Sometimes hard days are eased by dreaming of the future.

Someday I’m going to take the love of my life on a road trip up the West Coast. A proper road trip, finally do it right.

We’ll start somewhere far away. I’ll start the trip by planting a seed in her mind. “Do you ever want to visit the West Coast of America? See all the places you’ve only seen in movies? These are the places I lived and loved… the part of the country that’s worth loving.”

Maybe we’ll start the actual trip in Texas. See my family, whoever’s still living there. See my old friends, eat some barbecue. She’ll experience that most truly American thing: to look at the sunset, to dream of going west, to dream of what’s over the western horizon.

We’ll drive through the desert to Los Angeles. We won’t stop for a damned thing but the gas to keep us going.

We’ll start with LA because it’s big enough to see twice. The first time we’ll just take in the bigness of it all, the endlessness, the traffic. We’ll drive right up to the ocean and watch the sunset, first of many.

In a pinch we’ll take a detour to San Diego. I’ve still never been. We’ll see Legoland, and split right afterwards.

We’ll give LA more attention the second time. If my friends still live there, we’ll eat with them in Koreatown. Walk with them on the beach. Hang out with them in shabby bowling alleys in Gardena. Play like we’re living the Big Lebowski, before a quick tour of Hollywood and a long drive north. As we drive away, she’ll tell me those are good friends, that I’m lucky to have them.

In Silicon Valley I’ll show her all the little places I used to care about so much. My marshland, outside the NASA buildings. The little cliffside in Santa Cruz. The hill above 280 near Cupertino. Maybe I’ll still have some friends at Google; we can play on the statues of dead Androids and take pictures. Play a little piano near where I used to work. Sit on the hill looking down at all the offices, marveling that these buildings damn near run the world (if they still do).

We’ll spend a day or two touring San Francisco. Have dinner with an old friend or two. See the Bay Model, see Muir Woods. We’ll climb to the top of Mission Peak and howl at the moon. I’ll show her where I accidentally threw a tennis ball down the mountain.

Of course we’ll stop at the tennis courts and juggle. She’ll tell my old friends she’s heard so much about them.

From here we won’t head north, but east. We’ll go to Yosemite, and she’ll see what a holy place this sad country can be. How good it looks in the right light. I’ll still have never conquered El Capitan. She’ll tell me we need to do it, tell me it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. She’ll help me to climb the mountain.

We’ll think about driving east to Mono Lake, to Nevada. But we won’t go there. Fuck Nevada.

Instead we’ll drive north to Tahoe. I’ll tell her about the time my father saved me from despair, how we found the snow. We’ll look for the snow. Maybe we’ll find it, maybe not.

We’ll drive back west, then north into Oregon. We’ll finally take the time to see Crater Lake, after I tell her I’ve skipped it on every drive I’ve ever made through there. Maybe she’ll say it’s prettier than Tahoe, maybe not.

We’ll stop in Sisters. I hope my cousins still live there. We’ll hug my uncle. I’ll show her where my aunt’s ashes are scattered on Whychus Creek. We’ll have a picnic in the field under the soft sun in view of the snow capped Three Sisters. We’ll see Three Creeks, hike up Broken Top with my uncle. It’ll be a quiet, thoughtful hike.

We’ll head north, and again she’ll tell me I’m lucky to have such good people in my life. If it’s sunny in Portland, we’ll stop at the waterfront park. If not, we’ll drive right on through.

We’ll spend the longest in Seattle. Before we even get there, I’ll stop in Tacoma to show her where I grew up. I’ll show her what Mount Rainier looked like to a child, and why it has never, ever left my mind. I don’t care if it takes a week for the damned thing to pop out from behind clouds. We’ll wait. We’ll see it. Then we’ll drive to it, then hike right halfway up the side of it. I’ll tell her about the old time, the last time I did that. It will be hard, but I’ll tell it.

I can’t begin to tell you all the things we’ll see in Seattle. I guarantee it will be sunny, because I’ll time it right, and the city loves me when I come to visit. I’ll show her where my life was going, how it broke, where it went instead. She’ll remind me where it is, that very day, and where it’s going thereafter. We’ll talk on ferries, in parks, on little winding roads, in little restaurants and coffee houses, in friends’ apartments, in kayaks, on red swings, on benches looking at the setting sun over the Olympics. We’ll play foosball and take bike rides with very old friends, and as we leave, for the third time she will tell me I’m lucky to have the friends I have. Three is a good number.

