Now Page – October 2019

An old now page. Check out my most recent one here.

In a nutshell: I’m in the middle of fall quarter of my second year at Stanford, where I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Computer Science. The classes are very challenging, but very rewarding.

In a nutshell: I’m in the middle of fall quarter of my second year at Stanford, where I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Computer Science. The classes are very challenging, but very rewarding.

How I’m spending my time

70% of my time is focused on classes,
10% on school-related things that are not classes,
15% on my health,
5% on everything else.

Classes

Decision Making Under Uncertainty – There are obvious implications for robots, but the class teaches techniques that can be applied generally. Lots of aspiring mechanical engineers and computer scientists taking this class, but also aspiring economists, doctors, chemical engineers, and more. The professor, Mykel Kochendorfer, is funny and entertaining despite the sometimes dry subject material. Check out our final project in progress – we’re creating an agent that automatically route incoming planes to their destinations while avoiding each other and other obstacles.

Probability for Computer Scientists – After getting my butt kicked by the infamous CS229 in spring, I decided to take a step back and refresh my probability foundations. I’m really glad I did. For the first time, I’m actually enjoying probability, most likely due to how good the teaching is. Again, our professor, Lisa Yan, keeps things interesting despite the dryness of the subject, which I really appreciate.

School stuff that isn’t class

Lots of socializing! It’s the beginning of the school year and everyone is willing to hang out and meet others. I’ve definitely been capitalizing on that. I love it. My extroversion is being fueled like gasoline on a fire.

I found an improv comedy group on campus that doesn’t require taking the actual theater department class. We practice twice a week. I’m really looking forward to honing my improv skills with these folks.

And finally, I’ve been spending time job searching. I’ve tentatively decided to take an extra quarter as long as I can be funded, so I’m looking for one last summer internship, specifically in small companies focused on robotics. Or maybe I’m going to do research. Or maybe I’ll go and be a camp counselor somewhere. I have no idea!

Health & Fitness

The biggest health goal right now is fix my back/foot. There’s a lot of nerve pain in my big toe area that gets worse with impact exercises, and it’s been getting steadily worse for about a year and a half. The best guess the doctors have is that it’s radiating down from my back. Thankfully, I’ve recently been getting great healthcare here at Stanford and it’s seeing some improvements.

On the downside, I’ve had to stop running, which was especially hard to hear after training up over the summer after a long dry spell. However, on the upside, I get to learn how to swim! It’s hard. I can currently do 10 laps of freestyle over about 20 minutes, and then my body is done. But I’m just starting out. I’m excited to make progress in a new sport.

Finding My Own Truth, part 1

Wow, it’s been a while since I posted on here. I’m looking back through my old blog posts and seriously, there’s some stuff here that belongs on /r/iamverysmart. Like, a short story about an unsung genius of the past who envisioned airplanes before they were cool but he’s too awesome so they jail him? Really younger Aamir? 

I bet future Aamir is reading this and saying “I can’t believe my past self wanted to cover up the fact they that were going to write another pretentious blog post so badly that he began with joking at how cringey their past self was, IN ITALICS, to show off his self-awareness. Now he’s addressing me, future Aamir, so that he could REALLY cover his ass. I can see right through you, dude. Ugh, makes me cringe.” Well, future Aamir, cringe harder, because you’re about to read your most pretentious blog post yet.

I’m growing older and have more freedom than I ever did before. I’ve had physical freedom for a while, being in college and having my own car for over a year now. But now I’m starting to experience financial freedom. Social freedom. Mental freedom. So many choices. Too many choices. So much information. So many people telling me what to do and where to shit and how high I should jump. Those are metaphors. Here are some examples.

I always have 20 more tasks than available slots on my daily to-do list. Obviously, I cannot decide on things randomly – I must prioritize. What decides what goes first and what doesn’t make it to the list? What is my system of prioritization? Why should I follow that system of prioritization? (that last question really screws with me) Well, you might say, that should be easy. Just do all your schoolwork first, and whatever time is left, do your other less important tasks. Well, that’s what I mean. What fills up the rest of my time? Fixing issues with my car? Reddit? Calling my parents? Writing pretentious blog posts? So. Many. Great. Options.

