Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Portable App Spree!

Since switching from Linux to Windows 10, I wanted to have a Linux OS again without dual-booting and speed up Windows. The best solution I found were portable apps. They are programs that can be run on a computer without being installed and they can be put in a storage device such as a USB drive. Unlike normal programs, portable apps do not alter the computer's configuration setting and are not written on Window's registry, so they don't take up hard drive space and slow down the PC. Portable apps come with the extra benefit of being able to use the same programs on any computer with the same OS. Since discovering them, I eagerly switched most of the programs I used to portable versions and installed a live version of Linux on my USB drives.

Live Linux

 
For me, this video was a great tutorial for installing Linux with the opensource software Linux Live USB creator. Because the software has a persistence option, I can even save files or install software on Linux. The persistent version of Linux allows users up to 4 GB of memory. The software also creates a virtual box on the USB, so I can also run Linux within Windows. The software is compatible with a wide range of distros and I've even managed to use it for Lubuntu Vivid Vervet 15.10 when the website said the latest version it would support is Lubuntu Vivid Vervet 15.04. The installation process took 45 minutes to an hour for me, which is much shorter than installing the OS for dual-booting. I was also saved the worry of accidentally wiping out Windows and the need to take extra precautions against this. The limitations with using Linux Live USB creator is that the OS can't be updated and the USB can not multi-boot.

Other programs

Portableapps.com is the main site I use to download portable apps. It has a wide variety of programs including well-known ones such as Google Chrome, Gimp, and OpenOffice. The programs are open-source and only compatible for Windows, but Mac and Linux users can use Wine with them. There's an active community that is working on adding more portable apps to the website's collection and there's some articles about how you can make portable apps yourself. For anyone who wants to use this site, I recommend downloading the PortableApps.com Platform which displays all your portable apps from the website on this side-menu. Using the menu is easier than using the file manager to open apps, download new ones, and update your existing ones. In addition, the menu has a bar that tells you how much more space is available on the USB drive. The portable apps are fairly small and many of them can fit in a small space. The nine apps I have now in addition to the Platform take up 1.2 GB, so I could probably have at least 27 apps on one 4 GB USB drive.    

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: 1984

1984 1984 by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoughtcrime. Big Brother. Doublethink. All originated from this novel. This is a great book to read if you want to have a better understanding of the social structure and pop culture of the modern western world. Right now, it is shaping our debates on freedom of speech and privacy rights, especially on the internet.
The book is devoid of hope and heroes. If it wasn't for the insights that Orwell makes about language and social systems, I wouldn't have been able to read through the degradation of the protagonist. While dystopian novels are typically dark and full of despair, Orwell makes his villains exceptionally sadistic and the protagonist's attempts to rebel very feeble. A song that sums up this book well would be Lorde's version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World".

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Men Who Built America" Series


     The stereotypical leftists cry, "We need to impose strong government regulations on the greedy capitalists, so they won't screw over the working class!" "Government is a meddling tyrant that will destroy the economy if they pass another regulation on capitalists," the stereotypical right-wingers reply. In the midst of these polarizing views, it's difficult to find a balanced piece of information that will help clarify what the role of government should be in business. Capitalism is still part of a fierce debate even after it outlasted communism in the Cold War and Communist China is slowly adopting our ways. So, how can we objectively judge which side is more accurate about communism? I suggest that we all go back to a time in American history when laissez faire capitalism mostly reigned: the period between the Civil War and World War 1 covered by the History Channel's series The Men Who Built America.

     Each episode stars a different industrial titan in the same era. They come from a common background with the exception of J.P Morgan: the poor, working class boy with little parental support. I love how the episodes give us the personal history alongside their stunning accomplishments because you really start to empathize with these capitalists and understand the mindset that got them to where they are. Yet when you get to the next episode and see their competitor's perspective, you see the disturbing character flaws in that same person. In addition, the episodes also show the working class's perspective which gives you an idea of how these capitalists affected American society. Overall, the series does a great job of giving credit where it's due to the capitalists who raised standards of living and made the United States a superpower. At the same time, it is brutally honest about the moral pitfalls that the capitalists fall into and how they hurt the average American.

