Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Fun things like exams and dead people

I’ve definitely stayed busy in the month that I haven’t updated. This past weekend was my first chance to slow down in a while.

Classes ended last Friday. Even some of those were optional; I didn’t have to do to calculus or Java Programming. We had our last ‘midterms’ (it seems funny to call them that this late in the semester, but all of our non-final exams are apparently midterms) last Wednesday in physics and calculus. I got about 86% on both, which was well above the average and among the highest scores on both tests.

My physics lab ended Thanksgiving week, which was extremely nice. I never have to write a mechanics lab report again! Rejoice!

My first final is tomorrow, in calculus. My last, chemistry, is next Monday, and I plan to leave for the holiday that Tuesday (1 week!). I hope everyone else is doing well on finals and such.

So, stuff I’ve been doing:

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I went to College Station to see some high school friends. I stayed with them that Friday and Saturday night. It was fun; these guys are quite amusingly random and vulgar and such, and they have some interesting friends. Their apartment is awesome, in the sense that it has random crap like aluminum cans and video game cases and big cardboard advertising-stand-type-things for video games everywhere. It’s the perfect metaphor for how these guys live life. The drive to and from College Station reminds me of home a little; I took Highway 79, which is just a small, low traffic rural highway through a bunch of the small towns between I 35 and Bryan. Also, all my Longhorn friends will be amused to know that these guys verified that all of the amazingly dumb stuff we always say about A&M people is completely accurate. We apparently aren’t exaggerating at all. Although, I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get tackled for walking on the grass on campus.

I only had a couple classes that week. Monday I had my usual schedule, including the last of my lab (which is over now! Celebrate!). Tuesday I had a chemistry midterm that a lot of us didn’t really have to take. I explained this to most of the people there: our chemistry professor drops one midterm grade. This was the last midterm, so anyone who had As on both of the earlier ones had no reason to take it. I even found a guy who had 100% on both of the first two and took this one anyway. The efficient part of my brain was screaming at me the whole time I was there. As fate would have it, though, I ended up beating one of my older scores by a couple points.

I had been planning for over a week to skip two of my classes that Wednesday. It was fun to tell people about how I was going to skip class, so I was disappointed when they both got canceled. I spent most of that day driving home, which is always kind of boring.

Thursday I had my first (yes, meaning of more than one) Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Tom Bean. It was very different to have Thanksgiving with someone other than family, but it was also lots of fun. That evening I tried and largely failed to gather people for video gaming; we only got one console, so a few of us played that and the others played WOW (which is a cultural phenomenon everyone should know about; Google it) on their laptops through my laggy satellite internet. Yeah, they’re addicted. Friday I relaxed a lot and saw Enchanted (which was extremely funny) with Mom and Sara before hanging out with some of the guys some more. We hung out at IHOP drinking hot chocolate and such for over an hour after watching Beowulf (which was actually digitally animated, extremely well, but was otherwise underwhelming).

Saturday I had my second Thanksgiving dinner, this time at home. It was also very good. We had all the usual stuff like a turkey and Mom’s really awesome gravy and rolls and cranberries and such. I kept some leftover rolls to take back with me. I had to go back to doing useful stuff like laundry that evening, though, since I left Sunday morning.

The trip back on Sunday was interesting. I ended up moving a friend to College Station to live with the friends I mentioned earlier. The actual drive down was largely uneventful. I took I 45 to College Station, so the traffic was light. 35 was apparently awful, so that worked well. I also got to see a more rural part of the hill country, as 45 doesn’t have all the midsize towns 35 does. I ended up driving about one and a half hours longer than I would have if I taken 35 straight down and had no traffic, but the weather and traffic on 35 were bad and I got to help a friend while I avoided that, so it’s all good.

The week after that, I jumped right back into the usual routine for two more weeks (I had never thought about the fact that there are only two weeks of class left after Thanksgiving in college; weird). Our chemistry classes wound down fast and the last two last week were largely pointless. Java programming was still interesting, mostly because the last assignment was fun. I got to program wolves that kill lions, tigers, bears, and stones. Very cool. No, you’re not supposed to understand, just agree.

The last two weekends I had some interesting party-type events. Last weekend my TA for Research Methods invited me to her birthday party at the Cheesecake Factory. It was hard to find, and we had to wait a while because we had a big group and they were packed, but the food was naturally good and the company was excellent. I only knew the TA when I got there, but I met and talked a lot with several of her friends, so that was fun. I also got cheesecake, some of which I kept and took back to the dorm. Monday morning that cheesecake made the best breakfast I have ever eaten. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that awake at 8 in the morning. Last weekend, I went to the Dean’s Scholars’ Holiday-Dinner-that-can’t-be-called-a-“Christmas”-dinner. Who knew “Christmas” was not politically correct. Whatever. Anyway, I drove some people to that on Saturday evening. We had awesome music, decent food, good people and conversation, and it was generally a good time. I ended up not having to clean anything, even though I signed up to, because we have dutiful people that clean without being asked to. Only in an honors program. But, that’s cool. I ended up making two trips taking people back to campus since several ride-givers left without full carloads before the party had broken up. I learned, while hanging out with some late-staying second years between giving rides, that they generally like the leader of the Research Methods class (which all DSers take), Dr. Laude. You remember, the amusing guy that compared me to William F. Buckley, the failed politician and mediocre author, in an office hours meeting? I found this highly interesting, since I’m fairly sure most of my year is still scared of him. They take him too seriously, I think. He needs to be laughed at when he makes fun of you, that’s all.

So now I’ve spent a weekend relaxing and have done a little work and studying the last two days. This is where the dead people come in. You see, I finished the semester with several things left to do in Research Methods: three skill modules and an ‘inquiry’ (translated: I have to turn in 5+ pages of stuff that sound like a research paper). The inquiry is over criminals executed in Texas since 1982. Their info and final statements are saved online, and we have to read them and write something interesting about them. I read all 405 on my own (some people formed groups). That was a really fascinating and depressing sort of thing to do. It was interesting to see what these people had to say and think about what I would say in their place, knowing I would be executed immediately after. I was disturbed by the number of people that did not leave a statement; if I was about to be executed, that statement would mean everything to me. That will probably be the main thing I write about. Seriously though, if you ever feel like you need to get really depressed and hate life, read about those people. Sit for about and hour and read their statements and tell me then that we should still have state sponsored killing. Let me be clear: everything related to those poor people is wrong: the ways the victims were tortured, raped, and killed; the fact that the offenders spend years fighting the system with poor educations and bad public defenders (come on, these guys can’t afford good lawyers), only to die at the end; the fact that some of those 405 people executed must have been innocent, but that now we’ll never know for sure; and the fact that so many families, of victims and offenders, have been ruined by the whole ordeal. It’s all wrong. We can stop at least part of the cycle; killing those criminals does not save us money, does not deter other criminals (violent crimes overall have occurred at roughly the same rate nationwide for decades), and does not bring back the victims. Some of the people we execute will be innocent, as the system is very far from perfect. Bottom line: there is no reason for the state to execute anyone. This must stop.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Averageness, homework, and the Universe

It’s been long enough since Capitol BEST that I’m starting to get over the feeling that I have to catch up on the homework I was putting off to do stuff over the weekends. Three full weekends in a row is too many.

Last week was fairly average. I spent most of it doing homework. Tuesday was kind of interesting because Dad was in Austin interviewing engineering students for co-op positions. We had dinner that night and lunch on Wednesday before he left. The way he described the interviews was kind of funny; for example, some of the applicants apparently didn’t read the job description. They didn’t even know how long the job was supposed to last.

I did get two exams back last week. 100% in calculus and 91% in chemistry. I’ll take it.

Last weekend I tried and failed to finish my second inquiry for my Research Methods class. I’ve decided to measure the voltage of my laptop battery as it runs and figure out why the software battery meter and “time left” indicator seem to always be wrong. The problem is that I can’t reach the terminals. They’re about 2 mm wide and are down inside little plastic slots only about 4 mm wide. And my voltmeter’s probes are about 5 mm wide. This is ok, though, because our professor has officially declared that we can basically have as long an extension on this project as we need as long as we turn in a decent inquiry write-up. My new plan is to receive the second battery I ordered over the weekend and open it up to use the terminals on the cells inside. That should be more interesting, anyway.

While I’m on the subject, I had a very interesting meeting with the Research Methods professor Sunday evening. His name is David Laude; he’s a chemistry professor and the “Associate Dean of the College of Natural Sciences”. He’s also extremely cynical, sarcastic, and just generally funny. I hate to disappoint, but he doesn’t think I could ever get elected president. The interesting part about that is why he thinks so; I don’t think I could ever be elected to anything, either. Society is just not ready for a moderate, independent, non-religious physicist/engineer to be a politician. But his reasoning was that I don’t seem average enough and do seem too confident. That one threw me off, since politicians clearly have to be extremely confident. After all, they spend every election season going around explaining why they are better people than their opponents. One of his other entertaining thoughts was his opinion that “procrastination is an admirable trait”. Yeah, it was an extremely amusing 20 minutes. Let’s see, he also called me a “know-it-all” and said that I encourage ridicule and combativeness because I seem so confident and self-assured. I hadn’t heard anything like that in years. Of course, I guess my friends from Tom Bean just got tired of saying it at some point, didn’t you? So there you have it, the “Associate Dean of the College of Natural Sciences”. Feel free at this point to draw any conclusions you like.

