Directing action

Few days ago, in between cigarettes, I got into a brief discussion about the immorality of making a lot of cash, in particular in financial markets. It’s a very popular stance, to hate bits of capitalism while enjoying the benefits coming from it.

I think it has to do with what you do with the money. It makes me think, sometimes I do consider going into finance. Said friend told me about the possibility of getting between a quarter and half a million per YEAR (minus tax) in some countries, utilizing the skills we have.

Imagine how much you can do with that money. I don’t mean buying shit or a house. I mean, fuck, would it be possible to fund research or relevant projects with let’s say, a chunk of your salary – around 100k? In Switzerland, this is the salary of 2 PhDs per year. In the UK, probably you could fund 5 PhDs per year.

Lately I have been thinking what can you do to become an influential individual. With the outcome of these elections in the U.S, I think a lot of people are wondering the same. My friend’s post on FB makes me think:

“While at school I always wondered what the German people must have felt like when Hitler was progressively taking on more and more power. Could they see? Were they scared?
I am and yet I’m short on ideas on what to do next. Should I be protesting? Should I be getting into politics? Should I be seeking to get citizenship? Should I be volunteering at schools?”

Protesting? Politics? Volunteering? I don’t know. I have a bad impression of politicians and politics in general. We need several things – putting it in words of Zizek, we need the closening of the class gap. Furthermore, there’s the need to somehow make a cultural impact, promote the right values, fix real problems such as climate change or world hunger. I can’t see this happening in politics, I see this happening despite politics through scientific, technological advances and philanthropy. (Of course I am biased as fuck.)

There are two realms so to speak: the soul and the objective – for the lack of better words. The soul concerns things such as ethics, values, etc – and it’s my belief that these things are better addressed through cultural movements – in one word, arts. The second real, the objective, are material things, engineering questions, like how can we exploit the resources of the Earth in a sustainable way, how can you  better distribute and deliver medicine and food to places, how can you curb the CO2 emissions, etc. These are scientific-engineering questions. Both of these things are important, and furthermore, I believe the possibility to efficiently tackle these objective problems comes from the fixing of the soul too – i.e. you need to give a shit – to have an irrational emotional response to drive you to tackling the problem.

Anyway, I brought the idea to a friend, about selling out and making money (even if it’s by exploiting financial markets) with the ultimate goal of philanthropy. However, they remarked that whatever problem I come up to solve, I might just end up widening the gap between the rich and the poor – I  don’t mean Europe poor, I mean the exploited third world country poor. So another question arises, how can you figure out what needs to be solved if you never come in contact with these problems in the first place?

Reverberating my friend’s question, what the fuck is one ought to do?

Moments

I smoke my cigarette silent. I know it is a cliché thing to say, but there’s a lot of content in silence.

“I want to kill myself.”

Your sentence, uttered what it feels like half an hour ago, expands and fills up every volume of empty space, penetrates to our bones. I want to tell you that things will be okay. But honestly, I have no idea. Odds are, things won’t be alright like before these events happened – I can’t tell you that you will be happier in the future. I am not – things didn’t necessarily get better for me – they more or less stopped bothering me because reality continued. Is it not worse, if I told you, instead of empty comforting words like “things will be okay”, that I said “you’ll get used to it – to the void, to the loneliness, to giving up?”.

Yes, sometimes it’s better to say nothing.

I never got over these thoughts of suicide either, so wouldn’t be hypocritical for me to tell you they will go away? In my silence, you know that I have nothing to offer. I wish I could help you, make those who hurt you stop, shelter you from pain, but who am I to do any of these things? All I can muster up is:

“Reality sucks.”

You smile. What else can you do? You know I can’t make miracles. No one can.

I want to tell you I will miss you if you go. But isn’t this egoistical? So my sentence hangs in the air. You are finishing your cigarette and keep looking at me, searching for some meaning. I wish I was one of those people who know exactly what to say – who can give a hug at the right time – I mean, sometimes nonsense, unverified statements work for people.

I stare at the concrete and feel this bubbling up inside me. Something seems so absurdly comical in this exact moment. The awkwardness, the inability to connect, to act like a human being, despite our meat suits. It’s all so absurd. Suddenly, I start chuckling and you look at me horrified.

“Dude, yea, it’s gonna suck, maybe for a while, maybe for a long time. But that is obvious, right? When bad shit happens, you feel shit inevitably. It fucking sucks to think about death and to feel alone. But that’s part of being a person no? I dunno, I can’t say nice things, like, we both know, life is completely pointless and all, that’s not new at all. But, in the end, even if meaningless, there’s exciting shit happening in your life – stuff that you love doing, even if it’s work or whatever. And I guess that’s worth something. Death is nice and plain. But since when are you into nice and plain things?”

There is a silence after this stupid potato philosophy. I am tired, you are tired – but your smile opens up.

“Ehe, that was truly terrible.”

Highly biased views I

#1: ‘Whatever, nothing matters.’
#2: ‘If nothing matters why are you so into things?’
#1: ‘To avoid realising things don’t matter at all, call it denial.’

