Resolutions, For Real

The last couple weeks have been a bit rough. It’s not so much the work as the uncertainty that comes with being a noob in a big project, and I’m an impatient noob. So some dark soul-searching happened, as well as some resignation, which eventually led to a few actual resolutions.

For one, some plans that I’d made for my future turned out not to be viable — a bummer, which might yet leave some other options open. But one of the more challenging things about my current situation is  all the gaps between what I’m doing right now, what I want to do in the future, what else I think I want to do in the future, what I’m expected to do, and what I’m too lazy to do. I suppose the issue right now is that I’ve no clue what I want. This is a dilemma of luxury that I’ve obviously created for myself, because I’m in a good job (a great job, actually, where I’m learning an incredible amount) that pays well and I’ve more or less settled into how I’m living right now.

But I have to look around me and see what some of the people I love are doing, and the difference between them and me is palpable. They’re all either exactly where they want to be, or are planning meticulously for it. And they’re all extremely good at what they do; they’re passionate about something, and it shows. I’ve no clue what I’m passionate about.

So my one real resolution for this year is to figure out what I’m good at, where I want to be in a year’s time, professionally and personally, and how to get from here to there. Vague, I know, but … baby steps. The one scenario I don’t want to find myself in, in ten years’ time, is in this exact same situation.

Whew. Deep thoughts.

In other news, I finally bought Dune today. I don’t know why in the name of omniscient entities I thought I could walk through Barnes & Noble to get coffee from the cafe without interacting with books. Ten steps towards the new releases, one glimpse at the latest Orson Scott Card, and I was lost. But I have a policy to buy only books that I know I love, so Dune it was. I can never remember if I already do have a copy. Either way, I bought it, and am already reading it. Now I have the delicious dilemma of deciding between Dune and Doctor Who for my dinner companion, and I can’t believe how alliterative this sentence is.

The interesting thing about Dune is… well, there are lots of interesting things. But I wish I could have somehow sneaked it into my thesis, because my god I love this story. I need to print out the Bene Gesserit litany against fear and frame it up somewhere. It’s such a marvelous mix of plot and character, science and religion, society and politics. The cool thing is, even though Dune has nothing to do with AI or robotics or automata, it’s entirely overshadowed by the sheer lack of such things. The whole point of the Butlerian Jihad is that machines that think like humans are abominations; instead, humans control their minds and bodies in precise, machine-like ways. “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind“, according to their version of the Bible. It would’ve been really interesting to see how/if elements of AI could’ve featured in the book, anyway.

Last weekend, Gsj and I went to check out the local bookstore near where he lives, which turned out to be a very good idea indeed. There’s something fiercely lovable about second-hand independent bookshops — they don’t have the gloss of new books to draw the uninitiated in, and they really are old and musty and possibly depressing. But there were some gems in there, for both lulz and edification.

…. which of course was right next to…

The latter was really rather extraordinary — it included all sorts of things like making your own electric shock machine and building stoves… or something. I believe the Boy Mechanic was published in the 1930s and the Girls Handicrafts in the sixties, though I can’t be sure about that.

Maybe I should get into this Instagram business. It would probably all be pictures of books in various seductive poses, and then it would get weird.

So maybe not.

Swing at Sunset

Last Friday afternoon, I did something unprecedented (if three weeks constitutes a history): I left work at 4.30. The plan was to meet Nl downtown, get something to eat, and then head for the SJ Jazz Fest. I came across the event in a completely random way in Ben&Jerry’s; usually I just make a mental note, miss the date, and then feel wistful for the rest of the week. This time I actually looked it up and Made Plans.

The light rail, which by the way takes about 15 minutes to get into Downtown, was not at all bad. After a little bumbling I met Nl and we had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant (excellent service, average food), and then hustled ourselves out the door to get to Zoe Keating’s performance. It was a good thing we got there earlier, too. The chair-stealing had started in earnest, and Nl and I carted away a couple from outside an eating establishment which will go unnamed, looking around furtively.

Zoe Keating

Pity the hat dominates the foreground.

Zoe Keating is a lovely performer, not just a wonderful artist. She kept us engaged with her conversation as well as her music; I found her gentle humour lovely and very much in the style of the performance. And the music… so much of it was actually, almost transcendentally, gorgeous.

