Everything and More by David Foster Wallace

By Source, fair use https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Everything_and_More_cover.jpg
By Source, fair use https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Everything_and_More_cover.jpg

This book has been both exciting and frustrating to read. This book took me about two and a half months to get through, partially the fault of the book and partially the fault that I moved across the world while reading this book. As a preemptive note, I would not recommend this book to anyone who has not covered topics like college calculus, sequences and series, or do not have some familiarity with logic and proofs. I am no means an expert on any of those topics, but I felt having a base knowledge of these topics greatly enhanced and eased (ironic because of how difficult I found this book to digest) my experience.

Wallace does a fantastic job being the kid in the school yard explaining his borderline unhealthy obsession with everyone, but that kid is all grown up and has a off-hand, smart-ass attitude about certain things. As a means of format, aligning with the know-it-all attitude, this book is littered with footnotes that are IYI – In case You’re Interested – that add valuable insight into the topic as a whole, but contain abstractions and explanations that may not be accessible for some readers. Unfortunately, this means you spend a lot of time jumping from the footnote at the bottom of the page, to the last place on the page you struggle to find (which is okay since you’re still digesting the footnote or paragraph you just left or both).

Part of the appeal of the book is the equal parts math and history. DFW walks you through history and explains the challenges faced by society and mathematicians when dealing with the concepts such as 0 in the case of the Ancient Greeks and ∞ and its implications in the case of modern mathematicians. Topics like Zeno’s Paradox, set theory, calculus, and great detail about Georg Cantor are examined and explained in a very accessible way.

This book was indeed a challenge to read — the level of abstraction needed to comprehend the simplifications of immensely complex theories that DFW presents is very heavy and is cause for you to re-read many paragraphs (even acknowledged by DFW preemptively with notes like “Okay, deep breathe”, “Be prepared to read this more than once”, etc.), subsequently slashing my reading pace to a sails pace. It took a lunch break and an hour and a half to read the last 25 pages — there was a lot of pausing to think.

But at the end of the day, or the end of a page, you always felt like you learned something and always had a laugh with DFW’s off-hand and sarcastic tone sometime. Some of the footnotes were apologies for not addressing a topic sooner or openly addressing his editor’s notes, almost like he wrote the book and came back the next day to fill in all the extra things he forgot to say or expand on.

For anyone who appreciates mathematics in it’s pure form, enjoys expanding your horizons and stretching your brain, and enjoys (and follows) entertaining tangential thoughts and fragments of information and sarcastic tones, this book is worth reading.

IAMX Concert

Danny and I got the opportunity to go see IAMX in concert in London the weekend before Halloween, and I don’t think we could have planned the trip any better than it turned out. The day was so perfectly timed that we were never in any rush or even stressed about timing for one moment. We had a laid back dinner right before grabbing our tickets at Will-Call and getting killer seats on the first balcony. And an unexpected bonus, there was no filler opener so we got out of the concert with plenty of time to make the train back to Cambridge.

Now to the important part — the concert itself. One word: Indescribable. IAMX is can be characterized as ‘electronic’ music and one would expect that the show was some fancy lights and a guy standing up pushing a few buttons to play track after track, which could not have been further from what actually happened.

 

First, there were four people on stage including Chris Corner, the man who is IAMX, making everything you heard was done live. The drummer laid down the strong beats while the two women provided backup vocals and keyboard. Corner, coming out in his eccentric feathered hat, tank top, and leggings, made use of two microphones as he sang live. IAMX’s music can be identified by Corner’s extremely dynamic vocal range and ability to leap octaves to hit notes I could never dream of touching, but to me, that wasn’t the most bewildering part of his show — it was his ability, mastery, awareness to use a second microphone and assorted live mixed distortions to create the second thread of his voice that a listener would assume to be a pre-recorded track in his music. I cannot begin to explain how fantastic and stunning this was to watch  and listen to. 

Second, the lights. To the stereotype that electronic concerts are worth going to because they’re elaborate light shows with prerecorded music, this shattered all expectations. Instead of having that awesome light show to decent music, you had the awesome music (see above) accompanied by fantastic visuals.

