2008-10-07 -- First Letter. Midway through fall term Frosh year.

I have been doing well.

Class
As far as classes go, I am taking three this term (plus a one credit lecture series). One of them is a 9 credit intro to humanities called SLE – Structured Liberal Education. The one credit lecture series is on race, class, faith, gender, and the 2008 presidential election. I’m also taking a 5 credit Computer Science class and a 5 credit class on Justice at Home and Abroad: Civil Rights in the 21st Century. Thus, 20 credits, the maximum that they let students take. So far, all is good. Stanford is also on a quarter system, so at the end of December, I’ll pick some new classes.

SLE is what I’m least satisfied with, but after finishing my first paper in it, I can tell that I’ll be learning a lot. So far, we’ve read the Odyssey, sections of the Tanakh, Hesiod (Greek mythology, Pandora’s box), Crito and Apology (The last days of Socrates), and Antigone, and I’ve written three drafts of my first paper (It’s the end of the second week right now). We also have hour and a half discussion sections on Wednesdays and Fridays, two guest lecturers on Tuesdays, one guest lecturer on Wedensdays, and a movie on Thursdays.
The part that I’m dissatisfied with is that the discussions and lectures seem to be focused on “what did Socrates believe?” rather than “how can I apply these ideas to my life?” but I have also had some good lectures and discussions. The syllabus is available at http://slesyllabus.pbwiki.org/. While a lot of the lectures have been based on the texts that we’re reading, some have been more tangentially related. For instance, there was a lecture on Natural Knowledge in Greek Mythology. Basically, Greek myths about giants and Cyclops and mythical beasts were inspired by dinosaur / wooly mammoth fossils.
One thing unique about SLE is that they force you to turn in a draft of each paper to your writing tutor (they give everyone a writing tutor) about a week before the final draft is due. After turning in my second draft to him, his comment was that my paper was broad and rambling. I felt that this was untrue, and it turns out that I was right: my writing style was just too logic-dense and wordy for him to understand my precise focus. In other words, my writing is turning into the overly-dense philosophy that I have become accustomed to reading. Thanks to his comment, I realized this and was able to make my paper make sense without hours of head-scratching.

For my Justice class, we started with political philosophy (we finished that in the first week and a half), are moving on to supreme court case law (we’ll continue on with that for another few weeks), and will spend the rest of the time talking about ways to balance equality, liberty, and security using practical examples. This class meets Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11am (my early morning class; SLE is 315-7 Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and CS is 315-405 Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The lectcures are available online, so even though class time of SLE and CS conflict, I can still take both. There are also discussion sections for CS and Justice at 115 on Thursdays and 930 on Fridays respectively).
So far, we have read Hobbes’ Leviathan, JS Mill’s On Liberty, Rawls’ Justice as Fairness, Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, Bernard Williams’ The Idea of Equality, the Constitution, Marbury v Madison, Dred Scott v Sandford, and Plessy v Ferguson (in addition, of course, to any news articles relevant to the day’s discussion). The lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays have mostly gone over these readings, making them understandable, and on Fridays there are relevant/interesting guest lectures.
Our first guest lecturer was Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ. He talked about his race against incumbent Sharpe James, about going from Stanford to Law School to politics, and about everyday decision making. The next week, we had a lecture from Larry Kramer, the Dean of the Law School, who lectured on judicial review, starting before Marbury v Madison and going on to today. This Friday, we’ll have a panel of lecturers on the current economic crisis including the dean of the business school and a billion dollar hedge fund manager. I think there will also be some other big name people, but I don’t know exactly who. So far, I haven’t been disappointed by any of these lectures.
The lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays are given by Jim Steyer and Rob Reich. Jim Steyer was a lawyer, and now he focuses on issues of justice in education. He owns a media-watch nonprofit – commonsensemedia.org. I think it’s like a sort of rating system for media for kids, but I haven’t explored it very thoroughly. The reason that I took the class was because Jim gave a lecture during New Student Orientation that sounded like an expanded version of my commencement lecture; in other words, he cares about the same issues that I do, and he is dedicating his life to learning more about them and helping to address them. Rob Reich is political philosophy professor who has tons of teaching awards and who inspires many people who have no interest in political science to become PS majors – they just take all of his classes.

I think I have been having even more fun in my CS class, though. The professor, Mehran Sahami, is very charismatic and good at explaining the material. He also throws candy at anyone who asks a question in class, so people stay engaged. And programming is just fun.
The class is on Java, in case you were wondering.

