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America voted today.

And, well.

Fuck.

I suggest you all save reading this post for a later date, when there are less important things to worry about. I’ve decided to write it as I normally write it, on my usual abstractly irrelevant subjects, but it feels jarring.

So. That acknowledged—that there are much more important and relevant things to worry about—I’m just going to proceed as usual, and hope people read it at a later date.

(Apologies for being explicit about which way I voted, but it’s not a difficult guess based on this blog. I voted in accordance with the states I come from, my undergraduate university, and my age / gender / job demographic. I’m a very typical member, really.)

All right. Here goes, then.

Hey readers!

Hope you’re all doing well :). It’s been one of those weeks when I feel like I’m shaking at head at my brain while it’s being distractible all over the place. Happy distractions, but I’m just kind of watching it and thinking: “come now, we can focus, you’ve done it before and you’ll do it again.” That said, a lot of these blog posts come about because I’m seemingly incapable of focusing for hour-long periods in class. I don’t usually think hard when I’m doing fun things, but put me in a setting where I’m expected to pay attention, and all of a sudden I’m whipping out my laptop and adding things to my “blog ideas” word doc every ten minutes.

I often gauge how focused I need to be based on external feedback. However, internally I’m not terribly worried about the amount of work I’m getting done, since I classify all of the personal things I’ve been learning about myself as “learning” and “needs to get done at some point in life”, so I’m being productive in my head across various forums, be they academic or personal. Plus, I’m very very lucky in that I have a lab that I want to work in and wants me back, so I don’t have to be constantly proving myself to the extent that some people around me are. And, most importantly, I haven’t gotten scolded by anyone yet, so I’m hoping I’m doing okay.

That said, I’m most definitely sure that I’m not working as hard academically as most people around me are, and it’s making me uneasy. I mean, this is a function of who I surround myself with, and the amount of time that people spend working in grad school is… well, I imagine it’s much more than many, in that you’re basically supposed to be working all the time. We have flexibility, which is awesome, but it kind of transforms the “oh, we’ll do this hour-long fun thing sometime this weekend” to “oh, it doesn’t matter when we do it since we’re supposed to be working over the weekend”, which means that you can properly feel guilty about not working all the time anytime if you feel so inclined. Slippery slope, really. It’s even stranger than in undergrad, because in undergrad at least you had defined breaks when you weren’t in school and thus weren’t being irresponsible. We’re in school all the time! No established breaks! I can see why this would cause burnout eventually, especially if a lot of people around you were pulling weekend and late nights on a regular basis, like some of the people around me are. I mean, people like what they do and are happy to work (I’m obviously happy to work almost all of the time), but I think the key is to not feel guilty when you’re doing productive things that aren’t academic work. For me, this is blogging, exercising, and social things. This is the same sort of general worry I’d expressed during undergrad, except that I could compare myself to people who weren’t working as hard as I was in undergrad, and they’re harder to find now.

On the other hand, I think I have a better life-sense now than I did when I was younger. I’ll do this thing now where I’ll remind myself, “no, Monica, you’re into grad school, this is the rest of your life” and then I’ll ask: “is this what you want to be spending your life doing?” And the answer is always yes, no matter how academically productive I’m being. I’m loving all that I get to do here, all of the thinking in every forum, and I think that as long as everyone external is still fine with my performance, I’m in a good place for now.

(There are also many people who are much less happy than I am right now. And it is freaking rare to have circumstances across the board that make you happy, and that’s another thing that I remind myself: once in a lifetime opportunity, Monica. Every month is a once in a lifetime opportunity :).)

I think the rest of this will be smaller observations that I’ve been collecting– there’s a lot of fun things that have been happening around me.

Non-verbal communication can be so fun. Someone was recently telling me a story, and I was just listening as they were watching my face. They said something, and I did a suggestive eyebrow raise and made a “ooh, so that’s what you were really thinking about” expression, and I didn’t say anything at all but they stopped mid-sentence and started playfully defending themselves. I just like envisioning these conversations from the outside, from someone just listening to a transcript of our speech and trying to infer what had just happened to change the direction of conversation.

I actually recall exactly this kind of situation, when once I was talking to a superior in a public space with other students seated around working at their computers. The superior said something to me, and I have no idea what my face was doing, but the superior paused, my face made something between an “I’m very offended” expression and “I’m giving you a blank stare because that’s better than looking offended”, and then they started backtracking. That situation stays with me because I feel like the fact that they said that to me in a public space was a power play, but I’ve no idea how the power play worked out, since I didn’t ever actually say anything in return. I know the other students were aware of the tone of what had just happened, just from what they were hearing, and I find that pretty fascinating.

