Friday, October 31, 2014

Unintended Consequences and the Failure to Think Systematically

There seems to be too much shallow thinking in modern life. When a problem occurs, we throw a law at it or cobble up a solution with some instant bandaid. The problem is that we don't think down the road, and consider what unexpected events might be caused by the solution. This knee-jerk failure to consider the consequences can bring about more harm than good.

Example: A building owner wanted to save money and water, so he installed low flow toilets in every bathroom. Within days the sewers backed up and caused a mess. The owner neglected to think through the situation. Instead of thinking systematically--thinking of the waste system as a whole--he thought only of saving water. However, the sewer pipes were designed to handle high-flow toilets, making use of the water volume to move the waste along the pipes. When the flow was cut in half, the it was insufficient to move the waste along.

Example: Feeling sorry for single mothers, the state set up payments to them, based on the number of children they had and on the fact that they were the sole support for the kids. Unexpectedly, the new welfare system both discouraged marriage and encouraged illegitimacy. If the single mother got married, her support would be reduced or eliminated, creating a disincentive to marriage. And the more children the single mother had, the larger the payment she would receive, thus incentivizing illegitimacy.

Economist Thomas Sowell reminds us to ask, "And then what?" after every proposal. Think beyond what you intend and think about what others might interpret or how they might respond in a way you wouldn't dream of.

Example: After an airplane accident where an infant was torn from its mother's arms and slammed against a bulkhead by the force of the crash, a law was proposed that would require a parent to buy a seat for the infant and strap the child in a carrier in the extra seat. But then some economists did some figuring. They argued that enough mothers and fathers would be unable or unwilling to afford an extra seat and would choose to drive instead. As a result, there would be nine infant deaths in automobile accidents for every infant life saved by the required seating in the aircraft.

And then what? What else would happen? How could the crafty take advantage of this? Where would this lead? What might be some unintended consequences?

Remember that each law, practice, behavior, and so on is an integral part of a system will remind you to ask how the proposed change will affect the entire system, both upstream and downstream.

A creative type was hired to improve the look of an old corporate web site. The designer moved a bunch of pages around, organizing them much more logically. However, the links from page to page were almost all rendered inoperative.

Think down the road. Think systematically.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

If a Tree Falls in a Forest When No One Is Present, Does It Make a Sound?

The practical philosopher's answer to this apparent conundrum is actually simple. It hinges on the definition of the word sound. If sound is defined as a perceived auditory sensation, then without a perceiver, nothing is perceived, and  hence there is no sound because sound is a perception.

But I think most of us would agree that sound refers to the waves of sonic energy emitted whenever something makes noise--a falling tree, a screeching bird, or even the whisper of the wind through the treetops. So, observer or not, the tree does make a sound.

Thought experiment: A man goes on a hike. It starts raining and he is unprepared, so he drops everything and rushes back to his  car. A couple of days later he returns to his hiking spot and finds his voice recorder, which has the sound of  falling tree on it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

More About Sex

In a previous post, I mentioned that we have lost quite a few formerly perfectly good words--words we cannot use in their literal meaning--because they have become euphemisms referring to sexual matters.

I'm reminded now how many words have become slang references to women's breasts. The thought was brought up again recently by a friend who washed a van for a female friend. He was on top of the van wiping down the luggage holder bolted to the roof. Enthusiastically, he shouted down to her, "You have a great rack!"

Sure, sure, "Think before you speak," but why do we have to step so cautiously through these verbal minefields lest we convey the wrong idea?

"Boobs" used to mean "simpletons," or incompetent folks. A 1920's silent film took advantage of this  change in meaning by the title, "Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs," the boobs being some slapstick characters.

Words that in the singular are still largely safe, take on anatomical slang meanings in the plural: Jug, jugs; hooter (an owl), hooters; knocker (door rapper), knockers; and so on. One web site lists 138 slang terms for breasts.

I guess some folks are so obsessed with "the girls" that they need lots of synonyms in order not to sound repetitive. And, for some, the terms are slightly humorous, so it's a cheap way to sound a bit scandalously witty. For others, it's just for the titillation.

