happy day

13 Mar 2014

Three years ago, I learned how to print Hello World in Java for the first time.
That semester, I stayed up many late nights crying because I was so frustrated with how hard it was for me to fix even the tiniest of bugs. Everyone in class seemed light-years above me.

Today, I have been accepted to MIT Media Lab’s MAS program, and I’ll be joining Deb Roy’s Cognitive Machines lab this fall. It’s truly a nerd dream come true.

I think if my mother taught me one thing,
it is that
it is not how successful you are
or how wealthy you are
or even how hard you work that matters.
what matters is how interesting you are
because that is your human value.

And mom, if you’re reading this, don’t read too hard into it.

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I’m featured on Hackers of New York this week! Hackers of New York is a project started by Tech@NYU to foster community in NYC’s Silicon Alley by highlighting individuals.

I had the most wonderful time talking to HONY about the Declassification Engine– I couldn’t stop smiling!

Check it out here.

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Today, for the first time in years, I picked up a copy of the newspaper in the morning.

I didn’t buy it from the drugstore, like my dad would on Sundays when I was little. And I didn’t pick it up from the driveway, like I would have in high school, shaking off condensation from its plastic wrapper. Instead, I had literally picked up off the desk of another, when I saw it lying there. It wasn’t even fresh news; it was from last Wednesday, and he in turn had gotten it for free at the student center.

Still. It was attractive all the same, that copy of more-than-Yesterday’s news. I slipped it under my arm, and went out the door. I took it with me, on the subway, and felt more Manhattanite than I had ever felt in my life. Here I was, boots and all, on my way downtown for a coffee meeting, and here, by my side, was the New York Times. When i got to the cafe, I realized that I had gotten ink all over my fingers. I had forgotten that newspapers smudged, and it gave me a secret joy.

In 2014, it is widespread knowledge that newspapers are Dinosaurs. Printed news is rapidly going extinct and the new forms of Media that replace it suffer from existential and identity crises. Is longform a thing of the past? Is there even a need for Journalism School? Will it all just be listicles from here on out? (If so, I’m moving to Walden Pond.)

I maintain that there is, and always will be, a need for well-executed, professional Journalism. Whether or not there exists a profitable market, however, is another question. How do we ensure the financial means to support the field?

It’s a good question, one that neither I nor anyone else that I know of has the answer to. The transition from paper to digital isn’t a simple transcribing from one medium to the other. Profit models do not translate. Most significant are the psychological shifts that occur. Newspapers, and their institutions, are built on history, legacy, and tradition. By decentralizing news distribution with the internet, the castle collapses.

When you remove the physicality of the paper, you remove its nostalgic power. That is a great power, and it should never be underestimated in the human psyche. Turning the pages, familiar faces smile back– Dowd, Bruni, Bittman, Wells, bringing me back to familial scenes of kitchen tables and coffee. Jumping over paywalls, those same names feel antagonistic and elitist on the web. Whereas I would easily pay a dollar or two for a fat stack of paper, the Internet, with its culture of free information, incites the hacker in me to do everything in my power to take what I can.

Opening the paper on the subway is a symbol, one that denotes a certain level of education, class, and age. It is a desirable thing to own. On an iPad, a phone, or laptop, all of that is lost. It could be the Post, it could be Ulysses, it could be Fifty Shades of Gray– who knows?

The newspaper from WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2014 sits beside me still, keeping company with the coffee that has long grown cold. When I finish writing, both of them will go into the trash.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print”, it says, somewhat forebodingly.

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the persimmon tree

02 Dec 2013

the story below was first posted by me on my food blog, accompanied with a recipe for Persimmon Goat Cheese Salad.

the Persimmon Tree

A few years ago, when I was a grumpy senior in High School, the beloved Magnolia tree in our backyard, source of pink blossoms, rambling branches to climb, and many childhood memories passed away. In its place, my parents went to an Asian nursery and brought back a Persimmon tree.

The tree was thin, crooked, and distinctly budget. Maybe there was some haggling involved. I didn’t like it. I wanted a cherry tree, with fluffy pink blossoms. I wanted an apple tree, something that smacked of wholesomeness and Americana. Instead, my parents got something “Oriental”, that I argued had no retail value when the time came to sell our little house and yard (a low blow, since both my parents and I are firmly attached to the idea of growing old in the same place).

The first year in our yard, the squirrels ate nearly all the blossoms. They bit off many thin twigs and branches, leaving a massacre on the grass. What was left turned into small hard fruits, and the wrist-thin trunk sloped to one side.

I went to school. I didn’t call very much, and I forgot about our tree and our backyard.

But my parents took care of the tree and it grew into a beautiful little thing. Now it bears dozens and dozens of fruit– more than a couple of empty-nesters can eat. The pretty orange persimmons hang like Christmas globes on the small but staunch tree.

