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28 Mar 2019

Happy thoughts – The semester is well underway now and I feel like I have hit my stride after a full month of classes. Things are going to be a bit crunchy (as in “crunch time”) through the end of next week, as the MA theses and PhD dissertations for the semester have come in (two of each, which all need to be read by next Monday), and I have two other non-school-related deadlines next week as well. But that is what it is. It’s tedious to write about, and writing about it is not going to make me feel any better, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“How often do I make it a point to do things that make me happy, or that increase my well-being?”

In other news, though, I’ve decided to try something new this semester. When I was in Cambridge, I had fun attending various talks, seminars, and lectures, including (or perhaps especially) those that weren’t directly related to what I was studying. I felt like I was part of an intellectual community, and I found myself inspired by things and in ways that I did not expect. SNU is not Harvard, of course, but we have plenty of talks, seminars, and lectures going on all the time, and I made it a point to be on the lookout for interesting opportunities. My graduate seminar this semester is on folklore in the digital age, and I have been interested in digital folklore and digital culture for some time now, so I’ve been paying particular attention to events dealing with digital culture or adjacent fields.

Last Wednesday, for example, I attended a talk by Lev Manovich, a renowned figure in digital cultural studies. I’ve actually read a lot of his work in the process of familiarizing myself with this field, so when I saw that he was coming to SNU, I could not pass up the opportunity to hear him speak. I was the only person from the humanities there, but it was an enjoyable talk that gave me the opportunity to see issues important to folklorists from a different perspective (namely, the perspective of big data and data visualization). Due to a crowded room and a line of students waiting to talk to him afterward, I did not have the chance to introduce myself right then, but I did so later via email, so I may have the chance to sit down and talk with him in the future (apparently he visits Seoul often!).

Yesterday, I went to a seminar given by Alon Halevy, someone with whom I was not familiar. He is a computer scientist with a long and impressive CV, including a stint as a head researcher at Google and then head of a research institute. His specialties are data management and AI, and during the seminar he talked about creating subjective databases to allow people to search for experiences, rather than just searching for objective data. It was all very fascinating—I still have enough of a Comp Sci major hiding inside me to appreciate what he was talking about—and there was plenty of food for thought. I was invited to lunch with him and a handful of other professors afterward, and there we were able to talk about things like the future role of AI in human society, human augmentation, and philosophical issues related to what it means to be human in a world where machines are becoming more and more integral parts of our lives. Again, I was the only person from the humanities there, but I felt quite at home talking about these things. One of the other professors at lunch did express surprise that a humanities professor would be thinking and talking about these things, but I explained that I was a bit of an odd duck.

I think what prompted me to write today, though, was something else that Dr. Halevy talked about during the seminar. While the subjective database is the latest step in the projects he and his team were working on at the research institute, he started out by talking about an interactive journal app that sought to increase a user’s well-being by suggesting activities that made the user happy. This of course starts with a natural language processing (NLP) problem, that of how to read what a user writes, pick out events, people, and emotions, and then map these onto various values that make up one’s overall well-being. I’ve always been fascinated by NLP (which is basically catnip for a computer-science-major-turned-English-major), but I was even more fascinated by the very simple philosophy underlying the app: Determine the things that make you happy, then try to do more of those things (and the inverse corollary: Determine the things that make you unhappy, and try to avoid them).

It is quite simple, of course, almost to the point of absurdity, but it did make me stop and think, and I’ve been mulling this over since yesterday morning. How often do I make it a point to do things that make me happy, or that increase my well-being? Where this gets tricky is when the thing requires a certain amount of effort. For example, I have been trying to get back into my routine of stretching and exercising in the morning, because when I do I feel better both physically and emotionally. I’ve also started doing a joint accountability exercise with my brother Brian, where we have both committed to add a certain amount of exercise to our days (for me, it’s an extra thirty minutes of brisk walking) and then report on our results to keep each other accountable. Getting up earlier to exercise and then getting up from desk in the middle of the day to go walk around for a half hour both take a nontrivial amount of effort (and I can report that, so far, I am finding the latter easier than the former). But they do increase my well-being, so I’m trying to be less lazy on that front. (It gets even trickier when things that will increase your well-being in the long term actually decrease it in the short term—such as getting a wisdom tooth removed to prevent more serious problems down the line. Incidentally, as a follow-up to that post, I feel that my well-being has indeed increased now that I am fully recovered.)

This line of musing eventually led me to think about writing here at Liminality. Let’s be honest: My output here in recent years has been dismal. I’m lucky if I put out one journal entry or note in a month. But how does writing here make me feel? In the very thing I ever posted here—over sixteen years ago—I wrote that it felt like breathing again. That I felt stifled without an opportunity to express myself in writing, and having this outlet here felt freeing. Has that changed? Do I feel less free now when I write here? Well, I certainly have changed a lot over the past sixteen years, and the way that I think about this site has changed a lot as well. But if I were to boil it down to a simple question—namely, does writing here on Liminality make me happier—the answer would be: yes. So why don’t I do it more? Because I’m lazy. It takes effort to write something here, especially when that something is very involved. But writing something here always does make me feel better, and finishing those very involved pieces in particular always gives me a great sense of pride and achievement... and well-being.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have pieces that I’ve spent quite a bit of time on but have never ended up seeing the light of day; I have one long piece that I’ve been coming back to on and off since last summer and that I’ve poured a lot of my heart and soul into, but it still languishes in my drafts folder. When I wrote about the world chess championships, I mused that I might like to return to the subject of chess at some point, but I haven’t even gotten around to starting that. Recently, HJ and I finished watching the very popular Korean drama SKY Castle, and I have a ton of things I want to say about that, but I’ve been hesitant to start on it because I know how much work it is going to be. This doesn’t mean that I don’t find the process of writing to be enjoyable, and it’s only the outcome that makes me happy—the process can be difficult, but it can also be stimulating and invigorating.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a manifesto. This isn’t a declaration that I am suddenly going to get back to writing regularly here at Liminality. I’ve made tentative declarations before, only to end up disappointing myself (and the two or three people who drop in every now and then to see if anything has changed behind all the cobwebs). It would indeed be nice to write more, but we’ll have to take that one step at a time. No, this is just a musing on things, a way of hashing out thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my head. Maybe it’s also the culmination of a realization—the realization that perhaps I have more control over my happiness than I thought I did, and maybe I should try to do more about that.

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