Problem-Solvers: C. Everett Koop, M.D., Surgeon General

Dr. C. Everett Koop, the nation’s 13th Surgeon General, died on Monday at the age of 96. He held the position of Surgeon General from 1982 to 1989, after his appointment by President Ronald Regan. While AIDS had just been discovered in the United States in 1981, its spread, as we know, moved rapidly throughout the country and became an epidemic.

Dr. Koop, serving in a previously low-profile position, used his power as Surgeon General to provide to all Americans the power to stop the spread of AIDS: the power of knowledge. He authored a 7-page brochure, “Understanding AIDS,” explaining in explicit detail what was then known about how HIV was transmitted. The brochure was mailed to all 107 million households in the country in 1988! Dr. Koop’s educational outreach is remarkable not only because of its scale, but because he was able to view the scientific evidence before him and communicate scientific, medical information, without accompanying political propaganda, that saved lives — even, as the Washington Post notes, “when almost nobody in the Reagan administration would even utter the word ‘AIDS’.”

Dr. Koop was personally opposed to premarital sex and homosexual sexual relations, but his devotion to professional excellence would not allow him to stand by as people died because of lack of information. Not only was he able to clearly explain the varied methods of transmission known at the time, but he explained that everyone was at some risk: it was not a “gay men’s disease.” HIV transmission and AIDS are still a problem (you can read the most up-to-date information on the National Institute of Health’s website), but Dr. Koop’s professional, thoughtful, science-based, and bold action moved the nation forward. Thank you, Dr. Koop. Rest in peace.

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Wednesday’s Toolbox: visual thinking, sequestration

Apologies to my readers for the week’s absence, and thank you for sticking with me.

I have been continuing to read about visual thinking, visualization, and modeling of problems, and I will report on my explorations in future posts. One of the things I am sorting through is the difference between great infographics (which I am finding an abundance of!) and great visualizations or models of problems. While the concise and effective presentation of information is a talent to be lauded — and I will bring you future examples — the visualization of a problem is a different beast. It struck me, on my ride home on the bus in our Chicago snowstorm yesterday, that there is a very talented group of people who visualize abstract problems most effectively: political cartoonists. For starters, check out Political Cartoons Every American Should See.

I confess I am in awe of political cartoonists and their talent. I cringe at every abstract word I choose in an intense game of Pictionary with my family! A quick search finds that there are many lesson plan resources for teachers wanting to use political cartoons and visualization to teach critical thinking skills. Following that lead backwards, what can we learn from political cartoons about visual thinking?

On another problem-solving topic, do you use sequestration, or something like it, in your own life to solve a problem? A problem of indecisiveness, or a problem of lack of consensus? Have you ever been not able to arrive at a decision, so take a little of this and a little of that and end up with nothing that works? Have you ever had an argument with your spouse, a friend, or a colleague, where you cannot agree on the best option, so you agree to take a “cut” out of both of the pieces/projects in which you are invested? Who wins? Is it fair? Does it move the issue forward? Does it “solve” the problem? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday’s toolbox: visual thinking

Since my first post on using visualization as a problem-solving tool, I have been out collecting visualizations of problems to share with you and reading up on the cognitive process of visual thinking. Yesterday, I came across this wonderful video of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson’s first television show, running on a Washington D.C. affiliate of NBC from May of 1955 to December of 1961. Kermit (yes, Kermit!) and Harry the Hipster talk about Visual Thinking. As expected from Henson, it’s imaginative and most delightful.

it’s too big

You are an active participant in your own life. You work hard, pay attention, and contribute to reaching and exceeding goals. You improve your skills, build your character, and try to understand issues from many sides. You are patient. You don’t whine. You get help. You talk it out with friends and speak to the experts. You try so hard, and maybe even make some progress.

But the problem persists. It doesn’t go away, even with you trying to chip away at it every day. It happens to all of us: the problem is simply bigger and more complex than we are. And sometimes we just can’t solve it. We can’t beat it. It gets us.

