How I got through High School as an “Honors Student”

In the United States today, we do a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to education. We argue about what the best solutions are to the problems we see, and we’re also arguing about what the problems are. I try to pay attention to these issues, but frankly, I have very poor perspective on it. Neither my school nor I dealt with significant social issues. I think the quality of my teachers was generally good, and I didn’t really face any major obstacles in finding opportunities in education. And though the life of an GT student seemed pretty easy, there still seems to be a lot of controversy around GT and honors students today.

One particularly interesting blog post I stumbled across recently (though it is somewhat old) discusses a problem with “honors students”. The author (a teacher) taught an intensive summer class where she focused on creative and higher-order thinking. Quickly, the number of students in the class decreased as students found the class too much work, and parents seemed to be focused primarily on the letter grade. The conclusion she comes to is that letter grades and point systems shouldn’t be used. Continue reading “How I got through High School as an “Honors Student””

The Perfect System for Grading Problem Sets

I have been TA-ing for Computer Science theory classes for the past 3 quarters, and the work is mostly grading. The assignments are almost all problem sets where students write proofs to show that an algorithm works, how to solve a particular type of problem, or something of that sort. I have mostly avoided needing to read through mathematical derivations, but I do need to read through a lot of logical reasoning.

Each quarter has also been a different class with a different professor with a different system for problem sets. I certainly don’t have the years of experience that they do, but in my limited experience, ease of grading can vary tremendously based on the system. Here is my proposal for the perfect setup.

First, all problems have page length recommendations and maximums (e.g. the solution to problem 1 must be less than a page). There are definitely forces pulling in opposite directions for proofs. For students, it’s best to write as much as possible so that the right answer might appear somewhere. For graders, it’s best for it to be as short as possible to reduce the amount to read. Moreover, many problems are intended to have relatively elegant answers. To work towards this, all problems should have a maximum page limit as well as a recommendation for how complex a problem generally is. This forces students to be concise and construct good proofs.

Second, there are no late days allowed on assignments, but the lowest score will be dropped at the end of the quarter. Dealing with late days is a mess. It’s one more thing to keep track of. There are inevitably problems determining exactly when students submit. And you can’t grade all of the assignments early in one sitting if some are still out there. Hard deadlines are easiest, but there are always tricky circumstances, so it’s best to be flexible. And the hard deadline even benefits students, as it guarantees that graders can return assignments sooner.

Third, all assignments must be written up in LaTeX and submitted electronically. Bad handwriting is bad news. It’s frustrating for graders and hurts a student’s grade if something is indecipherable. Typesetting gets around this problem quite easily as anything short of Wingdings is easy to read. To make it easier for students, a problem set template should be offered, as well as the .tex for the problem set itself, so they can easily copy the necessary symbols and formatting. Typesetting is a good skill for academics to have, and especially in a theory class, it’s the closest that many, often programming-oriented, students are going to get o code.

Fourth, all assignments are submitted electronically via a site that accepts the .pdfs generated by TeX. We’ve done submission via email for the past 2 quarters, and it’s a mess. It’s annoying to deal with the flood, and there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity in pairing up students and their work (especially when splitting grading by the alphabet). To get around this, the script should automatically identify students by their school ID and route the assignments appropriately.

Fifth, some application exists to grade easily. Optimally, it allows the grader to click through assignments and pull up the pdf in turn. Graders can easily flip back and forth between that, the problem description, and the solution. Annotations can be made directly into the pdf, and the grade can be inputted on the same page. Those get compiled into a database/spreadsheet, and problem sets are returned by a click of the button: students are emailed back marked up versions of their assignment with the score also there. Somebody do this: it’ll be awesome.

Sixth, each grader is responsible for grading a different problem, not a subset of problem sets. This ensures consistency in grading and is easier for the grader to not have to switch mindset between problems. I’m somewhat ambivalent on the use of error codes or rubrics: I have one in mind when I grade, but I like to be able to ding more or less points depending on the severity of the mistake made.

I think that’s about it. Given my current workflow for problem sets, I think this has a few small improvements over a pretty good system now. It might seem like a very grader-biased process, but remember: happy graders are nice graders.

If We’re Moving Classes Online, Where Are They Leaving From?

There’s been a recent trend of moving opening up coursework to the world on the internet. The first steps towards this happened a few years ago with resources such as iTunes U and OCW, where recorded lectures and notes were made available online. This trend, however, has taken the next step as university courses in their entirety are being offered online, with graded homework and a certificate to boot. I’m mos  t familiar with offerings from Stanford, but I think others are jumping on the bandwagon, too.

The reasoning behind it is sound. A lot of coursework is moving online anyways as convenience for students, and it seems like the right thing to do. I’m fortunate enough to be a student at a well-funded private university, but that luxury isn’t available to most people. With the popularity of this model from sites such as Khan Academy and the pipeline to do it, it seems almost unfair to restrict the content to the few who can afford it.

It’s not perfect. For many classes, there’s no replacement for the ability to work hands-on and in-person for a class. You lose the physical environment of a college campus and the ability to collaborate with instructors and other students directly. Some argue that the most valuable part of college is not the class but the people you meet. If you can’t have that, though, this is pretty close. The traditional teaching model with hour-long lecture and problem sets don’t really involve interaction to a large degree.

At the risk of sounding privileged and snooty, however, I’m a little disappointed by how this change is being embraced in class design for in-person students. Since this was an initiative in the Stanford Computer Science department, I’ve taken several classes (and am currently taking a class) that are now in the online format. To accommodate the students, they’ve made some changes to how the class is taught, both for online and in-person students. And I think they’re a little worse for it.

Most professors really do just lecture, and a recording is no different. I actually depend heavily nowadays on watching lecture online to work with my schedule. But some professors are really good in class, and it’s a shame to lose that. For example, Dan Jurafsky is teaching an online class on Natural Language Processing. I took the class from him junior year, and the lectures were great. He actively pushed students to think in-class, ask and answer questions, and just made it a really fun environment, even though he did teach by lecturing from slides. Even though the class was early in the morning, everyone was awake and could really be a part of things.

That class, however, might be an exception. The other substantial change that I’ve noticed is a change in the workload for students. In order to make classes available to possibly thousands of students, grading must be automated: it isn’t practical have TAs go through all the assignments by hand. This model isn’t really scalable for, say, English classes, where most of the work is discussion and essays. But for many technical fields, where work boils down to getting the right number at the end of a derivation or writing a program that computes the correct output for some specification, it might work.

