Saturday, May 28, 2016

What I Learned As A College Freshman Part 3: Independent Learning

After all the lectures and homework, many of us would rather not look at another book or hear another word above 4 syllables. However, I think it is a big mistake for a college student to stop learning outside the classroom. For one thing, doing extra research into the field you are majoring in can give you a better idea of what your career would be like. Whatever you learn can help you develop a passion for your major, or make you realize that you desperately need to switch majors. In addition, you can explore which subdisciplines you want to specialize in and pick your electives accordingly. If you are particularly ambitious, you can learn about the cutting edge of your field which could foster some highly profitable ideas down the road. Or you can learn about subjects in other fields and find creative ways to incorporate it into your field, thus making scientific/technological advances. Besides helping your career, independent learning is a valuable, lifelong skill. It's like reading. If you do it often enough, you'll be able to do it with greater speed, perseverance, comprehension, and retention. College is the perfect time to develop this skill because it offers many resources that are "complementary" to your tuition.

  • Library

  • Your typical campus library will house way more books than your average public library, plus it'll let you check out books for longer periods of time. It's the best place to find non-mainstream books on science, psychology, economics, etc. If you haven't already, you should develop a habit of reading nonfictional, academic literature. For a STEM major, it's important to be able to comprehend technical jargon and complex mechanisms. For a citizen in a democracy, it's absolutely essential to be "well-informed". When you are just starting out, there are lots of introductory books that can get your feet wet. However, even the introductory books can be biased if there is controversy in that field. For example, I'm currently reading Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. As informative as he is, most of the book is an argument for free-market capitalism. I'm ideologically on the same side as him, but I know that I'm going to have to expose myself to the opposition's arguments before I can fully justify my position on this subject. As with any other source of information, be critical.
  • Journal Subscriptions

  • Because you are affiliated with a university, you have access to thousands of dollars worth of papers from databases such as ScienceDirect. Like the library books, reading the papers can help you understand the technical jargon and complex mechanisms. The papers can be very difficult to read. So, I recommend printing each paper at the campus library and annotating it. You should be able to understand what the researchers' area of interest, goals, methodology, and findings. Plus, reading the papers should help you improve your graph reading skills. Because the high-cost subscription journals tend to be more rigorous than their open access counterparts, you should also use these paper to develop a standard for scientific (or any other) studies. You might continue reading open access journal papers after college, so you will need to judge the credibility of the paper.
  • Industry Magazines

  • You can get these for free at your major's department. I have also been able to get a free subscription to two magazines by the American Society of Civil Engineering just because my university has a branch. I didn't even have to be a member of the branch to be eligible. These magazines are a great resource for learning the new developments in the field. If you are interested in doing R&D work, the magazine published by the university can give you an idea of the current hot topics. I even found the job advertisements useful because they hint at what skills are in demand and what locations are hiring.
  • Software Licences

  • I found a license for Mathematica and Matlab on the dashboard in my student account. In addition, the Engineer Computing Center offers other software such as Cadence. These are likely the tools you'll be using in industry, so you'll benefit from playing around with them even if none of your current classes require it. You can also come up with some cool projects for using these software programs. For instance, Mathematica is a great toy for Big Data enthusiasts. Matlab can be used for controlling Arduino boards or robots.
  • Campus Events

  • The campus events are great places to encounter new ideas. There are guest lectures where anyone can drop in and hear an expert talk about their area of interest. With the more technical ones, it's a good idea to read the abstract and do some research beforehand. An added bonus is that there's often free food. You can also go to seminars that will teach you certain skills. For instance, my university's Engineer Computing Center offers workshops for programming and using Linux OS. Besides that, there are also discussion panels and debates.
I prefer using these independent learning methods over elective classes and clubs. The clubs and classes come with additional obligations and costs which can make college life more stressful. Besides conversations with your friends, most of your intellectual enrichment will probably occur outside the classroom. This post is the last of the "What I Learned as a College Freshman" series. When you put the three posts together, the list is remarkably long. It goes to show that college is a unique experience with many opportunities and hurdles. It's up to us to make the best of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: Enjoy the Decline

