My Body and I

my blob of flesh 

I was born a pretty normal weight with a shocking amount of hair, and continued being relatively skinny until the first grade. Convinced I needed more nutrition, my mom gave me a ton of PediaSure, a nutritional supplement that tasted like richer, thicker milk, and I became a chubby elementary school kid from drinking too much of it. Many years later I read a PediaSure article and found out they were also useful to quickly give calories to malnourished children, and drinking them by the bottle had made me wider instead of taller despite my mother's best efforts. 

 pre pediasure

pre pediasure

 the culprit

the culprit

Picked to play soccer on the playground with the super good kids only to make the teams fair, I stayed a small chubby unathletic kid until 7th grade when I found out I had high cholesterol. When my mom told me on the phone, I remember being very surprised and felt it a little unfair that my body had betrayed me like this. She made me run and eat healthy and I lost weight until high school when I got lazy and got kinda chubby again. 

One day in my junior year my grandma called me fat in an offhanded comment and I was invigorated to prove her wrong, so I ate less and ran a ton and got really skinny all the way up to my senior year. By then, I was so busy with work and other stuff I never really thought about my body as a partner, and instead saw meals as necessary sustenance of equal value in any form. I had never really been satisfied with my body through its alternating skinny and chubby times, but thankfully it was never a huge deal for me. In a horrifyingly encouraging way my mom told me earnestly when I was young that it was ok to be 醜一點 (a little ugly) so long as I was smart.

Taking that to heart, I thought that barring general healthiness, my physical body was unimportant. 

my bitch

On a whim, I started working out in the last few weeks of my senior year of high school and got hooked. I haven't taken more than 4 or 5 days off from the gym since then, 4 years later. My only introduction to the weight room before was a PE unit, where I mostly remember the horror story about locking your knees with the leg press and where I spent most my time vying for time on the leg extension machine, hidden in the corner of the room. When I started, I didn't know anything, and I was seriously weak as hell- I couldn't do a pull-up and could only bench the bar.

The gym has been good to me since, and I am grateful for the steady friendship of the weights. I can see, feel, and appreciate how my body has changed over the years, and I feel confident in the ability of my mind to exact change on my body. I looked better and felt better.

But through all this I always had a feeling of dissatisfaction, like I hadn't reached a place I wanted to be. It was the same kind of feeling described by Ippo in Hajime no Ippo, when Ippo starts boxing because he wants to understand what strength is (an idea still being explored in the manga, 1100+ chapters later). My goal when I started and my goal now still is the ephemeral and vague status of being strong. 

In this process, my relationship with my body changed. I used to just need my body to be healthy, and was happy with a decent container for my brain, like a nice mason jar for the mind or something. After I started lifting, and when the gym became a core part of my identity, the relationship became one of dominance.

When I first started lifting I watched a ton of YouTube videos (shoutout to 6packshortcuts and ScottHermanFitness). In one video this huge black power lifter was doing preacher curls with the ez bar, and each rep was punctuated by him shouting at his muscles. "I'm your master!" Exhale, up. Inhale, down. "You listen to me!" Exhale, up. Inhale down. "You're my bitch!"

That was my relationship with my body, albeit expressed by the dude much more verbally and explicitly. I wanted my mind to dominate my body, to make it do stuff, to make it listen to me. But sometimes the body would fight back, and I'd get injured a lot from impatience and small mistakes. The pain in my lower back got especially bad, and it would often hurt to sit for a long time or bend over. I felt like something was always hurting and it was discouraging to have pain prevent progress.

my yogic wonderland 

After about a year or so of intermittent pain, I tried yoga on recommendation from my physical therapist. I went to the free trial at Dodge my junior year and I loved it, so I started going a couple times a week and became a regular at Anastasia's class. The most surprising thing for me about yoga was its completely different approach to the body. "Listen to your body," Anastasia would always say as I tried to stretch out my hips. "Are you breathing?" She would ask every time I held my breath and strained for my feet. It was new to me, deferring to the body and paying attention to what he had to say.

