Tangent City

Hey readers :).

Hope you’re doing well! I anticipate this week’s post being a series of unending tangents—no theme except a mild thread of gratefulness. One of my readers (who I’ve never met in person :)) mentioned he liked the random social advice that appears in various posts, so I thought I’d do a set of unconnected thought chains with the expectation that many of these will be social. Here we go!

After a month or two of experimentation, I’m sad to have learned that using spinach as a smoothie base is much better than using kale as a base. I wish that spinach wasn’t quite so optimal, because now I’m going to be inclined to use it every time and then I’ll have restricted my food categories yet again. However, I am not too worried—if you’ve ever had the “horrifying” (eh, food wimps) experience of watching me eat unsupervised, you know that there is an undue amount of kale in my diet.

What I’m grateful for: really great explainers. My supervisor was explaining something on the board to me (in a filled office of books and papers, raising the level of the table and in proper haphazard stacks on the floor). I was alternatively taking notes and making eye contact.

(Tangent: there’s an art to this, and it involves trying to write down as much as possible while they’re not talking and showing that you’re really, really attentive when they are. I had a past mentor who explicitly instructed me on how to listen properly in one-on-one academic settings. People tend to try to take too many notes, rather than processing what is being said. This frustrates professors, who have to then explain things over and also feel they aren’t being listened to. In order to keep everyone happy, you do have to be paying full attention when they’re speaking, and then get pretty good at writing down key words in the pauses, as well as have some time afterwards to write down as much as you can remember. Rephrasing during the conversation also helps—this feels risky, because you have a chance of getting it wrong and showing you weren’t listening. On the other hand, if the information is long-term and you’re going to show a frightening lack of understanding later if you don’t clarify, it’s essential to get the information straight the first time. I always wonder how much of this is explicit in other peoples’ heads when they’re absorbing information… But then so much of this can be mitigated :). Good explainers make it a lot easier on their listeners by giving pauses in which to write things down, encourage them to rephrase, and if watching closely for understanding. Then again, we’re only as good as our simulations of other people, and explainers often forget that their listeners don’t have their background, or frankly don’t have their memory capacity, and we forget.)

This was one of those situations in which it was essential I grasp the information, and so I was rephrasing. After one such question: “So—we say Bob valued the cheapness dimension because he chose X but that was before we knew he chose Z—wait, did we know he chose Z beforehand?” my supervisor just smiled and laughed, before trying the explanation again.

No one ever smiles and laughs at misunderstandings. That’s not part of the information-transfer mood, when the idea is for the teacher to convey the information to the learner as quickly and well as possible. If I’m confused, then there’s been a mistake in communication somewhere, and people just go back and retake it from there. No one smiles.

It was a nice moment, because there was this sense of enjoyment and happiness in the telling. He wasn’t laughing at me, and it felt like he was kind of laughing at himself—something like, wow, THAT question was off, look at how what I said could be interpreted. It’s so rare that you find that appreciation of the explanation, the sense that here we are, trying to move ideas between minds with words, and look at us executing this process. Sunshine through the window on the books, and blue writing on a whiteboard.

I just started a paragraph with “I’ve figured out my touch thing!” because if you’ve spent a lot of time with me you’ve likely heard about how I’m a bit weird about physical contact. I’ve been trying to figure out my rules for ages—heh, not only because I like putting things in rule-based systems, also to explain to other people ;P—and I’ve gotten closer, but my hypothesis still doesn’t include all the edge cases, gah. Back to the drawing board. Do you have certain classes of behavior that you still can’t explain to yourself, even though you have all of your simulation faculties, are motivated to solve the problem, and yet are still getting stuck trying to find a parsimonious explanation?

One of my friends is into ambiance—putting a lot of effort into making sure there’s the right mood to encourage specific behaviors. Another one of my friends was mentioning how they’d much rather do a hike through a city-scape than in nature. My opinion was: well, the whole point of hikes in nature for me is to talk one-on-one with someone, but I also like doing that in cities, and it feels a bit easier in nature because it’s more isolated but it’s not a problem either way.

I think the reason that I don’t feel particularly strongly about ambiance is that I generally tune my environment out. I was at a party during grad school visits, and having a great chat with one of the other interviewees. (I don’t know if I’ve told this story already, forgive me if I have.) Both of us had pretty much decided on attending other schools at that point, so we were just making the most of the conversation since we weren’t trying to impress anyone. I ended up talking to him for about three hours. At some point my hosts headed out though, so I said my goodbyes and left.

