Saturday, November 22, 2008
I started this blog not having any clear plan or direction. I knew I wanted to write something, partly to develop and improve my writing skills, but also just because I had been reading a bunch of other popular blogs and part of me kept saying "I want to try that too!". It didn't hurt that some of these blogs were coming right out and telling me to start my own.
The idea of actually doing it was pretty daunting, though. My biggest concern was that I wouldn't have much to say. I'd like to think that I'm not a boring person, but I wasn't so vain as to assume that whatever I wrote about would be interesting. So I didn't know what I could fill this new blog with that would be worth reading. Even so, I decided to give it a try anyway.
Having been at it for a few months now, I still don't know if what I'm writing is worth reading, but I actually haven't had any trouble coming up with ideas for posts. The real trick seems to be figuring out how to actually articulate those ideas.
A good example is the post I wrote last week about unexpectedly locking the bathroom door. It immediately struck me as interesting, but when I imagined sitting down at the keyboard to write about it, I realized I had no idea what to say. I knew there was something there but I didn't know exactly what it was or how to put it into words. So I had to take a step back and think about it for a while, and figure out why anybody should care about me and my door-locking.
Over the next few days, I tried to keep it in the back of my mind, and think about it whenever I had a few minutes. At the very least I wanted to figure out why it seemed so interesting to me in the first place. I also wanted to see if I could come up with some plausible theory for why it would have happened, since any good question is worth at least an attempt at an answer. Neither of these was at all obvious at first; all I had was a strong intuition that there was something unexpected going on.
Eventually I just decided to start writing, and after a few hours of thinking and typing, I had something publishable (in a loose sense of the word). I actually think the writing process itself helped the ideas gel. Apparently I'm not alone on that count: I found some similar ideas in a Steve Yegge post I was recently reading, where he opined that "writing an essay is one of the best ways to pull your ideas together into a coherent and useful form". For me, writing feels a bit like having a conversation, and I do a lot of my best thinking when I'm having a discussion.
In the end, I was reasonably satisfied with my work: I felt like I had successfully developed the intuitive nugget of "interestingness" into a coherent piece of prose. I also enjoyed taking the time to explore and savor the experience more than I otherwise would have. Had I never attempted to write about what happened, I probably would have forgotten about it in short order, and never taken the chance to try to understand it.
Postscript: There's a fun bit of self-referentiality about this post: shortly after I thought of writing it, I realized that once again I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say. I'm happy to report that, as with the last post, it all worked out.
I was born in Texas. At the age of nine, I moved with my mother and sister to Wisconsin, the land of cows and cheese. The people there were nice, and if you didn't mind shoveling snow, it was a pleasant enough place to be. Nobody understood my Aggie jokes (they don't really work outside of Texas), but that wasn't a big deal.
The only real problem I had there was with pop.
Or should I say, with "pop": the soda there was as good as anywhere else, but they insisted on calling it "pop". To my ear, this was a travesty of the highest order; it set my teeth on edge. They also called water fountains "bubblers", but I would have forgiven that. I'm a forgiving person.
Naturally, I tried to explain my concern to my friends. In Texas, I told them, we call everything "Coke", and that doesn't refer specifically to Coca-Cola: it refers to anything that's bubbly and has a lot of sugar. I'm sure this naming is the source of great consternation to the Coca-Cola's trademark lawyers, but that's just how it goes when you've dominated the market for that long. The Kleenex people have the same problem, but I'm not too worried about them either.
Needless to say, the "Coke" thing made no sense to them, and they kept right on with "pop". I finally had to settle on "soda" as a substitute, since I didn't actually like Coca-Cola and didn't want to be misunderstood. But it always bugged me, and to this day "pop" makes my ears jangle.
That's why I was thrilled to hit upon www.popvssoda.com, where some enterprising individuals have created a county-by-county breakdown of generic soft drink name usage for the entire United States. I wish this had existed back then, so I could have proven my point indisputably and with charts. They even used red as the color for the "Coke" counties - nice touch.
Nevertheless, I say better late than never. Their research is probably completely unscientific, but it confirms what I already knew to be the case: Texans drink Coke, even when it's Pepsi.
Disclaimer: I don't actually drink Coke or Pepsi, but the regional differences in names for water and tea aren't nearly as interesting.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Below is another batch of new words I encountered this week and last week. A lot came from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and others have been coming from Dictionary.com's Word of the Day emails, which I get every morning.
