A Sinking Source

In part inspired by the arrival of my Doctoral Day 1000, I have been working hard to reassess aspects of my routine that have, objectively, attracted my attention and energy outside of physics and general wellbeing, and sometimes stand in conflict with them. In doing so, I made attempts to regain control over my time spent on the internet. A nice side-benefit is that I now get up much earlier than previous schedule demanded.

In full irony to the latter point, today, after a rise time of 7:15 AM, I am still here, in front of my apartment computer, at 11. I guess part of me waited for some internal switches to finally flip, and after a fortunate series of events, some silence being one, they did.

This essay constitutes a critical self-review of some of my priorities that distract from my main business of research, how they naturally arose from my student career, and how they could have been seen, in certain ways, as detrimental to my science and life.

It won’t be as severe as a “Reddit / Twitter / Instagram / Soundcloud Deletion Epitaph”, which I did post a couple times in the past — sudden, one-off changes evidently fail to accomplish the goals previously set forth, so I imagine a more calm and measured commentary is in order.

In Series …
Local (personal, potentially shallow, and subject to change) outlooks on science, technology, growth, and occasionally culture and history. I aim to write an essay every week, but whether it can make its way to FWPhys is random. Hence the series title.

The Mild Memelord

FW at Sacramento Railway Museum, 2018

It’s of course unrealistic to draw the blame — though this is a self-critique session — to myself alone. Starting with that excuse really inspires confidence, but I insist the big picture should be brought up first.

My self-assigned title (most often arising in whiskey-fuelled standup comedy nights) of Mild Memelord came from a certain line in a Jeopardy! episode filmed at MIT, “Who’s the spiciest memelord?“, which I consider as an effective embodiment of a trend in the changing world views and methodologies of my generation: memes, the propensity to talk in image macros, and the broad preference of slices of generalisable, easily manageable pieces of online anecdotes, over rusty but unique personal wisdom that arise in slower, less frequent, and less exciting, conversations.

The Tyranny of Distance

The phrase has been a backdrop to my thoughts. While it’s possible that I have not discussed it explicitly on my blog — I sometimes send private letters, you know — to me, the tyranny of distance has two aspects, the illusion that faraway people and things are within arm’s reach, but also the simultaneous conceit that people right around are incredibly remote, and the only good thing to do with them is to quarrel and dispel. In short, I characterise it as a dramatic non-conformal distortion to one’s perceived place among the collective of all his or her contemporaries.

I would like to recall the New Year’s Eve of 2019. It was a different time, of course. Global Pandemics were just an extra-credit project in mathematical modelling classes, I was applying to Perimeter as an undergraduate math major, and going up to Mt Eden at midnight was normal and safe. I wrote down the following for myself, then, and all the versions that would revisit it in the distant future, “do not forget how big the world is.”

I probably have forgotten it for a while.

The distortion guides my actions in two distinct, logically coherent, yet equally counterproductive directions.

For my connections afar, I’d often make no effort to get on the same page with their lives and struggles. When I do, I’d often settle at the social media level, and treat them with little regard to our distinct life experiences, states of mind, and even timezones. On this note, I owe my gratitude to the ones who, even in this condition, make an effort to respond to my messages.

For my local friends, I share scant moments and experiences, rather preferring to maintain the bonds through a unilateral illusion that I readily sense their emotions and resonate, in memes most of the time, with the goings ons in their lives. Does this actually elicit resonance? Sometimes, I hope, but will they remember me as a babbling fool in the process?

A Parody of excellence

A little-mentioned facet of my academic upbringing is that I am fortunate to have experienced excellence at work from an early age. People coming together, amicable, pragmatic, and actually achieving things in collaboration.

As it relates to my own studies, of course, my defining memory in this regard would have to be the SEHS Year 11 Olympiads study room that I briefly co-inhabited before my official withdrawal, after spending two quarters in NZ.

At the self-study room reserved for Chemistry and Physics Olympiad students, 2015

I saw my friends checking in on each other’s wellbeing for the sake of it, and people working hours on end in rhythmic silence, chalk on the board, debates and “ahh”s, while trying to find the equilibrium to a particularly complex chemical reaction chain.

There have been a handful of moments in my life where I urged the subconscious to “commit this to memory!” This was one of them, alongside questions to self along the lines of “is this what it was like at the Ancient Greek academies“, or, “will I be able, and fortunate, to find myself places to spend the rest of my life like this?”

I am fortunate, indeed, to have found some. Auckland Physics’ study space, and 77 LeConte being salient examples. Community of learners and friends, striving for excellence together. Still, I must remark that the inner yearning of such environments was why I initially committed myself to assume the niche of a meme lord among my friend groups, near and far.

Funny quips would naturally arise after lengthy discussions of cerebral topics, of book recommendations, physics exam post-mortems, or journal club briefings. At some point down the line, when intellectual demand was lacking on my end, or simply when I was feeling lazy, I would swap insightful discussions with “vaguely relevant” memes. The receiving ends would laugh (laugh-react), and the conversation would seem to carry along, with the quiet ones work on without me, the babbling fool who is off to search for the next meme.

As such, in the long run, I lose what I really cherish, pursue, and, as it stands now, I need to work my ass off to regain.

A Sinking Source

I guess the previous chapter had hinted at my main point, I remained a source, originally of friendships, connections, and flow of meaningful discussions, but as that is a comparative hard path to take, I preferentially went with the easy and inconsequential, twisting the self-derisive position of meme source into an increasingly major, distracting, and detrimental characteristic of my state of being.

There are higher dimensions that my transactional model have chronically failed to model, and it’s probably just time, if not a bit too late, to know that this is misguided.

I have been wondering where to put such an acknowledgement. To the friends who left my chat circles in silent disdain, and to the plurality who called to check in on me as to how “lost” I seem. Your action and words are the catalyst to this redemption. Thank you.

I’ve made memes, and I’ve passed on memes — the latter part may be an overly modest statement — I probably will continue making memes, but would like to be careful about the rate at which I consume and disseminate them.

“There is work to be done” is never supposed to be hollow given the infinite wall of ignorance surrounding me, and to move on in silence, quiet confidence, is probably the most respectful attitude to this chapter of my past.

There is work to be done.