Search this blog

07 February, 2008

The value of failure

Failure is underestimated in computer science papers. I would love to see a paper that's entirely about how not to do a thing, instead of reading useless articles about a slight variation of a well known method, that is some rare cases (that the author tryies to disguise as general ones) outperforms other implementations. I love postmortem's "what went wrong" reports, most of our experience is built by our failures.

But sadly researchers most of the times have to produce papers, and so we end up having tons of uninteresting stuff to read and filter. I would not trust anything that does not tell me clearly where it can't be applicated. Because if an article does not point out the shortcomings of a given method, most of the times the authors are trying to hide something, or simply they didn't have the time to make more tests.
And of course, most of the times those hidden problems are going to hit you late in your attemp to implement the given method, mostly because algorithmic problems are harder to diagnose than implementation bugs.

Do not trust your papers.

- sidenote: Always seek for negative critique in your work. If someone likes what you are doing, it's not helpful. Even the most destructive critique, even if it's not motivated and if it's not suggesting a way to improve, at least should let you think for a moment about what you're doing, then you can discard it in the way you prefer, but it was helpful. A destructive critique, that is well motivated is one of the best possible gifts someone can give you. It shows you the faults in what you're doing. It lets you think about solutions. This was what I learned from an old friend of mine, a very good artist, Maurizio Gemelli (Kublay). We were always fighting about, almost anything. I'm not a good painter, and he used to trash my work roughly, but a day I came up with a decent portrait, and he still criticized it. When I asked him why he wasn't appreciating that it was still, overall, decent, he told me that for his works he was always seeking for someone that could give him negatve critiques, and this was both surprising and enlighting.

1 comment:

Febret said...

You're right. In my experience, I only found a couple articles in which authors explicitly said 'OK, what we did was not totally satisfying'.

You know, usually articles play a lot the role of 'advertising' the idea of their authors. Most of the critique about a paper can be found in articles that cite it, rather than in the source itself..

You probably know about antipatterns: articles about them are the only ones I know that REALLY talk about how not do do stuff :)