Advice for a lonely college student

I couldn’t help responding to “I’m a really lonely college student. What can I do?” on Hacker News, the author’s despair felt horribly familiar from my own university years. I don’t have any easy answers, but I wanted to offer what I could from all the stumbling around I’ve done, searching and slowly finding happiness and connection. Here’s what I came up with, if you have ideas too maybe you can add them to the HN thread so the original poster might see them?


I found college completely crushing, especially because I’d built up wild hopes for it as an escape from my unhappy childhood. I don’t have any easy answers, but here’s some of the tools that helped me:

Exercise. I know, it sounds dumb, especially when you’re depressed and have no energy, but it’s an incredibly effective way of hacking your brain chemistry. Run, swim, bike, hike, just pick one and pour all your frustration, anger, and sadness into it.

Get a hobby. I spent a lot of time worrying about being interesting to others, which guaranteed I wouldn’t be. Being interesting is a many-body problem with lots of unknowns, but being interested is way more solvable. You can figure out what you like a lot more easily than you can guess what might make other people like you. Don’t rule something out because it seems dorky, I guarantee you’ll find other people who enjoy it too, even if it’s Lego or collecting old maps. It’s surprisingly hard to understand what you actually want though, especially if you’ve been focused on what other people think.

Beware of magical transformations. I got married at 19, driven by an overwhelming desire to completely change my life to find happiness. It didn’t work. I also took a lot of drugs. That didn’t work either. I saw other people get pulled into cult-like religions or extreme political groups. Drastic exterior changes don’t alter who you are, you’ll still have the same problems, no matter what anyone tells you. Focus on boring incremental improvements, like exercise and hobbies. I hated that idea, because I was in love with my life being dramatic and the basic stuff seemed so mundane, but it’s what ended up making a lasting difference.

I doubt I’d have even listened to my present-day self when I was 19, but I hope there’s something in there that helps you. Life really does get better.

Five short links


Photo by Joe Baz

Tech’s untapped talent pool – I’m a massive fanboy of sociologists, they can reliably answer questions about human behavior in ways that are light-years ahead of most data analysis you see online. Data science’s big advantage is that we have massive new sources of information, and more data beats better algorithms, but I’m excited to see what happens when sociology’s algorithms meet the online world’s data!

ZIP codes are not areas – This one confused the hell out of me when I started getting serious about geo data, but the only true representation of ZIPs is as point clouds, where every building with an address is a point. The spatial patterns make drawing a boundary even for a single moment in time hard enough, but as houses are built and demolished, the layout changes in unexpected ways.

It’s hard not to leak timing information – A cautionary tale of how tough it can be to be sure even a simple function like a string comparison doesn’t give away useful information to a malicious user.

PLOS mandates data availability. Is this a good thing? – We all love open data and reproducible science, but there are hard practical problems around the mechanics of making big data sets available, ensuring they’ll be downloadable over the long term, and avoiding deanonymization attacks.

Better performance at lower occupancy – Processors are incredibly complicated beasts, and our simple mental models break down when we’re trying to squeeze the last drops of performance out of them. This is a great example of how even the manufacturers don’t understand how to best use their devices, as a Berkeley researcher demonstrates how to get far better performance from an Nvidia GPU than the documented best practices allow.

A walk around Andy Goldsworthy’s Presidio sculptures

A friend recently introduced me to Andy Goldsworthy’s work, through the Rivers and Tides documentary, so I was excited to see some of his ‘land art’ up close in San Francisco’s Presidio Park. The official site has some great background, but I couldn’t find a good guide to exploring all three of his scattered pieces, so here’s a quick rundown and map showing how I ended up navigating around. The hike itself is roughly two miles long, with well-maintained trails, and a few hundred feet of climbing but nothing too terrible.


Parking can be tough in the Presidio, but thankfully it was a rainy Super Bowl Sunday, so I found a spot in a small two-hour free parking section behind the Inn at the Presidio. I was actually originally aiming for the Inspiration Point parking lot, but that turned out to be closed for construction, so I was thankful to find something close to where I needed to be. There is plenty of paid parking nearer the Disney museum too, just a couple of blocks away, if you do get stuck.

There’s a trailhead and map at the parking lot, and from there I headed up the Ecology Trail, a reasonably steep fire road towards Inspiration Point. Once I reached the under-construction lot there, the view was beautiful, even on a wet day, looking out over Alcatraz and the bay. If you look away from the water, you should be able to see the top of Andy’s ‘Spire’ sculpture. As of February 2014, the construction made the normal trail to it inaccessible, so I ended up hiking a couple of hundred yards right along Arguello Boulevard, and then taking a use trail up to the main trail. It’s easy to navigate with the peak of the sculpture to guide you at least.

The piece itself is a tall narrow cone of unfinished tree trunks, all anchored deep in the ground and leaning in on each other. My first visit was at twilight, which gave it a very stark and striking silhouette, and it pays to find a spot where you can see it against the horizon, it’s hard to take it all in up close.

I then headed back to the Inspiration Point parking lot, and went back down to rejoin the Ecology trail, and continued along it almost to the edge of the park. I then followed the trail that parallels West Pacific Avenue all the way to the Lovers Lane bridleway. Just on the other side of Lovers Lane is the second Goldsworthy work, ‘Wood Line’. It’s a series of tree trunks with their barks stripped, arranged in a continuous snaking line for a thousand feet or so, starting and ending by disappearing into the earth. The look alone is very striking, but I also couldn’t resist the urge to walk along the whole length. I’d normally be horrified at the thought of clambering on public sculpture, but it didn’t feel like a bad way to interact with the work, it’s so open to the elements, and it forced me to look closely at it just to avoid slipping off!



Photo by Joanne Ladolcetta

Afterwards, I continued down Lovers Lane to its end at Presidio Boulevard, and then headed left along Barnard Avenue. There are a set of steps on the right that lead back to the parking lot, so I stopped by the car and dropped off my pack. The final piece is inside the old Powder Magazine, a couple of blocks away at the corner of Anza and Sheridan. I headed there by turning left along Moraga, and then right down Graham. The building itself is easy to spot, standing alone in the middle of the green near the Disney Museum, and right now is open 10am to 4pm on the weekend, and at other times by appointment.

‘Tree Fall’ is a giant eucalyptus fork, jammed into the roof of the 20 foot square building, with the tree and curved ceiling all covered in local clay that’s been allowed to crack naturally as it dries. The effect is like being inside a giant body, staring at arteries, especially as the only light is what comes in through the door way. The docent was able to give us some background too, apparently the piece is expected to stay for the next three or four years, and the binding they used for the clay was hair from a salon around the corner from my house. There’s apparently a new documentary coming too, and shows Andy’s children, who were young kids in the 2000 film, coming out to San Francisco to help assemble this piece.

Looking at all three works in the same day left me looking at the landscape of the Presidio a little differently, so I hope you get a chance to explore what he’s trying to do too.