Working while standing up is all the rage among computer geeks these days, thanks to a bunch of (possibly dubious) research that say sitting down all day takes years off your life.
Dunno about that, but standing up to work does make me feel a little more energized and focused, compared to what I used to do which was shlump down in that beanbag over there and balance my laptop on my knees. In the beanbag I feel too relaxed, which makes it easy to waste hours websurfing. Standing up makes me feel like "I'm working now, let's get shit DONE." That's important when there's nobody but myself keeping me on task.
At first I had the laptop at elbow height for easy typing, but that led to my neck getting sore since I was tilting my head down to look at the screen for hours at a time. So now I'm trying it with the laptop at eye level and an external keyboard/mouse at elbow level. We'll see how that goes.
Zelda games are always showing you cool stuff just out of your reach. Like, a treasure chest up on the side of a cliff, or blocked by some weird statue, so you can't get to it. If you've played any of these games, you recognize it as a backtrack situation. "Oh, I can't get there yet, but probably later in the game there's an item I can use to get past that obstacle; I'll come back later."
Usually, making the player backtrack would be bad game design: it's boring and wastes time. You might think, if the player needs a hookshot to get that chest, why not put the chest after the hookshot? It's functionally equivalent but with no backtracking involved.
But in Zelda, backtracking is part of a really clever game design. I'd even say it's essential to the fun.
Because showing the player something that they can't get until later motivates them to keep playing. The player thinks "Oh man I can't get that yet... but if I had a hookshot, I could! GOTTA FIND THAT HOOKSHOT!".
Also, it rewards the player for remembering where they saw stuff, for exploring thoroughly and backtracking instead of just always pressing on to the next required plot point. Which reinforces the theme that Zelda games are about exploration.
And when you finally get the hookshot (or whatever item) it's much more exciting because you already know several places to use it. You've been itching to get your hands on it, so when you finally get to play with it you feel like a million bucks.
Then you backtrack through earlier areas collecting goodies with your cool new tool, and the old enemies that used to give you so much trouble are now a breeze, which makes you feel like a badass. Games based on a power progression have to keep upping the challenges, which sometimes makes the player feel like they're barely keeping pace, like running on a treadmill. Giving them a reason to backtrack lets them step off the treadmill and just enjoy all the power they've earned.
So if Zelda-style backtracking is so great for motivating players to keep playing, is there a way to apply that to the Studio Xia Chinese game?
Maybe if we show the player a situation that they can't solve yet using the Chinese that they know (for some meaning of "situation" and "solve"), they'll be motivated to keep playing in order to learn the Chinese they need? And then backtrack and apply their new knowledge to solve that situation?
The important point here is that the new grammar pattern / vocab word is the Hookshot, i.e. it's not the obstacle, it's the way of overcoming the obstacle. Most educational games are crappy because the educational material is mapped onto the gameplay role of "monster" -- defeat this endless series of identical Octorocks with math problems on them, or whatever. You just want them to stop coming. We need to make the educational material feel like tools instead, like power-ups, so the player's excited to get a new one.
But if you need 1,000 words for even basic conversational fluency... well, how do you design a game with 1,000 distinct, interesting power-ups? That I haven't figured out yet.
I've been reading A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It tells the story of the USA from Columbus to the War on Terror, from the perspective of the downtrodden: Indians, slaves, women, poor tenant farmers, immigrants, factory workers, etc. It contrasts the "official" story, the one based on presidents and other powerful people, with the first-hand accounts of the people on the bottom who lived through these events.
What I like about the book is that most of it is quotations from original sources. So even if you don't like Zinn's commentary, you can read for yourself what people were saying about the times they lived in, and draw your own conclusions. There is a lot of powerful, defiant, inspiring stuff written by people who were ground down for centuries.
I spent most of yesterday on buses and airplanes, so I had a lot of time to read. Since it was MLK day I decided to flip forward to Zinn's chapter about the Civil Rights movement.
Confession time: When I was younger I was one of those sheltered white kids who didn't really understand why Martin Luther King was such a big deal. The story we hear in school is heavily sanitized: The south had segregation, it was unfair, but then MLK made a lot of inspiring speeches, and now there's no segregation anymore, hooray!
To understand the true extent of Dr. King's heroism you have to understand the evil and brutality of the entrenched power structure the Civil Rights movement was working against.
Zinn analyzes the roots of racism as a strategy by elites in the early days of American colonization: plantation owners knew that if poor whites ever teamed up with slaves, they'd have the strength to overthrow the aristocracy. By teaching poor whites to hate blacks, the elites pitted the two groups against each other and secured their own position on top. Not sure that's the only explanation, but it sure is thought-provoking.
By winning the Civil War, the North could force the South to end official slavery, but it couldn't end the hatred of black people that whites had had drilled into them for centuries. The Fifteenth Amendment could guarantee voting rights to blacks on paper, but without sustained federal intervention it couldn't guarantee them in practice: As soon as the Reconstruction governments went home, whites started using mob violence to stop blacks from voting (this was the period when the Klu Klux Klan was first formed) and southern state governments went to work re-implementing every part of the white-supremacist power structure except slavery.
