Friday, September 22, 2006



Over in Corpus Callosum, Joseph tells a story of repairing his sister's bicycle when he was a child, and relates that to the importance of observation, and, particularly, of looking at a problem from different angles to ensure that you're analyzing it correctly. I've a similar story I'd like to relate:

Many years ago I was sitting in my apartment on a Saturday morning, reading the Washington Post and enjoying the sunny day. I saw, as I looked out the window between news items, that my upstairs neighbour and his son were doing something at their car. When I saw them still there nearly 30 minutes later, I went to the window, my curiousity aroused. They were prying at the driver's side window. I wandered out to say hello, and I asked what the problem was.

My neighbour explained that his son had locked the keys in the car, and I could see a ring of keys on the driver's seat. They had a table knife, with which they were prying the window slightly open, and a bent wire hanger, which they were sticking through the gap and trying to use to pull the lock open so they could get into the car. But it kept slipping off the lock lever and, though they'd been trying for half an hour or more, they couldn't get the door unlocked. I asked if I might try, he said, "Sure, why not?", and he handed me the hanger.

I bent the hanger a bit differently and had them pry the window open again. I reached it in, hooked the key ring, and pulled the keys out. It took maybe ten seconds. They stared as I handed them they keys, wished them a good day, and went back to the Post.

They'd only looked at the problem from one side, just as Joseph's sister had done when she decided that the bicycle chain was too long.

  • What problem are you really trying to solve (as opposed to what you think you're trying to solve)?
  • Have you considered alternative formulations of the problem?
  • Put another way, have you considered alternative interpretations of what you're observing?
  • Have you considered alternative solutions?

As Joseph says:

A lot of the conclusions we draw are based upon a process of elimination. If you only see one possible explanation for your observation, the process of elimination seems unnecessary.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

An excellent lesson! Thanks for posting.