Category Archives: school

Am I really almost done?

Excited hamster

2 years. 73 pages. 16,394 words. Am I really almost done?

I've spent the last two years of my life working on my master's degree. My thesis defense has been booked for August 8. I'm putting the finishing touches on my thesis about using Web 2.0 to find expertise. Tomorrow, I'm going to wrestle with page numbers and formatting. On Wednesday, I'll print out my thesis for my committee members.

Can I really be so close to finishing?

And am I really so close to being able to do all the things I've been planning to do once I get out into the Real World?

Watch out! This will be fun!

Photo (c) 2007 annia316, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

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I revised the first chapter of my thesis today, incorporating suggestions from my research supervisor. He's happy with the quality of my writing, too. I think I might actually be getting the hang of this.

Tomorrow, I'm going to Sudbury for a short trip out to the science centre there. It certainly looks like fun... =)

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How do you know if an idea is innovative?

How do you know if an idea is innovative? You might feel that your pet idea is amazing, only to find out it's not only obvious but can already be found in several open-source implementations. (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt!) Patent searches are difficult because patents are intentionally vague. Your best bet? Ask subject experts, or just put it out there and see if anyone complains. As long as it's innovative to some people, it's okay, right?

I wonder if the most missed opportunities, however, are when we don't think an idea is innovative, when we think it's blindingly obvious to everyone. Some things come naturally to us because they makes sense given our experiences and our situation, and we forget that even if we're in the same situation that other people find themselves in, our experiences give us a unique perspective on things. How can we recognize our innovative ideas if we think we're ordinary?

Here's what research into creativity and expertise has to say:

The empirical evidence on creative achievement shows... that individuals require a long preparatory period during which they master the relevant aspects of that domain until they are even capable of making creative contributions to the domain. ... Extended education is, thus, necessary even to recognize major innovations and distinguish them from products matching acknowledged achievements previously created by earlier eminent performers. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998

In order to recognize that something is new, you should know the old stuff. Pretty straightforward, right? That can involve a lot of work. Even in science and other well-documented fields, people specialize because they can't keep track of everything going on. Where's the pay-off for this work?

...the extended education of expert performers primarily elevates the level of play and search by providing the appropriate tools and the rich knowledge about previous achievements. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998

The more you know, the more you can play with, the wider the solution space you can explore. Every programming language you learn opens up new worlds for you. Every tool you try out adds value in a combinatorial explosion. The further you go, the likelier it is that you come up with ideas that few other people could have come up with, too. And the more you learn about what's already there, the better you'll be at recognizing when something's new.

Right. But you don't have time to do that. So what can you do?

Here's how I deal with personal-level ideas:

If an idea seems innovative to me, it's probably innovative for at least one other person. If I can, I want to find that person and make his or her life better. ;) If I come across lots of people for whom this is a new idea, I might really have something good on my hands.

If an idea seems obvious to me, I'll keep it in mind anyway, and I'll share it with other people. Chances are, it's innovative for at least one other person, etc. Sometimes I'll realize I have cool ideas by just talking to other people and thinking about how we deal with things differently. I usually share the details of my little idea as a blog entry because I just know I'm going to run into more people who want to hear about it. I almost always come up with even better ideas while I'm describing the original one. So I really like sharing ideas with people, especially people who share their own ideas with me. We all grow.

I'm not too concerned yet about Really Innovative Ideas that need IP protection. I'm just practicing the skills of coming up with good ideas and making them happen. I have a growing collection of the cool ideas I spot or come up with, which I keep on index cards because index cards are the best for rapidly flipping through stuff. Starting with the idea that everything is innovative to somebody, the task then becomes one of filtering through this whole list of ideas to find one or two that can make someone incredibly happy. Sometimes I'll start with that someone in mind, and then my brain will kick into high gear and come up with suggestions. (I love that!) Sometimes I'll start with a cool idea and then, just for fun, see what I can apply it to and who might like it.

Is an idea innovative or not? I don't think it really matters to me. I have a feeling it should matter—after all, I'm currently doing my master's research—but I'm much more interested in whether it's worth it to find people it's new to (and everything is new to someone, which you know if you've ever tried teaching someone division), and what else I can do with the idea. That's why anyone who spends a few minutes with me at a networking event will come away with bucketloads of ideas and things to check out if they give me any sort of clue about their interests. That's why I love listening and sharing stories, because that helps me add people's experiences to my idea pool and lets me exercise my brain.

