Anticonfluentialism

Or, an update on my infinite summer progress to date. After a belated beginning I’m back on track, at pp. 223/endnote 77. This is a fairly exciting milestone in the book, for me, since it’s a) past where I believe I stopped the first time, b) at the point where we finally unearth some fairly important information, and, c) also along the guidelines laid out here, past page 200, at which point things apparently start to flow more together[1. Unless, of course, DFW is, himself, a disciple of anticonfluentialism.]. However, what I’ve been telling people is simply this: even as a collection of semi-related short stories the first 200 pages is a pleasure. Once it starts all coming together it’s going to be exciting.[2. I have to say that I appreciate that Wallace has started to reward our attention to the endnotes, obviously such a unique and potentially-frustrating property of IJ. The first big catch that I made was on the page facing the one that I'm currently stopped at, pp. 222, where a reference is made to "Jim's own Cage III: Free Show"." Anyone who really slogged through the sudden speed bump that was endnote 24 was rewarded (for the first time, at least).]

I’ve mentioned that I’m reading IJ to a few people, with reactions ranging from “That book?” to “What book?”. Among my computer-scientist set there’s the common complaint that the sheer amount of technical reading that we have to do — in researching related work, reviewing papers and just general keeping up with our own fields — precludes pleasure reading, either because it leaves the scientist with no time to read or with no inclination.

I can’t say that much about the time issue[3. Although my own foray into IJ led my wife and I to postpone Season 5 of The Wire. Well, that and the toll that that show takes on you if you watch it day after day.], but at least for me technical reading[4. Which I actually tend to enjoy, from a research perspective if not a aesthetic one.] tends to whet my appetite for literature, or at least well-written prose in the form of excellent magazines like The New Yorker. Usually the latter are more manageable within the confines of my schedule, with bits pre-broken up for easy mental digestion, and so I have to say that merging IJ and my research activities is a bit of an experiment.

Again, so far so good. One noticeable change to my reading patterns brought on at least partially by the nature of IJ and partly by being, well, busy is that I tend to read in shorter sections — 15, 20 pages before bed, five pages snatched here and there in the morning or as a break from work, etc. This sort of “tempo reading”[5. To borrow an appropriate analogue from bike and foot racing.] is I think quite appropriate for IJ, given the heightened mental capacity needed to really appreciate it. (That it tends to break down into semi-bite-sized pieces is quite an assist.) It’s not that you can’t follow the plot after more than 20 pages, but the initial pleasure of sitting down with the book and really getting it — catching the references, getting the more obscure bits of humor, being willing to pause to run to the O.E.D.[6. I should just point out here, with respect to David Eggers in many ways quite excellent forward the edition I possess: the bit about DFW not sending you running to the dictionary several times per page is simply false. In the interest of preserving my own sanity I have tended to eschew many of the pharmacological references, but have been trying to be good about looking up words that seem significant in context like ephebic and the even more interesting murated.] — tends to wane (at least for me), a good signal that it’s time to put it down. And pick up a research paper perhaps?

Girl Sailor

Quick on the heels of my last post/first IJ post I want to get in a witty, clever observation, just to demonstrate my head is in the right place. Reading this passage of IJ (p. 123):

Her mother had left home when the U.S.S Millicent was only five, running off very abruptly with a many sent by what had then been called Con-Edison to do a free home-energy-efficiency assessment.

brought this bit of output by The Shins to mind (from “Girl Sailor” off Wincing the Night Away:

And does anything I say seem relevant at all?
You’ve been at the helm since you were just five
While I cannot claim to be more than a passenger

But, you’ve won one too many fights
Wearing all of your clothes at the same time
Let the good times end tonight
Oh girl, sail her, don’t sink her
This time

I looked at the rest of the lyrics and couldn’t decide if there was a deeper connection or not. Anyone?

Infinite Summer

Years ago (the summer of 2004 IIRC) I first picked up The Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace1 I think I got it at a library used book sale in Aspen, CO, where I was for a week in the summer visiting my sister who was participating in the music festival. Aspen in the summer is beautiful, by the way. Even the ubiquitous celebrity presence can’t quite ruin it. Maybe I didn’t buy it, maybe I just took it out on loan. The reason I wonder if I didn’t buy it in that IJ is, um, big? It’s not knick-knack sized, it’s more small child sized, so it’s not the thing you misplace. (Unless you misplace very small children.)

