Fires are made of wood, and we are just food. by Anran Li

"Fires are made of wood, and we are just food." - Anran Li

I posted this statement on Facebook a while back (a faux pas as bad as attributing yourself to a quote) and stumbled upon it again today, confusing myself. This happens a lot. As a result of my inability to convey my ideas, I can't understand my own words. After mulling over this for a day, I finally remembered.

While eating one day, I was pondering whether we are all just food. I thought to myself: we are fuel for some other organism or process even if we have more or less escaped the food chain on a macro level. But let's say we are sealed in a coffin and sent to space in order to prevent our matter from being reused in some other chemical process. We've stopped being food. Energy transfer aside, it follows that if you can stop being food even for a moment, then being food is not an inherent property of being a human. 

But that's no fun. I wanted to convince myself that we are all just food, so I tried another approach. Well, I thought, I have been consuming food since I was born. In theory, everything that I consume is food. You might argue that there can be foreign organisms and substances, some harmful, that contribute to our being, such as microbiomes, ultraviolet radiation, or a dosage of something toxic. Arguably, we can disregard these as they can be substituted with food or are not an integral, critical part. So, we can deduce that the only matter that humans consume out of necessity is, all of it, food. And, as a system, if we are only taking in food, then we are made of food. To prove this point, imagine a system, such as a machine, whose parts are all metal. We can deduce that this machine is made of metal. We can reduce this statement to "the machine is metal." Thus, we are made of food to "we are food."

"Hold your horses!," you shout, unable to accept my newfound understanding of the human condition, "what about the mass that I was born with?" To maintain that we are food, we need to prove that we have been food all along. The development of a human from inception to birth is by means of the parents consuming food and turning parts of it into egg and sperm cells, from which we are nurtured in the womb by means of food from our parents. The process applies to our parents' origin as well. We follow this lineage and eventually trace backwards along the path of evolution. Some questions pop up: Are shells food? (yes) What if an animal appropriates a shell? (yes, as the appropriated part is food) What about multicellular organisms? (yes, all parts are food). Can the first cell be considered food? (in the interest of finishing this blog post, yes as all constituent parts are food).

At this point, I imagine I had a splitting headache and gave in to my own mind game. Perhaps the most contestable part of this argument is that we are our constituent parts. I circumvented this debate using the rhetorical device above, rather than logic. So the conclusion is valid if we accept that fire is made of the wood it consumes (synecdoche for combustibles and oxygen in this thought-experiment). Thus, "fires are made of wood, and we are just food."

Then, it suddenly dawned on me: EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE IS FOOD. Everything came about from consumption. Things that are consumed are food. All integral parts to a system come from consuming food. All of these systems are made of food. Everything is food! Wow!

But back to the main point: how does one post something like this on Facebook?

I guess one does not.

Is this turning into a food blog? by Anran Li

We are all lost in this world. I have learned this fact through the baked-egg-in-portobello-mushroom-in-salad I made this morning.

In our wandering, we are all collectors of opportunities. Most of our opportunities never amount to much, but once in a while we find a way to unlock the full potential of a simple thing. These opportunities take on many forms, from an unexpected conversation to an awareness of the Earth. And if your journeys often take you to the Whole Foods, an opportunity might come to you as a portobello mushroom.

This morning, I find the mushroom looking like a 10 in the refrigerator. I clean it, thinking I would make a mushroom and tomato omelet. However, I only have two eggs left, and I don't want to crowd the omelet with mushroom. I also didn't want to leave the mushroom in half. After some careful thinking, I realize I can bake the eggs inside the mushroom. I'm also out of tomatoes, so I line the mushroom with marinara sauce. To top this, I would place a piece of basil over the finished egg and mushroom. Only, I don't have basil so I reach for the bag of spinach. That's fine, I think to myself. I'll put a bed of leaves under the mushrooms and one above, like it's Fall and somehow all of the leaves are green. In this composition, one of the leaves falls on the mushroom. Beautiful. 

