07 December 2010

Quick tips to increase productivity: Part I

Here are some quick and easy tips to increase your productivity:

1. Use the restroom to plan ahead. In a busy schedule, there are few natural breaks. But everyone has to submit to the call of nature. I find that taking just a minute or two to assess your current activity, whether you are being productive, and what you should do to make progress in the next 15-30 minutes after your break, can be an extremely productive activity. Use this time to reboot a stalled out work day.

2. Floss your teeth while sitting down. I find that one reason I hate to floss is that it is annoying to just stand there in front of the mirror wasting what seems like 2 minutes threading string between my teeth. Instead, grab your floss and then grab a seat. Sitting down in a relaxed position makes flossing seem less like a chore and more like a reflective moment of treating yourself to personal grooming. How is this more productive? Well, if that alternative is not flossing and flossing is a priority for you, then getting yourself to do it is quite the production increase!

16 August 2010

"Going to Mars with Peter"

Our brains have a propensity toward seeing patterns and making connections. We also have hardwired within us a desire not just to understand things, but to do so quickly (likely a useful trait when we needed to understand that a boulder rolling down the hill was probably going to keep on doing so, and we better get out of the way!). I think the combination of these two aspects of our physiology attribute a great deal toward our belief in the supernatural. Specifically, we see patterns in the events and world around us that we don't understand and the easiest explanation is that, of course, these patterns were made by someone, just like every car and every chair has a maker. Since we don't see the maker around us, we attribute the patterns to an unseen, "godly" maker. That doesn't mean that this is the correct explanation, but it is certainly one that has been satisfactory for most of us for most of our history.

I may not ascribe to that view of the origin of patterns around us, but that doesn't stop my brain from searching for them. And this week, circumstances aligned in such a way that I found a pleasant pattern in my own life.

I am embarking over the next few months on the final chapter in my System Engineering master's degree program at Johns Hopkins. The capstone project, which will consume my extracurricular hours until December, is the development of an aerial robot to survey the Valles Marineris on Mars. I find it fitting that 8 years ago, during the summer after my senior year in high school, it was a space settlement design competition that I participated in, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, that first got me interested in engineering. The goal then was to design a Martian outpost that could support hundreds or thousands of settlers. Our project leader was a devoted and enthusiastic classmate named Peter (the type of kid who wore a star trek outfit to school, though for his sake, it was during Halloween season). My friend, Robert Yao, and I, being somewhat more interested in going to Florida than staying up all night writing requirements for an imaginary extraterrestrial apartment complex, endearingly joked that we were "Going to Mars with Peter."

In preparation for that trip all those years ago, I read Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars" and was at once fascinated at the idea of a manned mission to the Red Planet. Ever since, I've found the plans to return to the moon about as exciting as a road trip to Cleveland. As I bone up on Mars facts now, I'll be much more concerned with the impact of eroding dust and the low atmospheric pressure on a flying robot than on methods for terraforming the planet so that the 3014 World Cup could be played on the (no longer) red planet.

Something about coming full circle in my education fills me with a sense of completeness and pleasant, mild satisfaction. Now, if I wasn't human, I would probably say something more logical, like "well, really it would only be 'full circle' if the settlement competition had occurred during my first semester at school." But I am human and this seems a pretty innocuous occasion to indulge myself, so, yeah, I'll say it, isn't it amazing how so often life just happens to work out like this?!

30 May 2010

Why you should believe in God -- Part III

In Part I and II, I gave you reasons why you should believe in God. In Part III, we'll explore why believing in God is important.

