17 March, 2007

An urge to create

It's Spring Break at the university. (Don't get me started on that word "Spring" again.) Two Thursdays ago just so happened to be International Woman's Day. That's the sort of thing you learn about when you're married to someone whose native country didn't have either Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, so they went with something else instead.

I was teaching Algebra that afternoon, and when I wrote the date on the board, I remembered the occasion, so I made some remark about it, and that I had to think of something to do for my wife. One of my students asked me if being married to such a woman meant that I was off the hook for Valentine's Day. Oh no, I said, I'm obliged on that day, too. Someone else asked me what I did for my wife.

This is where I bungled matters, and did something stupid. I told the truth. I made her a shoe rack.

You did what? my students asked.

I made her a shoe rack. I tried to explain. She had been saying for a while that she wanted a shoe rack, so I made one.

You made her a shoe rack? one of my students exclaimed in disbelief.

Clueless as usual, I thought the disbelief was rooted in the notion that I might be able to do something like make a shoe rack. Yeah, it's not that hard, I mused. I bought some wood, sawed it—picture me making a sawing motion with one hand and holding a piece of chalk in the other—then I screwed the pieces together and stained it.

Not wanting to waste too much time on this, I turned to the board and began to discuss ring homomorphisms. It took me a few hours before I realized what an impression I must have made on my students. The disbelief wasn't at the fact that I could make a shoe rack; it was that I considered a shoe rack a Valentine's Day gift.

Worse, I realized that they have a point. A shoe rack doesn't make for the most romantic Valentine's Day gift.

Such considerations aside, the shoe rack is both attractive and functional. Our shoes used to lie in disarray next to the entryway, but now they sit nicely arrayed on the shoe rack. It's amazing what a rank amateur can do with a few 2x4's, a can a water-based polyurethane stain, and some screw-in braces. My only complaint is that Someone keeps putting his (and sometimes her) shoes in the place reserved for my sandals.

I also want to put together a bookcase and one of those working tables that you can use to write in bed. (What are those things called? I can never remember.) I've been scheming about these for a couple of weeks now, and I've figured out how to cut up a rectangular panel in just the right way to make the table. I told my wife, and she observed that lately I have an urge to create.

All this comes to mind because when I sat down at the computer, I was reminded that I want to write (in Java, most likely) a soccer game for the computer. It was one of those memories that, like an old acquaintance with whom you were never all that friendly, wanders into one's mind on occasion, says a brief greeting, chats a while, then wanders off again.

Trouble is, I'd like to get more friendly with this acquaintance. Last year, just before moving to Mississippi, I wrote a maze game for my son. This was prompted by his asking me some months before if I could really write computer programs, and if so, would I write a maze game for him. It was nothing special, just a two-dimensional randomized maze where you saw only a small section of the maze at a time, and tried to find your way out. I even developed a new maze-generation algorithm for it. (I developed two, actually, but I realized later that the first one was already well-known. It's known as the binary tree algorithm.) He played with it for a while before he lost interest.

A basic soccer game shouldn't be too hard, either, assuming you don't demand fancy graphics, network play, even a very sophisticated AI for the opponent. Alright, I'm setting the bar rather low. I'd like to try it one day, maybe this weekend! But even with the bar set that low, it will take a long time to write program. It always takes longer than you expect from the outset, especially if it's a language or a class of program to which you're not accustomed. My son noticed how long it took me to write a simple maze game, and I think he lost interest in programming for ever. So much for inspiring him. :-(

I've been creating this week at work, too. Part of my focus has been another computer program I'm writing to implement a famous algorithm that computes the mathematical objects I study. Case in point: it's been more difficult to code this than I expected. I'm writing it from pseudocode, which is basically a detailed outline of what has to be done. Despite the detail, pseudocode is still just an outline, so I have to fill in quite a few gaps. The computer scientist who drew up the pseudocode actually did a nice job; he based it on a paper that is somewhat more difficult to parse.

The point of this program was to address a question that arose while I was writing another paper, my other big goal for this past week. I've almost finished it, but the finish is the hard part. Consider the shoe rack, for example. I spent a lot of time sanding the wood before I applied the stain, and then I spent a lot of time applying the stain. Some things take time and patience if you want to do them right. I have a hard time maintaining the patience; I almost gave up on the program Thursday evening, not realizing that I was nearly finished! My son isn't too patient either, but you can't blame him; he's only ten. While I was sawing the would, he asked me why we couldn't just go out and buy a shoe rack. You can't put a price on some things, I told him.

I was stealing blatantly from the father in Calvin and Hobbes. With a father like me, my son will grow up with all kinds of complexes that he will unload on a therapist one day. I might as well make it easy for him to distill his existential anguish into succinct quotes; that way the therapy will go more quickly and hopefully cost him less.

Anyway, I didn't finish either the program or the paper, let alone finish grading the tests that I was sure I'd grade handily. So of course I didn't even think about the soccer game I want to program until tonight, nor about a poem I'd like to write for my wife, which is really what I wanted to give her for Valentine's Day, and after Valentine's Day passed I thought I might write her one for International Woman's Day, and now that's gone so who knows what occasion it will have to wait for. I don't think I can even write it in time for her birthday, a few months down the road.

Yeah, I sometimes write love poetry, too. It's awful. Really! After reading the last one, my wife walked up to me with a big smile on her face that said, "It's all I can do not to laugh." She was tactful about it, saying something to the effect of, Так (So), should I discuss with you its literary merits, or accept it simply for what it represents in your heart? Nothing says "Keep your day job" quite like your wife's joking about the quality of your poetry, or rather the lack thereof. Ah, well. When you're competing with the likes of Pushkin, you're not exactly on a level playing field.

Anyway, maybe I'll get around to doing all of these things. Certainly the math stuff will get done in due course. The others may follow... one day. There are so many chores that have to be done first. We have to mow the lawn; we have to paint the outside of the house (an undertaking in itself); the fire ants haven't quite disappeared yet; and so on and so forth. Man is blessed with the urge to create new things, but as the tasks pile up and the dreams seem to grow more distant rather than less, this blessing can seem like a curse. Perhaps we'll find the time to do all these things in paradise, but even then I doubt we'll run out of things we want to create.


Clemens said...

A confession: I didn't do anything for my wife on Valentine's Day! So you actually did a lot. But I have promised myself to pick a day at random, buy some flowers, and take her to dinner.

And, after plowing through essay questions by bored 18 year olds trying to explain some turning point in history, I sometimes day dream of being a math professor - the answer is either '42' or it isn't.

The grass is always greener.

jack perry said...

...the answer is either '42' or it isn't.

Have you seen that Doonesbury comic on grade inflation at Walden University, have you? "It's even beginning to affect the math department now." Some of my students' previous teachers were obviously of that mold.