Our Inverse Relationship With Wifi

A couple months ago, I couldn’t catch the series finale of How I Met Your Mother the night it aired. I didn’t want any spoilers, so I challenged myself to stay off of any news/social media sites the next day, until I could watch the finale.

Needless to say, my self-imposed ban led to a dramatic increase in productivity. I spent more time doing work, and felt more focused when I was engaged in that work. A few weeks ago, I had a similar experience when working from a coffee shop with crappy wifi. By not being able to easily log onto site like reddit or even “helpful” sites like StackOverflow, I was forced to be more attentive to the task at hand. It inspired me to make this chart:

productivity

Ubiquitous wifi is a blessing and a curse. It’s great to be able to access anything from anywhere but I don’t think our brains are wired for that. In my linguistics class, Introduction to Sentence Processing, we learned about how “lazy” our mental sentence processor is, and how, as soon as it can form a phrase, it does (rather than considering all hypothetical syntactic options). This leads to errors such as:

The horse raced past the barn fell.

This is called a garden-path sentence, and has been studied extensively. The uptake, I believe, is that our minds are naturally averse to hard work. If a detour, distraction, or vacation is readily available, our instinctual minds (id) will take it, quicker than our disciplined mind (ego/super-ego) can overrule it.

I’m sure there are 100s of productivity “hacks” meant to overcome this obstacle. But, for me, just being cognizant of it is the most powerful “hack.”

Now, I just need to publish this, and post it on facebook, twitter, reddit…crap…

The Day of No News

Last night, How I Met Your Mother had its series finale. I didn’t watch it, but I’d like to watch it tonight without any spoilers. As such, I’m staying off all social media, news and blogs today. In general, I’ll be avoiding any sort of “news.” It’s entirely possible that the entire exercise will be futile, as I’ll just end up overhearing some snippets of conversation in my lab meeting, or something. Nonetheless, tomorrow I’ll update this post with my experiences.

The Knowledge Business and Peter Higgs

A few months ago, The Guardian published an interviewer with Peter Higgs, namesake of the Higgs Boson, or “God Particle.” In the interview, Higgs talks about how he wouldn’t be considered productive, or prolific enough to survive in today’s academic system, and wouldn’t have been granted tenure. The upshot of his statement is that the academic system today is obsessed with publishing, and would not reward a genius like Higgs.

However, I disagree with this assessment of the academic system. Being an academic is not about sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair and conjuring brilliant ideas from the ether. That’s the domain of the armchair philosopher. To me, being an academic means you have an obligation to (a) create ideas that are provable and testable, and (b) share those ideas with the world. There’s a saying that academics work “for the greater good” (as opposed to producing material gains). But to benefit the greater good, one needs to share his or her ideas. The “greater good” does not benefit from brilliant ideas that remain just that, brilliant ideas. Rather, the greater good benefits from the dissemination of knowledge.

To be sure, there are issues with the academic publishing business, And these issues certainly merit further discussion, and real changes. Nonetheless, peer-reviewed publishing still constitutes a very effective metric of academic productivity. And a university needs some sort of metric by which to judge output. After all, a professor is an employee of a university, and employees of all stripes and sizes are under the burden of demonstrating their value.

The ironic thing about Peter Higgs’ assertion is that he was employed by Edinburgh University for 36 years, largely because the university did not want to let go of someone who was a candidate for a Nobel Prize. In other words, every system will always find ways to accommodate unique individuals. Edinburgh University clearly recognized Higgs’ singular genius, and paid him a nice salary for 36 whole years, just to prove it!

In sum, there are certainly issues with academia, and with peer-reviewed publishing. Nonetheless, academics have a responsibility to those institutions which support them: To not only create brilliant ideas, but share those ideas, as well.

Now I’ll stop procrastinating, and get back to my writing….

How to Blow Your Mind in 2 Short Steps

In case you needed to have your sense of perspective completely blown this morning, here are a couple of amazing facts:

  1. If you shrank the Sun down to the size of a white blood cell, then shrunk the rest of the Universe proportionally, the Milky Way Galaxy would be the size of the continental United States (Source: reddit)
  2. The Milky Way as compared to the largest known Galaxy, IC 1101.
Astronomy shows how small and insignificant, but how rare and precious we all are.” – Carl Sagan

 

Programming and Skiing

Below is my answer to the question on Quora, How well does the age someone starts to learn programming correlate with their long-term technical ability and professional success?

