On our recent trip to Raleigh for the holidays, I had an interesting exchange with my son-in-law, Nat. With our other two children already having returned to their homes in Orlando and Arlington, VA, only my wife Theresa and I remained. Along with our daughter, Lilly, the four of us were on our way to a restaurant for lunch and then to the airport.
Nat was driving and I was in the front passenger seat of their Nissan Leaf. Lilly and Theresa were in the back. Lilly and Nat are pretty serious about the environment and had recently purchased this electric car. We had spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons over the week of our visit. I was working out quite well for them.
When I mention discussing the Leaf, I should add that Nat leaves little to speculation. He is a researcher near the end of his PhD in epidemiology. Not only does the car spit out massive amounts of data and telemetry, Nat and Lilly had crunched many additional numbers justifying their purchase.
Nat is also kind of a safety nut. The term “nut” is clearly unfair as everyone should practice a reasonable amount of safety and the moniker exists only because most people do not. Still, even my wife, a Compliance Director, is impressed by the length of Nat’s safety analysis and rule following. Since I am somewhat of a stathead myself, it appears that Lilly, in a way, married a slightly more extreme version of her parents.
While driving to the restaurant, Nat had the occasion to blow his horn at another driver. Knowing that Nat was not one to honk in anger or retribution, I asked what his standard was for horn usage. I know, it sounds pretty nerdy, but that’s the kind of thing that analytical people talk about…at least I do. During the discussion, Nat mentioned something along the lines of that as a safety device, he usually used his horn to warn others about impending danger, particularly those behind him who could not see what was coming.
I am fully aware that this is probably very close to the actual purpose of a car horn, but also that very few people use it in this manner. So few, I imagine, that the typical driver would not even take his horn blowing as a warning. Still, I had another thought. It seemed to me that the physical design of the car horn was aimed forward from the car, rendering it somewhat less effective in warning people behind you.
At this point, Nat said something rather unexpected. He said, “That was the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Lilly immediately told Nat that she thought that his statement seemed a bit harsh. I took no offense, not until later, and for a couple of other reasons. In fact, after a great week, and the fact that we were leaving shortly, I completely dropped the whole thing, figuring I had either touched a nerve or that Nat just had a brain fart and overreacted.
At the restaurant, I went to the restroom, and apparently Nat apologized to Lilly and Theresa. I just thought it was kind of funny. On the plane back to Ft. Lauderdale, however, I thought a little more about the incident. When I got back home, I began doing some research. I first looked up the patents for various car horns. While there were improvements over the years, they are nearly all directional, facing forward, and on the front of the car. This does not make them unable to be heard from behind, but certainly less effectively. Imagine the difference listening to a marching band as the move toward you and away from you.
I then did some research on acoustics and found some graphs displaying the effect of sound coming from a directional device. The bulk of the sound pretty much covered a 180 degree arc centered directly ahead of the source. I imagined Paul Revere warning the people of outer Boston. I’m sure that Paul could be heard by people in front of him and in the houses on the sides. Unfortunately, those who were behind him probably never found out that the British were coming until they saw the whites of their eyes.
Whether anyone agrees with this research or not, it certainly passed the threshold of “The dumbest thing I ever heard.” Even the fact that I did the research was dumber. Maybe it wasn’t my acoustical interpretation that had offended Nat. Maybe it was the questioning of his safety protocols. Just because every other psychopath on the road uses their horn as a weapon of attack and revenge, that’s no reason for all of us to descend into chaos, is it?
I met with a friend who did some time as a municipal court judge. She told me that it was indeed illegal to use your horn as anything other than a warning of potential calamity. I mentioned that the law seemed to go against practice out in the real world and she agreed. As a matter of fact, only once did she ever preside over a case regarding aggressive horn usage. An officer had cited a driver, but did not show up for the court case. My friend had to look up the statute. It stated that in order to be in violation, the use of the horn had to be of “inordinate length.” Even the statute didn’t seem to be all that concerned about safety. Case dismissed!
I had to be going about this all wrong. I wasn’t even claiming to be right, a pretty big concession on my part. What was I missing? Maybe this wasn’t about the car horn. Is it possible that Nat’s threshold for dumbness was that different than mine? I decided to call my friend Tyrone. After all, he was the person, to whom I have most frequently said, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
After relating the story to Tyrone, he agreed that this was unusual hyperbole from Nat. Tyrone said, “I’m certain to hear something dumber than that during any five minutes of radio sports talk.” I agree. With the recent election, three out of every five Facebook posts are candidates for a new low in dumbness.
“Wait,” I replied, “Nat has probably never heard a minute of sports talk radio. He also doesn’t watch sports on TV. I don’t think that he has any presence on social media either.”
“Interesting,” said Tyrone. “He also has smart parents and a smart wife. I can’t imagine that he runs into many doofuses in his PhD program. But could his threshold for stupidity be that high? He goes to the supermarket. He drives a car. He must have wandered into a Post office at some point. That’s the dumbest place on the planet. I’m sure it was just a brain fart like you first guessed.”
“I suppose you’re right, Tyrone. I don’t even know why I gave it a second thought.”
“Sure you do. You often pride yourself on being the smartest guy in the room.”
“Let’s say that you trip and fall, hit your head and die. Or, you fall out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and die when you hit the ground. Both deaths are instantaneous on impact, but in the second scenario, you have more time to think about it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s not the impact that’s bothering you. It’s the length of the fall.”
“Dude, that is the dumbest thing I ever heard.”