The More Things Change

It seems to me like lots of people want this year to be over. Among all the other things, 2016 is also apparently the year I totally abandon this blog and put off certain planned posts by several months.

I guess this is what happens when you take five technical classes at MIT. The extracurriculars aren’t helping. And the fastest and most confident writing I do is still reactive, when there’s an externally-imposed deadline or when “somebody is wrong on the internet”. This blog isn’t.

Oh well, time to make up for it in 2017.

What happened this year? I’ll start with some serious categories:

  • Academics: Complexity theory is great. On the other hand I don’t think machine learning is my thing. Plus some other math and CS classes. If there’s a theme, it’s that there’s a certain masochistic delight in reading old papers and griping about badly written parts. Outside my major, I also took and enjoyed some music and neuroscience classes, which made me cherish MIT’s flexible math major requirements even more.

  • Competitions, more or less: 5/28, Round 2 of Google Code Jam: I somehow get a perfect score and place 4th, which is more points than tourist! Check that off the bucket list. Unfortunately, my luck doesn’t hold in the next round.

    More importantly, though, I form an ACM-ICPC team with Andrew and Steven, and we manage to get to represent MIT at the World Finals. (Wow, that was still this year. You can’t tell from this blog at all. Sigh.) We travel to Thailand and place sixth, playing a lot of Napoleon, Set, and crosswords along the way. I also do a lot of idiotic things on Twitter to get a t-shirt.

    Finally, I sign up for the Putnam, then back out at the last minute because I’m too hosed and there’s no way I’m going to get anything anyway. In case you were wondering.

  • Extracurriculars — hoo boy:

    • In February, I was elected a SIPB member-at-large and, although I didn’t know it right away, also became the de facto acting secretary. I become a little bit better at typing.
    • In March, I more-or-less-formally joined ESP and absentmindedly hacked on the website a little. learning-unlimited/ESP-Website instantly jumped to the top of my GitHub “repositories contributed to” column. After lower activity during the spring, in the fall I “wrangled substitutes” for Splash, and then hacked on the website a lot more and got myself elected to two-and-a-half officer positions.
    • In the fall, I joined Techiya. We sang a bunch of songs and held a concert with Pokémon skits. Check those off my bucket list too. Sweet.
  • Gaming: Now that I finally feel comfortable throwing money at things, I can follow discussions and suggestions of quality games from everywhere in my social media. Two halves of winter sales and one summer sale later, my Steam library consists of: Antichamber; The Beginner’s Guide; Braid; Cubot; English Country Tune; A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build; Hacknet; Her Story; Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes; Papers, Please; Portal; Portal 2; Sokobond; SpaceChem; TIS-100; Undertale; and Waveform. The Gaming post has some thoughts on the matter I won’t repeat here. Some thoughts I did not write there: Napstablook is my favorite character, Ghost Fight is my favorite leitmotif and track, and by now I’ve probably spent more time listening to parodies like the Stronger than You rewrite, remixes like this boss theme medley, and weird dubs of Undertale on YouTube than playing the game itself.

  • Puzzles: The first MIT Mystery Hunt I solved on-site needs no introduction. Unfortunately some of the biggest puzzlers have graduated from floorpi, and so we didn’t do very much for some puzzle hunts (Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza); but then I did Berkeley Mystery Hunt in a Galactic Trendsetters + teamMATE team while interning at Dropbox, plus a student floorpi group in the Boston run of What’s That Spell on 9/24, during which I guessed my way through a non-unique hexagonal Akari to read the correct message, and accidentally met Zotmeister when he notices my “betaveros” nametag. Floorpi also did the Australian triad as usual:

    • 5/9–14: MUMS puzzle hunt, during which I get us unstuck on one puzzle by dumb Googling and extract the meta after lots of false starts.
    • 10/10–18: The inaugural mezzacotta puzzle competition, for which I adopt a caricature of biphasic sleep to solve puzzles as they come out at 3 AM EDT. We win a copy of Hanabi, which we already have, so we get the organizers to send us a copy of Sushi Go! instead. All is good.
    • And now: SUMS puzzle hunt…
  • Adulting: I interned at Dropbox, which means I learned a lot about modern web development and software engineering as a profession, met lots of awesome people, became good friends with ag, sang a lot with Dropbox’s a cappella group, and played a healthy amount of DDR (which is really effective cardio at high levels). Oh and of course I got some transfers into my bank account. And new shoes and a Fitbit, because of a wellness reimbursement.

