“Hey, I’d like to talk to you more…”

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Someone asked me for my number about a month ago. After I typed in my number into their phone, I failed to reciprocate. And after some other stuff ensued, I’ve been thinking about it.

I haven’t asked for someone’s phone number or email for personal reasons in a reallyyy long time. Instead, I’ve hidden behind Facebook friend requests and other forms of stalking to stay in contact with people.

Maybe that’s just a reflection on how easy staying in touch with someone has become, but it’s also a bit screwed up- to no longer have that in person acknowledgement of “Hey I want to talk to you more. How can I contact you?” 1

I found an old index card in my 6th grade pencil bag with handwritten email addresses on it. 2 This wasn’t for a class project, and these weren’t my closest friends. They were people I sat with during homeroom for 40 minutes a day, people I didn’t mind spending a few minutes to get in contact with outside of school, even if they were stupid conversations and chain mail…heh.

I would never dream of doing something like that now, mostly because I could just find them on Facebook and then message them “Hey what’s your email?”

But when I found those handwritten email addresses, now gone the way of physical contact books, I realized that the way I communicate with people has changed dramatically. Even though my 26 year old brother reminds me that I barely remember life before the Internet (I have vague memories of dial up when I was in kindergarten), I also can’t quite relate to middle schoolers texting on their iPhones and fluent in social media lingo. I do remember what it was like before smartphones and widespread instant messaging.

In late elementary school/early middle school, it looked something like this:

Instant Messaging: IT WAS SO COOL TO BE ONLINE THE SAME TIME AS SOMEONE AND BE ABLE TO TALK TO THEM. IN. REAL. TIME. I would schedule times to IM my friends, or secretly hope that someone I knew was online. Otherwise, I would send them an email. Chat statuses on Gmail were the coolest thing ever.

Calling: I had to get the phone numbers of my friends’ landlines, call them, get through their parents (“Hi this is Amy, one of Julia’s classmates. Can I talk to Julia?”) before asking some question about homework.

Email:  There was a point where I had 20 email conversations going on with a friend. I used to be a chain mail forwarder. (I’m so sorry.)  I could email my friends (or even all of my email contacts) with a draft of a story I had written out of the blue, ask for feedback, and expect them to respond.

Now it looks like this:

Instant Messaging: The assumption is that you’re online more often than not. I take reaching someone almost instantly for granted.

Calling: Many people I know don’t even have landlines anymore, and I can reach them directly, no proxy (assuming that I have their number). I’m more likely to voice/video chat them now as well. But now I feel like have to text someone “Hey is it alright if I call” before I call. Otherwise, it’s too surprising, too spontaneous.

Email: I think this analogy is appropriate:

 Email: IM :: WordPress: Facebook

In other words, email is the older version of the more convenient technology that most people don’t bother using anymore. Yet I use it because it has a degree of formality, the pause when you know that someone has set aside the time to read things, a bit more secluded from the rush.

Even this is a primitive description of modern technology. I still don’t have 1) a data plan on my phone,  2) unlimited text, 3) Snapchat, or 4) Instagram. 3 Regardless, I still talk to people online more than I do in person, and I hear enough about the lack of face to face communication in my generation. I wonder about all the lost subtleties in technological communication- the awkward pauses, the awkward eye contact, the awkward laughs, everything wonderfully awkward and personal.

And is that really worth the cost of not being able to talk with some people at all? In other words, is the missed connection, the missed communication really worth?


  1. But let’s be honest, if I asked for numbers/emails in the way I took pictures, I would constantly hate myself because I would constantly not feel comfortable doing it. Wait that’s why I’m writing this post. 
  2. I used to swear on carrying index cards everywhere like I swear on carrying plastic bags everywhere now. They could serve as bookmarks, scrap paper, straightedges, and uh, I don’t actually remember. 
  3. I suspect that with those 4 things, I would be more likely to ask people to stay in touch. Sharing Instagram/Snapchat handles is a thing, and had I texted more, maybe I’d have a reason to ask more people for their numbers. 

Inequity in optimism distribution

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Some books make my rational side happy. Some books make my emotional side happy. Some books make neither side happy. And then there’s Paul Tough’s lastest book, Helping Children Succeed, a compilation of the latest neuroscience research on 1) why certain students who grow up with hardships succeed and 2) how those findings can be used to improve education for all at-risk children.

