The end of the semester came as a shock this year and I never felt like there was a mad dash to finish or get anything finished, with the semester instead ending with a gentle coasting into finals. With only 4 classes (14 credits), I didn’t expect it to be all that difficult and my expectations were largely confirmed after coming back from spring break. In February, I may have freaked out a bit but it was largely unnecessary anxiety over the future and I think in a big way connected to feeling somewhat depressed with the state of the weather. So in my tradition of reviewing each course….
BEN 364: Quantitative physiology taught by Professor Andrew Darling was awesome! Learning about the human body puts me in a state of near continual awe and I found nearly every feature/system we talked about interesting. Throwing in a bit of math to make it quantitative didn’t hurt either. Professor Darling was highly dedicated to the course and seemed genuinely interested in the material. Difficulty was relatively low as an information based testing course. The physiology review packets given out before exams made studying a breeze, albiet a time consuming breeze but basically just busy work. The labs we did (4 total since the treadmill lab had to be canceled) were quite interesting but I didn’t care much for the way in which lab groups were made. Because of the mixing of report group size based on how many lab stations were functional for the different labs the assignment of who was supposed to do what part of labs was never really established. As a result, in combination with having the second exam the day before lab 4 was due I really, really screwed up the last lab and received what I think is the lowest score I’ve ever gotten on anything in college, coming in at an embarrassing 34% with the average being 60%. Thankfully, it seems my test scores were high enough to offset that failure and my overall grade was not affected.
BEN 575: Process Control taught by Professor John Heydweiller may in fact be the most dreaded undergraduate bioengineering/chemical engineering course. Despite that status, I didn’t really mind the course that much. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed it but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as what everyone claimed it to be. Professor Heydweiller had high expectations for what we should be able to learn and I think became frustrated when the class so obviously gave up and settled with the idea that the overall curve would save them. I greatly appreciated the fact that Professor Heydweiller held regular office hours every day and I utilized them as much as necessary for my own understanding. Working one-on-one with him to understand the material made everything significantly easier and I would highly recommend it except for the fact that Professor Heydweiller has now retired.
BEN 341: Heat and Mass Transfer taught by Professor George Martin was not what I had hoped by undergraduate heat transfer class would be like. I concede that Professor Martin does have an excellent understanding of the material, but he was not able to convey that knowledge through his teaching. I did not take advantage of Professor Martin’s office hours either, but have heard that he could be much more helpful in a one-on-one setting than he was during lecture while using the stock powerpoints or regaling us with interesting, but uneducational heat transfer stories. Fortunately, the TA, Fangchao, was great and recitations were very helpful to learning the material. Overall, I do think I gained a good understanding of everything that we covered but I’m nowhere near the confidence level I had leaving fluid transport last semester taught by Professor Mather.
PHI 378: Minds and Machines taught by Professor Robert van Gulick ranks among my favorite courses of all time. The philosophical side of creating artificial intelligence was generally quite interesting and I learned a lot about thinking, consciousness and what it means to be a person as well. This course probably actually changed my thinking relative to the world more than anything else I’ve taken and made me very much more aware of the intricacies of intelligence. I went into the course with a rather confident belief that Moore’s law riding on the back of other technological trends would result in a technological singularity in my lifetime but after having taking this course I am much more conservative in my expectations. Creating AI isn’t easy, and I actually agree with John Searle that strong AI is necessarily false when using a von Neumann architecture. From a functional standpoint, I’m not sure if this matters or not but I think having “intelligent” machines that lack consciousness is a pretty big problem. I don’t want to lapse into pure philosophy in my semester review though, so suffice it to say this course and Professor van Gulick were awesome!
I usually do my best to remain silent about how I’m feeling when I’m online because I feel like what you put online is basically always public and more than likely never going to fully disappear. Plus, who wants to hear someone complain? No one does. Complaining online isn’t even equivalent to complaining in person. There may be a person to empathize with behind the words being depicted in the pixels of your screen, but it’s a gross disembodiment. So that’s why I never talk about how I feel online when I’m having a hard time. I wouldn’t be able to express my perspective and it would just lead to a vicious cycletaof me being even more frustrated with my inability to get anyone to understand.
