Monday, July 27, 2015

1517 Stropping Occam's Razor

1517 Stropping Occam’s Razor: Think Zebras

Back in the 13th Century, William of Occam devised a problem solving aphorism, Occam’s Razor. It says, more or less, the best answer is usually the simplest one.

A modern corollary: When walking in Central Park and hearing hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.

Time to start thinking Zebras because when the problem is understated, the best answer often isn’t the simplest.

If you gave Willy of O a set of today’s problems phrased into today’s terms, you’d probably get simple answers.

-Too many guns in the wrong hands? Ban ‘em.
-Illegal immigration? Build a wall to keep ‘em out.
-Racism? Have people meet and greet.
-Environmental damage? Clean the air and water.
-Global warming? Stop fossil fuels.
-Too few jobs? Incentivize job creation.
-Too few factories? Build new ones.
-Too much debt? Print money.
-Income disparity? Tax the rich, give to the poor.
-Islamic terrorism?  Wipe out the terrorists.
-Newspaper circulation circling the drain? Kill ‘em and charge for TV, radio and internet.
-Too many criminals? Build more jails.
-Congressional cronyism? Term limits.
-Too many lobbyists with too much power? Make them illegal.

The list could be much longer.  But you get the idea.

These “solutions” are not as easy as identifying their companion problems because none of the problems are caused by single sources.  And single solutions may eventually work, but advocates don’t account for the “how” of them.  And they don’t take into account the hoofbeats of unintended or unexpected consequences.

And in most cases, you can’t use “collateral damage” as an excuse when some harebrained scheme fails.

Where did all this oversimplification come from?  A recent article in blames it on Barry Goldwater, his supporters and his circle of early supporters.  But even that is oversimplified.

The article goes on to say that politicians appealing to our emotions suck us in with imagined future glory (or income or clean air or a wall to keep out “Mexican… rapists” or racial harmony.)

Yes, appealing to emotions is easier than appealing to reason and resorting to planning and observation.

So when you hear hoofbeats in Central Park, yeah, horses are the most likely source.  But don’t rule out Zebras until you’re sure.

And get that razor sharpened. Then, find a feral zebra and shave him.


-If you have a few minutes for another take on this, there’s a little tune for you here .

Shrapnel (Chrysler Soap Opera Episode 23,456 Edition):

--Since the mid 1960s, Chrysler has succeeded it at two and only two things. First, they make eye-catching cars.  And second, they scare away customers.

-- Now, under government prodding Chrysler is to offer refunds to the buyers of half a million of its best selling vehicle, the Ram truck.  Seems it has a potentially death- dealing flaw in the steering mechanism. The steering wheel was invented and first used in 1894 and has undergone few basic changes since, so it seems an unlikely place to make a mistake even if you think zebras.

--Chrysler’s board of directors committed attempted corporate murder in the late 1970s and failed.  Then came another try -- from Daimler followed by a third and nearly successful attempt by Cerberus Capital. Now it’s Fiat’s turn to wield the knife and they’re pretty good at it.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2015

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