Enjoy the Decline Enjoy the Decline by Aaron Clarey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know whether to label myself as a classical liberal or a libertarian. One of my left-leaning tendencies includes my preference for Obama over Romney. In spite of this, I did enjoy the book and the advice is useful to me. However, my major disagreement is that the author blames the entire left-wing population for the social woes of the United States. Many prominent libertarian leftists completely oppose feminism, Marxism, and racial resentment. The problem is with the authoritarian left. And why are younger generations giving them so much power? They are driven by their hatred of the authoritarian right, who discredited themselves by trying to join religion with state. However, I would still recommend other leftists to read this book because it does provide show some of the unfortunate consequences of Democratic policies, particularly the ones for welfare. In his chapter "Plundering", you see how easy it is for people to take advantage of these programs. On top of that, Clarey makes a point throughout the book about how these policies act as disincentives for young people to contribute to the economy.

As a college student, the best insight I got from this book is that my career doesn't define me and shouldn't be my priority if I end up in a dead-end job. He offers great advice on how to live off of very little while enjoying life. Reading this can help you become financially independent of the bad bosses in corporate America. This is also a good book for preppers anticipating an economic collapse. Even if you don't buy into the possibility of the economic collapse described in the book, some of his advice is useful in a recession which happens about every decade according to Wikipedia. It's a good way to prepare for a potential layoff or retirement savings lost in a stock market crash.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What I learned as a College Freshman (Part 2: Socializing)

The Beach, JHU In Part 1, I mostly gave academic advice that I had to learn the hard way. When it comes to socialization, my major heavily influenced my experiences at college. As an engineering major, I share more of my classes with other STEM majors. So, I typically come across people who are more concerned with academics, and have a high interest in STEM topics. Some of my experiences were strange and unexpected, but most of it was a welcome change from high school.

  • Conversations with Strangers
  • Strangely, I've had some of the most interesting, insightful conversations with people I don't ever see again. One time, a guy approached me in the library and we ended up having a 2-hour long conversation about the presidential primaries and programming languages. In the beginning, there were a lot of awkward pauses. But, we eventually found a topic that fascinates us after some questioning and small talk. With a total stranger, I was more open to sharing my opinions and it was easier to overcome my shyness. I also like to encounter perspectives that I wouldn't find in my social circle. On top of that, it's fascinating how I can connect with a random stranger so well. These types of conversations are one of the pleasant surprises I occasionally get at my university.

  • Meeting New People
  • I find that the best way to meet new people is to join interesting electives. Back in high school, I found out that the people whose company I enjoy the most are all in AP art. In college, I had a similar experience in my martial arts class and my University Student Instrumentation Project class (USIP). Luckily, USIP lasts for 3 semesters which means my friendships will probably last longer than they would in a one semester class. Here's a weirder way to make a friend: constantly bump into the same person because you both go to the same events. There is one girl who I constantly meet without either of us planning it. It just so happens that we are both interested in entrepreneurship, innovations, and environmentalism. So, we keep meeting each other at civil engineering seminars, presentations by entrepreneurs, and a fair hosted by the environmental club. I have yet to receive a stronger sign that I should be friends with someone.

  • The Professors
  • My professors are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. One of them is a Russian history professor who did his undergraduate studies on a ship and he got to travel the world. So, he has many crazy stories about his adventures abroad. Another professor was a student of Carl Sagan while he was at Cornell university. He also has many of his own wild stories such as the time when he managed to get free tickets to a concert at the Roman Coliseum. I find that most of my professors are fairly approachable, and I could talk about non-course related subjects with some of them. I've had one intimidating professor, but his age makes it easier to overlook that.

  • Mentorship Programs
  • If you need help adjusting to this new environment, signing up for a mentorship program at freshman orientation is a good idea. In the program at my university, students are typically paired with someone with the same major. I met with my mentor on a one-on-one basis weekly last semester. My mentor gave me good advice on college-related issues, and she was a great person to talk to when I don't know who else to go to.

  • Nerd/Geek Culture
  • Some of my engineering professors actually promote "nerd"/"geek" culture openly, so it's very easy to find other people who have these sorts of interest. I've actually found that I could fit in more easily with my fellow engineering students if I adopted some of these interests. In one of my engineering classes, many of my classmates are fans of Dungeons and Dragons, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek. College is where I've found the first female my age with whom I can talk about scientific and technological advances.

