Friday, December 21, 2012

A tale of two boots

In Seattle's rainy December it's easy to forget that I ever felt sun on my face. The nights are long, the sun low in the southern sky during its brief visits, even at noon. At least some part of nearly every day, we get rain, sleet or falling slush.

The goats and the chickens feel about as excited as I do. Lightning is afraid of the dark, Jeannette  sleeps the day away. Meggie is stoical, as she so often is. The chickens find dry spots and just hunker down in them, occasionally foraging for the abundant worms that rise up out of the saturated ground.

The ducks, bless them, love this weather. 

They live for water, and their coats resist all attempts to dampen or chill. The back of the yard is under water.

Areas are barely submerged and swampy, others deep enough for them to swim around. They dabble about, fishing up sluggies and worms and unfortunate beetles that didn't get out before the rains. 

One night, they refused to come in. Maybe they would have been safe. Most predators would be less skilled in the water than they are, but I've lost ducks to raccoons before and I was taking no chances. Out I ran, boots sinking in the muck, to round them up.

By the time I got them all to bed, my feet were encased in big gray rubber bags of wet.

I drained my boots, blotted them out with a towel, set them in the mudroom and went to bed. Predictably, the next day they were as damp as ever.

I have a very good rapport with a wide circle of facebook friends. When my boots get wet, I tell people, and they make suggestions. There were two main schools of thought:

  1. Stuff dry, crumpled newspaper into the boots to absorb the water
  2. Let air circulate through the boots - doing nothing to obstruct the rapid flow of moist air out

People did not agree which method was better, and speculated at length. Both groups agreed I should do an experiment to see who was right.

My Experiment:

I filled both boots to the tops with water. I left them for ten minutes, to fully saturate any crevices. Then I held each boot by the heel and drained it for five minutes. 
two boots full of water, marinating in the sink

I weighed both boots. I assumed they both held as much water as they could and the difference was boot weight not water weight. I do not know if this was correct - it was an educated guess, I suppose.

I stuffed one boot loosely with newspaper, left the other one empty, and placed both on their sides, with their open tops directed at our heat register. 

I changed the newspaper at 12 hour intervals for 72 hours. I weighed the boots every 24 hours and at the end of the experiment. 

There are some problems with this setup. I wish I had weighed the boots at 4 hour increments for the first day. Perhaps I missed differences early on.

And I did not have an elegant way to determine whether the boots were bone dry at the end.

My Results:

Saturated weight
Weight – 24 hours
Weight – 48 hours
Weigh - 72 hr
Weight lost
Boot 1
 52 g
Boot 2
 50 g

I have forgotten how to determine if a number is statistically significant. Maybe someone out there can analyze this data for me.

My Conclusion:

To me, the results suggest that either method works equally well.  This was slightly surprising because the newspaper I removed the first day was quite damp. I expected it to have removed water from the boot, but evidently a similar amount evaporated from the other one.


What was interesting about this test, was that all of my friends, who had pretty strong opinions on which method would be better, were content to give up their theory if it proved incorrect. It was fun, and the stakes were low enough that they could comfortably admit defeat.

We need to be like this more often. We have to make real life decisions, sometimes analyzing evidence that is incomplete. I'm thinking about gun violence right now, but a week ago, before the horror in Connecticut, I would have been thinking of climate change, or the economy, or any of a number of real things that generate a lot of heated disagreement. In these situations, as surely as in the frivolous story of my boots, it is not important to enter an argument being right - it's important to be right in the conclusion. If this means abandoning old beliefs in the face of new evidence, so be it.

I shouldn't defend a position because it's "mine" but because I've thought about it and tested it in whatever way I can. I should welcome and listen to opposing ideas, and if they are right, I should adopt them. This is important to learn in lighthearted, silly moments, so that we can do it when it matters and is harder.

Of course, we have values, about the worth of life, the value of freedom, and our relationship to entities greater than ourselves. These values exist outside the realm of these inquiry. But they should also stand aside when we use inquiry to settle questions of fact.

Above all, we need to base our decisions on what we honestly conclude to be the case - not on what we hope, or what doesn't interfere with our plans, or what we inherited as belief systems from the past.

Regardless of our opinions, we need to spend time making sure they are actually correct.

Otherwise, we are sillier than a bunch of ducks.
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