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March 11th, 2020



What is the function of an alarm?


The most common type of alarm is probably a smoke detector.  Sprinkler systems might come in second.  The detectors sound their alarm when a certain level of particulate in the air is detected.  Sprinkler systems activate when a certain level of heat is reached.


These make sense on their own, but think of it in terms of money.


When we use our debit cards or credit cards, do we get an alarm when we hit a certain level? 


Most people know that anxious circumstance when they run a card hoping that it’ll go through.  The only alarm we get with these cards is when they are dead.  Either there is no more money in the checking account, or the credit card is maxed out, and both decline.  To be sure, these systems don’t really have alarms so that we are left to be more likely to spend money. 


Imagine if they did have an alarm.  Say your debit card gave you a notice when you were down to $1,000 in the bank, and then another when you hit $500, and another at $100.


This sort of staggered alarm system would also give you an idea about the rate of spending.  Rate is something that smoke detectors and sprinklers can’t do.


These detectors can’t tell you how fast your house is filling up with smoke or why it’s filling with smoke, they only sing at a certain point.  And because of this simplicity, such detectors can’t differentiate between some food you burnt while cooking, and a pile of dirty laundry that an angry lover has soaked with gasoline and lit on fire.



No one questions the use of alarms, and we readily invest in them despite this alarmist quality they have.


This is what alarmist means: exaggerating a danger and so causing needless worry or panic.  That word has been bouncing around a lot lately and as a result the ricocheting has put some dents in the meaning.  Are the alarmists of today just the silly hypochondriacs of society?  Or does smoke always mean fire?  Even when it’s just someone cooking a delicious meal?  Even a delicious meal, or the desire for one can cause a house to burn down.  But there’s a difference between the alarmists we roll our eyes at and the smoke alarm that complains about our cooking.  The thing is, we have to do something about the smoke alarm, and if we don’t know exactly why it’s going off, then we turn on to high alert for what danger might actually exist.  Do we pay the alarmists of society the same attention?  Do we check up on the details of the possible danger they detect?  Or do we just roll our eyes?




Look at the asymmetry here.  We don’t begrudge our smoke detectors of false alarms, because they also work when there really is cause to worry.  The detector might be crying wolf, but we diligently listen every time because we know the wolf exists and the detector is always looking for it. 


Even more importantly false alarms give us a chance to see how we’d react during a real crisis.  Schools, ships, and organizations of all sorts have drills designed to deal with these emergencies, and these drills are intentionally carried out with a simulacrum of alarm. 


Would you call a school’s fire drill alarmist?  No, not really.  They are preparing for the real thing.


The way the word alarmist is being used, is akin to calling fire drills a waste of time.  At the very least, acquiescing to an alarmists call to attention is an opportunity to explore our response in order to see what will happen when a real crisis hits.  Notice how the word ‘alarmist’ here completely undermines the meaning of the word ‘alarm’.  If we don’t perk up when the boy cries wolf, what happens when the wolf actually comes?  What if the wolf is on the hunt for something more than just the boy’s flock of sheep?  What if the wolf is looking for the entire town?


Panic distracts you from seeing the best course of action.  This is its real danger.  It obfuscates and clutters the mind with too much emotion.


On the other hand, remaining calm does not mean you take no action.  Being inactive in the face of danger makes you likewise vulnerable.


If anything, panic is a sign of someone who isn’t prepared.  And remaining dedicated to business as usual is perhaps a sign of someone who doesn’t even realize how unprepared they are.


As Upton Sinclair once observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”


Very few businesses are designed with real catastrophe in mind, which means they are often vastly unprepared, assuming that things will continue business-as-usual.


In a world where we only have one life to live, is there such a thing as needless panic and worry?  Or are such things indications of real problems that we haven’t yet solved?




Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

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Podcast Ep. 696: Alarm

Tinkered Thinking

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