The entire book is available online for free. Here’s an excerpt:

Farrington concluded from the research that the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset — the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. She distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:

  1. I belong in this academic community;
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  3. I can succeed at this; and
  4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington wrote, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The complication, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

Those 4 messages match the narrative that students have been constructing for years about school. They address complaints, from “we’re never going to use this in real life” to “I’m just not good at this” to “the school doesn’t care about us beyond our test scores” to “my teachers don’t have time to know about me as an individual”. This confluence of neuroscience with the true, real experiences of students, if anything, shows the importance of students sharing their stories.

And maybe that the most damning inequity in education isn’t necessarily one of resources -counselors, social workers, quality teachers, Pre-K programs, extracurriculars-  but instead one of hope, of belief- that less privileged students don’t have.  I’m constantly reminded of this Atlantic article about the stories we craft about our lives:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

[…]

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

Life’s Stories

And this same sentiment in a blog post:

It is gratifying to believe that we are the sole operating agents of our own lives. It is uplifting to believe in stories of redemption, wherein those with nothing make the independent choice to strive and turn their lives around. It is unsettling to imagine the great fortune we have in a confluence of circumstances that is entirely outside of our control. It undermines the distinction between us and those less fortunate.

The Narrative of Privilege

I’ve been force-fed the narrative that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. And I’d love to believe that it’s true, as it motivates me and gives me faith in the world. But more and more, I’ve become aware that this optimism in and of itself is a manifestation of privilege.

Before my high school graduation, I was talking with some of the first people I met in high school and some of the last people I would talk to: the people alphabetically next to me.

Among the red itchy fabric, (almost) all 800 graduating seniors in a high ceilinged concrete hall with dampened lights and poor ventilation, behind the scenes at one of the district’s largest graduations in Houston’s football stadium, one girl asked me: “Would you do high school the same again?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to do it all over, would you work this hard again?”

I pause before I say: “You definitely won’t believe me when I say this, but I probably didn’t work as hard as you think.”

“Bullshit, you worked your ass off for this. Don’t tell me that you going to college for free ranked in the top 1% and that you didn’t work hard.”

And somehow, I managed to do precisely that with some remark about grade inflation. 1

What I meant, I guess, was that I didn’t work any harder than what would have been expected given my environment. You can call it privilege, or segregation, or why affirmative action exists: I was a product of all of those.

I was the student that teachers didn’t need to pay much attention to because they knew I would do well regardless. I was the student that counselors didn’t need to pay much attention to because I would definitely be going to college. I was the Asian girl who came from the magnet middle school that over-prepared its students for high school. I would be graduating from the high school that was somehow an exception from the typical comprehensive, urban school, a school that could compete with the exclusive magnet schools, the private and charter schools, the suburban schools. That I had every reason to believe that the 4 years ahead of me are, for the most part, going to be great.

And that even in the face of all science and personal experience, I still choose to have this illusion of control in my life, this almost sickening degree of optimism and faith, that in the end, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to be okay.

And I don’t know whether to feel stupid, guilty or grateful.


  1. Actually though. When more than 70% of your AP English III class gets an “A” and when 30-40 point curves on tests are the norm in other classes, you start wondering what your grades actually mean. 

The High School Life I Could Have Lived

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The only real tangible accomplishment after a year.

My senior year, I was an office worker for an assistant principal. For an hour each day, I helped with office tasks (read: mostly cutting ridiculous amounts of lamination for biology teachers), worked on homework,  wove paper strips,  and got a behind the scenes look at the school.

I watched a student get expelled right in front of me. (The devastation I saw on the student’s face still haunts me.) I saw the chronic class skippers befriend the office secretaries. I was in the odd situation of knowing a school administrator well without being a troublemaker. I wandered the halls twirling my hall pass and saw random kids sitting out in the halls, teachers on their off periods. I ran around the quarter mile long hallways with a stack of schedules, knocking on doors, pulling kids out of class, interrupting lectures, walking in on tests.

And as I talked with the other office workers in my period- people I otherwise wouldn’t have approached- I heard stories about prom drama, crappy boyfriends and girlfriends, crappy teachers, stupid political debates, backstabbing friends, drugs, parties, alcohol, stories that are interesting to hear about but must be horrible to be part of. (Spoiler: Talking about drugs and alcohol loudly in an assistant principal’s office won’t get you in trouble.) In other words, stories from the high school life I never had. I was kept in the loop in these conversations, but I was clearly the innocent, nerdy, girl.

