Jaime and I have been meeting for an hour and a half already: we’re discussing the example we’re going to use for a conference paper, and how we’re going to code it up. It’s fun. We’re both familiar enough with the code that we know how every part fits together, and we’re at the stage where every 30 seconds of brainstorming is yielding a new result.
The white board’s covered in blue Expo. I’ve adopted the convention Jaime uses with another labmate, which is to hold the marker loosely in one hand while talking. When he reaches for it, slipping it out between my fingers, I turn and watch as he writes. A few minutes later, while he’s talking, I pull it back from him and draw.
At some point we take a brief break, and I show him where I think we’re at. “Wait, you have a HumanSaladBowl?” he asks, pointing at one of my hypothesized objects. We’ve been working out the details of how a virtual human and robot are going to interact to make three dishes. I’ve decided we’re going to need a HumanSaladBowl as well as a RobotSaladBowl—creating these concepts in the code will make it much easier.
“Yeah, so when the human and robot finish each of the dishes—” I start, justifying myself.
“But the human and robot are only going to make one of the three dishes—” He says.
“Wait, you think that the human and robot are making all three of the dishes?”
“Of course! They’re only trying to make one?” We have half of the new code base sketched out; making dishes is the task we’re trying to solve. “How did we even…?”
“We’re discussing a human-robot coordination problem, but this is a coordination problem,” he says, laughing.
We’re good communicators, easy with the conversation, respectful and attentive. We both know this.
We boggle at each other, laugh.
My advisor’s watching me. He’s described a concept and the equivalent mathematical formulation, very slowly, with frequent pauses, and this is the longest one yet, the end of a paragraph.
I nod, make a noise indicating comprehension.
He starts again, his pace matched to the length of the time I needed during his last break. He finishes. Again a long pause. I take my time thinking, say okay.
He restarts. Finishes. Pause.
I think about it, squinting at the ceiling. “Okay, no,” I say finally, ruefully, making eye contact.
He smiles. Restarts, and tries again.
My friend stares at his hands like they’re unfathomable.
“Why is it good to bite your nails?” My other friend prompts again.
“Why is it good…?” He echoes. “Uh…? It feels like… scratching an itch?”
“Good!” He exclaims at the reply, delighted. “Why does it feel like scratching an itch?”
I’m watching them both, amused. This is classic questioning in the form taught at Rationality Camp (a workshop that I attended in March). The logic is as follows: if one is trying to get to the bottom of an issue, like fixing a bad habit, one should investigate the emotional ties that are causing one to do it in the first place. Often, those emotions are pointing at something important that one wants or needs, but can be satisfied in a more direct way. Habits can thus be fixed with little effort if the process works well.
As someone who still bites her nails when I’m not watching the habit, and who has done this sort of questioning as both the questioner and questionee, it’s amusingly familiar. The joy in facilitating a friend finding out something new about themselves, and the challenge in asking good questions. The difficulty of seeking out emotions, and the confusion at being asked something you’d never thought to ask or question.
And of course the utter strangeness of the whole conversation from the outside.
I adore it. I watch; jump in with a reply to a question; offer a follow-up question for later.
“How have you been? I feel like it’s been a long time since we talked.”
“Good!” I reply. My postdoc’s face is in the Skype window. He’s in front of his usual background, interlocking colorful whiteboards spread across a wall. “When was it… you came here for the meeting, so, I guess, April?”
“That sounds right. What’s up?”
I smile, pause, trying to figure out what to say, summarize the salience of several months. “All’s good! I… in late March I went to a workshop called Rationality Camp, and met a bunch of cool people and had some great experiences. I’ve been hanging out a lot with them since then, and it’s been good fun.”
He pauses, tilts his head a little, doesn’t respond with the bright interest he usually does. “…Would you be okay with me reading your blog?” He asks slowly.
I huff with surprise. “You’re a blog reader? That’s great! It’s always wonderful when people read it,” I say.
“Yeah, I actually have a book recommendation for you…”
I’m touched, and afterwards admire that exchange. I hadn’t been thinking about it at all, but there’s me, interacting with a professional contact, and there’s me, interacting with a friend, and there’s him, straddling the middle there, and there is a difference, and it’s automatic, and kind of amazing.
The four of us are standing under a mulberry tree somewhere in Berkeley, picking berries off for ourselves and each other.
“Were they all hugging you at the end there?” Christine asks, referring to the first-graders we’d just taught. We volunteer to teach elementary schoolers about brains for an hour every month.
“Yep,” I said. “These are amazing.”
“Does that usually happen?” She asks.
“Nope!” Liz passes her a berry.
“It may be because Monica was on the rug,” Liz suggests, and I agree. Everyone else was sitting at tables, like I usually do, but today I had six of the kids clustered around me on the floor. First-graders sit very close, and many enjoy contact.
Zuzanna mentions how much the kids learn in such a short period of time—when we were teaching in February, the first-graders did feel younger than they do now.
