Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Conversation Constellation

I had a lot of good conversations with various people on my hall the past few days, and I'd like to record some of the thoughts flying around.


Would you step into the Star Trek Transporter?

If you are dematerialized and reassembled with 100% accuracy, did you die/is the person who walks out of the Transporter a clone, or are you defined only by the pattern of your constituent particles at an arbitrary level of organization (i.e. the person who walks out is really you)? I take the latter view, because I cannot in good scientific conscience believe in a soul.

Based on a small sample size, we determined that people with religious upbringings always took the first view (consistent with the belief that there is something extra that endows people with identity), and people who profess not to believe in souls sometimes also thought that stepping into the Transporter means death.

What defines your identity, your you-ness? The physical atoms and molecules that make you up, and the patterns they form? Or is there some sort of special sauce that turns you into a human?


What are the potentials and pitfalls of increasingly intelligent robots (non biological intelligence)?

Watch this video first:

Humans Need Not Apply -- CGP Grey

What incentive do robots have to serve humans? Should we build that into their software or would that be enslavement? Are there any jobs which only a human can do (for the record, if we assume arbitrarily sophisticated robots, I don't think so)? Does this mean that we should stop development of AI?

Sadly, I have a class that conflicts with the lecture series CS122: Artifical Intelligence -- Philosophy, Ethics, and Impact. But some of my coconversants are in the class and they will be happy to share, as long as I don't ask right before an essay is due.


Is grammar valid?

The purpose of language is to communicate thoughts with as high a level of fidelity as possible between one mind and another. Why, then, is it incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition if the meaning is still clear? Because it sounds wrong? But then, admitting that language correctness is democratic opens the door to mass-approved changes to grammar rules.

Is language a democracy or a republic?

Some rules are historical, leftovers from Latin. In many languages, infinitives are one word and so you literally cannot split them. In English they are two words; why should we treat them as one unit?

The world is not a state function. History leaves its traces everywhere, and some stains should be wiped away.


And some shouldn't.

"Caesar was such an egotist!"

"Watch yourself, Augustus is my homeboy."

"He named a month after himself! How much more self-aggrandizing can you get?"

"The 2000th anniversary of his death was last month and people still remember what he did and feel the results of his actions. He deserves a month."


What is wrong with startup culture?

Read this first: The Unexotic Underclass.

A lot of startups address trivial problems of the urban, affluent set to which many founders belong. A lot of aid to developing countries is paternalistic and steamrollers over a community's true needs and desires.

People in Silicon Valley buy into the whole "change the world and get blazing rich while doing it" mindset. Honestly, I do too. But it's not always about you, and we need more understanding--empathy without condescension.


Are you afflicted with FOMO?

Bees in a hive periodically touch just to check in, to make sure everything is the same. When we lurk or like on social networks such as Facebook, we are doing the same thing.

FOMO = fear of missing out. By stalking someone's wall or feed, even if we don't interact with them in any meaningful way, we reassure ourselves that we are still up to date/relevant, still participating in people's lives. Humans have a psychological need for socialization.

See also: Can we break free from the fear of missing out?

I admit that sometimes I go on Facebook and just skate through people's profiles to make sure I'm not missing anything (important). This despite my interesting IRL conversations.

I wonder if a robot would have this problem.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Time Dilation

I can no longer count the number of days I have been at Stanford on my fingers. This is surprising, because it feels as though I have been here forever.

This is only my first week of classes, and everything is new and hectic and not yet figured out. But because the sheer density of events is high, it feels as though the past eleven days could instead be measured in weeks. The Stanford bubble is temporal as well as physical, it seems.

In these busy first days, I'm always running about from one thing to the next (or rather, biking). It's hard to remember to take the time to sit down and think about things, to reflect. I wrote in Ubermadchen on Tuesday, but the thread of story is thin in the stream of classes and assignments and worries and activities, and I don't even notice when I haven't written for days. Which is a pity: the girls deserve better than that.

The saying goes that time flies when you're having fun. I propose a corollary, that time slows down when you're hit with new thing after new thing. Maybe--and I am no neuroscientist, so this may be completely wrong--our perception of time is based mostly on how much processing power we're using, so that three minutes trying to get to the next dining hall over without getting run over by the cars whooshing by feels like it takes ten times as long as three minutes strolling casually back from a performance.

I worry sometimes that I'm losing myself in this constant flood of stuff to do. As I complained about in the last post, I have no authority, no gravitas as a freshman. And as arrogant as this makes me, I think that by temperament I am better suited to positions of power. I do better, mentally, when I have choice than when I'm dependent.

So I am at least partially displeased by the way I have to go with the flow: have to do this and this and this, rather than enjoy hours in which to write. But I would trade almost nothing for this--for my classes, even when they make me feel inadequate; for the new people I'm meeting, as my mind expands in ways I can't yet tell; for this campus I am beginning to learn, in which I could still (and do, and will) get lost.

The ambivalence remains. I'm becoming someone else, by being here and doing what I'm doing. The process is slow, and day by day I can't really tell in what ways I'm changing. Two weeks may feel like a season, but it really is only two weeks. I am not through with my metamorphosis. (I don't think I ever will be, but that may be a cognitive bias of mine.)

We'll see how things stand at the end of the quarter. Or rather, "we" won't, because who knows who we will be by then?


I'll stop writing posts about my transition to college when it stops being the most important and prominent thing in my life.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Starting Weak

Warning: whiny personal post ahead.