     After watching this series, I gained a more nuanced perception of capitalism that will hopefully inoculate me from the radical claims of either political party. The industrial titans are truly admirable people. All of them constantly risked their livelihoods to pursue the next big thing even if they came from a rich background. If they don't constantly look out for innovations, they will easily get overtaken by competitors and lose everything they worked for, so the idea that capitalists have easier lives than their employees isn't true. At the same time, the working class do have justifiable grievances against these capitalists. Some of the most moving scenes were the ones where the working class people suffered. One worker in Carnegie's steel mills was burned alive in an explosion, and it was due to Carnegie allowing his co-partner lower standards of safety in order to increase profit margins. As for government, there were some positive effects of its involvement in industry. For example, the trial of John D. Rockefeller did break up the monopolies that formed during laissez faire capitalism and allow new entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford to break into industries that were controlled by cartels. However, don't expect government to properly punish wrongdoers. John D. Rockefeller was charged for bribing politicians and treating his workers unfairly. All of this is true, but he's really a scrape goat because many of the others who had done the same thing were never tried. In addition, he did lose his company Standard Oil, but he ended up richer than before by buying stock in the companies that formed from the breakup of Standard Oil. Still, government's ineffectiveness turned out to be a great thing because many of these retiring capitalists turned their competitive energy to philanthropy which resulted in many institutions that still benefit the public.

     Based on what I have learned, I favor a minarchist government that is primarily focused on keeping companies transparent and enforcing standards of safety. I don't believe that government can create social programs that function as well as the individual philanthropists' efforts. Generally government social programs require taxation which decreases economic activity while philanthropy require consumer spending, especially by rich people, which increases economic activity. That's excluding other variables such as government debt and job creation, but philanthropy for the most part has more net economic benefit than government programs while achieving the same goals. Lastly, I find that the actual risk of government intervention is that it falls prey to crony capitalism. It takes a politician with an unusual amount of integrity such as Theodore Roosevelt to regulate industry heavily without succumbing to bribes. For now, it seems best to maintain the same separation between industry and state that is between state and religion.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick thought: Needing Better Literary Classes


How many of us were subjected to high school english classes that did more harm than good to our critical thinking skills and appreciation of literature? My high school experience was reading obscure and depressing novels, listening to lifeless discussions, taking literary trivia quizzes, and writing apathetically for assigned essay prompts. The work I did in those classes were lackluster and I believed that I was a terrible writer and I couldn't create a coherant argument. When I started college and took a literary course called Human Situations at the University of Houston, I felt free for the first time in a literature class. I love our classic readings from the Odessey to the Gospel of John. Multiple professor gave our class lectures, many of whom were compelling and enjoyable to listen to. In my classroom discussions, I find it easy to participate and I have learned to hone my arguments there. For the first time since eighth grade, I have an instructor who would teach me how to write effectively and help me improve. When it was time to work on the essay, I can make an original argument and write passionately about it.

I thought I was the only person who felt stunted by high school english, but the student panelists at today's Human Situation class also said that they had to deal with teachers expecting them to be conformists and were underprepared at college because they lacked the critical thinking skills. High school english classes don't educate students at all in the four hours per week that students spend there. My english teachers used to justify making us students suffer by telling us that college will assume that you can write at their level and they are trying to prepare us to meet those expectations. In reality, my college professors assume that high school has neglected to teach us how to write well and think independently. So far, college has been a lot more effective at teaching those two skills and they only needed an hour per week for the writing labs. 

I think the problem with high school english classes stem from teachers' being unwilling to teach students to think critically before beginning to write. They may have assumed we know how to think already, perfer us to be conformists, or doubt that there's time in the curriculum for that. Whatever the excuse, they failed to teach a skill that is more necessary and valuable than writing or reading. In a democracy, it almost dangerous to have so many students graduate high school who can't think critically. People would also avoid so many mistakes in their personal lives if schools were better at teaching this lesson. For students who will graduate from these high schools and attend higher education, I suggest that you make quality humanities courses a priority when picking out colleges. Even if you are a STEM major, an education with some liberal elements will greatly benefit you. It will mold you into a more insightful, broadminded, interesting individual. Then, education would have an actual meaning. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bread Making for Busy Students



Back in high school when I was completely concerned with body image like most American girls, I read a book called French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. The advice is really common sense: eat less to lose weight. But, it turns that hard fact for Americans into an aesthetic value practiced by the classy French people. They regularly eat wine, bread, and chocolate without weight gain because they find the satisfaction in quality instead of quantity. One chapter was devoted to bread, and Guiliano complained of the blandness of American store brought bread compared to French bakery breads. Today, bread is demonized by some diet groups as the cause of obesity. Guiliano points out that bread is one of the foods Americans over consume because we can't get satisfaction from it because it's devoid of nutrients and flavor. Here in the United States, I really could not find decently priced, delicious, nutritious, additive-free bread in the grocery stores. So, I resorted to baking it myself as a hobby.

