Unappreciated Jobs

Today’s post is dedicated to what I believe might be one of the most unappreciated classes of jobs: the public transit driver. The train conductor. The bus driver. The subway guy (the underground system, not Jared). Most people never notice them when they do a good job but will show their worse side when things aren’t on schedule. But in unappreciated jobs, that’s pretty common. But things are worse. Their job is to get people to places on schedule. That’s really 2 jobs. One, pick up people, and two, be on schedule. Unfortunately, these happen to work against each other far too often.

Just yesterday, I went in to San Francisco to meet my sister and hang out. To get there, I planned to take the Caltrain (a train) from Palo Alto to Millbrae, switch to the BART (a subway), get off at Embarcadero, meet my sister, then take the MUNI (a bus) to Fisherman’s Wharf. I arrived at the Caltrain station around 11:20 for the 11:31 train and had plenty of time to get my ticket and wait for it to come. The train arrived and pulled up a little farther than where the cluster of people were standing, so we walked up forward along the station. As I got closer, I saw the last car was the luggage car, and a lot of people were trying to get on it. I figured I would walk up the station to the next car and get on there. Just as I stepped up, the door closed. I looked back and saw the luggage car still loading, so I figured they would re-open the doors. They didn’t. As I started to move back towards the luggage car, they finished loading, the door closed, and the train started to pull away. Looks like I would be an hour late.

Contrast to the BART. When I finally arrived at Millbrae, I got on the subway with plenty of time. Since Millbrae is at the end of the line, the subways typically sit for awhile to catch everyone. To warn when it’s about to leave, they usually close the doors about 30 seconds before it actually leaves, then re-opens and closes as it pulls away. I saw the warning, but it looked like a couple people were just getting through the turnstiles and wouldn’t make it. But the driver saw them, and waited. As the doors closed again, another couple was running towards the train. Instead of going, the driver waited again, let them on, and then left.

The drivers seem to have some leeway with how they run their schedule, and in both of these situations, it seems like the right thing to do is to wait for the couple stragglers. The problem with this is that it throws off the schedule. Take the BART/Caltrain interchange. Coming back from the airport to campus, I have to take the BART to the Caltrain, again at Millbrae. Once, the BART was just a little behind, and as I got off the BART, I saw the Caltrain pull away. Given the schedule, I had to wait an hour for the next one.

So the costs seems obvious here. If the drivers keep the schedule, they’ll strand a couple people. If they don’t, the minute or even seconds might matter behind switches. In either case, passengers who suffer the consequences will likely be cross with the driver. I certainly was (until I walked to the Borders and looked around instead of waiting at the station). What seems really unfair about this is that they’re the scapegoat for our failures as passengers. If we could all arrive on time, know the schedules, and load quickly, none of this would be a problem. I guess it’s just easier sometimes to not take responsibility for it.

Christmas is for Kids

This Christmas, my family is all back together, which, these days, is very rare. My sisters, my dad, and my grandparents have had staggered entrances and some quick exits, so the only day we’re all together is today. My sisters and mom are putting in the kitchen work behind me to prepare for dinner, while I do my duty and provide moral support by being in the same room, and helping out with tasks of no greater difficulty than stirring and mashing.

For which I’m very thankful. While dorm food is decent, there’s nothing like home-cooking, whether that’s steamed fish or Texas steak. It’s funny being with my parents and grandparents, because I realize there’s a hierarchy of food here. When I’m eating by myself, I’ll tough out the nasty bits and reach for the chicken bones to pick them clean. When I’m eating with my parents, I’ll go for the meatier pieces and pick out the ginger to give to my mom. But when my grandparents are around, the bones are passed up another round to my grandpa who apparently likes gnawing on bones. Regardless, I get the good cuts when with the family. It’s like being a kid all over again.

Anyways, I have a nice 3-week vacation here, and being home for the holidays is just like it always has been. I tell people that the holiday season starts as soon as I’m done eating turkey, and fun it is. Wearing the santa hat around gets comments, and I’ve compiled what I think is an impressive playlist of classic Christmas songs, assuming you agree that “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and a little Mariah Carey is classic. Relatively arbitrary reasons to be happy are good.