Thus, the best I can do is say that Depression Part 2 from Hyperbole and a Half gives the best 1st person account of what it’s like to be depressed I’ve ever read. It’s pretty long, but if you’ve ever felt depressed yourself but at a loss for words as to how to describe it, check it out. If you’ve ever been unable to understand someone when they say they feel depressed, check it out. If you’ve ever wanted to just waste some time reading a great web comic, check it out. It may not be life changing, but something with it clicks with me. I’ve never felt depressed to the point that Allie describes, but the feeling of just not wanting to exist at the worst of times is exactly as she describes.
The creator of Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh, was internet famous before I became a reddit addict. And while I was familiar with the clean all things drawing, I never knew the story behind it. In addition, from a bit of research I found that Allie ran for the University of Montana and even went so far as to qualify for NCAA D1 regionals in the 5k with a time of 16:48!
Usurping the title of my favorite new author (from the still great Hugh Howey), Ramez Naam’s novel Nexus is a spectacular read for anyone anticipating a radical change to society in the coming years due to bioengineering, nanotechnology and their intersection with neural engineering. In the book, a new black market nanotechnological drug allows direct mind-to-mind connections between people as well as a variety of more impressive feats when combined with a software operating system running on the nexus. The idea, while not wholly novel, is probably the best realized of anything I’ve read. To get to the level of nanotechnology that can self assemble in the brain to form a functional computational structure is going to be tough for sure but I think it’s totally possible and the sky is the limit as far as I’m concerned for 21st century science. In addition to nexus, the novel has group minds and the world’s first uploaded human on the psychological side! Plus, biological enhancements are everywhere – from genetically engineered carbon fiber bones and super strong muscle for military/CIA agents to gene-hacked regrowth technology from newts for regrowing limbs. I love this stuff and think it’s going to show up in my lifetime.
Outside of the (potentially) optimistic science advancements, the story is exciting but maybe just a little too fast paced to be realistic. Granted, this is the future in what seems to be the middle of some type of rapid scientific explosion so I’ll give the story a silver star. Overall, I highly recommend this book but not to everyone I’d recommend a book like Wool. Nexus is a true sci-fi thriller of the likes I haven’t read in a while.
This was my second time reading Accelerando by Charles Stross, the first having been in the spring semester of my freshman sophomore year (shocked it was only a year ago!). Taking PHI378: Minds and Machines inspired me to reread it, since in my mind Accelerando is the premier singularity fiction book. There are certainly some things that happen that are impossible under the laws of physics as we understand them today, but for the most part the book is fairly realistic if you’re the type of person who things a singularity is on the horizon. I think I enjoyed Accelerando more this time around because of the reading I’ve done since then when the singularity was still a new idea to me.
An American classic, the Great Gatsby did not impress me. A tale of shallow romances told from the perspective of a banal man who’s friends, while interesting are quite awful human beings left me feeling highly unsatisfied upon finishing it. My expectations may have been quite high, and I was reading it for the wrong reason, that being the fact that it is being made into a film that I may find myself seeing. I felt let down that the story lacked an overall message and was dismayed by the dearth of positive characters in the book. So while expecting something equivalent to Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath from a book that has appeared to me in the past to have inhabited the same class, I was quite disappointed.
I read the Bicentennial Man by the famous Isaac Asimov as part of the required reading for PHI 378 and love it! I think I devoured this novelette in one night, only having to stay up a little past midnight to do so. For pretty technologically soft scifi that still asks a lot of philosophical questions it’s difficult to beat Asimov and the Bicentennial Man is a good example of his writing. Asimov’s three laws of robotics are brought up but the critical issue is actually what it means to be a person. Andrew, the main character robot possessing a slightly mistuned “positronic brain” desires specifically to be a human and eventually ends up taking pretty drastic measures to become one. It’s a quick read and well worth the time invested, so I definitely recommend this one.
At a little over a month into the spring 2013 semester I feel that I can pass effective judgement and say that this semester is quite dreadful. On paper it doesn’t look bad at all but in reality there’s very little I enjoy about it. I only have four courses and 14 credits but I still feel like I never have any time to really do what I want to do. It’s a constant roller coaster feeling of being ahead or being behind on work and for the majority of the semester I’ve definitely felt the latter.
Starting with the good, Philosophy 378: Minds and Machines is a really cool and enjoyable course. Being easy on top of that is just an added bonus. I’m in class with teammates Joe Kush and Andrew Bennison, which was a fully unexpected treat but what really makes the class great is the content. Talking about artificial intelligence twice a week is kind of a dream come true for this dreamer. My only wish is that the class was a little bit more scientific than philosophical but I did sign up for a philosophy course so I can’t really complain.
