Kitten

By Charles Sutton on August 14, 2013

Imagine that, by some puckish magic, overnight you gained all the strength and skill of a professional acrobat. Yesterday, you’d trip walking down the street; today, you can skip across a tightrope. All your friends are bewildered at your transformation. You’re bewildered, too, most of all because you no longer know your body, how fast you can run, how much you can lift, how high you can jump. This is what it is to be a kitten. Every day our kitten performs all kinds of preposterous stunts—leaping over the other cat in mid stride, using a wooden drying rack as a jungle gym—simply because she doesn’t know that she can’t.

Tags: hobbies, cats

Proposal Writing and the "Fuck Yeah" Factor

By Charles Sutton on July 23, 2013

I have almost recovered from submitting a grant proposal last week. When I was revising it, I realized that there’s actually an easy way to tell how good one of your proposals is.

Nobody’s going to believe your sales pitch unless you do. So, when you finish reading the introduction, do you get excited? Do you feel like pumping your fist and shouting “fuck yeah!” If so, then your proposal has the “fuck yeah” factor.

It’s possible to get a proposal funded without the “fuck yeah” factor, e.g., maybe the competition is weak for that particular call, or maybe for once you draw a set of sympathetic reviewers. But why risk it?

And can you teach me how to talk real slow?

By Charles Sutton on June 25, 2013

A switch flipped in my head at the beginning of my lectures last spring. At that point I had lectured something like 5 full university courses and maybe something like 50 research seminars. I was an experienced speaker.

But I was fast.

You’llnoticethisifyouaskmeaboutsomethingresearchrelatedthatI’llstarttogetexcitedandtalkfaster. In my personal life, I’m much more laid back, but at work, I talk fast. It is what it is, I suppose, but it’s not the best attribute for an effective lecturer.

And then last term something happened. I walked into class and started speaking twice as slow as I ordinarily did. I liked it. I felt that I still had the amount of energy that I should have, just… slower. I don’t know what I did, so I couldn’t tell you how to do it if you wanted to, but now I can turn on the slow mode whenever I want.

Actually, I just thought of a theory about what I might have been doing. In every sentence when you’re speaking, there are few key words that you emphasize. When you get to those—and you should try to anticipate those words before you say them—exaggerate your emphasis and focus on slowing those words down. Then the other words in the sentence, and the length of your pauses, will follow. That might be how I learned to switch, maybe. Let me know if you try this and it works for you.

Another nice thing about speaking slower is that it gives me more time to plan my sentences. This reduces the number of times that I get halfway through the sentence, think of a better way to say the sentence, and start the whole thing over from the beginning—a bad habit of mine.

It’s nice to know that you always have more to learn. This change sure messed up my lecture plans for that term—everything took longer than I expected—but overall a positive change, I think.

Tags: lecturing, advice

Future Work

By Charles Sutton on May 5, 2013

It seems customary for computer science research papers to list directions for future work at the end. This custom is immensely strange. If your idea for future work is really good, the last thing you want to do is tell everyone about it. Literally the last thing: right after you’ve done the research and written it up! On other hand, if the idea for future work is bad, why do you want other people to see it?

My belief is that the “future work” discussions are not in fact lists of future work. In fact, it is perhaps safest if beginning students ignore these sections altogether. But they do serve a purpose, or rather, one of several:

1 Delimit the scope of current work. You have to stop somewhere, so listing an obvious idea for future work is a way of saying, “Yes, we know that this is an obvious extension, but we didn’t have time for it, and its not as interesting as the stuff we did do.” These are the research ideas that you want to stay far away from; if they were that interesting, the authors would have written that paper instead.

2 Stake an early claim. You’ve written a good, coherent paper, but there’s another idea that’s an obvious but still exciting follow on from what you did. It’s a bad idea to put too much in one paper, so you mention the follow on to acknowledge that it’s obvious, in case somebody else gets to the follow on first.

As an aside, if someone else does the follow on, don’t feel bad. They’ll be citing your paper prominently, which is very good both for your career, but more important intellectually: the point of you doing the work was for other people to use it. 

3 Convince readers that the work is useful. If you’ve built machinery (whether code or a proof technique) that you want other people to use, you might give some potential directions to encourage people to build on your work.

Tags: advice

Jokes in lectures

By Charles Sutton on April 27, 2013

I enjoy using humour when I lecture. Lectures aren’t built for people’s natural attention spans, and even after long experience, it is almost impossible for a person to focus on a lecture for 50 minutes straight. Humour provides a break for the audience, but more than that, the best jokes are *memorable*, making a hook that the lecture material can hang off of in the students’ minds. Perhaps most grandiosely, humour requires empathy; you can’t tell a funny joke to your students unless you understand what they find funny, which means that however briefly you were able to see things from their perspective. This is perhaps why humorous lecturers are popular.

The point behind this philosophy is that when you tell a joke in class, you want to tell it for good reason. If your only goal is to give the class a bit of a rest—perhaps the weakest reason, but still fine—then there’s no need to tell the joke in the first 10 minutes. Whereas if you’re using humour to provide a hook for new material, then that’s exactly where you would put it.

Perhaps the first rule of lecture comedy is: Your mileage will vary. It’s hard to predict how a class will react to a particular joke. For example, more than once, I have walked into a room of teenagers and said, “Right, so today class, we’re going to do PCP.” (The Post Correspondence Problem, of course.) One time the class immediately broke out laughing, and another time they sat in bemused (I think) silence. Do not be discouraged by the silence.

For this reason, make your jokes offhand. Make them an aside to your lecture rather than a detour. Then, if they don’t work, you simply go on with your lecture as normal and you don’t look (so) bad.

The ideal joke is one that makes a serious point. An example is the classic pair of sentences that illustrate syntactic ambiguity: Time flies like an arrow / Fruit flies like a banana. This example has the additional merit of being part of the folklore of the field. Stories like this acculturate students to an intellectual area, which is part of the reason they spend the money on University rather than taking a correspondence course.

All of this said, you have to be natural. Humour is subtle enough that if you force yourself to tell jokes you don’t believe in, they won’t work. Your lecture style needs to arise naturally from your personality, so what works for me might not work for you. That said, it’s not as if you’re doing stand up: the standards are much lower for lectures, so even a mildly amusing attempt might get a positive (and perhaps relieved!) response from your students.