I think she can be very accurately described as a one-woman orchestra. She makes music out of her cello, her bow against the wood, and a piece of software that layers sounds with the help of a foot pedal. If I heard her correctly, she writes and tests out her own code for this. It makes the whole thing just — geeky in a way that makes me go starry-eyed. So all the background music — the rhythm, the harmony, the plucked notes, everything — is just Zoe playing, except that she simply puts it together herself.

And the best part? It’s all done in real time.

Watching her play is surreal in made even more surreal because it’s almost as though there are multiple Zoes, spliced out in time. She closes her eyes and just becomes the music, keeping time and tune in some unearthly fashion. Behind her, the sun flamed and set, the night grew colder and… planes descended into SJ airport every few minutes, completely ignored by the crowd.

There is something so wild and elemental about Zoe Keating’s music that it makes you feel like you’re perched on a lonely rock somewhere near the ocean, where the rhythm of the waves somehow transmutes itself into the bone-rumbling bass of the cello.

When Nl and I left at 9, after an hour, we did so very reluctantly.

The Ohio Players

Sadly, I do not have much to say about them. Nl and I wandered over there in time to hear them finishing a really rollicking piece that was still far more jazzy than Keating’s (not that that ever made a jot of difference to us). They started into a feel-good soul piece next, though, and we stayed for part of that.

It was really wonderful to see such a responsive crowd (although the bottles and cups full of not-quite-water that I saw could’ve been contributing to that), swaying in time, dancing with each other, just soaking up the atmosphere. A large percentage of the crowd was black, and I couldn’t help but laugh (internally, I have been assured I look weird doing it out loud) at the thought of what used to be popular in the black community back then in the 40s and what’s popular now.

Nl at this point looked at our map/list and said she wanted to take a look at the Swing Stage or Stompin’ at the Savoy and I was all for it, so we left. But if I get a chance to listen to the Players again, I’ll take it gladly.

Stompin’ at the Savoy

Getting here was a bit of an adventure in itself. The instructions literally said “enter through the parking lot”. We debated for a while whether they meant garage or lot, and then went over to the back of a rather sketchy looking parking lot. Of course, right behind was something called the Theater at San Pedro where we had to ascend a narrow flight to stairs to the real scene. All this was pretty exciting, despite the shirted volunteers out front that obviously made it legit, but then we entered this bar with a stage set up at front, several men and women in tailcoats and spats and evening gowns.

And then we realised this was The Real Deal. People belting out jazz hits like In the Mood, swing-dancing in the space in front of the stage, trumpets and everything in the supporting orchestra!

If I’m not wrong, some of the singers were sort of imitating the more popular singers/styles of the day. The lady in mauve had something of the deep velvety voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and the black gentleman sounded in places like Louis Armstrong. I’m afraid those were the only two I could recognize; none of the others sounded familiar to me at all.

This is the thing about jazz, for me — I can never seem to define what about it attracts me so much. Even in its melancholy it’s self-deprecatingly cheerful; and when it’s all major notes it’s still a wistful, a little longing. Or perhaps it’s the rhythm, or the trumpets, or the air of restrained romance and sensuality.

I don’t think it could’ve been more perfect if I’d imagined it. Such a Prohibitionist era feeling as well — marvelous. I think Nl enjoyed that solid dose of jazz as well, so it was all good.

Bhangra

No, I don’t know what it was doing here either. I think the Jazz Beyond stage was… well, exactly that, a way to showcase some really interesting music (or global music, for that matter) that fit in well with the free-form style that reminds me of jazz in general.

The performance itself lasted a scant ten minutes — the group took more time to teach the audience the moves. I was encumbered by my bag, but it didn’t matter, because it was clear that neither Nl and I were going to be hogging the limelight at any shaadis any time soon. I think I spent far more time laughing than actually dancing.

That changed when the performance became a party. There was a DJ and a live dhol player and the sound reverberated across the neighborhood. We discovered it was incredibly hard not to dance when the music was so ridiculously infectious — and the people just so receptive — so for the first time in my life I ended up dancing without the aid of artificial stimulants.

So a highly successful Friday evening, in short. I can’t think of many other people whom I’d have had as much fun with as with Nl; I’m glad we got a look at a downtown San Jose and even happier that we got to hear some excellent music 🙂

Two Weeks and Counting

Someone recently made a casual reference to the fact that there were less than three weeks to the end of term and exams and I nearly fell out of my chair.

This means that two weeks of classes and one last exam stand between me and graduation, and that’s just… incomprehensible. This is how everyone else must’ve felt last Spring. I feel more than ever the regret of not staying back for my friends’ graduations.

