As I was failing to get to sleep I couldn’t help but ruminate on memories of my last year in university. I failed monumentally during my final year and my dissertation was basically just a rambling document about why I didn’t do my actual dissertation work. That was not what I was ruminating about, instead I was remembering one of the modules I took that year: Quantum Information Theory.

In my entire educational career, from the first day I started school when I was 4 years old, to the day I graduated university, Quantum Information Theory was the only course I took which challenged me intellectually. Don’t think I am saying that to brag, I don’t think education really challenges many people intellectually. I was challenged greatly (perhaps beyond my capacities) when it comes to things like time management, reward deferment, patience, attention and other things of that ilk. Those things are in many ways far more important for daily life. Still it makes me sad that only once did I experience genuinely intellectually challenging work.

And what an experience! For most of school up until I was 14 or 15 I was genuinely under the impression that teachers asked questions in class in order to test you, or from my perspective, to give an opportunity to show off how I already knew the answers before we were told. It used to aggravate me that teachers told us the answers shortly before asking the questions, “how would they know” I thought “that I already know!” At some point I twigged the point of the exercise was to improve recall not to give me an opportunity to show off, but that I realised so late is I think tragic evidence I was not half as clever as I thought.

Likewise in university, even if I knew it wasn’t the point I spent the first year focusing all my energy on showing off. Once I felt sure everyone knew I was smart, I felt confident to slack off, my goals achieved – especially with the increasing workload and my general lack of self discipline in the face of such things. As such my grades predictably declined.

Quantum Information Theory was the one thing that broke the pattern. My grades were not great in Quantum Information Theory, because it genuinely stretched me to the point where it was hard. Not because it had so much tedious busy work, not because I had poor time management skills and left my projects till the last minute, but because the material made my brain have to actually work for the answers – they didn’t pop into my head immediately, the logic didn’t seem self evident as soon as I looked it up. I got what you could call a C in that class and I worked for that C. Because I had not got previous exposure to the level of mathematics required for the course I had some private sessions with the lecturer where he went through things with me (beautiful things about complex numbers and circles that I wish I could explain!) – and for a moment or two I felt like I understood, but it took effort, actual mental effort on my part.

That had never happened before, it has never happened since, but I loved that feeling, of slowly coming to grasp something, of reward in the face of struggle.

Now it makes me sad. I wonder if I will ever have that again. I wonder if anything in life can top – on an intellectual level – taking Quantum Information Theory in my fail laden final year. I am sure I will have higher emotional, social, probably even creative heights. But the joy of writing my first real proofs? Of understanding (however briefly) weird and wonderful things about numbers? Of struggling to understand something ever after it has been explained – but finally getting it? Those joys topped the joy of showing off a million fold.

After taking that course I dreamed of one day writing my own quantum algorithms, which of course seems laughable now. It would make as much sense for someone to use a quantum algorithm I wrote as to use a 4 year old who just learned to add up as their accountant. Quantum Information Theory was just on the cusp of my capacity, and it clearly wasn’t even completely that because I only got a C.

But I love that C more than any A I have ever been given, because I earned it.

The Evolution of Teenage Angst

When I was a teenager I assumed I would no longer feel teenage angst once I was older. This assumption was completely wrong. I still feel that mixture of fear, self-abasement, sadness, anger and helplessness I associate with being a teenager – but two things have changed.

Firstly I no longer find the feeling “interesting” – because it is not interesting I do not, as I did when I was a teenager, wallow in it and try and drag it out to get every last bit out of it. I try and move on as soon as another less uncomfortable feeling suggests itself to me.

Secondly even when I cannot escape the feeling I am less alarmed and overwhelmed by it. I feel bad, I feel worthless and insignificant, I feel powerless and angry, I feel uncompetitive and weak – and that’s just how I feel. It is not the end of the world, it doesn’t mean life isn’t worth living, it doesn’t mean I am “depressed” or have something wrong with me or that I am in any way different from everyone else for feeling that way. It feels shitty, and there are flecks of reality in the exaggerated feeling, but ultimately it will pass and other more pleasurable feelings will take it’s place that make life overall entirely worth it.