And this system of white supremacy, enforced by violence, was still in force by Dr. King's time. Jim Crow wasn't just about having to go to different schools and drink out of different water fountains: it was about the fact that a mob of white vigilantes would beat you up, or lynch you and hang you, if you were a black person trying to claim your equal rights. And the police would watch and do nothing. Or join in the violence. Or arrest the victims. And the courts (where you weren't allowed to serve on a jury) would acquit the murderers.
And the Civil Rights movement appealed to the federal government to protect them from racist violence, and the federal government paid lip service to the idea, but they had the FBI infiltrate and subvert Civil Rights groups. They put Martin Luther King under illegal FBI surveillance, all as part of a heavily-classified program called COINTELPRO, under the pretense of suppressing Communist activity. Meanwhile conservatives in Congress staged the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights bill.
Somehow the version of Civil Rights history we got in school glossed over the extent of the murderous evil they were up against. Possibly on purpose, to avoid offending the powerful.
Against all this evil, Dr. King didn't just have courage, moral imagination, charisma, and inspiring speeches. Those are all important, but they're not enough to end a system of oppression as entrenched as Jim Crow. But Dr. King had something else: He had a strategy. A smart one.
The strategy was to, by peaceably demanding their rights, provoke a violent backlash from white supremacists, and then to turn the other cheek and maintain the moral high ground. Thus they'd show to the world the violence, brutality, injustice, and evil of the forces maintaining the status quo. And by so doing, get public opinion on their side, in order to create the needed political pressure to get civil rights legislation passed and (more importantly) actually enforced by the national government.
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored...
...and then later...
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Some say this was naiive, that non-violent resistance alone would have led only to more lip-service (e.g. the earlier civil rights acts which congress had passed but were not enforced at the state level) without Malcom X and the Black Panthers to be the "bad cops" and show America that black people were ready to fight violence with violence for their equality if they couldn't get it through nonviolent pressure.
Nevertheless, Dr. King kept going out in public and organizing and making speeches and doing his thing even though he knew people were literally gunning for him. When your strategy involves provoking a violent reaction from the forces of evil, you have to be prepared to get beat up, to go to jail, to get shot. Dr. King was ready to die for his cause, and he would not be intimidated into giving up, because he wasn't going to let the terrorists win. (Yes, terrorists. White supremacists were using murder and assassination to scare black people away from political action: that's the definition of terrorism.)
Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and if you really want to change the power structure, you're going to be looking down the barrel of that gun sooner or later. The American power structure talks a nice game about equality and peace and democracy but when it feels itself being seriously challenged, the velvet gloves come off and the iron fist comes out, just like any other government.
It's interesting to contrast the civil rights movement against, say, Occupy Wall Street. The civil rights movement, at great cost, achieved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. (not to say that prejudice is over or that everyone has equality of opportunity - there's clearly far to go.) Occupy may have injected some much-needed ideas back into the national conversation, but it didn't exactly accomplish concrete political goals.
I'm not sure anybody knew what its goals were. Lots of people agree that banks have too much influence over the government; but what, exactly, do you want us to do about it? There was a moment when I think a lot of people had sympathy for Occupy (Something about passively resisting students getting pepper-sprayed in the face by cops). But unlike Civil Rights, Occupy wasn't able to channel that sympathy into anything. It lacked a strategic and charismatic leader like Dr. King. It lacked a forceful message like "End Segregation" to rally people behind.
Occupy Wall Street really should have learned more lessons from Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. (It's not like this is ancient history: there are still Civil Rights veterans alive to learn from, if Occupy was willing to listen.) Anybody who wants to change the world today should study these lessons intently.
One more quotation from Birmingham Jail:
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation....We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Chris introduced me to a webcomic called LARP TREK. What's it about? I'll let Geordi explain:
It gets better: the setting that Geordi makes up is a Cardassian space station in orbit around Bajor, recently ceded to the Federation. That's right: they role-play as the crew of Deep Space Nine. Hijinx ensue.
It's only 30 strips in, so getting caught up is quite a short archive binge. Thanks to Chris for introducing me to that one.
Reading LARP TREK made Sushu curious about Deep Space Nine, so we went and watched the pilot episode. It holds up mostly better than I expected. Except the costumes. Oh my god. So many weird unflattering shapes and ugly shades of brown.
That reminded me about the hilarious single-topic Tumbler Fashion It So which exists to make fun of stuff like...
...the fact that Romulans on TNG look like sofa pillows with heads sticking out of them.
Next Generation was "my" Star Trek. I remember catching both "Encounter at Farpoint" and "All Good Things" when they first aired, although I didn't watch it consistently in-between.
I went through periods of loving Star Trek and hating it, for its fake science, its hokey speeches, and its terrible plot devices (holodeck malfunction! space-time anomaly!). But looking back on it now, I can appreciate more of what they were trying to do, even though the execution was usually super-clunky.
You realize how unusual Star Trek is for having an optimistic, pro-science future, where a diverse group of competent people work together? It's easy to make fun of their naiive idealism, but in a world where most sci-fi shows are either GRIMDARK or fantasy/horror in disguise, it's nice that at least somebody was trying to show that we could build a future worth looking forward to.
