What 20 years in academia taught me about my finances

  • There is no such thing as an unbiased expert outside the Mathematics department. When your banker told you to borrow money and to invest it in the stock market, you did not really think he had your best interest in mind, did you? I am always amazed by how definitive the financial advice bankers give out. Ask to see their mathematical models and question their assumptions! Most often, you will find out that they have no model and they are just repeating corporate lines.
  • Reproducibility is a lot harder than it sounds. Times and times again, I have been surprised by how difficult it is to reproduce the results of a given research paper. Financial experts often base their advice on case studies and they assume that these are reproducible. If people twenty years ago managed to get rich by buying cheap houses and reselling them for a profit, can we reproduce this scenario in 2008? Maybe. Maybe not.
  • Long-term plans are much less useful than you think. As a researcher, I often make up plans. I am forced, every 5 years, to plan for the next 5 years so that my funding agency will give me some money. However, these plans always fall flat. The truth is that I am terrible at predicting the future reliably. Feel free to set goals for yourself however. Just do not be surprised if you have to reinvent your plans and your goals every 3 months.

From freedom to intelligence

If you want to be smart, you must first learn to be free. Build low energy systems. Lean and mean machines.

To explain why freedom leads to better result, we had Adam Smith—yes, I took economics once—who used a crude model to justify the use of free markets (an innovation at the time). But it takes time and patience to convince us that thriving for more freedom is necessary. Certainly, intelligence is fuzzier than we tend to believe.

Fear is freedom’s worst enemy. Fear destroys freedom and ultimately, intelligence. In turn, this is why leaderless organizations are thriving. The leaders are not the trouble, the loss of freedom is.

Non-commercial licenses and university courseware

Lately I have been toying with the marginal use of content licensed for non-commercial purposes in my courses. Such content includes flickr images, YouTube videos, and so on. The Open University interprets non-commercial to include the use of content as part of a course for which you charge an admission fee.

My own interpretation would be more restrictive. I consider my use of such resources to be non-commercial because:

  • my courseware is freely available, and even indexed by Google: while students pay to enter the corresponding course, they clearly do not pay to access the Web site;
  • the Web site does not contain ads;
  • the Web site is not used to promote a product;
  • the Web site is not used to promote a service (it may happen that a student would choose to enroll in the course after checking out the Web site, but the site is not designed with this purpose in mind).

Downes‘ position seems to go along my intuition:

The ONLY thing that differentiates commercial and noncommercial use is that commercial use consists of blocking people from using things.

Wikipedia has its own spin:

A non-commercial enterprise is work that values other considerations above and beyond that of making a profit. It differs from a non-profit enterprise in that seeking a profit is a part of their business, just not the main part.

(If I read Wikipedia’s definition right, a non-profit enterprise is automatically a non-commercial enterprise.)

In case the University ever calls me up to ask me to pull out these resources, I would like to have some references or arguments to support my point of view. More seriously, I am thinking about relying more on such content in the future. Can you help me build my case?

To be clear, my problem is not with the need to pay or negotiate licenses per se. The University has staff to handle these chores and it has money to spend on IP. But if I have to ask for permission each and every time I use such content, I will simply link to the resource with a bona fide hyperlink. It is faster for me, though not as nice for the student.

Non-industrial workplaces

picture by drukaman

Harold has an interesting post on democratic workspaces. Actually, I do not think that democracy captures the issue. I think he means non-industrial workspaces. Here is a juicy quote:

many of us have learned how to send e-mails on a Sunday night but few of us have learned how to go to a movie on a Monday afternoon

University professors and independent consultants both have non-industrial workspaces. Almost. Several professors still run their laboratories and courses using industrial-age models.

While I will not disclose my sources, I know that some laboratories in Montreal require attendance from students during the day, for fear that the university would take back the space allocated. This in an era where a cheap laptop in a local coffee shop is a perfectly sufficient setting to do top-notch research in Computer Science.

Classrooms are badly designed in general. You do not want to get university students facing a blackboard centered around the concept of a hierarchical group. You want universities centered around Downes‘ model where people can network, as in a coffee place.

