Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kilroy Café #66: "Life is Logarithmic!... Not Linear"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Life is Logarithmic!... Not Linear
An oddity of statistics may help you make better personal decisions.


Believe It Or Not!... If you collect a set of numbers from almost anywhere in the universe—such as sports statistics, heights of trees, incomes of workers or masses of stars—a bizarre phenomenon usually emerges. Far more of those numbers start with "1" or "2" than with "8" or "9".

Try it yourself: Open your local phone book and look at the house numbers (e.g. "342 Park Ave."). Make a tally of the digits that each of those numbers begin with (in this case "3"). Once you collect a few pages of this data, a pattern usually becomes clear: There are far more house numbers starting with low digits like "1" than high digits like "9"!

This statistical phenomenon is called Benford's Law, and it happens in most forms of collected data from nature and human activity—regardless of what you measure or the measurement system you use. It seems at first to defy all reason. Since each measurement seems random, shouldn't the leading digit be random, too?

The phenomenon arises because real-world data is never completely random. It is distributed in a certain way, typically weighted toward the low end of whatever scale you are using.

Take the phonebook example: In most of the world, there are far more short streets than long ones. All streets will have low numbers but only a few will have high numbers. Thus, on aggregate, there will always be more 1's than 9's, more 10's than 90's and more 100's than 900's. Get it?

The same thing happens everywhere: There are more short trees than tall ones and more average sports players than exceptional ones. People earning $15k a year will always outnumber those making $95k, and people making $100k will always outnumber those making $900k. That's how the digits get skewed.

Turns out, most things in life are not distributed linearly but logarithmically—on a rapidly diminishing curve approaching zero. No matter what you measure or how, there are many little things and few big ones. It is also usually true that when something happens repeatedly, the largest impact is at the beginning, with diminishing effect later. Once you understand these logarithmic distributions, you see them everywhere.

This isn't just a phenomenon of statistics but of human happiness, desire and need, all of which follow logarithmic curves. If you grasp the curve, you may see that you have been approaching life with inappropriate math.

For example, if a little of something makes you happy it doesn't necessarily follow that twice as much of the same thing will make you twice as happy. If that were true, it would be a linear relationship. Real life, however, abhors straight lines. It is more likely to give you decreasing satisfaction when you do the same thing repeatedly. Economists call this the Law of Diminishing Returns.

You may be happy if someone gives you $1 million, but you wouldn't be ten times happier if they gave you $10 million. Truth is, $1 million, thoughtfully used, is plenty for most of us. Any additional money only encourages us to be less thoughtful. In the end, the additional $9 mill will have only a marginal impact on our lifelong happiness, if any.

So why does anyone bother seeking more than they reasonably need? Good question!

People, it seems, are much better at thinking linearly than logarithmically. Linear conclusions are much easier to calculate and understand. Twice the chocolate must mean twice the joy. All you need for this math is addition and multiplication, not any fancy calculus.

It takes great maturity—and some bitter experience—to anticipate your own changing needs, especially if you are excited about something right now. Every kid learns his lesson: One cookie is good. A whole big package eaten at one sitting: not so good. On bigger issues, though, adults may take years to grasp the non-linearity of life, and by that time it is often too late.

The worst mistakes of individuals and nations are when they try to impose a linear prediction on a curve, cycle or feedback loop. They take the trend of recent events, project it forward in a straight line then make irrevocable commitments based on that prediction.

Reality, however, has no respect for our predictions. It does what it wants, which is usually to adjust to a stimulus and respond to it differently over time.

If you have committed yourself to a straight line, that's your problem.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Kilroy Café #65: "Taking Control"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The key to solving your problems is usually in your mind.


Everyone has problems. Sometimes they are severe: war, divorce, illness, unemployment. At times, we seem to be the victims of forces beyond our control. Even if our own misjudgment got us into this mess, that doesn't mean our own actions can get us out.

But still we have to try. As long as you live, you have to struggle for the best possible outcome regardless of your situation. If you learn you have untreatable cancer and only six months to live, you still have a responsibility to make the best of it. You have to see cancer not as a curse but an opportunity. An opportunity for what? That's for you to figure out.

Most of us face more mundane, non-life-threatening problems, but the challenge is the same: how to make the most of what we have. At this moment, you have both burdens and gifts and only a limited time left on Earth to work with them. What will you become?

