Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Facebook story

There’s a story I’ve been shy about telling lately because it may be too garishly pro-Facebook and cause unnecessary ruckus. But it’s a good story, and being on the cusp of 30 feels weirdly existential, like “I better not die with these stories.”

I joined Facebook full-time in March 2013. The following month I was in the engineering spinup program called Bootcamp when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. Marathon Monday. I don’t remember how I first found out: probably by seeing stories about it in newsfeed.

But, I do clearly remember the moment—I was sitting in one of those living-room-esque couch areas after getting help from office hours—when I saw the Facebook post from my then-boyfriend’s cofounder (let’s call him R).

The post was simple: it had attached to it a news article about the bombing, and the preview photo showed a middle-aged man, his head and legs covered in blood, in a wheelchair. The post said: my parents were at the finish line, and the way I found out is my brother just sent me this news article and that’s my dad in the wheelchair. We don’t know where they are. They’re not picking up our calls. We don’t know what to do.

Many factors came together in that moment. R happened to have a number of college friends who were then in medical schools in the Boston area. They happened to be on Facebook, probably following the news, and saw R’s post. And they started piling in to help, each person commenting: “I have connections at Boston Medical. I’ll check there.” “I’ll check Mass General.” I sat glued to the screen, refreshing the page.

In 12 minutes, someone located his dad, and in 24 minutes, his mom. They were at different hospitals.

The whole time, I sat stunned. The situation was horrible—I couldn’t imagine being in R’s shoes, finding out the news in that way. As the comments played out, another part of me was enraptured. Magic was happening. What was the alternative? How much time calling hospitals on busy phone lines?

R’s parents ended up being not among the luckiest nor the unluckiest. Two days later, he shared a link on Facebook to raise money for their recovery. I had contributed to causes like this before, but this time it felt viscerally, deeply personal. It happened so close to home, in a city I loved, and I very much believed: it could have been me.

In those days, Facebook’s weekly Q&A on Fridays would end with a story. That Friday featured a video from a group of Facebookers who had been running the marathon. They were lucky to have been far from the finish line, and they talked about how they used Facebook to let their friends and family know they were safe. When they finished, I immediately I thought, “That’s cool, but R’s story is way better. I should have said something.”

As fate would have it, moments later I approached the dinner line, and right at the end of the line, browsing his phone, evidently there by himself, was Mark Zuckerberg. In my next two and three-quarters years at Facebook, a setup like this would never happen again. And in that moment something deep inside me spoke: “I have to tell Mark. The product did an amazing thing. He should know!”

To this day I don’t have what you’d call “executive presence,” but back then let’s just say I wasn’t even aware of the concept. I was emotional due to the nature of the story and extra nervous because it was Mark. I went up to him and tapped him on the arm, and he looked up. Some words, very stilted blubbering, came out of my mouth. It was pretty bad, folks—I had a hard time even understanding myself, because my tongue was not working. But Mark got the gist and said, “That sounds awful!” [0] And I felt like I had done what I set out to do, although I hoped to be forgotten. [1]

Anyway. This story is one of the reasons why I remain optimistic about Facebook as a thing. It reminds me of the great good that Facebook has enabled, and will continue to enable, in a time when we mostly shine light on the bad. We need to talk about both. There is no single purely good thing in the world: medicine can cure your loved ones, as well as people you’d rather have dead; a knife can be used to make a sandwich, or stab someone.

This is the messy human condition: we perpetually try to create good and mitigate bad, while perpetually disagreeing on what’s good and bad… all the while each of us seeing only the slice of the world we can see.

[0] He then asked who I was and what I worked on, and when I said “Public Content,” he said, “the eng side or the business side?” and I was relieved to be able to answer, “the eng side.”

[1] Months later this hope was dashed. A story for another time.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

[Daily] Spinning up in a social ping pong league

Last night was the first night of the SPiN Social League. I felt a twinge of hesitation (“how much time should I put into this?”) before I left my apartment for the bus ride over, but I ended up feeling really great afterwards purely from the dopamine hit from playing ping pong. For the kickoff event, we did a round-robin brawl in randomly-selected groups to give the organizers a sense of our playing level. I lost my first three matches to people I don’t think I should have lost to, and then won two more. I notice I mirror so hard that I end up playing to the level of the person I’m playing against, rather than maintaining my level of gameplay. I also need to focus on strategy and improve the consistency of my serve.

Afterwards, I chatted with R------ a bit and he said he knew how I felt—he’d been through the same experience as a kid. “You train so much, then you lose to someone you think is really bad, like some 70-year-old guy who’s just standing there.” (To be clear, I'm sure he experienced this frustration 1000x more intensely than I did. I play 1-2 hours a week.)

I said I think one problem of mine is I lack the “desire to crush,” and he said he also didn’t really have it… but I kinda looked at him funny and then he walked it back to, “yeaaah I totally do.” But, he said, it depends on who he’s playing, and sometimes he has to cope by not even looking at his competitor. For example, he once had to play a really important match that would determine his entire next year (because of the ranking change and whether he’d get into a higher league, etc), and his competitor was his best friend and roommate. “So you get into these situations in a match where everyone’s just [keeping their head down] looking at the floor.” He talked about a similar situation with two female ping pong player friends whom he grew up playing with. As they grew up they split into women's/men's divisions and didn’t formally compete anymore. He insinuated that technically speaking he is a better player... but when they compete now socially, he can’t beat either of them, they always beat him, and his friends make fun of him.

