On Intimidation.

I have this thing about intimidation. I want to crush it, because it keeps me from truly engaging with people on a deep level.

I had an encounter the other day which helped me turn this problem over in a different light. I live in an amazing home with nine other sparkly people. There are cherry blossom trees that trace the front yard and a fountain in the backyard with water shooting out of the mouths of sculpted golden retriever puppies.

… And our landlord finds us incredibly unpalatable. He has sent us multiple emails trying to evict us, including a 10-page eviction notice detailing our crimes — from carpet stains to trivialities like boxes around the house and our apparently poor taste in decor. He’s also decided that he’s going to visit the house whenever he pleases, and I found him sunbathing in our backyard the other day with a straw hat on and newspaper in hand.

I wanted to get to know him. Manning up makes me anxious, but it’s fun to push myself off cliffs… and airplanes, and into caves! (Life is a beautiful sport.)

A good friend of mine Chris once told me, “People are easy to dislike in the abstract.”

The same can be applied to intimidation, “It’s easy to find people intimidating in the abstract.”

I walked outside and expressed my gratitude for letting us rent a beautiful space, and apologized for making such a mess of it, affirming that he must put in a lot of work to create it into a home as lovely as it was. Then we got onto the conversation topic of traveling; he told me he’s been wanting to go to Vietnam, and I told him that I had relatives there I could introduce him to, so we exchanged emails. He ended up offering me some of his lunch salad soon afterwards. I was ecstatic.

I’ve realized that if I find someone to be un-personable, it’s only because I don’t know them well enough.

After all, we don’t find ourselves intimidating — largely because we know ourselves so deeply.

Mar 20, 2014

On Nihilism

My friend Frazer implied a framework for a case against nihilism:

Even though that thing — say, working at the soup kitchen — may be meaningless to me, and in my view, ultimately meaningless in the long run, it could be very meaningful to someone else — that little girl at the shelter — and to be able to drive her meaning gives me reason to drive and come alive.

When you zoom out, everything can be meaningless:

But when you zoom in, everything is meaningful:

Dec 24, 2013

Crush Akrasia - How I forego what I want now for what I want period, a (scrappy) Data-Driven approach

Akrasia - the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.

A good friend asked me the other day how I maintained such discipline with my work habits and being on the Paleo diet. I thought about it for a moment, and realized it wasn’t discipline — it was building a system, which enabled me to naturally see what the better action was.

Many people use the 10-10-10 rule to make decisions (What are the consequences of your decision in 10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years?). This system surfaces the consequences for me (except I prefer 1 minute, 1 hour).


  1. Log how you feel in the short-term and long-term after making a decision.

  2. Collect a data point every time you make a decision when your will is weak.

  3. Assess what decisions you should be making based on long-term consequences.

  4. When confronted with making a decision, focus on the “good feelings” of the (+) decisions in the long-term and “bad feelings” of (-) decisions in the longer-term.
Dec 2, 2013

Why Femme Fatale Lana del Rey resonates with me just as Theoretical Physicist Richard Feynman does.

"Everything I want I have — money, notoriety, and rivieras… Tell me life is beautiful, they all think I have it all. I’m lonely without you. All my dreams and all the lights mean nothing if I can’t have you." (Lana del Rey - Without You)

Richard Feynman says something similar. The “you” Feynman feels lost without is the pleasure of finding things out. While many people admire him for his smarts — the numerous nobel prizes he’s won, the awards given to him, his work in transforming the field of physics — he’s rejected every honorary degree that’s been given to him, even revoking his decision to accept a position with the National Academy of Sciences.

"I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is nobel enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got a prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery, he appreciation that other people use it. The honors is unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors."

Just as the honors is unreal to Feynman, the money and notoriety is unreal to Lana. It’s interesting to tease out the complexities beneath the veneer of financial wealth and prestige. 