BEN 364: Quantitative Physiology is interesting as the engineering anatomy equivalent but it’s not demanding enough for me to devote much time to it despite the fact that I find it interesting. Taught by Professor Andrew Darling, it’s a well run course with clear expectations and a well designed course program, which I appreciate greatly in light of one of the other courses I’m taking in particular. The lab component of the course is also likely to be quite interesting, but I haven’t actually done anything other than the first lab involving set up of the data acquisition hardware/software. I don’t think the course should prove to be too difficult, but I certainly want to do well on the first exam this coming Thursday 2/21/13.
BEN 575: Control Systems may very well be my most challenging course by subject matter thus far. Professor Heydweiller I actually have quite a bit of respect for after having gone to his office hours multiple times each week in the hope of understanding the material and not stumbling through the homework quite so much. Control systems deals with designing controllers but I honestly cannot tell you what that really means. The class to me is mostly a math class with relatively easy differential equations but getting to the point that you can solve them can involve some pretty nasty algebra so it’s not simple. I’m really not a fan of the textbook we use and Professor John Heydweiller may be a good instructor working 1 on 1 in office hours, his teaching in lecture isn’t really my style. I do also wish he would use blackboard and keep everyone more informed as to what needs to be done in the course, but alas, he does not seem apt to make the switch now that he will be retiring at the end of this semester. I do think he means well though and is a much nicer guy to work with individually than in lecture. He gets a bad reputation from students, but I can understand his dissatisfaction with the effort that most people put into the course.
BEN 341: Heat and Mass Transfer is basically what I would define as a nightmare of a course. Professor George Martin seems to be doing his best to make the course as difficult as possible, mainly by doing nothing. The lectures for this course either consist of him giving us anecdotal information about interesting heat and mass phenomenon or flipping too quickly through publisher provided powerpoints. An abstainer of modern eduction, Dr. Martin refuses to use blackboard as well, much to my frustration. I truly want to learn and to be taught but the way this course is being run is fair to nobody. I worry that there is little I can do to effectively learn the material and distinguish myself in grading to earn the grade I want. I do not foresee any changes taking place to change the situation despite politely asking Dr. Martin to post worked examples online or have them sent by email. To an outsider, it may not seem to be a big deal but this course is such a source of stress to me that it is hard to convey through simple writing!
Overall, I really shouldn’t complain and this semester shouldn’t be that incredibly difficult but it certainly has had me stressed lately.
Cloud Atlas is an incredible book written by David Mitchell. I had honestly not realized it was a popular title until Andy Bennison recommended it to me, and let me say that I am glad I payed attention. I greatly enjoyed Cloud Atlas and felt the writing for each of the six connected stories throughout six different time periods was exceptional. With the stories spanning from the mid 19th-century through the 23rd century, it can be hard to classify what genre Cloud Atlas fits into but I think that’s hardly a problem. There are certainly science fiction/dystopian themes but the first two stories set in the past offer a glimpse into a previous time period that I usually don’t get with pure science fiction. I highly recommend it and although the 512 pages with what at first seem to be disconnected stories can be daunting, I think it’s well worth it.
The 7th book in the Wool Series by Hugh Howey was not quite as enjoyable as the others but still a nice continuation of the gripping story that Howey has managed to keep alive longer than I would have ever anticipated.
If you’re interested in the series, check out the Wool Omnibus (1-5) first for sure and don’t read any further because I don’t want to give anything away.
I didn’t find this story particularly memorable amongst the other Wool/Silo stories except for one detail that stands out to me above everything else. There is a part where Donald goes outside of Silo 1 and starts taking off his clothing hoping to die only to be saved by Senator Thurman and other people wearing nothing but coveralls. Everything in the other Wool stories has led me to believe that the nanobots outside are still incredibly deadly, but then the people from Silo 1 seem not to be affected by them. I can’t imagine that this is an accident and it must certainly be part of the plot that Howey has designed, so I wonder – do the residents of Silo 1 have a “cure” for the nanobots already?
The other detail of 2nd Shift that has me excited for 3rd Shift, etc. is the fact that Donald awakes at the end fully in charge with people addressing him as Senator Thurman.