Something rotten in Aigle

[Note 1: This post is based on a recent commentary to a piece discussing the UCI radio ban.]
[Note 2: Enough of Academia for a while. Time to bring out more cycling pieces.]

Cyclingnews recently had yet another story on the much-debated radio ban issue. While it has received attention from many in the upper echelons of the sport (this piece by Gerard Vroomen of Cervélo comes to mind), I believe that the amateur racers are the ones most negatively affected by the lack of electronic communication - and I say this while wholeheartedly agreeing with all the points presented by my colleagues in the professional ranks. See, a ProTour race will typically have an armada of commissaires ahead of the race, police escort on motorbikes, and a large number of team cars following. If a rider breaks away, or drops back, with sufficient likelihood he won't be entirely on his own across some desolated landscape. On the other hand, and I speak with sufficient experience from events across South America and Eastern Europe, amateur races may sometimes have only one or two cars with race officials, and most teams, if at all, can only afford one car to follow the race. In these situations, the ability to convey a message to your team becomes crucial, lest one is left stranded in the middle of nowhere with over 50km to the nearest village - a situation that happened to me once in Northern Uruguay.

Also, to the argument presented by the UCI, that radios take away from the excitement and tactical unpredictability, I guess this makes even less sense in the amateur ranks, where the performance spectrum among competitors in a typical race is much broader than in the typical ProTour race - I assume the pro field is much more homogeneous, though this may be up for argumentation. Nevertheless. The few amateur teams capable of summoning their riders up front to coordinate a chase and bring back a breakaway group already do so independently of radios; I'd venture to say that the only occasion when the lead riders gain a significant, multi-minute advantage on the (amateur) field is when the stronger riders are riding in it; and would hold such lead independently of exact splits being communicated by radio or otherwise to the peloton behind.

Unfortunately, amateur riders have very little leverage to question or protest such rulings (and don't get me started on the material regulations!), and rely on the voice of our pro representatives in the hope that the concerning decisions will eventually trickle down to the lower ranks. Perhaps it's time the concerned amateurs voice their opinion, if not to the Aigle officials of the UCI, then to the responsible regional and national federations, which could still overturn the ban for the sake of improved racing and safety conditions.


Something rotten in Denmark

Columbia Lake, Waterloo, Ontario. A beautiful, if windy, Autumn afternoon. I took the opportunity of my adviser being half way across the globe to also head out of Erlangen and spend a week with my girlfriend, working from home during my stay.

I actually had the intention of attending a conference in Los Angeles in the beginning of December, which would have brought me to Waterloo a few weeks later. But that didn't follow through, and as I walked back in that sunny afternoon, I figured the reasons, or lack thereof, were worth writing about.

As some of you know - and this is all largely irrelevant to the story at hand, but helps better situate those unfamiliar with my research - my Ph.D. revolves around quantum information theory, with an emphasis on possible quantum optical implementations. One long-standing question in the field is, "what are the minimal resources needed to accomplish a certain task?" - which has different answers depending on which task is being considered. I'm working at answering this question with some particular assumptions on the resources, where the 'task' is error correction - in other words, safeguarding the information being transmitted through a potentially lossy or noisy channel. Anyway. I'm trying to generalise a certain previous result, lifting some assumptions on the resources to better match what is currently experimentally achievable. At first, we thought this would be a fairly straightforward deal - maybe so simple as to have been overlooked by the original authors. As we progressed, we identified a number of roadblocks, and as usual, overcoming them involves developing new tools, or, as we have it, expanding an existing method to other classes of systems. Simply put, I want to expand the result of A. et al, using a generalisation of the method developed by B. et al.

As of this moment, the formal proof is still pending, but I have a fairly good idea of how the structure of the result looks like - and this is what, a few months ago, I intended to submit to the conference. By the time the event came around, I thought, maybe I'd have managed to find the missing pieces of the puzzle; if not, A., B., and other experts on the previous results and methods I'm working with, would be in the audience, and could eventually provide insightful comments helping me put together the definitive solution. How naive of me.

My adviser vetoed the submission. He believes that presenting an incomplete work could give rival groups (more on that in a second) an edge, and they, being experts in the subject matter at hand, could end up arriving at the intended result before we managed to get ours ready for publishing. I countered, saying they could be brought as co-authors in an eventual paper reporting the findings. Nope. "It's probably best not to bring additional people on board the project at this time", his words. As most people in Academia will agree, this is a simple case of protecting our investment, just as any industry will not reveal a new product before its patent is applied for.

All would be well, but for the fact that we're not a for-profit research company. See, my scholarship is funded by the German Research Association (DFG, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) - which, in turn, is mostly funded by the State, which, as we all know, is kept by taxpayers' money. One could argue that the goal behind sponsoring my research is to deliver some contribution to the people - of the state of Bavaria, of the Federal Republic of Germany, or even of the whole European Community - however indirect this contribution may be. Now, one of the "rival" groups turns out to be from another university distant maybe 400km from ours, and, alas!, they are also sponsored by public-funded agencies - in fact, we have even collaborated in writing some grant proposals together. The other rival group comes indeed from a different continent, but once more, they are also funded by taxpayers' money, and, again, are our 'partners' when it comes to applying to joint European-North American research projects. Am I the only one seeing the irony here?

As I entertained thoughts of throwing the towel a few weeks ago - an activity I engage in, for now, for entertainment purposes only - I contemplated releasing all my unpublished - and sometimes unfinished - results into the public domain. Who knows, there may be another Ph.D. student somewhere, also stuck on similar points, who could learn from my mistakes and, if not arriving at the correct result, at least avoid getting stuck for months in the same issues that I spent so much time on. My loss could be your gain.
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I love sharing my training logs, workouts and power numbers - besides technical and tactical advice - out in the open, fully knowing that my competitors may be reading it all as well (and no, I don't think I warrant such level of attention by my adversaries, but that's another story). If I am to be beaten, it's because the other man was indeed stronger. If I am to win, hopefully it will be in a race made as hard as possible by all other competitors - and that includes my, hopefully positive, contribution to their performance.

Funny how so many parallels can be drawn between cycling and academia. Supply - of both aspiring amateur cyclists and graduate wanna-be scientists - is ample, whereas demand - for research professors, or professional cyclists - is stagnant at best. That a competitive environment should result is not in the least questioned. But still, and specially so when such environment ceases to be healthy and stimulating, and acquires a crippled, poisonous stance, one must be able to realise that, sometimes, winning at all costs isn't winning at all.
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Yet another whinny post to justify stepping down from my goals? Far from it. As I've said time and again, I believe in an extricate life-work-sport combination which, in its balance, includes a healthy dose of insanely unbalanced acts. Somehow, striving in adverse conditions has a very appealing factor - and even more so if it can be associated with "fighting the good fight", a perspective through which I can see both my sportive and academic endeavours.

Now, if you were to ask me whether it's possible for one to nurture a meaningful relationship while simultaneously defending a Ph.D. and attempting to make it in the highest sporting level? Hmmm... challenge accepted.