  • Partying
  • I hate the noise and chaos that is typical in college parties. A more enjoyable alternative for me is to go to parties hosted by professors. I got invited to a couple because I was part of a research team for that professor's pet project. Besides being quieter and more low-key, in my opinion there were more interesting people and conversations to be had. Meaning, I can find more people willing to talk to me about mathematics or xenology, as opposed to sports or reality television.
Unfortunately, I have yet to join a club. However, there are surprisingly many other opportunities to connect with people. For me, one of the best things about college is meeting people who I can learn a lot from in a non-classroom setting. In Part 3, I will talk about intellectual development outside the classroom.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: The Secret Lives of INTJs

The Secret Lives of INTJs The Secret Lives of INTJs by Anna Moss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun, light read for people interested in MBTI personality types. As an INTJ, I thought that the book helped me understand myself better. It covers a wide range of topics including relationships, childhood, criminality, and personality disorders. Most of the assertions are based on psychological studies and literary analysis. The psychological studies are somewhat unreliable because the sample sizes are too small to show accurate trends. The author openly acknowledges this, but these studies do provide interesting subjects for further exploration. The author also helped me understand how others perceive my personality. I found the literary analysis of both fictional and nonfictional INTJs particularly helpful. The author's method for typing each character seems reliable enough: she listed both traits that supported and opposed an INTJ classification and provided textual evidence.

This book is great for INTJs interested in personal development. It provides some healthy examples of INTJ role models who manage to display the best of INTJ traits while improving on the more negative traits. It's nice to see that we don't have to be the stereotypical INTJ robot in order to hone our mental capabilities. The book also describes which of our traits we can use to our advantage in leadership positions and personal relationships.

There are also some novel ideas in the book such as IQ tests being biased towards INTPs and INTJs because those tests measure abstract, reasoning skills. In the studies cited, researchers can actually predict personality type based on IQ. It does explain why INTx types have a reputation for being geniuses and made me consider whether IQ tests should be modified to suit type preferences or whether we should have a model based on multiple types of intelligence. In the appendix, the author has an interesting alternative model that is simpler than cognitive functions and type dynamics. A problem that I have with it is that it would introduce another 368 possible combinations of the personality dimensions: introversion, extroversion, intuition, etc. While I could see her reason behind it, I think it's more useful to have a just the 16 types. The smaller number lets you have an archetypal idea of each type, so you can quickly get a good idea of an individual's personality even though the person slightly deviates from the archetype.

The only other criticism I have is that the author needs a proofreader. The book has many grammatical errors and some instances of poor sentence structure. Overall, the author seems to have a good understanding of us INTJs.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Hive Mind: How Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own

Hive Mind: How Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own Hive Mind: How Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own by Garett Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a great book for people interested in IQ research and economics. Even for the IQ dissenters, I would still recommend this book to them because it lays out a solid argument for why IQ tests and standardized tests such as the SATs are a good measure of important cognitive skills. In addition, it also touches on the inflammatory issue of racial IQ differences in a way that's palpable to both sides. The author is open-minded about the issue, but he doesn't leap to unnecessary conclusions due to the little amount of research done.

I found Jone's explanations on how average IQ can affect a nation illuminating. However, he should have addressed a hole in his argument: Hong Kong has the highest IQ in the data appendix yet the Chinese government is notorious for corruption.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

What I learned as a College Freshman (Part 1: Academics)

Another descriptive title for this post could be "What I Wish I Knew Before College". I read college prep books and watched advice videos, but they were not enough to help me succeed academically. Yes, there's more to college than getting a high GPA. However, it's hard to enjoy ourselves if we have to worry about keeping scholarships, passing classes, or impressing our future employers. So, this post will focus on academics because it is the foundation of our college experience. In Part 2, I will discuss other aspects such as social life and personal growth.

In General

  • Employers care more about your major GPA than your university GPA
  • The major GPA counts only the classes that pertain to your major. This is wonderful news for most freshmen who come in unprepared for the unique challenges of college. Because most freshmen and sophomore classes are for general requirements, these years are good testing grounds for figuring out which study habits work for you. Can you manage to skip classes? What are the best resources on campus? Is group study effective for you? How should you schedule your study time?