They also tried (not always successfully) to show a future where humanity has gotten over sexism, racism, and nationalism, and in the process they fought against a lot of TV barriers and stereotypes, which is commendable.
So by Paul Graham's definition, Studio Xia isn't a startup, it's a "barbershop". I'm fine with that.
Anyway, we want to start trying to sell the Chinese learning game at the National Chinese Language Conference this year. It's in early April, in Boston. That gives me a nice hard deadline to keep myself on track. Now until April should be just barely enough time to finish a minimum viable product (I hope).
Of course, when we went to register, they asked for our website, so I needed to throw together a Studio Xia website quickly and have it look halfway professional.
That's why I was messing around with Bootstrap.js, that thing I told you about that makes all websites look the same. The Studio Xia site is therefore full of modern website cliches like that rotating-image-gallery thing (Bootstrap calls it a "carousel"). I'm not exactly proud of it. But it's just meant to be a placeholder, and it's doing its job.
The hardest thing was deciding on a name for the game! I had to call it something so I'm calling it "Legends of Hanyu" for now. This was Ben's suggestion (thanks Ben) and it was the least bad of all the terrible names we brainstormed. There's still time to change it if we can think of something better.
I'm not much of a web designer, as you can tell from evilbrainjono.net. Honestly I'd usually rather just leave everything unstyled and focus on writing words. I think studioxia.com is the first website where I've picked a font.
Both applications required a personal Statement of Purpose and in both cases I procrastinated until literally the last minute before submitting it. Like, I had a week to do the essay in each case and I literally couldn't force myself to write the first sentence until utter panic set in about four hours before the deadline.
This was way worse than my usual procrastination. This was some sort of black-hole time-warp form of mega-procrastination that paralyzed me for days. My usual amount of procrastination is just because I'm a terrible person who fails at basic life skills. But writing grad school application essays is so much worse. My brain rebels against doing it at all. Why is that?
The stakes are high, so I'm stressed.
I'm really bad at selling anything, much less myself.
I'm writing for an audience I know nothing about: a group of people I've never met, judging me by criteria I'll never know, and there's no way to gauge their reaction or get any feedback until it's too late.
They want me to talk about my research interests and career goals. Uh, I don't know anything about this field I'm trying to enter, that's why I want to go to school for it, so anything I say about research interests or career goals is a wild guess.
I know how to write a job application: "You should pay me because I have these skills that I can contribute to your company." But for grad school, I'm paying them to get skills I don't have yet. Do I talk about what I can do for them, or what they can do for me, or neither?
Last and most frustrating, they want to hear my plan for my whole life, how everything I've done has led up to Stanford's Energy Resources Engineering program (or whatever), and how going there will make all the difference in my career plan. They want me to fit my life into a tidy narrative.
But honestly? I spent 2000-2003 teaching English in Japan because I thought Japan was cool. Then I got back and thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, so I applied to University of Chicago in 2003. Why the U of C? Because it had a good comp-sci program? No, because it was conveniently located close to my parents' house. Joining Humanized was the result of meeting Aza, which was the result of doing the Shingo Mama dance at an anime club party in early 2004. Coming to California in 2008 was the result of not seeing any other appealing prospects other than following the Humanoids to Mozilla. Staying in California was because I got married to Sushu. And then I didn't want to be a computer programmer anymore, because I realized the software industry has become nothing but a branch of the advertising industry, so I quit Mozilla. Now I'm stuck in California, unemployed, with a set of skills optimized for a career I don't want, looking for something meaningful to do with the remaining years of my life.
It's been an opportunistic random walk the whole time. Any narrative connecting my past education or life experiences to Stanford or Berkeley's programs would be pure retroactive invention.
I remember seeing some interviews with scientists when I was a kid. The scientists would always say things like "I always wanted to be an astronomer since I saw an eclipse when I was 6". Hearing that, I wondered when my eclipse was going to come -- you know, the life-defining event where it suddenly becomes clear what I was put on this earth to do.
But now I suspect that astronomer probably was interested in lots of stuff and could have been good at lots of stuff given the opportunity. What probably happened is he/she just lucked into a sweet gig, then cherry-picked a plausible narrative precursor from all the events in his/her past.
But I don't think graduate school admissions want to hear that. So writing these essays is like pulling my own teeth out because it feels like trying to pass off creative writing about myself as non-fiction. It feels dishonest. My brain rebels against writing shit that I don't believe.
Does everybody secretly feel like this? Or do competent people have life stories that make sense, where they know what they want to do from a young age?
Is all this doubt a sign that I really shouldn't be going back to grad school, after all?
MLK weekend I'm going to Chicago for Uchi-con, the anime/gaming mini-convention that I helped start back in 2004-2005. I'm quite pleased that the subsequent generations of anime club members have kept it going.
I plan to spend most of the time rocking out on the accordion, so I'm practicing the following anime/game themed setlist:
Legend of Zelda (overworld)
Super Mario Bros (1-1)
Yakusoku wa Iranai (from Escaflowne)
Zankoku na Tenshi no Thesis (from Evangelion)
Katamari on the Rocks (from Katamari Damacy)
Harlequin (from Homestuck)
Always (by Erasure - the song from Robot Unicorn Attack)
I could mayyyyybe learn one more in the next week, if it's not a real complicated one. What I know so far is mostly pretty old-school so maybe I should learn something from the last 10 years that college students of today would recognize. Any suggestions?