Having gone through these classes, however, I think that might be cutting students short to some degree. Let’s take Computer Science as an example. Past the 3 course introduction to programming series, most of my work has been tailored towards proofs and conceptual understanding. Once you has a sense for how to program, actually programming in classes becomes much less relevant: if you need to implement a program, you take a few days and learn the specifics of the language. The real trickiness comes in understanding how to build systems, which requires conceptual understanding to compose and extend systems.

Take, for example, Probabilistic Graphical Models. Roughly, this class on artificial intelligence is about modeling phenomenon using probability. This class is historically known to destroy students. In the past, there were biweekly problem sets involving derivations and proofs for 5-ish problems, often the results of research papers in the field. TAs were responsible for grading these lengthy, often page-long proofs involving a mix of mathematical derivations, cleverness, and intuitive explanation. This syllabus, however, needed to be switched up, so it’s now weekly programming application projects.

So admittedly most of my response to that is bitterness at having been brutalized by the problem sets for this class while current students can just write a little bit of code. But it seems to me that students now aren’t getting the same depth that they would have thinking through problems. For many advanced algorithms, the actual implementation is relatively easy when it’s already outlined: it’s basically just translating a description into code, which often doesn’t require much insight into the algorithm itself. Trying to re-derive the same result or prove a similar concept, however, is much more difficult and requires understanding of how things work. I don’t need a class to teach me whether I did something right: I need a class to teach me whether I understand.

We’ll see how this shift goes moving forward. I’m all for providing content online as long as it doesn’t displace valuable aspects of current teaching methods. By focusing on the most tangible products of coursework, such as lecture content and quizzes, we might lose out on more subtle parts of an embodied, learning experience. Let’s democratize education as best we can, but don’t sacrifice the vitality of colleges while we’re at it.

Valley State of Mind

I always look forward to coming home on vacation. I know I have the chance to snap out of my regular rhythm, enjoy home cooking, sleep in, see my family, and snatch up various items from around the house. What I sometimes most look forward to, however, is the least predictable opportunity: catching up with grade school friends. Unlike my family, I’m not constantly updated with the latest news, and get-togethers let me hear where people have been in the often too-long time since I last saw them.

This particular vacation has been interesting because it’s 4 years since high school graduation, and many of my friends are just out of college. Oddly, I happened to end up meeting up with quite a few I haven’t seen at all since high school, which makes it as though college never really happened. It seems like people are all over the place: some have moved out of Texas, most stayed. Some are doing something related to their college major, most aren’t. But across the board, it sounded like they just didn’t really know what they wanted the rest of their life to be yet.

Which is fair. Unlike in other education systems, it seems that American students often make very late choices about what they want to do. I’ve heard that in Europe, some students are tunneled into a profession as soon as they reach high school. Here, most high school students don’t specialize at all. 4-year colleges often don’t require students to choose a major upon admission, and even if they do, they have the flexibility to change well into their 3rd and 4th years. And as I’ve discovered, even college graduates don’t know what jobs they want. It’s a sentiment I can understand given my huge changes over the past year or two, but I was surprised by their approach to dealing with it.

Many of them mentioned that they were just working jobs and not working on their careers. The sense I got is that they were biding their time: uncertain of what they wanted to do, they were trying something out to gain a little experience, like a small job at a big corporation, and they were continuing to explore and see what might come their way. While holding down the fort 9-to-5, they could spend their evenings learning about other opportunities and enjoying life. Instead of returning home and becoming dependents again, they wanted something temporarily stable until they found their true passion and could jump on that opportunity at that time, with a resume and work history that demonstrated their commitment.

Put that way, this plan seems very reasonable, and I happily agreed that this was the best thing for them to do at that time. Only after thinking about it a little longer did I realize that this very sound plan for any college graduate completely contradicted my own plan.

The mindset that I came into was that this time after college was the best time to go for the biggest, craziest idea possible. At this time, my only commitment is to eat and have a warm roof. I don’t have a family or any dependents and am not locked into a corporate ladder. Even if I fail, I can learn a lot, and even the worst failure is still work experience. By the time I’ve waited to find my passion, I’ll have lost that window of freedom. I only need that really steady position a few years down the road, and I can reevaluate the rest of my life at that point.

This mindset is undoubtably a product of my time in the Bay Area, where you can’t miss the optimism that anyone can change the world and the urgency that someone else will if you don’t. And even then, it can be hard to follow that plan. Many of my friends, even from Stanford, are heading out to well-paying jobs at big companies, some of which will definitely pitch their startup roots but realistically can no longer maintain that excitement and enable individuals to really go for the big thing. Even I almost took the safe path of job opportunities with Silicon Valley firms. It actually took some external forces to push me along the path I am now that has really allowed me to embrace this headlong mindset.

That difficulty and serendipity, however, reminds me how hard it is to believe these perspective from the outside. Out of my great confusion from CS378, one thing I learned is how important it is that one be immersed in a particular community and circumstance to really understand certain ideas. Just as how a halfback pass play isn’t very tricky to someone who doesn’t understand football conventions and strategy, it’s hard to really believe the mindset I’m in without being where I’ve been.

So for my peers reading this, I’m kind of directing this post at you. I understand that this mindset doesn’t really work for everyone, but don’t let that be an excuse for you. I think it applies to more people than they themselves realize. But don’t take my word for it: I think just reading my words on it is exactly the sort of passive engagement that I don’t think will change your life and is characteristic of learning about what you might do instead of going for it. I have an open couch for anyone outside of the Bay Area who wants to visit, and I’ll extend an open invitation for anyone around the Bay Area who wants to have lunch at Zanbato. At least take enough of a step to see what you might be able to do: once you start, it’s awfully hard to stop.

Overheard at Office Hours

Some great things I heard today while at office hours. Who knew getting help on a problem set could be so much fun?

1. (This one is second-hand, about a student’s matlab code of a learning algorithm)

Student: Can I still get most of the points if I’m not getting the right results?

TA: If you don’t get the right results, you can only get up to half credit

Student: Well, my code is conceptually correct.

TA: If your code is conceptually correct, you should get the right results

2. (Project group working on their code)

Student: Why is it that nothing we were given in class works?

