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Friday, September 21, 2001

Academia Nut

I sat in on the first class of an AI seminar at UCSD yesterday. I don't know why I always do this to myself -- putting myself where I don't belong. I have only one real phobia--stage fright--and this is only drilling it deeper. "Hi, my name is Narindre Venogopal, I'm a third year Phd student in computational neurobiology with interests in machine learning and vision." "Hi, I'm Rick Olman, a second year cog sci Phd student, also working in Dr Zipser's lab. My thesis work is on a model of visual cortex." "Uh, Hi... I'm Simon Funk, and I'm just a visitor who's interested in AI and stuff."

Against my plans, I also mentioned some related work I did about a decade ago. I'd really hoped I could just hide anonymously in a corner, but I felt I needed some excuse/qualification/justification for being there so at least I'd be a visitor from industry rather than a kook off the street. The class was over-full, people sitting on the floor, so I asked the prof after class (who I'd emailed before coming to make sure he was ok with me being there in the first place) if he had any requests of me like... not showing up since the class is so full. And he said "no, actually, I'm glad to have you here -- [some allusion to the work I'd done in the past]. There are going to be a couple of days when I won't be here and I was hoping..." At this point I may have turned visibly pale. I don't think he even finished the sentence before I started back-peddling. I half expected before I came, as a worst-case scenario, that he'd ask me to give a talk about the work I'd done. But this was worse than my worst-case scenario--he was assuming from my age and prior work that I was a seasoned academic. Stage fright, for me anyway, is a fear of being a disappointment to people. Need I say more.

It's funny how it all mostly comes down to self image and self expectation. I know other people who in my shoes would eat it up -- they'd assume every ounce of authority given them and it would thus be theirs. But for me, for whatever reason, my greatest fear is being discovered a fraud; I am afraid of being arrogant; I am afraid of being wrong -- not of having been wrong, but of being wrong. So I assume nothing, and I assume I am nothing, and I convey this, and soon enough I am believed, and then, ironically, people resent me for disappointing them because they assumed more of me from the start than I assume of myself in the end. I am sliding down this slope already with this group and it's only my first day.

Ideally, I would be a Richard Feynmann type, smart but non-pretentious, a common man able to dance in the academic arena. But realistically, I'm like Richard Feynmann without the self-confidence, which is so self-contradictory that nobody knows what to make of me. In the end, I just make everyone (academics in particular) very uncomfortable.

Which is why I was hoping to just hide in a corner, not even tell them about my previous work, play Forrest Gump perhaps. But already I am doing damage control.

It would be easier if I weren't truly a misfit -- it's hard to reprogram my emotions when my logic agrees with them. Among the class guidelines for what makes good research are "build on an idea that has been successful in previous work" and "more papers = more ways to have impact and be noticed." This is shotgun incrementalism, which is how academia is structured, and it's roughly the opposite of how I work. I prefer to attack the areas where nothing has been successful, to aim for a new conceptual leap. And I find the flood of nearly identical papers which one has to sort through a terrible waste of time, and wish people would seek to minimize their publishing while still conveying the relevant information. This is completely at odds with the way it's all set up; and in particular, working on things nobody else is attempting is considered naive and arrogant.

So the truth is, I am a kook. Or, at least, I am until I succeed, and then I'm a genius for a while until the success is forgotten and then I'm a kook again. It's a thankless job, but somebody's got to do it -- shotgun incrementalism is a safe and sure way to make linear progress, but paradigm shifts require at least some people willing to play kook roulette.

I just wonder if there's an environment where I can work with people, or if I just have to hole up in my little house and go it alone. It's hard when there's no one to talk to when I'm stuck on one thing or another.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com