Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review: 2014

Looks like we made it through another year.


In 2014, I finished high school, had the longest summer ever, and began college. Because of that life jump, from high school to college, I feel a greater sense of disconnect than usual from the me who started the year.

In January my dream college was MIT; Ubermadchen was still set in the Age of Metternich; I didn't have my driver's license; and I was still playing euphonium. But then, by then I had already begun identifying with Augustus Caesar and planning UM and dreaming of the future, so perhaps I have not changed all that much.

I've become more comfortable this year with the idea that I am a self-centered, arrogant, ambitious person. Probably because college has expanded my horizons.

In terms of writing, 2014 was the year of Ubermadchen. I have worked on very little besides this story of how five girls illegally trained in magic go cavorting across Europe following the Torch of Prometheus and creating their futures. Work went amazingly well during the summer and then output crashed once college started, but I plan to build it into my schedule more regularly for 2015.

I have, however, also begun throwing more ideas together for the story Matt and the Thundergods. This one will require a lot of research and a lot of heavy duty worldbuilding. Given the rate at which UM is going, I don't know when I'll be ready to start writing this one, but I think it will be the next project unless I decide to take some time off novel-writing to do short stories after UM.

On the flip side of writing, here is what I enjoyed reading:

Going meta for a bit: I think that the writing on this blog has shifted through this year. Everything comes back to the life change of starting college: most of my posts for the past few months have been more about my personal experiences and thoughts than about writing, though most posts here have always had the preface "self-centered post ahead" (e.g. this one).

Here are what I think are my best posts this year:

Additionally, I wrote a lot of posts that started to talk about an idea and then didn't quite follow through. Some topics on which I will probably "think out loud" here in 2015 are:
  • girls and STEM
  • the interconnectedness of global issues
  • race in the US/the "model minority" stereotype
  • my efforts at becoming a substantial contributor to the universe
  • technology and inequality
  • looking back on high school
  • looking forward to the future

It's the time of year when people make big plans and think about what is to come, and I have in fact been thinking a lot about winter quarter, the rest of freshman year, the summer after freshman year (oh, man, have I been thinking about what I'm going to do this summer), the rest of college, graduate school, my career, and so on. Thinking about the future is what I've been doing for most of today, making a new calendar and logbook and mindmapping the ways in which I want to help myself become who I want to be in the future.

Looking backwards to the year that is ending is useful, however.* It was a pretty good year: writing most of the code for robotics, playing in the district honor band (even if not as principal euphonium), getting into Stanford, deciding to go to Stanford, closing out high school on a strong note as valedictorian, writing a lot over the summer, adjusting to college reasonably well and finding good friends there, confirming that I want to work as a civil engineer and leverage systems to do good in the world.

Looking back also helps identify things to do better: I dropped a lot of good habits and so will make better use of my logbook this year. I've had to face up to my own vast ignorance and am striving to fix that. It is a constant struggle against my natural indolence and incompetence to become someone useful--but I'm going to do it. I'm going to be better in 2015 than I was in 2014.

Here's hoping that next year's version of this post utterly outclasses this one. Meliora!**


*Watch this video:

4 Words That Will Change Your Business This Year - Jeff Walker

**Not my university's motto, but I've co-opted it as my own.


For fun, here's my 2014 playlist:
  • Team - Lorde
  • Sweater Weather - the Neighborhood
  • Thrift Shop - Macklemore (yes, really)
  • Sit Back - Mouse Outfit ft. Truthos Mufasa
  • All of Me - John Legend
  • Let It Die - Starset
  • Silhouettes - Swimming with Dolphins
  • Papaoutai - Stromae
  • Kingdom - the Good Natured
  • All Right Now - LSJUMB
  • Hell - LSJUMB
  • American Trash - InnerPartySystem
  • Lost Stars - Faded Paper Figures
 Happy New Year!

    Friday, December 26, 2014

    Good Hunting

    Haven't done one of these in a while, and I am on vacation now. Here are some collected interesting things.

    Mirrored Reflections art by Cody William Smith. I like this one the best because there's the greatest amount of contrast between the mirror and the surroundings--like a doorway through which you could step into another world.

