Saturday, February 27, 2016


As many of you know, math has always been a difficult subject for me in school.  I just couldn't see things the way many students could when looking at an equation, and I cannot tell you how insecure and anxious that made me.  My father was brilliant at math; he had a masters in economics, for goodness sake!  I saw how easily he could add and subtract numbers in his head--big numbers--and even though he never made me feel foolish or showed frustration when he tried to help me with math, I felt like a failure.  What made matters worse, is that I had a math teacher in 6th grade who told me, "Well, math just isn't your area."  And so it goes.  I accepted it, much to my father's chagrin:  I was just not a "math person."

Then, I got to high school and met Mr. White, math department head, and, to my good fortune, my teacher for Algebra 2/Trigonometry.  He told me there is no such thing as a non-math person: everyone could learn and love math, it just might take a different method of instruction to get them there.  He offered to give me and a few other students help during 0 period and after school--whichever worked best.  I remember asking him, "You really think you can help me confidently find the answers to problems like these?"  and most of all, I remember his answer:  "I think I can help you learn to ask the right questions to confidently solve problems like these."

It really doesn't matter what the subject area; asking the right questions is the only way we get to the very best answers.  It is how new inventions are born, cures are discovered, and the trickiest of problems are solved.  So what is the secret, then?  Is there, in fact, an art or skill involved in developing the right questions?  We often reply to others, "That is a good question!" when we find ourselves confronted with a question that is difficult to answer.  So is that it then?  Is a good question characterized by being difficult to answer?

According to Vincent F. Hendricks, professor of formal philosophy and logic at The University of
Copenhagen in Denmark, the answer is "No, not necessarily."  He knows a thing or two about asking the right questions, and has plenty of guidance to offer.  "We can all ask, 'What's for dinner?' But we have to think carefully if we move up the hierarchy.  Do I want the answer to something specific or just an assessment?  You have to ask yourself that type of questions before you can ask a good question."  Henricks teaches that context is key.  As a whole, there are two types of questions you can ask and each of them are important depending on the answers you are specifically seeking.

Open questions are good if you want an answer that includes consideration and assessment, for example:  "What's so intriguing about a good detective story?"  The danger of asking open questions is that they can be too open.  For example, "What is the most important problem we must solve?"  A question like this is so open, we don't know how to answer, and it may create more problems than it solves!  What type of problem are we talking about?  Is it environmental, economic, political, scientific or personal?

Closed questions are good if you want a very clear answer, for example, "Can you ride a unicycle?" You can only answer this type of question very simply, in this case, "yes" or "no."  The danger with closed questions is that they often produce answers that make things seem simpler than they are in reality.  Hendricks suggests that if you want to become more informed, "A good question is not necessarily one you can answer "yes" or "no" to, but one where your answer depends on conditions or qualifications.  Open questions invite reflection, but they need a frame or a context to help us understand and focus on the specific issues that are needing our concentration.

Hendricks has developed three rules of asking good questions that are as follows:

1.  Frame the question- give it a context.  This is how you avoid talking at cross-purpose.
2.  Establish some agreed facts.  The more you agree about the framing of the question, the clearer your answer can be.
3.  Ask a short, clear, precise question to avoid ambiguity.  If any doubts arise over how to answer the question, you'll get a bad answer because you have asked a poorly formulated question.

So then, whether we are trying to solve a math problem in Trigonometry or a country-wide economic crisis, we must begin in the same place.  The best answers truly are already there waiting to be found in the carefully formulated best questions.

Click on the link here to read an article in Forbes Magazine about asking the right questions.  Tell me the single thing that stood out to you the most in that article.  Then, check out the "mystery puzzle below."  What three questions must you ask yourself in order to come up with the solution?  What is that solution?  I am interested in hearing your theories!

Forbes link:

The Case of the Insured Painting

     Conrad Sleuth’s alarm clock and telephone rang at the same time.  He turned off the alarm and answered the phone.
     “This is Hilda Dean,” a young woman said.  “Someone broke into my house last night and stole a valuable painting.”
     Sleuth took her address, put on some clothes, and drove to her house.  She let him in, and he asked her to tell him exactly what had happened.
     “I was asleep,” she said, “When the howling wind woke me up.  I got up to close the window, and I thought I heard a noise downstairs.  When I got downstairs, I realized that the street light was out, and it was too dark to see anything.  So I lit a candle and walked out on the front steps.  Sure enough.  I saw a man running off.”
     “Then what did you do?” Sleuth asked.
      “I came back inside and looked things over,” she said.  “Nothing seemed to be missing, so I went back to bed.  Then, this morning, I noticed that a painting had been taken from the basement.”
     “Is the painting insured?” Sleuth asked.
     “Well, yes. But money will never replace it.”
     Have you called the police, Ms. Dean?”
     “No.  I’ll call them now.”
     “I’ll do it.” Sleuth said.  “While we’re waiting for them, you can decide whether you want to repeat your story to them – or tell them the truth.”

