DENALI

Upon the cold cement,

We both found common ground,

With choices to lament,

Impoverished and the crowned,

 

I’m green as springing trees,

You’re old as rock and time,

Yet pain we seek to freeze,

With snow and blood and twine,

 

I’ll never find the words,

We share no common tongue,

I’ll fly up with the birds,

We’ll both just lay there strung.

BRIGHT NIGHTS, NOMADIC DAYS

It feels strange waking up in the Lower 48 again. When I left Alaska, the sunlight was already making people and plants manic again. The grass that was dead for months bloomed vivaciously in a matter of days. The snow was long gone, but the rain hadn’t shown itself quite yet. The midnight sun was already creeping and beaming over me.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been over a year since I first went to Alaska. It seems fitting that I flew out on the same day that I originally arrived Anchorage. All in all, I spent over eight months there, only returning to Texas to finish my last semester of school. I lived fully while I was stationed in Alaska, managing to take only a few reprieves to bum around the house or work on my passion projects.

I’m exhausted in so many ways after everything though. During my early college days, I was eager to pack up my entire life and travel somewhere new for an opportunity. After five years of constant moving, I welcome a more static lifestyle. Ever since I left Austin behind me last December, I’ve been living out of a suitcase. I took roughly the same amount of things to Alaska for my six-month stay as I did my internship. Each time I moved, I trimmed more fat from my belongings, and now it seems that my life can be contained in almost a single bag.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what exactly makes a home a home. Being back in Austin felt a little different this time. In some ways, I felt like I just been gone a couple of days. In others, I felt like I had been gone for eons and the city wasn’t even recognizable anymore. I took a sentimental stroll through my alma mater’s campus with my closest friend from college. It made me think of my last walk to the campus bus stop. My last walk to the Transit Center in Anchorage. How my life had suddenly afforded me a new lifestyle that I couldn’t have imagined attaining at such a young age. Visiting my hometown felt completely strange as well. I felt no real attachment to the place anymore; not that I ever truly did anyway.

Life just keeps on getting stranger. As I write this from a hotel in Galveston, Texas, I can’t help but wonder what the journey towards making a new home will be like this time around. I never thought that I would say this, but I’m very happy about settling down in one location even if only for a couple of years. Unfortunately, I won’t know exactly where that will be until the start of August. The sleepless nights have already begun. As always, I’m still learning to embrace the uncertainty.

LIFE ON THE STREET IS A DEAD END

My company’s office building is located in the heart of downtown Anchorage. This shimmering, golden beacon of American capitalism seems to cast a shadow over the Downtown Transit Center and its transient residents. Many are drunk and high; many are homeless and hopeless. Some even sell their bodies either for a quick fix or as a means of survival. They spend their dark days on the cold streets of Anchorage.

Now that the sun is starting to come out for more than just a few hours, I’ve started taking walks during my lunch break like I used to during my summer internship. What amazes me is that the Transit Center’s population during the winter is nearly the same as the summer. Except now, the Transit Center is used as a brief respite of warmth before chasing the rest of a nomadic day.

It’s worth noting that a staggering percentage of these transients are Alaska natives and their descendants. These people are trying to assimilate into American society, but despite living in the second wealthiest state in the US, can find virtually no economic opportunities here for them. It’s easy to point to cultural differences as an explanation for the rampant violence, substance abuse, and self-destructive tendencies, but in reality, like most things in America, it all comes down to money. Naturally, oil and gas is the primary industry here, which requires a great deal of education and specialization. People like me are brought in from the outside to fill these white-collar opportunities. A strong upper class is created, while the rest are detained to a life of abject poverty in a state with an exceedingly high cost of living.

Social change is a process that takes a significant amount of time and pressure, much like the geologic processes that lead to the formation of oil. Major production began in Alaska in the late 1970s, and an entire generation has already come to know degrading impoverishment of Alaska’s great economic divide. My company has made substantial donations towards helping the natives, but the American notion of throwing money at a problem fails to be a viable solution in this case.

This past May on one of the first days of my summer internship, a stranger in the elevator warned me about the transients. Using derogatory terms, he implied that these natives are a worthless people. Why can’t they just act right, he wondered aloud. I remember being horrified. To think that in the year 2013 in the United States the notion of second-class citizens could still exist was disgusting to me. Until that point I knew nothing about the Alaska natives or the social issues that plague them, and I suspect that most people simply don’t either.

