Human Postulate Theory

Last week, my statistics class had a conversation that fascinated me.  We discussed the idea that all systems in the world—from religion to math, science, and medicine—are modeled based on a specific set of of postulates.  A postulate is a belief or defining characteristic that is taken as truth without the need for proof.  Take the natural number system, for example.  Natural numbers (integers greater than or equal to zero) are the very basis of the math we’ve learned since elementary school.  This system has its roots in five postulates known as Peano’s Axioms, which state:

Let a “successor” of a base number be defined at the smallest number greater than the base number (e.g., the successor of 5 is 6.)

1) Zero is a number.

2) The successor of any number is a number.

3) Zero is not the successor of any number.

4) Two numbers are equal if their successors are equal.

5) If S is a set of numbers that contains zero and the successor of every number in S, then S contains all natural numbers.

These postulates are accepted as undeniable truths of everyone who uses the natural number system, and they form the basis of every law, theorem, and corollary we’ve ever learned related to natural numbers.

Every model that exists has its own postulates, and if anything disagrees with any one of those postulates, it cannot exist within the system.  Science is a great example.  One of science’s fundamental postulates states that “We can prove something to be true if and only if we can consistently observe it.”  Therefore, in the system of science, if something cannot be consistently observed, we cannot prove it to be true, which is a limitation of the system (a limitation which many people abuse and falsely assume that something cannot be consistently observed, it cannot be true.  But I digress.)

My point is that everything we’ve ever learned in our lives is based on sets of axioms for which we not require proof.  If anyone has ever asked you “why?” and your answer was “because that’s the way it is,” you’re probably talking about one of those axioms.  So I propose this: if every other model is based on a set of postulates, then can’t someone’s personality also be derived from a set of postulates?  Can the very core of my character be boiled down to a set of truths, undeniable to me, that form the basis for every one of my decisions?

I think it can.  Over the next months, I would like to constantly as myself, “Why am I making this decision?” or, “Why am I behaving in this fashion?” in order to dissect my beliefs and find the postulates which define myself.  I thought a bit about it today and I think I’ve come up with one postulate, and a theorem derived from it.  Note that this list will go through many, many revisions, so this is only a very rough first draft:

Postulate (1): The value of the well-being of any person is no lesser or greater than the value of the well-being of any other person.

Theorem(A): In a system with uniform opportunity for success across all individuals, it is unjust to provide benefit to one individual at the direct expense of another individual.

It’s not much, but hey, that’s only an hour worth of reflection.  Ideally, I would like to be able to crank out one postulate or theorem each week.  Expect more!

The Aussie Chronicles: Epilogue - The Night Before

I leave Australia tomorrow afternoon, so I’d like to take this time to talk about my experience.  The scholarship for which I am writing this blog emphasizes the focus on the positive aspects of my experience.  However, as with all my entries, I will opt for a realistic approach, as I feel it is important for people to know both sides of the coin.

I’m going to split this into two parts.  The first will analyze the experience of studying abroad in general.  The second will analyze the experience of being in Australia.  Without further ado, let’s get to it!

This is my first time out of the country, and one of only a handful of times I’ve left Virginia.  A large reason behind my decision to study abroad stems from all the hype and positive reviews offered by others (particularly honors students and faculty.)  Many individuals agreed that studying abroad had opened their eyes to the world, drastically increased their college experience, and/or changed their lives.  I wanted to experience it myself and see if the experience of studying abroad really lived up to its name.

The verdict: Yes, it’s a fantastic and eye-opening experience.  The main reason it’s worthwhile does not relate to the country in which I studied abroad, but rather the internal strength I garnered during the experience.  First and foremost, studying abroad feels like an adventure, especially to someone who’s never left the United States.  The prospect of this adventure felt exciting and new at first, but as the day approached for my departure to Australia, it really hit me hard: “I’m really about to leave behind my friends, family, and all that is familiar to me to embark on this adventure alone.”  It felt very reminiscent of a “coming of age” scene in a movie.  In order to make it through the departure and the initial days of my fresh start in Australia, I had to muster more courage than I have for anything else in my life.  It’s an experience that both strengthened my confidence to leave my comfort zone and gave me a story to be proud of.

Of course, after a few weeks in Australia, things began to smooth out, as evidenced by my decreasing journal frequency.  The new became familiar, and the things that I once thought were strange now became just as much a part of my day as anything back home would have been.  This, of course, led to a decrease in excitement as my focus shifted towards classes.  Now, as I prepare to return to the United States, everything which once felt familiar feels like it will be new again, and I’m just as excited to go back as I was to arrive.

There’s one single factor that makes my happiest I took this trip: a sense of international presence.  Before considering study abroad, the thought of leaving the country never appealed to me.  It’s not that I didn’t want to go, but rather that the whole process felt too complicated.  I would have to get a passport, arrange for air travel, negotiate currencies (all of which I’d never done before), and I had no sense of how tolling the trip would be financially.  By studying abroad, I had advisers from the study abroad office who could guide me through and alleviate this seemingly complex process, which actually turned out to be pretty simple.  After staying in Australia for four months, I also have a good sense of the costs involved with a trip abroad.  Indeed, the most important experience for me is not the one I just finished, but rather the opportunity to explore new lands in the future, which I now consider much more feasible and likely now that I’ve gone through it once.  I definitely plan to go abroad again, though probably not during my college career.

