Sunday, March 2, 2014

I moved to Toronto, and blogging

So, I moved to Toronto.

Every time I move to a new place, I think of it as a new beginning, and try to live a bit more like the ideal me in my mind: getting up earlier, reading more, exercising more, cleaner, better, healthier, and... blogging more.

It usually doesn't last very long. Maybe one habit would stick for more than a week or two, then I would be back to my boring old self. Yet every time, at a brand new room or apartment, I can't help but try again. It's kind of like a new year's resolution. You might know that you won't make it until the end of the year, but if it motivates you to live better for one month, or even one week -- that's still a positive change!

So yes, like everyone else out there who has a blog, I want to write more.

The thing that prevents me from writing more is that I take blog posts very seriously. After all, if I'm going to take your attention away from something else, it had better well be worth it. I like there to be a central thesis (which is difficult to distill down to), solid arguments (which are difficult to construct), and reasonable flow (which means writing and re-writing). It is possible to write several paragraphs, then realize that the central thesis had been wrong, and take a different perspective. This is why writing is so great for you: it forces you to organize your thoughts, and forces you to face the inconsistencies in your thought process.

So, maybe it's the writing and not the publishing that is more important for bloggers.

Incidentally, one experiment I tried a couple of years back is promising to write something every day. I had a list of ideas back then, and those were bite-sized thoughts that could be hashed out into an article in a reasonable amount of time. Though the experiment didn't last as long, it was clear that those posts did not actually provide that much value.

What actually did provide a lot of value are posts that I spent many days researching and perfecting. They were some of the more difficult posts to write, either because they are technical or because they are very close to heart (so close that I'd contemplate whether or not to post them at all). In fact, at least half of pageviews come from older posts that had gone viral, and newer, crisper posts have little traffic in comparison.

So, well, what is the point of all this? Well, I don't know, this is actually just a rant. I guess I'm actually going against my own advice about taking time to write quality posts as opposed to publishing. (, er, illustrate the point about inconsistencies!) I guess the point is... there will be triggers in your life that encourages you to become a better person. Even if those triggers don't give you enough momentum to change who you are, it can take you one step in the right direction, for however short a duration. And that is good. So long as you maximize for the right things. Unlike me.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Back, thank you, and moving on

Hello, blog. It's been a while since I last wrote here. I was spending some time in a (figurative) cave, trying to understand a couple of things. Last time we spoke, I was working on Polychart, a data visualization startup that was taking the flexibility of tools like Tableau and bringing it to the web. It’s a neat idea, really, and we built an awesome team behind the idea. It was also a great learning experience, being a first-time entrepreneur.

Judging by the past tense used in the last paragraph, you probably realize that this is not what I will be doing in the future. You’re right. We turned down the investment we were about to get, knowing that it wasn’t going to be the right path for us. We’ve just open sourced Polychart to share what we’ve built, to make it more useful as an easy way to visually explore databases. You should check it out if you haven’t already.

We hear many discussions about "finding oneself", especially from young people. We sometimes take to travelling, long periods of solitude, recklessness, or drugs to achieve that purpose. Ancient greeks, too, thought that “know thyself” is worthy enough of an aphorism to be carved in front of temples. Their interpretation of the aphorism might be slightly different, and involve fewer psychedelics. While Polychart was no psychedelic (for the most part), running a startup turned out to be a great way to find oneself.

What does it mean to know oneself? I interpret it as an understanding of one’s goals, likes, and dislikes. Knowing what you like is easy -- for me, I loved running the engineering organization and building the technical team. The hard part is drawing the line between bettering oneself, and attempting to be someone one is not. I thought that learning to sell and pitch would be things I could do to develop myself. Would I be able to eventually learn to be great at it? Maybe? Eventually I have to admit that, well, perhaps not. Perhaps I won't enjoy it. Perhaps my talents should be focused elsewhere.

So, I'm moving on.

Before saying anything else, I want to thank everyone who had supported Polychart, and had come along for the ride. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Thank you --

Jeeyoung Kim: for starting this amazing journey with me and putting up with me for as long as you did
Samsons Hu: for believing in Polychart when few others did, and taking it to the next level
Fravic Fernando: for being a part of Polychart, the whole way through
Tina Lorentz: for seeing and teaching us what we didn't know (seriously, I learned so much from you)
Anjida, Sina, Alex: for teaching us the importance of team building
Zach Kocher: for supporting us when few others did
Raymond Cheng: for understanding and being passionate about what we stood for
Tim McLean: for quickly picking up whatever expertise we lacked
Luc Ritchie: for adapting to new roles when we needed it
Kevin Mendoza: for supporting us in one of the most interesting times
Christoph & Ronuk: for helping us with engineering expertise we did not have
Mike Kirkup: for helping us in many, many different ways, for over two years
Brett Shellhammer: for being our moral support, all the way through
Ted Livingston: for getting us started on this journey, and teaching us to pursue our passions
David Crow: for believing in us, and guiding us to choose Polychart
Ali Asaria: for funding us indirectly, in at least three different ways now?
Jesse Rodgers: for teaching us the importance of credibility and namedropping :)
Andy Yang: for believing in us, funding us, and understanding us when we moved on
William, AK, Dale: for providing guidance, assistance, and friendship
Darren, Danny, Peter: for providing many introductions
Lin Fan: for the many questions you answered
Cameron Marlow: for inspiring me, supporting us, giving us confidence, and for being so kind
...and everyone else who has helped us in this journey. Thank you.

