Saturday, May 28, 2011

You Are Solving the Wrong Problem

There is some problem you are trying to solve.  In you life, at work, in a design.  You are probably solving the wrong problem.  

In 1959, British industry magnate Henry Kremer wanted to build a plane powered only by the pilot's body power.  He offered £100,000 for the first person  who could fly across the English channel.  In modern US dollars, that would be $2.5 million.

A decade went by and it looked impossible until MacCready got involved.  He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem.  Everyone was working on solving human powered flights and would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without the grounding empirical tests.  Triumphantly, they'd complete their plane and wheel it in for a test flight.  Minutes later, a year's worth of work would smash to the ground.  Even in successful flights, a couple hundred meters later the flight would end with the pilot physically exhausted.  With that single new data point, the team would work for another year to rebuild, retest, relearn.

The problem was the problem.  Paul realized what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight.  That was the red-herring.  He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve:  how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months.  And he did.  The plane was made of Mylar, aluminum tubing and wire.  

The first plane didn't work because it was too flimsy.  But because he set out to create a plane fixable in hours, he was able to quickly iterate.  He was able to fly three or four different planes in a single day.  Half a year later, Macready's Gossamer Conder flew 2,172 meters to win the prize.

What's the take-away?  When you are solving a difficult problem, re-ask the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster.  FIND A FASTER WAY TO FAIL, RECOVER AND TRY AGAIN.  If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Raisin Bran turned into Spider Baby Hell

by Hengist

Funny you mention Raisin Bran. I too have a Raisin Bran tale to tell that forever ruined that cereal for me.

When I was about 20, I got a box of Raisin Bran and I sat down for a delicious breakfast. So I poured myself a bowl and mixed the milk and began to nom. After I finished that bowl, I decided that I was still hungry and that I wanted some more, so I poured another.

What followed was a scene out of hell. An enormous spider rushed out with the bran flakes and landed plop---right in the middle of the milk. It was hairy and easily three to four inches across, with emerald green chelicerae. I was frozen, half-pour, staring at this massive eight-legged eight-eyed horror as it waggled its legs at me threateningly. Apparently, it was just the vanguard of the full assault. Suddenly, the cereal box, which I was still holding half-poured, suddenly boiled over with thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of tiny spiders. In an instant, they were all over the table and spilling over onto my legs. I screamed an unholy scream and dropped the box, leaping back and falling over the back of the chair. They were on my chest and face now, and I was screaming a mix of loud profanities and "Get them off me!"

Understand that I am not usually afraid of spiders, but this was a whole new dimension of arachnophobia that I was experiencing. I made a dive for the cupboard, grabbed a can of Raid, and began spraying the horde down---the table, the floor, the chair, the box, and even my legs. Spraying my legs turned out to be a dumb idea, because the little bastards all over them began biting, each a sting just like an angry bee. In my flailing, I knocked the Raisin Bran box off the table, and it landed on the floor, a new rush of spiders gushing out along with Raisin Bran and several golf-ball sized spider egg sacs.

I had had enough. I was shaking all over as I ran out of the kitchen, closing the door tightly behind me and pushing a coffee table against the door. I was terrified and felt like vomiting. I dashed for the shed in the backyard and grabbed a bug bomb my uncle had left there from when he de-bugged his RV. For disturbing the shed, I got stung by a very angry wasp, which did not help my mood any.

Arriving back at the scene of the spider apocalypse, I activated the bomb and threw it into the kitchen then took refuge in the bathroom where I took a shower. When I finally got the nerve to go back to the kitchen, there were dead spiders everyplace.

Wow, I think I have to go take a shower and hug my cat now. :-(

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Old person responds to a young person's plea: "My friend just died. I don't know what to do."

Alright, here goes. I'm old. What that means is that I've survived (so far) and a lot of people I've known and loved did not. I've lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can't imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here's my two cents.

I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don't want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don't want it to "not matter". I don't want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gorged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can't see.

As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I met a Seer

I met a seer.
He held in his hands
The book of wisdom.
"Sir," I addressed him,
"Let me read."
"Child -- " he began.
"Sir," I said,
"Think not that I am a child,
For already I know much
Of that which you hold.
Aye, much."

He smiled.
Then he opened the book
And held it before me. --
Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.

by Stephen Crane