As for the downsides?  Well, it’s expensive, especially in Australia.  Picking a country with a desirable exchange rate and low standard of living will definitely alleviate this, but make sure to have a hefty supply of funds ready to finance your adventure.  Scholarships are definitely available if you look, as evidenced by the scholarship I’m writing for right now!  Heck, because of my Pamplin Scholar status, University Honors chipped in \$2,500 for essentially just asking.  Don’t be afraid to search and ask for money; it’s there!

Australia

To be honest, I don’t think Australia was the best choice for me.  Two of the huge popular appeals of Australia as a study abroad location are 1) the college population loves to party, and 2) it’s temperate and has a lot of beautiful beaches.  I’m not particularly a fan of partying or beaches, so I’m afraid that knocks off a good two stars from it’s rating.

I often felt overwhelmed by the party animals who surrounded me, especially since my dorm unit was the epicenter of quite a few of the parties.  It felt quite like a more polite version of Pritchard, without the continual fire alarm pulls.  I also had to overcome the ubiquitous prejudice that all American students like drinking and partying (yes, that is our main stereotype here.)  On the bright side, this helped my learn more about myself and strengthen my sense of identity.  I now know with full certainty that I am an introvert who will always choose hanging out with a small group of friends over a party or large get-together.  Once I found my crowd of fellow introverts, I felt much more at home.  I made a lot of good friends that I will truly miss and hope to see again later in life.

I also feel that Australian life was a little too close to the American lifestyle.  It has its quirks and differences, but it wasn’t quite the “jump” I was expected I’d have to make.  This is good in the sense that I didn’t experience heavy culture shock, but once it felt familiar, it felt too familiar.  I guess I was just expecting something radically difference, and it almost makes me wish I had chosen to go to Europe instead.

So, verdict: if you like partying, hot weather, and beaches, then this is the place for you. If not, you may want to look into other countries.  I don’t regret coming here; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and want to do it again some time.  I just feel there are better matches out there for me.

Here are a few pieces of advice I offer to those who choose to study abroad:

1) Research different countries and find that one that best fits your desired culture.  Your options are limited based on the languages you’re willing to learn, but within those limits you’re bound to find a place that suits your fancy.

2) Keep a full roster of things you want to do in the country.  I noticed that a lot of the excitement of my trip dropped off when I ran out of things to do and places to go.  If you have something to look forward to, you won’t get bored!

3) Follow the study abroad office’s preparation lists.  Seriously, they include everything you need to do and know to start your journey.

4) Don’t be afraid to be a tourist at times.  It’s fun!

5) Stay at least 6 to 8 weeks.  It will probably take you at least four weeks to get accustomed to the new culture.  You don’t want to go back home as soon as that happens, do you?

6) Keep in touch back home.  It can really relieve the stress of feeling like you’re on your own in a new place.

7) Track your finances.  I had a really good friend that ran out of money a few weeks into the trip and had to head home early.

Conclusion

Do I recommend you study abroad?  Absolutely.  It’s an unforgettable experience during which you’ll make a lot of new friends.  Also, even though it may seem expensive, the university can help cover a lot of your expenses, which is a privilege we will probably not have after graduation.  Without being bound by jobs and adult responsibilities, now is definitely the best time to go abroad on this side of retirement.  You can read all about the experiences of myself and others who have gone abroad, but only once you embark on the journey yourself can you truly experience it.

So don’t take my word for it; go find out yourself!

The Aussie Chronicles: Week 10 - Kiwi Chronicles

First of all, let me acknowledge that I haven’t posted anything for five weeks.  This isn’t because I’m too lazy to do so, but because I haven’t really found anything particularly compelling to write about.  Everyone I talked to about studying abroad told me I would need about four to five weeks to adjust to the culture, and it turns out they hit the nail on the head—five weeks in and Australia became familiar enough to feel like home.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about this article’s title.  For the last two weeks or so, I’ve been on a self-catered tour of New Zealand’s south island with five friends. It was a spectacular experience; I’ve never seen a civilized country with such breathtaking preservation of the natural terrain.  The title image of this article, taken in Queenstown, I believe captures much of New Zealand’s appeal.  Whether you’re looking for a decidedly urban city, or a rural landscape with gorgeous snow-capped mountains in the distance, you’ll find it in Kiwi Land.  The population is also very kind, much like the Australian folks.  Every cafe from which I bought lunch (at least seven) greeted me with a warm smile, and one stranger even let two of our group in her house to use her toilet when there were none around.  The hospitality I’ve observed in Oceania never ceases to amaze me.

New Zealand is also the most well groomed country I’ve ever seen.  There are about 40 million sheep and 5 million cattle on the country’s comparatively small islands, so the landscape around the main highways house many efficient animal landscapers.  Additionally, most of the trees (still leafless when I arrived) were trimmed by human landscapers to be of uniform size and height, creating a very clean sight.  New Zealand seems to acknowledge its identity as a tourist hotspot and works hard to maintain its popularity in that industry.

My nine-day tour took me through many places in the country, so I’ll list here key locations in the order I encountered them, along with my opinions.

Christchurch

When I flew into Christchurch, the beauty of the country was already evident.  For an urban area, the outskirts of the city were well-designed to create a very clean feel to pedestrians.  We stayed in a hostel called the Jailhouse, which was renovated from a local prison into a backpacker accommodation within the last century.  This was one of my favorite places we stayed, as it had many prisoners’ cells on display, along with historic artifacts and original drawings by prisoners on the walls of the rooms.

