His Last Words

30 November 2008

An hour before his death in April 1955, Albert Einstein muttered a few sentences in German.

The night nurse did not understand them.


Identity Series

26 November 2008


“The drawing becomes secondary to the process.”

Upcoming project:



Artwork courtesy of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada.

One thing I would like to invent is an instantaneous thought transporter.  This device would be constructed in the actoscale, perhaps placed behind the ear or maybe implanted in the frontal lobe of the brain (depending on how much you are willing to dish; the implantation is the preferred placement).  Some form of this contraption already exists in the form of (including but not limited to) art, music, poetry, conversations, research symposiums, novels, museums, laboratory notebooks, blogs, newspapers, witness interrogations, texts, body language, lectures, appointments with psychologists, and textbooks– minus the instantaneous quality.  Many of these forms of transporting thoughts work very well, but they are rarely direct; it is unusual or extraordinary for the receiver to understand the subject matter precisely and exactly as the transmitter of the subject matter understands.  If I had an instantaneous thought transporter, then I would receive information straight away and understand it just as fast; I would never have to examine Automat or Night Windows; get lost and be helped in finding my way through pure and expansive exchanges of thought with other organisms; wish I could have a song’s melodies melt into the marrow of my bones out of sheer gratitude for the cognizance of such sound; crack open Six Easy Pieces at 9PM and go to bed at 4AM, re-read The Fountainhead with such high frequency that it becomes carcinogenic (it satisfies that guilty pleasure chamber of my heart, that tiny place between the left ventricle and right atrium,  but tars the lining of my lungs and overtly feeds my inner nincompoop); watch PBS; sit in confusion as Maria points to a picture book while spewing strings of unfamiliar Russian words; find exactly what I’m looking for at exactly the right moment when I accidentally encounter “The Road Not Taken” or “Paul’s Case” in an unkempt drawer; or read the about the life and/or thoughts of someone else (who did what they actually cared about, who refused to live in default, who lived in honesty, who probably loved run-ons and semi-colons as much as I do) and experience this weird thing of some cohesion or unification or relief or awe (at how clearly they finessed the same sentiment) or gratitude or comfort or humility in being able to share and admire that same thing that moved them, to feel so exceedingly human in being able to say- look, someone felt the same way as I do.  Sticking to the traditional methods of thought transportation lacks insurance for the lost pieces of transported thought to a lack of genuine curiosity on the part of the receiver, to the inability for the transmitter to explain in a fashion that compliments the filter of the receiver, or to simply the different connotations people have for the same words (think conservation of energy: 100 percent of the energy is never conserved as it changes form since some is lost to heat, sound, or some variant of friction).  I would never have to try to understand things; therefore, I would be in deprivation of every type of experience.  If the process of things were equal to dinosaurs, my instantaneous thought transporter would unleash asteroids and comets on the Yucatan.  Would it be better to be effortlessly omniscient or to struggle some and live in uncertainty?

Never mind the transporter, for I prefer the latter.


25 November 2008

Banality has come like acid rain falling from murky convictions onto my once established ziggurat; the resulting deformity is under reconstruction, but the rain is sure to return.


It’s true.

(I hastily write this entry in the event that I am only one away from officially having a second page on my blog!  Note to self: sentence. sentence > aimless, string, of, lists)

And first, Paul’s simple observation:

First amendment to the United States’ constitution: Freedom of speech.
First amendment to Russia’s constitution: Extension of the presidential term from 4 to 6 years.

And second, a much needed briefing on the past 96 hours:

Unusually angular patches with areas of inner soft pink and insides of an even softer white, centered between the meniscus and patella of my knee, appear in suspiciously villainous attempts to expose my dermis; red hastily oozes from the perimeter lined with dispatched cells lost in inflammatory response.  The gradient of pebbly gray engraved on the surface of my raw palms is wiped away only to leave an unpleasant and unintentional stain, a disposition vaguely reminiscent to that of getting Pico de Gallo on long sleeves while dining at Qdoba.  So maybe Liu Xiang had it way better than I did.  Way better.

