Category Archives: Comments

Timestamped FriendFeed activity – really public “profile”

Accidentaly, I have found a simple way for obtaining a time stamp for each entry and comment any person with publicly available lifestream makes on FriendFeed (except “Likes”, which do not seem to be timestamped at all). Activity of semi-randomly choosen person during the day (summarized over couple of weeks (!))  is shown below:

FriendFeed usage during 24 hours, summarized over couple of days.

FriendFeed usage during 24 hours, summarized over couple of days.

While relation between AM and PM periods is correct, time-zone is manually shifted, so it’s more difficult to guess who’s this activity is (but it’s not Robert Scoble if you want to ask). What does it tell? Basically, this person does not close FriendFeed window for the most of the day. Additionally, there’s a period of the day in which “catching-up” has place. Nothing interesting so far? Original data has much more details. It is possible for example to collect information when during the day particular person usually watches videos on YouTube. Guess – is that during working hours? 🙂

Ability to get that data for couple of weeks back without any trouble (I didn’t need to track this person’s activity for such period) was kind of disturbing. I knew it’s very simple to start tracking my habits, but I wasn’t aware of the fact that it’s also easy to see what I was doing over the last three weeks. Do you think it makes a difference?

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Posted by on January 29, 2009 in Comments, Visualization


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End of freelancing as scientist (for now)

The patchwork landscape of Masuria
Image via Wikipedia

Almost a year ago I wrote a post about officially becoming “freelance scientist”. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but taking over the world from a small flat in the middle of nowhere in Poland sounded like a good idea. And it definitely was a good idea, however not in a way I thought it would be. Today I am hoping that all things will go fine and I’ll be employed since February in a calm academic environment.

What I aimed for?

My plan was to become freelance scientist – to be able to thrive financially and intelectually without relying on gaming grant systems. I had hoped to secure support from private sources, form a virtual institute and live happily in the middle of nowhere while still having an impact on the world’s science, possibly all under “open research” badge.

What didn’t work?

Side comment: if you read excellent piece by Hugh MacLeod entitled “How to be creative”, you shouldn’t find the issues below surprising :).

The main reason I started to look for a job already some weeks ago was that freelancing as a scientist turned out to be unsustainable financially. And don’t get me wrong – money wasn’t an issue, as long as I was willing to put all my time into other’s people projects. All. My. Time. Booking some time to work on my own ideas meant burning savings at a quick rate. But I had to work on my own ideas. I didn’t feel like I’m learning very much, because I worked on things I was already quite good at. Intellectual stretching was not that big.

Because of the issue above, I’ve put together far less work than I aimed to. I have lots of posts, manuscripts and presentations which I didn’t have time to finish. I was too busy doing freelance work, finishing the projects I had promised to do, inventing new projects and hiding under a bed worrying about where this is all going.

Working in the middle of nowhere was a plain mistake. It sounds nice, but f2f networking (“showing up”) is far more important than I’ve thought. Working in Poland is an issue on its own (no matter if you’re a freelancing or an academic scientist); working outside of any major city makes it even worse.

Partially connected to the former issue was the fact that I tried to do all things alone. Wrong. Very wrong. Things like virtual institute will not work, unless there’s a team. Period.

And finally, I didn’t give myself enough time to make the whole system work. It turned out that I had no idea about so many things influencing money-flow in the system, that it’s not surprising at all that it didn’t click in so short (12 months) time.

What worked?

One of two biggest advantages of this crazy 12 months was that it was a great learning experience. When I look at my older colleagues working in academic environment, I’m pretty sure they don’t experience “felling like an idiot” moments all that often. Such moments happen quite frequently in grad school, but seem to become rarer the further science career advances. On a contrary, I had such moments all the time in the last year. I was experimenting with blog posts, stupid ideas, unbalanced opinions and I was scared as hell each time. And I have learnt much more than I would do playing safe. Have you watched Ken Robinson’s talk at TED? He put a beatiful phrase – “prepared to be wrong”. Keep that in mind.

People were second most important factor here. I was amazed by a number of people that have helped me along the way. Lots of them have encouraged me, pointed to useful resources or invested significant amount of time into answering my silly questions. Many times I was blown away by the help I had not expected. Biogang/Life Scientists community rules.

