Thursday, July 31, 2014

Naming, branding, and the temptations of mediocre acronyms

Naming things is easy.  Naming things well is hard.  As both an American and a scientist, I have a strong affinity for acronymic names, and they litter my work.  MADV, TASBE, PACEM, SBOL, CRF-gradient, AML, CRP, they breed and multiply in every project, because it's easier than coming up with a new but pseudo-meaningful word.  If you're striving for mediocrity, as I often do in project titles, then the acronym generation game is easy.  I play it in three steps:
  1. Write down a bunch of words vaguely associated with the project.
  2. Scrabble their first letters to get words or word-ish sequences that are at least pronounceable.
  3. Try to ensure that the sequence of words is at least not objectionable.
And that's how we end up with a name like PACEM (Proto / Amorphous Collective Energy Management) or TASBE (a Toolchain to Accelerate Synthetic Biology Engineering).  But honestly, those are just not terribly good names, because I don't have a natural knack for branding and I haven't ever really invested in it.  Now "Scrabble", that's a name that I can really get behind: it really conveys the scrambling and shuffling that goes on when you play the game, but doesn't go acronymic to take the lazy way out.

Naming is on my mind today, because we've been doing a huge overhaul of our Proto programming framework this summer, and since the programming language that comes out of this will look very little like Proto currently does (for those who care, it will switch from prefix to infix notation and all those LISP-ish parentheses will go away) we might take the opportunity to coin a new name.  So we've been kicking around ideas and trying to get away from the acronym thing.

It's really tempting to get cute when you're naming things, and in my experience this always will tend to end badly.  The problem is that once you make a name, you get stuck with it.  A joke is nice, but do you really want it pinned on your lapel for a decade of your career?  Or worse, a joke can end up with you not able to be found at all, because you get lost in the noise or incomprehension.  Though, perhaps not always... I had an undergraduate working for me some years ago, who came up with an extremely fast and elegant algorithm for accelerating complex chemical simulations.  When we were nearly done writing it up, I told him that this algorithm needed to have a name, and he asked me, "What are the rules for naming algorithms?  Can I name it anything I want?"  Incautiously, I told him yes, having apparently forgotten the madness of power that would have overtaken me at these words when I too was an undergrad.  

And so it is that I came to be coauthor on a paper about the LOLCAT method for chemical simulations.  I could have quashed it and demanded we have a better name, of course, but he was so happy with the idea and it was really mostly his invention, and so I gave in and we've got this crazy name.  It's not even an acronym with some sort of reasonable excuse, it's just LOLCAT because my undergrad was mad with power and hilarity, and I was quite content to let him have his fun.  If you google LOLCAT, well... either you already know, or you should do it now.  If you google "LOLCAT algorithm," though, we come up on top, and (I just discovered) it's even apparently gotten me into Wikipedia.  So I guess that means that names don't matter too much after all, if you've got something useful that you've built, in the end.

I'll definitely say, though, that there's one thing I'm very proud of in my history of naming: Harriet (seen here in her mother's lap, watching airplanes landing over her into Logan)
That name was subject to extremely careful thought, since a person would be branded with it for her whole life (or at least until she gets old enough to change it legally if she chooses).  It came to me one night about halfway through my wife's pregnancy, as I was biking across town and tumbling around my thoughts on naming constraints: instantly recognizable but not too common, no strong cultural baggage from famous people or stereotypes, needs to have good "weight" on the tongue, something that can enable a strong woman to choose whoever she wants to be when she grows up and not get in the way of her being taken seriously.  So far, it seems, that Harriet has fit the bill, and she wears it proudly, along with her Indian middle name, Purna.  We'll see which one she settles on as she grows... 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Down-Time Brain

I have the impression, sometimes, that I used to be able to work much harder than I do these days. Like, that I would stay up all night coding (which I did sometimes) or that I could squeeze productive work into any little crevice of time.  And sometimes, that was certainly true: I definitely remember times when I would take a single free hour between classes and zip over to find a computer to churn out a character sheet, or set down in an alcove to do some math or something. I look at that today, and wonder why it's so much harder for me to do that than it used to be.  I also, however, look back and see that there were so many times where also I didn't do that.  Like when I would go to the back of the science fiction library at MIT and pull down books and curl up on a chair that used to be there in a corner to read for hours, or just hang out and shoot pool or watch movies.  In early grad school, I would come home and my roommate Won & I would crack jokes while watching Cartoon Network and Sci-Fi channel shows for hours---we never missed Sealab 2021 if we could help it.  I somehow felt very productive and focused and also had a lot of time to spare.