That’s just a single day. Let’s broaden the scope. I grew up Muslim. Then I had my years of rebellion in college. Now, I’m somewhere, floating around. I’m not doing the blindly-adhere-to-religion thing again. But, neither is this vague, completely opposite “do what you want,” “just do the right thing in the situation,” or “just don’t be a bad person.”

Also, how do I orient myself to strong trains of thought from the right and the left? There are very strong reasons why less socialism could be good for the United States. There are good reasons for the opposite. There are real reasons why abortion can be viewed as murder. Also great reasons for the opposite. Unhinged illegal immigration can be bad for economies. Denying asylum to people who really need it is not good for humanity. And these are important things to figure out, because it affects important decisions. Who do I vote for? What values do I help inculcate into my younger brothers?

But really, more broadly, these constant, incessant questions extend into every part of my life. How do I spend/save/manage my money? Which friends do I invest emotional energy into keeping contact with? What should I get better at? What path do I want to chart for my personal life? Romantic life? Professional life? Like, the freedom is overwhelming. No wonder it feels safe to just be hyper-religious and consult a big book of knowledge someone else came up with whenever you don’t know what to do.

The core of all of this, I think, is that my values aren’t fleshed out enough. Beyond basic things like don’t hurt others, I have a lack of strong ideas about how the world should be and how I and others should act in it. There’s too many questions now that I have all this freedom to think and be whoever I want, and not enough goddamn answers. That’s why I’m writing this. I gotta find my own truth. (That’s right, I’m using GOTTA. I’m cool.) Here are my ideas.

Solution 1: I can figure out the answer for each of these questions by trial and error. Try one side of the spectrum the first time, the other side the second time. Try to spend all my money. Save all my money. Think only Republican. Think only Democrat. Change one variable at a time. Iterate to success using the scientific method, golden instrument of the rational mind. See what turns out/I like the best. Rinse and repeat. Here’s the problems: One, issues aren’t black and white, so vacillating to extremes doesn’t work. You have to sample a lot of positions on a spectrum to figure out where you fit, which is unfortunately too damn chaotic, too damn slow, and too damn non-generalizable. Every new decision in my life will be subject to avoidance of responsibility till I have carried out my experiments. I won’t always have several weeks to make my decisions or form my opinions on new things. This way is unfeasible.

Solution 2: Figure out “who I am” and what I “do.” Figure out what my real political, moral, societal, social, personal and everything else values are. Generalize classes of decisions by coming up with a set of “good practices.” Every time I have a new decision to make, just reference my personal store of values and say, “Yep, here is my value to try something new every day. So, yes, Clarence, I actually would like to take a hit of that meth pipe!”

This sounds good (minus the meth pipe), but how do I find my values? At a small enough scope, values become no better than experimenting for every decision. Values need to be broad, but numerous enough to cover as many decision classes as possible. So I’m going to explore the idea of having frameworks in my head to choose my finer values. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I can either remember my value, and act accordingly, or if I don’t know or have a value for that particular situation, derive one with a good framework. That’s what I’m going to be exploring moving forward. Hopefully, developing this can help me become a more directed, confident person.

P.S. To Future Aamir. If you cringed hard enough, you probably didn’t make it to the end here. So, future Aamir, you’re a poopy-face. Said it. Right to your face. You just didn’t read it. Hah. Loooooooser.

Why I Live

There have been special moments in my life when I’ve felt like I’m on top of the world. During those fleeting seconds when I’m at the apex of my euphoria, I’m on a different plane of existence. It feels like I’m perfectly tuned to the frequency of the very essence of life, that I’ve truly discovered the meaning of life. I call it The Best Feeling In The World (BFIW).

The reasons and circumstances surrounding every BFIW one might feel differ vastly from one another, from winning a tournament to being in love to whatever else. But for me, the best BFIWs are always when it involves someone else. I mean that when someone else and I collaborate so well with them that it’s as if both of us were simultaneously controlled by a single brain. A communal BFIW. When you know exactly what they’re thinking and they know exactly what you’re thinking, and merely being in their company in the aftermath of whatever triggered the euphoria feels unlike anything else in the world.

