z6mt7I’ve ranted about how to drive a bus before.  Today is different.  I’m going to teach you how to ride a bus.  Specifically I will teach you why you need to erase the preconceptions that you have—and that insidiously poison every thought you have if you’re not careful—if you wish to truly learn (or teach—another fine example of foreshadowing!).


A friend of mine has lived in Japan for many years.  We’ve spoken (online) at length of the differences in living in “the East” vs. life in “the West”.  This is always a fruitful area for exploration because things are often done differently in “the East” and those differences can often be surprising to those brought up in “the West”.  In conversations with him I found the perfect illustration of these differences and, at the same time, an important lesson to all who think themselves smart.  I’ll let him take over here.

Benjamin’s story

Outside of Tokyo, the buses are not yet westernized.  They have the entrance at the back[pic], the exit at the front.  There is a ticket you pick up when you enter (at the back).  Just like when you visit a doctor, a number is on the ticket.  The number increases each stop so the ticket shows which station you entered at.  Next to the bus driver at the top there is a large display that shows all the tariffs for each number[PIC] and they go up as the bus continues on its journey from stop to stop.  So if you leave, you can see exactly what your fare is at the time, as can the driver when you get off.

(As a sad note, this conversation was one that’s almost a decade old now.  Given what Benjamin was saying about the development of Japan, it is almost certain that none of these buses exist any longer.)

The arrogance of western visitors

The first time most westerners encounter a system like the above the reaction is “how odd”.  Then the mind closes and it’s viewed as “silly” or “stupid” or whatever.  The assumption is that the western system is superior in some way that is “obvious” yet … well … indefinable.  And the reason that it’s indefinable is because it’s not superior in any way, shape or form.

Consider the advantages:

  • it’s very simple;
  • it’s cheating-resistant;
  • you always know what you’re going to pay;
  • you pay only for what you use, no more and no less;
  • the driver’s handling of payments is easier;
  • if you change your mind mid-journey, you pay only for what you’ve used of the system up to that point.

Ottawa’s alternative

The system I had access to in Ottawa was inferior on all counts:

  • you had to pay the same fare whether you were going one stop away or one hundred;
  • if you had to change buses a complicated (yet easily-gamed) system of transfers was used;
  • the driver had to know every possible transfer code—and these changed daily because of the gaming possibilities—that could work on his bus.

Wuhan’s alternative

The system here in Wuhan, apparently based on some French city’s system, is bad on other grounds:

  • you pay per bus, period;
  • the fare is fixed, like in Ottawa;
  • there is no transfer system, however, so if you have to travel ten stops but change buses twice, you’re paying three times the fare of someone who’ll be travelling a hundred stops on one bus.

(At least you can pay by waving a card at a plate, though.  That’s way ahead of Ottawa.)

Both systems, in short, are obviously inferior to this “pre-modern” Japanese system, yet the reaction of people encountering it is to deride it reflexively as wrong and somehow “silly”.  This has extended to the point that the Japanese, to be “modern”, are actually switching to an inferior system just to be more “western”!

This applies to more than buses—or to Japan

There are some lessons to be taken away from this bus system.  We carry an awful lot of baggage into any situation.  In most cases (like bus systems) this isn’t a problem, but when it comes to some very important circumstances (social activism and engineering both spring to mind here) it is very important to be wary of that baggage.

The lesson is to follow three simple steps:

  1. Acknowledge that yes, indeed, it’s different.  Believe it or not, things can be done differently from how you think they should be.
  2. Don’t dismiss things out of hand because they’re different.  Stop.  Think.  Analyze.
  3. After your analysis, be honest: consider the very real possibility that what you’re used to—what feels “natural” to you—might, in fact, be inferior.

The lesson for software

Yes, this is another one of my software rants, albeit in muted form.  This kind of baggage is especially prevalent in software, of all “engineering” disciplines (remind me to explain at some point in the future why I laugh at the notion of “software engineering”), where there’s more cargo cult nonsense than actual thought than in any other industry I’ve worked in or alongside.  (Evidence: the whole curly brace blight.)

When you hit a new programming language, for example, don’t suddenly decide that begin ... end means that a language is useless because it involves typing six more characters (or four more keystrokes) than { ... }.  Even more importantly, when you hit a language that’s confusing at first glance, say one in a paradigm you’re unfamiliar with (which, if you’re like the Chamber’s Constant of developers means any paradigm other than imperative/OOP), don’t discard it because it doesn’t use loops and explicit branching.  See if maybe the approach used isn’t perhaps superior in some way in at least some problem domains.

The lesson for social activism

Social activists in particular are arrogant in their assumption that what they “know” is superior to what others may know.  I see them coming to China all the time to “teach the locals”—they “teach” Christianity, they “teach” democracy, they “teach” Objectivism even (!)—and they find out that their messages fall on deaf ears because what they think of as “obviously superior” is thought of as obviously inferior to the locals.  These people come to China to “teach the locals how to do it right” and leave frustrated and angry at the Chinese because the imagined mass flocking to their ideology they were expecting didn’t happen; because the “intransigent” locals just won’t do things the way the visitors think they should be done.

It never seems to dawn on them that the locals don’t want the new way because the old one is, at least in their eyes, superior.

To be a successful social activist you’re going to have to remove your ideological blinders at times and try to see things from the others’ perspective.  And you’ll have to, on occasion, and likely far more frequently than you’re comfortable with, confess that perhaps the other side’s approach is superior.

The take-away lesson

We all have blinders.  Every last one of us.  These blinders lead our thoughts in well-travelled ruts that are often so deep we can’t even see over them.  In many cases—like bus systems—this doesn’t matter much.  A stupid bus system isn’t the end of the world.  In some important cases, however, like engineering or social activism, these blinders can be a problem that leads to failures both minor and major.  We can’t avoid the existence of these blinders, but we can at least try to mitigate their impact.  When you encounter something different:

  • Recognize that it’s different and move on.
  • Analyze the differences instead of reacting with knee-jerk negativity.
  • If the different way is better, admit it, even if it’s only to yourself.

    —Michael Richter