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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Day 1: Road Town, Tortola to Privateer Bay, Norman Island

Our paddleboard had gotten delivered the night before, and Mark's flight was thankfully only delayed an hour, so we could get the ship's briefing and get the scuba gear delivered and installed before doing one final provisioning run. Mark showed up from the airport just as we'd come back to the boat and then we were off!

In past years, I'd moor'd at Kelly Cove and then dinghy'd over to the caves for the snorkeling. But from last year, I remembered that there were a fair number of mooring balls at Privateer Bay, which was right next to the caves, so we made for it and arrived at 3:00pm or so to find a couple of mooring balls left. We picked one up and proceeded to get into the water.
The caves on Norman island are a snorkeler's delight. You can snorkel along the reefs and watch the wildlife, or dive into the caves, take off your fins, take a break on land, and then go back to swimming. We did all that, and also discovered a bunch of cuttlefish that we would also find again later, in large groups.

By the time we'd finished exploring and returned to the boat the sun had gone down, so we enjoyed the sunset and the barbeque dinner. At this point, we knew what would happen the next day, which was a visit to the Indians and then Cooper Island to refill the tanks!

Monday, December 17, 2018


American Airlines was a nightmare. First of all, they'd called several times prior to the trip to change our flight. We had gone from flying into EIS to flying into STT, and then from flying into SJC to flying into SFO. Given that the travel plans were made as much as 6 months ago, we had no choice but to accept those changes and then complain loudly to customer service, which resulted in them giving us a measly 5000 additional frequent flyer miles! Then when we finally showed up on the airline, the promised "first class" lie-down seats didn't fold flat. (I was skeptical of the airline promise in the first place, but I looked on seatguru and at that time it seemed to indicate that I was wrong)

But our nightmare was nothing compared to what Mark Brody went through. His flight was so late that he missed his connection in San Juan and was forced to overnight in a hotel there. Arturo had suggested that he fly to STT but the morning flight and wrangling with airlines made it so that Mark was too tired to try.

We arrived safely and on time in St Thomas, and picked up the baggage with relative speed, but got to the ferry only to discover that the 3:30pm ferry had sold out! Fortunately, there was another ferry at 4:00pm (and the last ferry was at 4:30pm) so we were good.
On the ferry, we sat on the top deck to get maximum sun so we could get over the jet-lag. Arturo had arrived on time with no problems, but he'd been depending on having Mark to help him provision, and with our ferry schedule and the need to go through immigration at the ferry terminal, there was no way we would make it to the Omega before 6:00pm.

Indeed, by the time we made it to the boat (there were very few boats on the Conch slip) and moved in, we were famished and walked down to the Indian restaurant for dinner, leaving poor Arturo to provision by himself and pay the taxi driver extra to get stuff down to the boat. When we were all united, we discussed various plans to leave the dock without Mark if he became delayed again, but came to no definitive conclusion.

We were all pretty tired and so turned in early.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

2019 Book Reviews

Audio Books

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Index Page: BVI 2018

From November 16th to November 27th, Arturo Crespo, Mark Brody, and my family did a sailing cruise in the British Virgin Islands. This marked my 5th trip to the Virgin Islands and Bowen's 3rd (lest I forget, however, this was also Bowen's 5th sailing cruise!). This is the index page for the day by day trip report and other expository information.

This was our first trip since the Hurricanes in 2017, which changed the British Virgin Islands in ways we expected and didn't expect. First of all, the one of the mooring balls we used to use for diving were swept away and have not yet been replaced. This wasn't expected, since I expected things underwater to not get changed that much. Then there were the indirect effects. For instance, the Wily T in the Bight sank and was replaced by a newly built one, but then the owner of Norman Island forced the Wily T to move to Peter Island's great harbor. That meant that the Bight is now a relatively quiet place, while Great Harbor is now a go-to destination for the party crowd. But it also meant that Cooper Island was less crowded, as the Great Harbor on Peter Island now draws some of the crowd that used to visit Cooper. Finally, in Gorda Sound, Leverick Bay has gone from the quietest harbor to the busiest --- the other harbors are still under reconstruction. There are still a lot of boats sailing the waters, but many of the smaller charter companies have yet to recover their enter stock of sailing and motor vessels so now is the time to visit if you want quieter harbors.
White Bay, Peter Island, BVI