I often see people go out of their way, often by walking on the other side of the street, to avoid making any sort of contact with the transients when they pass by them on their way for coffee or lunch, and I think that’s a significant part of the problem. Rather than politely denying their requests or even acknowledging their existence, it’s easier to just avoid them altogether, which is simply dehumanizing. The transients are long forgotten as employees walk past them to the parking lot. Downtown isn’t our home.

During my internship, I didn’t have a car. I had one more semester awaiting me in Texas, and I would have to pay tuition, rent, and living expenses completely out of pocket, because I didn’t have enough financial aid to cover my second degree. Despite the sizable checks coming from my work, I had to save every single cent that I could to make ends meet. Without the option of being gouged by a rental car company, I relied on the bus as my sole method of transportation. That’s not to say that I was without privilege. My employee badge allowed me to ride the bus for free.

Whenever a rider would get on the bus, they would either feed money into the designated slot or slide their bus pass across the face of the machine. A loud beep would resonate throughout the bus, signaling their entrance. When I got on the bus, I simply showed the driver my badge and entered, and they would have to manually enter a code. Honestly, I felt guilty about it at first. It was as if it were some underhanded deal. Why should I who could afford the fare ride for free? I received a lot of dirty looks from the patrons as well, I assume because donning my business clothes on the bus was insulting to them. Maybe it’s the same look that button-downs would give someone in their office wearing street clothes. I didn’t see many corporate employees riding the bus, mostly just laborers in tattered work clothes. I grew accustomed to it, because I didn’t have the option to avoid it. Eventually, I became a regular, and the faces all became familiar. Now, when I take my strolls downtown, I see the value in sharing the sidewalk.

On my walk today, I saw a mural that proclaimed that life on the street is a dead end. After that, I saw three young people hitting a crack pipe in a nearby alley. I couldn’t help but think that the message wasn’t lost on them, rather it was worthless to them. It’s easy to talk about change and opportunity, but what can they really do when their future was predestined by the socioeconomic circumstances that they were born into?

Sometimes, we all need to ride the bus. We all need to spend some time at the Transit Center. We need to remember that when the natives approach you asking for change, they don’t just need the money in your pocket.

THE COLLEGE TRY

Some days I just feel too sentimental to function. It’s been a tumultuous transition from university to corporate life for me. My shielded lifestyle of academia has truly ended now. Except for the tens of thousands of dollars of debt, of course. And my life goal of constant, life-long learning. Still, it’s difficult to put into words how the slightest sense memory can haunt you, sending you spiraling down into a nostalgic depression. It’s hard to describe the feeling of stiff, new button-downs after the familiar comfort of tattered T-shirts. Or the feeling of driving to work after having taken the bus for years. Or even the change from open-air strolls between classes to brief air-conditioned trips to the water cooler.

During work, I find myself listening the vivacious anthems that once embodied my high school youth. My mind often wanders to how these people who so viciously and eloquently captured the angst of growing pains are dealing with being an adult now. I also notice that I’ve been going through old photos a lot more than I ever have before. As if I’m trying desperately to relive these past times. Maybe, I’m stuck in the past. Maybe, I’m worried that the best times of my life have already passed me by. In any case, I can’t let myself fall victim to such a depressing outlook.

I remember during my freshman year of university, I would always talk with a close friend about how our lives would be after we graduated. Money, prestige, respect, and freedom. It was all so simple back then, yet we were both so right and so wrong about everything at the same time. It’s still maddening to think that those conversations were already five years ago. Tempus fugit

I’ve been in Alaska for over four weeks now and hacking away at this post for about three. Still trying desperately to find the time to do everything that I used to. Here I sit trying to compress into something palatable and digestible the swift and brutal life lessons that are imparted to those blossoming into true adult independence. I guess it’s something along the lines of live for the moment, use your time wisely, always have an exit strategy, and leave work at work. Surely, this can’t encompass everything though. It doesn’t even begin to cover the myriad of responsibilities suddenly piled on my plate.

I think a suitable metaphor for this transition period in my life is a busted ‘97 Jetta. My first big decision out of school was securing a rental car for my five-month assignment in Anchorage. An offer arose for a low monthly lease, but the catch is that it’s a standard transmission. I had never even been in a standard before, but I assumed that with two degrees from a top-tier university I could manage to learn how to drive quickly. What ensued was agonizing and degrading. You get the idea. Like I always say, everyone needs to be taken down a notch sometimes, and I am certainly no exception.