It’s a little tragic that my family doesn’t have any really strong Christmas traditions. I’ve recently bcome fascinated with the conventional aspects built around holidays. For example, I’m sure many people know cranberry sauce only as a cylinder with the ribs still on it. And malls are a fantastic place to see rampant consumerism and little kids in line for Santa. One of my sectionees mentioned that a tradition in his family is to watch a 1992 tape recording of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” where the real fun now is to watch the commercials. Now there’s a very unique tradition.

I still try to catch Christmas specials when I can, though. Sometimes it’s not about it actually being good, as much as just feeling good. Last week, I watched the Muppet’s Christmas Special, which should’ve been fun for everyone. Like most kids’ entertainment, there were jokes and gestures in there obviously for the older crowd, but it really was all about being a kid. For example, in my mind, “Shrek” is almost two movies: it’s a slightly twisted fairy tale for kids, and it’s a series of allusions for adults. Christmas music doesn’t have two levels. When Grandma gets run over a by a reindeer, that’s the only humor going on. But the Christmas spirit is about being a kid, too, because we can all use a break.

On Coldness

(If you’re curious, I just posted my RBA from my writing class in my other blog. It’s long, but potentially interesting)

Thanks to the work of our wonderful residential assistants (RAs), my current dorm plans a lot of fun events, including laser tag, a 49ers game, and more. This Friday evening, we went ice skating.

It’s been just over 10 years since I last skated. Back in Toronto, the critical choice for kids was whether they were going to play hockey or figure skate. Since my parents valued my teeth and temper, they enrolled in evening figure skating lessons at one of the local rinks, so from about kindergarten to 3rd grade when I left, I figure skated during the winter months. The level of instruction didn’t teach us anything fancy, but I was fairly comfortable on the ice and could skate relatively safely.

When I heard that our dorm was going ice skating, I got very excited and signed up immediately. Up until we went, I was getting more and more anxious–both the good and bad kind–about skating. In reviving skills, it’s like riding a bike. Or so I hoped.

Laced up, I stepped onto the ice and immediately felt uncomfortable. The weight and bizarre balance of the skates quickly reminded me of skiing last year, and that was a very humbling experience. Consciously, I knew (and could see) that skating was about kicking/pushing with one foot while gliding on the other, but my feet only seemed to take timid steps. With a little more movement, I got back into the habit of letting my lifted foot go backwards instead of stepping forward and I started to move.

Fortunately, I didn’t feel really awkward with my futzing as my dormmates were of all skills, and some certainly had greater difficult than me. I got to laps almost immediately, yet I was moving really slowly and had to consciously think about the mechanics of skating.

Skating is a relatively good small-talk topic for me because I do have the story above, and I am kind of still a figure skating fan thanks to my mom and sisters. More notably, skating lets me tie in my Canadian heritage to the Texas (hook ’em!) hoodie I wear everywhere. When I first came to Stanford, I was never quite sure what to say when someone asked where I was from. My last and longest residence is in quiet Katy, Texas, but that place doesn’t match with my self-image. Perhaps my vague disagreement with Texas contributes to this, but even so many years behind, I still consider myself mostly Canadian. Regardless, the “correct” answer is really Houston, but I always thought about (and promptly rejected the notion of) qualifying my response with “but I’m really from Toronto.” Unfortunately, that’s a little more complicated and more than most people probably care about, so I just wait until they ask about the Canada stickers on my computer.

So for a long time, “Houston” was my immediate answer, but in retrospect, I was never really comfortable with it. That wasn’t really a lie, but it also wasn’t the whole truth. Admittedly, my time in Katy has changed me tremendously from my roots that I don’t wholly remember, but some part of me still clings to it. Since I’ve arrived here at Stanford, I feel like I’ve let my Canadian creep back into me. I do have some sort of response whenever someone brings up a “South Park” joke, and inquiries about my intent to vote meet the country of my citizenship. And my indirect methods seem to work as I get fewer and fewer looks of surprise when I reference Canada.