Frequently quoted phrase from Bill Hooker’s essay, “I’ve never had an idea that couldn’t be improved by sharing it with as many people as possible — and I don’t think anyone else has, either.”, turned out to be absolutely true. Each time I presented my ideas, people were interacting with them, not judging them. I was given suggestions I would not come up with by myself, even if it was clear that we’re not going to do business together.

What now?

The job I hope to land next year is going to address the things I’ve written about above. I hope to have some financial stability and necessary time to advance my plans. It will also provide a support for such events like “Startup weekend in science”, which I plan to invite you all later next year.

The main goal is still valid and I don’t give up on it. I’ve found (or rather the other way round) a real-life example, ProTech Institute from Lithuania, which means that it can be done – it’s just a little harder if you’re a (still,  but not for long) PhD student.

So it’s end of freelancing for now. Lessons learned. Back to real-life™ again :).

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Posted by on December 9, 2008 in Career, Comments


Thinking about RaaS: Research-as-a-Service

The research li...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Instead of disclaimer: this is a bunch of loose thoughts on an element of a possible future of research. I’m only touching some issues here and still I don’t have coherent vision of the commercial side of research. So, feel free to show me I’m very wrong – you’ll save me lots of time of coming to your conclusions :).

According to Wikipedia, Everything as a Service is a:

concept of being able to call up re-usable, fine-grained software components across a network.

While the most common example is SaaS – Software as a Service, this concept can be applied to other functions such as communication, infrastructure or data (the last one sounds very interesting). It recently occurred to me, that investments (or maybe I should call these partnerships) of biotech and pharma companies in academic research institutions are good examples of RaaS, Research as a Service. I think every situation where the research is done after the agreement (buying or licensing patented innovation doesn’t qualify) can be called RaaS.


To a company, there are obvious advantages of hiring scientists to get the research done, but I think there also would be plenty of good sides of such arrangement for us (of course I have no experience yet). Probably the biggest plus would be money and ability to get them in somehow predictable manner. I think it’s also important to be stretched intellectually from time to time (I assume that easy things aren’t worth outsourcing).

Many flavors of RaaS

Paying to an academic institution to come up with a new drug candidate is only one of many types of RaaS. There’s researching a given problem (something Innocentive or Nine Sigma are coordinating), coming up with an innovation (drug candidate example), providing expertise (consulting) or innovating and delivering (designing, building and implementing new machine, workflow or pipeline). We could find examples of all types happening everyday, but probably not in all scientific fields. Delivering something in biology is usually quite expensive and time consuming, while consulting gigs in quantum physics don’t appear all that often.

The point is that all these RaaS flavors can and are applied to academic institutions. In other words, many researchers provide commercial services using time and equipment paid from taxpayers money. And I think it’s not an issue – even more: it should be finally admitted and accepted (so we could get rid of the artificial division of researches into academic and all others; but that’s another story), and organized, so we could provide such services easier and more often.

Resources all over the place

The Health Commons project aims at building a framework that could help in sharing and organising research process aiming at developing new drugs. We seem to have lots of elements of such environment in place – we have many (or even too many 😉 ) scientists, some service providers, data centers and some work done on standards of operations and information exchange. If we forget about drug development, not much actually changes. We have workforce, some services aimed at researchers and lots of tools that help in communication in both directions.

Here’s example of research scenario: if I were to market a genetic test that identifies mutations resulting in oversensitivity or resistance to a drug (something which I believe will be the next hit after screening for disease markers), the whole research part wouldn’t require any significant involvement from my side. CRO (contract research organization) would take care of identifying patients with specific conditions, sequencing company would get me their genomes (currently $5000 each, but the price is dropping very fast) and as far as I know bioinformatics community, finding people to analyze the data wouldn’t be an issue at all. While such scenario is a bit too optimistic (I skipped lawyers in the process), we already have resources to make it happen.

Where is it going?

I imagine future RaaS provider as a small company (I’m not yet sure if a non-profit organization is a better fit for people interested in doing research; also, I don’t know how fast the issue of academic-commercial blur can be solved) made by a few scientists from different but closely related fields. The reason I see it small, is about mobility. And I don’t mean here physical mobility (which BTW may be required on some occasions) but mobility of focus – the main advantage of small organizations.

