Stegosaurus Ludicrous

While I spent my vacation in the relative warmth of India, the igloofication of my beat-up old Chevy proceeded apace in Cambridge, fueled by snowstorm after snowstorm, and an icy wind or two. On Friday night, more than three weeks later, I finally mustered enough motivation to rescue the poor thing from under all the ice and see if the old battery still had any life left in it – 4 inches of soft snow all over the car followed by a solid inch-thick sheet of ice. Curiously, below this ice sheet was another layer of soft snow that could be pried out with a small ice-scraper, whereupon entire sheets of ice could be lifted from the frozen car and improvised into a flat-backed polar Stegosaurus on the cement wall.

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I(x) and U(x)

More than a month ago, BlogLily tagged me to write about how I plan, and that is what I intend to do today. While I was eager to respond to the very first tagging request I have received in twenty months of blogging, I was also scared of sounding preachy about the subject of planning, because I find myself planning-challenged so many times. But, now that I have more or less conquered my fears, I shall step on the sandbox that has been offered me, leaving the reader to blame BL for making me write about this!

On planning under duress:

Rather too often, I am reminded of the importance of planning only when there are so many things to be done that spending more time and effort to plan is barely an option. But, I convince myself that having the to-do list in front of me is better than trusting my brain to retain everything, and that it is much much better than “firefighting” and living my days on a perpetually short fuse. As the cliché goes, an unprioritized to-do list is not much better than no list at all, so I try to have a rudimentary prioritization based on importance and urgency. When one is planning under pressure, there is seldom time to worship at the altar of Stephen Covey and rhapsodize about weekly goals, yearly goals, life goals and such-like in a pretty Moleskine book, and all that one hankers after is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that offers a little peace of mind and tells one where to begin.

My method – if I can dignify the barely conscious taking stock of activities by the word “method”- has been to assign to every activity x, an importance score I(x) and an urgency score U(x). A score of 1 indicates higher importance (or urgency) than a score of 2, and so on. Then, I find a priority, P(x)=I(x)+U(x). Activities with lower P(x) must then be performed before activities with a higher P(x). An example, literally on the back of an envelope, would look like this:

Clearly, there is one big problem with this simplistic approach, and all time management books are suspiciously silent on the issue. How in blazes does one resolve ties? What if I(x) + U(x) = I(y) + U(y) ? Does one perform x and y simultaneously? Does one choose a more complicated function than addition of I(x) and U(x)? Or does one choose according to whim? I try to resolve ties by asking myself “If there was only one thing I had to be doing, what would it be?”. I believe that the method or tools with which one makes a plan is less important than actually making a plan, because by making a plan, one makes a commitment to finish, at the very least, the most important and the most urgent things on one’s plate. Making that commitment is much more important than drawing tables, marking quadrants, drafting mindmaps, though there can be a lot of pleasure in these things as well. Now, I have to urgently shut up about planning under duress, because I find myself becoming preachy.

On planning under less pressure:

It is relatively rare for me to plan without pressure. Some instances that I can think of are preparing for a paper and planning the visit of a dear friend or relative. I’ll write a little bit about the former, though it applies equally to the latter. (There are other much more important things which call for planning without pressure, such as having a family, and buying a house but I do not feel remotely competent to comment on these since I have had too little experience. Besides, these things are a little too private to blog about. They are probably best reserved for the lovely Moleskine journal that you spent a fortune to buy.). When there is less time pressure, I do what I consider to be the obvious thing, which is to work backwards. For example, if the submission deadline for a paper is T then my back-of-the-envelope scribbling would run thus:

  • T – 0 days: Submit
  • T – 1 day: Have final draft ready
  • T – 2 days: Have a second draft for co-authors if they want to review it again
  • T – 4 days: Make corrections to first draft based on comments from co-authors
  • T – 7 days: Give draft to co-authors for proof-reading
  • T – 8 days: Have one ready draft with text and experiments
  • T – 9 days: Finish experimental simulations
  • T – 20 days: Start simulations and start writing while simulations are in progress
  • T – 35 days: Start computer programming required for experiments
  • T – 40 days: Decide whether publication in said conference is a good idea, decide rough content of the paper
  • T – 60 days: Theoretical foundations and toy experiments

Almost always, the above is too ambitious. But it gives a sort of template to follow, and enables me to estimate what can or cannot be done in the available time frame, makes me think about whether it is worth doing at all, and indicates what other activities I can allow myself in the days leading up to T. If things become too crazy near time T, the above template gives me a very good idea about what the I(x) and U(x) for the paper ought to be. 🙂

I don’t know if this is useful, BL. Now that I have written it down, it seems to me pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. I cannot, in my right mind, affect the self-help writer’s tone and say that “This has worked for me” or “This always works.” Because I know too well that it doesn’t always work. It is just a quick fix. However, it has something going for it: It’s at least a start, and isn’t that what we need when we are stumped?

Mr. Gobbles

If you work or study near Kendall Square, you are likely to be amongst the thousands of people streaming out of the T stop at rush hour on Main Street. People cross the street, casually neglecting not only the “Don’t Walk” sign, but the huge police car at the signal. Perhaps you enter the Marriott which everyone uses as a thoroughfare-cum-rain-shelter between Main and Broadway. On Broadway, people walk stiffly and rapidly to their cubicles, offices and MIT classrooms. Here, if you allow your gaze to wander around the premises of the Volpe Center, you might just see Mr. Gobbles out on a slow morning perambulation among the pruned hedgerows.

