Curing Numbness

I am gonna come clean from the start, in the past couple of years life for me has mostly been very difficult, numbing and without much of excitement. In fact there are moments where it seemed too much to handle. Though, after a careful observation, ironically, I have traced the source of my own suffering, most of the time, to be myself . How am I the cause for my own misery you ask? Well this is a question whose answer might literally fill up a page but if I were to cherry pick, overwhelming myself with unrealistic expectations both from myself  and from the world, endless overthinking, obsession with the trivial, demanding immediate result from anything I try to do or teach myself (hence colossal disappointment when results take their natural due time to arrive) and most of all an incessant self judgement and validation based on a distorted past image of myself would be the top contenders for my self sabotage. I would say 50-60% of my daily thoughts are these exacts thoughts or a derivative of them.

I don’t mean to imply all my problems are mind related, in fact I do have many physical problems. Last summer I was hospitalized for a day due to kidney stones (Now I don’t consider myself extremely tough but I also have never expected a pebble with a less than 2mm diameter to totally shatter my endurance making me wish my own immediate death 🙂 ). A year and a half ago while playing football I twisted my ankle and broke some ligaments therefore abstaining from any physical activity (even walking 2kms) for 6 months and from football for one year.

The silver bullet for most of my psychological problems I believe is mindfulness. Mindfulness as a remedy can address this problem in different forms. One can be for example observing my troublesome thoughts as soon as they arise instead of passively plunging myself into the emotional roller-coaster which is triggered by these thoughts. This is activity, which actually is the essence of mindfulness, saves the mind from being taken as a hostage by any thought that arises. After breaking the spin the natural second step would be refuting the thesis of these negative thoughts with a logic. All negative thoughts start from untrue premises and end up making unsound logical arguments. Anyone who is aware of the fundamental tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can eventually master the habit of logically disputing these thoughts.

When it comes to my case the nail that seals the coffin of mindfulness is writing. I have to admit I haven’t been writing for a long time. In fact even on this blog there are a handful blog posts which had been started but never completed. Writing, at least in my case, used to give me the ultimate clarity into whatever I was writing about. The reason for this is simple: Before writing one has to think about what is to be written. The thinking continues also during the writing leading to a further clarity and a fine-grained understanding/misunderstanding of the matter. Consider this a public pledge to write at least one blog post a week.

 

Contemplations on ageing

I turned 28 last week. I was born on a Monday morning, at 7:15 AM (my mother has made it a tradition of waking me up at 7:15AM on my birthday every year). I was born in Jimma, a historical city 350Km away from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My memory of Jimma is vague and doesn’t really constitute much more than bleak images of me playing football on the dusty streets in our neighborhood with my childhood friends Esrom and Aaron, the big compound we used to share with the 4 families, Asnaku who is the youngest daughter of our neighbor Ato Zekarias’ family and who loved and cared for me so much (she practically raised me, per my mom’s recount). I can’t also forget the shop of Bezabih where I used to be offered  candies everyday by the kind shopkeeper, Bezabih. Teka Pastry (my favorite place in the whole of Jimma as I still remember the sweet delicacies), the awetu river and the park where my mom used to take me every weekend. I only lived in Jimma until I was 6, as my family moved following my dad who already started a new job in Addis Ababa.

Addis would become the city of my living, my schooling and transformation into adulthood. When I was 14 going on 15, at the first year of high school, I met my 3 best friends, Melkam, Abel and Yared and life took a sharp turn to the better, to the utter joie de vivre. A more than 14 years of friendship never lost its flair, not even once.  I  sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if my path hadn’t crossed with these wonderful gentlemen. Another grand change took place in my life once again when at the age of 24 I left Ethiopia and moved to the boot shaped southern European country (aka Italy) to pursue further education. A small norther Italian city named Trento became the place of my dwelling for the next two and half years. I then moved to the beautiful medieval city of Pisa. My reflections about life in Italy in general could simply take hundreds of pages, hence I prefer not to to get into it here except perhaps acknowledging the fact that some of the  most wonderful and meaningful friendships I have ever had were formed in this wonderful land. Having been for a long time in a small but extremely tight circle of friends close friends in the past, moving to Italy made me aware of the different levels of friendships, the value of good friendship and how much of an effort it takes to cultivate one. All in all Italy has been casa a lontana da casa. The intention of this small memo was not actually to narrate my upbringing but to examine my current life a little bit, where it is now (per my perception) and where it ought to have been or better yet where I wished it should have been.

