The Joyful One

Stories, today :).

I’m sitting in my advisor’s office. He’s just told me a new way to frame my project, and now he’s looking something up on his tablet, distracted.

“Hm, okay,” I say, thinking out loud. I think slower than he does, by a lot, but talking out loud speeds it up a bit and leaves lots of time for correction. “But that doesn’t quite work, because then the robot would be superpowered, and in this context we’ve decided everyone should have the same power…”

I trail off, and I can tell the moment when he returns to processing what I’ve said. His head comes up, a little baffled, almost laughing. “What?”

“Sorry—I mean that we decided all of the agents should have the same types of actions available, we don’t want an arbiter—”

He waves me to the finish—yes, yes, I got it—smiling a little to himself.

I sit back a little, pleased in turn. I love that it amuses him, these tiny things we do, something as silly as using the concept “superpower” in a strange context. These grad students, I can imagine him thinking—or more like these people, these minds. I get the sense that he finds the world is full of these tiny amusements, these little wrinkles of people thinking on their feet and stumbling a little, trying and communicating and dipping into these representations of unusualness, odd tweaks of cognition, lovely.

“Nash Bargaining Theorem,” he tells me then, showing me what’s on his tablet. “Nash demonstrated that the equilibrium in a bargaining game is the multiplication of the utilities.”

I nod quickly, happy to process this off-line. I’d asked him about the source of the multiplicative utilities idea earlier. I don’t know why you’d try to multiply people’s utilities—loosely, peoples’ happiness levels— but I’d figure it out later.

“1950, ‘The Bargaining Problem’,” he says, peering at the Wikipedia entry and reading off the name of the scientific paper where the proof is located.

“I think I’ll read the Wikipedia entry,” I say, and we both grin.

I’m standing alone in lab, eating all of the leftover lab food as quickly as possible. A labmate walks in, heading towards the minifridge.

“There’s still food left from lab meeting, right—”

“Ah, no,” I announce, discreetly pushing the last takeout box out of sight. “I just took care of that.”

He smiles—”Rude,”—and scrounges some more food out of there regardless. We chat about how in his first year there was always massive amounts of food left over from lab meeting, before the two year lack-of-catering dry spell that was just broken this week. He heats up some curry and rice, and I return to looking at the problem I’d just written on the white board, in between shoving food in my mouth.

Another friend walks in, asks me what’s up. “R!” I demand. “Tell me if this is true,” now pointing at the board.

He joins me in looking at it. “I am much too old for this,” he tells me. “I remember these from high school.”

I’ve written up something simple—”x + y = z” on one line, and “if x = y, xy is maximized” on the next.

“Simple problem,” I elaborate. “If I want to maximize xy, then is the answer x = y?”

F has grabbed his food from the microwave, and is standing behind us. “That’s true,” he says, gently, easily.

“Great, that’s what I thought. Why is it true?”

“Well, if you replace “y” with “z-x”, then it’ll all be in terms of x, and you can set the gradient to zero—”

“Oh, so that‘s how you do it! I knew I had to set the gradient to zero, I wasn’t sure what to do with the xy part—”

“—and I suspect you’ll end up with z/2,” he finishes. R agrees with him, and F goes back to his desk. I look at the problem for a little bit, grab a marker.

“Ug, this isn’t going to work,” I say, looking at the “z-x” I have written up. “Ug, all right, well what happens if z = 10, then if x = 5 and y = 5 then xy = 25, but if x = 4 and y = 6 then xy = 24, that’s not that much difference—”

R’s nodding along with me—we’d both already walked through an example like this in our heads, which was how I’d arrived at the conclusion that x = y should be the solution in the first place. I write it out fully now, R chiming in when I’m not fast enough.

I sigh. “Ah, whatever, proof by one example, the point is that it seems like the purpose of maximizing the multiplication of utilities is to enforce fairness [in that agent x’s utility = agent y’s utility], but, like, not in a linear way.”

“No, come on,” R says, “this is definitely a well-formalized problem, early calculus.”

“Fine,” I say begrudgingly, as he retreats to his desk.

“You can work it out, Monica!” he calls.

“Yup, in the next ten minutes before class!”

I’m Googling “simple optimization problem with constraint” and trying it out again.

“Have you heard of LaGrange multipliers?” R calls through the door two minutes later.

“I think that’s what I’m doing! Just give me a minute, this is working—”

F walks into the lounge again just as I’m finishing. “Oh good, it worked out!” he says.

I look at it, hear both F and R in my periphery, am thankful to have asked a problem in math, am thankful to have been helped solve it in the best possible way.

“Ha.” I say, staring it at.

Satisfied.

Whooooaaa you feel like crap, I announce to myself. It’s early Friday afternoon, and I’ve just come out a group meeting. There’d been a good lecture, and then the meeting head had asked for people who hadn’t asked questions to ask questions. And then the meeting head had asked for people who thought of cool projects related to the lecture, and lots of people listed off lots of cool projects. Then the meeting head had asked “how many of you can work on some of these cool projects?” and lots of people raised their hands to those. And meanwhile, there’s Monica, who hasn’t said a word.

Ug. Ug ug ug ug ug. Nothing like feeling like a failure because of an inability to contribute, especially as a long-time member of this group. I was clomping down the stairs, considering my next location. I’d basically planned to go home and work. That wasn’t an option anymore, because then I’d feel terrible all day; might even bleed over into the weekend since I wasn’t going to be interacting with people. I could go to the gym—that always made me feel better. Didn’t usually work when it was people-induced failure though. All right. Needed to go talk to people. Where are the people.

(I spent a great hour or two talking with Nick and Andrea, discussing things on the blog and watching robot videos. I ended up working there until around 8pm, then went home happy and spent a wonderful weekend just working by myself. There are so many blessings in life. So many choices, and so many unexpected happinesses.)

I spent a lot of time staring out the window of my bathroom. My room doesn’t have any windows facing the bay, but the bathroom does—one clear pane overlooking the downward-sloping hill, the ocean, the moving lights of cars across the bridge, the lit-up skyscrapers of San Francisco. Stars and sky above, flashing planes occasionally, humanity sending off sparks from the mass of movement and light below.

My breath fogs up the glass if I lean too close. I have to remember to shut the door firmly behind me, lest someone try to come in while I’m standing near the shower in the dark, towel wrapped around me, staring outside.

Moments like this when I’m thinking—does life get better than this? Could I be happier than this? All the imperfections now, but with the assurance that I will overcome them, the possibilities, my sense of place in my community, the perspective I’m feeling on humanity, the people the beauty my life—does it get better than this?

It can’t, it won’t, it’s lovely. My life is so perfect, sometimes. Perfect in its imperfections, in the impermanence of the feeling, in the fleetingness of this joy, this contentment.

Hard to be happier than this.

I’m in a circle. In “circling”, many strangers come together to listen to one or two people share stories. The goal is to listen deeply, to connect, to share how other people have touched you and to listen and give to them in return.

In my circle, someone is crying. They’re crying helplessly, almost angrily. “Crying doesn’t do anything for me,” they say, voice almost clear. They’re wiping some away, letting most fall. “It’s not a release or anything. It just always happens.”

It’d been something about their mother, that had started them crying, they’d said something about their mother. They’d stuttered; there had been a pause when they were gathering themself. Then they’d given up and started crying, hard.

There’s some give and take; two of the people in the circle are talking with the person. The two people are trying to empathize with them, trying to pull out why they’re upset. Reflecting back the feelings that they’re reading from them. Asking questions, making observations, questions, observations, rocking back and forth between the modes.

“I feel like you’re crying, up here,” one of the questioners asks, gesturing to their upper chest. “I feel like all of this rationalization, all of this reasoning, all of this is happening up here.”

The person looks on, gazes at the speaker evenly. They’re answering questions as if they were in a normal conversation, ignoring the tears down their face.

“But the tears are coming from down here, this is where you’re feeling it,” they say, gesturing to their lower abdomen, eyes big and earnest. “That part, there, that’s Mom. That’s Mom right there, not listening to you. That’s pain. Mom won’t listen to you cry, but I will. We will. We are here for you, not Mom.”

I spasm, turn my head away, cover half of my face with my hand. I’m internally screaming: “What the f*** are you doing?” What right do you have to say what their mom has done? You don’t know anything about them! What right do you have to play their mother? Why are you telling them off for trying to be rational? Why are you making your motions so exaggerated, like they’re a child, like you’re an actor in a play, like they’re not just as much as an adult as you or me? Don’t look at me, I think, don’t look at me right now. I have no control over my face, but am peering out through my fingers despite myself, trying to monitor the conversation. The only reason I haven’t interrupted is because the person seems like they might be getting something out of it.

I’m confused. They might not be getting a lot out of it, but they’re listening, they’re not reacting how I would. Their tone, it’s calm, it’s what I would do—what they’re saying, I can hear myself saying that. I try not to be emotionally distraught enough to cry in public, and try to avoid it in private as well, but if it happened, they’re handling it somewhat similarly to how I would be handling it. I identify with them.

I would be wildly offended by the speaker’s response. I wouldn’t be polite, as the person is, I would likely laugh in their face, an instinctual get-away reaction, something like why are you mocking my pain. It’s not mocking—the questioner doesn’t mean it as mocking. They’re completely earnest, they’re doing their absolute best to help. I’m having a very strong reaction, curled up here on the corner of the couch. It’s not my reaction that matters right now, but it is a very strong reaction. I’d rage at how exaggerated they’re making their motions, how they’re encouraging me not to be rational, how they’re taking a wild guess at how I feel and how they could be completely wrong, they don’t know, how they’re not listening, what right, why are you watching me, go away.

No one looks in my direction; the three continue to have a conversation. I watch from my corner of the couch, surprised every time that this person isn’t me, watching this supremely surprising interaction to me, surprised at every moment it doesn’t fall to pieces, hiding behind half a hand.

No right answer here—there’s only the answer that works, for this person.

My mouth twists up periodically, but everyone’s fine, no one needs protecting here. I watch.

I talked with a few people about the infidelity situation I mentioned, two weeks ago. People have different opinions on how one should react.

One reaction seems to be that cheating is wrong, and the cheater should be punished, in some effect, by how I react to them.

My reaction falls somewhat more forgiving than that, while simultaneously being unreasonable: I think it sounds like a tough situation, but that one should devote a good deal of thought to making sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

A friend’s reaction: life is hard, people make mistakes, forgive the good people. There’s no absolute right or wrong in the world.

And this reaction, which is along the same lines, but I wasn’t expecting: we have no right to judge how other people live. Cheating is a natural thing to do. It happens to not be accepted in our society, and some people are better or worse at matching that standard. If it’s important to you, then you shouldn’t marry the person, but you should continue to appreciate them for the qualities that you do align with them on. We have no right to judge other people, people have many reasons or not to do it again, and you should support them as a friend.

…My initial reaction was in line with the second most forgiving of these reactions, just with an additional conditional statement on not repeating in the future. There are some parts of the last opinion that I’m uncomfortable with. But I doubt I’ll be able to logically express why I don’t agree, which means that I’m happy to be argued wrong.

First—I think, in this situation, it matters what the person who cheated thinks, and what their partner thinks. I mean, there are rules in society, and we can choose or not choose to follow them, but if you buy into those rules—if you feel guilty for cheating, and your partner would similarly feel bad if they were cheated on—then I think we try to understand the situation in the context of these rules. That means that it’s still considered a bad thing to cheat, because in our society—which everyone’s buying into this situation—we collectively think it’s a bad thing to cheat, not something with neutral value. Thus I think some judgment is merited. In fact, this particular person felt terrible about it—they were imposing the judgment themselves.

Second—supporting people as friends. Yes. I have good people as friends, otherwise they wouldn’t be friends, and life is indeed confusing and difficult and everyone makes mistakes. Does one default-support friends in situations in which friends have messed up? I think one should offer massive amounts of sympathy and empathy, and best attempts at understanding. That’s what I feel we owe friends, because they are good people, like we think we are, and I think that is what is owed. Not unconditional support, but given that they are good people, and the intent is almost always good, the result is similar.

And finally, the question of whether we have the right to judge others. Oh man. I’m not in your head—I’m obviously not in your head, I’m so obviously in my head that I’m quite subpar at figuring out what’s going on in everyone else’s. This especially applies to people who aren’t similar to me. And in that sense, maybe this last opinion is right—maybe we don’t have a “right” to judge. I think, though, that in many cases people judge themselves. They have their values, and they judge themselves by their values, and we observe. The question then becomes—do we have the right to oppose the person’s own judgment? Maybe their judgment is misguided, or maybe it’s unduly self-critical, or misleading in some way. Things become murky, as moral issues always do.

