Thursday, December 03, 2015

Why Do Problems Exist - Part 2


Part 2 of a 3 part series exploring Western thought about why things go wrong.

In the last article, I explored what the great Western thinkers have written about “the causes of things in general.”  A good summary of that article is that there is a fixed order of causation of all that exists:  1) final cause; 2) efficient cause; 3) material cause; and 4) formal cause.  In other words, first comes the purpose, followed by the energy, directed at the material, according to the plan.  All that we see around us -- all of nature and all that humans have created can be explained by addressing these 4 types of causes.

But what about failure (things that go wrong) in particular?  It’s one thing to acknowledge, for example, why my home exists, but isn’t it another thing to acknowledge why, perhaps, a fire occurred in my home?  Can the same 4 types of causes be used to explain the existence of a failure?  Would the fire in my home have a purpose, followed by an energy, directed at the material, according to a plan?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I thought it would be useful to dwell on the idea of “failure” itself -- independent from causation.

To be honest, I thought this research would be easy -- especially because I have a “secret resource” for helping me answer these types of questions.  When I married my wife, I inherited from her an accumulation of 54 books written by people like Homer, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Tolstoy, and Freud.  These books were assembled and sold by Encyclopedia Britannica, and included a very useful “Syntopicon” which provides a categorized summary of Western thought -- 102 categories of ideas people have been discussing for the last few thousand years.  I’ve been referring to this Syntopicon for many years.

I’ll simply go to the Syntopicon and see what these great minds have said about “failure.”  Certainly, this has to be one of the most deliberated topics over the ages, right?


The following table lists the 102 categories of ideas that have been discussed in the Syntopicon.  Note the absence of the subject of failure!  Apparently, either failure was not something worthy of serious consideration or that idea was covered under a broader category.

It might be worth your while to review the above ideas for those you think are most closely associated with failure.  When I did this, the closest ideas I found was related to “pleasure and pain.”  I suppose I drifted toward the idea of “pleasure and pain” because of the personal definition of “failure” that I’ve been carrying around for the last 20 years:  Failure is unexpected, unplanned pain.

Diving into the idea of “pleasure and pain,” I found that the great thinkers note two types of pain:  the physical pain of touching a hot stove (for example), and the psychological or emotional pain of not achieving a desired end (or achieving an undesired end).  

The first type of pain (physical pain) is not subjective.  All of us will feel pain if we place our hand on a hot stove, or if we hit our finger with a hammer, or if we get a splinter in our thumb.  What is painful to me will be painful to you (assuming our sensory organs are working properly).  Even more, the physical pain we feel warns us to retract -- to care for our injury, and to rethink how we might do something in the future.  People who feel no physical pain are in a life-threatening state.  This first type of pain is, therefore, essential to life.

Interestingly, however, psychological or emotional pain is very subjective pain.  What might be painful to me is not painful to you.

A pleasant taste depends not on the things themselves but on their agreeableness to this or that palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in having those things which produce the greatest pleasure…. these, to different men are very different things.  John Locke,English philosopher and physician, 1650

Pleasure is neither good nor useful, nor is pain an evil, for when we are pained by any external thing we should remember that it is not this thing which disturbs us but our own judgement about it.   Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, 175 AD

A personal example of this is the different feelings that my wife and I have about the feral cats that live outside our home.  She is in PAIN when she does not feed them.  I am in PAIN when she does!  
The fact that psychological or emotional pain is subjective means that failure, itself, is subjective.  Failure to me is not failure to you!  We all have our own definitions of failure -- and all these definitions are somewhat tied to emotional / psychological pain.

Could this mean that psychological or emotional pain is supposed teach us something, just as physical pain does?  Even more, does it mean that the learning we are to embrace is very personalized, since each of us is “pained” by different things?

Pain the pathway to pleasure?

An interesting thought from many (but not all) of the great thinkers is that pleasure and pain are intimately connected to good and evil, happiness and misery, virtue and duty.  Even more, most of these great thinkers tend to think that pain is the primary driver of all that we do, propelling us towards “pleasure.”

Those things which can touch the sense pleasantly are made of smooth and round bodies, but those which seem to be bitter and harsh want to tear a way into our senses.  Nature cries out for nothing but that pain may be avoided so that pleasure can be experienced.  The first maxim of nature is not to seek pleasure but to avoid pain.  Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher, 75 BC

Our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain.  The ego learns that it sometimes must delay pleasure and endure pain to seek ultimate pleasure  Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis, 1900

If pain is the primary driver towards pleasure, could this mean that evil is the primary driver towards good; that misery is the primary driver towards happiness; and duty the primary driver towards virtue?  Even more, does all of life tend to drive humanity towards pleasure, and is this pleasure we seek the ultimate “good?”

Pleasure is the appearance or sense of Good;  Displeasure the appearance or sense of Evil…. Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher, 1600

Things are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.  Happiness is the utmost pleasure we are capable of and misery the utmost pain….. John Locke

So what have I concluded from my research into the great Western thinkers about the idea of failure?

First, almost all human beings desire pleasure, and try to avoid pain.  But almost all human beings must experience pain on their way to pleasure.  As so many other things in life, pleasure and pain appear to be “2 sides of the same coin.”  Therefore, failure and pain go hand-in-hand.  

Secondly, what pains me might not pain you.  Therefore, failure to me might not be failure to you.
Finally, all pain/failure is propelling us in a direction towards pleasure (or goodness).  Most notably, failure is NOT what we think it is.

Tradition speaks with an almost unanimous voice of the pleasure all men find in knowing and the pain none can avoid in the process of seeking the truth….  editors of the Syntopicon

In the next article, I’ll try to tie my conclusions from this article with the conclusions of the first article.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Why Do Problems Exist, Part 1

Why Do Things Exist

Part 1 of a 3 part series exploring philosophical and religious thought about why problems exist.

The impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man -- Leo Tolstoy

Isn’t it interesting to think about how it all got started?  When I say “all, I mean “all.”  Everything you can imagine -- all the physical things that you can see around you  -- all the people you know -- all the subjects, issues, and ideas you’ve heard about --- they all have origins -- origins that often go back to the beginning of humanity or even earlier.  There seems to be an infinite depth to everything.  For example, I’ve been reading about the beginning’s of the idea of “cause and effect.”  It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when “cause and effect” was not known -- at least not formally.  

In this blog article, I will summarize the thoughts of some philosophers and religious people on the subject of cause and effect in general -- that is, why do things exist?  If you think about it, everything you see around you has causes -- everything.  I’ll take you on a brief journey through our human understanding of these causes -- a journey that started in 350 BC and is, of course, continuing to this time.

In next month’s blog article, I will dig into the subjects of “problems or failures” and share what philosophy and religion have said about these things.  I suspect there will be some overlap in this month’s and next month’s thoughts.  After all, how can anyone talk about a problem without talking about cause and effect?  Interestingly, philosophical thought seems to have made a distinction between non-problematic causes and problematic causes -- and the distinction focuses almost entirely on HUMAN BEINGS.

If necessary, I’ll write a final blog article where I will try to tie the two subjects together, i.e., why do THINGS exist, and then why do PROBLEMS exist.

I’ll be honest with you -- I do not know where this is going.  I’m exploring this because I am interested and will report the results of my probing as I go.  I reserve the right to come back to this article after I finish the next article to add to, or correct anything I might find as the result of future research.  So let’s start.

Why do things exist?

Much of what we think about “cause and effect” has its genesis in Aristotle and his groundbreaking ideas established around 350 BC.  As you read the following sentences, please understand that Aristotle was not discussing “why things that go wrong.”  He was commenting on the causes of every thing that exists -- shoes, buildings, trees, and even people.  

He suggested that the explanation of a thing must answer the following 4 questions:

  1. What was the “material cause,” i.e., the substance from which a thing was made?  For example, the shirt I am wearing was made from cotton.  Cotton is the “material cause” of my shirt.

