Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Bad Advice, Quantum Mechanics, Normalcy

(The title of this blog post brought to you by "potential romantic comedy plots in five words or less")


A few months ago, Harvard's George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Mathematics recommended a movie to his freshman Real Analysis class -- on some tangent in class, he noted that "it's a fantastic movie; you should all watch it."

The movie was Spring Breakers. So, the other day, a few friends and I borrowed the Jefferson 250 lecture hall (where we had once-upon-a-time taken RA with GVL Prof. Gross) and threw the movie up on the giant projector screen.

We turned it off after thirty minutes of nauseating dialogue, uncomfortable soft-core pornography, and implausible montages of "college kids" drinking "beer". It was bad. Really bad. I'm really not sure how Prof. Gross managed to sit through the movie himself.

But really, the problem here is that I still don't know why we were told to watch this vapid, gratuitous, teen-star nonsense. What I've considered so far:

  • Benedict Gross has never seen more of the film than the opening party scene and the stuck-in-history-class scene, and made a suggestion off-the-cuff. As I recall, he went so far as to reference the latter in the discussion of the fact that no one was going to pay attention to Real Analysis the day before spring recess, anyway.
  • The man wished for his students to associate excessive drinking with stupidity. It's true that, speaking to his Linear Algebra class before The Game, he told us "I used to be Dean of Harvard College, so I know what weekend it is. But if I'm walking through the Yard with my family and I find you at the bottom of a vodka luge, I'm going to be very angry."
  • The movie illustrates the true universality of the struggle for agency in life by forcing us to come to terms with the fact that we, too, seek hedonic experiences as an escape from an overwhelming sense of being-in-the-world.
  • We were all the victims of an early April Fools' joke.

In any case, the lesson learned is that, when you've won the academic game without losing your sense of humor, there's endless possibilities for fun involving freshmen who will hang on your every word. One wonders how many academic memes are merely pithy off-the-cuff statements by professors that were taken too seriously for their own good, until their idle remarks were, over time, venerated into Truth. As I'll soon to be teaching, maybe it's worth giving a thought or two to the sort of things I want to 'casually mention'. Especially in China, where (according to expectation) the students will hang on my every word.

Yeah, that's a scary thought.


From time to time, in philosophical discussions on campus, I often find myself wishing that I understood quantum mechanics at a level where I can apply intuition rather than computation to abstract, squishy problems. (Well, to be fair, I don't have the background computation either. But even if I could, computation has a bad habit of refusing to actually answer questions.) It was my pleasure, then, to find a quantum mechanics subsequence in the archives of a blog I read with some regularity. If you, too, are looking for an explanation of quantum phenomena that doesn't assert "It cares when you look at it, because when you do, suddenly it decides to become classical!", I highly recommend it. It's a non-technical, philosophical approach with ample examples and well-explained experimental setups.

Quantum Explanations|Less Wrong

And, while I'm on the topic, if you find yourself asking yourself questions about what truth is, why people are so stupid, or why math means anything at all, the author of the abovementioned subsequence has a frighteningly large corpus of material written over the past seven years. Here's the post about what it means to count sheep with pebbles, here's "An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes' Rule" (with interactive graphics), and here's "The Twelve Virtues of Rationality". They're very well done, in my opinion, and well worth putting on your reading list.

Whether or not it's worth digging into the entire corpus of E. Yudkowsky's work is largely dependent on you and your desire to change the way your brain handles input. Spoiler: Reading about rationality changes you. You either have to ignore it or change your life, and neither option is very pleasant. Reader beware


Friday, I was having an over-dinner meeting with the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team executive board (of which I'm recording secretary), and was struck by the realization: These people are more normal than the rest of the people in my life. Now, HBDT has a largely-deserved reputation on campus, and the fact that the team might be a source of normal for me is a profoundly terrifying one.

But hey. It's an established fact that my friends are insane. At one point, our blocking group of six enrolled in thirty-four courses. (People at Harvard are shocked to hear that you're taking five courses, but four of them got six-course schedules personally approved by the Dean of Freshmen himself.) I was in five myself, but made up for it by skipping a year of pre-reqs to take the infamous thirty-hours-a-week, junior-level Operating Systems course.

It's not like the people I know through Effective Altruism are any better. Many virtues are required to follow modus ponens instead of modus tollens when faced with Peter Singer's drowning child analogy, but normalcy is not one of them.

If you didn't quite follow that, then here it is in English: Faced with the argument "Would you ruin a $2300 suit to save a drowning child's life? If so, how is that any different than donating $2300 to the Anti-Malaria Fund to buy anti-mosquito bednets in Africa?", do you pull out your checkbook or start looking for reasons why you shouldn't take an opportunity to save a life for $2300? Many virtues are required for the former, but normalcy is not one of them.

The Systems Research at Harvard group is giving HBDT exec a run for their money in terms of "normalcy in Ross's life", but in my humble opinion, they're still trailing slightly. After all, the grad student life is untenable and frankly insane.Why be normal? Shrug. Conformity is overrated, but does there come a point where you have to step outside of your bubble and live in the real world, with real people? I think it depends a lot on what you mean by "have to".

It's possible to live life surrounded by the sorts of people who view life as a long quest to optimize a utility heuristic, and never interact socially with anyone who doesn't find that a compelling goal when voiced in that way. It's reasonable -- and glorified by some -- to end up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by the same crazy-dedicated sorts of people you've known all your life. And, of course, it's all too easy to spend a lifetime sequestered in the ivory tower of academia.

Are any of these a bad life? I'm not sure. To be honest, I don't know why I don't know why I plan for a future where I have to deal with people not like me. Plenty of people around me don't. And I wish that I could end this post with a real answer for you, but I'm sorry, my hypothetical interlocutous reader, I've got nothing. I'll get back to you when I do.

Until then, I'll keep doing what I came to Harvard to do -- talk with the Econ concentrator and the social scientist, the musician and the physicist, and take coursework like "Poems, Poets, and Poetry" and "Equity and Excellence in K-12 Education". Because, in the abstract, you never know what might be useful in the long run. Except for Python. Coding is always useful in the long run.