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Morning Glow

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Permanent Stopgaps

“Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dyke! The boy understood the danger at a glance […] Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. […] His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped ! […] This was all very well at first, but […] Our little hero began to tremble with cold and dread. […] If he drew away that tiny finger, the angry waters, grown angrier still, would rush forth, and never stop until they had swept over the town. […] He was not certain now that he could draw his finger away, even if he wished to.”

—Mary Mapes Dodge, “Lesson 62. — The Hero of Haarlem,”

Hans Brinker, Or, The Silver Skates (1866)

Paris was buzzing with excitement. People from all over the world began to flock to the French capital for what would become the fourth of eight grand events in the city. It was 1889, and as the crowds looked up from the World’s Fair entrance on the Champs de Mars, they saw a peculiar structure. The iron-lattice tower was unlike anything people had seen before. Fortunately for many of the city’s disgruntled residence, the eyesore was planned to be temporary.

Exactly one hundred years later in 1989, long after the Eiffel Tower had become a permanent Parisian icon and one of the world’s most visited monuments, an American composer was finishing a piece of throwaway music. It was whimsical score, not to be taken seriously, written for a television show that probably wouldn’t last more than three episodes. Yet over thirty years later, Danny Elfman’s song lives on as one of the most recognizable tunes in popular culture. The theme song of The Simpsons, alongside the longest running sitcom in history, has outlasted all expectations. 


Anything can be a stopgap measure—rules, music, purchases, construction, verbal ticks, furniture placement, adaptations—anything. It’s a matter of intention (to be temporary, to fill a need until a long-term solution is found). And to the dismay of designers everywhere, our world is mostly made of stopgaps; it is not designed (nor is it feasible to be).* There are several reasons for this. 

One obvious but important point is that real-time decisions can rarely be made with design principles in mind. It takes a concerted effort to analyze a problem, consider the alternatives, and implement a creative solution. There are simply too many decisions (often unconscious) to regularly employ the design process. 

Also, “good enough for now” is often good enough for later. Stopgaps that work last. The economy works, although not always smoothly. Organizational and biological adaptations work. But they aren’t always elegant. The sheer volume of temporary measures creates a high probability for at least some of them to work as well as (if not better than) designed solutions. 

Another reason stopgaps persist is that it often takes less effort to maintain the status quo than to revise or reverse it. Once a decision is made, momentum takes over. It’s a case of path dependence meeting path of least resistance. This is especially true in Law, a field that prides itself on rigorous methodology and intention, which is still riddled with legal anachronisms (outdated laws that persist despite being irrelevant or in desperate need of revision). 

When faced with an imperfect and often inept world, I’m comforted with this thought: Our world is a patchwork of stopgaps, and, considering, it works surprisingly well. The elegance of our world is that it works at all, despite being filled with inelegant solutions. But that’s not to say everyone gets a free pass. Be careful what you nonchalantly do; it might just work.


* That is to say, most solutions are intended to be temporary with those that work outlasting those that don’t. Philosophically, however, when one considers a long enough time horizon, everything is a stopgap measure, as “nothing lasts forever” (although, one could argue that intention may disqualify that conclusion depending on the definition’s semantics).

† Admittedly, it’s a stretch to claim that legal anachronisms are an example of stopgaps, since laws are typically passed with specific intention. Instead, the point here is to highlight the power of momentum, which often carries measures well beyond their intended purpose.

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The Real Ideal

“The best world we can create in this way, the best world possible, is not the best world.”

—John Lachs, “Stoic Pragmatism” (2005)

Idealism is a heuristic—a mental shortcut that helps simplify the world.* It is favored by the young and naive, not as intellectual laziness, but as a sort of training wheels or stepping stone to the complexities of real life. Idealism is useful when learning, as medical students must learn physiology before studying pathophysiology or one must learn to walk before she runs. Some may never learn. And that’s okay, because idealism is also a great driver of improving the world, to strive toward a better society, an ideal one. Realists and idealists need one another.


* The use of “idealism” here is in the narrow sense of the word, referring to the social ideals found on all sides of our current political divide.

John Lachs. “Stoic Pragmatism.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19, No. 2: 95-106 (2005). (Source)

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If We Were Like Clouds

Do clouds have bad days? Do you think a cloud ever wakes up, bursting at the seams, downpour-ready, when a sudden weather front prevents it? Are clear blue skies a cloud tragedy or a much needed respite? Do they have things they need to get done? Do they have deadlines?