Unfortunately, when we went to see the city center the next day, we found it in ruins from the earthquake in February.  The entire heart of the city was fenced off, and the surrounding area was littered with signs on every door saying “Building closed until further notice.”  Construction equipment worked hard to renovate the damaged area, and cars struggled to navigate the cracked pavements.  Christchurch is not a very tourist-friendly city at the moment, but it does bring to mind recognition of the kind of damage a natural disaster can cause.  I can only imagine how many local business owners had to shut down due to the event.

Franz Josef

This is by far the coldest place we visited, which should be expected, since it houses a glacier.  The town itself was a small village with a few houses, several hostels, and overpriced markets (the nearest supermarket was hours away.)  We stayed in a hostel called Chateau Franz Josef, which was my least favorite accommodation of the adventure.  We got our own cozy little unit behind the main building, but unfortunately the heating systems just weren’t strong enough to overpower the cold, and we froze our asses off (figuratively, of course.)

The next day, we explored the options to tour the local glacier.  Since all the options to walk on the actual glacier we over \$100 in cost, we decided to take the free hike to the base of the glacier.  This was by far my favorite hike in New Zealand.  We walked along an ancient river basin, about a kilometer in width (my estimation), lined with slate-gray stones and trickling streams of water,  The cliff walls were lined with bright green ivy and decorated with the occasional waterfall.  At the end of the 45-minute walk, we were greeted with a close-up very of the path entering a glacier, comprised of a long, snow-covered road caressed by icy mountains.  It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, despite the relatively cloudy day.

Wanaka

Wanaka was my favorite destination.  It’s a small town situated on the edge of a beautiful mirror lake and guarded on all sides by towering mountains.  We stayed at a hostel called the YHA Purple Cow, which had a clear view of the lake and mountains, making it the perfect sight for a window-side dinner.  The hostel provided us with our own self-contained, six-bedroom unit that was warm and comfortable throughout the night.  It was my second-favorite hostel.  I would highly recommend an overnight stop in Wanaka to anyone visiting New Zealand’s south island.

In the morning, we ventured off to a small attraction park called Puzzling World, home of the Great Maze and several illusion rooms that challenged my definition of reality.  I really can’t explain the park in words; it’s something that must be experienced.  Definitely one of my favorite activities in New Zealand.  After Puzzling World, the Germans in our crew decided we’d take a 30-minute hike to the top of Mt Iron.  The view from the top of the mountain was stunning.  However, the cold wind and exhausting uphill hike exacerbated an infection that had started to brew within me, and left me mostly bedridden for the next two days.  Which brings me to…

Queenstown

Queenstown: the land of thanatos.  Every other block, there was some tourist company advertising crazy things to do, like canyon swings, bungy jumping, or skydiving.  I had originally planned to dish out \$160 to ride the world’s largest canyon swing (about which I blogged on my tumblr earlier), but unfortunately that \$160 ended up in a doctor’s hands instead.  He told me I was recovering and prescribed me some ibuprofen, so I didn’t really need to see him apparently.  Luckily my insurance company will reimburse me.  I took it easy the two days we were in Queenstown, avoiding all the death-simulating activities.

I did do one thing, though: I rode a gondola to a mountain “resort”, where I paid \$25 to enjoy lunch with a few friends in a restaurant overlooking the town.  The view outside the window was gorgeous, as you can see from the title picture.  Afterwards, I went to a bird wildlife park at the base of the mountain, where I saw plenty of parrots, ducks, owls, a falcon, and even a few kiwis.  Unfortunately, kiwis are nocturnal, so no pictures allowed.  I liked Queenstown as a whole; I wish I had the strength to fully enjoy it at the time.

A note about the hostel: Nomads Queenstown.  It’s listed in Lonely Planet as one of the best hostels in the world.  This is absolutely true on one condition: you have to be a party animal.  Nomads is notorious for housing urban party people, and this one is no exception.  There’s always something going on, and plenty of free drink vouchers for residents, but unfortunately, not the best place to stay when sick.

Te Anau & Milford Sound

We left Queenstown on the third day, and headed towards Te Anau.  By this time, I was all better (but I unfortunately passed my infection to another in our group, which I felt bad about…).  I don’t remember much about Te Anau.  We only spent one night there, and left at 6:30 A.M. for Milford Sound.  We stayed as a YHA in the area.  It was okay, but not very memorable.

Milford sound, on the other hand, boasts a variety of scenic boat cruises.  We booked a 2-hour cruise for \$78 each, and it did have its fair share of beautiful sights.  I slept through half of it because I woke up so early (and one of the people in our group was notorious for vehemently snoring throughout the night), but I did catch a few baby seals and a penguin, so I think it was worthwhile.  My camera was nearly dead at this point, so I don’t have many pictures.

Catlins Forest Park

This is a very rural area on the southeast coast of New Zealand.  It lives up to its name, housing a variety of grassy mountains, oceanic cliffs, and carefully preserved natural landscapes nestled deep within forests, like McLean Falls pictured above.

There were no open hostels in the area, so we stayed at a self-catered beachside house in the middle of nowhere.  At first it felt very much like a standard axe-murderer movie scenario, but it actually proved to be my favorite accommodation in New Zealand.  The house boasted a log fireplace, where I got to exercise my super awesome Boy Scout fire management skills to keep us nice and toasty.  Also, instead of a single dorm room with six beds, there were three separate rooms with two beds each.  I chose to sleep with the other sick person (I had already recovered, so I probably wouldn’t catch it again), and the relative lack of snoring that night gave me the best rest I’d had since I arrived.

