Monday November 14th
I woke up sweating
- It’s been a while, but I’ve mostly been juggling a couple research projects and 3 classes these days, along with some other stuff that has happened already (phew), so I’m in a brief moment of calm. Usually any time after midnight is my jam; it’s the time I feel most focused. Some of my friends in LA would call this Hacker hours, but I think it’s just “people leave you alone so you can actually get work done or deep thinking”-time.
- I’m even giving a mini (4 minute) talk on Computational Graph Theory tomorrow evening! Hooray.
- In short, even though I have been generally doing less (i.e. less tasks in terms of number), it’s been exhausting (because the things I do require more work and require deep thinking).
- I was telling a professor today (that I’m working with) that I actually had a nightmare this semester involving 2-K3 graphs. They were floating side by side and I woke up, sweating. Specifically, a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are not data or machine learning, which I literally care nothing about in this context, but graph theory problems involving algebraic solutions (as in, you don’t use some kind of minima or machine learning thing but use concepts from abstract algebra). I think it’s super cool and it’s been really tough, but I’ve been enjoying a lot of it.
- Today I was thinking about how I tend to go “hard” on subjects / things when I get into them. There was a time I was really into hardware, for example, and owned a whole bunch of wire, crimpers, and a soldering iron, and was trying to buy batch tips for my soldering iron on random websites. Or I took the bus all the way to San Francisco regularly for a day of soldering tiny components on boards. A friend once told me that they really admired how once I’m into a thing, I just get really deep into the weeds; I become obsessed. Okay, a couple people have told me that. Honestly, my whole family is that way; I don’t know what it’s like to not be that way. However, if I find something no longer a challenge, I tend to detach myself and find something else that piques my interest. That’s coincidentally how I got into this whole tech thing; I was sitting at a work computer and thought it would be a cool idea since things were slow to install GHC. Then Prolog. And then Lisp. And SmallTalk. And how about downloading VisualStudio and trying to make a game? I would work on these in between my actual work. I began to become obsessed with solving CodeWars problems, and some of the Project Euler problems, to the point that one time, in the middle of working with a client, in the background I was running a bunch of for loops for each prime number below 20 so that I could get the first divisible number of all of them. I hadn’t yet learned about smarter algorithms. I bought a Wacom and began doing digital paintings at my desk when it was slow. I was forever up to something. How do things work? Why is this different? Learning about why things are different is like a portal to how someone thinks. Tech people call this the “hacker mindset”, but I’m pretty sure that’s been a thing that happened way before hackers were around.
- Years ago, when I spent a lot of my time drawing (and picked up sculpting, oil painting, building models in acrylic and basswood, and even some 3D CAD skills), I would attend life-drawing sessions every day of the week; there was a drawing club on Monday, another on Tuesday, and costume-drawing monthly…to the point that the male and female models pretty much knew me by name. And I can’t imagine not living my life or doing a thing like that. I am constantly driven by a desire to get better and love picking myself up after falling short of a goal, and getting better. I’m not surprised that I’m in grad school now, to be honest. It’s a magnet for that kind of mindset. We’re little human regret minimization functions lol.
Why are you doing this?
- A few weeks ago, I met with an advisor and said with sarcasm, “why am I doing this? Why am I spending so much time on this, to learn this stuff, when there are people on the internet who spend one tenth of the time and claim that they are experts?”. It’s a legitimate question, and I think if one’s goal is for clout, this question is meaningless. However, as in things I have done in the past, there is a respect that comes from putting in the work among other like-minded individuals, your peers, that is undeniable.
- And then there is a joy from looking at something you really want to figure out, and doing it because you can’t not do that; you have to know. I love this a lot about my current group of labmates in Pure Maths, especially one of my best friends (who left to become a digital nomad); in one class he spent the entire time thinking about a question asked at the beginning of class, to the point that he missed most of what was going on during the lecture, but had solved the problem at the end. Similarly, this semester, one of my other friends casually heard a problem in our class, and came back a couple weeks later with a solution. This was after having heard “we don’t know if such and such exists”. He was just determined to find out if this was indeed the case.
- It reminded me of how in photography class, one of the first things we learned was that our professor was a hard@$$ and she was not impressed by photos that your parents thought “were awesome”. Our group loathed her critiques, and often she would look at an entire roll of film and ask you to shoot 3 more rolls, because “none of your images are in sharp focus”. At the beginning, it was easy for us to argue, to debate that there was a row that “I’m pretty sure I bracketed and is perfectly exposed and in focus at that aperture”, but over time, as our taste improved, as we grew to understand and appreciate the craftsmanship and the result of our efforts, we left the class grateful, pleased by some of the work we were able to produce during our time with her, and with a hunger to aspire to some of the beautiful and technically amazing work she exposed us to.
