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Road Trip 4 Sanity

1/11/2010

DC is 12 hours away. Driving there and back in a single weekend is typically not very reasonable OR sane. But 7 of us piled into 2 cars early Friday morning, to get our potential lack of sanity redeemed by Stewart and Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30.

Also potentially insane (for me) because I don’t actually watch Stewart or Colbert — I’ve probably seen a combined 2 hours of their shows in my life. Stewart does seem to be consistently funny at least, though. Colbert, not so much my cup of tea. My friends are much more actual fans of this stuff, but they rightfully identified the fact that I would at least enjoy this trip. Stewart, Reddit, Colbert, and road trips. Here we go! And it was, in the end, a completely sane choice of me to go.

The Drive to DC

First 8 hours or so were pretty boring. Then we hit hills and pretty trees, right around West Virginia. So much nicer than midwestern farmland. Ooh-ing and ahh-ing ensued. This was also where Bhargav learned first-hand that it’s bad to schedule phone interviews for when you’re driving through the mountains of West Virginia at 70+mph because YOU WILL GET DROPPED.

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Stopped for food at WVU. Morgantown was significantly bigger than we had imagined, and even had a building that was like a Bizarro Assembly Hall (this is the real one, of course).

Finally, we realized we wouldn’t really be on a roadtrip without a good hashtag, so after browsing the internets for a while we found what we needed: #roadtrip4sanity. Stolen by a group of rally-goers from Drake University in Iowa (that’s further from DC than us!) Sorry dudes, you had the best hashtag.

Arrived in DC around 7 PM. Ate Thai food and crashed.

The Rally

Our hotel was at the end of the Green Metro Line. Here was the line to get on the train at 9 AM. Queue4sanity:
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RoadTrip4Sanity members, minus me:
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Metro was kind of crowded after a few stops, as you can see by this reflection:
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Oh right, we’re in DC!
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Finally got to the rally around 10 AM. It was not too crowded at this point. We did find these charming folks:
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The corn syrup is a nice touch.
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I had some friends already standing somewhere in the crowd, but it quickly became apparent that meeting them was NOT going to happen. So we settled into our spot.

Team Fear dude in the background trying to horrify us. We are unfazed.
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Nearby sign:
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People behind us:
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We were behind jumbotron #2, on the left.
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And then hooray, the rally finally started!! The Roots played for a really long time (too long in my opinion), and then finally we got some Stewart/Colbert goodness. Thoughts on the rally lineup:

• Mythbusters = boring. Doing the wave once in a crowd of 215,000 people is kinda cool, but doing it like 5 times is not. Move along, guys.
• Music was overall pretty eh. I did like Cat Stevens vs. Ozzy Osbourne though, that was entertaining. But, um, KID ROCK?? REALLY??? That was unnecessary torture, guys.
• The Fear Awards were great. Zuckerberg for Facebook’s creepiness and privacy nonsense, Anderson Cooper’s tight black t-shirt for only appearing in disaster situations, and NPR for not showing up on Saturday: “If their employees attend Jon’s rally, someone might think that NPR is liberal. No one could tell from the free pledge drive hemp fiber tote bags they use to carry their organic kale rollups to their compost parties.”
• Stewart/Colbert banter was right on. Wanted more of that, less of other stuff (like Kid Rock). There was also a surprising lack of Colbert, in general. When he did make appearances, it was entertaining, but the thing was a whole lot of Jon. Great job on that duet, too, Jon.
• So Jon’s speech at the end. We all knew it was coming, and by 2:45 the crowd was notably antsy for it to happen already. He did a good job, people were moved, we got the point that the media is fucked up, and that the 2 sides refusing to listen to each other is, well, kinda a problem. You can go read lots of other commentary on his speech elsewhere, but at the very least it gave people a sense of closure about why they were there. Sorta.

And then it was over. I split with my group, and battled the horrible crowds for over half an hour in order to meet up with some Philly friends at our pre-designated meeting spot. On the way out, I was watched by all the hipsters on port-a-pottys:

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Technology Fail, part 1, and Philly Meetup:

Now, phones on the Mall had basically not been working since we arrived at 10 AM. I knew this would be a problem — I was in DC for 4th of July, which was much much less crowded than this, and could barely get a connection the whole time. Unfortunately, being in a crowd of 215,000+ people when you are trying to meet up with a specific set of 5 of them is NOT EASY without the benefits of modern technology. I had phone service for about a grand total of 2 minutes over the course of 10 AM – 3 PM, during which I called Rob and worked out that I’d meet them on the steps of the Air and Space Museum after the rally. Of course, it took me like 40 minutes to make it there due to the crowds, and I couldn’t call to ask which of the zillion staircases they were on. I did manage to run into them just as they were getting up to leave, by a stroke of magic/good luck!

