Happiness, Self, and Weird Social Things

Hey all :).

It’s blog time. I’m so excited. In fact, that’s where I’m going to start out (who knows where I’ll end up), and that’s with a re-expressal of the sentiment that I’m so baseline happy here.

It startles me every time, because I think: yeah, I’m much more stable in who I am now, my mood’s been consistent in recent years and it’ll probably always be that way. And then I end up at a place like Berkeley’s grad school, and I still go through my usual swings, but my baseline is so ridiculously high now. I’m aware that this is somewhat temporary seeing as I’m a rotating first-year student with no responsibilities. But it astonishes me. I often want to go around skipping and expressing my delight with everything, and in fact I was mildly obnoxious twice today in being loud about this, and need to contain it a bit :).

Related to the being loud part, being happy seems to be a useful thing to project (I’ve gotten feedback on this), but not to the point where it seems like you’re not interested in other people. In fact, happiness often seems to be a rather self-centered thing, especially in that people often ask me implicitly or explicitly why I’m happy, and then I need to come up with something that has happened in my life. My life, you notice, and then people can be happy for me, but then they’re comparing the situation to the situation in their life, and we have disconnected rather than connected. So I often find myself adding in complaints—there is always something to complain about—just so I don’t seem completely disjointed from the realities happening outside this kind of buoyant “isn’t-life-grand” bubble.

And, of course—this is something I’ve long contemplated—people don’t think especially well when they’re happy. There is research on this, and it’s also intuitively true: you’re not very evaluative when you’re high on life. Luckily, this doesn’t feel like that kind of happy. I don’t feel particularly out of control, or like I can’t contain it and sweep down into interested mode. It’s just kind of always there, underneath the events and little downswings and upswings of the day, and I’m trying to figure out how to funnel it correctly so that it translates in delight in other people—which, like, is the biggest part of the reason I’m happy, other people being awesome— rather than it just being this nebulous thing with no source other than being accepted and intellectually stimulated and empowered and otherwise pleased with life.

So that’s school. Specifically, I have two research projects I’m working on: the first is on making computational models match what people do when they’re put in a room and have to learn which buttons they’re supposed to press when they see certain pictures. (If you go one level up in explanation: I’m trying to figure out what values computational models should have when they’re trying to match peoples’ behavior when they engage in a specific type of trial-and-error learning). (If you go two levels up: I’m doing hierarchical parameter fitting applied to reinforcement learning. More levels up than that and I struggle.) My second project is actually going to include running participants, and is investigating how well people can remember when they’re in a group versus by themselves. It’s done on a really cool platform and at some point I’ll upload one of my fellowship applications and you can read it if you’re interested.

And then I have two classes: “Computational Models of Cognition” with Prof. Tom Griffiths and “Neural Computation” with Prof. Bruno Olshausen. The latter is great and the former is blowing my mind. As previously mentioned, I adore the perspective and content of Tom’s work, which is why I hope to work in his lab for the rest of my time here. (Fingers crossed! Also, am I allowed to call Prof. Griffiths “Tom” here? I’ve always called my supervisors by their first names—this is common practice in American universities, at least when you’re talking to your peers—but I usually refer to them by their titles on the blog. I might transition my convention here; we’ll see.)

There’s two smaller classes as well—Brain Lunch is when all of the neuro students get together and do a journal club or listen to a student lecture—and we have a neuroscience methods class where all of us first-year neuro students get together and learn about basic neuroscience and then go have dinner together afterward. I go work out every day at the gym, go home, cook and/or microwave food (…Trader Joe’s. I have succumbed to the microwave), work from home, and continue the cycle again. It’s so unbelievably cool. I’m learning new things every day, or thinking of new things every day, and thinking about fun philosophical / cognitive science / computational science stuff every day, and it’s just such a blast.

(I know, I know, grad school will suck later! But it’s so wonderful now!)

And then I Skype with friends on weekends—I’ve hit Cambridge (England), Bonn (Germany), New Haven (US), Worchester (US), Detroit (US), and Wellesley (US) in the past two weeks, or do small social things (I had a wonderful brunch with Smitha on Saturday) and then do research / homework the rest of the time and have fun discussions with people. I could be making better progress on my work, I know, but then I’ll think to myself: but what do you want your life to be? Making really good progress on this and getting ahead, or kind of slacking a little but having a fantastic time?— and right now, I have the incredible luxury to find myself in the latter.