Perks of Bread Baking

  • Fills the room with delicious smells
  • A great break from school work
  • It's much cheaper than low quality store bread
  • You have complete control of the ingredients
  • You can get creative with artisan breads

Misconceptions I Had before

  • Yeast is tricky
  • The only thing I really needed to learn was use lukewarm water to get get the yeast started and let it grow in at least 70 degrees Farenheit which is very easy to do in Houston. It doesn't need any other special conditions.

  • You need a bread maker
  • Doing it without a bread maker isn't much more complicated thanks to no-knead techniques.

  • You need to grease the pan
  • This deterred somewhat because baking bread requires the oven to be up to 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit which means I would need to use highly refined oils. However, I found many people coating the dough in flour to prevent it from sticking to the pan and that has worked well for me. 
  • It's time consuming
  • Aside from the 30 minute prep time, the rest of the time spent to make bread is on letting the bread rise and baking. Since this is passive time, I managed to fit bread baking in-between homework assignments and other household chores fairly easily.

Easiest Recipes I've Found

Both recipes are no-knead techniques that require 12-24 hour fermentation time. For both of them, I've used 100% whole wheat flour which may have resulted in breads that are less fluffier than the white bread pictures of the original posters.

Cold Fermented Bread


      This recipe involves cold fermentation which means you'll store it in the refrigerator for hours before you start baking. You can store this dough in the fridge for up to three weeks, and you'll get a stronger flavor the longer you store it. It's very good for when you want fresh baked rolls in the morning. Just take out small chunks, flatten them, and bake for 15-20 minutes in a toaster oven. The bread is definitely an acquired taste for those of us who are used to milder tasting breads. I would say the taste closely resembles rye bread.

Miso Sourdough Bread

     This is a sourdough bread that uses miso instead of a sourdough starter, so you don't need to spend weeks caring for a puddle of yeast for this recipe. It has a slightly shorter prep time than the other bread and requires no refrigerator time. The bread came out very salty, probably because of the extra sodium in the miso. So, I'll cut out the added salt next time. Otherwise, it definitely does tastes very close to sourdough, though I am not sure if it has all of the health benefits asscociated with "authentic sourdough". For that, you would want to make sure your miso is unpasteurized.

From my bread baking adventure, I learned to appreciate and be connected with the foods I eat. I developed a minimalist attitude both by savoring each serving of bread I eat and by finding new ways to get better bread for less effort. American culture seems to lack this healthy relationship with food, and a great remedy for this would be for all of us to start making our own food again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reordering my Priorities

     Like many college students, I've fell into the trap of trying to keep up academically by neglecting basic needs: health, sleep, hygiene, personal relationships, etc. Not only has this made me more stressed and unsatisfied with myself, I am still struggling with my schoolwork. I thought my problem was bad time management at first, but then I realized that my actions do not reflect my priorities. If someone asked me what they were in order of importance, I'd answer

  1. maintaing physical health 
  2. maintaining mental health
  3. making stronger interpersonal relationships
  4. learning new skills and acquiring knowledge
  5. academic and career success
  6. getting financial independence
  7. enjoying new, exciting experience
     Upon further reflection I realized that my priorities follow along the lines of Masclow's hierarchy of needs:
     This order seems like the best course of action for a fulfilling life.
But my actions in order of effort:
  1. studying
  2. making healthy meals
  3. attending school extra-curricular events
  4. reading self-help books
  5. planning scholarship applications
  6. excercising
  7. connecting with my family
  8. getting enough sleep
  9. making friends
do not reflect my priorities at all. I have tried justifying my impulse to prioritize schoolwork with reasons such as it will open exciting opportunities such as study abroad scholarships and wonderful work in the future. Most importantly, my parents paid thousands of dollars for a college education and it's my responsibility to make the most out of it. However, I've found that putting all this effort into academics has brought little benefit to my life or served any of my other priorities. If I focused on another priority such as health by getting adequate sleep, I would feel better about myself and this would actually improve my academics by increasing my concentration during lecture and improving my memory so I can retain the information I study better.

     I think the reason why I'm working against my personal interests is that I am still in the high school mentality of "get great grades to get great opportunities". I've gotten some perks from my moderate academic success in high school, but I do remember how frustrated and burned-out I was until I started involving more friends in my life and became serious about maintaining my health. I have also learned that this model isn't necessarily true. My professor has told me "good grades are necessary, but not sufficent" at a scholarship meeting. If I want to have as many opportunities open to me as possible, I now know that I need to be an interesting and well-adjusted person in addition to being competent. So, I planned a new course of action:
  1. prioritize getting relaxed before sleeping
  2. interact with my family more
  3. visit my university's counselor
  4. stop stress-eating
  5. break up my long study periods into smaller increments
Hopefully this will give me a healthier work-life balance. After a week or two of trial running, I should be able to determine if this new mindset is a significant improvement from my old one.






Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: How to Become a Straight-A Student

How to Become a Straight-A Student How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, the advice Cal Newport gives is common sense advice that students already get from teachers and parents: don't leave schoolwork until the last minute, always show up for class, take good notes, study a little each day, etc. However, what makes this book very effective is that this advice is coming from straight-A college students who insist that doing all of this will make your college life much more easier and enjoyable. Unlike nagging adults, this book provides the motivational push that students need to start acting. Cal also gives step-by-step advice for challenges such as note taking and passing exams. This book is about maximum results for minimal effort, so these methods will save you time and stress. For me, it helped me manage my procrastinating tendencies and start earning higher grades with no additional effort. But, this book isn't a cure-all for all of my academic problems. I wish Cal included more advice on time management and learning (in addition to the studying) strategies. Even so, this book is definitely a useful guide for current and soon-to-be college students

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cross products for Calculus: The Easy Way

After learning both the matrix and the formula method for solving cross products, I found a way to simplify it into 5 easy steps that don't involve excessive memorization and drawing more than 1 matrix. If you are in Calculus II or III, this can save you some time on your exams and homework. This works for cross products of two vectors with three variables each. I haven't been able to figure out if you can take cross products of other types of vectors, so my method might be rather limited.

What is a cross product?

     Very simply, the cross product is one of two ways you can multiply two vectors. When you are asked to find "a x b" you want to get a new vector that is perpendicular to both vectors a and b such as in this picture. The fact that the cross product is "orthogonal" and forms a "right hand triple" with vectors a and b means the same thing.

Now that you know the direction, the next step in understanding the cross product is to find the magnitude.

What is the magnitude?

     Recall that the magnitude of a vector is its norm. For (a x b), ||ax b||=||a|| ||b||sin(θ). Now, remember basic trigonometry where sin(θ) = O/H (opposite over hypotenuse). If you have a parallelogram with a corner angle θ and a side length a, height = asin(θ)




If a is actually a vector and it forms a parallelogram with vector b, you can plug height into ||ab||=||a|| ||b||sin(θ). This gives you ||ab||=||a||*h, which means that the magnitude of  (a x b) is the area of the parallelogram formed by a and b.



How to get the vector answer?


  1. Draw the matrix and set it equal to the vector (i,-j,k) We'll label each column so that it corresponds to its place in the linear combination representation of vectors (ai+bj+ck) This set-up is going to help us solve for each variable (i,-j,k).
  2. To solve for i, cover the i column and multiply the top-left number with the bottom-right number of the uncovered matrix. Draw the first part of the x in the matrix to help you remember.
    Then, you multiply the top-right with the bottom left and draw the second part of the x. You will then subtract the first part with the second part to get i.
  3. For j, you want to cover the j column and multiply the rest of the matrix cross-wise the same way that you would when solving for i.REMEMBER TO MULTIPLY j BY -1 WHEN YOU WRITE DOWN YOUR FINAL ANSWER.
  4. Solve for k by covering the k column and multiplying cross-wise as you would for i.
  5. Simplify and you are done!

Another Great Resource:

http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/CalcII/CrossProduct.aspx

Friday, September 18, 2015

Online Textbook Shopping Guide For College Students


       I am one of the students that made the mistake of ordering all of my textbooks online the day before the start of the fall semester, and I lost 2 weeks for studying the material. Poor preparation can lead to falling behind in class and making the transition to college much more difficult than it has to be. Online shopping can be a miraculous cost-cutting and time saving tool for textbooks, but it requires planning in advance. By following the basic tips and choose the right sites, you will be able to use online shopping to your best advantage.

Dos & Don'ts:

