As you might expect from the title, this is going to be yet more thoughts on a topic that we all find literally inescapable these days. As I write this, my home state of Washington has closed all schools, restaurants and bars, prohibited gatherings of larger than 50 people, and encouraged everyone to isolate themselves as much as possible. Wherever you are, I hope you are healthy and safe, and working to keep others healthy and safe by minimizing the spread of Covid-19. In all honesty, people far more qualified than me are talking about the healthcare risks and the strategies to mitigate them. Instead, I’d like to talk about resilience, and how isolation may change us for the better.
The Blinding Flash of the Obvious
I’ve seen some joking about whether we’ll see a baby boom in nine months, but an even more likely result of isolation is creativity. After all, those unaccustomed to using food-delivery and group video chat services are going to get much more tech savvy, while the more adventurous are already crowdsourcing wikis, 3D printing ventilators, and coordinating growing armies of volunteers. The saying is that necessity is the mother of invention, but it’s really constraint that fuels creativity. When hemmed in by constraints outside their control, creative minds of the past have been at their best.
Even more powerful is the opportunity to compare different solutions to the same problem after each is tested in isolation. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it...but what if there really is a better way? The ancient ‘scratch’ plow of Europe was once called the agricultural equivalent of inventing a car but not the transmission system, so that in order to switch gears you had to open the hood while the vehicle was running and swap the gears manually. As inefficient as that sounds, Europeans used the scratch plow for centuries, until they took one look at the moldboard plow from China and were practically blinded by the light bulb.
Like the Silk Road, the geographic separation of islands allows for intermittent idea sharing to punctuate long periods of isolated problem-solving. One such example is fanorona: a cousin to checkers that comes from Madagascar. Both checkers and fanorona are descended from alquerque, a game thought to have come from the Middle East. It was mentioned in the Book of Games in the 13th Century (see the blog article on Chess for details) and flourished in Europe and Africa, but once it made it to Madagascar, things changed.
“if jumping was so important, why did the board start out so crowded that no one could jump?”
While alquerque was a jump-to-capture game, the opening position of the game as shown above, doesn’t allow any way to capture on the first move. It begged the question: if jumping was so important, why did the board start out so crowded that no one could jump? Folks on the continent solved that problem by swapping out the alquerque board for a less crowded chessboard, thereby inventing draughts/checkers. The Madagascar solution to the same problem was to introduce capture by mere contact with opposing pieces rather than jumping them. This single innovation makes it truly unique among games, especially because captures can happen when contact is either made or broken.
My wife loves the works of Hayao Miyazaki--anime films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro--because the thought patterns embedded in these mythologies are so foreign to her, it makes her see the world differently. Fanorona does the same thing for me. I wrote last month about foreign branding, but the exotic appeal of fanorona isn’t just clever marketing. It really comes from a place where people thought about games differently, and that novelty nags at me as I play. The game was featured in Assassin’s Creed for this very reason--its isolated origin makes it delightfully foreign to the entire planet--even to the nearby continent of Africa.
Obviously, we don’t have to argue whether fanorona is superior to checkers, like with the moldboard vs. the scratch plow. This isn’t about winners and losers. However, it’s good to wonder why jumping over pieces should be the natural means of capture in so many otherwise unrelated games, from checkers to peg solitaire. It’s hard to find any justification for jumping over contact except that’s the way we’ve always done it--the same as the scratch plow and recording on magnetic tape and whatever they did before the Fosbury Flop. Alternate solutions to our problems make us question why we solved them the way we did, which can be a little scary...but it’s generally a good thing.
“A pandemic like the world has never known will meet solutions the world has never seen”
Over the next few weeks, we’re all going to see the worst of humanity, but we’ll see the best, too. Just in my town, we’ve had people checking up on old friends and acquaintances, cheering them up on social media, and offering to help. I overheard a woman offering others her surplus to whoever needed it because the supermarket was out of toilet paper. Meanwhile, in DC, there are stories of one restaurateur turning his closed restaurant chain into community kitchens to feed the hungry.
I can’t wait to see that generous spirit combine with creativity, and with necessity, to meet a pandemic like the world has never known with solutions the world has never seen. I’m not talking about a single innovative hero like you’d see in the movies. I’m talking about thousands, tens of thousands of little acts of innovation, each focused on one tiny part of the problem in one small corner of the world. It’s our responsibility to watch for them, witness them, and share them. You never know who will be inspired, wondering why they have always done it differently. As painful as this time is, the world that emerges could be much better for it.
Thanks for reading. While you’re staying inside, consider passing the time with a game of fanorona, or any of our other puzzles or games. They are great ways to connect with the people we love and remind ourselves what this precious gift of life is really supposed to be about.