Saturday, September 26, 2009

My three week GRE preparation

About three years back I decided to give GRE to have the option of MS open. It was a busy period for me at work and I could give myself just three weeks to prepare. In such circumstances I was forced to find ways of learning words faster. I want to describe here the various techniques I tried and how I think they helped me. My final score was 1530 (730 vocab + 800 Quant) which was far from best but still very good.

The main technique is actually very simple, it is called repetitions or iterations. You need to go through the word lists many many times. You don't have to be able to learn all the words in one iteration but just give each word a short period of attention. In this short span of time try to relate to the word as much as possible but don't strain yourself into trying to remember the word in that one go. Human mind works in mysterious ways. It remembers things that repeat themselves over a period of time better than things that repeat multiple times in very short period, say minutes. So what you need to do is to spend less time each iteration but increase the number of iterations.

A smart variation in this technique that I tried was that after a few iterations I would try to check whether I remember the meaning of a word or not. The ones I didn't remember, I put a check mark in front of. After a couple more iterations I became pretty sure that I remembered the unmarked words well so I started going over just the marked words. After couple such iterations I started marking again the words that I still did not remember and so on and so forth. At the end I had words with five to six ticks and ultimately I remembered all the words in Barrons.

Like everyone else I created index cards to remember words. These cards help use spare time to remember the words e.g. while in a lift or waiting for your turn at an ATM machine. Also it helps your mind relate to words. Minds likes variety, when you look at a word on a card it puts that snapshot in memory. You won't remember the snapshot exactly but you will remember the word and you will almost feel that the snapshot is there somewhere in memory.

I also tried pretty hard to find audio recording of words and meaning as I didn't have any good audio recording equipment to do so myself plus I don't know the right pronunciations for many of these words. I was pleasantly surprised to find exactly such audio tapes by an Indian named Kripa Shankar. They didn't cover all the words but just the main ones, but they were a great help. Audio is a great way of learning and provides another dimension to your memory. Another good thing with audio tapes is that you can listen to them while driving which takes around an hour for me every day.

My friend Chaitanya gave me a bunch of softwares to help learn words. One of them was called voca.exe. I don't know if I still have it somewhere. This software will keep asking you multiple choice questions around word meanings or antonyms; exactly the thing that you want.

Barrons covers most of the words but it is usually a good idea to have an additional source. I tried “All About Words” but it was too difficult and I didn't have much time so I used another off the shelf book called improve you vocabulary in 6 weeks. Again greater variety in learning helped.

I tried to create mnemonics for the most difficult words. It would have been great if some book had pre-created mnemonics for words. I found one such book on Amazon but they didn't publish in India and there wasn't enough time for shipment.

Once when my brother and his friends visited me I asked them to question me on word meanings using Barrons. This is a very common way of learning in India and very effective. Unfortunately they had to leave in a day so I couldn't use this technique as much as I would have liked to.

I have tried to list the techniques in the order that I think helped me but of course it will vary from person to person.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Value of Patience and Perseverance

Life teaches. We get some things quickly, some take time. Some take a very long time. After a long long time I have realized the value of perseverance. I am trying to put together a history of how life taught me this lesson.

As a kid, and like most of the kids, I wanted to enjoy myself fully. I wanted to play most of the time and homework was a drag. I liked tasks that could be done fast like math and hated things that needed continuous hard work like drawing and writing. I believe I had concentration problems, and I still do, but they, I guess, were much worse then. If I needed anything I needed it now or never. As a result my hand writing remained very poor and I can't draw a straight line without a ruler to date.

My first experience of the power of perseverance was in college. My friend Satashu is the epitome of perseverance. He never loses hope and keeps working in things he likes, diligently until he is very good at it. Me, I want quick results. Every other day in my life I ask myself this question: Why am I not great yet?

Being a fun loving guy I didn't find perseverance exciting, after all I was fed on and greatly influenced by AB's movies in which the AB god could do anything. You see AB and you know how he is going to turn the hopelessness around and you want to be like him. The problem with this thinking is that you don't look at the perseverance that took AB to become what he is.

From my experience it seems to me that there is nothing like raw talent. There is your desire to do something, your strategy of doing it and your execution. I see it everywhere especially in sports. While playing we are learning all the time. We develop insights and we practice known as well as self developed techniques. The people who play better do mostly because of the following reasons:
1. Some time in their past life they have spent more time on a sport than others.
2. They have had some coaching. This may be as simple as certain suggestions given to you by your father or brother.
3. They have a physical advantage like height or health.

Of these the first point is the most potent one. The more you practice a thing the better you become. Coaching can be very effective, it can accelerate your development speed many fold. But if coaching is out of the picture, which is the case with most of the activities in India, then the one who has spent more time on a particular activity the better he/she will be at it.

