Friday, December 19, 2014

Pattern Matching

This week, I have been struggling my way back into the flow of Ubermadchen. I am theoretically in the middle of a major section that needs to have the same heft as the ones I wrote at the beginning of the story, only in the last month of the summer I kept telling myself that the story has to be fast-paced, swift-moving, and consequently nothing since Versailles has felt substantial.

The section I am currently writing is a big volta, or jump, in which the characters' priorities shift in a big way. They go against the path one would expect them always to follow, in favor of a path that on the surface resembles what other people have been telling them to do for months--and this, for girls who are fighting their way to their own independence, does not come easily.

I don't know if I am handling the emotional buildup well enough, nor the economics of duty and obligation. I don't know if I have the writing chops to handle this. I don't know if I know the characters or their milieu well enough.

But I can write it, even if I can't write it as well as it deserves. The underlying problem isn't the story so much as the way I've let the story fall by the wayside, and the way I've gotten used to distraction.

I miss Stanford. I miss feeling as though I am in the middle of things, surrounded by interesting people, staying up until 0200 talking, biking around to meetings and events and even classes. Now that I'm home, I cannot see my friends every day and it has led me to check Facebook, my email, my phone a whole lot more than I normally do. This is not good for focusing on work I need to get done.

This morning, I hit a good patch in the story. I left my phone to one side and stayed off the internet, and got almost 2000 words down. The story has now passed 150,000 words, which makes me laugh because I said after Orsolya that I'd write something shorter the next time. Well, and how has that worked out?

I think that the writing goes best when the characters have a lot of agency. That is, when they have a goal and can chart a path to that goal and carry out their own plans. When the characters are frustrated and stalled, so am I.

The brain is an overactive pattern-recognition device, and perhaps I am seeing mirrors where there are none--but it seems to me as though my distraction and my writing preferences have a common denominator, and that that denominator is empathy. A connection to people. I get restless at home because I am separated from my friends, and since the physical gap is unimpeachable I reach out electronically to see how people, my people, are doing. I empathize with my characters and so I avoid the story, avoid feeling the way they feel, when they would feel something I personally hate (i.e. powerlessness).

Empathy is a component of consciousness. The brain is a pattern-recognition device that at some point recognizes itself; and once it recognizes the pattern of being a subject not only in itself but also in others, empathy emerges.

(If I was a hashtag-user, I would put up a Throwback Friday to last year's senior project, which was all about this.)

(Also, the hashtag also taps into our need to connect with people. By using a hashtagged phrase which already has an accepted definition and usage, that already has weight in the cultural lexicon, you can tap into a social phenomenon bigger than yourself. Even in a society that makes much of individualization and independence, it is comforting to be a part of a group.)

But of course, the pattern undergoes variation from person to person. I am not precisely like my friends, nor precisely like my characters. That is why I can text friends for hours and still miss them. The only person I don't miss is myself, because I am always here. Empathizing with a friend and connecting by communication is not the same as having them with me.

The necessary imperfection of the match between the pattern that is me and the pattern that is other people also affects writing a story with characters. It explains why I can work on a story for a year and still not be sure I know how to handle the people in it. The characters exist only as mental models, and because they are not real people that I can know and talk to, sometimes it is hard to tell if what I am writing is convincing. Yes, in my mental model, they would do this; but what if someone else models them differently and thinks they would do the opposite thing? Someone with more in common with my characters, who starts with a higher baseline empathy because of those similarities?

This is getting abstract. Let me use an example I have been struggling with this week: Marilla. She is my main character and I adore her, and the MBTI type that I think represents her the best is the same type as my high school best friend (INFJ). One would think that I would know how to write her, by now.

And I do, mostly. But then sometimes I look up from my writing and wonder, would Marilla do that or is that what I would do in Marilla's situation?

Then, there are the basic demographics that cause me concern. I believe that most people are basically the same deep down, but I also know that some issues or ways of experiencing the world are invisible to certain groups of people who just never have to think about it. Because I am a girl, I will more or less be able to comprehend the sexism that the Ubermadchen face. Because I am not an outlaw, I will probably miss some psychological aspects of that. More specifically, Marilla is a Catholic lesbian and I do not know if, when I write her, I am missing certain patterns of thinking or certain challenges associated with those traits.

(That explains the music choice for today (see below). Also I wrote a scene in a cathedral this week.)