We had yet another physics discussion on Monday. More people were there than usual because they were all worried about the exam coming up on Wednesday (which was earlier tonight, actually). There was a guy there that was, rather interestingly, completely unable to visualize the motion of a yo-yo. We had a problem about the velocity of a really large yo-yo on last week’s homework that we were trying to figure out. He kept trying to argue that the center of rotation was at the edge of the wider part of the yo-yo instead of the in the middle. Seriously, how does someone not remember how a yo-yo works?

Last night was really entertaining. I went to my first “skill module” for the Research Methods class. This involved gathering with a group of about 15 other people in the class to listen to one of the TAs talk about astronomy. It was actually really amusing; she was really energetic about her galaxies and red shifts and dark matter and such. It’s really a shame I can’t recreate any of her gestures. She also used a bunch of really hilarious metaphors for things and, between her choices of topics and some helpful questions from me, we came to such amusing conclusions as: “Everything we know about everything may be wrong” “Everything is going to get eaten and die” and “We are just a peanut in the cosmic circus”. Just awesome.

Earlier today I had a Java programming exam in class (which was just easy), and tonight I had the dreaded physics exam. I really don’t know why everyone was so worried; we already know that the professor makes the exams a lot easier than the homework and actually even reuses some homework questions. I was finished in about an hour; we were given two.

One of my recurring thoughts in recent weeks has been over the value of “what if” questions and the rather clumsy opinion I explained to some of my old BEST team a year or two ago. I said, at the time, that all “what if” questions were useless, which even the official freshman slacker of the team could tell was wrong. This thought seems to tie in somewhat to my thoughts on theoretical science and such, so it’s worth clarifying. My refined opinion: “What could have been” ponderings are still definitely useless. We cannot travel back in time to ever really know “what could/might have been”, so worrying about it at all is a waste of time. Considering what might happen in the future, however, is entirely worthwhile. This is one of the better ways to be prepared for that future. Observing past events and patterns to make plans and preparations for the future is entirely worthwhile, too. Thinking about the past only for the sake of wishing it had been different, though, is not. Thinking about “what if”s regarding the present that could never be real is also a waste. If a situation is not the way you want it, you should find ways to change it. Once you establish that a given option is not possible, however, let it go and move on to other ideas.

I’m planning to go home for Thanksgiving in a few weeks. I may also go to College Station to see some friends the weekend before, homework permitting. It’s been nice to actually stay in touch with my high school friends; I was worried that we might lose contact just like I have with so many other old groups. It hasn’t happened, though. Gentry, LB, and I keep each other’s Facebook walls filled with comments about our activities, thoughts, or whatever randomly happens to come to mind. Overall this semester, I think I’ve either seen or talked to more than 20 old friends from high school. Not bad.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Capitol BEST

For anyone not familiar with BEST, my last post includes a summary of what the competition is about and my various exploits on the Tom Bean High School and Middle School teams.

This year’s game was fairly straight forward. The teams had to drive their machine from their starting corner of the field up on to a raised platform using a ramp. The outer, lower part of the field and the ramps were only wide enough for one machine at a time to pass any particular point. On the platform, there was room for all of the machines. They had to grab small cardboard boxes and 20 oz. bottles filled with sand from a 2 ft. square in the middle and more boxes from the corners. If they collected and scored with the correct combinations of colored boxes and bottles, they got bonus points worth a lot more than any single score. Bottles were worth the most points for any single item. After grabbing stuff, the teams had to drive down another ramp and to the far edge of the lower field to drop their stuff and score.

It was extremely different working on the staff rather than on a team this year. First, there was no great pressure to come up with awesome design ideas or to memorize the rules within 48 hours after kickoff, which was, to some extent, a relief. There was some pressure to look and sound confident and authoritative, or at least there would have been if those things didn’t come completely naturally to me.

Second, I started out not knowing anyone. I felt like it was an accomplishment to know half of the crew’s names after the first evening of setting up for kickoff. Of course, I’ve been doing lots of name-learning down here.

All of my loyal readers will already be familiar with the earlier events, so I’ll jump right in to the preparation for Contest Day. I arrived at Akins High School at around 5:45 Friday evening. I had been stick in rush hour traffic for about an hour (fancy that, stuck in rush hour during rush hour. Honestly, how do I not think of this stuff?) and was expecting everyone and all the stuff to already be there, since Greg (Greg Young, Capitol BEST director) had asked us to be there at 5. He apparently hadn’t thought about the traffic, either, as he arrived with the truck full of stuff about 15 minutes after I did. Most of the setting-up, preparing the field, arranging tables in the pit, checking in the teams, checking machines, and such only took about three hours. The next five and a half hours were spent mostly on setting up the wiring for the field scoring, tiebreaker system, and the wireless network for the computers. We ran into an amazing array of problems including a wireless camera that completely jammed the network, software glitches, more software glitches, and unreliable tiebreakers. The last one we never fully worked out, partially because the head referee and the head scorer were not coordinating very well and the scoring program wasn’t always ready for the next match when it started. That completely threw off the tiebreaker system. The rest, though, we finally got working by about 8 Saturday morning. We were close at 2:30 that morning, when we accidentally tripped an alarm the teacher escorting us forgot to turn off. The cops insisted that if we couldn’t contact the principal (and of course, we couldn’t), we had to leave and come back after 6. I never understood what that accomplished.

Compared to most places I had been to for BEST contests, the Akins HS gym building was fairly small. It only had one small hallway in the front of the building, concessions, restrooms, the gym itself, and a back hallway. The volunteers’ hospitality rooms had to be in another building to the side. The school in general was typical of high schools in the Austin area: it had several separate buildings arranged in a loose ring around a central courtyard-like area just about big enough to enclose TBHS. It’s an amusing design. From the size of it, I hope the students at these schools get more than 4 minutes to get from one class to another; that was the passing period back home, and it was only barely enough even in our tiny school.

I got about two hours of sleep between being kicked out and coming back for the competition on Saturday. Getting that little sleep is pointless; I felt sleepier at 6 that I had at 2. Once again, I worked mostly on finishing the networking and such. We finally had most of it working by 8, which, conveniently, was when drivers’ meetings and such started. This, like all of the meetings and presentations held by the staff, was a lot lower-key than I was used to. I was used to Ted and Steve and the cheerful, upbeat style they brought to everything they did. I was used to being greeted at my drivers’ meetings by the official head referee and kit and RC experts, all of whom were clearly extremely confident and capable and all had many years of experience even during my first year, 8 years ago.

Next we had the opening of the game and a skit by the Akins HS drama club, which was really cheesy, and not even in a particularly funny way (I hadn’t known that was possible). It got good, though, when the game started. I was officially in charge of the “red” corner of the field, which didn’t really mean that much. All of the refs roamed wherever the action was fairly freely. The first few games all had really low scores. I would guess that a full half of all scores made overall during the day were either “0”s or “1”s, since the teams officially got one point for tripping the tiebreaker. For reference, the lowest other score possible was 5 points, and including bonus points, it ramped up quickly from there. This meant that most people didn’t even notice that our tiebreakers were also only working properly about half of the time, which was definitely convenient for us. There were several other problems during the first half of the day or so: several teams were not ready when the head ref started the match, since he didn’t give any warning and didn’t usually even check all of the drivers or other refs for confirmation. This meant we ended up having to give lots of 20 second penalties for drivers having to turn on their machines after the whistle or something like that. I was kind of surprised at how many drivers managed to jump their machines over the edge of the field as they were starting out. I think I had about three of those in my corner throughout the day.