    I am no nepotist. But dude, my sister can write: A Lesson Overheard on the Pittsburgh/Bay Point Train and her term paper on serpents in Norse mythology. Lieutenant Sarcasm is no slouch either: I Am I And My...

    Getting a Move on in Math, about MIT senior Kirin Sinha's efforts to motivate girls in math through dance.

    “[Dance] teaches you discipline, attention to detail, and creativity,” she says. “It gives you the confidence to stand up there and not apologize for anything you’re doing. And that’s something I thought was missing with girls in mathematics.”

    “I believe the reason people fall out of math is because it takes a long time to realize how beautiful it is,” Sinha says. “It’s when you get into number theory and abstract algebra and group theory — that’s when things get deconstructed at such a fundamental level that people get really excited, that they’re discovering a truth or structure to the universe. And people often lose interest before that level because it’s not taught like that.”

    “Having different perspectives is almost like having different tools,” Sinha says. “It makes you a better problem-solver.”

    In the summer before her sophomore year, Sinha lived in an Italian monastery for six weeks. She slept under a bell tower, waking to its clanging early each morning. Not knowing the language, she spent most days in silence, washing clothes by hand, without electricity or hot water. The spare lifestyle left plenty of room for reflection.

    “Being able to spend meaningful time with yourself is a very difficult thing,” Sinha says. “It very much helped clarify what I wanted to do and why.”

    Louis Janmot's "Poem of the Soul" is pretty awesome. My favorite:
    Le Mauvaus Sentier (The Wrong Path)
    Louis Janmot
    I want to go to Prague. While I am not a huge fan of Art Nouveau, preferring less adornment, I cannot deny the beauty of casting natural forms in artifice. Also, clock tower. Furthermore, I want to write a story about a Golem and about alchemists.

    A short film distilling Crime and Punishment, produced by Piotr Dumala.

    A particularly resonant flax-golden tale: map without treasure.

    20-mile march concept shows up again.

    Interview with Fernando Juarez, a talented and awesome illustrator/book cover artist.

    Exactly the kind of thing I want to be involved in developing: tower that produces drinking water from condensation. Also shares my philosophy.

    Tuesday, December 23, 2014

    Literary Psychological Archetypes

    My sister recently posed an interesting question to me, to which I added a natural corollary. Her question:

    "Which literary figures represent your Id, Ego, and Superego?"

    My Jungian corollary to her Freudian question: "What literary figures represent your Shadow, Animus/a, and Mana Personality?"


    Let me explain.

    Freud's divisions:
    Id is your instinctual, "primitive" side. Think Chaos.

    Ego is the decision making part that moderates between the demands of the Id and the real world.

    Superego is the conscience and perfectionist part of the psyche. Think Order.

    Jung's divisions:

    Shadow I took to mean your negative traits, amplified. I do not fully understand Jungian terms, so whenever I explained this one to someone they said "what, like the Id?" and I said "yes, I think so." But I do not think they are actually equivalent.

    Animus I took to mean your complement. Not necessarily interpreted in a romantic way, just someone who is the sine to your cosine, with whom you work well.

    Mana Personality I took to mean your elevated self. (See also my previous post investigating this from another angle.) Someone who is your good traits magnified, or your aspirational, idealized self. In Pokemon terms, your higher evolutionary state.

    Caveat: I am not a psychologist in any capacity and these definitions are distinctly non rigorous. I read about Jungian archetypes a while ago but asked these questions without referencing my notes. Also, I don't seriously consider these psychological models as accurate in terms of what is actually going on between my ears. But they are interesting ideas to explore.


    Here is what I came up with for me:

    Reyna Avila Ramirez-Arellano, praetor of Camp Jupiter

    Id:Turnus (Aeneid) [the prideful warrior]
    Ego: Reyna (Heroes of Olympus) (pictured above) or Sabriel (Abhorsen Trilogy) [the serious and rational authority figure]
    Superego: Morwen (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) or Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) [the sensible witch]

    Shadow: Turnus again
    Animus: Patroclus (Iliad), Horatio (Hamlet), Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes), Razumikhin (Crime and Punishment), Benvolio (Romeo and Juliet) [the reasonable right-hand man]
    Mana Personality: Kazul (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) [the King of Dragons]

    Just looking at this list, a few things stand out. First, wow, that is a lot of leaders or royals. This is what I mean when I say I am arrogant: not that I think I'm inherently better than everyone, or that I'm always right, but rather, I feel strong personal connections to authority figures and I think I can be like them. That, if you put me in the right situation, I could be an Augustus.

