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Our View: Occam’s Razorettes

An oversimplification of Occam’s Razor is: “The simplest solution is almost always the best.” It is a problem-solving principle arguing simplicity is better than complexity.

Our family cabin in the Catskills in upstate New York is the perfect place to ponder. So ponder I did during the remnants of Hurricane Ida. Our next door neighbor there is Ray, a grizzled, old guy who makes his living trapping eels in the Delaware River and selling the smoked version. Picture Rip Van Winkle after his nap. You may have seen Ray on Filthy Riches or Anthony Bourdain’s show. He rebuilds an eel weir every year as it gets washed away in the winter. An eel weir is simply two stone walls that meet in the form of a V pointing downstream across the width of the river. This formation funnels eels into a wooden structure that effectively traps them. This simple concept had been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans. Ray is one of the very few river people who still applies its simplicity in his craft. In my restful, quiet, contemplative state of mind I began to think of other simple ideas that work better than their so-called improvements.

As a child, my daughter, while riding in an older model truck, was asked to roll the window down. Not recognizing the purpose of the crank, her puzzled reply was “OK, how?” During Hurricane Ida, people were trapped in their cars underwater, unable to get the electric windows to operate so they could escape.

On his show, Jay Leno staged a competition between two college students texting and two telegraph operators. Leno gave each team the same message and said “Go.” The telegraph operators embarrassed the college students by sending the message much faster than the phone texts. Two-hundred-year-old, obsolete technology beat the latest method for messaging.

“CBS Sunday Morning” once had a piece about the nuclear missile silos hidden across the western U.S. They are still intentionally maintained on 1960s technology and not connected to the internet so that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping cannot hack into their systems.

Qwerty has an interesting origin story. Qwerty, the letter configuration still used on our laptops, originated on manual typewriters. The Qwerty style of letters on a manual typewriter was slower than other configurations in the test runs. But slow was better because, if you recall, manual typewriters had each letter attached to an arm that would reach out, strike the paper and return to its place. If you typed too fast, the letters would entangle each other and you would have to untangle them before proceeding. So it was a case where slow was faster than fast. Slow and steady sometimes wins the race, from our childhood stories.

Even at our cabin, which my grandfather bought in the 1950s as his hunting retreat, there is a reminder of simple being better. The stopper in the washroom sink was, for a long time, the old rubber stopper connected to a chain. It was, hands down, better than a modern metal rod behind the faucet, pushing a stopper up and down. And while on the topic of stopping water, those on-off sensors on sink faucets certainly save water because they don’t work and we are left waving our hands in front of them as if attempting to perform a magic trick.

The New Yorker recently had a cartoon that showed a well-dressed 1960s couple enjoying a meal on a plane. They were at a table complete with a white tablecloth and napkins. If you didn’t know, you would have assumed they were dining in a fine restaurant. The caption read something like “Can you imagine what air travel will be like 50 years from now, dear?” The next frame showed what and how we now get served on a flight ... a pretzel and a plastic cup of water.

Over the course of 43 years in education, I have often seen the field embrace “new” too soon, even though it may not be better.

Back to “CBS Sunday Morning,” I used to particularly enjoy its closing nature moment. That is, until somebody changed it from one 30-second image focused on the same spot to a montage of shots changing the scene every couple of seconds. Have our attention spans diminished so much that we can’t be expected to watch one scene for 30 seconds? Just leave the camera steady on the shot.

Curmudgeon you say? I simply don’t think so!

Jim Cross is a professor emeritus of exercise science at Fort Lewis College and a Durango resident since 1988.

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