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Puzzles and Mysteries

Bob Hoffman:

Puzzles, [Malcom Gladwell] wrote, are problems for which there is not enough information. An example of a puzzle: Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried? If we had more information, we would know the answer. If someone told us “Jimmy Hoffa is buried in New Jersey,” we’d know a little more than we know now. If they said, “He’s buried in northern New Jersey,” we’d know even more. If they said, “He’s buried in the Meadowlands,” we’d have an answer to our puzzle.

On the other hand, there are mysteries. Mysteries are problems for which we have plenty of information, but no accurate analysis. An example of a mystery: Why do inner-city schools do such a crappy job of educating kids? There are thousands of studies. Every education department of every university in America has done a study on this; every committee of Congress has done a report on it; every editorial writer has a theory about it, and every pundit has an opinion. And yet, we have no definitive answer.


It’s fun to think about how that correlates to front-end development. When we’re coding, every¹ problem we face is a puzzle. We just need more information and we can figure out what to do. Sometimes, design is like that too. Information can make our designs better. But success in design² has a nebulous quality that makes it feel more like a mystery.

  1. Except for CORS. CORS is a mystery.
  2. And business, marketing, and love.

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