PhD-ish On the Internet
Monday, March 21 2016

TL;DR: I think it’d be possible to set up a small community on the Internet that works like a lab full of PhD students. This would enable us to have shared community on long research projects (even when not working on projects together), sounding boards, peer review, and collective mentorship, which are all good things one can find in a PhD setting. I’m wondering who else might be interested in such a program.


This is a request for comments. If you think this proposal is crazy, do let me know. I don’t claim this proposal is fully fleshed out just yet, but it’s something I wanted to ask the Internet about.

The problem statement

I do research. I do research on my own; my day job doesn’t have a research program / 20% time program, and in any case, my research tends to be outside the field of interest of a small consultancy. This means I don’t have to confirm my work to what’s currently fashionable in security research, but it comes with a problem: doing work outside of work is, well, haaaaaaard.

This is not a new result. Outside work, life exists, and can be of great interest. Life includes theatre, music, or even just wandering around. (Note: if your life includes none of these things, I suggest you try at least one of them.) It’s a perfectly valid thing to do only relaxing/entertaining things outside of work.

I like creating new things, however. Sometimes they’re small-but-fun things, like when I made an ice cube sphere cutter for my brother. Sometimes they’re large, crazed things that scare people; that project took, all told, nearly two and a half years (September 2011 - March 2014). Sometimes they’re in between, like my spending more hours than I’d like to admit on creating an HTML5/CSS3 CV that has interactive elements without JavaScript.

Keeping motivation up, however, is an issue. Also an issue: having very few people off whom I can bounce ideas, or with whom I can commiserate (for instance, swearing at JavaScript) or simply work in agreeable community.

How does academia do this?

We have an existing model for groups of people working together on independent projects: PhD programs. (Note to those of you with PhDs: I’m going to summarize, here, so I don’t pretend this description is universal. Feel free to leave correcting comments, however.) Unlike college or professional graduate programs (such as MDs, JDs, and the like), PhD programs involve few classes. Instead, a new student joins a research lab with other students in approximately the same specialty, where the student will work for several (3-7) years on several (1-5) long research projects. These projects will culminate in one long paper, the dissertation, which represents a significant contribution to the state of world knowledge on a given topic. Different disciplines do this in different ways; computer science seems to favor several smaller (say, yearlong) projects, whereas lab disciplines (like biology or Biomedical Engineering) seem to favor fewer, longer projects.

So while the students work “together” in the sense of being in approximately the same space and time, they’re working on independent research. There’s a shared community. There’s also shared mentorship; the lab leader (often called a Principal Investigator, nearly always a tenured faculty member) can provide direction, mentorship, advice, or whatever else is necessary to any or all of the students. (In a real lab, the PI is also responsible for winning the grants that fund the research; I’m going to set that aside because it’s not relevant to this discussion.)

Can we do this?

While a great friend of mine has spoken movingly on why everyone in security should consider doing PhD work, I’m not sure that’s for me right now. It’s certainly not for everyone; after all, we have jobs, careers, goals we don’t want to set aside for years. There are reasons we don’t all get PhDs.

That said, the shared community, the lightweight obligation to keep making progress (to talk about at weekly or monthly lab meetings), and the sounding board? I could definitely use that. Interacting with a group of people who are also driven by the same weird impulses I am would be great.

The proposal

I suggest that it is possible to create a PhD-like lab on the Internet. While we wouldn’t be physically in the same space, Slack provides a great “water cooler” / “random muttering” space that can be selectively ignored when one needs complete focus, or clicked over to when it’s a good moment for a break. For lab meetings, Hangouts or other video chat would suffice; it’s nice to be able to see your colleagues, even for a few minutes a week, and it helps to build that shared community (as well as the lightweight obligation to keep working I mentioned earlier).

This group could help members to keep progressing, but also provide motivation and feedback and peer review when it becomes time to explain results (whether in a whitepaper, a prestigious journal, or a conference with or without proceedings). For mentorship, rather than a single PI, a roving cast of characters who wish to at least keep a finger near research could help out; there are PhDs and other academics among us all the time, of course, and I think a few of them might be willing to give of their time.

