Tag Archives: questionable advice

Learn to be a crappy programmer

“If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is a nice old saying, but is it true?  Cathy’s advice column today reminded me of this question, as regards coding.  I think learning to write good code is quite hard.  On the other hand, learning to write fairly crappy yet functional code is drastically less hard.  Drastically less hard and incredibly useful!  For many people, it’s probably the optimal point on the reward/expenditure curve.

It feels somehow wrong to give advice like “Learn to be a crappy programmer” but I think it might actually be good advice.

 

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Robert Frost to BF Skinner, 1926

“All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice like Stevensons in favor of all being happy as kings no matter if consumptive, or Hardy against God for the blunder of sex, or Sinclair Lewis’ against small American towns, or Shakespeare’s mixed, at once against and in favor of life itself. I take it that everybody has the prejudice and spends some time feeling for it to speak and write from. But most people end as they begin by acting out the prejudices of other people.”

I’m a Frost booster, but I don’t see the stance of being “at once against and in favor of life itself” as sufficiently focused to be called a “prejudice.”

 

 

 

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Blogging as competitive eating

I’m told that one trick to the astonishing feats carried out by world-class competitive eaters is that your satiety sensor is on something like a twenty-minute delay; so you can really pack an immense amount of food into your body before your brain realizes you’re doing something your stomach doesn’t want you to do.

I was talking to a colleague who wants to start a blog and asked for some advice, and I realized that blogging is kind of like this, too.  My math posts are very casual and full of mistakes, and the reason is that my practice is to write a post as soon as it occurs to me — I then have about a half hour before my brain says “Wait, you’re supposed to be working right now.”  So in that half hour I have to write as fast as I can, like Kobayashi smashing hot dogs into his mouth.

Yes, this is me blogging:

Is this a good time to mention that I once drank a gallon of milk in four minutes?  Here are my tips for success at this important task:

  • Filling and chugging and refilling and rechugging a glass, rather than drinking straight from the jug; this makes it more like doing a normal thing ten times in very short succession, rather than the abnormal and stupid thing that you are actually doing;
  • Not knowing it’s supposed to be impossible;
  • Being 16.
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The capacity to be alone

I’d never encountered this exquisitely characterizing passage from Grothendieck’s memoir before.  I think even non-mathematicians will find it of interest.

In those critical years I learned how to be alone.[But even]this formulation doesn’t really capture my meaning. I didn’t, in any literal sense, learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation[1945-1948],when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law..By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member. or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me both at the lycee and at the university, that one shouldn’t bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like” volume” which was “obviously self-evident”, “generally known,” ”in problematic” etc…it is  in this gesture of ”going beyond to be in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one-it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.

Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.

I’ll add just one remark:  “The capacity to be alone” is a phrase made famous by the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who understood the development of this capacity to be a crucial phase in the maturation of the child.  Winnicott’s sense of the term is quite specific: “the basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox; it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present.”  I don’t know whether Grothendieck was quoting Winnicott here (is it known whether he was analyzed, or familiar with the psychoanalytic literature at all?) but his sense of the phrase is much the same.  The challenge is not to do mathematics in isolation, but to preserve a necessary circle of isolation and autonomy around oneself even while part of a mathematical community.

I should say that this is totally foreign to my own mode of mathematical work, which involves near-constant communication with collaborators and other colleagues and a close attention to the “notions of the consensus,” which I find are usually quite useful.

Also, Grothendieck’s distinction between himself and the less profound mathematicians who were quick studies and winners of competitions should give John Tierney something to think about.

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