Here’s a fantastic article on the Washington Post about “Five myths on the debt ceiling”. Here’s the part I loved (or hated) the most.

On March 16, 2006, one Democratic senator in particular denounced George W. Bush’s request to raise the debt limit. “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” the senator thundered. “Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. . . . Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”

That senator was Barack Obama, and he, along with most Democrats, voted against a higher limit that day. It passed only because almost every Republican voted for it, including many who are now among the strongest opponents of a debt-limit increase.

Even Obama couldn’t help become one of the foolish politicians. I wonder how every single politician, even those who used to be very bright people, can become so stupid once they win a seat in the Capitol.

I recently watched “The Contender”, a great movie about American politics. I strongly recommend it to everyone who is interested in how politicians operate behind the walls. The movie is about a vice president nominee who fights through hearings to prove that she is well-qualified. Instead of asking questions about her thoughts on various issues crucial to running the country, a number of Congressmen on the hearing committee use the opportunity to dig into her private life, trying to find any scandal that can stir the media and prevent any kind of productive debate on important issues.

I feel like this endless routine goes on and on in all democracies. Politicians fight not for a policy or ideology that can save the country, but merely to take their opponents down. Since their main goal is to get elected by winning over their opponents, the debates do not focus on the important issues, but instead on scandals related to their opponents’ private life that has nothing to do with how this country should go forward. Media also focuses on those scandals since they are easier to understand for the general public compared to complicated nation-wide issues. I wonder how many people will choose to click an article about a sex scandal versus an analysis on national debt. Moreover, media nitpick on minor wording mistakes that politicians make during a public speeches instead of focusing on the general theme. Do people really think giving good speeches with polished words is the most essential skill of a politician? It might seriously be better to give good-looking Hollywood actors some scripts and let them do the interviews and speeches, while the politicians focus on getting real work done.

I’m not saying we should ditch democracy, but I am confident there should be ways to improve it by changing the system. We can’t rely on the politicians to change by themselves because they are just like all of us; humans who try to maximize their gains while abiding by the rules of the whole system. They won’t change unless they are forced to do so under a new system. I am pretty sure there are quite a lot of interesting research from political science people on this topic. Trying to think of any political science person I know…

Which brings me to this question. Totally unrelated to political science, but I wonder if there’s any online service where you can type in a question like “political science research on fixing democracy” and gives you the list of people in town who can help you answer the question. I sometimes have these random questions spanning history, social sciences, technology etc that I can’t find much information on the web. It would be great if this kind of service is connected with LinkedIn.

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I really hate driving. Whether it’s short or long distance, I just think driving is a waste of time, especially when I get stressed out and use the f-word a hundred times while driving through the mazes in downtown Boston. I always thought I would definitely buy a car that can drive itself once there’s something available. There are news that Google is developing a driverless car, but I doubt that it will be commercially available to people like me in the near future.

Since developing a completely driverless car is so difficult, why not make a car that only needs a little bit of assistance to drive? You could imagine a car that can drive itself only in constrained environments such as in a freeway where the car merely needs to follow the white lanes while not bumping into the car in the front. We could designate the right most lane of freeways (which is the passing lane) to be the “autonomous driving lane”. Once the driver enters the lane, he could change his mode to autonomous driving. The driver can tell the car to just keep going until exit number X. When the car approaches exit X, it could have an alarm that tells the driver to take over driving again. There could be a shoulder next to the freeway so that the car can automatically pull itself over if the driver does not start driving again. Basically, the car can just take care of driving straight, following the white dotted lanes. Since the “autonomous lane” is the left-most lane, cars won’t be bothered by “human-driven cars” switching between lanes. That lane would be only for “autonomous driving”, possibly allowing the cars to communicate with each other to go at a fixed speed and maintain constant distance between cars. Since “autonomous driving” cars would be much more predictable than human-driven cars (computers do as they are programmed, humans don’t), they won’t need fancy algorithms that might be necessary for driverless driving in cities. This might help reduce traffic and maybe reduce car accidents since the autonomous driving cars would never tailgate nor go over the speed limit.

Compared to developing a completely driverless car, this technology would have a much bigger bang for the buck because the technology would be much easier to develop and drivers could be relieved from long-distance driving which is much more tiring than driving short distances in cities. Why bother developing the complicated technologies necessary for driving in cities when it’s not that grueling compared to all-day driving in freeways?

