Saturday, 6 December 2014

Taste in research, and the paradox of deciding what not to work on

A large part of taste in research is deciding what not to work on. You might choose not to apply method X, even though you don't really understand it, because it has a reputation for being fiddly and difficult to get right. You might choose not to work on topic Y because you think that even though there's a lot of people writing papers about it, its goals are too ambitious to ever be met. This extends all the way to entire fields of research. I could name a few popular fields within computer science — with active research communities, large amounts of external research funding, leading researchers with fancy prestigious awards — that I suspect are being investigated in entirely the wrong way, and that I personally think are currently pointless.

I could name them. Will I? No.

Why not? To protect my career? If I am honest, probably in part yes. But what I tell myself is different. The real answer, I think, is that my opinion of these areas is poorly informed. Because I think these areas are uninteresting, I haven't studied them carefully, and so I don't know how they've attempted to address my naive objections. It would be arrogant and professionally irresponsible to publicly denigrate the hard work of many people without having even bothered to read it.

This leads to a paradox. It's impossible by definition for me to become better informed about these areas, unless I decide to actually start researching them. In order to be fully confident that an area is uninteresting, you need to study it — and that study itself is part of doing research! But you can't do careful reading on every research area that seems bogus at first impression, because then you would do nothing else. Instead, you have to take intellectual shortcuts, and do the best you can with limited time to think. Those research areas that smell a bit off, you ignore them until either they die out, or a major success forces you to reevaluate. Part of taste in research is deciding what to study, and what to ignore.

This is the paradox of taste in research. Your decision of what not to work on is, by definition, always ill-informed.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Mnemonic poetry and Guy Fawkes night

I walked home past several people setting off sparklers and fireworks in the meadows. In Edinburgh celebrations of Guy Fawkes night are not elaborate, but you can smell the gunpowder.

A good thing, because otherwise I can never remember what night it is. The traditional rhyme

     Remember, remember, the fifth of November

is about the worst possible mnemonic that I could think of. It fits the meter just as well to say

     Remember, remember, the FOURTH of November

but you aren't meant to remember that one. Personally I prefer

     Remember, remember, the ninth of November,

because that happens also to be my birthday.

Much more sensible to base the rhyme on the part that's easiest to confuse.
Instead, how about:

Let the memory survive
      That the king was still alive
          On November five.

Now you won't forget.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Business Cards and Me

Just before I went to my first conference, I thought, "Hey, I guess I should be professional now!" and printed out business cards on the best card stock that I could find at Staples. Apparently, of the hundreds of people who attended NIPS that year, I was the only one who had done this. I handed out one card, received none, and assumed that everyone must just Google each other after the conference.

From an objective standpoint, from the perspective of maximizing the efficiency of scholarly communication, this is of course ridiculous. The only explanation that I can imagine is reverse snobbery, the same reason we would never wear a suit and tie to work. But at the time, I didn't worry about this. I just did what everyone else did.

I'm eleven years older now, and my memory is much worse. At the last conference I attended, I thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if next time, I could go home with a list of every new person that I met, perhaps on a durable but unobtrusive slip of paper?" I do worry about people giving me funny looks, but I can't very well pretend to myself that I am creative and iconoclastic if I always do what my friends do.

So if I meet you at NIPS this year, do not be surprised if you receive an unobtrusive slip of paper from me. I hope that you enjoy the word cloud on the back.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A Threat to the British Monarchy

I’d like to talk frankly about a real threat to the British monarchy.

First, monarchs like to emphasize continuity and tradition by reusing names from previous monarchs. This is understandable as, in a constitutional monarchy, continuity and tradition are the monarchy's main assets. Perhaps for this reason, a British king hasn’t taken on a previously unused name since George I in 1714.

However, this bumps up against a contradictory historical tendency, namely that British monarchs have had what might be described as a rich and varied history. British kings aren’t eager to remind people of their more colourful predecessors. Many names are therefore out of bounds.

The result is that the British monarchy is rapidly running out of names in the male line. For example:

  • Henry — It is difficult to imagine the king who would want to be Henry IX, and even more difficult to imagine the woman who would want to marry him.

  • Richard — Who wants to be the successor of the King in the Car Park? And there was the business with the Princes in the Tower.

  • Edward — Although the abdication of Edward VIII might be viewed more romantically by modern eyes, the Nazi sympathies, not so much.

  • John — The Magna Carta was written to protect people from him.

  • James is right out.

Once you factor in this history, there are very few names left. Charles is still OK. Charles II granted the charter of the Royal Society; perhaps a future Charles III could also take an interest in science. William and George are unimpeachable. Albert is a possibility, although the famous Albert was only a consort, making the name a bit of a risk: the last prospective King Albert decided at the crucial moment to become a George instead.

This is shaping into a crisis. One can imagine a time, in the coming centuries, when the only choices left to British kings are Charles, George, and Cnut.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Principal Component Model of Coffee Shops

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I'm writing in Amsterdam, so let me clarify that I do mean coffee. I like coffee shops because: a) I like coffee, b) I find them relaxing, and c) and it is a way to be around people without the awkwardness of being obligated to talk to them.

