C’est La vie : On how psychology shapes us.

I think a lot of (smart at least) people look at the opportunity of life, and at their shot at it, as an optimization problem or game they want to ‘win’ at. This is interesting to me, because I think that while there are a plethora of objective functions people choose from, most people try to maximize for things that make them feel good. In general, being happy seems to be a common thread. In a way, I am quite lucky in that sense since I feel naturally happy.

I think the reason I am naturally happy was that I had a very happy childhood, where other the kids that I liked appreciated me for who I was. I spent a year feeling unhappy, 2003, and then not really ever again. In other ways, I do feel like there were certain times, where I felt like something was wrong and then I changed myself to adapt to that, and that this may have been shortsighted in the long run. Actually, living like a kid is awesome, because your soul remains pure. In some ways, I feel like I live two lives at alternate times, and in one of them I experience the world like a kid, and reclaim the ingenuity and sense of wonder that was my birthright, and in the other, I act like an adult that understands society: realistic, cynical and driven. On the other hand, I have concluded that happiness is actually a consequence of gratefulness. Luckier people than me are miserable, because they’re not grateful.

Anyways, back to objective functions. I think a good objective function for me is freedom, autonomy and health. In real world terms, this translates into many things: Money is important because it gets me the freedom to access experiences or things that I might need or desire. So actually, I care about having a good amount of money available. However, money is obtained at first by sacrificing some direct freedom and having someone else pay you for performing a service in their favor. At some point though, one has enough money to access pretty much everything one needs beyond great luxuries, while building a solid foundation of wealth for the future (through saving and investing). It’s not really worth it to work with money in mind after that point.

On the other hand, something I particularly care about is health nowadays. That’s because I recognize that my health is in particularly bad shape.

Health is important, because we only have so much time in this world to live, and our health is what tells us how we are doing. In some sense, if we are lucky enough not to die in an accident or as the victims of tragedies of violent crime or war, the limiting factor for how long we get to live is how healthy we are. Health also allows us to function properly, when you’re healthy you’re smarter and more capable generally.

There also objective functions that I don’t have a lot of interest in. Some of these are a byproduct of certain privileges I enjoy, and some of them are simply a byproduct of the books I’ve read and the way I’ve internalized the experiences I’ve had in my life. I think the best example here is my extremely low level of risk-aversion. I must say that I do believe that in some sense this comes from having some privileges: my parents are ok financially (and would be more than okay if they didn’t have to support me or lived in a cheaper country) and I am not in danger of being a victim of violence. My version of risk taking is going to the library and try to make sense of an arcane textbook some of my friends are afraid of. I have good reason to believe this is entirely feasible too. For starters, I believe I am probably bright enough to understand anything given enough dedication and I am pretty certain that people who weren’t as lucky as me when the brain distribution round went around mastered it, with hard work, patience and commitment. In some sense, I also believe this to be especially productive for me: Challenging material forces me to develop the kinds of habits that make people truly accomplish great things. That is in fact one of the things one has to fight if one is the kind of person who skated through school or showed early signs of moving faster than peers. To accomplish great things, everyone has to go “slow and steady”. The difference is, if you have great talent, it’s hard to go slow and steady because for the most part, most things out there are completely trivial and you have no patience for them. So you have to go and find hard shit, because then you’ll actually be forced to be careful and think slowly, and then you can see the compounded benefits from this. Another thing that’s actually good for me is to actually write things down. I like doing this more and more now. Because when I write things down, I actively think about them and they become a part of me with a much higher frequency.

Another psychological thing I have some level of contempt for is arrogance and humility, or generally how people view themselves. First off the thing with humility is that yeah you’re kind of insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but you’re also probably the most important person in the universe to yourself. And with respect to other humans, you should instead know exactly where you stand. Being too humble can lead you to undersell yourself, which is actually not doing anyone but incompetent self promoters favors.

