CS 190 Computer Science Design Project

A. Klinger Winter 1998 Boelter 5272


Government, Business & EducationTech Expo News, May/June 1997

By Max M. Feibelman, CEO, M C Cubed, Inc.

Invention Solver Article U.S. AIRWAYS - ATTACHE - Nov. 1997
Genius At Work - How To Solve Almost Anything

By Diane Cyr

Inventor Stan Mason, who brought us the squeezable ketchup bottle, tells us what to do with a good, juicy problem.

In 1949, inventor Stan Mason, president of the product development firm Simco, made an imprtant discovery while changing his son's diaper.
Bear with us. What occured to him was this: His son was round. The diaper was square. Hence, the diaper required complicated origami-not to mention safety pins-before it could truly fit a baby's bottom. In time, this revelation turned into the world's first patent for pinless, baby-shaped disposable diapers. That patent, in turn, led to a whole lot of other patents. In fact, Mason's accumulation of 55 patents (to date) took shape mainly because he believes most people are unconsciously bedeviled by the common occurences of the everyday: the red string on the Band-Aid package, the tumble of ketchup from a bottle, the splatter of chicken fat in a microwave.
As an inventor, Mason, 76, has for 24 years spent six days per week figuring out shortcuts and improvements for these small frustrations. It is he who perfected the stringless Band-Aid package, the squeezable ketchup bottle, the wilt-proof microwave cookware. Stanley Mason has developed the stuff of birth and adolescence (placenta bins, double-sided acne pads), maturity and age (plastic underwire supports for bras, Oil of Olay product-line extensions), beauty and health (fountain-pen eyeliner, dental-floss cases), and fun and pain (heated pizza boxes, "instant" splints and casts). "If there's a way to do it better," states a computer print ad featuring Mason, "Stanley Mason is probably working on it."
But not the way you'd picture it. Mason's "lab," if you insist on callin it that, is a converted horse barn in rural Weston, Connecticut, lined with approximately 3,000 books and overlooking a landscape of old oaks and Japanese maples. Sofas outnumber computers by six to five, and mere six employees crack down on product problems submitted by clients ranging from medical entrepreneurs to Pepsico. (Current projects include a vascular-treatment machine, a soft-drink display, and self-watering flowerpots.) To date, Mason claims, only one project-a lighting system for a store display-has proved to be beyond his ken, largely because it involved being the rules of physics.
To Mason, invention is not quite the stuff of lightning bolts and herring more appealing to Americansof large or eccentric brains. "It's logic," he says.
And here's the thing: Anybody can essentially figure out anything. "Invention is a very simple thing, you know," he says. "Anyone ca be creative once they learn how."
So take a problem-any problem (bad marriages and maniacal bosses excepted). Here, according to the "Wizard of Weston," is how to start working it out:
1. Know exactly what you want to solve. Keep it simple. Each Simco project-from using spider webs in wound dressing to improving trucking routes-beginswith one word: how. As in, "How do you make herring more appealing to Americans?" "How do you make herring more appealing to Americans?" "How do you keep tomato canneries busy when it's not tomato season?"
Of course, the word why is tempting, also. As in, "Why are we over budget?" Why, however, wanders and invites blame. How is simple, direct, a good nailer-downer. A problem, Mason asserts, is not a movable target. Neither is a goal.
2. Research Deeply. Get right into the problem. If you want to figure out how to plug budget leaks in your company, for instance, you don't pow-wow with the vice presidents. You talk instead to the people spending the money. You find out how much they're spending, what they're spending it on, whether it's enough. Mason calls this the "fork" method. If you want to sample a cake, you don't skim the frosing off the top. You dig narrow, but deep. So if you want to figure out, say, which location would work best for a new store, or what's wrong with a poor-selling widget, you'd get a whole lot more out of talking to 25 local shoppers than from scanning census data or engineer's reports. "Don't look at charts and graphs," says Mason. "Look at reality."