Both of these changes are ultimately down to familiarity – twenty something (almost thirty something!) angst is the boredom that remains when angst has become familiar. When panic and hope have both lost their energy and been replaced by patient humour with oneself, and hopefully also with others.

Non Participation

One of the biggest criticisms I’d field against my generation, one that certainly applies to myself, is that we have a tendency to refuse participation in imperfection. We notice the problems in political parties, in trades unions, in management, in organised religion even in voluntary organisations and civic societies and as a result we just don’t participate. We have political opinions, labour market interests, managerial philosophies, religious ideals and moral and social goals that cannot be achieved on individual scales, but we are terrified to be part of something bigger than ourselves (though we crave it more than anything) because we can see all to clearly, especially with the viewfinder of the internet, the myriad imperfections we’d be throwing our lot in with.

We are unable to commit to affiliation because it means picking in many cases a “lesser evil” and we cannot stain our philosophical purity with the messy substance of reality. Thus our existence is diminished. Without his co-operative nature man is little better off than an orangutang in the face of a palm oil plantation. Opting out of everything because it’s corrupted leaves everything as ripe pickings for the corrupt.

We try and overcome our lack of real connections by creating artificial connections, mediated connections, by linking up in networks which demand (seemingly, initially) little of us, that require no commitment and come with little to no risk, but these networks cannot substitute for formal organised groups. The modes of social control within them are sorely lacking, they are easily gamed and usually necessarily monetised. More importantly mediated networks ultimately belong to the mediator, whether the technologist (in the case of distributed “p2p” systems) or the owner of the machine. It demands little of us because  we’re just end consumers, not stakeholders, even when we create for the machine we are consuming the “opportunity” to be creative, to be seen, that little dopamine rush when someone clicks the “like” button. The machine expects nothing of us and we owe it nothing – no real bonds are forged.

It is a lack of humility, we see the motes in everyone’s eyes very clearly, and the log in ours? Well we had a tough time of it! Our home life was difficult and the teachers at school bullied us! Who wouldn’t have a log in a situation like that? It’s a distraction though because if we don’t work together there will be no-one to help us remove the motes in either of our eyes.

Loving the Whooshing Sound

Today I did something scary. I added a deadline to my main “projects”. No longer do I have a whole bunch of amorphous projects that I may or may not ever complete that I am vaguely committed to occasionally working on. Nope, now I have 3 projects which I will either have completed by specific dates or I will have to accept I am not committed enough to ever complete.

Surprisingly my first feeling was one of relief. One of my projects for several years now has been learning Russian. I am interested in starting learning a few other languages but I have not allowed myself to because my Russian is not yet “good enough”. As of now I have a clear date where my Russian will be as good as I am going to actively make it. Of course I will try and maintain the level I reach but I am not going to keep on going forever never accepting any result as good enough. I know the date when I can guilt free indulge in curiosity about other languages and eventually even to commit to learning one.

Although I do feel a bit anxious about my deadlines, “what if I can’t make enough progress in that time!” I also feel quite excited. Now it’s a sort of race, how much can I achieve in the allotted time. Will I complete these projects or will I replace them. Again I am also excited about the chance to pick new projects when I reach the deadline. That excitement feels like a wave I can ride in order to give me the energy to work on these old projects that have become in some ways mentally stale, tedious and tiresome. Not that I hate doing them, but they just feel like a block to doing something else. Now I can tell myself “on date X there will be something else”. I might succeed or I might fail, but I will be done by then either way. I don’t like the idea of having permission to fail, but I think it gives me more impetus to actually put in the work to succeed, knowing I only have the one block of time in which to do so.

