An Interview with Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math/Bad Math

This time around, we're talking to Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math/Bad Math.

What's your name?
Mark Chu-Carroll

What do you do when you're not blogging?
Chase my children around.... (I've got a 6 year-old girl and a 3 1/2 year-old boy.) Cook. Chase my children some more. Make bizarrely elaborate paper airplanes. Shout at my children. Play Irish music on the wooden flute. Work. Break up fights between my children. Work. Suzuki violin with my daughter (my son isn't big enough yet). Collapse from exhaustion.

What is your blog called?
Good Math/Bad Math

What's up with that name?
When I first decided to start a blog, what I was planning on writing was mostly critiques of bad math. But the name "badmath" was already taken on blogger. And "Good Math, Bad Math" sounds better than "Bad Math, Good Math".

It's turned out to be a descriptive, if unimaginative, name for the blog: I try to write things that teach interested people about good math, and I mercilessly mock people who go about using bad math to support bad arguments. If I had realized that the blog was going to survive more than a week or two, I probably would have picked something more interesting, but by the time I realized that I was going to really keep at this, there were too many people used to the name.

How long have you been blogging, anyway?
About 7 months. I started after seeing a post on Orac's blog about a really bad paper on the link between autism rates and thimerasol in vaccines. Seeing that, I realized that while there were lots of blogs that debunked bad science, I didn't know of any that did the same thing with math. So I popped over to blogger, created one, and got started.

Where are you from and where do you live now?
I'm originally from central New Jersey, where I spent most of my childhood (all except for four years in rural Ohio). After college, I headed to Newark, Delaware (that's pronounced "New-Ark", not "New-work" like the city in NJ) for grad school. I now live in Dobbs Ferry, NY, right up the road from my mother's hometown of White Plains.

Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?
Working? Hmmm...

That's not an easy question for me. It's probably much harder for me to answer honestly than it would be for most of my fellow SBers.

I've got a very smart friend who's definition of a *real* scientist is: "Someone whose job is to do things that they don't know how to do until after they've done it." I love that definition!

If you really *know* what you're doing, know it down to the details to such a degree that you know exactly what every step is going to be, what every result along the way is going to be, and what you're going to have when you're done, then what you're doing isn't research. Research is about discovery, so it necessarily involves doing stuff that you don't know how to do until you do it.

For the last two years, I've been working on assignment to a product development group. So what I've been doing for the last couple of years is really more development than research. I do know what the
result is going to be; I don't know *exactly* how I'm going to get there, but I know where I'm going and what I'll have at the end. I'm definitely not doing something where I don't know what I'm doing.

So I'm not sure that, right now, it's really fair to call me a scientist. At the moment, it's probably more accurate to call me an experimental engineer. Maybe next year, after this project ends, I'll start doing something that I don't know how to do, and then I'll feel comfortable calling myself a working scientist.

Any educational experiences or degrees you'd like to mention?
I did my bachelors degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Academically, it was great; but overall, I can't recommend the school to people. The Rutgers faculty is *wonderful*, but the university as a whole is the most horrible bureaucratic monstrosity that you could possibly imagine. I graduated in 1990; I've *still* got administrators chasing me trying to get me to re-pay the university for a billing error during my junior year; I've already paid it twice, but the departments that's chasing me to get the money don't trust the departments that I paid it to! That kind of bureaucratic foolishness is ubiquitous at Rutgers, and it makes life miserable, in spite of the best efforts of the faculty.

I started out studying electrical engineering at Rutgers. But I was a *very* bad engineering student. The engineering approach, at least the way it's taught at Rutgers, is *totally* incompatible with the way my mind works. So I flunked out, and took a year off, before coming back to study computer science.

I did have some wonderful experiences at Rutgers. I need to mention three people in particular who were very special in making the academic part of my time at Rutgers so great.

First, I was fortunate enough to meet Professor Barbera Ryder, who's one of the very best people in the world at programming language compilation. Professor Ryder did a lot for me; she let me get involved in her graduate student reading group in my senior year, which had a lot of do with what I've ended up doing. She also helped me arrange a senior independent study, which leads directly to the second important person.

To advise me on the study, Professor Ryder introduced me to Professor Irving Rabinowitz. Irv is one of the nicest people in the world, and he advised me through my senior thesis. I learned a lot from Irv, about how to research, how to write, and how to teach. He also got me into grad school. Because of my unfortunate experience in the school of engineering, my transcripts had some very unpleasant parts. Irv arranged to be on the phone with the head of graduate admissions at both Rutgers and UD on the day they got my transcripts. He convinced both places to overlook the earliest parts of my transcript.

And finally, there's a real loon named J. T. Chirco. I worked at the help desk to make spending money; J. T. ran the lab on the campus where I worked. He also ran the computer classes for a really wonderful summer program for underprivileged high school kids, and drafted me as a teacher. That was my first experience teaching, and it's what convinced me that I wanted to get my PhD.