In all honesty, my life seems like one big gray area as of lately. Despite the acute transition in status from university student to employed, productive member of society, the rest of me hasn’t quite caught up yet. I’m a full-time employee, but I’m on a temporary assignment. I paid off all my credit card debt, but I don’t really have any money. I have a car, but it’s a rental. I’m in a committed relationship, but we’re holding off on the marriage talk.

Now, I’m trying not only to accept uncertainty, but to embrace it. Despite not always being a planner, I feel obligated to seek some form of certainty in my life. In truth, I think I have a habit of confusing certainty with stability. There’s certainly nothing unstable about my pseudo-nomadic life. In fact, I’m finally enjoying financial stability for the first time. I have a bright future ahead and feel unbelievably lucky to have the opportunities that I do. This is truly only the beginning of it all.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the notions of transformation, continuous improvement, and all the states in between. The difference now is that studying Japanese has given the perspective to truly enjoy the journey of life. I’m fascinated with where I’ll be in five years, but for the first time I feel truly proud of my life and the person I’ve already become.

One might consider it a cop out, but I’m going to include a letter to a professor that I recently wrote that helped me come to terms with these complex new sentiments in my life. It certainly wasn’t an open letter at the time, but I feel it right to include it, even though it’s raw and by no means the eloquent way I originally intended to express my emotions:

Dr. C.,

How is the semester going? What classes are you teaching? You should know that I still have my course readings handy and enjoy reading the depravity of “Usagi” from time to time.

It seems like so much longer than a year ago since I began your Japanese literature class, but I am still very thankful for you sitting down with me and talking about the opportunities that a Japanese degree offers. We touched on graduate school a few times during our conversations, and even though I’ve just started my first job out of university, I’ve been thinking about it now more than ever.

I finished up both my computer science and Japanese degrees in December. I strongly considered the JET program for a long time, but sadly it doesn’t cater well to December graduates. I had to make the tough choice between my current job as an information technology analyst or waiting until this May just to find out if I would even be accepted for a temporary teaching assistant position. With a great deal of debt and a stable, outstanding job opportunity at hand, I had to make the responsible choice. I’m now living in beautiful Anchorage, Alaska for five months on a temporary assignment.

At this risk of sounding ungrateful or immature, I’m having trouble adjusting to the managed corporate life after enjoying the freedoms of academia for so long. Even in the few weeks that I’ve been in this role, my free time has been sparse to say the least. I find myself browsing over a Fuji News Network article over breakfast and kanji flashcards over lunch, because I simply don’t have the energy or drive to do my Japanese studies after a nine-hour day of work.

I certainly don’t want this lifestyle to sound at all bleak, because I’m having opportunities here that neither I nor my parents could ever have even dreamed of. I’m building powerful connections and profoundly expanding both my technical and interpersonal skillsets. I’m also finally enjoying financial stability for the first time in my life. At the same time, I feel an obligation to myself to continue to pursue my academic dream of graduate school by giving my job my complete focus now to expand both my resume and networks, but also making time for my Japanese studies and side projects that will set me apart on any future applications.

Truthfully, I still don’t know what I want to study in graduate school other than something pertaining to Japanese or engineering. Over the past year, I’ve been writing about my experiences with intensive Japanese study and how technology plays a crucial role in memorization. I’ve also been exploring the basics of machine translation of the Japanese language. As much as I’m developing my technical skillsets, I’m trying to keep it in balance with my knowledge of and interest in Japanese and Asian studies.

I still have many questions about it all though. How do I explore graduate programs? How do I establish connections in the academic community while out of university? What experience and qualifications are schools looking for? Does the fact that I work in another field deter my chances of acceptance?

I know that these are really unfair questions to ask over one email, but I would really appreciate any advice you have on getting started, even though it is still many years in the future. I accept that these plans may change over time, but I know that if I don’t start exploring and preparing now, they will never come to fruition.

Arigatou, Sensei.

With all this being said, I should think of a clever way to tie everything up and give this post some sort of central meaning, but I suppose the only thing left to do now is give this new life the old college try…

2014 PROJECT GOALS

Build a Hadoop Cluster

Big data is the future. I see this now more than ever. While my cluster currently has a theoretical limit of about three physical Linux boxes, I think it would be a very useful exercise to see the trials and tribulations that come with installation and configuration of Hadoop for a small cluster. This would also give me a chance to hone my MapReduce skills for any future projects.

