I’m not a musical person, really. I played the violin for 8 years, but never really become proficient in it, nor did I ever burn with a passion for it. I liked playing it; I was half decent at playing it, but once I was done with high school I decided I was done with the violin. Further, while I have idealistic dreams of somebody learning to play either the hammer dulcimer or the banjo, my lack of passion for playing music really makes either of those unlikely. Learning to play an instrument takes a lot of time, patience, and practice. And really, I don’t want to make music enough to spend numerous hours and years practicing and playing. I’d rather use that time to work out in my shop, crochet, wrestle the toddler*, or play video games.
Along with this lack of keen musical aptitude is my inability to sing. I can keep a beat well enough, and I can even hit a narrow range of notes; but really when it comes right down to it, I sing like you pumped lyrics into one of those automated text to speech programs.
Like this one: http://www2.research.att.com/~ttsweb/tts/demo.php
So what is a guy to do when he’s in the shower? Well, as many do, you can sing anyway. I do it from time to time, mostly under my breath and with a large degree of humming instead of actual words. Or, you can postulate!
Most of the problem solving I do for my various projects happens in the shower. Whenever I run into a problem I can’t seem to get my head around, I save it for the next shower. Big problems may require a few showers; but for the average sized problem a moderately long shower is enough to come up with a solution.
I don’t really know when I started using my shower as a “thinking place.” I know many people have such a place, and drawing from fictional sources, I can say that the shower is not a unique one. But I never really made any conscious decision to use the shower as my little thinking room; nor did I realize I was doing it until about 6 months ago.
6 months ago something got me thinking about a calculus problem that I’d seen in high school. The problem was to derive the equation for movements in the Tower of Hanoi. It’s not a difficult problem, but for some reason it had come up in my mind that because I couldn’t remember the equation, I needed to re-derive it. So, the question moved to the back of my mind; saved for later. That evening I went through my usual after work routine: say hi to Tron as he comes running up to me babbling in toddler, take off the pounds of crap I strap on every day for work, pull off the steel-toed boots, inquire whether dinner is imminently ready or if I can take my shower first, check any mail I might have gotten, then proceed to the shower.
Once in the shower I sprung into action. I quickly traced out the equation using my finger and the tile wall and had the answer, phrased two different ways, in about five or so minutes. That’s when I decided to check my work, I went back to where I’d written an earlier part of the derivation and looked at it. It was a blank, tile wall. I stood there dumb-struck for a few minutes before my conscious self finally puzzled through what the hell was going on. Not only that, but I finally became aware of what I’d been doing for at least a year.
My mind had created a small, virtual whiteboard in the shower. Using only my finger as a tracer and my very limited memory as a projector, I was able to keep track of a certain string of logic for several steps without actually needing a writing implement. It’s a pretty useful thing for most of the problems I bring into the shower with me, as when you are deriving something simple you only need to know the last half dozen steps in the derivation, anything that comes before is trivial and not necessary for the final answer; until you want to make sure your answer is right and go back to near the beginning.
The Tower of Hanoi problem was the first problem that was far enough outside my current skill-set that I felt the need to go back and check my work. The issue was, there wasn’t anything to look at. My small whiteboard didn’t go back that far, so it stopped me dead. Something that I’d been doing naturally suddenly sprung to the forefront of my mind and suddenly it became more difficult to do. Sort of like trying to breath naturally when you start thinking about how you are breathing.
Thinking back from that moment, I realized that I’d been doing it a while. Several crafting and woodworking projects had been outlined in the shower to later be written down as a schematic. I’d worked through a few simple math problems that piqued my interest (like the Tower of Hanoi), and I’m sure there were others that I can’t remember. As it was a subconsciously controlled activity, I have no real idea of how many problems I may actually have solved for myself this way. Looking back, I’m sure most of the times that I remember “thinking something through in the shower” I probably was whiteboarding it while in there. But honestly, all I can remember was thinking about it, not drawing on an invisible whiteboard.
More recently, when I’m in the shower puzzling through something, it’s hit or miss whether I can utilize my mental whiteboard. When I’m actively thinking about using my whiteboard I can only keep one or two things on it as I’m more focused on trying to remember them, rather than just letting them sit on the whiteboard. Every once and a while though, when I’m particularly deep in thought, I’ll suddenly realize that I’m juggling 12 or more things on the whiteboard, and with the realization that I’m doing it, accidentally wipe the whole thing off with the discovery. Bugger.
-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?
*Not a weird innuendo.
NOTE: For those of you who want to know, the equation for the tower of Hanoi is (2^n)-1 where n is the number of disks that you want to move. Further, if n is odd the first move should be to the rod you wish to end on. If n is even your first move should be to the non-target rod, and the second move to the rod you wish to end on.