Friday, June 17, 2011

Manage Energy, not Time

Many people, myself included, often wish there were more hours in the day. "If only there was time, I could do everything I want to. I wish I could do so and so, but there's just not enough time." Recently, I'm starting to realize that we have all the time that we need. Time is not the scarce resource; energy is. 

For the last several days, I kept a time log. Every fifteen minutes, I would jot down what I was doing. No matter how mundane, I made a note of it. As I expected, the exercise was revealing. I easily spent an hour or two each day just surfing the web... without consciously intending to. And it doesn't happen all at once. Fifteen minutes on Quora here, a quick ten minute glance through my Facebook newsfeed, and the minutes add up.

Why do I do this? Whenever boredom strikes and I'm not quite sure what to do next, I've developed the default habit of just finding content to consume. A quick cmd+T and pick one of my recently viewed sites, and I'm off. The tiny moment of boredom filled with an enticing news article or video. As far as I know, I'm not alone in having such a voracious appetite for information. But most people think the way to solve this is better time management. I posit that a better solution is energy management.

It's not that I need more time in the day, it's that I need more useful or high-energy time in the day. It's when I'm feeling low on energy when I most easily succumb to a quick news break. The goal then is not to aggressively time-manage, but to cultivate prolonged high-energy periods. How can we do this? I'm still searching for good techniques. Currently, I'm experimenting with yoga and breathing exercises to make myself feel more present as I go about my day. Have you found anything that helps you feel more energetic during the day?


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Four Years

Before MIT (Infinite Corridor, CPW '07)

After MIT (Killian Court, Commencement '11)

One journey ends and another begins... To all those I've met along the way, thanks for being a part of it. You'll be in my heart; take care and I hope some of our paths cross again. To Mom and Dad, thank you for your love and support.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kindness of Strangers

I may not have always depended on the kindness of strangers, but I'm pleasantly surprised, nonetheless, when a stranger lends me a helping hand. I've had bike problems the past couple of days, and three strangers helped me in small, but significant ways.

Yesterday, I was trying to fix a flat on my bike. The innertube had completely deflated and snaked its way out of the back tire. The complete bike novice that I am, I had no clue how to fix it. So I decided to instead take the bike over the local bike shop. The only problem: the bike shop is about a mile from my dorm, and the flat on the bike made it infeasible to roll. So I was faced with the prospect of carrying the heavy bike a mile to the shop under the blistering  noon sun. I could only carry it a few dozen feet at a time before taking quick breathers. I tried rolling the bike only on the front wheel, and while that made the load a bit lighter, I was still anticipating a long slog to the shop.

I'd only made it halfway down dorm row, when two facilities workers spotted my plight. They were likely busy with their own work and had no ostensible reason to take an interest in my problem. But they did. One asked me about what happened and I told him I was on my way to the bike shop. He commiserated. His friend took a look at my wheel and wondered if he couldn't get the innertube back inside the wheel so that I could at least roll the bike to the shop instead of carrying it. He turned my bike over and proceeded to do exactly that -- the tire was still flat, but at least, now the innertube wasn't dangling oddly outside the wheel. I could now roll the bike on both wheels -- what a relief! They gave me a few more tips and wished me good luck. I thanked them heartily and was on my way with a considerably lighter load.

This morning, I took my newly fixed bike out for a spin around the river. The attention of a third stranger headed off another potential bike calamity. Halfway through my ride, I was stopped at an intersection when a biker next to me pointed out to me that my front wheel was loose. He indicated a latch at the hub of the wheel that had come undone. A very small act, but nonetheless, one I'm very grateful for.

There are two lessons I could draw from these stories. One is that I need to learn more about proper bike maintenance ;) But, second, and more importantly, I'm reminded about the ultimate goodness of humanity. On the news, we're bombarded daily with stories of all the atrocities humans commit against one another. But it's refreshing to take stock of the small acts of kindness that don't get as much airtime, but which people perform everyday. It makes me smile and reminds me of the importance of kindness :)


Friday, May 27, 2011

On Creation and Storytelling

To create something great is to tell a good story. And how do you tell a good story? Ira Glass of This American Life has some great tips about this in a set of videos on storytelling. Most of Ira's tips are important not just for journalists and novelists, but for anyone involved in any type of creative endeavor. Painters tell stories with their brushes, programmers tell stories with their code, entrepreneurs tell stories with their products, scientists tell stories with their papers, engineers tell stories with their inventions. Here's how they do it.

First, they build a story out of anecdotes and reflections. Anecdotes are the linear sequence of events at the heart of the story: first this happend, then this, which made me say this, so on.. They ask little questions and answer them. This builds momentum and keeps the listener thinking: "What's next?"
But an anecdote alone does not a story make. Moments of reflection tell the reader why the story is important: "Why is it worth my time?" Good storytellers seamlessly interweave anecdotes and reflections.

Second, they make a lot of stories and kill the ones that suck. Getting rid of bad stories is as important as writing new ones. Killing the bad stuff makes the good stuff shine. Good storytellers edit ruthlessly.

Third, they have a killer taste for what's good. Often they know what's good, before they can make good stuff themselves. Early in your career, the stuff you create sucks. And you know it sucks because it doesn't live up to your great taste. But don't quit here. Good storytellers create. A lot. Until the stuff they create doesn't suck as much.

Fourth, they get over the beginner's pitfall of imitating creators they love. The world doesn't need another Shakespeare; it needs your new creations. Good storytellers find their own voice.

Now just go write, film, photograph, paint, build, code, design, research, invent,... just go create.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Last MIT exam

Today, I took my last exam at MIT. 18.443 (Statistics). It's been a long ride since my first MIT exam in 8.022 (Physics) nearly 4 years ago. I remember Prof. Josh Winn asking as he handed out the physics exams, whether this was anyone's first MIT exam. As it was early October, freshman year, this was true for several people. I nodded excitedly, as I dove into the first of many exams at MIT.

