The Origin of This Website

NOTE TO READER: This post was written in reference to my previous attempt at a blog, which was named Number (Non-)Sense. Nevertheless, nearly all that is written remains true.

In this post I detail the origin of this website. I first describe my personal background before discussing how my interests manifested into this website.

Born to be an Engineer

Born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in a nearby suburb with my twin brother Andrew, I am extremely grateful to have two parents who provided me with anything that I could ever want. They each come from very different cultural backgrounds, yet they managed to find each other when attending the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), from where they both graduated with degrees in civil engineering. Interest in embracing my multi-cultural heritage and in tuning into the intelligence passed down to me prompted me to partake in challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in high school. These higher-level classes helped me achieve my academic potential, and the diverse nature of the IB curriculum exposed me to a wide-range of topics that captivated me, including physics and electronics. Consequently, I chose to major in electrical engineering when I began my undergraduate education at UT in August 2012.

Throughout my four years at UT, I found my classes challenging and enriching, my professors knowledgeable and engaging, and my fellow students friendly and hard-working. To sum up my extracurricular activities, I served as a member and officer in professional societies such as the UT student branch of Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), worked as night-time department tutor for two classes over the course of two semesters, and completed three separate internships during my undergraduate tenure. All of these experiences re-affirmed my passion for problem-solving and the engineering discipline in general.

Lessons of Independence

It’s a bit hard to pinpoint exactly when I really picked up the wish to create an online home for my thoughts on topics that interest me. I think it probably dates back to when I moved out to live by myself for the first time after earning an internship for spring 2013. That period of time turned out to be life-changing for me.

As I alluded to before, I had been well-cared for up to that point of my life. I was raised by two loving (and perhaps over-protective) parents in the same town up through the end of high school, and I only moved 50 miles away to go to college in Austin, where I shared a living space with my twin brother. Thus, when I moved out for my first internship, it was the first time I was got to experience what it is like to be independent. Moving away for college and having to do my laundry seemed like nothing in comparison. Paying for a car, rent, and utilities while living in a poor urban environment was all-new to me. Nevertheless, I took this time as an opportunity for self-growth.

I tried to improve my amateur-at-best skills at cooking, explored body-weight training to keep myself in shape without a gym nearby, and read about being financially responsible. Most importantly, I began reading online “self-help” resources and found an interest in being as “efficient” as possible in all matters of life. Blogs like Thomas Frank’s College Info Geek website fed a new-found passion for productivity within me. Likewise, Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income media conglomerate introduced me the idea of entrepreneurship and other ideas related to personal branding. 1 Through sources like these, I realized that having an online repository to demonstrate the work that one has accomplished and capture one’s personality could be an extremely useful tool for networking and finding future job opportunities.

However, I never actually got around to starting a website during my time in college. Fortunately, I still managed to get two other internships and earn a full-time job after graduation even without a website to serve as an online portfolio. Yet, even after I had secured a full-time job during my penultimate semester at UT in fall 2015, I realized that I still had an interest in making a website. However, my intent for a potential website was no longer to try to promote personal projects or ideas explicitly for earning an engineering job, but for simply participating in the anyone in the massive community that is the Internet that might share my interests.

Defining my Interests

I was set on creating an online hub where I could share my ideas primarily on the two things that interest me the most–numbers (i.e. data analysis and math) and sports. You might be wondering, “Where did these two interests come from?”

Numbers

In consideration of my background in engineering, the “numbers” part isn’t too hard to explain. I won’t bore you with all the details of how much of a nerd I was in middle and high school, where I competed (and succeeded) in math competitions. However, aside from personal education, my twin brother’s path in college also strongly influenced me. 2 Andrew followed a fairly unique track in his pursuit of a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at UT. He took classes with fancy-sounding words like “Decision Analysis” and “Game Theory” in their titles–as well as other graduate-level math-based courses–that put him in line with the post-undergraduate degree that he is now pursuing in the field of Operations Research at Georgia Tech. Often he would toy with me by asking me some of his homework questions just to see how incorrectly I would respond. Nevertheless, in doing so, he unknowingly piqued my interest in some of the things that he was studying (although not to the point where I felt obliged to switch paths after having finished three of four years counting towards my degree). So that’s where the “numbers” interest was born and refined.

