New Year’s To-Do List

January 16, 2008

Well, it’s once again the time of year when I review the state of my life, and resolve to do something about all the shortcomings that inevitably present themselves. Unfortunately, although I have no trouble coming up with worthwhile resolutions, I’ve never had much success in keeping them, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld. Therefore I don’t think I’m going to waste time with making any resolutions in the traditional sense. Resolve is such a weighty word. I’m going to try taking a less serious approach here. I see that Jane has given herself a to-don’t list, but I’m a little skeptical of this approach. The standard truism applicable here is that it is better to prescribe the desired behavior than to proscribe the unwanted behavior, and I have to agree with this advice. However, I do like the idea of a to-do list — it’s much more matter-of-fact than a resolution. A to-do item is like doing the laundry or paying the bills; it’s something you do every day. Most importantly, it’s something you know that you can do. So, here is my to-do list for 2008.

Where to start? According to Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily, having too many resolutions reduces your chances of success, so I’m going to limit myself to five items. His list of most-commonly made resolutions looks depressingly predictable, but as I am not one to break with tradition, I will start out with a health-related to-do.


I’m currently about 20 pounds over my “ideal” weight. I figure that if I set my goal at the modest target of losing about one pound per week, and allowing for a little bit of back-sliding, I should reach my ideal weight by mid-year. I debated about whether to include this item in this post (since, after all, who out there cares about how much I weigh?), but it gives me an opportunity to demonstrate the neat little chart API from Google. This API lets you generate graphs on-the-fly just by specifying a URL with the necessary parameters. So for example, here’s a line graph I can use to chart my weight progress:

Weight Graph

I’ll have to post an updated graph every month or so, so that you can shame me into staying on target. (Hat tip to Brian Hayes at bit-player for this.)

If you need an extra incentive to get going on your own health to-do, this news item about a recent health study might help. Researchers in England found that middle-aged men and women who followed four good-health practices (don’t smoke, consume alcohol in moderation, get some exercise, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables) were 4 times more likely to have survived through the duration of the study than those who followed none. Participants who only followed 1, 2, or 3 of the practices still showed (correspondingly smaller) benefits. Not surprising, but I think that one of the points of the study is that a few simple, relatively easily implemented practices can make a big difference in your health. You can read the whole article at PLoS Medicine.


Also high on Dave Munger’s list of typical resolutions is getting organized. If you’ve ever seen the HGTV show Mission: Organization, you have an idea of what my personal space looks like. I can’t think of an aspect of my life that couldn’t benefit from some organization, but just to keep things simple I’m going to focus on one item: my filing cabinet. I need to redo my filing system, and I’m going to set a target date of March 1st, which will force me to get my tax records together in plenty of time for tax season. I don’t have any fancy links to help with setting up the physical files themselves (although I do like the looks of these MAGNIfiles). However, once the files are set up the tricky part is keeping them in order. I’ve been told that the adage to keep in mind is “handle each piece of paper only once”, and if you Google that expression you’ll get hundreds of relevant links. This one (somewhat randomly chosen) seems pretty sensible. Of course, since most of this is just common-sense stuff, the trick is not knowing what to do, but actually doing it.

One final link on filing, just to keep this post from being too un-mathy: Jeff Erickson had a neat post a couple of years ago on the time-complexity of various filing strategies. It turns out that the system I’ve been using isn’t so bad after all!


Next up, I want to try to improve my productivity. To keep this concrete, I’m going to set as my goal to write for 2 hours a day. I’m using “write” very loosely here, to mean pretty much any form of output in which I’m creating something instead of just passively reading or viewing. Now, this kind of goal is notoriously hard to keep, and I’m deliberately choosing it in order to try out some motivational techniques. On his blog, Jim Gibbon describes the Seinfeld method, which consists of getting a big, full-year wall calendar and making a large mark on each day you meet your goal. The aim is to try to keep the resulting string of marks from being broken. I love the simplicity of this technique, and I can use it to track my progress on my other goals as well. Jim Gibbon also describes a technique called contingency management, in which you give yourself a reward each time you complete your daily goal (or a punishment when you fail). I suspect that I would be too tempted to cheat using this method, but I’ll give it a try as well.

One general problem I’ve had with writing is that ideas invariably occur to me at the most inopportune times, and I end up forgetting them before I have a chance to write them down. I can’t be bothered with carrying a journal around with me all the time, and I tried using a voice recorder but was too self-conscious to make good use of it. But I recently read that Vladimir Nabokov did his writing using index cards, and this seems like such a great solution that I can’t wait to give it a try.


One of the things I plan on doing with that writing time is to produce some actual mathematical content for this blog instead of the typical link-fests (like this entry). But to present the math properly, I think I need to bite the bullet and convert this blog to WordPress. After all, if it’s good enough for Terry Tao’s What’s New, Scott Aaronson’s Shtetl-Optimized, Tyler DiPietro’s PowerUp, and Foxy’s FoxMaths! (among others), then it ought to be good enough for me.

Now, just setting up a new blog takes almost no time at all. But it’s been ages since I’ve updated anything else on this site, so I think I need to give the whole place an overhaul. Since I’ve committed myself to getting my files in order first, I think I’ll set a leisurely goal of May 1st for my new web digs.


So if all goes according to plan, by mid-year I’ll be fit, organized, and churning out math posts on my remodeled blog. That leaves the second half of the year open for something perhaps a little more ambitious.

Bill Gasarch recently posted his predictions for 2008, and I couldn’t help noticing a hint of a contradiction between his 2nd and 3rd items:

  1. There will be a big breakthrough in theory. Very hard to predict what it will be- note that this years big breakthrough, faster algorithm for integer multiplication, would have been hard to predict.
  2. P vs NP, P vs BPP, will not be solved.

Now, to me that seems almost like a dare. So, this gives me the perfect project for the second half of this year: write a proof that P≠NP.

To help guide me with my proof-writing, Scott Aaronson recently posted a list of Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong. If I take care to avoid the pitfalls on this list, I’ll be sure to get everyone to read my results. Actually, the one item that I think I would deliberately indulge in is this:

8. The paper wastes lots of space on standard material. If you’d really proved P≠NP, then you wouldn’t start your paper by laboriously defining 3SAT, in a manner suggesting your readers might not have heard of it.

Since a proof of something like P≠NP would be of interest to a wider audience than your typical math result, I would try to make it as self-contained as possible.

So to recap, here’s my to-do list for 2008:

  1. Lose 20 pounds.
  2. Organize my files.
  3. Commit to writing for 2 hours a day.
  4. Update this web site and switch to WordPress.
  5. Write a proof that P≠NP.

As I mentioned near the beginning of this post, since these are to-do items and not resolutions, I can be confident that I can matter-of-factly complete each task. We’ll check back in December and see how I did!

posted in miscellany by Kurt

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