Saturday, October 22, 2005

“Always” Isn't Necessarily a Long Time

Time, time, time, see what's become of me...- Simon and Garfunkle

George Gamow, a physicist with a sense of humor, once wrote a popular science book called 1...2...3...Infinity! He drew the title from the practice of an African tribe that had no words for numbers in their language past the number three. If they had a group of objects that was three or less, they were counted as one, two, or three. Any more than that and the count was “many.” It worked for them.

It seems that time is like that. Many years ago when I was in college, an instructor (it might have been Aristotle, but I think he was on sabbatical that year) told us about a survey about how people perceived change. Say a change has been made in a procedure workers use. For the first three months, people will say the procedure is “new”. After three months, they'll say they've been using the method for “a few months or a year”. After six months, they'll say the change has been in place for “a long time”. And if the change is still in place after a year, workers will claim they've “always” had to do things that way.

I could be off a little on those time intervals because I am relying on an over-used memory-cell bank. It could be that “always” occurs even earlier, like nine months, but you understand the overall point. Interestingly, I've had more than one pregnant woman swear after about seven months that it felt like she'd been pregnant forever. More to the point, I can attest to the principle because of an incident that happened to me back in the early 1970's.

Way back in that time of the first gasoline crisis (which has nothing to do with this story, but I thought I'd stick it in to show that nothing ever changes), I was working as a Quality Engineer for a small company. A big chunk of my job involved writing and updating procedures for just about anything that needed documenting. This was on account of how I rite so gud. Sorry about that; I'm feeling much better now.

At that time, when I'd been with the company for a year or so, the government got very anxious about mercury contamination. Strangely, they didn't seem worried about all the mercury in Lake Erie; rather they worried about mercury being in materials that might end up in or near a nuclear reactor. Why? I don't know. Third base.

Anyway, we made battery covers that went into batteries used in nuclear subs and a door seal that was used in reactor installations. Both types of parts had to be made from material that had been tested for mercury. Now the only way we were going to contaminate anything with mercury was to throw a thermometer into the mixing machine, but a regulation is a regulation, so I wrote a procedure to test materials and quarantine them for use on these products. The foreman of the compounding area, a tough-talking but basically friendly guy name Lyle, moaned and groaned about how impossible it would be to keep track of the material, how orders would be late if we had to wait for tests, and so on and so on. But he had no choice, and, like most good foremen, after he had his gripe he made some good suggestions to improve the procedure then made it work.

About a year and a half later, the feds began to realize that they were paying a lot to test material that had little or no chance of containing mercury. Hey, you didn't think we were going to foot the bill, did you? There's nothing wrong with a fair profit (honest, I really do believe in capitalism; it's greed I can't abide), and you'll never make money doing freebie unnecessary testing. At any rate, someone in Washington had an epiphany and reduced the testing requirement to a yearly test of a randomly selected batch of material.

I figured Lyle was going to add me to his hero list for reducing this requirement. So, I was shocked when he intercepted me in the factory, holding a copy of the draft revision of the mercury test procedure.

“What are you doing?” he cried. “You can't change this procedure.”

“Why in the world not?” I said, completely confused.

“Because we've always had to do this! If you change it, we won't comply with government stuff!”

It took me around twenty minutes to convince him that:
We didn't start doing this until I wrote the procedure;
I hadn't been with the company since it opened in 1945, therefore, we couldn't have done it “always.”
The feds were capable of coming to there senses.

I'll have to admit that even I had trouble believing that last one.

I finally did convince Lyle that we could change the procedure, though I'm not sure I convinced him that he hadn't being following it for all 17 years of his tenure with the company.

Einstein was quite possibly the greatest mind of all time, but I have to take slight exception to the relativity of time. The speed of light has less to do with our time sense than our speed of acceptance.

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