Thought for the day

Why is it that, as a computer scientist, I get all bent out of shape when technology doesn’t work for me?

I’ve spent the better part of yesterday afternoon and this morning unsuccessfully trying to get a server up and running, and nothing is working.  I’m sure most normal people would just shrug, maybe take a break, and come back to try again later.  I, however, seem to take it as a sign of my professional incompetence.  “I’m a computer scientist!” I wail. “I actually understand this stuff!  So it should just work!”  After all, I’m a technology professional, so of course all technology should work perfectly for me, on the first try!

Do other professionals do this?  Do English majors despair when they can’t find the right words to write in a greeting card?  Do mathematicians question their credentials when their checkbook is balanced incorrectly? (“Damn, I always forget to carry the one!  Stupid stupid addition!”)  Do librarians lose it when they just can’t find that book?

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Summer in the lab, 2011 edition

June has been a busy, busy month so far, so I haven’t had time to note that summer here at Carleton has indeed begun.  Summer means I can finally concentrate on research for extended blocks of time—unlike during the school year, when I’m doing research every day but most of the time it’s a half hour here or, on the really decadent days, an hour there.  Summer is when I take stock of where I am, tackle some of the thornier or less well-defined aspects of my work (the places we’ve gotten stuck), start new lines of inquiry, and write write write.  It’s also when I try to do my strategic planning for the year ahead, so that I can maximize my efficiency during those small blocks of research time during the terms.

My main hope in earning tenure was that it would give me the time, space, and freedom to figure out where I wanted my research to go in the next 5-10 years.  I love the research that I’m doing, on improving computer networks to better support video.  It’s personally fulfilling, because it’s exciting to me, has so many possible applications, and attempts to answer crucially important questions (in my opinion, anyway) about how networks work.  But I’ve been working on this problem for 10 years (!!) now, and I can see that this work, in its current form, is reaching its natural end.  So the big question is, what’s next?

There are some natural ways to extend this work within my wheelhouse of expertise, and those sound interesting to me.  But tenure brings the academic freedom to explore new, possibly slow-developing, lines of inquiry, ones that aren’t necessarily going to pay off with publications or results in the short term.  And the truth is, there are some peripherally-related areas that have interested me for a while—HCI and security, specifically.  I’m not an “expert” in either.  Pre-tenure, it was too risky to branch out.  But now, I could.  The question is, how badly do I want to take that risk now?  Can I better define the problems in these areas that interest me, and perhaps find a way to bridge my current work into either or both of these areas?  I’m excited about the possibilities here, but frankly a bit terrified too about leaving the safety of my current subfields.

This summer, I’ll take some much-needed time to explore some questions, to read a lot of recent scholarship, and to see if I can define a further-looking path forward.

In the meantime, I have 3 awesome undergrads working in my lab this summer.  This is actually their third week—it was interesting trying to juggle ending the term and grading with getting them set up and working productively in the lab, but we made it happen.  One of the key differences between this summer’s group and last summer’s group is that these students have been working with me for a term now (one has worked with me for 2 terms).  We spent spring term doing the background work on the project—reading papers, learning about networks and streaming video, practicing using the tools they’d be using this summer—so that they could start doing actual research on Day 1.  As a result, I’ve had to spend less time in the lab with them up front—although this is now changing since they’re starting to hit the really thorny problems and questions.

We have three main goals this summer:

  1. Migrate some of our data collection and analysis to the web, so that we’re not tied to one particular media player and all of its headaches
  2. Actually build and test the video quality assessment system that we’ve hinted at for years now
  3. Come up with heuristics:  basically, what should networks/media servers/etc do when all signs point to future degraded quality for a stream?  what are the rules of thumb that network operators, service providers, etc. should follow in these circumstances?

I’m excited because what we’re really doing is attempting to put into practice all of the things we’ve spent the last 10 years proving conceptually.  This is what we’ve been working towards, and as a former engineer I’m excited that we can finally build this thing and see what happens!  It’s been a while since I’ve done any systems-related work, and I expect there to be many roadblocks, but it will be fun to get back to that part of my work.

Like last summer, I hope to update you on how things are going, and specifically how this group of students is progressing.  I’m sure I’ll have some new thoughts on the care and feeding of undergraduate researchers as well.

Hard work and success and the difference between the two

Ah, June, when the thoughts of Carleton faculty turn to…frantic grading frenzies.  It’s the end of the term, I’m neck-deep in grading, and of course my thoughts are all about…grading.  And grades.  And student responses to them.

Tonight I’m pondering student responses to grades that are lower than hoped for or expected.  Specifically, once in a while I’ll have a student meet with me to discuss a grade, and in the course of the conversation the student will say “But I worked so hard on this, so why did I do so poorly?”  Or “I studied for days for the test, so why didn’t I get an A?”

Hard work is no doubt important to success; some might argue a necessary condition.  But it’s not a sufficient condition.  And students don’t always get this.

I just got a grant proposal rejected (with no reviewer feedback! none!).  I worked very hard, and many long hours, on it.  Of course I wanted it to be funded, but realistically I knew that the reviewers could care less how much time I spent on it—if it’s not what the funding agency deems important, or good science, it’s not going to be funded, no matter how brilliant it is (ha).

I’ve been going many rounds with a journal on a paper I submitted back in 2008 (!!).  I’ve worked extraordinarily hard on that paper (repeatedly).  But it’s not quite what the reviewers want, so it keeps coming back as “revise and resubmit”.  (It would help, of course, if the reviewers did not change every. single. review. cycle., but that’s another story for another day.)  So I keep working hard on it and hoping I get it right the next time around.

And I won’t even go into how many hours I’ve put into certain class plans that never saw the light of day….or did see the light of day and bombed spectacularly.

Failure, and failing, is a part of life.  To effectively function as an adult, you need to be able to deal with failure, and to be willing to put in hard work on things that may never come to fruition (or may fail spectacularly, or just a little).  If I got derailed every time my hard work didn’t pay off, I’d be paralyzed as a professional. So I worry when I hear students say these things.

The thing is, I’m not sure how to best get this point across.  Because it IS a bummer when you put in 15-20 hours on a project, do beautiful work, and completely miss the point of the project.  Or study until you know the course material like the back of your hand, but answer the wrong question on the exam.  But as sucky as it is, that’s life, and learning how to deal with these and bigger disappointments in the more sheltered world of college is much, much better than learning to deal with the crueler disappointments and bigger failures beyond the college bubble.

So next time a student says “But I worked so hard!”, maybe I’ll pull out one of my own stories of failure after hard work. Maybe the student will roll his/her eyes (internally or externally).  Maybe s/he’ll nod, and then go back to pleading the case at hand.  But maybe, for some students, this will be an effective way of saying “keep working hard—it won’t always pay off as you hope, but it will always pay off in the long run.”