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.

(source)
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

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Enjoy.

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:
(src)

The lion:
(src)
The child makes its own memes.

-

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
(src)

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

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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.'"

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

High School's Shadow

School started today. Not for me--I've still got a month. For the people at the high school from which I graduated in May.

I thought I'd feel all nostalgic over it but instead I just feel disconnected. High school started. It's an abstract; it has nothing to do with me anymore. As a sagacious friend suggested to me, the reason I no longer feel any urge to deny that I graduated is because band camp happened. The awesome kids whom I mentored when they were juniors were now seniors, team captains, and doing a much better job of it than I did last year. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and then a mass of freshmen with whom I do not overlap at all.

They do not need us anymore.

-

When I graduated from middle school, I went forth and did not look back. I thought high school would mean more to me, and I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about it, talking about it, in the months after I graduated. But the urge has passed.

I'm sitting here now, thinking my way through four years, trying to feel something, but so many of the things that caused me despair or joy are no longer relevant to my life. The tests I studied for, the teachers I adored or loathed, the projects that kept me up late. What do they mean, now?

Before and during high school, I had a guilty pleasure, which was high school settings for movies and stories. I liked watching the play of high school stereotypes: the dumb jock, the catty blonde cheerleader, the cool loser nerd, the weirdo loner. I watched Mean Girls a couple of days before starting high school and, as silly as this sounds, I listened to Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" the night before my freshman year. We had an entire unit on high school movies in junior year English, and even though I did not like the class, I almost enjoyed that unit. There was something cathartic about it.

In hindsight, I'm not sure why. I didn't want to live in one of those movies. I didn't want any aspect of them to become more prominent in real life. Still, there was something alluring about that sterile, mythical world where all of one's problems stemmed from interpersonal relationships.

My friend commented that few of the high school movies we've seen even allude to college admissions. (Well, aside from this one, which my APUSH teacher showed to us during AP week in a failed attempt to calm us down.) Few show students struggling with their coursework, unless to make a plot point or to get the main character into a study group with their love interest or rival. I can't draw any strong conclusions, since my sample size of movies I've actually watched is simply too small, but just skimming this list of the 50 greatest high school movies of all time* shows a strong lean toward plots centering on romance or humor.

*Whose idea was it to put the Harry Potter movies on there?

Which makes sense; the day-to-day grind of going to class and taking notes and doing homework is boring. Of course movies don't show that. But it just interests me that in the high school movies I've seen, the social aspect is pretty much the only part that is shown. Not only that, but that the social aspect focuses on the characters' relations to/place within the school at large.

To be concrete: Mean Girls has a focus on the power struggles within the "popular" "clique" (I feel a bit queasy using those words unironically) but the main focus is on how that clique dominates the rest of the school. The premise of Breakfast Club is bringing together individuals from the most diverse groups on campus. Then there's the nerd-shoved-into-locker-by-football-player trope.

High school clearly meant something to the filmmakers, or else they wouldn't have made movies where the setting is so pervasive as to become, almost, a character in itself. Years after graduation, high school left its claws in people.

I don't know why high school has such a tremendous weight on the cultural psyche (or why I decided to cause a dangerously high concentration of pretentiousness in that sentence). Perhaps because the mid- to late-teenage years are among the most vulnerable, emotionally and, for people who engage in risky behaviors, physically. Strong emotions and irrational behavior and poor decision-making are only a few of the things associated with this life stage. Experimentation. Finding out who you are.* These things probably make the high school years take on psychologically significant intensity.

*And yet, most of the characters in high school movies seem infantile and definitely not self-aware. Even the administrators.

I wonder if the reason I've decoupled from high school so early is because my experience was so much different from the one portrayed in the movies. Namely, at my high school, it was really easy to forget about the "popular kids" or whatever. Is it because I went to a school with an open campus/no centralized cafeteria, so we literally saw less of one another?

Class stratification definitely played a part in separating my personal high school experience from a generalized experience of my high school. My underclassman years, everyone had to take the same classes so you'd see more kinds of people. But division into AS or AP v. CP classes winnowed people out by academic motivation (notice I don't say ability; taking an AP class doesn't make you smart, just as taking a CP class doesn't make you dumb), and as upperclassmen teachers got less and less strict about seating requirements, it became easy not to talk to anyone you did not already know.

