why learn?

PREFACE: this is something i wrote during the last month of school, how i got from being frustrated with my academic experience to understanding how i need to manipulate it to enjoy it.

to get into college:
you need to be well rounded.

to succeed in college:
you need to be really good at something

it’s an interesting change in skill set or skill distribution should i call it.
the reason for this is to provide economic value which makes sense
you can only be of economic value to the society if you’re better than other people at doing something that the society values.

to switch from one skillset to the other, there are two things you need to do:
decide on a field of study to specialize in
be good at it.

both which are harder done than said.
it would be nice if those two things i described above followed that order chronologically, but things don’t usually happen like that.
the order is always changing.

choosing what i wanted to was harder than i thought.
which i guess helps me eliminate the bad trait my dad says of me being interested in everything.

there’s no sure fire way to be good at something.
practicing is one of them but that’s not always time-efficient, which is especially important in college
so you have to deliberately practice.

in the shower last night, i finalized my decision to switch back from computer engineering to cs
because u get more feedback in the cs department from ta’s, from online guides. this is esp helpful if you need help and want to be good.

ever since i hear the phrase intelligence is correlated to working-set memory capacity,
i’ve been thinking about it every time i observe a smart person working.
and i never thought about it like that before but now the idea seems so obvious.

intelligence can be separated into fluid intelligence (Gf) and crystallized intelligence (Gc)
fluid intelligence is “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge”

crystallized intelligence is “is the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience.”
Gc is a measure of one’s lifetime or intellectual achievement, as demonstrated largely through one’s vocabulary and general knowledge.
and obviously, “Gc improves with age, as more experiences tend to expand one’s knowledge.”

but there’s also related.
“Not surprisingly, people with a high capacity of Gf tend to acquire more Gc knowledge and at faster rates.”

so fluid intelligence, at least in my opinion, is really your real measure of intelligence (but you can’t of course ignore expertise just from years of practice)
and fluid intelligence is related to working memory capacity because it’s how many things you can juggle in your head while you think of a solution.

quotes are from wikipedia

i would like to read the two following papers at some point

don’t know how i feel about this:
there are reports that you can increase fluid intelligence if you train working memory capactiy
i would like to believe that believing that you can be smarter will make you smarter.
but there is a clear limit.

all this talk about intelligence is frustration from putting a lot of effort into classes and not doing as well as i hoped.
which is why i said choosing what you want to do and being good at it sometimes goes in both directions.
meaning that my concentration has to choose me, which is true to some degree. i don’t want to concentrate in sth i’m abysmal at and have to try fifteen times as hard as someone else.
there’s always comparison between you and the other person in the class.
obviously, it helps to be smart.
but if you’re not, goops says no good comes out of comparing yourself with other people.

there are actually two frustrations to becoming a skilled individual.
the first of which is HOW to become good at something,
the second of which is realizing there’s no end to learning.
the first i’ve covered above and the second i gained insight from talking to my applied math professor.

the complication of gaining knowledge:
math becomes more difficult as you learn more. but there’s a difference between just having to deal with a bigger system as in learning all the pre-requisites, and actually more complex concepts? (i think there’s a distinction. leave a comment if you think it’s unclear)
when you look at calculus, you can usually follow the proofs quite well. you understand the motivation. as my apma professor put it, it’s possible for someone with high school math to come up with those eventually.
let’s now talk about laplace transform. (for those who don’t know what it is, sorry i won’t deliberate here what it actually is)
i know what the transform actually is, the method. but i have no idea of the motivation behind it, the derivation of it. how someone made possible a transform that would turn a discontinuous function into a continuous one.
the motivation is so much more difficult and complex, and apparently requires spectral theory, complex analysis, function analysis.
so yes, knowledge becomes more difficult conceptually.
i rmb we used to do word problems in math. but now we’re only doing pure math problems. i guess it’s saying that even the reduction of a word problem into a math problem would be too difficult.

the obvious problem now is that there is an inability to fully comprehend the difficulty of the problem you’re dealing with. and you can’t even explain your frustration because so few people will understand you.
i use the towers of knowledge from TOK as an analogy.
when you were young, you looked up from the medieval italian plaza and saw a clock tower. you knew you could get there.
eventually, you got there. but now you realize there’s another tower next to it that you couldn’t see before that is even taller.
the scary thing is, it goes up so high into the clouds, you can’t see the top.
and you just keep going, keep climbing.
it’s frightening, it’s frustrating, because you can’t see the top. no matter how much you climb, there’s no reference to how much more you need to know to reach the top.
my professor said maturity is when you just stop being afraid of that knowledge. you climb regardless.
you feel like a big balloon with all this information. but when you learn this new thing, another new thing, things start to compress.
it’s analogous to going up the tower and looking down. you forget how much you’ve actually climbed. in your mind, 100m is no different form 90m, the magnitude of comparison starts to change. and things slowly compress.
and at some point that knowledge that took up a whole book will now be demonstrated by one formula only.
it’s a compression process like the earth slowly compressing all of earth back into rocks and elements.

