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Re: [ontolog-forum] Ontologist Aptitude Test?

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 16 Jan 2010 13:16:25 -0500
Message-id: <4B520279.3080702@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Dear Mathew and Rich,    (01)

MW> It seems to me you are deliberately twisting what I am saying.    (02)

I am not trying to twist your words, but I don't believe that we
have a fundamental disagreement.  I think that the source of the
problem is the choice of words.    (03)

MW> There are at least 3 kinds of thing here which you are trying
> to insist are only two:
> 1. Blue skies research.
> 2. Applied research.
> 3. Engineering.    (04)

We've all heard those terms used in a broad range of ways.  But they
are so vague that we get statements like the following, which can be
interpreted in ways that none of us would be happy with:    (05)

MW> I agree that it is pointless trying to direct blue skies research.
 > You never know where a key breakthrough is going to come from.    (06)

RC> Basically, companies don't do research on the stockholders' dimes.    (07)

The following statement adds more qualifications, but the words
'problem' and 'question' are still vague.  Adding the word 'specific'
to 'question' makes it sound more precise, but it really isn't.    (08)

MW> However, there is also a class of problem, where you know what
 > the problem is that you want to solve, but you do not have the
 > methods, tools and techniques to solve the problem. You then have
 > to do research to find the solutions. This is applied research.
 > It is research because you do not know the answer to the question,
 > or how to work it out, and it is applied because there is a specific
 > question you are trying to find the answer to (not necessarily the
 > case with blue skies stuff).    (09)

Depending on how you interpret the words 'problem' and 'question',
you get a vague continuum from blue sky to applied research to
engineering.  Furthermore, the application of those terms is often
decided *after* the fact:  if a project makes money, it's called
engineering, and if it fails, it's called blue sky research.
(There are also many examples of successful projects that seemed
to lose money because of quirks in the accounting procedures.)    (010)

To make the issues more precise, it's necessary to look at concrete
examples.  The following Wikipedia summary of Bell Labs research
lists an abundance of examples:    (011)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_Labs    (012)

For an example of "blue sky research", one might consider:    (013)

  1. "1978 Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson shared the Nobel Prize
     in Physics. Penzias and Wilson were cited for their discovery of
     cosmic microwave background radiation, a nearly uniform glow that
     fills the Universe in the microwave band of the radio spectrum."    (014)

  2. But that was a byproduct of *applied* research that was fundamental
     to AT&T's main business:  high-speed, reliable transmission of
     data across long distances.  They were trying to answer a very
     precise question:  What is the source of static that interferes
     with microwave transmission.  It was also an engineering project
     because they built a large antenna array within the limits of
     budgets and deadlines.    (015)

  3. They were successful in all three ways:  they built the antenna
     as an engineering project; they established precise limits on
     background radiation as an applied research project; and as a
     bonus, they made an unexpected scientific breakthrough that
     won a Nobel Prize.    (016)

Look down the Bell Labs list for many inventions that crossed all
three boundaries:  relay devices that supported early computers
as well as the switching systems for telephone calls; information
theory by Shannon and codes for data compression by Hamming;
lasers, transistors, and integrated circuits for improving data
transmission and switching systems; etc.    (017)

Contrary to Rich's comment, that research was of immense value to
investors.  For many decades, AT&T stock was the choice of investors
that wanted a safe long-term investment with a high ROI.  Part of
their success was the result of being a government-regulated monopoly,
but a large part of it was the result of cutting-edge research that
gave America the world's best telephone system -- both in cost and
in reliability.    (018)

But by 1980, AT&T had become bloated and stodgy.  They invented
fiber optics, but their internal politics prevented them from
replacing the huge investment in copper.  The anti-trust breakup
in the early 1980s resulted in vastly cheaper telephone charges
for everybody, but it also had some unfortunate side effects:    (019)

  1. A large part of Bell Labs was spun off into an independent
     research consortium called Bellcore, which was intended to
     be the research arm of the newly formed Baby Bells.    (020)

  2. The Baby Bells grew rapidly by cashing in on the old research,
     but they were in fierce competition with each other.  None
     of them could afford to subsidize their competitors by making
     large payments for the kind of research that Bell Labs did.    (021)

  3. For the short term, telephone costs dropped by orders of
     magnitude.  But the Bell Labs' kind of research dried up
     -- at least in the US.    (022)

IBM was also subject to antitrust lawsuits around the same time,
but it was not broken up.  However, the competition for cheap
computers in the 1980s and '90s cut IBM's large profit margins,
and the funding for research also dried up.  Similar cutbacks
occurred in many other US industries.    (023)

Those cutbacks partially justify Rich's comment.  But the result
of all of them is that the US now imports the kind of high tech
that they had always exported.    (024)

In summary, I'd replace Matthew's statement "There are at least 3
kinds of thing here which you are trying to insist are only two"
with the following points:    (025)

  1. There is a continuum between blue sky research, applied research,
     and engineering.  Sharp distinctions can be misleading, especially
     when they are made, after the fact, based on what succeeded.    (026)

  2. However, researchers do need guidance from management about what
     areas to explore and how much funding should be alloted to each.    (027)

  3. The *best* guidance comes from enlightened managers who have a
     strong background in the technical fields, the business needs,
     and the kind of R & D environment that promotes innovation.    (028)

  4. The *worst* kind of guidance comes from a frozen set of rules
     based on what worked in the past and applied by pointy-haired
     bosses who have been promoted beyond their level of competence.
     (In military terms, this is equivalent to fighting a new war
     with the strategy and tactics developed for the last war.)    (029)

To return to the subject line of this thread, note that Bell Labs
in the glory days did not need a certified test to find good people.
My greatest fear about an OAT is point #4:  it will be used by
pointy-haired bosses to stifle innovation.    (030)

John    (031)

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