Causations and Correlations

As a young little girl with huge dreams in her eyes, I would consider myself to be a student of life. My sole purpose was to understand why things worked the way they did. And life gave me my first set of answers in the form of a subject I loved dearly: physics.

I was around 13 when I first stumbled upon my love for physics. And I was absolutely amazed by how a physical effect can be explained so seamlessly with a mere equation. Gravitation. Electromagnetism. Kinetics. The laws of physics said that every single action or event could be predicted with a near perfect trajectory. Which is great for an ever anxious and uptight person like me. The less uncertainty in life, the better. How very Classic of me.

My love for Classical Physics led me to my degree in Physics. And in university, I learnt a little bit more. And I grew a bit more uncertain of the certainty of what I knew. Cue, Heisenberg and the advent of his uncertainty principle. So I forayed into these advanced physics concepts based on the quantum nature of matter. And I learnt that, well, on a macroscopic level, things could be defined with classical laws with little to no uncertainty. But on a microscopic level, things were different. There existed orthogonal quantum states and each of these existed with a probability, which Schrodinger’s cat does a way better job at explaining than I do.

Alright. So, I suppose, instead of knowing the exact trajectory of things, I knew probabilistic trajectories. But at least I knew the probabilities associated with them. And those probabilities could be modeled by physical phenomena.

Shortly after, I ventured into a field called quantum information theory. It combined the greatest theories known to me. Quantum physics and information theory.

Information theory taught me how to interpret randomness. And then I ventured into signal processing and machine learning, which modelled randomness for estimating trajectories of human specific concepts like language and visual cognition. I went from understanding what the human brain interpreted, to how the human brain interpreted. Of course, what the human brain interprets is highly noisy. It takes a huge number of experiments, replicable in nature, to come up with core science that we identify as classical physics.

What I also understand, is that the human brain relies more on correlations than causations. And causation is mostly the result of calculating a huge number of correlations, and observing an effect with high probability.

These two concepts, are somehow interlinked. I went from assuming that there exists a definitive answer and reason to my questions, to understanding that I can only get a clearer answer if I probe with more questions, and it can take me a high number of questions to know for sure, if what I know is indeed true.

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26 on 26

Today happens to be the rare occasion that I turn 26 on the 26th of December. I’ve been told it will happen only once in my life, so I’m quite psyched about it.

The past year was quite a rollercoaster, so let’s roll back to where it all started. 26th of December, 2017.

I had just presented my first ever paper, at a conference, NIPS 2017. It was a big one, the best in the machine learning community, and I had got the confidence boost of my lifetime (till then). I had taken the bold decision of staying back in School during Christmas break, and almost everyone was out of town, either visiting friends or family, including my roommate.

Christmas break was hard. Having none of my friends to talk to, was hard and I decided to start being in touch with more people. To get back in contact with people I hadn’t spoken to in ages. And it was easier to do, given my then recent confidence boost, cause in my eyes I was infallible. I had achieved a good amount for myself, I just didn’t have anyone to share my joy with.

I didn’t want to be alone and it was averaging -20C (-4F) outside, so I met whoever was in immediate vicinity. I got my learner’s permit. I even got so bored that I ended up having a decent conversation with some stranger in an online chatroom, after bumping into a few creeps. We even exchanged Twitter handles. And later I ended up watching a Marathi movie with an unfamiliar friend. I spoke with a couple of friends on the phone. So Christmas could be salvaged, well into New Year’s. Only up to a few days later.

An unexpected, terrifying call followed, involving a dear friend. And I’m so happy that that friend is in a way better place today, but in that moment, it was a part of the beginning of a wake up call. You know, the first set of alarms that go off, which don’t really wake you up fully, but put you in a morning daze.

Christmas break got over in a few days, and life went back to normal for a bit. I knew my life was changing, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I was still blindly following orders. Doing what I was asked to. Following the trajectory that had been charted out for me. It was all okay, until I started questioning it.

