Living with the fear of failure

Before you start wondering: no I did not fail at anything today. In fact, my life is rather smooth going and while you routinely get bad and good and not so good and not so bad reviews from time to time, all my projects are proceeding forward better than I had a right to expect.

But like so many people, I’m haunted by the constant fear that I may fail. I was reminded of how hard it is by the pressure some Canadian athletes have reported feeling at the Olympics these days. Constant fear of failure is hard because even if your life is beautiful and you succeed in everything, you are still focused on possible failures. Ok. I’ll admit. I’m a pessimist. Or rather, a realist living in a bleak world.

Why do I fear failure so much? Failure is a neutral or even positive force. In fact, many times when I failed, I’ve actually been glad of the failure and found positive things in it… I don’t know… You might not get in the school you want, but you end up getting in an even better school. You do not get to see the movie you wanted to see, but you get to see an even better movie.

I suspect that there is a little cave man in me who fears he’ll get eaten by a dinosaur (yes, I know, I’ve watched too many Flintstones). Failure might be really bad… like having your feet in a dinosaur’s mouth and expecting the dinosaur to start eating you up.

What I know for certain is that fear of failure is a negative force in most of my life. It distracts me. Pulls me away from my family. Makes me dumber. Takes my eyes away from the road and on the ravin where my car will end up.

If you attend all classes, you pass…

Two profs allegedly got fired because they refused to grade students based on “effort” instead of results. Not that I think that recognizing effort in the grading is such an evil thing… and maybe the policy was even acceptable… Saying that students attending all lectures will pass the course might have its advantages… but the fact that the fellows were fired tells us something about the state of education in North America right now… I think there is clearly a downward spiral as far as the academic level goes. Not that I think it is necessarily bad.

It is a bit troubling in the following way however. If Internet is making information more widely available as before, and the university is no long the holder (and certainly not creator) of knowledge… I was thinking that universities could still authenticate knowledge: provide proof to someone that you do, in fact, know about archeology. But I forgot that academic levels have been going down in the last 20 years or so. So what will remain?

Someone commented in one of my earlier posts that universities are good at organizing knowledge. Knowledge might be readily available through Google, but it isn’t validated or organized very well. I guess, this is true: university professors are pretty good at determining what is sensible knowledge, with the unavoidable mistakes and bias. We are also pretty good at organizing it in a sensible fashion. However, time and time again, studies show that students overwhelming enrol in courses and degrees, not to learn, but for the recognition they get. They don’t care so much about the work professors do to organize and validate knowledge. If we lower the academic levels further, could it be that students will just leave universities? I think that if we ever reach the tipping point where corporations lose confidence in the training students receive, and this day is around the corner, we’ll be in trouble.

A Theory of Strongly Semantic Information

Thanks to my colleague Jean Robillard, I found out that philosophers do Knowledge Management too! Following a request I made, Jean suggested I read an Outline of a Theory of Strongly Semantic Information by L. Floridi.

He starts out by asking how much information is there in a statement? Well, in a finite discrete world (the realm where Floridi appears to live), you can reasonably define “information content” in terms of how many possibilities the statement rules out. For example, if my world is made of two balls, each of which can be either red or blue, so my world has 4 possible states, and I say that “ball 1 is blue”, there are only 2 possibilities left (ball 2 is either red or blue) so I could say that I’ve ruled out 2 possibilities and so my information content is 2. If I say “both balls are blue”, my information content is 4. You can see right away that a self-contradictory statement (“ball 1 is blue, both balls are red”) rules out all possibilities as well, so it has maximal information content. A tautology (“ball 1 is either blue or red”) has 0 information content. Floridi is annoyed by the fact that a self-contradictory statement has maximal information content.

In section 5, he points out that statements are not only either true or false, but they have a degree of discrepancy. So, for example, I can say that I have some balls. This is a true statement, but with high discrepancy. However, I can say that I have 3 balls when in fact I have 2 balls and while false, this is a statement with lower discrepancy, and maybe a more useful statement. Apparently, he borrows this idea from Popper, but no doubt this is not a new idea.