And third, a much needed explanation for the weird title that headlines this (as well as the former) post (and the corresponding thoughts behind it):

So I had this long and verbally assailed post in the making for a week and a half, but, for the sake of simplicity, the same sentiment is expressed in the following excerpt, except explained more concisely (minus my personal anecdotes and add-in observations) and with a command of language multiple orders of magnitude greater than my own:

ultimately, there is something odd about settling in somewhere new — about the perhaps laborious process of getting used to new surroundings and fitting in, a task we undertake almost for its own sake and with the definite intention of abandoning the place again as soon as it is accomplished, or shortly thereafter, and returning to our previous state. we insert that sort of thing into the mainstream of our lives as a kind of “recreation,” which is to say: a refreshing, revitalizing exercise of the organism, because it was in immediate danger of overindulging itself in the uninterrupted monotony of daily life, of languishing and growing indifferent. and what is the cause of the enervation and apathy that arise when the rules of life are not abrogated from time to time? […] the cause is […] something psychological, our very sense of time itself — which, if it flows with uninterrupted regularity, threatens to elude us and which is so closely related to and bound up with our sense of life that the one sense cannot be weakened without the second’s experiencing pain and injury. […] what people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony — uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death. when one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem short, as if it had flown by in a twinkling. habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull; and if the years of youth are experienced slowly, while the later years of life hurtle past at an ever-increasing speed, it must be habit that causes it. we know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time — and thereby renew our sense of life itself. that is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of several episodes. the first few days in anew place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy long stride — that lasts for about six to eight days. then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable. whoever clings to life, or better, wants to cling to life, may realize his horror that the days have begun to grow light again and are scurrying past; and the last week — of, let us say, four — is uncanny in its fleeting transience.

– thomas mann, the magic mountain

So I’ll get back to the part where this blog is supposed to be my own writing despite being multiple orders of magnitude short of adequacy even for my own satisfaction.

It’s Wednesday (but not for long).  To the left, behind a large expanse of glass, sodium nitrate crystals cling to a black screen; no, it has just been raining all day, and the photons emitted by the Speed Lake lamp posts are making their way through non-deionized water droplets to dissipate the shadows in my room.  I have spent the past four hours trying to swim my way out of a musical whirlpool (I’ve traveled its circumference 126 times by now; somehow, I don’t mind if I’m not saved), and three hours prior to the latter four, quarks, conservation of linear momentum,  elastic and perfectly inelastic collisions, uncertainty (not uncertainty, but uncertainty), and differential equations have traveled the expanse of my brain 126 times by now.  I am wide awake because I have been aptly hit by a strange and sudden wind of foreignness (a hypothetical one; my window is closed).  Come back a little bit later to experience the hazy glow of pure and unadulterated neuronal sparkles.

It’s Thursday.

We shall miss thee.

But mostly in the fashion of Heckabe and Helen; no room for self-pitying victimization and/or dread for the future because Yes We Can resurrect you from the dead.*

Memorial courtesy of K Guy.

*No, I am not equating Barack Obama with Yeshua (but they do have equally cool names).

“The Lyin’, the Witch, and the Wardrobe– An Alaskan tale.”  This headline inevitably makes one elicit giggles. Alas, I have more integrity than to dedicate a whole post to a flash in the pan.  On to some other things.

Going home for Thanksgiving break, (why am I already jinxing myself–it’s not for another two weeks, and I haven’t soared above the biggest hurdle here academically, finals!  Hopefully things will work out better for the rest of us final-stressed trimester college students than it did for Liu Xiang) I am going to engage in an assortment of festivities with old friends and family (i.e. eat piggishly together).  An elegant parallelism formulates every major holiday: there is (are) that (those) stranger(s) who come up and swarm me the way Pavlov’s dogs do to the ringing of a bell, the way skeletons do when you take not-so-pleasant evening strolls in Hyrule field, or the way reporters do to an unmuzzled Palin.

Bombarded by distant relatives, conversation will go something like this:

Distant Relative:  Oh, Berna! (sometimes I am over enthusiastically addressed as “Det-Det”; auto spell check made that “Debt-Debt” and I had to manually fix it; how many words can you name with silent b’s?)  I haven’t seen you since you were this tall/traveled through your mother’s birth canal/whopped my ass in Pokemon Puzzle League/

Me:  The ashes from the spontaneous combustion of my synapses swirl around as my memory sounds the alarm in epic fail mode.  My mental foundation slightly cringes as I have already withstood the infamously reductive comments about whether I’ve gained weight or not, whether my boyfriend exists or not, or whether I have better grades than my twin sister or not.  Despite this, and my erratic mumbles of one syllable responses, they continue to persist with further interrogation with a fervor that parallels that of Casey Novak.  This Thanksgiving break, however, there is one question that I would like to have a coherent answer for (though more so for myself than anyone else):

Distant Relative: So, what’s your major?

I have already addressed my situation on this topic (second paragraph), though I have been doing some serious researching/thinking/musing/asking professors questions/attending information seminars/considering what my real interests are, and the decision has come down to two major factors.