APIs

As much as large data sets are useful, offering others an interface is key to maximizing its use. Late last year, I sat down with Wikipedia’s API for an afternoon and wrote a multithreaded Python script that finds the minimum number of links between two pages. The fact that I was able to do this that reflects not my skills as a programmer, rather the power of flexible languages like Python and the powerful APIs that entities like Wikipedia offer. This year I would like to experiment more with other APIs, but also explore opportunities to create simple wrappers for APIs to make them more accessible for others to use.

Bitcoin Mining

My interest in mining is purely academic. While I don’t have much interest in spending up to $10,000 for new hardware specifically for Bitcoin mining, I would like to play with OpenCL to mine on my laptop during idle times. Success would be generating more Bitcoins than the cost of electricity, but I would settle for a simple proof of concept. This project could tie in very nicely with a Hadoop cluster as well.

Contributing to Tor

Tor is an open-source project that I’m very passionate about. I’ve used the browser for quite some time, but admittedly the fall of the Silk Road piqued my interest. In addition to financial contribution, upon my return to the Lower 48, I intend on wiping my old desktop and have it serve as a full-time relay.

iOS Development

iOS development is something I’ve put on the back burner for many years. It’s something that I frequently begin working on, but never dedicate enough time to become truly proficient at. This year, I plan to take a much more systematic approach to learning and try to remain consistent in my process of studies.

Japanese Studies

Several weeks ago, I laid out plans to prepare for the national fluency exam over the course of one year. My plans were ultimately delayed because of my final semester of school and move to Alaska. I’m back on track now and intend on providing updates on my progress so that I’m forced to reexamine my regimen constantly.

Pilgrimage to Tokyo

Despite now holding a degree in Asian studies, I’ve never quite made it to Asia. I’ve already started setting aside money, and my trip to Tokyo is currently slated for August or September. Provided that everything goes according to plan, I’ll be spending about two weeks all over Japan.

Writing and Photography

I’ve managed to hack out about one post per month over the past year. Writing will always be a passion of mine, and I want to dedicate more time to writing about my experiences this year even I don’t end up posting. In addition, I purchased a Canon Rebel T5i as a graduation gift to myself. This is a perfect time to improve my photo taking and editing skills and complete the development of my jQuery photo gallery on my website.

SCAR TISSUE

On Saturday night, I handed in my last final exam. Honestly, it was an extremely anticlimactic ending. The final had no bearing on my graduation or GPA for that matter, so it wasn’t really the concluding push that I envisioned being the end of my undergraduate stay. After a brief test, I said to my professor, “終わりですね…” and stole away into the chilly evening.

I spent some time walking around the campus and reminiscing about fond memories from the past five years. So many little things have changed, but so much remains static. It still hasn’t fully sunk in that I’ve graduated yet, but I know that when it hits, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking back to that cold stroll.

Now more than ever I think about the Transit Center. Just four months ago I was torn between Anchorage and Austin. Once again, I’m pushing myself to the limit: returning to the city in the dead of Alaskan winter. The first three months that I spent in Alaska were filled with their own trials and tribulations, but this time, I know that nothing can prepare me for that moment when that plane lands. Now, during this awkward gray area between graduation and starting my job, I’m trying to prepare myself both physically and mentally for my return to the Last Frontier.

I still have a thick scar on my thigh from Flattop Mountain, probably my favorite souvenir from Anchorage. Climbing Flattop is considered amateur to native Alaskans, but by taking the road less traveled without adequate footwear, I managed to suffer quite a few falls. In any case, everyone needs to be taken down a notch now and then. Whenever I feel the scar tissue now, I think back to how I lived during the last week of my internship. Everyday after work was a new adventure. The day after Flattop, I crossed a glacial stream barefoot. I crammed as much adventure as I could into those short hours. For the first time, I felt truly alive. That’s how I want to live the rest of my life.

I haven’t opened up to many people about why I’m going back. In fact, if you talked with me early in the summer, I probably told you how awful I found it to be. Alaska certainly takes its toll on the mind, but at the same time I’ve never felt so connected to a place before. The natural beauty that I imbibed there evoked a sense of naturalistic wonder that transcends language or photography. After I left, I thought nonstop about going back. With the help of some close friends an opportunity ‘opened up’ for me, and I’m happy to be returning for five more months.

When I think about life itself now, I always think of the day that I climbed Flattop. People from all over the world visit it to see a clear view of Anchorage and the port. It just so happened that the day I went, the mountain was beset by gray clouds on all sides. Despite this accomplishment of reaching the peak, I was still greatly limited in how far ahead that I could actually see. I suppose I thought that finishing my university studies would give me a great sense of clarity in regards to where my life will take me. I still feel lost in the fog even now that I’ve graduated, but I’ve come to accept it.

