Brink

Actually I do have a Thanksgiving post lined up, but nothing inspires me to procrastinate so much as studying for a programming final. You’d think, since it’s the only one I have, that I’d at least be inspired to try harder.

No such luck.

I can make a case for greater stress = greater productivity, but coffee enters the equation stealthily somewhere and then I lose track.

The answer to the question “Why the hell am I blogging?!” has probably got to do with “want nothing to do with 0’s or 1’s”. We have a chance to get a regrade on a lab that was just phenomenally bad, but the TA wants to see it tomorrow at noon and we didn’t realize we had so much to get done. Just when we thought we’d wrapped everything up!

And to compound the misery, both my laptop battery and my charger have given up the ghost. I am surviving on the check-out laptops from the FAC, which besides being cold and impersonal are not exactly pristine either e.g. the mouse has multiple personality disorder and believes it is somewhere else across the screen at sudden and inopportune moments.

I’m cranky at exam time. Snark is my only defence.

11.22.2010

On Wednesday evening, I’ll be flying out to Seattle to take what feels like a well-deserved Thanksgiving break. Of course, my life being occasionally a sort of comedy of errors, Mri is not coming along and so I’ll be spending 4 days hanging out with two of my closest guy friends. In the general scheme of things this is pretty awkward, but frankly I couldn’t give less of a hoot.

Today, I received an email announcing that two of my classes will be accepting online instructor evaluations. One of them is my Plan II physics class, and really I couldn’t be happier. I have an entire list of very reasonable complaints that I have every intention of making known to the fools who organized this course:

  1. Teaching us highly mathematical and abstract concepts like action and waves is a huge waste of time. Not only do many of the students not have enough of a mathematical background to sit back and absorb the concepts instead of struggling with equations, it’s not at all obvious how these concepts apply to us in daily life. I love physics, and I find this class boring 90% of the time.
  2. Our professor can’t teach. There are no ifs and buts about this. I’m aware that teaching is a job that requires some charisma to get your kids to listen to you, but theatrics are not going to help us understand special relativity, actually. Either he spends most of his time referring to very specific terms and equations, or he waves his hands around and refers to “thingies”. Neither is useful, and both together are contradictory.
  3. The only reason kids survive this class is because of the TAs. And the only reason TA sessions work is because the TAs do most of the work and then leave the last few parts of a question up to us. And guess what? Not all TAs work the same way! Since my TA values learning above copying, and since I can’t go to any other TA, I spend a lot of time working out the answers myself, interpreting Gleeson’s highly idiosyncratic grammar. Net result: I learn something, I do badly in the homeworks; others do very well on the homeworks, learn very little.
  4. Speaking of grammar, Gleeson needs to realize that writing badly is not some kind of adorable personal quirk; it’s a serious impediment to understanding. If necessary, he has to hire an editor to make his questions comprehensible. Physics is hard as it is. Don’t make us wade through the English as well.
  5. In short, this has been one of the most disappointing courses I have ever taken at college. The only thing that surpasses it is probability. The only thing that rescues it is special relativity.

Etc.

Writing in here feels incredibly guilty. I’m meant to be studying for my Plan II physics test (which is a lost cause) and prepping for a lab (I haven’t the first clue what’s happening). So of course, right now is when I’ll feel like updating the Internet (i.e. my grand total of 2 readers) about my life.

American Education

Abc and I recently had a discussion about why Teach For America was such a mind-boggling, soul-sucking experience, and I’m so terribly tempted to co-write something about this and post it somewhere. I think he, and every other international student serving as a teacher in TFA, have pinpointed a fundamental problem with the education system in America: the kids simply don’t care. And that is a reflection of a deeper, underlying cultural issue to do with the importance given to educating children in this society.

I think it’s wonderful that Americans don’t think education defines you, and that there are multiple paths to success. At the same time, the lack of emphasis on math and science education and the complete absence of intellectual challenges that face the children of this country are truly appalling. I’m not saying that the rote learning systems across much of China and/or India are the way to go; certainly not. But on the other hand, those systems develop a deep appreciation for facts and for learning, and their train their students, if not to think, then at least to work hard. I prefer the Singapore/British system, which taught you concepts and then expected you to actually apply them. And then I came to UT with about 30 hours of well-deserved, hard-won credit, and with the determination that I would never take my education for granted.

There are other issues plaguing the American system. “I’ve always thought the children were the ones we needed to feel sorry for,” Abc told me, “but I think it’s the teachers who need to be pitied. We have so many deadlines to meet, and we need to finish teaching a syllabus, and we need to make lessons interesting. We get burned out, and then how are we supposed to teach anything to the kids? How are we supposed to care?” Not only are many teachers poorly qualified to teach their subjects (this applies even to TFA teachers, apparently; one teacher assigned to middle school math had no idea what to do with the absolute value concept and Abc had to explain it to him), they don’t even have a decent support system.

