The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

"Because We’ve Always Done it That Way"

I have never understood that as an answer when attempting to find better ways to do things. I hope I never do understand it. While there’s something to be said for the axiom “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it”, I have always considered a person who resorts to the argument “because we've always done it that way” to be closed-minded, obstinate, and inflexible. It is nothing less than inexcusable to me when this is used as the first line of defense and the person using it expects this to end all discussion on the matter.

I offer up the following as an example to demonstrate why I feel this way.

Let us consider one of my favorite topics, fire. At one time, man created fire by rubbing two sticks together. There were several variations on the stick rubbing method of making fire… the more popular being the hand drill, the bow drill, and the fire plow.

The hand drill is suggested to be the oldest method of fire by friction, characterized by the use of a thin, straightened wooden shaft or reed to be spun with the hands, grinding within a notch against the soft wooden base of a fire board (a wooden board with a carved notch in which to catch heated wood fibers created by friction). This repetitive spinning and downward pressure causes black dust to form in the notch of the fire-board, eventually creating a hot, glowing coal. The coal is then carefully placed onto suitable tinder and fanned gently until flame is produced.

The bow drill uses the same principle as the hand drill (friction by rotation of wood on wood) but the spindle is shorter, wider (about the size of a human thumb) and driven by a bow, which allows longer strokes.

Another simple fire making tool using friction is a fire plough. It consists of a stick cut to a dull point, and a long piece of wood with a groove cut down its length. The point of the first piece is rubbed quickly against the groove of the second piece in a "plowing" motion, to produce hot dust that then becomes a coal. A split is often made down the length of the grooved piece, so that oxygen can flow freely to the coal/ember. Once hot enough, the coal is introduced to the tinder, more oxygen is added by blowing and the result is ignition.

These are primitive methods and there are many more that were used by our primitive ancestors, but eventually other ways of making fire were discovered that are called pre-modern methods.

Not to try to give a lesson on fire-building, but being necessary to follow this evolution in order to make my original point, we learn that man discovered that steel and iron produce hot sparks when struck against any glassy stone such as quartz, jasper, agate or flint. A flint alone does not produce incandescent embers; it is the flint's ability to violently release small particles of iron, exposing them to oxygen, that starts the burning.

To produce sparks, man learned that by striking a hard stone (for example flint or quartz) onto another containing iron and aiming those sparks to make immediate contact with tinder, said tinder will smolder from the spark. Add a little more fuel and oxygen, and we've the makings of a flame. Travelers up to the late 19th century would often use tinderboxes to start fires more easily than with a bow drill or hand drill.

Now we've got even more modern and easier ways to make a good fire.

Matches, for example, were invented in the 19th century. The early matches had to be struck on a suitable surface, usually found on the matchbox itself. Later came matches that could be ignited by striking on any surface that would create friction. Either way, matches are simply wooden sticks coated with chemicals that are easily ignited when heated by friction… obviously much easier than the primitive methods.

Other modern methods include lighters, such as those for cigarettes or grills. These use a ferrocerium "flint" for the spark, and gas fuels such as butane, or a liquid naphtha/gasoline-impregnated wick as the tinder and fuel. These are simple to light, often using a wheel mechanism that when spun with the thumb creates friction on the internal rod of ferrocerium "flint" and throws a shower of white-hot sparks into the tinder.

Other lighters, particularly long-reach lighters used to light grills, typically require only the push of a button to generate high-voltage piezoelectricity for sparking their butane fuel.

Electric fire-making involves the contact of an electrically resistant object with tinder. A current is run through the object until it is red hot, like the burners on an electric stove, and it is brought into contact with the tinder, lighting it.

Also, a low electric voltage, such as a flashlight battery coming into contact with a thin wire mesh (such as steel wool) will produce enough heat to ignite charcloth or other tinder.

OK… so what’s the point here with all of this pyromania-like discussion?

If those who were seeking easier and more efficient ways of creating fire had heeded the argument at hand, we would still be heating our homes, cooking our food, and starting good sessions of fire pit therapy by rubbing sticks together. Someone along the evolutionary line suggested a better way. Perhaps that person did in fact hear the argument “We don’t need a new way to make fire… we've always done it THIS way.” Aren't we glad he (or she) didn't listen?

