Someone Worth Rooting For

My pick for most heartbreaking performance of the Olympics: Tyson Gay in the men’s 100m.

He’s one of the very few elite sprinters who doesn’t have a gigantic ego (just look up any of his interviews on YouTube). He seems like a genuinely nice, humble guy.

He’s a former World champion and oh yeah, the second faster man ever, after Usain Bolt.

Despite his speed, he didn’t win any medals at the 2008 Olympics. He injured his hamstring at trials and didn’t make it the Olympic 100m finals, and the US 4×100 team (of which he was a part) botched the relay handoff and didn’t medal there either.

This time around, he was 29, in his last years as a elite sprinter. All he wanted was a medal:

But he didn’t get one. He ran the fifth fastest time in Olympic history — and yet finished fourth in this race. By one-hundredth of a second.

And the third place guy, Justin Gatlin, was previously banned for four years for drug use. Gay has never been implicated in any drug usage.

It was terrible to see him sobbing after it was over.

One of his tweets after the race: “Thanks to my fans & family @omegawatches @EASBrand @Gilletteand @centurycouncil for all the support sorry for letting you all down.” Poor dude.

In the aftermath, it’s things like this that are the most telling:

A funny page, and I have to admit Bolt’s routine was hilarious. But look at how nervous Gay was. You can tell how much was riding on this race for him.

There is a potential silver (gold?) lining: the 4×100 relay. The US men are still in it, and with Powell injured, there’s a chance they could beat Jamaica. Go Tyson!

More info here:

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Socks retrospective

About two years ago, I donated all my old socks and bought 24 pairs of identical black Adidas socks. Yep, it sounds crazy, but for whatever reason, I am compelled to wear matching socks, and with the random pairs and stragglers that you accumulate over time, matching two socks becomes a major challenge.

So I simplified, and life became very easy. All my socks were the same. I just had to grab any two and I was good to go!

On the whole, it’s been a huge success. I would recommend the identi-socks approach to any mildly compulsive person.

However, there have been two problems.

The first: I mistakenly meted out the socks a few at a time, instead of releasing all 24 pairs into the wild. As a result, some pairs wore down faster than others. And because I am insane, I now try to “match” socks of equal wear. I mean, seriously, could you really wear these two socks together?

Like, oh em gee, ew, gross!

So now I have to play the matching game all over again, though I have to admit it’s a much simpler problem than before.

The other unintended consequence is that if you wear socks that are all exactly the same length and go outside a lot, this happens:

Yes, the world’s most heinous sock tan. My little nephew actually thought I was wearing socks when I was barefoot. I sock you not.

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Eyes on the Prize

We recently finished watching Eyes On the Prize, a six-hour documentary on the civil rights era from the 1950s through 1965. It aired on PBS in the 80s; I have vague memories of hearing the title song when I was young.

It’s particularly captivating because it relies heavily on period video footage; you watch events unfold, rather than hear scholars talk about them. For this same reason the documentary was long out of print due to the difficulty and cost of securing rights to all of the various video clips.

It was finally reissued in 2010 and I picked it up on Amazon for a bargain price. (It’s also available from Netflix.)

I can’t recommend this documentary enough. It’s a potent reminder of our recent racial history; it’s a nuanced look at the interplay of politics, religion, and society; and it’s a profoundly moving true story of human bravery.

The struggle of southern blacks to obtain basic civil freedoms — such as the right to an education, the right to associate, the right to vote, and the right to be treated as equals in a society that had “liberated” them more than a hundred years prior — is heart-wrenching to observe. The bigotry, hatred, condescension, and small-mindedness of southern whites who viciously fought this movement is evident in raw period footage. At times it is difficult to watch: you cringe, for instance, as an old black preacher is beaten by a mob of young whites as he peacefully tries to walk away. But ignorance is not a satisfying alternative.

Segregation was not only socially entrenched, it was also politically institutionalized. Policemen, mayors, and governors openly expressed (and acted upon) the vilest sentiments as a matter of public policy — and received widespread popular support for doing so.

The starkest feature of this civil struggle is the unique historical position blacks held in southern society. The were not merely hated, they were humiliated. The had to fight centuries of inequality not just of rights but of percieved human value. Their non-violent tactics were brilliantly calculated to expose the moral shallowness of the southern ruling class, but actually acting upon those policies required immense courage. They were beaten, expelled, demeaned, jailed, rebuffed, and evicted time and again by their old white masters. They suffered degradation after degradation. They faced not only white citizens acting without accountability as the law looked the other way, but also the law itself, which actively and aggressively supported segregation.

