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On hammers, space, cats and other animals

Today I shall tell you another story about the Sages of Helem and problem solution.

I know this one in Russian, beautifully translated from Yiddish, in which it was written by Ovsey Driz, a wonderful Russian Jewish poet and writer, as part of a cycle “The bead bookmark”. I am no poet, so I shall give my own loose translation.

Helem traditions

From times immemorial there were mice in Helem.
Not one, not two, not a thousand – but, perhaps, a million.

Mice in the streets,
Mice on the thresholds,
Mice on the porch steps,
In the attics, on the ovens,
On the benches, on the beds,
In the wash-tubs and the baskets,
Such trouble,
Truly great trouble!

Illustration: hammer - solution
Illustration: Helem mice

And this is why, they say, there was a tradition in the town:
Three twigs were given everyone for lunch –
For soup, for meat and for compote [*stewed fruit], to chase away the mice.
But when they ran out of bushes all around,
People started to think, to argue – and for a good reason.
There are different people everywhere. Some are foolish, others – smart.
But, as everyone knows, in Helem town only wise people lived.

Wise people in the streets,
Wise people on the thresholds,
Wise people on the porch steps,
Wise people on the ovens,
On the benches, on the beds,
In the wash-tubs and the baskets.
Such luck,
Truly great luck!

And so the seven Oldest and Wisest Sages convened,
To decide: what to do? There’s no getting away from the mice!
They discussed, and debated and thought seven nights.
Then they have decided: cats will save us from the mice.

Cats in the streets,
Cats on the thresholds,
Cats on the porch steps,
In the attics, on the ovens,
On the benches, on the beds,
In the wash-tubs and the baskets.
Such a smart decision,
Truly a wise one!

As of that day in Helem, everywhere you looked,
There were cats, cats, cats. Only cats everywhere.
And so, they say, there was a tradition in the town:
Three whips were given everyone for lunch –
For soup, for meat and for compote, to chase away the cats.
For a hundred miles around all the branches were broken off.
Once again convened the seven Oldest and Wisest Sages to hold council.
They said: – There’s no peace from these cats for anyone!
Long they discussed, and debated and finally decided thus:
To be free of cats we should get dogs.

As of that day in Helem, everywhere that you would look,
There were dogs there, there were dogs here. Everywhere they ran about.

Dogs in the streets,
Dogs on the thresholds,
Dogs on the porch steps,
In the attics, on the ovens,
On the benches, on the beds,
In the wash-tubs and the baskets.
Such trouble,
Truly great trouble!

But, as everybody knows, people still live there.
Everyone is given three large clubs for every meal –
For soup, for meat and for compote, to chase away the dogs.
All the oaks have been cut down, and now they took up the birch trees.
Packs of these mean hungry dogs run around,
And again no-one knows how to be rid of them.
There are different people everywhere. Some are foolish, others – smart.
But, as everyone knows, in Helem town only wise people live.
The seven Wisest Oldest Sages will come up with something
That will make the dogs flee Helem at long last.

Illustration: Helem dogs
Illustration: dogs chasing cats chasing mice
Illustration: dogs chasing cats chasing mice

There will be none in the streets,
There will be none on the thresholds,
There will be none on the porch steps,
There will be none on the ovens,
On the benches, on the beds,
In the wash-tubs and the baskets.
Such luck it will be,
Truly a great celebration!

For many years I am reminded of this story every time I read about another “solution” the scientists come up with for all sorts of challenges the works is facing, and I watch the joy with which they are met by the general public. It is nothing if not amazing to me just how apt this description is in the simple story of Helem Sages!

What do I mean? I shall explain.

A characteristic of Western civilization

Mankind, or more precisely, mostly what is called “the white man”, and Western civilization belongs to that part of mankind, has always treated the world as theirs to rule, that which exists entirely to serve them and they are free to do as they wish with it. Mankind (the white man) treats everything from the point of view of: “How does it affect ME?” And if they like not something or cannot perceive its benefit to themselves – then it is considered useless.

No consideration once-o-ever is given to how the solution would affect the whole world, the natural balance of life, the future.

