Mission MonteCristo – Week 1: Pomodoro

This is the first report of the Mission MonteCristo. What is that anyway? It’s just how I name my project this semester. From now on I will try to make a weekly report on the progress of Mission MonteCristo. Yeah, it sounds a bit silly, but I don’t care.

Pomodoro to the rescue

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The project begins on August 20th. After one day, I feel it is not easy to stay focused while sitting in the same place for hours. Then I remember a focus technique called Pomodoro and decide to try it. Basically, Pomodoro technique lets you focus on a task for 25 minutes, then encourages you to relax for 5 minutes. After four consecutive focus intervals, you may choose to relax for a longer period, like 15 or 30 minutes. And you repeat the process until you’re done for the day.

After a few days of using Pomodoro, I think this technique will be useful, at least in the first month or so, because Pomodoro seems a good tool for training myself to keep focus for an extended period of time. Also, the Pomodoro app I use right now (Be Focused) has simple yet interesting reports for my week. I can see what and how I work during the week. Since I only use Be Focused from the end of Tuesday, my number of focus intervals for the first week is not that impressive. At least the number can only increase next week.

My goal is to hit at least 10 focus intervals per day. That does not sound like much. 10 intervals = 6 hours including the rest time in between. But from my own experience, staying focused for around 6 hours a day is not an easy feat, and I can make significant progress during that time.

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Weekly summary

I’m happy with my work last week. I start many mini-projects like Data Structures and Algorithms in C++, ROS, Linear Algebra, and Fast.ai. I also work on my resume to be ready for my school career fair next month. I’m still disciplined with my guitar practice, and that’s never a bad thing. Yeah, I feel great.

What’s next

I think I will discuss something technical next week. Maybe math, or C++, or ROS, or Deep Learning, or something else. I don’t know yet, but it will be interesting for sure.

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It’s Time to be a Winner

Yesterday I played soccer with several freshmen at UTD. I was myself a freshman once, 8 years ago. Boy, that’s a long time ago. It’s funny one of them actually found this blog and read it. Since I haven’t updated this blog frequently because the last two years have been totally chaotic, I feel I have an obligation to write now, to update my readers (if there’s any) about my current thoughts, and more importantly, to keep myself honest and responsible during my upcoming project.

Before revealing that project, let me talk about what I did this summer. I was a software engineer intern at Intuit working in the DevOps team. Intuit is a fairly well known company based in Silicon Valley. Its most popular products are Mint and TurboTax, which are used by many Americans to file their taxes. Intuit also produces software for professional accountants, and unfortunately, that’s the product I was a part of. To put it bluntly, I’m not a fan of professional tax software. I never used it before, and I never dream of using it in foreseeable future. That’s the main reason Intuit and I never clicked. I want to work on something that I actually want to use. Intuit does not provide that. And we part ways despite the company is great, and a lot of employees at Intuit are very happy.

Having said that, my time at Intuit as an intern was great. I really did learn a lot during my time there. It was my very first internship and first experience in the industry. I learned to focus on my work for hours. I learned to talk to people and make friends in the company. I rediscovered my love for table tennis, and was able to beat most of players there, except for one guy with USATT rating of 2000 (that means he’s a semi-pro player). I created really great relationships with a few guys in the company. Regarding technical stuffs, I learned Docker, Golang, AWS (Amazon Web Services), and microservices deployment. But the most important thing I learned was:

I must get a job where I really love what I do and care about what I create.

With this in mind, I decide to embark on a challenge in the Fall 2018 semester. The goal is to land a job as software engineer for a robotics or autonomous vehicles company. (In the worst case, I just need a job that pays rent and food.)  To accomplish the goal, I have the following four-point plan:

  • Prepare for technical software engineering interview. This task mainly consists of having deep understanding of data structures and algorithms.
  • Be proficient at machine learning and deep learning. Deep learning is the current buzz word in the tech scene nowadays. But that’s not the reason I want to get better at it. I want to see how deep learning can help with robotics, and as far as I know, the answer is not clear right now.
  • Have theoretical and practical knowledge of robotics and autonomous vehicles. Because right now I want to a job in this field.
  • Produce a kick-ass project that I can show off to the world (yeah, I mean show off to my friends).

