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Occam's Electric Razor

Occam's Electric Razor

by Marko Peric

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 excellent conductor).

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 unfortunate feline.

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.

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