Go with a smile!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

20 things I learnt in Snowy Hill part 1

It’s been more than 10 years since I graduated from Snowy Hill, and for some reason, it still manages to be one of the most exciting things about my life. What a shame about that huh. I suppose a lot of my ideas, and my viewpoints in life were formed around that time. Some of them were changed gradually after I left the place, but I don’t think there was another part in my life since then where there was so much personal growth compressed into such a short period of time. The other day, I was watching “Yi Yi”, which was one of the movies that I enjoyed very much when I was still in Snowy Hill, and I still remember which movie theatre in Snowy Hill I watched it, I remember marveling at how a three hour movie was so great that it felt like a two hour movie.

1. The meaning of wealth / Economics
The way that I would use the word “wealth” in this instance was that there were different aspects of it. At first, I thought that it only meant money. But then people are already divided over whether it meant how much money you were holding on to, or how much money you were making and spending. Then later on, I realised that opportunity was a form of wealth. Being in a right position to make trades was a form of wealth (that’s why real estate in big cities are more expensive). Health was a form of wealth. Having choices about your life was a form of wealth. Being happy was a form of wealth. Having influence was a form of wealth. Having energy to do stuff was a form of wealth.

Sometimes these forms of wealth would be mutable and transferred to each other, and sometimes it was not. But very often it was, and what I realised was that the idea – not just in the business world, but in life itself – that a life well lived was how you transformed these forms of wealth from one to another. People who are rich probably thought about things in terms of potential. I don’t really want to talk about positive thinking, because it’s overrated. But you have to understand that wealth is something that’s a subset of a larger thing – desirable things, good things. People just like the distinguish the spiritual from the material, but they are not easily separated. They just feel different.

I used to think that making money for its sake was very vulgar and unworthy. Before I went to Snowy Hill, I went to New York City with my parents, who helped me settle into college before I began. NYC, as you know is where you have all the greatest art galleries. It was also a few years into one of the biggest gentrification process you ever saw, and by the time I went there it was all cleaned up and sanitized. I don’t know what I feel about not visiting there more often, but maybe NYC is not really my sort of place. (even though it’s the great capital of jazz and punk and I did catch a Sonny Rollins performance). Anyway as we were leaving, my father said to me something: “you know, you have all these beautiful artsy stuff, and people living in high culture and all that, but it wouldn’t exist without money.” And that was something that I had eventually learnt to reconcile with. The spiritual and the material are not separable from each other, but rather they will always be linked. Not everybody will agree with me, but that is what I believe.

The other thing that I learnt from economics were the supply / demand curves and the production possibility frontier. I also learnt a lot of optimization / linear programming stuff. But of all the social sciences classes I took, those were the least satisfying. First, there was something extremely unsatisfying about reducing everything down to a bunch of equations. And second, you can only use those models if a lot of assumptions are satisfied. A lot of what’s wrong about economics is you have a lot of people saying “well the assumptions are not satisfied, but let’s pretend that they don’t matter”. That’s complete bullshit. If assumptions did not matter, they wouldn’t exist.

2. The girl
One of the biggest things that ever happened to me when I was in Snowy Hill was, strangely enough, not a person from Snowy Hill. I met her during a pre-departure BBQ dinner at somebody’s condo, 5 blocks away from my grandmother’s house. Actually, I met her in secondary school. I didn’t think much of her, then. Then we had a temp job at the end of JC1. JC1 had been quite a shitty year for me, even though, when I look back upon it now, it was also kinda great. But maybe it was around JC1 when I started wondering if she would be a girlfriend.

I dragged my heels a lot. In JC2, it was one of my most crucial years, and I aced my “A” levels, so in a way it was just as well I didn’t have any distractions. Then there was national service, but those were fallow years, wasted years. Then I bumped into her again and I discovered that she was friendly. I kept in touch with her and emailed her once or twice during my first year in college. My first year in college was a complete culture shock, and it was just about me getting used to this place.

