30 June 2007

Importance of batching

Peter Fisher recently discussed the idea of batching in his latest Fisher Files podcast. Tim Ferriss also writes about this topic in his book The Four Hour Workweek.

Batching means doing a bunch of similar tasks at the same time. For instance, doing your 3 loads of laundry every two weeks rather rather than a few t-shirts everyday. I find that as a grad student, even I have some administration to deal with. At the moment, most of it is work I've created for myself: tracking my sleeping schedule and daily targets, cataloging research articles I've saved, editing the photos I took last night, reorganizing my bookmarks, etc. Anytime I've delayed this stuff to the morning, I've regretted it. Personally, I find that the most efficient method is batch all these tasks and do them in the evening after I come home from work. I even try to batch mindless health tasks for the evening like showering and making my lunch for the next day. Sometime it takes a lot of discipline. I don't want to make my lunch when I'm exhausted, but if I don't do it, I regret having to do it the next morning when I'm in a hurry to get on with the real work in my day.

If you've taken a computer architecture class, you know that another way to improve efficiency besides batching is interleaving. For instance, an example of interleaving is moving your washed laundry to the dryer and putting another load of laundry into the washer. The dryer takes longer than the washer so you time the tasks to complete everything in the least time, e.g. you might do 3 loads of washing and 2 loads of drying. I don't usually need to interleave. The only examples I can think of (besides waiting for laundry to finish) are waiting for my computer to finish some CPU-intensive task, waiting for my hair to dry after a shower, or being forced to take a break from the computer to prevent neck strain.

24 June 2007

Two random observations

First, it's strange and sometimes annoying when people from your past treat you like the person they used to know (especially if you were less mature back then). I like to be flip and ridiculous for fun and that can be misinterpreted as immaturity.

Second, sometimes a bad situation seems much worse to an observer than the person going through it. For example, the postdoc in one of my former labs had a climbing accident in Yosemite. He broke his jaw, leg, wrist and suffered a concussion. I remember when he showed up lab with a wired jaw and a horrible wire sticking out of his arm. Apparently, the postdoc still wants to go back to climbing someday, but his roommate was so traumatized that he will probably never climb again. I went through some tough times in the last few years and I had difficulty convincing one of my friends that everything was OK now. He still remembers my desperate emails and phone calls vividly; to me, they're just a distant memory.

22 June 2007

Link of the day: APS Virtual Journals

The APS Virtual Journals aggregates journal articles from APS, AIP, Nature, Science, IEEE and others for various hot topics in physics. The articles are selected by a board of editors. Currently, Virtual Journals includes sections on applications of superconductivity, biological physics, nanoscience, quantum information, and ultrafast science. Pretty cool!

19 June 2007

I'm glad I don't work in particle theory

It seems that being a particle theory professor at a Boston area university (in particular Harvard or MIT) makes you a magnet for crackpots. Lubos Motl described an encounters with a crackpot. I guess putting up with strangers wandering into academic offices is the price we pay for the open nature of academia.

Link of the day: The Hawaiian way of dividing up the life pie

Managing with Aloha suggests the following way to dividing up your time into broad categories.
  • 10% ‘Opala ‘ole
  • 70% Ho‘ohana
  • 20% ‘Ike loa

You should look at the post yourself, but here's my read of these mysterious Hawaiian phrases. ‘Opala ‘ole is cleaning, administration, being organized. I estimate that I spend about 2 hours a day on that sort of thing, so if I assume a 16 hour day, the 10% number seems about right. ‘Ike loa is learning new stuff. For me, that would include reading books, reading blogs, learning computer stuff, traveling, hanging out with friends. Unfortunately, the majority of my ‘Ike loa is currently reading blogs. I need to work on that. I'm not exactly sure about the Ho‘ohana category. Supposedly, these are the activities you love. I'm not passionate about going to the gym, but it does help me play hockey better (hockey is a passion). What about eating? What category is that? I don't really enjoy meals so much that I would count them as a passion. Eating takes up 3 hours a day.

