Freedom in networked research: what does it mean?

When I started out as a researcher, as a young Ph.D. student, I thought research was about “having ideas”. Then, it occured to me that it was about “having ideas and ‘selling’ them” because “having ideas” is easy and too many people have too many ideas already. But marketing experts sell ideas all the time… surely, they don’t do “research”. Then, I changed my mind and decided research was about “taking ideas, validating them, putting them in practice, and building tools out of it” where “tools” is to be interpreted in a very wide sense. Turns out it is not a bad definition of what research is. But the part about “taking ideas and validating them” is a networking problem. Where do your ideas come from, how do you know how good they are? Ultimately, “validating” an idea means putting it in front of a community and getting the community to say “this is a good idea”. “Validating” is not the same as selling, though it might be hard to tell what a person is really trying to do.

But to be blunt, I don’t have yet a satisfying definition of what “research” is and I’m not looking very hard… though, networking is a necessary condition for sure. Scientists on desert islands without telecommunication can’t do research. That’s the part that I did not understand until a few years after my Ph.D. Well, maybe I’m hard on myself, maybe I understood it on the surface, but I didn’t internalized until much later.

Michael Nielsen pointed me to an interesting Web page very useful for Ph.D. students and novice researchers: Networking on the Network.

In Networking on the Network, Philip E. Agre accurately describes the world of research as a network. A network isn’t good or bad… so, some nodes will suck energy out of the network, and others will contribute much to it. The network is somewhat self-regulating, but it is possible, nevertheless, for bad leaders to emerge… He has this to say about the relationship between students and supervisor which I find rings very true:

It is good to be powerful, but only in the correct sense of the term. People with the right kind of power, in my view, do not need to manipulate or control others. To the contrary, they are (sic) know that they are well-served when others grow and find their own directions, so they happily support everyone in their growth. They don’t take responsibility for others’ growth, which is a different question. They speak to the healthy part of a person, and they are concerned to draw out and articulate the brilliant ideas and worthy vision that lie beneath the surface of whatever anyone is saying. For example, they don’t try to enroll students as acolytes in their empire-building strategies, but honestly ask what’s best for each student’s own development, confident that their knowledge, vision, and connections will have an important influence on the student’s development in any case.

As you can see, he talks a lot about “Empire building”. Indeed, because research is all about networking, to a large extend, one can build an empire out of thin air, with no substance.

It seems you can either build an empire for the purpose of building an empire, because that’s you definition of success, or else, you can aim to remain “free”. That’s a very powerful idea:

You build networks around the issues you care about, you grow and change through the relationships that result, you articulate the themes that are emerging in the community’s work, and through community-building and leadership you get the resources to do the things that you most care about doing. It’s true that this method will never give you arbitrary power. But the desire for arbitrary power is not freedom — it is a particularly abject form of slavery. If you can let go of preconceived plans then you are free: you can choose whom to associate with, and as you build your network you multiply the further directions that you can choose to go. You also multiply the unexpected opportunities that open up, the places you can turn for assistance with your projects, the flows of useful information that keep you in contact with reality, the surveillance of the horizon that keeps you from getting cornered by unanticipated developments, and the public persona that ensures that people keep coming to you with offers that you can take or leave. That is what freedom is, and it is yours if you will do the work.

I give Agre a lot of credit from bringing in the concept of “freedom” in research. University professors will often talk about “academic freedom”. I think that freedom in research is a stronger form of freedom. You can have “academic freedom” but be a slave to the “publish-or-perish” paradigm for the power it brings you. Or else, you can “do the work”, that is, do your research as a network node, and leverage the strength of the network to make the research you want to do anyhow, much better, much stronger.

Michael Nielsen: Principles of Effective Research: Part IV

I’ve been reading Michael Nielsen’s Principles of Effective Research, he is up to Part IV now.

He makes a very important point about research. When I started out doing research, I thought that research was about sitting in your office thinking up new ideas. God! Was I wrong!

