Occam’s Toddler

Occam’s Razor is a simple scientific precept that I probably misunderstand, but I’m going to hijack it anyway.  It states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one.  Did I screw that up?  I probably screwed that up.  Anyway, toddlers make this almost impossible to do, and with that in mind, I posit a corollary to the Razor: Occam’s Toddler.  Occam’s Toddler states that for any number of given solutions to a problem or any series of explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is probably the best one; however, if there is a toddler in your charge, it’s dangerous to use razors around toddlers, so put that thing away, and now the toddler is spilling cotton balls and lotion all over the bathroom floor and JESUS GET AWAY FROM THE CURLING IRON —

Ahem.  In short, it’s impossible to wield the Razor if you have a toddler.  So if you have a toddler, I have a smidge of advice for you:

Throw away that piece of crap you’re holding on to.  You know the one.  It’s the appliance or tool or bit of furniture that you know is a little bit wobbly, a little bit crappy, a little bit worthless that you’re hanging onto because you can “get by” with it.

Seriously.  Get rid of it.  Why?  It’s wrecking your perspective.  Case in point:

We have a metric truckload of baby-specific bits and pieces: toys, bags, bins, wipe warmers, bottle warmers, stuff sterilizers, knob wobblers.  You don’t think about your tools unless and until they break down.  When your head’s down and you’re in the sharknado, you don’t have time to stop and check the oil, to adjust the levels; you have to rely on your tools to get you through.  (And when you have toddlers and infants, you are always in the sharknado.)  We’ve been relying on one particular bit for about two and a half years now.

The bottle warmer.  Sprout #1 never really took to breastfeeding, so I was able to help with a lot of his feedings.  My wife would pump and fill the fridge up with baby food, and all I had to do was dump it in a bottle, heat it up, and serve it up for the little bugger.  Sprout #2 doesn’t take bottles nearly so well, but my wife is getting some more shifts in at work which means baby has to take a bottle or not eat… so we’re back to the warmer again.  In short, the thing has seen almost two years of use by now.  And it never worker properly.

I didn’t know it wasn’t working properly.  It performed its job function well enough to let me do what I needed to do with it, which is to say I was able to feed the sprouts with it.  But it always seemed to me to be a really crappy product.  It’s a really simple appliance that holds about a cup of water in addition to the bottle you’re warming.  In the bottom of the basin is a coil that, when activated, gets blistering hot and boils the water in nothing flat.  Well, it worked so well that the water would boil and boil and boil, to the point that the water would splash up and over the sides of the unit, all down its face and sides, and all over the countertop.  Well, the water on the exterior of the unit didn’t seem to be hurting it, and the water on the countertop was easily remedied by putting the unit on a little saucer which caught the overflow.  A practical solution, though it never stopped nagging at the back of my mind that it was really poor design, if not downright neglectful, for the product to be susceptible to spillage like that (what if I don’t know it boils over and position the thing right next to the outlet, and it sprays water over the outlet and surrounding plugs, and the house burns down?  Okay, these are things I worry about since having kids, maybe it’s a bit over the top).

Nevertheless, it got us through, so we suffered through it.  Until a week ago, when the thing crapped out.  Plugged it in, turned it on, nothing.  I figure it must have shorted out finally due to the spillage, or maybe it just naturally outlived its usefulness (I can’t figure they build most of these baby doodads to last much longer than you are likely to need them for the baby… no money in building something to last 15 years when it only needs to last one).  So we had to replace it.  We get the new one home and give it a spin and notice immediately that there’s something wrong.  The unit powers on, the indicator lights up, the water gets hot, it begins to bubble, then it shuts down.  I watch it for a moment as if a kraken is about to burst from the depths of that 1-cup reservoir.  It clicks to life again, the orange indicator light coming on, the bottom of the basin beginning to bubble around the heating element, then it shuts down again.

So it’s broken.

De-crapifying the house is a back-of-mind goal for me of late, so I toss anything I don’t see an immediate or likely need for.  As a result, the box for the new bottle warmer is in the trash.  My wife and I go digging for it, and we find it, but while we’re digging for it, that nagging feeling bites me in the brain.

What’s more likely?  That the new item fresh out of the box is malfunctioning, or that the unit which never seemed to me to work properly shorted out because it wasn’t working properly in the first place?

So I crank up the new warmer again and dunk a bottle in it.  It clicks on and off several times during the cycle, but after the proscribed time passes, I check the bottle and it’s the right temperature.  Not too hot (happened a lot with the old warmer) nor too cold.  And it suddenly makes sense.  The heater is not supposed to run continuously.  Running continuously is what causes the spillage.  No, the unit has a temperature sensor built in that shuts down the heater when the water is above x temperature to keep it from boiling over.  Clearly that function of the old warmer never worked properly.  So we lived with a broken unit for two years because it worked well enough for what we were doing and never thought to question it.

Now, is this a big deal?  Not really.  It’s the difference between mopping up the countertops every so often and running an extra dish through the wash from the spillage it was catching.  More important is the peace of mind that the thing is actually functioning properly and does not any longer seem a likely source of destruction for our house.  But had we had the presence of mind to stop and think about what was going on with that bottle warmer in the first place, we could have avoided a lot of frustration.

My point is, that thing that you just accept, that thing that you just deal with because it’s not that bad is skewing your perspective.

My son loves to turn the lights on and off.  On when he comes into the room, off when he leaves.  This is a pretty cool skill for a two-and-a-half-year-old to have, I think.  Today I’m pulling together a snack for him in the kitchen while he’s watching Cars (again) in the living room.  He comes running in to check on me (because I’m the one that needs checking on), and when we get back to the living room, the whole entertainment center is shut down.  TV, dvd player, router, all of it.  The baby swing plugged into the same outlet is also powered down.  I figure the outlet must have overloaded, and go to the garage to reset the breaker, but the breaker’s not tripped.  I go back in, jiggle the plugs, nothing.  I start thinking that the wiring in the house is going bad and I’m going to have to tear out the wall to get a look at the wires when my kid climbs up a makeshift ladder built out of diaper boxes and stuffed animals and hits the light switch in the corner of the room that I never think about because it controls the outlet for no discernible reason.  I looked past the obvious solution because I just didn’t bother to look at it.

That’s a heck of a long way to walk, I know, but it’s a reminder worth remembering.  Just because something is “good enough” doesn’t mean it’s actually good enough.  Just because something “should” work doesn’t mean that it does work.  Never underestimate a human’s ability to ignore a simple solution in favor of a much more complicated one.  But also, be prepared to shoot that human in the kneecap before he can start tearing down the walls of his house to pursue that complicated solution.

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