Thus far, college is ambivalent.

I want to be clear: I am lucky and grateful to be at my university, and I do not wish for an instant that I was somewhere else. Because the problems I've encountered are mostly problems within myself, and those I would carry to whichever university I attended.
What are those problems and why am I ambivalent?

The good news is simple, so let's get that out of the way first. I really like all of my quadmates. They are sensible and funny and open minded and I am glad to live with them. Classes are interesting and I've heard good things about my professors, which is pleasantly surprising for someone coming out of the public high school system. Particularly the "classes are interesting" part.

The bad news is not really new. I'm facing the same problems I faced when starting high school. A part of me is angry and resentful about this: I know I've grown since freshman year of high school; shouldn't I be beyond this stuff already? This insecurity and awkwardness?

Maybe this is universal, or maybe I just have difficulty with change. Whichever it is, I think I'll have an easier time going forward if I can accept that I'm having a tough time with some things and figure out how to deal, instead of protesting that I shouldn't be this way.

The problems I have are social. I don't make good impressions and I didn't pay a lot of attention to social norms when I was younger, as a part of the sour grapes reactionary defense mechanism which many people who might have been called "nerd" at some point may recognize. "I may be weird but at least I'm smarter."

That doesn't fly in college. I know I can't be arrogant and I know I'm no longer one of the smart kids. I'm average here. And without that little piece of smug superiority locked up in my brain I feel exposed and inadequate, which is unpleasant.

Yesterday, I filled out a survey for the bonz sexion (trombone section) of the marching band. When I got to the question "pirate or hobo?" (one of the less strange questions I was asked), I immediately picked pirate. I would rather be murderous and notorious than nigh-powerless. I would rather be strong than vulnerable, and wow, it hurts a lot more than I would have expected it to, being back at the bottom of the heap.

Honestly, at times I feel like a freak. That's my melodrama speaking, of course, and it's never really emotional: rather, it's a gray bleakness that seeps into me when I've made another gaffe or made another mistake. "Hm, that went poorly. Normal people wouldn't say that or do that. I feel like a freak." (Note: I think I feel, more than I actually feel.) It's a little jab at my self-confidence, not a crushing blow to my self-esteem.

I know I'm not the only person who occasionally thinks that everyone else except for me got a handbook on how to be a normal, socially competent human being. I've come across passages in books stating the same thing and read enough internet memes fetishizing awkwardness to know that I'm not alone. But it is a rather lonely feeling, and I need to remember that even though it never went away completely in high school, it did lessen as time passed and I got to know people organically, through classes and hanging out, in situations more realistic than the social pressure cooker of orientation.

I should state again, this isn't a problem specific to my school. In fact, I would like to put in a plug for Stanford's awesome advising resources. The faculty advisors assigned to students are great, of course, but really the people I appreciate the most are the residential hall student staff. The RAs are amazing. They are the kind of student mentor that I was always looking for, and on a few occasions almost finding, in high school; they are the kind of student mentor that I hope to become. I can't get over how much they really care about us, how willing they are to help. What did I ever do to deserve that?

I miss being in a mentoring position. I miss being in a position to help, rather than to be helped. I would not give up any of my years here, but I want to be an upperclassman again. I want to skip past the rough beginning. I want to get to the good part.

But time, so far as we know, cannot be hurried by wishing. I don't want to rationalize it, saying that the experience of making mistakes and embarrassing myself and causing inadvertent offense is inherently valuable. Sure, I may learn lessons from it, but the experience itself I could do without, if I could get the lessons some other way.

Here is what I think I could say I am "meant" to learn from my weak start (if I believed in destiny, which I do not; we make meaning, meaning is not implicit in life): be patient with yourself, be patient with others, speak up, speak out, listen closely, be kind. The last one I think I can do fairly well; as for the others, I'll have to work on them.

Everything is not bad. I might stumble a lot now but I will eventually find my footing. There's always some fumbling, some mishap when I get back on my bike after class, but once I get moving I'm okay. With time, maybe I'll even learn to cut down that waffling adjustment period; maybe I'll learn to start strong.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Kites in the Wind

Yesterday, I flew a stunt kite, by which I mean I repeatedly crashed a stunt kite into the ground while my patient and wonderful roommate counseled me: "Don't step back. Use less force. Stay steady and don't try to control things too much."

And, after a thoughtful moment, "This is a really convenient metaphor for college, isn't it?"


On Tuesday I moved into Stanford. For privacy's sake I won't say which dorm or describe the people with whom I am living, save that both are awesome.

I thought that I'd be overwhelmed with excitement the way I was at Admit Weekend, or else horrendously homesick, but instead I feel calm about the whole thing. Maybe this is a delayed reaction, and the first week of classes I'll have a nervous breakdown over how much I want to see my cat. Or maybe I'm just incapable of strong feelings one way or another.

Oh, I am happy to be here, and I have missed some individuals, but I think I could get used to Stanford quickly, if I haven't already. It's not home yet, and I still get flashes of impostor syndrome, but I can make my place here. Just give me time.


This whole summer I've longed for my independence, and now that I'm here, I have in fact noticed some changes to my behavior or attitudes.

First, I worry a lot. I like to have things planned out, and I like to know what I am doing now and next. While I can take ambiguity of ideas, an ambiguous schedule is distressing.

"Don't hold the strings too tightly. Small motions are enough."