i think about the world and why often offspring of professors end up back in academia.
children brought up in such households grew up with a mentality of being less afraid. that is why.
and suddenly, i realize the context of the unfairness of the world i’ve been talking about.
the contribution of scientists to our world, Tyson, Hawking, Newton, Einstein: they deserve the pay the top 1% make.
their contributions to our world are immeasurable.

when you finally reach the top, finally see the top, you see that it’s actually an unfinished clock tower.
you’re building the tower now.
when you’re at the boundary where no one knows anything anymore, most frightening and most exciting.

i guess i have to stop looking at it this way, stop looking down and comparing what i’ve done. i have to learn to look up and simply stop being afraid.
and slowly everything i’ve learnt will slowly compress itself.

the most frustrating class i’ve ever taken in my life is e&m.
because here, there is no physical intuition,
my apma professor said the only way to understand it is to create a cartoon world for your axioms and rebuild it.

i think i’ve really hit my limit this semester. every waking moment i spend is working. and when i’m not working it’s because i literally can’t work anymore.
it’s like a ceiling on what i can do, and i can’t go any further.
hitting that brick wall.
you just have to slug through i guess. (i’m going to ask collette about this.)
i’ve been slugging through, but i think coming back from thanksgiving, i just decided i had had enough.
copy of what i sent to collette for advice:

Dear Mr Collette,

I hope this e-mail finds you well. I don’t know if you remember this but at some point during the two years of HL Chem, you talked about your college experience. You talked about how high school was easy but when you got to college, you hit a brick wall at some point. You felt like you reached your limit and could no longer move past it. I feel like I’m at the point with my electricity and magnetism class this semester. What do you do when that happens? Do I have to just extremely painfully push through? I’m two weeks away from Christmas and I don’t want to give up.


but i’m being naive. what could he tell me? there is no magical formula. it’s a test to willpower
he could say it’s difficult not only for you, but for many other people. he could say believe in yourself and he could say don’t be too harsh on yourself.
ultimately, you have to buckle your belt and slug. but be happy that you’re trying your best.

so it’s friday night.
i’ve gotten only three hours of sleep in the last 48 hours. just finished my cs project after starting 2am last night.
didn’t go out or anything.
for what it’s worth, it sucked.
but for what it’s worth, i really tried my best and i think i did ok this time. fingers crossed.
this is the feeling i’ve been looking for. the feeling of not want to eat, sleep, play just because you want to finish something
i guess in the end finishing it became the purpose above all else.
the experience itself sucked but having this feeling made it possible for me to push through
it’s this interest/motivation that i’ve been looking for for the whole semester.
think i’ve found it.

i had a good talk with pascal today (monday following the friday mentioned above)
nothing he said was particularly surprising but i wanted to hear it from him
he told me to stay in cs because it’s one of the most exciting fields right now.
he said there are many people who are not nearly as good as him, copy his work but get paid 3 times as much.
it’s frustrating until you let go off the importance of money. to him, it’s not frustrating at all.
some people’s work are meaningful. some are not. some people rather good pay.
you have to decide on your priorities.
he understands that being chinese and having all this filial duty is important to me.
but you need to give up some things for others.
he told me to do research, work for some lab and do sth what i find meaningful.
i wanted to hear this from him and i glad i asked.

interesting to think that i’ve felt better and less stressed this week than i have in the past two months.
it’s a combination of i don’t care anymore, it’s finally coming to an end and a change in attitude.
nothing is ever difficult in the sense that there’s someone out there doing the same amount and not stressed out.
rather than comparing yourself and belittling yourself, it’s better to say that it’s possible.
attitude is one thing, the second thing is getting into a routine. practice makes perfect
we always comment on how professors are but i’m sure they were once ignorant and depressed and sad about the difficulty of their work.
i look at zia and look at how he just puts all those equations on the board. yea, he’s smart but that’s also crystallized intelligence, product of years of dedication to science.
at some point, they realized the only way to get good is to practice regardless of the costs.
and knowledge is compressed bit by bit every time you learn something new as i said above.
so i manged to tie everything together.

and i’ve sort of crystallized my decision on computer science after talking with pascal.
research apparently is an open door for me according to him.
but i think i’m over-estimating myself. at end of the day, i’m the most impatient person ever.
i like results which is why computer science is cool. research seems to be one of those it takes forever things again.

it’s that dedication that pushes you to put in those hours.
but i think that dedication all originates from the same place, for pascal, for Chirilus-Bruckner, for zia:
which are perfectly summed up in the words of steve jobs.

