Saturday, April 25, 2015

Earth Day Events

In honor of Earth Day (Wednesday), a lot of events have been going on around campus. Some other events have also happened that are unaffiliated with Earth Day. I don't feel as though I've had a chance to sit down and think through these things yet, because my personal angst got in the way for the last two posts--but I'm thinking now and I want to let my thoughts out and see what sense can be found in them.

Events to think through today:
  • Connecting the Dots symposium (Fri, 4/17)
  • Celebrating Sustainability (Wed, 4/22)
  • BART Warm Springs Extension lecture (Fri, 4/24)
  • EmPower Sun Edison presentation (Fri, 4/24)
  • Planet Earth New Play Festival (Fri, 4/24)

The Connecting the Dots symposium was about the nexus of food, water, energy, and health--though mostly food. I really dig interdisciplinary discussions but what I'm realizing is that I am less than a dilettante. What makes interdisciplinary events interesting is how they bring together experts--people who have done the deep work in their own field, who have made something their life's work and have drilled down deep enough that they have something new to bring back and share.

What did I learn? Food security is a many-headed beast. Getting enough calories to survive is one level, but even if that problem is solved then one must still ensure the right nutrients. Of course, growing food takes a lot of water and energy and land, and the tradeoff there is that livestock is environmentally very unfriendly--but people need protein and nutrients that are difficult to get from non-meat sources. One answer proposed was that focus could shift away from the most environmentally-unfriendly meats (beef and pork)--but this again runs into issues because in many regions these animals represent a high-status, high-value investment. And then, how do you ensure that the food you get is safe to eat? Conflict and food insecurity have a feedback loop going. Path dependence comes up again and again: harmful institutions cannot simply be uprooted.

Though this fascinating article also poses the question: if we had taken the cleaner path, would we even have reached this point of development? And as a very interesting person said on Wednesday, if we took the other path, what would our regrets be in that case?

More on Wednesday: I went to a big event called Celebrating Sustainability held at the new Central Energy Facility of the SESI program that was deployed earlier this year. Lots of interesting tables. I played a quiz game about renewable energy and was appalled at how little I retained from the energy IntroSem that I took in the fall. Then, I was on the very last tour and it got cut short, but two very intelligent and very interesting older women stayed behind to talk to the tour guide, asking all sorts of fascinating questions, and (though embarrassed at having nothing to add) I was very happy to stay and listen. How do technically challenging solutions to energy problems scale, when there are not enough Navy-trained nuclear engineers to go around? How can important fields attract intelligent people when other fields are much more lucrative and attractive?

They asked me what my major is and I could feel a small bit of judgment when I said civil engineering, because they had just been talking about how "you can go anywhere with a math major." At least I'm not in CS: that would really have brought down the judgment. I am very happy to have declared civil and I love the department, but I realize that my typical articulation of why I'm interested in civil might not really capture all the compelling reasons I have that have led me to the field. And there are some questions that I still have to grapple with: I want to help people, increasing the scope of transportation/energy/water infrastructure is one scalable way to do that, but along with quality of life increase comes consumption increases, and that's going to kill us.

I need to start asking questions. I'm good at listening. But how much information do I really retain? Not a lot. I know this and it terrifies me, because what is the point of getting an education if I don't remember any of it?

This morning I went to the latest episode of the lecture series on global infrastructure. Today's was about the BART Warm Springs Extension, and it made me wonder about my motivations for civil even more. Because this is what really gets to me: infrastructure. Systems. My major advisor does more analysis, sustainable construction materials stuff, and that is interesting to me but infrastructure just grabs me. I want to work for Bechtel at some point in my life, and I want to be a project manager, and I want to try my hand at running something big with a lot of moving parts and see how I do. I want to execute projects well and thoroughly and I want to be really good at what I do.

Sustainability is about self preservation. That is a line that stuck with me from Leyla Acaroglu's TEDxMelbourne talk that I presented to my ELit class last quarter. But as much as I feel it, I hear an echo in the back of my mind: infrastructure is about elevating lives. But how can I build when the ground is dissolving beneath our feet?