Jake found a good sign:
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Post-rally hunger, conquered, in Eastern Market, which was still REALLY crowded but not as crowded as the stuff near the Mall.
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Probably the most normal picture of Crystal ever taken.
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Unfortunately, Philly peeps were off to B-more for a Halloween Party, so we only could hang for a couple hours. Still good to reunite with the BroHo gang though, after a 2 month break. And, they were kind enough to give me a ride over to Dupont Circle for the…

Reddit afterparty

First I had a brief meetup with a couple of random Michigan friends who had driven in for the rally. Afterwards, I was walking down the street to go find the UIUC group again, when I practically ran into Alexis Ohanian (who I’d met at Reflections | Projections 2009, of course) in the giant mob of people outside of One Lounge, the main Reddit venue was. UIUC group came to Reddit party, but unlike promised, the bar was not letting anyone under 21 in, which sort of ruined it for half of us.

So we tragically had to split up, or risk being beat up by a giant and unfriendly bouncer. It was also annoying that the bar was also hosting some other costume party, so it was not purely Reddit people, and yet my friends couldn’t stay. The party itself was pretty excellent though. Everyone from Reddit was really nice (both people who actually work on Reddit, and people who USE Reddit). Reddit is not always the friendliest community (especially to girls. on the INTERNET.) but I was pleased to see that no one who was a jerk showed up (I guess they stay in their internet-caves at home and don’t like to come out to parties across the country). Met Jenny Lee, Chris Slowe, Foo, and the the dude who created Awesomesauce, plus about a zillion other people. Spez was there too. Got that weird “oh I recognize you from the internet” feeling going on. But yeah, good party, Reddit, minus the part where my friends couldn’t actually attend it.

Technology Fail #2

Finally headed back from the party around 1:30. The Metro ride went swimmingly, encountered prince charming (who is apparently a UPenn student) headed for a Halloween Party, and things were good up until the taxi drive from the station to the hotel. Of course, the driver had no idea where anything was, and I needed the actual address of the hotel for the GPS. I don’t KNOW what the address of my hotel is! Used iPhone to log into facebook, find the message containing this info, read off the number and the street name, and BAM, iPhone dead. Come on iPhone, how many times are you gonna put me in dangerous situations by dying on me when your battery meter says you’re fine? (I had even charged it during Philly-meetup-fooding!)

Highway-Chase Reddit Meetup

Sunday we woke up earlyish and embarked on the 12 hour journey back. Near the rally there were lots of cars with related signs, etc. But we were out of the general rally radius, and back in Ohio or so when we encountered this car.
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They also had a Reddit alien in their window. OMG! We flashed a QR code at them (Redditors were collecting each other’s QR codes all rally long) but that failed, so we just wrote usernames on pieces of paper and held it up to the windows. Best reddit friendship ever, formed at 70 mph with some Wisconsin dudes.
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TL;DR: sanity, restored.

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6 Things I Learned Not to Hate While in Pittsburgh

31/07/2010

These are all things I previously thought I hated, or at least would never really enjoy. So, I can thank Pittsburgh for my newfound enjoyment of these things.

1. The World Cup
I don’t watch sports, as a general rule…so the World Cup wasn’t even on my radar. I thought I would remain immune, and I did — but after weeks of being in a lab full of Brazilians and Dutch, even I could not resist the World Cup Vortex. The tipping point was going to a bar to watch the US/Ghana game (where we were eliminated) — somehow, being surrounded by everyone ridiculously shouting “Freedom!!” when we scored opened up a spot in my heart for the rest of the World Cup. I continued to follow along, and even though the teams I rooted for almost always lost, I was soon watching games midday, texting my friend Nick play-by-play updates during the Germany game, and, by the end of it all, even sort of understanding what offsides are. Crazy. Oh, and the whole internet picking up on the vuvuzela meme didn’t hurt, either.

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Paul had to be consumed, after all he did.

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Lots of orange at Silky’s for the final, aanvalluh!! Twas sort of tragic in that bar afterwards.

2. Naps
I spent the year I lived in Japan training myself to wake up milliseconds after my alarm went off and leap out of bed, to maximize the amount of sleep I was able to get before the 7:19 AM train. Unfortunately, that backfired and made me super-sensitive to all alarms that ruined a lot of potentially good nights of sleep early on in college. By my second year, I had regained the ability to wake up only in reaction to my own alarm, and still get up immediately, without waking to anyone else’s alarms. Which got me thinking, despite never having been a napper (except for in cases of being extremely sick), maybe I could also train myself to be able to nap.

And, after some effort this summer, I successfully conquered the nap! I still need to work on a couple of skills, like falling asleep faster, and setting my alarm for the actual time I want to wake up… but I am nap-capable on a basic level now.
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Nap ground zero.