I spent my free time finishing homework due later that day, wasting time on the computer,  preparing stuff for a club,  or running around doing personal errands. Meanwhile, the other office workers complained about being bored, took walks around the school, shredded paper, played games, and occasionally last minute crammed for a quiz. I thought myself lazy for waiting until the last minute to get stuff done, but to them, I must have seemed ridiculously hardworking.

Sometimes, I wonder about the high school life I never lived- my other peers I never talked to because they weren’t in my classes, the teachers I never had and the classes I never took because they were unweighted, the administrators I had no reason to care about even though they kept the school running, the schools I hear about at school board meetings but have never visited, the experiences that made for great stories that I never had

I’m glad I met the people I met and spent my time doing the things I did in high school. Proud, even. But more and more, I’m becoming aware of the people I’ve alienated myself from already and the people I’ll alienate myself from in college. I get glimpses here and there of “alternate lives”, but I still wonder about how elitist, how out of touch, I’ll eventually become. This bothers me, nags at me, and I wish I had an solution.

That is all.

Song: Pandora has been playing in the background most of the time. The only song that I can associate this post with (or more precisely, associate with late May when I started this post, which I later broke up) is No Words by the Script. As I finish this post, I can’t bring myself to play this song as it carries too many emotions. Or rather, one emotion very strongly.

 

List of Lists: Effective Time Management

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What I used to think effective time management was:

  1. Making a list of everything that one was supposed to do
  2. Blasting through every task with no breaks, in no particular order. Finishing one task meant starting the next
  3. After finishing it all, starting ahead on something else.

Things I did in pursuit of good time management:

  1. Making to do lists.
  2. Crossing off things I finished.
  3. Transferred things that I hadn’t done to the next day.
  4. Starting using a Bullet Journal.

What started happening:

  1. Since I’d rely on my list to figure out what needed to be done, everything that didn’t get put down was not done
  2. Sometimes I’d forget to transfer a task over, and it’d just never get done.
  3. If there were a bunch of small tasks (And I mean tiny– “get form signed”, “tell ____ about ____”), I’d get those done first. By getting those done first, I mean only get those done.
  4. There were tasks I’d write every day for months (literally MONTHS) that would just never get done
  5. Longer tasks would always get pushed to the end of the day – “when I could get them done faster anyways”
  6. I wouldn’t get enough sleep in pursuit of finishing more things
  7. Self perpetuating cycle

What I tried instead that worked better:

  1. Scheduling time- literally making a hour to hour schedule of what I was going to spend each hour of my day doing.
  2. Using multiple to-do lists for extracurriculars, school, personal life, and college. Transfer a few tasks into each day.
  3. (Trying to) sleep and wake up at the same time every day
  4. Setting timers for everything
  5. Making routines for: a) waking up b) after school c) before bed
  6. Google Calendaring stuff in the future (no matter how petty)
  7. Acknowledge that the environment in which you work DOES matter and that turning off WiFi DOES keep you on task

The two things that distracted me the most:

  1. Twitter/social media (That includes reading blogs on WordPress)
  2. Talking to people online.

More personal observations:

  1. Winter break is a fantastic time to try out these things. Not so much once school starts. (Morning plans currently take up an hour of my morning- am I willing to wake up an hour earlier during the school year?)
  2. Paper or digital???
  3. Before, I would generally only get the tiny things done. Now, I tend to get more big things done while leaving the smaller tasks unfinished.
  4. I need to find a better way to handle more flexibility + unexpected things
  5. How much is me actually scheduling stuff badly (aka 5 straight hours on the computer with no breaks) and how much is just me being lazy?
  6. If I stick to a schedule, it generally works…until it gets to the last 2 items– usually slow, long term stuff (COUGH COLLEGE APPS)
  7. The biggest thing that determines whether I stick to my schedule or not– whether my notebook is 1) on my desk and 2) whether it’s open to today’s schedule. Literally. The tiniest things prevent me from getting stuff done sometimes.
  8. LEARNING THIS EARLIER WOULD HAVE LITERALLY HELPED ME IN EVERY CLASS EVER.