But eating spinach by itself makes your teeth chalky. Since I don't have any salad dressing, I made something out of soy sauce, cane sugar, and sesame oil. To balance the saltiness of the soy sauce, I cut some apple strips and line them over the spinach. Everything is fine now. Except that I have half of an apple leftover. So I open a container of yogurt and make a banana and apple smoothie. Perfect. Except now I have half a container of yogurt, so I mix it with leftover berries and Quaker Oats (of which thankfully you can use only as much as you need (which happened to be the rest of it)). 

The end result is not quite the serene mushroom-in-the-forest dish I had imagined, but by this time I was very hungry and needed to restock the fridge. Sometimes, we are burdened by opportunities, and we need to not take the path. I think the apple was the tipping point in this case. If I didn't add the apple slices, the spinach would actually would have balanced the earthiness of the mushroom by itself, and, well, nirvana. 

Ultimately, all we can do is take pictures with our mobile devices and write nice things about our lives. So here we are with baked-eggs-in-portobello-mushroom-in-salad... and it is so good.

Tangent thoughts:

  1. Shout out to Kunle Awojinrin for reminding me to update my blog! 
  2. Planning what to cook is difficult, especially coordinating ingredients. It feels like we need everything all at once. How is it that we need everything to be on hold?
  3. Imagine the missed opportunity for a fungi to fall from a tree instead of an apple. Opportunities are two-way.
  4. Spinach contains oxalic acid which will form a coat on your teeth. Incidentally, oxalic acid prevents absorption of iron, which defeats the purpose of eating spinach in the first place. Vitamin C breaks down oxalic acid, so eat your spinach with citruses.
  5. As I am finishing this piece, I'm eating an apple and thinking "wow. What if I had decided to just eat an apple for breakfast?"
  6. And now I am thinking about this ball of mozzarella I have in my refrigerator. 

Someday, I will grow up a little more and make this dish again without the apple slices. I will post a picture of the mushroom in the forest concept.

Theater in the Park - Blobs and Boxes (Draft) by Anran Li

<Project in progress. Images coming after project is done.>

I've been fighting “parametricism” (1) (actually blobism) my entire life. As much as my interests have been invested in scripting, physics, geometry, visualization, data, and other discrete elements, I have never in my life made a program-based blob or warped a building using tenuously derived forces. In the last three months at MIT, however, I've been re-introduced to the world of scripting, parametricism, and form-finding through the readings of Stan Allen, Michael Meredith, Gilles Deleuze, and even our own Liam O'Brien.

The reason I am fighting blobism is because there is one thing that I am most obsessed with, more so than any discrete knowledge in the world, and that is effectiveness. It is tempting to say efficiency. Whereas the latter is performance-driven, the former expands its boundaries to create social, political, and visual impact, in addition to covering the given environmental and economic ones. The most effective typology in a city is the box. Blobs simply don't belong in grids; they belong in a natural environment just as the ordered box is a disruption in the entropy of nature. The displacement of the blob and the box outside of their contexts should be used intentionally, such as to disrupt, or to introduce urban and natural elements into foreign environments. (2)

A theatre in the park is the perfect project to begin testing this hypothesis due to their seemingly binary relationship. At a first glance, one set (boxes and theaters) speaks to the human condition, the other (blobs, parks) to its absence. Upon closer inspection, however, both theaters and parks play with the notion of blurring the line between natural and constructed. In theater, we have the theatrics of not only the play, but also the invisibility and participation of the audience in the fourth wall. In landscape, we disguise our own creations as natural and entropic, ultimately molded for our own enjoyment.

This project explores a controlled blurring of this dichotomy, as expressed in a plane that cuts across the site and connects two trails. Above this plane is the renovated landscape of the park, and below it programmed spaces for the two theaters. The surface is permeable. Pinholes, balconies, and entryways allow circulation and visual connection between the two sides. Thus, this theater in the park attracts two groups of people who are allowed to have different circulation, programs, and sights through the dual reading of the architecture.

  1. As a formal typology, as opposed to its application. We will call it blobism.
  2. A future essay: Boxes are not machines, blobs are not mimicking nature

On Smoothies and Grad Students by Anran Li

Recently, I became a graduate student. This seems to mean many things. It means I now own a smoothie machine. Also, I am technically (probably only so) an adult. Expectations are raised and no longer met. Conversations demand purpose and order. I'm old and can't pull anymore triple-all-nighters.

