On the Horns of a Trilemma!

dictionariesAs you can imagine, as an editor, I love words. One of the joys of English as a language is that it has a lot of words. I have on my bookshelf a two volume French/English dictionary. The English to French volume is much, much thicker than the French to English. I have always been a keen reader and think I have quite a wide vocabulary. However, I’m always happy to learn a new word, so I’m grateful to the Economist for introducing me to a new one. It’s “Trilemma”, which is like a dilemma (a difficult choice between two options) often used where neither choice is a positive one. A classic dilemma is that you find that the partner of a friend that is about to get married is having an affair. Do you tell the friend, which will ruin their day and probably your friendship, or keep quiet and hope the problem goes away?

Well, a trilemma is a decision where there are three options, but you can only choose two, because selecting those two mean that you can’t select the third. The Economist was explaining the trilemma of running a foreign exchange and currency policy. The “Mundell-Fleming” model says that governments can choose to manage their exchange rates, have monetary authority or allow free capital movement. However, choosing two means that the third option is not possible, so governments which would often like to have all three, are always wobbling between different pairs of policies to avoid problems.

I first heard of the concept when I was talking to a software developer and the three factors are speed of development, cost and quality (and I suspect that this might be a generic trilemma). “You can have cheap software quickly, but it won’t be good. You can have good software quickly, but it won’t be cheap. You can have good cheap software, but you won’t get it quickly. Make your choice!”. Another classic trilemma is often quoted in the world of photography (and, on consideration would also work for cycling). You can get light and strong equipment, but it won’t be cheap. You can get cheap and strong equipment but it won’t be light. You can get cheap and light equipment, but it won’t be strong.

So why am I talking about this in our newsletter? It’s because I was explaining again (as I have many times) why there are three operating systems in the world of computers that attach to our displays, Windows, Mac and Linux/Android. In operating systems, what you really want is a reliable, flexible system that’s easy to use. That’s the trilemma. All three is labelled “In your dreams” on the Venn diagram so you have to pick two. If you want it to be reliable and easy to use, it won’t be flexible (because it’s iOS). If you want it to be flexible and easy to use, it won’t be reliable (which is Windows). If you want it to be flexible and reliable, it won’t be easy to use (that’s Linux and its derivatives). There is no point in arguing about which is best, you simply have to decide which you care about most and go with it!

Some years ago, my friend and business partner at that time, Pete Gamby, and I were sitting around in a pub (or, more likely, an airport bar) and came up with a trilemma of jobs. We decided the parameters are interest, payment and stresslessness (if that is an English word). If you have an interesting job that is stress free, you’re probably an academic and not well paid. If your job is well paid and stress free, it’s probably not interesting as you are an accountant. If you have a job that’s interesting and well paid, you’re probably a TV presenter, and it’s not stress free. Just be glad, in this case, if you can get to two – many don’t even get to one!

If you know of another Trilemma, please let me know!