The Experiment

Part I: The Framework

It’s a sunny day (it always is in Berkeley), and we’re at the neuroscience community picnic, research techs, graduate students, post-docs, and faculty all mingling around free food. I’ve just spoken to two upper-level students, and take a breath to wander over to a clump of fellow first-years.

“Having a good time?” Christine asks me.

I think about it a second. “Yeah! Progress is being made—I just met someone from the vision program and two more of the older neuroscience students. Just a few more, I think, whew.”

She laughs. “No, I meant if you were having fun,” and I laugh too, and we go over to get more brownies.

“Are you taking Anca’s class?” he asks.

“No, not currently. Right now I’m taking Tom’s class and the Neural Computation one.”

“Oh, well those seem like enough. I’ve heard good things about both!”

I nod, satisfied. When people ask me what classes I’m taking, I tell the group average. So far two graduate students and two professors have converged on these two choices.

Tiffany sighs at me in exasperation. “It’s not all about ‘should’, Monica,” she tells me, smiling. This conversation was years ago; it’s an old argument, doesn’t even need to be brought up anymore, just occasionally referenced. I’ve heard it from plenty of people over the years.

You should be good at swimming so that will help you get into college.

You should be pretty because good-looking people get an advantage in life.

You should listen to others because you keep on getting fixated on one windy path from A to B, and if you’d just asked you could have gone directly.

“So this is my first dance lesson,” the instructor says, smiling hesitantly. The room cheers, the guy in front of me giving her an encouraging grin. She spends too much time in-between songs and talks more than the other instructor, but the guy in front of me, a great dancer, is being supportive all the way through.

Afterwards she asks for feedback, and everyone gathers around her and tells her she did great. I want to tell her that unlike the past instructor, she should put in more cardio, and besides she should stop critiquing people and let it just be fun. I don’t tell her because the irony’s making me feel guilty.

“So, you’re a swimmer, right?” (Another conversation from years ago.)

“Yes! On the Wellesley team.”

“How’s that going?”

“Good! We have our first meet coming up, and it’s been fun meeting all of the girls. It’s a great community, I like it a lot better than my old team.”

“Great. Do you think you’ll continue after college?”

I look at him, surprised. “Uh, no? I’ve always done sports for fun.”

“Do you plan to go to the Olympics or anything?”

“…no, we’re not good enough for that.”

“But people can always get better. If you could improve, do you think you would pursue it?”

“No, school’s always been my main thing.”

“Well then, shouldn’t you be focusing on what you want to do in the future? Everything takes time, and you should maybe think about directing your efforts to what’s going to be important in the long-run.”


He suggests quitting. This conversation will stay with me a long time. Looking back, the part I hate most is how he started it.

“You sure you don’t want to come out [drinking with us?]” A bunch of us first-years had assembled for a sort of pre-party, drinks and music, and I’d eagerly arrived about an hour and a half ago. I don’t drink but wanted to hang out with people.

“No, this has been great!” I say. “I came over for a drunk night, and this has been fun.”

She smiles kind of awkwardly. (Dang, I still have no tact. Keep the thoughts in your head, Monica. Just because you put every social event into categories to manage expectations does not mean this is a reasonable thing to say. Good + weird intentions just makes it seem like you’re judging people.) (…I wonder if the reason I’ve historically had so many problems with tact is because the weirder the thoughts are, the less likely they’re to come out positively? There are things I like and do not like, but I almost never mean to hurt anyone.)

But she rallies, and thanks me for coming over, and I thank her again for having us over. She and another girl have been taking care of me all night, in that way people sometimes have of seeing I’m not into a group conversation, and coming over and asking me about my day. It always makes me feel a little like I’m 15 again, and a lot appreciative, because I’m usually looking for the one-on-one conversations and it’s always nice to have company in social goals.

“You categorize everything, don’t you?” Lukas asked.

“… essentially, yes.”

