Answering the Sphinx

“…it is the one riddle you do not know, not the thousand you do know, that will destroy you.” *

There are many legends of riddles with life or death consequences. The Sphinx in Greek literature. Gollum in Lord of the Rings. The Bridge Keeper in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Life is full of mysteries. Did this recipe fail because I followed it correctly or did it fail because I followed it incorrectly? If I followed it correctly did it fail because my taste buds are different than the author’s, or did it fail because there was a typo in it? If I followed it incorrectly, did I do so because I am a terrible cook, or did I just omit a step? If I omitted a step is it because I am too unorganized to be able to follow any recipe, or does it just require familiarity? Was the altitude too high? Was there an implied technique that wasn’t spelled out? Did I use an expired ingredient? Was my oven too hot?

Dealing with output gone wrong is endemic to computer programming. The uncertainty starts with the instructions – were the instructions I was trying to follow wrong, incomplete, required other techniques that weren’t spelled out, etc. If you are lucky enough to be able to find a second set of instructions written by someone else, you can compare the two. However, instructions for computer programs, like recipes, have a creative element to it – it is unlikely that two instructions will tackle the beast in exactly the same way, and so a straight comparison allowing you to find a typo in the instructions will be unlikely. It is easier for you to find a typo in your own program, rather than in the instructions. However, to find a typo in your own program requires self-confidence. It is not because you are a terrible cook. It is not because you have an innate character flaw like being disorganized. It is something you can do, if you just approach it methodically.

Some mysteries are unanswerable. Just today as I was folding laundry in the peace and quiet of my own room, suddenly there was an awful noise outside my room. A ruckus was running down the hall.  It collided against my closed door, fought the door knob and exploded into my room, where it immediately tripped and overturned the laundry basket. There it stood, one knee in a laundry basket, the other leg trying to bring itself and the basket upright, an undomesticated six-year old girl. And out of the mouth of this beast came the question, “are flies real?”

Many thoughts immediately ran through my mind at once. Why was my silence broken. Microbiology and basic life forms. Metaphysics and the nature of reality. Life in general, philosophy, and can a six-year understand these subjects (yes) and then immediately the corollary, will a six-year old stay still long enough to listen to a discourse on these subjects (no).

And so my answer was, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

To which the beast answered, in a beast-like fashion, “because the Evil One wanted something nice,” and untangled itself from the clothes and plastic woof and warp of the basket, and ran back from whence it came.

Leaving me with another set of many thoughts simultaneously running through my mind. Flies are for birds, and birds are not evil, flies are necessary in the food chain, why does she associate flies with evil, and where did she learn that word, evil, I have never used it, let alone the Evil One, is it just a normal disgust of flies, and since when does one answer a metaphysical question with religion? And what kind of religion frightens little children with images of the Evil One? And, it must be TV, and is she watching too much TV, and by golly what kind of connections is she making between real life and TV life, and the surrealism of it all, and is it preventing her from seeing nature for the purity and beauty that it is.

In retrospect, maybe she saw a reference to Lord of the Flies, and she has been watching Goosebumps non-stop today.

Which brings me back to life’s mysteries. You will be asked questions you cannot answer. In the legend of the Sphinx, most travelers simply avoided the path that led to the Sphinx in the first place. The first instinct when “enjoying the quiet” is to reject any interruption as an annoyance. When concentrating on the path at hand, questions are distracting. Why would Oedipus purposely seek out a Sphinx’s questions, knowing he could be made a fool, as in killed? Whether or not to interrupt your path by answering some monster’s riddle is a matter of priorities. Is it beneficial to you to help the monster (assuming the monster really desires the answer and is not just asking the question with the intent of putting you in an awkward spot) or is it better to kill or avoid monsters? Is it beneficial to the office to answer the incessant questions of your staff and clients?

And if you answer yes, what do you do when you get to the one riddle you do not know, the one that will destroy you, or at least your self image? Just remember, it is not because you are a terrible cook. It is not because you have an innate character flaw like being disorganized. It is something you can do.

If you just approach it methodically.

Take the most common email I get everyday, “I got a notice from the IRS. Why do I owe taxes? Are there any other taxes that I owe?”

To which a set of thoughts run through my head. What year. What form number. Is it really the IRS (lots of clients use government agencies names interchangeably). Is it for the person as an individual, or is it for their corporation. And even after I request and get a copy of the notice, there is the second half of the question – “are there any other taxes that I owe?” For me to answer that question requires me to pull government transcripts for the client as an individual, the client as a corporation, every year, every government agency, every likely type of tax (income tax, payroll tax, sales tax, city tax, property tax, what have you). However, it can be done. It just has to be approached methodically.

A good methodical approach to open questions, such as “is my tax return ready?” and “what should I do next?” is to use a checklist. To really know if a tax return is good enough to send a draft to the client to look over, and if there is any missing information or items that need to be asked of the client, use a checklist. I recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Sure, I made fun of the book when I first saw its cover (the concept of stressing just one single simple concept). However, I still read it. It actually was an enjoyable read, discussing the evolution of certain famous checklists, and it disciplined me into making and using efficient checklists.

The challenge of creating a checklist is that the creation of a checklist requires real expertise. Sometimes if you are lucky enough to subscribe to a research database you can find a pre-made checklist. Otherwise you will need to compile one yourself by researching laws, instructions, commentaries, asking experts and remembering all mistakes you have made in the past leading up to your own hard-won knowledge. Because a checklist is often just a list of mistakes and omissions to find.

Of course, a checklist probably won’t help with those strange questions, like “are flies real?” where you don’t know why you are being asked a certain question. In such a case, instead of answering with your wealth of knowledge, ask yourself the more basic question behind the question. Why is this person asking this question?  Ask the question back to the person, and see what their own answer is.  If you understand where a person is coming from, you can build on their grasp of the world (or perhaps they will answer themselves and run back from whence they came).

*The Riddle-Master of Hed.

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