Day by Day Trip Report
  • Prologue
  • Nov 18th: Road Town, Tortola, to Privateer Bay, Norman Island
  • Nov 19th: Privateer Bay, Norman Island to Cooper Island
  • Nov 20th: Cooper Island to Prickly Pear Island
  • Nov 21st: Prickly Pear Island to Marina Cay
  • Nov 22nd: Marina Cay
  • Nov 23rd: Marina Cay to Anegada
  • Nov 24th: Anegada to Cooper Island
  • Nov 25th: Cooper Isalnd to White Bay, Peter Island
  • Nov 26th: White Bay, Peter Island to Great Harbor, Peter Island
  • Nov 27th: Great Habor, Peter Island to Road Town, Tortola

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You is Cal Newport's counterpart to John T Reed's Succeeding. The difference is that Cal Newport's an academic, so he'll take his arguments to extremes that most normal people won't. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing, because you can see how he takes his arguments to the logical conclusion. It's a bad thing, because that approach lets him ignore practical realities that aren't necessarily congruent with his worldview. As such, I think John T Reed's book is much better, but that doesn't mean that Newport's book isn't worth reading.

There's one core thesis to Newport's book, which is that passion is a worthless idea. He points out that even "passion" touters like Steve Jobs did not have a career path with a clearly defined goal at the outset. Most success stories revolve around opportunistic approaches, where skill/talent meets opportunity. As such, Newport's advise will sound a lot like your grandparent's approach to love in an arranged marriage: there's no such thing as an ideal career or person, you should just learn to love what you're stuck doing.

Obviously, high caliber people (i.e., people who can be bothered to read a book such as this one) will have lots of choices as to what skills and careers to pursue. Newport declares that the best approach is to have career capital. In other words, be so good at something valuable that you can have your pick of projects in the related area. Again, this is kind of an odd duck. For instance, Scott Adams' advice, which I think is quite appropos for most people, is to have a combination of skills that make you unique, rather than being the best in the world at any one thing. (Newport himself is such an example: an academic who can write is far more valuable than most other academics, excepting the ones who are at the top in their field)

He then blathers on about mission and a marketing approach to constructing your ideal career and lifestyle. This is by far the weakest part of the book, since it's quite clear that Newport himself doesn't have a good understanding of marketing and mission either. His habit of summarizing each chapter at the end just looks like padding because his chapters are so short!

Ultimately, I like the book's major thesis, but I disagree that Newport's approach is clearly the correct one. For instance, there's a huge factor involved in personality and fit to your job and career. John T Reed points out that it's much easier to adjust the environment to fit your personality, rather than trying to change your personality to fit your environment. That's much better advice than Newport's. Similarly, in a world of increasingly short attention spans, in many cases all it takes to make it into the top 10% is to be willing (and able) to read a book and execute. Now, being in the top 10% is great. But being in the top 10% of basket ball players won't get you anywhere, while being in the top 10% of computer programmers will get you a good job that pays very well! So it's important to understand that when building "career capital", but Newport doesn't acknowledge or seem to understand that.

I started this review wanting to recommend that you read Newport's book. But by the middle of writing this review and reflecting on the book I've realized that the academic approach to career advice that Professor Newport espouses is as unrealistic as the "passion hypothesis" approach he inveighs against. There are much better career guides out there. Go read those instead.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants

I'm a sucker for deals. I thought I was happy with my Columbia Titanium Rain pants, but Massdrop had a good deal on the Outdoor Research Helium Pants, and in a moment of weakness, I bought it. It didn't rain in California for a while, but when it finally did recently, I dug it out and put it on.

Wow, these are nice pants. The material is thin but waterproof, and the medium fits me perfectly. These are much lighter than the Columbia I previously used. No water gets through the pants no matter how much I rode in the rain, and I never got hot. They are much thinner than the Columbia version, and lighter as well. Now I'll have to sell off my Columbia pants because these are so much better than I wouldn't go back to the Columbia again.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: The Learning Brain

The Learning Brain is  The Great Courses series on how your brain learns material. By coincidence, I audited this course while also reading How to Become a Straight-A student, so the two complemented each other, with this course providing the theoretical background, while Newport's book provided a practical approach.

