31 July 2007

Link of the day: Abramowitz and Stegun

The famous reference Handbook of Mathematical Functions by Abramowitz and Stegun is on the web!

If you're stuck on a desert island with internet access:


If you're stuck on desert island with a laptop but have no internet access, you can get a very large electronic file:

http://www.lacim.uqam.ca/~plouffe (71 MB)
http://www.math.sfu.ca/~cbm/aands/dl/abramowitz_and_stegun.tar.gz (43 MB)

28 July 2007

GTD and creativity

Both Keith Robinson and Merlin Mann discuss how creativity fits into the GTD system.

As Keith shows, you can use GTD to setup a framework for doing creative work. You can write lists of things you want to be creative about. You can use GTD to process the outputs of your creative thinking. If your brainstorming yields five ideas, you can put down "investigate idea #1, investigate idea #2, etc" on your to-do list. You can use your GTD system to capture all your ideas. But the one thing that GTD can't do is make creativity like cranking widgets. I suppose you can make a to-do item like "Think about X for one hour". But then the next action (assuming that you don't come up with any ideas) is to "Think about X for another hour."

GTD is a system for processing, not coming up with ideas or brainstorming. One should recognize that limitation and remember to keep up to date with the @someday list!

25 July 2007

Link of the day: Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann gave a talk at Google about getting your email to inbox zero. Nothing really new here, but it is a nice presentation and a very good introduction to email processing such that you could send it to your mom or co-worker.

20 July 2007

The plan: qmechanic's productivity scaffold

Morning routine
  1. Wake up at 5 am.
  2. Eat breakfast while reading the news.
  3. Personal hygiene, wash dishes, prepare for work.
  4. Get to work by 6:30 am.
Pre-work scaffold
  1. Review todo.txt
  2. Write journal entry about what I plan to do today. Maybe break a larger task into microtasks.
  3. Review journal entry and visualize success.
  4. Take a moment to meditate: take a walk, look out the window, play with hockey stick. Basically clear your head and get excited about the day.
  5. Play upbeat music.
Post-work scaffold
  1. Clean up office.
  2. Write journal entry about what I accomplished, what I need to do better, and plan for tomorrow.
  3. Go home!!!! (leave work around 3-4 pm)
Post work routine
  1. On weekdays, go to gym.
  2. Enjoy the evening.

Link of the day: Stanford commencement speech by Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Stanford commencement speech about the deteriorating importance of diverse and high quality culture in American society. This topic has interested me in the past; see the following posts on 17 June 2005 and 4 February 2005.

Gioia proposes:
There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

So I'm going to take this test. (Note to make it fair, the athletes and American Idol finalists must also be living Americans.)

Active American NBA players: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marsbury, Steve Francis, Carmelo Anthony

Active American MLB players: Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds, Tim Linceum, Barry Zito, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Mike Piezza

American idol finalists: Fantasia

Living American poets: Allen Ginsburg, Robert Pinsky, (unfortunately T.S. Eliot is already dead)

Living American playwrights: (unfortunately August Wilson died and Tom Stoppard is not American)

Living American painters: ummm.... (I think Georgia O'Keefe and Jackson Pollack are dead already)

Living American sculptors: Maya Lin (there was this Guggenheim exhibit I went to featuring a sculptor but I can't remember his name)

Living American architects: I.M. Pei (Frank Lloyd Wright is long dead)

Living American classical musicians, conductors, composers: Michael Tilson Thomas, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, van Cliburn, Wynton Marsalis

Living American scientists: Barbara McClintock, Bruce Alberts, (can't think of any American chemists), physicists: Alan Guth, Sean Carroll, Kip Thorne, Edward "Rocky" Kolb, Frank Wilczek, Bob Jaffe, Washington Taylor IV, Ed Witten, Peter Fisher, John arris, John Joannopoulos, Matthew Fisher, Dan Fisher, Leon Balents, Phil Anderson, Steve Girvin, Doug Stone, Sohrab Ismail-Beigi, Eric Hudson, Don Eigler, Mike Crommie, Paul McEuen, Rob Schoelkopf, Dan Prober, Sean Barrett, Jack Harris, Dave DeMille, David Awschalom, Isaac Chuang, David Pritchard, Dan Kleppner

Living American social thinkers: (I guess Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian)

20 active American NBA/MLB players and American Idol finalists
10 living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, conductors, composers
33 living American scientists

If you omit scientists (I'm just a little advantaged), I'm doing mediocre on my culture. I can explain this with several reasons. First, the high culture scene is much more international than the NBA/MLB or American (hullo) Idol. Also, I don't spend much time on modern (1960+) culture except for music. But Gioia is right that there is hardly any media coverage of arts in America.

18 July 2007

Link of the day: Personal productivity scaffold

Steve Pavlina just wrote another great post, this time about how to make a "personal productivity scaffold." This is the perfect companion piece to go with his post on microtasks.

Basically, the productivity scaffold sounds like a more elaborate form of scripting. I've tried to do some version of the productivity scaffold now and then, but I always seem to lose interest and forget about it (just like my weekly review). The interesting thing about Pavlina's formula for scripting is that he includes time for envisioning successful outcomes, meditating, and "breath[ing] deeply to clear mind and release work for the day." I've never thought of that, but it sounds like a good idea.

If I put together the productivity scaffold and microtasks, I bet my productivity would go way up.

