Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notes on the previous post

After receiving a concerned e-mail I reexamined the previous post and realized that I neglected to say that I am excited about grad school and currently not burned out. I do, however, think it is important to take precautions against burnout. The main point of the previous was that I have learned a lot about not trying to do too much too soon; I support this claim with my own experiences.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Today in complexity theory lecture the professor briefly made reference to the number-on-forehead model* and I realized that this problem had been one of the main reasons I had decided I was not cut out for theory. When I was 14, I had participated in Andrew's Leap, a computer science summer program run by Professor Rudich at CMU. A simple, 2-person version of the NOF problem* had been presented on the entrance examination; I felt very bad that I did not even understand the solution right away even after it was explained to me. I was written off as not a child prodigy, and I wrote off math/theory as not for me. I proceeded to spend the rest of my teenage years developing my other skills (programming, writing, drawing, field hockey, etc.) rather than learning more math and computational theory.

I would like to now make two observations that I did not realize at the time: 1) one does not have to be a child prodigy to be a theorist and 2) not being a theorist does not mean one cannot have a deep understanding and appreciation of theory. Had I known these things, I would have probably worked harder to make myself smarter at theory all these years; I would be better at certain parts of life had I done this. This supports my hypothesis that being exposed to too much too early may have negative (but not irreversibly harmful) impact on overall life productivity.

I am going to make two somewhat correlated claims:
  1. It is not sustainable for most people to sustain a high level of productivity for a long period of time.
  2. Trying to do too much too soon in life can have negative consequences on overall life productivity.
The corollaries to these claims are:
  1. Don't worry if you were/are not precocious. In fact, you might just be a late bloomer.
  2. Don't be too hard on yourself for not being as intense as people around you.
  3. Don't worry if you are burned out and other people are not, especially if you have been working intensely. It doesn't mean your life is over; if you stop being hard on yourself it will probably go away.
This is all related to a conversation I had a few days ago about burnout (both running burnout and academic burnout): what it is, why it happens, and what it does to people. This conversation involed a few side observations: 1) most students form undergraduate programs do not go on to become grad students/professors and many grad students/professors at top institutions did not graduate from equivalent undergraduate institutionss, and 2) many Harvard students from top New England boarding schools tend not to become academic superstars and instead do a lot of activities because they are tired of constant academic challenge by the time they get to college. This suggests that high levels of pressure and intensity may not pay off in the long run.

My life experiences support these hypotheses. Because I did a lot in high school, I was tired both in general terms and academically by the time I went to college. In high school, I spent my summers doing programs at Carnegie Mellon University that involved a fair amount of college-level material which required me to stretch my mind and feel like I didn't know very much. I was also always doing activities: after school I had sports, then piano, then Chinese; finally around 8 or 9 PM each day I would begin a few hours of homework. Even if I finished my homework early enough to get a good night's sleep, since I was a teenage whose existence needed to be verified in some significant way every day I would waste valuable sleep time covertly chatting on AIM, reading a novel, or writing bad poetry before I finally defeated my insomnia and shut down for the day. In high school I was always very excited about the day: I hated sleep, usually slept little, and found it nearly impossible to remain asleep for more than 7 hours a night. This was not the most sustainable of lifestyles.

After a summer of four hours of sleep a night at Governor's school, then a senior year busy with college applications, AP courses, college visits, and end-of-childhood melodrama, then a summer of 3 jobs and more adolescent gerascophobic melodrama, I showed up to college completely worn out and overstimulated. While everyone else was excited to pull weeks of all-nighters alternating between discussing Nietzsche, drinking beer, and discussing Nietzsche while drinking beer, I was trying to figuring out how to maintain a sane sleep schedule. Freshman year of college I slept from 11-7 almost every day**, taking a moderately ambitious course load and keeping my number of extracurricular activities to at most one. I picked up the intensity as the year went on, and by the middle of sophomore year I entered into a slump: I didn't know what I wanted to do in life; all I wanted was to have time to read, sleep, and run. I eventually figured things out and got wound up again enough to take on a heavy load of coursework, teaching, and Robocup, planning to continue doing as much as I can until I got a neck injury from my randomized algorithms take-home final*. The injury slowed me down a fair bit, since I couldn't sit at the computer or look down at my desk for more than an hour or so because I would get muscle spasms. Thus in college I had gone from burned out to full intensity to burned out again.

