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Joel G. '18

Nov 12, 2015

Steady-state Equilibrium

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Academics & Research, Life & Culture

-- THREE WEEKS AGO --

Thursday night, while debugging an Arithmetic Logic Unit for a 6.004 lab, after registers and stack pointers and opcodes began to blur together into hexadecimal soup, I decided I needed a break. My circuit design was only failing one of the online tests, which meant that there was just one tiny (read: stupid) error somewhere, but I couldn’t focus (quite literally) long enough to find it. I left to pick up some sort of caffeine from the convenience store across the street from the Zeta Psi house.

Since it was raining lightly, I sprinted to the crosswalk. But when I got there, I kept going. The rain felt good, the night was refreshing, and I’d been staring at my computer for the last… well, as long as I could really remember. I ran past the store, past the next block, and past Central Square. I thought about my 6.004 circuit error. I thought about life. I thought about space, politics, and the new vegan place that opened nearby. When I got to Harvard, I turned around and started heading back.

After sitting down at my desk, the ALU didn’t seem quite so intimidating - not because it was less complicated, but because it didn’t seem like the only thing in my life at the moment. The world was bigger than my laptop! And most of it won’t be affected by my grade! I smirked at the screen and got back to work.

-- TWO WEEKS AGO --

I had received an intriguing email from Ostin ‘17, whose imagination knows no bounds:

I couldn’t make it on the first Wednesday, but…

-- ONE WEEK AGO --

A week later I was apprehensively climbing the steps of Lobby 7 with Ostin and a small group of friends, wondering whether this idea was genius or insanity. Probably a mix.

We spread out, eyeing each other excitedly. I wondered what my scream would sound like; I couldn’t remember ever hearing it before (which, I suppose, was partially the point). Then at the appointed hour, we let loose. It only lasted for a few chaotic seconds before I doubled over out of breath, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.

We then left the premises quickly, chuckling lightly to ourselves, and my voice was strangely hoarse the following day.

-- PRESENT DAY --

I’ve had ten technical midterm exams so far this semester - and at least one per week for the last eight weeks. I have one later today, and another tomorrow. Next week I have another one. And another one the week after that, too.

Normally I like to mentally split my workload into “steady-state” and “anomalous” categories. Steady-state work is recurring and regular: things like lectures, weekly psets, recitations, or class readings that are all baselines. I can always count on the fire hose to spray those out with constant velocity. Although they usually consume most of my total time, there are no surprises in the steady-state category. Assignments are pushed and flushed from my queue equally quickly. No overflow. No stress.

But anomalous work is not as accommodating. Scary, isolated tasks like midterm exams, design projects, or research papers sometimes arise without warning, overlap each other, blot out the sun, and consume my entire life for a few days. Anomalies take precedence over whatever steady-state work is at the top of my queue and freeze the entire outside world until they’re over - which, thankfully, usually isn’t very long or very frequent. Usually.

Usually my steady-state equilibrium can survive occasional shocks and recover. Usually anomalies are constrained to two or three “Hell Weeks” per semester. Usually I know better than to take six classes in a semester.

But none of those are true at the moment. Between classes and the annoying need to sleep occasionally, “Hell Week” has become my new steady-state. Two exams per week - on top of psets and labs - is now just average. And then when Hell Hell - the inner circle of stress and conflicts - rolled around, I started asking myself some pretty strange questions and weighing some pretty desperate courses of action, such as “What is the minimum amount of money I can spend in this convenience store that will keep me awake for the next 18 hours?” or “Can I spare enough time to go scream into an empty hallway?”

To be fair, this has been entirely self-inflicted. I convinced myself to take six classes (!!!) this fall, which I’m having mixed feelings about. On one hand, it’s miserable to be consumed by so much work at once. The first comment I hear from my friends in my dorm or my brothers in my fraternity is that they haven’t seen me “in forever”. I’ve gone to fewer parties and social events this semester than I did in the first week of my freshman fall. I’ve dropped all but one of my clubs on campus. And schoolwork occupies so much of my field of view that I can barely glimpse the rest of the world behind it.

But on the other hand, this semester has been the most fulfilling, rewarding, and energizing time of my life. I’m taking six classes because I’m excited about each and every one of them. Last week’s 6.004 lab was literally designing a CPU, using components that we’d built from the logic gates up through the semester. After a lecture on RSA encryption theory in 6.042, we spent the entire next class period sending messages to each other - encrypting and decrypting them by hand. The work isn’t a chore; it’s a fascinating tour through a world I’ve always dreamed of exploring. It can be frustrating now, with acyclic sleep cycles and exams every week, but I didn’t come to MIT to relax or even to hang out. I came here to learn, and in that respect, this semester has been incredible.

Still, sometimes I find it very easy to get lost in a sea of exams and to forget why I came here. It’s tempting to be nearsighted and to focus on the immediacy of this week or the next, and then get frustrated with the apparent futility of learning yet another sorting algorithm or data structure, because since there is no chance that knowing the time complexity of the Bellman-Ford search algorithm is going to make me a better person, why should I waste my time on it?

But there isn't a day that goes by or a pset that I tool in which I'm not struck with exhilarating thankfulness for the position and opportunities that I've been blessed with here. It can definitely suck sometimes. But that’s not an excuse to forget the dreams, passions, goals and aspirations that led me here. The real value of search algorithms is not in their inherent implementation, but rather in the mindset in which they teach you to think about computation, and in the same way, MIT is not an end in itself, but a means by which to build a better world, and I’ve never been so happy being so miserable.

I ended up dropping 14.01 (Microeconomics) a few days ago, so I'm down to "only" five classes, and feel a little bit better about my life. It also got me out of having three midterms on three consecutive school days.

I have to go study for a 6.006 exam now. I’ll leave you with some panoramas I took on a hiking trip recently.

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