Notes on doing world-class research

These few notes are taken (verbatim) from a transcribed lecture by Richard W. Hamming. I have used the transcription published here:

The original article is excellent and well worth reading in its entirety. But, it is rather long. These are just few main points isolated from the lecture. A quick reference.

Pasteur: Luck favors the prepared mind.

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with!

Newton: If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.

Hamming: You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, “Yes, I’ve stood on so and so’s shoulders and I saw further.” The essence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class.

Unknown: It is a poor workman who blames his tools – the good man gets on with the job, given what he’s got, and gets the best answer he can.

I suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you’ve done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you’ve done. It isn’t just a matter of the job, it’s the way you write the report, the way you write the paper, the whole attitude. It’s just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it’s much more satisfying and rewarding!

“Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?” […] Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine, women and song put together,” […] And if you look at the bosses, they tend to come back or ask for reports, trying to participate in those moments of discovery. They’re always in the way. So evidently those who have done it, want to do it again. […] I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort of dividends, in my opinion.

It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble. […] I am not saying you shouldn’t make gestures of reform. I am saying that my study of able people is that they don’t get themselves committed to that kind of warfare. They play it a little bit and drop it and get on with their work.

On the other hand, we can’t always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. What it comes down to basically is that you cannot be original in one area without having originality in others. Originality is being different. You can’t be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far higher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. I’m not against all ego assertion; I’m against some.

Now self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are enumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way. When you ask, “Why didn’t you do such and such,” the person has a thousand alibis. […] Why didn’t you do it right? Don’t try an alibi. Don’t try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don’t mind. But to yourself try to be honest.

When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go. If you have a vision of what the whole laboratory should be, or the whole Bell System, you have to get there to make it happen. You can’t make it happen from the bottom very easily. It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change. I chose to avoid management because I preferred to do what I could do single-handedly. But that’s the choice that I made, and it is biased. Each person is entitled to their choice. Keep an open mind. But when you do choose a path, for heaven’s sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don’t try to do both sides.

Children discrimination (cont)

A continuation of the Dunedin’s children discrimination case. The question is if children under 15 should be treated as people. It appears that people under 16 in New Zealand (unlike other countries) are not covered by the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Fascinating. Below is a final email and my reply with the New Zealand Human Rights commissioner office.


On 26/08/10 2:49 PM, Cecelia O’Dell wrote:
Dear Mariusz

As you have been made aware, your initial complaint alleging age discrimination could not be canvased because the age provisions under the Human Rights Act start from the age of 16+. We then considered whether family status, disability and the aged as identified by you might apply.

The Commission’s solicitor provided the following analysis:

The scheme allows those who live outside the designated area through the use of vouchers to take advantage of a limited no. of parking spaces near the campuses. You have to be 15 or over to qualify for a voucher.

The complainant asserts that because the scheme provides: “preference to 2 people instead of 4 and to students instead of single parents with young children or elderly (or mobility disabled)” it is discriminatory.

There is nothing in the information provided which says that it applies to only two people; it says there must be at least two people with valid vouchers in the car when it’s parked. There is nothing in the scheme which says that single parents or the elderly or the mobility disabled cannot apply for a voucher.

Is it a case of indirect discrimination? Is it a scheme which in effect gives preference to young, able-bodied students who are not parents. There is no evidence of that.

The age restriction is not a problem as you need to be 16+ before you can complain of age discrimination. I suspect 15 was chosen as that is the age when it becomes legal to drive.

Even if my analysis is wrong, i.e. it is a scheme which in effect gives preference to young, able-bodied students who are not parents, a complainant would need to show “some real disadvantage” as a result of not being able to park in the designated places. The map suggests that there are numerous other parking spots available throughout the areas where the designated parking is made available. On the information available it would be very difficult to sustain a claim of real disadvantage.

For this reason, the Commission will not be progressing this matter further and the file will be closed.

Should you disagree with our response to your complaint, you are entitled to take the matter to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, either directly or by seeking representation from the Director of Human Rights Proceedings. These agencies can be contacted at (09) 375 8623 or (04) 918 8300, respectively. In making this referral, we are not suggesting that their consideration of the matter would be different than that of the Commission.

I also understand from Bruce Conaghan (DCC) that in his previous email communication with you he identified an option that may meet your needs and therefore, does not believe further dialogue about this matter will serve a useful purpose.

I am sorry we could not assist you and wish you the best wishes for your future endeavors.

Yours sincerely
Cecelia O’Dell


Dear Cecilia,

If the scheme is fair and does not discriminate single parents, can DCC provide an evidence (just one example) of single parent employed by the University with 2 dependent children participating in the scheme and sharing ride with a driver? If such an example does not exist, then it is futile to claim the scheme is fair, isn’t it?

Please consider the following argument:

I want to share ride following the rules of the scheme. I am university staff member and I have applied for a voucher, which I have now. I do not have a car therefore I’d like to share a ride with a driver.

Case A: I am alone. I can meet a driver anywhere around my area easily I can walk to his/her house. I can use a different driver every day, depending on the circumstances. I will occupy only one seat. No extra equipment is needed for me to participate. I will not cry, vomit, or poo in the car. It is easy for me to share a ride with a Rideshare driver. The scheme works for me.