“So why don’t you drink?” Carson’s asking this, a week ago. Happily, he’s curious rather than defensive. People don’t like when you don’t drink. My running hypothesis is that people think you’re judging them. I have, however, found a way to diffuse this.

“I don’t like the taste, or how expensive it is, or the extra calories. If I’m going to be consuming calories, I’d rather eat a good dessert. Or, like, Cheese-Its.”

“Oh, so it’s the delivery you don’t like. Interesting!”

We both mull this over. I like this idea; I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

“It’s essentially a drug, after all. But—hm. If alcohol was offered in drug form, just a pill or something, would you take it then?

I think about it. “Well… if it didn’t add extra calories, and there was no negative aftereffects…”

“Sure, let’s assume that.”


Darn it.

“Then I think I’d take it once, just to try it out, but I probably wouldn’t continue taking it. Ug. Now I’m opposed to the principle of it too.” How annoying.

Carson laughs and we continue our discussion about taking drugs. I’m not opposed, especially if they’re well-researched. I just don’t want to do it in particular—I couldn’t just stop at any point and do work if I wanted to.

I’d especially not want to take anything that would distort time.

I miss my Cambridge people. I miss the Red Room and the Blue Room, and Poly and Lizzie and Joey and Lukas and Vasilis and Nuno and Reuben. I miss Stephanie and Vasili and Sanja and everyone else who was there. I miss having these people who I adored—who I could list reasons for adoring—and for people who loved me back.

One of my friends is going through a similar transition, and it’s harder for him because he doesn’t have a group of new people to fall into. And today’s world we have long-range free communication technology, so it’s not like I’m losing these people forever. Moreover, I’m still very happy with my move to Berkeley for a lot of reasons.

But I digress; here are a few sentences relevant to this post, because I have a point I’m building up to here. In their lovely letters of farewell, I got lots of nice compliments. And the thing that came up most in these letters, from almost everyone, was this message: “It was great having you around, we know you’ll be successful in the future, and don’t forget to have fun.”

“So in your life you’re not trying to maximize happiness, then, you’re trying to maximize efficiency?” Carson asks, as we’re hiking up an interestingly-looking rock.

“Well, getting things accomplished does make me happy,” I say.

I think he understood the message more than I did.

If you ever need anyone to buy into the “should” culture, that’d be me. If you ever need to motivate me to do anything, or not to do anything, efficiency is how you should frame it. What are the goals, what’s the fastest way to get there—phrase it in this way and I’m unusually re-directable. I use efficiency as my motivation for almost everything, with guilt and satisfaction as the flip sides of this coin. I’m terrified of being killed by a car (most likely cause of death for someone my age and sex in the US) because it’d be such a waste of time and resources.

Now, one can’t and wouldn’t want to do life perfectly; life’s full of inefficiencies and what makes it fun is that it’s unexpected. But the best way I’ve found to balance my desire for efficient behavior and the vagaries of real life is to group my time into categories.

I have “research work” which is any thinking which produces useful ideas. I have “homework”, which is one of my favorites because it’s pre-grouped and pre-goaled for my consumption. “Personal growth” is a general case which covers blogging and doing uncomfortable new things, including travel. “Intelligent reading” is a border case, because it could be useful in “research work” or “personal growth”, but I don’t do it that often because it’s not the category most directly aligned with my goals. “Life things” includes things like hygiene, cleaning, transportation, cooking and eating. “Vacation / family” is my easiest category—it generally involves spending time with family and not having to do anything productive (since spending time with family is itself productive!) “Developing research skills / outreach” includes things like mentoring, tutoring, teaching, writing for my outreach website—this one’s a weird category because I find it immensely rewarding, but it’s also useful for my future so I get to group it under especially productive and do it whenever the opportunity arises. “Social stuff” is making connections with and learning about important people: people who could be friends or mentors or could help me or could work with me. “Presenting well” includes things like reading the news, attempting to keep up with what’s popular, and having a personal website. “Social fun” is spending time with people I enjoy (including emails / Facebook etc.), and if we have really great conversations I can hit the double jackpot and hit the additional category of “personal growth”. “Stupid fun stuff” is messing around on the internet or—what fulfills this need most quickly— reading romance stories where everything always turns out well in the end. I try to mitigate this one by exercising, which is also a stupid fun thing but is good for me so makes this category okay.

