Last year in retrospect

I turn (even) older today. Hence, this seems as good an occasion as any to put the last year in retrospect and think about things I could have done better.

Blogging

I decided last summer to start blogging about research papers outside of my field. I would often email these pieces to the authors of the papers I would write about. Regardless of the merits of my posts, I came away with a very polite and encouraging picture of researchers.

Response to blogpost on quantum computing
Response to my CRISPR blogpost
Response to blogpost on Neuromorphic Computing
Response to blogpost on Chlorophyll

What could I have done differently? I could have done a deeper dive into these subject areas, perhaps reading multiple papers to bring out the true essence of the field. I could perhaps also have been more regular about blogging. Regardless, I unilaterally call this exercise a success, as I had a lot of fun doing it and learned a lot.

Effective Altruism

It has now been about three years that I’ve been donating 10% of my income to charity. This has been a difficult transition for me. I was never particularly inclined towards charity before (in school or college), and generally thought that money donated to someone was a net negative. However, after a host of bizarre incidents (like reading Gandhi’s autobiography, some personal circumstances that pushed me to re-evaluate my life, etc), I decided to push myself to try and have a net positive impact on the world.

GiveWell approximates that Effective Altruism charities save 1 life in a developing country for every $2300 donated. By that estimate, I might have saved around 3.8 lives in the last three years. Let’s round down to 3. So three more people are alive in the world today because of the money that I donated. As I type this, I feel a staggering impulse to just gawk in disbelief. For someone who has generally struggled with positive self-image, this is surely the most important thing I have ever, ever done. Whatever I do, I will always have this. Let this inconsequential grad student have this moment of joy.

Of course the other people involved with Effective Altruism are much more awesome than I am, and I have learned a lot by talking to them. I am also being hosted by CEELAR in the UK to work on Artificial General Intelligence. Although I won’t be able to avail of this opportunity right now because of VISA issues, I hope to do so in the near future.

How to learn

I’ve always wanted to understand how one should learn. As any researcher can surely testify, the dream perhaps is to one day be able to take any research paper or textbook and be able to understand exactly what is happening in one go. This dream is often unfulfilled as researchers take years to understand their specific subfield, and often cannot understand research from other unrelated areas. This gets in the way of cross-disciplinary research in academia and industry.

I tried to get better at it last year by trying to read papers from various fields. A quick feedback loop ensured that I kept correcting my approach and trying to get better. I started out by reading papers and understanding them at an intuitive level. This proved to be effective, but there were many topics that were still beyond my grasp. I then changed my approach to trying to draw diagrams of various concepts. Although helpful in non-mathematical fields, this didn’t help me too much in mathematics as I wasn’t able to remember theorems and calculations. I then migrated to trying to type out each line in textbooks and writing detailed analyses. This was again much more helpful than my previous approaches, and often led to new insights. However, I kept forgetting old facts and theorems. I have recently moved to studying concepts by comparing them to previously known concepts and ideas. This was in part inspired by Roam Research, which is an app that claims that the best learning happens when we’re able to place concepts in context. Although I don’t know if this is the best method to learn, it is surely the best method that I’ve tried yet. This approach, moreover, is how the right hemisphere of the brain processes information anyway. Hence, it is in many ways how humans really learn about their environment.

Self-improvement

I’ve often had various social anxieties, and have found it difficult to make friends. I used to blame it on others, but have on deep introspection found that most of the blame rests solely on me. Consequently, I have tried to improve myself so that I can contribute more positively to relationships.

One aspect that I have tried to improve upon is empathy. I find it difficult to empathize with people, and this probably has to do with complicated neurological reasons. According to Ian McGilchrist, my left brain hemisphere is dominant, which contributes to false self-image, general apathy, etc. I have tried to correct for this by taking oxytocin supplements. Although I’ve been lazy about studying the actual effects of the medicine, I feel that there is an overall positive effect.

I’ve also tried to contact friends and family more often, tried to be more helpful, and been more assertive with respect to people who are not nice to me. Although working on my social life is a life-long project, I have only recently realized how important it is to my overall happiness, and I do wish to keep chipping away at it.

I’ve also found out a lot about myself by reading research papers from the social sciences, and I’ve blogged about them here and here. I’ve also had very fruitful correspondence with Dr. Laran, the author of one of those papers. Moreover, I recently had the opportunity to listen to the bulk of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s sequences, which have been truly life changing for me. I plan to keep this exercise going in the near future.

Final thoughts

Being at home the whole of last year has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I got the time to read a whole host of things and learn a lot. I talked to fantastic people, and also deepened bonds with friends. If you’re still reading this post and have recommendations on what I else I should read/write about, please do feel free to comment or write to me. Thanks for reading!

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Graduate student

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