This was easily one of the best concerts I will ever go to — the lights, the live creation of music, the emotions in his songs. I can’t say enough about it. Danny, thanks for joining me for a wonderful night!

Hedgehogs do exist!

Although this news that hedgehogs do exist will not be a revelation to many of you, I can say I saw my first hedgehog outside of captivity. I was walking one early morning and out of the corner of my eye I see a black blur climb up on the sidewalk and go towards bushes and stop. Thinking that I must be losing my mind, I walked over to try to identify the leaf, plastic bag, or crumpled up advertisement that just rolled up on the curb. I cross the road and get closer to my subject only to have a little hedgehog face staring back at me! We locked eyes, both confused by the others presence, until the hedgehog defense mechanisms kicked in — it turned around and buried its face in some leaves, the classic “I can’t see you so you can’t see me”-trick. Excited and perplexed by this encounter, I left the frightened creature alone and continued along my way.

Although I truly saw one, I really wondered why and how the possibility of the encounter ever occurred… After a quick google search of “Do hedgehogs live in the UK” (this was the second returned suggestion, I’m apparently not the only one), I have learned that hedgehogs are apparently fairly common in the UK and under threat. This is a much happier theory than a child lost his hedgehog one afternoon …

Churchill Formal Hall Candlelight

Anyway, the food here is really not as bad as I anticipated. I’ve been able to bake a few chicken breasts and some potatoes to put with a salad to take for lunch most days, and I’ve cooked a few dinners a week and eaten at formals and out the rest of the time. I guess I’m spoiling myself when it comes to formal hall food – award winning chefs are hired to plan the menu and cook, so the food is always extravagant  and delicious.  Plus, it’s kinda fun and a good reason to leave work to go get dressed up in suits for dinner. I just need to invest in more formal wear…

Sunrise over the Cam from Magdelen Boat House
Sunrise over the Cam from Magdelen Boat House

A little back to reality here… work (school) is going well. I’m I’ve finished my third week in lab (sitting at my desk) and have been learning quite a bit. Most of my day is split a couple different tasks – learning the theory  and numerical processing behind Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and learning how to use two different CFD programs – OpenFOAM (an open source C++ CFD library) and STAR-CCM+ by CD-Adapco and Siemens – as well as some additional software that is used by our lab (including LaTeX and a Linux cluster). As one could imagine, the licensed, corporately developed code is a little better when it comes to the Graphical User Interface… In the long run, I will be using CFD to model combustion and will hopefully couple this to other work my lab does, but for now, there’s a lot to learn before I get there. I’m trying hard to make sure to take ample notes to be able to install all of the CFD programs all over again as well as have a small packet of condensed CFD theory for next years graduate students – it’s a hair more time consuming, but good practice.

West Cambridge Sunrise
West Cambridge sunrise on the way back from the gym

Outside of the working hours, I’ve been enjoying rowing more and more. Robinson’s boat club has finally divided up the novices into two teams and Pedro and I made the first novice male boat, NM1. We had our first outing as a crew on Thursday morning and it went very well. I’m anxiously looking forward to tomorrows outing and the Queen’s Ergs event as well (comically, I noticed they use the same WordPress theme as me). Since I need to be awake early for rowing a few times a week, I’ve decided to make mornings my gym time on the off days. I’ve been making it about 3/4 of the time, but I think I’ll get better about it.

Sunset off Pembroke Street where I work.
Sunset off Pembroke Street where I work.

I think I’m also finally getting over this cough that I’ve had for two months now. The first round of antibiotics didn’t do anything and the chest pains got worse. I’m now on a more aggressive antibiotic that covers pneumonia and various strains of bronchitis and my cough has subsided greatly and pain is less frequent. I’m hoping it goes away entirely. The surgery here (doctors office) did recommend me for a chest x-ray and a spirometry (breathing) test. I’m curious if they’ll show inflammation.