That’s the plan for me in the next four months. I promise to myself that I will write blog posts more frequently this semester. It’s a great way for me to keep track of my progress. I will discuss how I tackle the tasks mentioned above. It’s time to be a winner.

Tâm sự ngày cuối năm 2017

Một năm lại trôi qua, nhưng năm nay khác với những năm trước. 2017 là năm có thể nói đã đóng lại một chương lớn trong cuộc đời của mình. Từ giờ những năm tháng đại học và sau đại học đã sắp khép lại. Và mình muốn chia sẻ một vài suy nghĩ trong đầu mình ngày cuối năm.

Không nhiều người hiểu những gì mình phải trải qua suốt những năm cấp 3. Kể cả những người bạn thân hồi đó chưa chắc đã hiểu mình đã nghĩ gì và làm gì trong ba năm cấp 3. Mấy hôm nay mình cũng nghĩ lại hồi mới vào trường cấp 3. Trong một tháng đầu tất cả học sinh mới nhập học sẽ thi một kỳ thi để được vào lớp chọn. Thời điểm này mình cũng quyết tâm ôn thi để vào được lớp chọn, nhưng mình không nói với ai. Không phải vì mình muốn giấu, chỉ đơn giản là mình thấy việc vào lớp chọn hay không khá vô nghĩa. Mình chưa bao giờ có động lực để làm những thứ mà mình coi là “nhảm nhí” như vậy. Nhưng bố mẹ mình thì rất muốn, nên mình cũng đồng ý làm, chưa kể bố mẹ còn hứa sẽ mua một dàn máy tính mới nên tội gì không làm.

Hài hước ở chỗ là những gì mình thể hiện ở trên lớp trong một tháng đó là thảm họa. Mình vẫn không khác gì cấp 2 (hình như là cả bây giờ), luôn chờ mong đến giờ ra chơi để chém gió với hội con trai trong lớp. Khi bị gọi lên bảng để trả lời thì 100% là tịt ngóm. Kiểm tra 15 phút tiếng Anh được 5, kiểm tra 15 phút Hóa được 4. Thời gian còn lại trong lớp vẫn là chém gió và chém gió. Với mình thì sống vui vẻ vẫn là điều quan trọng nhất trong cuộc đời.

Rồi ngày thi cũng đến, mình làm bài không tệ vì đã ôn luyện khá ổn trong thời gian đó. Lúc đó mình chỉ nghĩ đến dàn máy tính mới, còn những thứ khác thì kệ thôi. Khi biết kết quả, mấy thằng con trai trong lớp choáng vì không ngờ một “gã hề” như mình lại được lên lớp chọn. Quả thật mình khác với hình ảnh một cậu bé chăm học. Mọi người không dễ đoán được mình thích gì và làm được những gì. Và mình thấy điều đó cũng thú vị. Chẳng có lý do gì để phải giống bất cứ ai cả. Hãy sống như những gì mình muốn, làm những gì mình thích, và đấu tranh cho niềm tin của bản thân.

Nhưng cái sự “dị” đó không phải lúc nào cũng mang lại những điều tốt đẹp cho mình. Làm một kẻ “dị” đồng nghĩa với những nguy cơ và rủi ro trong những chuyện mà có vẻ ai cũng làm tốt. Một ví dụ điển hình là khi bị bắt học những môn mà mình không thích, thì những người mình biết đều cắn răng vượt qua được. Mình phải công nhận sức chịu đựng của họ cực tốt. Còn mình thì tiếc là không. Trong những hoàn cảnh như vậy, mình thường chuyển sang chơi điện tử hoặc làm bất cứ thứ gì để quên đi cơn ác mộng kia.

