Great Minds

“Great minds think alike.”    Don’t we love that statement?  In the annals of self-congratulation, it stands tall, much like “what a team we make!” and “Look at what I did!”  Phrases we all like to use when it’s time to pat ourselves on the back.

But is the first one true?   Do great minds think alike?   

Time to head for the library.   The idea was to make a list of ‘great minds’ and follow it up with some serious examination into how and what they thought. With luck, the research would reveal if similarity in thought characterizes great minds.

Alas, it was not to be so.

What resulted is pretty amazing, especially if you keep in mind that history is a concoction of fact and fiction anyway, that the real truth of anything will always be elusive.  The best we can hope for is that something is on ‘good authority’. The following is on good authority.  Don’t ask me what constitutes a ‘good authority’.

Selecting a list of great minds was easier than you would think, at least when it comes to famous dead people.   The field is limited – most famous dead people are either kings, queens, politicians, or generals and, as we all know, there aren’t many great minds in that group.  I also eschewed live great minds mostly because I don’t know very many and most of them live quietly and unheralded in this grotesque age of self-promotion and spin doctoring.  The only people I seriously considered were Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky but I demurred out of respect; why would they want to be thrown in with a bunch of dead people?

Anyway, I picked some obvious great minds – Einstein, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Dante Alighieri, Galileo and Isaac Newton.  Bohr, Kepler, Archimedes, and Marconi were added to the list.  I arbitrarily excluded ancient great minds like Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, and – dare I say it? – Jesus.  No good reason for this other than their works tend to get candy-coated by centuries of various interpretations and I couldn’t trust the veracity of everything that was attributed to them. No doubt that what they said was actually said.  But by whom?  And when?  (I also passed on Marie Curie because you have to wonder about someone who worked their entire lives with something they knew would kill them.  Did you know that to this day, her notebooks are too toxic to handle without protective clothing?)

I then added some not-so-obvious great minds:  Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant scientist whose work was quashed then cribbed by Crick and Watson; Orson Welles, just because; Beethoven; Benjamin Franklin; and Emily Carr (how many successful painter-writers do you know?) because I needed another female.   This raises the interesting question as to why more brilliant women were not handed down to us from history.  Male domination?  Mysogynistic historians? Probably.

So, did all these ‘great minds’ think alike?    

Not a bit.   Half of them said they preferred to do their ‘great’ thinking in the morning, leaving ‘everyday’ thinking (Should I eat that second leg of ox?) to the remainder of the day, while the other half were the reverse. Two said they’d established a routine in which they thought one day and communed with nature the next.  One laughed at this, saying the closest he ever got to nature was a visit to the outhouse.  Another said he couldn’t take a day off because he had three mortgages and four ex-wives.  Five eyed him enviously, two with pity.

Some said they liked to entertain great thoughts while enjoying a glass or two or more of schnapps (or its equivalent) while others thought it too early in the day for that but, if the muse of inspiration were to skedaddle, they’d reconsider.  Three professed to be believe that Socrates might have passed up the opportunity to drink hemlock if only Xanthippe had been nicer to him, while others said he got what he deserved for marrying someone forty years his junior.    

Four announced that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush but the rest laughed and said the saying made no sense as an analogy and, at best, was a ‘regional’ aphorism that should have stayed in the region. Sixty per cent said they believed in God but differed widely on how He/She might look like.  The remaining forty percent refused to answer on the grounds it could cost them their jobs.   They all agreed that Ptolemy was wrong but three said he should be admired for trying to figure things out at a time when people worshipped beetles. 

Five thought King David could have been a boffo song-writer on Tin Pan Alley (“Right up there with Berlin and Paul Anka!”crowed one)  but others thought his talents lay more in the area of giant-killing and wife-stealing.  And one thought the 1927 Yankees were a better team than the 1964 Cardinals.   The rest said “Don’t you have better things to think about?”   Upon hearing a description of life in the western world in the 21stcentury, five said “You must be joking”, while the others simply shook their heads (One made the sign of the cross but refused to explain).  Eighty per cent agreed with Thomas Hobbes when he said life is ‘mean, brutish, nasty, and short’. The twenty per cent claimed it didn’t have to be that way if you had enough money.

Finally, eight believed Johnny Fever should not have lost his job in LA for saying ‘booger’ on air, while the rest claimed not to have any familiarity with the word, ‘booger’.

