Forward References

One of the many interesting things about IJ, at least to me, was its use of forward references in the endnotes. E.g., endnote #45, which reads “See Note 304 sub.” Actually I think there are a few like this. When I came across endnote #45 I actually didn’t skip forward to the forward-referenced note, since I thought, wait, 304 > 45, so WTF? Is this a trick? Why not just reverse the ordering and make 45 the long essay on Québécois separatism? It wasn’t until I read this note on Infinite Zombies which references that essay that I thought it was OK to go ahead and move forward and read it. Which I did.

Taking that as loose inspiration I want to toss in a few forward references of my own, since I find that my ability to come up with good subjects for blog posts outpaces my ability to write them. So here are things that I have been mulling about and hope will come out in these pages soon:

  • I’d like to do a series of posts based on a long conversation I had with Christoph Freytag while he was visiting us at SEAS. It was several days after I had presented some ongoing work at our weekly group meeting and we had a great, wide-ranging chat that touched on a large number of things: life, research, mentoring, etc. The parts I’d like to cover here — assuming I can get his permission to do so — were a series of observation he made of the sensor network field at large as a sage, external reviewer. I’ll get in touch with him and see what he thinks about me stealing some of his thunder here.
  • After HotOS’09 I’ve had a few posts bouncing around, including one on anonymity in reviewing[1. Which was re-invigorated by a strange path of link-clinking which lead me, IIRC, from something about IJ to this post on Planned Obsolescence, which deals with anonymous reviewing and quotes this piece from Anyway, these thoughts lined up very well with my own and this post is actually already in the draft stage.], another on the aesthetics of computer systems design, and a third — already covered here — on an idea to increase the sustainability of computer science conferences.
  • Along those lines, I have another idea on improving the related work section of peer-reviewed papers, similar but not identical to the “novelty timeout” I proposed here.
  • I wanted to offer another perspective on the Vanity Fair article on Harvard that Professor Mitzenmacher[2. Clicker beware: Professor Mitzenmacher's homepage at present contains a massive unscaled image that caused my browser to lock up for ~60 seconds.] has already discussed in this post on his blog. I actually found the article and it’s tone extremely frustrating and wanted to assess it even before Professor Mitzenmacher beat me to it.
  • I have a bit of musing to do about my own approach to computer science research, motivated by the realization that I don’t enjoy writing computer code as much as colleagues and how that changes my approach to building systems. It’s also an excuse to connect with a great quote from a wonderful poem called “Top Story” by Mark Yakich[3. Who's married, in fact, to the sister of a friend of mine from college, which is how I learned of and acquired the excellent volume Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross. To confess fully, I actually (accidentally) lifted my copy from my friend's parents' home several years ago. I'm considering sending them one but I'm guessing they've acquired another already.]:
    …They say, you must not force sex
    to do the work of love or love to do
    the work of sex, but I’m not completely convinced.
    I mean, something has got to work somewhere,

    even if in reverse…

    Have I given the whole post away already? Probably not.

  • I wanted to review the movie (500) Days of Summer, which Suzanna and I saw yesterday on our six-month anniversary (!).
  • I obviously need to write the second half of this post, which really should be the next order of business, but which is frustrating and sad and head-of-the-line-blocking and preventing all the other wonderfulness above from getting done.
  • Finally, I wanted to write a Google fanboy post now that they’ve activated my Google Voice subscription. I’ve also been thinking a lot recently about and their sequestering of information, but I need to make sure I have all the details before I wade into something like this.[4. Unusual for me, I know.]

