30 April 2009

Questions, knowing, risk: thirteen thoughts about thinking

The Pohangina Valley from No. 2 Line


The grader's been up No. 2 Line in the last day or so, leaving the road covered in small rocks, mounds and long ridges of gravel, and furrows full of soft, silty soil—a nightmare on which to bike. The knobbly tyres slip and skid; once, the rear wheel shoots sideways on a sloping ridge of gravel and I only just manage to stay upright. I feel as if I'm pedalling uphill through sand, but I grind on, slow and dogged, glad I've no intention of setting personal records. All I want is to feel my legs and lungs working the way they’re supposed to work, not the way they’ve been hardly working most of the day.
So I pedal on up the road, trying to pick the hard surfaces, the tracks where the grader’s giant tyres have compressed the dirt into a reasonable surface mostly free from loose stones. Trying to pick a safe line. Much like life, I suppose—perhaps too much like my own.
How much risk is reasonable?


As I begin to heat up I pull down the front zip of my jacket to let the wind cool me—true, natural, air conditioning. The jacket is a generous gift; My hair looks mental, she saysNew Zealand made, and an item too expensive for me to have bought. If I hadn’t been the lucky recipient I suppose I’d have continued to use one of my other jackets or perhaps bought something cheaper — and, inevitably, made in China.
The thought prompts me to think about the ethics of buying Chinese made goods. Some say it puts workers here in Aotearoa out of jobs (they’re correct); others argue it provides Chinese workers with jobs (they’re correct too). Some say it perpetuates what amounts to slavery and oppression in China (a convincing argument); others say those Chinese workers would be worse off without the jobs (similarly convincing). The arguments for and against buying Chinese made goods go on.
It’s like that with many questions. Should we allow private companies to run our prisons? Should all New Zealanders be taxed to pay for Auckland’s transport system to be fixed? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is there a god?
Questions like these—so-called “closed” questions because they can be answered (and usually are) with a simple “yes” or “no”—nearly always develop into arguments between the yeas and the nays, each camp attempting to demonstrate the strength of its own position and the error of the other's. At its most constructive, this kind of to-and-fro supposedly delivers a better understanding of what's being discussed; it (again supposedly) leads to one or both sides modifying their original positions or perhaps even abandoning an untenable position; in a related view, it homes in on “the truth”—the best known, most formal example being the legal system where prosecution and defence lawyers attempt to convince a jury that the accused is or is not guilty.
Do these apparently incisive questions, does this impressively methodical way of arguing, really deliver such wonderful results? I have my doubts. Convincing someone to change an opinion—a rare outcome, in any case—too often seems less a matter of truth and logic than of rhetorical skill and facility with the selection of facts. Consider this: if you were on trial, which lawyer would you prefer as your defence counsel: a superb orator or one who speaks in a dry monotone of incomplete sentences punctuated by ums and ahs?


I negotiate another steeply cambered, gravel-slippery corner and change up a couple of gears as the road levels out. I think of the road ahead, the steep climb; I feel like an old dog confronted by happy kids. Perhaps I’ve had enough exercise already. Should I turn around at the dam and skip that long uphill grind? Will I be a wuss if I don’t struggle all the way to the end of the road?


But questions can be asked in ways that encourage exploration rather than conflict. How might we run our prisons most effectively and efficiently? What systems of funding would be most equitable and efficient for ameliorating Auckland’s transport problems? What are the consequences of eating meat—or believing in a god? Questions framed like this often have no set answers, which is why they’re called “open-ended”.Dawn moon over the Pohangina Valley They can lead in all kinds of directions and beyond anything you might have guessed. Don’t ask questions like these unless you have time to listen. And time to think. Lots of time.
How far should I bike today?


