Advice to (Cambridge) Offer Holders

Somebody somewhere thought that I was qualified to give a talk to the Corpus offer holders yesterday. I spoke last, and I’ve never been in front of a more inert crowd. But that’s not too surprising: they’d had a long day in a strange place hearing strange people give long talks.

I was conscious that all of the other people they’d heard speak were fellows or members of staff, so I hoped to give a different, more introspective talk. I didn’t want to trot out the same trite you hear all the time at these sorts of things (“oh yes, everybody works hard but we’re fun too, honest” etc). I got a few laughs, but I hope that a few more serious messages got through too.

Here’s what I said:

No matter what you think when you go home this evening, the truth is less extreme. If you absolutely loved Corpus, it’s probably not as good as you think. If you hated it, it’s not as bad.

So many factors influence how you’ll feel about today. The sun’s been shining; I promise you that Corpus is more miserable in the rain. Some of you got up at the crack of dawn to be here; you probably enjoyed it less. You all had different tour guides. If yours was charismatic, that probably made you feel better than if you’d had one who focused on things that you don’t identify with.

It’s a pretty hectic day. You meet so many strangers and hear so many words. Take everything with a pinch of salt.

Consider coming back to Cambridge later in the year, by yourself, and at a slower pace. See the museums and the surrounding area. You’ll be more informed, and arriving in September won’t be such a shock.

When I was in your shoes, I wish somebody had told me that Cambridge is not the silver bullet, that there are other options. The assumption that Cambridge was the panacea remained unquestioned for me even throughout most of my time here, before I realised that the world is actually a fairly big place. There are so many other experiences that I could have had, some of which would be better, some worse, some unimaginable, and all unique.

I advise you to take some time to think, truly, about whether Cambridge is for you. Ignore your teachers, parents, and friends. This is hard, but it’s important. Either you’ll conclude that somewhere else would be a better fit for you, in which case, that’s fantastic! Or you will conclude that Cambridge really is where you need to be, and that’s brilliant too. It gives you autonomy and validates your decision to accept your offer. It’s the difference between resolution and submission.

There’s an important caveat. Feeling that you’re “not smart enough” for Cambridge is a terrible reason not to come. Everybody feels like this. The inordinately experienced admissions tutors are sure that you have the academic credentials. Everybody makes mistakes, but the probability that you’ve slipped through the net is very low indeed.

Imposter syndrome is normal. Nobody is perfect. I sleep in more than I’d like. I miss deadlines. I was pooled and I missed my offer. Yet somehow I’m privileged enough to be speaking to you today. My degree is plodding along nicely, and I have some fantastic friends. Everybody is a startling blend of characteristics and contradictions. Accepting our flaws is the first step to being happy and accomplishing anything. Don’t beat yourself up.

University has a lot to offer besides academic life. Over lunch, I chatted to some current students and asked them what I should say to you. They all had a different answer.

Everybody in this room would prefer that I spat out a different combination of words. So while I’ve said the two things I wish that I’d known – to consider my options and not to sweat the work – I won’t try to give any more advice.

Everybody in this room has had a unique experience in life so far. And this, I think, is perhaps the most magical part of university. For the first time in your life, you’ll be thrown into an environment with so many different people. Not only that, but a group of people who are just growing into themselves, just on the cusp of maturity. A group of people who are just learning to articulate their thoughts and feelings in ways that they never have before. You’ll learn as much from the people around you as you do from your lectures.

Everybody says that university are the best years of your life. I’m afraid that I can’t testify to that – I haven’t had the rest of my life yet. But it’s not bad.

GIMPS find 50th Mersenne Prime

Yesterday, GIMPS found the 50th Mersenne prime, now the world’s largest known prime. It is 23,249,425 digits long, so it’s really very big indeed.

GIMPS, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, is a sort of distributed computing project which allows ordinary people to pool together to look for really big primes. This one, 2^{77,232,917} - 1, was found by Jonathan Pace, a 51 year old electrical engineer. It took about 6 days and was independently verified by 4 other people and programs. Pace was awarded $3,000 for finding the prime, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s been looking for primes for 14 years now, so I imagine his electricity costs were not inconsiderable.

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Why do we do things that aren’t in our long term interests?

We care more about things that are about to happen than things that will happen a long time in the future. This is pretty rational. To give a financial example, I should prefer to have £100 today than £100 in a year’s time, since in the meantime I might be able to invest that £100 to earn some extra money.

A perfectly rational being would discount future events exponentially with a constant rate. If I discount the future at a rate of 110% per year, say, I would be indifferent about receiving £100 now, £110 on 31/12/18, or £121 on 31/12/19, and so on.

However, in 1975, economist George Ainsle published an important paper, Specious reward: a behavioral theory of impulsiveness and impulse control, in which he argued that humans tend to discount the future not exponentially, but hyperbolically. This means that we give near events much much more attention than they deserve. To continue the financial example, in an early study subjects said they would be indifferent between receiving $15 immediately or $30 after 3 months, $60 after 1 year, or $100 after 3 years. These indifferences reflect annual discount rates that declined from 277% to 139% to 63% as delays got longer, in contrast to exponential discounting, where the rate would be constant.

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Nostalgia & going back to school

I gave a Tuesday Club talk today. I’d been back at school last night too to listen to Dave Waters’ last ever concert.

It’s weird to be back. Nothing seems to have changed at all. Same hallways, personalities, different faces. It makes me wonder how much things changed while I was there, or before I arrived. That period of my life that was at the time so significant to me – how significant was it, in the grand scheme of things? There was a Jack Hodkinson before me and there will be a Jack Hodkinson after, too. I am not special.

For that matter, I’m sure that the same logic applies to my life at Corpus now, or really to anything that anybody ever does.

Teachers that I never knew, or that never liked me, or that I never liked, are suddenly interested in shaking hands and niceties. “How is it [at uni/out there]?” over and over again, but never do we ever progress to talking about real thoughts or feelings because there’s always something to rush to.

I’m not really sure how it makes me feel. Small and insignificant, yes, but somehow I’m also interesting (merely because I’ve aged a little bit since I was last at school).

Will things still be the same in 5 or 10 years? Probably. Again, new faces, but the same conversations. What can I learn from this? That it’s OK to tread water? Surely not, since if I look back in 5 years at myself and feel that I’ve been treading water, I’ll be mortified.

So what? Maybe the answer is to never look back, but to plough forward. However, I suspect that’s what everybody back at school is doing.

I only have a limited amount of time on this planet, and it’d be a shame if I didn’t make the most of it.

I think the answer is to never rush. To move forward, but always relish every aspect of the present. Then at least the journey, if not the destination, will have been worthwhile.

The Corpus Christi Prime

CorpusChristi.png

This number is a prime, with 2688 digits. It also looks rather a lot like Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The top left corner encodes my initials, JRH, in ASCII. The bottom right corner is my date of birth.

I was inspired by Numberphile’s most recent video, which demonstrates a prime number of 1350 digits, which looks like the coat of arms of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge.

I have some nice postcards with this number on it. If you live in Cambridge and would like some, send me an email.

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