Friday, March 27, 2015

Ubermadchen Winter 2014-15 Progress Report

Kufstein Fortress (src)

Recorded for the period from early December 2014 to yesterday.

Words: about 37000. Time elapsed (story): 2 weeks. Time elapsed (real): 4 months. Something about these numbers do not seem to line up. This is a lot of words for not a lot of movement.

Innsbruck was a tough section.

I spent two solid months fighting through Innsbruck, from late November to the very start of February. Versailles did not take this long. When I revise, this will be a section to condense heavily. But some aspects made this section more difficult to go through quickly than others: I had a lot more plot threads to juggle than in previous sections, a lot of emotional groundwork to lay for difficult decisions. A lot of angst. A lot of sound and fire.

Of course, that does not excuse the slogging pace of the post-Innsbruck section. It actually started off fairly fast-paced, with a chase scene that got them right into the thick of things and off the beaten track (literally), but then I took three days to get to a scene that I wanted to be amazing (and it was) and shortly after that I dropped into a lot of worldbuilding business that I put off when I was plotting. Now, though, I'm cutting that short and going back to actual writing. But this section is a lot of conversations and information transfer, and I'm not good at that kind of subtle stuff.

So the writing is moving, but it's challenging because it's not action-oriented. I have to slow down and try to get things in the neighborhood of right, while remembering that this is a first draft and whatever I get wrong I can fix.

Ubermadchen, the novel, is taking a lot longer to come together than I would have expected. Over a year now, and over 170000 words with a lot of big important plot stuff to go. Heck, I stopped writing the Josefina strand of the plot in January and that adds a lot to the meaning of the story, though the way things are going I'll work it in as an infodump when the girls are catching up in the first draft and see if I really want to expand it and lose the single-main-POV aspect that I have never been able to maintain in long works.

This quarter was rough but I think I've been even worse about writing in my off time. Maybe because the temptation to lose discipline is stronger now that I don't have psets and readings keeping me on the straight and narrow.

But I can always plan to do better; and this quarter I have done a lot better than last. The logbook helps. I'm starting to realize that all along I have greatly underestimated shame as a motivator for self-improvement.

The girls are growing up, becoming more self-reliant and independent, and because I'm struggling with that myself the writing can be difficult. I am trying to become a real person, as are they, and neither the struggle nor the depiction of it is particularly easy. But we are trying our best.


Laura Palmer - Bastille

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Moving Forward

I'm writing this post on the Caltrain heading south from San Francisco.* This morning I had an interview with a construction management firm which may be able to have a short internship for me at the end of the summer.

*This was true at the time of writing, at 1307 on Tuesday. Sorry for the late post.

Spring Break is going along. I've had a basketball game every day since Saturday, because the men's and women's teams keep alternating. Basketball games are fun, and less confusing than football games because we can bring music folders and I wear glasses and basketball is easier for me to understand than football.

Work on Ubermadchen has been less intensive than I would like, since this part is one I have not much researched and generally I like writing more than researching. I think what I will do is remember that this is a first draft and write what I can without the rigorous research. The character dynamics and information transfers I know, and that's enough to get started.

I'm thinking a lot about how I've changed since starting college, because I'm at a stage analogous (or homologous, I'm not sure which) to the stage at which the girls are in their story. Understanding my own experience is helpful in understanding theirs, and of course I have an introspection while-loop in my source code anyway.

When I visited my high school yesterday I had a conversation with my junior year English teacher. I did not particularly enjoy her class but I found myself not reverting to the bratty sixteen year old I had been. She commented: "you've changed a lot. You seem more open, looser." Loose not in the sense of immoral but loose in the sense of not being as uptight as I used to be.

I think that's true. College has been a lot of fun and a lot of work, and I am humbled every day by how incredible my friends and classmates are. They are smart in ways I cannot even imagine and I love being around people who have the opportunity to do things they love to do.

In high school none of us really knew what drove us. I don't know if I've found my driver yet, either. So people tended to define others by their grades and other accomplishments, since the field for "passion" was usually not yet filled in. There's no need to do that in college.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who is discontent at his university because he can't adjust to not being the smartest person in the room. And while I get that cognitive dissonance is tough, the way I see things, recognizing that you can learn from everyone and that you are not the smartest person in the room, ever, is only a good thing.