We evolve... we progress... we improve... we grow... and we do this by questioning the way we currently do things. Am I wrong here? We are always looking to better ourselves, are we not?

If we accept this as fact, then we automatically reject the notion that it’s OK to keep the status quo just because that’s the way we've always done it.

Consider the following:

We all got along just fine crawling from place to place in our early childhood, and yet we thought it would be a good idea to walk. I don't remember anyone telling me "You don't need to walk. You're getting along just fine getting around the way you've always done it."

Once we started walking, that was good enough until someone thought it might be more efficient to climb atop a horse, or camel, or some other such animal.

No one knows who invented the plow, or exactly when it came to be. It probably developed independently in a number of regions, and there is evidence of its use in prehistoric eras. Prior to the plow, humans were subsistence farmers or hunter/gatherers. Their lives were devoted solely to finding enough food to survive from one season to the next. Growing food added some stability to life, but doing it by hand was labor intensive and took a long time. The plow changed all that. What if those inventors of this life altering tool had listened to the argument “We don’t need this new way of doing things, because we've always done it this other way”?

Plows made the work easier and faster. Improvements in the plow's design made farming so efficient that people could harvest far more food than they needed to survive. They could trade the surplus for goods or services. And if you could get food by trading, then you could devote your day-to-day existence to something other than growing food, such as producing the goods and services that were suddenly in demand.

The ability to trade and store materials drove the invention of written language, number systems, fortifications and militaries. As populations gathered to engage in these activities, cities grew. It's not a stretch to say that the plow is responsible for the creation of human civilization.

The wheel is another invention so ancient that we have no way of knowing who first developed it. The wheel made the transportation of goods much faster and more efficient, especially when affixed to horse-drawn chariots and carts. However, if it had been used only for transportation, the wheel wouldn't have been as much of a world-changer as it was. In fact, a lack of quality roads limited its usefulness in this regard for thousands of years.

But the wheel can be used for a lot of things other than sticking them on a cart to carry grain. Tens of thousands of other inventions require wheels to function, from water wheels that power mills to gears and cogs that allowed even ancient cultures to create complex machines. Cranks and pulleys need wheels to work. A huge amount of modern technology still depends on the wheel, like centrifuges used in chemistry and medical research, electric motors and combustion engines, jet engines, power plants and countless others.

Is it unreasonable for me to suggest that we are better off now than we were before the wheel? Would it be equally unreasonable to suggest that it was a good sense not to listen to the naysayers who suggested that things were good enough without it? I’m just asking.

The printing press allowed enormous quantities of information to be recorded and spread throughout the world. Books had previously been items only the extremely rich could afford, but mass production brought the price down tremendously. The printing press is probably responsible for many other inventions, but in a more subtle way than the wheel. The diffusion of knowledge it created gave billions of humans the education they needed to create their own inventions in the centuries since.

Starting to get the idea?

Without the details that accompanied the sections on the plow, the wheel and the printing press, consider what our lives would be like without refrigeration.

And maybe it would be cheating to lump the telegraph, telephone, radio and television into one “invention,” but the development of communication technology has been a continuum of increased utility and flexibility since Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph in 1836.

Prior to the invention of the steam engine, most products were made by hand. Water wheels and draft animals provided the only 'industrial' power available, which clearly had its limits. The Industrial Revolution, which is perhaps the greatest change over the shortest period of time in the history of civilization, was carried forward by the steam engine.

Just try to imagine life today without the automobile, the light-bulb, computers, and the internet… all once thought not to be essential to life. Technically they are not necessary to sustain life, but are you ready to eliminate these things from your life? I would think not.

At some point in the evolution of each of these inventions, someone undoubtedly said “Why would we need this when we've always done it this way?”

Not every idea put forth will be a good idea… most aren't. I’m not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that my ideas will always be fruitful and produce a more efficient, or easier, or faster way of doing things. And if you don’t agree with my ideas, that’s fine, but let’s have a conversation about it. I’ll state my case, you state yours. We might still not agree after the debate and discussion is over, but do not say to me “We’re not going to change because this is the way we've always done it” and expect me to be OK with that.

I’m not OK with that.

I will never be OK with that.

And for those who choose to say "because we've always done it that way" as your only argument to any suggestion of possible change, then I must choose to consider those to closed-minded, obstinate, and inflexible persons.

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