Distracted by Shiny Things

One problem with having a TODO list consisting of the Cartesian product of all possible things is that making any appreciable progress through the list is kind of hard. Being easily distracted by shiny things makes it somewhat harder, since you never actually finish anything on it anyway before something new and more interesting comes along. One day I'll finish that Beatles-inspired, radio controlled, balsa wood submarine, honest. Maybe after I finish this post.

Research is much like this, except it is actually far worse. Reading a good paper gets you excited, maybe because you agree with the authors or maybe because they are clearly on crack. Either way at the end you are left with a bunch of references to go read up on and with a bunch of good ideas to go think about. You can see perhaps where the Cartesian explosion comes from: “What if I took idea X from this paper and did Y to it? Well I'll have to go read more about X and Y and think about it some more and write my own paper about this new approach, and maybe I can get it into that conference in Spain next year...”

It is actually worse than just that, though. The references in the paper are citations — they're things in the past. Reading a good paper just makes you want to go rehash history. I thought we had already learnt that lesson? It is still worse though, since the paper you just read was probably published ten years ago, so you have to go stalk the authors to see if they have published anything new about X since then. You have to make up for all your lost time as well as rehashing history. Maybe after all that you can write up your idea, get on with life, remember to feed the goldfish, and so on.

I guess that is the cool thing about science, the constant flow of shiny new ideas. The hard part is actually recognising the better ones, seeing them through, and maybe finishing that PhD along the way.