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.

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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.

You’re My Best Friend

Today I will write about my girlfriend. This began a long time ago when she asked me write something about her in my blog. I thought it was a joke although she always denied it. Even now I still consider that request a joke but her birthday is coming, so I decide to write anyway.

We have been together for nearly three years. That’s a long time to me. Many things have happened in our relationship and also in our lives. We even live apart at the moment but I hope that we will reunite sooner rather than later. I want to start by talking about what I have learned from her and our relationship.

First thing, I learned what love is. Another thing I learned: a couple can be in a relationship, without love. Love and relationship can exist independently. In fact, most relationships happen without love in the first place and/or love never has chance to develop.

The issue above leads to another aspect of love: the lovers should also be best friends. At least, that’s what I believe. I am not a love expert, or I have been in many relationships but I believe love should be built from friendship. And I think ‘soulmate’ is a better term for ‘lover’. My girlfriend and I are definitely best friends. She’s my best friend. We can talk to each other for hours, we understand each other, we know our weaknesses, our hobbies, our passions, and above all we know that we love each other.

There is one another aspect of love but I do not want to discuss it here. It is a little bit too sensitive 🙂

Let me instead share about one thing that I like about my girlfriend. When we first met, I know she was different from other girls. She appeared to be well-behaved and generally had a good manner. What struck me was I found her actions very natural. In other words, she was genuine. I hate that some people trying to act differently when they socialize. It’s never bad to be polite but you should be a polite person in general, not only in public. That was how she attracted me, three years ago.

I hope that this post will make at least one person happy.

A note on my last semester

Today I came to the lab for the first time since April. I have suspended my research work at TxACE to focus on my very last final exams in college. My mom’s visit and Real Madrid’s triumph in the Champions League have fueled my procrastination. Well, at least I have watched the classic SICP lectures from 1986 and re-learned computer science from scratch, in part because the CS education I received here at UTD was, well, mediocre. More on Computer Science later.

This summer will be an important one. It is the time when I analyze my shortcomings in the undergraduate years, create new habits to improve my productivity and get a feeling of serious research. To get into the working mode, I will look at the lessons that I learned during the last semester.

1. I cannot do too many things 

Last semester I took six classes. Six classes already indicated a challenging schedule, but a research commitment added to that made it impossible for me to handle. One class among those six was optional in my degree plan– the RF Design course. Yet, the knowledge from the course will be crucial for my research, so I had no choice but to take them all. No surprise that my schedule led to stress and exhaustion. The quality of my work turned sub-par, classes and research included.

I should not blame myself, though. After four years in college I have taken 134 credit hours, all at UTD. I had no credit to transfer from high school; I took neither CLEP nor some courses in local community colleges (because I did not have money to spare). Hence, I had to suffer in the last few months. From now on I will only take TWO classes per semester. Taking more classes only make my life miserable.

Lesson:  To do well, I must do less.

2. Implementation counts, not Ideas

Last semester I had a class called Embedded System. The final project in the class required us to implement a simple ball-bouncing system. The goal was to simulate a ball’s movement under the force of gravity. If the ball collided with some obstacle, it would bounce with velocity based on elastic collision. The idea was simple; the physics was easy to understand (I already learned all the formulas required in high school); the simulation did not even include the collisions between balls. It should be a walk in the park, right?

Not at all. Most teams in my class failed to meet the deadline (me not included, phew). The project, in my opinion, was not easy but definitely not too challenging. So why other students in my class failed?

The first reason was obvious: the quality of students at UTD was far from ideal. They were smart but did not put enough effort into the project. The project’s idea was so simple that anyone who passed freshmen physics,  should do okay, but my classmates struggled also because implementation is hard. An idea may seem straightforward, but we cannot understand it well enough if we have not applied or tested the idea.

I also experienced this difficulty in my research of designing a small array of registers. I had to decide whether using flip-flops or SRAM for the array. I could not make a decision because I never implemented a SRAM-based array before. Although schematics of SRAM circuits, such as 6T SRAM, were widely accessible on the internet, I still could not understand SRAM enough for any meaningful consideration.

Lesson: Idea is nothing without Implementation. (a footnote: an idea is important anyway, I plan to find out how one can generate good ideas in near future.)

3. Focus is (still) a challenge

I am (still) learning to focus. I’m better at focusing now than I was four years ago but I still need a lot of improvement. A while ago, I learned that focus was a trait that can be trained. Like long-distance running, we can improve our focus by forcing us to focus regularly for an extended period of time. But it was only one part of the problem.

I realized that focus was also the product of a chain-reaction. For the flower to grow, we need to kill the weeds. More specifically, we need to remove as many distractions as we can. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other online social networks are obvious distractions. The Internet as a whole provides the greatest distraction I’ve ever known. As I estimated during my junior year, mindless surfing on the internet alone wasted me 2.5 hours in average per day. I feel lucky that I do not have a habit of watching TV (although I need to develop a better habit of reading books.)

During the last year I have deliberately reduced the time I used my laptop during the day. All of a sudden, I found that focusing on a book or a programming exercise was much easier. There did not anymore exist a voice inside told me about some website I needed to check. I was free from worrying about what others updated in their Facebook statuses.

However, I continue to suffer from a desire of multi-tasking. At first it seemed helpful that my brain could care about many things at the same time. Sadly, it did not help me at all. Whenever I was distracted from my work, it took me about 20-30 minutes to regain my focus. That was a huge amount of time since a normal person can fully focus only four or five hours a day.

Lesson: no Internet, no Facebook, no multi-tasking. 

4. Being great may mean being boring

It is easy to spot people listening to music nowadays. In fact, they listen to music every time they can. I love wearing a pair of earbuds on the way to school also. Do you know what happens after I arriving at my office? I tell myself to listen to just one more song, or to finish the current song. I love my songs. Then I listen to ten more songs.

When I take a break from work, I plug my beloved headphone into the laptop to listen to some song again. You know what, then I listen to 1000 songs. My brain wears out by listening to too much music and it asks me to relax even more. I open the browser and … Oh no, it’s too late because I’m already on the highway to hell. Needless to say, I achieve nothing at work after plugging my headphone.

Again, I would like to sum up what I want to avoid to work efficiently: social networks like Facebook, mindless internet surfing, TV, multi-tasking, and smartphone games. All these things create a feeling that they make us more interesting. After all we have various things to do at any given time, so we cannot be boring in the Twenty-First century. You notice what people do most nowadays? Yeah, they are absorbed in some smartphone or tablet screen.

Here is an exercise for me: Fill in the blank

On the road to greatness, there should be no trace of _____ (hints: Facebook, TV, Smartphone, Multi-tasking, etc.)

Lesson: Being great may mean being boring