Institutions & Web 2.0

Er... sorry for taking so long to post again! I'd forgotten both that it had been so long & that the previous post was rather depressed. A couple weeks ago I had to hand in notice on my apartment in Vienna because they require 3 months notice in Austria. It is hard to believe another two years have come and almost gone! It has been an amazing time in Vienna and I can't believe how much I have learned.

When I first came here, my PhD student Hagen & I went to the European Federation of Primatology meeting in Prague, and people kept coming up to me and saying "This isn't even what you really do, is it?" That was because I asked a lot of questions, but apparently they were the right ones. Anyway, two weeks ago when I was at the meeting in Budapest, it was a much better question: "Wait, aren't you a biologist?" I was joking with some Czechs (coincidentally) at a meeting today that I'd become fluent in spoken biology, but my writing skills still aren't as strong as I'd hoped. Well, I have three more months to work on writing. I have three journal articles submitted and several others I should write -- I will probably write at least two of them and at least one more grant, maybe two. Getting the three articles into final form is a challenge too though. I keep forgetting how long articles take.

While I am thinking of it, the talk to the Budapest social scientists (well, really a bunch of them turned out to be philosophers!) went really well. And I did put a lot more pictures into the talk :-) One of the people there asked if I had a video of that talk. I think the last video I saw of myself was taken by Dave Gunkel in 1987.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk in the Austria institute for AI research. That went really well too, and the room was packed -- there were even people sitting in a hall where they couldn't see me, just listening! Afterwards, it turned out that one of the people -- a physicist -- just came because the abstract was interesting & hadn't heard an AI talk before. She asked me to post notices if I give more talks! I told her I was talking in Budapest, but that was too far for her.

Anyway, she asked me to post it on my twitter page. If you don't know what twitter is, go look it up on Wikipedia, I'll wait.

This was very weird, because it was the first time someone asked me for my twitter page in the real world. Or at all, really. I've had twitter for years. One of my prize-winningly brilliant undergraduates invited me so she could keep in touch after she graduated, Meri Williams. Anyway, for a long time I thought of it as a fairly private thing, although in fact it is totally public, it is also pretty anonymous. There was a small group of my friends I worked with at Marble that we all just read & commented on each other's posts, really, my geekiest friends. So I could just be my geeky self there. But one day not long ago, after twitter hit the headlines, I noticed that if you googled my name it came up on the first page. Oh great! Now all the stuff I thought only 5 people were seeing, anyone who wondered who I was might see.

I thought about changing my name on it -- a lot of people I know don't have their real name associated with their twitter account. Also, some people "lock" their posts, so you can't see them without asking. But to me, the real fun of twitter is wandering around seeing new people, and another thing was I liked when friends got in touch with me which they wouldn't do if I'd changed my name. So instead ultimately I went through and deleted a bunch of old posts. Maybe 6%, and not all the way back to the beginning --- I got bored. Mostly just whiny stuff that sounded unprofessional. It's weird, I really dislike deleting anything from the past, but at the same time, it seemed the least worst option. It feels like a shame, but in a way, how can it be shameful to be more professional? Still, it was fun when it really was a secret geeky hidey hole.

Change happens and as someone who researches evolution & AI, I am the last person who can complain about it or think it shouldn't. Life is like swimming in a surf --- it only makes sense if you enjoy playing with the waves.

Austria has set up a new Institute for Science & Technology. It is meant to be a flagship "elite institution". Normally, Europeans setting up such institutions say the are modeling these things on MIT. Actually, I think that's a bad model -- MIT got to be MIT in open competition with other universities & technical institutes, and it keeps being MIT by fighting hard to be better than Caltech, Georgia Tech, IIT and everyone else. No one appointed MIT the best technical place in America, it's a title it won. In fact, for a long time in the early days MIT was worrying about staying independent of Harvard.