Maybe the main issue for both this technology and completely driverless cars is safety. Even if these technologies can reduce the number of car accidents, the auto companies, not the drivers, would be responsible for the accidents. If you remember how much damage Toyota had when 10-20 accidents were caused by malfunctioning Toyota Camrys, I am pretty sure customers will run away from autonomous driving cars once it leads to casualties. I bet that average customers won’t compare the possibility of an accident for the two cases and conclude that autonomous driving is safer. Instead, they will feel better to have control over their own fate (even thought that might increase the possibility of an accident) rather than rely on a computer to do the driving.

I wonder if there is going to be any way to overcome this problem. Autonomous driving  will become mainstream some day, but I bet it will never be perfectly accident-free. Any thoughts on how to solve this problem? Maybe customers would be willing to buy driverless cars if we can somehow prove that the accident rate is below a certain point? Who is going to pay for the insurance? Maybe car manufacturers can sell insurance with their autonomous cars.

Microsoft just announced that they will pay $8B to acquire Skype. What caught my notice was that Marc Andreessen got his first exit as a venture capitalist. For those who don’t know Marc Andreessen, he was co-founder of Netscape and is like the father of web startups. He recently started a VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, with Ben Horowitz, who is also a renowned ex-entrepreneur. They had invested $50M in Skype about 16 months ago and got a 3x return out of today’s deal.

What I don’t like about their investment strategy is that they only focus on late-stage companies. They invested in companies like Facebook, Groupon and Twitter not in the early days, but after it became pretty clear to everyone these companies would succeed. At this point, everyone was jumping on the band-wagon trying to get a piece of these hot companies. Not just VCs, but also investment banks and private equities were begging to participate in funding rounds even when they had to pay hefty premiums for sky-rocketing valuations. These types of private markets are not like the public stock market where anyone can buy shares, so you need to have the right connections to participate. As the father of web startups, Marc Andreessen used his extensive Silicon Valley network to get a hand in these mega-funding deals, and Skype has become his first exit.

Can you really call this VC investing? How is this different from private equity firms investing in steel and oil industries? You might say it’s all about making money, so it doesn’t matter how you do it. You might argue it’s nonsense to say that VCs should focus more on helping small early-stage startups grow. You might say VCs are not some non-profit out there trying to help others. It’s all about the money. If you can make money, do whatever’s within your ability and power.

Although this might be the case, it is still very saddening to see a very successful entrepreneur turn into a VC that doesn’t really help startups grow. Yes he is giving money to Facebook and Twitter, but there’s hundreds of other people who are willing to do that. Giving money to Facebook and Twitter doesn’t require any special insight. Mere mortals reading the Wall Street Journal would love to get a piece of these companies. Marc Andreessen is not a mere mortal. He really has the ability to find gems in Silicon Valley that could be the next Google and Facebook. He could have chosen to be a VC like John Doerr, who invested in Google, Amazon, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, all in the early stages. John Doerr wasn’t sniffing around to get into deals that everyone wanted to get into. He wasn’t using his network to earn easy money by investing in companies that everyone else wanted to invest in. He tried to find hidden talents that no one else could find, and help them grow to be extremely successful companies. There’s a bunch of people waiting in line who can replace Marc Andreessen in funding rounds. There are few people who have the guts to invest in two drop-outs out of Stanford with a search engine called Google.

I love this quote by Matt Cohler, a partner at Benchmark Capital, a VC firm that is not participating in the hot late-stage rounds of web 2.0 startups.

There’s also money to be made in pork bellies and oil futures, but that’s not what we do.

VCs should not move in herds. They should not invest in companies just because his business school friend down the road got a lucrative exit from a similar company. They should invest with insight on how technology will develop in the future. They should provide the oil to drive innovation. It is unfortunate that someone like Marc Andreessen, someone who has the capability to find and help future entrepreneurs, chose to go the “invest in oil and steel” route. Who knows, once he gains reputation as a VC, he might jump into riskier early-stage investments.

Even with the Celtics down 0-2 against the Heat, I still believe Celtics can win the series. Most people are too negative, saying Boston’s never been down 0-2 in the Big 3 era, Miami looks too strong, Shaq’s not going to be in a good condition (even if he returns) yada yada yada. I think people are  over-reacting to the current situation and already forgot the great Celtics team just from several months ago. When the Celtics were doing well at the start of the season, fans praised them as if they were the best team in the NBA, but quickly started getting too harsh on the team when they weren’t performing as well close to the end of the season. They just lost two away games and a lot of people seem to think the series is already over. The same people were saying Celtics is invincible when they beat the Knicks 4-0. It’s partly due to the media exaggerating wins and losses to create catchy headlines. I still think Celtics is a better team with more perseverance and bigger desire to win the game.