The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to demonstrate that we can outgun industrial workspaces. Industrial workspaces tend to be very good at satisfying bean counters. They are designed with this very purpose in mind.

Your platform is your software

Seb Paquet sent me a link to Delusions of Facebook – Should you be a Facebook Startup? I am immediately reminded of McLuhan.

The medium is the message.

When Microsoft Windows came along, many people only noticed the obvious. Windows made it easy to build a good-looking application. Microsoft offered a standard API which was usable. Microsoft Windows was used by millions of people. What a great platform for a business! However, a lot of good companies (such as Netscape, Word Perfect, Novell, Stacker, Lotus) were crushed by Microsoft because they tried hard to complement what Microsoft was offering. These companies were often not bought, just made irrelevant. Microsoft destroyed the software industry over time and few people beyond Microsoft benefited from it.

One tragic mistake some people have made is to assume you can simply move to a new platform when the time comes. The mere fact that you use Microsoft Windows this year does not preclude you to support MacOS next year, does it? But platform-dependence builds up while you are not watching and is a lot more insidious than one might think. I am not even talking about the fact that your users are on one specific platform: these are business concerns. You grow a lot of technological dependencies toward a platform without ever realizing it. Anyone who has switched from Windows to Linux, or from Linux to MacOS or from Windows to MacOS has some idea of these hard-to-describe dependencies. And over time, once you have adopted a new platform, you just work differently.

There was a large number of companies in the Unix/DOS era who just assume they could port their stuff to Windows. Most failed. Meanwhile, Oracle made platform-independence a requirement for their software from the get-go. They are still around and going strong. (Ironically, they try hard to lock their own customers into their own software.)

Then the web arrived. Again, several companies from the desktop era try to adapt themselves to the web… most failed. Even Microsoft has a very hard time adapting. And the giant of today (Yahoo!, Google…) did not even exist in the desktop-era.

So, if all you build is a facebook application, it is what you are. Even if, in theory, you can recast your technology as something else, using a new platform, it does not make it practical. If facebook makes your application irrelevant, or breaks it in some way, your company may very well die on the spot.

And, you know what, this is a great thing sometimes. As a researcher with an interest in applications, I know I will be busy for years to come.

Canadian dollar reach parity with American dollar

For all my adult life, the American dollar has been worth more than the Canadian dollar, often much more. No longer! We reached parity today. Maybe Americans should reflect on what this means for them that the value of their currency is going downward so fast. (Hint: stuff is going to cost more.)

The Web is a distinct society

It just came to me lately that the Web forms a world of its own, with its own political views. It always strike me how little government presence there is on the Web. In most Western economies, the government account for a large share of the economy (certainly above 20%). On the Web, I would say that official government sites account for less of 2% of all Web sites I visit (anyone has numbers to back this up?).

I pay taxes to Quebec and Canada. I carry a Canadian passport. I have to live by the local laws. Whenever I do anything, I can see the influence of the rule of law. I have to stop my car at every street corner. I see police cars drive by almost weekly. Shops are strictly limited in what they can do. If someone steals from me, I will walk to a police station and fill in some paperwork.

However, my Web persona is very different. My server (daniel-lemire.com) is hosted somewhere in the USA. I rarely think about the local laws. They are pretty much irrelevant. If Amazon.com were to cheat me, the first thing I would do, is to search the Web for similar cases using Google, not call the cops.

The economy on the Web is very different from the economy off-the-grid.

In a brick-and-mortar shops, a great deal of time is spent on having to deal with rules and obligations. If you want to improve your neighborhood, you probably should chat with a local politician. Starting a shop or a factory requires months of work and lots of paperwork.

The Web (or the Internet at large) is very different. If you want to stop SPAM, the last thing you want to do is go to your local politician. There are rules, but the most important ones are not enforced by governments. There are no prisons, but people can setup filters to ignore you. Starting a shop or a web service can only take days. You can also tear down a service or an online shop in seconds.

My point is that the Web is a distinct society, one that is far more libertarian than anything seen in the physical world. It is something of a wild west.

If the libertarians are right, then the Web should see great economic and cultural growth. We always need a frontier were forward-thinking people can express themselves.