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