Sunday Selection 2012-12-09

Around the Web

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Academia

As my third semester as a PhD student draws to an end, I’m starting to think about what to do in the long term: what kind of a career I want to have, what kind of problems I want to focus on, etc. This piece is an interesting look at how research in computer science can coexist with making an impact in the real world today.

Trouble at Code School

I’ve been a Teaching Assistant for two semesters, but I haven’t really been on the front lines of teaching students. That being said, from what little experience I have introducing newcomers to programming that both teaching and learning beginning programming is no easy task. Luckily, with the growth of education-based startups and the resurgence in academic CS programs we’ll probably see interesting approaches in the near future.

GitHub vs Skyrim

Giles Bowkett manages to come up with interesting perspectives on a regular basis. This article talks about about GitHub and Skyrim and how the way they encourage team dynamics may lay the foundation for a new way of organizing companies and teams. Perhaps the most insightful idea is that the very definition of an office or workspace is not only changing, but gradually becoming irrelevant as work becomes increasingly distributed.

From the Bookshelf

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

I first read this book years ago in school and it was probably the first book to show me that you can fill a life with equal parts work and fun. This book probably played an important, though subconscious part in my decision to stay in academia for the time being. Even if you’re not a scientist or and academic, this book is worth reading and learning from. Life is supposed to be fun.

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Goodbye Netflix, hello reading

I cancelled my Netflix subscription yesterday because I’d been using it both too much and too little. I had both the streaming service and one DVD out at a time. While the DVD option has a much larger selection than the streaming, I found myself hardly every using it. In fact I’ve only checked out out a handful of DVDs since getting a Macbook Air without an optical drive over a year ago. Even when I did check one out it took me days or weeks to actually watch and return it. At the same time, I watched too much over streaming. It’s far too easy to just sit and keep hitting the next episode button for hours on end. It was taking up far too much time that would be better spent elsewhere.

I’m not giving up TV completely. We have a large TV in the living room and my roommate has a Roku box and Netflix streaming. However I’ve been spending more time at my desk and trying not to sit on the couch for more than short periods of time. I also plan on keeping the watching down to a few hours on the weekends (if that). I have Amazon Prime (plugged into the Roku too) and while Amazon and Netflix have mostly overlapping free selections, there’s more available to rent on Amazon. That makes it possible to watch something when I really want to (like The Avengers over the weekend) but keeps me from contiuously browsing.

I do however, want to spend more time reading actual books (not blogs or websites and certainly not “social media”). I have a Kindle which I love (and would like to use more) and Amazon occasionally has really nice deals. Cornell also has really big libraries with great collections which I want to make more use of. Personally I find myself being much calmer and more collected if I spend half an hour or so just reading without thinking about anything else. It’s a pretty relaxing and it feels even better if I’m actively learning something from it.

Michael Fogus (who writes a great blog) has posts on “extreme reading” and “reading for the rushed” which offer some great advice for reading more and better. I’m already a pretty fast reader (reading a couple of technical papers a week will do that to you) but one thing I’m interested in trying out is taking notes while reading. I normally hate marking up books, so I’m getting a small notebook (Field notes or Moleskine Cahier) and using that. I don’t know how this will work for fiction but for non-fiction I tend to come across lots of interesting facts that I would like to remember. For example yesterday while reading Martyn Amos’ “Genesis Machines” I found out that Turing was prompted by a friend’s death to start thinking about the possibility about moving human thought to non-biological substrates. These are the types of things I’d like to remember and maybe come back to later.

I’m leaving for India in a few weeks time which means lots of time on planes and away from reliable Internet connections. That in turn means lots of time and opportunity for reading. My Kindle is already well-stocked and I hope this time at home turns into a good start for a year of reading. Ideally I want to read at least a book a week. That might be a bit ambitious, but I won’t find out without giving it a try. For the time being though, it’s back to finishing “Genesis Machines”.

