A week or two ago there was an commentary in The Economist.  It talked about some of the ridiculous things that are printed on signs and other places as a result of excessive regulation. One in particular struck the writer…and me…as awfully odd and particularly silly.  It seems that a big F is painted on the front of the locomotive pulling a train, as though you couldn’t tell the front from the back.

Later I learned that, in fact, you sometimes can’t tell the front from the back!

In this week’s Economist there is a letter from Harold Fuller, Volunteer, Colorado Railroad Museum, presumably someone with an big interest in and significant knowledge about trains.  He mentions that there are many trains these days where “the front and rear ends are identical. Traditional signals for moving the train, either by hand or by radio, are ‘Go forward’ or ‘Go backword’, relative to the locomotive. Thus, everyone involved must have a common understanding of a train’s front and back.”

I was amazed when I read this. Once the F is explained it makes perfect sense as a safety feature keeping some hapless train worker from getting flattened. To those in the know, a necessary marking. To those unfamiliar with trains, a ridiculous and unnecessary regulatory overreach.

Since reading Fuller’s letter I have been looking at things I previously thought as ridiculous as the F and trying to figure out if they also serve a valuable purpose, or served one in the past.  It’s an interesting exercise involving the willingness to set aside established ideas and beliefs while engaging in creative thought about simple things. So far I haven’t come up with anything as interesting as the F but have realized that there are quite a few things that upon intense thought turn out to have much greater depth than I previously realized.

The way I direct my attention has shifted leading to seeing things from a different perspective. Tomorrow I’m off to Botswana for a few days where I hope to use this new perspective to re-evaluate my ideas about the country.  And when I return, who knows what I’ll discover hidden among the common things I thought I knew so well.

Discovery starts with the willingess to search.  Hopefully some enlightenment follows, or at least a few new ideas that will lead who knows where.

Of course, there are things that no matter how much you contemplate them still seem ridiculous.


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