Sunday, February 17, 2008

Phone company closed on Sundays

Phone company closed on Sundays: After trying the various phone numbers on the AT&T Wireless site, including 1-800-331-0500, 611 from my cellphone, and 800‑288‑2747 from, it seems that AT&T provides no customer service on Sunday. So, if your phone or their software is broken, you are SOL. (Via Joho the Blog.)

It's not just Wireless. I tried to get service Friday evening for the Palo Alto townhouse I'm moving into. The at&t/SBC site led me through a long set of choices, just to dump me at checkout because of "extended maintenance." Tried again yesterday. Another problem cropped up, an option I had selected on Friday was no longer available. And I was dumped at checkout again. And many other mis/malfuctions. No phone number to buy service. This is what an unregulated monopoly is like.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

East to West

East to West

Early January, we moved to Mountain View where I joined Google Research, on leave from Penn. So much is still provisional (but isn't it always?), but I thought these few pictures got a bit of what we love and miss in Philadelphia, and a bit of what we love in California.

Complexity Illness

Complexity Illness: One of the enduring stereotypes of academia is that people spend a great deal of intelligence, time, and effort finding complexity rather than simplicity. This is at least anecdotally true in my experience.[...]Who submitted a paper to ICML violating the 8 page minimum? Every author fears that the reviewers won’t take their work seriously unless the allowed length is fully used. (Via Machine Learning (Theory).)

These claims come from a highly idealized model of scientific research. Most good ideas start their public careers in a messy, overly complicated state. Scientific ideas, like computer programs, need to be refactored repeatedly by the relevant community before they reach the conciseness and clarity that John hopes for. In his wonderful collection Indiscrete Thoughts, Gian-Carlo Rota wrote:

Every mathematical theorem is eventually proved trivial. The mathematician's ideal of truth is triviality, and the community of mathematicians will not cease its beaver-like work on a newly discovered result until it has shown to everyone's satisfaction that all the difficulties in the early proofs were spurious, and only an analytic triviality is to be found at the end of the road.

My conference submissions often hit the limit because at the time of submission I haven't understood fully what I am proposing, or what experiments are the best to test what I am proposing. Ten years later, if the idea was good enough, it is likely that it and the most revealing experiments could have been written up in half the space. But the only reason that would be possible is that the work was published, and the debate that followed was crucial in distilling out what really mattered from the original rough brew.

As I tell anyone I am advising, the real value of publication is to contribute to the ongoing dialog of science, and learn from the responses more than we could ever learn by thinking alone in our offices. Dialog is messy, ideas come out half-formed, we hesitate, we track back, we speak over each other, we suffer from esprit d'escalier. Waiting to engage until we have the perfect formulation may reduce the chance of embarrassment, but it would also deaden a lively exchange, and take away delicious rejoinder opportunities for our debating opponents.