Aesop's moral: Isn't it kind of a shame that we are so sex-obsessed that we have to keep prostituting formerly nice words into sexual meanings?

Reading Is Only the Beginning

I've recently begun my fourth journey through the Rambler essays of Samuel Johnson, and it occurred to me that there is a great difference between simply reading something--such as a novel for enjoyment or a magazine for information or a textbook for an assignment--and reading for improvement.

It further occurred to me that reading for improvement tracks the three steps of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation).

1. What does it say? This step is in common with ordinary reading. We want to comprehend the material, to grasp the writer's point. Of course, we need to be alert for metaphors, irony, exaggeration, and so forth.

2. What does it mean? This step might be thought of as understanding in context, or as the larger significance of the work. As we read at this level, we always have the "so what?" in mind. What are the implications? This step shows we care about the ideas we are reading and are thinking about them and their role is the great conversation.

3. How does this apply to me? This last step takes the reading home to ourselves as we ask how it should affect, challenge, influence, or change the way we act, think, feel, and understand the world and our place in it.

Reading only for comprehension, so that you can do well on a test, limits the effect of the author-reader interaction to a simple, safe level. But if you want to grow wiser, better, happier, you must examine the ideas in the text at a higher step.

There is a saying, "We read because we find ourselves there, and we read because we don't find ourselves there." That is, we read in order to feel human, maybe normal, and to recognize our own feelings and thoughts, fears and hopes, ambitions and hesitations though those we read about (fiction or nonfiction). And we also read to escape from ourselves and our patterned lives, to move into the magical realms of story and interesting people, circumstances, challenges, and events.

To read well is to read through all three steps.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Why Our Culture Is Declining

As a culture, we've moved from admiring a poem by Shakespeare, John Donne, or George Herbert to admiring (if that's the right word for it) scantily clad young women shaking their body parts while singing quasi-melodious songs with lyrics that push the definition of superficial banality to new depths. Why, you ask, is this so? What has caused this? Several factors are at work in a perfect storm.

First, there is the human desire for constant novelty, exacerbated by the supply of constant novelty. Lots of leisure time has turned us (especially the young who seem to have lots of leisure time) into a culture of entertainment. In the entertainment economy, there is a constant flow of entertainment, that, however derivative, needs to continue to demand attention. In the attention economy, ever more surprising, shocking, amazing things must be included in the entertainment package so that people will pay attention to the next new thing instead of the competition's next new thing. Thus does the stunt ratchet get constantly cranked up. One movie blows up a car. The next movie blows up three cars. The next movie blows up a building. The next movie blows up a town. And so on.

That's how we got from a young woman singer holding a microphone twenty years ago to a naked young woman singer swinging on a wrecking ball today.  What was surprising yesterday is soporific today. What was shocking yesterday is cliche today. So, in order to maintain a shock value to get attention, ever more exaggerated, low brow events must be staged. We're already passing by vile and detestable into regions that have no words for them.

Monday, May 26, 2014

An Unwanted Feature Can Be a Drawback

A few months ago, we traded in our electric clothes dryer for a gas model, to save money. A "feature" of this particular dryer is that if you don't take the clothes out at the end of the cycle, every few minutes the dryer rotates the clothes a bit (ostensibly to prevent wrinkling) and then sounds the "laundry's done" buzzer again. Now, that might be a great feature for many people, but for us, when we do a load of laundry at bedtime, the rotation and buzzer every few minutes is annoying. True, the buzzer can be turned off, but the rotation cannot, and our dryer is only feet from the master bedroom. So we still hear the rotation noise.

Another example of this "unwanted feature is a drawback" is the LED flashlight that I acquired recently. Push the button once and you get the full light. Push it again and you get a dim light (to allow the batteries to last a longer time?). Push once again and the light goes off. This feature is a drawback for two reasons. For those who expect simple on-off operation, requiring two clicks from on to off won't happen. (A friend clicked the light from on to dim and put it back into the glove compartment.) Second, it's just a tiny irritation to need to click, click to off, especially with the button on the base of the flashlight.

