Perpendiculous Programming, Personal Finance, and Personal musings

2009.06.24

Algorithmic

Filed under: Meta,Personal — cwright @ 12:02 am

The vast majority of my employment time is spent solving problems.  The remainder is spent in a sort of meta-problem-solving state, where I try to organize the order in which I should solve the problems that are outstanding to maximise some set of criteria (where the criteria is usually a tug between profits, personal curiosity, and getting people to shut up.)smokris referred to the latter process as “triage,” a word I hadn’t heard before.  However, it fits perfectly.

I guess I’ve always been a problem solver.  figuring out how to get the VCR to un-eat the VHS tapes, coaxing the lawnmower back into operation, ressurrecting the yamaha motorcycle…. there’s a ridiculous list of assorted things I’ve “fixed” stretching back as far as I can remember.  But for whatever reason, the first things I ever recall are the times when I fail to fix something, or, even worse, when I _break_ something.  Fun bit of psychology there I suppose, but otherwise serving no purpose in the rest of this post.

Lately what I’ve been working on has been fantastically intense and attention-demanding.  I seriously want to curl up in a dark, comfy room with an endless supply of fruit juice, and talk to zero people for 36-48 hours (since I was a teenager, I’ve had a personal obsession with finding “the silent day”, a day where I am required to utter zero words…  I have yet to have one).  Like the plants that crave darkness, I too crave isolation, uninterruption.  Only sometimes.  I have no idea why it’s so difficult to convey this need to others, or why I relinquish it so often in the face of demands from others.

Today, the interruption came in the form of my cell phone (as it does approximately 65% of the time, and why I hate it so much).  The power went out at my parents’ house, and my dad indicated that it was a surge, and that it killed their recently acquired iMac.  The text-based conversation (man, I hate texting now too) went something like this (not using txt-speak, and paraphrasing, with my rationale in [square brackets].):

dad:  There was a power surge today, and now the mac won’t start.

me: ok.  have you unplugged it, and plugged it back in?    [sometimes brownouts can cause things to get into a weird limbo state where they’re neither on nor off — unplugging them forces them to off, allowing them to then turn back on]

dad:  doesn’t do anything

me: ok, is it in a surge protector?  if so, try skipping it?    [surge protectors/suppressors are designed to take the fall in the event of an actual power surge.  If it got toasted, perhaps it’s no longer delivering power]

dad:  still nothing

me: ok, I give up, take it in.  and buy a real surge protector while you’re at it.    [worst case, they need a new power supply, and since it’s under warranty it’ll be like 30 minutes in the store to unbox a new one.  They fixed the optical drive in my macbook pro yesterday in just 1.5 hours — my first time even having someone other than myself fix my computer.]

dad:  ok.  mom will be mad.  why didn’t it toast (some other random electronic stuff)

me:  no idea.

At this point, I feel prompted to ask one more question

me:  how, exactly, are you trying to turn it on?    [admittedly, the powerbutton on an iMac is 100% non-obvious.  He’s probably overlooking it.]

dad:  well, I tried moving the mouse, but its light’s not on.  so then I pressed the enter key.

Ah-ha.  the classic “step 2” in tech support (step 1:  is it plugged in  —  step 2:  is it turned on).

me:  ok, try using the power button.  it’s on the back left, under the screen.

dad:  see the grey start screen.

at this point, he gets excited, and declares that I am awesome.  For knowing the nature of power buttons, where they’re located, and when to apply them.  I can guarantee you that my father knows at least 66.67% of those things as well, but that didn’t seem to help his cause.

Besides the dubious over-accolade, I have to wonder how many similar problems like that happen each and every day to the billions of people living on the planet.  Why is it that we aren’t taught basic problem solving skills?  Not like a tech school, where you’re taught all about a single topic.  Not like university, where you’re taught a tiny bit about a bunch of mostly useless topics.  But real-life, ever-useful troubleshooting techniques.  It’s a pretty algorithmic process that essentially follows the scientific method:  gather information, form a hypothesis, perform an experiment, analyze the results.

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