Archive for October, 2010

Mr. X

ATRIAS poster

Note the resemblance of ATRIAS to the ostrich. The long middle rectangle shows how the software works together. Models were created in SolidWorks by Jesse Grimes and converted and rendered in Blender 3D by me.


Last Saturday, I participated in a 3-hour poster session about my summer internship experience with the running robot ATRIAS at the OSU Dynamic Robotics Lab at the OMSI Science Fair.

There was a man (Mr. X) who visited my poster. He looked about 40 years old and wore a cap and a black shirt that indicated his employment at some programming firm, though I only remember that it had a weird name and regret that I never wrote it down or asked him about it. Anyway, he asked me about the robot controller code and the math behind it. In a foolish attempt to maintain my aura of invincibility, I said something vague about how ATRIAS was designed to be a simple mathematical model, though I really didn’t know what I was talking about (Disclaimer: it was my co-intern, not I, who programmed the controller code, so it was not my area of expertise). Mr. X frowned, shook his head, and replied that the system actually must be really complex, pointing to the diagram of angles and vectors one of my labmates had given me to represent the robot simulator code. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In my quandary, I even forgot to ask his name.

Mr. X was probably right; the robot was complex, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. But what was he thinking? It’s not that I am put off by his criticism. Criticisms are refreshing, but not just because they are rare; receiving the same, cliché compliments, nods, and smiles of admiration and approval quickly gets old. “This is amazing!” they exclaim. “How do you do it? That must have been hard! Keep up the great work!”

They are probably genuine comments, and I appreciate them. However, such comments do to my mind what eating too many sweets would do to my body: my ego gets fatter and rises higher and higher up into the clouds, my mind glazes over, and I subconsciously develop an illusion that I am good enough. This is dangerous because although I consciously know that I am not good enough, an unconscious sense of security can be like years of undetected drops of poison in my tea. A focused, deliberate comment like Mr. X’s is a necessary and welcome slap of reality, and it is from people like Mr. X that I learn the most and often come to admire.

Again, what was Mr. X thinking? What does anyone think of me? Does he take pity in me, knowing that I am smothered by these honey-sweet comments and become bogged down in my own ego? Does he think I am another self-important, socially-inept nerd/programmer lacking depth of thought and self-evaluation? Does he frown at enrichment programs like this, suspecting the recognition only serves to inflate ego and glorify something foolishly insignificant? Does he assume that I, like so many others, fail to realize how much I don’t know? Does he think I will never write this blog post? Can he imagine how much I do know?

Is it bad to seek recognition? For whom or what should I live? Am I gutsy enough to risk paying it forward? I used to proudly believe that I was completely self-motivated, but my detour in Japan has taught me otherwise, that I actually rely very much on my peers for praise and motivation. My isolation also helped me realize how much other people know. Not that I became humble, no—with this unquenchable thirst for recognition, I don’t think I can ever be genuinely humble.

Darn it, I did it again; I’ve forgotten what I had originally intended to say and am getting sidetracked. At least I’ve said something.

Be Free and Lose Control

This idea of being free and losing control has turned up repeatedly in the past few weeks, and I have been thinking more and more about it. It started with my reading of The Inner Game of Tennis, which discussed, among other things, the importance of freeing the natural, childish learning processes of my unconscious self and not allowing my conscious self to interfere. It was then Ms. R, my English teacher, who introduced our class to the idea of losing control when we write, to be unafraid to pour our hearts out. Ms. K emphasized that our orchestra be able to “sound awesome” even without a conductor, and I am sure Mr. C would agree. I wonder if I am able to take pride in myself today because my parents did not try to channel me in any direction; I was free to strike out based on my own whims.

I recently watched a TED speech by Itay Talgam titled, “Lead like the great conductors.” Talgam’s point was that it was important for the conductor not to conduct, but to let the musicians create their own music. Music is the telling of stories, not that of the conductor but those of the musicians, of the audience members, and of the composers. Control extinguishes individuality. Riccardo Muti was a good conductor, but his hand was too heavy. He was too authoritative and did not let his musicians develop.

Now take Herbert von Karajan, my favorite. He has the music in his head but forces his musicians to add their own interpretation. The musicians look up for instruction but, seeing closed eyes, are prompted to look back at each other. The section leaders instead lead the group and in doing so, the music becomes their collective own.

And Carlos Kleiber. It is so satisfying to watch him conduct! Boisterous, dynamic, hyperactive, he has firm authority, but at a different level than that of the musicians. I love how he connects so well with the orchestra yet leaves it free to guide itself. He is dancing to the orchestra rather than having the orchestra follow him.

Benjamin Zander, brilliant conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, points out that “a conductor… depends, for his power, in his ability to make other people powerful… to awaken possibility in other people.” I think this holds true not just for these maestros but for the many inspiring people in my life, including my parents, my friends, and my teachers—thank you for awakening possibility in me.

Robotics season will soon start for real and I will guide the incoming freshmen. This year we are also starting five FIRST Lego League Teams at the local Boys & Girls Club, and I hope to mentor middle schoolers there, as well. I can’t wait! I will have to remember not to be an ideological authoritarian but serve simply as a guiding example. These kids have their own stories to tell. These kids will be awesome. Besides the occasional, encouraging push, there will be little for me to do except sit back and watch them find themselves. Maybe I will find myself again.