Monday, January 14, 2008

An Excellent Dilemma

Since my last post, I have taken my finals, gotten straight A’s, gone home for the holiday break, returned to Austin, and had my first day of class. The dilemma is this: Getting the A’s was very cool, especially since I know I scraped by fairly close to the bar on a few; my holiday break was just generally excellent; and my first day of classes was one of the best first days of anything I can remember. I can’t decide which of these activities/accomplishments was the coolest. Ahhh… Sorry, I can’t help taking a moment to just sit back and bask in the awesomeness.

My exams, as a whole, were not a particularly big deal. I did not wear myself out studying for them or rereading entire books or going without sleep or any of the things college students do to themselves during exam time. My friends back home, naturally, won’t be surprised by any of this, but all the UT people should take the hint: quit doing all that stuff to yourselves. It doesn’t really help! Go to review sessions, study in moderation, then relax and get plenty of sleep right before the exams themselves. It works.

Spending three weeks at home over the holidays must be the most relaxing, makes-a-person-feel-good-about-life kind of thing I have ever done. I had to make the rounds visiting everyone at the high school (principal, counselor, old teachers, band director, etc.) and the family I worked for as a volunteer tutor last year, and, of course, I had to spend as much time as possible with old friends. It was great.

More on the friends part: So, I ended up having three big party-type-gatherings over the break. A friend from high school that’s been in basic training for the Army was back for two weeks over the break, so he had the same feeling I did, that he needed to see everyone as much as possible. His brother, who lives and works in A&M and is only a year older, was also back, so we were all working to get everyone together while we were back. The first gathering was an attempt to have a now-old-fashioned LAN party at my place, a few days before Christmas. Of course, I say attempt and old-fashioned because I felt like this didn’t work too well. Last year, we centered most of these gatherings around playing Halo 2 and similar games on networked original Xboxes. The original Xbox had underwhelming graphics and too many buttons that you had to use your right thumb to press, but it was extremely straightforward to network and set up. The Xbox 360 is an entirely different story. It is designed to work best when left in one place, always with the same controllers, and connected to the Internet. The gamer then either pays a subscription or at least gets regularly coerced to buy game upgrades or other digital trinkets while playing over “Xbox Live”, Microsoft’s online Xbox gaming network. It is not designed to work well in a local area network. The controllers are mostly wireless and, therefore, a pain (although I found a clever way to “synchronize” them to their 360 fairly quickly that none of the actual 360 owners present had thought of), all the boxes have to be restarted if one goes offline, the profiles are not game specific, and creating one is non-intuitive. In general, I thought it was a mess, but some of the guys had fun. I mainly found another reason to hate Microsoft.

Also at that gathering, I was informed by a friend of a friend of a friend who ended up there that ‘being smart’ is pointless because someone else can do it and because we already have Bill Gates; “What, are you going to be richer than he is?” he says, or something like that. I don’t even know how to begin to refute this non-argument, and at the time I didn’t really bother. This was obviously not the kind of person who would have really understood, anyway. On the plus side, I will definitely not be taking people like this with me when I invent a new propulsion system that can take us to other habitable planets outside the solar system, put together a colonization group of the world’s best, brightest, and most ambitious, and leave. In fact, people like this may lead me to happen to not leave any designs or info about this new propulsion system on earth when I leave… This kind of thought and the many problems that naturally go with it have occupied many hours of my thoughts over the last two years or so, and even more recently.

Christmas for me was fairly quiet and relaxed. I went to Dallas with Sara (my little sister), spent an afternoon with Dad, and got presents from him on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we had the usual opening of under-the-tree presents and Christmas dinner and such. Mom came up with some interesting trinkets to get me, like a remote-controlled helicopter that is too small to fly controllably and a Tom-Tom, one of those talking navigation systems. I also got a book and a President Bush calendar, which is both scary and funny all at once (he says and does some frighteningly stupid stuff).