“But they were having so much trouble with the concept that I’m not 18,” I offered, laughing. “I kept on telling them—just because I’m in 18th grade, doesn’t mean I’m in 18, just like because they’re in 1st grade, it doesn’t mean they’re 1!”
“Do you know strategies for teaching math to someone with dyslexia?” I ask Mia, walking next to me. “To help with things like numbers being in your head but not on the paper, and variables like ‘a’ turning into numbers turning back into variables.”
She’s not sure, but offers some suggestions.
“My student’s upset with having to do things slowly, write it all out. Says it feels like they’re really slow, that they don’t want to be slow compared to everyone else.”
(I never know what to say. When I got an F on a high school math test—a whopping 48%, no curve—I freaked myself out and studied two hours a night and I figured out the next two tests. Math always took longer than any other class for me. I feel like I understand the struggle of it, of that blank page, though I don’t have a learning disability. This student’s trying again and again, and is persistent when working with me. I want it to work out.)
(Someone else asked me for an inspirational speech about why they should study introductory, high-school-level math. The math class that I enjoyed was Linear Algebra—which I took my senior spring in college, with an incredible teacher who was writing the third version of our textbook. Math is pretty beautiful now, at times. By writing intuitions into symbols, and then manipulating those symbols by pre-established rules, you can make new symbols— new interpretable intuitions— appear from nothing. Math can also be used to make predictions, to capture behavior quantitatively and concisely, and better predict the future. Math is solid and useful and an interesting way to bend my mind that I think informs a better understanding of some phenomena, and can be used to draw connections between fields and ideas. But it takes a lot of time. How many math courses have I taken, how much have I admired mathematicians, how much have I worked at it and hoped that it’d eventually become useful and good? There’s always the argument that one needs quantitative skills to graduate many programs, and that having good quantitative skills pays well. Doesn’t quite capture the abstract beauty of it though. Communicating across multiple levels—something to work on :).)
We’re having a conversation, and we’re both upset. Not at each other—I’m upset, and he’s upset that I’m upset, and I’m upset that I’m upset and we both blame ourselves for the fact that I’m upset and it’s faintly ridiculous but everyone is actually quite upset on multiple levels. (There’s always a meta-level to our conversation. I don’t think I’ve talked with someone who communicates so explicitly and so often on the meta-social level besides myself.)
We’ve been trying to dig ourselves out of this hole for a while, with positive but incremental progress. “If this were a story, what would fictional-Monica want to happen?” He tries, a new one in a long series of questions.
And it turns out that that’s the question.
I relax. Everything about me relaxes—I look down, and smile, and everything’s less tight, and everything’s brighter, and there’s not so much blame, no failure, no unresolved-everything-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-I-don’t-want-to-feel-this-way, it’s just: oh.
Because if I were in a story—if fictional-Monica were there, and fictional-him were there, and we’d had the conversation we’d had up to this point, and everyone had expressed what they’d expressed and everyone was trying their best and people were upset but it was just because of the quirks of their own minds, everyone had valid reason, no one had done anything wrong, it was just because…
Well, then. No one needed to be blamed. Everyone needed to be comforted, and in the story everyone would be comforted and everything would end up all right.
… And so we did that, and everything was all right.
(This occasion astonished me. It’s completely mind-boggling. I was stuck in the mental attitude I had, kind of drowning in it, and had some ways that I was going to get over it but it was going to take a lot of angst-ridden moving-emotions-around and some good ignoring and some forcing myself through things. And then I thought of things through a story lens, and all of that self-blame completely disappeared. And it turned out that I just wanted to be comforted. The thought had literally not occurred to me before that visualization. I had zero conscious idea that was what would make the situation better, and then it pretty much immediately transformed the situation from upset into warm, which is ridiculous. I’m now really, really curious if there’s any other cheats / hacks into my emotional processes that can do this, because this was sweeeeeet.) (I bet it’s pretty context-dependent, but I think there are probably some cool things to be exploited along this vein.)
It’s 2:30 in the morning and the house is quiet; the light’s on from my lamp and my screen and nowhere else. I’m thinking of snow falling from a recent story; swept in are miscellaneous thoughts from the day, of lucid dreaming and “what are your core goals?” and what my plan is for tomorrow and one of Bastille’s songs, playing the same line over and over.
I step into the bathroom, notice the fog over the city through the window (“It’s still kind of beautiful, isn’t it?” Mia says in my memory.) I switch the light on and brush my teeth. I’m wearing glasses in the mirror—I think of how I have trouble recognizing myself from anything other than the view you get in the mirror, and how other people don’t seem to have this problem.
Mouthwash, flossing, filling up my water bottle, climbing into bed. 10 push-ups on the mattress, not very legitimate ones, just ritual before curling up beneath the covers. Thoughts… wait until they get sleepy, disorganized, images and clips of music flitting in. I get my best musical compositions when I can’t remember them in the morning.
Night, drift, calm…
(Night all, thanks for reading, thanks for patience. Much love to you all. Monica)