What goes up, must come down

My newly revived brain cells have become a little too greedy. A serious case of overeating. Hubris even. I expected difficulties in learning new things, but I had assumed that anything I could do in my younger years, I would still be able do. Like riding a bike.

Eh, like riding a bike? I should have known better. When I came back to Holland, after some years at high school and then university in the UK, I was no longer able to cycle. Or sit on the back of one, as every Dutch child learns at an early age. My good friend Rik took it upon himself to re-teach me. Both of us were surprised when we ended up on the ground, with the bike on top of us. Laughing. It must be our hair colour, we giggled (we were both red-heads). It took a while, but eventually I manage to cycle again. Still, I have first-hand experience of the expression “you never forget how to ride a bike” to be wrong.

40 years old. At least.
My school book from Prince Henry’s High School, Evesham, UK.

So why would things be any different with maths or statistics? Given that I never used it after the psychology lab experiments in my second year? Never mind that I was good at it. Very good in fact. Use it or lose it. And I have lost it, I must admit. Still, I imagined I could easily pick things up again.

For the seminar in computational psycho-linguistics, we were suppose to revise basic probability theory. We were provided with a tutorial , but it looked exactly like what I had been taught at school. So I took out my 40-year old statistics book (which we were allowed to keep at the end of A-level Maths, I think because they were old already). Another fond memory flashed of my friend Phillipa when we were at school. She used to sit in the next cubicle, studying between classes. Such concentration we had then! I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself. I even did a summary on my concepts-wiki and felt pleased with myself for having overcome this little bump.

Armed with my re-found knowledge, well, a bit of it, I went to the introductory lecture. It went fine. I had signed up for the course to learn about different cognitive language models because I wanted to learn how to model them. I thought I might use this knowledge if for my PhD I would have to process large amount of text in search of some feature or other. The lecturer was clear, I could follow everything he told us, and I felt confident things would work out.

Two days after the lecture, I started to prepare for the next class. We were set a paper to read. I have attached it for your amusement. After three hours I started to scream silently. I could not understand it. At all. Now this happens occasionally. Usually the remedy is to find other papers on the same topic, in this case on letter and word recognition and how they interconnect. I did find another paper, and it did help – but nowhere near enough. One problem was that the paper I was supposed to understand, was full of complex-looking maths formulae. Which I might have been able to work out, if the concepts made any sense to me at all. But these psycho-linguists do not model the way that we do in digital architecture in my day-time job. It is all low-level stuff, with dials and detectors and connections and no recognisable functional design. They are not into defining their terms or describing the cognitive processes being modelled. It is all hard-core technical stuff. So there was nothing for me to grab on to. Well, there would have been, if I had retained my capacity for understanding formulae. I might have been able to work the thing backwards. But alas, that ability had gone. Forever, probably. Just live with it, you dim-witted woman.

I did not give up immediately. I got Husband to have a look at it. He hated it as well, but together we sort progressed a tiny bit. I emailed the lecturer and he gave some directions. I spent more hours on it. Then I had a look at next week’s paper. It was just as horrible. All low level processing without any recognisable functional design and lots and lots of maths. What was I doing to myself? Not giving up for the sake of not giving up? Eventually Husband asked: “Weren’t you doing this for fun?”. Ah yes. I had sort of forgotten. I don’t even like linguistics much. It was just the models I wanted. And the models definitely did not want me.

So, in the end I admitted defeat. Wrote to the lecturer to explain. I was commended for having tried. Yes, yes. This was something I cannot do. Alas. I signed off on the course. I am now officially out. Now I have more time to spend on my state-of-the-art paper that was going slowly. Once I stop complaining about myself to myself, that is.

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