The theoretical approach has much to recommend it. For instance, rereading a textbook is known to be useless (Newport also appears to know this, but never explains why in his book). It turns out that it's far easier to recognize material you've read than to retrieve it. In order to pass exams or truly internalize the material, you need to master retrieving it, so the best approach is to test yourself. Similarly, highlighting material is inferior to explaining the material in your own words, which in turn is inferior to mastering the material to the point where you can teach others.

Polk goes beyond what Newport does by providing further details: here's how much spacing in between study sessions you'll need to maximize effectiveness. Even better, here's how you learn implicit skills (such as playing tennis, golf or the piano) so you can maximize performance. It turns out that randomizing your skills gives you worse performance at the time of practice but will improve performance in the long run. This is counter to most practice: for instance, many tennis players will go to the court and practice forehands, then backends, then serves. Professor Polk's approach would have you randomize which one to do. (I've found this to be true in swimming pools: most people would practice one stroke for 15 minutes, then another, then another --- I myself tend to interleave my strokes for precisely the reason Polk provides)

There's great stuff about the neurobiology behind all this learning, and in addition, there's also a section on aging and how to prevent it from affecting your brain, but of course you know the answer to that: a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and good sleep.

What I haven't seen elsewhere in this course is a study on human motivation. There's a ton of studies showing how the US falls far behind many other developed countries (and also many developing countries) despite having some of the highest per-capita spending on schools and students. It turns out that the reason is student motivation. Unlike many other countries, the USA had the highest number of students who agreed that "doing well in school is not important to succeeding in life", as well as many who worried that doing too well in school would stigmatize them socially! (Obviously, the sample for these studies drew from far more school districts than those you find in Silicon Valley) The material covers both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with results you might have read about or heard about from elsewhere.

Needless to say, this is a great course (pun intended) and well worth your time. Recommended!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: How to Become a Straight-A Student

Despite not liking his previous book, I checked out How to Become a Straight-A Student. Obviously, it's too late for me to become a Straight-A student (not that my GPA ever limited my life choices, for which I'm going to consider myself lucky), but maybe as my kids grow up I can find easy short cuts that will enable my children to skip a lot of blind alleys.

Prof. Newport claims that he wrote this book based on interviewing lots of other college students who were similar to him. In other words, he was one of those folks who could manage a social life while still having good grades. (Pengtoh, for instance, was famous for playing pool the night before exams, and got me to join him a few times) The techniques he stumbled upon turn out to have good basis in academic literature, but he doesn't seem aware of that.

The most important takeaway from this book is that one should be organized. Basically, pulling an all-nighter studying before a test or exam  isn't going to improve your grades, and the sleep deprivation might actually hurt you. So the goal of all his advice comes down to breaking down assignments and exams at least a couple of weeks ahead of time and then splitting up the studying into manageable chunks so you don't get overwhelmed.

This is, of course, an excellently organized approach. Pengtoh, for instance, gave me great advice once by telling me to do the assignment for CS162 (Berkeley's Operating Systems class) the night it was handed out. In those days, project assignments were performed on a time-shared VAX-11, and students being the procrastinators that they were, if you waited till the last minute everyone would logon and try to use the machine at the same time which would make it excruciatingly slow. So I would get my stuff done and then be working on other stuff when the machine became excruciatingly slow and my fellow classmates complained that the assignment was too difficult!

So if you grew up in Singapore or other similarly scholastically challenging places, you'll find all this advice stuff you already knew. For instance, the test taking techniques are something that every Singaporean is exposed to since the PSLE: do all the easy questions first, then the harder questions that you know how to do, and save all the "I'm not sure I can do this" questions at the end if you have the time budget for this. I have no idea how any American getting into an academically challenging institution wouldn't know how to do this, except that Steve Hsu points out that as much as 33% of Harvard's incoming classes are legacy admits and athletes.

The advice in the book that's of great use to most students from Asia is the stuff pertaining to writing a research paper. (By this, Newport means research papers in the non-technical courses --- history, etc)  This is organized into research, bouncing ideas off the professor, more research, organization, outlining, writing and revision. Newport provides a detailed timeline for how to do this, including when you should hit the professor during office hours, and how to make use of the library for research. I somehow escaped having to do this during my time at Cal, so it was all new to me.