I can remember one time my soccer team was playing in a tournament soccer game and we executed most amazing chain of passes, including blind back heels, that led us to a goal and subsequent victory over the other team. When we knew what the other person would do with the ball before they knew they’d do it. It’s that feeling that kept me playing soccer for most of my life. The communal BFIW.

I just reconnected with a close cousin this past weekend during LAHacks. I had gotten dinner with my extended family Saturday evening, and he drove me back from the restaurant to the hacking venue. We talked about everything from religion to tech to growing up in our Indian-American culture, but in a way where we enjoyed the fact that we were in each other’s presence more than the conversation itself.

I hunger for BFIWs. They are reminders for why I live, and why I love life.

The Ideal Spring Break

The stereotypical college spring break is filled with exotic beach destinations, an abundance of alcohol, crowds of scantily clad members of both genders, and endless music and parties. As a college kid living in a common culture with and driven by similar biological drives as most most college students, I can get why that kind of 100 miles per hour, drown-out-everything-else kind of escape could be appealing.

My ideal break is a bit different, largely due to how they’ve turned out in the past. For context, I was raised in a very academically competitive neighborhood, and to keep up with the rest, free time = opportunity to get ahead of others. My breaks were usually were filled with STAR, SAT II, SAT, and AP testing prep, completing homework or projects for classes, applications to summer programs and colleges, and various extracurricular activities. As most of my classmates know, this mentality was driven into us from the social narrative of increasingly difficult college admissions, to our heritage, and sometimes, even from ourselves.

The few breaks where none of these commitments dominated my time were spent in family vacations (which never were the do-whatever-you-want-lets-take-our-time ones, but always the lets-squeeze-in-as-many-sights-and-attractions-as-possible ones) or poring over the pages of the Qur’an for hours at a time, reviewing what I had memorized months or sometimes years before.

I don’t regret any of those breaks. I learned a lot from all those hours of studying, and to a certain extent, it did allow me to keep up with the rest of my classmates. I’m glad that I had the learning/growth experiences during those breaks, because I wouldn’t be where I am in life today without them. But were breaks ever relaxing? Rarely.

For me, relaxing is freedom from commitments. It’s not forcing myself to think about what I need to do next, but allowing myself to ponder whatever tickles my fancy. Relaxing is scheduling commitments at my own leisure and having the free time to make spontaneous events happen. Relaxing is working on recalibrating the rhythm of my life by eradicating negative trends I’d observed before the break and establishing positive trends to maintain during and after the break. Relaxing is also just being okay with doing absolutely nothing for a while.

All my life I’ve been told that time is a resource that must be leveraged to maximize benefit. I stand by this creed 99% of the time. I believe that the other 1% should belong to the gaps in which we get to relax in whatever way that suits us. It leaves us feeling happier and more motivated during the 99% of the time when those resulting positive emotions can determine our successes and failures.

What sparked this post is my happy report that this past spring break was the best relaxation I’ve experienced in years. We didn’t go out on vacation, there was no school work to do, there were no events to organize, nothing – just me and whatever I liked, whenever I liked. I engaged in one-on-one conversations with almost every member of my family in a way that would have been impossible on a trip; I slept early and woke up early, just like I’d wanted to do since the beginning of the year; I ran almost every single day, covering more miles in a week than I did in the last six months; I spent quality time with every distinct group of friends; I read for leisure; I improved my web development skills; I often did nothing for hours at a time; and much more.

I couldn’t have asked for a better week. I feel refreshed and ready to take on what Spring Quarter can throw at me. More importantly, let this raise the bar for what breaks should feel like, especially for the kids going through the stressful period of preparing for college admissions. And here’s to many more in the future.

(ps I’ll do my best to post once a week now, usually Sundays/Mondays. Thanks for reading!)

End of Challenge Post

Well, I did it! With the publishing of this post, I’ve officially written 20 posts in 20 days. I came across a lot of really interesting realizations doing this that I’d like to record now.