During the second half of the prelims, things started hitting the fan a little harder. I had to disqualify several scores made after the buzzer that ends the round or that were not completely in the scoring area. Two of my teams jumped the edge during this half; the rules say we have to disqualify them from that match if the leave the field, even if they could get back in. My corner also started having radio problems. In order to minimize interference, all BEST hubs now have special field radio systems. The teams have to turn in their transmitter crystals, rendering them powerless to do anything without a direct cable connection. The teams have to use our receiver boxes and plug in to our transmitters on the field. Our radios are not flawless, however, so we have to check on every accusation every team makes that our system has a problem. 90% of the time or more, the team just has a mechanical problem. At least once during the prelims, though, my red radio system did indeed stop working. When Greg was called over to decide what to do, I intercepted him and explained to him that “If it’s our radio problem, we run the match again, right?” in that tone that said that this was not really a question. That had always been the policy back home, and I completely believed both that it was a good policy and that our radio had definitely stopped working during that match. I was completely surprised that Greg seemed to be seriously considering to just continuing the game without worrying about it, which I was fully prepared to fight. That just wasn’t right. He decided to give that team another chance, though, so I found them and brought them back to the field. After we got them ready for their make-up run, we found that they also had a mechanical problem: one of their motors could not move for some reason. I could hear it buzzing as they tried to move it. Rather unwisely, the driver started arguing with me and Greg that the radio was still not working. By then, we had wasted enough time and had to send them on their way. It was a funny sort of coincidence, that they had both radio and mechanical problems at the same time. We at least tried to do the right thing. A few rounds later, another team decided to mess with us and our radio problems. They somehow made it look like their machine was not receiving a radio signal, even though we tested the receiver and found no problems. The driver then pulled his team’s tether cable (the wired drive system for teams to use in the pit area at contest) out of his pocket right after the game and drove the machine around. I don’t know how or why they made their machine seem to not work. In keeping with doing the right thing, I promptly ordered them off the field.

By the semifinals, the problem frequency had gone down considerably and the game got a whole lot more interesting. The best machine was a quick, single-object grabbing machine with a box to hold stuff in that had really good drivers. During the prelims, other teams had sometimes blocked them from getting to their scoring area (since the lower part of the field was too narrow to get around a properly placed machine and attacking such a machine was a disqualification offense). The problem with this strategy was that it kept the team doing the blocking from scoring any points. And, overall, it didn’t work; this team still had the highest prelim average, almost double the second place score. The second and third place teams both tried to grab all or at least many of the bottles (the high-point objects) at once. This gave them really high scores in any match where they actually pulled it off, but they could only get to the center before the other machines and successfully grab and score several bottles about once in three matches. They also came really close to getting interference penalties several times; once during the prelims, I actually had to take a driver’s transmitter and disqualify him from a match for knocking some bottles out of another machine’s grip, which is seriously bad sportsmanship. During one of the semifinal rounds, I had to release a slight tangle between these two mass-bottle-grabbing machines.

There was one particularly memorable moment in the first round of the semifinals. The team with the quick, well driven machine, Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy, or LASA, had already made a big score. With about thirty seconds to go, they were on the lower field between one of the mass-bottle-grabbers and that machine’s scoring area. They had a perfect chance to block another machine, get a little payback for the blocking they had suffered from earlier. Instead, the LASA driver chose to back his machine all the way into the closest starting corner and let the bottle-grabber go by. They ended up getting to their scoring bin with about 5 seconds left and weren’t able to drop anything before the buzzer. I was amazed at the graciousness of the LASA driver, and absolutely had to shake his hand after that match. He explained that he refused to use the same cheap tactics the fatalist teams had used against his team earlier. He didn’t elaborate on the fact that the bottle-grabber did not have enough time to score, anyway. That action, backing away and letting this machine at least have a chance to score really impressed me. It was both an amazingly sporting gesture and a justifiable tactical decision, since LASA’s earlier score earned much more points than the bottle-grabber could have gotten and they didn’t have good odds of making that score in the time left, anyway. This is the ideal I would look for if I were still in BEST competitions: be sporting, be generous, and still win. An awesome combination.

LASA did end up winning in the end. The two bottle-grabbers each only got one big score during the three final matches, just like I predicted from their success rate during the prelims. LASA, however, was able to maneuver around them as they fought for position over the bottles and pick out several boxes and a couple bottles of their own. It was exactly the right approach. They also ended up winning the BEST award, as they had one of the biggest teams there and therefore had more than enough people to compete well in all the BEST award captions (see the BEST web page for the details). The short explanation is that the BEST award encompasses a bunch of less important stuff that doesn’t directly involve building or running the machine. Because it involves more students with more diverse abilities, though, the national BEST organization decided a couple years before my first contest that it should take precedence over the machines’ game award. I have never agreed with this; without the machines, there would be nothing for the notebook writers or the presentation speakers to do. I do understand their reasoning, though, and at least one game winner always goes on to state from every hub, so I don’t fight it too hard. As it turned out at Capitol BEST this year, they got to send five teams to Texas BEST. Since LASA and one of the bottle-grabbing teams both got BEST awards and qualified for state with those, the game awards went to the other two finalist teams and all four finalist teams go to advance, along with one other that placed 3rd in the BEST award. Once again, check the website if you care about the details of how this all works.

I have decided that I have to be more forward about organizing the field staff next year. I figured I might as well mostly stay quiet and see how things went my first year. In the process, I found several problems. The head ref didn’t reliably check for readiness until the semifinals, after I had been making a point to make a visible thumbs-up signal that my red team was ready for several of the last few prelim matches. He also didn’t wait for the scorer to reset the software and be ready for the next match, which led to the tiebreaker system not working any more than half of the time. The teams didn’t seem to all understand our plan for the flow of the game, which I think was mostly because they didn’t get a strong introduction and clear instructions at the beginning of the day. All of this is stuff I can fix next year.

Even with all the problems and negative calls I had to make, I thoroughly enjoyed the game. There are few places I would rather be than watching a bunch of cobbled together duct-tape and plywood tinker- toys lurch around the field. There’s a certain beauty in watching six weeks of hard work in action. It probably helps a lot that I know exactly how hard those kids worked on those contraptions. I also know that somewhere amongst all those proud designers, builders, and drivers, there had to be at least one who had the best day of his senior year right there at Capitol BEST. And I am extremely proud to have been a part of it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BEST Robotics

BEST is a high school robotics competition founded in Sherman, Texas about 15 years ago by two engineers at Texas Instruments, Ted Mahler and Steve Marum. I happen to know both of these guys; they work with my mom and I competed in their contest for seven years. They’re two of the most awesome people you could ever meet. BEST is an acronym for Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology. It really was clever at the time the contest was founded; it comes from the era before we reached acronym saturation and they all just started sounding dumb. The name, though, is insignificant next to the fact that the contest is really awesome. BEST is now a national organization with three large state or multi-state competitions and dozens of local hub competitions. Unfortunately for the national organization, Ted and Steve have opted to go on running their smaller local contest, North Texas BEST. For seven years, though, that didn’t make any difference to me; I had always gotten to compete in the best hub, even if I didn’t know it yet.

In the BEST contests, teams from high schools within the hub’s local area gather every fall, usually in September, to see that season’s game. Each game is different; some past games involved picking up and moving rings of PVC pipe, flipping switches, grabbing balloons, or hanging bandanas on clothes lines. Some rules and the allowed building materials, however, say fairly similar: the machines are always restricted to be less than two feet long, wide, or tall, and less than 24 pounds, and the main materials are always PVC pipe, plywood, and 1x4. The teams always get four motors, three servos, and a four-channel transmitter to control it all.

The teams from Tom Bean were, at least for my first few years, never particularly good. Both the middle school and high school teams could score points my 6th grade year, but that was about it. It went downhill from there for the next four years. That was until we got a new math teacher and coach my sophomore year. She came from a school that had done fairly well in BEST in recent years, in no small part because she was willing to put lots of time and effort into the team. She did the same at Tom Bean, and from my freshman year to my sophomore year we went from scoring 0 points and finishing last to scoring lots of points and finishing 8th of 22. That was huge. More of the same the next year, when we moved up to 5th. My senior year, the odds would have seemed to be against us, as more than half of the team had graduated the previous spring. Regardless, though, I was really determined to at least have the best machine and best drivers ever for my final year in the contest. The game that year was the one about hanging bandanas. It was really fairly complicated; there were four quadrants of the field and a really tall center section in which to hang these bandanas. There were also neutral bandanas that could be taken down for additional points. There were also several ways to get bonus points, such as by both hanging and picking bandanas or by hanging in several quadrants. Getting these bonuses was our (read: my) strategy, although I had to fight like mad to convince the team that strategy could work. It felt really good later when Ted Mahler was quoted in the paper complementing us on knowing the rules and planning well. I also had to fight like mad to convince both the team and our coach that my extra simple design would work; everyone else wanted to actively grab bandanas, while I only wanted to poke them with a rubber stopper on a PVC pipe. My design worked flawlessly and I ended up winning, in no small part because I took the machine home and built some parts myself over two weekends. The key to making any machine work well is to drive it well, and that always takes practice. That was one of the big ideas our new coach brought to the team. So, we picked out three drivers after the Mall Day event a week before the competition and I basically pushed the three of us, myself included, of course, like professional athletes. We would be the best, that was just all there was to it.

