A Conversation with Tyson Mao, Rubik’s Cube Master

Did you watch Season 2 of the TV reality show Beauty and the Geek? It was a “social experiment” where eight gorgeous but academically impaired women are paired with eight brilliant but socially challenged men to test intellect and social skills – for a chance to win a $250,000 grand prize. One of the favorite couples was Tyson and Thais. Remember them?

I recently had the opportunity to interview Tyson Mao, who set the world record for solving the Rubik’s Cube BLINDFOLDED in 2005. [Click here to see recent videos.] He is a proud member of the local San Francisco Bay area Taiwanese American community! Here is our conversation posted just for you!

H: Hi Tyson! Thanks for giving the audience of TaiwaneseAmerican.org some of your time today. A lot of us followed you closely on the TV reality show Beauty and the Geek, season 2, when you were paired up with the very pretty Thais. Tell us a little bit about how you were chosen for the show.

T: I actually hadn’t heard about the first season when I applied to be on the second season. I was in New Mexico doing research for an REU program at the VLA in Socorro in the summer of 2005. It was probably either June or July when I saw a post on the Rubik’s Cube forum. The post supplied a link to the BATG website and then concluded with, “They’re accepting applications. Tyson should apply!”

H: How funny… it was almost like a personal invite. So what did you do next?

T: I looked at the show and thought about it, but decided that I wouldn’t be able to sacrifice weeks in October as I would be in the middle of my senior year. A couple weeks later, I received an e-mail from the Caltech Chess Club mailing list with an e-flier advertising the auditions for the show. I figured that I might as well give them a call. I called their office and they told me that I should just send in some materials and that if it got down to the point that I would be selected, I could deal with having to miss school at that time.

H: And, of course you must have sent in some materials or something right? What did that entail?

T: So, getting chosen for the show involved a pretty length interview process. I sent in my application and video (both of which I still have on my computer) and then when I was driving home from New Mexico to San Francisco, I stopped by their offices in Los Angeles and did an in-person interview. I was then informed that I had been selected to be a semifinalist at which point, they asked me to take some drug and STD tests. After passing those, I was informed that I was a finalist and would be staying in a hotel for a week. During this week in the hotel, there was a psychiatric evaluation as well as more interviews. However, you had no guarantee that you were on the show. At the end of the week, if you made it on, you would be sent to live in the mansion until you got kicked off the show. Otherwise, you went home.

H: That almost sounds rough, living in a hotel for a week, with room service, cable TV, and perhaps a jacuzzi… Haha…

T: Actually, it was very grueling being locked into a hotel. I was literally not allowed to leave my room without an escort. They wanted to preserve the integrity of us “meeting each other” for the first time, and so they didn’t want us to accidentally see any of the other potential candidates for the show.

H: Interesting! Anyways, I’ve actually seen you solve the Rubik’s Cube, and it’s amazing how fast you can do it! You also enjoy teaching others how to as well. How did you get into the Rubik’s Cube to begin with?

T: I first got into the Rubik’s Cube when my younger brother Toby came home from a summer camp in the summer of 2003. It was something that I was curious about but never really spent the time getting really into it. Toby taught me how to solve the Rubik’s Cube over about two hours on the evening of Thursday, July 24, 2003. I remember that it was a Thursday because I had a day off from my job as a summer counselor at Stanford’s EPGY program. At the end of the night, I could solve the Rubik’s Cube with a sheet of instructions in front of me. After that, it was practice, practice, practice, and just a quest to beat my own times.

H: That seems to be the secret to success… dedication and self-improvement. I’m curious, you’re lucky enough to have gained quite a bit of fame in the past year. How has that experience been?

T: The experience has been really fun actually. The Rubik’s Cube has brought me opportunities I would have never dreamed of otherwise. I can’t say that I would enjoy media attention every day at my life, but it’s at the point right now where it’s a good amount, and I’m still having fun. It’s not every day The Today Show flies you out to New York to do a segment. It’s not every day that TWINS on The WB pays you to say “Taste it, bitches!” on a sitcom! Best line, ever…

H: That is a great line. I probably shouldn’t post it on the TaiwaneseAmerican.org site, but I will anyways… So do lots of people just recognize you as you’re walking down the street?

T: Not that many people recognize me actually. I have a feeling that people might think they recognize me from somewhere and they try to put it together in their head, but by the time they figure it out, I’ve gone by. Either that, or they don’t work up the courage to come up and talk to me. I actually don’t get recognized that often. It’s at the point where it’s still a pleasant surprise. I don’t mind it too much, so if you see me walking around, feel free to say hello!

H: Seriously, you’ve been on so many late night talk shows, news segments, YouTube clips, reruns of Beauty and Geek 2, that I know lots of young folks out there recognize you and even follow your blog. You’re just being modest! Oh, I heard you also recently worked with Will Smith while he was filming The Pursuit of Happyness. What was that like?

