Work on cool projects

A few days ago, I came up with a piece of advice: join the club that does stuff. Don’t waste your time with the “prestigious” society (unless it’s also does cool stuff). What stuff? Stuff that expands your skill set or helps your create something. The example I gave was to join a club that builds programs rather than a programming honor society.

I think it’s a good piece of advice. Why?

  1. You gain skills AND connections. The skills are something that you won’t gain in the average prestigious group, and you get the added bonus connections who are already working on the things you would like to do.
  2. You are already doing interesting things. People who do interesting things tend to gain power, but people with power might or might not start doing interesting things. If you want to do interesting things, you may as well cut the middle man and get started now.
  3. You build your resume with substantial projects. Typically, people say something about prestigious societies looking good on your resume. Do resume-builders really help your resume? It doesn’t seem to me to be true now, and I’m not sure if it ever was. It seems to me that it’s something that took hold as a results of college applications. Now, in college admissions and in job applications, taking the initiative to make substantial contributions to projects seems to be more important. I’m not sure about that, but it seems like it. It’s worth observing, at least.
  4. It’s more fun. Focus on a cool project, and enjoy your time in college. Don’t fracture your time with 5 different groups that each add little to your life.

Publishers take ownership of research papers, instead of authors

Research, an essential part of a university and its faculty, could be at odds with legality. In a presentation at The Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech (2013), Robert Turner, a Librarian at Radford University, and Scott Turner, an associate professor of Computer Science at UNC Pembroke, brought to light the issue that many professors are probably illegally distributing and using content in their classrooms according to copyright laws on accident.

When a paper is published to a peer-reviewed journal, depending on the agreement that a researcher signed, that paper could be owned, 100%, by the publisher. This means that if a colleague was interested in your work, you might not be legally entitled to email him a copy of the PDF. However, the publisher may be kind enough to offer the author 20 or so copies to share with his peers. When teaching a class, a professor might not be able to even upload his own paper to Blackboard, Scholar, or whatever other online organizational medium his institution uses, which leads to the first tip to avoid trouble:

TIP #1

Use a direct link from the online journal instead of a PDF from your computer.

This works because it gives control of the distribution to the publisher. Of course, this comes with all sorts of inconveniences, such as: your colleague or students do not have access to the journal.

But this seems like a big Catch-22: to legitimize research, the author needs to submit it for peer review and then publish. However, once published, the author can’t even truly access their own paper because they no longer really own it. Credit is given to them, but they can’t distribute it if they wanted to. This is strange when, one of the major reasons to publish research in the first place is to improve upon previous research and suggest where new research should be conducted–essentially, we need to read each others work. So what can you do? Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to all of these journals when their employees, the professors and creators of these research papers, are not getting reconciled for their work. (Actually, review board members don’t really get paid either). The only people who get paid are the publishers. As most things are online already (and many people prefer them to be online), there is little to no cost for them “publishing” the work. So, here comes tip number 2:


Forget “publishing,” share your work freely with peer-reviewed open source publications, such as PLOS ONE.

Publishing it to a paying journal doesn’t make it any more legitimized and hides research papers making them inaccessible or inconvenient for the people who need it. We might be repeating a lot of work and wasting time. Information, is more powerful and important than the money (which really only goes to the middle-man anyway).

A list of other open source, peer reviewed journals:

Learning Like Water: The End

I attempted to learn like water this semester of college, and I do not think it worked. Here’s why.

I missed things.

Like a quiz, a final exam, numerous hand outs, and about 60% of the total lecture time.

I am sure that missing a final exam caught your attention. Yes, it happened. One of my professors decided in class to unofficially change the final exam time (with unanimous approval), and I did not hear about it. Since it was unofficial, he let me take the exam at a different time. Phew. I also missed an in-class quiz.

In some classes missing the lectures was a bigger issue than in others. One of my classes had no textbook and the material was pretty obscure (read: tough to find online), so it was here that I had the most trouble. The professor posted about half of his notes online, but I relied heavily on other students for the other half. I prefer not to need to mooch off everyone else’s efforts. I am not sure how to handle this obscure-material problem.

I did not focus well enough.

My original plan was to use class time to study on my own. That ended quickly when I had assignments due right after a class. In those cases, learning the new material took a backseat (who would have guessed?). I have a feeling that the structure is a problem here, but I have not identified the exact reason.

I could not shrink it to two weeks.