    Second, that there are a lot of the benevolent, reasonable, sensible right-hand man types in literature. I list this type as my complement, as people whose skills and mine intersect in ways that create a more powerful team. But I am aware that I probably appear more like Horatio than Hamlet (and the one I actually identify with is Laertes), more like Patroclus than Achilles. I get compliments on having a calming presence, on being a bulwark. So why, by putting these reasonable fellows as my complement, do I cast myself in the role of the unstable, eccentric anti-hero in need of an anchor?

    I don't, not directly. Reyna and Sabriel are eminently reasonable, down to earth, etc. But by inference from the animus, I get a different result.* I don't have the answer to this one yet; still, I think it can be interesting to ask the questions.

    *One way to reconcile: I am an Augustus in search of an Agrippa.

    Third observation: identifying with Turnus is a little awkward for me because Virgil seemed to indicate, and the Roman audience definitely inferred, that Aeneas == Augustus and Turnus == Antony. Thus I see myself strongly in Turnus, but even more strongly in Augustus. And I get that the times and the propagandic pressures reinforced the image of Augustus as chosen by the heavens to save Rome, but Aeneas won because of fate while Augustus, operating in the real world, was not filling in a predrawn pattern.


    It took me a while to think of my people, and everyone I asked afterward also found it a tough exercise. I might have had an easier time of it because I make mental notes to myself when I run across a character who reminds me of myself. (I am also very self centered, and it amuses and irritates me in equal measure when people try to argue with me on this point. Who can know my interior life better than I can?)

    The trouble, as Lieutenant Sarcasm pointed out, is that we don't write books about ordinary people. Thus, the situations that characters encounter is probably more extreme than what we encounter in our day-to-day lives, and given that much of our identity is wrapped up in what we do (and our memories are, I would argue, the foundation of our senses of self), it can be hard to relate to characters who go through stuff we never will.

    LS stopped me when I said my Ego was Reyna, saying, "Dude, Reyna is way too intense to be you." Which reveals that 1) I think I am more badass than I really am (but this should surprise no one) and 2) these psychological archetypes or models or patterns are necessarily exaggerations. So yes, we can laugh at total nerd Nietzsche writing in fiery language about the Ubermensch, but he did accomplish something by carving new values and slaying some sacred ideas.

    I named the Mana Personality as the aspirational self, but really, all of these are somewhat aspirational. Even the "negative" ones, the Id/Shadow. (Besides, these are not necessarily "bad," but rather, farther along the spectrum toward chaos.) Am I really a violent, honor-mad warrior-prince like Turnus? No. I am not that cool. But he exaggerates and endows with grandeur my traits of being ambitious, prideful, and impatient.

    We tend to modulate ourselves more on the outside. Certainly, my internal world is noisier and more interesting than what I present on the exterior. This exercise, self-aggrandizing though it may be, is a way of externalizing that inside self. We make our lives into stories anyway; why not invite some stories back the other way around?


    Don't Stop - InnerPartySystem

    One of my favorite songs. Thank you LS! (Also, setting yourself up as "the closest thing to God" is pretty much the epitome of writing a grand narrative about your life.)

    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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?


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

    Tuesday, December 2, 2014

    Dead Week Begins

    Therefore, I have very little to offer today. I got a lot less work done during Thanksgiving break than I had hoped, and so I foresee most of my non-class, non-sleep time this week taken up by my final paper for my class on energy options. Decentralized powers are the future!

    Over Thanksgiving break I had a long conversation with my sister about the sense of alienation that arises when coming back home (hometown) from home (college). I haven't felt it to as great a degree because this is after all only my first quarter--I've only just begun here, and so I haven't changed that much yet. But I have changed, and I can feel the university collaborating with me to make me into a different me. I am sure that my friends are feeling the same effects at their respective universities.

