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carrying an idea through - Vivek Nallur

Nov. 11th, 2011

03:45 pm - carrying an idea through

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There have been numerous instances when I've had ideas that, I think, would've helped people. Rarely have I ever carried them through. From impracticability to sheer laziness, there has always been some excuse, not to go the extra mile. This once, however, I did push it through. The results predictably, have been less spectacular than I envisioned, but there's a feeling of stillness and calm, that's quite nice.

I've always had this feeling that Computer Scientists work in a bubble. Although computational techniques have made it out to the general scientific world, we, the actual practitioners, don't spend enough time listening to people who apply our research/techniques. There are researchers out there, that apply search techniques/agent-based modelling/neural networks/image processing algorithms to real problems in their domain. However, if they get stuck or need help choosing between three competing algorithms or (worse) work out which technique to avoid, they have no one to turn to. Save a chance meeting in a pub, or with a mutual friend, they have no way of asking a Computer Scientist for help.

I thought it would be nice if Computer Scientists, who borrowed all of their really cool problems from other domains, sat down in a room and invited researchers from other domains to talk about their computational problems. A 2-3 hr event would suffice, with 10-15 minute talks each. The amount of infrastructure needed for this is a room, a projector and some tea/biscuits! So I wrote it up as a one-page proposal to a something-or-the-other funding committee, and secured funding for poster-printing costs and tea for 30 people!

Of course, once it got approved, I was left holding a promise that I had to keep. Worked though getting posters, sticking them up on various walls in various departments, inviting people to talk, etc. The worst bit was getting Computer Scientists to sign on. Unfortunately, the event clashed with a faculty interview day, so most of the senior faculty couldn't legitimately turn up. What really disappointed me was that, barring about 4 friends whom I had personally talked to about the day, none of the PhD students or postdocs or junior faculty turned up! Most couldn't see any benefit in helping someone else!

Now, if it weren't for these friends who did turn up, the whole event would've been an embarrassing flop. As it turned out, they were probably just the right people for the event. Open to listening and making others feel at ease, they did manage to give pointers and make suggestions to the presenters.

Asking for help, even when one is invited to, is a difficult process. Not only does one have to translate one domain vocabulary into another, but one also has to overcome the hesitation involved in exposing one's ignorance. It it this that many in CS fail to appreciate. My faith in my own department is a little lesser now.

I don't feel bad for having organized an event, that depended on the kindness of others (in some sense). But I don't feel great either. I guess, this is good learning for when I carry through my next idea.