Fake it till you make it

Yesterday I went to a workshop entitled “Finding Balance in the Everyday of Being a Graduate Student”. To the logical, rational, goal-oriented version of my self the workshop was less than stellar. There was little I learned that I didn’t already know and I didn’t walk away with an actionable, checklisted, 12-step plan for being more balanced and productive as a graduate student.

However two useful things did come out of it. First, I remembered the reason I had come to graduate school in the first place – because I want to learn and grow both as a researcher and as a person. Second, I think I realized what “fake it till you make it” means, at least for me personally.

Cornell has a student-run, peer counselling program called EARS – Empathy, Assistance & Referral Service. At the end of yesterday’s workshop, one of the instructors told me that I should consider joining it. It would be an interesting, enriching experience and a good way to meet and work with people from across Cornell. Normally I would have politely declined. I don’t see myself as much of a people person and I’ve never done anything of the sort. The closest I’ve come to something like that is being a Residence Advisor at Lafayette. Though that experience was interesting, it’s not something I care to repeat. I also can be very zealous when it comes to cutting “unnecessary” things out of my life (and keeping them out).

But at the same time, I have been wanting to get more involved in campus and social activities. I’ve been wanting to meet more people outside of computer science and engineering. I’ve been wanting to be part of a larger community. And this was the perfect opportunity. What I realized was that even though I didn’t consider myself to be a natural listener, a counselor or a people person, I didn’t have to be those things right away. Hypothetically, a future version of me is an EARS counselor, involved with the community and has a range of skills and interests outside of programming and computers. But I didn’t have to quietly sit around and wait for this person to magically emerge. I could just do the things that this imaginary version of myself would do. I could sign up for EARS and get more involved in campus and graduate school organizations. In other words I could fake it till I made it.

I could start saying things like “I should act like my highest self” but I think the point is simpler and doesn’t need to be dressed up. There is me. And there is the me I want to be. The best way to close the gap is to do the things that future me does. It’s throwing myself in at the deep end. Now of course, I can’t take this quite literally. Wanting to be a marathon runner doesn’t mean I should go run 26.2 miles tomorrow. But it does mean that I can start running regularly and start eating like a marathoner would.

If I want to be a more socially active and responsible person, then I should do more social activities and take on more responsibilities. Even though I’m no counselor, I think I will sign up for the EARS program next semester. I think this works for more academic matters too. I’m not an expert researcher, but I can start emulating one. I can dive deep into the literature, I can start making small experiments to try out new ideas, I can talk to experts to get a better idea of the open problems, I can take up their work ethic and research thinking.

As I write this, I realize there’s a thin line between pushing myself to improve quickly and overburdening myself and collapsing. I don’t know where that line lies for myself, but I think I’ll find out. I don’t think “fake it till you make it” is a good idea for all things in life and all professions. Taking it very literally is certainly a recipe for trouble. But there is something to be said for pushing yourself and taking the most direct route to the person you want to be. Is this the most direct route? I don’t know, but I’ll found out. Time to fake it till I make it.

Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Follow your passion is dangerous advice.”

Cal Newport’s newest book opens with an interesting and controversial piece of advice. That’s perhaps not surprising given how interesting Cal Newport himself is. He’s a new professor at Georgetown University and a Computer Science PhD out of MIT. He’s also the author of a popular blog and a number of books on student life, acheivement and productivity. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is his most recent creation and this book might just change the way you look at your career and your life in general.

But first, let me tell you a little about myself. If you follow this blog regularly (and I hope you do) you’ll know that I’m a second year graduate student at Cornell University’s Computer Science program. I’m no longer a “new” graduate student but I’m certainly not a veteran of the research trenches yet. I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve been grappling with some of the issues that come with the territory. In particular I’ve been thinking about what sort of projects I should be pursuing, what to do about projects I’m interested in but not 100% excited about and how to balance getting published with working on fun stuff (the two don’t always overlap). Newport’s new book has given me some good perspective on these matters.