I’m still in contact with him, and during a later conversation he mentioned that he was glad I had been completely oblivious to everyone around me (this is typical Monica behavior during one-on-one conversations). After I’d left, two grad students who’d apparently been watching us talking for hours came over to him, a guy and a girl. They said: “What, you didn’t go home with her? She obviously wanted it.”

Friend: “No, that wasn’t what that conversation was about.”

Guy: “It definitely was.”

Girl: “I’m a girl, I would know.”

Apparently they’d also been pointing and whispering throughout our conversation, and several other people had as well.

…WHO KNEW, MAN. I sure didn’t. I’m also very glad I didn’t. I was shocked when my friend told me this later, though was glad he’d thought to let me know.

Apart from strange misogyny-feeling situations, I generally feel like I’ll behave more similarly across environments than a lot of other people. I’m fine staying in or going somewhere, I’m sensitive to sunlight but am used to a lot of weather, and as long as I have people I don’t really mind where I am. Locations where there are other people around are more variable, because you have a more limited range of public behaviors to work with and you have to be a little bit more adapted to the situations changing around you, which is why I think I might have a slight preference for isolated environments if I’m one-to-one person-focusing. But then again, I mostly find people to have conversations with in conversation- and people-rich environments, so that’s a good place to be in as well.

Thoughts? Anyone also think there may be a connection between environment-ambivalence and enjoying inducing mood through environment?

One of my friends uses “interesting” as their default “I’m-thinking” response with me. I also tend to use the word “interesting” a lot, and we’re totally positive-feedback-looping ourselves so now we’re both using it constantly. Arrggg need to do a default-language change.

Another default-language change that needs to occur: another one of my friends has a habit of picking up language from people around them. Currently, I use the word “Nice” as a general response. Recently, I had a vague feeling of being really unoriginal around them, and I finally figured out it was because they’d picked up “Nice” from me and then when I used it in return it felt repetitive. Now this is going to be a fun game, because they’re really good at unconsciously picking up language, and as soon as I do a default-language change they’re likely going to come along with me, so I really have no idea how this is going to go down. Especially since my default-language changes take a while to implement :P.

I love thinking about this kind of thing. Default-language responses like “interesting” or “nice” really don’t feel particularly fixed for me—I’m currently using the word “thing” a lot, and “I’m down” and “ghosting” and lots of computer-sciency words—and I can remember a lot of my fixed words in the past. Default-language is one of the few things where I don’t do anything consciously, but I can look back about every six months and observe that my words are different. I think one of my next transitions may be communicating more through facial expressions. I was observing myself doing it tonight—not replying where I’d usually insert a word, but making deliberate expressions. Non-verbal communication is so fascinating :).

I am grateful for: one of my friends recently called me out for being “a bit out of it”. And I said, “Wait, really? I thought I was doing normal reactions.” And they said that I wasn’t being abnormal—as in, this would be fine for a normal person, but I’m usually really into this sort of conversation and I seemed kind of distracted, and was there anything going on?

:). Smile smile smile smile smile. I was in a state that in myself I call “low-energy”. When I’m in them I don’t usually try to drag myself out of them, because while they’re tired-feeling and a bit down, they’re not actively negative and everything just feels kind of blunted. I’ll fall into them or wake up into them without external prompting, but things like not having talked to people for a while will greatly increase their likelihood. Something that I think might also contribute is if I’ve just finished a goal-state that took a lot of my energy—I definitely used to feel this way the day after swim meets, for example. Another reason I don’t mess with the feelings is that they often feel like a relief, because all of my emotions are muted and I don’t feel obliged to move them around.

(….Oooh. I hadn’t actually thought much about if my low-energy states have correlations with specific events beforehand until now. The goal-state thing especially is an interesting idea, and doesn’t feel quite right, but there’s something there. I’ll have to track it!) (Also interesting: in reinforcement learning, your goal-state is when you actually reach the point where you get the reward. But it seems like most people don’t actually receive the reward at the time that they get the diploma or official recognition or whatever—the emotional reward is usually earlier, when you’re completing the work. I think early rewards are probably a good system for keeping us motivated, it just kind of sets up counterintuitive expectations. You’d think that if the system were just depositing all the reward at the earlier time-points, that we’d expect no reward at the end. Hm.)