In that struggle, your only enemy is yourself. All that stands between you and the "success" of making the most of yourself are blocks within you that you yourself enforce and maintain.

A block is a potential approach to a problem that you refuse to consider due to your artificial expectations about what life owes you. Blocks come in many guises, but they are usually expressed in the form: "I can't do X because of Y."

For example: "I can't fly overseas because I can't stand sitting in an airplane that long." Result: You never go. Or: "I can't quit drinking because I don't have the willpower." Result: You don't even try. Or: "I can't travel without my personal physician because of my delicate constitution." X and Y can be an endless number of things, leading to all sorts of artificial requirements in health, diet, lifestyle, fashion and entertainment.

If you collect enough of these "I can't" restrictions, soon all avenues for solving your problems are cut off. You feel trapped, but it's not your problems themselves that are trapping you as much as your refusal to consider some potential solutions.

You can argue that some things are non-negotiable. You wouldn't seriously endanger yourself or the people you care about, but nearly everything else is negotiable: your home, your possessions, your public image and all the silly restrictions you have placed on your own behavior.

The key to dealing successfully with your problems is replacing your "I can'ts" with "I cans". You can live without most of the things you thought were necessities. You can do many things you thought yourself incapable of. You can endure more pain than you imagined and still come out okay.

You know your self-restrictions are dubious when other people are functioning perfectly fine without them. Others are flying overseas and living without addiction, so why can't you?

That's where the excuses come in. You insist your situation is special, that different rules apply to you. You have sensitive skin, fragile self-esteem, an inadequate upbringing and a special lack of willpower. That's why you can't do what others can.

"I can't do X because of Y," is almost always based on flawed reasoning and distorted data. In most cases, you haven't experimented much or pushed yourself very far. You may have had one or two bad experiences with Y and simply given up, probably because you could afford to. It was the lazy way. Instead of facing your fears and using your creativity to overcome the challenge, you wrote an imaginary rule for yourself and started blocking yourself in with it.

This may work okay until a crisis comes along, like running out of money, and your elaborate structure of "I can'ts" becomes unsustainable. Something has to give! Either you'll give up some of your cherished restrictions or the crisis will break you. If you fail to change, real events may force change upon you, but it is always better to be pro-active and do it on your own.

It is amazing how many people die clutching their old dysfunctional habits until the bitter end. If someone has only six months to live, you'd think they'd give up some of their preconditions and actually live those six months. Instead, they cling in misery to every one of their original demands, as if they would be answered in the afterlife.

Dealing with problems and getting the most out of life is all about overcoming your own inertia. Are you going to control your problems or let them control you? Taking control of what happens to you really means taking control of yourself. It means recognizing that some barriers you thought were real were only in your mind and thus can be stepped right through.

You can't make cancer go away through force of will, but you can change the lens through which you are seeing it. At will, you can change what you expect from life and the very definition of what misfortune is.

Not a curse but an opportunity.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Denver, Colorado.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kilroy Café #64: "The Meaning of Life Explained at Last!"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Explained at Last!


One day, we woke up on a strange planet, in a body that wasn't ours, living with a family we didn't choose. That's all we know about life, but it's all we really need. Before us is our remaining life on Earth, which we can either do something with or squander. It's our choice.

There is no outside authority to tell us what to do. There is only the reality all around us, which appears to be solid and non-negotiable. Of course, this reality could be an illusion, but it's the best illusion we have, so we might as well work with it.

The thing we find out quickly about reality is that it can hurt! Stick your finger in a candle flame and you're going to get burned. Your body will let you know you've done something wrong, and if you have any common sense you won't do the same thing again.

If you want a purpose in life, a pretty good starting point is simply to avoid pain. In the beginning, you avoid it in the present (by keeping your fingers out of flames), but as you get more experienced, you start looking ahead and trying to avoid pain in the future. A little bit of planning and prudence right now can prevent a whole lot of discomfort later on.

Unfortunately, a lot of people can't handle planning and prudence. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you drink too much, blow all your money or ignore your own safety, you'll feel pain later, but most people just don't get it. They can't delay gratification or plan ahead. You are already ahead of the pack if you can anticipate reality based on what it did to you last time and act accordingly.

Once you start planning farther into the future, your plans evolve into principles. It's hard to predict the future exactly, so you rely on rational policies to protect you from pain. One policy, for example, is to always fasten your seatbelt when riding in a car. It may not make a difference on this trip or the next, but sooner or later it is probably going to save you a lot of pain. It's not immediate pain avoidance that protects you here, but a far-sighted philosophy.