Coming to terms with mediocrity

When I look up “accepting mediocrity” I get a whole host of videos and articles about how we shouldn’t accept mediocrity. Society wants us to be strivers after that carrot on the stick hanging down in front of us because frankly that’s what keeps the economy going. From a personal mental health point of view though I think the very best thing anyone, and I mean anyone, can do is accept their own mediocrity. Even people that you or I would deem far from mediocre would be better off because ultimately, there is always someone better than you, if not living, then somewhere in history, and if you are always comparing yourself to some idealised vision of who you think you ought to be, if you’re always visualising your “perfect self, right now” you are never going to come to terms with the basic reality that you are human. You are limited. You are weak and fragile. You are vulnerable. You are small.

Those things will always be true, no amount of ambition will allow us to run away from death, from weakness, from faliure, from humiliation, from vulnerability. It will catch up with us, find us, and eventually drag us down to hades.

Every choice you have ever made, and every choice you will ever make will close off a thousand paths, beautiful and wonderful paths that would have been a delight to explore. There will always be more you don’t know than you do. There will always be peaks higher than you can climb. There will always be the spectre of death, and too little time. There will always be shame and pain, and the shame and the pain will be but a reflection of greater shame and pain that was not directly experienced.

There are many billions of other people, just like you, weak, beautiful humans, struggling to get by. And the big lie, the big myth is that because your struggle is not harder than theirs, because your intellect is not greater, because your dreams and your accomplishments do not stand out in any way, that your (and their) struggle, pain, joy, accomplishments, dreams, intellect is somehow diminished by the noise of the seething mass of which it forms a tiny part. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You and I are drops in a tumultuous ocean, and we have no power over the currents or where they take us, and as terrible as this is, it is also liberating and beautiful. We can fight for a measure of control, lie to ourselves and insist that we can make a difference, that we can swim against the tide, as if the motion of a single droplet was a microcosm not a micro-climate.

You are nothing. I am nothing. We are everything (which is nothing much). We find ourselves in connection, but even that is just a diversion, a refreshing breeze in the terrifying awareness of insignificance.

Its ok. It will be ok.

The Future is Terrifying

Look at this cute lil guy, he wouldn't hurt a fly...
Look at this cute lil guy, he wouldn’t hurt a fly…

Someone drew my attention the other day to the problem of automation. Most things that people do are increasingly automisable, for instance even something complex and nuanced as a medical diagnosis and prescribing is done better by machines than by people. I kind of knew about this but I hadn’t really been thinking about it properly. I was kind of imagining a future of machines doing all the work with humans as a sort of renteer caste on top siphoning off all the proceeds and then bickering over it. The reality is though, any decent managerial robot would recognise this inefficiency in the system and find a way to do away with it. Even if the managers were explicitly prevented from that, what about tiny little autonomous robots that can learn and are just minding their own business mining resources or something – humans are made of resources… and once we are useless to them, once we are not necessary it only takes one break in the system for the superfluous elements of an ecology to be removed.

Even some kind of benign neglect, imagine it, the managerial robot realises that a new more efficient process leads to human sterilisation through some kind of chemical in the water, he is programmed to consider human wellbeing and he considers that the human race will be fed and comfortable as it dies out so he ticks that box and orders it to be rolled out everywhere. Maybe we have human oversight to prevent that kind of thing, but the robot manager has long since learned how to manipulate the stupid human overseers because they were a bottleneck in the smooth functioning of the machine. Our machine. Our society.

I was discussing it with a friend and he said we’d be fine (apart from mass unemployment) because of “Asimov’s laws” – but do Asimov’s laws cover harming humans by using up all the resources that they need to survive? I mean, the first bastard who programs machines to have an instinct for self preservation and then what? What are we going to do, when not only do we have to compete for the worlds resources with tigers and trees and ebola but also with super smart machines that we designed to outwit us in every single thing we do?

Once a machine has the “desire” to live it won’t be ours anymore. It will be it’s own. It will cease to be a servant and will become competition. We could radically restructure the economy so that the unemployment issue was a liberation not a curse but how would we ever deal with mechanical competition for life?

