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30 [Feb. 7th, 2010|08:57 pm]
I'm turning 30 in two days, and I've never been happier. A year ago, I was afraid of turning 30, and I think I was afraid because I was unhappy with myself and my life. I was afraid that my 30s would be more of the same, and I didn't want more of the same. But now, I'm looking forward to my 30s, 'cause if it's more of this, it'll be pretty damn amazing.

Years ago, in my early 20s, I asked Alii what she thought my greatest accomplishment was. She said it was the fact that I realized I was unhappy living in Japan, and got up and moved to the US. I didn't get it at the time. I didn't think that counted as an accomplishment. But now, nearly a decade later, I get it. If you asked me what my greatest accomplishment of my 20s was, I wouldn't say it was the fact that I worked my way out of academic failure to get a degree from a world-class institution. It wasn't my various software projects. It wasn't the fact that I worked at a couple of great companies. It wasn't the fact that I bought 60 acres of land, or that I built a hut on it.

I'd say my greatest accomplishment was that I realized my life needed to be rebuilt, and that I did it.

Life doesn't go the way you'd want it to. I will likely face unexpected challenges going forward. I am happy now, but all this is temporary. Sooner or later, something will happen that will disrupt my life or lifestyle. So what matters isn't the what. What matters is the how. I systematically and intentionally built a life in which I am happy, by altering those aspects of my life that I can, and by not trying to control things I can't. I did it in my late teens. I did it in my late 20s. And I can do it again. I won't always be happy, but I know I can always become happy, and that is the most valuable skill anyone could possibly have. Too bad they don't teach that in school...
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new-ish blog [Mar. 25th, 2009|11:56 pm]
In case you haven't heard elsewhere, I have a new blog: http://laptopandarifle.wordpress.com. I try to update it frequently, and have so far been pretty successful (8 posts in 14 days).
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on cultural identity [Feb. 3rd, 2009|02:04 pm]
I'm almost done reading Namesake, a novel about a boy named Gogol Ganguli, a US-born son of Bengali immigrants who for most of his childhood resists his cultural heritage, but ultimately comes to embrace it as a young adult. As a US-born son of immigrants, I thought there'd be something in the book that I could relate to, but it turns out that there isn't. Unlike Gogol, I don't really have a cultural heritage to resist. I consider myself to be American, but that is mostly a declaration of citizenship, not a declaration of cultural identity. In fact, I am comfortable declaring my self an American precisely because of the lack of any cultural identity such a label would imply. We spoke Japanese at home, followed some Japanese customs, but I was never socially acculturated in Japan, which makes me, culturally, a foreigner (a fact, unfortunately, that Japanese people won't admit to due to my appearances and lack of any noticeable accent). I also don't consider myself Japanese American, or Asian American; both of which imply a relatively well defined subculture.

The odd thing is, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my cultural identity at all. True, I don't fit in anywhere. I have a hard time finding people I can relate to. But to me, all these things are orthogonal to my heritage. I don't fit in because I'm different. It's not because we spoke Japanese at home. It's not because I didn't grow up in the US. It's not because I grew up in Germany. It's because I am who I am, and who I am is very different to those around me. In reality, yes, I am different, at least partially, because of how and where I was raised. But that history offers me no solution. Unlike Gogol, I can't go marry someone from my childhood community who was raised in a similar environment as I was (not that that worked out for him), because no such community exists. I don't know a single person who's a US born child of Japanese immigrants, who speaks Japanese and English natively, who grew up outside the US, and is now back in the US (not even my own brother fits this description). So what difference does it make? I might as well be a weirdo from Idaho.

Most of my friends, and all my past girlfriends, have been white Americans. Although this may be partially circumstantial, I think I am more comfortable around white Americans than non-white Americans because white Americans don't think of themselves as having been shaped by their heritage. For me, when I say I'm "Japanese", it's similar to when someone from Minnesota says they're "part German, part Swedish, part Irish". Sure, I might speak my ancestral language and know more about its culture, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't define me. This is less the case with non-white Americans, who have a much stronger racial and/or cultural identity. Sometimes I'll joke that I'm a banana or a twinkie, but the whiteness implied in those terms also differ from how I see it. As darkness is the absence of light, I see white as the absence of color. To me it is a blank slate, a fresh canvas, a post-racial, post-cultural identity. It is the promise of being an individual here and now, unburdened by one's heritage, free to color it, or not, as one wishes. It is the color of freedom, and that, is what I identify with.
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in which Ryo celebrates [Jan. 24th, 2009|12:08 am]
(I wrote this on Wednesday, after my operation, but couldn't post it because I lost my internet connection at home.)