In embarking on Cal Newport’s Deliberate Practice Pilot Program, I have been thinking about why my certain people resonate with me. Finding the sources of resonation will enable me to distill and clarify the qualities of these individuals, and then allow me to derive metrics for which to measure the efficacy of my focused work. 

I’ve been particularly curious about why Lana’s songs resonate with me so much. 18 of 20 of my top tracks on Spotify are by her. I was watching Feynman’s interview, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, last night, and I became aware of the fuzzy feeling I get when I read his books, or watch his videos, and was reminded of Lana’s song, Without You.

Why does Feyman do what he does? Is there something under this veneer? In Feynman’s interview, , he goes on to describe what he really cares about — the “you” that Lana is without.

"If you’re interested in the ultimate character of the physical world, of the real, of the complete world, at the present time our only way to understand that is through a mathematical type of reasoning. Then I don’t think a person can fully appreciate or, in fact, can appreciate much of these particular aspects of the world, the great depth and character of the universality of the laws, the relationships of things, without an understanding of the mathematics. I don’t know any other way to do it. We don’t know any other way to describe it accurately and well, to see the interrelationships without it. So I don’t think a person who hasn’t developed some mathematical sense is capable of fully appreciating this aspect of the world."

May 7, 2013

To Live With Intention.

How do you live an exceptional life? Many people cite lack of time as the issue — not enough time to complete that project, prepare for that meeting, hone problem-solving skills. Scott Young and Cal Newport, however, take a deeper dive into the problem and assert that time is not the real issue. Rather, focus is the biggest thing holding people back from excellent work and leading remarkable lives. I argue that there is something necessary beneath that focus — another underlying foundation.

While there are a lot of methods you could use to keep you focused (Pomodoro, GTD, changing your environment, treating yourself with ice cream after finish a problem set), many of these involve some sort of resistance in *forcing* yourself to do work.

Ask yourself: What works in the short-term? What works in the long-term?

Leading a remarkable life requires more than just focus. These tricks often need be supplemented by something deeper in order to sustain your focus in the long term. That underlying foundation is intention.

Know your intention. If you’re going to accomplish something — a paper, a problem set, a website, a book — remind yourself of your intention. Why did you decide to start this in the first place? Who is it helping? What kind of impact will it have leading into your larger goals? If you weren’t going to get credit for it, is it something you would still be doing?

May 6, 2013

Everything is connected; everything is the same.

Sometimes when you learn something new, it’s tempting to attempt to learn that concept in isolation, and not notice how it’s connected to many things that you already know.

Instead, sustain a latticework of mental models in your head, and whenever you learn something new, challenge yourself to link that new concept to something you already know your head.

For example, let’s say you have a set of locations, and the distances between each location. You want to find the shortest path from point 5 to point 7. In Computer Science, we can use a method called Dynamic Programming (DP) to find this route. Using DP, we calculate the shortest path from 1 -> 7 by finding the shortest path from point 1 -> point 2, point 1 -> point 3, and so on… We use smaller versions of our problem to solve the larger problem. It’s not a hard concept; we do this in real life.

In rugby (which can be generalized to most sports), you don’t want to take on the opponent all by yourself — that’s a big problem. That’s why the team is separated into forwards and backs; each person gives 100% in their position in the game, and the team is tackles and defends effectively. There is trust that your teammate has his position/area covered, just like you trust that the shorter paths you’ve calculated has its part solved. Together they create the solution you are looking for.

Connecting each new piece of information you learn can be compared to something in Computer Science called object-oriented programming.

In CS there are 1) instances and 2) objects. For example, if you were building a Poker game, you would have Card “objects”, and create “instances” of those objects, such as the ace of spades.

Treat every new piece of information you learn like an “instance.” It’s tempting to think of these instances disparately, but really, all of these instances are just instances of objects. You just have to find the common class (i.e. the common thread).

Apr 14, 2013

The answer is yes until you hear no.

And even then, it’s still not no. Find another way. It’s up to you to make “no” mean “yes.”

