5 tactics to make short classes work

http://www.flickr.com/photos/childofwar/3097124543/sizes/m/in/photostream/Have a short (1-4 hour) class/tutorial to give? Want your students to learn tons and rave about the class? Want them to teach you and stay engaged in the topic moving forward?

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from running mini-classes in academic and professional settings:

  • Listen to the room
  • Build skills through lessons
  • Let them get their hands dirty
  • Do the boring stuff in advance
  • Follow up with homeworks

These are mostly related to programming-type topics (see here and here from some examples), but I’ll bet the ideas are broadly applicable. Hopefully you can share some of your experiences as either a student or teacher in the comments!

Continue reading “5 tactics to make short classes work”

3 hints for Excel excellence

Excel is the go-to tool for business calculations. Simple or complex, weeks of work or merely minutes, you’ll use Excel eventually. As with any tool, knowing a few tricks can transform the output from a clunky mess to a useful, beautiful creation.

  • Learn before you hack
  • Make it pretty
  • Document everything

These three hints apply to lots of life’s endeavors,
but let’s talk about how they apply to Excel.

Continue reading “3 hints for Excel excellence”

Convert images to data with Plot Digitizer

You’re scouring the internet for data to prove your point…
After hours of searching, you finally found it!
One problem – it’s a chart in a pdf…

Charts are better than nothing, but you really want to have the numbers in Excel or Matlab so you can do analysis and get big insights (or at least make a nicer-looking chart).

The answer is Plot Digitizer

Continue reading “Convert images to data with Plot Digitizer”

Use that Sweet Spot

With the easy availability of scientific papers through the internet, it is easy to quickly get your hands on tons of pdfs. Then what? I look through the pile very quickly and pick out the one or two papers that look the most relevant. This quick pass consists of glancing at the abstract and the figures.

Knowing that this quick and dirty scan is probably becoming the norm, I’ve started including a telling graphic right in the Sweet Spot. This is a term my colleagues and I have come up with for the top of the right column on the first page. Check it out:

sweet spot papers

Including the Sweet Spot graphic may get your paper read more, it may get your paper read less. Either way, it helps the reader make a snap decision about whether or not your paper is of interest to them. I feel like it makes the paper visually more attractive and inviting, too.

Any other Sweet-Spotters out there?

Mantras for Motivation

In my struggle to do more, be better, and kick ass I try a menagerie of techniques, experiments, etc. Most recently, I’ve developed a set of mantra that seem to give me that extra push to get things done, and done well. I keep these three phrases in mind all day and let them spur me to action.


The idea that you should always deliver on what you say you will is a strong one. I want to be known as “someone who delivers.” This keeps my head in the game long-term thinking about not just actions right now, but how they will translate to tangibles later on. Deliver at work, Deliver in relationships, Deliver financially. DELIVER.

More Action!

This one comes from my friend Naomi. In this crazy world, it’s all too common to work or play to the exclusion of sleeping. When things start to drag, when my pen slumps and my eyelids get heavy, I think to myself, “More Action!” Its a great way to get going, and keep moving fast. “More Action!” at the gym. “More Action!” when programming. “More Action!” when you want just 5 more minutes before you get out of bed… “More Action!!”

Push It.

Here’s one from my buddy Jon. We tease Jon because, “he pushes it.” However, pushing it is a valuable quality. Whenever I want to quit, take a break, slow down for just a sec’ because its more comfortable… I think “push it.” This means working for 10 extra minutes when I’m stuck on a problem, or running for one extra mile when my lungs and legs burn, or knocking one more thing off of my to-do list before going to bed. I hope working just outside my comfort zone will make me stronger. Push it.

These three are short and simple enough to keep with me mentally all day long. If it were just about that though, I’m sure I’d forget eventually. Hence, I put up sticky-notes with these mantra. I put them on my monitor at work, my microwave at home, my dashboard, my laptop, you name it. Seeing them all the time reminds me to do More Action so I can continue to Push It and eventually DELIVER.

Autocorrect This!

When we were children, we were taught how to spell words. (Personally, I was never fantastic at this.) I see the value of spelling, and look scornfully on documents wrought with spelling errors. You may say, “Lucky for us, we live in the land of spell-checkers, and we don’t have to worry about that.” Ah yes. And this brings me to my point.

Spell-checking is a valuable tool. I couldn’t possibly write without it. This post is a commentary not on spell checking, but on its cousin, auto-correct. Auto-correct is the tool that changes “teh” to “the” and “freindly” to “friendly.” I used to think that this was a fantastic utility. These days I have a different take.

Auto-correct takes away the punishment for misspelling and mistyping words. As a result, you being the clever person you are, adapt and start to exhibit more careless behaviors. After years of training myself in this way, I realized that I could barely type an intelligible sentence when left to my own devices. I was constantly on backspace, and messed up certain words habitually.

Broken Pencil

As an experiment, about six months ago, I decided to go on an auto-correct hiatus. I disabled it in all programs. Furthermore, I made a promise to myself not to right-click misspelled words to get the correct spelling. Now, if I type a word wrong, I fix it. If I don’t know how to spell a word, I look it up. The results are fantastic.

My typing accuracy has improved dramatically, and I am learning to spell again! Words that I noticed I never *ever* spelled right such as “available” (I always did “avaliable” and auto-correct fixed it) have come back into the fold. Maybe its not necessary. Maybe I’m just a purist. But I like that I can type again.

Formula to Write a Paper

I want to share the lessons I learned recently when writing a paper. These were some revelations that helped me get over the procrastination hump and really set me on the writing fast-track.

