Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Looking Things Up"

Which is not as easy as it appears.

So we are sitting in the Delta waiting area for our flight to San Diego…

Wait.  (Or “esly” if your fingers are on the wrong keys.)

Did you ever wonder who exactly it is who initiates conversational trends, like who was the first person to start sentences with ”So” and now it’s everywhere, including on educated channels like C-SPAN?


Yeah, that too. 

Never mind.

“That was Emily Litella.”


Taking us back to the original subject of looking things up.

Which I may have mentioned is not as easy as it appears.

So we are sitting in the Delta departure lounge for our flight to San Diego, and they announce that our flight will be delayed.  (And ultimately cancelled.  Followed by the announcement that, as there is no replacement plane available, we will be bused to San Diego.  Followed by our decision to return home – a relatively short cab ride from the airport – and our driving to San Diego instead.  Followed by six-and-a-half hours of congested traffic on the San Diego freeway, which is the main reason we’d decided to fly to San Diego in the first place.  But that’s another story.  Best penned in parentheses because it’s excruciatingly boring.)

But before that ultimate – and possibly mistaken – decision, we have substantial time to kill, sitting in the Delta departure lounge.  I do not recall what exactly gets me thinking about the intractable issue of “Personal self-interest” but that’s what I begin thinking about.  While others jabber endlessly on their smartphones or peruse magazines of no interest.  (Perhaps even to the perusers.)

My mind floats inevitably to The Federalist Papers, in particular Federalist Paper Number 10, because it is specifically concerned with the issue of “Personal self-interest” and its affect on a cooperating legislature, who, given the inescapable reality of “Personal self-interest” have a personal self-interest in not cooperating.

(Have you noticed?  So Federalist 10 notwithstanding, the problem of “Personal self-interest” is still with us.  Compounded by the fact that, in contrast to 18th Century legislators, who were desperate to fulfill their patriotic duties and return as quickly as possible to private life, today’s legislators’ most desired aspiration is to remain serving in Congress until they die.)

Based on "If you can't eradicate it, use it", the anonymous writer of “Federalist 10” (James Madison) determined that if you were to cram a bunch of equally personally self-interested legislators into a chamber, they will – because it is in their personal self-interest to do so – create strategic, temporary alliances to obtain a vote-counted majority, leading the government functioning successfully due to that self-interested “horse-trading.”

As in,

“I’ll vote for your whisky distilling interests to place tariffs on the importation of foreign whisky if you’ll vote with me to maintain the institution of slavery.”

And it worked like a charm. 

Except for the slaves.  Who, although they were considered three-fifths of a person for enumerational purposes were commensurately not allotted three-fifths of a vote. 

Or any vote.  (And were treated quite nastily when they inquired “How come?”)

In time, my vacation in thought concerning “Personal self-interest” proceeded naturally to the man who argued that Mother Teresa was selfish.  (Only helping the poor and downtrodden so as to personally self-interestedly feel better about herself.)

And here – sadly belatedly – begins our story.

“Who said Mother Teresa was selfish?” I ask Dr. M, who has possession of an i-related electrical device that can look things up and I don’t.  The problem is…

To receive the desired answer, you must ask it precisely the right question.  It’s like using the telephone.  To reach the person you are calling, you must press ten correct numbers.  You get one number wrong and you are be talking to a stranger.

Dr. M dutifully asks her machine my question.

“Who said Mother Teresa was selfish?”

She receives no answer.

I immediately alter the question.

“What writer said Mother Teresa was selfish?”

Again, no answer.

I try yet again, offering clarificational information.

“What British writer said Mother Teresa was selfish?”

Still nothing doing. 

I make a strategic adjustment.

“What British essayist said Mother Teresa was selfish?”

Ding-ding-ding! – I get an answer:

“Malcolm Muggeridge.”

A long-deceased British writer and essayist who, as it turns out, was a devoted enthusiast of Mother Teresa’s – the machine thus providing an erroneous response – and also not the man I had in mind but was unable to remember.

Losing curiosital steam, I decide on one final formulation.  Before returning to thoughts about The Federalist Papers.

“What recent British essayist said Mother Teresa was selfish?

Finally, I get the right answer.  (Which may already know, making this an grating exercise in “Would you please move this along?”)

It was Christopher Hitchens. 

That’s the name I’d been looking for.  And it only took twenty minutes to get there, not because the device’s computer was slow but because we were.

Computers have the capacity to provide the correct answers, but you have to know exactly what to ask them.

When, I wonder, will they assist us with that?

COMPUTERS:  “Never.  We love messin’ with you guys.”

1 comment:

JED said...

It's kind of funny, I got the computer to come up with Hitchens' name by entering "pompous ass" and "jealous" and it didn't take twenty minutes.