Saturday, March 18, 2017

Winter 2017 Recap: Academics

This quarter has been one of the most challenging I've ever had. I feel as though I've grown a lot, although I don't know if that's actually true. Can I point to any one thing that is different about how I move through the world now? I feel more solid as a person, more capable. My confidence in my leadership has increased a lot. Some of the old hunger, which didn't exactly leave, is back--the hunger to do all the Silicon Valley buzzwords--disrupt, innovate, etc. I still don't know what I want to do once I graduate but I am on a path to find out.

At the same time, I am incredibly fatigued. I'm writing this on Saturday after dead week, going into finals week, and let me tell you: I did nothing productive yesterday. Absolutely nothing. As a consequence I have a boatload of stuff to get done this week, especially today and tomorrow, but I just could not work yesterday. My way of life is unsustainable, and the only reason I've been able to get through this quarter is because I am young and in good health. This can't last. Thankfully, this is the only quarter in which I'll be taking five civil engineering classes.

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Ricochet - Starset

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Things I learned from my classes this quarter:

When you take five classes, you can't put enough effort into each one as they deserve. Still, I got quite a lot out of my classes this quarter. An increased urgency that things need to change and change fast: the environment is not going to heal under the BAU case, and the way we do things now is beyond screwed up. Energy efficiency is good, it makes economic sense, it improves quality of life--there's just so much low-hanging fruit here. The construction industry is ripe for change, both in the practices and processes of how things get done and in the mindset we bring to buildings. Rome fanatic that I am, I have been more and more trying to keep an eye on infinity. I want to build things to last, I want to build systems that are resilient, that can sustain themselves hundreds, thousands of years into the future. This is what I mean by the old hunger: I am asking myself, more and more lucidly, what do you have to do to die satisfied?

At the same time, I am more and more impressed by the value of and need for a deep and broad body of experience and empirical knowledge. My legal aspects of engineering class resonated the least with me, but still--the law has a long history, different contexts have different interpretations of the same words, and the answer is always "it depends." Our professor told us up front not to look for information on the internet because we didn't have the experience to parse out what is and is not relevant, what could and could not apply. I don't buy that 100% but I do think that the more I learn what I don't know, the more I see why it's dangerous not to know that.

On a more tangible level, in my concrete class, most of the equations we use are empirically derived. There's a lot of respect for empirical methods, for empirically derived results. We cast and tested concrete beams and cylinders, and despite all our imperfect workmanship, it all behaved beautifully. This was my favorite class, partly because it felt the most real, partly because the instructor is someone I've already worked with for various extracurrics, partly because the way the class was taught emphasized understanding principles and processes. And it was the class in which I felt I could ask good questions, which actually furthered my knowledge.

I took a CEE elective that I've been waiting to take for two years, and it was...not actually as awesome of an experience as I'd built it up to be. But the lab--the lab was great. The professor is something of a legend in the department, having taught the class for decades, and is always driving toward the most up-to-date information, towards innovation, towards "hacking"/reverse engineering standards, to taking things apart to figure out how they work. This class went a little farther along the spectrum between rigor and empiricism than concrete, past my optimal point--that is, sometimes it feels like I'm pushing equations around without understanding the physical significance of each term, which I categorically do not like.

Overall, although I've been put through the academic grinder this quarter (will my GPA survive? To be determined), I feel more and more certain that civil is the right track for me. The problems that civil engineering seeks to solve are the problems that I seek to solve. I've been hanging around architects more often this quarter and as a consequence have been thinking more about how people interact with the built environment, how huge of an impact it really does have on people's quality/way of life. I feel, more strongly than before, the power and potential we have.

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I'm going to lump my extracurrics in this post as well, because they're all civil anyways:

Grad students are hard to lead. We are really behind on organizing things for next quarter. Industry people don't seem to care much what you learn in school, yet they will present things that are very complicated and hard for a lay person to follow, which makes me think that their academic knowledge is just so ingrained that they don't realize anymore how specialized the knowledge is.