In any case, feeling low-energy is definitely not debilitating for me, and I’ll usually push myself a bit harder to go be social because that almost always helps. (I’ve learned from experience that I really don’t want to let myself get into “I don’t want to talk to people because I haven’t talked to people in a while which makes me feel bad that I haven’t talked to people so now I don’t feel like talking to people”—bad feedback loop, got stuck in it for two days once, would not repeat and have not repeated.) Doing work is one of the most helpful things, because it’s a nice holding measure and makes me feel productive, but if I happen to have something social planned I’m not going to cancel it.

But like, my friend noticed. And pointed it out to me :). I legitimately thought I was doing fine—social stuff is always a performance, and I always pretty much expect myself to be on my A-game. I hadn’t gone through the work of trying to talk myself out of the mood, but I wasn’t thinking about it either; I was engaged in the conversation. But like, they called me out on my energy level, and that was kind of awesome, because it’s cool when someone essentially says to you: yeah, I know you’re doing fine, but I also track the variance in how you interact with people, and you’re not making me feel bad or anything with how you’re acting, but I wanted to let you know I’m checking in. (This was especially cool because I didn’t know I was projecting the mood at all. I wasn’t actively thinking about it.)

Makes me wonder how many other people notice these things :). When I’m talking to people I definitely get a measure of how they’re generally feeling, but a lot of that is through what they’re saying to me in conversation. If they’re saying, “I can’t figure out this problem in lab,” and keep on coming back to it throughout the conversation, I know they’re preoccupied with it and will talk about that or try to distract them. But I usually get that from what people are saying. When I’m not bringing up a specific issue at the front of a conversation, I try very hard to keep moods out of my content. I strive hard for consistency in how I present myself—how I act, what I say, sports performance, academic performance, how I look, typical actions—I like being stable and letting others form stable models of me.

And it was nice to see that in this respect I’d failed, because I don’t think I’d been putting on a bad performance, but it was still visible to someone who’s hung out with me a while anyway. And to make it even more special, they took the time to tell me information about myself that I hadn’t been aware of, which will always be a gift :).

I got my California driver’s license, guys. I am feeling most accomplished. It takes a month to schedule an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and this is take three. The first time I didn’t have the correct documentation. The second month the appointment was cancelled throughout most of the Bay Area because all of the computers had shut down for a few days. This third month, I made four appointments in a row just in case I failed the writing test, all right next to each other.

“But I got it right the first time, so now I can cancel all the other appointments!” I crowed to a classmate.

“…And this is why the DMV is so inefficient. Because people like you are scheduling seven appointments right after the other,” he said, laughing.

“But it takes a whole month to schedule!”


All the feedback loops :). I just love all the people who are around me—this wasn’t even someone I’m particularly close to, but there are just so many great potential conversations and friends to be had here. Every conversation topic I can bring up, people reply well and advance it and keep it funny and interesting—great place to be.

Why are in-jokes so great? A couple weeks back I finished HPMoR, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky (and mourn the day. Will someone PLEASE get me another story that has such excellent dialogue and character interactions, while being really nerdy, philosophical, and informative? Please?) HPMoR is an epic fanfiction of Harry Potter with quite a few changes. Here are two passages that continue to get me; all the characters are competing in an underwater battle in this scene.

Neville’s perspective, performing techniques described to him by Harry:

Screen Shot 2016-11-21 at 11.52.49 PM.png

Draco’s perspective, as head of the army opposing Harry’s:

Screen Shot 2016-11-21 at 11.52.54 PM.png

GAHHHHH these passages make me so happy. The first paragraph is from Neville’s perspective, and he’s describing techniques that Harry has read about in “Ender’s Game,” a classic sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. “Ender’s Game” happens to be one of my all-time favorite books, when children spend a lot of time fighting in a zero-G “battleroom” and so have developed techniques for not getting shot by the opposing army’s laser guns. (…Wow, that sounds weird in those terms. It’s not weird in the book.) (But isn’t that one of the best parts of books? When you find a bit of perspective, think, what just happened?, and then finally take in all of the messages that the author is putting forth through allegory. I missed all of the hidden meaning in “Ender’s Game” because I read it when I was too young, but now that I look back I can see all of the moral adult-child conflict that I maybe would have picked up on if I hadn’t been so engrossed in the internal story.)

