Monday, April 06, 2009

The quest for "Interesting"

I've been on a quest recently to find "Interesting Things". It struck me a few weeks ago while having a dialog with my daughter, Stacey, that things don't have to be perfect to grab your attention and to be found good, fun, readable, watchable, edible, engaging,... interesting.

Edible? Yes. For example, I watched a few episodes of Sam Zien's "Just Cook This!"[1], and noticed that he uses salsa or something salsa-like in many recipes. I decided to improvise a tortilla soup based loosely on his recipe, but with whatever I happened to have in the pantry at the time. I had a can of chicken noodle soup, a jar of salsa, a loaf of wheat bread, some chicken cold-cuts, and some shredded "Mexican" cheese. Declaring that was close enough, I set about heating the soup, dumping in the jar of salsa, and threw a couple slices of bread in the toaster. While the soup got hot, I shredded up some chicken and dropped it in, and stirred the whole mess for a few minutes. Last, I quartered the toast in a pair of bowls, poured the hot soup over it, and topped with the shredded cheese, which melted in short order.

The result? Fantastic! I could see where crisped tortillas would have been better than toast, and chicken stock better than condensed soup. The whole thing was imperfect, but it was what I had, it was fun, and it was just right. It took 5 minutes to throw together, and Stacey and I each enjoyed a bowl together on the couch, watching TV and chatting. It was a nice moment, and the interestingness of the food was the glue that held the scene together. It reminded us of the less healthy concoctions I threw together in the past (back in my 3000+ Calorie days), most involving nothing more than a starch, a meat, some fat, seasoning, maybe some canned veggies on top, maybe not. Whatever was around. E.g., rice and ground beef with shredded cheddar and taco seasoning. Yummeh! ("Yummy" with a subtle accent change to denote part sarcasm, part fond memory -- it's all in the inflection, if you heard me say it, you'd understand.)

What else has been interesting lately? Re-learning some math. John Conway's "Book of Numbers"[2] was a great place to start, showing the fun of integer sequences and how complex things like combinitorics, dividing factorials, and even the Fibonacci sequence all show up in something as basic as Pascal's Triangle. It's tinkering with numbers, not rote calculation and intractable, evasive equations meant to look complicated -- you know, the ones they always show in movies where math is mentioned, and the savant looks off into space while CGI equations get tossed around and highlighted. That's bunk, and completely uninteresting. It's mathematical namedropping, equations as a cult of personality. Boring. The Book of Numbers, contrastly, is interesting as hell. It helped me to rediscover some of the joy I had in school when I would figure out something new.

A quick anecdote: In my 6th grade math class, we had a unit on fractions, and one of the lessons was on how to compare them by determining the lowest common denominator and converting the fractions. Tedious, boring. After tinkering with the concept for a few minutes (yes, a few minutes, and no, I'm not bragging, it was just curiosity and experimenting to unlock an easy concept waiting to come out of the numbers) I discovered cross-multiplication. The teacher had never heard of it. I struggled to explain the concept, while the teacher struggled to "get back on track", to get back to the printed nonsensical boredom of the textbook. Her interest and her college degree was in "teaching", not in what was being taught, which she had only modest understanding of. What a shame. All the young, spongy minds in the class would have been able to soak things up quickly and eagerly, but instead were sat in front of someone not inspired by what she was teaching, all book, all formula. Just parotting what the book said and writing legibly on the chalkboard. Had I not had the stressors in life that urged me to explore, I may have wasted away into stupidity because of teachers like this.

And for those unfamiliar, here's cross-multiplication, as shown by a simple gif:

Get it? If not, and it's interesting, then work it out. You'll get it soon enough. If it's not interesting, screw it. Get on with life and find something that is interesting!

So the main thing I do in my search of things interesting is to browse the web: looking for new books on Amazon or the local library, playing flash games, watching Youtube, reading odd news stories, web comics, and frequenting a variety of blogs. Some are brainy, like, which covers word usage, etymology, translation woes, and Russian novels; some are political, like Shisaku, which discusses how apparently corrupt the Japanese government is (and who comically refers to his writing as "marginalia", showing great wit and a masterful command of English); some are from friends, like the journal and ramblings of an OSU professor who was my best friend in high school, and an ex-roommate who talks about his experiences with the kids he adopted from China.