Today, that is not so, I think.  It also, though, might be that it is more a shift of attitude.  And also, of course, responsibilities.  The entropy levels I live with are much higher, and my tolerance for entropy has definitely gone down from undergrad.  My god, but summers in our house were awful.  I lived, in my undergrad years, across the Charles river at one of the many MIT fraternities strangely stranded on the other side, in Boston.  Because there were always things to do, I never went home for the summer, but stayed to work on one scientific project or another.  A lot of people did that at MIT, and I enjoyed it.  Except, of course, for the horrible smells.  During the school year, our house got cleaned on a weekly basis---by freshmen in the Fall, and as part of a rotating schedule of duties in the Spring---so even with thirty undergrad guys and various associated others, things never really got too bad.  The summer, though, although in theory there was a schedule, it simply wasn't enforced and things built up.  I remember quite viscerally the day that I walked into the kitchen and noticed little white grains of rice all over the floor.  Thinking nothing of it (it was summer after all), I went to the fridge and got my breakfast out: canned peaches and refried beans, each served cold from a SysCo commercial #10 can (senseless undergrad, remember?).  As I turned to leave, I noticed the grains of rice were moving, slowly.  And then I realized that it wasn't grains of rice at all, but a remarkably large number of maggots, all moving radially outward from the overflowing can of trash.  This was my first encounter with a real live maggot, and you know, although I was horrified and disgusted, I didn't either attempt to clean it up or even think to tell anyone about it.

These days, I can't imagine that I could let such nasty horrors go.  Just an hour earlier this evening, I took a barely started bag of trash outside because I couldn't stand the diaper in it.  I get a serene and satisfied feeling from having a sink that's clean and all toys put away to have a clear and empty floor.  Indeed, I only lightly resent the duty.  And that's a thing that takes my time.  And parenthood, and maintaining our house, and just the daily fight against oncoming entropy.  I'm always tempted to short my sleep, to try to find more time for my work, and sometimes I do it for weeks on end.  But then, I think it's not a really long term plan.

In truth, however, I think I'm quite productive, those times that I'm not feeling down on myself.  A major difference from then to now is also the amount of things I juggle.  And no, I don't think I'll get into that and try to do some sort of bragging enumeration.  My wife and I have recently made a deal that we won't list deadlines at each other, when talking about our stress or planning.  We just should always assume that we are both likely under the gun on something.  I feel that when we talked about it, it always was a spiral down.  I much prefer my down-time brain, those times when I can actually just let go and not stress out about the things to do.

I'll never be stress-free, I think.  When life is empty, I have filled it with new commitments, projects just for me and my enjoyment.  And when it's time to play, I should just play.  Snuggle down and watch a good-bad guilty pleasure movie, my wife and daughter snuggled up with me, like we did tonight.  Let my head roam and see what thoughts will come.  I had a good week and lots of things got done.  Perhaps I'll share some other time.  For now, I think I'll settle down, and not let myself get worried too much.  The time for that will always come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Requiem for a Ray-Gun

This summer has seen a lot of time for nostalgia for me, and one of the big sources has been going through the old papers that my parents passed to me at the beginning of summer.  They're preparing for downsizing, and finally made good on the request / threat / reasonable-demand that I take all the remaining boxes of my old stuff off of their hands.  Since we're back in Boston for the summer, it was easy enough for them (relatively speaking) to pass on a carload of bankers' boxes as a side effect of one of their trips down to visit, and thus give me custody of things I probably should really have dealt with long ago.  And so it is that I've had a while going through twenty-year old boxes and unearthing some remarkable reminders of who I was as a youth.  And sometimes also, who I still am, to an uncomfortable degree of accuracy.

