Positive externalities, and the freshness of failure

I’m writing this partially because Tom has been bugging me about writing (it has been a while since I’ve published), and because I want to postpone my post about Owl City, mainly because I think it would decrease our subscriptions by 100%.

I was told the other day that a positive externality is essentially where one person does something, and the cost is only placed on the actor.  Apparently a perfect example of this is participation in sections.  The teaching fellow will ask the class a question, and there will be an awkward silence, sometimes lasting up to thirty seconds.  Eventually someone caves and hazards an answer, or the TF gives the answer and moves the section along.

But actually attempting an answer is the positive externality; if your answer is correct, then you and the class benefit, because you’re forced to explain why your answer is correct, and your peers learn from you; if your answer is incorrect, the TF gets a little concerned and takes pains to explain why your answer is not correct.  Here, everyone benefits, but you “suffer the humiliation” of giving the wrong answer.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by these unnecessary silences, and in the past month I’ve tried to answer the questions when I thought I knew the answer, or when it was a binary question I would hazard a guess, just to move along so that we could learn more.  When I was right, there was never an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.  When I was wrong, I have to say it was embarrassing and definitely was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

This is sort of related to the practice of asking questions in lectures and sections.  This is even more frustrating to me, especially when the instructor specifically asks if the students understand what just happened.  Of course people are going to be confused by something when there’s a slew of facts shoveled on them, but for some reason no one wants to be the person to ask for elucidation.

I know I’m not the only person who doesn’t understand everything, because there have been a couple of occasions where friends in my section have thanked me for asking a certain question because they learned something from it.

I think the “smart questions” are the ones that bother me more actually, e.g. “Isn’t angular momentum just a clever trick, or does it have any deeper significance?” or “Do we prefer Lagrangian mechanics to Newtonian mechanics because the former is more beautiful?”  These are the types of questions that people ask to show that they have absorbed the material so completely that they need to show the rest of the class that they’re wondering about the deeper significance of every result.  Of course the less gifted students pick up on this, and often they scramble for these types of questions so that they can prove that they aren’t part of the lowly masses of students trying to just get by.  It’s a cheap trick to gain the professor’s respect, and everyone involved knows it but ignores it.

This is getting a little bitter.  I’m going to throw something in here to lighten the mood a bit.

So I feel like the issue is that for most of my classmate’s lives, they were consistently the best at everything they did, or pretty damn close.  THEN.  We get thrown into this high-powered environment, suddenly you’re on a level playing field with everyone, and you’re just not that special anymore.  For the first time in our lives, failing is an option, and it’s terrifying.  Eventually we realize that it’s very difficult to fail here, but we are still aware that there’s always someone better than us at what we love to do.  Luckily we can hide our grades from our peers so that there isn’t a direct comparison.  I think that the only place left to really compare yourself to others is in your section, where you discuss your insecurities with your schoolwork.  But here, it’s really easy to not have any questions; why would you ask him to go over that last step if you understood it in the first place?  I believe that the practice of not answering or asking questions is a face-saving technique that most Harvard students have adopted.

Like everything else here, the question-problem is wrapped up in the ego.  People don’t want to expose their inadequacies to their peers, so they hide in silence, implying the answer is so obvious it doesn’t deserve a serious consideration (apologies to anyone who this is actually true for; I’m looking at you, Danny.)

I’m guilty of this ego thing as well (or maybe I’m the only one guilty of it…) but I’m trying very hard to overcome it.  By admitting you don’t know something, you can open yourself up to learning it.  But the way sections are treated now makes it difficult to speak up when you really don’t understand something.

I guess I should include as a disclaimer that this mostly applies to my math and physics sections here at Harvard; for all I know people actually contribute to discussions in humanities concentration courses.

That is all, goodnight!

Pressure, discipline, creativity

Dear readers:

I find myself at a unique point in my life. I’m overwhelmed with things I’m expected to do, and even when I throw my best effort into the fight it seems like I’ll inevitably fail at something. I feel somewhat uncertain about how things are going to go.

Can I do it? Can I find within myself the discipline I need to face the coming onslaught?

The pressure, even when I handle it gracefully and without stressing myself out, has the terrifying effect of separating me from my soul — as if in a magnetic field, experiencing strong Zeeman splitting — and if this continues for much longer I fear I’ll have lost a part of myself. On the other hand, maybe this separation process is good for me; maybe I’m becoming organized, gaining the ability to transform myself at my own will into a homework-crunching robot, thereby becoming more time-efficient and freeing up hours to devote to more introspective, exploratory things.

The fear, of course, is that once I’ve gotten used to locking myself into robot-mode I’ll be unable to snap back out of it. I value my expressive side so much that I’d give up the chance at a more productive, successful future if that was the price for retaining it — in short, I will not sell my soul to further my career. My passions run deep but they are founded firmly in my thoughts and beliefs and ideas about what it means to be human, to exist as we do in the Universe, to have such a short amount of time to experience all of life. I don’t like the idea of numbing my emotions just to make myself a better worker.

