Sunday, 23 April 2017

"No World Will Have You!"

A few months ago, I awoke in the middle of the night from a terrible nightmare.

In it, I was a boy, not more than ten years old. I was living in a place that was a mid-sized, rectangular room with a low roof and rounded corners. The light within was a dim green. I seemed to be living there with my mother. There was another woman who came to visit, and she seemed to be some kind of witch. The details are fuzzy, but she seemed to betray me with a trick, and then she said to me, "No world will have you!" I took that to mean that I was trapped within this room for the rest of my life. Although my mother would be able to come and go, and perhaps bring me food, I myself could never leave. It was a terrible, asphyxiating feeling, especially since the room had a low roof. I woke up after this, and found that I was having difficulty breathing.

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli. Asphyxiation nightmares are fairly common, I believe, especially among asthmatics.

It turned out that I was suffering from some kind of bronchitis. It was the unconscious experience of my laboured breathing in real life that generated the nightmare. I also seemed to be borrowing the experience I had as a ten year old holding his breath while underwater at the swimming pool, which would explain the constrained dimensions of the room, the rounded corners, and the dim, greenish lighting.

I can see how my boyhood memories of underwater adventures could conspire with my breathing problem at a later age to create a nightmare of an asphyxiating prison

Happily, the bronchitis went away after a course of antibiotics, but I still remember the nightmare. I cannot recall having had a nightmare in recent times, and this has therefore remained in my memory. I still think about that situation with a shudder as I remember the sense of betrayal and hopelessness that it created in me.

I was thinking today about a couple of things that made me feel like a misfit, and I recognised a certain interesting pattern.

In 1992, I went back to do an M.Tech. degree in Computer Science after 5 years of working in the IT industry, I had a definite problem area that I wanted to do my thesis in. I had felt the need for a better design tool for database designers than the classical Entity-Relationship Modelling approach. The traditional ERM approach resulted in the simplest data model that reflected the application domain's data structure, but often needed tweaking for performance under real-life usage because it was a relatively simplistic design. My enhanced technique aimed to utilise information relating to the way that data would be accessed (such as the number of records impacted by queries, the frequency of access, the degree of overlap in the records affected by two queries, etc.), so that the designer could receive automatic recommendations for the most appropriate performance-enhancing strategies.

The tool would effectively enable a novice designer to come up with designs that would perform as well in the real-world as those produced by more experienced ones, because it would encompass the kinds of considerations that they made. 

A sample of what my notation looked like. Those interested can access my full M.Tech. thesis report here.

I believe I largely succeeded in my endeavour to develop a more sophisticated design tool for database designers. I passed my thesis defence and got my degree. I even used the technique myself on a few projects, with a fair degree of success.

However, there was a troubling aspect to this exercise. I noticed two simultaneous problems with the technique I had developed. One of the professors on my thesis evaluation committee gave me a hard time because my work did not meet his exacting standards. I had merely illustrated my method's efficacy using a few examples, but had not offered a theoretically rigorous proof of its correctness. Back at work in my old company, I found that while my colleagues expressed mild interest in what I had done, none showed much enthusiasm about applying my method on their own projects. A couple of people told me that they found it "too theoretical".

I had fallen between two stools - My work was not rigorous enough for academia, and not practical enough for industry.

This pattern has often repeated itself with a lot of the work I have done in IT - work that seems too theoretical to some, and not academically rigorous enough to others.

It's almost as if no world will have me.

Thinking about other aspects of my life, I see the same pattern. After over two decades abroad, I'm too Westernised to fit into Indian society anymore, yet I'm still not Westernised enough to meld seamlessly into Australian society either. I'm very interested in languages, but am fluent mainly in English. There are many more examples.

Perhaps that nightmare was not just about a temporary problem with breathing. Perhaps it was a deeper angst about not feeling like I belong anywhere.
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