Friday, February 27, 2015

Two-Item Menu

Some firsts this week:
  • First time falling off my bike and injuring myself, first time wearing an Ace bandage (pun opportunity! see bottom of post if you don't get it), first time having to use bandages in college.
  • First time going to a musical performance (the Stanford Jazz Orchestra concert) and a theatrical performance (the Flying Treehouse show) this quarter, first time doing both in one week.

The second set of firsts is sadder than the first.


This month it is fair to say that I've worked reasonably hard. For a freshman, of course--none of my classes are that hard yet, but I did take three midterms in February along with a whole lot of extracurricular stuff. Also, because I am a freshman, I haven't developed the best strategies for work-life balance, so I get bored and lonely while doing work and then wander into the hall and end up talking to people for hours and finish up homework in the early hours or give up the weekend to assignments.

The point is that I'm working harder than I ever did in high school and my body is telling me, in more or less obnoxious ways, that I'm going about things wrong. Most notably, as I bike along Campus Drive and signal a left turn while going over a relatively minor break in the road, my mind blanks for a minute and suddenly "oh no, I appear to have lost control of my bike" "oh no, this is bad" "aha, that's the ground."

No serious injuries, just some scrapes and a sore wrist (most likely not sprained), but it is somewhat of an inconvenience because my left hand cannot grip very well so I'm not using my bike for the moment. I haven't injured myself this seriously before (which probably tells you something about how circumscribed my childhood was) and thus I am unsure of where the line is between proper caution and just being a wimp. I am not fond of feeling like a wimp, but I wonder if I am.

Anyway, I'm going to be fine. I always wear my helmet while biking, and it could have been worse.


But let me tell you about the performances I saw.

I go to school with some damn talented people, and I realized earlier this week that I have not been doing much to appreciate those talents. Also, I have not been to Cantor this quarter, and hadn't gone to any performances. Which is a crying shame, so I fixed the latter (will work on the former. Maybe not this weekend but soon).

The Jazz Orchestra concert on Wednesday was the first time I've been in Bing Concert Hall for a performance and oh my goodness what a beautiful venue. I had put on my (only) casual dress because I didn't want to be overdressed but thought jeans would be indecorous, and I wished that I had worn my (only) formal dress instead. A lot of people in the audience were dressed casually but it would have been good to dress to suit how special and wonderful the concert was.

I've never been a big fan of jazz, since in high school I played non-jazz instruments--flute for an unfortunate few months in freshman year, euphonium until the end--but now that I'm a trombone player I suppose I should get to know the full range of how the instrument can be used to sound amazing.

The guest soloist was bari sax player Aaron Lington, and they played a number of his original arrangements. The final number they played was "Sup," which I particularly enjoyed. I don't think the recordings from Wednesday's performance are up (or will be available for free anytime soon), so here is the song played by the FMCMEA Honor Jazz Band:

A good song with which to end. I grinned the whole walk home.


On Thursday, I saw the Flying Treehouse show. FTH is a group that works with second graders on creative writing, and then turns those stories into short plays/sketches. As one would expect, the results are really, really fun to watch. They reminded me of the stories and games that I made up with my friends--full of strange characters, lots of dragons, drama, a mix of quotidian and fantastical settings, casual violence, and intermingling of things that one would not think go together, such as crocodiles and roller coasters.

On the crocodile-and-roller-coaster sketch--that one was startlingly deep (as were some others). One line in particular that struck me was "I've been looking at life through a two-item menu!"

Because that's kind of how I operate, and I've been realizing gradually, recently, that the way I live life is probably somewhat boring. There was a picture on the Humans of New York site last Saturday of a professional-looking guy in a suit, giving the camera a rueful look, with the quote "I should have made more mistakes."

And I feel that. Not because I want to screw up my grades or start drinking (I have very strong reasons that will prevent me from ever using substances, so don't worry that I will succumb to vice) but because I've lived in a metaphorical box* for essentially my whole existence. My favorite teacher from middle school told me, and I quote, "You're very smart, but you always put yourself in a box. Try getting out of it and see what happens."

