Tag Archives: zahir

Stuck on the same track

Standard

I’m sure many of you have heard either one or both stories…

A mother is preparing dinner when suddenly her 12-year-old daughter asks: “Mum, why do you cut both edges off the sausage before frying it?”
“Actually, I don’t know,” answers her mother, “but my mother always used to do it, we can ask her about it.”
But when they ask grandmother the reason, she replies: “Well, my old mother used to always cut the edges, I guess I simply learned it from her, but why she did it, I don’t know.”
The great-grandmother meanwhile has long since retired and lives in a nursing home. When her great-granddaughter comes to visit and asks her the reason for her sausage-cutting ritual, she is very much surprised: “My oh my, are you telling me you are still using that little old frying pan?”

What is the standard distance between railroad rails?
– 143.5 cm (4’8½”)
Why?
– Because that’s the gauge the tramways used before the railroads.
Why?
– Because the tramways were built using the same tools as wagon-builders and that’s how wide the wagon wheels were spaced.
Why?
– Because the old roads in England had ruts that the wheels needed to accommodate.
Why?
– Because the ruts were made by Imperial Roman chariots which were about as wide as the back of two horses.
And thus, when engineers at Thiokol were designing the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle, they had to adapt the design so that it would fit through all the tunnels when transported by train from the factory to the launch site. The tunnel width was dependent on the track width which in turn derived from the width of a horse’s behind. In short, the main design feature of the world’s most advanced transportation system was designed based on a horse’s butt!

I first learned of the latter story/urban legend through Paulo Coelho’s “O Zahir” (for those who haven’t read it: read it, it is a beautiful tale of life, love, and longing) and was reminded of it by a colleague earlier today. I won’t discuss the level of truth/untruth of the anecdote(s) (that has already been done here and here, among others) but I feel both stories hold a great lesson in common.

Often, at one point in history, something or somebody decides: that’s the “right” way to do it, that is the “right” way to behave. Be it a woman that finds it easier to cut her sausages to fit them in her little frying pan or a Roman wagon maker that fits a chariot to fit two horses pulling it – their decisions are taken for good reasons, and may very well be the best decision at that time. But times change. Conditions change. And so should solutions. All too often we are stuck in our daily routine which may allow us to live our lives comfortably, but at the same time hinders us to be free, to make our own decisions, to set our own standards: to live our own life.

Because we are scared, we lack the courage to make the changes our lives sometimes so desperately need. Because we are scared, we’d rather accept the habits and customs that hold us back than question them, analyze them, and, ultimately, change them.

I plead guilty as charged. But one of the advantages of my coming to Sweden is that, in the meeting of a new environment, new people, and new habits, my own habits are automatically put in a different perspective, and through these new glasses, it is much easier to see what could and -especially- what should be changed. Let’s take it one step at a time.

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