To sum it up, there is a surprising emotional component to competing that I hadn’t realized. The two times I played in competitions as a middle schooler(?), I don’t remember thinking about such things. I don’t think I’d yet become a feeler.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

No wasted motion

Back in March, I went to a chamber music concert by SF Symphony musicians (and only now have I gotten to organizing these thoughts). I went with my violinist and pianist friend Kevin.

For the first time, I heard the new assistant concertmaster, Wyatt Underhill, who played first violin in Dvorak string quartet no. 14. Listening to and watching him play, I thought of something Kevin said at the last chamber music concert we’d been to, where the concertmaster Alexander Barantschik had sat first violin in Mozart and Brahms string quintets: "This is someone who’s played a lot of violin and figured out the most efficient way to play, and there’s no wasted motion."

That phrase, "no wasted motion," came to mind as I watched Wyatt. The other striking thought was: everything he played was so intentional. The phrasing was intentional: you could hear two notes, and how each note had its own place in the phrase—one note is (actually) a little louder than the next note in a crescendo, and so on. The easy thing to do is have two notes be the same loudness, then decrease the volume by step functions… and other people in the group doing that became much easier to hear in contrast.

The outcome of being so intentional is that Wyatt would bend the will of the entire group. Both listening and watching him play, you could tell clearly where he was going. Pauses between phrases were clear and held for just the right amounts of meaningful silence. (I could then start to hear how the cellist came in a little too early than he could have, right then…) This reminded me of the different chamber music performances of the same Mozart quintet at the 2018 Joseph Joachim violin competition where Timothy Chooi won. I remember watching the 5th place winner—still amazing—in this round, and noting how the rest of the group—the same people—just being way more solid and elevated, playing the same piece, when Timothy was first violin.

Coming back to the chamber music concert: there was a contrast to Wyatt in the next piece, the Tchaikovsky piano trio. The violinist was good, but one of the first things Kevin said after was, "She was very good, but it was a shame she didn’t have a bigger sound." "Yeah," I said, "I remember you saying that thing about the concertmaster last concert. I thought she had a lot of wasted effort—the contact point [of the bow] wasn’t firm." That extra motion took away from her ability to convey the music and to physically lead.

The idea of "no wasted motion" applies to the ground technique. It notably does not apply to how creative people spend their time—there’s nonlinear exploration and wide inputs and "wasted" time that is expected and needed in that process. In comparison, people will not say to a baseball player swinging the bat that they ought to be more expressive about how they do it. It reminds me of what one of our cofounders said about management: that he does wish it was a bit more prescriptive sometimes. He used the analogy of rowing crew, which he did one semester of in college. "It’s not about: how does the oar make you feel?" You row this way, all the same way, or else the boat doesn’t move the way you want.

It might be a useful exercise to figure out which things in your life or profession are the things you want to have no wasted motion in. It’ll be the somewhat mechanical things that are not the essence of art in your field. The field changes the point of view: the same activity that is art for one field can be no-wasted-effort-landia for another. Take what writing is to a writer, versus a (generic, yes I’m simplifying) "business person." But even with this example, there are aspects of writing that a writer wants to have down cold, such as a large vocabulary that one can readily draw from.

For programmers, if you’re going to be a heads-down engineer IC for a long time, the no-wasted-motion goes into learning command-line tools, IDE functionality, how to minimize mouse usage. For someone who’s going to spend less time coding as they progress, that same advice might not apply.

A final thought: "Wasted motion" doesn’t just apply to physical motion. In addition to the vocabulary example above, another that comes to mind is the effortless efficiency with which my former manager would run a meeting. "No wasted motion" applies to approach and even how you feel about doing something—no wasted emotional motion or stress. For example, I just noticed that I felt a pang of stress in thinking about writing a certain document for work. Why do I feel that way? One, because I want it to reach a certain bar. Second, and most importantly, because I am unfamiliar with doing this—it’s not my 100th time. Yet I also recognized the pang I felt as unproductive. Yes, it tells me to try harder, but beyond that it’s not helpful to worry, and eventually, with enough practice I know I won't.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Re-engagement campaign

On Friday evening, I attended my first political fundraiser. The ticket to the event was my first donation to a political candidate.

I was very excited to vote for Obama back in 2008 (the first election I could participate in) and 2012, but have never really stuck my neck into politics. I've primarily consumed media about politics, not shared or commented. Having only lived in states that have a clear Democratic majority, I've cast my ballots into the Blue sea, voting for the frontrunner.

I am still inclined to vote pragmatically, but this year is a bit different. I had mostly checked out of political news until a month ago, when a good friend (whom I hadn't seen for six months—it could easily have been longer) asked me over dinner if I'd been keeping up with the primaries. Apparently there are now 22 major candidates running for the Democratic nomination, with many known names in the mix and some upstarts. Each candidate has their strengths and weaknesses in relation to their immediate competitors and to Trump. No one yet carries an air of inevitability.