I'm working on an official Studio Xia website. I've been following this tutorial I found called How to Make Your Site Look Half Decent in Half an Hour, by Anna Powell-Smith. It's aimed at programmers who don't know the first thing about graphic design (that's me) but who know they need to pretty up their site.
She's provided some cool tricks and links to good resources, so I'm grateful for that, even though her aesthetic advice isn't really to my taste.
Step One is "Use Bootstrap", where Bootstrap is an open-source collection of basic html/css/js (made by Twitter) that you can use to get up and running quickly. Once I got through the first few steps of the tutorial, I suddenly understood why 3/4 of the websites made in the last 4 years seem to look almost identical. They're all using Bootstrap! (And the other 1/4 are using default Wordpress or Tumblr themes.)
Bootstrap does give you some basic accessibility features, like responsiveness to different screen sizes, so more of that makes the Web a nicer place. But I kind of miss the old days when every web page was a unique expression of its creator's (lack of) taste.
"We started off as stumblemonkey... it's like airBnB but for online dating. When you left town, you could rent out your spouse or partner. Great idea, but then we found out it was illegal, so we had to pivot."
He says that arguing with global-warming denialists taught him the importance of reading the original scientific research on a topic, and when he applied that method to the GM debate, he found that the fears he'd been propogating had little evidence to suppor them. He now says that GM crops, by feeding more people from the same area of land, and thereby preserving wilderness from agriculture, have been a net positive for the environment, and that trying to ban them is counterproductive.
The whole thing is worth reading, both for his description of his personal journey and for the details of the argument he presents. I respect somebody who is willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Far too many people, when faced with evidence that they're wrong, look for excuses and double-down on their challenged beliefs.
I think this is pretty important for anyone who wants to call themselves an environmentalist. Not just the facts about GM, but the philosophy of applying intellectual rigor to your pet issues. Good intentions are not enough.
I instantly fell back into the rhythm of teaching. Oh yeah, I remember how much I used to enjoy this! And the people are pretty cool. So I'm continuing to do it, for the time being. I didn't want to give them false expectations so I told them very explicitly that if I get into grad school, or if the Studio Xia Chinese game starts taking off, then I'm outta there.
So I've got a part-time job with very flexible hours; I can go in and teach for a couple hours one or two days a week and write a few assignments for their curriculum. It lets me pick up some extra money and more importantly gets me out and connecting with humanity on a regular basis, so I don't become a total hermit.
The students mostly look up to me since I used to have the kind of job that they're all want -- they're trying to break into the field that I'm trying to break out of. I am reminded of that kung-fu movie trope where the retired sword master is all like "Do not follow in my path, it leads only to violence and death" and refuses to teach students.
I don't want to crush their dreams. So I try to give them a neutral picture of what it's like, the good and the bad.
The class has about 20-25% women. Which is a really low number, but sadly, it's better than a lot of programming groups I've been in, which have been 100% dudes. Programming is still an extremely male-dominated field. As much as some people have tried to blame this fact on women just not being interested, I think the culprit is sexism, which still exists in both blatant and subtle forms. Sure, we like to think we're enlightened folks and beyond all that, but sadly we're not. For sickening examples, read the experiences that female game developers reported in the #1reasonwhy hashtag recently.
I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I want to help make the class a welcoming and egalitarian environment, and I want to encourage the women in the class to keep pursuing this as a career and not to get discouraged and drop out. But at the same time, I don't want to treat the women differently from the men. It would be damn insulting of me to assume they need extra help because they're women!
I talked to Alexis about this dilemma last week, and she told me some facts about stereotype threat. It's a phenomenon where a member of a group that's stereotyped as bad at something (i.e. "Women are bad at programming") get really nervous about confirming the stereotype, which reduces their performance in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It's been experimentally confirmed again and again. But experiments have also shown ways to mitigate it.
For instance, she said, getting people to talk as individuals about their personal goals and their reasons for wanting to take a class seems to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. And recognizing that not everybody communicates the same way, and that some students who need help might be really shy about asking questions for fear of sounding stupid.
The book Whistling Vivaldi is supposed to have some good insights for helping teachers mitigate stereotype threat, so Sushu and I have added it to our reading list.
So, I'm trying to get to know the students as individuals (luckily it's a small enough group to make this feasable), figure out their learning styles and their goals, and gauge what kind of help they each need. Students have a wide variety of backgrounds. Some have advantages that others don't, and it's got me thinking about privileges that male programmers take for granted.
Over the years I've gradually been learning to recognize my own privilege and how it's helped me get where I am. Like, because my family was (barely) able to afford a computer for me when I was a kid, I have a lifetime of tinkering experience to draw on. Just because I look and sound like a stereotypical computer programmer (young, white, male, communicates in sci-fi and video-game references), nobody ever sees me at a software company or a tech conference and questions whether I deserve to be there. If I wasn't any of those things, I would have had a steeper hill to climb.
The thing I want to talk about isn't any kind of blatant "get back in the kitchen" sexism (though that does exist in parts of the industry, no question). No, the thing I've noticed is a much more subtle phenomenon. It's not intentionally malicious but it still contributes to making programming culture exclusionary.
