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Why Pusheen the Cat is Significant

by on Aug.28, 2013, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

When Facebook, one of the biggest companies on the web, partnered with Pusheen to integrate Pusheen emoticons into chat, I was initially slightly surprised. Why would a giant like them make a random cartoon cat part of their official product?
But then I realized that this was not a level-crossing, a heavyweight partnering with a lightweight, at all.
The unofficial symbol of the Internet is the lolcat. Cats are adorable. Cats are a tremendous aesthetic force. They physically move people’s hands to share pictures of them more than any other creature. Until now, what the Internet did not have was an ideal stylized cartoon cat to capture the essence of that sentiment. That cat is Pusheen.
Moreover, I frequently comment that most of the worlds problems aren’t hard like rocket science, but hard like herding cats. And I’m so optimistic about the Internet because it’s the best tool ever created for herding cats. Then Eric Smalls remarked that this was literally the case! Suddenly I was enlightened!
Long live Pusheen!

Art is great because it shows you  not the real thing with all its imperfection as does photography, but the essence of the thing, why it is awesome, through the rose-colored eyes of the artist. LOOK AT THE HUGGABLENESS

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Why English and Literature

by on Jan.22, 2012, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Wrote this some time in 2010…
English and literature is perhaps best connected to by those who have faced a challenge or a confusing series of events. As characters trace their way through analogous situations and make decisions, readers gain a deeper understanding of the meaning underlying the events unfolding within their own lives. If you think about this situation from an existential standpoint, there’s no intrinsic order or reason or higher meaning behind the C you just got on a lab writeup, a rejection from college, or a loss in a competition. Nor is there any significance to winning a battle, making it over a threshold, or falling in love. The meaning that’s “out there” is not really “out there”: we construct it for ourselves, pulling it from the void around us and weaving it into patterns of truth like science fiction writers would imagine we could zero-point energy from the quantum vacuum…
What literature tells us is that the fact that there is nothing certain but what we make and interpret isn’t such a bad thing after all. It uplifts us like myth in Joseph Campbell’s commentary, it gives us a common background, a set of axioms around which we can structure our own thinking. When, in the Wheel of Time book The Gathering Storm, Rand resolved to make himself “harder than steel,” into “cuendillar” (an unbreakable substance in that universe) in order to resist the pain of the world around him and again the strength he needed to do what had to be done to win the Last Battle, I felt him to be a reflection of myself in the face of AP Chem. I saw that I had made the same decision under analogous circumstances. And like him, the coat of ice on my soul did not last forever, because it attempted to obscure who I truly was. As it softened with time, I gained a greater understanding of the passion and flashing neural storms of thought and curiosity that had driven me forward over the years. Same happened with Ender’s game and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It’s the element of seeing yourself and others you know in characters, and seeing the world around you through the fantasy and fiction that gives a truer testament to the subjective  human experience then does the whitewashed truth itself. It is the evolution of the character through trials and temptations, his series of decisions that make me realize fully, deeply, that though figments of nothing we may be, governed by no higher truth, that I am not alone, that there’s kinship in this strange place, that there’s someone who’s faced my trials and come out the victor, who knows me now and knows what I will become more surely than I do myself. This soothing balm we give a greater name: culture and religion and tradition…
Nietchze tells us that “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Science is the how. Literature is the why, and it underlies and teaches us more about all that we do..
oneness of percep
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Action. Subjective Definition

