Saturday, October 24, 2015

Good Things

It's actually been a very good week, with far less work than usual, but I've still been feeling a lot of stress and the weekend is going to be very busy. Here, then, is a list of good things in no particular order.

1. Berlin

I got into the study abroad program for spring! This was probably the biggest source of anxiety for me this week, since all the engineers want Berlin in the spring. I have a strong interest in Germany and have been loving my German language classes, and I'm feeling lucky that this came through. The excitement has not hit me yet; but it will.

2. Writing cards

Some friends had birthdays this week so I got to write cards. I miss yearbooks, because I am much more honest and open in writing than in speech, and yearbooks provided a perfect excuse to be real with your friends about how much they mean to you, without being seen as overly sentimental. The time delay also provides distance which decreases perceived vulnerability with increases honesty. 

Tldr writing is safer than speech.

3. Tea

Starting to feel sick; tea keeps it at bay. Giving tea to ill friends is also a good thing, because actions, like the written word, are more comfortable media of love than speech.

4. Engineering paper

I like writing out my solid mechanics psets on engineering paper. It's just so clean.

5. Aggressive music

Medicine for the soul. It's been a good week, for sure, but I've needed a substantial amount of rage input.

6. Good frosh

The freshmen in my dorm are great. They are studious and calm, but also enthusiastic about a wide range of things, friendly, open to philosophical discussions, and all sorts of other fine traits. I am strongly considering trying to staff for this dorm next year.

7. Halloween

I'm actually looking forward to Halloween a lot this year, mostly because I'm dressing up as Harry Potter (which I must have done at some point in elementary school). Like most nerds I saw myself in Hermione first, but upon more recent rereadings I'm identifying strongly with HJP himself.

8. Sleep

On that note, I bid you farewell.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Autumn Awakening

On Sunday, walking around Lagunita after dinner, I felt awake.

I had a good weekend. On Saturday I finally went thrift shopping with a friend. Going off campus was excellent. Though I love my university and I love my dorm, I need to get away sometimes. I need to remember that I'm not defined by college and the person I've become since coming to college.

I made a big deal last year about my transformation, about how I didn't recognize myself after a year of college. This summer, I think I rolled back some of the changes, and this oscillation is bringing me back to who I really am.

Autumn has arrived, though my east coast friends would and do scoff at what passes for autumn in California. Overcast skies and leaves beginning to fall. Halloween. This season used to seem utterly magical to me, because of the cooler weather and the magic of a night where you could be anything, anyone else. 

Magic and sorcery and doors to other worlds. Things that have been missing from my life. Classical over romantic, Roman over medieval, but we all need some mystery in our lives. Man muss noch Chaos in sich haben.

I'm here to learn how to be a good engineer, how to solve problems that are important in the world and communicate effectively with others. I have felt my respect for the fantasy authors I used to read decrease as I realize how consistently and overwhelmingly white and straight they all are. What I've been fighting with and for since coming to college is my identity: no longer seeing myself as smart, realizing my race is actually a big deal, awakening to the reality of being asexual and agender.

Halloween lets you escape your identity. Halloween also says that it is not bad, that it is even okay, to be a freak.

I am quieter and calmer and more disciplined than I was at the end of freshman year. I no longer wear dresses or bandanas or flats on a regular basis. In these ways I am more similar to the person I was in high school.

The Peninsula is suburban sprawl from the City down. Biking to the thrift store, I could have been biking through my hometown. The air tasted the way it did in elementary school. The leaves crunched under my bike wheels the way I remembered.

I felt the way I did the summer before college: as if I could, under my own power, go someplace different.

At the thrift store, I got myself a sweater from the men's section. I put it on over a men's shirt I got in Indonesia, and felt, for perhaps the first time since I found out the term exists, gender euphoria.

In elementary school, whenever we played we made up characters for ourselves. I was always a male big cat: Tom the Tiger, John the Jaguar, etc. 

I put on the sweater and felt: this is not pretend, this is not a costume, this is who I am.

I biked back, feeling campus slowly close its arms around me, as the leaves fell and everything, liminal, changed back, transformed.

