Control Is An Illusion


So here’s the thing: somewhat suspiciously in the wake of Natasha Richardson’s tragic accident, Intrawest resorts have made a couple rules about helmets and skiing. To be fair, if these rules had been in place when poor Ms. Richardson had taken that fateful spill, she would not have been covered by them — she quite likely would not have been wearing a helmet, and so she still would’ve died. So, Intrawest says these rules aren’t because of her — but y’know, maybe they partly are. And, I guess, maybe they’re not.

And it really doesn’t matter anyway.

Because here is a thing that we all should know: that most of the mechanisms of control that take the form of “safety regulations” are for our peace of mind, not our peace of body. Essentially, they’re our excuses: and if anybody is interested in reading a great BIG long number of well-reasoned screeds on this very subject, my friend Bentguy gets like Felix Unger with the fettuchini about it on the regular…he’s also famous for calling up his daughter’s school principal and saying “we’re atheists…so if she comes home talking about the Baby Jesus you can expect my Charter rights to be giving you your next prostate exam…”

But if you want the shorter version, here it is: that the only safety precaution that’s ever had a good record is the one called “knowing what you’re doing”. Me, for example: grew up on boats. Grew up on skis, too, for that matter. Recently I conceived the idea of buying a sailboat and living on it (a good rule of thumb is that boats cost about a thousand dollars a foot…except sailboats can easily be found for a tenth that price, because the divorce rate keeps sailboat prices depressed, it may sound a little ugly but it’s a fact of life), and a friend of mine said “well, that sounds kind of dangerous”. I explained to her that she was what Long John Silver would call a landlubber, and so for her it would be very dangerous indeed…but I’m safer in a sailboat than I am in a car, because I grok boats on a deep cellular level.

And I grok skis the same way, but I’m not for one moment prepared to claim that boating and skiing aren’t both dangerous activities, because they absolutely are. They ABSOLUTELY are. But then so is climbing a set of stairs; in fact if you do the actuarial tables you’ll find that stairs are the most dangerous things in the whole universe.

Which is a bit odd: because, shouldn’t cars be the most dangerous things in the universe?

Of course, they should be. And they would be, were it not that we take such incredible care to educate our children in the matter of alertness to cars. Oh, Bloggers, this could easily be a very large and very digressive post, but since I am just fixing something I shat out the other night in a paroxysm of Scotch (other things from that night may not be so fixable), that will all have to wait for a Part Two…and I did promise you the short version, so suffice it to say that the urban environment is a very finely-tuned one, much more finely-tuned than we ordinarily give it credit for…and it requires a lot of attention.

Stairs enjoy their prodigious kill-rate because we don’t pay attention to them, you see.

Well, we can’t pay scrupulous attention to everything all the time, can we? We must have some mental peace now and then anyway…and in our homes we relax our attention, because that’s what our homes are for. And THAT’s when the damn stairs get you!

And yet nothing can be done about it: because we bloody well need stairs, and also we desperately need times and places in which we do not always have to have our attention tuned-up to potential danger.

But of course there are many activities, dangerous activities even, in which we can find such a time and a place, provided we know what we are doing

…And skiing is one such activity. Boating’s another. Biking’s yet another.


What’s the difference?

I think, at just a little bit of a stretch, we could perhaps call it Ashby’s Law — you should click that link, by the way — which as Andrew tells us is all about having more available options, than the total number of things that can possibly go wrong. Now here is a funny thing about sailing, that perhaps explains its extreme historical efficacy: when the boat is under sail, there is really just a handful of things that can go wrong. And by God you can feel it, too: one of the great things about sailing is that it’s tremendously uncomplicated. I mean, so long as you know the things you’re supposed to know, so long as you’ve got the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience, then if you’ve got some wind in the sail YOU ARE GOOD…and what’s more you can know, with sure knowledge, at any given moment how good you are. And this “stability of mode” is where you find your relaxation, I believe — well, it really is no joke, even though it’s what people write crappy essays about on the back page of the Globe and Mail! You feel connected, independent, and capable. All kinds of things — ALL kinds of things! — get less abstract-feeling, and more real. Sailing is really very simple.

So is biking.

And so is skiing.

