Today's sentiment: Reminiscing.

When I dropped out of college, I had this notion of trying to understand as many of the world's systems as possible. I read that book The Box, which told the tale of the humble shipping container, as well as a history of the American interstate system, Andy Warhol’s diaries, Hashimoto Shinobu’s Compound Cinematics, etc. I was excited about getting a job in a warehouse putting chains on hoists because it seemed like a chance to catch a glimpse of some hidden world that I wouldn't get to see otherwise. I miss that desperation to get little bits of knowledge about all sorts of things, from before I started seriously studying math and learned how massive the gulf is between familiarity with something and actual professional knowledge of it. Mathematics might be an extreme example, but I do think it's affected my curiosity about the world in negative ways. I am still curious, but I feel like I perhaps put too much of my effort into learning about the things I already started. Actually it's hard to say if this was a reaction to mathematics, or a reaction to years of feeling like I never actually finish anything, or that I don't actually know anything significant. I'm not really sure why Math ended up being the thing I devoted myself to.

As a teenager I'd hear people older than me, people with artistic inclinations, lament that they never studied math. I'd hear other people who studied a little bit of math then went on to do other things mention the importance of logic or whatever. I bought a Michael Spivak's Calculus, because according to people on the internet, it was far more rigorous than other Calculus textbooks and better prepared one for further study in mathematics. I looked up the author and saw his textbook series on differential geometry, with its psychedelic covers, and I wanted to study that. I looked at Dover textbooks, and saw books on topics like Topology and manifolds, which all seemed so mysterious to me. I eventually realized how little math all the people I thought were good at math had actually studied, very rarely beyond multivariable calculus, and I felt like I should go beyond them. Somehow I've ended up as a graduate student in mathematics, preparing to write a thesis dealing with certain invariants of algebraic surfaces that are defined through their moduli space of vector bundles, which requires putting into motion all the machinery of scheme theory and vector bundle theory just to understand what's going on. Obviously I've decided to do this, but I don't really understand how or even when exactly I decided all of this. Perhaps the person who did the deciding is a stranger to me, or I simply made a series of small decisions that added up to something unrecognizable. I'm not quite sure what happened. Part of me is still in the mode of thought that studying math is just preparing to do other things, namely to create some new kind of art that doesn't yet exist -- my ambition since high school, though it often recedes from my vision.

I think part of why I was curious about so many things when I was 20 was that before then, I’d been so sheltered from the world that it was a shock to realize how many things there were people have devoted their life to. When I was a kid I wanted to play video games and I wanted to make video games. Nothing else mattered. When I was in middle school I started listening to rock music, and now life had two purposes: video games and the bass guitar. The combination of an eighth grade English teacher who was cooler than any adult I’d yet encountered and a very literary series of essays about Final Fantasy made me want to understand literature. When I graduated high school, I was still mostly gravitating between these three things: video games, music and literature. To some extent, I still am.

What these pursuits have in common is a sort disconnect from the real world. Math is like that too. All through middle school and high school I was interested in things the people around me weren’t, and when school was out I was spending most of my time alone, awake at hours everybody else was asleep, reading books about feelings and abstractions rather than the particularities of the real world. Of course this has to do with perception. I’m sure that when reading Naomi, I could have easily been fascinated with the descriptions of daily life in Tanizaki’s pre-war Tokyo (and I suspect that if I ever reread it, that’s what I’ll enjoy the most), but instead I mostly just focused on the psychology of the main character. Books were psychology for me, which is why I enjoyed Dream of the Red Chamber and didn’t particularly care for Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

I made friends on the internet with someone who liked all the books I liked, but wanted simultaneously to be a physicist, an engineer and a programmer. I’d never actually considered any of these to be occupations real people do — just abstractions that one hears about in second hand conversations. In fact, I experienced several very new sorts of relationships all at once, after a life spent alone. Somehow having to grapple with all these modes of life and all these ambitions that seemed alien to me made me want to know everything. It felt like I could become a well-informed person about some particular topic just by reading a book about it — though I now realize it takes a lot more than a single book.

I wonder now if I’ve ever actually learned anything, or if all my perceptions of my own state of knowledge are just delusions based on my current mood. Having read lots of books, perhaps too many books, what I crave is actual experience, and yet I’m worried I’ve forgotten how to experience things. Or maybe I never knew how?

Everyday is a day spent in a country different from my own birth, filled with people who’ve been places and lived lives that I certainly haven’t. Yet has any day here really turned into an experience for me? Have I been changed? Or am I just coldly observing all who enter my gaze, and looking down to write a few words in my notebook about whatever it is I see, then looking mechanically looking back up, to continue this meaningless search for “curiosities”?