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?)

Music II

When I first made myself commit to posting weekly, I was trying to make myself spend a little time every day of the week thinking and writing and whittling away at old drafts. Instead I’m here at 10:40 PM basically starting a brand-new post. Oh well.

I last blogged about music in 2013. I tagged two other posts with “music” since then, but neither is particularly deep: 8 Songs for 18 Years and Drop-In Filler. Let’s continue the tradition of self-analysis part IIs from nowhere…


I meditated a little bit in Conversations about “lacking experience or interest in a lot of the commonly discussed culture.” I think this applies to me and music as well, although not as fully. Back in Taiwan, when mentally bracing myself for coming to the U.S. for college, I sometimes worried about not knowing enough about pop music and bands and not listening enough to popular albums, and having trouble integrating into the culture for this.

Turns out, among the communities I wandered into and friends I made, it was a more frequent obstacle that I didn’t know enough about classical music and composers. Whoops. Some of the names rang faint bells from either music class or conversations with high school friends who did do classical music, but I could not identify or remember any styles or eras, and would remember composers only by unreliable first letters or unusual substrings of their names.

(Although this isn’t particularly unique to music, and is adequately explained by me just being bad at names. Fun fact: In first grade or thereabouts, during “computer” “class” where we practiced making Microsoft Word documents about things, I wrote some sort of introduction to Leonhard Euler and said that he proved that there were infinitely many primes. I believe my first-grade self conflated Euler with Euclid by assuming that only one important mathematical name would ever start with such an odd digraph. A digraph of two vowels at that.)

(Mental challenge: In two minutes, list as many of your friends whose names start with two vowels in a row as you can. Go!)

I don’t think that not following pop music helps either, but when I visited Taiwan over breaks, I realized my sister learned more about U.S. pop music by staying in school there than I did actually studying in the U.S.

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