Sunday, September 16, 2007

My routine and the meaning of life

Nothing particularly noteworthy has happened in class for a while now; it’s been all the other stuff that’s kept me busy. Last week ended calmly enough. I played some video games, did some homework, the usual stuff. I spent some time during the weekend and beginning of the week sending emails back and forth to get ready to help with BEST stuff down here. Part of that involved sending an email to the DS mailing list about volunteering for BEST. I was surprised when I actually got responses to my initial message, not so much when no one replied after I told them more about the schedule and such.

Monday I went to a physics homework session. Not at all because I needed the help, but because the girl I sit by in class wanted to be kept company. Fair enough. It ended up being alternately boring and amusing; the TA was coming up with some ridiculous equations for us to work out and missed a unit conversion that took about five minutes to find and fix. I may go back to a few of these sessions, particularly since I have a problem on this week’s homework I haven’t figured out yet, but overall it isn’t worth it most of the time. For everyone who just wondered “But what about the girl?”, I learned at our next class that she already has a boyfriend back in Houston. She’s still cool, though, and does make physics lectures go by a lot faster. This makes me remember various mutterings I’ve heard from the other guys in the hall that finding girls with boyfriends somewhere else has been a common problem this semester. Anyway…

I also learned about my physics lab class on Monday. That may have been the slowest three hours I’ve had on campus so far. We have to spend lots of time using a math program on Mac computers, which is annoying both because I’m not used to using Macs and the program’s syntax is extremely picky and I’m not used to it, either. Also, my lab partner is, well, just kind of there. He's just engaged enough in what we're doing to insist on reading all of our directions and such really slowly, but that's about it.

Tuesday I had my first ‘lab’ for my DS research methods class. All this involved was sitting in a classroom talking to out TA about our ‘inquiries’, which while not exactly boring, not particularly interesting either. I ended up deciding to do a study of all the angry people that comment on the ABC News website. My plan was to ask them questions to see, first, if they realized how angry they were and, second, if they knew why that was. That plan ended up crashing and burning, though. I did at least get some laughs when I told everyone there about my new screen-name on getting banned, likely for ‘soliciting’ on their forums, never mind that it was for a both good and perfectly legitimate cause. I also didn’t get any responses. Apparently angry people don’t respond to UT students studying online communications who need volunteers. I spent today working on my new inquiry idea, which was to just copy the text of all the comments on a selection of stories from several different news websites and compare them to see which site had the angriest people. That didn’t work, either, as I only found two major national news networks with comments on their online stories (CBS and ABC), so then I just copied a selection of stories from each site to see which topic makes people the angriest: Bush and his Wars on Terror and Iraq, gay marriage, celebrities and their random stupidity, or global warming. So far my intro, process description, and some of the details of how I’ll decide this are all written up. Now I just have to actually figure out which topic makes people the angriest. I’m not yet sure exactly how that will work, though, as I copied over 1,000 comments from these ten stories.

I also discovered the Society of Physics Students and liquid nitrogen ice cream Tuesday evening. That was actually a lot of fun. The society doesn’t seem to do much other than guard the secret of the physics lounge door code, make dangerous-sounding snacks, and design t-shirts, but they’re still entertaining.

I just spent Wednesday afternoon napping and shopping. I’ve decided it feels good to get away from the campus to do my shopping. Strangely enough, I seem to miss things like driving and being out in the normal, average, random-strangers world if I don’t get off campus regularly. Even in Austin, terrible as the traffic usually is, I enjoy a chance to drive somewhere. I also talked to an old friend in College Station and we concluded that I would have to drive out there some weekend. More on that plan as it develops…

Thursday I enjoyed sleeping in late; it’s the only day of the week when I really get to do that. That afternoon I went to my first divided DS 1st year seminar with Professor Gonzalez of Ecology. I just realized that I may have been a little vague on how the ‘DS seminars’ work, so, to clarify: one of them is a class on ‘research methods’. This is the one with Dr. Laude, the interesting, logic- concerned one. It meets Tuesday afternoon (the aforementioned ‘lab’), and Wednesday and Friday mornings after physics. The other one is not really a class and is just a chance for DS first years to get to know each other. It meets Thursday afternoon. From now on, unless I forget or change my mind, they are now “research methods” (with Laude) and “DS seminar” (with 1st years).

I also learned about a university mentoring program that evening. It looks like I will spend one lunch a week (hopefully Mondays, since that’s the only one where I actually have time) with a kid from Kealing Middle School here in Austin. That could be kind of interesting. I won’t know the details on how that will work for a little while, though, while it gets set up.

