Thursday, March 17, 2011

Race for Japan

A friend of mine decided to start an initiative to "Race for Japan". Go check it out here and support him and maybe make a donation.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Things I learnt or wish I learnt when I was in primary school

I haven't been posting so a supah long one for anyone who bothers. TLDR if you don't care but I don't care if you don't care.

1) To give it your best
When I was 5 or so, I just learnt how to write and I was doing working hard on my homework. It was to copy some sentences or so for the teacher. When I showed it to dad, expecting his approval and amazement at my amazing, never seen before work of art, his reaction was a meek "Why is the lines so squiggly, and what is this mark here and what is this annoying arrow sitting at the end of the page?". Well, maybe I just spent the last 10 minutes trying to perfect the curve of each of the "f" I wrote. Maybe the mark was left by the eraser the 20th time I tried to erase it to fix the crooked "I" that I just can't seem to get right, and maybe the arrow means there is more on the next page that he didn't care to read. I was young, and perhaps in hindsight, it really wasn't a piece of work,

Repeat, and rinse with the repeat discouragement in school, where "passing" generally means you don't get beaten by a cane. (In modern standards, that warrants a child abuse sentence and perhaps jail time). You got to wonder what would come out of education systems like that. So in the end, students try to hit a "safe", "good enough" level, so that you would "pass", and there is ABSOLUTELY no encouragement for you to excel above your classmates, and no encouragement to differentiate.

Time travel 20 years into the future, I'm working at college or at a company, my teammates would give encouragements when I do well, and perhaps then I started believing that maybe "doing my best sometimes would be enough". I got to say, sometimes even when I did something at 80% I would get a pat on my back, and that makes me want to go the full length in the future. Maybe this time you can try your best, and try for good, instead of good enough. I need to be reinforced that there's a lot more potential past the "good enough" boundary, and that if you try your best, sometimes, just sometimes, it's okay even if it's not good enough.

Sometimes I feel like there is something missing in me. That when I am leading by 18-9 points in a 21 point ping-pong game, I can somehow find a way to lose 21-19. That I'm afraid of giving my all just in case it still wasn't enough.

2) To use your resources wisely
I've heard stories where students were required to mug the logarithmic/root table, or that some students were required to memorize the periodic table of elements, or even worse, the pin-out of an Intel 8086 chip that has already been obsolete even before they started school. Whenever I hear stories like that, I immediately know how terrible the education system is. So your sole purpose in learning is so that you can spit it out chunks of utterly unoriginal information?

What I did learn when I was 9 was this - If you had to do something, you need to use the right tool with the right resources. I was given tasks to do, approximately with crude underestimation, 500-1000 questions per session. Students were routinely required to complete 10-20 pages of math questions of approximately 50 questions a page. Sure, they were simple multiplications. some of them just 2 digits x 2 digits multiplications.

What I didn't learn is to power through those questions with "blind RAGE and DETERMINATION". In the speed of what it had taken me then, probably an entire day, and I don't think the problem was me being lazy, the problem was the math questions being uninteresting. And I think when a 9 year-old is being bored, he's probably not learning.

I don't see what I could have learnt that a mere 10 questions could not have taught. So what did I do? In fearing punishment, I found a calculator. Then, there is also resource, and in learning to save a valuable resource in this case, all my play time. I learnt how to "imagine up awesome houses, beautiful childhood fictional plots and pretend I'm eating ice cream and candy", instead of pouring all the useful brain power into some eventually, as I think you might agree with me, mindless grunt work. :)

So what I really do nowadays, is to use a machine, and when I write code, well, as all engineers do, we use specific softwares. And when we do it, we try to take out all the grunt work by writing scripts/buy software/hire interns do the boring ones. And when we're lost, we ask the wise Mr. Google, instead of trying to duke it out with the various enigmas of quantum mechanics on our own. To realize that the power of one is limited, and that great knowledge can be stored and replayed on machines. Then, a calculator, and now the internet.

I sometimes pity those kids who did spend their time trying to do a 4x4 multiplication by hand. All several hundred of those questions, each of them taking half a page of work. So you can see that when math becomes somewhat more theoretical, kids that used to excel in math no longer does so. And that's because they can no longer rely on drills and mindless mechanics.

In short, humility that a there is probably someone out there with an elegant solution to your problem, and reaching out to them. And avoid doing grunt work, like washing your dishes.

