As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency. I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.
Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency. They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.
In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency). It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input). If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.
I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it. I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger. On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it.
As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency. In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible. In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation. An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost. A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road. That’s just an example, by the way. I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.
Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.
I’m not sure if computer scientists are any more preoccupied with efficiency than your average programmer…
PS: Welcome back!