Questions don’t have to involve two or more people, nor does the kind of dialectical conflict—I mean “argument”—I’ve described above. We do it in our heads, all the time. But, if we’re conscious of mentally debating a question, it’s often (I suspect) less a rational exercise than a rationalisation enabling us to choose the conclusion we always wanted, whether we knew it or not.
“That new camera isn’t really necessary,” Reasonable Pete says. “Your old camera still does the job”.
“Yes,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but think of the photos you could get in really dim light”.
And there it is: “Yes but”—the defining phrase of the tendentious.
“Yes, but what are you going to do with those photos?” Reasonable Pete counters. “You can still get them with the old camera—they’ll just have a bit more noise”.
“Yes but,” Evil Pete says, “yes, but you’ll be able to crop more heavily with all those additional megapixels. Go on, you know you want it”.
And you’d get it if you thought you wouldn’t have to buy food and pay rent and get the car and your teeth fixed and never wanted to visit India again.


Rain, the forecasters say; rain by tomorrow afternoon, but the sky over the western hills burns the bellies of the clouds crimson and orange. Up No. 2 Line a few hours ago the light seemed to have been sucked from the land and sky, leaving the world in a kind of apocalyptic gloom. Was it a glimpse of the future, rushing towards us while we quibble and bicker? One feels an overwhelming urge to say something profound about evenings like this but their defining characteristic is their power to insist there have been no other evenings like this: this is the moment the world changes forever.


How do you assess an argument; how do you know the convincing argument you’ve just heard really is as convincing as it sounds? Even if it’s logically flawless, the conclusion’s only true if all the premises are also true. What worries me is the frequencyJacket, inhabited with which I hear a convincing argument—logically correct, with believable premises—only to learn later that additional information would turn the conclusion upside down. Making the wearing of bicycle helmets compulsory seems like a good way to reduce the costs associated with bicycle accidents: costs like hospital treatment, rehabilitation and time off work. Then someone points out that because such a law would discourage cycling, it would actually be more costly—perhaps greatly so. In this example, the researcher and the proponents of compulsory helmet-wearing continue to argue. Who's right? How do you decide?
And what about your own logic? You explore an idea and arrive at a surprising—perhaps unpalatable—conclusion. How do you decide whether the conclusion is right or your reasoning wrong?


The air's alive with aphids, the tiny insects spattering the arms and shoulders of the jacket and tapping against my sunglasses, which are needed not because of the sun—there's none to be seen—but because I don't want corneas studded with small corpses, don't want eyeballs like pomanders. The tiny insects embed themselves in my eyebrows and beard as I bike, tight-lipped, breathing as much as possible through my nose to avoid inhaling insects. From experience, I know aphids in the alveoli are not to be recommended.


Rain, the forecasters say; fine, say the crimson clouds. Who will be right: the forecasters or the old wives?


Emma runs back to the house next door, yelling at me to wait. She returns soon after, clutching a small book which we inspect for words she might recognise while we sit swinging our legs in the late afternoon sun on the edge of the verandah.Autumn leaves and the daylight moon The sheep ignore us from a comfortable distance as they crop the grass. Her three-year-old brother yells and waves from beside the ute in the driveway, but evidently his mum and dad and the packing to leave are more interesting than the sedentary inspection of books, or his sister, or me. Emma's mum calls to her to come and pack her things. Emma rolls her eyes.
“Oh, no”, she says, in a perfectly adult-inflected, exasperated voice, and turns back to the book.
The sun burns, hot and glaring, through brown and gold leaves on the far side of the paddock at the terrace edge; it stretches over the oblivious sheep and directly onto the man and the small girl sitting on the edge of the verandah, swinging their legs and searching for words.


