[personal profile] tara_hanoi
Anyone who knows me will tell you I like puns; that's not entirely true. What a lot of my friends don't get is that I don't like to play on words, I like to take them out like toys and play with them. I use them like lego blocks in my head to see if I can create anything that's new to me, and I share the ones that amuse me. Sometimes I just brainfart, and waft the smell around. Either way, when I share them, I'm accused of punning; the lowest form of wit.

But I think it helps with my problem-solving when it comes to computers, but first, I think it's important to share the thought process as I played with words one time.

Last year, as I was walking home, I started trying to say "uncomfortable" in an old-school, Ronnie Drew style, Dublin accent. I don't know if you've ever heard it, but it has a slow beat and pace to it, and a tendency to add in hidden syllables. When you say Dublin in this accent, you say "Dub-a-lin". This made saying a word like "uncomfortable" very hard; where do you put in the hidden beats? I spent my time walking by the Grand Canal as I started trying to break it down. "Un" "com" "fort" "a" "ble". "Un" "comfort" "able". "Un" "comifort" "e" "a" "ble". "Uncomfort" "a" "ble". "Un" "comfortable".

The word broke down and the pieces swirled around my mind as I tried for all my life to put it back together in my head. I got un-comfortable. Unable to be comforted. It seemed so permanent of a state. I put it in sentences.

"I am un comfortable", says she, tears rolling down her face, "I'll never find a day's rest until I die".

"I am un comfortable with that word", said he, "There is nothing in this world, that'll make its blow softer".

It made conversations and the written word take on whole new meanings.

I shared it, and it was a "pun".1

But that's what I do to words. I also love doing it to concepts, and it's something mathematicians and others have been doing for ages. They pick ideas and concepts up, and stretch them, making them bigger or smaller, turning them upside down, trying to turn them inside-out, all so it fits better in their head.

It works really well when you program as well. If a solution can't be expressed simply one way, it might be that you're looking at the problem the wrong way.

My favourite example of this is the Monty Hall problem:

You are a contestant on a game show, and you're playing for the grand prize. You have the choice of 3 doors; one with the prize, and the other two with a tin of beans. When you make your choice, the presenter opens another door to reveal a tin of beans, and offers you the opportunity to choose the unopened door instead. Do you switch?

If you look it up on Wikipedia, you can find the answer, and detailed mathematical answers for each. But I have an explanation that fits better in my head.

The presenter will always reduce your choices to two options, one of which has the prize2.

So let's stretch this, and make a different game:

You are a contestant on a show. You are told to pick a card from a shuffled deck of 52 cards, but not to look at it. If you chose the Ace of Hearts, you win the grand prize. The presenter then looks at the remaining 51 cards, and throws 50 of them away. The presenter tells you that one of the remaining cards, yours or the presenter's, is the Ace of Hearts and that you may take their card instead of yours. The presenter is not lying. Do you make the switch?

It's essentially the same game. In both cases, the presenter asks you to choose between your initial choice and theirs, and that one card will win you the grand prize.

In the card game, you have one chance in 52 that your card was the winner. In probability terms, that's roughly a 1.9% chance of winning.

That means there's a 98% chance that the presenter has the winning card.

Do you make the switch?

I would.

Now, that we know this, let's make the game smaller again and go back to the original problem.

Instead, if we go with our initial choice, there's a 66% chance that we didn't pick the right door.

So, when the presenter reveals a wrong answer, and offers you a choice, there's still a 66% chance that your door was wrong, and that the prize lies behind the door that you are being offered now.

It was by doing this that I was able to believably explain the solution to myself3. I made the problem bigger, because thinking about it in that way made it easier to think about. Then I shrunk it down again.

When I do these things, it tickles the same bit of my brain that likes to play with words; the part that likes to capture the word in flight, pin it down by its wings and open it up to see how it ticks4.

But I hope I've done a little bit to show how I like to think about things. And how word play is punderrated

1 By the way, if you noticed that I've been trying to write in the rhythm of my auld Dub accent for the last few paragraphs, well done you!

2 My lecturer in Algorithm Design called this "Identifying the invariant". It's figuring out the smallest thing that makes the problem interesting or unique.

3 Actually, I just tried to work out what would happen if I had a million doors, and the presenter showed a tin of beans behind the other 999,998 doors.

4 If that seems grim, it's probably because, in work, I brainfarted and described the problem that we were trying to solve as trying to get a flock of butterflies to land on the right notebook so we could pin them down4a.

4a I don't know why I thought of that imagery either.
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