My Goal for 2019: Focus on Quality over Quantity

I started my 2019 blog reboot last week with retrospective reflections on my life in 2018, and as is common this time of year, I’d like to follow it up with my goals for 2019. In compiling this list, however, I found a unifying thread between the goals: In every case, I hope to replace a mindset focused on maximizing quantity with one focused on maintaining quality.

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2018: A Year of Small Transitions

It’s been a while! I last posted a blog post in February 2018, and I’ve more or less gone silent on social media in that time as well. As I’ll explain shortly, it’s been a bit of an uncertain and transitional period in my life, but I think that has settled down now. As one of my New Years’ Resolutions, I’m expecting to blog on a weekly basis once again, and given the circumstances, I figured that a good first post would be a simple update on my life.

Here’s the short version, if you don’t want to read all of my personal details: I left my church of five years to join a church plant / merger in March, defended my PhD thesis in August, and got a job, through a seven-week Insight Data Science fellowship, at a small startup named Kebotix in November.

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Google Sheets Kung Fu: Ten tips for writing functionality quickly

At a retreat I attended last month, one of the speakers illustrated his point that people have different skills by explaining that some people have a fascination with spreadsheet manipulation. The way he said it, he sounded baffled, but when I heard it, I knew he was describing people like me.

My preferred system is Google Sheets for its easy collaboration and anywhere-access. Last spring, in “Like Magic”: Five Google Spreadsheet Hacks to Save You Time and Money, I shared some of its features that I’ve learned about over the years which expand the scope and power of what you can do with spreadsheets. In this post, I’d like to address the complimentary question of efficiency: How do you build and write spreadsheet functionality quicklyAfter all, we’re using spreadsheets in the first place in part in order to speed things up relative to doing them by hand. But if designing the spreadsheet takes a long time, we’re at best cutting into those future time savings and at worst losing time in the whole endeavor.

So here are some tips for speeding up your own spreadsheet capabilities.

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Why the World Always Seems to be Getting Worse

“It’s the end of the House System at Caltech,” many Caltech alumni proclaimed upon hearing the administration unveil its plans for the newly constructed Bechtel House yesterday evening. The first major addition to Caltech housing in over 20 years, Bechtel will allow every undergraduate who wants to live on campus to do so. No longer will upperclassmen be subjected to the same harrowing process of roompick lotteries, uncertain whether they’ll be able to stay in their beloved House or move off-campus.

If you’ve spent any time dealing with the Caltech administration, though, you know there has to be a catch somewhere. Fortunately, the admins didn’t decide to go with one of their original plans, to make the new dorm all-freshman housing. Instead, they decided to make it a more free-for-all living arrangement, where clusters of friends can join and create their own culture without the social pressure of being another House (or two).

Working through the consequences, then, the procedure of matching freshmen to houses, currently a weeklong process known as Rotation and occurring right after students arrive at school, would inevitably have to be reformed. The main source of the drama lies in their solution: Houses will no longer have the ability to rank prefrosh; placement will instead only depend on the preferences of the incoming prefrosh (that’s Caltech lingo for matriculating freshmen).

There are unfortunately also serious concerns with the way this decision was reached that call into question the integrity of the administration. Sadly, this is not the first time they’ve acted unilaterally and in bad faith, despite giving all pretenses of working with student committees. Since they hold all of the power, it also won’t be the last.

That said, I’ve also been struck by the reaction of my fellow alumni to the content of the changes themselves. As one of my Caltech friends messaged me, “Sam, the world is ending. It’s all over. Run for the hills!” (emphasis his, punctuation mine) And yet, I’m also not surprised: This is exactly the same way that the Caltech Alumni Facebook group has reacted to, well, pretty much everything.

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Here’s to the ones who sustain

As I near the end of my grad school years, I’ve begun to think back on it all and ask questions like, “What did I get out of it? Was it worth it? What if I had never come to grad school in the first place?”

And to be completely honest, I’m not sure I have good answers to this set of questions. By the traditional metric of publishing, my grad school years have been a dismal failure: The only publication I have to date is a five-author paper all the way back from the summer of 2014 to which I didn’t even contribute that much. My two main research projects since then have been slow; the first is still in the review process, and the second has yet to produce a paper yet.

This is especially frustrating because I chose to do math research in particular (as opposed to pursuing my other undergrad major, chemistry) for two main reasons: because I thought I was good at it and because math research seemed to proceed faster, at the speed of thought rather than the speed of experiment. What I found, as I’ve recounted before, is that the hard part of math research is actually the challenge of finding a good problem, and I’m neither good nor fast at that.

This isn’t to say that my grad school years have been completely devoid of personal development; I did get married, for one. But maybe these aren’t the questions I should be asking in the first place. To approach the last six years of my life by asking merely, “How did it advance my resume?” is to view MIT as merely a dispenser of goods and services, a stepping-stone on the path to my own glorification.

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45, ESV)

Christians, what does it mean to follow Jesus for you? What is he calling you to? Since 2010, I’ve discerned God’s calling on my life to be a life of service. God might very well call others to take positions of worldly authority and influence (like professorships) and use that status to be ambassadors for Christ. But based on my abilities and inclinations, it seems clear to me that I’m called to a life primarily of service, loving God and others in my community by serving them. So instead of reflecting on my lack of publications, I’ve been encouraged to reflect on all of the ways that I’ve been able to serve here at MIT.

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