  • DON'T wait until the last minute
  • Online shipping typically takes about 1-2 weeks. In addition to that, getting your textbooks early will allow you to look over the first few chapters before class starts. That way, you will at least have some familiarity with the concepts and better understand the lectures. Some of these lectures can include bizarre, new information that would make unprepared students feel lost. For instance, my first few chemistry lectures discussed quantum physics which is far from what I expected.
  • DO check the class syllabus beforehand:
  • You do not need to wait until the professors tell you what books you need in the first lectures.The syllabi are typically mailed to each student within 3-5 weeks before the semester starts. Otherwise, they might be on your student login accounts. If the class does not provide a syllabus or mention a required text, it's safe to assume that the class does not have a required text.
  • DON'T buy the wrong translations of books for literature classes
  • Because the translation will affect your interpretation of the text and these types of books will be referenced frequently by page number, having the right version will affect how well you can participate in class discussions and persuade your professors in the critical analysis essays.
  • DO buy previous editions of textbooks by the same author
  • These editions of the textbook provide the same material at a fraction of the cost. According to Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette, college textbook companies often make small changes to new editions in order to generate more profit. In my experience, the old edition of the textbook slightly differs in the order of the chapters. However, the content almost exactly matches that of the lecture.
  • DO search by ISBN number
  • By copying and pasting this number from your class syllabus into the website search engine, you will be directed to the exact product you need and save time. You can look for previous editions in the sidebar as needed.
  • DO buy used:
  • On the websites I've visited, the description of the book quality is accurate. If you buy a "fair" copy at worst, you do not have to worry about the book falling apart or being damaged. You'll probably find highlighted text and other people's notes in the margins, but the text itself remains legible.
  • DO Rent
  • This is the best option for non-literature books that have no previous editions and you need it for a core course that you don't particularly care for. The rent lasts for one semester and some sites will even cut the shipping costs.
  • DO buy from multiple sites
  • Some sites have better deals or a better selection than others.
  • DO group as many books as possible in each purchase
  • This will often qualify you for coupon discounts and free shipping for qualified products.
  • DO remember shipping costs
  • Sites have differing shipping costs and policies. In general, avoid the expensive expedited shipping options and look out for free shipping deals.
  • DO sign up for site accounts and newsletters
  • The budget book sites often send coupons to their subscribers. These mails don't come more than once a week and they come just in time for you to buy the next set of textbook. The savings usually amount to less than 10-15% and the coupons only apply if you spend over a certain amount of money, but it's a simple move to save a few bucks. Plus, having a site account will help you keep track of your purchases and get access to deals.
  • DO leave customer feedback
  • It's an easy way to show gratitude to these sites and help them improve their service.

Quick Site Reviews

Thriftbooks
     This is the first place I go for textbooks because purchases over $10 get free-shipping, the prices are the cheapest I've encountered, and the deals are the most generous. The shipping (listed as 4-14 business days) is also faster than the other sites I've used. However, the selection is more limited and items go out of stock fast. You will probably find only a small portion of the textbooks you need here.
On the other hand, this site is has a wider selection and is better stocked. I have had success in finding all of the textbooks I need at great prices. If you have an account, that also saves you the extra hassle of of having to fill in your shipping address every time. Shipping is typically $3.99 per book, so I do tend to see my final costs double. Very few books have free shipping options. Also, I've been experiencing a time-consuming technical difficulty on the site: the website frequently logs out of my account when I go to a different page on the website.

Half.com by eBay: Buy and Sell new and used books, music, movies, games and more...
This site also has a wide selection and the same shipping prices as alibris. Both sites have the same price range, too. The rent options are cheaper and you can find more alternative editions than you would on alibris. One downside is that you need an eBay account to make the purchase and I've had trouble signing into my account on this site.

amazon.com
While shopping for the spring semester, I found that Amazon offers a better deal on literary books than alibris and half.com. The lowest prices for the latter two is $0.99 while Amazon's is $0.01 with all three having the same standard shipping costs. Amazon has the free shipping option for slightly higher priced books, but it only applies if you are buying enough eligible items that cost at least $35 together. Also, you may want to pay attention to the estimated tax and ideally get the books with $0.00 estimated tax. Generally, the textbooks aren't good deals compared to the others, but the handbooks can be cheaper. The site is a lot easier to use than some of the others. If you have an account, you can save your credit card information in addition to your shipping address. This is a great time-saver, though it does pose a security concern.
Image result for barnes and noble banner

Barnes and Noble runs my campus bookstore, and I assume that other colleges have their own Barnes and Noble. Even with the online option, this is my least favorite place to buy textbooks. Instead of a search engine, the website has a form that you have to fill out with the semester, class subject, class number, and class section. Then, the computer algorithm fetches all of the books you need. This is a much more tedious process than pasting in the ISBN number and it makes the site harder to navigate. In addition, the prices are much higher than the other sites and you do not get the option of choosing different editions. Whether you purchase in-store or pick-up in store, you will also have to wait in long lines especially at the beginning of the semester. The only good reason to buy from your campus bookstore is if you have to purchase an access code for a particular class.

From my university bookstore, I would have to spend $383.70 for one semester of textbooks that included used copies. For the same books, I paid $83.67 on the other websites I listed. In addition, I did not have to wait for hours in university bookstore lines. With planned online shopping, you can eliminate textbook cost concerns and focus more on actually learning the material.



Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Overcoming the Career Dilema

yIn high school, I faced a common dilemma among my generation: choosing the "right" career. My passions at the time were drawing, environmentalism, and math which gave me many options: architecture, industrial design, and the various sub-types of engineering. I compared each career path for hours online, went to career fairs, and took personality assessments to find the "perfect fit". I eventually settled on civil engineering, but I still considered switching my major during the summer before college. My mind was filled with many doubts about civil engineering: "Will I get to do creative work?", "Will I be able to make a big impact on the world?", "Will I enjoy it enough?", and "Is this career going to interfere with my other life goals?". If I had read the book So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport a lot earlier, I could have avoided the anxiety and lost hours of sleep. I recommend this book to any student in the same situation because it debunks many myths that are holding students back. From the lessons in this book, I  gained the clarity I needed to continue my career path. This book also helped me develop a plan to create a fulfilling career. 
IMG_0923.JPG

Advice Students Aren't Getting

Despite all the career assessment tools given to today's high school students, "An estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided” (Gordon, 1995) and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation (Gordon, 1995)" According to Liz Freedman from Butler University, this career uncertainty occurs because many college students have a dualistic mindset-the belief that everything can be categorized into two extremes. 1 As Newport points out, most of the advice given to conflicted students only promotes this mindset. For instance, Steve Jobs told college graduates,in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech "The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking and don't settle." 2  The "Follow your passion" advice teaches students that each individual can only be passionate about one particular career and any other option would be unsatisfying. On the other hand, Newport argues in his book that people can become passionate about nearly any job if they approach it with the right mindset and develop their skills beyond a competent level. Without knowing this, students looking for their passion might give up each endeavor just when they encounter the difficult and unpleasant parts of the learning curve. A better approach would be to accept that no career path is perfectly suited for any individual. The priority should be to base career choices on already existing skills and to strive for excellence in that field. "Follow your passion" supporters reject this approach because it appears to lead to a monotonous work-life, but Newport demonstrates how skills can be used as a bargaining chip to acquire desirable working conditions. Still, people cling to the "Follow your passion" advice because they are told that it is the only way you can make an impact on the world. However, the book has a section on creating a mission and argues that people don't even know what possible contribution they can offer to the world before they reach the forefront of their field. Compared to the advice students commonly receive, this book is a much more reliable guide to getting a productive and satisfying career.

Valuable Lessons

From this book, I learned to commit to my current path and to focus on turning it into a fulfilling aspect of my life. Because many of the biographies in this book included people who became happy and successful after accidentally entering their field, I realized that almost every career provides enough opportunities to satisfy any individual. Newport does mention some exceptions such as dead-end jobs. Once I determined that civil engineering isn't one of these exceptions, I stopped worrying about it being the "right" career to pursue. Instead, I'm focusing on how I can make civil engineering fit into my ideal lifestyle. I was inspired by reading the biography of Lulu Young, a freelance software developer who has enough free time to take piloting lessons and go to museums with her nephew in the middle of a weekday. After reading her story, I have a better understanding of what the corporate world is like and how she managed to become independent of it. For instance, I learned that  that you have to redefine success on your own terms in order to dictate how you want your career to advance. When Young was still working in the corporate world, she often turned down promotions and demanded to have shorter working hours instead. Although many people around her thought she was foolish, she hasn't regretted those decisions because she avoided taking on more responsibilities, stress, and longer working hours. Instead, she pursued more appealing opportunities such as getting a philosophy degree. This made me realize that society pressures people to associate success with prestige and high salaries, and I would end up sacrificing my happiness if I pursue this type of success. After learning these lessons, I am more certain of which direction I want my career to continue.

Taking Action

This book helped me create a plan for achieving a desirable career. One of my problems was that I did not know how to prepare for my career outside of college and a possible internship. The book's focus on acquiring valuable skills showed me that the best action I can take is to determine which skills are important to my profession and to start developing them. From online research, I already knew that civil engineering often involved structural analysis which is often done on computer software like Matlab. At that point, I decided to start learning how to program on Matlab and a similar software called Mathematica. I also found out from research that civil engineers are split into design-oriented engineers and project-oriented engineers. I prefer to be a design engineer, so I needed to have drafting skills. In addition to Matlab and Mathematica, I am learning to use Google Sketchup and similiar software.  Other important engineering skills include analytical thinking and understanding complex concepts. Newport also has to develop these same skills to advance his career in computer science, so he devotes an hour each day to breaking down the concepts in his field's most cited research papers. I applied this to my own career path by finding engineering journals, reading one article each day, and making notes and diagrams. Because I enjoy learning and making progress, having this plan makes me more enthusiastic about my career.