Now, don’t get me wrong, research is not about having meetings with other researchers or spending time chatting, or drawing UML diagrams of what is to be done, or spending weeks on funding proposals. We might do these things, but they don’t make us good researchers. But neither will sitting in your office thinking new ideas. That’s not effective research.

On quasi-desert islands with no telecommunications, you’ll find very few great researchers. The social network doesn’t need to be immediate: I think you can be a great researcher even in a tiny school. And I don’t think your network should be made of students mostly, especially not your own students.

I believe the secret to being a good researcher is to belong to a tightly knitted group of solid researchers. Research is about networking. By tightly knitted, I don’t necessarily mean “military-like”: I mean that you feel peer pressure all the time to do good research. This can be achieved through emails, blogging, phone… whatever the mean…

A must read paper in the Chronicle

A must read paper in the Chronicle Is There a Science Crisis? Maybe Not. The paper is about the oversupply of graduate students in science which is brought upon by universities who have a vested interest in producing more and more science Ph.D.s but don’t necessarily need to adjust to the job market.

It brings back memories. At the end of the eighties, they were predicting a severe shortage of science Ph.D. As it turns out, it was totally false and the paper documents very well the fact that life after a science Ph.D. has gotten tremendously worse and that there are clearly an ever increasing number of science Ph.D.s with fewer and fewer jobs.

The truth is that universities are being irresponsible (and so are professors). Training highly specialized students who know how to solve one type of technical problems has no value for society. Whatever you do, train students to have a wide range of skills. This means that we need to reduce drastically the number of science Ph.D.s and focus on well-rounded students.

I’m convinced governments will soon wake-up and stop listening to universities. They’ll be forced soon to look at the numbers and figure out that generously paying universities to produce more science Ph.D.s is a waste of tax payer money.

Some beautiful quotes:

An editorial in Science this year argued: “We’ve arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high. Maybe we keep doing this because in our heart of hearts, we really prefer it this way.”

Mr. Freeman, like other economists, looks to dollars to make sense of the trends among graduate students. “They’re not studying science,” he says, “because they look and say, ‘Do I want to be a postdoc paid $35,000 or $40,000 at age 35, with extreme uncertainty working in somebody else’s lab, and maybe getting credit for my work and maybe not getting full credit? Or would I rather be an M.B.A. and making $150,000 and hiring Ph.D.’s?'”

With wages stagnant and too few jobs for engineers, adding to the work force will only make those careers less attractive, says one of the authors, George F. McClure, a retired aerospace engineer who studies employment issues for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “The problem is that everybody has focused on the supply side, and very few have focused on the demand side,” he says. “People in colleges and universities are concerned with maintaining the pipeline and throughput.”

In a case study, Ms. Stephan, the Georgia State economist, has analyzed the growth of the bioinformatics field, generally regarded as one of the hottest areas in science. The number of degree programs blossomed from 21 in 1999 to 74 in 2003. “There’s been a tremendous increase in the number of students in these programs,” she says. But, she adds, “we also track job announcements in bioinformatics, and they’ve been declining.” She sees parallels to other leading fields. “Everybody is talking right now that there’ll be lots and lots of jobs in nanotechnology,” she says. “I’ve not seen a convincing case that that is happening, or that it will happen.”

Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon

The people at Carnegie Mellon seem to have the right idea: their Open Learning Initiative offers you to browse right there and now the content of their courses. It seems to be a driving point: they want to make courses free for individuals, and low cost for institutions. By building communities around their courses, I guess they hope to make these same courses, the de facto standards. It could be very powerful and could make some other online schools obselete.

A primary objective of the project is to build a community of use for the courses that will play an important role in ongoing course development and improvement. The courses are developed in a modular fashion to allow faculty at a variety of institutions to either deliver the courses as designed or to modify the content and sequence to fit the needs of their students and/or their curricular and course goals. These courses will be broadly disseminated at no cost to individual students and at low cost to institutions.

Students as Colleagues for Professors

Stephen gave an interview to Clientology about eLearning.