Reason #1: God tells us what is right and wrong. If we didn't have God to tell us, how would we know that murder, theft, and rape are wrong? Imagine how much of these evils there would be in the world if God hadn't given us these important rules to live by. Think about yourself; imagine if God never told you not to murder or steal. If you saw a skinny child shivering in the street begging for food--and a stranger came up and gave the kid a piece of bread--what would stop you from walking up to the child, ripping the bread out of her little hands, and pushing her in front of the next bus to stop her from annoying you with her whines that her tummy hurts. Don't worry, that would never happen, because without God, no stranger would ever give a hungry little kid any bread anyway. Oh, but if God tells you to murder and steal then it is okay. Also, if He tells you to marry little girls to old men, or to cut off pieces of babies' genitals, then that is okay too!

Reason #2: God gives us life after we die. What luck! After your body dies, your spirit will go to heaven where you will have a mansion and will be with God all the time for an infinite amount of time. Because of this fact, nothing that happens on Earth is really that bad. Even if something terrible happens, its okay because the innocent people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell. So don't worry too much about the world getting blown up by nuclear bombs at the hands of terrorists--it just means you'll get to heaven sooner! If it wasn't for heaven, what would be the point of this whole life? Why would you care about anything if it was all just going to end after you die. Why get up in the morning? Why learn about nature and science and the world around us? There'd be no point; the world would be worthless. Just a bunch of cells dividing then dying.

So now when somebody asks you why it is important to believe in God, you can reply:

"Isn't it obvious?"

22 May 2010

Why you should believe in God -- Part II

In Part I, I gave several scientific reasons for why one should believe in God. As it turns out, Part I was just a red herring--written as a mere aside to the main event. In Part II, I will explain why scientific and rational inquiry is highly overrated when it comes to the subject of God. True theists (and I hope you count yourself among them when I'm through), have a better reason for believing.

Reason #2: Have a little Faith. There is a lot of debate about faith and reason and whether the two are compatible. First, let's explain the difference between the two. Faith is belief in the absence of reproducible evidence (a true virtue!). Reason is belief based on the presence of verifiable evidence or based on logic. Think about a court case--an eye witness can put someone away for life, even death row; that is how solid first hand experience is. Yet data, on the other hand, can be used to argue either side of the case (it's easy to manipulate and misdirect with numbers). "Science" spends a lot of time trying to convince us that God does not exist. Fortunately, with faith, you can believe in God without having to study science or think things through logically. God made both science and logic, so obviously these cannot be used as evidence against the existence of God.

I know there is probably still one smug doubter out there reading this, asking, "If God made science and logic, why doesn't He use these to prove to us that He exists?" I'll tell you why! God is not big on science. God is big on faith. He wants you to believe in Him because people tell you to--they are his witnesses, just like in a court case. Just make sure you don't listen to the people who tell you his name is Yahweh or Allah. As long as you remember His name is spelled G-O-D, you'll be okay!

Sometimes God sends little shivers up your spine to tell you that He loves you or approves of what you are doing; this is to help reaffirm your faith and make you a witness of God. When the people who say Yahweh and Allah sends them shivers too, you'll know that actually those are just neurons firing in their spines.

Isn't it obvious?!

18 May 2010

Why you should believe in God -- Part I

This is a first post in a series in which I explore one of the least controversial issues in America. Believing in God. According to numerous polls (just Google it), nearly everyone in America believes in God. Okay maybe there are a few pockets of unbelief in the Northeast and the Northwest, but those are just a bunch of liberals, so they don't really count.

But let's say you count yourself with those latte sipping, bleeding hearts on the fringes of America. I am taking it upon myself to convince you to believe in God. Why am I taking on this task? Well, I could try to convince you to believe in intelligent design, but not as many Americans believe in that--since believing in God is a prerequisite--so I'm taking on the easier job first.

But what is my motivation? Well, contrarian opinions sow disunity and I'm trying to unify our country in the name of peace. I don't want Armageddon to come before I have kids and get a chance to teach them all the Bible stories after all!

If you are like most Americans and already believe in God, you can stop reading now since you already know the Truth!