by on Oct.22, 2011, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Action is the grating sound of the crude, midnight lock pick on the iron-barred, stone-brick door; the focus that comes ten seconds before the hammer falls, the buzzer rings, and the contest is decided – flying, searching, balancing perfectly, speeding on through the deepening twilight, filled with exhilaration, overpowering pain and fatigue, nervousness fading to confidence and worry to motivation; holding straight with unimaginable, superhuman precision even as the world collapses behind you because you know that is the only way. Action is springing awake, inspired with a vision at that time after midnight when words, algorithms, pictures, music – connections – fly from your spidery long and preternaturally deft fingers, fingers that tacitly remind you they cannot be stopped or even hindered in their transcendent quest for future glory, that drill into your mind the joyous realization that whatever it is you once had, you still have it.
The rapid release of energy, the visceral beat of adrenaline against the knotted stomach, darkness evaporating, doubt so far from consciousness as to have never existed, the pre-knowledge, the intuitive certainty, of victory. Taking off ever later, deeper – not banishing, but simply never entertaining thoughts of the rocky reef below and the dredging mountain of water forming up steeply under your shortboard’s tail; seeing thousands of miles ahead, but focusing only on the next step, next step, next step, as time beats rhythmically onwards. Pumping harder than ever before, than is mortally possible; the splash of foam and salt rising as you land high speed aerials never successfully completed on a calmer day, but that you knew you could then. Automatically, subconsciously, upping your performance as the stakes grow higher.
Time passes. Every second is judged, every word, gesture, sentence, test, program, contract – business deal – weighted successively more heavily in the gradebook of life. Pressure-action: sprinting across the finish line, no time for celebration because it’s too late already, the shining gossamer fabric of Now tearing ever more rapidly behind your leaden feet. Clearing abyssal gaps, scaling colossal boulders in the budding spring, running up the icy mountainside without a moment’s breath, pulling your scarf close as you trudge on under the waning moon – the only light remaining in a darkening world of thunder-shrouded planets and smoke-veiled stars. The chest-tightening realization that the same heavens shine forth upon the comfortingly dusty chaparral hills you left behind…
And then breaking free: suddenly being the fire, the infernal flames that leap maniacally onward towards the quenching sea that lies always “another mile” distant, that absurdly, cruelly, recedes even as you charge faster towards it. Giving energy, receiving energy, inspired by the companions with whose paths, for a fleeting moment, your blazing, advancing, wild, savage, beacon of fire-consciousness, kilowatt-laser-determination intersected…
But an impasse approaches: fear – the primal light glinting from the blood-red eyes of the feral beast, evil unspecified in form but dagger-point definite in destructive power. Mountains and precipices rising where the treasure map indicated molehills and ant-lion pits. Despair: falling short microns before the threshold, again, and again, and again. Ever-compounding errors cancel out innate advantages; false step by false step head slides deeper under the freezing water as once-exorcised demons transgress inviolable laws of magic, haunting anew the untrodden paths of the world, awaiting the blithe, unwary traveler. Waylaid: confident, searing torches and firebrands blown to cold heaps of ash and tar by the swishing wind of fell, unearthly cloaks. Acuity freezes to instinct, mind echoes with the strained heartbeat of fleeing dreams as faceless and un-combatable enemies rise, unwittingly summoned from what should have been an inescapable grave.
But hark! An angelic counterpart to these unforeseen, unspeakable, bottomless pitfalls and savage hairpin twists in the rope of fate! Not the dawn, but an overlooked possibility, a pale yet effulgent doppelganger of the sun, rises silently, blazingly before our desperate faces. Split-second but total commitment: the chase is full on, but an end is now in sight. Unbeknownst, the world bates its breathing as theirretrievable, deciding instant draws nigh. In robot-like delirium, we extend our grasping hands…
And there the path diverges; two parallel outcomes, worlds, universes unfold, equal and opposite, juxtaposed in their reverse synchrony, simultaneously enticing and repelling us, the sojourners of space and time. We cannot stop to think: in a moment, all illusion of choice will slip away into the nameless obscurity of the past, hidden behind a bend, a far-off streetcorner alley, in time. But that should not trouble us. Though we live in the future, actions dictated by plans and expectations, and at best perceive those events that have just elapsed, we are denizens and masters of the Now and the Now alone, constituent parts of the vibrant, scorching thread that ties that which has happened to that which may. And “a moment” is the vast stretch of time after which all superposition of possibility will be collapsed, history written, outcomes decided. But It – the gyrating, amorphous chimera of fire, ice, and life – the consummate entity that is all undecided future – nonetheless tightens around us, sepulchral, extremely loud and incredibly close, screaming its dissonant, paradoxical bidding into our minds.

It is now our time to choose – to take action – and decide what It will become.

And with that, we begin.

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Reason Passion Drawing Hands

by on Jul.11, 2011, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

David Hume missed one piece of the equation:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” ~David Hume

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” ~David Hume
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Fun, Sleep, and Optimally Discrepant Stimuli

by on Feb.23, 2011, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

What determines whether something is fun or draining? Let’s take rock climbing, for instance. If you are just running to rock climbing, having to do it, trying a few walls you might have already done, and then leaving, it’s no fun. But if you are able to lie in bed in the mornings and think about solutions you dreamed up to walls that baffled you before, see yourself doing them in your head, then you can’t wait to jump up and try them. To do this, you have to get enough sleep, because otherwise you don’t dream up the solutions, and it just becomes frustrating (this is especially important with motor skills since they are developed most in the final hours before you naturally wake up). This in turn causes you to develop bad memories with a given task, and if you are forced to continue doing it or otherwise pressured to continue doing it, you come to dislike it. That’s why I decided not to go rock climbing after I woke up from my nap and could see the incomplete begins of my solutions to the route that makes you straddle a gap on tiny footholds at the MIT rock gym — I could see it being less than maximally fun, which would give me a negative memory. If MIT students slept more, and had more freedom to leave their area of study until they naturally returned to it, maybe fewer of them would get burnt out.

I strongly refute the notion that it’s inevitable that things become less exciting as you become familiar with them. Isn’t the point of progressing forward in life to work to go up and up and up? It’s not about clinging desperately to something you are to have, but by getting better, becoming more fluent, gaining all the knowledge until you finally become too old to sustain this. Is it possible? Ask any pro-surfer. I want to become more skilled at and more in love with what I do every day, around every corner of understanding.

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Rubik’s Cubing + The Structure of Learning

by on Jul.28, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

I’ve found from my own experience and teaching others that learning efficiently is a two-step process.  The first and most important step is to become inspired to learn a skill or curious about the subject so that your mind and fingers itch to assimilate it.  This has got to happen sooner or later or those “Ahah!” moments just don’t come, the experience is painful, and all but the most resolute or most pressured give up entirely after a while.  Sometimes you have to begin step 2 (actually learning material) before you can bring yourself over the inspiration threshold, but if you don’t, you at best obtain only a passive understanding of the subject. So if I have to learn how to do something, I spend a really long time figuring out why learning it will be awesome.  Then it is effortless to excitedly blast from the starting blocks.  Anyway, that’s what I wrote this essay on speedcubing — to inspire friends to get past step one (don’t laugh at my times, it was sophomore year).