Some of his statements should be scaring the h*ll out of some people in universities and elsewhere. First, he points out that gatekeepers are slowly losing their power:

It is important to recall how much of our culture – including political culture, economic culture, educational culture — has been shaped by ‘gatekeepers’, elites who, because of their knowledge and position, are the sole arbiters of what we will read, buy or learn. This gatekeeping function has already been disintermediated; new people — what Robin Good calls the ‘newsmaster’ are taking their place, and the result is a much more balanced exchange.

This is so obvious in my daily life and was brought on by the Internet and excellent tools like Google. It actually links with a previous post I wrote this week: non-tech natives are the gatekeeper generation. The new tech natives won’t see a purpose for these gatekeepers who kept their knowledge close and their power even closer. Information and knowledge is always changing and flowing so that controlling knowledge doesn’t make sense anymore. In a very deep way, we’ve become a dynamic society. This is not just class mobility, that is, the ability for a large segment of the population to acquire some key knowledge and then, have a shot at becoming a gatekeeper. No. I think that the notion of gatekeeper itself is failing.

This has very concrete consequences in universities:

In education, the result is the gradual erosion of the power relationship that existed between student and professor. In some senses, we see this already by the designation by many of the student as ‘customer’ rather than, say, apprentice. But it’s deeper than that, and we will see eventually the designation of student as ‘colleague’ — and in an important sense, it will not be possible to distinguish between student and professor online.

I couldn’t agree more. Students do not depend on their professors the same way they use to. Professors won’t be able to hold their status as gatekeepers for very long now. Not when anyone in the planet can quickly become an expert in almost any field just by reading up on the Internet.

I think university professors will remain marketing tools. First, they will serve to sell training, which they have always done anyhow, and second, they will be used to authentify knowledge which will become an increasingly important task. Students won’t look so much for knowledge but for recognition and professors who can bring student some recognition which will be in high demand.

Eating poutine in Montréal

Through Seb, I found Idle Words. The guy is moving to Montreal and just discovered Poutine. If you know what poutine is, you’ve got to go read his post on his first Poutine experience: hilarious.

Actually, last time I ate poutine was one I made myself. Well, at least, I made the French fries myself. It was pretty good, but it is a bad meal if you plan to do any work in the 2-3 days after eating it and you are past thirty.

Here’s my recipe for French fries. Buy lots of olive oil. Cut some Yukon gold potatoes (the yellow type) and let the cut potatoes in water a few minutes, then dry them. Heat up the oil over the stove, make sure the oil is very hot, but also make sure you don’t overheat (if there is smoke, it became to hot). Then, using only a small amount of potatoes each time, drop them the potatoes in the oil. Be careful not to burn yourself! You must make sure you don’t put all of the potatoes at once, otherwise you will drop the temperature of the oil too low and you’ll produce greasy French fries. That’s essentially it.

You can use these hand-made French fries to seduce a girl (or a guy, I suppose).

Innovation in Montreal

Still looking for creative folks in Montreal. I figured that I’d follow the money. Found Innovatech’s web site. It is particularly nice because they list the companies they’ve invested in. I think it is a Quebec government shop, probably along the lines of IRAP, but with maybe much less of a research strength. Also interesting, maybe, is T2C2 capital which seems to fund IT startups for those crazy folks willing to launch a startup.

Of course, money is not the key ingredient. Remember rule number 2 from previous post: keep in lean.

How to recognize a succesful long term project

Through Lucas’, I got to an interesting article called Who’s Behind This Mess? He applied his ideas to companies, but I claim that it can be applied to long term projects as well.

  • The project must address a pain point, an existing or soon-to-be problem
  • The project must be run lean
  • The project must not require its users to change their behavior in any significant way

(I substituted “project” for “company” throughout.)

I think the last point is so-so. It is true that it is much easier to meet customer demand without asking people to change the way they work. And you have to be very careful about asking people to change because they will resist. However, I believe that if they have a compelling reason to do so, people will change the way they behave.

