11 December 2011

Quick notes on the hockey slap shot

I got most of the following information from Total Female Hockey.

The further back you place the puck, the lower the shot. Put the puck near your front foot for a high shot. Put the puck near your back foot for a low hot.

Place the puck as close to your body as you can without impeding arm movement. Don't make the mistake of putting the puck too far away from your body.

Use proper grip. Slap shot grip is different than stickhandling grip. Turn your wrists away from you, such that the blade closes a little. The bottom hand should rotate so that your elbow goes from slightly bent to being locked straight. Similarly, the top hand should rotate so that your elbow is locked straight.

Keep your bottom arm straight and locked down

Get low and stay low through the shot and follow through. Lead with the bottom hand.

You must turn the blade over and closed during the follow-through to have power and accuracy in your shot.

I've heard recommendations that you should hit the ice 6-10" behind the puck, rather than the common refrain of 1-2". Supposedly the pros use the 6-10" distance whereas beginners start with 1-2". The reason for using a longer distance is that it gives the stick more time to flex and makes your shot more powerful.

There are lots more slapshot tips at Wild About Hockey. When I start to really practice my slapshot, I'll write up something more complete.

09 December 2011

Hockey wrist shot

My wrist shot has always sucked. Like everything else in hockey, you need incredible technique to do it well. I thought I'd write down the important ideas behind the wrist shot, to remind myself.

Main ideas

The wrist shot consists of two major motions:
  1. Sweeping the puck forward while transferring your body weight.
  2. Pushing and pulling the stick hard and fast and snapping your wrists towards the end of the push-pull.
You need to be able to do all the different motions well, on their own. Then you need to put everything together and time everything properly. Timing is crucial. I suggest breaking down the wrist shot into small motions and making sure you can do each separate motion before you try the entire wrist shot.

Going on to more specifics...

Stick grip

You want to grip the stick properly to make your wrist shot as easy and efficient as possible. The top hand should be in either one of two grips.
  1. Hold the end so that knob is inside the palm of the hand with the thumb wrapped around the stick and next two fingers gripping the end and with the pinky closed into the palm and resting on top of the butt end. With this grip, the two fingers after my thumb are behind the butt end and the fourth finger is resting on the side of the butt end.
  2. If you have a weak forearm/grip, hold the end with the thumb wrapped around the stick and the next three fingers
For more details and photos, see the middle of this webpage by Madknuk Enterprises. No one ever told me this -- I've been holding my stick wrong for years.

As for the bottom hand, place it on the stick so that you arms are about shoulder width apart.

Weight transfer

New note: Dip the leading shoulder before skating into the shot. (from Jarick)

You start with your weight on your back foot, slide the front foot forward, and twist your torso. This provides a lot of the power behind your shot.

You want to time your motions so that you smoothly transition from transferring your weight forward to twisting your torso. Think of your body as a spring.

To exaggerate the weight transfer, you can step forward with your foot, actually lifting your foot off the ice.

I usually don't have too much trouble with the weight transfer action, because it's a natural instinct from playing other sports.

Cupping the puck and sweeping motion

The proper starting position is to cup the puck with your blade closed near your back foot. Then sweep the puck forward, keeping the puck on the heel of your blade. The sweeping motion should be straight and smooth. As you sweep the puck forward, put down with your bottom hand to put some pressure on the blade so it flexes, but not too much. You just want to use enough force to flex the stick, while the majority of your weight transfer focuses on moving the puck forward.

Make sure the puck isn't too far away from your body. I find it easier to shoot wrist shots with a short stick because the puck starts closer to my body. However, you don't want the puck so close that torso gets in the way of your elbows.

I have a lot of trouble with my wrist shots because I always open the blade of my stick too early. The blade starts closed, then when the puck gets near your front foot, you quickly open up the blade, and snap your wrists to close the blade. If you do this right, the puck should stay at the heel of your blade throughout the entire sweeping motion. You don't open up the blade until near the very end.

All the work of putting your weight behind the puck and sweeping the puck through does no good if the puck falls off your blade. This happens to a lot of beginners. They can't lift the puck, their shot is weak, and the reason is that the puck is falling off the blade because either 1) they're opening up the blade too soon and/or 2) the puck isn't staying on the heel of the blade during the sweep.

Kevin Muller mentions the importance of keeping the puck on your heel in this instructional video.

You can do the following exercise on or off the ice. Without the puck, practice transferring your body weight and sweeping the puck. Work on this motion until it becomes natural. A good way to remind yourself about weight transfer is to start with all your weight balanced on your back foot and your front foot in the air, then step forward with your front foot. Obviously you wouldn't do this in a game, but it reinforces the idea behind the weight transfer.

Push-pull motion

When the puck gets near your front foot, open up the blade and then push-pull the stick. You push with your bottom hand and pull with your top hand. You want to do this as fast and hard as possible. Again, do this as fast and hard as possible. The proper technique is wonderfully explained in this Total Female Hockey video.

The speed of the push-pull determines the timing of when you start the motion, i.e. where the puck is in relation to your feet when you start the push-pull. Also, you should be twisting your torso while you do the push-pull.

As Coach Kim explains in the above Total Female Hockey video, you can practice the push-pull motion off the ice without a puck.

Wrist snap and follow-through

As you push-pull the stick, when the puck gets to the end of your blade, you want to snap your wrists really fast and hard so that the blade opens, then flips over and closes. Point the stick blade towards the target and follow-through. The stick should point straight out in front of your body if you follow-through properly.

If you get the push-pull, open-close motion of the blade, wrist snap, and follow-through sequence right, the puck should spin off your blade and not wobble in the flight.

When you are on the ice with pucks, you can practice the push-pull and snap motion separately from the weight transfer/sweeping motion. Put the puck near the front foot and just do the push-pull and snap without any weight transfer or snapping motion. Kevin Muller explains this exercise in the same video from previous section. If you do this exercise, you'll realize how much velocity you get from just the push-pull and wrist snap alone.

Checklist
  1. Make sure you are holding the stick properly. Hands shoulder width apart with the top hand holding the stick with the pinky off the end. Start with the puck close to your body.
  2. Weight transfer from back foot to front foot. Slide the front foot forward
  3. Sweep the puck forward in a smooth straight line, while pushing down with the bottom hand to flex the stick.
  4. Make sure the blade stays closed during the sweep.
  5. As the puck gets near your front foot, twist the torso and push-pull the stick really hard and fast.
  6. As the puck leaves the end of the blade, snap your wrists hard and follow-through.
  7. Concentrate on power, spin, accuracy, and quick release.
Final notes

If you practice off-ice, make sure you wear your gloves while you're shooting. You need to get used to how the stick feels with your gloves on.

Practice shooting facing perpendicular to the target and also facing the target. The position where you face the goalie is called the triple threat position because you can either pass, shoot, or make a move.  When you get good at stationary wrist shots, start practicing wrist shots while skating forward.

If you master the wrist shot, try learning the hybrid wrist shot/snap shot. This is what the pros use because it has a quicker release. NHL player Mike Cammileri demonstrates the more modern version of the wrist shot in this video. To see a more in-depth instruction video, check out HowToHockey's explanation of the traditional and modern wrist shot. The modern wrist shot focuses on quick release and relies mainly on the forearms and flex of the stick for power. There is very little weight transfer and the puck starts pretty close to the front foot, compared to the traditional wrist shot.

Many thanks to Wild About Hockey and its great article on improving wrist shots. I incorporated some of the tips from that article into my post here.

08 December 2011

Link of the day: Khan Academy goes beyond just video

As Khan Academy (see my earlier post) gains fame and recognition, the backlash of criticism is starting. Some commenters on the recent New York Times feature "Online Learning, Personalized" think Khan Academy is overrated and nothing special.

In this article on Inside Higher Education, Salman Khan explains that in fact,
“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos," Khan said in an interview last week. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.”
It's true that people visit Khan Academy for its online video tutorials of math and science subjects, but behind the scenes, Khan's team is collecting statistics on 1.4 million registered users. They are using that data to understand how well the user is learning, for example, to predict whether the user will be able to solve a similar problem weeks later. One of Khan's engineers notes that "the work he does for Khan Academy is similar to the statistical modeling he did in finance."

They are also experimenting with incorporating memory research into their software. Websites like SuperMemo have touted the power of reviewing material at specific time intervals to deepen your memory of the knowledge.