I guess this division of time doesn't quite work for me. But the idea is intriguing. I should come up with my own way to divide the life pie.

17 June 2007

Keeping in touch is hard

I've always tried to keep in touch with people, treating it almost like a responsibility. Not to make it sound like a chore; I enjoy reconnecting with friends. But I'm beginning to have mixed feelings about keeping in touch. How can you really know a person if you chat with them for an hour once a year? So many significant events happen in the intervening period. In one hour, you can only hope to exchange some trivial facts ("I got a new job", etc) and you don't have time or energy to explain the important things that happened in your life. So what's the point of keeping in touch? You're fighting like a cliff against the erosion of the sea. Keeping in touch is downright unsatisfying.

One way to think about it is the lottery analogy. One day, you might move to a new town and reconnect with a friend living there. Maybe in the future, you'll end up in a research collaboration with your professor from undergrad. You should keep your options open. A more realistic situation is one where you have trouble making local friends. This could be for a variety of reasons: you're in a tough emotional place, the people around you just aren't that great, there are cultural barriers. Then a nonlocal network of friends is essential to keeping your sanity.

There is also the question of how to keep in touch. I'll describe my current approach. I try to visit my friends who live closeby at least once a year. I send Christmas cards to people and write a personal note in each card (as opposed to the one line "Seasons Greetings". I write a brief update to friends and include some links to my favorite blog posts. I regularly check my Facebook account. I think that's the best I can do. If anyone has better ideas, let me know.

Ten minutes to celebrate a win, ten minutes to mourn a loss

A common hockey adage is that you should only spend ten minutes to celebrate a win or ten minutes to mourn a loss (depending on how the game turned out). Then you switch to neutral emotions and move on to the future. This adage is another example of the "even keel" philosophy I discussed in an earlier post.

Link of the day: Vertical and lateral growth

I enjoyed this post by Scott Young about vertical and lateral growth. In a nutshell, vertical growth is accomplishing tasks towards a single goal and lateral growth is exploring and putting together ideas from different topics. You can't be a complete person without both. For example, you can progress through your study of physics by going from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics to quantum field theory. That's vertical growth. You can also do a physics experiment that requires you to synthesize your knowledge of electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and electrical engineering (hmm, that sounds like someone's thesis). It's interesting that the conventional American education is to devote the first 20 years of your life growing vertically. Then you spend the rest of your life working in a job or doing research and that's all lateral growth. We need to encourage people to have a healthy balance of vertical and lateral growth.

16 June 2007

Pine has labels

I learned that Pine allows you to setup labels/tags just like Gmail! Pine calls labels/tags "keywords." Pine is available as a stand-alone email client on virtually every operating system including Unix, Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. I've always enjoyed using Pine, but now I like it even more!

Incidentally, I also learn that the next version of Pine will be called Alpine (the name has been changed because Alpine uses an open-source type license whereas Pine uses a restricted license).

14 June 2007

Notes on interview with Mark Forster

I finally got around to listening to this interview of Mark Forster, a UK productivity expert. There weren't any revolutionary ideas, but I did find a few things interesting.

Mark Forster says that projects are really commitments. A commitment is not just a collection of promises to do things, but also a promise not to do others. For instance, if you are married, you promise to be faithful to your spouse and not chase other men/women.

Mark states that when you are stuck in your progress, the problem is often some rate limiting step and you have to apply overwhelming force ("overlearning") to fix the rate limiting step, so that you can move on. The example he gives is Morse code operators. When training these operators, it was found that they would often get stuck at a certain translating speed, no matter how much they practiced. The solution was to have the trainees practice the difficult letters. After they learned how to translate all letters equally well, they were able to improve their speed overall.

Finally, Mark emphasized the principle of "little and often." Your mind needs time to make connections. It is much better to spend 1 hour practicing the piano per day than to practice for 6 hours before your lesson. You often gain a new perspective when you come back to something later.

