How to Solve Problems

Here’s a relatively simple method of gaining insight into problems that face us. Often the reason we can’t solve a problem is that we don’t concentrate on it long enough to look at it from enough different angles or give our brains time to process our ideas subconsciously.

Step One

Take a sheet of paper and write across the top “Questions I could ask myself about this problem include…..”

Then write down as quickly as possible between six and twelve different ways of finishing that sentence. Don’t think too much about what you write — the aim here is quantity not quality.

To take an example (completely fictitious of course!), I have a problem keeping my desk tidy. So I might write:

Questions I could ask myself about this problem….

  • why is this problem happening?
  • why does it matter?
  • how could I overcome it?
  • what problems does it cause?
  • who could help me overcome it?
  • what benefit am I getting out of it?
  • why is it so difficult to be tidy?
  • and so on…..

Put the sheet of paper away and go through Step One again the following day on a fresh sheet of paper without looking at the first sheet. You will probably find that you can find another six or more endings without duplicating anything you wrote the day before.

Step Two

Take both sheets of paper and extract from them the four or five questions that you feel are most helpful, relevant or useful. Then rewrite them as sentences for completion. So for example I might end up with the following list:

  • Reasons this problem is happening might include….
  • This problem matters because…..
  • One way of overcoming this would be…..
  • The benefits I get out of being untidy include….

Then do a similar exercise to Step One but this time use each of the sentences you have just written. Again aim to write between six and twelve endings to each sentence. Then put your sheet of paper away for 24 hours and do the exercise again. You will probably find that your insights have developed overnight.

You can do this for several days running if you have the time and the problem is not too pressing.

Step Three

Examine all the ideas you have written out and decide which ones you are going to put into effect.

How to Solve Problems

Let Me Get Two Packs of Tolstoy and a Carton of Kafka

Every day Sarah sends me nifty things to read and see on my magic computer screen. Today’s stash included a post at Popgadget describing a plan to sell classic novellas in retro cigarette packs via cigarette vending machines after a U.K smoking ban in enclosed public places goes into effect. At least I think they’re going to (try to?) sell these in actual vending machines. Whatever the case, they’re called Tankbooks, and are being produced by Tank, a think tank, creative agency and publishing outfit. Dunno if this is a P.R. stunt, an art project, an honest effort to sell books in an interesting manner, or all of the above. Nifty-looking packages, whatever the case.



Let Me Get Two Packs of Tolstoy and a Carton of Kafka

Information Architect

Web Worker Daily posts a mini-profile of Dayna Bateman, an information architect for Fry Inc. Various education qualifications are listed, and hands-on experience (though education can help out there too). I don't find it a surprise that many shopping and interactive sites get it wrong and need help. Those are big projects and it requires a champion (maybe several) inside the company to push for what may be an expensive overhaul of an existing site. Also, if generals are fighting the last war, then retailers are chasing last year's trends.

What interested me:

  • Bateman is working on a master's of science degree in HCI from DePaul ("to formalize what I had learned in the trade"). For someone who's already got deep experience and a reputation in internet retailing, I thought it interesting that she feels the need for a degree. It would be interesting to know whether she wants the degree to provide an academic balance to her resume's real-world experience (she's probably solved problems that haven't occurred to most academics), whether her company encouraged it, or whether she felt she needed a mental change of pace. I'm going at my degree from the opposite direction: I'm hoping to gain some formal knowledge that can help me get experience.
  • Very impressed by her commitment to self-education: keeping up with conferences, surfing and shopping to stay on top of new trends and patterns. She soaks herself in her subject.
  • She predicts that "transactions will become increasingly simplified" as mobile phone use becomes more prevalent. Using a cell phone frees people from being tethered to their PC in order to shop and buy. (And it is all about shop and buy, isn't it?) I'll keep an eye on whether my coursework in the coming years even touches on mobile technology at all.

I'm all for simplification--spare me from having to create an account at every store I want to buy from. However, as someone who uses a Tracfone and practices one-way cell calls (I can call you, but you can't call me because I leave my phone turned off), I feel like a curmudgeonly grandpa snapping at new-fangled progress.

Absorb Information Like Never Before

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book, listening to a presentation or watching a TV programme and discovering at the end that you could hardly remember any of the points made? If someone had asked you to summarise what had been said, you wouldn’t have known where to start.

Well, if that has happened to you it’s nothing to be surprised about … it’s a common enough experience. It’s due to the fact that our brains are excellent filters of incoming information and only let through what is of interest to us. It has to be that way or we would be overwhelmed with information. But it causes a problem when the filter isn’t set quite right and filters out material that we really do need.