Thus, my daily journaling has become more important than ever. I find that I need a certain amount of time each day to sit down and write out events of the day, going over what happened and what needs to or will happen next. Calendars, schedules, to-do lists: I need them all kept up to date in order to feel comfortable going to sleep.

I haven't worked on Ubermadchen since Monday, and that's a bit worrying given how much momentum matters when writing a story, but this part is so relevant to me that I don't think I'll be able to stop myself writing it. Hopefully I will be able to carve out some time this weekend.

Second, I'm more okay asking for help--just not from my parents. If I ask my parents for help then I'm regressing to a child's role, but if I ask the campus bike store employee to lower my bike seat so I don't endanger others then I'm simply compensating for my lack of expertise. There is no shame in asking for help as long as it's just help, and you're not asking for someone else to solve your problems.

"Don't worry about me. Don't worry about the kite, either. Don't worry in general."

Third, I am still not social. Yeah, you hear advice to meet everyone and make tons and tons of friends in the first few days, never to walk alone, never to close your door. And I do participate in the flurry of introductions, I do turn to people and ask "Have we met?"

But I know a little of how I operate in the social world and I know that I 1) don't make the best first impressions 2) become friends with people gradually. So yes, I'm meeting people, but aside from my cohabitants (whom I have immediately decided I like) I am reserving judgment because I would like people to reserve judgment on me.

Everyone is cheerful and nice when exchanging name/hometown/dorm/prospective major info over the lunch table, but I'm going to have to see who people are when they're talking about more substantial things.

Also, there's the small matter of my sanity. I am an introvert. I'm probably a bit defensive about this part of my identity since it's the part that the most people have tried the most enthusiastically to dismantle (hello, parents), but I need alone time. I need space to think my thoughts instead of worrying about keeping my conversation partner interested. If I don't get this time then I will be miserable.

(In fact I am a bit sick, and this might be from being around so many people. It's just draining even if you're enjoying yourself.)

This, then, is how I am with independence: calm but worried, desirous of control but willing to admit when I need someone else's skills, solitary but willing to give people a chance. Including, perhaps, myself.


It is humbling to be here. It will feel more humbling once classes start. But neither the admissions office nor I made a mistake. I'm here. That's all.

"Just let the wind do its work."

Die Luft der Freiheit weht. Go Cardinal.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Game: Who Are You?

Varangians (Byzantine name for Vikings)
Let's play a game.


Today I am starting college. Okay, technically I'm starting orientation, but from now on I will live/learn/work on campus, so for all intents and purposes, I'm starting. Existential queries dwell on the threshold.

I've been thinking about how I'm going to change in college: I have vast and happy fantasies about how awesome I'm going to become once I start exercising my independence. But I've also been thinking about how I'm going to stay the same. What parts of me are so essential that to change them mean changing who I am, instead of what I am?

Today's game is based a little bit on my concept of the Doppelganger (which is different from the actual concept): a character you write with whom you identify but who is not a self-insert. They aren't identical to you, but they share key elements by which others (may) recognize you.

We will create Doppelgangers who share our core values while lacking most outer similarities. Shall we begin?


The first step is to figure out, as a first pass approximation, what your core values are. Sometimes we do things for concrete reasons, and sometimes we (refuse to) do things "on principle." What are those principles? What do you value?

Questions of "would you rather" or "would you ever" can often help with these, as well as silly/non-silly personality tests and questionnaires. The most informative source is, of course, personal experience: in real-life situations/challenges, how did you react and what does that say about you? What decisions have you made that surprised people? That could show a values dissonance. Sometimes the easiest way to see who you are is to see what you're not. Pay attention to when you use the word "should," because that's slapping a value judgment on something.

Sit down somewhere quiet or go for a walk and think about yourself. I will not presume that my method of introspection will work for you (though I will assert that it's probably easier if you do this alone at first, even if you ask a friend later to describe you to yourself). Just do what works.

[insert introspection here]

All right, do you have a clearer idea of yourself? Good.

Some of my values: everything always can and usually should be improved; self control is a good in its own right; knowledge is useless until used; everything is integrated; independence and choice for all; you owe the world your best; respect must be earned through actions/deeds; people talk too much; strength and power are desirable while weakness should be fixed (see: everything can be improved).

This is probably an incomplete list, and since I am a human and therefore want to think well of myself, I've probably got gaping blind spots for the aspects of my identity that are less admirable than my belief that independence and progress are good. But it's enough to start.


Second step: this is the character creation part. List basic attributes about yourself, and then change them.

For example: I am a female Asian human. Changing that makes me a male non-Asian...er...humanoid. Race and species aren't matters of opposites (and, strictly speaking, neither is gender) so let's pick arbitrarily and say...North African...svartalfar (dark-elf/dwarf).

North African because I've been thinking about Carthage, and svartalfar because when I picked randomly from this list of mythic humanoids, I got poltergeist first but poltergeist just isn't *me*--a spirit whose existence revolves around making other people's lives difficult? No. Dark-elf still isn't quite me, but I can work with it.

"The race and the species don't match!" Are you sure? Vikings traded with Byzantium, and Byzantium (or Constantinople--it wasn't Istanbul at that point) traded with North Africa. I apologize if any aspect of this exercise seems culturally appropriative. I'm just bored of having default European characters.

Back to the game: this Carthaginian dark-elf needs a name. Hey, look: Punic names. I like the sound of Admago.

