Thanos, the Protagonist

The following post has MAJOR spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
Do not read if you haven’t seen the movie.


Avengers: Infinity War was a real treat. I found myself highly enjoying the
action, the humor, and the last ten years of superheroes all sharing the screen
together.

Though there were lots of parts I loved about the movie, what makes the story
especially excellent is Thanos. Here is a villain for whom most MCU fans have
been patiently waiting since we saw glimpses of him at the end of the first
Avengers film. And yet, in Infinity War, it isn’t his villainy that makes him
a powerful adversary (though he is an excellent villain). Instead, it’s how
the screenwriters, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, walk us through the
narrative from Thanos’ perspective, giving us emotional insight that has
previously only been ascribed to the heroes in this universe. Reminding us what
Thanos has had to lose in order to achieve his goal of eliminating half the
universe to end suffering makes his plight all that more relatable.
In my opinion, it makes him the protagonist.

In most conventional stories on screen, you can follow the main character
through something called the “Hero’s Journey”: this is the cycle of events that
drive the plot and make the character who they are. Dan Harmon, the
screenwriter behind Commmunity, lays it out in 8 simple steps
here:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

What I found was remarkable in this story is that there’s really only one
character who experiences a full journey of this kind so explicitly: Thanos.
Thanos exists in the universe, but he’s plagued by the suffering he saw
overpopulation bring to his home. Driven by this, he travels to planets around
the universe, non-discrimantly killing half the inhabitants in an act of what
he deems as charity. But it’s brutal, and Thanos himself acknowledges it. What
he wants is a merciful way to eliminate half the universe. And so begins his
quest to collect all of the Infinity Stones—together, they can remove half
the universe with the snap of a finger. It’s mercy, he says.

To do so, he needs to fight off a whole new set of adversaries: The Avengers
(and friends). Thanos is all powerful, but that doesn’t stop the Avengers from
getting in a couple of pretty awesome beatdowns. This is something he needs to
learn how to adapt to. The really important part, however, is not just
figuring out how to beat the crap out of each of the avengers, but instead, how
identifying how to to acquire the soul stone, which hadn’t appeared in any
previous movies. In order to do so, he learns, he must sacrifice something he
truly loves. A soul for a soul.

Through this sacrifice, we see not only the price that Thanos must pay
(everything, as he succinctly says at the end of the movie), but also his
fundamental character change. He is wraught with anguish and grief at the
thought of killing his daughter in his plight to save the universe. However, he
proclaims that he has turned from his destiny before (he was not strong enough
to do something like this in the psat) and that he will not let that happen
again (he has changed). He kills Gamora, receiving the soul
stone in return, putting him steady on the path to Universal annihilation.
By the end of the movie, he’s returned back to the universe, having changed,
and succeeding in his major goal.

As far as stories go, this is actually pretty basic. It follows very closely
what an audience would expect to happen. But the reason it’s shocking is
because Thanos isn’t the “hero”. He’s the villain. And this is what brings me
back to why I think this movie was excellent—the filmmakers subverted my
expectations through the entire movie by making a movie that was actually not
about the Avengers at all, but instead about a distraught Titan simply trying
to make right in the universe.

Why Do Art?

I recently had a great conversation with a friend, Jordan Liu
about art and why we choose to make it.

Context: For the last year or so, Jordan and I have been working on a musical.
As we were wrapping up our writing session for the day, we got into a
conversation about what we were going to do with it once it was “finished”.
Neither of us have “sold” a lengthy project like a musical before, so we spent
some time discussing how easy or difficult we thought that process would be.

Based on this idea, Jordan
suggested he would be more satisfied if we reached 1000 true fans that would
“spend $100 on us” rather than reaching a million people who were less
invested. At first, I thought that this was totally at odds with my idea about
where I wanted the musical to go. In my mind, there was no question. Of course
I would prefer one million people to engage with my art over 1000 people! Who
wouldn’t?

Then, Jordan really got me thinking. What good would it do if a million people
saw our story but got nothing from it? Wouldn’t it actually be much better to
have 1000 people who it truly, deeply impacted? After all, we make art to do
just that - engage with people as humans, not as numbers. Well, wait. Now I’m
confused. Why is it that I make art?

Typically, the reasons for why I work on something is because I think it can
change the world (yes, I understand that sounds naive and silly, but it’s how I
think about things!) Well, in what ways can art change the world? It could
certainly entertain people. That’s one way. But does that really help “move the
needle forward” on the things that plague our society today, like too many mass
shootings or racial injustice? Probably not. However, I do like to tell myself
that it can help, maybe in ways that are unseen.

Take the example of the TV show “Atlanta”. To me, Atlanta is a delightfully
humanist look into the lives of black people just living. This is a
remarkably simple idea, but one with so much power - in my mind, if Atlanta can
build empathy with average Americans about how black people live and go
through relatable struggles, maybe, just maybe, that will improve race
relations in this country. But of course, saying that out loud makes me feel
like a total idiot. Of course TV can’t fix racism. Suggesting that it can
trivializes hundreds of years of brutal mistreatment of PoCs in this country.

