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Tuesday, October 02, 2001

Insults and Injuries

Miniature skateboards are not without their hazards. I'm running out of bandaids, and my right palm looks like an elementary school art project.

But it's still fun. It reminds me of snowboarding, but on concrete.

I had lunch with the prof after class today. We ended up at a little coffee cart parked by Mandaville. I've seen and ignored this cart many times, having no idea that they have a magician's hat behind the counter from which they are able to produce all forms of sustenance. It was possibly the best lunch I've had on campus, ever. Mind you this doesn't say much -- it was a tomato, basil, and mozzarella sandwich and I'm not particularly fond of sandwiches in general. But it was, nonetheless, the best lunch I've ever had on campus.

One of the other students from the class, Rageesh, was there ahead of us, so he joined us for lunch. Last Thursday, I'd asked Rageesh a couple of questions about something he said during class, and I later wrote him an elaborate email exploring the issue in some detail. He never wrote back, and of course I spent all weekend assuming I'd gone and violated one of the many opaque rules of graduate school etiquette, perhaps having asked too dumb a question, or expressed an unfounded opinion and come off as arrogant, or any of the other myriad of hypotheses my mind has constructed over the years to explain this disconnect I have with academics. Today before the start of class, he grabbed me and apologized profusely for not having responded yet as he hadn't had the time and there were a few more things he wanted to look up before he constructed his reply. I've gotten pretty good at modeling people in general, for better or for worse, but academics still fall in a blind spot.

The prof himself once again proposed that I should give a talk to the class. He confessed [a verb I use to describe subtleties in his manner] that he wasn't really interested in the technological aspects of my work, rather he wanted an interlude of industrial anecdotes to soften his thus far highly technical course. I politely told him I'd happily contribute but... that I don't really have much of interest to say in that vein.

Am I at best a source of anecdotes to these people?

The paper that was presented today was rather opaque. It is, apparently, famous for presenting a working technique while offering no explanation for why it works. Someone asked on the class mailing list for clarification. I had already spent the weekend thinking about it, and had found a conveyable intuitive basis for the technique, so I explained it on the list this morning. After the paper was presented, someone in the class asked again: "But *why* does this work??" Most of the people in the class hadn't seen my post since it was at the last minute, but the guy giving the presentation had read it, proclaimed that mine (by name) was the only comprehensible explanation he's seen, and proceeded to explain it to the class. On the punch-line, he got nods of understanding from all around.

The prof seemed not particularly interested in any of this, and proceeded then, once the questions for the presenter ran out, to give his prepared lecture for why it works, an explanation which even he admitted only re-expressed the technique in terms of a different set of arbitrary operations which themselves offered no particular insight. This elucidation left the audience perplexed, certainly no nods of understanding that I noticed. And I wonder if the audience walked away thinking my explanation was too obvious to count as real knowledge, and the prof's was the Real Stuff(tm).

I feel bad for writing this; knowing how the prof would feel if he read it. I don't know whether to feel bad because perhaps I am biased and unfairly representing it, or because it was pretty much just as I told it, and for bearing witness to this truth.

I wish, if nothing else, that I could learn to tell when I am sounding stupid versus when I am intimidating the hell out of people, because people seem to respond exactly the same in either case and if I don't know which one it is, I'm apt to compensate in exactly the wrong way.

The prof tried to elucidate his visions for my talk.. "You know, it would be good to hear about what it's like trying to sort through all these academic papers and put the stuff to use..." My face turned pained, "urr... actually... I never read any papers." His eyebrows raised (surprise or disbelief?) "then how did you learn about [xyz algorithm]?" "Urr... I just made it up..." "You rediscovered the [xyz algorithm]?" he was dubious at best.. I continued "and then later was talking to the [guys in another department] and they said hey, that sounds like [the xyz algorithm]." "Oh, so you hacked it and then they added the formalism to it" he said in a literal sigh of relief, as if everything were ok now that there were some Phd's involved and I could not be held entirely accountable for the technology at hand. (Never mind ex-post-facto...) He seemed marginally disturbed when he left the table, either simply thinking about wherever he was on his way to, or perhaps realizing that I wasn't such a good spot for his class after all. What to make of me? "Claims not to read the literature, but does all this leading edge work..." Am I a liar, or am I making them look bad? Are those perhaps the two choices I give them? It feels arrogant even to hypothesize that. Perhaps I'm just profoundly arrogant. I wish I knew.

Rageesh invited me to come over to his place some time and make Indian food.

I wonder if I'll ever work through this stress I feel right now.

I wonder if its not well founded.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com