I'm constantly reminded of the unrelenting flow of time, and me … [Read More]
I'm constantly reminded of the unrelenting flow of time, and me being dragged along for the ride. I commented to a friend the other day how weird it was that I'm checking the mail every day - so mundane and grown-up in a weird way.
My thoughts have been clouded by finance troubles galore (thanks, public service paycheck delays), screaming kids at Questacon and wondering about the meaning of life while listening to a Canadian psychologist's podcast on the bus. Oh, let's not forget the continual reminders of actual academic university work rearing its scholastic head with piles of papers, scribbles and books wherever I go. Man, semester hasn't even started.
But hey, it was my 19th birthday yesterday and I had an excuse to eat decent food for once, so I have that going for me.
Things were kinda just rocking along when out of the blue I got news that an old school friend of mine had passed away in a car accident. Yeah, what the actual fuck?
I'm not one to get emotional with those kinds of things, I've seen people (almost) die right in front of me, but that was different. It's weird because that Canadian psychologist dude brings up the topic of mortality tangentially in his lectures about meaning and purpose in life a lot, so it's been somewhat on my mind. Regardless, the news threw me totally off guard, and continues to do so if I sit with the thought for too long. I feel uncannily aware of my own mortality...like someone just turned on a timer, which I can hear ticking away in the back of my mind...but I can't see the damn screen.
So yes mum, don't worry - I won't be getting a motorcycle anytime soon.
As youth, we tend to think of the future as this exciting and tantalising avenue for endless potential. It's exciting; browsing through courses you could do at uni, fantasising about crazy PhD projects you could be doing in the future, or totally wild career pathways that don't even exist yet. So many books to read, questions to ask, problems to solve and social things to be awkward at! It's a slap in the face when you know someone had that all of that and more yanked away in the blink of an eye.
It feels like I should be doing something more than just calling friends and dwelling on thoughts.
With the acknowledgement of my 19th year of living on this rock just beginning, I suppose I'm also acutely aware of how very little time there is to do anything. I often wonder even if writing, studying pure maths rather than physics, or working at Questacon are all worth my time. With a yawning pit of nihilism on one side of my mind, and a treacherous pursuit of meaning and hard work on the other I think I understand what the Daoist idea of being on the "edge of order and chaos" feels like.
Do I earnestly and somewhat madly apply myself to academic improvement and pursuits, perhaps even to the extent of declining all other aspects of life outright? I tried that for a while last year, but it just gets depressing not talking to people. Perhaps I can learn something from the more relaxed arts students at uni; study just enough to get the right grades and not extend myself whilst enjoying valuable leisurely time with myself and others? To me that just feels like totally wasted potential. I'm sure everyone would say that there is a balance to strike with all of it - but where the hell is it? And specifically, how can I account for that in my personal interests, autodidactism, work, study, research and social life?
The deliberation is ultimately a procrastination though. I know me and my psyche fairly well - and I already know exactly what I'm likely to do. I suppose this part of growing up for me is now not asking whether I can do it, but rather what am I trying to achieve, and what precisely do I need to do to get there? I've already found my metaphysical/epistemological groundwork of patterns, and recognising them with mathematics, physics and philosophy (see my taco psychoanalysis blog), but now I've got to truly set some concrete goals in stone.
If that Canadian psychologist guy has taught me anything through hours worth of podcasts, I know I've gotta start with myself. What do I value, and am I honouring those? I've got some ethical principles, but are they good enough, and do I currently stick to them as much as I should? Where am I lacking, and how can I fix them? What am I paying too much attention too, and not enough on? Most importantly, am I speaking and acting my truth every day?
Things to ruminate on.
So I'm back in Canberra now after several weeks in Sydney finishing up that education research project, and I've now moved out of my residential college with a couple friends to a house in Dickson. Funnily enough, I write this as I sit in a tutorial room in said residential college regardless, since
It's a great damn tute room.