I realize now that my first year of college was just there to lay a foundation for the next few years of college, which would prove to be extremely momentous for me. And one of the things was that I went out on one or two dates with her. I never got to kiss her, and I don’t really understand why. Then we followed up with one email. Then another email. Then came a torrent of emails, of instant messaging. You couldn’t imagine that I would fall in love with somebody who was just some cursor flashing on a screen. But that was basically what happened. Of course it helped that I had seen her in real life and that she was quite good looking.

There were a few circumstances in my favour. First was that we were growing kids at that point in time. Yes, I had finished army, and she was about to be called to the bar as a lawyer. But we were still growing, exploring, and seeing the world, and so there was a lot of overlap at that point. I was a mathematics student who was also into literature and arts. I got interested in movies. Maybe she saw in me a life in a foreign university. She was studying in a Singaporean university at that point in time. Consider this: For the rest of our lives, from around the time that I went home, to around now, she would be in some foreign university. Also, one of the things that she studied, as an academic, was cyberspace. Living your life online, and having an online persona. Now she’s had quite a few boyfriends, and I only had her for a short while. But what she did with her life was pretty consistent with what I probably represented to her.

But in another way, I wasn’t that true to the relationship. That part of my life involved me living in a temperate country. Since then I’ve lived in Singapore, and in “Mexico”, which is in the southwestern, desert part of the USA. She’s had a big influence on me in her own way, but I’m not so much an artsy person right now. That frame of mind that I was in could only have existed in the border regions between teenage years and adulthood.

Later on, I would still be hanging on to her for the first few years after Snowy Hill. But deep down we started drifting apart. She started getting contemptuous and eventually I also did likewise. I became more of an engineer. I began seeing the world as being divided into two types of people: those who cared deeply about how the world saw them, and those who didn’t. She was from the first, and I increasingly belonged to the second. Towards the end, it was only me making contact, and after we had a quarrel, I decided that she was no longer going to be part of my life, and I stopped. And I didn’t hear back from her either. She was a vain person and as much as she had grown tired of me, I don’t think she would ever forgive me for disappearing.

I would occasionally write to her and she’d write back, but it would never be like the old days. We had well and truly run out of things to say to each other. I knew that anything short of pandering to her ego and telling her how much I still loved and missed her would not make her interested anymore. And of course I wasn’t going to say anything that wasn’t true. A lot of people say that you never stop loving your ex, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that some people well and truly move on.

But in the middle, that second year of college, whatever took place between us was the thing that made all this stuff worthwhile. I felt like I lived nine lives during that period of time, and died nine deaths. During your first love affair, you will experience all those emotions that you never knew existed. And it’s not the mature love of placid and contented middle age. It’s wild, raging passion, from extreme jealousy to extreme ecstasy. It was a form of intimacy, we were exchanging secret childhood stories about our past. We were the key to each other’s past, as though we found a key that would transport back to a happier, more hallowed era. And yet, we also saw each other as the tickets to the future. We were thousands of miles apart, and we could never stand to be apart. She was in the tropics, and I was in the middle of the coldest of winter and six feet of snow. There’s something about winter that makes love affairs even more intense, because the passion just feels even more heated when there’s snow and ice all around you, as though everything is dead for miles around and the only thing there for you is her.

And I was just making that journey after journey of discovery and getting it on with her at the same time. It just made everything more alive and more intense. But that’s the paradox of the whole affair. I don’t know if it was exhausted. I don’t know if I was satiated. I don’t know if I was like Harper Lee, who wrote such a great book that I didn’t think I could make anything as great as that. Or maybe I knew how much work it was, how much it took out of me, and I demurred.

Eventually, though, I got sick and tired of it for the same reason that I got sick and tired of long distance running. It began to feel a little bit like a drug habit. I would be craving for that one more hit, and it might or might not come. She could make me really happy, but a lot of the time, she didn’t. There were a few things that I always found annoying about her, but when the relationship went downhill, they just became much worse.

But anything else I learnt in university just because more intense because of those few months.