There was unanimity on a couple of subjects.  Honesty is the best policy.  Bigger is not better.   Wearing white after Labor Day seemed to work for the Romans. And, a good sleep is elusive. That’s it.

But, on balance, they don’t think alike.   The saying is, as they say, bogus.

But what about Not-So-Great minds?  Little minds.  Do theythink alike?    Surprisingly, there is also considerable research on this subject.  Not to mention a sharp uptick in candidates.  

Little minds agree on a lot of things.   Ricky Nelson was a good singer.  If you didn’t like to think about things too strenuously, the bible’s zillion and one quotes could provide a handy summation for any argument.    Life is short, but not necessarily, if you’re college-educated, live in the western world, and have enough money to retire to a gated community.  Special effects improve a movie.

There is strength in numbers but not when it comes to arithmetic.  Kentucky Fried Chicken is okay once a week.  Wal-Mart is your friend. An apple a day will keep the doctor away but be careful if you happen to really need a doctor. Truth will probably set you free but it’s hard to know what’s really true.  Television, especially in the daytime, is a great educator.  Winning is the only thing that matters – except when it eludes you.   Truth and opinion are two different things but you can get a real headache if you want to form a clear opinion on the matter.   Love doesn’t conquer all; it’s not even in the running.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t put a fish in a barn.   People aren’t really funny but kids do say the darndest things.  Breaking up is hard to do.

And, finally, while there was no agreement on the truth of these statements, almost everyone agreed they sounded familiar and were enticing.  The statements are attributed to the late, great James Boren:

When in charge, ponder; 

When in trouble, delegate; 

When in doubt, mumble.  

Truisms, perhaps, that straddle both worlds.

CRITICAL THINKING

It’s not as if I didn’t have a chance.  Our family had enough reading material in the house to keep the most zealous bookworm occupied.   Magazines?   My parents subscribed to Time, Life, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, and Reader’s Digest.  We subscribed to the Edmonton Journal, hung in there until the Edmonton Bulletin died (pre-1951), and had the Star Weekly delivered every Wednesday.   On my own I bought Sport magazine, the Hockey News, Sports Illustrated (post 1953), Mad magazine and – although a lifetime of mechanical ineptitude would refute it – Popular Mechanics. My mother belonged to the Book-of-the-month club and my father was an afficionado of  the crime genre, especially Erle Stanley Gardner ( and his seven noms-de-plume). We had a set of Encyclopedia Americana and its ancillary collection “Lands-and-People”.  We were ocasional users of the school and town libraries.  As if that wasn’t enough, my father subscribed to Hansard, the daily transcript of everything being said in the House of Commons.    A more boring publication you couldn’t find anywhere this side of a parts list for a dirigible.   I don’t know what my father got out of reading Hansard;  it wasn’t like anyone in town was lining up to hear what their favorite MP was saying.   The only good thing was that he didn’t lecture me on why it would be useful to read Hansard.

You’d think with all that literature and reading material, we’d be a fairly discerning family.   We definitely knew a lot of “stuff” and were “current”, as they say.   But we were anything but discerning.

Sixty years later, I look back on all that absorption of news about the world we lived in and shake my head.   I can’t speak for my brothers but I know I never did develop any real critical thinking skills, despite my mother being an accomplished realist.   All those magazines and books never pushed me to think about things differently from the accepted wisdom of the day.   I bought into the myths of America and the western World (which really meant the British Empire, that old Neilson map showing all the colonies in red).

Might I have explored my world a little more keenly? Or was I simply lacking a curiosity gene?  This was small town Alberta and there was no internet, no history of dynamic town hall meetings, and little tolerance for singular unconventional behavior.    If there were any original thinkers – and there were – they were generally marginalized and  dismissed as untrustworthy or, worse,  “touched in the head”.    Our family discussions, while on many occasions very impassioned, never veered off a conventional path – goodness is its own reward, right will triumph in the end, our “side” was always the “good side”, you can become anything you want if you try hard enough.   We never questioned these beliefs.  We questioned religion but never God.   We questioned political integrity but never the system under which it operated.   We questioned the depictions of the world by Hollywood but never the underlying assumption that we were good and the “white hats” would win.

I remember my first ventures into the world of classic literature – Twain, Dickens, Kafka, and Tolstoy – and thinking how morally messy and complicated their worlds were.  But, rather than examine how it applied to my world, I concluded they came from very different places and different times and my world was just fine, thank you, and pretty much existed the way Time Magazine said it did. I knew some darker truths were out there but until I experienced them firsthand, I would continue looking at life with rose-colored glasses.