It's very important to choose coffee shops wisely. Before I go on vacation, I always do careful research about where the best coffee shops are (again: for coffee). But "best" is complicated. You need to think about what aspects of the coffee shop experience are most important for your trip:

A) Quality of the coffee. The presence of single estate beans or fancy hipster brewing methods is a good sign, but it doesn't matter what equipment they have if they don't know how to use it.

B) Ambiance. How easy is it to relax? Or to concentrate? There's one place I used to go to often — closed now — awful coffee, but near me, and really cool decor.

C) Quality of food. Pastries only? Sandwiches? Hot food? How good?

D) Location, location, location.

E) Work friendly or people friendly? Some cafés you go to with a laptop, some you go with a group of friends. A book is usually always OK. Interestingly a tablet feels more to me like a book in terms of social acceptability than a laptop but maybe I'm biased.

I know one cafe where 24/7 there was always a row of six people staring at laptop screens. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you're bringing a laptop too.

F) Attractiveness of clientele. I never go to cafés specifically to pick people up, but it's always nice to be around people who seem interesting.

G) Staff. This is complicated because while nice banter will always make me smile, I am also happy to be left alone.

Happy to hear if there are important criteria that I am leaving out.

Friday, 14 February 2014

A Suggestion for Scotland

This will be a big year for the United Kingdom. In September, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the UK or to become an independent country. For several years, support for independence has remained steady at around 33%, but some polls have shown that support for independence may be increasing. For my American friends, I personally think that this op-ed is a good primer.

As a foreigner, I cannot vote in the referendum, and rightly so. But I would like to humbly propose a third option for Scotland, just as a suggestion. A middle ground between the risks of complete independence, and the current reality of being yoked to Westminster.

I suggest that come September, Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and join the United States as the 51st state.

This would be welcomed all throughout the US, I guarantee it. Americans love Scotland. We really, really love Scotland, even if we can’t find it on a map. There are more people of Scottish ancestry in America than there are in Scotland. We have Scottish festivals all over the country, with kilts, bagpipes, Highland dance — the whole works, except only for haggis (which is actually illegal to import) and Irn Bru (that stuff’s minging). My point is, Americans really, really like Scotland. Maybe the EU would dither about accepting an independent Scotland, but the US would accept Scotland in a New York minute.

Polls show that Scots are concerned about their economic future. Joining the US would be great for Scotland’s economy. By joining into a single trading area with the United States, it would be easier for American tourists to come to Scotland, and for Scottish haggis to come to the US (I love that stuff). Also, you need to consider the film industry. We spent $70 million making a movie about the last time Scotland won independence. Don’t think we won’t do it again. We put a Scot into outer space. Heck, we even made up a Scottish smurf! The fact is, over the past 50 years, Hollywood has done more for Scotland than London has. Join with us, and we can do more, together.

Now, some might argue that my suggestion is impractical. After all, Scotland is a long way from the US. (Americans: you might need a map for this part.)  But with modern telecommunications, there’s no reason this should be an issue. In fact, Washington, DC, is actually 1000 miles closer to Edinburgh than it is to Honolulu.

I can understand that some Scots might be concerned about this proposal. After all, Washington DC has been pretty dysfunctional lately. Some might ask: Are these really the people you want to join your political future with? First, it’s important to point out that the US Congress makes up only 0.000017% of the population. Most Americans are more sensible. Second, and most important, this is why we need your help. It’s true that there are a lot of perfectly nice people in the US whose political views are batshit crazy. But it’s also true that the country is deeply divided. The crazy people are really only about 49.8% of the population. Even though Scotland’s population is small, in a politically polarised country, it’s enough to tip the balance. Think about it: The US State of Scotland would probably receive 9 electoral votes. The US presidential election of 2000 was decided by only 5. Just think about the good that Scotland could have done for the entire world.

Clearly, this is one of the most difficult and important political issues in Scotland’s history. Honest people of good intentions will come to different opinions. But I hope that I’ve convinced you that this third option is one that’s worthy of serious consideration.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Ubiquitous capture and the ideas file

Ubiquitous capture is a great term from Getting Things Done. Like the best ideas from GTD, it is simple, obvious in retrospect, but changes everything. Ubiquitous capture means: When you think of something, you should write it down, right away, in some place where you will check it later.

This is especially good for keeping track of ideas for new research projects. I tend to find ideas for new projects while I'm walking to work, when I'm sitting in a talk, or when I'm working intensely for a paper deadline. Hardly ever can I work on them right away, but I know that I will need them later. So, whenever I have an idea for a new project, I stop whatever I'm doing and write in down in my ideas list. If I have to stop in the street or pause a one-on-one meeting to pull out my phone, well, a benefit of being an academic is that you get to be eccentric.

I keep my ideas list in Evernote, but it doesn't matter what you use, as long as all your ideas are on one list.

Later, usually many months later, a student will ask me for suggestions for an undergraduate, master's, or PhD project. I go back to my ideas list and look. I also tag each idea "ug", "msc", or "phd", if I think it would work well for one of those degrees.

I also look back through the list periodically to pull out ones that are especially exciting. Every idea is exciting when you first have it; the ones that are still exciting a week later are the ones to keep.

Of course I use a similar system for blog ideas.