It all worked perfectly. The machine, the drivers, all of it. NT BEST Game Day 2006 was one of the best days of my life. Everything just worked. I matched or beat my best scores in practice in all of our preliminary and semifinal matches. My little sister, Sara, and our other driver also performed magnificently. We were in first place by a considerable margin all throughout the day until the final round. The three of us all made the same, kind of mediocre score in the finals, so the end result was very close. With about 30 seconds left in the last match, my sister was driving and tied for first with another team. They really had an impressive, flashy machine. It had a really sophisticated, machine tooled mechanism for dropping lots of bandanas very precisely and quickly in one quadrant. That machine was very slow in moving around the field, though, and was not designed to get the bonus points like ours was. They adapted during the day and gave us a good run in the finals. With about five seconds left, though, Sara made one last score and added enough bonus points for the win.

That was, without exaggeration, one of the happiest moments of my life. We had won. I had won. My machine had won. I had used a design and strategy that no one, not even my own coach, had expected to even work. And I won. I showed them all. My “stopper on a stick”, as one of the other coaches mocked it later, had beaten them all. That particular coach built his team’s machine for them, which is a major sin in BEST, and I still beat them. I had also proven to myself in the most dramatic way possible that I could beat the odds through sheer force of will, power of intellect, and strength of character. No words, no number of exclamatory marks, no fancy formatting, can ever fully express how much this win meant to me.

That’s why I care enough about this contest to volunteer to help run Capitol BEST in Austin. I’ve carried hundreds of pounds of equipment and spent dozens of hours of my free time for the chance to work on the game field again, this time as a referee. It’s different, seeing the game from this side, but no less exciting. That will be the topic of my next post, coming soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ft. Davis, the walking stick, and the odd midterm exam

As expected, the Ft. Davis trip was pretty much awesome. I posted some pictures on my Facebook for anyone who’s interested. For everyone who doesn’t know, Ft. Davis is a tiny town in west Texas. Dean’s Scholars goes because the McDonald Observatory is there.

The bus ride there wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t the worst either. We watched movies or TV shows most of the way. One of the movies was about a west Texas town of 81 people that was filmed mostly in Ft. Davis. Dr. Cline, our administrator-type person and general leader, seemed to think this movie was somehow good or interesting, but it wasn’t.

The hotel was fairly nice. I got a room to myself, as we apparently reserved more than we needed. I didn’t argue with it. Its layout was a little weird; it was divided into at least four different buildings scattered around the downtown area. I think there were at least a few of us in every building.

We got up way too early both mornings. Saturday morning we went to the observatory for a tour. Seeing the telescopes and domes move was kind of impressive. Walking around the catwalk around one of them was fairly impressive, too, as that was the highest point for a considerable distance. The guy giving the tour was actually fairly interesting, too, much better than the standard public facility PR kind of person.

The fun part came after that when I and six others got off at the entrance to the state park on the way back, about four miles from town on the highway. We then hiked back to town, about six miles over the mountains. The first part was straight up the nearest peak and was much harder than the rest of the hike. The view was impressive; nothing like Colorado or Switzerland, but decent for Texas. The group and the path we chose were really a lot of fun. The senior that was generally leading the way said that more people had usually gone on earlier years, but I think seven was a good number. A bigger group would have taken forever to get through some of the rocks we climbed through and over on the way. Or we would have just chosen an easier path, which would have been less fun. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I seemed to be one of the more nimble hikers of the group; I guess I haven’t completely forgotten about all those afternoons spent wandering around in the creeks and such back home. Since I was fairly confident that I could catch up whenever I needed to, I generally hung back and kept whoever was falling behind company. Oh, I also picked up a really nice walking stick. I’m not sure what kind of plant it’s from; it’s not normal wood. It’s made of stuff that feels and looks a lot like bamboo except that it’s solid. It was growing out of a clump of some kind of big, flat, bright green, grass-looking-like plant. Whatever it was, it made a really good walking stick. It was still alive when I broke it off, so it was really strong.

We ended up going though an old cavalry fort at the edge of the state park on our way back into town. We then looked for a place to eat, as none of us had had a real lunch. It seemed like everything that looked like it had or might have recently been a restaurant was closed down and/or for sale. Even the one place we found that was open was for sale.

We went back to the observatory that evening for their “Star Party”. It wasn’t much more interesting than it sounds. The presentations were geared toward the 9-12 year old age group; we spent most of the rest of our time waiting in lines to spend 15 seconds or so at a time looking through one of their smaller telescopes at things like the moon, Jupiter and its moons, a “Ring Nebula”, or a cluster of stars. Not the most exciting stuff by any means. But, once again, the group I hung out with in the lines was fairly cool.

Sunday we got up at around 6 a.m. to go home. I was tired enough that I did manage to sleep for a couple of hours on the bus. It looked like most of the others did, too, as no one tried to put on any movies or anything until after our first stop.

And that was it. An interesting little excursion. After we got back that afternoon, we all went back to working on the homework we hadn’t been doing that weekend.

The rest of the week since then has been fairly routine. I went to Kealing for mentoring again on Monday, went to the physics homework discussion that evening, and went to another physics pizza lecture on Tuesday. I was slightly surprised to find lots of people and no pizza left when I got there; most of the earlier ones had had fairly thin audiences. I did have another chemistry midterm Tuesday evening, but that happens every now and then. We have our second midterm in calculus next week and Java a week after that. It’s starting to feel like we’ve finished a significant part of the semester.

I also worked out two likely options for what my schedule will look like next semester. No classes before 9 ever and none before 10 any day but Monday. I’ll also only have, at most, three hours of class on Friday. I think that worked out really nicely.

One last thing, my old BEST robotics team got 5th at their competition last Saturday. Go them! I work at the Capitol BEST contest this Friday and Saturday. Should be long, tiring, and hopefully amusing.

And now it’s time to sleep. I really will try to get back to the insightfulness and such sometime, just not now. Good night.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Universal moral imperatives

I just finished packing for the Dean’s Scholars trip to Ft. Davis in west Texas to see the McDonald Observatory. We leave tomorrow afternoon and get back on Sunday. I’m taking a bus with 40-ish other Dean’s Scholars, mostly first years, since we got priority in signing up for the trip. It sounds like it should be really interesting. More on that when I get back.

Monday morning I went to Kealing Middle School, here in Austin, to meet my mentee for the first time. He is an extremely quiet and shy sixth grader there. You may remember that I signed up for this over a month ago and went to the training last Wednesday. It was an interesting experience. First, Kealing is huge for a middle school. I can understand a high school having several halls and more than one floor, but seeing that in a middle school was not expected. My mentee, himself, has apparently only spoken English for a few years (his first language is Spanish), which the mentor coordinator I talked to said might contribute to his shyness. I think he’s just shy and quiet, as what I could hear of his speaking was perfectly understandable. Obviously, my challenge will be to convince him to speak up and express himself more… I was thinking “more clearly”, or something like that, but convincing him to express himself at all will be an accomplishment. Definitely a fascinating little project.

Wednesday, in Research Methods, we had a new speaker, a criminal psychology specialist who has, in the last few years, become interested in what he calls “universal moral imperatives” and the ways societies justify breaking them. It was, naturally, a fascinating lecture for me. His initial explanation of what constituted a universal moral imperative was, I think, poorly worded, as he loosely defined it as “a moral principle that a society accepts by consensus to have no exceptions” and provided as an example the principle “that life is sacred and should be protected”. When he asked us who agreed with him that such things actually exist, only three people raised their hands. Actually, at the time, I was not one of them. I have previously hinted at the fact that all things have exceptions (did you read my post on “Conflict”? That was basically an entire discussion of exceptions to his example.), and I could not agree that such a plain principle could “have no exceptions”. I liked the idea, though, and really was interested in the rest of the lecture. This guy apparently got his start studying drug dealers and prison inmates. He acknowledged several times that he is “attracted to the margins” of society, and he also at one point commented that he doesn’t really know what that says about him but that he has to live with it, anyway. Interestingly, he was able to talk with great authority about his universal moral imperatives without seeming to give away any strong moral opinions of his own. Late in the lecture, after someone finally asked about some point of his contradicting the notion of the universal moral imperative (He provided us with many chances to question this; right from the beginning, even, his explanation of what constituted a universal moral imperative was flawed.), he explained that such moral imperatives should be seen more as ideals than as applicable principles. I wish he had started by explaining that, as the dichotomy between ideals and reality is a subject I have pondered at great length. I look forward to seeing where he goes with his next lecture.

We had our second physics midterm Wednesday evening. It kind of snuck up on us, as the professor didn’t mention it at all before Monday. It was no big deal, though. The test was much easier than the worst of the problems we did in class earlier this week (some of which were really impressive) and some of its questions looked very similar to recent homework problems. We’ll be having the rest of our “second midterm”s over the next two weeks.

North Texas BEST Game Day is this Saturday. It sounds like I was about right; the team has practiced a lot this week and they sound like they are scoring well enough to have very good odds at getting into the final round. Since this is a robotics contest, rather than wishing them luck, I’ll wish them skill and cleverness.

Nothing really profound is coming to me in the insight department right now, just a bunch of unresolved thoughts and fragments of thoughts. I’m going to have to start digging a little deeper to really keep this up, as I’ve gone over most of my biggest thoughts already. As always, though, I welcome any comments you might have on mentoring, universal moral imperatives, life in general, or anything else.

