Sunday, September 20, 2009

To The Heavens

I'm headed off for a 10-day trek in the Valley of Flowers. Samir and I have some rough plans, but mostly hoping the tide will land us wherever we need to be. Right now I am in Baroda furiously trying to scrap together the gear I'll need (backpack, sleeping bag, waterproof clothes, shoes, etc.) since I came here with none of my own stuff. It's incredible how much we take for granted in the states in terms of being able to get quality products for pretty much anything. There is nothing close to an REI here.

But I'll make due. What's important is I'm off to heaven on earth. Talk to you when I get back.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Our Skull-Sized Kingdoms: David Foster Wallace

I came across David Foster Wallace's story on a tribute episode to him on TTBOOK. I had never heard of the man, but he was known by many literary critics as one of America's best writers . He wrote a thousand page novel called Infinite Jest that is described as "sprawling". It is also considered "avant-garde", so I was initially put-off and wondered whether this is another fluffy head-in-the-clouds writer who only has a lot to say because he has no mental discipline.

Turns out he is pretty brilliant, and I got a lot out of learning about him and his writing. From his story I developed a better understanding of what it means to suffer from severe depression, and that taking your own life isn't necessarily an act of cowardice. His sister talks about how when they found out he had committed suicide in 2008, the family wasn't mad at David, or thought he was selfish. They knew he was suffering debilitating pain, that he was actually very brave, but that in the end he just didn't want to fight any longer. They understood fully.

(Tangent: Leave it to the folks at To The Best of Our Knowledge to make an hour of your attention worthwhile. There are very few media sources that I trust like TTBOOK, where even if the program title or tag line sounds uninteresting to me, I give it a shot anyway because I have profited so many times in unexpected ways from what they present. TTBOOK is one channel that allows me to expand my horizons, learning about topics I wouldn't have otherwise felt are worth exploring.)

The jewel of the program is at the very end where you hear an excerpt from an inspiring commencement address David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College. I highly recommend you listen, but I've also attached a written version cued up to the part that is heard.
...But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and .... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

David Foster Wallace Kenyon Address

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Get A Life

Recently I got a reminder that you can't put too much weight in how other people say you should live:

I am currently writing two research papers simultaneously for a big conference, and the deadline is looming less than a week away. This is the culmination of months of hard work and I am determined to finish out strong. One of the remarkable things is that I've been riding high all the way through. Last year at this time, I was a wreck, losing weight, feeling stressed, irritable. But in a year I've grown a lot stronger mentally. One of the things I've been focusing on recently with my mental approach is to keep the crushing burden of outcomes off my shoulders. Have no stake in what you do. Just do. This makes you a lot lighter on your feet, and it also diverts brain cycles spent stressing about outcomes toward doing the best work you can right now.

So because of my papers for the past couple weeks or so I have been very focused at the office, cranking through chai breaks and blocking all else out but the data dancing on the screen in front of me. My hard core-ness was picked up on by one of my co-workers, who remarked, "Neil, listen. There is more to life than Avaaj Otalo, you know that right?" Translation: "Get a life. You shouldn't be working so hard."

You just can't win. Everyone has that friend(s) or family member(s) who doesn't yet have her act together. She lacks focus. She doesn't have a direction. So what do we do? We rip on the girl. Get focused. Get a direction. Get a life! And then when you have found your place, and you are doing something you really truly love, something that you are proud of, the thing that if you had a choice to be doing any single thing at this point in your life, you'd choose this (not counting playing pro golf), someone tells you, "You're working too hard at it. Get a life!"

I was relating this episode to Samir, and he told me a story that he heard while he was a young FOB growing up in India. I re-tell it here with some artistic license. There was an old man who had a donkey (a.k.a. an ass), and the ass was pushing a huge load of goods for the old man to sell at the market. As the old man was leading the ass through a village, people yelled out.

Society: Hey, old man! Don't you have a conscience? Look at your donkey, so feeble and weak. And yet you load him up with all that plaster of paris? You should be ashamed.

Old Man: Really, you think so Society? Maybe you're right. OK, this is what I'll do. To lighten the burden for Eeyore, I'm going to chuck half of my goods. Hmpphhh. There you go, much better right?

Old Man and ass continue to the next village

Society: Stop being a punk old man! Look at your ass suffering. Have you any compassion?

Old Man: K, I'll chuck the rest of my goods. Hmpphhh.

Next village

Society: Old Man, poor ass! Help him!

Old Man: You're right Society. Ok Eeyore, up you go. I'll carry you on my own back. Hmmmmmpppphhhhh.

Last Village: bin Ladenstan

Society: LOL look at this old man. What a chump! Carrying a donkey? How silly. Hey old man, You're an ASS!

People just like to be critical. I think it is a reaction based on ego. The chain goes something like this: Hey, that guy looks like he's fulfilled. Why aren't I fulfilled like that? Well, since I'm not doing much wrong in my own life, it must be him. Hey man, you shouldn't be enjoying yourself so much. You're doing something wrong!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Can I Get A Encore?

  • The other day I recalled something Sebastian Thrun, a professor in my department and of Stanley/DARPA Grand Challenge fame said in a talk about why he does research on cars that can drive themselves. He said that if robots were driving our cars on freeways, then all the cars would be able to drive a lot closer together than they do now. Human's hands and nerves are too shaky to be trusted to drive a foot off the bumper of the next vehicle. But robots certainly could, and the extra space this creates effectively triples or quadruples our freeway capacity instantly, without laying any new asphalt.

    I was thinking this also applies to living life. The more time we spend dominated by our thoughts is less time spent actually living, which only happens when you are tapped into the here and now. If you made a practice of spending more of your time in the present moment, you would effectively increase the length of your life, without living any additional years.

