Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Indonesia First Impressions

I like it here.

Everyone that I've met at the office is terrifically friendly. The organization I'm working for does incredible work all across the country yet it still feels very much like a family business, especially since all the interns are living in the executive director's house.

Even during Ramadhan you can get three different and delicious kinds of noodles for lunch. The food is pretty fantastic in general, spicier than I am used to but so good that I don't mind much.

Jet lag kept me fairly tired the first few days.

Many, many malls everywhere, from the kind that's filled with little booths selling shirts and pants and wallets for cheap, to the expensive shiny ones filled with international designers.

A lot of mosques. Not surprising in a country that is 87% Muslim. The calls to prayer have stopped taking me quite so much by surprise.

The project is going slowly. Using a virtual machine means a lot of yak shaving.

I have been in email conversation with a mentor (my senior year English teacher, also known as the one who got me to change my perspective on the value of literature) and thinking about how this summer might change me and what degree of control I have in how I change. No solid answers as yet.

A lot of reading. Yesterday I finished The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov. Stunning. A good book to read on vacation because for me, vacation books are immersive, complex ones that would be confusing if you read them strung out.

Not as much writing. At the office I am working (except for right now, because it's near the end of the day) and at home, it doesn't feel right to be on my computer. But I will do so, because the Ubermadchen have been very patient with me.

Still figuring out what to do with all of my free time between work and dinner. May consult my fellow interns. Of course writing is a good option but while I'm here, I might as well do things that I can't do at home.

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Apologies for missing Friday's post. I'll try to keep to the two posts a week schedule, if only as a check to make sure I'm thinking and reflecting and processing these experiences.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Indonesia Summer

As this post goes live, I will be on or boarding a plane headed for Jakarta, by way of Tokyo. I'll be in Indonesia for nine weeks (though given the days lost to travel, 8.5 is probably more accurate) implementing a project that I've been working on for the past two quarters with a team of students.

I am nervous and excited, both. I still can't quite believe that this is actually happening, because this is the kind of opportunity that I would have been too scared to take if my roommate hadn't talked some sense into me. It's happening. It's finally happening.

What am I afraid of? I am afraid that our system's components will break and that I'll arrive empty-handed. I'm afraid that I won't be smart enough to figure out the problems that will inevitably arise in the field. I'm afraid that I will make a fool of myself. I am afraid that my coworkers won't like me. I am afraid that I'll get malaria or rabies and die. I am afraid that I will find myself unequal to the challenges that confront me. I am afraid that my fear will hold me back from experiencing this summer as fully as it deserves to be experienced.

What am I looking forward to? I am looking forward to meeting the amazing people who work at our partner NGO. I am looking forward to trying new foods (even if they are spicy). I am looking forward to getting the chance to work in a professional environment. I am looking forward to seeing parts of West Java that are beyond the big cities. I am looking forward to having time to read. I am looking forward to having time to write. I am looking forward to learning about the challenges of rural development through green technology, about the technical aspects of microgrids and distgen, and about contemporary and traditional Javanese and Sundanese culture.

I am looking forward to relearning how to be alone with myself, because during the school year people are always close at hand, and that's lovely, but I need to check in with myself and see again who I am when I'm on my own. For all that I talked about how much I've changed, a lot of who I am at any given moment is environment. On Sunday evening I lost my temper at my parents over a very minor issue, and I never would have done that at school because at Stanford there are environmental factors hindering my ability to be the petulant child that I still occasionally am.

I am looking forward to eating Indomie noodles.

My university is less than half an hour away from my house. I've never really lived away from home for an extended period of time, and I am looking forwards to it.

I am looking forward to having a regular, responsible sleep schedule. Since I'll have a day job I will need to wake up early, and since I'm cautious I won't be staying out late, and will probably be too tired of staring at screens to waste too much time on my computer in the evening.

I am looking forward to practicing my Bahasa Indonesia. I only know the most basic stuff, but I think I know enough not to be completely useless, and I'll have to learn on the fly, through immersion. While I don't expect to be fluent by the end of the summer, I would like to think that I'll be able to carry on an informal conversation.

