ALS Topic 53 -  We Need Hopeless Situations, Don't You Agree?

Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, ALS 53
Saturday, February 1 2020 11 am to 1:30 PM (end time flexible)

Venue: The Rose - 31 East Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000 (Upstairs. Maximum 12 people. Please buy a drink or something. We are 'renting' the chairs in this small business)

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.

Focus Questions

 'The Horse Might Learn to Sing Hymns'

A Fable (courtesy of SF novelist, Ursula Le Guin):

Long ago and far away ... a thief was brought before the king of a realm.
"Hang him", commanded the king.

The thief protested. "Your majesty," cried the thief, "I can deliver you a miracle with a little time. I can teach your horse to sing hymns".

The king was bemused, then amused. There was nothing to lose. He roared with laughter. "Very well," he commanded. "Give the scoundrel a year and a day to teach my horse to sing hymns."

So the thief was dragged back to the dungeons where all the other criminals were agog. "Why did you make a crazy promise like that?" they demanded.

"Well," said the thief philosophically, "I have a year and a day. Much might happen. The kingdom might be conquered, the king might die, um, I might die. Or who knows, the damned horse might learn to sing hymns"


Focus Questions

1. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” [Samuel Johnson, 1777]. When have you been driven to initiative and frantic activity to save your own skin?

2. What are some inventions and stratagems which have come out of the insane desperation of war?

3. Climate change is beginning to look like a hopeless situation. Faced with complex problems, people always have trouble agreeing. If the global climate is past a tipping point, how might we cope? What might we innovate?

4. Fire has always been man's best friend and worst enemy. What is the best way to 'fireproof' Australia?

5. Great power causes a kind of mental illness in most leaders. They can act out their fantasies. Violence and oppression, even war, typically follow. No lasting solution has ever been found to this mental illness in leaders. Is the situation hopeless? What do you suggest?

6. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. It might be a course that is too difficult, a job that is too stressful, a debt that we can never repay, an enemy created who wants us to suffer .. and so on. Think of an experience you have had like this. How did you solve it? How would you solve now?

7. Some people show extreme grit (persistence in the face of natural or human opposition) and sometimes they win through. Some people persist with a lost cause when it would be better to walk away. What is a good balance between persistence and cutting your losses? An example?

8. Time is our constant companion, and eventually our executioner. The young (often) expect to live forever so take insane risks, the middle aged are aware of time as a fearful shadow and become cautious. The old are looking the Grim Reaper in the face, and may feel their situation is hopeless. The religious, like the young, choose to believe that in some form they will live forever. So how do you personally govern your relationship with time as the years pass? As in Dylan Thomas's. famous poem**, do you shout 'Do not go gentle into that good night', or do you dim your mind with drugs, or do you live for the day .... ?

9. Many, perhaps most marriages fail eventually. That might result in divorce, or it might mean living in the same house without affection. There are many, many reasons for such failure. When a relationship seems hopeless, what is the best solution?

10. Humans have come out on top in the animal world (or we think we have). The main reason seems to be that we have evolved and adapted away from hopeless situations in nature which have wiped out other species. This process continues. We know, scientifically, that our species future is probably limited. How are we likely to adapt to once again evade the extinction of homo sapiens?


Extra Reading, Comments and Links

Dylan Thomas "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night". audio @  ; words @
Poem_Do_not_go_gentle_into_that_good_night.pdf  [Thor, comment: If you are not familiar with English culture, this is one of the most famous poems in the language. In the poem, Dylan Thomas speaks to his father, who does not know he is going blind, and who died a year later. Dylan begs his father not to surrender to death, but fight it with passionate defiance. Yet he knows that death is everyone's fate in the end .... ]

World Economic Forum (2020) "35 years of climate change in 125 seconds" - a time lapse camera. WEF @  [Thor, comment: this is for those who've delayed adapting away from cherished but obsolete beliefs about a world that has changed while they were not looking]

Olga Khazan ( May12, 2015) "The Mechanics of Preventing Procrastination - A new study finds that thinking about far-off events in terms of days, rather than years, makes people get started sooner". The Atlantic @