The first is worrying that I wouldn’t know what to write about. Coming into this challenge, I had no idea how I would generate interesting content for twenty days in a row when I was barely posting once a quarter. But once I got to the computer and opened up WordPress, I wouldn’t leave until something had been written. In my early posts, I wrote about whatever I wanted. When I started publicizing my posts and blog traffic increased, I started to worry about what all the readers were thinking. Does what I write matter at all to those anonymous readers? I started filtering out ideas that I think I wouldn’t be able to express clearly or wouldn’t be interesting to the average Facebook viewer, which I think stifled a lot of creative potential. I really had to work to overcome that fear of anonymous judgement.

The second is that I noticed I’ve been a lot more expressive since I’ve started this. Like I have less of an issue being able to articulate a point I’m arguing for or trying to get across. It seems exercising writing ability has opened up thought flows in my speech. I think it’s because struggling to write something that every member of an anonymous audience would like and failing to do so made me care less about what others think.

Third, writing a blog post was always on my mind, so I kind of turned on an internal radar that always searched for interesting things to write about. It was kind of like a devotion of a certain kind. Am I be able to unleash other kinds of creative potential by doing something similar to this?

Fourth, that writing every day for 20 days is just not feasible in the long run at all. I can’t count the number of times I’ve posted past 12PM – it’s been far too many. However, I really enjoyed being able to express myself here, so I’ll probably continue to post consistently, just less frequently.

Fifth, I think I kind of went through what it takes to form a habit. It supposed to be about 21 days, right? I had a gap in the last week, but I’m just gotten so used to writing one post a day now that it’s no longer the huge burden on my mind that I described it to be in my initial 20×20 challenge post (linked above). If this challenge made writing a lot easier, I could probably use this same concept of a daily or weekly challenge to kick start other things I want to start doing on a regular basis but “never find the time to,” – I certainly found the time to do this. Perceived social pressure from an anonymous audience turned out to be surprisingly strong motivator.

Overall, I’m really glad I decided to do this challenge. The next question to tackle is: what other skills I’ve wanted to make time for could be improved by another long-term daily challenge?

For now, though, I’m taking a break. It feels good.

The Underdog Mentality

One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was playing on my city’s club soccer team. We had two great coaches, Coach Ralph and Coach Mike, who were with us throughout our elementary, junior high school, and early high school years. They were there through every step of our growth from boys to men.

Playing soccer under their mentorship taught us a lot of really important lessons. One important thing I learned was how to really push myself, especially on those tournament weekends where we’d have two full games on Saturday and three full games on Sunday. Another was to push yourself for the purpose of the team. Don’t do it for yourself, but for your team. Suffer for your team. Die for your team. Leave it all out there on the field, whether it’s a normal practice or a State Cup semifinal. But perhaps the most important lesson was the underdog mentality.

We learned it the hard way more times than we can count. For example, we’re ranked first in our league, going up against the lowest ranked team during a season match. We get destroyed. Or we have a really good first half, then get overconfident and lose it all in the second half. Or we just come out of a tournament win, then laze around at practice the following week because we think we’ve made it. Coach Mike and Coach Ralph would be swift and severe in their reprimand, even if it was right after a game, to destroy this tendency to ease up the throttle just because we’re ahead. The underdog mentality is practiced by a group of people or a single person, and it means to never believe that mediocrity is sufficient, no matter how convincing the circumstances may be to that effect.

When our team followed our coaches’ guidance and played as underdogs, we accomplished great things. When we played in this way, we never kicked the ball and ran after it, nor tried to dribble the ball and attempt juking out defenders for personal glory. We adhered to what we learned in practice, passing the ball in a controlled, smart way, emulating drills we learned at practice on the field. When played this kind of way, we won scrimmages, we beat state champions, we won State Cups. When we didn’t, we lost to the worst teams in our brackets and were knocked out of tournaments in the first two rounds. Our coaches’ lessons are burned into my memory with the sweet taste of triumphant victory and the bitter taste of humiliating defeat.

I think this lesson is so important because everything that we do to in order improve ourselves always relates back to this underdog mentality.

Indirectly, they taught us that the core belief of a true underdog is that any misstep will lead him to failure. He is up against an opponent, imaginary or real, who is far better than he is. Only through diligence, strict discipline, and a bit of luck can he overcome it.

