A Practical Test Of The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect posits that small changes can eventually be amplified into large differences in an outcome — that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Africa, for example, can eventually affect the course of a hurricane as it moves across the Atlantic.

I believe in the butterfly effect, and think it is inarguable that small changes can have a significant ultimate impact.  I believe it because I put the butterfly effect to a practical test every time I drive to Cincinnati — as I did this morning.

Let me state for the record that the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati for a 9 a.m. meeting . . . well . . . sucks.  That’s because there’s no good time to leave.  Leave too early, and you sail past the choke points with almost no traffic and arrive in Cincinnati at 7:15, with plenty of time to kill in a sleepy Queen City.  Try to time it so you arrive close to 9 a.m. and you’re bound to run into hellacious traffic jams from King’s Island until you’re in sight of the Procter & Gamble buildings.  And there’s no doubt in my mind that my decision on when to leave influences the traffic conditions that I encounter.  Simply by deciding to roll over and sleep a little later, I inevitably produce the crushing congestion that makes the trip so unpleasant.

And there’s an even more apparent practical confirmation of the butterfly effect when you’re driving, too.  Let’s say you’re mired in a traffic jam in which, contrary to common sense and all that’s holy, your car in the left, “passing” lane is at a dead stop, while the traffic in the middle lane is moving briskly past.  If you change your lane to try to start moving again, traffic in that new lane will immediately come to a halt.  Why?  The butterfly effect, and the fact that every other driver in the stuck lane saw the same traffic flow you did and switched lanes at exactly the same time.

It’s nice to know that the butterfly effect is real, but have you ever noticed that the butterfly effect always produces something bad?  Maybe we should call it the moth effect instead.

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Like A Trip To The Ear-Bone Room

You try to forget the really unpleasant things that have happened to you in your life, but normally they tend to stick with you much longer, and more vividly, than the happy incidents.  That’s why, for almost 50 years, my standard for measuring the awfulness of an experience is to compare it to a visit to the Ear-Bone Room.

The Ear-Bone Room was the name my sister Cathy and I gave to the low point of our visits to the orthodontist when we were kids.  That’s truly the lowest of the low.  In those days, when the orthodontist spent the entire session with his hands in your mouth, either pounding metal braces onto your teeth with a hammer or tightening the wires that connected them so your teeth would move together, and then berating you because you weren’t wearing your night brace, the appointment inevitably produced a sore mouth, a deep sense of humiliation, and a mindless fury at the sadistic hammering berater.

Still, the Ear-Bone Room was the worst of the worst.  You went in to a white room that was totally vacant except for a large x-ray apparatus.  Nurse Hairy Arms — so-called because she had the bushy hand and forearm hair of a Turk — then placed your head in caliper-like pincers that she tightened until they were painfully locked directly against the bones of your inner ears.  (Hence, the name of the dreaded room.)

It was painful, with the metal tips of the pincers grinding against your skull bone, purportedly to hold your head steady for the x-rays, but that wasn’t even the worst of it.  No, the worst came when Nurse Hairy Arms told you you needed to turn your head to the right or left and then began to turn the calipers before you could even begin to move your head in response to her commands.  Imagine your head being locked in a vise-like grip and forcibly turned, and the tips of the calipers occasionally slipping into your ear canal — which caused Nurse H.A. to need to reposition the vise all over again.

In this day where dental x-rays cause the dental assistant to cover your body in a lead apron and then scamper out of the room so she isn’t exposed, it’s hard to imagine that any competent medical practitioner would repeatedly irradiate the heads of 10-year-olds, but that’s the way it was.  And I can assure you — I was glad when the radiation was finally directed at my skull, because that meant the trip to the Ear-Bone Room was one step closer to its blessed conclusion.

So now, when something bad happens to me, I think about whether it was worse than a visit to the Ear-Bone Room, and I conclude:  Not even close.