Now we have Admago the dark-elf, an idealistic thinker who values independence, power, and social responsibility. Let's continue by writing down parts of our Doppelgangers' background.

Admago's father is a Carthaginian shopkeeper living in Byzantium, while his mother is a dark-elf who liked the climate of Byzantium better than that of her native Sweden. Dark-elves are similar to dwarves, so I'm saying that Admago's mother is a metalsmith.

All of my Doppelgangers (except Sarita) can use magic, which makes me wonder if I should have Admago *not* be a magician. Okay. This is difficult, which means it must be a step in the right direction. Admago can't do magic, despite being half-dark-elf. (He does, however, have remarkably good night-vision and patience.) He is therefore expected to take over his father's shop once he is older.

But Admago doesn't want to do that, because the thought of following someone else's path for him--even his beloved parents' path--makes him ill.

What does he do instead? Something that I personally would not do, but which someone could do without betraying my core values as identified above. Running away from home is cliche and, though I cannot quite define how, it feels like it would betray something.

I don't think I'd have the gumption to go out and find work of my own (I mean, look at me now, I'm heading off to university after having dutifully jumped through the hoops of the college app process) but that is something I admire so Admago does that.

Admago becomes apprenticed to a...to a what? Something I wouldn't do. A surgeon? I dislike blood and have never felt drawn to medicine, but that's not fundamental to me. Admago becomes a surgeon!


Third step now. In case you haven't realized, when I come up with these games I make up the rules as I go, and I'm not sure what will go here. I haven't written a poem is a really long time; let's try that.

A poem about the character you've created, a Doppelganger who does not resemble you on the surface. (An anti-Doppelganger, then, if we use the conventional definition of Doppelganger. Instead of a body double inhabited by a malicious spirit, we have a spirit double with an unrecognizable outside.) What kind of poem? I like sonnets, so we'll do sonnets.

A reminder on form: fourteen lines of ten syllables. Shakespearean or Petrarchan are both fair game. I think poems are easier to write by hand first, labeling the lines so you can see what the rhyme has to be.

Here is my attempt:

Admago the Surgeon

The man said "Welcome to Byzantium"
To maiden far from fair: a swarthy elf
Whose onyx hands did shape a piece of plumb
He fell in love: how could he help himself?
The man he had his shop; the elf her forge;
Then they had their son, Admago: the child
Nor smith, nor keep, as surgeon's prentice swore.
With steadfast stomach, eyes both sharp and mild
He learned the secrets of the shattered leg
Of flesh burned raw, of ailments slow and cruel.
By patient's side he lived; elsetimes seemed dead
At twenty-four, Admago bought a mule.
He left Byzantium one autumn eve:
In wider world he could his best achieve.


Fourth step: retrospect. It was nice writing poetry again, though I got stalled after the first two lines. You get moments like that, when you give up and read articles on your phone for half an hour before prodding yourself to write again. Activation energy is high.

I don't think that playing this game alone gave me a lot more self-knowledge, since I've been thinking around identity for a long time now (being in a liminal state == constant existential crisis) (is "liminal state" an oxymoron? Liminal stage almost certainly feels that way), though I do think it's telling that at the end of the sonnet above, Admago leaves Byzantium. Every single story I've written, ever, involves someone leaving home. Sometimes coming back, but oftentimes, not. I can't be like Poe and write closed-system stories.*

*"it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place."
--Edgar Allen Poe, "Philosophy of Composition"

In hindsight, perhaps surgeon isn't really *me* either. I like to make things; surgeons fix things that have been broken. Of course I do like solving problems, and I have Doppelgangers whose professions are even further from me-like (see: Orsolya the cop, Evan the soldier), so the point may be moot for the exercise. But I have learned something about myself from this, though the knowledge--whatever it is--is useless until it is used.

We shall see. Wish me luck.



Schwarzalbenheim - Therion

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summer in Review: 2014

during the summer, I use these silly strips of paper as my weekly "itineraries"
no, I do not know how I get anything done either
This is the concluding post to a three-part series, the first two parts of which were Summer Plans and the Summer Midpoint Update. Like the previous post on Ubermadchen Summer Progress, it comes in a few sections:

Goals -- how did I do?
Music -- every season has its soundtrack
Consumption -- external influences/inputs
&c -- other important things



*Identified as needing improvement during the Midpoint Update.

*Read a lot.
I didn't read as much as I should have, but I did get some interesting stuff into my brain. See consumption, below, for details.

*Deepen my knowledge and practice of programming.
August wasn't very productive on this front. Mostly, I read about different kinds of software to use with Python for scientific programming. So that I don't dig myself into a Python pigeonhole, I'm working on making a game using C++.

Relearn calculus and *physics.
Reasonably successful on these. I ended up falling into someone else's organizational scheme on both of these: for calc I took notes on the Calculus II notes provided by Prof. Paul Dawkins of Lamar University, and for physics I used these AP Physics C study guides and these videos. Some of the later magnetism stuff went over my head, honestly, but I'm much more comfortable about going in and taking the placement test.

*Improve languages.
I began to use the Duolingo app more for my German and have since progressed reasonably well. However, Duolingo's approach doesn't really make for an integrated experience, and so I find myself forgetting a lot of grammatical rules or never putting together mental models of the grammar systems in the first place. I think I'll have to combine Duolingo with a more formal learning method to explicate the patterns. Something I do like is that Duolingo gives you a button to "practice weak skills." I've been hearing a lot about spaced repetition and it does help a lot to revisit something you used to have mastered, to refresh.