He comes up with conditions on a possible measure of discrepancy between -1 and 1. -1 means that the statement is totally false and matches no possible situation (“I have 2 and 3 balls”), 0 means that you have a very precise and true statement (“I have 2 balls”), and 1 means that I have a true, but maximally vague statement (“I have some number of balls”). What he is getting at is that both extremes (-1 and 1) are equally unuseful, but that things near zero are equally useful (either false or true). Let’s call this value upsilon.

Then, he defines the degree of informativeness as 1-upsilon^2.

This solves the problem we had before. The statement “ball 1 is blue, both balls are red” will now have an upsilon value somewhere between -1 and 0, so it will have some degree of informativeness, but nothing close to the maximal. The statement “ball 2 is either red or blue” will upsilon = 1 and so will have a degree of informativeness of 0. Finally, “ball 1 is blue” will have upsilon positive but less than 1, and possibly close to 0, so that it will have a good degree of informativeness.

Cool RDF tools

RDF is everywhere it seems: from Dublin Core to RSS, all to way to FOAF… However, it can be quite painful to parse. Cool tools are starting to emerge however, but google is not yet very good at finding them.

Suppose you have a RDF/XML representation and you want the triples… go to W3C RDF Validation Service and it will do it nicely for you.

On the other hand, the form on this page allows you to go from N3 (the user friendly RDF syntax) to RDF/XML.

How to be creative

Through Downes’, I found this great post about how to be creative. HOWTOs are always interesting and sell magazines, but they are somewhat more interesting in blogosphere because someone you can get to know put his heart into it.

  • Ignore everybody
  • Creativity is its own reward
  • Put the hours in
  • If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail
  • You are responsible for your own experience
  • everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten
  • Keep your day job
  • Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity
  • Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb
  • The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props
  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you
  • Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside

One of the most interesting one is number 5: Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.

Of course, I don’t buy all of it. Being extremely lonely is no way to be creative I think. Nobody gets awfully creative at the bottom of a cave. I do think you have to look for others. The strength of your network is key because it multiplies your own brain power. I guess we go back to Emerson’s independence of solitude. Be in a network, be in a crowd, but do not be a mere node in the crowd, be your own node. It does require courage though, and you have to expect to fail, fail badly even.

Great Hackers

Paul Graham wrote an essay called ‘Great Hackers‘. I’m pretentious enough to call myself a hacker (though I do not claim to be great), so I had to jump on it!

Here are some juicy quotes…

Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad tools. They’ll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure.

Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it’s better, but because it gives them more control.

They [great hackers] work in cosy, neighborhoody places with people around and somewhere to walk when they need to mull something over, instead of in glass boxes set in acres of parking lots.

There’s no way around it: you can’t manage a process intended to produce beautiful things without knowing what beautiful is.

And this is the reason that high-tech areas only happen around universities. The active ingredient here is not so much the professors as the students. Startups grow up around universities because universities bring together promising young people and make them work on the same projects. The smart ones learn who the other smart ones are, and together they cook up new projects of their own.

If you’re worried that your current job is rotting your brain, it probably is.

Collaborative Filtering Java Learning Objects

Through Downes’, I found an interesting paper on the application of collaborative filtering to e-Learning in ITDL (by Jinan A. W. Fiaidhi).

It makes the point quite well that we must differentiate heterogeneous settings from sane laboratory conditions:

Searching for LOs within heterogeneous repositories as well as within collaborative repositories is far more complicated problem. In searching for such LOs we must first decide on appropriate metadata schema, but which one!

Nielsen’s Extreme Thinking

Blogging is a fascinating past-time. Who would have thought? I just read bits and pieces of an essay on Extreme Thinking.

Here’s a fascinating quote:

The key to keeping this independence of solitude is to develop a long-term vision so compelling and well-internalized, that it can override behaviours for which the short-term rewards are significant, but which may be damaging in the long run.

Update: Independence of solitude: I didn’t know this expression. Found 600 or so hits on Google. Seems that maybe the expression comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great person is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

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.

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.

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.