I wonder why I so meekly accepted what we were taught. After all, we were the sixties generation and had begun our rebelling in the late fifties, throwing off the musty lingering vestiges of the Victorian age  and asking a great many questions.   But it seems those questions were, for the most part, neither penetrating nor frequent.  It may sound a bit incongruous, but despite being born during WW2 and despite living in a town that trained the Canadian Army for Korea, I led a fairly sheltered life – no famines, no serious ailments, no catastrophes befalling the community or the province or the country. This may have contributed to my complacency.  It did seem our concerns rarely went beyond sports, girls, and size of fins on the new cars.

It wasn’t as if my peer group didn’t have its cynical side; we could satirize a solemn high mass  or a coronation and had no trouble seeing through most politicians.  But something kept us from questioning the whole framework of our society.  If we saw much of the bullshit that was being peddled by governments and corporations,  we did not go the next logical step and question why so little of it was ever acted upon.  And how were two such wonderful countries, Canada and the U.S., created while we remained ignorant of so much of the pain and corruption that went into this creation and the bitter struggle waged by its citizens to share in the wealth?  Was there a line we were afraid to cross?

If I had been taught to employ critical thinking skills when I was young rather than mastering the art of regurgitating, what might I have seen?   Would I have seen the insanity of American foreign policy in Central America or Canada’s folly with residential schools and the shady admission of Newfoundland into confederation?   Would I have seen how ethno-centric our history was, how firmly it was set in the assumption that America was simply a chunk of deserted land waiting to be divvied up by settlers and developers?  That Geronimo and Louis Riel were the bad guys?  I never questioned McCarthyism, the Rosenbergs, or Kim Philby although I knew that each story was incomplete.

The first shock I remember was Viet Nam.  I began by echoing the “domino” theory and only slowly moved to doubting and eventually opposing.  But I’m not sure I wasn’t simply following public opinion.   By the time I might have thought I was exercising some critical thinking skills, opposition was widespread.   Hard to score one for critical thinking.

Conventional wisdom tells us to “stand up for ourselves” when we see something we truly question. The nobility of the sentiment has remained powerful throughout my life.  But I never really ever “stood up”, in spite of having a strong aversion to authority. I was part of a social fabric and had no wish to tear it apart.   Maybe I was worried about seriously questioning things for fear I would be branded a chronic malcontent (My aversion to authority pretty much guaranteed this label anyway), or becoming marginalized myself just for believing in something unpopular.  And, standing up to protest had its dangers – arrest, ridicule, isolation, and even death.   If nothing else, I was certainly aware at a fairly young age the courage it often took to “stand up for yourself”.

In any case, we live in vastly different times now, largely because of the internet and the cell phone.   Everybody “stands up” even if it is anonymously.   It would be interesting to imagine the Warren Report being scrutinized in this age of social media.   We know the internet is a cesspool of nutty theories, unabashed hatreds, and careless intellectual meanderings but it’s also a source of unconventional and contrary thinking. If nothing else, it has shone a critical light on the management of news as practiced by the mainstream media.

In the final analysis, we’re all “products” of our society and if I can see a lot of falsehood now that I’m older, I don’t suppose it’s any different from the wisdom gained by my forefathers as they aged, internet or no internet.  I can smile at the old German proverb, “So soon old, so late smart”.  I know that history is a tale told by the victors and that tale is almost always a sanitized version of whatever brutal methods were used to win.  I know truth is elusive and there are many sides to every story.  But  . . . .

If I had been given better critical thinking skills, would it have mattered?  And what, really, are critical thinking skills anyway?  Is it merely a puffed-up phrase for using your head? I might have felt better about understanding the imperfect world in which I lived, but could it have made a difference?  One of the pieces of wisdom I did acquire over the years is that the distance between the thought and the deed is often immense.   I’m afraid that’s my most critical thought.

Robert Alan Davidson

(May, 2016)

The Great Canadian Factory Sale

In another life, I was part of a company that built portable camps, camps for the oil patch mainly, but camps for anyone who needed them and were prepared to pay our price. Aye, that was the rub. We built a very fine camp, if I do say so, and quality comes at a price. Unfortunately, the mining and construction industries didn’t feel the need to supply their workers with quality camps, so the oil industry was our primary market.   By and large, they valued quality, especially the drilling companies and the catering companies who serviced them.