My competition team has been much more of a growth experience for me. We did very, very well at competition across the board, and some choices I made as captain certainly helped get us there. Of course I made mistakes too, but I'm happy with my overall strategy, i.e.: giving people responsibilities and encouraging debate and differing opinions. I can't think of everything and I don't know best. I'm less self-assured than the previous captain but I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing, because it makes me more cautious, it makes me double-check, and it means that other people on the team get more of a voice. There's also a difference between effective delegation and not doing work and I definitely put in my share of work. But giving people opportunities to succeed, giving them opportunities to earn praise and recognition, is good. I'm much more about positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Still not sure if thanking people for their work means that they'll be less inclined to do it (because it seems like "above and beyond" to do anything) or if they'll feel appreciated.

We had a grad student advisor who actually did stuff this year, and the expertise he brought was very, very valuable. We also got feedback from professors on our presentation, which strengthened it a lot. Rely on people who know more than you do. Even busy people often enjoy the chance to be a mentor, to provide guidance.

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With my deeper immersion in the major, the question of my future has come into sharper focus. Structural engineering or sustainable construction? I think that structural engineering would be more intellectually fulfilling to the part of me that remembers how good it feels to understand a math concept and feel it fit into a deeper framework of knowledge. It seems higher, more abstract, more rigorous. But at the same time, I want to work on real problems. The problems in the industry don't come from not having good enough math, they come from misaligned incentives and skewed priorities and bad processes.

I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I will be working this summer for a construction company, as hands-on as it gets without actually being in the trades. I'm hoping to gain a lot of insight and clarity from that.

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Second post coming after finals about the non-academic stuff that's been going on this quarter.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Week 8 Update

The past few weeks have been busy through a mix of academics and extracurrics. I'm actually trying to get a draft of another assignment done tonight and have a lot to get done this weekend since I'm out next week Monday through Friday for a competition. At the moment I'm feeling okay since a big event went really well tonight, but I'm exhausted. Trying to stay positive because it's somewhat silly to take on a lot of commitments and then complain about them. Still. Exhausted. I've been a lot more assertive about my boundaries lately because certain people drain my energy real fast and I don't have a lot of energy to spare. Not a way of viewing people that I particularly enjoy but that's what I've been doing.

I have a few post topics that I've promised for a month or so, but here are some assorted thoughts.

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Leading people takes a lot of delegating and a lot of patience. Am I being fake or diplomatic? Am I being assertive or authoritarian? To overwork a reliable person or push responsibility onto a slacker who might flake? How many reminders do people need? I've become a lot more knowledgeable about what kind of a person I am, particularly under pressure. When faced with a negative surprise situation, I freeze initially. My first action after unfreezing is to seek more information, to try to determine what the threat is and how to contain it. I like having decisions made but I will agonize over them, get multiple second opinions, double check. The final stretch is always more protracted than I expect. I've gotten better at estimating how long things will take in the middle section though. If someone has done something praiseworthy, I won't shut up about it--I like to give credit where credit is due.

I am very different around different friends and the most important predictor is the rate at which the other person drains my energy. Like I said, I don't like thinking about people like this, I don't like that this is an important metric for me, but it is. I have low energy levels and being around some people for too long makes me wrung out and useless. I may ignore my body when it tells me to go the hell to sleep, but I don't ignore it when it tells me who to spend more or less time around.

A couple of weeks ago I had a health situation that ended up being just fine (I had a symptom of what could be something serious but it's benign) and it's made me more aware of my physical form. I don't like this. I suppress my dysphoria by not thinking about my physical form. To my friends in mech e and in AI, when the hell are we getting robot bodies? I've been thinking lately about being visibly LGBT* and how I don't want people who are potentially transphobic to know anything about me, but at the same time want to communicate to other people who are LGBT that I'm trans. This is somewhat self-serving because I know I feel safer around people if I'm more sure that they "get it." E.g. I saw that one of my TAs had a laptop sticker from the LGBT STEM group on campus and all of a sudden he's my favorite TA ever (also he's a good TA).