“Bibliography”

Readings:

  • The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
  • How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

Blogs:

  • ZenHabits
  • Essena O’Neil’s daily plans
  • Cal Newport’s blog
  • The Prospect

Other stuff:

  • Shia LaBoeuf
  • Nike
  • Stories of people constantly talking about managing their time well. And then realizing that I had 0 idea what managing my time well ACTUALLY meant.

Thirteen Reasons Why

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Inspired by the book by Jay Asher and a page in my notebook where I was listing incidents that genuinely hurt me. Not trying to garner pity or outrage, just understanding.

(Background information: In Thirteen Reasons Why, the main character receives a box with 13 tapes from a girl who recently committed suicide. Each tape explains a minor reason why she ultimately decided to kill herself. Yes, I’m completely fine. Just thought the concept was interesting.)

1) In 6th grade, I had an elective where we made banners and posters and stuff for school events. Some people got to make locker posters for the volleyball and basketball team members. The posters were made with special paper cutouts and hole punches and was considered a coveted job in my eyes. (Paper has and will always be near and dear to my heart.) But everytime I finished a banner and wanted to work on a locker poster, the teacher would always move me away to something else, while my friends continued making locker posters.

At the end of the semester, I finally got the chance to make one. I was drew multiple designs in my diary to perfect the layout. After I finished, the teacher complimented my poster, but instead of any genuine happy pride, I could only feel smugness at finally proving that I was worthy of making these posters.

2) In 7th grade, I submitted this piece to Scholastic (with a lot of help and edits from my English teacher.) When I didn’t win anything and all my friends won gold keys, I ended up crying on the bus ride home (with those same friends sitting next to me). Someone on a nearby bus saw my tears and made funny faces at me to make me laugh. It worked temporarily, but aside from that, I received no comfort.

3) I also tried out for the volleyball team that year. (Yes, I actually knew how to play a sport not-horribly.) Again, did not make the team, but I ended up crying at home instead and similarly received no comfort.

4) The adult sponsor who runs a youth council I’m part of doesn’t know my name. Whenever we plan events and I contribute ideas, she always attributes them to someone else whose name she does know and ignores me. This has happened multiple times for multiple events.

5) I used to do my Algebra II homework during class sometimes. Another person who sat a few seats away from me also would do their homework. When the teacher went around the class after a lecture, she would generally tell the other person “Already finished your homework huh” in a ambivalent and unsurprised tone, while I received a stern “Working ahead instead of paying attention in class again?” (I spent the rest of the year not paying attention in class to fold origami and play games on my calculator. After I finished my homework of course.)

6) When I took art in middle school, I had a teacher who would ask for people to bring their works up to her to grade them. For most people, she would glance at their paper and instantly assign a 100, but for me, she’d take an extra look, pick out something minor, and dock off a few points. It wasn’t a huge deal (a 98 opposed to a 100), but I suspected favoritism.

7) When I did robotics in elementary school, my team and I were at a competition where our score was miscalculated and resulted in us not placing in the top 3. When we protested, the people organizing the contest refused to change our score and claimed that our score wasn’t high enough to place. (I suspected racism.)

8) I did science fair with a friend in middle school. We presented separately to our teacher since we were in different periods. After I presented to my class, my teacher told the class “This project got a 100. Look at this detailed notebook” and passed around the notebook for the class to look at. I didn’t contribute to that part of the project.

9) In 8th grade, a group of people created a dictionary for the people in our grade with definitions and synonyms for each person. It was something fun and not meant to be offensive.  The first part of my definition was “Someone who is constantly overshadowed by [someone else in my grade]” and one of my synonyms was “Not Quite There”.

10) When I used to dance, one time during break there was a running joke amongst all the girls in my class. Each person was supposed to tag another person, one by one, until the joke involved everyone. When literally everyone else in the class (15+ people) had been tagged, the last person didn’t choose me and chose the teacher instead.

11) My first week of high school, my French teacher personally called me out for having too much pride. She told my parents the same thing. Eventually, I just stopped paying attention in class and memorized my verbs and vocab and supposedly learned a bunch of French. Not sure if that ruined my pride or made it even stronger.

12) When I was doing a self-reflection over the summer in hopes of finding potential college essay material, after writing close to 5 pages of thoughts, I had nothing positive to say about myself.

13) When I was visiting my middle school with a classmate freshman year, we ran into an administrator. He spent the entire time talking to my classmate and barely acknowledged me.