Do I know what to expect? No. I've never done this before. When I think about the near future I think of myself in sophomore year, since that's something I can readily imagine. This? I have no roadmap for this.

Let us see how I fare.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ubermadchen Spring 2015 Progress Report

Covering the period from the end of March to now.

Words: about 10000 story words + about 3700 words of planning.
Time elapsed (story): about one week.
Time elapsed (real): 12 weeks.

Hohensalzburg Fortress
(src)
What these numbers tell me is that my writing output dropped a whole lot in Spring Quarter. There were quite a few weeks where I only wrote on one day, which is significantly worse than writing twice a week because you lose a lot of momentum that way. The trick is to make sure that not too many days go by between writing sessions, so that the story remains fresh and you're not scrambling to remember where you are.

The huge portion of the wordcount that comes from planning words is significant. That's the planning for the Salzburg section, which is one of the last BIG sections. I made a point to plan it out a lot, because a lot of important things happen in this section and I want to make sure that I don't leave any of it out of the plan.

I've been working on Ubermadchen for over a year now, and I have to admit that some of the shine is wearing off. That could also be because I've been away from the story for a long time, not having really sunk into it since the drowning scene in early March, and now, rather than backing off, I should be leaning in even further. I should be going deep for the Salzburg section.

The trouble is that I told myself that I'd finish the entire story by the end of the summer. Now, if I could count on the wordcounts I was getting last summer, that would be no problem. But I almost certainly will not see that kind of output, because I'm going to be in Indonesia starting next Tuesday for nine weeks, and I will be busy working, traveling, living, growing.

So I think...I think that I'm going to take off that deadline. I knocked out Orsolya in under a year and so I thought I'd get Ubermadchen done in a comparable length of time, but I'm already over 180000 words and most of Salzburg is still unwritten, not to mention the dramatic grand finale and the substantial denouement (because there are parallel structures in this story, and the surface action plot is wrapped up before the emotional/bildungsroman one). It's going to be another while before this thing is done.

Let's say, rather, that I should aim to finish the book by next Spring Break, because if all goes well, then that's when I'll be heading to Germany for several months.

I intend several things with resetting the deadline.

First, I don't want to pressure myself to finish a book while I'm in Indonesia, because I think that I will benefit more long-term if I can focus outward on what I am living and learning. This is my first real jump into a totally unfamiliar situation, and I can see myself using my writing to anchor myself, and transmuting my personal growth into the growth of the girls as characters, but I don't want to rush anything. Salzburg is an important section, and I want to be able to take my time with it and explore what this part means.

Second, I still do want to have a deadline. I like to have goals, to have plans. Some intermediate deadlines therefore need to come into place:
  • Summer 2015: Salzburg, journey to Graz, extensive planning for Graz.
  • Autumn 2015: Graz. Graz is a huge, important section, and I'm assuming much better writing output than I have demonstrated thus far this school year in saying that I can get Graz done in one quarter. But I'm going to try.
  • Winter 2016: Vienna and aftermath. This is probably doable, so there's some breathing room in here if I don't finish Graz by the end of 2015.

But really, I should be starting on Graz by the end of this summer if I want to make my deadline. The journey to Graz from Salzburg can probably be compressed, since there's nothing to send the girls off track at that point. I haven't done the plotting for Graz yet but I will want to allocate planning time.

A third reason why I want to finish Ubermadchen before I (hopefully) leave for Berlin: I think that being there, I'd want to write something else, something new. Of course, this reasoning isn't very strong because if it's about being in a new place, well, Indonesia is new also. Writing something non-Eurocentric there makes more sense. But I'm not really one of those people who can set aside a story mid-flow and come back to it, so I'm going to forge ahead with Ubermadchen, and take in Indonesia, and besides, new experiences take time to sink in. Maybe by the time I get to Berlin, I'll have grokked Indonesia enough to write something with it.

Anyway--here I go again, getting caught up in all my future plans. What have I learned from this season of writing?

The biggest lesson is an admonishment: write a little more often. Momentum helps a lot. Continuity helps a lot. Keeping your story close to your mind.

Maps are fantastic.