T: Working with Will Smith was a tremendous experience. He’s a great guy, and a real pleasure to work with. He was enthusiastic and also very quick. You also feel very comfortable around Will Smith, like he’s your buddy. Even though you’re working with the biggest name in Hollywood, it doesn’t feel that way. He’s very personable, and it was very comforting to know that there are people in Hollywood who still respect you for what you do and as a person. I would easily invite him to my birthday party.

H: Hey! I want to be at your birthday party! Anyways, I’m curious… what is your passion in life? What is it that you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?

T: My passion in life? I think I have several passions in life. My main hobby is probably music. Nearly every Taiwanese American kid has grown up playing the violin or piano, and I happen to play both. I also enjoy the Rubik’s Cube, as you probably guessed, but I’m also getting into chess. I’d like to be a master one day perhaps. I am also a runner, even though I don’t run too much now because of the cold weather. I had this goal last year while I was on the track team to break a 5-minute mile. I know the runners out there are probably thinking I’m pretty slow, but it’s really just a personal goal for me. I was 8 seconds away, so I have some work, but it’s within reach. I have some longer term personal goals as well. I realize I’m only 22, but time goes by pretty quickly.

H: Yes, you are still young, and you sound like you definitely know how to approach your life goals. I think you are such a great role model for Asian Americans and especially for those in the Taiwanese American community. I know you’ve participated in the local Bay area Taiwanese American Youth Leadership camp, most recently returning to teach some of the kids some of your Rubik’s skills. What was it like for you growing up as a Taiwanese American?

T: I think I was a pretty typical Taiwanese American kid. I did my homework, I played the violin. I did all these things for the sake of getting into college. Why is it that so many Taiwanese American youth play the violin?

H: Yes! Why is that? I could never figure it out myself.

T: I believe it’s because our parents want us to have something that gives us an edge when it comes time to apply for college. I wasn’t started on the violin because I would enjoy it. I wasn’t sent to a violin teacher so that I would grow emotionally as a person. I didn’t spend hours standing in front of black dots on a page, because someone wanted me to be happy. The beauty of the Barber Violin Concerto is only a side effect, a tangent, of a larger, academically driven focus. Fortunately, as I got older, I started realizing that I enjoyed certain things in life, and I was able to take more control of my passions and my efforts. I do hope that today’s Taiwanese American youth can do the same thing — amidst the whole hype about getting into a “good school,” which is largely decided solely by the name.

H: I agree completely. Well said.

T: Ultimately, we need to find happiness in life. We need to find our passions, and we need to pursue these things.

H: Couldn’t have said it better myself…

T: I am not special. I can’t stress this enough. The reason why I’m fast at the Rubik’s Cube, and can solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded isn’t because I’m smart or have good genes. I’m good, because I wanted to be. I cared. I found a passion, and I pursued it. Everyone is quite amazed when I solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. They think I’m amazing. What they didn’t see was the countless hours I spent, failing time after time, unable to retain the information of the cube in my head. It was hard work. I believe that anyone out there could do what I’ve done. If they care enough to put in the time, the heart, and the desire, anything is possible in this world.

H: I remember you saying something similar to all the beautiful women on Beauty and Geek 2, when you were first introduced to them. I think it was that statement that really won the hearts of all your fans from the beginning.

T: “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something. If you have a dream, go get it.”

H: And that pretty much sums it up. So, what’s next for you? What do you see yourself doing for the upcoming year?

T: I’m looking into a couple of things like finance. I’d like to get into investing, learn about stocks, trading, and the market. In terms of personal goals, I’m pretty much going to play the violin and piano, solve Rubik’s Cubes blindfolded, and I’d like to run a marathon at some point. I’ve got some other personal goals as well. One has to do with solving the “one-body problem”.

H: The “one-body problem?”

T: In Newtonian Mechanics, the three-body problem involves the challenge of trying to model as a function of time the orbital path of three free floating gravitationally bound objects orbiting around each other. It’s a common problem in astrophysics, and there are interesting things that result from it. If you study Lagrange points, you’ll realize how these things are useful, especially for satellites. The two-body problem is slightly different. In the two-body problem, you have a couple, a husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or any other pair, and both of them are in science. Unfortunately, one of them gets a post-doc position in Hawaii and the other one ends up at an European Observatory. The two-body problem deals with trying to reconcile this problem. The one-body problem is similar to the two-body problem… except you’re trying to find the second body. It’s a tough problem… so many technicalities and circumstances to work out. It’s probably just timing.

H: Haha! That’s so funny! You were starting to lose me at “Lagrange points,” but then I realized that I have a one-body problem, too! Tyson, It’s been great chatting with you. You are the ultimate “nice guy” that many people can relate to. I wish you the best of luck in all that you do, but I can tell you’ll go pretty far on your own! Oh, one last question for my Taiwanese peeps out there… What’s your favorite Taiwanese food?

T: Those steamed buns are always good?

H: Yeah… I’m hungry now. Time for a snack! Thanks for your time today Tyson!

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, join TaiwaneseAmerican.org and the 2nd generation community at our upcoming Lunar New Year Celebration where Tyson Mao and others will be speaking on a panel discussing the topic: “Celebrating Identity – My Perspectives as a Taiwanese American.”

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