So far I don't think I've done a terrible job, but the point is that I wouldn't know. I cannot see my own blind spots. I lack points of reference. The parts of my pattern of "a subjective human mind" corresponding to...fill in the blank: European, religious, homosexual, not to mention outlaw and magician--are blank. I can try to build bridges from my mind to Marilla's, and hope that it works. It had better. If even empathy and imagination cannot yield understanding among different kinds of people, then civilization would probably fall apart.

(If I was a meme-user, I would say "that escalated quickly." And, like hashtags, memes are a way to signal or construct connection between ourselves and others. It is an insider's wink, an elbow nudge. It is comforting to be a part of a group. We want to feel understood.*)

*Or do we? That's another question I could get into. But not today.

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Take Me to Church - Hozier

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

World Up High

After I went to college, my parents moved down the Peninsula and up the mountain. Today, I have been working at the window overlooking the slope, all the way down to the bay. As the day has gone on, the view has changed continuously, in surprising or beautiful ways.

The clouds come in layers. When you're looking at them from a fish-eye view, depth is hard to make out, and it's all just masses of lighter or darker grays and whites. From this perspective, they have depth and volume and presence, and are more than just thin filmy strips of monochrome.

The roofs go on and on and on. Suburbia is a country all its own, and has an almost tranquilizing effect. Look down and see sameness everywhere.

It is nighttime now, and all is darkness. Almost all: The lights of the cities below seem to shudder faintly, constantly, their pinpoints of orange marking the streetlights and homes. White and red flowing along indicates the main road, cars coming and going, the occasional howl of a siren.

The bridges are lit up by night, and glow white against the dark sky and dark water. If you have bad eyesight, it looks ghostly. If you have good eyesight, it still looks ghostly. Even up close, the bridge has always reminded you of the arched spine and ribs of a massive dinosaur, fallen asleep across the bay.

It has been a quiet, productive day. Emails and drafts of cover letters and tables with information about the companies and fellowships to which I seek to apply. Putting my life in more order than it has been. A lot of the work is a little tedious, or just difficult enough that it is easier to put off. Every time I've gotten distracted, I look out the window at whatever new face the sky wants to show me, and that helps. Some.

It is colder up here. I was not quite expecting that.

The last time I went to our old house, a condo in the downtown area of my hometown, I stood in my empty room for a minute and marveled. For some reason, it looked smaller without furniture in it, as if the walls contracted. Astonishing, I thought, that I had lived the four most productive years of my life to date in that little room.

Places change. The room in which I wrote Orsolya and the second draft of the Utopia Project, began planning and writing Ubermadchen, read Borges and Goss and Graham, daydreamed about who I wanted to be, listened to Rammstein and Evans Blue and Lorde, wrote the essays that got me into college...that room no longer exists.

The flow of traffic along the road has slowed; the undulating yellow-white-red snake has gone sluggish.

Places affect us. Why else would we travel? Why else would we take anything but the fastest, shortest route from one location to another? The world is path dependent. Where we have been matters. Where we are matters as well. And where we will go.

I wonder: do my friends who grew up on the hill have something in common that is different from me? Is part of the reason I haven't changed much in college because I've gone from one flat California suburb to another? Do I think differently now from the usual, now that I am looking at the world from up high?

The cars come slowly now, along the road. The constellation of houses and streetlights has gone dimmer. If there are clouds, they are masked in the darkness.

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Satellite - Guster

Friday, December 12, 2014

Autumn Quarter Recap: the Learning

As it turns out, you learn a lot in college. I had a pretty easy quarter, with only one technical class, but that does not mean that I didn't think a lot. None of my classes explicitly had anything to do with one another; connections emerged anyway. I ramble about that below.

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For reference, this quarter I took four classes: Evil, vector calculus for engineers (multivar + MATLAB), an Introductory Seminar on energy, and Ten Things: An Archaeology of Design.

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The world is not path independent. That is, the path we took to get from the Big Bang to now matters, and matters big. This is the lesson that every single class made me realize at various points.

The way we think about evil, moral questions, ourselves is strongly shaped by what people have thought before in history--in particular, our modern conception of evil draws strongly from the Abrahamic tradition.

The energy sources we used in the past have entrenched systems--infrastructure, transportation, economic, geopolitical--which makes it difficult to transition to cleaner sources. Decisions get "locked in" for decades or even centuries, and we can never really start fresh.

An archaeology class obviously makes much of the importance of the past. We are humans, we are material beings, and material things have always, always been a part of our identities and functionalities. Patterns in particular get passed down from epoch to epoch.

