Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 10

Prague (Czech Republic)

Lessons in travel bureaucracy

This week in Franz Kafka’s home town, the cast of The Amazing Race 15 faced some of their most difficult challenges yet. Harlem Globetrotter teammates Nathaniel and Herbert were defeated by a bizarre task involving an anagram of “Franz” composed of letters provided by voices on five of several hundred simultaneously ringing telephones filling a room at the Kafka museum, to be filled in along with a panoply of other irrelevant personal information on a form submitted for approval to a pair of silent and inscrutable “Supervisors”. Unable to unscramble the anagram after several hours of guesswork, the Globetrotters gave up on the challenge, and took a four-hour penalty that eliminated them from the race.

In reality, travel isn’t usually this Kafkaesque, though it sometimes seems that way. Unlike in Kafka’s stories or in this episode of the race, even bureaucrats generally aren’t trying to torment you with inscrutable forms or requirements. Their procedures have, in their own minds, a logic, and the key to understanding them is for you to see them from their point of view. The essential task of the traveller as amateur anthropologist, if you want to get things done with a minimum of bureaucratic hassle, is to grasp the perspective of the people you are dealing with, and their understanding of the meaning of their interaction with you and the roles they see themselves and you as playing, rather than to figure out the official “rules” that might (or might not) nominally govern the interaction.

There’s also a lesson in the Globetrotters’ decision to give up and take the penalty. Sometimes it’s a rational choice for a traveller to give up on someplace you wanted to go or something you wanted to do or see, or to take a penalty of time or money rather than carrying on with what had seemed a better alternative but that has become intolerable or interminable. More often, however, if your approach to a travel task seems to have led you into a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that should be your clue that there is probably an easier way to accomplish your goal.

Rather than continuing to beat your head against the wall, or giving up entirely, take a break. Ask for help from local people, language or gestures or pantomime permitting. Observe what other people are doing. Consider whether there is some completely different way to pursue your goal — perhaps another day, after a mental and physical rest.

One corollary, of course, is that haste is a major contributor to frustration with bureaucratic delay. If you aren’t in a hurry, it’s not necessarily a problem to come back tomorrow when the paperwork will be complete or the proper official will be in the office.

There are places where people spend much of their time negotiating bureaucratic mazes, but they are rare. And even in the worst of such places, local people have, of necessity, learned the paths of least resistance. Unless you are trying to do something strongly counter to prevailing community values (or the values of any local counterculture from within which you might find assistance, if helping you wouldn’t endanger your helpers), most people are usually happy to steer you, too, to those paths of least resistance. Often, doing it the locally normal and expected way is easier for them as well as for you than trying to do it your way.

Most of the time, you’ll get better results if you start by telling people your goal, and at least listen to how they suggest that you try to accomplish it. Say what you want, and let them suggest how best to get there. If you ask specifically about the bus schedule, you can’t blame your informant for not telling you that you’d be better off taking a train or hiring a car and driver. That requires a higher degree of trust in strangers, of course, but there’s a very direct trade-off: the more willing you are to trust others to figure out routes and methods, the more efficiently you’ll get things done — and the more you will learn about local ways of doing things. You don’t have to take their advice, but it’s educational to hear what it is, even if you then insist, for your own reasons, on doing otherwise.

Rarely in The Amazing Race have we seen a team give up trying to complete a challenge, as the Globetrotters did this week. But even more rarely have we seen a team stop, take a break — sit down, perhaps have a copy of tea, enjoy some music or light reading or a chat with a passer-by about something unrelated to the task at hand to clear their minds — and ask themselves, “If it’s so difficult to do it this way, is there a completely different and better way to approach this problem?”

In the case of the Kafka anagram, the Globetrotters filled out the entire long form to submit to the “Supervisors” with each of their random guesses. But there are only 120 permutations of the letters FRANZ. It took me only 10 or 15 minutes to write them all down on a piece of scrap paper. I know no Czech, but once I had written down all the letter sequences, it was obvious that only a a handful were even conceivably words in any European language.

If the racers had thought about it before throwing in the towel, they might have realized that systematically exhausting the possibilities would have taken them less time than they thought, and almost certainly less than the four-hour penalty. As it was, the Globetrotters had no chance to catch up after their penalty, leaving the three other remaining teams to race back to Las Vegas to the finish line and the million-dollar prize next week.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 29 November 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

The Globetrotters have not been one of my favorite teams
this season, although I have admired their positive, "can do"
attitude. I thought it was shameful that he quit the
roadblock, and their subsequent rationalizations were
pathetic. Their elimination was well-deserved.

For me it's a sad commentary on the quality of American
education that such a simple problem in combinations could
stymie teams so much. Even if one hasn't seen it from a
mathematical perspective, it's not so hard to work out with
a little logical thinking. But then, look at all the teams
that struggled with the Dubai gold detour -- nothing more
than a single division!

And while I'm spouting off about teams' ignorance on the
Amazing Race, let me note how few people know how to use a
rowboat. Every time one is introduced on the show, it seems
as if only one or two teams have a clue on the proper
method. This year only the poker player Tiffany got it

As for travel usually not being Kafka-esque... surely you
jest! Your own blog post immediately proceding this one is
"Keeping Track of Travelers' Personal Information," on which
you have written extensively. Indeed, your own Odyssey in
attempting to obtain your records and get straight answers
from governments and corporations certainly seem to me to be

And then there's the TSA... What with the three-ounce limit
on liquids, bans on nail clippers, removal of shoes, and all
the other pointless actions that are nothing more than what
amounts to "security theater," and all the while the supposedly
freedom-loving American public meekly submits in the name of
expedience -- is this not the essence of Kafka? What could
be more absurd? And the TSA provides the answer that proves
my point: the "no-fly" list! We can't even tell you if
you're on it, so we can't tell if you you've been removed.

Perhaps travel is not Kafka-esque in the Czech Republic, or
much of the rest of the world, but here in the US, we are
doing our best to perform a contemporary interpretation of
Franz's work.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 1 December 2009, 23:20 (11:20 PM)

I liked the 'trotters attitude, so I was sad to see them lose. (I would much rather the dopey, whiny brothers got the boot.) But really, it was embarrassing that he couldn't get the word after hours of trying. Sometimes I wish the show was a more challenging when it comes to puzzles, more like an Indiana Jones adventure, rather than "fly here, drive there, perform this silly or quirky task that has some local flavor". I guess they want a show that regular folk can participate in and relate to. Oh well, it's still a fun show.

Posted by: reid, 3 December 2009, 08:54 ( 8:54 AM)

They'd been in Prague for about a day at this point, which is certainly long enough to notice that Czech has some consonant combinations that don't appear in English, but perhaps not long enough for them to acquire any kind of intuition for what those combinations are. So I wouldn't blame them for thinking that, say, "zrnaf" might be a word in Czech.

And there's the effect of fatigue to consider. It's been a while since we've seen teams get tired enough to make mistakes that are so obvious to us at home, but it does happen (classic example: Nancy and Emily), and maybe it happened here.

Also, it's been a while (I think) since a leg has kept the racers going all night long like this. Maybe the Globetrotters thought it was worth gambling that all the teams would end up bunched by the hours of operation for the detour in the morning.

I was not a fan of the Globetrotters - I don't think they're very smart, and I'm glad they did not win - but I also don't think that their mistake here was quite as boneheaded as it appears at first glance.

Posted by: Johanna, 7 December 2009, 10:58 (10:58 AM)
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