Research and write a lot in Ubermadchen.
Tuesday's post covered this. In general, I am well pleased with my progress and hope that I'll have the option to make time for my writing while also doing well in my classes. Summer is a special time because I get to make creative output a priority, and I will miss that.

Refine social media presence.
I closed the case on this one at the midpoint update; will continue to post here regularly during the school year. At this point I don't know if I'll have to cut back to one post a week, but I'd like to keep it at two because I'll have so much stuff going on that a more-than-weekly built-in reflection process (writing these posts to think through an idea space or clear my mental cache) will help me keep my head.

Practice trombone.
Moot point, since I returned the school trombone I was using shortly after the midpoint update. Looking forward to the first rehearsal of the LSJUMB!


  • All of Me - John Legend (OR Tiffany Alvord cover)
  • Destruction of Myself - From Ashes to New

  • Telescope - Starset (see above)
  • Light Me Up - Birdy
  • Elle me dit - Mika
  • Golly Sandra - Eisley
  • Papaoutai - Stromae
  • All for Nothing - Linkin Park ft. Page Hamilton
  • Kopf Verloren - Peter Fox
  • The Girl in Byakkoya - Paprika soundtrack
  • Painkiller - Three Days Grace
  • Becomes the Color - Emily Wells
  • In This Shirt - the Irrepressibles
  • Underwater - Evans Blue
  • Bravado - Lorde
  • Your Eyes Open - Keane
  • How Soon is Now - Love Spit Love
  • Simple Math - Manchester Orchestra
  • Let it Die - Starset (original OR the Maniac Agenda Pleasant Nightmare remix)
  • Horse and I - Bat for Lashes
  • The Temptation of Adam - Josh Ritter
Additionally, this summer I discovered the wide world of 8tracks. I haven't gone exploring on the site much but here are some mixes I've listened to and liked: Girl Meets Girl, Guten Morgen Berlin, Young Witch in Training, My Lady General, Hold On To Your Heart.

Astute observers may notice that my listening is more female-centric this summer than it has been in previous seasons. That's partly because of Ubermadchen, but they both come from a belated and growing sense that just because society tells me that girls are weak doesn't mean I have to distance myself from girl-centric things to be strong. (See: the dress.)



Here are all the books I read:

And here are all the books I bought:
total cost: $7
I did not read as much this summer as I ought to. But I did read some particularly fine books:
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy + The Restaurant at the End of the World
  • How to Create a Mind
  • The Art of Learning
  • Od Magic

My favorite things that I've read this summer, though, are the writings of Eliezer Yudkowsky: the as-yet unfinished Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality story and many articles/sequences on Less Wrong. I've always thought of myself as fairly rational but Yudkowsky gives me a standard to which to repair. The article Tsuyoku Naritai by itself would lodge Less Wrong securely in my personal philosophy. I'm currently working through his sequence on quantum mechanics.

I watched the movie Paprika, the full English dub of which can be found here. An interesting movie about a device that lets psychologists enter patients' dreams, and what happens when the borders of dream and reality begin to blur. Some disturbing imagery and some awesome music (see above).

If I've slacked on reading books, it's at least in part because I've gotten better at finding interesting things to read online. My biggest font is Hacker News, though I usually only pick out the most general-interest articles. These searchings have led me to add Aeon Magazine, Ars Technica's science stream, and the Gates Notes to my feed. Lots of interesting ideas.



China for two weeks at the beginning of the summer: an explosion of planning for a wide range of projects, lots of poetry (I have not written a single poem since, I regret to say), and a more powerful sense of both longing and alienation than I have felt in America.

Long walk-and-talk outings with a particular friend of mine have stoked in me a desire for deep conversations about anything and everything. (For us, chiefly about philosophy, physics, and music.) Preferably with the same person/people because once you've gotten past the surface stuff, the obvious what-did-you-do and let's-finally-meet-one-another, you can have surprisingly deep and interesting conversations. At least I felt pretty deep when I remarked "philosophy is a maze pretending to be a labyrinth." (I may write a post about the differences later.)

Given that I stand at a pretty big threshold, it should be no surprise that I've thought a lot about my identity, the "what" and "who" of this being that calls itself me. Next Tuesday's post will be a game of sorts about these things.

I've gotten more proactive about equipping myself with new tools, and I would like to recommend Evernote and Duolingo for, respectively, idea capture and language learning. Last month I downloaded the Anaconda Python distribution, and though I haven't played around with it as much as I should I can see programs such as matplotlib and numpy helping me out in the future.

I feel as though I have been out of high school for a long, long time. My mostly solitary existence this summer has only reinforced that impression, and I do love me my solitude, but it's time to return to the world and face new challenges.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ubermadchen Summer Progress Report

Palace of Versailles -- still from Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing.
--Gene Wolfe

This progress report has a wider range than on the label, since I'm counting the summer from the last week of high school to now, one week before I start orientation at college. (Contrast: my personal definition of summer is usually June, July, and August.) The report comes in a few sections:

Analytics -- the numbers
Pensees -- what I learned or am struggling with
Log -- progress as it happened

This week is cleanup week; Friday's post is about my summer as a whole. (This is just the most important/relevant part, so I favor it with its own post.)