This open field in the race coincides with me being in a phase of life where I am actually thinking about politics. That sounds terrible, but it's an honest reflection of where my head has been the past few years—deeply buried in work, trying to rise from extreme greenness to moderate competence. So I viscerally understand, at least from one angle, "young people being politically disengaged."

Another part of my re-engagement has come from experiencing a few local election cycles in which I understood the issues better and had more direct skin in the game, voted, and saw outcomes I did not agree with (which is fair, part of the democratic process). I felt the "pain" of losing more strongly because I was informed and more invested in the outcomes. The real wake-up call, though, was from recognizing that I've changed my points of view on issues as I learned more. Then I reflected on the fact that in national elections, I've never bothered to learn more...

Finally, I've come around to thinking that engaging in politics is not just a thing one does when inspired, but a humbling, necessary part of bringing about any large-scale change. An analogy that comes to mind: in the early years at Facebook, there was a saying that "Code wins arguments." It meant, instead of arguing with words, the way to win was to build the thing to prove it was possible and to run the experiment. Around 2014 or 2015, I heard a long-tenured engineer remark with wistfulness that this saying was no longer feasible—a small handful of people could no longer realistically just hack something into the main app. There were now so many potential downstream effects that it really demanded you think it through before you started, plus so many internal (technical, inter-team, etc) dependencies that to get anything meaningful done, you had to get the help of other teams and convince them of the idea. This is the story of every super successful organization—they continue to attract and retain participants, and thus grow to be worthy of such problems.

The city of San Francisco alone has a population an order of magnitude bigger than Facebook's employee base. Tack on a few more zeros for the USA. I try to imagine socializing and getting buy-in for changes across an org of this size. To ship a better incremental version of the USA, again and again.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

An unexpected, positive side-effect of riding Uber

One unforeseen, positive side-effect of riding Uber for many years is getting more comfortable talking to strangers. That starts with figuring out when drivers want to talk, and when they don’t. (Sometimes it’s the riders in the pool too, though that happens less often.) 

Uber is now the most regular exposure I have to near-complete strangers. We’re in an enclosed space together for 30-45 minutes each way, every day. At the end of that encounter, I’m going to get a rating, and give one too. 

As a rider, the most conservative approach is to do nothing offensive. 5 stars for not being a jerk seems a low bar, until you hear stories from drivers. (More on this later.)

Some drivers do the same, and some do more: offer extra amenities; try to have a chipper conversation geared towards you. Some drive like taxis. 

Some people seem to be driving not just to work, but also a bit out of human interest. One morning two weeks ago, I got dropped off and thought, “Hm, that guy really does not seem to be driving for the money.” Not in a creepy way—in a “he wants to talk about life” way. 

That guy was semi-retired, and talked about work he used to do out east. He was about to fly out to Boston again. When I inquired (Boston in January?), he said he’d been invited to give a talk. A talk about what? About overcoming addiction, to a group of drug addicts. He said he’s been doing this for two decades, as a side thing. Then we were at the drop-off.

Other drivers have shared their aspirations. One very easy-going conversationalist said he used to work on the food teams at Apple and Google, and was looking for his next gig. He saw my destination and asked about Stripe. He said for his next thing, though, he wanted to try a smaller place, leading and building up a team. <3

Another driver peppered me with questions about my job, till I realized, “Hm, most people don’t ask the price of the Series A round!” and turned the tables.

Some drivers share their frustrations—about Uber, or riders. In one recent pool, a fellow rider (who had ordered an ExpressPool) gave the driver attitude about her drop-off location not being optimal and slammed the door. That left the two of us, and the driver launched into a rant on the poor treatment he’s gotten from riders.

He’s had people order him to drive them a block further than the drop-off location. “If you just ask and use my name—hey Luiz, I’ve got a heavy box, would you mind...—I’m happy to do it!”

He’s had to explain to riders why he can’t pick them up at a bus stop—he can get fined $300, a day’s work—and had a rider respond, “That’s your problem.”

He’s driven passed-out drunk people to their destination, only to have them complain this is not their home (because they entered the wrong address), and demand he drive them to the right address. He had to say, “Get out, or I’ll call the police.”

He’s called Uber to complain, and they’ve said, “maybe they misunderstood you” (his English is not fluent).

I can see how otherwise friendly people can have a bad day and take it out on people around them. Unfortunately, an easy target is the stranger you’ll probably never see again, whom you’re in just the slightest position of authority over, especially if you’re in the back seat.

I used to always jump in the back, out of shyness, but these days I prefer the passenger seat if it’s open. Easier to get in and out, and easier to communicate with the driver. And it doesn’t feel weird anymore, which is the change I noticed.

