Friday, February 20, 2009

Mission Statement

Let's move from general to more specific. I exist. I'm a human being. A thinker. Philosopher. Computer Scientist. Software Engineer. Web Application Developer. Java programmer.

But wait. Back up a bit and try again.

Computer Scientist. Teacher of Computer Science. Ah, that feels better.

I set up situations where bright young people become Computer Scientists, knowing that I have contributed to their achievement, in some small way.

That's my mission statement.

The normal way to realize such a mission is to acquire education in Computer Science, up to the Ph.D. level, then get a teaching position at the university. A C.S. Ph.D. requires demonstrating an ability to solve a very obscure problem in a very specialized domain. As Mor Harchol-Balter puts it:

"A Ph.D. is a long, in depth research exploration of one topic. By long we’re typically talking about 6 years. By in depth we mean that at the end of the Ph.D. you will be the world expert or close to it in your particular area. You will know more than your advisor about your particular research area. You will know [more] about your research than anyone at your school. By one we mean that by the last couple years of your Ph.D., you will typically be working on only one narrow problem. The Ph.D. is not about breadth, it is about depth."
Thinking through this tonight, I was reminded of the old saw about those who "learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing."

Okay, that's cute, or maybe even thought provoking. But after you're finished laughing, consider this. What exactly do you know, when you know everything about nothing? Nothing?

Consider the sweep of the hour hand on one of those old clocks. Let it start at midnight. In twelve hours, it will sweep around to noon, one time 'round. In half that time (six hours), it will get to 6 p.m. Half of that time (3 hours) later it will reach 9 p.m. Again, consider an interval smaller by half (one and a half hours): it will reach 10:30 p.m. Then 11:15 p.m. Then 11:37:30 p.m. As we consider more and more of these ever smaller intervals, we will get closer and closer to midnight, but ever ... more ... slowly.

Yet, the total time passed in this consideration of more and more smaller and smaller things will be precisely 24 hours. Two times 'round, exactly.

Of course, we can't go on with this thought experiment forever, and when the clock shows 11:59:59 p.m., or perhaps well before, we will likely judge that this is close enough for practical purposes* and go to bed.

Still, we've shown that more and more of less and less gives us, not nothing, but two.

Or think about adding up all these ever smaller fractions:

1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + ...

If you are worried about exactly what is meant by "..." or just how far you have to go, or what exactly comes after 1/8, you might be a mathematician. If you're not worried about that, just skip this paragraph. A mathematician would prefer to write it more precisely anyway, avoiding any doubt about the meaning of "...":

which just means, "Count up from n = 0, forever and ever (the lazy-eight infinity sign at the top--do you see it?), and add up one divided by two to the nth power, for each of those infinitely many n's."

If you had the ability to add up all of these more and more smaller and smaller numbers, the answer would come to two too.

Aside. To appreciate the fun at the end of the last sentence, you really have to read it aloud. Ready? All together now, one, two, three, "the answer would come to two too." Or, as this next sentence says, which is hard to know how to write right, "There are three two's in English." (Or is it, "There are three to's in English," or perhaps, "There are three too's in English," since it all sounds the same.)

End of aside.

More and more about less and less didn't particularly appeal to me. Although I did the research and even wrote the dissertation, I just couldn't stay narrow. So, I went into industry and became a software engineer, moving through the ranks to senior software engineer, and finally, now, principal software engineer.

And it pays well. But more could be less. On the days he worries about me going off somewhere else to make more, I want to tell my boss this:

The only thing that would be more appealing would be a job that paid much less but let me see lots more bright young people become Computer Scientists, knowing that I contributed to their achievement, in some small way.

Because that is my mission. I set up situations where bright young people become Computer Scientists, knowing that I contributed to their achievement, in some small way.

Hey, I just realized that this post, too, should have started with a disclaimer to spare the math-o-phobes among my readers. Perhaps I tricked you again. What can I say? It's my mission. Perhaps you have become a Computer Scientist, in some small way.

*Long ago at a university far away, I saw this definition of "close enough for practical purposes." Line up all the boys on one side of the classroom, and all the girls on the other side. Draw a line half-way between them. Each time you say "go" they will move half-way from where they are towards the line. Even though, theoretically, they will never actually reach the line, they will soon be close enough for practical purposes. Dance, anyone?

1 comment:

Myrna said...

We know that you always have math in there somehow, because you are a mathematician. And a very awesome teacher, whether any university is smart enough to hire you or not. Like, you taught me how Halloween = Christmas!

Thanks for having Josie chez vous this weekend.