The more sophisticated you become as a resident of Earth, the more you think about policies rather than immediate results. How do you achieve the best long-term outcome—i.e. the least pain over time? Sometimes, foresight says you must endure some pain now to avoid even greater pain in the future, and if you are disciplined enough, you'll obey.

Pain, however, comes in many forms, not all of them attached to the body. There is the pain of loneliness and the pain of seeing someone you care about suffer. It's painful when something you have built is destroyed, and it's almost as painful to see it happen to others. All of these different kinds of potential discomfort go into your calculations of what to do now.

When simply avoiding your own pain isn't enough to satisfy you, you can start to address the pain of others. Your fellow travelers may or may not be conscious, but they certainly seem to be, so you might as well treat them with respect. You know what it is like to have your finger in a candle flame, so if you can protect others from similar distress, why not? While you are imprisoned on this planet, you might as well help out your fellow inmates.

The next question is, What is the best way to help? Do you only address someone's immediate pain, or do you think about their long-term well-being? Again, policies soon become more important than immediate satisfaction. To save someone's life, you might have to cut off their arm. No one wants to be in this kind of position, but reality often gives you no choice.

Even if you know nothing about who you are or where you came from, reality will guide you. Reality is the environment you found yourself in when you landed here. It is the body you're in and the physical world all around you. You can close your eyes and dream of other things, but when you open them again, reality will still there, just as you left it.

Reality starts out as a great mystery, but eventually we learn its rules. For example, gravity is one rule. Step off an edge, and you'll fall and suffer. Other rules, like what makes us happy and how other people behave, can get very complicated, but the rules are always there, waiting to be discovered. The more we investigate, experiment and deduce the underlying mechanics, the better we can plan and predict.

There are a lot of things we'll never know, like "What is consciousness?" and "What made this all happen?" Without this knowledge, we have to find meaning and satisfaction in the world itself. Just by virtue of our being born, wheels are set in motion that we cannot stop. The noblest thing we can do with our life is master those wheels.

What is the meaning of life? Reality gives you problems, and you do your best to solve them. You need no more meaning than that.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Opelika, Alabama.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kilroy Café #63: "Truth, Lies and Discretion"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Truth, Lies and Discretion
Honesty is not always the best policy.


As children, we are taught not to lie. At first it is because we fear we will be punished, but eventually we realize that lies are expensive in themselves. When you tell a lie, you have to remember what you said so you don't trip yourself up later. This entails keeping two sets of mental books—the true one and the cooked version—which requires a lot of internal energy. It is usually easier to deal with only one reality because then you don't have to remember anything.

But this doesn't mean you should always tell the truth. Just because you know or believe something doesn't mean you should blurt it out. Society is built on a delicate web of withheld information. Speaking the truth in inappropriate circumstances disrupts this web and can be as destructive as any lie.

Between truth and lie is discretion. That's the wisdom to know when a truth should be held inside and not spoken. The fate of nations can ride on discretion, and your relationships as well.

Why is discretion necessary? Two things: strategy and ego.

Strategy is important in any kind of competition. You don't want to tell your opponent exactly what you plan to do before you do it. This applies in war, of course, but equally in love, business, politics, management, child rearing—in virtually any circumstance of leadership or competition where information given to an opponent can be used against you. Discretion involves withholding information until such time as it is safe and appropriate to release.

If a spy sells a list of his own agents to the other side, he can't defend himself by saying, "I merely told the truth," because that truth is going to kill people.

Likewise, if you are bidding in an sealed auction, you don't want to tell your fellow bidders how high you are willing to go, because they will beat you by bidding one dollar more. After the game, it may be okay to show your cards, but during the competition—in virtually any kind of negotiation—you can't tell your opponent the hand you hold.

Why must this be so? It is simply the way of the world. As long as people have differing agendas, there will be negotiation, and that requires discretion at least until an agreement is reached.

Discretion is a lynchpin of liberty. It lies behind our most cherished right: that government stay out of our lives unless specifically authorized. Whenever we empower a government to protect us, we also empower it to hurt us. The law, as written by detached legislators, is never suited to every real-world circumstance, and discretion is often our sole means of limiting its destructive power.

Should you lie to law enforcement? No. Should you report every violation of law no matter how minor and obey every law regardless of the circumstances? No, also. A quiet evasion of rules is sometimes the most moral action, and that requires discretion.

