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Letters From the Home Front

A hundred years ago, I was in college. After a long and deliberate process of considering viable fields of study (involving a thoughtful analysis of the boy-to-girl ratios of each), I chose civil engineering. Engineering, it turns out, indeed involved a lot of boys but also a lot of numbers. Mostly, though, it involved a lot of rules, or as we called them, equations. Remember the right equation for the right situation; plug; and play. That's how I tended to approach it. But then there was Sherman. He was in a different area of engineering -- the magic kind where you had to take certain things on faith, like the fact that a bunch of random wires carrying who-knows-what could actually power a blow-dryer -- or Bill Gates. And maybe it was because of the more conceptual nature of his classes that Sherman didn't bother with memorizing the equations. He didn't rely on rules for finishing his homework. He just looked at the problem, started with what he knew to be true (those st...