3) To ask for help when needed
For some reason, I have in the past asked for help from a friend when I forgot my exercise book. In primary school, that equals to the death. And I don't remember the exact details, I think it involved me buying a new exercise book during recess, and I don't remember what I did, but in the end I recalled that my friend and I both got punished.

Eventually I somehow made it through secondary school, and that really took a toll out of me in college. To go through calculus 1 without asking for help from the lecturer or other classmates really was the toughest thing I could have done. Granted it's a weeder course, but I guess things somehow changed. Ask for help when you need them. Always.

Also thank the inventor for Dish washers.

Other little anecdotes:
Joe Montana was asked how he became clutch in games. His response is "through practice", essentially mindless repetitions. What he was doing is essentially an athletic response, do something a million times, and you're less likely to make an execution mistake. So what do you do when everyday you're faced with a different challenge? The answer is to go through not doing mindless repetitions, and solving each problem with nimbleness and flexibility.

Anecdote 2:
Multiplications. In college back at Malaysia, there's a lecturer of mine that does multiplication really fast. He has never taken those commercialized arithmetic classes. However, he also does not do his math through regular multiplications. I think he might have developed his own technique somewhere, but he can do multiplication of 2 3-digit numbers faster that the students can punch it into the calculator, and that without writing anything on the board (all in his head). Sometimes he makes mistakes though, but at that speed you gotta make some concessions :). Plus a certain floating point unit we know makes mistakes too. (Sorry for those of you who don't know the reference. Computer Geeks who didn't know this please return your licenses at your nearest geek office). The thing is, he never told us how to do it, then after a while, my classmates and I refused to use the calculator, but try to match speed with him, each of us devising our own multiplication strategy.

At one point, I tried to multiply to the nearest 10/25/50/100/150 .. etc big round number , whichever was easier to handle and I can get a quick answer, then from there we refine what I call "the remainder", which is the overcount or undercount of that approximated answer.

Essentially I simply the 3-digit or 2-digit numbers into 3 problems, a multiply of 2 larger, easier 3 digit number, a subtraction/addition, and a multiplication of 2 simpler numbers (usually 2-digits, occasionally 1 digits). And the wonder of all that, is that every question has a different optimal solution, and you don't have to be a super genius to think of the method. But I don't think anyone could still match his speed. After all, he's been doing that for many years.

Other rants.
Tiger Woods. He's not special, he is just slightly more gifted than us in golf. But I'm not here to talk about golf, I don't give a mouse's donkey about golf. Yes that's right, I am here to talk about his scandal.

When you think about it, it's almost a given fact that he's going to falter, he's young and successful in company of fame and wealth. When he had the first affair and it went unreported for years, it's only giving him more reasons to be braver, and this probably induced him to think he's untouchable. At that point, there's no limitations for him, and even if he knows it's wrong, it's just hard to stop. You can say it's wrong to murder, but anyone can tell you that "you have not been starving for 5 days and there's an old lady with a loaf of bread". That's probably a bad analogy, maybe trying to quit smoking is easier :), cheap, accessible, and you regret every one of it - also it's almost impossible to quit.

It's tough to put yourself in a perspective that is fair to Tiger, almost. I'm not endorsing his actions that's because I'm not. What he has done to his family was wrong and indefensible. Just that as a person, he's no better or worse than anyone else. Is he any more evil than the CEO that lays off thousands of employees just so that he can afford a better yacht? Is he less evil than the dictators that gassed subjects not loyal to him? I don't have the answers to any of this, I have not been in the company of power or fame or extreme wealth, I don't know if and when I'm in such positions, I have the clarity of mind to do the right thing.

But if you say "I'm never going to slip up, no matter what" today, then you probably will someday. The only defense is to realize that human will has a limitation and everyone will falter at some point, and we have to be prepared to face the challenges and temptations.

Will you be able to always make the right decision? For me, the answer will always be a resounding "No". I will not fall under the impression that I can always make the right decision, A decision, no matter how much I think it meant brilliance, good, and fair for me and for the world, can be of sheer stupidty, evil, and injustice. I have to know I'm capable of making the wrong decision, before I deserve to make the right one.

About this blog

A lot of stuff about what I think, and not what I am about. Which is good, because I would be able to make fun of Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Penn State, and discuss on our futility against Ohio State. (But Woo Shoelace!)

I still think the word "god" should not be capitalized, because like oxygen or air or universe, it's an entity, and is not specific or special in its meaning.