Ah, the 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube. Beauty unparalleled. Crisp, sharp, even, Lexan textured tiles. 190 cubic centimeters of red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange elegance. In supple and expectants hands I hold this hallowed item, preparing to solve. Feelings of anticipation. Lost in the wash of color, I feel the smoothness of the 30-weight lube that lines the clean black crevices. A faint smell of plastic permeates the room, vaguely similar to the pleasant aroma of a newly bought automobile. A familiar soft swishing sound caresses my ears as I tentatively turn the first face, beginning anew a journey into the unknown.

As if alive, the cube emits a quiet clicking, moving faster and faster in a blur of light as it becomes one with the fingers driving it, receiving and giving energy, and filling its holder with focus and determination. Front center clockwise, right counterclockwise, top clockwise, my fingers beat in a blinding crescendo, and faster than the words describing their motion can form in my very mind, they fly through algorithm after algorithm, disregarding logical reason, engrained in comfortable patterns of antiquity, lost in memory. Orient last layer, FRUR’U’F’, RUR’URU2R’. I pause for breath, suddenly, I see the path! The 15-move algorithm flies not from my fingers, but seemingly from the cube itself, faster than thought, sound, or even light.

I throw the cube down, filled with triumph! Solved! Then, in trepidation, praying my months’ work has proved fruitful, I lift the stopwatch. As I press the stop button, not only the clock, but time itself freezes. After veritable millennia, my eyes focus themselves on the digits, unable to process what they see. Then the reality churns back into motion.

CRUD! Still 24.04 seconds! I slump back, defeated by something weighing less than 6 ounces…

Driven to greater determination, I fish my 5x5x5 cube from a bag of chattels, ready to roll the dice of fate once more.

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by on Jul.28, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Fun with Stanford roommate essay 🙂

Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. What would you want your future roommate to know about you? Tell us something about you that will help your future roommate and us know you better.

I’m a marked man…

WANTED (hopefully by Stanford): Jacob Cole alias “J-Dog,” “Comp-Sci Guy!”

ARMED & DANGEROUS: •Packs a pen (mightier than sword)  •Known to carry a concealed yoyo  •Rubik’s Cube-toting  •Prone to pun without provocation  •Wont to wax poetic without warning  •Practices karate katas in shower

CRIMES:  •Grand theft cookie  •Suspected bibliophile  •Agitating for freedom of information  •Treason against Microsoft: fomenting the Linux insurgency  •Concocting, then trafficking open-source software without a license agreement  •Impersonating Hamlet  •Flagrantly sporting mismatched socks  •Crashing Firefox by opening >40 tabs of Web 2.0 apps, LOLCats, Stanford Open Courseware, GMail chats, Greek relief sculptures, etc.  •Curfew violations: discussing cool ideas with roommates late into night  •Subversive strategies in robotics competitions, causing judges to change rules  •Samosa smuggling

ACCOMPLICES: •Intercontinental cadre of co-conspirators skulk at Stanford, Whatchamacallit Inst. of Technology, “Stanford of the East,” Ivory-bridge etc. Dangerous network of masterminds. You may be assimilated.  •Other agents stake out remote surf breaks, national parks, snowboard slopes

AT LARGE: •Identifying features: overstuffed backpack, bulging laptop case, shorts, flip-flops  •Nighttime prowler of XKCD forums  •Sighted at Fresh Choice, dim sum joints, and near health food stores (munching granola and fair-trade dark chocolate). May also be found at McDonalds, but only for the free wi-fi.  •Last seen: Dropping into a barreling wave at Torrey Pines State Beach on his shortboard

REWARD: •Free tech support  •Gratifying and enduring friendship

Should you encounter this rapscallion, immediately report to nearest admissions officer.

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Ninjas versus Hackers

by on Jul.28, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

An AP English compare and contrast essay. My profoundest apologies for conflating hackers and crackers, the teacher was unfamiliar with the correct terminology (plus it gave me an alliteration 🙂 )

Hackers of Honshū

Lithe, dark-clad, burglar-assassins of medieval Japan; Scrawny techies who can infiltrate and destroy any network. Ninja and hacker: these kindred classes of cunning cutthroats are (or were) both feared and revered throughout their respective domains[1]. Interestingly, the connection between them is deeper than first meets the eye. Or it would be, if you could see either before they struck.

Their similarities begin at birth. Ninjas spring from the mountains of Koga, Japan, hackers from Mountain View, CA. As children they are utterly unstoppable. No cookie jar is safe from a nascent ninja, and a young hackerling leaves no appliance un-disassembled. In their teen years, impudent hacker dudes have been known to break into school networks and modify their grades, just to flaunt their emerging abilities. Teenage ninjas (the non-mutant and non-turtle sort), if present in Western society, would undoubtedly do the same, albeit by rappelling through the skylight of the administrative office and deftly switching their transcripts with forged copies.

Upon reaching maturity, both depart to places of legend for advanced training in their secretive arts. Ninjas trek to hidden springs where ancient martial monks beat them into unstoppable shadow warriors. A trainee is deemed ready when he has the quickness and control to pluck a pebble from his master’s palm. Hackers have a less daunting search but an equally brutal education. They study by day under the computer science gurus of Stanford, UC Berkeley, and MIT, and by night under the dark counterparts of these professors, who tell them, “only when you can snatch the admin passcode from the database is it time for you to leave.”