Recently I read that over 40% of graduate students in Berkeley University had reported feelings of depression, 10% thoughts of suicide [1]. This is not very surprising. I further recall reading a couple months about the suicide rates per occupation: in 5th there are the engineers, in 8th the mathematicians, computer scientists and statisticians. [2]

Empirically I notice a lot of my friends, extremely smart people, are extremely depressed.

Last week I ended up, during lunch, in a conversation about the toll that can academia take in personal life and mental health – in particular, the need to move from country to country to get the perfect CV, coupled with the realisation that, after 5 or 10 years, you have been swimming in a tiny, drying up puddle instead of an oasis, plus the impossibility of truly disconnecting from work. These reasons sounded reasonable.

There’s another hypothesis I discussed with a good friend of mine in the past: that people with high analytical intelligence tend to be bad at dealing emotions. This is because they might prioritize rational thought over emotional one, even in areas where rationality might not be the most appropriate tool (talk about tastes or volitions).

Combine the unwillingness to accept emotions as real inputs for decision making or action orienting with the pressure of needing to have a CV that is as competitive as possible, containing reputable institutions and plenty of first author papers, no half-a-year gaps or deviation from your academic career, and you start understanding that mental hygiene might not come off as a priority in academia.

I think the impact is real. Books tailored towards leadership will tell you, tongue in the cheek, that any decision is better than no decision. Imagine that, taking a decision without any proof or evidence, without analyzing every possible scenario – how ridiculous! Yet, the very stupid, nonsensical actions and decisions I have seen came from smart people. Somehow, empirically, I observe that extremely ‘rational’ people* don’t seem to make good life choices in their personal lives, if you don’t hold the fact that in real life there’s no reproducibility, model reduction nor a control experiment running on parallel.

It’s counter intuitive, on the one hand, I spend so much time attempting to perfect my analytical skills to make predictive models of reality, while it appears that more and more, I forget how to actively participate and interact with reality.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/04/22/berkeley-study-finds-high-levels-depression-among-graduate-students

[2] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6525a1.htm

*: Observational biases.

The eternal pursuit of the myth of Aristophanes

After a ‘break up’ there is all this sexual frustration that masturbation alone does not satisfy. I watch porn, but soon enough it spirals towards this category of weird stuff which is no longer arousing, but rather almost physics and biology defying.

‘What am I doing with my life?’

Then it comes calling up close friends for support, and realising it’s been a while since I found time to see them despite having spent the last weeks with someone I just met. I realize I could have been a better friend.

The hours waiting for a text dilate, as if I happened to find myself hanging out at the edge of a black hole. If my heart were a black hole, would it be because it consumes everything which comes close enough, or because no light shines out of it?  I think about breaking the ice and telling this person of this absurd image – they might find it funny and I can’t stand the silence.

No.

Phase two is exercising. It’s hard to overthink when you are gasping for air in the running tracks.

I saw them recently. It was okay, they were okay. We laughed, whatever, it was fine. Maybe my heart is, indeed, a black hole. I understand sometimes the timing is just not right. All my logic tells me that dwelling in certain thoughts is hardly of any help, but I can’t help wondering what is it that I am missing.

In the evening I sat myself down and let some emotions condense into something concrete. It’s been a while since I worked in a new piece. This one is called ‘Fill me up‘ and it depicts the moment leading up to a kiss. Both subjects are missing parts of their bodies. It is a reference to this myth by Aristophanes, that humans had originally four arms, four legs, and a single head made of two faces. The story tells that Zeus, as a punishment for humanity’s pride, split humans in half, thus creating humans with only one set of genitalia, forever longing for their other half; the other half of their soul. I feel like often, we are just missing something, hoping to find someone to alleviate the void.

I know, if only I loved myself a bit more, I would be less tempted to find salvation in others. I wonder if this could have been the case too, that if they too loved themselves a bit more, they would have believed someone was willing to accept their incompleteness.

Imaginary conversations

There’s a shared balcony in my building where I smoke in the evenings. Sometimes, I imagine myself telling my feelings to someone, my worries about leaving and restarting. ‘Like, I just feel like I’m floating around with no real purpose nor direction. But I can’t stop either because I would feel more hopeless, so the solution is to continue pushing forward, somewhere, anywhere. But everyone else seems to have decelerated, people seem to have been able to find what makes them happy. I still have no fucking idea. I don’t have a place that I can call home nor a place to return to. How do you deal with it?’

The few lights in the alley down in the street are feeble and too weak to light up the streets, let alone our faces. Their features are lit through their cigarette tips, when they take a particular long drag. There’s a silence because there’s no real answer.

‘You just get used to it.’

I never saw them sad, but just now a flicker in their eyes seems to hint to a certain melancholy. I never really saw them in any manner because I don’t actually know this figure of my imagination bar from the times I am alone and creative enough. But in the imaginary, they are a cheerful and positive person – a reflection of what I wish I were, or I wish I had beside me.

