Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back and forward

The year 2014 is about to come to a close. The last two years weren't big blogging years, first due to startup life, and then due to exiting startup life and feeling as though an explanation is required before resuming.

Well, we've reached that point. Looking forward, expect to see more here in 2015.

I also took this chance to look back at all the blog posts that were here. Some of them no longer resonate, while others captured thoughts and feelings that grew stronger and surer. In particular, these ones stayed my personal favourites:

Living Life




Saturday, December 27, 2014

Startup and Happiness 2014

If I have to summarize 2014 in a single sentence, it would be that I left startup life[1]. If I could use another sentence, I would say that I finally reconciled the difference between the circle and the line. (If you didn't get that reference, don't worry -- exactly one person in the world might have.)

Leaving Startup Life

One thing I miss about startups is the feeling that you are going somewhere. There is always a sense of movement, of momentum and of progress. Building a startup is a kind of "fuck you" to the universe as it reminds of us of how small and insignificant we are. We constantly move, move, move, and build, build, build. The energy created is optimistic, satisfying, and contagious.

In the later half of 2014, I traded the motion for introspection. I traded the fulfillment of action with the contentment of stillness. Ok, fine: that was just a fancy way of saying that I started slacking off.

But while slacking off, I started taking care of my body: going to the gym, taking on rock climbing and yoga. The woman teaching yoga at my condo focused on the meditative aspects of yoga as much as the physical, so through her I came to appreciate the physical triggers of happiness. I started taking care of my mind.

Through those little changes, I became a little more physically energetic. Not the get-up-at-5-am-and-run-a-marathon-then-stay-up-all-night-to-code kind of energetic, but noticeable enough to be a welcoming change. My emotions fluctuated a lot less. More importantly, I could notice it better when it did.

I finally started learning how to drive. I started interacting with people socially more often. I started reflecting more. Set small goals for myself. I continued work on a 10+ year secret project that means a lot to me, after years of hiatus.

In terms of vanity-metric-like accomplishments, I got a job this year. (Well, two.) I taught an 8-hour data visualization workshop at Humber College. I took a real vacation with Greg for the first time, travelling by train toward the east coast before giving up and hopping on a plane. I participated in a Kaggle competition. I can sometimes climb a 5.9 too.

Circles vs. Lines

Let me start with this quote from the Unbearable Lightness of Being:
If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza, "Look, I'm sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can't you come up with something different?" And herein lies the whole man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle: it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.
-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
We desire motion as a way to give our lives meaning, and to make the world a better place. It creates progress and gives us fulfillment. This is the line.

We desire repetition or stillness, because contentment and the feeling of well-being comes from the simpler things in life. Living this way is what we are biologically wired for, so it is logical that repetition gives us more of the in-the-moment feeling of happiness. This is the circle.

Those two desires appear to be in conflicts. We want to be the agent of progress. But we crave the simpler pleasures. How do we reconcile the two? Must the answer be to buy a dairy farm and live the "good old days" to live a happy life?
The dairy man had a Ph. D. in mathematics, and he must have had some training in philosophy. He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else — one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey.
-- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley 
I do believe that the contentment of the circle is a surer way to happiness than the fulfillment of the line. But before 2014, I was convinced that the "pursuit of happiness" was moot.[2] There are thing in life that are much more valuable than happiness. Any great, lasting change would be worth more than the transience of personal happiness. Alas I lacked the Herculean level of discipline to turn this belief into action.

The insight is that happiness is as important as physical health. In fact it is a lot like physical health in many ways. It is a state to be maintained so that one can be resilient and productive. At the same time, just as it does not make sense to pursue great health as an end in itself, an excessive focus on happiness is as much a distraction.

Happiness should be a means to an end.

This is why when I read about Stoicism and being content with a tranquil life, I was somewhat uneasy. Happiness, tranquility, contentment, or equanimity are tools I wish I had, but they are not the whole story. They won't teach us what to pursue in life. They are answers to the question of how, not what.

Of course, the how can be as important if not more important than the what. Two people who choose the exact same opportunity will achieve different results, because of how they decide to act upon it. This is really the same concept as how "implementation is more important that the idea" in the startup world.

So that, in my opinion, is the role of happiness, and how to reconcile the circle and the line. Keep one foot in the circle to recharge and to keep happy as much as necessary. Then, once rested, walk the tightrope that is the line.