We spent the next day driving around Catlins, exiting the vehicle to explore McLean Falls and take a stroll along a few ocean-side cliffs.  One member of our group insisted on climbing every cliff she came across; we were all convinced we’d have to tell her parents why she didn’t make it through the trip, but luckily she survived.  Catlins is the perfect example of a neatly preserved rural landscape, and any fan of nature would be a fool to pass it by.

Owaka & Dunedin

These were our last two stops before returning to Christchurch for our return flight.  I don’t have a picture, because my camera was completely dead at this point.  We stopped in Owaka because it was getting late after Catlins, and this was the first nearby place with a hostel.  It has an eerie “small town in the middle of nowhere” feel about it, but we left alive, so I assume it was okay.  The hostel in which we stayed was called Split Level; it was okay, but nothing too memorable.  Not much to say about this town really; we left the next morning for Dunedin.

We needed to reach Christchurch by midnight, so we were a bit pressed for time.  Nonetheless, Dunedin was an essential stop.  It’s one of New Zealand’s few urban areas, equipped with a plethora of restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and a rugby stadium.  We picked a good day to arrive in Dunedin; in addition to free Sunday parking, we witnessed the festivities occurring in the city in preparation for the Ireland vs. New Zealand Rugby game in Dunedin that evening.  I’ve never seen so many hyped up Irish people in one place.

We spent our three hours in Dunedin exploring the malls and trying a new cafe for lunch.  I bought a new shirt for myself and a new skirt for my girlfriend (exchange rates make great discounts!).  We walked around the city a bit after that, then returned to our vehicle and headed home.

Conclusion

All-in-all, we travelled about 2,000 kilometers, and I loved every bit of it.  The rough cost of \$1,000 was definitely worth the experience of being able to tour such a beautiful country.  If you ever get the opportunity to go to New Zealand for a few days, I’d highly recommend it.  I don’t think I would enjoy staying there for a prolonged time as much as Australia, but it’s the perfect place for a road trip.

I probably won’t be writing again until late October, after I head to Brisbane, so I hope this article will hold you over until then!

World’s Highest Thing of the Day: In Queenstown, New Zealand, 160m above the Nevis Canyon floor, hangs the highest — and biggest — swing in the world.

[dpaf.]

also, this is amazing.

I’m going to Queensland over Spring Break.  Must do!

EDIT: It’s about \$150 USD.  Maybe do!

The Aussie Chronicles: Weeks 4 & 5 - Busyness and Exploration

I apologize for not publishing anything last week.  I went to Sydney last weekend (more on this in a bit) and therefore didn’t get any work done during that time.  Unfortunately, I felt the aftereffects this week; I’ve been doing homework 5~7 hours a day since Thursday, and I’m a bit over half way done with everything on my list.  I find this a little troubling, since I’m only taking four classes, and even more troubling that most of this work radiates from only two classes.  Which brings me to my next topic…

The workload here seems to be a lot more involved than the workload I would get in the U.S.  This isn’t always the case; I’m taking two business courses here (Macroeconomics and Accounting), and I find those classes to be easier than other business courses I’ve taken at Virginia Tech.  However, for my math (Differential Equations) and engineering (Transportation Design) courses, the difficulty is definitely higher.  For an engineering course, this is what I would expect, and I honestly appreciate it; Transportation Design is tied with Macroeconomics as my favorite course, and the weekly workload from that class is about the same as the weekly Statics workload I had at Virginia Tech.  The Differential Equations course, on the other hand, completely caught me off-guard.  From a math class, based on my experience at Virginia Tech, should focus on learning techniques to solve problems, making sure to cover the basic concepts and a few key applications.  The course I’m taking here, however, inverts the equation: only about 30% of the homework focuses on solving problems, whereas the rest delves deeply into concepts and applications.

Let me provide an example.  At Virginia Tech, I would expect to see something like, “Here’s a theorem for this type of equation.  Use it to solve this problem.”  Here, a more typical question would be, “Here’s a theorem for this type of equation.  Discuss its implications on other types of equations,” or, “Construct an equation of this type that would violate the theorem.”  The questions are just so…conceptual, and I’m not used to it.  The course is fairly obviously built around math majors who need to know the detailed concepts, so my engineering mindset find little to which it can cling.  To tell the truth, I’m a bit worried how an examination might look like, but I suppose I’ll find out Tuesday, when we have our first quiz.  There are also a lot of questions that ask me to construct an equation to describe a scenario, then solve it.  These types of problems are good because they provide potential applications and experience in finding solutions, but they are extremely time-consuming, and this is where I spend the majority of my time.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about more fun stuff: Sydney!  To anyone that comes to Australia, I would highly recommend going to Sydney before you leave; I only saw a fraction of the city (mainly between the Bridge and Central Station), and was amazed by its features.  I’ve never lived in a city before, so this may be the case with many cities, but I was taken aback by the number of things you could find to do just by wandering the streets on a Saturday afternoon.  There was no shortage of entertainment; various artists lined the streets, from visual artists crafting intricate chalk drawings on the asphalt for donations, to singer-songwriters trying to sell CDs through public performance.  My favorite part of the experience, though, was the Metcalfe Mall, which is a huge open-air market of local merchants and craftsmen on George Street near the Sydney Bridge.  It contained tons of recognizable Australian icons, such as boomerangs and didgeridoos, as well as hand-made accessories, candies, and so much more than I can list here.  I plan to go back soon to buy some stuff from the market as souveniers; it’s the perfect tourist trap.  My final notable sidequest brought me to the top of Sydney Bridge’s pylons, making possible the gorgeous view in this journal entry’s title photo.

