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    A good bit of this is a personal story that is a good read (and well-written).

    On one very specific bit, the headline part about how to actually get tenure, I think he’s not quite wrong here, but overselling it a bit. At big research universities you need a good grant track record to get tenure (this is almost non-negotiable), and this is highly helped by pursuing research topics that currently have a lot of interest from funders. And that sounds like precisely what he did on this key aspect:

    I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.

    He sells it as chasing his dreams, but this trajectory is the same one you’d take if you were cynically in it just for the h-index and grant funding: transition into hot applied-research topics of the day, like cybersecurity, cancer research, and global warming. How is transitioning to exactly those areas declared by the U.S. federal government as funding priorities an alternative to playing the game? That’s what the game is about!

    It’s possible it’s just coincidence, that these areas are 100% what he personally thought was important with no regard to grant funding, and by a stroke of good luck those interests aligned with current U.S. agency funding priorities. But if you don’t have the same luck, your odds of the same outcome are much lower. Which doesn’t mean I would necessarily recommend doing otherwise, still. But I also wouldn’t be naive about it being some kind of meritocracy, where if you just do good work in an area you think is important and are passionate about, the rest will magically come on its own. That is far more likely to be the case if you also strategically choose to be passionate about an area that is hot and well-funded.

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      Author here.

      A little clarity: security has been a great source of sustainable funding for my lab, but I truly believe we’re headed for devastation without rebuilding the foundations of our software through programming languages and analyzers that deliver static guarantees (proofs) of security.

      The global warming and medical robotics research has been a staggering net-negative, with not a lot to show in the way of grant funding or publications given the outsized amount of intellectual energy and time I’ve put in. I won’t stop doing either though.

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        That’s fair enough. It’s a minor sore point for me mostly because administration has attempted to pressure me to move into some of those areas, so for me personally, the tension between focusing on what I personally think are important problems I can make a contribution to, versus focusing on career success, has “bioinformatics” and “cybersecurity” as the devils tempting from the career success shoulder (along with “smart grids”, another big political focus of my previous institution’s administration).

        I think the decision gets very difficult if your research interests don’t align with funding priorities. Then you really do have to play a career game in one way or another. You can leave academia and do it by working a day job (or consulting) for money, and doing research on the side. Or you can do it within academia by trying to find a compromise between your own interests and the interests of funders (or if you can’t find a good compromise, just do mercenary work in some well-funded areas).

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          I see you’re a fellow Georgia Tech Ph.D., and I see you’re into games research. Way cool!

          We run a wonderful Entertainment Arts and Engineering program here at the University of Utah, and they’ve been doing some great work at “gamifying healthcare.”

          Having seen their work, I argued in one of the founding whitepapers for the Precision Medicine initiative that “gamification” would be necessary if the broader initiative will succeed, since they want to recruit, engage and retain one million largely healthy participants.

          It’s hard enough getting sick people to engage on medical research. The engagement challenge will be significantly more difficult for healthy ones. Games are clearly a part of the solution.

          Also, the EAE program here is hiring if you’re interesting in working on these kinds of problems. I’d be happy to make a connection for you.

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            Small world! I know José Zagal at EAE pretty well (we overlapped as PhD students at Georgia Tech). I didn’t know they were hiring though. I’m currently on a short break from academia and setting out an “independent researcher / consultant” shingle, but not averse to going back to a relevant job.

            I agree the motivational aspects of games are interesting. I started out fairly negative on gamification, but am thinking recently about what the “good” forms of it are. I’m still worried about some aspects, especially the kind that seem like a new behaviorism, with points and achievements as the “reward signal”. Or, possibly worse, when deployed in workplaces as a kind of friendly face on micromanaged metrics/surveillance. (I wrote a short historical paper a few years ago comparing gamification-of-work to both Soviet attempts to gamify factories, and the American “fun at work” movement.)

            But I grew up playing a bunch of educational games which I found more deeply engaging, in part because they seemed aimed not only at purely extrinsic motivation (the bad ones were “do 10 math problems and you get to play a game”), but also a kind of interactive explanation, so I better understood what was going on by experimentation.

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              You’ve just put your finger on all the things that creep me out about gamification, but which I’ve never managed to articulate quite so clearly. I briefly worked with a restauranteur who wanted to build a mobile app to help manage his employees and reward them for good work, etc. I ditched the project when it became clear to me that it was really a new Orwellian nightmare in the making. Unfortunately, as I see more waiters and other workers taking order on mobile devices, I imagine that this sort granular of tracking and “motivation” will become quite common.

              I am curious what “good” forms of gamification you see? I suppose it all depends on what’s being gamed, and how?

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                I am curious what “good” forms of gamification you see?

                If we take the term in a broad sense, it’s subsumed a lot of things that used to have other names, like “educational games”, “edutainment”, “serious games”, “games with a purpose”, etc. For example, I like the math game Refraction from the University of Washington, which embeds certain fraction concepts into a puzzle game’s mechanics, and then procedurally generates levels that introduce concepts/challenges in a pedagogically useful order. I also like this constructively critical paper on games that aim to redirect the large amount of time players spend on games into “human computation”, by having them play games like Foldit. There are ways that can end up pretty shallow too, but I think also ways it can end up more meaningfully tied to the task. Foldit in particular is fairly transparent, in a way that makes it so players understand what their “computation” is being harnessed for, and like doing it.