Monday, October 15, 2007


So, obviously, the highlight of last week was leaving Friday morning to go home for the weekend. I’ll start, though, with some other events of note…

…like Monday’s physics lab. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only purpose of freshman physics labs is to reinforce the fear normal people feel for physics and to make physics majors hate themselves. It seems to consist entirely of pointless tasks like taking videos of a little metal disc moving around on an air-hockey table to determine the velocity and such. Oh, actually not entirely, because we also have to explain, in detail, how to “propagate the error” of every calculation we make. It gets even better, though, when the instructor requires that we make videos of “good” parabolas with our discs on air-tables. This is what we did on Monday; we made videos of “good” parabolas. This took me and my lab partner for the week three tries and over an hour of our three hour lab time. The entire time I was thinking things like “What the *&^% kind of physicist are you?!?! What the *&^% is a *good* parabola?!?! Is one somehow less (*&%^ *parabolic* than the other?!?!” I was clearly *really* enjoying wasting time worrying about this idea. The purpose of this lab was to use the motion of the disc on a tilted table to determine the value of acceleration due to gravity. Fair enough. So we needed the disc to accelerate down the slope. It should be that simple, but no, we needed “*good*” parabolas. I still don’t get why we wasted an hour on that.

Tuesday evening I spent an hour in a lab carefully analyzing a spring scale to write a page about it for my latest assignment in my Research Methods class. This is supposed to contribute to me experimental second inquiry in that class. This time, instead of just doing “something interesting”, we have to “do something interesting” that is *experimental* and *scientific*. Neither of these terms were clearly defined, a problem I harassed our lab section’s TA about at great length the week before this. We also discussed what constituted a “good” inquiry, the implication being that one inquiry is inherently better than another in an undefined way that, nevertheless, we should all be able to recognize. Man, I just love making unfounded, qualitative judgments in scientific settings! The poor TA never could quantify any of this. At first, she seemed to think I was joking, as she completely failed to even understand why I would object to this discussion. This Research Methods class is starting to take on an interesting (and annoying) dichotomy in that, in principle, it advocates and rewards creativity and “intellectual freedom”, the favorite term of one of our lead professors, while it still creates illogical or poorly defined rules and processes within which we must do our assignments and get our grades, just like any other mediocre class. If this professor had not repeatedly promised us “A”s for just playing along, I would be objecting rather loudly to more people than just the TA.

Wednesday, I went to “Mentor Training”, in which a post-college girl who seemed very easily flustered and unconfident read a “Mentor Handbook” to us for an hour. How this made us more capable and prepared for mentoring, I have no idea. Enough said.

Wow. I just realized what an unsatisfied rant I’ve been on for the last page. Good thing I have home to talk about; this post already needs more positivity.

I spent the rest of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday doing homework or preparing to go home. I left Friday at around 10:30, skipping a lecture by our angry medieval literature specialist in Research Methods and a lesson on “while” loops in Java. It turned out to be a good decision; I got home at around 4:30 and immediately got pulled in about three directions at once. First, I went to see the end of BEST Robotics practice. Sara (my little sister) and company have pulled it out and made an interesting little machine. It even sort of works. They’ll have to practice like fanatics to really compete at Game Day this weekend, but there’s definitely a good chance they’ll do reasonably well. I went with Mom and Sara to eat pizza at the local gas station/convenience store/restaurant (yeah, I wasn’t kidding: I come from one of those towns) and discuss recent news and politics and life and such. It was nice. We had to take Sara back to the school to get ready for the football game with the band. About the second thing the director told me was “So, you’ll play with us in the stands, right?” Then I visited the Ramsey family, the ones I worked for as the volunteer tutor last year. They are a middle-aged couple that has taken up providing a foster home for teenage girls. Naturally, they think I’m awesome, so that was nice. They want to have Mom, Sara, and me over for Thanksgiving when I come back again in a month. The girls I worked with last year are even still passing (!!), which is just incredible. They’ve got four new ones, though, and already worry that one will run away. That’s just how the foster-care business goes.

As corny and small-town as this will sound, the game really was fun. I was greeted by much cheering and joyousness on the part of the band as I pulled up in front of the band hall (being the hero of a small town high school is so cool). I then did, indeed, play with them in the stands. Of course, this was the homecoming game (it was an honestly coincidental circumstance that I ended up coming home the weekend of that particular game, but it was nice), so we had to wait for over half an hour as all the great and glorious accomplishments of the homecoming court were recited for us. This gave me some time to catch up with some friends and receive a few random text messages from one of them about a meeting in Sherman that apparently had nothing to do with me. I spent the second quarter, halftime, and the third quarter dong more catching up and hanging out and such. Good times, seriously. I hadn’t talked to some of those people in a year or more. It was kind of mellowing to hear about all the stay-at-home, community college greatness being achieved by the Tom Bean classes of ’06 and ’07, but most of them really are doing the best they can. I realized for the first time that weekend that I ended up being the farthest from home of my class: 5 hours. Kind of puts things in perspective. What perspective, I’ll leave to you.

Saturday morning, I went with Mom to watch Sara march at a competition in Plano. The band, even smaller than that of last year, was surprisingly impressive. The lead players were doing a good job of never making mistakes or breathing, as I know from the last time I heard them over the summer that it’s really easy to tell. Seriously, those lead guys, and especially their solos, were awesome.

After that, we went back to the BEST “Mall Day” in Sherman. Mall Day itself was excellent. Odd as it may be, I really enjoy watching all those high schoolers and their clumsy, handmade machines. I imagine that knowing how proud I was of my clumsy, handmade machines helps. Tom Bean really does have a chance to do fairly well. They need to make new wheels, preferably that don’t have slots cut in their rims, and they need to trim up a few bits and practice obsessively, but they have a chance. Yeah, they cut holes in their wheels so that they could reduce their weight, and in order to do that, they cut through the driving surface of the wheels. That makes the wheels extremely weak, as as much as half of the weight of the machine may rest on one thin spoke of the wheel. Luckily, these wimpy wheels broke at Mall Day instead of Game Day, so I imagine they’ve made new ones by now.

That evening I learned how good my Halo friends are at planning gatherings without me. “Halo friends”, to clarify, are friends with whom I went to or hosted LAN parties, usually centered around playing Halo 2 on networked Xboxes. Either I or one of the others, who is now in the Army, always did all the work and organizing to plan these gatherings. There was, very clearly, a reason for this. Despite telling at least three of them the exact day and time I would be home and available to play, three had to work, one was leaving to go to an aunt’s house (which, to be clear, I would have no problem with if he had mentioned this even as late as the night before when I saw him at the game, but he didn’t), and several were unavailable for various other reasons or unreachable. I still ended up playing Halo 3 for about an hour and a half with two of them and the random guy that lives with one of them. Good times. And I suppose it’s good to feel needed.

And that was it. Sunday I came back to school and went right back to the homework and emails and all the usual business. Life goes on, both in Tom Bean and Austin. So here I am.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Particle physics, personality, and a random unicycle

I didn’t get much of a reply to the question in my last post, so I’ll leave it open for now and move on. The question was: is there social pressure to avoid appearing or acting smart?

I went to another physics pizza lecture on Tuesday. This one was about particle and nuclear physics. Nuclear physics apparently doesn’t mean what I had always thought. I imagined that “nuclear physics” involved figuring out how to do useful things with nuclear reactions and processes like fission and fusion. Apparently that term now mostly refers to the theoretical and indirect study of the sub-subatomic particles like quarks, gluons, muons, leptons, etc. This kind of study is currently too new to be used to do anything useful. Amongst other things, the physicist giving the lecture told us about the numerous, large research groups that collaborate on the analysis of the data that comes out of even larger, multi-billion dollar facilities like particle accelerators and neutrino detectors. We (meaning the government and various other organizations) spend more money studying things like photons in an average year than most African countries have available for their entire budget in that same year. And yes, there does happen to be a reason I pick that particular comparison…

I met some of Gideon’s friends Wednesday evening. They were all out nerds, just like one might expect of someone who’s actually interested in logic and economics and such. One was fairly cool; he was a fan of video games and sci-fi TV and generally seemed calm easy-going. The other was constantly making really off color jokes and generally made no sense. His tone made it really hard to tell if he was being serious or not, so I just ignored most of it. At one point, I made a joke of my own about wiping out his computer, which he had obviously put some effort into customizing with a Linux operating system and such. He was apparently highly offended at this idea, as he replied by hitting me with his unicycle. Yes, that is very random: he actually does own a unicycle, he had it with him in the hallway we were sitting in, and he actually hit me with it. I was totally surprised. He proceeded to demand that I move away from his computer and hit me two more times, the last of which left a big black mark on the knee of my slacks. At that point I decided to take him seriously and leave. A unicycle, seriously.

