snap, crackle, pop

I’m getting better at digging into the routine of life. Getting to sleep so that I can wake up and get to work so that I can get home and make dinner and relax and get to sleep. I’m doing it all my way, of course (an overabundance of green tea and honey, throw some guitar practice in there, and a token amount of procrastination every night so that I don’t feel like a total machine), but nonetheless, the grind is starting to hit.

I think this might be part of “growing up”, but it definitely has its downsides, and thumbing through years-old posts on this blog reminds of precisely what they are. A desperate searching for who you really are, what you value, and how you want to approach life leads to really interesting thoughts and ideas, and practically forces you to open your mind and explore a little bit. But on the other hand, sitting down and deciding who you are, what you value, and how you want to approach life – well, this makes it infinitely easier to get on with life, and start getting things done! Upon a little bit of reflection, I think I’m hitting this second phase here, where I think I have a good sense of what I want, what I don’t want, what I like, et cetera. But what I don’t like is that it’s disincentivizing my exploratory fervor. Even if quieting my adventurous mind allows me to get more things done and live a more stable, comfortable life, I don’t know if I really want that.

At any rate, I’m really glad I’m taking a year off. If just one week of a not-even 9-to-5 job (more like 11-to-5:30-without-a-lunchbreak, self-imposed) is enough to get me worried that I’m falling into a quieting rhythm, then maybe I’ll have lots of pent-up energy to release once the fall hits and I’m “free”.

We’ll figure it out. In the meantime, I’m really thrilled that I’m actually learning how to cook – it really doesn’t seem that hard, once you commit to being experimentful and fearless about the endeavour. I’m sure I’m making lots of mistakes, but I wasn’t going to be able to really appreciate the “right” way of doing anything until I’d struggled with the wrong way on my own first!

That’s pretty unrelated, so I’ll end with a video:

 

tibetan vampire slayers

Tonight I was a participant in what may have been the most intellectual conversation of my life. I would like to clarify right up front that I was more of a bystander than a contributor to this conversation – the other two primary participants were practically just talking to each other, with me simply asking enough questions to barely follow along.
The topics ranged from intense stories of travel in Shanghai (which included high-powered lasers and observatory towers, pyrotechnics and supermodel parties at the best bar in China), a discussion of anthropology (including stories of Tibetan vampire hunters and the associated religio-social orders underpinning them; as well as talk of Polynesian trading patterns), whaling and global warming, star formation, Dave Charbonneau and Geoff Marcy, Australian politics and political satire, the intellectual/logical spheres covered by science, art, and anthropology; the concept of science as a Bayesian inference whereby we approximate better and better models to explain our data, and how (in this scheme of interpretation) much of classics (read: academic literary criticism) uses totally useless and degenerate information (eternally limited libraries of long-dead authors) to try and draw continually new conclusions, using zero new information.
I couldn’t digest it all, but it led me to thinking:
These two are totally well-adjusted people, but got a total thrill out of diving into really intense, heady topics. Not because it made them feel superior in any way, but purely because being able to talk about big, deep ideas is an incredible rush: it makes you feel truly alive, and full of agency, and it inspires you to think hard and never be lazy.

Maybe I’d forgotten this a little bit. At Harvard I’d developed a fairly deep aversion to elitism in any form, and, in fear that I was going to lose my ability to connect with interesting people from all walks of life (e.g., an article that probably deserves a post on its own), I’ve developed a bit of a focus on learning how to converse about day-to-day topics, to be able to talk about human issues and everyday life and the issues that we face not within our topic of study, but in the broader struggles of our existence.

So when I was sitting here desperately trying to keep up with these two (a guy a few years older than me, who’d studied astronomy at Berkeley; and a girl perhaps slightly younger than me or the same age, studying anthropology at UH), I started thinking two things. One, I’m not sure I encountered such a brutally intellectual conversation ever at Harvard, or anywhere in my life (and this may not actually be a judgement against the institution – these two set a damn high bar). And two, maybe I ought to get back into learning fascinating topics for their own sake; for the intellectual reward of taking a hard topic and making it my own, and being able to have a coherent conversation with someone about it. I’ve become so goal-oriented in my thinking over the past year or two (not necessarily successfully, but also not irretrievably so) that I’d started to neglect the thrill of learning. Maybe that’s something I can spend some time on.

PS – cockroach count so far: 2 eliminated, 1 escaped. Been here less than 48 hours. Warm (and rainy!) wishes from Hilo!

Journey through the Memory Palace

Recently, on a flight back from China, I decided to start practicing memorizing a deck of cards (for fun and possibly poker-related purposes).  A while ago, I had stumbled upon a good article for approaching the task, but I had never seriously tried it.  The author, “Nelson”, described a couple of standard techniques essential to simplifying the process.  The first step is encoding each card as a person based on initials (e.g. 5 of Clubs = Eric Clapton), then assigning each person a task/action (Clapton playing the guitar).  The next step is to assign each person-action pair to a location in a “memory palace” when going through the deck.

