Three numbers

The three numbers in the universe that matter most are zero, one, and many.

Think about life – tweak the fundamental physical constants a little, and you can imagine a universe in which it never happened. Never could have happened. Or maybe it’s so astonishingly unlikely, such a bizarrely, unimaginably low probability – the equivalent of winning dozens of lotteries in a row – that we’re all there is. But if it’s happened twice, it’s hard to believe that it isn’t everywhere.

When you’re trying out a new revenue model, it’s possible that no one’s going to be even remotely interested. Or that there’s going to be that one customer who’s so precisely aligned with what you’re doing (or what she imagines you’re doing) that you’re going to get exactly one sale, and no more (anecdotally, this seems to be a common scenario, and can lead to a lot of confusion as to whether you have a viable strategy). But get a second sale, and you can dare to hope that there are lots of people out there who want what you’ve got.

Sometimes, many tries to masquerade as one. You’re on a diet, but it’s a special occasion, so you make an exception to eat that piece of cake. Somehow, though, “special” occasions seem to keep popping up. Or you tell yourself you’re going to read just one more HackerBuzzReddSlash article, then find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of your newsfeed. Or you’re just going to play one more game of AngryFlappyFruitWithFriends before going to bed, then suddenly realize it’s past 4 am.

If only one of your users is experiencing a bug, it’s not going to get prioritized. If many are, you’ll move heaven and earth to get a fix out immediately. But when your monitoring is bad, you can mistake a many problem for a one problem, and fundamentally misunderstand a critically important situation. Which, in turn, leads to developers marking bugs as “can’t reproduce” while laughing about PEBCAKs (which turns out to be true – they’re only wrong about which chair and which keyboard).

This is also true for beliefs. If you aren’t paying attention to a problem – which is normal when it doesn’t affect you – you can miscategorize many as a set of one-offs, individual aberrations, one. This doesn’t change the objective reality, it only means that your understanding is broken. One injustice, one tragedy is easy to shrug off when it doesn’t involve people you know. And as long as you aren’t actively gathering and correlating the data, it’s easy to miss the pattern.

One sometimes masquerades as many. You suddenly get thousands of 500 errors, and freak out because it looks like something important is broken – only to discover that it’s some weird crawler from central Europe poking your site with malformed URLs.

I find it useful to think about this when considering something I know I shouldn’t do. Like, say, breaking my diet and eating some of the carbofudgies that randomly appear in the office with disturbing regularity. Because they’re right there, and I forgot my lunch, and I’ve got a huge deadline, and I’m feeling hypoglycemic and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST GIVE ME A GODDAMN FUDGEMcTRANSFATSICLE AND NO ONE GETS HURT.

And that’s OK.

Once.

Twice, and I can’t pretend that it’s anything other than the new normal.

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