For all the rest of you schlups who never bothered to attend Sunday school, here is the first reason to believe in God:

Reason #1: Take a quick glance around you. The natural world is full of amazing and diverse beauty; it is too amazing to have just happened. In a random world you'd expect just as much ugly and useless stuff as beautiful and useful wonders for us to enjoy. That's probability; you may have learned about it in school. The fact that there are so many things for us to enjoy like every kind of food from corn to broccoli, and even a wide variety of dogs to be our companions, everything from huge saint bernards to little chihuahuas. This couldn't be chance, someone (or something) had to organize all the little atoms into molecules and molecules into cells and cells into life!

But why would God create any bad things, like tornadoes and poison berries? Well, have you ever had a cool glass of water after running in hot weather? How much better is the water after running than if you were just sitting around watching TV? You see, God creates bad things so that we appreciate good things (note: The Devil and his demons also tempt people to do bad things, but that's for another time, this is about God!). But what if the tornado crushes your house and kills your brother and your little sister ate some poison berries and passed away. Don't worry; they are with God now in Heaven (if they were baptized), so they are happier than you, you sad schmuck.

Sorry, I digressed a bit. Just because it is improbable that the world just happened to be the way it is doesn't mean it is impossible, right? There is still a chance that maybe God didn't make the Earth and all life that is on it...


You may have heard a so called scientist, maybe even a teacher at your public school, claim that life can "evolve" through this process called "evolution." The main problem with evolution is that it's just a theory. These self-proclaimed scientists (or maybe some backward school like Oxford gave them a degree) will say that evolution is a testable hypothesis with a lot of evidence to back it up. Well, if that were true they wouldn't still call it a theory. Don't believe those cheap peddlers of nonsense.

Besides, even if they were right, which they aren't, you should still believe in God. How did the universe begin if there was no God? Who caused the Big Bang (if that even happened...it's just a theory)? What was around before the Big Bang created all the space in the universe? You guessed it--God was around!

Some silly people might ask, "but who created God?"

Isn't it obvious?

03 May 2010

This Label is Nuts

I'm a fan of Emerald Nuts because they are cheap. I find that they are typically cheaper than Planters and on par with the store brand, at least at Safeway where I typically purchase them. As we well know, nuts are not a low fat/low calorie food. As such, I find it helpful to check the label and ensure that I have an idea of the appropriate portion to consume given my desired caloric intake.

The clever folks at Emerald Nuts have found a clever way to both comply with federal nutrition labeling guidelines and obscure this nutritional information while I'm consuming their delicious product. In the image below you can see that the "serving size" and "servings per container" information are conveniently lost when the perforated shrink-wrapping is removed from around the screw top. The rest of the information is essentially useless if you don't know the serving size that it is referencing. You might expect that I, as the consumer, would be more cautious in my consumption of the product due to an aversion to accidentally consuming vastly more calories than I had intended; however, I've found that quite to the contrary, in my blissful ignorance I can unconsciously consume what I later learned to be several servings without so much as a dent in my appetite.

Anyhow, kudos to Emerald for clever packaging. By the way, a serving size of almonds is 1/4 cup or 1 oz (about 20 almonds).

15 February 2010

PowerPoint Animation -- Selection Window Time Saver

As a "PowerPoint" engineer (aka UVa Systems grad), I am ashamed to not have known about the "Selection and Visibility" feature in PP2007.

Basically, this shows you a list of all the objects on your slide, for which you can proceed to give meaningful names. This is helpful in keeping things straight when making a slide with a lot of graphics and animations. Instead of working with a bunch of objects (some of which are hidden by others) with names like "Picture 9" and "Picture 13", you can use meaningful names like"PHL in 2007" and "PHL in 2012".

To do this click on "Home", then "Select->Selection Window..." (button in the Editing window on the far right-hand side of the screen). This produces a pane which lists all the objects on the screen. You can even hide some object so that it is easier to select and manipulate the underlying ones.

I know this is my lamest post ever, but this feature made me happy for a few minutes.