So in high school I joined clubs and branched out and found myself in leadership positions in a few organizations and started thinking of myself as ambitious and thought that that meant that I had emerged from my box. But the perimeter is ever-expanding, and becoming a full human being means more than just doing more work for the things you're already doing.

I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this, but my point is that at some point between elementary school and now I developed tunnel vision and it has gotten particularly bad this quarter. Tunnel vision is not a strategy optimal for health or for happiness, and I'm going to try to expand my mind.

Have a good weekend.


* Also a closet: as it turns out, I am asexual. If you know me IRL sorry that I'm not telling you this in person, but I've come out to my hall already and it seems unlikely that it'll emerge in a normal conversation, and it's not something I particularly want to keep dodging around here. Also I just finished a spiel about taking more risks. As a final note, if you know me IRL and are in any way surprised by this revelation, you really need to reevaluate your observational skills.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


On Saturday, I spent the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my Environmental Literacy class. I have not been to the aquarium in a few years, and looked forward to the trip immensely.

Picture- and introspection-heavy post ahead.

Squid - InnerPartySystem


It's been a long, long week and I needed some alone time pretty badly. (I'm writing this post on Saturday, so that is why the time words don't seem to line up.) Right away, I split off from the main group and went to the exhibit called The Open Sea. A dark, winding space with brightly lit windows into tanks backed in blue.

First were the jellies. We arrived at the start of the day, when it was not so crowded, so I could go right up to the tanks and stare, just stare, at the jellies hanging silently in the blue.

One reason I love the ocean is, I think, that it seems timeless. Things are constantly in flux in the ocean, of course, but things change and stay the same and it is an alien enough world that I can recognize the global stability resulting from local chaos. When I am standing there in the darkness staring at a tank full of moon jellies, I can forget about time.

If I believed in souls, I would say that the ocean is lodged somewhere in my soul. It runs in my veins. It reminds me, again and again, that I am small and inconsequential and that even if I am weak and feeble and confused, that people have always had problems and mine are no worse than those that have been overcome.

That was a lie. The ocean does not remind me. It lets me forget that my problems exist. It reminds me that they do not really matter.


Then I got to the Open Sea tank. And I stood there for a long time, staring and staring at the life going around.

I saw giant tuna. I saw schools of fish in turmoil, coordinated movement an emergent system from hundreds of minds in concert.

I saw my brethren, the shark and the ray.

Why do I identify with these animals? I could not tell you. Perhaps because they are weird and slightly disconcerting and still powerful and fast and majestic, and I wish I could say that about myself but I certainly cannot. Either way, I love them.


Which is why this work of displayed art really hit me hard:

This is Shark Teeth, by Chris Jordan.

From the description given next to the picture:
From the photo illustration series Running the Numbers II, this piece offers a detailed view of thousands of fossilized shark teeth--the estimated number of sharks killed worldwide every day for their fins.

Every day.

I will not lie. While looking at this photo, I felt as though I wanted to weep. Thousands of sharks. Thousands. Every day. On the ground floor there was an exhibit about the depletion of tuna, turtle, and shark populations, and while I was looking at that I got the same feeling. A deep, visceral, wrenching emotion that was some mix of sadness and sickness.

One must try to empathize with other humans, but I do not understand why anyone would want to destroy such beauty.


Downstairs there was also a special exhibit called Tentacles, which displayed incredible art.

A steampunk octopus:

Contessa with Squid, by Omar Rayyan:

Night of the Ammonites, by Ray Troll:

Looking at beautiful art made me feel rather a lot better about existing. Then I saw this cuttlefish chambered nautilus (thank you LS for the correction!), who looks rather suspicious, in both senses of the word:

I do not know what it is about cephalopods that makes them so charmingly weird. But they are delightful, no?


After lunch, a few friends and I left the aquarium for about an hour to explore Monterey. We hit up the ocean and a used bookstore (remarkably, well-organized), which are really the most important things.

...and got back to the Aquarium in time for me to stare at the Kelp Forest tank. Luminous.


At the beginning of high school, when I still made time for such things, I read a lot of poetry on deviantArt. I remember a line from one poem that has stuck with me even though I can no longer find the source:

"I need the ocean like I need to breathe/And I feel so landlocked beside you."