What impressed me most is that Khan's team is working to differentiate between "pattern matching" and true understanding. Pattern matching is a problem solving method in which the person recognizes a class of problem and then uses a standard method to solve it. As Eric Mazur remarked in his talk on teaching introductory physics, his student would look at an exam question, think "oh, this is a Kirchoff's law problem" and then use the textbook method to solve it. Pattern matching is a useful method, but rather low-level, "a sort of useful imitation that allows toddlers to learn how to use language without first learning how grammar works." Unfortunately, in the real world, we can't easily identify problems in convenient categories like "Kirchoff's law." Even in the confined reality of physics class, Mazur found that his students would become frustrated when they came across a problem they couldn't classify. They would blindly apply atextbookrecipe and complain when it didn't work. Moreover, innovation and creativity requires global, comprehensive mastery of concepts, what I would loosely call "trueunderstanding." One of Khan's engineers states
“A big part of real-life problem-solving,” Kohlmeier says, “is recognizing what kind of problem you’re dealing with.”
Salman Khan proposes a radical idea: develop an independent agency to administer an exam that will test college students' competencies and mastery of concepts. The problem is that we have a mass of college graduates with degrees and GPAs, but there is no easy way to differentiate between them -- to know if they have developed the skills that employers want. That's why a lot of employers simply hire Ivy League graduates, because the colleges have already done the hard work of filtering already.

Khan is not impressed with the liberal arts education, an opinion that will no doubt spark controversy.
“If you can go deep in many things, awesome,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “That’s wonderful. But the reality is, right now, you’re forcing students to [obtain], and employers to hire students with, kind of a broad and very shallow experience base -- an expensive broad experience base. And it’s not clear that’s doing anyone any good.”

“Higher order” skills in critical thinking and creativity are useful only to the extent that graduates wind up in a position to apply them, Khan said. In the malaise of post-college unemployment, a graduate’s aptitude for analyzing themes in literature or conducting reliable research will languish. “If you don’t have that starting point of [graduates] being engaged and productive in society in some way, then the rest is just a waste of time,” said Khan.

Distribution requirements, the four-year model, and the buffet approach to curriculum all contribute to the “arbitrariness” that muddies the signaling function of college degrees and “have no relation to what makes you a more productive citizen or better for society or a more creative person,” Khan said.

“If you decouple [learning and credentialing], the arbitrariness is gone,” he added, and “it federates the options to adjust to what people’s needs are.”
I don't think we should completely get rid of the liberal arts education, but I agree that it's definitely not for everyone and that perhaps we should move to the German model where some students go to university and others attend vocational schools.

05 December 2011

Thought of the day: Character is universal, plot is not

I realized today why the great actors do character driven stories.  It's because

Character is universal, plot is not.

All creative people strive to create something lasting that says something universal about the human condition or nature.  In the end, no one cares about tedious plot details.  Enough with the constant exposition and twists.  It's not that interesting.  Mysteries are so arbitrary; the audience is at the mercy of the writer.  That's why I get sick of TV shows like Lost, 24, and (the later seasons of) Alias.

OK, you need some plot, but just enough to make the story and characters work.

04 December 2011

Why I love Homeland

I've been watching Homeland, a new TV show on the cable channel Showtime. I love it -- it's challenging, surprising, expertly written, and beautifully acted. I like all kinds of stories, but my favorite by far is the heavy-hitting, intense, raw, gritty drama. I haven't been this excited about a show since Battlestar Galactica.

Homeland is an espionage drama and a psychological thriller. The main character and protagonist is CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an incredibly intelligent, driven, compulsive woman who is kind of crazy. She's been diagnosed with a "mood disorder." She's devoted her life to fighting terrorism and she becomes obsessed with the idea that an American POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), is a terrorist. Her closest ally is her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who cares deeply about her and is constantly covering for her. When Brody is rescued from the Middle East, she's the only one who thinks he's been turned and she tries to (illegally) gather evidence to prove it.

I've never seen a show where the main characters are so unpredictable. Damn, it's exciting. Brody and Carrie are both complete wildcards. Brody is going crazy following eight years of captivity and trying to adjust to civilian life. Is he really a terrorist? Carrie is obsessed and isolated (by choice). She's a maverick spy who enjoys flirting with danger. As a viewer, my jaw is hanging open half the time and I'm thinking "what the... ?"

I've enjoyed every single character, even the minor ones. The show has the patience to spend time letting us get to know the characters as opposed to plot, plot, plot (the kind of writing I hate). Come on TV writers, character is universal, plot is not. I'm glad Homeland appreciate this. I savor the dialogue. The CIA people talk in a smart and crisp mannerbenefitingtheir education and occupation; Brody's family sound less polished as expected (they are middle class), but authentic. I like the scenes without dialogue even better. Brody cowering in a corner, Carrie watching him on video surveillance with headphones on, Carrie driving to work alone, Saul staying late at the office and digging through the refrigerator. All of it is fascinating in the context of this show. We really need less talking on TV.

The title Homeland is an interesting one. On the surface, it sounds like a reference to the Department of Homeland Security, even though technically the CIA is part of the State Department. Another way to interpret is that all the main characters are terribly isolated and lonely, unable to connect with other human beings -- they are never "at home" with themselves. There are so many scenes where people are alone, particularly Brody and Carrie.

The first seven episodes were just dynamite and absolutely riveting. Episodes 8 and 9 were good, but not stellar. Well, I guess the writers can't keep hitting home runs. Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen the show, don't read the rest of this post. Really, don't read further. You're losing out on all the fun.

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There are so many great moments that it would take forever to list them all.
  • The CIA tech Virgil confronts Carrie with evidence of her mental condition.
  • Carrie (lamely) trying to seduce Saul to avoid ending her career with the CIA.
  • Carrie melting down in the closet.
  • Carrie starting to mirror Brody: she wakes up when he wakes up from a nightmare, she brushes her teeth while lying on the coach watching Brody lie on the coach watching TV
  • Brody casually leaving the house and walking in a mall after punching out a reporter.
  • Brody opening the garage door a crack and conducting Muslim prayer.
  • Saul unleashing his rage on Carrie because she lied to him about the illegalsurveillanceand then tried to seduce him after he found out.
  • Virgil cracking witty remarks about the surveillance footage.
  • Carrie flirting with her boss, David. Yeah, she's not manic and depressed all the time!
  • Carrie gleefully predicting what order Brody puts his uniform on.
  • Carrie, Virgil, and Virgil's brother taking down the surveillance while the Brody family is at church singing a hymn. Carrie looks awed at finally being able to step into the house and then of course, she starts frantically looking through all of Brody's belongings.
  • Carrie and Brody meeting for the first time.
  • Carrie chewing out Saul and calling him a pussy, then Saul throwing her out of his house.
  • Carrie brashly telling Saul that they're going to catch Brody lying on the polygraph and that she'll bet "everything" she's got -- even her jazz CD signed by Thelonius himself.
  • Carrie tearfully escaping to her sister's house and getting into bed with her nieces.
  • Carrie and Brody having wild parking lot sex.
  • Carrie antagonizing white supremacists in a bar.
  • Carrie and Brody having emotionally raw, romantic sex.
  • Confrontation between Carrie and Brody at the cabin.
When I watched the pilot, I was blown away by the character Carrie Mathison and Claire Danes's performance. Wearing an engagement ring to scare off guys interested in relationships? Check. Giving herself a whore bath? Check. Trying to seduce her mentor? Check. Melting down in the closet? Check. After I saw the pilot, I felt like I had to know more about this character. How does she manage to live like this and why?

I'm riveted by Carrie and Danes's portrayal of her. Carrie Mathison is the finest female TV character I've seen. So complicated, compelling, and yet likable. If you know of a better character, I want to see it. I feel deeply connected to this character. She's so smart and yet so damaged. I have so many conflicting emotions about her. I love how brash and daring Carrie is. But it's not the kind of brashness where someone shows off. She just knows that she's really smart. It's the kind of charismatic confidence that flirts on the edge of arrogance. Women are socially pressured to be compliant; Carrie's unapologetic attitude is refreshing. She loves her job because of the job itself and not because a family member tragically died in 9/11. (I hate it when writers soften up a strong female character by coming upwithsomething like "oh, she became a police officer because her mom was murdered." As if it's threatening for a strong female to simply love her job.) I feel really bad for her, for mental condition, that she has to hide it from her colleagues at work. But I also recognize that being manic (bipolar?) is just part of who she is. It's not like there is a definitive point where the mental illness begins and Carrie the person ends. I wonder why she insists on isolating herself. She stays away from her family, people who clearly love her and worry about her illness. Why is she so terrified of a loving relationship? I'm kind of mad at Saul for constantly covering for her. He keeps letting her get away with behavior that is bad for her and bad for her career. I crack up when Carrie throws her fits. Sometimes she really acts like a kid, especially in Saul's presence.