3. (same group)

Student: The matlab SVM code works, but ours doesn’t (repeated multiple times over the course of OH)

TA: Well, have you tried debugging your code?

4. (us trying to get help)

Student: That’s not what the TA said yesterday. (some explanation about what the other TA said)

TA: (thinks and agrees). So I haven’t actually done the derivation myself. It’s too much work (everyone laughs). I just look at the solution and agree that it’s correct

5. (still us)

Student: Is that the solution you have in your hand? (TA is holding papers) Can you just look at those to see what’s supposed to happen?

TA: Oh, these are all wrong. It’s correct until here, and the rest is crap.


TA: I think this was just a printing mistake or something.

That’s a Wrap!

This past Wednesday, I left my probability final with a feeling of freedom. The following day, I slept in until 11:30 and drifted around for the rest of the day, picking at various tasks in between time-wasting activities. Yesterday, the only two notable activities were talking to Evan on the phone and going to play Friday Night Magic at a shop in San Jose. And today, I’m pretty sure I’ve done nothing.

Thinking about my activities, this might not be so different than a slow weekend during the school year. Thinking about how I’ve felt, it’s been so much better because there’s no pressure to do anything. Instead of the constant need to catch up on reading or start a problem set easy, I can spend an hour or two watching a movie or playing video games and not feel like I’m sacrificing anything. That’s a sign the year is over.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that there’s actually structure in philosophy papers. I’ve learned enough C++ that I’m no longer bluffing when I help someone on an assignment. I’ve learned how to play racquetball. I’ve learned about the difference between bebop and cool jazz. I’ve learned that polarized sunglasses make the world look funny. I’ve learned that I don’t understand euclidean domains. I’ve learned how dorm events are run.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is what my major is actually about. When asked what symbolic systems is, I still tell people that it’s my way of doing computer science with philosophy and psychology requirements instead of engineering requirements. And in some sense, that’s still true. Over this year, though, I’ve taken 4 philosophy classes (2 logic, 2 not), a modern algebra class, and a computer science theory class. Something I’ve seen through these classes is that there are principles behind how the world works, and there are ways of understanding that, and depending on how you understand it, everything you might think you know might be a horrible lie or simplification. At the end of this quarter, my prof for “Mind, Matter, and Meaning” told us that he decided to go into math and philosophy instead of natural science because he was fascinated by how the worlds work. Knowing how the world works is cool, but in some sense, the laws of physics and biology are arbitrary. It’s fantastic that someone has the answer, but there’s no reason why the world actually works that way.

In that class, we had talked a lot about logically possible and naturally possible worlds, hoping that possibilities and necessities in those worlds would help us understand why our world works like it does. It was quite a throwback to my previous philosophy classes. In my moral philosophy class, we talked about Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, where we imagine world and attempt to come to various types of contradictions. And that could be understood within the framework of modal logic, which we talked about in my 2nd logic class. In that, we looked at the connection between worlds, where we connected truths between various worlds.

It seems that the common theme between all of this is reducing complex systems into an underlying structure that can make things easier to understand. In my first logic class, we talked about how to use propositional and first-order logic. This seemed like the end of the story until the 2nd class, where we reduced these systems to even fewer axioms and showed how the systems were built and proved why they work. Which was the same thing that we did in my CS theory class, covering finite automata and turing machines as simpler forms of what all computers are today. And was the same in that algebra class, where we learned all these wonderful properties of the integers and natural numbers that I had used so much.

So when I think back to last summer, when Kurt Godel and Alan Turing came up in all my reading, that no longer seems surprising, because that’s apparently what I’m interested in. After this quarter, I’ll have to throw in Saul Kripke as another person who’s coming up in all of my classes as being very important to developing and understanding these symbolic systems.

When I came to Stanford, I was fairly certain that I was going to major in symbolic systems, so when people asked me if I knew what I wanted to do, that was a yes. I knew that the set of classes that make up the core looked interesting. After having taken most of the core now, I’m at the point where I think I now know what my major actually is, and why I think the classes are great. That, of course, doesn’t give me any certainty on what I want to do after this, but at least I’ll know what it is that I know.

The Experience of the Exploratorium

This past Friday, I went to the Exploratorium on a field trip with other students in my major, symsys. We aren’t known for being particularly cohesive, so whenever an opportunity to meet and hang out with other students with similar interests, I usually try to make it. And though I had been to the Exploratorium this past summer with family friends already, it seemed like a place worth going again and again.

The Exploratorium is primarily oriented towards little kids, but it certainly has universal appeal. The museum is covered with a bunch of mini-exhibits, each showing off one or two scientific concepts. For example, a ring rolling around in a dish was supposed to represent chaos theory, and a drinking water fountain over a toilet bowl demonstrated our developed aversions. The advising fellows for symsys had justified the trip with the “Mind” area in the back, which was mostly a series of optical illusions. I had wandered around with Te, a senior who had taken a class on these exact topics. He would look at an exhibit, see the trick, then say something like, “Oh… that’s just lateral inhibition.”

While not all of us have had the same coursework, I think we all recognized some of the phenomenon at least from our high school education. But we were just as excited as the little kids running around, amazed by these things they had never seen. Reading about something in a textbook and accepting that it’s true just isn’t quite the same as being able reach out and touch it or feel yourself falling for a mental trick.

Just before I had left for the field trip, I had been in section for a class, “Mind, Matter, and Meaning.” In the class, we basically just talk about consciousness. Most of our reading is from David Chalmers’ “The Conscious Mind,” and our early discussion was focused around the difference between what he calls the psychological and phenomenological aspects of consciousness. Psychological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states do and the sort of functions associated with that. Phenomenological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states feel like and why something feels like it does. And when we’re trying to figure out if our brain and our mind are the same thing, this is where the phenomenological part gets messy.

Because it’s a hard question to say why something “feels” like it does. What does an apple taste like? What it is like to see the “redness” of an apple? What’s interesting about these questions to me is that they are absolutely subjective. We’re trying to boil down all these sciences into a disembodied, objective explanation, but what we feel seems linked to who we are. I’m certain many people have come to the questions about whether everyone else is conscious or what the nature of others’ consciousness is. I mean, even if I assume all of you fine readers are conscious (in the sense used above, not the awakeness sense; I know the latter to be false), how do I know what you see to be red is the same red I see? Maybe my red is your blue.