Because the plan was working, but I didn’t feel happy. It was ironic because there was a lot to feel happy about, but I couldn’t share it with someone who could echo that excitement. I recognized that, I just couldn’t be antisocial any more. I needed people around me to thrive. Or perhaps there was more to explore within myself, which could give me that happiness.

I secured an internship that summer, in Boston. Big personal change, yet again. I, for the first time in my life, was earning big bucks. And I took upon myself, a challenge to lose weight and become fit. I think I succeeded a fair amount in that, and I’m happy with the way I look now. And for the first time in a long time, I had to be social. Because I didn’t really know anyone in Boston. So I made a new set of temporary friends. Very intellectual. Very cool. It was surprising how well all of us got along. Everyone was brilliant in their own way, and it was nice to be rubbing shoulders with what I perceived as equals. I knew it was temporary, but I didn’t have the urge to make it permanent. I think I finally overcame my social anxiety issues.

And then I came back to Ames, my college town. And life changed a little bit more.

First things first, I was exhausted, from working around the clock. I had reached a stage of burnout and my body rebelled against the thought of working. So I chilled out, after a long time. Of course that translated into a lot of anxiety over incomplete work later, but that phase was enjoyable in its own way.

By the way, I was also quite a rebel over the last year. I have no idea why, but I drank like a lunatic, I smoked cigarettes and I also smoked weed for the first time. One would assume I was out of control, but of course all of these things were stretched out over the course of a year. I’m not entirely sure why I did all of those things, but it was partly sheer curiosity, partly to numb out the buzzing in my head and partly just for the fun of it. I think I’m mostly over it now.

So then, we come to a point in time at which things get a bit more aggressive. I had a paper get rejected twice in a row, which is quite bad. And I’m in this situation where, I don’t know the trajectory that the “new me” needs to follow. And “new me” hasn’t even been around for much. She’s just about a year old.

On the plus side, I don’t react to failure as badly as I did before. I truly believe I have brilliant ideas which will see the light of the day if I persist hard enough. I don’t intrinsically feel horrible about what people say or do any more, but there are still some tendencies that I need to unlearn. Some involuntary reactions that need to be made more voluntary. I recognize my strengths far better today and I hope to develop some more.

So here’s hoping that 26 gives me a lot more answers to my new questions. Happy birthday to me!

Glass wall

I see you, standing right across,
A glass wall, separating us,
A land barren and deserted behind you,
And here, I am trapped in an ocean of fury.

All you want, is to quench your thirst,
You’ve walked a thousand miles,
To find yourself right next to an infinite source,
You think it’s of utmost importance,
I can see it in your dried up eyes,
Bereft of what used to be tears,

But it’s still out of your reach.
You’ve never been closer,
You convince yourself you can break through the wall,
But the more you try, the more it hits back,
Sends you further off.

You get angry, mad.
You continue to shout in despair,
You think the ocean will dry up,
By the time you make your way to it.

The ocean on its own,
Is engulfed in a storm,
No surface untouched,
By the wrath of the wicked blue vastness.

It seeks to crash upon, a shore stable,
Looking for ground so sturdy,
To anchor the weight of the world,
But all it can meet, is a glass wall,
And all that can control the chaos,
Is the fiery ball on the horizon.

The horizon where the stormy ocean,
And the barren land would meet,
Completing a symbiosis,
But here’s the catch.

Meet me at the glass wall, I’ll tell you.
Run to it, I know you’re tired.
I’ll keep myself afloat,
I’ll learn how to swim,
I’ll fight my way out,
So you can meet me in the middle.

Because at the horizon, I see a glimmer,
With it, strikes a realization.
These worlds didn’t meet at an equilibrium,
It was chaos.
If the ocean struck the shore, it would destroy any remaining sign of life on the land.
It the barren land met the sea, it would submerge within.
No one would know of its existence!

The glass wall needs to exist,
So let’s cut a deal,
Or a hole in the wall,
Try me a river,
Let’s start the flow.

A void needs to be created,
We just can’t avoid it,
Let’s channel our emotions,
And assure the other,
That no harm shall be brought upon either.