Well, skiing may be best of all, because there’s only about half-a-dozen total things that can go wrong, and unless two or three of them go wrong at the same time you can always move fast enough to put the other three behind you in a hurry. In sailing I intuit that there’s a critical threshold of things going wrong that is rarely but easily (if that makes any sense) reached, after which you’re basically throwing a Hail Mary. And if you can’t get wind in the sail at all…well, that’s what half the things that can go wrong are made possible by in the first place, that the worst thing that can happen to you is losing the ability to navigate. Engines solve the no-wind problem, for example, but then again having an engine on board magnifies the number of things that can possibly go wrong by about a factor of three.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a loose handful…

And yet it’s still a small system, so the addition of one more element to it is sufficient to deal with the engine-related problems. I speak here of the dinghy…

And of mathematics. Oops, sorry we’re going into a digression after all! Here is the rule of how to tell if you’re having a small gathering of close friends, or a party.

Three is a gathering of close friends.

Four’s a party.

But it’s a small party, and so it’s the best party.

Here’s how it works (I got this, not from any orthodox source like Stephen Leacock or my math teacher, but from Crazy Bucky Fuller): when you measure how many pairs that can be extracted from a certain number of…let’s say people in a living room…you find that if you have only a single person you have NO pairs, when you have two people you have ONE pair, and when you have three people you have THREE pairs.

But when you have four people you have SIX pairs.

Meaning that with the addition of one other person, the number of pairs DOUBLES.

It never happens again. Add another person to the living room and the number of pairs still increases, but it never DOUBLES again. Between the numbers three and four lies a huge leap into emergent complexity…but there’s just one leap. There’s just one opportunity to get MANY more options, than you had before.

And I said it was just an intuition. It is; I can’t prove it represents a cybernetic principle saying, perhaps, “up to a certain point you can increase your options vs. your circumstantial possibilities, but after a certain point that benefit of making the system bigger will at least decrease”…but, look, towing a dinghy’s just a good idea, okay?

But I guess the point is: there is NOTHING in this world that isn’t dangerous. HELMETS are dangerous. People don’t want to believe it, but it’s true: Jesus Christ, you really have to know what you’re about, when you’re messing with a helmet! Because they’re not magic, for God’s sake…!

They’re devices.

Warren Ellis had a great line, in Planetary: “a virus is just an instruction the operator doesn’t want.” How often I have reflected on his wise words, when one of my files has gotten itself deleted! Of course it didn’t “get itself” deleted at all…it’s just that the operator (me) was unfortunately insufficiently skilled to be in complete control of the machine.

The operator’s instruction, in other words, was the instruction the operator didn’t want.

The operator was the virus.

God, you can kill yourself gluing a piece of wood to another piece of wood (believe me)! Parents, teach your children.

And, perhaps more importantly: parents, determine whether a given safety feature or regulation will cause them to learn less. The human person is the best spellchecker, emergency warning system, online resource, heuristic algorithm…the best guesser, too. We’re the hidden source of order that brings the success rate (or survival rate) of our activities up over 50/50. Smart kids, skilled kids, mindful kids…those are safe kids.

Do I get close to it, Matthew?

On the water, I’ve been in a dire situation something like (I estimate) sixty times. Learning experiences, all — surviving number 10 meant I knew how to survive number 59. And I always did survive, because I was well-taught.

Control isn’t the answer.

(goes into Zen-master mode)



(dives into water)

4 responses to “Control Is An Illusion

  1. That relates to (a segment of) a discussion that’s systematically addressed at another site I frequent, Now, over there the context is how to raise one’s kids sensibly, but the point is the same: people are chasing 100% safety, but will never catch it, and in the meantime a law of diminishing returns is setting in, so that pretty much every time you institute a new safety rule, it hurts everyone more than it helps anyone.

  2. I think so. I mean, my kids have only survived a total of about ten years, so I’m only about a quarter of the way done my leg of this particular generational relay race. But to the best of my knowledge.

  3. Ah, but your threshold between 3 and 4 isn’t there at all. When you go from two people to three, you triple your number of pairs. And from one to two, you get infinity more. It’s a not a peak, but a continual proportionate declnie.

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