But definitely exciting times. Especially the smoothie machine part. I purchased a smoothie maker made by Black and Decker, a company that is perhaps more well-known for its power tools. Imagine buying a Toyota-branded bagel - the bagel is reliable, affordable, and plain yet one cannot help but feel the pastry is somehow coated in automotive paint. After some great kale smoothies and subsequent discoveries of lactose intolerance, I began pushing the limits of what a smoothie can be. Today, I had an extra hour and did the unthinkable. I put fresh tuna and chives in the blender and made some fantastic sushi. This way, the tuna becomes a soft puree that melts in your mouth, and the chives, cut by hand, give it a fresh texture and taste. There are only nine pieces because this was my first time making sushi and I immediately ate the ones that didn't come out so well. They are arranged by height from lower-left to upper-right to give order to the inconsistencies in the cutting.

My life has certainly changed. This realization isn't sudden. It isn't an awakening as a result of the heavenly taste of the nine pieces of my immaculate work. Rather, it is more of a passive "Oh. I'm now finding the patience to spend two hours cooking. Therefore I must be getting older."

JK. I'm going to sign up for a meal plan. Cooking can wait.

Front: ネギ・トロ (Onions and Tuna)
Back: Bitter melon soup

Auxetic Macrostructure by Anran Li

It's been an exciting first week at MIT. School hasn't even begun yet, yet we've already finished a quick (?!) exercise during the pre-orientation workshops. 

The Beauty of Deleting Photos by Anran Li

Emptying out Google Photos may be the single most beautiful thing I have ever experienced.

Recently, I merged the entire family album online to Google Photos. Previously, we all shared an Apple iCloud account, and this resulted in every internet call ringing all of our devices at the same time. Using separate Apple accounts but one Google account lets us collect photos from all of our devices while keeping communication very clear. Google even runs algorithms on the photos so we can search for visual objects such as someone's face, Niagara Falls, a squirrel, or a specific hue of green. It allows us to navigate thousands of unsorted photos.

The most enticing part of this setup is that Google offers free, unlimited storage if you allow them to slightly compress the pictures first. I won't get into the technical details, but given current technology, this is an unprecedented deal given the quality of the compressed photos. I jump the gun at free unlimited storage and upload everything to be compressed, only for a small part of my brain react as though a tourist had forgotten to turn off flash while photographing an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

After much deliberation, I switch to uploading at original quality. However, it turns out that the service would not allow you re-upload the photos. I would have to trick Google into thinking the photos were new by deleting all of the old ones. It seemed easy, except there was no fast way to delete all of the photos. (I tried deleting the Google Photos folder on Drive: this just makes it hidden from view.) Ultimately, one has to delete the photos hundreds at a time from the web interface. Being too ambitious with your selection will return an error.

Deleting photos is an odd feeling, even if you know the photos are coming back, or that they are stored safely somewhere else. It feels like you are deciding which memories are going to be forgotten. Thus, as I scroll through the photos app, deleting everything, it was as though my entire life was on rewind and being forgotten. Entire blocks were deleted before even being loaded, while some photos received a few milliseconds of glory between each scroll of the wheel.

Some people believe that your life flashes backwards in your mind right before you die, and I imagine this is how it must feel: A high speed, relentless purging of memories. Some photos are deleted with cold methodology, but others make you feel sorry for the tiny humans in the frame, moving towards oblivion. Still others require a triple mental check that the photos are indeed going to be restored afterwards.

After hours on end, the months and years roll by until I reach my childhood photos, the entire collection of which could be deleted in one go. It amazes me that the photos from the first ten years of my life take up as much memory as a single photo taken with my current camera - it seems to be the same way for older memories. I scroll through slow enough so that the thumbnails could load. I'd seen these photos many times, but I always react as though the photos are new.

Finally, the scroll bar stops. In one fell swoop, I select all of the remaining photos, delete them, and find a sterile, blank white page for me to start anew.

Updates to the "Adventures" Tab by Anran Li

The adventures tab has so far been a photo-journal of my travels. Having recently come back from vacation, I have come to realize that these photos are very limited representations of "adventure." They don't tell the stories. So over the next few days, I will be writing the accompanying stories.

