As a rule

Last evening I was addressing a meeting about some general principles of capital fund raising. It is a topic that I know a fair bit about, having conducted multiple capital funds campaigns over the course of my career. I also have worked with consultants who do capital fund raising full time. At any rate, I used the phrase, “as a rule . . .”

Of course there are no rules that govern people’s giving patterns. I used the phrase incorrectly. I should have said, “generally,” of “usually.” No one commented on my use of the phrase, and I doubt that it confused any one, but I noticed it and thought to myself that I need to be more careful in choosing my words.

The phrase “as a rule,” is a shortening of a phrase that has its roots in naval navigation. The term as used in that context is “as a rule of thumb.” A rule of thumb refers to the safe distance from an obstacle. In the days before GPS devices and depth finders and chart plotters, Sailors used paper charts. The charts had dangerous reefs, sand bars, and other obstacles that posed a danger to sailors noted on them. The tradition was for the captain of the vessel to place his thumb next to the obstacle and the ship was to stay that far away from the obstacle. No particular though was given to the scale of the chart or even to variations in the sizes of human thumbs. A vessel was safe if it got no more than the distance covered by the captain’s thumb on the chart.

Of course there were problems with the rule of thumb. Most charts of the time had only estimates or incomplete information about the rising and falling of tides. They rarely had significant information about currents or changes in terrain caused by landslides or other dangers. The charts were mostly based on hand-drawn charts and could have significant errors in the locations of certain items. Dangers were often discovered by accidents or near accidents that caused panic among crews and led to errors in reporting. Then there are the normal problems with sailing: wind speed and direction, fog and other weather patterns, and the limits of human endurance and judgment. “A rule of thumb,” often wasn’t enough to avoid an accident, and there are stories of ships lost at sea and near shore that fill volumes and volumes.

The real rule in sailing is that sailors should avoid running into areas too shallow for the ship. They should also avoid running into rocks and sand bars and other obstacles. And, while they are at it, they should avoid running into other boats. That’s the general rule and whether or not thumbs were used to insure safety is a moot point when an accident occurs.

One has to be careful of rules because the world is not constant and there are usually exceptions to rules. To take another example from sailing, The bow is the front of the boat as it goes through the water. The back is the stern. The left side is port and the right side is starboard. All of those directions are for a boat in motion and are relative to the motion of the boat. Technically, when a boat is traveling in reverse the stern comes the bow and starboard becomes port. The assumption is that sailors should face the direction of travel on a vessel. But not every sailor uses that terminology correctly. So it is incumbent upon careful sailors to make sure how the captain is thinking when issuing commands. Since boats generally move backwards only when maneuvering in close quarters the stakes in those commands can be high.

There are other rules that have exceptions. You’ve probably heard “righty=tighty, lefty=loosey” in reference to the direction that a nut turns. There are exceptions to this rule. One that is important to remember has to do with the connections to propane or acetylene or other volatile gasses. In industrial uses, pipes used to connect to the valves on volatile gas bottles are backwards from the standard direction used on inert gas bottles. This is to prevent the connection of the wrong hose to the wrong bottle. This is critical in cases such as oxygen-acetylene welding bottles. You have to hook up the right hose to the right bottle to avoid a dangerous situation. The hoses are threaded backwards, but in most cases the valves turn the same direction. However, there were some bottles manufactured with the valves also going in the opposite direction. In an emergency situation, it is important to know which direction the valve goes to shut off the flow of gas.

Exceptions to that rule include the lug nuts on certain automobiles. Although it is rare in modern vehicles, it used to be the case that the lug nuts on one side of the car turned in the opposite direction in order to prevent the motion of the wheel from loosening the nuts. Strangely this also used to be the case with the flush handles on toilets. If the handle was on the right side of the tank the nut would turn the opposite direction of the nut on a handle on the left side of the tank. These days, however, flush handles generally have plastic nuts and are designed to be installed on either side of the tank by turning the handle upside down. Knowing the direction to lose the nut involves knowing a bit about the age of the handle and, in some cases, a bit of trial and error.

Then there is the matter of “stage right” and “stage left” as opposed to “audience right” and “audience left” in theatre productions. The assumption is that the majority of actors will be facing the audience and therefore directions need to be identified as to whether left and right are from the perspective of the audience or of those on the stage. The rules are complex when applied to proper display of flags, in which the position of honor depends on whether the flags are displayed on a raised stage or on the level of the audience.

So I’ve decided that I need to teach myself, when noting rules, to be aware of the exceptions. In fact, I suspect I’ll use the phrase, “as a rule” far less often if I can only make myself slow down and think about what I’m saying.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!