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7 Things I Learned in 2011

Resolutions? Me? I am perfect the way I am!

Only weaklings break resolutions. Only fools make them.

Last year was pretty eventful. I will remember 2011 as the year I first spent a significant time abroad, saw Niagara falls, ate an animal larger than myself, got kicked out from a bar, and filled in my graduate applications. Here are, in no particular order, seven things that I learned/re-learned in 2011:

  1. The importance of being organized
    Being disorganized and careless is easy but costly. Last year, it directly or indirectly lead to me losing a phone, a camera, a laptop and a chance to participate in the World Finals of ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (and meet Mickey Mouse). Enough already.
  2. Psychology is a scam
    Having read about some classic (and very scientific) experiments in psychology, I used to have a respect for and a cursory interest in the field. That was before I had to read actual psychology papers being published in some very reputed journals for a course in Interpersonal Dynamics. Most of the experiments in psychology are done on extremely small and unrepresentative samples (usually 20-30 students from an undergraduate psychology class). One wonders if the same findings would be repeated in different cultural contexts. However, repeating old experiments seems to be implicitly discouraged. While mathematicians and physicists have to do extraordinary hard work to get results of significance and take great measures to make sure that their result is reliable, a tenured psychology professor can get published saying things like “You can predict the gender of a person faster if you can see their eyes but looking at eyes does not increase your ability to classify words”. (By the way, this paper has 108 citations. No kidding!) Perhaps I was just reading the wrong kind of psychology papers and there IS a lot quality research going on out there, but the fact that a lot of crap easily gets published says a lot in itself.
  3. Music
    I was unlucky to have no education of music in my childhood. When I was about 8 years old, and had a self-esteem, I sang a song in Music class and I was laughed at by the whole gang of students. It was no big deal, but I did not know it back then. It left a bad mark on my young psyche and I avoided singing and music in general for the rest of childhood. The year before last, I decided to pick up a guitar and give music another shot. It has been an eventful journey, and although I still cannot sing, I can strum a few songs, have at least a basic understanding of how music works, and most importantly can appreciate music I listen to like I could never before. Music is fun; it’s beautiful; and there’s always so much more to learn.
  4. Contest coding is a waste of time
    I used to find coding fun and was very serious about getting into ACM world finals. (The competitiveness is probably a relic from the IIT-JEE and physics olympiad days.) There is no doubt that it was fun and instructive at the start. However, I felt that after one stage it becomes more about having so much practice that every problem you see on the contest is like some problem you have solved already. Moreover, contest coding problems are very artificial and so is the coding environment. In the real world, no one cares if you can write a code in one hour or ninety minutes. Besides, it consumes time, a lot of it, that I can spend working on actual unsolved problems
  5. Getting used to being busy
    Last year came like a whirlwind and kicked me out of the lazy complacency I had developed at IIT-K. There will now always be more things demanding my time that I can possibly give justice to. I will need to prioritize and plan accordingly.
  6. Research is difficult
    I had always taken the decision to go into research and academia for granted. However, this summer provided my first real opportunity to work at a research problem of importance and this was when I realized how difficult proving a theorem can be. The way theorems are presented in books, neat and polished, is not the way they are discovered at all. It’s a messy affair. There are a dozen ways you think you can approach the theorem and all you can do is try them out one at a time and patiently see where they lead you. It’s only after you have found one proof, you try to boil down to the essence of the argument and finally (often after several months or even years later) the proof reaches the beautiful form in which it is presented in books.
  7. Culinary Adventures
    Sorry, wife-to-be but there is nothing and can be nothing that I love more than trying out new and exotic things to eat. Canada offered me excellent opportunity to try out new cuisines (ranging from Egyptian to Caribbean, Japanese and Continental). I added several new animals to the ‘Things I Have Eaten’ list – moose, beaver, duck, cow, squid, mussel, oyster, scallops and some types of fish. I even tried my hand at cooking. I am good, but you only have my word for it.