Anyways, I continued to skate, only having one near fall when I lodged the front pick part of the skate in the ice, which I’m sure was extremely comical to watch. I admired an older man giving lessons to a young girl, including some amazing demonstrations on his part. I talked to some of the beginners as I came around to them, and I began to think about how I would formulate my experience in a blog post. At that exact time, an amazing thought came: I was actually thinking about my blog, not about skating. And clearly, I was doing okay.

When I get back into an activity, sometimes it’s “just like old times.” When I picked up N64 Smash for the first time again this quarter, I was immediately flooded with combos and old memories. But when I found myself skating on autopilot, I didn’t really feel it. I honestly don’t remember a lot about my skating lessons, and skating didn’t feel like how I thought it would. It just kind of felt right. Somehow, over a couple of scary laps gradually shifting into other points of attention, I guess skating had gradually crept back into me until I had a working ability without any conscious basis. Admittedly, years of disuse have deteriorated my overall ability, but it didn’t feel any less right. I was just kind of happy to realize something I had tucked away for so many years.

The Chinese Way*

I often like to give bad, ridiculous advice because the results are often hilarious. Or maybe because I’m misanthropic and like to see people give me dirty looks. Regardless, one of my favorites was to yell, “Push and shove!” whenever a large group of people were pushing through a doorway or trying to get down a crowded hallway. I’ve recently learned, though, that that particular line isn’t because I hate people; it’s my heritage.

Many friends claim that the craziest drivers come from their region of the United States, but all of them would certainly change their minds on coming to China. Welcome to the country where three cars fit in two lanes, where drivers only merge by cutting someone off, where cars don’t even slow down during right turns on red lights, where it doesn’t matter if you’re from England or the US because people drive on both sides of the road. But the problem isn’t just driving; businessmen will answer their phone. In meetings. Most vendors rely on imperfect information to inflate prices, and one must write down a taxi driver’s number to get honest results. And apparently Chinese geometry developed separately from Western geometry, as the amorphous, shoving blob is favored over the line to getting on buses.

From an academic standpoint, this rude behavior seems surprising. Psychology books I’ve read have distinguished Oriental thinking from Western thinking for their strong sense of community. The Chinese base their government ideology on mutual respect and help to prevent underhandedness and economic disparity. It seems, however, that on a direct, person-to-person level, the only way to move forward is to knock down the person in front of you.

While all this seems disgusting to me (being raised in Western society), I feel that their society is simply a reflection of American society. Maybe the Chinese are disrespectful to strangers, but I know firsthand that respect matters tremendously more in the household and to friends. Family discipline remains an important structure. Among friends, there’s a constant sense of good purpose and showing off, to the point of vicious battles to pay for restaurant bills. In American society, most people act sincerely in reaching out to other people, with orderly behavior in public and courtesy to all. The trouble, however, brews at home, where kids get away with behavior that would never be tolerated in a Chinese home.

It’s hard to say whether one is more correct than the other. I have my own gut feelings about it, but even those are biased by my upbringing. Most, if not all, judgments suffer similarly, because we all have our own social expectations. Disregarding the moral consequence of this, I do know that the difference will become an important issue as China grows. The Olympics have proven that China has the bang to matter on the international scene, but the clash is going to make things tough. The culture matters in the business world, where the Chinese must feel they’ve won every deal, while Americans tend towards subterfuge to get a later advantage.

While significantly incompatible, the cultures can find the middle ground, as we are all human. And looking across, people can accept the best that both have to offer. And maybe we’ll all figure out that when we say “push and shove,” it really is a joke, no matter who the target is.

*I was very tempted to title this post “Chinese Douchebaggery” (credit goes to the writers of “The Daily Show” for that word), but I realized that even with disclaimers, the title would overshadow the actual purpose of the post.

Now and Then

Yesterday, I went with George and several others to the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Not wanting to miss out on something different, I was very excited to find out exactly what “sub-culture” surrounds garlic. The event ended up being more of a general fair for the town of Gilroy, though I did watch Andrea Froncillo, the head chef of the Stinking Rose, do a cooking show. He showed off a soup covered with puff pastry, baby back ribs, and seafood in the typical style of the all-garlic menu of the Stinking Rose.