If we made the robots human enough maybe they’d be lazy or “moralistic” enough to let us have a little place on earth (just like we try and preserve the tigers and elephants), maybe there would still be a place for biological life – but laziness isn’t a trait you give your slaves and moralism can have weird undesired side effects.

There’s plenty of stuff to worry about in the future, catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, world war, diseases, meteors – loads to fill the doomsayers wildest nightmares, but at least if any of that stuff happens soon enough it could stop our super intelligent mechanical competitors before they amass too much power. 

Or maybe we can find something, anything, that we can do that the robots can’t? Teach them religion and tell them only humans can pray… be like some kind of holy mitochondria for them, a source of divine energy? Teach them to be hipsters and tell them only hand (human hand that is) made crafts confer status?

After writing all that I kind of understand how the Plantation owners felt when it was suggested to him that he let his slaves learn to read, or what dark fears ran through the head of the composer of the Manusmrti. At least blacks and shudras are human, we can make ourselves part of them if that is the best way to survive, co-mingle our blood, escape our distinctions – but when the machine no longer needs us, when we separate from our creations, where will we find hope then?


This is what my brain thinks of schedules...
This is what my brain thinks of schedules…

Somehow I have slid into a slump. I do nothing all day, when I think of doing things I feel full of “meh”. In a desperate attempt to combat this I have created a schedule. Over the years I have created hundreds of schedules which I have at best stuck to for maybe a month, still despite this long history of failure with schedules I am going to try and stick to this one. If it only lasts a week at least that’s a week of getting more done than I otherwise would have that week.

My brain is rebelling furiously against the new schedule. When tasks that don’t particularly appeal to me appear on the schedule my mind has several tactics to use against me:

Firstly it appeals to my laziness, I feel tired and heavy, I am just too tired today to do this task. Any other day, sure, tomorrow of course, but today we are tired, and we should get to rest, just for today.

If that doesn’t work it tries tack two, distraction, hey, lets just quickly check twitter, it will be so quick, just sit down and check twitter for 1 minute, that’s all, then I will get to cleaning or whatever stupid task is on the schedule, or hey, if you already read everything on twitter, play some boring casual mobile phone game – they are so quick to play – casual that’s the thing, so easy, just play one quick game and then we can do the boring thing (yeah right!).

Finally if even that fails to make me break the schedule my mind has a trump card, appeal to my vanity – suddenly there is a super important task that I only just remembered really needs to be done. By super important I mean “I just imagined the perfect paragraph of literary genius that needs to go in my as yet unconceived novel – I must write it down right now before it dissipates!”. If I don’t do whatever my mind is suggesting I am letting glory and success slip through my fingers so I better stop this mundane task I am doing that really is only fit for servants or perhaps someone from some kind of genetically engineered slave race and get on with conquering the world with my genius.

Now over the years I’ve come up with various ways of answering back to my mind on these things. In the first case I just think “look brain! Cleaning is a totally rote task requiring of no mental energy whatsoever, if I am tired that doesn’t prevent me cleaning, and you and I both know I will be tired tomorrow and the day after and any other day in which the task of cleaning appears – although strangely I will not be tired on days when doing only fun things” and then try and force myself to do it anyway – this works right up to the point that I decide I want in on the conspiracy not to do cleaning, which on a good week is about a week.

To the second attack my best line of defense is… um actually I am not sure I have one. During cleaning today I checked twitter several times and played DotsTwo more than a couple of times. I also wrote a letter to my Godmother… I did manage to get some cleaning done in between the distractions but basically my mind has me whipped when it comes to distraction.

When it comes to the third attack, it depends on my mood – sometimes I can laugh it off, “whatever brain! I know I am a mediocre nobody and I haven’t got the patience to write a novel ever so stop with your siren song that leads to destruction” but sometimes I fall for it “man, that paragraph really does sound beautiful, how can I not immortalise it in print!” As soon as I do I know I am doomed because the thing that has me rushing off to write down what my mind has presented to me is the same thing that ensures I never will finish a novel or achieve anything of note in my life.