Category Archives: Books

From Quora: Writing Classes at MIT with Junot Diaz before his Pulitzer

At MIT from 2003 to 2007, I took 3 classes with Junot Diaz. Although my lecture attendance is notoriously bad (sometimes I didn’t even show up for exams), Junot’s classes were different. That first class freshman year, I felt like I’d been rummaging for garbage scraps my whole life and finally someone cut me some steak.

Junot swears, in a friendly way. “This isn’t fucking church. If it doesn’t move you, it’s ok to walk out.” I don’t know if his classes attracted the awesome, or if the class made people awesome, but some of the most awesome people I know I met in this class. Every week we would look forward to the 3 hour meeting because we were so excited to see each other. Whenever we met in the Infinite, we’d pause to talk about the readings and our work. Through writing, you get to know people in ways you would never see otherwise, because people write about things they wouldn’t have occasion to talk about: parents lying to each other about bad investments, gods contemplating tree spirits, suicide letters, using malaria to lose weight, grandmas stealing back grandchildren, getting stopped by the Israeli border patrol, shrooms in your fraternity, walking off a broken foot.

Once we went up to Wellesley because Rosa invited him to give a talk. Junot did a reading, and then went into discussion like always.
“How do we make the reader ok with the fact our narrator Yunior is a jerk?”
Imran said, “Yunior will do something terrible, but then he makes me laugh, which takes me to the next line.”
“He tells the truth,” I said. “He’s honest about being a jerk so you trust him to tell you the rest of the story.”
“Is there a sexist theme?” someone asked. “Yunior doesn’t respect women.”
“If the narrator keeps saying women are stupid, but then in the story a woman comes and takes his money, and another woman beats him up, no matter how much the narrator insists women are dumb, does the story say that women are stupid?”
Afterwards the Wellesley students crowded around, “Why haven’t I taken a class with him?”
This all was before Junot had written Oscar Wao (or won his Pulitzer), but his talent was obvious- we kids saw the signs.

Our mailing lists were active:
“Ignore my last email- that one’s shit, this is a better draft.”
“Let’s all meet at my ILG for dinner.”
“If MIT has taught me anything, it’s that parties don’t throw themselves.”
“Essays due! Get to work, gang!”

“Students! My students!” Chalk loosely gripped, Junot would dramatically, slowly scratch the board behind him without looking, then haphazardly stab back at it as he talked. Afterwards the abstract lines looked like we’d been doing some crazy algebraic geometry- you’d never guess we were talking about life outside the story, or lacunae, or structure, or voice. On my writing, he’d put check marks near good parts, “No” near bad parts, and a rare “You kick ass Nancy!” near kick ass parts. After class during finals week, we crashed a lecture hall to watch “Fuckin’ Shaolin Soccer” on the projector, everyone getting drunk.

It’s one thing to read a dead man’s writing. You can even read the living Sherman Alexei and think, “Yeah, some folks have it really bad,” while simultaneously implicitly concluding that others never suffer a day in their lives, or even that most people never suffer. Having my writing teacher be someone who wrote the type of stuff I’d read, who experienced things, who encouraged us to write about what messed us up, to connect with my crazy genius classmates, to realize everyone has a billion secret selves, shifting between various identities, to draw aside the curtain to reveal our secret worlds, was personality-altering for me. In my math and CS classes, we talked about approximation algorithms, theory of mind, big O, BBN: the Problems of advancing science, problems we were solving- not the ugly worries of the lower realms, dead-end stuff with no reason, base stuff you can’t work on aside from letting it fade, subjective stuff that isn’t truth the way other parts of understanding reality are Truth. Elevate beyond animal emotion, abhor politics, the path to the heavens through technology goes the complete opposite direction!

