Friday, August 29, 2014

Borges's Libraries

I've been reading the Aleph and Other Stories and working in the library this week. Therefore, Borges.

Two poems by Jorge Luis Borges, both about books, and a link to his short story "The Library of Babel."


June 1968

On a golden evening,
Or in a quietness whose symbol
Might be a golden evening,
A man sets up his books
On the waiting shelves,
Feeling the parchment and leather and cloth
And the satisfaction given by
The anticipation of a habit
And the establishment of order.
Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang,
Will here pick up again, in a magic way,
The leisurely conversation broken off
By oceans and by death,
And Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
To share space close to Virgil.
(To arrange a library is to practice,
In a quiet and modest way,
The art of criticism.)
The man, who is blind,
Knows that he can no longer read
The handsome volumes he handles
And that they will not help him write
The book which in the end might justify him,
But on this evening that is perhaps golden
He smiles at his strange fate
And feels that special happiness
Which comes from things we know and love.


The Keeper of the Books

Here they stand: gardens and temples and the reason for temples;
Exact music and exact words;
The sixty-four hexagrams;
Ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
That the Firmament accords to men;
The conduct of that emperor
Whose perfect rule was reflected in the world, which mirrored him,
So that rivers held their banks
And fields gave up their fruit;
The wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again, marking an era’s close;
The secret and eternal laws;
The harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
That I watch over in my tower.

On small shaggy horses,
The Mongols swept down from the North
Destroying the armies
Ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their desecrations.
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
Slaughtering the wicked and the just,
Slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s door,
Using the women and casting them off.
And on to the South they rode,
Innocent as animals of prey,
Cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
My father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
Calling back days that belonged to others,
Distant days, the days of the past.

In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
Stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
And leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
But it comforts me to think
That what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
To a man whose life is nearly over,
Who looks out from his tower on what once was city
And now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
When I deciphered wisdom
And lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books -
These books which are perhaps the last,
For we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
Or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
At the same time near and far,
Secret and visible, like the stars.
Here they stand - gardens, temples.


The Library of Babel
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable...Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite...

-from the first paragraph



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Nietzsche's Metamorphoses

Way back when in fall of junior year, I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and began writing about it. Then I stopped thinking about philosophy altogether, but a recent conversation called to mind the three metamorphoses of the spirit which Nietzsche describes in TSZ (Part One Chapter One, for those of you following along at home).

I am quoting from the Thomas Common translation, Modern Library edition:
"Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child." (23)

In the first metamorphosis, the camel is a symbol of--so I read it--submission and self-abnegation. The camel is the "load-bearing spirit" that casts away pride and triumph; for the camel, suffering is desirable as a way to "rejoice in [one's] strength." Thus laden with humiliation and hardship does the camel go into the wilderness.

The camel thinks itself noble because it suffers. Its mode of being is resignation, rationalization, acceptance. I think it was this passage that made me become disillusioned with the Stoics, because as much as I admire Marcus Aurelius, all the talk of fate and resignation to it in Meditations could get depressing. Reading Less Wrong (especially this article) pushed me over the edge: yes, it is important to admit when you are wrong, but there is nothing noble about enduring humiliation when you don't absolutely have to.

In the second metamorphosis, the camel becomes the lion. The main characteristic of the lion is not suffering but struggle: "Its last Lord it here [in the wilderness] seeketh; hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon" (24). The Thou-Shalt dragon, that is: the repository of social values and traditions. As my erstwhile philosopher friend Bowtie Man commented to me, "The dragon sounds a lot like my dad."
"To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion."

The third metamorphosis struck me as strange the first (and second, and third) time I read this section: the lion becomes the child. This, I thought, could not be right. Why would one go from a powerful animal, at home in the wilderness, capable of taking on the toughest opponents, to something small and vulnerable and helpless?

I think I was taking the metaphor too literally, because what the child stands for is not vulnerability but rather innocence. "Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea" (25).

Innocence: not being marked by others' expectations or the ravages of disillusionment. Forgetfulness: not paying reference to the past, neither accepting it nor rebelling against it. A self-rolling wheel: self-sufficient, without the need to define oneself in terms of something else. The lion shakes off tradition, fights off the past; the child is needed to create the future. Negative liberty comes before positive liberty. (As I've said in a rather different context.)


I happened upon a quote which lines up quite nicely with these three metamorphoses:

"The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking."
--A. A. Milne

The camel is the third-rate mind, because it is willing to betray its own thoughts and pride to be laden with expectations and others' burdens. The lion is the second-rate mind, because it defines itself as the opposition and needs something against which to fight. The child is the first-rate mind, because it is absolute: it speaks of itself in terms of itself, with a perfect and a pure selfishness.


One last analogy:

The camel:

The lion:

I suspect that I'll be reading Nietzsche for my class on evil next quarter, and thinking about philosophy is often interesting. Perhaps I will post more philosophical explorations as I think of them.