I imagine such company would be able to do consulting (and data analysis, maybe on the RedMonk model) and innovate at a software level. It would be able to do the work on site (small group again) and deliver the results quick (“bursty work”).

Pieces of this vision come from old Deepak’s posts and many FriendFeed discussions. I actually think about putting it into practice. What do you think I am missing here (other than marketing 😉 )?

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Posted by on November 3, 2008 in Comments, Research


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Personal Development for Smart People: review of Steve Pavlina book

Personal development wasn’t so far the subject of any post on this blog, and that’s not a surprise – it’s hard to hard to measure, hard to study and full of published trash. However, I’m interested in the topic and one of my favourite blog on the topic is “Personal Development for Smart People” written by Steve Pavlina. While Steve is quite controversial (as you’d expect from somebody who develops his physic abilities, is a raw foodists and experiments with polyphasic sleep) and I sometimes strongly disagree with him or have a hard time believing in some stories, often enough he writes very interesting and useful articles.

When he announced that his book will be released in October, I was planning to buy it but I got a pre-release as a part of promotion offer. The offer required to post a review, not to praise the book, so here’s my honest and biased opinion.

I will not go into detail on the contents of the book. You can get a pretty good feeling what it is about here. The book doesn’t overlap very much with excesive content of Steve’s blog – most of the practical issues of self-development are covered on the blog, the rest is pretty much original.

This is not an easy book and it will not leave you happy and motivated. It’s not easy not only because it requires some basic knowledge (for example, Law of Attraction mentioned few times is not defined anywhere), but it will ask you to question lots of your beliefs and assumption. For example, Steve asks to rate several aspects of your life, and then re-rate anything below 8 as 1, claiming that if you don’t have exactly what you really want, you simply don’t have it, period. You can call it a trick, but taking it seriously may be somehow difficult. Also, it doesn’t have any motivational stories, it doesn’t call you to act or to punch your chest – it has just down to earth description of the process of personal growth. My biggest complain was that it was too short – it felt like an introduction, not comprehensive guide. Also, from a scientist point of view (I know, this is not research paper) I missed some background and comparison to ideas other people have written over the years.

You can read this book and extract lots of practical hints on how to achieve something faster/more efficiently, or how to develop necessary habits, but it’s not definitely why this book was written – from my perspective it’s an invitation to think more seriously about personal growth and to challenge the status quo of what we think about ourselves. And I would like to accent the word “invitation”. Steve is not aggressive and does not try obsessively to prove he is right (as it happens too often in other books). It’s an invitation you don’t have to answer.

What’s in this book for scientists? That’s a hard question. This book wasn’t written for scientists, poker players, truck drivers or startup founders. It was written for people who want to grow and need some help on the way. Definitely, it can serve as a reminder that even science should be ethical and should provide a value, but on the other hand I don’t think majority of you need that reminder at all. As a side note, Steve explains in the book why scientists (and other professions) are paid so little (he calls it low social value), but we knew that anyway :).

What I got from the book was help in making my non-profit plans more clear. Although you don’t need to start a non-profit to find this book worth reading.

You can order the book at Amazon.

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Posted by on October 16, 2008 in Comments


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Future of Science on the (ZuiPrezi) map

I’ve just stumbled across map of predictions about global science and innovation created at a recent IFTF workshop in Singapore (the interface is a novel service for online presentation called ZuiPrezi – it looks very promising and I’m waiting for it to come out of private beta). The map contains a few points that resonate with my own scientific interests:

  • bioelectricity, microbial fuel cells and self-assembly for molecular electronics were for me areas where synthetic biology comes into play
  • scientific publications changing from journals to articles and proposal to make an institute for free exchange of ideas looked like indications that Science 2.0 memes are spreading very well
  • and finally, I’m happy to see more people believing that real-time, non-invasive and possibly 3D sensing of biological processes (aka “how is my cholesterol level building up?”) will be available sooner than in 50 years

As usuall with such predictions, I feel like many of them are quite conservative – or even schematic. Only very few were completely new to me, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that actually most of these predictions will turn out to be true in some time. I would like to see something that would immediately blow me away, but on the other hand it’s all relative :).

