From Academic Kids

A trade-off usually refers to losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect. It implies a decision to be made with full comprehension of both the upside and downside of a particular choice.

Examples from common life

The most basic trade-off in the human experience is what you do with your time. In any given period, you can focus mainly on only one given task. The limitation of physics that you can only be in one place at any given time (above the subatomic level) places a restriction on what you may be able to do with your time.

You can often trade-off time for money. For example, you can hire someone to mow your lawn for a given sum and in exchange you retain the time that the job would have taken. Or, you can choose to do another task that will earn you more money, or is more pleasurable to you, than mowing the lawn. This gives rise to the common idiom that time is money. The downside of this trade-off is that you don't have your money anymore.

A classic trade-off in business is the trio of time, money and quality. It is generally considered that only two of the three can be anchored at any given moment. Given enough money and attention to quality, one can get man to the moon and back by 1969.

These trade-offs are ubiquitous in our idiomatic expressions; common examples include "A stitch in time saves nine" and "Give me quality or give it to me now".

Trade-offs in specific fields

Tradeoffs are important in engineering. For example, in electrical engineering, negative feedback is used in amplifiers to trade gain for other desirable properties, such as improved bandwidth, stability of the gain and/or bias point, noise immunity, and reduction of nonlinear distortion. The Golden Gate Bridge is a prime rare example where few engineering and aesthetic trade-offs had to be made.

In computer science trade-offs are viewed as a tool of the trade. A program can often run faster if it uses more memory. It can be developed faster if it doesn't run as fast. It can be optimized for space or speed, but at the cost of longer and more complex development cycles. Consider the following examples:

  • By compressing an image you can reduce transmission time/costs at the expense of CPU time to perform the compression and decompression.
  • By using a preset table you may be able to reduce CPU time at the expense of space to hold the table, e.g. to determine the parity of a byte you can either look at each bit individually (using shifts and masks), or use a 256-entry table giving the parity for each possible bit-pattern.
  • For some situations (e.g. string manipulation) a compiler may be able to use inline code for greater speed, or call run-time routines for reduced memory; the user of the compiler should be able to indicate whether speed or space is more important.

Strategy board games almost always involve trade-offs. In chess do you trade a bishop for position? In go, do you trade thickness for influence, and just when does the middle game begin?

The study of ethics can be viewed as a system of competing interests that must be traded-off of each other. (Is it ethical to use Nazi science to prevent disease today?)

Governmental trade-offs are among the most controversial political and social difficulties of any time. All of politics can be viewed as a series of trade-offs based upon which core values are most core to the most people or politicians.



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