Why does Sleuth think Hilda Dean is lying?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

TO A GREAT MIND, NOTHING IS LITTLE...A Celebration of the Great Detective Stories

There are, of note, four distinct varieties of what we call "Pop-Culture" or light novels or stories:  The romance novel, the adventure novel, the mystery novel and the detective story.  These types may overlap somewhat in content from time to time, but although they may borrow devices, themes or appeals from one another, they follow the stylistic guidelines of and evolve within their own genre boundaries.

Of these four kinds of literary and screen entertainments, the detective story is the youngest and most complicated; the most difficult in construction and the most distinct.  It may seem, in one sense, to be an offshoot of the mystery novel, but upon closer inspection, this relationship is far more distant than the average reader imagines.  In order to understand the uniqueness of the detective story, we must first think like the protagonist detective, him or herself:  we must endeavor to determine the peculiar appeal of this genre to all classes of people...

It has been asserted that the answer is that the detective story belongs more to the category of riddles than mysteries: it is, when written well, a complicated and extended puzzle cast in fictional form, and resembles in structure and mechanism the cross-word puzzle. Think about it:  in each, there is a problem to be solved, and the solution depends entirely on the mental process of the reader or observer; the analysis and fitting together of apparently unrelated parts, and in some measure, educated guessing.  Each is supplied with a series of overlapping clues to guide the solver, and when these clues are snapped firmly into place, a solution may be achieved, and all the little details weave together nicely into a complete, interrelated and closely knitted fabric.

There is no more stimulating activity than that of the mind, and no more exciting adventure than that of the intellect.  Human beings enjoy solving riddles and puzzles; they have throughout the ages.  Because of this, the detective story has set its own standards, drawn its own rules, and advanced in its form and technique.  Its style is direct, simple, smooth and unencumbered rather than being one replete with descriptive passages, metaphors and word pictures.  The skill of a detective story's craftsmanship is revealed in the way all the clues: characterization, syntax, diction and plot fit together and somehow manage to reveal all for the reader and observer to discover.  There is a strict ethical course of conduct that must be followed by the detective novelist:  he/she must NEVER once deliberately fool the reader; he/she must succeed by ingenuity, alone.

As we are learning now, Edgar Allan Poe was the undisputed "Father" of the Detective Story, literally creating the template for all the detective fiction to follow.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself once said that "Poe was a model for all time."  In just three of his stories, Poe created the amateur detective (C. Auguste Dupine) and his narrator friend, the locked-room mystery, the eccentric amateur sleuth outwitting the police force, the "catalogue of minutia," the interview of the witnesses, the solving of a cold case that stumped the police, scattering of false clues by the murderer, and the concept of "ratiocination" (later explained by Sherlock Holmes as "observation and deduction.")  Other stories by Poe presented the notion of cryptic ciphers, surveillance, and the least-likely person theme (in one case, the narrator, himself is the murderer!)

Poe also began the tradition embraced by connoisseurs of crime fiction:  "The Rules of the Game."
 These rules state, among other things:
1.  The detective story must play fair (revealing all clues to the reader)
2.  The detective story must be readable.
Therefore, the true detective story, according to Poe, is like a game of chess played by the author and reader--an interaction in which clues are cleverly dropped, often in the disguise of underplayed narration, for the astute reader to catch and assemble.

All good detective stories have had for their protagonist a character of attractiveness and interest, of high and fascinating attainments, a man or woman at once human and unusual, colorful and gifted.   Many authors of the detective story, including Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, write their stories backwards, just to be sure to adhere to the rules of the game.  This way, they begin at the answer, and are sure to sprinkle the clues appropriately in the story, down to the beginning.  It is what I like to call "unravel writing," a writing that assures that the path will lead the reader to the correct deduction, IF he/she has paid close attention.

Poe's stories led to the development of such popular characters as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot Law and Order series.  Movies have been made, often adding in elements of humor, adventure and sometimes even romance to twist and turn the story even a bit further.  But the primary elements of interest remain the same:  Crime has always exerted a profound fascination over humanity, and the more serious the crime (a la Criminal Minds  or such macabre stories as The Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs from the Hannibal Lecter series) the greater the appeal.  Murder, it appears, gives an added zest to the solution of the problem, and seems to render the satisfaction of the solution just so much the greater.  The reader or viewer feels no doubt that his/her efforts have achieved something worth while after the amount of mental energy he/she has had to expend.
(Agatha Christie) and more modern greats like Columbo, Magnum P.I., and Detective Briscoe, Goren, and Eames from the infamous (and my personal favorite)

Below, I have attached links to some of my favorite detectives set in scenes from their series and movies throughout the years.  Take a look: I hope you enjoy them, and I hope that you will share which ones you enjoyed the most and then some of your favorites, too!  As the great Detective Holmes once said:  "My mind rebels at stagnation; give me work!  Give me problems!"  

I've always loved a good intrigue...and as we begin our study of Poe, I hope you do, too!

 Hercule Poirot


 Magnum PI

Sherlock Holmes #1

 Sherlock Holmes #2

 Detectives Goren and Eames on Criminal Intent (Law and Order)