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

there’s a purpose to all that work, whether you think of it as a destiny, as a way to make life purposeful, a responsibility for being intelligent.
i think zia understands that, my e&m professor. i tend to be too harsh about him. he knows e&m is difficult and hard so towards the end of the semester, he tried to show us more and more of why we do this. he gave us that motivation. and pascal is just plain awesome. sorry.
this post is getting very long but it’s been a rolling monologue of my thoughts that all share the same theme so i want to keep it that way.

tldr: choose a field that you like and stick to it.


46k used up.

i talked to James at some point about living an american life, think it was the day i returned from detroit.
it really hit me that day when we were driving to Connecticut lime rock park.
driving on a narrow route allowed us to bypass lots of houses, ponds, forests.
it led me to think about all the crazy things that people do (for me at least), skinny dipping in ponds under the moonlight, sex in forests, getting lost in the woods.
on the way back from detroit, everyone contributed and talked about their childhood stories.
nick, our powertrain lead, ran four football fields home when he was bleeding all over his mouth.
they all told stories which are funny looking backwards but required some kind of courage when they actually happened to you
the thing about the forests and the ponds that hits me is how much freedom you have.
the important point is not quite the actual liberty of having a lot of space to work with but it is the sort of things that happen to you.
as a young kid, you are bound to a bit more reckless and as a result break legs, get into some frightening experiences.
going through events like these trains a specific characteristic.
i wasn’t able to put it to words for a very long time but recently i’ve found a good word for it: grit.
grit relates to tenacity, survivability, willpower. it relates to how much of a beating you can take before you give up, but grit here applies to all settings whether from making a friend to finishing a thesis.
i think americans have more of it. they just have more life experience in getting into shit and getting themselves out of it.
we are more sheltered, our playgroups, our classes, everything is done to make something in the future less painful, less difficult.
grit is very different from an asian concept of academics.
this is where this whole conversation is leading, asian values.
i mean i’ve never thought in the past 18 years of my life that anything is worth unlearning. i’ve always believed that whatever you experience and learn in life, it’s part of you that is your identity.
but after reading this article from new york magazine http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/ about his opinion of asian-american, i’m starting to rethink my view.
i dun know. it’s just an interesting way to look at the whole issue

i guess that’s just like a final message that i felt after this whole year at brown
i’m just going to do a recap on my year at brown

I had major culture shock. That’s because I’m from hk and I’m super conservative. It took me a long time, until this past march before I finally felt comfortable. I took some pretty demanding classes both semesters, because I haven’t decided between cs and engineering yet. I did trombone private lessons and wind symphony first semester. I was conservative so I ended up closing into my tiny hole. Schools tough, everyones smart, professors are trying to challenge you. You have to learn how to balance all of this with competing priorities in ur life. I didn’t know how to do that and ended up going into a period of depression and overworking. Second semester I did 5 classes all for grades and I also joined this engineering car team which took up a lot of time. So it more like taking six classes. I started overworking which got worse up until spring break. Then I realized I should enjoying life more. So I worked less, grades suffered a bit, cut back on that engineering team and had some pretty awesome final weeks at brown. Its difficult but u will end up sorting out your priorities in freshman year. People are awesome here. U’ll make the most long-lasting friendships here in four years. Don’t just work all the time like me.

If u went to college knowing how to do everything already, university would be kinda pointless. Its all about failing and learning as you go.

if anything, i think i ended up making closer friends than i expected. i thought that i had fucked up and not done the right thing and it would be impossible to catch up and make friends again. and somehow my friends just really welcomed me. they commented on how my attitude changed but they’ve really been warm and welcome.

my last night at brown was pretty awesome. literally, last night at stanford was pretty epic. i miss my hallway already, everyone, each in their own uniqueness. being at stanford now also makes me realize that university is epic wherever you go.

i remember saying as a joke to cynthia when she asked me how my year was. i was like not good, cause i wasn’t 46k better of a person. i said it half jokingly but that number’s pretty real and realistic. it’s definitely hard to quantify what all this means. if anything, i think academics don’t matter much no more. what matters, as i said before, is grit. and if i’ve become 46K more valuable it’s cause i have 46k more grit than i had a year ago.