The wind was cold. I was awake.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Morals

What is right? A friend recently challenged me on some of my moral positions, so I'm going to outline my thoughts here and try to weed out inconsistencies. 

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Climate disruption threatens quality and quantity of life on earth. 

Sentience is a key criterion for determining rights, although it is not the only one. 

Noblesse oblige. 

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Some results of this are that I no longer eat mammals, I care more about racism than about the poultry industry, I see zero moral wrongs associated with aborting a fetus whose brain has not yet developed, and I believe in sustainable development more than I believe in conservation. 

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Known biases:

I am a secular and neurotypical human. I live and was raised in the Bay Area, which is notorious for (often blind) liberalism and technology worship. I'm training to be a civil engineer. I experience gender dysphoria. 

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I rank species' importance by the maximum achievable sentience. Within species? I am trying to find a line that is not arbitrary (with scientific defensibility as a bonus) while also consistent with my moral intuition. For example: I don't believe that every organism of a species is made equal. I would rather deprive a fetus of life than an unwilling pregnant person of freedom. On the other hand, I don't believe intelligence is a valid measure of worth. 

Past a certain point of complexity, then, perhaps life has a set value. But that value can be forfeited by acts of evil. I took a class on evil last year and am still somewhat uncertain about what does and does not count. Slavery and genocide are unambiguously evil in my worldview; but what about complicity? What about ordinary murder? How much allowance can be made for circumstance?

The world has limited resources. That means that there is an optimal level of consumption that we probably have already passed. Is it moral for me to enjoy a lifestyle with adequate lighting and running water and food that is not all locally sourced and a university that holds investments in fossil fuels?

Is it moral for me to work on development projects that increase the quality of life and therefore the level of consumption in less developed regions of the world? I believe so. As I said above, sustainable development over conservation. I am probably too anthropocentric. 

All living things are important and valuable, but the highest priority for quality of life should be given to more sentient beings. Humans and other intelligent animals are capable of a larger magnitude of subjective, experienced suffering than less-sentient beings. Maybe I prioritize the mind over the body too much. (This is where my ace/nb bias comes in: I have no affection for bodies.) But our minds allow us to construct experiences, and we live not in reality but in the world our mind creates given inputs from the outside. 

Therefore, improving the lot of a human being is more valuable than improving the lot of an animal by the same amount. Getting killed for being the wrong species in the wrong situation is not, to me, of equal moral weight to getting killed for being the wrong nationality in the wrong situation--because to have a nationality that you can be killed over, you need to be part of a sentient enough species to come up with and ascribe importance to abstract concepts such as "nationality."

The numbers game makes a mockery of my ideals. Fewer humans are suffering than are individuals of all the other animals, and although I wouldn't call myself utilitarian, numbers do matter. This is a flaw in my reasoning that I cannot responsibly make an exception for, off the cuff. 

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Criticism and discussion are very much welcome. Have a good weekend. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Week Three Adventures

Friends, Romans, countrypeople, it has been a week. My average sleep since Sunday has been less than six hours a night, because the work is starting up and I lost all of Saturday to football. I'm going to try to get more done this weekend, though--and I'd better, because next week I have two midterms, am presenting the project I worked on this summer at an engineering fair, and start my peer advising hours.

Freshman year was a whole lot less work.

My mind's been going all over the place this week. The angst from Tuesday is still here, but I don't really have time to angst. Just do the work, don't shirk, go all in.

Earlier in the week I was thinking a lot about dysphoria, and at some point I do want to collect my thoughts on that into a separate post. But, since I submitted my application for study abroad last night, I'm thinking about Germany and German a lot now. I need to listen to more German language media--listening to real Germans talking at speed still intimidates me and I need to get better at it. 

Then, tonight I helped moderate a philosophical discussion night with my dorm. It was great fun. I was moderating a question about obligations and what goes into determining our obligations, and the conversation ranged all over the place from noblesse oblige to biological altruism to environmentalism to family to Sirius Black to activism to Germany's push for renewable energy to...