By nature there are two types of persimmons– astringent types, which unless utterly ripe to the point of bursting, leave a nasty “furry” feeling on the tongue, and non-astringent types, which can be eaten at any stage of ripeness, always lovely and mild. Our little tree is non-astringent. The fruits are always sweet.

Every Thanksgiving now my parents bring a bucketful to my aunt and uncle’s house, and I take the leftovers back to school. When my mom was a child, persimmons were big and squishy and plentiful and overlooked as a poor man’s fruit. Everyone wanted red American apples and bananas that were yellow. The grocer would say, these bananas have been on a plane– now, have you been on a plane? because a little Chinese girl isn’t much more than a banana. Now, I savor them, a day at a time, to make the harvest last.

Each one reminds me of my parent’s love and my roots– that I am not as American as apple pie, but that the fruit is sweeter still.

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Hey nerds!
Check out this cool model me and my friend Andy developed at Knewton last summer!

 

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zero is the new six

28 Oct 2013

American Apparel, that hipster clothing/disco neon hotpants empire, has always been of dubious moral grounds. Despite its loud proclamations of “made in America”, the company is in fact run by a Canadian charged of sexual harassment lawsuits at least five times in the last decade. Not to mention the softcore-porn style ads, that is, only when the model is female. Even if all of this weren’t true, when’s the last time you need a gold metallic pleather thong leotard for upwards of fifty dollars? (Please don’t answer that.)

The store is, however, very convenient for basic cuts in solid colors (v-necks, A-line skirts, etc.), which is why I stopped by one this weekend, to hopefully find a white crop-top at an okay price. The answer unsurprisingly turned out to be no.

In a moment of desperation, I flipped through the childrens’ tees to hopefully find a size large or extra large. (Don’t even ask why a company that features topless women in their ads makes childrens’ clothing; there is a time and a place for sexuality and it shouldn’t be at a store frequented by preteens and young children).

Lo and behold, I made the discovery that a women’s extra small crop top at American apparel is equivalent in size to a child’s size six tshirt. That’s six years old! Sure, some liberties might be taken for the cropping part, but basically American Apparel expects that a small woman should have the same chest girth as a kindergartener.

I’m a pretty petite person, but I’m not sure on what nation or even planet you might expect women to be the size of a tiny six-year old. That’s some f-ed up idea of body image.

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This semester I have the pleasure of being involved with a pretty cool research project on Government secrecy at Columbia University.

The Declassification Engine, which bills itself as “Computational Analysis of Official Secrecy”, is a joint project between the History, Statistics, and Computer Science (specifically Natural Language Processing) departments at CU (among a slew of other things) to provide tools and better analysis of just what the government has and has not (and will and will not) be withholding from the public throughout the years.

I myself found a research position on this project by following my favorite TA in my favorite class on Natural Language Processing into his research life, which is how one often finds interesting things.

The project is still quite young and less rigidly defined, so it’s fun to be involved early.

I’ll be working on image processing and language processing, among other things I really enjoy doing.

Needless to say, I’m a huge proponent of free speech, free press, and transparency, and quite excited. Plus it never hurts to feel like a real badass hacker, ripping through hundreds of thousands of federal censored papers in the terminal.

Check out a recent interview on the Declassification on NPR!

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Nowadays it is conventional to believe that emotional eating is unhealthy, but the truth is that emotions are so strongly mixed into every ingredient of a meal that the two are inseparable.

Why is it that our memories of eating are often so much stronger, more vivid than our memories of anything else? First-grade strawberry birthday popsicles. Peanut-butter-and-jelly, half thrown away. Turkey for Thanksgiving, and then cold turkey the whole week after. I don’t remember, really, what dress I wore to the birthday; I don’t remember what I did after lunch in the cafeteria, and I can’t recall that year whether or not Grandma was at our house.

It’s not simply that perhaps I have an irregular preoccupation with food; there are for certain a great deal of people with less interest than I in cooking and dining, but then again also a great deal with more. Eating combines the physical with the social, with which the emotional is undeniably inextricable. Food memories are persistent because they involve strong stimulation of all five physical senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching) all centered around a social function or a cultural dictation; eating a meal is both an event and an action and an indication. The food we eat (along with the food that we do not permit ourselves to consume) form little landmarks in our lives.

On a cloudy, chilly, groggy Friday like this, I pull out the warm memory of a feast at summer’s end. It nourishes my soul. It grounds my mind. It pulls me from the dark, floating, philosophical clouds above, to the concrete, Epicurean joys of physical Earth.

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I guess I haven’t blogged in a long time because a) I’ve been busy and b) I’m hesitant to write unless I have something worthwhile to say. And while it is fun to rant, I want to avoid ranting my head off, because I do feel as if all I say ends up being a first-world problem sort of thing I need to re-evaluate my writing. It is as important to me to become a better writer as it is to get my thoughts across, and questions I want to ask myself more often are: is this even good journalism? And if not journalism, is this good fiction? Non-fiction? Etc.