Examining one’s life, though necessary, is an arduous endeavor. From the face of it, when one himself is the examiner, the defendant, the judge and the jury of ones own path through life, the whole process becomes dubious and the results that come out of it ought not be totally trusted.  However it must be done since it is the only practical way to obtain clarity about oneself. Though there might be so many ways of examining oneself my preferred method is engaging myself in a self-conducted Q&A over a few things which I think are important.

Question 1. Who am I ?

Besides serving as a title for one of Jackie Chan’s movies 🙂 this overly famous question had been and is being posed in an infinite places and ways in different scientific, philosophical or artistic works. By asking myself this overloaded question, my intention is not study my ancestry but to get a better clarity over the sense of myself. Has it never happened to you that after you thought you have a pretty accurate grasp of who you really are, sometimes (and usually under certain circumstances) you are completely taken over by another temporary “you” whose characters are diametrically different from what you had defined yourself to be? It is not uncommon for this new “you” to be more courageous, less bothered with uncertainties, more compassionate or the contrary to all these positive behavioral attributes. These are the moments where I pause and question where all my presumed sense of self came from in the first place.

I grew up with people. I work and live with people consequently a lot of my thinking has directly or indirectly been influenced by my surrounding. As I had not proved or carefully examined everything that was passed  down to me as truth or fact of life, my life is built upon assumptions which I take for granted. Relying on a external wisdom (that is gained from of other people through different ways) is important when it comes to saving time and effort to deal with complex reality but it is also very dangerous if this wisdom is used without bounds. For example without massive collaborations between different universities in the US in the 60’s and 70’s the Internet would not have existed. Collaboration implies trusting the veracity of the work of others (or the wisdom of others) and extending their work or making it part of some larger project. This does not mean the veracity of the work of others is blindly taken for granted and if need be (as it is always the case) it is open for scrutiny. The beauty of science relies in its openness for correction when err.  So getting back to my self-reflection, I understand that the basis for my sense of self is partly a composition of external and internal assumptions and “facts” I grew up being fed as the basis for how reality is or “facts” I used in order to construct a higher abstraction about everything I know.

Simply stated, the path to knowing who I am largely lies in the conscious observation of  the assumptions which I base each of my decision moment after moment.  The observation involves asking some very fundamental questions such as “Why do I want to do this”, “are these assumptions that I am justifying whatever it is I am trying to do correct or how do I know if they are correct”, “is there anyway my assumptions could be wrong or perhaps more interestingly, how will things play out if I choose a different set of assumptions” etc… Questions like these would eventually expose the system of thinking one has developed over many years and one uses to define oneself consciously or unconsciously. They also have the power to correct or at least identify a problematic way of thinking.

Over the past years I must admit I have made progress on questioning my own thoughts, external assumptions and suspending a verdict over the veracity of thought until I have enough evidence. As living an active life is demanding, I sometimes slip into old habits of taking things for granted.

Question 2: What are the natural forces which are against me

Through civilization, mankind was able to diminish the domain of the fatal natural forces from what they amounted thousands of years ago. Today, the natural forces which still remain in the high end of the fatal spectrum, though perilous, have at least been rendered predictable. An asteroid is as deadly as it was 10000 years ago but now it’s descent to the earth can be tracked way before its impact. To a certain degree it can be said that the major concern in modern life, with regards to natural forces, is more about meaningful existence than it is about survival. So what are the natural forces we are up against in our time ?

One of the most abundant natural force which is posing a threat to a meaningful existence is entropy. But first what do I mean by entropy? The second law of thermodynamics states that

[Part II] to be continued

Publications

Publications following my masters thesis

  • B. Seyoum, M. Rossi and D. Brunelli, “A self-powered wireless bolt for smart critical fastener,” 2017 Global Internet of Things Summit (GIoTS), Geneva, 2017, pp. 1-6. doi: 10.1109/GIOTS.2017.8016242
  • Seyoum, Biruk B.; Rossi, Maurizio; Brunelli, Davide, “Energy neutral wireless bolt for safety critical fastening” in SENSORS, v. 17, n. 10 (2017), p. 2211-2227. – URL: http://www.mdpi.com/1424-8220/17/10/2211/pdf . – DOI: 10.3390/s17102211

