The not-so-great checked vs carry on debate

By Charles Sutton on September 2, 2017

This time, some advice of a lighter sort. How light? Depends how well you pack!

I hear a lot of frequent air travelers say that you should never check bags if you can avoid it, but I think it’s not always clear cut.

I do usually travel with only a carry on. This has a lot of advantages:

  • You don’t need to queue at the ticket counter to drop off bags. If you’ve checked in online, using your phone is easiest but printing your boarding pass is still good, then you can go straight to security and the gate.

  • You don’t need to wait at baggage claim on arrival. This is an especially big win if you are arriving late at night.

  • It’s easier to switch flights at the last minute. You might wonder why you’d want to do this if you’ve planned ahead. You’ll stop wondering when your first flight arrives early and you wish you could jump on an earlier connecting flight. Or when your first flight is delayed but you still have a chance to catch a different connecting flight. I’m still annoyed at the time United Airlines prevented me from doing this by checking my bag at the gate unnecessarily.

All that said, for some trips it can be more convenient to check your bags, even if you could squeeze into a smaller bag. Why?

  • You can bring a bigger bag that holds more. (duh)

  • You don’t need to lug the bag around the airport. This removes stress during a long connection.

  • You can fill up your checked bag with liquids and gels. This is especially useful if you’d like to bring gifts of food and drink back to your friends, family, or perhaps to a select group of academic bloggers who you particularly admire.

  • If you are running a few minutes late to the gate, the plane is more likely to wait for you, because if they don’t, they need to find and remove your bag from the hold.

For direct flights I think it’s clear that carry on wins most of the time, but if you have a connection then it may well depend on your itinerary.

Tags: travel tips

A first lecture on time management

By Charles Sutton on August 5, 2017

Several students have recently asked me for advice about time management. When people ask you a important and difficult question like this, usually the best thing is to think of someone else who can give a better answer than you. For time management, an obvious person to turn to is the late Randy Pausch, a noted computer scientist who became an internet sensation because of an inspirational lecture that he gave after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Today I’d like to recommend a different, more practical, and excellent lecture that he gave on time management:

You should start by watching the lecture. I found it helpful to have the slides and bullet points in separate windows on screen as I watched.

If you need further encouragement to watch the lecture, I can say that what amazed me, as poor at time management as I may be, was the number of suggestions that I actually use day-to-day. I had entirely forgotten just how much I had learned the first time I saw this material. For example:

  • Find your most creative time of day and defend it ruthlessly. The most important tip that you can learn for creative work. (I was interested to learn later that your most creative time can actually change over the years.)

  • Turn off your email notification sound. Do it now!

  • Learn ways to say “no” gently. It makes saying “no” easier.

  • Don’t ever delete emails. Search instead.

  • Keep a todo list and calendar. My today-self says, “Well, duh.” But there was a time when I didn’t. You should start now!

  • Get a speakerphone so that you can get other things done while on hold with customer serve. Now, mobile phones or even Skype has a speakerphone option that works for this.

  • Professors should keep Kleenex in their office. Yes, we all need this.

  • Keeping a clock on the wall behind where your visitors sit. Much less obtrusive than a wristwatch.

  • Write down one-minute minutes. So helpful! Just the main takeaways and actions for next time.

  • Keep a time clock. A big topic that I hope to write more about later.

There’s also an equally long list of good advice that I had forgotten, but for that, you’ll need to watch the lecture yourself!

Happy Blogoversary to me

By Charles Sutton on August 4, 2017

I don’t like to write about the blog on the blog, because that seems silly and self-indulgent, but I can’t help noticing that today is the five year anniversary of my first blog post.

It doesn’t feel like I’ve been blogging that long. Perhaps that’s because I post only once every few years. If you like the blog (and if you don’t — why would you read a post like this???), you’ll be happy to know that I’ll be posting more often in the coming year. I’ve found a posting rhythm that works for me: write all my posts at once while I’m on holiday, and queue them up for the rest of the year.

