NOTE: Up until now, I haven't been much of a faithful blogger. I keep telling myself it's because I'm too busy writing other things and trying to induce people to buy them—or at least read them for free. At long last, however, I applied some of my own problem-solving advice and solved two problems by putting them together.
At least I'm going to try. Each week, instead of writing a new blog post, I'm going to snatch a bit of writing from one of my books, something that holds together on its own and is worth reading. Perhaps it will also convince a reader or two to read the whole book, but it any case, I will try to make each piece worth their time.
This week, I'm starting the experiment with that strategy. Now I have another problem. With about a hundred published books, how will I choose which book to use each week. I don't know how I'll solve that problem in general, but just so I don't have to think about it today, I'm starting in alphabetical order. So, this week's snippet is taken from a book I wrote with Don Gause, Are Your Lights On? At the very least, read it to learn where the title came from.
Chapter 13. The lights at the end of the tunnel.
A long auto tunnel through the mountains above Lake Geneva has just been completed. Just before the opening, the chief engineer remembers she has forgotten to warn motorists to turn on their lights before entering the tunnel. Even though the tunnel is well illuminated, the motorists must be prepared to prevent a catastrophe in the event of a power failure—a plausible eventuality in the mountains.
A sign is made saying:
WARNING: TUNNEL AHEAD
PLEASE TURN YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON.
The tunnel, with the sign well ahead of the entrance, is opened on schedule, and everyone relaxes, now that the problem is solved.
About 400 meters past the Eastern end of the tunnel stands the world's most scenic rest stop, with a sweeping view from high above the lake. Hundreds of tourists stop there each day to enjoy the view, perform important bodily functions, and perhaps partake of a small but tasty piquenique.
And every day, ten or more of those hundreds return to their cars, refreshed in body and soul, only to find a dead battery from having left their lights on! The gendarmes are tying up most of their resources getting them started or hauling them away. Tourists are complaining and swearing to tell their friends not to visit Switzerland.
As usual, we ask you to pause and ask yourself:
WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?
(a) the drivers
(b) the passengers (if any)
(c) the chief engineer
(d) the gendarmes
(e) the president of the canton
(f) the automobile clubs
(g) none of the above
(h) all of the above
The strong tendency in this type of problem—with an explicit "designer" or "engineer"—is to consider it her problem. Not only do the drivers in this case consider it the engineer's problem, but the engineer probably does too. It's a common impression among architects, engineers, and other designers that they must take care of everything.
In this instance, the engineer considered various solutions she could impose upon the drivers and their passengers.
(1) She could put a sign at the end of the tunnel saying, TURN OFF YOUR LIGHTS but then people would turn off their lights at night...
(2) She could ignore the situation and let people...No, that was already happening, and the government officials think the engineer has done a lousy job.
(3) She could put a battery-charging station at the scenic overlook. But that would be expensive to maintain, and would make people even more furious if it didn't work.
(4) She could give the recharging station franchise to a private firm. But that would commercialize the overlook and be unacceptable to the government and the tourists.
(5) She could put a more explicit sign at the end of the tunnel.
The engineer felt intuitively there should be some way to write a more explicit sign. She worked on several alternatives and eventually came up with a masterpiece of Swiss precision:
IF IT IS DAYLIGHT, AND IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE ON, TURN OFF YOUR LIGHTS;
IF IT IS DARK, AND IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE OFF, TURN YOUR LIGHTS ON;
IF IT IS DAYLIGHT, AND IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE OFF, LEAVE YOUR LIGHTS OFF;
IF IT IS DARK, AND IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE ON, LEAVE YOUR LIGHTS ON.
By the time anybody had finished reading this sign (in three languages), his car would be over the guardrail and gurgling to the bottom of the lake, which would not be an acceptable solution at all. Besides, what about funerals? There must be a better way!
Instead of all this complication, the chief engineer took the approach of "It's THEIR problem"—but it was her problem to assist them. She assumed the drivers had a strong motivation to solve the problem, but they might need a little reminding. She also assumed the drivers—if they were to be: licensed at all—couldn't be complete dummies. All they needed was a sign at the end of the tunnel:
ARE YOUR LIGHTS ON?
If they weren't smart enough to deal with that, dead batteries were the least of their problems.
This sign eliminated the problem, and the message was short enough to be put on the sign in several languages. The engineer always remembered her lesson from this situation:
IF PEOPLE REALLY HAVE THEIR LIGHTS ON,
A LITTLE REMINDER MAY BE MORE EFFECTIVE
THAN YOUR COMPLICATED SOLUTION.
Are your lights on?