I’d encourage more people to try the passenger seat. You might get more out of it than you expected.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Prep and therapeutic self-delusions for two recent "shows"

Last month, I had two chances to get on stage in front of a lot of people—significantly more people than ever before—and do something. They happened back-to-back: I spoke for 2 minutes at the company engineering all-hands (a few hundred people) on a Wednesday, and played a 4-minute violin piece at the company variety show (~1300 people) the next night. Surprisingly, I didn't get very nervous, and they went well. The audience ended up hardly registering.

I prepared a lot—a well-known tactic. On top of that, two mental models (aka therapeutic self-delusions) helped.

I. Prep

Engineering All-Hands

In total, I spent at least seven hours on the two-minute presentation (guesstimating):

  • 2.5 hours on creating the content—outline, then slide deck
  • 0.5 hour (2 separate 15-minute sessions) practicing in front of my manager 1:1 and getting feedback
  • 1.5 hours in a required prep session for all speakers—did a dry run and listened to + gave feedback to all the other speakers
  • 2.5 hours practicing / refining on my own

Two minutes is both very short, so there's not much to prepare; and also more work because you need to trim your message to fit and then practice to stay within time. Between speaking and playing the violin in front of people, I have much less experience speaking, so the actual act felt more foreign and required more physical practice: just standing and saying the words at the right speed that would keep me in time; saying the words enough to develop muscle memory for them, to know them enough to not have to think. At two minutes, I had to get exact phrases nailed down, otherwise, as I discovered in practice, I would fumble or grasp for a transition and lose precious seconds.

Overall, seven hours for two minutes seems a lot. This time was spread over a week and does not include informal time consumed by the prospect of the work to be done hanging over my thoughts (kindly put, "background processing"). I expect a more experienced speaker could get their personal prep time down quite a bit. My manager said he used to also take a lot of time to prep, and nowadays he can do a similar talk with half-a-day's notice.

On the other hand, in the back of my head I keep this second-hand story from AriG in mind. Someone once asked Chris Cox, now the Facebook CPO, how he was able to do such a great 30-minute talk. Chris responded to the effect: "Easy. Just practiced it fifteen times." This exact number might be wrong, but the idea is if you do the math, it comes out to hours and hours of practice. (30 minutes x 15 = 7.5 hours)

Variety Show

For the variety show, David—my pianist friend and teammate—and I had a short timeline (2.5 weeks), so we chose a piece well within our comfort zones. I had performed the piece in the past, and our parts were technically undemanding for each of us, which meant the thrust of our rehearsals was staying in sync and hashing out musical choices.

We had two rehearsals on the preceding weekends (in addition to an initial "jam/reading" session to get to know each other, before we had decided to play in the show), and two pure run-through dress rehearsals. Weekend Rehearsal #1 was the nitty-gritty, deconstruct-reconstruct: 2.5 / 3 hours long. We played through the piece slowly with the metronome a number of times, then increased the speed to our liking; then dug in section-by-section to talk about what we wanted to do musically, and practiced each section before putting them back together. The second rehearsal was 1.5 / 2 hours, and we used it to reinforce things we'd discussed the previous week. We captured maybe 70-80% of our artistic ideal from the week before, but due to time constraints, we thought this was fine—better to aim to be comfortable and loose, and keep some freshness for the performance. (The last half hour of each rehearsal was reading / jamming on other pieces, a fun way to end.)

There was one required dress rehearsal at the venue for all performers. David and I showed up Tuesday night at 6:30 and sat in the chilly, warehouse-like auditorium until about 8:00, when we were called up, and played through the piece once. The auditorium was brightly-lit with harsh white LEDs, so we could see the sea of empty chairs, and there were a handful of "audience members": the variety show organizers, other performers, and the stage staff. In retrospect, the dress rehearsal was much more uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for the above reasons. In the actual performance, the venue was better heated; we had learned the outline of the show and so knew roughly when we would be called up; we could relax backstage in an informal green room; and on stage, the auditorium was dimmed and the stage lights so bright I could hardly see anyone in the audience.

We also ran through the piece twice on Wednesday morning (the show was Thursday evening), at the office on the roof. It was windy and cold, but also novel. Even before that rehearsal, I ran the piece twice by myself in an empty conference room (with practice mute on). By the time we walked on stage, I'd played the piece in four to five different settings and had a good sense of where I might mess up if I did and what to watch out for and what to think about throughout. In the actual performance, my mind was mostly on the piece itself.

II. Mental models

The main mental preparation was actual preparation. When I walked on stage for both events, I honestly believed there was a very minimal chance that I'd mess something up. Yes, I could forget the script, or potentially miss that high note, but if I haven't missed that high note in 95% of recent attempts, why would I now? (My mind does still find a way to doubt.)

The above assumptions rest on the performance feeling as similar to practice as possible. So my main therapeutic self-delusion was aimed at framing performance as ordinary.

#1: Downplaying and putting it in context

The eng all-hands was easy to downplay mentally: I was in a string of two-minute speakers, and this is an event similar to something that happens every two weeks with the whole company, that I've witnessed from the audience. Also, there is no expectation that you're good at speaking. People understand each team has been called up to present, and you're doing the deed.

The variety show was different: there were only ~5 performances, and the event felt semi-professionally produced. It was set up as a late-night show ("Llama Night Live!"), with a host and pre-taped intro reel reminiscent of SNL.