All right, though, enough of that. We get it, you’re happy, you’re also doing stuff besides blogging about weird social situations and actually being a grad student. (I personally keep on forgetting I’m supposed to be doing work right now. It’s because there are four major things I’m doing, and I’m making such tiny incremental progress on each of them that I feel both constantly unproductive and equally constantly enthused.)

Let’s move onto a weird social situation, because those are always fun!

Just to start us out, I’m going to establish a new convention on this blog and start using “them” in the singular form. First, this will help me get used to using “them” as a singular pronoun (which I need to get accustomed to—it’s not instinctive right now, and people use “them” and “they” as their preferred pronouns and I’m here stuttering along in the corner and offending people, which is not okay). Second—and related—is that I’ve been quite annoyed with the English language division of pronouns by sex because as applied to this blog, he/she terms don’t let me anonymize properly. Admittedly, this is a minor point, in which the major point is that gender is bimodal and not binary, and I’d be quite happy to use a singular form like in verbal Chinese for all people. But in the meantime, we have English, and I have a limited number of friends and if you break it down by gender those subsets get really small on a public blog, so this is what we’re going with.

All right, caveat delivered, weird social situation coming right up!

Here’s the situation. I’ve recently gotten somewhat into texting. Not actual texting—I hate phones, the horror—but almost the equivalent, because I’m writing thoughts to people as I have them, even when I’m also doing work, instead of waiting until my block of work hours is done and I’ve decided that whatever clever thing it was wasn’t actually so clever.

So I’m on Facebook, and I did something fun with a friend yesterday, and I’ve communicated that I would like them to let me know when they’re going today because they do it every day. However, on this particular day I’ve realized that it would be incredibly inefficient for me to wait around until their usual time. So I’ve sent the following message (where things in italics are fillers I’m putting in now, and things in normal font are things I actually wrote):

Me: “unless your [descriptor] thing happens at like [time half an hour later than usual time] I won’t be joining you today… [unspecified best wishes happy words]!”

Them: “Yeah, probably going for a bit early because [description]. Also feel free to think of it as an opt-in rather than opt-out. [returned]”

Me: “excellent, and a good use of emotional and time resources suggestion”

Conversation end. Perfectly normal, right? (Well, that was the point I was trying to make when I was writing this blog post in my head. Upon actually writing it out, I don’t think this was a completely normal text message exchange—the language is a bit… strange…—but the actual interaction seems normal enough to me. Let’s assume for the sake of flow that this was a perfectly normal conversation.)

HOWEVER, the thing about text-message exchanges is that they don’t happen all at once, presented to you in full on a screen. Instead they get presented to you one message at a time in real-time, and you can’t actually know what’s coming next. This is how I prefer to read stories—in particularly climatic moments, I’ll read one line at a time and hide everything after it—but this is not an easy way of non-literary interaction for me.

Thus, here’s a breakdown of all the thought that went into this conversation on my end.

Me: “unless your [descriptor] thing happens at like [time half an hour later than usual time] I won’t be joining you today… [unspecified best wishes happy words]!

My purpose here was to both a) tell them I’m not coming, and b) tell them I’m coming if they wait for me, and trying to figure out if they’ll wait for me. After I asked them this in the first sentence, I then needed to put something like “hope it’ll be fun!” at the end, but that would be a weird thing to say if they were actually going to wait for me and I would be joining them. So then I thought about whether they would understand and accept if I did something normally impolitic, which was jump a level up on the meta-social scale and end with a bracketed phrase. I concluded, based on my previous interactions with them, that this would be okay, and sent the message.

I then told myself to leave Facebook alone until I’d finished reading a largish chunk of text on another browser, because this stuff can include spin-cycles (obsessive rehashing, see last week’s post) if you’re not careful.