I liked both approaches, and took them to heart, pushing my body as I was used to but paying attention to his comments, complaints, and concerns. I stopped getting hurt and with hard work and good food hit an all time strength high while I was interning at Riot summer of junior year. The gym was my anchor, and I could see my slow but steady and satisfying progress.

my dead weight

Things were going fine until I got diagnosed very recently with PVNS, a joint disease that begins in the synovial tissue and in its diffuse form, spreads out to muscle and bone. A few weeks before my MRI, I was already feeling some pain in the right arm that was affecting my gym going, and had been working through some knee pains from January. It was shaping up to be a shitty year for the gym, but soon became much worse. 

A week or so before my initial diagnosis, I remember telling my friend Kat that I would probably be depressed (and I don't use the word lightly) if I was ever unable to work out for extended periods of time. At that point the gym was very important to me, and I was feeling really down from all the breaks I had to take for my shoulder and my knees, but what I was really thinking about when I said that was the far old age, many decades later.

Instead, a week later in the doctors office, my surgeon was telling me my right arm would probably always be my bad one, and would likely not recover to 100%. He suggested I take up another exercise, like swimming. I felt very small in my oversized hospital gown, looking at the lump in my bicep thinking: "Am I still your master?"

It was disheartening. Of course, by then I had already stopped exercising, and was told that I would need surgery requiring many months to recover. It would be a while before I could even lift my arm post-op, let alone lift weights. The gym seemed far away.

At that point, the PVNS had likely been growing for a while, spreading to affect my bones and my joint, seeping out fluid to cause the lump by my bicep. This seemed like a clear case of my body breaking the rules. This was not something I could beat with my mind nor was this something my body told me about in advance; this was uncharted territory. At night before I slept I would often massage the lump in my bicep, thinking about the foreign but at the same time undeniably part-of-me tumors growing in my shoulder. 

"You doing ok there buddy? Anything else you wanna confess?"

After my surgery, when I woke up from the anesthesia, my right arm had been miraculously replaced through the might of modern medicine by a simultaneously sharp and dull pain connecting my forearm to my torso. I was unable to move much except to furiously press the morphine clicker repeatedly for my eight minute intervals of relief. My body would continue to betray me in unsuspecting ways in the next few days, like almost passing out the first time I tried to stand up and inflicting me with a persistent and terrible pain, nausea, and most insulting of all, an incapability to pee properly.

My relationship with my body changed again, this time from dominator and listener to submission. I felt trapped in my body, unable to get up myself or go to the bathroom or walk without shivering. But I also lost a lot of embarrassment about my body, an unintended side effect of the PVNS. There is something about the professionalism of a nurse sponge bathing you or taking a catheter out that makes the whole process less embarrassing, and to be frank, there is only so much you can care about when the hospital is hot, the gown is breezy, and you have a small but significant concern of having pooped yourself all the while running a high fever and fighting level 9/10 pain. In one of my PT sessions I got up ready to walk a lap around the wards with my butt exposed from the gown and only reconsidered when my therapist offered me a open front gown. 

As I write this, I've been away from school for over a week recovering from surgery. It feels weird to feel so weak, and feels weird to have to exert so much force and effort just to touch my right hand to my right pec. Doctors use the eight activities of daily living (ADL) and the eight independent ADL to assess functional status of patients, and I am definitely still unable to do some of both. Lying in bed stuck with my sling and numbing fingers, almost 20 pounds lighter since January, I certainly don't feel like the master of anything.

But in some sense I am still listening and reacting to my body. It's just that the symbols are much more foreign and confusing, like understanding the different levels and types of pain, how my muscles feel, and what kind of control I have over my right arm. 

my friend

My body and I have been through quite a lot together now, through being fat and skinny, through adrenaline rushed heart pounding PRs, through imperfect pigeon poses, and most recently, through the pain of open surgery. It is frustrating still that I don't have perfect control over my body, and he still pulls shit like getting sick right before exams or failing the last rep of the last set. It is a little frightening how frail my body can be, how easily things can come apart, but also amazing how malleable and resilient he can be. 

It is strange, but somehow, in the process of neglecting him, beating him, listening to him, and now fighting with him, my body became my friend and my partner. 

footnote: I was iffy on the section title my bitch but decided to stick with it because I thought it nicely encapsulated the sometimes overly aggressive hyper masculinity of working out

Do It (Just Do It)

Amelie (The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain) is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. When I first heard of it, the creepy super pale girl on the poster kind of turned me off from the movie, but when I finally got around to watching it I absolutely loved it.

