Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Can a Bayshore's Litter Tell Us?

Today was an interesting diversion. Each year, our church does a community project that involves several hundred people. Last year, we did a major cleaning and invasive species removal from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Today, we went down to Ryder Park and Seal Point in San Mateo to clean the breakwater along the San Francisco Bay.

My kids and I got to be part of the "heavy lifting crew" because, at the area we were assigned, there was a lot of debris that had washed up on the shore and needed to be removed. My kids and I decided to "play detective" for the day, as it was entertaining to see what we would find. Less that 100 yards into our journey, we came across a waterlogged queen-sized mattress. Man, was this thing heavy, and did it ever smell foul. As we folded it up and rolled it up the levy, we laughed and hypothesized... "how does a queen sized mattress find itself in the San Francisco Bay?"

We played with a number of options that were both plausible and fantastical. The simplest solution is that someone dumped it somewhere further up the bay shore and somehow it got washed out in the tide and came to rest here. The more fantastical story (which, admittedly, was more entertaining to discuss) was that a boat with a bed in it may have capsized in the bay, and since the mattress could somewhat float, it drifted away from the boat and the tide washed it ashore here. We had numerous questions and queries about a number of things we found (large boards encrusted with barnacles, an office chair, bottles of beer and booze, etc.) Each time, I'd ask my kids to think of the scenarios where these might have come here. In many of the cases, they came up with likely scenarios. Small items like beer and booze bottles are easy; they were carried in, consumed, and discarded. The bigger items, however, prompted more questions (how could these get here, there's no easy way for them to be carried in and dumped, there's no automobile access... how does a queen size mattress get out to the Bay shore?!).

I took some time to explain to my kids that my work is a lot like this. Many times we see errors that make sense as to why they are there (a missing end tag, a missing brace, etc.). Each of these things are easy to explain, and there are usually very simple reasons for why they occur, and we don't have to go to great depth or study to figure them out. But there are times when we get the mattress that washes up on the shore, and we cannot figure out why, or where it came from. Many times, I tell them, I then have to go into "pure speculation mode" and make up ideas as to why a problem might be there. Often, I can talk to my development team and they can help guide my search and my speculation, because they know whether or not my SWAG (short for "Silly Wild Assed Guess") has any merit or not. Sometimes, though, I don't even have the developer's ideas as to why an issue appears, so occasionally, my SWAG's are given a chance to be explored. Most of the time, SWAG's don't turn up good leads, but every one in awhile, it will turn out to be something real.

So when you are out searching for answers, sometimes it pays to speculate and think of things that are wild and improbable. Sure, there's often a simple and reasonable answer, but every once in awhile, you just have to dig deeper and trust that your visit to "silly territory" will ultimately make sense, or it will be another path you can safely discard. Either way,  you get the chance to investigate new avenues you might otherwise not consider.

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