Saturday, May 20, 2017

--- The Zen of washing dishes ---

This is my ninth life, and last. No, I don't mean reincarnation. I mean, maybe, like a cat. I was a child and student was much different. I've redefined myself in each phase of life so each age seems to be a different life. After graduating from high school, I worked with my family shipping plants from central Florida and I had a few other jobs - again, practically a different person. Then I was a college student, partially and then completely on my own. When I went to work on a pipeline barge, it toughened me and the effects that had were permanent. Luckily, the alcohol wasn't. Graduate school was as much different from undergraduate studies as that was from high school. It toughened me in a different way. Then as a camp counselor, I mellowed out somewhat and learned my last big lessons in compassion. Finally, twenty years of professional life topped it all off.

Now, I'm retired and am a dishwasher. I don't say that disparagingly, there are many great things about washing dishes. I wash dishes for people I love - a family. That's good. It's sorta bad on the back, but not washing dishes, or something like that is much worse on my back. It's just about the right amount of exercise to keep the scaffolding upright.

Dishwashing is sorta Zen. It's a simple job that you can develop into a rhythm and you can make it as deep or as shallow as you wish. Once you get the rhythm going, it's practically meditation.

Or it's strategy. The sink is for washing and the machine is for sanitizing. I agree with Levi's grandmother. It takes some strategy to have the dishes moving so the crusty dishes get to soak while you're washing the others and if you don't pack them in just right, they won't all fit. And if you don't pack them in just right, getting them out is chaos. "Just right" saves time and effort when you unload. Dishwashing is an exercise in problem solving if you do it right.

Schools are expected to teach problem solving in Colorado. I know because I tutored for awhile and I became intimately knowledgeable with the standards. Unfortunately, they are required to teach math problem solving. The good things is that mathematics problem solving methods will generalize quite well into all phases of life. Unfortunately, most people need a little instruction about how to generalize the problem solving skills they learned in mathematics classes.

What's more important - knowing how to solve mathematical problems requiring mathematical induction, or how to solve the kind of problems that place neighbors at odds if they aren't resolved? How about knowing how to figure out why that light went out? How about home finances - well, that's mathematics, sorta, but it also deals with distinguishing between needs and wants and setting priorities. There's a lot of nonmathematics there.

Perhaps there should be a class set aside for problem solving skills - just problem solving skills. That should definitely be in the standards.

There are several classical problem solving strategies used in solving technical problems and I've found them just as useful in my daily life. Here are a few, probably the main ones.

Evaluate the problem: Any problem needs preliminary thought. The first question is, "Is there really a problem?" Brief thought can often show what looks to be a problem to be something you already know how to deal with. The other two questions that need to be clarified are, "What am I trying to accomplish?" and "How do I make it happen." In programming, that takes the form of drawing what the output of a program should look like and then determining what a program has to do do make the information that will be fed it turn into that end result. The first time I walked to Morrison, my "starting state" was where I lived and my goal was Morrison.

Add things to the problem that might get you to the goal: If you've ever had a course in geometry, you probably have had the experience of adding a line to a diagram and suddenly seeing the whole solution. I'm planning some excursions to Boulder to look around the college campus there. The problem is that a bus trip from south Denver will take all day and I won't have time to do anything once I get there. What I have added to the diagram is the fact that one of my housemates works in nearby Flatirons Junction and that there is a bus that makes a short run from there to the campus. I can go to work with him, take the bus to Boulder, and have most of the day to wander around town.

Hill climbing: There's plenty of that on the trails around here. In problem solving theory, hill climbing happens when you find a formula that tells you how near the goal you are, and you use that as a guide. As the value of the formula increases (or decreases) you feel that you're getting closer to the goal. The formula for my first trip to Morrison was simple: Move=west. If you go west on Bear Creek Trail, you'll eventually end up in Morrison. Conversely, if I walk east on Bear Creek Trail from Morrison, I will eventually end up down the hill from my house (or, if I go too far down the trail, I'll end up at River Point shopping area. This method takes a little finesse.) That doesn't work so well when walking from Mineral Station to Waterton Canyon. Unfortunately, there is a complex network of trails between that all look like they will get you there, but some carry you miles out of the way. I decided to ask a man with a dog.

One of the advantages of walking around here is that you can often see where you're going. I can see Morrison from my front porch and I can see Bear Creek Canyon, in which Morrison sits, at several points along the way, so I have ample opportunities to evaluate my progress. When walking to Waterton Canyon, I can see that big notch in the mountains from many miles away. I can see it from up the hill from my house. In fact, you can see it in the second panel of the panorama at the top of this blog, almost to the right edge. It's that little bitty notch. It's much bigger as you get closer.

Break a big problem into smaller problems:  That brings me back to dishwashing. There are occasions that cause me to end up with stacks and stacks of dishes - one of the eight others I live with decided to clean out the refrigerator, somebody brings a stack of plates that have collected in their room to the sink, we have guests or a party. I would get quite despondent except that I know that the pile of dishes are made up of individual dishes and no one dish is a problem. If I just put each one in the dish washer, I can only deal with one load at a time, and then I'm done with dishes until that load is done. Washing one dish at a time is a lot easier than washing a mountain of dishes even though they are the same problem.

My hikes get broken into smaller hikes also. Walking to Morrison involves walking up Bear Creek Greenway to Wadsworth, then walking through the big open space on the other side of Wadsworth, then there are three underpasses in quick succession, then I have to get around two golf courses, over Mount Carbon, and through Bear Creek Lakes Park. Then I'm in Morrison! They're all different, simpler problems that add up to the entire hike.

Working backward: How would the problem look if it were already solved? Play the movie backwards to the present and what would it look like? Walking to Morrison is a lot easier than walking back because the trail merges into other trails going west, but going east, it tends to split off into trails that look very similar and they're not always marked. The Waterton trip is the opposite. It's hard to get lost coming back but the trail from Mineral Stations splits apart like a clump of spaghetti. It takes a few trips to get the hang of it but, if you make the trip once, you may be able to visualize what the trail does coming back the other way.

If you're a visual thinker, this is a powerful strategy. Let's say that you want to design and build a chair. The usual way people go about it is to think of the materials they're going to get and visualize how those materials will go together to form the chair they want.

Try this instead. Visualize the chair you want and imagine yourself disassembling it. How do the pieces fit together? Are the connections sturdy and, if not, could they be made sturdier? When you have the chair disassembled, what pieces are you left with? That's your starting point, the way to build it, and the end product.

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