Them: “Yeah, probably going for a bit early because [description]. Also feel free to think of it as an opt-in rather than opt out. [returned]”

First of all, I liked the [returned]—that meant that the bracketed meta-social thing, which had been a risk, had been received well, and also made this a positive and reassuring reply. (You see my problem with text messages, especially when I’m restricting my use of smileys. There’s NO FEEDBACK.) Then there was the “feel free to think of it as an opt-in rather than opt out” sentence, which I also liked, because it was smart. Why hadn’t I thought of that? My solution had been dumb—have them message me whenever they were going, have me always message when I wouldn’t be able to make it—yup, that was a dumb set up, why had I suggested that in the first place. Ug, so dumb. All right, fine, let’s just learn from it, it’s okay. What have I learned? Well, maybe that we need to look at situations from other perspectives. That we need to flip the situation on its head and ask—what would be the least amount of work for everyone involved? No, that might be hard to do in general—I think I generalized it too much, maybe I should just look at every situation in which there’s this specific type of “so I’ll join you some days, but not others” situation and change it to this version—opt-in—instead. I even like the phrasing, nice and concise. Well, it’s okay, I’ve learned something, I’ll fix it next time; it’s fine you don’t have to feel bad.

(You’ll notice, at this point, that I’ve completely forgotten that my original point was that I was asking if they’d wait for me. Since that was one of the main goals of my message, the fact that I “wasted their time” by making them respond here when we could have just had an established opt-in situation is a null point. I’ve also received an answer to my question, and that answer was: “no, my time isn’t flexible here, but you’re free to join me when you’re available”. This answer didn’t make me feel anything in particular, so it didn’t even occur to me.)

Me: “excellent, and a good use of emotional and time resources suggestion”

This is an awkward reply, because I wanted to say “good use of emotional and time resources”, but I also wanted to put “solution” in there somewhere, but I couldn’t fit it in correctly. Specifically, I wanted to acknowledge that I’d made an error, and that I’d recognized that error, and that the opt-in suggestion was indeed an excellent solution to the problem of us both having limited time resources to reply to texts, and limited emotional resources. (I do suspect that these sorts of things aren’t quite as emotionally taxing on other people. …I actually strongly suspect this.)

I went back and forth on the word “solution” versus “suggestion” for a while. I also went over the whole sentence for a while, trying to figure out if it was socially-abstract enough to be “smart” while still being understandable (which is a mistake I’ve made before when I go too high on the meta-social analysis without explaining myself).

And then I checked Facebook a few times, after appropriate cool-down breaks, and did not receive a reply, from which I conclude… I’m not even going to let myself conclude anything.

And thereby ends a typical story of what it feels like in Monica’s head to conduct a texting conversation.

In essence, I lead a very dramatic social life. This is why I try to keep my actual social life free of drama, because I am quite capable of creating internal drama all on my lonesome. This kind of analysis is also why I’m able to write about weird social things, because this stuff happens all the time.

This is a moreover a nice example of what I consider a “risky” texting interaction. I don’t often engage on long social threads—GroupMe’s a great instance of this—because often people express some sort of personality, and you have to say something especially funny to get acknowledgement of you trying to be funny or clever, unlike the default smile you’ll get if you’re interacting in person. That means there’s a high risk if I dare to write something that has some personality in it. I have recently been doing so—putting in things that I know are funny but not that funny—and it’s been fun enough and people have been nice enough that I’ve continued doing it.

It’s remarkably freeing, in a way, to be able to express thoughts as you have them, and have them be received positively. It’s only when I get a reply that’s not 110%, unambiguously, fully in support of exactly what I just said (happily, a “like” button fulfills exactly this purpose), immediately, that I get nervous.

Because I get nervous—care about—pretty much any kind of feedback. It has some nice benefits: it’s what makes me adaptable, and it ensures that I almost never get angry. I’m always searching for what I’ve done wrong, and when I find something, then I’m always trying to soothe myself with how I can do better next time. A few weeks ago I was describing that I’m always looking for feedback on what people like about me so I can push those traits forward, and Carson gave me this wonderful quote:

“Also the point of positive feedback usually isn’t ‘iterate yourself based on this information’, it’s usually ‘I want you to feel good because of some combination of empathy (people usually underestimate their good qualities because they are so normalized to them, and it feels good to feel good about yourself, so it’s probably worth reminding them even if they are cognitively aware) and social capital.'”

I’m only going to comment on the first part, which is hilarious and awesome because he couched the message in computer science terms—”iterate yourself based on this information”, where “iteration” is often used in the context of having a variable, and then going back to that variable and updating it sequentially—and because I hadn’t realized that that was exactly how I’ve been thinking about it. It’s also wonderful, of course, having positive feedback, and there’s all sorts of nice fuzzy feelings.

