Saturday, December 29, 2012

Resolutions and Goals for 2013

It has come time for me to publicly announce my goals for 2013 in order to shame myself into following through.

I have the following resolutions.
  1. Only acquire things I will use.  Right now my "minimalism" is sustained by high object turnover: I give away things quickly to balance out acquiring them quickly.  To work towards true minimalism I will instate a two-week decision period before acquiring non-essential items.
  2. Get rid of things I do not use.  I would like to keep giving away (and occasionally selling) objects that I have not demonstrated need for in the past year.
  3. Only take on commitments I want and can handle.  I am happier and more productive when I want to be doing what I am doing and I have time to do a good job.  I will instate a one-day decision period for new commitments.
  4. Eat well.  I would like to take more pleasure in the process of eating and focus on quality rather than quantity.  I will make time for eating in my schedule and plan ahead so I can have food that is both good and good for me.
  5. Meditate.  In working towards meditating daily, in 2013 I aim to do it at least once a week. 

In 2013 I plan to keep pursuing my two main interests: 1) empowering people to be more productive through their programming tools and 2) empowering women to have the same opportunities as anyone else.

Towards improving programming tools, I have some specific goals regarding Jeeves, the programming language I have been developing for automatically enforcing privacy policies, and demonstrating its feasibility as part of a framework.  I would also like to continue spreading the gospel of statically-typed functional programming languages.  I would like to become more familiar with Scala and continue my Scala evangelism.

Towards empowering women, I am concluding my tenure as an Executive Board member of Graduate Women at MIT and would like to think about what other change I want to see.  I want to reach out to more young girls--I would love to see a framework that allows young girls to be pen pals with young women, their "future selves."  I also want to give people intellectual ammunition to defend their feminist views--for instance, in light of the Delhi gang rape death.  I will think about how this translates into actionable items for me.

Happy New Year, friends.  In the upcoming year, please feel free to discuss these goals with me to make sure I have not forgotten about them!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Belated Brief on Barcelona

Notes from a more decadent time...

Itinerary: Barcelona with Kate, April 2012.  Photos here.

Day 1.  Arrive in Barcelona by plane close to midnight on a Friday evening.  Take the bus; take the train.  Arrive at train stop and realize map is insufficient for further direction. Take a cab but driver also gets confused.  Follow tourists on the street until I find the hostel.  Reunite with Kate, realize our neighborhood has only other tourists, and wander the streets dejectedly observing the foreign vendors of street beer and samosas.

Day 2.  Get up around 10, go to La Boqueria market, and day-drink in Montjuic amidst numerous fountains and the "most cactus garden." Descend Montjuic just in time for the magical fountain show.  Try to go to beach clubs but our friend Adnan is wearing Those Fucking Shoes.  Adnan redeems himself by dancing his way into a private function.  "Are you with that guy?  He is strange.  Here is a drink."

Day 3.  Get up close to noon, procrastinate going to the Picasso Museum, and eat a delicious vegetarian meal in El Ravel (at Sesamo*).

Day 4.  Get up at noon.  Walk past the Sagrada Familia; line is too long.  Walk past more Gaudi; admission is too expensive.  Walk around Parc Guell; drink more wine.  Meet up with a friend's friend who shows us a "real Barcelona experience."  We get Middle Eastern food; we go to some bars; we go to a club (Apolo).  At one of the bars, the friend's friend engages in a series of arm-wrestling matches with strangers.  Kate has a video somewhere.

Day 5.  Get up at noon.  Take the train to Montserrat to see the Benedictine monastery from the 15th century.  During each of my trips with Kate, there is a moment when we clutch each other in amazement.  This happened here.

Day 6.  Kate catches her flight.  While walking alone in the Miro park, I become victim to an elaborate con involving photography, cocaine and heroine, and policemen real and fake.  I can send you the definitive story via e-mail.

Out of consideration for the travelling pleasure of our future selves**, Kate and I have saved some sights for future visits.  Among these are the inside of the Sagrada Familia and the coastal village of Caldaques, home to Dali.

* Every meal was amazing.  Sesamo happened to be the one place where I took a card and so remembered the name.
** Not laziness.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Zen Living by the Rules of Soyen Shaku

In thinking about what I want out of 2013, I have become inspired by the rules of Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America.  Here they are, from Zen Flesh Zen Bones:

In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.

Retire at a regular hour.  Partake of food at regular intervals.  Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.

Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone.  When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.

Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.