Individually, none of these incidents are horrible, and I brushed most of them off at the time. I had always known that I don’t come across as the friendliest person at times and that my pride comes over me at times it shouldn’t. These were just the consequences. In retrospect, many of these events could be seen differently from different perspectives, but I still suspect a degree of racism, sexism, a culture that values achievement over well being, or general favoritism.

Dissecting Middle School

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“I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how anybody does it, waking up every morning and eating and moving from the bus to the assembly line, where the teacherbots inject us with subject A and subject B, and passing every test they give us. Our parents provide the list of ingredients and remind us to make healthy choices: one sport, two clubs, one artistic goal, community service, no grades below a B, because really, nobody’s average, not around here. It’s a dance with complicated footwork and a changing tempo”

-Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

In middle school, I saw education as a chance to become as smart as possible. Learning was a moral issue– how could I dare to contribute to society without knowing how things worked? Often times, I found that if I didn’t know something, I wouldn’t simply not know it- I would “know” the information incorrectly. My education was a chance to fix up the misconceptions in my broken mind. And this was my youth, when I would absorb the information the quickest- why not take complete advantage of this? But in the reality of carrying out these noble motives, I could often only see immediate numbers and not wanting to disappoint a teacher. I got A’s in all my classes without any special effort.

However, I would get frustrated at only getting 95s on tests when my friends got 100s. (Literally, when my class made a “dictionary” with a definition of everyone in 7th grade, one of my synonyms was “Not Quite There”) I checked my grades online less than 3 times throughout all of middle school and learned to avoid the question “What did you get?” by simply saying that I didn’t know. I told myself that these tests were merely a test of accuracy, not knowledge (I made and still make a lot of stupid mistakes.)

And an the midst of Mathcounts competitions and quizbowl tournaments, as close as one can get to an approximation of a purely academic competition, I began coming up with (unfounded) justifications of why I wasn’t doing as well.

  • I don’t have teachers and coaches to teach me the fastest way to solve all the problems
  • I don’t soullessly memorize lists and formulas.
  • I actually enjoy what I’m doing.

But who was I even to say anything? (Even assuming that everything above had valid ground.) I could complain and justify my actions all I want, but at the end of the day, they still knew more than me, still did better than I did. I wasn’t willing to put in the sweat and tears they had. Any dislike I had was really just secretly jealousy…right?

…To be continued

Non-epiphany: Why it’s ok to feel like you’re wasting time

This past week, I’ve done a lot of work that feels disingenuous in name.

Copying down vocab words and definitions for a quiz doesn’t feel like “learning.”

Watching someone do their homework for an hour doesn’t feel like “tutoring.”

Being at a 40 minute meeting where exactly two things get established doesn’t feel like “getting something done.”

Doing unnecessary work at an event doesn’t feel like “volunteering.”

Misreading my calendar and going to the wrong place an hour away doesn’t feel like “doing important work.”

Spending most of my time doing Congress work sending emails and bugging people to do things doesn’t feel like “making an impact”

Most of this work isn’t unique to this week, and it’s been bothering me lately. Why can’t I just be efficient and get done what needs to be done?

Then, my non-epiphany: Maybe that’s just the amount of work it takes to get something done. In order to do good work, there has to be bad work. Large quantity produces good quality. (At least that’s what I tell myself.)

Copying down vocab words might be considered “busy work,” but the only reason I knew some of those words is because I “mindlessly” copied them down.

Maybe they didn’t need you at that event, but the more events you help out at, the more likely you’re going to find a worthwhile one.

The world isn’t built around your productivity, and the spontaneity makes everything all the more beautiful, all the more worthwhile.

Relevant quote from the Drunkard’s Walk (frankly, the only part that I remember):

What I’ve learned, above all, is to keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized. For even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success. Or as the IBM pioneer Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

Tah-mah-toe-ing

There has to be a balance between productivity and non-productivity though. I can’t work 5 hours non-stop on homework, nor should I have a 60:1 Youtube to homework ratio.

Enter the Pomodoro technique. Yes, the tomato method.

Just look at that wonderful red-ness

Work for 25 minutes, break for 5 minutes. This is one “pomodoro.” After 4 “pomodori,” take a 15 minute break. Repeat.

I have an app on my phone that schedules these time chunks, but I’ve been unable to keep up with it for more than 2 hours. Still,  I consider  staying focused on an assignment for 2 hours a pretty big accomplishment, especially if it’s not the class period before it’s due..

