joelkuiper.eu

Me

I

This is a “write only” piece. Written in language that is only to be written, not to be read. I don’t know why I chose to write it then, in this most-public and least perishable of mediums. Why I haven’t written this on wood pulp paper, companioned with nervously rolled cigarettes, some hard liquor, and the Noir-est of moons. To illuminate the silent night with the sound of crumbling paper; as it slowly burns away at my fingertips. It’s job done: it was written, never read.

Maybe, I like to think that every writing deserves an audience. It’s an arrogant proposition, for sure. Or maybe I just need an audience to write. A half-empty bus on a rainy day. Nothing but blank stares, but each swimming in a life as complex as my own.

If anything that bus would be full of people like me. Failed intellectuals in a sense, each to be lonely with. To spend a passing moment in imaginary conversation.

A type of conversation that comes to natural to me. When nobody is around, I spend hours talking to myself. Intertwined in a dialog that is essentially a monologue. I’m sure literary critics, or psychiatrists, have a good word for that.

The range of topics I discuss with myself is diverse, but all seem to be bound by endless curiosity and cynicism. I have flair for the melodramatic, I romanticize it, cherish it even. It’s a trait of adolescence maybe, the goth kids, the emo ones, I never really outgrew it. The fashion changed, but only slightly.

It’s this melodrama combined with cynicisms and intellectual curiosity, that I would say defines me. If I were to typecast my self-image, I would pick the characters of the shows I so readily consume: Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, David Sandström. People defined by a particular genius and over-the-top melodrama, translated into arrogance and asshole-ness. In a very real sense my personality is defined by the shows I watch, the books I read.

So picture a bus full of contemporary TV show characters, and this is my audience. This is the me for whom I write.

II

As much as I’d like to be, I’m not a genius. People say I am, plenty have. But if anything I’m maybe an above average actor with good memory.

I have gained the art of ‘fake it till you make it’. Somehow I realized that nothing is actually hard. Most skills, ideas, tricks, can be learned in a couple of days. Weeks at most. So I learned to identify a certain type of work that comes especially easy to me, and then just shout “I can do that”.

The really tricky stuff is just some more work and self-discipline. All incremental steps of “not all that hard” things. Learn to “debug” the steps that are faulty, to be critical on what you don’t understand, and to not accept “magic”. Sticking with it, is what counts. Call it the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

I rarely stick with things though, that’s why I’m not a genius. I am 26, I have barely any money, made nothing noteworthy, and my academic career is abysmal. The best I can say is that I’m a generalist. An “ideas person”, which is synonymous to: worthless idiot.

After the comfortable high school blanket of pre-decided choices, you have to decide for yourself. I went back and forth between art, philosophy, hard science, soft science. Actively considered: philosophy, chemistry, medicine, computer science and art school (photography/film), even drama. The tests they make you take always said I should study math, but I’m actually not smart enough for that. In the end I chose Artificial Intelligence, which was advertised as a mix of most of my interests. Liked the name too. Turns out they make you study for “generalist”.

During my university years in Artificial Intelligence I sometimes contemplated switching to Computer Science or Life Science. Figuring that more in-depth knowledge would be more useful than literally taking the freshmen courses of five different majors. In the end I did not switch, but wrote a rather angry letter stating that I would drop the linguistics classes for neuroscience ones, or quit. They reluctantly accepted my ultimatum.

I wanted to do neuroscience, proper neuroscience. After my degree in AI I would study in a lab, work on exciting things like Spike Train Dependent Plasticity, Optogenetics, Synthetic Biology, maybe invent the first “bio-neural gel pack”. To provided the bridge between the digital and the analogue. Even did my thesis on consciousness, the real stuff; hypothesized that it’s merely memory evolved to predict the future. I still think that’s an interesting hypothesis. Consciousness as an echo of perceived causality.

But I did not stick with it. I sometimes still wonder why, I was tired maybe. My proper diagnosis for tiredness is dysthymia, a sort of chronic low-level depression that sometimes collapses into major depression.

I went on to join a start-up as a user experience consultant and front-end developer. For various reasons it was not the time or the place to excel for me. I learned interesting things on how to build a product, and how to be a better team player. Still not a very good team player, though.

It took maybe three months of playing Skyrim, living off savings, to do something new. I joined a software development group at the teaching hospital where I still work today. Officially stationed at epidemiology, but it’s mostly its own thing on network meta-analysis and benefit-risk assessment of drug trials. Gained some experience, not noteworthy but above average, in statistics and proper programming.

So three things I did not stick with, did not become a genius in. Not to mention my half-assessed attempt at professional photography, my flailing around in synthetic biology, or even the internship-could-be-job at a big IT-firm. And now I’m doing a Ph.D in god-knows-what. The elevator pitch would be:

Most biomedical science is about drawing conclusions from large amounts of published literature. Unfortunately this literature is often unstructured, so a lot of effort goes into extracting information by reading documents. If we can make machine learning methods to help extract information from unstructured literature, we can make better, quicker, and more informed decisions about treatments and diagnoses.

Who knows, might be good, might stick with it. Might not.

III

Þú ert jörðin (you are the earth) — Ólafur Arnalds

“Play some happy music”, she said. “I don’t have any, just over a terabyte of non-happy music”. That was maybe five years ago, I now have Spotify; still no happy music. I miss Iceland, maybe it’s genetic. Drawn to it. Defined by desolation.

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IV

My world view is one of cognitive dissonance. I believe in the power of science and technology. I believe the world has already ended. There is a choice, we can fix this. It is already beyond repair.

Not a bang, but with a whimper. As I spectacularly misquote Elliot: this is the way the world ends.

Decadence is the prelude to downfall. There is a philosophy here, but its words are complex, intertwined, and its thoughts disjunct. Maybe if I start at the beginning this will make sense, somehow.