Friday, June 12, 2015

Spring Quarter Learning

I've been thinking so much about how I've changed as a person that I've been giving less thought to what I've learned, as a mind. But I have learned things--that's the point of going to university, after all.

Classes: electricity and magnetism; German; German culture; ESW; public service preparation; research. Also attended the global infrastructure seminar without being enrolled.

Major events: performances - plays and concerts; dances - contra and dance break; sustainability - symposia, speakers, other events. I didn't go to many band events this quarter. Earlier in the quarter I cooked a lot with friends.

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"Lost Stars" - Faded Paper Figures

This song was playing in my head as I moved out of my dorm yesterday. The lyrics are appropriate, because I did find myself in California--at the university where I am beginning to realize what a strange and unique place California is, when California became more encapsulated in my mind as a concept because I began to see its borders, and the whole world outside that defines it.

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What did I learn from my classes?

E&M: the world can be boiled down into a few simple principles--but going from those principles to a specific situation requires some doing. The symmetry of the world is not perfect.

You must know details. That is what has been driven home to me. Familiarity with general principles is necessary, but specific knowledge of context and problem specs is absolutely key if you want to be practical. Yes, some divisions are arbitrary, but precision and practical knowledge enable the last mile of solution. See: E&M problems, being comprehensible in German, navigating an unfamiliar society (Germany, Indonesia), leading in dance, executing an infrastructure project, building anything, devising the best sustainability measures.

This is not to say that the general and universal can be ignored. No, they too are necessary. But they are not sufficient for a solution to work. That said, abstracting away from the specific solution and making it more universal makes it in turn more adaptable, which means that it can be used more widely. The same patterns show up everywhere, but they must be put into context. They won't look the same wherever you go.

German language class: Be bold. Silence is not the way to learn language. Don't get lazy. Practice. Go for complexity. You know more than you think you do. Beware of applying patterns from a similar problem mindlessly--eg using Italian sentence forms such as trailing adjectives. Genuine curiosity and desire to learn are infectious. A good group makes any venture more fun. You can learn new things, if only you are enthusiastic and dedicated enough. Don't be ashamed of what you like (Rammstein).

German culture class: There is a canon of works that can be used to interpret a country. Some experiences are not universal--this is also a lesson I learned through conversations about race and class this quarter. Meaning and connotation can get lost in translation. Historical events and the story we tell about them deeply influence the present and how we respond to present circumstances--eg "nie wie da" leading to more activism. Lack of homogeneity leads to a confused national identity. Teleological views of the past are dangerous. Face up to issues and remember that the danger of silence only compounds in the face of a problem.

Research: The details matter. Good data matters. Be honest. Ask questions. Developing a good working relationship with someone requires friendliness and humility and is helped by demonstration of interest and curiosity and dedication. The research never ends. Practice makes things easier. Specific knowledge is powerful--that's how to contribute, by having real evidence.

ESW: I learned how to use Github and when and how to implement classes. More generally, I learned to generalize. Naming things is important, is really important. Keeping track of your progress as you go along is extremely helpful. Talking in front of a big audience in an intimidating venue is very doable if you know your content cold, if you've been working on it for six months. Asking questions and looking dumb is preferable to fronting and not knowing something. If you feel uncomfortable, speak in a deeper pitch because then you cannot fail to be more real, more you.

Nothing can replace expertise, but being humble and willing to learn and willing to work to learn can make expertise available.

Don't delegate to people who are more busy than you are. Don't put off asking and communicating.

Public service preparation class: BE HUMBLE. Listen to people. You have a certain needed skill set but you don't have all the answers. Be honest. Talk to people. People do amazing things. Show interest in people and be willing to talk about yourself to a matching level of detail. Use humor, show your personality. (No need to make a point to show your character--if you have it, people cannot fail to notice.)

Get excited about stuff. That genuine curiosity is infectious and will help you figure out what you are. If you want to geek out, geek the hell out. Cultivate your enthusiasm.

Global infrastructure projects seminar: Your competitors are also your friends. Be prepared to win, to have to execute. Be the real deal. A whole lot of exciting infrastructure is going on in the Bay Area right now. Connect people--connect with people. Outreach and honesty and honor are the best for PR. Do your due diligence and do the right thing. Repatriation of ruins, environmental auditing--these didn't use to be standard but now they are and they are for good reason, so accept it, buy into these updated values, and carry forth the work with all due conscientiousness. Do right by people. The best technical solution for a given problem depends on a lot of specs and context driven parameters--size of the project, location, available funding (and from what source), risk allocation structure, etc.

What did I learn from other experiences?

Sustainability events: I've been missing out big-time by not being more involved with the sustainability groups on campus. A plethora of research and other activity is going on all over campus, in all imaginable quarters, and I've been living blind to it all.

Performances: watching people perform something they have put a lot of themselves into is a delight, and that impassioned idealism can be embarrassing to watch when unmixed with practicality and reason. Stories told in unconventional media can have several layers of beauty, content and form both. I'm particularly fascinated by the way that songs with multiple movements develop a story.

Dancing: I like to lead and spinning around in a dress is fun. Dancing regularly has also made me more comfortable with being in physical contact with people, because in the kind of dance venues that I frequent (contra) there are no creepy under- or overtones in dancing with people.

Band: Having one or two people with whom you are tight makes a huge difference in how pleasant the experience is (this is a lesson I've learned throughout the year) but at a certain tipping point, you're chill enough with enough people in your section that the likelihood of an event being enjoyable is always high.

Cooking (and programming): Someone with more experience can do more with a limited set of tools than a novice can do without restrictions. Improvisation leads to serendipity.

Confidence comes from competence, and competence comes from experience--from making mistakes, whether on your own or by proxy, and then resolving them, and making new mistakes and resolving those. A good plan, broad domain expertise, is highly useful, but pivots will occur and need not be feared.

In short: go for depth/expertise/mastery in the areas to which your enthusiasm carries you.

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