Friday, March 31, 2006

Depth, the lack thereof:

A PhD is awarded to a person after years of specialisation; the person knows more and more about less and less until he effectively knows nothing about anything. Or as the optimists might point out everything about nothing.

I've always been a generalist. I learn less and less about more and more until I know nothing about everything. Same limit, different direction of approach.

On the quiz team I was the trash-can, the guy who gets to come up with an answer when either of the other guys have no clue. So it fell on me to answer, creatively if possible, questions like "Here's a newspaper ad, with the brand name cut out. Name the brand." This was of course not the kind of question one expects in a school quiz.

On a work level, being a specialist seems to be a good thing. Being able to say, for instance, "I'm a level-3 God in linux device drivers," would probably set the pulses of many hiring managers racing, always assuming of course, that the manager in question knows that a linux device driver does not have four wheels. One presumes that for actually getting some deep and dirty work done, a specialist is better than a generalist. The specialist would no doubt be able to get the job done faster, cleaner, and with a minimum of fuss. I'm nowhere in that league. The number of topics which I can say I know to any reasonable amount are vanishingly small. And the rate at which I forget stuff that I learn is quite alarming.

As a generalist, I've been quite puzzled that people want to employ me*. Sure I know a lot of crap about a lot of crap. But the amount of stuff that I'm actually able to do in each of the things I can talk a few sentences about is quite low. For instance I know why it would be a bad idea to code a standard C for-loop in Verilog, but I'd probably spend a month doing a simple CRC generator. I know why you shouldn't call a virtual function from a constructor, but I'd take
forever to solve a simple algos problem. I can tell you what a financial derivative is, but not how you do math with it. I can argue with you for hours on the finer points of literary merits of X. And so on, ad infinitum.

This does have its positive points sometimes. When we needed a way to deliver software to our boxes, I knew that apt was probably a pretty good idea - although I'd never setup an apt repository in my life. When we needed to find something to cross-compile with I remembered reading about scratchbox. When the build time at my previous company reached titanic proportions (6hrs) I remembered reading about ccache and also took the effort to put it into place, cutting it down to a few minutes. I can come up with great analogies, marrying diverse fields. For instance we're trying to sell the idea that network connectivity should be as reliable and available as electricity**. When many of my friends have questions about stuff on which they have no clue, I get to track things down. For instance, "is there a java obfuscator?", to a guy who has an ECE background?

There is one thing I do know pretty well though - how do you learn something in the shortest time possible to be able to accomplish the given task? I always assume I can learn new stuff. I believe, as it has been stunningly put, the following,
Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It's shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad'Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.
from Dune by Frank Herbert.

So I interview for a large Internet company which you've probably never heard of***. They are clearly looking, not for a mere specialist, but for a super-mega-ultra specialist. They have six-plus rounds of hard technical interviews I'm told, I quit after two to avoid giving any more pain to the interviewers. But the products the guys are meant to develop? Well they're so diverse that even the marketing guys seem sometimes confused, and only the founders have a goal that sounds grand, but could in reality, mean pretty much anything and everything.

Clearly, I'm not cut out for that kind of interview process. But would I do well there? I would have thought so, but the interviewers and the company think very much otherwise.

So what's an easily distracted generalist supposed to do these days? How can I get a job**** where the diversity of what I know is an asset? Drop me a line and I promise I'll host you a big one if it works out!

fReaK ouT!

* Potential employers please note that I'm just kidding here. I really do know enough for you to employ me on a nice fat salary. You can trust me on that. Really!
** It's a bit obfuscated 'cos it's a trade-secret ;-)
*** If you've been living in a small cave in Tibet for the last 10 years
**** Current employers who may be reading this blog, please note that I'm quite happy here, and that I'm soliciting suggestions for potential future utility :-D

Sunday, March 26, 2006

What would you do?

If, at the age of 19, you became mostly deaf and blind, and also lost the use of your hands in an explosion?

