Friday, April 21, 2017

Spring Quarter Starting

It's the end of week three, Spring Quarter. I think I said that this quarter would be easier than the previous two, which is true, but the past two quarters also wrecked my standards of what a reasonable amount of work is.

This quarter I'm taking the capstone civil engineering design class, a class on renewable energy, and three whole non-technical classes. One is looking at engineering in the Roman Empire; another is German; the third is the RA class, since I'll be staffing in my favorite dorm next year. My competition team is done for the year, which gives me back about eight hours a week.

I'm already fairly fatigued, but I haven't fallen asleep in class yet, so I'm already doing better than autumn and winter. I've found enough time to read another two books in the Temeraire series, Tongues of Serpents and Crucible of Gold, although I haven't gotten a proportionate amount of writing done.

Things are going well. I feel strangely isolated, like I haven't been interacting with people on a deep level. This despite the RA class being, so far, mostly us talking about ourselves and communicating our stories to other people in the class. When was the last time I answered the question "how are you?" with neither "good" nor "tired," which, while both true, are evasions?

I started declaring a minor in German on Monday. The department head taught a seminar I took freshman year, and it made me somewhat nostalgic. This time last year I was in Berlin (although this weekend last year I was actually in Sweden visiting Lieutenant Sarcasm); this time two years ago I had just declared my major; this time three years ago I was deciding what college to go to; this time four years ago I was furiously studying for the AP Calc BC exam; this time five years ago...

I'm twenty years old. It's very silly for me to say anything along the lines of "I'm old." But I'm a junior in college, I've done most of my major, I'm going in for a legit internship in the field I'll probably enter this summer, I know a lot more about myself than I used to, I have led teams, I'm going to be an RA next year, I don't have to think consciously to speak in my lower register. Earlier this week I got nervous while presenting some designs and lost my track and stuttered and that felt out of character.

Many people have much more self-confidence than I do, but I've found lately that, along with the impostor syndrome, I get flashes of gross ambition and vainglory. Does that count for something? I'm building a self. I am not yet the me that I want to be but I can feel, distinctly, that in the past year I have taken steps closer to my goal.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Readable Stories

I spent a lot of time during break sleeping and reading. By coincidence, historical fantasy about being airborne in the British military: Leviathan, eponymous first book of a trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (a reread); and the first five books of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, and Victory of Eagles).

For all six of these books, fewer than 24 hours passed between when I started and finished reading. Of course, during break I have time to read--but the stories are also compelling, and since work on my story is starting to roll again, I want to think more about what makes a story readable. About what keeps the pages turning.

Some spoilers ahead.

Premise/Genre. Leviathan series--steampunk WWI. Temeraire series--Napoleonic Wars but with dragons. I am a sucker for historical fantasy. Although I haven't made a particular study of any time period, setting a story any time but now introduces a layer of escapism that is often/occasionally desirable. The appearance of historical figures and events, and the way that history is distorted through the introduction of fantastic elements (e.g. dragons), is particularly interesting to me since I like looking at examples of where it is done well and poorly.

As it happens, I am not a sucker for war stories, and ones that are crammed with jargon just lose me. But I do like action/adventure, and books with soldier characters do tend to deliver on that front.

Viewpoint Character. Everything that I write is character-driven and I prefer the novels that I read also to be so. (Short stories get a pass--there's not as much time to get invested in a character so often the concept carries it more.)

For the Leviathan series, Deryn Sharp sounds like a stereotypical "dresses like a boy to become a soldier" kind of protagonist, but what I like about her that makes her more than an archetype for me is her clear devotion to being an airman. She has goals; she has motivation. I remember not really liking Prince Alek until later in the series, because he's a bit of a brat in the first book. Count Volger is loyal but Machiavellian and exactly the kind of character that high school me wanted to be.

For the Temeraire series, the eponymous dragon is my favorite. Honestly he's a bit overpowered relative to the other dragons, especially in book one, but I adore the fool. Very smart and powerful and independent dragon who dotes on his captain and is good friends with the other dragons in the formation. Captain Laurence originally seemed to me to be too much the Everyman stiff-collared British gentleman, but he's grown on me.