So, I’d rephrase this being saying that an easy long term project will have the above 3 properties. If you drop some of these properties, life will get tougher.

Capturing the Value of the e-Generation

Here’s an interesting article, Capturing the Value of “Generation Tech” Employees, I got through Downes’.

The premise of the article is that there is a new generation (< 30 years old) which was born with computers around and thus, thinks and act differently. I’d argue that even if I’m thirty something, I still belong to the tech generation, or rather, the tech natives, whatever it means since I got my first computer as I kid and learned to program assembly and BASIC when I was 13 years old. Other than that, the article seems fairly accurate. It matches my expectations.

  • The tech natives are team-based, not hierarchy-based. This is sooo amazingly true. I see many older people who want to stick with a heavy hierarchy, but it just doesn’t fit the new business model in a tech era. When things are fast changing, it doesn’t make sense to have 10 superiors on top of you. It also doesn’t make sense to have 10 layers of people under you. You need to get at your team directly, and you need to get the feedback from your boss right away. Layers don’t make so much sense anymore.
  • The tech natives crave information, they don’t fear it. They are fast and furious when processing data. This rings true: younger folks are fast on emails, blogs, wikis… whereas older ones, non-techie, needs time to swallow information. Of course, this means that tech natives are somewhat more shallow in their processing of the information, but I’d argue that being shallow is needed, it is our way to adapt. You choose when to be deep.

I think speed is the critical issue. The tech native understand that things need to go very fast, always.

This makes me hopeful: we might see a reversal of the ever increasing bureaucracy one day soon.

Received a Gmail account through Sean

Sean was cool enough to invite me to join Gmail. Gmail is the Google free email service where you have almost unlimited storage (1GB to be precise) and various cool Google tools to search your emails.

I’m not convinced I’ll use it very much, but it is cool to have it. My address is lemire atsymbol gmail dotted com.

Thanks Sean!

Update: Several weeks later, I’ve switched over completly and I’m now using Gmail exclusively.

Do you censor your own blog?

Yuhong is worried that as more people visit her blog, she will censor her content. You might recall that Yuhong is the latest NRC researcher to join the blogger community.

There is no question that writting for a public, however small, will impact the content. In this sense, a blog is not intimate. But I think she forgets that a blog is social tool.

I do take notes, very careful notes… and they are not in this blog. My blog is not for private thoughts, but rather, to express thoughts that I feel free to share. Because I know other people might read me, I have to think about them a bit more, and this process leads me to think more about what I do and why I do it. The fact that many other people, including Yuhong, spend more time worrying about why they do things and how they do them, will just all make us smarter as a community.

Why are blogs working?

Life is funny, you’ll work like a dog on something, and it will just plain won’t work. And once in a while, a very simple concept will just work. I think that research and life has more to do with luck, as in “try many things and hope that something will work”, rather than pure intellect. Which is why I think that centralized, authoritarian systems are doomed to failure. And I think it also explains why the Americans, with their relatively free flowing class structure are eating up the rest of the world. Build all the castles you want, and force people to be your servants… but you’ll never be able to compete with a loosely controlled community. This doesn’t mean anarchy works: I said loosely controlled, not out-of-control.

This also means that as a researcher, you shouldn’t be too focused. I didn’t write that you should be unfocused… but don’t be narrow. You might get lucky and hit gold even if you had a single target, but maybe that will just be luck.

I found this post called A Partially Definitive But Slightly Abstract Guide To Why Blogs Are So Successful through a post by Seb. I really like some of the comments:

  • Blogs are “person-centric not place-centric”. In this day and age where you’ll probably have 20 different employers in your life, go through 20 different cities… who wants to be place-centric? Universities have to take this into account. They should stop assuming that their students are their students. They aren’t. Just like banks realized some years ago that because you had a bank account with the Royal Bank, you might not have a VISA card from them. People are not loyal nor should they be. Realize this and the students will love you. In practice, this means that instead of trying to fit students into a mold, they should put the students as much in control as they can. Universities that get this will win.
  • “Don’t Try And Make The Computer Do Things It Can’t And We Can” : I’m all for Knowledge Management (KM) research and I consider myself to be a KM researcher, but I know that computers can’t do KM. They just can’t. We should stop fooling around. Humans do KM and until computers get much, much, much improved, they won’t do KM. We have to let the humans be in charge, always. Software is there to help humans with KM, but it doesn’t do KM.