I feel like a lot’s happened this month, which for once is actually true. For one, I now have a job, my thesis is almost done, I have a new camera, and my new laptop is on the way. More minor things include the purchase of my first dress and a side note about Wired and Allure.

Job

For the next few years, I’ll be a code monkey at a software company in California — well actually what other kind of company is in Cali? — and will be actually making enough to support myself and leave some over for … whatever it is I want to spend it on (I’m working on drawing up an impressive list right now. It includes things like “a big comforter” and “all the books, ever”. Watch this space).

Let’s pause for a moment and savor the feeling of sheer relief. Relevant details: job, software, California, earning power.

I’m excited, because I get to learn a lot of new things, and I’ll be working with software which, given my obsession with the thing throughout college, is probably a good path for me to channel my neuroticism into. I don’t regret doing Comp E instead of CS at all because I liked all my embedded classes, but in the end I just want there to be a comfortable distance between me and actual circuitry.

The first three months of this year, I dreamed about the day I’d greet my family when they landed in the United States and say, I have a job now. I can do this. Now I can!

Now my only problem is to get HR to respond to my queries — my very valid queries about some very complicated visa issues — in a slightly less than glacial pace. HR seems to be deliberately staffed with the world’s most incompetent people, so I’m going to have to just cross my fingers and hope for the best.

Thesis

In another two weeks I will also have no reason to talk about my thesis ever again. It hasn’t really hit me what a long — all right, if you want to get cliched — intellectual journey it’s been. The topics my thesis covers include science fiction, artificial intelligence and robotics, US military funding, Japanese anime and manga, US sci-fi blockbuster hits, the psychology of two entire cultures, Japanese history and politics, and some literary theory thrown in just for fun.

And last Sunday I had to give an eight minute presentation on all of this.

I actually thought it went rather well and I got asked some very nice questions by the audience. To be honest, I’m really very smugly proud of my thesis because I think it’s truly interdisciplinary in the real spirit of Plan II. A bunch of other students are examining just one novel or just one idea and I’m glad I’m not really doing that.

Now I just have to write about 10 more pages to hit the minimum 60 page mark, and I’ll be good to go. Piece of cake, right? But then there’s citations and formatting and all the rest of that glorious mess. I’m thinking of adding pictures as well to — well, round out the whole thing and add more pages, but also to make it look prettier.

I’m hoping I can sort of talk about the thesis here because I really think it’s a fascinating series of ideas, but I suspect that I’ll be a bit burned out by May 6. I am, however, looking forward to giving my parents a copy of my bound and embossed thesis 😀

Camera

It’s a Canon A490, it was under $100 and until my laptop arrives, it’s the love of my life. I’ve never owned one before, so of course I’m really excited. Maybe a bit too excited, because there are pictures of my watch and books and my toast in the morning and things like that. My excuse is that I am testing out the photographic capabilities.

But really when I graduate I want an entire album of all the quiet little spots on UT that I won’t see after this, or at least for a long time. I wonder how odd it would be to photograph ENS. I wonder if I’m sentimental enough to stand its ugliness.

Laptop

On March 25, I ordered a Lenovo ThinkPad, because my HP had essentially breathed its last. The motherboard had clearly had enough after a particularly rough trip to California and back. Replacing it costs about $400 and I was pretty much done with the screen flickering and the Vista OS that I was too lazy to upgrade.

2.66 GHz, Windows 7, Microsoft Office 2010, 4GB RAM (free upgrade). Pretty sweet deal I think. And then I’m actually, really going to double-boot it with Ubuntu, and then it will be the most perfect laptop ever.

The LBD

I always thought I hated shopping. Now I’ve confirmed that theory. The ridiculous number of dresses (to me) I tried on to find one that I wanted to buy and fit me properly was mind-boggling. I mean, here’s the thing — I like dresses, I just haven’t had much experience with them, so I liked the idea of them. But ultimately they’re just clothes! How much time can you possibly spend on them?!

Apparently dresses do work on me, so now I have one that’s not quite graduation material but will probably come in useful for… something else.

Wired + Allure

I don’t understand why, if I’ve ordered Wired, I would be induced to also read Allure. I mean, what kind of — what is the intersection between irreverent geekery and makeup samples? Are you telling me I should be that kind of girl? Are you imposing your gender stereotypes on me, is that what’s happening? Because I reject the hell out of them, Conde Nast!

But today, I think, takes the cake. I got a Victoria’s Secret magazine in the mail.