I realized that the main problem in the past for me has been thinking of performance as an event that showcases your ability to everyone. This is the slice that they will see and thus interpret as what you are capable of. This turns on the pressure to not mess up, and encourages you to choose a program at the edge of your technique.

I've now come to view performance as similar to a wedding in a human life; a snapshot and moment to consider, but not a defining event. Also—something you want to feel fairly comfortable while doing. If you trip on your way down the aisle, that doesn't doom the marriage (one hopes). It's ideally entertaining (by some meaning of entertaining) for everyone involved, and the degree of entertainment doesn't hinge on technical features. The analogy isn't perfect though, because the performance is really about the audience having a good time, which brings us to #2.

#2: Watching other people fail

Some people say, "act comfortable, even if you're not." I find this hard because I'm not good at acting. Ideally, I want to actually be comfortable.

The biggest motivation to be comfortable was realizing that the audience is only going to be as comfortable as I am. I realized this while watching a few people before me on stage each day who looked a bit nervous—and that made me nervous. And I thought, goddamn, can't do that! My role is to help people have a good time! This mindset made being nervous just not acceptable.

III. Compounding

A quick final note. At first glance, it might seem extra stressful to have two presentations to prepare for back-to-back, but that wasn't the case.

Incidentally, David, pianist and teammate, also gave a two-minute talk at the same Eng All-Hands. He remarked after that it actually helped to have the shorter, somewhat smaller event first, right before the bigger one. Prepping for the talk and doing the talk helped ramp us up for the somewhat higher-stakes variety show. I felt the same way.

Hopefully this stuff sticks. TBD.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

[Daily] Four Essays: Orwell, Auden, Bettelheim, MLK

It's on the second reading I get the most out of a piece of writing, be it a book, an essay or article. Lately I've been finding it's also what else I'm reading that matters, the sequence and timing.

This morning I began The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction, edited by John Loughery. (I picked it up yesterday from the library, after going in intending to only return books.) Although the essays are ordered by publication date, I suspect a deeper method to Loughery's selection, for the first few essays cumulatively make an impression that a single one doesn't. The first two make you appreciate life by investigating death; two others ignite a sense of agency over, and urgency to act upon your life.


The first essay is George Orwell's "A Hanging" (1931), which is quite well known. This was probably the third time I've read it, but enough time has passed that the narrative arc was familiar but details felt fresh. This essay is unusual in that, though told as a story, it clearly states its message less than halfway through and allows the rest of the tale to magnify that point. This poignant moment occurs as the prisoner walks to the gallows:
I watched the bare back of the prisoner marching in front of me. [...] At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. [...] His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the gray walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world [...].
After Orwell, we come to "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948) by W. H. Auden, which is the only essay here new to me. It's ostensibly about Auden's self-professed addiction to detective stories. Not any detective stories—ones that "conform to certain formulas." He's so addicted, he's compelled to pick apart the essential attributes of these stories, first defining what does and does not constitute a detective story (Sherlock Holmes, yes; Crime & Punishment, no, Kafka's The Trial, no—they are art). He asserts the tale must be about a murder, because murder is special:
There are three classes of crime: (A) offenses against God and one's neighbor or neighbors; (B) offenses against God and society; (C) offenses against God. (All crimes, of course, are offenses against oneself.)
Murder is a member and the only member of Class B. The character common to all crimes in Class A is that it is possible, at least theoretically, either that restitution can be made to the injured party (e.g., stolen goods can be returned), or that the injured party can forgive the criminal (e.g., in the case of rape). Consequently, society as a whole is only indirectly involved; its representatives (the police, etc.) act in the interests of the injured party.
Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.
Stories deliberately toy with the differing demands of each class of crime:
Many detective stories begin with a death that appears to be suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Suicide is a crime belonging to Class C in which neither the criminal's neighbors nor society has any interest, direct or indirect. As long as a death is believed to be suicide, even private curiosity is improper; as soon as it is proved to be murder, public inquiry becomes a duty.
Auden then dives into the five elements of these stories in similar detail as above, and speculates on the goals of the reader, which includes his self-diagnosis. The part that builds on Orwell's attitudes is the classification of murder, though. It builds on this question of: why is killing a human such a singular act? It's hard to ponder this question without thinking, then, that each human life is precious.


After a brief interlude about "Writing and Analyzing a Story" (Eudora Welty), we return to two more well-known essays: first, Bruno Bettelheim's "The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank" (1960), followed by Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). These two essays further develop the sentiment established in the earlier part of the book, and tell you: life is worth preserving, and you're in charge.

Bettelheim's piece on Anne Frank is a bit long-winded—he repeats himself a number of times, which has the effect of showing just how exasperated he is. He's exasperated about Anne's story being the celebrated story of the Holocaust, when he sees her family's choices as passive, unrigorous, and unrealistic. They chose to go into hiding as a family, which is much harder and riskier than as individuals in separate households, and made no plans for what to do in case of discovery—either by arming themselves to at least go down fighting, or by creating a secondary escape route (there was one entrance to their hiding spot).

