Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kindness of Strangers

I may not have always depended on the kindness of strangers, but I'm pleasantly surprised, nonetheless, when a stranger lends me a helping hand. I've had bike problems the past couple of days, and three strangers helped me in small, but significant ways.

Yesterday, I was trying to fix a flat on my bike. The innertube had completely deflated and snaked its way out of the back tire. The complete bike novice that I am, I had no clue how to fix it. So I decided to instead take the bike over the local bike shop. The only problem: the bike shop is about a mile from my dorm, and the flat on the bike made it infeasible to roll. So I was faced with the prospect of carrying the heavy bike a mile to the shop under the blistering  noon sun. I could only carry it a few dozen feet at a time before taking quick breathers. I tried rolling the bike only on the front wheel, and while that made the load a bit lighter, I was still anticipating a long slog to the shop.

I'd only made it halfway down dorm row, when two facilities workers spotted my plight. They were likely busy with their own work and had no ostensible reason to take an interest in my problem. But they did. One asked me about what happened and I told him I was on my way to the bike shop. He commiserated. His friend took a look at my wheel and wondered if he couldn't get the innertube back inside the wheel so that I could at least roll the bike to the shop instead of carrying it. He turned my bike over and proceeded to do exactly that -- the tire was still flat, but at least, now the innertube wasn't dangling oddly outside the wheel. I could now roll the bike on both wheels -- what a relief! They gave me a few more tips and wished me good luck. I thanked them heartily and was on my way with a considerably lighter load.

This morning, I took my newly fixed bike out for a spin around the river. The attention of a third stranger headed off another potential bike calamity. Halfway through my ride, I was stopped at an intersection when a biker next to me pointed out to me that my front wheel was loose. He indicated a latch at the hub of the wheel that had come undone. A very small act, but nonetheless, one I'm very grateful for.

There are two lessons I could draw from these stories. One is that I need to learn more about proper bike maintenance ;) But, second, and more importantly, I'm reminded about the ultimate goodness of humanity. On the news, we're bombarded daily with stories of all the atrocities humans commit against one another. But it's refreshing to take stock of the small acts of kindness that don't get as much airtime, but which people perform everyday. It makes me smile and reminds me of the importance of kindness :)


Friday, May 27, 2011

On Creation and Storytelling

To create something great is to tell a good story. And how do you tell a good story? Ira Glass of This American Life has some great tips about this in a set of videos on storytelling. Most of Ira's tips are important not just for journalists and novelists, but for anyone involved in any type of creative endeavor. Painters tell stories with their brushes, programmers tell stories with their code, entrepreneurs tell stories with their products, scientists tell stories with their papers, engineers tell stories with their inventions. Here's how they do it.

First, they build a story out of anecdotes and reflections. Anecdotes are the linear sequence of events at the heart of the story: first this happend, then this, which made me say this, so on.. They ask little questions and answer them. This builds momentum and keeps the listener thinking: "What's next?"
But an anecdote alone does not a story make. Moments of reflection tell the reader why the story is important: "Why is it worth my time?" Good storytellers seamlessly interweave anecdotes and reflections.

Second, they make a lot of stories and kill the ones that suck. Getting rid of bad stories is as important as writing new ones. Killing the bad stuff makes the good stuff shine. Good storytellers edit ruthlessly.

Third, they have a killer taste for what's good. Often they know what's good, before they can make good stuff themselves. Early in your career, the stuff you create sucks. And you know it sucks because it doesn't live up to your great taste. But don't quit here. Good storytellers create. A lot. Until the stuff they create doesn't suck as much.

Fourth, they get over the beginner's pitfall of imitating creators they love. The world doesn't need another Shakespeare; it needs your new creations. Good storytellers find their own voice.

Now just go write, film, photograph, paint, build, code, design, research, invent,... just go create.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Last MIT exam

Today, I took my last exam at MIT. 18.443 (Statistics). It's been a long ride since my first MIT exam in 8.022 (Physics) nearly 4 years ago. I remember Prof. Josh Winn asking as he handed out the physics exams, whether this was anyone's first MIT exam. As it was early October, freshman year, this was true for several people. I nodded excitedly, as I dove into the first of many exams at MIT.

I haven't really looked back since. Between that physics exam four years ago and the statistics exam today, I've taken countless other exams, probably numbering close to a hundred. I don't remember most of them, but I hopefully still remember some of the highlights of the topics they covered. 

Coming up next week: my last MIT problem set and paper. And the thesis. Really close to the end now and I'm starting to reflect on the experiences of the last four years at MIT, but more of that to follow the completion of my thesis :)