We strive towards an ecosystem.
A home that can be called home,
Now the barren land has a river.
And the ocean finally finds solace.

The Quixotic Realists

Quixotic (adjective) : exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.

Quixotic realists (noun) : people who are quixotic at heart but know that with high probability, that tends to work against them. So they end up trying to embrace realism, but can never fully do so.

I recently watched a documentary on Nikola Tesla. My first brush with the “modern day Prometheus” or the “real mad genius” was back during my undergrad, when I read this supremely popular comic by Oatmeal on the “greatest geek” that ever lived. I was amazed and awestruck. Edison suddenly became geek Voldemort. I was so impacted by the article that I had to come up with this Physics Bowl kind of event for the Tech Fest at college, and I named it “Tesla’s Noesis”. (In retrospect, a tagline like “revenge of the nerds” would have been a great addition.) Also, this story was a classic combination of two things I rooted for in my late teens : the tale of the underdog and geek supremacy.

But it wasn’t until about 5 years later that I watched a PBS documentary on his life. And it was in these 5 years, incidentally, that I went from being a Quixotic to being a Quixotic Realist.

When I watched the documentary, I thought to myself, how impractical it must have been to decline thousands or even millions of dollars worth of patent money. And I also realized, that the pursuit of an idea appears “crazy” unless it’s realized.

Tesla invented Alternating Current amidst detractors because he had the vision to do so. In fact so many inventors in the past weren’t taken seriously and were disparaged. But after their ideas worked, they were lauded, until they started pursuing a new idea, that seemed a new kind of crazy altogether, to the world. So, let’s face it, the pursuit of knowledge, innovation and discovery, are Quixotic by nature. But at the point that they meet reality, is when the magic happens.

So what happens when that very quixotic idea seems too far from realism?

Sh!t happens.

I don’t claim to be the only Quixotic realist in the world. In fact some of my very closest friends have been or have become Quixotic realists. It’s something that an average Joe Quixotic needs to do to survive in this big bad world. Tame our idiosyncrasies, but not more than what is required to keep our quest for enlightenment alive. The balance needs to be just right.

So when reality seems too far from the Quixotic goal or idea, Quixotic realists, who usually escape into some form of quixoticism, face the ultimate hurdle. The only way to succeed is to fight against every wit and intuition in your mind. It’s almost an out of body experience.

Now this constant mental battle, also called cognitive dissonance can take its own toll. A Quixotic realist may either give up all sense of reality or all sense of idealism, both of which, are bad. On both ends, is a sense of loss of identity. Quixotic realism is just a really unstable global minima.

What must a Quixotic realist do in such times, to pull through? Through the last few years in getting to know Quixotic realists, here’s what I’ve learnt.

Quixotic realist #1 wrote a journal entry, every single day, to stay in touch with his core. The end of day routine ensured that his Quixotic side prevailed.

Quixotic realist #2 used music as therapy. A violin or a guitar. A mandolin or a sitar.

Quixotic realist #3 wrote stories, (self referrential) blog posts. And chatted with other Quixotic realists.

Quixotic realist #4 drew sketches about all things beautiful in the world.

Quixotic realist #5 penned letters to pen pals and to strangers on an anonymous online community.

Quixotic realist #6 took long bike rides or walks along the city. Explored the parks. Discovered new restaurants. Appreciated the spirit of the city.

Quixotic realist #6 volunteered to guide guests through a popular garden and helped children in a pre-school.

Quixotic realist #7 helped other Quixotic realists by lending them a shoulder to cry on and hearing them out when they most needed someone to listen.

It turns out, all quixotic realists needed to do to be okay was to be in touch with themselves and their core. As long as they ensured that their quixotic side could stay alive for a bit, reality go fork itself.

Now, I didn’t mention escapism, because that never helps. If you realize that something is amiss in your life, please take the time out to first nurture yourself and make sure you’re okay. So, to my dear quixotic realists, don’t quit dreaming, because only you have the ability to bring about a realistic positive change in the world. Keep going!

