Category → thoughts

Cook Like You're Not on MasterChef

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess?

When I was very young, I thought cooking was easy. I sliced plastic vegetables with a toy knife and then Velcroed them back together, ad infinitum. For at least some time, I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.

When I was slightly less young, I thought cooking was hard. My reference points were mostly (1) my parents, who seemed to know how to make a million different dishes in inscrutable ways without thinking, and (2) MasterChef contestants (who I assume were better at cooking than my parents because they were, well, on MasterChef) messing things up and getting kicked off the show.

Now, I think I probably elided some meaningful distinctions there in my youthful naïveté. Cooking food that will keep you from getting kicked off MasterChef is hard. Cooking edible food is easy.1 Cooking storebought dumplings in particular is so stupidly easy it’s unfair. More generally, though, most recipes tolerate a lot of substitutions,2 number fudging,3 and even straight-up skipping pesky instructions, like the ones in baking recipes where you mix two sets of ingredients separately in specific orders. There are reasons for those steps, but ignoring them and dumping everything into the same mixing bowl usually won’t make your results inedible. You can also just decide to omit ingredients you don’t like. Probably the least tolerant ingredient measurements in recipes are the measurements of baking soda or baking powder, which by the way are different things, in baking recipes. But otherwise you’d really be surprised how many corners you can get away with cutting — I’ve even completely winged one baking soda/powder measurement with decent results. I think this is especially important to know for people from technical backgrounds like me, who have an instinct to treat the numbers in recipes as precisely measured, painstakingly optimized choices to produce the best dish. They usually aren’t, and even if they are optimized for the recipe author’s palate, they probably won’t be optimized for yours.4 And they certainly aren’t optimized for any tradeoffs you might want to make between food quality versus the time and effort you’re putting into cooking. Make the tradeoffs you want. You’re not on MasterChef.

Money Matters

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess?

There’s some oft-cited psychology studies that suggest that once your salary goes above $75,000, additional money doesn’t make you happier. This sounds like a sage bit of life advice if it were true, the ultimate rebuff against excessive greed and materialism and sacrificing other things for a six-digit salary, but it overstates the case a bit. 80,000 Hours’ analysis of money and happiness is probably the analysis I’d trust the most here; I think it would be more accurate just to say that you get diminishing returns of happiness from salaries above $70,000.1 Still, that was enough for me to decide fairly early on that I wasn’t interested in trying to get a high-paying job for its own sake, or in spending too much effort trying to invest my way to a fortune.2 I wanted my job to be personally satisfying and good for the world, while paying enough for me and my family (current and future) to get by, but I planned to treat any additional money after that as little more than a bonus used for breaking ties.

I still mostly stand by that decision today, but over the intervening years I realized there were a whole host of reasons to want money that weren’t that selfish at all.

Go to Class (Most of the Time)

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess? A short post this time.

I can’t begin to count the number of times we were exhorted in high school to go to class. College is different, they said. Nobody is going to force you to go to class any more. This is what you came to college to do, what you paid so much time and money for. It’s on you to make sure you’re learning.

By and large I followed this advice, until I considered that I might have overcorrected given the exhortations. There are a lot of definitely bad reasons to skip class, chief among them being too lazy to get out of bed. There are also some non-obvious reasons to go to class, such as getting the professors to recognize you — this is a reason to go to office hours even if you’re not particularly struggling with the class, or if you know people who might be able to help you that you could ask more comfortably or more conveniently; professors who know you may eventually be able to give you career advice, research opportunities, or letters of recommendation. (Of course, you shouldn’t try to befriend professors purely for these selfish motives; they’re also good to know just as fellow humans.)

But there are also plenty of legitimate reasons to skip class. (It’s really unclear how many people out there need to hear this, but my past self did, and I want this draft out of the way-too-long queue of posts.) Here are some.

Writing for the Mundane

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess?