  1. What was the “formal cause,” i.e., the form or archetype that directs the work?  The pattern, or template used to cut my shirt is the “formal cause” of the shirt.

  1. What was the “efficient cause,” i.e., the primary source of the energy required to take the material and use the template to make the shirt?  The people and machines are the “efficient cause” of my shirt.

  1. What was the “final cause,” i.e., the purpose of the thing in the first place?  My shirt provides a covering for my torso to protect it against the elements as well as make me more appealing to the eyes of others.  This is the “final cause” of my shirt.

It would be beneficial for you to play with these categories.  Think of anything, yourself included, and try to understand each of the types of causes.  You’ll find the genius in Aristotle’s thinking as you explore these categories.

Aristotle’s groundbreaking ideas about causation were the foundation of almost all human thought on the subject for over 1500 years.  Then, as the age of The Enlightenment began, some complementary ideas emerged.

Thomas Aquinas (1200’s) built on Aristotle’s ideas by suggesting an order to the above 4 types of causes:  1) final; 2) efficient; 3) material; and 4) formal.  In other words, first he says comes the purpose, followed by the energy, directed at the material, according to the plan.  Again, it would be beneficial for you to play with Aquinas’ order for you to see the brilliance of his suggestion.

But as other philosophers began to dissect Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ conclusions, the ideas surround “causation” started to get murky.  

Francis Bacon (1500’s), for example, said “physics handles the material and efficient causes, and metaphysics handles the formal and final causes (at least in nature).  Note that metaphysics is “that branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”  Bacon declared that the study of “final causes” were inappropriate to the study of physics, because the answers to these things are unknowable and, therefore, ought to be beyond the scope of human probing.

Other philosophers could not help see the connection between causation and religion -- especially when one considers the issue of “final cause.”  According to many of them, final causes in nature seemed to imply that every natural thing is governed by an indwelling form or template that is working toward a definite end, and that the whole of nature exhibits the working out of a divine plan.  In fact, Aquinas’ ordering of Aristotle’s 4 types directly points to the existence of an unknowable but almost certain divine purpose and plan.

Baruch Spinoza (1600’s), for one, vigorously rejected the link between final causes and a divine plan.  He said that “nature has no set end before itself and that all final causes are nothing but human fictions.” In fact, Spinoza was disgusted in those that will “not cease from asking the causes of causes until at last you fly to the will of God, the refuge of ignorance.”

It is understandable that a clash emerged between religious and scientific thinking in those days, since the main driving force of the Age of Enlightenment was a backlash against an autocratic church that controlled almost all aspects of life.  However, isn’t it interesting that the battle between secular and religious thought has lasted until the present?

David Hume (1700’s) was one who started pointing to the futility of knowing true causation, and suggested that we “are ignorant of the manner in which bodies operate on each other -- their force and energy is entirely incomprehensible to us.”  In essence, Hume suggested that we do not know WHY there is such a thing as cause and effect, and that all we CAN know is that it exists.  It was Hume who gave us the idea of  the cause of the cause of the cause -- a never ending series of dominos -- a journey back in time.  Why does the iceberg exist?  It came from a glacier.  Why did the glacier exist?  Snow accumulated over a long period of time.  Where did the snow come from?  Atmospheric conditions.  Why were there atmospheric conditions?  That’s the way our world works.  Why?  A never ending series of questions that eventually are unanswerable.

In reviewing this article, it is most astounding to me that Aristotle’s original categorization of causation that was posed almost 2,400 years ago is still valid today.  Future philosophical and religious thinking argued about the value of exploring the more intangible aspects of “formal and final causes,” and about the religious implications of Aristotle's and Aquinas’ suggestions --but not about his 4 types of causes.

What is even more astounding is that the debate about these issues continues to this day.

In the next blog, I will share the results of my research of philosophy and religion on the subject of  “problems and failures” -- undesirable phenomena that occur ON (or to) the things we have been discussing in this article.  It should be interesting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Value of the Intangible

The Value of the Intangible

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about a conversation with a client, where he suggested that Failsafe had better focus on helping its clients "feed the beast" or we'll start losing our clients.  That conversation happened almost a year ago, and it's been on my mind ever since.