And the second paragraph from Draco’s perspective is just glorious. Specifically, the sentence: “Either Harry Potter had thought of a lot of good ideas very fast, or for some unimaginable reason he’d already spent a lot of time working out how to fight underwater.” It’s entirely wonderful because it’s uniquely from Draco’s perspective, with no insight into Harry’s source or the author’s source, and that’s something the HPMoR author does really well: keeping separate knowledge bases for his characters. Having characters with independent knowledge bases is really, surprisingly rare when you have as much information and as many interactions between characters as you do in HPMoR, and I always screenshot it when the author does it well. The second part of this sentence which makes it entirely wonderful is because it’s a HUGE nudge-wink to people who have read “Ender’s Game”, and in fact it made me burst out laughing when I read it, despite it being completely in Draco’s perspective and not funny in his perspective. It’s all about expectations here—I’d been anticipating some kind of zero-G battle as soon as the author indicated he’d read “Ender’s Game” and had set up a similar situation of practice-battles between armies, many thousands of words back. Additionally, for those readers who weren’t quite as familiar with “Ender’s Game” as I was, the author has set up clear expectations by putting Neville’s paragraph first, which has explicit use of “Ender’s Game” language—”the enemy’s gate is down”. So then, having set up all of these expectations, so that you know exactly what’s happening and it’s completely natural for Harry to have used techniques from “Ender’s Game”—you get this outsider’s perspective, Draco’s, who is like: THIS IS COMPLETELY ABSURD, and then as a reader you think: OH WAIT, IT IS and it’s hilariously funny and warm and special, because here’s this outside book that you read that you presumably liked because you finished it and recognized the in-joke, and here’s the HPMoR author complimenting you for that knowledge and inviting you to share in something only you unique people have read, and here’s something even more special: most people won’t get it, there really is something special about where your mind went, and isn’t it so cool that we’re this community of people who are reading this HPMoR story together who have loved other stories together as well.

In-jokes. They’re special precisely because not everyone will get them, they exclude people and encourage knowledge-seeking by nature, and man, are they special because of it.

Here’s a question: say you’re trying to align yourself with your values. You might say to yourself—all right, if I have a set of values and I care some amount about each of them, I should allocate how much time I think about them accordingly. All good so far? Amount of time spent thinking about values = how much you value them?

Great. Now, what if you aren’t so good at self-control and you end up thinking about other topics more. Does this mean that you value those topics more than what you stated were your “values”?

Idk. I don’t think so, but my friend who was telling me this conundrum believes that she can change more about herself than I do, and I’m already pretty growth-mindset so you see how crazy awesome she is.

All I know is last week I reached kind of a impasse where I was like: “aahhhh, I can’t justify why I do what I do and maybe I should just give up on self-consistency and do whatever I want.” …which seems to be what everyone else does. I’m sure I’ll get back up on the horse eventually, but at this point I’m like: you know, I apparently have no consistency with my values, I’m just going to sit on this problem for a while until I’m in a group where it’s important to know the answer and then I’ll have a great time trying to figure it out :).

(Tangent: my friend Smitha was telling me about one of the groups that she hangs out with that debates these kinds of things all the time. It’s so difficult to find groups that have really good discussions—it’s standard for me to just expect mediocre small-talk, and to need to isolate out individuals to have good conversations, but it’s so amazing when there’s a group that can do it all on its own. I find that group members often need to know each other very well for this to occur.)

Gah, much more to say but bed beckons :). Last chunk of things—

What I’m grateful for: a sparkling city in the night. It just always reminds me that there are people out doing things and living lives while my own is just one small piece—I’m the center of my universe but they’re the centers of all of theirs.

Friends who spend time with me and laugh with me and enjoy being together. Acquaintances who are always inclusive and fascinating with so much potential.

Learners who love knowledge and connections; teachers in all forms who share it. Enthusiasm and incredible mentors.

Cool awesome research that I get to do that hasn’t been done before.

All the people around whose conversations follow me on my bike. Biking home in the dark. Being strong.

Learning new things! Being supported in learning!

Skype. Technology. My bike. The Internet.

Happiness, curiosity, delight. It’s not the default, but there’s so much of it around.


Feelings. Being human. Learning the same things everyone else has before us. Being young, having the excuse to re-learn the age-old lessons. Emotions and all the life-things that are made special because of them.

I can’t believe I get to study the mind. The mind, how we think—the mind.

Thank you all, as always, for reading :). That will never stop being special :).


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