[Draft] Lessons learned by Anran Li

It's been four years since I've started this website during my Freshman year at Stanford. Since then, this site has grown through capillary action through the cracks and seams in my brick wall calendar. Back then, I slept once every other day and overbooked my calendar just to feel confident about myself. I aspired to become Maya Lin, an architect whose design won the bid for the Vietnam War Memorial while she was still in college and who was subsequently propelled to the world spotlight. It is all the rage at Stanford for students to strike it big before they graduate.

This is our obsession with speed. Pedestrians at Stanford can testify to the sudden gusts ten minutes before each hour as students sprint by on bicycles on their way to classrooms. Students have evolved to be faster. To learn something new, we watch youtube tutorials at 2x speed. To meet a deadline, we take caffeine and skip meals. Dinner takes me fifteen minutes at school, but an entire hour when I'm at home with my parents. Furthermore, the quarter system at Stanford almost forces students to take plenty of diverse courses and to learn topics in short, rapid bursts of energy.

This speed allows us to explore more. We must make our own mistakes and feel our own triumphs! But sometimes, we are so busy exploring that we forget to actually make anything meaningful of our experiences. And so two years went by of furiously cramming for everything and cramming everything into those two years. And while I learned a wealth of skills and had taken five core studios by my third year, I learned so little. I became more efficient and skillful at representing my designs, but my thought process had not matured. I often failed to see the merit in my own designs, and often happened on a good idea only through dozens of iterations. In short, I was substituting hard work for actual learning.

I received three key pieces of advice:


The first is on slowness. A professor who I had never taken a class with, Ethen Wood, stopped me one day and handed me a packet. I had been helping Ethen with various small tasks and, likely because I was always bouncing around doing so many things, he handed me Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's article Slowness (link). Ironically, it took me almost an entire year to read it because I could not slow down enough to make time to get to it. In addition to shining light on what is lost in the increasing digitization of architecture, Williams and Tsien make a point that while we are completing a greater quantity of work at higher speeds, we are also thinking less, understanding less, and iterating less as a result. That quarter, I spent eight weeks (out of a ten-week quarter) completing a single drawing and was able to carry my work beyond a show of technical force into something that started to substantiate itself with clarity, detail, and personality. 

<image coming soon>

irreverence of the idea

The second advice came immediately after I completed this incredibly didactic drawing. The professor who lead the class, Beverly Choe, has the rare ability of giving the most spot-on and succinct critiques. In one graceful sentence that I can only hope to convey, she told me that projects are not determined by how brilliant the idea is, but rather by how one works with the idea. So, rather than jumping from concept to concept and ending with a poorly executed project, it would be much more valuable to make a successful project out of a half decent idea. Prior to this, it was not uncommon for me to trash a project two weeks before the final review and somehow manage to pull together a new scheme just in time. It seemed that projects would finish themselves with no regards to time, and thus I fabricated the Architecture Fairy. Over time, I learned that well-designed buildings were not about the central idea, contrary to what magazines and websites might seem to suggest with their two paragraph blurbs. Instead, it seems to rest upon how well the problem of build environments is addressed.

<compare Boston ICA to the Liverpool Museum>

planned exploration

Often times, valuing ideas inhibits exploration. It is too often the case that once a concept is arrived at, the rest of the project becomes problem solving and then documentation. The last class I took at Stanford was focused on combining making with designing - that a large part the design would be derived while creating the object. For many days, I would walk in with sketches of what I wanted to do, only for the professors to open my mind by breaking down the hard-set image in my mind.



[Draft] What is time? by Anran Li

I recently realized that what we perceive of as the world is actually the past due to our brain having to process reality. I then began to wonder whether our brains actually take hours, or perhaps even a lifetime, to process reality - so that we are actually always subject to some kind of deistic, singular, unalterable reality...

But then I remembered that we are reactive to our environment. If an external stimulus comes my way, I respond and propagate the randomness that comes from so many choices being made. 

Difficult choices make us in control of our lives, remind us that we are alive, and make goals worth striving for...

I suppose we can't ever prove that our realities are mutual, present, or dynamic, but imagine if our choices didn't matter - that's no way to live life.

