The Triumph


This term was very busy. And that's by my standards. This term was the first time that I really felt like I worked hard. And it felt good. Each time, when given the opportunity, I try to push my limits because there is so much to do and so little time. And this term I found out that I have very few limits, and when I am at my limits I am satisfied.

Aside from that, spending 3 months at my limits taught me a lot. It taught me how much I can do. It taught me about how I work. It taught me more about what I value and what I don't.

I Have No Limit

Thursdays were my busiest day.

  • 930-1045: CS221
  • 1235-205: History class
  • (grab food)
  • 215-305: History section
  • 315-445: Feminist Studies class
  • 5-6: prep for debate coaching
  • 6-630: dinner
  • Bike to Palo Alto HS
  • 7-9+: debate coaching

Thus, there are 14 hours in that day between sleep, waking up, breakfast, homework, answering my tons of emails, and everything else. Or, put another way, if I did the minimum possible on Thursday, fulfilling only my daily commitments and none of my weekly commitments, I would have a 10 hour day.

In a given week, if I subtract off all time that I'm in a weekly meeting, class, sleeping, eating, or doing a weekly coop chore, I have about 60 hours remaining. That time has to fit all of the speaker events that I go to, all of the debate tournaments that I attend (meaning 4/10 weeks, I lost all of my weekend), most of my other extracurricular activities, all of my philosophical musings, keeping my room in order, shopping, answering emails, doing my non-weekly coop chores, and all of my homework. That last note is particularly significant because one unit of credit is supposed to be 3 hours of work, one of which is taken up attending lecture, which would equate to about 40 hours of homework, and CS221 probably took more time than most 4 unit classes.

In other words, I found out that my limit is not a question of my determination or intelligence but rather a question of how many hours there are in a week.

Taking Care of Myself is Important

The overall theme: taking care of myself became both harder and more important. 

I noticed that whenever I was very busy last year, the first (unimportant) thing to go was shaving every day. Nothing bad would happen and noone would complain if I didn't shave for a few days. However, at the outset of this quarter, I realized that I would not be able to handle the workload without unbridled determination, and that goes hand in hand with an extremely positive self image and sense of purpose. In other words, if I tried to get by this quarter, I would fail; I was only able to get by by forcing myself to not only succeed, but to triumph. 

So even though I was much more time pressured than at any time in my past, I made sure to do the unimportant things so that I could tell myself that I was thriving. So I was clean shaven this quarter.

I also realized that, in order to take care of myself, some things have to happen. Like eating and sleeping. If I am so tired that I sleep through part of a lecture, then it will take more work to figure out what I missed. If I can't concentrate because I'm hungry, then I won't be productive. Because my schedule everyday is so packed, this means, in practice, that there are very few times that I have in my week where I can go to a speaker event unless it provides food. I have to eat every day, so if an event is at a meal time and provides food, I can often go.

Even at a lower level, my body sends me stronger signals when I'm working at the limit. It takes a lot of energy to produce heat, and when I'm tired and low on energy, my body really appreciates warmth.

Time is Valuable: Intro

Location matters. Terra is a 10 minute bike ride away from most relevant places on campus (ie, the Computer Science building, Gates, which is at the northwest corner of campus. I'm on the southeast corner). That means that if I have an hour between classes, eating lunch at home means I have 40 minutes to make and eat lunch. Thus, I accepted that, even though I'm against eating out because it's wasteful of both money and resources, I would sometimes eat at some of the eateries on campus rather than going back to my dorm for lunch every day because my time is so much more valuable to me. 

As anticonsumerist as I was before this quarter, working at the limit made me realize just how meaningless money is at this point in my life.

The flip side of that is that I realized what makes my time valuable and what I like doing.