17 July 2007

Link of the day: Microtasks

Steve Pavlina has a nice article about breaking a big project into microtasks. I need to do this more often.

16 July 2007

Do-not-forget-me box v2

I used to use a shoebox cover to hold all the stuff I didn't want to forget before leaving for work (e.g. wallet, cell phone, keys, etc).

Last week, I was at the Container Store and found a great do-not-forget-me box. It's a clear acrylic desk organizer, about 9" x 9" square and with 3 partitions. Here's a photo of it in use:

It's working great so far. The partitions let me divide stuff into finer categories: a) must take with me every day, 2) maybe take with me, 3) rarely take with me.

09 July 2007

Reducing the internet time sink

Inspired by Scott Young's post on reducing internet usage, I have come up with the following plan to reduce my own usage.

First, a set amount of time to do internet reading and email while eating breakfast. I'll try 30 minutes. Second, a set amount of time for my bedtime internet reading. I'll try an hour.

I notice that I have a tendency to open up a whole bunch of links from my RSS feeds. I think a strategy to help prioritize the links would be to go through all the feeds rapid-fire, open up all links that seem interesting, and then sort them by priority. Then I can read them from higher to lower priority. If I don't get to something within my time limit, I don't have to worry about missing something important.

08 July 2007

Non-science daily reading

I try to maintain a balanced perspective on life, despite leading a demanding life in science. Most people I know, including myself, read the news. I favor the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The liberal tone of the New York Times balances with the pro-conservative flavor of the Wall Street Journal. In terms of depth, I spend extra time on sports (go San Jose Sharks!) and technology news. For some literature, I read the Writer's Almanac, which gives me a bite-sized amount of poetry and history (mostly leaning towards dead white people). Finally, I look at some photography blogs including David Kleinart (nature), Stuck in Customs (high dynamic range), and A Walk Through Durham Township. Looking at exotic images transports me to a new place.

How to handle annoying but unavoidable conversations

Over at the Fisher Files, Peter has brought up the topic of difficult people a few times. He (and other people) recommend that if you really can't stand someone, eventually you should just leave and get away from him/her. Unfortunately, that is not always possible, the prime example being one's parents or children.

For the benefit of myself and others, I will try to list a few strategies for dealing with irritating but unavoidable people.
  • Recognize that the irritating person does not care about your opinion at all. Give up the idea that you are dealing with a rational adult and think of the person as a child or uncomprehending animal. A sad concept, but true nonetheless.
  • Change the direction of the conversation. This technique works particularly well if the irritating person in question won't stop talking. You can't stop a river from flowing but you can change its course. For example, if your mom is complaining about how stupid you are, switch to topic to "how is dad" and listen to her complain about him instead.
  • Simply end the conversation with a brusque remark that you have to go. I usually say something like "I need to meet someone" or "I have to eat dinner" or "I need to go to bed", then say "Bye/Talk to you later" and hang up if you're on the phone or walk away if you're talking in person.

07 July 2007

Link of the day: Martha Beck

I recently came across an archive of articles written by Martha Beck (who makes her living as a "life coach.") She writes a column with Oprah Magazine. Before you think "ick, touch-feely women stuff", I just want to say that her thoughts are very insightful and her writing is quite witty.

Here are some of the articles I enjoyed:

06 July 2007

Link of the day: Snowcrystals

Professor Kenneth Libbrecht at Caltech has a wonderful website devoted to snowcrystals. There are also a number of beautiful books written and illustrated by Professor Libbrecht.

As an undergraduate, I applied for several summer research positions at Caltech and my top choice was to work with Professor Libbrecht on ice (the perfect intersection of my interests: physics and ice hockey). I guess he found someone else since I ended up doing low temperature physics at the Jet Propulsion Lab!

01 July 2007


There are all kinds of homepages nowadays including iGoogle, Pageflakes, and Netvibes.

I'm still a fan of the hand-written HTML homepage. I've posted my personal homepage below. Recently, I added search forms for Physical Review, Wikipedia, and yourDictionary. I prefer to read my RSS feeds elsewhere (enough distraction as it is). Too bad I don't know how to add weather and calendar widgets.

Travel checklist

I'm hopping on a plane tomorrow and in the spirit of GTD and lifehacking, I've made my own travel checklist in LaTeX. (I used LaTeX rather than ordinary text so I could make those cool checkoff boxes.)

Here's a screenshot of the list:

Link of the day: "I Am Worm, Hear Me Roar"

I read an interesting New York Times article about reinventing identity. It is a response to the recent finding that the eldest child has a higher IQ than his/her younger siblings. Children in a family try to differentiate themselves and IQ is only one out of many ways. People reinvent themselves because they are marginalized in some way (basically everyone except a few people with supreme confidence or arrogance depending on your opinion).
At times, adult life can feel like an extended exercise in escaping high school, a scramble to shed wallflower memories, to show all those snickering swells what happens when a worm grows wings or a spine (or a hedge fund).
One of my favorite parts of the article talks about how reinventing the self is a healthy psychological skill.
And psychological research suggests that this ability can be a sign of mental resilience, of taking control of your own story rather than being trapped by it.

This statement connects back to one of my favorite quotes by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." I feel like I am still basically the same person I was when I started college, with some additions. There were some large blank spots on my identity slate and I've finally started to fill those in.