Interestingly to me, the earlier that I go in my education, the higher a percentage of the papers I find worth saving.  From grad school, I basically threw everything into the trash.  Undergrad, a few things survived.  High school yielded a great deal of fascinating essays and uncomfortable personal truths, but also a lot of translated Latin and math problems to simply be discarded.  Pretty much anything from earlier that had survived was still worth keeping.  Some of it, I think, is that my parents only held on to the memorable things from back when they were making decisions: there are no piles of practice sheets drawing letters of the alphabet, nor are there the arithmetic quizzes that my fourth grade classmates and I used to race each other to completion on.  Once we hit my own eras of curation, the pre-filtering has not yet happened.  Another and more important thing, however, is that as I grew older and my education became more specialized, my own set of life choices have tended to dictate that the classwork is more technical and less creative.  Reading essays and stories that I wrote in high school is like taking an archaeological core sample of my personality and history.  Reading algebra notes is just reading algebra notes that could have been taken by anyone.  Although, as I think about it, I'm sure that a lot of other people took more interesting notes than me, putting little cartoons or editorials about their feelings on the material in.  I just wrote it down and never once looked back to read it, except in unusual circumstances.  And having saved class material that is essentially just a poorly transcribed technical manual, why on earth should I hold onto it?  Either I use it every day and I know it still, or I have forgotten it and will re-learn the knowledge from some online source when I find a need.  My creative output shifted out of the classroom and into other areas, and by the time that I reach grad school, you can see my records in the early papers and screeds on my website.  There are times when I am tempted to purge the earlier and more embarrassing of these, but so far I have resisted.  I feel like it's something I need to just be honest and live with, even if some of the memories associated with those papers are ones I think that I would just prefer to forget.  And why, oh why, do people cite them?  I can only assume that they have found things more valuable in certain of them than I the author know in retrospect.

The motivating artifact for this post, however, was not a school paper, but one of the halo of other related objects that I found in those boxes.  You see, back in high school, my little nerd clique and I were all involved in writing computer games, and managed to compete each other into something approaching real competence.  We released a few games that were pretty awesome for our egos and tried to get serious and make bigger and better and more significant contributions.  One place that we over-reached was getting into 3D.  Oh, it worked and all, but despite our wishes we just weren't quite Bungie and couldn't aspire to match our engine to our idol Marathon.  But we put together a working engine that ran at a decent frame rate and started building worlds and enemies and such.  And here is where my ray-gun comes from:
Rather than try to draw the art that we were nowhere near capable of, we did a photo shoot with the fancy new "digital camera" thing my brother's friend Jeff had.  We set up a studio in one of the rooms of our house (now a guest room, but I think it was my mother's art studio at the time), used a white sheet as a "green screen", and got into costumes with the awesomest future bad-guy gear that we could come up with.  I wore a green SWAT-team outfit left over from playing a garbage man in a school musical (it was an odd show), carried a shotgun we'd borrowed from somebody, and scowled beneath the darkest aviator shades I could lay my hands on.  My brother wore hockey padding and a hockey mask and carried the ray-gun above (in the game, it shot energy rings at you).  Jeff wore the same hockey gear and a handheld small vacuum cleaner strapped upside down to his back, holding the straight steel tube out as the business end of his "flame thrower."  We shot from all angles, getting walking animations, attacks, injuries, and deaths.  Some PhotoShop time on the secondhand probably-legal copy I'd gotten my hands on, and we had glorious, glorious enemies that made everybody laugh at us because they knew who was trying to look badass under those shades.

It was great fun, and we got a long way, but the game never finished and never got released.  I'd wander around "debugging" by shooting myself and finding geometry problems that had to be addressed.  Our ambitions grew bigger and we kept trying to get a better engine and tell this giant story that was trying to brew, but none of us had read The Mythical Man-Month yet and we never just stopped at "good enough" and finished a game of some sort.  I moved on to another project, then college, and our software-making club dispersed as everybody else did the same. By now, the images are all long gone, dead long ago on obsolete media and obsolete computers.