And I think it’s amazing to probe the differences in how we experience things. One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had here at Stanford was helping one particular student with a program in the computer cluster. She was a little slow in finding her mistakes, but she was entirely capable of using her computer and thinking through and fixing her mistakes. It probably would’ve been otherwise insignificant if not for the fact that she’s also blind and deaf in one ear. Thanks to Microsoft Sam, she could navigate her code line-by-line, jump between windows, and very quickly fix even syntax errors with her code.

I can’t even imagine how she could do something like that. For one, she was able to navigate her file system very quickly and without error based on snippets of words. I kind of have a sense about how my file system is structured, but I have to look things up everytime, and I know I’m constantly depending on context cues to go to the right place. So being able to have a mental representation for that is amazing. But moreover, I just can’t even imagine what code would look like if I had never seen a letter of the alphabet before. On a psychological level, I understand that in such cases, it’s common that areas of the brain responsible for processing visual input can be retooled to enhance capabilities with the other senses. On a phenomenological level, that’s just baffling. What does a block of code “sound” like?

But I guess if I believe the distinction here, it’s all kind of peripheral. Walking around the Exploratorium, I don’t have to feel to learn. It’s just the psychological process of learning where I have a new experience that creates a different representation and new pathways to understand something. And my joy is just a trained response to learning that causes my eyes to widen and my body to get jittery. Maybe a zombie version of me, which has the exact same psychological processes but no phenomenological experience, would have done the exact same things that I had. But I don’t think that makes the sensation any less valuable. I’d still say the Exploratorium is worth going to because you can actually see and touch everything.

Through My Eyes

I like to post about exciting stuff. I try to post about insightful stuff. Unfortuantely, most of my life is neither, which does leave a gaping hole in my blog, since it is supposed to be about it. It’s also very hard for me to determine what happens in my life at the end of the day, so I figured I would take pictures all day and show you instead what my day is like. So, here are 60 pictures from Wed, Jan 21st. It’s actually a stellarly non-interesting day, and very not busy. Here’s what my iCal had for yesterday:

Time , Event , Location
9:00 AM – 9:50 AM , CS 106B lecture , Gates B03
10:00 AM – 10:50 AM, Phil 151 lecture , 260-113
2:15 PM – 3:05 PM , CS 103 lecture , Hewlitt 200
4:15 PM – 5:30 PM , EECS Colloquium, Gates B01
7:00 PM – 8:00 PM , How I Write , Hume
10:15 PM – 10:30 PM , Dorm Meeting ,

I definitely don’t go to everything on my iCal, but I guess I’ll let the pictures tell…

The most painful sight. I have class at 9:00 MWF and 9:30 TTh, so my alarm is set to 8:00 every morning.

To contrast, my roommate RJ doesn’t have class until the afternoon on TTh, and he only sometimes goes to 9:00 MWF. Today was not one of those days. Just a little envy.

The rest of my room. Standing from the door you see there looking in, our room is tall and narrow, and my bed is at the upper left corner. RJ’s is against the other wall to my left in the picture.

Walking down the hallway to communal bath in the morning. This picture is oddly fitting because when I wake up, my vision is blurry, and everything is far too bright. For those who’ve never had to be in a communal bath, I promise it’s not that bad. Unless someone parties too hard on Friday night, since nobody cleans all weekend.

Me in my sexy pjs with towel. This is the only picture you’ll get to consider the inside of the Lantana 3rd floor boys room.

After cleaning up a little, I go back to my dorm and turn on my computer to catch up on morning news and email. You’ll notice my super-ergonomic setup (which I’m currently enjoying. This way, I neither have to reach up with my wrists or curl over to see my screen. Thank you to the two separate parties who have so kindly bestowed me with free, unused stuff to form my keyboard/mouse setup.

I do eat breakfast, which is usually stolen from the dining hall the night before. You can see the sigg bottle my sister gifted to me, and which I use all the time. Add in an apple and pastry-ish thing with jam in it, and I’m set.

Here’s a typical look of what my screen would look like after getting to my later dailies. I’m an addictive Google Reader user (sorry Bloglines, but you didn’t work very well near the end), and I often have a magic card I’m looking up.

I take a second pass at the washroom to brush my teeth and pop in my contacts, and off to lecture. I leave about 10 mins before any class, so by 8:45, I’m prepping to go. I have this super-cool tiger-patterned bike strap so that my pants don’t get caught in my bike. I tore a nice hole in a pair of khakis before i got the strap, so I figure the dorkiness is worth the safety.

There it is. I literally won’t even go across the street without riding my bike. That’s not lazy, is it?

The hand grips wore off, and they actually got sticky after that, so I’d come away with black residue on my hands after riding. Now, I have blue tape which 1) prevents my gloves from being torn up by the stickiness and 2) makes it easier to find my bike.

I’m not exactly sure what they’re building, but on Serra, there’s been construction since the beginning of the year. They actually have a really cool mountain of dirt there.

This is CS106B, Programming Abstractions. When I said I have class at 9 MWF, I was half-lying, because this is actually the class that I’m section-leading this quarter. I come because I never actually took this course (got equivalent from AP CS AB) and because I get paid for it. I think there are something like 200 kids taking this class.

Today, my buddy is Molly, who I’m sure didn’t even know that I took this picture. I sit by other section leaders, and she, like me, greatly feared teaching this class. But we must all conquer our fears, even if our fears are just programming languages.

Jerry Cain teaches this class this quarter. He’s become infamous recently for teaching CS107, which was the first CS class I took here at Stanford. He’s an excellent, excellent lecturer, well-known for coming into lecture with just his hands in his hoodie, and teaching all of class and writing all of the code from memory. Jerry Cain didn’t learn C++. C++ is shaped around the thought patterns of Jerry Cain.

Naturally, I don’t actually pay attention to 106 lecture. Instead, I bring reading. Here’s a page out of Russell and Norvig’s famous Artificial Intelligence book, the textbook for the AI course I’m taking.

The Gates Computer Science building is just a bit away from the main quad, but this is a shot on my way to my next class. I’m on the east wall of the quad heading south, so you can see a little of it on the left hand side of the picture. Taking pictures while on a bike is dangerous; don’t try this at home, kids.

There’s the entrance to the Language Corner of the main quad, the southeast corner. Just next to it is the Intersection of Death.

