Are you familiar with Occam's (sometimes spelled Ockham's) Razor? This
is a principle of logic, which states loosely that a problem should be
explained in the simplest terms possible. In other words, Why look
for a complicated solution when a simple one will do. It's a very
basic common sense concept, one that should be obvious to anyone with
a clear mind. Yet so often we will look for a solution that is far more
complex than it really needs to be.
One of my favourite examples of this took place during the "space
race" of the 1960s. If man was going into space, he needed a writing
implement that would function in zero gravity. There is an urban legend
about how the Americans undertook to develop a pen that would do this,
and it took several years and millions of taxpayer dollars, but they did
it. Good old American ingenuity. The urban legend concludes with the kicker
"but the Russians just used pencils."
The truth of that story is somewhat less than total, as NASA also used
pencils until 1965 when Paul Fisher developed the space pen (using his
own money, not public money, actually) It uses a higher viscosity ink
than a regular ballpoint, as well as a pressurized ink reservoir, and
it works in almost any situation you can imagine. You can buy one for
about $25 these days, and the Russians have used them since 1968. Incidentally,
pencils offer certain hazards in a zero gravity environment, such as broken
leads floating into eyes or causing electrical shorts (graphite is an
So that story about a complicated solution is not true, but I have one
that happened to me last week that is all too true. I work at a major
electronics retailer, and I often take calls from people looking for products.
Often these calls start out with the phrase "I have a weird question.
. ." Generally these so-called weird questions really aren't all
that weird. It's very rare that a customer has a problem or needs a product
that at least a dozen others haven't already asked for. The call I took
last week began with the usual "I have a weird question," but
this time it was weird. Very weird. He was looking for a device that would
allow him to electrify the entire body of his car.
After asking him to repeat his request so I could comprehend him, both
for the sheer bizarreness of the idea and the fact that he had a thick
accent, I just had to ask why exactly he wanted to do this. Apparently
his neighbours have a cat that likes to climb on his car after walking
through puddles, and he wants to scare the cat so it will no longer leave
muddy paw prints all over his car. He was very clear that he didn't want
to kill the cat, just shock it.
After taking a few seconds to process this, I told him that I wasn't
aware of any product to do this, nor was I certain about the legality
of such a device. As well, there would be some safety issues, since an
electrified car in a rainstorm would be really, really, ridiculously dangerous.
He assured me that this would only be used in his garage (I'm not sure
how the neighbour cat was getting into his garage, but let's not worry
about that) so it wouldn't get wet. After stressing to him just how dangerous
something like this could be and how I was quite certain that a product
to do this did not exist I figured that he would let it go. I was wrong.
He wanted to know if I knew how to build something to let him electrify
his car, or did I know anyone who could. The only suggestion I could come
up with was contacting someone who did car security systems. Then something
else occurred to me. If he wanted to scare the cat off his car, a very
sensitive car alarm would probably do the trick. Adjusted carefully enough,
it might pick up the weight of the cat and go off, scaring the cat almost
as much as an electric shock, all without the possibility of killing the
The customer seemed open to this idea, although he was somewhat reluctant
to abandon the idea of the electrified car. Thankfully my store does not
sell car alarms, because I can only imagine how much one would need to
tweak a security system to actually respond to a cat. After giving him
the names of several local shops that do carry and install automobile
security, the call was pretty much over. It was only at this point that
I thought to apply Occam's Razor to the customer's problem. He wanted
to keep cat paw prints off his freshly washed car. I told him to go to
Canadian Tire and buy a car cover.