Personal

Let’s go to space

Imagine you’re high: you’re 238,900 miles from Earth. From here, your entire vision is the green, blue and white of your home planet. You look beside you, and you can see the stark white of the lunar landscape. Now you’re higher, and you can see the whole of the Earth. From here, you can actually feel how fragile, how inconsequential our little planet is. It makes you cherish it even more. Life is special.

Now zoom out even further. 3.7 billion miles from home. You look behind you, and you see a pale blue dot, a mote of dust, just suspended in a beam of light. Everyone you ever met, everyone that you never met, billions of invisible interactions you missed. It’s all right there, on that pale blue dot. It’s a humbling experience.

Europa is somewhere near you. One of the many moons of Saturn. You remember that this is where humanity first found extraterrestrial life forms. You chuckle to yourself. You wonder how humanity could have ever wondered if we were alone in the entire universe.

Now you’re 120,000 light years away. You can’t even see Earth anymore. Instead, you just see a dim glowing band across the black expanse of space. That’s Milky Way, our galaxy.

2.5 million light years away. You’re in Andromeda Galaxy, one of our neighbors. Along the way, you’ve seen beautiful things. Clouds of stars, glimmering in every spectrum of color you could imagine. Asteroid belts, with rock and ice clashing and shattering into tiny pieces. Serendipitous events occurring at a rate so tiny, it could have been said to not have occurred at all.

You’ve seen horrifying things, too. A black hole, the remnants of a dying star. You see another kind of a death of a star, a super nova. When the entire density of the planet compacts, then explodes outwards in a single explosive burst, with energy as high as the amount the sun will emit in its entire lifetime. This is a violent death for a star. But this is also the beginning of us. This is where we came from, because the building blocks of life are made of atoms that were produced in the heart of this planetary explosion.

Now you’re 46 billion light years away. You’re really starting to know the universe now. You’re starting to know yourself, for the first time. You’re reaching the edge of the known universe. Finally, you’re starting to see the boundary of human understanding …

There. This is why we need to keep advancing as a species. This is why NASA needs to get the funding it deserves. This is why we need science-literate politicians. This is why we need to invest in good science. Because that is what we will be able to experience, or at least the future children of humanity. Can you imagine how amazing that would be? It would be fucking awesome.

I could also have talked about the fact that funding in curiosity-led science led to the discovery of some of the most fundamental technologies we have today, like transistors, which is the basis of information technology and the modern economy. I could have talked about how watching rocket ships land on the Moon inspired generations of scientists, engineers and technologists that pushed us forward.

But no, I don’t need to talk about any of that. Because reaching for the edge of the universe, reaching for our full potential as humans, to see what lies beyond, to satisfy the urge of the explorer, an urge that will always exist inside of us, is worth striving for as a species.

Let’s see where curiosity takes us. Let’s go.

Edit: My friend informed me that Russia is allocating $50 billion in space spending through 2020, while the budget for NASA in the U.S. keeps declining. And the GDP of the U.S. is eight times that of Russia. Come on.

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Personal

Embracing absurdity

One of my closest friends and I spent one last day together before he left for grad school. We parked the car next to the ocean and watched the sun disappear, like it was signaling the end of a chapter in our friendship. We were listening to Daft Punk on the car stereo, with the rhythm of crashing waves as the backdrop. Suddenly my friend said to me, “The ocean made me uncomfortable for a long time. I actually got used it only recently.” Then he went silent.

He looked as if he wasn’t sure that he wanted to let the next words come out of his mouth, but eventually he did.

It was a story from his childhood, about a day at the beach in the Philippines where he grew up. He went swimming a little too far from the shore, and got caught in a dangerous riptide.

He was eventually saved by a local, but afterwards he found out that his uncle, who had swum out to save him, had drowned. He was devastated, and the horror of that day seemed to live vividly in his mind. I’m not sure why he decided to tell me that story at that moment. Maybe it was the finality of the day lingering in the back of his mind. But it got me thinking, and it took me, almost comically, far away.

I imagined cosmic dust. On a unassuming blue rock, floating in a infinite sea of darkness, this cosmic dust was arranged into life. Dust that can experience itself. Then, maybe for the first time, dust evolved into something that could look up and contemplate the cosmic ocean where it came from.

Nothing reflected back.

I can imagine how scary it must have been. When I was little, I got a gut-wrenching feeling every time I thought about our planet spinning in blackness, like that empty void was pushing down, trying to crush me.

I thought about our journey. An odyssey full of tension caused by consciousness existing inside an indifferent universe. For as long as we’ve existed, we tried to fight back against the horrible void by desperately searching for meaning, in any way we could.

But we’re constantly reminded of the void, pressing down on us. It always creeps back in, through the tedium of our daily lives and stories of tragedy.