My calc class touched less upon this, which makes sense because math is supposed to be timeless. Even so, the different coordinate systems--rectangular, cylindrical, spherical--are a reminder of how legacy systems get add-ons which then can be integrated (ooh, pun) through occasionally-clunky connectors like the equations that declare x = rho*sin(phi)*cos(theta).

Because the past matters, we must look for the story. How did we get here? What will happen if we continue on this path? What can we learn from the successes and failures of the past? How can we build on what has come before us? The big question we always asked in my energy class was "What is the cost of business as usual?" Look for hidden costs, alternative ways of doing things.

Problems precipitate change. What is the situation now, what is wrong with it, and how can we fix it? What problems are fundamental, and which can we in fact improve? Think of the Federalist Papers: assuming that factions will always exist, how can we limit the damage they do? Think of the equation for the power output of a hydro turbine: we can't change the values of g or the density of air, but we can increase the hydraulic head and improve the design of the turbine. Think of the Acheulean hand axe: given that we have to cut things, how can we find a better cutting implement than the teeth and nails evolution has provided? Think of the intersection of a cone and a sphere: we can't make it a nicer shape, but we can change the integral from rectangular to spherical form and make the limits a little easier to handle.

How much change is possible and how fast? Do we need "transition" states--natural gas to wean us from coal while solar and wind reach scale, imperfect domestic stoneware as a response to imported porcelain? The stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones. At what point do new technologies or methods become decisively better than the old ways? By whose metric? How much do we help these new ways reach that point?

Implementation is key. Edison was not the first to make a light bulb or to light a building with electricity, but he integrated scientific, industrial, economic, cultural systems to bring the electrical power system to the world. We know how to produce energy from nuclear fission, so why aren't there nuclear reactors in every town? Why has Marx's utopian vision never come to pass? After you've set up the problem, you have to roll up your sleeves and take the integral.

You can never get away from people. Code with comments is better than code without comments. What do the people want? What will the people accept? How can they accept it? Can we make them accept it? Who gets to decide?

What is the truth and how can we make sure of it? Who has reason to lie? Is this information what you expect this source would say? "They /would/ say that." Where do the facts come from? Do they pass the laugh test? What do we assume? What do we know already, and how does this new information interface with the old?

Does it contradict what we think we know? Does it fit into a larger pattern? Look for the patterns: who believes what? Can you apply a solution from another field, or use another field's methodology to increase your portfolio of strategies--your playbook?

Calculus is all about patterns: integrate over a region to find the dimensions of that region, integrate a different function over that region to vary the orthogonal dimension. Green's Theorem and Stokes' Theorem and the Divergence Theorem are all the same. Inverse squared laws work the same whether you're talking about gravity or E&M.

Many developing nations have leapfrogged the old telecom system straight to mobile; why not leapfrog the big centralized power grid straight to renewable distgen? How is the current argument over carbon emissions similar to and different from the one about CFCs that was successfully resolved?

Wedgwood tea sets, like portable music players, are a way to delegate expression of our identities to our objects. The Egyptian pharaohs leveraged many interconnected systems to build the pyramids; Edison did the same with electric light; Augustus did the same with the Roman political and administrative systems.

Some philosophers think that human nature changes, while others think it can at best be managed. These differences are hardly trivial: depending on which one you believe, the ideal government will look much different. When a group of people with a certain characteristic in common suffer the same harm over and over, perhaps there is some institutional evil that acts contrary to them.

When do we need and not need invention? What changes can we roll out tomorrow that would make things better? Simple efficiency fixes would eliminate the need for more power plants. Thinking through how our current political system is set up and what the implications are would help us see that there are problems to fix. Admitting our need for things may help us choose which things to obtain and retain with greater care and discernment. Can we just rewrite the integral?

What questions are worth asking?

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Some other things I have learned: it takes a lot of reading to get around a topic, but once you've done a lot of reading then you can pivot more, can start to synthesize the often-contradictory or incomplete pictures you get into a coherent and useful image of a concept. The things that I find most interesting are the ones that relate to real life and real problems and the solving of real life problems. Also, systems.

Motion is the key here--how do we get what we need to the place where we need it? Invention, production, generation, are well and good, but implementation is key. Where are the connections?

Taking a nap before class will prevent you from falling asleep in class.

Goals keep you on track. Checklists satisfy a psychological need to create order.