Regardless of whether you are doing startups in 2015 or not, I wish you a fruitful and happy year. May you do whatever you do, but with more happiness and joy.


[1] When people ask how I felt about that, it’s a little difficult to give the honest answer. It was a mix of relief and loss, and it's difficult to express those proportionally. I may have emphasized the relief, sounding rather cynical and defensive. Or I may have emphasized the loss, which may have made me seem more troubled than I actually am.

[2] There are several reasons I don't think happiness does not make sense as an end in itself. The most convincing one is that fails the "dream test" -- we do not value simulated happiness (e.g. through mind-altering substances, or something like the Matrix) as much as "the real thing". This suggests that it is something else that is related to happiness that we are really after.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Paradox of Firsts

Chances are, readers here have had the experience of doing something creative, new, and big for the first time. This can be starting a startup, designing a game, or even writing a book. The experience of the first can be thrilling yet exacting. You may be excited but nervous. You may be happy for the opportunity, but daunted by the process. It is something that wasn't yet a part of your experience. But you are putting your heart in it, so much that it consumes you and becomes a large part of who you are. At this point, success is of the utmost importance. It might be the last good idea you'll ever have, after all!

Fast forward a little. Say you have decided to stay the course: a few startups under your belt, a few games, or maybe some more books. You may have had successes. You may have had failures.

At this point, the nervous excitement of the first becomes a cherished memory (much like that of youth). It is remembered for the fresh experiences and the lessons learned, not for its success or failure. Because these experiences and lessons would have helped you to produce much great work as a result.

The raw outcome of your first attempt will no longer matter.

This is not a particularly deep insight. Think back to the first time you attempted to walk, how important the moment had been, and what became of it.

It is, however, a difficult insight to internalize, and so we routinely overestimate the importance of the first.

Part of the reason for this is very well illustrated by the following clippings from The Oatmeal's "making things". The first idea that you have will always feel like your one and only. You haven't realized that every other idea will feel the same way, so the first seems like it deserves to be a masterpiece.

But here's the dilemma. Your first idea (book, game, etc.) won't be your only idea. Neither will it likely be your magnum opus. By virtue of being the first, it is consigned to be the most poorly executed. It is just the practise run. You're just getting started.

This thought always makes me feel both relieved and uneasy. Relieved because no matter the outcome, it is the learning that matters, so there is no reason not to experiment and be uncompromising true to the idea. Uneasy because the first still feels so special, so raw and exceedingly human. It is an untainted expression of who we are, through a new medium never experimented with.

Sometimes, I feel that the first idea should not be the first to be implemented. Pick a different idea that you don't care as much about, and use that as a practise run instead. Save the better ideas for later.

But that wouldn't do.

It would be cheating. The experience would not be the same at all.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why did this blog move?

As of this week, this blog is re-named "Tiny Epiphany" and hosted at instead of as my home page

The reason for this might sound a little strange.

It has to do with this study. And maybe this article. And a lot to do with this.

But mostly, I want to help new readers here focus more easily on the content.

...which is why the styling has been cleaned up, too!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Lesson in Sales

I'm fascinated by sales people. Not because I want to be one of them -- trust me, I tried, and it was the most painful thing to ever put other people through -- but because it is one thing that I would not ever be able to learn how to do well. Yet it is so amazing watching other people do it so well.

Half of sales is making sure that other people don't hate you. There are a lot of little things that you can do to appear sincere and interested. I'm truly amazed by people who are (or appear) genuinely interested in the many people that they meet. Let's face it, most introverts would find that difficult to sustain, and expressing interest in so many things becomes very draining.

Having to sell on a day to day basis is the number one reason why I am no longer running Polychart as a company. But I am glad to have that minuscule amount of sales experience, so to be able to pay attention to certain details that would otherwise be glossed over.

For example, I sat in a sales meeting today. It wasn't really a sales meeting, but there was a sales person involved who is showing things to a group of people. There are a few things he did that I would not have thought of doing:
  1. He asked for both everyone's names and positions of everyone present and also our favourite foods.
  2. In his agenda, he included the time that the meeting is to conclude.
  3. He had a hand-out so that everyone had something physical to keep.
The first -- asking for people's names -- is a fairly obvious thing to do. As a sales person, you want to understand the structure of the company, the political climate of the company, who the decision-makers are, and who your internal "evangelist" will be. The "evangelist" will usually be one or two persons who is already sold on your idea or product, and that person will be the one rooting for you in internal meetings that you cannot attend.

