The Importance of Spoiled Milk

In my math class a few weeks ago, we learned the concept of optimization. To optimize a function, you essentially look at how a process works and critique it so that it is best suited for a particular situation. These can include a company trying to maximize its profits, a dog trying to swim across a river or a smuggler trying to fit the most illegal documents in the sides of a box with the least amount of weight (a real test problem). In our class that afternoon, the students of Math 575 were attempting to conduct a train. Not just any train, mind you, but a train that could only move either to the north or to the east, and at separate speeds for each direction. Our task was to find the optimum distances one should travel in each direction to reach the destination in the minimum amount of time—optimization in action. Class started at 2:00 p.m. We set out to work—chalk everywhere and pencils scratching. We figured out a function that would describe the situation, differentiated that function, algebraically manipulated the derivative and then plugged the result into the original equation to come up with an answer. As the chalk settled and pencils were put down, I looked up at the clock. It was 2:25. We had spent the past 25 minutes wringing our hands and biting on our pens to come up with an answer. By optimizing the situation, we would reach the train station in ten minutes, hypothetically speaking. Ten minutes. Let’s say we were actually the conductors of this imaginary train, and as such, didn’t have the luxury to spend 25 minutes calculating our optimum path. How long would it have taken us to arrive at the train station the normal, un-optimized route? Eleven minutes. Essentially, we spent 25 minutes sweating onto our notebooks and gritting our teeth to save a minute of hypothetical time. If we had been delivering something that spoils easily, say, milk, the odor in that train would have been pungent by the time we arrived at the station had it been a particularly blistering day. This revelation induced a fit of chuckles in the class, but we soon moved on to another topic. And that’s when it hit me. Not the train, but something else. Even though, in all seriousness, we would have been horrible conductors, we were good mathematicians. While the train wasn’t actually moving, the circuits in our brains were sparking. We were processing the writing on the chalk board and storing that newfound information for future use, filing the process of optimization under the category of calculus in the vast storage system of our minds. And, unlike a filing folder in real life, the many files in our brains are free to roam, shuffle around and rearrange themselves in order to draw up the relevant information at relevant times. Essentially, we were learning from the process, and that’s what was important. Calculating the optimum figures was worth it, not for the time we could have saved (because, like I mentioned, the milk would have spoiled), but for the journey on the tracks itself. The slow “I think I can. I think I can.” of the passage was the point, not the destination. The problem with people though, is that we don’t seem to realize that what awaits us at the train station might not be as important or worthwhile as the process we undertake to get there. We focus on the destination—the far off train station, whose location and distance from us is unclear. In doing so, we ignore our seatmates, passing by the opportunity for a good conversation (who knew his favorite book was “Franny and Zooey” as well?). We close our eyes, for sleep will make time pass by quicker, and miss the chance to admire the rolling hills and deep sunset that make up the scenery outside. I’ve come to realize that one can apply this phenomenon—this focus on reaching the hypothetical train station, to nearly every aspect of life. There’s the obvious example, the one most relevant to us as high school students in a competitive environment: college. In our endless pursuit for perfect scores on our path to the “perfect life,” we’ve channeled all of our energies and every inch of our passions into reaching and stretching for that ultimate goal: the (salary-filled) pot at the end of the rainbow of educational hierarchy After all, after you receive your college acceptance letter you still have graduate school, and then the real-life work force awaiting you. In essence, we’ve ignored the journey in pursuit of the goal. We pass by the subtle life lessons in “Huckleberry Finn” to focus on the thesis statements and the four-star essay quotes. It’s a travesty, but one that we’ve accepted. But that’s not where the analogy ends. The significance of the process over the result is everywhere. Maybe you’ve noticed or maybe you haven’t—someone put up a sign next to the paper cups in Commons that reads “Only take a paper cup if you’re leaving.” Will very many people take the time to notice that sign and really think about its implications? Probably not. Did the maker of that sign get something back from making it? Yes, albeit in a small way. The process of typing up a few lines, printing it out and sticking it into a plastic holder in Commons has intrinsic worth beyond just the few wax-lined paper cups that would be saved from community dumpsters. That one person will probably think twice before drinking his coffee from an unsustainable container. That’s one person whose life has been changed from the process, rather than the outcome. The conductor rings his bell. You wake up and look out the window for the first time, the station growing larger and larger as the train slows to a stop. You pick up your bags and step onto the platform of your destination—college, success, heaven or whatever it is that you’ve been working towards your entire life. The station is empty—your seatmates have left you for their own destinations, and you don’t feel any different than you’ve ever felt. Michelle Ma is a three-year Upper from Walnut, CA and Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.