Tête-à-Tête with a familiar stranger (part II)

“Excuse me, I might be wrong but it is my assumption that you have been following me the past couple of weeks” I asked. With no reply he sent his right hand into the left pocket of his jacket, pulled out a pack of Winston, lighted one and started smoking. A good 30 seconds or so passed before the next words were uttered preceded by few puffs. “You are not wrong”. Then a few more puffs. This was probably one of the strangest encounters I have had in my life and I was still desperately waiting for words to come out of his mouth. Now the cigarette was half smoked. He took one more puff and threw it away.Destined to listen to it, I barely paid attention to the fact that I am not the only one who likes to smoke cigarettes half away. My attention barely flinched to the thread of thought that focus did not flinch I barely Part of my realization

 

Tête-à-Tête with a familiar stranger (part I)

The prequel
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It was one of those mildly cold autumn nights with its backing vocalist with soothing voice, a tender and incessant shower. The randomly laid colorful leaves were bare witnesses of the season. In quasi successful attempt to escape the down pour I was walking as fast as I could. As I kept pulling my feet one after the other in the hopes of wrapping myself, from head to toe with the 30 degrees of air inside my apartment, I saw him again. This time in the alley between the two old buildings a few blocks down my apartment. He was looking at no one but me. He was standing in the middle of the rain with no desire of escaping from it.

I paced even more, to a point where any rise in speed and I would been lifted off the ground. Gosh, that moment of sticking my keys to the key holes of the front door seemed eternity.

One hour later, sipping a hot chamomile tea, mindlessly staring at a screen while the full weight of my attention span around quite number of prior encounters, with you know who.

I don’t remember when I first saw him and truth to be told I am entirely sure if it is a he but that isn’t important at all. He usually wears dark baggy trousers, with gray shirt, woolen long coats with a thick black scarf and brown boots. This is outfit remained unaltered for months. When his ubiquity turned from being mysterious at first to exasperating in a while, I was but forced to attempting to resolve his identity, only to no avail.

Once as I was leaving my usual breakfast diner after a croissant and a caffe latte, when I spotted him across the street. This is a few months after I started seeing him randomly many times a day. May be it was the unusually high caffeine in my latte that morning but I made a jerk and headed towards him.

As I got closer and closer I noticed he was as tall as me but in a much better shape. He had broad shoulders with a pale face, which was semi covered by a lightly shaved beard. His brown eyes were playful and seemed to have their own story to tell. As I was busy carefully scanning this man from top to bottom, it took me a while before noticing my stretched hands didn’t receive a shake back. I slowly retracted my hands while staring at the his eyes just to make sure whether he is aware of my embarrassment. Who is this stranger and why does he look so mysteriously familiar and most importantly why does he seemingly keep going after me ?