In essence, he was talking about focusing on "the measurable bottom-line" -- that everything we do ought to be a slave to that indicator.

A few weeks ago, my daughter shared a Robert Kennedy video she saw on Ted Talks that caused her to want to share her feelings about related issues.  I hope you enjoy her comments.  I did.

Please read her thoughts, and then my final commentary.


I recently graduated with my Mechanical Engineering Degree.  I remember going through my rigorous program at Virginia Tech solving complex problems using differential equations, completing analyses with self-coded programs, and using the solutions I came up with to reinvent my design at hand.  Why am I telling you this?  I love numbers.  I believe in mathematics.  In my college years I believed any problem could be solved with some sort of analysis involving numbers, because numbers matter! 

As my education progressed, I became increasingly interested in the concept of Root Cause Analysis in which my father had dedicated his life.  So one day during my senior year, I asked my dad if he could take me to Alaska, not just to check out the moose, but to see him teach a live audience on his methodology of Root Cause Analysis, which Failsafe calls Latent Cause Analysis.

Prior to my Alaska trip, I wanted to solve world problems utilizing numbers.  After my trip, I struggled with my passion for numbers and a realization of a profoundly deeper truth:

You can measure the tangible all day long, and hope for results, but the only true way to change anything is through the intangible.

The other day, while listening to Ted Talks, I came across a speech by Robert F. Kennedy from March 18, 1968.  I believe is more important today, than ever:

When I heard this, I had chills running up my spine. 

“… it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.   And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Our perceptions need to change.  We are focusing on the wrong things.  We need to realize that focusing on the intangible will inevitably affect the tangible.

I am fortunate that I was able to come into Failsafe Network to remind me on a daily basis that although numbers are important, there is something more significant in life.   It is the intangible - the feelings, thoughts, ideas, and emotions - that make life worthwhile. 

Failsafe’s investigative methodology of Root Cause Analysis focuses on not only the physics of an event, but also on the untouchable and the abstract.  We believe that the truest value of everything lies within the intangible.  

Jessica Nelms Hall


As Robert Kennedy said, our gross national product includes monies spent on our prisons, wars, ammunitions, advertising campaigns for cigarettes, ambulance and emergency room services for gunshot wounds, and the like.

Just as measuring our gross domestic product is a misleading indicator of our nation's success, focusing on corporate profits (or the bottom line) is an equally misleading indicator of corporate success.

After all, what happens to our intangible values when we focus our souls on the wrong thing?

At Failsafe, we are in the business of helping people learn from things that go wrong. Over the years, we have discovered that it's our values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about life that cause ALL our problems.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Disillusionment: the Path to Wisdom

On July 20, 2015 I read something startled me.  

Disillusionment means having no more misconceptions, false impressions, and false judgments in life -- it means being free from deceptions….  Oswald Chambers

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve heard that word in the past, I’ve always associated it with something negative -- even painful.  When I have said “I’ve been disillusioned,” I’m usually not very happy.

Disillusionment (Oxford Dictionary):  a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.

Continuing with Chamber’s thoughts:

Many of the things in life that inflict the greatest injury, grief, or pain, stem from the fact that we suffer from illusions....  Refusing to be disillusioned is the cause of much of the suffering of human life!

In researching other people’s thoughts about this topic, I can truthfully say that I’ve been DISILLUSIONED about disillusion -- and this time it feels great!

Wisdom comes by disillusionment….  George Santayana.  

I, for one, desire wisdom.  Therefore, I desire to be disillusioned.  Do you?

The first man to see an illusion by which men have flourished for centuries stands in a lonely place….  Gary Zukav.  

I have been in that lonely place where I seem to have been the only one who saw the illusion, and instead of resenting being the only one, now I am thankful for it.  Do you embrace truth, even when you feel like you’re the only one who sees it?  Do you desire to be disillusioned?