I was a writing major (21W) in addition to a math major (18C), and Junot’s class was the first real writing class I ever had. I’ve always been a bookworm, but I don’t think I learned to read until Junot taught me to write. Writing reads differently when you read as a writer. Sometimes I mark time by how much a book or script has changed since the last time I read it (my overall conclusion is that the classics actually are good; the literary community and tradition is smarter than me). Learning to write teaches me how to read, which teaches me how to think, which teaches me what to ask, what to work on, what to value. How do we navigate this life, with the noble promises of our expanding human knowledge propelling us into the stars, only for the battering of our pathetic human hearts to tear us back down into the grime? These writing classes were the other half of the equation for me. Ten years ago, I was starved as a stray cat and didn’t suspect that at MIT of all places I’d find a home to take me in.

My answer to “What was it like to have Junot Diaz as your creative writing professor at MIT?”

Batman vs. Charles Dickens

Quora posted my answer to the Huffington Post! The nancyhua.com version below has a longer ending than the Huffington/Quora because I feel more free to ramble on my own site (perhaps you’re surprised to discover I show restraint when writing on other sites, or at all. Here’s a way for you to contrast the difference between me writing haphazardly and even more haphazardly). This answer is rife with spoilers of Dickens, Dark Knight, and the meaning of life, so if you don’t want to be initiated into the mysteries of the universe, resist the urge to read on:

What Do You Think of Christopher Nolan Using A Tale of Two Cities for Inspiration for the Script to The Dark Knight Rises?

I didn’t notice Nolan was using A Tale of Two Cities until the Act 5 (or 7?…) burial scene where Gordon quotes directly from it, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done,” at which point the incongruous stuff such as the scenes of blue collar people tearing fur coats off trophy wives suddenly had an explanation. Those scenes otherwise make zero sense to me: how are the middle class citizens of Gotham suddenly villains staging executions and mock trials?

Anyway, after realizing Nolan was drawing from Dickens, upon closer examination the parallels are pretty tight, right down to the twist ending of A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge turns out to be the daughter of that murdered family paralleling Nolan’s reveal of that billionaire lady turning out to be the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. I guess even though Nolan tries to beat you over the head with it, you can’t be heavy handed enough these days, especially with old stuff like Dickens.

Aside from the big reveal in both works turning out to be that the orphaned girl grows up to be the mastermind killer seeking to avenge her family through mass murder, other parallels include:
1. Secret backstory: Batman, billionaire woman, Catwoman vs. Dickens’ Darnay, the DeFarges, the prisoner doctor dad.
2. Secret societies: Legion of shadows and conspiracy among the commoners such as the cement truck people vs. Dickens’ Jacques peasants conspiracy that began the French revolution.
3. “Recalled to life” and inventing a new name from prison: the child, Bane, and Batman escaping from the prison and Catwoman wanting a new identity vs Dickens’ doctor and Darnay each separately escaping the Bastille.
4. Twin or mirror identities in which one dies for the other: Batman and Wayne faking deaths vs Darnay and that drunk guy switching places in the final scene.
5. Faithful, bachelor servant: Alfred vs. Lorry.
6. Incompetent, oblivious leaders or the leaders being lecherous scumbags: that rich guy Catwoman seduces and uses as her cover or the mayor at his football game vs. the monsigniere.
7. Using the rich’s own weapons against them: using Wayne’s armory against Gotham vs imprisoning the rich in the Bastille.
8. The courtroom mock trial scene.
9. Hero returning to save the commoners who cry out for his help: Batman becomes Batman again and somehow goes from the Asiatic prison to Gotham because he can’t stand the sufferings of his citizens on TV. Similarly, Darnay returns to Paris because his old servant writes him pleading for help against injustice.
10. Misunderstood nobleman hero: Wayne and Darnay, both donate their entire fortunes to the poor before the works even begin (Wayne turns out to have invested everything in his nuclear energy project and Darnay forsakes his entire estate and changes his name, hoping the commoners will appreciate taking over his lands).
11. Baleful, brutish servant who executes mastermind mistress’s bidding: Bane and Madame Defarge’s husband.

Both Nolan and Dickens are firmly in the top 1%. Like Nolan, Dickens was a wildly successful celebrity writer in his times, widely acknowledged as a genius. However, Dickens was born into poverty, so while A Tale of Two Cities is strongly critical of the chaos and popular uprising, he was passionately empathetic with the poor and also condemned their abuse and the decadence of the rich. The donation of Wayne Manor to orphan boys would probably be something Dickens would admire.