But it’s hard to define “being productive” in some cases. Working on a worksheet or doing textbook work is clearly being productive, but online time is different. Is waiting for a friend to respond to a Facebook message about homework considered “being productive”? What if that conversation goes off topic? What about writing an email? What about scribbling down an epiphany down on Google Keep?

I clearly need to set some better standards before the tomatoes start working in my favor. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the feeling of being productive.

This post is so meta, even this acronym (More writing about writing)

Some things I write with the intention that no one should read. EVER. Like my stalker story from middle school. Like my Google Keep. Like my diaries. Those things were supposed to be for my own records only, and if anyone were to look over my shoulder as I wrote them, I would have instantly closed my computer/notebook and shooed them away, perhaps with violence.

But a few years/months later, they’ve all ended up on here for the Internet to read, and any despair I had at originally posting them has since dissipated. The passing of time has made all my memories fuzzier and made blurred the edges of all my embarrassing stories.

I decided to remove the password from some of my old posts a few weeks ago. Namely, this one, this one, this one, and this one. It was liberating (if not scary), but it also got me thinking about all the writing I put out.

It’s not just this blog. All the Facebook messages I type out, all the emails, all my school assignments, are written for other people’s eyes. I don’t always put as much effort into those as I should, and I’m worried that it reflects on me poorly.

um

My private writings are even sloppier. If no one’s going to read something I write, I have no motivation to make it good. I’ve started carrying around a notebook as a planner and as a place to record fringe thoughts (Also to look busy during class when I don’t feel like paying attention). And I’m fiercely protective of it, partially because the ideas are bad and partially because they’re, well, private. Occasionally, I’ll show a page to someone, but if they start flipping around, I will snatch it from them. They’re not full of doodles and carefully crafted calligraphy, but I’m in love with the idea of recording spur of the moment epiphanies on paper.

Amidst the old post it notes I collected in middle school, I found a variety of writings–notes passed in class ,annotations, reminders, random doodles, testing out pens, scratch paper. With the exception of a few friends whose handwriting I recognized, most of these notes might as well have been written by strangers. But I felt like I had some sort of connection with these people. It reminded me a bit of my stalking–trying to grasp onto some part of someone in order to understand them better.

It’s an idea that’s becoming more and more popular. Most of the appeal of Humans of New York and similar projects stems from the idea that a single quote can reveal profound insights about humanity. On one hand, I think it’s beautiful that a handful of words can define a person. On the other hand, it scares me that the scattering of writing that I leave everywhere are supposed to represent who I am and that each person will only see a small portion of these pieces. That maybe this is all just some sort of shallow 21st century interaction and that it’s simply not an accurate picture of who I am.

What’s the solution? The Law of Large Numbers. Statistically, the more I write and produce, the more accurate the resulting body of writing will be. Even if the individual pieces aren’t accurate, in the long run, everything will average out. With HONY, the individual people may not be representative of the population, but as a whole, it paints a complete picture.

In my world, it means “Write and produce as much as possible, but also engage with the world”

 Because xkcd is the best.

Stories from Middle School: Mathcounts

This is related to one of my earlier posts: Partitions and the Quadratic Formula, but written from a broader perspective. Also, with more nostalgia. 

incorrect derivation

Yes, I know this is wrong. And that’s the point.

One of my most vivid educational experiences dates back to a middle school math competition– Mathcounts. After months of hard work, our team of four students were ecstatic to have qualified to compete at the state level in Austin.  In the weeks leading up, our sponsor had one goal in mind: beat St. John’s. This sentiment had been building up throughout the year. St. John’s was the local private school whose team had beaten us at the regional competition.

In preparation for the competition, we worked through lunch for a month to solve math problems in our coach’s classroom. Anyone who walked in would have seen four people huddled around a table talking numbers, but like children mesmerized by magic, we didn’t care what the others thought. Together, we had found something greater.

When we were able to solve a hard problem without guidance, the happiness was contagious. That is, until we realized the multitude of problems ahead of us and that many before us had already solved these problems. Nevertheless, to us each solution was an element in a series of epiphanies. As a team, we explained difficult problems to confused team members. When we were truly stuck, our coach would pull out the solution manual, and we would try to make sense of the official explanations.

