Winter, 2009 Verbose Letter

2009-03-27 – Post Winter Term Frosh Year

In short
I have had lots of fun, made lots of friends, learned lots of new things, and am, generally, having a good time.

Sorry about being so verbose. I included a table of contents in case you want to jump around. I just wanted to be comprehensive since I hadn’t written in so long. [The version on doesn't have a table of contents since it was transitioned from the old site. Sorry.]

New Virtues
One large development that my first two terms has brought is that I am now in control of my finances. I have my own bank account and credit card. I have a part time job programming. I keep track of every dollar that goes into and out of my bank account or wallet, and every dollar that I credit.
A side-effect of this is that I now have a convenient way to determine how worthwhile my spending is. When a $200 donation to Oxfam would save a life, it becomes hard to look at a spreadsheet full of frivolous purchases – or purchases that are just plain unnecessary.
I have also already gotten more than $10 of interest!

Update on Classes First Quarter
There are a number of events that take place every week. Academically, the most prominent would be reading, papers, programming assignments, and lectures.
To add to the reading list that I gave you last time: In SLE (the introduction to humanities class that I’m taking – Structured Liberal Education), we’ve read The Histories by Herodotus, Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, Plato's Symposium, Sappho’s Poems and Fragments, Plato's The Republic, Euripides' The Bacchae, Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, and The Bhagavad Gita; and in Justice, we’ve read exceprts from a bunch of Supreme Court decisions, The Race Card by Richard Ford, Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman, The Shape of the River by Bowen and Bok, Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin, War and Liberty: An American Dilemma by Geoffrey Stone, Cost of Counterterrorism by Laura Donohue, The Singer Solution to World Poverty by Peter Singer, Pursuit of the Ideal by Isaiah Berlin, and some news articles on current events.
In SLE, the lectures and class discussions seem to supplement the readings, but in Justice, the main focus is the lectures. The guest lectures since last time have been from Pam Karlan (she worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, frequents NPR and PBS, and has stood before the Supreme Court a lot), Richard Ford, Jenny Martinez (she represented Jose Padilla, a US citizen who was detained without charge on US soil in 2004), Colonel Joseph Felter (a moderate in charge of developing counterinsurgency strategy), and Jim Coulter (a Stanford trustee). The topics were wide ranging, but they centered on the themes of how to balance liberty, equality, and security to create a just society. Some of the things we talked about included the government’s role in providing education, affirmative action, civil liberties and securities in the war on terror, and domestic and global poverty. Pretty much every lecture was engaging, both in its delivery and its subject matter.
In SLE, there was a literary analysis paper every other week, and in Justice there was only a midterm and a final paper. The papers in SLE were more or less the same as I had been writing for literature classes throughout high school, but the focus in Justice was more on analytic philosophy / legal analysis – Debate definitely prepared me well for it.

In my computer science class, there would be lectures teaching programming methodology, and there would be assignments in which we would apply that new knowledge. That is, the emphasis is not just on teaching al of the words that you use in a programming language, but actually how to think in that language.
One example is the “object oriented paradigm” in computer science. In the object oriented paradigm, a programmer thinks about all of the different classes of data that he or she wants to represent – the objects – and, within each class of data, the programmer defines what operations need to be done to the data. For instance, I made a program that reads in data from a census report on how many people have a given baby name in each decade, and one of the classes of data was the database of all of the names. The operations that I would need to perform on the data involved sending that data to another other class that would graph that data.
Even with only a little bit of exposure to this style of thinking, I learned a lot. I got a part time job programming something for the communication department to run a study. I also gained an appreciation of how easy it would be to make certain small changes to programs that would make them much more usable. For instance, if the movement in a game is too slow, it might be as easy as changing a single number to reduce the built-in delay. In other words, I now have less respect for bad computer programs, and I have more respect for “open source” computer programs that let you actually edit the program itself.

Finals went well. In SLE, the final was three two-page papers in a 24 hour period; in Justice, there was a 24 hour final of about 10 pages worth of writing divided into a short answer section, a short essay, and a long essay. In computer science, the final was programming by hand. In SLE, I got an A-, in computer science, I got an A, and in Justice, I got an A+. I’m pretty satisfied with everything.