About the feeling of being overwhelmed by jargon: Programmers use tons of it. They redefine perfectly ordinary words ("function", "object") to have extremely specific technical meanings. Programming depends on precision of thought and so itthis lexicon of jargon is neccessary; without it, it would be impossible to communicate with enough precision. Problem is that programmers take the jargon for granted, forgetting that a listener might not know what ORM stands for, or might misinterpret "object" as its normal everyday meaning.
I told the class that the feeling of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar terminology is totally normal for programmers. I encountered a ton of brand-new bewildering gibberish at each new job, even after years in the profession. There's always a moment of panic: "They're talking about jQuery what the hell is jQuery oh no I don't belong here they're going to figure out I'm a fraud!" That feeling never quite goes away, but it gets less over time.
There's two ways of dealing with this: You ask "What's jQuery" and reveal your ignorance, or you fake your way through the rest of the conversation and then look up jQuery next time you're alone at your desk.
Now I think asking "What's jQuery" is the healthier course of action -- better to ask and look stupid for a moment than to not ask and remain stupid forever -- but it took me years to get comfortable with that. If you're already unsure of your social status in the group, then displaying your ignorance is really scary.
So to tie this back to the gender issue: women are less likely than men to have grown up in a social group that used a lot of technical jargon. They're also less likely to have been socialized to be assertive: our culture rewards a certain amount of cockiness in boys but punishes the same attitude in girls.
As a result, the kind of breezily overconfident, unthinkingly jargon-heavy communication style favored in male-dominated programmer culture can be quite exclusionary. If you're not used to the jargon, and you're worried about stereotype threat if you admit you don't know something, and you were raised not to fake confidence about stuff you don't know... well, I see how it can feel like a hostile environment, even if nobody engages in overtly sexist speech or harassing behavior towards you.
Programmers hold a lot of the levers of power in our modern age. Software runs ever more of the world. If the programmers are are mostly young white upper-class guys from San Francisco then most software will get written to reflect the interests and the unconscious assumptions of young white upper-class guys from San Francisco. So it matters great deal whether we make it easier or hader for people outside that demographic to become programmers.
My hypothesis for the day is that can, and should, make programmer culture more exclusive for people from different backgrounds, by doing things like being aware of diffrerent communication styles, not using jargon in a way that locks people out, not shaming people for not knowing a jargon term, etc.
I would love to hear your feedback on this theory, especially from women programmers but also from women who have taken programming courses, worked with programmers, or otherwise experienced programmer culture.
Two years ago Mom hosted an ugly sweater party. She bought horrible sweaters for everybody to wear ironically. When I showed up at the door, she handed me this one.
"I'll show you!" I said. "I'm gonna enjoy this sweater un-ironically! I'm gonna wear it with total sincerity, every single Christmas from now on!" And so I have done.
I didn't have the money this year to fly home to Chicago for every holiday, so I told Mom she could pick either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She picked Thanksgiving. So for Christmas I didn't go anywhere, and just video-chatted with my family on Skype. (Some weird bug between my webcam and Skype makes my video stream appear upside-down to people on the other end.)
Here's what I did instead.
Christmas Eve, Sushu's family took me to a light show at Six Flags. Partly sponsored by China, it had a bunch of corny light-up and/or animatronic versions of Chinese mythological figures, international landmarks, random Christmasy stuff, etc.
Plastic, bright-blue christmas tree with gaudy lights, flanked by palm trees? Yup, this image sums up Christmas in California.
The morning of the 26th I got up early and made sandwiches before we began our road trip to Seattle. We swung through Oakland to pick up Chris and then got onto I-5 north.
It's about a 14-15 hour drive, similar to the distance between Connecticut and Chicago, but with more interesting scenery. On the way we saw massive clouds of migrating birds. We took turns reading out loud from Journey to the West and singing songs from Les Mis.
In the very rural, very conservative northern Central Valley we saw Tea Party signs with ominous warnings ("Watch Out, Congress"; "The Second American Revolution is Coming!") and even a sign proclaiming "State of Jefferson".
Just before I-5 crossed into Oregon, we were rewarded with this lovely view of Mt. Shasta.
We lost time due to snowfall in the high mountain passes. It was well after dark when we arrived in Seattle.
We met Alexis in a grocery store parking lot. I volunteered to drive the next segment, and scared all the passengers half to death when I started to back out of the parking lot across two lanes of traffic. Some kind of brain malfunction had made me literally forget that going forward into a street was a thing that cars could do. I stopped before getting into the road, so everybody was fine, but it's going to take me a while to live that one down.
Then we picked Chris's longtime friend Les. With five people now in our party, the car was pretty well packed. We went to a fancy Chinese seafood restaurant for dinner; a fire alarm went off while we were eating because the upstairs neighbor had dropped a lit cigarette in a trash can and the firefighters had to show up to deal with it.
The next morning, we went here: the EMP (Experience Music Project), a museum of rock music and science fiction, funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
Rock AND sci-fi? It's like it was made just for me! I'm not going to pass that up, even if it IS housed inside what may be the single ugliest building on the face of the planet, a clashing-color, crumpled-shell monstrosity designed by Frank Geary.