Finally, I was recently watching a movie where my reactions were being remarked upon, and it was so funny to realize that all the things that I feel during movies are completely on display externally. I know I get uncomfortable during awkward moments on screen (I call it severe secondhand embarrassment—”severe” only because other people don’t seem to feel it to nearly the same extent). What I didn’t know is that I get very fidgety and do a lot of tapping and oscillating motions during those moments. I also know that I really don’t like when characters are making stupid decisions that they know are bad for them—I’ve had to turn off movies because of this—which are situations I apparently also show external reactions for. Something I didn’t know is that I really don’t like when people are making impractical decisions for illogical emotional reasons, which I show even stronger reactions for. I always think that what I feel is in my brain and stays in my brain, but I really should know better by this point. I have countless counterexamples, and my sisters especially are great at reading me and commenting.

Eh. People have told me in the past I’m very expressive. At one point I was giving a friend a completely blank look, and she was like, “so you don’t like it, then,” and I said: “I didn’t say that!” and she said: “Monica. What do you think your face normally looks like—a blank stare in reaction is not it.”

I love long one-on-one conversations with people. Especially late-night ones where there’s nobody around. I had one of these two Fridays ago, and it’s just so reassuring, because at some point you’ll get to the point where you’re trading stories and completely focused on the person across from you, and you’ll pass through the “I enjoy your company” bit where everyone’s assuring each other of the fact. Compliments are so weird in that they seem to just create this continual positive feedback loop without ever generating anything new. I mean, we know that we like hanging out, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this one-on-one conversation, and people generally know what other people like about them. But it’s still reassuring, always. I return to the thought of what life would be like if we weren’t constantly overwriting our emotions and expectations based on a constant stream of events—we’d certainly be less adaptive in some areas, but in other more consistent personality traits it would be VERY USEFUL for compliments to not be necessary—for us to hold previous feedback in mind enough that we wouldn’t need repetitions. But hey, we’re built like we’re built, and we keep on seeking out connections because of it, which is always a nice motivation.

Another thing about late-night conversations. Late-night conversations usually follow evening activities, and my question is: why does it take so long to get to the emotionally meaningful stuff? I mean, I think I’m pretty easy. I feel like you read this blog and you’ve got almost all of my emotional insecurities on a silver platter—you know what I like about myself, you know what I don’t like about myself, you know a good portion of my stories. I’m pretty willing to talk about the extra non-blog stories as well as long as I don’t think you’ll judge me for them, and while that takes longer, they’re still stories I’m usually relatively comfortable talking about in public spaces.

That said, there are some things I’m not very comfortable with when you talk to me in person, and the one that comes most to mind is that I continue to do most of my sincere compliments and love-letter-people-analyses in writing. That’s a terrible name, but basically it means that I’ve historically written notes to people describing why I think they’re amazing people. It’s pretty rare, but I do it at least once a year, and have since I was pretty young. Friends, family, teachers, I usually find a few.

One of the things that comes out of writing these letters is the interesting conundrum of trying to figure out what compliments the other person will like most. I have a personal rule that everything I say has to be true in the spirit that I meant it (which means things like “you’re the best” are okay). However, I’m allowed to omit things, and I can still say things that are technically true and convey a meaning that I expect to be misinterpreted with a positive bias. (Huh, I didn’t realize the positive bias thing until now. But when I think of examples where I’m expecting to be misinterpreted, it’s almost always for things where I’ll state a fact in an excited tone of voice but not say anything explicitly positive. Basically, as a friend mentioned, I give my voice and face free range but the words have to be true.) (I didn’t use to have exceptions. But there’s this concept I’ve finally discovered called tact, and it requires that one makes allowances.) However, in letters I don’t get to use the voice trick, and wouldn’t want to, since if I decide to write you one of those letters it’s going to be because I feel really strongly that I want you to realize you’re appreciated so it’s going to be the best that I can give you. And what that usually means is that I’ll describe what I respect most about you, which stems from me—things that I find very hard, that you do very well, and so I respect you immensely for.

But the traits that I respect most about you aren’t actually the best things I could write to you. They’re close enough, since people don’t receive nearly enough of these sorts of letters in their lives, and anything meant sincerely and thought about honestly is going to be great. But the best thing I could do is to find the things that you really respect about yourself, believe and respect those sincerely, and then write those things for you. This is hard on several fronts. First, because you can’t just go around asking people what they like most about themselves. (…Though I have tried this and it doesn’t go as badly as other things I’ve attempted, so I’d not advise against it, just would mention that it’s not usually as informative as one would hope.) People are modest and uncomfortable about this sort of thing. Moreover, something I didn’t realize is that people just generally don’t know what they most want to hear a lot of the time. I mean, I could probably give you a list of my favorite compliments, but I don’t know if this is generally true. Additionally, part of what makes compliments fun is that they have the potential to be unexpected. Those are excellent compliments—the ones you didn’t realize were true, because they’re from some lens or abstraction you weren’t aware of, that someone took the time to notice. A second reason why it’s hard to give compliments that you know will strike people deeply, besides the difficulty figuring out what kind of compliments those are in the first place, is that (at least by my rules) I have to completely believe them. Be 100% sold that what the other person admires about themselves is just as admirable for me. And that… can be pretty rare, really, because usually when I respect a trait because it’s hard for me, it’s natural for the other person, so it’s not something they hugely admire about themselves. But sometimes you get lucky, or it’s a general trait everyone works hard for, and then you’re golden.

