25 April 2003


Well, it has been months since my first "musing," and ideas have come and gone for what to write about. I intended to write more often, but, as usual, there always seems to be something else to do, and I feel guilty when I think about wasting my time writing about nothing. (I have no problem wasting the time reading, tinkering with my computer, or watching TV, though. In other words, I am rationalizing my procrastination.) But here I am on a plane to Salt Lake City, and there is one topic that has been on my mind regularly.

When I was first hired at Missouri Southern, I was asked in an interview for the campus newspaper The Chart, what my philosophy of life is. I said that it was that one could never have too many T-shirts.

It was a silly question, and a sillier answer.

I don't really have just one philosophy of life. I think life is too short to spend it doing things you hate. I think that the most important things in life are the people you love and the time that you get to spend with them. I think that there is no reason for people to be inconsiderate to each other, but that "political correctness" is not the way to accomplish this. And I think that good rules should be followed, and that bad rules should be changed rather than ignored.

Apparently I hold a minority opinion in this area.

Take Major League Baseball, for example. The rules state that when the baseball is put into play, a "force out" occurs when the defensive player obtains possession of the ball and touches a base before the runner (having no open bases behind him) reaches the base. If the ball and runner arrive simultaneously, or if the ball arrives after the runner reaches the base, the runner is safe.

However, the rule should really have an additional statement, namely, that if the ball arrives just a little bit after the runner, the runner is still out if the defensive player made a really good play. After all, that’s what really happens.

The rules used to state that a pitched ball was a strike if it crossed over home plate at a height above the batter’s knees and below his armpits. However, umpires routinely modified the "strike zone" to be above the ankles and below the waist. Realizing this inconsistency, MLB changed the rule to something like "from the knees to halfway between the armpits and the letters on the chest of the uniform." This change had no effect.

The rule should state that a strike is a pitched baseball that crosses the plate in a region that the umpire feels is close enough to the defined strike zone; that each umpire is entitled to his own definition of close enough; that he does not have to share his definition with anyone; and that he is free to change it at any time, during or between games.

Maybe this is the real problem with having rules that actually mean what they say… they don't sound like rules any more!

Rules shouldn’t depend on who is enforcing them at any given time. They should apply at any time, to anyone. That’s my philosophy.

Speed limits in America are not really limits at all. They’re suggested minimum speeds. (That is, unless you are driving on the weekend or in farm country, in which case they are unattainable maxima.) Speedy checkout lanes are for people purchasing 10 items or less, or for anyone else who is really in a hurry. Homework due dates are absolute, except for students who had to work late the night before.

I remember a course in which I was supposed to keep a journal. I didn't. This meant regular writing, and as evidenced by the span of time between this musing and the last, writing regularly is not a strong point of mine. So, I handed in a late, sloppy, pieced-together document toward the end of the course, along with a note to the instructor stating that he should give me the grade I deserved. He did. It was a "D," and I accepted it without complaint. I didn't follow the rules, and I paid the consequences. (I later retook the course from an instructor who did not assign journals and earned an "A.")

Maybe there are more people who feel as I do about rules, but if so, I don't know them, or they must keep silent about their feelings.

Recently a study was performed to try to discern why the stretch of Interstate 44 near Joplin has recently been the site of so many fatal accidents. While no one reason was given, one conclusion that was reached was that reducing the speed limit would be a bad idea, because it would increase the difference in speeds among vehicles on the road. This conclusion assumes that people will ignore the speed limit. What is wrong with this picture? What would be wrong with assigning actual, reasonable, speed limits, and expecting people not to exceed them by even one mile per hour? Instead of a 25 mph limit on a residential street, change it to 35 mph, and give tickets at 36.

It’s a different philosophy, isn't it? I think that there are too many incentives in our society for trying to "get away with something." But there’s a topic for another time…

As far as my career goes, I think I ended up in the right discipline. Science has rules that are followed by all (or nearly all) in the scientific community. If you don't follow the scientific method, your conclusions carry no weight. There are rules for nomenclature of chemicals that everyone in the world agrees to use. The laws of physics cannot be disobeyed, and scientists spend careers trying to figure out what the rules are. If an experimental result or observation is inconsistent with the rule (law, theory), and if the result can be confirmed to be replicable, then the rule is changed to incorporate the new piece of data. The statement goes, "the exception proves the rule," but the exception is itself a rule and also a measure of our incomplete understanding of the nature of the universe. Science is based on the discovery, creation, modification, revision, and application of rules.

I guess that what I have discovered about myself in the course of writing this musing is that I wish that the rest of society could work more like science does. And I suppose that that discovery shouldn't surprise me. I think I may have just modified my philosophy of life.