I think I know why I feel this deep personal connection. I have a close family member who has similar manic fits. I've been that smart, brash girl. I've had problems, and I isolated myself for it. I think I'm growing up and losing my taste for ingénue characters like Buffy Summers and Sydney Bristow. Carrie Mathison is an adult and a real woman who is mature in some areas and growing in other areas. I don't see many complex portrayals of younger women on film and television. (The keyword here is "younger", not a green kid but not a jaded middle-aged woman.) That's exciting to watch.

Homeland has been renewed for a second season, so I'm sure I'll get to see some of my questions addressed. I'll keep watching, if nothing else, to see what Carrie is up to and to watch Claire Danes perform. I'm hoping the writers can keep up their outstanding work. Because Homeland is a show that inspires me. It has this ineffable quality about it that makes me feel better for having watched it. I'm entertained, challenged, moved, and educated. But even if the rest of the series disappoints me, I'll still have my memory of those first seven amazing episodes.

29 November 2011

Thought of the day: Taking a break from yourself

I was thinking that too much of our anxiety comes from living with ourselves 24/7 -- constantly being connected to our worries and feelings.  Maybe what we need is to take a break from ourselves.  Is that why people meditate?

26 November 2011

Claire Danes the intelligent and self-aware actress

I find this happens to me over and over again. I crush on some Hollywood star and rush around the web reading all about them. Tina Fey [1], Jennifer Garner [2], and now Claire Danes [3]. All incredibly poised, thoughtful, intelligent actresses. In any industry, there are some exceptional people. Part of me is the ridiculous fan who wants to know the gossip about their lives, but the other part is the person who wants to know what they've learned about life and what they think of their art.

How many actresses use words like "avuncular" and "apoplectic"? Claire Danes! Okay, maybe the intellectual elitist in me is overly excited but that is pretty unique. It's not just the big words; her overall intelligence is striking in interviews. Critics, interviewers, and film industry colleagues have frequently marveled at her "maturity." I'm not sure that's the best word for it. She seems to be deep, thoughtful, intense, serious, and intellectual ("I want to read the great books and talk about ideas"). This kind of personality is uncommon among adults; Danes was already like this as a child. When she was nine, she thought about becoming a psychologist or therapist (in case she didn't make it as an actor). I think she's one of those rare people with a very high emotional IQ, sensitive and empathetic yet grounded by her intellect. She picks things up way faster than the average person. Check out this interview at the age of 18. She herself remarks that she's "always felt ancient."

Claire Danes seems pretty damn cool. And now I need to go out and find some friends who are just as awesome -- real people I can hang out with.

[1] Tina Fey is a media darling and willing to be brutally honest and insightful in interviews, so there is lots of good material. I like the part about having "a great house."
[2] I always thought it was amazing how Jennifer Garner would ask J.J. Abrams about his directing choices in the DVD commentary. A real student of the theater. I wrote a gushing review of her work on Alias.
[3] I didn't really know much about Claire Danes. My only exposure to her was when my high school English teacher showed Romeo and Juliet in class. Only recently did I take notice of her, in the Showtime cable TV series Homeland (which rocks).

25 November 2011

Favorite TV shows as of 2011

I thought I'd quickly jot down my favorite TV shows by genre.

Drama
Battlestar Galactica, Homeland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Comedy
30 Rock (seasons 1-2), Scrubs (seasons 1-4)

Genre
Alias (action/espionage/drama, season 1), Chuck (action/espionage/comedy, seasons 1-2), Firefly (western/comedy/drama)

Procedural 
Bones (seasons 1-2)

Note: I realize my categories are a little subjective.  You could call Battlestar Galactica a military science fiction show, Homeland a spy show, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer a fantasy vampire show.  So they could also be called genre shows.  But these three shows use the genre merely as a context to drive intelligent storytelling and provoke strong emotions in the characters.  So I still call them dramas.

23 November 2011

Quote of the day: Arnold Schwarzenegger on achieving goals unapologetically

During the last week, I got hooked on the TV show Homeland, a psychological thriller starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin. The acting on the show is outstanding and in particular, I feel a strong personal reaction to Danes's work. Poking around on the New York Times website [1], I found a profile on Ms. Danes and I liked the following quote:
My line about Arnold is that he doesn't get in his own way. He is not apologetic about achieving his goals. And when you have that attitude, it's amazing what one can accomplish. He wanted to give me relationship advice. I was having trouble with a female friend, and he said, be really forthright and do not accommodate her needs excessively. I took his advice [pause] and we're not friends anymore. So there you go.
[1] I've learned that you can only find interesting material on celebrities if you go to serious journalistic websites like the New York Times. Talk show appearances by celebrities are the worst. It's a bunch of air-headed, flirtatious talk.

19 November 2011

Unexpected conversations in the medical library

I had heard about a new exhibit in the medical library. It's based upon the collection of a famous American neurosurgeon who lived around the turn of the 20th century. I visited at the spur of the moment, since I had just finished a workshop in the same building. There were hundreds of jars containing brains and brain tumors, even a technical document by the architectural firm that designed the exhibit. When I was about to leave the exhibit, a woman approached me and asked me if she could answer questions about the exhibit. She had been giving a tour while I was looking around.

Looking back, it was a serendipitous conversation. I didn't expect to run into an artist who was working on the exhibit and who taught photography at the art school I had attended (she doesn't teach there anymore). She was an exceptional conversationalist. She was receptive, open-minded, and kept the focus of the conversation on me for the first ten minutes. Can you think of anyone who does that? I can't.

I asked her why put so much effort into this exhibit. She said that a lot of medical collections like this have been thrown away. So it's important to preserve this particular collection.

I also asked her a lot of questions about photography. She told me that if you are a good wet lab printer, you'll be a good digital printer. The terminology is the same. She showed me some prints she made for the exhibit and I couldn't tell the difference from the silver nitrate prints (the gold standard for film). The quality is that good.

She made some interesting remarks about art education. I told her about how frustrated I felt when learning how to draw. I always felt like my work wasn't very good. She said that her friends in art education find that even children are expressing the same "I'm-not-good-enough" attitude by fifth grade. She also mentioned that today's children are constantly presented with processed 2D images on a screen, to the point that they don't know how to think spatially before. Drawing is the process of observing a 3D scene, interpreting it, and rendering it on a 2D surface. This makes me think that more kids should learn drawing.

We spent a long time talking and I'm grateful that she took the time to enlighten me.

18 November 2011

Ramit Sethi, empathy, the value of mistakes, and the perfect mentor

In the last five years, I've noticed the rise of what I call "internet personalities." Just like Oprah on TV, there are people who give advice on the best ways to manage your life. Their advice is aimed at the highly educated, tech savvy audience. A few examples of internet personalities: Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Work Week, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, etc. They build up a big audience on the internet, write a book and market the hell out of it to get it on the New York Times Bestseller list, and then repeat.

Recently, I've been reading Ramit Sethi's blog, which has the outrageous title, "I Will Teach You To Be Rich." Ramit's goal is to teach young (relatively well-educated) people how to manage their lives. The world is changing so fast, we are bombarded with information, and we are overwhelmed by choices. Our parents can't help us because frankly, they don't know anything. Ramit's particular angle is to use his educational background in behavioral psychology to reach young people.

You can find lots of life management advice scattered across the internet, but that is a time-consuming way to learn. Ramit packages his advice in a way that is accessible and shows empathy for young people. I find that our so-called elders can be pretty arrogant and dismissive of young people's concerns. They don't understand what we go through. Ramit does. He expresses sympathyand then yells at his audience (something along the lines of "wake up, what you're doing is stupid, stop doing that and do this.") This strange combination of empathy, admonishment, and enthusiasm is somehow endearing and persuasive.

Ramit started his blog in personal finance, but now he has turned to the greater challenge of leading people to their "dream job." I've talked to various middle-aged people about the career search and they are uniformly dismissive of the anxiety us young people have about the job search. Some of these people are really nice but it's clear that in the back of their minds, they think that the anxiety is really cowardice. I suppose that's easy to think when they were able to get their first couple jobs without any significant roadbumps. Ramit actually takes the time to talk about the psychological barriers we face when embarking on a job search: "I'm not qualified", "I don't like networking", "I don't want to rule out jobs because I'm closing doors," etc. Our "old-fogey" elders would find this kind of stuff is stupid, but Ramit takes the time to explain why these barriers don't make sense.