When an opportunity comes do not pass it by, yet always think twice before acting.

Do not regret the past.  Look to the future.

Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.

Upon retiring, sleep as though you have entered your last sleep.  Upon awakening, leave your bed behind instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

On the Importance of Seemingly Useless Work

When I first started graduate school, an older student told me about the importance of maintaining a feeling of incremental progress. Even if you are doing seemingly useless work. This may be the best advice I ever received.

During grad school, I have found this "feeling of progress" at a macro level mostly in the non-academic parts of my life: in co-founding and seeing the growth of Graduate Women at MIT, in becoming a better, yogi, in developing deeper friendships, and in various channels of personal development.  Doing engineering on other people's research ideas during internship was also helpful.  Though it probably would have been nice to have more incremental results and feedback on my Ph.D. project (the first paper of which took three years to be published), this other progress gave me comfort that I had not been wasting my life.

Feeling progress is also powerful on a micro, day-to-day level.  The structured procrastination approach is a fantastic way of maintaining a feeling of progress.  (This essay quotes this other humorous essay by Robert Benchley here.)  The main idea is to allow yourself to do less urgent but also necessary tasks while procrastinating the task at hand: for instance, playing ping-pong with undergraduates (as part of attending to Resident Fellow duties) rather than finishing an essay.  Allowing yourself to do, and even prioritize, those tasks can make you more productive.

This all justifies my philosophy on work/life balance* (which is remarkably similar to my philosophy on eating): work when I want on what I want to work on**.  A lot of projects/tasks, personal and professional, fall into this category of "work."  Although I assign higher importance given to professional tasks and tasks with imminent deadlines, it is important to have non-urgent, non-professional items.  I have also begun assigning higher importance to tasks that easily yield high levels of progress-feeling: for instance, refactoring code and running errands.  Doing something because I want to do it, rather than because I feel like I need to, requires far less energy and discipline and also has a higher work-to-progress-feeling ratio.  (If something gets close enough to a deadline, however, I often suddenly desire very much to do it...)  This philosophy probably presupposes that I have a deep inner drive to work.  (Similar to my deep inner drive to eat.)

Progress is not so much a state of achievement but a state of mind.  I have to come to value and seek the feeling of progress as much as I do actual progress.  Not sure yet how much it is improving my output level, but it is certainly making me feel happier and more productive.

* We all know that the point of my blog is to validate my life choices.
** From a restricted set of permitted items.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yes, I am a Minimalist.

My friends laugh at my “minimalism.” And I do not blame them.

I like things. When I was younger, I aspired to own a Nalgene in every color. I have lost count of how many computers I have. Until recently, teenage girls loved using my bathroom to experiment with all the beauty products. After seeing how much I spent on a pair of (beautiful! white! leather!) gloves, a friend once asked if I was going through some kind of crisis and wanted to talk about it.

Having things has always made me feel safe. You never know when you will run out of shampoo or need to use a second mandolin for julienning a lot of carrots in parallel or get invited to an event where not only do you have to wear a fascinator, but it has to be pink. Better to be ready.

Then three important things happened in 2010. First, substantial amounts of water leaked from our roof through our ceiling over the course of months. Second, I made friends with a minimalist. He lived in Belgium and had only one spoon in his apartment that we all shared to eat speculoos. Third, I moved out of that leaky apartment.

During this year, I learned that not only are many material possessions unnecessary, but they can also be burdensome. And so I developed the goal to actively love and regularly use all of my possessions*. And according to the minimalist blogs, the concept of minimalism has become sufficiently trendy and dilute that this definition is acceptable.

Working towards this goal has involved thinking about how to get more usability out of things. For clothing, for instance, I learned the rule that any new article of clothing should be appropriate for at least three different kinds of occasions. Versatility is the key: a few things can go a long way.

I have also been working on letting go. I acquire many things thinking that I might need them. I have gotten better at giving them away. If I have not used something for a year, I force myself to get rid of it. In the last months, I have gotten rid of multiple travel pillows, a carpeted cat toy, a second sleeping bag, a Zune, bags of clothing, and numerous books.

And, of course, I have been thinking about what is necessary. There are things I want. I want art in my living space. I want self-expression through my clothing and accessories. I want two pillows when I sleep. I want variety to my meals. Perhaps that is all. Perhaps I do not even need these.

I have been making progress. I do not have a TV. I have fewer clothes and books than I used to. I pack for most trips into carry-on luggage. Most of my cooking involves a single knife, pot, and pan.