This afternoon I went to a Graduate School of Business event at which the current president of Sun Edison spoke about the work his company is doing in bringing solar PV panels and solar irrigation pumps to underserved areas of the world. Electricity access has emerged, for me, as a major interest region, and I know I want to do work in this space. Constructing distributed generation systems, making grid connections, I don't know. I am a little concerned that heading full tilt down the structures and construction track will close doors for me in this space. If I thought I could swing it, honestly, I'd get a EE minor. But adding a 25-unit minor on top of a 115-unit major and a slew of university requirements and classes that don't fulfill any requirements but that I absolutely do not regret taking (German, ESW) and...well. I'd definitely have to take multiple quarters at over 20 units and I don't want to do that to myself and I need to remind myself of that because otherwise I'll try to make it happen.

Anyways. This evening I saw a series of short plays presented by the Residential Arts program in association with PlayGround, a group that describes itself as a "playwright incubator." The guiding prompt for the PlayGround plays was "is Earth f**ed?" and the plays explored that question through how people respond to it--yes or no, and if so, what do you do?

The plays were great. I have a terrible time trying to write anything short and contained, and capturing a moment or a scenario and having it matter, having it generate a genuine feeling in the audience, is impressive. But I respond to art foremost with my gut, and there were some things about the plays that were problematic. First, as someone who will never have children, the presentation of "why bring children into this world" as an overreaction and a giving up of hope really irked me. Sure, maybe having kids is a sign of hope for the future. But so are other actions.

Second, the plays got very preachy at times. I am concerned about sustainability and even I felt myself shutting down at moments during monologues about how terrible it's going to be. The immediacy of live theater definitely has something going for it in terms of reaching people emotionally, but alienating them cuts against that.

Third, each seemed to contain the implicit assumption that there is a point at which we can say, definitively, "game over, we're screwed." That there's a tipping point after which hope is pure self-delusion. Okay, admittedly, if we cross 2 degrees Celsius of warming above natural then the methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean will release their GHGs and the temperature will spike and then things will get really bad. But if we keep looking for cataclysm then we might ignore the little signs. If we ask ourselves "are we headed someplace bad" then we're ignoring the fact that we are someplace bad right now.

But for all my criticisms, I was duly impressed by how the stories carried the ideas. I was also very struck by something that the gentleman who went onto the stage for Q&A with the writer and stage director of the last play, "Preapocalyptica," said. The play opens with a woman who is living on the streets and trying her hardest to make as small of an impact as possible, and he compared it to the Jewish mourning tradition of "sitting shiva." What I wondered was what she was mourning, then: hope? The ignorance that let her keep going? The Earth?

One other observation about the plays: I couldn't empathize with the people who gave up. I work from the premise that things can always be made better. This is probably wrong in some circumstances--sometimes, choosing non-interference can be the best path--but I cannot imagine myself, with my current psychology (which will definitely change, but hopefully not in this regard) ever asking, with despair, "What's the point?" Life is the point. Making life better for people is the point. May I always hold to that.

-

Events to think through another time:
  • Adventure with friends (Sat, 4/18)
  • Cooking dinner (Wed, 4/22)
  • Admit Weekend rally (Thu, 4/23)
  • Admit Weekend (Thu, 4/23 - Sat, 4/25)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Socs

A lot of stuff has been going on and I want to walk around some of the ideas that have been lobbed in my direction, because I don't think I really learn anything until I've had the chance to slow down and think about it. That's one of the ways in which I differ from my brilliant friends: I can get stuff, and get it quickly, but I can't get it right away. Which is why it's hard for me to argue unless the subject is one I've already thought about a lot, and one for which I've anticipated major counterexamples.