If Nietzsche, then Neue Deutsche Harte:

Ich Will - Rammstein

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Dress

Sleeping Beauty

I wore a dress on Wednesday.

This statement may not seem strange, but let me assure you that it is. I don't wear dresses unless I absolutely must, for events such as prom or graduation. For band concerts girls have the option to wear either slacks or a skirt, and I always picked the slacks. When people who know me see me dressed up even a little bit, they ask me what the occasion is because I don't do pretty.

Then, earlier this week, I had a feminist epiphany. I've always said that I don't wear skirts or dresses because I just don't like them, but I've never bothered investigating why I don't like them.

After some thought, I realized that I avoid dresses and cosmetics and pretty things because I've bought into the cultural message that equates being pretty with being feminine and being feminine with being weak.

Which is wrong.


Deconstruction time.

Pretty == feminine.

Well...sort of. As Goss discusses in the article I linked to above, society codes pretty things as feminine, so that a guy can't wear pink or lavender or--egads!--a dress without having his sexuality called into question (because culturally there's also a one to one heterosexual gender-to-sexuality connection--but I am far from fully educated on this topic and so will say no more). But this is an arbitrary societal decision and I don't see anything fundamentally feminine about pretty things.

Going the other way, feminine == pretty is wrong. Femininity, even the version that the culture imposes upon us, includes more than just being visually appealing and non-threatening. Namely, it includes being actually appealing and non-threatening. Which brings me to the next questionable equation.

Feminine == weak.

Last year, a classmate investigated gender stereotypes for her senior project, and her data showed that when people thought of the epitome of femininity they came up with a figure that resembled Princess Aurora, or Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. The pretty (there's that word again) and passive princess who dances and sings to birds and whose most dynamic action in the story is to fall asleep. The one (I'm thinking of the Disney movie) who lacks the agency to pick her own dress color.

When this is the culture's model of being feminine, of being female (and the two things are different), can you blame me for swearing off skirts?

But the culture is wrong. This is what has happened:

Feminine = weak.*

But feminine is a variable, and we can reassign a different value to it.

*Explanation: two equal signs (==) tests for equality, while one equal sign (=) means that the left-hand variable now takes on the value of the right-hand variable. There's your coding lesson for the day.


For now, pretty things are seen as feminine, and perceptions of prettiness and femininity are both culturally determined. But weakness is more absolute, so it may be more valuable (that is, it will get more done) to decouple the concepts of "feminine" and "weak." By which I mean it will make more of a difference if we can say "feminine does not mean weak" than if we can say "pretty does not mean feminine."

I value strength and independence, and before, it always left a bad taste in my mouth to wear a dress because of course that was "bowing down to the cultural image of being a girl, which means being pretty therefore feminine therefore weak." But what I realized as I looked into my closet on Wednesday was that for a self-respecting girl to avoid dresses as a matter of principle (instead of on the basis of a legit argument, like finding them uncomfortable or honestly not liking the look of them) is a weak action because doing so accepts the cultural message.

If I wear the dress, then I may be perceived as more feminine and thus weaker. But if I let the culture dictate my clothing choices--if I run away from everything pretty because I don't want to be associated with the assumptions people may make about me if I care about how I look--if my identity is so fragile that wearing a dress makes me think less of myself--then I will actually be weak.

Independence starts in the mind. So I wore the dress.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Long Ways to Go

The countdown has begun. I officially have less than a month before school starts.

It has not hit me yet. A lot of my semester friends have already left for or started university, but the person I hang out with the most is also on the quarter system so the absences aren't really noticeable. But it really should be hitting me, because this weekend my family drove down and walked around campus, and then we bought a bunch of dorm stuff. I know which residential hall I'll live in, and I submitted my bike order form, and a family friend presented me with the board game Stanfordopoly.

My ego is going to die once I hit campus, because for the first time in a long time I will be below average. I need to be prepared for that, I keep telling myself, but I enjoy power and superiority so much that I may have difficulty dusting off the part of me that is used to failure.

I haven't done anything really incredible in my life, so I know that I was admitted because of my potential. I really want to live up to it: I can bear the thought of failure as long as it is temporary but if I don't end up successful and wealthy and self-sufficient and independent, then I will be letting a lot of people down. The most important one being myself. I just really want to succeed.

What do I mean by success? I keep on using that word or variations thereof, so I should examine what that means to me.

I have ambitious dreams. My current ideal future:

Major in civil engineering and minor in computer science at Stanford University. Complete a graduate degree (Masters or PhD?) in civil e at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (*cries*). Get some experience in a global firm working on water infrastructure in developing countries. Go rogue and start my own firm, partnering with microloan companies, health groups, education initiatives, and the Gates Foundation to go into the poorest parts of the world where we will work closely with communities to get them the things they need: sewage systems, clean water, roads, bridges, cheap sustainable housing, etc. so that residents can get educated, go to university if they want, start businesses, implement agricultural best practices. In doing so we will promote human rights, political representation, and protection of indigenous cultures.