Don't get so caught up in historical accuracy that you forget that you're writing a fantasy novel. Take some liberties. Looking stuff up less frequently will also improve flow.

Focus. If you're going to write, just write. Put on an album so you're not fiddling with changing your music.

Remember to pause sometimes and think through your magic system and write things out to make sure that your solution to the big plot problem actually makes sense. Longhand is good for collating information, drawing graphs and charts, making big-picture connections.

You've done this twice and you don't give up. You have swum out farther to sea than this. You can dive deep, and need not have any fear of drowning.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

One Commit Behind

Being at home is weird.

I moved out of my dorm last Thursday, and have been at home ever since. Getting ready for Indonesia. Rereading books. Writing (less than one would think) in Ubermadchen. Trying to overcome my natural activation energy and getting more familiar with the technical aspects of networks and servers and a whole host (ha) of topics that are new to me.

Wondering if people see me when they look at me.

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Car Radio - twenty one pilots

Thank you to LS for being my source of good music, as usual. This song would be better suited to a post where I took a good hard look at who I am and the good/bad/ugly, but I'm including it with this more self-indulgent post because I've been listening to it on repeat for most of today.

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I've made a big deal out of how much I've changed since coming to college, and I'm always surprised when I come back to people who have, themselves, changed, and we treat one another as if no time has passed. I'm a different person, I feel that, but it sounds silly in my head when I'm with family, friends, who only knew me when.

Much of our identity is tied to our environment. But I'd like to hold on to the changes that I've made. When I am with people who think of me as a dependent, as someone incapable of executing the most basic household duties, as a kid, can I still be the independent and competent adult that I am trying to become?

Partially because we moved right after I left for college, I feel disconnected from the me that graduated high school. The house and room that I made my own, the familiar neighborhood, the daily routines, all disappeared at once. The person went away more slowly but there's little enough that is left, physically, as a reminder.

In the last few weeks of school one of my friends remarked that the most difficult act is to stay silent. I disagreed immediately. Silence is easy. It is easy to hold your cards close to your chest, to let on nothing about your thoughts and opinions. Harder is to speak up for yourself and present who you are, especially to people for whom that may be surprising. Harder yet is to speak up in a way that isn't petulant, that isn't defensive. In a way that will get respect.

That's the biggest thing, I think: how can I earn my parents' respect? My grades are fine but this is gold-sticker stuff that I've been doing for years. I'm trying hard to do this planning for Indonesia correctly because I really want it to go well. I really want to prove that I can work in a professional environment and execute a project.

Since coming home I've felt less able to experience the delight that I often felt at school over delightful experiences such as contra dances or performances. In part this is because there are fewer such events; in part this is because I can't trust that child-like will not get conflated with childish, and I can't seem like a child.

The feeling of needing to prove yourself is pretty common for people my age, I'd guess. The frustrating part is that I've changed, for the better I think, and am trying to push those changes out to the world. But I am not apparently doing a good enough job of it, because people at home still seem one commit behind the master branch of me.

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No apologies for the Github analogy. Minor apologies for the self-indulgence and whininess of this post.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Spring Quarter Learning

I've been thinking so much about how I've changed as a person that I've been giving less thought to what I've learned, as a mind. But I have learned things--that's the point of going to university, after all.

Classes: electricity and magnetism; German; German culture; ESW; public service preparation; research. Also attended the global infrastructure seminar without being enrolled.

Major events: performances - plays and concerts; dances - contra and dance break; sustainability - symposia, speakers, other events. I didn't go to many band events this quarter. Earlier in the quarter I cooked a lot with friends.

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"Lost Stars" - Faded Paper Figures

This song was playing in my head as I moved out of my dorm yesterday. The lyrics are appropriate, because I did find myself in California--at the university where I am beginning to realize what a strange and unique place California is, when California became more encapsulated in my mind as a concept because I began to see its borders, and the whole world outside that defines it.

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What did I learn from my classes?

E&M: the world can be boiled down into a few simple principles--but going from those principles to a specific situation requires some doing. The symmetry of the world is not perfect.

