I have always loved reading. But it is a love that has been constantly frustrated. As a young teenager, I would spend days in the library, but I quickly exhausted my interests. If you wanted to know about Einstein, you were lucky to find one biography. If you wanted to teach yourself calculus, you might find one boring reference, if that.

When I attended junior college (we call it cegep here), one of my teachers encouraged me to read Feynman’s lectures. (They are now freely available online.) Though they were available at the library, I could not borrow them for the summer. So I tried to purchase them. There was no Amazon, no world wide web at the time. I went to a local bookstore and I asked the owner to order them for me. I said I was willing to pay upfront for the books. She refused to order them. Too much trouble to take in special requests. I think that, many years later, I did buy them in Toronto in a large bookstore, but it was just to show that I could. It felt like an empty victory.

As someone who spends almost all of his free time reading, you would think that I would be at ease in a bookstore. And while I have spent a lot of time in bookstores, they never satisfied me, even when I acquired the means to buy whatever books I wanted.

Libraries are more interesting. I could have been a librarian. The problem with libraries is that they are finite. There is always only so much room. I read about 25 science-fiction novel a year and about as many non-fiction books… all of them chosen with care… and none of them likely to be stocked in any given library. Here is what I read lately: Echopraxia by Watts (follow-up to Blindsight), Make It Stick by Brown and Finite and Infinite Games by Carse. None of these books are likely to be at my local library. And if they are available, I am likely to have to wait days or weeks to get them. In contrast, I bought them online in seconds.

Back in 2010, I got rid of most of my paper books. Though I have, on occasion, bought paper books, I do not think I have set foot in a bookstore ever since. I have also cancelled by newspaper subscription in 2012.

It may sound like an empty gesture, especially in 2014, but I still have colleagues commenting on the fact that my office is almost empty. Last week, one of my PhD students came in my office for a chat carrying more paper books than I ever had in my current office.

To say that I am still ahead of the curve is an understatement. In Quebec, most local publishers have shied away from ebooks. Though you can get the latest novels as ebooks, they are priced like paper books, making their purchase unreasonable.

Similarly, academia is still very much grounded in paper books. In many departments, you cannot get tenure without a (paper!) book by your name. A genuine book that lies flat in the bookstore for at least 3 months before being returned to the publisher. The fact that nobody would willingly ever buy your book is irrelevant. Paper has magic.

Do not get me wrong: I love paper. If you have ever seen me in person, you probably know that I always carry a paper notebook. I have always carried paper with me ever since I was a teenager—except for a few years when I believed that PDAs (the ancestor of modern-day smart phones) could replace notebooks. I am sure paper will be obsolete in 10 or 20 years, but we are not there yet. My sons still use paper books. We bring them to the library every three weeks or so. At school, they only use paper books. At home, for their studies, I buy them paper books.

I am a nerd. I like the feel of books. But I embrace ebooks because I cannot stand the thought of being limited by whatever I can carry physically with me, or by whatever space there is on the shelves. I also do not want to be limited by what gatekeepers believe I should be reading.

When you start doing something new, you can usually tell that others are joining in. I know others are embracing ebooks because I see people reading them on the bus every week. But it is harder to tell whether others have stopped doing something… like going to bookstores. Thankfully, Stephen Downes’ recent account of his visit to a bookstore conforts me in my belief that the days of paper books are numbered:

It occurred to me that you would never come to the bookstore to learn anything. The stuff that’s there is mostly superficial and survey literature.


It should not be surprising that the computer book section has been absolutely devastated. Again, you would not go to this section to learn anything – at best, the books could be considered references. Today, if you’re studying computer science – programming, design, concepts – you’re studying online. This section reflects that, and there was nothing for me to even browse.

Downes sums up my frustration with bookstores. They are not, and might never have been, for the intellectually curious folks. They are all about the mass production of cookie-cutter content.

Without profitable bookstores, I do not think that government libraries will last very long. Once people have formed the habit of using ebooks, or whatever superior alternatives are coming down the line… they will stop coming to the libraries. Libraries will be killed by the likes of Amazon just like Netflix killed Blockbuster.

