Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Choosing majors, how I got it wrong

When I went into university, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: double major in Pure Math and Actuarial Science, finish as many actuarial exams as I can (got one done in high school), and have both good background theoretical knowledge, decent practical knowledge, and some experience -- all before I graduate. Perfect plan. Alas, I hated my position as an Actuarial Intern at Towers Watson (called Towers Perrin at the time), so it was back to square one: I had no idea what my major should be.

My reason for majoring in Pure Math was that out of everything that was interesting to me, it was the most difficult thing for me to learn. I precluded CS as a potential major, mostly because practical programming knowledge was something I've seen people picking up without formal training. Also, the first few CS courses were terrible: extremely slow lectures, slides, profs going on and on about "The Design Recipe" to make sure you format your comments a certain way... Granted these are junior level CS courses, but I didn't have the patience to see what upper year CS courses are like. (Actually, I tried to sit in on a second year CS course. I walked in as the prof was writing down all the powers of 2 on the board to explain the difference between a 'byte', 'kilobyte' and 'megabyte'. The students dutifully copied it down in their notes. I left.)

I decided not to major in Statistics for the same reason. It would be more fun to learn it on my own. The first two courses in statistics were not impressive, either, and I didn't want the structure of courses to kill my interest.

Combinatorics and Optimization would have been an interesting choice. I think I decided against it because the name was too long.*

So I chose Pure Math and Applied Math. Again, Pure Math was an obvious choice, just because it's so fun. Why I chose Applied Math is still a mystery for me. It was probably the only thing left on my list. (Maybe also something to do with physics being important and understanding dynamic systems being potentially beneficial?)

Regardless, I thought this was fine. I'd be learning what I want the way I want.

Unfortunately, I missed one important thing.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about what distinguishes experts from non-experts. He found that what sets experts apart is the enormous amount of time they have spent learning and practicing. He claims that the magic number of hour of practice that would make you an expert is 10,000 hours. That's a lot of hours.

Yet if you choose the right field, the hours you spend listening to lectures, doing assignments, and solving exam problems count as hours learning/practicing; they count against the 10,000 hours. This means that if you choose a suitable major that is well aligned with your goals, then it would help you in getting closer to becoming an expert: regardless of how bad the prof is or how terrible the lectures are, you are going to spend more time on the subjects covered in the course. In the grand scheme of things, the bad profs and bad structure are not as important, just because having those hours under your belt is what really counts.

This is probably something very obvious for most people -- I hope it is, and that you made better choices than me. I suppose had way more skepticism for post-secondary education than appropriate.

*Long story. I was trying to fit a minor in some how, but heard some rumour about how only certain number of characters would fit on your degree, and decided not to risk it. Make sense, doesn't it?

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Monday, January 24, 2011

criticisms, revisisted

In philosophy class, we discussed the objections and replies to the Meditations by Descartes. One set of objections were written by Hobbes, and another by Arnauld. Hobbes listed many objections, as if he was scrutinizing the text, looking for any little error he could possibly find. Arnauld had three main objections, one of which he wrote in great length.

The professor pointed out (jokingly) how Hobbes was almost like an inexperienced grader, who went through a paper highlighting all the tiny mistakes without taking a step back to look at the big picture. Arnauld, on the other hand, must have given Descartes the benefit of the doubt whenever he could, and included only the most important objections.

It really does takes experience and good will to give people the benefit of the doubt, to notice that while the t's aren't crossed or the i's aren't dotted, there is an interesting idea somewhere worth taking seriously.

This is an interesting distinction between a beginner and an expert. The professor pointed out how most people begin studying philosophy with a critical eye; they try to break apart any argument they see. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing (and can be fun), more experienced people focus more on trying to understand the big idea being presented by various philosophers, which I imagine would be more fulfilling.

I've talked about the same concept in relation to music. I wonder if this is true in areas outside philosophy/reading papers, if this is some characteristic behavior of a beginner.

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I had written this up after talking to Lin, who asked me about my resolutions, but forgot to publish it. Since it's kind of a tradition for me to list my resolutions on this blog, here they are.

Last year (2010) was an interesting year. I can't really say if it had been good or not, but it was interesting. I didn't consciously keep last year's resolution of "focus on what's important" as close to heart as I should have. It is a very open-ended resolution, so it's pretty difficult to judge how well things went. I also had a tremendous amount of luck: a lot of micro-decisions turned out well, I found the type of work that drives me, I learned a lot, and I made friends in the process.

I had another resolution last year, which was to declare my major. I did. My majors are Pure Math and Applied Math.

For 2011 I have two resolutions lined up. The two are related, and they are even more basic and more open-ended than the ones I had before:

(1) Don't do what I know is wrong.
(2) Do what I think is right.

These two things sound simple, yet those who can abide by them truly inspire me. Actually, of all the people I know, I'm really only certain of one person who does these. I really wish to be able to live up to this person sooner rather than later. (You know who you are.)

The two resolution also sound the same, but they're not. (1) is a subset of (2), and is a much more realistic and less scary target. On the other hand, (2) completes (1); it's what I really should be doing. Hopefully I'll remember both of these for the rest of the year and truly live by them. (So far I'm doing okay. Not perfect, but okay.)

Memorable moments of 2010? Landlord. Buddhist temple. Blogging on Blackberry at Exploratorium on Valentine's day. Conspiracy theories. Grocery trips. Poking ringworms. Being mad at a friend. Forgetting a fellow intern's name in front of >200 people. Failing complex midterm. Logistic Regression. Hiking. TMI. Hiking at TMI. Putnam at Stanford. More hiking. Secret project. Causes. Hotels. Many Hackathons...

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Our launch...

I suppose I had a pretty naive view of what a small project launch would feel like.

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