bookmark_borderThe Zeitgeist of Counterculture | Pure Heroine Turns 6

This National Geographic picture of George Brett is pretty unassuming. But what if I told you it inspired the title of a song that sold 10 million units worldwide, making it one of the best selling singles ever? Take a closer look.

According to Wikipedia, Royals by Lorde is “an anthem for millenials”. In celebration of the 6th Anniversary since Pure Heroine was released, I thought I’d look at how Royals perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 2010s.
Lorde’s Pure Heroine was one of the best selling albums of 2014, and in my opinion enabled later artists like Billie Eilish to capitalize on a growing counterculture in the West.

Counterculture is the rejection of the prevailing values and behaviors of mainstream society. If you were growing up in the 2000s, you’d probably see wealth celebrated on TV shows like MTV Cribs. But with the economic recession in 2008, wealth lost its lustre a bit. Mansions were foreclosed and luxury cars sat unsold in dealership lots.

Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” in 2012 rode this wave with humor, and Royals tailed it by being a bit more candid and contemplative.

But I could go on all day about the context Royals capitalized on. What about the song itself? Let’s look at the top 100 songs of 2012 (according to Billboard’s year-end charts) with regards to their approximate Beats Per Minute (bpm):

  1. Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (129 bpm)
  2. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (120 bpm)
  3. We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (92 bpm)
  4. Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (110 bpm)
  5. Lights – Ellie Goulding (120 bpm)
  6. Glad You Came – The Wanted (127 bpm)
  7. Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (116 bpm)
  8. We Found Love – Rihanna (128 bpm)
  9. Starships – Nicki Minaj (125 bpm)
  10. What Makes You Beautiful – One Direction (124 bpm)

The average across these songs is 119 bpm. For reference, that’s faster than the upper range of the normal rate for your heart, which makes sense — these songs are meant to be energizing for parties, dances, and gyms.

Royals (produced by Joel Little) is written at 84 BPM. Now that’s not particularly groundbreaking in and of itself, but it does set the song apart from other songs in the pop/hip-hop genre specifically for 2012. Royals isn’t the kind of song you dance to (though I still would) — like many of Lorde’s songs off Pure Heroine, it’s meant to be listened to in a more relaxed and contemplative state.

That slow pace and Royals’ minimal instrumentals provokes you to pay attention to the lyrics. And the brilliance of Royals is in its countercultural lyrics. Let’s look at those same top hits again, but this time by subject matter:

  1. Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (break ups)
  2. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (crushing on someone)
  3. We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (an ode to wild partying)
  4. Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (break ups)
  5. Lights – Ellie Goulding (not being able to sleep in the dark)
  6. Glad You Came – The Wanted (crushing on someone)
  7. Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (break ups)
  8. We Found Love – Rihanna (love even during low-points)
  9. Starships – Nicki Minaj (it’s really just for dancing)
  10. What Makes You Beautiful – One Direction (crushing on someone bashful)

Now many of these are great subjects to write a song about–they’re generally pretty relatable. But they’re also all covering pretty homogenous topics.

Royals discusses the disparity between what younger people increasingly saw in pop culture and their lived experience in suburbia. Its lyrics are, well…luxurious ironically. Take a look:

But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

– Lorde, Royals

Royals references brand after brand: Grey Goose, Cadillac, Cristal, Mayback, etc. And then it rejects them in a celebratory, prideful way. And that speaks to those who want to be content with their lives without the financial pressure of high-end luxury brands or fame.

I love Royals. I think it makes me nostalgic for 2013 when I first heard it, and it still holds up in 2019.

bookmark_borderSpecificity in All the Light We Cannot See

But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

That’s one of Jack Kerouac’s most famous snippets of writing. It has nearly 11,000 likes on Goodreads, and it even made it nearly word-for-word onto the On the Road film adaptation. If you’ve read On the Road, you’d recognize it instantly. These are the words Sal Paradise muses on as he watches his friends Dean and Carlo “[dancing] down the streets [of New York]” enraptured by tales of sex and adventure to be had in the mythologized American West.

On the Road was one of my favorite books for the longest time. I found the prose energizing and the characters memorable.

