The Human Condition:

Reversing the Controls – January 20, 2013

A 1952 British film, Breaking the Sound Barrier, directed by David Lean and starring Ralph Richardson and Nigel Patrick, showed a fictional test pilot at the moment of maximum stress—both for both the aircraft structure and the movie plot—reversing the plane’s controls in order to recover and fly at supersonic speeds. This is a screenwriter’s fantasy, because no such reversal is required to break the sound barrier in real life.1 Yet the story appeals to something in human nature: when all else fails, do it backwards.

I know of only two situations in which reversing the controls is not just a good idea but also mandatory.2 One is when sailing a boat with a tiller attached to the rudder’s king post. In that case, when you want to go left, you push the tiller over to the right, and vice versa.3 This is not a sudden reversal under stress, just the way the mechanism operates.

The other situation is when operating a motorcycle at speed. Most people who get on a motorcycle without previous training will figure out the steering by instinct and body language, and then they imagine the maneuver is accomplished mostly by leaning the bike to one side or the other. But this is wrong. Motorcycles actually have two modes of steering. When pushing the bike around in the driveway or ghosting along at walking speed in the parking lot, the front wheel tracks much the same way as a bicycle or tricycle: turn the handlebar to the left to go left, right to go right. So a motorcycle works just like a bicycle, right? Wrong!

At a certain low speed—depending on the motorcycle’s size and steering geometry, but generally between 10 and 20 mph—those big wheels and heavy tires become gyroscopes. This effect adds to the bike’s stability but completely changes its steering characteristics: the machine goes into counter steer. At these higher speeds, if you pull on the left handgrip to turn handlebar to the left, you are actually precessing the gyroscope that the front wheel has become, and the bike veers to the right. You can make this direction change entirely without leaning your body, although if you’re heading into anything like a 90-degree turn, you’d better lean into the corner to counterbalance those centrifugal forces. The mantra with the handlebar then becomes: “Push left, go left. Push right, go right.”4 The controls are literally reversed.

But aside from the esoterica of steering sailboats and motorcycles, most of the time the world works the way we think it should and the way we were taught at our parent’s knee and in school. That, after all, is why they taught us these “home truths.” So that, in moments of stress and confusion, the right way to save ourselves would also be the obvious way.

What do I mean by “home truths”? Simple things to control and stabilize your life. Things like “Work hard,” “Pay your bills,” “Save your money,” “Be good to your friends,” “Think before you speak,” “Stand up for what you believe,” and—new favorite on coffee mugs—“Keep calm and carry on.” These are the mantras that carry a person through everyday life.

And yet there is a longing in the human soul to occasionally kick over the traces, break out of the everyday, throw away the rulebook, and go a bit crazy. I think such an impulse struck most of America—at least the male part of it—in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of thousands went out to enlist. It was a heartening spectacle of patriotism, but I think some deeper, darker feeling was also at work. The world had suddenly changed. Tomorrow would not be like yesterday. Each person’s life was suddenly thrown into the balance to be weighed and judged. The old rules simply no longer applied.

Something similar, but without the immediate prospect of war and death, happened in the mid-1960s when the “counterculture” came into vogue. Suddenly millions of young, college-age people—under an impulse we still have trouble understanding—kicked over the traces. Well-brought-up, middle-class youngsters who had been taught to study hard, bathe daily, dress neatly, and live sober, industrious lives suddenly went in for long hair, beads, tie-dyed clothing, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. The mental pressure of the Vietnam War had something to do with it, but it’s strange that a small war, barely declared, in a tiny country on the other side of the world could have such mind-bending power. Sudden disgust for the middle-class lifestyle also had something to do with it, but it’s bizarre that such moral angst should arise so quickly and change people’s lives so completely.

It’s as if a whole generation—well, not everyone, not me, and not everyone I knew back then, but at least a significant part of our generation—decided to reverse the controls. Industry became sloth. Sobriety became a drug haze. Casual sex and personal decadence became the cozy norm. Clear thought became fuzzy emotion. Tune in. Drop out. I could understand the feeling but what escaped me was the compelling reason, the structural stress that, like breaking the sound barrier or facing a world at war, caused people to suddenly decide that reversing the controls and going into free fall was a good thing.

I have a creeping sense that we’re headed for the same kind of reversal of logic today. Somehow, somewhere our country crossed a line. I think it may have been when the national debt went from reckoning in the billions of dollars to a sudden, common reckoning in trillions. A million dollars is not so much anymore, and billion is the unit of measure we’ve used for the debt for decades now. But a trillion? That’s a new level. That’s the size of some countries’ whole economy. That’s the other side of the sound barrier.

In response, our politicians and economists, the people to whom we entrust the nation’s future, seem to have gone crazy and just … reversed the controls. The only solution seems to be spending more money, printing more money,5 borrowing more money. The old rules don’t apply. It’s a deranged time.

And what stands as crazy on a national level reflects as crazy on a personal level, too. During the last decade, people went out and bought houses they couldn’t afford, bought upscale cars, television sets, furniture, gadgets and gizmos, baubles, bangles, and beads that were beyond their means, so they bought them on credit. They took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in education loans and then spent their college years on binge drinking and partying. No one I know personally did this or recommended this, you understand. But “Spend like there’s no tomorrow” seems to have been the national vibe for the past dozen years.6 It was in all the papers.

But home truths still apply. The world has been around a long time. Humans have been walking it in their present shape and with their present mental faculties for about 50,000 years. Fathers and mothers beget sons and daughters, and they try to teach them how to survive. In the past two centuries we’ve seen some remarkable scientific, technical, and social advances, and the future is going to be even more strange. But the old rules mostly still apply. We’re not breaking any kind of sound barrier here, and reversing the controls would be stupid. Reversing the controls is just going to make us dead.

1. General Chuck Yeager, the man who actually broke the sound barrier in 1947, was eventually asked if he did it by reversing the controls. His reply was to the effect: “No, ma’am, if I did that I would be dead.”

2. I’m not talking here about the more delicate art of working a problem backwards. That’s a whole separate topic, covered in Working Backward from May 15, 2011.

3. If the king post is operated by a cable system and a steering wheel, then the mechanism takes care of the left-right orientation and the boat steers like a car.

4. As noted above, most of the time this is instinctual. The trouble comes when an inexperienced motorcyclist gets into a tight spot and actually starts thinking. If he or she says, “I’ve got to turn left here,” and pulls on the left handgrip—the bike will go right—usually right off the road. If the conscious intention is to go right and the cyclist pulls the right handgrip, the bike veers into oncoming traffic. (All of this is, of course, from the American point of view, where we drive on the right side of the road.) The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has saved many lives by teaching new motorcyclists specifically about counter steer.

5. Under the guise of “quantitative easing.”

6. If you want, you can blame end-of-the-world syndrome. For two generations now, we’ve had nuclear holocaust, acid rain, global warming, Y2K, the Mayan calendar, or whatever catastrophe is popular this month. Each one promises to come and carry everything away. So why be prudent and save for the future? But, like the mind-bending power of a little war in Vietnam, I just can’t believe that so many people are so … flimsy about their appreciation of life and how it is to be lived.