Thursday a biology professor gave my DS seminar a lecture on the brain. He described his early (“early” meaning before he was a professor) belief that something more than just the mechanics of our brains must play a role in who we are, what we believe, how we feel about things, etc. He then described to us several cases in which people had traumatic brain injuries, like strokes, and the various ways that this injury messed them up. Sometimes, the people lost the ability to perceive the left side of an object, even though their sight and other senses were working just like they should. Yeah, that’s pretty weird. One person became completely convinced that their left leg wasn’t really theirs. Many lose the ability to speak or recognize faces, and some experience partial or complete paralysis. One case that he described was particularly interesting. It involved a man named Phineas Gage in 1868. This man worked for a railroad company on a crew that cleared rocky land for new lines. They did this by drilling holes in the stone that needed to be cleared, putting some explosive in the hole, and compacting some sand in the hole above it with a metal rod. The fuse, obviously, sticks out through the sand, and the charge is detonated in the rock once everyone is clear. Apparently, there was an accident in which the charge Gage was working on went off prematurely, shooting his rod out of the hole and through his head, right behind the cheekbone and left eye, leaving a big hole in his face and brain. Somehow, he survived both this and an infection he received soon after. This gave his doctors one of the earliest recorded opportunities to study a brain injury. In this case, Gage had no physical symptoms. No paralysis, no vision trouble, none of the perception weirdness, nothing. The only thing doctors, friends and family noticed was that he behaved completely differently. Before, he had been calm, intelligent, and generally regarded as a hard worker. After, he was rude, vulgar, angry, and lazy. The injury had completely changed his personality. Scary thought...

By Thursday, I had also gotten back all of my exam scores. “A”s or high “A”s on chemistry, physics, and java; not so much on calculus. I was taken completely by surprise on that one. I did score above the class average, but only barely. The good news is that we get to drop one exam grade in that class and the TA assures us that there will be a curve on our final averages, anyway. Also, the new chapter is really easy. The last one, the one on the exam, covered infinite sequences and series. I had never seen most of the stuff we studied before and, apparently, was doing some of the convergence tests completely incorrectly. The new chapter is over parametric equations, which are basically like components of vectors in physics problems. Some of the algebra sucks, but I’d rather have work that takes up a page per problem that actually makes sense than two lines of some series proof that makes no sense at all. To reassure everyone whose faith was just shattered, yes, I have figured out the tests I was doing wrong. I’ll still ace the final, don’t worry.

Friday I didn’t have java class, since everyone, including the instructor, was going to Dallas to watch the big Texas – OU game. That evening I watched “The Boondock Saints” with Brian and one of his friends. It’s actually an interesting movie. Not good, exactly, as Brian readily pointed out: it’s really predictable, the dialogue is generally dry, and about half the words said start with “f” and are variations on the same four-letter word. I’ll let you guess which one. Interesting still fits, though. First, its theme brings up a fascinating moral issue. It’s about two Irish brothers in Boston who are given divine orders to kill all of the organized crime bosses and other evil-doers in Boston, since the legal system seemed incapable of dealing with them. It also has lots of highly stylized violence that still seems just realistic enough to not be annoyingly fake. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

The movie ended at around midnight, which meant that I got about five and a half hours of sleep before BEST’s “Test Drive” event on Saturday. I then arrived about half an hour late because my Google map was wrong. First time that’s happened to me. I helped finish setting up the field and tables and such before the teams arrived. After that, I was the lead field monitor, meaning I was the authoritative looking guy that wandered around and watched the teams practice and occasionally lectured someone on how to use the field control system for their machines. Most of them were doing it wrong. The machines in general were really rough. Several were too wide to get up the ramp easily (or at all), and most of the kids were bad drivers. Only one had a mechanism for grabbing anything and scoring points, and that one didn’t work very well. Being the official presence, instead of just a member of a team, was definitely different. The pace was slower, and the main thing I did was stare kind of blankly at the machines driving around and ponder life. Which can be kind of nice.

The loading and unloading of the field after the event, however, was tiring and allowed for little staring or pondering. By the time I got back to campus, around 4 in the afternoon, I was exhausted and filthy. After a quick shower, I wandered around for a while to see where people were gathered to watch the OU game. It looked like a good game overall; the teams were fairly evenly matched, both had some good plays, and both made mistakes. OU ended up winning 28 – 21. Luckily, there were no riots. Well, not here at least; I guess all the true fanatics were in Irving watching the game in person. But I didn’t hear of anything disastrous happening there either.

So, about our massive spending on theoretical research… I’ve learned more about what mathematicians and theoretical physicists and astronomers study in the last month than in most of my life before that. The more I hear, the more convinced I become that I can’t be involved in any of it. Several people have asked me what kind of physics I plan to specialize in. I had intentionally left that open, to give myself a chance to learn more about what the different varieties of physicists actually do. Already, I’m leaning very strongly toward applied physics and engineering, as it turns out that there are a whole lot of scientists that never actually create anything useful. The point of everything they do is just figuring out new stuff. Intuitively, that sounds like a good thing, but I keep having more and more doubts. Obviously, some scientists have to keep learning new things just for the sake of learning new things. I’ve now heard several people argue that we can’t know how that knowledge might be useful later and that a lot of our current understanding is based on stuff that was completely theoretical and basically useless when it was first studied centuries ago. I completely agree. But, let’s consider my comparison. Billions of dollars and thousands of powerful minds are currently being used solely to gather new knowledge. If we used all of those resources (including the aforementioned minds, though yes, I know, there’s no way to just make that happen) to solve the problems in the world right now, more people would get good educations, more people would be productive and contribute to global society, and, overall, more would be accomplished. A few hundred less people working on gluon detection right now could lead to revolutionary solutions to all kinds of problems in the world and mean that more people might actually know what protons and electrons are. As it is, several billion of the world’s people go through life too hungry and poor to care. Particle physics doesn’t do anything to change that. Sitting around discussing exactly how little we know about dark matter doesn’t do anything to change that. Figuring out how to use resources efficiently, help people find ways to be productive, and control the population would change that. There are a lot of things we could be doing to accomplish all of this. For me, it would feel completely wrong to spend my life staring at particle collisions or measuring cosmic radiation when I know that I could create new technology that could fix problems here and now. And, for the moment, at least, that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Brilliance, femininity, and “the proverbial free pizza”

I stayed as busy as ever last week. I went to the usual physics homework session last Monday evening for the usual reason. After that, I went out to eat with Allison (I don’t think I mentioned it before, but that’s her name) and Lauren, another girl from the homework session that we discussed a few problems with. This must seem like a really weird way to meet people, going to physics homework sessions, but keep in mind that I am a physics major. If I can’t meet people at physics events, life will get pretty hopeless pretty quick. Anyway, dinner was interesting. Actually, the walk out to “the strip” (Guadalupe street west of campus has lots of businesses, mostly restaurants, collectively known as “the strip”) was interesting by itself. I led the girls along my favorite shortcut route from the physics building to my dorm, since the strip is directly beyond that. It leads through several obscure buildings and a courtyard area that for some reason feels like an abandoned city lot or something. Once we got to Guadalupe, we discovered that none of us really felt like choosing where we would eat. As the guy of the group, Allison informed me that I should be the one to choose. I didn’t and pointed out that I was perfectly content to just continue wandering. We eventually ended up in Moe’s Southwest Grill, which serves not-particularly-good Tex-Mex food. As we were on our way in, Allison made a comment about Comedy Central, to which I replied that I don’t watch it. This, combined with my lack of decisiveness earlier, led her to conclude that I was “a terrible boy”, since apparently all guys are supposed to watch Comedy Central and make decisions. We laughed at this for a while. As we were walking back to toward campus later, it was decided that I was “the most feminine member of the group”, which we all laughed at even more. Good times.

That was as much random fun as I had for a while, as I had a chemistry midterm the next day and one for physics on Wednesday. I actually felt fairly good about both of them after I was done with them. The chemistry one was very unconventional; it was mostly essay type questions in which we had to discuss the history of some important experiment or explain in detail how we would figure out some new problem. Only about three problems out of seven required significant calculations. The physics was the usual algebra and number crunching. A little more algebra than most high school physics, maybe, but not too bad. I ended up getting a 92 on that one; I’m still waiting on chemistry.

The evening before the chemistry exam I went to a marginally interesting lecture by a biophysics professor who studies protein motors. Apparently, our cells have these long, thin proteins with foot-like structures that basically walk along fiber-type things carrying stuff. That sounds like it could be really interesting, but the guy was not a particularly motivating lecturer. At least there was the proverbial free pizza, and it was even actually good. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned “the proverbial free pizza” before, so maybe I should explain: College students like free food. Organizations like to attract college students. Therefore, they seem to always have some kind of free food at their events to ensure that people will actually come. They don’t mind that people are only coming for the food and don’t care about the event. And, of course, the free food of choice is pizza, generally cheap, bad thin crust pizza. So, there you have it, “the proverbial free pizza”.