  • I also bought a domain! I guess I might as well show off beta.vero.site. I spent too long late one night drawing the logo. HTTPS is Coming Soon™.

And I’ll end with the usual nonsensical list of one-time occurrences:

  • 1/18: I realize I have forgotten my GPG password and spend the afternoon trying to remember it. Lying in bed the next day, I succeed.
  • 1/22: I win the Python Bee at Bad Ideas weekend.
  • 1/24: I receive a Night Fury plush! After a while, I decide to name it Noctoros, which is again not entirely namespace-collision free but close enough.
  • 2/19: Several layers of yak-shaving away from 6.01, I send a pull request to hdevtools. #procrastination
  • 2/19–late February: my first serious sickness at MIT, to the best of my recollection, during which I clean out our floor Medlink’s over-the-counter medications.
  • 2/21: After asking ec-discuss@ and friends, I finally decide to order a Nexus 5X with Project Fi, Google’s phone plan, which is relatively normal among my MIT friends (there are many Googlers) but is constantly considered a weird MIT thing by everybody else.
  • 3/6: I watch Zootopia.
  • 5/11: Some casting producer for FOX finds me via the Putnam while “looking for mathematicians and people who love puzzles” for a show where people accomplish mental and physical challenges on television. I politely decline because I don’t think I have any televisable skills of that sort.
  • 7/2: I reach 10,000,000 Neopoints.
  • 9/13: I reach some sort of inflection point in the number of furry chats I’m a member of.
  • 9/25: I kick off the process for [other-redacted]. I can still say “stay tuned” for this one without shame, because the onus isn’t really on me to finish it. Yay!
  • 10/20–12/3: I join a MIT Media Lab study that tracks parts of my behavior, like sleep, and correlates it with my well-being. Or at least it tries. The app is pretty broken, to put it mildly, but I make some suggestions and they improve parts of it. Throughout the study I wear three dongles on my wrist (a watch, the Fitbit from Dropbox, and a Jawbone tracker the study lent me), which turns out to be a pretty good conversation starter.
  • 12/19: After getting reintroduced to QuizUp in ESP, I discover there’s a “Dragons” category.

This is much shorter because I was terrible at keeping track of 2016 because… I don’t even know. But yeah, it’s over! (For me here in UTC+8!)

See you in 2017!

oblig

This is two days late and it’s not even the post that was supposed to be here. That will have to wait until I’m less hosed. ESP just finished running Splash, our largest annual event in which thousands of high school students come to MIT’s campus, and MIT community members (mostly) teach whatever they want to the students. This was the first big program I participated really deeply in as an ESP admin, and it has this way of eating you alive and spitting you out full of joy and immersion in life but devoid of energy and buffer zones for finishing other things by their deadlines.

On a similar note, thanks for all the birthday wishes from everyone everywhere. I’m sorry I haven’t found the time to respond or sometimes reciprocate. This made my day, and probably last couple of weeks too.

“It’s an early iteration of a dragon curve because this kid is a dragon!”

[birthday cake with dragon curve on it]

Stay tuned. Really.

It’s Complicated

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Along with a Republican House and Senate majority, to boot.

The world around me is still hurting and reeling from the shock.

Make no mistake, I am scared. I am scared of the policies and executive orders and legal decisions to come that may strip away many civil rights and send the environment down a worse track faster than anyone expected, and I’m barely in any of the groups that have the most to lose. I have no idea what it’s like to go through this as any of you. I am sorry.

But I am also scared that this fear is driving my friends and my community away from talking to the people we need to talk to if we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

I’ve heard a lot of people vilify Trump and Trump supporters. Anecdotally, so have others. It’s an understandable reaction, but a fragile one. 60 million people voted for Trump. Quoting Wait But Why, “[P]eople with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares. Full, three-dimensional people who voted for what they hope will be a better future for themselves and their family.”

People voted for Trump. Why?

Here’s FiveThirtyEight profiling a few blue-collar voters. The Washington Post interviewing an author who spent a lot of time in rural Wisconsin. The New York Times on women. If the articles’ reasons for voting Trump could be summarized in one word, it would certainly be “economy”.