Asking for a person's favourite food is not obvious, but makes sense in hindsight. You immediately form a positive association in each persons' minds, associating both you and the meeting with something they like. You also buy some time to record the more important information (like the name and position), which I used to find challenging. You also know what to buy the client for lunch or what gift cards to get them come the holiday season.

The second is also quite obvious in hindsight. Meetings often go over time. Sales meetings? Doubly so. Especially in meetings with a large group of attendees, chances are there will be someone not interested in the extra details and would want the meeting to end on time. Reiterating that you appreciate their time is a very respectful thing to do.

Finally, having a handout to give means that you can give everyone something to remember you by, a physical reminder that the meeting had happened. You are also telling everyone that they are important enough to be worthy of that thick, expensive paper. Besides, it is something that not every company will be doing, so you may appear to be more caring and supportive than the competition.

Of course, these gimmicks don't make a salesperson. But they are very interesting psychologically and it is amusing noticing these techniques being used in actual sales meetings. In technology, one of the ways to distinguish a good programmer from a mediocre one is look at their focus on getting the details right (RE: there are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.). Maybe it is the same for non-technical professions too, but just in different ways.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Value of a Pure Math Degree

Sometimes, I joke that this post should be intentionally left blank.

But it's not really true. At the very least, studying pure math helped me understand the first chapter of Lange's Applied Probability, and get far enough into the book to understand a much more concise solution to Buffon's Needle Problem than the one on wikipedia.

In day to day life though, knowing what measurability mean or what Borel sets are could hardly be called useful. The value of a pure math degree, for non-tenure-track mathematicians, comes ~80% from satisfying a curiosity (or what some would call intellectual masturbation).

The real value comes from learning how to think. This isn't unique to pure math though: students of a number of disciplines will likely say that it is what they learned from the course of study. Each field, however, would choose a different focus and a different kind of thought process. A philosophy student would think differently from an engineering student, who would think differently from a biology or a law student.

So what makes pure math thinking unique? I think it is several things, some of which are:

  1. Decoding complex notations
  2. Going back and forth between the "abstract" and the tangible example
  3. A focus on details, especially the "edge cases"

...which all come from understanding and analyzing proofs of all types.

So let's break it down.

Decoding Complex Notations

This was actually a goal of mine while studying pure math. I wanted to become comfortable with reading mathematical notations, and not be afraid of them in books and papers. Like reading other people's code, reading other people's proofs were the most dreaded task for me. Grading second year "advanced level" linear algebra was the worst.

But reading math is more difficult than just understanding and being comfortable with notations. There was a blog post from the beginning of the year about how reading code is not like reading literature. Here's a choice quote from that blog post:

We don’t read code, we decode it. We examine it. A piece of code is not literature; it is a specimen. 
It's really the same thing with proofs. We don't read proofs. We decode proofs. We don't really understand a proof unless we make it ours.

While reading code is still difficult for me, I think my education has helped lessen that barrier.

Abstract vs Tangible

In one of his books, Feynman talked about how during every discussion about something abstract, he would follow along with something tangible in mind. In another story that a professor had told, a grad students had proved interesting things about functions that satisfy some criteria, only to find during a presentation that the only functions that satisfied those criteria were the constant functions.

This ability to keep both the abstract and the tangible in mind is crucial for understanding mathematics, and a way of thinking pretty unique to the field (and maybe perhaps computer science as well: I sometimes joke that the math in computer science is like applied pure math).

Related to this is looking at various tangible examples, and extract the abstract features that are common to all examples. It is often easy to recognize that there is some kind of common structure, but the structure can be difficult to describe without the right set of language in your toolbox. (Again, this may apply more so to computer scientists and good programmers).

Edge Cases

Proofs are hard because of all the edge cases that one has to consider. I haven't encountered these questions in Waterloo, but in some institutions "PODASIP" problems are typical. PODASIP stands for: "prove or disprove and salvage if possible", which basically means that for a given claim, the task is to see if the claim is true or not, and if it isn't, modify the claim so that it is (non-trivially) true.