To Bettelheim, the Franks failed to take their lives into their own hands, and they were not alone. He describes similar phenomenon amongst some of his relatives, whom, as Nazi regulations on Jews got worse, "clung more determinedly to their old living arrangements and to each other, became less able to consider giving up the possessions they had accumulated through hard work over a lifetime" instead of fleeing. He diagnoses the cause:
I believe the reason for such refusal has to be found in their inability to take action. If we are certain that we are helpless to protect ourselves against the danger of destruction, we cannot contemplate it. We can consider the danger only as long as we believe there are ways to protect ourselves, to fight back, to escape. If we are convinced none of this is possible for us, then there is no point in thinking about the danger; on the contrary, it is best to refuse to do so.
It's worse than self-destruction. People who have given up will drag others with them. He recounts a story from Olga Lengyel, a survivor of Auschwitz.
When Mrs. Lengyel's fellow prisoners were selected to be sent to the gas chambers, they did not try to break away from the group, as she successfully did. Worse, the first time she tried to escape the gas chambers, some of the other selected prisoners told the supervisors that she was trying to get away. [...] She [observed that] they resented anyone who tried to save himself from the common fate, because they lacked enough courage to risk action themselves.
Bettelheim ends his essay with a connection to contemporary events: "If today, Negroes in Africa march against the guns of a police that defends apartheid—even if hundreds of dissenters are shot down and tens of thousands rounded up in camps—their fight will sooner or later assure them a chance for liberty and equality." This leads us right into MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It's hard to imagine this was not a deliberate transition engineered by our editor, Loughery.


When re-reading MLK's "Letter," the most poignant impression I had was: this is a man who'd be almost 90 years old today, communicating forcefully, vitally across time. It reminded me of something my friend Kevin told me on a recent visit to the Legion of Honor museum that changed my point of view. I'd always been underwhelmed by relics of old civilizations, like pottery and jewelry, and wondered what people got out of looking at them. But Kevin said, "well, it's like reading the Iliad and realizing that people thousands of years ago were like you and me—they described each other, their emotions, and their surroundings—flowers, bees—the same way we do now." Their pottery and jewelry is like pottery and jewelry we'd use today. That's the sort of feeling I had reading King, that this person seems as relevant and alive to me today as he did fifty years ago when he wrote this.

King, when presented after Bettelheim, is the quintessential opposite of the Franks, especially in his sense of urgency. He answers very thoroughly, "why?" but also "why now?"
For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.
He rebukes "the myth of time"—the idea that time itself leads to positive change.
I had also hoped that the white moderates would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. [...]" All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
King is not an exact follower of Bettelheim, though. Whereas Bettelheim's point of view would seem to urge violent resistance in King's situation (degrading treatment and systemic threats on your life), King urges breaking unjust laws, e.g. laws of segregation, while keeping to the just laws, which, though not explicitly stated by King, would include violence based on his description. In taking the high road, King describes how he must straddle the "two opposing forces in the Negro community."
One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodyness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who [have sometimes benefited from segregation and thus] unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. [...] I have tried to stand between these two forces [...] If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.
King's situation is not quite as extreme as the Holocaust, where large-scale, organized extermination of a class of people was taking place. King knew he could be killed, but it would not be due to formal orders from the government. What he describes above as the two opposing forces are the two forces that Bettelheim identifies—passive, learned indifference versus violent resistance. In contrast, King finds a third path that is possible in his slightly lower-stakes situation, if only they can act and bring about change in time. Time is of essence, for "[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over."


I didn't expect going into this book of essays to be inspired to write what's become an essay itself. That's the magic of the selection and sequencing by Loughery. Connections compound.

The conflicts discussed in the four essays focus on man-versus-man. If someone were to add a fifth essay to this sequence, it would be interesting to tackle man-versus-nature, building on the survivalism theme and on King's sense of urgency.

The survivalism expressed by Bettelheim makes me think twice about some things that initially sounded crazy to me, such as the armageddon bunkers in New Zealand that were universally panned in the media. They're seen as selfish, but they're also something none of us would turn down if the need and opportunity to use one arose. If nuclear war or another form of environmental catastrophe does happen, not all of us will survive. Is it not better that some of us can prepare for it and carry on the species, even if it's not you and I? Most of us have to admit we do not feel equipped to fend for ourselves in case of armageddon, and part of us resents that others have the means and have acted. (Some of the criticism is also due to fears about the downstream effects of having such a fallback plan—that a powerful person might care less about preventing world-scale problems if they have a fallback. The fact that no one has moved to their bunker suggests the world outside is still much preferable, though.) King would likely remark that this is the wrong fight—to find a way to work productively toward a solution before a time of crisis does arrive.

The most lasting image from this sequence for me remains the one from Orwell, of man, aware, sidestepping a puddle. What Orwell and the authors here bemoan is man robbing man, of life or freedom. [0]

[0] Thoughts that don't fit in this post neatly, to ponder another time: Nature ultimately takes away from man the same things, just later.
I've heard that every time we lose a person, we lose a book. I think we lose at least a few essays for sure. What would it be like if everyone wrote them instead?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

An ad on BART

On the way back from Berkeley yesterday, I saw this ad on a BART train.