The chaos and violence against the rich is something criticized in both Dickens and The Dark Knight Rises- even Catwoman repents and decides that maybe it wasn’t what she wanted after all. A Tale of Two Cities struck me as being about karma and breaking the cycle of evil: Madame Defarge allows vengeance to consume her life so that she’s indifferent between good and evil. As long as you allow this to happen, you’re doomed no matter what your original victimization was because despite coming from a family victimized by the rich, Defarge is clearly the villain in Dickens’ book who ends up pitilessly killing many innocent people. In contrast to Madame Defarge, Darnay tries to break the cycle of careless decadence by forsaking his lands and title. After assuming a new name and occupation, he achieves happiness and love. Darnay’s twin/mirror, the drunk dude whose name I forget, also breaks his cycle of wastrel drunkenness by taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, finally redeeming himself and gaining a tragic yet noble sort of dignity and heroism.

Like A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of ideas about rebirth. The billionaire lady is stuck in the past and loses all likeability- I don’t understand her obsession with her weird quest to redeem her dad to the point that she commits a mass murder-suicide. Alfred is continuously bugging Wayne to finally break out from the past which he ends up successfully doing, which I guess is supposed to be a positive ending. Catwoman is also all about breaking from her past and also finally succeeds, which is supposed to be a victorious note in the movie.

Thematically Nolan and Dickens are both saying that even if stuff sucked a lot in the past (like Mom dying in prison and everyone getting the plague and having to climb out of the pit you were born in with a weird, deformed, masked dude as your only friend), you have to somehow get over it! Life is unfair and it sucks! But there can be heroes (ranging from vigilante billionaires/ French noblemen to petty thieves/ drunken lawyers ) who are self sacrificing enough to try to rescue the community from the injustice they’ve been suffering under for ages. And instead of chaotically turning against said heroes and vilifying them for sticking their necks out, the community should be noble and self sacrificing in turn, the way those policemen finally got out of their homes and senselessly/ admirably rushed into a mob of criminals shooting machine guns… And unlike how Madame Defarge convinced the French Revolutionaries to guillotine Darnay anyway despite first acquitting him- don’t do that.

Even if you got dumped by Maggie Gyllenhaal, or had your family murdered by rich men, or had your family and childhood crush murdered by criminal men, or were forced into a life of crime, or the woman you love will never love you back even though you explicitly told her you LOVED her (she can’t love you bc you’re Batman/ an alcoholic/ not as cool as some blue-eyed, blond politician), or you were wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille or some horrible pit for 17 years, if you don’t get over it, change, and move on with life, you’ll become a joyless jerk who even the aged family servant finds unbearable and escapes from. Despite initially seeming cool, principled, and focused while you’re menacingly and impassively knitting the names of your enemies into shrouds, eventually everyone will decide you’re actually a relentless psycho that they’re scared to hang out with, chalking up the regrettable night they spent with you to meaningless rainy, dark, mansion sex and living happily ever after with the ex-thief turned do-gooder.

Sure, you killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of wealth. But after everything your enemies are happy and you end up dead! (Spoiler: Madame Defarge gets shot by a maid. (Other spoiler: Gotham is actually Pittsburgh by the sea! Wow! Go Steelers!)) So even if you have a really good reason and suffered a lot unjustly due to people who don’t deserve the love or money they’re swimming in, don’t turn evil. Instead, be awesome and help others because there are always impoverished orphans who are way worse off. Orphans like Oliver Twist or Josh Gordan-Levitt remind you life is not all about you, and your suffering, and your revengenda. And if you do become really powerful one day, don’t act like those jerks who hurt you. Even though they suck and annoyingly always seem to avoid punishment, just let it go, work on using science or getting rich so you can solve the energy crisis (hopefully in a less obviously WMD way to the extent that Morgan Freeman put a timer on the thing), and enjoy life by falling in love, vacationing in Florence, becoming the celebrity author of David Copperfield whose works inspire blockbusters by celebrity writer-directors like Nolan, etc.