Go Celtics!!!

I didn’t plan on posting anything this weekend, busy preparing for a presentation next Wednesday. I came across a shocking special report on The Economist and an admirable person devoting his fortune to fix problems our society is facing. I couldn’t help but write at least something short here.

The special report has a series of articles (you can find them in the middle of the linked page) that describes the fiscal problems California is facing. As a lot of people might know, especially those living in the Golden State, California has been irresponsibly spending too much while cutting taxes. This dragged the state into a budget deficit hole that became even worse after the financial crisis. When I heard about this, my first thought was, “isn’t California the center of technology innovation,  home of Hollywood and the state where rich people pay a ton of income tax?”. How could they be stuck in such a deficit?

According to the report, this all started in the early 1900s when Californians decided that direct democracy is a better way to run the state. While most countries and states allow only senators or congressmen to legislate, California allowed constituents to propose laws if they could gather hundreds of people to sign up to express approval. Called “initiatives”, the proposed laws were put on a ballot and could be legislated if they earned enough votes. Basically, anyone who could collect hundreds of signatures and convince constituents to say yes in the ballot could legislate whatever they wanted. This movement started mainly because Leland Stanford, the man who donated his fortune to found Stanford University, and his rail company bribed state government officials and politicians. Californians got fed up of corruption and decided that constituents should take over by legislating themselves. Ironically, Leland Stanford’s company would later use the initiative system to legislate laws that benefit the rail industry.

The rest is history. Simplifying a bit, Californians voted for initiatives that cut taxes and increased spending, without even knowing what those initiatives meant to them or the state in the long-term. A study showed that a surprisingly large portion of the constituents didn’t really understand what they were voting for, and sometimes would vote for the opposite side simply because of misunderstanding the initiatives. This was partly because the initiatives were written in complicated sentences with double or triple negatives. Each initiative would contain more than 10,000 words and constituents could vote for dozens of these at one time. The system also worked as a way for rich people to legislate whatever they favored. They could afford millions of dollars to gather the support by campaigning heavily using the media.

So how do we fix this? It’s hard to hold someone accountable because it’s not only the politicians, but the entire state of California that created this mess. It seems the only way is to fix the system and make it more difficult to start an initiative, but it’s highly unlikely that constituents will be willing to give up their power.

In the end of the report, The Economist introduced Nicolas Berggruen, a wealthy man who committed $20M of his own fortune to study how to fix this problem and gain support from highly recognized people in the state. According to his Wikipedia page, he was born in a wealthy family, made most of his fortune in businesses including founding a couple of hedge funds. The remarkable part is his perspective on money.

…for me, possessing things is not that interesting. Living in a grand environment to show myself and others that I have wealth has zero appeal. Whatever I own is temporary, since we’re only here for a short period of time. It’s what we do and produce; it’s our actions that will last forever. That’s real value.

He seems to be devoting his energy to the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, a think-tank investigating various policy issues, including how to fix California’s mess. I was so impressed by Mr. Berggruen that he became one of my role models on how to use one’s fortune to give back to the society. I really hope his institute can help California fix its problems.

I’ve been really busy recently and didn’t have time to post anything. Well, I had time to post, but I was pretty exhausted when I had leftover time that I didn’t feel like writing anything. I had a bunch of stuff I wanted to write that I scribbled down and saved as drafts, but never clicked the “publish” button because I never got to polish them. Maybe I should just write shorter posts more often. Otherwise this blog might stay asleep until I finish my paper and my chip, which is going to be about 6 months from now. Hope I can at least write something every weekend.

I just got back from a week long trip to the west coast. The main purpose of the trip was to present our paper at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), which is one of the top conferences in semiconductor where Intel, AMD and IBM present their state-of-the-art processors. I had been to this conference before without a paper, but this was the first time to present my work. It was a totally different feeling and I was very excited during the entire conference. I was also fortunate to be invited to give talks at SoC companies including Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia and Marvell during my trip. I received invaluable feedback from great audiences, and had so many interesting conversations with brilliant people. I enjoyed the trip so much and came back energized enough to work hard on another chip =)

I might have another post on things I learned from the trip, but this post is going to be about the dreadful flight experiences I went through during the trip. I flied three times — Boston -> SFO (United), SFO -> San Diego (Virgin), San Diego -> Boston (Jetblue) — and all three flights were delayed by over an hour. The BOS -> SFO flight departed on time, but took 1.5 hours longer to get to SF than scheduled due to strong headwinds. The SFO -> San Diego flight was a short 1.5 hour flight, but was delayed by 1.5 hours! Lastly, the flight back to Boston from San Diego first got delayed, but when I showed up at the gate on time, no one was there. It turned out that there was no plane leaving from San Diego, so everyone had to hop on a shuttle and go to Long Beach Airport. I was so tired after my week-long trip that I was more than ready to fall asleep on the red-eye flight, but instead I had to endure a 2-hour bumpy shuttle ride to Long Beach, go through security again, and walk through a rainstorm before finally getting on-board to sleep.