After Rutgers, I went to do my Ph.D. at the University of Delaware. UD is a fantastic school, and I loved just about every minute of my time there. Great people, beautiful campus, even the town was nice. I ended up working with Professor Lori Pollock, who's the world's best Ph. D. advisor. She's an amazing lady; she knew how to strike the perfect balance between pushing when I needed to be pushed, encouraging when I needed to be encouraged, and leaving me alone when I needed to spend some time working through a problem on my own.

What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?
In my field? Collaborative software development and programming languages. I'm fascinated by many different aspects of *how* people write programs: what the languages look like, and how they let programmers solve problems; and in particular, how people *work together in groups* to build large systems.

Outside my field? I'm fascinated by evolutionary biology, and I read as much as possible about it that's comprehensible to someone with my background.

The last book you read?
Fiction, The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach.

Nonfiction, I've been simultaneously reading The Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian (one successful batch of Stout so far, and I'll be working on some mead as soon as I collect enough bottles), Coming to Life by Andreas Eschbach (which I was supposed to review in August, but haven't found time to finish yet), and A New Kind of Science by Steven Wolfram.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
I really don't know. Yeah, that's a boring answer. But I'm really the kind of person who likes to take things as they come. I've never spent my time dreaming about what a perfect day would look like; my style is more like constantly running around, trying to keep my head above water, and trying to have as much fun as I can along the way.

What's your greatest habitual annoyance?
Politics. I *hate* the amount of time that I end up spending not on anything useful, but on the pointless bureaucracy and politicking of research. There's no way to avoid it; no matter where you go, industry or academia, there's just a huge amount of politics that eat time and energy.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Aragorn from Lord of the Rings; Vlad Taltos from Steven Brust's Dragaera series.

Your favorite heroes in real life?
Hard question... I'll assume you're asking about people who I idolize professionally. I'd have to say Alan Kay. Alan is the principal person behind the Smalltalk programming language. He's a brilliant, imaginative guy. I've met him in person several times, and he's amazing. Every time I hear him speak, I walk away positively inspired. One of the things that I find particularly remarkable about him is that he's never afraid to speak his mind. He says what he thinks, even when it's blunt and abrasive, even when it gets him in trouble. Combine that imagination, that vision, and that honesty, and you get pretty much exactly the kind of person that I *try* to be. I don't necessarily succeed particularly well, but he's the kind of person that I *want* to be.

What's your most marked characteristic?
I really don't know. Some people would say "arrogance". My wife would say my nose.

What's your principal defect?
Shyness. I'm cripplingly shy, and absolutely terrible in any social situation with people I don't know well. It's a fairly serious problem for someone who does research for a living: our reputation as researchers depends not just on the quality of our work, but on how well-known that work is. One of the main ways that work gets known in the community is by the involvement of the author in that community. I'm just dreadful at that, and as a result, my work isn't as well known as I might like it to be.

What quality do you admire most in a person?
Honesty. That's the number one thing.

Who are your favorite writers?
I've got a *lot* of favorite authors.

When I'm reading fiction, I tend to like either non-Tolkein ripoff fantasy or really good space opera. In the former category, my favorite by a wide margin is Steven Brust; in the latter, Alastair Reynolds.

Brust is just a magnificent writer. In a lot of modern fiction, it often seems like you've got writers who write beautiful prose but can't tell a decent story to save their lives (think China Mieville), or authors who write great stories but have absolutely no sense of *words* and how to put them together in anything but the most pedestrian way. Brust is one of the few that can do both: he never loses track of the fact that he's *telling a story*, and never does anything that would detract from his ability to tell the story. But while doing that, he can also put together words so beautifully that you just have to stop and let a phrase roll around your head for a while. For example, in his novel Yendi, there's this paragraph:

"The funniest thing about time is when it doesn't. I'll leave that hanging there for the moment, and let you age while the shadows don't lengthen, if you see what I mean. ...Now, while the Cycle doesn't turn, and the year doesn't fail, and the day gets neither brighter nor darker, we begin to see things with a new perspective."

That gives me chills every time I read it - it's just such a perfect bit of phrasing.

Reynolds doesn't have nearly the same knack for words, but I don't know of anyone in the science fiction world with Brust's knack for words. But Reynolds *does* have a fantastic imagination, he manages to put together terrific plots with interesting characters, *and* he even manages to stay *mostly* within the realm of real science.

In non-fiction, I'm very predictable. Read my blog for a day, and askyourself, "What book does this look like a pale imitation of?" If you're a computer science or math geek, you'll probably say, "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Brain. "That's my favorite work of non-fiction, and its author, Douglas Hofstadter, is my favorite non-fiction writer.

What would you like to be?
Pretty much what I am, only better :-). I love what I do for a living. I love being a CS researcher, and the particular area that I work in. The only things I'd really want to change are things that just make me better at doing what I do. I'd like to be a more social person, to be able to work more easily with other people.

I frequently swing back and forth on whether I'd rather be where I am as a researcher in industry, or whether I'd be happier as a professor. I really don't know where I'd be happier. So I *might* like to be a
professor, but I'm not sure.


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