And here is Phil 151, First-Order Logic, taught by Eric Pacuit (pronounced like a packet of paper). I’m kind of getting my butt kicked by this class, but it’s okay, because Eric’s a good lecturer, and I’m learning a lot. I sit in the front row, so I had to be really sneaky taking this pic.

My notes after 151. I don’t know what it means either.

This quarter, I actually have a huge gap around lunch MWF, from 11 to 2:15. It’s actually the first time ever, I think, that I haven’t had a 1:15 class. Since I had so much time, I took a trip to check my PO box. There’s a nice dedicated post office just off of White Plaza, so it’s not at all inconvenient to get to.

Everyone rides bikes, and there are definitely some people with some very bizarre bikes. This one is maybe about 25% weird. Other famous non-car vehicles include a motorized bike, a lot of parents with a tandem for their kids, one segway guy, weird twisty/gyrating skateboard things, a trumpeting unicyclist, and the jogger.

=( Apparently I wasn’t even good enough for a credit card offer this week.

This is Escondido Road on east campus. It is the home to approximately 20 dorms of approximately 100 undergrads each, so about 1/3 of undergrads live here (origin of those numbers is debatable). Lantana, my dorm, happens to be one of them. Cedro, my dorm last year, was also one of them.

I arrive back in my room right around 11, where RJ is still in pre-morning shower mode. I’m actually a little dissatisfied with these breaks because I don’t have the will to be productive during them. I actually prefer my life when all events are jammed next to each other. It’s a little precarious to make it to everything, but it does mean that I don’t waste 5-10 minutes here and there.

Across the hall are two more sophomores, Alex and Leland. You can see Leland there, being cool. I think we have a somewhat unique situation for Lantana, as both my and their rooms usually have open doors. At any time, we have a straight shot to talk, and I can appreciate Leland’s playlist.

Checking email. I usually keep my inbox pretty clean (<10 messages), and I don't use a notifier or keep my email open all of the time. I find it messes up my productivity. But yes, I have all of my mail forwarded to gmail, so that's my email client. I probably do do enough of a majority of my email from one computer to justify using Mail or Outlook, but gmail is just so slick and portable, I've never found a reason to change. Don't scrutinize the contents of my inbox too much. There might be a potential breach of privacy, so pretend you can't see details.
Here’s something I read during this break. I won’t divulge too much about it, but it’s related to something I’ve mentioned in my blog recently.

Leland come to visit. We’re constantly walking back and forth to see what the others are up to.

Lantana is shaped like a T. I’m in the upper-right hallway, on the bottom side of it. The rest of my draw group is in a triple at the very bottom of the T. It is the designated hang out room, so I spend a lot of time in there. That’s Jordan, our resident video-watcher. He’s an excellent filter for internet content, because if he recommends it, that’s a guarantee that I don’t want to see it.

Relative to the T, the triple is shaped like a L turned 90 degrees clockwise. Jordan has his corner near the door at the bottom, the elbow is where the TV and futon are, and Tom and Ben are in the right-hand part of the room.

Tom is playing Starcraft. This is actually a very new thing (new being this quarter) to have people playing Starcraft again. What is obscured largely in this picture are diet pepsi cans. I think I picked the perfect angle in which you can’t see them as they are everywhere else. No exaggeration.

And of course, we play Magic. That’s Ben, shuffling up. Most of the guys had gone to eat lunch at 11:30 when they open, but Ben was going to meet a Cedroid (dormmate from last year) for lunch at 12:15, so he and I waited. You can see the new futon on the left. Our last futon was somewhat broken. If you tried to flatten it out, it would sink in the middle. And it couldn’t even make it to sit all the way up. Now that I think about it, it was completely broken, because it failed to satisfy either of a futon’s two functions.

Us playing. We played maybe 3 games in about a half-hour, which is about normal, with a little deck-revision at the end.

This is Manzanita Dining. I’m standing just in front of the register, so except for drinks, cereal, and bread just at the edges of hte picture, that’s the size of the dining area. It’s all buffet-style, for better or worse.

Wednesday lunch is popular because it is pizza and …

falafel wrap day. Manz has it’s ups and downs, but on average, it’s quality.

That actually doesn’t look nearly as delicious as in real life. It may be slightly related to the fact that I took two bites out before I remembered to take a picture.

From the left, that’s Aaron, James, and Ben. Just out of frame is Folake, a dormmate from last year, and one of the most perpetually excited people I know. Usually, it only takes maybe a half hour to eat lunch, but we were enjoying talking so much, we were there for maybe an hour before leaving.

Here’s what my 3rd virtual desktop looks like. The thing that IM and iTunes have in common is that they’re most useful open, but not visible. I can keep firefox or whatever open in my 1st screen, and flip to this one when I need to. And yes, that is my Disney soundtrack. I promise that I’m actually 19, even if I listen to Disney, eat jello, and have juice boxes in my fridge. So there’s some more time-killing between 1:15 and 2:15. When I can’t recall what I did, it means that it was certainly unproductive.

I head back across to the Hewlitt building, close to the Gates building. There’s a pseudo intersection there, with the Hewlitt and Packard buildings on one side, and Gates and Gilbert on the other. I have no idea who Gilbert is named after.

CS103, taught in Hewlitt 200, probably the largest regular classroom and one of the highest occupancy rooms on campus. This is “Mathematical Foundations of Computing” and is currently covering logic, which I did last quarter in Phil 150. You probably don’t care about the details, but basically, the class is huge because of a huge curriculum change in the CS department just this year. It’s taught by Robert Plummer (no, not my high school drum major and Stanford grad student; another Robert Plummer), who is a good lecturer. He’s pretty old, but he still talks strongly and is pretty robust.

Went to high school with Frank, and he’s in CS103 as well. As I mentioned, the lecture is big, so this is the first time I’ve seen him this quarter.

On my right, from closest to farthest, are Lucas, RJ, and Leland. Large class = lots of company.

A different look at the size of the class. Perhaps things are better at other private universities, but I’ve noticed that class sizes at Stanford aren’t really small. There’s a lot of faculty, but I don’t think they all do a lot of teaching. Add in that quarters mean that students can take 1.5 times the number of classes as most and that many classes are only taught once a year, and class sizes aren’t <10. Tragedy, but most good interaciton with faculty is outside of the classroom anyways.
I had talked to a couple people about playing racquetball that day, and I made the mistake of scheduling them consecutively. I got ready for racquetball before 103 lecture and went straight to the courts. The courts are actually a new addition and are thus housed in basically a separate building attached to a larger gym. Only 4 courts, but as long as it doesn’t get popular, that’s not a problem. I first play with Nico and Dan starting around 3:30, and finish 2 games of cutthroat with them.