It's basically Paul Allen's geeky souvenir collection on display. You can see the whole thing in a couple hours. Fun, but not much reason to go back. The room where you can jam out on real instruments is the best part, but we had to fight a lot of kids for the privilege.
The monorail runs right through the middle of the EMP building.
I heard from the Seattlites that the monorail is just one of many useless public works projects that Seattle's corrupt city government has used to embezzle citizens' money. It could have been cool except that the tracks only cover six blocks of downtown.
It was apparently the real-life inspiration for the Monorail Episode of the Simpsons.
Later, I totally failed to parallel-park on a steep hill. Something about Seattle made me suck at driving.
We poked around a local anime model-kit shop, hung out at a tea shop run by Alexis' friends, and then went to Les' house where he showed off his Minecraft world full of extremely impressive redstone constructions. (The high frame-rate made Sushu motion sick.) Les is a video game programmer and has worked freelance on many high-profile games. He's a really cool guy and I wish I got a chance to hang out with him more.
The Seattleites took us on a whirlwind tour of all their favorite restaurants. I think I gained about ten pounds. Thursday lunch was a Cambodian noodle place tht made an amazing durian shake, and dinner was an underground Tibetan curry shop. Friday lunch was at a tiny ramen shop, supposedly the best in Seattle -- they make a fresh batch of noodles for lunch, but only enough for like 20 or 30 people, so if you're not one of the first 20 people you don't get any, so we were lined up on the sidewalk 30 minutes before the shop opened.
While in line there, I met Amy, a really cool friend of Ben and Alexis, who is also a programmer. She and I and Les bored everybody else with our programmer shop talk while hanging around a bubble-tea cafe.
I was happy I got to meet such cool people on this trip. But after a few days I was starting to get burnt out on socialization. I'm an introvert by nature; even when I'm enjoying a conversation with a new acquaintance, it still sucks energy out of my invisible socialization-energy meter. When that meter runs out I really need to go crash in my cave of solitude with my books or my computer.
Anyway, we didn't get much more time to hang out because Friday afternoon it was already time to start heading for home. We got to Portland on Friday evening, where we had Hawaiian food with Chris' sister Bianca, and went book-browsing at Powell's. (My haul: How Music Works by David Byrne; Ready, Player One; Vol 1 of Saga; and Level 2 of Integrated Chinese.)
We spent the night at Ben's house in Portland, so that we'd have a shorter drive home on Saturday. Ben himself wasn't there, but his housemate Barry welcomed us. (I've enjoyed reading Barry's blog without ever knowing I had a connection to the author.) He wanted to talk about comic-drawing, which normally I would have loved, but by that point my socialization meter was completely empty, so I'm afraid I rather rudely sat in a corner reading an old copy of Rogue Trader for most of the evening.
Alexis rode back down to California with us, and stayed at our house for a few days more.
A beautiful view driving down out of the mountains, back into California.
Sushu sneaks a picture of the fancy birthday dinner her parents prepared.
At the birthday party, I had a long conversation with Sushu's childhood friend Yipeng. He talks like a sports jock / dudebro, but he's got a really geeky side too, which Alexis and I exposed by engaging him in reminiscience about old Magic: The Gathering cards. We ended with an agreement to play a sealed deck match next time we meet.
On the 31st, Alexis unleashed her Italian food-snob side and made fantastic pesto and tiramisu for all of us, using ingredients we plundered from a bargain-basement Italian food import store in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Sushu and I rehearsed for our New Year's Day taiko performance. It was our first time to join in playing the group's newest song, Kouki Tenmei. Kouki, which the senior students brought back from a song exchange with a taiko group in Brazil last January, is an extremely fast, rhythmically complex song that I've had great trouble learning. There are three distinct parts which, lined up perfectly, have awesome-sounding polyrhythmic interplay. But if one part is just a tiny bit off, it sounds like a chaotic mess.
Since we were in China for three months in the summer, we were three months behind the rest of the class on Kouki, and I was quite nervous about it. So the day before, we set up the world's jankiest practice drums (cardboard boxes attached to stools with bandages) and ran through our parts repeatedly.
New Year's Eve midnight karaoke with Alexis has become quite a tradition. This is what, the fourth year we've done it? Fifth year? We picked up Ben, who had come down to San Francisco to visit his mother in the hospital, and headed to Gamba karaoke in Cupertino. Ben claims he can't sing, but he does a respectable Bob Dylan (some would say that not being able to sing is an advantage for doing Bob Dylan) and he joined me for a very manly duet on "Princes of the Universe". Gamba is amazing because if you pick an anime song -- Rose of Versailles, Utena, Evangelion, Mazinger Z -- chances are they have the actual opening animation to go with it. Sang some Earth, Wind, and Fire with Alexis and of course everybody joined in on "Pengyou" which has sort of become our less-lame replacement for Auld Lang Syne.
Emeryville Taiko keeps the Japanese New Year tradition of Mochi-pounding. Here, Etsuko-san keeps the glutinous rice mass wet while instructing volunteers how to wield their mighty rice-pounding hammers. Sensei and Matt (background) try to keep everyone in rhythm with a festival pattern on shime drums.
