A New Meme

Rotate it 90 degrees.

The Kid — all of five years old — helpfully instructs Big Sister, who is looking for a spot for the puzzle piece in her hand. Combined correctly with another 499 pieces, this single piece will eventually contribute to a nativity scene. In its straight-out-of-the-box form, this 500-piece puzzle would be well beyond their current puzzle skills. Assembled by an adult (ahem) and split into 20-piece chunks — one for each day through Advent — it still tests their abilities.

Earlier this December morning in 2010, I had watched the Kid struggle to add some of today’s 20 pieces onto yesterday’s framework, apparently assembled with Mother’s help. The Kid’s established approach is to pick up a piece and try to fit it into the puzzle. It’s a strategy that works well on kid-scaled puzzles — up to about 100 pieces — where large-format pieces almost announce their proper placement. By contrast, each of the 500 pieces of this puzzle covers only a tiny bit of the overall picture, offering little content information to help with placement.

Lacking pattern clues, the next step is to look for colour clues. But, like all adult jigsaw puzzles, this nativity scene seems designed to make colour matching difficult. We need a new tactic.

We could tackle it my way — looking at the picture’s unfinished edge for the most unusual shape and then looking for the piece that fits — but the Kid’s impulse to pick up a loose piece and fit it in is too strong to fight. In truth, with only 20 pieces to incorporate at a time, it should be relatively easy to see where most pieces go. And so it would be, were it not for that deliberate paucity of pattern and colour information, and a neophyte assembler used to bigger, broader visual hints. Watching the frustration mount, I take a hand.

Rotate it 90 degrees.

As I speak, I reach out and take the piece she holds, effecting a quarter turn before handing it back. Then my brain catches up with my mouth: although the modern five-year-old can count to 90, they still know nothing of formal geometry. I silently curse my thoughtless phrasing and am about to try again — Turn it left, perhaps — when she triumphantly places the piece, capitalizing on this merest smidge of orientation help.

After lunch, Big Sister joins the fray, and demonstrates that two years of additional practice on small puzzles have not developed any more advanced skills. She, too, picks up a puzzle piece and looks at the partial assembly to see where it might go.

Rotate it 90 degrees.

And so it is — with a few words and a quarter turn of Big Sister’s puzzle piece — that the Kid passes along her new tactic, even though she does not completely understand its expression. The meme has jumped.

In veterinary school, students learn the estrus cycle of the cow; in the field, the farmer says, “My cow, she doesn’t come into heat.” It’s up to the student to take the theory and flip it around to diagnose a real-world problem.

The speaker: a professor of veterinary science. The time: 1987. The occasion: my demonstration of a then-new multi-media tool as part of a market research contract. I’ve taken a prototype videodisc course — designed to teach diagnostic skills to medical students — to my local vet college in Saskatoon to get an assessment that is untainted by intra-medical-school jealousies.

A recent graduate of a business program, I find that this veterinary professor’s comments on the art of diagnosis resonate for me, too. I have spent two years learning various orderly frameworks, only to hit the real world of business problems with something very like a thud. Lectures on business principles, complemented by tidy business cases neatly illustrating said principles, have given way to messy questions.

Can our town make money on a rodeo and a museum? Wouldn’t you rather have a list of the criteria for selecting viable projects?

How much should I charge for this training course and how many will I sell, how fast? Wouldn’t you rather hear me explain the theory underlying price sensitivity?

Even worse, I have gone from structured and easily understood when/then analysis — When this is the problem, then these are the symptoms — to trying to reverse engineer a mess of symptoms, near-symptoms and possible symptoms into a single problem statement from several competing alternatives.

We’re losing money. I can see that.

What’s wrong? Well, it could be many things.

What should we do? Ooh, that’s a different question.

As I gradually hack my way through my first year of consulting, I begin to appreciate the challenge of going from symptoms (and near-symptoms and possible symptoms) to diagnosis. I even gain some tolerance for this challenge in other applications, like in my doctor’s office.

Rotate it 90 degrees.

It’s not just jigsaw puzzles: much of our learning comes at us one way, but has to be reoriented somehow to be used in life. Now, where’s that five-year-old when you really need her?


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2 Responses to A New Meme

  1. Around our house, we don’t turn it 90 degrees…

    When everybody is looking the same way — we look the opposite way.
    When everybody is moaning about something (say, the economy), we look at the positive benefits. Example: if you have any money, it will go MUCH further. (We bought our condo & our new car in recessions.)
    We bought our first big computer in a recession, and immediately the economy turned around. We took the credit. It’s happened more than once!

    Recessions have little to do with money and all to do with perception. If the media didn’t harp endlessly about how tough times were, people would continue to buy what they need (not put it off) and the money would keep flowing. It’s like a river and when there’s panic, the river dries up. When it’s flowing, everybody is contributing & can skim what they need. America’s current (& getting worse) inequality has damned the river, diverting too much for that so-called 1% who hoard it, off shore.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – That’s OK – you can turn it 90 degrees twice if’n you want to… I know what you mean about group think. When stock market volatility leads the news every night (as it did during the last big crash), it’s maybe not a big surprise that the market continues to be, well, volatile.

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