It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Eugene Wallingford talks about a great idea for a conference session:

At SIGCSE a couple of weeks ago, I attended an interesting pair of complementary panel sessions. I wrote about one, Ten Things I Wish They Would Have Told Me..., in near-real time. Its complement was a panel called "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time". Here, courageous instructors got up in front of a large room full of their peers to do what for many is unthinkable: tell everyone about an idea they had that failed in practice. When the currency of your profession is creating good ideas, telling everyone about one of your bad ideas is unusual. Telling everyone that you implemented your bad idea and watched it explode, well, that's where the courage comes in.

My favorite story from the panel was from the poor guy who turned his students loose writing Java mail agents -- on his small college's production network. He even showed a short video of one of the college's IT guys describing the effects of the experiment, in a perfect deadpan. Hilarious.

The linked positive panel had some good stuff in it, too, but I really like the idea of "It Seems Like a Good Idea at the Time." The beautiful thing about it is that it could apply to any area of activity: teaching, research, personal relationships, foreign policy. No matter what field you're in, you could make a fascinating panel discussion around the topic of things that seemed like brilliant plans, but just didn't work for one reason or another.

And as Eugene notes, you can learn a lot from seeing why an idea that seemed good failed. Often, you end up learning more from failed ideas that seemed promising than you do from ideas that work just like you expect.

So, what's your favorite example of something that seemed like a good idea at the time, that just didn't work out?

(This is the spot in the post where I ought to provide a funny anecdote about something I tried in the lab that failed miserably. Unfortunately, I was up half the night coughing, and while a pseudoephedrine bomb at 2 am enabled me to sleep through the other half of the night, it also nicely demonstrated why I didn't just take pills before I initially went to bed: my sinuses are mostly clear of gunk, but so is the rest of my skull. I made it through the morning lecture introducing electric fields on spinal reflex, but I can barely focus my eyes, let alone relate witty anecdotes.)

(So, you're on your own.)


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Drowsiness causing antihistamines (diphenhydramine, doxylamine, etc.) before going to sleep are great for coughs. Dextromethorphan, too. Ever since they pulled pseudoephedrine from the usual cold medicines and replaced it with that useless phenlyephrine crap, I've given up on the combo meds and just started buying all the ingredients separately.

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 04 Apr 2007 #permalink

Dammit, Aaron -- that's not an "It seemed like a good idea at the time" story!

Then again, I guess string theorists don't have many of those...

Well that's because, sadly, blowing things up rarely occurs in the life of a theoretical physicist. They don't even let us blow things up for the undergrads in lab anymore.

By Aaron Bergman (not verified) on 04 Apr 2007 #permalink

This is not exactly what you're looking for, but here goes anyway. In grad school we were investigating the effect of atmospheric temperature inversions on a telephone microwave transmission. We used a tethered balloon three or four feet in diameter. We unspooled the tether to go up, reeled it in again to go down. The line seemed to be getting a little fuzzy, so the tech with me decided to skim some of the fuzz off with his knife. Woops. There went the balloon, disappearing up into the early morning darkness. The people at the Atlanta airport were not happy to learn of a loose balloon trailing a tether in their traffic control pattern. Neither was my advisor. Fortunately the instrument package was returned after the balloon returned to earth. And there were no collisions with other airborne objects.

0) Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows bridge.
1) The Hunt brothers cornering the market on silver.
2) Drilling water wells in Bangladesh that weren't contaminated with cholera like surface waters.
3) Thallium in organic synthesis.
4) Western civilization fighting guerilla wars. Vernier scales haven't got a chance if the other side has excess population as an expendable resource.
5) Polywater, cold fusion, fuel from agricultural commodities, Enviro-whinerism, legislated morality, redistributed income, Head Start, diversity... Project Sanguine, Podkletnov, Space Scuttle, ISS FUBAR, string theory.

Compassion: an evolutionarily stupid act committed at others' expense. Intelligent tinkering neither loses the parts nor forgets how to return them to their original configuration.

Michael Salamon told me about his trip to Antarctica, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

If I mangle the anecdote, it's my fault, not his.

Anyway, this was after he'd done the Physics PhD at Berkeley, and worked on the Fly's Eye at U.Utah. It might have been some sort of early prototype of the Ting + 500 collaborators experiment that NASA recently decided not to fly in the Shuttle (after $1 Billion spent).

Anyway, it was a very sensitive piece of equipment, to be carried high aloft by balloon from Antarctica. It seemed like a good idea for Mike to accompany it, and make sure that it was always handled very very gently.

So there it was, in the padded cargo area, about to fly, with him in the cabin, to darned near the South Pole. But the cargo was somewhat over spec, too heavy, so the copilot or someone stopped taxiing, and went to remove a few things from the cargo, to pick up on the next flight.

One removed item was Mike's apparatus. The crewman disregarded the huge bright red "This side up! Extremely Fragile" signs and arrows, and carefully set the carton containg the apparatus down on the ice -- upside-down!

The data eventually recovered was not as high resolution as Michael Salamon had hoped. he thinks it was from the turnover on the ice. He later gave up his tenured Professorship at UU to joing NASA HQ. Seemed like a good idea at the time...

And, yes, the Space Shuttle seemed like a good idea at the time: when it was proposed as part of a triad of Space Shuttle to LEO, plus LEO to HEO or cislunar Manned OMV tug, plus reusable lunar-orbit to Moon to lunar orbit vehicle. Congress compromised: we got the smallest and least useful Shuttle by promising NOT to have the other 2/3 of the triad. Hence the IUS, on which I worked, but that's another story. And the Unmanned Shuttle retrofit.