Update

If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in a while, it’s because I haven’t been getting anything meaningful to say. Midway through writing a post, I just end up realizing that I’m either being extremely self absorbed, or I don’t seem to have a strong enough opinion or point to make. One may call it […]

Stop All Way

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post, and I suppose I owe an explanation on why. I moved back to my university after my internship got over. So I’m back to Iowa and life has been very different ever since I landed here.

Towards the end of my internship, I started experiencing, what one could call, a mid-PhD crisis. When you start questioning the goodness and value of your PhD. Before I had come here, I had set a few goals for myself and I was quite successful in accomplishing them. Which meant that I, for once, had run out of my only motivation for trying so hard. I didn’t feel like a loser any more. I couldn’t feed on my insecurities any more.

Let me tell you what 25 years of feeling like a loser, followed by 25 weeks of not feeling like one, feels like; it’s definitely more complicated than what this sentence sounds like, for starters.

At first, I felt that I was capable of accomplishing whatever I wanted. That I could get whatever I wanted. But after I got most of what I had wanted, I just felt empty. Now what? I needed to set new goals for myself, sure. But honestly, so far, I have just about done what the society has asked me to do; mainly what my parents expected of me and what my advisor advised me to.

Then, I started feeling that my life lacks direction. I felt a void. The way I chose to fill the void was to do things that I had held back from doing. For instance, I bought a TV. I bought a couch. I decorated my new apartment. Didn’t work. I went out, tried to distract myself. Drank, smoked up for the first time, went to different cities and met up with people I hadn’t spoken to for ages. Still didn’t work. These activities were distracting enough, in the moment, but I kept feeling lost. I took up smaller challenges, and I accomplished them as well. I was feeling bad about being overweight, so I restricted my diet and worked out. I’m almost near the goal weight that I had set for myself now. One more insecurity down. Now what?

I made myself self-sufficient, so that I don’t need to rely on anyone. Which again, put me in a fix. Do I even need anyone in my life? Maybe I could just get on with seeing people, once in a while, hanging out with friends whenever I felt like. No pressures, no responsibilities of maintaining anything.

I met a lot of interesting people during my internship. I knew that those connections wouldn’t last beyond the three months we would spend together in a closely confined space. And I was able to connect with people in-the-moment. Have no-strings-attached kind of friendships. I was surprised by my own ability to connect and disconnect with people in such short spans of time. That’s so unlike me!

I’ve been the person who has always tried to hold on to the people around me. I’ve been that person that has been scared of being alone. But now, I don’t feel so any more. I think I can forge equations, friendships and relationships of different kinds whenever I feel like. Without having to care about long-term consequences. I am not quite sure what brought me to this phase, but I don’t feel insecure about things any more. There are always interesting people I can meet. Feeling alone, is more of a state of mind. People are intrinsically good. And if you can make a real connection, no one really wants to abandon you. And everyone wants to make a connection. No one likes being alone all the time. People just have varying requirements of this so-called alone time. 

So, I have to admit, I was very narrow-minded so far. I had razor sharp focus. But the whole world seems like an open playing field now. I brought myself to the champions’ league, and now, no matter how I perform, I will be valued. Things will look up for me. Is that over-confidence? Maybe. Most probably. 

After I faced a series of failures, I set out to make sure I’m in a position where very few people would actually like to say no to me. And the sad part is, I’m aware that I am in that position now. I think I can have whatever I want. The caveat? I honestly don’t even know what I want any more. It’s as if I have a billion dollars, but I just can’t figure out what I want to spend on!

I need to set myself on a new path to discover my new self. But before I can choose which way I want to go, I need to slow down. Cause I’ve just reached an all-way stop sign.

To be or not to be Chill

.. you can start by deciding whether you want to unnecessarily convert Nouns to Verbs, Adjectives to Adverbs. Or just mix up different parts of speech, really! Or basically not care for rules of any kind!

But more seriously, this blog is about my observations of the cool nerdy kids.

The intersection of cool and nerdy kids looks somewhat like this emoji Venn diagram.