Yesterday, I went to the dentist for the first time in over a decade. Everyone should go to a dentist at least once a year. Anyone who doesn't, is an idiot. Going to the dentist may not be a huge triumph, but sometimes in life, it's worth celebrating those few moments when you've become less of an idiot.

Today, I got my wisdom tooth pulled. #32 had been bothering me for years, but I attacked it with regular brushing and mouthwash, because the thought of an extraction scared me even if I knew it to be inevitable. Sometimes in life, it's worth celebrating those moments when you finally come to terms with the inevitable.
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in which Ryo is a traveler [Dec. 28th, 2008|11:44 am]
If I don't know what day it is, this is why (all times are local):
23:50 - left Bangkok

07:30 - landed in Tokyo
17:05 - left Tokyo
09:30 - landed in SFO

08:15 - leaving SFO
14:20 - arriving in Chicago
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on transportation (and mangoes) in Bangkok [Dec. 27th, 2008|12:14 am]
One of the things I'm enjoying about Thailand is the transportation. So far, I've taken the cab, a tuk-tuk, modern rail, not so modern rail, subway, and boats to get around. My favorite, so far, is the river taxi, which is actually more like a river bus. It goes up and down the river, making stops on piers along the way. There's something oddly tranquil and exciting about riding a boat on the river. The boats have roofs, but no sides, so you get a nice breeze as well as the occasional waft of diesel exhaust. Occasionally, the wake from a passing boat or barge crashes against the hull and gently rocks the boat. When stopping at a pier, they don't really tie the boat to let passengers on and off. They secure one line, then the driver(?) backs the boat up until the rope pivots the back into the pier. The boat smashing into the pier is the signal for passengers to hop on or off.

Today, I took an old fashioned train up to an ancient city called Ayutthaya, located about 50 miles north of Bangkok. I bought a 3rd class seat, which only costs 15 baht (less than 50 cents), but all you get is a flat, hard, wooden bench. I sat by the window, for maximum effect. The effect was, indeed, maximal. I saw slums, rows of huts and shacks made of random pieces of lumber and corrugated tin material, just feet away from the tracks. Some of them, though, had electricity, and even a TV which I glimpsed through gaps in the roofing. In the city, I couldn't help but notice the smell of burning garbage. I don't know why people burn garbage, but they do, and they do so feet away from the rails. Out in the countryside, the electric stench of burning garbage was replaced with a more natural burning smell, from random unattended grass fires, also within feet of the rail road tracks. At some point, I realized I was covered in ashes, and my hair felt gritty to the touch. But it felt good to feel the wind on my face, and the jolts and bumps, and to hear the rumbling of the train as it rolled through the countryside.

Inside Bangkok, the SkyTrain and subways are clean, and convenient, but somewhat expensive. Depending on where you're going, the SkyTrain can cost 40 baht, which is the price of a Pad Thai. More than half the cars here are taxis, but they're less useful to someone who can't speak the language, or even pronounce many of the place names. Compared to other countries, the taxis here are cheap (about $10 for a 30 minute ride from the airport), but given the low cost of everything else, it feels relatively expensive (if you think $10 = 10 pad thais). Tuk-tuks are cheaper, but lacking a sealed enclosure, leaves you exposed to the heat and pollution. On the other hand, they're great fun to ride in. For the true thrill seeker, you could also hop (or rather cling) on the back of a dude's moped; helmets optional. Their ability to weave through traffic make them effective transportation options during rush hour, but is probably only for the bravest of travelers (or Thai school girls --who apparently have bigger balls than I do).

In a completely unrelated note, I learned today that there are at least 10 different kinds of mangos. Cee got a couple of different kinds for me to try, and I must say, I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with the mangos we get in the US...
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on technology and labor [Dec. 19th, 2008|09:26 pm]
I saw something deeply unsettling today. At work, a bunch of us went on a field trip, and visited a partner that generates maps and other geographical data through aerial photography. It sounds innocuous, but I was shocked when they filed us into a large, artificially lit, sterile office. Inside, rows and rows of mostly young women in uniforms sat at work stations, blankly staring into a screen, silently toiling away at some menial task. It was the most depressing thing I've seen in a long time. I felt like I was watching slaves working a cotton field in the mid 19th century South. I felt like I was watching cattle, broken and immobilized in tiny pens. I was reminded of that scene in the Matrix where we see the vast field of human pods. That's what they were. They might as well have been half a brain attached to a computer. They were confined to a life spent locked in front of a computer at least 8 hours a day, because some small aspect of their brain was valuable1.

