Friday, July 28, 2006

Of icebergs, NPR, and language

[Update Jan. 13, 2008, for NPR puzzle folks: No, I can't find it either! The funny Scrabble site, that is. But since that seems a dead end, and you're already here, why not stick around, click around, and read some more? Cheers]

For some time I've planned to write an essay framed by the metaphor, "the tip of an iceberg". I planned to include a photo of an iceberg that's been floating around the Internet for years.

I haven't finished that essay. I ponder a lot and write slowly. In the mean time, NPR beat me to it. Well, sort of. The NPR segment, "Language: What Lies Beneath", does cover a topic that interests me, and one I've written about briefly. But NPR's web graphic is based on exactly the iceberg image I planned to use. For me this image, created by photographer Ralph Clevenger, expresses the visual metaphor of the tip of an iceberg just as I see it in my mind. How about you?

Language: What Lies Beneath at


Update: Eventually I did write another "tip of the iceberg" essay. It can be found at my other web site,


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Road Closed, Bridge Out

Suppose we're driving, and we approach a large barricade with a sign that says,


What is our standard of evidence to make a decision?

What if we've already driven past a ROAD CLOSED AHEAD warning sign every mile for the last 30 miles?

Driving off a cliff, pedal to the metal, just to confirm that the bridge really is gone and that 30 miles of warning signs really were there for a reason, that strikes me as unwise and unimpressive decision-making behavior.

That's not wisdom.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

How do these three puzzle pieces fit together?




How do we tell them apart? How do we acquire them? How do we apply them?


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Escaping the pinch of the finger trap

Have you ever felt the pinch of a finger trap puzzle?

A finger trap looks harmless. It's just a small tube made of paper. Perhaps a jokester friend handed one to you and said, "Here...stick your fingers in this thing, then pull them out." How hard can that be?

So you play along, stick your fingers into the tube, pull, and find your fingers stuck. Trapped. Pinched.

Also puzzled, and probably frustrated, most of us react by pulling harder. Getting our fingers out must involve pulling, right? So we pull harder. And the finger trap pinches tighter.

The secret of the finger trap is our belief that pulling harder ought to work. But pulling harder doesn't work; that's what makes it a trap. The solution to escape the finger trap is to push gently first. Pushing into the tube releases its pinch. Only then can we carefully remove one finger at a time.

Escaping a finger trap isn't just a matter of pushing, though. It's also a matter of understanding first how the trap works. First we need insight into its mechanism. When we discover our initial belief works badly, that pulling harder pinches tighter, then we adjust our belief to accomodate a method that works.


Reading the news, hearing the news, watching the news, how many of those stories are about pulling harder on traps that are pinching tighter? Why does it seem so difficult to accept that pulling harder pinches tighter? If it didn't work yesterday, and it's not working today, why believe that pulling harder might suddenly work tomorrow?

A finger trap is just a toy, and its mechanism seems simple. So it's no big deal to adjust our belief about how it works.

If we believe that life is hard, that life is complicated, that there are no easy answers, that a lifetime of effort to pull harder must be rewarded, then a simple solution like, "Push gently," can seem disappointing. Judging by the news, apparently we believe that difficult problems deserve difficult solutions.

There are plenty of times when we claim we seek easy answers. When offered simple solutions, however, how often do we reject them by saying, "Well, that can't be right!" ?

The secret to escape a finger trap is to understand it first. Insight into the mechanisms that trap us leads to solutions that actually work. What we believe about the mechanisms of our world make a huge difference in our ability to live freely--or to feel pinched tightly in a giant finger trap.


Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, offers a remarkable source of insight into difficult situations and insight into beliefs that can trap us.

The Sustainability Institute is one organization that applies the same thinking to encourage solutions to global challenges.

To see how this piece fits related pieces please visit

Thursday, July 06, 2006

And we all begin happily ever after

How would we live if the phrase, "And we all live happily ever after," begins a new story?

We're accustomed to seeing a similar sentence at the end of stories. It seems to function there as a perfunctory wrap-up, tacked on mostly as a story-telling ritual.

It seems to me there's always another story unfolding, however, or a new one that's about to begin. Instead of perfunctory endings, what if we focus on setting the precedent for the quality of our lives from the beginning?

How would we live if beginnings justify means?