Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ramblin' 'bout readin' 'ritin' and 'rithmatic

Reading is a challenge for an extrovert like me--not a physical challenge, but an emotional one. I would much rather talk. In fact, I often make the act of reading more pleasurable (and much slower) by mentally talking with the author. Reading to stimulate a conversation is worth the effort, but reading for its own sake, well, it's just not my thing. I do thoroughly enjoy a good book, but I like to take it to a coffee shop so I can have some other people milling around.  Obviously I do a ton of reading as an operations research analyst and PhD student, but again, this reading is done for the purpose of presenting the information to others or adding to the body of human knowledge.  

As a means of engaging with others non-verbally in the world of ideas, I prefer writing and drawing. Unlike the random coffee-shop noise or the imaginary banter with an author that improves the experience of reading, expressive activities like writing and drawing are best done in quiet, introspective moments. I rarely write or draw anything for its own sake, as a more introverted person might. I generally have an audience in mind, real or imagined. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder--and for me, beauty is utility. I do not see myself as a diary writer, but I do keep a journal full of personal revelations and sketches. The distinction I make between diary and journal has to do with my motive for writing. I write with the idea that one day, my two daughters will inherit my journals. In other words, I write for them. My journal helps me as a diary might, but more than self-help, I imagine it will be a source of comfort and inspiration to my progeny. What wouldn't you give to read about your Grandfather's joys and fears, described in his own contemporaneous handwriting?  

Readin', 'ritin', and, what else? Ah, yes, 'rithmatic. The three Rs. Math and logic hold special appeal to me. There is so much room for interpretation in what is said, written, or drawn. Sometimes that wide range of meaning is important, as in when one wants to unite in many different points of view and differences are subjective. When clarity or brevity is the issue, math is the answer. When there is a dispute about the answer of a logic problem, the debate centers on how the problem was formulated, where the data came from, whether the math works, and other such objective measures. You might like a painting or a song, and your friend might completely disagree. But whether the bridge will stand up is something that two people can eventually agree on.

Of course, agreement does not prevent the bridge from collapsing anyway! But even in disaster, one can go back to the numbers and the logic and find the cause of failure.

I like to have a reason for doing things. The best reasons are based in rational thinking, but we may not always have time to discover the truth before we must act. In the end, I am pragmatic in my application of logic to the problems of the day. I am quick to compromise and not given to dogmatic points of view. I like to do helpful or useful things. Interestingly, the judge of whether something is useful is a customer or a consumer, not the producer. Part of what drew me to study architecture was the idea of making a sculpture that people would actually use--sculpture to not only admire, but also in which to live, work, play, or worship. I thought of architecture as bringing form to a client's dreams and visions. I like the iterative design process and the gradual unveiling of a program's ideal solution.

With so many problems to work on and so many competing demands for my time, I like to follow a few basic principles. First, do no work without a customer. Trust me, I could keep myself busy for days, but there are bills to pay. I need a customer. And if I have the luxury of choosing from among competing customers, I prefer a customer with an interesting problem and deep pockets. There should be a mutually beneficial reason why I select a customer. Secondly, I begin a project with the end in mind. I try to scope the effort and use the customer's inputs and constraints to shape that effort toward a mutually satisfactory end. Third, I use a holistic, systemic problem-solving approach. In other words, I look for ways that different parts of the process impact the other parts, and I work to develop the parts in parallel. This requires many re-visits of the program. Finally, when analyzing something such as a presentation or proposal, I think about why I like or dislike something, and I describe my perceptions using as many senses as possible. 

So it starts with an audience or a customer and an interesting problem. I will read and research for a purpose. I will write and draw while I talk, or as a substitute for talking if necessary. Admittedly, it's always helpful to have a written record. And of course, transparency is good. Archives are good. OK, I will write and draw a lot, and then present these ideas to the customer. My inspiration, my approach, my logic are always under scrutiny--and the ultimate value or applicability of these efforts is often externally derived.

This is essentially my philosophy of learning, teaching, and living. My willingness to go back to square one many times over the course of a project can be very irritating to some people. I see the world in shades of gray. People looking for a quick result or a firm final answer may grow impatient with my process orientation. To me, the search for the truth has its own merit. 

"The presence of those seeking truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it." –Terry Pratchett