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Monday, December 29, 2008

keep going

How does one do something new in a contentious area?
How do you contribute when your words are being scrutinized for their relevance to long-going battles?
One option is to stay out of the fray. You simply don't follow the daily fights. You withdraw, and build up your own form. You design your own notation, and find as much as you can with that notation.
The danger of this approach is either irrelevance, or prolongation of the battle. There may well be much that is rich and interesting that has not been formalized, but is assumed by one side or another. It may well be that the outsider doesn't get far enough. On the other hand, if there is much that is assumed, but is wrong, if the whole edifice is mud and cotton, then a solid arrow may simply pierce through and head off in a new direction, leaving the participants simply more injured than before leading to more fighting and misery.
The other approach is to move very slowly. To take in a few contentious issues at a time, and one by one connect them to more solid ground. Develop a few new colorful pebbles, but make sure these pebbles lie on solid shores and sparkle brightly enough to capture the attention and content of battlers.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Wikipedia on Academia:
Academia is sometimes contrasted pejoratively with "practice", such as daily living, employment, and business. Critics of academia say that academic theory is insulated from the 'real world', and thus does not have to take into account the real effects, results, and risks of actually performing the actions which academics study. Academic insularity is sometimes referred to as the ivory tower. This often leads to a real or perceived tension between academics and practitioners in many fields of knowledge, particularly when an academic is critical of the actions of a practitioner. Depending on the degree of criticism, the practitioner's critique of academia could also be seen as anti-intellectualism. The balance to the view from the practitioner is that even if academia is insulated from practice in the real world, that does not mean academic study is valueless. In fact it is often seen that many academic developments turn out only much later to have great practical results. However, given that among practitioners there is a perception of academic insularity, it may increase the value and impact of the academician's studies and or opinion if they take that insularity into account when discussing or offering criticism of a practitioner or a practice in general.
I've been struggling with this question of the value of academia within an intensely practical fast-paced development environment. There are two aspects in which one's work may be judged overly academic. First, the topic itself may be perceived as useless. Secondly, too much emphasis on clear writing may be seen as a waste. The main issue here is time. Both of these things take too much time compared to the immediate needs.

From this perspective, however, an academic approach can be seen as a long term approach. On the one hand, tools are developed that may not be immediately necessary, but will provide fuel and resources for years to come. Secondly, communication without a delineation of context is also short-termed. It assumes a shared understanding that is rather fragile. People reading at a later time may well misunderstand.

Its this second goal that I've been most reluctant to give up, and I question the split. I don't want to give up clear writing, both for its practical benefit and for its personal benefit. Writing poorly takes the power away from the person writing. The truth is that there is a personal story here related to the group I am working in. I'd like sometime to try to write this out more clearly, but its probably better not to give too many details.

As a thread to follow up on, one of the books I read in high school that was influential was Herman Hesse's "Glass Bead Game". I've been meaning to come back to this book. I felt like Hesse had read my academic dreams and then put them into a larger context together with a warning to not become overly isolated.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Great first line to a technical paper

In the last few years, our vision of the dynamics of the Solar System has notably changed, and the picture of the planets moving around the Sun in a regular quasi-periodic motion has suffered many outrages.
J. Laskar, ICARUS 88, 266-291 (1990)
"The Chaotic Motion of the Solar System: A Numerical Estimate of
the Size of the Chaotic Zones"