It was an anti-love poem, of course, but it was running through my head and I think the "you" could be me. A friend recently asked me to justify my motives in not doing something and I realized that I live a very circumscribed life. I don't take a lot of risks. I don't go on a lot of adventures. I don't like to rock the boat. My way of rebelling against my all-healthcare/medicine family is...going into engineering.

To be honest, I felt kind of weird about going to the aquarium. Most of the patrons were families. It seems such a juvenile thing: a class trip to the aquarium! How cute. How trite. "Shouldn't you be doing something more serious with your time?"

But I have a hard time remembering, sometimes, the wonderstruck child I used to be, and I found her again for a moment as I sat in a porthole window and watched a hammerhead swim by. I found her as I clambered over rocks to sit closer to the water, watch the waves come in and out.

She's going to leave again--me, I mean--the me who doesn't feel like she has to have a justification for being happy--the me who can forget about time--but that's okay. Don't worry now.

The waves will come back in, and you can never outgrow the ocean.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Talking To/Like Real People

This week, I had five Real Person conversations, by which I mean I had three interviews for fellowships, one meeting with a grad student in whose lab I might work, and one conversation with a mentor I've met through the Stanford Alumni Mentorship program. A few things in common with all of these: handshakes, "tell me about yourself," "do you have any questions for me," "feel free to email if anything comes up." More handshakes.

I do not think of myself as a Real Person because I have never had a job besides tutoring, I have never lived on my own, and the most money I have made through one source is winning Italian writing competitions. But now that I am in college and applying for things, I have to seem employable.

How am I doing? I don't know. I haven't gotten accepted anywhere yet; haven't even gotten responses to most of the emails I've sent to construction companies, even the ones that were just asking for more information. Job anxiety is strong.

On the other hand, the interviewer for the fellowship that most interests me told me, flat out, that my writing sample was impressive enough that it compensated for the fact that, as a freshman, I have less technical and work experience than other applicants. At least my written communication skills are up there, even if I am not good at communicating verbally.


What worked well, and what could I work on?

Work On:
  • answer questions more directly, and have an idea of where things are going
  • redirect questions or find opportunities to talk about things that demonstrate my passion
  • stay engaged and attentive even if utterly exhausted
  • have a go-to list of questions that cover a broad spectrum, so that follow-up questions can flow naturally
  • research the organization or position a lot more pre-interview
  • smile, prove that I'm not a robot (I'm very reserved and in normal life it takes me a while to build a connection with anyone)
  • figure out what persona I'm wearing/integrate my persone in a genuine way (idealistic eager freshman? serious engineering student?), which in practice means being able to talk about my idealistic goals without having my voice jump an octave (I feel a lot more in control and competent when I'm speaking in a lower register)
  • think more about what I've done so that I'm not referring to the same projects/classes over and over

Worked Well:
  • ?????
In seriousness, I did think that I did all right. I remembered to say thank you and send thank you emails, I asked some questions that garnered lengthy and informative responses ("what are the final deliverables of this project?" "what is the state of the work to date?" "what skills would allow someone best to contribute in this position?"). I was up front about the fact that as a freshman I have less experience, and also managed to say, in more or less effective ways, that I learn quickly and that if I believe in the importance of what I am doing then I am not afraid to put in the work.


One thing I know for sure is that when I'm doing this next year, things will be easier in some ways and harder in others. I have to get something good this summer, something that will challenge me and give me valuable experience, because it's okay that I'm unproven as a freshman but as a sophomore I'll be expected to have some more substance. I'll have taken more engineering classes, which is good for some jobs and less good for some fellowships because it seems no one wants civil e except other civil e. Right now I can say that I'm fascinated by everything, and I will still be able to say that next year (hopefully), but with a more directed transcript some places might not want to give me that chance.

I don't know. I have gone to career fairs and my upperclassmen friends who see me there say "it's great that you're getting practice!" People say to chill out and not worry too much, that I have time, but I don't know if I do.

Just hoping that something good comes out of these conversations. Well, good has already come: I've identified ways to improve, and that information is always valuable.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Week Seven

Short post today because I'm busy finishing a pset. This is going to be a busy week and I really should have written this post yesterday since we had no classes, but alas. I had a pretty good interview this afternoon, and have a couple more lined up this week, so that will probably be the topic of the Friday post.

