How to bypass (some) media paywalls

I recently came across The Uber Game, an interactive simulation of a week as a driver with Uber1. The end of the simulation provided a link to a related Financial Times article, which was unfortunately paywalled. Despite this, I still wanted to read it, so I used a simple trick: I added https://facebook.com/l.php?u= to the front of the article’s URL.

Why does this work? Many media sites will allow articles to be read if they are linked from social media. For example, if I click on a WSJ article one of my friends has shared on Facebook, I can view the full article – with comments – without having to pay for a pricey membership. However, I cannot do the same if I attempt to access the article directly from the WSJ website. Mass media sites have the ability to cut off this feature at a moment’s notice, but given the presumably high conversion rate of social media clocks, I’m not sure this feature will be removed anytime soon.

Enjoy those articles!

1 I highly encourage you to check it out. It doesn’t take much time and I found it to be informative.

Setting goals for 2016

Hello there! Hope you were all able to spend time with your family for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s been quite a while since I made a post, but given that we’ve just entered 2016, it feels like the right time. I’ll try to line up a couple for January and February, each of which will discuss some of the things I’ve learned in the past year, both personally and professionally.

I won’t write much for this particular post, but I would like to comment on the idea of New Year’s resolutions. Although I think the concept has merit, the general idea of a setting of resolutions for the upcoming year is, in my opinion, rubbish. Some of the generic ones I’ve heard for 2016 include:
1) Read more books,
2) Drink less alcohol,
3) Go out more often,
4) Maintain a blog, and
5) Lose weight.

Again, I think all of these goals have their value. It’s important to stay in tip-top shape, both mentally and physically, but why should these come into effect almost exclusively at the beginning of a new year? Why not continually set smaller goals throughout the year, as they come up as necessary?

In my opinion, a better method is to set one or two long term goals (~5 years), a couple of medium term goals (~1 year), and several short term goals (1-5 weeks). This allows me to think far into the future while maintaining focus on what’s on exactly what’s head of me. Short term goals can be set based on long term resolutions, or they can be set entirely independently. For example, if my goal for the next five years is to maintain peak physical shape, an associated medium term goal could include losing 5 kg of fat while gaining 5 kg of lean mass within the next half year. I could also set a reasonable yet entirely separate goal of improving my wardrobe, which could be easily accomplished in a week or so.

It’s good to set goals for yourself, but setting them at the top of every year is, in my opinion, a narrow-minded method for self-improvement. The scope or lack of plan often leads to failure, which defeats their purpose to begin with. The beginning of a new year is a time for celebration, but shouldn’t signify the start of resolutions, per se. Incorporating short-term goals, which can be set on any day of the year, with long-term goals, which may change slightly from year-to-year, has worked for me up to this point in my life – I encourage you to try it as well.

The problem with grades

I have taken lots of classes during my undergraduate and graduate studies (and spent several thousands of hours working on problem sets, studying for exams, and implementing final projects), and I’ve come to the following conclusion: for most engineering functions, GPA probably matters much less than you think, regardless of whether or not you choose to pursue a Ph.D. or enter the industry. This is true for a variety of reasons, but one problem with the traditional A-to-F grading system stands out:

The problem with grades…

… is that they often don’t directly reflect effort, mastery of the course material, or how much you sucked up to the professor. Surprising, right? Here’s an example. During winter quarter of my freshman year, I took two sophomore/junior level EE classes (EE101A and EE102A). I probably spent an average of 10 hours a week on those two classes combined. I left both of those classes feeling that I had not learned much, and I didn’t visit 101A/102A office hours a single time during the entire period of three months. That same quarter, I also took a mandatory introductory humanities class (IHUM40B), which I spent a whopping 20+ hours on each week in order to analyze the required readings, write responses, and slave away at papers. I visited TA office hours quite frequently, and subtly praised her writing and teaching abilities on a regular basis.

The end result? I ended up getting A’s in EE101A and EE102A and a B+ in IHUM40B (which, due to grade inflation and relaxed constraints with which instructors grade IHUM classes, basically means that my TA thought my course papers were a load of bull excrement). By all means, based on my effort and understanding, I should’ve received much poorer grades in EE101A and EE102A, and a much better grade in IHUM40B!

But Frank, you’re just one lowly data point in a mass of students. Perhaps you just don’t have the right mindset to be a humanities major, or you somehow got unlucky with the grading process.” Fast-forward to next year, where I served as a TA for one of the introductory classes in the EE department at Stanford (EE101B). At the end of the quarter, I helped prepare grades in the grading spreadsheet, and was able to take a look at how well the students did relative to their performance in the class. The correlation was mild at best. One of the undoubtably best students (in terms of knowledge of the material) ended up being placed in bottom 25% w.r.t. grades.

But Frank, EE101B is just one lowly data point in a mass of classes. Perhaps students that quarter were different, or the assignments were bad.” I have been a TA four times with four different professors since EE101B, and I have noticed the same emergent pattern in all four cases – there is no strong correlation between student ability and resultant grades. Imagine a sigmoid curve, shifted and perturbed by high-variance Gaussian noise. That’s typically what the correlation looks like for the classes that I’ve taught at Stanford.

