The 5 Most Brilliant Principles Pop Culture Gave Us
I have cropped this image to look like they're epic high-fiving over the ideas in the article
When people sit down and write out their brilliant thoughts in a logical, ground-breaking manner we call them philosophers and treat them like mind-wizards... unless they're Ayn Rand in which case we hurl scorpions at her from the house made of expired unemployment checks built on the rubble of a collapsed housing bubble. However, if someone says something brilliant but places it in the mouth of a fictional cat that wears a top hat then we tend to sort of dismiss it.
That's a mistake because genius is genius whether it aims for sober scholarship or thinks points are better made painting them with monkey poo. Today we celebrate the most brilliant of the latter.
The Sam Vimes "Boots" Theory of Economic Injustice: If you've never read a Discworld novel, stop reading this and go do that immediately. If you have, stop what you're doing and take a moment to give quiet thanks to Terry Pratchett. Without him we'd be short a library of great books, many orangutans, and his daughter who gave us the best version of Tomb Raider yet. Pratchett is a treasure.
He also gave us the character of Samuel Vimes, the hard-boiled Captain of the Watch responsible for keeping crime under control in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Vimes is a genius detective who knows the city so well he can tell where he is in the darkest night simply by the feel of the cobblestones under his cheap boots. Those boots, by the way, form a now famous theory about economics. It goes something like this...
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Vimes earns $38 a month, and a pair of quality boots that lasts ten seasons costs $50. He can't afford $50 boots, but he can afford $10 boots that last a whole season. However, at the end of ten seasons he has spent twice as much on boots as a rich person who could afford to initially spend the $50, all the while still having wet feet because of the quality. This, to Vimes, explains how a wealthy person could have double the luxury as Vimes does by spending half as much.
For more information on this theory, please visit any shop in America.
The Dilbert Principle: Since I spend all my time either working in a specialty book shop, writing for you kind people, or pursuing my career as a Sharknado Chaser, I tend to be fascinated by office culture. It's as exotic to me as an alien world, and just as incomprehensibly strange. You know how in old adventure novels British people would all sit around and guffaw over the silly antics of savages in faraway lands? That's exactly how I feel about any cubicle farm that has seriously considered having a Hawaiian Shirt Day.
Which explains why I read Dilbert religiously, and my fascination with Douglas Adams' contribution to management theory, the Dilbert Principle as illustrated in the cartoon above. The gist is that in any pool of employees there will be those who know how to do the actual thing the company does, and there will be a smaller pool of employees who are incompetent. The best way to handle the incompetent ones is to promote them to management in order to keep them out of the way of the employees who actually produce.
Adams meant it satricially, mostly, but there is a real life semi-correlation called the Peter Principal, described by educator Laurence J. Peter. His theory stated that everyone rises to a level of incompetency in management since eventually he or she reaches a place where he or she can rise no further, proving that they lack the competency in the position to impress their superiors for further advancement.
So while the two theories have different motivations, they do strangely end up with the same result.
The Woozle effect: You don't really think of A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh as a fount of deep thought, but chapter three of that book has had amazing insights for the entirety of science thanks to a clever, but slightly terrifying adventure by Pooh and Piglet. The duo begins tracking an animal they call a Woozle by its pawprints, which keep changing shape and forcing Pooh and Piglet to continue to revise their description of the Woozle to match the new information. Eventually, they discover that they have only been following their own tracks round and round a tree.
So a Woozle effect is when you start with erroneous information and build and build your assumptions on that information. The result is you become increasingly wrong, like a missile fired from an incorrect trajectory. Since the late '70s scientists have been using the term to try and change the course of studies on domestic violence. With much early research suffering from severe gender bias, newer studies linking back to the originals, and then being linked to themselves, builds an ever-widening web of wrongness.
Monkeysphere: David Wong is a senior editor at Cracked.com and the author of the best penis monster book ever written, John Dies at the End. He's also the person who knows the answer to everyone's personal happiness, and he has coined a term that brings a dense anthropological theory to the average man.
Primatologist Robin Dunbar decided to find out if he could determine a relationship between the number of stable relationships primates could establish and brain size. He did, and determined that monkeys are capable of working well in troupes of about 50, and extrapolated those results to humans to figure out we're never comfortable with more than around 150 solid relationships. This is Dunbar's number.
The rest of humanity? Wong says they appear more as faceless machines or homogenous hordes. They are outside of our Monkeysphere, and we are literally incapable of caring about them the same way as our close friends and family even though they are just as human. Our brains will not physically let us. While Dunbar's number is a great way to see things, ultimately Wong has the more illustrative analogy. Ach of us carries a range that only includes so many "real" people, and the rest of the world suffers for our refusal to acknowledge them. Wong also trumps Dunbar is one important regard; you are outside the Monkeysphere of nearly 100 percent of the planet. Think about that.
Xanatos-Gambit: Last but not least is a concept that you have always known to exist but never had a name for. Well, the concept is a plan where every single possible outcome is a victory condition for the planner, and the name of it is a Xanatos-Gambit.
Named after David Xanatos, the main protagonist of the Gargoyles cartoon, the rules are simple. A plan has a goal you want to accomplish, but there's also the possibility of failure. However, if you can make the failure benefit you just as much if not more then you've concocted something similar to the deep, multi-dimensional plots of the animated villain.
It happens all the time in the real world. For instance, if the impossible happened and the Wii U rose up next month to crush the PS4 and the Xbox One in the console wars who would win? Nintendo, sure, but the real answer is IBM. IBM makes the CPU's for all three systems, and has constructed a Xanatos-Gambit that thrives on competition driving sales of multiple consoles, but where it loses no market share if two of them fail completely.
Or consider Richard Nixon. Say what you will about his sliminess or his morals, those types of people are masters of the gambit. When he went to China in 1972 he could not lose. Either his willingness to negotiate and talk with Communist China would that relations and open up new pathways to trade and peace, or just the very fact that he was willing to try would fill Russia with a fear of a possible alliance between our two countries. Nixon actually accomplished both.
Similar in concept is Xanatos Speed Chess, which combines the fine planning of the gambit with the flexibility of being able to incorporate new situations into your plan. As Arthur Wellesey, the First Duke of Wellington put it...
"They planned their campaigns just as you might make a splendid piece of harness. It looks very well; and answers very well; until it gets broken; and then you are done for. Now I made my campaigns of ropes. If anything went wrong, I tied a knot; and went on."
Unfortunately for the Duke's legacy he did not employ robots, and that's why the concept is named after Xanatos instead.
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