It can be kind of exhausting living trying to maximize my time all the time. Categorizing is actually a mechanism for calming me down, because for all of the categories that aren’t directly relevant to my goals (i.e. anything outside “research work”, “homework”, and “social stuff”), knowing that they’re in one of my categories means I’m still being “productive”.

…In retrospect, I sound insane.

I’ve never laid it out like this before, but I had no trouble coming up with the categories I use—though they were developed unconsciously, I’ve written specific categories out before or used them as justification when I backed out of events with people. (If I spend too much time in the “social fun” category, when I feel that my social needs have already been fulfilled, I get uneasy.) And after a while, people “get me”—they seem to implicitly understand these categories in the same way that I do after I’ve mentioned a few of them.

I still sound certifiably insane, but I’ll come back to this point in Part 3, where I discuss the wisdom of these choices.

In the meantime, I’d like to get to Part 2, which describes this past week’s adventure of conducting an experiment. Flushed with the success of having successfully decided to not bite my nails anymore (you try breaking that habit after 23 years of it) I decided to become more productive. Some categories I can’t get rid of— I’m human and I’m not hermit-material, so I have social needs—but I decided to have another go at getting rid of the “stupid fun stuff” category. I’ve been trying to get rid of this category for years, but have not so far matched my record from my first-year-first-semester of college when I was only spending 7 hours a week in it. I usually average something like 13 hours per week, though I shortened it down to something approaching 10 hours my senior fall, which was hardest semester academically.

(…This is almost like seeing myself in third person. I… wow.)

Thus began the experiment. Knowing that I had accustomed myself to a coddled life, I determined that I wouldn’t be able to cut the category completely. Instead, I tried to see whether I could foist the hours into the “intelligent reading”, “personal growth”, and “research interests” categories. The experiment is ongoing but the results have been mostly determined.

Part 2: The Experiment

Something to know about me is that I love people, and especially studying how people interact. I find it intellectually fascinating, and a lot of this blog focuses on non-formally describing these interactions.

In very recent times, I have managed to finagle myself into a position where I get to study social interactions as my job. This is an incredible success for my time divisions, because it means that the “intelligent reading” category just jumped like six productivity levels straight into “research interests”.

Moreover, I just met Carson, who’s a fellow first-year who gets my head. I’m interested in the intersection between artificial intelligence and human psychology / sociology. I think there’s something very special about people who end up in the intersection of those fields, because artificial intelligence gives you a completely different perspective on human intelligence. Trying to figure out how things work computationally, how you could put intuitions into a machine, gives you a source of comparison and makes you think differently about everything that you do.

And Carson is a fount of other sources who think this way.

He’s introduced me to the websites “LessWrong” and “Slate Star Codex”, both sites that view the world through a lens of rationality. The Griffiths lab is also very focused on rationality and so I’ve been reading a lot about this concept through them. These articles remind me of Neal Stephenson, who is in recent years my favorite author and writes books in a similar vein (Cryptomicon, Anathem). Carson has re-encouraged me to read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfiction written by a serious author and describes how J.K. Rowling’s world of magic would have gone if Harry was raised as a scientist / to think rationally.

And these websites, especially Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMoR), has been rocking my world. (Thus the category upgrade to “personal growth”!)

That there is a community of people who see the world this way is freaking amazing. Like, really, really, really cool. The way I think of the world is more… structured / discretized / analyzed / I’m-not-quite-sure than most people. These Rationality people take that “I’m-not-quite-sure-but-different” and take it to a whole different level. It feels like when you’ve just read a great book, and want to read more great books in the same vein, but don’t have the correct Google keyword to pull up a useful list. I’ve basically just found that keyword (such a 21st-century analogy), and now I have access to the hub, and all of the links, of this incredible community that exists.