Turning the fight for Linux up one level

The Open Source Initiative just published its Halloween XI. The Halloween documents started from an internal memo issued by Microsoft in 1998. This was the very first time Microsoft noticed the Linux threat. Back then, they were relatively calm about it but made the following statement:

Loosely applied to the vernacular of the software industry, a product/process is long-term credible if FUD tactics can not be used to combat it. OSS [open source software] is Long-Term Credible.

This was 6 years ago. This year, they are organizing meetings in various cities to convince people not to switch to Linux. In many ways, Microsoft is losing this war against Linux, against us. They went from internal meetings, to ads, and now they are touring countries.

Microsoft crushed everything else in the software industry and made Bill Gates the richest man in the world. But they finally met something they couldn’t, wouldn’t crush the same way. Make no mistake about it: Microsoft will lose, Microsoft will fail. Not this year, not next year, but soon. They must fail.

Gates built his empire by noticing that he could sell software whereas people had been freely sharing software. Indeed, why sell what can be copied freely? Whereas most people saw software as something that had to be shared, Gates saw a nearly infinite source of revenue. And he took it for himself.

Gates’ vision has profound consequences which seems to espace most people. It might seem to be a small issue whether you store your data in a Microsoft forward and lock your work in Microsoft software… After all, who cares? Microsoft products are relatively inexpensive and well supported, so often, it is much easier to go with Microsoft… why bother fighting the system? Why indeed.

Suppose tomorrow we would have machines able to freely copy food. Suppose someone said no, this ought to be illegal, I can use this machine but everyone else has to pay for the food. We would think this individual was mad. Well, that’s what the software industry is: people who own food creating machine and they keep it for themselves. Food might not be as vital as software, but it is nevertheless quite vital in our century. Software is humanity’s future. We may soon be able to produce goods in a similar fashion. Buy one nanotech machine and it can generate any goods you want for very cheap as long as you can input the proper software into it. Are we going to allow a few people to take control of software? of our future?

I’m not advocating your break the law and copy Microsoft software. Don’t break the law. Copy software though: copy Linux everywhere you can. Because software is weatlh and by copying it you make humanity wealthier.

Need for increasingly poweful tools as cyberspace grows

Thanks to Internet, it is possible for a musician in Bolivia to be listened to in Toronto. My blog is read by people in Brezil. However, there is a very serious threat on this brave new world: that individuals and small communities get lost in the ever increasing noise. Just think about how progressively less reliable and useful email has become. I think this is partly a technology issue: we need increasingly poweful tools as cyberspace grows.

What defines leadership?

Yuhong’s new blog talks about leadership. She quite accurately points out that in research, as in all creative work, leadership is a very important quality. I’ve struggled myself with the concept while I was filling out funding applications (yes, I’m still working on funding). People ask you to prove you are a leader… but what does it mean to be a leader?

Yuhong proposes the following definition:

  • Always take into account everyone’s interest
  • Be generous
  • Have a vision

I like Yuhong’s definition!

Is Montréal a creative city?

This morning, I went out and decided to do some research on the city where I live from a creative class point of view. I found two reports. One by Richard Florida himself on Canadian cities. The report was paid for by Ontario, but it looks objective. Second of all, I found a report by the department of Canadian Heritage on attracting talent in Canada.

