Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Today the ship sailed back into Rome, and since the Admiral and I had already seen most of the major Roman sights, we decided to take a tour called 'The Wonders of the Vatican Museum'. We figured that after several centuries of virtual monopoly on the whole Christianity gig, the Roman Catholics would probably have amassed a treasure or two.

I'd give you a rundown on the wonders of the Vatican Museum, but I can’t talk because we didn’t see any. The blame for this can be fairly placed at the bunioned feet of old people.

Anyone who thinks that herding cats is difficult has never tried to herd old people. The process of getting a coach halfway to Rome, having a toilet break, getting the coach the rest of the way into Rome, walking to the Vatican Museum, going through security, having another toilet break, getting the tickets, getting personal tour radios, getting a short lecture on the Sistine Chapel, walking to the Sistine chapel, spending twenty minutes in it, and walking out of it TOOK FIVE HOURS. After that, there was an hour to walk to and around St Peter’s Basilica, pausing liberally for the fuddled old dears to catch up with the rest of the group after being thwarted by things like steps, ramps, doors, gift shops and the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Then it was time to head back.

Because they take so long to do anything, we only got to see a Wonder, singular, of the Vatican Museum. That Wonder was the Sistine Chapel, which I'm pretty sure isn't the most fascinating thing in the Museum's collection, and even if it were, one could view it with much more clarity on the internet. But the Sistine Chapel's appeal has nothing to do with its art work. It's just what one does at the Vatican Museum when one is a fool or an old person who abandoned analytical thought sometime around 1994, if not considerably earlier. They’re in Rome, so they see the Sistine Chapel. Do they actually want to see the Sistine Chapel, for any reason other than its preprogrammed iconoclasm? Millions of euros are being spent on an unthinking obedience to the herd mentality; a marker of tribal membership that has nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s art, architecture, theology or history. And meanwhile other treasures are tantalizingly just out of reach.

But if nothing else, I did learn that the Vatican Museum is a great example of chaos mathematics in action. At a certain point of load well below theoretical capacity, any system, no matter how well designed, will break down due to cascading effects of tiny variations. Specifically, all it takes is for one old lady to momentarily stumble on an uneven flagstone to cause a cascade of incrementally longer pauses in the people behind her, eventually resulting minutes later in a traffic jam two galleries behind her.

Of course once you take into account vigorous human idiocy, and not just random accidents, then the system breaks down under a considerably lighter load. It’s not likely that one old fart will stop in a doorway to film the next room with his iPad – most old farts aren’t that stupid and inconsiderate – but when you have a thousand old farts pouring through that doorway every hour, it’s a statistical certainty that at least one of them will be that stupid and inconsiderate, and if the results of his behaviour cause gridlock until the next stupid and inconsiderate old fart comes along, then you have a state of permanent gridlock and the system is a failure.

Or put five hundred people in the Sistine Chapel and tell them, over and over again, that photography of any kind is strictly forbidden, and photographs will still be taken. Statistically, there must be at least one person who didn’t understand any of the languages of the warning, or has a mental illness like dementia, or simply raises their iPhone to snap a picture out of sheer, unthinking force of habit, or is just a douchebag psychopath who does whatever he wants unless physically prevented. Above a certain number, a crowd cannot be preventing from doing something without the preventative measures causing more problems than they solve, not because of the crowd is full of terrible people, but because the numbers are large enough for rare aberrant behaviours to become statistically inevitable.

As you can see, I had to retreat into applied mathematics to avoid beating some bovine pensioner to death with his or her own thermos. At least the Admiral could clear his head by going for a spin on his scooter.


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