Also, if you’re in Sydney for breakfast, I strongly recommend exploring the cafes in the area.  My three friends and I went to a small place near our hostel called Kafe Kaz, and I had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever experienced from a restaurant.  The breakfast wrap (ham, egg, and cheese) had a depth of flavor more profound than most breakfast combinations I’ve eaten, and their yoghurt had a great blend of acidity and sweetness.  For dinner, we decided to head to a restaurant in Chinatown, and man did we look like black sheep.  I knew this restaurant would be authentic because all the menu descriptions were in Chinese (thank goodness for the food photos) and we were the only patrons that did not speak Chinese.  Overall, the food was forgettable, though it did have some quirks, such as the bite-sized pieces of chicken still being bone-in.  We also have a memorable story trying to negotiate with the customer service, whose English was limited, though I will leave it untold to save one of my friends the embarrassment.

Speaking of food, I cooked kangaroo steaks for the first time yesterday.  Kangaroo is hunted for game in Australia, much like deer in the United States, so the meat is cheap, low in fat, and easy to accidentally dry out during cooking.  Luckily, I read all the precautions, made sure to soak the steaks in oil, and proceeded to cook them to a perfect medium-rare.  I really liked the result; the taste is unique enough to forego extra flavorings (I swear by Paul Prudhomme’s seasonings for beef and pork), and the texture resembles a beef steak almost identically.  I’ll definitely cook it again soon.

So, within the chaos of coursework, I’ve had a pretty enjoyable past two weeks.  With my stories recounted, I would like to devote this last paragraph to my friend Oscar, who left Australia to return to States last Monday due to financial strain.  After partying a short bit in Sydney with our two other friends, he and I took our introverted selves back to the hostel room and spent the evening talking about our lives back home and exchanging words of wisdom.  It was an incredible bonding experience, and in the short time I was with him, we became very close friends.  I was sad to see him leave, as I feel I’ve lost an important connection here, but I wish him the best in his endeavors back in New Mexico.  I guess this goes to show that you can meet the most amazing people no matter where you are in the world.

Until next week!

The Aussie Chronicles: Week 3 - Complacency

This post is going to be a lost less structured than the past two, since I don’t have too much to talk about this time.  I’ve been in Australia for three weeks now, and the sense of adventure has faded.  I’ve made my close friends, established my routines, become accustomed to the level of volume at International House (my dorm), become immersed in classes, and now the college experience here feels just like one back in the United States.  The only word I can think to describe this feeling is complacency: the sense of comfort of this place becoming familiar, coupled with a slight disappointment due to the decline of novelty.  That being said, I do have a good number of excursions planned to which I’m looking forward.  I think a great portion of this feeling of complacency is simply derived from the amount of time I’ve had to devote to studying this week.  In the time I wasn’t studying, I did do a few interesting things, and I’m still having a fun time overall.

My most interesting experience this week was my first Rugby game.  It’s very similar to American football in that it revolves around one team stopping the other team from running the ball across the field.  However, it is definitely a lot rougher; the entire game seems to revolve around tackling (I don’t fully understand and was not interested enough to look them up.)  The school rugby stadium reminded my a lot of Virginia Tech’s stadium in terms of size, but it definitely not in spirit.  I found it difficult to become immersed in the game simply because there was no energy coming from the stadium.  The crowd cheered when a team made a point, but that’s about the only noise the stadium emitted.  I’m not a sports fan, so I never thought I’d say this, but it really made me want to go to a VT football game, just to get that feeling of energy back.  One good thing I can say about Rugby, though, is that it’s much heavier on action; when a team successfully completes a tackle, the ball is quickly passed to another player and the game continues, whereas in football the game must stop every time so the players can set up the next play.

While I did enjoy a day out with friends to see a rugby game, this week has been much more heavily weighted towards schoolwork.  The class grading structure here is definitely a lot harder.  Most classes are structures so that in-class assignments and presentations count for a small percentage of the overall grade, while the final exam is worth 50~70%.  Also, I only have one class that does any test-like assessments before the final exam, so that’s pretty much the only test.

Speaking of grading, I find the grading system here much simpler than that of the U.S.  Back at home, most assignments are graded out of 100%, with the final grade being worth the weighted average of each category of assignments.  Here, though, things are not graded out of 100%, but out of the percentage (or number of “marks”) they’re worth.  For example, if a presentation is worth 5% of the grade, you can get a maximum of 5 marks for that presentation.  The maximum number of marks across all assignments will always be 100.  So, the formula for the final grade is: (Sum of all marks you received on all assignments) / (Sum of the maximum number of marks for all assignments).  The weighting, therefore, is built into the equation.  I also observe that there are very few, if any, half-marks; if an assignment is worth 1 mark, you either get a 0 or a 1.  To any Australian friends reading this, please inform me if I’m interpreting the system incorrectly.

The actual class structure is very different than that of any course I’ve experienced at Virginia Tech.  Each class is composed of a lecture (usually a single 2-hour block each week) and a tutorial (a 1~2 hour block each week).  The lecture is exactly what it sounds like, and in the tutorial, the tutors (sometimes faculty, sometimes grad students) go over the assigned homework and reiterate important points from the lecture.  Some classes also have a 1-hour workshop, where key topics are expanded upon.  Every lecturer I’ve had started off with the semester by stating that every portion of the course, including homework, was optional and it was our decision whether or not to commit the time.  However, they also reiterated that the homework and tutorials are pretty much the only chance we’ll get to practice the concepts before the final exam, so the smarter choice is obvious.