By the end, my high school did not mean anything for me except as a structure that had gathered together the pieces that did matter: band, friends, a few classes. Hence my lack of identification with high school movies: in the ones I've seen, they're all about looking at and being looked at by other people. And as Diana Vreeland remarked, "Most people are not something one thinks about."

I don't think my insular mode of living was the best way to get through high school. Specializing in band was good. Finding friends was good. Becoming divorced from public opinion and no longer giving a damn about who the "popular kids" were or if they even existed was good. But I don't think it was good that I didn't spend much time at all with people who offended me, who challenged me, who even surprised me much with their view on life.

That insularity--not crippling psychological wounds from being "unpopular," not some ridiculous pride in being an "awkward nerd"--is, I think, the shadow high school has left on me. Thank goodness it is one I will be able to fix.

Friday, August 8, 2014

STEM v. Humanities?

"A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist"
--Vladimir Nabokov

I am not a supremacist.

(This is one of those posts where I stumble around an idea space, trying to get my thoughts clearer on a subject where it is easy to let others' words sway you from your own true conclusions.)

Last week, I had a conversation with my sister about girls in STEM and STEM v. humanities. Last Friday I posted about the first of those topics; this is me grappling with the second.

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As I began the post saying, I am not a supremacist. Some people say that science and technology are destroying the world and that the we'd be better off without any of it. Some others say that poetry is useless and that humanities majors are less than STEM majors.

Because of who I am, I generally have more acquaintance with people who fall into the latter category. And I do plan on pursuing engineering. But I disagree with both viewpoints.

First, let me admit my prejudices. Anyone who disses on science automatically loses face in front of me. Same goes for people who point to Frankenstein to "prove" that science is bad. People who say that technology is lifeless and refuse to listen to arguments to the contrary. People who hate math and won't even acknowledge that yes, there are people who find it beautiful. A special brand of disdain is reserved in my heart for people who refuse to accept the evidence for evolution.

With apologies to my humanities friends, I cannot generate the same amount of vitriol for the other side. Feynman was anti-culture for a while, and I only got over my bad attitude last year. So I understand where people are coming from who think little of the humanities.

But I don't think that way anymore. Idea-meandering below.

Let me offer an evolution-based defense of the humanities: Language is one of the most important human inventions. Without storytelling, without history, without art, human communication within and between generations/time periods would be severely stunted, and we would never have been able to achieve the centralized states and concentration of resources that have led to larger and larger-scale technologies.

Write a poem or a story that makes the reader feel happier and calmer, and you've created something that can ease human suffering long after you die, over and over, without fear of depletion. How's that for scaling?

Stanford people sometimes talk about the techie/fuzzy divide, which I think is ridiculous. What, I ask, is so fuzzy about studying international relations? And what is with the implication that STEM people use no people skills? We're called civil engineers for a reason.*

*Okay, it's not that reason.

I used to put a lot more credence into the divide between STEM and the humanities. But math is a language, physics has a history, essays evolve, and verb conjugations follow functions. The same human urges--to create, to explore, to discover--drive equally the scientist and the historian.

Is there some fundamental difference between STEM and the humanities? One could argue that STEM looks outward || forward--how does the universe work? How can I make these materials do what I want?--while the humanities look inward || backward--how did people in the past relate to one another? How can I make these people think what I think?

Counterexamples: science builds on the past. Writers and artists come up with ceaseless interpretations of the future. Help me think of more.

STEM is easier to do objectively, while the humanities, by virtue of being about humans, have subjectivity built in. This is not a value judgment. An experiment will tell you that the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8 m/s/s, but with our present understanding of the universe we will never know exactly what happened in history on the day (pick something random) Catherine the Great came to power. Memory is fallible. The universe is not.

What does STEM give us? Intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Better understanding of the universe. Ways to alleviate or increase human suffering.

What do the humanities give us? Intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Better understanding of ourselves and others. Ways to alleviate or increase human suffering.