You must know details. That is what has been driven home to me. Familiarity with general principles is necessary, but specific knowledge of context and problem specs is absolutely key if you want to be practical. Yes, some divisions are arbitrary, but precision and practical knowledge enable the last mile of solution. See: E&M problems, being comprehensible in German, navigating an unfamiliar society (Germany, Indonesia), leading in dance, executing an infrastructure project, building anything, devising the best sustainability measures.

This is not to say that the general and universal can be ignored. No, they too are necessary. But they are not sufficient for a solution to work. That said, abstracting away from the specific solution and making it more universal makes it in turn more adaptable, which means that it can be used more widely. The same patterns show up everywhere, but they must be put into context. They won't look the same wherever you go.

German language class: Be bold. Silence is not the way to learn language. Don't get lazy. Practice. Go for complexity. You know more than you think you do. Beware of applying patterns from a similar problem mindlessly--eg using Italian sentence forms such as trailing adjectives. Genuine curiosity and desire to learn are infectious. A good group makes any venture more fun. You can learn new things, if only you are enthusiastic and dedicated enough. Don't be ashamed of what you like (Rammstein).

German culture class: There is a canon of works that can be used to interpret a country. Some experiences are not universal--this is also a lesson I learned through conversations about race and class this quarter. Meaning and connotation can get lost in translation. Historical events and the story we tell about them deeply influence the present and how we respond to present circumstances--eg "nie wie da" leading to more activism. Lack of homogeneity leads to a confused national identity. Teleological views of the past are dangerous. Face up to issues and remember that the danger of silence only compounds in the face of a problem.

Research: The details matter. Good data matters. Be honest. Ask questions. Developing a good working relationship with someone requires friendliness and humility and is helped by demonstration of interest and curiosity and dedication. The research never ends. Practice makes things easier. Specific knowledge is powerful--that's how to contribute, by having real evidence.

ESW: I learned how to use Github and when and how to implement classes. More generally, I learned to generalize. Naming things is important, is really important. Keeping track of your progress as you go along is extremely helpful. Talking in front of a big audience in an intimidating venue is very doable if you know your content cold, if you've been working on it for six months. Asking questions and looking dumb is preferable to fronting and not knowing something. If you feel uncomfortable, speak in a deeper pitch because then you cannot fail to be more real, more you.

Nothing can replace expertise, but being humble and willing to learn and willing to work to learn can make expertise available.

Don't delegate to people who are more busy than you are. Don't put off asking and communicating.

Public service preparation class: BE HUMBLE. Listen to people. You have a certain needed skill set but you don't have all the answers. Be honest. Talk to people. People do amazing things. Show interest in people and be willing to talk about yourself to a matching level of detail. Use humor, show your personality. (No need to make a point to show your character--if you have it, people cannot fail to notice.)

Get excited about stuff. That genuine curiosity is infectious and will help you figure out what you are. If you want to geek out, geek the hell out. Cultivate your enthusiasm.

Global infrastructure projects seminar: Your competitors are also your friends. Be prepared to win, to have to execute. Be the real deal. A whole lot of exciting infrastructure is going on in the Bay Area right now. Connect people--connect with people. Outreach and honesty and honor are the best for PR. Do your due diligence and do the right thing. Repatriation of ruins, environmental auditing--these didn't use to be standard but now they are and they are for good reason, so accept it, buy into these updated values, and carry forth the work with all due conscientiousness. Do right by people. The best technical solution for a given problem depends on a lot of specs and context driven parameters--size of the project, location, available funding (and from what source), risk allocation structure, etc.

What did I learn from other experiences?

Sustainability events: I've been missing out big-time by not being more involved with the sustainability groups on campus. A plethora of research and other activity is going on all over campus, in all imaginable quarters, and I've been living blind to it all.

Performances: watching people perform something they have put a lot of themselves into is a delight, and that impassioned idealism can be embarrassing to watch when unmixed with practicality and reason. Stories told in unconventional media can have several layers of beauty, content and form both. I'm particularly fascinated by the way that songs with multiple movements develop a story.