Here’s a different quote from what might be my new favorite book:

The locksmith tells himself that the diamond he carries is not real. There is no way the director would knowingly give a tradesman a one-hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond and let him walk out of Paris with it. And yet as he stares at it, he cannot keep his thoughts from the question: Could it be? He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I don’t think this excerpt gets as much attention, but it’s so much more powerful than any passage I’ve read in On the Road. In this scene, a locksmith and his blind daughter rest for the night in a deserted farm field west of Versailles, France, where German occupation has forced residents to evacuate their homes. The locksmith is tasked with safekeeping one of three lookalikes of a highly-sought-after and potentially cursed diamond. As far as he knows, any of the lookalikes including his could be the real diamond. And this is what he thinks to himself.

I think these two excerpts make for a great comparison because they both are internal monologues, they are both motivations for the main character to leave their homes and embark on a journey, and they both deal with the central themes of their respective works.

But Doerr’s quote deals with so much more. Here’s everything tied up in it:

  • Father-daughter relationship
  • Class hierarchy
  • Duty to protect (both his blind daughter and the diamond)
  • The night sky as a calming, introspective force.
  • Fear

And by comparison, here’s (at most) what we can glean from Kerouac:

  • Longing for mythologized adventure
  • The desire to be unique and not “commonplace”
  • Fireworks as awe-inspiring and the night sky as a backdrop

If you were to jot down bullet points for a book you wanted to write, the former already carries themes that would be heartwrenching and impactful in their own right. The latter feels naïve by comparison.

At least in my opinion.

I don’t mean to suggest that books which deal with darker themes like warfare are inherently better stories. What Doerr is a master at is specificity. And for more on why specifcity is the key to great storytelling, I really recommend Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast The King of Tears.

In almost the same number of words, Doerr draws on much more powerful descriptors and uses contrasting elements to carry the narrative. The darkness is falling like velvet. Trees, sky, hay. These words don’t expend 30 lines painting the scene in extraneous detail like Faulkner, but they give you exactly what you need to know to mentally visualize the calm setting. And then phrases like “tells himself”, “no way”, “scans”, “inside his own mind: a knot”. It’s so subtle, but this diction helps the reader contrast the inner mental turmoil and exhaustion of the locksmith with the serenity of the wartime night sky.

I’m a huge fan of All the Light We Cannot See, and I think it’s an incredibly worthwhile book to read to understand good storytelling.

bookmark_borderPersonalizing My Laptop

I’ve had my 2016 13-inch Macbook Pro since it came out three years ago. It runs macOS Mojave 10.14 (a fact I just learned for the purpose of writing this blog post). Before that I used Microsoft Windows on various PCs for about a decade.

This isn’t a post about hardware though. It’s an overview of how I’ve set my laptop up to help me stay productive. I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to my laptop, but here’s what’s working for me.

This is my desktop. The background is a dark mode edited version of the Cognitive Bias Codex, which can be found here.

My wallpaper is the Cognitive Bias Codex. While I don’t believe I can fully subdue all of these biases, it certainly helps me to be aware of them. One of my favorites is the Google Effect, which is the tendency to forget anything that can be readily found online. I think that partially explains why my memory can feel so fragmented at times.

You’ll maybe also notice a couple other things:

  • A super crowded Dock
  • Very few desktop folders (I use macOS’s stacks feature)
  • A couple background applications on the menu bar at the top

Let’s hit them one by one!

My Super Crowded Dock

Safari, Chrome, Firefox: On the far right are three web browsers. I’m a web developer, and I believe it’s important to test how your site works on all browsers — not just the most popular one (Chrome at the moment). See here for more on that philosophy. But I also find in order to compete with Chrome, browsers like Firefox are routinely adding nifty features.

Facetime, Messages, Slack: Because I like being able to communicate agnostic of whether I’m on my phone or laptop.

Thinkorswim by TDAmeritrade: From the Summer of 2018 where I got really interested in high frequency trading. I still think this app offers unrivalled analysis and custom indicators for financial markets.

Spotify (Desktop App): The Desktop App lets me customize my Spotify Playlist cover photos. That’s the only reason I use it over the web player.

Calendar, AirDrop, System Preferences, iTunes, QuickTime, App Store, Notes, TextEdit, Preview: Some MacOS staples

Minecraft: The only game I will always have in my dock. I even have a shortcut to the mods folder.