Time is Valuable: Labor Is

First, even though I don't really enjoy cooking or cleaning, I consider doing those things in a coop setting immensely valuable. Some forms of work are less creatively fulfilling than others. An efficient division of labor does not mean relegating those alienating chores to a less privileged caste of people. It means that we need a system that encourages every member of the community to take responsibility for themselves and their community. I try to optimize my days to save 20 minutes because I think of everything that I do with my time as extremely valuable. I can't imagine how horrible it would be to have to sacrifice 8 hours of my day cleaning up the messes of, primarily, rich white kids. I think that they deserve the same chance at having meaningful, creative work that I do. That realization would also make me feel alienated if I weren't living in a coop. We make a lot of work that we put off on other people without a thought. That's why working with the people who work for you is so important. It is very different to make a mess when you know that your friend will have to clean it up the next morning. And I realize now how big it is that my RA last year knew the janitorial staff. In Marxist terms, the counterpart to the alienation of labor as a result of capitalist overspecialization is a lack of individual accountability. In simpler terms, I think that it's important to know the person who picks up your trash if you don't deal with it yourself from start to finish.

In general, I also value hard work. One of the things that I least liked about myself in previous terms was the amount of time that I would spend doing nothing productive. Just procrastinating, playing video games, watching TV, etc. This term, because I was forced to give up the unimportant stuff, I had to give up procrastinating, and I felt very good about myself because it meant that I was focusing on things that were meaningful.

Second, I solidified the idea that I don't really like the 3 Rs (Reading, .Riting, and .Rithmatic). Obviously, as a computer science major who writes verbose letters and reads a lot, that needs some qualification.

Time is Valuable: Writing Isn't

I don't like the kind of writing that is commonly valued in academia (though my perception of academic essays could be off). 

The type of literary analysis that is meaningful to me is the type that you see in these letters. Analyzing semantics doesn't improve my values. I can't think of any instance where I gained anything from writing a lit paper that I didn't gain from simply reading the piece of literature and thinking about it or discussing it (which I do think is valuable). With some essays, I've uncovered some novel ideas, but the biggest ideas have just come from reading. The act of writing a lit paper also feels alienating because I think of writing as something that should be intrinsically productive. That is, when I write something, whether it is a letter or a speech, I write it for the people who will read it, think about it, and talk about it. I write for my community. I write for social change. Writing something that doesn't teach me a lot, will not likely forge a bond between me and the reader, will not likely be read by more than one person, and will not likely inspire social change is not something that I ever want to do. 

The same holds true for the social sciences. The type of social scientific analysis that is meaningful to me is the type that is the result of months of research. In dissertations (and real books), people spend thousands of hours uncovering insight and then compress it into a comparatively few pages. In most undergraduate social science papers, they are so short that it would be extremely difficult to say anything that hasn't been said before, and because there is little expectation of original research (because that would take months and money to do well), it is very rare for anyone to say anything that one of their sources didn't already express more eloquently. Someone would probably learn more about my philosophy by reading some of Peter Singer's analysis on utilitarianism and Camus' "The Plague" than by reading anything that I write, and someone would probably learn more about my politics by reading something by Howard Zinn, Istvan Meszaros, or Noam Chomsky (I can't think of, off the top of my head, any political issue about which I disagree with Chomsky). 

That's one reason that I write these journal entries / letters and why I like classes that assign journal entries rather than traditional papers. In my Theory of Knowledge class that I took in my senior year at South Eugene International High School, I always wrote substantially more than was required in my journal entries because it was an opportunity for meaningful self reflection and reflection about the world in whatever way I found most meaningful. Even when the entries are required, I take them seriously rather than BSing them. And the same was mostly true of the journal entries in the feminist studies class that I took this year. These journal entries not only function as a means for reflection on times when I am far too busy to engage in reflection, but they also (hopefully) maintain some level of community between me and you, even though I may not talk with you in person as much as I should. My hope when I started to write these journal entries was that they would start up a conversation between us.

My Theory of Knowledge class also assigned a more traditional essay, but because it prioritized the same sort of reflection, I got a lot out of it (and I also wrote substantially more than the maximum essay length. with the teacher's permission, of course). Rather than basing the essay around a literary or philosophical work, the prompt was on a philosophical idea, and the essay was a chance to explore that idea. Because I don't think that many undergraduate lit or social science papers will be published in a medium such that they directly better the world, that form of reflection is all that matters in a paper. And I don't think that the lit essays in academia allow for that open reflection. There is an academic voice. That voice, for some reason, doesn't like contractions. That voice doesn't like the first person even though very little of what the writer asserts is true to avoid saying "I believe" or "I feel" is actually objectively true, and personal experience is extremely important. That voice doesn't like the second person even though what the reader gains from a literary essay is one of only two things that is important about that essay (the other being what the writer gains). That voice traditionally will not allow people to speak in languages other than English or about their favorite song, even though escribiendo en el sujecto de musica might be the best way to develop a philosophical idea. I have had many 5-minute songs exert a substantial influence on me; I have had very few 300 page books exert a similar influence (though, often, their influence is greater).

