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.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My routine and the meaning of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Drunk friends and dumb questions

So, I’m into my second week now. My classes are still fairly easy, and I finished all of my homework for this week over the weekend. My roommate, Brian (see sidebar), went home for Labor Day, so I spent most of that weekend just gaming or working on that homework. But, I did have one of the requisite ‘college’ experiences…

The first football game of season was played Saturday night. Several guys in my dorm had tickets and went to see it. It was apparently kind of disappointing, by the way: Texas won 21-13, or something like that, but they were playing Arkansas State, who they were apparently expected to beat really badly. I didn’t get to see it, because I learned after paying the $70 for a student sports pass that these passes have the lowest seating priority at major events, or, more simply, that I basically never get a guaranteed seat at anything. So I wasn’t able to go. But that isn’t really the point of this story. The point is that one of the guys from the dorm that did go left for a party during the 3rd quarter. He came back to the dorm at around 1:00 a.m., completely drunk. I don’t just mean a little uncoordinated, I mean reeking, rambling, stumbling, completely-out-of-it drunk. And he wanted me to stay awake with him to help him sober up. Even better, some girl he liked was planning to come see him later, so he was kind of freaking out about being drunk in front of her. I found it fascinating that the thing that seemed to be bothering him the most was that he knew he was drunk. So, he obsessively munched (and dropped) peanuts and drank water (he dropped the bottle a few times, too) for the next hour or so. Then the girl showed up, and he stumbled off with her for a while. Thoroughly relieved, I went back to sleep. … Only to have him knock on my door at around 2:30. Now he was back and worried that he would go to sleep, vomit, choke, and die. He explained this to me very rapidly and repeatedly for the next half hour, until his roommate came back from wherever he had been. This roommate had really good timing, as the drunk guy did indeed start throwing up soon after. I was sufficiently exhausted and distressed at seeing a person that messed up that I’m not sure I could have handled that part. I also decided that night that I absolutely hate the smell of alcohol.

Classes started out fairly normal on Tuesday. I went to my computer science class on Java (just ‘Java class’ from here on) in the morning and sat around putting together ideas for my ‘inquiry’ in my Dean’s Scholars (my honors program: DS from now on) seminar about research methods. I was, naturally, already done with the Java homework. Then I went to chemistry, where I realized one of my answers on the homework was wrong (see? finishing early is a really good idea). That afternoon, I had a calculus discussion class, which is where the week got interesting. Once again, I had already done the homework, so I wasn’t really paying particularly close attention. I would occasionally glance at whatever problem the TA happened to be explaining, but that was about it. Then he got to a weird limit problem that had a natural log ("ln") in it. It required using a special limit-finding technique that most of you don’t really care to read about. It’s a technique I understand well enough, so OK. Then the TA tells us that there is a problem with the answer. He is hoping one of us will find it, so I sit up a bit and read his work again. I then pointed out that the ln could be invalid (which is possible for reasons that, once again, most of you won’t care about). This was the only thing I had said aloud in this discussion class so far, since we’d only met once before. It was also completely wrong in this case. You can imagine that I paid attention after that and carefully investigated this problem. I could quickly see that I had been wrong, but I wanted to be sure that this TA knew what he was talking about when he said the problem had no answer. I distinctly remembered finding an answer. It may help to point out here that most of our professors ask us to submit our homework online. We have multiple choice problems and we get more than one try on each of them, so actually it turned out that I had come to the same conclusion he had after initially submitting my wrong answer, I just didn’t remember it.

This morning’s math lecture was basically useless because the professor was gone and the TA was giving the lecture. He’s really bad at explaining math in a lecture. Then physics, which started out harmlessly enough. I got through one interesting, badly worded problem easily enough and even got to explain the problem with the problem to several people sitting around me (it had a “t” and a “T” in it that meant two different lengths of time; the difference was not very clear). Then we worked a similar problem that looked like it was just a bunch of velocities we had to multiply by times to get a distance, except the last velocity had no time with it. I reread the statement with the velocities and times in it, then, after failing to find this missing time, I raised my hand and asked the professor if there was something missing from the problem. In fact, there was a time missing. The one we were supposed to find to answer the question. Rarely have I felt like such an idiot (and all you Tom Bean people know I mean it when I say something like that). Oddly enough, the girl to my left still asked me how I was going to solve the problem a moment later, after the laughter had stopped. Admittedly, it was not particularly impressive laughter; only a few people quickly realized my mistake, and by the time the professor had pointed out that ‘yes, the missing time is the item of interest in the problem’, they were all busy trying to figure out how they were going to figure it out. So, despite my complete lack of awareness, at least one person realized that I do know how to do basic physics.

I did get to feel smart again later, after meeting with my DS advisor, when I just handed a new GCC transcript to the receptionist in the registrar’s office to replace the one Grayson apparently did not send to UT. I have had copies, both official and unofficial, of all of my transcripts in my personal records binder for months now, and have gotten to use them twice. I had the idea to put all of my personal records together in a single binder after I spent about two weeks pulling these records together to fill out the security clearance application I ended up not needing to get my internship at Raytheon.