So say for example that we have a textbook to read for an exam. How do we set our filter so that the information goes in, rather than getting ejected because our brain thinks it’s dull or uninteresting?

The answer is to ask ourselves questions about it. Before starting to read the textbook, spend a moment or two completing the sentence “Questions I could ask myself about this material include…. ”

Then take the 4 or 5 best questions you have come up with and jot down some answers to them off the top of your head. Don’t worry about whether the answers make sense or not… the important thing is to get your brain engaging with the subject. Only then start reading the text.

Once you have finished reading, you can go through the same procedure quickly again. That will help to fix the material in your mind.

In this way you can engage with the material both before and after you read it. If it’s a really complicated document, like the textbook in my example, you could repeat this procedure before each chapter or section.

There are many other ways that you can use this method…. before a client interview, before taking a test drive on a new car, before visiting a famous tourist site and so on ….. use your imagination!

Absorb Information Like Never Before

the comic book industry


Econlog asks: why are American comics dominated by the super hero genre? Is it simply path dependence from an era when super heroes were popular? I don’t have the definitive answer, but here is some data:

1. Comic books in other countries focus on humor (Condorito/Latin America or Asterix in Europe) or historical drama (e.g., the Lone Wolf and Cub series in Japan).

2. Before the 1950s, there actually was much wider variety. It was not uncommon for kids to read comics about the wild west, war, romance, or crime. Some people claim that the McCarthy era Comics Code Authority encouraged “safe” genres like super heros, rather than political or socially charged genres like war comics or romances.

3. Throughout the post-war era, humor magazines - such as Mad - have been hugely popular and they are essentially comic books. Also, newspapers comics, such as the Far Side are routinely anthologized as larger comic books. These are rarely super hero books and they are even best sellers.

4. Since about 1990, there is a fairly serious genre of high art comics in America, such as Maus or Cerebus. Small market segment, but easily accesible to most people in cities or college towns. Some, like The Watchmen, are super hero, but most aren’t. [You ask, what is my favorite? Alex Robinson’s romantic comedy, Box Office Poison.]

What I gather from this evidence is that super hero dominance is partly a function of definition. If you expanded beyond “picture books sold at the supermarket,” you see that super hero books aren’t quite as dominant, even among youngsters. As you look over the years, you suspect that there’s a natural match between super hero stories, boys, and the visual medium of comic books, but you also realize that many other genres, especially humor and romance, have done very well. It’s also no secret in the comic industry that super hero books, while still the bulk of what’s bought by young American boys, are a declining genre. I’ll chalk this one up to historical contingency, not path dependency.

Bonus Round: Check out PhD comics - the only comic strip just for grad students!!

the comic book industry

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PDFill PDF Editor [via Rule the Web]

Featured Windows Download: Edit PDF files for free with PDFill

Dark and Fleshy: The Color of Top Grossing Movies

“I started to think that NC-17 movies perhaps shared a common visual string in their marketing materials — dark and provocative… I started with R and pulled up the top five movies’ posters. Less provocative but very dark. I moved on to PG-13’s five. Not provocative at all but dark nonetheless. PG’s five? Much friendlier but, yes, dark. It wasn’t until I got to the five Gs that I started seeing some bright colors in the movie posters.” (Thanks HOW Blog!)

Dark and Fleshy: The Color of Top Grossing Movies

IQ and the Wealth of Nations

How many more times will someone suggest this book in the comments section of this blog?  I like this book and I think it offers a real contribution.  Nonetheless I feel no need to suggest it in the comments sections of other peoples’ blogs.

I do not treat this book as foundational because of personal experience.  I’ve spent much time in one rural Mexican village, San Agustin Oapan, and spent much time chatting with the people there.  They are extremely smart, have an excellent sense of humor, and are never boring.  And that’s in their second language, Spanish.

I’m also sure they if you gave them an IQ test, they would do miserably.  In fact I can’t think of any written test – no matter how simple – they could pass.  They simply don’t have experience with that kind of exercise.

When it comes to understanding the properties of different corn varieties, catching fish in the river, mending torn amate paper, sketching a landscape from memory, or gossiping about the neighbors, they are awesome.

Some of us like to think that intelligence is mostly one-dimensional, but at best this is true only within well-defined peer groups of broadly similar people.  If you gave Juan Camilo a test on predicting rainfall he would crush me like a bug.

OK, maybe I hang out with a select group within the village.  But still, there you have it.  Terrible IQ scores (if they could even take the test), real smarts.

So why should I think this book is the key to understanding economic underdevelopment?

IQ and the Wealth of Nations