I hated timed essays in high school. It’s pretty clear if you skim that part of the blog archives:

My [SAT] essay got a 10 out of 12. It’s an essay I’d be ashamed of posting anywhere else; it’s disgustingly traditional and formulaic. […] This was simply because I knew that using my normal essay-writing mindset, I’d get maybe a 3, because I’d spend the first twenty minutes debating myself over which side I was on and rewrite the introduction ten times. Too bad. I wasn’t there to write a good essay; I was there to get a good score on the SAT.

The worst issue is that students do not need to give in-depth explanation of anything they learned. Due to its stringent time limit, the essay portion rewards quick reckless writing much more than deep thought. […] encouraging students to practice writing 25-minute essays in order to improve their college-bound skills is like encouraging people to play Grand Theft Auto in order to improve their driving skills.

I took the Grand Theft Auto analogy pretty far. I’m not proud enough of these posts to link them, but you can find them if you try. In short, past me thought timed essays rewarded writing too quickly, with a disregard not only for facts but for the opportunity to lay out your opinions and thoughts so you could clarify and revise them, which was actually the most valuable part of writing.1 I conceded that the time limits made sense as a practical concession to allow you to test students’ writing skills fairly,2 but I felt like there was still way too much emphasis on the raw speed.


Part of a series of posts about what I learned after four years at MIT. We’re ramping up to deeper topics eventually, I promise. Soon™.

This post is about things. You know, physical objects. Earthly possessions. The indispensable yet fickle chains that bind us to this plane of existence.

As a freshman I loved getting free stuff. I went into my first career fair starry-eyed, taking free pens and t-shirts and sunglasses and drawstring bags from every company that would let me; I’m sure many other MIT students have gone through the same ritual of passing. There seemed to be no downside. Besides, all the swag was probably small change for most of the companies anyway, due to VC funding or massive government contracts or whatever. So I might as well make full use of it.

Less normally (although I have no idea by how much), I also hoarded a lot of things that naturally pop up in everyday life, the stuff that would otherwise get thrown away: extra napkins, plastic bags, produce containers, boxes, those payment envelopes that come with magazine subscriptions and exhort you to Subscribe Now To 12 Issues For 20% Off!! At some point I kept the fortune from every fortune cookie I had ever eaten in a tiny resealable bag. The rationale was basically the same: they might be useful some day1 and there was no downside.

How to Choose an MIT Username

I wanted to write a post after two years at college about everything I had learned. I didn’t, firstly because I didn’t make it a priority, and secondly because trying to write about everything I’ve learned at MIT over any nontrivial length of time is the kind of poorly scoped endeavor that I could never complete to my own satisfaction.

Two years came and went, and now it’s been two more years and I’ve learned even more things, not to mention, actually graduated. Jeez. I tried to self-impose a deadline for the big post, but it didn’t work out. There were still too many higher priorities, most of which were also natural consequences of graduating. I also couldn’t bring myself to cut anything, because unlike most of the stuff I haphazardly throw onto this blog, I can actually imagine an audience for just about everything I wanted to write about.

Finally I decided that I would break it into lots of small posts on specific topics. This way, at least the perfectionism can’t bleed between posts too much. The first topic I wanted to write about is simple, mundane, and also fairly limited in scope itself: how to choose your MIT username.

On #DeleteFacebook

It feels a little surreal watching #DeleteFacebook.

On one hand, despite how hard it is to keep an issue trending in today’s fast news cycle, this issue has managed to continue burning for a while. Somewhat recently (March 21), we got two high-profile Facebook account deletions from Brian Acton (WhatsApp cofounder) and Elon Musk. Other apparent examples include Playboy and Cher, or see Time or CNET for a few more. Facebook’s U.S. and Canada user base declined for the first time last quarter.

On the other hand, for me and for a lot of people, the scandal just doesn’t seem that qualitatively different from things we’ve known about Facebook for a long time — its stance on privacy, its psychological effects, its willingness to manipulate the user experience. Why is this time different? (Here’s the /r/NoStupidQuestions thread. I don’t actually know which answer I believe the most.)