    Actually, I'm not sure, and I shouldn't generalize my experience to others. I suppose that is another potential source of alienation: if some people change more than others.

    I need to think about this more, when more time has passed and I can feel that I am someone different from the person I was when I walked into this school. I also need to get back to my work.

    Good luck to anyone facing exams!

    Friday, November 28, 2014

    Giving Thanks

    Classic Thanksgiving post--for what are you grateful?

    First, I am grateful for my family. I am very lucky that my parents value my education and future a lot and offer me their support in everything I do. I am also lucky that they put up with me, surly teenager that I am. And I am grateful for the unconditional adoration of my cat.

    Second, I am grateful for my friends both old and new. Old: It is good to come home to people who knew you when and who have a history with you, who get who you are and have new stories to tell about their own lives. New: I've missed the late-night conversations in the hall, the camaraderie generated by collaboration on a time-sensitive project, the hour-long meals sipping tea at a table in the dining hall.

    Third, I am grateful for the opportunities I have, garnered by both time and space.

    Time: I am grateful that I live now and not in an era where my gender and race would be held against me de jure. Discrimination does exist and I'm sure I'll see it at some point, but society is becoming more liberal. Futhermore, these are exciting and important times and I am lucky to be part of a generation that still can, potentially, save the world.

    Space: America has its flaws, and its governing systems definitely are not perfect--but I live in a prosperous part of the world, where I can get an education and form my own opinions without fearing that I will be murdered for doing so. Aiming a little higher and with more precision, I go to a university that takes care of its students, ensuring that freshmen get plenty of support and guidance in our first year, and where the classes are interesting and everywhere you turn people are embarking on extraordinary endeavors.

    Fourth, I am grateful for the different forces that went into shaping my identity. In no perspective am I perfect, but I can work with what I have. I have control freak tendencies so I don't procrastinate a lot and I don't drink or do drugs; I find a lot of different things interesting so I'm motivated to learn; I don't make a habit of being satisfied with how I'm doing so I seek out ways to improve.

    Fifth, I am grateful for the little things. Different kinds of tea; the warmth of my Stanford sweater; my bike light; my shark-shaped earphones; the way the sky looks in the evening; the fact that I can take a walk around Lagunita in 20 minutes; the way the trombone part goes in the LSJUMB arrangement of "Little Secrets"; the way my cat purrs when she sits in my lap.

    Sixth, I am grateful for infrastructure. Without energy, water, and transportation systems, society cannot function on a very high level. As entities grow larger the need for lines of communication, vectors for resources, grows as well; and since I want to be a civil engineer it should be no surprise that I see this as a good thing.

    Seventh, I am grateful for my health, mental/emotional/physical. Folded into this is my creative practice, although I have been neglecting it as of late, because it gives me an outlet for all sorts of mental energies. Being healthy is something people usually take for granted until it is gone, so I will say thank you for it now.

    Eighth, I am grateful that I have this space on das Interwebz to call my own. Especially given the previous point about neglecting my writing--the obligation of posting twice here keeps me accountable for getting something down. It forces me to reflect on my experiences, and maybe on accident I'll hit upon something useful to someone else. I should probably start doing writing exercises and posting them here--that would be fun and a way to make sure that I'm producing. You know what the advice is--building and creating things is always productive.

    And along with this space comes my readers, for whom I am grateful. Humans need to communicate, and I am glad that someone, out there, is listening.

    Have a good weekend, and good night.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2014

    Ubermadchen Autumn 2014 Progress Report

    Innsbruck, Austria

    This progress report encompasses the writing I have done from the beginning of the school year to Monday night, and refers to the progress I've made in writing the first draft of my novel which bears the working title Ubermadchen. The summer progress report, found here, is a whole lot more impressive in terms of numbers.

    I actually don't have hard numbers here, since a lot of my writing was done longhand, but here's what I do know: 4066 words added to the word document, + 28 handwritten pages, + a lot of planning writing.

    Time elapsed, real: 10 weeks. Time elapsed, story: 18 days.