Just to increase my nervousness, a film crew from a local TV station showed up during our rehearsal to interview people for a human-interest piece they're doing on Emeryville Taiko's continuing problem with finding a permanent home. (We've had to move between four different practice locations in the past two years -- the noise complaints make it hard to find a lease, go figure.) They wanted to interview me, but I've had bad experiences with being quoted out of context by the media, so I tried to stay off-camera.
The performance went well! I had made all my Kouki Tenmei mistakes during rehearsal, so the real one went pretty well. I even started the song off, which was not exactly how we planned it, but it worked out. Miya, playing the flute solo on Kacho Fugetsu for the first time, was as nervous as I was, but she did great.
Lots of our friends, and even Sushu's family, came to watch the concert and eat mochi. The mochi was made into some really good o-zoni, which I hadn't tasted for almost ten years.
Saw the new movie version of Les Miserables with Sushu's family on Christmas morning. Thought it was really good! I cried a little.
That might have had less to do with the quality of this particular adaptation and more with the fact that this is the first time I followed the story all the way through. Kind of ashamed to say it, but when I saw the stage version years ago, I couldn't follow the plot. I was like, who are all these new characters who just showed up? What are they singing about now? What the heck is this barricade they're fighting over? (Answer: it was a failed student uprising in Paris of 1832, between the second French Revolution and the third French Revolution.)
I found the movie a lot easier to follow. There's a lot of stuff from the book that is really hard to portray on a stage but can be shown in a movie -- like Valjean dragging Marius through the sewers; I had no idea that was a thing that happened until seeing the movie version. So this was the first time feeling the emotional impact of the story. I could do without so much of Marius' man-pain and I wish Cosette got some character development of her own instead of just being a symbol to inspire the men, but overall for a story written in the 1860s it's pretty good.
And it's got some amazing songs. I've been kind of obsessed with it. Me and Sushu sang a lot of numbers from Les Mis on our road trip to Seattle. I'm gonna ask my accordion teacher if I can learn some of those songs next!
Sushu told me that, back when she was in high school, she once planned out an epic Les Mis / Rurouni Kenshin crossover fanfic. (She had to abandon writing it because she couldn't reconcile 1830s France with 1890s Japan in a historically accurate way. Of course.) That's my awesome wife for you, everybody!
I'm reading Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel, or rather I'm reading the abridged translation of it by Anthony C. Yu.
(If you're not familiar: Journey to the West is based on the true story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, named Xuanzang or Tripitaka, who journeyed to India in order to bring a copy of the original Buddhist scriptures back to China during the Tang dynasty, ~800s AD. But over the centuries it's been embellished into a mythological fantasy, starring Tripitaka's companion, Sun Wukong the Monkey King, who steals the spotlight for much of the story. Sun Wukong is the inspiration for Goku in Dragonball and numerous other adaptations in Asian pop culture as well.)
Since it's Significant Cultural Literature and also hella old, I expected it to be somewhat dry. But it's fun! It's totally whimsical and humorous. The irrepressible Sun Wukong basically wages a prank war against heaven, running rampant through the pantheons of three religions, extorting tribute from the Dragons of the Four Seas, stealing the Peaches of Immortality and beating up the Ten Kings of the Underworld with his superior kung-fu, before he's finally out-pranked by the Buddha himself. Buddha imprisons him in a mountain for 500 years and then binds him into Tripitaka's service.
The story is told in this digressionary style that keeps going off on random tangents. Even the tangents have tangents. It takes fourteen chapters before anybody even starts journeying west! And that's in the abridged version! I hate to think how many side-quests the full version has. It's also constantly busting out poetry. When they cross a mountain there's poetry about how scary the mountain is; when they put on armor there's poetry about how cool the armor looks; when they fight there's poetry about how fierce the battle is. There's more poetic interruptions than Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I wanted to share a quotation with you because I think it says something interesting about Chinese culture. This bit is from a tangent within a tangent. Taizong, the Tang Emperor, is dying due to a curse. The ministers and the Queen Mother are already arranging his funeral. But his loyal advisor Wei Zheng has a plan. Wei Zheng says:
"Let Your Majesty be relieved. Your subject knows something which will guarantee long life for Your Majesty."
"My illness", said Taizong, "has reached the irremediable stage; my life is in danger. How can you preserve it?"
"Your subject has a letter here", said Wei, "which I submit to Your Majesty to take with you to Hell and give to the Judge of the Underworld, Jue."
"Who is Cui Jue?", asked Taizong.
"Cui Jue", said Wei, "was the subject of the deceased emperor, your father: at first he was the district magistrate of Cihou, and subsequently he was promoted to vice-president of the Board of Rites. When he was alive, he was an intimate friend and sworn brother of your subject. Now that he is dead, he has become a judge in the capital of the Underworld, having in his charge the chronicles of life and death in the region of darkness. He meets with me frequently, however, in my dreams. If you go there presently and hand this letter to him, he will certainly remember his obligation toward your lowly subject and allow Your Majesty to return here. Surely your soul will return to the human world, and your royal countenance will once more grace the capital."
When Taizong heard these words, he took the letter in his hands and put it in his sleeve; with that, he closed his eyes and died.
