Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding your passion

This is commencement week at Large Southern University. Young people around campus are busy gluing glitter to their mortarboards, figuring out how to conceal booze under their gowns, planning their graduation blowouts, and realizing that they should have been looking for a job already.

The last time I cared about who was speaking at commencement was my own graduation, but I am sure whoever it is this year will exhort the new graduates to "follow your passion."  I remember a news story published last year that centered around this universal commencement advice. One new graduate, concerned that he had not yet found his one true calling, sought advice from an economist about what to do. As our young protagonist pointed out, some people find their passion early in life, while others search for decades, or forever. (Spoiler alert: this is another area where economists were sure they could provide an answer, but in the end were as clueless as the rest of us.)

Follow your dreams, no matter what others tell you. Now put on this identical garb and line up to receive a certificate of your worth as a person. Image from here.

I could have been the poster boy for the (vocationally) passionless. After abandoning uninspired attempts to live up to the potential that people constantly told me I possessed, I drifted through several careers, pursuing goals of the moment, and prone to fits of depression. I realized later that my problem was not that I didn't have a passion. The problem was (to quote a friend) that I felt like a raging failure because I didn't have a passion, and everyone else had one. Didn't they? A lot of my friends had Volvos and college degrees, so I assumed they had driving ambitions.

The first days of Spring of the worst year of my life found me unemployed, almost unmarried, far from friends and family, and an unwelcome guest in my own house. I loathed myself, my life, and my prospects more than I have at any time before or since.* By the time my birthday rolled around I had divorce papers,** a crappy apartment, a crappy sales job, a few pieces of donated furniture, and an old station wagon with a slow leak in the right rear tire.

By the Fall I was back in school, and working odd jobs to pay the bills. My apartment was still crappy, but I had a new tire, and designs on the hot girl at the opposite end of my building. I had also stopped worrying about finding my passion. I was so busy trying to survive, and working to accomplish my next objective, that I really had no time for self-absorption.  I was content with the satisfaction that came with learning something new, acquiring a new skill, or making a new friend. I learned to enjoy my own company again, and to appreciate the days as they passed.

Along the way, I fell in love with computer science. I realized that my passion had always been learning new things, understanding how the world works, and thinking hard. CS is a perfect fit. It's not that I only care about computer science because I stopped worrying about my passion, but I do believe that focusing on what I have and enjoying who I am, rather than what I wish I had or who I would rather be, has made it easier to stay committed and enthused. Corny, I know, but no worse than "follow your passion."

* Much better now, thanks for asking.

** Served on my actual birthday. The ex claimed it was an accident, but my lawyer was certain it was intentional.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The mother of all days

When I called my mother yesterday and asked her how Mother's Day was treating her, she replied, "I'm having a wonderful day. I have all my children here with me, except one."

This is hardly a first for my mother. It is actually an improvement over all the years we drove hundreds of miles to be home for Christmas, only to hear, "It's just a shame Eldest Brother couldn't be here." A double-edged guilt sword that would make any mother proud, it admonished Eldest Brother for his absence, while letting the rest of us know that our presence wasn't quite enough to make this one count.

One of the blessings of growing older is that these too revealing pronouncements amuse us now. They are almost a family tradition. This sort of thing frustrated me greatly when I was younger. The worst years were those when I was old enough to see clearly what was being done to me, but powerless to stop it, despite the fact that it had been years since I had needed to borrow money from my parents.

Now I feel the years counting down, and I know that too soon I will have only memories. On the occasions that my siblings and I gather we will reminisce about our years as decorations in my mother's holiday tableaux. And we will miss her.

Be nice to your mama whenever you can manage it. She gave you everything you will ever have. If you don't believe me, just ask her.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Science for the hard of thinking

I went to a lecture on quantum computers last Thursday, given by a famous Canadian molecular chemist.* Despite being a professional computer scientist, I know fuck-all about quantum computing, and I have to admit that this hour and a half did little to change that. I mean, I know probably 85 or 90 percent of the words this guy used, but I don't think he was using them right. I felt like I was listening to someone read Lorem Ipsum while they flipped through Powerpoint slides of B-2 bomber schematics.