It’s a positive message saying everyone should have some compassion and that any individual can be a hero as long as there’s love. I think the message came out more naturally in A Tale of Two Cities than in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s there in both.

Citizen of Facebook

After disappearing from the internet for the past few years for my post-college all-consuming job, upon emerging I used Facebook to reconnect and figure out everything that I’d missed (who knew non-traders have their own form of colocation except they call it peering?). I put up my new website and integrated it with Facebook, which turned out to be awesome because everyone can share and comment on posts using their Facebook identities.

During my years invisible to the internet, I considered myself elevated above those who were on Facebook hours a day (I have never owned a television and went years without internet in my Chicago apartments because

1) I was too lazy to get it installed and rationalized the diminishing returns of getting it installed because I would be moving to a new apartment in x days anyway (I moved every year). I use this rationale to get out of many annoying tasks, but incidentally used the same rationale to persuade (other) people to do tasks ASAP. Weird, huh?

2) I was always at work and hooked into the internet anyway, but not browsing for anything unrelated to work obviously. During my no-tv no-internet lifestyle, I mainly read my kindle constantly and used my phone for email, but it was a really old phone so I couldn’t download most apps onto it.

3) My computer was really old so I couldn’t download most things (like Chrome) onto it and my trader workstation had spoiled me for any inferior setup: I needed my ergonomic keyboard, my wireless ergonomic mouse, and eventually my gamer keypad controller. Interfacing with a flat laptop keyboard became intolerably suboptimal).

During those post-college work years, I viewed Facebook as a time sink and smugly considered myself superior for using it rarely, but now I think it’s a tool that makes it easy to connect with your friends, to share information and form groups. A lot of the tech innovations are like ways to waste time, but some of them also fundamentally have real value and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that, which is part of why I started trying twitter etc.

When I got back to the world, I asked my friends to tell me everything I’d missed on the internet, and it turns out some stuff had happened without me noticing- for example, social games. I tried my first ipad/iphone social game DrawSomething at Yinmeng’s recommendation and played it a lot for 2 weeks before getting tired of the same words while moving on to sketch club as an outlet for my drawing needs instead.

After visiting Zynga I decided I did need to check out what this whole Facebook app thing was about considering it’s a bazillion dollar industry (this is the same reason if it’s ever revealed I’ve looked at porn or done anything otherwise questionable- purely for research and educational purposes), so in addition to testing some games I read The Facebook Effect, the contents of which are the topic of the rest of the post. Apparently while I was invisible online, Zuck was off executing on his vision of Facebook as a platform, an ambition that impresses me because he had this idea back in the day when few companies had that vision.

Although it’s possible that hindsight and the human instinct for narrative spins lucky randomness into deliberate strategic decisions, Zuck certainly talks and acts like a visionary, confident leader. He says, “We can make the world a more open place… Let’s build something that has lasting cultural value and try to take over the world.” Repeatedly refusing to sell the company, first for tens of millions, later for billions and tens of billions, Zuck comes off as passionate about the project, really believing his ideology, not caring about money, and thinking extremely long term.

Unlike some “serial entrepreneurs” whose goals are to create a company with the intent of getting acquired, Zuckerberg, an idealist (one anecdote that shocked me was that Zuck was found crying during a dinner with VC’s because he felt so guilty about considering their superior offer after giving his word to another VC- when was the last time you cried out of guilt? When was the last time anyone cried out of guilt regarding a business decision? Did he react like this because he was so young, such a crybaby, or such a dreamer? I think it’s got to be because he’s so idealistic, which is sort of unbelievable but somehow to me the most believable possibility), really does not want to sell and took time to conceive of a principled business philosophy and worldview. For example, he said he “wanted outside apps to help keep Facebook honest by forcing it to make its own remaining applications good enough to compete successfully.” Welcoming competition seems like a really big picture, long term, global-optima seeking view that I don’t hear many other CEOs talk about. Is it a necessary cognitive bias for a successful leader to be sure he’s working on something fundamentally good and world changing, or is a strong ideology what makes a leader successful in the first place?