For example, one thing I always wondered about is why do people (even students from Ivy League schools) have so much trouble finding jobs. Ramit explains that they are wasting time on ineffective techniques like polishing their resume or shotgunning their resume on monster.com. They should really be networking to find jobs they are excited about. It seems paradoxical that eliminating choiceis the right way, but it works because when you focus on just a few jobs and companies, you can research the hell out of these places and tailor your approach to the specific job title/company, rather than submitting a generic resume that is sure to be rejected.

Ramit recently talked about "the top seven mistakes for finding a dream job." I like how he focused on mistakes as opposed to telling you what to do. I frequently find that it's more valuable to find out what not to do rather than what to do. It's much easier for me to remember people's mistakes and avoid them (my mind is screaming "no, no, no"). If someone tells me to do something that I don't want to do, I just feel annoyed (my mind is going "nag, nag, nag").

Ramit is a guy who is really putting his psychology skills to work and I admire him for that. Personally, I think mentoring and giving advice is very hard [1]. The perfect, ideal mentor would give you the exact advice you needed at exactly the right time and avoid burdening you with irrelevant or anxiety-provoking thoughts. That is hard. An example of what is not good mentoring: your mother shrieking in your ear about how you'll be robbed by gypsies if you travel to Europe. Maybe those guys and gals in artificial intelligence should program the perfect mentor.

[1] This reminds me of a post I wrote about the book A River Runs Through It.

17 November 2011

Link of the day: Khan's Academy

Lately, I've tired of TED talks. They were bold and exciting when they first appeared online (3-5 years ago?), but now people just seem to be selling their ideas whether they are merely good or truly brilliant. It's important to have inspirational meetings, but I think they should also be authentic and realistic.

There is one recent TED talk that I do like very much. Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, spoke about how video can re-invent education. Originally, Khan recorded videos to help tutor his cousins in math. He posted the videos on YouTube and left them publicly available, in case someone else might find them useful. His cousins told him that they preferred their "virtual" cousin on video than the real thing! They found the video less intimidating because they could stop and repeat it without appearing stupid; they could learn at their own pace.  Other people discovered Khan's videos and gave him so much positive feedback that he quit his finance job and started producing videos all the time. (Khan does all the math and science videos, and he hired experts to do the videos on humanities subjects.  The scope of this project is astounding: 2000+ videos.)

That alone would have been an outstanding accomplishment, but Khan didn't stop there.  He tried to track learning outcomes.  He associated each video with a particular concept and made tree diagrams showing which concepts were prerequisites for other concepts.  Khan calls this a "knowledge map."  Students can work on modules.  When they get enough problems from the module correct, they can move onto another module.  When they master the prequisite modules, they can move on to a more advanced module, and so on.


This systematic tracking of the student's progress is invaluable to a teacher in charge of 30 students.  The teacher can see how the class is doing.  Moreover, if a student is struggling with a particular module, the teacher can find another student who mastered it and have that student teach the other one.  Peer learning!  (I discussed this topic in an earlier post about a Harvard professor struggling to teach first-year physics.)  Now, at least one school district (in Los Altos, California) is trying out Khan's system in the classroom.

When the system was used in the classroom, it showed that different people find different concepts easy and different concepts hard.  In Khan's words:
Because every time we've done this, in every classroom we've done, over and over again, if you go five days into it, there's a group of kids who've raced ahead and there's a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you say, "These are the gifted kids, these are the slow kids. Maybe they should be tracked differently. Maybe we should put them in different classes." But when you let every student work at their own pace -- and we see it over and over and over again -- you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they just race ahead. And so the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we're seeing it over and over and over again. And it makes you really wonder how much all of the labels maybe a lot of us have benefitted from were really just due to a coincidence of time.
I found this very interesting.  I'm guessing that a lot of teachers and coaches know that student learning is much more complicated than "gifted" and not gifted.  It's nice that Khan can actually provide hard evidence establishing this fact.

Khan's work is amazing and inspiring. I do have a few questions. Using technology to tailor education is not a new idea. Why did Khan succeed? Is it because students are more comfortable with technology compared to students of the past? Why is video better than a textbook? A textbook is also non-intimidating and self-paced.  Maybe it's because Khan is a great tutor who is both a talented teacher and entertainer?  (I briefly viewed one of his videos and he seemed funny and charismatic.)  In an ideal world, each student would have a one-on-one tutor.  This isn't realistic.  However, if we have a great tutor like Khan and he makes free videos available to anyone on almost every possible math and science topic from kindergarten to high school, this tutoring database is a pretty good, though imperfect solution.  It's reminiscent of an idea in artificial intelligence.  You can have a computer that isn't smart in the human sense, but if you program it with an astronomical amount of information, it can be very useful.

I think that doing online homework is becoming more popular as teachers realize that there is simply not enough time in the classroom to do everything.  There are a lot of things students can do on their own with a "computerized" tutor.  By "outsourcing" this teaching and doing it outside the classroom, the human teacher has more time to teach things that are hard for computers.  Like having students discuss problems together.  Or showing how many seemingly disparate concepts unify into a larger concept.  Or doing hands-on science experiments.  I know that for first-year physics courses, some universities assign online homework several times a week.  This forces students to read the book and work on problems at home so that the lecturer can spend time explaining concepts rather than writing 20 equations on the blackboard.

What Salman Khan is doing is incredible work and I wish him the very best.

16 November 2011

Link of the day: How to be a good conversationalist

I recently read an outstanding post about "The Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism. The authors deconstruct how conversations work. A good conversation has give and take. You try to grab the other person's attention sometimes and other times you support that person. I found this post really useful because my social skills aren't the best. Between being glued to the computer and writing electronic messages, I don't have enough social contact to practice. It's good to be reminded of what we should and shouldn't do in conversations.

According to researcher Charles Derber, one can answer a statement with either a shift-response or a support-response. An example of a shift-response would be changing topics to put the focus on yourself. An example of a support-response is to ask a followup question related to what the person said. A good conversationalist will answer with more support-responses whereas a conversational narcissist will keep throwing out shift-responses until the other person gives in. Conversational narcissism can be even more subtle. The narcissist can withhold support-responses or providing minimal acknowledgement ("uh huh") until the other person feels like they are being boring and allows the narcissist to take the floor.  My discussion is abstract, so read the post to see some good examples.

The point is not to rail about the conversational narcissists you've wasted your time on, but to recognize how easy it is to be a narcissist yourself. We should be careful about our speech and strive towards sharing a good conversation.

15 November 2011

Link of the day: Steve Jobs the tweaker

Steve Jobs's passing prompted a deluge of news articles from all corners of the world, it seemed. I was never happy about the cult of Apple. The company makes good products but there is far too much hype. Why do people pay so much attention to computing products when the world is dealing with economic crises and environmental destruction? Computing technology make some things more efficient, but also saddle us with information overload, invasion of privacy, security problems, and too much email. The world is definitely changing, but is it becoming better? I don't know the answer to that question, but I also don't blindly believe that more technology is always good.

One of my favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell, argued in, The New Yorker, that Steve Jobs wasn't an innovator, he was a tweaker. He had really good taste in ideas and had an incredible talent for transforming good technology into a beautifully designed status symbol. But he was not some kind of Einstein who came up with ideas that no one had even remotely thought about. I don't denigrate Jobs's accomplishments, but I don't think they should be the object of worship either.

14 November 2011

Link of the day: Bill Gates tries to save the world through vaccines

I find it demoralizing to read about the plight of the world economy, skyrocketing health care costs, and disregard for environmental and climate issues.  It makes me think that the only solution is to reduce the world's population.  Suddenly, those evil antagonists in movies who want to destroy everything don't seem so bad. Fortunately, I read this Forbes article about how Bill Gates is trying to reduce the world's population by distributing vaccines to Africa. If that didn't make sense to you, Gates felt the same way at first:
So in 1997, when he and Melinda first ventured into public health... they focused on birth control... The logic was crisp and Bill Gates-friendly. Health = resources ÷ people. And since resources, as Gates noted, are relatively fixed, the answer lay in population control. Thus, vaccines made no sense to him: Why save kids only to consign them to life in overcrowded countries where they risked starving to death or being killed in civil war?
The problem was that people were having huge families because so many children died in infancy. Vaccines drastically reduce the child mortality rate so that families can plan. The end result is a suppression of population growth. It's not obvious to me that this is true, but if Bill Gates did his homework and is spending millions of dollars to distribute vaccine, I'm inclined to believe in it. The cool thing is that Gates is putting his business skills to use. By guaranteeing a market for vaccines in developing countries, drug companies are competing to supply the product and this is driving the cost of vaccines down. Clever man!