Thursday I had my second DS seminar with Prof. Martinez. We discussed two papers about different types of evolution (it turns out there’s more than one kind; who knew?) and a common mathematical relationship between metabolism and mass that some scientist figured out is similar for basically all mammals and that he hypothesizes is similar for most organisms. I ended up being a bit of a leader in the discussion, which felt kind of ironic, seeing that I definitely glossed over parts of the second paper. I got Martinez’s attention, though, so she, I, and another guy that had a lot to say but also had a tendency to talk over people and a slightly annoying manner in general had a long, walking discussion between the room we had class in and Martinez’s office. It started with both of them wondering if I was really 18, as I seemed much older in my tone and manner. I never know quite what to think of that: a big part of me enjoys such recognition, but another part wonders if this might be why I have so much trouble feeling comfortable with social stuff like acting (which I’m terrible at), dancing, (more on that later…) and generally being loud and flamboyant (I don’t think I’m usually like that, at least). Anyway, it was a far more interesting class than I expected.

Friday afternoon I went about my usual routine of doing laundry and starting homework. In doing that I met the official “physics assignment from hell”. Ironically, it was only 7 questions, but I could only answer 2 of them on the first try. The rest were absolutely maddening because I was sure I knew how to do all but one (which seemed to contradict everything we had been told about circular motion), but I never got the answers right. I didn’t finish it and get everything right until this evening.

Also that evening, the former drunk guy from across the hall invited me to go out salsa dancing with him an two girls he’d met recently. Yes, double check to make sure I really said it: salsa dancing. And I actually went! But before you get too shocked to go on, something you would expect: it completely sucked. It goes without saying that I’m a horrible dancer. I have to think about my movements too much to relax enough to enjoy dancing, and naturally someone who is not enjoying it cannot dance well. With the right girl, (one who is fun, funny, actually good at dancing, and who likes me enough to be incredibly patient) I might eventually get over this, but, again predictably, this guy had not picked such a girl for me. To be fair, this girl was very nice and tried to enjoy the evening, but she was almost as uncomfortable as I was and not much better. Baaaaad combination. So, since I really hadn’t had any dinner before the dancing and was getting extremely hungry and was not enjoying it at all, I left at the first opportunity. Despite my best attempts to tell the girl I was hungry and needed to go eat and to get the guy’s attention and show him I was leaving, they thought I ditched them and griped me out for it when they found me later. (Sigh.) Oh, well. It really was an interesting experience, if only to confirm what I’ve known all along.

Saturday and Sunday I passed alternating between doing homework, reading, and playing video games. I still had two exams to go this week, Java and calculus, and I actually had a significant amount of reading to do to feel ready for the calculus exam. Java’s no problem at all; my most recent program did exactly what was asked for in 8 less lines and 5 less methods than the professor recommended, which means my code was more efficient. And of course you don’t understand why that matters; you’re not nerds, so just nod and go with it. The official calculus review on Sunday afternoon was full, which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me. I took the calc. test this morning at 7:45. Awesomeness. And consciousness, there was a lot of that, too (not really). I still felt good about the test when I finished it, though, and I think I was even the first person to hand in a test and leave the room. I was kind of amused by the professor’s subtle pushing to get me to be the proud first person to hand in a test; he walked by, looked over my shoulder, and asked me if I was done right as I was turning back to the first page to check back through everything. I was happy to oblige him, so I wrapped this checking up quickly. I’ll hopefully get that score back in the next week or so.

And we’ve come full circle, as I finished this evening with another physics homework session and another dinner, this time just with Allison. It really is kind of interesting that I’ve found one of my best friends here in physics class. That’s basically the only place (outside of calc. exams) where my old aura of intellectuality still shines. In most things, I’m either just kind of average or sufficiently lost in the crowd that no one could tell the difference. This is definitely different for me. So I was really surprised when, in our third physics class or so, after asking one of my dumb questions and missing a problem about acceleration, she explained to me in a completely serious and even slightly profound tone that I was “a brilliant physicist”. I was then surprised at being surprised by this. Really, it’s an extremely interesting kind of thing that Tom Bean got so used to me being the best academic around. By now, no one would ever think twice about me being a leader in BEST or band, or winning basically all the local UIL academic contests I cared to compete in, or being the first choice for the Ramsey family’s private tutor. Everyone really expected all of this and more. To be clear, this makes a lot of sense. In a small, close community like that, everyone has their role. I was the inevitable, quietly respected academic. I had never really thought much about how new people would react to me and my abilities. Seeing someone recognize those abilities for the first time, and seeing them feel like this recognition was really important, was not something I expected at all.

As I wrote all that, a bunch of new, formerly subconscious thoughts entered my conscious mind (remember my description of how that works?) and left me with lots of unresolved, incommunicable thoughts to process. So, I’ll leave you all with another question: do average people (I’ll leave “average” for you to interpret) feel social pressure to not seem smart? One thing I have figured out about my position in Tom Bean is that, while by last year everyone was perfectly OK with me being smart and maybe even appreciated that quality a little, they didn’t think that “being smart” was for them. It was fine for someone else, but it was too much of an unpopular quality for them. Am I interpreting that correctly? If so, why do people feel like that? Why do they feel like “being smart”, or at least seeming smart outwardly, is a bad thing? I look forward to your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Sorry for the delay; this took a while by itself. Most of you that know me from Tom Bean and environs will have heard at least parts of this before, and anyone who has read my earlier entries will understand my interest in preventing conflict. You should understand from the beginning that, as logical as a lot of this will sound, my logic is not really very strict. My most stringent logic is reserved for justifying the main points. Also keep in mind that the best and most applicable of the ideas here don’t come up until the end.

First, we must take as a given that life is irreplaceable. This is a clearly secular (non-religious) viewpoint. Most religions teach that their followers will go on to some kind of afterlife, with the specifics usually dependent upon the person’s devotion to the teacher’s interpretation of the religion and its’ doctrine. For example, according to Christianity, people who love Jesus, believe that he died for their sins, and adhere to a host of other principles, will go to heaven when they die and live there in eternal happiness. Alternately, those who do not adequately follow these rules will go to hell when they die and spend eternity in pain and suffering. These beliefs were originally created to encourage the masses to do as their religious leaders told them; other faiths created similar doctrines for the same reason. Very cleverly, though, this kind of belief reduces the value of mortal life. After all, there is an infinite life after this one, so this one doesn’t really matter that much. I accept the possibility that my consciousness may continue to exist after I die, but given the lack of evidence of that, I live under the assumption that this is the only life I will ever have.

From there, I accept that all other lives are equally as irreplaceable as mine. This, I will readily admit, I must accept with a certain amount of faith, as I can never have direct knowledge of the circumstances of another person’s life. I can talk to them and see them live, but I cannot know what they experience.

I then conclude that, as lives cannot be replaced once they are gone (i.e. someone dies), lives must be preserved. This is a very general conclusion, with many necessary practical exceptions. However, each exception must be carefully justified before any action contrary to the general principle is taken. The obvious example of such an exception is defense of oneself from physical harm. Right away, we have a very delicate problem. It is extremely unfortunate that our current level of technology makes it so easy to kill a person but relatively difficult to prevent this killing. One of the many things I hope to contribute to creating is a reliable and effective way to incapacitate people from great distances without killing them. But, this is generally not possible, so my slightly less general principle for dealing with self defense is this: First, one must assess the magnitude of harm that they may incur. If this harm might be fatal, they must prevent it. This follows from the deduction that, if all lives must be preserved, one’s own life must be preserved. How to do this then becomes a problem. Let’s say someone has a gun and demonstrates that they intend to use it to kill you. You also have a gun. Your only way to guarantee that you preserve your life is to shoot your assailant and kill them. Should you do it? My answer is: absolutely yes. You didn’t ask to be threatened; that person made a choice to threaten you, so it makes sense that, if one of the two of you should suffer, it’s them. The overall problem here is that this situation is uselessly hypothetical. Too many constraints exist that would not in reality. So, in reality, what do you do? I, at least, try to prevent harm to myself and those around me by the least harmful means possible. So, if I can disarm the armed assailant with minimal risk to the people around me, I do that. If I can prevent that person from having the gun or from wanting to kill me, even better. I would only kill as a last resort, once all of my other options appeared to be exhausted.

It easily follows this reasoning that the person attacking you with a gun is always wrong. Deliberately doing anything harmful to another person when there will be no clear, positive result of this harm is always wrong. This idea can also be applied to many non-violent situations, which is most often how these ideas apply to the lives of me and most of the people I know. We (thankfully) rarely find ourselves in violent or dangerous situations. I feel extremely lucky that I have never had to but my principle of not killing except as a last resort to the test, and I hope I never have to. We do end up involved in a great many social conflicts, where emotional harm takes the place of physical harm. Obviously, no deaths are ever directly caused by emotional harm. Suicide, which seems intuitively to contradict that statement, is always a choice made by the person; their death is a result of that choice, which was only indirectly caused by whatever emotional trauma they experienced or believed they experienced. So, normally, social conflicts have nothing to do with life or death and would seem much less important. I generally agree, but no one likes being fought with or insulted, so we should still work to prevent these things.