The advice on how to truly master and learn the material is great. Basically, skip re-reading the textbook (research shows that re-reading and highlighting is a waste of your time), and build your study materials out of "Question/Evidence/Conclusion" tuples. When you organize the material like this, make sure you can answer every question without referring to your notes. If you can't, go over the questions that you couldn't, and repeat until you can. This is academically proven to be effective (though Newport doesn't seem to know that --- he doesn't provide a clear directive on how to schedule your study periods for maximum retention, for instance). For technical courses, he provides a different approach, which is problem-set based. Again, that's sound, but of course, if you grew up in a scholastically challenging academic environment (i..e, anywhere in East Asia), you already knew this.

In any case, this book is well worth your time reading if you're a middle school or high school student who would like to make better use of your time. The information provided is such that parents should read this and pass it on to their kids at the appropriate time. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is Yuval Noah Harari's book about the future of human civilization. It's not actually got 21 lessons that are explicitly laid out or organized in any form whatsoever, and as a historian, Harrai's approach is to speculate about the future mostly by example from the past.

For instance, the problem of Fake News is discussed, but Harari poits out that the biggest "Fake News" of all are the various mythological religions and founding myths! OK, sure, we've managed to get a huge number of humans hooked on traditional witch-doctor-style indoctrinated belief systems, but there's no discussion about how despite humanity breaking free through enlightenment found itself tangled up in Fake News other than that wealthy people and big data analysis and machine learning somehow have learned to hack human psychology and created a mass of people who can no longer distinguish between reality and what Fox News is telling them. Harrari carefully ignores the fact that Fox started way before the prevalence of Big Data.

Harrari points out that in the future we might just trust Google/Algorithms/Big Data Cloud with our personal lives that we would just hand them our lives and ask them what we should do. This seems unlikely given that statistics are just that: you would still have to figure out which statistics apply to you. Harrari might simply have swallowed all the hype about machine intelligence hook/line and sinker without stopping to investigate deeply what this means. For instance, even if your doctor could be replaced by a Big Data algorithm, it's very likely that you would still need human contact for optimal care, and that cannot be done just by robots.

The net net is that the book discusses a ton of big problems facing humanity (massive loss of jobs, huge inequality, and of course the upcoming climate crisis), but doesn't actually provide any "lessons" or even a reasonable call to action. These are interesting problems to think about, but I think I'd prefer an analysis by someone who actually understands the technical problems, as opposed to a historian.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

2018 Books of the Year

This year, I read 53 books worth reviewing, audited 8 audio books, and read 12 graphic novels. That's well over a book a week, though some of that is mitigated by books I read to Bowen.

My comic book of the year was Runaways. The first arc was great, and while the rest of the series diminished the work established there, it was a great story and a lot of fun.

My favorite audio book this year was Law School for Everyone.  You would think that it's such a dry topic, but the lecture series was put together very well, and if you yourself are not a lawyer, chances are some day you'll need to hire one, and this would give you a great foundation. If that's not for you, I also recommend How Music Works, which was so good that I was inspired to watch a David Byrne concert.

My favorite novel this year was Crazy Rich Asians. The novel's much better than the movie, so if you liked the movie even a little, you're going to love the book. It's a quirky, entertaining book that's worth your time and uniquely Singaporean. If that's not to your fancy, I think Children of Time or The Hobbit would be your next best bet. (And seriously, if you haven't read "The Hobbit", you should!) Finally, parents could do much much worse than to read Harriet the Invincible to their kids. Triple that recommendation if they have daughters.

This year's non-fiction finds were particularly awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed Educated, The Great Influenza, Leonardo Da Vinci, Misbehaving, If Stones Could Speak, Never Split the Difference, and No Apparent Distress. Each one of these would make great reads, and I had a hard time coming to a "best book" pick. I very much waver between Leonardo Da Vinci and Misbehaving, but if you had to twist my arm I would say that Richard Thaler's book is just a little bit more relevant to today's world. Educated is also very much worth reading but would require a strong stomach. And obviously, if you have a child (or maybe even if you don't), If Stones Could Speak is awesome and short.

It's been a great year for books, so I hope these recommendations don't come too late for your holiday purchases!'

Friday, December 07, 2018

Review: American Sniper

American Sniper is Chris Kyle's autobiographical memoir of how he came to be the SEAL sniper with the most number of confirmed kills in the American military. It falls in the same genre of post Vietnam veterans narrative like No Easy Day. There's a huge difference between such modern day narratives and narratives of past military ventures written by Tim O'Brien, or the non-fiction fiction, Matterhorn.