I find them all enjoyable, and I want to share a very small portion of two of them with you in the form of individual sentences from the blogs. They require no setup, and you may be able to deduce exactly what the context is of the entire post based on them. The first is from Cognitive Daily[3]:

"Amateur fighter pilot ignores orders, listens to the voices in his head and slaughters thousands"

Get it? If that doesn't jump right out at you, then maybe you're not as big a geek as you think you are... or maybe it's been too long since you last saw it. And with those two hints, how about now? Still don't get it? The reference is in the footnotes below.

The next is from my future brother-in-law's new blog, "Eric Gotta Teach"[4]. He quickly found a good voice with his writing, and we're on the same wavelength on most things, and in spite of... nay, because of his off-color perspective and offensive comments on all things, I find his stories the most entertaining of all. And while we're throwing around superlatives, his blog is the single most vulgar thing I read, and despite my history of keeping my own writing clean...ish, I feel unapologetic about just how many evil grins his blog brings out in me.

Here's the quote, and it should require no set up.

"Tell your mom thanks a lot," she said, and tossed the apple directly into the trash can.

Yes, it's exactly what you think, and she was really that horrible. If, for whatever reason, the setting and players aren't obvious, another footnote below links to the blog entry.

The sentences I'm quoting are the choice elements that the entire entries reduce to. They imply the entire setup that led to them, and are the words that stick with you when you reflect on the entries later. Is there some sort of reductionism science behind my bold proclamation? No, I just find it interesting how those sentences stick out, and how they could only fit well in the stories they are in.

Here's a sentence I wrote today, in my favorite language, perl, that has the same qualities. It implies the problems that led up to it, and an expressive solution condensed to a small line of code. It goes thusly:

perl -ne '$cnt++ if /^01/;print if $cnt<2;print STDERR if $cnt>=2' file >new 2>old

First, I'm running the perl interpreter from the command line, hence the opening "perl". The "-ne" switch iterates through each line of the input file and runs all the commands that follow (everything surrounded in single quotes) on each line. The input file is "file" (not really, but the real filename may expose company confidential information, and, as much as I like you, I'd rather not get fired for the sake of telling you a story), standard output has been redirected to the file "new", standard error has been redirected to the file "old". A basic knowledge of Unix or Linux would make all that obvious. The interesting part is what's in the quotes.

If a line starts with "01", a counter variable is incremented. If the counter is 0 or 1, the line gets printed to standard output, the default. It the counter is 2 or more, the line is printed to standard error.

The result is that if a file has two sets of data that are delimited by lines beginning with "01", this will cleanly split them into two separate files. This was necessary to do at work today as the final fallout/cleanup of system woes we had since my first day back from vacation. We had to make emergency moves of processes to an alternate server, and many manual interventions to move critical files around. This netted us this morning with a file containing two days worth of banking data, which choked when the database import process ran. The files needed to be split, and, under the gun, I came up with a one-line routine to do just that. Sure, it was elegant and smart and all that, but the interesting part was that if you work here, and know our systems, and know perl, (and could see the real file name) you could see my command and deduce what must have happened that made it necessary. It was the entire situation reduced.

In other news... No, no other news. Here's some footnotes instead:

1 - Just Cook This! He's a big goofball, which is part of the appeal. Wikipedia says he had some sort of freakout on the Today Show about being interrupted too much by the hosts, which sounds funny. I'll have to check that out.

2 - The Book of Numbers

3 - Cognitive Daily
The reference is from a sample of answers to the question "How does Star Wars end?" Another quote from the same page humorously references "Triumph of the Will".

4 - Eric Gotta Teach

1 comment:

  1. Hey! I got a shout out! I enjoyed the Star Wars reference. I like the idea of an entire experience being distilled down to one crucial line of prose. The idea that you can infer the entirety of my story just from that one sentence is unique, surprising, and fascinating.
    Also, as a regular kitchen tinkerer, I find your salsa soup inspirational.