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.