My friend’s story hit me harder than most because it revealed the void so plainly. A man swimming into the maw of an uncaring ocean, drowning while trying to save another life. The universe didn’t care who he was, how many people loved him, or how noble his actions were. Just a collection of particles following a set of physical laws.

It’s almost unbearably absurd.

We collectively have to go a little crazy just to exist. Insanity is the true universal birthright.

All these thoughts kept on swirling in my mind while my friend and I sat in the car, getting lost in our heads. Then I looked out of the car again.

I watched the smoldering sun melting into the horizon, like ice cream made of fire. Remnants of daylight broke through the sprawling clouds, its edges tinged orange and red. It took my breath away.

I looked beside me, to one of my closest friends and felt a mix of emotions. Appreciation, for being so lucky to have known him at all. Sadness, because I knew this was probably the last time we would be able to hang out together like this (I hope I wasn’t creeping him out right then.)

How do I reconcile deeply human experiences like these? It feels more real to me than anything else. Does the lack of meaning in the universe render my personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions equally meaningless?

I don’t think so.

To me, the empty canvas that we’re born into isn’t an end. It means we’re free to paint it however we want. This is where we can begin.

The only way to deal with an indifferent universe is to look deep into our unique human experiences and create our own meaning, so that our very existence transcends the void. Creating meaning is the most human thing that ever existed. It’s how we can be as human as possible.

If you think about everything this way, the immensity of the universe only accentuates our existence.

We all found each other in the never-ending expanse of space by pure chance. We all found each other, on this unimaginably tiny point of light. We can create, and share our own meaning with each other, even in the short time we have to exist. We’re the beginning and the end – a self-sustained loop.

Thinking from this perspective makes even the most mundane parts of life insanely vivid. It makes moments like last goodbyes among friends even more meaningful.

So, what about my friend’s uncle?

I don’t know how he lived, but I do know how he died. He died fighting against the current of indifference. In that moment, he was risking his life to save another. He put his entire being into the blank canvas that he was born into, and created meaning out of a meaningless void.

This legacy lives on through my friend. Witnessing an act so profoundly human, deeply shaped the kind of person my friend wanted to be, and the kind of career path that he wanted to pursue. It became a powerful motivator to always strive to be someone of value to others – to take care of people who need it.

That’s something powerful, and it’s something that every single human being can do. We can all push back against indifference.

In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.

 

Thanks to my friend for letting me write and share something so personal. Let’s hang out again real soon.

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Making & Sharing

My first Illustrator project!

I started learning how to use Adobe Illustrator this summer, and I thought I should share my progress. Hopefully it will be useful for someone who might also want to start. For each illustration I make, I’m planning on documenting the process, inspirations, resources and tutorials that helped shaped it.

Also, please brutally critique me so I can get better!

Starting out

The internet is cool. There are infinite free tutorials for Illustrator out there on the web, so it’s easy to learn from scratch. To kick-start my Illustrator journey, I decided to pay for an actual online Illustrator class, but I think it’s totally possible to learn everything you need to know for free.

The class I took is called “Learn the Ins and Outs of Illustrator“, taught by Brad Woodard. The class can be found on Skillshare, which has a bunch of awesome online classes, with a focus on the design/illustration/art side as opposed to a lot of the other MOOC sites like Coursera or edX. (which I also recommend if you’re interested in other MOOCs. I’m taking a programming class on Coursera for free right now.)

The course itself was awesome. Brad Woodard was a great teacher for people who are just starting out. He doesn’t gloss over any details to make sure even absolute beginners don’t get confused, and focuses on getting you very comfortable with all the basic tools that you need know to get started. The class also has a project component, so you can work on your own project while learning, and you can present it to other classmates for help and critique. Here’s my project from the class.

By the way, I also just signed up for the “Rock Poster Design: From Concept Development to Execution” class on Skillshare to keep it going with Illustrator. It’d be cool if I had someone to take it with!

The project: succulent

For my first project, I wanted to choose something based in real life, so I would have something real I can look at. My family recently got into growing succulents because of how unique the plants look. The illustration is based on the first succulent that grew in our house.

Illustration details:

Continue reading

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Personal

How to become a legendary teen sensation

For a day. At a water park.

Like most 22 year old males, I have a healthy appreciation for Justin Bieber and his music. But that doesn’t mean I understand the insanity of the legion of beliebers that worship him like a demigod.

This is a topic that’s been keeping me up at night for years. I think we can all agree that at some point in our lives, we asked ourselves: how can I also become a massive teenage sensation like Justin Bieber?

Well this summer I discovered my own foolproof way to become god among adolescents, and you don’t even need to take a dump in a pair of purple leopard-print pants to do it.