As we pushed ourselves through problem set after problem set, we developed a mutual respect for each other. Like four legs of a table, our team was built on the idea that in order for the group to succeed, we needed support from all members. During the team rounds, we split up problems and learned to settle disputes quickly and effectively (though not always accurately). We shared our victories and failures, our laughter and frustration, our stupidest mistakes and grandest insights.

Through solving hundreds of different problems, I gradually learned probability, analytic geometry, and number theory. This was before I had taken Algebra 1. By comparison, my math class seemed dull (though I didn’t tell this to my sponsor, who was also my teacher at the time).

One day of practice in particular stands out. It was the Friday before spring break, and we had finished reviewing a set of problems with nearly 20 minutes left. One of our team members, Alex, decided that the logical thing to do was to go to the chalkboard and write ax^2+bx+c=0 followed by the statement “I’m going to derive the quadratic formula.”

When I was in kindergarten, my brother had made me memorize a sentence starting with “x equals” that included a bunch of a’s, b’s, and c’s. That was about all I knew of the quadratic equation. Deriving this mystical formula was a big deal for me, something complicated and important, though it had no bearing in our preparation for the state competition.

So I watched in awe as he rearranged and factored terms, until we were left with something that looked suspiciously like the quadratic formula.

Wait no. One thing was missing. An “a.”

For some reason, this mistake made us crack up and start repeatedly exclaiming “WHERE’S THE A?”.

The end of lunch bell rang. None of us left the board.

The students from our teacher’s next class began trickling in. They saw the four of us freaking out over a board of algebra searching for some mysterious “a” and silently stared at us.

After balancing our laughing with serious efforts to find our mistake, we found the “a” lost inside a fraction.  Alex quickly filled in the chain of mistakes that the  ‘a’ had created and we excitedly proclaimed to all within earshot, “WE FOUND THE ‘A’!”

The tardy bell rang, and we were officially late to our next period.

That didn’t stop Alex from exclaiming, “YES! I FINALLY GOT IT! I HAVE TO WRITE THIS DOWN!” Meanwhile, I knew I had to get to my next class. So while he was scribbling down the slanted rows of algebra onto a sheet of notebook paper, I packed my stuff and went to my next class, still feeling the euphoria from deriving a long complicated algebra equation and hoping that my 4th period teacher wouldn’t mind that I was late.

Two weeks later, we had to leave school right after lunch on Friday for the state competition. This was my first time staying away from home overnight with friends. As fun as this sounds for a middle school student, there was still a sense of pressure. This was when we were supposed to beat St. Johns. Something had to result from the loads of math problems and unfinished lunches.

After busting our brains through three intensive rounds of math harder than anything we had practiced, we were a bit demoralized, but still hoped for the best. Fortunately, we ended up placing 7th in the state, beat St. Johns, and all individually ranked in the top 25% of students.

There have been few days where I have felt as happy as I did when I clutched that right-triangle-shaped trophy on stage alongside my team members. But that happiness was mixed. At the same time, I knew that the state competition marked the end of our lunchtime practices, and that the sense of unity we felt as we worked towards a common goal was coming to a close. Two of our team members would be going on to high school, and I knew that the team I had grown accustomed to working with would soon change.

Math is easily the most stigmatized subject in America, even more so amongst girls, but within our 3 girl, 1 guy team, none of that mattered. I was extremely lucky be a part of this amazing experience with such a group of talented people who shared similar interests in middle school, and I’ve carried this motivation with me throughout high school.

We weren’t going through intensive training like the top schools and students did. Our sponsor merely sat back and let us learn from each other. There were no textbooks, no curriculum, no formula memorizing, no technology (even our calculator use was minimal)–we simply had problem sets, their solutions, pencils, and lots and lots of scratch paper. We were doing what we considered to be important in our learning, and we had the freedom to explore the topics that truly piqued our interest.

Orthogonal Vectors

Disclaimer: This post is not actually about math.

In physics, vectors that are orthogonal have absolutely no effect on each other. A force acting on an object in the y direction will have no impact on that object in the x direction. (Why? NO ONE KNOWS.)

In math, it’s just as clear: Standalone ideas have no effect on each other at all.

I couldn't find an interesting picture, so I went with the most boring picture I could find. Note the Comic Sans and the 2003 publication date.

I couldn’t find any interesting pictures, so I went with the most boring picture I could find. Note the use of Comic Sans and the 2003 publication date.