(Wait, brief deviation, my friend Smitha invited me to her group “Human Compatible Artificial Intelligence” today and introduced me to the concept of “wireheading”, which is when you artificially stimulate areas of the brain that induce pleasure. The best-known experiment was done in rats, where rats had to push a lever to receive this pleasurable stimulation and would continue doing so at the expense of eating. I’d known about the dopamine-stimulation result, and I’d also known that drugs like heroin do the same thing for people—stimulate the pleasure regions. But what I hadn’t heard of was the framework in which these AI people were talking about “wireheading”—which is that it’s a way of subverting the system, getting the sensation of “happiness” without going to all of the necessary work that’s usually needed to achieve the “happiness” feeling. Drugs like heroin are thus a specific work-around to achieving something that a lot of people feel is of major importance in life—happiness / pleasure—and this cheat is possible because we’re biological systems and eventually humans came across some artificial chemical that sufficiently mimics chemicals in our normal system. So now I wonder: if we were artificial systems, would there still be workarounds? Will there always be some form of cheat, where we’re not maximizing what we’re trying to maximize? If you put every type of “except __” function in that you think would be necessary to maximize true “happiness”, would we still find things like heroin that would find a way to work the system? I suspect so. We’re pretty crafty creatures, and I think there might be even more opportunity if we weren’t biological. Sorry, got sidetracked onto this because of “fuzzy, positive feelings”, and because every time I get sidetracked onto an internal drama mode it’s because of any instinctive negative feeling, and I wonder if we’ll have to put these sorts of markers in artificial systems. I need to read and think about this so much more.)

Good to realize, of course, that I don’t have to iterate necessary with positive responses. But I still like to. The reason I’ve gone into so much detail here is that my friend Sami said that he liked the blog because I took the time to think about things and explain things that most people don’t, and that he could identify with a lot that I describe. Smitha, this weekend, mentioned in response to my blog: “So, you seem very introspective.”

Hahahaha, introspective indeed. And that actually leads me where I want to go next, which is likely going to be a stupidly long description of my poorly-remembered past.

So. Carson said—actually, pause, I want to apologize for the fact that I’m going to start out probably a lot in this blog with “Carson said”. There are about three people in my life right now who are giving me mind-boggling amounts of input that I find fascinating, and several others who are doing so in slightly-lesser amounts. Those first three are Tom (Prof. Griffiths), Elizer Yudkowsky (author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality), and Carson. Smitha and various other people—Sami, Stephanie and Vasili, more who have inconveniently slipped my mind right now—are also making large contributions.

I’m still trying to figure out how to write about the more academic thoughts I’ve been entertaining—I’ve settled on taking the section of the blog called “z&e” and renaming it “Thoughts”, where I get to jot all of this stuff down—but I haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. I’m really excited to make that happen, because I’m currently using the main blog for social and personal growth percolations, but there are so many cool science ideas that I’m swirling around in right now. Point being, I have a lot of content that needs to go in its own section, but Carson has a lot of really fun social input, so his ideas are going to be mentioned a lot. It’s so weird for me to be learning so much from someone who isn’t a professor or a book. Fun, though, very fun.

Anyhow, Carson said that he thinks he’s essentially the same person as he was when he was in 11th grade. Specifically, if he had to go back and explain his decisions to his 11th-grade self, this past-Carson would empathize with pretty much every action taken. Further, for the actions past-Carson did not agree with, future-Carson could explain the reasoning to past-Carson in a few minutes in which case past-Carson would agree. Carson said that if he had the choice, he’d go back and replace past-Carson, since “I could do things so much better, and it’s not like the universe would be down a Carson: there’d still be one of me.”

Apparently 11th-grade Carson was reading Western philosophy every night and thinking really hard about what it means to be rational / every-other-thing-I-haven’t-learned-yet and remaking himself and figuring out who he was, at which point he decided he was basically done. I think I was studying my AP Biology textbook in 11th grade, yelling at my sisters if they breathed too loudly, and doing some really quality fanfiction reading.

Short story is that Carson feels like he’d be a good replacement if he got to go back in time. It was then my turn in the conversation, and I was like: uh, no—and then my brain kind of pulled a fire alarm and we went around in circles for a bit because I’d never even considered.