This difference can be traced to the change in the American military from conscripted troops to an all volunteer army.  Now, you can argue that many participants in the all "volunteer" army are those driven by economic factors, and that the American military is an alternate welfare program. But there are two important factors here: first of all, the American military is unique in that you will see action if you ask for it. There are many militaries (including countries like Taiwan, Switzerland, and Singapore) where you mostly will not see action. That means that it attracts people like Chris Kyle, who did went to college and could have gotten good jobs if they wanted to without military action or the risks that go with it. The excitement and joy of battle comes clearly through the narrative. Not only are soldiers like Kyle excited, enthusiastic, and well trained for the job, they're also paid well enough to supplement the equipment the military provides them with their own gear if it would make a significant difference to their on-the-job performance.

Not only that, in a military where not everyone is a volunteer, there would be a rush to get away from the battlefield into administrative or strategic positions. Not so as far as Chris Kyle is concerned: he would try to avoid promotions so he could stay in the field and shoot bad guys. Certainly, I could imagine the terror the Iraqi conscripts would feel when faced with soldiers like Kyle, who would at times abandon his position as a sniper to lead a marine unit directly in building-to-building fighting, city block style, simply because he thought that leading that unit would provide fewer casualties than if he were to stay in his sniper position. This was a guy who didn't want to take the navigation course because by becoming too important to risk in a firefight he would be kept out of the action!

There's a flip side to becoming so addicted to action. Kyle is aware, for instance, of the rift that occured between him and his wife over his military deployments. Yet despite her obvious unhappiness he re-enlisted after his first term was up. After all that unhappiness and marriage counselling he finally relented and left the military after his second term. More insidiously, Chris Kyle never questioned what the USA was doing in Iraq, and never questioned President Bush's approach, going after Iraq when going after Osama Bin Laden clearly should have been a higher priority. You could read throughout his narrative that he thought Iraq was a messed up country that required lots of violence to bring their leaders to the table to organize the country, but didn't consider that the use of American military force was what led to some of his fellow team members losing body parts or dying. I guess he thought that any excuse to get out the weapons and shoot bad guys was good enough.

In recent years there are serious political debates about the tribal nature of American politics. While I have no interest in understanding say, the parents of Tara Westover, I don't find people like Chris Kyle unsympathetic. So I think it's worth while for liberals to read this book. And unlike Educated or Hillbilly Elegy, this one is fun to read. Recommended.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Review: Blood, Sweat and Pixels - The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

Blood, Sweat and Pixels is Jason Schrieier's behind the scenes looks at various games that have made it in the news over the last 5 years. To some extent it suffers a large amount from survivor-ship bias: it studied 9 success stories and only 1 failure.

The theme across the book is the phenomenon of "crunch." That is, of working an insane amount of overtime to try to launch a game. Schreier implies that there's no way out of not working in crunch, but of course he's a journalist and taking a self-aggrandizing product manager's word for it in every case, some take what he says there with a grain of salt.

Many of the games are household names. For instance, Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 are both featured in the book. In Uncharted 4's case, it was clear that the directors suffered from burnout, having shifted from just finishing up The Last of Us right into production hell  on Uncharted 4, having ousted the previous director of the  project.

In particular, the Witcher 3's managers themselves undermined Schreier's thesis, admitting that they overdid the quests in the game and probably could have cut about 20% of the quests without hurting the game. (Indeed, I over-leveled on that game!)

The author does cover 2 indie games: Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight, neither of which I've played. In both cases, the developers were working for themselves rather than for an employer. Schreier pointed out that Stardew Valley's developer was a fresh graduate and didn't really know how to manage his time, basically moving on whenever he was bored, rather than when he was actually finished with the feature, so he was always 6 months away from finishing. But of course, he kept adding feature after feature to the game as well, only launching the game when he was sick of working on it.

Shovel Knight was a kickstarter project that was successful, but also suffered from the "stretch goals" launched during the kickstarter part being far more ambitious and costly than anticipated. I thought the coverage was good.

All in all, the entire book's worth reading (including the backstory about the LucasArts game that got canceled after Lucas sold everything lock stock and barrel to Disney, who had a poor history with video games and would rather outsource everything than maintain an in-house studio). All in all, it's quite entertaining, but the entire book reads like a series of short Kotaku articles rather than a coherent book. Nevertheless, it's worth your time and very easy to read. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Review: No Apparent Distress

No Apparent Distress is Rachel Pearson's autobiographical account about how she became a doctor and the process of medical training.