The central thesis of this book is that the common wisdom of “follow your passion” is dangerously flawed. We shouldn’t be waiting for our dream job or our life purpose to fall into our laps. Instead we should be building “career capital” – valuable skills and expertise that we can exchange for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting.

The book opens by digging into the idea that passion is a basis for a remarkable life and bringing forth evidence that passion is rarer and less useful than we are led to believe. Newport then goes on to show that the alternative to passion is to become so good that they can’t ignore you. Concretely this translates to cultivating skills that are rare and valuable and that will let you negotiate your work and working conditions on your own terms. Newport cites studies that show that the actual determinant of career satisfaction is not “passion” but a trio of competence, control and relationships. The jobs we like are the ones that require skills, give us control over our work and life and bring us into contact with good coworkers. Finally we are shown how we can go about generating the career capital that we need in order to get these things in our work lives. In particular the book talks about deliberate practice, making small but continuous improvements in your skills and doing work that will make others sit up and notice.

Throughout the book Newport shares stories of both people who have followed the “passion hypothesis” and his proposed “career craftsman philosophy”. The examples are carefully examined and include a large group of people including venture capitalists, developers, farmers and professors. Instead of simply providing them as proof, Newport walks us through how his experiences with these people changed his own views on the matter and brought him to his current ideas on what makes a remarkable career.

While I’m generally skeptical of self-help books and books that claim to help you “follow your path”, this one is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Newport’s examples (and their discussion) are “scientific” but they are thorough and well researched. Furthermore, he acknowledges that the exact path will be different from person to person and that he is still figuring things out.

Personally, I found this book very helpful. It put to rest any worries I had about working on the “wrong” project. I’m still very much in the stage of my career where I’m earning career capital and most projects will be full of chances to learn and prove myself. But that doesn’t mean I should sign up for any project that walks in the door. The best projects are the ones that force me to learn something new and don’t require huge up front investments of time and energy (with little chance of results). As this book shows, excellent careers aren’t just by-products of luck, nor is it enough to just follow your interests. The best careers are crafted and take large investments of energy and effort over long periods of time. It helps that I love my job, but I don’t need to worry about picking the perfect project and being passionate about it, as long as I’m learning and gaining capital, I’m good (and getting better).

If you’re just starting out in a career, looking to switch or just want to give your career a jumpstart this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s never too late (or too early) to start improving. You don’t need to have a life mission set in stone before you get started either. Long story short, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is better life advice than “follow your passion”. Thanks to this book it’s probably easier to implement too.

Sunday Selection 2012-07-08

Around the Web

Talent is Nothing Without Focus and Endurance

I am rather embarassed to admit that I’ve never read Haruki Murakami. I do plan on changing that soon. However I’ve heard that only are his books great, his memoir: What I talk about when I talk about running, is an equally wonderful and enlightening read. I think I’ll put it on my Kindle for the flight home.

The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship

As a graduate student I’d say about a third to a half of my time is spent either reading up on the current state of the field or looking for techniques and approaches that I can use in my own work. If your job involves pushing the state of the art it’s worth spending some time figuring out where the line is currently drawn. Even if that’s not your job description, I think a little scholarship in a relevant field can go a long way.

Scholarship: How to Do it Efficiently

Unfortunately, scholarship or “book learning” often gets a bad rap. But I’d like to think that it’s mostly because books tend to be badly written. Also it’s hard to enjoy reading something unless you know why. As a precursor to this article I’d just like to say: Scholarship is most effective when it’s focused and self-motivated.

Software

Ifttt

I’m a strong believer in the idea that our technology should actively help us lead better lives. That’s why I find things like the current slew of “minimalist” text editors for iOS and OS X deeply misguided – our software should do more, not less. Ifttt is a step in the right direction – it lets you connect web services with “if something happens then do something” clauses. Ideally I would like to see a general API that connects web services and lets me script them uniformly but this is a start.