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JACK’S BLOG – Life is full of unintended consequences

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Setting off a chain reaction

We were on the ground floor construction stage of a 12 level office building for the postal service. I was the site engineer and my main duty was to ensure that what was on the drawings became the final 3-dimensional structure.

The Brickie came to me one morning and said that there was something wrong with the set-out of a small nib wall for the post office. The surveyor lines for the wall went over the plumbing and electrical stubs cast into the ground floor slab. On investigation, it turned out that the services were incorrectly installed by 100mm.

It was either:

  1. Stop the brickie and order for the concrete slab to be cut out to relocate the services – a 3 to 4-day delay. Or…
  2. Move the wall by 100mm.

I decided to move the wall – it was a minor wall after all. And the construction schedule proceeded without a glitch. And I forgot about the change.

6 months later, the contractor responsible for installing the post office boxes reported a problem to me. There was not enough space to put the boxes in. He was 100mm out.

That post office now has 10 less private mail boxes than it was supposed to have. It did not come cheap.

Two months after that, the roller door contractor fronted up. He had made the door to an approved drawing – and it was now 100mm too small.

I was not the project manager’s favourite engineer on that project.

How real is the ‘Butterfly effect’?

A virus mutates in Wuhan and jumps across to a human being. A flawed policeman going just a little too far with his knee and killing George Floyd.

Two little incidents in far-away countries.

Here in Sydney, life stopped in mid stride. The virus lockdown changed so many things. Then the protest gatherings made mockery of the social distancing that we have regimented ourselves into.

Little things can have global repercussions and bring about a myriad of unintended consequences.

I now have a more healthy respect for the theory of Edward Lorenz

You are almost guaranteed to fall short of your goal

In my teenage years, I helped my father build a bridge across a large creek in our farm. And when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered: “I want to build bridges.”

I did bridges in engineering school.

Four years into my career, I designed a bridge for a development proposal that went as far as my manager’s desk. I think it got chucked into the trash bin soon afterwards.

I did manage to supervise four bridges over the M5 in western Sydney. But my last bridge effort in Woronora resulted in a government request for its demolition. That was the last time I got involved in bridges.

I still love bridges – but the goal of building bridges for the rest of my life is best laid to rest.

A goal is much like a target on an archery field, it is usual for the arrow to miss its mark. And if you do get a ‘bullseye’, it is an empty victory. A real archer is supposed to shoot at a moving target.

A real player in the game of life has moving goals. And when we shoot at moving targets, there are many missed shots. Where do these wayward shots go and what difference do they make?

I find that it is these missed shots that somehow start of a whole string of unintended consequences – which lead to a totally different game.  We have no way of knowing how the future unfolds.

To intervene or just watch

I used to fall asleep in front of the TV. I would wake up to early morning infomercials as punishment for my laziness. Life does not stop when I do nothing. But there are consequences – usually unpleasant ones.

We love to be entertained. Watching movies and sports are our favourite pass times. It is a great way to ‘relax’ and forget about the ‘life stuff’.

The major difference between entertainment and the reality of our lives is in the ability to intervene. The audience cannot change the outcome of the movie or the game. While we can be loud and active, what happens on the screen and the field is beyond our control.

Those of us who get involved in playing the game know that intervention is the sole purpose. We need to provide direct inputs to the flow of the game as it unfolds. Inaction is just another form of action. If we don’t participate, we may as well be in the audience.

But whether we just sit down to be entertained or go out to play, it is the element of surprise that draws us. We love not knowing how it is going to end.

When George Floyd was on the pavement, the police were the active players and there were many in the audience (some even filmed the action). But the audience were prevented from intervening – and there seemed to be no cause for forcing the police to behave differently anyway. This play was a common scene and there was no real element of surprise in it.

…Except that George died.

The ‘butterfly effect’ took over and the unintended consequences are still being felt around the world.

We can just look. Or we can do something. Either way, there will be consequences.

Most of those consequences will be unintentional.