The longer you stay in one place, the greater your chances of disillusionment…..  Art Spander

The longer I know someone, the longer I live where I live, the longer I look at anything at all, be it a flower, a house, a nation, or our whole earth, the more I see the truth of it -- and the truth is never what I once thought it was.  It seems to be always a combination of wonderfulness and disturbingness. Are you willing to be disillusioned?

Enlightenment begins by disillusionment, is fueled by the perceived benefit of change, and is made permanent by the creation of a new order in place of the old…..  James Mullen

I desire to be enlightened.  I cannot fathom a more exhilarating state.  I embrace what it will take to get to that state.  Do you?

The disillusion of our own abilities is perhaps one of the most important things that can ever happen to us….  Tim Hansel

The older I get, the more futile I see myself and my multitude of limitations.  I recognize how little I had to do with any of my current abilities. Reaching out, or more appropriately “up,” is becoming more and more habitual.  Have you become disillusioned yet about your own abilities?  If not, you will.

Enlightenment is a destructive process.  It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier.  Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth.  It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true, total disillusionment…  Unknown

What is it about our nature that seems to abhor the value of pain?  Only the sick seek it out, but when it comes why can’t we realize what is happening?  The breaking of the shell of our understanding about ourselves and our existence is always painful -- and always the sign of growth.  Untruth, leave me!  I embrace disillusionment.  Do you?

Living in an age of advertisement we are perpetually disillusioned.  The perfect life is spread before us every day, but it changes and withers at a touch….. Joseph Priestly

Something has happened to me over the last few years.  I have gotten to the point where I cannot stomach other people telling me what to think.  This is especially true with the news media, liberal or conservative.  Sure I want to know what is happening in the world, but then let me make up my own mind about it.  Sure I want to know what the latest technology has to offer, but don’t for one minute suggest to me that it will make humanity (me included) different than what it has always been.  I do NOT want to be intentionally disillusioned by the people around me.  Do you?

I did not realize, before writing this blog, that Failsafe Network, Inc. is in the Disillusionment Business.  

We most certainly do not tell anyone what to think.
We have accepted the need to embrace pain when it comes.
We applaud ignorance and are suspicious of expertise.
We understand that the true light cannot come in until the seemingly impenetrable shield that covers us is broken.
We implore people to slow down so that they see the truth that is right before their eyes because it is impossible to see anything when going at warp speed.
And even though we often feel as if we’re the only "Root Cause Analysis" business on the road we’re on, we don’t care.  It’s the path to wisdom.

Please let me know what YOU think about disillusionment.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

What is it about the way I am that contributes to the problems around me: Part 2

In my last blog post, I told you a story about my DELAYED and almost TOO-LATE decision to install a standby generator for our mountain home.  My wife had experienced a serious loss of power in sub-zero weather that was life-threatening.  We had similar experiences in the past, but never with such potentially disastrous consequences.

In trying to "practice what I preach," I tried looking at myself as part of that problem and I did not like what I saw.  I shared my conclusions about myself in the last blog post.

In this article, the story continues.  

We picked a contractor to install the generator, and together decided that the fuel for the generator would have to be propane.  The installer suggested to obtain a second, dedicated propane tank for the generator.  We already have a propane tank that supplies fuel for heat for our home, but this propane thank would have to be located in a different area -- an area near the new generator.

Both my wife and I didn't like the idea of an above-the-ground tank located so close to the house (and also close to a road where hunters sometimes get rambunctious with their guns,), so we decided to bury the tank.

I remember thinking:

I'll use my backhoe to dig the hole and save some money.  Besides, it sounds like fun.  It's supposed to be 6 feet deep, 8 feet long, and 3 feet wide.  I've never dug that big a hole before.

I told the contractor that I would dig the hole.  We brainstormed and decided on the best location for the tank.  I marked the area.  The contractor then told me I'd better call "Miss Utility" to mark any power or phone lines in the area -- even though we both knew that those lines were far from the intended dig.  We also looked around for anything else that might be buried underground.  The only thing we could think about was "sewer lines."  I remember saying aloud, to the contractor:

Why would a sewer line be located in this direction when the septic tank is in the opposite direction?

