The dangers of breadth-first search (or Tom, here’s that entry you wanted)

Hey Tom,

You said you’d write for this blog if I penned an entry asking you to write; well, here it is: I’m calling you out.

Joel and I decided to start an epistolary blog a few years back as a way to continue sharing random ideas and facts with each other after I moved away from Madison. Joel came up with the title and URL — breadth-first, after breadth-first search, because we both tend to skim from topic to topic, preferring to learn nothing about everything to learning everything about nothing. That works pretty well for math-y topics, but it’s dangerous when it comes to arts-y things, or even the social sciences, especially for someone coming from a hard science background.

We humans are good at recognizing patterns; in math, when you explore what seems like it might be a tenuous connection between two things which may or may not be related, you’ll often find a deep fundamental connection. Unfortunately, superficial connections are easy to find, too, and the signal-to-noise gets higher the farther you move from pure math: witness all the people who think their system will let them predict the stock market, horse races, or even future events. Closer to home, look at Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters essay. It’s a slick, well-written essay that’s convincing to hackers, but the moment he posted it, a number of painters responded, saying he didn’t know anything about painting, that there’s no connection at all between hacking and painting, and that the fortune-teller-vague connection he was drawing could be made to anything. More recently, the same thing happened when Joel Spolsky blogged about technical jobs vs. the star system Hollywood: within hours, people who were actually familiar with the star system responded, saying Joel has no idea what he’s talking about.

So why start a blog with a broken premise? Freewheeling conversations where you draw connections between disparate topics are fun, even if they’re ultimately flawed, and if someone comes along and completely refutes what we wrote, so much the better. Learning something new is worthwhile. But now that my co-blogger has gone silent, I feel a bit ridiculous writing on random topics I know nothing about. With the division of labor in the blogosphere, there are experts in the field writing on any particular topic, so who am I to write anything about anything?

I was just watching the Marx Brothers, which made me think of Aristophanes. Don’t you think Horse Feathers : The Clouds :: Duck Soup : Lysistrata :: A Night at the Opera : The Frogs? That’s the sort of thing I’d bring up in casual conversation, or write about in an epistolary-style blog. But, no doubt there’s some classics Ph.D. out there who’s a rabid Marx Brothers fan, someone who’s watched their films countless times, teasing out the connections between every theme, doing an Empsonesque close reading of every shot, every take, every line, so what makes me think I’m qualified write about it? Now that this has become a solitary blog, it feels narcissistic to write hundreds of words on something I know so little about.

Here are some other things I’ve thought about this weekend but haven’t written up, for the same reason: the connection between Zecharias Frankel, Solomon Schechter, and Reform Judiasm, and prescriptivism vs descriptivism in linguistics; doing philosophy in CS terms (Rawls = worst-case analysis, the philosophy 101 caricature of utilitarianism is average-case analysis, so what does Spielman’s smoothed analysis looked like in philosophical terms?); and applying Elinor Ostrom’s work to software engineering. If you want to start writing, perhaps we could turn the blog back that way.

Another direction would be to write things that are actually informative. You have decades of experience writing assembly and microcode. Surely you’ve got some curmudgeonly advice for us whippersnappers who think you can do everything in a language like Scala, perhaps using macros or some other code generation framework when we really need to dip into assembly.

If that’s not explicit enough for you, how about writing up reviews of the Teaching Company courses you listen to during your commute? You’ve never steered me wrong, but things have been hit-or-miss when I’ve selected courses at random. The reviews wouldn’t have to be very long, even short blurbs, like these, would be useful. I just got through listening to Erickson’s Philosophy as a Guide to Living, which was a total waste of time. The man speaks so slowly that I had to crank my player up to 4x speed to avoid falling alseep, and even then, the information throughput was still zero. 4 x 0 = 0. He has three lectures on Kant, but never goes deeper than saying things like “Kant says if you assume X, you get a contradiction, and if you assume not X, you get a contradiction, so there’s a fundamental problem”, without ever explaining where the contradictions arise; it’s just a laundry list of facts. He summarizes Plato by saying that Plato was concerned with getting out of the cave. That’s it. If you’re already familiar with Plato, you’ll know what he’s referring to and learn nothing new, and if not, the reference to the cave will be meaningless. Why even bring it up? My experience has been that about half of all TC courses are as pedagogically worthless as this one. I’ve gotten bits and pieces of reviews from you scattered across perhaps five different emails, plus another twenty or thirty recommendations and anti-recommendations that you’ve mentioned in person (that I’ve completely forgotten). I would love it if you could write-up one review of all the great courses that are worth listening to on my commute.

P.S. If you want an alternative to Erickson’s TC course, Adrian Moore does a better job of explaining Kant in a fifteen minute podcast than Erickson does in his three half-hour lectures.

The dangers of breadth-first search (or Tom, here’s that entry you wanted)