I haven't really looked back since. Between that physics exam four years ago and the statistics exam today, I've taken countless other exams, probably numbering close to a hundred. I don't remember most of them, but I hopefully still remember some of the highlights of the topics they covered. 

Coming up next week: my last MIT problem set and paper. And the thesis. Really close to the end now and I'm starting to reflect on the experiences of the last four years at MIT, but more of that to follow the completion of my thesis :)


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is it good to be first?

Being the first business to enter a particular market is difficult. Often, a first-mover's biggest problem is trying to forge a market and create demand where it doesn't exist yet. Many fail to solve this problem, but even those that do rarely become the biggest players in the market they helped create.

Neither Google, Facebook, or the iPod were the first search engine, social network, or mobile music player on the market. But when they entered the scene, there was clearly a demonstrated, actual market for such products. These markets had been forged by prior entrants, but that didn't matter. Customers don't care who's first. Once they know they want something (thanks to the first movers), they want the best version of it. Google, Facebook, and Apple just came along and built a better product for a well-established market. 

So the question stands: is it good to be first? Or is it better to wait out and see which markets really flourish and which wither? The first-mover has to focus on building the market, whereas the late arrivals can just focus on building the product. Is it really a wonder, then, that the second-mover builds a better product? Of course, the second mover faces his own challenge: converting customers to his product. And with high-switching costs, this can be an unsurmountable problem. But this problem seems easier than the first-mover's problem of creating demand. Why should you ever be first then? Can anyone think of examples were being first was the decisive advantage?


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blueberry Coffee Cake

Turned out fairly well for my first time. Next time, might want to make it moister and sweeter.

Recipe (adapted from

1) Create dough by mixing together
  - 2 c. Bisquick
  - 2/3 c. milk
  - 1 egg
  - 2 tbsp. sugar

2) Create toppings by mixing
  - 1/3 c. Bisquick
  - 1/3 c. sugar
  - 2 tbsp. butter
  - 1/3 c. bluberries

3) Spread dough on greased pan. Cover dough with toppings.

4) Bake at 400 F for 25 min.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

What's in a name?

How do we know what an apple is? Does the abstract concept of "apple" mean anything to you until you've seen it, held it, tasted it?

Generalities are only useful when we have seen specific examples of what the general concepts represent. Then the general term or concept serves as an efficient notational shorthand for the example or idea as a whole. But until we feel what it means in our bones, the general term only serves to mystify and confuse.

I see this happen all too often in math classes and textbooks. Someone will define a concept and then compose that definition with another and another. If you understood what the first definition was saying, you could reasonably follow the compositions. But if you didn't, you'd be stuck trying to build a sandcastle .... without knowing or understanding what sand is.

I've had the same experience this year as I've embarked on my master's research on machine learning. In the first few months, I'd come across terms like "posterior distribution", "forward distribution", "expectation of the log likelihood", "marginalize the joint". And such phrases were absolutely meaningless to me. Now, I use the same phrases without consciously thinking about it and with a very precise image in my mind of what they mean. I'm so immersed in the terminology by now that I can still be surprised when a colleague blinks in confusion at my use of these phrases. What's the matter -- don't you have the same picture in your head that I do in mine?

This problem is even more pronounced when you're teaching. If you're a good teacher, you probably understand the material better than your students do (though, this is not always true ;). But that's not enough. A good teacher must also misunderstand the material as their students do. As a student, I was always delighted when the teacher seemed to get exactly what I was confused about and then clear that up. As a teacher, I now realize how hard it is and am impressed even more by former teachers who were able to do it. It requires getting out of your own head where you know exactly what an apple is and into the head of the student where an apple is just an assortment of five random letters.

As I near the end of my MIT career, I'm focusing even more on the art of effective exposition -- how to explain things really, really well. This semester, I'm teaching two classes and writing my thesis. Both are activities that are really challenging and transforming my understanding of what a good explanation is. I'm finding that it not only helps me understand something better when I explain it to someone else, but it often helps them too! I'm finding that I can't always anticipate what's going in my student or reader's head, but when I can, it makes a tremendous difference. And I'm finding, most of all, that I really enjoy explaining things clearly. I've still got a lot to learn and it's often hard and stressful (especially when I think I explained something poorly), but I'm loving the experience and hope to continuing improving at it.


Monday, February 21, 2011

First Time Skiing

I went skiing for the first time today at Pat's Peak in New Hampshire. I was a bit apprehensive before going as I wasn't sure what to expect. I was worried that I didn't have the adequate winter wear for the occasion and also concerned about injuries. I was able to make do with a regular winter jacket and jeans with track pants underneath. And as for injuries, I fell several times, but didn't break anything, fortunately :)

The morning started with me hardly able to put my boots into the skis and struggling to find my balance. After a beginner's lesson and a few trips down the steady beginner's slope, I started to get the hang of it. After several falls, I learned how to get up effectively: point your skis across the mountain so that you don't continue sliding downward and align your weight before standing up. 

After getting comfortable with the small starter slope, I progressed to the full mountain slopes. I did an easy green circle route three times and only fell a couple of times! I mostly just used the beginner's pizza wedge, but the trip down the mountain was still very exhilarating. The rush of the cold air past your ears and the slightly heightened sense of fear kept me very alert on the track. I only had one really bad tumble where I flipped over a full 360 degrees -- my knees got jumbled a bit, but that was the worst of it. Good thing I wore a helmet :)

I'm glad I got a chance to try skiing. It was a lot of fun and I think I'd definitely like to go again. Ice skating's still on the list.