Speaking of the homework, it’s very time consuming.  None of the homework from any class is collected, so it requires a lot of self-motivation to keep up with it and practice regularly.  On top of this professors (especially in math and engineering courses) tend to give a LOT of homework.  I’m talking 15 problems which require about 5~10 minutes each to solve, and that sometimes involve researching from external sources.  For me, however, I find that when I focus, I blow through the homework fairly quickly.

I’ve run into a totally different obstacle than homework this week: prerequisite knowledge that I don’t have.  I’m taking a Differential Equations course this semester.  At Virginia Tech, Differential Equations (which comprise a branch of calculus) are covered in their entirety in a single course.  Here in Australia, however, student receive exposure to them in their basic calculus courses, and the Differential Equations course is meant to expand upon more involved solution techniques.  Therefore, the professor assumes everyone knows how to solve basic problems, and I had absolutely no clue.  I approached the teacher about this after class, and he told me point blank that I was too far behind, and he thinks I should drop the course.  This was a direct hit to my pride, and I quickly retorted that I would not consider that as an option.  I expressed my determination to see this through, and he directed me to study 6 sections of the textbook that we did not cover, and to make sure I understand them thoroughly.  I agreed to do this, and it’s kept me busy all week.  I’ve finally caught up (I hope), and hope I will have more free time next week.

Moreover, I hope to have a lot more free time next weekend, because I’m headed to Sydney for a adventure with a few American friends (more details on that next post!)  Following Sydney, a few German friends and I hope to travel to Melbourne and Fraser Island this month.  Finally, over Spring Break (September - October here), we’ve planned a 10-day trip to New Zealand; I can’t wait for that!  I feel like such a tourist, and my wallet has taken a dizzying hit, but I’m really looking forward to seeing more of this great country (+ New Zealand.)

That’s all I’ve got this week.  Tune in next week for an update on classes and the Sydney trip details.

The Aussie Chronicles: Week 2 - Settling in a Foreign Land

In the week since my last post, my situation has stabilized greatly.  I’ve grown accustomed to the culture that I previously bashed, and I’ve finally established several circles of trust friends to keep me going in harsher times.  To anyone else who ventures out into a foreign land and feels that they are isolated due to cultural difference, I urge you to keep looking until you find the people in the same situation as you.  As my friend John-Charles told me when I was feeling down, “You might not be the only person sitting in the corner by himself, make sure you check the other three corners of the room.”  Although it sounded a bit cheesy at the time, he was absolutely right; it’s often easy to overlook the introverts in what seems like an infinite sea of drunken extroverts.  I can tell that I will forge strong relationships here.

With that out of the way, I’d like to explore a few more aspects of Australia.

The Animals

The animals here are fearless.  While a bird in the United States will fly away at the slightest sign of danger, a bird in Australia will go about its business with nearly complete disregard of human activity around it.  It forms an atmosphere of trust and natural communion with the environment, which I find very relaxing and unique.

Speaking of birds, Australia has the most awesome sounding birds.  They either sound like other animals, sound really happy, or sound extremely angry.  The signature bird of Australia, the Kookaburra, sounds just like a monkey.  I dare you to youtube it and prove me wrong.  Other birds of interest that I’ve encountered include the Magpie and Rainbow Lorikeet, both stunningly beautiful in their own rights, as well as equally fearless.

I visited the Australian Reptile Park last Friday and got a glimpse of the island continent’s most famous wildlife, from the world’s most poisonous snakes and spiders to the wild and adorable mammals.  While I expected to be immediately wooed by the koalas, I found that I connected more strongly with the dingoes than other other animals there.  I went home to research that dingoes are indeed able to be domestic creatures (under special circumstances), and I contemplate owning one when I get older and settle down.

As another ode to fearlessness, an emu tried to eat my umbrella, it soon realized the umbrella wasn’t tasty and lost interest.

The University Food

Now, when competing with Virginia Tech, it’s hard for any university to stand tall as a high-quality food provider.  That said, I want to take a second to observe the food here at face value.  The university dining hall (there is only one) is a cafeteria-style eatery, wherein a student presents her daily meal ticket and receives two fruits, a dessert, an entree (usually a choice of chicken, beef, or pasta), and generic sides (typically potatoes and mixed veggies).  There is also unlimited soup (usually pumpkin) and salad.  I here a lot of complaints that the food is terrible, but I find it quite enjoyable for school food; it’s a huge step up from my high school.  They also portion the food very well; I never find myself too full or hungry afterwards.

While I complained last blog about the high prices here, there is one exception: meat.  Australia is the only place I know where I can get a well-sized New York Strip (or as they call it here, a “porterhouse”) for six dollars.  This cheap cost of meat leads to a lot of university-sponsored BBQ events, which typically feature sausages, veggie burgers, and chicken kebabs.  My favorite events have been the do-it-yourself BBQ events, in which students creates their own kebabs from a buffet of raw meat, fruit, and veggies to cook themselves on the BBQ.  The cooking device they call a “BBQ” here is very similar to the teppanyaki grill found in Japanese steakhouses: it is a large, flat, open surface heated by propane.  It’s so popular here in Newcastle, it outnumbers the grill, which is the primary American means of outdoor cooking.