Character Interactions. The ones I enjoy reading tend to be healthy, supportive ones. Leviathan: Prince Alek and the master mechanic, Herr Klopp; Deryn and Alek, eventually. Temeraire: all of the captain-dragon teams, except Rankin because he's the worst; Temeraire and his friends; Laurence and Riley, Laurence and Granby, Laurence and Admiral Roland; Laurence and his mom, Temeraire and Laurence's mom (they don't interact a lot but they are very nice to one another). Und so weiter.

Romantic relationships are only pleasant to read if they fulfill the above point. When the first hint of Deryn having feelings for Alek showed up in book one I groaned since at that point I liked Deryn as a character much more, but by the time they actually got together later in the trilogy I was on board with it.

Pacing. The books all take place in wartime but the actual fighting doesn't get a commanding portion of pagetime. Still, the books never feel as though they lack for action. The characters are always going someplace, doing something. All the books I write have journeys somewhere, and the books I read are also very mobile.

But the grueling journeys are interspersed with rest stops, where the characters can refuel and continue on. Good pacing doesn't mean a string of high-adrenaline scenes one after another; without some sort of cadence, even action gets boring. I included this consciously in Ubermadchen: the second half of it is essentially a tour of the premier cities of Austria, with more or less stressful journeys between them.

Theme. I'm out of practice with identifying themes in literature, but stories and the way they are told hint at the values the author seeks to uphold. Who are we meant to sympathize with, who are we meant to find reprehensible, whose stories are told?

The viewpoint characters in the books I read are idealists, principled and often naive, honorable, decent people. We are meant to like these people; even if more practical people (e.g. Count Volger) who are set up as foils are also meant to be sympathetic, their stories are not central.

Furthermore, the characters' idealism is not set up only to be trampled down. They may go through plenty of hell (e.g. Laurence) but they get out again. They survive with their integrity intact. As an idealist myself, I like this message.

Both series I read from are, as I said, set in the British military. I am hardly an Anglophile; the British Empire has lots of blood on its hands. Temeraire addresses questions of colonialism and the slave trade in what I found was a period-appropriate but also appropriately-condemnatory way. I don't think it Leviathan addressed any such issues in the first book, but in the second book I do distinctly remember Deryn commenting that it was obnoxious of European nations to keep calling Istanbul "Constantinople."

Writing Style/Voice. The rest of this list is subjective, but this is perhaps the most subjective item. I really liked the voice in the books I read. There were a couple of passages in the first Temeraire book where Laurence bordered on being insufferably stiff-upper-lip-British, but overall I never found myself distracted by the language. The language is not particularly beautiful, but I don't like decoration, I don't like fluff in my writing.

I do enjoy certain writers with whom the language and its complexity is itself a treasure, but these tend to be writers of primarily short works. Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers, but Borges is not meant to be read with the pages flying.

In a novel, the language isn't the point, and if it isn't the point, it had better not get in the way.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Winter 2017 Recap: Everything Else

Spring break has finally arrived. As I alluded to in the previous post, Winter 2017 was a rough quarter, and I'm enjoying the chance to have some time off. Some time to think about all the things that I didn't make time to think about during the quarter.

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This quarter, Trump became president. Dumpster fire is an appropriate description. I still haven't gotten around to writing that post about Islamophobia and what to do to combat it, but the topic has definitely been on my mind. The courts have in general stood against Trump's travel bans, but on Friday Virginia judge Anthony Trenga ruled in favor of the new executive order.

I hope that it gets definitively taken down by the Supreme Court. But even if it does, the effect these travel bans have had on people who come from the countries on the list is already immense. There are a lot of Iranian students in my department and I talked to a couple of them right after the first executive order was issued, and the level of fear and uncertainty is something I, an American citizen, can't imagine.