I find that the best way to tackle those problems is to look first for counter-examples to the claim. A claim usually falls apart in extreme cases, so those were good starting points. An understanding of the extreme cases would lead either to a counter-example, or to an understanding of why the claim works, and thus a proof.

So, a pure math student learns to think like a lawyer, except not with legal language but with formal claims.

So, in summary, like some other degrees, a pure math degree is one that teaches you how to think. But all degrees that teach you how to think focuses on different types of thinking.

In hindsight, I may have preferred a degree that teaches similar thinking principles while teaching something more useful. Still, no regrets though because a lot of those "more useful" ideas are much more easily learned with the toolkits I now have available, like an understanding of abstract algebra and measure theory.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dream Donut Test

I don't know what it is about life and donuts that lend themselves to comparison. A while back this comic circled around. It uses a donut analogy to explain why life is worth living despite that we would all eventually die. It's a pretty interesting comic, so go see it --

The comic and the analogy really hit a spot because like many others, I've dealt with some form of existential depression -- I'm not not intelligent enough to have the full-blown version, but reading about it for the first time was an emotional experience. I, too, thought that life was a donut, but for a different reason. Donuts were addictive yet void of nutritional value, and I thought life was like that. We chose to live not because of a conscious decision, but because we are shameless addicts who take our addictions for granted.

That's why the comic failed to comfort me. Its argument is based on leaving our donut-loving-addict-ness unquestioned. Yes, I'm asking you the question:
"Why should we even like donuts?"
to which a reasonable answer might be:
"Because they taste good."
...but of course I knew that as well as you, so I explain,
"Yes, but why should we like things because they taste good?"
which doesn't sound like a question that makes sense. After an afternoon of discussion, we might get to the question: why should pleasure be intrinsically worthwhile or meaningful? It's really hard to answer without begging the question.

This all sounds pretty depressing. Thankfully, my interest in depressing blog posts has waned. Instead, I'd like to offer an alternative to Stanley's "donut analogy" as to why one should live. It is what I call the "dream test".

Suppose that you are having a lucid dream -- a kind of dream where the dreamer knows they're dreaming. You've been in the dream for long enough that you don't recall who you really are, but you do know that it's a dream that would eventually be over. What would you do in that case? Would you just try very hard to wake up just because you'll eventually have to wake up?

Hell no! You're in a lucid dream! If you've been in a lucid dream, you'll know that there are so many fun things to do in such dreams. Fly around. Try to teleport. Make things appear and disappear. Make yourself invisible. Explore this dream state.

Sure there aren't many inherent value in things. Dream donuts might taste good but there is no point in accumulating as many of them as possible. They'll all disappear once you wake up.

But, the experience itself has value outside of the dream. Once you wake up, that experience stays with you. The knowledge, the (self?) understanding, and the experience all stay. Maybe this is why spending money on acquiring experiences makes people happiest.

So here's my answer to the kid in the comic:
What's the point of all this? Why live if we're gonna die anyways?
Well, remember the last time you had a dream? What if you suddenly realized that you're dreaming, and can control things in the dream? Pretty neat huh? In that case, wouldn't you want to explore, and see what you're capable of? Would you think about trying to wake yourself up, just because you know that the dream is going to eventually end?
No! Because the dream is going to be an interesting experience. Sure it might be short, and sometimes scary, and sometime sad, but you can experience a lot and learn a lot about yourself. 
...and at the end of the day, you will having one interesting story to remember and share. Who knows, maybe the experience that we're building up in "real life" will be meaningful somehow too.
The difference is that the focus here is on experience rather than pleasure. It is easier for me to accept that experience might be of importance after we die, and that thus dying now is equivalent to dying later. It is a lot harder to say the same about pleasure. (I'm not certain what's going to happen when we do die, but I sure would bet that experiences have a higher likelihood of persisting compared to, say, donuts.)

I sometimes use this "dream test" to tell if a goal or aspiration makes sense, given that we don't live forever: suppose you're hit by a bus and enter a very deep sleep. While you're asleep, you dream that you've gone through the process of achieving that goal, or became what you aspired to be. Would you be content, knowing that that had only been a dream?

If you are content with having the experience of achieving that goal, then you will probably say yes. If you are looking for the effect of achieving the goal, then you will probably say no.

If you said "no", then you might want to think twice about working towards that goal.