I think what has changed about me is that I am less defensive about my intellect. It's not something to protect; it's something to expand.

Besides, intellect is not everything. As my interviewer said, you also need "the hustle factor." Tenacity, a willingness to work hard and do things outside your realm of experience, to learn and listen and then do. I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Finals Week Adventures

I haven't been writing this week. I've been living.


MONDAY - Contra Dance

I haven't been since the first weekend of the quarter, and it was marvelous. I wore the one non-formal dress I brought with me to college and though the skirt was not a particularly twirling kind it was fun. Also, I danced the lead role for one set and it was amazing. Swinging people is really fun and next I want to learn how to twirl people.

The people at contra remind me a little bit of the theater kids at my high school: exuberant, fun, eclectic, and openly affectionate. I'm not used to that and, being reserved, cannot reciprocate those actions, but I like the fun and open atmosphere.


TUESDAY - Physics Final

There were some questions that I did not get right away. First time (ever) needing to go outside during a test and ask for clarification because I genuinely did not know how to proceed with the problem. A humbling and eye-opening experience, even if the test ended up turning out well.

I had reasonably good study habits in high school that have somewhat translated to college. I didn't make the time to sit down with my notes and bust through making study sheets, which would have helped. Just because the people I live with are smarter than me does not excuse me from working hard. There's something fun and satisfying about consolidating your knowledge and making it as compact and usable as possible, and I should have done that more.



I participated in a study in the Psychology Department that involved getting a brain scan. Emotional and gender Stroop tests, which entail looking at pictures of faces and identifying happy/fearful, male/female when there are words written across the faces that may contradict. Being in the machine was cool, of course, and oddly comforting. Maybe because of the feeling of being tucked in.

To be honest, the tasks got boring quickly and my eyelids kept on feeling heavier and heavier. I tried resting them one at a time by squinting but that was ineffective. At the end, though, I got pictures of my brain! The cerebellum looks feathery, fern-like in certain cross-sections, which is oddly disturbing because it looks terribly delicate. After I got the pictures I kept touching the base of my skull, imagining all the soft tissues hanging out there, making me into a person.


WEDNESDAY - LASER/Imagining the Universe Lectures

Later that evening, we made the trek to Alway, a building near the med school, for a series of lectures about art and science. We got there somewhat late because we got lost (yes, on campus) and had to leave early, but heard two full talks:

1. Allison Leigh Holt: "The Beginning was the End: Hybrid Reality in Javanese Culture"

It felt somewhat serendipitous that she was talking about Javanese cosmology when earlier that day (at around 0300 in the morning) I had sent in an email to the Haas Center saying that I would be accepting their offer of funding to go to Indonesia this summer to implement my team's ESW project. The content of her talk was fascinating. I've become less mystical as I've gotten older (said the eighteen year old) but I felt the stirring of something as she described how the reality we see is just a shadow of what is really there.

The speaker also seemed fascinating as a person, and I think it would be awesome to hear more about her story. What got her into this art? This project? She brought up an interesting point: when researching a belief system, at what point do you go from researcher to disciple? How far can you go into something and come out essentially unchanged?

I put forth as a hypothesis that you don't want to come out unchanged. I've been thinking a lot about Indonesia and how utterly different that will probably be from anything else I've experienced before, and I know that part of my attempt at being less afraid is being less afraid of changing. The old self must in some ways die.

Another point: do some people just experience the world in a different way? Shamans, theologians, astrophysicists?

2. Chris McKay: "Imagining Life in the Universe"

Hilarious talk. The speaker was a scientific researcher at NASA Ames and I expected the talk to be very technical and somewhat dry but instead it was a prime example of scientific communication. Some highlights:
  • First slide: typo in the title, date of talk given as "Today"
  • References to different novels that had been coming out just as he was doing his graduate work, envisioning alien life forms
  • Political jab: "some groups, like the INS, think that being 'alien' is defined geographically when really it should be defined biochemically"
  • Venn diagram: within all possible amino acid combinations, there is "known Earth biology" overlapping with "strange biology" and not overlapping with "stranger biology"

Fall Quarter I used to go to a lot more talks. I will make time for them next quarter, because you learn lots of interesting stuff.