Jan 15, 2013

Don’t attach your opinions to your identity.

These are your opinions at the moment because they are backed by xyz, but if you are given new information that is reasonable, your opinion is subject to change.

Don’t get this confused with not having strong opinions. you should always have strong opinions. Live with intention; don’t be wishy washy. “This is what I think is the right answer, but these arguments may be flawed in misinformation or inadequacies of perception.”

Jan 15, 2013

On Asking to Be Spoon-Fed.

Being able to use your mind means being able to access, organize, and use what you already have… If you think you need more data, you’ll probably ask lots of questions. If the answers just contain raw data, they won’t help you much, and you’ll have to keep asking. If answers help you organize the data you already have, it may help you understand… “passive learning.” Other people can take in data and organize it themselves without much help from the outside… “active learning.”

Using Your Brain For a Change, Richard Bandler

At the beginning of Land Use: An Entrepreneurial View, Professor Mittlemann continuously brought up the point, “everything is the same.” Although it made some sense at the time — everything is connected, yes, yes, that’s the power of interdisciplinary thinking — it never truly resonated with me until recently in a conversation with my friend Ashwin.

I realized there was something fundamentally wrong with the way I approached problem solving. (the uncertainty in my following argument: this “thought framework” had enabled me to be very resourceful in the past)

Ashwin asserts that there are two maxims he always assumes in problem-solving:

  1. I have enough information to solve this problem.
  2. I know nothing.

Although this may seem contradictory at first, there is a difference between believing you have enough information to solve the problem, and believing you have all the information to solve the problem. This is where “I know nothing” comes in. The world is constantly changing; if you come across a new piece of information, you can always go ahead and refine your current problem. It’s a matter of having an interval about the adequacy of your solution to the problem at hand — a gradient, rather than black-and-white.

This goes back to another good general framework, “It’s always better to have a plan and change it, than to have none at all.”

"Everything is the same" didn’t resonate with me before because I took the approach antithetical to Ashwin’s — I believed that if I didn’t understand probably because I was missing a piece of information, and if I just had that information I would be able to understand. I was then always searching for information; while it made me a resourceful person, it also pushed my mind to be lazy, almost being spoon-fed the information — a dangerous approach.

I’m conflicted with Ray Dalio in his Bwater Principles, which states that there are generally 2 types of people:

  1. Those who look at past examples to solve something- what has worked before?
  2. Those who want to create something new and think it for themselves

He asserts one isn’t better than the other; there are just different types. I disagree with the two being equal — constantly relying on past examples disables one from being able to create something new, combining concepts in a way that hasn’t been done before.

I have such a problem with the way math is taught in schools, particularly the sequence in which it is taught. Academia demands accuracy, which is inconsistent with the mindset “I have enough information to solve this problem.” Traditional grade school math classes perpetuate the notion that there is only one answer to the problem — there are no gradients of solutions. This notion is similarly counter to real-world problem-solving, where a perfect solution is not always necessary and an approximation is usually fine. We generally don’t start learning more interesting proof-based math until late high school, or college.

I hadn’t considered taking any math courses coming to Brown until I had decided on a whim to take some Computer Science courses and came upon a discrete math class that I fell in love with. Everything was like a puzzle — there were different ways to solve problems, arrive at a solution to prove a point. It wasn’t a set formula; it was beautiful. It’s this kind of thinking that encourages more agent beings. “Everything is the same” is the notion that you already have all the information you need, and it’s just a matter of organizing it in such a way to come to an understanding.

Related read: We Nurture the Fantasy that Knowledge is Always Cumulative

Jan 7, 2013

Why Are Rules Meant to be Broken?

Growing up, I always thought of this saying as one for mischievous rascals who had a flagrant disregard for order, like Rugrats’ Angelica Pickles or Doug’s Roger Klotz — but I’ve realized, it’s not about seeing which rules can be broken — it’s about pushing boundaries and when getting a “no,” knowing that it’s up to you to turn that “no” into “yes” if you disagree.