But Frank, Stanford is just one lowly data point in a mass of universities. Perhaps Stanford professors are just horrible at giving out grades!” If that’s truly what you think, you can take it up with these men and women. I think they’ll have plenty to say in this regard.

So grades are just a bunch of BS??!!

Yes… and no. Instead of bashing the current educational system for its markedly evident inefficiencies and drawbacks, there is one crucial area where American grades stand out. In a sense, they don’t actually measure the mastery of material, or social aptitude. I’d like to think of grades as a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your scheduling abilities (assuming you work hard).

No, that does not mean that secretaries end up getting the best grades in class. Rather, it encompasses everything you should know about your own abilities relative to the courses that you are taking. For example, If I know that I’m inherently better at subject A over subject B, I can likely afford to effectively borrow time from subject A on spend it on the material for subject B. This way, I can fulfill the requirements for both classes. In other words, signing up for courses ends up being a delicate balancing act of determining how much work you want to put into the current quarter, all while make sure that you are on time to graduate and don’t mess up your body so much that you reduce your lifespan by a decade in the process.

On grade inflation

Of all the universities in the United States, Stanford is reputed to have perhaps the worst grade inflation of all. I can personally attest to this, having been on both sides of the fence (student and TA). Courses at Stanford are often curved to a B median for undergraduate and advanced classes, and can sometimes be as high as an A- for graduate, upper-division classes. I don’t think Philip Guo could’ve said it any better, so I’m going to block quote him here:

Grade inflation is the phenomenon that has crept into more and more colleges in recent years (I am optimistic that MIT has not been stricken with this plague as much as some other schools). Many professors are now reluctant to give C grades (or sometimes even B grades) to students for fear of angry parent complaints (“I didn’t pay $40,000 per year for my genius child to get a B!!!”), student rights protests (“We have a basic human right to get an A”), or simply due to the momentum of grade inflation happening in other schools (“I want our students to be competitive with students from other schools, and if they’re all getting A’s, then we need to give all A’s as well … sigh.”).

So what can you do to combat this? The answer, really, is quite simple: stand out amongst your classmates in other ways. Do well on class projects. Perform high-quality, publication-worthy research in a well-known lab. Volunteer your time to causes that you believe in. DO NOT adhere to the status quo1.

And remember, getting good grades will never carry you far, but getting bad grades will quickly weigh you down. Good grades come from an ability to manage your time wisely, so be sure to master that skill.

Last but not least, for all of those out there who are worrying about grades

I’ll say it again – it’s probably not as important as you think (if you’re an engineer, at least). Still not convinced? Well then, close your eyes, kick your feet up, and repeat the following: it’s such a beautiful, beautiful life (yes, Armin van Buuren is one of my favorite artists). And there is much, much more to life than just grades.

1Big thanks to Mahon Khoshzaban for pointing out a typo at this location in the original article.

Why is writing important?

I’ll be the first to admit – I’ve never been a particularly strong writer. My writing skills are perhaps a bit better when it comes to conference papers and technical reports, but let’s be real, who, besides for experts in one’s particular area, can read and truly understand the content of a technical article? Although it’s usually easy for me to think of things to write about, I often have difficulty putting my thoughts to paper. Update: this simple 4-paragraph post, for example, took me over an hour to write…

Let me start from the beginning. Since my elementary school days, I’ve had many friends who can effortlessly write a long blog post or persuasive essay. Their thoughts flow through to a piece of paper like water flows on a smooth object (no, I am not a master of similes). Frankly (but I am a master of puns), I’ve never been one of them. During middle school and high school, I often had trouble producing high-quality work in my humanities classes. This led to copious amounts of frustration, and I often stayed up late staring at my half-complete essays without knowing how to proceed. I’d like to believe that that I became better writer in college, but the so-called “fuzzy” classes were almost always the ones that I underperformed in.

I’m now 21 years old, and I believe that, at this juncture in my life, one of my key resolves should be to become a better writer. Writing, and communication in general, is one of the most important aspects of one’s job, regardless of profession. It comes in handy when writing evaluations, speaking with managers and peers, and composing simple emails. Think about it: you and I communicate with others on a daily basis, either through spoken words or by putting a figurative pen to the paper. Either way, we are expressing our ideas and thoughts.  My hope is that, by writing and posting my so-called “musings” online, I can hopefully gain some (nonzero) number of readers while simultaneously increasing my writing abilities in a meaningful way.

Q: “Okay, Frank, that’s great. So you just plan on blindly writing short posts on a semi-regular basis… to improve your writing skills? What?”

A: Yes, but that’s only part of it. Practice makes perfect! As I post these writings more and more, my hope is that I slowly become a better writer. But, in addition, I hope that these writings can serve as something of a self-reflection. Sometimes, when I type my thoughts into a text editor, it allows me to contemplate my work or opinions in a clearer manner. In a sense, I hope that these writings can help me become a better and more complete person for the future as well.