Overrated - Three Days Grace

Foremost on my mind is a problem I thought I had left behind in high school: perception of my group by the more socially-normative and extraverted people. At lunch on Saturday some people in my dorm were talking smack about my hall, saying that "nothing happens there" and that it's "irrelevant." And I'm not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, these people don't matter to me on a personal level so why should I let their opinions affect me? On the other hand, I feel honor-bound to defend my family. On a third hand (the rhetorical octopus is in today) I don't think that what I said in defense made any sort of impression.

We were talking in my German culture class today about the difference between Enlightenment and Romanticism and how the Enlightenment focuses on the qualities or values that are generalizable. Reason is universal. Whereas the Romantics acknowledge that some things cannot be adequately communicated from one group to another, and that you have to have had a certain set of experiences to really "get it," whatever "it" is.

People who tell stories about wandering drunk from one frat party to another, who laugh about being drunk at the gym, who rush frats and sororities like it's their life, who are the model of what you think of when you think of Stanford student (confident, conventionally attractive, athletic, rich, white, heterosexual, extraverted to the max, loud, social, laid-back)--these sorts of people do not get my people, nor do we get them.

Of course, I cannot see into their minds. They are probably not as shallow as I think they are. We go to the same university. They will probably go on to great financial and personal success. Is there anything wrong with them? No. These people are not generally unpleasant. But is there something missing? I think so.

What we do in my hall is sit out in the corridor and do homework while talking to one another. In the latter days of the week when the homework rush isn't as strong, usually someone is building something for a student group. People wander in and out getting food. One friend in particular is great at moderating discussions about topics that I consider interesting (affirmative action, experience of race, personal philosophy). We have some athletes on our hall who don't really join us all that often. On hall demographics: over half engineers. Among the usual suspects, a statistically-unlikely percentage of LGBT+ individuals (my future roommate and I are both ace, whereas asexuals make up 1% of the population). Majority white but there is a critical mass of minorities to the point where I feel as though race is something we can talk about--and we do talk about it, as I mentioned.

What we don't do is drink, do drugs, roll out to parties and the sort of huge splashy #classof2018 events that we're supposed to. When we go dancing it's contra dancing. When we use the kitchenettes we clean up after ourselves. We have a critical mass of friendly introverts and we have attracted people from other halls who are also like that. Our collective idea of a good time is to hang out with one another and talk.

I could see how someone else might find that boring. Hanging out and talking can be terribly dull if you don't feel that you have anything to talk about with the people you're with. And of course it's fun to break the routine and do other things.

But on the flip side, I am incapable of understanding the attraction of loud parties with loud music and loud drunk people everywhere. When I tell people I haven't been to any frat parties they tell me I'm missing out--but on what? I prefer to interact with people when all parties are sober and can hold a coherent conversation.

Someone could tell me to have a more open mind. Tell the others to have an open mind as well. Sit down and talk to people, see what they say. Or do work in the same space as someone and learn to be okay with silence. In high school I thought I hated socialization because I thought that socialization meant selling out; but the kind of socialization I do now is more like buying in. And you have to buy in: buy into the idea that it is good just to sit and be with your friends.

I need not feel any shame over being upset when others called my hall irrelevant: that's my family they're talking down, and I'm offended that they don't find our different way of being worth the effort to think about and try to understand. Maybe they should be offended by me; but the majority, the dominant culture, need never feel truly under attack. I can think of them as shallow, and as socially unconscious (congratulations on landing that cushy CS internship; now when are you going to do something of social value?), as conventional, and they can dismiss me and say that I envy their success.

And I do envy the ease with which they navigate social situations, the confidence with which they present themselves. But I don't envy the way they can't derive enjoyment or even understand how one could derive enjoyment from the things we do, and I don't envy the flashy, showy sisterhood/brotherhood they get from their sororities/frats, and I don't envy the way they need to be seen.

They are just as irrelevant and boring to me as I am to them.

--

A note on the title: Socs was the term used in S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders to refer to the rich straight white kids who were obnoxiously rich and straight and white. It's short for "Socials," if I remember the book correctly. Not that I'm saying my group is greasers--we aren't--just that the cultural/social norm to which we are implicitly opposed is the same.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Liquid Architecture

"Music is liquid architecture."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is going to be self-centered post. I can feel it.

