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)

2015 Challenge: The Introduction

Last Semester’s Pain

I did not fare well in my first semester as a graduate student. It was clear from the beginning this school was out of my league. I struggled to overcome each and every homework, project and exam. Towards the end of the semester, I even became depressed and looked for video games and manga to alleviate the pain. As you might guess, my problem only grew worse. I began to stay really late every night and started to lose weight. Had I not already booked a trip to Vietnam for winter break, I could not imagine how worse my life might get.

Nevertheless, that does not mean my life has to remain that way. Actually I believe it was the good sign that I struggled badly during my first semester here. It is always better to acknowledge the problem sooner rather than later. Also, it would give me the motivation to change my life in every possible way. As I said above, I am not on the same level with many students here at Cornell. But since I am already here, I will not give up without a great fight. My goal is not just to reach the Cornell level, I want to be one of the best students here.

Introduce the 2015 Challenge

To realize my goal of becoming a great graduate student, I will make drastic changes to many aspects of my life: from forming good study habits to forming good music listening habits, from improving concentration to improving stamina, from learning better presenting skills to learning better socializing skills, etc. It will not be easy, so I call this life-hacking project the 2015 Challenge.

Here in this blog, I will write a journal reporting about my progress during the challenge.I will give you my thoughts and my process of achieving each goal in the challenge.

Why I Do This?

I think it is important to record my plan in writing. It makes the plan clear and memorable. If I do not forget about my plan, I will be more likely to finish it.

Furthermore, I want to share my story with people. Many times I find myself struggling to follow my own advice that I give them. Now it is the time to stand up to the difficulty and show people my result. I want to make this challenge a case study for my friends and I hope it will encourage them to improve their lives as well.

You can play a part of this challenge too by discussing on my blog entries. Questions and comments are welcomed. If you think you have a better idea than what I write here, don’t hesitate to talk to me. I hope that you enjoy reading this journal.

A tribute to Nikolay Davydenko

Davydenko with his WTF trophy

I read the news about Davydenko’s retirement a few days ago. My first reaction was to open Youtube to search for his match against Nadal at Rome 2007. What a match it was. If I recall correctly, Davydenko took Nadal more than 3 hours in that intense semi final. Nadal beat him that day but Davydenko returned the favor by denying Rafa of two Masters titles that the Spaniard has never won in the past — Shanghai (in 2011) and Miami (in 2008.)

Davydenko is a no-nonsense player. He’s solid on both wings and does not make many mistakes in general play. Davydenko can definitely move around the court to dictate the points. His only but fatal weakness is his inability to finish the point. His forehand and backhand are strong but not deadly enough to kill off his opponents. His volley is ordinary and so is his serve. Davydenko does not possess a real weapon in his arsenal and that explains his failure of reaching a Grand Slam final, let alone winning one.

But I still remember Davydenko for one reason: he knows how to beat Nadal, especially on a hard court. I still don’t know exactly how Davydenko did it against Rafa so many times. Perhaps he dealt with spin well, or he just avoided making unforced errors. Anyway, Nadal has always struggled against Davydenko in all surfaces. Maybe this is similar to the case of David Ferrer. Ferrer also beat Nadal several times on hard court, including a few in Grand Slams. Again you can add another defensive player into the list, Andy Murray. After all, the best explanation for Nadal’s struggle against Davydenko (and other defensive guys) is the reduced effect of spinning on a hard court. It never happens on a clay court, such as Philippe Chatrier, for sure.

Back to Davydenko, I’m happy that he won the ATP World Tour Finals in 2009. His career, in many ways, is similar to David Nalbandian’s although you can argue that the Argentine is far more talented. Nonetheless, in terms of results and trophies, Davydenko and Nalbandian are comparable. They also have one more thing in common. They played in an incredibly strong era of men’s tennis. In this era, Davydenko was never expected to beat Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a Grand Slam. It’s asking too much of him.

Let’s enjoy perhaps the most glorious moment in his career.

First semester at a new school

Note: First, I decided to stop using Facebook this week. From now on, I will check Facebook only about 2-3 times a week. But I will write more on this blog and on another music blog (a new project of mine and my close friends.) So if you want to contact me, just shoot me an email to trimcao@gmail.com or comment on this blog.


Today, let me share with you my story at Cornell so far.

It is definitely a story of mixed feelings. I am very happy to be here but also very frustrated due to my shortcomings in study and research.

Ithaca is a great town, no doubt about that. I really enjoy the scenery of Cornell and Ithaca. It must be one of the most scenic campuses in the US. I feel relaxed each time I look at the endless hills from 7th floor of Olin Library (though it’s likely I will hate this town during its 6-month winter.)

IMG_0070

There are countless activities you can do here. For the first time I joined a proper soccer club and play real soccer – 11 vs. 11. Having been playing as a midfielder for three years in college, I came back to my usual position as a striker again. Basically I am trying to imitate Fillipo Inzaghi: beating the offside trap and being clinical in front of goals. Unfortunately, while I have done the former part fairly well I did miss a lot of sitters, i.e. one-on-ones. In many games I played exactly like (or worse than) Torres or Chicharito, pathetic and helpless with my finishing. Despite that, I have had a lot of fun playing soccer here, as if my love for soccer never ever waned.

My new soccer team

I can also tell you about mountain biking. It is a popular sport here because Ithaca possesses a number of hills and the quality of the bike trails is amazing. Honestly at first I was scared, especially when I faced a steep downhill or some crazy obstacle. Eventually I overcame some of the scary feeling and improved my biking skill to the point that I could conquer most of the trails in one hill.

Bikes

Okay, those above are all the good things about Cornell and Ithaca. Here come the bad ones. It’s simple: I feel I am a stupid person here. Yes, you are hearing me right. The truth is each time I sit in the Neuron Interfaces class I feel like I am brainwashed. Several times every week I ask myself ‘Do I really belong to this place?’

Here homework and exams make a horrible experience. All grades I get to this point were Cs and Ds. It is embarrassing but I have to accept the fact that I’m not yet good enough for this school. The key thing for me, I believe, is not working harder, but to keep working. Just don’t quit and I will be fine.

Having said all that, I enjoy studying here, just like I enjoy soccer and mountain biking. My grades may be terrible but I have learned a great deal in the last two months. The people here are nice and they help me a lot. Anyway, for me struggling in a new environment is unavoidable. There’s no way I can become one of the best students here in a few months, especially with my broken background knowledge in every area. Again, the best thing to do is fighting till the end. Never quit.

The bottom line is, this semester I am a fool on the hill (the comparison is valid thanks to the hilly Ithaca.) Let’s see how it will turn out next year.