Before I get to the words, I wanted to talk briefly about an unexpected (and positive) side-effect of creating these new-word lists. Historically, whenever I would come across a word that I had never seen before, I would usually just try to infer the meaning from context and move on. If a dictionary was readily at hand, I might consult it, but often I was lazy and wouldn't bother. What's worse, if I knew I had seen (and maybe even looked up) the word before, I would be even less likely to look it up again, even if I still wasn't 100% sure of the meaning. I was stubbornly insisting to myself that I must know what it meant by now, even when I really didn't.
However, since I started keeping this list, I've been a lot more diligent about looking things up, and a lot more honest about whether I really know what a given word means. Sometimes it's hard, though. I didn't mind adding 'prognathous' a few weeks ago, because I knew I've never seen it before, but I've seen 'teleological' before and figured I should know it. The reality was that I didn't know it, and that if someone asked me to use it in a sentence, the best I could do would be "Today's new vocabulary word is 'teleological'." So I went ahead and looked it up1.
Also, I should note that some of the words listed here (and in previous posts) have more than one definition - I'm only including the one that applied in the case I encountered.
Anyway, let's get to the words.
monotreme - an animal of the Monotremata order, of which duck-billed platypuses and echidnas are the only living members
puggle - a baby monotreme
philippic - a verbal denunciation or tirade
exigencies - the demands or requirements of a situation
amour propre - feelings of excessive pride
excelsior - thin curly wood shavings used for packing or stuffing (used in this case to describe the curliness of someone's hair)
mot juste - the exact or appropriate word or expression (seems related to bon mot, I guess "mot" means "word" in French)
fungible - interchangeable; able to be substituted
aliquot - a fraction of a sample with a specific volume (Donelle taught me this one)
nystagmus - rapid, rhythmic, involuntary eye movements
strabismus - misalignment of the eyes
soi-disant - self-styled or self-proclaimed
revenant - someone who has returned from the dead or from a long absence
febrile - feverish
orotund - pompous, bombastic, or ostentatious in style
horripilation - a bristling of the hair due to chilliness or fear
lacunae - pockets or cavities
lucubration - laborious study or the product of such study
immure - to imprison, or bury within a wall
ween - to suppose, think, or believe
overweening - unduly confident, arrogant, presumptuous
teleological - showing evidence of design or purpose
I like "horripilation" as an absurdly fancy way of saying "goose bumps" - why settle for two syllables when you can have five?
1. Having an iPhone has been great for this: I have three different dictionaries on it, and I use them all regularly.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
There are three bathrooms in the office where I work. They're all singles, and they're shared by everyone, so I always lock the door when I go in. I do it more or less without thinking: closing the door and locking it happen as one fluid motion. On the other hand, I never lock the bathroom door at home. That is, until this week.
Monday morning, instead of going to work, I went upstairs to my office and connected to work remotely. Donelle was in town this week, and our lunch plans made working from home the best option. At one point during the morning, I got up and went into the bathroom, and after I closed the door, I realized I had locked it. Just like at work: door closed and locked all in one motion, with no pause or real thought. Thursday morning I worked from home again, and once again I found myself unintentionally locking the bathroom door behind me.
I found this really intriguing. I never lock the bathroom door at home, but twice in a week I did it without even thinking about it. I was behaving as if I was at work.
This makes the concept of "at work" seem more interesting than I would have thought. Previously, I had considered "at work" to be a purely physical concept: being at work means being at the office. If I'm working from home, I might be working, but I'm not at work. And when I'm not at work, I don't do work-ish things, like answering the phone with "Austin Digital, this is Charlie", or locking the bathroom door. Or so I thought.
The best I can figure is that there's some kind of "work mode" that my brain gets into, which can be in effect regardless of my physical location, and which is somehow related to the door-locking behavior. I have a feeling that this mode may be related to the concept of "flow", which features in various texts about managing programmers and knowledge workers. I spend many of my working hours in a flow state. What's especially interesting about this, given what others have written about flow, is that short interruptions actually don't tend break my flow. I don't need 20 minutes to get back into it after reading a short email or answering a quick question.
Getting up to use the bathroom often doesn't break the flow either. Instead, I often tend to feel somewhat disconnected, like my mind is still there at my desk, while my body gets up and heads away from my desk. It's not really that dramatic, but my mind is definitely more focused on work than it is on the act of walking to the bathroom. I'm more or less operating on autopilot, and here's where we get back to the topic at hand: I'm guessing that part of the relevant work-mode autopilot program is "lock bathroom door after closing".
As I try to recall the experience of locking the door at home, this interpretation feels right. On both occasions, I was in that trance-like flow state as I walked into the bathroom - the autopilot only disengaged when some other part of my brain noticed that I had done something that didn't make sense (namely, locking the door). Of course, there have been plenty of other times when I've gone to the bathroom while working at home and not locked the door, but I'm guessing that on those occasions I was less deeply engrossed in work, and was paying more direct attention to the bathroom door.