Like any major change, this will not be painless. Already, the disappearance of bookstores means that many lose otherwise fine jobs. I will be the first to admit that ebooks are not quite as good as paper books for learning. But this only means that there are great business opportunities ahead. Ebooks could be so much more than zipped HTML files.

There will always be a market for paper books, the same way there will always be a market for vinyl records. But that is all.

Google provides a ranking of research venue per domain. For databases and information systems, they provide the top 20 venues according to their h-index.

As part of their assessment, they chose to include arXiv: a repository of freely available research papers. Almost anyone can post a paper on arXiv. There is some filtering, but there is no scientific review of the papers. This means that if you download a paper from arXiv and it is complete junk, you have nobody to complain to (except the authors).

Nevertheless, it appears that people are willing to post their great papers on arXiv. On a ranking per h-index, the databases section of arXiv ranks in 11th place, outranking prestigious journals like the VLDB Journal, Data & Knowledge Engineering, Information Systems and Knowledge and Information Systems… not to mention all the journals and conferences that do not appear in the top-20 list provided by Google.

One could argue that the good ranking can be explained by the fact that arXiv includes everything. However, it is far from true. There are typically less than 30 new database papers every month on arXiv whereas big conferences often have more than 100 articles (150 at SIGMOD 2013 and and over 200 at VLDB 2013). Roughly speaking, the database section of arXiv is equivalent to two big conferences while there are dozens of conferences and journals.

You can subscribe to to arXiv on Twitter. All papers are freely downloadable.

Credit: A post by Rasmus Pagh on Google+ pointed out the good ranking of arXiv in theoretical computer science.

Movies such as Good Will Hunting tell beautiful stories about young people able to instantly master difficult topics, without any effort on their part.

That performance is unrelated to effort is an appealing belief. Whether you perform well or poorly is not your fault. Some go further and conclude that success and skill levels are primarily about genetics. That is an even more convenient observation: the quality of your parenting or education becomes irrelevant. If kids raised in the ghetto do poorly, it is because they inherited the genes of their parents! I personally believe that poor kids tend to do poorly in school primarily because they work less at it (e.g., kids from the ghetto will tend to pass on their homework assignments for various reasons).

A recent study by Macnamara et al. suggests that practice explained less than 1% of the variance in performance within professions, and generally less than 25% of the variance in other activities.

It is one of several similar studies attempting to debunk the claim popularized by Gladwell that expert performance requires 10,000 hours of deliberate training.

Let us get one source of objection out of the way: merely practicing is insufficient to reach world-expert levels of performance. You have to practice the right way, you have to put in the mental effort, and you have to have the basic dispositions. (I can never be a star basketball player.) You also need to live in the right context. Meeting the right people at the right time can have a determining effect on your performance.

But it is easy to underestimate the value of hard work and motivation. We all know that Kenyan and Ethiopian make superb long-distance runners. Right? This is all about genetics, right? Actually, though their body type predispose them to good performance, factors like high motivation and much training in the right conditions are likely much more important than any one specific gene.

Time and time again, I have heard people claim that mathematics and abstract thinking was just beyond them. I also believe these people when they point out that they have put many hours of effort… However, in my experience, most students do not know how to study properly. You should never, ever, cram the night before an exam. You should not do your homework in one pass: you should do it once, set it aside, and then revise it. You absolutely need to work hard at learning the material, forget it for a time, and then work at it again. That is how you retain the material on the long run. You also need to have multiple references, repeatedly train on many problems and so on.

I believe that poor study habits probably explain much of the cultural differences in school results. Some cultures seem to do a lot more to show their kids how to be intellectually efficient.

I also believe that most people overestimate the amount of time and effort they put on skills they do not yet master. For example, whenever I face someone who failed to master the basics of programming, they are typically at a loss to describe the work they did before giving up. Have they been practicing programming problems every few days for months? Or did they just try for a few weeks before giving up? The latter appears much more likely as they are not able to document how they spent hundreds of hours. Where is all the software that they wrote?

Luck is certainly required to reach the highest spheres, but without practice and hard work, top level performance is unlikely. Some simple observations should convince you:

  • There are few people who make world-class contributions at once… there are few polymaths. It is virtually impossible for someone to become a world expert several distinct activities. This indicates that much effort is required for world-class performance in any one activity. This is in contrast with a movie like Good Will Hunting where the main character appears to have effortlessly acquired top-level skills in history, economics, mathematics.