The second reason for discretion is ego. We all have one, and it is usually a hornet's nest of sensitivities and inconsistencies. Discretion is necessary to avoid tipping fragile people over the edge, offending them and starting wars where they aren't necessary. In this venue, it is unlikely that anyone will die if you are indiscreet, but it can sure muck up your social relations.

Each person is a product of his investments, and whether or not his investments are working out, he is going to believe in them simply because they have already cost him so much.

You don't tell a fat lady she's fat. Little children may blurt it out, but adults shouldn't, because you'll offend the fat lady without accomplishing anything. There is usually little merit in telling people their obvious flaws, because in all likelihood you'll get a defensive reaction, not change.

If people ask for the truth about themselves and are truly open to hearing it, you can tell them. Otherwise, you are only going to stir up the hornet's nest and disrupt the relationship. Exposing people's weaknesses sounds good in theory—"How else are they going to change?" we say.—but in practice it usually prompts a backlash that is counterproductive to change.

One of the great fears of modern life is that a private email message intended for one person gets mistakenly sent to others, especially to the person the message is critical of. It's embarrassing because we know instinctively that the subject shouldn't be told his own flaws. If the boss knows what you really think of him, you could be fired, whether you tell it to his face or email it to a colleague. The politics of the world and the sensitivities of personality require that we keep this information to ourselves.

People who are comfortable with themselves have a thicker skin and are better able to process any truth you throw at them. Unfortunately, such enlightened ones will always be in the minority.

We know the people we should tiptoe around, would can't handle any kind of uncensored truth. They are walking landmines and discretion is necessary to keep them from going off.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Pooler, Georgia.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Kilroy's Rules of Twitter Style

I have a theory that you can tell whether a Twitter feed is worth following by reading only the five latest tweets. Below are the features I am looking for. These are the style rules I am trying to follow on my own Twitter feed (@KilroyCafe) and that maybe you should follow in yours.
  1. A stylistic avatar. The best feeds have an avatar (little profile picture) that someone has put some thought into and that reflect, in some simple way, the content of the feed. Less interesting feeds just have a bland picture of the author. To a certain extent you can judge a book by it's cover! Just by scanning through avatars, you can get an idea of what feeds might be worth following from how interesting the avatar is.

  2. Talk about universal truths rather than what you are doing. Do I care that you are currently at Starbucks on Main Street? Give me something I can use! Unless you intend your feed for only your five closest joined-at-the-hip buddies, no one really cares what you are doing.

    • Personally, I believe your "what I'm doing" stuff should go on Facebook. Even then, you should limit your updates to things that are somehow useful to others.

  3. Limit the use of "I" and "me". Again, what you are doing may be interesting to you, but the rest of us want information we can use in our own life. "I" and "me" should be used only sparingly in certain rhetorical situations or to distinguish your work from someone else's.

  4. All links should be explained. Don't just tell me to "Look at this!" You have to give me a reason to look (because clicking on each link takes time, especially on a mobile device).

  5. No wasted words. There should be not a single unnecessary word in any tweet. Even if you have extra space available in your 140-character allotment, the tweet should be as compact and efficient as possible. Before sending the tweet, read and re-read it to make sure you have cut it to the bone. Extra words just dilute your message.

  6. Interesting language. Don't say something in a bland way if you can say it in an interesting and stylized way, with clever and precisely targeted language.

  7. Only one idea per tweet. Don't try to insert multiple ideas into the same tweet. Know when to stop!

  8. Every tweet should stand alone. Although two adjacent tweets can be on a related topic, they shouldn't depend on each other for their meaning.

  9. Every tweet should be timeless. The best tweets should be just as meaningful when read ten years from now as they are today. If the tweet must comment on a current event, it should contain enough information about that event to allow the future reader to decode it (with some help from Google).

  10. Avoid hash tags. I think they just clutter up the tweet and make it less timeless. I admit I don't have much experience with them, but I doubt they help anyone find your tweet. (What sense is there in commenting on #obama if a million people are using that hashtag too?) I suspect that most readers rarely do searches by hashtag but merely read the feeds they are subscribed to; in that case the hashtag is just noise.

  11. Avoid abbreviations. I you have to use abbreviations to fit your tweet into 140 characters, your tweet is probably too long anyway. God gave us only 140 characters for a reason, and you shouldn't try to fudge His limit.