Finally, only and finally we will reach the heart of the trip. We will drive north to Vancouver. I will show her how a city can be perfect. We will walk its every path and perimeter. We will get lost in the park. We will thrill to see the whole city beneath us as we snowboard down great mountain slopes. We will ache as we look north at the mountains, filled with the same longing we had when we looked west in the beginning. Only now we will know that our time here is drawing to a close, that we cannot go farther north. The great country to the north is a mystery and will remain so, for now. To know this feeling is to know America, to know the West Coast. She will know the West Coast, and I will remember it.

With melancholy hearts and strong spirits, we will return to the place we live, to Far Away, and dream of the future.


Sketching Your Life

Paralysis. You want to do something right, because you think you’ve only got one chance to do it.

I love writing letters. Real, stamped and posted letters appeal to me on many levels. They’re important to me, to send and to receive. I have one I’ve been meaning to write, but it’s been longer since I wrote a letter than it has since I wrote blog posts. If getting back to blogging has been hard, and I take letter writing more seriously, and it’s been this long… paralysis.

The letter was supposed to accompany food. Eventually I ate the food, because I had avoided writing the letter for so long.

If this letter isn’t good, will I ever get a chance to write another letter? For some reason, my brain lies to me and says, no, you will not get another chance to write a letter.

We all do this, in many different parts of our lives. We think the next thing we do is the last and most critical thing, and we paralyze ourselves trying to make it good.

Most of us don’t draw, because what if that next drawing sucks? It’s gonna suuuuuck for sure! And then we’ll never get to draw again.

We go to job interviews, and we stress about them going to go poorly, as if there aren’t going to be any more interviews ever again.

I know grown-ass men who are still afraid to tell a girl/boy that they like that girl/boy. As if they only get one chance to say it. As if there wouldn’t be another girl/boy in the future.

But there’s always going to be another! In fact, as you age, you will find that people bounce in and out of your life repeatedly, and that you re-evaluate people, and they re-evaluate you. You meet new people and you always will. You lose old friends and sometimes regain them.

There’s another job interview in the next few weeks, and there will be interview after interview after interview after interview until one goes well and you get hired. Everyone who is good at drawing got there by drawing another and another and another…

Everything is a sketch, and you already know you do some of your best, most inspired work when you stop taking things so seriously and just sketch the next moment.

I know you know what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying it well. I’ve got to find a way to break down this wall of understanding.

Or do I? No, I don’t! Day seven of blog posting is just the seventh out of hundreds I’ll write in the next decade. So, I’ll get another crack at making this argument.

Seven out of seven. Keep trying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to sketch.


Scenes from a Multiverse

Seed Diversity in Humans

This one is for Rose Thomas.

Also, this one is gonna be a very rough sketch. It’s too important a topic for me to leave in such bad shape, so I’m going to try a new experiment: what you’re reading is a draft, and I’m going to come back and revisit this essay, hopefully several times, hopefully with more refined thoughts in the future. If you folks want to help refine my thoughts through discussion, I would love to discuss this stuff.

I had lunch with my favorite former boss today. We talked about managing the news. In my work, we like to blame results on algorithms, claiming that they’re neutral to human decisions. My old boss was quick to point out the idea that every algorithmic decision is actually an editorial decision, and that a lot of my job, which is ostensibly neutral, is not and cannot possibly be neutral. Every day, when I choose the ways I work with the news data, I’m implicitly choosing how the news data should look. It can’t be escaped.

We were also talking about the unhealthiness of news reading in general. We’re both addicted to news and we both recognize it to be like cigarettes, but he was adamant that I was doing a goodish thing working in this space.

Anyway, that’s all mulch for the main topic of the post.

We were talking about siloing people, either by political inclination, or by interest. What if people want to only see conservative or liberal news? What if they want to mostly see celebrity news, or no politics, or no sports? Isn’t it an editorial decision, he asked, to force users to read a diverse sample of things?

It definitely is.

Of course, I see that there are a lot of problems in the world, right now, which come from people being shown news that fits their political inclinations and reinforces their political and cultural beliefs. There’s not a lot of upside, in my mind, to showing people only the politics they want to see.