    A superb scientist like von Neumann was able to make lasting contributions in several fields, but this tells us more about his strategies than the breadth of his knowledge:

    Von Neumann was not satisfied with seeing things quickly and clearly; he also worked very hard. His wife said “he had always done his writing at home during the night or at dawn. His capacity for work was practically unlimited.” In addition to his work at home, he worked hard at his office. He arrived early, he stayed late, and he never wasted any time. (…) He wasn’t afraid of anything. He knew a lot of mathematics, but there were also gaps in his knowledge, most notably number theory and algebraic toplogy. Once when he saw some of us at a blackboard staring at a rectangle that had arrows marked on each of its sides, he wanted to know that what was. “Oh just the torus, you know – the usual identification convention.” No, he didn’t know. The subject is elementary, but some of it just never crossed his path, and even though most graduate students knew about it, he didn’t. (Halmos, 1973)

  • In the arts and sciences, world experts are consistently in their 30s and 40s, or older. This suggests that about 10 years of hard work are needed to reach world-expert levels of performance. There are certainly exceptions. Einstein and Galois were in their 20s when they did their best work. However, these exceptions are very uncommon. And even Einstein, despite being probably the smartest scientist of his century, only got his PhD at 26. We know little about Galois except that he was passionate, even obsessive, about Mathematics as a teenager and he was homeschooled.
  • Even the very best improve their skills only gradually. Musicians or athletes do not suddenly become measurably better from one performance to the other. We see them improve over months. This suggests that they need to train and practice.

    When you search in the past of people who burst on the scene, you often find that they have been training for years. In interviews with young mathematical prodigies, you typically find that they have been teaching themselves mathematics with a passion for many years.

A common counterpoint is to cite studies on identical twins showing that twins raised apart exhibit striking similarities in terms of skills. If you are doing well in school, and you have an identical twin raised apart, he is probably doing well in school. This would tend to show that skills are genetically determined. There are two key weaknesses to this point. Firstly, separated twins tend to live in similar (solidly middle class) homes. Is it any wonder that people who are genetically identical and live in similar environment end up with similar non-extraordinary abilities? Secondly, we have virtually no reported case of twins raised apart reaching world-class levels. It would be fascinating if twins, raised apart, simultaneously and independently reached Einstein-level abilities… Unfortunately, we have no such evidence.

As far as we know, if you are a world-class surgeon or programmer, you have had to work hard for many years.

Credit: Thanks to Peter Turney for telling me to go read Carse.

Lately, the top salaries for computer science graduates have been increasing. Companies like Google are willing to pay what it takes to get their hands on the best programmers (which is well over 200k$ a year). I expect these salaries to keep on climbing for the next 20 years.

Simply put, a very good software engineer can generate a lot of value. One engineer working for Facebook can improve the life of millions of people significantly by working for a few months on a new feature. The counterpart is that many routine software jobs are easily outsourced and automated.

At least where I live, almost all high school students have access to some computer science education in high school. And that is generally a good thing, in the same way it is a good idea to learn how to cook or learn about the history of your civilization. A few courses here and there is enough for most however.

The Mayor of Chicago wants to Computer Science for all students, starting in first grade. He clearly imagines a future where programmers are everywhere. However, is the software industry a good bet for most kids?

I do not think so. Being a highly productive programmer is hard work. You need to constantly retrain yourself. You have to maintain the highest levels of professionalism. It is not for everyone.

Many of the great programmers I know worked long hours before they were good. They spent their week-ends reading technical documentation. They spent days discussing the finer point of memory allocation and alignment on posting boards.

Moreover, we have evidence that unless you are one of the best programmer in your class, your job prospects in the software industry are probably mediocre:

In computer and information science and in engineering, U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year; of the computer science graduates not entering the IT workforce, 32 percent say it is because IT jobs are unavailable, and 53 percent say they found better job opportunities outside of IT occupations. These responses suggest that the supply of graduates is substantially larger than the demand for them in industry. (EPI Report, 2013)

IT, the industry most vocal about its inability to find enough workers, hires only two-thirds of each year’s graduating class of bachelor’s degree computer scientists. By comparison, three-quarters or more of graduates in health fields are hired into related occupations (Salzman, 2013)

If you are really passionate about programming, go right ahead. I believe you will be able to earn salaries comparable to those of medical doctors or leading lawyers in the future with your skills. Maybe even better. But if you just want to get a regular job, programming could be a lot tougher than you might expect.

