The Glitz Factor

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept. 1996

The other day I put together a list of the biggest losers of the research projects for which I have been responsible through the years. I stared at the list, fighting a gathering headache, and trying to find a glimmer of wisdom to carry forward. What did the projects in this list have in common, besides failure to yield any identifiable benefits to my company?

A memory emerged of an ordinary workday a dozen years ago. On that particular morning I stopped by the office of one of my research managers to say hello. I remember him turning to the blackboard to describe his latest personal research project. This was before we all got whiteboards with non-functioning marker pens and sharp chemical smells. Thus my memory is permeated by the old-fashioned, sensory mixture of chalk dust and intellectual excitement. With a gentle enthusiasm, my friend drew two concentric circles and began to describe his idea for a new local area network protocol.

I forget what I said in reaction, but whatever it was, it wasn't what he had hoped for. Abandoning the network diagram he had been drawing, he walked to the blackboard on the side wall. Wordlessly, he drew a semi-circle with a radial arrow pointer, much like the floor indicator on an ancient elevator. On the left side of the semi-circle, where the ground floor would be, he wrote "glitz." On the far right, where the top floor would be indicated, he wrote "substance."

"The trouble with you, Bob," he said, "is that you're too far over here." He placed an arrow almost horizontal on the left side, approximately at the elevator's first floor, and very near the damning word "glitz." There was a certain reproof in his wistful glance towards the other end of the scale, the one marked "substance."

Occasionally I think of this criticism. In my mind I muster a protest of innocence, but there is a kernel of truth -- I am, indeed, too influenced by glitz. However, I believe that I have a lot of company in this weakness. Probably you too, dear reader, are also unduly influenced by the glitz factor. Every which way we turn we see glitz featured. The media, our friends, and even -- gasp! -- management, are mesmerized by the dreaded glitz factor. Substance, on the other hand, is often a hard sell.

So my list of loser research projects is permeated with glitz. I am reluctant to relate the whole list, partly for fear of self-incrimination, but also because I can hear the howls of protest. "That wasn't a loser!" would echo the halls of technology. But, forgive me, with respect to the current profitability of the work to the funder, I might cite photonic computing, neural networks, robotics, and networked games as examples. Lots of glitz, for sure.

What gives an area of research glitz? On the high glitz side, it seems that anything that is anthropomorphic, is likely to appear in a science fiction film, or might be considered threatening to humans would qualify. Also, it is vital that the area of research be easily described in a few simple words. In a world of sound bites, simplicity is vital. The canonical person in the street, when confronted with the possibility of success in this one-sentence research project, should show a visible reaction of fear, surprise, or elation. Good examples include biological computing, artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and intelligent agents.

On the low glitz side we find projects that are complex and abstract. Algorithms and protocols have low glitz. You will never see, for example, a science fiction movie about a LAN protocol. Important, money-making areas like quality and testing are low glitz, as are most mathematical and optimization problems. It almost goes without saying that anything known by an acronym is doomed to low glitz.

One of the lessons is that the naming of a project is all-important. Perhaps a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but nobody smells research projects. Instead, we toss the words around in our head and test the reaction. There are words that are bright and compelling, and words that are dull and off-putting. Consider such names as "big bang", "black hole", "great attractor," and "supernova." Astronomers obviously know how to name things. Biologists, chemists, and medical researchers should take note.

One way of grabbing attention in a name is to include a hint of self-contradiction. Oxymoronic names like "fuzzy logic," "cold fusion," "high temperature superconductivity," "dynamic programming," and "information warfare" contain an off-balance flavor that leaves a memorable aftertaste. I often think that Lotfi Zadeh's naming of "fuzzy logic" was an act of pure genius. In the case of Richard Bellman's dynamic programming, I was always amazed at how little it had to do with either dynamics or programming. No matter, I suppose -- people wonder, and because of that, people remember.

There are special rules for naming computers and other machinery. Glitzy names are "colossus," "big blue," and "enigma." Low glitz are numbers, and the more there are, the lower the glitz. However, if you must have numbers, some are better than others. In computers, _86 is good, whereas in airplanes 7_7 is good. If alphabetic characters must be included, "x" and "z" are glitzy letters, whereas "q", for example, is not.

High glitz in a research project doesn't necessarily mean it will turn out badly, but I think it raises a warning flag. There are other factors of commonality in my list of losers. Chief among these other factors is that of timing. Being either ahead or behind the power curve is almost always disastrous. Usually, the problem is being too soon in the game. I have little patience any more for researchers who claim that they did whatever-it-was twenty years earlier. It simply doesn't matter; there is a right time for everything, and the people that do the work at the right time should get the credit. Like a fine wine, no research project should be opened before its time.

I'd like to elaborate, but I have to run. I'm seeing an exciting new demonstration of speech recognition.

Oh, by the way -- that LAN protocol -- it was good stuff. Sometimes substance counts.

Robert W. Lucky