It’s more complicated to say whether it’s good or bad to show people things that suit their specific interests. Say some people want to ignore politics and only read sports news. I see some of the same problems here, but less so. People being shown different realities in the political space will inevitably clash, because they’re competing for control and sharing power. People with different interests entirely (politics versus sports versus celebrities) are so different that they could maybe just ignore each other. I also see some health benefits to siloing by interest; a person who pays less attention to politics is in general a more well adjusted and happier person.

Ultimately, I can’t decide if it’s good or bad for you, an individual, to be siloed… but honestly, I don’t care. What I care about is the aggregate, statistical level. I care very much that 80% of people care about politics, and 20% don’t. That’s what matters to me.

Without the 80% who care, many important fights will be de-facto settled by special interests, and probably not to the benefit of humanity at large. So the 80% are necessary to ensure that various fights go well for everyone.

But for each big fight, someday, that fight will be over. Someday, gay rights will be a given, and opposing them will be as unpopular as racism. At that time, we will need the minority, the 20% who never really invested in the fight, to teach us how to let go of it.

I’ve come to realize that I’m going to be fighting against organized religion for my entire life. I have tried to hide from this, but religion has hurt me too much, and the fight matters too much to me. So, despite my not really liking it, I will always grapple with organized religion and the religious.

But I have an atheist friend for whom this is all irrelevant. Not like the rest of you, not like the rest of us. He’s not recovering from religion. He’s not culturally aware of religion in his bones. It was just totally irrelevant to him for his entire childhood. His wife likes to say he doesn’t even realize how it bothers the rest of us.

If I parody a religious song, there’s some antipathy in what I’m doing. It’s a dig back at some people who hurt me in the past. If he does it, it’s innocent, about the same as parodying ancient greek culture. It’s empty and unthreatening to him.

I will never have that, but I wish I could. I hope my grandchildren are like that.

This leads me back to an older, more general thought: I want seed diversity in human ideas. There’s not a single idea I can think of that I would crush from the mind of mankind. Not one. Not the nazis, even. I have a blanket belief that, beyond my ability to decide individual good and bad ideas, the whole messy lot of them bouncing off each other leads us to create many good things.

Passing Time at Red Lights

You probably spend some time waiting at red lights. You probably don’t enjoy it.

Here are two strategies for passing time at red lights. They work for me; maybe they’ll work for you.

– Count the people passing through the light in the other direction. Each one that passes is having a better, faster day because you’re making the sacrifice of waiting for a moment. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… that’s seventeen people who are having a better day because you gave up a little of your time.

– If you have a car, get yourself some cheap drum sticks. Seriously, they’re on Amazon for cheap. Put them in the car, and use them to drum on the steering wheel at red lights. Play loud music and just wail on the steering wheel. I’ve found you can do this for years without damaging the wheel. It’s fun, so much fun that you may find yourself hoping the green lights turn yellow.

Grief and Duality

/me is listening to Fever Ray – Seven.

A friend recently told me he doesn’t remember a lot of his college experience, because the breakup which followed it made a lot of memories unpleasant to process or revisit. I’ve been determined not to have a similar thing happen for my recent relationship experience. I’ve made sure to allow some time to remember what I had, especially the good parts, and to mention bits of it in relevant conversations.

What I think I’ll lose anyway is identification with those memories. When I was in the relationship, I was very strongly favoring a particular part of my personality, letting it run dominant over the other parts. Now that I’m alone again, I’ve eased back into a balance, but it makes the grieving process seem very strange to me.

A lot of the time, when the other parts of me are active, my grief seems external, and is alien to me. It’s not unpleasant. In fact, it’s very manageable. Just alien. My memories feel a little bit like the memories of another person.

Other times, when the part of me that was so strong in the relationship is active, my grief is immediate and total. I feel very strongly like it all happened yesterday. I have to survive these periods, but I always survive by accepting that it’s done. So even in this part of me, I’m more or less actively rejecting identification with my past self.

I know there are lots of other people who experience duality in their personalities. I have often wondered how (or if) they integrate things like these.

Any ideas? Similar experience?

Los Angeles Travelogue Notes

Los Angeles travelogue notes

I’m visiting my friend Luke in Los Angeles. It’s my first time visiting this city. It’s actually the last great American city I have never visited; I saw everything else in the top ten a long time ago, but my family avoided visiting this place, and I kept that avoidance myself for many years.

