Whistling, Ice Skating and Doing Everything

This post is about how to do everything you’ve ever wanted. Here’s the secret, you just have to continuously do it. While to some this is blatantly obvious, you’d be surprised how many idealists and strategists like myself have trouble doing even one of the thousands of things we think about throughout the day. Every evening I make lists of the tasks to accomplish and actions to strive for. However, I often find myself falling short of these goals. I believe the secret to getting these things done is in repetition, and in doing.


I learned to whistle by looking like an idiot for months. During high-school, I had the absurd desire to whistle (I never could before). So what I did was spit everywhere, make weird noises with my tongue, cheeks, and lips, and generally fail to whistle. For months. Really, months. Driving to or from school, walking to or from class, and whenever else I could or got the urge, I would fail to whistle. The failure isn’t that important, what the message is here is that I did it so many times that eventually I could whistle for a second. Then a few seconds. Nowadays I feel confident about my whistling. It’s weird, but I swear, one day after the period of time when I could haphazardly whistle I suddenly found the right mouth position. I was so happy that day. Whistling everywhere, looking like a fool. But I realized what had happened. I had accomplished something that I really wanted to learn, by doing it again and again and again.

Ice Skating

More recently (over the past month) for some reason or another I have been ice skating like three times. For me, this is a lot – I rarely go ice skating, and when I did it was fairly awful. I would fall consistently and although I was never afraid of skating (I still liked it), I never looked forward to it.  This has changed. Guess how? Yes, I did it a lot (well, three times…). The first time was still pretty bad, I honestly didn’t learn much that time. The second time I just focused on learning not to fall – to balance properly, and in the end, I guess I fell less than usual that time. It was a little surprising how much faster skating came to me after I just straightened my back and controlled my legs/ankles. The third time, I picked up speed – I feel as though I could really pass people, go where I wanted, and kind of enjoy the whole experience more. The third time felt as though everything had come together, I still fell once, right at the end (bummer right?), but holy crap did it feel good getting off the ice after the third time. I am so ready to go again. I learned a skill that I previously simply didn’t have, and how? by doing it – again and again and again.

The Process and The Results

I hope the message about doing actions repeatedly in order to accomplish them has gotten across. At this point I want to just mention a related idea. Too often we think purely about the results – I want to be an astronaut. The thing is, wanting to be an astronaut doesn’t make you one. Acting like, and being an astronaut makes you one. Wanting to do 100 push-ups per day doesn’t make it so. Getting on your hands and knees makes it so. I think that if you want something, don’t want it – want the process, look forward to the doing, not the done. The doing is where learning, and joy and mindfulness take place. The done is a place for contentedness, and laziness, and false happiness (is there a word for false-happiness?).

Now hopefully this didn’t get too weird at the end, and I was still lucid. Doing things is one of the harder parts of life, so hopefully I can learn from my own writing and apply these principles to other things that are good for stuff like careers 😐 . Anyway, until next time.




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Two Projects

Community Aggregator

This is something I’ve really wanted to build for a while. A community aggregator. So you search for whatever, maybe pastel drawing and the site would serve up a list of the highest rated online communities that focus on pastels. Traditional search engines fail to accomplish this because they do not look for community, they look for keywords, in-edges and the such. But community has different metrics and should have the input of the community itself. The motivation behind this is that people really want to feel like a part of a community and online communities are valid ways of fulfilling this need, and this proposal can make finding the right one easy.

There are numerous technical and academic challenges here.

1. Identify what metrics can indicate a online community. And along the same lines, what is an online community. This part of the project might be one of the longest. I plan to put myself in a few self-indicated communities and observe behavior, find computer science-related metrics, and find a definition of community. Yes, this is a primarily anthropological venture, and has elements of ethnography involved. I will be posting updates about this, but keeping most of my records in notebooks – it just feels right, I can share the notebooks later if it’s of interest.

2. The next step will be to test web crawling software on the metrics I’ve discovered.  To do this I’m going to need to familiarize myself with the software and web crawling and then apply the skills I learn to a few sites of my choosing. I am going to try and do this in Javascript, but I might need to go to Java if I want to be able to scale easily (use MapReduce and such). If the language/software doesn’t work or the metrics I found are not working, I will repeat the necessary steps.