Abraham Maslow, whom many consider to be the father of psychology, have said on that:

“If the only tool you have in your toolbox is the hammer, any problem would seem as a nail”.

And truly, mankind has forever been waving a collection of hammers right and left thoughtlessly… Examples? Sadly, there is an endless supply of those. I’ll give you a few. 

Thus said the Sages.
Quotes by people worth heeding:

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before Heaven and Earth. Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

— Lao Tsu
Goats on Galapagos islands
Goats on Galapagos islands

Introduction of new species to Galapagos

Everyone have heard what happened at the Galapagos islands, upon the introduction therein of rats (unintentionally) by the sailors in the 1800s, who used to arrive there regularly for the great turtles – for soup and their shells (and I shall not even talk here about that practice). When the vermin have become impossible to handle, the solution was… introducing cats to the island. Sounds familiar? Well, the cats have almost completely taken out the rare island bird and iguana populations. So they were severely reduced, which brought the rats back, with a vengeance. Now, the solution is spreading poison on the island to get rid of the rats, which also kills cats and all sorts of other animals, in the process…

OK, but the rats really weren’t intentional. The goats were intentionally introduced. And they can strip an area clean of vegetation, which was meant to feed indigenous animals. The blackberry, which was intentionally brought for food, muscled out native species. You may read more about the problem, for example, in the article The Traitorous Goats of Galapagos Islands, on the Conserve website; or in the article The Natural History of the Galapagos Islands, on the ThoughtCo website.

Invasion into the Mediterranean from the Indian Ocean

Everyone knows about the digging of the Suez Canal. Why was it necessary? Because the white man found it uncomfortable to sail to the Far East in the way the continents were laid out, so this was the solution. So now, beside the migration of sand, they are looking for a solution to the bathing season, which was all but destroyed buy jelly fish invasion… to name but a couple of the consequences – to man. And if that is not enough, in 2015 Egypt has began an ambition new project of the Canal expansion.

Marine biologist Bela Galil has told the CNN in an interview, that this is like the opening of a trickle to a one-way corridor for invasive species to pass through and displace or destroy the native fauna from its natural habitat. “There used to be a natural barrier in the Suez canal of extra-salty water that kept most of the marine life from passing from the Red sea to the Mediterranian sea.The expanded Suez has done away with that natural barrier”, tells us Oren Lieberman at CNN.

Many invasive species pass through the canal. Here are six of the most dangerous ones:

Jellyfish in the Mediterranean
Jellyfish in the Mediterranean
Jellyfish swarm in the Mediterranean
Jellyfish swarm in the Mediterranean
  1. Nomad jellyfish (rhopilema nomadica), native to the Indian Ocean. The jellyfish form huge swarms along the coast of the Levant, eating zooplankton, the food of other species, native to the Mediterranean.
  2. Marbled rabbitfish (siganus regulatus), native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. These only eat algae, but they reproduce like rabbits, stripping entire regions and making them barren.
  3. Twospot cardinalfish (cheilodiperus novemstriatus), native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They have been first spotted by Tel Aviv in June 2010, but have since spread and reached Lebannon.
  4. Silver-cheeked toadfish (lagocephalus sceleratus), native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. These are extremely poisonous puffer-fish, which can cause muscle paralysis, and they have spread to Spain and the Black Sea.
  5. Striped eel catfish (plotosus lineatus), native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They have first been seen in Israeli waters in 2002.
  6. Devill Firefish (pterois miles), a fish with venomous spines and few predators. It was first seen in 1992, but has now reached the waters of Lebannon, Cyprus and Turkey.

The details here are brought from the article Red Sea jellyfish ‘invading’ Mediterranean through Suez Canal, on the CNN website, as well as the article Swarms of stinging jellyfish from the Indian Ocean are invading the beaches of the Eastern Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, on the British Daily Mail website.

The many disasters on the Nile

The Aswan dam was built as a solution to the need for electricity and due to the ability to harness the forces of nature, in this instance – the Nile river. A true need, and the right direction of thought, in principle. The building of the dam displaced 100,000 people due to flooding of a large area, but OK, let’s say, this was ultimately done for them, right? So what’s the problem?