  1. The nature of the subject matter
  2. The nature in which I will learn the subject matter

In the event of reading MIT blogs amidst my internet explorations some time ago, I found this entry by Lulu ’09 that gives some serious advice about selecting a major.  Just recently I found it again, and I thought that I’d share since it brings up so many important points of interest.  So for all of you out there, underclassmen and upperclassmen alike, who still need to decide on a major, are contemplating a double major, have switched more times than one would have liked, or feel insecure about whether or not one’s current studies amount to anything more meaningful than hypothetical loads of cash (or lack there of), it would not hurt to take look at the following passage.

“Choosing a Major”

I’ve been reading a lot of comments lately about which majors are harder than others and omg my friend says this class is impossible and don’t be concerned about the difficulty of majors it’s all about what you love!– there’s obviously a lot of strife here, and I just wanted to address the topic in a proper way.

You hear it a lot. Do what you love. F*** the rest. (Little miss sunshine?) It’s very good advice for most things but I’d be careful when applying this to choice of major. I know, like, what? Am I crazy? Why am I allowed on here? But there’s a very good reason for this. Reasons, even.

Reason number 1: There are many paths to the same destination. So you love space technology, the natural choice might then be a major in course 16- do what you love, right? Well, maybe. But you should explore your options first, and here, you have quite a few. Sure, course 16 might get you what you want, but so might course 2 (mech e), or 2-A, or 8 (physics), or 8-B, or 6-1 (ee), or even 3 (material sci) or 12 (earth/planetary), depending on the specifics. There are a lot of options. You should look through them all! Take some intro classes, talk to upperclassmen, there’s a lot of valuable information out there. Narrow your field of major choices down to only subjects that really have potential or you have not tried. Never eliminate something because it is unfamiliar. High schools don’t teach Chemical Engineering or Nuclear Engineering as a rule. Find out about them. Ask questions.

Reason number 2: All majors are not created equal. Maybe you’ve already heard from person A that asking about relative difficulty of majors is shallow and there’s no such thing as hard majors and easy majors, it just depends on what you’re into. Well, that’s very interesting and all, person A, but you are very wrong and you are doing freshmen a disservice by preaching that. While there is no value in trying to determine an absolute hardest major, you HAVE to have a sense of what you’re capable of and what you’re getting yourself into. I know quite a few people who have either not graduated or not graduated on time as a result of failing classes within their major and/or changing majors too many times or some combination thereof.

Some majors have a lot of requirements. Take course 16 for example. 198 units of credit are required OUTSIDE of GIRs in order to graduate. Take a look at this page, that’s about 16 classes. On top of the 17 classes everyone has to take. You have 8 semesters here, and the average classload is 4/semester. 33 classes in 8 semesters doesn’t allow for too many electives. That’s hard in its own right.

Bad at memorizing things? Maybe chemistry or brain and cog sci isn’t for you. Impatient? Hate doing grunt work? Maybe cross off some of the engineering majors.

Some majors may be too easy for you and bore you to death. Some majors cover some really difficult material. Some of the abstract math classes here are among the hardest in the world. You should love a challenge, you’re an MIT student, but you should also love yourself. A major that is too difficult for you will only make you miserable and insecure. You won’t enjoy the course material and you won’t enjoy the work, you won’t sleep, and worst of all, you won’t learn. What’s the point of taking classes to get them over with? So what if you’re not smart enough to enjoy that stuff (I’m not smart enough to enjoy that stuff), your talents may lie elsewhere. Pick a field in which you will really be able to participate and positively contribute.

I say this because at MIT there is a real hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) pressure to do things just because they are hard. Or, the inverse, to not pick things just because they are by and large considered easy. Kids here are on the whole pretty smart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need validation. Some kids try to earn the respect of others by taking on way more than ever reasonable, don’t be like that, because these kids are often the same who will, in a couple of years, feel superior to their classmates just because their major is considered “harder”. And you just don’t want to be like that. Nobody wants to be friends with that.

I said to a freshman tonight, who was trying to find a suitable second major in the sciences to her course 15 (management) intended major, “Why?” Because some people had informed her that “15 was a slacker major” and she wanted to prove she wasn’t. This made me very sad and I told her that if someone picked one major that was right for them and did it well, learned it inside out, was really excited about it, no matter what the major, I would respect him orders of magnitude more than someone else who sacrificed a deeper education in something they were really interested in just for the sake of adding the name of a second subject to their diploma. I’m really bored of the people who gave her this advice. Don’t take it. It’s dumb.