Our next large gathering was at the brothers’ house on New Year’s Eve. That was crazy, certainly crazier than most of the boozed-up parties one hears so much about in Austin, and with the free bonus that we can all remember it fairly clearly. I completely don’t understand peoples’ desire to go to parties and do miscellaneous things that they will forget later. Some even talk about the forgetting-it-all part as a benefit; I don’t get it, but that’s completely off the point. Anyway, we had several dozen ‘artillery shells’ or ‘mortars’, the big fireworks that launch out of a tube, normally, at least, and explode in big colored sparks at twenty or thirty feet high. I had to take charge of most of these and protect them from misuse, as someone near the beginning got the brilliant idea to light one of these and just toss it in the air to see what would happen. It ended up falling on the ground and exploding there, creating about 8 small grass fires that we had to quickly stomp out. Apparently not realizing that either that this was dangerous or that the ground explosions were less impressive, anyway, other people proceeded to do this 6 or 7 more times throughout the evening, so I had to guard the last few shells and launch them properly near the end. We also had about 300 bottle rockets, which, for reasons that are now quite obvious to me, are going to be illegal starting this summer. We launched about 200 of them that evening. Without cleaning up, either; you should have seen their yard after we were done. Anyway, most of these were not launched in an even remotely safe manner; most were just lit and thrown somewhere, at which point they might or might not launch somewhere else and explode. Over half of us got hit at some point by one of these rockets; I took two. I was hit in the leg by one of the first rockets of the evening (the first injury of the evening; I still have a cut in my right thigh from it). I later caught a rocket in the chest right as it exploded; it didn’t hurt at all, but it did catch my shirt on fire. Yeah, that’s right, my shirt was on fire! It ended up badly singed with a big hole right in the middle. My undershirt and jacket were singed, too. This was, by far, the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me at a party. We concluded this party by spending about two hours at IHOP, from 2 to about 4 in the morning, where several of the guys made up stories about things that didn’t happen between me and the girl I invited to this gathering, who I had thankfully taken home before going to IHOP. Remember, the flaming shirt was the highlight of the evening; this would definitely not have been the case if… well… you get the idea.

My final large gathering of the break was this massive, 12 hour monster of a night. Yeah, I’m not kidding, it went on for 12 hours! I started out by having dinner with my Army friend and two girls from the New Year’s party (neither was the girl I had invited; I saw her again once after New Year’s, but she got sick and had to work too much after that for us to see each other any more before I left). We then went to the latest Resident Evil movie, which, I guess, was decent enough. Expectations were low to begin with. I mean, it’s a movie about a virus turning everyone into zombies that eat normal people; there are only so many ways to kill a zombie, and only so many ways a zombie can kill a person, and most have already been done. That’s about all there was to it. After that, Army friend and I went to one of the guy’s houses and spent the rest of the night playing Halo 3 on the previously-ranted-about 360s. It was a lot easier with only 6-8 people playing on two boxes; we’d been trying to have 10-12 people play on three boxes before.

After that, the break passed fairly quietly, as it already had between gatherings. I spent far too much time sitting around playing the new video games I got for Christmas. I also watched the New Hampshire presidential debates with Mom and ended up walking away from the Democrats’ half out of mental exhaustion. Even I, apparently, can only take so many hours of Republican bickering and Democrat non-answers. I came away from the whole thing liking all of the candidates less.

I arrived back in Austin last Thursday and, once again, mostly just chilled for a couple days. It was actually kind of weird to be back here at first, but I’m definitely glad to be here now.

And today was the first day of class for the new semester. And it was pretty much awesome. I didn’t have to get up until after 8 (yes!) because my first class isn’t until 10. Then I have two back-to-back classes before lunch, US history and physics, and two more after, Calculus and programming. I also had my first meeting with the physics department chairman for our “Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) Physics Research Stream”, which basically means that I get to have real professors teach my lab class instead of a vastly sub-par TA. And I get to drop subtle (or, eventually, less subtle) hints about the failings of freshman physical mechanics lab classes. I doubt it will do any good, but I have to try. I at least need to make sure he actually reads the lab manual, which is right down there with the worst literature ever. Throughout, I ran into lots of old friends, told all of the stories I just recounted, and even made a few new friends. After all, that’s what first days are for.

For anyone looking for insights this time around, think back to my friend of a friend of a friend who thinks that “someone else can be smart, so I doesn’t have to, and what’s the point, anyway, if I don’t get obscenely rich for it?” Do any of you even know of effective ways to communicate with such a person? Even better, how can we convince them that living with this kind of mentality is one of the best ways around to destroy society and civilization? I would really love to be able to convince people to not think like this, but nothing I have tried has ever worked, which is why I didn’t even bother this time. Any ideas?

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