The ray-gun, though, was waiting for me, coming up slightly dusty and otherwise good as new from one of the many boxes of archival stuff.  Showing it to my wife, I fired it, just to see.  The staple shot out and bounced pinging off a wall into nowhere, and then I needed to scramble and find it so it wouldn't pose a toddler hazard.  The ray-gun didn't get a decision that day.  Instead I put it off, and shoved it high on top a bookcase where Harriet would never see it, let alone get to test whether she could injure herself with either staple-gun or pneumatic door-closer.

I looked again up there today, and took it down to disassemble.  The choice was obvious, but bittersweet.  I just don't need this artifact: all that it can be is a trap for an unwary child some day to discover.  What I care about is the memory, to know this wonderful ray-gun once existed, made for a hot summer day in a makeshift studio in an appropriated third-floor room, where half a dozen kids dreamed of fame and fortune and dystopian future storm-troopers.  Remembering all of this, I laid the ray-gun on a black towel (shades of its earlier backdrop) and snapped photos until I had one I was satisfied could be enough for memory.  Then off came the packing tape securing the two halves together, and the gun was gone.  The old door closer went into the trash; the staple gun will join my tools, and will in time no doubt be put to its old and original use.  But if it's me that uses it, I guarantee that every time I fix a staple, a part of me instead will want to stop and wave it around in the air making ray-gun sounds: "P-tanngg! P-tanngg!"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Notes from The Princess Invasion

Having just been (very) rudely awakened by a toddler, I'm lying here all sleepy but not quite sleepy enough to go back to sleep apparently.  And so, it seems, I am finally breaking my long pause in blog posting.  I don't think I'll bother writing about not posting right now---that kind of post is something I feel is generally not too interesting to read, and besides I don't have any particularly interesting reason that posting has not been happening.

Instead, I think that I will tell you about our Princess Invasion.

It was, I think, a fairly inevitable thing.  Harriet has just turned two years old (her party is today), and despite our failure to expose her willfully to lots of Disney stuff, it's out there and it comes for little girls.  Nothing, I know, is new in what I'm saying.  My sister-in-law shared a book called "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" a while back, about the ubiquity of princesses and pink in the mass culture that we live in.  It's out there, it's going to come for them, especially through peers and daycare, where even the most controlling parent cannot isolate, and all we get to do is choose which ways we will and won't react, and try to navigate through as best we can.

Still, I think it was an ugly surprise when it appeared so suddenly.  My wife told me of the moment just two days ago: she'd been putting Harriet in the car in the morning to go to daycare, and our little two-year-old did not want to be buckled in.  Not being an area where compromise can happen, a struggle ensued, and after our little small one's inevitable loss, she registered her final protest: "No! I am a PRINCESS!"  Command, and dignity.  The penetrating hauteur of one who knows that she must be obeyed.  We're trying not to laugh too hard.

That night, we took her out to a toy store to get a bicycle/tricycle, so that she could pick her own out.  We like to give her choice and options when we can, and just try not to wince too much at what she picks.  We now have a lovely lavender tricycle in the house with pictures of a girl doctor who invites us to help her solve mysteries when Harriet pushes buttons.  But also, we found this:

In case you can't quite tell, this is a bright pink toddler chair with a heart-shaped back, covered with Disney princesses.  I didn't even recognize them all any more---having just looked them up, I can tell you that the black princess on the arm is apparently Tiana, from a retelling of the frog prince, and the left-hand blond on the heart is Aurora from Sleeping Beauty.  Front and center, of course, is Cinderella, and we also have Ariel, who radically alters her body in pursuit of her prince, Belle, the role model for abusive relationships, and Snow White, the Disney ur-Princess.

The moment she saw this chair, Harriet hopped off her bike and beelined for it, picking it out of all the other options.  No, it didn't come home with us.  But as long as we were in the store, our little princess could have her pink chair time and celebrate her royal company, and so she did with great delight as you can see, and great velocity and vibration, which doesn't come through as well in still shots.

I am an American with a daughter.  We're just going to have to deal with this.  And so far, at least, it's not all one way on the gender coding, which I think is also a good sign.  Yes, she's wearing Batman shoes.  She likes those too, and they aren't pink.