I'm looking for a turn of phrase to describe a situation where the powers that be wish to continue making small improvements to a process which, due to deep-rooted flaws, will never be close to accurate.

I'm working on a process for estimating the states of business objects, and there's interest in fixing some edge cases which have been noticed. This could be worthwhile, but because of missing data we're already making heroic guesses. So if implemented, we might get from 80.0 to 80.1% accuracy. If we were at 99.5%, I'd be happy to get it to 99.6%, but in the current situation it doesn't seem productive.

We have some CS people on E.SE; what would you call it when someone wants to optimize a two-second process to load data, though once loaded it will be chewed on by an inefficient algorithm for hours?

Something like "bailing the ocean" or "fixing a leaky faucet in a burning building" is close to what I have in mind. There's also "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," but that carries an implication that the changes are wholly useless, and that events are coming to a head.


7 Answers 7


We have some CS people on E.SE; what would you call it when someone wants to optimize a two-second process to load data, though once loaded it will be chewed on by an inefficient algorithm for hours?

In a CS context, I'd simply call this "premature optimization". The reason that phrase works is because, in that context, I'd expect most people to be familiar with this famous quote by Donald E. Knuth, or at least to have heard it referenced:

"Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered. We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil. Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%."

If I wanted a more colorful term, I might call it something like "painting racing stripes on a tricycle" or, if it's about accuracy instead of speed optimization, perhaps "putting a laser sight on a nerf gun". A somewhat common security idiom would be "putting a vault door on a garden shed" or "a steel padlock on a cardboard box", etc.; the possible variations are endless.

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    +1, "a laser sight on a nerf gun" is about perfect! Yeah, it'll help accuracy, but it just won't help. Thank you!
    – user9383
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 13:09
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    depends what other mods you've made to the nerf gun
    – Jodrell
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 16:50

That's known as polishing a turd.

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    If you need to be nice about it, you can call it gilding a lily. Commented May 1, 2012 at 0:34
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    @WayfaringStranger: “…To be possess’d with double pomp, to guard a title that was rich before, to gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 0:51
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    gilding the lily suggests that further improvement is unnecessary. I don't think that's the message Jon of All Trades is trying to convey here.
    – Pitarou
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 4:05
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    @Shyam: Not all offices are the same. Commented May 1, 2012 at 11:43
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    @Shyam you work in the wrong office, and (in case you aren't a native English speaker) turd is pretty tame in terms of vulgarity. I wouldn't blink to hear my young children use the word. Commented May 1, 2012 at 12:10

You can say you're putting lipstick on a pig. Or, you can say you're tripping over a dollar to save a dime.

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    Tripping over a dollar to save a dime gives more meaning than may be needed. Because it is not necessary that refining a process that is hopelessly broken will cost more than it will save --often by reducing the number of breaks it is possible to save at least some amount. So +1 for the pig phrase but -1 for the dollar phrase.
    – user8944
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 4:57

You didn't ask for one word, but I think what you're describing is tinkering.

Tinker can be defined as: To attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way, often to no useful effect. Or as: To make unskilled or experimental efforts at repair; To manipulate unskillfully or experimentally.

It has the connotation of not being effective and kind of skirting around the real problem.

You could say something like, "The powers-that-be continue to tinker with the process, when what is required is a complete overhaul."

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    There is an even better term: tinkering round the edges.
    – Pitarou
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 4:08

There is only a limited improvement that can be gained from optimizing just a small part of some system or process.

This observation is known in computing as Amdahl's Law:


If part of a process takes 1%, and you optimize it so well that it takes no time at all, you've only improved the overall time down to 99% of what it was. Yet, by making something which is necessary and which takes time to take no time at all, you've practically performed a miracle.

"Using a motorcycle for the last 100 meters of a marathon" is an example.

Maybe this should all be called "Amdahling". :)

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    I like this answer; from a technical perspective, it's a great fit. (Unfortunately, though, the term might have to be explained to those with little prior knowledge of computer architecture.) Yet the O.P. asked for a way to describe "a two-second process to load data, though once loaded it will be chewed on by an inefficient algorithm for hours," so +1, even though more colorful and universally-understood idioms may exist.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 9:05

The biblical quote that springs to mind is "swallowing a camel while straining for a gnat" (or something like that — my Bible-reading days are over by many decades — but I've always admired the vividness of the image).

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    Matthew 23:24. "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (New International Version) "Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!" (American Standard Version) "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." (King James) You can just look it up. This is the Internet.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 9:36
  • Yeah, I could look it up- but I'd have to care enough. I got the gist of it, which isn't bad for a book I've not picked up for over 40 years. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 18:31

How about "plucking a twig from a beaver dam"?

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    I like that visual, but to my ears it sounds like the start of an effective process, like "a journey of a hundred miles starts with a single step."
    – user9383
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 13:21
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    Is that a recognized phrase? I've never heard it before.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 13:27