A case in point is GRE. You will occasionally come across a guy who didn't prepare much for GRE and still cracked it. In all such cases that I have seen so far I have found a strong English background. Even though a lot of us are from English medium we didn't have the same kind of environment for learning English. At one point in my life I wanted to improve my English and wanted to find someone I could talk to in English and I found absolutely no one. To people living in Metros this will sound unbelievable and you would think "he didn't try hard enough" but believe me I tried and found no one. Plus everyone, including me, found someone speaking in English very awkward and snobbish. With this background it is really difficult for someone to crack GRE. What one didn't get in the whole life one has to master in a matter of days. So what do you do? You put in more hours and try to compensate. If you have someone from the English camp around you and try to match his amount of time spent on preparation then you are a fool. You will end up screwing up your score and even worse come to think that the other guy is a stud. (Thankfully in my case I stumbled upon a simple strategy that gave me a score of 1530/1600 in a matter of 3 weeks preparation, more on that later.)

success === time spent on preparing for success

I have recently being able to put perseverance in practice. I wanted to touch type and now I can. I had wanted to do it for a long time but what my fickle nature didn't allow me to do in six years I have been able to do in 1 month. I can now type without looking at the keyboard and at 43 words per minute. One month seems like a lot of time to spend on an activity at first but it is way shorter than six years. In the long run perseverance is a much more efficient strategy.

Another case in point for me is Volley Ball. I had almost no experience with volley ball until last year. Last year some of my friends in office decided to participate in the office volley ball tournament and I agreed to join. Since then we have been playing volley ball very regularly. I now play well and any team is happy to have me when I go to play volley ball. This is a feat compared to football that I have been playing like once every year for the whole of my life and still can't kick the ball right; difference being patience and perseverance.

Important to notice is that patience without perseverance is totally useless. If you wait for things to happen and are patient about it then it's such a waste of time unless you really can't do anything. Things don't usually happen unless you make them happen. If you don't immediately know what you can do then spend time thinking what you can do. I have almost always found something useful that I can do in such situations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Short cut to life

I am very fond of short cuts. When I am on a computer I like things to go blazing fast. There is a limit to how fast one can go in terms of physical motion. For example I can run at 3 meters per second where as the world record is just better than 10 meters per second. To do things faster what one can do is combine actions into groups and then deal with these groups. In one go you increase your capacity manifold. Of course you now need to remember these groups or codes.

In almost every field there are these shortcuts which you realize the importance of after some time. It is almost never a good idea in my opinion to begin any new learning with shortcuts. After all shortcuts are for something and you should be familiar with that something before you assigning shortcuts to. After a while though shortcuts become almost a necessity. Sooner or later almost everybody starts using them, but the ones who learn them earlier do much better than the others. Take the game Age of Empires for example. Each and every advanced player uses shortcuts for almost everything. Learning the shortcuts is almost part of learning a thing.

One day it just stuck me that language has shortcuts and they are called words. Words are the means of communication and they communicate something about the world we live in and our experience of it. The world is so complex and our experience is many times more complex that it would seem that describing it would be an impossible task but that problem is solved by generalization. We have words that represent things in general and not exactly. In fact you could hardly ever be exact. When we say something is a table we mean roughly something with four straight legs and a flat top. This description is so vague still it lets us communicate. If we were to have different words for every different table we will soon exhaust our capacities. Usually we know a few such words and describe everything vaguely. As we grow we start learning more and more words and our descriptions become more and more precise. There are two ways of describing things more precisely. Either we can use a lot of description composed of different words to describe something exactly or you can assign a word to the precise meaning. A good way of understanding this is to look at the dictionary. It has the word which have a specific meaning and the text that describes is the multi-word version of it.

The more words you know the less words you have to use the more elegant you sound. Two people might be saying the same thing and one might sound like a chatter box and the other one a gentleman. If you use the exact words you can describe more in the limited amount of time that world allows you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Treat options in Noida

In our team we usually have a treat almost every month. It's either someone's B'day or a company treat. Amount of money available varies but usually it's from 1K to 2K (rupees of course). I've been in Noida for over 6 years now, so you can imagine how many treats that is. Goes without saying that we have run out of places to go to. Here I am going to mention the ones I've liked most.

1. On a lucky day there is lot of money available for treat. If you are in such luck then there is no better eating out place than Kabab factory. The non-veg platter there is simply out of this world (sorry about the cliche but it seems pertinent). It's worth while once in a few months to spend a day just giving in to the gustatory delight.

2. Treats and bowling have a deep relationship. Bowling for me has been something that you only do on a treat; except one time that Rashmi and I did it just for the hack of it. There are two bowling places in Noida that I know of. One is the food court at The Great India Place Mall. Second is at Shopprix mall in Sector 61. I'm sure there must be at least one more but I don't know about it.

3. I love pool when I'm winning and absolutely hate it otherwise. Regardless, pool can be a good past time. Places: Gravity in sector 26, Spice mall, TGIP food court, Shopprix mall.

4. If your budget is not very high and you want to have good chinese food then Bercos Garden should be your first choice. Crispy honey chicken being my favorite.

5. If you are the happening type and happen to have a girl friend(or wife) then Elevate is an option. It is a very expensive option but nothing compares to the experience of all night dancing to grooving music.