But before we went out, our car had to stop at Tressider Student Union for the ATM. While there, I saw a group of high school students head for the “Jamba Juice.” I laughed and commented to my friend that I never pass Tressider without seeing high school students swarming around the “Jamba Juice.” He laughed, but quickly pointed out (paraphrased), “What are you talking about? You’re only one year older than them!” Since they’re probably not graduated seniors, I’m actually two years older than them, thank you very much.

You’re probably groaning at the prospect of another “high school v. college” post, but it’s amazing how much I’ve distanced myself from that. Walking around Palo Alto, the high school students are easily distinguished from everyone else (likely as much as my friends and I are easily distinguished as college students), and I do see them as something different from them.

It’s hard to say how much that’s been an actual effort on my part to affiliate myself with a new group. I didn’t become a different person when I arrived on Stanford campus, but I’ve adapted and suited myself to a different culture, different feel, different priorities. While I was waiting for “The Dark Knight” to begin, I listened to three students behind me gossip. From topics such as classes during the same “period” and what their parents allowed and didn’t allow them to do, I quickly tagged them as high school students. And while their concerns seemed petty (likely as much as mine do to an adult), I smiled and enjoyed eavesdropping and re-experiencing the trials of high school life.

Highlights of high school haven’t completely disappeared either. About a week ago, George and I went to a card shop a couple towns over to buy Magic cards. We arrived as people participated in Friday Night Magic, a sanctioned event held in hobby shops all over the world. The shop was slightly smaller than the one in Katy, but the aging tables, fold-out tables, random drink cans, poor lighting, mostly grade-school aged kids, and obscene excitement over words printed on cardstock felt just the same. Magic obviously isn’t a high school thing, but this aspect of my life was entirely contained within my high school experiences. And among those high school and middle school students, everything was more familiar than I had thought.

Living with someone is a huge opportunity to get to know someone else a lot better. While cooking and sitting around, George and I cover the full array of small-talk. We talk a lot about our past and experiences, but it seems like everything gravitates towards our recent high school ones, like band and debate. In many ways, I do try to separate myself from that high school image, but I actually do miss a lot of it. While I speak of it fondly, I’ll still laugh at the high school kids. Though maybe it’s not so much ridicule, but intense familiarity.

DCI West Championship 2008

Santa Clara Vanguard. Phantom Regiment. Blue Devils. Easily one of the best shows of my life.

As important as marching band was to me in high school, I rarely think it it now. These rare flashes, however, come with large bouts of nostalgia. On one of those a few weeks ago, I fired up footage of my high school shows, then took a detour to the DCI website. The summer before my senior year, I had gone to “THE exSIGHTment of SOUND” in Houston, where I saw the Cavaliers and Santa Clara Vanguard perform. Looking through this year’s schedule, I saw several performances in the Bay Area. A couple looked convenient, but one was incredibly convenient: The DCI West Championship at the Stanford Stadium. I excitedly mentioned it to several of my non-initiated (read: newbie) friends and ended up nabbing 2 tickets for George (my roommate) and me.

We met up with Ben around some batteries warming up after a wonderful shrimp scampi dinner (read here), then went to the stadium. The seats, on the upper deck, were just at the 40 yard line on the left; great to watch, great to hear.

The open class (division 2 and 3) bands went first, and while not perfect, they were very enjoyable. The first was the San Francisco Renegades, a corps without age restrictions. Members were mostly middle-aged, but it was a spirited performance.

They, however, fit with most of the audience. I had anticipated seeing mostly high school and college students, but that was probably the largest gap. Many middle school students showed up, and a surprising number of middle-aged and seniors came as well. In retrospect, this likely isn’t so surprising. The just-younger students are likely those who will be shooting for a corps soon, and the older group likely aged out and are coming back for more. That last group reminded me of the older crowd from my trip to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The attitude felt different, but it does lend legitimacy to drum & bugle corps as a performing art.

The group as a whole, however, were also not what I was expecting. I seem to have developed a Stanford-centric attitude, where events like this come to Stanford for Stanford. This event proved me wrong. Almost everyone came from the surrounding area for a show that happened to be at Stanford. It’s not Stanford; it’s a thing. Ben commented how he enjoyed finding “sub-cultures” like these. In my own life, marching doesn’t feel like a sub-culture, but it absolutely is. Within the group that cares, it’s a big deal, and it has its separate population, as the attendance reflected. Everyone has their sub-culture.