Anyway, in those days (late 1960’s) drilling activity in Western Canada was a cold weather business. Activity was brisk in northern Alberta and northern B.C. and was growing rapidly in the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and the Arctic.   When the spring thaw (referred to as the break-up) arrived activity ground to a halt. Unless a business wanted its equipment swallowed by the mud or the muskeg, it sat tight until conditions were better and that generally didn’t happen until the next freeze-up.

Our company had to find a way to keep our valued work force working over three to four spring months until the oil companies decided on their next year’s plans.

Why we did what we did, I’ll never know, but in 1967 we came up with the idea of building travel trailers. The decision probably had something to do with a skill set possessed by two or three employees. That spring we built 20 16-foot travel trailers that were well received and helped us weather the seasonal downturn.

Circumstances the next year were different. We moved from 5,000 square feet of rented space in south Edmonton to our own new plant, a 20,000 square foot building in Spruce Grove, 12 miles west of Edmonton. How we made this transition (the company was only 2 years old at that point) is the stuff for another story but the game was now being played on a much bigger field – higher overhead, greater capacity, more staff, and more intense pressure to produce. When break-up arrived in 1968, we decided to build more travel trailers – this year 40 – 16-footers and 20 – 18-footers that would include a bathroom. It all seemed logical enough at the time.

We were well into building this inventory before giving much thought as to how we were going to actually sell such a large production. I guess we thought the market would simply come to us.   It didn’t. Worse, none of the travel trailer vendors in central Alberta (travel trailers, in those days, constituted almost the entire RV market) were interested in carrying our product line.  We were faced with an expensive inventory of recreational vehicles and no way to market them. Meanwhile, creditors and the bank were starting to get nervous. Above all, we had to keep enough money to meet our payroll.

As a possible answer to our marketing problem, we found a failing travel trailer sales lot in west Edmonton.   We thought it was a good location on a busy street and next door to a successful mobile home dealer; and it had a small inventory of Ontario-built trailers. Maybe it simply needed the right management. The trouble was finding the owner. He had lost interest and was no longer showing up for work. If you’ve never had to watch your own business slide into bankruptcy, when nothing you do seems to make any difference, don’t criticize.

One grey day, we finally tracked the owner to a pool hall – yes, a pool hall – in downtown Edmonton. I guess he was trying to hustle his way out of debt. We watched him briefly and concluded he would need help there, too. Taking him aside, we explained our visit (He wanted to interrupt his game like he wanted to be the first out of the trenches at the Somme). He was sure we were creditors using subterfuge to skim off whatever was left of his bank account. But he agreed to talk. The three of us retired to a janitor closet where we could conduct business amid the muffled crack of snooker balls. You make do.   After we informed him of his options (not many), he quickly agreed to take a very modest sum for his equity in the inventory and the rental deposit. It’s understandable, I know, that people wouldn’t see all this as the world of high rollers and industrial magnates but you have to admit, it had all the ingredients, pool hall notwithstanding. As a post-script, the man went on to become a successful stockbroker. We did not see that in his stars on that rainy afternoon.

We moved some of our trailers onto the new lot, hired a commissioned salesman and waited for business to take off. The lot now had the “right management”. We waited.   And waited. Nothing happened. We sold two units in two weeks and those were to friends. If we were discouraged, imagine how the commissioned salesman felt. The two sales weren’t his. He was starving to death while being bored out of his mind tending a disturbingly quiet sales lot for twelve hours a day. We did some low-key advertising but nothing seemed to help. We knew advertising could be a ‘bottomless’ pit and things were tough enough as it was. One day we received a phone call telling us the door to the lot office was open but no one was in attendance.   We found the office unoccupied and the book we’d left to fill in hours of work was open to yesterday’s date. It included only one comment – in very large letters – “F – – K THIS, I QUIT”.   We never heard from him again. We were, however, beginning to appreciate why he would write such a thing.

Things were not going well. The lot was a disaster. I found myself averting my eyes when I drove by in the mornings on the way to work. Opening a business and simply hoping for customers will do that. Whatever we thought was “right management”, what we were doing wasn’t it. Small wonder the would-be pool shark moved to another career.

What to do now? The creditors were becoming more shrill and the inventory of unsold travel trailers was mounting. We could see our business going down the drain with these smart-looking additions to the recreational vehicle market. Our discussions sounded more desperate by the hour.

We knew we could manage another couple of paydays. That was it.