6. Going to the movies is a good cheap option. Main problem is finding a movie that no one has already seen. I tend to suggest the weird ones when going out with office colleagues as I couldn't see them otherwise (Rashmi likes normal movies). If the budget is larger then you can even go to a movie lounge. Having a pina colada while watching a romantic movie increases the fun manifold. Fortunately booking tickets to a hall in Noida is not difficult, they are usually available whenever you need them. I prefer spice for going to the movies but Waves is also not bad. I hate Adlabs halls at TGIP primarily because they show a lot of ads and that movies start way beyond the scheduled time. I also think the quality of picture is bad but my friends have tried to convince me that it is not. So... I don't know, I just hardly ever watch movies there.

7. Eating out at Trditional Indian Restaurent is the easiest and reasonable option. There are just too many places to mention. I've mentioned Kabab factory separately as they are a bit different in that they serve only the platter. Other places that I like to eat at are Desi Vibes and Pearl's Regency in Sec 29.

8. If you don't want to eat out but order pizza instead then Pizza hut is the best option. Slice of Italy seems promising too. Domino's is just pathetic. If you can't afford Pizza Hut or Slice of Italy then ordering burgers from McD is better than ordering pizza from Dominos.

If I remember any more options I'll update them here. I will be glad to hear about more options.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Type Racer

One advantage of being a workaholic is that many times you are forced to reinvent yourself. To be frank I'm quite a lazy person but I have a bad habit of committing to a lot of work and I try to keep my commitments. So one of these days when I was coding furiously I realized that my eyes were very tired. I took a break and it was kind of normal again. But then it started happening more and more often. Was I getting old? I thought more about it and realized the problem. I was simply moving my eyes a lot and that was because I am a "see typer", I look at the keyboard while typing. The constant movement of eyes from screen to keyboard and back was putting a lot of stress on my eyes. Some other day I might have thought about it, planned, then went on as usual. But the fact that I was having to type simply a lot left me no choice. My eyes simply didn't allow me to go on as usual. That's when I decided to try to type without looking at the keyboard.

At first I simply tried to type without looking at the keyboard. I found it impossible. I was literally looking for the keys through my fingers every character I typed. It was clear that this wouldn't work. I looked on the web found a lot of material on touch typing. I downloaded a free typing tutor software and got started.

I progressed through the lessons learning key at a time. My speed was abysmal. I had made a rule for myself that I wouldn't jump to the next lesson until I achieved a speed of at least 15 wpm in the current lesson. After a lot of painstaking effort I was able to finish all the alphabet keys. That's when I heard about TypeRacer.

It's a simple online typing game. I crossed the first hurdle of fear of losing and boy I lost all of my initial games. Soon though my speed started improving. Currently I can type at 40 wpm which is not stellar but it isn't bad either. The fact that I don't have to look at the keyboard means that my eyes are free to concentrate on the content and my mind is also less agitated while typing. Also the simple act of typing has become sort of a challenge and hence enjoyable.

Deepak, my colleague at Adobe, is the one who gave me the tip about type racer and I want to dedicated this blog entry to him :).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Notepad++ plugins

My transformation is complete. I no longer use notepad ever. If on a machine I don't have notepad++ my first instinct is to install it. N++ in itself is very good but some of the plug-ins make it indispensable.

I had a simple problem for which I didn't have a good solution for a long time. I just wanted to be able to read xml in a well formatted way and be able to edit it in this form. Internet explorer did a reasonable job but it is not an editor. For a long time I used Visual Studio for pretty printing xml. It is like invoking power of attorney for getting a parking ticket but I didn't have a better solution. That is until I came across the XML plug-in for Notepad++. It is lightening fast and does more than pretty print xml. It validates the XML and if xml is not valid it gives a reasonable error.

Another plug-in that I regularly use is light explorer. This light weight plug-in shows the file system in a tree view on the left, almost like windows explorer. Having it inside the editor is awesome. It instantly turns N++ into a reasonable development environment.

I wish N++ had a vi editing mode but then may be it wouldn't remain as light weight and fast as it is so maybe that's for good. Unless… someone can implement a vi plug-in that is both lightweight and fast and still implements a reasonable subset of all the commands.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Adobe Story AIR application

Adobe Story preview became available on Adobe Labs a couple of days back. I want to mention here some of the qualities that make Adobe Story AIR application a very useful one.

1. Since all the components bundled into the application, performance is much better as those components don't need to be downloaded. Of course you do download them as part of the AIR application but that is a one time effort.

2. You will never loose your work if your net connection goes down as you can switch to offline mode and save you work there. Afterward you can continue to work in offline mode and your work will get saved to your account whenever you go online.

3. Export and Import are faster.

4. While working in the offline mode, opening a script and saving are instantaneous as these operations happen on a file on disk and no server communication is involved.

5. You can edit the script in full screen mode. You get to use more of your screen real state.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Unitech Unihomes Fraud

I wish to inform home buyer that Unitech Unihomes in Noida is not offering power back up for apartments. The power back up is just for common facilities and not for the apartments.

If you live in Noida then you already know that power situation is really bad. It gets very hot in summers and even if you install an inverter, your cooler or air conditioner won't run on it. Unitech is not stating this fact to potential customers clearly. It is of course not mentioned anywhere in their advertisements. At the same rates you can get a better apartment with all the facilities and near the center of Noida rather than sector 117, which is at least 3 kms away from any reasonable habitation.