Friday, March 24, 2017

Sometimes You Just Need a Cave

When in the course of human events we find it necessary to retreat from our surroundings and hide in the fetal position, we require a space in which to do so.

Nobody famous said that (unless you count me, in which case I'm flattered, but you're overly generous), but that does not make it less true. Maybe extroverts do not feel this way, but as for my introverted self, I find that when I'm so overwhelmed by the chaotic world that has incidentally prevented me from posting for a very long time, I need someplace to cool off without outside interference.

My room used to be enough, but I still found myself too easily disrupted by roommates bursting in at random. I could lock it, but my actual room-roommate (to use a scientific term) never carries his key. Thus, I set out to find a way to more perfectly isolate myself from other humans.

The solution is to build a fort, obviously.

Some people may deny having any desire to build a fort, but we know they're lying. Fort-building is an intrinsic part of our humanity; we just have to reach the point where we're willing to admit that forts aren't just for small children. As soon as one admits that he or she no longer has any shame, one can accomplish some impressive things. I have developed, in my opinion,  a stellar fort construction method myself, and although I will probably unveil it to you fairly soon, it would take up far too much space in the apartment. I needed a more permanent, more specially conservative approach.

The beds in our dorms are in three pieces: the big (and extremely heavy) horizontal piece that holds the mattress, and a frame piece on either end. The frames have multiple notches in them so the bed can be adjusted to multiple heights. Interestingly enough, the frames are not vertically symmetrical, so the bed can be lowered much more than it can be raised. However, I found that flipping the frame pieces upside down allowed me to raise the bed higher than intended, creating a very large space underneath. With the addition of some Christmas lights from last semester and a stock of sodas, lightsabers and nerf weaponry, I had created my own personal Will-Cave.


Complete with laptop space.
Oh and also this stuff.

Every cave needs a bat.

The Will-Cave has become an object of jealousy for my roommates, which I frankly did not expect. I guess it really is true that somewhere, all of us want an awesome fort, but not everyone realizes that there's nothing stopping us from making one.

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Avocados and Sudden Epiphany

At the beginning of last semester our RA, Travis, had put paper Lego minifigure heads on the doors of the rooms on our floor, labeled with each person's name. We thought that was great, but this semester he left it up to us to decorate our own doors. My roommates set about drawing door signs for themselves with crayons (as it turns out, as soon as you abandon your stubborn teenage pride you grow back into coloring with crayons) but I wanted to do something better, because that's how I roll. I'm still working on my own sign, but I decided that wasn't enough, so I made one for the entire apartment in photoshop. Behold.
Yeah, this is probably proof that I've been listening to too much Retro Wave while doing homework.
As a side note, that chrome effect is WAY harder than you think it is. We're talking, like, six layers of gradients.

As I hoped, everyone loved it, and we're going to print a big one to put on our door. Basically we want our door to say you wish you were as cool as us, because nothing strikes fear into the hearts of your rivals like laser grids and neon pink. While talking about the sign and its overwhelming 1980's influence, we theorized a substance that is, in fact, the condensed and purified essence of the eighties, which we named Compound-80. A single drop of Compound-80 can turn a normal group photo into the gloriousness you see before you.

Now, I expect you want to know what's up with the title of this post, but by now you should know that I always get around to it eventually. This story has little to do with avocados, although I just recently discovered that avocados actually taste okay. This is a story about chemistry.

Back in my sophomore Honors Chem class, we learned about a special number. It is called Avogadro's number (or Avocado's number if you have any sense of humor at all), and it is defined as 6.022 x 10^23. That seems kind of random, much like the quantity e in other realms of math and science, and naturally my classmates and I wanted to know what the heck it meant. My teacher explained it as the number of atoms in a mole (a mole is a measure of matter to chemists, and a small, furry burrowing creature to everyone else), such that a mole of a particular element had mass equal to the atomic mass of that element. It made the math easier, but in practical terms that definition made NO sense whatsoever. It all seemed much too arbitrary.

Three years later, while teaching myself chemistry again, I finally realized something: Avogadro's number is the number of atomic mass units in a gram. For some of you that clarification might not help at all, in which case I'm sorry, but for me it was like harp music and beams of light descending from heaven as I rose to a new level of sublime enlightenment. I had never thought of the quantity as a unit conversion factor, and that realization alone will make Chem 105 as much as 12% easier. Don't ask me where I get my numbers--they're just as fake as all other statistics.

So either you learned something just now, or you're saying to yourself Will, you idiot--it took you three years to realize that? If the latter is the case, you aren't entirely right. It only took me a matter of seconds to learn the truth. It took three years to occur to me to Google it.

