Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

The Silver "Bulletsh" of Questions

One of my favorite movies is “The Hunt for Red October” with Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it, but it I’m fairly sure I’ve cleared 25 by now.  Once you’ve seen it, how can you resist quoting the line “Most things in here don’t react too well to bullets”, making sure to add the “sh” sound at the end?

There are several great scenes in the movie, but one of my favorites is where Jack Ryan (Baldwin) is trying to come up with a way to basically steal a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine, avoid the need to eliminate the entire crew, and convince the Soviet government that the United States doesn’t have it.  Ryan is convinced that the captain of the submarine, Marko Ramius (Connery), is trying to defect and wants to deliver the submarine to the United States.

The scene starts off with Ryan realizing that he doesn’t need to figure out to get the crew off and dupe the Soviet government – Ramius must have already figured out how to do that.  So, he reasons, I just need to figure out what Ramius is going to do.  Ryan continues his verbal brainstorming with “They’d have to want to get off.  How do you get a crew to want to get off a submarine?  How do you get a crew to want to get off a nuclear…”  At that point, he has his answer.  “How do you get a crew to want to get off a nuclear submarine?”  Easy – fake a reactor accident.  What I love about this scene is Ryan continuing to rephrase the question until he comes up with one that he can answer.  Once he got around to including “nuclear” in his question, the answer became obvious.

This skill is increasingly useful in the “information age”, where search engines are the true portals to the Internet.  Imagine trying to find anything on the Net without using something like Google or Bing – inefficient, at best.  As good as search engines have become, though, the answers they can lead us to are usually only as good as the queries we start with. 

In several cases, it’s easy to know what to search with.  Suppose you’re presented with an error message like “Derived classes cannot raise base class events.”  If you want to find a way to correct or avoid that problem, the most logical first search should be on the message itself (in which case you might turn up this light and fluffy post).

In other cases, though, the question is harder to formulate.  Suppose you don’t know that you can have one class inherit from another class, but you want several to share some of the same functionality.  It will probably take you a few tries (at least) to arrive at the silver bullet question – the one that you will be able to find an answer for.  It’s times like this where Ryan’s skill comes into play.

When I’m faced with a situation like this, I try to formulate the best question I can and see what comes up.  I don’t really expect to find the answer with my first search, but rather, I’ll skim through the first couple of pages of hits looking for alternate keywords and phrases to try, and then try another search.  Wash-rinse-repeat until I have my answer.

Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that this technique always works, or that I can always apply this technique with success.  There are times when I just can’t find what I’m looking for – I can’t formulate that silver bullet question. 

As I was formulating my notes for this post, I began to wonder if there are classes or seminars out there to show you how to ask better questions, or show you ways to reformulate your current question into one that you can find an answer to.  One technique might be the “Ryan Approach”.

Another might be to completely explain the issue to someone who isn’t involved.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a colleague to come over to my desk and look at the problem.  They stand there for two to three minutes while I explain what’s happening and what I’ve tried.  The act of having to verbalize everything about the issue to other person will more times than not lead me to the answer – and the other person doesn’t have to do or say anything.  They just stood there and listened.

What other tricks or techniques can help you to formulate the silver bullet of questions?


October 2, 2009 - Posted by | General

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