Many questions came to mind as I stared at it for the duration of the ride:
  • Copy: The copy is surprisingly aggressive. That final "Okay?" makes it sound like something an adult disciplining a child would say and could set the reader on the defensive. Perhaps it could simply stop at, "Keep elevators clean for those who need them." Or, to be more collegial, "Let's keep elevators clean for those who need them."
  • Imagery: The current image tries to make people feel for the elevator by anthropomorphizing it with a sad smiley face. Given that the copy prods the reader to think of those in need, might it be more effective to also include images of people (perhaps people in wheelchairs, with injuries, or the elderly) who need to use the elevator? Incidentally, the PRIORITY SEATING sign right below accidentally helps this cause.
  • Placement: Is the BART train car an effective place for this ad? It might be more effective on the doors of the elevators.
  • Information Content: Someone seriously considering doing their business in an elevator is in need of an alternative. This poster could give directions to the nearest public restroom.
  • Goals: I wonder what the goals of this ad are. Is anyone monitoring whether these ads correlate to cleaner elevators? One could see this ad as a simple cry for help or expression of frustration from BART staff. In those terms, this ad is likely a success—it's eye-catching and memorable.
  • Unintended(?) Effects: This is an anti-ad for riding BART elevators. I have never ridden a BART elevator, but now I sure will avoid them. It likely has the same effect on anyone unfamiliar with the BART system or its elevators. In a weird twist, one side effect of this sign might be to warn tourists about the questionable state of the elevators, and thus prevent them from actually using the elevators and potentially encountering an unpleasant sight.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Your tone comes from your head

About a week ago, I had a minor breakthrough on violin: I shifted the pad of my right pinky to rest on top of the bow, rather than falling to the side, which forced me to hold the bow with the hair flatter on the strings. This felt different and required getting used to, but my sound was better. I also remembered that my teachers long ago had told me to hold the bow this way.

Three days ago, I had another minor breakthrough that built on top of this. I was trying to sustain the sound in a particular rising, angsty phrase of the Brahms sonata (no. 1), and I felt I was working pretty hard and still not getting the sustained sound I wanted. I thought about something I'd read recently, that you really want to be using gravity to draw the bow. I tried to achieve that feeling. It was easier to do at the upper half of the bow—I needed to keep my elbow higher. But I was losing that feeling as I got to the bottom half. I looked in the mirror and saw I had to curve my wrist more as I reached the bottom of the bow to maintain that feeling. Again, these were things my teachers had told me before, that I had not been able to put into practice until now.

I've been playing violin for twenty years now, without a teacher for the last five. I spent the first seven years with a teacher who only looking back I can see imparted poor fundamentals that led to years of shoulder pain and un-learning and re-learning that continues today. (Still, seven years of flawed learning was better than none, given that the damage was recoverable and that in the meantime I was able to participate in youth orchestras.) That after this long time, something clicks, is a surprise, and I mused on why? What should I take away? Here are my reflections.

Working to fix past mistakes takes time. Patience is key. Other people may be faster, and that's okay.

The most frustrating part of youth orchestra was that as I learned more about how to phrase music and how it should sound, I still was not able to play it, and I could see my peers progressing much faster.

After college, my life became focused on work, with music at the periphery. Within music circles, though, I had the same frustrations, and as work got busier, I started playing more often alone, practicing at home. Both were important: knowing I could be better, and plodding along for years.

The famous cellist Pablo Casals was asked, through his advanced years, his 80s-90s, why he still practiced so hard every day. He said, "Because I think I am making progress."

I think taking the time to play alone helped a lot. I became more okay with my pace of progress and happier with the task at hand. I was talking to my friend Kevin yesterday and realized this irony, which is I feel more anxiety about how much I am improving at my job versus at violin, even though I spend more time doing my job and arguably perform better among all software engineers as a whole than among all violinists as a whole.

To discover the change, I had to work from the goal, not from the mechanics. Yet mechanics are the foundation.

I ended up discovering a way to play that had the same mechanical description as things I've been told long ago, but what I was doing felt different than it had ever felt.

Part of my ability to make a change came from the years of practicing at a suboptimal position—even the experience of bowing in a suboptimal way taught me better how to hold the bow and "balance" it in my hand, a physical skill that is needed to hold it the more optimal way.

Doing it the right way is easier and less work. 

If I am struggling, I should seek to struggle less. Challenge one is just to recognize the struggle, because it's easy to accept my current method as long as it's been reasonably successful. Challenge two is to know what is necessary struggle versus wasted energy. The way to recognize that a better way is better is to experience and compare it to a less successful alternative for a meaningful amount of time.

Ironically, if I had started out holding my bow the better way and forgotten how I had learned that, I would have less appreciation for why to do it that way.

It's easy to think that doing it the right way is harder, but it's actually just getting there that is hard. You have to work hard to understand and get the skills to make it less hard.

Progress is driven by innate love and focused by external pressure.