So now I’m considering. And my opinion is still that no, I would definitely not want to go back and replace myself, I’ve changed WAY too much since then, and I’ve needed the time. I talk a lot on this blog about having a consistent internal self, and whether in recent years I’ve been reshaping something fundamental or more cleaning up the rough edges. (The rough edges hypothesis seems to be the majority opinion.) Even so, I’ve definitely changed a lot more than the description Carson gave me about himself. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve been so consistent since high school, though that may be more a reflection of me not asking or others not thinking about it thoroughly. (Often in conversations we say truisms like “yeah, I’m figuring myself out” and the other person will agree, and neither of us has any idea what the other person is talking about. This happened to me today. I hate short conversations—give me at least five minutes to get anywhere, otherwise I just get everyone confused trying to take a surface conversation into deep territory and then ricocheting off topics with the pressure of compressed time.)

Something I frequently think about now is that I feel like I’m behind in all of this rationalist business. Also in computer science, but that dates back to about three years ago when I decided that I definitely should have already learned everything all the computer science majors knew while having actually been a neuroscience major. (On the other hand, I would have rocked at medical school. I had all the pre-reqs and classes for that one. I was also very well prepared for cognitive neuroscience research—those two would have been my best slots in terms of qualifications).

But then I think about starting to read HPMoR and talk about representational systems and philosophy and AI… and I really, really cannot see myself doing that at any other point than the time I’m living now.

There’s an environmental factor, and there’s a personal factor. Integrating both, I was just a weird kid.

Take middle-school me. If I were to go back and visit past-Monica, and have her watch me and be expected to act like me, I know that past-Monica just couldn’t do it. There are things that I have integrated as habits now that I didn’t see the point of back then. Take, for example, wearing non-athletic clothes. Things that were stylish, or the things that everyone else was wearing. I flat-out refused to wear jeans before 10th grade. And if past-me asked current-me why I dress at least somewhat reasonably, I’d explain that it’s important for not giving people the wrong impression. I’d explain that I’m still not doing clothes right, I still wear sneakers everywhere and yoga pants, but I’ve compromised to an acceptable degree. And past me would be like: why, I don’t care. (Because in those days everyone told me to wear reasonable clothes, including friends and family, and I distinctly remember thinking that they were suggesting something utterly pointless.)

Why didn’t I care? Why did I refuse to say things like “how are you”? (Another thing I found pointless in those days, which I would explain now as “it’s a great hallway-passing technique, fills up 5 seconds of otherwise awkward silence.”) Why did I know literally nothing about sex (…I have some great stories about that utter obliviousness), why does my family remember my junior year as somewhat of a reign of terror (I just remember there was a LOT of academic stress), why did I not know that to be captain of a team you had to make yourself be liked by the popular kids?

I think because I was getting everything that I needed to get out of school. I was studying like crazy, doing sports, and spending all the time that I wasn’t studying reading young-adult novels. I had friends in school, but I never went over to friends’ places on weekend in high school—weekends were for studying and swim meets. I was lucky in that I attended a school that really valued academic excellence, even among the student population. People knew my name in a class year of 600 people, teachers liked me, peers respected me. I was hitting my goals—all academic—and not much else mattered.

Because that’s what drives me, anyway, hitting the goals. One of the professors who knows me best once said that where I excel is when “Monica is given explicit goals, clear instructions, and the resources to achieve them.” I had clear goals in high school: do well in school. I achieved them. I cannot see myself starting to read HPMoR or appreciating HPMoR in high school, because it wasn’t in those goals. Plus, I was working really hard memorizing and understanding things, and I don’t want to go back there and have to do that all again.

In college and late high school, things changed because I reset my goal list. I remember when “read the news” made it on the list, because I’d been shown ignorant one too many times and I decided that in order to appear like a reasonable person I’d better start at least reading summaries of what was happening in the world. At some point “be a reasonable person” popped up on that list, and that included things like listening to other peoples’ opinions and personal growth and all the things that I’m continuing to value and add to now. Apparently I only started listening closely to people junior year, and it wasn’t until pretty late in college that I figured out a lot of the rules and habits that I use when engaging with people.

