Friday, August 12, 2011

Can you get it back together?

kw: analysis, synthesis, philosophy

When I was about seven, my father gave me an old, but working, windup alarm clock, with instructions to see if I could get it all apart, then put it back together. I had a much harder time than this tot, shown in an advertising pic from Wee Baby Stuff. It took two kinds of small screwdrivers and a pair of pliers, and there were a lot of gears. Fortunately, it was the single-drive design, so there was only one mainspring, rather than a separate spring for the alarm, so I needed only one mainspring clamp, thoughtfully supplied by my father.

I managed it, over a period of several days, and when it was all together, it ran, keeping time and ringing at the right times. I was sure proud of myself. It was years before I learned the lesson behind the task. To dismantle something and see how it works is one thing. To put it together without losing some necessary function is quite another.

The lesson sunk in years later when he and I rebuilt the engine of my old VW Bug, a 1964 model with the 1300CC engine. We had little trouble (just a bit of grunting) lifting and tilting the engine to get it out, and it didn't take long to get the block split open and take all the parts out. What tools we didn't already have, such as ring spreaders, we fabricated. We made the (wrong) strategic decision not to change the crank bearing inserts. The reassembled engine ran fine, but overheated badly, and we had to take it back apart to replace the worn bearing inserts, and carefully set up the spacing so they would not bind.

This illustrates the most common human activities, analysis and synthesis. Simply speaking, "ana" means "apart" and "lysis" means "cutting"; "syn" means "together" and "thesis" means "combining". Getting a clock or engine apart and back together is one thing. Doing so with human relationships is quite another. If we were to literally analyze a relationship, it would be destroyed, until we synthesized it again, if that were possible. So we use mental maps instead.

Just to get a small clock apart and back together requires a good memory of what pieces were next to one another during disassembly. Parsing the character of a friend or relative also requires having some kind of mental map of their reactions to various things. This parsing is analysis; we "figure out" how someone will react, as best we can, then we relate to them in a way that we hope will make the bad good and the good even better. The things we "put together" to do that relating constitute synthesis. Comparing our expectation, or hope, with the actual outcome, we learn, meaning we add more details to the mental map.

Sometimes the clock goes back together in good working order. Sometimes it does not. For people who have a good grasp of social variables, dealing with others seems almost effortless. For others, it can be a chore. The reverse seems to be true when it comes to mechanical, technical, even scientific endeavors. Some people have a good grasp of the way things work, whether microscopes or chemical machinery, and can "figure out" how to learn something or to produce something new. Others have a much harder time at this.

I recently reviewed a book that relied quite a bit on many proofs and demonstrations of the Pythagorean Theorem, that c² = a² + b² where a and b are the legs of a right triangle and c is the hypotenuse. The book was beyond me; the authors are capable of levels of analysis and synthesis that I could not hope to match. I felt like a tired old race car left in the dust. We all have our limitations.

None of this stops us from continuing to figure out how to cope with our world, the world of things, the world of events, the world of other people. The most crucial skill is getting help when we get beyond our depth. We all know guys who are loath to ask directions when they are lost. But that is a necessary skill. One of my Physics teachers said, "The most elegant solution is to know the right answer." Many, many times in my work I have found that the best solution is to know who knows the right answer, and to ask. Why re-invent things? Many times, the best bit of analysis you might do is to figure out who can help you. Then, persuading that one to do so, ah, that is the synthesis you must succeed at!

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