Now, not everybody manages to earn the approbation of these Spartan sages and venerable code sharks. Ninjas who don’t make the cut end up playing bit parts in lame kung-fu movies. Invariably, they portray the villain’s evil henchmen who get thrashed by the hero. Hackers who can’t hack it go to work for Microsoft. They’re in charge of writing the code that keeps Windows from crashing.

Those students who do manage to graduate enter the turbulent worlds of their respective professions. Hackers generally hack for a noble cause (like the open source software movement), but some black-hats occasionally will trash systems for their own amusement or take jobs as freelance cyber-hitmen. Conversely, ninjas are far more often roving mercenaries than staunch idealists. However, despite their let their lack of cohesion and unity of purpose, these guerrilla warriors are brutally effective: even in small numbers, they can wreak havoc upon those they are hired to “hack” (to pieces).

In plying their trades, ninjutsu[2] marauders and code-fu commandos are equally nocturnal. After midnight, you can find them both (though only with night vision goggles and a SWAT team) surreptitiously seeking their unsuspecting targets. They conceal their identities: ninjas mask their faces with shadowy cowls, hackers spoof their IP addresses. And to fortify themselves for these nighttime raids, both denizens of darkness chug copious quantities of caffeine: ninjas are partial to green tea, hackers prefer Jolt® Cola. Once fueled up and prepared, ninjas grappling-hook their way onto the highest parapets and slay the sentries with quick flicks of their shurikens. Hackers, on the other hand, scale firewalls, then, with a rapid burst of typing dispatch hapless anti-intrusion programs to the software version of the afterlife.

Ninjas then proceed to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the palace or stronghold they have been commissioned to “gain access to.” They are so dreaded for their stealth and skill that many daimyo, or Japanese warlords, specially construct their sleeping quarters with floorboards that creak loudly, and, to distinguish friend from foe, make their servants wear clunky footwear. For similar reasons, we load our laptops with beeping virus checkers and clunky spyware scanners. Furthermore, some daimyo sleep with armed samurai posted around their bedrooms. Those sentinels, like overzealous security dialog boxes, are in charge of “cancelling or allowing” visitors – either permanently “deleting” them with the slice of a sharpened katana or respectfully offering them ocha[3].

But in the end, all this preparation is futile. Mere mortals do not have the power to prevent these prowlers of the night from achieving their nefarious ends – assassination, espionage, destruction, spam. Thus, some might wish that there were no ninjas or hackers, that they never even existed, but what then? For one, makers of antivirus software and clunky shoes would be seriously out of their jobs. And what about our comic books? Teenage Mutant Bonsai-Gardener Turtles just doesn’t cut it. And worst of all, when our PCs crash, we’d have nobody but ourselves to blame…except maybe the dropouts at Microsoft.

[1] Technically, hackers aren’t necessarily malevolent – malicious hackers are called “crackers” or “black-hats.” But the media refer to both as “hackers,” so this essay does the same.

[2] Ninja karate style and weapons techniques

[3] Japanese tea ceremony

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How to do Timed Writing: A Tutorial. Version 0.2

by on Mar.05, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

How to do Timed Writing: A Tutorial. Version 0.2
There are two parts (not wholly unrelated to one another) to succeeding in timed writing: good logic/flow and good style. Depending on how much time you have to learn and your own style of self-education, you can go about learning these two elements in a variety of ways.

First of all, about style: a certain level of good style is implicit within truly clear writing. If you are using the right words to say what you mean, and the reader is guided along in a journey of understanding as he or she peruses your paper; it comes across as stylistically effective. It does not have to be high-minded and metaphorical, though doing so well can often make a good work even more beautiful.

As to developing style: carefully reading lots of stylistically intense books is an excellent place to start. As painful as they are to endure and to prepare for, challenging reading quizzes really help if you want to quickly gain powerful writing style. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet letter, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath , F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – all of these books will boost your ability to employ advanced, effective vocabulary and powerful grammatical structures. Look up words as you go along — sit next to InstaDefine.com (instant dictionary). Or keep a list and use EasyDefine.com and look them all up retrospectively. However it is very important to read them in context so you can extrapolate their connotations and other usage details. Make your own vocabulary sentences — have fun with them and attempt to string together lots of complex vocabulary terms in the same sentence, using all correctly in terms of both connotation and denotation. Do this with SAT word lists, again use EasyDefine.com. Realize the subtle differences in effect that careful diction induces; this takes a certain meticulous artistry. It is just like in computer science when you are attempting to make your program optimal not just in performance but in form — using the best available library functions to achieve every effect, reinventing the wheel as infrequently as possible. Elegance requires fluency which requires research which in turn takes time, but nonetheless this process is natural, not painful. Spend focused minutes finding the right word and right phrasing for every situation, constantly bringing yourself to another level. When it’s impossible to continue, go to sleep, look back at it with fresh eyes, read some more books, and realize how you could have made your work better — this willl happen time and time again. It is only very rare that even the most experienced writers have the perfect phrasing the first few times around. And remember, the right word, like the right programming method will float naturally, perfectly in meaning along with the rest of the passage and will optimally carry your paper towards achieving its rhetorical purpose. Artistic fluff that is not appropriate to the audience or distracting to the meaning of the piece is like the silly convolutions in Rococo art: ick. Especially with AP timed writings: keep your goal in mind even as you seek to be half poet as well as half rhetor; as Ferlinghetti tells us, with each word you must “perforce perceive taut truth” even as you seek to catch the “fair eternal form of Beauty” falling through the “empty air of existence.”