*I go back and forth about the use of the word "queer" because most people in the community at my school are totally okay with it, but it's got a history of being used as a slur so I want to learn more before using terms whose weight I don't understand.

At the same time, I'm aware that just being in the same minority group as someone else doesn't mean that we're automatically friends. I shared some fairly personal stuff with someone I talked to twice in freshman year because they started blogging about their gender experience and their transition, but I'm not going to pretend that I know all about their life or that we're entitled to one another's full set of experiences. Mostly, I'm afraid that if I come out to someone, that I'll then have to disclose other personal details that I'm not ready to share. And of course no one can extract that information from me but if I say "I'm nonbinary" then...I don't know. I'm still mostly closeted so I may be magnifying my fears.

To be honest, the clothing post was mostly written to remind myself that I do have control over some aspects of how I'm perceived. I may not be able to remove organs on my own but I can buy sweaters and jeans from the men's section. I can keep my hair short and try to speak in a lower register and avoid thinking about my physical form.

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It's been at least a few years since I read anything by Malcolm Gladwell, but I'm remembering a phrase that I'm pretty sure comes from one of his books--the power of the weak tie. As a junior who has been involved in a decent number of things, I find that I am acquainted and on friendly terms with a surprisingly large number of people. Been thinking about this lately because at some point in the past month I emailed someone who interviewed me two years ago on behalf of a sophomore I know from a club I no longer am in, to their mutual benefit. I value depth in my friendships, so the power of weak ties surprised me a lot. It also felt more transactional than what I prefer for interactions--which appears to be a theme here. I hope that becoming an adult isn't all like this.

This summer I'm going to be working for a construction company and construction is all about relational bonds, from what I hear. In an industry presentation I went to today the presenters all but said that you have to capitalize upon your personality.

Small wonder that sometimes I get home after a day spent around people and instead of wanting to be alone, want to be around my people. Reminding myself that there's more to relationships than the transaction.

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Apparently, this is the kind of post I write at 02.00 at the end of a very long week. Wish me luck on my four assignments.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Updated Thoughts on Style

Last week I promised two posts would be upcoming: one about Islamophobia and one about my current story WIP. Those are in the works, but here's a brief detour about style. Because.

I think the last time I wrote on this topic was in fall quarter freshman year, when I said something along the lines of "my refusal to be stylish is an expression of self-centeredness and defiance of femininity" (Unstyled Arrogance, October 2014). Since then I've 1) realized I'm trans and 2) started working on my misogyny*.

*Since I'm not a woman I don't get to call it "internalized misogyny."

A large component of my angst around appearance was my hatred for feminine gender roles and expectations. Everything was lumped into the one bucket of style=fashion=feminine=frivolous=decorative. It wasn't until I started thinking about gender more that I had a change in mindset with respect to the clothes I put on myself. Namely: style and appearance communicate something about you to other people. But "don't dress for other people" doesn't mean "pursue a bland aesthetic to show that you're better than the other girls." Instead, it means go for functionality and comfort.

This change is driven more by getting older than anything else, i.e. chilling out. The clothes people wear can be a platform for communicating their values and personalities and so on and so forth, but one can also stick the middle finger up to the fashion industry and its way of preying on people's (primarily women's) insecurities and aspirations by just...going for functionality. I don't know. It isn't that deep. But I think that in high school and the first part of college I was too preoccupied by how my clothes communicated to other people when really what matters to me about clothing is what it does for me.

(I blame, in part, the lack of weather in California, for my prior mindset. Because I don't really have to dress for weather here, the functionality of clothes has always been somewhat abstract. The decorative aspect is much more prominent.)