But back to the show, we saw several other surprising shows. Mystikal came onto the field with complete battery, pit, and guard. And seven brass players. That takes bravery. And the Blue Devils C, with members from age 7 to 13, put on a show I never imagined them capable of. Though I don’t know how I feel about the fact that they’ll be doing drum corps for the next eight years of their lives.

After the intermission, the world class (division 1) corps performed, and the Mandarins left a huge gap from the open class corps. The Pacific Crest and the Academy also gave great shows, and the Santa Clara Vanguard performed the show “3hree” and made another gap from the preceding world class acts. As a local group and past champion, they generated a lot of excitement and performed as well as they should have.

I, however, would say that the Phantom Regiment and Blue Devils cleared delimited themselves from the competition, including the Vanguard. The Phantom Regiment’s show, “Spartacus,” reminded me of the Blue Devil’s 2006 show, “Godfather,” also with a weapon-like formation. Beyond that, it was a complete performance. The drill was both difficult and well-performed, and their playing was a usual best. The general effect and guard, however, added so much to the show. Audiences often are shocked by the quality and skill of the performers, but it’s not often they’re also shocked by the drama, too. It’s a must-see. That performance got me out of my seat.

And I was ready to do it again if the Blue Devils were better, as the scores would indicate from San Diego two days ago. Their show, “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” made me question a lot of choices, including an intro with more running than marching (and a member who slipped quite brutally; don’t know if that was planned) and some bizarre battery work. But it’s the Blue Devils, and it absolutely worked. The marching and playing were brilliant, and while their showmanship was far different from that of Phantom Regiment, I thought it was just as cool.

I came away loving it, and so did George. Given my nostalgia and the general effect of the show recognized by George, I couldn’t have had more fun tonight. Granted, no one was perfect. Every performance had its form problems and questionable moments, but the touring season has just started. And I would rationalize that my pickiness makes me enjoy it that much more, because I saw performances where I just didn’t care about the details; they were that good.

One of these days, I’m going to have to go to the DCI World Championships because that’s just insane. This show was great. Take the best of those in better form with a crazy crowd, and it does not get better. Someone want to come with me some year in the future?

Fending for Ourselves

Coming to college was a big change. The number of and influence of authority figures lessens. No one tells you how atrocious your living conditions are. No one even suggests that you need to study or that you’ve wasted your evening screwing around with your friends. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. Gotta keep tabs on your general diet. Have to plan ahead and do laundry before undies must be turned inside out.

There are, however, still many crutches in typical dorms. A cleaning staff maintains the washrooms and showers through truly horrid conditions. The dining staff ensures that if you arrive at the right times of the day, edible things will go into your mouth. They streamline chores so that students can focus on their task of learning.

Now, the school year is over, and summer life begins. I decided awhile back that I would be doing research on campus this summer, and I figured it would be a good chance to live different. I convinced two of my dormmates to join me in toughing out the summer in Mirrielees, the highly anti-social, but apartment-style on-campus housing.

Last Tuesday, I went through the tremendous task of moving my stuff, which was somewhat more than I had originally thought. Kesav, one of my roommates, temporarily had a car, though that was less helpful bringing stuff up to the 4th and top floor of Mirrielees. The climb, however, was worth it, as the conditions are fantastic.

The room isn’t plush, but it is absolutely sufficient. We have two bedrooms (I put my flag down in the single), a kitchen/living area, a sink area, and a shower and toilet room. The kitchen has a stove, fridge, sink, and many cabinets, and is certainly enough. Throw in a few closets around the apartment, and it is fairly cozy.

That night, we made our first Safeway run to get basic foodstuffs, else languish in starvation or eternal ramen. Kesav, Rob (a past and present dormmate), and I had a mildly terrifying moment, as that trip was the first non-trivial, unsupervised grocery shopping any of us had ever done. It, however, went well, as I foresaw the need for reusable grocery bags (which also netted me a discount in the single cent range! I think it’s 3 cents a bag) and am also currently alive. My only regret is that we passed the popsicle and ice-cream aisle, decided to hold-off to avoid melting, then forgot about them.