I love my dorm and I love that we do events like this. The event was four hours of prime homework time but I don't regret signing up to moderate, not in the least. Exploration of philosophical space is exciting when it relates to real actions and situations.

Sometimes I angst about college and self esteem, and I am kind of uneasy looking at the huge pile of homework that I need to work through this weekend. But I am lucky to be here. This is worth it. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Inadequacy

When I was in high school, my band director's constant battle was to get us to practice more. I've been thinking recently about one particular spiel.

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Doubt - twenty one pilots

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The spiel:

You're all smarter than me in this room. I could never have gotten the grades you get in your classes. You're so academically gifted that in class, most of the time, you don't need to work too hard before you get it. You can probably teach the material to other students by the end of the class period.

That's great. But it's entirely neglecting the skills you need for playing music well.

Playing music is hard, and you need to practice, but that's hard too--not because it's complicated, but because it's uncomfortable. When you practice, you are faced with your weaknesses. Learning to play an instrument means committing yourself to hours and hours of mediocrity. You've got to be okay with struggling, with not being good for a while--maybe a long while.

And that's hard, because you're used to things coming easily. You wrestle with a topic for an hour and then you get it, you do some problems and you master it. But practicing isn't like that and improving is never over. If you stick with it you'll pass from bad to okay to good, even beyond. You'll like how you sound again. But you'll never be satisfied, no matter how good you get. And getting good is a hard process in the first place.

So you've got to practice. You have to learn to put in the hours, even with your weakness, your inadequacy, sitting at your side.

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I'm taking more technical classes than I have previously this quarter, as part of the new normal that comes with being an upperclassman in an engineering major. It's not going as well as I had hoped.

Not that I'm doing poorly; I'm just not good yet. I'm ignorant and unobservant and lack the boundless curiosity and sharp intuition of my friends. All I have is hard work and writing skills, and I'm increasingly insecure about the depth of my knowledge. Impostor syndrome is real: I'm convinced I'm just not as smart as my friends are, that I am below average.

But so what?

Carol Dweck has done a lot of research on attitudes toward intelligence, and on the difference between a growth mindset and an aptitude mindset. Aptitude means you think intelligence is a fixed quantity; growth that, predictably enough, you can improve yourself. People who were often told as children that they were smart tend to adopt an aptitude mindset and get defensive about their intelligence. I'm one of those people and I'm trying to break that mindset.

I don't want to get comfortable with my inadequacy; complacency is always my worst enemy. But I want to be able to work in spite of, because of it. I want my inadequacy to be a thorn in my side that pushes me to action and improvement and growth, instead of paralyzing me.

As I currently am I will never achieve greatness. I will be too comfortable, too afraid of responsibility, too easy to throw off guard with a criticism. But it's not where I am that matters so much as my trajectory, and what I need to ask myself is, am I improving? Am I less of a coward, less of a layabout, less of an ignoramus, less of a fool? Am I working hard on something worthwhile? Am I learning? Am I doing what I ought to do and am I giving it the attention it deserves?

Honestly, I wanted to be brilliant. I wanted to stroll into my engineering classes and unleash heretofore unknown reserves of intellect and insight, casually to exceed all expectations and stun my peers. I want to be good, but I must become good.

I'm struggling, not terribly, but struggling. I can't back away. I can't give up. What would that do to my confidence, if I caved under at age nineteen? I need to think of future me and give them reason to be proud. I need to give future me precedent, such that when the going gets rough for them, they can point back and say, "I learned a lot then. I was a useless lump but I became steadily less useless. I proved to myself, for then and for now and for the future, that I can transcend myself, that I can improve, that I can always do better."

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Sophomore year of high school I got serious about euphonium. I practiced almost every day, got shouted at in class almost every day, dug my way out of mediocrity. Dug. I have no wings, no latent flight; I have to get my hands dirty.

I'm not smart enough, now. But I can't abide this inadequacy, and I need to step up my goddamn game.

Friday, October 2, 2015

To Care or Not to Care

Somehow it is already October. That seems too fast--I just finished week two of classes. How is it October?

There are a lot of things on my mind, but none that feels fleshed out enough for its own post. I started writing something for Tuesday about attention and FOMO but then got distracted and didn't finish it. Ironic, I suppose.