The grassroots resistance has been astonishing and heartening. I can't say that I've participated at a high enough level. "Call your senators," everyone says. Okay, but Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein are already voting the way I would hope for them to vote. The few donations I've made, to all the usual suspects (Planned Parenthood, the ACLU) are one-off things because I'm a stingy student. I went to one march. A lot of people on my Facebook feed post articles and share stories and so on, but I don't have the energy to get into fights with people on the internet.

I should budget in time, budget in money, for these things, these actions that constitute a resistance, because it's naive to think that I'll just do the right thing when I haven't built a habit of doing it and haven't carved out the space. This past quarter I felt pretty much at capacity with just academics and other activities. Sure I had time when I wasn't working, but I didn't have the mental energy to do anything useful. Budgets set priorities.

The way I live when I'm at school, as I said in the last post, is unsustainable. In the future I will not be able to go to bed at 04.00, I will not be able to get away with taking naps during the day. College is a four-year sprint, sure, but I want to build habits that will remain useful into the rest of my life.

The story I'm working on, which is set in East Berlin, has been stalled since winter break, partially because of the whole lack of time and energy, and partially because a large part of the story is the main characters becoming involved with underground resistance networks and I 1) haven't done enough research to know what that looks like in the 60s/70s and 2) don't have an adequately good idea of what resistance means today, now, in America. Ubermadchen resonated with what was going on in my life and this new story does too, but I need to think more about how to get myself to where the story goes. And to do that I need to figure out where I'm going.

Some big-picture decisions that I'll need to make in the next few years are where to live and what to do for a living. I've been thinking about moving to a red state, preferably in the West, with blue cities. Arizona and Texas are looking pretty good, especially because the arguments for renewable energy are compelling there.

I've decided that I won't work for any company that has submitted a bid for the border wall. This isn't actually a big sacrifice since Bechtel and AECOM are sitting out, but it makes me feel better to draw that line. And I'm thinking more and more about how everything is political, including engineering, mostly because the ASCE has been trying to stay politically neutral with the result that, despite Trump going after the EPA, they are publicly uncritical of the administration. This is of course not true neutrality.

Next year I will be an RA in the dorm where I lived sophomore year. I've been thinking a lot about the best and most responsible way to inhabit that role. Frosh come in with all sort of backgrounds and life experiences, and, without getting into too much of the discourse around the terms, kids need a safe space to examine their ideas and how they might or might not be consistent with their morals and with reality. By safe space I don't mean a place where people will be "coddled"--I mean an environment in which it's okay to make mistakes and everyone assumes good intent but you're still responsible for the impact your words have on others and listening goes both ways.

My dorm tends to have a high proportion of contrarians, libertarians, people whose worldviews are strongly shaped by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. And since campus is on the whole very very liberal, I can see how people would bunker down. I don't want to brainwash all my residents into being leftists, but I do think that people who--as I did when I first got to college--consider themselves "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" haven't thought enough about what the second part means in practice and what fiscal conservatism does to already-marginalized communities.

The main advantage of residential education is talking to people, whether that means talking to people who share you experiences or those who very much don't. Sometimes you find you need to shut up and listen; sometimes you find you can and should speak up. And it's okay to say things however you want to say them, but it's also important to be able to practice ways to say what you mean in a way that other people will be more inclined to listen, in a setting where modulating your tone != being silenced or being forced to hide your intent. And listening is more than just not speaking.

Something I really want to be able to help my residents understand is something that was huge for me to learn when I was a freshman: the importance of emotions. In discussions, usually you have more to learn from someone else's anger than your own calm. In general, people don't give their emotions enough credit, or even enough space to develop. But letting yourself experience joy/happiness/delight points you to what you want/what sustains you; letting yourself experience sadness/loneliness points you to what may be lacking; letting yourself experience anger points you to what is important to you. Not all emotions are "good," per se, and I would argue that you should always be aware of how extreme emotions may affect your actions, and make sure you aren't getting carried away or having an effect on others that may be damaging. But ignoring them isn't a sustainable long-term strategy.

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Some extra-academic thoughts. Will try to write more structured things while I have time over break to set my thoughts out in an orderly way.

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.