While the underdog mentality worked for soccer, it applies to everything we want to get better at in life. Improving a skill. Refining a perspective or mentality. Gaining knowledge. Attaining a higher level of religious/spiritual enlightenment. Anything and everything you think and do is able to be subjected to the underdog mentality, because anything and everything we do can be done in a better way. Always.

“The enemy” is always the state between your current level of skill and your next level of skill, regardless of the level of skill. Believing that you’re always up against this superior enemy cuts your pride and gives you something to work towards. I think that’s why people who are great at something rarely think they are as amazing as we do – their underdog mentality is what brought them there.

Part of the underdog mentality is the strong presence of motivation to get better. Self improvement is constantly on the mind of an ideal underdog. Contained within the mentality of the underdog, then, is the self-regulatory mentality. The constant questioning of even the most deeply held convictions that tell you you’re at a certain level of competence. Your acceptance of the fact that you are not the best means you accept that with improvement, change is certain to be in the future and that that change may necessitate the updating or deletion of even those sacred protected convictions.

This allows one to be open minded, but leaves one to the danger of being swayed easily. So a strict criteria by which you judge what should change a conviction or not is also necessary. And this set of criteria is contained within our minds, completely subconscious and automatic – the filter by which we judge what to change about ourselves only improves with experience.

I think the ideal underdog measures himself by improvement, not absolute performance. It’s more important that he outperformed himself, not someone else. Because there’s always someone out there better than you, working harder than you, better at everything than you, and it’d be an unattainable and ultimately confidence-crushing goal. He’s always thinking, “I am not the best” even if he just set a world record in his skill. It’s so hard yet important to internalize this.

It all sounds so abstract, but it’s so concrete. It’s as concrete as studying hard for the class every upperclassman has told said “Don’t worry about that class, LOL.” It’s as concrete as accepting that you’re simply not as good at something as people tell you are. It’s as concrete as striving for excellence in things as minor as filling out an event form and things as major as college applications.

Coach Ralph and Coach Mike stopped pushing us at soccer practice years ago, but they continue to teach and reteach this lesson in underdoggedness each day of my life. It’s something I struggle with now, but I hope to internalize this one day so deeply that I won’t know what this post means because it’s so natural to me. That’s the dream.

Sonder

A totally made up word from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig:

Sonder – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I came across this quote a couple of years ago on tumblr. I was in high school at the time – everyone in our graduating class virtually knew or met every other person in some capacity sometime during the six years we were all together. So I while I could appreciate what this word meant, I could not internalize it. I could see how other people would have this feeling, but I couldn’t experience it myself.

Now here I am in college. My circle of acquaintances and friends make up less than 1% of all the students in my graduating class, let alone the entire school. It’s true what they say about large college campuses – I’m a small fish in a very large ocean.

Not only are we less significant, but we all live our lives so closely to one another, in very similar ways – I see hundreds or maybe even thousands of people walking by me on the way to class, studying next to me at the library, listening with me to the professor or TA during classes, eating near me in the dining halls, working out near me at the gym. Yet despite all of our shared similarities, I know not a single one of them.

In other words, it becomes clearer with each passing day what it means to experience sonder.

That person entering that classroom over there 200 feet away in all likelihood as as many family members and friends as I do, whose deaths he’d grieve for as strongly as I’d grieve the death of any of mine. There are people Snapchatting him ugly selfies every day, people who know his idiosyncrasies far better than I ever will. He believe himself to be as connected and significant to the world around him as I believe myself to be connected and significant to that very same world. He is more than an avatar in my field of awareness, but a real breathing person who is just as important as I am. There is no logic that makes his birth and his existence any more or less justified than mine. Yet I’ll never know his name, nor those of the countless billions of humans who live, have lived, and will live on this planet Earth.

And this same thinking applies from the point of view of every single of one those beings.

It blows my mind.

Notes I wrote about habits to motivate myself when I was really sleep-deprived a couple of weeks ago

Habits – even the slip of one day can be the tipping point for everything to fall apart. Absolute, unquestioning self discipline. Definitely slippery slope – but once a habit is formed, you’re set on a road that’s much harder to deviate from. Habit means that that activity is as natural as waking up or using the restroom. That’s a habit. Only be satisfied and rest in your pursuit of establishing your habit when you unconsciously go about doing it.