I was just so amazed how every single flight could be so messed up like this. Maybe it was just bad luck to blame. Maybe I was carrying bad weather all the way from Boston to cause the delays. Maybe three is too small of a sample size to make any definite judgement. Still, I just couldn’t understand how these airlines could stay in business with these poor services. Maybe every single airline in the US have terrible service. Maybe that’s why they can all stay in business even when they torture their customers, providing them with experiences they never want to go through again. I don’t know much about how the airline industry works, but I just feel there should be a fairly simple solution using high-tech to solve these problems.

This is a slightly different story that my wife and I went through when we were coming back from vacation in Chile. We were at Santiago International Airport to catch an American Airline flight back to the US. We arrived 3 hours in advance, but there was already a very long ticketing line. It turned out that there were 2 other AA flights with hundreds of passengers leaving at pretty much the same time. Hundreds of people stayed in line waiting for hours. Although we got there 3 hours before departure, we barely made it to our flight. Okay, I can stay in line if there’s a lot of people. What was really annoying? There were a bunch of self-ticketing machines lying around with no one using them. For some reason, the machines required a “ticket number” that was not written in our priceline itineraries. You couldn’t get your ticket from the machine with your passport or itinerary. I wonder how many people actually have their “ticket number” that’s not even printed on your priceline itinerary. It seemed not many people had that number in hand given that almost no one was using the machines.

I really couldn’t understand why they placed the machine there in the first place if no one could use them. I couldn’t understand why they required these weird numbers for the machines, while they required only passports to be shown when they handed out tickets in person. If the long lines were inevitable even with the machines, they could have used a simple machine spitting out numbers for customers. If your number shows up on a LED screen, you could show up to receive your ticket. This kind of simple solution could prevent everyone from standing in line for hours dragging around their luggage, and instead allow them to relax at a cafe waiting for their number to show up on the big screen. It just seemed like airlines had no motivation to come up with solutions to comfort their customers.

I had a similar experience at Hertz renting a car during my trip to SF (OK this is the last example of a bad experience). There were a bunch of people on the line, maybe because it was Friday of a long weekend. People were waiting over an hour in average to get their cars, but Hertz employees kept on leaving for lunch, making the waiting time even longer and longer. The more annoying part was, again, there were a bunch of self-sevice machines that didn’t work. Hertz was running short on mid-size cars and had to upgrade those who reserved mid-size to higher-end vehicles. The machines weren’t smart enough to do that and kept on refusing to give cars to any customer who reserved a mid-sized car. Again, a very simple high-tech (maybe not even high-tech) solution could have made the machine smarter, and could have slashed the waiting time for customers by a tremendous amount.

How can we force these companies to change? Is there a way to make them care more about their own customers? I think nothing will change unless a brand new company shows up with much better customer service, better enough to generate an exodus of customers from existing companies with crappy services. I thought Virgin, Jetblue and Southwest could be those type of companies, but it seems that’s not the case or they aren’t successful enough yet. Maybe Zipcar is that company in the car rental industry.

New companies come up with fresh ideas to compete with existing giants. This competition is key to innovation in the industry as a whole, and this is what benefits customers. Hope there’s enough competition, enough to motivate traditional industries like airlines and rental-cars to change their quality of service. Glad that I don’t need to travel too often.

Technologies change so fast. People tend to forget very quickly what life was like just several years ago without all the fancy technologies we nowadays take for granted. I remember 10 years ago in 2000, I was in high school and very few of my friends had just started getting cellphones. I remember thinking cellphones are luxury items for teenagers, and a beeper would be more than enough for me. While I was debating whether I should buy a beeper, cellphone prices began tumbling down. By 2001, more than half my classmates started using cellphones and I ended up getting one too.

Fast-forward to 2011. We have handsets with more compute power than desktop computers in 2000, with battery life that last an entire day, and small enough to put in our pockets. Even better, they are affordable. I plotted the price decrease of the Amazon Kindle since its release in late 2007. I felt the Kindle had been around forever, but realized it hadn’t even existed when I came to Harvard in 2006. The price dropped from $400 to $140 in just 3 years.

