On being ... unintended consequences

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember the story about Isaac Newton coming up with the idea of gravity as a result of being clunked on the head with an apple? Even though the story’s a bit far-fetched, whenever I think about cause and effect, I think about it and Newton’s ability to see way beyond the immediate links in the cause and effect chain.

We deal with cause and effect on many levels every day: from stunningly simple (and usually quite annoying) realizations like if you put a red shirt in the laundry with white socks you’ll end up with pink socks -- to much subtler realizations, like if your newborn’s crying it could well be because she’s hungry. As with many things, the more examples of cause and effect you’ve seen, the less it seems that you’re even conscious of it. And of course, as soon as something slips from our consciousness, it’s more-or-less an open invitation for fate to step in and refocus our attention -- one way or another.

An example of cause and effect -- actually a connected chain of causes and effects -- occurred at my gym recently that must have had Sir Isaac laughing in his grave. A couple months ago they put down new carpeting in the ladies locker room. They used carpet tiles. Not long after it was laid, some squares began to come unglued. In one particular area it became bad enough that they decided to re-glue some of the tiles.

After applying new glue, they carefully arranged about a dozen 15-lb. dumbbells on a row of three problem tiles. In hopes that no one would remove the weights, they put up a note explaining that the tiles had been re-glued and they asked members not to move the dumbbells. I distinctly remember that when I first saw the dumbbells and read about the re-gluing, I thought the idea of weighing down the tiles was pretty clever.

To my amazement, everyone respected the request on the sign and the dumbbells remained untouched for days. Then, one day I noticed something amazing -- something that seemed to happen overnight: the floor under the three tiles had completely warped. I don’t mean warped as in a bit of unevenness. I mean warped to the point that a five inch high hump had arisen under the carpet tiles. Honestly, you had to see it to believe it.

As soon as I saw it, I understood immediately how it had happened. The dumbbells were all identical: they’re made of an eight-inch long metal rod (weighing about one pound) with seven-pound metal chunks attached at each end. Because the dumbbells were all lined up in the same direction, the effect was to have 90 pounds spread evenly along one edge of the carpet and -- just eight inches across from that line (the length of the metal rod of each dumbbell) -- another 90 pounds was spread along the other edge of the carpet tiles. The extreme weight along the edges forced the flooring underneath to pop up between the two rows.

On seeing the hump, I simply started laughing. After my laughter had subsided to a broad smile, another woman coming into the area noticed the hump and wondered aloud what had happened. I explained that what we were witnessing was the unintended consequence of someone trying to deal with the problem of the carpet tiles not sticking. After listening to my hypothesis she just shrugged and mumbled, “Well I hope they do something about it -- someone could trip on it,” and off she went for her shower. I, on the other hand, remained standing there, quite fascinated and amused by the whole thing.

The area remained like that for a number of days. Then, one day the dumbbells were gone but the four-foot by five-inch ridge in the flooring remained. Over the next few days I can’t tell you how many women I heard mutter, as they carefully stepped around the hump: “Wow -- that’s dangerous -- someone could trip on it… They ought to do something about it.”

Then, one day the often-muttered-about cause and effect happened. Not watching where I was going (I was in a hurry that morning), I stubbed a toe on the hump and went flying. After I collected myself from the floor I headed straight for the manager’s office and suggested (in no uncertain terms) that they at least mark the ridge with something that would catch your eye and make you remember to go around it.

The next day, though I was relieved when I saw bright yellow “slippery when wet”-type signs by the hump to warn others, I couldn’t help feeling that those signs were fate’s way of having the last laugh at me. After all, not only had I very keenly observed the various links in the complicated cause and effect chain -- I had even marveled at the literal emergence of the unintended consequence of the ill-fated re-gluing. And yet, in my haste I let my focus slip and -- low and behold -- next thing I knew I experienced, first hand, the hazards of unintended consequences.

Part of me wants to believe that the whole series of observations I had about the carpet tile fiasco was meant as a lesson in something more meaningful that just: watch where you’re walking. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t try to play Isaac Newton or over analyze it. Maybe the black and blue spot on my knee is just a colourful reminder that an effect is an effect, regardless of the cause. (But then again, where would we be if Sir Isaac just thought the apple incident was God offering him a tasty treat?)

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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