But then FiveThirtyEight tempers it a little bit with this reminder that Trump’s supporters are on average more well-off than others. Here’s The New Yorker visiting a bunch of Trump rallies. SupChina discusses first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Trump and racism is a bullet point there, but apparently it’s partly rallied around rap lyrics about robbery that advise to “find a Chinese neighborhood” to steal from, so…? I am not going to go any deeper into this rabbit hole. Then here’s Mother Jones arguing against the economy being a big factor at all, and Vox saying it is about racial resentment. Here’s Bloomberg on the Clinton campaign’s failure to persuade and The Federalist on “hyper-liberal late-night comedy” and The Washington Times on Trump’s optimism. I could find hundreds more out there just by Googling, and so could you; and chances are if you’re enough of a voracious reader to be reading my humble blog, you’ve already read some of these.

It’s complicated.

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Time, Money, and All That Good Stuff: Part 1 of ∞

I had this 5,000-word draft, but I half-abandoned it for being sappy, boring, pointless, and impossible to rewrite to be satisfactorily un-cringeworthy. Instead, let me just tell you a couple random stories and anecdotes that went somewhere near the start. Maybe posting them will motivate me to salvage something from the 4,500 words that go after it and post it. Eventually.

Some time ago, Namecheap had a discount, so I bought a domain name for 88¢. Unfortunately, the discount only lasted for one year; afterwards, it would cost $29/year to renew. Even though I bought it on a whim and didn’t have much use for it, I found myself wanting to keep it more and more and had a huge mental struggle over whether I could afford it, because wow, $29 is a lot!

Meanwhile, during the same school year, more or less:

  • I paid $20 in maintenance fees on my savings account because I thought I had set up auto-transfer but didn’t.
  • After I lost my umbrella (which I got at IOI 2014), I bought a new one with one of those fancy open-close buttons for $23… then promptly lost it too after 1½ months.
  • I’ve spent ~$40 on boba alone in SF this summer…
  • I was a teaching assistant at IDEA MATH on the weekends and randomly got $50 bonuses whenever we were short on actual teachers and I had to lead a class on my own. This happened about half the time and I am now metaphorically sitting on this pile of random bonuses.
  • I placed 105th in a HackerRank contest where the top 100 places received $75 Amazon gift cards, because I was too lazy to get partial credit on the last problem.
  • I’ve spent $120 on escape-the-room games alone in SF this summer…
  • I bought a Nexus 5X for $300 so I could use Project Fi, Google’s mobile carrier that nobody has heard of unless you’re really deep into tech circles like me. A few weeks later, I randomly happened to visit the Nexus 5X site again, learned that they had just started a discount where Nexus 5Xes cost $150 if you bought them while signing up for Project Fi, and was pretty miffed that I had just missed it, but filed it away as something I couldn’t do anything about. A few days after that, I randomly happened to visit /r/nexus5x and learned that others had been getting the discount retroactively by contacting customer service, so I did that and got $150 back.
  • Remember the $20 maintenance fee? I could have paid a lot more if I hadn’t accidentally noticed it while figuring out if I gave somebody the wrong account number to wire a ~$200 reimbursement for. (Which I had, I think; but fortunately I figured it out, told them the right number, and got the reimbursement anyway. Still…)

I write this having returned from a trip to UC Davis that cost $55 (and 30¢) in terms of transportation only, and somehow I barely hesitated in spending that. I definitely have no doubts about it now.

Something’s changed, I guess. And yes, there are a few really obvious somethings that changed, but I think there were also a few rather subtle somethings.

Um. Stay tuned…?

Musings on Time Pressure

I hate doing things under time pressure, but I have to admit I do a lot more things when time pressure exists. One of the things is writing. Another is posting the things I write. They aren’t very good, but they’re better than writing that doesn’t exist.

(in case you forgot, I’m still posting this pretty much only because I made myself post once every weekend)

It’s interesting that I can impose time pressure on myself by declaring commitment devices by fiat and it works. Other people have developed other methods of doing this — I recently discovered The Most Dangerous Writing App, which puts time pressure on you to type every five seconds or it deletes everything you wrote. There are many other ways it’s done.

Of course, there are more organic sources of time pressure, like school and work assignments. But it occurred to me today that other people starting a discussion on something I want to comment on also provides time pressure. If I put off commenting too long it means I’ll miss the discussion and be necroposting, which is an online faux pas, except when it’s a funny anniversary or a forum game. So suddenly I find myself writing and writing (and hitting backspace a lot, and taking walks around my apartment).