13 November 2011

Link of the day: Nun activism

Activism is important, but I've always found public protesting uncomfortable.  So I was happy today to read about nuns who lobby major corporations about social issues.  Check out the New York Times article "Nuns Who Won’t Stop Nudging".
Eventually, they developed a strategy combining moral philosophy and public shaming. Once they took aim at a company, they bought the minimum number of shares that would allow them to submit resolutions at that company’s annual shareholder meeting. (Securities laws require shareholders to own at least $2,000 of stock before submitting resolutions.) That gave them a nuclear option, in the event the company’s executives refused to meet with them.

Unsurprisingly, most companies decided they would rather let the nuns in the door than confront religious dissenters in public.

11 November 2011

Some quotation marks

I'm trying out a new Blogger template, one of the standard ones from Google.  I wanted to customize it with my own blockquote style.

Here are a couple images for quotes:

Also reduced size:

10 November 2011

Where does the future of American innovation lie?

Our department chair send out a personal email telling us to attend a special event.  A prominent former head of a major government agency was visiting and the chair, being a personal friend, persuaded him to come talk to grad students and postdocs about careers.

As expected, he was opinionated but sincere and charismatic.  He thought that American innovation will come from startups, not government or academia.  In his opinion, government is paralyzed by interpersonal politics and it is so difficult to get grants in academia (average age of first NIH grant is 43).  Scientists, especially postdocs, are encouraged to do incremental work, rather than something revolutionary.

I asked a question about why it seemed like all the startups were internet software companies.  He said it has to do with scale.  It is much easier to be an internet startup than a startup that has to build something (e.g. clean energy).  The internet startup only has to pay for office space, computers, and salaries.  Since their product is available on internet, there is a huge multiplication factor, as everyone has a computer and a smartphone.  A clean energy startup could take ten years to become profitable.  The key to building a successful startup is that you need to beat a well-established company by an order-of-magnitude, whether that is price or efficiency.

He talked a little about his experience working in government.  He was rather frustrated with how much money is wasted in space science and exploration.  The problem is that the American public doesn't believe anyone should die in exploration or war.  They have to spend money to ensure the safety of astronauts to an extreme degree.  That's why he eventually quit.  Because the stress of being responsible for space shuttle launches was overwhelming.

Yet, he though highly of people who worked in government.  He told us rather emphatically, "If the president asks you to work for him, you should say yes!"  As the discussion wound down, he said "Let me end by telling this story... " (Such a polished, prepared guy that he had a heart-warming story for the end.)  He went to USSR in 1991 to talk with the Soviet space agency.  While he was there, the coup d'état started.  There was shooting and tanks everywhere.  He became alarmed and tried to contact the American embassy.  They said they couldn't help because people were shooting into the windows of the building.  He tried to contact the White House and ask the president what to do.  Meanwhile, he found the pilot and asked him if he could fly them out.  The pilot said that if he took everyone, including all the staff, they wouldn't have enough fuel to get to Helsinki.  He asked the pilot to take out the seats and they found that this reduction of weight would be sufficient.  Eventually, he was told that the president would appreciate it if he stayed as a show of support for democracy.  He apprised his staff of the situation and told them it was their personal choice whether to go or stay.  Everyone stayed.  Then he asked the Soviet space agency director if they were still going to hold their discussion.  The director acted like it was any other day and they got the deal done.  If you're not a complete cynic, I would call that a beautiful patriotic moment.

What is good writing?

Good writing has a specific audience in mind and tries to relate to that audience.

Good writing is interesting and engaging. When I read good writing, I come away feeling like I learned something new or read something beautiful. It's fun to read (I think it's possible to make even boring scientific papers at least a little fun to read.)

Good writing provides details, enough to be interesting and instructive, but not details that are irrelevant or inappropriate for the audience. You don't want to overwhelm the reader.

Good writing has a logical flow and a structure that makes it easy for the reader to follow.

Good writing is concise and precise (not the same thing). You want to use just enough words to convey your meaning. You want to be clear in conveying your thoughts (especially important in scientific writing). If you are having trouble writing a sentence and have the choice between being more concise or being more precise, I would always choose precision, because the content of your writing is more important than the style.

Good writing has music and personality in it. Maybe there are a few exceptions, like writing an instruction manual, but I think it's possible to incorporate "music" and "personality" into research papers. It's very hard to be interested in writing that is dry and abstract. I'm no expert on this, but there are ways to make your writing more dynamic. You can vary the lengths of your sentences and the constructions of your sentences. In classical music, you notice that the tempo of the music changes, or the key switches from major to minor. You can do similar things in writing.

09 November 2011

Hermit crab metaphor for writing scientific introduction

I've been taking a writing workshop for the past few weeks.  The instructor taught us something really cool.  The introduction to a scientific paper can be thought of as a hermit crab finding its shell.  Swales and Feak [1] call this "moves in introductions."
  1. Establish a research territory.
  2. Find a niche.
  3. Occupy the niche.
I thought this metaphor was really cute and colorful.  I'll think of hermit crabs the next time I read or write an introduction.

[1] Swales, John M. and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students, The University of Michigan Press (2004)

08 November 2011

Magazines for travel reading

I recently endured a six hour flight and this time I didn't bring my Nintendo. Maybe I'm growing out of my video game habit. I've been trying to read more; I like this new reading habit. Being slightly claustrophobic, I hate doing work on a cramped airplane. So, no work or video games. Something new I'm trying is reading magazines. I'd like to read a magazine directed towards thinkers as opposed to a populist news magazine like Time or Newsweek. The major literary magazines in America seem to be The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper's Magazine. I've tried reading The New Yorker and I don't really like it. I prefer non-fiction and there are too many creative pieces in it. I tried The Atlantic and that was good. Maybe I'll pick up Harper's Magazine next. I've also read some interesting things in The New York Review of Books and The American Scholar. My favorite technology magazine is Technology Review

07 November 2011

Link of the day: "The Once and Future Way to Run"

I enjoyed this New York Times article investigating what is the best -- most natural and injury free -- way to run.

The author purports that the best way to run goes back to the roots of human civilization when we ran barefoot.  The key is to land lightly on your forefoot and not on your heel.  Here are some quotes from the article.
The “one best way” isn’t about footwear. It’s about form. Learn to run gently, and you can wear anything. Fail to do so, and no shoe — or lack of shoe — will make a difference.
Back at the lab, Lieberman found that barefoot runners land with almost zero initial impact shock. Heel-strikers, by comparison, collide with the ground with a force equal to as much as three times their body weight.

06 November 2011

Physics as a subject for a kids comic book and how to get kids interested in science

For several years now, I've wanted to write a physics comic book with the goal of getting kids interested in science. The problem is that I just don't have a good idea how to do it. I need a really great idea because a comic book has to compete with TV, video games, internet, and all the other entertainment children are exposed to in the modern world.

I'm starting to feel like physics is simply not a good subject for a kids comic book. Anything that is abstract like physics will be difficult to pick up quickly and therefore you need to be able to play with it, experiment. Programming is abstract but lots of kids pick it up because you can write code and run it immediately. You can quickly progress to the point where you can make images fly across the screen. You know if the program works, because either the image flies across the screen or it doesn't. Instant feedback. That is fun, exciting, and addictive (in a good way). When you do a physics problem and you get an answer, it's very difficult to know if your answer is correct or if it makes sense. You could do a real physics experiment, but physics experiments are notoriously difficult to do right and require special equipment. I was always amazed in high school at how much equipment we needed to do simple experiments let measuring the velocity of an object moving along a track. When you do a chemistry experiment, you mix two solutions and the color changes. You can see or feel the result qualitatively. Physics experiments require too much precision; you actually have to measure the exact numbers to see if you're doing it right.

I'm starting to think that if you want to get kids interested in science and engineering without much equipment, the appropriate subjects are programming and math. I've already discussed programming. You can come up with all sorts of interesting math problems at all different levels. You can get a sense of whether your answer is correct by plugging in numbers. For geometric problems, you can often solve them by drawing pictures. Best of all, you don't have to worry about equipment failing in your experiments. Mathematics isn't constrained by the physical world, so there are lots of different ideas you can talk about, whereas in physics you are stuck discussing Newton's laws, Maxwell's equations, etc. For older kids who want to do something hands-on, I would recommend electronics. The parts are small and you don't need to go a machine shop.

05 November 2011

Quote of the day: Depression is sometimes a disease of the strong

Here's an interesting quote I read in the June 2011 issue of Fear.less, a web magazine devoted to interviews with people about fear. The quote comes from Australian comedian Marty Wilson.
But depression is actually a disease of the strong, I think. If people don’t have a mental breakdown, they remain fixated in the cycle of "I must get through this. I must push on. I must do this. I must do that." It’s the depression that allows one to break through that cycle and admit to others that you need help.
I think depression is different for everyone, but I agree that this characterization of depression is true for many people.