I think it was in college, maybe, that I finally figured out that I could control whether people liked me or not. If you have no clue how to make people like you—as was the case in middle school—then they either liked me or not and I didn’t need to put any effort into it. (I make it sound like I didn’t have any friends in high school—I did, I was perfectly fine socially due to some awesome childhood friends and good academic buddies. I just didn’t have super close friendships. The thing about living at home, though, is that that need is fulfilled by family.) All of a sudden, in college, it became my fault if people didn’t like me, because I wasn’t doing the correct thing. And then I started having more success with doing the correct thing and doing more experimenting, and now I am where I am now.

Which is still not developed normally :). I am really still trying to figure myself out, and think I will continue to do so for a while. Apparently in your 30s you stop the whole “who am I” business that happens in your 20s—that’s a truism. But I haven’t settled yet, still don’t think I have the optimum ways to interact with people laid out. Moreover, the easiest way to do this would just to do what everyone is doing around me, but I continue to do weird things to try to balance “fitting in” and “what works” with my personal social goals. For example, I don’t think everyone goes into every conversation trying to learn something. I don’t even do this—I have some very nice normal conversations about food and coding. But I do this more than most people. And that affects how I start and direct conversations, and has made finding “what works” and “is still satisfying” take longer for me than for most people.

Finally, we get to the environmental factor, and where I am now. If in high school, I happened to be surrounded by friends who were reading HPMoR and enthused about it and demanded that I have a similar level of understanding and deep intellectual reading to keep up, I would have done it and loved it. But I went to Wellesley, where I learned about things like political and social activism, which I totally would not have learned about if I hadn’t been there, but since it was expected in that environment it went on the goals list. I’m very glad it did. And I got some of the “you need to be a deep technical thinker on your off-time” at MIT, but mostly my friends there had social or sporty or video-gamey pastimes, so I didn’t need to know it there.

But now I’m at Berkeley, where I’m interacting with people like Carson, and Smitha, and Tom’s lab as a whole, and my neuroscience cohort, and people who expect me to know stuff and produce stuff and think, about a lot of things, and all of a sudden this is on my goals list. Because to be accepted here, I need to engage this part of myself. And I love challenges that I can meet. Especially challenges I’m naturally inclined to and that I think are valuable (I thought all the other stuff I learned was valuable, too, just not natural leanings).

So here I am, with not all of the knowledge I want to keep up. And the reason I don’t have that knowledge is that I was learning a lot of other things. Academically, I studied everything in high school, and every science for the first two years of college, and a mixture of neuroscience, computer science, and cognitive science for the last two years. Socially, I’ve always been a few years behind, I think because I’m not quite wired the way everyone else is and so have had to figure out compromises between what’s optimal for me and what’s normal. Personally, I’m like a train barreling down a tunnel—absolutely no sense of perspective, extremely focused on whatever goals I’ve set; the only reason things have turned out somewhat balanced is that I’ve widened those goals over the years. Very sensitive to expectations—if it’s not something I’m supposed to be learning, then I’m not going to “waste” time learning it when I could be optimizing for whatever I’m supposed to be understanding. One of my friends had problems with not doing well in classes they weren’t interested in. That was never my problem—I can make myself be interested in anything, just tell me that I have to learn it.

I was learning how to handle myself, which I know I must have done because I now have a lot of mood regulation systems. I was learning what I cared about, because my academic goals have never been as focused—computational cognitive science, social interactions specifically—than they are now. I was learning a lot about stupid subjects, because I’m not one of those people who read textbooks for fun; I waste a good amount of time on silly things and have accepted that. And I was building all of these habits, because you can’t consciously think any of these things, they have to be ingrained; it’s too much without building them up slowly.

So, when I posed the question to my mind, and asked: “would you have gone back and replaced yourself?” it came back with jumbled confusion. Because of course I couldn’t have done that. I needed all of that time—I’m still needing all of the time I spend writing this blog and thinking about non-work things, just self things, now. And it seems equally foreign to me to think about changing specific decisions that I made, because I made them with the best of my knowledge at the time, and I agree with the reasoning behind all of those decisions, given what I knew. Of course things would have run smoother if I’d been a 23-year old in 11th-grade… but it would have been pretty tortuous. I’m environment-driven, remember. If I’d been catching up on rationalist reading in high school, but I couldn’t talk with anyone about it until I’d gotten to grad school again… god, that’d be so terrible, what even would the goals have been in high school: be popular? That sounds even more pointless than it did then. Now, there are people I want to impress, but that’s because they’re people I hugely respect and want to work with forever and are going to teach me loads. I don’t want to hang out with high schoolers who are trying to figure themselves out.