But anyway, at the meeting of the funders -- all Austrian industrialists -- they mostly mentioned Harvard and Stanford -- no one mentioned MIT. That is not surprising, since Austrians tend to care a lot about the arts. In fact, they kind of treat the sciences as arts, which to be fair arts & sciences have some commonalities. Also, the campus is insanely far out in the middle of nowhere -- it takes a minimum of 90 minutes to get there from my door, and I live in the perfect place for being central and well connected to transport north of the city. So, I think Stanford is a good model -- a recently endowed major university out in a huge parkland. IST are going to need tobe a stand-alone university, because I really think good research requires students at all stages, since they all contribute different things. And the IST is too far from town for them to borrow other university's students!

I wouldn't be so confident in my assessment, except that the IST did the coolest thing for their inauguration. Mostly it was full of great science talks, and then the evening programme looked boring, but I stayed to see how it was. First, in the late afternoon they had advice from other people who ran leading research institutions, and these people were AMAZING. I couldn't have heard better advice about running a science organization anywhere on the planet. The main thing which is new & different than if you were really running a university, is that you recruit people purely for their ability, not to fill in gaps in a discipline, and then you leave them alone. If you bring in good people, other good people that are complimentary will follow, so you will get coherence and direction for free. You just try to make sure they are somewhere beautiful and tranquil so they concentrate on their work.

There was debate about some things, like whether you should have any permanent staff / tenure. A lot of people said no. One person said that if you make people permanent, you had to make them compete for funding, because something has to keep people from slowing down. But most of the directors recommended have rotating people (like the KLI does, incidentally). Then obviously people produce as much as they can because they want to get the best possible next job, or if they are on sabbatical they want to get ahead on their research while they can. A couple places had a practice more than a policy of very rarely retaining a very few top talents who were really helping run and identify the place.

The new president of the new institute did a really good job of pumping these guys for information. It was so cool he shared it with us, though I think having an audience also helped him by keeping everyone talking, since they were on the spot! One of the hardest things (to me) that they told him was that the places that succeeded, they did so because they had amazing directors who were great scientists & knew everybody & could recruit everyone, but the heads themselves had to pretty much abandon every other aspect of their careers to totally devote themselves to making their institute great. This guy is young and has produced tons of amazing science already, I can't imagine how he is going to give that up. But I guess he has decided that producing an institution that produces science is even more interesting than producing it yourself. Or maybe he only expects to be full time for a limited number of years (like 10) & he will go back to his own lab once this institute is running well -- and he'll know he can fund himself an excellent lab.

Did I tell you Rod Brooks quit as the head of the AI lab after 10 years & then went on sabbatical? Then at the end of his sabbatical he quit MIT & academia altogether. He is apparently starting a new robot company to do more intelligent manufacturing. I haven't heard anything for a few months, but I guess with such things we won't likely hear for another 10 years. He is 10 years older than me, so he might have time to make another company really go before he retires.

Well, anyway, there was all kinds of advice about funding streams, recruiting top talent, etc. Then the late evening was an event honoring the funders where they described their vision, and they were great. Very funny and successful men & one woman. One guy said he was not a scientist but that he thought basic research was a lot like hunting -- you have to wait and wait & hope you are ready to shoot and eventually maybe nothing will come down the path to even shoot at. They talked about their time to market in their different industries. One guy was in steel and said his product life cycle was so far 1000 years. A lot of it was in German, but they provided simultaneous translation -- the first time I've ever used that. It was slightly weird because of the lag, but very cool. In fact, I had a headset with my name on it! I didn't remember saying I didn't know German, but maybe it was on the registration form. Anyway, I was not bored by any of the meeting, it was all an insight into a world that I've benefited from but never seen -- top academic and industrial leadership. I hope one decade I'll be using some of the things I've learned.

Still, personally, I am having trouble giving up doing the science myself. Besides loving it, it just seems to go so much faster that way. But this may be a mistake. At some point, I'll need to really shift gears. Already I am thinking about how to remanage my time -- changing policy / strategies on email, reviews etc. I'm not sure whether I'll keep this blog up when I'm back to lecturing, though I know you guys love it. But do feel free to start following my twitter stream -- I tend to post there once a day, though it probably isn't often that coherent for you. It's still really aimed at my geek friends.
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