Và mình cũng phải trả giá cho những thất bại ấy. Mấy năm sau đại học là mấy năm gần như mình phải làm lại từ đầu. Đã có lúc mình muốn thời gian quay trở lại để mình làm lại, để chọn ngành học khác phù hợp hơn. Nhiều lúc mình cũng lạc lối trong đường hầm dài tưởng như vô tận. Nhưng những khó khăn đó rồi cũng trôi qua. Mình cũng chẳng làm gì đặc biệt để ép mình vượt qua giai đoạn đó. Ở đây chẳng có gì gọi là “nghị lực” hay “đam mê” hay bất kỳ từ ngữ gì to tát. Mình vẫn đơn giản như ngày nào: mình làm những gì mình thích và chiến đấu cho những gì mình tin.

Rồi mình cũng nhận ra mình không còn muốn quay lại quá khứ nữa. Những thất bại đó tuy đau đớn nhưng mình vẫn vui vì đó là những quyết định của bản thân mình, và mình chịu trách nhiệm cho hệ quả của chúng. Mình biết nhiều người luôn sống và làm việc theo những chỉ thị của gia đình và xã hội. Khi đó họ không còn quyết định cho bản thân mình nữa, và khó có thể trách khi họ không muốn nhận trách nhiệm cho những hành động đó của họ. Theo một khía cạnh nào đó thì họ cũng chỉ là nạn nhân của đám đông mà thôi.

Nhân việc chia sẻ về cách sống của bản thân, mình cũng muốn nói đôi chút về một người bạn mình quen thời đại học. Thật bất hạnh là cậu bạn này vừa qua đời cách đây không lâu ở tuổi 24. Mình không chơi thân với cậu, nhưng cũng có một kỷ niệm nhỏ mà chắc mình sẽ không bao giờ quên. Bây giờ mình cũng không nhớ tại sao hè năm đó mình lại hay gặp cậu. Có một tuần mà ngày nào anh em cũng đi ăn và trò chuyện với nhau. Buổi tối cuối cùng trước khi năm học mới bắt đầu, anh em mua 2 chai bia rồi xách ghế ra ban công ngồi dưới cơn mưa rào. Hình như anh em cũng không nói gì nhiều mà chỉ ngồi nhìn mưa rơi. Mình lúc đó cảm thấy khá hạnh phúc. Mình vui vì tin rằng cậu bạn ngồi bên cạnh sẽ có một tương lai tươi đẹp. Mình còn biết rằng chẳng phải ai cũng có thời gian để thảnh thơi ngắm trời đất như 2 thằng lúc này. Niềm vui nó chỉ đơn giản vậy thôi.

Nhưng rồi mình với cậu bạn đó mỗi người một ngả. Hai người sống hoàn toàn khác biệt như hai đường thẳng song song trong hình học cơ bản, chẳng có cơ hội nào để cắt nhau. Mình cũng quá bận rộn vào giai đoạn đó nên cũng chẳng suy nghĩ gì nhiều. Chỉ đến tận bây giờ khi biết cậu bạn đã tạm biệt với thế giới này mình mới nghĩ lại thời điểm đó. Mong là cậu hạnh phúc với cuộc sống của mình trong suốt đại học. Tiếc là cậu ra đi khi còn quá trẻ, khi còn chưa bắt đầu sự nghiệp.

Nhiều người vẫn nói cuộc đời rất khó lường, không biết ngày mai chuyện gì sẽ xảy ra. Có thể với những người trẻ như mình thì câu nói đó như nước đổ lá khoai. Nhưng sự ra đi của cậu bạn đã khiến mình phải suy nghĩ nhiều hơn về cuộc sống. Cuộc đời sẽ chẳng còn gì nếu chúng ta không dám sống như những gì mình muốn. Đơn giản hóa mọi thứ là một điều nguy hiểm: học tập biến thành điểm số, sự nghiệp biến thành tiền lương, tình yêu biến thành có người yêu, cuộc sống biến thành Facebook, thành công biến thành tránh thất bại.