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Posted by on September 30, 2008 in Comments, Research


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How far one can push online collaboration in research?

History comparison reports highlight the chang...Image via Wikipedia

A week or so ago I’ve asked on the FriendFeed if there’s an interest in writing a cyclic publication on the status of Science 2.0. I thought that summarizing every year advancements in openness of science would be a good idea. During discussion it turned out that there’s a need to write a first major publication on Science 2.0 concepts because there isn’t one published in the life sciences field. The final conclusion of interested people was to meet face to face on the upcoming conference and discuss things in detail.

And this made me think.

I started to wonder why people who live, breathe and do research online still need to meet in person to plan and discuss some stuff. The very obvious explanation is that the conference was only two weeks ahead, so there was nothing more than that, but some patterns (brainstorm online, then meet in person, then finish online) repeat so often that I started to believe an online collaboration can only go to a certain point.

The excuse is not in the tools, especially given how fast the new ones appear.  As an examples may serve recently launched Adobe Acrobat site, which contains online editor and live collaboration suite (contains screen sharing, notes, chat, audio, video) or its analog for programmers: Assembla (svn, git, trac, wiki, milestones).

My feeling is that what makes a difference is not a quality of interaction while working on a certain project, but the possibility of discussing things not directly related to this project. Online collaboration is usually very focused. When editing a document online it’s usually hard to side-track it, so at the end it’s about something else than it was planned. Calls or videoconferences have usually a schedule. No place for non-related stuff. No place for a beer/coffee/glass of water and a chat about how life was good in old times. No place for discussions on random things and coming to the main project from a different angle and with completely new ideas.

I’ve been trying for quite a long to work online with other people on some projects from my home office (which is in the middle of nowhere). As you can guess, it works to a certain point and majority of them were improved upon meeting face to face. And this left me wondering how far can I push online collaborations. It isn’t usually an issue in IT field, but so far it doesn’t look very promising in research.

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Posted by on August 27, 2008 in Comments, Community, Research


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By any measure I’m average at most

Nature, Science and PNASImage via Wikipedia

As you have probably noticed, yesterday’s BioBarCamp was covered in depth over at FriendFeed and additionally Cameron was streaming video live from the event (it’s still available under the same address). One particular session drawed my attention, because it was about measuring impact of scientists. It’s something I have very strong opinion about since couple of weeks, so forgive me this rant.

Peter Binfield (PLoS) and Pedro Beltrao did a great job on presenting current status of the issue and presented potential way to measure impact of a publication (quoting after Shirley“your article received x citations, viewed x times, received x comments, bookmarked x times, rated x by experts, discussed on x respected blogs, appeared in x news media, etc etc” – instead of single “your article was published in journal with IF of X”). And while two months ago I was really interested in such discussions and willing to help, today I simply don’t care. The reason is simple and is presented in the post title: by any measure, I’m average at most.

That’s absolutely obvious that majority of scientists is at most average by any standard or measure. And that is not going to change, at least not much. Those who are at the top by Impact Factor today, will be at the top by other measure. Those who do some not-that-important stuff like me, will be still pretty average by other measure. One of the reasons may be all kinds of issues with normalization of the field size (there’s too much problems with biological ontologies to believe that dividing science space into fields is going to work much better). Another thing may be relative importance of the field (that’s something different from field size) – human research will always draw more attention than electrochemistry. And I could go on and on – all these issues aren’t novel and have been described and discussed in thousands of blog posts. The point is that even if such new ideal measure is going to be fair, it will not change life of majority of scientists. Not only because some of us do average things, but also because some of us have average money (BTW, I haven’t found much discussion on including in the measure research budget, which surprises me given the fact that amount of money spent on a project correlates pretty much with the IF of the journal it is published in afterwards).

So, I don’t really care if IF stays or not (although people working on improving measuring get my deep respect). Reputation-wise I’m going to be in the middle unless I will make something extraordinary. But honestly to make a scientific breakthrough the last thing I need is a number describing quality of my thinking.

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Posted by on August 8, 2008 in Career, Comments, Research


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