The Barber of Nagoya by Anran Li

This summer, I worked for a very creative and forward-thinking firm, Kotaro Horiuchi Architecture. More importantly, I lived in a small suburb near the Shigahondori station in Nagoya. This has been my first time living in Japan for an extended period, and I truly appreciated having the opportunity to explore by myself.

About a month after I settled in, I had already run into cooking problems, gotten lost on multiple occasions, rearranged my room several times, pulled an all-nighter at work, and learned what it was like to eat a bad raw oyster. During the height of the summer heat in Nagoya, I decided it was time to have my hair cut and, on my way getting lost to home, passed by a wildly adorable hair salon. It was a creamy warm orange throughout with white clouds tiled on a blue ceiling. 

After having worked for a month in a completely devoid white room by myself, this shop was so bright and colorful I must went into shock and stared at the storefront for too long. A burly men talking to his friend outside stopped his conversation and asked if I was alright. I asked if the shop was open and, upon hearing it was, walked in. As I learned later, Ballerina Salon is famous in Nagoya for its sustainable and safe practices, especially in hair perms. Each and every ingredient is thoroughly investigated.

Imagine the kind of people who would make a pumpkin-colored hair salon named after the only type of orchid that has a fragrance. The owners of Ballerina Salon were every bit as personable and kind as they were fashionable and knowledgable. The husband, Ito-san, had studied hair design in New York and Chile under some of the world's forefront specialists, and recounted how he had missed home when apprenticing abroad. The wife had also studied with one of the most famous hair stylists in Japan. After my hair cut, they took me to eat at a Chinese restaurant across the street, the first of many meals and adventures we had together.

Ito-san was an avid driver in his early years. He attributes his newfound kind and peaceful demeanor to his wife, a bubbly and spirituous woman who, with his husband, works long shifts. Apparently, Ito-san still occasionally goes speeding with his crew in a Lotus parked behind his studio. I saw it the first couple of times and never guessed it was his car. Ito is also a nature and BMW enthusiast. On two occasions, Ito and I drove various latest-model fuel-efficient BMWs into the mountains. I remember the first time Ito invited me on a "trip to the woods." I told my parents and they were so certain I would be kidnapped and sold. It occurs to me now that I forgot to tell them when I decided to go on the trip, which would explain how surprised they were to hear that I was hiking in the Japanese Alps with two strangers.

As I learned from our various trips, dinners, and talks, Ito believed in the world. Take, for example, the process of hair perming, where chemicals are essentially baked into your hair to keep it in a certain shape. Ito believes that there is a way for perms to be non-damaging and yet beautiful. His salon is full of innovative, natural products like baking soda shampoo for your babies and dogs, ionizing toothbrushes, and the like. When discussing politics or the environment, Ito always believed that we shouldn't settle for the lesser of evils - that a "good" solution was always possible.

The Ito family's positivity helped me through an otherwise potentially dark summer. Without going into details, the firm I worked for had been doing some shady business and borderline abused their interns. To put this in perspective, as one of my professors had warned me, many foreign architecture firms overwork interns and treat them poorly. That being said, the previous interns had elicited a formal investigation from the government, and as soon as news of my employment was posted on the Facebook page, the interns contacted me to warn me against working there. During my time there, five interns came and left. Only one intern, Mohamad from war-torn Syria, stayed because he could not risk flying back and could not afford to switch residences. When Ito found out about our situation, he was determined to help. He offered to find Mohamad an interim job in the fashion business, and contacted some lawyers to see what kind of action could be taken. Unfortunately, because these kinds of internships are informal and typically happen under vacation visas, it is difficult to make a case. 

I am unaware of what actions Ito did to help Mohamad after I left Nagoya, but in the end, Mohamad safely moved to Dallas, and the employer stopped taking foreign interns. I tried to adopt the healthy and positive outlook the Ito family had in life. For example, I started investigating natural alternatives to everyday products, using baking soda to shower and wash my hair. I also began working towards a healthier self and set a goal of 8 hours of sleep and 3 meals a day. To compare, I slept every other day and ate only one meal a day during my first year at Stanford. When I came back from Oxford, I weighed a mere 120 lbs. In less than a year after being inspired by this amazing couple, I had gained 50 lbs and run a half marathon. 