I can see someone looking askance at me putting "emotional fulfillment" under one of the benefits of STEM. The plural of anecdote is not data, but I am only a beginner in STEM and I have found incredible happiness and satisfaction in the solving of a tricky problem.

I should have some profound, pithy way to summarize my thoughts. But that would be premature optimization, and this post is a sketch, a preliminary working-out of ideas. Feel free to argue with any part of it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Functional Adult

Tomorrow, I turn eighteen. Legally, I will be an adult.

It doesn't feel that way. I'll still have over a month to go before starting college, I'll still be on my parents' taxes as a dependent, and I'll still do stupid and childish things. The third of these statements is the one that concerns me.

My brain won't stop developing for another few years, and I still am a teenager, but I want to start the process of becoming a functional adult sooner rather than later. I look at myself and I see someone who could do a lot better. If I look successful, that's only within the context of childhood. A high school student thinks her utility function is to get into a good college--but life doesn't stop there, and so I must fall back upon my unofficial motto: fear complacency.

Really, though, I'm a spoiled and whiny brat and I'd like to fix that.

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A paraphrased conversation with my mother which led to the writing of this post:

Situation: we are having guests for dinner.

EAL: How long do I have to stay after I finish eating?

Mom: You should stay until they leave.

EAL: (whining) Really?

Mom: Yes. You're almost an adult now, so you have to help entertain the guests. When you were a child it was okay to run off as soon as you were done, but you can't do that anymore.

EAL: (sighing) Okay.

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Last month I shared the article Ceremonies as Traffic Lights, which says that rituals and rites of passage--e.g. bar/bat mitzvahs--help adolescents negotiate their identities, marking the transition between childhood and adulthood so that their newfound status becomes common knowledge and there needs be no ambiguity in how people relate to them.

We're not big on rituals in my family, so I think the best course of action for me is to assume that my parents expect me to act like an adult and adjust accordingly. I should note that I'm not doing this for them, though--I'm doing it for me, because it gets old looking at yourself with contempt.

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I recently read the Less Wrong article Tsuyoku Naritai: I Want to Become Stronger, which reminded me of an article I read a while back about Learned Helplessness, and I realized that I've let myself stagnate. Here are the most important quotes.

Tsuyoku Naritai:
"Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws. This is akin to the principle of not taking pride in confessing your ignorance; for if your ignorance is a source of pride to you, you may become loathe to relinquish your ignorance when evidence comes knocking. Likewise with our flaws—we should not gloat over how self-aware we are for confessing them; the occasion for rejoicing is when we have a little less to confess."
(emphasis mine)

Learned Helplessness (I shared this last month, so it may be familiar):
"Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.

Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable.

You are not so smart, but you are smarter than dogs and rats. Don’t give in yet."
(emphasis mine)

What does this have to do with me trying to become a functional adult? The state of being a child is a state of dependency. You need your parents to sign off on everything you do. You need supervision. The first eighteen years of life are devoted to telling you that you are needy and dependent and cannot stand on your own two feet.

You learn helplessness quite easily, then. You're never given the opportunity to put yourself to the test (Italian version: mettersi alla prova, which I like better), to see what you can really do. You may learn to take comfort in your neediness, to integrate your flaws into your identity.

Paul Graham on What You'll Wish You'd Known:
"If you'd asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I'd have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It's that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself."
(emphasis mine)

Dr. Robert W. Firestone on Six Aspects of Being an Adult:

  1. Rationality--deciding based on principles rather than feelings.
  2. Formulating and Implementing Goals--establishing priorities in life and matching words to actions.
  3. Equality in Relationships--balanced give and take instead of placing themselves above/below their loved ones. Relating to others as autonomous individuals.
  4. Active versus Passive--this is an important one so I'll quote the whole paragraph: "Adults are proactive and self-assertive, rather than passive and dependent. They don’t feel victimized by life or complain or dump their problems onto other people; instead, they face their problems or challenges directly and work out solutions rather than depending on others for direction. They seek help only in relation to what they actually need, as in areas where they lack expertise, not in relation to unresolved emotional needs from the past."
  5. Non-defensiveness and Openness--seek self-knowledge and constructive criticism, hold a realistic image of themselves. Cue me sheepishly looking at all of my super-powerful Doppelgangers.
  6. Personal Power--change what you don't like about yourself.