Pearson is unusual in that she first wanted to be a writer first, and then changed her mind and decided to be a doctor after graduating with a degree. Much of the story takes place in Galveston after Hurricane Ike, which gave the local medical hospital an excuse to ditch care for people without health insurance.

The book isn't a political screed about the need for universal healthcare, but you see it in Pearson's encounters with patients throughout the book: cancer patients who can't get the surgery or chemotherapy they need, poor children who have no access to antibiotics, teenagers who cannot manage their diabetes properly because their homes are broken and they have no regular physician. (It's not clear that medicare for all would even have worked for some, since many of the patients were also undocumented)

The book was also enlightening to me in that it showed how doctors get trained: in wealthier, teaching situations, the hospital could actually hire "standard patients" who would evaluate doctors in how they approached care and give doctors-to-be feedback about how they were doing. In situations like student-run clinics or hospitals that provide care to folks without insurance, many of those patients would be seen by doctors-in-training, who would occasionally miss important clues. Pearson herself described her misunderstanding of a urine test that caused one man to be diagnosed of cancer too late, and another man who had such high blood sugar that he should have been hospitalized but wasn't. She then contrasts it to the luxury clinics where patient after patient would refuse to be seen by a doctor-in-training even for low risk health issues.

I have nits to pick with the book: frequently, she provides irrelevant details for the English majors who enjoy reading that stuff. It's a depressing book because so many of the cases end tragically not because medical science can't provide a cure, but because the cruel American medical system will not provide resources to help those who aren't insured. At one point she mentioned that the affordable care act had little impact in Texas because the Texas state government refused to expand medicaid to cover its poorest population.  Of course, the poorest part of the population aren't going to vote or can't vote, so there's no penalty for doing so.

Despite the depressing read, I learned more about a doctor's education process than I knew and came away better for it. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Review: Deep Work

Deep Work is Professor Cal Newport's book about how to achieve more maker time. Likes most of his other books (and perhaps a characteristic of books written by computer scientists and other technical people) is no-nonsense and straight-forward.

Newport spends way too much time selling you on the idea of maker time (or what he calls Deep Work). I think suffice to say, most people who would pick up a book with this name would already be convinced of the need for it, so I have no idea why he tries to sell it so hard. His examples (ranging from Carl Jung to Bill Gates) are decent, though perhaps not as impressive as he think they were. (Does anyone still think Jack Dorsey is the second coming of Steve Jobs?)

Let me to summarize what useful tips are in this book:

  • Facebook/Twitter/Social Media is the tool of the devil for Deep Work. 
  • Ration your use of distractions on a schedule. He recommends 50 minutes of Deep Work and then 17 minutes of distractions, since it's impossible for anyone to stay concentrated for more than that amount of time.
  • Exercise your mental muscle in various ways (one odd suggestion is to practice improving your memory: he cites the author Joshua Foer, whose practice made him such a good student that he was accepted into stellar graduate schools for his PhD)
  • When responding to emails, take the extra time to try to complete the loop right away, rather than let the task degenerated into a million e-mail threads. For instance, rather than end an email with: "Let's meet for lunch!", you can end with: "I'm available next Tuesday for lunch @ this place. If you're up for it, you don't have to respond."
There's lot of time spent railing against today's work environment, with open plan offices, and a huge mix of instant message, e-mail, and various random crap injected into the workplace for no productivity benefit. I've long contended that engineering organization that adopts and introduces Slack into their workflow is asking for a permanent 50% reduction in engineering productivity, so I'm of great sympathy to Newport's inclinations, but again, if you're going to read a book like this, you'd much rather get a bunch of tips on how to do this than a bunch of reminders as to how great it is once you can achieve this focus.

Wow. I started this review thinking very positively of it, and ended it realizing that I didn't get much in the way of what I started reading the book for. That means that despite my great alignment of sympathies with Professor Newport, I can't recommend this book.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Review: How to Be A High School Superstar

I've been following with interest the recent lawsuit against Harvard about Asian discrimination. It's quite obvious that that being an unhooked Asian Applicant at any of the Ivy leagues or Stanford puts you at a severe disadvantage. Darwin Lo pointed me at Cal Newport's blog, including a fabulous post on the Failed Simulation Effect. I enjoyed the simple, no-nonsense writing style that Professor Newport demonstrated, so I checked out How to Be A High School Superstar. I was not disappointed. Professor Newport's direct, transparent, and to-the-point style is a great relief, compared to the pompous approach taken by many college admissions officers, who love to say things like: "Harvard isn't everything, you can have a good life without going to Harvard."