-


I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost - Outline in Color ft. Matty Mullins

The worst part about college is that I'm doing too much stuff ever to really sit down and reflect and introspect and talk things through with myself the way I used to. I still keep a journal in which I record the happenings of the day, but I haven't made a habit of sitting down sometime during the day with my other notebook and writing my brains out about a single topic until I have made peace with it. Therefore, disparate observations float in my head, bothering me incessantly because I have not yet committed them to paper, have not tamed them and found a way to walk around them and just think.

This quarter I am in a German culture class. The first two weeks, we discussed the idea of Kultur and how it differs from culture. The readings we had outlined a dichotomy which, while not convincingly presented as reality, offer at the least a useful framework.

The dichotomy is this: Kultur versus civilization. Germanness versus Franco-Italianness. Romanticism versus Classicism. The raw, the genuine, the ingenuous versus the cultured, the sophisticated, the cosmopolitan. The disturbing versus the serene. The weird versus the beautiful.

Quoth my prof: "These writers [Thomas Mann, Goethe] were not saying that the classic is bad. No one in their right mind would call Raphael bad. What they are saying, however, is that the raw and perhaps immoderate works of Durer and other Germans, including the builders of the Gothic cathedrals, possess a beauty that you can only appreciate if you have not been raised entirely on a diet of the cultured and classical."

I am not entirely convinced of the validity of these statements--and my professor did, of course, acknowledge that trying to generalize about "the Germans" or "the French" is an exercise doomed from the start--but I felt that. There are some things that you cannot appreciate if you are too cultured. There are some things that are inaccessible if you are afraid of expressing your genuine thoughts and feelings, no matter how messy or awkward.
Cologne Cathedral
(src)
When I am working in the same space as a group of people, I never DJ. The music I love the most is not pleasant, is not pretty. The few times I have tried to DJ, I have played songs I consider on the softer end of my favorites ("Ein Lied" by Rammstein, "Telescope" by Starset) and in each there are sections that make me go, oh, maybe I shouldn't have played that. Responses have only convinced me further that my taste in music is perceived as bad by most people: "This sounds like the devil singing" and "Oh my goodness, what is that? Do you have a lot of pent-up anger that you're not telling us about?"

It annoys me to have people worry about me, and the music I listen to admittedly tends toward anger and angst. Personally I find it relaxing. Maybe I do have pent-up anger. I certainly have a lot more feelings than I like to show, and listening to angry music helps with that, a lot.

If your "weird favorite song" is an experimental techno remix of a Ghanaian folk song, then that's cool and you are classy. if your "weird favorite song" has both clean and growled vocals and contains the line "say farewell to the chance of survival," then that's *weird* and you are suspected of having emotional problems.

I enjoy my friends' "weird" favorite songs. "School of Athens" is my favorite painting in the world. No one in their right mind would call Raphael bad. I declared my engineering major last week, and while reading Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I identified very strongly with the classical rather than the Romantic mindset.

But I am not sophisticated, I am not cultured, and my first response to art is always "what does this make me feel?" Same with music. Is it technically challenging, musically interesting, original in its composition? I don't care. Does it help me come to terms with and dissipate the things I feel? That's what matters to me.

I love classical architecture. But the liquid architecture that I love the most does not make you comfortable, does not maintain a stately serenity. No: it is genuine, it is deficient in restraint, it calls down lightning from the sky.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Materialism

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

I have been thinking about materialism lately. I regularly find myself in the dorm kitchenette with my friends, not-really helping them cook, definitely helping them eat, and then doing most of the cleaning to assuage my conscience, and taking happiness from the fact that we bought chopsticks for use among ourselves and have a well-stocked personal pantry. My roommate has always gone dancing on the weekends but I see my participation as becoming more of a regular occurrence, and I find that I look forward to wearing my one dress to the contra dances.