More importantly, I learned to bring this positivity to the way I solve problems, whether it is a design prompt or a conundrum in life. I learned to never settle for a solution that is less than what I think is right. True, we might never find a fully ideal solution, but we should not settle for existing ones simply because they are acceptable or standard. We should always believe and work towards a better solution.

That was a fairly dense blog, but I learned so much from this kind couple. [In hindsight,] it is also the only blog I wrote in 2014, which either highlights its importance or belies the fact that I've literally cut the amount of time I have to work on projects by half now that I sleep and eat every day.

Here is a picture of a pug I found on the same street as the Ballerina salon. No transition needed.

More pictures of Japan (link)


how i almost died with a pocket full of snickers wrappers by Anran Li

August 30. I almost died on Mt. Fuij. Rather than going on some dainty cruise around Mt. Fuji's lakes as planned, my coworker and I attempted to climb the mountain.  

Here's how it started. On the bullet train to Mt. Fuji, I read a wikitravel article on climbing Mt. Fuji. To be sure, Mt. Fuji is not a difficult climb, and the top is usually crowded during climbing season. As it happens, we were arriving in Tokyo on the last day of the climbing season - August 30. It seemed we just had to go, even if the website recommended proper gear and supplies (boots, jacket, water, food - none of which we prepared).  We planned to finish the hike in four hours (it was a 4 - 7 hour hike one way), so we decided to set out to Mt. Fuji at noon. We had some difficulty getting through public transportation, switching from Tokyo's subway system to private light rail and then finally to bus. But we managed to arrive at 2, and did some "preparation." (We bought some calorie bars and two water bottles for the hike.) Aaaaand we were off!

On our way up the mountain, we saw many people wearing full hiking outfits and carrying hiking poles, large backpacks, and even oxygen canisters. The further up the mountain we went, the less people we saw who were wearing T-shirt and jeans like us. It never occurred to us how difficult the hike was going to be , nor did the staring from other hikers bring any doubt to mind. It was only at 6:30, when the sun was starting to set, that we started getting worried. We were worried because we would miss the sunset.

At this point, we had reached the cloud that covered the top of Mt. Fuji. How was it like to be in a cloud? It was miserable. I forgot how fast clouds could travel, and the moisture, gravel, and wind quickly grinded the smiles off our faces. By 7:45, the possibility crossed our minds that we couldn't make it to the top. It was pitch black, the temperature dropped to 6 °C near the top of Mt. Fuji, and we were soaking wet, covered in grit, and out of food. That is when we saw some lights beaming down at us, like a lighthouse calling out to sailors at sea. We had reached the top! We clutched our teeth and made it to the lights, only to find that the lights were coming from a hotel 30 minutes from the top. At this point, all of the hikers on tours were wearing oxygen cans, flashlights, and thick, insulated hiking gear. I was still a bit clueless, and wondered why nobody was wearing a T-shirt... ... ... Just kidding.

So we finally gave up. The wind threatened to knock us off our feet. We were hungry and cold. Our jeans, soaked full of cloud, restricted our movement. We doubted whether we could even get down the mountain. In the dark, I used my phone's flash to grope our way down the rocks. We finally reached a hotel halfway down the mountain before a kind manager let us into his lodge. While he wasn't kind enough to lend us a towel or give us food, we were able to pay for a place to sleep. Rather, we huddled next to snoring hikers who departed at random intervals throughout the night. So yeah, not dying was pretty nice.

I later realized how important it was that we didn't attempt to climb all the way down right then, because there are no hotels at the base camp, and transportation is closed after 8 PM. Easily, we could have caught hypothermia had we not decided to quit. We would have been found dead  the next morning with several snickers bars wrappers in our pockets. (Snickers bars have lots of calories.) Incidentally, we actually didn't have enough cash on us and owed the hotel some money. A kind business man from India then lent us 10,000 Yen to go straight back to Tokyo by bus (our escape plan was otherwise very elaborate, and risky). 

But we made it! Made it back, that is. I still have hopes to summit Mt. Fuji, even though my toes, ankles, fingers, and pride were bleeding after the trip.  

There is a Japanese saying that a wise person climbs Mt. Fuji once, while a fool will climb it twice. The likely, and more accepted, meaning of this quote is that a wise person can understand and appreciate the beauty of Mt. Fuji in one taxing climb. I, however, have come across a new meaning of the quote.

