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.

Sun’s employee can blog without asking permission

I like Tim Bray. He gave us so many great things and I’m sure he will help Sun. I’ve learned through OLDaily that Sun’s employees can now blog without asking permission. This is quite clear: if you want to comment on today’s technology or on your daily work, go right ahead. You don’t need to ask your boss first as to whether you can say that or this. I would imagine that company secrets have to remain off the blogs, but such “secrets” are usually quite boring anyway and not what employees would want to write about, and a large company like Sun cannot hold secrets very well anyhow.

To be fair, many Microsoft employees have done this too, and with support from Microsoft. Again, these companies encourage open communication and thus, creativity. They cannot lose.

Slashdot | Google’s Ph.D. Advantage

Interesting post on slashdot on Google’s Ph.D. Advantage. It would appear that:

Google’s willingness to let every employee spend 20% of his or her time on an independent project is a compelling motivator and that they estimate that Google has as many Ph.D.’s working for it as Microsoft, which is 30 times larger.

What’s interesting to me is that Google has a distinctive culture and everyone has felt it. It is hard to describe really, but the minute people tried to use Google, they discovered that it wasn’t just another search engine driven by business people who focused on the business case. And you know what? It has only gotten better over time. Some say that the dot-bust and generally depressing state of the industrial R&D won’t be with us for very long, that we will rebound. I think that despite everything we can think, Information Technology will still be a very good place to be just because this is what most people have trouble with: managing information and knowledge. If you work in any kind of organisation, I’m sure your days are filled with questions such as “where can I find this, who knows about this?”. I know my days are like that. That’s why I use email so much. That’s why I have a wiki, a cvs server, and a blog… and that’s why I keep on exploring new ways to manage data… because all of these techniques extend the reach of my brain and, to put it bluntly, they do make me smarter.

There aren’t too many job offers where a Ph.D. is considered a plus and unless you want a job in academia or are willing to start a company, if you want to remain in Canada, your Ph.D. might not give you a strong edge (though I don’t know for sure). A search on monster.ca reveals that there are 19 job offers in Canada with Ph.D. in the description. Not all of those are for Ph.D. holders though. For example Google is looking for a sales coordinator (Toronto) but they only mention that the founders had Ph.D.s. I’d say it is more like 10ish job offers in all of Canada.

Call me an optimist, but I think the days when business turns back to innovation for growth have to come back really soon. Google shows that an innovation-driven business can work. It can compete with the largest beasts like Microsoft, at least for a time. I want to believe in the rise of the creative class: wealth is mostly provided by creativity and creativity comes from creative people. My only worry is whether this will happen in Canada and in Montréal in particular. I just don’t know. Some people tell me that industry is really vibrant in Montréal right now. I haven’t been back long enough to know. I need to go downtown a bit more. I need to find out where the creative people are in this city.

One room syndrome

Interesting commentary by 17th century on the One room syndrome. Many Ph.D.s have lived through this and know the feeling. You have to sit at your chair, in the same damn room day after day after day. You can imagine that what you’ll produce will be like a movie that people will pay to see… Hmmm…. not so in my experience. The reward is mostly just that: you become a “doctor”. Some of the time, it might good for your ego, and it helps getting some kind of jobs and contracts. But it ain’t a movie and it doesn’t bring you any kind of fame (99% of the time).

Once you become a “true” researcher (read: actually paid real money), things change a bit, at least for some of us. Sitting in the same room is just one piece of it, then you have meetings, networking, endless emails, administrative duties, funding proposal, students, and so on. Many people find they no longer have any time to sit in a room, especially the poor folks who get a 4-4 teaching load. Then, you have industry, where you end up doing pretty much what everybody else do. In my case, this meant a lot of programming (and I got good at it too!) and getting stressed out about having real people depend on your work.

My Ph.D. was a rather interesting experience. I basically lived totally isolated. I chose to cut ties from the university and from everyone else so I could focus on my work. Did it work? Yes. Was it a good strategy? Probably not. I would run every day, I would spend too much time on the Web, but I ended up finishing my thesis and it was ok. I was even lucky enough to have a job waiting for me (if you call a post-doc a job, but that’s for another day). I recall that I made all these sacrifices because I thought that the good life was waiting for me after the Ph.D.

Are teachers overpaid?

Critical Mass started an interesting debate: are teachers underpaid? The argument why they should be paid more seems a bit on the weak side: they have great job security, relatively good benefits like a summer off, and comparatively decent pay. My mother works 30 something hours a week, she has her summer off, and she makes more than I do as a university professor. Oh. And she lives in a less expensive area, has far less education, but admittedly more work experience.

The debate was taken on by O’DonnellWeb who takes the whole issue apart by bringing it back to supply and demand. Getting a university degree in education is relatively easy (he claims), there are plenty of people qualified to teach, and frankly it isn’t such a difficult job: intellectual rigor is not a requirement (he says).