It’s astonishing. They think further and dig deeper than I do, but in the direction and in the framework that I like to think. The references are to artificial intelligence / logic / philosophy / cognitive science, which are the domains that I enjoy. Everyone always tells me my interests are really broad, but there are lots of other people who think this way, and better than I do. Discussions are focused and intelligent. Bonus, people are much less sexist / racist / -ist than in the general population, despite what I imagine the population of writers to be.

HPMoR in particular has been driving me crazy. I’d heard of this story a while ago, but hadn’t delved into it because it’s a long story that requires you to think all of the time. But this experiment of mine was about substituting categories, so I tried it out. And it’s basically what I’ve always wanted to write.

It has a character who views the world rationally and who explains the cognitive fallacies everyone else has committed. A lot of the mathematical and psychological concepts were intimately familiar, and I immediately looked up the author assuming they had to be an AI researcher. He was. (Though I thought he had a PhD, because the way he talks about academia is uncanny.)

Characters think about the world in usually computational ways. They also engage each other in long philosophical discussions in which one character plays the uninformed reader and the other explains some abstract concept. This reminded me immensely of Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptomicon”, in which characters describe how concepts like encryption work as well as applying computational analyses to, for example, how the sounds of stepping onto sidewalks could be used to make a map of London.

Characters have definitive flaws and are consistent in their portrayal. They spend a lot of time interacting with other characters and trying to figure out how they work. This reminded me Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”, my all-time favorite novel.

The story also has a very surprising, complicated, and well-thought-out plot that keeps you on your toes all the time, and additionally it is funny. The humor reminds me a lot of normal fanfiction and young adult novels, though the plot is unparalleled.

Finally, highly unusual in this book, characters spend a lot of time trying to manipulate each other, and the ways they do so is explicitly outlined. This reminded me of various books / talks I’ve read about how to influence people, and is a very, very strong personal and research interest of mine. I’ve tried to write these sorts of interactions in the past, but I don’t have enough understanding to grasp it. It’s something people know intuitively far more than in rules.

In short, it’s an amazing book for me, and exactly what I’d want to write if I had the capability and patience to create such an elaborate plot and characters. It also, as promised, requires me to think all the time, not just about the ideas that are brought up (those are hard) but also about the people. About what they’re trying to do, about what the people they’re talking to are trying to do, how they’re interacting, who’s right and who’s wrong, and how various ideas and characteristics relate to my life.

And as experiments go this one falls distinctly into “neutral”.

Because I love it. I love who I am when I’m thinking about these things, when I’m thinking intellectually about the world in this challenging and fascinating framework. When I’m falling asleep thinking about rational behavior, and in my free time contemplating how the world works. It’s who I ideally want to be.

But I’m also going to lectures and trying to come up with intelligent questions, reading papers and trying to frame my research interests, trying to impress people who I want to work with, trying to have engaging discussions with potential labmates, relate the concepts I have in my coursework to my research and my life, and… it’s exhausting. It’s a lot of intellectual work, and HPMoR, as “intellectual reading”, keeps on making me think and then keeps on making me try to apply the concepts I’ve learned to my life. The best part of this whole category collapse thing is that my intellectual reading has become my research interests has become my personal growth, but it also means that I’m thinking all the damn time.

I was sitting on my bed yesterday, kind of inexplicably sad, thinking vaguely about these things. Mostly I was trying to figure out why I was melancholy, which happens on a fairly regular basis even when my life is excellent, and which I decided in Cambridge just happens because people can’t be hyped up all the time. And then I opened up one of the few websites I hadn’t locked down (because I dislike going to bed, and this is always the most dangerous time for me re: “stupid fun stuff”) and started clicking through images of fantastical landscapes. And you know what? After a half an hour of this—no negative things, just happy useless things—I felt better.