Arrogance on the other hand is kind of totally stupid. The thing to realize is that everyone sort of starts at different points in life, and has access to different opportunities. Everyone has some level of privilege. What really matters is how you use your opportunities and how you treat others. I think one should feel good about who one is as a person, and to think critically on how to maximize one’s opportunities. I know a bunch of lucky fucktards who were born into the right family and did nothing for their lives but coast on that shit, and I know people who have achieved more than what I even think about for myself that came from a shithole that I only heard of as a kid. The reason you shouldn’t compare yourself to others is that the only reason to do so is to find things you can improve on. For instance, if people intimidate you, then you have to work on your confidence and get comfortable with yourself and who you are.

One thing that I’m trying to work on actually that is psychologically bad for me is my self imposed perfectionism. It’s weird in some sense, I don’t really care about results, but I care way too much about actually knowing things these days. It’s because I sort of recently realized that I knew lots of things, but understood very few of them. That’s useless.

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Places

A very understated common experience in my mind is how much location shapes you as a person.

I have been in a variety of places in my life, maintaining residence in Panama City, Raleigh and Bremen.

Beyond these, here are a few places I care about :

Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Aruba and Manhattan. I also care about places like Paris, San Blas, Taipei, Boston and Costa Rica, but I haven’t had the pleasure yet.

On my diet

As I become more self-aware and try to take care of myself more as it’s now my personal responsibility as an adult, I have come to realize that I should keep a diet rooted primarily in vegetables, fruit and protein for my own sake and away from a high daily intake of starches/empty carbohydrates/sugar.

I’m not gonna give up bacon or pizza, but sugar drinks and excessive carb filled sides can probably go take a hike. Same thing goes for cheap alcohol, I’m too old to drink poison I don’t thoroughly enjoy so I’ll probably get inebriated by favor of wine and bourbon these days. Since having taste and eating well is more expensive, this probably means I’ll get more moderate portions from now on.

Gaps in my knowledge

So, one of the less glamorous parts of being a student is recognizing when you have gaps in your knowledge.

In fact, there is no such thing as a gap in your knowledge: there’s a fluid collection of experiences you have with a variety of ideas and each is rooted at a certain depth within you, and that’s your ‘knowledge’.

There are however, gaps between what people expect you to know and what you do know.

For instance, I don’t know differential equations. I know the Picard-Lindelöf theorem on the existence of solutions to an ODE, and I know where ODE’s come from including some of their geometric realizations in terms of manifolds, but I have only heard about the Laplace Transform as much as I’ve heard something about say chain complexes or the Borel-Weil-Bott theorem (please don’t ask for now) and have no idea what the tricks that allow you to do the standard ODE’s are.

However, there are gaps in the knowledge I have that are imposed by my own internal expectations and therefore it’s a matter of personal integrity for me to eliminate them.

One of the big ones for me is probably the fact that I don’t understand/know much about tensor products or general multivariable calculus. While I’ll probably go through how to do all the special cases of an ODE 6 weeks before I take the GRE Math subject and can’t care less right now about solving ODE’s, understanding ODE’s ala Arnold or learning calculus on manifolds following Spivak (or better yet Morita on Geometry of Differential Forms) are things I need to do to be self-consistent/at peace with myself.

This is what gaps in one’s knowledge truly are, things that keep you up at night because you personally feel you should know them by now.

Short Updates

So I’ve been in Germany now for the last 9 months or so , although I left in the middle.

It seems to me like a good idea is to just start separate blogs these days, particularly for math. I don’t like wordpress support for LaTeX, so I might use something different but we’ll see. I have strong intentions to read papers this summer, and that will likely involve me writing a lot of posts on that line. This year I’ve gained a somewhat broad background on some important topics, and while I haven’t got my life together or the motivation of days past, it looks like I’m slowly becoming a person that is more willing to balance and focus my energies.

Some thoughts on religion

I am a priori, a confirmed Roman Christian Catholic (I think this is the right order).