At the beginning of the semester, I proposed my compressed-schedule idea to each of my professors. Each said some variation of “you are welcome to get ahead, but you cannot get behind.” In other words, I could only conduct my experiment if I was willing to do a whole class in two weeks AND do two weeks worth of all of my other classes. That would require a huge amount of extra work at the beginning of the semester, and by the time I got to the last class at the end of the semester I would have little left to learn in that class. Not quite what I hoped for, to say the least, so that idea died. Oh well.

Even if the pieces had all been in place…

I still do not think it would have worked too well. I was unable to stay disciplined enough to stick with the program I designed. I have either average or slightly above average willpower, so it probably would be a problem for many other people too. That, combined with the constraints of college classes, makes this seem pretty impractical. But at least it was interesting and it did not hurt my GPA.

Next semester’s experiment.

I still think that lectures are a poor learning tool. What other tools could enhance the value of a lecture? Here is my next plan: come up with a problem to solve during each class. Ideally, it would be a homework problem that I could work on during the lecture on that material, but I may just have to settle for a random book problem which may or may not save me time on homework.

Here are the benefits: class time is spent actively problem solving, I will not miss any announcements or quizzes, I’ll notice the thorny problems as they are taught, and I will be able to use the lecture to reference concepts as I practice.

I will flesh out the details in mid-January before the semester starts. Comments welcome!

The Feast: The Problem About Discussing Problems

It is easy to discuss the problem part of issues. However, discussing and developing solutions is usually much more of a strain. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem to only be because solutions are hard to think of, rather, it seems like solutions are just unattractive to talk about.

The Feast I hosted was both a success and a failure.  Everyone said they enjoyed the discussion and wishes that we should do it again.  However, we failed to design a solution.  Albeit mostly my fault for poor organization, we had a hard time sticking with one topic, which made the discussion of identifying a problem to design a solution very difficult.

On a partially related note, something I found to be a pretty consistent pattern in most people is that it is easier or more fun to only discuss the problem and never a solution.  When solutions do come up, they are usually countered with, “yeah, but you see, the problem with that is…” with little consideration or thought, which results in no longer discussing solutions and focusing, again, only on problems.  Hardly anyone thinks, “okay, lets say this solution works, tell me more about it,” and then as the person gets more time to explain, the other will critique until it actually becomes a feasible solution.

Why is this?  It might have something to do with how we have been educated.  Perhaps it is because a lot of our K-12 schooling, hardly ever emphasizes or gives practice for problem-solving (although, preschoolers seem to be pretty good at it).  Mathematics is full of it, but the way in which it is taught in school is like this:

Student, here is a problem.  We must solve it.  Oh, please, don’t solve it yourself.  Here is a step-by-step how-to that I have provided you with.  Please copy this down.  When you go home to practice tonight on your homework, make sure to follow these steps or else you will get points off.  It is much easier for me to grade it if you don’t use your own methods–even if it does work.  Aka. please memorize all of this.

Step-by-step is certainly easier for both teachers and students.  However, it doesn’t seem to develop a student into someone who can think by themselves, which is usually how it works in the ‘real-world.’ Brainstorming for solutions, it seems, is saved for when we grow up.  Even in college, most students memorize their way through, which is a great way to receive an A (if you’re good at it).  However, beyond school, no one wants to know what knowledge you gained in school, they want to know what kinds of problems you can solve for the future–what kind of new knowledge can you contribute?  Without practice in solutions, the majority  of us will remain stagnant and contribute very little.

The Feast: Learning Methods

The world is hosting a dinner party, sponsored by The Feast.  Next Friday, October 5th, the world will sit down, have dinner with friends and talk about important issue the local and global world is facing.  GE and Intel are among the companies that have given the world’s citizens some challenges to focus on.  By the end of the feast, each dinner table will have pinned down the problem they want to solve and design a solution and commit to it.

I will be hosting a dinner party next friday and the topic I want to discuss is learning.  Specifically, different learning methods.  Research screams that we don’t all learn alike–that some are better than others in certain environments.  It might be hard to accomodate every individual’s needs when a classroom can be from 10 to 200 people big.  However, I don’t think that it is necessarily that inconvenient.

For example: If a student does not get much out of the classroom, why waste an hour of that student’s learning time?  Perhaps a student learns better on his own using the book and other resources.  For that student, a teacher could, very easily and not too inconveniently, post online topics that are covered and important points to pay attention to.