Thor May (2014) "Is learning “grit” the best way succeed ?". The Passionate Skeptic Website @  [Quote: "Is grit worth it? I think so, but that might be more a statement of hope than full conviction. As a teacher for 35 years, no quality in students has been so dismaying as the failure of many to persist and overcome difficulties in a particular area of study. A teacher’s job is to raise individuals to their full potential, so to the teacher a student falling short of potential feels like absolute waste. Sometimes the refusal to persist can seem like a mass psychosis, as when almost any native English speaker off the street, for example, will declare that “I am no good at learning languages. Once I enrolled in a course for a semester, but …”. Yet the issue is more nuanced than that. A proportion of those individuals in war, or extreme deprivation, or in hostile workplaces, or in setting up a small business against the odds, will show extraordinary persistence and eventually triumph where others fail. On the other hand, there are whole social groups who decide (and tell each other) that “I am no good at school”, or (proudly) “I’m lazy. So what? Just get wasted. I’ll get screwed whatever I try anyway”. Or they will look at the so-called paragons of success and say with honest dislike, “why would I want to be like those dick-heads anyway?” Reflecting on my own life, I have to say there are things I have grimly persisted at, sometimes for years, and emerged empty handed. At other times accolades have come for achievements which seemed barely earned. It is not a fair world."]

Sara Waring, Laurence Alison, Neil Shortland & Michael Humann (18 May 2019) "The role of information sharing on decision delay during multiteam disaster response" [academic article] Journal of Cognition, Technology & Work (2019) @

Wikipedia (2019) "Justice delayed is justice denied" @

Thor May (1995) "Psychological Time and May's Constant". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Thor, comment: Hey, don't take my pseudo-maths too seriously, but the effect is real ^_^ ]

Birgitta Bader-Zaar (8 October 2014) "Controversy: War-related Changes in Gender Relations: The Issue of Women’s Citizenship" International Encyclopedia of The First World War, 1914-1918 @  [Note: This is an academic article.] [Comment, Thor: The emergency of war is often cited as an example of desperation leading to social change - for example, the role of women in the workplace. However history seems to show that such changes are often only temporary, or partial, at least in the short term. There can be a backlash when the emergency is over. However, slower, longer term change may also begin to emerge]

=> ian beutler - Again, Professor Thor, you show you are the master of paradox.. and the one least likely to get the pox.

Simon Reid (24 January 2019) "How the coronavirus started in China — and why that's actually a saving grace". ABC News @  [Quote: "Despite the risk of "super-spreaders", the emergence of new diseases in places like China is actually a saving grace. China has an excellent system and massive capacity to investigate and control diseases, and the country's response to recent disease emergences has been highly transparent, competent and effective. Our biggest risk now is human apathy. Unfortunately, antimicrobial resistance [emerging failure of antibiotics through overuse] does not raise the pulse of politicians like a good outbreak of SARS"].

Ian Beutler ... NOT to even hint at mentioning what a lovely DISTRACTION from their own normal evil-doings...

=> Thor May - Ian, most people are not evil, in China or anywhere else. They follow the social routines of wherever they happen to be, sometimes with bad outcomes. You confuse the political class with ordinary people. Not even the political class - anywhere - would choose a pandemic as a distraction. The medical message, here and there, is that antibiotics are becoming ineffective because of overuse, or rather because of human stupidity. The bugs mutate. Antibiotics do not kill viruses. Yet "Harvard University researchers analyzed the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and determined that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of visits for sore throats and 73 percent of visits for acute bronchitis. The antibiotic prescribing rate should be about 10 percent for sore throats and nearly zero for acute bronchitis".(  ). This idiocy by doctors and patients is the same in Australia, and in China.

