These Western Concerns

I was trying to strategize about what my second blog post should be about.

To give my blog some sort of legitimacy, I felt that I should write about some topic I’m studying or something impressive and catching.  Or at least comment on FOCS and interesting talks and theory happenings and on the NSA guy that attended in a checkered jacket and ascot and went on a run mid-conference.  You know, show in detail how much a part of the theory community I am.

But that’s not what I really feel like right now.

Actually, I feel quite a bit a part of the theory community and I do want to talk about it.  But I don’t feel like having to prove it right now.  I’m sure I’ll do that later.

Right now, I’m having some sobering and much-needed contrasts.  I’m in my second year of grad school now and a year ago I was scared, stupid, and isolated.  I’m less so now.

On Berkeley’s visit day I was told that when I graduate I will be as different from who I am now as how different I now am from when I finished high school.  This excited me tremendously.  And then I proceeded to fight change as hard as I could for the rest of the year.

I came from a small state university and the change flattened me.

My undergrad university was not a research university.  I hadn’t the faintest clue what theoretical computer science was and the amount of exposure I had to research and research culture was minimal.  But, surprisingly more impactful, my university was a teaching university.

I can’t begin to describe echelon of teaching that went on at CSUS (although I’m sure pedagogy will be a large part of this blog in the future).  The philosophy of teaching they had and its effect on me is something I can’t begin to express right now.  I simply don’t have the words for it (although the word choices of “echelon” and “philosophy” were poor attempts to convey something or the other).


Huh, well this paragraph you’re reading now used to be a different one.  I tried to put into words the existential crisis I went through my first year and about the undeclared  personal battles with windmills I undertook as my ideals inadvertently came under siege (They were GIANTS, I tell you!), but I failed.  I don’t think it’s something I can convey.  At least not now.  Maybe the feeling of this culture shock and my still strongly held ideals will come through gradually in the future, but for now those paragraphs are lost to the aether.

I’m almost regretting having forced myself to write that first blog post because I now still have to bare myself and it’s still terrifying.

Most of the things I’m most passionate about are the things that have the most context and experience behind them.  And I can’t summarize context and experience.  But why am I telling you this?  If you’ve done research, you already know this feeling exactly.  It’s almost impossible to convey the things you’re most excited about to friends and family the deeper you get.  And the enamored world you try to allow someone to peek at falls flat without the experience and feels cheapened and cliché.  Out of context.

Anywho, this post was supposed to be about having a sense of community and progress.  About the start of my second year being a reference point to how much I learned (without knowing how I learned it) and about feeling more like I was in the right place.  But I got overwhelmed.

As I tried to convey this difference, I couldn’t summarize the state of turmoil in which I entered grad school.  I couldn’t give a sense of the context of ideals I had and why they did have beauty and were worthwhile.  And I couldn’t give a sense of why I felt they were challenged and how this caused an upheaval of my belief system.  I couldn’t do any of this without making these impactful experiences seem cheapened and cliché and petty and naïve and adversarial.

And flashes of possible vignettes that might more aptly capture my experiences and the depth I’d have to go to make them clear and the wording I could use to make it relatable and poetic all completely exhausted me.  It made me freeze up and exhausted me.

These Western concerns are all I ever really learned to be concerned with
But don’t you, don’t you know it’s hard
Feeling tired every time that you try?
Ain’t it hard feeling tired all the time?

-Modest Mouse

So this blog post got away from me.  And I regret forcing myself to start a blog last week.  This post is now about, if I had to guess, exhaustion.  Having a surplus of things that need to be done and too little of a heuristic about how and where to start.  It’s about feeling tired and, much much worse, feeling tired about feeling tired.

It’s exhausting business, being exhausted.

I don’t know if it helps other grad students or anyone else commiserate, but I can’t bring myself to write about something else right now.  Because I’m just really tired.

I’m tired from work.  I’m tired from trying to find out how to work better.  I’m tired from the endless stream of workshops and reading groups and talks.  I’m tired trying to see if I should be focusing on big picture ideas or work through the minutia or if I should speed-read and not get bogged down in minutia or if I should switch to another problem I’m thinking about.  I’m tired of trying to learn all areas of theory since it seems like everyone else knows all of them.

I’m tired from trying to be well-rounded.  I’m tired trying to learn more about music.  I’m tired from choosing between guitar and piano.  I’m tired from trying to keep reading novels.  I’m tired of trying to make sure I still have time to relax and watch movies and have idle chats.  I’m tired of forcing myself to go bouldering weekly and having it feel like a chore to check off the list even though I love it.

I’m tired from choosing to be social and forcing myself to have fun when I’m exhausted because it’s good to be part of the community.  I’m tired from not writing this blog when I have something to say because I have other work to do.  I’m tired from writing this blog when I don’t have something to say, which was supposed to be a post about being part of the community, while sitting in a corner at FOCS away from the community I could be socializing with because I told myself I’d write one post per week but the week is packed end to end.

And mostly, I’m tired of trying to juggle all of these.  And I’m tired of setting aside time to find out how to juggle these things better.  And everything is back to back to back.

I am just bone-tired.

But this isn’t all doom and gloom.  I actually started this post with a bit of optimism.  It’s my second year and things are good!  Light-years from last year.

I’m learning and improving in many directions and at considerable speed.  I am juggling these things and purposefully.  It is the reason I am exhausted but it is exciting and it got me excited enough to start a post about it.  I just ended up getting overwhelmed midway…

Mostly, I got overwhelmed by trying to convey the religious part of my life: math.  I haven’t had religious feelings in my life until math towered over me.  And trying to convey the faith and the doubts and the exaltations and the majesty that can only be portrayed through experiences was too much.  That is the part that becomes too human for me.

I’m sure these ideas and experiences will leak through in the future but for now I can only pray to my muses and gods for future strength.

Kurt Gödel, give me the strength to attack problems with themselves and with beauty.

Andy Yao, let my results not only be beautiful but also be new and general techniques.

Richard Feynman, let me maintain my humanity.

Gauss, let my work be insightful and ahead of its time.

Johannes Kepler, let my thoughts be guided by a search for beauty.

Dick Hamming, let my thoughts be guided by importance and pragmatism.

Albert Einstein, let me not check Facebook.

Paul Erdős, let me make my research a social activity.  And let me peek in the book.

Sir Isaac Newton, let me be humble for my accomplishments.

Ron Graham, let my life be well-balanced and diverse.

Archimedes, let my life be consumed by the pursuit.

Ok, I have to get back to work now…

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