  • One thing Tiger talks about in his interviews all the time is how he tries to "put himself in a position to win". Means that he can only win the tournament on Sunday, but he has to play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in such a way that he keeps himself in contention to have a shot at taking the tournament on Sunday. He understands that if you put yourself in a position to win time and again, eventually the wins are going to pile up. In life, we fail all the time. And sometimes you wonder when the hell things are going to fall right for you. That's when you have to tell yourself to keep preparing, keep making yourself better. Because when you keep putting yourself in a position to win, eventually you will.

  • I want to give a shout out to two pieces of media that have really made me feel at home while I've been away. The first is Jay-Z's music.

    I've been listening to rap music since I was about 8. The original influence was my cousin Ashish, who is 4 years older. I copied everything he did. One day Hash got The Chronic and I remember sitting with him and his friend Corey in Corey's living room blasting it on his family's surround sound system. I was shocked by the profanity, it didn't belong in that wholesome living room. But the music penetrated my brain.

    Then Hash got a car when I was 12 or 13 and when we rode he would play a 2-song playlist: Bone Thugs N Harmony 'First of da Month' and 'Thuggish Ruggish Bone'. Over and over. He had this sweet sound system in his Acura that allowed you to skip to songs on a cassette tape. Hash sometimes also played some 'ethnic' rap songs that I know Jay and Hash remember.

    Anyway from those early impressions I was pretty much hooked on rap. I probably now know the lyrics to hundreds of rap songs. I can say with 85% certainty that there isn't anyone I know who knows more rap lyrics than me, and with 99% certainty that I'm amongst the top 3 of people I know. By far and away the artist I listen to the most is Jay-Z. Recently I was listening to an interview with a guy who talks about how music shapes human nature. He argues that music predates language, and that music is itself a language. If that's the case, then I speak Jay-Z.

    He's the greatest rapper we have ever seen. That's not a biased opinion. I think only the Beatles have more #1 albums, he has more than Michael Jackson and Elvis. Over the years I have grown more and more appreciative of his music, which I think has only gotten better. I'm also really fascinated with the person. Jay-Z is a lyrical genius, born with unique gifts that made him destined to be a poet/rapper. He doesn't write any of his lyrics down, it just comes out when he's in the studio. A few years ago he 'retired' from rapping but came back within a year or so. Most likely because it is impossible for him to retire. The rhymes just naturally flow out of his head. This is a really interesting video of him describing how he thinks about music and his approach to coming up with songs:

    Jay-Z just released his 11th studio album, Blueprint 3, which I downloaded and have been listening to non-stop since I got it. It's a fantastic piece of work. Not his best (I still think Blueprint 1 was the masterpiece of masterpieces), but once again he takes the game to another level. He even introduced a new cadence sound ('awww' instead of 'uhhh' which I'm sure will now be used by all other rappers). He's a master of language, he just plays games with words. Even the crappy songs on the album can't be called crappy because of how fresh his lyrics are. But what sets him apart as a rapper is his unparalleled combination of talent and charisma. His swagger, like in the D.O.A. performance below. It's why Eminem will never reach Jay's heights. Here are a few of the best songs from the album:

    I could go on forever talking about the guy. But for now, I just want to say thanks, Mr. Shawn Carter, for all of your music and making me feel at home away from home. Also, mini shout-out to my iPod, which has made it possible to listen to music and radio podcasts anywhere. I've absolutely turned into one of those anti-social assholes who sits on a bus or train burried in their headphones, off in their own world.

  • The other media shoutout goes to The Wire. Like my man Simmons talking about his own start with the show, I don't like to be forced into watching shows or music by others. I like to bump into things organically. Even if it means I miss out on stuff. For those of you who haven't seen The Wire, I'm sure you've heard one person or other recommend it, telling you about how it's the most important television show in the history of television. And that's true. Hopefully you'll watch it, but if not, it's really your loss. I have Bittorrent to thank for my date with destiny. Once I figured out how to use it, I wanted to download something big, and I really just chose season 1 of The Wire arbitrarily. That was about 3 months ago, and since then I have gone through the first three seasons and am just starting the fourth, which is reputably the best one (Maneka: "You will die of love for season 4").

    The show has really taken over my life over these few months. I think about it a lot. Mostly the characters on the show, which are so vivid and engrossing. Avon is definitely my favorite character, mostly because he's the top man (of a drug empire). He was flawed in how he ran things strategically, but he knows what it means to lead men. But it's also about the stories and how they weave small details into larger arcs, how they portray the drug game from 360 degrees of perspective (the sellers, the users, the police, the courts, the government). You uncover all the messiness in the urban drug landscape, the interconnected ecosystem of the hopper on the corner, the stick-up boys in the alleys, the cops on the rooftops, and the councilmen in city hall. You realize that there is no single villain in the drama, and you end up empathizing with everyone. The show teaches you some things, but mostly you come away with empathy, and also with anger. You are mad at the shitty situation, it really lights a fire in you.

    Again, I can go on for hours. I barely watch TV, and have certainly never been sucked in by a show like this before. So there you go. I am now at the point where I'm lamenting inching nearer to the conclusion, being finished with all 5 seasons with nothing left to watch, these characters no longer in my life to ponder over. I'm trying to ration season 4 to 2 episodes a week to make it stretch through October, then I'll have to wait to get home to watch season 5. Also wanted to point out that my case demonstrates how piracy helps sell product. After stealing season 1, I felt compelled to buy season 3, and will buy season 5. Without being able to download and watch season 1 illegally, I probably wouldn't have discovered that I loved this show and found it worth paying for even if I could steal it.