After the dam was built, the Nile stopped flooding downriver from Aswan. These seasonal floods have for thousands of years made the narrow strip of land on the banks of the river, the only place anything could grow, the most fertile land in the area, perhaps in the whole world. Without the floods – no enriching the soil, no crops.

About 95% of Egyptians live within 12 miles from the river banks. Without the floods, they had to rely heavily on artificial chemical fertilizers, lacking most of the required nutrients. Though in the places they cultivate today the volume and times of harvests have grown due to better irrigation, the soil accumulated harmful salts, fertilizers, and pesticides. Poor drainage of the newly irrigated lands has led to soil saturation and increased salinity and created swamps. Over half of Egypt’s farmland quality is now rated medium to poor, and the harmful substances are seeping into the river, which is also the source of drinking water.

Aswan dam
Aswan dam

Fish which used to swim downriver and feed on mosquito eggs and larvae no longer arrived, allowing the latter to breed to alarming populations. The result? Malaria spread with a renewed zeal. Other parasites bred freely and happily in the Aswan lake’s standing water, causing disease in the whole area.

Before the building of the dam around half the water volume from the Nile used to flow into the Mediterranean sea, enriching its waters and its flora and fauna. Since the dam stopped the free flow of the water, there was drastic decrease in fish and other marine organisms’ populations. In the Aswan lake, as well, fish populations have dropped critically, due to the spread of weeds in the standing waters, strangling off the oxygen and food sources.

And these are far from all the consequences, even for people: the erosion of the Delta area, the hunger and dependence of the relocated Nubian people, and more… You may even read about these in the Wikipedia article on the Aswan Dam.

But, you may tell me, these are examples from times past. We didn’t know how to think ahead yet. Everything is different now! Is it though?

Space debris
Space debris

Space debris

Ran Levy, an engineer and author, is also the owner of a fascinating podcast (in Hebrew) “Making history”, dealing with science and technology. One of the early chapters was called Astronaut, the Space Is Your Home: About Dangerous Space Debris (today this chapter is only for purchase, but you may read the text here, and I apologize to my English-speaking audience who do not understand Hebrew at all: you will have to rely on me to tell you the highlights of this story). Ran Levy speaks of one of the most insane man-made phenomena of the modern times: space debris.

There is such a thing?

According to Ran Levy’s research, from about two years ago: “Over half a million pieces of space debris sized above 1 cm, and millions of smaller but no less dangerous pieces, are galloping in various orbits around Earth. Their velocities vary between 20,000 to 30,000 km/h and more, and each may be the size of a pea or more… Put another way, an object 100 times smaller than a bullet is enough to cause damage to a spacecraft as if it was shot at from close range”.

How did we get to this state?

Intelligence satellites in low orbits “propel” their nuclear reactors into higher orbits before falling back to Earth, as a solution to the problem of pollution of the atmosphere with radioactive substances. First they empty their coolant into space, to lower the reactor mass. Hundreds of kilos of coolant mixed with small and large pieces of metal spin around the Earth for years and are still a danger.

In the 50s, the Americans were looking for a way to communicate without the Russians interrupting and blocking them, and a “brilliant” solution was selected: sending millions of small needles, each 1.5 cm long, into space, to orbit the Earth at about 3,700 km height, and create a type of metallic belt around the globe, reflecting radio waves.

Communication satellites started to flourish around that time, which were more effective than the needles, as they were active, thus making the previous technique redundant and leaving about 480 million needles to fly about in space.

Over the time, a few thousand spaceships and satellites were sent to space. A small portion of them has landed or burned in the atmosphere, and an even smaller portion has gone higher into the open space. Hundreds of years will pass until the waste flying in low orbits will find its way back, and in higher orbits it may continue flying around in space for thousands of years.

Not all the waste in space is satellites and spaceships, it is, in fact, rather diverse: over 200 heavy waste bags were discarded into space from the space station “Mir”. Astronauts have occasionally lost various objects during space walks. But most objects flying in space were created by collisions and explosions, which instantly disperse the tens of thousands pieces of rubble in every direction.

And why does it bother us? So some waste is flying about, what’s the big deal?

