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<   No. 2065   2008-09-21   >

Comic #2065

1 Kyros: Wait. So it's a fortnight earlier now than when we left Footcrag?
1 Villager: Aye.
2 Kyros: So if we cross the Orcrift Mountains we could arrive back at Footcrag before we left?
2 Villager: Aye, I suppose.
3 Kyros: We could meet ourselves! That would be cool! Let's do it!
4 Alvissa: Only if I can warn myself not to listen to any more of your crazy ideas...

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Oh if only we could go back and warn ourselves about doing stupid things before we did them.

I think the point of this Wikipedia article is that things actually do seem more obvious in hindsight. Kind of obvious when you think about it, in hindsight.


2020-05-10 Rerun commentary: One of the examples of hindsight that is often mentioned is the Egg of Columbus. This is an old apocryphal story about how after Christopher Columbus sailed west from Europe and found the West Indies (and then returned to Europe), various people suggested that it was no great discovery because it was essentially inevitable - someone would have eventually made such a journey and discovered the same thing.

Columbus's response (according to the story) was to challenge the naysayers to balance an egg on its tip. They attempted to do so, but all failed. Columbus then picked up the egg, tapped its tip on the table to break and flatten the shell slightly, and balanced it on the flattened tip.

The implication is that Columbus was demonstrating that he had the insight to do something that nobody had done before, and so thus was worthy of credit for his discovery, rather than being dismissed as simply being a random person who happened to be the first to do something that was inevitable anyway. While it's true that the European discovery of the Americas was essentially inevitable - somebody would have done it sooner or later if Columbus hadn't done it in 1492 - Columbus was the person who actually went out and did it, and he deserves credit at least for that. (Columbus's reputation has suffered over time for his treatment of native Americans and support of slavery, but that doesn't change the fact that he was a significant explorer.)

This story is often cited in modern-day workshops on creativity and thinking outside the box, as an example of taking an approach that nobody has thought of before to solve a problem. To me it seems like a slightly odd example, because in solving the problem (getting an egg to stand on its tip) the fictional Columbus breaks not only an assumed rule, but also something physical. One of the goals of learning to be creative is to learn that sometimes we assume certain rules, but in reality some of those rules are just artificial limitations in our minds, and not really something that we can't do. We have to identify artificial constraints and reject them, to get at the fresh creative spaces beyond. But, at the same time, sometimes there are rules that really are genuine constraints - such as laws of nature that we really can't break. And then there are constraints that we could break (such as breaking the egg shell), but which might cause other problems and so we need to be more careful with them. For example, one possible solution to homeless people living on the streets is to round them up and kill them - but this is not a solution that we should seriously contemplate.

To me, breaking the egg in order to balance it on its tip is a bit like murdering all the homeless people. You've actually ruined the integrity of the egg. It's not a "creative" solution to the problem, it's a "cheating" solution.

This isn't black and white though. Creative solutions that nobody thought of before will often seem like "cheating" to at least some people. The true trick is to recognise when "cheating" will be acceptable enough that it's worth doing, and when it will be unacceptable.

And anyway, you don't have to break the egg to balance it.

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My comics: Irregular Webcomic! | Darths & Droids | Eavesdropper | Planet of Hats | The Dinosaur Whiteboard | mezzacotta
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