There is something about Trains that I Like. Out of planes and trains and automobiles they to me are the most romantic. Nine-eleven sort of killed flying and even before that I always hated being in the air. What a cruel trick this was, I thought, as a child, to call it flying but being so utterly trapped in my seat, the opposite of free.

Cars were nice enough; I just didn’t like driving them. It was as if all the worst stereotypes joined forces (Asian; woman; short-tempered; small) and at 5’1” I could barely look over the steering wheel clearly. Once I had a conversation in the basement of a boy I convinced myself I loved in high school, about what the spirit of a car looked like. The beer was brown and in a glass (this was in the end of college when I first learned that beer was meant for a cold tall glass) and he said the spirit of a car in its highest form was a thing of beauty, because really, this was the spirit of a free man. And when you drove that car, really, you were just taking that thing of beauty where it wanted to most go. I thought that was fine as long as a thing of beauty was driving the car itself and I was free to look at both.

But trains. Trains were lovely because you were always moving but you never had to worry about how. There was something blue collar about them and it was great; you ran down the stairs in Penn Station onto the platform with all the hordes of tired businessmen with their beer in brown paper bags the smell of artificial butter popcorn in the air; shooting the shit with the conductors, sometimes jolly more often tired. And best of all you could look out the window and see the grass roll by; it was best especially in New England when the leaves changed and when you rolled past Connecticut dreaming of what doctors and dolled-up wives were behind those white picket fences. Then you thought it would be nice to be invited somewhere fancy for a change because then you could wear sparkly things like the best of them and be admired, but you were raised too pridefully to ever desire such things. To be rich. To be a decorative. It was folly.

And you were always going somewhere. I am talking only about American trains, I can’t speak for any other kinds. It was the American train I loved with those dreams of railroads and going to New York with just a backpack, a handle of bourbon in it and a note from your sweetheart. Maybe going up North through Appalachians and all you had was some E.E. Cummings with you and some pen and paper to write the next big thing. You with all the drunks and suits and so long as it wasn’t St. Patrick’s day on the New Jersey transit it was all beautifully coarse. It was so Americana; and this to a little Chinese American girl was somehow the best thing of all, even if the Amtrak was making nothing but debt and really the tracks weren’t very safe, and no one could afford a damn ticket anyway.

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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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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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A Eulogy, of Sorts

16 Jun 2013

this is a eulogy, of sorts. the first company that i had ever worked at, Omgpop, was recently shutdown by Zynga. i would have written a response to it more quickly but a) i have been really worn out by my summer job (although learning a ton) and b) i was only there for 2 months as a college freshman 2 years ago, so i am, of course, not the closest person anymore to the once-startup.

if working for and supporting NYC startups for the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that life is unstable, unpredictable, and not to be taken too seriously. things change, companies boom and burst and are bought and then dissapear; the next big thing is already yesterday’s news by the time you download it, but the relationships you make in the office will last far beyond those confines.

i will be the first to admit i am not really a big consumer of internet games, or even mobile games aside from the occasional subway ride, but i was (remain) a wholehearted fan of Omgpop.

why?

because sometimes the love of the sport is created by the love for one’s team; maybe they haven’t made the playoffs but they’re the reason you began to develop a liking towards the game in the first place. you don’t need to be a gamer to realize the joy that a product made with care can bring, and the enthusiasm of a talented and determined team is beyond contagious. simply put, even though entertainment might not be thought of as serious stuff, it is in fact made very seriously, and with dedication and pride as any other product.

this is how, i, as a non-gamer intern, a freshman in college, with no major and no technical skills yet, was welcomed with open arms, introduced into the world of startups, met some folks who believed in me, was encouraged to study computer science, first heard about a little program called hackNY, and still think fondly towards every employee i met during my short stay.

from there, i dug deeper into coding, eventually landed that summer fellowship, where i was introduced to both machine learning and mathbabe, picked up my first (data) modelling skills, realized how much it excited me, changed my concentration to artificial intelligence, began my own writing blog, became part of the ADI board, discovered great community there, went to more hackathons, and eventually landed my current summer gig at Knewton on a team where i have the great gift of working directly with new and interesting data models of student learning, and am challenged everyday to be a better scientist.

tl;dr:
the route to developing one’s career is not always straightforward when it is led by one’s shifting interests and traversed through startups, but with great mentors and coworkers (who also become great friends), there is always the opportunity to learn and grow.

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hackNY 2012 demofest

31 Jul 2012

phew! it’s been a crazy, epic, sleepless week in the City. I can’t believe that my summer internship is over and I’m no longer living with all the hackNY fellows. I just got back to the ‘burbs yesterday and already I miss the energy. I miss working, and I miss my friends. NYC has made me a city girl through and through. And even though I know I have much left to learn, the thought of going back to school makes me feel uncomfortable. I like being a working woman. I like being part of a team, and I like getting stuff done.

Anyway, enough nostalgia: here’s a video of the hackNY 2012 Demofest if you missed it live! My work begins at around 37:00. Definitely needed more rehearsal but  I hope you enjoy!

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This weekend I spent a crazy, sleepless 24 hours at Facebook NYC HQ’s inaugural hackathon.

For those not in the field, hackathons are basically really condennsed, usually 24-hour tech competitions in which a big group of programmers (and sometimes designers) get together, form teams and try to make a usable, cool project. For anyone who’s ever coded before, it’s easy to see how insane of a deadline that is, hence lots of caffeine, little sleep, and really tired eyes. For everyone else, this concept sounds basically like insane torture. I used to think that too (you can read a little about it here in this post I wrote for hackNY), but they are actually fun! Really.

Anyway, the hackathon kicked off as usual with a little self-promo blurb from Facebook, then a little brainstorming pep talk (since, ideally, you are supposed to come up with the concept during the competition, too, like Iron Chef (basically the best cooking show ever but only the original Japanese version with voice dubbing)). To lead off the ideas, the emcee posed a typical hackathon prompt: what problems in your life are there that you’d like to solve?

I never realized until yesterday, when my crazy genius/totally awesome rooomate brought it to my attention, what a problematic question that is, not only for hackathons, but with respect to Silicon Valley/web 2.0 startups in general. Most of the participants in web 2.0 startups are fairly privileged: there may be some self-made men and women, high school dropouts and the like, but the majority do tend to stem from elite private schools, because, let’s face it: when a small company needs to hire good developers fast without the luxury for deliberation, brand matters.

There’s nothing wrong with solving “first world problems”, building social networking sites, or making mobile games. I believe that all of the above are great excercises of human creativity and can lead to good, just on a different plane. However, it’s important for all these talented and hardworking developers to realize that perhaps it’s time to shift the focus away from introspection. Startups are filled with brilliant, bold employees who are out to change the world. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the first world.

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