Update: Aner Ben-Artzi pointed out to me that the campaigns to promote programming as a career are often built on the assumption that we lump together all programmers as if they are interchangeable. We do not similarly hear calls that there are shortages of chefs, as it is understood that these are highly skilled and unique people.

Many people are worried about their social status and inequality. We live in what I call a culture of envy.

Matt Welsh, a software engineer who previously was a Harvard professor, wrote about the Fame trap last week, telling us that the pursuit of academic fame made him unhappy:

Once I had kids, I really started to appreciate the toll it was having on my family (…), and I started to realize that maybe I had my priorities all wrong. (…) I think chasing academic fame is not the best reason to go down that path. I wish I had known that when I was finishing my PhD.

The scholarly book of the year is probably Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This book has served as a rallying point for all of those who worry that managers are enriching themselves without bounds.

What is at stake in all cases, is that people insist on playing what Carse calls finite games. They may not realize that it is what they are doing… they may not even realize that they agreed to such games, but that is what they do nevertheless.

In finite games, there are winners and losers. The accumulation of wealth, the acquisition of a high social status… only make sense as games if there are winners or losers.

It is important to realize that this has nothing to do with absolute wealth and everything to do with envy. Let us put it clearly:

  • If you drive a luxury car, it is almost certainly to create the envy of those (like me) who drive a cheap Honda. Or to lessen the envy you feel with respect to those who drive luxury cars. Thorstein Veblen called it conspicuous consumption.
  • If you achieve fame, people will be envious of it. Your fame only makes sense if you have more of it than others, and if it is desired by others.

In a wealthy society, envy can quickly become the driving force. It is not about meeting your basic needs, but about achieving an envious position. In effect, you seek to be better off than most… in whatever finite game you are playing.

What is the alternative? Carse examines at length what he calls infinite games. You know that you are playing an infinite game when….

  • You are never playing against other people, against other teams. You are playing with others.
  • Rules can be reinvented…
  • The game may never end…
  • Players have no compelling reason to be envious of each other…

Though some people are stronger than others within finite games… there are no victories by which you can acquire power over others. In contrast, if you have just acquired $1 billion, or a tenured professorship at Harvard, you may not be interested in having these victories be forgotten. You may want society to keep on celebrating these victories, and for others to keep playing the game.

It is also very important to you, in the context of finite games, that victories feel earned. If you become a highly paid CEO by chance, you need to at least play the part of the genius… otherwise you are putting the entire game into question.

However, you cannot force others to play your finite games. Matt Welsh decided to drop out of the academic fame game. He had the tenured professorship at Harvard but he decided to play other games, elsewhere.

The same is true of money… you can buy a BMW and a big house to create envy in others… but these people can decide at any time that they are not players in this game. They may choose not to pursue the acquisition of luxury goods, and not to be envious of you.

I think that it is time that we pay less attention to people who take finite games seriously. I believe that it is the irony of a book like Piketty’s. You are most likely to be upset by financial inequalities if you take finite games seriously. So who is Piketty? He earned his PhD from the London School of Economics at 22. He went on to become a professor at MIT, and he ended up creating and leading his own prestigious school in Paris. If anyone takes finite games seriously, it is Piketty. The intellectual leader of Occupy Wall-Street, David Graeber, is similarly a competitive over-achiever… a professor at Yale University and now a professor at the London School of Economics. These are people who would not have taken “regular jobs”.

I believe that if there is one thing humanity needs to do to get through the next few centuries, is to reject envy and stop taking finite games seriously. It also happens to be a recipe to be happier on an individual basis. Take the regular jobs. Avoid conspicuous consumption. Be ok with just being a dad to your kids, as opposed to a famous star. Be ok if your kids grow up to be just regular happy folks that never win anything.

Next time you feel envious, please pay attention. And choose your games carefully.

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