3. Once I’m comfortable with crawling and I’m convinced my metrics work, I will unleash the crawler on the web (within limits of course) and build a database of communities. This step will probably need money or resources that I don’t have atm, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it haha.

4. The final step is to create a web interface for this, which is almost a trivial technical task next to web crawling. The site needs to integrate the database, make it searchable for a variety of parameters (activeness, size, focus), and make these communities votable/commentable by users so that people can review bad communities and such.

This is definitely a long-term project, and might not be done for years, that’s okay, each step is a valuable learning experience and something that sounds fun atm. So I’m going to start searching online communities and choose like 3-5 to do an ethnography of – which involves becoming a part of each one and participating and such, as well as taking measurements of the infrastructure.


One of my friends from last Summer, Shengwei, texted me about a week ago and asked if I wanted to meet up and discuss an opportunity. I happily obliged and we met up on campus. After some chat, he went into a pitch about a website/app that would “use the internet to get off the internet”. Sounds kinda cool right? It involves users signing up to meet and chat with other users about whatever the “talker” wants to talk about (the reciprocating party is the “talkee”). He also mentioned what I think is an awesome idea, and that is to allow people such as professors to give talks and have them be open to the other users. Now maybe alarm bells are going off in your head – what if some weirdo shows up to these talks. I had the same thought, so I proposed that we only allow people with .edu emails to sign up – which eliminates at least the dangerous weird kind of people from showing up.

I think this idea has a lot of potential, especially marketed as an educational, social app that allows people to talk about interesting things they actually like in physical space (as opposed to online space). Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I don’t think that it is a terrible idea, people might really use it (if we limit the user-group, maybe only Penn first).

So the reason Shengwei brought me in was because he was wondering if I wanted to make an MVP of this idea which, after the pitch and a bit of discussion, I was happy to do.

Now here is a bit of transparency. For one of my classes, I’m creating a webapp that has a lot of similar features to FaceTalkToMe, definitely not exactly the same, but close enough that I feel safe using parts of it for both projects. How’s that for an awesome class?

So these are the two projects (outside of schoolwork, and other commitments) that I will be focusing on. And I’ll try to keep you updated as I go. What do you think? Bound to fail? Brilliant ideas? I guess we will see!

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Hide yo emails

Quick little rant here – I’ve been trying to find the emails of Philly startups for an ongoing project I’m involved in called PennApps Fellows. And the process is to put it tamely, enlightening.

Now I realize that there is an art to reaching out to people in this day and age, but during my search I’ve come to realize that this art is harder to utilize than it should be. I’ve been clicking around sites just looking for a simple contact/info/team email that I can reach out to and they are all hidden away in the depths of the sites if they are there at all. There are a few approaches that I’ve seen.

One is to have a form, no emails, just a form to fill out. This is the most infuriating of them all – it totally destroys any sense of care. That is I, as someone reaching out, feel sidelined, only good enough to ‘get in line and fill out a form’. It serious discourages me from reaching out, just because I feel like my message won’t be really considered. Maybe I am overreacting, but there is definitely some degree of depersonalization that accompanies these forms.

Another method is to only have one or two emails total, things like press@___ and jobs@___ and while these are better than a form, they still make it awkward for me to reach out. I have a proposal that has to do with jobs, but is also kind of a partnership, can’t I just talk to a human? Why do you funnel your contact with the outside world through press and jobs, it makes me as someone reaching out feel rude. Some kind of generic team/info/contact@___  allows me to talk about whatever I’m trying to talk to you about without falling short of your expectations.

Now at this point, your probably saying well these companies don’t want any old crawler or spammer just destroying all their inboxes of the team/contact/info. And your right, this is a good point and a real issue. But there are plenty of techniques to avoid this and hide an email from these automated spamming techniques. Plus I think the potential benefits outweigh the negatives. And modern spam filters are pretty damn good in my experience, so why worry?

Now let me get on a little theoretical soapbox for a minute. Being an organization that is open to outside opportunities is a good idea. There is a subset of people out there that are doing cool things and aren’t afraid of cold emailing people, and any growing group should be open to these ideas. You don’t need to jump on each one, but you never know when something cool will just plop itself down in front of you. Being open, and letting people talk to you out of the blue is something that people should embrace, there is a lot that can be accomplished collaboratively. PS: this is a bit menial for me to be blogging about, but it was bugging me – thought I would throw it out there, back to creating!