23 October 2011

Thought of the day: Why is scientific writing so bad

A frequent complaint about scientists is that they are generally bad writers. I was wondering why that is so. One reason is that we simply tolerate bad writing. We let people get away with it. You can imagine that if people's papers were rejected from journals due to poor writing, they would improve their writing in a hurry. The scientific establishment doesn't value good writing enough. Another reason (I speculate) is that scientists don't expose themselves to good writing. They don't read literary works or essays that are the quality of The Atlantic [1].  So they have no idea what good writing is like. The poor quality of scientific writing certainly doesn't help.  I've attended some wonderful writing seminars and they seem to attract people who are already decent writers.  They know what good writing is like.  But where are the people who need help the most?

I think the best way to address this problem is to require students to spend time learning how to write, from a specialized writing teacher. Most advisors are probably bad writers themselves or they have no idea how to teach their students. Advisors have too much work to do; they don't have time to teach people how to write. Frankly, teaching writing is time consuming and tedious. My experience with professors is that their "writing instruction" consists of telling students, "I don't like X. Change it to Y," with no explanation. This is not teaching. Some students who are bright or already good writers will figure out what the professor really meant, but most people need an explanation of "why." Otherwise, they will simply make the same mistake in the future.

[1] The Atlantic is just an example.  I'm not implying it's the best magazine or my favorite.

21 October 2011

Song of the day: "Til There Was You" by Meredith Willson

A beautiful romantic ballad that is one of Barbara Cook's signature songs. Kristin Chenoweth also sings this one a lot.

From the musical The Music Man
There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky
But I never saw them winging
No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you.

And there was music,
And there were wonderful roses,
They tell me,
In sweet fragrant meadows of dawn, and dew.

There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!

20 October 2011

Song of the day: "I'm Still Here" by Stephen Sondheim

This is a show-stopping, tour-de-force of a song about strength and survival.

From the musical Follies
Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.

I've stuffed the dailies
In my shoes.
Strummed ukuleles,
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I'm here.

I've slept in shanties,
Guest of the W.P.A.,
But I'm here.
Danced in my scanties,
Three bucks a night was the pay,
But I'm here.
I've stood on bread lines
With the best,
Watched while the headlines
Did the rest.
In the Depression was I depressed?
Nowhere near.
I met a big financier
And I'm here.

I've been through Gandhi,
Windsor and Wally's affair,
And I'm here.
Amos 'n' Andy,
Mahjongg and platinum hair,
And I'm here.

I got through Abie's
Irish Rose,
Five Dionne babies,
Major Bowes,
Had heebie-jeebies
For Beebe's
Bathysphere.
I lived through Brenda Frazier
And I'm here.

I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Gee, that was fun and a half.
When you've been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Anything else is a laugh.

I've been through Reno.
I've been through Beverly Hills,
And I'm here.
Reefers and vino,
Rest cures, religion and pills,
And I'm here

Been called a pinko
Commie tool,
Got through it stinko
By my pool.
I should have gone to an acting school.
That seems clear.
Still, someone said, "She's sincere,"
So I'm here.

Black sable one day.
Next day it goes into hock,
But I'm here.
Top billing Monday,
Tuesday you're touring in stock,
But I'm here.

First you're another
Sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career
To career.
I'm almost through my memoirs.
And I'm here.

I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?
Wow! What a looker you were."
Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis --
Whatever happened to her?"

Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.
I've run the gamut,
A to Z.
Three cheers and dammit,
C'est la vie.
I got through all of last year,
And I'm here.
Lord knows, at least I've been there,
And I'm here!
Look who's here!
I'm still here!

19 October 2011

Song of the day: "In Buddy's Eyes" by Stephen Sondheim

This is a sweet and beautiful song from the Broadway musical Follies. But if you actually see the show, you realize the song is a poor attempt at a self-convincing lie. The character's marriage to Buddy is a shambles.
Life is slow, but it seems exciting
'Cause Buddy's there.
Gourmet cooking and letter writing,
And knowing Buddy's there.

Every morning -- don't faint --
I tend the flowers.
Can you believe it?
Every weekend, I paint.
For umpteen hours.

And, yes, I miss a lot
Living like a shut-in.
No, I haven't got
Cooks and cars and diamonds.
Yes, my clothes are not
Paris fashions, but in
Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I don't get older.

So life is ducky
And time goes flying
And I'm so lucky
I feel like crying,
And...

In Buddy's eyes,
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes,
I can't get older.
I'm still the princess,
Still the prize.

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms,
On Buddy's shoulder
I won't get older,
Nothing dies.

And all I ever dreamed I'd be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy's eyes.

13 October 2011

Link of the day: Program your daily tasks on your calendar

I was glad to learn that I'm not the only one who puts mundane tasks like "gym" and "schedule haircut" on my calendar.  Whitson Gordon (who seems to be the best writer on Lifehacker these days) wrote a very nice post about how he schedules basically everything on his Google calendar

I like doing this for many reasons.
  1. You don't have to waste your cognitive energy on worrying about when to do these boring, routine tasks.
  2. The calendar tells you when to do it. Think of it as your electronic mother. If you tell yourself, maybe I'll clean the bathroom this week, it's not going to get done. If your mother tells you to do it this afternoon, you are much more likely to get it done.
  3. The calendar enables you to get the chores done on a regular basis so you keep your life in order.

12 October 2011

Thought of the day: Different kinds of maturity

I've started to think that you can attain maturity through two channels: 1) experience and 2) learning indirectly through media like books, internet discussions, etc.

People who are thoughtful and empathetic but shy and/or anti-social tend to pick up maturity through #2.  I think I fall into this category.  Learning indirectly (method #2) is efficient.  You can learn a lot very quickly.  The problem is that it's very hard to develop emotional resilience by learning about other people's experiences.  You can read about what it's like to suffer a divorce or a life-threatening illness, but that can only prepare you so much.

People like me can be mature and seem exceptionally mature for our age, but when we run into a difficult situation, then our lack of experience is exposed and basically, we're screwed.

However, I'm not recommending that people should stop reading and learning about other people's experiences (method #2).  Direct personal experience is great, but it is very limited.  There simply isn't time to live in different places, travel to every country of the world, try out different careers, etc.  I would be wary of people who claim that experience is king and that reading is a waste of time.

Simply put, we need both experience and learning to become a wise, mature person.

01 October 2011

Link of the day: Hacking your own job

Michael Ellsberg wrote a fantastic essay explaining how to become a self-made freelancer. Summary of the essay:
  • Something like 80% of jobs are obtained through networking, not resume dropping.
  • You can't "hack" the credential oriented jobs like being a doctor or lawyer, but you can hack all other jobs (side step formal credential requirements) by reading books, talking to people, networking.
  • There are many successful people who have pulled off this hack through self-discipline and devotion to learning on their own.
  • This post outlines a plan on how you can achieve success without formal credentials.
But what I like most about the essay is that it alludes to the American ethos of the self-made man:
Most people who drop out of school also drop out of learning... However, there are people who drop out of formal education, while still maintaining an absolute passion and discipline for learning—informally, non-institutionally, in the real world... I’ve interviewed almost 40 millionaire and billionaires, all self-made, and none of them finished college. In interviewing them, I was consistently struck by one thing they all had in common: a complete lack of regard for socially-sanctioned formal “requirements” for bringing success into their lives.

02 September 2011

Sports analogies to deliberate practice

Being an athlete and training for a sport confers skills that are easily transferred to many kinds of work. Many employers like athletes because they know how to be part of a team (unless it's a solo sport), and they understand what it's like to work towards a goal.

The nice thing about sports is that training and the results of that training are tangible and easy to see. When you train for a sport, you aim to be consistent in your performances. You also pace yourself so that you peak at competition time. Each sport is different. For instance, playing basketball requires you to peak several evening a week for games, but a marathoner might only run a race every few weeks. However, the ideas are the same. Pacing is important because you don't want to get injured. This is just like in a knowledge worker type job. If you work too hard, you'll burn out. So pace yourself.

The reason that athletes become really good is because athletic training is a form of "deliberate practice." The idea is that you figure out what are the key things you need to work on so that you can perform at the highest level during competition. For a hockey player, that might mean trying to take shots from many different angles, off different feet, in awkward positions, so that during a game, you can score. For more information about deliberate practice, check out this post about deliberate practice at Psychology Today and this discussion of Geoff Colvin's book on the subject.

01 September 2011

Thought of the day: Can you teach a computer good taste?