Moving out has been quite the trial by fire though. Lots of fun and messy conundrums. Our first day in the new place we wanted to test our soil to check if we could do a veggie garden... which resulted in an exploding garden tap (not our fault!). Recently I put in a bidet on our toilet, after having wanted one for so long. It's actually pretty great - would highly recommend. Would also highly recommend tightening any hose fittings to avoid unwanted leaks and flooded bathrooms...speaking from recent experience.
It's incredibly rewarding though. I actually somewhat enjoy the whole cleaning thing - but maybe I'll sing a different tune in a couple months.
In terms of courses though, I've been studying in advance for Analysis and Galois theory. I'm fully salient of the fact that no amount of preparation will make either course less painful though. On the plus side, I'll have things to complain about on this blog. With thermodynamics, a machine learning project (which I'm wholly unprepared for!) and hopefully a small extension/side project for thermo with Prof. Howard on more plasma diagnostics, I'm honestly really excited for this semester.
This whole week I've been working at Questacon too, totalling I think 35 or so hours. We have a gallery at the moment called "Math-a-mazing", which has been an awesome way for me to share how friggin' cool maths is with kids, parents and fellow purple-shirts. There's something special about the look on someone's face when they realize "oh, this maths thing is actually really intricate and interesting!". It's a small win in moving away from the all too common misconceptions of mathematics as simply "crunching numbers", and boring high school calculus. I've been thinking of making significant design suggestions for a lot of the exhibits, as well as writing up gallery notes for the staff. Man, I'm excited just thinking about it - there's so much potential. Hopefully I get around to that before things get too hectic at university.
Really though, the whole moving-out-of-college, working heaps at an actual job, cooking, cleaning and all the rest of it kinda hit me recently, and made me realize that "oh, this is the next part of growing up!"
Weird feeling. Especially with the calm before the storm vibe of this fortnight before semester begins.
They just had $5 tacos here at the youth hostel where I've been staying for the past week or so. I figured, it might be interesting to leave my phone in my room, so I could eat with just myself and my thoughts for a change.
My thinking was, "there's been a few random nagging things in the back of my mind - most of which I can't pin down...tacos and introspection time." Well, that was roughly the idea.I figured it might be instructive to run through my train of thought for this vignette, just to see if my taco-induced revelation makes any sense.
So there's been a few things bothering me. Well, after some thought, it really reduces to one - motivation.
Why am I motivated to study and research the things that I do? Why should I be? In the grander scheme of things such as saving the world from climate change, are these the most useful things I could presently be doing?
A while ago I had a long discussion with a friend of mine concerning academic paths. Specifically; studying physics or pure mathematics, since to properly, and efficiently do one is to mutually exclude the other. My intuition, and personal preference, was of course for physics. It's just a lot more tangible, and bloody hell I love plasma physics!
However, at the same time, I had a living breathing example of a second year friend who took the "high road" of pure mathematics, and by the end of his second year, was ready to tackle literally any other academic field. Not only that, but it was just so obvious how in pursuing the most abstract of disciplines, his cognition was so that he'd learn anything new at a significantly faster rate, more comprehensively, and starting at a higher level. This is as high level as mental faculties get. If there ever was a way to exploit that 50% of yourself which isn't predetermined by you're genes, it's learning pure mathematics.
Plus, it's maths! Aside from the proof-based stuff, applied mathematics is damn powerful.
So, after much back and forth, I concluded the "high road" of pure mathematics is in the short-term, not the most appealing, but long-term, by far the most effective. However, for my sanity, I compromised and figured I'd also still take any opportunity to do academic research anyway. We'll see how that goes this coming semester.
That deliberation was several months ago. Now, with Semester 1 looming ahead of me, the question of motivation has sprung up again. Most recently, I've found it incredibly difficult to just get up in the morning, which resulted in me arriving quite late to my research internship thing consistently for almost its entire duration. This is in part due to the youth hostel I'm staying at being pretty damn loud at 1am...but that's not enough of an excuse. Really, it was just a lack of immediate motivation to get the hell up. Once I did, I was on a roll, but starting is always the hardest part. Much is the same with writing.