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Who's Up For Round Two?

I think many of you likely noticed that I went dark at the very end of my first semester, and this is my first entry since. It seems that when finals week arrived and the demons were at the door, I had neither the time nor the presence of mind to advertise my situation, but right now I think it's only fair to provide a short recap of how things went down.

First of all, I'd like to express how fantastic it is to have a window in which I can take tests whenever I want. Definitely an advantage over high school, where everything was rigidly scheduled. Beyond that, I think finals week wasn't as bad as it was cracked up to be. This is not to say that it wasn't stressful, because I narrowly avoided a few nervous breakdowns through a Pavlovian self-reward system of unhealthy foods, but I found that none of my tests were really that... hard. Perhaps I was lucky, but I like to think that with good preparation, exams do not deserve the irrational fear we have for them. I'll see whether my theories hold after my second semester.

As far as grades go, which my earlier posts should indicate I have a minor obsession over, I think I did respectably well. Despite my 90% on my calculus final I only eked out a B+ in the class, which was disappointing at best and discouraging at worst, but I'll have to live with that. Getting a grade with a B in front of it was a first for me, and somewhat of a rude awakening, but I had to realize that it hardly spells doom for me. I secured an A- in physics and A's in all of my other classes, for which I'm touting a bit of well-deserved pride. Even that dance class, which I was so worried about the entire semester. I had to fight tooth and nail for the extra credit I needed, but I got it.

My first semester taught me quite a bit, but not really in the subjects my classes covered. I had to learn how to survive on my own, communicate with strangers and coexist with other humans, which was quite a struggle for my cloistered, introverted, borderline-isolationist self, but has definitely molded me into a better person. This semester I plan to work on time management, habit building and actually reading the textbook, so we'll see how that goes.
Here are some nice clouds, just for fun.
This brings us to now. I fully enjoyed my three-week break to relax and decompress, as well as not having homework over Christmas for the first time in my memory, but all good things come to an end. It's the dawn of a new semester, full of gloomy January weather, a wealth of uncertainty and the looming threat of Chem 105. It's currently the most oft-failed course at the University, and I didn't exactly have a good experience in tenth grade chemistry, so it has become cause for major concern. I'm not worried about failing, mind you, but the average grade is far lower than I'd like, so it's going to be a battle.

I think that's all I can really say for now. The next few days will be devoted to finding patterns in my schedule and developing a sensible routine, which is going to take a lot of mental dedication--perhaps more than I'm willing to give it, but options are few and time is short, because the sooner I can find my rhythm, the better. Ready, Go!

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thoughts On Perspective

Earlier this week I took my third midterm exam for my physics class, and was extremely disappointed to discover that I received a raw score of 80%.

Now, before you say 'but that's a good score!' just hear me out. 80% may not actually be that bad, but I haven't seen a score that low in a very long time. I expected better of myself. I had spent long hours studying the material, and I felt I was finally getting the hang of it, but that score made me feel like all that work was for nothing. Factor in that this is one of the three classes that will determine whether I get accepted to my major, and it seemed like the end of the world. I was legitimately freaking out.

Two days later, however, I received an email from my professor to the class, in which he said that the class average was 54%. Suddenly my 80% looked a lot better. I hadn't just survived the test--I had destroyed it. Realizing that the curve required to put the class average in the correct range will have me sitting pretty, I let out an obligatory shout of joy and bought myself a soda.
*calculator drop*

So why am I telling this story? It's not to brag. I hate bragging, and that's why college applications were so difficult. It's because my opinion of my score changed when I was able to see a broader context. From just my own score, it seemed I had not done well at all, but with improved perspective I saw that it was actually something worth celebrating.

I think that oftentimes our perspective clouds our judgment in much the same way. We may think we see the whole room, but we're actually looking through a keyhole. Sometimes we don't even realize that the door is unlocked. So even though it's been said many times, I think it bears repeating that we need to see the big picture, because it's something we humans habitually struggle with.

So how do you develop perspective? The short answer is I don't know, because with my limited life experience I'm not in any position to sprinkle you with sage wisdom. I can, however, tell you what works for me, and you may do with it what you wish.

First, identify the worst-case scenario. Assuming everything goes wrong, what will happen? What will the lasting consequences be? This is a great way to weed out the problems that don't matter in the long run. If it won't do any permanent damage, it's probably not worth the energy to worry about.

Second, think of actions you can take to deal with the issue. Is there something you can do to avoid the worst-case scenario? If not, what options do you have for coping with it? Again, if it turns out to be something you have zero control over, it's not worth worrying about.