Newport's book provide some of the best career advice that I have encountered. It helped me create a plan to advance along my career path. I gained a lot more confidence in my ability to create a fulfilling career. The book also helps students see the flaws in conventional career advice. Being uncertain about the direction of your career can result in years of lost time and missed opportunities, so young adults need to seek out this type of advice as soon as possible.

Sources:

1.<https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2013/06/disconnect-choosing-major/
2.So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport<

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

123D Circuits

The Lab View

For people like me who can't afford electronics kits and are worried about getting electrocuted during a project, 123D Circuits is a wonderful, free online resource that will allow you to learn the basics of electronics with online simulations and helpful guides. This website is run by AutoDesk which also creates 3D modeling applications such as Tinkercad and 123D design.

Features:

  • Three views in 123D Circuits: Lab View, Schematics View, PCB view.
  • Design Modes: Electronics Lab, PCB, and Circuit Scribe 
  • basic components such as LEDs, capacitors, diodes, breadboards, etc
  • everything from the Arduino basic kit and a code editor
  • Video Tutorials for Newbies
  • No download
  • Gallery of everyone's designs
  • A Shop for ordering any of the designs in the gallery
The Schematics View

The Educational Impact:

There are currently many free and accessible online resources for people to learn about computer science and programming, but online resources to learn about the hardware side of technology is not as readily available. For instance, the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course website edX has 66 computer science courses and only 8 electronics courses as of today. Hopefully with websites like 123D Circuits, the number of tutorials and MOOCs for electronics based on building circuits will grow. Similar to how online coding tutorials allow many programmers to become professionals without formal schooling, these new resources for electronics can open non-degree opportunities such as becoming a chip designer, an inventor, or even an electrical engineer. 
The PCB View

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette


This book made me realize that being rejected by the Top 20 schools is a blessing in disguise. I started my college admission journey with many other well-off, middle class students and I fell under various societal pressures that made the admissions process an anxiety-ridden nightmare. Because I was a high-ranking honors student, my parents and guidance counselors and peers expected me to get into an Ivy League College while deep down I knew that my SAT scores and accomplishments were not enough to give me even a remote chance of getting into any of those schools. Many other fellow classmates also experienced a dilemma or two over which college to attend including my friend who couldn't choose between a college with a nicer campus and a college with better outdoors programs. After finishing this book, I found out that many other students and I have been focusing on the completely wrong factors in deciding a college. This book gave me the insight I needed to look past the reputation of the university that did accept me and find all of the opportunities that are available there. In addition, the book taught me how to avoid the common pitfalls of financing my education and encouraged me to make smart financial decisions such as living with grandparents instead of on-campus. Although I should have read this book before senior year, I still got a lot of great advice that will help me graduate with as little financial burdens as possible.

Summary

Zac Bissonnette wrote this book while majoring in art history at the University of Massachusetts. Before even setting foot on campus, he already had an impressive entrepreneurial and financial background. At the time, he was a writer and editor on AOL Money & Finance and had earned enough money through his stock portfolio to pay for his education himself with enough left over to invest in student housing real estate(Bissonette 7-8). His book includes advice from respected financial writers- such as Andrew Tobias- and even the former scam artist Barry Minkow. It is addressed to parents and it discusses the reasons to avoid depending on student loans, financial aid, their retirement savings, and scholarships to pay for their children's "dream school". Instead, it provides useful strategies for cutting costs and finding affordable options. It even confronts the bigger problem of the college and student loan bubble. The advice in this book is completely unconventional and opposes the status quo which is why the majority of families are still making the fatal mistakes described in this book five years after its publication. 

Praises

"I don't make the rules, I just make fun of them,"(23) is an example of the witty, sarcastic humor that you'll encounter throughout this book.In a funny and engaging way, he uncovers the bureaucratic nonsense behind federal aid, college ranking systems, and soaring tuition prices. He also exposes how financial aid officers and private loan companies often dupe families into a cycle of debt and financial instability. Many commonly held myths, which have convinced parents to pay excessively for college, have been debunked with empirical studies in this book. Furthermore, Bissonnette encourages families to avoid short-sighted decisions about college and make choices that will benefit both parents and students in the long-term. With this perspective, he guides students through making financially responsible decisions in the present, so that their college education becomes an asset instead of a burden in the future after college. For high-achievers, the book even devotes a chapter to help those students "Make Any College an Ivy League College" which offers great advice for networking and choosing classes.