So think before you chase after all the features you can get on some new gizmo. You might be chasing a hassle.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Choices Are Determined by Our Options

Suppose that, after a sumptuous meal at some friends' house, you are offered a choice of chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.  You choose from the alternatives available to you. However, the person sitting next to you asks the host, "Are there any other alternatives, such a coffee-flavored ice cream, a pie, or  fruit dish?" The host says Yes and the other guest orders. Now, since these are three of your favorite desserts, you are disappointed with your choice.

Problem 1 with choice selection: Failure of Imagination. Insufficient recognizing of alternative options. (Rush to make a decision and get it over with.) If only you had known or asked about additional alternatives, you could have made a more satisfactory decision.

On the television show, Naked and Afraid, the two contestants  are allowed to take one item with them to help them survive in the jungle. In the past, contestants have chosen to take a pot, swimming goggles, or a flint-and-steel fire starter.

Now, everyone knows that the two most crucial things to have in a wild jungle of a forest are water and fire. Next would be a tool for digging, and a tool for chopping and a tool for sawing. So which two to pick?

The failure of imagination here occurs when the so-called survivalist candidate in the contest chooses a knife, sometimes a rather small, folding knife. And his partner, who might not choose a pot, instead selects a flint-and-steel fire starter. But to take the second case first, why a flint and steel? Why not just take a butane fireplace match? You can get hundreds of quick, long-lasting lights with it. And remember that the survival challenge is for 21 days, not the rest of your life.

Then to the knife. There is an abundant choice of survival knives available, many of them large enough to work as digging tools. Some have serrations on the top of the blade, making them useful as saws. And some have survival kits in the handle, including compass, matches, fish hook, fishing line, and so on. A few come with blade sharpeners. So one tool can cut, chop, dig, saw, produce fire, show compass directions, fish and do whatever else your imagination can discover.

Once again, we make our choices from the options we believe are available to us. To make better choices, identify more options. (It is said that people who kill themselves believe they have run out of other options.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Go to the Ant, You Sluggard

Scripture tells us, "Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest.  --Proverbs 6:6-8 So the ant's industriousness is recommended to us as a model.

But are there other characteristics of the ant that we might emulate? Here are some thoughts.

1. Ants are opportunists. They roam around looking for a tidbit of something sweet or greasy, and when they find it, they descend on it full tribe, like a locust attack. They don't bypass opportunity. They seize it.

2. Ants are proactive. They manage to seize opportunity because they send scouts out to roam all over the ant domain, looking for any chance encounter with food. They know that you cannot seize an opportunity you don't know about.

3. Ants are team players. If you watch ants, some are communicating with other ants, some are keeping the ant highway systems open with chemical trails, some are managing security (as when the soldier ants come out). As team players, ants are always ready to take one for the team.

4. Ants share everything: Food, shelter, trails, even ant poison, unknowingly. They have huge air conditioned spaces for the young and take care of huge quantities of eggs by assignment.

5. Ants are committed to maintaining the roads scholarship and some of the money must come from this fund. So, when you see these scouts or an entire colony on the move. They know, for example, that storm drains are useful, even though it's not raining right now.

6. Ants are resilient. They bounce back from tragedy with an eagerness to go on again. Think of those tens of thousands of ants you kill with your bug spray can, only to find next day thousands more, each with the same purposefulness and opportunism.

7. Ants persevere. Ever tried to wipe the ants out, to prevent them from coming back? But as long as  you leave the sugar or fat item out, they will soon be on it in huge numbers again and again and again. Ants don't know the meaning of the word surrender.

8. Ants recycle. Ever spray a stream of ant killer, and wipe out a few thousand ants? Then  you came back later only to discover that all the ant bodies were gone. Yes, the ants cleaned them up, took them away so they could recycle their juices. Look for a pile of shriveled up ant bodies near the backdoor.

These, I think, are the cultural strengths and weaknesses of modern societies populated by humans. Maybe we should go to the antlll