They had no recourse but the conviction that the world at large would take notice of their plight, even though it had failed to do so for centuries. They had no weapon but the certitude that what they were doing was fundamentally right.

Nonviolence only succeeds in a larger context. In a closed environment, it can easily fail because the oppressors simply don’t care; it must engage a broader moral community. So the movement required a coordinated effort of public relations to complement its nonviolent action.

One of Eyes on the Prize’s greater successes is its exploration of this latter facet, for which Martin Luther King played a huge role. (He was obviously a great moral force for the former, as well.)

Dude could speak. His combination of flawless rhetorical skill and arresting delivery yielded a kind of godlike oratorical prowess. Eyes on the Prize has many clips of his famous speeches, and also of his lesser known interviews and engagements.

I say without exaggeration that he is quite possibly the best orator the modern world has seen. I found my heart catching in my throat nearly every time he spoke — an upwelling of emotion, not just from the powerful content of his words, but from a sense of wonder and gratitude, that this man, who clearly exists on some otherworldly plane of competence, is also a human, and shares DNA with the likes of me.

If all you can recall is “I Have a Dream”, the documentary is worth watching for Martin alone. Here is a powerful clip from his speech on the day before he was assassinated (not in Eyes on the Prize, but just a reminder):

There is an Eyes on the Prize II, which covers 1965 through the 1980s, but it hasn’t been re-released yet. As it is, though the series ends on a positive note (the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) the overall arc is fundamentally disquieting. In the 1860s, slaves were freed by a federal order and a civil war, not by their owners’ choice. These erstwhile owners, still full of hatred, engaged in segregation and racism for a hundred years. In the 1960s, after an intense multi-decade battle, further freedoms were granted, but again they were issued by the courts and the federal government, not by the voluntary choice of (most) southern whites. Thought it might now be better hidden, racism persists today, and is all the more insidious for it. Eyes on the Prize is essential watching if you want to understand how that’s possible.

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Guessing Birthdays

A little while back we had a dinner party at our house, and the conversation turned to birthdays. One of our guests had a remarkable ability to recall anyone’s birthday if she’d heard it before. She went around the room, reciting all of our birthdays, until she got to one guest whose birthday she hadn’t yet heard. Another guest spontaneously offered to try to guess that birthday, by asking no more than five yes-or-no questions.

I was immediately skeptical, for reasons I’ll explain below, but the general consensus at the party was that this was an exciting challenge that just might work. The guesser concentrated for a while, trying to intuit something about the guessee.

“Is it in October?” he asked? No. One question down, and he began to comprehend the difficulty of his task. He realized he had to go bigger.

“Does it have 30 days?” No. But that was more effective — it eliminated four months at once. Perhaps he was onto something.

But then, Question #3: “Hrm…. Is it in March?” No. At this point it was obvious to everyone that he was doomed. Two questions left and very little to go on.

At this point, I casually mentioned that five questions was far too few but that nine would do the trick. People seemed to be struck by two things: (1) 9 seemed to be an awfully arbitrary number and (2) given how catastrophicallly five questions had failed, there seemed to be no way that nine questions would be enough.

So the game was on. We picked another guest whose birthday hadn’t been mentioned before, and I got to work.

“Is your birthday in the first half of the year?” No.
“Is it in the third quarter of the year?” No.
“Is it between November 15th and December 31st”? Yes.
And so on, each time narrowing the range by half. Everyone quickly appreciated the brutal efficiency of this approach, and on exactly the ninth question, I asked if it was the correct date. A little applause followed, as if I had performed a magic trick.

Of course, this was no trick — it was a binary search, one of the basic tools in a computer scientist’s algorithmic toolbox. If you ask a yes-or-no question, and you have no prior belief that the answer is more likely to be one than the other, the best you can do is ask something that splits the search space — the potential birthdays, in this case — in half.

For this case, you’ll need to split the 365 days in a year in half 9 times to isolate a single day. 365 –> 183 (1) –> 92 (2) –> 41 (3) –> 21 (4) –> 11 (5) –> 6 (6) –> 3 (7) –> 2 (8) –> 1 (9). The easy way to figure this out is to realize that 512, or 29, is the smallest power of 2 greater than 365.

Usually, when people find out that I work with computers, they ask me to fix theirs. They don’t really care about what I actually do; to the average person, programming is opaque. But now I see another avenue for our skills: parlor tricks.