Use mugs not paper cups

One gripe I have with the work place is the number of paper/plastic cups that are wasted for drinking coffee or water. It doesn't seem that hard to keep a mug at your desk and use that instead of a disposable cup. Heck, even Taiwanese factory workers can do it. Check out this photo. They don't even have offices or desks.

13 June 2007

Review: The Four Hour Workweek

I just finished reading the Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. The book cover looks sketchy. There is a person lying on a hammock strung between two palm trees. The author unashamedly tells you that you can work smart, automate your income, and travel all over the world.

I was a bit skeptical, but after reading the book and Tim's blog, I think the "four hour work week" is a cool idea. You are probably thinking, "how can you only work four hours a week?" But it depends on how you define work. Tim means, you only need to devote four hours to the drudgery and minutiae of life and in return, you can all the things you want to do. Tim assumes that what you want to do is travel cheaply. (He's only 29 years old, so I guess I can forgive him for not having other ideas. Traveling is always a good idea, anyways.)

What really makes the book work is Ferriss's combination of brazenness, humor, and concrete ideas. He draws you in with bold statements and his escapist lifestyle, then makes it funny so he doesn't seem like a pompous jerk. Then you read more and realize, "hey, he has some good ideas here." I also like the exercises listed at the end of the chapters.

I'll list some of the ideas I liked.
  • Step I: D is for Definition
    • "The timing is never right." Exactly, what are you waiting for?
    • "Ask for forgiveness, not permission." I've already heard this idea, but I like it so much that I thought I'd repeat it. It's true; all the times that I did something bold and dangerous, I never got in serious trouble.

  • Step II: E is for Elimination
    • The Pareto Principle of 80/20: 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. A fairly obvious rule, but worth reiterating.
    • Low-information diet: Tim says you should avoid newspapers, blogs, even books. Yes, like any intelligent, educated person, I consume media and information like candy. Obviously, I still have to read some stuff, but I'm trying to cut down. I don't agree with Tim that you should stop reading the world news. That's too extreme for me (and most people). One intermediate solution is to simply read faster and develop very selective attention. Don't read trash. If you're one paragraph into an article and it sucks, move on. The point is that too much information scrambles your brain and disrupts your focus. Another solution is to wake up really early every day before all the news articles are posted and before people start to write you email.
    • The art of refusal: I'm slowly beginning to pick up ways to manage people and steer them away when I need to focus. I'm also recognizing when people do the same to me. Peter Fisher also has some good pointers on how to prevent people from wasting your time.

  • Step III: A is for Automation
    • This section is really business oriented and not applicable to me at the moment. I was quite amazed to see how easy it is to setup a business in the internet age.

  • Step IV: L is for Liberation
    • Mini-retirements. I agree with Tim. I like the idea of taking a great vacation once a year better than hording money for ten years and then going on a binge trip. As Tim states, it is much better to stay in one location and experience the life there than run around on a lightning trip through Europe. Slow down the pace of life during vacation; that's what a vacation is all about.
    • "If you can't define it or act upon it, forget it." Yup, worry about things you can't control or even worse being afraid to things you never seen is always a bad idea.
    • Find a way to connect travel and exploration to a theme. For instance, you could buy a one day subway pass, go to every subway stop in Boston, and walk around it for ten minutes. Or if you like extreme cycling, go cycling around the world. It's much easier to break down your fear of the new if you have a lifeline to something familiar.

The books Four Hour Work Week and Getting Things Done complement each other very well. Read the Four Hour Work Week to plan the big picture: figure out what you want to do and how you will make it happen. Then use GTD to execute the plan.

The Four Hour Work Week is a fun and inspiring read. I recommend it!

12 June 2007

Link of the day: GTD FAQ

There is an excellent introduction to GTD on Zen Habits. Now I know where to send my friends if they want to know what the hell GTD is.

Packing spheres randomly

A famous problem is how to most efficiently pack spheres in a container. The solution is face-center-cubic (fcc) or hexagonal-close-packing (hcp), which gives a 74% packing ratio by volume. Apparently, the 74% number was conjectured by Kepler in 1611 but not proven until 1998! [fcc and hcp are basically the same; the layers are arranged slightly differently.] If you just throw a bunch of spheres into a container, what is the packing efficiency? Two physicists found the answer to asymptotically approach 64%. As you shrink the size of the spheres (or increase their density), more and more of the spheres form distorted pyramid patterns.

