Saturday, June 27, 2009

Buttons and Pushing Thereof

“You download the software,” she said, looking entirely befuddled by the question raised after her presentation. “And you put in the data and push the button.”

“Right,” he said, looking around at us in what I suppose was a plea for greater understanding since he was getting little from the podium. “But have you thought of these confounds or considered those alternate approaches?”

“You push the button,” she insisted, looking rather annoyed and sending me into a fit of barely-suppressed giggles. I hid behind my notebook, peeking over the top of the pages to continue to watch their exchange after a talk that had been wildly simplified. It was clear she was using a technique she didn’t understand and her results were naturally a bit difficult to interpret because of that.

Another brave soul rose to help the first questioner, trying to restate the areas of confusion and offer suggestions on how they might be addressed. The speaker, who spoke flawless English (because language barriers are frustrating and sucky – I feel sympathy rather than amusement in those situations), looked increasingly frustrated with both men at the microphone and returned to a slide she’d shown previously.

I got up to scamper from the room, choking on laughter, when she used the laser pointer to circle the button insistently. “It’s right here,” she seethed. “The button on the bottom left!”

Because I am that sort of person, I have taken to using “push the button,” phrase whenever someone gives a talk or offers a response that makes it clear he or she has no flipping clue as to what happens after the magical program takes the data and generates some nifty result. Then – because I am also that sort of person – I have a moment of haughty superiority that I rather enjoy. Well, rather I did enjoy it.

I am, in my spare time, writing another chapter for a textbook. When given a topic where no approach has received full approval, I decided to cover the three likely suspects and take sections of chapters and papers I’d written before to get a basic outline going.

After throwing a bunch of text together in a giant document, I realized a year away from actually dealing with these algorithms has given me a nice amount of perspective. I’ve happily (if distractedly) set about revising some text and abandoning some paragraphs as I take another shot at explaining concepts that have long been important to me. I’ve learned – largely through talking to a variety of people in my current role and understanding that technical expertise varies widely even among very intelligent people – that adding simple pictures rather than just clinical examples can be helpful.

I came up with a simple concept when I was flying back from California, half-asleep as I curled up in my window seat. I began putting together a figure for the best methodology (which just so happens to be the one I’ve used personally) and nodded in immodest satisfaction at how well it worked to explain the concept.

I thought through the second concept I was to cover and decided my examples would work equally well for a graphical representation. But then I realized I couldn’t form a mental sketch of how that third method would appear.

“No,” I said out loud, refusing to believe such a thing. So I found a sheet of paper and clicked the end of a pen while I drew the beginning of my little example and then stared at the remainder of the page, having no idea what to draw.

“So you take the data,” I decided to talk out loud, watching Chienne and Sprout turn toward me to listen. “And then, well,” I paused, scrunching up my face so I could think very hard. “There are equations. And, you know, some rules.” My pets did not appear convinced and I shrugged at them rather sheepishly.

“I push the button,” I finally admitted. “I’ll just tell people it’s on the bottom left of the screen.”

2 comments:

rpg said...

Now this is the kind of post that brightens up my Sunday morning.

DocE said...

Ok, so I'm having a bit of a doctoral program/dissertation meltdown related to data analysis and this story made me laugh until I cried... and I needed a good cry so thank you!

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