– I’ll guess your birthday with just 9 yes-or-no questions! (binary search)
– I’ll name a number in 2 seconds bigger than anything you can name in 10! (Busy Beaver or any other non-computable function)
– Draw any map you want, however complicated, and give me just four (different) colored crayons. No matter what the map looks like, I’ll fill it in so that no adjacent countries have the same color! (four-color theorem)
– Here’s an easy problem: I’ll give you ten numbers, and I’ll guarantee that some of them, when added together, sum to 100,000. But I’ll bet you can’t figure out which ones in 5 minutes. Only ten numbers in all! (subset sum is NP-Complete)
– You give me a bunch of cities and highways between the cities. I’ll immediately tell you whether it’s possible to start at one city, drive on every highway between every city exactly once, and end up back at the original city! (Eulerian cycle)
– Any others?

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Like most chain supermarkets, our local Safeway has a loyalty program, which it enforces by making its discounts available only to its loyalty members. Naturally, I’m too lazy to sign up, and I’m definitely too lazy to carry a loyalty card in my wallet all the time on the off chance that I’ll need to go to Safeway.

So instead at the cash register I use the “I forgot my card” approach, whereby I input the phone number associated with my loyalty account. Since I don’t actually have an account, I simply use the old landline number of our apartment. (We disconnected it several years ago.) Luckily, whoever lived in the apartment before us (this is pre-2000 or so) must have had an account, because the phone number is valid in the system.

The funny part is that the name of the account member is printed out on the receipt, and the cashiers seem to be required to acknowledge the account owner by name at the end of the transaction: “Have a good evening, [glances at receipt] _____________.” So every time I buy something at Safeway, the cashier experiences a moment of visible cognitive dissonance as he or she glances down at the receipt, sees the name “Steig Johnson” — for that’s who it is — looks back up at me, a very clearly Indian dude whose name is very clearly NOT Steig Johnson, swallows, and plows ahead, wishing me, Mr. Johnson, a good night. I smile and give the cashier my most Nordic nod.

Of course, in the modern age, finding the real Steig Johnson is no challenge; after a stint in Berkeley, he’s now an Assistant Professor of Primatology at the University of Calgary. Cheers to you, Steig, for providing me with a decade of discounts.

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The Story of a Startup

Modista’s advisor, Manu Kumar, just wrote a blog post about Modista and how we were taken down by a lawsuit. If you never heard all the details, here you go; it’s a pretty interesting read.

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A Bit of Almost-History

I saw “The Social Network” for the first time tonight. I was actually a little underwhelmed; I had expected great things, from all the hype surrounding the movie as well as from my high estimation of David Fincher. I guess a story can be only so interesting if you already know the plot.

Anyway, at the beginning of the movie, in 2003, Zuck decided to create FaceMash after his girlfriend dumped him. At the time, each of Harvard’s residential “houses” had its own physical facebook (yes, that was actually what people called them), and many had digital versions. Zuckerberg visited the online facebooks for each of the houses, feverishly writing scripts to download the profile pictures en masse from each one. The movie showed screenshots from several of the facebooks.

Harvard has 12 residential houses, of which nine are clustered together near the Charles River; the other three are situated about a mile away, in the “Quad”. This distance is often mocked by residents of the nine, and Quadlings, as they are known, tend to develop their own culture and social life.

Such was the case this time around. Turns out Zuckerberg only grabbed profile pics from the nine river houses, and ignored the Quad houses. I was bummed, because a few years before, I had actually created the online facebook for my house, Currier, in exchange for a summer of free rent. (I must say, it was one of the better looking ones at the time. =) Alas, Currier was a Quad house, so Zuckerberg ignored it, both in real life and on the screen. Not gonna lie, I would have gotten a kick out of watching him scrape the (imagined) Currier house facebook in the movie. Then again, I was probably sensible and implemented password protection for it… I don’t remember.

Another minor ironic detail in the movie: Sean Parker is portrayed in the movie as the (sole) creator of Napster. In reality, Shawn Fanning was the true technical founder of Napster and Parker was (as I understand it) involved in the business side. Curious that a movie that tackles the ambiguities of ownership and innovation would give Parker a free pass on that one.

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Mama’s Kitchen

There’s something ineffably sad about eating at a new restaurant that’s mostly empty. The wait staff is eager and expectant, the food is meticulously presented, and underneath there’s a sense of impending doom.

Apparently 90% of restaurants fail, and those that don’t fail become successful very quickly. So if you’re starting a new restaurant, and it hasn’t taken off in the first month or two, there’s an exceedingly high probability that you are not going to make it. But you’ve put in so much time, and money, and heart, and you just can’t bear to shut the place down. That feeling permeates the place. And it’s sad.