 Seriously so fucking creepy.

Seriously so fucking creepy.

It is one of my favorite movies, and a big reason for that is just because the movie is very artistic- watching it gives me the same feeling I get when I visit an art gallery or read an elegant proof. I appreciate the lovely quotes and the colors and the composition and the acting and the filming and the dialogue and even the French that I can't understand. But what really cemented it as a movie that I really like is the scene near the end of the movie where the “glass man” who lives next to Amelie gives her advice via a recording. In a touching scene he tells Amelie that she does not have a glass body like his, and she ought to go talk to boys and try new things and enjoy her life instead of hiding behind the scenes and living a life of simple and small pleasures, lest her heart turn to glass. Convinced, she runs from her living room, burst open the door to find the guy waiting for her at her door, and the two of them ride off in a tandem bike in an excellently life affirming scene.

In my last two posts, You Suck / You Are Not Special and Romanticism Considered Harmful respectively, I talked about how people suck and why they don't realize it, as well as our tendency to romanticize things unfairly and why that's a big problem. Both of these posts discuss problems in trying new things and improving and bettering yourself, so I wrote this post as the final piece in my tri-blogy- my attempt to convince you to go out and live (whatever that means to you), to pursue more than just the simple pleasures cracking creme brûlées and dipping your hands in sacks of grain.

Ugh, what a great scene.

I find that many people struggle with questions of "what," and especially at our age (I am no exception), people have no clue what they like, what they are like, what they are interested in, what they want to do or be, what's important to them, and what makes them happy (and I suspect the same is true of most people at any age). When I was younger I focused so much on school (for reasons part family, part personal) I just didn't really do any sports or develop any hobbies. I mean, I played tennis (forced to), played piano (forced to), and made halfhearted attempts to be athletic or artistic before just going right back to doing "academic" stuff. I didn't really do much outside of school, and so one of the questions I hated being asked was "what hobbies do you have?" because I really had no clue, and I didn't want to be the disinterested contrarian with "sleep" and I didn't want to be the boring nerd with "reading." (I have actual hobbies now.)

On the other hand, I was lucky in that I always kinda knew what interested me academically. Even if math and CS were relatively recent interests, something was always interesting to me, and I always liked learning new things. But many others I knew suffered from the same problem I did in many different ways, shapes, and forms- hobbies, majors, careers, clubs, etc. In high school, when I was struggling with the tedium of going to school everyday and studying stuff I wasn't always interested in, not sure what I really liked, I asked a teacher for some advice, and he told me this (roughly paraphrased): 

The goal is not necessarily to find what you love to do, because even though that would be nice, you would have to be pretty lucky to find that so early on in your life. The goal is to try many different things, and find out what you DON'T like, and go through your process of elimination until you find something you really feel passionate about. 

It is ok to try things that you end up not liking, or trying something and absolutely sucking at it, or trying something you thought you would like but you didn't, or trying something you have no idea if you might like or not- because if you don't do that, it is unlikely that you'll actually try something that you do like.

I feel like there is a very similar problem in matters of romance as well. I talked a little bit about it in last years post The Ironic Distance when I discussed what I called the game of maintaining an "ironic distance," where you win by avoiding vulnerability. Ultimately, I think just like how Amelie was scared to try new things and live her life and preferred to hide behind the scenes and live vicariously through helping others, people are mostly held back by fear- fear of rejection, fear of vulnerability, fear of heartbreak. I really really really like this quote and this poster, and it is actually hanging in my room right now (to be technical its in storage, but it WILL be after this summer).

 source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/103-c-s-lewis-to-love-at-all/

source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/103-c-s-lewis-to-love-at-all/

I really like that. To hide yourself in a coffin of simple pleasures and hobbies is definitely more comfortable than trying and venturing out on a limb, but to hide yourself in a coffin is to let your heart grow to glass and die a slow death in your coffin.

I am also a big fan of John Green, and one of my favorite books of his is Looking for Alaska. In it, a dorky teenager Miles (Pudge) goes to boarding school to seek his own "great perhaps", meets a new group of friends, falls in love with a stunning girl named Alaska, and grapples with Simon Bolivar's last words: 

Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!

He shuffled through our exams, pulling one out from the pile before him. "I have here Alaska's final. You'll recall that you were asked what the most important question facing people is, and how the three traditions we're studying this year address that question. This was Alaska's question."

