KType & LifeTue, 16th Nov '10, 7:05 pm::

I have been working nearly full-time on KType for a couple of weeks now and things are finally starting to take shape. If you're unfamiliar, KType is my research project to build software/hardware tools for improving communication for people with disabilities. For the past 6-8 months, I've been talking about it to everyone I know and I'm glad that things are coming together now. I bought a Mac Mini two weeks ago, spent the past week learning how to program iPads, and finally created the initial design of the KType iPad app. Check out the screenshots. I am nowhere close to being done but I know I'm slowly getting there.

As part of my research project, I'm maintaining a wiki at ktype.net and updating it with anything useful that I come across. I have a basic reference page with links to news articles and products about assistive technologies. Over the next few months, I will be post detailed case notes as I work with my potential end-users. Now that things are moving at a good pace, I will post regular updates.

I know I've barely started working on KType but just getting to this point in my life where I can put a good 40-50 hours a week into such a project has been a challenge. People thought I was stupid when I told them that I was planning to quit my job so I could work full-time on a multi-year research project that will not get me a degree, money, or fame. And when I explained that I intended to drop out of a prestigious MBA program so I could work on this 8-10 hours a day out of my house, they thought I had gone insane. Of course, once I talked about the project goals, applications, and end-users, I got a lot of support from everyone.

The real difficulty about KType is everything that is NOT KType. Programming and computers are easy. Life is hard. Just because I'm working on KType doesn't mean I don't have to worry about family, pets, house, cars, mortgage, bills, and taxes anymore. In fact, my money-related nightmares have quadrupled since July. I have been using my cashflow application diligently to plan our spending and thankfully so far, things look good. Giving up my job meant giving up on a stable middle-class lifestyle in exchange for financial uncertainty. Once Juliet gets a job next year, I will worry less, though I doubt I'll ever stop.

Not knowing our future financial situation means not being able to plan the big changes in life, something that I love doing. We want to buy a bigger house so my parents can come stay with us whenever they want, for as long as they want. In the current housing market, I doubt I'll be able to sell my house easily so we might end up renting it out for a few years, which comes with its own set of responsibilities. Juliet and I want to start our own family and while I am ready for it personally, I don't know if and when we'll be able to afford her student loans, two houses, and a baby or two on top of everything else.

What I'm trying to say here is that life's going on as usual. I'm working on something I truly love while doing my best to take care of everything else. It's tough but worth it. I have a wonderful partner who understands my dreams and supports my decisions even if it means postponing someone of our plans. As my favorite Doctor says, allons-y!

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Fri, 12th Nov '10, 3:35 pm::

We started watching a new show on Netflix Instant Watch - The Riches starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver. We're only on the second episode yet I'm already hooked.

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Signs They Just Want Your MoneyFri, 5th Nov '10, 3:05 pm::

I'm skeptical of people who talk for a living. If you wrote a self-help book and now give lectures around the world talking about your book, chances are I want nothing to do with you unless everything you say is grounded on hard science. If what you say cannot be proven or disproven, I'm not interested, even if all of it might be true. This includes alternative medicine advocates, nutritionists, personality coaches, most business / leadership coaches, NLP counsellors, and definitely the followers of pseudosciences like astrology, faith / spiritual healing, dowsing, ghost hunting, homeopathy, magnet therapy, and ESP. I know many people in my personal life believe in some of the above but it doesn't bother me. After all, I'm a fan of a time-travelling Doctor from the extraterrestrial planet Gallifrey so who am I judge what someone else believes in.

I came across an interesting video yesterday titled Your Brain At Work by a business coach. While the title, presentation format, and mention of a business coach set off red-flags, I gave the video a shot because it was presented in the Google Tech Talk series. I was pleasantly surprised to find it had many moments of insight with the presenter constantly citing case studies and medical research to back up his claims. What he said obviously seemed very true. The brain indeed has a prefrontal cortex and certainly studies have shown it is important for complex thought processes and critical analysis. And personal experience tells me that humans certainly get affected by negative stimuli much more intensely than positive stimuli. The presenter certainly knows what he's talking about.

His words reinforced my understanding of the brain's functions and capabilities and I even mentioned it to my wife that she should watch this sometime. I was so impressed with the presentation's logical reasoning, structured format, and reliance on actual reason that I let my skeptical guard down and completely ignored all the subsequent red-flags that I always watch out for. This morning I decided to go back and review some of the research he cited before I shared the video with some of my friends and that's when the house of cards came falling down. None of the original research has been published in any well-known journal in the fields of neuroscience, brain, medicine, or even psychiatry. The presenter made substantial references to studies but they were conducted by him and most of them were published in a journal founded by him. He coauthored many of these studies with researchers with impressive CVs but some of these researchers were not even in the fields they conducted the research in. None of these are deal-breakers individually but when I spot a series of them, I step back and question a validity of the primary author.

While there is an easy way to sniff out bogus science, there is no tutorial on how to spot a life coach who wants a lot of money to teach you how to live better. So having failed to identify the lack of hard science last night in the presentation, I decided to make up a list of my own. This list is not a critical analysis of the video I watched yesterday but is just a model to help me and hopefully others.

