Saturday mornings are a time when I sit down with a cup of coffee and do some ‘lateral reading’. What does that mean? I have some initial ideas of where I want to start reading but I then follow leads, links in Twitter, etc. to wherever it takes me. I periodically ‘reset’ back to the topic list that is in my ‘todo’ list but it’s dialectic between curiosity and projects on my mind.
I thought I’d trace the patterns of this as I’m curious about what others do when they are sitting down to recharge, explore and move some of your project work forward.
Saturday morning lateral reading usually lasts until the early afternoon. It begins after a light breakfast (bagel & fruit usually) while listening to NPR Weekend Edition followed by Car Talk Classic. My usual routine involves reading the news on my iPad (NYT, The Guardian, WP), checking what’s new on Twitter and FB, reading selected journal TOCs news bits and depending on the research articles an article or two (Science, Nature, CACM, Psychological Science in the Pub Interest, etc.). Then the todo list emerges to vie for attention.
Yesterday went something like this. I read the news sources that are my routine goto sources for the events of the day. While eating breakfast and going through the stories I listed to a caller on Car Talk asking why, when she was driving on a rural road in thunder and lighting storm, a lightening strike hit in front of her on the road she was driving and didn’t hit her car. She thought her car, being a metal box would have been the more likely target. This led initially to a discussion about lightening strikes in general and the direction they strike (from clouds to earth or earth to clouds).
Ray said he though it was actually earth to cloud in direction which Tom, with his infectious laugh thought was ‘bogus’. This led to some banter for a bit and prompted me to look up information on the formation of lightening and it mechanism of discharge via a search using Chrome leading to the Earthscience Stackexchange site. There a really well written post by Vikram (4-14-14) described the process by which from the cloud end the build up of negative charges (electrons) coupled with a comparable increase in positive charges on the ground reaches the point where the cloud end releases a burst of negative particles that move earthward in stepwise pattern. They advance 50-100m, pause about 50 μsec and branches again searching for the path of least resistance toward ground. When they get close enough to earth the positive side arcs toward the nearest of these branching negative particle stepped leader. When they connect, they have completed a path of least resistance and the ensuing flow transforms them into a plasma, generating enormous heat (50,000 Kelvin) and enabling the positive and negative particles to flow toward their opposite polarity. The short answer is that the flow happens in both directions, but the flash we see as lightening is actually going from the ground to the clouds.
At that point I settled into my reading chair (a stressless chair with ottoman and a swing arm computer tray by a window, and picked up last month’s Communications of the ACM (CACM) which was bright pink and on the cover was the screaming headline “SEX is an algorithm”. Scanning the ToC I checked out what was inside and where I wanted to focus my time. I was attracted to a couple of Viewpoint articles. I started with “Technology and Academic Lives”, by Jonathan Grudin, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research in Redmond.
The article was about rise of ‘busyness” in higher ed, that is, the sense that most of us have, along with what I suspect everyone else in the western world, that our days are increasingly packed with more and more stuff to do in less and less time. All of this contributes to the loss of concentrated thinking time spent discussing things with local colleagues. Local is the key descriptive term here. Grudin divides the past 46 years in to four time periods.
- 1975 – Pre-internet era
- 1979 – Pre-web era
- 1995 – Early web era
- 2015 – Information Age
It was a nice read that followed the theme of increasing computer communications inversely proportional to decreasing social f2f interaction. The pre-internet era by necessity meant that your primary intellectual stimulation and challenges emerged form discussions with your departmental colleagues and graduate students. With internet (pre-web) the opportunity to connect with researchers in your specialty or sub-specialty around the world led to substantive discussion of your work focused among this distributed community. And with that, a cost in your social connectedness to your local community and even to some extent your grad students.
The 1995 period was marked by recommendations for new hires primarily based on external letters from people most in the department had loose or no ties. This was coupled by the continuing diminishment of one’s local community in relation to one’s research.
By 2015 data has proliferated to the point that an obsession with quantification emerges. Polarization increases between those who are and aren’t quantitatively focused. This is coupled by a sharp rise in assessing the impact of one’s work. The focus on good teaching has been replaced by a rise in the importance of avoiding bad teaching. Raising money has grown in significance making grant getting a priority and diminishing the stature and voice of those not as successful or interested in that side of the profession.
In summary the current status quo is marked by:
- increasing importance of fund raising;
- increasing significance of rankings;
- specialization narrows interests;
- collaboration across distance accelerates scholarship and discovery
- distributed research teams comes at the cost of local community and increase in weak ties
That rings true to my experience. Close knit local research communities are a thing of the past.
Grundin ends suggesting we think about new forms of interaction and assessment that are less impersonal and stressful. He uses the analogy of the martial art of Aikido where the forces focused on you are redirected to achieve positive outcomes and retain balance. Malcolm will like this reference.
Next up was a n article by Pat Helland entitled “The Power of Babble” about the proliferation of metadata and standards.There was a nice quote there from Dave Clark (MIT) about successful standards happen only where they are lucky enough to slide into a trough of inactivity after a burst research and before a huge investment in productization.
Systemic changes in large computing systems require translation between two data representations, and that’s likely to be “lossy”. Often one builds a canonical representation that the old system needs to be converted to and then from that converted again to the new data structure. That’s doubly “lossy”.
The article for me fell down at that point as Helland calls for simply becoming more relaxed about what you don’t understand accepting with pleasure becoming befuddled.
Next up were a couple of research in practice articles on distributed consensus systems, and the Paxo, Chubby Lock and Raft algorithms. The latter was referred to as “Paxo for humans” (:-)
A contributed article in CACM looked interesting on Spark: A Unified Engine for Big Data Processing. That was a harder read and
Finally from a tweet that came in toward the end of this a video interview by Steve Wheeler (from Plymouth University) with Yves Punie who keynoted the EDEN conference in Europe and spoke about digital competencies needed by learners and citizens in society today.
Punie described 21 digital competencies clustered in to five clusters:
- Understanding digital information, its authority and its critical evaluation
- Communicating in a digital world, learning how to collaborate and share
- Becoming facile with digital content creation, both as individuals and groups
- Understanding issues of safety, privacy, health and well-being in the cyberspace
- Digital problem solving including reflecting on what problems need to be solved
Punie noted that a recent survey of employers in the EU reported 37% of workers don’t have sufficient digital skills to do their jobs. This he indicated is a failure by the companies not providing professional development and training and in educational institutions not graduating digitally prepared workers or socially constructive digital citizens.
This was followed by reading some a paper about Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don’t Know What to Do (Phi Delta Kappa) and some email.
That is probably representative of my morning-early afternoon work. Sunday was more of the same, with more attention to my Todo List.
What do you do for lateral reading?