The Twelfth Camel

In a way, this post should write itself. For those of you with context, the title should be self explanatory. And you need not read further.

For the rest I’ll write a rather small essay.

The story is of the old Arab who died leaving his eldest son half his wealth, the second a fourth of his wealth and the youngest one sixth. The wealth in question turned out to be 11 camels.

With 11 being a prime number, how could this will be executed without any of the camels being executed? An ingenious neighbour came in and lent his camel. Now there were twelve. The three sons respectively received 6 (\frac{12}{2}), , 3 (\frac{12}{4}) and 2 (\frac{12}{6}) camels respectively. One camel was left over – the neighbour’s, who took it back.

This is mathematically inaccurate, since the sons received fractions of their father’s wealth slightly different from what he had intended. However, in general in life, this parable of the twelfth camel offers a useful metaphor.

In engineering, this is rather common – you have systems such as a choke, for example, to enable systems to get started from a “cold start process”. The choke comes in only at the time of startup – once the thing has started, it plays no role.

However, it has its role in normal life and business as well. For example, after a bad breakup, you might rebound to a “stop gap partner”. You know that this is not going to be a long term relationship, but this partner helps you tide over the shock of the bad breakup, and by the time this relationship (inevitably) breaks up, it has achieved its purpose of getting you back on track. And you get on with life, finding more long term partners.

Then, when the company is in deep trouble, you have specialists who come in to take over with the explicit goal of cleaning things up and getting the company ready for new ownership. For exanple, John Ray III has recently taken over as CEO of FTX. His previous notable appointment was as CEO of Enron, soon after that scandal had broken. He will not stay for a long term – he will just clean things up and move on.

And sometimes the role of the twelfth camel is rather more specific. Apart from “generic cleaning”, the temporary presence of the twelfth camel can be used to get rid of people who had earlier been hard to get rid of.

In sum, the key thing about the twelfth camel theory is that the neighbour knew all along that he was going to get back his camel. In other words, it is a deliberate temporary measure intended to achieve a certain set of specific outcomes. And the camel itself may not know that it is being “lent”!

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