Working long hours is stupid

We do too much. We carry too many projects. This overproduction creates problems which we try to fix by working even more.

We value most what we create (see Made by hand and The upside of irrationality). To be happy, you want to focus on making interesting stuff. This takes time and dedication. Yet as Graham’s essay The top idea in your mind stresses, we often fall into the trap of thinking mostly about money and personal disputes. These thoughts pull us away from our interests and prevent us from doing great work. As an example, I hear that Tiger Woods isn’t playing great golf. I bet he is either stuck into money problems or personal disputes, or both.

It is hard to be overworked by writing a book, by writing research articles or by playing golf. People are overworked dealing with email, context switching, money, and touchy relationships. This abundance of work makes people sad and boring. And this type of work tends to reproduce. The more you have, the more you will have.

Unemployment and pollution are visible results of our overproduction. Yet there are many more negative side effects. In academia, we train more and more Ph.D.s every year. Yet we have had too many Ph.D.s in the job market since the seventies. We write more and more research papers every year, and spend more and more time applying for research grants… but professors spend less and less time on curiosity-driven research.

It is cool to produce great work, but it is not cool to work 60 hours a week unless it is out of passion. And nobody is passionate about grant applications, marking papers or handling difficult people. Moreover, working long hours does not scale: you can’t increase your output continuously.

Our productivity will keep improving. I can write software faster and better than ever. I can research prior work with ease. I can ask fancy mathematical questions on the Web and get answers in minutes. Instead of investing back this productivity into more silly work, we need to get smarter:

  • Focus on the essential: programming great software, writing a fun book, a set of inspiring lecture notes or an insightful article.
  • Automate, reduce or delegate. Reduce is best: doing fewer things is cool!
  • A focus on money or on personal disputes makes you stupid. Yet that’s where success often takes you. Watch out!
  • Airplanes pollute. Travel takes you away from your family. Cars pollute and make you fat. Do you need all that junk?

A review of “Hello World: Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners”

I learned programming on my own when I was twelve years old with a TRS-80 and Microsoft Basic. The documentation that came with the TRS-80 was fantastic. Alas, today, no vendor would ever think of including an introduction to programming with a computer. If your are a dad (or a mom) and you regret this, then Hello World: Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners by Warren and Carter Sande is for you. The book is cheap: while the list price is $34, Amazon sells it for a little over $23.

As a kid, my initial goal was to create my own video games. And I did! I learned (entirely on my own) that:

  • Even though computers are fast, it is hard to create fast software. Being clever is hard work!
  • While it is easy to program a small game, programming a slightly more complex game can be orders of magnitude more difficult.

This book should allow your kids to learn as much and more.

Instead of using Microsoft Basic, the authors use Python. An excellent choice. They cover all the same material as in my venerable TRS-80 documentation: random numbers, variables, loops, graphics, functions and sound. However, there are a few more advanced concepts: dynamic arrays, arrays of arrays, objects, modules, file input and output, and event-based programming.

Note that many of the examples of the book would not run on the latest Python release (3.1). That is a minor concern since I would recommend you stay away from Python 3 in any case.

Disclosure: I was given a free e-book in exchange for my review.

A researcher’s garden

I love gardening. I get good results too. However, my wife is very critical of my techniques. 

  • While I work hard, my work is often obtuse. Who grows his perennials from seeds  these days? The result matters less to me than what I learn in the process.
  • I do not care for uniformity, I prefer diversity. For example, I currently have 7 types of Morning Glory. I am always experimenting.

Back from vacations

I took some time off this year. No, we did not go anywhere specific. I just took two weeks off with my two sons. We had fun.

It has been years since I took time totally off. For irrational reasons, I would always keep my research going at a reduced rate during my time off. Not this year! I was 100% with my family… most of the time.

There still were a few exceptions. For example, DOLAP 2008 accepted our bitmap-index paper and we had to revise the paper within a few days. I really like this paper.