Now for some insightfulness, right? (“Yes! This means he’s almost done!” Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.) So I did, at least, have a good DS seminar class today. The main professor, Dr. David Laude, a chemist, lectured to us about logic. Yeah, good stuff. And he did it with lots of fun examples involving balloons and about a dozen people in the class being placed under a thin plastic sheet and punching it. Now that would take a long time to explain. Anyway, he concluded this lecture by asking us if we, as logical thinkers in a society that seems too often to be nearly devoid of logic, believe that we should ‘convert’ (that’s the actual word he used) non-logical thinkers to using logic. The initial response was a quiet but unopposed “no”. Then a few people pointed out that non-logical people seem perfectly happy as they are (maybe even happier than logical thinkers) and that regardless, it wouldn’t even be possible. You can’t use logic to convince someone that logic is important. In general, I agree with both of these points. So, what do you think? Should scientists and engineers and other like-minded people try to ‘convert’ the rest of everyone to using logic? I expect comments, as I really am curious to hear what you think of this.

Surprises, my first day of class, and such

Originally posted Thursday, August 30, 2007

Shortly after my last post, my roommate and some of his friends got the crazy idea that we should walk from the UT campus to 6th street to have dinner at a restaurant called Hut’s Hamburgers. For anyone not as familiar with Austin as I now am, that’s about 22 blocks. Down, and back. … Insanity. But, at least the hamburger was good.

Tuesday morning I took my car to a local Best Buy to have the keyless entry system checked. I had it installed in Sherman before I left, since the car didn’t come with it. Not a particularly noteworthy outing by itself, except for the fact that the discussion group I mentioned last post was going on at the same time. I had completely forgotten. I was, obviously, more than a little concerned with this when I realized what I’d done, so I now have my entire schedule on Google’s Calendar app. I get text messages 30 minutes before any event that isn’t a class. It’s not a foolproof way to not forget stuff, but just the act of putting it all in the calendar makes it far less likely that I’ll forget stuff.

Later that day, I got an email from my math professor, directing us to download his first day info sheet. This sheet specified, amongst other things, that we needed Calculus, Edition 5e, by James Stewart. I had Calculus, 6th Edition, by James Stewart. So, I promptly made a trip to the bookstore to return the books I had (the text plus a study guide and answer book that I realize I will probably never need) and get the right ones. First, I learned that I had to go down “The Strip” (UT-ish for the row of college-oriented businesses along Guadalupe street west of campus) three blocks to the bookstore’s ‘outlet’ to return books, and second, I found that the book I needed was sold out. Awesomeness all around. Now I’m waiting for my online order of the book to come in. Hopefully I won’t need the book for a week or so (decent odds on that, actually, so I’m not really too worried).

Our first day of class was Wednesday (or yesterday). I had calculus at 8 (fun?), in which I was mildly surprised to be the only person to pull out a laptop and check the professor’s web pages and online notes. Then I went to physics, where I was a few minutes late because I took too long putting said laptop away in calculus. Both of these classes were mostly general info, though, so I didn’t miss much. We watched a marginally interesting and slightly creepy video about orders of magnitude in physics, which means that a generally dull narrator told us about what we’d see if we could see an area of 1 square meter, 10 square meters, 100 square meters, etc. all the way out to about 100 million million square meters (which encompasses most of the known universe), all with odd, creepy music playing in the background. Next I had a Honors Research Methods class, which sounds like the closest thing I’ll have to a blow-off class this semester. The professors just amused themselves by talking about largely random stuff the whole class (there were two, a chemist and a medieval literature specialist). Our first assignment in that class is to investigate “something interesting” and write about it. I’m thinking about doing a detailed study of the annoying security door on my floor that sets of an alarm sometimes even when one uses their ID card to enter. Last, after lunch, I had my Java class. It’s taught by a slightly goofy former Marine (?. Yes, I agree, I don’t get it either. Maybe it’s an anti-post-traumatic-stress technique or something). Rather ironically, he was the only professor all day to object to laptops. He then proceeded to tell us a whole lot about how “computer programming is not the same as computer science” and automatic traffic control systems. We had homework in every class, but only one assignment each and none of it is due in less than a week, so no worries yet.

Oh, and the annoying surprises weren’t over for the day. I went out to get another miscellaneous list of things around 4, including a shelf for an alcove between my bed and desk where my books and class stuff are currently just sitting on the floor. I thought I had a dorm meeting at 7, so I cut the trip short to rush back and find that the meeting was really today, not yesterday. I then went back out to get my shelves and sunglasses. I got back and put the shelves together (they were really weak and one piece was slightly damaged) only to find that they were about ¾ of an inch too wide. More awesomeness. Then I took them back apart and packed them back in the box. Then I realized I threw the receipt away in Dillards when I stopped at a mall to get sunglasses. The awesomeness just keeps going. So now I have wimpy, non-fitting shelves that I probably can’t return.