3. Movies
Snowy Hill had a cinema. I suppose it made sense because it was a bit of a liberal arts college. Problem is, I spent way too much time in there, and not actually having a real girlfriend. But I don’t really mind because I think that for a while, at least, I had some of the greatest cinematic experiences I every experienced. Some movies just seem greater when you’re young and in love, and especially if they’re masterpieces. I watched quite a few of the masterpieces. You can cross reference the entry on psychology. I tried to analyze what the movie characters were going through, and I think I learnt quite a bit from that.

4. Winter
I had spent 20+ years in a tropical country before going to Snowy Hill, where the weather was completely different from Singapore. I resolved to get used to the winter during my first semester, and for a while I loved the novelty and the change. But sometime around February you will get sick and tired of it all. There wasn’t that much sunlight, and there were days when I would get out of bed only one or two hours earlier than sunset. That would be pretty horrible. Also another thing that made me not suited to Snowy Hill was my inability to …. Let’s put it this way: if a class was at 9 in the morning, I would probably either be copying all my notes from a friend, or doing all my homework downloaded from the internet as though it were a correspondence course. It was an ordeal to wake up early in the morning every day. I suppose that’s something you really want to think about before you go to school in a cold country.

Snowy Hill was also my first taste of seasonal affective disorder. There were ways for me to cope with that, eventually, but I wish that during my first few winters I had learnt to do that better. The other way for me to cope was to fill my bath tub with hot water and soak in there and study for a few hours. This was probably quite obnoxious and earned me the sobriquet of “Archimedes”.

5. Politics / History
As you can imagine, bathtub reading was especially suited to politics and history. I had gone to Snowy Hill to study mathematics, but I also wanted to pad it up with other stuff that used more of the right brain. So I did politics / history / international relations. I didn’t know anything about international relations, it just sounded like an interesting title.

Reading about politics and history was an unexpectedly unpleasant experience, but then again, that was probably due to reporter’s bias. You don't read about peace and prosperity. It only makes the history books when things go badly wrong. There was a lot to think about and mull over in history and politics. There was a lot of people questioning their own assumptions, and analysing the underlying structure of these assumptions.

In fact, most of the time we studied the assumptions because it's just so much easier to recognise that people just walk in with a lot of philosophical baggage, and after you agree with that baggage (which is never) you'd eventually come to their conclusions. Therefore the truly meaningful discussion is whose assumptions, and whose way of seeing the world is more accurate. History teaches you that it's not only the facts, but also how they are interpreted that matters. And in a way, the same would be true of anything to do with people. In engineering, in computer science, you're always going to interpret human behaviour and if you don't understand what unwritten assumptions you have, then it's very dangerous. Also what scale you're viewing things is also important. And this is also true in engineering. Suppose you wanted to measure productivity. Did you do it on an hourly basis, or a daily basis? Because the scale that you were looking at would tell you different things. It's a shame that so many people who do engineering aren't also studying history, because there's a lot that history can teach you about analysing human systems.

6. Cooking
I was forced to cook from my second year onwards. For the first year I had a dining plan, and it was pretty cool, they actually cared about the quality of food (that’s because Snowy Hill was a depressing place and they had to compensate). So for my first year I ate at the dining hall almost every day, and it was a big buffet every day. Pretty cool, a bit like being on a cruise ship.

Second year onwards, to save money, I moved off the campus dorm and rented a place a relatively short walk from the school. I had to learn to cook. At first, I was just going to be very creative and mixing all kinds of crazy stuff in my food, including one time when I mixed in milo and grape jelly. That episode became infamous and amongst my Singaporean peers in Snowy Hill I never recovered my reputation for food. There was another time when I spent 2-3 hours every day preparing food and cooking. I think it’s crazy now but a few of my relatives were very good cooks, and in a way this was my way of being nearer to them spiritually.

7. Coding
I never took a module unless it contributed to my degree requirements, until my last semester. Yes, Snowy Hill was one of those places where you could take all sorts of crazy stuff and they would still count to your degree. I declared as a mathematics major, but only half of my classes had anything to do with mathematics. (Although the ones that did were quite demanding and rigorous).