With a sigh, he grabbed hold of his chair and lifted himself out of it, then wrote on the blackboard: How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?—A. Y.

"I'm going to leave that up for the rest of the semester," he said.

"Because everybody who has ever lost their way in life has felt the nagging insistence of that question. At some point we all look up and realize we are lost in a maze, and I don't want us to forget Alaska, and I don't want to forget that even when the material we study seems boring, we're trying to understand how people have answered that question and the questions each of you posed in your papers—how different traditions have come to terms with what Chip, in his final, called 'people's rotten lots in life.'" - Looking For Alaska

Ultimately, I don’t think the way to escape the labyrinth is to hide from it or to carve yourself a safe corner of it, because in the end the labyrinth is there and present and inescapable, and no matter how scary or confusing it may be, closing your eyes and plugging your ears won't help you. But, you know, I understand the fear, I understand the indecision, and I understand that its always easy to give this advice from afar. I get that it's hard, I get that it's scary, that it's not always clear in the moment what to do and where to go and how to act, so I’m not doing some Shia Labeouf crap on you, where I encourage you to “Just DO It” by shouting at you in front of a green screen.

This is a great video though

"Yesterday you said tomorrow” is bullshit and it’s a shitty slogan, because if we really were 100% sure what to do to make tomorrow better we would just do it. So I think rather than following your dreams linearly (because what the fuck are my dreams anyways?) it's more like a process of elimination- and that kind of sucks. Of course it would be nicer if we could just figure out what we want to do and who we like and who we are, but it doesn’t work that way. I like to think of it as something more like a Turing undecidable problem- it's a problem that might not have an effective solution, and it is possible that it won’t ever halt no matter how long you compute, but it sure as shit is impossible if you never try. 

I think its easy to get cynical, and to begin to write off yourself and others and the world as being one way, to believe that there is no way you'll find something that interests you, there's nothing that you're good at, there isn't anyone out there for you, that it’ll be easier to just not try. But I think we will always be too young to be cynical, and it is always to early to be pessimistic. This Stephen Colbert quote comes to mind:

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.”
— Stephen Colbert

I think it is better to not be so sure about the world around you and even yourself, and instead, to respect the future and let it surprise you, to say yes as long as you have the strength to.

I would like to end this tri-blogy with a quote from John Cheese, Cracked.com author who gave me this advice back in high school:

Yeah, the most surefire way to get through it is to just relax, enjoy it,
and don’t over analyze it. Even if it sours, you’ll learn from it. Just
have fun.

You Suck / You Are Not Special

Today's blog post is brought to you by a PSA:

You Suck, and You Are Not Special.

The "You Suck" portion of this post is inspired by something I've noticed while playing League of Legends - people who are trash invariably refuse to believe they are trash (this of course includes myself). There are tons of people who are solidly stuck in silver because they suck at League, not because "gg team holds me back" or "gg team too heavy" or "gg I deserve challenjour," but because they suck at league and they're not good enough to carry. Almost everyone in every rank complains about being in "elo hell" (the "hell" where you're good enough to be in a higher rank, yet are stuck in a lower one), and we all vividly remember games when our teammates were just straight bricks and conveniently forget the games when we fed like a soup kitchen. Instead, we think there's some magical force (rito plz) that specifically conspires to hold us back from the tier that we really deserve, when the truth is really much simpler- we suck.

My boy Imaqtpie says it really well right here:

"Nah dude, you fucking suck"

I think this also applies to most people about most things, because the average person tends to think they are above average (see: Dunning-Kruger effect). The truth of the matter is unless you are a super specific subset of people, you most likely suck at everything, including what you like to do. You aren't spectacularly or even particularly terrible, it's just that in any field or discipline, in a wide enough scope, you are probably smack dab average. You just aren't good at what you do, really, but that's not really much of a problem (actually, in my opinion, that's not a problem at all). The problem is the Dunning-Kruger effect, our tendency to overestimate our abilities relative to others. After all, it is much easier on the ego to point to people and say "damn I'm better than these guys" than to reflect on yourself and think "I can still be better." Because we are all susceptible to this effect, if we actually suck at something, we are often unaware of it- and that's the REAL problem. Because of that, we stagnate, we stop trying as hard, and we don't learn new things because we don't know there's more to learn or we just brush it off, so it is easy to get complacent with what we know. This is especially dangerous in a field like CS, where it seems like new frameworks and technologies pop up like bunnies and everyday you hear a developer who swears by this framework or this language or this text editor.