Most of the incredible experiences in my life I attribute to sheer chance, whether it be a change of major or a friend that grows to be a lover. There is always risk in living by chance. Sometimes you’ll stumble, but even in success, you may still find yourself surrounded by the unknown. Let your life be ruled by these once-in-a-lifetime encounters. Wounds heal, but experience is infinite.

52 WEEKS TO N1

I’ve decided to introduce a new segment of my blog: 52 weeks to N1. As I talked about in my last post, one of my biggest life goals is achieving fluency in Japanese. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) is a measure of language ability created by the Japanese government. There are five different levels with N5 being the lowest level of proficiency and N1 denoting fluency.

With enough dedication, I feel that this goal completely feasible. Admittedly, the mechanics might have to change to a degree when I start full-time work in January, but I intend on committing fully to this period of intensive study. After three years of study, I feel that I finally have the foundation to make a final push for fluency. I also plan on writing weekly or biweekly updates on my progress both as way to hold myself accountable to my studies and to make me constantly analyze and improve the structure of my regimen.

頑張ります!

LEARNING ABOUT LEARNING

My blog is nearing its first anniversary. Admittedly, I have failed to maintain it as I would have liked to over the past year. My instinctive response is to attribute this nonfulfillment to a lack of time. As my college graduation swiftly draws near, I’ve been obsessed with the notion of time lately. With classes, work, side projects, and graduation rituals at hand, I find myself constantly thinking that there’s just not enough time in one day. Not to mention that my exercise routine, Japanese studies, and myriad of other hobbies have suffered as well. Inevitably, there isn’t enough time to do everything, but as I found myself updating my old articles about Japanese study, I realized that what I was trying to teach others about language study I should be applying to my own daily life.

A year ago, I was a Japanese major dissatisfied with the structure of my university’s program. A student nearing the end and far cry from fluency. But in this harsh climate, my devotion blossomed. I was motivated and passionate and on the cusp of discovery. I decided that the only way I would ever become proficient at Japanese would be through rigorous self-study and began immediately. In addition to this process, I also sought to write about my experience, so that others in my position could learn from my successes and failures. I started by deriving what I perceived to be the steps to achieving fluency. The guide is loose and ambiguous, but served its purpose as an abstract template for my studies. Pulling from numerous resources, I developed a strict regimen with monumental results. In November of 2012, I delved into this process and began writing a lengthy guide about my journey.

Over the course of six months, I was able to learn how to write and the English meanings for the 2,200 jōyō kanji (commonly used Chinese characters) and vastly expand my knowledge of intermediate and advanced grammar and diction. While this is an impressive feat, I’m certainly not implying that I’m by any means smarter than the average person. Instead of raw intellect, I was able to accomplish this through sheer determination and an effective routine.

Think about what you’ve done today. Sure, you’ve probably attended class or gone to work all day, but think about the time that you may have wasted in between. What if instead of spending those fifteen minutes after lunch or class mindlessly browsing the internet or reading social media feeds, you did something that you truly enjoy and stand to benefit from? What if you tried achieving your life goals in increments of fifteen minutes? That’s exactly how I did it. I replaced the mind-numbing consumption of bland Facebook statuses and trite internet humor with constant language practice. I shuffled through flashcards instead of statuses or tweets and read news in Japanese instead of English. I used my phone and computer in Japanese in order to make myself constantly see the language. With this mindset, finding an hour or two everyday to study everyday wasn’t nearly as difficult as it seemed to be at first. For those six months, I was as submerged in Japanese culture as a busy computer science student thousands of miles away from Japan could be. My only regret was stopping after those six months. I cannot stress enough the value of immersing yourself in your passions.

The Twitter Generation wants knowledge in bite-sized, concise servings. Because of this mentality, we often lack the dedication to read a novel as opposed to the synopsis. We also seem to enjoy discussing the possibilities more than making them reality. With this being said, we are afforded a wealth of interactive learning tools that previous generations never even dreamt of. I attribute my accomplishments as much to the digital wonders of today as I do to my own hard labor. Use living in the Information Age to its fullest potential.

I’ve been using Japanese study as an extended example, and you may have absolutely no interest in it. That’s perfectly fine, but I’m sure that there’s something that you want to learn or do that requires an equivocal amount of toil. I challenge you to push yourself to achieve it. It won’t be easy, and at times, you may want to give up. However, the journey is every bit as important as the ending. If you can’t find pleasure in your struggles, then I urge you to question your reasoning. Be sure to keep the endeavor fun or you’ll burn out quickly.