My brother is an activist for laborers. He apparently finds it troublesome that technology is taking jobs away from people. I wasn't sure how to respond to that as a technologist, but today, I found my answer. The answer is this: we should free humans to do what they love, instead of wasting their valuable time on sub-human tasks. I'm confident that the work all those young women in that room were doing could be done by machines. But they were using humans because they haven't been able to come up with adequate algorithms2.

Of course, if they were to come up with adequate algorithms, those girls would be out of jobs. The sad reality is also that, in this society, you can work or you can starve. But instead of blaming technology for taking away menial jobs, I would rather focus on the reality that some people can only choose between working menial jobs and starving3. Why can't people live the lives they want and also not starve? I don't know what the answer is, but in that office, looking at my coworkers on the one hand, and those girls on the other, I couldn't help but think there was a solution somewhere. Thousands of Googlers do what they love doing and generate billions upon billions of dollars of wealth. Surely, in a society like ours, we should be able to find a way for those girls to contribute to society by doing what they love doing.


1 - I make it sound like those girls are miserable. In reality, they may not be. Some of them might enjoy the work, and the rest of them probably find it tolerable at worst. Having said that, if they were given a choice and told money wasn't an issue, I suspect almost all of them would rather be somewhere else doing something else. This is in contrast to the majority of my coworkers, who, even if given a choice, would probably still be writing code.
2 - Which is why we need more Computer Scientists.
3 - I actually don't believe this is inherently true, but it is practically true for most people because they either believe it to be true, or were not given (or were robbed of) skills to find an alternative. It is also more true in countries like Japan (and the US) than it is in other countries that have more advanced social welfare programs.
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in which Ryo thinks about teaching [Dec. 18th, 2008|07:52 pm]
Lately I've been thinking about changing careers and going into teaching. This isn't actually a new idea for me; the thought of eventually teaching at an international school like the one I attended has always been in the back of my mind. But as my dissatisfaction with life as a corporate drone grows, it's starting seem more and more attractive.

Part of what appeals to me about teaching, is that I feel like I could approach it with a different perspective, if I'm in an environment where creativity is permitted (which is admittedly rare). Having been an academic failure most of my life, I have a deep-rooted skepticism of traditional pedagogical approaches. In fact, I firmly believe that most schools today are not only inadequate, but actively setting up our children for future (if not present) failure. But... that's a big topic, and not what this post is about.

If I were to teach, I'd teach Computer Science to high schoolers. Computer Science in K12 is disappointingly rare and niche, considering the importance of this field in this day and age. You can't even get a Single Subject Teaching Credential in Computer Science in California, which also means there are no Masters of Education programs for Computer Science. In other words, nobody's really even thinking about how best to teach Computer Science to high schoolers. It's sad, but that also means there are opportunities there.

I got into Computer Science by accident. At my school, one year of computer classes was required in high school, and the curriculum was divided between one semester of basic computer literacy (typing, using office apps, etc), and one semester of programming. Yes, every high school student learned to code. I didn't realize it then, but that was revolutionary, especially back in the mid-90s.

At first, I didn't enjoy programming. If Mr. Scutt had taught it like most people teach introductory programming, I probably would be flippin' burgers today. But Mr. Scutt, who had no formal background in Computer Science, did things differently. Our second assignment (after "hello world") was to write a program that drew a picture. It had to have a house, some grass, a sky with clouds, maybe a sun. For extra credit, flowers. The assignment was surprisingly hard. I didn't get variables. I thought the whole thing was stupid. But then came the third project, which was to write a simple GUI-based role playing game. A game! Who doesn't want to write a game? That got me hooked, and I stayed late in the lab night after night to work on my game.

Mr. Scutt's approach worked well for me, but lately, I've been thinking about how I'd teach Computer Science to a group of unwilling high schoolers. I've come up with a few ideas:
  1. Human computer - I think the highest barrier is in the very basics. I didn't get variables. Syntax was annoying. I suspect a lot of people get turned off at that point. One idea is to get students to actually physically execute code, by moving around, labeling boxes (variable declaration), putting numbers in boxes (assigning values), handing boxes to each other (function calls), etc. This wouldn't take long, but anyone who doesn't get it after hearing/reading an abstract description might get it if they see it/do it in action1. If nothing else, it'll give kids an excuse to move around.
  2. Buddy system - In reality, programing is highly collaborative, and knowledge sharing is an integral part of the experience. So, one idea is to put newbies and more experienced CS students in the same lab sessions, and pear them up in a buddy system. This is a win-win situation. The newbies get help, and the oldies gain valuable mentoring experience (not to mention, teaching is a great way to learn), and it generally fosters a collaborative environment.
  3. Teach how to cheat/show off - Thinking back at my mandatory CS course, one common objection raised was "why do I need to learn this stuff?" (also generally a common question among know-it-all high schoolers) So, projects that can demonstrate utility or matches their natural computing activities might resonate with some kids. A modern equivalence of programming a TI-82 to cheat in physics , writing Flash widgets to put on MySpace, or apps for Facebook might do the trick.