Terminology

To anyone that goes abroad, no matter where it may be or what language the culture speaks, I can tell you that there will be a lot of local terminology to learn.  I truly became aware of this when I began to shop for steaks.  I went to Woolworth, which is the equivalent of a Food Lion or Kroger here, and asked for a New York Strip.  The butcher responded, “A what?”  I quickly realized that he never heard of this term for the type of steak I was looking for, and decided to retreat before I embarrassed myself.  I looked up the names for steaks in Australia to find that they divide the cow in a completely different manner than the U.S. butchers do, naming each piece differently.  A ribeye is called a “Scotch Fillet”, a tenderloin is called an “eye fillet”, and good luck trying to find the name for a top sirloin.  Of course, beef isn’t the only situation in which I found myself in this predicament, but as of not, it’s the most epitomical example I have.

Shopping and Local Focus

When shopping, there was one thing I noted immediately: there are no Wal-Marts here.  They have Coles and Woolworth (like Kroger) and K-Mart here, but that’s about as big as the stores get.  More importantly, there are very few stand-alone stores in Newcastle; each grocer and retailer is located within a large shopping district, thereby eliminating the need for a store like Wal-Mart which holds a little bit of everything; there’s bound to be a store in the shopping center that has what you’re looking for.

There’s a reason Australia has not accepted the mega-giant we call Wal-Mart: there is a huge focus on domestically made products here.  Every now and then, a commercial airs on TV reminding people of the importance of buying Australian.  Almost all products in the grocers bear the proud “Australian Made” symbol, and that’s the primary reason products here are more expensive here than they are in America.  It’s also the reason Australia’s economy is in a better and more sustainable shape.

When I shop in Australia, I often have a hard time finding ingredients to which I’ve grown accustom in America.  Buffalo sauce, kosher salt, chili sauce, and Paul Prudhomme’s magic seasonings are nowhere to be found.  Also, cast iron cookware is very rare here; the only place I could find a good cast iron skillet was on ebay.  I found this very surprising, since cast iron is such an essential tool in my cooking arsenal.  Australians tend to stick to foods that are easily cooked on non-stick or stainless steel though, I suppose.  Either way, for the things I can’t find here, there is almost always a substitute (such as sea salt for kosher salt) or means of recreating the key ingredient (homemade chili sauce!)

The Campus

It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one corner of Newcastle’s campus to the opposite corner.  I consider this a comfortable size; it’s smaller the Virginia Tech’s campus while still leaving enough room for a healthy amount of exercise on the way to class.  However, almost every international student I’ve talked to thinks this campus is huge.  According to every European source I’ve asked, most European campuses are very centralized, with little to no on-campus housing.  This means that it only takes about 3 minutes (!) to walk from one end of the campus to the other.  Given that fact, I can understand the shock.  I, however, find this campus very accommodating.

Newcastle has a very strong international program, and I’ve met a plethora of international students.  I have to say that the German students (all of them, really) are my favorites so far, but I’ve also befriended a healthy number of American, Malaysian, and Korean students who are equally cool.  Most of my flatmates are Australian and Asian, and we get along well.

Conclusion

I hope this post has shed a more optimistic light on the country of Australia and the University of Newcastle, because I truly find it to be a great place to be once the I got past the bumps and hurdles of the first week.  Next week, I should be able to shed a little more light on how classes here work, as most classes jump into full swing this Monday.

The Aussie Chronicles: Week 1 - Rapid Adaptation

(Image Courtesy http://www.immigration2australia.com/)

In physics, the amount of damage an object can do is not dependent on its velocity as much as it is dependent on its acceleration—its change in velocity.  After this week, I’m inclined to think the same principle applies to emotions: the amount of mental fatigue builds the more often emotions change, and I feel as if I’ve gone through enough emotional changes this past week to cover for the rest of my stay here in Australia.  I’m going to have to break this post down by category, to make sure I cover all my bases.

The Landscape

Australia, as a whole, caught me off guard.  The picture in my head of the island continent is the image of a dusty frontier straight from a Baz Luhrmann movie.  However, I left the Sydney airport to find a much different landscape.  I did not get much of a chance to explore Sydney; in fact, I only saw glimpses of the city from Central Station to its outskirts on the way to Newcastle.  I hear the inner city is gorgeous, but my eyes feasted on little more than graffiti on buildings in desperate need of maintenance.  It reminded me a lot of Petersburg, VA, actually.  I plan to visit Sydney in further depth over Spring Break with a few friends, so hopefully I’ll have some better sites that week.

On the train ride to Newcastle, however, I was greeted by a beautiful landscape of densely forest-coated hills surrounded by crystal blue lakes and fisheries.  It was very refreshing to be able to snap a few photos of such strikingly temperate scenery to dispel my misconceptions of Australia’s countryside.

Newcastle itself…well, it leaves a bit to be desired.  The university is smack dab in the middle of a city which isn’t the prettiest sight.  It’s a bit run-down, the buildings look like they could use a little touching up, and overall I couldn’t identify anything special about the immediate area.  The beaches at the heart of town are beautiful, and carry fierce waves when any wind is present.  I’ve only laid eyes on them once—in the middle of storm, nonetheless—so I don’t want to let the terrifying first impression skew my judgment; I’ll return to this topic in the spring.