This is a naive view to hold, I realize. “Tom, think about it for a moment – if you stay the same undisciplined procrastinator you’ll never grow as a person and you won’t be able to pull yourself together confidently enough to achieve your dreams.” And I agree with this sentiment. I don’t want to stay lazy and disorganized.

But artistic vision and creativity are born from an innate frustration with status quo and a deep, personal desire to make things different. The process of disciplining oneself necessarily kills off a big part of spontaneous fidgeting that could act as creative seed for unconventional ideas. It’s somewhat ludicrous for someone like me, a student of science who’s never created art nor is on track to do so, to declare to the world: “I will never cease to be expressive!” — what could possibly be the point? If my goal was to make a big impact on the world by having the best, most original artistic vision, I’m pretty fucking far behind in that race; any art I am ever to create (in any sense: writing, music, drawing, whatever) will be invariably dwarfed by those among my peers who have actually devoted their lives to what they make or do. So — why do I persist with this seemingly futile endeavor? Why, when I’ve already established the detrimental effects this wandering exploration might have on my career, don’t I give up?

It’s because the way I see the world is fundamentally shaped by whether I make an effort to have a creative mind — to be conscious of details for their own sake and for the way they interact and make things interesting. I like this creative process. I like learning about all the different things I encounter and trying to understand how the world works, and I also like trying to recombine ideas and objects and observations in new and interesting ways. And when in life I find myself in crappy situations, it’s incredibly satisfying (if not remedial – though it’s far from a panacea) to be able to channel raw emotions into some kind of medium.

These are ideas that I never really had until this past year. I cannot really describe where the transformation came from (or whether it was in fact a transformation — maybe I’m just getting better at capturing ideas that I had held in some vague form), but I think it’s tied to all the new things I’m experiencing. Seeing more of the world, getting into new and unusual social situations, reading about new ideas, taking on different responsibilities — in more ways than one, I’m learning, and I’d like to believe that I’m expanding my mind as well. I guess I’ve picked the right time in my life to do so.

Getting back to my original question: Can I find the discipline within myself to achieve my goals? Only time will tell. But one thing has begun to interest me; perhaps in spite of my waffling, rambling thoughts on being disciplined versus creative, I’ve started to notice that simply by bringing these ideas out into the open I can clear my mind, figure out what I want to do, and then do it. I’m still not perfect, and will never be, but I’m curious to see how far this cycle will go.

Photography: I

Hello, dear readers!

My dear friend Will has loaned me a camera! He did this because I expressed an interest in taking up photography as a more serious hobby. I’ve been thinking for a while about getting a nice camera – I think that it’s pretty neat to be able to capture the, uh, beauty of the world around us and show it to other people. It’s really great that Will is letting me try this out with his camera (THANK YOU WILL!) so I can decide whether it’s worth an investment. So far: I’ve had lots of fun taking pictures and think I’d like to continue! And this summer would be a really, really good time for me to have a good camera, so I hope I can learn quick.

My favorite pictures from the past weekish I’ve uploaded to Picasa here:


This whole photography endeavour is kind of exciting, and I’m really new to it. Actually, I have a lot of questions about the whole thing – about what it means to be a photographer and how to improve what I’ve got so far.


Finally free

Before I was all like

But then I was like


So today I went to the Google Games, an event at the Google Cambridge office involving a bunch of geeky competitive events.


  • There was a music-identification round (part of a larger trivia round), during which they rickrolled us and played awesome music like the Firefly theme, Korobeiniki, Do You Wanna Date My Avatar, and Dragostea Din Tei. Unfortunately, I was unable to correctly name Korobeiniki, as I have long held the misconception that it is called Kalinka. (I’ve been disabused of the notion before, but still couldn’t remember the right name.)
  • There was a puzzle round; I spent the last half hour or so working through about 70 cases of one puzzle, looking for the one that satisfied certain conditions. At the one-minute-remaining mark, I had three cases left. I managed to eliminate one more of them, and then sent in the other two as answers, feeling sure that I had missed the answer. Instead, one of them was correct! I was both happy and sad.
  • I was really excited to play Wii Sports Resort (there were supposed to be rounds in rowing, basketball, skydiving, and swordplay), and I was the only one on the team who’d played before, so we kind of figured I’d do them all. Then they said each person should only do one event, so we decided to be good competitors (they almost definitely wouldn’t’ve noticed had I done them all), and two other people did the first two events (I wanted to do swordplay). Then time ran short and the last two rounds were canceled. I was and remain severely disappointed.
  • We were the highest-ranking Harvard team (the first five spots went to MIT). Success!
  • Foosball. Playing with new people was fun. There was a left-handed table there (you shoot left instead of right); interesting, but it was also a really bad table.

Sorry guys

We’re all dropping out so we can tour the country and smoke lots of marijuana. It’s been real.