What to do, what to do? What should I think about buying cheap Chinese goods? What should I think of the idea that economic salvation lies in increasing consumption? Intuition tells me to buy less, thus avoiding the first question and denying the answer implicit in the second—but intuition, the rationalists tell us, is not to be trusted. On the other hand, logical analysis seems to mire us in never-ending argument. Perhaps these difficulties are inescapable? However, while the retreat into scepticism—the idea that we can know nothing—might have been a solution for Pyrrho, for me it seems utterly impractical (besides, I remain Evening on the Ngamoko Range, looking east over the Pohangina headwaterssceptical whether Pyrrho was, in his day-to-day life, as sceptical as the anecdotes claim). In practice, in real life, questions suffuse our lives and, put simply, for a great many questions, we must decide.
So, what to do? Two things, perhaps. First—and this should be obvious to the point of being trivial— answering a question often doesn't matter. Not all questions are important enough to agonise over. The consequences of choosing the wrong flavour of icecream are never likely to be serious (parents of small children might disagree), but the consequences of switching jobs can be life-changing. Then, if any of the possible answers do strike you as important, ask yourself, “How likely is that particular outcome?”.
Risk: consequence, weighted by likelihood.


Second, think again about the question. What is it really asking? What problem does it try to solve? Too many questions are like that proverbial ladder leaning against the wrong wall: at the top you see the view but find you're looking the wrong way, or gazing into someone's rubbish dump. So, the second, and more important, suggestion.
If you think a question's worth thinking about in any depth, ask yourself the most important question: “Is this the right question?”.


This evening I can't decide how far to go, so I keep pedalling. Eventually I reach the end of the Line, where the world out west falls away into a blue, darkening haze of valleys and hills. Up north the mountains encircling the Oroua headwaters loom on the horizon, grey and tinged with blue and older than anything alive. Who knows what might have lived there, what strange animals trod forgotten forests? But one thing remains certain: those mountains will remain when we have gone; they will remain when the world has erased us; they will remain when all our questions, answered or not, have been forgotten.
Poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The Pohangina Valley and northern Manawatu hill country, looking north-west from No. 2 Line.
2. The bestower of jackets, on Kapiti Island last Sunday.
3. Harvest. Not mine.
4. Dawn, Good Friday, from the verandah.
5. The jacket.
6. Robinia leaves and the autumn moon half gone.
7. Evening on the Ngamoko Range.
8. Autumn poplars above Te Awaoteatua Stream.

Photos and words © 2009 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...


Kiggavik said...

Worth the wait, as your words always are Pete. I enjoyed our bike ride while you pondered. Questions, questions.

Kiggavik said...

Oh and a couple of pedestrian questions. I'd like to ask Reasonable Pete what camera he does use, and Evil Pete what camera he covets.

Relatively Retiring said...

Meanwhile, Old Aunt, on the other side of the world, thinking about your thinking, thinks for goodness sake, why not concentrate on the rotten road surface?

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Zhoen.

Clare, cheers, and regarding your questions: it's a Canon 20D, and given the amount I've spent on lenses, I pretty much have to stick with Canon. In any case, none of the other brands I'd consider (Nikon, Sony, Pentax) have lenses that cover what I need (notably, an excellent, image stabilised 300mm f4).

The 5D MkII seems like a wonderful camera, but it'd take me a while to get used to a full frame sensor. I guess I could crop to get magnification equivalent to a 50D or 500D, though, but I'd have to replace my 10–22mm lens... But, the 20D still does the job if I do mine, and replacing it's a purely academic question now I'm just scraping by.

RR, believe me, I concentrate when the road's like that. Fear is a wonderful incentive.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

oh grief - so many things to think about here. i love the internal dialogue - really brings you into your head.

Personally i think its important to keep questioning everything: it's the only way to learn stuff, plus maybe you can broaden your horizons. It's more important to ask an interesting question and get an interesting answer than it is to get the right answer - if you see what i mean?

With regards to cycling and helmets - the law would be very hard to enforce. Personally i think anyone who goes out without one on modern roads is suicidal at best: but i've known plenty of people who they didn't help at all.

Brilliantly written - don't suppose you could ship me a bottle of genius?

Bob McKerrow said...

Too many questions to ponder, too many answers to construct.

