Monday, June 20, 2011

Dropbox, svn, and self-discipline

Applications such as Dropbox or svn help me work on papers with my coauthors. It allows us to edit our paper in parallel, with frequent (or even automatic and transparent, in the case of Dropbox) updates to the common repositary that ensures continued consistency. In the old days, we used to email our draft back and forth, with message headers such as: "I am taking the token on the paper. Let no one else edit it!" and "I am now releasing the token". Instead, Dropbox saves us the work of coordinating our schedule and jointly planning when each of us is going to edit the paper. It gives us a lot more freedom.

But here is something I noticed the other day. I was editing a draft, went through about three quarters of it, then when I got tired of editing, I stopped and updated the repositary.

In the old days, I would have pushed myself and finished editing before releasing the token.

In the old days, when conference deadlines were approaching, we had to be very organized to synchronize our work so as to be done in time. Now each author can work more or less independently from the others, and the observed effect is that people wait until much closer to the deadline.

In the old days, writing a paper used to happen in waves: we'd write a first draft, then correct it to make a second draft, then go over it once or twice more at most, and then we'd call it good enough for submission. Now there is no sense of "version number i": the draft is updated continuously, and it can never really be said to be finished. Further improvements are always possible.

So in the old days, there were many synchronization constraints that forced us to be organized, or else the cost was high: one small misstep often meant that a whole day was lost. Now things are much more robust: missteps can be corrected instantaneously, so the cost of making mistakes is low, and careful planning is no longer necessary. Instead can almost entirely live in the present. We have enormously more freedom.

What is the result? One result is that I currently have a large number of drafts in various stages of being close to completion. When I am 3/4 done and feel a bit tired, there is no reason not to stop. Moreover, I am reluctant to call a paper "ready for submission", since there is always one more small improvement that is possible and easy to make.

More freedom, unless coupled with more self-discipline, results in decreased efficiency.

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