I picked up IJ a few weeks ago as part of the Infinite Summer project, the idea of which is to consume all 1,069 pages (although, apparently IJ should be longer…). It’s been fun to have a few blogs2 spurring me along. Currently I’m on page 134, endnote 483 and so far its been manageable. I tend to read fairly quickly, and I guess after reading many research papers4 over the years my tolerance for multiple-page blocks of dense text (sometimes in dialect!) has increased. Actually I’m enjoying it heartily. Some of this ground I had trod before on my first attempt, when I petered out at around page 100, but even now that I’m into virgin (for me) territory it’s still enjoyable.

Mind you, I don’t claim to have the slightest clue what is going on, yet, but the text is just so magnificent in places5 that even as a series of completely unrelated short stories it would have had me. In any case, I may periodically share some insights here under the tag “Infinite Summer”, which apparently you can link to (just those posts) like this. We’ll see how I do!

  1. 1. BTW: the picture of him on his Wikipedia page is excellent, strangely moving. []
  2. 2. "Infinite Summer", "A Supposedly Fun Blog", "Infinite Zombies", probably others I'm missing... []
  3. 3. Although I skipped the forward-referenced endnotes. Maybe that was a mistake? They seemed weird to me. Consider this my own sort of forward-reference, as it were, since I want to come back to this. []
  4. 4. Not always, ahem, the best written things out there. []
  5. 5. And maybe my increasing DFW sympathies have to do with our joint fondness for endnotes, interruptions, "stream of consciousness" text (as an uncharitable reader recently described some of my technical writing)? Amazing that at age 29 you can still discover punctuation. The dash is a darling thing. []

Graduation Protests

Today is the 385th Harvard Commencement, so the yard is draped with banners, ceremonies have sprung up all over campus, and the Houses are serving the annual luncheon feast featuring the typically rubbery/frozen chicken.[1. When multiple parents mentioned the frozen-ness to me, I pointed out that as the chicken warmed, the texture deteriorated. Pick your poison, I guess.]

My good friend Mark Hempstead received his degree at Lowell House, my alma mater. Suz and I walked over there midday hoping to see him receive his degree[2. GSAS students affiliated with a house as tutors often choose to receive their degrees at the house, since the GSAS ceremony is huge and fairly impersonal. I mean, as a Computer Scientist I don't really know many Romance Linguists, so I'd rather receive me degree in a smaller setting surrounded by fellow tutors and undergraduates that know me. Definitely my route next year.] After a few moments of poking around, looking for the distinctive pink Ph.D. robes, we called him and found the Lowell SCR sequestered in the courtyard of the Masters Residence, enjoying their meal (which didn’t seem to include the frozen/rubbery chicken) out of site of the undergraduates and their parents. Ah, Lowell House! I saw Channing and should have stuck around to say hi to people like Dr. Pechet, but former House Master Professor William Bossert began the toasting, followed by current House Master Professor Diana Eck, and Suz and I figured it was time to beat a path to the exits. At Lowell that sort of toasting can go on for a while.

Later today, on my way to the office for a few hours of emailing and work-type activities, I noticed a group of green-clad protesters outside of Johnston Gate chanting:

1..2..3..4
Harvard is not poor!
5..6..7..8
Layoffs are what we hate!

Certainly these guys were buoyed by a nice sense of timing. There’s still a sense around here that the quiet that typical follows Commencement will be the point at which the University quietly announces further staff cuts and other cost-cutting measures. However, I have heard the odd and encouraging word decapitalization being thrown around recently, so maybe that’s a good sign? Should be an interesting summer, at the least.

Source Code Visualization Tool

As part of a post-CS161 discussions last week over lunch, we decided that it would be neat to have a tool that would allow you to visually annotate, comment, or file bugs on code snippets. I’m envisioning something web-based with a nicely rendered version of the source on the left and user comments or bugs filed on the right, next to the source, in little call-outs or whatever. Does this sort of thing exist? Anybody?

Google Reader

Poking around today, I noticed that Google Reader seems to have fixed some of the problems I had had with it when it was younger1 I’m going to give it another shot and will report back in a week or two.

  1. 1. Primarily its inability to retrieve anything but the post "summaries" from certain sites, which meant you ended up at the site reading the whole posts anyway. Not much value add there. []

A Futurist’s Manifesto?