Finally, once you have developed this stylistic fluency, it is necessary to learn to enter the “intense writing trance.” Intense does not necessarily mean serious; it means throwing yourself into a labyrinth of meaning and picking your way euphoric step by euphoric step outward towards enlightenment. Your feet move of their own accord like the grand ideas that spontaneously coalesce into emergent meaning as you venture deeper, float higher. I wrote many of my most serious and metaphorically involved works this way, I also wrote one of my most humorous college essays this way. They either come to me after hours or days or weeks of beating at the wrong topic, moving nowhere, or spontaneously as a result of a transcendent or otherwise moving experience I undergo. Suddenly, the idea hits and the first few lines are rough but then the neural clusters begin to fire in time like the muscles of a warmed-up runner and you are off sprinting towards a finish line you cannot yet see. It is then that you know why you write, and conclusions and expansions come without effort:

“Like needlepoint, the meticulous art, I am pulled through and through, looping back upon myself in an embroidery of endless thread; I spin outward in expanding patterns, amplified as my parts reflect from one another. I write to answer the soft hiss and clack of spinning wool, to keep the wheel rolling, to keep the skein and smooth. I write because I am the cloth woven of its own unravelings, circling through the loom to create a changing whole.” ~Ben LaBreche, “Why I Write”

A few techniques that I have found particularly useful include:
-alliteration: excellent for both humor (e.g. “Don’t wallow in wistfulness; instead, seek out and seize opportunities”; or, even better, strung together: “Prone to pun
without provocation •Wont to wax poetic without warning”) and for punctuating powerful points (e.g. “perforce perceive taut truth” again)

Good vocabulary is an excellent place to start.

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Poetry ~ Programming

by on Jan.18, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

I like ’em both for the same reason: they involve writing words worth a thousand pictures. Here’s my entry for the LPSNJ National HS Poetry Competition Dec ’09:


Canopy, coolness. Green-diffracted light-not-light ether-rays from Sun that doesn’t burn the
Heat-peat of the living, mottled-matte ground-mat
Of autumn’s fallen blades
Which sink with the wood and are consumed into the trees, into the mist. Into dust-chariots
On which great fog streams of God-thought-breath ride until bursting-emerging
In enlightenment through the leaves…

And the alien Power Lines stood tall in fire-barren field on the scrub hill,
Surveying the scorched skeletons of ancient stumps.
Yet they wept in anger,
At the fresh buds they had wrought
Even as in wrath with flame they smote the mountain,
At the life that yet persisted betwixt charred exterior and undying core,
At Nature, immortal as they were impermanent.

Which cycles surely as the moon that daily rises upon the woods,
Which cannot be long defied by infernal lightning nor the man-made destruction
With which we ourselves smite,
In foolish attempt to score a lasting mark
Into the quicksand on which we rest,
That broadens as we hack away the roots beneath.

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Bonus alternate ending to Surfing in the Fog!

by on Jan.18, 2010, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Bonus alternate ending! Original post can be found here and here.

Sitting at peace in the stillness between the hollow waves is but one tributary of the vast “stream of power and wisdom” that animates me, the great river of physical and spiritual truth that emanates from nature. Running my hand along the ice-glazed needles of the fallen pine, inhaling the green-diffracted God-thought-breath of the morning forest, laughing as I hold wide my windbreaker and lean euphorically into the rushing torrents of the rain: this timeless rapture is my inspiration, this intricate, organic splendor a sanctified model for my thoughts. This is why I paddle out, never knowing exactly where I’ll return to shore.

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Video Clip from Botball ’09 Competition

by on Dec.19, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Our “blockerbot” uses a ramp to quickly hop out of the starting box. It then follows a line up the opponents’ incline and prevents them from scoring by means of the blocker arms it drops down.

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Surfing in the Fog

by on Dec.11, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Photos: Me, at surf!

It is my personal belief that paddling out into the lineup through a bank of heavy mist and suddenly finding yourself unable to see the shore is among the most surreal experiences a person who is both sane and sober can have. Emerging from the thickest part of the onshore fog and into the realm of brighter sunlight that streams through the oculus in the clouds and sparkles across the water outside is like crossing the border into a parallel world utterly isolated from that which we experience in our daily, land-lubberish lives. The feeling must be akin to that which drove explorers and sailors of old to risk their lives and endure harsh conditions and low wages to embark again and again. It must be similar to that which brought Jacques Cousteau to explore the deep, what carried Charles Lindbergh to the skies, what drove early astronauts to fly to the moon. It is the euphoria and mystery that greets those who dare to leap where no one has ever looked, who realize that there is no emotion truer than that which comes from floating adrift in a flimsy, tiny capsule through a chaotic universe unimaginably larger than they. It is only when we are lost that we finally find ourselves…

When you are surfing in the fog you are very directly prompted to think philosophically. I inevitably ponder the counterintuitive truism in quantum mechanics that states that all you do not see could indeed be – and in fact is – anything and everything it can be. As fellow wave riders – strangers and friends – wink out of your sphere of sight and consciousness, as the steadfast constructs of society become transient and melt into the muffling grayness, you lose all standards for comparison and preconceptions of perspective and your thoughts branch out unfettered as you ride (or duck dive beneath) the waves that without direction or premeditation appear before you. In this contemplative state of mind, concepts that have long eluded you suddenly coalesce. The massively parallel algorithm that underlies my project for the Intel Science Talent Search came to me not in a laboratory or classroom but when I was observing the patterns made by the rivulets of water running down my surfboard as I emerged from underneath a wave. Oftentimes, I find it more productive to empty my mind to the ocean’s meditative lull than to study…