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Music for today:

Con Artist Culture vs. Pax Americana - Outline in Color

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Attention and FOMO: trying to recruit people for my competition team. It's weird because I didn't need a lot of recruiting. Build things, learn about design, meet upperclassmen in my major. Sold. But I'm not the typical case and a team full of people like me might not be optimal. Empathy. What are my reasons for doing things, how might someone else's reasons lead them to the same thing?

FOMO for me isn't a fear of missing out on everything so much as a fear of settling for something suboptimal. I'm okay not doing stuff; I just want to avoid doing the wrong stuff. Various friends have suggested that I take a social dance class but I would have to make damn sure that I would be leading. Ten weeks of dancing as follow sounds horrible.

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Why? Dysphoria. We went contra dancing on Saturday and even though the physical act of dancing follow is not unpleasant, I did not enjoy myself nearly as much as I normally did, to the point that I took the long way home and sat up in my dorm's library listening to aggressive music afterwards.

I don't enjoy negative feelings and I try to brush things off, which makes me confident that my dysphoria is actually existent. I'm angry at it, about it, in a way, because I had just started wearing dresses and skirts again, had just become more comfortable with femininity. And I don't think my problem is with femininity, but rather with things coded societally as female.

Take shirts, for example. My high school band teacher, repository of random facts, pointed out once that men's shirts have the buttons on the right side and women's shirts on the left because most people are right-handed and women were dressed by maids. Now, when I put on one of my woman-intended shirts, I feel a brief flash of discomfort. Sometimes anger. Sometimes repulsion.

What affects me? That the convention stems from women being weak and needing assistance? That I am not, am not, am not a woman? I resent my dysphoria. I used to like those shirts unreservedly. But I can't, now, not when they signal: this is a girl. This is a woman. Because those are lies.

I had my first experience of being creepily hit on yesterday and what bothers me the most is that it happened because I am perceived as a girl. Along with the usual disgust (at least I'm assuming usual? I have no experience with this) of unwanted attention, of course, but mostly, I'm angry because if I was a guy that would not have happened.

Luckily, though, I have good friends who are willing to listen and talk to me and who make me feel safe. Friends who use "they" and accept my gender confusion without dispute. Friends who make me laugh and offer advice and say to me "no, you're not overreacting, you're not crazy, you are allowed to be upset." I haven't told them about the dysphoria I've been experiencing, not yet, but I know if I want to talk about it then they will listen.

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I wrote the above before heading to volunteer at a huge climate rally on campus. Al Gore spoke, and since I'm unlikely to get around to writing about it unless I do it now, here are two highlights from his speech:

In many places, electricity from solar is cheaper than electricity from coal. "That's like the difference between 32 degrees [Fahrenheit] and 33 degrees. It's not just a difference of one degree--it's the difference between ice and water."

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, the average age of the people behind the mission was 26 years old. That means that when JFK first issued the challenge to America to put a person on the moon, the average age of those individuals had been 18. "They changed their lives so that they could do something incredible."

Bonus: he called the Koch brothers "knaves."

Non-Al Gore-related bonus: I had a brief conversation in Italian with some international grad students and they complimented me. I've been trying hard to do all my foreign-language-thinking/speaking/writing in German because I really want to go to Berlin in the spring, but Italian is definitely more comfortable for me and it's nice to know I've still got it.

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I like finding patterns so I'm trying to find a common thread connecting the above pieces. Recruitment/FOMO, gender dysphoria, efforts to rally action on climate change. The first and last have the common thread of trying to get people to care about something--which involves pointing out why they should care and what they can do, if they care.

My gender dysphoria is more of a personal problem, one that I wish I didn't have to care about. But I do care, and pretending not to
care is dishonest. And is it really a personal problem? If I try to downplay my own dysphoria and pretend it doesn't matter, is that trivializing it for the people for whom ignoring it is legitimately not an option? Likewise, I could comfortably live in ignorance of environmental issues, but for other people, particularly those in developing countries and marginalized communities in developed countries, those problems are too obvious to be ignored.