NSO
The week before class started was New Student Orientation. There were a bunch of social and academic planning type events. Getting everyone situated on campus, helping them pick their classes, having them meet with their advisors, getting to know everyone in dorms… There were also some interesting events. For instance, over the summer we read three books, and during NSO they had the authors come and present to all of us. The three books were The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, 100 Demons by Lynda Berry, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and the authors all brought a lot of new perspectives.

My Academic Folks
Stanford is very good about making sure its students have a good support community. In addition to getting everyone situated during NSO, every dorm has several RAs, a Peer Health Educator, a Resident Writing Tutor (in addition to the SLE writing tutor that I have), a Resident Computer Consultant, several Resident Fellows (a cool professor who lives in an apartment in the dorm, plans some dorm activities such as a weekly Daily Show viewing, and takes care of any issues that may come up), and an Academic Director (similar to an academic counselor. Basically, they have office hours every day, and they can talk about majors, classes, or life in general). Plus, every student has an Academic Advisor (not very different from the Academic Director. The Advisor is assigned to each student based on a questionnaire that we filled out, and when we declare a major we can pick a new advisor).

The RAs are very nice, friendly, and social. They have bowls of candy sitting outside their rooms to entice Frosh to get to know them better, and they are there to talk about general issues or classes or anything else. They’ve planned barbeques and Fridays, weekly dorm meetings, and ‘spotlights’ to get to know each other.

My Academic Director has had some dorm academic planning lunches. In other words, she talks to us and tells us about various informational events on campus. I’ve also met with her individually to talk about exploring courses and possible majors.

My Academic Advisor is a professor of linguistics who’s working on making computer speech recognition better right now. He just had a pizza dinner with all of his advisees at a restaurant in Palo Alto. It was good and fun.

Extracurriculars
The Friday before last, there was an activities fair where just about every club and student organization had a booth. There were a lot. Thanks to mass email lists, I am greeted by about 20 new emails in between when I go to sleep and when I wake up. Thanks to filtering in GMail, though, I am in the process of making it manageable.

There are about 9 different a capella groups on campus (I didn’t try out for any), in addition to a bunch of dance groups, other musical groups, and arts groups. There’s a club for every sport and for some martial arts. There are different ethnically/culturally themed clubs. There are academic activities and political activities. Decisions, decisions…

I might try to do one of the martial arts. I might not.
I’m one many allies at the LGBT-CRC (Community Resource Center), and I think I’m the only person in Safe and Open Spaces at Stanford who doesn’t identify as LGBTQ. SOSAS is a speakers organization that goes around to dorms to bring LGBT issues into the open. I’m also in the process of getting involved with the No on Prop 8 committee, which is trying to defeat California Prop 8 which would ban gay marriage.
Stanford Hillel is fairly big and well established. They’re having social events and some events for the high holidays.
There are a bunch of engineering clubs. There’s the Solar Car Challenge (ie, building a real car, not one of the miniatures that I raced in middle school). Stanford Student Biodesign has something to do with biomechanical engineering. Association for Computing Machinery has brought some people from Yahoo and Google on campus already. There’s also a Science Journal published on campus. I’m not on the leadership for any of these organizations, but their events have been good so far.
I’m thinking about writing for one of the clubs on campus. There’s the Stanford Daily, the Roosevelt Institute (the first student run think tank), Six Degrees (a human rights journal), the Claw (Stanford’s take on the New Yorker; it’s just starting up this year, though, so I could see what it’s like to be a section editor right away), and plenty of others that I’m less interested in writing for.

As far as politics…
I’m still planning on debating.
I got accepted to Stanford in Government on Thursday. Being accepted includes being “rolled out” – members of SIG pounded on my door at 7am and had me rush over to a meet and greet at the HAAS center for community service. SIG puts on campus events and creates fellowship opportunities for students to get involved with government over the summer.
I have my interview for ASSU – Stanford’s student government – tonight at 10.
I haven’t yet been to one of their meetings, but Stanford Nonprofits seems like it will be very interesting.
Students Taking on Poverty puts on good events.
I’m not sure about Speack – Students promoting ethnic and cultural kinship – or Spoon – which isn’t an acronym, but is an organization dedicated to fighting hunger – or Stanford ACLU chapter, or the Stanford Democrats, or the Stanford Progressive, or peer counseling, or many other organizations.

Campus Activities
In addition to the organizations with weekly meetings, there are tons of sporadic activities on campus. Concerts, guest lectures, conferences… there’s a little bit of everything.