More pictures of Japan (link)

Getting the Best Features on both Mac and Windows by Anran Li

"Mac or PC?" Too often, people are compelled to make an obstinate stance on this topic. Truth is, there are a lot of great things to be said about either OS, and we should work with the highlights and shortcomings of each both. To me, the most important features of an OS are the ones that boost productivity. For example, Snapping on Windows and Spaces on Mac OS are two of the most beloved features by users of the respective systems. In fact, these features have their Windows/Mac equivalent via 3rd party developers. In this post, I will introduce three applications that breathe new life into an otherwise too familiar operating system. These applications are just the tip of the iceberg - I hope readers will do their research on how to set up their own cross-system workflow.

A word of caution: installing too many tweaks at once can slow down or cause problems for your computer, so I recommend installing only the ones you will be using often. In addition, this post doesn't cover options for Linux users. (Sorry - but I guess if you are using Linux, then you are probably tech-savvy enough to manage on your own!)

That being said, here are the features that I love most, and how to get it on Windows or Mac: 

Image from

Spaces / Mission Control

Spaces, (AKA Mission Control on OSX 10.7+) is a OSX feature that allows for a user to have additional virtual displays. Using a keyboard shortcut or mouse/trackpad gesture, the display shows a previoiusly hidden desktop. Programs can be dragged to a different . Users can set up four-finger swiping to switch between displays.

How to get it on Windows

Dexpot is a free program that can manage virtual desktops like Spaces for Mac. It even includes an overview feature that predates Mission Control. However, because it has many options and settings, it can be difficult to set up at first. Here is a walkthrough of the settings dialogue, and how to make Dexpot work like Mission Control.

  •  General: the "Number of Desktops" and whether Dexpot should "Start with Windows""
  • Appearance: Change mode to "Program Icon" and you might want to turn off the System Menu entry- Components: I would hide the Desktop Manager components, and take a look at Desktop Preview, Dextab, and Full-Screen (which are tabs at the top)
  • Controls: Change how you want to Switch Desktops. If you are using Trackpad++, I'm pleased to announce that I emailed the developer and he said he would look into a method to allow four-finger swiping to match a custom key (allowing four-finger swiping). If you are using a non-Apple trackpad, you can following the instructions  here to enable four-finger swiping.
  • Switching Desktops: defaults seem to work fine
  • Plugins and Extras: Here is where it gets interesting! To enable the panning animation that is default to Spaces, you can use the "Dexcube" plugin (it's built-in, so you don't have to download it or anything).
  1. Check the box to enable it
  2. Click on "Configure," and set the Effect to "Wall" and the Zoom to "Maximal." You can enable "Multithreading" to make the transitions smoother.
  3. If you are using a high-dpi screen or high dpi settings (i.e. your text size is not set to 100%), you will need to go to the Dexcube plugin .exe file located in
    C:\Program Files (x86)\Dexpot\plugins      for 64-bit Windows and
    C:\Program Files\Dexpot\plugins      for 32-bit Windows

    Right-click on "Dexcube.exe" and check the box for "Disable display scaling on high DPI settings" Dexcube takes a screenshot of your desktop when creating the transition effects, and this setting will make sure it scales properly.

 Image from

Image from

Alfred / Quicksilver

While this isn't a built-in Mac tool, it is definitely worth mentioning. If you use any of these tools, then you must be pretty tech-savvy, so I won't explain much further. (Link to Alfred) If you don't use them, I wouldn't worry about it too much. Basically, they help you open programs and do tasks faster, such as Google Search or create new folders, etc. You can even create your own scripts to do things such as block social networking sites for two hours or clean out the downloads folder.

Windows Equivalent

Window's 8's built-in search feature isn't too bad, but I still prefer the snappiness of Alfred (I am sharing my friend's Super-User account, and I can't remember how I used computers before meeting Alfred. While there are a number of alternatives, I prefer Launchy because it is well-documented and is easy on the eyes. You can download a number of skins to match your version of Windows. You might want to customize the Catalog to "Include Directories" for files you want to open often, but make sure it isn't checked for the Quick Launch and both Start Menu folders. Also, make sure you change the depth settings (how many sub-folders you want Launchy to search. I recommend no more than 5, since the scanning will take too long. BTW, here is a modern Windows 8-based theme for Launchy.