10 June 2007

Link of the day: A physicist talks to theologians

Via Blake Johnson's blog, I found this thoughtful speech about physics, religion, and what religion can learn from physics. I note that there isn't much discussion about what physics can learn from religion. Maybe I'll write something about that, when I know more.

07 June 2007

Deconvolve your functions

For some reason, people like to say "deconvolute" instead of "deconvolve" in the context of Fourier analysis. Deconvolute sounds awful, like you're made the problem worse and now you're trying to go back and fix it. Sam Lord discusses the deconvolute vs deconvolve debate in this post. Any comments, linguists?

Ira Glass on storytelling, Part 1

Mike Kaspari of Getting Things Done in Academia introduced me to some cool videos in which Ira Glass explains the art of storytelling. Good storytelling is a skill that can be applied to many areas of life, including (for academics, in particular) lecturing and teaching.

I'll summarize Part 1 of the Glass series. There are two building blocks in a story. First, the anecdote -- a sequence of events. The amazing power of the anecdote is that it has momentum and can make even the most boring topic interesting. As a storyteller, you want to raise questions and answer them along the way. The second building block is the moment of reflection. Why am I telling you this story?

I liked the following quote by Glass (transcription not accurate since I was in a hurry):
You have the two parts of the structure: you have the anecdote and you've got the moment of reflection. Often you'll have an anecdote which just kills; it's just so interesting. This thing happens and it leads to this next thing, it's so surprising, you meet all these great characters... and it means absolutely nothing. It's completely predictable; it doesn't tell you anything new. So that's one huge problem. The other huge problem is you have this boring set of thoughts or boring story and someone actually has something interesting to say about it. A lot of us when we're beginning, we have the problem that we know we have something here, we know we have something compelling, but it just doesn't seem to be coming together. And often it's your job to be ruthless and understand that either you don't have a sequence of actions so you don't have a story that works or you don't have a moment of reflection that works.

06 June 2007

Heard in group meeting

My research group is made up of approximately 5 theorists (including my advisor) and 8 experimentalists (including their advisor). At a recent group meeting, an experimental grad student presented the following data:

My advisor says: "What did the theorists do wrong??" After the group meeting, he tells the grad student, "you must have been standing too close to your sample. Your magnetic personality messed up your data!" As we are walking back to our offices, my advisor says "I'm thinking of adding a term to our Hamiltonian called H sub crap."

04 June 2007

Link of the day: "Scripting for success"

I frequently get derailed at the start of my day. I get worked up about cleaning my room or running some errands and pretty soon the whole morning is gone. The way to avoid this predicament is to "script" the first few actions of your day. Steve Ruble describes the idea of scripting in more detail. It comes from a strategy in football where coaches plan the first 10-15 plays of their offensive game. I should do this with my next action list. As Steve says, the hard part is sticking with the plan.

02 June 2007

Parkour and geriatric1927

I'm not hip with Youtube, but I learned of a few interesting trends via the New York Times (alas, most of my cultural knowledge comes from the New York Times these days). First, there is an urban phenomenon called parkour. It looks like a cross between gymnastics, martial arts, and dance. Common parkour movements are jumping off roofs and flipping over hand rails. It looks really awesome. I've always been intrigued by the idea of treating urban landscape like nature. At my undergrad institution, we had a huge lobby with two tall pedestal-like platforms. One day, I found a friend sitting up there, doing homework. So, after that, I took to climbing on top and enjoying some crowd watching. Here's a photo of the pedestal:

Second, an "old British guy" named Peter Oakley (username: geriatric1927) decided to talk about himself on Youtube. I think oral history is wonderful. Imagine if our elders made podcasts themselves instead of waiting for people to interview them for research or documentary purposes. We would save so much more history and have instant access to it, too!