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I may come back to add things to this post as I think of other connections among my classes. But for now, that's what I have. One quarter down, eleven more to go. Go Cardinal!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mental Space

I am sitting with one of my best friends at the bookstore cafe, writing this instead of my final papers for Evil (don't worry, I'll get to them as soon as I am done here). Yesterday I took my only final exam, and the relief and sense of freedom lasted about half a day before I started worrying about how I'm going to find an internship for the summer.

Even though I don't have any pressing need to stay on campus, I'm not going home until Saturday morning. I want to be here with nothing to do, to have time to explore campus and just hang out with my friends, to go to Cantor for a day and admire the art I have not had time to admire. I love this school and I know I will miss it when I am at home.

I need to take a breather.

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This weekend, one of the RFs (resident fellows) of my dorm and the student health advisor led a meditation session to help us destress from finals. We sat cross-legged at one of the quietest spaces on campus for about fifteen minutes, breathing in and breathing out, and not thinking about anything.

That was nice. Fifteen minutes of nothing but cold fresh air, the sound of water, wind in the leaves. I became very aware of points of tension in my shoulders and back from too long sitting at a desk. I don't like to be mystical, but even I could feel how with repetition this kind of thing could take on a spiritual valence. It may be valuable.

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Since coming to college, I've dropped a lot of good habits I had before. Writing almost every day is the most prominent, of course; but also, stretching in the morning and evening, practicing trombone regularly, reading books, and pulling out time for strategy summits with myself (you know my tendency to self-aggrandize).

I need to bring back the logbook. Those little squares filled with Xs were a constant throughout my last three years of high school, and I think they added a lot of value. I'm very big on preserving bits of the past, of keeping records, of holding on to relics. Why this is so could go farther into my psychology than I would like to put on the internet; let it suffice to say that I do like preserving information.

(This is part of the reason why I am so enamored of the idea of Rome.)

Why are logbooks valuable? They ensure that our efforts do not go unremarked, which has the silly psychological effect of validating daily work. They are a tangible expression of the accumulation of work over time. They bring awareness of what we are doing with our time.

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Awareness is a concept around which I have not walked. Some associations: "what does it even do?", the Kony 2012 campaign that swept through Midwestern channels of communication before leaping to the coasts, people saying "check your privilege," self-consciousness, being klued v. wedged, avoiding faux pas, holding doors open for people and pushing your chair in when you stand up, facebook posts about Ferguson, drinking green tea very poisedly in an all-white modern flat with floor-to-ceiling windows, inner ear fluids, BBC Sherlock saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, the tyranny of nice v. being a considerate human being, my high school best friend calling me Captain Obvious. Eyes wide open.

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Writing things down takes off the mental burden of remembering them. I have found myself having many of the same thoughts over and over this quarter and I should just commit them to paper, let them go free. But for some reason I haven't. A lot is because it's scraps of character dynamics and conversations and I don't, for some reason, like to write it down when it changes every iteration.

The human mind is an incredible thing, but to maximize its effectiveness why should we not leverage the tools it has created? Namely, distributed knowledge in the form of writing.

I need to go to a quiet place in my mind and write it all out. Every bit. Keeping things in your head is the equivalent of leaving something read but unarchived in your email. I cleaned out my inbox today and feel a lot better about life. I should do the same with my mind.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Autumn Quarter Recap: the Experience

Here we are, at the end of week ten. I just got out of my last class of the quarter at 1100. I think I miss it--I think I'll miss all of my classes. It has been strange, today and yesterday, walking out of classes and knowing that it was the last time. In high school, classes are year-long; saying goodbye to a class after only ten weeks feels premature.

At the same time, I think that I have learned as much in each class I have had this quarter as I would have in a full year of high school. That's the point of college, I know, but the density of knowledge still is startling.

I'm going to do a post next week examining what, in fact, I have learned, because throughout the quarter I've felt a surprisingly high level of interconnection in my classes. What does institutional evil have to do with multivariable calculus, or archaeology to do with climate change policy? A lot, as it happens.

Today, though, I want to reflect a bit on my experience of my first quarter from a more personal perspective, because even though the life of the mind is primary here, other kinds of life go on.

First, in a complete shock to no one at all, I have not become a party person. I have not partaken in illegal substances. Nor do I plan ever to drink alcohol or do drugs. I will not condemn consenting adults who do choose to use them, but I won't. I know myself well enough to know that my abstinence is a reflection, not a repression, of my identity.