(stats collected after yesterday's writing session)

Words Written (story only, not counting planning or scrapped): 101,625*
Time Elapsed (Real): 14 weeks.
Time Elapsed (Story): 20 weeks.
Distance Traveled: approx 1600 km (1000 mi).

*Remember when I said "the next project will be easier and shorter"? Ha.



Maps and worldbuilding notes will help keep both details and bigger matters consistent. Consistency varies in proportion to verisimilitude, which make it important. Writing down cool details as you write them in--or, better yet, coming up with cool details before you start writing the section that includes them--will give you a database of ideas and images from which to draw. Sometimes all they add is color; other times, legit plot twists can occur.

I find myself writing lots of dialogue and argument scenes. Though I don't particularly like reading arguments in stories or dealing with them in real life because I don't like talking in general, for some reason it's really easy to just drop a topic on the characters and watch them go. How much of it will stay in the story? Not all of it, though it's useful to write because it helps me get the characters' voices in my ear.

Remember: this is a draft. This is a first draft. You can skip, you can be vague, you can even write something like [add more salon scenes]. You're just putting this thing together as a first pass, and things don't have to be perfect. The loop is long but you will iterate on this.

I don't know what makes UM different but with this story, I'm getting more of a sense than I ever have before for how malleable certain sections of the story are. Which parts are compressible? Which parts are set in stone and where can you insert crucial information later if you find out that you need it? Information matters a great deal in this story and the flow of information has some well-defined and some blurry paths.

Mullerplan of Zurich

Maybe most of the unique things that I'm getting out of writing UM are because it's more modular than previous stories. They travel, they stay in a city, they move on. It breaks the story up into natural segments, and indeed consideration of cities helped me immensely when ironing out the second half of the story. It also helps me decouple the research and writing cycles: write up to the end of one segment, research and plan for the next one, repeat.

I've said this before but I'd really like to emphasize: PLANNING. As Rachel Aaron writes,
"Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

As soon as I realized this, I stopped. I closed my laptop and got out my pad of paper. Then, instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn't describe anything, I didn't do transitions. I wasn't writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came.

If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you're writing before you write it. I'm not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. Writing this stuff out in words you actually want other people to read, especially if you're making everything up as you go along, takes FOREVER. It's horribly inefficient and when you get yourself in a dead end, you end up trashing hundreds, sometimes thousands of words to get out. But jotting it down on a pad? Takes no time at all. If the scene you're sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immedeatly, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That's it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful."

I haven't gotten up to her level yet, but the clearer you know what you want to write before you actually write it, the smoother the day will go. For the Zurich section, on which I am currently working, I asked myself a lot of questions about the practical details of this segment, made myself answer them, came up with names and descriptions of characters the girls encounter (because few things kill productivity faster than trawling BehindtheName.com to name Magician #2), and explicitly noted locations and timelines. Looked at a lot of maps. In short: PLANNED.

Sometimes I deliberately don't do this, though: sometimes, I just want to explore the possibilities of a place before I commit to anything. So I take a day or two and just cut loose.

Character issues: I really, really like Marilla. This is good because she's the main character, but it's also bad because sometimes I let her friends fade into the background, and I lose the interaction among them that, I think, drives the story's emotional arc. One would think that someone who cannot resist the lure of multiple-POV storytelling (me) would never forget that there are many sides to a story and that everyone is their own main character. But I do forget, to the story's detriment. Not sure how to fix this, aside from making a point every so often to ask, "hey, what's up with [Character X]? What is she thinking/feeling/doing right now?"

New Library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh


Senioritis hit hard in the last two weeks of school, but once summer started I could devote more time to writing, making it a priority, weekday thing instead of relegating it to late nights and weekends as during the school year.

Work while in China: mindmap identifies possible AUs, music to listen to while writing. Story bones: clarify what the overarching problems are and identify the three main phases of the story as the girls gain progressively more freedom and power. Story atmosphere investigation brings the focus back onto Marilla, who is a retiring, invisible-girl sort but still has a compelling and attractive personality and a strong aesthetic sense which has been missing from her narration. More light, more clarity, more senses.

Huge explosion of writing after the return from China: 1000+ words almost every day, one day 3000. Why? Because of focus on moving the story forward, writing to get scenes done rather than writing to get words done. "I want to cover this material today," and then I have time to actually do it.

Break at the end of the first week of July to plan for the next part, in France: what do I have to research? What do I already know? Filling up the story box with maps, notes, images. Should add more music.

Starting in early July I began making weekly notes:

7/6-7/12: Distractions sap vitality of the work. Need to take a day to plan out, gain some direction. This isn't a "let's just see what happens" part because it's liminal, it's in the way of the plotty part. This is an interlude, a handover, and I want to get to the good stuff but I also don't want to sludge through Normandy. Also I don't know how to snoop.

7/13-7/19: things pick up after I get a legit list of scenes down and revisit my goal for the story as fast-paced--a thriller chase with a demure narrator and setting. //I don't see Ubermadchen as a thriller, per se, but the action/page-turner element is easy to lose when your characters are all reasonably sensible and well-brought-up young women. Which is probably a sexist statement, but this is the 18th century we're dealing with.

7/20-7/26: Paris! Salons, politics, looking up historical figures. Read and took notes on a section about Louis XVI in Passions and Politics: A Biography of Versailles by Joseph Barry. Things are in fine whack. Versailles section coming up--I give myself permission to explore this one a bit.