Dancing: I like to lead and spinning around in a dress is fun. Dancing regularly has also made me more comfortable with being in physical contact with people, because in the kind of dance venues that I frequent (contra) there are no creepy under- or overtones in dancing with people.

Band: Having one or two people with whom you are tight makes a huge difference in how pleasant the experience is (this is a lesson I've learned throughout the year) but at a certain tipping point, you're chill enough with enough people in your section that the likelihood of an event being enjoyable is always high.

Cooking (and programming): Someone with more experience can do more with a limited set of tools than a novice can do without restrictions. Improvisation leads to serendipity.

Confidence comes from competence, and competence comes from experience--from making mistakes, whether on your own or by proxy, and then resolving them, and making new mistakes and resolving those. A good plan, broad domain expertise, is highly useful, but pivots will occur and need not be feared.

In short: go for depth/expertise/mastery in the areas to which your enthusiasm carries you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Version

My roommate moved out on Saturday. Every time I look over and see her empty desk, her empty bed, it makes me feel a little sad. This past year, my first at university, has been great and surprisingly and wonderful, and I feel--cliche though it sounds--as though I am a different person now from when I started, and that the improvements that have been wrought can be traced back in great part to the people I've met. Especially my roommate.

At the end of the year is a natural time to get introspective. I've been thinking and talking to people about how we think that we've changed over the year, and how it feels as though I am a different iteration of the self instead of a later update on a previous version.

Here we go. In case you couldn't tell, I'm bookending the year: self-centered posts at both beginning and end.

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I've Been Thinking - the Narrative
Baby you've got faith in a smile I think others would kill for
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At my dorm's banquet, I received a superlative, which was "Kindest." This bothered the hell out of me, for a few reasons. First of all, it is untrue. Google defines kindness as "the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate." This is too vague a concept and what I feel that I have, which is mistaken for kindness, is something far more particular. This year, I've been trying to be more emotionally available and supportive of the people I care about. I have failed at this consistently, in a thousand ways, but I am making progress.

This is not kindness. This is attempting to treat the people I care about in a way that accurately reflects how I feel about them and how important they are to me. It is personal, it is based entirely on whom I like, and I was irked that such a thing was shared as my "defining characteristic" to the dorm.

Second, I don't like the connotations. I've been trying to break the smiling mirror for years now, trying to turn "niceness" into something more genuine, that doesn't feel like selling my soul, and "kind" != "nice" but it just sounds really passive and weak. Of course it isn't, and of course it's a shame that softer skills are not valued more highly, but I still don't like it.

Third, in the title of "Kindest" I see neither my personality nor my character. One of the things I've wrestled with since coming here--a struggle that everyone I've talked to here has empathized with--is redefining who I am when the identity I had in high school, "the smart kid," is stripped away. Academically I am doing well here, but it isn't something at which I stand out and it isn't something to which I can pin an identity. What am I then?

I've been asking a lot of my friends how they think they have changed since the beginning of the year. We've all felt the angst of having the "smart kid" part of our identity modified, and the general consensus is that we feel as though something else, something more personal, something deeper, is emerging.

I think that I tend to act as a ground wire. I am calm (in fact, something new this year is that I am more comfortable expressing when I am happy) and low-energy, and the one time I brought up race and had a very productive conversation about it with two of my cis het white male friends was basically the only time I've instigated a conversation that has the potential to be controversial.

(It was exhausting, but I am glad I did it.)

Another aspect of my character that I think is becoming stronger now is that I like being in positions of power and using that power to take care of my people. It's been hard for me, this year, being incompetent and lacking in skills and value to offer, when in high school I was lucky enough to be in the role of a mentor to several wonderful underclassmen. But it's been helpful, being back in an inferior position--being reminded how important it is, once power is attained, to use it well.

I've had a lot of mentors this year. My roommate. My other friends, at times. My RA. Upperclassmen in various organizations and teams to which I belong. The grad student who supervised my research this quarter. My major advisor and other professors/faculty/staff both in and out of the department. I am grateful to all of them and I cannot wait to pay it forward. The dorm I'm living in next year is over half freshmen, and I really want to meet them and hear about them and offer what help I can to smooth the transition to college.