The problem we work on is simple: improve the compression and speed of bitmap indexes by row reordering. A bitmap index is a like a binary matrix with millions or billions of rows. Each column is compressed using a variant of run-length encoding. At query-time, the you load a few columns and apply logical operations (AND/OR) between them. Better compression translates into a faster index because the time required to perform logical operations over bitmaps is proportional to their compressed size. Finding the optimal row order is NP-hard.

A simple heuristic is to lexicographically sort the rows. It works surprisingly well. Fancier heuristics work slightly better. There are limits to how sophisticated your heuristic can get, however, since you need to scale to billions of rows. Fancy graph algorithms are out (as far as I can tell). (Processing the data in small blocks without merging does not work well.) The gist of our paper is that it is very difficult to predict which heuristic will work best, even with simple synthetic data. It was a difficult paper to write, and I am happy that the reviewers did not dismiss it since it breaks the traditional “A is better than B” research model. What our paper establishes is that it is a deeper problem than you might think at first. Fortunately, there are still a few elegant conclusions we came to.

Ok. Enough about research. Here is my youngest son on a poney:

The one thing I learned about gardening this year

Since I moved to the Montreal suburbs, I have become an active gardener. I used to apply generous amounts of fertilizers. I also got into serious trouble. My lawn died. Not because I burned it, but because I got a bad case of grubs. Several of my perennials died also or fail to come back healthy after the winter. I learned the hard way that most perennials are better off without any (chemical) fertilizer.

It turns out that in most cases, chemical fertilizers are overrated. As a rule, you should not use them.

Innovative Collaborative Filtering Venture going down: Findory

Findory was one of the most innovative collaborative filtering application ever: it provided a recommender system to help you find interesting news. Greg is letting Findory go:

Findory appears to have sufficient resources to run on autopilot through most of 2007. Findory will eventually fade away, but I believe it has touched immortality through the impact it had.

Apparently, Greg wants “to spend more time on health and with family.” Also, it is no secret that Greg was unhappy about the popularity of the site and Findory was facing the “me too!” routine with all the big players copying his ideas or simply creating similar tools.

I think that in the coming decade, dropping projects and reducing your work load to spend more time on your family will become a cool thing to do.

Projects and companies have to come and go. We should not be slaves to our projects.

Baby blues: Louka is growing teeth

Louka kept us up last night. Ok. Louka is irritable. Quite a bit so.

As usual, medical knowledge is useless, all you can learn is this:

For some babies, teething is painless. Others may experience brief periods of irritability, and some may seem cranky for weeks, experiencing crying episodes and disrupted sleeping and eating patterns. (Source:

Academic blogging: why still bother?

One of my colleague who started a blog, and then shut it down, is putting into question blogging as a useful activity. While he won’t deny that blogging can be fun, he is arguing that it is simply not very useful in a career. He is also making a comparison with real life meetings and how so much more useful the live meetings are.

Naturally, live meetings are tremendously useful because they are high bandwidth meetings where you are fully communicating with your body, face, voice, and so on. Blogging is very low bandwidth akin to email, so no comparison is possible. But it is also much more expensive for me to schedule a public talk than to blog!

For now, I still think that blogging is good for an academic career and a career in general, but I must say that I’m wavering. Many people tried blogging and backed out. Even famous academic bloggers like Sébastien Paquet and Stephen Downes have stopped or significantly reduced their blogging.

Let’s see what are some of the most tangible benefits.

  • Bloggers are easier to find on the web: there is no question that I get more people to read what I write thanks to my blog, but the problem is that I don’t necessarily effectively promote my research, so it is not clear whether it really helps my research. Are bloggers more often cited in scientific publications? I don’t know.
  • Blogging generates some networking: I know several smart people that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This is a very tangible benefit, but almost any intellectual activity brings in some networking benefit. Also, I cannot point to an example in my life where this small amount of networking was beneficial.
  • Blogging is good for knowledge management: I still search through my blog to find old ideas or old pointers. This alone might be worth blogging.