Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I knew a guy many years ago who fancied himself an author, so he worked on an assembly line in order to free his mind for writing in his head all day. He thought up plot lines and characters and all sorts of stories while attaching Widget A to Flange B. My current job is like the opposite of that. At least when I'm doing it correctly.

I spend all day thinking about how computer systems and related technology and such can be better or more helpful or become self-aware and destroy mankind. Then I work to make that happen. By "all day" I mean the two or three productive hours per day that I can squeeze between reading e-mail, meetings, random questions from co-workers, social networking, drinking, television and all my hobbies. And by "work", I mean reading and writing papers and creating "research prototype" systems that no one will ever use. And I occasionally boss some college students around.

But that's during the "between times". When I actually get involved in something intriguing, I have almost no space in my mind for anything else. Sleep becomes optional, the alarm clock irrelevant, and if my workspace were a little further from the food I would probably lose some weight. I still haven't the foggiest idea why I write this blog (more on that later), but I do know that I can't do it when I'm "in the zone." There have been studies that suggest that when people are seriously focused on a problem and someone speaks to them, not only does the person not pay attention to the interruption, they may literally not hear it. Intense concentration inhibits our senses. (Right now the software developers are wondering what my point is, since they spend most of their day in this state.)

So this is a long and not very interesting way of saying that I can't write right now, it's bothering me, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. I've just started building two sets of research tools for two different projects that do completely different things and have to be done more or less at the same time. And "the same time"* is relatively soon. The worst part is that both systems are my own ideas, so of course they are infinitely more interesting than anything else I could be working on.

People who do a lot of scientific or very technical work talk a lot about being in the zone, and how exciting and rewarding it is. But we don't talk much about how hard it is to get there, how long it takes to really get out, or how difficult it is to think about anyone or anything else while there. The wifely unit's birthday is tomorrow and I'm trying to claw my way back into the real world so that I can wrap her presents and make her pizza and pay her the attention she deserves every day. But just when I think I'm out, the syntax graphs and service primitives and retargetable architectures keep pulling me back. I think I will call my newest tool Fredo.
* Sincerest apologies for all the "scare quotes". I just don't seem to be able to stop myself. It's just a good thing you're not here in person or I might have to do the finger quote thing. This only helps to prove my point that I can't write when it's like this.


  1. geek obsession. it's a beautiful thing... trying to do two at once? dangerous. see you on the other side!

  2. Take you time, sir. It's nearly summer. Who wants to be on a computer in the summer? And I don't even like summer.