I will be continuing to support Polychart whenever I can. I'd also like to introduce you to my new home, another startup in Toronto called Rubikloud. I'm really excited to tell you that I'll be joining Rubikloud as the VP of Engineering. The best part about Polychart was running its engineering operations, and so I'm really excited about this new role. You should check out Rubikloud, especially if you run an e-commerce shop or if you're a data scientist looking for your next step!

Once again, to everyone who helped me on this journey, thank you.

End of Entry

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Passion" as a verb

At one seminar where I was speaking on the concept of proactivity, a man came up and said, “... I’m really worried. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her any more and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he affirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“Love her.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love -- the feeling -- is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”

There’s a lot of literature of late about the role of passion in one’s work, specifically about how blindly pursuing one’s passion could be a terrible career choice: Cal Newport studies successful people and finds that they became passionate about their work only after they have cultivated the skills to become very good at what they do. Scott Adams writes that for him, “success caused passion more than passion caused success.”

I think passion is very similar to romantic love. Both are mostly thought of as feelings, but both can be actions. The feelings usually motivate actions, but the actions themselves can intensify the feelings, creating a positive feedback loop. Analogous to the above dialog, passion for one’s work (the feeling) can be cultivated by being more passionate (action) about it. Passion -- the feeling -- is a fruit of being passionate, the verb. The grind. The appreciation. The patience. The discovery.

This is useful because rather than thinking of passion as something magical that happens when we choose the right field, passion becomes something that we can control. I’m sure you can think of people in your life that are very energetic and passionate about everything -- not necessarily because the fields they engage in are all intrinsically engaging -- but because they put in the effort, energy, and patience to really appreciate the nuance and beauty in everything they do.

Especially in the startup world, people talk about “passion” as a must-have for a founder. The number one advice I’ve received from mentors is to “pick a problem that you’re passionate about”. Sure enough, investors also look for passion; they find that founders who are most passionate seem to be running the more successful startups.

But I think we are mixing up the cause and effect. Newport provides evidence that passion doesn’t come from a vacuum, or even from “picking” the “right” field. Passion comes from mastery and success, rather than the other way around. Thought in this way, it still make sense for investors to look for passionate founders -- because chances are, their mastery and success of the business are fuelling their passion!

Thus, a better way to rephrase the same advice for startups founders is to be sure that you have already cultivated passionate about your field or industry.

Along the same line, a better advice for the general public would be to be a passionate person -- find ways to love your work, and then you will become passionate about it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stereotype Priming and Women in Tech/Entrepreneurship

At tech and entrepreneurship conferences, I'm often approached by people to who want to show support for women like myself, or to talk about the role of women in the respective fields. More often this is done by other women, or by extremely supportive men who also believe in gender balance.

These people are always very well meaning, but I don't think what they’re doing is optimal.

Stereotype threat is a well-studied topic that talks about how the mere presence of a negative stereotype can cause anxiety and hinder performance. Priming or reminding someone of the stereotype makes it worse. Even a simple questionnaire regarding one's race and gender completed prior to writing a standardized test affects performance of stereotypically disadvantaged groups. Paraphrasing Cordelia Fine's reports on the many ways this priming happens in the context of gender (Delusions of Gender, pp. 7-8):
...if something reminds a woman of her gender while she is undertaking a task in which women are regarded as less capable, her own negative gender stereotypes might be activated.
This is not to say that we shouldn't talk about the representation of women in certain fields -- just that a private conversation at a conference isn't the best setting. People go to conferences to learn and to network. It is not a good place to have a lowered confidence, or to subconsciously feel uncertain about one's abilities.

End of Entry

Friday, April 12, 2013

6 Things You Probably Don't Know about Colour

Colour is a strage phenomenon that is fascinating to both children and adults. It's something almost every one of us reading this post would intuitively understand -- or do we really? This post asks six questions about colour, and explores the phenomenon from a mix of physiological, mathematical, and information visualization perspectives. See if any of the answers surprise you. (Disclaimer: content is rather technical. Author is a pure math grad, after all!)