How about the iPhone? The latest models are priced at $200 (with 2yr contract), but I wonder how many people remember the first iPhone with a whopping $599 price tag (with 2yr contract). Amazingly, this was just 4 years ago.

More powerful, cheaper gadgets flood the market every year, and the driving force behind this is Moore’s Law. Any techie might be fed up with Moore’s Law by now (I see it in the first slide of almost every academic talk in our field), but one cannot emphasize enough its impact in the entire IT industry. Thanks to device physics researchers, transistors have been getting smaller and smaller, allowing chip designers to pack in more transistors in a single chip while shrinking the chip area. Smaller chip real-estate translates to cheaper chips, similar to smaller apartments costing less than larger ones. More transistors enable more functionality in chips. As a result, you get more powerful, but cheaper chips that power your smartphones.

Smaller transistors decrease manufacturing cost per chip, but non-recurring cost is becoming significant as well. This is a one-time cost of designing the chip before sending it to the fab that manufactures the chips. Chip design became increasingly complex due to increasing number of transistors in a single chip. Processors in commodity phones were much easier to design than those in state-of-the-art smartphones with support for audio/movie playback and web-surfing. Hiring more engineers to tackle complex chip design leads to higher cost. Fortunately, companies came up with design automation softwares that automated large parts of the chip design, allowing them to suppress the explosion of cost in engineering manpower. This also helped decrease chip design time, reducing time-to-market and allowing companies to churn out new processor designs every year in time for new smartphone releases.

However many times I think about Moore’s Law, it’s just unbelievable that it has been sustained for the past 50 years, and still on-going. I can’t think of any other industry like the semiconductor industry. Price falls every year, but that drives explosive increase in market penetration and creates new market segments starting from laptops to smartphones, ebooks and tablets. Increase in volume is more than enough to justify the decrease in price. Better technology at cheaper price -> larger market, revenue-> invest in better technology is the cycle that drives explosive growth.

So where are we going looking forward? Can price just keep falling forever? Can we come up with better technologies forever? Will customers say they don’t need anything better anymore? What does this imply to handset manufacturers and processor designers?

There seems to be no sign of slowdown in the price fall. Huawei, a Chinese company that both designs processors and manufactures handsets, teamed up with T-Mobile and announced the Comet smartphone priced at $10 with 2-yr contract and $150 without contract. Compare that to $200 with contract and $600 without contract of high-end smartphones! With the Comet, users can surf the web, watch movies and listen to music, albeit at a sluggish speed. Of course performance of the Comet is not as good as the iPhone, at least for now. But what would happen in 2 years? Huawei will be able to offer phones with performance similar to current iPhones at a much cheaper price. Customers might decide they don’t need more performance and settle with the cheaper Huawei phones. Would there be enough functionalities for the iPhone or other high-end smartphones to keep adding to differentiate themselves and justify more expensive price-tags?

I purchased a Samsung Galaxy S a month ago. I did plenty of research in engadget and played with a lot of smartphones, but I didn’t notice any serious difference between the iPhone and the other Android contenders from HTC, Samsung and Motorola. There are more apps in Android than I can possibly imagine downloading. Scrolling and pinch-and-zoom were smoother in the iPhone, but I didn’t think that was a major difference. Right now the high-end Androids have the same price-tag as the iPhone, but what if emerging companies like Huawei come up with similar Android devices at a much cheaper price? Would customers be willing to pay $200 more for smoother scrolling and pinch-and-zoom?

Compared to Android, iPhone could be at a better place to lock in customers thanks to iTunes. Just like Amazon can lock in ebook users to Kindle thanks to their enormous amount of book contents, Apple could prevent users from ditching the iPhone for cheaper phones by making iTunes an essential part of their lives (I seldom use iTunes in my Mac, but I suspect a lot of iPhone users use it for music). Maybe locking in users with rich contents is the right way to avoid losing them to commodity handsets. Actually, Amazon Kindle’s success makes me wonder what would have happened if News Corp had come up with something like the iPad before Apple did and package it with The Daily using their power over contents. After all, Amazon didn’t have any experience in manufacturing before the Kindle. I guess making a multi-purpose tablet would have been much harder than designing a device mainly for book reading like the Kindle.

There could be a limit in squeezing in more functionalities to justify pricy high-end smartphones. Maybe they are eventually going to turn into commodity phones, maybe free phones that anyone can afford with contract. The key to avoiding this could be in tightly integrating the hardware with high-quality contents that users are willing to pay $$$ for. All these scenarios assume hardware having nothing to improve in the future, hardware being a commodity that anyone can manufacture, and contents being the main differentiator.