Why are Americans insulting the intelligence of their children? Why are they de-emphasizing the importance of education, and why are they dumbing down the curriculum? It’s not simply that I’ve grown up in a culture of valuing education; it’s nothing to do with the idea of cultural differences. Already, students from India, China and elsewhere in the world are coming to the US to participate in its tertiary education systems, working in its MNCs, and taking over its research programs. If these countries ever begin emphasizing rigorous critical thinking along with rigorous fact learning, isn’t there the possibility that this land of opportunity will start playing second fiddle to countries which actually care about learning and research?

I feel like doing something, but I don’t know what.

Special Relativity

On another note, I’m — get this — learning about special relativity. I mean, obviously I’ve known about it for a while and I realized that when you go faster, time passes more slowly for you. But in this (otherwise useless) Plan II physics class I’m taking, we’re required to learn the derivations and the proofs of special relativity, and it’s incredible. The faster you go, the less time passes – and if you’re travelling at the speed of light, time does not apply to you! Z thinks that this is useless because humans can’t travel at any appreciable fraction of the speed of light (even sound is at 340 m/s, which is about E-6 of the speed of light, for heaven’s sake) but still — it’s awesome.

What’s even better is the experimental evidence for this. Muons, which are subatomic particles generated in the atmosphere, travel at about 0.994 of the speed of light. They also decay with a half-life of 1.52 microseconds. That means that, if you tracked a group of muons from the atmosphere down a fixed distance of about 6 seconds of travel (6.08 = 4*1.52), about 1/16 of them would remain — according to classical, Newtonian physics.

Except, of course, that’s not what happens. Using something called the metric equation, which is a mathematical way of measuring the exact distance between two events in spacetime that everyone can agree on (the spacetime interval), you actually find out that only half of a half-life time has passed for the group of muons. Basically, spacetime has contracted for these particles. They’ve taken a shortcut through our four-dimensional world!

If you drew this on a sheet of paper, the line between the atmosphere and the muon would be straight, and would measure, oh, 6.36 mm, 1 mm for each 1 lightsecond of travel. If you calculated the spacetime interval between two points, that line would shrink to 0.7 mm. It’s as though the rest of that line has curved into the paper you’re drawing it on, leaving behind just the beginning and end — which are only 0.7 mm apart. AHHH so exciting! I wish I could find and link to that article in the NYT which talks about time travel.

(I see that this has, obviously, some repercussions for ChronIn. If you travel so fast that time stops moving forward for you, you’d have to travel faster than the speed of light to be able to travel backwards in time. Hmm.)

Edit: Maybe the reason things happen faster in dreams or that we experience the world much faster in our unconscious state (hello, Inception!) is because the speed of thought is actually a fraction of the speed of light. Huh. That’s really fanciful, but just one of those fun things to think about!

Plan II Thesis

They asked for a minimum of 2 pages, and a separate annotated bibliography. I sent 10 pages of single-spaced material to Prof D.

Prof D: What is this? This isn’t an outline!

Me: Um, yes, I got a bit carried away…

Prof D: No no, it’s great, submit this! I had no idea you had this much information!

I managed to cut it down some. Now I’m at 14 single spaced pages of thesis material (most of it is a 6 page defense of why this thesis should exist) and 3 pages of annotated bib.

Lot of reading to do this winter break ūüôā

 

Blending In

Oct 22

Apparently, grammar and writing are what it takes for me to feel more in tune with this country.

As absurd as that sounds, it actually makes perfect sense. V and I spoke the other day about having Indian and non-Indian sides to us — well, obviously, but all my close friends ¬†have been Indian, for some absurd reason that I always tried to blame on my upbringing. To be honest, and I know it sounds insane,¬†I never thought I’d be good friends with a white American (except Rob).

And then there was today. On Fridays I work 4 hours at the UT UWC, helping to correct grammar and organization and generally gently and kindly knock some writing sense into my fellow undergraduates. It’s a fantastic job; even when I’m not feeling my best and I all I want to do is feverishly program, my job actually calms me down and boosts my self-esteem. There’s not that many jobs like that.

Today, I consulted with a couple of grateful students and spent the rest of my time trying to be programmatically productive in the break room, but actually laughing my way through hilarious conversations — our pre-college lives, our past consultations, books we’ve been reading, word choices and cultural stuff — with ex-internship classmates.

Then we wrapped up early to talk to some of the kids who had turned up at the reception for future UWC internship students. It was honestly wonderful to hear everyone talking about how much they loved work — if the consultations aren’t going great, you know you at least have the breakroom conversations to boost you; it’s so cool reading papers about subjects you don’t know the first thing about and learning random facts; it’s great that there is time to actually do some work when you’re not consulting.

I had a lot of fun telling them about the first time I came into the UWC and was delicately but firmly put in my place re. a scholarship essay (I never got the award, which explains a lot). Three years ago from then, and a week before this, a young cocky freshman walked in and asked me to just look over his essay because he thought it was pretty much okay. I picked up my pencil and showed him about three or four things that could be done with transitions that he’d never considered before. “Oh, okay,” he said, surprised and intrigued. “Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I could do that! Thanks for your help!”

So I was helped, and now I have a chance to help someone else!

Embarrassing moment: when JR, our prof, spoke about getting a few “grammar Nazi” students in the class, every other undergrad consultant turned and laughed at me.