What decisions have I made, in this evolved mindset? For one, 100% of the pants I wear on a regular basis are sourced from the Old Navy men's section. The numbers on the pants make sense, there are pockets large enough that you can put a pen in one and forget that it's there, they're more comfortable (particularly if you're moving around a lot), and the material is sturdier. I don't expect to have to buy more pants in college. Luckily I have no curves, so I've noticed no issues with fit; it feels like there's plenty of room so if your waist and hip measurements are significantly different, splitting the difference is probably a good place to start.

Last year, only a few months after I'd (finally) figured out that I'm trans, I remember feeling dysphoric over shirts buttoning the wrong way. Not to diminish the way I felt then, but really, that's not a big deal. Which way a shirt buttons does not affect its functionality as a shirt. (Although as with pants, men's shirts seem sturdier.) As I try to become more of a professional, I'll probably need to head back to the women's section for shirts that fit, but the elusive men's S and XS shirts are excellent. Also, for some reason, easier to find in Germany than in the US (?). Rolling up your sleeves and tucking your shirt into your pants can help make shirts that are too big wearable but they still won't really look sharp. Shirts that have a chest pocket are prime since you can put pens and other stuff there.

In going after functionality, I have acquired three sweaters in the past year--one directly prior to leaving for Germany, one in Berlin, one in Hamburg. They are all of slightly different weights, for versatility in colors that go with anything.

Socks: I like black socks because you can't tell if they're dirty and there's just something sharper about them. But having warm socks is also important (to my sister--thanks for the Christmas gifts).

I have thought some about aesthetics, because I need to admit that I do care what I look like and that I want to look put together. Most of my "style experimentation" in the past year has been layering different articles of clothing and thinking about which colors go well together.

My "uniform" is a button down and a sweater, i.e. dressing like a retired German history professor (i.e. my host dad). Advantages: you look academic and like you care at least a little. Disadvantages: if the sweater is on you can't use the chest pocket, and if you roll up the sleeves of the sweater then the sleeves of the shirt get in the way, and if you pre-roll the shirt's sleeves then there's an awkward bump right above your elbow.

A slightly more casual version is a t-shirt and a sweater. Advantages: the sleeve issue has been resolved, if your pajama t-shirt is a color that goes well with your sweater then you can be ready for the day in record time. Disadvantages: if you take the sweater off it may be too casual, if you don't think about what shirt it is and take the sweater off you may embarrass yourself (see: me realizing with horror that I'd worn my university department t-shirt off campus to a doctor's appointment).

Colors: black and dark green are prime stuff, both individually and together. These colors work particularly well with my coloration (black hair/brown eyes/warm-ish skin tone). Red and gray/black gives off a somewhat aggressive, boyish feeling, and therefore is my go-to when gender has me feeling angry.

I used to have a lot of navy blue in my wardrobe. Not sure what happened there but maybe I've been avoiding it because since coming to college I've become a lot more proud of being a California public school kid, which makes me scorn the East Coast nautical prep style. It's probably not that deep.

I have two scarves, one dark red wool and one tan-colored. In keeping with the "functionality" clause I will usually pick the one that's more appropriate for the weather but sometimes I will decide which one to wear based on the other colors I'm wearing.

In the future, I'll need to buy work boots for sure. I'm a big fan of long-sleeved black clothes but would I actually get use out of a black button-down? Unclear. It might be too formal for everyday wear. Maybe if it was dark green/dark blue? The nicest coat I own is one my sister bought when she was in early high school and one of the sleeve buttons fell off so it's being held in place by a safety pin. May need to replace that at some point. A pair of sweats with pockets would be comfortable but I've been doing fine without.