Part 3: Conclusions

You know, I’ve tried starting this section at least three times. And every time, it unravels by the end, because it’s all in the context of efficiency, in that doing “social fun stuff” or blogging is long-term efficient and therefore productive, and it doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t solve the problem, because the problem’s not with how large or small this category is, it’s about the whole structure. The whole framework of being efficient. Like I said on page one: it’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting being on point all the time, especially in a new place. Trying to figure out what to do with every second of the day isn’t working here because my life is so unstructured right now, because that’s stress added onto stress. And I get why I’m obsessed with efficiency—it’s historical and part of who I am and part of a lot of work cultures—but I don’t need this. It’s making me unhappy, everyone around me is doing just fine, and it’s not necessary.

This might not be the time to make a mental change, but it’s a great opportunity precisely because I don’t have any habits right now. And the best part of making a change like this is it doesn’t affect any of my behavior. I’m still going to be doing my homework, thinking about research, learning about these cool new logical structures, mentoring others, reading books, having fun. It’s just that I need to take a leaf out of my Junior-Spring book, when I had a thought-provoking trip to Nicaragua, and remind myself that all the anxiety’s not necessary. That one can maximize happiness as a utility function, and still end up being productive and useful and happy.

Blogging is one of those things that makes me think about this. It’s one of my few activities that doesn’t quite fit into one category, that subsumes a lot of categories because it’s about my mental health, about keeping me calm. I’ve blogged for a long time today. In fact, I haven’t done much else—I went to the grocery store with my housemate, woke up late because I stayed up late reading, and then I sat around on the couch, watching the leaves sway around, and thought. It’s not usual that I need to take an entire day to just think, and that says something about myself, about what’s maintainable in the long-term. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, everyone says. Graduate school’s a marathon.

I can’t believe I’m in grad school. This has been the goal for so long, and now I’m here. It’s always been: no, you need to do this for grad school, you need to get this done before grad school, but I’m here now, five and a half years stretching in front of me, and I’m sprinting already, I’m giving everyone the best self I can, evaluating my days based on how I’ve done. I’m here, now, I think—life is hopefully long, and—and Monica, it’s not going to work if you push this hard anyway. You did your experiment, you know what happens. You end up doing stupid fun stuff regardless, you end up blogging for ages to make up for trying this hard. Do what everyone around you is doing, what the great dancer was doing. Chill. Calm down. Appreciate the beautiful things around you.

Here’s what one of my attempts to write this section devolved into: “Here’s to all of the stupid stuff, not actually the stupid stuff, but the stuff that my framework sweeps away into a category that doesn’t let me enjoy it as much as almost anyone else I know.”

And here’s another attempt: “This blog is for the rest of it. It’s for staying up late and reading stories that start and end happily, for scrolling through pictures of fantastical landscapes, for reading that pulls me out of my tiny little circle of existence, for sitting on the couch staring outside thinking about myself. It’s for loving people, and life, and everything that I adore outside of the beauty of thinking about the formalisms of the universe. It’s for the things that are smaller than what I do with my life, and simultaneously larger, outside the enclosing spirals of my default state in perspective.”

I’m insane, you know? And I love it. I love that I have a mind that goes to such crazy extents to structure things, and that I had a mind that can pull a break lever and say: okay, let’s re-evaluate. I love that I have a mind that can perform at 120 miles per hour, and I love that kind of effort is kind of what I’m known for, and kind of what I’m not. I love that I’m called an intellectual, and what people enjoy about me is that I’m cheerful, energetic, caring, and thoughtful.

I’m ready to do my homework now, ready to read HPMoR. Exciting stuff starts on Tuesday, when my first rotation with Prof. Anne Collins begins. I love intelligence, this absurd ability that lets us draw novel conclusions simply from revolving thoughts around our own heads. And regarding next week: I can’t wait :).

Can’t wait :).

PS, picture from my younger sister Nicole who just started college! Her first-year advisor is Stella, who’s a professor I adore in the computer science department. Much love :).



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