Second, I love my hall. We have commented upon how well-suited we are: we are relatively introverted, geek out about our areas of greatest interest, and have broad areas of lesser-but-still-considerable interest. Every night we pile into the hall to "do homework" and talk, and even though it is a horribly unproductive environment, I love it. We will not say straight up to one another how we feel, because heartfelt emotion is awkward to express to other college students, but honestly: we are a family. Major, major props to the people who made housing assignments.

Third, I feel like a freak a lot of the time. This is completely compatible with what I just said about my hall being a family. We are as close as a group of siblings would be if all the siblings were the same age, but we still have not known one another for very long and the group dynamics aren't perfectly comfortable yet.

But aside from that, I have struggled a bit more to find a place in other contexts. In high school I was "the smart kid." Here everyone is smart and I've run up against the fact that I am damned ignorant and often have nothing interesting to say and that there are people in my classes who can contribute substantially more to the intellectual tenor than I can. And that makes me uncomfortable, because I have gotten too used to feeling essential. To "being someone."

This applies to my awkwardness in groups like band as well: I am stunningly incompetent compared to section veterans, which makes sense and makes me distressed. I was band staff and section leader for two years in high school and I loved being in a position of authority. In an Aristotelian sense, I was acting out my own nature and so I was happy. Here I am not even an above average frosh, and given how much less time I have to dedicate to band than I did in high school, I will probably remain marginal.

Fourth, I have had a lot more mood swings than I would have expected. I talk to a professor of CEE about infrastructure and feel ready to save the world! I get rejected from an internship that two sophomore friends (one from Stanford, the other from my high school) did after their freshman years and I will never ever be hired and no construction company will ever want me and I will be a disappointment.

Fifth, job anxiety is real. I have a tutoring job but what I really want is to intern for a construction company this summer. And I have never been hired for a real job and all the amazing things to which I have been accepted (the most obvious of which is the university) have been by written applications. What does that say about me?

Sixth, I am beginning to question my racial identity. I don't know how to characterize my relationship to being Asian. When I'm at Asian restaurants with non-Asians I am proud of how well I can navigate the menu and chopsticks. When random people on the street talk at me in Mandarin or Cantonese under the assumption that I can't speak English, I repress the desire to tell them to go to hell.

Most of the time, I ignore it. But then I read Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson, by Liz Lin (thanks to the sister for posting it, by the way) and it rattled me.

I never went to a single Asian Club meeting in high school, and I laughed about what they might do there even though one of my good friends was the president. I give no notice to the mailings from the Asian American Activities Center and laughed at the idea of signing up for their big sibling program at the beginning of the year. When I ranked housing options, I put Okada after all frosh dorms.

Why?

I think that part of it is that I don't want to be associated with the stereotypes of being Asian. This is, I know, ironic given that I am going into engineering and I love science and math. But I want that to be me, not my race. Also, there is the perception that Asians aren't good leaders, and I know that if I am going to be happy in life I will need to be in a position of high autonomy and authority.

Seventh, I simultaneously buy into and want to criticize a lot of the Silicon Valley tech bro mindset. I want to change the world and technology provides one of the longest levers for that; meritocracy is the way; everything should be improved; I have more important things to worry about than what I wear; Paul Graham is my idol (after Augustus). At the same time, a lot of the "disruptive" business models are just trying to sneak out from under regulatory umbrellas by being new and having a slick app. (Hello, Uber.) Where is the real ambition to make the world better? What is the point?

Eighth, I have a long way to go. I am still ignorant, still naive, still unconfident, still undisciplined, still lazy, still in many ways a child. I don't manage my sleep as well as I could if I exercised my willpower more. I sulk when things don't go my way. I say thoughtless things. Most of the time I feel like a stupid freak.

But I belong here. I am incredibly lucky to go to a school--well, first of all, a school that means my parents arent ashamed of me, but also a school with a glut of opportunities, an embarrassment of riches, and an inbuilt arrogance (as I discussed previously) that I can invoke whenever I feel like I will never be able to accomplish anything with my life.

I am a Stanford student. Great things are expected of me. (Remember: arrogance can be useful.) And yes, I feel stupid and I fail and I get rejected, but that would happen anywhere.

I know exactly who I am and who I want to be (thank you, Marina and the Diamonds). Well, maybe not exactly, not yet. But I know they're not the same and I know some of what I can do to get from the former to the latter.

One quarter almost down. I still need to write some final papers, take a final exam, and then it will be over. A few weeks of break; and then the whole thing starts again. Good luck.