Wednesday, April 21, 2010

PSO: What makes a classic?

[Originally posted at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: Outside Perspectives]

Two pieces. One was first performed even before it was fully written, with the composer partly filling in the parts as he played. The other solid in style, but had the misfortune of opening alongside a piece that incited great and vigorous argument, and therefore went into obscurity. Clearly the outcomes are not related to the work and effort that went into them, but somewhere there is something else.

I have two students who are presenting their plans for their ongoing efforts this week. Both are engaged in a creative work, building on what has been done before, moving in directions that are unknown. Along the way they will be questioned, their beliefs and assumptions challenged, their thinking sharpened. And both do so with hopes that they are building something of enduring value (in addition to completing a project!)

But realistically, not everything is of such value. Looking at concert music, it is almost unfair comparing pieces from centuries past to music from the past century. But it is not because of the composer, but the mere fact that pieces are still played means they survived and were found worthy of remaining a part of the repertoire, while younger pieces have not finished this winnowing process. And with my students (and myself for that matter), it is not just the effort that goes into the work, but the many decisions and choices of those who come next, when they consider what is worth commenting on, and worth building upon, that will ultimately determine any enduring value in what we create.

But does that mean that the work is only of value because it is known or because others build upon it? In a sense, because what we are doing is a creative work, its value will be in part how it effects conversation in our field (measured by people choosing to react to it and build up on it or take it in new directions.) But there is more. Henri Poincare wrote about what scientists study. It is not just that the study of our world is useful (although it is), but what we study is beautiful, and in that captures our attention, and rewards us for efforts beyond the remuneration we receive. And I'm looking forward to the years to come, that they may be devoted to efforts that I can say that I delight in them, and uncover both the beautiful and useful, whether enduring or obscure.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

PSO: Avalanches and pebbles

[Originally posted at the Pittsburgh Symphony: Outside Perspectives]

Listening to Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 made me think of the tides of history. The movements started with transparent motifs that made one think of someone exploring life and his world. But each movement soon descended into a deep foreboding mass of power and force, making the initial moments of carefree joy meaningless.

When I was younger, it was easy to think that the world moved on its own, and there was nothing you could do to influence events, or even your own fate. It was easy to think that everything was chance. In the TV show "Babylon 5", a significant quote is "The avalanche has started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote."

And now? Between me and my wife's family we have direct experience in three wars. Our stories sound like history books and newspaper stories. We have no illusions about personal impact on the course of history, but neither are we merely swept along with the tides. We see and notice how people are swayed, pulled by their fears, or resigned to insignificance by those who would scream the loudest. And for Prokofiev in Stalin's Soviet Union, where work done with the approval of one set of leaders would suddenly be denounced in another time, it would seem that way, a powerless man swept by the tides of history, subject to its whims and caprices.

But, as statistician/political scientist/artist Edward Tufte remarked just yesterday here in Pittsburgh, we do not live in that kind of place or that kind of time. We live in a place and time that allows us to make choices, take risks and adapt to our changing world instead of only following the herd. And as we do so we can bear the cost, reap the rewards. And live other then as sheep who follow where those play on our fears would lead us. For all its cost, we recognise there is no other place like that on this earth, and we rejoice in it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Edward Tufte: An Academic and Otherwise Life An n=1

Edward R. Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Carnegie Mellon University has a lecture series "Journeys" where the speaker (usually a CMU professor) talks about what is important in life. A famous example of this was Randy Pausch's talk that was played in various forms (and also presented on Oprah) as well as turned into a book. Edward Tufte is best known for work on presenting data. He gave a talk yesterday about data presentation. Today's talk was on life. n=1 is an acknowledgement that these are observations based on a sample of 1, himself. With the statistician's view of how well you can generalize from that (not at all.)

His story is one of a polymath. His was an academic track. But while his degree is in statistics, his first academic job was political economy, and he has had positions in Political Science, statistics and computer science. And he is a "B-rate" artist (meaning he can get his work shown in B-rate galleries.) But this talk is advertised about being about academics.

One of his learning moments was the encouragement to do work of lasting value. He started out as a political economy, working on things very up to date, like results of the last (or next) election. Just like untold multitude's of junior political science professors. And the parallel in any field is to look for 'hot' topics. Which change like the wind. He says the reason he was able to jump from field to field was his ability to look at a field and identify what the key issues of the field were, and spend his time working on those. His point is that much of the academic world becomes focused on itself, on its own controversies and issues of the profession. So that he was always able to enter a field and distinguish himself by ignoring that and focusing on the knowledge of the subject itself.

There is a researcher working with us that I've been trying to give some advice. And one was telling him that one of the primary skills that should have been developed when he was getting his Ph.D. was the ability to identify what was important and what was trivial detail. Does this work? My grad students and the post-docs I work with have noticed that when I turn my attention to something, I learn and pick out the important details of papers and texts (in new areas) faster then they can. And I am reasonably good about telling them a few weeks in advance what they will need to know and be able to do down the line in our projects.

I think Tufte touches one of the reasons I was not that interested in academia. I was more interested in actual problems and issues, not so much in what an academic profession thought of as an issue. And in my exploration of academia, that is one thing that I bring to my host department, I probably deal with the messiness of the real data better then anyone else there. Tufte made the comment that it is instructive to observe how the data that you are using is collected, because they give you insight. In my case, some of the data sets I use have my name in the recorder block. Because I was the one writing the report at 2:00 in the morning. And I have to agree, that is useful knowledge. I hope that it is an advantage that I can make useful.