Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, May 15, 2020

Four Things

Image by Glane23, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
1. I've considered the idea of career-finding as being similar to computational "hill-climbing" before, and I think a story I encountered about a man who purchased domain names on a whim is a decent example of the process.

His apparently aimless pursuit exposed him to options that intrigued him and challenges he enjoyed meeting -- until, one day, he found that he had become a successful seller of Vidalia onions.

Here he is, on his way:
And so I did. I'm just dumb enough to try a project of this complexity. The market size justified an online venture. Google Trends showed strong search volume for the phrase. And chefs around the world had already belted their praise over the 'caviar of sweet onions'.

So I just started down a path, with no end goal or milestone set. I just started going. No angel investor. No VC backer. I just used some modest profit from my other domain name developments to fund the endeavor. This was Feb of 2015.

Once I began, I discovered there was a Vidalia Onion committee which represents all the Vidalia farmers. So I reached out to them.

They were kind enough to listen to me.
The author paints his story as more random than I read it. It is worth noting that this is as much a story of exploration and observation as it is of satisfaction and success.

2. Far and Wide ranked every state's most over- and under-rated tourist attractions a while back. For the most part, they nailed the states I'm familiar with and looked at, including the following, regarding Baltimore's underrated jewel, the Inner Harbor:
While it doesn't have a beach and arcade games, the waterfront of downtown Baltimore provides a relaxing, yet cultured setting. The Inner Harbor is home to an aquarium, science museum, children's museum, historic ships, shopping and dining, not to mention boat rides.

[As a visitor put it]: "The Inner Harbor is a great place to visit. It's good for walking around, bringing your family, or going for a run. There are multiple stores and restaurants to go to. You can take a boat ride. It's a nice place to take pictures. If you're visiting Baltimore you should visit it; it's a good place to go for a day."
The national aquarium there was expensive, but well worth taking the kids to before we moved away.

3. Pharma blogger Derek Lowe points to some advice -- from a novelist -- on science writing. Whatever you think of that, I found his description of the process of scientific writing spot-on:
Applying general writing advice to a scientific paper is somewhat tricky, though, since it is a rather specialized form. I find writing a scientific manuscript much slower going than putting almost anything else to paper; it's like high-stepping through a swamp. But that probably makes such advice even more valuable, because it's too easy otherwise to make your manuscript so dense as to be unreadably unpleasant (and thus incapable of getting its points across clearly). Turning research results into clear prose can be hard, even for a very good writer, which is even more reason to put the effort into doing it.
I recently saw someone remark that many seminal papers are extremely clear. Claude Shannon's monograph, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, comes to mind.

Clarity of thought certainly aids writing, as does a better memory than I have. But I cannot help wondering if being far-enough ahead of the pack makes such writing easier by reducing the need to keep so many references straight!

4. Many people, finding themselves with lots of time on their hands, have taken up side projects, some more incredible than others.

Since I'm home with my kids, my time has been ... less than conducive ... to concentrating on anything. But I have still found something interesting I can do to engage my mind: I'm trying to create something like Portable Ubuntu, a virtualized instance of a Linux computer that runs off of a pen drive. Back in the day, it came in quite handy, but neither the software nor the virtualization layer behind it were maintained.

I've wanted that back ever since, but my various attempts didn't quite get me what I wanted. I eventually decided it was above my paygrade, so to speak.

Randomly thinking of that a couple of weeks ago, I decided it might be a good off-and-on project. I've already reached proof-of-concept, using the QEMU emulator and a scaled-down version of Linux.

Practical concerns (e.g., maximum FAT32 file size) take me to a fork in the road, though. I've learned that something that can use some of the legacy hardware I originally had in mind will have such tight requirements that it won't be terribly versatile. Relaxing those constraints is the path I'm pursuing instead, as I hope to have something generally useful on reasonably modern computers by the time things begin reopening.

But yes: I wasn't already pursuing such a project, with its many blind alleys, for a reason. (Pro tip for people interested in building operating systems for legacy hardware: Make your installer optionally able to see and use more than one (small legacy) hard drive.)

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

The science writing thing reminds me of something far too many people forget these days: "Know your audience". This advice is obvious on the writer's side--if you're writing for the general public you don't want to use terms like "5YR 7.5" (a color in the Munsell chart). But it's where this applies to the READER that this advice gets tricky. Simply put, not every publication (book, paper, movie, article, even blog post) is intended for everyone. Sometimes the author has a very specific, often narrow, range of people they are speaking to. And sometimes you're not in that range.

I remember reading "Life History of a Fossil" and laughing out loud a few times. My wife was baffled, as this was a textbook on taphonomy (the study of how an organism becomes a fossil). It drove home the importance of target audiences in my mind. I was part of the writer's audience, so I found the writing nuanced, informative, and frankly funny at times, as it built upon shared experiences in field work, lab prep, and the like. My wife, who doesn't have those experiences, found it incomprehensibly dense and dry, even after I explained what I found humorous.

To give another example: the video game "Dark Souls" is notoriously difficult, and there are a lot of optional aspects to it that most players won't ever see. The developers knew this, and were fine with it. The audience for the game was those players who WOULD see that optional material. The developers frankly didn't care if someone outside their target audience didn't enjoy the game. This allowed them to make a unique, highly enjoyable, and remarkably deep (even in the philosophical sense at times) gaming experience. Skyrim, in contrast, was intended to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and is widely criticized for lacking depth or nuance.

That's not to say that scientific writing can't be improved. Obviously it can--any skill can! I am, however, somewhat skeptical of writing advice directed towards scientists. Much of it comes from attempts to broaden the audience, which often isn't the point.

Gus Van Horn said...

"My wife, who doesn't have those experiences, found it incomprehensibly dense and dry, even after I explained what I found humorous."

That reminds me of the more common experience of having offspring ask about a joke that is waaay outside the experience a child would have (and is neither risque nor political or religious in nature): Explaining it often fails to remove bafflement and sometimes makes it even less funny.

I'm inclined mostly to agree, but think seminal papers might sometimes be exceptional, particularly if the audience is multidisciplinary.