It’s mostly creepy and makes no sense. (Also credits to Instagram for making editing so fantastically painless. Honestly.)

So if you find yourself in that tiny intersection, that automatically takes you to the big league, where you can possess the unparalleled knack of have long winded intellectual conversations with nerds and engage in superficial meaningless vivid discussions with the cool kids about what popular culture dictates. Yes that also means non-cool non-nerdy people are essentially non-existent. (Not really, but I wouldn’t know what to write about them anyway!)

So, the question really is, to be or not to be a cool nerd.

I’m nearing the end of my internship, and I have happened to find myself in the company of these rather cool PhD nerds. They are brainy people with loads of papers and awesome internships. But they also like to … chill … and watch lots of movies, Netflix, go on hikes, bike trails, drinking, sky diving and what not. I’ve honestly never been surrounded by so many extroverted nerds before, so this puts me into an existential crisis.

Let me narrate a few anecdotes. I had gone out for this baseball game, and I was out with a bunch of interns for the same. But after the game, which was on a Thursday, ended (or rather we got too tired of watching or … caring), people wanted to grab drinks and have food. So 3 hours of watching a game followed by 2 hours of drinks, food and merrymaking. Not what I had planned for a weekday night.

So of course, I started feeling antsy about the whole plan of eating out (I wasn’t even that hungry, and I really wanted to go home). But … everyone else wanted to eat and hang out. And my limited social skills suggested that it would be unwise to back out at this minute.

Now I don’t know about others, but when I’m annoyed, it shows on my face. I just cannot randomly appear cool. If I’m anxious, you’ll know it. If I feel lost, you’ll know it, from my blank expression. If I’m angry, you’ll definitely know it, I’ll make sure you do!

So I was annoyed with the whole dilly-dallying on which sports bar we needed to go to. Cause watching sports in real life wasn’t enough, we (collectively!) now wanted to watch a zoomed up version on a flat screen while eating and drinking and getting wasted on a Thursday night. Apparently.

So this “cool” intern walks up to me and says “why do you look so annoyed?”. And I say “nah, I was just looking for someone”. Yeah, cause those expressions are very similar.

Defense level: Boston Red Sox during the baseball game. (They lost.)

But that was just the start of it. So we finally made this decision to go to a particular sports bar and I did, what I usually do when I resign to the fact that I necessarily have to be social. Brought out my absurd sense of observational humor and made unnecessarily complicated commentaries.

Social game level : LinkedIn premium member.

The annoying thing about big groups is that there are so many parallel conversations going in different directions, so most of the times I just randomly cue in and pass comments, which may not even be relevant to the given conversation. But I spoke about how this one member of the group was known to be the weed dealer for other interns and the “cool” intern again felt the need to point out and say “look at her, she’s judging him through her eyes right now”.

Okay, whatever. I mean, I probably was judging, but no need to point out, “cool” intern. Also, I was judging “cool” intern way more than the weed dealer intern.

But the point is, I just couldn’t shrug it off!

What is this concept of playing it cool?

I’ll tell you what I find to be cool. There’s this guy that I see in the bus every day. Long beard. Hair tied into a bun. Usually wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Sling bag. Headphones on. Glasses. That guy exudes the chilled out vibe.

Meanwhile, I can never pull off that vibe, because I’m just not a cool girl at heart. So the only reason you’d find me wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts with a long beard and hair tied into a bun along with a sling bag would be if I was robbed while vacationing at Hawaii and had to camouflage myself by using a fake beard, and a headphone… for … survival reasons. Cause no one in their right mind would ever suspect that to be me!

I guess some people are just more laid-back than others. And if my blog is any indication, you’d know by now, that I’m far from chill.

But you know what, chilled out people are way too relaxed to write awesome blog posts. Or to spend enough time to even put random thoughts together on a piece of paper. So, being “conventionally cool” may not be your cup of tea, but you can just make your own cup of tea any way and whip up a storm of ideas!

If cool means disobeying conventional rules and wisdom, then the ultimate cool is defying the definition of cool itself!