The drive down from Mountain View is something I’ve heard people complain about. They say I-5 is boring and flat and empty, and 101 takes forever. I chose 101, and it was a long but completely bearable six hours. I don’t understand the fuss; it’s absolutely beautiful, mountains and rolling grassy hills and curves and glimpses of the ocean the whole way down. A lot like 280. I don’t think it was much longer than I-5 would have been, and so can’t understand why people on a casual trip would ever choose it.

LA traffic is not exaggerated! On a lazy saturday afternoon it’s thick in places even many miles outside the city center. The roads are wide; it’s almost purely an issue of the sheer number of cars. I have to remind myself that I’m driving into another New York, not another Austin or Seattle.

Crossing over the last mountain to see the Hollywood sign and downtown buildings leaves me utterly, stupidly gleeful, like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock. Hollywood isn’t something I particularly care about, and LA wasn’t even on my travel list for much of my life, but the recognition value is high, and makes me feel like I’m seeing something rul durn big. There’s a tan orange lady driving a mercedes, and a baller white kid driving a Z3, bored girlfriend staring out the passenger window, so bored. I just can’t stop grinning.

Turning off the highway and into neighborhoods, I find sunny streets, mildly run down, old homes and three story apartment buildings, a nice grid of primary streets with cheap shops. It’s San Antonio, basically, but endless. I’m enjoying it, and at some point I realize: I’ve never had a place so exactly meet my visual expectations. It takes me a while to realize the reason: I’ve been seeing this place on video for my whole life.

Koreatown, where my friend Luke lives, is humongous. It’s something like three square miles (ten by thirty blocks) with a population in the low hundreds of thousands, plurality korean. Even though it’s a weekend, there aren’t very many middle aged people. Everyone is very old and very wrinkled, or very young and very stylish. I think the middle aged people have moved out to the suburbs. There are literally a dozen or more skyscrapers in Koreatown alone, four or more with giant logos of Korean banks. This is just one part of LA. This place is huge.

(God damn it’s hard to concentrate on writing with a gif of Kenneth the Page playing above you)

The food is amazing. We have the best Korean barbecue I can remember having (as good as or better than Vancouver), a few blocks from Luke’s apartment, and it’s all you can eat (we don’t eat too much), and for $10 each. Koreatown is a walking place, which is a big part of why Luke picked it. In a day and a half, we will walk for barbecue, ramen (best ramen I can remember having, first time I’ve had Oyakodon), coffee, and two walks just for fun.

We also walk around UCLA. It’s a pretty campus, sunny like UT, hilly and full of brick buildings like UW. The area surrounding is really wealthy, and the UCLA students seem pretty fashionable and too flashy. The medical facilities are endless; this must be such a good medical school. We pass one medical building named after David Geffen, and another after Ronald Reagan. I can’t imagine worse people to have medical buildings named after them, but it reminds me that every named building is likely named after someone ridiculous, someone officious. Architecturally I haven’t liked a campus this much in a long time.

We have a long (all day) conversation that drifts through programming, catholic guilt, old workplace gossip, new workplace comparisons, marriage, being thirty, cultural differences of a lot of different types, critiques of the new city (since Luke has only just moved here), dangers and obligations of people who gain the power to move the lever of the world, and other things I can’t remember. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Luke, and I’ve missed him. It’s great to talk non-stop for twelve hours.

The next day we wake up late and go to Santa Monica so I can see the beach. There are almost no asian people. In their stead: gym clothes wearing white people. Well over 90% gym clothes whites. With creepy tans.

The beach is great, and for a while we talk about the fear of open water and staring into the great underwater abyss, but it’s cloudy, and blood sugar is low, so we don’t stay long. On the way to find food, we stop at a touristy british pub/shop, because I suspect they will have Revels. They do! I buy a bunch, and impulsively lie to the shop owner that I grew up in Britain and deeply deeply miss Revels. I’m ready to explain that my dad was a UCL professor when I was little, but he doesn’t ask about that; instead says Galaxy Bars are his favorite, and we talk a bit about chocolate. Luke asks the other proprietor where british people in LA gather, and she says “Here, of course”, and without thinking he replies, “Isn’t it a little touristy?”.

We go back to the car and wander aimlessly for a while, thinking about where we might eat. The wandering is a good way to see the size of Los Angeles, the way one neighborhood rather suddenly borders another. In this wandering way, over the day and a half I will get to see: Thai town, Downtown, Hollywood proper (I accidentally and aimlessly drive us by the walk of fame and the chinese theater and the wax museum without realizing it), and Skid Row (that one’s on purpose).