Overall, this slow process of learning violin hasn't felt like work. I've found that if I practice once a day, I am happy. It is like meditation. If I don't practice for a while, I get unhappy. There's something about being totally focused, deep in work problem-solving mentally and physically. It feels like a workout afterwards.

Yet I have been practicing by myself the past few years without this dramatic of an improvement. Why did this happen now? I'm reminded of a line I read recently, applied to startups, but applicable to my violin playing right now—to some degree, I finally feel my ass is on the line. My friend Kevin and I auditioned and got accepted to play the whole Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in early October, which is a bit over 30 minutes of music straight. I've played in longer concerts in orchestra or chamber music groups, but never that long as a violin solo, where you have fewer bars of rest, in a setting where all attention is on you, where people will hear the bumps but also the fruits of thoughtful preparation and practiced stamina (in contrast to Revolution Cafe, where I have performed the full Brahms sonatas no. 2 and 3, where people are drinking and chatting).

Also, the first time I worked on this piece was in college, and I thought it was easy because the notes are easy compared to something like the Sibelius concerto. Revisiting it now, I realize how much more you can do with those simple notes, which makes the piece hard to play well. So it's this combination that has sharpened my focus. I'm not part of a teacher's violin studio that requires me to play in a recital anymore. I signed up to play and it's totally exposed, and a tougher situation than I've known. And it's something I want to, care to do well at, because I want people to also understand why this piece is so great, because I can finally see it myself.

Your tone comes from your head.

This final thought didn't come from me, but it helped precipitate the recent changes. Sometimes even an often-repeated idea comes to you at the right time to have meaning for you.

I follow a number of classical musicians, mostly string players, on Instagram. Among them is a violinist named Arnaud Sussman, who stands out in the amount and quality of his content. He seems to manage his account himself and regularly posts videos of himself practicing. He also does Q&As every so often. In his most recent Q&A, someone asked him, how do you achieve a good tone [on the violin]?

Arnaud's response was (paraphrased from what I remember): First, your tone comes from your head. When I was younger I spent a lot of time listening to old records: Oistrahk, Heifetz, Milstein, Perlman... [Additional advice on practicing.]

This is a surprising statement because the more obvious idea is that tone comes from your physical movement—how you draw the bow on the string and how you vibrate your left hand. I realized I spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics, and would tend to think reactively: "How do I want to adjust the tone that's coming out right now?" instead of "What do I want the tone to be?" before the bow hits the string. What happens when you imagine it first, is you are forced to conceptualize what tone means, and you aren't tied to what your muscle memory produces.

As a tangential outcome of this thought, I started playing a listening game now when I'm in an Uber and the driver has some pop music on. I try to figure out all the different instrumental parts. Synthesized pop music tends to have many layered repeating parts, which makes this exercise easier than for orchestral works, and still what seems like a simple background has more and more parts for the ear to pick out as I listen—what sounded like three parts initially become seven and I'm left wondering what I missed. Try it yourself!

If you got this far—come hear the Brahms sonata that inspired this post! My friend Kevin and I will be playing it at Noe Valley Ministry as part of the SF Civic Chamber Series, on Saturday Oct 6 @ 3pm.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Two Tabs

This week I added two open browser tabs on my personal computer.

Tab 1 - Long-term
At the beginning of the week, my brother Mike visited a few days and stayed over. I showed him some of my favorite spots in the city (cafes and restaurants!) and we had a good long chat one morning at Streamline Cafe in the Outer Sunset. After chatting with him, I was suddenly inspired to do a bit of soul-searching and came up with this quick exercise:

First, I wrote down the title, “Work I would do even in retirement.” I filled out high-level bullets—there were three.

Second, I wrote down the title, “How could I get there?” I copied each of the bullets from the first list and created three sublists for each: “Already doing,” “Dream job as I see it right now,” and “Could be doing.” It took twenty minutes.

This exercise showed me a few things:
  1. The three main bullets were consistent with messages I’d been telling myself as life visions. They were each rooted in a belief I have about the world, and each something I’d call an unusual obsession. 
  2. To my surprise, I saw I was already doing things in two of the three categories. They were things I hadn’t stopped to consider. Once I’d done them, I’d immediately dismissed them because they didn’t seem as impressive anymore. I’d forgotten the time and effort that went into them.
  3. There were also lessons. For example, one of the Already Doing is a small volunteer activity that I’d started a few years ago, and the sheer amount of time that has taken convinced me that doing more volunteer work in the space is not feasible right now.
This list is now Tab 1.

Tab 2 - Short-term
The second tab was inspired by a post pushed to me on a promoted Tweet. Usually promoted Tweets are not a source of life advice, but this one hit home because I felt it diagnosed me. The tl;dr was: every day, instead of a To-Do list, focus on one thing that has the most impact. 

There are always going to be the folks saying this is crazy, of course you need a list to keep track of things. Tab 2 is still the To-Do list I have been keeping up. What I’ve changed is to split the list into the “mundane life things” (like picking up an item at the store, packing my stuff to move), and then a single bullet or two of the important thing to do each day.

These are experiments. I'll see how effective they are in three to six months.