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.

Michael Nielsen: Principles of Effective Research: Part VII

Didier reminded me to check Nielsen’s last post on Principles of Effective Research. I take a quote out of it…

The foundation is a plan for the development of research strengths. What are you interested in? Given your interests, what are you going to try to learn? The plan needs to be driven by your research goals, but should balance short-term and long-term considerations. Some time should be spent on things that appear very likely to lead to short-term research payoff. Equally well, some time needs to be allocated to the development of strengths that may not have much immediate pay-off, but over the longer-term will have a considerable payoff.

This is a refreshing view.

Freedom in networked research: what does it mean?

When I started out as a researcher, as a young Ph.D. student, I thought research was about “having ideas”. Then, it occured to me that it was about “having ideas and ‘selling’ them” because “having ideas” is easy and too many people have too many ideas already. But marketing experts sell ideas all the time… surely, they don’t do “research”. Then, I changed my mind and decided research was about “taking ideas, validating them, putting them in practice, and building tools out of it” where “tools” is to be interpreted in a very wide sense. Turns out it is not a bad definition of what research is. But the part about “taking ideas and validating them” is a networking problem. Where do your ideas come from, how do you know how good they are? Ultimately, “validating” an idea means putting it in front of a community and getting the community to say “this is a good idea”. “Validating” is not the same as selling, though it might be hard to tell what a person is really trying to do.

But to be blunt, I don’t have yet a satisfying definition of what “research” is and I’m not looking very hard… though, networking is a necessary condition for sure. Scientists on desert islands without telecommunication can’t do research. That’s the part that I did not understand until a few years after my Ph.D. Well, maybe I’m hard on myself, maybe I understood it on the surface, but I didn’t internalized until much later.

Michael Nielsen pointed me to an interesting Web page very useful for Ph.D. students and novice researchers: Networking on the Network.

In Networking on the Network, Philip E. Agre accurately describes the world of research as a network. A network isn’t good or bad… so, some nodes will suck energy out of the network, and others will contribute much to it. The network is somewhat self-regulating, but it is possible, nevertheless, for bad leaders to emerge… He has this to say about the relationship between students and supervisor which I find rings very true:

It is good to be powerful, but only in the correct sense of the term. People with the right kind of power, in my view, do not need to manipulate or control others. To the contrary, they are (sic) know that they are well-served when others grow and find their own directions, so they happily support everyone in their growth. They don’t take responsibility for others’ growth, which is a different question. They speak to the healthy part of a person, and they are concerned to draw out and articulate the brilliant ideas and worthy vision that lie beneath the surface of whatever anyone is saying. For example, they don’t try to enroll students as acolytes in their empire-building strategies, but honestly ask what’s best for each student’s own development, confident that their knowledge, vision, and connections will have an important influence on the student’s development in any case.

As you can see, he talks a lot about “Empire building”. Indeed, because research is all about networking, to a large extend, one can build an empire out of thin air, with no substance.

It seems you can either build an empire for the purpose of building an empire, because that’s you definition of success, or else, you can aim to remain “free”. That’s a very powerful idea:

You build networks around the issues you care about, you grow and change through the relationships that result, you articulate the themes that are emerging in the community’s work, and through community-building and leadership you get the resources to do the things that you most care about doing. It’s true that this method will never give you arbitrary power. But the desire for arbitrary power is not freedom — it is a particularly abject form of slavery. If you can let go of preconceived plans then you are free: you can choose whom to associate with, and as you build your network you multiply the further directions that you can choose to go. You also multiply the unexpected opportunities that open up, the places you can turn for assistance with your projects, the flows of useful information that keep you in contact with reality, the surveillance of the horizon that keeps you from getting cornered by unanticipated developments, and the public persona that ensures that people keep coming to you with offers that you can take or leave. That is what freedom is, and it is yours if you will do the work.

I give Agre a lot of credit from bringing in the concept of “freedom” in research. University professors will often talk about “academic freedom”. I think that freedom in research is a stronger form of freedom. You can have “academic freedom” but be a slave to the “publish-or-perish” paradigm for the power it brings you. Or else, you can “do the work”, that is, do your research as a network node, and leverage the strength of the network to make the research you want to do anyhow, much better, much stronger.

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.