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Snapping was introduced with Windows 7 as part of its "Aero" themed visuals to distinguish it from Vista and XP. It basically allows you to manage multiple windows easily and neatly by "snapping" application windows. If you drag a window to the top of the screen, it will make that application maximize. To the left and right, the window will fill up half of the screen in the respective side. This allows you to multitask with great fluidity.

How to get it on Mac

There are a number of tools, but BetterSnapTool is the one I have been using for the longest time. It is available on the Mac App Store as well as on the developer's website (there are some other pretty nifty tools on his website).

There are still a number of features I haven't covered. In the future, I hope to share more of my workflow to help others work seamlessly between Windows and Mac, including:

how to use one mouse to go between operating systems and computers
how to sync your Desktop across Mac and Windows with Dropbox
how to read NTFS (Windows), HFS+ (Mac), and ExFAT (Both) on Windows and OSX

In the meanwhile, you can do your own research. The key is not giving up!

20 by Anran Li

As I leave the confines of teen years, a gaping hole is terrifyingly located next to a pile of treasures. 

 At the bottom of the hole lies questions.  Although it's been said by every young adult, I still have to repeat; there's just so much uncertainty regarding the future. I am constantly worried I will become a mediocre, egocentric designer taking myself too seriously. I certainly never imagined myself pursuing anything other than an engineering or medical degree.

And yet there are great expectations from having already taken so many strides. I have an amazing group of friends who advise me, usually unsuccessfully, against making mistakes. They are the mirrors through which I meerkishly peer at myself. I could not do it without them. You guys know who you are. And, I could not ask for more understanding and generous parents - my best friends. 

I don't ever suppose this hole should ever be filled. We need somewhere to seek shelter and somewhere to look ahead.  Yes, there will always be an imbalance and imminent danger,  but at least there is that.

 Always thinking.

Always thinking.

Atlantic 2013 by Anran Li

Flying back to Stanford during my study abroad in Oxford just to present for this project has proved to be worthwhile. Working with the team in person was a treat after having worked across the world for the duration of two quarters. We ended up being the first team to win both awards at PBL; the Swinerton Challenge for most sustainable design and the DPR Challenge for target for value design.

England by Anran Li

The nice thing about England is it looks great in any weather condition. On rainy days, look at gothic architecture. On sunny days, look at the classical. Then again, sometimes you can't tell whether go gothic or be classy. And that's not a problem because the architecture is quite mixed.

musings by Anran Li

recently, I've been waking up or going to sleep at 5-6 in the morning...

the solution to good food is hunger

i like birds one at a time
mourning, the death of sleep

--The Earth--
gets one hundred tons heavier each day
due to falling space dust

one sentence from ago by Anran Li

I was reading through some old essays I had written (for class, no less), and I realized how much my writing has lost flavor. This is one sentence:

Sprawled on the otherwise lonely stretcher, dressed in a suit as appropriate for a successful businessman as for a corpse, with no idea of the path I was going—only my final destination, with an itch under my left elbow, unable to scratch it because I no longer had control of my hands, approaching death faster than my Bugatti Veyron, and with a heart so heavy my four attendants could barely lift my stretcher any longer, I, Christobo Marie Golonzo, proud father of five children, successful entrepreneur, graduate of Harvard Business School, recently single, of white hair and brittle bones, aficionado of wine and wordly pleasures, and known affectionately as Chris, waited impatiently and nervously, with teeth gnashing like a horse’s, eyes cloudy but fighting diligently to contain rolling tears, breath under the weight of two great pillars, nervous system walking in glass shards, and heart twisting to the rise and fall of my portable deathbed, to go to the museum, sprawling with strangers, cold, unsympathetic people and art, and an ant army of size 10 Helvetica text on glowing screens, see the never-to-be-finished work of Renee de Maupassant, whom History would agree was the most lovely of women, the kindest of magnates, the most sociable of elites, the most enthusiastic of mothers, the most forgiving of spouses, my own wife, and now dead, and I realized how much I had not said to her.