Finally, one day, one of the partners suggested we hold a factory sale. We had this brand new production facility in a small town west of Edmonton and maybe people would like to see how recreational vehicles were constructed

Okay, so it was not as daring a marketing ploy as Lee Iaccoca’s 1964 and a half Mustang, but to us it was a wild plan, conceived in desperation and founded in hope. With little money, an unknown manufacturing facility in an out-of-the-way location, and an untested product line, we didn’t see our options as being plentiful.

Aggressive pricing would help. We decided on $1,650 for the 16-footers. No one would be beating that price. The 18-footers we priced at $2,950 and threw in a free 12” television (No one seemed to care that rural TV reception was pretty much nonexistent). We placed the order for a full page ad in the Edmonton Journal and, with that, the paper agreed to do a feature story on the company. The ad headlines read Factory Sale! Open House! Come see trailers being built! Free coffee and donuts! The ad cost $800 dollars. In 2016, this doesn’t sound like much. In 1968, to a struggling company, it was huge.

The open house was scheduled to begin at 9:00 am on Saturday and everyone in the company pitched in to get as many trailers finished but still have an adequate number on the production floor.

We all planned to be at the plant by 7:30 Saturday morning to make sure everything was ready.   Someone was designated to buy doughtnuts.

Even in our most optimistic musings could we imagine what greeted us when we arrived at that early hour.

The parking lot was almost full and dozens of people milling around the front door. My first thought was “There can’t be that many of those assholes who show up early at yard sales!” But these were people genuinely interested in touring our plant. And they were polite and anxious to get started. We let them in and ordered some tear gas and truncheons just in case. Actually, we didn’t do that.

Around 8:30, the chaos really began with a steady stream of visitors. When we finally coaxed the last few people off the premises twelve hours later, roughly 3,000 people had visited the plant, purchased over half our inventory of travel trailers, and eaten every sugar doughnut available from west Edmonton to Stony Plain. Not to mention swilling at least 100 pots of really bad coffee (our well tapped into some of the most brackish water this side of a tailing pond and it made coffee taste like a rusty nail – a real rusty nail, not the drink).

It would be no overstatement to say it was the wildest – and most rewarding, if confusing – day of our corporate life. With one salesman and four owners doing the selling and four plant staff telling people what they wanted to know about our product, we sold almost 40 travel trailers. The plant staff were ecstatic. What finishing carpenter didn’t want to show off his cabinet shop? What sheet-metal worker didn’t want to show how a crimper worked? What plumber didn’t want to explain the purpose of a flaring tool? We were literally run off our feet. Customers were lining up to buy trailers. At times the activity reminded me of the floor of the Chicago Commodity Exchange. If such records were ever kept, It had to be the most successful “factory sale” the Edmonton area had ever seen.

Customers couldn’t buy fast enough. A representative of Trader’s Finance had set up a desk in the foreman’s office and a constant lineup of buyers were ready to swallow whatever interest rate it took to finalize the deal. Meanwhile, we settled into a standard sales patter, pointing out our trailers were locally built, better constructed than either the Triple-E out of Winkler, Manitoba or the Travelaire out of Red Deer, possessed a more robust running gear, heavier aluminum siding, and a stronger frame.   We could have competed with Airstream on this day.   My big problem as a would-be travel trailer salesman was a prospective buyer asking for instructions on how to back up when towing a trailer. I knew something about backing up a semi-trailer from an earlier career wrong-turn as a truck driver but had never performed this variation.   Nevertheless, I went ahead as if I knew what I was doing and luckily no one challenged me on my ignorance. All I know is if there had been a tree or a boulder where I was demonstrating, I would have hit it.

The upshot of this whole glorious day was we moved a lot of inventory, put a smile on our banker’s face, and felt we had successfully climbed a very steep hill. I think we half-expected the media to show up to report on what a great day this had been for the Edmonton business community. The entire inventory of trailers was gone within three weeks and orders for new camps were coming in quicker than we had anticipated. We disposed of the sad little lot in west Edmonton and thanked all the bakeries for helping out.

Nobody could tell us a “Factory Sale” wouldn’t work. On the other hand, we hoped we never had to do another one. A lot of our success on this one was attributable to the RV industry exploding when it did. We did not see another one in our future.

The company never looked back and sold two years later to one of Jim Pattison’s Vancouver conglomerates. We had many highlights and firsts over those four years, some of them deserving stories all their own.   But the one we remember with undiminished surprise and pleasure was that “factory sale”.

Robert Alan Davidson

(May, 2016)