Precision

Reflecting on my previous post, particularly the part linking the Red Wings and the Patriots: the thing that characterizes these two teams in my mind is precision. Not sure why that word came to mind. Precision doesn’t preclude passion, or heart, or flash, or whatever. It’s an undercurrent that makes all of these things more exciting, since the actually work. You can have passion without precision, of course, but it i sort of frustrating since it tends to stupidity. You can have heart without precision, but it’s kind of maudlin. Flash without precision? Ugly. Really ugly.

Patriots. Wings. Precision.

Hockey

My God. This is the best game on earth.

I’m watching Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the moment. I’ve often told people that one of the great pleasures of being a Michigander masquerading as a Masshole, I get to root for the two best franchises in pro sports: the Detroi Red Wings (hockey) and the New England Patriots (American football). Despite the difference in sport, they operate in largely the same way: a) don’t pay anyone too much, b) put a premium on winning, c) admit a constant set of new pieces and let up-and-coming players go once they get greedy, irregardless of how popular they are. The nice thing is that, once you get good, this formula is self-perpetuating. Who wouldn’t want to play with Nick Lidstrom/Tom Brady, or Kevin Faulk/Hendrik Zetterberg, or Chris Osgood/Kevin Faulk, or Darren Helm/Wes Welker[1. Pairings are not coincidental.] ? I mean really? These guys are amazing.1

Anyway, back to hockey. It’s fast, continuous, smooth, rough, beautiful, sudden, Players display an impressive amount of toughness, endurance, teamwork and skill. It’s really hard to understand, at least for me, why hockey remains a “boutique” sport. To me it’s one of the most, if not the most, exciting sport to watch. A puck just landed right on top of Chris Osgood’s back. And didn’t go in. I mean, c’mon, people?

  1. 2. And guys who I'm still learning to pronounce their names, hometown guys like Justin Abdelkader, who just scored to make it 3-1 Wings. []

Running?

For months last year one of the primary uses of my blog was to document my running. What happened to that, you might ask? The last entry, entitled 2 + 2 Tempo Run was dated August 5th, 2008.

At the time I was training for the Boston Half Marathon, which was held October 12th, 2008. My plan was that this would be a stepping stone to taking on a full-length marathon (I had the California International Marathon in Sacramento in December in mind) over the winter. My big shining goal at the time was to try and work towards the 3:10 cutoff for my age group at the Boston Marathon. After my brother ran his first marathon years ago I remember asking him if he’d run Boston. He said only if he could qualify.

So what happened? Well, to make a long story short, I got a bit overeager, then a lot of time passed, I got soft and out-of-shape, and now I’m at the bottom of the mountain again looking up.

Fact is, in the run-in to the Boston Half I was in great shape, better than at any other moment in my life. My training runs were going great. The final large effort scheduled according to the race preparation guide was a 10K (around half of a half-marathon) at race pace. On a cold, blustery Thursday in Boston I fought the wind all the way down the Esplanade and ran 10K at around 7:02 min/mile. Given that my original goal was to run the half at Boston qualifying pace (7:15 min/mile), I had moved the goalposts a bit by then. At the time, I remember feeling a bit of twinge in my knee, but nothing terribly serious. Or so I thought.

That run was about 10 days before the event. After a short, easy run Friday and a rest Saturday Sunday was scheduled as a long run, 10-14 miles if I recall correctly. Might as well go out and run the course, I thought? So I rode my bike to the start line downtown and began jogging the 13.2 mile out-and-back course.

Almost immediately my left knee starting giving me trouble. Unfortunately, being stubborn I kept at it for far too long, actually made it to about the turnaround point (half-way) before finally realizing that this was a serious problem, about the time that I was so seriously hobbled that I couldn’t run for more than 200 meters or so without having to stop and walk. The weather was brooding and so was I. I had this horrible feeling that I wouldn’t be able to survive the half.

And I turned out to be right. Whatever I had done to my knee was serious enough that a lot of rest, a lot of Vitamin I and a lot of icing the next week couldn’t heal it. Thursday was my drop-dead run and I couldn’t make it 4 miles. The half was over, and I didn’t even bother to show up.

Continuing the montage forward: I fell into a bit of a funk not being able to run, then I got engaged, then we got married, then I wrote a paper. During this time I gained enough weight (not a huge amount, thank God) that people noticed. I noticed. I started to get sick of it. My dog gained some weight over the winter as well.

Anyway, now Chuchu (the dog) and I are out running the river again. We’re setting our sights pretty low for now, just jogging the 1.5 miles back and forth from Eliot House to the Eliot Bridge. That’s starting to feel comfortable, for me at least, although Chuchu sometimes still lags during the second half. I get at least a few breaks on the out-and-back as he stops to do various sorts of doggy business along the shores. Then I hop on an ergometer in the Eliot basement and finish the workout. I’m feeling better, slowly getting back into shape.

I still don’t know, however, whether my knees have another hard training season or their first marathon in them. I’m cautiously optimistic though, so we’ll see. If I ever get serious about it again, to the point that wearing the GPS unit thrills rather than depresses me, they’ll be more post-run reports appearing here.

