reduced echelon formI took linear algebra my last semester of college. On the day of the first exam, the professor entered the classroom and rhetorically asked us how we felt about the test, and the guy behind me said, “I can’t express my feelings in reduced echelon form.” He doesn’t know this, but I later quoted him on tumblr.  It was one of my most popular tumblr posts of all time, partly just because it sounds really deep and partly because someone who saw it came up with the brilliant idea of Echelon Poetry. I really wish that had caught on, even though I didn’t think much of the way some people interpreted that idea. Arranging words in a triangle is not the same as putting words in echelon form. I’m not sure how one would go about putting words in echelon form, but it fascinates me to imagine that there is a way.

But even if we are talking about actual matrices rather than poetry, I have an inclination to want to believe that it ought to be possible to describe emotions in reduced echelon form. There ought to be a way to notate feelings and then perform mathematical procedures to make sense of them.

My last attempt to do so lasted only two days, because there were just so many difficulties involved. How many different kinds of emotions are there? Is humor an emotion? What should the numerical scale be? One to ten? One to twelve? One to eight? One to six? Sixteen point twelve to thirty-nine and a half? Should the arithmetic be done in base ten or some other base? Should I use standard numerals or invent my own form of numerical notation specifically for the purpose of this exercise? Is there any logical reason to do so, or am I only considering that because I want my matrix to be nonsensical and enigmatic to everyone except myself? And perhaps most importantly, when I do the math and find an answer, what will that answer actually mean?

As it turns out, it’s a major inconvenience to carry around a notebook and commit to writing numbers in it every four hours. I could have changed my system so that I didn’t have to collect data so frequently, but I felt like that would compromise the accuracy. Between that inconvenience and the fact that I didn’t actually have any useful information to gain by proceeding with this plan, I ended it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try again at some point.

Maybe I’m just strange, but I find it horribly frustrating to be incapable of quantifying feelings. There are so many things in life that can be accurately and thoroughly described by little numbers written in little boxes. Those numbers are knowledge and power and safety; not only do they convey information, but they allow you to assume that the thing being described by those numbers is subject to all the normal rules of mathematics. But if something can’t be described in numbers, then it’s unclear what the rules are.

Once, I spent several weeks keeping track of my feelings on a one-dimensional scale from one to ten, while simultaneously assigning a numerical value to every noteworthy event in order to determine how much of an impact it should have on my mood. The point was to determine whether or not my mood was a logical and objective response to the events of my life. As you can probably guess, this experiment also ended mainly because it was absurdly time-consuming. But in the meantime, I noticed that, interestingly enough, my actual feelings corresponded very closely to what they should have been if they were in fact an objective response. This trend quite surprised me even though it was what I had hoped to discover.

As far as I can tell, there are three possible explanations. One is that I took such a subjective approach to the whole project that even the numerical values I assigned to events was determined based upon how I felt about it at that particular time. That is admittedly very likely, but given the fact that I made sure to keep those values constant when an event re-occurred, it would seem that the effects of this bias would have decreased over time, which wasn’t what my numbers indicated. The second possibility is that it’s actually true that my feelings are a rational and quantifiable response to external events. I’d like to believe that, but it seems extremely far-fetched. The third possibility is the really fascinating one. Maybe, the act of trying to quantify feelings is therapeutic in the sense that it actually regulates emotions to the extent that they actually do begin to function in a completely logical way. Maybe, by quantifying one’s emotions, one can actually make them follow an algorithm.

Whether the second or third of those possibilities is the correct answer, that’s a good reason to work towards the goal of finding a way to quantify feelings. But the fact remains that it’s mathematically ridiculous to do so, at least not without somehow taking neurological factors into consideration, allowing for differences between different people, and using an extremely well-informed psychology-based rationale for every aspect of the method of quantification. In other words, such an undertaking is well beyond my capabilities. I am forced to live with the annoying and frustrating reality that I cannot quantify my feelings.

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