Speaking of time: a real PhD lab is your job. It’s more than full time, and it’s your life until you’re done, one way or another. This wouldn’t be such a commitment, but certainly one would be spending a good chunk of time on their work each week. (What that would look like for each person would depend primarily on their goals.)

The call to action

There are lots more questions to be answered. Some of them include:

For now, however, while I welcome suggestions on any of these (or other) fronts, I’m mostly curious: who else would be interested in such a group, if it existed? You’d only commit to continuing to do your own research, and it’s not like we’re collecting tuition to hang over your head (no sunk cost fallacies here). If you think this could be worthwhile, though, leave a comment below, or email me: bfo @ ussjoin dot com.

For my part, I think I’ve got some Raspberries Pi that need weeding….

How the United States Holds Its Elections
Tuesday, June 16 2015

Note: The following is deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Please do not leave comments to explain to me how elections “actually” work. I know how they work.

I have a coworker who is not from the United States who was dismayed at the announcement of a particular candidate for the President of the United States. This was my response to him:

Here is how we elect the leader of the self-declared Free World:

  1. God personally calls a candidate. Actually, God personally calls at least ten potential candidates, if you assume that no one would lie. And who would lie about being directly chosen by God?

  2. Those candidates God chose, along with many who others will argue God did not choose, establish “independent” corporations that can take unlimited donations, known as SuperPACs. Because corporations have more rights than people, in the US, these PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money and can hide their donors, whereas when mere people donate to a campaign, their names are required to be disclosed and their contributions are limited.

  3. The candidates go to places they believe will win them votes to declare their candidacy. For most candidates this is Iowa or New Hampshire, because due to skeletons buried deep within their ground, these locations have magical power. Or deep-fried Oreos. Whatever. Other candidates will declare at one of their chain of buildings, or somewhere in their home state. Doesn’t really matter. The press will nonetheless say they have the “momentum” until the next candidate declares.

  4. Candidates say things. Many of those things are disproven by facts, but candidates do not believe in facts. Others of those things are statements of intention that they will not actually intend. These statements become increasingly insane. Anyone who says anything coherent and statesmanlike at this stage will be disqualified, regardless of their party or intelligence. See Jon Huntsman in 2012 (whether or not one supported him, he did say a few nice things).

  5. In January of the election year (you thought we were in the same year as the election before? Hah! Elections in the US take at least one Congressional term to process, sometimes two), Iowa and New Hampshire will have primaries. Iowa will ignore the American tradition of secret ballots and verifiable results and have caucuses. No one knows what those are. Someone will win.

  6. The media will anoint the person who won the frontrunner. Nice of them. They will anoint a frontrunner approximately 200 times through the next year, however, so don’t worry if you don’t like this particular one.

  7. More primaries ensue. At this point, candidates will start to drop out of the race, which has now cost more per candidate than the GDP of any but the wealthiest 50 countries.

  8. Eventually, we will be down to two candidates, one for each party. (What’s that you say? There are other parties? That’s some of that Freedom-Hating stuff, we don’t do that in the US.) Those parties will hold a nominating convention. No one will care.

  9. The candidates will have a series of debates. These will be unholy unions of soundbites and sweat dripping. The media will focus on which candidate sweated less. No one will care.

  10. The candidates will fly around the country making increasingly frantic statements. No one will care.

  11. (Hypothesis—though this would explain a few things.) Somewhere around September, the four or five wealthiest people in the country will get together and decide who gets to be President.

  12. In October, the so-called “October Surprise” (which comes without fail) will kneecap one candidate just as they were about to win.

  13. On the first Tuesday after a Monday in November (so somewhere Nov 2-8), the US will go to the polls. Only four states will matter, due to the “Electoral College” which ensures that the US’ “one person, one vote” principle never applies to Presidential elections.

  14. The losing candidate will file lawsuits in 20 states. This usually won’t work, but after 2000, when it did, it’s worth a shot.

  15. Sometime November-December, a candidate will be declared the President-Elect. Most media sources will say he (or, theoretically, she) will destroy the country.

  16. January 20, the new President takes the stage and promises to defend the Constitution. Given that the preceding 15 steps didn’t do much for the Constitution, one will wonder.


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