Classes Second Quarter
Winter quarter was even busier than Autumn. I signed up for some interesting classes. I’m continuing to take SLE and computer science. I’m not taking Justice again because it was only a one term class. I will be taking some smaller classes though – both in terms of the number of credits and in terms of class sizes. At Stanford, there are introsems, or “introductory seminars,” that are taught by some of the best faculty but have limits on the class size. I’m taking one introductory seminar on Noam Chomsky, the contemporary linguist and political philosopher and another on racical, ethnic, and national identity as applied to communities. The last part of my schedule is a one unit class called “Social Dances of North America.”

SLE and Computer Science were, structurally, the same as last quarter. This term in SLE, we went from Christianity to the pre-modernist era. The readings: some Buddhist Sutras; , John, and Romans in the New Testament; Augustine’s Confessions; The Qur’an and The Ring of the Dove, an early Islamic treatise on love; The Song of Roland, about a war between Charlemagne and non-Christians; “Erec and Enide” and “The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)”; selections by Aquinas; Dante’s Inferno; Boccaccio’s Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, two inversions of various middle-age values; Machiavelli’s The Prince; selections by Montaigne; Luther’s "The Freedom of a Christian"; Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, a first hand account of the Spanish invasion of the Aztecs and The Broken Spears, a set of accounts from indigenous Americans about the Spanish invasion; Shakespeare's The Tempest (I appreciated it a lot more than when I read it in high school); Descartes’ "Discourse on Method" (“I think, therefore I am”); Pascal's "Wager"; Locke’s "Second Treatise of Government”; Mandeville’s "Fable of the Bees," a precursor to Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” as a justification for economic self interest; Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Discourses; and Sieyes’ "What is the Third Estate?" about the French revolution.
I got a lot more out of SLE this term than I did last term. The section leader this term was much more conducive to productive discussion, and I wrote some meaningful papers. The final this term was a 3 day take home final, where we wrote 3 comparative 3 page papers on the works that we had read. I wrote an interesting paper comparing Mandeville and Rousseau’s theories of human nature: Mandeville thinks that people are intrinsically and irredeemably shameful, so he constructs a society where people are always distracted by material goods, whereas Rousseau thinks that there is at least a small kernel of good within people, so he tries to make a society that will cultivate it. My conclusion:
The question of human nature asks “is freedom possible?” For Rousseau, there is a kernel of freedom within each person, but that kernel is all that matters. When Mandeville looks at his self, he concludes that humans are morally reprehensible, so he constructs a society where base desires enslave everyone so people do not feel ashamed at their actions. That is the importance of situating capitalism as the ethic of greed. It is not only that an individual can help society with self-interest; an individual can only help others through self interest. To allow otherwise would open the possibility for introspection.
My other papers were less good, but they were still ok. Ironically, I got a B on that paper and an A on the other two papers. In the class overall, I got an A-. I’m less satisfied with my grade this term than last term because I put in substantially more work this term. Oh well.

Computer science this term was in the programming language C++ rather than Java. Just like natural languages, they can each convey the same information with the programs that they make, but they do it in slightly different ways.
This term, we went a lot more in depth. Many of the things that I programmed were microcosms of actual industrial applications. For instance, I wrote a program that would find the shortest path between two points, which is similar to how online map services work. I made a program to compare the similarity of two sequences of DNA. I even made a computer version of the game Boggle – you can even choose the difficulty of your board!
In the middle of the third assignment (it was a bunch of small problems involving recursion, a mathematical idea where you design your program to just simplify the problem by one small bit at a time, but you design it so that it can keep simplifying the problem until it’s easy to deal with), I decided to major in computer science. It wasn’t quite the ‘middle,’ actually. The assignment went out on Friday, Jan 30. It was due Monday, Feb 9. I finished it by Sunday, Feb 1. And I had plenty of other assignments that were due before Feb 9. But, I discovered that I would rather do computer science work. On Feb 24, I finally got the paperwork out of the way and made it official. I am still thinking about a double major with something more social-sciencey, though, like political science, sociology, urban studies, or philosophy.
There are several perks to having officially declared my major. For one, I’m on the Computer Science Majors email list. This means that every week, I get an email with job opportunities and internships, and I sporadically get emails with Computer Science events on campus. I’m also on the email list for my new advisor, Mehran Sahami, my teacher in my Autumn term Computer Science class. This means that whenever he has a lunch with all of his advisees, I’m invited also. Oh, and I also got a Stanford School of Engineering T-Shirt. It’s fairly awesome.
The final was the same format as last term’s course. This one was harder than I expected, but I ended up with 57/60 and an A overall.