It is always safe to assume that I want to do better, that I am not satisfied with how I'm doing, that I want to improve. But wanting to change and not doing anything about it is still childish. Thus, I will outline the steps I want to take, the actions I want to make, in order to become more of a functional adult.

-

Goal: Learn practical knowledge such as how to use household appliances and tools.
Action: Oppose laziness in myself and help my parents do more chores around the house.

Goal: Learn how to manage one's personal finances.
Action: Ask my dad to explain it all to me, keep on top of my finances (including paying for college tuition) instead of just delegating to my parents.

Goal: Get a damn job.
Action: This is one area that kinda stings for me since the last two summers I tried and didn't get a job, and so I interpreted that as there being something fundamentally wrong with me. I still am struck by fear sometimes, thinking that I'll never be able to get a job no matter how good I look on paper. So I need to work on some people skills (see below) and I'll do my darnedest to get into a research lab, since that's kind of like a job but also relates to academics, which is a more familiar place for me than professional work.

Goal: Learn people skills.
Action: I've thoroughly integrated being an introvert into my identity, so a part of me says, but I don't like people so why should I have to learn how to deal with them? This is stupid. Of course being an introvert has a lot of advantages, but it also has disadvantages and what is disadvantageous must be fixed. "You can't pick and choose." Is that a challenge? More concretely, I space out when someone is saying something that doesn't interest me, and that's rude (even if I think it's justified if my own thoughts are more interesting). The action, then, is to pay attention to conversations and engage in them, trying to find something interesting about what other people think and feel.

Goal: Learn how to relate to superiors.
Action: I am bad enough at this that I have to pull it out of "people skills" in general. I'm good at relating to people below me, good at telling people what to do and giving advice, but as a child you approach superiors as a supplicant and I need to learn how to ask for help/defer to people without sacrificing my self-respect and my sense of autonomy. Because you know me, the need to protect my own dignity might make me seem insubordinate. (I've a horror of the opposite, of falling back into the child mentality and sacrificing dignity, so I don't think that one will happen.) I think this one might be a matter of practice, though. An appropriate action may be: make yourself go to office hours and talk to professors and grad students a lot until you learn through experience how to approach superiors. As a practice run, visit old high school teachers and hold real actual conversations with them.

Goal: Learn how to talk to people.
Action: Another one that requires practice. I think--since, remember, these are steps I have to be able to take as I am, for now--that I can start by asking questions.

Goal: Manage emotions better.
Action: Even justified criticism makes me defensive, so I need to work on that. Someday I'll find a better version but for now I'm going to try staying calm no matter what and force myself to think through any criticism to see if there's something useful there, instead of just rejecting it because my feelings are hurt. This path might also be childish, too, since it's essentially flowing out of a simplistic "I don't like feelings" mindset. But I don't want to be the person who loses her cool over nothing.

Goal: Identify weaknesses.
Action: This will require objective self-observation, and as I am neither objective nor observant it might take a while. I wonder which of my friends I trust enough to ask of them to criticize me or point out when I'm doing something annoying, and have it be a legitimate flaw of mine instead of an opportunity for them to have a power trip.

Let's make a start right now, though:

INTJ Weaknesses:

  • Arrogant. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Some less mature INTJs may overestimate the importance of their knowledge or analytical skills, seeing most other people as irrational or intellectually inferior, often making their opinion known.

I'm about to start going to Stanford; I think I'll get the arrogance beaten out of me rather quickly. But I have to remind myself constantly that I can do better and that other people have strengths of which I cannot dream.


  • Perfectionists. INTJ personalities loathe inefficiency and imperfection, trying very hard to iron out all the flaws and analyze all possibilities. If left unchecked, this trait can easily become a weakness, slowing down their work quite significantly and frustrating people around the INTJ.