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.

More Blogs

A few I missed earlier, all tech:

Blogs I Read

I thought about putting up a blogroll, but integrating it into my existing site seems like too much work and its not clear where it would go. This seems easier. Blogs I read on a daily basis fall into roughly two categories: politics and technology. To enumerate (in no particular order):

Politics:

  • Talking Points Memo: I’ve been reading TPM for years and just can’t quit. Some of their new features annoy me1, but in general I think that Josh Marshall has an interesting take on a lot of things. Highly recommended.
  • Eschaton Blog: Another blog I’ve followed for a while but one I’m losing interest in faster than in TPM. Still plays a nice meta-blog role with links to a lot of interesting posts on blogs I don’t normally read. But a lot of the posts now are just little pieces of not-so-funny snark or pure comment threads, which I don’t bother with.
  • Glenn Greenwald @ Salon: I really enjoy Glenn’s style, his strong opinions, the sometimes bracing clarity he brings to issues. A good read.
  • Paul Krugman’s Blog: An obvious choice. Extremely insightful. Very shrill! Good stuff. Somewhat erratic posting schedule, however.

Technology:

I’m still hunting around for blogs written by contemporaries, that is late-term students considering the academic market, certainly systems types. Shoot me a note if you write or read one.

  1. 1. The "Day in 100 Seconds" feature seems to reduce news from a series of soundbites to a series of mini soundbites. Is this useful? []

Old Idea Statue of Limitations

As far as ideas that came out of discussions at HotOS’09, this one I can’t really take credit for: credit goes to Colin Dixon at The University of Washington. But as far as I know he doesn’t have a blog1, so I get to blog the idea!

I remember this idea emerging out of the one of the typical conversations carried out by young CS researchers after meeting, which is animated by the irritation associated with the feeling we get at times from more senior people that “everything old is new again.” All great systems research was done in the 70s and 80s. There’s no such thing as a new technology. Every idea you have someone had before. Every system you build is just a reflection of earlier glories. And on and on. It’s pretty depressing, really, and makes you wonder why anyone would get excited about a future building systems listening to some of these voices. This sort of attitude also tends to leech away any enjoyment we (junior people, that is) get from new, to us at least, discoveries and revelations. Who cares if I’m late to the party? I’ve arrived! I made it! Let’s party!

It also seems, at least to me, that an overdeveloped concern for intersection with the past seems to emerge from a type of technological (over)determinism that’s hard to justify once bared. It’s the sort of thinking that believes that, if we are ever at point A, then we are going to be next at point B. So if you find yourself at A, why brave ahead yourself? Save yourself the trouble, cut out the middle man, join the conversation at B. This sort of thinking also seems linked to considering the act of building a system in an overly-scientific way as an experiment, rather than as a set of design decisions made in a certain (time varying) context. I can certainly imagine that sciences that seek to develop an understanding of a (at least, fairly) fixed universe, like Physics2 would frown on performing the same experiment twice. After all, it’s unlikely that the laws governing the universe have changed much sense (Newton, Bohr, Insert Favorite Famous Physicist Here) performed it (centuries, decades) ago. (If they had changed, would they be laws?)3

Of course, in Computer Science everything needs a (t) attached to it, since our world does change. We are simultaneously building and studying it. So rather than being at point A, we are at point A(t), and then we make a bunch of decisions at times t + Δ1, t + Δ2, etc., and we end up at B(t + Δtotal). So what? Well, if at some later point, say t’, we again start at A(t’), we might not end up making the same choice. We might end up somewhere else, maybe at C(t’+Δtotal). We might deploy a different set of ideas, which maybe have been around for some time, but maybe now we’re ready to take this whole journey seriously. This time.

So what can we do here? Is there a way to simultaneously accomplish two things:

  • Encourage researchers, particularly younger ones, to take the past seriously and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
  • Ensure that ideas aren’t excluded from the present discourse simply because they might have been explored in a similar, or different, context years ago, on the premise that some of those ideas might simply not have found their time yet?

I wasn’t sure there was, but Colin made a brilliant suggestion: a statue of limitations on old ideas.4 The idea is simple: we set a reasonable time period, say 10 years, after which ideas go “out of scope”, meaning that they are no longer fair game for dinging a new paper for repeating. Individual conferences could each set their own “novelty timeout”5, with some venues emerging out a desire to reexamine the quite recent past (low novelty timeout), and others preferring a high bar on originality (high novelty timeout).

To those that might fear that this would further reduce the burden on authors as far as understanding and citing related work, I would argue that it might have the opposite effect. With an understanding of the pertinent novelty timeout, authors will be less afraid of finding out that some guy at Xerox PARC scribbled out the outline of my SOSP’09 paper on a napkin in a bar in 1972. A novelty timeout could also be paired with a recommended reading list for each conference. Essentially, Sensys might say to submitting authors: we expect you to be familiar with work that appeared in Sensys, IPSN, DCOSS, HotEmNets, etc. for the last 5 or 10 years, as we will be and will penalize those who have missed pertinent related efforts.

