• Breaking silence?

    If books mention “breaking silence” less frequently, does that mean that we have more silence now because it is no longer broken?

  • Commodies are not free

    Computer infrastructure used in universities is not part of a market, let alone of a "transparent market" in which everyone has a clear view on what alternatives exist and what their relative merits and costs are.

    Nobody in a university research group finds it strange to pay for pens and paper.

    Nobody in a research group finds it strange to pay for state-of-the art lab equipment.

    But very often computer services have been offered for free. Like water, and electricity, they have been discounted into general costs of running the university.

    This situation is unsustainable in a world in which life-science research becomes driven by big data. And it also becomes unsustainable in a world where large storage and computer infrastructure suitable for routine jobs can be rented commercially.

    The sustainable way to the future is to properly budget for data handling and storage. Budgeting for computing needs means people are required to balance cost and value, like with every other aspect of a research project.

    Photo: CC-BY-SA-NC on Flickr by John Flinchbaugh

  • Decision tree for scientific programmers in bioinformatics

    This is one of the syndromes we're trying to fight in BioAssist...

  • Five star rating your own photos

    Have you ever been wondering how to use the five stars in your photo catalog? I’ve heard people say: there are only two kinds of pictures: pictures you could show to someone, and pictures you wouldn’t show to anyone. Isn’t choosing between zero and one star enough?

  • It is a dirty job but somebody has got to do it

    Not everybody likes the same kind of work. This is a great opportunity for people involved in a group, if it is recognized, and if communication about what everyone likes and dislikes is open.

    I once heard a terrifying story of an old couple that celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. As one of the parts of the celebration they made the appointment that they would communicate for once about something they dislike about the other. The man starts: "my dearest, I love almost everything you do for me. But if there is one thing that I would like to change it is the way you cut the bread. You always serve me the heels of the bread, and I much prefer a normal center slice". Upon this, the woman nearly fainted. She had served her husband the heels of the bread for 40 years, only because this is the part she likes best.

    In any enterprise it is important that all jobs are done, including the dirty ones. Sometimes we just have to do things we do not like. But in a collaborative effort, it is important to communicate about which parts of the work we like and dislike. Maybe, just maybe, a colleague would love to take over part of the work that you despise.

  • Less than impressive view from Fyra

    Those sound-walls help to keep the neighborhood of the high-speed trains livable, but the view from the new train itself is uninteresting. #trip

  • Pay attention to your customers

    At the RAMIRI training I followed in Trieste this week, one sentence particularly resonated with me. It was by Kimo Koski (CSC Finland) who was remarking that it takes effort to keep an organization customer focused as it grows.

    Starting at about 100 people an organization can keep it self fully busy without ever serving a customer.

    While I was working for Bruker AXS, our Sales director Paul Ulrich Pennartz used to say something related sometimes when he was in a cynical mood:

    Without those pesky customers we would finally be able to concentrate on our work.

     If you've ever wondered why small companies are more responsive than large ones, I think these two people summarize the cause quite well. 

    (Note: both quotes were reproduced in essence, this is not literally what they said)

  • Radical change rarely brings immediate improvement

    Screenshot Pacman

    After every radical change in an organization, there is a need for a phase of quiet thoughtful improvements. Expecting miracles from huge corporate reorganizations is a fallacy that leads to reorganization upon reorganization potentially resulting in complete destruction of the organization.

    Have you ever played a game of Pac-man? It is a simple game where you control a little eater eating dots on the screen, while ghosts are chasing you. The game is an excellent mirror of business life in a changing environment:

    • In Pac-man, you are trying to improve your health at every step by eating a dot and staying out of the way of the ghosts.
    • In business life, you are making small changes to your products and procedures to sell more and stay out of the way of your competitors.

    There is a further analogy:

    • In Pac-man, sometimes things get stuck. Ghosts are closing in from all sides, and there is no escape. At such a point, you can use the teleport: a panic key that takes you to a random spot in the scene in an instant.
    • In business life, sometimes things get stuck. Competitors are closing in and it seems there is no way out. At such a point the CEO will call (often quickly without consulting all those that are involved) for a radical reorganization.

    In business there is an important lesson we can learn from the teleport feature in Pac-man: A teleport is far from a guaranteed save! It can bring you into a very dangerous situation. The goal of the teleport is not an immediate improvement in the flow of the game, it is to escape from a hopelessly stuck situation, from impending disaster. Directly after a teleport, you have to act and make steps to regain control. Similarly, in business a radical reorganization will rarely take you to a better situation immediately. A reorganization is meant to shake up the bowl and escape from a hopelessly stuck situation (often invisible to many of the employees). After the relatively thoughtless jump that has to be executed quickly to avoid an immediate game over, the organization will need to go into a thoughtful phase in which small improvements are made to optimize the situation.

    If you realize that a reorganization has not brought you immediate gains, try to refrain from making further reorganizations. Instead, look for opportunities for small changes, and give it some time.

  • The difference between what people want and what they ask for

    A software shop like ours should deliver what customers want... but it may be difficult, because they often do not ask what they want. This is because customers think they know what causes a problem and they think they know the best way to solve it. They then formulate their request in an attempt to help us.

    An example: I once had customers asking me whether I could change my software so that it would round the numbers that it would use to position a robot. It would have been easy to satisfy that request, but I decided to ask why? This proved to be a good idea. I found out the customers were copying the numbers into some other software package. Rather than doing what the customers asked, I ended up writing a direct interface to the other software. This made life of the users much easier yet, without limiting the possibilities of the robot.

    We can not blame customers for not knowing what is easy and what is difficult to implement. Both ways. They can think that something is very easy, when in fact it is fundamentally very hard. But it also happens that they do not dare to ask a question they think is hard, when in fact it would be very easy.

    If you want to make the best possible software, you need to keep asking "why" until your user's report has been changed to "If I do A, I get B. But instead of B I would like to see C (because I need D)". This will help you to decide how customer satisfaction can be maximized. The maximum may be much higher than your customers expect.

  • Two meanings of the word chemistry, with different connotations

    Chemistry as a noun has two completely distinct meanings in every day life:

    • A good social relationship: 

     "It was visible that there was chemistry between those two people"

    • Something related to a compound that is supposedly bad for people or the environment. "Chemical" is often used as synomymous with poisonous:  

    "A chemical leaked from the container into the sea, endangering the fish"

    How come these two meanings of the same word have such extremely different connotations? After all, the scientific word chemistry represents any kind of reaction between two compounds and does not have any positive nor negative meaning in itself. Water is a chemical. Life is chemistry.

    As a chemist, I wish I could change the negative connotation of molecular chemistry in the news. But if I really do not succeed, maybe I can influence the social meaning of chemistry to make things consistent:

    "There was chemistry between those two! When they first met, she tried to poison him. As soon as he recovered he exploded in anger."

     Somehow I feel this would not be as satisfying.

    [image credit: Nic McPhee on flickr]

  • Very odd ratio

    I was reading some news when I noticed a mathematical curiosity. The article on a physics result mentioned a chance of “one in ten to the minus 7”. Of course this is a mistake: a small chance is either one in ten to the 7” or “ten to the minus 7”. The combination of “one in” and “minus” is nonsense. Interesting enough, this mistake is really common….

    #math #oops