Mapping the possibilities

Have they always sent home homework this fiendish? Seriously?

My son’s face was bright red and his brows were knitted. In front of him was a sheet of maths, and the first question had been written by Hades in his shadowy underworld.

He had two cards with four digits on them – 5000 and 9000; two with three: 300 and 100; two with two; and two with one. And he had to find all the possible combinations.

Pardon? I’m sorry? This is homework for an eight year old?

I knew it was, because Hades had written the homework in Peter-and-Jane storybook writing. The edges were still glowing and smelt faintly of brimstone.

My son was not happy. Between wails and recriminations, with the sound of football being played by his friends outside on the green, we began to look at it.

We realised that Hades had been feeling uncharacteristically benign, down there in eternal damnation. He had only given two of each kind of number, which limited our possibilities a little. Slowly we developed a sort of decision tree so that Felix could exhaust every possibility and come, eventually, to a result.

The result you see above. We had fought the good fight, we had vanquished a small piece of Hades’ whimsy: we had solved this hellish little problem and laid it bare in something which looked very like a decision tree.

What a difference a chart makes. It can tame the diabolical, the untidy, the mess of possibility.

I stumbled across an arch flowchart-maker as I wove through the Vale of Twitter.

His name is Whiskeypants and  he is chalk to my cheese. But what he does with flowcharts is verging on genius.

Because unlike Felix’s tidy mathematical problem which had a finite solution, life simply does not have tidy, limited outcomes. It is limitless and confusing and in my opinion one of the few ways to get topsides of its complexity is to laugh

Whiskeypants often thinks in flowcharts. An affable example – some are more hard-edged – you can find here. It is a flowchart with which you decide which music to sing in the car. It poses a problem as all flowcharts should, right at the beginning: “Time for therapeutic singing at top of lungs while driving at high speeds”.

It offers a range of emotions you might be feeling in the car. And in Whiskeypants’s style – one all his own –  it makes suggestions as to what might be the perfect piece to match your mood.

I took one look and loved this. The possible uses of a flowchart in unusual situations are legion. You could have shall-I-get-married flowcharts, what-shall-I-cook-for-dinner flowcharts, shall-I-take-the-job diagrams and can-the-dog-go-without-a-walk powerpoints.

Just imagine: we could reduce all the messy emotion of our lives, all the conflicts and grumbles and elations – to a flowchart with simple parameters: and most important, answers at the end.

It reminds me vividly of the great wave of map-talk which surrounded the British Library’s Magnificent Maps exhibition. It ran from April-September 2010 and sparked a wider debate. I remember hearing for the first time that assertion that maps help us make sense of our world: and that our maps can so often idealise the reality.

After the Fire of London, it seemed the need for order was crystallised by the search for a map which would restore order and depict elegance. Wenceslaus Hollar, a cartographer of the time, produced a detailed bird’s-eye view, but it was John Ogilby who made London look ordered once more to the satisfaction of its people. Ogilby portrayed London as elegant and elevated, despite the Fleet brook and its crime-racked slums, despite Newgate and Bedlam.

A map can give the illusion of order: and it holds a certain supernatural power, for we find ourselves believing it despite knowledge to the contrary. The roads and tracks and every building is represented there, but the untidiness of human nature is edited out.

Not so with Stephen Walter’s map of dreams and nightmares, and everything in between.

Take a look at this: you can explore London as it really is, warts and all. It identifies ‘poverty corners’ and where you can find  toilet; and where Mad Frankie Fraser used to live, and Chaucer worked. Eclectic, humorous and captivating, this is a must-pore over.

Because like my friend Whiskeypants, Walter gently prods the blind faith we put in our written organisational devices. A map can tall a thousand lies or a thousand truths. A chart is a tool which commands respect in out data-dependentsociety: and yet it can say just about anything you might imagine.

What we need, as we probe the visual messages with which we are deluged from day-to-day, is a little healthy disrespect.


44 thoughts on “Mapping the possibilities

  1. I thought that map exhibition at the British Library was brilliant. Thanks for the link to Whiskeypants – it made me laugh.

    1. Now I want to do my own singing in the car flowchart, Earlybird. You could do a sixties one or a classical one – the opportunities are endless. Even, dare a venture, a French one.

