Doing research

The other day at dinner with a friend I found myself engaged in that age-old debate: Are we here on this earth to live our lives, with the creation of art/aesthetics/beauty only a byproduct, an accident of evolution, or are we really here to create beauty, with our lives merely the framework to make such a thing possible?

My friend comes from China, and she said that the Chinese culture is very much in the former camp. The prevailing view of things there is practical, a series of real-world tasks and challenges, and people try to stay connected with the solidity and reality of a life lived day by day.

I, on the other hand, have lived most of my life in Manhattan, where the pervading ethos is arguably quite different. I remember reading, years ago, a description of New Yorkers. The writer said “When you walk down the street in New York, and you look into peoples’ faces, you realize that everybody is doing research.”

I thought that captured the essence of it splendidly. In our little corner of the Universe, there are many people for whom it is not at all about getting through the day, putting one foot in front of the other. Yes, of course those things are necessary, but they are not the reason people are here.

People are here to create, to encounter new ideas, to have the inspired conversations, hear the unexpected music, see the crazy art, and experience the wild theatre that are the life blood of this town.

Road test

Today, in a reckless act of self-confidence, I used the software prototype that I’ve been working on as the interactive teaching tool for my first class this semester. It may have been a little early for a road test, but it seemed like an opportunity.

After making a few last minute tweaks to the software, I spent much of the afternoon building the content – some text, but mostly interactive diagrams and 3D examples. My thinking was that the time pressure of an imminent lecture would focus my efforts.

And it all worked. I didn’t use all the features of the prototype, but it was already enough to make a big difference. I found it much easier to teach using a tool that showed my programming changes instantly, and that allowed me to put all the text, diagrams, interactive controls and 3D graphics in one place.

A good friend who knows nothing about programming was sitting in on today’s class. Afterward she told me that she felt she had understood perhaps 90% of the material. Which is what a tool like that is really all about.

Sometimes it pays to be a little reckless. πŸ™‚

Stopping at three

I recently posted about three phases of prototyping: (1) the quick rough sketch you implement in an afternoon, (2) the more completely featured rough sketch that takes a few days, then (3) the robust polished prototype that you may work on for several weeks.

In response, J. Peterson sensibly commented that there is a fourth phase — creating a commercially robust version that can be monetized (followed by a fifth: making money).

Now that I have a working version of my current third phase prototype, I appreciate anew the vast gulf between phases three and four. The decisions I made to create this third phase prototype were very different from the decisions I would have made to create a commercial product.

Because my interest is research, everything I create is lab equipment. All of my effort goes into making things as flexible and easy to modify as possible. Pretty much no effort goes into making something that could “survive in the wild”, in J. Peterson’s words.

Asking the question “What should this be like?” (which is the fundamental question I ask) is very different from asking the question “How can I make something that will be used by millions of people?”

My responsibility as a researcher is to answer the first question. If I am successful, then any commercial developer worth his/her salt will first carefully examine my results, extract useful principles, then throw out all of my code, and build something to commercial specs, from the ground up.

Wearing masks on Main Street

People cover their faces in public for a variety of reasons.

In parts of the Far East, when you have a cold you wear a little mask that covers your nose and mouth. This is done out of courtesy to others, so that they will not catch whatever you have. And in some parts of the Arab world, women cover their faces to protect their modesty.

There may soon be other reasons to wear a mask in public. We are rapidly approaching a time when it will be technologically easy for anyone walking down a city street to unobtrusively call up your name and identity in their wearable PDA, using facial recognition and web search. For various reasons, you may not wish to be so readily identified by strangers.

I wonder whether it will start becoming socially acceptable, if you wish to remain anonymous, to wear a mask in public. Not to prevent people from catching your cold, but rather to prevent people from catching your name.

Programming Shakespeare

Imagine everyone in high school could program computers — both students and teachers. In particular, assume that this skill was developed through elementary and school in a careful and progressive manner, much as reading and writing are now in the best case.

In such a scenario, how would the teaching of non science/math classes be different from the way they are now? Would teachers assign students such tasks as finding patterns in the works of Shakespeare?

Would students learn how to procedurally find and display progressive changes of style throughout the romantic age of English poetry, or how to demonstrate correspondences between changing demographics during early 20th century America and the rise of the modern urban landscape?

Would the whole notion of what kinds of things students can understand in their English and Social Studies classes become expanded, as young people find they have the tools to do original research with available databases, as well as to present those results in bold and graphically compelling ways?

I don’t know the answer — since we do not yet live in that world — but I think it is a question worth asking.

Do less

“Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” — Proverbs 17:28

I was having dinner last night with a friend, when the subject came up of how to deal with being neurotic. Everyone has some level of neurosis, and we can’t really reach in and rewire our brains. So the question isn’t so much how to be less neurotic, but rather how to deal with your neurosis when it inconveniently pops up.