3. Frats
Despite going to a school with looots of greek life (or perhaps BECAUSE I go to such a school) I generally don’t hang out at frats. As a result, I pretty much maintain all the typical frats/frat-boy stereotypes in my head. But, since an average Friday night in Pittsburgh would go something like this, we ended up spending a lot of time at the frat:
1. Mikesh throws a party
2. Everyone shows up to party
3. Hang out for a while, until Mikesh’s roommate kicks us out
4. Everyone has to go home, but WAIT, Chris invites us to the frat he lives in
5. Since the frat is right across the street from where we all live, there’s no reason not to go!
6. Fratting ensues.
Lather rinse and repeat many a weekend.

As it turns out, the frat wasn’t bad — it was even relatively clean (especially the last few weeks we were here). And the final night, it was revealed that many fratters were, in fact, of Montreal fans, and we spent an hour abusing the sound system with our Skeletal Lamping dance party. of Montreal-digging frat people, who knew?

Side complaint-about-Pittsburgh: of Montreal reminds me how much I cannot wait to see them for the fourth time, at Pygmalion 2010 in September. This thought also reminds me how non-existent the Pittsburgh music scene was. There were exactly zero shows I was interested in there all summer. Thumbs down.

But the frat doesn’t get an A+ in my book, for there was definitely a dealbreaker: The DEATHFAN. Fans without fronts should not be ANYWHERE, they DEFINITELY shouldn’t be run at parties… even really hot ones, unless it’s the kind of party where everyone sits quietly and far away from the deathfan (these types of parties are unlikely to occur at frats).

4. Truck food
As I complained last time, Pittsburgh food leaves something to be desired. You guys told me that I should learn to love what pgh is actually good at instead of the lack of Chinatown-level eats. The solution was basically truck food.

I don’t really like the one-and-only truck back home, so I was reluctant about the CMU trucks at first… until I realized they all served ethnic food. CMU has 2 thai, 2 chinese, 1 indian, and one middle eastern truck, all over in a row by the track (Here’s the exact location of the CMU trucks if you need help finding them). All of them require cash, every meal costs $4-$5, and most importantly, thai iced tea is available for $1!! I think the middle eastern and one of the thai trucks are my favorites. Yes, the trucks are junky, but delicious, and as far as Pittsburgh goes they’re almost the best asian food you’re gonna get anyway, so why not? The Pitt ones are 2 indian and 1 thai, but they’re a bit far if you’re working at CMU (over near the Cathedral of Learning).

Also, unrelated, but if you like wings… apparently Pittsburgh has a place for you to get cheap wings any day of the week. I’m not sure why “wing nights” are such a thing, but I’m not complaining.

5. Dorm Life
Like anyone past week 1 or so of freshman year of college, I hate living in dorms. Who wants to share a room with someone, anyway? However I think for the purposes of this year’s REU, it was a necessary evil that resulted in a lot more friendships than I would have had otherwise. (Sharing rooms was still not ideal — we all managed to live near each other AND befriend each other last year, while having our own rooms…) It felt a little bit first-week-freshman-year-ish at first, which feels really odd when you’re not a freshman, but it was worth it overall for the ability to meet people from my program and all the other research groups around. And most importantly, without dorm, The Fort would have never been able to exist:

6. American Karaoke
Due to living in Japan, I have been skeptical for many years about “karaoke” as it exists in this country, and have often karaoke-snobbed at people who think that the definition of karaoke involves singing in front of people you don’t know. Seriously? That’s not even real karaoke, I say. Small cramped rooms, iced oolong tea, Mr. Children and Arashi songs are the real staples of karaoke, clearly. Oh, and NEVER HAVING TO SEE ANYONE YOU DON’T KNOW. Real karaoke clearly wasn’t going to happen in Pittsburgh. However, I actually lost my American karaoke virginity in DC, at a sorta Japan-themed bar because word on the street was that they were a) Japanese, b) had karaoke, and c) didn’t card. All were true, but as the place was quite crowded, we barely got a chance to sing one song, because instead of just competing among your friend group for a turn, you must compete among every group in the bar for a turn. I also went to a place in Shadyside back in Pittsburgh and went early enough to actually sing a few different songs. Still enjoyable though.

I think American karaoke is actually less embarrassing than real karaoke. Yes, you are singing in front of people you don’t know, but at least for me, that means I care about their opinion less than the reaction of my close friends. Furthermore, this is taking place in a bar, which means 99% of the people there will be either a) drunk and not paying any attention to you or b) drunk and happily singing along to your musical selection too, and therefore also not paying any attention to you. Either way, there’s not a lot of judgemental vibes going on.