By the time Ben gets there at 4:30, I’m already really tired and ready to quit. I was having way too much fun though and kept on playing.

Ben and I both started at the beginning of last quarter, and I think we’re roughly equal in skill. That day was really unusual, though, as Ben was cold, and I was really tired. Playing those other games, though, got me exactly in the right mindset and motion to play, and my kills were low and my passing shots landed right in the corner. We played until maybe 5:15, at which point I was dead tired.

Went back to Manz dining, so there’s a shot at the salad bar. Yeah sneeze guards…

The middle station is usually stuff made right in front of you (like falafel wraps or panini), but for dinner, it was pasta. Since cooking this summer, my appreciation for pasta has decreased, and I certainly wasn’t willing to wait for it.

The round tables are somewhat less convenient than the long tables from last year. I don’t think it encourages mingling as much, and it’s awkward when the last person can’t fit in. Numbers were okay, at this point, though, so going clockwise from my left, RJ, Jordan, Dave, Kenan, James, and Leland. Mealtime conversations can be weird. The only topics I can remember coming up were MILFs and GILFs, so yes, weird.

There’s dinner. Salad, vegetable pot pie, and a chunk of chicken. The first 90% of my meals are usually a nice tasting of various parts. By the end, though, I get lazy and just mix everything together and hope that the combination is good. It all ends up in the same place, right?

After dinner, I did my reading for moral philosophy. The excerpt was two chapters on utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill, and although it was only a couple pages, it took me an hour and a half to finish. Not only was the content dense, Mill just has a weird writing style. It’s not really old English, but the sentences are really long. He tends to, at completely inappropriate moments that don’t make sense, cut up his sentences, which could easily be 2 or 3 separate thoughts, by interjecting phrases and clauses between, say, the subject and the verb, so it, although perhaps similar to how we talk, makes it really hard to follow and maintain a single line of thought.

As I was finishing my response paper around 8:30, George came by to visit. He was in our draw group, but ended up taking a year off to work instead. He’s just off campus, though, so he visits Lantana a couple times a week. We talked for another hour and a half about random things, though primarily about games and the inauguration. I recommend that if you can, you watch the Family Guy clip about “Aladdin 4: Jafar May Need Glasses.” It’s one of the most hilarious clips, I think.

As dorm president, I’m responsible for determining food for house meeting and leading house meeting. That sounds impressive and time-consuming until I also add in that 1) I actually just tell the RAs what I’m feeling that week and they drive to get the food and 2) I go to visit the RAs just before house meeting (around maybe 10:05) to ask them what I’m supposed to say. And of course, the RAs go to house meeting as well, so my position is largely worthless. But I try.

Food this week was Dominoes pizza, which was a large part in boosting attendance to perhaps a Lantana-high of almost a third of the dorm! It was gone very quickly, but I can’t think of a better use for dorm funds. Maybe we should just blow it all to go to Vegas for a weekend…

We didn’t get drinks for house meeting, but fortunately, Tom brought some Cactus Cooler back from SoCal. Excellent pop, and highly recommended if you end up in that area.

There was some unproductivity after house meeting, such as this shot of us watching videos online. I think that’s the timewaster for my generation of college students.

I finally get into bed at 12:06, which is pretty normal, I think.

I’ve been reading Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love” before sleeping, and it’s really quite good. My copy is very old, and it broke right down the middle, though I guess that means I only have to hold half a book open to read it. While I think some parts of his writing is compelling, I’ve also realized that all of his books are the same. There’s typically a pragmatic, somewhat rude, perceptive older male as the main character, and all of his books definitely have a political message in there. Starship Troopers really emphasizes his belief in a meritocracy, and all of his future societies believe in ultimate sexual freedom and a kind of no nonsense frontier style method of living.

I clearly enjoy it quite a bit anyways, though, as I read for about an hour before finally kicking it.

So this has taken me far longer to write than I thought it would (almost 2 hours?), but if nothing else, it’s been fun for me to take a step back and look at what I’m doing with my life. I don’t think I changed what I did in a day because I knew I’d be putting it all up on the internet, but I certainly don’t make any promises about my unconscious. Anyways, I hope it was interesting enough for you as well to make it all the way to the end!

A Word to Future Academic Decathletes

I went in to visit and help out the Taylor AD team today, and I had come up with a sort of motivational speech for the occasion. I, however, was never actually called on to talk to them as a group, and thus, the speech ended up being unnecessary. Instead, it’ll reside here in my blog, half because I didn’t want it to go to waste, and half because I’m trying to fill in for an entry.

Forewarning: there’s some off-color humor, and a couple references that may not be entirely correct. Sorry for the messy nature of it, but that’s probably how I’d talk if I were giving a presentation to high school students.

Hi, I’m Kevin, as you probably know. And to be honest, I have some beef with AD.
Chances are that you are no more motivated than I was my junior year. You want to do well, but you don’t really want to study for it. You’re proud about how well you’ve done for how much work you’ve put into it.

Which is fine. Heck, you’ve worked harder than most people in this school. Out of the 1200-ish upperclassmen, you’re in the 1% who’ve cut it to be on Taylor AD team, which is one of 27 schools in the nation to have won the national championships. And we’ve done it twice.

But let’s be honest: that wasn’t actually either you or me. We’re recipients to expectations that we should be kicking butt, and things would be a lot easier if it weren’t that way. Equivalently, there’s an expectation that you should study. A lot. Shellum and Sweatnum worked their kids hard, to the point where the story goes that the kids who made the team never ever took an English test on time. And I’ve even been told that their students received chemical boosts to improve their focus. Okay, maybe I heard that from a very unreliable source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they put their kids on crack to make them better. Just throwing that out there.

So I’m very sorry to say, but you’re not going to get drugs from Scott to do AD. Taylor still has too much pride to let the white trash take over like that. Go to Cinco if you want to do that.

Anyways, that means you guys are mostly on your own. So that doesn’t sound that hard. Study a lot and win a lot. But up till now, I’ve left one huge gap in talking to you. Allow me to digress.