  1. Start with a thesis
  2. Do all the experiments next
  3. Recursive outlining
  4. Finish it up

Read on for an explanation of each of these steps:

Start with a thesis

Before you do anything else, write a short, to the point thesis topic. It should be one or two sentences and the entire paper should be written to prove that thesis. I stuck mine to the wall above my desk to help keep me focused. They tell you to do this in grade school, and when you’re all grown up, the same rule applies. This will forever-on be the first thing I do when I sit down to write a paper.

Do all the experiments next

All of your experiments should be designed to support your thesis, and completed before you do anything else (so that you know your thesis is right). If your thesis turns out not to be right, then you have to go back to the beginning and pick a new thesis!

When I say experiments, here I mean the work that you’re writing about. In my case ‘experiments’ are figures showing the results of my computer vision algorithms. For someone else it may be analysis of a client’s financial data or a computer simulations of particle movement through a turbulent fluid field.

In any case, doing these with the thesis in mind, and before writing ensures that the experiments are relevant, and help to prove the thesis.

Recursive Outlining

In recursive outlining I start with an outline of sections: Introduction, Background, Novel Algorithm, Results, Conclusion. This takes no time because its the same for almost every paper. Next, go though and add sub-sections, then sub-sub sections.

At this point, most typical ‘outlining’ stops. However, keep going. Add sentence ideas to each sub-sub section, and start making rough guesses about where graphics will go. Add key words to those sentences ideas. All the time, keep the thesis in mind.

Now your paper has all of the ideas you want to present in a very rough form. Inevitably some sections will be sketchier than others, but now the process of refining the text can become very compartmentalized without sacrificing overall idea of the paper.

Finishing it up

What the process until now has done is to take apart the paper into these little tasks. The final steps are to turn your sketch for each sub-sub section into an concise, eloquent-sounding, finished piece of writing. Once you have done this for all the sections, give it a final read-over and its done.

Keep in mind that some of these steps may take days, but by following this process you always know what your next action is, and you don’t have to waste a lot of time doing pointless things or re-doing things that were directed towards the wrong point.

It’s true that I have precious little paper-writing experience, but these revelations have helped my writing considerably. I plan to post updates to this as my experience grows and my method evolves. If you have any good tips along these lines, please share them in the comments!

How to Take Worthwile Notes

In the past few years, I have discovered a method for taking notes that makes the notes easy to use, and turns them from a pointless exercise in dictation to a useful reference! I’ve going to “school” for some time now (about 18 years). Of course, for much of that time I was diligently copying down the words spilling from the prof’s mouth so I could study it later. I started experimenting with different note-taking styles a few years ago, and have finally settled on something that works. With a little planning and a few extra minutes of organization you can turn a course worth of information into a great reference. I use notes from classes daily now! Continue reading “How to Take Worthwile Notes”

Lessons From a Traveler

As one travels, one will inevitably learn many things. You learn about yourself, about the world, and about traveling as a hobby. Here is a short list of things that struck me as important.

Pack Light

This is always a must in my opinion. Its no fun to walk around with big bags. Even if you’re going to put them down right when you arrive, who wants to deal with all that stuff!? Some tips if you’re packing *really* light (I think Jimi and I had packs that were about 30 pounds).

  1. Get a super-absorbent shammy-style towel. In the words of Douglas Adams, “You’ve got to know where your towel is.” And that’s true, a personal towel will come in handy time and time again. But regular bath towels are far too big. Instead, get one of these (I found mine in the automotive section of WalMart).
  2. Bring a multi-tool pocket knife. This allows you to mend, destroy, create, and do a lot of things with just one little tool. I actually forgot to bring one, but as destiny would have it, we *found* one after about 28 hours in Europe. It proved priceless for lots of little things. (CAREFUL, don’t try to bring this on a plane)
  3. Pack T-Shirts. Sure, they’re not quite as trendy, but its better to have those little guys than lots of annoying shirts with collars and buttons. After a few days you don’t give a damn how you look.

Plan Some
Know generally what’s in the area. Try Wikitravel or just the regular internet. I also like Lonely Planet and Lets Go guides. (Although I would suggest taking select pages or photocopies rather than entire books because they’re huge and scream TOURIST!)

If you’ve got friends where you’re going, know people who have been before you, or are friendly with strangers… Ask other people what to do. It is a lot easier than reading those stupid tourist books, and you usually get quality suggestions. I’d suggest spending a lot of time on this. If it hadn’t been for a friend’s suggestion in Paris, we would have never visited Toulon!

I try to have a sketchy plan for the next 24 hours at all times. It’s good to have this to keep a little focused. However, be prepared to be flexible.
Don’t plan too much
Because I see life as a hilarious adventure, its hard for me to see anything that happens as misfortune. If you plan everything out to the second, it removes a lot of the adventure, and potentially eliminates the hilarity of things going very well or very badly.

If you allow chance to play a big role in your travels, you let in a lot of room for luck. Luck is what really makes the best stories. “We followed a tight schedule and saw all of the sites” is kinof boring. “We really had no idea what we were doing and next thing you know, we were eating crepes wearing a giant chicken suit” is a lot more entertaining. Also, if you are letting luck play a role in your travels, planning to far in advance can mean losing money on non-refundable reservations and things. Plus, if you have to sleep on the street one night… Hilarious adventure, right?

I’ll save the long soliloquy on how much you learn about your self, your soul, life in general, and the human condition for another post… But I think I learned about all that stuff too. Of course, its hard to nail down when exactly that happens.

Don’t Look at Ads!

I fell like this should be known to everyone by now, but every once in a while I see an otherwise clever person looking at internet ads! I hate to tell you guys… that’s sooooo 2005.

In fact, I haven’t seen an internet ad in years. Who do I thank? Adblock Plus. This is a Firefox plugin, so if you’re using Firefox (which you should be)… you can be ad-free just moments after clicking here (to get Adblock) and then here (to get the set of filters).