I love the idea that dying is just another formality which you can easily work around if you have connections in the underworld bureaucracy. Also, your bros are so important that a little thing like being dead won't stop you from paying back a favor. Such is the power of guanxi.
Minecraft used to just work out of the box on Ubuntu, but a recent update (could have been a Minecraft update, Ubuntu update, or Java update) broke it. When I tried to launch I got an error message like this:
Exception in thread "Minecraft main thread" java.lang.UnsatisfiedLinkError:
cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
I tried reinstalling liblwjgl (a Java graphics library that Minecraft depends on) but it was already installed. Followed advice about making sure I had the Oracle version of Java (not the OpenJDK version). Tried a bunch of other stuff and nothing worked.
The solution I found, which I post here just in case anybody else is having the same problem, was to write a small shell script that sets the environment variable LD_LIBRARY_PATH. Apparently the problem is that the Java virtual machine by default looks for shared library files in the wrong place on the Linux filesystem. Setting this variable to the place where the shared libraries actually live before launching Java fixes the problem.
Here's my shell script, which you're welcome to copy and use - you may have to modify the path to match the actual location of the Java installation on your computer.
Last week year I saw a Chinese movie about the Henan famine of 1942. A bad drought combined with the Japanese invasion (and a Chinese central government pulling grain out of drought-stricken Henan to feed its army) caused about 3 million people to starve to death, no joke.
The English title is "Back to 1942". It is amazingly well-crafted, ambitious, and beautiful, but emotionally devastating. All I could do for an hour afterwards was make this face:
Most movies about real-life tragedies are too heavy-handed. One horrible event follows another until they start to lose their emotional impact. Even though the movie isn't any good, you feel bad criticizing it, because the subject matter really is important. But a movie that's all "THE WORLD MUST NEVER FORGET" instead of telling a story is the cinematic equivalent of having to eat your vegetables.
1942 avoided that pitfall. It didn't make me emotionally numb because it had nuance and contrast and variation, weaving together stories of many different people making choices on many different scales. It had a lot to say about politics and human nature beyond just "Famine sucks".
...Like, how crises peel away the veneer of civilization to reveal humanity as frightened, hungry mammals. We see the social structure in complete collapse. People stripped of all dignity and culture, caring only about survival. Pointing guns at their starving neighbors because, well, my own family comes first and we don't have anything to spare for you and I know you're going to try to steal it. Nothing personal.
There are all sorts of cool subtle parallels. We see corrupt provincial ministers politicking over how relief grain shipments are to be distributed, and we see refugees fighting over a packet of crackers. The ministers have nicer clothes and use more polite words, but the underlying dynamic, the desperate need to grab what you can before someone else does, is exactly the same.
The scene where the Japanese planes are bombing the refugee lines was really hard to watch. After some movies where horrible things happen I can tell myself "it's just a movie". Not this one, though. Sushu's grandparents lived through this. They fled to Sichuan province where they took refuge from Japanese bomber runs by hiding in caves.
The portrayal of Chiang Kai-Shek is very nuanced. For years, due to Communist censorship, mainland Chinese movies only showed him as the villain; a corrupt tyrant who gets overthrown by the heroic Communists. So it's kind of amazing how not-villainized he is in this film. He comes off as a well-meaning man who is just waayyy out of his depth. A good soldier but not a good politician, thrust into a no-win situation, surrounded by men who are afraid to tell him bad news, making mistakes which contribute to a lot of deaths.
Aside from the clear-cut evil of the Japanese invaders, 1942 isn't much interested in identifying heroes and villains for the audience. I'm used to American movies where heavy-handed music and dialogue constantly remind you who you're supposed to like and who you're supposed to hate. 1942 is like: here are these people faced with horrible choices. This guy made this choice, and he lived. This guy made the other choice, and he died. Like there's a bit where the Japanese are toying with two prisoners of war. One guy refuses to submit to their humiliations, and they kill him. The other guy submits, and lives. In some movies the guy who refused would be a hero, meant to rouse us all with his defiance. Here, he's just dead.
But seeing as how, two months into the famine, the living are utterly without hope, and openly envying the dead... who's to say the alive guy is better off? It makes you think some really cold thoughts, this movie.
Major spoilers: The ending scene hit me hard. Dongjia (a main character) is sustained through most of the story by the need to protect his family and project hope to keep them going. But he loses them all - one by one, they either die or they get sold into slavery for a few pints of grain. By the end, he has nobody, and so he has nothing left to live for; he's just waiting to die, walking east so he can die closer to home. But then he finds a random girl whose whole family has died, too; he kind of "adopts" her. Suddenly he has a reason to live again.
It got me thinking: Humans survive by making some kind of meaning out of their situation, no matter how horrible. Even if it's a meaning as small as keeping someone else company while you shuffle weakly down the barren road together in search of your next meal. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have houses to live in and food to eat and who aren't getting shot at (and we are very lucky indeed) even for us lucky ones, this fact about life is the same. We're all on a road with death at the end, and maybe finding someone to care about, to create some meaning along the way, is the best any of us can hope for.
You should watch 1942. Just be prepared to experience absolute despair.
Oh, and if I ever complain about food again, somebody punch me please?