Eventually that evening, I came to the conclusion that my colleagues are probably some of the wittiest, smartest, nice, grammatically accurate people I’ve ever encountered.

And that I can actually hold conversations with Americans. YES.

Oct 29

Today I ventured into Hole In The Wall — it’s a, well, hole-in-the-wall type of bar — for the first time with two other consultants. In one and a half hours, we talked about:

a) religion – Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism – and intimacy as evidenced by the usage of the formal second person “you” vs “thou”

b) languages and their descendants and ancestors, e.g. Turkish actually being a conglomeration of Persian, Arabic, Farsi and some Turkic thrown in for good measure; the different Indian languages and their relations to each other

c) a dissertation on 21st century avant-garde theater being a throwback to pre-Elizabethan theatrical traditions, which one of the other consultants was working on

d) cultural confusion as evidenced by the other undergrad consultant and myself;¬†Singlish, most specifically the literal translations of “wah lau” and “ang moh”

f) a discussion of beer, journeying in Germany, encountering a cuckoo clock of sorts which enacted a story of how a mayor drank an entire barrel of wine to save his countrymen from the Swedes

g) dinosaurs.

I reiterate: best job I’ve had.

rand()

Today, I confirmed that my phone has an “I love you too” template. For the uninitiated, this means you have a template in your phone which you can use to send a text to your special someone, reassuring them that all is hunky-dory on the romance front.

I wonder who came up with this smart idea.

Also, I have been wondering about the name of one of my colleagues. When I was first introduced to him, I was told his name was AJ, so I automatically assumed he was Western/Caucasian. Of course, he turned out to be desi and “Ajay”, which depresses me no end.

Is Ajay really that hard to pronounce compared to AJ? It’s just a slight difference in inflection in one of the syllables!¬†But given that my name – which has 3 syllables and which pretty much rolls off the tongue – is so hard to pronounce, maybe I understand what he’s going through. Maybe.

What’s really worrying is my reaction. Am I so influenced by the fact that I don’t like him very much that I have to pick on his name? Am I such a horrible intolerant person that I can’t understand why he would like to accommodate the American inability to pronounce names correctly? Why am I making judgments about his desi-ness or his lack of it, based on his name description? And, most importantly, why does he do it and why do I care?

Maybe I should just make friends with him and then broach the question. I MUST KNOW.

Stealing Time

Since it has now been confirmed that both this week and next will be veritable Hells, I am going to steal this time to talk about my weekend.

Which included an A. R. Rahman concert!!!!! (insert many more exclamation points) I was genuinely excited about this, and it turned out almost as good as I could’ve hoped. We (Gsj, R, Gsj’s room mate and me) drove down to Houston in R’s car. On the way there I barely noticed the three-four hour drive, what with the conversation: spanning music (of course; and now Gsj and I have decided that while we agree broadly on music (ARR is great, The Killers are good) we can’t agree on the specifics (for some unfathomable reason he doesn’t really like Delhi 6)), cars and their relative merits (on second thought, I think this might be when I fell asleep), and politics.

Gsj: No, listen, communist states are the ones generally doing well in India! Look at Kerala!
R: West Bengal, bitch! …Uh, sorry, got carried away there for a second.

As usual, most of the audience was operating on IST, but the concert itself started slightly after 8.30 and the seats began filling up soon after. There were so many good moments, which I’m going to be writing about for the magazine, but eventually we were left with a sort of dissatisfaction (and R was pretty much bored out of his skull at one point, I think. Rahman mixed Pappu Can’t Dance with Black or White, and¬†R turned to me and asked me what album that was from. Fail!) Not because we’re perpetually hard to please – that’s Rahman’s fault, for setting such high standards for himself – but because the more than 40 songs didn’t really do justice to the breadth of Rahman’s talents. There were too many from just a few movies, not enough from lesser known but more beautiful ones… and where were his female singers? Those he had were better at moving their hips than their lips (haha see what I did there) dancing than singing.

In the end we all trooped back to Abc’s place – 5 ¬†of us in one huge room – to spend the night, and dissected the entire concert, playing some of our favourite pieces that hadn’t appeared and analysing our disappointment. By the time we were done, it was 4 am. Good times.

Also, my mum hadn’t know about my weekend plans, and after she realised where I was, she called me:

Mum: Where are you staying?
Me: With Abc! You know him.
Mum: Oh yeah! Say hi to “Thunda” for me! But are there any other girls there?
Me: … no?
Mum: … oh. Be careful, ok?
Me: What? Careful with whom? Some of them are my best guy friends!
Mum: Still!

I know, it’s awful the way the United States has accustomed me to the presence of the males of the species.

Then I spent the whole of Saturday doing absolutely nothing, which, of course, turned out to be a huge mistake. I see a number of all-nighters and a large(r) quantity of coffee on the horizon.

The next two days are career fair days, where I turn up with hopeful aspirations every single semester and then get gently told that the Awesome Company I want to work with does not take in international undergraduate students. It’s a good thing I’m used to disappointment.