My introsems were both very interesting. In the Noam Chomsky introsem, we read Chomsky’s political writings on a large variety of subjects. We read some of Chomsky’s books and articles, and we watched a movie on the theme of the reading each week. Basically, it was a class on the history of wars that the US has engaged in and countries that the US has supported or denounced for the last century or two. What I find most interesting about the class is all of the internal documents – official US policy documents, and conversations between high up officials – that are so despicable. For instance, the US supported Mussolini up until the time that we, politically, had to go to war. Also interesting is the comparative responses that the US has on various conflicts. For instance, compare the US reaction to Cambodia to the reaction to East Timor. The US sold arms to Indonesia as they were committing a genocide on the Timorese, but the US denounced the Khmer Rouge, even though a larger portion of the population died in East Timor than in Cambodia. There were over 1000 newspaper inches covering Cambodia and under 100 covering Timor.
The final was a 15 page research paper. I wrote mine about maquiladoras, sweatshops on the US-Mexico border, typically owned by US corporations, that have disgusting human rights records. The focus of my paper was on the connections between issues on each side of the border. For instance, maquiladoras aren’t subject to the same environmental standards that they would be if they operated in the US, so they dump a lot of waste into the rivers, and a lot of it ends up polluting places on the US side of the border.
Despite rushing to finish it on time, the teacher apparently lost it after I turned it in, so I had to email him a new copy after discovering that my grade in the class was listed as “incomplete.” He said that he should have it read and graded soon, though.

My other introsem was on identity and community. We read books primarily about race, class, nationality, and gender. The overall theme of the course was “Imagined Communities” (also the name of one of the first books on nationalism). That is, even though I, as an American, don’t know even a large portion of all Americans personally, still declare myself to be in a community with other Americans. Throughout the class, we looked at how these imagined communities, based on any facet of identity, developed and functioned.
Some of the different theories were interesting. One book, “How the Irish Became White,” argues that the Irish were not considered white when they first came to America. In the author’s conception, whiteness was based on privilege, not skin color, and because the Irish were a non-majority, they weren’t considered white. One thing that the professor picked up on that the author didn’t, though, was that there was originally a law against non-white people from becoming citizens of the US, and citizenship of Irish was never contested on the grounds of whiteness.
Another book, “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Briana Tatum, poses a new way to look at racism. Racism is not just prejudice. It is a systematic disadvantagement of people of color. I like this conception because it looks pragmatically at how to solve the problem of racism rather than just finger-pointing at a person to declare that he or she is racist. Rather than devoting the attention to blaming people for individual acts of prejudice, this conception focuses on helping the victims of racism. What I particularly like about Tatum’s book is how she integrates her own experiences as an educator, parent, and person of color to give very understandable and personal comments on how some seemingly benign things actually perpetuate racism and how to stop them. One example of this is just in how questions are framed: when someone noticed that the white and black kids in a high school cafeteria were sitting at different tables, that person asked Tatum “why are all the black kids sitting together?” rather than “why are all of the white kids sitting together?” or “why are they sitting separately?” – it sets the blame on the black kids.
There was no final (just papers throughout the quarter), and I ended up with an A+.

The last class that I’m taking is Social Dance. There are about 150 people enrolled in it each quarter, and the teacher goes over how to dance. We started with swing, and by the end of the quarter, we had done waltz, tango, club two step, cha cha, merengue, and salsa.

Extracurricular Activities
I’m mainly in three extracurricular activities: Debate, ASSU (Associated Students of Stanford University – the Student Government), and Stanford in Government (planning summer fellowships with people in government).