Năm 2017 có lẽ đã kết thúc với một nốt trầm. Mình muốn dành một chút thời gian để cảm thông với gia đình và người thân của cậu bạn của mình. Nhưng mình tin rằng nỗi đau này sẽ tạo ra nguồn cảm hứng mới cho những người bạn của cậu. Bản thân mình cũng không phải ngoại lệ.

Chúc mừng năm mới.

2016-17 Season Recap

One year ago, I was uncertain about my future.

I had been living at my home for several months. I thought about getting a job and staying there for a while. I was happy to spend time with my family and my best mates. But when I got the funding letter from UTD, I swiftly booked a flight ticket to Dallas. I could not wait for another shot at the US and A. Ironically (and a bit sadly), I did not belong to home, not yet.

It was strange to be back at Dallas. The campus was familiar as always. I knew it like the back of my hand. Yet this time I was not a college student anymore. Now I was older, supposedly wiser, but I doubt I was any less foolish. It took me a few days to settle down. And in one unbearably hot day, so typical of Dallas, I met my graduate supervisor. He promptly made one of his graduate students cry in front of me. Wow!

Just like that, it did not take me long to decide I would need to leave this insane supervisor. The problem was he paid my tuition and stipend, so I had to wait. Soon I realized his research was not bad. My project was fun, at least I understood what I was doing. I coded everyday, and I was able to work with some interesting machine learning problems. In early November last year, I came to NYC to participate in a student competition related to my research. I prepared virtually nothing for my presentation but put on a brave face throughout. Of course I won nothing, but I liked it enough to want to give another shot next year. Somehow I thought it was okay to keep working with my supervisor.

Unfortunately, I could not escape the fact that he was truly insane. The next month, on Christmas Eve, he sent an email asking why I did not work. Then he forced me to come to the lab on New Year’s Eve. To do what? To prepare a syllabus for his class in the Spring semester. The madness did not stop there. The week after that, he threatened to fire me for not attending his lab’s weekly meeting. The only issue? That was the one and only meeting happening during the whole semester. I simply had enough. It was time for one more change.

I applied to the Computer Science department last Spring. I knew this was the right choice even though funding was not guaranteed. CS had always been my favorite subject. My best projects during college were always in CS classes. I should have moved to CS three years ago, but I thought I would enjoy being an electrical engineer, and it was a safer option since I got accepted to graduate school as an electrical engineering major. I pushed on, hoping that somehow it would work out in the end. That was perhaps my biggest mistake to date. But I do not regret making that decision. Failures and mistakes are needed because eventually they guide me towards the right way.

Now the 2016-17 school year has ended. And I’m alive. And still jobless. I tried to find some internship, or at least some on-campus job, but I cannot. The potential employers from industry are not impressed with my experience. The only “job” I’ve ever had is being a research assistant. They rather recruit a software developer with Javascript and/or Mobile Dev experience, not some daydreamer who has an empty portfolio. On-campus job? Funded graduate students are ignored. They must be thinking that the school has paid me enough money. It totally makes sense. I cannot complain. I have to do something else.

When summer began, I considered joining some program related to data science and machine learning, and one such program stood out: Udacity Self-driving Car Nanodegree. It is one thing to learn about deep learning, but learning leads to nothing without practice. I need a fun topic to apply machine learning, and I love driving cars myself, so why not try self-driving cars? Plus the self-driving car industry currently needs a lot of talents. I should give it a try. Even in case self-driving car is not for me, I can still apply my machine learning experience into another field. I cannot lose in this game.

In near future, besides the Nanodegree program, I hope to accomplish two things: (1) start a great project of my own, and (2) finish a large portion of a rigorous book (it should be Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning by Chris Bishop.) I believe there will be a lot of posts on these projects. I will write more to organize my thoughts on my study of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

A new beginning.

Money Can Buy Happiness

Last week I came to Dallas to visit my alma mater, my girlfriend, and a host of friends. It’s always good to back at Dallas, where I consider as my second hometown after Hanoi. During my time there I was reminded of many memories at UT Dallas. One of them is the remark that I was notorious for spending too much money, and somehow I refused to apply for any on-campus job during college. Even worse, my family might actually be one of the poorest among my countrymen at UT Dallas. How ironic it is!