The contractor agreed.

As requested, I scheduled Miss Utility to come to the site.  They marked the public power and phone lines.  As suspected, the lines were far from the dig.  We were totally safe.

The next Saturday, I started the dig.  But on the second draw of the bucket I saw a grayish-looking "hose" emerge from the ground.

Nuts.  I have placed garden hoses in this area before when we used to have a vegetable garden.  It's probably a garden hose.  But I'd better stop and make sure.

I turned off the backhoe, got off, and carefully examined the "hose."  It was not a hose.  It was plastic conduit!  As soon as I saw that it was conduit, I remembered thinking:

Oh no!  That's the line to our satellite internet connection!  I forgot that they ran that line right through this area!

The satellite internet system is very low voltage, so I was not too concerned about myself or someone else getting electrocuted.  But this was our satellite line!

I hope I didn't sever the satellite internet line!

I ran inside the house and looked at my smartphone.  NO SIGNAL. 

Gees!  I severed the line!

I told my wife what happened.  She was annoyed.  I guess I don't blame her.

Didn't you remember that they buried the line right there?   Didn't you see the Satellite Dish?

But the dish was behind our blueberry bushes and could not be seen from where I was.  "Out of sight, out of mind."  She helped me uncover the conduit until we found the severed line.  We pulled it out of the way and I continued digging.

I'll deal with the severed line after I dig this hole.

About 30 minutes later, and about 4 feet down after another pull, I saw pieces of a large, white PVC pipe that I had apparently broken.

Good grief.  That looks like a sewer line!  But it can't be an active line.  Look how far away from the house it is!  I'll bet it's from the old septic system.

I got off the backhoe again, and went into the house and asked my wife to flush a toilet.  I ran outside to look at the severed pipe, and about a minute after she flushed the toilet the water ran out of the pipe!

What!  It's a live line?  What in the heck is the sewer line doing all the way over here!  I'm going to have to stop everything and repair that line or we won't be able to use our bathrooms!

Three hours later, after a frantic trip to town to buy materials, and after a messy, sloppy, disgusting repair job, we called it a day (yes, my wife was out there with me for moral support). 

Now, to practice what I preach.

What follows is an application of our Investigative process to this real-life problem at home.  Some of the terminology might be foreign to you, but most is self-explanatory.  

Actual Behavior:  When digging with a backhoe, I hit a satellite cable and sewer line.
Desired Behavior:  When digging with a backhoe, I avoided the satellite cable and sewer line.

Sequence of Events Leading to the Actual Behavior:
  • Decided to install a standby generator at our home.
  • Decided to bury the propane fuel tank.
  • Before digging, I had “miss utility” map out public power and phone line.
  • I could not think of anything else, so I dug.
Triggering Situation:
  • When I was planning to dig the hole for the propane tank.....
Actual Thoughts While Planning:
  • I’ll get “miss utility” to come in and map the power and phone lines, even though I already know where they are.  The sewer line couldn’t possible be this far away from the house.  I can’t think of anything else.
Desired Thoughts While Planning:
  • I’ll have to determine where there sewer line is, and also make sure there’s nothing else I’m not thinking about.
What is it about the way I am that is apparent in the above thoughts?
  • I tend to not research things as thoroughly as I should when I want to do something.
What do I intend to do about this?
  • When I am about to do something significant, I will intentionally get other people’s inputs – especially those who might see things differently.  I will tell my wife of my intentions tonight, and ask her to help me do this on home-related issues
Drip-by-drip, over and over, I am seeing myself as part of the problems that occur in my life.  On one hand, this type of exercise saddens me.  

On the other hand, it liberates me.  After all, I am the only person I can change.

Why in the world do most people insist on AVOIDING this kind of introspection as part of their "root cause analysis" efforts?  Isn't it true that ALL our problems can be traced to people, just as in my backhoe example?  Isn't it "the way we are" that needs to change?