However, the connection between alcohol and American karaoke is annoying, problematic, and unnecessary. Many of my friends in Pittsburgh were under 21, and it is completely ridiculous that they couldn’t come and sing “Take On Me” with me just because karaoke was taking place in a bar. Karaoke is practically Japan’s official pasttime for children and teenagers. Come on now.

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DC Ameraoke

So yes, Pittsburgh has clearly changed me greatly as a person, but hopefully my friends and family will still recognize me. As of today, Pittsburgh is over and I have moved on my next adventure: Philly, a week’s worth of clothes, electronics, and NO PLANS.

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The Japan Paradox

22/07/2010

There’s lots of good reasons to live in Japan for a while — learn about a vastly different culture, pick up a new language, learn to love eating octopus, memorize every Arashi song ever created…

…but I’ve discovered there’s one great and often overlooked benefit of spending time in Japan: never be at a loss for words again, especially in large groups of people you don’t know.

(Not because you should pull the Japan card whenever possible and start shoving stories full of wa down everyone’s throats… no one likes that.) Instead, it’s because of what I like to call “The Japan Paradox”.

Background
Ever heard of the Birthday Paradox? It says that once you get more than 23 people in a room together, it’s more likely than not that at least 2 people share a birthday. Just 23 people!! It’s counterintuitive, but true if you do the math.

Japan Paradox Algorithm
Now, being a computer scientist, I’m rather fond of algorithms. Earlier this summer, I started to notice that I had developed an algorithm for functioning in group social situations where I was meeting new people. In particular, that meeting new people used to be difficult for me but isn’t as bad anymore. Part of this could be attributed to maturity (ha!), but the rest is most certainly the Japan Paradox. Here’s my algorithm:

If there are more than 4 people present:
1. Find the person in the group who has lived in Japan before
2. Talk to them about Japan
3. Oh look, it’s already time to go??

“But wait!” you must be thinking, “How do you come across so many people who happen to have lived in Japan/know Japanese/have some kind of connection to Japan?” Well, that’s what makes it a paradox!

Seriously though, this has happened to me on numerous occasions, and yes, usually in groups of people I have never met before. The most recent example of this, Exhibit A, was a MeFi meetup I attended a couple of weeks ago here in Pittsburgh. I came in, sat down, and my username (mokudekiru) drew attention from a guy who had apparently lived in Japan for 3 years! Who knew. Culture shock anecdotes and jdrama recommendations flying back and forth, and now I’m doing some Japanese help via email for one of his friends trying to learn Japanese (if the people I’m talking about here are reading this…well, hi!) The meetup was around 10-12 people while I was present.

The Wa-dar
The only potentially tricky step of my algorithm above is step 1. You sort of have to look for little signs that another Japan-er might be in your midst. Thanks to my coincidentally Japanese-sounding name, they usually ask me and I can say “no, I’m not, but I lived there…” and it’s on. Otherwise, making references to matcha or eating octopus might do the trick, as well as being on the lookout for little references others will make. And sometimes, you don’t know what it is about the person, but you just have a hunch. Hence, wa-dar. I’m still perfecting mine.

Demographics of the Japan Paradox
Okay okay, so it has to be related to the people I hang out with — clearly if you pick four people off the street in podunk Wyoming, there’s not a high chance you’ll find your Japan person. As a computer science student, I mostly run around in circles of well-educated engineers, undergrads, grad students, and the youngest part of the workforce.

I have definitely noticed some sort of engineering-Japan Paradox connection though. Both last summer and this summer, I’ve participated in research internships for computer oriented types (last year was CS/ECE, this year the research is in the learning sciences, so CS, Psych, and Linguistics). The two internships were on opposite sides of the country, and each consisted of ~15 undergrads. Both last year and this year, out of each group of 15 there were THREE people who had lived in Japan before. That’s 20%. Back at school, there’s an insane number of CS/ECE kids who have gone to Japan or at least are taking Japanese, and on the flip side, in J-Net, the Japan Club for our university, outside of East Asian Languages and Cultures majors, engineers are probably the next most represented (disproportionately so, given the size of the engineering school vs. the rest of the university).

It’s also a time/age thing. Even when I lived there (’06-’07) I didn’t feel like it was such a big thing as it is now — now it’s almost to the point of absurdity where I feel like every engineer takes a summer there. Not that this is a problem — comparing Japan stories is endlessly entertaining, and with a large number of people interested, but perhaps not having gotten to the living-in-Japan stage, having Japan-related expertise is highly valued.

So, if you find yourself in a group of 18-30 year old educated engineers, my Japan Paradox Algorithm is likely to succeed. Otherwise, YMMV, and I think we’d need some real demographic info about who learns Japanese and/or visits Japan from the US, to find out whether the Japan Paradox is more generalizable. Please comment if you have a Japan Paradox story or opinion!

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