The summer after my first year of college, I got a job in New Haven and lived at home. Every day after work, my dad and I would go pick my sister up from the summer school she was attending. We had to drive through Wallingford, and would pass a restaurant spot that had changed hands numerous times… one of those cursed locations. That summer, an authentic Mexican place called “Mama’s Kitchen” opened up. My dad and I both like Mexican food, and for a while commented on the new place as we drove by.

After a few weeks, we finally found the time and stopped there for a meal one day. The place was utterly empty. It was clearly a small-time, family operation. The blurb on the back of the menu spoke of Mama’s fantastic home cooking. A tall, proud young man – Mama’s son, as it turned out – came from the back room and seated us at our table. We ordered our food and he did an impeccable job serving us. Mama presumably made the food in the back – there really was no one else there – and when it came out, it was fresh and authentic. My memories of the meal are a bit hazy, but I recall it being a little too authentic; it simply wasn’t Taco Bell-y enough to survive in Connecticut.

We ate mostly in silence. Something about an empty restaurant quiets you. I imagined Mama a year ago, as her family’s best-loved cook, making meal after delicious meal. She’s encouraged by her children and siblings and cousins to take her home cooking to the next level and open up the restaurant she’s always dreamed of. One day she finally decides to take the plunge. She spends hours and hours in the kitchen perfecting a menu. Her family scrapes together some cash and collateral for a small business loan. Her son, a new high school graduate, puts off college plans to be the first waiter. Hopes are high and the quality of the food speaks for itself. Opening day arrives and the entire family is so proud.

You know what happens next. A few weeks after we ate there, Mama’s Kitchen shut down. A decade of hopes and savings lost. The pursuit of the American dream, rudely awakened. Somehow this experience had a large impact on me.

Entrepreneurship is a story of failures interrupted only occasionally by success. For every Wolfgang Puck there’s nine Mamas. Perhaps she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (with the wrong menu). Damn you, Vulfgangk. Damn you.

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Missing Out

Do you remember your dreams from last night? Did you at least remember them this morning when you woke up?

Dreams seem like a really big deal. People like talking about them, analyzing them, deriving meaning from them. They are, after all, a product of your own (sub-)consciousness, and they happen every day. They’re like looking at your life through a kaleidoscope: bizarre and convoluted, yes, but a reflection of reality nonetheless.

… or so I hear. See, I don’t remember my dreams. I just wake up in the morning and go about my day, with no recall whatsoever. I know I do dream because every few weeks I’ll remember one, if only fleetingly. But the rest of the time, I close my eyes at night, and then I open them, and it’s morning. It feels like no time has elapsed at all.

This is kind of weird. I know dreams play a big role in many people’s lives, and it’s strange that I’m not privy to that experience. You figure it would be pretty useful to know what your subconscious is thinking (even refracted through dreams) on any given day. On every day, in fact. Why not? When I think about this, I feel akin to a deaf person in a land of the hearing. Or, perhaps more aptly, a nonbeliever surrounded by people who feel a personal connection to god. I am missing out on a fundamental life experience.

The weirder things is that I’m not sure that I would prefer to have it any other way. The few dreams that I do remember are confusing and disquieting. My mind makes sense when it’s awake, and it doesn’t make sense when it’s asleep. It seems as simple as that, and I see no reason to clutter up my waking thoughts with incoherent ramblings from the night before. What can I really glean from dreams that I can’t simply learn by my (admittedly wacky) relentless introspection? And what if dreams only appear to say something about you, but are in reality meaningless? Who’d want to put up with that?

Most deaf parents have hearing children. There is, though, a small minority of deaf couples who would prefer to selectively have children who are deaf too. On first thought, this seems horrifying and sad: they want to intentionally handicap their children, deprive them of the fundamental human experience of hearing. But am I much different? If I could choose to have children that don’t dream, well, maybe I would. Life seems much simpler and easier without dreams, and hey, I don’t really know what I’m missing, and my children wouldn’t either. Do I simply not get it? Or are dreams overrated?

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This title is only meaningful in context

Malcolm Gladwell is a well-known writer. He became famous with his articles in The New Yorker and then blew up with a series of pop-science books: Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers. His formula for each is essentially the same: he takes a number of anecdotes and massages them to form a stunning, profound conclusion… that, usually due to faulty logic, is bogus. (Though the concept might be fundamentally correct, it is usually not supported by his assertions.) In other words, he takes some paper and tries to print cash on it.

Chuck Klosterman is also a well-known writer, though not quite as famous. His schtick is exactly the opposite of Gladwell’s: he comes up with nuggets of wisdom (or entertaining psuedo-wisdom), like

    “Comparing [Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose] is kind of like comparing a black-and-white photo and its negative: They are totally opposite, yet they’re completely the same.”

