Never Underestimate the Benefit of a Good Set of Constraints

It is good to dream big dreams. It is one of the virtues of youth that the young do not yet know what is impossible. This allows them to blithely attempt things that someone with more experience would not even give a second thought. And, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But there is another edge to that sword and it is the one that I’ve been contemplating recently. In short it considers what if the big dreams really are impossible? What is the best result that you can achieve within the bounds of the possible?

I recently learned that writing under the constraints of a deadline and a predetermined word count limit can have a distinctly positive effect on the creative output of a writer. It occurs to me that similar constraints might have beneficial effects on other domains.

For instance, what if you postulated that Moore’s law was going to reach an abrupt halt. You were going to suddenly reach the limit of transistor miniaturization. How might you more efficiently use that circuitry to wring more performance from the same silicon real estate?

One idea that intrigues me is the use of trinary logic. That is, instead of each digit having two states, a one or a zero, they would have three states corresponding to a zero, a one, or a two. These states would be encoded by a circuit that allowed positive, negative, and ground states. It would get approximately one and a half times as much processing power in roughly the same physical space as its binary equivalent.

I haven’t built any trinary circuits so I can’t say for certain that my assertion will actually pan out in practice but it was only intended as an example. When humans are confronted with limits, we twist our perspective and turn the limits into opportunities to do more with less.

That’s what I have observed in my forty years of following the development of the microcomputer and beyond. I am fully confident that Moore’s law will live on in some modified form. It may not be expressed in terms of the number of transistors in a processor doubling every eighteen months but it will be expressed in terms of some form of exponential growth.

Humans love to prove nay sayers wrong. When someone poses a challenge the best and brightest are quick to heed the call. I have managed to keep my personal commitment to blog daily through challenges of fatigue, writer’s block, and various other personal and professional obligations. If anything, my blog posts have improved as a result.

Take my advice. Establish strict constraints around projects that you undertake. Your results will be better for it and you will have the personal pride of achievement and increased self confidence. Now, if I’d only take my own advice.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.