Sports

My passion for sports is perhaps a bit more confounding to the reader. Even though I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, my brother and I had always been a big fan of sports growing up. Although our parents never played and hardly watched sports themselves, they encouraged us to embrace our passion for sports by signing us up to play with youth basketball, soccer, and baseball teams throughout the school year, as well as sending us to golf and tennis camps during the summer. We played sports year-round up through the beginning of high school in 2008, when we dropped these activities to focus on in-class learning. Nevertheless, as more and more time passed after I gave up playing organized sports, my interest in reading and analyzing them grew stronger.

Accordingly, I scoured the Internet to find stories and websites who could feed my hunger for data-based analysis. Articles on ESPN’s website that went beyond simply reporting the outcomes of games–such as those which tried to predict winners and provided rationale for these picks–became increasingly attractive. Also, after having followed the writings of well-known sports and media figure Bill Simmons since middle school, I became an avid reader of Grantland (which was associated with ESPN) after its launch in 2011, The NFL and NBA columns of Bill Barnwell and Zach Lowe at Grantland were weekly must-reads for me. However, I found that I still wanted more. 3

During that period of time when I moved out on my own for an internship in spring 2013 and had spare time after work to do whatever I pleased, I looked beyond the ESPN online realm and found other websites that fit my search for in-depth sports coverage. Brian Burke’s Advanced Football Analytics and the NBA coverage of Nylon Calculus fed my hunger for sports saber-metrics. 4 I filtered out the popular, yet low-level sports analysis that was disguised as intelligent–like Peter King’s weekly “Monday Morning Quarterback” column–as well as highly subjective content provided by ESPN itself–including its popular television show “First Take”. My inclination for data and empirical evidence taught me how to separate the good and bad analysis.

Thus, with a set-in-stone intent to create a website of some sorts, a fair background in mathematics due to my engineering college education, and with an ever-increasing desire to analyze sports at a deeper level than the average fan, it became obvious to me that threading data and sports together could be the focus of a future website.

Getting Technical

Nevertheless, before I could feel comfortable posting any kind of original content concerning numbers and sports with analysis, I believed that I needed to improve my technical skills. It wasn’t so much the “sports” aspect that I was concerned about, but more so the “numbers” part. Even with my background in electrical engineering, I didn’t feel that I had significant enough experience with programming because I had avoided most courses related to computer science topics in school. Also, I knew that it couldn’t hurt to refresh and enhance my knowledge of probability and statistics, despite succeeding in a variety of advanced math courses at UT.

I had taken courses teaching assembly language, C, and C++ (primarily in the context of their application to embedded systems), but that about summed up the totality of my coding skills prior to my last semester of college at the beginning of 2016. I felt that I needed more practice with programming for applications outside of embedded systems.

Programming

After looking up what tools statisticians and data scientists use to conduct their analyses, I discovered that R and python are the two most popular programming languages for this field of study. Interestingly, there seemed to be no real consensus as to which is better. 5 Anyways, in trying to distinguish the two, I read that R and R Studio shared some commonalities with MATLAB and its interactive development environment (IDE), with which I had a semester’s worth of experience. As for python, I found that most perceive it as a better object-oriented language than Java (which I was originally intent on learning before looking up alternatives), and that, more generally, python is one of the easiest languages to pick up. Not wanting to spend eternity weighing the pros and cons of R versus python 6, I made a rather arbitrary decision and picked python (perhaps just because it sounds cooler).

I started out simple by taking Codeacademy’s python tutorial. 7 Then, after quickly finishing it, I looked for a higher-level, more formal online course that I could take to help improve my knowledge of the language. I found a couple of good resources, but I quickly became bored with all of them because I felt that there was no way I was going to every apply python in the way that it was taught. I had long read that the best way to learn a programming language is to apply it to something that really interests you, and never did it feel more true than at that point in time.