There were one or two modules that didn’t fulfill any requirements, and one of them was actually a fairly heavy computer science course, the software / hardware interface. I didn’t have to do it, and people thought I was crazy, but I was thinking ahead, and I think it helped me in some small way when I applied to the University of Mexico to do computer science. There was another module that didn’t fulfill any requirements, but I earned a letter from that prof and it also helped me. So these were things that helped me return to the states.

My introduction to coding was a rough one. The guy who taught us in the introductory course was the obligatory crazy larger than life professor who unfortunately may not have been the most coherent at explaining stuff. And he just threw a lot of crazy stuff at us, and got a lot of us coding in Java. For the final project, we had to write up a program whereby it solved a maze. I was coding like crazy until the end, and inexplicably, I got the program completed 1 hour before the deadline. I won’t forget that. Most of my life, I had been trying to get away with late homework, and in computer science, they don’t allow that.

The next course I took was one on functional programming. I probably took it because it was labelled as the “honors course” and I wanted to stretch myself. But actually it taught stuff that was completely different from the non-honors version. But I wasn’t used to thinking about programming in that way, and at the same time, I was starting to understand that programming wasn’t a piece of cake. It should have been a fun class, an interesting class, and I think the professor did a great job teaching us stuff and keeping us entertained at the same time. He and his wonderful gang of TAs were creating lots of homework problems with fun stories behind them. But I don’t think I did that well for that class, although that was the one which introduced me to how fun computers were. I made the decision not to major in computer science and did mathematics instead, although that decision could have gone either way.

8. Importance of exercise
One of the things I learnt about the hard way was seasonal affective disorder. In fact, I have had to learn about these things. Snowy Hill was the third place in a row that I had been to where I’ve had to deal with a depressing place. In fact, when I think about the 12 years that spanned my being in JC, then national service, then Snowy Hill and finally my first few years at the Factory, those were the places where I had the biggest problems with depression. I was probably also in the depths of depression after my first breakup with codfish (who was the icq nickname for the girl). It was one of two periods in my life I had suicidal thoughts. Thankfully it didn’t happen since then.

One of the things I learnt from this – let me call it a quarter life crisis – was that it’s very very important to take care of your mental health. It’s always been one of my highest priorities.

9. Grinding it out
Even during the worst periods of my “A” levels, I had never had to work that hard for a school project. Maybe those annual projects that we had back in school, which I invariably left off until the last minute. But it never influenced my final grade, and I never felt as though my career depended upon it. By the time the “O”s and the “A”s arrived, I had been drilled to death, and I was actually quite calm when taking my “A”s and I did well (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about Snowy Hill.)

This was different. Towards the business end of the semester, a lot of things would suddenly be due at the same time, and whether or not you had kept up with the readings, and whether or not you had mastered the concepts for the exams, everything would be due. And it was invariably a chaotic time for me, no time to do cooking, or wash up. And after that, if you were living in an undergraduate dorm, they kicked you out. (I think the big perk of being a graduate student was that they didn’t do that to you.) Over time, I learnt how to mitigate this, and my grades generally improved from year 1 to year 4. Other than a year 3 slump, which was caused by my breaking up and suffering a mild depression. But I never really mastered how to do that.

10. Books
I suppose this was another offshoot from my academic activities. I loved to go through the bookstore at the first week of classes and go through the books and look at what was assigned as reading. I can’t really believe how hungry I was for knowledge back then. These days I still like it but I’m not a maniac like back in the day. I wasn’t even a particularly fast reader but all I wanted to do was to read and read and read.

Funnily enough, before going to Snowy Hill I’d have been more interested in fiction and in art film. After learning about politics, and learning the basic ideas of politics and economics, those became my favourite subjects instead. Snowy Hill was this great divide: before that, I was primarily interested in fiction. After that, non-fiction. Perhaps it was because I was studying literature for “O” levels instead of history. In a way I thought of all the books in the world as different parts of a great system of novels, and every one of those books told you one significant, but very small part of the system. You had to go through quite a few of them before you got the big picture. Sometimes you would read two books who are arguing directly with each other. And in a way, the many books that make up your shelf form a very fascinating community.


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