Cinderella at the Luminara

Meeting her was a total accident. It was my first time at the yearly festival in the city where I recently moved into and a typical first timer, I was going around trying to absorb it all in as much as I could. I was with a few friends who at the late hours of the night sank into the crowd never to be seen for the rest of the night. Despite having started to drink a cocktail of vodka and lemon, which was comfortably disguised in a blue plastic water bottle, since 8 o’clock in the night, the alcohol didn’t take a toll on me as much as it should have. I was tired but I continued my aimless walk in search of my friends and there she was in the middle of the big square. We knew and didn’t know each other at the same time. After a brief greeting we started chatting about this and that . Moments later, as it was already dawning, I asked her if we could watch the sun rise close to the tower which was not so far away from the piazza we were at. I have never been at the tower in such hour of the day but with her at that moment, no place seemed so right. We started strolling. Before we reached the end of the piazza which we were at, I locked my arm with her arm. As we continued strolling, the natural flow of conversation made us seem as though we knew each other from years ago but not just as two virtual strangers who met few minutes short of an hour. As we turned right to the street of Via Santa-Maria heading to the tower, splinters of sun light from the early morning twilight lighted her face and it was then I comprehended how, despite looking tired,  delightfully beautiful she was. Meanwhile the mix of the morning light and her blondish curly hair was also creating a show of its own. Our arms were still locked and the conversation was still flowing. She didn’t speak too fast and she didn’t speak to slow either. My throat was suddenly starting to get dry and I remembered I still had some vodka lemon in the plastic bottle which I had kept in my back pocket. When I left my house for the night I was laden with enough alcohol to get me through the night and apparently my foresight was commendable for I have something to drink even this late in the night. She started to giggle as she saw me perform a great early morning miracle of pulling out a blue plastic bottle filled with vodka out of no where. The sound of her laughter was a refreshing thrill and definitely better than the ubiquitous morning song of the birds which was feeling the fresh morning air. A thought in my head whispered,  “nothing feels good like making a woman laugh in the wee hours of the night huh”. She had thicker lips, the kind which reminds me of my mother’s. I lightly kissed her on her cheeks. Before we knew it we were standing in front of the tower whose white marbles were scattering the golden early morning sun light creating a halo and posing even more majesty onto itself. To the left of the tower there was the cathedral and we headed to it. The small passage from the main street to the cathedral was blocked with a low hanging chain where a written notice forbids visitors not to head to the cathedral before 7AM in the morning. The blockade forced us to stand facing each other. I looked at her tired but keen eyes, her thick eyebrows, her lips, her face which was beaming with involuntary smile, her white blouse and the light dark pant suit she was wearing. This was no time to waste chatting, As I went for a gentle kiss on her neck an invigorating scent filled my nose. My lips stayed locked onto her neck for a while my fingers were going through her hair adding more dynamics to the still on going foreplay between her hair and the golden sunlight. I then moved onto lightly kissing her cheeks and naturally our lips found each other in a short while. The touching of our lips mixed with the taste of tobacco in her breath sent an electric shock in all my body. We kissed for a moment before we both recoiled back for  an unintended deep stare into each others eyes. When it comes to worldly pleasures, a few of them I enjoy the most for the first brief moments and these include the first sip of a good beer, the first puff of an occasional cigarette and a woman’s first kiss. Passion was raising high and not breaching the “No crossing before 7AM” notice felt so unnatural so we trespassed to sit at the stairs of the cathedral and continue melting into each other under the rising sun.

She was beautiful in every sense of the word, she knows how kiss, when to stop and talk, how to send fiery signals into the eyes, I was awe struck by it all. We moved on to the green grass field in front of the cathedral. After what felt to be an extended moment of oneness, as we were both laying down, her head on my chest, we started to look at the fiery sun slowly revealing herself from the back of the tower. It was then that I began to sense the long lost feeling of utter tranquility that was starting to dawn on me. I was suddenly light and bright inside just as a room which was lit with rays of sun light after its dirty glass window had been cleaned. My legs locked with hers while my fingers kept ramming through her hair and my nose absorbing the totality of her scent as she lied on my chest carefully listening to every beat of my heart. It all made the front of the cathedral the right place to be and to remain at for a long time.

We started talking again and this time her physical beauty seemed her least quality.  The captivating conversation was starting to reveal how intelligent and engaged she was to what she was doing. The conversation began to dwindle again as we slowly drifted into our own threads of thought while holding each other tight. At 7 AM a blasting alarm from her phone awakened us both from the soothing bliss we were submerged in. She stopped the cacophony from her phone and started to kiss me on my neck then on my lips and I also started to kiss her back all along reciting in my head the words of Rhett to Scarlet on  Gone with Wind: “You should be kissed my dear Scarlet and often and by someone who knows how”.

As I woke up from what I presumed was a brief sleep, she was gone. At first I was confused if it was all a hallucination from too much indulgence of alcohol from the night before. But the sweet odor I was smelling on myself made hallucination unlikely. I then remembered about the alarm at 7 AM. What did it all mean? What if it was a signal to mark a transition from land of the ideal to the real. A signal to mark the abrupt end of the stretch of imagination. I stood up, composed myself and started to walk in the direction of my house suddenly thinking about the tale of  Cinderella which I read many years ago. I am not exactly the fan of fantasy love stories but I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the Cinderella of the fables and my Cinderella of the night. Cinderella left prince charming her glass slippers while she escaped before her reverse-metamorphosis into her old poor self at mid night while my Cinderella of the night left me with a crack in my heart before the clock of gray reality struck at 7 AM and she left abruptly: a crack to let more light to sparkle my soul which was already growing weary or a crack which might grow into a sink hole.

