Dec 15, 2015

Five Books I Loved in 2015

One of my goals for 2015 was to read more books.

As someone who grew up doing the majority of my nonfiction reading on the Internet, I’ve been increasingly realizing that books are a better use of my time. They typically contain deeper, more coherent thinking than most blog posts and news articles, and I also retain information better when I read it in a book, probably because I spend a longer period of time thinking about a set of related ideas.

Even though I still spent way too much time on my smartphone, I managed to be mildly successful at achieving my goal, which is a better result than I can report for most of my New Year’s Resolutions! Here are five books that I most enjoyed reading this year.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg (2012)

A lot of the actions we take, from our morning routines to how we spend our workdays and weekends, aren’t really active choices – they’re driven by our habits. In a fun Gladwellian read, Duhigg leans on a solid body of research and anecdotes to explain in detail how habits actually work, and then builds on this understanding to demonstrate how to form and modify them.

One concept I found particularly interesting was the idea of “keystone habits”. It turns out that seemingly small changes to a daily routine have been shown to have a surprisingly positive effect – for example, “Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.” It’s not the action itself that’s important, but rather the act of sticking with a habit, that seems to have a chain reaction. I now think of keystone habits as a kind of life hack to help with habit formation in many aspects of life.

The book is split into three parts where Duhigg applies these ideas to individuals, institutions, and then societies at large. I found the third chapter to be too much of a stretch, but it’s well worth a read for the first two.

Read more

Oct 7, 2015

Gaining faith in the future of government: CfA Summit 2015 recap

I’m sitting in a packed conference room, about to see a talk by Todd Park, who famously led the “tech surge” that saved Healthcare.gov. Before he speaks, I notice Park standing at the side of the room, fiddling with his iPhone, face expressionless. I’m expecting a pleasant, if slightly bland, presentation.

But the moment he’s introduced, bam, he sprints up to the podium—not a leisurely politician-jog-up-the-stairs, but a full Usain-Bolt-out-of-the-starting-blocks sprint—nearly tripping over a mic cable along the way. “HELLO!!!” he shouts, smile beaming, arms waving wildly. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s already completely transformed my image of a “government tech worker.”

Read more

Feb 28, 2015

Building Waze for the Boston subway: my first adventure in civic hacking

Last weekend I attended CodeAcross Boston 2015, a civic innovation hackathon hosted by Code for Boston as part of the national CodeAcross weekend.

Having been driven insane by the wintry woes of Boston’s public transit system, my idea for the event was to build “Waze for the T” – a crowdsourced alerting system to let commuters directly warn each other of delays, crowded platforms, and other problems on the subway. (The T is Boston’s nickname for the public transit system.)

I joined forces with two coworkers from Panorama Education, and over a weekend we built out the idea as a mobile web app using Meteor. We affectionately called it MBTA Ninja. (As weird as the new gTLDs are, .ninja domains are a gold mine for hackathons!) We weren’t really expecting anyone besides our coworkers and friends to use the app at first…

…and then it went viral on Twitter.

Read more

Jan 1, 2015

2014: A year in review with iPhone pedometer data

About a year ago, I became interested in all the recent discussion about how “sitting is the new smoking,” and decided I should start monitoring my daily physical activity. The timing seemed especially good since I would be able to monitor my transition from being a college student to having a job, which makes it harder to live an active lifestyle. I was considering buying a Fitbit or Jawbone Up, but a friend recommended the fantastic Argus iOS app.

Argus uses the M7 motion coprocessor in my iPhone 5S to track my steps throughout the day without eating up too much battery life. Since I have my phone with me almost all the time, it achieves basically the same thing as a fitness wristband does, without having to worry about extra hardware. (This is a good example, among many, of smartphones assimiliating all sorts of previously separate hardware devices.)

Now that I’ve collected almost a year of data on Argus, I thought it would be a good time to use that data to gain some insight into my past year and set goals for the coming year. After all, a proper 2015 New Year’s Resolution should be data-driven!

Read more

Oct 3, 2013

Databases talk

Last weekend I gave a talk about databases at the HackNY Masters conference with my friend and fellow Yale CS major Seth Thompson. We covered some of the basics of database technology, and gave tips about how to choose which database to use for an application without getting caught up in buzzwords. My favorite part was explaining the eventual consistency model in Amazon DynamoDB–who knew that consistency wasn’t always a requirement of a production database?

Check out the slides here:

Jul 6, 2013

On spaghetti code

Last summer, I found time after work and on weekends to build a small web project called Yale Classroulette. It’s a way to randomly explore the enormous Yale undergraduate course catalog – just tap the spacebar, and your screen fills up with a new grid of randomly selected classes, optimized for easy skimming. It basically combines the experience of skimming aimlessly through a paper course catalog with the convenience of the Internet.

I built the site for fun, and because I wanted to use it myself. It turns out other people wanted to use it too–in the year or so since it launched, Yale students have viewed over 1 million courses on it, and the average time on site is 16 minutes. Not bad engagement numbers for a side project.

There’s only one problem with Classroulette. To put it bluntly, the code quality sucks. The Javascript for the frontend is a jQuery spaghetti mess with hardcoded constants and cryptic code, all polluting the global namespace. I wanted the random course loading to be fast, so the Sinatra backend fetches all the scraped course info from the database and stores it in a configuration variable upon initialization, because that was an easier in-memory data store to use than Redis. You get the idea. All this code was written in short shifts late at night when I was tired and distracted, and just wanted to get something launched. As an engineer, it’s painful to write and deploy spaghetti code.

But here’s what this project made me realize: sometimes, good code isn’t the top priority!

Read more

Jun 5, 2013

Redesign!

I’m excited to be writing my first post on my redesigned personal website. I’ve been working on it for the last week, and it has a few improvements:

  • Blogging. This design puts blogging front and center. I did this mainly so I can blog about my exciting summer ahead, helping build the future of K-12 school analytics at Panorama Education. I plan to blog about all sorts of tech and entrepreneurship topics that come up over the summer.

  • Responsive. The previous design was pretty hard to use from a mobile device, so I designed the site to be responsive this time around. It was my first foray into responsive design, and I think it turned out alright. I enjoyed the typographical parts of responsive design, like keeping line lengths within the right range (apparently the rule of thumb is 50-75 characters).

    But it was also frustrating to lose exact control over some of the visual elements – it takes far more effort to create a unique design if you want it to be responsive.

    I’m using the great Montserrat typeface for headings, and the solid Open Sans for everything else.

  • Better site generator. I was previously using the Ruby-based static site generator Nanoc to build my personal site, and switched to Middleman for this version. Both do similar things, but Nanoc was really starting to annoy me with the way it worked (see this HN comment) and I like how Middleman works much better.

Look forward to many more posts over the next few months and beyond! I’ll also add Disqus comments and import the posts from my old blog over here at some point.