  • Everything is preparation for exams and papers
  • The exams count for the majority of your grade, so you should look at everything you learn from the lectures and homework as preparation for the exams. Because teachers are no longer giving mandatory practice in the form of quizzes and daily homework, you have to schedule exam preparation throughout the year. This could mean reviewing old topics weekly, doing problems without notes, or treating online homework as a quiz.

  • Study ahead of the curve to score ahead of the curve
  • I'm surprised that no one gave me this advice: study 1 or 2 chapters ahead of whatever the professor is currently covering. For literary classes, try to finish the novel or all the reading assignments in half the time the professors assigned it. You should also save the class syllabus and use this as a guide. If you put in the extra effort in the beginning of the semester when the workload is still low, you will be able to stay ahead of the class for the rest of the semester without straining yourself. If you do this, you will be able to start homework earlier. If you need more time to comprehend a difficult subject, this tactic helps prevent you from falling behind. You'll also have more time to get a tutor or professor to help you on difficult problems. By the time midterms and finals come, you will have fewer assignments to do that would have taken away your time to study and you wouldn't still be trying to learn new subjects.

  • Don't Expect Weekends off with a 15hr courseload
  • It's a sad, unfortunate truth. While you can take a couple hours off for your friends and family, chances are that you still have assignments with looming deadlines despite all the hard work you put in during the weekdays. The weekends should be a time for you to unwind, so save the easier or more pleasurable assignments for this time. I would put my reading assignments into this category.

  • Enroll in GPA-boosters
  • If you have a class that you struggle in, these classes can be life-savers. Online courses offered by your university are a good option because those have more extensive online resources, give you a more flexible schedule, and they seem to have very low requirements. I can only speak from my experience with an Introduction to Psychology class. I was able to do my final exam at home with an open notebook. In addition, I got 25 "free points" which made up for all the assignments I missed. You need to devote less than the three credit hours per week to earn an A in these types of classes, so it won't take away much study time for your other classes. Just be sure you enroll in a class that is somewhat interesting, so you have the motivation to do the minimum requirements.

  • Speedread textbooks
  • Textbooks are big and often dull to read. So, some speed reading tactics can help you get all the information you need and get past the temptation to procrastinate. The first thing you should do is go to the chapter review, skim the key concepts, and write important terms or equations in your notes. Next, try prereading which means that you flip through the pages and only glance the graphics, captions, and headings. When you read through the textbook, skim over unnecessary information. These parts are usually where the authors try to make the topic "relevant" or "interesting". If you need a real-world connection, you can go back to these parts later or just look at the graphics. Slow down when you get to the important material. Usually, you can tell if you stumble across a bold word or you see an equation nearby. Don't make notes until you finish an entire section. This is just more time efficient, and it helps test your recall. Also, take multiple breaks so that you don't get fatigued easily.

  • Go by the book, not the lectures
  • Some lecturers fill their presentations with confusing or superfluous information. Others might go too slowly, and leave topics uncovered for the exams. In all cases, the book should be the primary source of knowledge and the lectures are supplementary. It's because you have a much better chance of understanding a textbook. It's self-paced, allows you to have breaks, and it's designed to be comprehensible to you.

  • Go to lectures even if you don't always pay attention
  • This is still a good idea because sometimes the professor springs a pop quiz or drop a tip that could save you hours of confusion over one problem. In addition, going the class could be the only way to know if the professor is changing the exam or offering extra credit. If the professor is going over a topic you struggle in, definitely pay attention. Otherwise, you can do exam reviews or homework during the lectures. Just do something that's relevant to the class you're in, so it's easier to detect when the professor is saying something important. I've seen some people play video games during lectures, and there are better ways to use that time.

For Humanities Classes

  • The lectures hint at what you'll write for the papers
  • This applies whether you get to choose your paper topic or you get one assigned to you. The major themes that come up during the lecture will tell you what you need to pay attention. In addition, you can use the quotes cited by the professor as textual evidence for your papers.

  • Make flashcards for every major theme
  • This is one good advice I got from Cal Newport's How to Become a Straight-A student. The flashcards serve as a reference for all the usable textual evidence you find in the book as you are reading. You don't even have write the entire quote, just the main idea and page number. Preferably, you use the 5x8 inch cards so that you have enough space. These index cards are especially useful for generating ideas and arguments if you have to choose your own topic. In addition, having all your textual evidence in one place makes it easier to pick the best one and make a strong argument. Most importantly, they'll save you from frantically flipping through the book as you are writing a paper that's due in a week at most.