The other part of this post is "You Are Not Special" and is inspired by this Cyanide and Happiness comic I read a few years ago:

 Source: http://explosm.net/comics/3004/

Source: http://explosm.net/comics/3004/

Similar to the "You Suck" part of the problem, the "You Are Not Special" part comes from people misunderstanding reality, and in particular our tendency to regard ourselves as special. Perhaps because we so intimately know ourselves and because we spend so much time with ourselves, we tend to think we are special and different from other people, and so oftentimes we make exceptions of ourselves.

I love this caption from this HONY post:

  “I’m a philosophy professor.”   “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”   “Never make an exception of yourself.”   “What does that mean?”   “People like to make exceptions of themselves. They hold othe  r people to moral codes that they aren’t willing to follow themselves. For example, people tend to think that if they tell a lie, it’s because it was absolutely necessary. But if someone else tells a lie, it means they’re dishonest. So never make an exception of yourself. If you’re a thief, don’t complain about being robbed."   Source: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/59455398524/im-a-philosophy-professor-if-you-could-give

“I’m a philosophy professor.”
“If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”
“Never make an exception of yourself.”
“What does that mean?”
“People like to make exceptions of themselves. They hold other people to moral codes that they aren’t willing to follow themselves. For example, people tend to think that if they tell a lie, it’s because it was absolutely necessary. But if someone else tells a lie, it means they’re dishonest. So never make an exception of yourself. If you’re a thief, don’t complain about being robbed."

Source: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/59455398524/im-a-philosophy-professor-if-you-could-give

Don't make exceptions of yourselves! I think we do that all of time (of course, myself included), mostly as a product of thinking we are different or special. "Hey, that guy's a dick because he did X, but it's ok when I do x because of y." Oftentimes we are easier on ourselves and harder on others when we ought to hold ourselves to the same moral standards as we do others (see: Fundamental Attribution Error).

Now, the problem with this "problem" isn't really that you don't see reality clearly, because for most things that doesn't really matter. For example, I suck at dancing and I suck at chemistry, but I don't really mind. In fact, I suck so much I don't even really know how much I suck because I don't know squat about either subjects, but I don't really mind because I don't want to be good at either. It would be a problem if I wanted to be good at basketball, and I thought I was good because I only play kindergarteners and I can beat the shit out of some 5 year olds. I'll never know there are people better than me, so I'll never know how to improve- and that's when it becomes a problem.

There are a couple of easy solutions to this problem. The first and second are, respectively, Hang Out With Smarter People, and Do Harder Things. Here is what I think is a useful recursive process:

HangOutWithSmarterPeople:
Are you hanging out with people that are smarter than you, challenge you, or push you?
If yes, learn from them and continue.
If no, find people like that, and HangOutWithSmarterPeople.

DoHarderThings:
Is everything you do easy, and you don't seem to be learning much from what you are doing?
If no, continue, learn how to do it, and DoHarderThings.
If yes, find something harder to do, and DoHarderThings.

Simple, but so far seems to be working for me!

However, because both of these "errors" or "effects" are ultimately mental, the third solution is to just remember the PSA: "You Suck, and You Are Not Special." Don't overestimate your abilities, lest you stop learning, and don't make exceptions of yourself.

N.B. this is a very important point- this post and my PSA come with a big caveat. The problem is NOT that you suck. After all, just as the average person is not above average, the average person is not significantly below average, and odds are most people suck just about as much as you do. It is OK and NORMAL to suck, the large majority of us suck, and even the ones who no longer suck sucked for a very long time. Again, the problem is NOT that you suck, the problem is when you suck and you don't know you suck, and you want to get better but you won't or you can't because you don't think you suck.

So next time you're about to flame that 1/10 Master Yi or go vaynespotting with "Doublelift," just remember that 4 idiots + you on a team ought to be able to beat 5 idiots- and if you can't, then consider the possibility that maybe you are also an idiot... and then work to get better.

