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.

The cure for boring meetings

By Charles Sutton on March 20, 2013

I have recently discovered the best thing to do during long (>1 hr) boring meetings. Obviously you want to avoid these, but sometimes you can’t. The common solution is to pull out your laptop and start sending email. For me this works for about an hour, after which I start to suffer from “email fatigue”, the gooey minded state that results from sending too many emails too quickly. What to do then?

The answer: Cat photos. Whenever someone says something that is breathtaking in its shortsighted preoccupation with pointless minutiae—I’m not saying that this happened in my meeting, of course—don’t check your email. Check your cat photos. Whenever the discussion comes back to the same old argument that people have been hashing out for years—again, this did not happen—cat photos. Never fails.

In time, you may come to like these meetings because of the unconscious association with cute photos. If that happens, you may want to lay off this strategy for a while.

If you have trouble finding cat photos on the Internet, just let me know and I’ll be happy to send you some.

(Response that I got from a certain someone: “Not pictures of your girlfriend?” My answer: “Well, you were in some of them.”)

Coffee versus beer

By Charles Sutton on February 23, 2013

If you ask yourself, “Should I have one more beer?,” well, if you had to stop yourself and ask, you probably shouldn’t.

If you ask yourself, “Do I need another cup of coffee?,” well, if you had to stop and ask, you probably need it.

My new favourite pages on Wikipedia

By Charles Sutton on February 9, 2013

I have several new favourite pages on Wikipedia:

  • A list of films that most frequently use the word “fuck”. Apparently there are people who count these things. Unsurprisingly, the winner is a documentary about the use of the word “fuck”.
  • List of lists of lists. There many pages on Wikipedia that are lists of lists, e.g., every country has a list of lakes in that country. So there is a page that lists all of the “Lists of lakes in Country X”. But this page is only one of the many lists of lists on Wikipedia. This list of all such pages is the Lists of Lists of Lists. [h/t: Daniel Renshaw]

Previously, my favourite page on Wikipedia hd been a description of the seven different forms of lightsaber combat. (Apparently, Samuel L Jackson’s character had developed a form to himself. That’s how he was able to beat the Emperor.) Sadly this page has since been deleted from Wikipedia, and it is impossible to retrieve deleted pages. There is a page on this topic on Wookiepedia, but it contains a scary level of detail that in my opinion renders it much less readable than the old Wikipedia page.

Related to the “fuck” list, I also like the study Delete Expletives?, which is a British study of people’s attitudes towards obscenity, particularly on television. One of the excellent features of this study is a ranked list of swear words in British English, based on a survey of over 1000 respondents.

Tags: silly