This Friday, there was a Blue Scholars concert in the Law School Auditorium – they’re a Seattle based hip hop group that I listen to. That’s the only outside musical group that I have seen here so far, but I have also seen shows from all of the a capella groups and a few student bands. There was also a SIMPS – Stanford Improvisers – thing a while ago.

There have also been guest lectures every few days. Last Wednesday, there was a lecture by John Perkins (author of Confession of an Economic Hitman). One of the most striking things from that lecture was that he started out by talking about his experiences in the Peace Corps. He asked “And how can someone go from being in the Peace Corps to being an economic hitman? Because our society says that it’s good. When I was an economic hitman, I was respected so much that Harvard Business School asked me to lecture for them.” He went on to talk about his experiences with the top government officials of third world countries and the CEOs of American companies. His thoughts was that they all knew that they were being unsustainable and that their business models were hurting people, and none of them were evil people… they just felt like they were required by the system to act destructively – a corporation must do all in its power to maximize the profits for shareholders at all costs. His opinion was that we need to have a paradigm shift: we can still have corporations, but we must hold them accountable, and the rule has to be maximizing profits only as long as they are sustainable. His opinion on the current economic crisis: the economic hitmen went home. Very intriguing thoughts from someone inside the system.
There have also been several less interesting lectures, and plenty of lectures that I wasn’t able to attend. For instance, there was a lecture on citizenship by a Princeton professor after the VP debates, and there was a law conference on justice in education and progressive lawyering on the west coast this Friday/Saturday.

Smaller scale social gatherings are not absent, either. Every Friday and Saturday, my dorm has started having movie nights, and “Stanford Flicks” shows films that are currently in theatres in the Memorial Auditorium on Sundays.

Life
Life in general has also been good. My dorm and roommate are friendly. Good food. Nice campus to bike on. Cool libraries. Nice buildings.

The libraries are more awe inspiring than anything else. There are 10 or 20 different libraries on campus. I think the main library has 9 million volumes in it. Lots of research librarians. And I have my computer set up with a proxy so that I can access any journal that the library is subscribed to online from anywhere. It’s pretty awesome. The only bad part is that they close at 2am.

The Law School building is very nice. That’s where my Justice class is (I think it’s pretty much the first undergrad class to be taught in the law school… ever). Cushy chairs, an outlet for every person, stadium seating of sorts, and very good acoustics. Ironically, it is much more technically equipped than my computer science classroom, which, according to the professor, is the exact same classroom (that is, it hasn’t been remodeled at all) that he took his intro to computer science in.

My dorm room isn’t expansive, but it has all of the room that I need. The one bad thing about it is that my windows face south, so it gets hot if the windows are closed, and if the windows are open, at night you can hear the music coming from the frat parties. Ah well. At least the internet is fast and the wifi is everywhere.

The water isn’t of the highest quality, but my dorm has a water faucet in the kitchen that’s hooked up to a filter, which, complimented by my Brita filter, makes the water very nice. I have been drinking a good share of water.
The food is good. There’s always a different type of delicious salad. There is usually a different type of pasta. Occasionally there’s curry. Plenty of organic produce. There’s a good selection of cereal, and there’s a good selection of ice cream. One day last week the chef made Crème Brule before our eyes. There was also an excellent mango lassi last week – which is saying something, because most of the mango lassis that I have had in the past were disgusting.
There’s never any good tofu or pizza (that is, there is always bad tofu and pizza). The other thing that’s lacking is the orange juice: they always have it, but it’s from a soft drink serving machine, and half of the time it’s extremely watery.
There is also always food at club meetings. Leftover from the debate meeting last week were some breads and cheeses, for instance.

My roommate is cool. He’s very easygoing, and we get along well. He wrote his college application essay about Magic: The Gathering – a trading card game. Our schedules are kind of opposite (except that we’re both in SLE). So, I get back from my Justice class at 1, and he leaves for math at 2. He has an introductory seminar on if computers can think/feel at 9am on every day except Friday, and I don’t have class until 11 or 3 on any day except Friday.

The dorm as a whole is also pretty good. All of the frosh in my dorm are in SLE – SLE is the residentially based intro to humanities course that all of the nerds take – which means that we all have at least something in common. It’s a good atmosphere.

Outro
I’m writing this in an effort to more closely keep in touch with everyone. I plan on continuing to write updates periodically. I encourage you to do the same!

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008