1658: Estimating Time

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Estimating Time
Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: Every minute you spend thinking about Hofstadter's Law is a minute you're NOT WORKING AND WILL NEVER FINISH! PAAAAAANIIIIIIC!
Title text: Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: Every minute you spend thinking about Hofstadter's Law is a minute you're NOT WORKING AND WILL NEVER FINISH! PAAAAAANIIIIIIC!


Estimation is difficult; many people seem to greatly underestimate the amount of time or other resources required. To illustrate how difficult this estimation is Douglas Hofstadter coined Hofstadter's law which is a non-scientific self-referential time-related adage, mentioned in the title text. It states: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Ponytail is working at her computer and becomes frustrated as it seems her project will (again) take much longer than she has estimated. She is annoyed with herself for always failing to make a decent guess. Danish begins to give Ponytail advice on how to estimate the time, starting with the comforting words don’t panic and a common guideline of taking the initial estimate and doubling it.

Danish then iterates the law once more and she tells Ponytail to double this again, and then add five minutes. Unless the project to begin with was estimated to somewhat less than an hour, those five minutes will do nothing but confuse Ponytail. But Danish does not stop here, and iterates Hofstadter's law once more. Ponytail still doesn’t get where this goes, saying a hesitant okay to that.

It turns out that Danish was not at all trying to help, but just mess with Ponytail, as she now tells her that the only thing she has accomplished by listening to her advice is wasting half a minute doubling imaginary numbers (not to be confused with i, the imaginary number), i.e. even her first estimate is just something she has imagined especially since she states herself how bad she is at those kind of estimates. Finally Danish completes her frustration of Ponytail by saying "Paaaniiic!", negating the initial advice.

The title text is an extra corollary to the law, that states that using the law to estimate anything about the time your project takes is not only wasted time you could have spent working there is a substantial risk that you will conclude that you will never finish, and thus panic instead of just get the job done now.

Self-reference is a recurring theme on xkcd and this comic is quite self-referential both in the comic but also referring to other comics especially to 917: Hofstadter. He is perhaps most famous for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach from where the quote is taken (in a section on recursion and self-reference, rather than estimation). This book has been directly referenced in 24: Godel, Escher, Kurt Halsey.


[Ponytail is sitting back from her a laptop lifting her hands of the keyboard, having presumably just paused work on a project.]
Ponytail: Aaaa! I'm so bad at estimating how long projects will take.
[Danish walks into the panel towards Ponytail who seems to relax back against the chair.]
Danish: Don't panic-there's a simple trick for that:
Danish: Take your most realistic estimate and double it.
Ponytail: Okay, but-
[A frameless panel with only Danish holding a hand up.]
Danish: Now double it again. Add five minutes.
Danish: Double it a third time.
Ponytail (from off panel): Okay...
[Danish raises her arms above her head in mock hysteria. Ponytail runs away from her desk screaming.]
Danish: 30 seconds have gone by and you've done nothing but double imaginary numbers! You're making no progress and will never finish!
Ponytail: Aaaaaa!
Danish: Paaaniic!
Ponytail: Aaaaaaa!

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Nice to see Danish so clearly back in action. It was also way too long since there have been any clear references to self reference although it of course doesn't reach the level of 688: Self-Description. ;-) --Kynde (talk) 13:00, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

Makes me wonder if Randall is working on another big comic, and how long those take him. - Dan - 13:25, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

Why does it make you wonder if he is working on another big comic? I mean, that'd be cool, but why?

What am I missing?


1627: Woosh (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Well, he's been up against a deadline for a while, I suspect: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/science/randall-munroe-xkcd-science-textbook.html He's written "The story of What's Inside Your Body" for high school students. "…stick figures and simplistic diagrams annotated with curiously nontechnical prose. A schematic of the human body, for instance, looks more like a subway map with various organs labeled as “air bag,” “blood pusher,” “thinking bag” and so on." Npsych (talk) 09:23, 22 March 2016 (UTC)
Thanks for that info! :-) Another possibility is that we are close to April 1st and he usually does something rather big around that day --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 22 March 2016 (UTC)

The garden is the answer. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Why is this talking about adding doubling imaginary numbers? Time estimates are usually non-negative real numbers. 15:01, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

I was thinking the exact same thing until I realized that in this context, "imaginary" refers to "non-existent": The numbers being doubled only exist in Ponytail's head. I was very confused until I realized that he wasn't referring to complex numbers with a real component of zero. 16:14, 21 March 2016 (UTC)
lolol "Yes, yes, you're very smart. Now shut up." NotLock (talk) 16:21, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

This may be a reference to the rule of thumb that you double your estimate and raise to the next higher unit. E.g.if you think it will take two days, give an estimate of four weeks. There are of course many similar rules out there. -- 15:58, 21 March 2016 (UTC) This is only too real.International Space Station (talk) 17:48, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

What about the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference? ("Don't Panic") Arthulia (talk) 21:27, 21 March 2016 (UTC)

No. It's not a reference. General rule of thumb- "If you have to ask 'Is this a reference?' then it almost certainly isn't." -Pennpenn. 23:32, 21 March 2016 (UTC)
A reference must be explicit. It could be an allusion, but not a reference. Anyway, "If you have to ask 'Is this an allusion?' then it almost certainly isn't." 00:12, 22 March 2016 (UTC)
It was just for fun I added this, the don't panic statement. That Randall has references the book before was the reason. If it detracts too much attention from the explanation delete it. --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 22 March 2016 (UTC)

This is absurd. We shouldn't link Ponytail and Danish every time their names appear. I deleted 11 links. 00:23, 22 March 2016 (UTC)

True only the first time just like any wiki link should only be given once even though the concept is mentioned several times. There can be a few exceptions, but not like the ones you deleted. :-) --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 22 March 2016 (UTC)

The way I read it, Danish isn't offering to help Ponytail estimate the amount of time needed, she's offering to help her panic: "Don't panic - there's a simple trick for that"; i.e. a simple trick for panicking. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)