None of these pictures are mine.

After lunch (decent Thai food in a truly and hilariously skeevy neighborhood with aimless tough men standing outside cheap shops that nevertheless offer valet parking) and some more wandering and good conversation, it’s time for me to head back home. The drive back is as good as the drive down.

Thanks, Luke! Looking forward to coming back 😀

Three Short Game Reviews

There are three games I’ve been playing lately:


Monaco is a multiplayer heist game in the faux 1900 style of Agatha Christie or Dudley Do-Right. Players take the roles of crime specialists (the Lookout, the Pickpocket, the Cleaner, etc) to help the mysterious Gentleman escape the city of Monaco, doing ample crime along the way.

The game is set top-down in an adorable but somewhat cluttered 8-bit style. Controls are dead simple, levels are relatively well laid out, and on the surface, the game promises to be one of careful sneaking and planning. In reality, it’s a zany dash as players scramble in chaos to make up for each others’ mistakes. The game more or less perfectly resembles a screwball comedy movie. I laughed more playing this than I did playing Portal 2.

The character classes offer genuinely different strategies. For instance, the Mole can tunnel through most parts of a level, while the Cleaner puts guards to sleep with chloroform. The Locksmith opens locks much more quickly than other players, and the Lookout can see all the guards on the board.

Where Monaco falls down is in communicating information and objectives to the players. The boards are dense and overfilled with glyphs. It’s not clear where players should be going, or what things need to be done. There are arrows everywhere pointing the way, but they just distract from the other glyphs and vice versa. I feel like the game would almost benefit from a collaborative planning phase, or at least some more in-game direction.

Ultimately, I would highly recommend this, but specifically as a party game. 



Naught is an iPhone platform game, and surprisingly, it doesn’t suck. The game is relatively unusual for having you rotate the whole world; the protagonist just follows along.

There are several different control styles: tilting the phone, pressing left and right rotators (I favor this style), and swiping left and right. All seem pretty smooth, and not just in the “smooth for an iPhone game” way of other platform games.

Naught is beautiful, albeit a little rough around the edges, with a harsh and creepy black and white style, and (other than the main character) smooth, flowing line work.

The puzzles and obstacles are pretty thoughtful, and the game requires a lot of the same kind of mind bending as your favorite real life metal puzzles, with an added world spinning disorientation. Imagine if you were doing a metal ring puzzle while riding a creepy black and white roller coaster, only you didn’t need to throw up. That’s Naught.

The music is an almost intolerably bad collection of canned drum solos and weak techno. I turned it off and I’m not turning it back on.

I’m told the game has a good story, but I haven’t bothered yet. The levels are too interesting.


Naught is a little too rough around the edges, but I’d still recommend it. Better if you can try someone else’s copy first.



Basically, Awesomenauts is multiplayer Megaman. It’s Smash Bros with guns. It’s… a playable saturday morning cartoon. If you’re looking for a shiny multiplayer game with a lot of staying power, this is the one to get.

There’s almost no story to Awesomenauts (and indeed, no single player mode). Two robot armies battle across the galaxy for lucrative resource drilling rights, and a team of elite mercenaries, the Awesomenauts, are free for hire anywhere, on either side.

The game is a really well tuned platform game with cute cartoon weapons and a lot of interesting and useful special powers. All games are 3 on 3, with players able to play on the same team, opposing teams, single or multi player (bots play the rest), local or split screen or online or whatever.

Both sides field an endlessly regenerating army of droids, and both sides have strategically placed turrets which are very hard to kill. The game shifts smoothly back and forth between player vs player skirmishes, tower defense and tower pushing, and killing cheap droids for money. Money provides for a satisfying amount of strategy; you gather money while fighting and use it to buy upgrades, typically on the order of five or ten in a game. Choice of upgrades is very context dependent and can significantly impact the game outcome.

The game has a crap-ton of different (really actually different) characters with cute stock attitudes, enough to suit many different playing styles. I favor Lone Star, the bull wrangler who hovers around the edge of skirmishes doing ranged damage with thrown sticks of dynamite and holo-bulls. My friend Vianney favors Skølldir, a heavy robot Viking with earthquake and throwing powers. Many players have abilities for physically adjusting other characters; there’s pushing, pulling, slowing, stopping, throwing. For a video game, it feels very physical.