Perhaps the answer lies in the ridges made the the grader. I once lived up Arapaepae road, inland from Levin, and loved it when the grader trimmed our road. He was an artist the way he shaved the road with a camber that carefully drained surface water.

It is often on ridges that we define our thoughts; mountain ridges, road ridges and beach ridges. Good to read your powerful words again.


KiwiSoupGirl said...

Thanks so much Pete - so good to read you again....and ah, but it seems artistry is everywhere...! In the pondering of questions, and placement of photographs - in the grading of a road and the responses to a beautifully written blog. Very nice jacket, by the way - looks war, as does the bestower of said jacket and her work..! Thanks for the link and do continue to take good care of yourself, e hoa.
Ka kite ano, from KSG

KiwiSoupGirl said...

heavens above, I should have said, the jacket looked "warm"! Incredible how one small letter completely and utterly changes the context of a word and an intention! How right it is to question and to never accept what appears to "be" as being real and/or true - even if it is. :-)

Di Mackey said...

How delicious to find a post!! :) I'm torn between homesickness when I read and just that pure delight of words and descriptions of home.

The camera ... I'm on the side of evil Pete and I wouldn't actually call him evil. I think he's all about acknowledging your talent and permitting you to invest in something you love ...

Does that make me evil Di? But, I have to add, that the new canon eos 5d mark ii is a stunning machine and I am forever in debt to the job that advanced me the money for that. And I loved the 400D before that too. It's like getting new stronger longer wings to fly with.

Beautiful photographs, particularly loved the one of the bestower of gifts and the pumpkins.

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, I most certainly agree about the relative importance of questions and answers. Thinking about how to frame a question often seems far more productive than leaping in with answers. As for the compulsory helmet wearing, it's been illegal to bike without a helmet in New Zealand for many years now, although it seems to be flouted more frequently now. I don't know the stats regarding injuries, costs, etc., but the law has certainly been respected enough to make the sight of a bare-headed cyclist seem strange. It can be done; whether it should be done is more debatable. Personally, I wouldn't be caught dead without a helmet... no wait, let me rephrase that... ;^)

And thanks for the compliment, but I'm still searching for that bottled genius...

Bob, you might be on to something there. Altitude certainly seems to inspire (uplift?) me. Not all grader drivers have the art and skill of yours, however, and sometimes the result can be a mess.

KSG, great to see you're blogging again. It is indeed interesting to learn first-hand how something as small as a single letter can be so important: it's particularly important for me, given the copy-editing I do (and acutely embarrassing to find such errors in my own work).

Di, that sounds like a great rationalisation ;^) Seriously, you're right, but the talent for and commitment to what one loves has to be demonstrated first (clearly no problem in your case: I've been greatly enjoying the recent Istanbul photos, in particular). Cheers!

Anne-Marie said...

Great to see Pohangina Pete back online. I very much enjoyed this post. Your words and photos are as beautiful, and your philosophy as thought-provoking, as ever.

Nice jacket, too :-)

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Anne-Marie ;^)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Another post to return to and ponder. I think the best askers of open ended questions are children. I can start out with Charlie asking me about Why I split the wood before lighting the fire and end up a few minutes later being asked How close we can get to the sun without being burned? Something to that I guess.
Cheers, Pete, for the lovely lunch and visit. As usual Tara and I thoroughly enjoyed, and Song Bird Gardens was a real treat. The so'wester blowing cold and misty over the ranges, and snuggled in the cabin with the fire blazing. Nice.

Gustav said...

Your bike ride appears to me as an allegory for your thinking process right up to the end of the Line.

Not sure whether you have heard of Robert Pirsig's book "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance". His motorcycle trip across North America is a journey of thought. He considers much including what is quality?

My own view on thinking and how I make decisions is insanely complex. Its composed of emotion, logic, risk, reward and subconcious influences that are embedded in my genes from the beginning of time. My decisions, thoughts and actions are ultimately a reflection of me.

Is it possible to be a better thinker? A quality thinker?