Is this time really different? I’m not optimistic. The decline could simply be Facebook running out of potential users to add and space to grow. According to a recent Raymond James survey, about half of surveyed users did not plan to change how much they used Facebook, while only 8% would stop using it, and this may still be an overestimate of people who will actually leave or delete their accounts.1 Mark Zuckerberg himself told the New York Times, “I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on [the #DeleteFacebook campaign]”.

I myself have to admit upfront that, even though I barely use Facebook any more and have carefully contemplated deleting my Facebook account for a long time, I still haven’t pulled the trigger.

Why? What will it take to change this?

Me and Facebook

tl;dr: I don’t use Facebook much. If you want to contact me, I would prefer nearly any other mode of communication. I am also going to stop autosharing posts from this blog onto Facebook. RSS readers are great; get yours today.

Recently I checked Facebook and it said something like “You’ve added N friends this past T units of time! Thanks for making the world more connected!” and I just couldn’t any more. Facebook friends are not friends. Dunbar’s number is around 150, maybe double that if you want to stretch it; humans cannot handle that many human relationships. Facebook’s siloed ecosystem is the opposite of connected with the rest of the Internet.

That is one of many reasons I pretty much don’t use Facebook any more. This is not new, but I’ve never formalized it. Also, I figure others might assume otherwise since I still do have an account and still accept friend requests and post sometimes. Thus, I’m writing this post.

Here are all of the reasons:

It's Complicated

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Along with a Republican House and Senate majority, to boot.

The world around me is still hurting and reeling from the shock.

Make no mistake, I am scared. I am scared of the policies and executive orders and legal decisions to come that may strip away many civil rights and send the environment down a worse track faster than anyone expected, and I’m barely in any of the groups that have the most to lose. I have no idea what it’s like to go through this as any of you. I am sorry.

But I am also scared that this fear is driving my friends and my community away from talking to the people we need to talk to if we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

I’ve heard a lot of people vilify Trump and Trump supporters. Anecdotally, so have others. It’s an understandable reaction, but a fragile one. 60 million people voted for Trump. Quoting Wait But Why, “[P]eople with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares. Full, three-dimensional people who voted for what they hope will be a better future for themselves and their family.”

People voted for Trump. Why?

Here’s FiveThirtyEight profiling a few blue-collar voters. The Washington Post interviewing an author who spent a lot of time in rural Wisconsin. The New York Times on women. If the articles’ reasons for voting Trump could be summarized in one word, it would certainly be “economy”.

But then FiveThirtyEight tempers it a little bit with this reminder that Trump’s supporters are on average more well-off than others. Here’s The New Yorker visiting a bunch of Trump rallies. SupChina discusses first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Trump and racism is a bullet point there, but apparently it’s partly rallied around rap lyrics about robbery that advise to “find a Chinese neighborhood” to steal from, so…? I am not going to go any deeper into this rabbit hole. Then here’s Mother Jones arguing against the economy being a big factor at all, and Vox saying it is about racial resentment. Here’s Bloomberg on the Clinton campaign’s failure to persuade and The Federalist on “hyper-liberal late-night comedy” and The Washington Times on Trump’s optimism. I could find hundreds more out there just by Googling, and so could you; and chances are if you’re enough of a voracious reader to be reading my humble blog, you’ve already read some of these.

It’s complicated.

Time, Money, and All That Good Stuff: Part 1 of ∞

I had this 5,000-word draft, but I half-abandoned it for being sappy, boring, pointless, and impossible to rewrite to be satisfactorily un-cringeworthy. Instead, let me just tell you a couple random stories and anecdotes that went somewhere near the start. Maybe posting them will motivate me to salvage something from the 4,500 words that go after it and post it. Eventually.

Some time ago, Namecheap had a discount, so I bought a domain name for 88¢. Unfortunately, the discount only lasted for one year; afterwards, it would cost $29/year to renew. Even though I bought it on a whim and didn’t have much use for it, I found myself wanting to keep it more and more and had a huge mental struggle over whether I could afford it, because wow, $29 is a lot!

Meanwhile, during the same school year, more or less: