Thursday, September 12, 2019

One Week to Re-Learn Calculus

Mechanical engineering majors take a long time to finish. In order to help with this problem, the department has been kind enough to compress three math classes into two, eliminating any parts not directly pertinent to the major and thereby allowing us to get them done a little faster. The first of these Frankenstein Death-classes, known as Math 302, is essentially linear algebra and multivariable calculus smushed into one class--there should have been warning bells going off by this point, but despite my natural reaction to flee and hide, I'm registered for it anyway.

Come to find out, there's a pretest in 302 that all students must pass in order to remain in the class. The pretest concerns the material of Math 113, which is essentially the same as AP Calculus BC. I did well in Calc BC--got a 5 on the AP test and everything--but that was four years ago. Not to mention I haven't been doing anything remotely math-related for the last two years in Hong Kong, and in that time my math ability dwindled to nearly zero. Put all those facts together and you've got an intimidating proposition.
This is an old picture, but it was too fitting.

So the week before classes officially started, I was spending three hours a day sitting in lecture (the department is nice enough to organize a 'refresher course' every year for those of us who have forgotten all our math) and the rest of the day studying by myself in the library, doing practice tests, etc. I essentially made a full-time job out of reteaching myself math.

I flopped into bed at the end of every day with a serious headache, but the calculus started coming back. In fact, when the time came to take the test, I was feeling pretty good about it. We had the test from 2002 to practice on, and I felt confident that I could do everything on it. There were 30 questions, so I needed 21 right in order to make the 70% pass mark.

Then the actual test came, and I was in for a rude awakening. It was already stacked against us that we couldn't have any sort of 3x5 card or equation sheet, let alone something as miraculous as a calculator--interesting how the point of this test is to make sure we remember the material from Math 113, in which you CAN use a notecard and calculator...
Aside from that, the test was just plain harder than all the practice tests, and covered a couple of concepts that never even came up in the practice material (they should've warned us about Arc Length; not one but two questions). I harbor some deep-rooted frustration with the department because the 2019 test was so much harder than the 2002 test, and here's why: the class material is the same. No new math has been discovered in the last 17 years, and the curriculum remains accordingly unchanged. Even if the class had become more competitive over the years, this is a pretest we're talking about; hardly the time to impose a tyrannical guess-what's-in-my-head ordeal to clearly identify those among us who don't have photographic memories, but I digress.

Anyway, I sat staring at the test sheet with 19 bubbles filled, all the ones I confidently knew how to solve. I was left to get at least two of the remaining eleven right through guesswork, which is statistically doable but still risky with five available answers per question. I rolled up my sleeves and applied my best fake-it-til-you-make-it multiple choice skills and came out with a final score of 22, bringing me to 73%.

I'm going to try to ignore that this is supposed to count as a midterm, but hey--I passed!

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Possibly the Worst Week on Record

Once upon a time there was a job that I really wanted. I had dreamed of it for years, and at the time I'm not sure if there was anything in the world that I wanted more. I had the qualifications and very little competition, if any (speaking Cantonese is not a very common skill). I went down for an interview, and it went well. Then there was another a couple weeks later, and then a third, and then a fourth, and then finally, after an arduous two months of interviews, screening and suspense, I got a phone call saying that I had been denied the position.

This is all sounding very familiar. We're getting right back to the roots of this blog: rejection! A few years ago it was the grueling several-month waiting process and eventual rejection that started me writing in the first place, and here we are, in the same situation. It's almost like going home...if home is a place where your dreams habitually disintegrate.

This turn of events prompted a whole mess of thoughts and emotions--what was I missing? Was there someone better than me, or did they just hate me so much that they rejected me without even having a backup option? Then that brought on the regret--I should've somehow displayed more confidence, or never broken eye contact, or shined my shoes--and those thoughts don't help, either. Eventually I was just left with the daunting notion that I was still out of a job, and this unfruitful process had devoured my entire summer of prospective working time before the semester.

A few short days later, things got worse. 

Way back in 2016, in the earliest days of this whole blogging venture, I purchased a machete. It was a good one, made out of 1055 carbon steel and sporting a sweet black powder coating. For years it served me well, everywhere from hiking in the mountains to bushwhacking in my own backyard.

But then one day my hand was a tad too high on the sheath as I drew it. Something didn't quite feel right, so I looked down and immediately thought oh, that's stitches. The edge of the blade had run along my clenched finger as I unsheathed it, slicing deep.

It was at about that point that my lifeguard training kicked in, and I calmly walked to the bathroom before it started bleeding and proceeded to drip helplessly into the sink, staring curiously at my new wound while waiting for my sister to return with the gauze pad I'd asked her to fetch.