I don't know much about artificial intelligence or learnabilty, but it's fun to think about what a computer might be able to learn. One characteristic that separates a novice from an expert is "good taste". (I first heard of this idea from a Paul Graham essay.) Supposedly, "good taste" is something that is not a characteristic that is easy to acquire quickly, unlike simple "knowledge." Then it would be a interesting challenge to see if a computer could learn good taste. If it's hard for humans, it would be probably be even harder for computers. Scientists already have enough trouble in machine vision research, getting computers to see things that humans find obvious.

31 August 2011

Review of Alias, Season 1

I watched Alias this summer in 2011 and I couldn't believe this show was made in 2001.

Alias Season 1 has quickly become one of my all-time favorites. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this show since I'm not big on the spy genre. On the surface, Alias seems like an action show with a female lead in sexy outfits, but it is much more than that. It is a tour de force of tight writing, sharp dialogue, outstanding acting, and creative vision. Alias is the story of Sydney Bristow -- the girl next door, straight-A student type who happens to sign up for spy work, out of patriotic inspiration and boredom. Most spies and action heroes are cold, calculating personalities, so this is a refreshing concept. The show works for me because as absurd as the plot twists become, I believe in Sydney Bristow. Her character is always grounded and she is easy to relate to, because she is sensitive and wears her heart on her sleeve. This is J.J. Abram's trademark -- the drama that is both realistic and absurd at the same time. Sydney does crazy spy work and juggles both a double-life and double-agent job, but she comes home to hang out with her friends who know nothing about her spy life, and she struggles with her relationships with her father and her paternalistic boss. As weird as the espionage world gets, we can always relate to hating your boss, trying to get along with parents, and managing work-life balance. It's hard to find compelling 20-something female leading roles in Hollywood, which makes me appreciate Sydney Bristow on a personal level.

The show further innovates by mixing different genres: espionage, mystery/thriller, and a little soapy drama. I love cross-genre shows because there is more variety, less chance of falling into cliches, and the audience doesn't quite know what to expect. The action sequences, camera work, and costumes are film quality. You will have fun watching Sydney execute her missions. I'm not a connoisseur of spy shows, but I was entertained by the different wigs/dresses, car chases, and parachuting.

I really enjoyed the writing and fast-paced plotting. Not many words are wasted. The action sequences are cut extremely tight. Unlike other spy shows, there isn't much mission preparation or debriefing shown; we just see Sydney stealing item X and then we're back in Los Angeles. One moment Sydney is in spy headquarters and then she's having beer at her apartment with her best buddies. Yet the show takes the time to explore Sydney's emotional reactions, which keeps Alias grounded in reality. I really like how the show goes for broke -- outlandish costumes, insane stunts, hard-hitting emotional breakdowns, the audience feeling like Sydney is *really* in danger -- and yet it feels organic and not forced. Maybe the writers used up all their best ideas in the first season and that's why Alias started going downhill... but that's a discussion for another time.

The big selling point for me is Jennifer Garner's performance. She is naturally charismatic and has probably the world's best smile, making Sydney probably the most likable spy in cinematic history. (It seems like every male character on the show is in love with Sydney -- a joke, but not far from the truth.) Garner clearly put 100% effort into her acting. Watch her face when she runs -- it's clear that both Garner and Sydney take their job seriously. Sydney Bristow is an extremely demanding role (Sydney is in almost every scene, stunt sequences, foreign languages, dramatic acting) and Garner does everything very well.

The rest of the cast is absolutely stellar. I don't know how many TV shows have ever had a cast this good. There are two critically acclaimed Broadway actors (Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin) and Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, and Merrin Dungey have all gone on to great careers (in particular Cooper has become a huge star). Kevin Weisman is funny and charming as the comic relief, and Carl Lumbly, as Sydney's partner, lends gravity and presence to the show. Every single cast member is fantastic and my only complaint is that I wish Vartan and Dungey's characters could have been written better. The superb acting is what really makes the show work. In the hands of lesser actors, the show would have become campy.

I'll leave you with the words of a TV critic:
Alias isn’t a perfect series, by any means. But I do think it’s the most important show of the past ten years that’s been completely swept under the rug. ... I have a sneaking suspicion that few shows have had a greater impact on the television landscape today.
- Ryan McGee, AV Club
(If you are interested in reading more, check out Ryan McGee's essays at AV Club's TV Club Classic.)

30 August 2011

Thought of the day: Four types of TV shows

There seem to be four premises to create interesting TV shows.
  1. Show based on neurotic and/or childish characters (a staple of sitcoms)
  2. Show based on characters with interesting jobs -- the procedural (cop, medical, legal, detective/spy/crime dramas)
  3. Show based on a particular genre (vampires, fantasy, science-fiction, military, espionage)
  4. Show based on relatively normal characters thrust into crazy situations (character diagnosed with cancer, nuclear holocaust)
Personally, I like shows that mix several of these premises. Chuck combines spy action with nerdy comedy, and its main character finds himself pulled from his dull existence as a computer technician into the world of espionage. (Premises 2, 3, & 4) Battlestar Galactica is a militaristic sci-fi drama in which most of the human race is suddenly wiped out. (Premises 3 & 4)

29 August 2011

Link of the day: "The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight"

I read a really nice psychology article today about how easy it to misjudge people. As a family friend once told me, you can't truly know a person unless you live with them for an extended period of time.

The first section of the article describes a famous psychology experiment called the "Robbers Cave Experiments."
These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.
After finding out about each other's existence, the two tribes each labelled the other group "the enemy." I had never heard of this experiment before and it was very cool to find out about a mild version of Lord of the Flies but a real-life situation as opposed to a famous work of fiction.

The article goes on to talk about people having different personas.
The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage.
Then the article hits on a point I like very much -- that we don't know people that well, even our friends.

That is why we shouldn't judge people. And if we decide to attribute fixed traits to a person, we should only do so after an extended period of observation and interaction.
How well do you know your friends? Pick one out of the bunch, someone you interact with often. ... Do you know what they want, what they are likely to do in most situations, what they will argue about and what they let slide? Do you notice when they are posturing and when they are vulnerable? Do you know the perfect gift? ... Research shows you probably feel all these things and more. You see your friends, your family, your coworkers and peers as semipermeable beings. You label them with ease. You see them as the artist, the grouch, the slacker and the overachiever. ... You can, you believe, put yourself in their shoes and predict their behavior in just about any situation. You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you.
The author cites research supporting this generalization of human psychology.
  • Iceberg experiment: People were to rate how well they knew another person by saying how much of an iceberg they could see above the water. People thought they could see most of their friends' icebergs, but they didn't think their friends could see much of their own iceberg.
  • Describe a time when you feel most like yourself: When people were asked to describe a time when they felt most like themselves, 78% of the time they talked about "something internal and unobservable like the feeling of seeing their child excel or the rush of applause after playing for an audience." When the same people were asked to name situations that best illustrated their friends' personalities, they only mentioned internal feelings 28% of the time. Typically, they would describe actions like: "Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing." This makes sense because we can only infer people's feelings by looking from the outside.
  • Sentence completion: People were asked to complete sentences. When asked about the meaning of the sentence completions, people stated that most of the time the completions revealed very little about them. Yet when the same people were asked what they thought of other people's sentence completions, they claimed to see bits of the other person's personality. "They looked at the words and said the people who filled them in were nature lovers, or on their periods, or were positive thinkers or needed more sleep."
What conclusions should we draw from these experiments? The author says it best:
The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong. The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

28 August 2011

Sasuke / Ninja Warrior

Sasuke is a Japanese TV show that features contestants running through timed obstacles courses. There are four stages and only three people have completed all four to achieve "total victory." It looks really cool and a nice test of athleticism. The male competition (Sasuke) seems to heavily challenge arm strength. The female version (Kunoichi) appears to focus more on agility as opposed to arm strength.

Some really cool videos: Makoto Nagano winning Sasuke and Ayako Miyake winning Kunoichi

27 August 2011

Link of the day: 100 Strangers project

There are lots of interesting ideas for photography projects. One is to take a photo everyday. I recently learned of the "100 Strangers" project. Flickr has a nice feature on people's experiences photographing 100 Strangers.

17 August 2011

Song of the day: "Have A Little Faith In Me" by John Hiatt

I heard this song a long time ago when it was covered in the movie Phenomenon. When I was watching the TV show Alias, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a nice, instrumentally simple cover of the song in baritone (rare for pop music!). The song is sung by a minor character in a night club and then the show segues into an emotional montage for Sydney.