This seems like a source I have little control over, but there is probably some way to take advantage of it or amplify its effects to make myself write more and think more, which I can’t think of right now because I’m writing this right before the deadline (Sunday, 11:59 pm, Hawaii–Aleutian Standard Time?) as usual and it’s too late for my brain to function.

The weird thing is that when I sit down to write anything, I almost inevitably end up realizing something I didn’t before — maybe because it allows me to follow a complicated train of thought to its conclusion, maybe because it lets me see the flaws in an argument more clearly after I have it all written down — and it feels pretty good. Yet I can’t internalize the feeling enough to want to write for its sake, and have to come up with these hacks to make myself do it. Brains are weird.

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Pangs

I have this memory —

I was a tiny kid, lying in bed and trying to fall asleep, and I started thinking about death and nonexistence, and I thought about how one day I wouldn’t exist any more, that there wouldn’t be a me thinking my thoughts and perceiving my perspective, and suddenly I was terrified.

I got up and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door and asked them about this. Maybe. Or maybe I didn’t because the fear was less crippling than the social awkwardness of randomly knocking on my parents’ door in the middle of the night to ask them a question like that; I don’t remember. It was a long time ago, okay?


This approximate topic is something I think and blog about now and then, rarely but consistently. Mortality was the light-hearted rambling one; Thoughts at Midnight was the dark philosophically-unhinged one. There are many even older posts, from before I told anybody about this blog. I’m not going to find them and you shouldn’t either. They’re probably terrible.

It inevitably feels weird writing about them because I rarely feel these feelings and roughly never talk to anybody about them. As I said before, it’s just not a popular conversation topic. But when they happen, they happen, except now I don’t think there’s anybody whose door I can knock on, not just because I’m far too old for this stuff and living away from family, but because I’ve thought so much about these things that I doubt I know anybody who could give me a convincing and satisfying answer. I know there is too much we don’t know.

I am not having these feelings right now. There might have been a few minutes in the last week, but otherwise nothing for a month or so. (Remember, my blog drafts go back years…) For whatever reason, I had an especially vivid, and relatively realistically-grounded, moment like that for a few minutes on the flight home.

I was sad about the fact that I was going to die. That life is fleeting, and nothing lasts forever. I was sad about the days I had spent with my precious family and friends that had passed, and the limited supply I had left, and how I didn’t know the proper way to use them, how I felt like my future self would inevitably regret some choices no matter how hard I tried.

I was sad about the long future, that I wasn’t optimistic about living a long and happy life with all the uncertainties and x-risks and how humanity is still so terrible at cooperating, despite the growing capacity of a few lone defectors to ruin things for everybody. Global warming or environmental issues in general, a particularly bad strain of virus or a biological or chemical attack, and who knows what’ll happen with artificial intelligence.

I was sad that even if we got everything right, the future probably wouldn’t need me. Everything I was learning or would learn, everything the world valued in me, everything I valued in myself — there would probably be some possibly non-human entity out there that did it better. And yet in some other way, that seemed desirable, because some of those things would benefit a lot of people if they were done better by anybody at all. I was sad that I couldn’t tell what I wanted, that my big-picture desires conflicted with each other and didn’t make any sense. That even if I had a benevolent genie, I wouldn’t know what to tell it. That I’m trying to keep an eye on changing the world for the better, but a little bit reluctant to think too hard and too precisely about what the moonshot optimal world I was ultimately aiming for because I might not like it.

That’s as much as I can express what’s it’s like. But the details don’t matter, right? The point is the same. These things are faraway and there are no good answers, so thinking about them is unhelpful, so I should stop. Right?

(Sometimes it works. Sometimes I can’t call up the same emotional weight of those thoughts even if I tried. They just collapse into sentences, words in a relation dictated by syntax. My Amazon package is going to arrive in the next one or two weeks; the Earth is going to rotate about its axis over the next 24 hours; I am going to die. Facts. Boring.)

On one hand, focusing on the present — seizing the day, living without regrets — helps me make myself actually do things instead of think in circles about ungrounded ideas. On the other hand, not looking at the big picture of life makes it easy to let days slip away without having done anything meaningful. When I suppress these philosophical thoughts, am I suppressing an unproductive side of me, or am I suppressing the side of me that would actually be able to experience life the most deeply?

(Or both?)