In a sense, my friends are right. I did buy a lot of stuffs: headphones, speakers, tennis rackets, table tennis paddles, soccer cleats, a car, and numerous posters. Funny enough, most of those stuffs do not aid in my survival at all. Surely I don’t need different headphones to pass exams. Many posters also have nothing to do with my job prospect. Why I seemingly wasted money on them?

Let me give you an example: car.

Car Brings Me Happiness

The common sentiment among my friends at UT Dallas is you do not need a car unless you have a job. It sounds reasonable at first. A car costs quite a lot of money. You need to set aside at least around $1500 a year for insurance, gas, and maintenance, let alone the original cost of the car. It is understandable that many of my friends cannot afford a car. It only perplexes me when several guys and girls, who come from rich families, do not bother buying a car at all (or until their senior year). This line of thought leads them to think that for a guy like me, who has no immediate need for a car, owning one is wasteful.

So what is my reason of buying a car? Simple, I need to occasionally escape the campus and entertain myself. From what I experienced, nothing is better than a trip to Tapioca House on the weekend for some boba tea or to White Rock Lake for sight-seeing. A car is handy when I need to find some good food outside the campus, when I want to visit an art gallery in downtown Dallas, or when you drive a car just for the sake of it. After two years of having a car, I enjoyed great moments, beautiful scenes and a sense of freedom. My car really brought me happiness, a lot of it.

It is a different story when you only buy a car when you are a senior. Several of my friends, after years without a car, are still content to spend every night at the computers. They do not like driving that much. Maybe they are so busy with senior-level classes and job searching and do not have spare time for exploring the city. Maybe their habits have already formed a tendency of staying home every day. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I know is I’m happy with my decision to buy a car early.

Use Money Wisely

I believe that spending money wisely is not easy. Many people, however, focus solely on making money. But that does not mean you should avoid spending money at all cost. If your family struggles to support you at college, then I can understand. On the other hand, if you are well-supported, you should use money to your advantage. Use money to enrich your life. Use money to buy yourself happiness.

Some of my friends may wonder why I always find it easy to laugh, have fun and enjoy life. This blog entry might be one answer to that question.

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 3: My Plan for Research Attack

Last entries of this journal

1. The Introduction
2. No Headphone, No Music on-the-go

Now or Never

This may be only my second semester as a pre-candidate PhD student but my scientific career prospect all comes down to the next few months. I have to officially get into a research group. I need to get funding for the next summer as well as the next 4 or 5 years of my life. If I cannot do it this semester, my chance of having a career in research would be practically zero. In terms of tennis, it’s like you are 23 years old now (I am!!) and you have not yet played in the main draw of a Grand Slam, then you should forget about winning it altogether. It is not impossible, but far from doable.

The key thing is, up to this point, I still have been unable to accomplish any major project in my life, not just research. While I feel a little embarrassed when I write this, I know it is not too late to change that. Along with the changes I have made so far during this challenge, a plan for research is crucial for a successful semester in the short term, and a successful career in the long term.

The problem

One thing that I’ve learned about myself is I cannot concentrate on too many things at once. The problem is, like many others, I tend to overestimate my ability of getting things done efficiently. Take last semester for example, I signed up for a mountain biking class, tried to learn two courses on Coursera, registered for two electrical engineering classes, joined a soccer club and played at least once a week, opened a new blog and wrote a few articles.  Man, no wonder why I was helpless in the end of the semester. I must do less to accomplish more. A simple rule, but easy to forget one.

Clearly I need to invest a lot of time on research and get my priorities right.