So I was thinking about "what should motivate me right now?", whilst eating my tacos. I'd skimmed over some motivation theory in educational research, and had related discussions with my supervisor on related topics. Actually, at lunch today, we discussed the whole "specialisation" thing in academia. One thing she brought to my attention, was how specialisation in process, not content was arguably the more important, and unavoidable decision, rather than a "field".
So what process do I want to specialize in?
Whilst working on my project draft, something my supervisor pointed out was how my friend thought in a manner of linear progression, whilst I was very much the opposite and non-linear. Neither are better nor worse, they're just different ways of thinking. Some people like lists and going through tasks, ideas and things linearly, in a directed, ticking off the list manner. Some might call it scatter-brained, but for me, I prefer to think about things as they naturally occur in a train of thought. The extreme example would be perhaps, any of VSauce's youtube videos, in which he starts on one topic, and ends up on a totally different one over the course of 10 minutes.
Practically though, I try to consistently integrate as many perspectives and chunks of knowledge as I can when thinking about a problem. For writing drafts, it's great - I just go ahead and brain dump onto a page. Refining the draft takes more time though.
But now I was thinking, whilst scooping the last bit of sour cream and moving on to the guacamole heap,
Why do I think that way?
I was listening to a podcast recently with Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. They end up butting heads for two hours on "what is truth?" - one of the many infamous red herrings of philosophy, which first year undergraduates revel in, whilst everyone else scoffs at. I won't discuss that podcast at any length here, but some comments in the related Reddit discussions (which I'd usually browse during evening meals) noted how Jordan thinks in patterns, whilst Sam thinks much more linearly, which was the partial cause of the disagreement.
Suddenly it dawned upon me recalling those discussions - that's exactly how I think too!
Although linear, methodical and scientific thinking can be absurdly practical (and on the face of it, more reasonable)... personally, I much more naturally tend towards thinking about the whole picture, recognising patterns and circumambulation (circling around a central idea). That's probably complexity theory, and its components - network and graph theory - "clicked" for me. This is how I think!
And so I concluded, perhaps a core motivation should be to learn things which allow me to recognise patterns better. Acquiring more tools in the pattern recognition toolbox, so to speak.
Hell, this is the motivation behind abstraction in pure mathematics - How much further can we generalise this idea? Models in physics, philosophical frameworks and political theories are similarly layers of abstraction or generalisation,
But no one set of tinted glasses can be used for everything. Scientific thinking can get you very very far, sure, but you can't discuss morality, politics and anything artistic with that framework - and vice versa.
So with this motivational axiom learning mathematics suddenly becomes much more personally justifiable. I smiled like an idiot upon this realisation whilst finishing off my nachos.
A Personal Aside
In terms of psychoanalysis however, realising that I like to recognise patterns brought to surface something else. Freud heralded psychoanalysis as a psychological treatment by essentially bringing the unconscious mind to the conscious. Whilst that wasn't necessarily my original goal, I distinctly remember a time of my life where those pattern recognition systems of mine where truly out of whack.
Having experienced first-person view of psychosis before, I know that the crux of insanity was seeing patterns in the world which weren't there.
The reasons for this cognitive malfunction were numerous. In some respects, it was as if the senate of my mind, the checking and verification stage, was on holiday, leading to all sorts of bizarre and unfounded conclusions.
Thus sanity check of supposed patterns, whatever they may be, must play a central role. That idea, I have my first supervisor from last year to thank, who always reminded me to "sanity check" the damn computer models. Test it in the most basic way you can, to see if it makes sense.
Doing so avoids silly mistakes and psychotic delusional theories. Seems like a worthwhile habit to keep in mind.
A Pattern Recognition Toolbox
So, shall I continue my academic studies with one concrete guiding principle of recognizing, understanding and utilizing patterns in the natural world?
From the obviously useful, such as machine learning, to the not so obviously useful, like Galois theory, all of my current interests appear to me as powerful tools in identifying, playing with and utilizing patterns in nature and society. Hell, that's a huge part of why they interest me.
Complexity theory is what brings it all together. If I must specialize in a process, I'll choose to specialize in synthesis from knowledge networks - something we all do unconsciously anyway.
For now, let's see if I can break that pattern of sleeping in.