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.