    What I see, looking at these numbers, is that something about my current system isn't working anymore. This happened when I started high school, too: in the transition, I let my creative work fall by the wayside.

    I'm not going to see the numbers I got during the summer, but there's a whole lot of room for realistic improvement. I need to remember to write a little, more often, in adherence to the 20-mile march principle.

    I think, too, that I'd see my writing output go up if I read more fiction. This may seem paradoxical, since time spent reading is time not spent writing, but consuming stories helps put me in a mindset to produce them. Finishing a book by reading it inspires me to work toward my goal of finishing a book by writing it.

    I don't prefer writing longhand. The writing I did longhand seems, to me, to drag on and on more than my typed writing. Also, there's something that's too personal about it, which makes me reluctant to write really daring stuff because what if someone read it? The impersonality of a screen and 12 pt Times New Roman font separates me just enough from the fantasy that I'm willing to go there. This is probably a character failing. Lately, I've been typing the "main storyline" (the one with Marilla in it) and writing out the secondary strand (to say more would be a spoiler. Also, why do I always end up with multiple POVs?).

    I think I've lost some of the wonder that first pulled me toward this story--the elements of feminism, 18th century trappings, Enlightenment philosophy, and travel writing that make it really cool to work on this project. In a way the story is even informed by steampunk, just one century earlier. A specific period aesthetic + perturbations in the political and social forces at play. I need to bring back the fantasy, the wonder, the coolness factor, because a straight-up historical novel was never my goal and never has been my goal.

    I remember when I was revising The Utopia Project I had similar periods when I just couldn't remember why I wanted to write this story in particular. I need to remember. I need to remember, and keep remembering, why I am lucky enough to work on this story in this world with these characters.


    Last year, I finished writing Orsolya over Thanksgiving break. I also wrote, somewhat hilariously, that I wanted a simpler project, a novella that would "clock in at 150 pages." (The Ubermadchen word doc is at just under 300 pages.)

    This post is embarrassing for me. I finished a whole novel in 2013, and in 2014 here I am having written probably averaging less than 1000 words a week for the past ten weeks. I did expect that I'd have all my time taken up by college work, but I really haven't been trying as hard as I could to keep up with my writing.

    I want to do better. So here are some things that I mandate:
    • Skip boring scenes
    • Remember what you learned during the summer and plan sequences out before jumping in
    • Use the odds and ends of time that you find throughout the day to write instead of checking your email for the 12837182th time. Five minutes == a solid paragraph
    • Bring back the logbook. I stopped using the log sheets that I started using in...sophomore year, I think? I think I should bring it back, because seeing the squares with Xs in them definitely helps in keeping me accountable

    So there you have it. This season has not been a productive one for writing, but I promise that I will do better. The Ubermadchen and their story are worth my time and my creative energies, and I want to bring their journey to the page.


    I've been listening to this song a lot, and I think it suits the girls well:

    Kingdom - the Good Natured

    Friday, November 21, 2014

    Arrogance v. Confidence

    Status update: Here we are, at the end of week nine of the quarter, with Big Game tomorrow and Thanksgiving break right after that.

    I don't know what to write about because it has been a busy week--probably the busiest this quarter. Mostly a good week: some mistakes and embarrassments, but I got to talk to a really awesome CEE professor and attend my third talk about the high speed rail, and I'm feeling my way to a revised vision of what I want to do in my future. Still infrastructure, naturally, but I'm interested in all of the big three--energy, water, and transportation--rather than just water.

    The review of my writing as of late is more disappointing. This time last year, I was finishing up Orsolya; my work on Ubermadchen hasn't stopped, but it is inching forward, with only a few paragraphs every week. I hope I can work on it a lot more during break, around my final projects.

    I'm also moderately intrigued by a comment a lovely anon left on the last post, which suggested that my definition of arrogance could be more positively and accurately expressed by the term "confidence." I don't have anything else relevant to relate at the moment, so I'll take the opportunity to address that comment.

    Short version: I think my definition of arrogance stands and that confidence is something else.

    Long version:

    Confidence, to me, is knowing you are capable of doing what you want and going for it. It is self-assurance + the chops to back it up. Think of stats--a confidence interval tells you how sure you are.