Having only recalled most of the article and with no way of accessing the internet on the flight, I made some modifications to the process.  Instead of assigning a person and action to each card, I made some cards people; for some cards, I could not think of anyone matching those particular sets of initials, so I encoded them as animate objects/states of being.  My encoding method is as follows:

Ace = A
2 = B
3 = C
4 = D
5 = F
6 = S
7 = G
8 = H
9 = N
10 = T
As an aside, assigning 5 and 6 to non-sequential letters did take me a while to get used to Because of my previous exposure to algebraic chess notation, but having the sounds match the letters seems to be saving time in the long run.

Due to the mixture of people/things, the tour of my memory palace (my house) only has 33 spots.  The object/state cards are simply assigned to the last person encountered.  Some examples of cards (I’m sure this is ripe for psychoanalysis):
Ace of Spades = Alexei Shirov (person)
2 of Clubs = Bill Clinton (person)
2 of Hearts = Broken Hand (state)
3 of Clubs = Charlie Chaplin (person)
6 of Hearts = Saddam Hussein (person)
7 of Hearts = Golf Hat (object)
10 of Spades = Taylor Swift (person)

Queens were very difficult for me to assign to people, so I ended up with the following:
Queen of Spades = person playing the game Hearts (state)
Queen of Diamonds = giant diamond (object)
Queen of Clubs = giant wooden club (object)
Queen of Hearts = giant balloon heart (object)

I also use high school and college classmates (who will not be named for fear of awkwardness).  Unfortunately, no members of the Blandfill have names that follow the above system.

 

My goal is to do a deck consistently error-free in under 2 minutes (I’m currently at about 10).  This whole process is reminiscent of learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube.  It’s a (somewhat useless) skill that anyone is capable of doing with enough practice and that will serve as a wonderful procrastination tool later on.

Quantom Mechanics

A few days ago, I went on a hike with a close friend. The scenery was beautiful and the trek was a lot of fun, but the most substantial part of the experience was our conversation on the way up and down.

We discussed things ranging from music, science, God, romantic relationships, heartbreak and sex, self-discipline, and fading friendships, and I was both intellectually stimulated and emotionally moved by our discussions. It turns out that five miles of hike is enough to cover pretty much anything you can think to talk about!

There’s a hell of a lot I haven’t posted to the blog over the past couple of years, but the combined forces of intense schoolwork, brutally failed romantic relationships (I cite two), a pressure to conform to career expectations, and my learning how to communicate with people (and discovering that I love it) have changed my outlook and approach to life a lot. I’ve become more goal-oriented and focus less on the intrinsic “meaning” of things.

I bring this up because I’ve changed a lot. Tonight I was digging through an old journal that I kept in sophomore year, and it was eye-opening to see how different my thoughts were back then, compared to now. And I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of sophomore-year Tom for how free-flowing his thoughts were; how aggressively he pursued emotional and intellectual topics. At the same time, re-reading these old writings is reminding me what it’s like to think like that, and giving me some inspiration to resurrect that spirit and enthusiasm. I’ve certainly got the time, after all, to reflect intensely.

Back to my hiking friend. This guy is someone I met in middle school, knew only tangentially throughout high school, and interacted with no more than twice a year since entering college. But there’s something amazing that’s happening when we talk. We’re very different people and had fairly different upbringings, but for some reason our life paths have taken us to a very similar place, and I’m getting a lot out of talking with him.  He’s currently in a process of self-improvement wherein he’s changed his diet, hobbies, and time-management practices to better reflect what his priorities are; he’s taking music lessons from someone who teaches not only musical technique but personal development and discipline. I think I’m in a good position to benefit a lot by learning more from him.

The secret I inadvertently keep so well from everyone except those closest to me is that I have pretty severe issues with time management and procrastination: I’ve had a lot of externally impressive successes that were nearly completely undermined by my lack of discipline. The cleanest example I can think of was my senior thesis. I’ve posted about this before, so it’s been on my mind for a long time, but the fundamental problem doesn’t seem to have changed very much: I’m acutely aware of it and have attempted a couple of ways to deal with it, but it’s still there, and it’s still the primary limitation I face in reaching my potential and getting what I want out of life.

Knowing that I still carry this issue is one of the big factors that led me to taking a year off before grad school: if I wasn’t able to solve it despite facing it directly for four years in college, I’m worried that I’ll keep having the same problems in grad school. A year to myself gives me a chance, if I choose, to make this self-development the focus of my life, rather than an on-and-off background process that inevitably gives precedence to more urgent assignments, projects, talks.

Talking about my year off is a totally different blog post, so I’ll save further discussion of that for later. I’m out of writing fuel, so here’s a cool music video, per Blandfill tradition:


 

A final thought: Sometimes we’re afraid to put our thoughts down on paper (or keyboard) because we’re afraid we’re wrong, or we don’t want to appear weak and vulnerable, or even that we fear admitting that we don’t know. But I find blogging to be a worthwhile experience exactly because of these limitations – if I’m wrong, I want to be called out on it. If something makes me feel vulnerable, I want to confront it directly, even if I ultimately fail. If I don’t know something, I want to be aware of this fact, and thus empower myself to act on that. It sounds all kind of wishy-washy, but it seems to be true.

 

Well, thanks for reading! I’m feeling another blog post sometime in the next week or so. Topic will be determined by popular vote in comments, between the following:

  1. My assessment of Harvard, post-Harvard
  2. Year-off adventures so far
  3. Tom and alcohol