I ate my wafer...


Ahh, just finshed my “High and Late Middle Ages” Paper draft at 2:30 AM, and couldn’t sleep for crap, probably due to large amounts of stimulant chemicals. So I decided to get up early and think….

So a couple days ago I was doing some parking lot car repair, I won’t tell you for whom, as that would be less than complementary. In any case, it was a classic car not starting problem, so I attacked it with the standard blend of scientific method and “reference to the best example”, and spent 3 hours testing, speculating and thinking to no avail. It turned out to be a classic example of cranial-anal contact on the owner’s part, who had just ran the damn thing out of gas. Now, obviously, I’ve seen that before, and I asked about it TWICE and personally noted that the gas gauge was low, but reading a little above empty. Now that in and of itself would be pretty irritating, but more so than that, I had to deal with the owner continually asking questions while I worked on it, and not thoughtful ones either. Now, I tolerate technological ignorance pretty well, I mean I TA’d Science 101 for 3 semesters, but there is a limit. From thinking about it afterwards, I think that there are certain individuals that are totally incapable of understanding how to approach technical problems.

I mentioned earlier that I was using a combination of scientific method, and reference to the best example. To illustrate this, I approached the car by testing for spark, fuel, and mechanical integrity. The exact methods I used would bore most of you, but it boils down to straight hypothesis testing. Now, this particular car actually passed all three tests, (it had just enough fuel to spray a little from the injector). So, at that point, I switched to using reference to the best example, because I knew that odds were very good that I had a problem that wouldn’t yield well to adequate separation of variables to test hypotheses. Now, obviously, I’ve worked on a lot of cars, and read a great deal, and whatnot, so my next steps weren’t random, but certainly appeared to be as I asked the owner a variety of questions looking for connections. I asked about fuel mileage, acceleration, stalling, etc, etc, trying to fish enough relevant information out of the owner to go back to testing things. Now the owner of this particular car not only was incapable of thinking analytically about how the car had been running previously, she insisted on asking me endless questions about why I wanted to know things…which obviously was to build up enough information so that I could regonize a pattern and then to recall a possible failure that could cause the problem, or possble to recognize a pattern that I HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE, and think creatively enough to deal with that. In many ways, this process is very similar to an Emergency room Physician attempting to diagnose an unusual aliment. Now, I attempted to explain this in many, many ways, to no avail. Perhaps, the closest I came to a workable explanation was to compare what was happening in my mind with the movie “Minority Report” where Tom Cruise moves thorough recorded pre-cog dreams with a virtual reality interface. Now, you guys may hate that movie, and that’s fine, I don’t like it too much myself, but its not a horrid analogy fo explaining how to solve technical problems to idiots.

Now the point of telling you everything I just wrote is that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how our minds apply pattern recognition to problem solving. And I will go as far to suggest that a measure of intelligence, across the board, in almost all fields, is an individual’s ability to combine pattern recognition with creative thought. It certainly is essential to trouble shooting technical problems. And I suspect that if I could have explained what I was doing in these terms, my hapless car owner friend would have understood, she is fairly inteelgent in her particular field. Pretty much every discipline has respect for pattern recognition in combination with creative thought, even the fine arts , just think about how art appreciation works, so perhaps this is also the way to deal with teaching low level science. I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Smith a week or two ago about Science 101, where we came to the conclusion that the biggest problem is making people that “don’t do science” deal with how to simultaneously apply rigorous scientific method and maintain creative thought. We were talking specifically when a lab experiment returns unexpected results, and I think that it’s not a horrid place to start. I am reminded that one of my greatest mentors in the sciences constantly talks about “elegance” in reference to the solutions to engineering problems, and elegance is a beautiful word for the combination of analytic pattern recognition, and creative thinking that solves technical problems. More to come on this topic later...8am class now.

Wow, I just wrote a crapload, sorry about that, and if it doesn’t make sense, just yell at me. I suspect that the brightest and the best of you will react to all the above in terms of “damn Bob’s dumb, everyone knows that”.