I don’t believe there’s necessarily any correlation between starting programming when you’re young, and ultimately ending up a better programmer. However, I’d like to add one corollary. I believe an important aspect of being a good programmer is fearlessness.

To become a better programmer, you can’t be afraid to screw up. In my experience, the best way to learn was by making mistakes. By learning to program at a young age, you are learning to program when you are more fearless.

I analogize this to kids who learn to ski at a young age. I never ceased to be amazed at how fast these kids would barrel down the slopes, without even using poles. If the wiped out — and this certainly occurred — they got up, wiped the snow off their face, and continued barreling down the slope.

On the other hand, novice adult skiers proceeded with caution and trepidation, morbidly afraid of a wipeout.

To circle back to the answer, I believe the most important technical ability in a programmer is not being afraid to mess up. We all know those programmers who wait weeks to push their work to git, because they’re afraid there could be the slightest bug. And usually, after weeks of delay, there’s still a bug! So all the worrying and hand-wringing was for nothing.

tl;dr: Fearlessness, in general, is a personality trait. If you have it, you’ll be a superior programmer. It’s just easier to express and learn fearlessness when you’re younger.

Dark Matter Might Not Exist

WARNING: This post will probably only be of interest to 0.0001% of you.

I do not believe that dark matter exists. (Note: I have no qualifications for saying this.) However, it seems that every new explanation is just a more elaborate corollary on a fundamentally flawed underlying theory. It is akin to fixing a leaky hole in the dyke with increasingly complicated patches, rather than just replacing the whole dyke.

Isaac Newton could only theorize with available data, which included neither galaxy-scale nor quantum-scale data. His theories work beautifully for the data he had available to him, but science is the process of rewriting theories as new data becomes available. As an example, if all I’ve ever seen are white swans in my backyard, then I would theorize that all swans are white. But upon encountering just one black swan, I’d have to revise my assumption.

Similarly, we now have access to data on a scale that was unavailable when Newton developed his theories. Nonetheless, we have assumed that the scale at which Newton worked (our solar system) is privileged, and must fundamentally apply at all scales. But what if Newton’s theories only applied to the “pond in our backyard,” and cannot be applied on either larger or smaller scales? Since the 1980s, the theory of Modified Newtonian Dynamics has sought to revise fundamental Newtonian equations, rather than building on top of them. New data elaborates on this, as well.

Essentially, I am writing this post to ensure “bragging” rights in a very small community of very dorky people. One day, I’d like to be able to look back, and say “Hah, on Sunday, February 16, 2014, I predicted that the theory of dark matter would be overturned.” And then I will feel good, for 7 seconds.

Why David Eggers’ The Circle Is A Horrible Read and You Should Read It, Too.

Have you ever been handed a rough draft of a paper by a friend, who says, “I haven’t edited it yet, could you take a look at it?” Translation: “My time is more valuable than your time, so could you complete a task I’ve deemed myself too important to complete?” That sums up how I felt the entire time I was read Eggers’ The Circle. It reads like a desperate attempt to be a modern day Atlas Shrugged, with flat characters who go on long diatribes.

But then I noticed something…

Every time I logged onto Facebook, I felt kind of ridiculous. The ridiculousness of The Circle, that I couldn’t stand, was staring me in the face.

And then, I saw this headline: Dad gets OfficeMax mail addressed ‘Daughter Killed in Car Crash’. (Go ahead, take a moment to read the article.)

I really don’t know how to proceed at the moment. I don’t want to become an off-the-grid radical (and heck, I like blogging!). I know it’s impossible to read every Terms of Service I ‘Accept.’ But clearly I need to be more wary of my privacy than the societally-accepted default.

In the mean time, read The Circle. While it would have been nice if Eggers’ had given his book a second pass, I can forgive him since he gave the world this and this.

One thing that annoyed me, though. Towards the end of the book, Eggers writes:

Then on Friday (the only day the post office still delivered)…

Why Friday?? Mail is 99% business-related, so wouldn’t Monday make more sense?