Created through the (very official sounding) process of adiabatic cooling, clouds form from a speck of dust.1 As they grow they can become tiny wisps of cotton-candy or large torturous storms. They can bring peaceful shade or apocalyptic destruction. They are infinite in potential shape, size, and formation yet can be placed into a few broad categories.2 Whether insulating or reflecting, heating or cooling, shading or pouring, the life of a cloud is defined by the unique conditions of its birth and the interaction with its immediate surroundings. Sound familiar?

We humans share a lot with our ‘inanimate’ cousins (who are as alive and connected as any of us). Like clouds, we each play a role as one part of a greater whole. And like clouds, we play this role perfectly every minute of every day. The difference is our inward analysis and perception of how things are going. It’s the illusion of “progress” that makes us feel like we’re on the “wrong path,” “behind,” or “failing.” It is our judgement of the situation, not the situation itself, which causes dissatisfaction. Our arbitrary timelines, deadlines, and goals are part of our motivation machinery, but they do not define our purpose (which often goes hidden or unnoticed, like clouds unaware of the vital roles they play).

True, clouds have a distinct advantage in accepting their existence as is—accepting life with a stoicism afforded only by the most inanimate of nature’s living body. But we can still learn a lot from clouds, created and destroyed in harmonious balance with the rest of nature. Are we really any different?


Related essay: “If We Were Like Trees” (2017)

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  1. “The Importance of Understanding Clouds,” NASA Fact Sheets, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, http://www.nasa.gov, 2005. (Source)
  2. Jin-Yi Yu, “Chapter 6: Cloud Development and Forms,” Microsoft Power Point. Earth System Science 5: University of California, Irvine. (Source)
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Social Media Hydra

! This claim about election fraud is disputed

Twitter

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are taking action to reduce misinformation (or “information” depending on your preferred bias). But it’s become a game of whack-a-mole with new entrants flooding the market to capture “free speech” advocates. Sites such as Parler, MeWe, and Gab have gained popularity with the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, which seeks alternative echo chambers. And despite regulators’ best efforts, this trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon—cut one platform down, and two grow back in it’s place.

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Humanity’s Kitchen

Why does incapacitating mental illness exist? Why would nature consistently produce people born with debilitating health problems? Is nature so cruel and unfair that it curses some people while blessing others? Perhaps. But perhaps there’s an alternative interpretation.

We humans are made up of a collection of traits.* Contrary to early scientific thought, we now know that these traits are rarely useful or dysfunctional on their own. When things go wrong, it’s less about dysfunctional traits and more about dysfunctional combinations. A useful analogy is to think of human characteristics as ingredients in a kitchen. Some combinations taste foul and others sublime; some are subtle, and others can easily overpower. And we humans are the final dishes.

The trouble with this model is that at Bistro Homo Sapien the menu is enormous. Humanity’s kitchen must stock such an immense array of ingredients that inevitably there are going to be some unpleasant combinations.

Take for example people who have difficulty filtering out the mundane elements of their surroundings (latent inhibition). These people struggle to block out irrelevant details, and as you might imagine, this can be hugely problematic. In fact, this dysfunction is associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia—but not always.

For some people, a difficulty to filter combines with another trait—high IQ—to produce a high-functioning creativity. Rather than being overwhelmed by extraneous inputs, these creatives can channel their access to additional information in positive ways. Dysfunction, then, is a matter of compatibility. (Oversimplifying: Low Latent Inhibition × Low IQ = Incompatible Schizophrenia; Low Latent Inhibition × High IQ = Compatible Creativity)

So perhaps human biology is unfair. Although, it may be helpful to remember that, “Nature optimizes for the whole, not for the individual.”2 The mechanism that allows some trait combinations to flourish requires others to falter. In this light, even debilitating mental illness can be seen as a positive—an example of the rich, robust, and beautiful diversity of our species.


* “Traits” is used here as a general, catch-all for observable human characteristics. A person could be described as “naturally shy,” for example. In a more scientific description, we could use phenotype; however, this genetic term often fails to reflect the combination of life-experience, genetic predisposition, and environmental factors that combine to create what most of us colloquially refer to as human traits.

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  1. Carson, S.H., et al., 2003. “Decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals.” Journal of personality and social psychology85(3), 2003. (Source)
  2. Ray, Dalio, Principles: Life and Work. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017. (Book)
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