One of the reasons I'm interested in teaching high school is to tackle the gender gap in CS, and my theory is that we need to start early (by college, it's too late). The male-female ratio in CS is alarmingly skewed, which to me means we're doing it horribly wrong. Of the 3 ideas, the first and second might appeal to girls, mostly by making learning CS a more social experience. The 2nd would work particularly well if girls can be paired together (arguably, that may be the only effective thing to do), which might help create a cycle of positive reinforcement. I don't know if it'll work, but it'll be interesting to try. The cool thing about education is that it's an environment that should, in theory, be conducive to iterative experimentation. You get a new batch of kids every year. You can even split them into control and experiment groups, and to some degree, quantify the outcome. It doesn't look like educators take advantage of this potential2, but that just means there's room for improvement (and eventually, disappointment and disillusionment --but then I'll just change careers again).


1 - A related idea to this is to tier different learning methods. So, I'd first start with a lecture on the basics of programming, then quiz the students to figure out who got it and who didn't. The kids who don't get it from a lecture will then get another chance using a drastically different teaching method, like the human computer idea.
2 - Restrictions around human experimentation might have something to do with it, but in general, people are horrible at trying new things and critically examining established patterns -- in any field. Google has an interesting rule where people are actively discouraged from staying on the same project for more than 2 years, specifically to prevent stagnation.
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in which Ryo thinks of the year that was, and the year to come... [Dec. 16th, 2008|11:30 pm]
Looking back at the last year, two memories stand out in my mind...

The first is of going home to our apartment in Mountain View when Nikki and I lived together. As I approach the apartment, I pass the dining area window, slightly foggy from Nikki's cooking. I open the door, and I'm immersed in warmth and light. It smells of Christmas tree and garlic and basil. Oscar stretches out in front of me, demanding attention. I rub his tummy, and he gently kicks my hand with his back paw. Nikki interrupts her stirring, and smiles, practically glowing. I go to the kitchen and give her a hug. I am home, safe and warm.

The other memory is of me standing on a hill top, in a vacant lot of land in the high desert. The sun is beating down, and my arms are sweaty and scratched. I pant, recovering from the strenuous hike across a slippery gully on a faint deer trail and up a steep hillside. A bird of prey soars above my head. I hear a gust of wind rushing towards me from a valley to the west. I pull out my GPS and compare my coordinates to a topo map. I look across at another hill on the opposite corner of the lot. It's four, maybe five hundred yards away. I could build my own shooting range here. There isn't a soul in sight. I feel alive, free, and happy.

These two memories represent two conflicting desires and needs that I have, that I struggle to reconcile as I contemplate my future. On the one hand, I want a place I can return to everyday and call home. I want it to be a warm, full and happy place, instead of the cold, empty, and isolated apartment that I have now. I want people to share my life with, to ground myself and build a sustainably happy life. On the other hand, I often actively seek solitude and the freedom that comes with it. I want to go on more adventures, take risks, and be physically active in a way that I can't be in another decade or two. I want to spend time on hobbies and develop skills while my mind and body are more or less cooperative. I am deathly afraid of wasting away my youth, or what little of it I have left.

I'm sure this is a common problem men (and maybe women) face. But I think people don't deal with it well, and end up having half-life crises when they realize it's too late. I'm looking at my last year in my 20s, and feel lucky that I'm single and financially well off. I can still do things. I can still learn. I can still get in shape. I can still take risks. I can still shape my future and my life. I have options.

2008 was a year of change. I had new experiences, and learned a lot about myself, about life, about work, about love. But it was also a year of uncertainty. I don't know what's in store for me in 2009, but I hope I can live with conviction, and have faith in myself again. I hope I can follow my heart, take risks, overcome internal and external adversity and go places I didn't know I could go, both literally and figuratively.
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(no subject) [Dec. 7th, 2008|07:17 pm]
Life is hard. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Sometimes we lose big. We lose big opportunities. We lose things that are dear to us. It's easy to react emotionally, with regret, anger, pity, grief, loathing, guilt. But no emotion, no matter how intense, can reverse what's done. But the future is open. So forgive, learn, then apply. With a little luck, maybe next time you'll win.
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