Once we realize that all these rules, structures, processes, systems, in place are constructs, and were all once just an idea, we can start to create, and no longer submit to the reality of others’.

This mindset enables us to engage in concepts in a much deeper manner, questioning why things are the way they are.

Typically, we look at teaching in precisely the way that our system forces us to look at it… Teaching started to mean talking, and talking is a terrible way to teach. People aren’t really that good at listening, after all… We listen in order to be entertained, not in order to learn.

Roger Schank, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Oct 6, 2012

Managing Your Attention and Living in the Grey Zone

Sometimes, I have a problem with focusing.

If you looked around my room, you’d find it very obvious. I have post-its on my walls, notes on my desk, and quotes expo-markered on my window that say things like, “STAY FOCUSED, OR PERISH” and “CAN YOU DO THIS LATER?” to help save myself from distraction.

I’ve realized that sometimes I study terribly unproductively. I tend to study in this “grey area,” not fully distracted, but not deeply engaged. I need to focus on living life in the black area, doing one thing at a time.

I just joined Brown’s Rugby team this year, and one thing I love about the game is that it’s either 100% or nothing. 

Everything is sharp. There isn’t any walking — it’s running, or jogging. When you decide to tackle someone, you have can’t stop. You have to commit and follow through your target.

It forces you to push past your comfort zone. Play the game in five minute increments. Push yourself as hard as you can for five minutes — just five minutes — and see how you feel after those five minutes (usually, great).

Stop living life in the grey zone.

Sep 30, 2012

Getting Through Textbooks Doesn’t Have to Be So Confusing

Textbooks are generally not the most friendly literature to read. They’re dense and full of text that can often abstract away meaning and stall understanding.

The post presents a logical proof that has been redesigned with boxes and arrows. The text has remained the same, only the formatting of the text and equations have been changed.

The following excerpt from my Statistics class that explains how to prove the Additive Law of Probability. Try it out and see if you can understand it.

(Don’t worry if you don’t have a background in logic - ignore the symbols, and rather, try to understand the gist/overview of the proof)

A lot of meaning is obfuscated simply through the placement of text and logic statements.

The reader is not only struggling to understand the proof, but also trying to figure out how to read the page, simultaneously juggling unnecessary tasks. A few problems I’ve identified:

1) Making the implicit explicit:

The wording in the first few lines makes it difficult to discern the different cases. Only after several attempts to understand and reread, did I realize that there are two cases here:

  1. When events A and B are mutually exclusive
  2. When events A and B are not mutually exclusive.

2) Burdening the reader with the task of looking elsewhere for information:

Placement and wording like, “The equality given on the right implies” force the reader to  pause the train of thought to find the location of the next piece of information that needs to be processed, disrupting the advancement of understanding the concept at hand.

3) Ambiguity with guiding principles:

In problem-solving, such as proofs, there are often many guiding principles (i.e. guidelines on how to solve problems) that are helpful to be aware of. I’ve found that textbooks and many of my courses in general don’t make these guiding principles explicit. I was struggling with understanding how the text had arrived at the “substituted” expression, until I realized that substituting parts, and finding overlap where things can be combined, in general is a guiding principal for solving proofs.

I’ve attempted to reconcile these three major problem areas by designing a more visually comprehendable textbook formatting of the same proof. See if it makes more sense to you. (admittedly, understanding this is biased as you’ve already seen another format of the same proof just above)

I acknowledge that perhaps I’m being bratty in my desire for textbooks to be easier to understand — surely, it would require more effort on the writers’ end, as well as more ink and paper (notice the latter proof format takes up almost double the space of the former). 

Moreover, one could make the argument that obfuscated text enable only the most motivated individuals to push through the material and gain understanding.

I’d argue that many students waste a lot of time trying to decipher what the textbook author is attempting to communicate. If more effort were put into thinking about how a reader processes and comprehends information during the textbook production process, readers would more easily understand concepts and appreciate the beauty of such material (in this case, mathematical proofs).