Then, maintaining a death grip on my gauze-wrapped finger, we had to go upstairs to explain to our parents how I now needed to be taken to the emergency room--not what you want to hear right before bedtime, but they kindly consented to take me while I sat in the back, keeping pressure on the wound.

Lovely, isn't it?

I came home with six stitches and a splint, and was left to pursue normal life without the full functionality of my left hand. This brought a whole new set of complications like duct-taping a plastic bag around my arm to shower, putting a pause on my efforts to recover my long-lost piano skills, and just trying to type with that humongous splint.

All things considered, it was a pretty terrible week. But the thing was, it just kind of reached the point where it was funny. My misfortune and each new complication that emerged from it became the topic of humor, and before long I was smiling at my plight. It made me appreciate the little details of this odd experience, like when they took the stitches out and glued the little fabric strips over the wound with this pine-scented medical glue, and I had to go around with my hand smelling like one of those tree-shaped air fresheners for the rest of the day. 

We also decided that since my machete has now tasted the blood of man, it was time to officially name it, as befitting an instrument of destruction. Its new name is Sarga (pronounced sar-ya), the Swedish word meaning to lacerate. Because what else? Ordinarily I'd say my Viking ancestors would be proud, but honestly they would probably just laugh.

So at the end of it all, I've racked up a lot of stories to tell, received a healthy dose of perspective, started to regain flexibility in my finger, and applied for five other jobs.

Now all I need are chainmail gloves.

His Manebimus Optime!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Global Repositioning

Hey y'all, I'm back!

As promised, I'm not dead and I haven't forgotten about you, my dear readers. About two months ago, I returned home from Hong Kong after serving as a full-time volunteer missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for two years. Granted, a two months is a long time to be home and not be writing, but two years is longer still, and I felt I had earned a little time to decompress.

I'll probably talk quite a bit about my time in Hong Kong in the future, but for today I'm going to focus on a question I've been asked many times since I've been back: "do you miss it?"

The answer is, of course, a resounding yes. But that question is similar to another I got asked all the time in HK: "do you miss home?" to which the answer was also yes.

How does that work? I go there and miss it here, then I come back here and miss it there. That might sound like a pessimistic refusal to be contented, but I think it's something else. It seems as soon as you become immersed in another culture, you'll spend the rest of your life missing something. That isn't a bad thing, either; it just means that you have developed a love for multiple places and we, unfortunately, can only be in one place at a time. Wherever we are, we ought to be in the moment, but remembering where we've been is equally important as we continue to pursue whatever direction seems to be "forward." So let's find out where the future will take us, shall we?

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What Survives Us

In life, nothing is more constant than change. Things are going to change around here as well, because the time has come for me to face the next big chapter of my life.
For the next two years, I will be serving as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hong Kong.This means I won't be around to write new posts for a while, but rest assured I'll have some good ones cooked up for June 2019. Start your countdown timers.

Although I won't be personally curating this dear blog of mine until I return home, I may occasionally write posts from Hong Kong and have them posted for me for you readers back home. While I will be quite busy and cannot really promise any degree of consistency, I'll try to drop some breadcrumbs to fill the gap between now and 2019.

Now, as for what I really want to talk about today, I'll tell you I got some inspiration from the obituaries in the newspaper. It sounds a little depressing, but I promise that's not the direction this post will go. I noticed that at the end of an obituary, it is commonly stated that the deceased "is survived by" his or her relatives. This phrasing made me think, and although in a literal sense it means nothing more than the fact that the living relatives are indeed still alive, I think it implies something more. It means that the deceased lives on, or in a sense "survives," through those left behind.

I could go a lot of different ways with that notion, but I'll stick to the one that speaks the most to me (I'm selfish like that). The people we leave behind act as an extension of us not necessarily by blood relation, but by the stories we leave them with. We survive by being remembered. Some are remembered for good reasons, others bad, and a tragic few are not remembered at all. I say this not out of a lust for fame or a desire to be remembered, but as a critique of my own "survivability," so to speak.

Each of us is the protagonist of our own story. I really don't think it's my place to judge whether my story deserves to be known far and wide, but I've come to realize that I want it to be something I would enjoy hearing. If I were a stranger picking up a book about some dude named Will, would it put me to sleep? I should hope not. In a perfect world, my story would be something I would find interesting, or perhaps even thrilling. Whether this is the case is determined by the small choices I make along the way.

The idea isn't too complicated, but to me it hits home. If we are the subject of our own story, why not do everything we can to make that story mind-blowingly awesome? Take a chance now and then, walk the road less traveled, as my pal Robert Frost would say. Make a story that will survive past you. I'm taking a step into my next great adventure, and I hope you can find yours, too.