So now that I’ve forward-referenced these topics I have the incentive to follow through, to make sure that the references aren’t broken, forever dangling sadly in space, pointing at nothing…

IJ Notes

Couple of things worth mentioning:

  1. Apparently my blog, specifically this section, was mentioned in this post over at the mothership. Count me as proud, my first external pingback[1. For whatever reason, for a long period of time internal references, such as one post linking to another, triggered the Wordpress pingback notifications. Which was weird, since I don't really need to know when I link to other posts on my blog since, um, I did it? But this time that feature came through for me, which was good because I was almost at the point of completely ignoring the notifications.]! However, that said, maybe I need to come up with a better name for this blog than “Geoffrey Werner Challen”?
  2. This post and its “deductive reasoning” confused me. At the time I’ll admit I didn’t attempt to perform the B.S. -> A.S. (?) mapping, but at the same time if I had I would have probably taken the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic) as a clue. To repeat, with some of the cruft collapsed: Y.O.T.Y.2007.M.R.C.V.M.E.T.I.U.F.I/I.T.S.F.H.O.O.M.(s). Which, as it turns out, was actually 2007. Slight snark aside, it was nice to see someone point that out, and the deductive reasoning ends up confirming the (somewhat) obvious.
  3. I have to say that I’ve noticed some goalpost moving when it comes to the “get to this page because it gets good after that” claim. “How to Read Infinite Jest” says “persevere to page 200.” I’m pretty sure I saw some who moved the it-gets-good point to page 250, but this review is I guess the best I can do. It claims that IJ is really 17 short stories until page 250. Finally, this point over at A Supposedly Fun Blog morphs this advice into “get to page 300, etc.” Hopefully this won’t continue all summer, with posts in late-August reading “just get to page 750[2. Or whatever page we'll be at that point.].” I’m actually enjoying the book, even the apparently not-so-good first 200/250/300 pages.
  4. Speaking of which, I actually enjoyed (to the degree you can enjoy something so dark) the much-maligned (1, 2[3. Not a complete maligning, but more of a "I understand if you have already maligned it" sort of thing.], 3) “yrstruly” sections, particularly the “2bdenied” compaction which I found a bit funny every time I came across it. That said, I remember hating these sections on my first attempt at IJ, so I get it. No clue why I enjoyed them so much this time. Maybe it’s the four seasons of The Wire separating now from then…

Might climb into bed with IJ in a minute. Or not. The All-Star game is (at least at this point) surprisingly interesting.

Pinned and Needled

Today is the Sensys’09 programming committee meeting, going on just down the street in our spaceship home, Maxwell-Dworin. So fairly soon we’ll hear about the fate of two papers our group sent in, one on system called Mercury — a paper I was peripherally involved with — and another on a system called Draft, which I lead authored along with my advisor and the fantastic Jason Waterman.

The review process is always fraught with tension, particularly around decision time, but I’m finding myself struggling a bit harder that usual to wait quietly by the internets for a verdict. I think a combination of various factors has led me to feel more invested that usual. Enumeration follows the break…
Read all »


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:

Harvard is not poor!
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. []

Running on E

I always feel a great deal of lassitude at this time of year, which makes it extra difficult to get anything done. I’ve always pinned in on a few changes. First, the academic year is over, and the last push is usually a bit exhausting, either getting through exams or getting a class through exams, grading, etc. Second, the weather is warming up, and that screws with my system. I don’t like hot weather and have learned to live with the four months of stickiness that is summer in Boston, but I usually take a week or two to acclimate. This year the weather has been all over, up and down for the usual run-around that passes for spring, so I haven’t had quite enough time to really get things straightened out. Looks like this is going to be the stretch though.

This year is no real exception, and it’s probably heightened by a few additional factors:

  • The Red Wings are in the playoffs. It’s always struck me as bizarre that the NHL finals are now, in early June. This is not hockey weather. A couple of suggestions: shorten the season, or start in early enough that you can finish in February. That would be ideal, really, since the finals would fall right after the Super Bowl, the weather would be hockey-like, and heck, you could even perhaps hold the playoffs or at least a game or two outside!
  • Suzanna and I have to move next week. Packing up for the first time in three years is not particularly fun, but given that I don’t have a great deal of stuff it’s easier than it should be. I shouldn’t complain. Suz is packing up to move for the fourth time in three years. Ugh.
  • Due to our position as summer school Co-Assistant Deans I’m a bit suspicious about how restful the summer will actually be. We’ll be in our “summer home” out in the Harvard Quad, which will be nice, but supervising 400 or so summer school students? Will that be fun? I hope so.

I’m also wondering if I returned from HotOS’09 with a bit of a cold. At least I’ve been more exhausted than usual for the last couple of weeks. Good time for a vacation.