    My definition of arrogance, on the other hand, is all that self-assurance and gumption and go-for-it-ness, but in absence of evidence. On my good days I fantasize about saving the world (through infrastructure, obviously). This is arrogant because I am an undergrad with no practical experience, whose application to Engineers for a Sustainable World got rejected, not even capable of making the time to work on a novel for which I feel strongly. I have never done anything remotely like my dreams in scale.

    But I dream anyway, because I'm not sure I can do it but I think I can. "What do you have to back this up?" someone could ask of me, and I would not have an answer besides "Me."

    For me, arrogance doesn't have the negative association that it has to more reasonable people. I go to a school that values arrogance, to some extent. I think one of its goals is to turn that arrogance into confidence by giving us chances to test ourselves and grow our skills in a safe environment.

    Every year, during Big Game Week, the Ram's Head Theatrical Society puts on a show called Gaieties. This year, the performance posed some questions at different points of the show: What makes you special? What defines you? How are the two different?

    I can't answer the first question yet, and the answer to the second one I share with a whole lot of other students: the fact that I am never satisfied with myself and yet believe that I am invincible and will be able to do whatever the hell I want. Arrogance, for me, is both gutsier and more brittle than confidence, and as I said on Tuesday, falls more in the Octavian stage.

    Tonight I need to go to bed early (0445 call time for tomorrow, hurrah) so I'll leave you with this scene from Che Ne Sara' di Noi:

    At 00:12, Paolo (the "nice guy" of the three male leads) wishes on a star--"Voglio commandare la mia vita. Voglio avere coraggio. Ecco e' il mio desiderio--il corragio. E vaffanculo." (Per gli italiani nell'audienza, per favore scusare la parolacchia). The last bit is the most important: he wishes for courage, and f you.

    Which expresses my point quite nicely, because I think with arrogance, you take an adversarial stance to anything in your way. You are fighting. Congratulations; so am I.

    Good luck.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014

    Needing Power

    I am not yet optimized. In fact, I don't know if I am doing any better than I was in high school. As the quarter draws closer to the end, the amount of work increases and I find myself stumbling, staying up late, getting tired and stressed and irresponsible.

    If you've been around this blog for a while, you know that my freshman year of high school did not go well. I thought I was doing all right, since I had people to sit with at lunch and I got high grades, but really I was constantly unhappy and abandoned my writing and wanted to disappear into the walls half the time. I wanted people to give me a break, to excuse me for being a freshman whenever I made a mistake.

    This is starting to sound uncomfortably familiar. Right now, in my freshman year of college, I have inexplicable bouts of timidity and passiveness, do not write much, and get defensive whenever I do something wrong. "I'm just a freshman" is an excuse that will often be accepted, because people expect freshmen to be confused and incompetent.

    Bull. I don't know what happened to me but it has to stop. The overweening arrogance I had at the beginning of quarter is better than this. Yes, I am a freshman, but have I not asserted, over and over, that I am an adult now, that I had better well learn to be my own advocate and do things on my own? "I'm just a freshman" is an excuse and I know I'm better than that.

    The problem is one of learned helplessness. Right now, I live at school and at school I am a freshman, a new kid, not yet integrated into the system. Stanford provides a lot of support to freshmen and that's great but I also worry that I'm internalizing the message that I need help and guidance and coddling, and that is a message I do not want to internalize.

    Structurally, I am in a role of less power, and the only way to fix that is to let time happen. But I am impatient and I do not want to go through Freshman Year pt. 2. Yes, I am a first-year undergrad, but I don't have to be a "freshman." There's a reason I'm at this school and it is not to sit dumb, feel like an idiotic freak, not ask questions, and feel sorry for myself. I'm better than this.

    I wonder if anger is a necessary ingredient in anything I do. The years when I've had something to prove have been my best years. Sophomore year, digging myself out of the pit of incompetence in band; junior year proving that I could succeed in AP Physics without having taken the prerequisite. Eighth grade, proving that I don't need to define myself in terms of my sister (if she's reading this: it's not your fault for being you, I just had a bad case of Ron Weasley syndrome).