As I begin senior year, I finally have some space for electives, and as a result I’m trying to work on stretching my creativity in my spare time. This means just living with a sense of orbiting in a slightly different sphere than I do when I’m in hardcore analytic mode. I’m not sure if that even makes sense at all but it’s 1:30 am right now and I’m avoiding my problem set.

The only analogy I have is this:
If you’re bilingual, do you know that feeling, where you kind of just “tune in” to another language, not even switch gears but just slightly adjust the radio knob to receive a different wavelength? That’s how I feel about the creative state of mind. You know that it’s there and a language you can speak but there are others equally adequate and all of them interesting to use, but also that if you don’t speak it for a while all of a sudden you’re fumbling over verbs and names. Whatever language you use in your daily life will be the easiest and sharpest tool, but you know the feelings of the words and sounds of the mother tongue.

OK. That was also probably incoherent. Mostly I just mean that I’m trying to dedicate real time and effort to work on bending the only real Medium I possess on this Earth– my body (and mind) to wring out even an ounce of art (and by art I mean feeling) from it: whether it be through movement, drawing, or fiction. I’m trying to really work on some purely expressive forms.

Guten Nacht!

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Recently, this little comic from the Oatmeal, titled “The Terrible & Wonderful Reasons why I run Long Distance” popped up on several friends’ newsfeeds.

It’s a very good piece, and if you are a runner yourself, or maybe a biker, or maybe a swimmer, or maybe just a person, or maybe even a cat of the internet, you should check it out. With the simplest of drawings, it captures very well the essence of an amateur runner.

I myself don’t run in the way that the narrator of this comic runs. I run when it’s nice outside, I run when I’m frustrated, I run when I’m angry, and I run when I’m lost. But I run very rarely, and never do I run fast enough, or long enough, to reach euphoria. My running is always solo, always complentative, and never has it silenced the noise in my head. Very often, it smoothes tangled knots out– if only by virtue of making myself feel healthy and sunkissed again.

Recently, I started dancing again. I’ve been dancing since I was five. When I was three, I watched my older sister’s ballet performance and begged my mom to be onstage, too. I love to move, and I love to dance, and in a way dance is a healing process– after 10 years of competitive gymnastics, I love the feeling of being onstage without having my every step marked by point deductions.

In a moment of sheer luck, I’ve discovered a rare gem: the Manhattan dance studio that is relatively affordable, air-conditioned, spacious, and most elusive of all, not filled with judgemental, competitive, rail-thin preprofessional teenagers waiting to eat me up.

The dancers at this studio are very talented. The instructor is friendly and experienced. But best of all, this class– twice a week, an hour-and-a-half each– whips the my ass. And it also whips my abs, and my arms, and my calves, and my thighs, and most importantly, my brain.

When I enter the studio directly after work, there’s a million thoughts running through my head. Is it bad that I left work before 7? Did I slack off too much today? Will I finish my summer project in time? Do I need a Ph.D? Am I ever going to be a good scientist? Is the world driven by chance or does it have a telos? Is it possible to be both intellectually conscious and happy?

But twenty minutes into class, I’m struggling just to breathe, as this killer warm-up asks me to do thirty more sit-ups, forty more crunches. Bass beats rivet off the ceiling, and sweat drips off my nose.

“I’ve always considered the question to be ‘Why am I alive? Why am I here? What’s the point of me? And to that I say: WHO CARES! FORGET THE WHY YOU ARE IN A RAGING FOREST FULL OF BEAUTY AND AGONY…THIS IS BETTER THAN THE WHY. I run because I seek that clarity”, says the little stick figure in the Oatmeal comic.

There is only one reason why I dance. I want, I crave, I need a better way to express myself. (Sometimes, I wish I could sing louder, clearer, just so I could belt it out like Christina Aguilera in Burlesque at the end of a long work day in my little-town-accidentally-sexy waitress outfit. And then become a professional performer with Cher.)

I’m not a great dancer, by any means. Sure, I can bust a few moves at a party. I’m relatively in shape, I’ve been dancing a long time, and most of all I Love it With All My Heart. I’m a slow learner, I’m a little off-beat, but by show time I’m giving it my all.

Sometimes, dancing makes me feel very small and adolescent again, while I watch the slim beautiful girls at Barnard and Columbia in my dance group rule the stage with their wonderful years of ballet training and their illuminating stage prescence. And when that happens, the voice of my fourteen-year-old self is telling me again that I’m not thin enough, not blonde enough, and just so damn awkward.

But goddamit, sometimes I like that. Sometimes it’s good to worry so much about things that my Computer Science classmates would find trivial, to feel small and nerdy and inadequate again, to feel the ruthless female competition of beauty and grace. Sometimes it’s good to want so much to be good at something that isn’t just a desk job.

It’s a struggle, and so much work, just to be able to express one-tenth of what I want to say in my movement. But in that moment when I’m finally on the beat, and not stumbling over my own feet, I never feel so much alive.

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