Comparing my Japanese studies over the last year with my largely unsuccessful studies during the two years prior to that, I can’t help but feel like I’ve wasted too much time. Lately, I keep catching myself daydreaming of where I could be now if I had discovered how to learn like this much earlier on. Of course, the glaring fault of this is that I’m still wasting time thinking about it. It’s never too late to get started.

As thankful as I am to have studied at a top-tier institution like the University of Texas, I have to question the driving force behind my alma mater: research or education? At such a university, a great deal of responsibility is placed on the student’s ability to learn independently, something that was never properly instilled during my high school years. Honestly, it wasn’t until my fourth year of college that I felt like I knew how to learn.

Despite this, everything I needed to know about computer science I learned during my first year of college. As a freshman computer science student, I took programming and logic courses. In the programming courses, I learned how to approach general problems using basic algorithms. In the logic courses, I was taught how to reason and develop proofs and theories. I understood the content of the classes, but their implications were lost on me. Nearly any technology field can be reduced to programming, logic, and mathematics. With these fundamental concepts at hand, I had the ability to learn web development or graphics or nearly anything during my first year of college, but I wouldn’t realize this for some time. The only true failure is not even trying.

For the majority of my college career, I had the mindset that certain concepts and skills were out of my reach. I was trapped in the mentality that you can only learn what you are taught in class, and there were serious implications to this fallacy. Because of this, I never strove to create or learn much outside of the scope of my coursework. It wasn’t until I started deconstructing seemingly complex tools and concepts into simpler, digestible steps that I felt like I could grow not only as a computer scientist but as an individual. Don’t shy away from what you don’t understand, because it’s often not as intricate as you think.

Computer science is based on inherent laziness. Software in general is designed to make life easier by automating tasks and repetition. Effective software design is based on modularization and reuse, ultimately minimizing the amount of work that needs to be done. One day, we as developers will replace ourselves with software that itself creates software, and there will be nothing to be done. But yet again, I seemed to have been oblivious to the obvious. I taught myself discipline and effective learning practices, but only applied them to Japanese. Learning how to learn is an abstract and unique concept that can be applied to any field of study.

I’ve spent the last week or slowly piecing together my thoughts about what I wanted to pass on from my college experience. I’ve been adding and removing passages from here in an effort to keep this relatively coherent. Now, graduation lies less than one month away. Most of my classmates seem complacent with their academic accomplishments, but I finally feel at peace knowing that my education has only just begun. I’ve spent this semester stuck on my preconceived notion that true learning ends when school does. This week I started following my own advice again; living like I did nearly a year ago. Getting back into the routine. For now, I’ll be that person at the gym flipping through hundreds of kanji flashcards in between sets of weightlifting. Trying to make sense of hosts speeding through complex dialogues on Japanese news stations while I ride the bus to campus. Squeezing in lines of code on my personal website and iOS app in between classes. Reading up on photography and graphic design over lunch. Documenting the journey. I think it’s the perfect way to end one era of my life and start another: achieving my life goals fifteen minutes at a time.

SECURITY, PRIVACY, AND VISIBILITY CONSIDERATIONS IN PERSONAL WEB DESIGN

Web Hosting Login Qualms

Before I distributed the link to my site, I spent quite some time looking for exploits. One of the first things that caught my eye was that Bluehost and many other hosting companies use the website’s domain as a login username to the site’s control panel. Since exoentropy.org is an extremely public username, my immediate reaction was to try to remove any evidence of my hosting company. For example, I found that the 404.php file that was generously provided in the default files contained advertisements for Bluehost and affiliates, so I quickly replaced it with my own error page. I removed every trace of Bluehost from my website, but in the end it doesn’t make a bit of difference. I’ll explain more about why in the last sections.

Using Familiar Software

Using WordPress and Drupal instances for content management initially made me uncomfortable. By default, the dashboard login for WordPress is located at ~/wp-admin, and the dashboard login for Drupal is located at ~/admin. This is common knowledge to any user of either software and even to novice hackers. My initial thoughts were to simply try to hide the paths to the respective dashboards. But truthfully, this simple obfuscation is ineffective. To test this, I wrote a simple shell script that found the WordPress login on my website with relative ease using wget. Although brute force and far from optimized, it proves a point that changing the path doesn’t improve security by any means.