    But maybe it's not the anger--maybe it's the goal, the pursuit of something. For a long time college has been a destination, and now that I'm here I've diverted a lot of my energy into exploring my options. There's a lot to explore, and people have said, "Stay open to new experiences." Yet I know myself and I know that too much chaos only breeds ennui, and it's time to refocus, to take a deep breath and set out some goals.

    What do I want?

    Power. That's the post title, after all. But what do I mean by it? I mean I want to be able to leverage the resources I have--knowledge, contacts, influence, etc--to improve my life and the lives of others. I want to have the ability to improve the world, whether my own or the one at large. I miss being a respected senior.

    What do I want? Auctoritas. Augustus got the lost standards back from Parthia mostly through force of his authority. He could speak and have his will be done.

    The more I research Augustus, the more I am in awe at how one person could leave such a deep impact on the world. I strongly identify with him, and consider myself in the Octavian phase--the ambitious youth with plenty of opportunity and a whole lot to live up to. I need to remember that.

    What is power anyway? What is authority? It is more than just getting what you want. It is being able to make things happen through your own will; it is controlling the means by which your will is satisfied; it is speaking and being heard and noted. It is being respected and valued and having your word count for something.

    If you want something, you can make it happen. "Make it happen." That was the refrain of robotics build season last year. When the code was breaking and the error messages bewildered us and nothing seemed to work--"make it happen." At a meeting for an organization this weekend, the club president kept on saying, "We're not quite sure how this is going to go, but we're smart, we can figure it out." Same kind of thing. "Make it happen."

    Arrogance is useful. The conviction that you are capable and competent and resourceful and important--that's useful. I am often paranoid and check and double check and overprepare, and that paranoia and thoroughness is also useful.

    (If I sound like the Tiger Mom Amy Chua, I offer my apologies.)

    I suppose the synthesis of the two is: I can do whatever I want if I go after it in the right way. And I am capable of finding and going through with that way.

    So what do I want more tangibly?

    I want to become an informed, functional citizen. I want to develop the habit of acquiring and thinking about and grokking knowledge in a wide array of fields--current events, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, but especially various kinds of science (environmental, biological, health-related) (these are also incidentally the kinds of science I don't want to study for my career)--so that I can tell when I'm being lied to and not be taken in by specious claims.

    I want to become deeply knowledgeable in the fields that most interest me: infrastructure, international development, and energy. To that end, I need to pick classes that will feed into these interests. CEE covers some but I can see myself taking a lot of urban studies and electrical engineering classes in order to build the knowledge base I want. This also means that I should seriously start looking into internships and research opportunities for the summer.

    I want to remember, always, who I am and what I am capable of doing. This is less tangible than the above points, and I think I have identified my values and am upholding them. (Except for the one I've been discussing in this post, which is: thou shalt always use thy power to best effect.)

    I want to get and give a lot from/to my coursework. This is what that tuition is paying for, after all--my education. I want to gain the tools and skills that will aid me in my rise to power, and I want to expand my mind and think about the world in new and interesting ways. I want to look at the world from a stance of greater power, greater knowledge, greater subtlety. I want to see patterns that previously I could not.

    I want to approach the people and situations around me differently from how I have been approaching them. As I mentioned, I've been on the defensive and that doesn't make sense. I have been told to "loosen up a little, it's college" and there might be something to that advice. Yes, I'm naturally reserved, but no one is out to get me and it can't hurt to start a conversation with someone I don't know. Crippling social anxiety gets old fast.

    I want to be useful. The thing about being a freshman is that no one really needs you--they were doing fine before you came along, after all--but it's getting toward the end of the quarter and I should be more reliable and dependable by now. There are some people to whom you can give a job and feel assured that they'll do it well. I was one of those people in the context of high school, and I want to keep on being that person. I want to be the person who does the job right, who doesn't need any micromanaging or coddling or excuses. I want to be the person who earns and maintains and skillfully deploys power.


    Remember the Name - Fort Minor

    Because there's not enough self-absorption and arrogance in this post yet. Also I like this song.

