Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Of All the People Who Have Ever Lived...

...how many are alive today?

Answer: about 1 in 8.

Meaninful Adjacencies...

The New Yorker has an interesting short article on how the names of the dead will be arranged at the 9/11 memorial (due to open on 9/11/11).  It's a solution to a problem that I'd not thought of: when you have several places to display names, which names go in which place, and what order do they go in?  I'd most likely have opted for a simple alphabetical order, but as the article points out, this is actually less than ideal.

The solution turns out to be mathematically challenging, and computers were used to figure out the final ordering.  The guiding principle used is “meaningful adjacencies”, meaning that names found next to one another are connected in some way (organizational affiliation, relationships, families, etc.).  Fascinating stuff.

Ideas in the Shower...

For years I've noted something that was to me quite mysterious: I would find solutions to difficult problems (either design or debugging) while taking a shower.  Having observed this, I have, on more than a few occasions, taken a shower for the specific purpose of coming up with an idea to solve a problem – and it has worked.  I've never had a satisfactory explanation of why this might be so, however.

This morning I read a blog post that purports to explain the phenomenon (which many others have also noted).  Some of the links from this post are also interesting.  Essentially the notion is that while you're taking a shower, you're not getting a lot of input from other sources, so your subconcious can surface things its thinking about.  I'm not sure about the science behind this, but it is the first plausible explanation I've heard yet.  The blog post is actually about a product that lets you take notes in the shower, so you won't forget your ideas.  That's never been an issue for me – when I come up with an idea in the shower, it's generally for something I've been working on for hours or even days.  There's zero chance that I'm going to forget a solution for a problem like that!