3. Call in help. Mason frequently claims he doesn't know a thing about a lot of things. He does, however, keep a very thick Rolodex. For most projects, Mason calls in three or so outside experts to noodle the problem, usually without each other's knowledge. Mason then picks the best solution. Consulting experts, however, requires two skills: listening and institution. Problem-solvers, in other words, need good bull detectors. Bull detectors, in turn, are acquired through practice and mistakes. Hence:
4. Practice problem-solving. Keep your brain flexible. Wrap it around such "problems" as, "How many bales of hay did Chicago use in 1900?" (Mason's hint: Get a livestock/horse census.) One mathematician begins each day by computing the day of the week for any given date in history-usually in less than a minute. Reading-or at least skimming--also helps. Mason keeps 250 magazine subscriptions, ranging from Road & Track to U.S. News to Archaeology. Curiosity, he believes, enables flexible thinking. "People who live their lives without being curios," says Mason, "means they've made up their minds about everything."
Observation doesn't hurt, either. In Mason's grade-school art class, his art teacher would close the shades, then ask the class to draw the view out of the window. The next day the teacher would cover an object in the corner and ask them to draw the object. "Gradually, we became obsessed with being aware of our environment," Mason recalls. Awareness translates into knowledge, which is the stuff of knowing whether a solution will work or not.
5. Sketch it out. As the saying goes, the inside of your head can be a bad neighborhood, full of doubt, deadlines, worry, and blame. Don't spend much time there. To solve a problem, it's better to exit your conscious mind by taking pen to paper, or magic marker to whiteboard, and drawing out a visual "solution" to the situation at hand.
In teaching an M.B.A. class, for instance, Mason describes in detail an ordinary kitchen stool to his students, then has them draw what they "see"--upside down. By shutting down the left side of the brain (how something should look), the process opens up the intuitive right side. That's what lets the lightening bolts in. 6. Churn. During a stint as an advertising copywriter, Mason once prepared 300 different approaches for asingle presentation. His reworked Band-Aid packaging started off with 120 differenct ideas. Quantity, according to Mason, can often produce quality. Instead of fishing endlessly for the One Right Idea, you can spend your time better by conceiving a hundred different solutions-however ridiculous-that can yield something concrete to work with. By whittling back what doesn't fit, you get a better ideas of what does. "It's like trying on shoes," says Mason. "If one is too tight, you get a larger size."
7. Go see a movie. Great ideas need to hibernate. They seldom come bidden at the end of four hours of deep thinking. Rather, they appear while you're stopped at a red light. "You have to let your mind work on a problem while you think about soemthing else," says Mason. "Go to the theater. Go to dinner." One of Mason's best notions came from sitting on his terrace, watching the sun set. This yielded a patent for planting harvestable plants in a pattern that enable maximum light in a minimal area.
8. Keep your space clear. A cluttered desk distracts and scatters thinking. A clean desk is a creative vacuum, inviting you to fill it with your thoughts. Besides, as Mason says, "straightening up wastes creative energy."
Three other hints for productivity: Maintain control over your own lighting and heat. Allow yourself plenty of room to move, draw, plan, and pace. And try to have a nice outside view.
9. Know when to walk away. Contrary to the above assertion, some problems may not be worth figuring out. "If you get sick and tired of working on the same damned thing," Mason says, "you may have tackled a problem that isn't solvable." If that happens, let the problem go. Don't obsess. You might want to revisit the problem from time to time, "but don't get into it."
There are, of course, exceptions. Charles Goodyear, for instance, flopped for years before finally vulcanizing rubber, and Thomas Edison reportedly chucked 600 experiments before one of them turned into a light bulb.
But here's Mason's take: "If at first you don't succeed, give up." In other words, pay attention to your gut sense at the outset. If you've stated your problem accurately, and you sense it can be worked out, it probably can. And if you try and it can't, don't sweat it. Every mistake has value. Mason likes to quote Edison's version of "failure": "At least we learned 600 things that didn't work." Or as the Wizard of Weston himself states, in a framed aphorism above his bookshelf, "Hindsight is an exact science."