However to do this, its important to understand different learning methods and which learning methods are possible for particular topics.  That and how to convey this to our teachers is what I want to discuss.  What other factors do I need to consider? See you on October 5th!

Underwhelmed during lecture

I begin this post as I sit in class. The course appears to require that I go to class. There is no textbook that I could follow on my own. There was a syllabus given, but it is not quite detailed enough to allow me to teach myself all the material. I could teach myself entirely based upon the homework, but there is no guarantee that the homework would require all the testable skills. I could come, occasionally look up and jot down a note, and otherwise do other work. However, such a system causes a large drop in productivity over simply not going to class and working on my own.

As it stands, I have several options which I do not like. I believe this is an unavoidable side-effect of the use of tests which you can only take once. Were this a more realistic situation, I would have a chance to go back and learn any skills that I had overlooked after teaching myself. However, with a timed test where you cannot use any outside resources, there is only a single chance. If I overlook some topic, I will likely get a question wrong bring my grade down by as much as several letters. Should school be structured in such a sink or swim method? Do we wish to test who can follow the rules, or who understands the material? The second option seems to me to be a better goal, but the first appears to be the one that schools follow.  This is the first time I have been to this class in a week and a half. I am underwhelmed. The professor remains on review of a topic which I understand. Although I do often need the review, this time I do not and do not get much out of my hour here. The threat of material unexpectedly appearing on a test still holds me there. Is this what we want the system to promote: attending for the sake of a test instead of attending for the sake of understanding?

For now, this is a problem for which I do not see a solution. Any suggestions?

Learning Like Water

Halfway through Scott Young’s TEDx talk about his attempt to complete a four-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year for just $2,000, I realized that I’ve seen it before. He describes how, despite the lack of access to professors, students, and all the other resources available to students studying at MIT, he felt that he had a certain advantage over those students. The most important of those advantages, in my view, was his ability to compress an entire class (normally spread over 3+ months) into as little as two days.

This reminded me of a concept from fluid mechanics: pipe flow. An odd connection, perhaps, but I think it is an apt one. A simplified equation (Darcy-Weisbach) for losses due to friction in pipe flow:

h_{Loss}=\frac{L}{D^2}*f(  stuff )

Where L is the pipe length, D is the diameter, and there is some other stuff in there that is not worth mentioning. The equation means that water flows more easily in a wider pipe and less easily in a longer pipe. So what does this have to do with Scott’s MIT challenge, and what point am I trying to make?

Scott removed the friction from learning with a method that widens his learning pipe by using many more resources and shortens it by rapidly progressing. His wider pipe (containing in it all the resources available to him across the internet) allows him to take many different routes to the end goal of understanding a subject.  If he doesn’t understand the video lectures, he checks the textbook or searches for an explanation on the web or asks a question on a message board (many exist, such as Physics Forums). Some of the many resources available on the internet which are rarely used by students: Google the subject, ask the question on message boards, email an expert to ask a question, watch lectures on the subject from other universities (MIT’s OCW and others), etc.

Using more resources has some pretty obvious benefits, but how does rapid progression help you learn? Over such a short time, you won’t forget what you just learned. If you don’t think about the material in the mean time, will you remember what you heard 7 lectures ago? If it was 3 weeks ago, probably not. If it was 3 hours ago, you probably will. The difference in learning, therefore, is that you will be free to make continuous progress rather than the two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine of repeated refreshers on old material. A side benefit: continuous progress is more emotionally invigorating.

So how can we normal, enrolled, 12+ credit hour per semester students merge this with the structure of college? There are definitely many challenges here. Attempting to convince teachers to change test schedules to accommodate your desires will probably be unsuccessful. A less radical change: ask to turn in all the homeworks at the same time between each test. This smaller exception would allow me to go through all the material in a few days (say 3), learn everything, and finish all the homework. Pending professor approval, this is how I’ll structure my semester. I’ll soon post my exact plan for mastering a month of material in just three days.

You may think that this is exactly like cramming the night before a test. In many ways, it is. In two key ways, it is definitely not. First, I will not have a test the next day. I won’t be stressed and frustrated; if I need more time to learn some particularly challenging idea, I have that time . Second, a deliberate method will make my studying more efficient and thorough than a scattered late-night-before-midterm cram session. I hope to soon see if that is how my system actually plays out. What are your thoughts, and do you have any other ideas on how to make this work?