A novelty timeout seems like a reasonable way of balancing competing goals: ensuring that researchers have enough time and rope to do fresh things, even if they revisit old ideas; and incentivizing proper consideration of the past.

  1. 1. Pourquoi pas, Colin? []
  2. 1. Where I started. []
  3. 2. I have a separate set of ideas brewing about Computer Science as science or art, but those will brew until another day. []
  4. 3. There's probably a snappier way of phrasing this... ideas? []
  5. 4. Another attempt at a name, maybe an iota snappier than the first? []

Offsets

Despite the near-perfection of HotOS’09, which I’ve commented on already multiple times (1, 2), one thing that did bother me about the location was the distance. Given that I led a discussion about sustainability during the think big session, I felt obligated to put my money where my mouth was, and today for the first time purchased carbon offsets to cover the trip from Boston to Zurich.

According to carbonfund.org, $36.51 was enough to offset my air travel, and this included considering the effects of something called “radiative forcing”, which I thought was sort of interesting. Their explanation:

At high altitudes, the effect of greenhouse gases is considerably
different than on the ground level. Aircraft also emit water vapor
during flight which can cause the formation of ice clouds, called
contrails. Where contrails persist, cirrus clouds begin to form which
have an additional impact on global warming. Clouds can have a double
effect on radiation: they warm the earth by reducing the amount of
radiation from the earth that escapes into space but also cool the earth
by reflecting the sun’s rays back into space. However, contrails lead to
a net warming factor, which is estimated to be 2.7 times the normal
effect (IPCC, 1999).

Anyway, did this make me feel better about the trip? I don’t know. Are carbon offsets perfect? Probably not, but long-distance air travel is a luxury few can afford and it seems reasonable to expect that the privileged few can keep track of their impact on the environment. In my HotOS’09 survey I suggested that USENIX begin offering carbon offsets as part of their registration fee. Maybe they could give people who purchase them a green-backed badge, or something? That’d be cool.

American Infrastructure

One thing that a trip to Europe, however short, and definitely to Switzerland will demonstrate to the casual observer is that America’s infrastructure is in pathetic shape. It’s ugly and broken down. And hell, I was in the Italian part of Switzerland, which still had a very attractive shabbiness to it. And trains. Which worked. Swiss. Gotta love ‘em.

Bob Herbert notices the same today.

The Teddy Ruxbin Talk

More post-HotOS’09 thinking1, though less directly-relevant.

I would like to lay claim to coining the term “Teddy Ruxbin Talk” to describe a talk that is a) overly-rehearsed, b) extremely overly-rehearsed c) almost feels like it was acted out, rather than given or d) a mind-numbing mixture of a-c above.

I think most people who lived through the 80s at whatever age will catch the reference. Here’s Teddy Ruxpin[1. Who's back, apparently. Yay!] Teddy will talk to you, but first you have to put a tape in Teddy’s back and hit PLAY. Then Teddy will talk to you. He will say what is on the tape. With the same wording, timing, and inflection. Every time.

I dare say we’ve all given the Teddy Ruxbin talk. Sometimes this is referred to as the “elevator pitch”, when given clumsily. I myself find myself lapsing into this when presenting a poster, and beginning my spiel for about the 20th or 50th time. 2 I noticed a few Teddy Ruxpin talks among the job talks that faculty candidates gave at Harvard a few years back. I guess those are the most common places: poster presentation lends itself to repetition, and you get it from all sides as far as how important jobs talks are which probably explains their tendency to be over-, rather than under-, prepared.

Maybe people will give me a hard time for pointing out the downside of over-prepared-ness, given that many conference talks suffer from the opposite problem. And I’m not exactly sure why I’m opposed to the Teddy Ruxpin talk. It seems to run counter to the reason that it’s so thrilling to watch someone like Yo-Yo Ma perform, the utter ease and comfortability that puts you, the listener, completely at peace. Contrast this to the delicate, difficult appreciation that you experience hearing a young child play something that is clearly just a bit beyond their technical or musical grasp, the slight strain of being put into the position of rooting them on, praying just a little bit that their fingers won’t slip, that their memory won’t fail them.

But maybe over-prepared-ness shouldn’t lead to scripted-ness. Maybe it should lead to a fully natural presentation in which the requisite practice recedes into the background entirely, and you are left without a feeling of intense, deliberate, repetitive preparation, and instead just left with the ideas the speaker wanted to impart. This is probably something akin to what actors strive for, since nobody wants a chump that forgets what comes after “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, but nobody wants to hear the lines read to them either. It’s a tough balance to strike, but we have Teddy Ruxpin manning one edge of the abyss to let us know when we’ve gone way, way too far.

  1. 1, 2 []
  2. 2. I actually tend to fight against this to somewhat ridiculous lengths, meaning that latecomers to the poster tend to look a bit confused as they receive an extremely weird, highly-obfuscated poster pitch completely driven by a strange need to keep my cranial circuitry alive. []