Would you be lost in self-pity? Would you become utterly dependent on others and lose all hope for your future?

Well that's not what this man did. What he did do was join a university, decide to understand and improve Einstein's theory of General Relativity, come up with his own theory of everything, successfully predict the masses of most known, and some unknown, particles plugging in the values of just four constants (G, h, vacuum permittivity and permeability), and also manage to get married and get a diploma.

Kind of puts things into perspective doesn't it?

Here we are, slogging at and with so many different things, day in and day out, assuming that we are the center of the known universe, assuming that what we do is worth a damn. And this guy who pretty much can't see, can't hear, and can't use his hands, comes up with a new way to look at the universe that looks like the best bet for a theory of everything since General Relativity.

What on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, can you do to match that? I can't even imagine the kind of dedication and perseverence required to accomplish that. Apparently he developed an eidetic memory after he lost his eyesight and hearing. His wife read papers, journals, and his drafts to him; he would memorise all of them just by listening to her.

Einstein explained gravity in his Theory of General Relavity, by proposing that mass bends space around it and gravity is the effect we see in three dimensions. Heim took it three steps further - he proposed a six-dimensional space, which could explain and predict the masses of various elementary particles with great accuracy. His theory is probably the only major theory which actually predicts the rest masses of various elementary particles to better than expected accuracy.

In the last few years Heim's theory has been getting greater attention, the greatest barriers being language - Heim wrote exclusively in German - and, in a striking resemblance with an acknowledged genius of the early 20th century, Ramanujan, his use of non-standard and unknown terminology.

Among the most exciting outcome of Heim's theory being verified might be super-luminal transport. At the limits of my understanding, the extended theory postulates a gravitophoton, a particle which makes possible the conversion of electromagnetic energy to gravitational energy. There is some way to make normal photons into gravitophotons, thereby pushing the object of interest into a parallel space, where the physical constants are different. The object itself gains velocity when it moves into the parallel space, appearing to move at many times the speed of light in our universe.

I'll stop there, because anything else I say will be even more of a guess and even less of intelligence than I've already displayed :-)...

Go Forth, make your own theories of whatever, achieve something, after all we still have our eyesight, hearing, hands, and presumably some brains. How hard can it be?

Monday, March 13, 2006


If any of you guys want to be really nice to me, and spend a lot of money on me to make me happy, to make up for something bad you did to me, to generally make the world a better place, or to promote World Peace, one of the things you could get me would be this watch. I'd like the plain black one, with a minimum of anything on it. Black strap would do nicely, thank you very much!

Vitriol is a little more avaricious. :-). He's even got the printed catalog of the Jaeger-LeCoultre watches, and man did I drool over some of those beauties! I caught myself gazing longingly at a table clock and thinking that a thousand dollars was not too much for it. Bzzzzzzzzztt!! I woke up with a bang. After that I kicked myself out of fantasy land, and resumed drooling at my next Mac :-). No silly clock is going to come between me and my Mac.

And this piece of prose excoriates the Pakistani fielding in the 5th ODI. Quite lovely, and I shall reproduce it here for your benefit, kind reader.
At times, it seemed that more direct hits were missed than there were people in the stands, more balls were fumbled than there are people in Karachi, throws were backed up in much the manner Brutus backed up Julius and as a collective, fielders became India's 12th, 13th and 14th men on the field. Indian batsmen gleefully took the piss, tapping straight to fielders and blindly, sans calls, running because even in the unlikely event of the ball being picked up clean, stumps weren't going to be struck.
Ooof, I'd hate to be the target of that tongue! "... throws were backed up much in the manner Brutus backed up Julius..." is quite reminiscent of Douglas Adams. Of course he might have added "which is to say, in no way at all", to reach the great unwashed masses who might miss the Roman reference.

No mere words can describe how I feel about this. True scientists they are!

P.S. Brief hiatus in blogging due to a sudden surge of work. Will have to see if I can be more regular.