The ISS was proposed and originally funded to have 5 functions. All 5 have been eliminated. (1) transportation node for equipment and people to higher orbit, Moon, Mars; (2) observe the Earth (but Republicans don't want to help the Gore agenda, to put it mildly); (3) observe the rest of the universe (but let's not fly that antinucleus detector already paid for and built -- imagine what it would mean toi detect a single anti-iron nucleus in cosmic rays!); (4) biomedical study of long term weightlessness (but scrap the centrifuge onboard); (5) commercialized microgravity. Oh, and I think Congress was told that the ISS would help cure cancer.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Heh, this is the prime example of why I can't teach.

Back when I was a second-year grad student, I had to teach
a bunch of liberal arts undergrads. After a few weeks, I could
tell there was a failure to communicate, and I reasoned that
although I may not be very clear with language, math is
perfectly clear. So I dramatically increased the amount of
math in what I was trying to explain... Oddly, that didn't work. :-)
For the rest of my graduate career, when I had TA jobs I arranged
to just do grading so that I'd never again have to communicate
with students.


Nothing personal about you, please understand, but wasn't that the teaching style of Theodore Kaczynski (born May 22, 1942), also known as the Unabomber, the American anarchist infamous for his campaign of mail bombings?

Wikipedia explains: "In 1962, Kaczynski graduated from Harvard. After graduation he attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, earning a master's degree and a Ph.D. in mathematics. Kaczynski began a research career at Michigan but made few friends. One of his professors at Michigan, George Piranian, said: "It is not enough to say he was smart." He earned his Ph.D. by solving, in less than a year, a math problem that Piranian had been unable to solve. Kaczynski's specialty was a branch of complex analysis known as geometric function theory.... In the fall of 1967 Kaczynski was hired as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. Kaczynski's aloofness and reserve made students rate him poorly...."

Sad to say, students have been experimentally shown to form their opinion of a new teacher in roughly one second. The way you dress, your body language, your tone of vopice, whether or not you make eye contact -- all these outweight your expertise in the subject area.

To a large extent, the majority of students want to be entertained. The entertainment industry long since absorbed what used to be the News industry. Now it has done the same to education.

This applies, in my opinion, in a majority of college teaching positions. Far more than half of all college classes in the USA are taught my TAs, temps, instructors, parttimes, and adjuncts. I have been these, and don't take that as an insult. But the students feel cheated by the system.

I happen to be a very entertaining lecturer. I've done it professionally, outside of schools, in the paid lecture circuit, the national TV business, and (sometimes membership fees waived) Science Fiction convention panel discussions, and so forth. I also know my subjects, but most students rate me highly on the human issues, and only a small minority say that they'd like more Math (or Astronomy, or Biology, or whatever) and fewer anecdotes, puns, improvisations about the news, capsule reviews of movies and concerts, and the other interstitials I throw in to keep them listening.

I also throw things around the room (any excuse to animate parabolas), show Leonardo da Vinci slides, and generally act like a hybrid of a rodeo clown and a Feynman impersonator. Except I'm no Feynman, acdemically, and no Alan Alda onstage!

One result is that the secretaries and Deans all here good things about me from students. And some of the "stiff" lecturers and disciplinarian deans complain.

I actually work very hard, many more hours than for what I'm paid, in preparation, homework assignment design, exam creation, and the like. But I want to have fun, I want the students to have fun, and I believe the two are correlated.

While I was an adjunct in Astronomy, the school hired a full-time lady who had her PhD is astrophysics from caltech. She knew the material better than I, spent more time preparing her lectures, and was way better looking than me.

But she didn't work out. There was not that personal chemistry, so hard to define, so obvious in action.

My wife is a better teacher than I, but reluctant to do goofy things in front of students. At a deep level, they respect her more than they respect me. But I make them laugh more often.

My technique is self-limiting, of course. It is my wife whom the faculty leadership encouraged to run for Dean of Faculty.

What superhero would make the best Dean? My wife!

A sensor to see when my wife and I were in bed... seemed like a good idea at the time.

In DIY home automation circles there is something called the WAF. It's the wife approval factor, and unlike many hobbies where the hobby mostly interacts with the hobbiest, (or maybe others at their discretion) home automation interacts with the wife whether she likes it or not. So, a WAF should be high for any given project.

In my quest to make a very energy efficient house I started putting sensors on everything; the windows so the AC would turn off if they were open, motion detectors so ceiling fans wouldn't stay on if people left, switched to do hard shut-offs of stand-by electronics, and many others. Given my wifes propensity to leave lights on, I came up with the idea of sensing how many people were in the bed and sending the house and all it's controllable features into sleep mode if we were actually sleeping.

So I bought some piezoelectric sensors and tied them into the network and wrote the appropriate code (so I thought) to enact sleep mode when the sensors showed enough weight in the bed. It seemed like a good idea. The problem of course, is that the sensors drifted like crazy and bugs in the code manifest themselves in the physical world. That included lights turning on and off in the middle of the night, the garage door opening and a neighbors dog getting trapped inside, the phone ringer shutting off all day, the AC turning off on hot Texas nights, and the stereo somehow turning on at 2am. I had no idea so many things could go wrong.

Mike: I don't intend this in a mean way, just a logical extrapolation way.

The good news is, you could know when your wife climbed into bed with someone -- regardless of whether or not you were that someone...

Hence your comment: "I had no idea so many things could go wrong" could have had more sinister interpretations.

This is like an episode of CSI. Woman climbs into bed with man. Lights turning on and off in the middle of the night, the garage door opens.

Second man arrives at the misbehaving house, unlocks door, climbs staircase, opens bedroom door, stares for a moment, pulls a gun, shoots the woman and the first man dead.

CSI arrives. "What happened here?" they ask...