By the end of the session, you have no idea where you have drifted to because it is impossible to even tell if you’re moving, much less which direction. You could very well end up at a different beach, or for that matter a different country, than where you paddled out. In fact, you half expect to. Doing otherwise would violate the mysteriously adventurous aesthetic sense of the universe that, for all the protests of the existentialists, again and again proves itself to be law. And it is law. No matter where you end up (which is never exactly where you expect), the sanctity of the surrealness of the session persists long after, transcending time. Those who embark on a voyage into this realm never fully return, nor do they desire to.  The experience that I here describe happened to me three years ago and yet I write about it as if it were today. It also happened to me what on my watch (which I left in the car) appeared to be three hours ago, but I know wasn’t because I could feel myself traveling through eternity crammed onto a pinhead in that minute instant that my feet retracted off of the sand and onto my shortboard.

Bonus alternate ending!
Sitting at peace in the stillness between the hollow waves is but one tributary of the vast “stream of power and wisdom” that animates me, the great river of physical and spiritual truth that emanates from nature. Running my hand along the ice-glazed needles of the fallen pine, inhaling the green-diffracted God-thought-breath of the morning forest, laughing as I hold wide my windbreaker and lean euphorically into the rushing torrents of the rain: this timeless rapture is my inspiration, this intricate, organic splendor a sanctified model for my thoughts. This is why I paddle out, never knowing exactly where I’ll return to shore.

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Intellectual Batman

by on Dec.11, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

“Why Science/Engineering?” Essay Idea!

In attempting to ascertain the composition of the person’s psyche, it is often productive to hear his or her complete answer to a specific question. For me, the most telling query is perhaps a bit unorthodox: “Who is your favorite superhero?”

My answer? Phil, the protagonist of Groundhog Day. What? Yes. He was an ordinary man who one day awoke to find himself trapped in a universe with an intriguing peculiarity in its time dimension: every morning, the same day would repeat itself exactly. I admire him because of what he made of this predicament: by analyzing the initial conditions and results of his past actions, he was able to put himself in the right places at the right times to achieve his goals. He had no superhuman powers – only his intellect and an intuitive understanding of the scientific method – yet eventually was able to exploit the properties of his “looping” universe to save lives and master many skills.

Fundamentally, this is what researchers do. It is also what I have tried to do  for essentially all of my life. By deeply understanding various quirks of a challenge (or a system that behaves unexpectedly), it is frequently possible to find a clever way to overcome it.  This is my favorite way to do so.  So in eight years of robotics competitions, I’ve never attempted to complete a task in the expected way – in fact, it is for the joy of attempting the unorthodox that I compete in the first place.  Just recently, in the 2009 Botball competition, each team had to deliver a number of items to a given set of destinations across the board. Our team was allowed two separate robots. After carefully reviewing the rules and measuring the distances on the board, I suggested that we evaluate the expected value of the strategy of sending one robot to block the opposing team’s scoring zone instead of assigning them both to the task of collecting objects.  It was higher than the conventional. Nothing prohibited this, so we implemented the strategy over the next six weeks and used it to win first place in the head-to-head double elimination tournament in all of the Southern California [video clip]. This year, I was elected to co-head the 2010 team.

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Remembering the Rubik’s Cube

by on Dec.10, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Something I randomly wrote while in the midst of AP English last year…trying to turn it into one of those “challenges you have faced” or “explain any significant drop in your academic performance” college essays. It’s supposed to leave the reader with a powerful positive impression.

A new year had come, AP Chemistry x2, AP World History AP Spanish, AP Calc BC and Honors English 10, were gladly left behind. My resilience is among my greatest virtues, I always bounce back, but it was as if my mind were lacking some key process; it was in need of a reboot.

It was October 15, 2008, and I lay in bed, resting after surviving yet another day of brutal reading quizzes and a harrowing standardized test (the PSAT it was this time). I thought then of my cube. If I were really to write a process analysis paper on solving the Rubik’s cube, it would behoove me to first test my memory in that area. There were few subjects about which I could write with such creativity, passion, humor, and drama, and in fact, an emotional descriptive essay on that topic had singlehandedly rescued my English grade the year before; why could it not do the same at this time in another form?

Should I explain Leyan Lo’s beginner’s technique? Too formulaic. The Fridrich method? Too abstract. The Petrus Method? Too abstruse. Choices, choices, choices…

I was on the verge of drifting off – maybe the esoteric quality of my thoughts  could be attributed to this. But suddenly, my tiredness was gone. I had not slept, but a spark that I had presumed extinguished was rekindled. My dilapidated 3x3x3 was suddenly in hand, drawn from a Jimbo’s bag of miscellaneous belongings in desperate need of sorting. Grains of sand from Hawaii were stuck in the grimy lube, stickers were discolored, tattered, and missing, but it was in my hand again. I almost hesitantly twisted a face, fearing the worst had come, that I would need to disassemble and clean it again, that I would miss a rare opportunity to reflect and remember and wonder and dream, and I would be unable to take advantage to a now all-too-ephemeral state of mind that inspired me to my most memorable undertakings: my Fourier Transform Sound Analyzer (Calc Project), My Rubik’s cubing descriptive essay, my Name Vignette, my Rock and Tree poem, my #1 Video Game Bot, my Grabber Arm V. The only thing that hadn’t faded overmuch was my persistent punning.

