Saturday, September 06, 2008

You, Me And Bucky's Balls

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
- Buckminster Fuller, polymath, master innovator ( 1895-1983)

Buckminster Fuller never saw a mountain that was too high for him. From wherever he was, he was able to imagine what the view would look like from the top of that mountain.

Nor did he ever try to change the system. He could always see the faults with the system and devise ways to create a new system that was better in many ways. He was the 20th century version of Leonardo da Vinci.

He was known to work on plans for houses, cars, boats, games, television transmitters and geodesic domes at the same time, all designed to be mass-produced using the simplest and most sustainable means possible.

His last home was built in a forest, over top of a stream, so that visitors could see the stream flowing beneath their feet as they walked across the floors of some rooms. The house leaked rain in, the generator to take power directly from the stream didn't work so well and some of the building materials didn't last so long. Bucky didn't fix them. He died. Had he lived, the house would have become a masterpiece of engineering, not just a masterpiece of design.

Buckminster Fuller thought differently from most people. Where most people could see walls blocking their way, Fuller simply chose to begin his mission on the far side of the wall.

He tended to take basic concepts such as physical laws, then use them to create something that took best advantage of the best characteristics of those laws. He didn't necessarily do what most people do, begin with a problem and go looking for a solution. He looked at what he wanted to finish with and tried to find the best way to achieve that goal.

Many people thought Richard Buckminister Fuller was crazy. By the standards that most of us use, maybe he was. He assumed that most of what people did was done because those before them had done it that way. That's the way progress was made and that's how the world came to be the way it is today. Fuller thought many of our ways were clumsy and fundamentally wrong. So he looked at problems differently.

To him, every problem had a solution that was simpler, cheaper, stronger and more elegant that what people were producing at the time.

Try it yourself the next time you have a problem to face. Assume that the usual way of doing things is wrong and look for something easier, simpler and more manageable. Start with what you want to achieve, your goal, then work backward.

Don't worry if you don't find something innovative. That will only mean you fit in with the vast majority of us.

No matter what your opinion of Buckminster Fuller, whether your liked his designs or not, his name will live on when people speak of Buckyballs and fullerenes (also known as buckminsterfullerenes). Imagine an empty cage with 60 carbon atoms that is stronger than you can imagine and you will understand why they are now and will be in the future so important so so many people.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow kids who can be innovative, not just products of the normal school system. (Fuller flunked out of Harvard.)
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Friday, September 05, 2008

When Is Lying The Right thing To Do?

Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.
- Robert Brault, software developer, writer (1938- )

It's tough to argue against kindness. Each act of kindness that each person does makes the world a better place.

However, is it ever an act of kindness to bend the truth? Let's consider some possibilities.
First of all, an old saying goes: a half truth is a whole lie. What does truth look like when bent to look like something different?

I can understand why someone would want to avoid blurting out to another person, "You're ugly." But ugliness is a position on the scale of beauty. Moreover, not just ugliness but everything on the beauty scale is a matter of personal opinion, a subjective judgment that may not be shared by others. In general, when a compliment doesn't speed to the lips, it would be better to remain quiet.

What's ugly? Was the Elephant Man ugly? Joseph Merrick (inaccurately called John Merrick in the film of the same name) had a head shape that bore almost no resemblance to that of an ordinary person.

Merrick never imagined himself as handsome. He was, in the estimation of many, a very charming man. Though some of his admirers were no doubt fascinated with the extreme distortion of Merrick's head from the norm, many enjoyed his company. A great many people in this world would prefer to be admired for the enjoyment they give to others in their company than to have average looks. Thus, I submit, Joseph Merrick had a beauty about him that thousands of people admired. Ugly? Not a chance.

It's a sad person whose self esteem depends on their looks rather than on the many other admirable qualities and talents and skills that generate genuine admiration. Was Beethoven ugly? Van Gogh? Leonardo? I use these names simply because they are familiar to people around the world. I have beautiful paintings and music in my home by people few have ever heard of. Many might not like them, but most realize that calling something "ugly" is merely the personal opinion of one individual.

"You look beautiful in that new dress, dear." Some people expect to be lied to, even count on it from their loved ones. I wonder what people who expect to be lied to and want flattery about their clothing and appearance would think if they knew that others they will see in public think as negatively about their appearance and clothing as the lying loved one does. Does a woman really want to go out in public with a dress that looks terrible on her, feeling confident because her husband lied to her about it?

If the husband really cared about the appearance of his wife, he would go with her when she shopped for the dress and express his true opinion then. For a husband to leave an opinion until the last minute is as unwise as a wife leaving the enquiry until the last minute.

My first wife loved good quality black and white clothing combinations. She wore them constantly at work and received many compliments from those who worked for her. She had (she died many years ago) a "winter" complexion. Not one for false flattery, I seldom issued compliments on her outfits unless they were hanging on a hanger. I did, however, compliment her one day years before we were married. She wore a red sweater and a red pleated skirt (I love pleated skirts, especially box pleats and kilts) and I told her how great she looked (she looked stunning, but I didn't want to go overboard in front of her mother). She was offended because she claimed it was an old outfit and she hated it.

How would it have benefitted my wife to be told she looked beautiful in black and white when she looked washed out? Indeed, if I had known about "colours" then, I would have recommended that she try bright primary colours. She likely wouldn't have listened--she never did, dying with loads of regrets about how many bad decisions she had made in her life. I am colourblind anyway.

If the truth must be negative, maybe the solution is to find ways to convey it in such a manner as to make it seem like good advice.

How does it benefit someone trying to become an author to praise a manuscript that is dreadful? That person could literally spend years improving a manuscript that should have been used to start a fire. A bad story can never be beaten into submission until it's a good story.

Bending the truth, as Robert Brault claims to have done, is no advantage if it causes the listener to make unwise decisions or faulty judgments based on it. Someone looking for praise needs more than a lie. A person who accepts a lie as if it were truth, and knows it was flattery, lives a false life. We all live false lives to some extent, but we don't have to embrace it as a lifestyle.

When asked for an honest opinion, the choices should be between a sincere compliment or a constructive suggestion as to how to improve the objective under discussion. No one likes destructive criticism. Constructive criticism requires skill and practice, but it's learnable.

People gain more from constructive suggestions than they can ever benefit from allowing themselves to be deceived by lies.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow children who can separate truth from flattery and who seek constructive evaluation as a way to improve themselves.
Learn more at