This is another archival repost from the old blog.

At the age of ten, nearing the end of the final year of primary school, we, the class, were sent for a week to Brenscombe Farm, near Poole Harbour, on the coast of Dorset. One of the days was devoted to games on the harbour. We went canoeing, and ended up on one of the small islands which dot the shallow estuary. Accompanying the dozen of us were two or three instructors from the farm, who, with hindsight, I guess were under twenty — gap year students, perhaps — but to a ten year old represented the adult race.

On the island — wooded, and populated by heather and gorse — the instructors organised for us a game. We were to run around a clearing with one oar each and, on their signal, drop the oar in the grass and run back to them. Then, with our backs turned, one of the instructors would remove an oar from the collection, before we were all set running back, scurrying for an oar. The oarless individual at the end of the round would be the “loser”, and barred from participating in the next.

It occurred to me very early on the game that the odds were against me, and that victory would require tactics. Rather than just drop my oar somewhere random, I placed mine towards the far side of the clearing, where the growth was a little thicker, and I kicked up the heather in front of it. The hypothesis was that, while the fast runners were fighting over the easy pickings, I could dawdle past to the the unnoticed cache.

The plan failed. Imagine my surprise when, on the first test of the hypothesis, the least conspicuous oar in the pack was the oar which had been taken out of play. Or rather, it was an oar which had been taken out of play. There were two losers in that round, and one was a dishonourable exit from the game. Apparently, somebody had been cheating. The punishment for cheating was a seaweed wig.

The moral of the story? The winner runs fastest, and pushes his weight around in the struggle. One loses at the whim of those in control, who can pick which paddle to remove. But to approach this problem with logic and reason is cheating.

It took eight years to unlearn that lesson.

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