7/27-8/2: a busy week, so lackluster writing. Getting into Versailles. This should be the good part, they finally meet Louis-Auguste, but tiredness and lack of enthusiasm plague me. Lots of distraction.

8/3-8/9: somewhat of a slump, still. Exploring ideas in Versailles space, conversations--LOTS of conversations. But I also hit the point where the document is long enough that Word doesn't want to show the spelling errors anymore. //I think this was around page 200.

8/10-8/16: starting to put plot in indulgence pieces because I miss having plot in UM; realization that I need to kick things into higher gear. Taking steps to do so.

After mid-August I switched over to an excel spreadsheet to keep track of my daily work (one notes that I am fond of keeping track of things). Here I distill my notes, again in weekly format because that's how I've broken up this summer.

8/17-8/23: getting them out of Versailles, where they have spent almost the past month. The writing comes quickly because of strong affinity for Louis-Auguste. I'm writing a more emotional main character than usual, and feelings happen. By the end of the week, doing prep work for the next section, which is a liminal bit through which I plan to rush ignominiously.

8/24-8/30: the liminal bit. Not as boring as I had despaired on Friday, but not superbly engaging. Marilla misses Versailles and so do I. But I do it, trying to use Google Street View (I haven't quite figured out the best way to use it) to get a better idea of what the terrain looks like. At the end of the week, digging in on Zurich prep work.

8/31-9/6: because Zurich is a really large section and probably the last I'll have time for before school starts, I decide to do a lot more research and planning. I flood the Ubermadchen tumblr with Zurich images and research, make a list of events from which I cull a list of scenes, and write out on paper a calendar with events written in, using different colors for different groups. The writing goes well.

This week, I'm working on finishing up Zurich. Hopefully I'll have time to plan for successive portions, and hopefully I have time to work on the story in college. Writing keeps me sane even as the process, with all its frustrations and disappointments and serendipities, drives me insane. So it goes.


I listened to French music during the France section, and since basically all the girls have absentee parents, this song seems fitting:

Papaoutai - Stromae

(Incidentally, the story behind this song is very tragic.)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sanctuary: Cielo Stellato

Do you ever have weeks where you feel distracted and busy and unproductive, running about from task to task without ever getting the resolution you need, certain that you are just spinning your wheels?

And have you ever taken a break--a half-hour, an hour, more--to go someplace else, some hidden place just for you, and has that ever helped you come back with a fresh perspective and a new outlook?

My life is about to change, and get a whole lot harder. I don't know if I'll be able to "get away from it all" while I'm at school and need to be doing things. But one hears of people going to "their quiet place" and finding peace and solace between their ears, and building quiet places, sanctuaries, into one's head seems a worthy investment.

Of course the logical extension is to externalize what you've internalized, so that if your mind is too full of your worries, you can still access the things that will pull you back to the quiet place. Hence this post, which will be the first of many, if I can swing it. Let's see how this one works.


Note on the title: I love Italian words.


Hubble Deep Field

Every point of light in this image. Ever single speck of photon radiation you can see, everything in this image, is not a star, but a galaxy. All this from a single speck of blackness that, to the naked eye, looks to be completely and utterly empty. The Hubble Telescope stared at that speck of nothingness for four months, gathering all it could, grabbing every speck of light to pass its lens, until it came out with this amazing image.

Looking at this image makes me cry, every single time. It's like looking into some sort of primordial soup, like seeing the countless entities that swarm in a microscope slide. We're looking back in time, possibly to before the universe even existed. It takes light a long time to travel, as fast as it may be, simply because the void between galaxies, even between stars, is so incomprehensibly huge. By the time the light from these far off galaxies reaches us they're probably long gone. Nothing more than spectral after effects etched into out night sky, hanging forever in eternity. These are the most distant objects we've ever photographed, more than 13 billion light years away.

Utterly beautiful.

I read the above when it was posted over four years ago, and it still haunts me.


Telescope - Starset

"Is there any sort of science you do approve of?" said Harry. "Medicine, maybe?"

"Space travel," said Professor Quirrell. "But the Muggles seem to be dragging their feet on the one project which might have let wizardkind escape this planet before they blow it up."

Harry nodded. "I'm a big fan of the space program too. At least we have that much in common."

Professor Quirrell looked at Harry. Something flickered in the professor's eyes. "I will have your word, your promise and your oath never to speak of what follows."

"You have it," Harry said immediately.

"See to it that you keep your oath or you will not like the results," said Professor Quirrell. "I will now cast a rare and powerful spell, not on you, but on the classroom around us. Stand still, so that you do not touch the boundaries of the spell once it has been cast. You must not interact with the magic which I am maintaining. Look only. Otherwise I will end the spell." Professor Quirrell paused. "And try not to fall over."

Harry nodded, puzzled and anticipatory.

Professor Quirrell raised his wand and said something that Harry's ears and mind couldn't grasp at all, words that bypassed awareness and vanished into oblivion.

The marble in a short radius around Harry's feet stayed constant. All the other marble of the floor vanished, the walls and ceilings vanished.

Harry stood on a small circle of white marble in the midst of an endless field of stars, burning terribly bright and unwavering. There was no Earth, no Moon, no Sun that Harry recognized. Professor Quirrell stood in the same place as before, floating in the midst of the starfield. The Milky Way was already visible as a great wash of light and it grew brighter as Harry's vision adjusted to the darkness.