WEDNESDAY - Dance Break

Lots of different kinds of dances. Lots of spinning. Lots of confusion. Lots of fun.

Someone brought a D&D book to read during water breaks and the level of worldbuilding detail just kind of blew me away. I want to build worlds too big and too complex and too interesting for the stories I can come up with to have any chance of filling them up.


THURSDAY - 99 Ranch Market, pt. 2

No rain this time. We biked over, got lots of delicious food, biked back along the same way (Junipero Serra). Getting up at 0730 was a little miserable, but the day turned out glorious, and the hills are beautiful, and we found a little bridge not too far from campus. I need to get out more in the sun.


THURSDAY - Studying for ODEs

This is what I missed with physics: going to office hours, hearing people's questions, getting a more and more solid road map of what we covered in class because knowing the material is not enough, is never enough: what's important is to know how it all connects. I made another study sheet of everything that we've covered since the second midterm but what I really should do is make a study sheet or a mind map or something that consolidates everything from the entire term into an interconnected and hierarchical web.



It went well, I think. Not sure when I'll get the grades back but I feel reasonably confident.


FRIDAY - Cantor Art Museum

I went to Cantor with some friends and ended up staying for three hours. Since I haven't been all term, many of the exhibits were new to me and I got to stare at a lot of beautiful art for the first time.

The first exhibit we saw was "She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World," which was pretty much mind blowing. One set of images showed a woman with her daughter and a doll in increasing more conservative head coverings sitting for a portrait, and the final image was just the outline of the chair underneath the black backdrop cloth and that hit me right in the gut. I need to learn more about the Middle East. Ethnically I'm all Chinese as far back as anyone can tell, but since my mom's side of the family is Muslim I feel as though, in some way, I have a personal connection to the Arab World.

I got somewhat turned around when we walked through the second floor galleries and thought that the Napoleon portrait had been removed, and found myself terribly distraught. Then when I realized my mistake I dashed through the doors of the correct gallery and exclaimed, "Napoleon! There you are!"

Whenever I go to Cantor, I make sure to greet three representations of animals. There are also a few works of art to which I bow. This is, I feel, the only appropriate response.


FRIDAY - Movie Night

My roommates (present and future) and I made pizza and watched two movies tonight.

1. Good Will Hunting

Lots of excellent one-liners, including: "See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you're gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you're going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don't do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!"

Which hit me in the gut because one, the education I'm getting is not cheap and two, I need to read more. That is always going to be true: I will always need to read more. But I really, really should get on that because break is short and the quarter is busy.

2. Life of Pi

Gorgeous visuals. The story is wrenching, and I kept on imagining what I would do if I was stranded on a boat in the middle of the Pacific with a tiger. Would I be strong enough to keep on living, or would I fall over the side of the boat and drown myself? I hope I never have to find out, and I hope that if I did I would chose to live.

Also, seeing the tiger made me realize just how much I miss my cat.


It's been a fun and adventuresome exam week, even if I have gotten no writing done since Sunday. I'm figuring out that work/life balance, slowly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Balancing Fear

"What if I get malaria and die?"


I've been coming to a realization over the last half of this quarter: I am tired of being afraid. Of holding myself back. I am naturally cautious, perhaps somewhat paranoid, and evolution is on my side. As a consequence, I conflate me being rightfully cautious with me just being a coward, and sometimes the two overlap.

This summer, I have the opportunity to go to Indonesia to help implement a project I have been working on in a team since January. I am unlikely to have such an opportunity ever again, and yet before today I was sure that I was going to say no to this because...why?

What I really want is a job at a construction company, and I have an interview on Tuesday of next week (it was going to be last Friday but my interviewer was sick). But I don't have that as a sure thing yet, and I have to decide by this afternoon whether or not to accept the funding grant for Indonesia.

I am going to say yes, I know that. And that kind of scares me.