In my case, I’ve come to see that the way I perceive other people — my theory of mind, you might say — does not always correspond to what those people are actually thinking or feeling. This split between perception and reality generally occurs when I am feeling frightened or insecure.

As we all know, to act on such incorrect “information” from your own head, such as attributing harmful intent where none was intended, can damage your relationships with other people.

And when somebody is actually being unkind or hurtful, responding neurotically can make it worse for you — the situation may end up being more about your response than their original act of unkindness.

I told my friend that I’ve learned to be wary of my own anger when I feel somebody is being unkind in an inexplicable way. I now generally assume that I have no idea how much of this feeling is due to my own neurosis — and that I won’t be able to figure this out until after I have cooled down. So I simply remind myself to do nothing until I am no longer feeling angry.

My friend nodded wisely, and responded with her own favorite way of saying it, which to me has a beautifully zenlike simplicity: “Do less.”

This also happens to be a memorable line from the film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, written by Jason Segel. Never argue with a man who can travel by map!

The socket slayer

A “socket” is the technical term for a piece of software that allows two computer programs to communicate with each other, even if they are running on different computers across the network. As you can imagine (since you are probably reading this on a web browser), this is a very important thing to be able to do.

Today I was at a meeting in which a graduate student was talking about figuring out how to kill a software socket that was hanging around even after it was no longer useful. As he explained the problem, I was very intrigued by his continued reference to “the socket slayer”. I was imagining him implementing an entire suite of software right out of the Buffyverse.

In addition to the Socket Slayer, there could be other software like the Watcher (who trains the Socket Slayer), and of course the evil software daemons, which run around in the background until vanquished by the Socket Slayer.

I started imagining all sorts of cool rules for this software world. For example, daemons cannot enter your dataspace unless you invite them in. The more I thought about it, the more sense it all made.

And then I made what was, in retrospect, a terrible mistake — I asked the student to tell me more about the Software Slayer.

It turned out that he was actually trying to say “sockets layer”.


I still think my version was better.


I just had the most joyful evening, with a group of likeminded crazy intellectuals, trading stories about this and that and whatnot.

This feeling of joy is not, in particular, about the fact that we are all “intellectuals”, but rather more broadly about the fact that we are likeminded. To recognize your own tribe — to see yourself and your passions in people whom you may have never before met — creates a unique kind of delight.

I suspect that this joy is not restricted to human beings. The leopard in the veldt, or the hawk flying majestically above the mountaintops, will recognize their brethren, and will feel a kinship that goes very deep.

Perhaps it is the pull of life itself, or rather of life’s never ending quest for meaning. If you and I recognize each other, if we can but peer into each others’ soul and see, reflected back, our own beating heart, then we both can know, without any doubt, that we are truly alive on this planet.

Applied autophoricology

This morning, after initially refusing to release a package of Veggie Chips I had paid for fair and square, an errant vending machine abruptly changed its mind and disgorged two packages at once. Initially delighted by my new found fortune, my elation turned to despair upon perusing the ingredients, when I discovered that these Veggie Chips contained milk, which I do not consume.

Upon arriving at my meeting, I offered the two packages to the several carnivores in the room, who happily ripped open and devoured the Veggie treats, whilst my fellow vegan and I looked wryly at one another, both realizing we would go hungry, yet both amused by the irony of the situation.

A few minutes later, my vegan colleague pulled out from his pocket two large Lifesaver mint candies, promptly offering one to me and retaining the other for his own imminent enjoyment. Gratefully I accepted the proffered gift, and told him “This is a real Lifesaver.”

The moment the words left my lips I realized I had spoken autophorically. While the moment hung in the air, I found myself wondering — as I do now — whether this new found tendency toward autophorical utterance was in any way prompted by my recent traversal of said topic within these very pages.


Yesterday I talked about metaphors that literally referred to themselves. Alas, in the spirit of humor, I cheated a bit. Most of my examples were truly autophorical, but one was faking it.

Or as Sally might put it, it’s only autophorical if X=“X”.

For example, the following was legit:

β€œI went out on a limb to rescue your cat from that tree.”

because the speaker really did go out on a limb, both literally and metaphorically.

In fact, my first five examples were all properly autophorical. But the last one wasn’t really kosher:

β€œThe editor cut my novel to five pages, to make a long story short.”

The problem here is that the speaker is not using the idiom “to make a long story short”, to talk about the meaning of the sentence (what the editor did), but rather to reference his/her own statement.

In fact this last example is kind of a cousin to Tom Swifties, which depend on a more traditional idea of punning:

“I have a skin infection,” Tom said rashly.