Though I am excited about grad school and my late blooming, I am taking it easier than usual and enjoying life as I go. Because of my neck injury and because of my experience with too many weeks of little sleep for reasons that seemed good at the time, I was not one of the kids who showed up to grad school excited about 36-hour coding marathons and the weeks between paper deadlines when mortality is forgotten and invincibility is assumed in the name of increasing the paper count. For a while I wondered if I should feel guilty that, instead of hanging around lab, I spent my weekends laying around, reading random non-fiction and novels, blogging, and thinking about the world. If you've been reading my blog, you might have noticed that I have collected enough reasons (your brain needs down time; stress is harmful to your creativity) to justify not feeling guilty. I hope taking it slowly in the beginning will decreases my chances of burning out. And if not, I can at least look back at this time and say that I read the books that I wanted to read and did the things I wanted to do. One of the best things that has come out of my neck injury is that practioners of the various alternative healing methods I have sought out (such as yoga) have taught me to be less hard on myself. And until I achieve something I can always take comfort in the knowledge that I am a late bloomer. :)

I am going to end this post here because I suddenly find myself despondent and unable to continue, but I hope you got the point****. ;)

* Chandra, Furst, and Lipton? Sorry; couldn't find a good source.
** Except once a week I would pull an almost-all-nighter for my math homework because all of my homework was due on the same day of the week--maybe this is why I think I am bad at math. :/
*** Apparently my monitor was too much to the right and this was irritating my neck joints. The days of staring at my computer was the last straw. This injury scared me about working too hard for a while because I am still healing over a year later.
**** Kidding; I have to go to bed.

An interesting exercise in procrastination

The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here.

Look at the list and mark those you have read.

* = read it
** = read it, remember it.
$$ = own it, haven't read yet.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen **
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte **
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee **
6 The Bible ** (the old testament)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte **
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell **
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens $$
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott **
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy **
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller **
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare $$
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier **
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger **
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell **
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald **
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams **
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky **
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll $$
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy **
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis *
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis *
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne *
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving **
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery **
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley **
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov **
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac $$
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett **
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno - Dante $$
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert **
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White **
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle $$
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad **
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery **
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas *
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare **
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl **
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I am the funny grammar friend

My college roommate Aliza* sends me articles about funny grammatical things because I have fairly idiosyncratic principles and tendencies. Top 2 (okay, of 2):
  1. An article on how AT&T apparently forces its employees to absurdly dangle gratuitous prepositions: “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?” I have been known to have visceral reactions to gratuitous preposition dangling.
  2. An article on how President Obama should get his pronouns right, particularly in the case of "I" vs. "me" (e.g. "Michelle and me"). The article talks about the history of the grammatical correctness/incorrectness of this construct, why people might commit this grammatical error, and other grammatical errors Obama makes. There is a blog post by an almost-3-years-ago Jean about how even when labelling Facebook pictures, people should use "I" and "me" correctly.
* Also the fairy catmother of my cat, Smokebriel Bear.

Beware of stress!

I was reading a Newsweek article about how stress early in your development helps you cope with things later in life, and how you can cause your brain to develop in ways that are resilient to stress. It fortunately/unfortunately included some details about what stress does to your brain.

Since I am prone to unnecessary stress, my biggest take-away from this otherwise optimistic article was OMG, prolonged periods of stress causes your medial prefrontal cortex to shrink*. The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-referential activity and has high levels of activity when you are not actively thinking; the prefrontal cortex is associated with "executive decisions" of good vs. bad. In conclusion, being stressed out makes you less creative and will probably ruin your career, so you should probably stress about that. ;)

* It can grow back if you are not under constant stress.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is verification here to stay?

At POPL someone asked after some verification talk what was different about this current wave of hype regarding machine-checked proofs of correctness. The speaker discussed how we have developed better proof techniques and our machines have gotten a heck of a lot faster, so maybe this time verification is here to stay. I have been thinking a lot about the question of whether verification is here to stay and why. While I buy the "machines are faster argument," I still think a lot about the role of verification in our daily lives.

Something interesting to think about is the proofs as social processes paper which supposedly killed verification for a bunch of years. This paper says that because proofs are not meant to be completely formal and only meant to be discussed among mathematicians, machine checked proofs are not going to do anything for us. While de Millo makes a good point that verification still doesn't tell us about some absolute notion of correctness, his tone is very extreme and there seem to be many red herrings. (For instance, he uses Rabin's pseudoprimes as an analogy for the concept that we should regard mathematical proofs as "probably correct.") Also, one of the main points seem to be that verification will not go anywhere because the proofs are too long and ugly he doesn't address the counterargument that maybe mathematicians have been doing it the other way because machine proof techniques were not good enough.

This paper generated some interesting discussion at the last Software Design Group tea, which I sometimes crash. There were extremes of opinion: while some people thought the paper was well-crafted and prescient, there were others who were so angry with the argument and the manner in which it was made they were ready to physically defend their principles. At this tea I learned that the de Millo paper was targetting the views of those like Dijkstra, who believed in a notion of ultimate correctness. Dijkstra wrote a colorful rebuttal comparing the de Millo paper to a "political pamphlet from the Middle Ages"--also a good read. ;)

Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors

My undergrad advisor suggested I write a post warning people against getting too attached to the idea of having a specific advisor: the professor might leave, or you might switch interests.