The answer is yes. Yet the journey to quality thinking will be unique for each of us since we all have blinders on in different aspects of our knowledge and experiences.

If I were to give any advice on thinking it would be thatI start with the premise that I know little. I am in Platos cave and can only see shadows of the "truth" in many cases.

Yet what I do know I know reasonably well. The things that I know reasonably well are my footholds on the journey up the mountain of the things I do not know the answers too.

Hopefully I know a bit about who I am and what I am about. This is always a good start to quality thinking.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

I, like Neglect The Pixies, think you should question everything. But not for some universal objective answer, for an answer for yourself.

I obviously think the people of China need to uprise and fight for a Democracy instead settling for working all kinds of hours in slavery and getting nil. They sort of have one, but not really.

In one particular private prison here in the U.S., Police went to the edges of society and scooped up all the Black people they could. On charges like J-walking and possessing of marijuana. They put them in the prison and asked the government for money. The prison owners then pocketed a majority of the money, and then spent the rest on things like rotten slop for the prisoners to eat, old and destroyed (if any) books in the library, ragged clothes, attending to only some sick prisoners, etc. So, no, I'm not a fan of private prisons. I'm not a fan of privitization period. The idea in itself isn't bad or good, but it's practice does not have a very good track record.

I also find it ridiculous that people would prefer a higher chance of injury from a bike accident then just wearing the helmet. Not saying that it isn't true, but it's a ridiculous notion. What do they have against the helmets?

I agree with #4. Questions should encourage thought, but thought for the self. And the way the questions are framed are also important. I wouldn't ask what are the consequences of believing in God, but more along the lines of what does it mean? (I'm not framing it that way because I'm Christian, I swear! Lol). Is it ok, or moral, to kill and eat animals? What parts of the infrastructure should go into private hands? Is buying the products of Chinese workers truly called supporting them? Is education a privilege or an obligation? Furthermore, should we put it in jails?

The word verification for this comment was "pokes".

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb. That was a great day all right — many thanks for your contributions :^) Good to hear Charlie has that natural kid's curiosity. I'd be worried about kids who seemed happy not to ask questions (not that I can recall ever knowing any...) I suppose the persistent "why?" questioning most kids go through can test one's patience, but given it seems generally short-lived, it's a small price to pay to help them think for themselves (I'm sure some psychologist has come up with a "disorder" to describe the "why?" questioning: Persistent Interrogation Disorder, perhaps?)

Gustav, I read Pirsig's book many years ago, and again recently. I'd rate it as one of the books that most influenced me, not because I could understand it all (I couldn't), nor because I agreed with everything he said (I didn't), but because I understood and agreed with enough of what he said to think hard about it.

I think it is possible to become a better thinker. However, to do so, I find I need time free from distractions and interruptions. That's a lot easier for me than for those exhausted by work, kids, worry and so many other aspects of day-to-day life. On the other hand, I suppose some people manage to enlist all those as aids to improving their thinking: as stimuli, not inhibitors. Thanks for the thoughts, Gustav.

Samurai, although I posed my questions as rhetorical examples, I'm not utterly equivocal about some. Privatising prisons, for example, seems fraught with many pitfalls, and I'm not convinced that the wearing of helmets discourages New Zealanders from cycling to such an extent that it outweighs the savings from prevented head injuries. However, my main point is that focusing on questions that channel thinking into either/or options can kill innovative solutions, and stepping back and asking what we're really trying to achieve is generally far more productive. It's also harder, which might be why it's less utilised.

I won't address each of your questions, but the way you've reframed the question about god seems to expose an assumption I hadn't realised: when I say what are the consequences of believing in a god, there's a implicit assumption that what's important is the consequences — in other words, if the consequences are not important, then neither is the question, and it really doesn't matter whether one believes (or not) in a god. Your reframing ("what does it mean?") seems to address a slightly deeper, and therefore perhaps less loaded, question. Cheers!