The Weather

In comparing Newcastle’s weather to that of Virginia Tech, I couldn’t feel more at home.  It is sporadic and unpredictable, the wind can become staggering without warning, and it’s hardly stopped raining since I arrive.  I’ve been told this is common in the winter, and that it will calm down once Spring arrives.  I certainly hope so, because going outside has not been a pleasant venture—especially not after my shoes’ waterproofing was pierced.

Also, it’s really cold, and the buildings are not made for retaining heat.  I’ve been told this is a good thing once the heat of Spring hits.

The Economy

The wages workers receive here are outrageous.  Minimum wage in Australia is \$15.51 AUD (\$16.60 USD!) per hour.  A bartender in Australia makes more than \$20 per hour, already rivaling what I made last semester in an engineering internship.  The average full-time fast food worker makes as much as some U.S. students make upon graduation.

Unfortunately, the prices in Australia are raised to fit the salaries.  Milk costs twice as much here as it does in the States; it costs \$15-\$20 to see a movie; a Nintendo DS video game sells for an upwards of \$65; and gas is approximately \$6.50 (USD) per gallon.  I can already tell my savings are going to dwindle fast, since my money is, in most cases, worth half its original value here.

The General Population

Australians comprise the nicest and most hospitable group of people I’ve ever met.  I have not met a single Australian individual who isn’t sociable, generous, and eager to help.  I suppose if I were paid what they are, I would be that hospitable too.  I really want to trade the U.S. population for that of Australia; they’re that great.

The College Population

This is where I have faced the most emotional stress.  Let me start with the university culture here.  The University of Newcastle is very heavily grounded in drinking and partying.  I would argue that it even trumps Virginia Tech.  The legal drinking age in Australia is 18, so virtually all college students can legally have alcohol.  The staff of the university acknowledges this, and has already sponsored a few free rounds of beer for new students.  There is one major quirk here: I choose not to drink alcohol.  While I was back in the States, I assumed I made this choice due to the legality.  However, now that it’s legal, I find that I have other reasons.  I promised my girlfriend that we would take our first drinks together when we were both 21, and I’m sticking by this promise.

That said, I feel like I’m barely treading water in this college’s culture.  I can’t attend most dorm parties because, being the only person in my dorm who doesn’t drink, I feel like I’m just standing around doing nothing, which makes me feel awkward and unable to relax and let go of my inhibitions.  I’ve tried going to one party this year, and I left within a half hour, mostly because I don’t like socializing with drunk people; it can be fun, but it does nothing to foster a long-lasting bond.  And when I say drunk, I mean it; these guys get completely smashed.

This brings me to my next point: my dorm.  The residential houses on campus immediately make me think of feuding frat houses, and the International House (my home) epitomizes this idea.  In the past four days, the RA’s of the International House have hosted four parties (once per day) and scouted out their “apprentices”, or as we know them in the states, “pledges.”  All the residents, myself included, have received hazing rules for our first week.  They’re not bad; men aren’t allowed to swear or point; if we do, we’re supposed to put our chins on the ground for 10 seconds per offense.  Girls aren’t allowed to say “please” or “thank you”, else their faces be tallied with permanent marker.  These “apprentices” have extra rules, and are essentially at the mercy of their “masters.”  Note that no one spoke against these rules; they are all voluntary and based on peer pressure.  The RA’s are considerate, and wouldn’t force the residents into situations too uncomfortable.They also only picked the crazy party people as apprentices.

Not surprisingly, most people in this dorm are extreme binge party animals, and I have been placed in the hall most notorious for drunken parties.  The nights here are fairly loud and obnoxious.  To give you an idea of how crazy this place can get, as I’ve written this entry, two people have done “nudie runs” outside my window.  You can infer what a “nudie run” is.

All that noted, I do not feel isolated here.  When the party animals are sober, they are very sociable and fun to get to know; indeed, they are no exceptions to the Australian hospitality.  I have also begun to form my circle of friends—a few Germans and a couple of Americans—mainly from the few people who, like me, are introverted at heart.  I now have a good idea of who I can and can’t trust, and who will be loyal in a long-term friendship.  I’m just glad most people here seem to understand the difference between “introverted” and “antisocial”, something I find many Americans struggle with.

Conclusion

I know this post has been a little bit cynical and negative, but I feel it’s important for me to get these feelings out early, so I can focus on the positive points in the future.  Bottom line: is my experience in Australia a good one so far?  Definitely.  I’m still just trying to find my place here on the campus.

The Aussie Chronicles: Prologue - The Night Before

(Image Courtesy http://www.immigration2australia.com/)

Early this summer, I received the ACC International Scholars Award: a \$1,000 study abroad scholarship which requires its recipients to maintain a blog of experiences abroad.  Therefore, once a week for the next four and a half months (to the best of my ability), I will detail my journey to the land down under in what I call: The Aussie Chronicles.

However, before I even step foot on the island continent, I feel it is fair to note my feelings right now, 19 hours before my plane leaves the terminal.  Up until this point, I’ve displayed a particular solidarity about the idea of leaving the United States for the first time in my life.  The idea was exciting, and I needed to stay strong for the people close to me who dreaded my departure.  However, as I finalized packing my luggage tonight—which, I can say, was little easier than packing an elephant into a small briefcase—the stress of departure hit me like a mack truck.  I said goodbye to my girlfriend, finally reduced my luggage to fit acceptable airline restraints, and now, as I write this entry, am coming to terms with my nervously beating heart about my arrival into Australia.

As I prepare to head to bed in but a single hour, I’ve decided to kick back, watch an episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and enjoy my final hours as an American resident in peace.