Consequently, I decided to attempt to use python in the way that I imagined I might eventually use it for conduction analyses for this site. In particular, I wrote programs to scrape and compare daily NBA scores and betting lines from ESPN’s website in order to get an idea of how bookmakers and gamblers might be faring. Furthermore, I scraped the scores of every game from past NBA seasons in order to compare them to win totals that I had recorded in personal spreadsheets for a couple of years. After I had spent a week or so writing a couple of scripts to perform tasks and get data that I was interested in, I felt that I had improved my comfort-level with python substantially. Common scientific python packages like pandas, numpy, and beautifulsoup became familiar to me. Furthermore, I also used this time to teach myself how to utilize other tools like the command prompt, git, and IPython.

Mathematics

Then, with my improved sense of confidence in my programming abilities, I turned my attention to learning advanced mathematics (mostly concerning statistics and probability), as well as decision analysis techniques. After failing to find a formal python class that could hold my attention a couple of weeks before, I once again searched to find a structured online course that could meet my goals for non-programming learning. At the same time, I would have been even more pleased to have found a course that combined instruction on mathematics and analysis with programming in python (or R). To my delight, I was able to settle on a course–namely, Udacity’s UD 120: Intro to Machine Learning–that satisfied these desires. 8 I won’t go into too much detail here about this course and the four other Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) that I took afterwards because probably that deserves its own write-up. Anyways, to summarize their collective effect, the MOOCs provided me a significant amount of confidence in my technical capabilities.

The Inception

Thus, by summer 2016, I had gained a much better understanding of the effort and knowledge needed to serve as a reputable data scientist. Even though I skimmed through much of the content in the the five MOOCs that I completed between the sometime a couple of weeks before spring break time in March 2016 and the inception of this website in the middle of 2016, I finally felt capable of starting a website. Thus, with this sense of self-confidence, along with my ongoing passion for sports, numbersense.org was born.

Choosing the moniker “Number (Non-)Sense” involved a couple day’s worth of throwing ideas back-and-forth with my brother before coming to a settlement. Although the name might seem a bit bland or uninspiring, we both agreed that having some kind of over-the-top, ground-breaking label isn’t all too important. In the end, we realize that we will be judged by the quality of the content that we produce, which we hope you will enjoy.

Anyways, that’s all I have to say in this way-too-long back-story detailing the origin of this website. 9



  1. Of course, these weren’t the only sources of inspiration for me. Perhaps I will discuss other people and resources that I drew inspiration from in a later post. ^
  2. Perhaps he will go into more detail to it later in his explanation of his background. ^
  3. More recently, the sports section at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website has become a main-stay favorite of mine. ^
  4. As with the resources that inspired me during that first time that I lived by myself, perhaps I will discuss some of my other favorite websites to read on a regular basis in a later post. ^
  5. As many experienced programmers will attest when comparing programming languages, its more about the programmer and his preferences and capabilities than about the features of the language itself. Just about any language can be used to do perform the same tasks as another. ^
  6. which many others have done ^
  7. Codeacademy is often cited as great starting point for beginner programmers, I took Codeacademy’s JavaScript course back when I was in high school and wanted to investigate computer science. After finding that the JavaScript course was engaging, I concluded that Codeacademy was a good go-to resource for learning the basics of any other programming language that I might want to learn in the future. ^
  8. “Settle” is an apt verb choice here–there are so many free online classes and open-source learning resources available that picking just one to start with can be difficult, especially for a perfectionist like me who might be left wondering if there is a better alternative. ^
  9. You might come to notice that I like to write in a very elaborate and sometimes unnecessarily long fashion. The previous sentence is a perfect example of that. I realize that this style doesn’t really lend itself to top-notch analysis and isn’t highly regarded in this discipline. I assure you that one of my goals with this website is to learn to write more concisely (which is imminent for my actual full-time job) and improve as technical writer in every way possible. ^
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Tony ElHabr
Operations Engineer (Grid Analysis), ERCOT; Student, Georgia Tech

Engineer and analyst passionate about energy and sports.

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