“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

The Five Laws of Library Science

Library Science has a fundamental philosophy, first articulated by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan. He was a mathematician and a librarian, so naturally he’d be led to identifying Laws. The Laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

I admire these few, short rules for their concreteness, their simplicity, and their import. They hint at a deeper underlying philosophy (here I use philosophy in its “how to live your life” sense, not its “abstract argument” sense).

Rule 1 seems obvious, but on closer inspection it is not; instead, it helps combat natural protective (to keep the books clean and untorn and unmutilated — that is, unused) or collector (books are not (just) wall decor) impulses.

Rule 2 recognizes fundmental human diversity. If that isn’t a big concept in a small sentence, I don’t know what is.

Rule 3 actually seems a bit questionable to me, but I guess implies that every book may appeal to someone, even if it doesn’t appeal to you (or offends you — censorship beware!).

Rule 4 urges efficiency in the organization of books, the process of finding them (search), and the process of checking them out. Yes!

Rule 5 is the biggie — an open acceptance of change. How rare to see an institution acknowledge and embrace the fact that change is inevitable? Patrons change, demographics change, materials change, and the process by which those materials are disseminated definitely changes (the very wording of these Laws is now outdated, since we must replace “book” with “media” to reflect today).

Now I’m wondering what primary Laws one could identify in Machine Learning, or even Computer Science. Do we have fundamental principles? Can they be similarly tied to ethics? What would they be?

(Yes, yes, the Three Laws of Robotics. Next?)

A hypaethral life

Henry David Thoreau keeps a fun and thought-provoking blog, based on his diaries. A recent entry caught my eye with its use of a word that was new to me: hypaethral. This adjective describes something that is open to the air, as a building lacking a roof. Thoreau’s use of it here is amusingly metaphorical:

“I thought that one peculiarity of my ‘Week’ was its hypaethral character, to use an epithet applied to those Egyptian temples which are open to the heavens above, under the ether. I thought that it had little of the atmosphere of the house about it, but might wholly have been written, as in fact it was to a considerable extent, out-of-doors. It was only in a late period in writing it, as it happened, that I used any phrases implying that I lived in a house or lived a domestic life. I trust it does not smell [so much] of the study and library, even of the poet’s attic, as of the fields and woods; that it is a hypaethral or unroofed book, lying open under the ether and permeated by it, open to all weathers, not easy to be kept on a shelf.” — Henry David Thoreau, June 29, 1851

I like the idea of a book without a roof, one that would be hard to keep on a shelf, and one that would bring a taste of all the outdoors to any who passed near it. And many’s the day I’ve wished (though lacking the word) that my own life were more hypaethral — that I might look up from my computer and see the sky arching in dazzling blue above, or, later, feel the flickering chatter of stars rain down on me from the dusky twilight. The reminder to look up, to elevate our attention, to imagine the vastness of what lies outside our 12-foot ceilings and plaster and paint, is always a welcome one. Thank you, Thoreau!

Where is the soul of research?

I recently finished reading “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” by Matthew Crawford (see my review). He argues for the merits of trade or craft worker, such as that of plumbers and mechanics and (some) doctors and carpenters and so on. These occupations share a fundamental connection to the real world and a dedication to improving it in some particular way. (Crawford has an odd tendency to also refer to these jobs as the “stochastic arts”. Here he seems to use “stochastic” to mean “trying to fix a system that you didn’t design and therefore cannot fully control”, which is rather a departure from the typical meaning of the word.)

In Crawford’s view, the opposite of a trade worker is a “knowledge worker,” someone who manipulates abstract bits of knowledge, often using a computer. This is the occupation family to which many are urged these days, freeing workers from a specific place of business (“work from home!”) and often from specific tangible output (“I developed a template for a work process for the development of websites to stimulate creativity!”).

Knowledge work gets a bad rap in this book. As a knowledge worker myself, I can see and agree with the problems Crawford points out. Number one is the lack of a specific result, or at least a meaningful specific result. A mechanic can point at a car that now runs. There’s no obvious way for me to measure productivity and success in my job that translates so directly into helping others, or reducing entropy, or any other self-evident good. Instead my productivity, at the rare times when any attempt is made to quantify it, is measured via indirect quantities like the number of papers published or the number of grant dollars won. These are so far removed from actual significance or impact that it’s hard to feel genuine pride or accomplishment if they go up, or genuine lack if they go down. I think this is why I find volunteering at the library ultimately more satisfying; although I’m engaged at a “lower” or more “simplistic” level, in the end I can actually count how many books I’ve shelved or patrons I’ve helped or donations I’ve sorted. The result of my work is self-evident. I agree with Crawford that there’s something good for the soul in being able to see the fruits of your labor like this.

Crawford also argues that a benefit of craft or trade work is that it forces us to submit ourselves to an external order. Either the plumbing leaks or it doesn’t. This is dictated by the constraints of physics, in terms of how water flows and whether there’s a gap in the fittings. You can’t redefine the rules or wish the problem away; instead, you work within those constraints to fix the problem. He sees this as a good prescription for avoiding narcissism. I can definitely see this, too. In research, it is easy to redefine the evaluation metric, or experimental methodology, and totally change the outcome, because you have control over the rules of the world.

For these two reasons (lack of meaningful metrics, and the ability to redefine the constraints at will), it is supremely hard to know whether you are actually good at such a job, and whether you ever improve. In a statement that perhaps stuck with me the most, Crawford writes, “To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room for progress in excellence.” Stated that way, it seems obvious that a job with nebulous and shifting measurements of output would ultimately lack motivation. And so the question arises, for me personally: Where is the “soul” in research? How can I find concrete ways that the work to which I devote most of my waking hours actually matters? How will I ever know whether I’m getting better at what I do? Is this gap due to a lack of imagination on my part, or a fundamental problem with the type of work itself? Would my energies be better spent doing something else?

I recommend the book to anyone interested in these same questions.

The Call of the Bee-Loud Glade

Recently I discovered this enchanting poem, written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and playwright:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Who can read those lovely lines and not be put in mind of Thoreau, down to the very mention of beans? And it seems that Yeats was indeed a fan of Walden’s most famous occupant. His father had read “Walden” to him when he was a boy. (What a great idea!) Consider this story, from Yeats’s autobiography, about how the poem came to be:

Sometimes I told myself very adventurous love-stories with myself for hero, and at other times I planned out a life of lonely austerity, and at other times mixed the ideals and planned a life of lonely austerity mitigated by periodical lapses. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism — “Arise and go” — nor the inversion of the last stanza.

I find his description here fascinating, for I too have felt just that same tug, on random occasions, triggered by a fountain or a tree or a bit of music. And I love getting some insight into his own view of his work, the idea that he “could not have written” the first line just a few years later. I assume by “conventional archaism” he refers to the use of the term in biblical writing, and yet it seems not terribly out of place here; the narrator is expressing not just an idle vacationing whim but instead what, to me, sounds like a very personal, overpowering, internal calling. He will arise and go because until he does, the summons of the lake water will follow him everywhere he goes.

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