More data is needed on Carson’s situation—I suspect he had some good friends in high school who were similarly interested in these things, or else found them at Caltech, or else is just extremely self-motivated and true to who he is and has always known. I also want to see if other people feel the same way about not changing, or changing to different extents, and probe them about this. Carson says that I’m one of those people for whom it’s hard to predict who I’ll be in 10 years, because I’m still self-modifying. But if most people are trying to figure out who they are… which, I mean, previously to this conversation I considered myself average in the quest of figuring out who I am, at least in that I do have some sort of stable core and I’m just altering the algorithms floating around how I manage what comes out of that core. And I know I have this core because people like Tiffany and my sisters and my parents can predict my behavior with what I always feel is frightening accuracy. When I last saw my sisters, I happened to be playing with a piece of string and listening to Nicole, and then Nicole suddenly stopped and laughed at me. I said, “What?” and it turned out that I’d tried something with the string, it had done something unexpected, I’d frozen and directed a look of confusion at the string, and then begun playing with it again, all unconsciously while still listening to Nicole. I asked: “Wait, how did you know what I was thinking? [I barely knew what I was thinking—it’d registered as slightly weird, and I’d changed my motor actions, but it wasn’t at the forefront at all.]” And she explained this series of events to me, and I said, “Oh.” My sisters can predict all sorts of reactions out of me, and Tiffany can predict me sometimes before I predict myself. That says something about the stability of who I am. It makes me think that I’m normal in this spectrum of growing up and changing, in that I’m changing small things but not anything significant… but I don’t know. (I don’t know what is normal, I don’t know if I’ve made core changes, I don’t know if these processes are actually useful, I don’t know.) (I also still don’t really care about being normal, but it’s important to know what normal is.)

I do know that there are things I could be working on instead of thinking about this :). It’s been a long-held belief of mine that nothing changes. It’s an irrational belief, but I remember in my senior year of high school, raising my hand in English class, and commenting: “But no one comes up with any new emotion or message in stories, right?” (I think I offended the teacher.) It stems, though, from this idea that basic human emotions and intuitions don’t change, which I think is true throughout recent history, because evolution acts on social cognition and evolution acts slowly. (Digression: Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, the idea that intelligence involved because we got into a social intelligence arms-race with ourselves, constantly trying to outwit each other, and that’s why we have these massive brains that are so good at social cognition and the accompanying other cognitions. I really want to discuss if this is true, since I hadn’t heard it before, and also really want to know how other cognitive faculties are impacted by the fact that they were developed as add-ons to social cognition if this theory is true.) This is basically going to be my life thesis, as far as I can tell right now. But what it translates to in terms of blogging is that I don’t feel like I’ve come up with anything new, nor will I. Carson said, when I noted that he knew a lot more and was much more well-read on rationality concepts (catch-phrase again for all other stuff I don’t know about) that he’d read a lot of philosophy, and that I was much more self-derived.

“Self-derived”—I kind of like it, says that you can get to a lot of the same points just by random readings here and there and introspection (there we are, finally circled around). It also says that DANG but we humans are inefficient, why don’t we just collect essential pieces of writing and make them read it, and use the same terminology to explain the same concepts in different fields. (Because we have a lot of the same insights that are developed independently in different fields. And the language is different, so people don’t translate these concepts across fields. But it’s going to be REALLY HARD to make a universal language for describing concepts because concepts often rely on context, which rely on the specific field you’re working in. Plus, a lot of these ideas are still in development, and you can’t go and try to universalize things when you’re still trying to figure out where everything fits. It makes me really think about where people like Tom should go. Tom knows so incredibly mind-bleedingly much—he knows so much across so many fields, and has integrated that knowledge and organized it, and on the one hand he should just write books summarizing this knowledge and drawing parallels and making all of the existing knowledge better, and on the other hand he should make new discoveries because he can think so much faster and better than anyone else given he has that enormous and beautifully-cultivated foundation. Which I think is what a professor is—they do try to strike that balance between teaching and research.)