Good night, all.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Species of Environmentalist

Had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone from my Environmental Literacy class about the different kinds of environmentalists. It is a fantastic class, and one of the most interesting meta-aspects of it is the diversity of perspectives.

My friend with whom I spoke is a dyed in the wool Environmentalist. Loves the outdoors and hiking, idolizes John Muir and Aldo Leopold, etc.

On the other hand, I am going to be an engineer and my particular fascination is with the built environment. My friend finds it peculiar that people like me, who are not particularly outdoorsy, who emphasize the value the environment gives to humans rather than its intrinsic value, make up the majority of the class, and that most of our discourse centers upon nature in relation to what it gives humans.

On the very first day of class we discussed values: should we want to save the environment because it's the environment, or because it gives us utility? As with most of our more philosophical discussions, the question went unresolved.

We did determine, though, that most people do not share that much in the "land ethic" and so a utilitarian point of view will get more support. But is there a difference between what is practical and what is right?

Perhaps there is. Perhaps people should want to treat the environment well because they love nature. I personally am rather fond of nature, the ocean in particular, and environmental beauty and majesty is a worthy motivator.

But survival is more important.


Sustainability is about self-preservation. Sustainable development involves the environment, economic state, and equity. I would try to optimize on all three fronts, and that might mean sacrificing some environmental goals.

"You're more likely to contribute to sustainable technology than to write a poem about Aldo Leopold."

Yeah, that's true. But I have written poems about nature; as a kid I would dream of living in wilderness; I could have turned out one of those dyed in the wool environmentalists who know every bird, every tree.

I'm half kidding. I think the "problem" with people like me, as people like my friend would see it, is that I care about the environment in the abstract, in general, as a system that supports and is supported by life. Yes, I have a favorite tree, but I have not climbed it and built a house among its branches. I cannot identify birds by song. One stream is as good as any other.

That means I can think about the environment in terms of an optimization problem. Its value is not infinite, even if many other variables have a large dependency on it.

Maybe I am hopelessly anthropocentric, maybe I am just wrong. Maybe I am just another narrow minded engineer all too caught up in human systems.

I don't know. I have a lot of good friends whose appreciation of the environment and of nature goes a lot deeper than mine does. Other friends see it as background, a pretty backdrop to the intricacies of human life.

The military should breed environmentalists. Renewable energy links directly to energy security. Climate disruption will ratchet up geopolitical tensions. Resource scarcity and the shifting of prime agricultural lands bear on our international strength. Who knows if five star generals read Muir? Their driving motivations are national security.

We should all care about the earth beneath our feet and the air which we breathe, and our reasons for caring will change over space and over time.

Perhaps I am a bad environmentalist. Perhaps, in that case, I will evolve.


Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


If you know me IRL then you know that I can be rather boring. Low-energy, usually lazy, reserved, likes to sleep and read over doing fun things.

Nevertheless, I've had some fun adventures over the weekend and, since this blog has been somewhat dreary of late, I thought I would share something cheerful for a change.


FRIDAY: Testing GSM Shield

For a project, I am working with another student on getting an Arduino to send/receive text messages. Lacking other economical options for testing the SMS capabilities, my project partner decided to use the SIM card from his phone in the GSM shield and improvise that way.

We were working with the module and got it to send texts, thanks to some fantastically functional code from the Geeetech wiki, but it was nearing the end of our session and we couldn't get it to read the received texts. On the Arduino terminal we could see that the first text had been received and when, but no luck getting to the message.

As we tried to figure out what was going on, suddenly, on the screen appeared the following message:




..."Someone's trying to call my phone!" exclaimed the project partner. Luckily he had Google voice so he could take the call--it was from the people he was meeting with after our work session.

We packed up and went our separate ways and now I am facetiously considering minoring in EE. (Not actually, I would probably break down from the stress.)


FRIDAY: Making Sushi Rice

This is a pretty basic one. My roommate and I went down to the dorm kitchenette and made sushi rice in a pot on the stove. I've always made rice in a rice cooker so that was fun. And it was delicious.