I’ve been through two majors myself, I started off in 16 (while taking classes in 8 ) and switched to 8. I wrote an entry a year ago about my switch into 8 halfway through sophomore year. Watch out, it’s a little dramatic. But, I ended up not at all behind in the coursework since I’d kept both options open as a “tentative double major” and taken all the usual physics classes up until that point. That’s something you might want to consider, prefrosh/freshmen- taking classes in 2+ subjects first semester sophomore year (and/or spring semester freshman year) so you can really get a feel for the different departments. And they are very different. And yes, this matters.

Reason #3, 4, n: why really it’s not only about what you love:

Departments. Curriculum. Staff. Resources. Career options. Size. Flexibility to do what you want.

What’s more important to you? Having a tried and true certified-damn-good education from MIT in a subject matter (in my case, physics)? Or, having the freedom to design your own curriculum and indulge in your fancies? This isn’t rhetorical- it matters. This is what I’m deciding between now with 8 and 8-B. To be quite honest I was 2 weeks ago leaning toward 8-B for the option of taking General Relativity or Astrophysics next term, however, I had this thought a few days ago that was big enough, at least in Lulu-world, to have actually tipped the scale toward 8. The thought was that I wanted a physics education from MIT, the way that they’ve been training physicists for years, and though I may feel like I know better at times, I probably don’t, and I could do well to finish what I started and trust in their judgment. Anyways, that’s just me.

Teaching styles vary wildly between departments. Yes, let that affect your choice. A clash of learning and teaching styles is one of the most disastrous things that could happen to a student in college. It will make you lose interest, and fast. Higher level math classes don’t have recitations: you are expected to either understand the lecture material or visit the professor privately with questions. Are you comfortable in that kind of a setting for 4 years? Engineering classes have a lot of repetition and hand-holding, this can get annoying if you’re normally independent. Course 6 is impersonally large and they compensate by having 4-5 person mandatory tutoring sections once a week, these are all things that you should know.

To make things easier later on, before you pick a major, reflect a little on what you’d like to do. If you don’t have any idea (don’t worry, I don’t either), an important feature of your degree track should be later flexibility. Will it allow you to attend medical school if you decide? Grad school? Work on wall street? Babysit? There are lots of majors (8, 18, 6, 2, … ) that are really good for branching out later on into all kinds of fields.

Your interests may change, especially as you get deeper into a field, you may find it not at all what you were expecting (this happens all the time, I can’t even stress that enough), you can develop interests in things you never thought possible: sometimes this is out of necessity, sometimes just because every subject in its own right is interesting (or else you wouldn’t have organic chemists) and you just needed some time to really get into it. I see this happen all the time. Your interests may change, but with some thought put into your choice of major, this doesn’t have to mean extra semesters or no diploma.

Alllll this talking aside, undergraduate majors by name are not a big deal. Graduate schools, still a faraway thought for you guys, but looming ever nearer for me, don’t give two hoots about the name of your major, they care about what’s in your head, your coursework, your research… In fact, I’ve been told quite a few times that taking Grad-level courses and having more than one major will actually hurt your chances at grad schools- they like to see that you have built a solid foundation in their subject and view anything else as a distraction.
Anyways, I made up a really crappy but maybe useful timeline for when you should be doing what with regard to your major/choice of major. And it starts NOW! (only if you’re a freshman, NEXTYEAR! if you’re a prefrosh).

  • Fall Semester Freshman Year: Talk to people! Research! Ask Questions.
  • IAP Freshman Year: Decide what major(s) you may be interested in/want to try out. Plan some spring semester classes that explore these options.
  • Spring Freshman Year: Take these classes. Reevaluate.
  • End of Spring Freshman Year: Pick a major. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but you’ll make it easier on yourself to do some exploring before you pick, since, though switching majors is easy, catching up in classes, isn’t.
  • Summer after Freshman Year: You are assigned your department advisor! This is fun, because you’ll come back and meet them probably with food or canoeing involved (the latter may just pertain to my advisor may not be an actual rule).
  • End of Sophomore Year: Deadline for deciding to stick with your major unless you are considering a 5th year or a 9th semester or you have already been taking cohesive classes in the major that you want to switch into. This is because most degree tracks are designed to take 2-3 years. If you haven’t started on that after the end of sophomore year, you may need to only consider “flexible” options for fewer requirements.

Perhaps a post on my own specifics on this will appear once I have sorted things out between mechanical engineering and physics more concretely.

So, it’s Election Day.

4 November 2008

I remember this segment of Meet the Press back from June 8, 2008 earlier this summer.  (It was actually the last episode of Meet the Press with Tim Russert as the moderator.  If he could be alive today…)

The first forty seconds of the following video makes for some serious foreshadowing that dates back over four decades and was finally (and oh so epically) realized tonight.