Because getting thrown in the deep end can teach you a lot about self-sufficiency, or it can make you drown. Because mosquitoes in Indonesia carry a lot of potentially fatal diseases and for some reason I always get a lot of mosquito bites. Because I have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the first gen mantra of keep your head down, you're not allowed to do anything out of the ordinary that I am afraid that doing something like this is wrong because it doesn't directly relate to the kind of construction job I definitely want to get next summer. Because I have no practical skills and I don't know how to do anything in the real world and I don't know if I'll be able to do the job the best. Because accidents happen and I don't speak any Indonesian and I hate feeling vulnerable. Because what if I get malaria and die?


But some of these fears are unfounded and some can be mitigated. I argued with my parents on the phone Tuesday night and convinced them, mostly, so I'm going to put my spiel here to motivate myself:

I joined ESW and in large part chose Stanford because I want to develop and use my skills in a way that benefits people and solves their actual problems. I could do that by doing lab work. I could do that by learning on the job at a construction internship. I could do that by working with people directly and learning from them and listening to the people whose lives I am presuming to improve.

One reason I want to do civil engineering is because the benefits it incurs scale, big time. Transportation, water, and energy infrastructure are the big three and they can change lives of whole countries if done right. This project is kind of a subordinate to energy infrastructure, but it for sure could scale if we decide to open source our methods of remote monitoring. And if it helps make micro-hydro plants more effective to communities and more attractive to donors, that could assist the cause of renewable distgen, particularly for the rural communities in which electricity access is disproportionately low.

Going for a more civil engineering/construction-focused summer opportunity would be great in terms of making connections in the industry. However, I am still interviewing with (and have communicated my probable summer unavailability to) a firm that does mostly transportation infrastructure, and expect to be able to maintain connections with professors who have a foot in the field. The NGO with whom we are partnering is highly regarded and they do really, really good work. I interviewed for two opportunities relating to small-scale renewable energy and both interviewers had only good things to say about IBEKA.

The only way to gain more practical skills is to develop them, and if I learn our system inside out and then am forced to apply it and teach it in the field, I will learn. This is one fear that I recognize as irrational: the fear that I won't be able to learn. Of course I will be able to learn. I am good at learning, when I believe in the importance of what I am learning. If I am put in a position where I have to be competent or else there will be negative consequences for other people, my sense of shame will drive me toward competence. I hate letting people down.

Safety and health are important. That said, people travel to and work in Indonesia all the time (obviously) and nothing untoward need happen if I take the necessary precautions. I can read the CDC's website; I can get vaccines; I will be with people from the NGO basically at all times; I can avoid being an idiot. I will say that I'm vegetarian and avoid the issue of bad meat. I will talk to people from the Haas Center who have more experience in these matters and get expert advice. The professors for the ESW class have done field work in places that have more health hazards than in the US: I can learn from their experiences how to stay healthy and safe.

These are skills I will need to know in my future, if I am serious about wanting to do good in the world. Am I a little terrified? Yes. But I am not flying into this blind, and the benefits outweigh the costs, and I am so damn tired of being afraid.


Second late post of the quarter. Had my first final today and then a basketball game. Need sleep.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Winter Quarter Recap

Last day of classes this quarter. I feel less sad this quarter than I did last, because my more personal, discussion-based classes are Tuesday/Thursday so I finished them yesterday but didn't have that "last day" feeling.

People say that Winter Quarter is the toughest one. Certainly it was more difficult than Autumn, but then again I took autumn easy. This quarter I took five classes: mechanics, ODEs, the rhetoric of archaeology, environmental literacy, and ESW (engineers for a sustainable world). I took part in three main extracurrics: one competition team, LSJUMB, and FLY (financial literacy for youth). Aside from that I did not do much, though I did write a reasonable amount in UM and stress a great deal about what I'm going to do this summer.

I'm starting to think that I need to retrospect more, that I will lose all knowledge unless I review it and solidify it in text. So this post is going to be me summarizing the classes I took and the things I experienced, post-processing the quarter.