I took a modern algebra class this last quarter at college, and it was the first proof-based math class I’ve ever taken. I had taken linear algebra my freshmen year, but that was a pretty high school class, as it was mostly focused on learning formulas and doing computation. I pretty thoroughly hated math after that class, but I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge it so harshly without having taken a real college-level math class. As a summary, I took the class, got crushed by it, and now know I do not want to take another math class ever again.

But I’m okay with that, because I know I got crushed by a legit math class, and the class is one of two gateway classes into all math classes, and I had taken the hardest version of the class. And I learned a lot. I learned so much. One of the major parts of the class is to essentially write a section out of a textbook and learn how to do math writing, so we had to write our own proof for the Fundamental Theorem of Finite Abelian Groups. Don’t worry; I still don’t really know what that means either. What I did learn from constructing the proof, though, is that when explaining something and giving steps for something, you have to give the motivation for it before you start explaining, or else your audience doesn’t know what you’re getting at.

Which is how I wrap it back around into this speech that you’re now realizing is far more intense than you had originally thought it was going to be. But the point: the motivation. Yes, the motivation. I’m sure at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” When I was at region, I had about 10 minutes of disillusionment with AD and began to question the purpose of the last half-year of my life. There are a lot of reasons the coaches might have given you as to why you want to study this. And there are a lot of things you’ve discovered while studying AD. Well, let me lay things straight for you.

First, Scott or Irish probably told you that AD looks good on a college app. That’s a terrible reason to do AD. Not only does that make you just as bad as any GPA whore, it doesn’t even really count. Some of you are probably seniors who didn’t do it your junior year, and to be honest, that means that AD doesn’t count for squat. You barely found out you actually made it on the team in time for college apps, and even state isn’t until after mid-semester reports. My college apps only said that I had made the AD team. There was no actual proof that I was a good AD student, battle-hardened in competition. So having that on there is probably about as valuable as saying that you’re treasurer of the anime club. Maybe the admissions officer will pat you on the head for that.

Second, maybe they talked about the scholarship money. There’s not THAT much money in it. If I did the math on how much I made hourly for my scholarship, I would estimate that I made about two or three dollars on the hour. Go work for HEB if you want money. They’ll pay you twice that much.

Third, maybe they told you that the subjects would be interesting. This one is a mixed bag. Changes are that they are not interesting. And even if they were, you probably aren’t excited about the subjects after reading the same 40-page packet the twentieth time.

Even if the subjects were interesting, you’d hate them anyways because USAD stinks. If you haven’t realized already, the people who work at USAD are utterly incompetent. For example, my senior year was China. They failed at writing the packets. For one of the songs, they claimed that the performer of the piece was xibeifeng. If you don’t know Chinese, that translates to northwest wind, which was the name of the song. And they managed to use two different romanizations of Chinese in two different packets, so the same guy had two different names in two different packets, and if you didn’t know Chinese, you’d be none the smarter.

On the otherhand, maybe you know my good friend Willie. Very smart kid, love him to death. He’s studying at Rice right now, and his topic of interest? Doing economic development for green technologies in China. As a reminder, my senior year, the theme was china, and SQ was climatology, particularly climate change. So he’s basically turned AD into his life goal.

I’m going to tell you now, though, that he’s the exception. You’re going to study and study to memorize every fact, but the day after your last competition, it won’t matter ever again. I promise. Which is maybe the fourth point that the coaches tried to sell you on: that you’d learn something useful. Maybe you’ll remember it for a week. Or maybe a month. Or if you’re really hardcore, you’ll remember your stuff for a couple months, so you can help the octathlon kids. But you’re not going to remember most of it. I don’t remember most of what I learned. The method that USAD tests you ensures that most of what you do will be completely worthless, because facts are worthless. The dimensions of a piece of art hanging in a museum in Washington DC just really don’t matter that much in real life.

But they didn’t entirely lie to you. AD is an excellent 5.0 study hall.

So yeah, I have some beef with AD. AD sucks. It really does. And the coaches are looking to give me the cane right now for telling you all of this. But I promise it’s okay, because I didn’t come here to make you hate AD. I came here to make you hate AD, but realize that it’s absolutely worth your time.

You know, when I talk to my college friends, sometimes we talk about our high school days, and we were all over the place. Take my draw group, for example. 5 of my best friends. Most of us were mathletes, but we all had different priorities.

My friend Ben from LA went to a math and science magnet school, so he was legitimately good at math, such that he’s still good at math at Stanford.

My friend George from Oregon was a debator. One of those debators, such that he still talks about it from time to time.

My friend Jordan from Virginia is pretty messed up. First, I should note that you should under no circumstances watch Rudolph the Five-Legged Reindeer. But anyways, Jordan; to be honest, I don’t know what he did.

My friend Tom, from the scary side of LA, was the king of his high school. President of every club, a football player and a wrestler, and even on the AD team there.

My roommate RJ from quiet little Bedford, New Hampshire, was all about robotics, which I think his team won nationals for.

And me? Well, here at Taylor, my big things were band, cs, and AD. Band and CS I did seriously for 4 years. AD, I only really got into it my senior year. But when we talk over lunch about high school, I talk about AD.

Which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was a lot more successful with CS, and that had far more apparent impact on my career path, as my major is very closely related to CS. Having thought about it a lot, though, I think I know a couple reasons.

First, speech. When I told you that you don’t learn anything useful in AD, I was 90% lying. Speech and impromptu was so good for me. Being able to speak off the cuff in an intelligent way is super-valuable. This last quarter, I had to take the 2nd of two classes in writing and rhetoric, and the second is focused on oral communication. We had to do a bunch of 2 minute presentations, and while some people had difficulty with them, I cruised through it. That’s all prep from AD impromptu. Maybe debate teaches you how to speak better, but AD was far more efficient than that.

Second, people. If the 8 other people on the team aren’t your best friends or worst enemies, they should be. You should be partying with these people all the time. I remember my junior year, I watched the AD team dissolve because of terrible team relationships and dynamics. Not every team is meant to jive perfectly. But you should absolutely know whether that’s the case or not. Studying for AD isn’t fun, but partying definitely is, so you should absolutely do that. The AD team from my senior year is actually putting some good thought into how we’re going to do our reunion later this break, and it should be excellent. I’m going to be meeting up with some of my best friends who I very much want to see even after parting with them for college. You can make some of the best friends in AD if you put the effort into it.