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            I cyber stalked you from the links you provide at lobste.rs. I am surprised to learn that a Danish Comp Sci department was putting pressure on you to bring in more funding, or move to more fashionable areas. I thought that european academic positions, though rare, were insulated from such market forces. Have things changed? Could you elaborate on why you think this happened? Especially in Denmark which has a nice financial cushion? (Or perhaps I mis-understood everything?)

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              The short answer is that, yes, things have changed. :-) Though the change is incomplete and uneven, and different in different countries. A long answer, though note this is one particular view and in part anecdotal:

              Grant money, especially EU project money, has become more important as a way of funding PhD students. Previously, PhD students in Denmark were internally funded in a round-robin system: the university gets money from the state for, say, 10 new PhD students this year, and they’re assigned using a mixture of who hasn’t gotten a new student in a while, and which applicants look the most promising this year. Now, the state funding goes first to EU co-financing (EU grants typically require 50% PhD student cofinancing), and if any money is left over, 1 or 2 internally-funded students per year. So getting students requires grants now, whereas previously it didn’t really. At the same time, being a solo researcher with few/no PhD students has also become a less respected career path (in STEM).

              There is also a political shift towards directly aligning the universities with the needs of society. Some of this is not new: the traditional social-democratic model views the government’s job as managing the needs of society, and the state-funded universities are a part of that (a big part, ~10% of the whole national budget). But it is getting more micromanaged than in the past. One part is that universities are now de facto the main vocational training system, since the old system of vocational schools has waned in importance, as factory and shipbuilding jobs have disappeared. Another part is that there is pressure for universities to “create value for Denmark” by producing socially or commercially useful research, meaning either useful to Danish businesses, or to societal goals articulated by the government, such as clean energy, integration of immigrants, digital civic data, etc. Since it’s a small country, this is really quite direct: the rectors of the seven universities meet regularly with the relevant minister, and develop policies in consultation.

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                Thanks for this informative reply! In the life sciences I guess we get this pressure from the NIH, which gets its pressure from Congress (and perhaps we should have done more to educate some members of Congress on basic research). In engineering my observation (I haven’t been in an engineering department after my masters degree) is that the pressure is mixed. NSF/DARPA seem to fund far out stuff, but in very low numbers. Commercial funding is more forthcoming, especially with the economy moving and low interest rates prompting people to look for high growth areas to put cash, but this brings with it requirements for, perhaps, less ground breaking and more incremental research.

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        As a working academic in programming languages, I’ve mostly resisted the urge to dive into proof assistants for my work. (As an academic, I mostly resist the urge to do anything that seems to be popular among my peers.)

        Remarkably, the points he makes (almost a decade ago) are no less familiar today. I’m more familiar with ACL2 than Coq, but it seems each tool has its own issues when it comes to learning curve.

        Reading his summary makes me wonder if making major investments in IDE/UI technology (perhaps proof state visualization?) would help.

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          Visualization as a debugging aid helps, and in this case I guess it complements seamlessly with the way stepwise development in Coq presumably works (I’m no expert). For example, there is prooftree for Proof General.

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            There’s also the work in Fstar which has some interesting tooling around it. Also has an MSR Cambridge connection.

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          Today, I’ve been working on proper name parsing for my BibTeX parser (and exporter) in Racket:


          And, I created a greasemonkey script for automatically rendering BibTeX entries for dl.acm.org articles:


          I plan to add a script for pubmed next.

          And, then, I’m going to integrate citation support into my academic wiki:


          After that, I’d like to create a bare-bones collaborative citation management app for my lab that integrates with the wiki.

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            Hi! I enjoyed your article on BibTeX parsing, it brought back some fond memories of working on BibDesk. I recognized your pain - nested braces and macro support both seemed to be missing in the various tools I wanted to use. Kudos for tackling it.

            I used to have a bunch of obscure BibTeX test files laying around then, I’ll see if I can dig any of them up - the bibdesk testfiles directory has a couple, but there were more. We were using Greg Ward’s widely used btparse library, and found a few bugs in name parsing. IIRC we sent patches but its last release was 2003, so…

            The UI limitations of a shared lab web citations db I was using in 2001 were what led me to start BibDesk. I’ll be curious to see what you do there. I’m also curious, have you looked at Ward Cunningham’s “Federated Wiki” project? It seems like a great fit for academic research.

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              Thanks for the testfiles pointer!

              Since I put it out there, folks found a number of bugs quickly, notably with name parsing in corner cases. This morning, I fixed the bugs, but it needed a substantial (and more principled) rewrite of the name-parsing approach. Part of the problem is that to do it well gets dangerously close to parsing TeX itself, which is a nightmare (if perhaps a necessary nightmare at some point).

              I’m going to add a –tokenize flag that will break values into tokens meaningful to TeX, which will fix the remaining (known) issues with name parsing. It should also make it easier for someone to generate correct HTML (or some other format) from an entry.

              I haven’t seen the federated wiki project, but it’s a great idea. I’ll look deeper into it before I do much more with the wiki.