Lock Picking, and Solving Problems

Days pass by normally, and often you don’t pause to reflect on them because they’re the same day, the same old routine. The little differences that set your days apart—these start to become annoyances and tidbits, even interruptions in your daily schedule. Until you have a day that is so bizarrely different from the repeated existence that it shakes your foundations of routine to the ground.

Today (or rather, yesterday, since I am passing the midnight mark as I am typing this) was one of those days: it was the day of the Cornell homecoming game, and I suppose attending a sports event was something I had not done for over half a year. But besides that, the intriguing part happened when a fellow trumpet player and I left a bit after half time, only to find the band room locked on all exits.

For the next part, I will let other people remain anonymous, though I doubt the Cornell police are reading this. And if you are, you need not be alarmed as there was neither criminal intent nor damage done.

The person with me is quite good at knowing how things work, so he naturally assembles a makeshift lock-picking set from some handy materials. This includes a trumpet lyre, a Cornell Homecoming pin button, and an iPhone. The iPhone was used solely as a flashlight (this was at nearly 9 pm), the lyre was used as a “torsion wrench,” and the pin from the pin button was used as a pick, i.e. the thing that any lock-picker in a movie uses to poke into the keyhole.

After perhaps 15 minutes of attempts, it is clear that the lock is too sophisticated. He mentions how he could only set the first “tumbler” in place but that the lock had five tumblers. Heck, I didn’t even know those things in locks were called tumblers.

While this was going on, I reflected on the nature of problem solving, and realized that the problems I solve in classes, whether they be physics questions that assume surfaces are frictionless, or math questions that deal with uncountably infinite sets—I realized that such problems didn’t help the slightest bit when I faced this real world problem of a locked door. Even the highest levels of theoretical math and physics wouldn’t help now.

I even joked at how, if this were some action movie, one of us could climb through the ventilation system and pop down inside the room and open it from the inside. Unfortunately, it is an old building and there is not a ventilation shaft to fit into.

That physical locked door in front of me was the ironic manifestation of the hypothetical locked door. Neither my friend nor I had the key. And without the key, there was no getting past it.

I exit the building temporarily to go to the Statler, and on my way out, I see some other familiar band people coming in. I tell them we tried to lock pick the door, and continue walking. When I came back a few minutes later, a remarkable thing had occurred: the door was open! My friend and the other band people were inside, and yet none of us had a key.

It turns out that one of the people I ran into on my way to Statler had done the impossible: he climbed through a ridiculously small opening in the top corner of the room where some utility pipes passed through, and successfully landed and opened the door from the inside. Of course, in the room where we spend so long lock-picking, there just happened to be a ladder.

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