Debate has been laid back. My partner wasn’t very motivated for debate this year, so we only went to two tournaments (Harvard and USC). Stanford also hosted two tournaments (one high school tournament and one college tournament). For the high school tournament, during the first weekend of February, I helped run the tabulation room, so I was in the middle of the action for the entire time. It was a stressful weekend, but I learned a lot about running a tournament.
The Palo Alto High School Debate Coach also talked to me at the end of February about a job coaching new debaters. I’ve only been to one meeting so far, but it seems like a good group of kids. Because it’s with the school district, I also had to get fingerprinted. There’s a place to do it on campus, though, so it wasn’t too much hassle. And I discovered that they do it with just water and a scanner now – no more ink.

During the Stanford High School Debate Tournament, I was in the dorm lobby eating some leftover pizza (because I was in the tabulation room for all day and night, I didn’t have as much time for eating as I would have liked. Thus, as soon as I got off, I ate half a box of pizza and drank 2 liters of water). Because I had several boxes leftover, I sent out an email to the dorm email list, and some people quickly showed up to help me finish it off. One of the people was the editor in chief of the Stanford Progressive, a magazine published on campus. He asked me where I came upon the pizza; I told him about debate; he quickly offered petitioned me to write a column for the Progressive. I wrote it about agriculture subsidies, the debate topic for the year.

ASSU was an interesting set of experiences. I originally wasn’t going to go into student government, but this year’s ASSU executives, Jonny and Fagan, made a presentation early in the year, and they inspired me to apply to be an executive fellow. They decided to run for executive because the Stanford student government has a lot of potential to make the campus better, especially in its role in the world as a whole. For instance, during apartheid in South Africa, the Stanford student government decided to divest their endowment’s investments in South Africa (the endowment works like a bank. Basically, they just took the money out of South Africa and put it elsewhere). This led to other campuses and, eventually, other banks divesting, and it set the stage for Mandela to take power. Jonny and Fagan wanted to bring the ASSU back to what they saw as its prime.
I was the executive fellow working on web development. I managed the ASSU website and the websites of a few of the projects that other executive cabinet members were working on. This let me get a chance to work a little bit on everything. Some of the other projects that people worked on were the Green Store, which primarily sells environmentally friendly cups for use in parties and stores on campus; the Wellness Room, which works for student mental health; and the Bystander Campaign, which tries to prevent people from being bystanders when they should act to prevent abuse or to get people help for mental health issues.
Because of these experiences, I’ll be running for ASSU Senate in the first week of spring term. There are a bunch of other people running, but I’ve spent a large part of spring break working on my campaign, so I should be ready to hit the ground running. I’ll have fliers, T-Shirts, and maybe even a youtube video. And if I don’t win, there’s still a good chance that I’ll be in charge of web development for the executive cabinet.
I have also had some activities tangentially related to student government. For instance, the Students of Color Coalition had a town hall on the budget cuts at the beginning of March. They organized a rally around campus to support community center funding. The budget cuts decision was finalized on March 9, I believe.

Stanford in Government was mostly a lot of logistics. I had to advertise fellowships at a fellowship night, interview people for fellowships, and coordinate with the offices. I don’t get a lot of job fulfillment. I probably won’t continue next year. Some of the fellowships that SIG puts on are fairly interesting, though, so I might apply for one of them next year. There were only 4 or 5 people who applied for the fellowships at the National Labor Relations Board this year, which sounds like it would be really interesting.

I also frequent the office hours of my Computer Science and Identity professors. I classify this as extracurricular because my purpose in going to office hours is to build relationships with interesting faculty, not to go over class material. Our conversations do occasionally turn to the class material, though, I suppose.

Other Events
San Francisco
I went with some friends to a modernist dance show in San Francisco. It was fairly interesting. The opening act made fun of cell phones. There was also one about marriage and one where the dancers were penguins. A few of the acts were boring, but it was a good experience overall.
On a different weekend, the whole dorm went on a scavenger hunt in San Francisco. The idea was to bring a digital camera with a group of 8 people from the dorm and get photos of yourself in different places around the city. It was pretty fun, though about half of my group was disengaged.

Campus-Wide Events
In the weeks before the election, I did some volunteering for the No on Prop 8 campaign (prop 8 was a ban on gay marriage in California). Since prop 8 passed, there has also been a lot of legal work against it, and there’ll probably be another proposition that goes against prop 8 in 2010.