P.S. Team so heavy that's why I'm in silver gg :'(

Romanticism Considered Harmful

Before I came to college, I thought I was a pretty smart guy. Sure, I knew that there were tons of people smarter than me, and tons of things I still didn't know, but at that time it seemed so far from me that it was for all intents and purposes not real. Looking back now, I suppose that seems little better than a chimp that is proud of being slightly better at slinging shit than another chimp, and boy, did I have a rude awakening when I came to Columbia. I realized what I had already kind of known, and all the people who were smarter than me and all the things I didn’t know were suddenly made very real. The rudest awakening of all, though, was by far Honors Math. The material was tough, sure. Mutao writes on a chalkboard faster than I can talk, true. But most of all, what I struggled with was that others seemed to grasp stuff much faster than me. When we were looking at the same problem, others seemed to make connections I didn’t see and have some kind of intuition for problems that I did not have. It was frustrating, to say the least, and I often wondered whether I was cut out to do math (whatever that means…) and whether others were simply better than me.

 Now, though, I think one of the biggest takeaways for me from the past two years of relentless work at Columbia is a reaffirmation of what I had always thought- that result and progress is a direct function of time and effort… I just didn’t realize how much. I realized that intuition and problem solving were (typically) not innate, and the effortless solving of a problem is birthed only by a large amount of effort. Here is the trick- there is no trick, and the only way to build and develop intuition is to do a ton of problems. The way to learn how to learn and read and absorb and do problems is to just grind and practice, and I think a lot of people don’t see that. When I tell people that I’m majoring in math and cs, a lot of people give me a weird look, back away slightly, and say “oh wow, I could never do that, I’m bad at math.”

It seems a very common affliction to fail to see the connection between work and progress in mathematics, but I think this relationship also applies to many other things. Here are some quotes I like:

It takes twenty years to make an overnight success.
— Eddie Cantor
If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius.
— Michelangelo
Opportunity is missed by many people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
— Thomas Edison

I think this happens for a couple of reasons. The first is that we tend to compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel, and we think that some are just geniuses, far beyond what we could achieve, because we don’t see the hard work- all we see is the glittering result. The second is just that in general, people are lazy, and we would prefer to see things that way. After all, we get to simultaneously flirt with the potential and hypothetical success we might have had if we were lucky enough, and absolve our own personal responsibility (“I mean, they’re just gifted, right?”). Our culture loves these stories of rapid success- they appeal to us and lets us glorify the story of achievement. We like to believe that one Rocky montage and some rousing renditions of Eye of the Tiger later, we see results and success. We like the Facebook movie because we like the idea that after some eccentric but smart guy spends one night of “hacking” overlaid by a narrator he can make Facebook. We like thinking these people are different, and they are- but the only thing that sets them apart is this: they work harder.

This is dangerous, of course, because this is a false view of things. I especially like this Zen Pencils comic:

 Source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/71-oswald-chambers-mountains-and-valleys-2/

Source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/71-oswald-chambers-mountains-and-valleys-2/

We look at the mountains and we are inspired to do great things and believe we are meant for the mountains, and that is great- but we forget that we don’t actually live in the mountains. We live in the valley, and it is the often boring, daily work that defines us.

The key is not the will to win... everybody has that. It is the will to win that is important.
— Bobby Knight

 And a big chunk of that is because of the narrative in our heads- we construct a lovely story about unreachable geniuses and natural talent, and believe there is a fundamental difference between the average and the abnormal, when really the difference is just work.

Our tendency to inaccurately romanticize extends to other things. Before I came to college, I guess I didn’t really know what to expect, but in my mind I had this vague notion of a weird mix of American pie and math camp. What I did know, though, was it was supposed to be “the best four years of my life.” You hear that shit so much from current college students, from well meaning adults, from smiling college counselors, from movies and books and society that you end up kind of believing in. I think a lot of us go to college expecting “the best four years of your life” (not that that’s necessarily bad). Maybe I’m just foolish, but when I went to college, even if it was vague and unsubstantiated, I kind of expected the Garden of Eden at Morningside Heights, where I would be taught by wise inspiring Dr. Coxian professors, learning amazing new things alongside motivated and smart classmates, and just generally having a Good Time. Even though some of that is true, I suppose, this leaves out a really important chunk- college isn’t always like that. There are times when you are stressed, times when you are sad, times when you are homesick, times when you are angry, and times when you are lonely- and that’s normal.

