“The difference between Stupidity and Genius is that Genius has limits.” – Albert Einstein
This month, I open with a favorite quote. And this is not just because I get paid by the word. If that were true, I would’ve used a much longer quote.
I do it because I am lazy.
Now, I am not ashamed of being lazy. The world is changed by lazy men (and women) looking for easier and faster ways to do things. And, believe it or not, one of the foremost of those lazy people was Albert Einstein.
Now, there were some very good reasons that Einstein spent a lot of his time staring out the window, doodling on a scratchpad. In fact, as an interesting aside, after he was brought to the Institute for Higher Studies at Princeton University, escaping the Holocaust, he was asked what he considered the most amazing thing he had found in America. His answer? Colored pencils.
So Einstein spent a lot of his time performing physics experiments in his head. This was largely because of two factors: First, no instrumentation existed at the time to actually perform physical experiments in the field of physics that he pioneered. There were no electron microscopes, no particle accelerators, no ultrahigh speed sensors, etc. In fact, there was no physical evidence at all of many of the things that he was experimenting with. So almost all of the experiments that won him the Nobel Prize were performed in his head as “thought experiments.” He maintained that he would literally set up “experiments,” in his mind, where he had the ability to “see” atoms and subatomic particles. He would then “perform” the experiment in his head, note the results, and attempt to verify them mathematically. The second reason? A “thought experiment” can be performed much, much faster than a “real world” experiment.
Now, in my own “thought experiment” with this article, I can hear a number of you out there saying, “Joel, you’re no Einstein.”
But even at the non-genius, non-subatomic level at which I work, there is a place for the “thought experiment.” Think about it: There is a type of experiment that we are called upon to perform often in our business. It is something that is often done under pressure, that we have little time to achieve, and which usually determines the outcome of the rest of our day. It’s called troubleshooting. It’s something that is done much faster in your head than in the real world (and is much easier on your knees and elbows).
In teaching any of the many classes that I have taught for InfoComm and my other professional associations, I have always maintained that it is much faster to troubleshoot in your head than it is to swap out components. However, absent a logical thought process for troubleshooting, most technicians, especially new technicians, begin the troubleshooting process by swapping out cables and components. I maintain that if you find yourself doing it this way, you are already lost. A favorite “war story” of mine comes from a very large Association meeting in which one of my lead audio technicians was setting up a very complex microphone arrangement. It was one of those Association meetings with a head table of around 56 (approximately equal to the number in the audience), each of whom had to have a microphone. This, as usual, was a political decision on the part of the Association, rather than an audio decision. But, that aside, we were about 30 minutes out from show and had noted a buzzing sound that came and went in the audio system. The client, a new meeting manager, was extremely nervous about this, and came into the hallway to find me. Rather breathlessly, she told me that there was a problem with the sound system, and she was worried because my lead audio technician seem to just be standing in the middle of the room. Without even checking, I told her, “that would be because he is thinking — which is just what you want him to be doing right now.” (N.b.: Obviously, he immediately solved the problem, or this would be a story that I would be trying to forget rather than quoting it in an article).
So, over the next couple of columns we will explore the idea of visualization and thought experiments in troubleshooting. Over the last 20 years, I have attempted to follow the process of a number of technicians that were the best at this, and define a process for it. That process goes like this:
Next month, we will look at some actual examples in an effort to help each of you to find their process and streamline their troubleshooting time.
However, before we do, it might interest you to know that the “thought experiment” is in fact a defined logical process:
A thought experiment or Gedankenexperiment (from German) considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. Given the structure of the experiment, it may or may not be possible to actually perform it, and if it can be performed, there need be no intention of any kind to actually perform the experiment in question. (Via Wikipedia)
So we’ll see you next month, when I and a couple of longtime colleagues will help define structured method for troubleshooting in your head.
(Note: Unfortunately, none of my thought experiments have ever been able to help me talk an Association executive out of trying to have 56 open microphones in a room.)