Elusive thoughts darted through my flickering mind. Maybe my problem was that I had refused to acknowledge that there were more fundamental concepts I hadn’t learned. Once upon a time I had imagined that the process of studying and learning built up new “centers” in my brain and I could almost feel them filing information and growing as I assimilated knowledge. It was with that attitude of diligence and humility with which I had proceeded through Spanish 1, and as a result been able to skip directly to Spanish 3 with little additional study. It was that wonderment that drove me to program and design websites and build robots and write essays and win contests and that landed me at or near the top of every class through my freshman year and in middle school. If I were to tell my 8th grade history teacher (who presented me with the History Award) or 9th grade English teacher that I received a B in AP World History second semester, I would gave been greeted with a look of incredulity. Or my 9th grade science teacher would have been flabbergasted were he to learn that I received a B second semester in AP Chemistry. For that matter, my teachers at the beginning of the year would have likely said the same. What had I lost? Where had that radiant internal beacon of intelligence gone? I never had been “normal,” though I had occasionally pondered the notion of how that would feel. But my experiences through that difficult year, I realized just how scary it would to be that; empty, devoid of motivation, lacking that extra drive and intuition that would push me over the edge. That realization that there was no such thing as frictionless coasting, no perpetual motion, that one’s prior heroic effort does not excuse his apathy today was both new and old; I had simply forgotten it. My physics teacher, Mr. Harvie, constantly tells us to “sprint across the finish line,” that it is not the end but the beginning, that laurels make a fragile perch on which to stand (maybe move this idea to end?).

Advanced classes (and this is the reason that they appeal to me) are by nature designed to change one’s view of the world. If you presume be able to instantly integrate all knowledge that you gain, you are not learning properly, not augmenting your ability to think in the way you are intended to. That is why I welcome their rigor. Adversity forces adaptation, and my mind is up to the challenge of solving new problems and creating new thoughts and structures. It is only when I assume that something will be easy and that I have nothing to fundamentally expand or change that I learn nothing from a class. Because AP Chemistry is largely based on mathematics that I could have done in 7th grade does not mean it is conceptually simple. Fermat’s last theorem is comprehensible by a 5th grader, but its proof widely regarded as one of the most difficult problems in math in history (this paragraph could be moved).

It was in that same state of mind I had learned how to yo-yo and cube, the former inspired by videos I had seen as a child, the latter by friends (juniors like Ernest Lee and David Chen) who were in my AP Computer Science Class I had skipped into as a freshman. I focused, I saw, I tried, I learned, I slept, I dreamed, I memorized, and created in massive quantities. I once could remember all that I tried without difficulty – I could memorize and recite massive essays and poems (like in Santiesteban’s Spanish III, and the Rock and the Tree in 6th grade) because I did not know that it was not possible, I once could act and perform without the slightest fear—until I learned, from society, from others, to doubt myself.

My stiff fingers became more supple as they lost themselves in patterns of antiquity, remembering algorithms they had not carried out in months, regurgitating what they knew, efficiently flicking and twisting the faces of the cube to and fro, creating order from chaos. The cube definitely needed new lube.

Of its own accord, my mind began to make associations. “This would be a great topic to write and essay on; it might boost my flagging English grade” I mused.

Another voice inside my head retorted, “Maybe that’s why you can’t remember how to learn.”

“This internal dialog would be a great topic to write an essay on; it might boost my flagging English grade.”

Like a strange loop, like a camera pointed at the television screen onto which it displays, I perpetuated the cycle a few times.

“There you go again,” my oft-quieted voice of rationality sighed. I snapped out of it.

What I had learned in the past year was how to use things; I had learned how to use open-source Java and JavaScript libraries, I had lost my drive to write all my classes from scratch, the way I wanted them, I learned to hire people to do pieces of my web work, I was now motivated by outcome, not process; I learned for the utilitarian benefit of learning, not the unadulterated exultation that accompanies erudition in its purest form.

I pulled out my 4x4x4. This was my new one, it had never been lubed as I had neglected to buy any though I had long ago fully broken it in. I still had to make out a list of the replacement parts necessary for my broken 5x5x5 and Square1. I solved the centers, and clumsily paired the edges, unable to remember one of my algorithms. Twist, flick, twist, the rough rectangular prism of plastic was strenuous on the tendons in my wrists.

Almost solved, last layer. Wait, corners, don’t go like that. How can it be? Oh, PLL Parity. Then I botched my OLL parity algorithm and was doomed to begin again, but my wrists were too painful. 3x3x3 instead. What was that algorithm again? My favorite to do? Darn, messed it up. Fiddle, twist, focus. Why was it so comforting delving into those recesses of the mind that I had so carefully sculpted in my youth? It was as if they were better structured, more wholesome, effulgent, joy-filled, good, right; they were a place of safety, a place I had taken care to build right not most “efficiently”.

Ah, here we are, that’s it, I was missing the R’F step. Wait, why isn’t it working? Ah, simply an illusion of the scrambled cube on which I was practicing, it operates sideways, now I remember. The old algorithm now glided smoothly from my hands.