Mechanics and ODEs:

My two pset classes. I used to hate copying over my homework but I kind of enjoy doing the messy work in my notebook, scribbling things out, getting things wrong (okay, maybe I don't enjoy that), and then transferring it over into a fresh, clean piece of graph paper. There's something calming about laying out your reasoning and analysis in a logical, orderly way. Whoever is grading doesn't even have to look back at the problem sheet to see what the question was asking, because it's all there.

When I took physics in high school I fell in love with physics. When some friends and I self-studied calc BC in high school I fell in love with math, again. This quarter, I haven't felt that same sense of wonderment and joy at how perfectly things line up, at how clean and beautiful the mathematical bones of the universe are. I've had moments, of course--the problem set where we made MATLAB graph a strange attractor is a highlight--but we're being taught tools of the mind rather than love for the subject. Maybe love can't be taught.

I rarely use the textbook but I feel as though I should. I rarely go to office hours but I feel as though I should. The thing is that I don't absolutely need to go to get things cleared up conceptually, and so I don't go even though I could benefit in other ways, for example by being around people (the TAs) who feel a genuine passion for the subject. I have one friend who really loves math, reads math textbooks on his own, compares the two recommended textbooks critically, and I am consistently impressed by how he lets that curiosity drive him.

I don't have any sort of emotional investment in what we're learning. That's a little sad.


Rhetoric of Archaeology:

The final paper, which I turned in Wednesday night, was the hardest struggle I've had with a paper in a long time. Last quarter I really fought hard with my term paper for Energy Options, but that had a more obvious flow of ideas. This one, I kept on cutting subsections and putting them in other places, rearranging, really gutting the essay and putting it back together in different ways until I got an order that makes sense and hangs together, but is not the only one that could have worked.

It was messy. The word limit was given as 3600 to 5400 and thank goodness that's a soft maximum because I think I crossed 8000. In a way that is a failure, because I know the essay could have been written tighter, could be condensed. It is a lot harder to write a good short essay than a good long essay (a bad short essay is, however, probably easier than a bad long essay), though, and I had no time left. So hopefully I've written a good long essay, and hopefully the good short essay buried inside does not suffocate.

I enjoyed the class because learning more about the craft of writing is always useful, and I have little experience writing academic papers that are actually meant to provide useful knowledge to the world. I would not argue that any of the papers I wrote in high school added value to the readers' lives.

In a way I have never done real work. My professor mentioned at the beginning of the assignment that the top essays from all the PWR classes get published by the university, and some papers might even get published in actual journals e.g. for undergraduate research. That kind of scared me. I never produced crap work in high school, but I was optimizing within a very narrow space. Is anything that I have written worth submitting to the world? Would I feel comfortable building my professional reputation upon an edifice that included [insert any] essay as a stone?

I am not sure that the essay I turned in as my final paper meets those criteria. It is a competent essay, with ideas logically arranged, and as well written as my other work. But does it add new value? Could it be significant in the world? Could it change someone's mind, someone's way of thinking about the topic of the Rapa Nui "collapse," someone's perspective? Or does it just read like an assignment given to a bright but ignorant and inconsequential college freshman?

My end argument, which involved standards of scientific integrity in communicating to the public, is one I stand behind on a personal level. But I do not recall feeling any passion while writing the paper, and I think I should have. As I was researching my Augustus paper last quarter for Ten Things, or my decentralized power paper for Energy Options, I felt happy. I felt delighted. I felt that I was learning something beautiful, that I was expanding my mind and not just my knowledge space.

I wrote a "good" essay but I am not sure if it was on the right topic. Ah, well.


Papers I do want to write at some point / topics I would love to research:
  • The military and environmentalism / the military and climate change / the military and renewable energy.
  • Basic personal finance and how financial literacy is disseminated.

Environmental Literacy:

This class was probably my favorite this quarter. We discussed all sorts of topics, and a lot of the time went around and around in circles.

Education, communication, and jurisdiction came up a lot. How can the scientific community get information out to the public? How can the scientific community get information out to the public in a way that will be accepted? What is missing if we just throw out facts? Who gets to decide what action to take, given that after all the facts are in we still need to make value judgments on what is more or less important? Should change come from the bottom up or the top down? Yes: this is a false dichotomy, and working from both ends is necessary. Should we work within the system or overhaul it? How can we garner unilateral or at least coordinated action when the greatest risk falls upon the person who makes the first move? How can we balance environmental goals with equity, given that fossil fuels remain the cheapest path to development for many nations? Given that the worst effects of climate disruption will be felt by the least privileged communities?