Did I mention that the game is super cartoony? I have a high tolerance for cartoons, and occasionally it’s even a little too shiny for me. The rest of the time, I’m extremely happy with the graphics.

Gameplay in a group tends to feel like a nice halfway point between a 3 on 3 basketball game (with intensity and strategy) and Smash Bros (with chaos and happy shouting).

There’s a bit of a learning curve (the tutorial helps this enormously), there aren’t enough levels (yet), and you don’t have most of the upgrades until you’ve played enough to unlock them, but this game is otherwise flawless. I would recommend it highly to anyone and everyone, at least to try.


Seriously, folks, it’s a damned saturday morning cartoon:

Friendly or Hostile?

Today at lunch, I found myself wondering: do I work in a friendly environment, or a hostile environment?

This is a question which has occupied a lot of my time for the last few years.

Where I work, there are lots of strong primary colors and bright tones, like a preschool. The food is very nice, and everything about the environment appears to be set up to make me happy to be there. The stuff they have me work on is interesting and the people are really engaged. This seems pretty friendly.

On the other hand, it’s a corporation, everything I get is payed for by icky nasty advertising, there are a distressing number of business people and other money-first people, a lot of plainly unpleasant corporate politics. This seems pretty hostile.

But… I’m starting to realize I’ve been exaggerating in both directions.

Nobody at my workplace is my friend, or would care all that much if I went away. This isn’t friendly at all.

At the same time, I’m in no danger whatsoever. There are no tigers, there’s no punching, there’s no heroin.

The bright colors, tasty food, business people, unpleasant politics… these are false markers. I’m reading them as extremes when they all fall in a pretty narrow band.

Where I work (indeed every1 place I’ve worked) is just an environment. A decent one, safe and relatively full of opportunities.

How do you feel about your place of work?

(1) I have actually worked at one truly friendly place. The people there cared about each other and about me, and I about them. Many were friends before working together, and most remained friends after the place was torn apart. This… might have set the standard for me wondering about friendly and hostile places. I saw Shangri-La too early 🙂

Math Anxiety for Mathematicians

Here’s a blog post by a talented math teacher, about a time in his life when he was bad at math, and how hard that was, and always is, and why.

This blog post has resonated in a raw, painful sort of way for me. So, for my third daily writing session, I’m going to write about it.

Please understand that this is a painful topic for me; what I’ve written about it could easily be described as whiny, or emo. I have lived a life of relative privilege, and I’ve gotten to do some things that many of my friends would give their eye teeth to do. What I’ve written could easily sound like I’m not aware of that privilege, and of course, sometimes that’s the case.

Also, fair warning: this post is long.

I’m writing it, though, to convey what my life felt like, to me as I was living it. I mean to communicate that even someone who is good at something can still feel wracked by insecurity about it, can feel bad at it.

So, in one way or another, I’ve been struggling with math anxiety for most of my life.

I was a smart twelve year old kid who didn’t know I had any talents, lying to my mom that I’d read the algebra textbook in my useless homeschooling time. I just read novels. I was sure I was an idiot at math.

I was a thirteen year old who had literally guessed my way through the state math test, sitting in a community college classroom waiting for the first day of “college algebra” (remedial upper high school stuff), pretty sure I was going to fail it. It took the best teacher I ever had to erase that fear, and he erased it in a matter of days.

I was fifteen, with an ego, having aced a bunch of calculus and diff-eq classes, but I was struggling with a Number Theory book given to me by a UT professor. I was worried that because my parents wouldn’t let me go to Princeton, I was already the end of my math career. I was failing to understand the book on the first try, and having overdramatic “maybe this would all be solved if i was dead” type thoughts, as fifteen year olds are wont to do. I gave up on the book and became afraid of the subject.

I was sixteen, dropping my first class at UT, that same Number Theory. I dropped it because I was afraid of it, because I hadn’t understood the book on the first try. I remember feeling such shame in the counselor’s office, as if she had any reason in the world to judge me for it. I remember being worried that the department was going to kick me out of school for being a fraud, worried my parents were going to give up and pull me back home.