Whenever I write about clothing I always feel a little silly, because the realizations I've come to--prioritize functionality and give at least a little thought to what impression you give--are fairly basic. Clothing doesn't have to be deep, just don't look down on people who do consciously use it as a way of expressing themselves. Adornment isn't for everyone but it's also not for no one. Still, if femininity isn't working for you at any level, just abandon it. If you're trans, shopping in the section that isn't for your assigned gender can feel affirming, but it is possible that in a year it won't matter as much to you which side your shirt buttons are. Colors are fun and if everything you own is in the same palette (except red shirts because school colors) then you can't screw up that badly. And how badly, really, can you screw up in the context of clothes?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sonnets for Augustus

Earlier this week I was struck by inspiration and wrote two sonnets about Augustus Caesar. Or rather, the first one is about Augustus and the second is about Octavian. Here they are:

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Ara Pacis Augustae - Roma, Italia

Now come, let us stop telling tragedies
I do not want to hear about defeat
About the burning Trojan towers; please
Sing to me of Alexandrian heat
No Odyssey, no rage of Poseidon
But Agrippa, glory at Actium
The Pantheon under new construction
Just rule, a census, houses that are plumbed
A new Apollo, but unlike a god
Not gifted by martial skill from above
Whose mark on the earth was a mortal plod
Sickly and small but still happy in love
A new man whose roots draw from country loam—
Augustus, he who in marble built Rome.

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Statue of Livia Drusilla - Louvre, Paris, France

With whom else would I want to spend my life?
Stay by my side; no one gets me like you
This is eternal—please, you know it's true
We came of age in time of civil strife
My father—well, great-uncle—died by knife
But his way is not the one I'll pursue
I'll be careful, bring peace. You want it too
Oh, Livia—will you please be my wife?

        Gaius Caesar—why, you're still just a boy
        But I can tell that you will move the earth
        In your story I will gladly take part
        I know you'd rather create than destroy
        Brick to marble, we will build things of worth
        Take my hand. You already have my heart.


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I intended to write a post last Friday about Islamophobia and the travel ban, but I didn't make the time. Thankfully, the travel ban has been shot down by the courts, but Islamophobia is still alive and well in the United States and I'd like to keep working on that post, gathering resources, reflecting, etc.

I also think that this blog has wandered quite far from its initial purpose, i.e. as a place to document my writing progress. As I try to work writing back into my schedule, I'll use this space more for that purpose again. So, for personal accountability, look out for a post about my current project sometime soon-ish.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Week One of the Regime



It Has Begun - Starset

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Trump became POTUS last Friday. For that and other reasons I was in a pretty awful state of mind Friday and the beginning of Saturday. Then I went with some friends to the San Jose Women's March.

I've never been to a protest before, nor any kind of march. The energy I felt there was very positive, and I felt a lot better about existing, being surrounded by people who cared enough to show up. Although this was a Women's March and deliberately not billed as a protest, obviously it took an anti-Trump flavor.

Chants I heard: "Yes we can"/"Si se puede"; "2-4-6-8 It's okay to immigrate"; "This is what democracy looks like"; &c.

Signs I saw: "Women's rights are human rights"; "Bernie 2020"; "I'm with her" (and arrows pointing off the sign into the crowd, or Lady Liberty); Rosie the Riveter either in the original or with Michelle Obama photoshopped in; "A Woman's Place is in the Resistance" with a graphic of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia; "Not My President"; "If you build a wall I will raise my children to tear it down"; "By the way, Climate Change is Real"; "I burned it once I'll burn it again" with the charred remains of a bra taped to the sign; Martin Luther King, Jr. shushing Trump; "End White Feminism"; "I am alive because of Obamacare"; "Humanity First America Second"; &c.

Lots of people were wearing those pink knit hats that are supposed to look like cat ears.

We didn't bring any signs. I'm not sure what I would have written. Not sure if it is my place to carry such a sign, but I would have liked to see a sign saying "Trans Women's Rights = Women's Rights = Human Rights" because, although I had an overall positive experience, being trans in that crowd felt pretty uncomfortable. More signs focused on the struggles of women of color would also have been good, although since I'm not actually a woman but am relatively privileged (the "model minority" concept is bull but I do have to own up to how that stereotype changes how people perceive me in a way that, net, makes my daily existence safer than it is for someone who is read with different stereotypes), I'd again have to think about what I would be justified in saying.

