Solving the problem of solving problems
It became clear to me the other day that not everybody understands why Cognitive Science (aka Artificial Intelligence) is the ultimate area of research. This happened as I was talking shop with some friends. While I thought I was providing dashingly interesting topics of conversation, my friends politely nodded and quietly thought I was a lunatic. Perhaps my communication skills need improvement, or perhaps they didn’t grasp the vision. This article addresses the latter.
Cognitive Science is the study of cognition. Why is that important? Cognition is the essence of intelligence. And intelligence is the essence of solving problems. So when we research cognition, we’re actually trying to solve the problem of solving problems. That’s quite a powerful notion.
It’s Time To Kill New User Confirmation Email Links
I just signed up for a new account on a fairly well known website (which will remain anonymous). A few minutes later: BAM!. My nice, clean inbox gets slammed with the ubiquitous ”Please verify your email address by clicking this link” email. I find that an annoying and archaic practice.
The original motivation of this idea was twofold: (1) the site owner wanted to verify that you were indeed the owner of the email address, and (2) it was a way to keep bots out. The second notion is not relevant in the modern internet. If the only thing keeping a bot from terrorizing your site is a click on an email link, then some hacker will circumvent that with 10 lines of perl script.
It seems that the only purpose these emails serve is to confirm that you are the owner. That’s great, I think we should keep that. But it’s annoying when I get a message that tries to bully me into clicking a link. When I’m checking my email, the last thing I want to do is context switch back to the app.
Here’s my proposed solution (which some sites are already doing):
A better experience is to put the user effort on the edge-cases. Namely, don’t require any action from me if I legitimately signed up. Just send me a nice vanilla welcome email.
In the edge case, where some unauthorized person has signed up using my email, then include some directions at the bottom of the email that instruct me how to deal with the abuse. And an extra benefit: If I have a good experience with your site reporting the abuse, I’ll be more interested to legitimately check out the site.
That’s the end of my rant. Perhaps I’ve missed some obvious reason why the industry still does this.
Hacking an Ironman Triathlon
I’ve run two full Ironmans in my life. The first one took 13:14:19 (at the top of the bell curve), the second 11:21:26 (on the front of the curve, but still nowhere close to the pros). The irony is that I spent far less time training for my second Ironman than my first. This article describes how I did it.
I ran my first ironman by the book. Literally, I bought a book and followed it to the letter. The advice was good, but it sucked up a huge amount of time. For roughly 10 months, I spent 30-40 hours per week in training.
A good chunk of this time went into context switching. For example, I might come home from school/work and toil around for 30-60 minutes getting ready for a run. All of that toiling adds up when you’re doing it 7 days a week.
The rest of my training time went into actual exercise. I was in the habit of doing two long-distant workout per week. For example, I might run 20 miles on Wednesday, then do a 100 mile bike ride on Saturday. That takes up a lot of time. To make things worse, these workouts weren’t actually helping me improve my fitness (or rather, they weren’t maximizing the benefit-to-time ratio)
Come race day, I performed remarkably average. I did pretty good on the swim and on the bike, but my system nearly shut down for the run. Why? Because I severely underestimated the nutritional aspect of the race. When it came time to start running, my stomach was a mess. I couldn’t keep anything down, including water. That was a real problem in 90+ degree heat. In the end, I ended up walk/running most of the way.
After the race, I took a year off from training. My weight rose from 170 to 185lbs, and there were some rumors that it wasn’t all muscle either. Out of the blue, I decided to sign up for another Ironman. You usually need to register one year in advance, so I challenged myself to find a training strategy that wouldn’t suck up as much time.
For this second Ironman, I decided to throw the book out the window. I decided that it was good advice for the general population, but I wanted to customize my training to maximize my efficiency.
The first thing I did was tackle my context-switching. I wanted to get my context-switch-time to less than five minutes. This wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I did three things: (1) I pre-mapped dozens of possible runs so that from any given location (work, home, etc), I could go on a 5, 15, 20 mile run without consulting a map. (2) I bought extra work-out clothes and made ready-to-go bundles. The idea was that I could just pick up one of these bundles, change, and run out the door. (3) Probably the most important thing I did was get in the habit of running without music/audio-books. This was important because most of my toiling-time was actually a form of resting. By running without music, I allowed my mind to relax while my body kept working.
By reducing my context-switching time, I greatly decreased the amount of time spent training. But that was only half the story. I still had to exercise. During my first Ironman, I realized that a lot of my training didn’t have a great bang-for-the-buck. For example, near the end of my first training stint, I ran 26 miles every other weekend. It sounds ballsy, but it didn’t actually help me get faster or run longer.
Conversely, I found that running sprints helped me immensely. I decided to focus on intensity rather than mileage. This turned out to be a great choice. Instead of running 26 miles every other weekend, I ran 5 or 10 miles strides, alternating high intensity with sort rest periods. The high intensity approach saved oodles of hours per week.
The last thing I tried to hack was my nutrition. I didn’t want to find myself in the same situation as Ironman #1. Namely, I didn’t want to find myself 8 hours into the race, only to have my stomach commit gastro-seppuku on me.
I found that my stomach really, really, really doesn’t like to consume GU, Powerbars, or any sort of food when it is hot. My solution? Drink lots of ice water. I bought a few of those insulated water bottles and loaded them up with ice. I tested my theory by running at high-noon and tried to aggravate my stomach as much as possible. I learned that as long as I kept a constant flow of ice-cold water coming, my stomach had no problems.
I also embraced junk food. The books will tell you to only eat organic nuts and berries. I realized that I’m just not that kind of person. The psychological reward of eating a Snickers far outweighs the nutritional rewards of eating an organic Cliff bar. I switched out all of the organic GUs and bars with common junk food you find at gas stations. My standard regiment was: Kettle Salt & Vinegar Chips (for salt), Reese’s Pieces (for sugar), and Coca Cola (for caffeine and carbonation, to keep the stomach settled)
I adopted this strategy and stuck to it for the remaining year. Most weeks I only spent 10-15 hours training. About one week per month would spike to 20-25 hours, but it was manageable.
The result? I shaved nearly 2 hours off my Ironman time. I made the biggest gains during the running portion. Ironman #1 had me walking a good chunk of the way. Ironman #2 had zero walking and actually feeling pretty good when I crossed the finish line.
Ironman #3? Sometime. Probably after I get over this whole startup thing.