Case B: I am a single parent with two dependent children. I need the driver’s vehicle to have child-seats installed. I need the vehicle to come to MY HOUSE as I cannot physically carry two children together with baby-seats every morning few blocks to the driver premises. The trip will be noisy, the kids may cry, poo, vomit. It is just not practical to be putting baby seats on and off every morning, so I will need to ask the driver to ALWAYS use a set of baby seats in his/car car. I have failed to find the driver. The scheme does not work for me.

Case C: I am a 4 year old human being, attending University childcare. I am not eligible to participate in the scheme at all. I attend the University childcare every day, same as my older siblings attend the University. What is so different between me (<15yo) and me in the future (>15yo) so that I am not allowed to be treated as a passenger?

Cecelia, I appreciate your help and assistance with this matter. To me it is very simple practical problem of local government making mistakenly a discriminatory regulation into a bylaw. I did not think anything can be done to fix it through normal legal channels. Bruce will never admit he made a mistake – of course. Think about how impractical it would be: DCC would have to be reviewed, all the tickets would have to be refunded, heads would roll, and so on. I’ve experienced the ‘boys clubs’ mentality before – it is very strongly entrenched in this small country where everyone knows everyone. Trying to changing any of the (often wrong) status quo borderlines with madness. I’m not surprised.
The change has to come from within DCC. It needs to look as if it was their idea all along. If they are sane the change will come. And it will. Because it is the right thing to do. […]

The only thing I am surprised about is that in the country where so much fuss is being made about child abuse, children under 16 are not treated as human beings. That, I think, is a very serious problem, with far reaching consequences. Perhaps my children will fight and establish a Human Right Commissioner office for people under 16 once their grow up. Who knows… 😉

have a great weekend

best regards

Meditation retreat

Spending 2 days in the intense meditation training together with Thai Buddhists group from Dunedin. Couple new people, some old timers and few younger people. Awesome organisation, great time. People with very interesting live styles, 4 monks, great atmosphere.

Structure: waiting up at 5:30, first meditation at 6. Then exercising, then breakfast. Short private time, back to meditation, teaching, some free time, and again, repeat, again and again. Last teaching finishing around 21:30. Lots of meditation.

The whole experience was really nice. I have turned back in time almost to my student times. Recalled lots of events and sort of, mental atmosphere of that time. Feeling like being a student, a beginner again. Very interesting experience.

SIGGRAPH selection

Attending the Otago graphics group meeting and watching a selection of SIGGRAPH 2010 films. Awesome.

These are just some random notes I’ve taken to remember the films I’ve watched.

Japanese “Light something” movie, about fluffy things, and the girl, lying in the grass. Final scene on the eye of the grils, sparkling.

“After and before”, pretty creepy, 3D glass elements. Person with slightly deformed face goes into clinic, and goes through a process of getting a mirror that shows perfectly the face.

Polish movie “Kinematograph” – brilliant story of an older couple. The man is an inventor, invents a colour and stereo motion picture. Wife dies.

French “La Karte” or something with food. Snails production for mass consumption. Thoughts on food production and moral reflections.

Is child under 15 a person?

I’ve written two previous posts (the first and the second) about the Dunedin’s ride share scheme.

The essence of the story is that children are refused the same rights as adults, as it comes to certain preferences (like preferential parking). I’m a University lecturer, and my kids go to University nursery and childcare. If they were 15, they would be treated as people, and would participate in the ride-share scheme. Because they are small, DCC has decided to refuse them to use preference when it comes to parking.

The question remains open: can (or should) a child under 15 be considered a person (or in this particular case, a passenger of a vehicle)?

I’ve written up to DCC and also to New Zealand Human rights office. Awaiting resolution in this manner.

My personal opinion is that ride-share schemes, as in other countries (like USA), should be managed by central government and official traffic law if they apply to public roads and public parking spaces. Any living person (including infants) should be considered a perfectly qualifying passenger. It feels to me that New Zealand is making a step into a wrong direction here with this one.

What do you think?

Weller’s rock: refresher dive.

University dive shed 10:30. Meeting with Kelly, McKenzie and Anita – going to Weller’s Rock for a wee diving practice. Good chat in the car. Talking about vegetarian diets and food in general. Almost no wind. Perfect visibility. A front slowly approaches from the south, but manage to have almost 50min dive with perfect still conditions. Working out the tides quite well, although getting late to venture further along the Weller’s wall. Girls practice buoyancy, navigation and general diving skills. I’m assisting from the shore. Once in the car, the southerlies hit us. Heavy rainfall. Otago harbour almost instantly stirred up. No vis. Lucky escape.

Diving in Kaikoura

OUSA van, pack of friends, 10 hours one way, 7 on the way back home. The van had some weird lights problems, non-talking Friday made the outing pretty tricky. Perfect sunrise on Saturday. Half-walk half-jog on the beach with Kelly. Good weather, shore dives south of South Bay. Police check. Then back to the northern part. Injured leopard seal on the shore on the way to seal colony. Good dive site there. Evening rugby: nz vs. au. Kelly not happy with the outcome. Morning run up to light house. Weather deteriorates slowly. High tide in the morning. Decided to go free diving in South Bay. Awesome. Cold. Back to the lodge (btw, perfect place to stay: Dusky Lodge. Spa and Sauna: primo!). Lunch and heading back home.