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Consuming, not Creating

It is possibly the most disturbing trend I’ve ever noticed. Have you seen it? People that buy and watch and listen and play and complain and just consume all the time, and never create anything. I just recently examined my own life. I eat pre-packaged breakfast, walk to class to be lectured to, talk with friends about assignments we’ve been given or tv/events that have happened, have a man in a cart cook my lunch, get lectured to some more, read some papers/books I’ve been assigned, watch some youtube, look at reddit or hackernews a bit, MAYBE cook my own dinner, or resort to Wawa again, do some more assignments and go to sleep. This in and of itself isn’t sooo bad, but doing it every single day gets to be really bad – it makes it a habit to just consume what we are given, it makes us fat and dumb and useless.

Now imagine creating things every day. Making breakfast, making your body stronger, building part of a project, making lunch, having a class discussion throwing around ideas, recording a little video or writing a blog post or some poetry, and cooking dinner and working on another paper before bed. How does that sound in comparison – now don’t let my author bias get in the way – think about a day of consuming vs a day of creating, picture one of each for yourself and compare them.

Now let me be careful and say that clearly I’ve been speaking in extremes up to this point. Creative people have to consume a bit and I would like to see more consumers create a bit, but these hybrids clearly exist. Maybe it goes back to “everything in moderation”. But the point here is that I think our society as a whole consumes a bit more than it should, and to solve this it should start trying to create more.

I almost feel like I forgot how to create things. Noticing this has begun to change a lot of parts of my life. I can honestly say that I feel a lot happier. Yesterday I went back to my early high school days and drew a fantasy map, it wasn’t my best work, but it made me much happier and got my brain/heart working again. This sounds cheesy, but I felt a small flame reignited in my chest – it was like I was glowing, and I’m in general much more happy. Now to stop tooting my own horn.

It’s something I think our society needs to make time for – stop eating out with friends and have a dinner party instead. Stop watching TV, draw or write or dance or something. I promise you will feel better. There is a lot of soma out there, and it’s quite dangerous, I may sound like I’m claiming a slippery slope, but all these little ‘consumerisms’ add up and make us miserable and dead. Make some stuff instead! I made a shitty map and it made me 100x happier than a box of cookies!

Show me what you create! Let me know if you’ve noticed any other consumer habits that are making you unhappy!

See? Doesn't matter how shitty!

My first map in a while.

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Impact and/or doing what you love

A few nights ago I had one of those “stay up all night watching random videos” nights. As per usual, a lot of it was bullshit or funny or cute, but one video really stuck out to me. Here is the video. I think that the thing that stood out was that he was doing something he enjoyed. There was no outside motivation, no requirements, no showing off – just some guy thoroughly enjoying the creative process.

There is a lot of talk in entrepreneurship and startup culture about impact. You should be doing something you care about and make an impact with your venture, seize the market! Why can’t you just do something you love? This talk of impact almost sounds poisonous when put next to the mapmaker. Should what you love necessarily have an impact? It’s as if there some societal pressure that you need to go into the world and change things to fit your vision. What kind of society is that? When I see people like this mapmaker, or watch artisan videos, or see anyone doing what they like I’m inspired regardless of any impact they may be making (unless it’s negative…).

I’ve believed for a long time that when you do what you love, the money will follow. More so now than ever do we have the ability to monetize what we do. Youtube, kickstarter, web dev. There are so many people waiting to see those who have come to life, found their passion and people love absorbing that energy (like myself). These people shine because they are making a living doing what they love. But the point here is that in today’s world, you can do whatever you want, and it may be hard for a while, but it is more likely than possible that you can make a living out of it – IF YOU TRULY LOVE IT ENOUGH.

What I’m saying is that we should choose what we do based off of money, or impact or any other silly reason, but purely because it makes us happy, and those around us happy. “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and happy and healthy” as Kurt Vonnegut would say. And remember to “pick yourself” as Seth Godin would say, don’t wait for it to come to you.