My (undergrad) advisor said that when he had first gone to Carnegie Mellon University, he thought he was going to work with a professor who ended up going to Brown. Then he wanted to work with another professor, who had too many students at the time. He worked for a while with a professor who did not ultimately end up advising his Ph.D. thesis and did not end up with his final advisor until late in his graduate career. Despite all this advisor drama, he has been doing pretty well.

My experience so far also supports these claims. When I came to MIT I was supposed to be co-advised (at least, according to the sheet), but one of the co-advisors announced the week before fall semester that he was transferring. This was quite surprising, as he had recently gotten tenure. I have since been working with three professors, only one of whom I had thought I would work with when I first arrived. The first is one of my initial co-advisors; the second arrived at MIT as a new assistant professor 2 months after I arrived, and the third emerged during one of my group meetings and proclaimed he was joining my project. You never know what might happen.

The conclusion is not to get too attached to the idea that you'll be working with any specific person for the next n years of your life until you've worked n years with them already, and in that case you'll need to change the "next" to a "past."

I am also including some other good advice I got last year, combined with some advice I developed on my own. ;)

Some things to consider when picking advisors:
  • How hands-on are they?
  • How hands-on are they technically vs. big-picture? How much technical skill will your advisor imbue you with? You want an advisor who will give you a bigger picture than you have, but you don't want one who won't give any technical feedback.
  • How do they deal with you picking your own project? Is this something you want?
  • How many students have they produced who you want to be like? (How many students of theirs have gone on to become academic stars? Industrial stars? Why might this be?)
  • How awesome are the advisor's current students? These should be people you want to talk with and learn from.
  • How much funding do they have? Are their students comfortable with the level of support, or do they often find themselves needing to TA?
  • How much does your advisor collaborate with other professors? Why do they or don't they, and how do you feel about this?
  • How varied are the projects that your advisor's students work on?
  • How much does your advisor care about your future, and how much does s/he care about advancing his/her own career?
  • How much does the advisor want to be your advisor? This can make a big difference! Trying to be advised by a professor who has been around for a very long time might not work out that well since producing top-notch students probably isn't as much a big life goal as it is for someone else.
Some things to consider when picking schools:
  • Are the students there happy?
  • Do you feel like you can learn from the students there? Can they teach you what you want to learn? (Shocking revelation: you will be spending most of your time with other students rather than with your advisor.)
  • What are the course requirements like? Since course reqs range from 0 to 12, this can make quite a difference if all you want to do is research!! (MIT only has 4; that is why you should come here.)
  • Do you like the energy of the place? (MIT has much more energy than many places!)
  • Is there other stuff besides PL (free free to insert subfield of choice, but you don't have to--I'd understand), and do you care?
  • Are you going to want to live in that place for up to 8 years?
  • What is the quality of the undergrads? Do you care about this?
One thing to watch out for: read between the lines. They're not going to try to let anyone tell you anything bad about a place, so see what they're not telling you. Current graduate students are a great source of this information. One reason I ended up at MIT is because a graduate student at Stanford spend the visit weekend there convincing me I should come to MIT. To protect his identity he shall remain unnamed.

This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.
  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Petition to save PA governor's schools

You should sign the petition here. Governor Rendell should realize the Governor's Schools are important to many people when making budget decisions.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

PA cuts funding for Governor's Schools

This article discusses how Governor Rendell announced withdrawal of funding to Pennsylvania's eight Governor's Schools of Excellence, which are summer programs for rising seniors on university campuses that allow an intensive experience the sciences, international studies, health care, the arts, information technology, health care, agricultural sciences, or entrepreneurship. Due to the necessity of budget cuts governor has chosen to direct funding to human services rather than such educational ventures. By cutting the Governor's Schools the state will save $3.2 million a year that would have gone to tuition, room, and board for these students*.

A 2003 alumna of the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences (PGSS), I am sad to see this happen. During the 12 weeks I spent at PGSS I had more fun per day than I have in any other time of my life: I had more stimulating conversation, socialized more, laughed more, and slept less than I ever had before and have since. Because there were so many interesting things to learn during the day and so much interesting conversation at night, I developed the skill to fall asleep anywhere and appreciation for leading balanced life. Governor's School was totally wild: after spending the evening doing organic chemistry or something else fun, we would hang out in the lounge all night in our single-sex hallways. Once we sent a bucket with a note saying "hi" down to the boys' lounge via the window. Once I had to have an early curfew because I showed up 2 minutes late to a biology tutorial. ;) In all seriousness, however, when I think about the most talented and fun group of people I know, I still think back to the govies of '03. My experience at PGSS shaped my goals in college and set the stage for the rest of my academic career.