What comes out of these reports is that Montréal is not a very creative city. It more creative than the Canadian average, but well below Vancouver and Toronto. However, it is definitively a tech. center, it actually surpass both Toronto and Vancouver in terms of being a technopolis. Florida’s report point out though that these figures might be misleading: a lot of tech. workers in Montréal work in the aerospace industry and their job might be in a tech. industry, but it is unclear how much technology is involved in their work. There are creative and talented people in Montréal, but according to the Heritage Canada report, they are poor if not starving.

Let complexity be thy guide

Stephen wrote an article: Whither the Semantic Web. We agree so much that you’d think I steal my good ideas from him (I do).

Semantic Web researchers need to realize that the Semantic Web is happening now. But it isn’t happening where they think. My blog, my entire web site, is described using simple, accessible XML in a RSS format and useful software access it now. Millions of people do the same, either because they are technically capable or by using existing some of the great software out there, much of it free.

On the other hand, the W3C is in a sea of insanity with specifications adopted merely for their political merits, certainly not because they’ve proven themselves to be useful. Don’t get me wrong: some of XPath and XSLT is truly useful. DTDs are useful. But then, things like OWL? Please! I’ve seen no demonstration that such sophisticated specs are actually usable in the real world. Yes, people are lazy and stupid: take it into account when designing new technology.

I think that a lot of this insanity is motivated by researcher’s need for difficult and complex problems to justify their existence. After all, if Joe in his tavern can understand your problem and your solution, it can’t be very serious research.

Let complexity be thy guide.

The Effects of Loss and Latency on User Performance in Unreal Tournament 2003

The following page points to some research on the impact of latency on gamers and, in particular, on recent research involving Unreal Tournament:The Effects of Loss and Latency on User Performance in Unreal Tournament 2003.

I think this is an absolutely great way to attract students: do research on gaming technology. In fact, I once proposed to NRC that I could do some research on Web porn technology, but my boss (Bruce Spencer) seemed reluctant for some reason to invest government dollars in the porn industry.

I still haven’t given up on using porn technology as a research topic though. However, I think that just like gaming, you’d need to work extra-hard just to justify your research topic.

Which is not to say that my research is not on cool topics. I think that inDiscover is quite cool. I also have other things coming that may appear as sexy to some people (but no porn research as of yet).

Just like art, I think that research should be thought provoking.

Got any non-reusable Learning Object?

Here’s an interesting post by viral-learning about Learning Object reuse. One of the defining factor for Learning Objects ought to be reusability, you’d think. However, Downes once correctly pointed out to me that reusability is not really a defining factor… indeed, can you point out to a non-reusable learning object?

It remains an interesting topic. One of the pretensions of object-oriented programming is object reuse. You see it in textbooks. Supposedly, people would continuously reuse code because code is embedded in objets. In practice, it is a claim I haven’t seen come true. It hasn’t proven to be a powerful paradigm in my experience. Objects are useful modeling tool, but they are no magical bullet and they don’t clearly make reuse easier. Not in my experience.

What works? APIs. Coherence sets of function calls you can use in many of your projects.

What would be the equivalent in the Learning Object setting? The closest thing I could think of is a textbook. Are textbooks dead? I don’t think… they may simply no longer be printed in the near future…

OpenTextBook

Here’s a cool project: OpenTextBook. When I was at Acadia, we often wondered why students had to pay CAN$80 for a Calculus textbook when it was obvious that all such textbooks are the same, they have to be, and all of the content has been known for quite some time.

What are we paying publisher for, exactly? We could never quite figure out, but because, neither the university nor the professor ends up paying the bill, we keep asking students to buy expensive textbooks for no good reason.

To be fair, professors are not evil. Not all of them. Many wondered whether we could write a free calculus textbooks ourselves. I think there are some free textbooks but who would dare trusting them? I would trust a textbook that the community can peer review though. If people find mistakes, they can come in and correct the mistakes. It would not converge into a free, perfect textbooks, but it might end up producing an acceptable textbook, for sure.

I co-wrote this really cool document on Series. It is free! You can have the LaTeX source if you ask or are clever enough to navigate my hidden Web.

One day soon, I’ll co-wrote an open textbook. I should make a note of it.