My mom is always good (sometimes too good) at calling out my flaws, and she pointed this one out when I was nine. "Sometimes good enough really is good enough." I didn't learn how to bs my work in high school. I hope the work I do in the future is important enough that it would be bad if I bsed it. (Have I said this before?)


  • Likely to over-analyze everything. INTJs tend to believe that everything can be analyzed, even things that are not necessarily rational, e.g., human relationships. They may seek logical explanations and solutions in every situation, refusing to rely on improvisation or their own emotions.

Analysis is usually a strength! That was my first thought. See the defensiveness? I will admit that I'm often too concerned with projecting an image of maturity (this post is about how I want to go about achieving the reality thereof) and usually try to tamp down spontaneity. It might be nice to try going with my gut. Maybe. Only around people who already know me? Or should I be more open at college? (See the over-analysis kicking in?)


  • Judgmental. INTJs reach their conclusions very quickly and stick to them. Even though people with this personality type tend to be open-minded, they have little patience for things they consider illogical, e.g., decisions based on feelings, irrational stubbornness, emotional outbursts, etc. An INTJ is likely to believe that someone who behaves in this way is either very immature or irrational; consequently, they will have little respect for them.

Ouch. Way to tell me exactly what I'm doing wrong. I have this awful habit of imagining that everyone starts out with my approval and if they do enough things that displease me then they "forfeit" that approval. Once someone has forfeited my approval then the weight I attach to their opinion goes down to infinitesimally small. Thus, I overlook opinions from people who in the past annoyed me. This makes sense in moderation but I have to admit that I take it too far. So reserve judgment.


  • May be insensitive. INTJ personalities often pride themselves on being brutally honest and logical. However, while their statements may be rational and completely correct, they may not take into account another person’s emotional state, background, individual circumstances, etc. Consequently, the INTJ’s directness and honesty may easily hurt other people, thus becoming a major weakness in social situations.

I offended a friend about a month ago because I expressed an opinion of mine as if it were an accusation. In case that friend is reading this (there's a chance, however small): Sorry, man. I messed up that one. I still stand behind *what* I said but *how* I said it was wrong.


  • Loathe highly structured environments. INTJ personalities do not respect rules or regulations just because they are there; they need to be confident that those restrictions make sense. Consequently, INTJs strongly dislike environments that are built on blind obedience, traditions, or respect for authority. They are likely to challenge the status quo and clash with people who prefer stability and safety.

Is this really a weakness? Questioning whether or not things make sense, whether or not there are better ways to do things--is this a weakness? I suppose it is a weakness in the sense that too much time spent fighting the establishment means less time to work on getting things done. Learn to compromise: that's something else I'll have to learn if I am to function as an adult.

The fundamental point this investigation has uncovered to me is this: You have the power to solve your own problems. Skip the asking for permission. Ask for advice only if you need it. See a problem, fix it.

I'm not planning to kill the child in me. As Nietzsche said, "you must have chaos within you." In his cycle of transformations, the highest form was the child because the child creates her own values. There is a power to self-centered innocence.

But I think that ultimately I'll get more done if I work on fixing my problems, taking responsibility for myself, and gaining enough competence that I can navigate the world on its own terms before changing it on mine. I need to start thinking of myself as an adult. As a child, there's a brittleness to your core, one that can tip from selfish entitlement to victimization in a moment. Why would I want to stay that way?

I am an adult. I can make my own decisions and stand by them and deal with their consequences. I don't need to run crying to mom and dad whenever I come across something unfamiliar. I'm young and I'll make mistakes but I can deal with them.

I have the power to solve my own problems.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Girls in STEM: Negative Liberty

The other day, I had a lengthy discussion with my sister about girls in STEM and the "divide" between STEM and the humanities. And I thought that I need to spend more time thinking about these things on my own; come to my own conclusions. Today's post mostly deals with the topic of girls in STEM.

Background for new readers: I am a girl. I intend to major in civil engineering and work in that field, with the end goal of founding an engineering firm that partners with philanthropic/microloaning ventures to bring clean water, education, and opportunity to under-resourced communities. If I can swing it, I'd also like to minor in CS.

Now for the opinions. Argue with me.