The problem is that because of all the crap our romantic idea of college leaves out, when we’re lonely or sad or upset, people tend to think they’re the only one to feel this way. They think that since college is supposed to be “the best four years of their life,” if they aren’t as fugging happy as a pig in mud the entire time, obviously something is wrong and they’re fucking up somewhere, when in reality, it’s all perfectly normal. Worse, out of fear that other people might be having the good time you were promised, plenty of people think they are alone in feeling this way and aren’t willing to reach out. The same kind of thing happened to me freshman year, and I know tons of people who went through similar things. So I guess my message to recent graduates is this: don’t believe your college counselor or your well intentioned family friend who hasn’t been in college for 20 years- sure, college is great and college is fun, but just because it might be “the best four years of your life” doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t suck sometimes.

Another big problem (maybe one of the biggest) caused by our tendency to romanticize stuff is, unsurprisingly, in romance and relationships. This time I’m going to blame something I am personally guilty for, and I love- the whole genre of romantic stuff out there. Romantic poetry, single formula chick flicks, Disney movies with happy resolutions, quotes about love, love stories that make you feel warm & fuzzy inside, love songs- I dig that shit.

I love Rudy Francisco,

I love love stories, I love that bit in Plato's Symposium by Aristophanes, and I love 500 Days of Summer (so sue me).

I like this stuff because it’s just so beautiful, but caveat emptor- it leaves some really important stuff out. We love romance, we love the tragic star crossed lovers, and we love a good dramatic love story, but I think it just leaves so much of the real stuff out. By itself, it’s not bad to be a romantic (God knows I've always been one) but it becomes dangerous when we start to believe all love has to be the kind of love to burn your goddamn house down or it isn’t love. We like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s not enough for a couple to commit suicide out of a gigantic misunderstanding (is that even love…? They're both 13 years old). In my opinion, it’s not the glamorous, dramatic stuff that’s hard- it’s the crappy everyday stuff that adds up, the little compromises and the give & take that’s tough. The problem with taking all this romantic stuff at face value is that when things aren’t lovely and romantic, and you don’t feel butterflies in your stomach anymore, people think “Oh no! This must be a bad relationship; I don’t love him/her anymore. I have to get out!” when in reality, the secret to a long lasting relationship is this:

I think ultimately the problem isn’t necessarily being a romantic; after all, it’s not bad to be a dreamer. The problem is when we subscribe only to the romantic narrative, and neglect the big important parts of the story that it leaves out. In my limited experience so far, life seldom lines up nicely with the stories in our head. Sometimes life is dirty, life is messy, life is just plain ugly- and the only thing you can do is just see it through. It’s true, things would be easier if we always knew what to work towards, but we’ve all wasted hours of effort on something far from rewarding (grinding fucking lichblooms in WoW) and we all know friends who stay far too long in bad relationships. The hard part is figuring out what you love, and what is worth you putting your effort towards.

Find what you love and let it kill you.
— Charles Bukowski

It would be easier if stone tablets from God fell from the sky telling you what to do with your life, but that doesn’t happen, and really all we can do is to work and keep trying and hope we find the things that are killing ourselves for. It isn’t always going to be nice and easy, so don’t quit just because things are getting tough- that is normal. I also like this comic from Zen Pencils:

 Source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/90-ira-glass-advice-for-beginners/

Source: http://zenpencils.com/comic/90-ira-glass-advice-for-beginners/

You just gotta fight your way through. Life isn’t beautiful and romantic all the time, and often it is ugly and dirty and difficult and confusing, but strangely- that’s what makes it beautiful, lovely, and so interesting.

Warrior

A few weeks ago, when I was studying for my Modern Algebra final with Greyson, we read this bit from Judson's Galois Theory, in the chapter where he discusses the irreducibility of polynomials.

Greyson pointed out the wording while we were studying, and we thought it was quite funny- "surrender easily" evoked this mental image of some old white haired British mathematician brandishing a theorem at a Big Bad Polynomial in a valiant mathematical duel. I liked the idea of fighting every math problem, of seeing solving a problem as finding a way to make them yield and surrender.

