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.


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