I would love to one day live in a vast empty apartment with only a few possessions. I may realize that this will not make me happy, but I hope to never again get caught up in the acquisition of more and more things. And this is why I call myself a minimalist.

* I have also been thinking about minimalism with respect to commitments and relationships but I will not include discussion of that in this post.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Treat Yo Self: Clean Up Your Code

A couple years ago, I discovered what I thought was the shortcut to building research systems.  Forget good software engineering practice!  Forget functional abstraction!  Copy-and-paste code all over the place; modify it to fit your needs.  Thinking before coding?  So college.  After all, premature optimization is the root of all evil.

In the beginning, this worked out well.  In my first year, even my advisor told me he was impressed with how quickly I got things working.  I saw in other research code the same patterns that I was learning to adopt: monstrous tangles of functionality with scant documentation.  I have found the secret to research productivity, I thought.

A couple deadlines later, I began to feel the consequences of my actions.  Pre-deadline, systems would begin to fall apart: a patch here revealed another hole there.  Post-deadline I had no desire to go back to disgusting soups of one-off functions, barely usable in the first place and certainly not reusable.  Much time was spent either avoiding my code or writing replacement code from scratch.

In other researchers, I observed that the few who had designed their systems well were able to make quick bug fixes and extensions.  For everyone else, either their code bit-rotted in obscurity or they were a slave to maintaining their systems for barely-satisfied users.  During paper deadlines, those who had built up good infrastructure could build comfortably on previous work while others ran around fighting fires and despairing.

During the course of grad school, my relationship with my code has become increasingly important.  Clean, modular, and well-documented code (with tests!) is not only less likely to have bugs but will be useful for longer.  Clean code provides a solid foundation for you and potentially other researchers.  Modular code makes it easier to reuse parts of your code. Also, knowing exactly what your code does just feels good.

On his blog, Harvard professor Michael Mitzenmacher advises graduate students to take a day every now and then to find better tools: for organizing papers read, for recording ideas and progress, etc.  Rewriting and refactoring code has become an important part of these activities for me.  Not only is refactoring useful, but it is also a relatively low-effort way to achieve a feeling of progress*.  For me, refactoring has become a treat for working hard.

Don't tell too many people now, but I think this is the real secret to research productivity.

* The importance of the feeling of progress is a topic worthy of its own blog post.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Living on the Edge of Existence

Reading Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums made me wonder whether my life should be more exciting.  While exploring this, I had the following conversation.

Martin: You are bored because you are not living on the edge of existence. Why don't you go travel around India with no money?
Me: I might die.
Martin: Exactly. A comfortable, safe life is boring.

Martin then tried to convince me that bourgeois comfort and safety are the enemies of an exciting life.  I started searching for plane tickets to dangerous destinations.  Fortunately, I had the next conversation.

Me: I'm trying to live on the edge of existence.
Rishabh: The thing is, I already do that. With deadlines.
Rishabh: Yesterday, I almost died.

This made me realize that different people have wildly different perceptions of what it means to live extremely.  In Dharma Bums, while the Kerouac character Ray Smith binge drinks and is essentially homeless as he hitchhikes across the country, the Gary Snyder character Japhy Ryder leads an ascetic existence of writing and scholarship.  When Japhy tells Ray about The Book of Tea, Ray says, "Those guys got high off nothing, hey?"

And so I found in Dharma Bums the answer to my question.  Japhy Ryder's life is unquestionality extreme: he abstains from material luxuries and enjoys spending time on the edge of civilization.  But Japhy carefully prepares enough food and sleeping bags for their trip into the wilderness.  But Japhy makes sure they have enough time to get where they are going before dark.  And Japhy lives fully and enjoys beauty as much as anyone: he is lucky to be able to get "high off nothing."

To live on the edge of existence, one does not necessarily need to abandon absolute comfort and safety. It is certainly easier if what is around you is new, interesting, or a life-or-death situation. But over-approximating the boundaries of existence is just one way to live on the edge. Through mindfulness and conscious consumption, it is possible to find the edge with greater ease and accuracy. Challenging oneself and demanding precision can be as thrilling as fighting for survival. This approach certainly seems more sustainable: while Jack Kerouac died young of alcoholism, Gary Snyder is still writing today.

A comfortable and safe life is boring, but comfort and safety are relative and personal. Introspection and thoughtfulness could go further towards living fully than impulse-buying tickets to somebody else's adventure.