The sight wrenched at Harry's heart like nothing he had ever seen.

"Are we... in space...?"

"No," said Professor Quirrell. His voice was sad, and reverent. "But it is a true image."

Tears came into Harry's eyes. He wiped them away frantically, he would not miss this for some stupid water blurring his vision.

The stars were no longer tiny jewels set in a giant velvet dome, as they were in the night sky of Earth. Here there was no sky above, no surrounding sphere. Only points of perfect light against perfect blackness, an infinite and empty void with countless tiny holes through which shone the brilliance from some unimaginable realm beyond.

In space, the stars looked terribly, terribly, terribly far away.

Harry kept on wiping his eyes, over and over.

"Sometimes," Professor Quirrell said in a voice so quiet it almost wasn't there, "when this flawed world seems unusually hateful, I wonder whether there might be some other place, far away, where I should have been. I cannot seem to imagine what that place might be, and if I can't even imagine it then how can I believe it exists? And yet the universe is so very, very wide, and perhaps it might exist anyway? But the stars are so very, very far away. It would take a long, long time to get there, even if I knew the way. And I wonder what I would dream about, if I slept for a long, long time..."

Though it felt like sacrilege, Harry managed a whisper. "Please let me stay here awhile."

Professor Quirrell nodded, where he stood unsupported against the stars.

It was easy to forget the small circle of marble on which you stood, and your own body, and become a point of awareness which might have been still, or might have been moving. With all distances incalculable there was no way to tell.

There was a time of no time.

And then the stars vanished, and the classroom returned.
--Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, ch. 20, by Eliezer Yudkowsky


Good night.


See also: Hubble Picture Gallery.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014



I start college in two weeks and I don't really know what to feel about that. Unsurprisingly, since it's lasted over three months now, this summer has felt long. Interminable, almost; I've always had more time left. Enough time to drag my feet, put things off. But now I have two weeks left, and that isn't terribly much.

Most of my friends are on the semester system and have already left for or started school. They are already in the thick of things, taking classes, meeting new people--including themselves, the selves they are away from home.

I want that to start. I'm ready to go to college and, going from my memories of extreme boredom and frustration from senior year, have been for a while. At the same time, this summer has been a long liminal moment, and once it ends I have to do a lot of work. It's not that I don't want to challenge myself and grow; it's just that the inertia of the past three months is pretty comfortable and I might have a hard time adjusting to running at full capacity again.

Two weeks. I'm starting to wrap things up. I've been self-studying calc and physics and this week is when I'm scheduled to finish my self-prescribed review plans. I've started thinking about the last coding project I'll have time for--which I may not even finish in two weeks. In Ubermadchen I've written up to the part where I projected I'd be at the end of the summer, and anticipate getting most or all of the way through a big section before I leave.

(Speaking of which: art imitates life. The UM girls are almost at a point where they'll be cut off from the familiar and known and have to find out who they are when they're independent. Sound familiar?)

(That's not much of a spoiler; essentially any book with teenage main characters functions on some level as a bildungsroman, and every bildungsroman by definition includes a transition from child to adult.)

I'm not sure if I'm a future oriented or past oriented person. I make lots of plans, obsessively almost, but I also intro/retrospect a whole lot and mine my personal history for story material. Recently I've oscillated between these two states: between thinking about everything that's about to end, and thinking about everything that's about to start.

Thus far this post has been more about what's ending, and the voice that likes to talk about the future is getting restless. It's always restless, and I'm not surprised to find that so at the brink of such a big transformation. A lot of spaces in my future are blank; I don't know much of what I'm planning with or around.

Earlier in the summer, a friend sent me a list of advice for college students. One item was "you don't have to reinvent yourself."

But when I look at the map of my future territory, the biggest blank is the thing that looks. Who will I become, once I'm out of the house? My personality and values are, I think, reasonably stable and have been since childhood, but that doesn't mean that different behaviors may become more or less prominent.

(Side note: when a straight-laced kid starts talking about potential changes, that may sound potentially troublesome, so let me state categorically that I will not be trying any substances in college. One thing I value is control and I hatehatehate the idea of losing it, whether to peer pressure or through any drug's physical effects.)

And so I speculate, hypothesizing about outcomes which I will know in a few weeks: who will I become? What kinds of things will I do? Who will my friends be? How will I spend my time? What kinds of conversations will I have? Will I have time to keep up my writing? (I sure hope so.) What will I learn and how will it change me?

I have a vague idea of who I want to become in college. Start with a functional adult. Add on immense enthusiasm and dedication to learning interesting things. More self-awareness and self-control. More grace in social situations, because being introverted is perfectly fine but being awkward and shy could hinder my progress. (Though I must remember to be patient.)

My ultimate goal, I think, is to become a benevolent leader with a brilliant and practical vision of improvement for humanity. At this point I think I'm like Octavius, the tagalong kid who hasn't really been tested yet, who has had his hand held but is raging to prove himself. I'd like to become more Octavian-like: strategic, focused, and stoic. Eventually, if all goes well, I will turn into Augustus.

Did I mention that two weeks ago, on August 19, it was the 2000th anniversary of his death? And there are still people (me included) who draw inspiration from his life. His name is remembered 2000 years after he stopped existing. How can I leave that large of a mark on the world?

Things are ending and things are beginning. And I stand on the threshold, ready (am I ready?) to walk through.