In other words, I don't like writing for class because I have seen just how powerful writing can be, and when I am using all of my time doing something that I consider valuable, writing for class seems like a waste.

Time is Valuable: Reading Isn't

Reading is more hit-or-miss. There are a lot of books that I really like. I like reading the news. I like reading papers that I think are relevant. And even if I don't like a particular book, I can appreciate reading it as a form of creating common experience that allows for discussion -- that's one of the things that I really liked about SLE last year. 

I dislike reading when it seems like the teacher just threw the reading in because they could. Particularly, when the reading is assigned for the sake of content and that same content is discussed in lecture, I am unlikely to find it valuable. Thus, I rarely do the textbook reading in my computer science classes unless it covers material that wasn't covered in lecture at all. Social sciences are much more variable in how well they deal with the reading. In general, I find material that was specifically tailored for me, like lecture notes or handouts or a lecture itself, is more educational.

That's another critique that I have of some readings: there seems to be a tendency to prefer readings that are older over readings that are more directly pertinent to my life. I would much rather read Rawls than Plato or even Locke or Rousseau. What's interesting is that many of my teachers, when asked to justify these choices, don't provide a logically complete justification. They say that Plato is good or educational or pertinent to my life. However, they are silent on the only question that matters -- not cost, but opportunity cost. There are millions of valuable uses of my time. In order to justify reading Plato, I need to know why Plato is more valuable than any other writer. Because Plato is valuable, but most political science and philosophical texts from the past century or two contain all of the valuable parts of Plato, weed out the useless parts, speak in common English so that I don't have to spend time translating and can dedicate all of my time to thinking about the issues, and present new ideas that pertain to problems that didn't even exist in Plato's time.

Time is Valuable: Arithmetic Isn't. That's Why I'm in CS

As far as I'm concerned, the numbers can crunch themselves.

What I like about computer science is that it isn't just about numbers. It's about critical thinking and problem solving using a particularly powerful tool. The nature of each problem varies, as will the nature of each solution. Some problems don't need much forethought and really just need any solution, no matter how inelegant. Some problems need a systematic view of every small component. Often, a combination is best: make something quick, and then analyze it to see which part is slowing you down the most. 

What is significant, though, is that it is applied. It isn't just about any abstraction. It's actually about solving problems, and it teaches me a method for solving problems that I wouldn't be able to learn easily on my own. That's the difference between programming and computer science. Computer science is the way of thinking that allows a person to solve problems using computers regardless of what particular programming language they use or what problem they try to solve. Programming is the mechanics of the language. It's like the difference between literacy and authorship. Being literate helps with being an author, but very little of authorship is about putting words on paper -- it's much more about telling the story. Most of the breakthroughs in computer science don't have to do with any particular piece of code. They're much more about elegant solutions to unsolved problems.

If there was a social science major that had similar applied problem solving, I would likely be that major (or maybe a double major. Because CS is really awesome). However, because Stanford doesn't have a department of social movement organizing and because most of the applied classes outside of the School of Engineering are in the professional schools (law, business, education, medicine) or in extracurriculars, I wouldn't want to take an entire major's worth of non-engineering classes. When I see applied classes, like the Urban Studies 130 series on social entrepreneurship or the class on peer counseling that I took last spring or the class on relationship abuse prevention that I took this term, I take them and they are valuable regardless of their department. However, computer science is the only department that I have thus far explored where all of the classes are that valuable.


After this term, I feel indomitable. I got As in all of my classes, I learned a lot, I did what I planned to do in my extracurriculars (though I probably didn't spend enough time on the ASSU tech team), I succeeded in every tech interview that I did, I almost averaged 8 hours of sleep per night, I made some new friends, and I saw my old friends. I think that, with a small deal of caution, I will be able to take any challenge that I put myself to.