Here’s what I think. The market is a powerful force to set salaries, but only when people can be trusted to do what’s best for them. People will often aim for job security at all cost. That’s when the system fall apart. Once you have tenure, the school could freeze your salary and many people would never leave… sad… and I’ve recently heard someone say “if I don’t get tenure, where else could I get a job?” These comments are interesting to me. Where else could you get a job? What about the average joe who works at company X and company X fires him… is his life over? Not even close!

People in academia are very insecure. My theory is that most of them have been sheltered for so long, that they have no idea how the world works.

Think of yourself as wolf. You’ve spotted a nice forest where there is plenty to eat… then, one day, you have hard time finding new prey, or maybe there are hunters nearby shooting at you, or maybe they are cutting down the forest. Don’t stand there! Move, go! Any wolf would know this. “But where will I find a new forest? What if there aren’t any?” Well, you’ll die then. But you know what? Failure is ok. Getting stuck in a bad spot is ok. As long as you still feel free to go whenever it is best for you. But my skills are not easily transferable? Ah. See, you should have thought of that earlier on: pick new skills carefully, make sure they can serve in many settings otherwise, be willing to pay a price later on.

I think nobody should go straight from school to a tenure-track position. It is a bad choice: many people will then tend to overvalue their tenure which will be detremental to them if they have tenure at a bad place.

Update: I think we could make the world a better place by requiring teachers and professors to have real work experience (outside schools). Right now, we discourage students to get work experience outside universities: I think we should require it. When I was a professor at Acadia, they wanted to make industry experience a requirement. It was a brilliant move and I hope they did it. Everyone would be better off.

Funding application blues

When I was a student, I got fairly lucky in funding applications: as an undergraduate student, I got the C.D Howe Memorial scholarship which explains why I have $0 in student debt. Then as a graduate student, I had my own funding all the way till I got my Ph.D. It was nice. Then, things got tougher. The forms got longer. The requirements got increasingly more difficult to meet. In the last few years, I got into “funding application hell” where the forms are extremely long to fill, the competition is fierce. You are supposed to talk about the projects and research you are doing, but of course, you have no time for research because you are stuck filling out forms so that, hopefully, you’ll be able to do your work. My first encounter with really boring funding applications was when I first started as a Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada. At the time, I applied for NSERC funding which I still have to this day, but also, many other funding applications. I was the Team Leader for the e-Health Research Group and so, I automatically got involved with many funding proposals. I could not believe what it meant: stopping all your research for several months while you have meetings, and write relatively boring documents one after the other. Right now, I’m fairly deep in funding applications and will be for at least another month, and after that, I’ll continuously have to work on funding up until this autumn.

I don’t think that many students are aware of the fact that research for a professor or researcher often doesn’t not mean thinking about new ideas, there is very little time for that, sometimes it doesn’t even mean writting about new ideas… sometimes research means filling out long forms.

It is a well guarded secret, but more than brand new exciting ideas and great papers and great teaching… the modern value of a scholar is often measured by how much money he can attract. Whether he needs a lot of money or not is irrelevant. I’m not complaining about the system, but this is a part of it that people don’t often talk about. You don’t see on a researcher’s home page “just spent the last 2 months filling out funding applications, I hope it will work”.

A journal that gets it

There is a special issue of JIME on Semantic Web for Education (as in “Learning Objects”). I picked it up from Downes‘ in one recent post.

Not only is the issue interesting, from what I could tell, it is a journal that gets it. First of all, reviews are on-line, for all to see. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind peer review. I cherish it. But I’ve gotten too many poorly written, poorly prepared reviews. I really wish reviews would go on-line when the paper is published. This way, it might give an incentive to the reviewer.

Plus, if a poor paper gets accepted, you can trace back the reasons why it was accepted…

It still doesn’t help if your paper gets rejected for bad reasons, but in such instances, you can go elsewhere with your paper. At the very least, you know that if the paper makes it, you’ll have an exciting review to go with it. Useful for you and the reader.

Update: other blogs have picked up this issue of JIME.

Is Python going bad? or The curse of unicode….

I’ve wasted a considerable amount of time in the last two days upgrading my RSS aggregate so that it will have better support for atom feeds. I use the feedparser library.

One thing that gets to me is how unintuitive unicode is under Python. For example, the following is a string…

t="éee"

Just copy this in your python interpreter, and it will work nicely. For example,


>>> t='éee'
>>> print t
�ee

However, for some reason, if I just type “t”, then it can’t print it properly…

>>> t
'xe9ee'

See how it is already confusing? (And we haven’t used unicode yet!)

