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Friday, October 12, 2012

"Mind Your Decisions" with Presh Talwalkar

Math-frolic Interview #2 is already here...
[#1 was HERE if you missed it.]

As much as I enjoy math blogs, something I may like even more-so are blogs that cut across different fields with math-related content. One of my favorite blogs in that regard is Presh Talwalkar's "Mind Your Decisions" which includes content on economics, personal finance, game theory, psychology, and simple practical tips, along with mathematics and puzzles. It's somewhat unpredictable what he may be covering or presenting on any given day!
Presh was kind enough to assent to an interview:

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1) ME: To start, tell readers a little about your background or anything else pertinent to your blogging:

PRESH:  I have always loved math, and I loved my time as an undergraduate at Stanford where I double-majored in Economics and Math.

I also learned about money and investing at a relatively young age. My high school had an investment club where we researched stocks and actually got to invest real money. So before I even had a full-time job, I understood the basics of diversification and long-term investing.

2) ME: Your blog, cuts across several interesting categories, math, economics, psychology, etc. ("game theory and personal finance" is its sub-heading)… how would you yourself classify your blog, or do you even think of it in a category? And how do you select the topics for each post?

PRESH:  True, my blog does not fit into a simple category. Over the years, I have, however, come up with a type of format to my posts, as follows:

Monday = math puzzle, Tuesday = game theory, Wednesday = saving/money, Thursday = smart decisions/decision theory, Friday = math-related/anything fun/book review

A lot of people ask me how I get ideas. To be honest, this is rarely an issue for me. I read a lot of books and am generally an observant person. So I never have a lack of topics to write about.

That said, I still do get writer's block just like anyone else. There's a big difference between having a topic and being able to write a blog post, as I'm sure any blogger can relate.

3) ME: You call yourself a "math nerd at heart"… How did your interest in mathematics originally come about, and what are your favorite aspects of mathematics to study or read about?

PRESH:  I remember loving math even in elementary school. There was something amazing about numbers and being able to solve problems.

In high school, my favorite area of math was calculus. It incorporated everything I had learned about math, and suddenly the world made sense and looked completely different.

In college, I particularly enjoyed Analysis--which is why I took real analysis, complex analysis, and analysis on manifolds. I also took as much Linear Algebra as I could. I also write a lot about probability on my blog, as that's most relevant for game theory.

4) ME: How did the idea for your blog first come to you, and and how confident were you that there would be an audience for it?

PRESH:  I got the idea for blogging after getting sick of reading personal finance books. Many of the authors use shady math and don't teach ideas but rules. I wanted to show a sensible approach, relying on the authority of math.

I had a feeling there would be an audience based on my friends. There were a lot of doctors, engineers, and otherwise technical people who couldn't stand the platitudes and simplicities of most financial pundits. Of course, it's always easy to be confident in hindsight.

5) ME: You frequently employ math "puzzles" for blog posts (and even have an e-book of such puzzles available), and I often find the puzzles you use new to me, or at least given a fresh presentation. How do you go about finding puzzle material for your blog?

PRESH:  Thanks. I have read a lot of puzzle books and I am constantly reading about math. I like problems that have some historical importance, which are oddly omitted in many math textbooks.

I also try to use math in my daily life, and that's where some of my favorite puzzles are derived. Just recently I was eating a 3-course meal and wondered "in how many ways can I eat this meal?" That became a puzzle.

6) ME: Approximately how much time per week do you spend working on your blog? And is it principally "a labor of love" or is it much more than that for you?

PRESH:  I have never completely accounted for the time I spend on the blog. It usually takes an hour to write each post, but that's after I've done all the research. And of course, many of my ideas come from reading, which I spend about 2 hours a day doing.

The blog is definitely a "labor of love." While I do make some money from advertising and ebook sales, I have resisted many chances to sell out the blog with paid guest posts and text links. On the one hand it would be nice to get extra cash. On the other hand, why would I sell out my reader's for a quick buck?

I think about this blog as a reflection of who I am and a way to reach interesting people with similar philosophies.

7)
ME: Are there certain blogposts you've done that stand out for you as personal favorites or ones that were the most fun to work on? And from the other side, which posts seem to have been most popular or attention-getting from your readers?

PRESH:  There is one thing I have done that is by far the most rewarding. I use a spreadsheet to track my expenses. It's a simple spreadsheet that uses a couple of "array formulas" to tabulate total spending and category spending. This simple spreadsheet--that can be downloaded free "http://mindyourdecisions.com/blog/financial-tools/">here
--has gotten over 37,000 downloads and tons of people email me thanking me for making it available.

Perhaps my all-time favorite post is "http://mindyourdecisions.com/blog/2008/08/19/game-theory-in-the-dark-knight-a-critical-review-of-the-opening-scene-spoilers/">Game theory in the Dark Knight. It came as a novel observation that the Joker's bank robbery resembled a math puzzle called the pirate's game. Due to the success of the Dark Knight, this is also the most popular post, bringing in a lot of link-love and traffic.

Another fun article was "http://mindyourdecisions.com/blog/2007/08/16/what-is-the-difference-between-apy-and-apr-how-is-interest-actually-computed-in-my-savings-account-or-on-my-loan/">What's the difference between APR and APY?. I had seen explanations at other websites and did not find them completely convincing, so I took some time to explain the math myself.

8) ME: Your blog is about helping people learn the skills to make good decisions for themselves. What books would you especially recommend to lay people for understanding or improving their decision-making skills?

PRESH:  My favorite personal finance book is Die Broke. As the title indicates, the book's philosophy is about using your income smartly and not leaving a large estate.

An excellent introduction to game theory for the lay person is Thinking Strategically. It's a lively introduction to strategic thinking and one of the books that got me really excited about game theory.

I also recommend The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, which has become something of a modern classic. The book made me think about risk in terms of high-impact decisions and avoiding catastrophe. It also is a book that pokes fun at academic finance, which is amusing on its own.

9) ME: From your experience at blogging successfully, do you have any words of advice you would offer to other bloggers or math communicators?

PRESH:  One thing I've learned from blogging is that it's not good enough to write about things I find interesting. There are celebrities that get away with that because people are naturally interested in them. But for me, a good post is one that delivers something interesting to my readers, which requires doing more research to link to relevant resources.

10) ME: Any parting words, not covered above, you'd want to pass along to a math-oriented audience?
 
PRESH:  I will end by explaining the meaning of the name of my blog! The name has two interpretations: I try to use my mind for my decisions, and I will only mind my decisions--even if that means standing out.

I think this is a philosophy that should resonate with anyone that does math.

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-- Great to hear from you Presh, and I definitely encourage folks to check out http://mindyourdecisions.com/blog/ if you've never visited it before.

[The purpose of Math-frolic Interviews is to assist building community among some of the many math communicators and enthusiasts around the Web, so that we get to know each other better. If you're willing to be interviewed, or wish to recommend someone for an interview, let me know...]


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