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

By Charles Sutton on December 6, 2014

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.

Mnemonic poetry and Guy Fawkes night

By Charles Sutton on November 5, 2014

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.

Business Cards and Me

By Charles Sutton on November 1, 2014

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.

A Threat to the British Monarchy

By Charles Sutton on August 16, 2014

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.

Tags: britain, history

Principal Component Model of Coffee Shops

By Charles Sutton on July 20, 2014

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.

Tags: coffee, hobbies