Criticisms

One minor criticism is that the book addresses the parents even though the subtitle is "How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off my Parents". More importantly, the fact that this book was written in 2010 means that many of the cost calculations and the legal details in this book have changed since then. For instance, the average tuition and fees for the in-state public university in the book's cost calculation is $6,600 (56). Thanks to inflation in higher education, the average tuition and fees is now $9,139 according to Collegeboard. This could mean that some families will be unable to completely avoid debt by following the advice in the book. 

Conclusion

My rating for this book is 4 out of 5 stars. Although it is slightly out of date now, it is still a valuable for the majority of high school students. It offers ways for most families to pay for college without making outrageous sacrifices and taking on debt. Because our culture teaches us to fixate on trivial details such as the university size and prestige, we need a guide like this that will help us focus on the more practical matters of higher education. While college sales pitches and societal pressures make many families loose rationality over college decisions, it is important to remember that former president of Wesleyan University Victor Butterfield used to tell his incoming freshmen,“After you graduate, if you say these were the best four years of your life, we have failed you.”Tim Goral, University Business


  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Recursion: How Computer Scientists make Circular Reasoning Work for Them

Whenever I hear, "you have to do what I said because I told you to," from any authority figure, my mind translates that to, "I can't think of any reason for making you do this." When people restate their conclusion as the argument for that same conclusion, it's logical fallacy called circular reasoning. There are some pretty good examples of this on Bo Bennet's blog "Logically Fallacious" including the logical form of it.
Logical Form:
X is true because of Y.
Y is true because of X.,
As someone who tries to be a rational human being, I avoid circular reasoning as often as I can. Yet, I ended up finding it two of the most logically consistent fields: computer science and math. In computer science language, it's called recursion while math's version of circular reasoning is called induction. During my computer science course "CS For All: Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming" on edX.org by Harvey Mudd, I learned that these two forms of circular reasoning are actually useful problem solving methods even though they seem counter-intuitive at first. An example of recursion from the course's e-book CS For All is this factorial function:

What's going on

This is a function that gives you the factorial of n (aka n!=n*(n-1)*(n-2)...*1). The way this function works is that if n=1, it's obvious that 1! = 1*1 =1 and factorial(1)=1. The tricky part is the 
factorial(n-1) on line 8 which means that in order to get the factorial of a number greater than 1, the factorial function has to use the factorial function. Although it seems that using the factorial function while trying to find the factorial brings you to the same place that you started, it actually helps you solve the problem. At a closer look, you'll see that the inner factorial takes the value of (n-1) which means that the input of inner factorial  is sent back to the first part of the function where it goes through the "if" and "else" clauses and the input decreases by one each time. This loop continues until the input equals one and obviously factorial(1) = 1, so the loop ends and the function returns the value of the variable result after however many loops.

The While Loop 

This method of recursion is actually very similar to a more intuitive concept called the while loop. For example, this is the while loop that I coded to do the exact same thing as the previous function:
Basically, I always start off with a result that equals 1 and the result is multiplied by n until n is no longer greater than 1. With each loop, the n value decreases by 1 so that the function gets the right answer and doesn't continue into infinity. 

Underlying Concepts of Recursion

According to the CS For All textbook, recursion starts with the base case which is the answer to the simplest form of the problem. For the factorial example, the base case is 1!=1 or factorial(1) = 1. From there, the function can solve more complex problems like factorial(34) by putting it through the loop with the input of factorial(n-1) decreasing each time and thus simplifying problem until (n-1)=1. Notice how (n-1) actually gets stored as n with each loop, yet all of the past incarnations of n are multiplied together when it's time to calculate the final result. In a language like Python, variables like n can change value during the course of a program. However, all the values that n ever took are stored in "stacks" which you can think of as these boxes in this figure from CS For All :
As you can see, none of the past versions of n are forgotten and they all enter into the equation for the result. 

Conclusion

Although I still prefer the "while loop", learning recursion has given me a new way to think about solving problems which could be useful in case other methods do not work as well. In addition, seeing the limits of my intuition is a valuable experience for me because I tend to rely on intuition too heavily like many other people. CS For All by Christine Alvarado (UC San Diego), Zachary Dodds (Harvey Mudd), Geoff Kuenning (Harvey Mudd), and Ran Libeskind-Hadas (Harvey Mudd) has been a great guide that helped me understand this strange concept and I would definitely recommend it to anyone else interested in learning more about recursion(see Chapter 2: Function programming) or any other computer science concept. Circular logic can actually be logically valid problem solving method and is definitely not always as bad as this Dilbert cartoon makes it out to be.