Although I agree with the power of contents, I still believe there is a lot of room for innovation in hardware. Hardware still has the power to bring wonders that nobody ever imagined. The past 50 years show hardware can exceed all expectations (like this wrong prediction by McKinsey on cellphone penetration). In the future, there could be watch-sized smartphones thanks to 3D-stacked chips. There could be huge flexible displays that you can fold to fit in your pocket. There could even be wearable computers connected to your brain to assist your thought-process. These are things customers will be willing to pay for. These technologies will keep driving hardware innovation and continue the wonders of the semiconductor industry. These technologies will bring better gadgets to customers at a cheaper price. These technologies will prevent hardware from becoming mere commodity.

I still believe in the future of hardware innovation, and I’m happy to be part of it =)

I like reading books during my daily commute to Harvard on the T (or subway). It’s only two stops from Kendall Sq to Harvard Sq, so you might wonder how much I can possibly read. Well, it takes about 15 minutes including the time waiting for the train, so that’s 30 min a day. I would say that’s a pretty big chunk of time, especially when you have nothing else to do other than wondering what music other people are listening to, or starring at your smartphone complaining there’s no 3G connection underground. It’s an environment where you can completely concentrate only on the book because you don’t have anything else to do. At home I easily get distracted by emails, ichat, Celtics games etc.

Nowadays, I’m reading a book titled Three Steps to Yes by Gene Bedell. Gene Bedell is a successful person who had risen to a top executive position at Credit Suisse before joining a startup that was spun off from Credit Suisse. As CEO of the startup he helped grow it to a publicly traded company with over $100M market cap. Gene Bedell is also often mentioned by Vivek Wadhwa as his mentor. Gene Bedell was Vivek Wadhwa’s boss in both Credit Suisse and the spin-off startup.

The book is about “how to sell”. It’s not about how to become the best salesman, but mostly about how to sell your ideas, how to persuade other people to do what you want them to do. The author argues that “selling” isn’t just for salesman, but for everyone who tries to convey what they are thinking to other people. As a graduate student who writes papers and gives presentations to persuade other people that my idea can change the world, and also as someone who is interested in doing a startup, I thought this book would be very helpful. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but until now I am very satisfied. I’ll leave the book review for a later post, and write more about the importance of learning how to sell and communicate well in this post.

After coming to US, I’ve heard so many times that having good communication skills is extremely important. I have seen many foreign students including myself trying to learn how to write and speak in English more fluently. I agree that is the first step to better communication skills, but that’s far from enough. I think there’s so much more in communication than just being fluent in a language. I think good communication is more about understanding what others think and trying to lead the conversation to make them comfortable while meeting your needs as well. This requires you to learn how to sell, not just speak.

I’ve realized that this is something very important to all grad students, even if one wants to stay in academia to do research for the entire career. Research isn’t done by a lonely genius inside a cave as depicted by Iron Man. In order to do good research, you need to know what other people are doing and what the major problems are in your research community. Otherwise, you might be working to solve a problem that no one is interested in. To find the right problems to work on, researchers write and present papers to fellow researchers in the community to share and build upon each other’s ideas. All this requires good communication skills. You don’t want to be someone who everyone avoids conversations at a conference.

So, how can we learn how to communicate well? I am also trying to figure that out (that’s why I’m reading the book), and I am no master of communication, so the following are just my thoughts from personal experiences that could be far from the right answers. I think the basics of good communication are

  1. predict what others will think before you say something
  2. figure out what others are thinking after you say something
  3. adjust what you say based on your judgement and go back to 1.

Again, these are just my personal thoughts. It might be totally wrong, or it might be something impossible to do perfectly. However, at least everyone I’ve seen who is good at selling and communicating is good at reading other’s minds and reacting quickly. Because people rarely say exactly what they think, you need to carefully ask and guess what the person really means. One example is when VCs reject pitches from startups. They never say in a straight-forward way that “your idea is bad”, but instead say something like “You need more traction. Let’s discuss more after you get more traction”. The VCs have no motivation to say things that might hurt your feelings, so they prefer to sugarcoat whatever they have in mind. Good communication skills could help you hear more about why they really rejected you instead of mere sugarcoated phrases. Example of bad communication in this situation would be saying “I don’t need those sugarcoated phrases. What to you really think of my business plan!!!???” Example of good communication would be…I have yet to figure that out =)

Some people are just gifted and born to be good sellers, but others learn it through practice. I think the best way to learn is simply to talk with a lot of people in a variety of situations. Even better if you have buddies who can tag along and later give you candid feedback on what you said was appropriate or not. I think I learned a lot about communication skills while taking a MBA class at Harvard Business School last summer.