Go all in for research

First thing, I want to make sure I have less things to occupy my mind this semester. I have one writing course at school and audit one electronics course. Auditing means the latter course is optional. I will try to take notes and do homework in that course only if I have time to spare. My extracurricular activities include only soccer and some regular gym time. Sports are indispensable for me and they actually help balance my life so it’s fine. I am also learning a Coursera course, Introduction to Classical Music by Yale University. It will not be a problem because I consider watching Coursera lectures similar to reading a book and I will do it in the evening only. That also applies to the writing course mentioned above. My plan is to put all the possibly distracting stuffs to the evening schedule, with an except of Saturday, when I’m free to do whatever I want.

That leaves the whole day, 6 days a week for me to do research and study for the electronics course. I want to spend at least 20 hours a week on research. It means for four days a week, I will do nothing but research (and research-related tasks like group meetings.) The other two days will be devoted for classes and maybe some homework (about 10 hours a week.) Even this seems to be a lazy man’s schedule but I cannot step into that trap — overestimating my ability — again. Also I think it’s a good idea to leave room for random events that may occur.

Learn to Focus

I believe that is a sound plan. Now I need to follow the schedule faithfully. Another important point is I have to make every hour of research counts. I must learn to focus and overcome distractions. It will be the main area to improve in the upcoming months.

(Photo by Sprint006)

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 2: No earphone, no music on-the-go

I notice that I have had a few more followers in the last few days. That’s encouraging. It is always better to have some reader than none. If you find this blog helpful, please share it to your friends. The more readers the more fun I have in accomplishing this challenge. 

Past entries of this journal
1. Entry 1: The Introduction

My addictionMusic downloading

It is no secret that I love music. This screenshot shows that over the last few days I have downloaded nearly 60GB of music (a big number because all of them are lossless classical music, more on classical music later.) Currently I store up to 600GB of high-quality music in my hard drive. I also have a small collection of audio-related gears: headphones, DACs
(sound cards) and speakers. Above all that, I rarely leave home without a pair of earbuds since secondary school, when I owned a portable MP3 player for the first time. I have had this habit for nearly 10 years. During that time, I listen to music wherever I go and I enjoy it a lot.

But now is the time to stop. I cannot always listen to music anymore.

Why no more Music on-the-go?
Listening to music, for me, is a good way to escape from difficulties in my life. Whenever I listen to music, I tend to forget about all of my worries. After all, that is one basic function of music — relaxing the listener. However, the feeling is only temporary. Over time I think it is better to focus on the problem at hand than to escape from it via music every time.

Furthermore, music makes me quickly lose grasp of time. It becomes very difficult to turn off the music after listening for a while. Moreover, when my mind is not totally in focus (because of the music), I begin to lose control of myself. With the music turned on, I would be likely to open a browser to surf the web and suddenly the workday is over before I even realize it. That’s the power of music. It can heal my soul but also can consume all of my time.

One more thing, listening to music requires a lot of energy from the brain, especially when I use headphones/earphones and listen to loud music. This must be the reason I always feel tired after a long session of music listening. Since energy is limited, I have to preserve it for study and research. Music can wait.

So how to get rid of this habit? It is simple: just do not bring an earphone with me. It’s convenient that I lost my Apple Earpod during my break in Vietnam (it’s a great pair of earbuds by the way, I should have given it to my dad.) I also have to form a new habit of listening to music only in the evening. It is not a bad idea, though, because I can focus on the music. It is important for my beginning study of classical music, a genre demands good concentration. After all, deep enjoyment should require deep focus.

Result from the First week
It’s not as easy as I thought. I truly miss my beloved headphone when I commute or when I have lunch at the dining hall. I even start to sing out loud when I have the chance. On the bright side, I seem to have plenty of energy even after a long day. My brain must have thanked me for that. It does not need to endure the music every single minute of the day.

More importantly, although I am bored without music, it actually helps me. Works and lectures, in a sudden, become very interesting. I’m more alerted and focused. It’s a great feeling that makes a long, hard session of study bearable. Also, a more relaxed brain has improved both my spoken and written English. With all these encouraging signs, all I have to do now is not carrying a pair of earbuds with me.

(Photo by LifeHacker)