Mr. Gobbles is the resident wild turkey of Kendall Square. Upon making inquiries, I found that he first arrived in 2003 and the building guards let him live there in peace. I can’t be sure, but someone probably feeds him as well. Happily therefore, he will not find his way into somebody’s oven on Thanksgiving. I think he is either very deaf or very wise. How else can one explain his calm demeanor when surrounded by the cacophonous vehicular nightmare that is Cambridge?

I passed him on my way to work today, and wondered what would happen if he could divine the thoughts of passersby in this decidedly geeky place. What stories he could tell of theorems, machines and cures taking shape in inquisitive minds!

Addenda:

  1. 11/30/2007: Saw Mr. Gobbles again near the ground floor of the Biogen Idec building.
  2. 12/03/2007: Repeat sighting in the Volpe Center grounds. The year’s first snow had fallen last night, and Mr. Gobbles was treading lightly among the oak leaves that were still falling on the white ground. He was about 6 feet away when our eyes met. I stopped and we looked at each other for five or six seconds before I sensed that I might alarm him by staring fixedly at him from across the hedgerows. So I left and let him be.

Serendipity

What are the odds that:

  1. Someone walking homeward happens to look at the crescent moon around 8:15 pm.
  2. The planet Venus hangs very close, about two and a half moon diameters below.
  3. A camera is handy.
  4. The batteries are dead, but 3 spare batteries are miraculously available. With 3 new cells and 1 almost dead cell, the camera sputters to life. Pictures are feverishly snapped between 8:20 and 8:40 pm.
  5. Upon googling, it is found that the time of closest approach for viewers in the San Francisco Bay Area was 8:16 pm on May 19.

Why do children resemble their parents? (Except those that resemble the milkman)

I went to the University library to borrow The Selfish Gene, the book which brought a lot of fame, and more than a few headaches to Richard Dawkins. In defiance of the electronic record which, five minutes ago, had said that it should be in the stacks, the book was nowhere to be found. A few books to the right of the void where The Selfish Gene should have been, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics showed a picture of an mRNA molecule emerging out of a grotesquely misshapen blob (which, I later discovered, was the enzyme RNA polymerase) which was doing its best to hold two strands of DNA apart. It is a weird picture, especially if you have come with expectations of reading a popular, controversial and landmark book on genetics. After only a few happy, drawing-filled pages in which prehistoric women wonder whether sex has anything to do with babies, you find this:

Several other Greeks, thinking more deeply than Xenophon developed the first real theories of heredity – in other words, they addressed the question, “Why do children resemble their parents?”.

“Except,” says a sly man wearing a toga and carrying a pitcher, “the ones who resemble the milkman.”

The book is a part of an outstanding series by Larry Gonick, a San Francisco-based cartoonist who has written cartoon guides to Statistics, Physics, History of the Universe, Chemistry, Sex and some others that I have yet to discover. This particular book on genetics is co-authored with Mark Wheelis, a lecturer of bacteriology at UC Davis. Gonick, who refers to himself as an Overeducated Cartoonist, has an amazing gift for explaining very difficult things using weird analogies, ridiculous jokes and awesomely funny cartoons. From the early history of genetics and a few welcome jibes at Aristotle and his male chauvinistic theory of how babies are made, the book takes the reader on an exploratory tour – from Leeuwenhoek’s observations of animalcules under his primitive microscope, to Mendel’s experiments with pea plants, to dominant and recessive genes. Did you know that you cannot inherit baldness from your father, because the allele for baldness is on the X chromosome only? But you could inherit baldness from your maternal grandpa. (Alas! Mother tells me that I have little hope. It is only a matter of time. 😉 )

The second half of the book is even more captivating, in which Gonick and Wheelis explain cell division by Mitosis and Meiosis, and then proceed to explain chromosomes and DNA, genes and enzymes. Somewhere, in the part that explains haploid and diploid cells, a female bee tells a drone, “Will you listen to me? I swear Buster, it’s like you’re only half there sometimes.” How can one keep from smiling at that? Enzyme action is explained with a great flourish, and you see cartoons of enzymes snapping RNA into two, sewing it together, editing junk DNA, reversing gene sequences, assembling proteins, shepherding modelcules to and fro, and being workhorses in general. The machinery of nature is beautiful and, coming from a digital communications perspective, I was delighted to see that there is quite a lot of redundancy built in, just in case the instructions in the gene sequence have errors or are incorrectly transcribed. For example, the sequences CCA and CCC and CCU and CCG all generate the same amino acid, thus protecting against minor discrepancies. Ocassionally though, bad things happen.

It is amazing that so complicated a thing as protein formation can be explained by a few well-drawn cartoons. The book is a riot and like the others in the series, a wonderful precursor for someone looking to do a more detailed study later. Read and be entertained. Any knowledge accrued along the way, and there will be quite a lot of it, is almost incidental. Now, if only there was a cartoon guide to multi-user information theory….

[EDIT: In the comments, mandarine points to a funny collection of cartoon works titled Savoir Sans Frontières. There are comics on Computers, Relativity, Euclidean Geometry, Topology and more. The cartoons were conceived by Jean-Pierre Petit and are available for free download. They are being translated from French but many are already available in a language of your choice. Further, please do not blame mandarine for some of Jean-Pierre Petit’s more bizarre notions 😉 .]