Third, try to see from another point of view. By no means am I saying you have to adopt someone else's perspective (unless you like it better), but simply to try to understand.  Seeing multiple sides of an issue can help you make better judgments and leads to a lot less conflict.

Lastly, be sure to try both zooming in and zooming out. Sometimes with all the emphasis on the big picture, we lose the benefits of looking closer. Many issues that may at first seem unsurmountable can be broken into smaller pieces, some of which can usually be solved.

At the end of the day, we're all still seeing through keyholes, and we spend our whole lives trying to widen them. Sometimes it isn't easy, but I hope that we can all come to appreciate that a little perspective goes a long way. Perhaps it's a twist of fate that this is my first post since the U.S. Presidential election, but I'll leave that for you to consider.

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Turning Leaves

Two months in, college isn't any easier than it was when I started. I mean, I expected as much, but some part of me was hopeful that it'd get better. Unfortunately, as the seasons change, my homework load doesn't.

Before I get going, I'd like to point out that the BYU Grounds Crew has somehow managed to keep the grass green long after the trees have given up. Seriously, it's November--no grass has a right to look this good this late in the year. I have no idea how they do it. Grounds Crew definitely has some magic powers they aren't telling us about.

Now, as for everything else, as I watched the leaves turning vibrant hues and dropping to the ground, I realized that I had actually let myself go, too. I was losing sleep, pulling successive post-midnight days in a row, practicing poor study habits and all but abandoning my standards of room cleanliness. I was irritable, exhausted and far from happy. I even had that maybe I should quit college moment. Through self-neglect, I had turned into a mess, and I saw that my current pattern wasn't sustainable. I needed to fix it, and quickly, before I threw myself into a self-imposed ruin.

So I made yesterday a sort of swift-kick-in-the-butt day, in an effort to put myself back on track. I cracked down on homework, went grocery shopping, cleaned my room and got to bed while the clock still said "PM" for the first time in a week. I even got started on NaNoWriMo (for those who are interested, I'm not going for 50,000 words because I know it won't happen. I'm just trying to see how far I can get.) Then I got up on time this morning, gave myself a good breakfast, made my bed and got a proper start to the day. I even chose to wear laced shoes instead of slip-ons, because in accordance with the bed-making philosophy, the act of tying my shoes actually made me feel more accomplished and capable. With that, I'm happy to report drastic improvement over the last twenty-four hours! I'm feeling happier, more rejuvenated and more in control. Ain't self-regulation awesome?

My thought for the day, then, is that it's never too late to start over. Sure, I completely lapsed on all of the good habits I was trying to build, but I put myself back on the path I wanted to be on, and you can too. Sometimes turning over a new leaf means raking up the old ones and throwing them into the fire, but sometimes you just have to pick back up a leaf you've dropped. Whatever the case, let your colors burn as brightly as the autumn trees--you'll thank yourself for it.

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Midterms and Maruchan

Midterms. College students everywhere tremble at the very mention of the word. And they're upon us. Mine have been spaced so that the first set bled into the second, granting approximately zero relief in between. I've already endured the first test out of round two, and I have two more this week (one of them is dance; remember how hard I tried to avoid that class? I'm wishing I'd tried harder.) and calculus next week. At first I thought the concept of having three midterms per class seemed cruel and unusual...and I still do. I realized, however, that the second set takes the place of the first term final in high school, and that made more sense. I understand it, but I don't have to like it.

Thus, life has become an arduous cycle of intensive studying, hasty meals, sleep deprivation, piles of homework and a looming sense of fear and dread. In addition, I also have cleaning checks tonight, which would be a breeze if I had roommates that helped keep the place clean. (Not that I don't like them, it's just that their standards of cleanliness are very different from mine.) That said, it's going to be another long night.

Somewhere in all the chaos, I haven't been grocery shopping, Which means I've fallen back on a time-tested college survival favorite, the universal sign that a wayward student has run out of food and/or money. I'll give you a hint: it's six for a dollar at the store, it cooks in three minutes and it tastes like sodium and sadness. Parsimony, thy name is Ramen.

Fortunately, the emptiness is only in my cupboards and not my bank account, so I should be back to having the best meals in the dorm soon enough. I happen to have found a whole slew of seasonal dessert recipes that I'm just dying to try, assuming midterms don't kill me off first.

So how does one persist when the situation seems so dire? The most common college answer would probably be caffeine, but I have none in my possession. Instead, I've found a few other coping mechanisms, which I think you might be interested in.

