I Don’t Know How To Count That Low

Back when I was at Google we had a phrase, “I don’t know how to count that low”. It was used to dismiss normal-company-sized problems as beneath our dignity to engage with: if you didn’t need 100 database shards scattered around the globe, were you even doing real work? 

It was used as a sign of superiority within Google, but it also pointed at a real problem: I once failed a job interview at a start-up when I wondered out loud if the DB was small enough to be held in memory, when it was several orders of magnitude lower than when I should even have begun worrying about that. I didn’t know the limit because it had been many years since I’d had a problem that could be solved with a DB small enough to be held in its entirety in memory. And they were right to fail me for that: the fact that I was good at solving strictly more difficult problems didn’t matter because I didn’t know how to solve the easier ones they actually had. I could run but not walk, and some problems require walking.

It’s a problem, but it can be a pleasant kind of problem to have, compared to others. Another example: my dad is a Ph.D. statistician who spent most of his life working in SAS, a powerful statistical programming language, and using “spreadsheet statistics” as a slur. When I asked permission to share this anecdote he sent me a list of ways Excel was terrible.

YARN | ♪ Here's an itemized list Of 30 years of disagreements ♪ | Hamilton  | Video gifs by quotes | 9d9bc627 | 紗

Then he started consulting for me, who was cruelly unwilling to pay the $9000 license fee for SAS when Google Sheets was totally adequate for the problem (WHO HAS FOOD AT HOME NOW DAD?!?).* 

My dad had to go through a horrible phase of being bad at the worse tool, and found a lot of encouragement when I reframed “I could have done this with one line in SAS and am instead losing to this error-riddled child’s toy”  to  “I didn’t know how to count that low, but now that it matters I am learning”. And then he tried hard and believed in himself and produced that analysis of that informal covid study that was wonderful statistically and super disappointing materially. And I retrained on smaller numbers and got that job at that start-up.

These are the starkest examples of how I’ve found “I don’t know how to count that low” useful. It reframes particularly undignified problems as signs of your capacity rather than incapacity, without letting you off the hook for solving them. Given how useful it’s been to me and how little I’ve seen of it in the wild, I’d like to offer this frame to others, to see if it’s useful for you as well.

*If any of you are going to bring up R: yes, it’s free, and yes, he has some experience with it, but not enough to be self-sufficient, I knew Sheets better, and I knew it was totally adequate for what we were doing or were likely to do in the future.

Appendix: I know you’re going to ask, so here is his abbreviated of grievances with Excel. Note that this was Excel in particular; I have no idea if it applies to Google Sheets. I also would allow that this must have been years ago and Excel could have gotten better, except AFAIK they never fixed the problem with reading genes as dates so they get no benefit of a doubt from me.

I attended a talk by a statistician at Microsoft.  He said that Microsoft had decided that there was no competitive advantage in making Excel statistics better because no statistician used it for serious problems except for data entry, so:

1. he was the only statistician at Microsoft
2. he knew of seven serious statistical problems in Excel, but they wouldn’t give him the money to fix them.
3. Excel’s problems fell into two categories:
3a. terrible numerical analysis:  it was widely verified if you took a number of single-digit numbers and calculated their standard deviation, and then took the same numbers and added a million to them, the standard deviation was often different, when it should be exactly the same.
3b.

statistical errors – like not understanding what you’re copying out of a textbook and getting it wrong.

Thanks to Ray Arnold and Duncan Sabien for beta-reading, and my dad for agreeing have his example shared.

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