Michael said...

Helluva post. Too much for a quick blog skim. This will take some time to absorb. On first look, I'm impressed by the layers and the sense of place behind the thoughts.

butuki said...

You whole post seems to be a question in itself that requires deep thought in order to make sense of it. And there you have to ask, as you and others have asked, "Is pondering the question of the post something that we must make a decision on?" (^j^)">

One thing I've always known about myself is that I may comprehend what someone is saying, but very often have the hardest time phrasing a reply. I never do very well in face-to-face arguments where quick wit is a requirement or black and white results the goal. I tend to argue in onion layers, "skirting the issue" as quite a lot of my friends accuse me of, tending to try to look at a problem or question or issue in context. So when delving into an idea I might start on one image, address a certain point about it, then go off on a tangent that is related to the original image, but which illustrates it from a different point of view. This is very Japanese logic (and many women tell me female understanding) and drives my American friends batty. They keep accusing me of not staying with the topic at hand. Perhaps true, but to my mind, I am, I just walking around the perimeter rather than boring straight through. Both get you to the end eventually.

Or if not getting to the end, then the end gets you!

As to bicycle helmets, ever since I saw my wife, on a bicycle trip we were taking in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, get chased down by a huge mastiff and go flying off the embankment at the side of the road, do a double flip, and land square on her helmeted head, to lie there motionless for about ten minutes, and me there thinking she was dead, well, I will always opt for a helmet now. Sure helmets are awkward and uncomfortable (especially in very muggy Japanese summers), but that little difference really does make a difference. They're like bicycle seat belts.

Never helps my lacerated hands much when I land on the gravel though!

vegetablej said...

"focusing on questions that channel thinking into either/or options can kill innovative solutions, and stepping back and asking what we're really trying to achieve is generally far more productive" - Love this bit of wisdom even more than the post, though lovely jacket and photographs, which as always, seem beautiful enough to me to need no further improvement, though I understand the urge.

Yes, I need less either/or and more creativity in my interactions, and thanks for making me aware of it. :)

And Happy Birthday! Another year achieved.


Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Happy Birthday xx

Avus said...

Ah - the thoughtful Pete is back, that's good!
As a life-long (helmetless) cyclist (now aged 70)I follow the arguements "for" and "against" helmets. I think the British Cyclists' Touring Club has the right approach. "If you are more comfortable without one - fine. If you feel safer wearing one - fine. Just don't let those legislators loose to make 'em compulsory.
They have just published a timely (from your blog's point of view)report, with some tongue in cheek findings at: http://www.ctc.org.uk/DesktopDefault.aspx?TabID=5260
An interesting read.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Michael. You've picked up on a couple of the things I worked hard on.

Miguel, that's an interesting thought about whether the post is itself a question. If it encourages that sort of contemplation, I'm pretty happy — unless, of course, it paralyses the reader into inaction. Also, I find your description of how you argue intriguing, in large part because it so closely resembles my process. I, too, generally need time to mull over an argument (using “argument” in the non-pejorative sense); I, too, much prefer exploring a topic (although my training makes it too easy to lapse into that dialectic form); and I, too, tend to be out-argued in real time conversations (unless I've had a few beers, in which case I only think I'm holding my own. The truth is probably quite different).
Watch out for that gravel.

VJ, thanks, and I'm so pleased that observation struck such a responsive chord :^)

Cheers, Pixie-starver ;^D Thanks for calling in.

Avus, thanks. The helmets argument really is a great one for showing how simple “solutions” aren't always as clear-cut as they seem. I wear a helmet, and have done so since long before they were compulsory here in Aotearoa. However, I'm convinced the greatest protection for cyclists is a highly developed awareness of potential hazards — “defensive cycling”, I suppose. That, however, must be developed through experience, which, as is often pointed out, is something we get only after we need it.
The CTC report is indeed interesting. The stats seem open to all sorts of interpretations.