I’m happy I started doing this. I often mention my posts when my students ask me for advice, which has the benefit that my students get tired of hearing about the blog, and therefore stop wanting to meet with me. This leaves my students with more time to carry out excellent research, while leaving me with more time to play old versions of Minesweeper. Everybody wins.

Any regrets? Perhaps only that I wish I could write more silly posts like my manifesto on the political future of Scotland, but real-life politics have grown dark enough that I find myself unable to summon the spirit of fun.

Even without fun, I have lots of ideas for posts about career advice and about the academic and research enterprises. So this will probably be that kind of blog for a wee while longer. It’s fascinating how the theme and how the tone of a blog evolves. I had some ideas about what the blog would be like when I started, but the more I continued, the more I found the blog grow into something different than I expected. Much like life.

What I can guarantee (disclaimer: this is not a legal guarantee) is that the blog will continue to be reflective and introspective, and that if you’ve liked it so far, you’ll probably like what’s coming next.

Tags: metablog

Context switching

By Charles Sutton on July 1, 2017

Of the many quirks shared by computer scientists, one that has somewhat entered the popular culture is the use of computing metaphors to speak about how we think. For example, “multitasking” is actually a technical term invented by computer scientists in the 1960s to describe the way a computer pretends to execute many programs at once, even if in reality it can only do one thing at a time. You can see why the term would have been quickly co-opted to metaphorically describe humans who attempt the same trick.

For the benefit of the three or four readers of the blog who are not computer scientists, I’ll digress here in order to comment that the situation on the computing side has gotten more complicated since the 60s, as almost all modern computers can perform many operations at once, but they still use multitasking so that they can pretend to do even more. That probably sounds like some people you know, too.

Professional computer scientists have many more metaphors at their command, though. We speak of “swapping in” and “swapping out” the details of a project from our short-term memories, referring to a technique that allows computers to pretend to have infinitely large memories. We also — and now I come finally to the topic of the post — talk about “context switching”.

A context switch is a necessary result of multitasking. If a computer is pretending to run ten programs at once when it can in reality run only one, then it must switch very quickly back and forth between them, like a chef switching between stirring the sauce and browning the meat. Unlike the chef, on a computer the switching comes with a price. The price comes because computers have many different types of memory, some fast and close to the CPU, others larger and farther away. Every time the computer switches from one program to another, it has to move data about the old program out of the small fast memory, and move the new data in. The work of switching back and forth is what we call context switching. It takes a bit of time.

So it is in your mind. When you switch between different tasks, it takes a while to remember the other context: what it was that you were supposed to be doing on the new task, why you thought it was a good idea, and so on. This is why you’re not as efficient when you first start a new task as when you’ve been thinking about it for a while. This has led to the deluge of self-help articles, some of which I’m sure you’ve seen, about how mental multitasking is a bad idea. It takes time to switch contexts.

But as a professor (in the US sense), especially leading a research group, context switching cannot be avoided. The nature of the job requires us to make progress on many different types of tasks each day, from answering a student question about a problem set, to planning for the curriculum next year, to reading a paper related to one research project, to an impromptu meeting with a colleague about faculty hiring for next spring, to a scheduled meeting with a PhD student about a different research project. One of my mentors liked to joke, “Professors are stateless” (another computing metaphor). The reason that we seem stateless is that it takes some time for us to remember the previous context. Not only does it take time to context switch, but it is also a bit disorienting. A colleague once told me that the part of being a professor that they disliked the most was having to context switch many times a day.

People sometimes ask me how I handle context switching. I have a few strategies. One is a bit embarrassing, but I will tell you anyway. Perhaps I made this a long post to drive people away before I revealed the embarrassing one.

  1. First is not to be afraid to ask questions. This is useful in one-to-one student meetings about a research project. You can say something like: “Sorry, what was the vorpal sort for again?” Of course, if you do this too much, you derail the meeting. But with practice I found that much of the time, simply asking the question silently in my head was enough. Once I had articulated the question clearly, I was able remember the answer, without bothering the student to repeat what we had already discussed. I’m sure this makes me look smarter, but more importantly it saves time.