So, here’s the important part: how do we prevent social, emotionally harmful conflicts? It’s simple, really: don’t start them and don’t participate in the ones other people start. It really is that easy. Remember that physical harm is rare in such conflicts, so ignoring someone who insults you or spreads rumors has a very low chance of hurting you. If physical harm does become a possibility, the situation changes and appropriate defensive action must be taken. Short of that, though, ignoring social conflicts is a good idea. If we all committed ourselves just to never starting conflicts, we would never have to ignore them because none would exist. So don’t insult people, don’t spread degrading rumors about them, and ignore anyone who does do these things.

In all the things I do, whether I’m observing a squabble amongst friends, watching a physical fight, just talking to someone, playing a video game, or even writing in this blog, I follow the same overriding principle. In theory, at least, it should be fairly clear by now: I try to do the most good and the least harm possible. This idea, on some level, informs everything I do. I assess everything I know about a situation and do whatever, to my knowledge at the time, will cause the most good and least harm. There are many problems with this, which is why I said it should make sense in theory. First, I can never know everything there is to know about a given situation. That’s obvious. I can also never know, in advance, all of the effects that will result from the things I do. I only have a small part of the picture to work with, just like all of you. This is why everyone who has known me for more than a year or so should be able to easily think of something I have done that did not, in fact, cause more good than harm. It happens. Even more often, I try to do something good only to have it fail in a way no one ever notices. The bottom line is that I try, I try harder all the time, and I’m getting better at it. Feel free to help me get better, if you are so inclined. If I am doing something that causes some kind of harm with no apparent benefit, tell me so. Even better, explain how I can fix it. I am, morally and intellectually, a strong enough person to know that doing good things is more important than being right. Anyone who is willing to hold themselves to this standard (and to be held to this standard, as I will remember it) can feel free to remind me if I don’t seem to be living up to this in some way.

I am completely convinced that ideas are the most valuable things we can share with each other, so leave comments! Leave really long comments telling me about all the logical flaws you found in this, or about how offended you are that I don’t accept the afterlife as a given, or how stupid and pacifistic you think this whole line of reasoning is! Feel free even to tell me that you didn’t read a bit of it, if that’s the case! I will happily ignore (just like I just said, watch me) any unfriendly commentary and will really thoroughly appreciate any cool insights.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Midterms, comments, and colds

So, that was a full week. It started with BEST a weekend ago and just kept coming. A sampling of the various things that kept me so busy…

First, a few words of advice to any of you who happen to end up doing inquiries for your Dean’s Scholars Research Methods class: DO NOT decide you’re going to figure out which news topics make people angrier by copying, let me check my figures… (Daniel really does minimize Word to check his data; it’s very precise, as well as incredibly extensive…) 1621 COMMENTS!! Yes, I read all of those!! And yes, it did take forever!! About 6 total hours, actually, which is roughly 270 comments per hour. At least we know I can read quickly. The point is that this was a bad idea that took way more time than it should have last Monday and Tuesday evenings. I did get it done, though, and it had %^&* better get an “A”.

That, by the way, would be the first example this semester of me having to do homework the day before it’s due. The next example came the next day, Wednesday, when I finished that week’s chemistry and calculus work, both of which were due Thursday. Well, actually, the calculus is technically due Friday at 3:00 a.m., but for all practical purposes, that means Thursday. I try extremely hard to be asleep at 3 any morning, especially on Fridays.

That evening I went to a lecture about astronomy, which was actually fairly interesting. I even restrained myself from saying anything cynical about astronomers postulating (“guessing”, more or less) that over 95% of all the stuff in the universe is made of either ‘dark matter’ or ‘dark energy’. We know absolutely nothing about either of these. We have never even observed them. At all. But apparently there’re loads of both out there. The guy even had a detailed chart describing which of the three, dark matter, dark energy, or regular matter, was ‘dominant’ (whatever that meant; I didn’t ask about that, either) at which points in the history of the universe. So we know that ‘dark energy’ is ‘dominant’ right now, in fact, but no astronomer anywhere could tell you anything about it. Obviously, I don’t plan to go into astronomy.

I drove around and got stuff for the dorm and haircuts and such Thursday and Friday evenings. I had my hair cut by a woman that, as much as I hate to talk like this, all of you will picture easily when I say she was a “typical, slightly plump, middle-aged black woman”. And, ironic as it will sound after that extremely inclusive and non-stereotype-promoting statement, the main thing we talked about was racism. She brought it up by mentioning that black engineering students at ‘black’ colleges have more trouble getting jobs than whites at other universities. I didn’t know there was still such a thing as a ‘black’ college, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. She also, naturally, was paying very close attention to news on the “Jena 6”, the black teens in Jena, La, who have received all kinds of trumped up charges (and publicity) because a white kid who hung a noose at a high school got beaten later. Some of these “Jena 6” have very explicitly stated that they were not involved in this beating at all, which I am inclined to believe due to the utter lack of any rebuttal. Even more telling, for me, at least, is that some of them were charged with such things as “attempted murder”, which is a completely ridiculous charge for anything that happens in a school and doesn’t involve a weapon. I completely agree that whoever did beat the white kid should be brought to justice, but charging random black kids with attempted murder is absurd. The hair stylist was convinced that the school officials intentionally let the white kid off easy after he hung the noose so that the situation would get out of hand and black students would eventually get in trouble for it. I can understand the school letting the white kid of easy; he apparently only got some minor detention or something, and it’s understandable that a white principal or whatever in Louisiana would be somewhat biased. However, any black students that were involved in beating the white boy must be held responsible for it. The principal did not beat the white kid for them, which seemed to be the general implication the stylist was trying to make. A noose hanging empty and harmless in a tree can and should be ignored. I think this is leading up to me giving my dissertation on conflict prevention again…

Friday evening, Mom and Sara drove down to Austin to see me and get a goat from a smaller town a couple hours west of here. I spent that night watching “Kill Bill Volume 1” with Brian and a friend of his. It was a waste of about two and a half hours. I can get into a good action movie just as well as the next guy; I thought the Lord of the Rings movies, Transformers, and all the lightsaber battles in Star Wars were excellent. The emphasis on extreme amounts of gore completely ruined it for me, though. I entirely understand that, in theory, people and elves and orcs and such were getting nicely brutalized in LOTR, but I don’t mind not seeing all the details of the severed limbs and blood spray. And as stylized as the fighting in “Kill Bill” is, it just doesn’t compare to a good lightsaber battle. Of the topic, would any of you have guessed that “lightsaber” and “orcs” were not in the spell-checking dictionary on my computer until a minute ago? Who made this word processor, anyway? Anyway, I have concluded that Brian and I have incompatible tastes in movies, as he thought “Kill Bill” was great and seems to favor the gory horror movies. That kind of thing just seems so pointless to me.

Saturday morning I had breakfast with Mom and Sara and showed them around campus, at least as much as I could on a Saturday. Several buildings are closed on weekends. We spent a while in my room watching “Firefly” episodes they had brought with them. Good times. Firefly, for those of you who don’t know obscure sci-fi, is basically a western in space. The tech is very similar to modern stuff, if not slightly rougher, except the ship’s propulsion and power systems, which are not described in any useful amount of detail in any episode I’ve seen. The characters are really excellently played and obvious, gaping holes in the reasoning of the plot are rare. The lack of prominence of the technology also nicely keeps it from saving the day by itself too often (a common problem in such series as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and its’ derivatives) . We then drove around getting all the useful stuff I had forgotten the previous two days and Mom and Sara had forgotten at home before having dinner. That evening, they drove on to get their goat (and no, I have no idea why they raise goats).

Also that evening, I temporarily lost my ability to think clearly due to the cold I mentioned. It had been bothering me a little since Thursday but hadn’t been a serious problem so far. That evening I just about couldn’t function. I have gotten steadily better since then, thankfully. I find it worth noting that this was only the second or third time I have gotten noticeably sick in the last three years or so. And only about a month after arriving in Austin… hmmm… Well, anyway, on an unrelated note, Yay! for living in extremely close proximity to 50,000 people with no sanitary habits.

Sunday I had lunch with Mom and Sara as they came back through Austin, did a fair amount of homework, and learned that they had, in fact, bought seven goats, not one. I don’t understand. And that’s about all I have to say on that.

My first few midterm exams are this week. Chemistry tomorrow and physics Wednesday, both in the evening. Nothing too bad so far; calculus will be the interesting one, and that’s next Monday.

I know I promised another big rant about conflict, but I want this one to be really good. It will be my next post and will come soon, I promise.