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Friday, December 17th, 2010

Time Event
1:10p
All I want is a yes or a no

How are decisions made? What are decisions made of? Where do decisions come from? Are we going to tolerate being told ``sesquicentennial'' is a real word? Can decision-making be improved? These kinds of questions get asked whenever that's easier than making an actual decision, which is always. They're asked more urgently whenever it's 150 years from something, which is nearly twice each century.

Centuries ago, decisions were mystical concoctions made with spices, rare elements, and the sweat of increasingly mercury-poisoned alchemists. Nutmeg was thought essential to making the finest-quality decisions. This reflects the historical consensus under which all our explanations for stuff before about 1992 was stupid. This consensus is why most historians turn misanthropic within hours and whack their subjects with sticks. Today we know nutmeg is unimportant for decision-making, and the rare spice is correctly used as a cure for minor cases of death.

But while decisions were thought to rare and precious, the natural way to show power was to making the pettiest decisions possible. Thus in late-medieval England you saw thousands of nobles, stick-whacked by enraged historians, spending the treasure of a nation to decide ``York or Plantagenet?'' and after generations of this starting to write in ``Orleans'' before being stick-whacked one too many times by historians, triggering the Renaissance.

Columbus in famously seeking decisionable spices couldn't decide whether to sail east or west. His tossed coin started rolling east. He'd have sailed east, letting Spain discover Italy, except the coin rolled into what he described as ``a scary cat'', so he went west instead. This would be the breakthrough: actual decisions made without spices or even any psychoactive hallucinogens.

Today we make actual decisions from coffee, or for the fussy, tea. Today we make decisions from deductive reasoning based on clearly known facts and universally true values. This is why the decision-making process is so free of conflict, ambiguity, and personality clashes.

Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford, National League), covering for Benjamin Franklin, encouraged making decisions on papers with a line down the middle, listing the pros and cons on either side, and cancelling cons until only the pro was left. This is because he bought way too much middle-lined paper for the Albany Congress of 1754 and needed to do something. If Thompson had only lived centuries later he could have billed the sheets as paper models of divided highways and he wouldn't have entered into decision-making.

Steam power allowed standard decisions to be created more cheaply. Markets from London through West London sold prepackaged decisions like ``not plaid enough'', ``on the banana shelf, next to the bananas'', ``once, but not before bed'', and ``rock candy''. Merchants seeking new markets would try North London, then West London again, and again three years later.

Centralized industrial decision-making got swinging when Jay Gould turned 134 small decision-making businesses scattered throughout the northeast into over 288 smaller decision-making businesses scattered throughout the northeast, by whacking them with sticks until they broke. These he assembled --- this was his genius --- into 134 different small decision-making businesses. These he organized into holding companies held in trust by joint-stock companies owned by companies with the same directors under the same yet different names, owned by a proxy server providing pictures of kittens. Asked to untangle the organizational web, he cackled and ran into the snowy night, never to be seen again.

Thusly he specialized, compartmentalized, and streamlined. Since 1873 forming questions, gathering facts, establishing priorities, reasoning, and delivering decisions can be done by separate units, none of whom communicate except by whacking with sticks. We even make decisions without any preliminaries, saving up to twelve percent.

Overproduction followed, with decisions about time-cruise-liners needing ginger ale, whether something could be a ``bisesquicentennial'', or other problems that we don't even have yet. The Delaware and Pridmore's Swamp Canal Decision Company stockpiled so many decisions in anticipation of being asked something New Jersey Transit is still using that surplus, and won't need new decisions until 2035, except as craft projects.

None of the above denigrates the value of making non-actual decisions, but this stick will.

Trivia: The Apollo 17 crew accidentally overslept about an hour on its third flight day, as Command Module Pilot Evans had accidentally turned off the audio power switch, keeping ground calls and the crew alert tone from being received. Source: Apollo 17: The NASA Mission Reports, Volume II, Editor Robert Godwin.

Currently Reading: The Illustrated History Of Canada, Editor Craig Brown.

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