Back to the question. If my art doesn’t really help anyone, then what’s the
point? Why do I insist that it must be created, engaged with, seen, critiqued,
and made better? Part of me knows it’s honestly just because I find it fun, and
we all like doing things that are fun for us. Another part of me yearns for
there to be a deeper reason. Who knows? I haven’t figured it out yet. In the
meanwhile, I’ll keep making stuff. Maybe someday it’ll really change the
world.

The importance of a good research environment

My group recently had a “retreat”, where we sat around and talked to eachother
about lab culture and where we wanted to go next. I thought it was a really
insightful discussion, and reminded me of some of the things that contribute to
my very productive and happy research environment.

  1. My advisor is almost always available. Unlike many other advisors, Bailey
    makes sure he is always around to talk about research. In fact, he’s
    taken it to the extreme. He’s foregone his office and converted it into a lab
    conference room, and sits in the lab with us every day. It keeps him closer to
    the research, and more importantly, closer to us as graduate students. A lot
    of graduate students have advisors who hole themselves up in their offices,
    and as a result feel nervous and anxious during meetings with them. With this
    strategy, there’s literally no walls between me and my advisor. People may think
    this is insane, but I think it’s helped me a lot in keeping me honest about my
    progress. It’s also somewhat reassuring to see that professors slack off too
    sometimes.

  2. Technical debates, regardless of your status in the lab, don’t leave you feeling
    like you’re stupid. This is in part because my advisor welcomes debate - in fact,
    he often says that the day that you have an argument with him about a graph and win
    is the day he knows you’re ready to graduate. However, these aren’t hostile in any
    way - they’re all productive and espouse a culture of growth rather than a culture
    of shame. This is something the graduate students try to do a good job of to, and
    make for a really welcoming educational environment.

  3. We have fun. Last Friday, 4 members of my lab picked up a number of rubber ducks
    and tried to juggle them. Why? I dunno. But it was fun. In a time where most of
    your life is your work, having an environment where the coworkers work
    and play hard is really important.

  4. We work in an open environment. There are no cubes. Hell, there aren’t even
    desks. We come in, grab a spot, and get to work. There are quiet offices where we
    can escape the bustle of the lab if we need as well, but having that open space
    really helps facilitate great discussion and also keeps everyone keenly aware of
    what everyone else is working on, by virtue of overhearing random research
    conversations.

Creative Writing and Academic Writing

I’ve spent a sizable amount of time in the last year and half writing. This is
par for the course for any graduate student—if you want to share your
research with the world, you’ll need to write about it. Since ~May of 2017,
however, I’ve also gotten into creative writing by way of writing screenplays
and stage plays. This has doubled the amount of writing I find myself doing.
I’ve noticed that there’s a really interesting structural connection between
academic writing and creative writing, at least in the context of writing for
the screen.

One of the most important rules in storytelling is making it very clear what
each character’s intention is. In other words, what is it that the character
wants? You need to be very clear about this up front, or you’ll have a hard
time getting any viewer or reader excited about what the character does next.
In the same sense, with technical writing, you need to be very explicit about a
problem that exists, and how your research addresses that problem. I’ve read
tons of papers in the last year, and while you can write a good paper without
being incredibly explicit about the problem up front, you won’t write a great
paper this way. The best papers are the ones that give me a fantastic sense for
the problem up front, and are very clear about how the research will solve that
problem. The researchers will present the challenges associated with doing said
research (i.e., obstacles to the character as they try to achieve their goals),
and culminates with results of the research (a character experiences growth as
a result of their journey). I think this is an interesting way to approach
writing academic work, and conversely, a nice structural way to analyze
screenplays. It’s definitely started helping me in my work.

Writing a graduate school application

It’s almost December, so it’s about that time that people kick
it into high gear to apply to graduate school. I’ve had a few of my
close friends reach out to me and ask me to review their statements of
purpose, to which I told them they were crazy for trusting me to know
such a thing. But then again, that’s what I did two years ago to my
2nd year PhD friends, so maybe it’s not so crazy. I’m writing this to
compile a list of thoughts I had on writing statement for graduate school
applications.

  1. The “Statement of Purpose” is aptly named - it is a statement of
    your purpose. What is it that you want to do? And implicit to
    that question, why is it that you want to do it? Consider this
    as your thesis statement for your argument. For example, “I want to do a PhD
    so I can become a professor that does research in X”. Alternatively,
    “I want to do an MS to position myself better for Y job”. Every sentence
    you write afterwards needs to build to that point.

  2. Don’t tell people that you’ve been in love with your subject since you were
    a young lassie (really, I’ve read something like this). It’s cliche and
    people will instantly throw your statement away. Get right to the point
    and state your purpose in the first sentence.

  3. Be aware that most statements get looked at for maybe 3 minutes, max.
    There are a lot of great applicants, and professors have fairly limited
    time. You want to make sure that if someone is skimming your statement
    quickly, they can pull out the important points fairly easily. I like
    to do this by having the first sentence of each paragraph immediately say
    what the point of that paragraph will be, without forcing the reader to tease
    out the details.