Bryan Brady II, the director of training for Locals 40 and 361, said, “The future is going to be a lot different than it is now.”

I actually ran across this great quote (from this New Yorker article) on the way to HotOS’09, where Adam Greenfield was the featured keynote speaker. At the time I was venturing through “Everyware”, his first book, and was curious about meeting a self-described “critical futurist” in person. He turned out to be nice enough.

Anyway, just keep it in mind: the future is going to be a lot different than it is now. In ever-changing world of critical futurism, at least we can be sure of that…

Academics v Industry

I found Colin’s blog today.1 And then I found this post essentially asking, for not the first time, whether the academic community has “lost its way” because we don’t invent things that people use anymore2

This isn’t a complete thought, but I was reflecting on this a month or so ago as I tried (not for the first time) to separate what I do at my desk every day (or most days) from what colleagues and friends that I know that work at Microsoft, Facebook, Google or even smaller outfits like Sentilla do at their desks every day. What makes what I do “research” as opposed to what they do (“work”)?

To me at least it seems that the clearest separation emerges from considering the role of the “consumer”. To put it simply, I think that the job of someone working at Microsoft is to do what consumers want. That doesn’t mean always giving them what they want, since you can certainly lead the market and people aren’t always good at describing or predicting what technology or design will really please them. But that should still be at the front of your mind. It probably isn’t for most engineers that aren’t customer-facing, but someone else is there or there’s some structure encouraging them to pay attention to these things.

Me? I don’t think much about consumers. At all, really. Not about “consumers”, per se. To avoid getting into trouble, I should be fairly specific here. I think a lot about the goals and desires of the people that are using my contributions. Are these users “consumers”? You might be able to make the case that they are, but it seems different to me somehow. Maybe because we interact differently? I don’t really know.

OK, this rapidly morphed from a “deep thought” to a “I have no idea what I’m talking about” post. Wow. Sometimes its good to get these things out onto paper, just to find out how little sense you make once they get there. Sheesh.

  1. 1. Which I'll start reading along with a few new additions: Successful Researcher, A Gentleman's C, and FemaleScienceProfessor. []
  2. 2. The post should be read in its entirety, since my reduction of it is probably neither complete nor accurate. []

Seat Stealer

Our dog Chuchu has, as most dogs do, many amusing qualities. It’s the day-to-day observation of these qualities that really animates dog ownership, at least for me.

Several examples: first, Chuchu has a tendency, when on walks, to act as if a great wind is blowing that emanates from home outward in all directions. Or perhaps that there is some source of inverse gravity rooted at home that only he can sense. This leads to a tendency to pull forward on the leash going away, and lag when returning home. I suppose you could create some sort of compass using this feature. Maybe it’ll be helpful if we ever get lost one day.

I noticed this particularly yesterday, as he and I went out for a little run in the rain. For weeks we have been running about 1.5 miles between Eliot House and the Eliot Street Bridge. Not knowing anything about his innate distance running abilities, I assumed that he was tired on the way back since he would switch from running along beside me to lagging a few steps behind1. However, yesterday we followed our trip out-and-back to the Eliot Bridge with an extension out-and-back to the Western Avenue Bridge and, lo and behold, he seemed to get a great burst of energy during the 3rd quarter of the run and then appeared tired again for the last quarter. It really is something having to do with going and coming from his home I think.

The other interesting habit that actually spurred me to jot this down is his tendency to steal your seat. Many times, after being settled on the couch with him on the floor in my apartment, after journeying to get water or use the restroom I return to find him looking up at me from my spot on the couch. WTF? Usually there’s plenty of room for both of us, but why? Is it the warmth left behind? I have no idea.

  1. 1. Perfectly OK by me, since he's less likely to trip me going after a squirrel that way. []

Feynman on Teaching

I’ve always admired Richard Feynman[1. What a horrible photo on Wikipedia! Why not this one?] as a serious researcher who took teaching seriously. You find great, inspiring quotes from him like this:

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.
So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.

Recently, while attempting to run down an assertion I had made (incorrectly, it turned out) about the introductory Physics series Feynman taught at CalTech I stumbled across this wonderful article (“Capturing the Wisdom of Feynman”) written by one of his collaborators during the process. It provides a great deal of context surrounding the preparation of the book, the process by which they were synthesized into lectures, and rebuts a few common claims about the course and its efficacy. Well worth a read.