  • Make a Digital Outline
  • The outline will help you structure your paper and help you see if there are strong links between your argument and your paper. A piece of paper is good for brainstorming ideas, but Google Docs and Microsoft Word are more versatile for making outlines. It's more readable. You can type in the full quote, then copy/paste it into your draft. You might decide to get rid of parts of your argument, but you worry about changing your mind. Luckily, you can move those sections of the outline into the comments or on a different page. You can also easily change the order of your main ideas.

  • Prepare Paper Format ahead of time
  • This is a good thing to do when you don't even know what you want to write. It'll help you start to think about the paper, and give you fewer things to worry about later. In addition, you can also create the Works Cited page in advance.

For Science and Math

  • Preview Problems as Soon as You Can
  • Do this especially before you look at the textbook. This will help you spot the important information. In addition, it will help you make connections between formulas and the applications sooner.

  • Do the textbook example problems before homework
  • This will test your understanding of the chapter. In addition, the textbook examples cover most of the scope of the chapter and they tend to similar to the homework. Because they typically come with solutions and explanations, you'll get immediate feedback and help.

  • Save a hard copy of problems you repeatedly get wrong
  • Chances are, you'll forget the trick of the problem by the time exams come. The hard copies allow you to write the solutions next to them, so you can easily review them. In addition, the hard copies will tell you which problems you should spend the most time studying. On the copy, be sure to clearly outline the steps of the solutions. If you can't even solve the problem, you can give the hard copy to a tutor or professor who can help you.

  • Use online resources for problems you get stuck on
  • Sometimes, a five minute Google search is more productive and time efficient than a trip to your campus tutoring center. You can find the solution to almost every math and science problem online. Many sites charge you for access, but there are a few free resources I've found. One of them is Coursehero which gives you a limited amount of unlocks for each document you submit with problems and solutions. Otherwise, you can look through youtube videos, especially the ones on the Khan Academy channel

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a nice thing to read while I was waiting for my Ancestry DNA test results. It clarified some of the misconceptions I had about genetics. For example, I thought that the "Eve" of genetics is literally the first "human" woman who is the common ancestor of all living people. It turns out that she is probably had many other contemporaries who were just as eligible to pass on their DNA to today's generation. But, their genetic lineages died out due to chance circumstances which Skye does a good job of clarifying. I also enjoyed having the "behind-the-scenes" view of how a scientist conducts investigations, think his way past obstacles, and challenge established beliefs in the scientific community. Unlike some of the readers on goodreads, I don't think the fictional accounts at the end were inappropriate for a scientific work. This is one instance where imagination and the arts can enhance science. The stories make it so much easier to see the context behind the source of our DNA and imagine how new clans (ie haplogroups) emerge over time.

The one thing that bothered me was how he made a big point at the beginning and end of the book that races don't exist, without supporting it with scientific work. The only explanation that he offers is that people from different races can breed, so races aren't distinct groups because there's no impermeable barrier between the gene pools. Has he never heard of the concept "mixed race"? According to The Free Dictionary, race is

" A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them."

By this definition, races don't have to be isolated from each other to maintain distinctiveness. A mixed race individual would inherit different traits from different groups and it would be acknowledged as such. Skye also goes on to agreed with the bit about "more genetic variation within groups than between them". He could've at least cited some studies that explain what that phrase means, because it doesn't have a meaning to me. To me, it's the equivalent of saying redheads don't exist because the differences between redhead individuals are greater than the differences between redheads and brunettes. The bizarre irony is, he's the one offering perfect evidence for the existence of races. In the same chapter, he talks about how different markers on DNA allow researchers to predict which geographic region their ancestors came from. The markers are specific enough to differentiate between different countries. If something as impersonal as a DNA test groups people together based on the genetic markers they share and this DNA test reliably makes predictions about this group's origins, how is this group not a race? On top of that, he goes on to talk about how some people value knowing the geographical region their ancestors came from and how they can identify with other people who share the same distant common ancestor. He paints this in such a positive light, I'm wondering why he's so insistent on abolishing the concept of race.

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