All of this is somewhat strange to me because I am not usually one who cares about things. But I am recognizing an awakening streak of materialism in myself, and it is taking this form: I want to own the things I need in my day to day life.

Over spring break I began to fantasize about what my life will look like in the future. I do this reasonably frequently, but until quite recently I have never thought in terms of "stuff." When I was in high school thinking about college, I never planned my ideal dorm room or anything; I thought in terms of classes and activities and stressing out, of course, about where I would make my new life.

But I've been compiling a list of things, physical objects, that I want in my future. Professional clothes including a pair of pro-looking shoes that don't kill my feet. Different kinds of tea. My trusty water boiler. My own set of bowls, plates, silverware, chopsticks. A bandana. Enough kitchen implements that I can cook for myself. An index card catalog of recipes that I can make reliably. Running shoes. My good headphones. A sturdy and easy to carry laundry basket. A lightweight but sturdy bike, only if I live in a bikeable area. Dresses in which to go dancing. Weather-appropriate clothing. Playlists. A library card and bookbag. Canvas bags of appropriate dimensions for grocery shopping.

Looking over this list, what stands out to me is how utterly normal and domestic all of these things are. Yet the thought of having them, and having them in a small apartment all my own in some small city where I can be a young professional, makes me really happy.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

If we do not have the things we need, we are frustrated. I forgot my detergent at home when I came back from Spring Break and became happier than the occasion merited when my friends and I made a Safeway run and I could pick up some more. Not having the right clothing for the weather is a good way to make yourself irked.

On the flip side, if we have things we don't need, that situation can weigh on your consciousness. Actually, maybe I can word that stronger: not having things that we can use regularly irks us. I used to wear scarves a lot but do not do so anymore in college, and the scarf collection that used to make me happy now makes me a little annoyed (I'll probably wear them a lot this summer, though). I did not bring all my clothes with me to college and when I go home and see the drawer that has all the stuff I left behind, I get annoyed. There are tea bags I haven't used from last quarter and they are somewhat annoying to me as well.

I enjoy being at college. Having a limited set of clothing, because that means I wear everything and don't feel as though I am wasting it. Having a lot of tea that I can offer to people, though I think next year I might direct my tea acquisition to the staples that I cannot do without (mint tea is optional in the winter but not in warmer months; jasmine green tea and Earl Grey are necessities). Less stuff means more use of each individual item means more enjoyment per item.

Once upon a time I'd rather keep my cake than eat it, but now I think that preservation is not half so joyful as use. Consumption is not the same as overconsumption and is not the same as consumerism. My roommates and I like our chopsticks because we can use them to eat delicious food. We would not be happy if we had a very nice set of chopsticks that could not be used. Eating, dressing, etc are going to happen anyway; I see it as a good strategic move to make the daily tasks somewhat brighter by making the implements of such more pleasing to you.

Getting the things you need, using them in a way that lets you do what you want or that elevates the daily actions into something more special, makes you happy. So does letting go of the things you no longer need and passing them on to people who will need them.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

In fall quarter, the professor of my Ten Things class spoke in the final lecture about materialism. We humans are physical beings. We cannot cut ourselves off from our stuff, so we must embrace our stuff and try to figure out the best way (the happiest, the most responsible) of living with and through it.

What that means, in practical terms, is that getting things that suit you that you will use in daily tasks is the biggest multiplier for increasing enjoyment of stuff. This applies in a lot of areas: I've been grappling with the issue of clothing and personal style here for some years, and what I always come back to is that owning and wearing clothes that express your identity is the way to go, whatever that is. I like wearing collared shirts and dark colors because it suits who I am.

Food consumption is a new topic for me, since I've never before been interested in cooking. But I think that a way that this may play out is that I could just get my plates and cups and utensils from home, but I think it would make me happier to have my own stuff. Which is shading alarmingly close to consumerism, but I would like the chance to use my stuff as a way of expressing my preferences. I do not like this tendency in myself, because it is cheaper and more practical to use what is already at hand. But when I am a young professional living on my own, I would like to, for the most part, have *my* stuff.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own?