Five Easy Signs They Just Want Your Money:

  • Bold, dynamic speaker: You need two things for someone to pay you to talk: (1) Have something worthwhile to say and (2) Be an awesome speaker. Most life coaches I've seen only have the second part and they do their very best to hide the lack of actual, original content in their presentations. But that is an art in itself as you'll see below.
  • Obvious facts get repeated: This is an easy one to spot. If you catch yourself agreeing with someone talk, that's a big red flag. Knowledge doesn't work like that. You have to work hard to understand scientific methods like path integral formulation. I'm learning a new programming language using online documentation and video presentations and I keep going back and forth every few minutes to make sure I really "get" it. If something as mundane as a programming language is that difficult, what makes you think someone can explain "how the human mind works" in 45 minutes? Asking 1,000 people whether they like red or blue after seeing green and concluding that the human mind prefers red is not science, despite gratuitous use of fMRI images. At best, it is a well-designed survey. The goal here is to make you feel like they know what they're talking about so you can feel like you're learning something. If I show you that I know something, then I talk about it, instantly you'll feel like you now know it too, especially if I ask easy to answer questions that cement your beliefs.
  • Generalizations abound: Real science is very, very specific. Generalization in science is very difficult, if not impossible in some fields. For almost a century now, many scientists including Einstein have tried and failed to come up with a unified theory of how everything works in the universe and so far, this remains an open line of research. Yet the guy on stage who wrote a book on herbs can explain everything about everything? Usually, speakers with a good grasp of one field will try to apply it to every problem that the audience presents. So a guy on stage selling vitamins will say there is a vitamin tablet for every single problem in your life, including your son who keeps getting into trouble at school, your boss who doesn't appreciate your hard work, and your business partner who keeps trying to steal your share. Another guy selling meditation tapes will tell you that meditation is the solution to all of the above problems and the guy selling "mind-body control" or "neuro-linguistic programming" will say his tools will fix everything. Beware of generalizations.
  • Unique perspective on the common: This one's a doozy. I said above that most speakers don't have anything new to say yet now I say having a unique perspective on a common phenomenon is a gotcha. The reason is that this is their big sell and how they managed to get on the stage. If there is absolutely nothing new in someone's talk, it is easy to call their bluff despite their dynamic hand-waving abilities. But if during all the hand-waving, the speaker makes you wonder "huh, I never thought of it that way" even once, then you've fallen hook, line, and sinker for their act. And every act needs a setup. The speaker's unique perspective is their thesis statement, their angle, their bait. "Have you ever felt like A, B, C? Believe it or not, but A, B, and C are all because of W, which is just an upside-down M!" Surely you never thought W being an upside-down M had anything to do with A, B, and C. So this person on stage must have some insight that you don't. Right?
  • Special acronyms & mnemonics: I saved the best one for the last because it is something EVERY SINGLE life coach does. They make up really cool, action-word-laden acronyms to help you remember the bad and the good. Often they'll put up a slide saying "The real cause of stress in life is DONKEY: D for Dishes, O for Office, N for Naggers, K for Karma, E for Enemies, and Y for YOU!" Hey, that sounds about right. This guy sure is insightful. And then they say "The solution to DONKEY is NOPANTS: N for Never giving up", O for Onomatopoeia, P for Palindromes, A for Ants, N for Nts, T for Ts, and S for Seriously, I'm done making this stuff up." There. Easy as pie. Making lame acronyms doesn't make anyone deep or insightful. It simply gives them more practice at making stuff up, something they're already doing when writing the rest of their speech. Instead of cheap acronyms, I prefer Steganography, "the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message." You want an example? Scroll up and read the first-letter of all five of these paragraphs :)

I really don't have a problem with experienced people teaching others how to do anything, including living a good life. Most of what I've learned is from others. However, I do have a problem with people who claim to have done SCIENCE and then when you dig in, turn out to have done no such thing. I don't expect a hair-dresser teaching an apprentice on how to curl hair to cite a dermatological journal. But if you talk about neuroscience, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, or any hard science, you better be standing on firm ground. Quantum Thermodynamics is a wonderful field but you can't use it to explain why sometimes you feel like aliens are watching your every move.

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Wed, 3rd Nov '10, 1:05 am::

It took me almost six hours today but I finally sorted through 4,000+ photos from our Out-West Voyage. Here are the photos from the trip, organized in ten small albums. I haven't added the captions yet but I plan on doing that over the next few days.

Sorting through a thousand photos isn't difficult when only one camera is used. In our case, we had Chris' Droid, Arthur's iPhone, my iPhone, and Arthur's DSLR. We all took pictures at different times in different places, though Arthur took the bulk of the hi-res pictures on his DSLR. Since we crossed back and forth many state lines and time zones, it is practically impossible to just sort the photos by date and time to get them all in the right order. I wanted to break up the photos into ten albums and put about 30 photos per album. So I imported all of the photos in iPhoto on my new Mac Mini and organized them manually. I do not retouch or edit any photos except for resizing them automatically for faster downloads.

This reminds me - I bought a used Mac Mini last week. I hooked it up to my 5th LCD and setup Synergy so that I can control my main PC and the Mac Mini using a single keyboard/mouse. I certainly have way too many computers and electronic devices in my house now. I have my main 8-core PC, an Acer laptop, the new Mac Mini, Juliet's HP laptop, a tiny laptop permanently connected to my TV, two iPhone 4s, an iPad 3G, an iTouch, a Nokia N800, and 2-3 old PCs locked in my closet. I'm planning on giving away the old PCs soon so it's not too bad. My main PC is now 3.5 years old but is just as fast as the day I bought it.

In other news, today my 'blog turns 9. When I started it in 2001, I had no idea I would still be updating it on a regular basis. Next year I might do something creative for my 'blog's 10 year birthday.

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