This desire for Nicomachean magnificence/magnanimity, for benevolence, is not new. But I think that in high school, when I put all of my effort into academics and maintaining this image of myself as the "smart kid," I just did not think very much or very often about helping other people--taking care of them, helping them, being emotionally available to them. The calmness is also not new.

So what is new? What makes me feel as though I am someone different now?

I think that my capacity to have fun has increased a lot. A big part of this is thanks to my roommate, who finally got me to go dancing in Winter Quarter. In high school I always said that I didn't dance, and the dancing that occurred then is indeed not enjoyable. But contra, swing, waltz--new doors are opening, new worlds, and I'm looking forward to continuing to improve at dancing. I am currently a very boring lead and I want to fix that.

Being in band has also helped with the ability to have fun and enjoy the moment. The character of the LSJUMB is notoriously quirky and weird and crazy, and I still don't feel as though I really "fit in." But it is fun to rock out, to dance around foolishly, to play loud music energetically, and to do that without feeling embarrassed. Of course it takes time, but I knew it would. I didn't *really* *enjoy* band until, I think, Big Game. But now I do enjoy it, and I think it requires a different sort of mindset.

One other huge difference between the me of now and the me of the beginning of the year is that I feel less angst about the future. Of course I do feel angst, and job anxiety consumed me for most of Winter Quarter, but now I know what I am doing this summer and I'm a lot more confident in my ability to adjust and adapt to different circumstances. I will gain more empirical evidence about the veracity of this feeling over the summer.

At the beginning of the year, I was entirely untested, with no track record of anything worthwhile. I've tried to hit the ground running this year and get involved in interesting projects, and while I could have done more I have a lot of experiences that I did not have before that are building my confidence in my ability to function once I leave school.

In high school I said "I don't know how to cook" as if it was a point of pride. But now I'm learning, and I'm seeing that my resistance to traditionally feminine things such as dancing and cooking and wearing dresses is foolish defensiveness.

My identity is also more secure, though of course this will always be under construction. I ended a relationship, thus proving to myself that honesty is more important to me than avoiding awkwardness. I came out to myself and to many friends that I am asexual. Next year I am going to be fully out to my dorm. I declared my major. Very early in the year, I called out one of my friends for calling me a "ninja" just because I am quiet and Asian, and I'm becoming more brave about calling out other problematic statements.

I am still trying to figure out how to interact with my parents without feeling defensive and as if I have to fight to be recognized as an adult, capable of being my own person. After a conversation with my sister last week, I am considering coming out to them--but am not at the point yet where I would actually do it. I'm still not confident enough in the angry music I listen to to play it for my friends regularly.

I think I have left behind some of the things that used to define me. I am no longer as stoic or as reserved or as disciplined as I used to be. After a grueling Winter Quarter I am putting more of a priority on mental, physical, and emotional health, and making sure that I do fun things, that I relax. I am more comfortable expressing emotions, especially positive ones, and talking through larger issues with select friends instead of trying to brush everything off. Being aware of the fact that my default is to come off as a robot, I am trying to be more open than in the past.

Before I started school, a current student offered the advice: Be vulnerable with people. Vulnerability is scary and certainly not trivial to offer. But I have people I trust and I am learning that I can in fact lean on them.

In short: I am learning, slowly, in this new version of myself, to trust people and to take care of them. This, perhaps, looks like kindness.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Brief Update

I've been very lax about posting recently. The end of the quarter is always busy, but this quarter it has just been very easy not to have time over the weekend.

My mental cache is getting full, and I really need to get back on this blogging wagon to clear it out regularly. I have a final exam tomorrow afternoon, and will be presenting on the research I did this quarter on Monday, and I still need to work on the project I'll be implementing this summer.

I went to the Indonesian consulate Thursday to get my visa. Most pleasant, human interaction with a government agency that I've had in my life.

Work on UM has stalled, but I have more time now and will resume.

Coming to some realizations about myself and how I see myself in relation to the people and world around me. Will explore this more in the next post. Expect a lot of navel-gazing as I debrief myself on my freshman year of university.

The end is nigh.