  12. Use proper punctuation and capitalization. It makes you look like you care.

  13. Low sexual content. Sex is the world's most overused topic. Tweets that consistently dwell on sex are a sign of weak imagination and are ultimately boring. Let it go!

  14. No moping! Even if you're funny, your readers don't need to know how badly your life is going. If you have a problem, solve it. Otherwise, don't expect affirmation from us for your drinking, career problems or lack of sex lately. Honestly, tweeting something funny about is just an evasion mechanism. Do something!

  15. Don't feel the need to be funny. Comedy can be a crutch and a prison, especially if your followers expect you to be funny in every tweet. It is more important to be observant and useful. Don't set up expectations for entertainment that you can't reasonably fulfill.

  16. Know your focus! Every feed should have a central topic. This is your central core - your Twitter personality - that you are always returning to. Over time, people should be able to distinguish your tweets from everyone else's from both their content and their style. There are plenty of "general" Twitterers out there, commenting on the news and celebrity scandals of the day. Your feed should have a unique identity that doesn't depend on these topics.
This last item is the toughest. How do you define your Twitter identity? It's like finding your unique identity in the real world: There is no easy formula. If nothing else, your identity will be defined by the topics you often return to. If your topics are consistently interesting, your feed will be too.

Here is some information on my own Twitter feed including my tweet archives. My best tweets respect the rules above.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kilroy Café #62: "Fundamentals of Mental Nutrition"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Fundamentals of Mental Nutrition


When considering what to take into your body, there is "real food" and there is "junk food". Junk food consists of the tastes you crave but little else: sugar, fat, salt, carbohydrates, caffeine. Real food has complexity and substance and primarily serves your future health, not your impulsive tastes. If you care about your body, you'll eat real food, not junk.

The same principle applies to your mind: If you care about it, you'll feed it real, substantial input, not empty junk.

Unfortunately, junk input is what our culture mostly offers us: junk TV, junk video games, junk books, news, music and web content. Most of this sensory input doesn't advance our lives in any way, but we willingly ingest it because it tickles our nervous system in a certain way, just like junk food does.

One danger of too much junk food is obesity, partly because the junk is so available and appealing, and partly because it is so calorically dense and easy to digest that it goes straight to our waist. Likewise, when we ingest too much junk stimulation, we promote mental obesity. The brain doesn't become physically fat but it becomes more passive, chaotic and intellectually undisciplined.

When you have a stimulating mental experience, you need time to adequately digest it, to derive all the available nutrition from it. What just happened? Why did it happen? What does it teach me? You need time to think about the experience or most of its lessons are lost.

That's the thing most lacking in the modern world: thinking time. Because we are surrounded by junk input, easily available and actively peddled to us, our tendency is to ingest one entertainment after another, with little time between them for processing. Highly stimulating products are force-fed into our brain where they clutter up our mind-space. You don't learn much from these experiences; you merely stockpile them.

It's like binge eating. Most people wouldn't eat a whole carton of ice cream at a single sitting, but many will routinely watch 4-6 hours of television in one go. That's lost time that can't be used for one's own mental processes. If you string together enough of those daily input binges, eventually your life will be over, consumed by consumption.

Those 4-6 hours usually include some intense emotional traumas: murders, threats of violence, interpersonal conflicts of every kind. Because there's no time to process them, these intense pseudo-experiences collect in the brain like half-eaten meals, crowding out real experiences and diluting our emotional response to them.

Mental stimulation can be as addictive as any drug. You know you have an addiction when it's not the pleasure of the drug that keeps you using it but the anxiety you feel when you withdraw from it. Can you comfortably sit in a room with a television without the compulsion to turn it on? Can you drive a car without turning on the radio? Can you sit and think for an extended period without "boredom" or anxiety driving you to stimulation? If not, you're an addict.

With any addiction, there is always a cost. Input addicts don't usually rob convenience stores to support their habit, but they are still sad people. Input addiction is marked by passivity, shallowness of feeling and a short attention span. Addicts may be emotionally moved by what happens to them, but just like what they see on the screen, the feeling is fleeting, and they are unlikely to address it in any meaningful way.

If you have one intensely emotional real-world experience in the course of a week, you can deal with it. If you add a hundred intense pseudo-experiences, this has to degrade your response to the real experience. Instead of a measured, thoughtful response to the real conflict, the addict's response is more likely to be impulsive, stereotypical and ineffective, mainly because he hasn't had enough time to think things through.