I am however, rather skeptical about several things regarding the future, practices, doctrines and state of the Catholic Church and its followers. This is not uncommon at all of course, but I haven’t really encountered anyone posing the problems I find with the current state of the world’s largest organized religious establishment totally and that also holds an affiliation to this entity.

Some of the problems are structural, some are social, some are political and some are technological.

The Church as we know it was essentially incorporated by a radical change that occurred many years ago in Constantinople. An emperor decided to embrace the religion instead of persecuting its members as had been occurring for the previous 400 years or so. This has led the Church as an entity to become a political, economic and social power where it was never intended to in the first place.

We may therefore ask : is that a good thing? Well, Christians certainly appreciated the newly found stability in their lives. But at what cost? Or rather, is the possible cost really existent?

Let me elaborate : the Christian religion emerged as a radical religion, Jesus said that his followers should leave everything behind, donate it to the less fortunate and follow him, living of the charity of strangers. This is beautiful, radical and totally unlike what we see today.

And yet, would the Christian faith hold such widespread adoption if it had remained as such a radical establishment? My guess is that in fact, had the Christian faith remained something that would lead to persecution and a life of devotion to the extreme as Jesus preached, it would attract roughly similar numbers of people who would actually follow it to this point. And then, what is the problem? The problem is that believing that the faith is anything but totally radical and uncompromising is a widely held belief. So I wonder, why do people believe in God? And most importantly, why is religiosity so tightly correlated with income per capita?

Having lived in a developing country and a developed one, I am led to believe that this is because in absence of the Rule of Law, the people need to believe in Divine Law. When you face and see so much injustice, the only way to hold a semblance of morality, to keep going is to simply believe that in the end we will all be judged by our actions and receive the justice we crave. This is also why people in these regions care so much about politicians’ religiosity: How could they believe that they won’t be corrupt crooks if they don’t even believe in God? If they don’t believe in God, the public assumes that in absence of both the Rule of Law and their Divine Law, the politicians wield unlimited power, and that facing a short life they will seek to benefit personally from their position putting their personal interests before the people’s. I sympathize.

But the fact of the matter is that in poor regions, people believe in God because they feel a necessity of God. They couldn’t possibly bear their existence if God didn’t exist.

And again, I sympathize, but I also have to ask: is this healthy?

I personally think not. People should have total religious freedom, they should be able to live comfortably with or without God.

And to clarify, this doesn’t mean that just because you’re a millionaire living in one of these countries you’re then really free to consciously choose whether or not to believe in God. In whatever socioeconomic status a person finds itself in these places, they see so much injustice and inequality and suffering, that they have to believe because if not the situation may be unbearable.

In developed countries, this is largely not the case. Yes, there are corrupt politicians. But most of the time they’re prosecuted and when they’re not it’s because they enjoy a really high status or because the crimes they’ve committed are just too horrible for the public to face them.

Now I’ve established that in my eyes in order to truly follow religion well, and therefore achieve a truly consistent behavior, we must be able to prescind from it but voluntarily live through it.

And yet, if we find ourselves in this position, the natural question that arises is why should we bother to even follow religion. Without the threat of a hell, or the certain reward of heaven, why should we adhere to a strict moral code like the one offered by most religions? I will try to outline a general direction in which religious belief may be positive for ourselves and for society as a whole, and some thoughts on what the presentation of religion should look like in the future.

For starters, following a religion was at least at the time they were created, something that was quite radical. Jesus told his disciples to essentially leave everything behind and to go into the pursuit of a higher truth, of Revelations. Christians were persecuted for quite a few centuries, and becoming one was a life-defining action. In this environment, at least as far as I’m informed, Christian communities thrived into remarkable utopias which held a rather nice communitarian system of values, indeed as far as I’ve heard it has been one of the most successful implementations of communism in history. This is because under the precarious state these early communities lived in, they were able to adopt a life of service, and in service to their community. As they were mostly isolated from traditional society(in a visible or non-visible way), their status system changed and since a priori they were united by Christian values only, it so happened that any one’s individual status was directly related to how much they contributed to the community.