SATURDAY: "Swimming" to 99 Ranch

Saturday morning it rained heavily, but my roommate, other friend, and I biked down to the nearest 99 Ranch Market (Asian supermarket) to get food, including udon, miso soup, jelly snacks, green tea and red bean mochi, matcha pocky, and instant noodles. I miss Asian food, and I have never been on a 45-minute bike ride in the rain before, so that was fun. The world looks a lot different from a bike than from a car.

We biked through suburbia: quiet residential areas with flat-roofed houses, tall apartment buildings with grandiose names, collections of little stores.

Once we got back, we made miso udon for lunch. And it was delicious.


SATURDAY: ODEs problem set

This week's problem set for my ODEs class involved plotting solutions to the Lorenz equations, which yielded lovely graphs of strange attractors and chaotic behavior. Homework can be interesting!


SUNDAY: Plotting the next section of UM

The girls are finally out of Innsbruck, and I think that in retrospect I should have realized that Innsbruck would be a difficult section because their motives and goals change dramatically. Now, it will not be smooth sailing, but their trajectory is more clear; they have more of a purpose. It can go back to being a fairly fast-paced story.


MONDAY: Meeting in the Haas Center

The Haas Center for Public Service on campus reminds me a little bit of a daycare, because it is in a house with a very quaint, Northern European-inspired architecture (in contrast to the rather Italianate buildings on the rest of campus) and the inside walls are painted in bright colors. There are games and shiny pamphlets and books everywhere, and it interested me to think what it would be like to work in such a space. Many places on campus, which we students pass through only fleetingly, are destinations for the people who work there. It's a whole network of specialists, and everyone has their own microcosm.


MONDAY: Band rehearsal

Excellent this week. Got to see a lot of friends, including some of the kind where you just see them and are happy because they exist (e.g. my section leader. She's the best). Played great songs. Overall just satisfying.


MONDAY: Going to the gym

Some of my friends convinced me to go to the gym with them, specifically to break the stereotypes of gym culture--that is, the intense and unhappy-looking person at a treadmill with their earphones in, just having a miserable time of it. We went on the ellipticals and chose courses that displayed images from Alpine trails on the screen (yes, this is a little absurd that we have exercise equipment that can do this. The gross overconsumption disgusts me too. Stanford, is this really necessary?). It was nice to give my mind a break for an hour, though the Alpine images were thematic because the girls in UM are still in the Alps.

Then we went to "lift weights" and I practiced some fencing lunges, which I have not done in a while.


TUESDAY: Stargazing

Two of my friends are in the Student Space Initiative and they have a telescope that they are using, so of course at 0100 in the morning we went out to Lake Lagunita to stargaze. It was beautiful. The recent rains have made the lake more full than it is usually (== not dry), and the night sky and clouds and trees and lamps reflected in the water made a beautiful sight.

The stars look a lot different when you are with people who know their names. I recognize Orion, and said hello to him, and found the Big Dipper. My roommate explained about the celestial equator and elliptical and all sorts of things, and we looked through the telescope at a cluster of stars that appears to the naked eye to be one star. I do not recall the name.

I hummed "Telescope" to myself the whole time and spun around and felt delighted about the world.


Back to work now. This week is not as hectic and crazy as the past two, but I still need to work hard and stay on top of things so that the rest of the quarter I'm not kicking myself for having taken too much of a break. At some point, though, I need to make it out to Cantor.

Also, I have to pick between two IntroSems: one about pagan mythology in European art, and one about the ocean. Probably going to end up going for the ocean one, but I want to talk to the art professor just to give it a fair hearing.

Have a good week.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mid-Quarter Evaluation

Another long week, but I think the next one may be calmer. Once again I arrive at the end of the week exhausted. Still trying to figure out that work-life balance.

Since I wrote on Tuesday about how I've been feeling undirected, and since Winter Quarter week five is the middle of my freshman year, I want to take today to evaluate how I'm doing on my goals for this quarter and where I want to go in the rest of the year.