The cube; once a source of bafflement and wonder, then nearly an object of affection; was now an old friend, pointing out the error of my ways, revealing that what I had so long sought was already inside me, suppressed by the narrowness that accompanied my overly ambitious mind. In remembering it, I remembered what drove me to it, what made me who I was.

I now reached into that same bag of chattels and pulled out my best yo-yo, my Hybrid Hitman; a rubber o-ring breakpad on one side, a starburst on another – an experimental, high-performance design once cutting edge and esoteric,  now standard issue. I remembered its touch in my hand.

Double-or-nothing, Eli-hop, flying trapeze, sideway brain-twister. Double-mondial, boingy-boing, false drop, bind catch. Side mount, magic drop, single flop. I hadn’t forgotten a bit. I noticed an enticing loop of string as I suspended my yo-yo sideways I hadn’t seen before and began to innovate. Something had awakened from a long but troubled slumber. An inexorable process had begun, a process that was slowly scouring the slate of my mind, of my successes, my disappointments, scouring it of everything but the lessons it had learned. In my reverie, I had sunk back into the stacked comforters of my bed, but I suddenly leapt up and dressed. There were new frameworks to comprehend, broad visions to glimpse, new details to resolve, and new challenges to face that could only be effectively overcome with a “beginner’s mind,” with the innocence and awe that fill the mind of a prodigious child, that could only be confounded by assumption and arrogance and preconceived ideas of the nature of reality. I opened my door and stepped not into the familiar hallway but into a luminescent analogue of the world from which I had emerged.

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by on Nov.27, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

It is generally silly for people to claim that Web hosting costs too much.  You can get an excellent hosting package for just 4-6 dollars/mo — this is the cost of buying an expensive, fancy coffee or two each month!  Plenty of people do that every day.  Relatedly, in general, it is critically important to analyze exactly all of your incomes and expenditures – much optimization is possible and higher quality of life can be attained.

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iARoC 2009 Standings

by on Nov.27, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

Just found them online at http://groups.google.com/group/iaroc/web/iaroc-2009-standings

There’s even a video of our technical presentation! http://blip.tv/file/2369163/

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Re: “Success”

by on Nov.27, 2009, under - Favorites, - Show All Posts

I am not exceptional in any way. No, any skill and success I might have is simply the result of my ability to become — for lack for better word — “obsessed” to anything and everything that I desire to master.  It probably started with yoyoing. I had always loved yoyos, but I was never particularly good with them.  However, in middle school, I really became intensely fascinated with them, and resultantly “practiced” unconsciously in sleep and in my waking hours. Whether or not I had a physically yoyo with me, I could feel my subconscious thinking its way through the maneuvers and inventing.  So every time I actually picked up the wonderful little gyrating device, my performance improved by a quantum leap.  Around the same time, I became interested in Web programming. While I had always been interested in computer science, I knew little about this field and was excited by its potential.  I was in middle school, and a couple of friends pointed me in the right direction and I launched.  I found tutorials and examples online and read them and made my own modifications.  I reverse engineered existing web sites, figuring out how to replicate and improve upon behaviors that I discovered in the “wild.” My skill level reached that critical threshold at which I was eligible for entry into professional world and, with experience, the skills that my yoyo-like obsession with the subject had seeded blossomed outwards.

This building skill positively impacted my understanding of other skills I was attempting to build.  It was as if by mindlessly observing myself as I trained and grew, I taught myself not only the nuances of the subject but how to efficiently learn, how to efficiently teach myself.  So suddenly, I found myself more academically successful than ever in fields from mathematics to biology to English to history. It was with the same open-mindedness and intent to get myself “addicted” to thinking about the subject,that I approached each new item and it was suddenly very easy to learn. Every waking and sleeping moment, with no effort on my part, my subconscious turned out mutations of questions I had.  My skill level skyrocketed with relatively little conscious effort, and I overcame and outraced even many of those with pre-existing advantages.

So I entered high school and I then was the one with a head start, not only in specific skill areas, but again, in teaching myself.  When I observed a bunch of people amazingly speedsolving Rubik’s cubes and other twisty puzzles in my AP computer science class (which I had skipped into as a freshman on the basis of my prior knowledge), I thought to myself “well, cool, I wish I could be able to do that!” And I envisioned the result and for the first time consciously applied my earlier technique.  And I doubted myself –  “No, people can’t modify the way they learn!” – all the way up until the point at which I found that I could suddenly, magically, do it. I had just put a bit of genuine interest — not an undue amount of practice or effort — and my brain had taken care of it for me.  I had made the subliminal portions of my psyche “obsessed” with it and they in turn made all that they could of these reverberating  neural patterns.

And every new skill I gained, every new subject I became interested in, every new book I read, broadened my horizons and increased my ability to learn and assimilate knowledge.  Through speed cubing and memorizing and practicing algorithms, I learned the value and the joy of going to great lengths to finally master a skill. This, I realized was true of nearly anything that I wished to learn, be it math or history or english. I simply need to have the interest and dedication to overcome a certain threshold and suddenly I would accelerate forward of my own accord.

It is said that to become an expert at something, you must undergo 10,000 hours of practical experience.  I have not found a way around this — my brain is not magically wired to assimilate information more rapidly. No, whatever’s going on in my head, thoughts pertaining to subjects that interest me seemed to echo in my brain and twist themselves around and etch themselves into my neurons over the course of every waking and sleeping moment and I simply log my 10,000 hours more quickly and in a different manner.

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