  • Music: never underestimate the power of a good pump-up song. Even a sad or depressing song can act as a cathartic emotional channel, allowing you to get back up and keep going.
  • Food: exercise extreme caution, because it's easy to get carried away. That said, there is no better pep talk than that of a Reese's peanut butter cup.
  • Short breaks: never study for five hours straight. Trust me, I've done it enough times to know it's a bad plan. Take ten minutes every hour or so to breathe, get a drink or anything else you may need.
  • Writing: writing allows you to express emotion and reduce stress. This could be in a journal, on a personal project, or even on a blog. Why do you think I'm typing right now?
  • Sleep: your bed is your best friend. Protect your sleep hours as much as possible, even if that means only doing the assignments that are due at midnight tonight. You'll be happier and more productive in the morning.
  • Embracing the Pain: I have no idea what sort of switch got flipped in my brain for me to enjoy the novelty of utter misery, but for some reason I can randomly put a goofy grin on my face and become a homework juggernaut. I can't maintain it very long though, and I don't think anyone can, so save it for when you need it the most.

There you have it, my official Toolbox For When Life Stinks. There are other methods that I haven't discussed, and I encourage you to search for them if these don't work out for you. Meanwhile, in the face of the midterms knocking on my door, I've found a Latin phrase that differs from my customary farewell, but I find it all too fitting. See you on the other side.

Nos Morituri te Salutamus!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lexical Pound Cake

Have you ever heard of lexical density? I hadn't until just recently. In basic terms, lexical density is a measure of how difficult it is to read a particular piece of text. This is calculated by dividing the number of unique words in that text by the total number of words, which grants a percentage value. Lower values indicate text that is easy to read, while higher values show text that is more difficult, or "lexically dense."

For some reason I was strangely enamored with this concept, so I decided to do some more research. I found that in general, works of fiction tend to have lexical densities between 49% and 51%. If that sounds like a very narrow range, just know that I thought so, too. And it warranted an experiment.

Now, I have been known to spend a lot of time doing calculations on relatively stupid topics (If you don't believe me, read this post from my other blog. You will never see gears the same way again). I also happen to be sitting on the complete manuscript for a sci-fi novel I spent most of high school writing, so I figured why not have a little fun?

Knowing that fiction is supposed to be between 49-51%, I wanted to know how my own work of fiction stacks up. I found a text analysis website that calculates lexical density and went to work. I had gleaned from my research that larger samples of text give lower values because you repeat words more often (my book uses the word "the" about 6,800 times), but I had no idea how different the results would be. Putting on my mad scientist hat for a moment, I did an analysis of the entire book, which caused the website to crash a couple of times before it finally worked. Pro Tip: Do NOT try to copy/paste an entire novel. Some websites just can't handle it.

The result? 18%. At first I was utterly shocked. Compared to the roughly 50% goal marker, 18% made my novel look like a Dr. Seuss book, right? I was highly skeptical, and remembering what I'd heard about the sample text size, I wondered what sample sizes were used to obtain the 49-51% figure. Cue more math.

I did another analysis on each chapter of the book individually, and the results were astonishingly different!

Chapter Lexical Density
Prologue 62%
1 44%
2 50%
3 45%
4 58%
5 50%
6 53%
7 57%
8 49%
9 48%
10 56%
11 53%
12 51%
13 52%
14 53%
15 69%

Suddenly it went from a picture book to the Oxford English Dictionary! What happened? I figure a chapter is a good enough mixture of description and dialogue that it should be a good cross-section of the work, but my average is 53%, which is definitely above 49-51%. And just look at the last chapter. That's the kind of number that you'd expect from some stuffy academic dissertation, not YA fiction.

I have a few different writing styles, each one meant for a different purpose. I thought that perhaps lexical density would be proportional to the level of formality, so I ran a diagnostic on one of my blog posts, where I'm definitely not formal in any way. (It was the organization one from last month, if you want to know). The result? 74%. Not what I expected at all.

So what does any of this mean? Frankly, I'm not even sure. But, according to the math, I use a greater word variety than most writers, but according to a reading difficulty index based on a different formula (the website gave me both), my writing is on the easy-to-read side. I didn't think those two things could go together, but I figure that clear writing with above-average word variety has to be a good thing.

I don't know what I'll take away from this exploration of useless stats and figures, and I bet you'll get even less from it, but at least we both know more about lexical density than we did yesterday, right? Plus, I think this has all been rather fun, even if the math says my writing is more like pound cake than meringue. But I think I'll let you be the judge.

Hic Manebimus Optime!