Emotions in a different domain

Behold, a brief historical synopsis first

In the first decade of the 19th century, a couple of years after the wave of revolution in  France had settled, Joseph Fourier, priorly an active member of the revolution, joined the group of scholars that accompanied Napoleon to his campaign to Egypt. Fourier eventually became the governor of southern Egypt but he returned to France in a few years. He then started working on one of the then active research areas, the characterization of the the flow of heat in a material.

Okay now something to chew

As water naturally flows between two points only when there is a difference in height between them, heat also flows between two points when there is a difference in temperature between two bodies. Now imagine a table: If I ask you to tell me the temperature of the table what you would do is put a thermometer at a random position on the surface of the table, read the temperature there, assume the temperature across the table would approximately be the same and tell me that value, end of story. (You would also probably warn me not to ask you such moronic questions but that’s not the point 🙂 ). Such an approximation isn’t harsh in the grand scheme of things but in the quantum level it wouldn’t hold water.

The distribution of temperature on the surface of the table and its variation over time is modeled by what is called a heat equation. Simply stated the heat equation is the expression of the distribution of difference of temperature across the surface of a material over time. (At this point you are asking yourself “what’s with the freshman science lecture biruk, get to the point.” But bear with me for a second okay 🙂 ). The heat equation is a partial differential equation (partial differential equation or PDE is an equation used to determine the value of something, in this case heat or temperature, in relation to other variables such as the heat source, position etc… and the variation of these variables over time and/or space.)

Before Fourier’s contribution, there had been quite a remarkable progress in the determination of the heat equation. What was missing was an appropriate model of the complex characteristic of the heat source. Since the heat source was part of the equation, it had to have a proper mathematical representation but it was impossible to come up with some simple equation/model because of the complex(messy) nature of nature. Here comes the light bulb moment. Fourier’s idea basically was that any complex mathematical model of something, as messy as it gets, is the sum of many (infinite) but very simple equations known as basis functions. It’s sort of decomposition of the composite but in a clever way. baam…

Let us take a simple example. Consider a simple pasta sauce. My pasta sauce usually contains, among other things tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, basil & black olives. In between the utter orgasm of their taste buds after devouring my pasta (you guessed it, my pasta is delicious 🙂 ), if someone were to ask me what my sauce is made of, a usual answer would be 100g of tomato paste, 65g of onion, 20g of garlic, 30ml of olive oil, 2g of basil and 45g of black olives and I cooked it for 15 minutes. An amalgam such as a tomato sauce can now be represented by a bunch of basis functions (the ingredients, their amount & time it took to cook them).  In other words [100, 65, 20, 30, 2, 45, 15] would be a code for my sauce. The index (position) of each number in the list (vector) is associated to each ingredient (in this case position 0 is tomato paste, position 1 is onion etc..) and the numbers represent the amount of ingredient associated to that position/index in the vector  This is the sheer brilliance of Fourier transform: Changing the representation of something from one domain to another (in our case from organic ingredients to bunch of numbers).

Fourier transform has a wide range of applications in engineering but we aren’t interested about that today. Rather we are gonna stretch our imagination to what it would be like to have a Fourier transform of more subjective concepts such as love, intelligence, happiness, fear etc… Meaning understanding subjective emotions using an objective frame work.

For example the human brain has been studied by being broken down into different regions. Neuroscientists are always mapping particular states of emotions with different regions of the brain. You are familiar with expressions such as “when you are happy there is some activity in this part of your brain, when you are in love it’s like a fire works in this and that part of your brain, when you are meditating for a long time such and such parts of your brain which are associated with stress shrink, if you are good in math this part of your brain has a  5% larger size than an average person’s brain etc… ” Now this is a case of an unadulterated Fourier transform: mapping of organic emotions to brain activities and sizes. Here the basis functions are the different brain regions and the transformation involves some sort of representation (electrical, chemical etc…) of the states of these regions. It is now almost possible to tell your state of emotion by looking at the chemical content of each section of your brain. Some other domain such as the electrical state of a person, can also be chosen as a basis function to represent these states and understand them from a different light.

Now if the complete mapping of abstract emotions, which have long been considered subjective, to a different, perhaps more objective form were to become possible then one question should definitely be raised. Will this mark the end for these states to be considered personal i.e specific to each person or will the subjective endure and perhaps lead us to a third previously unknown dimension i.e subjective of the objective.