    “Every relationship is fundamentally a power struggle, and the individual in power is whoever likes the other person less.”

    “You used to be able to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people. Now, it’s between hipsters and retards. I mean, either that guy in the corner in orange safety pants holding a protest sign and wearing a top hat is mentally disabled or he is the coolest fucking guy you will ever know.”

    “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself.”

    “It was the kind of love you can only feel toward someone you don’t actually know.”

    “If you define your personality as creative, it only means you understand what is perceived to be creative by the world at large, so you’re really just following a rote creative template. That’s the opposite of creativity.”

… whose eventual conclusion is jumbled or non-existent. In other words, he takes some hundos and uses them to wallpaper his apartment.

The end result for both authors is surprisingly similar: books that are basically brain candy, enjoyable for the duration of the read but with little lingering value. I guess you could say, in some sense, that Gladwell and Klosterman are like a black-and-white photo and its negative: they are totally opposite, yet they’re completely the same.

… Though for some reason I have a much better opinion of Klosterman. I suppose it’s because he doesn’t try to achieve too much. Or maybe it’s because his off-hand observations appear to take less effort to produce than Gladwell’s heavy-handed conclusions. And, you know, people who try less hard are naturally better.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite Klosterman passages, both of which I’ve quoted in an earlier entry. Unfortunately, I won’t link to that entry for reasons that would be embarrassingly obvious in a meta kind of way if you were to actually read it. But here are the passages:

No woman will ever satisfy me. I know that now, and I would never try to deny it. But this is actually okay, because I will never satisfy a woman, either.

Should I be writing such thoughts? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s a bad idea. I can definitely foresee a scenario where that first paragraph could come back to haunt me, especially if I somehow became marginally famous. If I become marginally famous, I will undoubtedly be interviewed by someone in the media (hopefully Charlie Rose) and the interviewer will inevitably ask, “Fifteen years ago, you wrote that no woman could ever satisfy you. Now that you’ve been married for almost five years, are those words still true?” And I will have to say, “Oh, God no. Those were the words of an entirely different person — a person whom I can’t even relate to anymore. Honestly, I can’t imagine an existence without _______. She satisfies me in ways that I never even considered. She saved my life, really.”

Now, I will be lying. I won’t really feel that way. But I’ll certainly say those words, and I’ll deliver them with the utmost sincerity, even though those sentiments will not be there. So then the interviewer will undoubtedly quote lines from this particular paragraph, thereby reminding me that I swore I would publicly deny my true feelings, and I’ll chuckle and say, “Come on, Mr. Rose. That was a literary device. You know I never really believed that.”

But here’s the thing: I do believe that….


As America’s best-loved semipro freelance conversationalist, I am often queried about my brazen humorousity. “How is it possible,” I am asked, “that you are able to extemporaneously lecture so effortlessly on such a myriad of complex topics? What is the key to your incisive, witty repertoire?”

It’s a valid question.

Certainly, there is a formula to being relentlessly dynamic. There’s a shockingly simple equation to being uber-interesting, and it works with every subject imaginable.

The formula is as follows: When discussing any given issue, always do three things. First, make an intellectual concession (this makes the listener feel comfortable). Next, make a completely incomprehensible — but remarkably specific — “cultural accusation” (this makes you thoughtful). Finally, end the dialogue by interjecting slang lexicon that does not necessarily exist (this makes you contemporary). Here are a few examples.

When talking about sports: “I mean, come on — you just know that Rodney Rogers is sitting in the locker room before every game reading Nietzsche, and he’s totally thinking to himself, ‘If Ron Artest tries to step to me one more time, I’m gonna slap jack his brisket, Philly style.’”

When talking about music: “Oh, let’s face it — we all know that if Rivers Cuomo makes one more album about the Cubism didactic, he might as well just give up completely and turn Weezer into a hobo-core three-piece.”

When talking about film: “Everybody in this room has seen Peter Bogdanovich at his worst, and everybody in this room already suspects that he probably sits in his gazebo and beats off to Pet Sounds five nights a week, so I think it’s safe to assume this whole era of the ‘Scarecrow Thriller’ is as dead as the diplodocus.”

When talking about politics: “That crazy Condoleeza Rice — who does she think she’s fooling with all that neo-Ventura, post-Dickensian welfare state pseudo-shit? If that’s supposed to be the future, she may as well stick the Q like the salt queen that she is.”

Do you understand? Do you see the forest through the trees? Do you not see what I am no longer not saying to you? If so — congratulations! Prepare to have sex constantly.

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