  4. Mostly for Research Statements: Make sure it is clear what you want to
    do research in. Level 1 is simply saying you want to do research. Level 2 is
    putting in some work to ask a few questions about the research that you’d like to
    do. Level 3 is when you have done a deep literature dive and found a problem
    area specifically that you want to tackle. That is awesome, but by no means required
    (I got barely to Level 2 in my statements).

Overall, these are some guidelines for writing a good SoP. I’m attaching the SoP I
wrote for graduate school here, primarily because I found that there was a lack of
SoPs available when I was applying to graduate school in CS. I have tons of other
thoughts that I don’t have time to write down here, so I’ll just leave it at that.
If you have questions, feel free to email me at dkumar11@illinois.edu.

The Value of Professional Upkeep

I have been working a lot on my professional profile the last few weeks, primarily
because I’m gearing up to submit an NSF GRFP application.
Since the beginning of graduate school, I’ve been a bit wary of “professionalism” and
“doing professional things”, mostly because I think it makes you take yourself too seriously,
which I believe is bad for actually getting work done. That being said, being forced to do
so has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise, as it’s made me focus a lot on what exactly
I want to do.

Two things are required for the NSF application. There’s a research proposal and a personal
statement. I’ll talk about how each has helped me in the last few weeks.

The research proposal:

This piece is simple in theory—write a proposal on some research you’re planning on doing.
In practice, this is much harder to do. It’s easy to get bogged down with 10 million ideas, but
NSF isn’t asking for 10 million, they’re asking for one. It’s helped me really narrow my focus,
and think critically about one problem I’d like to tackle and how I plan to tackle that one problem.
For me, this was awesome. I love thinking of tons of problems and hackney solutions to those problems
, but rarely spend time to focus on how to solve just one thing really techincally, let alone write it
on a piece of paper. Even if my ideas don’t pan out, it’s definitely a skill that a grad student should
get better at, and I feel I’ve gotten better at is in the last few weeks. Yay, personal growth. In addition,
the prompts mandate that you pull out both the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of your work, which
I believe are the cornerstone to any scientific endeavor (Pasteur agrees with me).
You should start thinking about how your research fits into these categories broadly, as they
will help shape the end results of your research. At least, I think so.

The personal statement

I hate writing about myself. A lot of my friends in academia also hate writing about themselves. That
makes the personal statement a special kind of hellish request. 3 pages of “I’m awesome” is enough to really
bring me down. That being said, I think there’s a way to write about yourself in a way that doesn’t
come off as totally boorish. At least, I hope so, since I employed that technique to write my
personal statement!

Annoying Writing

My advisor told me yesterday my academic writing was annoying. In a quest to
be a better writer, I am mostly documenting this as a set of notes for me.

  1. Don’t try too hard. I am a mega culprit of this, and often use words that,
    while they sound cool, offer little meaning to the sentence.
  2. Never overstate. Science is about just presenting what you’ve done.
  3. Verb choice is really important.
  4. Stop using passive voice. I use lots of passive voice in my first drafts of
    things, and it just leads to bad writing. Utilize the “by zombies” trick when you
    are in doubt. (http://auwritingcenter.blogspot.com/2012/10/identify-passive-voice-with-zombies.html)
  5. Avoid statements that don’t add anything. In the context of a paper about social media being used to
    identify disinformation campsigns, a sentence like “Social media is the new frontier for disinformation campaigns”
    is a terrible sentence. It doesn’t add anything to the writing.

Being a First Year CS PhD student

I just submitted the last paper that I started during my first year, so I am
officially deeming my first year as done. Now that it’s over, I’m writing
this down to reflect on how the year has gone, and hope that my musings may
help you (the reader) as you navigate your first year as well.

  1. Imposter syndrome is real. It takes a long time to get used to being “in charge”
    of research and being an academic peer that professors will listen to. Don’t let it
    hamper your curiosity.
  2. Find an advisor that you can be friends with. Some people prefer
    “professional relationships with their advisor”—but I can’t imagine what my first
    year would be like if my advisor didn’t act like a friend to me from day 1.
  3. Make friends with your labmates. If they are shy, force them to be your friend.
    A good group culture leads to better discussions which leads to better ideas and
    as a result, better research. It’s only been one year, but I’m happy to call my lab
    mates my close friends.
  4. Show up in the lab, even if you aren’t doing anything valuable. You learn a lot
    from others in your lab by just being there, and it sets up a good habit for
    when you are going to be doing this all the time in future years.
  5. Tell your advisor you want to start on research immediately. You never know
    what projects are just sitting around waiting for people to do things on them.
  6. (Controversial, I think) Pay attention only in the classes that matter to your
    research, and do the minimum for everything else. More time on task for research
    is the most important thing.
  7. Jump on as many things as you can. Failure is okay, especially in your first
    year. Find your breaking point, then adjust.
  8. Have fun. Research is supposed to be fun, and so is grad school.