Kindle: Again, I really like the seamless integration between my phone and laptop. It’s nice to be able to pick up a book exactly where I left off.

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom: I have InDesign and Illustrator, but as a photographer I use these two the most.

Microsoft Office (Word, Powerpoint, Excel): College student staples.

Command E: A productivity tool for simultaneously searching all my various Google Drive accounts for a file.

Final Cut Pro & Gifski: I used Adobe Premiere Pro for years and found it exceptionally slow at rendering videos compared to Final Cut. Hence, this is my go-to video editor of choice. Gifski (convert videos to GIFs) is made by the same developer who wrote ImageOptim (losslessly compress images to smaller file sizes for the web). I love both tools.

Sublime, Atom: My go-to hackable text-editors of choice.

FileZilla: When I first downloaded Filezilla back in 2015, it seemed kinda suspicious (I guess its name is very ’00s-esque like GoDaddy or HostGator). But this is my SFTP client of choice, and it’s just been a breeze everytime I’ve used it.

SourceTree: One of my mentors at my recent internship showed me how to use SourceTree to better visualize version control flow when working on a software engineering team. It’s truly indispensible once you figure your way around it. I still love using the command line for quick simple edits, but SourceTree helps me with more complex tasks like resolving merge conflicts.

Terminal: A coder staple.

Activity Monitor and Little Snitch: I’m a control freak over everything on my computer. When I download an application, I expect it to perform its intended functionality without extraneous background processes that utilize my CPU. Adobe is the worst offender here. Activity Monitor lets me ensure that my CPU is allocated to programs I am actually using. This is so important for saving battery life. Little Snitch is one of the best apps I’ve ever paid for. It tells me exactly what signals my computer is sending out, and what is coming in via a user-friendly interface–sort of like being able to look under the hood of your car to diagnose issues. I’ve used it to effectively block Adobe from commandeering my CPU.

Other Applications I Love: DaisyDisk (for anyone curious about what’s taking up all the space on their computer), Docker (for developers), 2Do (a to-do app that honestly is overkill in functionality which is why I love it)

Very Few Desktop Folders

The only folders I keep on my desktop are:

Background Applications

  • f.lux which automatically adjust my laptop from blue light to yellow light as the sun sets. Bright blue light is harsh on your eyes if you’re working late at night (which as a college student I often am) + it’s better for sleep hygiene.
  • Magnet: Magnet helps you have multiple windows open, sized however you please. This is particularly helpful since Microsoft Office windows are a pain to resize and move around on macOS
  • Little Snitch: Which I raved about above to help me control exactly what signals go in and out of my computer. I’ve bought the full version.
  • Bluetooth & Display Preferences: 2 macOS staples that help you give presentations at various places without “experiencing technical issues” + useful for dual monitors or wireless headphones

Flat OSX Icon Pack + LiteIcon:

  • Flat OSX Icon Pack: These are my go-to icons because I’m super minimalist and the flat designs appeal to me. They’re free to use!
  • LiteIcon: You’ll need to follow the steps there to get LiteIcon to work, which will enable you to adjust the icons of default OSX applications (like Safari and Finder). LiteIcon is free to use, so consider donating!

Documents Folder Organization for College

This one might seem pretty standard, but this is how I organize my College Folder. I’ve added a ‘z’ before my earlier years to keep the most relevant folders at the top. I also organize resume’s by date.

Web Browsing

Now while my philosophy is to develop for the whole web, Chrome is my browser of choice. The extensions ecosystem it offers helps me be much more productive as a developer with extensions such as Vue.js devtools and web developer. You can also see I’ve organized my bookmarks into various folders. One of my favorites is Utilities, which contains a Javascript snippet to edit any text on a webpage.

One of the niftier things I’ve done is create a custom (locally hosted) Google Chrome extension for the old format of Reddit that gives it a minimalistic appearance. It’s just a fun personal project for now, and it’s far from perfect for public use. I do prefer using it for browsing Reddit though.

And that’s all for now (you might think I’m a bit psycho if you were to see how methodolically I organize my external hard drives for photography)! If you find this kind of stuff cool, I highly recommend Nikita Voloboev’s GitHub, which makes me look disorganized and slobby.

bookmark_border20 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College

When I first arrived at the University of Chicago, I remember coming across Ted Gonder’s 31 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College blog post. It resonated with me so much that I printed it in its entirety and taped it to my freshman dorm room’s door.

