A Breakthroughvian Abroad, Part Four: Homeward Bound


Breakthrough Technologies Managing Partner Doug Wilson has traveled to Bern, Switzerland to attend TAO Days 2013. He journals here about his experiences.


Part 4: Traveling back to Chicago, or Hobgoblins in the Air

There is a common perception by Americans that the British are polite. This is true, but it is an obstinate sort of politeness. For example, on my flight to London the flight attendant asked me to move because she was relocating an aged English couple who apparently had lived too long to bear the proximity of a screaming child. 


I don't mean to diminish the circumstance – this child was a real screamer. I just wasn't sure why the couple received special dispensation to change seats as a result of the piercing, sustained cacophony emitting from this child's lungs.


Regardless, the flight attendant relocated the couple who originally had been seated on adjacent aisle seats close to the diminutive banshee. When the sweet, older woman placed herself in a window seat, the flight attendant firmly, but politely, reminded her that she was to sit in the aisle seat as that was what she had requested. 


Never mind that the woman was already comfortably seated by the window and seemed pleased with her new location. No, the plan was set and the woman had to be moved two seats over to the aisle.


"Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the simple mind."  I was reminded of this quote learned years ago in my career, and one that constantly alerts me to keep up my guard. I take it to mean that we should not do things as they’ve always been done, but rather to be open to new ideas. We should be able to change the game plan if the battle requires it. We should be able to leave a poor woman comfortably seated even if that's not what we had in mind as an outcome.


It ended well enough, though: we all made it to London. As I left the aircraft the older woman seemed no worse the wear. Halfway up the plane I noticed a young couple, obviously exhausted but seated clutching each other, awaiting everyone to deplane. 


There were curious smiles on their faces, and their eyes were closed. They had succumbed to a drowsy reverie. In the husband's arms, oblivious to his parents' state, was a baby, spread-eagled on father's lap and buried under an avalanche of deep sleep.


Now, while we're on the topic of foolishness, I suppose that picking on the airport security personnel is an easy target. Kind of like making fun of the Billionaire's Cup – sorry, America's Cup. Or the vice presidency. Or the attempts to stop piracy on the Internet. It's just too easy to take a jab.


But it's impossible to undergo the security process and not consider the many opportunities to do it smarter, cheaper and more efficiently, not to mention the options for designing a better user experience for travelers. We all have our stories, I suppose, but mine starts with buying a small snow globe in the Zurich airport for my daughter. 


I've been burned by snow globe purchases before, mind you – I should know better. But this one was small and they were selling it in the airport, so it must have been OK, right?


Well, the snow globe that was perfectly fine by Switzerland's standards was obviously too full of liquid explosive potential for Heathrow. Of course, it didn't help matters that the gentleman in line behind me shared the story of another man who’d talked his way onboard with two new bottles of soap that were definitely over the limit. 


Like I said, everyone's got a story.


Of course, my snow globe was confiscated – was this story going to end any other way? Why confiscated? Because security couldn't determine the volume of liquid contained.  Never mind that there are simple ways to determine the volume of a solid object.  It wasn't written on the package, and thus unclear was the specific volume of the tiny castle nestled inside the globe.


So who is to blame? Osama Bin Laden for forever changing the face of airport security? The American people's impatience to "just do something" in the wake of the terror act, even though the herculean investment of money and resources seems to have done very little to stem the tide of terror-related activity? (See also Iraq.) Am I to blame the gift shop that insisted on using a cheaper supplier rather than one that offered snow globes that could be sold dry and shipped safely without drawing the suspicion of the vigilant agents of our security?


Perhaps the point is not to affix blame. Perhaps the point is for us just to acquiesce to being imperfect beings in an imperfect world. But that resignation, if indeed wisdom, feels more like defeat than realism.


Instead, I go back to another adage I learned as a programmer-in-training: "Every innovation in software comes from some programmer being lazy." In other words, all of the code that we write, we do so to eliminate a mundane or error-prone task – one that we wish we'd never have to do again. 


I think of that fundamental human trait – the desire to not be bored or badgered by tedium – and the millions of innovations that it has spawned. Consider the first set of C libraries that collected math functions so that we all weren't writing our own factorial functions. Imagine the thought behind conceptualizing the goto statement that meant we wouldn’t have to type the same code more than once when two branches of an algorithm shared its functions, thus eliminating tedious errors while paving the way for better innovations, like classes, inheritance, and methods.


It is up to all of us each day to fight against those personal discomforts, to push back against the mundane, to streamline the tedious. It may seem petty, or it may seem lazy, but those hobgoblins are the foundations of our technology. They are the small steps that have taken mankind on a journey to the moon, and they have left their tread marks on the surface of Mars.


Inject some indignation into your acceptance of the human condition, and see where it takes you.

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