Java, so I can work on Android. I eventually settled on buying a specific Java book. I eventually settled on Vim. I eventually settled on a keyboard (this is a minor one). I eventually settled on a version control system (and I don’t even have a real use for one yet).

Rat holes are things that I think I have to think about before continuing my main project (learning to make software). They are probably not things that are necessary to continue my project, but I fall into them anyway. Some of them take a really long time to decide on because they are often in some way religious or philosophical in nature and the amount of research to be done is insanely deep and sometimes leads in circles.

A positive, and partially true way of thinking about some of these rat holes is that I want to use the best tools available to me, and I want to learn to use these tools well before I start making something with them. Chabo described it to me as depth-first traversal as opposed to breadth-first traversal.

I think obsessive-compulsive completionism is one factor. The truth, though, is probably that it’s easier and more fun to read about and learn about this stuff than it is to get about the business of learning to program. It’s peripherally useful procrastination, which is potentially more harmful than plain goofing off because it can feel productive because solving these more immediate concerns are more deeply satisfying than making relatively small progress on the big project.

There is some value in rat holes. If you spend all day using a keyboard, you should have a good one, just like if you spend all day sitting, you should have a good chair; the value proposition simply dictates it. The hard part is knowing how much value is in a given rat hole, and how much work it will take to extract that value. But for someone new to a domain, there isn’t a really good way to gauge the value proposition, because the research necessary is part of the work of extraction and the uncertainty of that position and the fear of path dependence can be paralyzing.

Some people seem to be more or less immune to rat holes. Maybe the distinction is simply between constitutionally pragmatic people and constitutionally idealistic people. Or maybe it’s a distinction between short-term thinking people and long-term thinking people. Either way, the immune ones tend also not to worry much about what kind of keyboard they have, or which text editor or IDE to use.[^2]

Rat hole avoidance heuristic:

  1. Be aware of the phenomenon.
  2. Self-monitor. Periodically ask myself if I am entering or have entered a rat hole.
  3. Determine whether I am in a blocking or non-blocking rat hole. (Can I delay this decision until I know more about the domain?)
  4. If non-blocking, skip. Else do only enough research to make a quick decision, and only invest enough time to not be blocked and move on. Remind myself that I can change my mind later.
  5. Periodically ask myself whether and how this rat hole advances the big project.


[^1]: I’d like to move my blog to a possibly self-hosted statically served CMS like Jekyll. Why? Good question.

[^2]: I think this is especially true where it pertains to aesthetics. Generally, I think immune ones value function much higher than form, and don’t worry about what their hardware or software looks like.