If needed, I will also work on terraforming Mars for human habitation in case the earth looks like it's going to explode.

While I write and publish my stories and learn whatever languages are most commonly spoken in the countries where I work.

My plans may change; I know that. But I think that, no matter what changes, my definition of success will look something like this: make enough money that I can do what I want free of debt and take care of my parents when they are retired. Attain mastery (and recognition?) in my profession. Create things (what things? Who knows?) of high worth and value, which decrease human suffering. Be able to explore interesting ideas and develop my skills to their utmost. Do important work.

I get discouraged when I look at where I am now and where I want to be. The disappointment in myself is normal and necessary ("if you do not seek perfection you will halt before taking your first steps"--Eliezer Yudkowsky, "The Twelve Virtues of Rationality"), but the discouragement is temporary and damaging.

I need to figure out ways to keep myself in the right sort of mental state: dissatisfied with my current imperfection, but full of energy and will to improve. I think it's going to take fresh air, silence, solitude, light, and meaningful intermediate projects, among other things. A lot is physiological.

In another four weeks, my life will get a lot harder than it has ever been. I need to take care of myself so that I can do well and grow from my experiences, so that I will be able to take on bigger and more important challenges in the future. I need to make sure I'm okay, so that I can also be great.


Angry music is therapeutic. Warning: F bombs detonate in this song.

A Step Back - Evans Blue


The title of this post is false literally and true metaphorically.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Je Responderay: Ways of Doing

Highlights of what I've been reading, with a focus on articles that advocate some form of change in process.

Why You Hate Work:
In sum:
"Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work."
In more detail:
"Renewal: Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become. By contrast, feeling encouraged by one’s supervisor to take breaks increases by nearly 100 percent people’s likelihood to stay with any given company, and also doubles their sense of health and well-being.
Value: Feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has a more significant impact on people’s sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.
Focus: Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged. Similarly, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.
Purpose: Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work."

Notes to leader: invest in your employees.

How we end up marrying the wrong people: this is useful for other relationships also. To avoid this kind of mistake: be aware of your own and others' idiosyncrasies, go for happiness and not just contentment or to settle, temper your emotions with reason and information, plan long-term and in changing circumstances, accept transience of joy

Build Small Skills in the Right Order: cause success spirals in which you get the benefits of instant gratification but also know that your efforts are building toward something larger; start small and move incrementally

How to Learn About Everything: learn immersively and don't panic if you don't understand what's going on
"Studying to learn about everything
To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests — the classroom kind, that is.
  • Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
  • Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
  • Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you — instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
  • Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
  • Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
  • Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about."

Your high IQ will kill your startup: if you're smart then you can coast through the first part of life, but this will hurt you later if you don't develop other important skills such as hard work, resilience, persistence.

"Being intelligent is like having a knife. If you train every day in using the knife, you will be invincible. If you think that just having a knife will make you win any battle you fight, then you will fail. This believe in your own inherent ability is what will kill your startup. Success comes from the work and ability you put in becoming better than the others, and not from some brilliance you feel you may have within you.
So don’t believe that the brilliance of your idea is what will make you successful. What will make you successful is when you are out there every day, doing something new, challenging yourself, trying new methods, studying new ways, having a lot of small failures, then getting better every day."

I think that this phenomenon might be behind the cult of failure that seems to permeate startup circles (at least from what I've seen from the outside). For people who have always had it easy, failure is a net good, because it teaches you your weak spots. Failure is not intrinsically desirable, but its effects of forcing you to do better and think different are important enough that they make the whole ordeal of failure desirable.

This is why I believe I am 100% justified in telling myself that I need to be prepared to be below average for the next four years. I graduated high school successfully--valedictorian, National Merit finalist, etc. But my challenges thus far have not been that hard, and I'm going to school next year with people who make me look stupid. But that's okay because I can prepare myself for the psychological shock (thus taking away some of the cognitive dissonance) and I can work hard.

When you're maximized in one area you tend not to optimize. Be aware of your weaknesses, but also beware your strengths.

The Power of Lonely: choosing to spend time alone is beneficial because when you're alone, you think more independently and creatively. Alone is freeing. As one of my favorite songs says, alone != lonely. Other people can be distractions, taking up valuable mental space, even imposing their own viewpoints on your mind. Resist. Be alone.

Shift...Click…: a simple mental mechanism:
"I don't know if this would work if you have must-do's that aren't done. Maybe not. But if you got the core baseline performance you need, and you're just in silly-maximizer mode and making yourself miserable while getting nothing done, give it a whirl:
'I'm kind of grinding along. I'm not going to run down any production for the rest of the day. I'm going to enjoy myself, pressure off, kill it tomorrow.'"