Next, we can map this string to unicode…

r=unicode(t)

which has the following result…

>>> r=unicode(t)
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
UnicodeDecodeError: 'ascii' codec can't decode byte 0xe9 in position 0: ordinal not in range(128)
</stdin>

Ah… so it tries to interpret t as ascii… fair enough, we know it is “latin-1” or “iso8859-1”. It is already quite strange that “print” knows what to do with my string, but nothing else in Python seems to know… so we do


>>> r=unicode(t,'latin-1')
>>> r
u'xe9ee'
>>> print r
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
UnicodeEncodeError: 'ascii' codec can't encode character u'xe9' in position 0: ordinal not in range(128)
</stdin>

because, see, you can’t print unicode to the string… but you can do the following…


>>> print r.encode('latin-1')
éee
>>> print r.encode('iso-8859-1')
éee

but also


>>> r.encode('latin-1')
'xe9ee'
>>> r.encode('iso-8859-1')
'xe9ee'

What is my beef?

  • If ‘print’ assumes ‘latin-1’ then shouldn’t everything else? Why is this not consistent? If it is unsafe to assume ‘latin-1’, then why does print do it?
  • The encode, decode thing is a mess. We had a perfectly valid construct for converting things to strings, and that’s ‘str’. Now, we have a new one called ‘encode’. So that, given some unicode, I can do either t.encode(‘ascii’) or str(t) for the same result. Bad. Now, I’m stuck forever in a world where I have to figure out whether I encode or decode a string, and which is which. This is hard. This is confusing.
  • A string object should know its encoding so I don’t have to. What happens if I receive a string from some library and I need to convert it to unicode? How am I supposed to know what the encoding of the string is? There is no sensible way to communicate this right now which makes debugging a pain. The only excuse I see is that sometimes it is impossible for python to know the encoding… well, then it should just fail and require the programmer to specify the encoding. There are way too many things that can go wrong when you expect the programmer to keep tracks of his strings and which is encoded how…

Qualities for a good Ph.D. supervisor

Offline someone commented that more than half of the Ph.D. students are foreigners and that the Ph.D. is serving as a funding source. True. But that’s somewhat of a cynical view if you ask me.

In any case, you are a young student, and despite reading my blog, you still want to do a Ph.D. Maybe because you come from a Third World country and getting some cash to study is a compelling idea on its own. But whatever your reasons, here’s what you should be looking for, I humbly suggest…

  • Look at the past projects and students. Did all the students this prof. supervised ended up on welfare? Or can you google them as Harvard professors now? Can you find traces of the past projects this prof. was involved with or did they all fail? Look beyong the fanfare: look for evidence the prof. can’t control easily. Google past students.
  • Is the prof. aware of what the world is like, right now? Does he know the employment rate and career possibilities for young Ph.D.s or does he just pretend he knows? Where does he gets his facts from if he has any?
  • Does he give you the full story, with the pros and cons of doing a Ph.D. with him? Pros and cons of the research life?
  • Does he need to consume graduate students to get his research going or is the training of students only tangential to his research? In other words, can the guy still do research without students or are students cheap labour?

Selling your services as a scientific paper writer?

Nice post on Critical Mass today about a researcher who sold his services as co-author on eBay and actually got 50 bids and many phone calls. It would appear that many people, from industry to students, are willing to pay so they can produce high quality scientific content with their names on it.

I’m not sure it is an interesting line of work though. Most people don’t realize how expensive it is to write a good scientific journal article. Probably upward of $50K. It’d be difficult to sell 10 pages for $50K. Of course, there is other types of “research”, like journalistic research, when you get 10 pages for much less… but real science is awfully expensive.

What’s more interesting to me is the reasons why people where interested: “There’s this whole constellation of things they could get from it. They could get credentials. They would get the ability to have their questions actually answered.”

Why do I pick on this bit of news? Because I was actually offered jobs like this, and I always turned them down. I was offered money to write journal articles at least twice by totally different people. It was meant to promote a product or a service, in the end, or rather, give the product or service some credibility. I think this is misguided since there is an actual proper form for such publications: patents, technical reports or white papers.

In any case, it would actually be doable: sell your services as a scientist who publish papers to give credibility to products and services. It would be similar to a patent consultant, I guess, except that law is not so involved anymore. I found a lot of people everywhere think they have very unique ideas. They’d love them to be validated and have their ideas pushed in a very prestigious publication, just like having patents.

Writting papers is like taking pictures for Playboy. You look at beauty most of the time, and you have to capture the beauty… you have to make sure enough is being shown, but not too much. It is seen as a very romantic job where you are living a dream, but are, in fact, just doing your job. The only difference is that few people write papers attracting as many eye balls as Playboy pictures and most earn less money too.

The world is changing, and I’m there!

Tonight, I really feel like the world is changing.

