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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?

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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,

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

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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

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.

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.

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High school

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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

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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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The end is near!

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I did my first two usability tests today. Yay! The end is in sight!
Thanks to Stephen and Pierre for being my two friendly guinea pigs.

Stephen spoke well of my prototype when he passed by Pierre’s
computer. Apparently he thought that I had either built a terrific
tool or a terrific test. Someone once said that any sufficently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo. My
prototype is neither advanced nor rigged. I kept expecting it to
crash, and every scenario that passed without catastrophic failure was
a minor success already.

I am conscious of the fact that I had chosen the tasks to fit the
tool, and I built the tool to fit the tasks. I’m probably even biasing
the usability test results by my presence. Still, if the study
explores something new, then maybe I’m not an imposter after all. (Oh,
to silence that small voice in my head!)

Recruiting more friendlies for usability tests next week. I will
however have to steel myself and test with new people as well…

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Writing writing writing

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1455 words so far for the paper due on Thursday. I can do this!

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