I was seventeen, and I had aced number theory and four or five other undergrad math classes, and I was taking my first grad class, Complex Analysis. Nobody told me there was an undergrad version I was supposed to take first. I tried, I tried hard, and then I gave up. I failed like the blog author failed: catatonically, silently, for months. It was a bad time for me. I stopped talking so much to my friends and family. I lost all my confidence. In some ways I never recovered from this one. All the mathy or academic things I’ve ever done since then give me a faint hint of anxiety, a faint hint of possible failure that I try very hard to ignore.

I was eighteen, having aced another ten math classes (they were all I took), including two more grad classes, and preparing to apply to grad schools, but struggling to do any work, pushing myself to do any work, because I still wasn’t over the C in the first grad class. I worked hard, did eight hour homework sets on saturdays, but did it in a stressed out way, shouting at my family and friends on a regular basis, panicked that letting go would mean giving up. I was afraid of getting another C. Grownup me can’t even imagine being afraid of that anymore.

I was nineteen, with wind back in my sails, even more grad classes aced, a research paper in pre-publication, newly arrived at Cambridge, starting to do work on an eighty year old unsolved problem (Artin’s Little Conjecture), running up against it as hard as I could, still feeling so anxious about my talents, investing so much of myself in it. I told myself, regularly, that solving this problem was the litmus test of whether I could do great things in my field, whether I deserved to be there at all.

I remember asking the favorite prof about it in his office, and getting a careful “you’re going to risk your doctorate” (he was right) and a dismissive “and anyway you’re just a Part III student, I don’t have time for you” (he was a jerk)… and that wrecked me. It’s pathetic to admit, right in keeping with the blog post, but I don’t think I’ve had a day of true mathematics ambition since that day.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you care very much about something and you are deathly afraid to fail it. Little things are greatly magnified, and you handle them poorly and derail yourself.

I’m not even done.

I was twenty, putting off preparing for my Part III exams, entirely, until the last three or four weeks, because I was sure I was going to fail. I was headed back to UT, having not gotten into MIT’s grad math program, having chosen Texas from homesickness, and I was already sure I was a failure as a mathematician, just for the little reasons described above. I passed my tests and got my degree, but I would quit mathematics altogether within a year.

I was twenty one, a math grad student at UT, but completely unwilling to work. I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t leave the house often enough. I never ever showed up in my shared office. I stopped talking to my friends in the department (sorry, Todd, Shel, etc. It was a hard time in my life). In one of my class finals, I became so convinced I couldn’t do the work, so unwilling to even try, that I angrily drew a comic (“Signs you shouldn’t be a mathematician”), turned it in, and stormed out.

The department chair told me, in a kind and gentle way, that I was risking probation, and asked if I was okay. I had nothing to say; a month later I went back and asked him if I could quit, said I wanted to transfer to being an undeclared undergrad. He was kind about this. I felt so much shame. So much completely unnecessary shame.

I’d like to make an aside to point out how little any of this had to matter in my life. None of this needed to be important. None of matters as much as the first time I kissed my wife, the first time I juggled fire, the best day I’ve spent with my brother. None of this will matter on that future day where I first see my child. But we choose what matters, and we have to choose it again every day. Sometimes we choose wrong.

I’m still not even done.

I was twenty two, in the middle of a second undergrad in either chemistry or computer science (I tried two things, because I was worried I wouldn’t even be able to do at least one of them), having dropped numerous classes in both, struggling to get out of bed and do my work, struggling to feel like I could do any useful work at all. Feeling old, feeling like a public failure, like the blog post says. Feeling old and failed, at twenty two.

I was twenty four, twisting and drifting in an internship at Amazon, feeling too old to be an intern anyway, in a team where the manager had left after three weeks and we were unmanaged. I was struggling with real professional code, convinced I couldn’t make sense of it, that I was finally going to be run out of comp sci for not being an engineer.

It was a twelve week internship and I got stuck on some small stumbling blocks… and I sat doing nothing for the middle five weeks of that internship. I was just plain afraid of the anxiety that came with being stuck. It took a coworker taking me for a walk around the block and pointing out that I was in trouble of not getting anything done, and asking where I was specifically stuck and pushing to help me, took all of that, to get me to finish. I did finish with some good stuff.