A fellow govie reminded me the other day I have been delinquent in sending mail to Governor Rendell and alerting the media about this tragedy, but the truth is I don't know that cutting these funds is particularly unfair. I am not taking for granted the fact that the state paid for me to have a summer of mind-bending exposure to relativity theory and medical ethics, and maybe I was somewhat spoiled because I grew up across the street from Carnegie Mellon University and did programs there every summer, but I do think I am being fair when I say that the kids who went to governor's school are not the kids who need funding the most badly in Pennsylvania. These are all bright kids who are definitely going to college, and definitely going to good schools. The sort of intellectual stimulation that the governor's schools seem to provide is similar to the sort of stimulation a good university should provide. If the state must cut funds in education somewhere, I would prefer they cut funds here rather than for early education, after-school care for underprivileged children, or education in middle school sciences, where funding seems lacking and where they could potentially make a bigger differences in the lives of many Pennsylvania children.

Especially in the context of the recession, I do not know that the Governor's Schools are being particularly wronged. Though $3.2 million is nothing compared to state infrastructure costs, I expect that there are programs of equivalent value (to the state--not to me, of course!) that are getting cut. I do not think it is the case that Governor Rendell is devaluing education: he is boosting state funds for public education by $300 million and enstating the Tuition Relief Act, which provides tuition assistance for families that make less than $100,000 a year. I am glad to see that the state is paying attention to these sorts of things financially.

That said, it would be a tragedy to see the Governor's Schools die. I had some questions I hoped someone could answer:
  • Why was the funding all-or-nothing? What were the debates on this topic like? Why can't the state subsidize a mostly private program of this nature?
  • Could some of the schools be privately funded or require tuition (with financial assistance)? In high school I also attended Andrew's Leap, which had been privately funded until the year before I went. Since 2001 people have had to pay a few thousand in tuition to attend for the summer, but the program still seems to be going strong.
  • How much money would we need to raise from private donors to keep at least PGSS going? Would someone run it?

Note: Despite my personal conflicts on this subject I really do appreciate the other alumni who did write letters to the program directors, the governor, and the media about the importance of the governor's schools.

* I learned on the PA budget website that $537 million for Rebuild PA projects that includes $200 million for bridge repairs, $294.5 million for water, sewer, flood control and dam projectsm, $42.5 million for rail and aviation improvement projects, and $1.9 billion in base Motor License Funds for bridge and highway repairs.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Grand challenges in programming languages

This is old news by now, but a couple of weeks ago I was at POPL, where they had a panel on the grand challenges to solve in programming languages. There is a transcript* here.

Simon Peyton Jones said to find a good way to capture effects; Xavier Leroy said continue being awesome with verification; Kathryn McKinley said to keep working on parallelism; Martin Rinard said to question what levels of correctness we want from programs; Greg Morrisett said to think about how to redesign hardware, think about how to program colonies of robots, and think about how to unify PL to educate people.

For fear of beheading I will provide my opinion off the record. :)

* Did you know one summer at Google my entire job was to [accidentally the whole thing]?

Cheesecake and music: the products of sexual selection?

Pinker says that cheesecake and music are results of a large human brain that, though originally developed for other reasons, has free cycles to spend on creativity. Others have theories about how culture required the higher levels of cognition that a larger brain provides. Geoffrey's Miller The Mating Mind proposes and provides evidence for the theory that the human mind is a result of sexual selection, which Miller distinguishes from natural selection as a method in which the organisms themselves have agency in the traits that they propagate.

Miller's book provides a definition of sexual selection, proposes a theory of sexual selection through male competition and female choice, and provides many interesting evolutionary anecdotes. Though the introduction of the book is somewhat sensationalist, suggesting that this theory runs counter to everyone we've ever thought about, this book provides quite an interesting way to look at various traits as perpetuated because they are fitness markers rather than actually contributing to the fitness of an organism. A recurring example is that of the peacock's tail, which is costly to develop and maintain but could exist because a large, symmetric, and beautiful tail indicates that the peacock has been able to expend this extra energy despite environmental challenges. The book also talks about sexual differences and how they might arise: for instance, the more polygynous and organism is, the greater differences there are between male size and female size (because when it is winner-take-all, only the strongest males reproduce). Miller explains that the model of male competition and female choice exists because female eggs are the limiting and required resource for reproduction. As a result, we find much of the sexual ornamentation across organisms in the males. One reason Miller proposes for why there is not a great difference between the human brain in males and females is that the brain evolved not only through male competition but through female choice: in order to be sufficiently discerning, the female brain had to be able to distinguish a highly fit intellect from one that is less so.

I am not sure if I believe everything Miller says, but I recommend reading this book. The first reason I decided to read it is because I am always interested in theories about sexual differences between males and females, but the second reason is because the book got a positive endorsement from Richard Dawkins and generally good reviews about being "brilliantly written, "engaging," and that kind of thing. Even if you don't learn as much as I did, it is an intereseting and enjoyable read.