78. The best solution is probably not the one staring you in the face.


A typical radio enthusiast’s garden.

The amount of energy required to switch on the right hand turn signal on a Vauxhall Astra is probably less than one calorie. Nevertheless, it is too much of a demand for a lot of drivers in this part of England. Similarly, in the age of power steering, minimal effort is required to turn the steering wheel half a turn so that you can turn right without cutting off the corner. Yet this also, it seems, is a Herculean task.

In case you think this is a ‘grumpy old man’ type piece, it isn’t.

I’m not grumbling about poor apostrophe hygiene or using the phrase ‘going forward’. I’m not grumbling about the poor radio signal in the kitchen or the dog woman from number 23. In fact I’m not grumbling at all, just noting a behavioural pattern.

Daniel Kahneman explained it well in ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, one of the themes being the conscious mind’s reluctance to get involved in simple behaviour: ‘Please don’t bother me’, says the mind, ‘someone 44 floors lower down deals with indicating right and that kind of issue’.

If we had a technical term for limited cognition it would be ‘lazithinkia’. In the same way we can’t blame a lazy eye for pointing in the wrong direction, we can’t really blame the human operating system for its limitations. Car drivers turn right without indicating and cut the corner off because the mind doesn’t want to have to tell the finger to move 3 centimetres if it can possibly help it, and the body seeks to minimise the G Force it has to endure. Lazy is not necessarily a judgemental term, but it does lead to problems.

For instance, its unlikely that a dock leaf really provides an antidote to nettle stings. Certainly there is no evidence base for such a claim, unless you want to include the non-specific rubbing effect of the leaf. But that would be equally true for a piece of halibut or the skin (knocked) off a rice pudding. Rubbing the skin reduces the pain perception via the gate control theory, that’s a fact. Dock leafs and nettles can occasionally be found in close proximity, and a dock might be the first thing you find after a nettle attack. But to assume, firstly that the dock is a specific antidote to the nettle and secondly, generalising wildly, that antidotes are to be found next to the relevant poison, requires the mind to take a very long lunch break indeed.

Even in a pharmacy, the uppers and the downers won’t be on the same shelf. And no amount of Merlot will counteract the effects of Cabernet, even if they are right next to each other in Spar. People used to put butter or lard on burns, little realising that the real solution, cold water, was only a yard further from the cooker.

Looking further afield is a nuisance, but in the age of google there is little excuse for failing to get an overview. Recently I had a strange hankering to buy a radio for the kitchen. Not only that, but to buy it the old fashioned way, by going down to the local electric shop and seeing what they had. I can only explain this behaviour psychoanalytically in terms of psychotic defence mechanisms. Radios are somehow comforting objects and going Retro is some kind of regression to a more primitive stage of existence. Retro radios tuned to Classic FM have contributed mightily to calming people down and reducing opiate consumption.

As you will have predicted, this adventure started out like a dream and ended like a nightmare. I found an LG radio massively reduced in the first shop I went in. I got it home and put it on the fridge. It played all the internet stations off the phone via bluetooth. But that was not what I wanted. I wanted to press a button on the top and have it play the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. But that was not to be. Nothing on FM. Nothing on DAB. I called LG and they said try moving it to a different part of the house. I said I wanted it in the kitchen. They said turn it off and on again. Then they suggested turning it off for an hour and turning it back on again. LG have an algorithm for these problems which they work through calmly. The third thing is to try tapping it with a little hammer from a Christmas cracker, reciting magic words, the fourth thing is dropping it from a third storey window.

I took it back to the shop, where it worked perfectly. They gave me another one. Again, it wouldn’t work in my house. I got a refund, no problem. I wrote a review on the LG website – they asked for one – only to have it censored by the LG administrator, just because of the third storey window remark, which, OK, was a bit of an exaggeration.

On this occasion my only punishment for lazithinkia was missing the Jeremy Vine show. It could have been so much worse. If I had only engaged my brain I could have solved this problem in so many ways. I wanted a simple, local solution to a complicated technical problem and that’s not how it works and that’s why we have google.

If I’d gone for a solution-focussed-problem-solving approach it might have been better. But that would have involved quite a bit of cognitive and behavioural work, such as getting a proper aerial or fundamentally challenging the quality of the Vine show. That, in turn would call for monitoring that show carefully, using minute by minute evaluation, like so-called dementia mapping. This would show that, over a prolonged period, the program struggles to beat white noise in controlled trials of listener satisfaction. And white noise was there all the time if only I’d tried the AM band.

Also, being Christmas, right next to the radio was a bottle of Russian Standard, the very thing that people say improves poor radio programs.


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