These were the goals I laid out in my first post of 2015 on what I want to get done:

Shortest Term: Winter Quarter 2015 (3 months -- age 18)
  • master/deeply grok course material
  • actively pursue summer work opportunities
  • read/write/exercise more than last quarter
  • build useful skills (e.g. speaking, coding)

Short Term: rest of freshman year (9 months, to Autumn Quarter 2015 -- age 19)

  • master/deeply grok course material
  • learn German well
  • apply to and get into Berlin study abroad program
  • work over the summer at a job that challenges and interests me
  • continue building good habits and skills
  • finish writing Ubermadchen or at least get close

How am I doing?

Academically, things are going reasonably well--I did better on my first midterms of the quarter than I had expected, and even though I'm somewhat behind on the latest essay it's an interesting topic and I will be able to spend more time on it this weekend.

In terms of work, I've gotten rejected from a few opportunities now, but some doors are still open and I'm just trying my best. Something will work out. So I say, and try to say with confidence, but still I worry and still I feel job anxiety. There's a lot of pressure here to line up something awesome for the summer. My roommate is going to Los Alamos; another friend has one offer from the firm that hired him last year and another in his hometown. Of course, I know seniors who are looking for jobs so I shouldn't complain.

Reading is at a standstill, unless you count reading for class.

Writing is progressing very slowly. The past two weeks have been particularly bad for it but weekends can be productive. The Ubermadchen are finally out of Innsbruck, which took way longer than I had expected it to take. I still need to think through the next section before writing it, and I've altogether neglected the Josefina storyline since I was mostly writing that one by hand. But I can get some thought time in, and I know that it is better to spend some more time on the front end thinking things out so that the writing itself goes smoother. Am I on track to finish Ubermadchen by the end of freshman year? I have four months to cover a lot of story material, so I am not sure. But I will do my best.

Building useful skills is actually going all right. I'm starting to learn how to work with Arduinos and doing some Python on the side, and next quarter I will take my first CS class (CS106B). As for speaking--well, I haven't done anything on that front, but one of my classes is heavily discussion-based and I'm trying to make my points better there, just getting practice.

German learning right now consists of yet another Rammstein revival (listening to the Reise Reise album got me through last week, with all of its angst) and Duolingo when I remember. Next quarter I will take beginning German, and am looking forward to it immensely. The Berlin application has not come out yet, but I should still start thinking about it.

I'm going to add another goal: declare my major by the end of freshman year, by the end of this quarter if I can swing it. I know that civil engineering is what I want to do; all I have to do now is talk to professors and find one willing to be my advisor. When I think about civil I am happier.

Also, I have facetiously stated that I'd like to minor in electrical engineering, so that I can combine all my interests and be C-quadruple E: Civil, Environmental, Energy, and Electrical Engineering. EE is super interesting, but Civil is where I want to be.

My problem right now is that I'm doing a lot of stuff so I find myself cutting corners or putting things off. I find myself finishing problem sets the night before they are due, which means that I'm on time but it feels like I'm late. I'm going to try this weekend to do all of my assignments for next week, because during the week I have very little time for homework.

Here are some super-short-term goals, then. This weekend, I will finish:
  • Solid draft of my paper on the archaeology of ecocide
  • Physics pset (online and paper)
  • ODEs pset (MATLAB parts)
  • Readings for Environmental Literacy
  • Plan out the next segment of Ubermadchen

Weekends are for work. But that's okay. I'm in college, and I haven't figured out the best way to do things, and I will feel miserable at times. But that's okay, because I'm learning.

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Another long week ahead. I feel as though lately I've been in a standstill where my life has become psets and midterms and applications, and I've lost sight of what my endgame is--what I'm working toward. I am here and I have arrived but I don't know where I'm going.

I enjoy my classes and the stuff I'm doing outside of classes, but there just is no time to sink into things. I want time to think, to get my mind clear, to create something instead of just getting through the work. I want leeway to be inventive and not have a deadline; to explore.

It is the middle of winter quarter and I have heard that it is natural to feel like this: simultaneously stressed and restless. I have had no time to read for pleasure. Most days I get home and feel absolutely exhausted and can get no work done. I do not know how to fix it.

This is the first time this year that I have posted late. Midterms. Applications. Homework. I have nothing tonight.

This post is a null, and my mind is somewhat fried, and I would prefer to post something of greater value, but this is honesty: some days, some weeks, are just a slog. There are dry periods. It has happened before and will happen again and that's okay.

Just keep going.