Carthago delenda est!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Muffin in the Sky

This is the legend of Muffin.

It's not a long story, but it is a strange one.

The week my roommates and I moved into 1217, the week before classes started last semester, we received a gift from a girls' apartment in an adjacent building. It was a plate of six banana muffins, one for each of us. Five of us ate one, but Carson did not. We don't know why he didn't eat it; he claims to this day it didn't occur to him that it was his, but we aren't here to speculate. The point is, the muffin sat uneaten on the counter for two weeks.

When we checked on it to see if it had gone bad, we discovered the muffin had become extremely hard, like a cinder block. We showed it to Carson to see what he had done (jokingly, of course), and in so doing we saw fit to smack him with the muffin. When we did, I swear the thing made a resonating sound like a bell. and it bounced down to the table unharmed.

After observing its peculiar stability, the rest of us saw fit to do something more fun with the muffin. Three of us, along with a friend from another dorm, suspended the muffin from a small hook on the ceiling in the center of the living room, directly above a tipped-over chair and a note reading "Carson, you left me alone for two weeks. Why couldn't you let me die?"
Muffin's current state

We had a good laugh over that, and we thought that might be the end of the story, but there was more to come. We put the chair back at the table and disposed of the note, but the muffin stayed there, hanging from its scotch tape noose. After a couple more weeks, that wasn't good enough for us anymore, so I updated the suspension to a single sewing thread, which is nearly invisible in certain lighting and allows the muffin to turn lazily with the air currents.

Since it is now April, Muffin has been hanging there for eight months. Yes, eight months. He is still as hard as stone and shows no signs of decay, so we've endeavored to leave him there, declaring him our seventh roommate. I'm not sure if that's a greater testament to Muffin's wondrous qualities or our own unsurpassed weirdness, so I'll let you judge. In the meantime, we've been discussing strategies to preserve Muffin's legacy, appointing me to keep him safe and perhaps someday cast him in an acrylic block to keep for posterity. I suppose, in the end, diamonds are not forever. Muffins are forever.

Hic Manebimus Optime!

Friday, April 14, 2017

One Year Later

It's somewhat of a special time right now, because this month marks one year from my initial rejection from Harvard. March 31st 2016, I realized my dream was not coming true, and I started this blog. Back then its purpose was mostly to vent, not to entertain you folks. My, how things change.

A year can seem like an incredibly long time looking forward, but not long at all looking back. A year ago today (the 14th, that is--the day I finally got around to finishing this post) I wrote about my problems securing the housing contract I wanted, and right now I'm gearing up for final cleaning checks in that same dorm. Back then, all I knew about the people I'd spend the year with was that my direct roommate wanted me to transfer to another building to make room for his friend. Seriously, that was our first interaction. Not what I'd call getting off on the right foot, but such is life. I didn't know back then that these strangers would become some of my best friends or, even more surprisingly, that I would become one of theirs. All I knew was that I wasn't where I wanted to be, and the thought never crossed my mind that perhaps I was where I should be.

No, I'm not talking about where I deserved to be; that's an issue lost to time. I'm talking about the place that would help me grow as a human being. This isn't to say that I wouldn't have experienced similar growth at Harvard, because in fact I'm certain I would. I just wasn't prepared to handle the idea that multiple options could afford me the same opportunities. My heart was set, my target was in my sights, and I missed, and that was all I could think about.

Twelve months later, I can at least say that I can more fully appreciate the mundane. Despite the aftermath of a less-than-stellar midterm and the impending doom that is finals, I noticed today for the first time that the air itself smells sweet now, from everything in bloom. The sun is also out for the first time in months, which is equally refreshing.
Looks nice, doesn't it?

So have I changed in the past year? I don't think that's for me to say, really, since I doubt I'm an objective measure of my own progress, but perhaps I have, at least a little. I've loosened up a bit, learned to roll with disappointment a hair better and make time for fun things, but I'm still me. And for whatever reason, I feel that's important to say. While the college experience shapes who you become, I think that feeling more or less the same as I did a year ago means I've been able to make choices consistent with the version of myself I'd like to be. I don't notice the changes in my character because I had to take the incremental steps to get to where I am, changing a tiny bit with each step.

Since I know what was happening to me a year ago, I also know what just happened to 28,000 more people. The world just got a fresh batch of Rejects, and they'll have some important decisions up ahead. While no single case is identical to mine, I can at least act as proof that things work out fine in the end. Welcome to the club, my friends!

Hic Manebimus Optime!

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!