Ran Levy explains: “Over the years about 60 windows were replaced in the space shuttles because of scratches and deep dents made by collision with small objects. One of these times most memorable in NASA, a collision with a piece of paint about 1 mm long has almost crushed the shuttle window completely, and left a crater several cm across. If this piece was to hit an astronaut during a space walk, it would most certainly have torn his suit.

“For years the US military track about 13,000 objects the size of a tennis ball and larger with telescopes and radars. When such an object gets close to a space shuttle, it makes getaway maneuvers, and changes course. This is a problematic solution, to say the least: there is a limit to the number of objects that can be tracked, and the statistics are always against us”. Not to mention the costs…

Shuttle window damaged by debris

The “Kesler syndrome” theory, named for the scientist Donald Kesler, states that even if we stop today every launch of spaceship, the amount of waste accumulated in space has already reached critical mass. The mechanism most responsible for space pollution is collisions and explosions, and each collision between two objects creates a multitude of small pieces dispersing in space, colliding with themselves and other objects and so forth. These particles create a lethal wrap around the Earth, which will effectively block every possibility of getting into space. If this terrible prophecy proves true, we may find ourselves in a situation where for generations people of the Earth will not be able to develop any advanced space technology, which may heavily impact technology in general.

I also used here the article Space Debris Illustrated, from The Universe Today website

So have we learned the lesson?

I am doubtful. Here is another very recent example, in fact happening right at this time. There is truly an endless number of examples with introduction of non-indigenous animals to “solve” an existing problem, and they all sound just like the Helem story above. Why do we not learn from our mistakes?

Pestalotiopsis microspora mushrooms
Pestalotiopsis microspora mushrooms

The mushroom which eats plastic

A growing number of people are becoming aware of the problem mankind creates by all the plastics and artificial materials in our waste, which the nature cannot process. Not only we are running out of physical space for the mountains of trash we create all the time, and we have already discussed the insane option of discarding it into space, so what do we do with all the materials which do not decompose and return into nature?

A group of US students from Yale University (where, as you know, only the wisest students study) has gone to the Amazon forests, as part of their regular annual research of the Amazon plants, still largely unknown to science. This group has discovered a mushroom by the name Pestalotiopsis microspora, which is capable of existing on a diet of plastic, and even of nothing but plastic. Moreover, the kind of plastic that does not decompose naturally.

Yeah! Hurrah! Everyone is cheering and joyful! Now we can stop looking for environmentally safe materials to replace the harmful plastic, we may continue cheerfully to produce heaps of plastic waste… we now have a solution in the mushroom that will eat it all!

I don’t know about you, but I can hear the poem of Helem Wise Men and I think to myself what would happen when this mushroom will indeed be introduced in all the landfills over the world, and shall start feeding on plastic and breed… Oy wey!! I ca already envision all the Wise Yale Sages searching for what to do with all the Pestalotiopsis microspora who shall eat all the plastic we did not intend to give it for food… You may get an impression of the “green enthusiasts” reaction to the news, for example, in the article This Plastic-Eating Mushroom Cleans Up Non-Biodegradable Waste, on the GreenMatters website, and countless other blogs.

OK, all this is very interesting and illuminating, but:

How is it relevant to Quality Assurance?

Well, what can I say? It is directly about the problem-solving process: all these “solutions” are solutions of people who only have a hammer. They all seemed to the “solvers” as nails, because they were unable to see the whole picture.

In all the infinite examples, and I invite you to see them all around you, the problem is defined from an extremely narrow perspective, and not from the methodical study of the whole process, the factors influencing it, and affected by it, or its effect on the environment. It is nothing but patchwork solution, a Band-Aid on the spot which most bothers us now, this minute. 

As I say again and again, the objective of Quality Assurance is exactly this: laying out the whole process before the people and collecting the pieces from each to form the complete picture, and then the problem (even its existence or lack of it) will become clear – which will make the solution easily present itself.

Are you familiar with all the tools in your toolbox? Or just the hammer? Because then, it will be inevitable to treat every challenge you need to solve as a nail…

Illustration: toolbox
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