Thursday, September 18, 2014

2014-09-18: A tale of two questions

(with apologies to Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, and Dr. Seuss)


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, ..." (A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens).

At the end of this part of my journey; it is time to reflect on how I got here, and what the future may hold.

Looking back, I am here because of answering two simple questions.  One from a man who is no longer here, one from a man who still poses new and interesting questions.  Along the way, I've formed a few questions of my own.

The first question was posed by my paternal uncle, Bertram Winston.  Uncle Bert was a classic type A personality.  Everything in his life was organized and regimented.  When planning a road trip across the US, he would hand write the daily itinerary.  When to leave a specific hotel, how many miles to the next hotel,
Uncle Bert and Aunt Artie
phone numbers along the way, people to visit in each city, and sites to see.  He would snail-mail a copy of the itinerary to each friend along way, so they would know when to expect he and Aunt Artie to arrive (and to depart).  He did this all before MapQuest and Google maps.  He did all of this without a computer, using paper maps and AAA tour books. 

Bert took this attention to detail to the final phase of his life.  As he made preparations for his end, he went through their house and boxed up pictures and mementos for friends and family.  These boxes would arrive unannounced, and were full of treasures.  After receiving, opening, sharing these detritus with Mary and our son Lane, I thanked Bert for helping to answer some of the questions that had plagued me since I was a child.  During the conversation, he posed the first question to me.  Bert said that he had been through his house many times and still had lots of stuff left that he didn't know what to do with.  He said,  "what will I do with the rest?"  I said that I would take it, all of it, and that I would take care of each piece.

I continued to receive boxes until his death. 
Josie McClure, my muse.
With each; Mary, Lane, and I would sit in our living room and I would explain the history behind each memento.  One of these mementos was a picture of Josie McClure.  She became my muse for answering the second question.



Dr. Michael L. Nelson,
my academic parent.
The second question was posed by my academic "parent," Michael L. Nelson.  One day in 2007; he stopped me in the Engineering and Computational Sciences Building on the Old Dominion University campus, and posed the question "Are you interested in solving a little programming problem?"  I said "yes" not having any idea about the question, the possible difficulties involved, the level of commitment that would be necessary, or the incredible highs and lows that
would torment by soul.  But I did know that I liked the way he thought, his outlook on life, and his willingness to explore new ideas.

The combination of answering two simple questions, resulted in a long journey.  Filled with incredible highs brought on by discovering things that no one else in the world knew or understood, and incredible lows brought on by no one else in the world knowing or understanding what I was doing.  My long and tortuous trail can be found here.

While on this journey, I have accreted a few things that I hope will serve me well.

My own set of questions:


1.  What is the problem??  Sometimes just formulating the question is enough to see the solution, or puts the topic into perspective and makes it non-interesting.  Formulating the problem statement can be an iterative process where constant refining reveals the essence of the problem.

2.  Why is it important??  The world is full of questions.  Some are important, others are less so.  Everyone has the same number of hours per day, so you have to choose which questions are important in order to maximize your return on the time you spend.

3.  What have others done to try and solve the problem??  If the problem is good and worthy, then take a page from Newton and see what others have done about the problem.  It may be that they have solved the problem and you just hadn't been able to spend the time trying to find an existing solution.  If they haven't solved the problem, then you might be able to say (as Newton is want to say) "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

4.  What will I do to solve the problem??  If no one has solved the problem, then how will you attack it??  How will your approach be different or better than everything done  by everyone else??

5.  What did I do to prove I solved the problem??  How to show that your approach really solved the problem??

6.  What is the conclusion??  After you have labored long and hard on a problem, what do you do with the knowledge you have created??

Be an active reader.

Read everything closely to ensure that I understand what the author was (and was not) saying.  Making notes in the margins on what has been written.  Noting the good, the bad, and the ugly.  If it is important enough, track down the author and speak to them about the ideas and thoughts they had written.  Imagine if you will, receiving a call from a total stranger about something that you've published a few years before.  It means that someone has read your stuff, has questions about it, and that it was important enough to talk directly to you.  How would you feel if that happened to you??  I've made those calls and you can almost feel the excitement radiating through the phone.

Understand all the data you collect.

In keeping with Issac Asimov's view on data: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'"  When we conduct experiments, we collect data of some sort.  Be that memento temporal coverage, public digital longevity, digital usage patterns, data of all sorts and types.  Then we analyze the data, and try to glean a deeper understanding.  Watch for the outliers, the data that "looks funny" have additional things to say.

Everyone has stories to tell.  

Our stories are the threads of the fabric of our lives.  Revel in stories from other people.  Those stories they choose to share, are an intimate part of what makes them who they are.  Treat their stories with care and reverence, and they will treat yours the same way.

Don't be afraid to go where others have not.  

 During our apprenticeship, all our training and work point us to new and uncharted territories.  To wit:
"...
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
(The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost)

Remember through it all;


The highs are incredible, the lows will crush your soul, others have survived, and that you are not alone.

And in the end,

"So...
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"
(Oh, the Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Seuss)





With great fondness and affection,

Chuck Cartledge
The III. A rapscallion.  A husband.  A father.  A USN CAPT.  A PhD.  A simple man.








Thanks to Sawood Alam, Mat Kelly, and Hany SalahEldeen for their comments and review of "my 6 questions."  They were appreciated and incorporated.

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