Recent posts by James

Who does Google think you are?

September 16th, 2009 by james

One of the themes we’ve been discussing here is the idea that prestige and attention are the main currencies of academia. So it only makes sense that you want your online presence to be an accessible and positive reflection of your work and, at the very least, you want to be distinguishable from all of the other John Smiths in the world.

MIT has recently put together a tool called Personas which attempts to figure out this question of online identity. I say attempts because to be honest, it’s a bit hit and miss. The design looks pretty good but the results seem to change each time you run it, you can’t review the underlying data and it doesn’t even have a roll-over to quantify each chunk of your profile (e.g. percent of total, source documents etc).

Personas profile
[click for bigger]

It’s a noble effort though and it got me thinking that there are two sides to the question of online identity. (more…)

Being a genius or having a genius?

September 9th, 2009 by james

If you’re not already aware of the excellent TED conferences and talks, I would strongly recommend going to their site and having a poke around. There are some fascinating people and ideas featured but be prepared to spend a bit of time: most of the content consists of 18 minute video talks.

One of the best ones I’ve seen recently is this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of a “journey of self-discovery” type novel which is being made into a movie with Julia Roberts. To be honest, from that description, I probably would have skipped it but I’m glad I did watch it: it’s thought-provoking and in places very funny.

She discusses the idea of “genius” and how the pre-Enlightenment concept of attributing outstanding works of art to divine inspiration/intervention (literally, “having” a genius) contrasts with the modern notion that such works come from within the individual (“being” a genius). “Having” a genius helps the artist maintain distance between themselves and their work, deflecting blame from the self when things don’t go so well and keeping one modest when work is well-received. As she says, it helps avoid the depressive thoughts that make one want “to start drinking gin at 9 o’clock in the morning” and generally helps promote creativity.

What do you think? Sounds pretty reasonable to me and a useful construct for digging one’s self out of rut.

Benjamin Franklin: the grandfather of personal productivity?

August 28th, 2009 by james

A few years ago I visited the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. We spent most of our time poking around the beautiful gardens, enjoying the Californian sun. But the Library collection is pretty remarkable too and it holds copies of the Gutenberg bible, Audubon’s bird drawings, early Shakespeare editions and – a definite highlight – Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

I’m not sure why I suddenly remembered this now, almost four years later, but when he wasn’t experimenting with electricity and founding countries, Franklin was also a bit of a productivity guru. Check out this extract from Chapter 8 of his autobiography (click for bigger):

Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule

He was pretty keen on everything having its own allocated time, supporting what he called the virtue of Order. He never seemed to be quite satisfied with the progress he made (bit hard on himself really) but the interesting thing, I think, is that you can see him actively reflecting on his progress and acknowledging its benefit. Check out these extracts:

I enter’d upon the Execution of this Plan for Self Examination, and continu’d it with occasional Intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of Faults than I had imagined, but I had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish.

And later:

In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it

So there you go: Benjamin Franklin, the grandfather of personal productivity c. 1791. As if he hadn’t done enough already!

Literate programming for talks: Beamer, Sweave and LaTeX

August 25th, 2009 by james

The summer conference season is slowly drawing to a close and we can all put our feet up, right? After all, the papers are done and presented and it’s a least a couple of months before organizers want your abstracts for next year. But before you kick back and relax, it’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on how things have gone and what you might want to do differently next year.

I gave a couple of talks this summer and while they went well, I wasn’t happy with the behind-the-scenes workflow. Some problems:

  • Creating figures in one piece of software, exporting to the right image format, inserting them into PowerPoint, discovering that you made a mistake, re-doing the figures…
  • Trying to shoe-horn a nice story about the results into 10 tight slides
  • PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint – having to use someone else’s PowerPoint template, ugly text and math, big files, etc.

A lot of these issues can be fixed using tips here on the site. Outlining your talks for example helps get away from the staccato style of PowerPoint and as commenters have pointed out here, there are lots of ways to mix slides and narrative in one source file. But I want to go step further and show how you can combine narrative, slides and content (i.e. figure creation) in one file.


Testing the general model of productivity

August 5th, 2009 by james

In a previous episode, I suggested that productivity is really just an efficiency measure. Since the working currency for academics is arguably prestige, productive researchers are those that can acquire the most prestige for the least effort and this can be formally written as:

productivity = sum over all t for outputs over inputs

where each task t is assigned a prestige benefit (pt per activity × n activities) and an effort cost (attention units per hour at × ht number of hours).

The comments on the original post suggested that there was a lot of enthusiasm for implementing and testing the theory and so I’ve spent the past month gathering data and preparing for a bit of an empirical assessment. The results are a work-in-progress but I hope to keep the conversation going and get your feedback. Here then is a step-by-step guide to how I’ve analysed my productivity over the last month using the general model.