Assuming I'm right, I think this is pretty amazing: in addition to all the low-level things it has to manage (e.g. regulating my breathing and heart rate), my brain has been picking up the slack even on higher-level issues like door-locking, during the times when my conscious mind can't be bothered. I guess a brain is a pretty handy thing to have.
postscript: If you're interested in the concept of flow, I encourage you to read more about it. For bonus points, see if you can pronounce Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's name as you're reading the article.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
We elected Barack Obama yesterday.
It's hard to overstate how momentous this is. Sure, he's a Democrat, which by itself would be something to sing about after eight years of failed Bush presidency. But it's so much more than that. If you ask me, the entire world breathed a little easier this morning.
America is a great country, but we're far from perfect, and for the last eight years I've felt somewhat embarrassed to call myself an American. While traveling abroad last year, I knew my accent gave me away, and it made me anxious. I wanted to make sure that people knew that I (and many of us) really didn't support this government, which has made enemies of so many and seemed to care about so few. And I really did wonder how we could possibly survive another four years of the same sorts of policies.
Today I don't have to wonder, I can just feel proud. I feel like we grew up a little bit as a country. We said to the world, and more importantly to ourselves, that we have the will to change. Instead of picking another Old White Guy to lead us, we picked someone young, progressive, and idealistic, who is determined to change the face of politics and of our country.
And we picked a black man, our first president of color. It's interesting to think that this might somehow add a lone bright star to George Bush's legacy: some are saying that it was only on the heels of such an inept and destructive administration that so many voters could be willing to look past their prejudices and make the choice they did. And he didn't win by a little, he won by a lot: more than seven million votes at last count. As a nation, we have decided that we are ready to open a new chapter on race. And if in some twisted way we have to count George Bush among the reasons for that, so be it.
All hyperbole aside, this really is good news. As everyone points out, there's a long, hard road ahead. But as journeys go, we've made one hell of a first step. Can we make it? My guess is, yes we can.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
(or, why platypuses don't make good biologists)
Douglas Hofstadter loves the idea of self-reference. As a cognitive scientist, author, composer, and teacher, his works commonly refer back to themselves or fold in on themselves in strange and delightful ways. His recent book I Am a Strange Loop is all about self-reference, and I can't recommend it highly enough. A few years ago I had what I would call a Hofstadter Moment, a surprising and unexpected case of self-reference. It came as I was developing Foogle, a tool to index and search computer code.
As a software developer, I work every day with a code base made up of many thousands of files, containing among them millions of lines of code. I often need to search this code, to find where and how different parts of the system are used. Having grown accustomed to Google and its ability to instantaneously search billions of Web pages, waiting five or ten minutes for Windows Search to find what I was looking for just didn't cut it. So I decided to write a tool that could index our code every night, and let me perform fast and accurate searches of that index any time I needed. In homage to Google (my favorite search engine) and "foo" (the official nonsense-word of programmers everywhere), I decided to call the tool Foogle.
Foogle's job would be to scan through each code file, break it up into individual parts ('tokens', in programmer-speak), and add an entry for each part to the index, which could later be searched. This would be very much like indexing a book, where you would separate the text on each page into individual words, and then add the words of interest to the index. The big difference is that computer code isn't nearly as easy to decipher as the written word - it tends to look like an explosion of letters and punctuation. This meant that the code for tokenizing a file was relatively tricky to write.
Once I had a working prototype, I turned it loose to start indexing code. First I tried it on some simple, made-up code files, and things worked pretty well. Then I tried letting it index our entire "utilities" folder, which happened to contain the code for Foogle itself. Much to my surprise, when it hit the Foogle code, it broke - it couldn't index itself. Not only that, but as I investigated further, I was amazed to find that the line of code that couldn't be indexed was the very line of code that had the bug! This line of code, when running as part of a program, was unable to cope with its own written representation. It's a bit like the double-take you might experience when reading the following: "I like the color red" (psychologists call this the Stroop effect).
As it turned out, fixing the problem was relatively easy, and before long I had a working program. Still, this was one of the most interesting bugs I've ever found, purely because of its strange, self-referential nature. It seemed rather like a platypus trying to be a biologist. With their furry bodies and duck-like bills, their laying of eggs and nursing of young, platypuses1 just don't properly conform to any of the standard animal categories. Imagine a platypus as a biologist, on the day when it walks past a mirror and realizes that it can't even categorize itself!
1. You might say I'm wrong and that 'platypi' is the correct form. However, I've consulted Wikipedia, and I stand by my 'platypuses' (and my platypuses).