Friday wasn’t particularly noteworthy most of the first half of the day. We had a mildly amusing DS lunch in which a Math professor named Starbird told us that a set of numbers that he described as ‘the first fractal’ and whose actual name I don’t remember has both 0 length and measurable length. Needless to say, the math necessary to explain that was really weird. It involved lots of alternate bases and infinitely repeating decimal numbers and other brain-warping stuff like that. I did conclude that, if we meet aliens with some weird number of fingers like three or seven one day, we will never get along and will most likely end up in a massive war. Most of you probably never gave it any thought, but that really is the only reason we use base ten. Now we’ve spent so many millennia getting used to using it that we can’t think comfortably (or at all) any other way. Sucks for those aliens…

My insane weekend began that evening, when I braved the traffic of 24th street and Hwy 183 to go to Vista Ridge High School for BEST Kickoff setup. The crew that runs BEST down here seems alright. They’ve got nothing on North Texas, naturally, but that’s the founders’ hub and is very rightly the coolest one out there. I took Gideon, a guy in DS I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with, back with me on Friday. Getting up early that morning sucked, by the way. We then spent the morning discussing every intellectual topic that ever existed (Gideon’s cool like that), munching doughnuts and drinking water from these funny little 8 oz. bottles, and sitting. Then we handed out kit stuff for the teams and took the field apart. The guy in charge of the demonstration machine (he called his “Junky”) seemed impressed with my driving abilities the night before as I fiddled with it, so he brought another one for me to drive at the actual demonstration. It ended up completely sucking, though: one of its’ wheel mounts slipped a lot, and the motors would have been uneven and really awkward to drive, anyway, so I didn’t get anywhere in less than five minutes. I also think the two machines thing was a bad idea in general. When I came out, everyone was so focused on my machine that they barely even noticed as the other guy brought out the other one. That part felt really uncomfortable, but it was a good day overall.

After getting back, I remembered that I had a DS dinner to go to at Dr. Cline’s house. He is the director of DS and runs the DS seminar (which one was that?) and is very loud and, …hmmm… what’s the word for it? Sudden? Unexpected? I don’t know. Maybe abrupt. He tends to address people very quickly and interrupt them a lot, but he speaks fairly normally and unremarkably most of the time. The dinner was kind of interesting some times and kind of lame others. I enjoyed driving groups (different groups) to and from Cline’s house, and enjoyed seeing the house itself and some of the conversation and hanging out, but sometimes the drowsiness started getting to me and I just felt tired. I fell asleep very quickly after getting back to the dorm.

I’ve just been doing homework today. Nothing special really: reading my physics lab manual, copying news comments, writing a bunch of technical sounding junk about them. I finally quit after I went out to get dinner. The food places on campus have annoyingly random and short hours on the weekends.

I was disappointed in the lack of commentary on the prospect of evangelical science. I did get one reply, thanks to “ALittleMad” for advocating a scientific jihad. My thoughts on this are really complex and probably contradictory at several points. I agree that non-logical people seem happier than logical ones (although we can’t really know) and that convincing them to value logic likely wouldn’t work. I also generally think that forcing one’s beliefs on others is wrong. Trying to change their minds is acceptable, as long as that effort is never harmful or particularly disruptive. Something has to be done, though, as the current system has serious issues. Put extremely simply, I think that what we have is a few logical people creating great wonders and power, (nukes, guns, the Internet, medicine, etc.) and a whole lot of non-logical people finding more and more creative ways to destroy things with those wonders (Anyone see that? …creative ways to destroy things…?). The logical people can’t control the things they are creating. This has become very important to me: on the very long odds I do create anything of great importance or power, I will insist on keeping control of it. I won’t sell out to the energy companies or the government, for example, even if I do create the greatest new source of energy ever and get billion-dollar offers for it. If I find anything of really great destructive potential, especially if it has little or no potential for anything else, I may just never tell the world about it at all. The world can’t be trusted with another weapon of mass destruction right now.

I think eventually the survival of humanity depends on more of the species learning to think logically. As I try to figure out solutions to big-picture problems like overpopulation, the abundance of nuclear weapons, religious conflicts, and poverty, I can’t envision too many realistic scenarios that don’t end in a whole lot of people dying very violently. I really wish there was a better way. We are capable of controlling the population, and without the barbarity that places like China sometimes resort to. We are capable of using the world’s resources much more efficiently, and we should be able to find productive things for most of its’ people to do along the way. We should not have any kind of tools whose only possible purpose is killing large groups of people, and our planet’s only superpower should lead the way in making that a reality. And, finally, things that divide people need to gradually be eliminated. My apologies to all the people I’m about to offend, but that includes religions, that includes governments, that includes separate races, that includes political parties, and that includes even the topic that started this rant, the separation between users and non-users of logic. None of this can or even should be accomplished quickly. Rushing too quickly to unity and peace is both impossible and would likely cause problems we are not yet capable of fixing. Eventually, though, it has to happen, or we are doomed to destroy ourselves. We have to find a way.

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