February 29, 2024 3:45 PM

Finding the Torture You're Comfortable With

At some point last week, I found myself pointed to this short YouTube video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Howard Stern about work habits. Seinfeld told Stern that he was essentially always thinking about making comedy. Whatever situation he found himself in, even with family and friends, he was thinking about how he could mine it for new material. Stern told him that sounded like torture. Jerry said, yes, it was, but...

Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you're comfortable with.

This is something I talk about with students a lot.

Sometimes it's a current student who is worried that CS isn't for them because too often the work seems hard, or boring. Shouldn't it be easy, or at least fun?

Sometimes it's a prospective student, maybe a HS student on a university visit or a college student thinking about changing their major. They worry that they haven't found an area of study that makes them happy all the time. Other people tell them, "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." Why can't I find that?

I tell them all that I love what I do -- studying, teaching, and writing about computer science -- and even so, some days feel like work.

I don't use torture as analogy the way Seinfeld does, but I certainly know what he means. Instead, I usually think of this phenomenon in terms of drudgery: all the grunt work that comes with setting up tools, and fiddling with test cases, and formatting documentation, and ... the list goes on. Sometimes we can automate one bit of drudgery, but around the corner awaits another.

And yet we persist. We have found the drudgery we are comfortable with, the grunt work we are willing to do so that we can be part of the thing it serves: creating something new, or understanding one little corner of the world better.

I experienced the disconnect between the torture I was comfortable with and the torture that drove me away during my first year in college. As I've mentioned here a few times, most recently in my post on Niklaus Wirth, from an early age I had wanted to become an architect (the kind who design houses and other buildings, not software). I spent years reading about architecture and learning about the profession. I even took two drafting courses in high school, including one in which we designed a house and did a full set of plans, with cross-sections of walls and eaves.

Then I got to college and found two things. One, I still liked architecture in the same way as I always had. Two, I most assuredly did not enjoy the kind of grunt work that architecture students had to do, nor did I relish the torture that came with not seeing a path to a solution for a thorny design problem.

That was so different from the feeling I had writing BASIC programs. I would gladly bang my head on the wall for hours to get the tiniest detail just the way I wanted it, either in the code or in the output. When the torture ended, the resulting program made all the pain worth it. Then I'd tackle a new problem, and it started again.

Many of the students I talk with don't yet know this feeling. Even so, it comforts some of them to know that they don't have to find The One Perfect Major that makes all their boredom go away.

However, a few others understand immediately. They are often the ones who learned to play a musical instrument or who ran cross country. The pianists remember all the boring finger exercises they had to do; the runners remember all the wind sprints and all the long, boring miles they ran to build their base. These students stuck with the boredom and worked through the pain because they wanted to get to the other side, where satisfaction and joy are.

Like Seinfeld, I am lucky that I found the torture I am comfortable with. It has made this life a good one. I hope everyone finds theirs.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Personal, Running, Software Development, Teaching and Learning

February 09, 2024 3:45 PM

Finding Cool Ideas to Play With

In a recent post on Computational Complexity, Bill Gasarch wrote up the solution to a fun little dice problem he had posed previously. Check it out. After showing the solution, he answered some meta-questions. I liked this one:

How did I find this question, and its answer, at random? I intentionally went to the math library, turned my cell phone off, and browsed some back issues of the journal Discrete Mathematics. I would read the table of contents and decide what article sounded interesting, read enough to see if I really wanted to read that article. I then SAT DOWN AND READ THE ARTICLES, taking some notes on them.

He points out that turning off his cell phone isn't the secret to his method.

It's allowing yourself the freedom to NOT work on a a paper for the next ... conference and just read math for FUN without thinking in terms of writing a paper.

Slack of this sort used to be one of the great attractions of the academic life. I'm not sure it is as much a part of the deal as it once was. The pace of the university seems faster these days. Many of the younger faculty I follow out in the world seem always to be hustling for the next conference acceptance or grant proposal. They seem truly joyous when an afternoon turns into a serendipitous session of debugging or reading.

Gasarch's advice is wise, if you can follow it: Set aside time to explore, and then do it.

It's not always easy fun; reading some articles is work. But that's the kind of fun many of us signed up for when we went into academia.


I haven't made enough time to explore recently, but I did get to re-read an old paper unexpectedly. A student came to me to discuss possible undergrad research projects. He had recently been noodling around, implementing his own neural network simulator. I've never been much of a neural net person, but that reminded of this paper on PushForth, a concatenative language in the spirit of Forth and Joy designed as part of an evolutionary programming project. Genetic programming has always interested me, and concatenative languages seem like a perfect fit...

I found the paper in a research folder and made time to re-read it for fun. This is not the kind of fun Gasarch is talking about, as it had potential use for a project, but I enjoyed digging into the topic again nonetheless.

The student looked at the paper and liked the idea, too, so we embarked on a little project -- not quite serendipity, but a project I hadn't planned to work on at the turn of the new year. I'll take it!

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Personal, Teaching and Learning