Zuck also expressed insights into the tech industry and its interplay with human psychology. He says [Facebook] is about people; Google is about data; Facebook is “a technology company. Myspace is a media company.” Insisting Facebook is a utility, “Zuckerberg… realized that Facebook wasn’t a tool for keeping track of news made somewhere else. It was a tool for making news.” Young men are always the revolutionaries- I’m very curious to see what happens as time passes and Facebook has even more success.

While “The Social Network” dwells on interpersonal dramas, The Facebook Effect doesn’t really talk about that, instead explaining some of the conditions and strategy surrounding Facebook’s success:
-“Facebook’s ultimate success owes a lot to the fact that it began at college. That’s where people’s social networks are densest and where they generally socialize more vigorously than at any other time in their lives.”
-“The Harvard connection makes a product less suspect.”
-Immediate popularity because “Harvard students are preternaturally status-conscious.”
-They were able to roll out iteratively and incrementally bc each college was its own network, allowing them to wait to make sure they had enough servers etc before rolling out to another school and taking on more users, thus assisting in avoiding getting Friendster-ed.
-They employed a peer pressure “surround strategy:” “if another social network had begun to take root…. thefacebook would open not only there but at as many other campuses as possible in the immediate vicinity.”
-To ensure demand, “When the number on the waiting list passed 20 percent of so of the student body, thefacebook would turn that school on.”

Because this book was published in 2010- forever ago in internet years, it doesn’t include some of the more recent developments, and a lot of questions remain to be answered. While “a trusted referral is the holy grail of advertising,” I want to learn more about how Facebook will revolutionize advertising beyond engagement ads. The tagline is that Adwords “fulfill demand,” whereas Facebook “generates demand,” so will the people who generate the demand (the other users) get incorporated into and paid by the model in a new way? What developments have occurred since 2010 that the book doesn’t cover?

Another question arises on accessing content. As more and more content becomes user generated with privacy settings, how will Google access, search, and distribute this information? Will Google integrate with Facebook and show different search results depending on which friends’ content is accessible? (Also, how can Facebook help resurrect Microsoft from obsolescence? I don’t dare short Microsoft while Facebook is on its team.)

Much of the author’s info comes from interviews, as evidenced by his erroneously calling a drug “Provisual” instead of “Provigil”- a mistake that would most likely occur from confusing the spoken word (Don’t ask how I know about Provigil, a drug I would not recommend to anyone since you still feel sleepy- you just can’t fall asleep, so it’s worse than useless for keeping your brain functional for higher order tasks). All of the remarks were positive about Facebook, so the book may be somewhat biased.

Nevertheless, you leave the work feeling impressed by the success of the company, acknowledging that it has already changed society and social interaction, and wondering what will happen next. Will Facebook’s currency take over? Will Facebook be the new basis for society and government? It also raises philosophical questions, like do you think it’s true that “a more transparent world create a better-governed world and a fairer world?”

Zuck says, “You have one identity… the days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers … are probably coming to an end.” While Facebook does allow you to only share info with people you friend, etc, Facebook does push transparency as a core value. Should transparency be a value? Is openness really optimal? Do people only have one identity? Demand for Linked-in would suggest people want to have multiple identities, but is that an outdated cultural idea, along with privacy? Will the single profile enter our collective consciousness and cause us to view work as just another attribute of our unified identities?

The internet is changing human relationships, intelligence, society, government, culture, and Facebook is determined to be a driver of that change. On the internet, we are all created equal (more so than offline at least), and if the most popular website Facebook has taken over the internet, then are we all citizens of Facebook? Has Facebook already allowed us to unify as a species and become truly global and we (I?) just haven’t realized it yet? Facebook started as a model of real life social relationships, and quickly evolved into a real world where social relationships are created and lived. I cannot wait for this Facebook IPO!