The typical problem scientists and scholars in general have is that we need to be able to predict paradigms changes, or at least study them. But how can you know that things are changing while you are in it? Can humans study humans? Well, I’m not a social scientist, so I don’t have to worry, officially, with such issues… but all scholars are affected to some level by this paradox.

Well, I’ve been using inDiscover.net. Yes, I’m linking to my own project, well, it isn’t my project, but I’m involved from the side. So, it is self-promotion. Fine. Still, using inDiscover.net has made me realized how the world has changed. A bit like when Stephen Downes worked on his MuniMall portal project and, while the project was a failure, he realized that the world was changing and he embarked on a mission (see his value statement on his site).

Look on the right-hand-side of my blog, you should see my current playlist from inDiscover.net. All of this music is free. It is out there. You can download the MP3s and listen to the same music I listen to. No matter where you are in the world. You can then share your playlist with the world. You can have my playlist, live, as XML, that you can incorporate in any application, any web site.

I hope to write later on why I think this is a paradigm shift. We are beyond the world of blogs, beyond the Web… this is deep. I think it will eventually change society all the way.

Ok, I’m making many claims here… I need to write this up, but it is late…

Changing job for a Linux addict

People who are happy with whatever operating system they are offered probably find it much easier to change job. When you are a linux addict, it means that you have to secretly install Linux and then reverse-engineer the network configuration so that you can, well, print.

This time I installed Gentoo in my office. As it turns out, it was rather painless, but as an overworked prof., it was still hurtful to waste a day configuring the machine. The toughest part this time was getting the printing to work. As it turns out, I had to the cups to use smb://mylogin:[email protected]/uer_com instead of smb://tlmnt4/uer_com. Somehow, cups couldn’t just reuse my known username and password. Hmmm… I wonder why I never had this problem before? I really wish cups was easier to configure. But at least, it works now.

There is also a special java applet system called [email protected] here. But I think I mostly figured out how to get it running “ok” under linux (in French), though I had to waste another day on it.

I have good reasons to believe I must be the only prof. around using Linux. My addiction to command line interfaces has a thing or two to do with it. You can emulate pretty much the unix environment under Windows, but it is never quite the same in terms of productivity.

I’ve been told that MacOS X would be a good choice too. Except that I couldn’t have done what I just did here: take the “free” PC they put in my office and transform it in a Linux box.

Some facts people often don’t know:

  • Networking is mostly painless under Linux. Since most networks use DHCP, the configuration is a joke. With samba, you can access pretty much all of the network services you need even when they are hosted on a Windows server.
  • With OpenOffice and latex2rtf, you can pretty live within the MS Word universe and not get noticed. People will complain that the documents don’t look quite as they expect, but I’m a prof. and I can always claim that I’m not very good with word processing. You can consume and produce Word documents. Not very good ones, but unless you do secretarial work, it will be ok.
  • Email is not a problem even in a supposedly windows-only world: just use the exchange server as a POP server and you’ll be fine. Microsoft is not yet crazy enough to prevent people from checking their mail using the POP protocol. You might not get all the features from Exchange, but what you are missing won’t hurt you, much.

In the end, you can be very productive with Linux.

Now, if I could find how to turn the system bell off once and for all, I’d be happy.

Update: it turns out that we can turn off the system bell easily under Linux. I never knew this. Just do “xset b off”. You can put this in your .xsession file too.

Job prospects for new Ph.D.s are good?

This time, I found stats for Philosophy Ph.D.s. It would appear that the ratio of candidates to job advertize is shrinking quite a bit. I got this from Leiter Reports. In the same blog, we find evidence that 9 out 10 Philosophy Ph.D.s get a cool middle-class job, assuming they went to Princeton.

Well, there seems to be a lot more evidence than I thought that things are improving for new Ph.D.s

As it turns out, though, my claims are also supported by anedotes: Fang and Nielsen.

Research: when does it matter?

Does academic research matter?

I’m not a very good historian, but I seem to recall that rresearch as we know it arose out of the German model. It proved invaluable at least in the Second World War. Or did it?

Of course, Tim Berners-Lee owe to academic research some of the ideas that lead to the Web. Some. But not that much, really. Tim Bray is not exactly from academia, is he? Yet, XML changed the world in a deep way.

It seems like academic research is more and more irrelevant… or is it progressively more underfunded, or mismanaged… or just simply totally irrelevant?

Here’s a theory: we’ve come to define success by the number of publications… yet, amazing folks like Tim Bray don’t necessarily go out of their way to submit papers. They listen, they talk, they write within communities and then they publish proposals. They probably hack some software too. So, maybe academic research is becoming irrelevant because we have success wrongly?

Why would the public respect people whose main achievement is a (smallish) number of 10 pages documents they get in books hardly anyboyd ever read.