The week before the Stanford-Berkeley football game, the “big game,” is called “big game week.” Basically, it’s the one time where jockish rivalry overshadows all other events on campus. Most notably, Big Game Week opened by skewering a teddy bear (representing Oski, the Cal Berkeley mascot) on The Claw, a fountain on campus, and putting some form of red coloring (representing Oski’s blood) in all of the fountains on campus. They remained red all week. The fountain by Memorial Auditorium looked especially cool – it splashes its water high up, and the red gleamed in the sunlight. It was quite a sight.
Before Big Game, there was also a play, Gaities, which, each year, tells a melodramatic tale of Stanford beating Cal at something or other. This year, Oski tried to poison Stanford’s water supply, but instead only laced it with LSD. As a result, Ronald Dumsfeld takes over the administration of Stanford in order to secure the campus, and he imprisons the protagonists in Lag-tanomo Bay (Lagunita Bay is on the south edge of campus, and I guess GTMO was too far away to use). Oski’s sister, who became a Stanford student to infiltrate the school, falls in love with the male protagonist and stands up to her brother, preventing him from poisoning the air from atop Hoover Tower. There were brief cameos from some favorite administrators, and it was some good fun. The people in charge of the sound system were horrible, though. At times I couldn’t hear anything.
Big Game itself was fairly anti-climactic. The first half was fairly close. After that, we were behind. We managed to make a few touchdowns in a short timespan in the last quarter, but we didn’t keep up the streak long enough to win. And our halftime show was far less epic than usual.

There are also some social dances. The Frosh Formal was fairly early on in the term. I went with a group from my dorm. I think that this year’s Frosh Formal was poorly planned. They tried to cram 1000 frosh in an indoors area. I think that they lost the ability to allow the dance to spread into the outside after a previous dance wrecked the grass/flowers outside. The cramped-ness wouldn’t have been so bad, but there was also no ventilation, so the heat quickly became intolerable.
Aside from that, it was actually fairly fun. I met up with Adam Collins, a friend that I hadn’t seen since the Admitted Students Weekend in Spring of my senior year of high school. We played some video games after the dance was over.

There have been a bunch of speakers giving lectures on campus.

One was a radical communist / atheist under Bob Avakian. I had read some of Avakian’s articles before, so I knew that the talk was going to be fairly ridiculous, but it was still fun to see them in person.
At the end of January, there was a much more moderate communist on campus. He was a part of Socialist Organizer, an organization that’s fairly Trotskyist (versus Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party, which is very Stalinist/Maoist). Rather than working on abstract economic issues, they focus on social justice work – primarily local work on rights for immigrants, people of color, and homeless people.

The founder of microfinance (small loans to poor people., one of the largest online microfinance companies, has upwords of a 97% repayment rate), Muhammad Yunus, gave a lecture on Social Entrepreneurship – making companies that aren’t non-profits, but that have a community-oriented, rather than profit-oriented, goal. He talked about starting his own microfinance bank and other programs.
One of the most interesting parts of his lecture was the different paradigm that he proposed. In his model, when a company has a community oriented goal, they know that they need to make enough money to stay sufficient, but they don’t measure their success in terms of money earned, but in terms of people helped. He started a nutrient-enriched yogurt program to feed hungry people in Bangladesh, and so much of the effort in the company was put in making the product as efficient as possible so that it could go out to as many people as possible. Rather than focusing on advertising and fancy printing on the yogurt packages, they went with plain packages because that would have been a significant human cost even though it wouldn’t have cost very much per unit.

Stanford in Government also plans some speaker events only for their members. One lunch, they had a former FBI member coming. He apparently also had worked for the CIA for a few years. He was a charismatic speaker with some good anecdotes. Really, he just emphasized communication skills and told us not to be satisfied until we get job fulfillment. He lamented that he never became a fisher.

I haven’t been going to enough of the events at the law school. It’s right behind the post office, and there’s some interesting talk almost every day, but they only ever advertise in the law school itself, and I don’t go around there enough. One talk that I did go to was from Google’s Washington DC lobbyist. He focused on privacy issues. As someone who is rapidly turning into a google fanboy, it was a nice talk for me to go to.