I tend to come back to questions of institutions and systems. What if scientific organizations and associations hired and trained journalists to write about scientific topics for the layperson? What if industrialized nations went aggressively into developing clean technology that developing countries could use to improve their quality of life? What organizations are responsible for the continuation of the "climate change debate" when the facts clearly state that anthropogenic climate disruption is occurring?

Just as interesting as the class discussions was the class composition. Energy Options was full of engineers. ELit had a much broader range of people, and I think a more passionate set of people. As an engineer I was the minority: many of my classmates were pre-law or polisci or econ. We even had someone who was film studies. I forget sometimes that the world isn't full of engineers, since my hall is full of them. The others in ELit...a lot of them are involved with Students for a Sustainable Stanford, a club I thought about joining at the beginning of the year and then didn't. I'm not sure why.

The activist culture on campus has a lot that is highly objectionable about it, and I think I didn't want to get involved because my MO has always been to observe and do my thing quietly. No signs and banners, no stickers on my laptop, no op-eds in the newspaper. But this class and the people in it make me wonder if that's the best thing to do. Maybe some things do matter enough to be loud about.

Another major realization is that I am horrendously ignorant about basically everything. I was going to fix that, way back in the fall, but then I got caught up in classes and other stuff and forgot. I should read the news. I should read books about current events. I should be more aware of what is going on in the world outside of me, fascinating though my inner world is to me.

It would be the height of conceit if I resolved to change the world without understanding it.



Most high school students know very little about personal finance. This is wrong, and the school system is failing its students, and quiet people contain multitudes within them. I want to learn a lot more about personal finance because that was a big interest of mine in eighth grade but the world does not stand still and I need to brush up.

It also makes me wonder: what knowledge am I missing that I don't even know that I'm missing? What should I be learning so as not to screw up my life? I have been confronted with my own ignorance over and over and over this quarter, and I want to improve my mind.


Take care of yourself. You cannot do everything. It's okay to take naps. One metric of happiness is how many meals I can accompany with a walk around the lake. Time spent away from your work is not time wasted. It's okay to hang out talking with your friends. It's okay to read six Medium articles in a row on your phone. It's okay.

I fell off my bike two weeks ago and my wrist still hurts when I try to move it too far out. I got an xray at the health center yesterday and the doctor says there are no broken bones, but two weeks is kind of long for a minor injury. Just as I am convinced that I fell because I was out of it that day because I had not been getting enough sleep, i am convinced that the long healing process is because I have not been getting enough rest.

As my wiser quadmate has said, "You need to take care of yourself to be able to do all the things you 'need' to get done."

My logbook that I thought would revolutionize my productivity this quarter has been pretty useful at keeping me on track, but I did not notice until about halfway through the quarter that there was no column for "fun things" or "enjoyable thing" or "things I did for myself to stay sane." That seems like a dangerous omission, and next quarter's log will definitely have such a column.


To anyone else on the quarter system: good luck with finals, but remember to take some time off this weekend. I personally am looking forward to not setting an alarm for tomorrow morning.

To anyone not on the quarter system: good luck on midterms, and remember to take some time off this weekend.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dead Week Winter 2015

Dead week has begun, but I'm actually not dying just yet. My dead week last quarter was focused on writing my term paper for Energy Options, but this quarter the work is more varied. Today we did final presentations for Environmental Literacy; tomorrow we have final presentations for Engineers for a Sustainable World and I need to turn in my final paper for my writing class; Thursday I have a presentation for Financial Literacy for Youth (which should be pretty laid-back, since I'm only covering the activity portion); Friday I have two psets due and then have to rush from my last class to get on the Caltrain to the City for an interview.

After that, I can take a short break before finals.

Written out like that, the list of work I have due sounds substantial. But I'm working on finalizing my ESW presentation with my project team tonight, I've put in several hours on the paper the past few days and it's shaping up reasonably well (will definitely be ready by Wednesday night), the FLY presentation really is low-key, I've finished my pset for ODEs, and I've been pacing myself on the physics pset well enough that I should be able to finish it after the lecture tomorrow.