Mental bandwidth is a precious resource. You only get so much of it in a lifetime. If you value your own mind, you have to take care what you feed it. Above all, you have to limit the quantity of your input to what you can reasonably digest.

Even if the input isn't "junk", you still have to control its quantity and pacing. There may be a lot of high-quality movies, songs and TV shows available, but that's not reason enough to string them together in a binge. You wouldn't go into a fine restaurant and order everything on the menu. One high-quality meal a day is enough, and if the experience is really extraordinary maybe you should go even longer.

A healthy diet of mental input is one carefully-selected, high-quality sensory experience followed by a long empty period of digestion. This empty space is probably the most critical time for growth and learning. If you don't have time for it or can't tolerate emptiness, then you're not living a full life. The input is controlling you and stealing everything you have.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Charlotte, North Carolina.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kilroy Café #61: "The Dilemma of the Public Restroom"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Dilemma of the Public Restroom
A Microcosm of Social Policy


Sounds like good public health policy: Give people a place to do their excretory business so they don't have to do it in the street. In civilized societies, there are public restrooms in train stations, highway rest stops, shopping malls, restaurants, etc. Unfortunately, the condition of them is often deplorable. Without active and expensive maintenance throughout the day, things go bad very quickly.

Why? Because people abuse public restrooms horribly! They fail to flush the toilet. They urinate and defecate on the seats and don't clean it up. Drug addicts use the stalls to shoot up. Homeless people bathe there. Obsessive-compulsives and germaphobes use far more toilet paper than they need, layering the seat or clogging the toilet and leaving their mess behind.

The chief dilemma of the public restroom is that most people who use it have no stake in its cleanliness. It isn't "their" restroom but someone else's. They probably won't be back, so they won't have to suffer any direct consequences. Security cameras aren't allowed, so everyone is anonymous and no one can be held accountable.

It's nice to say we should all work together for the common good, respecting public spaces and cleaning up after ourselves. Most people probably behave this way, but it takes only a few dysfunctionals to ruin it for everyone else. Their behavior draws down the standards for everyone else, until even the good people stop caring.

The end result is that no organization is eager to provide restrooms to the public unless they are required to by law or profit. Business owners put up signs saying, "Restrooms for Patrons Only." They simply have no choice.

You could say that this problem illustrates conservative principles: If you give people something for free, they are bound to abuse it. The solution, the conservatives might say, is to not provide these public services. If you make people fend for themselves, they'll feel more responsible for their actions. (Unfortunately, it also means they'll start pooping in stairwells.)

But at another level, it could also illustrate liberal theories. If you give a corporation unrestricted access to a "public restroom"—that is, publically shared resources—then the corporation will abuse the privilege just like individuals do. If there is profit in it and only shared consequences, no self-serving entity would refrain from polluting the river that all of us drink from. Government has to set boundaries.

Both views are valid. Public restrooms have to exist and be actively regulated (liberal), but access can't be too easy (conservative). There are reasons it's hard to find a restroom in Manhattan. The natural restroom shortage provides "pushback" that encourages people use private facilities whenever possible. Public facilities in train and bus stations may have to be nasty to drive patrons to other options.

In a broader sense, whenever you provide a public service, it has to be costly for those who use it to discourage overuse. For example, if you impose long lines on people to obtain welfare payments or food stamps, a good portion will give up and get jobs instead. You can't make public services seem too easy or attractive, or people will take them for granted and start abusing them.

There is no technological solution to the restroom dilemma. Automatic pay toilets in New York were a failure because addicts and prostitutes treated them as rental units. Automatic toilet flushers seem like a good idea until you realize their long-term effects: training people not to flush toilets and making them even more detached from their own bodily processes.

The best of all possible worlds is probably what we have now. Public restrooms have to be unpleasant! They have to exist (to prevent disintegration of public health) but they can't be too available. There have to be regulations in place to prevent wide-scale abuse, and the police have to come by occasionally and sweep out the human garbage.

There is only one business with reliably pristine restrooms: casinos! Turns out, the obsessives, impulsives and socially irresponsibles—i.e. the cretins who mess up public restrooms—are the same irrational people who keep the gaming industry going! Along with buffets and flashing lights, ultra-clean toilet facilities apparently help draw them in.

So now you know where to go for a nice restroom!

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
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First draft written at a rest area on Interstate 65 in Indiana.
Released from Providence, R.I.
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