Saturday, July 25, 2020

Time and Chance (46)

All productivity comes with a certain element of risk.

This is true for code monkeys, spot monkeys and everyone in between the two extremes (the code monkey being a computer programmer at his keyboard; the spot monkey, a professional wrestler whose specialty is flying through the air and landing on people without killing them). Too much time pounding the keys can ruin your wrists, which everyone who has carpal tunnel syndrome will tell you is very painful and not easy to get rid of. Then again, a 360 off the top rope that ends on the ring apron instead of its designated target will probably break your neck, so maybe there are worse things than sore wrists.

For me the big job hazard is paper cuts. Lots of paper cuts. First world problems, I know.

Back in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is working his way through a series of related observations disguised as ordinary proverbs. The first four are about work and the risk that comes with it.

Ecclesiastes 10:8-9 — 16 Tons and Whaddayou Get?
“He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.”
Nothing Changes in 3,000 Years

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s answer to “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?” is “Another day older and deeper in debt.” You will also have back problems and die young of whatever that coal dust is doing to your lungs. In two consecutive two-line proverbs, the Preacher lists four kinds of jobs where there is some risk of injury along the way: the 1,000 B.C. versions of the construction worker, the demolition man, the miner and the lumberjack. All involve tools and physical labor, but we can apply the same principle to any area of life in which things do not go as planned — which, as we know, is all of them.

In at least one sense, the 3,000 years of technological progress since these lines were written have not really made the worker’s life better: they have made his workday more productive but his mistakes more likely to end in a fatality. Sure, you could cut yourself very badly indeed with an old iron ax, but a chainsaw can take a limb off in a split second if you mishandle it. The pit you can dig with a shovel may be deep enough to injure you if you forget it’s there, but the pile of dirt you can move with a backhoe in only five minutes is big enough that if it falls on you, you will not be getting up again.

There are also allegorical levels to this principle worth observing. Haman constructed a gallows, and ended up hanged on it. Solomon’s half-brother Absalom “broke down the wall” of his father’s kingdom and was bitten by a serpent named Joab. The workers of evil often themselves come to evil ends. It is always your sin that will “find you out”.

Risk Assessment

In our modern world, and in the absence of a healthy respect for God and fate, men have gotten unbelievably overconfident of humanity’s ability to reshape our world at will, and they no longer consider at any great length the risks involved in some of their major construction and destruction projects ... assuming they ever did. But technology has made the stakes higher and the failures of humility potentially more lethal.

So we see unintended consequences everywhere. The conversion of cornfields formerly dedicated to food production to the production of ethanol results in widespread starvation in the Third World. Massive wind farms blight the landscape, degrade quickly and are hard to recycle; their blades contain highly toxic plastics that are almost impossible to dispose of; they occasionally spontaneously combust; they slaughter birds by the millions; and, to top it off, in many cases they take more energy to build and transport than they will ever generate over their lifetimes. Now we have graduated to shutting down the entire global economy over fear of infection. It will be interesting to see the downstream consequences that has for us.

We have forgotten the principle that every undertaking comes at some risk. Those risks are worth assessing before we just jump right in and have a go at seeding the clouds, playing around with DNA or terraforming the planet. The bites of some serpents are fatal, while others are merely annoying.

Ecclesiastes 10:10 — Risk Management
“If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed.”
A warning on the United States Forest Service website reads: “Be very afraid of a dull ax, because it is dangerous. It glances off a surface more easily. A blunt ax, improperly tapered, also has a tendency to glance off. An ax should always be kept razor sharp.” The accompanying graphic shows the head of an ax rebounding off the base of a tree and bisecting the toe of its wielder’s boot. Cutting vegetables with a dull knife reveals the same principle at work: sharper is better. This at first seems counterintuitive. The inexperienced person says, “I’m less likely to hurt myself if this blade is not super-keen.” Hard-earned wisdom — hopefully that of others but sometimes our own — tells us this is not really the case.

Risks can be managed. Experience helps, so long as you don’t get overconfident. I once sat on the jury at a civil trial where a veteran crane worker was alleged to have fallen to his death because he didn’t like taking the time to strap on his safety gear before scrambling down the ladder for his mid-morning coffee break. Knowing all the potential hazards of a job doesn’t help you if you get cocky. The same is true for elders in local churches, or even for veteran Christians. We have seen a problem before, so we think we know how to deal with it, and end up making a mess of things. Knowing the risks should not make us self-sufficient, but even more dependent on the Lord when a man or woman’s spiritual life is at stake.

Ecclesiastes 10:11 — Risk vs. Reward
“If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.”
The final proverb of the four is about relative risk and reward. There are certain high-risk activities that the Preacher suggests may be less worth pursuing than others. In a sense, the lumberjack has no choice. Trees need to be felled or the cabin would never be built, the fire never started, and dinner never cooked. Stones must be quarried or everyone would live in caves or mud huts. Pits must be dug because buildings need foundations, the dead must be buried, and some minerals we extract from the ground are critically important in a variety of industries. In all these cases, the risk is worth the reward. You minimize it as much as possible and then, well, ahead you go.

But what exactly is it about snake charming that anyone thinks is necessary? I suppose a man too small or weak to cut wood or break rock might consider taking it up, or maybe a man not clever or opportunistic enough to find his way into some other career. But it stands as a pretty good example of a high risk/low reward situation. The snake charmer can look forward to nothing more impressive than a few coins occasionally tossed his way for showing off his tricks. Meanwhile, in order to get any attention at all, he must charm the sort of snake everyone else finds terrifying: the one whose bite can end your life in about thirty seconds. And if he’s not good at it? Well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about what to have for dinner tonight.

Moral of the story: if you have to choose, be the code monkey, not the spot monkey.

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