Inspired by Bret Victor’s Scientific Communication as Sequential Art

Sep 22, 2012

Reflections from Dale Stephens’ Uncollege Hackademic Camp

Dale Stephens, one of the Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellows, invited 13 of us to an Uncollege Hackademic Camp in San Francisco. Here are some of my takeaways:

1. Don’t over-assert what things should mean to the world.
Like a college diploma. Just like iTunes empowered the digital single instead of limiting people to only CDs, why do we accredit universities when it makes more sense to accredit individual courses? 

Ask questions.

2. Moreover, design around potential, as opposed to limits.

Generally, people choose from the options they have. But you’re limiting yourself in this way. Instead, ask yourself: What do you want to do? What do you need?

3. Understand that the answers you get from someone is a reflection of their own decisions in life.

4. Value your education. 

It’s easy to see it as something that everyone is given, especially in American society. Once you start to see it as something that you take, you’ll start to appreciate it more, and thus leverage the resources that you have. 

5. Separate processes, especially when problem-solving. Tackle each individually.

E.g. if you are working to solve a problem in education:
1. What are you most frustrated with regarding education?
2. What are some solutions?
Don’t try to tackle more than one of these at once. Otherwise, the different steps will get intertwined and you will risk not being able to effectively take a deep dive into either (whether it be problem-identification, or solution)

6. Be assertive about your opinions while being open-minded.

Rather than shutting people down and saying “I disagree…,” consider “I’d argue…”

7. Compliment people on their motivation, not on their intelligence.

You wouldn’t say to an athlete, “Kudos for being born really strong.” Rather, “Kudos for working hard pumping that iron at the gym everyday.”

Intelligence is the same way — it’s something that you can get better at. Your brain is like a muscle. Anyone can learn anything and be really good at it. It’s only our negative confirmations and psychological biases that hold us back.

8. Stories are powerful.

Stories can make you feel pain you’ve never had for mistakes you haven’t made. Leverage them in the movement you’re trying to create, to help take people with you.

9. Have compassion and be human.

E.g. When firing someone, imagine that you’re firing yourself. It’s a “it’ll work out better for the both of us”-fit situation.

10. Always be prepared for meetings.

Be 10x more prepared than they think you’re going to be. You never want the people in the meeting to be thinking, “We could’ve done that in 1/2 hour.”

11. Have a heuristic to evaluate how you spend time.

E.g. “Sell x # of books.”

12. Remind yourself of what you’re committed to.
You need to learn to do things that are hard. Once you know what you need to do, don’t rely on motivation to get you to do it. Figure out what you to do and be committed to- and get it done. Execution is everything.

Aug 12, 2012

How to fix Psych Error: “warning: already initialized constant”

I kept getting this error when trying to run “rails server" or "rails generate rspec:install

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-darwin11.4.0/psych.bundle: warning: already initialized constant ANY

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-darwin11.4.0/psych.bundle: warning: already initialized constant UTF8

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-darwin11.4.0/psych.bundle: warning: already initialized constant UTF16LE

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/x86_64-darwin11.4.0/psych.bundle: warning: already initialized constant UTF16BE

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/psych/nodes/stream.rb:12: warning: already initialized constant ANY

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/psych/nodes/stream.rb:15: warning: already initialized constant UTF8

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/psych/nodes/stream.rb:18: warning: already initialized constant UTF16LE

/Users/admin/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.3-p194/lib/ruby/1.9.1/psych/nodes/stream.rb:21: warning: already initialized constant UTF16BE

Fixed it with “gem uninstall psych”

Jul 23, 2012

Why People Lie

People lie because they don’t like something about themselves. Since many of us are driven by being perceived as credible and knowledgable, lying is detrimental, because we are giving others the perception that we are great without actually fixing anything from within.

Addendum- A take on Radical Honesty.

Jul 11, 2012