I was in good company. Of the fifty people in the room, only one seemed to be following along, and he was clearly a vampire, which I consider cheating. (Tall and very thin, pasty and pale, indeterminate age, hair like Bill Compton, you do the math.) Two others recognized a concept and asked a question, but they were obviously grasping and we pitied them.

Computer scientists generally don't know much about quantum computing, even though it's supposedly our future, which makes it fun to bring up in faculty meetings and watch everyone try to fake it. In fact, the only people who know anything about this seem to be physicists or molecular chemists.

In spite of all that, I quite enjoyed the talk. Freed from comprehension, I was able to focus on the trivia I found interesting, and marvel at what science has become.

First, I think we should establish -- and I can't stress this enough -- that quantum anything makes no sense whatsoever, and quantum computing is no exception. I felt a lot like someone trying to imagine what bathrooms would be like if we were built inside out. So even when I found a familiar concept it was immediately inverted and set on fire. Under water. It sounds like quantum computers will not calculate things so much as tell us all the things we could calculate if we had that kind of time, and then pick the correct answer from a set that never existed.

I did get a few interesting (to me, at least) tidbits, though I couldn't begin to tell you how they relate to the topic, or even what the topic was, if I'm being honest. It all started with a thing called a neutron interferometer. The idea is simple really (clearly a lie, but always how they start these things).

This apparatus is machined from a single crystal of silicon that costs north of 50,000 Canadian dollars. After months of machining, it is practically guaranteed not to do anything useful. (Image from here)

First you take a single crystal of silicon** about the size of a football, and machine most of it away. The idea is to get exactly parallel surfaces that are precisely spaced and smooth to the atomic level. Since this is plainly impossible, almost none of them work. Apparently this guy has a cabinet full of these things that are good for nothing, but much too expensive to throw away. The fun part is that no one tells the grad student spending two years of his or her life creating this thing that it won't work. They let it be a surprise.

Recently someone invented a machine to address this issue of non-workiness. The part I remember is that it uses a single cut facet of a large diamond to grind away 6-8 angstroms (ten-billionths of a meter) of silicon on each pass. After (I assume) about a millennium, you will have a working interferometer. I got a mental picture of someone's engagement ring stuck in this gigantic laser-driven Dr. Evil death ray, but that may not be exactly what it looks like. If it works out, they expect the graduate student suicide rate to decline precipitously.

As you can plainly see in Figure 1, the hypothetical neutron does or does not go one way or another as it passes through each  blade. Once the non-existent particle passes through the apparatus, assuming it has possibly taken the path we have not observed until now, we will be able to tell something. I guess. Figure 2 shows the graph generated by the passage of the midi-chlorians through the aether. (Image from here)

The idea behind this thing is that you shoot an individual neutron (a ridiculous idea to begin with) at one end. The crystalline structure will cause the neutron wave form to deflect one direction or another. Because a magic crystal is stuck on one path, you will be able to tell something about which way the non-existent neutron went once you look at it and it starts to exist. Or something.

One more fun fact. These things are crazy sensitive to vibrations and temperature change, so they spent six years and a crap-ton of money building three spring-mounted nested rooms and a special table to eliminate virtually all external interference. About the time they finished, someone figured out that if you just add a couple of extra fins to the crystal thing, noise wouldn't be a problem, so the room is unnecessary.

The guy also talked about some lattice of carbon and chlorine atoms that I think was supposed to be the computer part. There was something about stable free radicals and electron spins effecting nuclear spins, but by then I was feeling lightheaded and it all gets a little fuzzy. I never did figure out how that part connects to the neutron cannon we started out discussing.

I probably shouldn't admit it, but I love this part of my job. Every day I get to talk to people who are doing crazy shit with government money that not a hundred people on the planet understand. There is not much of it that you can do in your garage anymore, and most people think the work is preposterous, but if we ever get our flying cars it will be because of these guys.

* I know, contradiction in terms, right?

** The stuff that Star Trek pizza monster was made of, not the stuff they put in boobs.