So, for everyone that is actually still reading this (yes, I know it’s long), more insights on how I think and the subconscious mind and such. I started really thinking about how I think between my freshman and sophomore years. First, I pondered the problem the way most people do: do I think in pictures, words, or something else? I concluded that I think a lot in words, specifically in imagined conversations. For example, I usually plan blog entries in mental conversations. Of course, I also think about some things primarily in pictures. For example, my thoughts on awesome power sources I might invent or space ships I might build usually involve me picturing the thing I’m thinking about and explaining it to someone. Or maybe I’m operating it or something like that. I quickly figured out, though, that not all of my thoughts happen in words and pictures. Actually, I couldn’t really explain how some of my thoughts were formed. I realized, after some significant pondering, that these were just raw thoughts. Not yet words or pictures, just thoughts. After more pondering, I have come to this current model of how my thoughts work: New ideas are formed in my subconscious mind. Gradually, my conscious mind becomes aware of them. Even more gradually, I associate pictures, words, and eventually conversations with these thoughts. I then continue refining these thoughts with even more mental conversations. This process never really stops.

I think there are a lot of things that most people never realize about their thought process. I know that figuring all of this out has made me a much more complete person. I now know, quite certainly, that no thought is ever really finished, and that I’m always finding new thoughts that I have to process at length to convey to anyone else. “Thinking about how you think” seems weird, but it’s completely worth the time and effort.

My first post and first week in Austin

Originally posted Monday, August 27, 2007

My first week in Austin has been nothing like I expected. I left home last Monday morning and arrived here that afternoon. I spent that evening relaxing in my hotel, reading The Audacity of Hope, Barak Obama’s newest book, for a discussion group this Tuesday, and watching CNN. Last Tuesday I went to a two hour Longhorn Band marching clinic and ate lunch with the prospective members. Wednesday the real work started, and make no mistake, the Longhorn band is extremely hardcore. I rehearsed with them all day Wednesday and Thursday and was exhausted by Friday. They use a marching style completely different than the one I learned in high school, full of “snappy” (their favorite word), awkward motions. Somehow they also came up with a marching technique that involves marching forward on one’s toes, and apparently I suck at it.

I think the worst part, though, was the fact that they demanded so much time, and would continue to demand a lot of time from full members during the semester. I am taking 18 hours of homework-intensive math and science courses this semester, would like to have time to discuss research with my professors, and might even look for a local BEST Robotics team to work with as an assistant coach. It simply is not possible to do all of this and march in the band, so I ended up not trying out last Friday. This was not an easy thing to decide, mainly because I really wanted to march with my “squad” (Longhorn band prospectives try out in groups of 4). I had spent two of the fullest days of this summer, at least, marching with them, and wanted to be there for them even if I wasn’t going to join the band. But, one of the assistant directors very clearly said no to that when I discussed it with him Friday morning, so that was the end of it.

Since then, I’ve been resting, taking care of the shortening (finally) list of things I need to do/get before classes start, and meeting some of my roommate’s friends and people in the dorm. My dad and sister visited Saturday evening and Sunday morning. They brought my laptop and my official mug (it has my name on it), and I showed them around the dorm and my corner of campus and went to dinner and breakfast with them. Now I’m just waiting for classes to start.

It bothers me that so many blogs are full of only accounts of people’s activities and, whenever they seem like they might be about to approach some truly thoughtful topic, they cover it up with pointless vagueness. So, here and now, I will promise to solve both of those problems in my own blog by concluding each post with some insight that I, at least, find meaningful and by being specific about it. So, here goes…

Anyone who knew me in high school will know that I was an interesting contradiction, the band nerd that didn’t appreciate music. It never made any sense, even to me, that I could be in band for eight years and enjoy it, but never cared to turn on a radio or buy an MP3 player. After deciding not to try out for the Longhorn Band, I believe I have finally figured out what was going on: I was never in band because of music. I was in band, from the beginning, to be with the other people in band. I have repeatedly talked and written about the importance of the people in a band, how they are volunteers that must be respected (during the Hartfield/Ferrito years) and how directors will be more successful if they make the members of the band their friends. I just never realized the underlying meaning of my own words. This was why I have always (and likely, will always) consider my first director, Gualberto Besanaiz, such an incredible example of the ideal leader. He understood the idea that a band, or any group, really, is only as good as the people in it far better than anyone else I know, and seemed to make friends of his supporters and followers effortlessly. I have cared about band as much as I have for as long as I have, and been successful along the way, because I could not let down my friends and fellow band members. Being in the Longhorn band was not a high priority largely because I don’t yet know or care about many people in it; I do, however, know and care about the members of my would-have-been audition squad and wanted very badly to perform with them, at least once. And, of course, I have no powerful feelings of attachment to any band just for the sake of the band. A band, as an abstract entity, means very little to me. This discovery seems to serve as interesting evidence for a hypothesis I have been considering for a long time, that one’s subconscious mind is a vast source of ideas and reaches abstract conclusions long before those conclusions reach the conscious mind. (I plan to elaborate on this hypothesis in upcoming posts).