Saturday, November 26, 2016

Information is symmetrically asymmetrical.

Recently where I worked, we had the thumb turn fall off of a relatively new door lock. (The thumb turn is the part on the inside of the door so you can lock a deadbolt from inside without the key.) My first thought was that since it just unthreaded it shouldn't be that hard for me to thread it back in, but it turned out to not be obvious. I was able to get it threaded back in, but I couldn't get the lock mechanism to do what it was supposed to. I felt like that I could have done it given enough time, but it wasn't the sort of thing that I could spent more than ten minutes on without feeling like I had something more important to do.

Later, after we had finished with customers for the day, one of the technicians that work for our locksmith came by to fix the door. He met me at my desk at the counter, noting that I have a few Rubik's cubes there to harass customers with. I assume that he's around my age, since he identified the cubes readily, although he was a little surprised at how shiny the new plastic tile cubes are. We headed over to the offending door, and I handed him a plastic bin with all of the carefully sorted thumb turn pieces. It took him relatively little time to correctly line up all of the pieces of the lock and get it back together. Even though I really tried to watch him, whatever he did was so natural and effortless I didn't really see what he did that was different from what I had done. I tried to ask him what he did differently, but he wasn't able to explain it. While he was looking at the rest of the door to see what might have caused the thumb turn mechanism to come loose, he says "Did you see that thing..." and I stupidly assume he's going to ask "Did you see that thing on America's Got Talent with that guy that does magic tricks with a Rubik's Cube?"

He tells me no, finishes the piece he was screwing back in, and then says "Did you see that thing where a middle school kid took apart a Rubik's Cube and figured out the mathematical formula for it and the Rubik's cube company paid him a whole lot of money to keep it a secret?"

There was an awkward silence while I tried to regain my composure. Meanwhile he found one of the holes at the top of the door where the top bolt was rubbing in a way that it wasn't supposed to and reamed it back out so that the door could lock more smoothly. While he was doing that, my internal dialogue was going full blast.

What was so bad about that? He's just asking a question. Did you see that or not?  Were you listening to the question? Disassembly doesn't inform you about the cube's regular solution, using the phrase "mathematical formula" in this context is nearly meaningless, and the notion of a conspiracy to keep the solution of the world's largest selling and probably most pirated toy a secret is laughable since most of the cubes sold in the last 20 years come with a solution pamphlet right in the package and you can get a solution method from the company's own website.  How would he know? He's busy doing actual work.

When I returned to reality, I explained about how that there had been cube competitions since the 80's, and no conspiracy like that existed that I was aware of. He came back to my desk to write up the bill for his office, and I grabbed a mostly unsolved cube, finished it, and then showed him how a short sequence of moves can move a small predetermined number of cubes around. My go-to routines for this are usually R2 U' S' U2 S U' R2 that moves three U layer edges around, and R' D' R D' R' D2 R D2 that twists some D layer corners and moves some D layer edges around.  The reason for those two particular moves is that I know their inverses as well as the regular moves. I also showed him what happens with the cube mechanism itself, about how better cubes are better able to realign when one face is turned before another face is completely aligned. I thought this concept might appeal to the part of his brain where all of his locksmith information already resided. While he seemed receptive to the idea since I was able to easily show him what I was talking about, I didn't feel sure that I had dissuaded him of his original notion despite being able to solve a cube in front of him. At that point I grabbed my boss since the bill was ready to be signed off and he was done and we said our goodbyes.

The first time that I ran across this sort of thinking was my stepfather, when he rambled on one day at lunch about how the car companies had colluded with the oil companies to keep high MPG engines out of production. This theory didn't really hold any water with me at the time, since my father is a mechanical engineer and was very involved with engine design and I had at least some sense of the math involved. (You can find a much better version of the math here.) But, if you're a person that's sure there's a conspiracy, and there's no obvious way to falsify your hypothesis, and you don't understand the problems of making regular gasoline do what it does, then the thought remains unchecked.

At least for our Rubik's cube conspiracy, I was able to easily falsify part of the hypothesis - I was able to show that it can be solved. (I was going to say that it could be solved by a normal person, but many of you reading this will want to refute this non-trivial assertion.) That might not be enough to prove to the locksmith that there never was a conspiracy, so perhaps that thought will still remain as well.

I wasn't surprised about the idea that people exist that have never seen a Rubik's cube solved in person. I carry a cube around with me every day, and I'm always going to meet someone every once in a while that hasn't seen a cube solved.  What I was surprised about was the harboring of the idea that there was a conspiracy to keep the solution a secret, and what believing in a thing like that does to a person's trust in humanity itself. I can't place the same amount of importance on the solution to the Rubik's Cube, or the details of a magical carburetor that doesn't actually exist, or the nature of how to unlock something that's supposed to stay locked.

I was left with the feeling that maybe me showing people a Rubik's Cube can be solved is more important than I thought. Not just for the thing itself, but to show people the idea that even learning something (anything?) complicated is just part of a process that we go through gradually and that through reflection and observation we refine our abilities. Luckily, this morning in traffic I solved a cube at a stoplight and the person next to us rolled down their window to tell me that it was amazing to watch and that they've been working on cubing for a month and that they were learning. It restored my faith in people again.

Oh, yeah. I was left with a second feeling - if I want to be able to put locks back together I need more practice.