But blogging is helpful because it lets me think through ideas. Carson was telling me about a friend of his who wasn’t good at expressing themselves, “didn’t think in language”. And I was like: what? Who wouldn’t be good at expressing what they feel; that’s absurd. And then I try to explain scientific concepts and incoherent nonsense comes out of my mouth. I swear the knowledge is in there—it’s just when I try to pull it out, it’s like grasping at an unorganized mess, I’m trying to figure out what I’m saying as I’m saying it, it’s terrible. Then there are those times when I’m giving a scientific presentation, or someone asks me a science question I’ve already thought a lot about, or there’s a point I can make that I’ve thought through on the blog, and I’m like: oh, where did that burst of intelligent coherency come from. Because sometimes it just works. And I’m just seeing the trend now… because it’s a rare moment, I always consciously note it, when I say something in speech that I haven’t already thought about. Almost everything I say coherently I’ve already consciously thought through in my head, and almost everything I say well I’ve written about on the blog.

Apparently, I think in writing. Which, looking back and fitting it into my history, searching for positive examples—that fits. I used to write when I was younger, because writing was better and easier than speaking. Then I tell people I figured out how to express things in talking and everything got much faster. Does this idea fit without how my thinking feels? When I’m talking myself through a presentation (I like presentations, I spontaneously sound smart in presentations and can answer questions, with no extra effort) I don’t usually see my thinking in writing, though it’s anchored to the powerpoint text. When I’m thinking through a problem I usually try to force myself into a dialogue with myself, which again isn’t necessarily writing, but does work best when it’s in a structured, paragraph-like format. When I’m drafting a blog post—ooh, I love drafting blog posts in my head—I end up learning a lot, and coming up with new insights always. In short, I think, as long as it’s structured thinking, where ideas are logically ordered and not mixed in with each other, I do fine. And I bet blogging forces ideas into that structure, which is why I can always talk about blog ideas, and come up with new insights while blogging, and find blogging so easy.

…I suspect blogging is one of those things which is much easier for me than for other people—in fact I know this is the case, many people have told me—and that’s because it feels like how I think. I tell people I think blogging is my truest self. Part of that’s likely the content—I can go deeper than I would in a normal conversation—but I also think that it’s telling that blogging is non-interactive, just one massive monologue. And that’s what thinking is like for me. I get outside input, but I don’t come up with original insights when people are speaking to me; I don’t rally; I just absorb. And then I log whatever new thought was observed, trust myself to remember it for when I have the time to sit down and think about it. That’s something I’ve been struggling with, here, because this environment demands either on-the-fly-thinking, or a heck of a lot of pre-generated responses, and I haven’t done my reading. So I come off not speaking like I’d like to speak, and my dad says to try to think in bullet points, to organize my thoughts before I open my mouth, and I’ll try that, but I usually don’t feel that’s enough time, like I need to read and prepare and think and write, and then my mouth will have this beautiful response.

But we can’t be prepared for everything, and it’d take forever to learn if I had to be maximally prepared to respond to every new piece of information, and besides, that’s no fun. It’s exciting to feel this kind of intellectual pressure, to keep up, to contribute, to learn fast, fail, try to figure out why, continue failing, continue learning. It’s fun to come to grad school, too, because that’s what everyone says college is like, right—being surrounded by really smart people—and people are smarter than me in the fields I want to be smarter in (it’s not the first time, just even more field-specific) and it’s pretty dang awesome. Intellectually stimulated, check.

Hoo boy, that was a long post—I’m gonna have a lot of work to do tomorrow! But I’m enjoying it while I have the time, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is it, this is life. Life is not going to happen in the future when I get that next position—this is life, here is it, and it is so lovely. It’s going to be hard to maintain that—another part of the environment is that everyone works a lot here, and I’ve been noticing my language slipping into guilt in response to everyone else’s words, so I’m going to have to watch that. But pressure to work isn’t a bad thing, either, and part of what makes this environment so optimal. Bed time now though :).

Best wishes to you all, readers :). Thanks as always for sticking it through, and I love love love comments—copy-pasted with specific quotes, general comments, whatever. You all are the best, and I’m so thankful you take the time.

Happy Tuesday,

Monica

 

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