‘I don’t want to be alone’, I’d blurt out pathetically. ‘It’s pathetic, I know, but I want someone to stay with me, forever. I never thought I wanted this, but then I realised no one really knows who I am. I convinced everyone I am something else and I skipped town or pushed away those who could see past my farce. Is there something inherently broken about me? No, sorry, this is stupid, I don’t believe it – rationally – I mean, there’s no–‘

The warm of their hand on mine would be enough to keep me connected. The power of people is often underrated in my representation of the world. My eyes swell up.

It’s going to be okay.‘ I think, looking at the darkness below.

I found the meaning of life (click bait much)

For the past two weeks I have been in a confused depressed haze. What do I want to make my life about?, I asked myself over and over again. The more people I conversed with, the more suggestions I got, but I knew that none of these were yet what I desired: wealth, happiness, a family, a good life, a prestigious job. No. Fuck that.

I sat today at my desk, defeated and depressed, asking myself the same question again: What do I want to make of my life? What is my “legacy” – for the lack of a better word? I thought that again it would be a futile search – like all these days I kept failing.

Then I distracted myself reading a paper on belief propagation. Reaching section 4, it hit me, suddenly, like an ocean wave crashing on the shore, I figured the meaning of my life. And it was so fucking obvious, I guess I overlooked it for so long.

It’s hookers and cocaine.

No, just kidding, it’s creating things. It is basically taking building blocks and making something new or interesting. Hopefully, the creation of useful stuff, solutions or artistic objects.

By now, I have figured out already that I am nowhere smart enough to come up with paradigm shifting ideas in physics nor prove anything groundbreaking in mathematics, but maybe I’m just bright enough to understand or extend some theory and apply it to solve problems in various fields.

From a technical perspective, my ultimate goal is to be able to solve every problem I deem interesting to be solved. At last, my apparent random walk in learning and working starts making a bit of sense. I think I gathered a good set of tools to pursue this goal.

So what do I (a person with zero authority in the matter) think it’s useful to fulfill such goal?

  • Mathematics to describe the world, for example, understanding of odes and pdes (modelling of physical world). Probability and statistics (to deal with uncertainty. e.g. (most) measurements of the world have some inherent noise due to the measurement device, so measurements should be interpreted as a random variable with a certain probability distribution.)
  • Computing, in particular, programming and high performance computing (solving things computationally, in particular, the ability to translate complex models into a computable program, the ability to deal with a lot of data and the ability to compute things within a tractable timeframe.)
  • Ability to read about a particular field/problem and to break it down into formal concepts

On math and the mundane

I firmly reject the idea of destiny – but it’s hard to believe all this was by chance.

 

*

 

There are crowds and crowds of people standing around as we try to make our way through the other side of the city. Züri Fäscht is a festival that occurs every 3 years. Around 10 pm fireworks rip through the skies to the beat of pop music and, like radiative colourful Xanax, everybody quiets down and observes these explosions. I heard someone say that it’s estimated that around 2 million people will have been in Zürich this weekend – that’s almost 7x the amount of people living in this city, usually.

We make our way through the static crowd because we have no interest in these fireworks though. In the most dense areas, as we push and shove these fleshy statues around us, I distract myself and think of percolation theory. It’s the study of diffusion of a medium through a pourous material – think of water passing through a sponge. These thoughts keep my mind occupied from the smell of weed, sweat and people.

We finally reach the destination we intended to reach, only to find our friends are long gone. Worth mentioning that double or triple number of phones trying to connect to the cellular networks inevitably lead to an overload and thus, the network is mostly down. Meanwhile, my friend got high and still wants to dance and I have been working non stop for two months, so I’ll take any social contact.

 

*

 

It’s 12:30 and it appears there is a second round of fireworks. I don’t understand the fascination people have with these events. Soon enough, the lights from the stands and carnival go out in anticipation of the upcoming show.

Everything quiets down briefly only to be interrupted by three explosions, and in a few seconds, the sky is full of colored lights, like a flaming huge golden dandelion.

I feel something.

As fireworks keep shooting up in the sky and blasting, colouring the sky and quickly vanishing, I imagine myself as one of these specks of light – quickly ebbing away, leaving only a small trace of smoke, which eventually diffuses. Is this a metaphor for human existence? The colours are so full, so beautiful, so violent that I feel tears forming in my eyes. Everything is dark and all eyes are carved in the sky, so I let them roll down. Life is so breathtakingly beautiful sometimes. I keep thinking I am over it and that I am ready to go – but then I catch a whiff of its perfume, a sight of its colour and I’m pulled back in – I’m again completely in love with life, trapped. Like a child that is overwhelmed with emotion, I am standing here, looking at this symphony of colours, teary eyed. Let these sparks be a memory of all those who existed, who have come and gone. There are so many of them and each individual one is just a bright tiny dot that eventually wanes off.

What if all my rebellion boils down to the fear of fading away, quietly, just like one of these lights?

work-in-progress fiction essays from ‘On math and the mundane.’