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Public Domain Books – TweeterBot

A while ago I was talking with my sister about twitter and social media in general, and the question came up whether tweeting a book would be something people would like/subscribe to/even consider. And since then I’ve been thinking about it both technically and socially. Btw, the twitter is: PubDomBooks.

Technical Aspects

Technically, I thought it wouldn’t take that much. Boy did I underestimate how little I know (it was rather easy in retrospect). The experience of creating TweeterBot was long and great. I actually originally created this bot in Java, using twitter4j which is a nice little library that worked well for what I needed. That I was actually able to write in an afternoon. Although a good portion of that afternoon was creating a twitter dev account. So that was nice, I had a semi working bot, but it felt a little to easy and would’ve been annoying to get onto an ec2 instance. So I opted to remake the bot in Node.js.

Node is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. It’s simple, has a lot of documentation and plenty of libraries for everything you could possibly need. The first thing that I did was choose a twitter utility, twit, so that authentication and the act of sending requests to twitter would be really simple. (As easy as twit.post([…])). And here npm is great, I could download it easy to my own computer and on my ec2 instance, without having to send a bunch of files through github (but more on that later). One of the things that really excited me about this project was using the parts of node that weren’t used for web servers. I feel as though lots of people think of node as a straight web server software, but it has a lot of functionality beyond that. I read a lot about the filesystem, readline, streams, and more just because those were what I needed for this project. It was cool to see that side of the language. I also learned a bunch about javascript in general. Specifically the accuracy/utility of setInterval. Finally, I also got a bunch of experience in using amazon ec2 and github to move around and share files, which was nice to be doing just for fun.

Social (Media) Aspects

The social aspect of this project is a bit of a gray area, like first off, why has no one else done this yet? No interest? Maybe it just hasn’t occurred to people? Since my talk with my sister, I’ve talked a lot with friends about this idea and gotten various responses. Some were actually quite interested (and wanted to know what kinds of books it’d be tweeting). Others were doubtful, saying ‘mehhh’ essentially, which isn’t exactly thrilling, but it shows that either they don’t like twitter in general or haven’t really thought of it that much (the other option is that they don’t like the idea, but hey, how could they know, they haven’t tried it 🙂 ). The responses that I’ve gotten make me feel like this feed will be more of a internet nicknack (which is actually a word haha) and I’m okay with that.

My own experiences in testing this is that it is quite hard to read. Think about how your reading this, kind of at your own pace. Now what if I broke these paragraphs up such that it cut off in random places and forced your eyes to find another spot, it’s disruptive and not true to the spirit of the books (no even being funny here). It’s a very controlled and disorienting way of reading that I think many will find annoying, but I guess we will see. Additionally, it is kind of funny to see random lines of some book just pop up – there is a lot of comedic potential here I think.

Anyway, it’s up for the public now, let me know what you think of it. Would you subscribe? Why or why not? Ah, the cool little moral questions of our day.

EDIT: I also need to mention my thanks to Project Gutenburg for doing what they do. The only way I could legally tweet a book was if it was on the public domain, and so P.G. really helped in that respect. Please let me know if I’m doing anything illegal though, I think I am within my bounds though.

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Modern Witchcraft

It’s probably happened to you. Your technology backfired, stopped working, behaved unexpectedly, started acting funny and you don’t know why. Occasionally, the keyboard on my phone stays up after I’m done typing. I don’t know why, but it is inconvenient and strange. If anything like this has happened to you, you’re a victim of what I would like to call modern witchcraft. (And no I’m in no way referring to groups like Wicca).

There is a slight disconnect in my idea of witchcraft and traditional interpretations.  Historically, witches refer to people who have performed negative acts in the eyes of their neighbors, or are demonic in some respect. The agent of modern witchcraft is some unseen ill-will directed at us, because our high-society has eliminated the possibility of magic or traditional ‘witches’ . But the connecting thread is some kind of perceived negative influence on our life, outside of our control. And this mysterious misfortune (that has persisted throughout human society) is what lead me to the idea of modern witchcraft.