Spam and Phishing

I wanted a personal site to increase my visibility on the internet. I wanted to create something to share content with friends and potential employers. It’s important to display yourself, but with higher visibility comes diminished privacy. I would hardly call my website popular. Not many people will ever view it, and truthfully I prefer it that way. This fact, however, does not mean that in the few weeks that the site has been live that I haven’t already received a substantial amount of spam. I was truly shocked by how many fake accounts were attempted to be created on my completely unknown site. Amazingly enough, I received physical spam to my home address as well.

The Illusion of Privacy

When you register a web domain, you are required by law to give legitimate contact information. This information, including the service used to register the domain, is then made public and can be referenced by a protocol called WHOIS. Bluehost and other hosting companies offer you privacy protection by hiding your public registration information. The fee for ‘protecting’ your information can be as much as $15/month. What hosting companies really do is simply change your registration information to theirs. This is highly exploitative, because most people don’t realize that you can just manually make the changes themselves. Let’s say that you either obfuscate the data yourself or pay an exorbitant monthly fee. Is your privacy really safe now? The answer is still no. You’ve been effectively blackmailed by your hosting company, and now a myriad of other sites that exploit WHOIS APIs want to blackmail you as well.

The Dangers and Exploitation of WHOIS

For this example, I chose a conniving website called WhoisMind. This site, like many others, caches not only your current registration information, but also your past information dating as far back as 2000. In addition to slinging sleezy advertisements, WhoisMind offers to delete your history from their databases for a small fee of $49.95. Even if you pay off WhoisMind, are you prepared to pay off every other underhanded site offering the same privacy protection?

What I found particularly disturbing about WhoisMind is the ease of access. Looking at the page source and design of the website, it’s clear that it was designed to be scripted on. In about 30 minutes, I was able to create some scripts that could pull phone numbers and emails off of the site. Throw in some dictionaries and email functionality, and it’s a fully functional spambot. It makes perfect sense though. The more spam you get, the more likely you are to pay for the illusion of privacy.

Takeaways

I’m certainly not trying to discourage anyone from creating a personal website, but I do hope that people can learn from my experiences and become more aware of this seedy underworld. Come to terms with the fact that given enough time and attention, anything is hackable. It comes with the territory, but there are preventative measures. One big thing is that I’ve I designed my site to be modularized. For example, if my blog is compromised, it’s quarantined from the projects section of my site. Also, come to terms with the fact that your information is freely and publicly available. You can’t change what’s already out on the web, but you can still take many preventative measures to ensure a degree of privacy.

REFLECTIONS ON ALASKA

The cold air fills my lungs as I inhale deeply and behold this marvel of geologic time. I feel introspective and insignificant as I imagine my short life span juxtaposed with this ancient, undefiled landscape. I try my best to take a mental snapshot of this moment near the peak, knowing fully well that nothing can ever recreate this moment. Gazing down over the untrodden path that led me here. Imbibing water to replace the icy sweat now soaking my clothes. Savoring a brief reprieve from a steep journey. Noting some clever metaphor. Solving the profound, metaphysical intricacies of life.

My expectations of Alaska were highly romanticized to say the least. In my mind, Alaska was where I would figure everything out: love, career, happiness, meaning. Many of my preconceived notions were wrong, and truthfully, they nearly ruined my experience. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I learned to appreciate and grow from my time in Anchorage. It’s easy to share some hollow pictures to convey your experience, but it’s much harder to share how it changed you. Maybe that’s why I’ve been putting this off for a while.

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment that I landed in Anchorage. Reality set in that I was now 4,130 miles from home and not returning anytime soon. Upon exiting the airport, I was greeted by a brisk wind and the soft midnight sunlight. I remember that first night laying in bed asking myself over and over again, “What the hell have I done?”

The first week was one of the longest of my life. With no means of transportation and the house to myself, I had to find various ways to cope with the isolation, loneliness, and boredom. I spent much of that week walking around Anchorage, often seduced by the mountains. The mountains were one of the few things that held true about Alaska. I remember the morning after my flight sitting inside a Burger King for a long time just staring off at the scenery, amazed at how it could transform such a mundane place. I told myself that once the mountains stopped looking so majestic, it would be time for me to leave. By the third week, I stopped noticing them altogether.

A few days after I arrived, my other roommate and fellow intern Jordan showed up at the house. From the look on his face, I could tell that he shared my “now what do we do?” sentiment. I was very grateful for the companionship, knowing that he was going through exactly what I was going through. Things wouldn’t change right away though. Even after we assured each other that things would pick up once work started, they wouldn’t for some time.