So we went, and came back. I spent a while lying on my floor scrolling Facebook and seeing everyone I know posting photos from the marches they went to. I didn't take any photos because I want to make sure that when I do the right thing, that I'm not doing it for social validation from my wider network. Not to say anything against people who do post things--communicating your solidarity, making your stance clear, is valuable too. But going to one march without a sign and listening to one speech at the rally afterward does not make me an activist. I am a beginner.

I also saw a lot of quotes/links/photos posted that took a more nuanced view of the Women's Marches. Many LGBT friends took issue with the trans-exclusionary rhetoric of signs equating reproductive organs with gender. Many other friends pointed out the double standard between the media coverage of these marches and of the Black Lives Matter marches.

This picture made a particularly big impression on me (shoutout to GG for sharing it). I am not a white woman, but fall into the same position of benefiting from social movements but not being in a whole lot of danger from police etc. I have never gone to a Black Lives Matter rally or march. Why? Now that I've gone to the Women's March, what is my excuse if I skip out the next BLM event?

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I wrote the first part of this post on Sunday, when I was still in...not a good mood, but a positive, optimistic mindset. Then this past week happened. The news is filled with the terrible actions the administration is taking, from the global gag rule on abortion to censoring national parks and environmental agencies to banning Muslim immigrants to approving both the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL to...

Saturday's energy was mostly positive. The numbers of people protesting made headlines, made history. And yet--despite all of that, these orders are making their way through the system.

Festina lente, said Augustus. The way to change is not just in momentous occasions, not just in big stands, not in single actions. It takes concentrated everyday effort over a long period of time to get anything done--so what do I do, when the goal is broad and the timeline is long?

There are small things I've done in the past week. Walked by a pro-life group demonstrating on campus to donate to the people collecting money for Planned Parenthood right next to them. Emailing the guy I know at the EPA. Small, small things. I feel silly even writing about them, especially given what I said above about not being performative about my actions. But as I said--I'm a beginner. I'm starting small, but I'm starting...

...and that's another thing about which I'm ambivalent. The fact that it took as abominable a person as Trump taking power to get me to do something. Obama and the Democrats were not perfect by any means, and if Clinton had won I am sure she'd have signed into law things that I would disapprove of. If I'd been paying more attention over the past eight years, I probably would have a much less positive impression of Obama than I do. But now, those kinds of conversations seem less urgent because the basic things that we could count on the Democrats to defend are being uprooted. Science, access to family planning methods, and the like.

I haven't personally spoken to anyone who said that Trump and Clinton would be the same but I wonder if they still think that way. Sure, Clinton would have been the status quo, but this is actively going backwards on all sort of measures. These questions--is climate change real, is it monumentally stupid to try to build a wall along the border with Mexico when real and worthwhile infrastructure projects languish--should be settled. We should be ready to move past them.

I've heard a lot of people say "it's going to be a long four years" and I have thought it, too, but there are several things wrong with that. First--some people aren't going to make it. If the Republicans succeed in getting rid of ACA and don't replace it in a timely way, how many people are going to die? I thought Obama wasn't accepting enough refugees--but now even fewer are going to be able to resettle here, and how many of them are going to die? Hate crimes are rising--how many people are going to die?

Second, it's not just four years. I haven't let myself consider a Trump reelection, which may be naive, but depending on how things go I could see a Pence or Ryan presidency following Trump, which would be awful. (DNC, please for the sake of all of us get it together.) And even if a Democrat is elected--I believe many things would improve but would we be back to Obama levels? And in many ways Obama levels aren't good enough either.

Trump did not start the global rise of white nationalism and extremism and he's not going to be the end of it either. This past week has been particularly bad for the country and the world, and this is just the beginning.

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After that dreary post, please enjoy this video. It (as well as various other remixes of the moment it depicts) has been one of the few things this week that made me smile.