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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

The phrase “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” is often attributed to a guy named Albert Einstein.

We attribute these words to Einstein in part because the fundamental idea presented (“Experiment!”) certainly seems like something he would have subscribed to — if our celebrity-obsessed caricature of him is to be maintained — and also because we tend to stare extra hard at words when we know that they were uttered by a person that we generally respect (even if that particular person is at least partially responsible for 200,000 human casualties, give or take).

As it turns out, though Einstein said a lot of things, there is no record of him having made this particular quip about the relationship between insanity and repetitive thing-doing.  The reality is that the quote should be credited to Rita Mae Brown, a relatively and theoretically famous writer, but not the really famous writer of the Theory of Relativity.  That we attribute this quote over and over again to Einstein is, in my opinion, is equal parts insane and ironic.

Regardless of where the quote originated, and despite the fact that there is ample reason to discourage repetitive, unsuccessful thing-doage, I don’t think it quite captures precisely what it means to be/act “insane.”  Instead, I think we should start printing the following on posters, from sea to shining sea:

“Insanity is dealing with a problem effectively at first but then, for no discernible reason, ignoring the solution and replacing it with nothing.”

In other words, everything we need to know about insanity can be understood by addressing the rise and fall of the standard, no-frills bicycle bell.  And though this tiny bell has never been a reason to commit an otherwise healthy person to a padded room, our complacency about (at best) or disdain for (at worst) this metallic marvel is nothing short of cuckoo.

The percentage of bikes that sport a bell, so far as I can tell, has taken a nosedive.  And though we still are very much living in the same world and surrounded by the same circumstances that necessitated the invention of the bicycle bell, we seem to have chosen to remove the bell from our bikes and replace it with…nothing.

Instead, bikers are “forced” to hearken back to the olden days and insist on warning pedestrians by yelling any number of versions of the technically accurate though actually most dangerous phrase in the universe“On your left!  Your left!”

This string of words produces, a vast majority of the time, precisely the opposite reaction than the speaker hopes.  When a thinking person hears, from behind, someone anxiously shriek, “Your left!”, the natural, understandable and immediate reaction is to move quickly to the left (directly into the bike’s warpath).  A far more effective technique would be to take this standard warning call and replace it with literally any other loud noise, which would prompt a pedestrian to triangulate the location/distance of the bike and move their body appropriately.

Literally any other loud noise.

You know, like a bell.

Ideally, when a new technology results in unintended negative consequences, the solution cycle (!) looks like this:

  1. Useful Technology invented 🙂
  2. Useful Technology causes unintended badness 😦
  3. Implement Other Thing to limit unintended badness 😐
  4. Final Solution = Useful Technology + Other Thing 😀

If we know steps (3) and (4), we should never ignore them nor pretend as though they do not exist.  As Albert Einstein — whose name gives instant credibility to this phrase — once maybe said, “Insanity is dealing with a problem effectively at first but then, for no discernible reason, ignoring the solution and replacing it with nothing.”

In a sane universe, here is how we would deal with the unintended negative consequences of bicycle traffic causing confusion when riders approach and overtake pedestrians:

  1. The bicycle is invented!
  2. The bicycle causes confusion for pedestrians!
  3. Ringing a bicycle bell alerts pedestrians of bike location.
  4. Final solution = Bicycle + bell

Unfortunately, this is not the world we currently live in.

Yet I still have hope that (one day!) we will re-learn to embrace the fantastic power of the simple bike bell.

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