Newport makes several points:
  • There are many students taking the "do-everything" approach to college preparation: do all the AP classes, sign up for many leadership positions at various clubs, and pursue extra-curricular activities designed to look good for college.
  • Because so many students are doing so, the result is that if you take this approach unless you're at the very cream of the crop, you're going to look like yet another cookie cutter candidate. (This looks particularly bad if you're Asian, since Harvard applies a "Personal Rating" penalty to all Asians)
  • So doing the conventional "do-everything" approach is actually high risk. Not only is the field of competition larger, all it takes is one bad day at an exam to get an A- that will tank you.
Newport proposes the "relaxed superstar" approach:
  • Deliberately underschedule yourself so you have time to explore different interests, focus on one or two, and excel in them.
  • Find and join a "closed" community. Pay your dues in that community so that you're entrusted with bigger projects, and scale up from there.
  • Aim for projects that will be impressive and inspire admissions officers to think: "Wait, how did a high school student manage to do this?"
Despite the "relaxed superstar" label, You'll need discipline to pull this off. In particular:
  • Triage your classes. Yes, you'll need at least a couple of hard classes so that you demonstrate that you can handle college level intellectual rigor. Newport calls these your "showboat" classes. But you don't need to do more than 2 of these. Avoid "electives" that create a lot of busy work while not providing any value unless it's one of your avid interests.
  • Create a study schedule. Avoid wasting time on studying: when taking notes, don't just jot down what the teacher says, create question/evidence/answer-style notes, and study by explaining (simulated teaching) the concepts out loud as though you're teaching the class. Write papers in 3 days (1 day for research, 1 day for draft, 1 day for polish), spending no more than a couple of hours in each day. Separate the days so ideas have time to mature in your mind when you write. Don't cram. Aim to finish the work by 6:00pm each day. (Research shows that cramming is counter-productive to learning, so this is good advice objectively) Never Facebook when you're supposed to be studying or working on a project. Always approach a subject that you're trying to master as though you know nothing: find the best expert that's accessible to you and ask them how they achieve their results.
  • Triage your extra-curricular activities. Drop anything that requires an excessive amount of work without compensation in either emotional terms (i.e., one of your interests) or other social rewards (e.g., the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex).
Note that Newport never says that you can skip academic rigor. He says several times that you have to do well enough in your academics that you meet the GPA/SAT cut-offs for the schools you want to get into. That's just the price of entry.

Having done so, you now have the time to explore multiple interests. He points out that one early marker of success in this approach is the ability to read. Newport writes that most kids who're relaxed superstars are reading adult-level books by grade 3 or 4. Without the ability and interest to read, it's very difficult to explore interests sufficiently deeply to be able to impress a college admissions committee.

Newport provides so much material in this relatively short book that I can't summarize it all. Suffice to say that it's extensive and achievable, and is deficient in only a few areas:
  • No discussion of survivorship bias. In particular, there's no systematic study of how many people attempt Newport's "relaxed superstar" approach and failed, since presumably only those who succeed would report back to him with enthusiasm.
  • I suspect that the "relaxed superstar" approach would only work when the fashion amongst students is the "do-everything" approach. If the "relaxed superstar" method became popular, then it would become just as competitive as the "do-everything" approach and become just as high-effort/low-reward. Ultimately, there are only so many tv-spots, etc. that have room for high school students. (In other words, if this book ever got translated into Chinese, the approach could become swamped)
Someone once pointed out to me that the American college application system is the most corrupt possible system in all possible worlds. Suggest that a rich person could buy his/her way into say, the Chinese examination system or the French elite ecole institutions, and you'd be laughed at by their respective nationals. It is only in the US where there's a direct line from the donations system to the admissions office, and where the scions of the politically important get a free pass. While that criticism is valid, the situation is what it is. As a parent who doesn't plan to go all in on the "Tiger Parent" approach, Newport's book will be something I'd recommend my sons read when they're in middle school, and then I'll probably let them decide what level of risk they want to take.

This book comes highly recommended. It's a short and easy read and well worth your time. I'm intrigued enough to go look for Newport's other books.