Quantity vs Quality — is one metric “Better” than the Other?

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Quantity vs Quality is one metric “Better” than the Other?

Back in the day, during my “formative college years”, I was given an assignment, that definitely changed the way I looked at the world ever since.

The lessons I learned in that Creative Writing class, I still carry with me, to this very day.

The assignment:  Read the American Classic:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

And then, Write an Essay on “What does it means to write a Quality Essay?”

(ie. Why is one Essay, better than another? … How can you tell?)

Is it the count of the words that matters … or their depth, when taken as a whole?

Some People are “Numbers People”.  It’s all about Facts, and Charts. Concrete Results. Bottom Lines.

Other People are “Ideas People”.  It’s all about striving for Ideals, and setting Grand Goals. Helping the many. Building a Better World.

Measuring Quality vs Measuring Quantity.

Both have their place. But is one Metric preferable than the other?

Or is one person’s Quality of Life, simply another person’s “roughing it”?

That is the classic Dilemma as expressed in that philosophical American Classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceAn Inquiry into Values — by Robert M. Pirsig

The main character of the book, is a College Professor, who is now on the quintessential “road trip” — in a search of meaning and truth in his life.

To give you a sense of it, here few of the more thought-provoking quotes at the end of:

Part II – Chapter 8

I know that she came by a second time and asked, “Are you really teaching Quality this quarter?” and he nodded and looked back from his chair for a second and said, “Definitely!” and she trotted on. He was working on lecture notes at the time and was in a state of complete depression about them.

… so he wrote on the blackboard: “Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement?” Then he sat by the radiator while they wrote and thought about quality himself.

Quality — you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others — but what’s the “betterness”? — So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

(emphasis added)


Good Questions!

How would you define Quality, in either Society, or in your own Life?  

How would you answer that 350-word essay on:  

What is Quality?Why are some things “better” than others?

Take a brief “thought journey” with me, if you will:

When your life, has been lived, to the best of your abilities,

and you’re approaching those lingering years of retirement on “golden pond” —

How will you gauge your own “success” on this Planet?      (looking back on it all, then)

Please indulge me a personal digression, to illustrate this dilemma, of how to “best” gauge success:

I’m a database programmer by trade. There is a common scenario, that plays itself out, over and over again in the industry, that illustrates the “paradoxical” nature of the problem of Measuring Quality vs Measuring Quantities.

Some of the prevailing metrics, used to “gauge” a Programmer’s Productivity, go like this:

 – How many lines of Code are written per day?

 – How many Programs or Projects, are Completed per year?

 – How much did it cost, to complete the Software Project?

 – How many reusable Routines were developed, for future use?

 – How many users/hits does the Application get, per day, per week?

Those are Examples of Quantity-based measures of “the success” for your typical software programmer (who is constantly facing the threat of overseas outsourcing).

On the other hand, there are some other metrics that are applied less frequently, that have more to do with the overall “synergistic effects” that Coding can have on providing Quality Solutions in the real world:

 – Were the original Business Needs and Problems, resolved by the Software Application?

 – Are the Program Managers and Users, more productive when using the Software Application?

 – Are the Customers better served, better informed, and generally more satisfied, as result of this Programming Project?

 – Does this Programming Project, fit in well, and share data well, with other existing Programming Projects in the organization?

 – Is the historical accuracy of the Data preserved, and easy to search, easy to compile?

Those are Examples of Quality-based measures of success for your typical software programmer (who appreciates the impact Coding should have in the day-to-day work world). Similar examples could be spelled out, for other occupations I’m sure, such as Teacher, Police Officer, Soldier, Office Administrator, or HR consultant.  This same type of “metric” dilemma exists in most fields:

We tend focus on concrete Quantities as a “gauge” for Success ($$$$), when often it is the Qualitative aspects of problem-solving, that matters SO much more, in the long run timescales of Human History.


I suspect this bias toward Quantitative Scoring, is largely the result of what is easier to measure — “Multiple Choice” Tests are definitely easier to Grade, than Essay Tests, afterall.  But which answer, demonstrates the greater depth of knowledge, for any given field?

Concrete, Right or Wrong Answers or Subjective, wide-ranging, Shades of Grey?

Just because something’s easy to Count, does that automatically mean: It’s worth Counting?

Back to the “Software Synergy” concept.  As a Society we owe a lot to Software Developers (and to many, many other creative professionals, often driven by qualitative vision and the honing of skills). But just HOW often are the benefits to Society of such Synergistic Efforts measured?  

Indeed, is the attention to Quality, which leads to increases in worker Productivity, is that ever considered in the Profit Equations?  Or is it all just: Dollars saved, Customers acquired, Contracts closed, Costs cut, Resumes processed, Tickets written, Combatants neutralized — are these the only “types of metrics” that Modern 21st century Society, has the time to account for?

Will achieving a Quality Education, or a Quality Level of Health Care, or a Quality sense of Humanity, or a Qualitative Hope for the Future, will those things EVER be a factor, ever be measured, and somehow folded into that all-important bottom-line GNP?

— Rarely are “Quality of Life”,  or “Quality of Solutions” considered, or certainly not often enough.  Used to be “Customer Service” was Job One — these days, it seems to be about Job 5 or 6, assuming “time constraints allow” for such quaint niceties … Ok then, be nice.