In class, students from the business, law and engineering schools formed groups to come up with business plans using technologies developed at the Harvard Engineering School. I was lucky to have the technology that I developed in lab assigned to our group in class. After several months of work, we presented our business plan to a bunch of people including VCs and professors at the end of the semester. Each group was assigned a small booth with a monitor showing our slides so that people could walk around visiting booths that seemed interesting.

There was a professor our team had met a month ago to get feedback on our business plan. He was very kind and provided us with comments that helped improve our business plan. He had visited our booth to see our final presentation. Everything went well and we got valuable feedback from him.

This was when I said something that I should’ve thought twice before it came out of my mouth. As he was about to leave our booth, I asked him if he would be interested in becoming our advisor for a upcoming business plan competition. I could tell that he was slightly caught off-guard, and I immediately realized I had made a mistake. He said he was busy this semester, but could discuss this more later. After the professor left, my teammates told me that I “put him on the spot” by suddenly asking him to be our team’s advisor in front of our whole team without giving him time to think about it. He was basically forced to not say “no” because all of our team members were standing there waiting for his answer. It would have been much better to say “We are interested in the business competition. Could you provide us with feedback on how we should prepare for that?”. After he gives the feedback, I could say, “Thanks, your feedback is really helpful. Would you mind if we visit you at a later time to discuss more about the competition?”, and then visit him later to ask if he could be our team’s advisor. This way, he would have had much more time to think about our business plan and perhaps think about advising our team if he was interested.

This is an example of a bad communication that was lose-lose for me and the professor. I didn’t get a “yes” from him, and he (presumably) was not happy to be in that situation. He was a very nice professor, and I felt bad that I might have made him startled and disappointed. However, I was extremely lucky to have good friends in our team who were kind enough to point out my mistake. (I think good friends are those who are willing to help you fix your mistakes, rather than praise you just to make you feel good) I sort of let my teammates down by making this mistake, but they gave me a very kind advice — most of the time, it’s better to slowly build up your request to others rather than going straight to the point.

One might think this kind of communication is inefficient because it takes too much time going back and forth. Maybe I was thinking this way too when I asked the professor since that was the fastest way to get his answer. Unfortunately, it was the fastest way to get a “no”. It would be so comfortable for you if you could say everything in a very direct way and have people agree with you all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how most communications work. I had a lot of time to think about my question before asking it to the professor, whereas he was forced to give an answer right away. Given that good communication is based on two groups understanding each other, I should have given him time to dwell on the question before forcing him to say yes or no on the spot. This isn’t being inefficient or wasting time going back and forth, but allowing people on both sides of the table to have ample time to think about the issue on the table.

The problem for graduate students is that graduate school could be one of the worst places to learn this type of skill, because there aren’t many opportunities to meet and chat with people in a professional setting. Students spend most of their day in front of a computer running simulations or in a lab doing experiments. They are too stressed about getting work done and getting papers out that they don’t have the time to worry about good communication skills. I’m very happy to have advisors who are supportive of students learning communication skills by sending them to conferences and giving them opportunity participate in meetings with industry people (as long as it doesn’t eat into your research time =) ). I learned a tremendous amount on how to network with people when I first went to a major conference in our field. I didn’t know anyone, so I tagged along a senior grad student who had been to a lot of conferences and knew a lot of people. I still get nervous when talking to high-ranked industry people, but also get really thrilled because I can learn so much just by going through that experience and listening to what my advisors and industry people say in certain situations.

Thinking beyond the graduate school environment, I think communication is something we start to learn as babies. We first learn how to speak, go to school and learn to communicate with fellow students and learn how to fit into a group. Kids sometimes get into fights because of misunderstandings, but learn how to get along with others who disagree with you. Going through these experiences is essential in learning how to communicate. (NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article arguing that Amy Chua’s way of raising kids fail to teach them how to get along with others, which is more important than getting good grades)

Communication is something that I can only learn through experience. Talking with people that I’m meeting for the first time in a professional setting can be at first daunting and stressful, but it is very exciting to be constantly exposed to new people and conversations. I’ll try to take advantage of opportunities that I have in school to learn how to be a better “seller”. And of course, work hard so that it doesn’t cut into my research time =)

Last week, a WSJ article titled ‘Why Chinese Moms Are Superior’ lit up a fierce debate on how parents should educate their children. The article was written by a Yale Law professor how came to US a long time ago. Her point was that children need to be forced to learn new things. Children tend to enjoy what they are good at. Since they are not good at anything initially, parents should force them to do some things until they become good and learn how to enjoy those activities. She also claims that children can do things that initially seem impossible when pushed hard enough. She argues that those who give up and say ‘everyone is special in their own way’ are losers and that any children is capable of doing what other children in the same age can do, if the parents force them hard enough.