=> ian beutler - you leave me in a hopeless situation, dear Thor. Obviously i need to mutate., which is a challenge, given that I am a genetic conservative, not to mention I suffer chronic bronchitis. As for medics, they were always "idiotic." Vid. case of Lizzie Woolcock's doctor (ref: s.a. history)

Peter Hartcher (January 27, 2020) "What coronavirus teaches us about China - The latest made-in-China pandemic reveals Beijing's impressive capacity to learn from its errors and improve its performance in dealing with crises. It also exposes China's fatal flaws.". Brisbane Times @

Chris Tsiolas (May 26, 2017) "Creation and Destruction." @  [Quote: "Some times “things” need to burn to the ground, thus creating room for something new to be created .... you need to destroy your current morning routine and sleeping habits in order to start running a few kilometers every morning. You need to stop watching funny cat gifs on the bus in order to start taking notes and brainstorm for this amazing new book or start-up or song or whatever is burred in that awesome mind of yours. Make room for what matters".]

Mike Foley (January 14, 2020) "Science Minister says climate denial a waste of time in wake of fires - She said the fires had created risks to a range of factors critical to human survival, wreaking havoc on pollinator species such as bees that are required by agriculture to propagate a wide range of crops, burning significant urban catchments, threatening water security, and creating unprecedented risks to infrastructure.". Brisbane Times @

Robin Winslow (January 10 2014) "Agile philosophy: A summary". Development blog @  [Thor, comment: Agile - as I understand it - is an approach to computer programming that grew out of the hopeless situations created by huge (often legacy) systems which would take forever to overhaul completely. The idea of of Agile is to systematically identify sub-systems and task sets that can be tackled realistically to yield beneficial (if not ideal) outcomes]

Marguerite Rigoglioso (March 1, 2010) "Written Incentives for Employees in Just-in-Time Settings - In some manufacturing environments, having workers engage in just-in-time production can actually cause motivational problems and increase costs". Stanford Business @  [Thor, comment: This article is really saying that relentless demands by ijit managers for worker productivity - a hopelessly demoralizing environment - can actually lead to a loss of productivity]

=> Bryn Williams - I find this a strange study relating to JIT as it infers ( or states) workers are being paid on a 'piece work' focus which is totally against the philosophy. The limitations and problems associated with this were detailed in Taylor's seminal management works as early as 1911. The concepts of 'soldiering' etc were well known, employees would maintain a 'std' output and not allow others to exceed this so as disadvantaging them, eventually led to the concept of 'time and motion ' study. The concept of JIT is ultimately to 'smooth' the production flow (ie. highest efficiency) and obviously remove the insurance of large inventories as 'just in case' protection. Workers are paid on a consistent basis not an output basis but the tasks are geared around flexibility. My experience of this is in providing plastic raw material to major uses who would store in 40tonne silos ( value around $120 000) so if using multiple silos a considerable inventory cost (which is paid at the time of delivery not usage) and in some cases would involve multiple silos. The JIT method used for these was to have real time read outs of the storage online by the supplier who could see when the silo would likely need topping up and ensure material would be available. It removed excessive inventory on both parties and ensured continuity of supply. Some more JIT systems do use invoicing at time of use and have reduced warehousing storage etc (Supermarkets ??).

Gaby Hinsliff (29 Jan 2020) "The fashion futurist: how Vogue's wartime editor revolutionised women's lives. Audrey Withers was determined her magazine would be political, progressive and powerful. She commissioned Lee Miller to take photos from the front – and created a publication that went far beyond fashion". The Guardian @

Maria Popova (October 2019) "The Surprising and Sobering Science of How We Gain and Lose Influence - We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.” Brain Pickings website @

Sarah Chang (n.d.) "How to Bite Off More Than You Can Chew—and Get it All Done". The Muse website @

Christopher Klein (March 14 2019) "WWI Inventions, From Pilates to Zippers, That We Still Use Today" History website @

Simone M. Scully (May 22, 2017) "The 6 Most Surprising, Important Inventions From World War I". Nautilus website @

Findmypast (2 November 2015) "10 Everyday Inventions You Owe to World War 2". Find My Past website @

Adrian Willings (31 May 2019) "28 ways military tech changed our lives". Pocket-lint website @


Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar

Index of past discussion topics & questions:

Convenor : Thor May Personal website (legacy)
Articles  (.. about 147 articles by Thor)


We Need Hopeless Situations, Don't You Agree? (c) Thor May 2020 return to Ddiscussion