As for the interview: it's with a construction company. I'm moderately nervous, given that the only other interview I had with a construction company resulted in a rejection. But that was in the fall and, though I still am by no means a real civil engineering student (not even declared), I have some projects that I can talk about in depth. I've also had more practice since then articulating my interest in civil in general and infrastructure in particular.

The company also has a track record of supporting women and minorities in the industry; the founder is a black woman, and the current president likely is as well (based on last name, she is either a relative or an in-law of the founder). That's pretty awesome, though I don't think that I should get any favors because of my race or gender (though apparently there are very few Asian undergrads in civil), given how lucky I've been in not having those counted against me. I'm also wondering if the professor whom I asked for help looking for internships chose to put me in touch with this company for that reason.

Anyway, I hope it goes well. I actually feel a lot calmer about it now than I did a few days ago. At the end of last week I still had heard nothing positive back from anything I'd applied to for the summer; in the past few days, I have gotten some offers (one for research with a professor here, one for doing summer work with ESW funded by the university). Not sure how I'll decide; my gut instinct says that if I got an internship offer I'd go with that just because it would mean having finally had a real job. But I'm not going to shut down the other offers without thinking it through a lot.

Life is pretty good right now. I have a lot of work to do, yes, but I knew that and got a reasonable amount done over the weekend. Just got to stay on track now. Back to the grind for me.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Transferring Truth

I've been thinking a lot this week about scientific communication, or really, any kind of transfer of expert knowledge to a popular audience. It's a topic that has emerged as a theme this entire year, starting from the Three Books panel during NSO in which the authors of the Three Books we had to read got into a discussion about the nature of truth and how to determine whom you can trust in terms of scientific matters. This quarter a lot of different factors have converged to bring it to yet greater prominence: taking a writing course. Taking Environmental Literacy. Participating in Financial Literacy for Youth. Being on a very technical project team for ESW. Even the competition team I'm on has an element of this: bridging information imbalance.

In Environmental Literacy on Tuesday, we discussed the media, and more specifically, how environmental issues are covered in the media. According to my prof, science journalism used to be a staple of every major news outlet, but then budgetary concerns made them get cut. This leads to journalists who lack scientific background having to cover scientific topics, and covering them in a misleading way.

I wonder how feasible it would be for scientific associations or organizations to hire writers, trained journalists, and offer them enough scientific training that they could report on scientific topics accurately and accessibly. To me, that seems a valuable exercise. Imagine: scientists who wish to popularize their work would still have that venue, but would not have to if that was not their thing because a separate profession of experts in writing, well-trained in the relevant science, would take care of that. My roommate is in a writing class about science communication and I need to talk to her about this topic. I do not know the average level of science education of the public, but I do not imagine that it is higher on average than that of today's journalists.

I used to want to be a technical writer and sometimes, in this class, I wonder if I owe it to someone to use my writing skills in the service of science. But then I remember that I love infrastructure and that improving the systems of the built environment is one long lever for changing people's lives.

Which leads me to this week's John Oliver segment:

Usually I do not watch John Oliver, or any news or comedian of any sort. I'm probably not going to start. But we talked a lot in ELit this week about the role of humor and how comedians have a considerable amount of political capital because people like and trust them. I cannot speak to this myself, but it seemed to hold true for a lot of people in the room. Maybe that's just because we're college freshmen.

Trust and credibility are key. How can people convey their degree of trustworthiness? My ELit prof talks a lot about how a scientist has nothing but her reputation. One lie and your credibility is evermore suspect. I agree that untruths are wrong, but we have also seen evidence of people who tell lies, outright lies, about their work and yet remain in positions of authority. How does that happen?

Tonight we went over to our professor's house and watched a movie called The Global Warming Swindle, and then the rebuttal interview that the Australian Broadcasting Company produced in response. The GWS included graphs truncated before the years that disproved whatever point they were trying to make, misrepresented scientists' views through editing (example: Carl Wunsch, who requested that his interview segments be removed), and conflated weather with climate. Watching in a room full of people who have been reading about environmental issues for the whole quarter, with a damn good climate scientist whom we all love and trust providing her commentary, my classmates and I were struck only by the absurdity of the film's arguments. But without that kind of support system/reality check, perhaps I would have found the film convincing.

