Four-ish Reasons to Embrace Vagueness At Work


Following directions?

Most families have one — that relative who makes the cake, or bakes the pie or cookies that everybody wants on holidays. In my family, it’s my mother Shelby. No matter how hard we try to recreate her recipe for pecan bars, they never end up tasting as good as hers. They make people swoon.
I’ve always wondered about this phenomenon, since baking is essentially just following instructions. You measure out the amounts, set the right temperature, and take things out of the oven when the timer goes off. It’s like a lab experiment. There are even beakers and thermometers made specially to help bakers be more precise. 
So what’s the difference between an adequate cake and a great one? Not precision, but vagueness. 
Ask the master baker why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you’ll get a vague answer: “Oh, I just add a pinch of this or that.” Ask any artist how they work and at some point you bump up against mystery. 
I used to think this was a way of protecting trade secrets. But now I suspect it’s because any truly effective process is always partly undefined. 
Appliance designers have caught on to this. You can now buy rice cookers that use fuzzy logic, programming that lets computers think in shades of gray between 1 and 0. Fuzzy logic adjusts for things like external temperature and humidity, just as a human being might. 
Quantum computers, which have the potential to be orders of magnitude more powerful than any computer around today, are built around the concept of vagueness. They can not only think in values between 1 and 0, but can think in 1s and 0s at the same time. Quantum computers can, in essence, hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. The result is better, more nuanced decisions.

The U.S. Capitol Dome, unfinished
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