Thought experiment, number two (assuming you are still following my Zen-like thread):

Imagine HOW different your life would be WITHOUT:


or Bing

or Yahoo,

or Amazon,

or Facebook,

or Twitter,

or DailyKos

or docudharma.com

or Senate.gov,

or Google News,

or Wikipedia,

or the latest Poll says,

or so-and-so political blog says,

or you fill-in-the-blank.com

These “Qualitative Innovations” no doubt, have added some “value” to your life.

(or why else would you spend so much time there?)

Now lets extrapolate that “Synergistic Effect” of The Web, back to Newspapers, and before that Libraries and Journals.  Indeed, imagine how our modern Quality of Life, has been forever improved, by the simple invention of the “Printing Press” —

Or Imagine your “Quality of Life”, or lack there of, WITHOUT all these instant communication “enhancements”.  (perhaps you imagine your Quality increasing without the endless clutter of ideas and opinions;  perhaps you can’t imagine your life with out these instant tools.)  Personally when my computer crashed a while back, I felt like “half my brain was missing for while” without having Google and Bing at my fingertips, to tell me, what’s what.

Do you think Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the “Printing Press” was motivated by the “bottom-line Wealth” his invention could bring in, someday? [Quantitative]  Or was Gutenberg motivated to “Improve the Quality of Lives”, for the millions of the under-educated, to lift up the under-privileged? [Qualitative]

Gutenberg’s invention did indeed “change the world.” — No doubt in ways, that even he didn’t imagine at the time.

We all owe a lot to the Researchers and Inventors, throughout the ages — who often go nameless, lost to history, even though their hard work and inspiration, continue to have a lasting impact on others, long after their short lives, have passed.


Is it the person who has the most achievements (or the most Money) in the end, that WINS?

Or is it the person who has the most positive impact on others, who has really lived, a life worth living?

Which Metrics are the “best” for figuring out — Who really made “a Difference”, with their lives?

Or is it neither Quality or Quantity?       (because “Winning” is so fleeting.)

Because Life is simply a long difficult “struggle to survive”.

Period. Exclamation Point!

End of Story.

move along … nothing to see here.

please stay seated, try not to make any waves …

because that’s what’s “we’re suppose to do” …

(or so that’s what they keep telling us — you know, those guys cutting the checks.)


Because the many believe,

the main measure of a successful life,

is to find meaningful work;

and to do that work well.

day in day out.

time after time.

however sad, it’s true.    (or so we live out our days that way.)

Is the Pony/Pie/Hide rating system too cutsie?

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    • jamess on January 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    live it well.

    • Edger on January 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I think that is the question your essay asks.

    Does the idea of living life “well” imply there is a way to live it “not well”, or are they two aspects of the same process, analogous for example to the poles of a magnet which cannot exist without both?

    When I die I want to do it in the conscious understanding that I am going nowhere and losing nothing in the process, except maybe a limit or some difficulty in feeling what I am, but also understanding that it doesn’t matter if I do it thinking that I’m doing it without that understanding.

    For me the best description, the one that hits home, of life and existence, was summarized, and summarized rather eloquently I think, by Alan Watts:

    The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms- Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body–a center which “confronts an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

    This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.


    Is it possible that myself, my existence, so contains being and nothing that death is merely the “off” interval in an on/off pulsation which must be eternal – because every alternative of this pulsation (e.g., its absence) would in due course imply its presence? Is it conceivable, then, that I am basically an eternal existence momentarily and needlessly terrified by one half of itself because it has identified all of itself with the other half? If the choice must be either white or black, must I so commit myself to the white side that I cannot be a good sport and actually play the Game of Black-and-White, with the implicit knowledge that neither can win?

    — Watts, “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”

    Everything is quality, I think…

  1. 100 ponies for quoting my most favorite book of all time!

    I think  Pirsig points out in the book the essence of quality in the scene at the maintenance shop where they are playing the loud music and the mechanic dismantles the engine when it is too hot – warping it.

    Quality from a personal-provisional standpoint is in doing your job to the best of your ability (with a hint of because you love what you do).

    Great men and women are not defined by their accumulations, but by what these men and women gave to the world. (That’s very Zen)

    One person can make great changes – even if it’s who they influence and enlighten.

    Peace out

  2. has the original 1953 tube shower shut off valves, three of them, hot, cold and shower diverter.

    An AT&T dial telephone was virtually indestructable.

    My water heater from 1966 had to be replaced after 30 years, I have been through three of these things in 10.

    My current version of XP implodes quarterly, yeah I know I have my own NSA staff but if I want a real tool it came from Dad’s garage and not from a Chinese ship.

    • pico on January 4, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    or at least that’s my naive belief.  Endurance is a funny thing, though: something can disappear and be resurrected generations later, when people recognize quality that contemporaries failed to see.  Attitudes do change.  It’s hard to be immortal.

    On this:

    But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists?

    I’m actually not too bothered by this, because language is an artificial and limited tool that’s proven, over and over again, to be inadequate for expressing our real experiences directly.  One of the reasons we rely on poetry and storytelling is to express the ineffable in a roundabout way; so I may not be able to define Quality with any comfortable precision, but gather ’round the campfire and let me tell you a story…

    (But I haven’t read the book you’re quoting, so I don’t know if the author moves on past this, or what.)

    Anyway.  Thanks, this was an interesting essay.

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