2013 in Books

Title Author
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Adams, Douglas
Life, the Universe and Everything Adams, Douglas
The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel Child, Lee
Persuader (Jack Reacher, No. 7) Child, Lee
Without Fail (Jack Reacher, No. 6) Child, Lee
Echo Burning (Jack Reacher, No. 5) Child, Lee
Running Blind (Jack Reacher, No. 4) Child, Lee
Tripwire (Jack Reacher, No. 3) Child, Lee
Die Trying (Jack Reacher, No. 2) Child, Lee
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage Delaney, Rob
Veins Drew
The Name of the Rose Eco, Umberto
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Foer, Jonathan Safran
The Art of Fielding: A Novel Harbach, Chad
Russell Wiley Is Out to Lunch Hine, Richard
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution Levy, Steven
Astronauts and Heretics Marcinko, Thomas
Cloud Atlas Mitchell, David
How We Test Software at Microsoft Page, Alan, Johnston, Ken, Rollison, Bj
Devil's Plaything Richtel, Matt
2312 Robinson, Kim Stanley
Shooting Star Sabbagh, Karl
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Sloan, Robin
Cryptonomicon Stephenson, Neal
Reamde: A Novel Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash Stephenson, Neal
The Diamond Age Stephenson, Neal
Anathem Stephenson, Neal
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again Wallace, David Foster

First off, let it be known that I completely stole this idea from a fellow grad student, Robin. It sounded like a fun idea, and since almost all of these were on my Kindle, pulling up the list took all of 15 seconds.

Statistics:

  • I read 6 non-fiction books, and 23 works of fiction
  • 2 authors (Lee Child and Neal Stephenson) accounted for 12 (33%) books
  • 30% of what I read (11 books) could be classified as science fiction
  • I had no idea that I read so many Jack Reacher books. I did a ton of unpleasant, frequent airport travel in the first half of the year, and the mindless gluttony of the books, combined with short chapters, made them ideal for airport lounges and seat 3B. Nevertheless, I feel like a person who just mindlessly ate an entire bag of potato chips, and is now staring at the empty bag.

 

“Nothing is ever easy.”

This post’s title comes from a plaque my stepdad has hanging in his office. I love it for its forthrightness, and lack of any qualifications. Although my life has provided me with a plethora of legitimate excuses for taking a time-out and kicking back, I always find the words of that plaque nagging me to get back to work.

In a fascinating article on human intelligence from a computer science perspective, Daniel Lemire asks us what it means to be “intelligent” in the age of computers. If anyone can look up an answer on Google, then the only difference between someone who has memorized a lot of facts and someone who has to look something up is timing. At the end of the day, though, they both have the answer. Further, as computers become faster, the timing difference will become negligible. And so we’re back at the original question: What does it mean to be “intelligent”? Lemire’s answer is “grit.”

I expect that what sets people apart is not this ill-defined intelligence, but rather pure grit. If you want to do something, but you apparently lack the “intelligence” to do it, then it may simply be a matter of finding or building the right tools…As I wrote this blog post, I used a dozen sophisticated pieces of software, including Wikipedia and Google Scholar. Where does “my” intelligence ends and where do the tools start?

This is why I love my chosen occupation, computational linguistics. When writing a program, I know I can get it to do anything I want, if I take enough time and slog through hours of documentation. Heck, I could even get my computer to simulate the Universe, if given enough time.

Thus we return to “Nothing is ever easy.” As human intelligence becomes more extensible, I believe that only those who embrace this phrase, and demonstrate true “grit,” will become the leaders and intelligentsia of tomorrow.

And now to stop procrastinating, and get back to my bigram language model

go()

Nothing to see here. Just a giraffe climbing a tree. Move along.Sometimes life seems to be nothing more than an extended search for the perfect pen. Other times, life presents itself as a quest for the ideal cup of coffee. Both of these endeavors, though, deserve to be meticulously logged, alongside similar peregrinations. Thus was born the rejuvenation of adamgoodkind.com, a utility for tracking writing instruments, caffeine, funny giraffe photos, etc.