I do find it interesting that I’ve never explicitly debated these issues with people before coming to graduate school. I feel that way about a few things—life philosophy things—and I wonder why I wasn’t having discussions like this in college, which seems like a good time to be trying to figure out where we’ll be drawing lines in the sand. I don’t know, but it seems like there might be several sources:

1) Me not being ready. I see this pretty frequently and historically: I’m not receptive to ideas until I’ve gotten myself to a mental space where I’m (teleologically) finally receptive to specific ideas. The source also matters to my impressionability.

2) Similar alignment of ideals in college—people not feeling the need to argue about edge cases when most people agreed in most areas.

3) People being busy. Me being busy, other people being busy, people just not thinking about this sort of thing very much. I wasn’t thinking a whole lot about people—and definitely not relationships—in college, and I feel like a lot of my friends also weren’t wondering about this sort of thing in their free (ha) time.

I suspect it’s mostly 1) – I doubt I was in a headspace to think about this sort of thing, especially since I have a rather conservative personal moral compass so I wasn’t getting blamed for situations that often, and people being anything less than black-and-white still drives me crazy. Also, I do think there was something about the environment at Wellesley which was more: use your energy to attack the very obvious problems in the world, of which there are many.

Conclusion: I’ve just sidestepped the problem of judgment, because I’m not sure, I don’t know why my friends and I haven’t talked about this sort of thing before, but I suspect it’s me plus a few other factors, and moral life still continues to be confusing and in the meantime I suspect I should sway towards the “love all people will good intent” perspective.

(Tangent: two weeks ago I also said on the blog that I was going to be nice to the person I was ostracizing. I have done so and continue to do so and it has been rewarding. Also, I’ve realized that other people have also been executing this implicit ostracism and that the person is continuing to be very kind. I’m not sure what to do about this.)

Update: I gave a presentation in lab, and it went well :). My projects are going well, I’m excited about what I’m doing, I’ve started a personal project that I’m excited about, and I’m grateful to the people around me. The three weeks around the end of March and the beginning of April are going to be very busy, but I’m living the life right now.

I’m in the car, driving to the grocery store, when a new song comes on over the radio. It’s only a line in when I start feeling that crescendo of joy, recognition. I had no idea he was even singing anymore, I think, but there it is—he has particular tonal quality, a range of pitches I’m oh-so-familiar with, and there, the distinctive way he caps off lines; I feel that rush of sureness, that it could only be him.

I gauge the tune—energetic, pop—and the lyrics—happy, appreciative, about standing up and continuing on. It’s a “standard music festival feel-good song”, according to Wikipedia when I check later, but it doesn’t feel standard to me.

I have a history with this singer. I’ve spent hours learning to distinguish his voice from others, and I know what style he usually sings and how this song is different now. I feel this immense sense of fondness every time he rises to the ends of lines or finishes the melody—I know what notes he has problems with, his list of previous songs, where he is now, where he was in the past, the person he presents himself to be.

I have a weakness for feel-good pop in the first place—there’s surprisingly little of it—but yeah, it’s better with all of the auto-tune on, and it’s not going to win any awards. Every time his voice catches though, every time he shapes a word in a particular way though, I just think, over and over again, I’m really enjoying this song.

“Plangent”, says the sentence in Bill Hayes’s book, and I think: oh, I haven’t heard of that one!

“Plangent: adjective, literary. Meaning: (of a sound) loud, reverberating, and often melancholy.”

Plangent, I mouth to myself, reading the definition over. A word that means ‘loud, reverberating, and melancholy.’ 

And I acknowledge the settling pleasure, because there’s something about a word that encompasses three magnificent words in themselves, and captures something common and true. A word that echoes our shared understanding of the simultaneity of its components.

There is a story I read about two best friends, who will always remain that way, who weather jealousy and new experiences and growth, and always come back together. Fiction and written with optimism, but with such a love for the characters, for the dialogue. The visible affection almost hurts, the imagination of the author and readers vivid.

It’s the small things, so many small things. But as I’m staring out the window at the water and city, or thinking about someone sitting down to write this story, or of all of the power of our emotions, or of every person’s tiny joys and triumphs—

It can be a pretty vacillating-reverberating-confusing-beautiful time to be a human right now.

Could be a pretty great time to be a human.

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