- I’ve felt a lot like that lately, in a way that I’ve felt really happy that even though it’s been painful, there has been legitimate progress. There is so much I haven’t taken the time to feel proud about, but at some time, maybe I should.
- A professor I once had, who ran a school in Little Tokyo, once told us that when you start off, your eye is often much better than your hand, and that’s frustrating. You learn to appreciate what a beautiful image looks like, and you attempt to copy it, but you fall short. And so, you keep going. One of the tell-tale signs of terrible artists, they would tell us, is that they think of themselves and their work as “hot $h!t”. And they would often get an eyeroll; every semester there would be the new, naive art student who was used to their parents telling them they were so awesome and talented, until they got owned and realized how far they really had to go. Then they either didn’t come back because they were so convinced of their own brilliance (lol) or they would buckle down to hone their craft. One who considers the journey a lifelong pursuit understands that something that looks “great” today, in five years, can look subpar.
- Also, you can’t really (or rather, it isn’t advisable to) have a long-term career based on a “schtick”.
- And you begin to understand that every “great artist” is literally a person standing on the shoulder of giants; work that took their breath away has made them push harder to be better, and you see the influences of the people that they like in their work. I would argue that it’s a similar thing with something like elegant code, music, writing, or Pure Mathematics.
- And this is consistent in fields like coding, too, where someone will write code for a game and think it’s awesome, and return years later, swearing to themselves about how mediocre of a programmer they were. Both require persistence, and loving a thing beyond the part where the idea of it is fun, to the point that one has the discipline to keep going even when it’s not; when it gets hard.
- My professor at the Little Tokyo school also told us in a class (he was full of wisdom; in fact, we’re still in touch) that if you’re not reguarly hitting walls, you’re not trying hard enough. This was in a digital painting class. In some classes, he would say that a student should stop using digital tools, and go back to sketching, do more life-drawing; go back to catapult forward. If your foundation is weak, as he said in one class, “how do they say it? Polishing a turd?”. The class erupted in laughter. He would tell stories while painting digitally; life stories, philosophy. I remember them to this day. He grew up poor, and worked hard, to become successful. I remember once he told us that he was so poor growing up, he didn’t own a single toy, and that one time, he was working at a gas station and his mom came to drop off a birthday present for him and saw the store he worked at get robbed. All of those experiences put a fire in him to work hard at the thing he was destined to become good at. Still, it wasn’t enough; he eventually went on to run his own company and to hire other artists. Regret minimization.
- He would tell us to learn to see colour, and composition more, and stop copying digital images, which is often a crutch for many students. I think about that today, especially in my own journey this semester. Think for yourself; learn more about who you really are. Don’t just follow the crowd. I definitely think that this has been a lot easier for me to do in the group I’m currently a part of.
- It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been really rewarding. As a professor told me “you always look like you’re having the best time!”.
- To me, Pure Mathematics is not unlike art; in many ways, it’s creative, while operating within the constraint of tools you use to solve problems. And I find that to be beautiful. And like art, there’s a steep learning curve to get really good; there is talent, and then there is also just spending the time working for hours on end until you speak the language fluidly.
- I’ve also really enjoyed how every professor or mathematician has their own style, their own way of communicating things, in a way that reminds me of how War Kong Wai or Gregory Crewdson might reveal a narrative.
- There’s something that’s also beautiful about Pure Mathematics to me that is like art or filmmaking; the passing on of a story. In a lecture, you start with an idea and extract parts, like an exploded view in a 3D CAD programme. And at the end, you put it back together, having taken a journey together. I think that’s really neat.
- I took a class at a night school once where the students looked at each other, shocked, when the professor came in and said “Do you see these things in front of you? Take them apart.” At the end, we put them back together. For some students, this was the first time they had imagined doing such a thing, but it sparked something in them that made them continue to follow this path every semester (it was a low voltage electricity class where we made flip-flop circuits and that sort of thing).
- I’m still going to keep going here from time to time, but I’ve just been really busy. I’ve been having a lot of fun and to be honest, this has been some of the most rewarding time I’ve had during grad school. I’ve been super enjoying everything!
- I’m going on some trips next semester (one of which has been a dream even before grad school!!! Yes, it’s a Pure Maths Research facility!!), so I’ll try to post about that, too! :) I feel really lucky and am excited about the upcoming semester!
- There are parts of pursuing a thing that are milestones; when you feel like you’re hitting a wall, and a door is opened. It gives you the energy to keep going! Hearing that I had obtained this specific opportunity was so validating to me. It is a place where research mathematicians go! I can be one too!
- PS: yes, the subject / header for this post is a double entendre relating to graphs (cuts..get it? laughs).
And that’s it.
Written on November 14, 2022