I am reminded of this excellent comic from Abstruse Goose:

 Source: http://abstrusegoose.com/353 The inspiration for this blog post

Source: http://abstrusegoose.com/353
The inspiration for this blog post

I love that quote. I still remember the first semester of freshman year when I went to my math professor Mu Tao Wang's office hours in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make some sense of the mess that was proof based linear algebra in my head. I wanted some advice as to how to study, and how to begin properly learning the material and really understanding it. He gave me some advice that has slowly made more sense as I've studied and learned more math, and he told me that the way to properly read the material was to engage it. The way to learn a theorem is to test it and try it and challenge it, to see under what general cases it holds true, under what special cases it might not, what the edges cases are, what part of the theorem uses which of the given, which conditions are necessary, to grapple with it until you've proven to yourself without a doubt that it is true. In my experience, that's a very important part of learning math. It's easy to accept certain things as true by handwaving and accepting just the right amount of fuzziness to avoid hurting your brain, but I think to properly learn a subject you must fight it. Why is this the case? Can you prove that it is not? What counter examples come to mind, and why are they not counter examples? In my opinion, proper math learning is a very active endeavor- it is all too easy to let things go and accept a theorem to be true, but then you cheat yourself out of real understanding. 

I think this also applies to everything we study and learn academically. It is easy to accept certain things as magic, and it sure is easier to prove a theorem if you're willing to accept things through proof by professor or proof by vague recollection of proof in class, but to grok it- you gotta fight it. Take CS as an example. Why does a particular piece of code compile this way? How does the JVM handle garbage collection? How is source code converted to machine code, and what optimizations were used along the way? Why is the runtime of this algorithm O(m log n)? Can it be faster? What type of syntactic sugar is available in a particular language, and in what forms? The new cs student will happily accept that String str = "hello" will initialize a new string in Java, but most don't think about what's really happening under the hood to create the string.  (Hint: answer is not black magic.) Similarly, for CC, I've found that the best way to learn is to challenge things. Why does this philosopher think this? What are their assumptions, how did they use the assumptions, and are they wrong about what they assume? In almost anything we can study, we ought not to just passively "learn"- instead, we should fight it. 

Actually, to apply this more broadly, I think this holds true for all knowledge and everything we learn and accept. 

In IBSL Psych a few years ago, we learned about confirmation bias- a cognitive bias towards confirming our existing beliefs. Apparently, we are geared towards things that support our thinking, and naturally dig out evidence that "proves" our existing biases and opinions. For example, Democrats tend to read news with a liberal tint more often, and similarly for Republicans. Obviously, this is not great- we just end up reading, learning, and remembering stuff that confirms what we already know, and a lot of the times we fail to consider opposing views. In the case of religion as well, I think people would benefit from learning different perspectives, and understanding what those who are different believe in or how they think. Even if you don't agree or see eye to eye on everything, you will refine and strengthen your own beliefs by continually challenging them, by seeing why another might disagree. Barring the sad reality that we are often more wrong than we know, even if we consider an opposing view that ends up to be false, we will have benefited from understanding why it is wrong. I've also found that this is relevant on a personal level to me. I am a chronic over thinker, and I often abuse myself over silly conclusions and concocted scenarios from unrealistic assumptions. I worry way too much a lot of the times about things that are far too little, when often all I need is for someone to prod me and remember me to consider other possibilities, to fight what I naturally assume.

Fight what you know! Nothing deserves to be a part of your foundation of truths until they've been tried and tested. Ultimately, I think the bottom line is that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that is not true or just plain wrong. After all, even if there are infinite truths, there is an infinity of infinite not truths, and it is a rare and unique quality for something to be true, so I think it prudent to not accept things so flippantly. Even if you are right, you will always benefit from fighting what you know and questioning what you think. Perhaps you end up changing your views- that's good! Or perhaps you understand why you disagree with another, and it strengthens your views- that's also good! In learning, beliefs, opinions, views, and thinking alike, whether you end up right or wrong, it is always good to challenge. In my opinion, it is the burden of the person who holds the belief to be able to defend it, and if you can't, then you damn sure better figure out how or at least be open to change. I think if we are a little more critical of what we believe and challenging of what we let in, if we become intellectual warriors, it'll lead to better discourse, fewer but stronger beliefs, and better understanding of things but in particular why we believe what we believe. And those are good weapons for any of us- not just mathematicians.