  2. I didn’t study the chart (too many numbers for me) but I’m now in awe of you and Felix for figuring out how to work that out 🙂

    I think you’ve introduced laods of new fans to whiskeypants- thank you

  3. ‘He had two cards with four digits on them – 5000 and 9000; two with three: 300 and 100; two with two; and two with one. And he had to find all the possible combinations.’

    ‘What? Can you repeat the question please?’

    Maths and I are not easy companions… not beyond the simple add, subtract, multiply and divide: this one looks like hard work, especially as I don’t understand the question yet.

    1. Kate and Pseu – I have been an engineer all my life, and neither do I understand the question. I would love to see the original teacher’s text!
      Commiserations Felix.

      John, (Kate’s Dad)

  4. Give Mr Whiskeypants my number please, direly in need of directional nudges to day ;-( Crazy homework for such a little ‘un – congrats though for giving him the tools to sort it all out, empowering stuff 🙂

  5. Mapping possibilities – flow charts – starting in one place and ending in another – yummy, exciting…thank you for your great thoughts, reference to Whiskeypants… and I honor Felix – you and he are a good team, expanding each others’ lives.

  6. I do like using flowcharts for the bigger things, to help me or another see a clear route from here to there (as you say, life can get so muddled). But heaven help us if I started a what-shall-I-cook-for-dinner one – I for one don’t much relish starving… 😉

    1. No, that might be a little time-rich, mightn’t it, Ruth 😀 Have you ever read The Dice Man? it has rung bells for me all the way through this: a man who, every decision he has to make in life, he makes out a set of six options and then throws a dice to make a random decision. Now there’s a palaver before dinner.

      1. Oops, missing “)” alert! – Insert after “publishing”. But wait, perhaps I should throw a dice to make a random decision as to where it belongs… or alternatively, whether a “(” in fact requires a “)” at some subsequent stage of the written discourse in which it appears. 😉 Ok, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead – or am I? 🙂

  7. I am so glad I am not the only person who is bewildered by the string of numbers.

    In my consulting practice, I have always worked with engineers. I became the mistress of the flowchart for every conversation with them. Of course, they must re-engineer the flowchart each time, but at least they end up getting something for their money.

    Off to explore the land of Whiskeypants……………

  8. I used to do flowcharts. However, mine never agreed with DH, so he would scrap mine. Now I just get on with the day and let him flowchart to his hearts content.

    Having said that, once they are no longer needed they make wonderful collage paper…….

  9. Fiendish? That homework will be the “Thing that Ate” New Zealand, if it grows feet on those legs, and a head where the arrows are pointing. Eight years old? Really? He should be enrolled @ MIT by the 5th grade. I think you should just string the diagram with lights and call them Christmas trees.

    I have to be honest, I just got in from a rattled train wreck of a Walmart pharmacy trip, which derailed me to Sam’s Club pharmacy, and still couldn’t get what I needed. (Diabetic) Now the TV in the other room, though probably not really too loud, seems to be running through my every nerve and screaming; SHUT UP IN THERE!!!

    So, I will have to come back and read this, what I perceive a, (from what little I was able to re-read ten times), beautiful script when I am able to absorb and appreciate it in it’s full glory.

    BUT I LOVE Lighting McQueen, and Darrel Cartrip !!! Be back soon, and I will at least pass it on to some twitter bugs, and fake bookers, before I leave.
    God Bless You

    1. Paul, it sounds like you have been having quite a day. I loved your post: writing to draw a passing visitor right in. Hope you get the stufff you need and feel better very soon.

      And who would have thought it: another Lightening McQueen fan…

  10. Blimey, Kate; Ouch!
    Where’s an intentionally left blank page when you need one?
    Those numbers felt to me like sunlight to a vampire. I used to love equations in school (I think they had just been invented then – we were always doing them!)

    1. Daniel Goleman’s stuff on vital lies has always fascinated me. We place things in our blind spot that we do not want to admit exist. We paint the truth the way we want to see it, and then hold it up as fact. If we can stand the pain of stripping away the fairy castle of perceptions we build, we stand, either to learn life changing truths, or to go mad trying…

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