Most of the time, though, I just give whatever compliments come to mind. If I have the luxury of writing back and forth a few times, and getting feedback, then I can shape compliments a little bit more to what’s appreciated, but like I said, people just generally don’t get enough appreciation, so anything’s generally well-accepted.

(It’s also very interesting to see if people respond back in kind. These letters are usually the best that I can do—in my head I call them love letters for a reason—and often people will write back or respond back that they were touched. That’s when I’ve done well, and that helps bring those relationships closer. Sometimes I’ll just miss the boat completely and appreciate them for things that they don’t care about, and that’s my bad. Sometimes I think I’ll have gotten it right, and still get nothing back, and those are always sad for me. I rarely try again, generally interpret a non-response as them not feeling particularly strongly for me, and those relationships usually fade.)

Ha, I’ve gotten quite off-track from my original point, which is the depth of late-night conversations. Specifically, I can see why mutual reassurance doesn’t happen until people are in a private space, because that’s usually when I decide I’m comfortable enough to start sharing why I appreciate others. I also know that there are some things I’m most comfortable expressing on the blog, at least at first, because it gives me the time and space to figure out what I’m going to say, which doesn’t happen in an online conversation. (Though really really feel free to bring up anything I say in the blog in real life. Even out of the blue. By the time I’ve decided to write about it here it’s fair game.) So if I just extend those feelings of reluctance to other people, and give them a wider scope of topics, including insecurities, they experience this feeling for… then I think that explains why it usually takes so long to share personal stories.

I’ve recently been considering another hypothesis, which is that people perhaps don’t have personal thoughts and characteristics as readily categorized as I keep mine. It could be that people haven’t thought about all of their personal abstractions in a way that makes them verbalizable, or they haven’t consciously thought about any of the terrible things that run through their heads. For example, I know I’m sexist and racist and uncaring and jealous and all sorts of terrible in my initial reactions, and then I do my best to overcompensate and not act on those initial responses because, frankly, they’re stupid responses. But I recently had someone judge me for describing this, and I thought it was so funny, because “hey, you know it’s not just me.” Most of us have similar –ist feelings, and whether we show them or not depends on what we do after we have them. But that experience made me think that another reason that people may not be able to produce lists on command is because they’re skipping past those initial moments when they’re terrible people.

Essentially, I think there’s no good reason why we can’t skip straight to the meaningful stuff. I don’t see why I have a reluctance to give sincere compliments in person, or why I’m not constantly handing out compliments in general. It makes zero sense to me. I like making people feel good about themselves—why am I not doing this thing that is an effective way of making them feel good about themselves, especially if we’re wired to feel neutral and then bad about ourselves after pretty short periods of time? If you know someone will accept you and is trustworthy, why wouldn’t it be a good thing to reveal important and sensitive information that will bring you closer? There’s a clear argument to this one—what if you’re wrong and they’re actually not trustworthy—but I still think that people wait a lot longer than would be optimal, especially for lesser emotional reveals. In short, I don’t think there’s a logical impediment for us not connecting with each other sooner. What, then, is the drive behind having emotions that make us reluctant to bridge these gaps, and only do so after extended periods of interaction and then being in a private space, all of which must happen within a single episode? (That, at least, has been my experience.)

I’m not sure. For the compliments idea, I was introspecting and consulting with others and I think a part of it is that having unequal relationships with others is deeply hurtful. Whenever I hear about romantic relationship breakups, it’s always that the other person loved them more than they felt, or they loved the other person more than it was returned, and that’s always the root of the problem that people start with when they’re asked to describe what happened. And I think, maybe, this could be one of the major things we’re trying to avoid when we form any kind of relationship. In this hypothesis, there’s usually someone who is more interested from the outset, and their goal is to make the other person like them equally. They do this via many implicit signals of interest and engagement. Then, when everyone is completely sure that the other person likes them as a friend with equal intensity, then finally the explicit reassurances can come out and everyone’s on solid ground and the relationship can be more stable. Man, though. It seems like a lot of work to avoid inequalities. It describes a lot of what I feel intuitively about these sorts of situations, but I’m very interested to see what other people think about the motivations for why we might not do the faster thing, get to the best part of relationships faster so we can enjoy them longer, and just get to the good, deep, revealing parts earlier on.