Witchcraft is basically an explanation/ideology surrounding misfortune. In today’s world we’re at a loss for words, who do you blame when the USB charger for your phone that was fine yesterday stops working? Metaphorically, when your corn that was fine yesterday is wilting today, you cast a suspicious eye around the neighborhood. Venting your frustration. Today we either blame the very technology that was helping us, or bottle up frustration and shrug your shoulders.

This idea isn’t entirely fleshed out, and I’m eager to hear what others think of modern vs traditional witchcraft, so let me know in the comments. But let me end with a anecdote from a trip a took a couple weeks ago:

A friend and I were returning from upstate New York and realized from our trip there that we needed a car charger for our cell phone. So we stopped at a gas station and picked up a cheap one. When we got to the car and plugged in our phones nothing was charging. First disbelief overtook us, we twisted and turned and restarted everything to no avail. Next anger, my friend applied copious force to all the connections, nothing. He asked why it wasn’t working, and I sarcastically replied, “magic” (thinking about the very concept in this post). We gave up, cursing our luck and faulty technology.

Later, after we returned home, my father had a look at the car and reported that the dashboard (where the car charger plugged in) had blown a fuse, rendering it electronically useless. Maybe in actuality misfortune is never unexplainable or magic, it’s just a matter of knowledge. Technology doesn’t have to be full of misfortune, but many of us allow it to pass around us without ever attempting to understand it. And that makes it easier to experience frustration, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Knowledge can kill bad luck.

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Anthropology Online: Github, Academia and Community

I think there may be a problem with anthropology, at least in its online incarnation. It has to do with intent. I hear from bloggers and discussions that there is a desire to ‘grow’. But what does this mean, what kind of growth do you want? On one hand, there is a growth in audience. More subscribers, more viewers, more readers. These metrics signify individual growth or promotion. Journals, magazines, tv channels, all try to encourage this kind of growth. On the other hand, there is growth in community. Some measures for this are more members, more discussions, more remixes. These metrics signify the growth of a group. Think of clubs, societies, online forums. In looking at the anthropology community I’m not quite sure what they want. To draw a more clear line between these kinds of growth and determine what the community wants I will elaborate.

Historically, if you look at academia, it encourages personal growth. You should write papers and get other academics to read them. Foster an audience if you want to be successful. There may be some amount of conversation within the writings themselves, but it is not the focus of academia. The focus instead is building off of each other (and in the process build a career for oneself). Academia is one kind of community, but it is exclusive and dominated by a focus on the individual.

However, if you look at open source, it is based around group growth. It’s main tenants center around collaboration and encouraging participation. The goal of the community is to have many members and incorporate the new as much as possible. Think of Github, the doors are open (anyone can join/contribute), collaboration is a key feature, basically it is made for group growth. Furthermore, cross-pollination between groups and disciplines helped it to grow. Having opportunities to collaborate with outsiders encouraged new and innovative content and techniques.

I’m worried that anthropologists online are saying they want group growth, but really mean individual growth. If you want to display your research, go to a conference, submit it to an established journal. If you want a vibrant community, start some discussions, do some collaborative projects. STOP thinking of anthropology as a purely academic discipline if you want it to grow (as a group) – invite strange perspectives. Profound discoveries can come out of collaboration.

Angela (of How to be an Anthropologist) wrote a great piece about the next revolutionary person or concept in anthropology. She suggests, “next big turn in the discipline of anthropology will be in presentation.” And I think this is an insightful point. I think the discipline must acknowledge as a whole that the way things are done must change if it is to grow. But I want to add that in the process of this change, we might invite the ‘next big thinker’ in anthropology into our community. Franz Boas himself got his doctorate in physics and studied geography.

Also, Ryan (of Savage Minds) wrote about “making anthropology public“, and spawned a promising discussion in the comments. I’ve written a bit there already. So I’ll just say that I’m a bit frustrated with ideas like Tumblr, PopAnth, CoolAnthropology. They have editors – let the community be the editors, let everyone speak. If group growth is the goal, please be open to completely new ideas.

Anthropology online is at a kind of turning point. Old practices that promote individual growth are holding the community back from what it could be. And it’s a shame because I think that anthropology has a lot to say. And as I try to study the intersection of anthropology and computer science it would be nice to be able to share and collaborate on my thoughts, but current channels of communication limit my ability to do that. I hope anthropology can grow.



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