This afternoon, I’m headed to London with my friend Danny to go see IAMX in concert. We’re hoping to catch one of the last trains out, but we’re gonna play it by ear.

First Day as a Graduate Student

Back in high school, a little over five years ago, I remember sitting in my first research lab, performing ATR-FTIR measurements on dyed fabrics for two hours at a time after school, loving every minute of it. It was then, a little over five years ago, that I decided I would go to Graduate School to do a PhD…

Fast forward two years, it’s Sophomore (2nd) year at University of South Carolina. The workload feels like it could crush me from all the piles of textbooks and hand written homework assignments, and all I wanted to do was be in the lab problem solving, collecting data, and expanding the edge of science. All I wanted to do was be done with college and on to grad school…

Two more years pass. The workload is quite literally killing me. The 110 hour work week was maintained by 2-4 hours of sleep during the week, many meals were missed, friendships seemed to fall apart right and left. The applications felt endless, and I did even fewer than I wanted. Life decisions felt like giant stones to be carried up the mountain. I really doubted if I wanted to go to grad school, whether this was all worth it.

Today. Today was my first day as a “Graduate Student”. Okay, you’re right, technically term started last week and I went to safety training, I know. But today, was my first day sitting at my desk and beginning a new adventure of learning and growing as an academic, an intellectual, and a person.

It feels weird knowing I’ve made it. Nothing feels all that different from five years ago, but nothing feels the same. Everything about this experience is new, but yet, so familiar.

I really haven’t done much yet. I attended more safety lectures, seen enough gruesome pictures of lab accidents that I should be afraid to use scissors to cut paper without causing a spark to ignite a gas leak from the floor below me, set up my desk, begun setting up my computer, read a few pages out of a paper, and got my mug (and promptly told them that my work here was done and I could go home a happy man).

Using my new mug at the Department's morning tea time.
Using my new mug at the Department’s morning tea time.

I don’t really know how to describe this feeling — accomplishment, triumph, a halfway viewpoint along a long academic journey, excitement, anticipation, a medley of these and many more. But today, I can finally say “I am a grad student”.

Fresher’s Week!

To the great disappointment of some of my friends at home, “Fresher’s week” was not a week of hazing, forced alcoholism, social shaming, and so forth…  but the alcoholism was voluntary.

Sunrise after a morning workout

“Fresher’s week” is best described as a structured “welcome week” put on by all the colleges and clubs. Activities varied, and the schedules were different for each college, but most had the following events. Matriculation and Matriculation Dinner (champagne and wine), Cocktail Party (take a guess), Brunch, Pub Crawl (hmm…), College Bar Crawl to College Bars (noticing apattern?), Cambridge City Tour, Wine and Cheese with the College Fellows (more free wine, obviously), Punting on the Cam (free champagne), Formal Hall (champagne), and an “End of Fresher’s Week Party”… This doesn’t even include meeting friends at the bar. Like I said, the alcoholism was very easy and voluntary.

Sunset on the bike ride to St. Ive’s

There were a few events that didn’t involve alcohol and were actually quite productive. “Squash” is used as a term for an organizational fair, in addition to the sport, I think. So while attending the organization fair, I did not make the mistake of handing out my email address for free candy and thankfully have not gotten too many emails consequently.

Church in Swavesey

In terms of extracurricular activites that I am committing to, I’ve decided to do the most Cambridge thing I can think of — rowing for Robinson. Where else will I ever get a chance to row on a team as a novice? Two other Gates Scholars in Robinson and I have decided to join the team for those cold, early morning practices on the water. Although my form is bad, and my endurance is terrible (no help from the wine…), I am greatly looking forward to rowing on the novice boats this fall.

Sunset on the way to St. Ive's
Sunset on the way to St. Ive’s

In addition to a formal, organized activity, I’m finally making my health a larger priority. I have joined the University Gym and am committing to early morning workouts (on the off days from rowing) with Dan. I realized how much I missed climbing from the Gates Weekend and have decided to get back into it. Lastly, taking evening cycle rides with friends is gonna be my last activity that I participate in. Weekends are made for rest!