So why can’t this same principle be applied to ethical problems? Just like with physics problems,  the individual parts that make up a problem should have no effect on each other.

The Heinz Dilemma

Let’s start with the classic example used in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development:

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. The chemist refused saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.

-from http://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html

The question is, should Heinz have stolen the drug?

Split it up.

Stealing:

Is stealing bad? Yes.

Really bad? Well, going to jail bad. And that’s only if you get caught.

Conclusion: If you steal, you get the medicine and might go to jail.

His wife dying:

Is his wife dying bad? Yes.

Really bad? Yes. (In the sense that virtually everything else in life is reversible.)

Is there anything he can do to help? Yes. Steal the medicine.

Conclusion: His wife dying is really bad, and he can steal the medicine to save her life.

Putting the two vectors together, this is what you get:

Either he steals the medicine and gets caught and goes to jail, or he doesn’t steal the medicine and his wife dies. It’s balancing jail time with his wife’s death. Going to jail is clearly the lesser of two evils here, so the man should steal the medicine and go to jail.

Pretty straightforward right?

A follow up situation:

A policeman on guard sees the man steal the medicine. Should he report him or not?

Before you start being all sympathetic, remember that his wife is dying is on an orthogonal vector to the man going to jail. They should have no impact on each other. If you do something, you pay the consequences. 

So should the policeman report the man? Yes. And the man should steal the drug knowing that he might get caught.

The argument shouldn’t be “I know he stole something, but his wife was dying.” It should be “I know he stole something, and his wife was dying.”  There is no correlation between these two .

When we first did this exercise in my psychology class, my teacher said that in the highest stage of morality, the man should have stolen the drug and then turned himself him. My conclusion was that he should steal the drug knowing that he would get caught. Not quite there, but I’m still proud of myself for getting where I did.

Charlie Hebdo

Now to apply this to current events.

Is killing 12 people bad? Yes. (Same logic– it’s irreversible)

Even if there’s a reason? Yes

Was the reason bad? Not really.

Is offending a specific group of people bad? Sure.

Is free speech good? Sure.

Are they mutually exclusive? (aka can you have free speech without offending people?) Most likely not.

Did the event catch people’s attention? Yes.

In a good way? No.

Did it prove a point? Yes.

Was it the intended point of the attackers? Probably not.

I could keep going about this, (Don’t get me started on Je Suis Charlie), but even just adding up all these vectors, what do you get?

It depends on the magnitude of each individual vector, but you’ll always end up with a multi-dimensional vector. In other words, something complicated. 

I know that’s not a satisfying answer. How are you supposed to feel about this?  Is this just going to be another one “I’m too much of an intellectual to have an opinion about this so I’ll just not say anything.” conclusions?

Yes. And I’m not going to apologize for it. Even as I was writing everything, I had to resist the urge to find a news article that would just tell me what I was supposed to believe about the entire incident. If you’re looking for that, go to your news site of choice.

Problems:  

As always, complicated problems are easier to solve when you look at them through a mathematical perspective, but that’s not always reasonable. Hypothetical situations and faraway current events are easy to analyze, but what about something more personal?

In the case of the Heinz dilemma, a common follow up question is: “Would/Should Heinz have done the same if the sick person was a stranger?” Or what if I was the guy selling the drug? Would I see Heinz’s actions as ethical? In the case of Charlie Hebdo, what if I were French? A Muslim? What if I personally knew one of the editors that was killed? Would that change my views? Heck yeah.

You mean math doesn’t work for everything? Bummer

Once you introduce the personal element, you also could argue that all the vectors aren’t orthogonal. For instance, is the fact that 12 people were killed really not correlated with catching media attention and sparking a social movement? It becomes less clear.

Sometimes I wish that I could treat all the people I know as vectors and keep everyone in their own dimension. It’d make things so much easier to manage. But that’s not how the world works. Inevitably, everyone’s vectors collide into each other at various angles, thanks to something called human nature. How can you be completely objective when your human nature vector keeps crashing into everything unexpectedly?

But frankly, even though it might pay off in the long run to be objective,  I feel like I need the slightest shred of irrationality to justify my existence as a living being. Our tiny deviations from ideal behavior are what define human nature. Otherwise, we’re all just robots following a set of arbitrary rules. Living is a form of art. And just like other forms of art, it’s a virtue to follow the rules, but the real living happens when you break the rules.


Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

Paper Tigers