I have an inherent bias against pop music, but when done well, this song is decent.
When the road gets dark
And you can no longer see
Let my love throw a spark
Have a little faith in me
When the tears you cry
Are all you can believe
Just give these loving arms a try
Have a little faith in me

Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me

When your secret heart
Cannot speak so easily
Come here darling, from a whisper start
Have a little faith in me
And when your back’s against the wall
Just turn around and you, you will see
I will catch you, I will catch your fall
Just have a little faith in me

Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me

‘Cause I’ve been loving you, for such a long, long time
Expecting nothing in return
Just for you to have a little faith in me
You see time, time is our friend
‘Cause for us, there is no end
And all you gotta do, is have a little faith in me
I will hold you up, I will hold you up
And your love, gives me strength enough to
Have a little faith in me
Hey hey
All you gotta do for me girl
Is have a little faith in me

15 August 2011

Quote of the day: Someone to listen

It is not easy to be supportive, be a good listener, and give good advice. I wish more people realized that. I found this nice essay about this subject, written by Jon Cousins (I think):
Things don't always go as you'd wish. Life's like that.

But when they don't, it can help to talk about them. The very act of speaking about your feelings can help you process them. It can help you rationalize your situation and solve your problems.

Generally we know this.

Unfortunately, who you talk to plays a big part in the outcome of this process.

Tell the right person and you'll walk away from the conversation with shoulders raised and spirits lifted. Tell the wrong person, however, and you might feel worse than you did before you began.

A key to success could be to find someone with that relatively rare combination of patience, good listening skills and the ability to be reasonably non-judgemental (yet of course not so bland that they have no opinions of their own).

Few have these talents, all too many will instead be eager to dictate what you should do. Ask them, and they'll tell you in no uncertain terms.

Better perhaps to hold your breath until you're with that person who lets you talk, while they simply listen.

You know who they are. Cherish them. And hang onto them because they're worth their weight in gold.

14 August 2011

Link of the day: "It's all about anticipation"

Recently, there was a neat article from Sports Illustrated about the role of anticipation and experience in world class athletes.

An important concept is that experts "chunk" information into meaningful pieces rather than looking at all the little details.
Before occlusion studies shed light on perceptual expertise in sports (the first significant tests were performed by Canadian researcher Janet Starkes on volleyball players in 1975), studies of chess masters were beginning to illuminate the underlying processes. In famous experiments starting in the 1940s, Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot gave grandmasters and club chess players five seconds to look at chessboards with the pieces arranged in game scenarios. Then the arrangement was taken away, and De Groot had the players reconstruct the board they had just seen. Grandmasters could remember the position of nearly every piece, while decent club players could reconstruct only about half the board. De Groot and subsequent researchers determined that the masters were "chunking" information—rather than remember the position of every piece separately, the grandmasters grasped small chunks of meaningful information, which allowed them to place the pieces. We all use this strategy to an extent in daily life. For example, while it would be difficult to remember 15 random words, it's much less difficult to remember a coherent 15-word sentence because one need only recall bits of meaning and grammar, which coordinate the order of words in your head...

What major league players and pro tennis and cricket athletes seem to do is to synthesize and group information about the human body based on their playing experience...
Being able to process the information in smaller, but larger pieces allows the expert to process information much more quickly. This is especially important for athletes, who don't have time to think.
... Peyton Manning would probably have trouble recalling the exact position of randomly distributed players in the Colts' locker room, but show him those players positioned on a football field, and he would be better at recalling the arrangement because each segment—the positioning of the defensive backs relative to his receivers, for example—has an underlying, unifying meaning for him. That's why crafty defensive coordinators attempt to disguise a defense: They try to forestall Manning's ability to predict the future using cues from patterns he's seen before.

... Additionally, a quarterback, like a baseball batter, does not have time to consciously analyze everything he sees...

... Phillip L. Ackerman, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech who studies skill acquisition, uses a military analogy to describe a quarterback's decision-making process: "It's an if-then task. If you recognize a certain pattern, you react to it. And you have to do it without thinking about it. It's like a soldier taking apart a weapon when it jams. You learn it to the level where you can do it without thinking, because people are shooting at you."
This idea about the value of experience and how it separates experts from beginners is something that I've seen before and that I find really interesting.

Experience allows you to take mental shortcuts. Like the difference between an expert and a student solving a classical mechanics problem. The expert quickly guesses what is the best and most efficient way to solve the problem (use energy conservation), whereas the student is worrying about the details (how do I connect mass, velocity, and energy?) Or a native vs a ELS student reading English text. The native reads chunks of text whereas the student has to read each word.

That's not all. The Sports Illustrated article also notes that since the anticipatory processes are sub-conscious, this needs to be taken into account in high pressure situations.
This science contradicts some of sports' hoariest beliefs. The exhortation of every Little League coach to "keep your eye on the ball"? Impossible. "If you monitor the eyes of batters, the gaze stops tracking the ball before they hit," Abernethy says. "You don't have a visual system fast enough to track the angular changes that occur over the last few meters of the flight." Nonetheless, he says, keep your eye on the ball is probably sound advice, because it keeps your head still and pointed in the right direction to gather the necessary information from the pitcher's body.

"The real advice would be, 'Watch the shoulder,'" Abernethy says, "but [even] that doesn't help. It actually makes [players] worse." That's because forcing an athlete to think consciously about an automated task destroys his ability to anticipate and puts him back in the realm of reaction.

Coaches who call timeouts to ice free throw shooters and field goal kickers are trying to exploit what researchers have codified: Break up the routine; get the player thinking. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of the book Choke, has demonstrated that, in golf, pressure-induced poor putting can sometimes be overcome with simple remedies such as singing to yourself or counting backward by threes. For automated tasks like putting or placekicking, mild distraction, rather than intense concentration, may be the best approach because it keeps the process out of the higher-conscious areas of the brain, where what Beilock calls "paralysis by analysis" takes root.
At this rate, I might as well copy the entire article, but yeah, there is a lot of good stuff in it.

13 August 2011

Quote of the day: "No man is an island"

An extremely famous quote by English poet John Donne from Meditations XVII:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
I wish I could say that I came across this quote from a literature class. Actually, I only knew of it because it is the trigger phrase for an assassin in the TV show Alias. It's ironic that the passage is about how every person's life diminishes mankind; yet it is used to command an assassin to kill.

12 August 2011

Link of the day: "How to Find More Time in Your Day by Putting Your Chores on Auto-Pilot"

Lifehacker has a nice feature on how to schedule and organize household chores so that you can concentrate on more important things in your life.

I'm interested in this topic since I want to uphold a certain standard of cleanliness and organization in my life, but I don't want it to be distracting. I already put my chores on a Google calendar, just like the author of the Lifehacker article.

11 August 2011

Link of the day: "Maths busking"

A huge problem in science is how do you get laypeople interested in science? (I'm using science as a blanket term which includes engineering, natural science, and math.)

Most of the popular books and media written about science are only interesting to people who already enjoy science and those people are only a small fraction of the world's population. If we truly want to make science mainstream and boost science literacy, we need a way to reach "regular" people.

Enter "Maths Busking" -- a really cool project whose goal is
Maths Busking aims to show the public the surprising and fascinating side of mathematics through the medium of street performance.
You can also see some video of their street performances.

10 August 2011

How Jennifer Garner (and Sydney Bristow) rock

I just wanted to express my admiration and love for Sydney Bristow, the lead character of the TV show Alias and Jennifer Garner who plays her.

In the Season 1 finale, I remember distinctly a couple emotional scenes where Garner really brought it. The scene with Will at the CIA safehouse: the way she looks at Will with heartfelt disappointment while leaning against the door. The scene where she begs Dixon to believe she is not betraying her country. These performances made me adore Sydney as a character. Some reporter described Garner's performance as "the spy next door." No wonder Will is madly in love with Syd. Wouldn't you want a woman who is so committed and good at her job, who is courageous and upstanding, and who is so sweet and caring to her friends? (Not to mention Garner's one-in-a-million smile, which is the most amazingly sweet and genuine smile I've ever seen.)

I've always thought Sydney Bristow (at least in the first season) is a showcase for a female actress. Jennifer Garner showed incredible range: vulnerability in scenes with her father/Vaughn/etc, professionalism and coolness in her spy work, being the empathetic, caring friend to Will/Francie/Emily. I loved how the show would frequently have Syd switch tone in the same scene, juxtaposing the spy life with everyday life. I laughed a few times when Sydney would be with her friends and would briefly snap into spy mode, e.g. when they are playing poker together and Syd tells everyone in a cold, professional tone that Will always bluffs when he raises.

I wish there were more female leading roles like Sydney and actresses like Garner to play them. I think someone commented that Garner hasn't done anything fantastic since Alias; my response is that's because there are hardly any great roles for actresses out there.