Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Life is a series of strange coincidences, close calls, and mysteries.  Last weekend, I traveled to Bend to participate in an organizing session for my 40th class reunion.  High school was not a particular high or low point in my life; and I had no interest in attending a reunion, much less organizing one, after going to a less than memorable 10th version in 1981.  Some contact with old high school friends through Facebook and a sudden, irrational urge to reconnect inspired me to join the small organizing committee.

I arrived in Bend and found I had some time to spare before my meeting at a local coffee shop.   I found a bookstore nearby and, in the course of browsing, came across a New York Times “Bestseller” with the intriguing title Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar….  The book offers the hypothesis that philosophical principles can be explained and understood through jokes.  The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, make the following argument:

“The construction and payoff of jokes and the construction and payoff of philosophical concepts are made out of the same stuff.  They tease the mind in similar ways.  That’s because philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse:  to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable truths about life.”

Cathcart and Klein offer the following story in their chapter on logic as an example of illogical reasoning:

“An Irishman walks into a Dublin bar, orders three pints of Guinness, and drinks them down, taking a sip from one, then a sip from the next, until they’re gone.  He then orders three more.  The bartender says, ‘You know, they’d be less likely to go flat if you bought them one at a time.’  The man says, ‘Yeah, I know, but I have two brothers, one in the States, one in Australia.  When we all went our separate ways, we promised each other that we’d drink this way in memory of the days when we drank together.  Each of these is for one of my brothers and the third is for me.’  The bartender is touched and says, ‘What a great custom.’  The Irishman becomes a regular in the bar and always orders the same way.  One day he comes in and orders two pints.  The other regulars notice, and a silence falls over the bar.  When he comes to the bar for his second round, the bartender says, ‘Please accept my condolences, pal.’  The Irishman says, ‘Oh, no, everyone’s fine.  I just joined the Mormon Church and I had to quit drinking.’”

Illogical reasoning must be the explanation for my three-hour trip to Bend to attend an organizing meeting for a class reunion.  On the other hand, I did wander into a bookstore and found an enlightening and entertaining book.  I now know more about philosophy than I did after some brief college coursework taken a lifetime ago; and I have some interesting, generally politically correct jokes, to enliven my usually dull, work-related conversations.

You never know where a sudden impulse to challenge yourself and interact with others might lead.  It just seems to beat sitting in front of a screen waiting for something entertaining to happen.

Gaming for Good

I have a weakness for computer games and will confess that I have always regarded them as mind candy.  I play games because they offer some measure of mental stimulation, an outlet for my competitive drive, and a break from life’s daily stresses.  I learned this week that they might be able to do much more.

According to Jane McGonigal, a game designer and speaker at this year’s International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Conference, gaming can be not only an enjoyable way to spend time, but also a means to achieve important social objectives.  She directed her audience’s attention to the game site “World Without Oil” to demonstrate how a challenging computer game can be used to generate ideas and positive responses to real world problems.

I was a little skeptical about the idea at first and only became more convinced of its merit after taking a tour of the Google Complex in Mountain View, California.  What I saw is not completely unlike what I see in office buildings in Albany, where employees sit at work stations using computers to do what we used to do in much more primitive ways.  The striking difference at Google was the age of the average worker and the deployment of computers into work groups rather than cubicles or offices.  It was clear just by walking through the Google workplace that collaboration is essential to producing the results that have made the company one of the world’s most innovative businesses.

It also seems clear to me that Google is taking advantage of all those hours young people have spent engaged in computer gaming to help develop new products and services.  That thought made me consider if we could do something similar to help improve services at the City of Albany.  I think we can.

Cities have attempted for years to engage citizens in various processes to improve services, understand local governance, and plan for the future.  A really good process might involve a few hundred people; and, more commonly, we see less than 50 attending community meetings.  We have more than 48,000 residents in Albany spending literally millions of hours annually playing computer games while essentially ignoring community issues that will have a significant impact on their lives.  I believe we have the creative talent within our organization to develop new ways to engage citizens by using new tools appropriate to our times.

Albany was recently recognized by the League of Oregon Cities with its Good Governance Award for the transparency of our financial and performance measurement data on our City website, and we are truly a national leader in this field.  What if we could actually interest citizens in using this information in a way that would help build common understanding of local government finance and other community issues?

We could reverse the trend toward declining trust in government and help make our community a more attractive place to live and do business.  That seems like a game worth winning.

Bad Judgment

The city management profession offers many opportunities to see both good and bad judgment at work in the lives of citizens and employees.  Most of my examples of good judgment relate to people who were smart enough to resist confrontation, temptation, danger or frustration.  The Darwin Awards’ website provides examples of those who were not.

The following link shows the tragic demise of an impatient man whose frustration over missing an elevator led to his death (http://www.daejonilbo.com/news/newsitem.asp?pk_no=904100).  The Darwin Awards’ website provides countless examples of people whose poor choices should inform all of us about the physical dangers of bad judgment.  I am not aware; however, of a comparable site detailing poor choices in the workplace.

A colleague related the story of a police sergeant in another state who, when sent to patrol near the entrance to the county fair, parked his marked car in a visible location and began watching pornography on his mobile data terminal.  Not surprisingly, fairgoers who were passing by reported the transgression to the police department and raised the question of why the city was paying an employee to view pornography.

I have a vivid memory of a newly hired employee who went out with a friend to celebrate his new job and was arrested for driving under the influence by our police force.  The level of intoxication was something like three times the legal limit and, to compound the problem, the new employee paid to have his impounded car released with a bad check.

Alcohol is often a factor in turning good judgment into bad.  A long-term employee at a city where I once worked made the mistake of taking his car in for servicing when he was visibly drunk.  The very considerate auto dealership called a coworker rather than the police, but the coworker was less sympathetic.

Work-related romantic entanglements have produced some of the worst examples of bad judgment I’ve seen as a city manager.  The case of the male employee who was having an extramarital affair with another married worker while simultaneously having an illicit relationship with a woman he supervised who was married to a police officer produced some unfortunate consequences for all concerned.

City managers are certainly not immune from bad judgment.  Drug use, domestic abuse, theft of property, and corruption are all reasons I’ve seen for criminal charges and public censure by the International City-County Management Association.  It’s hard for me to imagine why someone would throw away their career, honor, and family’s well-being for some short-term financial gain.

I’m sure all of us have used bad judgment at some point in our lives.  The lucky among  us escaped with a lesson learned and an incentive to avoid future missteps.  The lessons from the South Korean elevator example would seem to include a warning against acting while angry or frustrated.  The workplace examples suggest judicious observance of the Golden Rule and a measure of respect for temperance.