And that scares me. Truth is a tricky thing, and I believe things that people say when I trust those people. I have not gone through the facts on every core belief I have, which means that it is likely that I am wrong about some things. And that scares me. What knowledge am I missing that will prevent me from making the right decisions in the world?

I mentioned that this quarter I am involved with the group Financial Literacy for Youth. We go to a local Boys and Girls Club and teach topics relating to financial literacy or professional life, such as credit or resumes. I actually have only been to a couple of lessons this quarter, but every time I am struck by my vast ignorance. And I actually know some things about finance, because I thought when I was in eighth and ninth grade that I would go into finance.

That is another career path that haunts me sometimes: working in finance, learning the ins and outs of personal finance, and bringing that knowledge to people to help them make the right decisions about their money so that they will be able to live the life they want now and in the future.

The little lessons I help with now--a lot of these high schoolers that we work with are not getting financial literacy anywhere else. Hell, I went to a tiny rich white suburb and we never got any official schooling in the very basics of financial literacy. If I hadn't thought I had an interest in finance when I was thirteen, I might not know what the difference is between a mutual fund and an ETF. And that knowledge will be useful to me, and it will be useful to others, and it is ridiculous that the school system does not teach this to students.

I get angry about this. I get really angry about this. Communication of relevant science, of personal finance, of important political issues, is vital. But whom do you trust? How will you know when you find them? That question was raised at the very beginning of the year and I am still fighting to find an answer. I trust people whom I respect and like, and will listen to people who say things I don't agree with as long as they are not diametrically opposed to me or obnoxious.

But I am getting things wrong and I don't even know what those things are. Ignorance is a difficult chasm to cross, and we build our bridges piece by piece.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Creating in the Spaces

Somehow it is already week nine. I am always worried about wasting time, yet I find it easy to lose momentum and drop the ball on important things like talking to professors or looking on companies' websites for interview dates on campus. After that week where I had five professional-content conversations, I took last week off mentally and did none of that.

I'm kind of exhausted. Winter Quarter is hard, they say. I've been doing fine academically but I'm just tired most of the time.

I miss certain people: people here of whom I saw more last quarter or earlier this quarter, friends from high school, my cat. I'm preemptively missing people on my hall who will live across campus next year, and my friends who are going abroad this spring.

But things are going reasonably well this week. I finally made the time to sit down and work on Ubermadchen for an hour, and it was fantastic. The story misses me. I got to write one of those scenes today that you wait for, that you love to write, the kind of scene where the words just flow because this is a scene that you finally see and get.

I wonder what other scenes will show up that will function this way for me. I didn't plan out the Austria section in as great detail as the rest because it's at the end of the story and I was tired at that point. But I need to think of cool things to include, because writing is difficult but it should also be fun. The carefully plotted story may be easier to write but I need outlets for creative work.

Speaking of which, I've started carrying around a small sketchbook. Yesterday in ODEs the prof was reviewing matrix algebra, which I got last quarter, so I decided to draw:

Und der Haifisch ist nie still
Soundtrack would be a mashup of "Haifisch" and "Rosenrot" (both by Rammstein).
Siehst du mich?
Inspired by the Unheilig song "Damien."
My friend mentioned Harry Potter so I drew a lightning bolt. But if you can have Blitzkrieg, why not Donnerkrieg?

I think I was going for the German indie film poster look. And it is quite fun just to play around with ideas, visual cues or themes, and let it get weird. That's something that I think I have been missing--letting things get weird. Do you see a theme in my recent posts? I want to take things seriously, and so I forget to let in light and creativity.

But I need that. I need a creative outlet, and the little pockets of time when I could be wasting time on my phone I should be using to do anything creative. I'm trying to get more mileage out of my notebook. It's a process, carving out time for your creativity.

Three weeks left in the quarter: week 9, 10, and finals. I can do this, and I can bring the light with me.