Food Matters

Up until this quarter, our housing college’s dining hall was known, at least among its residents, as UCSD’s “worst dining hall on campus.” A small list of the concerns:

  • Each dining hall on campus has a sort of specialty. Our dining hall’s specialty is meat, which alienated those who want to eat Halal even further than they already are on campus, but also vegans/vegetarians.
  • The meat in general was pretty bad, according to my friends who tried it
  • The veggie pho noodle soup was literally uneatable. I tried it twice, most people in my suite had tried it at one point or another, and I haven’t been able to find one person could actually finish the entire bowl. (sorry veggie noodle soup)
  • Fruit flies near the pancake toppings and fruit areas
  • Serving lunch an hour before breakfast had ended
  • Flavorless soups
  • Charging $2.25 for a cup of milk when you can but a quart literally right upstairs for $2.50 (though this is pretty common among all the dining halls)
  • Very little variety
  • Extremely congested in peak hours because some food items people wanted were frozen instead of ready to be cooked, causing waiting times to be between 10-15 minutes for a warmed up patty.
  • All this contributing to the general negative perception of dorm food and of our housing college

To a certain extent, when we’d vent our complains about the horribleness of our dining hall, we were nitpicking, but it bothered us nonetheless. I think inside, we all felt bad that we’d often rather walk 20 minutes to the opposite side of campus to eat at a better dining hall instead of eating at the one in our own college. Also socially speaking, the first thing you do when you ask a UCSD student is what housing college they’re from – and when one of the things the college you’re from is known for is a horrible dining hall, it makes us feel just a little bit ashamed. (Honestly though, we’re just thankful we have hot food waiting for us like 300 steps from our beds.)

So when the Housing and Dining administrators set up a booth in our dining hall’s seating area for anyone passing by to submit feedback, I took up the opportunity.

I was the only one who stopped by, I think, because from the time I walked in to eat lunch to the time I walked out an hour later, no one else approached them. I talked to them for a good twenty minutes and tried to frame my concerns to stem more from wanting to improve our housing college’s image and less about me just being sick and tired of the sparse options .

That was last quarter.

This quarter, here are some things that have changed since last quarter:

  • No more fruit flies
  • Better soups
  • Variety in food. Today, especially, I was blown away – we literally had fried macaroni and cheese as an entree option during lunch. (Got two servings of that)
  • I found out they changed food suppliers from whatever they had before to Sysco – I was just pleasantly surprised with the improved quality this quarter and one of the people working there told me that this was one reason why
  • Fellow students around me have stopped saying we have the worst dining hall on campus, which is really great

I’m not saying that things got better because of what I told the admins last quarter, but I’d like to think I’ve made a difference. Above all, I’m just thankful we’re get better food now.  =)

Screens

We spend so much time looking at screens.

List of things I do that involve looking at screens:

  • Computer science assignments – 8 hours a week
  • Writing essays – 8 hours a week
  • Doing a lab for my second CS class – 2 hours a week
  • Working on homework for my third CS class – 10 mins a week
  • Reading textbooks on my iPad (I’ve gone completely digital, saved a lot of money by sacrificing paper) – 3 hours per week
  • Reading books for my writing class on my iPad – 8 hours a week
  • Writing blog posts – 3 hours a week
  • Playing Brawl – 3 hours a week
  • Obsessively checking my phone in lull periods because it’s too uncomfortable to not doing anything (what have we come to?) – x hours a week. Too many to count.

And it’s definitely not just me. I take a look around at the dining halls during any meal and between people on their phones or watching the TV, screens are definitely a thing. This need to be looking at a screen.

It’s kind of a socially acceptable addiction. We need a constant stream of information at all times, whether its TV or video games or social media.

I guess it wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t bother me so much. Looking at a screen kind of takes you out of this reality, and allows you to be in this virtual world doing whatever it is you want – watching videos, seeing what other people are up to, or writing code.

It’s one reason I like working out. The strain allows me to get in touch with my body again, in a very grounding way.

Just some thoughts.