Apparently, this WSJ article received a flurry of interest in the web, and Vivek Wadhwa also joined the debate by writing an article in BusinessWeek claiming US education system is still better than India or China. (Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned professor at Duke doing research on startups. He is also a big advocate on the ‘Startup Visa’, a movement trying to give Visas, and eventually permanent residency to people who want to launch startups in the US. I love his articles in TechCrunch and BusinessWeek.) Then, a much more aggressive article was posted on TechCrunch titled ‘Why American Mothers are Superior’. I think most of you can guess what was posted there. She questions the point of forcing every single child to be mathematical and musical prodigies. She ends by saying “Dr. Chua’s definition of success is to have children who are musical and mathematical prodigies. Mine is to have children who learn well, live well and love well. She’s a success by her standards as I am by mine.”

I’m not a parent (yet), so I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but my wife and I have talked about these sort of issues several times. I think both articles have valid points — I agree with the Chinese Mom argument that children tend to enjoy what they are good at, but also think forcing them to do something does not help the childrens’ creativity at all. That kind of education could create a math and science whiz with a perfect GPA who can also flawlessly play a Rachmaninoff piece, but who cannot figure out what he is truly passionate about. He might deliver excellent results when ordered to do something, but fail to figure out what he needs to do by himself. I believe that kind of person can be perfect on paper, but might end up not being sure what he wants from his life.

I think giving some amount of breathing room and freedom to children is important. Does that mean there’s nothing that parents can do to educate their children better? Of course not. I think (it’s just thinking, since I haven’t been able to practice it with a real child) parents can educate children by showing, not forcing. My wife and I like reading books after coming home from work. If our children watch us every evening reading something, wouldn’t they gradually want to read books too? (Maybe we should laugh while reading, just to pretend that it’s so much fun haha) I assume children are curious about things that adults do and like to follow when it seems like adults are having a lot of fun. When I was a kid, dinner table conversations were usually focused on issues on government and politics. My parents never forced me to do that, but I started to get interested in reading newspapers and political news earlier than my friends. I even asked my parents how to become a politician when I was in 5th grade. My dad used to watch a lot of Pacers and Hoosier basketball games when we were living in Indiana. Nowadays, I have the TV channel fixed to Celtics games (although I usually work on something else with the TV on). I’m not trying to argue that I received good education from my parents. I’m just trying to say that, from my personal experience, children are largely affected by what they hear and see from their parents. My belief is that if you want your children to do something, you don’t need to force the children, but instead show how much you enjoy doing something.

I guess my wife and I can try to see if this theory is true once we have a baby (maybe 3-4 years later? after we enjoy some more traveling). I think I’ll try to show my children how much I enjoy doing the following.

  • Skiing: young children learn much faster than adults. I hope my children would want to learn how to ski just by watching me skiing. Hope I don’t stumble too hard in front of them.
  • Reading: my wife and I like reading a wide variety of books. I hope my children would be curious what’s written in all those books. I started reading a lot thanks to my brother who liked buying a bunch of books. I think I ended up reading more of them than my brother =)
  • Basketball: I don’t know which city I’m going to be living in, but I really want to take my children to basketball games. Then I don’t need to beg my wife to go with me!
  • Music: it doesn’t matter what kind of instrument. Piano, guitar, violin whatever. I’m really glad that I learned to play the piano at a young age, and see many friends who regret not having learnt any instrument. Would they want to learn music if I start playing my keyboard at home? Maybe that’ll make them hate music altogether.
  • Passion: I wish they be passionate on something, whatever that is. I hope they have something that they strongly desire, and be like “life is full of excitement!”, instead of “oh..whatever…life is full of BS..”.
  • Love: Lastly, but most importantly, I wish they learn how to love and care for others. I hope being a loving father can help them in this matter.

OK. The list got way too longer than I imagined. Maybe I’ll be a way too demanding dad after all =)
I don’t know why I ended up thinking about children when my wife and I certainly have no plan at all (for the time being), but now I find it pretty fun to imagine all these things.

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