In 3 months, I’ll be done with my time at the University of Chicago. It’s been a wild ride, and I figured it was time to make my own list. It would mean so much to me if a fellow student found this helpful—if you do, I’d love to know. Here are the twenty things I’d have told my freshman self before college.

  1. Our memories are biased towards experiences documented and shared. The only college nights I vividly remember are the ones I captured in pictures or shared with friends.
  2. Exploration alleviates imposter syndrome. If you’re going to college far from home, the more you explore your surroundings the more at home you’ll feel.
  3. Live on a low salary for a summer (including rent and other expenses). Living on a minimum wage or low salary will likely be somewhere between extremely uncomfortable to just barely tolerable. However once you’ve done it, you’ll be better informed on how much of a salary you can reasonably live on after college.
  4. Pick classes based on the professor, not the subject material. You can find interesting things to self study long after college has ended, but you mostly only have these four years to find inspiring academic mentors who will take office hours with you.
  5. Brand names are only as good as the people who adore them. Whether you attend an elite brand name school, or are gunning for an exclusive student club, or would like to join a household name company after college—that brand is simply a carefully curated image bolstered by those who buy into it. Optimize to work for (and with) people you admire instead of brands others admire.
  6. If you skip working out or sleeping to study, you’re sacrificing long-term well-being for short-term gain. This is amenable if the short-term gain does not become a long-term habit.
  7. Take a whole week off for Thanksgiving. Even if it’s only a four day break, find a way to make it a week. Spend that week with family. At the end of your four years, you will have missed precisely twelve days of college, and gained one month with your family.
  8. Being memorable only requires caring. As you progress through college, the most memorable people will be the ones who cared about your well-being for some reason. Similarly, your impact on others is mostly measured by how much you care about them.
  9. Read David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ until it makes sense to you.
  10. If you are never rejected, you’ve never really pushed the boundaries of what you can accomplish.
  11. All those days that came and went, little did I know they were life. If something toxic like anxiety or depression brings you down daily, you need to work to minimize its influence on your life, and there are absolutely times when you need professional help to do so. The most courageous and difficult bit is the same step: seeking help.
  12. Small steps forward will always beat indecisiveness with time. I think of the future like driving down a really foggy highway. The exit signs are opportunities. As long as you keep driving, even if you’re not sure what the next opportunity is, it’ll definitely come your way. But if you stop moving forward, you’ll never reach it.
  13. When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.
  14. Write essays that are powerful. Your professor has probably assigned this prompt many a time over, and year after year students use the same textual evidence to support the similar theses. Draw on your own personal experience to approach the assignment in a unique and creative way. End it with a mic drop. Make it fun. Make it humorous. Just don’t make it boring. If you get a poor grade, so be it. But never let anyone take away the fun of articulating your thoughts.
  15. Read fiction outside your classes. Non-fiction is like photography—it’s the art of selecting. Non-fiction authors select a biography, a research paper, an era of history, etc. Fiction is like painting—it’s the art of creating a universe from a blank canvas inspired by human truths that undergird our everyday lives. Nonfiction can endow intelligence, but fiction is unrivalled in building empathy.
  16. Be charismatic to a fault. One of the most inspiring people I’ve met could be described this way. Err on the side of being an open book rather than being indecipherable. Vulnerability can be endearing.
  17. Outbound leads tend to beat inbound leads. The opportunities that arrive on your doorstep are the ones you are well qualified for—whether you capitalize on them or not. The opportunities you have to actively seek and fight for are the ones that tend to result in the most personal growth.
  18. If you don’t know anyone, no one knows you. If you’re at a party and you don’t know any of the people there, the inverse also tends to be true—no one knows you. You get a completely blank slate to build a reputation, meet new people, and experience new things. Not knowing anyone at a get-together is a blessing in disguise.
  19. ‘Follow your passion’ is not necessarily good career advice. Read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You early on when choosing your major and intended career path.
  20. Live a story worth telling. At the end of your four years of college, I promise no one is going to ask you about that time you studied all night.