Randy Pausch, Professor at Carnegie-Mellon university, died yesterday of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47.
A few weeks ago, Gavin and I watched his last lecture, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, and it was a nice experience. This guy knew he was going to die, yet he was happy to give a last lecture in front of a packed audience and talk about how he felt he had managed to achieve most of his dreams (like being in zero-gravity, working at Walt Disney Imagineering and creating Alice, a 3D environment to learn programming.) The video is available on YouTube.
What struck me during Randy Pausch’s last lecture was the fact that he had managed to do great things (Alice for example.) Like a lot of my heroes in fact. People like Linus Torvalds (of Linux fame of course), Paul Graham (of Viaweb and Y Combinator fame), Steve Jobs (Apple and NeXT), Richard Branson (Virgin) and countless other creators (like artists and programmers.)
Our world is what it is thanks to inventors and creators. And I’ve realized that most creative people are not working in a university doing research anymore. In his very interesting Why I am Not a Professor or The Decline and Fall of the British University, Mike Tarver writes:
The mandarins in charge of education decreed that research was to be assessed, and that meant counting things. Quite what things and how wasn’t too clear, but the general answer was that the more you wrote, the better you were. So lecturers began scribbling with the frenetic intensity of battery hens on overtime, producing paper after paper […]
[But is] the paper important? Is it something people will look back on and say ‘That was a landmark’. Applying this last test requires historical hindsight – not an easy thing. But when it is applied, very often the list of one hundred papers disappears altogether. Placed under the heat of forensic investigation the list finally evaporates and what you are left with is the empty set.
Mencius Moldbug is more direct in his What’s wrong with [Computer Science] research blog entry:
The reason why [Computer Science] research produces so little that can be called creative programming these days is that the modern process of grant-funded research is fundamentally incompatible with the task of writing interesting, cool and relevant software. Rather, its goal is to produce publications and careers, and it’s very good at that.
Bureaucrats build academic empires which churn out meaningless solutions to irrelevant problems.
And this is what made me realize that I was on the wrong track. I do not want to churn out meaningless solutions to irrelevant problems. I am not (and never will be) a bureaucrat. As from now, I’ll do things.
Thanks Mike and Mencius. Rest in peace, Randy.