  2. I keep relevant information easy to search on my computer. This is why I am never without my laptop. I don’t try to remember all that I need to know so much as remember how to find it in my email, in my Evernote, by a Web search that I know will bring up a particular page, or whatever. Then if I’m in a large meeting, for example, where I can’t just stop and ask twenty people to remind me what they said in last week’s meeting, I can search quietly and find the context I need.

  3. When I know I’ll need to make a big context switch, I’ll take a break to clear my head. A ten-minute walk helps, or staring out a window, or something sweet. Coffee doesn’t work here for me; it’s great for energy, of course, but not for context switching.

  4. If I write something down, I know down to my unconscious that it’s OK to stop thinking about it, because now I can come back later. When I have meetings back to back, during the second meeting I might remember something I should have said in the first. If I quickly jot down a note, that helps me to stop thinking about the first meeting, and return to the task at hand. This works within meetings too. Sometimes I think of something that I need to say in a one-on-one meeting, but it’s not as important as what we’re talking about right now. I’ll write that down too. I’ll even say something as I’m doing this, so we both know there’s something to come back to later.

  5. OK, OK, I’ll tell you the embarrassing one. I have some mental imagery that I use. I imagine my focus of attention as the beam of light coming from a huge lamp, like at the top of the lighthouse. When I need to switch focus quickly, like between back to back meetings, I imagine myself grasping the lamp between my hands — it’s several feet around, and heavy, so this takes a real effort — and slowly rotating it to shine onto the new problem that I’m meant to be thinking about. Believe it or not, sometimes this works. I will never tell you when I am doing this, even if you ask.

Where your brain wants to Go

By Charles Sutton on June 6, 2017

Years ago I attended a lecture from a famous master of the game of Go. He is revered not only for the many championships he has won, or even for his daring and distinctive style, but also for his insightful and even witty commentary on the games of other professionals. All of us who attended expected a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

And so it was, but not in the way we expected. Sadly, the translation was not of the same standard as the lecture. As best as I can recall, the translation included such wisdom as: “You should play on the points where you want to play”, “Sometimes you may not want to play where you play, but still it is important to play where you want to play”, and “It is important to review the game after it is finished”. All of us in the audience looked at each other blankly. None of us could understand how this could be the accumulated wisdom of a brilliant lecturer and champion.

Confused, I found a friend who understood the lecture in its original language. A pained look on his face, my friend explained that the flowery and poetic language of the lecture would have been difficult even for an professional translator, let alone a foreign Go enthusiast, however fluent, graciously donating his time to translate. My friend then explained the gist of the lecture, and indeed it contained great wisdom about how to learn the game.

Sometimes when you play Go, there’s a move on the board that you desperately wish to play. I’m not talking about moves that are obviously good, those that claim large territories or capture many stones. Everybody likes to do that. But sometimes, a point on the board calls out, like a tiny but brilliant beam of starlight is shining on one intersection of all the 361 on the board. But in your conscious mind, you cannot explain why that move. Hard as you may try, the move is too complex to read out, and you’re not sure what will happen. A player of your strength does not play only on gut feeling, without thinking. It seems too dangerous. You should play somewhere else.

And what the Go master said is: When a point on the board calls to you like this, you must play there. Not because the move is correct — it almost certainly is not — but because your intuition is telling you that the move is correct, so the only way to improve your intuition is to play the move, in the hope that by so doing, you may discover why it is wrong. Go is too complex for people to understand all consequences in advance, so at some point, no matter how far you look ahead, you have only your own intuition to trust. This is why you also must review your own games afterwards, when the result is more clear. The only way to train your intuition is follow it, understand the consequences, and correct where you were wrong.

Research is like this. There is a feeling that I have learned to recognize when an idea is waiting to form, but I cannot yet articulate it. Whenever I have this feeling, I shut up and wait, until the words come. Usually, after I do find the words and formulae to express my thought, it becomes clear that the idea is bad, has been already published, or — most commonly — both. But it is not important that the idea be often good, because in research the overall success of your career depends not on the worth of your typical idea, but of your best idea. When your unconscious mind is repeatedly telling you to go somewhere, sometimes that alone is reason to Go.