Step 1: go to a water park

Just go. This is where all the cool teenagers like to hang out.

Step 2: find a water ride

It has to be a scary one, with a bunch of teenagers on the side making sure people aren’t dying before they go on it.

I chose this half-pipe water slide thing. It was really scary.

Step 3: accidentally shut down the water ride

You need to cause the water ride to shut down by doing something that seems badass to a bunch of teenagers.

Personally, I chose to accidentally fall off the tube at the peak of the half-pipe and go tumbling down.

Thunk

Pro-tip: The best way to do this step is the way where you don’t die.

Step 4: pretend you didn’t almost poop your pants

This might be the most important step. As soon as you hear the gasps of the shocked crowd, pretend the whole thing happened because you’re just extreme like that.

Get up, smile, put your arms up in the air, and scream “YEAH! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!”

Make sure people don’t see that you’re just trying to mask how embarrassed you are.

Step 5: walk away

At this point, the ride is completely shut off. People in line are wondering who wasted their time, and the water park police are coming to see what the hell happened. You don’t want to get tangled in this mess so get out of there.

Step 6: accidentally run into the group of teenagers

By the time you run into them again, you’re already a legend among their group of friends.

Reinforce it by acting like it wasn’t a big deal.

Pro-tip: Try not to talk to them as much as possible. It minimizes the chance of them finding out you’re actually just an idiot, and maximizes the chance of you becoming a local high school legend.

Step 7: enjoy

Enjoy yourself as a bunch of teenagers follow you around giving advice on how to sue the water park, and shouting your name and screaming “GOOD LUCK!” before you go on every water ride for the rest of the day.

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Personal

Waves and revelations

I had one of the best days of my life today, on a wave crashing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was a touch of heaven. Maybe you felt something like this too.

Waves are nature’s roller coaster ride. The rush as the ocean effortlessly sweeps me up and drops me down is one of the most terrifyingly awesome experiences I’ve ever had.

But it’s more than just the adrenaline rush that keeps calling me back to the sea.

Waves also draw out the deepest sense of who I am. The meeting of water and land is a force of nature that makes me confront myself in a way that nothing else can, and sometimes rewards me with the purest sense of being alive.

The ocean has a different personality each day. Some days, the ocean is actively trying to kill me. It chews me up then spits me out. Other days, the ocean is bored with me. It leaves me rocking gently up and down.

Today, I experienced a side I get to see only on rare occasions.

It started out just like any other beach day, by paddling out against crashing waves furiously trying to keep me out. I eventually broke through to the calm side, far out where I could wait for the big swells.

When it came, I immediately knew this one was going to be a monster. I paddled as hard as I could until I was picked up by the looming giant. The houses lining the shore became smaller and smaller, as the wave rose higher and higher, until I could see above the rooftops.

This is the point where I experience fear in its most visceral form, where riding a wave becomes an act of faith. To get past it, I need to accept my insignificance as a speck in the midst of the full force of the sea, but at the same time, jam every ounce of belief I have in myself. I have to go all in.

As the wave began to crash, I felt the familiar rush of the drop. But today, the sea rewarded me with the most supreme kind of pleasure. It swept me down the barrel so smoothly, as if nature itself was cradling me, gently carrying me across the surface.

As I glide across the wave, nothing exists but me, the barrel, and the wind fluttering through my hair. It’s the purest form of freedom and focus.

My mind takes a few minutes to come back down to reality as the wave carries me back to the shore.

It was a touch of heaven.

Once you feel it, you can never go back.

It’s not just riding waves. I can immediately tell anyone that experienced it – extreme surfers, base jumpers, athletes, painters, designers, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, chess players, psychonauts – it doesn’t matter.

These are people that completely devoted themselves to furthering their evolution as a person. They’ve felt that touch of heaven, and they have no choice but to keep reaching for it, no matter what.

Laird Hamilton, considered to be one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time, said it best. When asked why he risked his life riding on extreme waves he replied,

“I don’t want to not live, because of my fear of what could happen.”

What unifies all these experiences is that they are all beautifully, completely subjective. You can’t break them down, explain them, or put a price tag on them, and you can only experience them yourself.

I’ve been riding waves all my life. It shaped a lot of who I am, but I’ll always be most grateful for having the chance to experience revelation first-hand.

Knowing that these moments are possible at the edge of human experience, made me look out for more of them in all corners of my life. It gave me the motivation to go all in, every time.

This outlook led me to some of the most meaningful, life-changing experiences I’ve ever had, such as my trips to the Navajo Nation (which I will write more about).

I know my days in the ocean are coming to an end. There are things I want to do that will take me far, far away from the beach where I grew up.

No matter where I go, or what I do, that wave will always be there with me, gently carrying me so perfectly, to the touch of heaven.

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