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?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Step on a crack

"Step on a crack, break your mother's back."

This was a common saying in my childhood. It's not so much that I believed that it was true. I just wasn't willing to take any chances with my mother's back.

This saying comes to mind almost every day as I walk to and from work. And here is a picture taken from my office window. You can see our building just to the right of center, near the top. It has a light blue-gray addition with a white roof, and a couple of white banners.

Along the way, there are a lot of cracks in the sidewalk, and in the pavement of the back alley that leads from the street to our building. At least once each way I catch myself instinctively avoiding stepping on a crack. That brings this saying to mind, and with it memories of my dear mother.

She has gone now, and has no further need of an intact back.

It is somewhat pleasant to think of her each day. I miss her, and her frequent phone calls to check up on me. It used to seem a bit of a burden sometimes, but I would welcome it again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Day

I slept in, and when I awoke, Sara asked me what I wanted for breakfast. She is such a wonderful wife. But, it was Valentine's Day, so I answered with those three little words she loves to hear, "let's eat out." Seriously, I suggested that we go get breakfast at the Royal Eatery. Since it was only snowing a little bit, why not walk to Trax, ride to the library to return books, then walk the two blocks from there to the eatery?

The closest station to our home is Planetarium, but we had to take a slight detour because a gate that is normally open was closed. Once on Trax, we decided to phone in our order, but we didn't have the phone number. So, Sara took my cell phone (new to me) to figure out how to add a phone number to the address book. When we made the corner of Main and 400 South, I read the phone number off the window of the place, and she entered it into the phone.

You can plot our journey on this map of the Trax free fare zone (one perk of living downtown).

After dropping off our books we set off for our two block walk. By then, it was snowing quite hard, so before leaving the building, Sara called to order our breakfast. But, she couldn't figure out how to call a number from the address book. Luckily, I had remembered it, so she could just dial it.

What a blizzard! We put our heads down and walked into the snow. About half a block into it, I touched my pocket and realized that I had left my wallet at home. Checked another pocket where I normally carry some cash and found five dollars. Oh oh.

Sara called them again to explain our predicament. There weren't any really good choices, but they said to just come and eat. After hanging up, we started joking together about how they might keep Sara hostage while I went for the wallet. Then we joked about her cleaning their toilets for them while I was gone. We had a few good laughs.

Breakfast was just coming off the grill when we came in covered in snow. We enjoyed it, as usual. They laughed when we shared some of our fantasies with them. We left the five dollars as a deposit, and walked to the Courthouse station. There we two ladies from Georgia enjoying the snow and we talked with them as we waited for the next train.

In the afternoon we drove to Los Hermanos in Lindon for a late lunch, stopping along the way to pay our breakfast bill. We ate with Sara's mother, her brother, his wife, and daughter. Then we visited with mom in her home until time to go to Pirates of Penzance, which was delightful.

That was it. My Valentine's Day gesture sure back-fired, but we made some great memories.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Flashback on Horseback

When my son Andrew was about one year old, we visited his Aunt Colleen. Her brother-in-law had some horses and for some reason we went over there and rode.

The horse must have been able to tell that I was inexperienced with its kind. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that Andrew was riding with me.

The horse began getting rid of us almost immediately. First it tried rubbing us off against the corral fence behind the photographer in the picture.

I wasn't able to turn it away, but we didn't give up.

Finally, it went toward the shed that you can see in the picture. It walked straight towards a horizontal pole that would have just cleared the saddle, ducked its head and kept going.

In a flash, I squeezed Andrew between my thighs, grabbed the pole with both hands, and held us up while the horse went all the way under the pole. Then dropped carefully to the ground and took Andrew in my arms. Safe.

This came back to me yesterday during Pilates when the instructor asked us to squeeze a small ball gently between our knees. It all came back in great detail. A most traumatic memory. 

Celebrate 1234567890 Day

Today is 1234567890 Day. (see also this article)

I don't know if that website will still be working for those readers who come here after the celebration is over, so here is a partial screenshot:

For those readers who slogged through my post about Y2K38 (the day the world ends for some computers), you will realize that I just left this off of my partial list of the 4,294,967,296 possible bit patterns that are used to represent a time of day inside of many computers.

The date and time of day of this event can be found by clicking here:

Sales and Service

Really? Both?

First, let me share my simple-minded distinction between a related pair, sales and marketing. Sales lets you buy something you already want, while marketing makes you want something you didn't use to want (so that you'll go on to buy it). It makes sense that they go together. A door-to-door salesperson typically has to do both. But in a larger corporation they are generally separate groups of people.

But sales and service? In my experience any corporation that combines these does a disservice to the customer. And the more closely they are combined, the worse the service.

When you buy something, chances are it won't work so well after a time. Then you get it serviced. Car dealerships are one example. But if you go to the same place you bought your last car to get it serviced, chances are you'll walk through the showroom and, what the heck, just buy a new one. At least that seems to be the corporate strategy.

At least a car dealership doesn't have the very same person doing both the service and the sales.

For example, consider a local phone company, Quirkiest*, where when you call to get service, they seem to feel they have to sell you something else. The problem is that it's the same person--the one who is supposed to be serving you--who is rewarded for how well they sell you something else.

A couple years ago we called to prepare for a move. Then, when the move was delayed, we called to cancel. The "service" we got, as we found out a couple months later, was that we had been "sold" an expensive internet package (huh? that never even came up). So, when we finally did make the move, there were two bills waiting for service that we never even got because we weren't there yet. We got them to reverse most of it, but not without a fight. Come on! We wanted service, we called the service number, but we got sales.

We no longer do business with that company, but get our phone service from Skype. Great service and low-pressure sales (it's there if you want it).

Or what about Clawfoot* Door Sales? Actually, the name says it all, really. It turns out that all they really do is sell the doors. When the doors don't work, and you communicate that you really did expect them to work, they send out someone who isn't competent to make them work (and doesn't) and charge you anyway for the service call.

The best bet will be to get (and pay for) another company to come in and actually make them work. Which is my point, really, that sales and service ought to be kept separate. Caveat emptor --you've been warned.

*names changed to protect an innocent.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pair of Puns

In one of my first computer classes there was a question on the final that went something like, "Why are Halloween and Christmas the same?"

Or it might have been posed more like, "Prove the following equation."
31 OCT = 25 DEC

If you re-write this, just slightly, as
31oct = 25dec

then you can use a pair of puns ("October" and "octal" are both customarily abbreviated "oct." and "December" and "decimal" can both be written as "dec." (ignoring capitalization)) to move the problem out of the calendar and into numbers.

Once it's numbers, you can look at "31" as being a base 8 number and "25" as being a base 10 number and, it's easy to show that, since
3 x 8 + 1 = 2 x 10 + 5

these are indeed just two ways of writing the same number.

So, the dates for Halloween in base 8 (octal) and Christmas in base 10 (decimal) are the same.

Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the professor who set the exam for proper attribution.

Oh, the first line of this post might have been, "Warning: math ahead." But I was hoping a math-o-phobe or two might be tricked into reading it.