Well. I thought that last part would be short. It was in fact half a sentence fragment in my word doc, but look at me going on and on! Ah well, we’ll see if the next chunks are just as long or are shorter as originally pledged.

I find it fun to think about the clusters of people I’ve collected. Like, I finally think I can agree with the adage that you can describe who you are by the people you hang out with. That’s a hard one, because it entails that you have your pick of people who you can choose from, which really depends on how much time you’ve had and which environments you’ve been lucky enough to land in. At this point I’ve been in four locations (Minnesota, Boston, Cambridge (UK), and Berkeley) and I have enough Skype conversations with people that I feel like I’ve gotten to choose a lot of who my friends are. And to my great pleasure, they widely exhibit the traits that I’ve explicitly described that I respect in people.

Christine said reading my blog was stressful.

“Why?” I asked. “Because it’s massive? There are a lot of words.”

“No—well, yes, that is also true, they are very long—but it’s more, hm, I guess it’s all condensed down through the week, that’s why it seems like a lot.”

“What?”

We got it clarified eventually—I think the idea is that I spend an absurd amount of time thinking through social situations, and for someone like Christine, who is much more chill about the world than I am, reading this blog is kind of like observing me constantly flipping out (she didn’t say anything like that, I say this only because I frequently observe my head flipping out and I’m like: really, Monica?)

This is a fun point for me, because it’s definitely not the first time I’ve been told I’m thinking about something too much, and “overthinking” is always a personal balancing act. I remember distinctly during weight lifting class in college, when Coach Meg would smile and say “Yup, I can always tell you’re thinking.” This was in relation to me staring at a deadlift bar, I’ll have you know. I was overthinking a deadlift bar. In fact, overthinking was the most important reason I quit swimming—I felt I was devoting too much cognitive effort to something that I wasn’t getting an equivalent amount out of.

I think I spend too much time analyzing social situations. This is a problem when it stresses me out, but more usually because it’s probably a waste of time. But there are advantages to having a low threshold for being willing to intensely engage with (…freak out over :P) my surroundings.

The greatest advantage that I can think of for having this narrow focus on most things is that I learn fast. It helps a lot in physical domains—I was trying out some new climbing trick earlier this year, and I didn’t even realize everything my head was doing automatically until I heard myself walk through a mental rehearsal: “Okay, so I’ll put a foot here and then wrap that around and then pull and then lean back.” And I listened to myself and said: huh. That was an absolutely necessary thing—I was getting tired by that point and wanted to complete all the steps as quickly as possible rather than get stuck in a pull-up position—but mental simulation is probably something that generally is taught to people and that they engage consciously. Apparently, tricks get incorporated over the years with regard to acquisition of new skills, like how to best focus my attention on new movements.

Intense focus on social situations has arguably helped me a lot. I mean, it’s possible I would have picked up on most of the cues implicitly, but I feel like I’ve relied a lot more on explicit feedback and conscious awareness than most people. I still suspect the overthinking, and it’s hard to say what progress has been made because I think about these things rather than would have happened naturally with time, but I think intense focus probably was a part of that progress. And of course, it’s impossible to overthink academics. This is the most important part of academics. The goal is to think yourself to death or new solutions.

With regards to stress… you know, I think overthinking everything is just a part of who I am. It’s useful to me, it’s my most natural reaction (everyone knows I overanalyze tiny things. Don’t get me started on how slow of a reader I am), and I enjoy it. I don’t do it as soon as I’ve figured something out, so it’s temporary. But I can see why reading about these thought processes could be stressful, because it’s not always particularly calm. But I highly suspect other peoples’ heads aren’t very calm either. And as long as there’s useful, interesting stuff in there, and I’m not unduly wasting my time, I’m good to go.

Certain groups of mine demand an unbelievably high quality of arguments. These people make everyone justify every single sentence and claim. Other groups of mine say things like “people normally know what I’m talking about” with a bemused expression when I zealously press for definitions. I’m really enjoying the contrast :).

Ha, there’s several things here that I’m wanting to mention to specific people, because I know they’ll enjoy them. It’s so satisfying to know what kind of stories other people will like, what they come back to.

You know you’re in the right classes when concepts from both classes and research reappear in a single day. Cheers for the greek letter “beta” representing “inverse temperature” parameters which can describe how much updating happens in computational models.

I finished the book “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”. I am slightly bereft. I will continue posting quotes from it occasionally, because it is wonderful, and am mostly sad to have ended. The last chapter was on friendship, can you believe it? All of the cognitive biases, science, rationality, Machiavellian plots, and the last chapter is on friendship. It suited.

And I’ll end there :). I had a bit more, but thought I’d save it until I’d thought it through more completely. Thank you for reading as always, (sigh election sigh), and wishing you all the best.

Monica

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