Uppermost House: Zero sum game, not

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

According to Wikipedia, a zero-sum game is a “mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain (or loss) of utility (measure of preference) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participants.” This concept is useful in both game and economic theory, where, in layman’s terms, it really means “everyone breaks even, but no one wins.” Some might even apply it to parenting.
A few weeks ago, my son Jeremiah asked me to “help” him with an “experiment” he had concocted. He’s an engineer by bent, education and profession, and as his experience and training has increased over the years, so has the level of sophistication of his, um…ideas. Schemes might be a better word.

Without going into details (let’s avoid getting lawyers involved, shall we), Jeremiah wanted to see if a battery containment vessel he had built for his submarine would implode if put under enough pressure. In order to exert the necessary calculated force (he mentioned something about needing to exceed the “working load,” something I try never to do), we either needed to rent several elephants, or find a really deep body of water. Enter Sebago Lake.

Like many good ideas, this one was really simple. And, like many simple ideas, it ended up complex. As Norman Maclean wrote in his classic nonfiction tragedy, Young Men and Fire, “It was a good plan, except that it did not allow for the wit of the universe and the mental lapses of man.”

Out in the middle of the bobbing lake one cold day, we sent said sealed container down into the blue depths of the big lake, weighed down by random hunks of steel and tethered to Jeremiah’s pontoon boat with a thin line. Down 250 feet, up 250 feet. Imploded or not imploded. Failure or success. Dead easy. Except that once down, we couldn’t raise the container the barest inch. Yanking as we might. Two strong men, slightly confused.

“Missed a contingency” one of us might have said.

Bottom line: never send a length of parachute cord to do a cable’s job.

In the end, we left the container and its trailing cord behind, buoyed by a submerged personal floatation device and tagged on Jeremiah’s GPS, and headed back to shore to think things over. Level thinking sometimes requires level ground.

After we loaded the boat back on the trailer, we spent a few minutes scratching our heads about how to salvage the experiment. The container wasn’t worth anything, but there are laws against leaving stuff underwater, plus it was just the principle of the thing. Eventually Jeremiah looked at me and smiled, “Gosh, Dad, we’ll have so much fun trying to get it back!”

In a couple of days, I got an e-mailed video of the contraption he’d designed to send down the p-cord to retrieve the container. It was extremely clever, although it appeared to have been cobbled together out of old pinball machine parts and a pair of barn door hinges

Back on the boat, the GPS led us precisely to the spot and we spent several happy hours scuba diving and rigging stuff and creating three-to-one hauling systems; and then we sent the contraption down the line and, and hurray, it captured the lost container just like in the video; and then we pulled really hard for a long time, tripping over each other and working out the kinks in the system (and for one 20-minute period both becoming incredibly confused), and lo and behold, inch by inch, up she came. And with one final heave everything was back up on the boat, dripping, and we were exhausted and wet and cold and strangely happy.

As we headed home with our prize I got to thinking about what we’d ultimately accomplished: nothing. Over two days, we’d lost a big section of PVC pipe and some bolts and hunks of steel at the bottom of a lake, and then we got it all back. We ended up with what we started with (minus several gallons of fuel). It was an exercise in futility. Utterly pointless.

Yet two days with my son in the middle of one of Maine’s most beautiful lakes. Two goofy afternoons laughing and figuring stuff out and yanking on things and giving each other that “what in the world were you thinking?” look. Getting wet and cold and tired and hungry. Two husbands, two fathers, two friends, so busy yet squeezing out time together. Accomplishing nothing.

Experts would call this a classic example of a zero-sum game. And they’d be so wrong.

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