    Friday, November 14, 2014

    Machinal Play

    We are at week eight of the quarter. It has been an unusually exhausting week, and with football tomorrow and Big Game week after that I do not foresee much rest until Thanksgiving break starts.

    But I did get to take a break yesterday and watch a play called Machinal. I'd like to explore some of the thoughts I had around it.


    Machinal is about a young ingenue who murders her husband out of a sense of feeling trapped and controlled by society's and other people's expectations for her. The poster is very cool looking:

    I have to admit that I started crying at two points in the play (to say more would be a spoiler), and that the tears weren't motivated by a sense of sadness so much as a sense of empathy for the emotional turmoil displayed on stage. Generally when I'm watching a play, my mind is too busy assessing the story and figuring out what elements of it I want to try in my own work for emotions to arise; the tears are a response to emotion, not from emotion.

    What, then, were the story-based thoughts that came up? First, some thematic considerations: the theme of powerlessness and lack of control over one's own life choices is highly empathizeable. Even though I didn't identify with the main character's situation, I thought I could understand why one would prefer murder to a life of submission. "I had to get free, didn't I?"

    When I was younger, I really wanted to be wealthy. My mental picture of a successful me in the future was a me with billions or even trillions of dollars stashed away. I think what motivated that wasn't so much the desire to have money but the desire to have security and power and choice. I would not marry for money, the way the main character did, because I am luckier than her and I live in a society where as a woman I will be able to find work that pays well enough to support me. I won't have to make the choice that she did. But like her I see liberty through financial security.

    Enough on theme: what draws me to stories are the characters, and I want to take a look at some of the people in the story.

    The main character represented a type that doesn't resonate with me: the manic pixie dream girl ingenue who just wants to find true love. It's easy to find sympathy for her, and as I mentioned it is easy to empathize with her struggle, but she is so far from me that I can't see through her eyes.

    Why marry someone you cannot abide, when the option remains to find other work? Why kill rather than divorce him? The response she gave in the play was "I couldn't hurt him like that!" Poignant, yes, and deeply revealing of the character's psychology (i.e. feelings are paramount), but a character built on that premise is just not enough like me for me to care about her. Someone kinder might find more empathy for her.

    What about the other characters, who were all oblivious to her plight? Who hated or resented or romanticized her idealism? Guiltily enough, I realized that I saw where they were coming from with their attitude of "just get over it. Stop complaining. Why can't you handle it?" But that's the exact wrong thing to say to someone who is suffering, isn't it?


    We often resent people, even people we love, when they aren't everything that we want them to be for us. When they don't provide enough attention, or emotional support, or something along those lines. I know I've had moments when I wanted to make someone acknowledge me. But I'm sure, too, that there have been times when a friend needed me to sit down and listen and understand them, and I didn't deliver.

    Watching the play Machinal made me grateful for a lot of things: that I live in the 21st century, that I naturally incline toward a major that will let me get a job with which I can support myself, that I have good friends, and that I have opportunities to make my own choices freely and whole-heartedly.

    It also made me grateful, in a twisted sort of way, for my own insensitivity. Sometimes I do feel as though I feel strongly, but I can generally suppress outward shows of emotion, which probably means that the feelings aren't actually intense. People tend to see me as calm, and laugh with a slight hint of "wait, are you being serious" when I tell the joke "I had a feeling once; it died of loneliness."

    But not everyone has the emotional range of a teaspoon (to paraphrase Hermione Granger), and even I need to manage my emotions (see Tuesday's post). What struck me as the most tragic part of Machinal was the fact that no one ever really asked the main character what she wanted, or if they did, they did not respect her choice. In such a situation, would the actions I explored on Tuesday have helped? If the main character had had a creative outlet or someone to talk to, would she have made it? The latter, I think, would have had more effect than the former. But in a situation fundamentally damaging--total submission to someone she found repulsive--would anything have helped but to change the situation?

    Probably not. At least, I think not, because sometimes you can deal, and sometimes, having to deal is just a cruel reminder of your own lack of power. If the machine is killing you slowly, why not strike back?


    Music for today:

    I am not a Robot - Marina and the Diamonds


    Disclaimer: I like machines and someday, I believe robots will have the full capacities of a human--including emotions.