As a citizen of the United States, a country built on the principles and culture of self-reliance and going it alone, living in what’s frequently touted as the greatest country in the world, filled with opportunity for all, we are told, there can be a marked tendency to believe that success is available just around the corner if we’re doing all the right things. The truth is, sometimes it just isn’t. And our problem does not have to do with how hard we are working, our positive outlook, or how much we want it. The problem is simply too big for us. We don’t have control.

Yesterday, my email from Daily Worth arrived in my mailbox with Caitlin Kelly’s introduction to Pound Foolish: Exploring the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Forbes columnist Helaine Olen. The nature of Ms. Olen’s work resonated with me, as I’ve spent hours with a friend listening to her excellent and dogged research of how the economic disasters of the past several years have impacted the lives of humans, often with tsunami-like force and resulting devastation. Some of us are managing, and some of us are devastated, and much of it has to do with uncontrollable, destroying force that indiscriminately chooses its victims. Terminal illness. Financial bankruptcy. A failing marriage. Sometimes we can’t stop it, we can’t solve it.

Olen’s work reminds us that no matter how many gurus tell us they have the answer if you only do this or this or this, the problem, the circumstances, the solution may not be in our control. Self-help experts abound; indeed, we are exploring professional and personal growth here.

Keep perspective, my friends. Broaden and keep perspective.

the nature of problem-solving

This weekend, I was doing something I don’t really like to do: home repair. My facility with tools is about a 4 out of 10. My knowledge of home repair is about a 2 out of 10. My interest in home repair is about a 3 out of 10. You get the idea. Luckily, my LIFELINE is a 10 out of 10!

When I realized I was trying to fit a 5/16 inch drill bit in a 1/4 inch electric drill . . . well, I had no idea where to go from there. The trusted lifeline — my brother (who is incredulous that anyone would pay $80/hour for the “simplest” of home repair tasks (which I have often done, with much gratitude to the service provider)) — came to the rescue. He told me that my 1/4 inch drill bit could, if carefully manipulated, create a hole large enough for a 5/16″ plastic anchor to be pushed into. It sounds so simple, but my knowledge and experience are so limited. Could I have come to that solution on my own? Maybe, in 3 years, if left to my own devices . . . there is much that is already known, however, and having someone who can share that knowledge is a God-send.

I was dealing with a known problem, and the circumstances and facts were not that unusual. While we can always learn from accumulated knowledge and should do so when there, unique circumstances, conditions, personalities, and lives present problems that are novel. Indeed, the “utopia” in which all foreseeable problems are solved and the solution recorded is a unreliable, undesirable (and frightening! . . . more in a future post), and unlikely, scenario. The need for ongoing problem-solving will be with us for eternity (I hope).

What is problem-solving, anyway? Problem-solving seems to fall into two major domains: 1) mathematics and 2) problem-solving where some difficulty or obstacle is encountered where one needs to overcome the obstacle to get from the current state to the desired state. Even though those types of problem-solving are often considered separate, there can often be overlap and knowledge gained from the mathematics discipline to other disciplines.

Consider George Polya’s classic book, How to Solve It. Polya was a teacher of mathematics and wrote How to Solve It to provide teachers a way of assisting their students in learning to solve problems, and students a direct means of discovering the same. It is considered “one of the most successful mathematics books ever written” (Forward by John H. Conway), but many readers through the past decade have found it “of help in attacking any problem that can be ‘reasoned’ out — from building a bridge to winning a game of anagrams.” (From reviews of the original edition.)

I will be bringing more of Polya’s wisdom to you in future posts, but today, I offer you a link to a summary of Polya’s “list,” by Richard Neufeld of California Polytechnic State University.

What do you think?

a Sunday puzzler

If you appreciate the brilliant beauty of National Geographic photographs and found the jigsaw puzzle from last week a fun way to stimulate your brain on the weekend, here is a link to a bigger challenge: Choose a National Geographic photo of your choice and generate a jigsaw on the fly: an almost pure white snow scene – for those of you who are expert jigsaw puzzlers! – or a photo filled with a thousand colors for an easier solution. Be sure to look at the picture closely and intently before you start. Happy Sunday!