May 22nd, 2006

“Performance” considered harmful.

Computer science research papers, industry literature, and even end-user interfaces are littered with the term “performance.”

In all these cases, what is really meant by “performance” is speed. “High performance” is just a high-fallutin’ way of saying “fast.” But being fast is certainly not the only way in which a computer can be said to perform. In fact, a quick look at the primary dictionary definition shows that it’s a rather poor choice of word:

performance, n.
1. a. The accomplishment or carrying out of something commanded or undertaken; the doing of an action or operation.
Oxford English Dictionary

I don't see AS FAST AS POSSIBLE in there anywhere.

I suggest to you that there is something fundamentally misleading about using a general term such as “performance” to refer to a single specific factor such as speed.

Why does this matter? As long as we continue to abuse the word “performance” like this, it reinforces the ingrained idea that speed is everything. That usage is a relic of the 1970s; other concerns have been more important than speed for quite some time now. Corrupting the word “performance” hampers our ability to talk about actual performance — as in, computers doing what they’re supposed to do and doing it well. Being dependable. Operating smoothly and correctly. Recovering from problems. Not falling over suddenly.

In other contexts, that’s what “performance” usually means. When you go to see a musical, a “good performance” includes the whole experience — the acting, the singing, the music, the engagement of the audience. When we’re talking about cars, “performance” refers to reliability and control as well as speed. If you hit the brakes and the car doesn’t stop, that is poor performance.

So, here is my humble request of you. Don’t use the word “performance” when you are really talking about speed. If you mean speed, say “speed.” If you feel weird about using the word “speed” because it is a less important-sounding word than “performance” or because it sounds like less of an overarching design priority, that’s because it is. That’s all the more reason to be candid about it.

Go ahead — take this little badge and pass it on. And the next time you write a paper or an article about computers, please think twice before you write “performance.” It’s easier to break the habit than you might think.

Update: Here's a PDF if you want to print it out or make other designs.

Another update: It’s a good thing most people don’t apply the computer science definition of “performance” to sexual performance. Phew!

The carbon neutrality bylaw didn’t pass.

My proposal to offset Kingman’s carbon emissions due to electricity and natural gas usage didn’t pass. There were 32 votes in favour versus 10 against, and it needed 36 (two-thirds of 54) to pass.

Hmm. 48 ballots were collected, so two-thirds of the ballots collected actually were in favour. But the president used the threshold of two-thirds of the membership, and it didn't meet that threshold.

I guess i’ll just bring up the matter again in the fall.