April 29, 2009

how far down the rabbit hole should i go?

based on some discussion w/ivan while he was visiting last week, i've got a question for anyone that is reading this:
how technical is too technical?
my initial motivation for this series and topic was to take events and thought processes that i have and make them more manageable for rachel, as well as to incite other people to wrangle or at least think about questions and problems that occupy me.

here comes the rub:
  • the questions can be very intriguing, but the real juicy stuff is a little further down
  • diving too deeply in the actual solutions or directions that i bring up can easily alienate whole sections of the audience (lol, no one reads this anyways.)
  • there are times when i actually don't know that much about the topic space and would have to do a lot of work to actually provide something meaningful besides more questions
  • the whole point is to ask more and more questions and then try to reason your way out of holes when someone gets an answer.
let me know-


  1. I think that the technical vs. non-technical distinction is not precise enough. Perhaps a better dichotomy might be formal vs. informal. To apply math you need formalisms, but to solve the problem you don't need formalisms at all. For example, common intuition might suffice in solving the problem as it may provide a heuristic which then can me shown to coincide with the mathematical argument.

    Another useful way of considering this is whether the problem needs to be at all motivated by a real-life example that can be understood by many. Packing a u-haul is a good one. Packing asteroids in the belt of Jupiter is a little more niche. Packing hyper-spheres into a hyper-cube is much too removed.

    Are there other dimensions along which it is useful to classify these sorts of problems? I'm betting there are a bunch more that we can consider.

  2. juliaseid22:15

    I would like to suggest that perhaps you are too narrowly limiting your scope to problems with mathematical solutions. As someone who is more oriented towards problems of cognitive science and the social sciences, I think there is probably a way to define the type of issue that constitutes an IGM to include a broader range of disciplines, while retaining the essence of the moment. I don't think that just because I haven't extensively studied math or computer science I can't be a geek - there are undoubtedly moments where I make extremely esoteric leaps to tangents related to academic theories of one kind or another that intuitively seem like they could qualify. For example:

    I recently found out that a friend of mine always listens to Bach's Goldberg Variations while studying. Including myself, she is the third person I've known to rely on this specific piece of music for studying. I suspect there aren't many people who choose to always study to Beethoven's Ninth or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. This lead me to wonder what it is about Baroque music in general, variations on a theme in particular, and this piece specifically that might stimulate particular types of cognitive function. What's interesting is I think it is essentially a musical form of the cognitive process of elaboration - I'm thinking it is probably the type of Western Art Music that most closely follows the patterns of higher order cognitive function. Romantic and Modern music are not appealing to your pre-frontal cortex, they're appealing to your emotional processing centers and your aesthetic instincts over your sense of order and iteration. Additionally, might Mozart be more effective with young children and adolescents because the Classical period helps bridge the gap between Baroque and Romantic? Perhaps it mimics the paradigm shift towards formal operational thinking?

    Anyway, point being I think this could illustrate a different dimension for classifying inner geek moments that would enable non-CS/math types to contribute, if such a thing were of interest...

  3. Can I reply to this over a month late? I think I will.

    Speaking as a qualitative researcher myself, I empathize somewhat with Julia here. If the focus is going to be on math/CS problems, whether it's for asteroids or U-Hauls, you're only going to reach a particular slice of geekdom. (Though I admit you're more likely to get me to dust off my calculator for the problem that's closer to something I'd encounter in my own daily life.) That said, there's nothing wrong with targeting a niche within a niche—there's still a potential readership there.

    Whatever the case, if these are INNER geek moments that we just get to peek at, I say, go at it however makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.