And then it becomes true: the more I learn and try out, the more ideas I have to play with, the more clearly I can recognize when most people will think that an idea of mine is crazy or cool. And that's not work - that's fun! So I think that's a great way to practice being innovative. Don't worry if your ideas are innovative or not! You'll always be able to find people who'll think those ideas are new and useful (although in some cases, you'll have to look very very hard). If these ideas make your life better, go for it. If they make other people's lives better, great! As you practice, you'll learn more and more about what other people think and how other people think, and you'll get not only a better sense of what's new but also what could be!

Ericsson, K.A. (1998) "The scientific study of expert levels of performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity", High Ability Studies, 9:1, 75—100

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zomg, I’m a graduate student

Life has a way of creeping up and surprising you at the strangest moments. Today I had my "Oh my goodness, I'm actually a graduate student" moment. W. and I were talking about the development of expertise. We were planning how to spend our leisure time. I mentioned this little tidbit I picked up from somewhere: expertise takes around 10,000 hours to develop. This is around ten years of practicing three hours a day, and you can start now.

W. found this bit of trivia interesting. I told him how I remembered reading the abstract but hadn't tracked down the paper. Naturally, this made me want to look it up. While I was taking a break from writing my thesis, I looked up the webpage from which I got the tidbit. It cited two books. The Toronto Public Library didn't carry the books, so I searched for other citations and full-text copies of papers.

The University of Toronto has an awesome research library. Granted, there were a few papers I couldn't easily access, but I could get copies of all the seminal works. Not only that, but the academic search services even let me filter through the papers that cited these works to see follow-up papers in computer science and engineering. Wow.

Which brings me back to my zomg-I'm-a-graduate-student moment: an off-hand comment during a casual conversation prompted me to look up not only the original paper but also the papers that cite it. I have access to such a vast array of knowledge through my university library. *And* I know how to read the research papers now, and maybe I can even translate them into ordinary-speak...

Two years of my life in exchange for access to centuries of knowledge. Not a bad deal, not a bad deal at all.

High school

Reconnecting with old friends—the sudden, arresting realization of the motion of time. And then of course there's the update—who's where and what are they doing, who have "settled down"—our generation? Settling down? There's no such thing any more. People marry and get on with the rest of their lives. Or they don't and they get on with the rest of their lives. We try to imagine the faces we remember from high school, superimposed on the stories we hear. The stories fit just as well as our faded uniforms do. Wasn't it just yesterday that we were running down Pisay's waxed tile floors?

Get-togethers aren't like the way we hung out before. Now it's all about status reports, plans, stories. I tell a lot of stories. It's a way of understanding what's going on. I'm surprised at how much has happened in my life since then. Is my life really all that dramatic? Like a soap opera, they say. But it's just life. I try to ask about other people's lives. Not a lot of stories to tell yet—they're still thinking, still seeing how life will turn out.

There's a mailing list somewhere, a website. There's probably even an RSS feed telling people of relationship changes, job changes, life
changes. Someday it will tell us of births, deaths, lingering illnesses. I should know about this, but I don't. I never really got to know all my other classmates when I was in high school. I've kept in touch with a handful of people and they tell me of all the rest. I'm not one of those connected people. I don't tell other people's stories. But now it hits me, now I feel this urge to know. We starve for companionship, being part of a cohort of other people learning about life for the same time, the startling glimpses of similarities
with people who seemed irreconcilably different back then.

The rest of them are closer. They go to reunions, have parties, write. I'll be away, but maybe I'll make it back for the tenth anniversary
two years from now. What can one do in ten years, anyway? It seems like barely enough time to finish university and get started in life.
Is that just me? I've been in school. That's what's kept me busy. Other people might have stopped at university. Six years is enough to
do well in a company, or at least get somewhere. But hey, I went to a geek school; other people must have gone for postgrad. I won't be the only one. We'll see.

In the meantime—life needs to be lived.

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Plodding away on my thesis

So I'm transcribing the interviews of the usability study. It's nice hearing the good things again, but I'm seriously thinking that this is not stuff I want to spend that many hours of my life on, even if it's classic research assistant work.

It takes me around 3 hours to transcribe a recording. Let's say that it takes other people longer to do that, say 5 hours. There are six recordings left. I should spend Friday looking for an audio transcription service based in the Philippines, or someone who's willing to do it.

Does anyone know how I can get this sorted out?

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