Twenty five was a good year for confidence 🙂

I was twenty six, at Microsoft in the wrong group, feeling (or imagining) the daily contempt of the engineers around me for not being able to operate in the Hotmail environment, struggling to make myself show up at all. At night I was listening to my friends Dan and Avi talk about Stanford grad life, looking through my mental window like an urchin outside a banquet, wanting that experience back but feeling like I had closed it off to myself forever, because at this point I couldn’t even remember most of what I had worked on, and because… how could I go back and fail that again? I couldn’t even follow a lot of Avi’s conversation without a lot of refresher and explanation and stumbling.

And then I committed to a plan to turn this around. I would go to Seattle, do a different kind of work, use the University of Washington to get back into academic life. For a while it was great! I had the promise of mathematical work (eventually) at Amazon, even turned down that same promise at Swype, and was taking a grad quantum chemistry class, something totally outside my expertise, but also totally outside my old social groups and history. I had no fear, so I did well, got the highest or maybe second highest scores in the class.

Then I failed. I couldn’t handle Amazon and a grad class at the same time. I wrecked up my health by giving up exercise and eating all kinds of bad food, got heavier again, started getting exhausted at random times, as one does when one gains a lot of weight quickly, and finally I just had a really bad morning for thinking, and I completely failed my grad chemistry final. Like, bottom fourth of the class, after being the top.

The professor still really liked me, and I could have recovered for sure, taken the hit and continued the plan… but I felt that old failure anxiety, that old “I am really, secretly bad at this” anxiety. I bailed on my plan completely and utterly. Some of my friends ask whether I am considering going back to grad school… and I talk about my maturity level and whether I’ve aged out of math, but behind that talk I’m just frankly really damned uneasy about trying again and failing again. This math/academic/science anxiety hasn’t really ever left me.

I was twenty eight, finally starting the aforementioned mathy part of my Amazon job… sitting sullenly in my corner playing Tiny Wings, or looking out the window. Unwilling, more or less completely unwilling to believe in myself again after such a bitter failure.

I was thirty, this afternoon, at Google with an awesome machine learning project, now five or six months overdue for a variety of life and personal and team and company and whatever reasons… with good, clear and reasonable steps to take to move the project forward… unwilling to do so because I think maybe I will be fired, and because I don’t actually know machine learning well enough, and because I am still afraid of trying and failing.

These are some of the moments where I held myself to the most unreasonable standards, afraid that because I wasn’t the prodigy I set out to be, I wasn’t going to amount to anything. I still struggle not to feel that, right up to today. I’m still comparing to an imaginary ideal.

But why? The world is an amazing place, whether I am here to enjoy it or not, built on millions of beautiful incremental advances, the kind I could aspire to. There are always going to be people with talents totally beyond mine, whether I admit it or not, and ultimately it’s my choice how to feel about all this, so I can’t really justify feeling so bad.

I’m going to try not to feel so bad.

The High Standards of Humans

This is some very scary footage from the Texas Fertilizer plant explosion:

The man in the video has been roundly and soundly criticized for having his child in the car, a few hundred feet away from the plant. People can’t imagine someone could be so stupid.

I have a different take. In fact, the video makes me feel guilty for all the other times I’ve held people (including myself) to impossibly high standards.

What he did is dumb, but not impossibly dumb. I could easily see myself doing that. Before the explosion, it’s just a fire. A chemical plant fire, admittedly, but it’s something you could forget.

See, I think we all get mad about stuff like this, get mad at each other, get mad at ourselves, because our  internal model of a human being is something like this:

Of course, we don’t think we’re all that special, nor do we think we’ve reached our potential… but we do think we have a consistent dignity, a certain nobility, some intelligence.

We do have those things, much of the time. But far more often than we’d like to admit, this is who we really are:

Every day, maybe almost every hour, we do something this profoundly stupid. Each of us. In the last hour I’ve forgotten that I was actually writing this piece. In the last hour, you’ve might have forgotten you were having a conversation. You might have put your keys on the little table behind the couch where you won’t see them. Maybe bumped into a table on your way to the kitchen. Both of us probably spent a moment re-affirming our belief in something as implausible as running through walls.

I think the man in the explosion video was having such a moment. I think almost everybody I’ve ever judged was having such a moment, a derpy moment, a hyucksome moment.

All this, in a one minute theme song.

This is you, this is me, this is everybody, unpredictably, many times, every day, for our whole lives. With, you know, some Luke Skywalker thrown in.

Pity, not judgement. Pity, and maybe good natured laughter. That’s what I keep telling myself.