1. Why are there three primary colours?

To understand this, we need to understand how we perceive colour physiologically. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelength ranging between 380nm and 740nm. Our eyes contain two different types of photoreceptor cells: cones and rods. The rod cells are very sensitive, so it is very useful for night vision. During normal daylight, though, they are overstimulated and do not contribute to vision. The cone cells is mostly responsible for colour vision, and there are three types of these cells, called S-cones, M-cones, and L-cones. Each type responds differently to light of different wavelengths: in particular S responds most strongly to blue light, M to green and L to red.

Response to light of various wavelengths, normalized

In this way, the distribution of light striking a particular area in our eyes are translated into three different signals. In other words, we perceive the colour space as a three-dimensional space. Linear algebra tells us, therefore, that there are three basis elements.

Incidentally, some humans are born without one of the three cone types, so they perceive colour as a two-dimensional space. This is of the ways people can be colour blind. Some other animals such as birds have four types of cone cells, and this is known as tetrachromacy. The mantis shrimp actually have sixteen types of cone cells!

2. Does the rainbow contain all perceivable colours?

You can probably just name some colours, like pink, that are not in the rainbow, but for the more mathematically inclined reader, here's another explanation:

Each patch of light on a rainbow has light waves of just a single wavelength, and that wavelength varies continuously from 380nm to 740nm. So think of the rainbow as a mapping from [380nm, 740nm] to the three dimensional colour space. But [380, 740] is a one-dimensional object, so following this result, there must be some colour that is not in the rainbow.

3. Can two colours look the same but be different?

Let's rephrase the question as such: can two different patches of light be composed of different combinations of wavelengths, yet be perceived to be the same? The answer is yes. A patch of light can be composed of various amount and distributions of light of different wavelengths. This is actually an infinite dimensional space, but it gets projected down to the 3D colour space when we perceive it. So some information is lost.

There are actually exhibits in science centers showing two different yellow light sources. The two yellows appear identical, but one of them is a "pure" yellow (single wavelength), and another a mixture of two or more different wavelengths. When you observer the light source through some coloured transparency that absorbs one of the "non-yellow" light, the two lights would appear different.

The two yellows may appear distinct to birds and mantis shrimps.

4. Can two colours be the same but look different?

You've probably seen the optical illusion shown here. The two shades of grey in A and B are the same shade of gray, but they appear different. What's happening?

This is where we begin moving away from the physiology of colour and towards other ways our brain has evolved to help us survive. The brain does a lot of post-processing to help us better understand the outside world, and this means that we automatically correct for artifacts like shading.

What's less obvious from this optical illusion is that your perception of colour depends on other colours nearby. For example, the grey bar below appears to be a gradient, even though it is not. This is one of the reasons why overuse of colour to represent information is discouraged from an information visualization perspective: we can interpret the information differently depending on surrounding colours.

5. Does the RGB space consist of all possible colours?

In other words, can you obtain all possible colours by mixing red, green, and blue? First of all, note that the RGB space we've been referring to is an additive colour model (as opposed to subtractive and others). Think of the additive model as mixing paint or adding light waves to be reflected, and subtractive space as absorbing certain wavelengths of light. Because we can only add light, the answer is actually no.

Chromaticity is an objective specification of the quality of a colour, regardless of its luminance (or how much light there is). On the left is a visualization of the chromaticity space, and the right the range of colours available to a typical computer monitor. Of course, everything outside of the triangle on the left side of the screen is not well represented since you're probably reading this on a monitor.

6. Why do printed colours look different from colours on a monitor?

If you ever printed a colour image, you may notice discrepancies between a printed image and the same image displayed on a monitor. Typically in printing, a CMYK colour space is used, and the possible printable colours are not identical to disable colours on the screen. Here is an example of a set of colours displayable on a screen and printable with in:

Notice that there are areas where they do not overlap. There are different ways to fix this issue, such as shrinking the RGB triangle inwards or some other continuous mapping between the two areas. Either way, the resulting may not be the same.

There are actually other issues with RGB colour space, and people do use other colour spaces for various reasons. One issue with the RGB colour space is that the amount of red, green, and blue doesn't directly tell us that much about a colour. How muted is it? How bright is it? From an information visualization perspective this matters a lot. When choosing different colours for several objects that you would like to draw equal attention to, it makes sense to make them all of similar brightness and saturation. If you want to highlight a single element, changing its brightness or saturation is one method. This is one of the reasons that HSL or HSV space is often useful.

Other Reading

Stephen Few has more to say about colour in information visualization. The following are excellent.

Although this post links a lot to Wikipedia, I learned most of the information here from Information Visualization, Second Edition: Perception for Design, which is also fascinating (and is linked below as well). I actually know very little about colour, so if you have any further questions, it's likely beyond my power to answer.

End of Entry