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I hold a dual position relative to affirmative action goals. On one hand, I am Asian and we're disproportionately abundant in STEM fields. On the other hand, I am a girl and we're disproportionately underrepresented in STEM fields, especially in the upper echelons.

On principle I oppose affirmative action, but I do think that more girls *should* go into STEM. Why do I think this? Because guys aren't fundamentally better than girls at science and math, and shunting out talented women who might want to go into the field hurts everyone. A lot of girls don't even see STEM as an option because they've been taught that "girls can't do math."

Usually then the question becomes, "how can we get more girls into STEM?" But I think, based on my own limited observations and experiences, that a more productive question is "how can we keep fewer girls from leaving STEM?"

Trying to push more girls into STEM strikes me as well-meaning but misguided. It implies that you *should* want to go into STEM. (Notice that this is the second time I've put asterisks around should.) And some girls actually don't want to go into STEM, would not be happy in STEM, should not be pushed into a field that doesn't suit them in the name of affirmative action.

"But I thought you wanted more girls in STEM." Yeah, I do, but the larger reason I want that is because I am a girl and we need more liberty and choice. That's what I want--for girls (and boys) to be able to choose what they want to do with their lives based on their talents and their passions (so long as they do not endanger others).

Pushing girls into STEM, favoring women in STEM, isn't good enough for me. I think I'd be infuriated if I found out that I got something--a job, a promotion--just because I was a woman. Affirmative action is like taking a running who has lead weights tied to their feet and giving them a head start. It doesn't get rid of the real obstacle and now everyone thinks you're cheating.

It's the difference between negative and positive liberty: freedom from versus freedom to. The Ten Amendments versus the Civil Rights Act. Both are important, but negative liberty--the removal of obstructions--comes before empowerment, or else you still have those weights tangling your feet as you try to run. (Negative numbers come before positive numbers, she remarked inconsequentially.)

How do we get rid of those lead weights, then? Social problems go back really, really far. Making the STEM field more accommodating to women won't do much if the broader society keeps girls from even looking.

Painting things pink isn't good enough. The laws of physics were the same for Marie Curie as they were for her husband; why then should a girl play with pink blocks and boy with blue?

Gender shouldn't matter. I am okay with downplaying my feminine side if it'll help me get taken seriously, but that's not a big sacrifice for me since being a girl is "what" not "who" I am. The girls who do identify strongly with their gender shouldn't have to make that sacrifice.

How to keep girls who like STEM from leaving it? The best case scenario is for people to shuck off their cultural conditioning and stop doing a double take whenever a woman succeeds in STEM. That seems unlikely.

Social conditioning matters. Almost all of the people my age I know who want to go into STEM have parents who are in STEM fields. We've grown up able to ask someone with help on our math homework, making it a puzzle rather than a fortress. I didn't start out wanting to go into STEM--I thought I wanted to work in finance all the way until sophomore year--but I gravitated toward it without much angst because it had always been an option.

Anecdote != data, so I don't know how much my conclusions scale, but based on my observations girls will keep STEM in mind if they learn from an early age that math/science/etc. can provide intellectual stimulation and satisfaction, even beauty. If they have the self-confidence to take on advanced classes and demand of themselves that they learn the math instead of letting themselves get left behind in the new material.

This solution generalizes easily, because isn't this how a kid gets into any field? They try it, find out that they're good at it or that it's fun enough to make not being good at it worth the trouble, and keep on being good at it and working hard to learn new things out of pure interest in the subject.

"Doesn't that defeat the purpose of getting more girls into STEM? What if girls really don't want to go into STEM?" BS. The social barriers exist, even if they are becoming more permeable. The Girl Scouts researched it, and girls as a group start losing interest in STEM in middle school.

More girls could go into STEM than do. I will not get to the argument about the relative value of STEM v. the humanities this week (spoiler alert: I'm not a supremacist), but surely it is a loss if a bright girl who could be writing programs or designing machines or setting up experiments has it decided for her that those fields are closed because of her gender.

No one pushed me into STEM. But no one pushed me out, either. The second sentence is more unusual, and that is where I think we'll get the greatest return on investment.