The moving, however, did come after my internship was supposed to begin. The research I’m doing this summer involves writing part of an agent for a cognitive architecture to see how effective transferred learning is in this environment. What it actually boils down to is writing code so that a computer can learn about football plays and make its own. Seriously. After a minor calamity, I began on Thursday, where I met Kamal, the guy who I’ll be working mostly with.

I am kind of scared about this. I thought I had prepared decently well, as I brushed up on my Lisp chops and followed along with a course taught by the head of the lab. I feel like fear is somewhat appropriate now, though, because as we walked over to Kamal’s desk, he asked me, “So are you a graduate student or a PhD student?”

Things look somewhat better, now, as I power through a textbook on machine learning. And I’m very quickly getting used to living here. Just today, Kesav and I made a Wal-Mart and Safeway run where we picked up a rice cooker, a 7-piece cooking set (for $17! Who knew kitchenware was so cheap?), and more foodstuffs. Combining that with a 7 lbs package from my mom, and we now have a working (and for us, complete) set of kitchen equipment. In celebration, I cooked my first serious and entirely unsupervised meal. And I didn’t even burn anything!… because I steamed the vegetables.

I’ll hardly be cruising over the next 9 weeks, but it certainly won’t be too bad at all. My current situation is definitely beyond my life before, but I’m feeling competent enough to make this work. Sure, we don’t have the mini-TV on the kitchen table that would totally complete this place, but I’ll have adapted. The first few steps have seemed dangerous, but it’s only slightly more than what I’m comfortable with, and everything has turned out just fine.

And so I sit in my room, shirtless and with a very hot computer, but in an apartment that I’m very satisfied with. It hasn’t been as hot as I’ve tolerated in the past, but apparently, this summer is a hot summer for California. The high has hovered around 90, which doesn’t sound bad at all until one considers that air conditioning is not installed (or even allowed) in dorms, and that heat rises to our 4th floor apartment.

Dang it. We forgot the popsicles again.

A Little Diversion

I was arduously working on my CS program here at my desk for awhile. Suddenly, everything on my desk started to vibrate.

Oh, how typical. Probably someone with really loud bass. But I can’t hear anything. And everything keeps vibrating. And then it’s gone.

Such is the super-exciting life of an earthquake. Apparently a decent one hit NorCal just around 8:00 local. Everything here is just fine, just a minor distraction from work.

This Post has no Topic

Who decided that “oversight” should have two opposing definitions? They’re not complete opposites, but close. I thought this was a nice find on the answers page for it:

oversight
n

Definition: care, supervision
Antonyms: ignorance, neglect

n

Definition: failure, omission
Antonyms: attention, care, recollection, remembrance, success

Oh well. Who really cares, anyways.

I had the wonderful opportunity to see the Rice campus on Labor Day. I hitched a ride with Erica to meet up with Willie, Kiri, and Neil, who were kind enough to keep us from wallowing in our lack of college.

The campus is very nice. It’s plopped in the middle of Houston, yet it has that academic, almost aloof feel to separate it from the world around it. We walked from picturesque streets with canopies of branches to a toaster-like dorm, with an array of architectural styles in-between.

Even now, I find it amazing that they’re less than an hour into town. Physically, they’re not that far, but the sphere and idea of college seems foreign, far away. This is likely my own fallacy, as my own college experience will take me across the country.

While driving to Toronto, I realized how misaligned my personal shape of the world is against its actual geographical shape. Houston is the closest sphere. The major surrounding cities, like SanAn, Austin, and Dallas are another, being less than a day’s drive. The rest of the US and Canada is another, as that would take a road trip, of which my family is so fond, though we’ve (fortunately) not had many recent opportunities. And past that are the wonderful trans-ocean flights.

It seems reasonable, until I realize that it may take an hour to get across town, while only 5 minutes to Target, and yet they’re in the same sphere. Rice, as I mentioned earlier, is an anomaly, set far away. Mexico, though only a couple hours to the border, is as close as Mars.

I guess my world is based more on the method of travel than distance, but they correspond. Roughly.