--

EDIT (added 04/19/2015): Related links.
Unravel: How India recasts the clothes the West throws away, directed by Meghna Gupta (video)
A Luxurious Life, by Theodora Goss (blog post)

As a university student, I found myself reading the Goss article with some envy because I do not have extra lightbulbs on hand, and cannot justify having nice things. On the other hand, it does give me something to look forward to: reaching a point in my life where I have enough shelves for all my books, when I can establish myself in a more-or-less permanent home with all the necessities.

The video prompted a different set of emotions. One was a materialistic urge to look at clothes (this is a weird feeling for me). The other, stronger feeling was that we get pleasure out of using the things we own. The only clothes that bring me happiness are the ones I wear regularly that let me, as I said above, express who I mean to be. As an action item this means that when I get home for the summer I need to put a lot of old clothes in a bag and donate them, and perhaps acquire other clothing that I need.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Quarter Goals

I'd like to articulate some things I want to make sure I do this quarter, since once I get into the thick of things it will be more difficult to pull back and assess where I am.

But first I should mention a big piece of news: yesterday, I officially declared my major in civil engineering! I came in this year pretty sure about civil, and everything that I have been involved with since then has made me more sure. My major advisor is also, I will assert, one of the nicest people ever. Actually I like everyone I've met in the department, which is great.

But now to unfinished business.

Indonesia is the main thing on my mind most of the time. Hopefully I will set dates of arrival and departure by the end of the week, and be able to move forward on visa stuff shortly thereafter. Going to the consulate in San Francisco will require missing some class but it's something I have to do and I've set a make-up time with my German professor. I still need: recent color passport-quality photos and a letter from the NGO describing what I will be doing.

In the public service class I'm taking that goes along with the travel funding, we were talking yesterday about our learning plans for the summer. There's a whole lot I have to learn before going this summer, including Bahasa Indonesian (apparently it's fairly straightforward at low levels) and everything about our system.

What that means is going through the Github and reading code and writing documentation, and of course writing more code to get the functionalities that we have not already developed. My partner for the transmitter is much more experienced at programming than I am but I can still help. I also need to get the guy working on the receiver to explain it to me. Oh, what if I offered to do documentation? Hm.

I also would like to do background reading on renewable energy distributed generation in Indonesia and in ASEAN countries in general.

For the competition team I'm on, I'd like to learn more about structures and structural analysis, and about how to use tools such as SketchUp and ETABS. Despite having been a part of the team since fall quarter I lack technical knowledge; all I have is intuition. The best way to learn how to use a tool is to use it, so I'll have to put in some hours figuring out how to use the software, playing around with it.

I will be working in a lab this summer. For that, I'm getting the necessary training on the job, and I will get more efficient at my tasks as I do it more. I should really do more background reading, since materials testing is a field in which I have not previously ventured.

On Thursday I went to a dinner event bringing together all the sustainability groups, and I realized that I miss having conversations about environmental issues with people who care deeply about them. There is a student group that I would like to join but I am pretty oversubscribed right now, so I should not be adding more stuff to my plate.

For my two German classes (language and culture) I will be researching different aspects of culture. I'm thinking that my two will be the Energiewende and Muslims in Germany.

In other words I have a long list of things to learn about this quarter. I don't know how I'm going to make time for all the reading and practice and exploring and learning that I plan to do, because I want to gain competency in a lot of things. A list:
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • history and culture of Indonesia at large with a focus on West Java
  • our code for the Arduino
  • our code for the web interface
  • Raspberry Pi
  • renewable energy in ASEAN countries
  • structures/structural analysis
  • stress, strain, etc.
  • modeling software such as SketchUp, ETABS
  • Proctor compaction test
  • environmental issues
  • German Energy Transition
  • Muslims in Germany

...well, looks like I'm in for a busy quarter.