As with any internship, work started off painfully slow. I desperately tried to fill my time with projects both to get work experience and keep my mind occupied. For those first couple of weeks, I would find myself feeling hopeless as I counted my days remaining in Anchorage. The calendar reminded me of how far I had to go, and the mountains reminded me of how isolated I was.

After work everyday, Jordan and I would walk to the Transit Center, a low-income blip in the midst of corporate Anchorage. I often saw people in business clothes cross the street to avoid walking next to the bus riders. Most of the people here were Natives donning frayed jeans and work shirts. Some were inebriated. Some were using drugs. Some were even soliciting themselves. Most of them were bussing home from work just like me. Most of them were assimilating, or at least trying to. The Transit Center was just one stop on a journey. Some were heading uptown, but most were heading downtown.

When my father was in high school, he picked cotton in his family’s field. When I was fourteen, I was writing programs. As one of fourteen children, my father never had a chance at going to college. I’m finishing up two degrees. People forget that that kind of mobility in one generation is rare and not based solely on hard work. I spent long days and nights to get where I am, but I can’t deny the factor of environment. There are people with cars, and there are people who have to wait at the Transit Center.

The bus rides home surprisingly made me feel at home. In Austin, I didn’t have a car for my first few years of college, so I was no stranger to public transportation. Also, downtown Anchorage is not unlike downtown Austin. There was a surprisingly large population of young people and transients that often populated the buses. Riding the bus reminded me of class warfare. Although ConocoPhillips pays the bus company to allow their employees to ride for free, I never saw any on the bus. The bus was a symbol of the tension between rich and poor, oil and not-oil. Jordan and I were ambassadors to both sides; both poor college students and corporate employees. I often debated which was my real skin. Was it the tattered concert tee and flip-flops or the business casual button-down? In any case, on the days where we went to the gym after work, I felt substantially less noticed wearing my street clothes.

I stayed up late many nights in Anchorage, often unintentionally. It was common to watch a movie or talk about life and philosophy with my roommates for a while. The days dragged on, but the nights went by very quickly. With the sun still beaming at 10pm, it’s not hard to imagine losing track of time. I suffered from insomnia pretty badly at first. It wasn’t even so much seeing the sunlight, but feeling it. It was as if some vestigial structure in my body was beckoning me to stay awake. During those long, bright nights the mind wanders. Even when I was able to sleep, it was sporadic. I often found myself not being able to tell if I was actually awake or not.

Oil is the product of time and pressure. During those nights, that’s exactly what I had. The pressure of graduation and a long-distance relationship and the time to think about them fueled some potent night terrors.

I think many people shared in my sentiments of sleepless nights, namely those who hadn’t been there long. Alaska is truly a place of extremes: bright nights and dark days, affluence and poverty, mania and depression. During the summer, people are constantly doing outdoor activities as if powered by the sunlight. Most people go hiking or fishing multiple times per week after work. In Alaska, it’s imperative that you keep the mind occupied and the body tired.

My routine continued for some time. Hours turned to days; days to weeks; weeks to a month. Finally, at the start of July, I returned to Austin for a week. It was a pleasant reprieve. Although I feared that it would more or less ruin the progress I had made towards surviving my stay in Alaska, something was different when I returned to Anchorage. I’m not sure if it was my time in Austin or even just the fact that I had managed to make it a month already, but I had a new perspective on the experience. I wanted to make it count.

By the end of my internship, I realized that my homesickness, stress, and loneliness were truly a prison of the mind. I learned the value of friendship and human connections. I felt the power of self-reliance in overcoming such a great obstacle. I hiked mountains, held snow in June, saw unique wildlife, crossed a glacial stream barefoot, and touched the Arctic Ocean. I made close friends and learned a great deal about myself. Looking back, I could have taken a lot more out of the experience with the right mindset starting out, but truthfully, I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back.

It was an ongoing joke that Jordan and I weren’t allowed to watch Into the Wild. That it might just push us over the edge. I suggested that we watch it on our last night in Anchorage. We never got around to it, and that’s probably for the best.

I spent my last night with my closest friends in Anchorage right up until my red eye flight out. I never thought I’d be so sad to leave. I never thought I could build such good friendships and share in such an amazing experience there. I never thought I could change my mind about a place like that. I sat in the terminal waiting for my flight, contemplating my new lease on life. Torn between my friends I was leaving behind and my life in Austin, I felt something indescribable. Looking around at all the people on their own journeys, I thought once more of the Transit Center.

by Scott Enriquez