Third, study habits. If you’re on the AD team, chances are that you don’t have to work really hard for school. For those of you that this is true of, listen up. If it’s not, don’t worry about it, because you’re way ahead of us.

I’m fairly confident most of you don’t work hard on school, and believe it across all 3 levels. A kids? You made the team because you don’t have to study for school, and decided to devote some of the time you slack off during on AD. C kids? If you studied for school, you wouldn’t be a C kid. Chances are that you don’t think school is worth your time. Which is debatable. In some ways, I admire you guys, because you were smart enough to not spend your time on educationally worthless pursuits. Regardless, you’re probably pretty lazy. B kids? You have the best chance of being hard workers, but probably not.

So I say this from experience: my study habits in high school sucked. When I think back to how productive I was during those years compared to now, I’m thoroughly unimpressed. I think, in some ways, AD was my chance to prove that I wasn’t a slacker, and that I was just as capable of studying hard as anyone else.

And to be honest, maybe you don’t need it to prepare for college. I’ve talked to some of my friends who insist that college is easier and less work than high school, that they slack off even more than they did here at Taylor. So maybe it won’t matter. That, however, isn’t me. If I hadn’t improved my study habits, I’d definitely be in dire straits right now. And I realize that part of that was just a kick in the pants in going to college, but I still believe that AD helped to psyche me up to be able to sit silently for hours, just reading and reading.

So those are all things I discovered that were great things that came out of AD. But none of those were why I really went for it, why I harassed my teammates to study, why I got working for DemiDec. When I think back, I only decided to really do AD at the beginning of the summer before my senior year, long before I realized all the things I’ve told you so far. It just kind of came to me that this was my chance to actually be successful at AD, and that it should become my biggest priority. And I think it was the chance of failure and the knowledge that I completely controlled what happened that motivated me so strongly.

When I thought about my other activities, I had never really failed. When I went up for region band, my sophomore year, there were no expectations for me, though I lucked out when one of the tubas had to back out. And I knew I would make it the next year, and again my senior year. I could’ve gone for state or something, but I knew there were a couple tubas in my region who I could never beat. In marching band, I mattered as much as any other student; individually, not very much. In CS, my team had been very successful very early, but unfortunately, the ceiling in that arena is pretty low.

Which is not at all the case with AD. I knew from my junior year that I could do very poorly. I also knew, though, that there’s no clear advantage for one person over another. Natural talent didn’t matter nearly as much as in band, and the ability to grasp clear, algorithmic thinking didn’t matter either. AD is 100% about working at it, and it was my choice that I should.

Because I don’t think I had ever committed myself to seeing something through like that. I had been fortunate in my other pursuits to have been successful enough early that I could largely depend on that to carry me through. But AD was a legitimate challenge that I had to overcome.

So that’s about all I have for my schpeel. Chances are, you haven’t had the same foolish motivation that I did, and in some ways, I hope you don’t, because I very well could’ve been owned by putting all my stock in AD. So I absolutely recommend that you study hard for the next three months, because I promise you, if you actually dedicate yourself to it, you will absolutely be proud of yourself for it.

Clapping for Class

Well, the end of the quarter has come, and almost all classes ended earlier today. The end of things can be bittersweet, but here, the emotion is mostly relief. With 10 week quarters, midterms begin as early as week 3 and last through week 10, meaning that most classes are more sprinting than marathoning.

But although many students never ever want to go back to a class, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the class or the prof. I would say that most lecturers are well-liked by their students. It seems, however, that gift-giving doesn’t happen the same way as it does in grade school, though. A large portion of that is probably that parents don’t vicariously give gifts at this age anymore. So maybe lecturers get thank you notes and emails nowadays. That I’m not really sure about.

What I do know about is students clapping for the lecturer and course after the last class session. The first class I saw it in was CS107 last fall, taught by the amazing Jerry Cain, when Jerry closed the class without too much ceremony. The students seemed to know what to do, though, because everyone started clapping anyways. And it may seem like a token gesture, but even clapping can be pretty nice.

Which makes me wonder what conditions under which it happens. Let’s go over my schedule this year, how they went, and some of what I believe are relevant circumstances:

Phil 150 (logic) – half-clapping? Our main lecturer, Dave, finished his part last week, and it’s been a guest lecturer for the past 4 sessions. We clapped at the end of the course this morning, though I don’t know if got his fair share. It’s a decent-sized lecture class, though being a 9:00, people don’t show up. We kind of got a closing statement and wish for best luck from our lecturer.

Math 120 (modern algebra) – clapped. Class of maybe 20-ish kids, and our lecturer, Ravi, was pretty awesome. One person definitely started it, but I think there were also others who would’ve started it, as people picked up almost instantly.

PWR 2 (writing) – small seminar-style class with 15 students. We’ve really gotten to know each other really well, and Jonathan, who taught the class, also endeared himself to us. We had a big clapping session when we finished our final reflections and just celebrated the end of the class.

CS 147 (HCI) – huge class, 150, of almost all upperclassmen taught by Scott, who is amazingly cool and actually got discussion going on during lecture (which I’ve never seen). I think everyone really enjoyed the class. But no one clapped. He also had a guest lecturer for the final session, but that wasn’t a surprise, so the class knew his last class would’ve been Tuesday. I got out one clap before I realized no one was going for it, and I saw one other guy who tried too, which makes me think there were a couple. For the most part, though, everyone was rushing out of the class when it was over, as usual.

So CS147 has really thrown me off as I thought that class would’ve been a certain clapping situation. I’ve certainly been in classes with boringish material that cost the clap, but some certainly deserve it.

There is the difference between the seminar clap and the lecture clap, though. The first is a more congratulatory clap, I think, because most seminars end up building some good relationships, and it really is a bunch of friends having pulled through by the end, and great appreciation for the mentor that carried us along. The lecture clap is more appreciation, though, as it’s really about what the lecturer has managed to teach us.

In either case, though, I think it’s usually deserved. Even if a class isn’t amazing, I haven’t taken a class where that was because the lecturer didn’t care or wasn’t trying. It’d be naive to say that all classes and teaching methods are equal. But appreciation isn’t just appreciating quality; it’s appreciating investment.