There have been plenty of other technology talks, though. On Jan 14, there was one on Computer Science and Social Change. Three people in the computer science industry came to talk about their businesses. One was the maker of Facebook Causes, a social-networking application that has generated millions of dollars for charities using advertising dollars and donations. Another was InSTEDD, a company that uses Open Source social networks to create grassroots movements. A few days before the presentation, a resistance organization in Burma called them. They needed software for cell phones that allows for anonymity so that when one person is caught by the government, it doesn’t lead to the death of everyone they know. InSTEDD’s presentation was as much about brainstorming solutions with us, the students, as it was about their company. The third company, I don’t remember as well.
That talk was one of the things that helped solidify my desire to go into computer science. I had been enjoying it since I started, but I wouldn’t be able to justify it as a career choice if I didn’t think I would be able to use it to do something meaningful.

Two days later, Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, gave a talk on campus. Stanford in Government organized it, but it was open to the public. He talked about getting at the roots of terrorism – poverty and ignorance – rather than simply relying on military solutions. The public question and answer period afterwards was as interesting as the talk itself. Most of the questions were just antagonizing him for things unrelated to his talk. The first question, in fact, was someone who said “Given that you took away all checks on your power, and given that you have taken hostile actions against India, and given that …” until he was cut off, finishing with, “why should we trust anything that you have just said?”
Also interesting was that people even seemed to find a way to disagree with the things that he said rather than the things that he did. That is, he may have done some despicable things as a president, but the content of his speech was completely benevolent, and some people even took issue with that.

On Feb 10, Everett (not quite sure of his first name), a person in change of city management locally (I think in Redwood City) gave a lecture on Urban Management and Social Change. He talked about how city management has had a tangible effect on the people of his city. One of the things he emphasized was the power of local government – at the higher levels, there’s so much resistance. You have to get big bills passed, work with and against lobbies, and hope that it gets implemented correctly. At the lower levels, you can be in charge of designing and implementing the policy, so one extremely motivated person can do a lot of good. I went to the talk because I’m considering double majoring in Urban Studies for many of the reasons presented in this talk.

On Feb 24, Jackson Katz, a male advocate against men’s abuse of women, came to campus. A lot of his talk was about deconstructing the patriarchal culture. For instance, school shootings are overwhelming perpetuated by boys, but the news always describes it as “kids,” whereas whenever girls do something newsworthy, the news describes it as “girls.” He also showed clips from some of his (and his colleagues’) videos. One of them was about sexism in modern wrestling. The clips were disgusting. I had thought that wrestling was just two beefy guys beating each other up, but now the wrestling on TV includes sexualized abuse of women. In one clip, the man simulated rape after pinning the woman down. He also showed clips from “Tough Guise,” his movie about changing images of men in the media, that showed the changes in kids’ toys. The toys used to be proportional to actual people. Now, the muscles of toys (even, for instance, of Luke Skywalker), if they were enlarged to a human size, would be a few inches bigger than any professional athlete.

The first week of March was busy for speakers. On Monday, Colin Powell was speaking. The tickets were sold out for it the day after they started selling them, so I originally didn’t get any, but one of my RAs managed to get 10 tickets for people in the dorm even after they were all sold out. It was a nice surprise that he had spare tickets.
The speech itself wasn’t very content-oriented. It was more him telling jokes than anything else. That said, he was fairly good at telling jokes. One thing that I noticed, though, was a disturbing indoctrination. For instance, Colin Powell was a general during the Cold War, and he went on a diplomatic trip to talk with Khrushchev. Khrushchev was proposing peace, but Powell wouldn’t listen. When asked why, he said, “because you’re a commie.” He told this story with such ease – the tone was as if he didn’t value ideology over peace, and it was weird how that tone didn’t match the content.

On Tuesday, Peter Singer came to talk about his new book, “The Life You Can Save.” Peter Singer’s big issue is global poverty (though he’s also famous for his work on animal rights). The thought experiment he starts with: you see a child who will drown if you don’t save them, but you would have to ruin $300 shoes; do you save the child? Overwhelmingly, people say that they would save the child. From this, he derives his moral principle: if you can prevent something bad happening without causing a harm of comparable moral weight to yourself, it is immoral to not prevent that harm. He then goes from abstract to specific: children die from poverty every day, and it only costs about $200 to give them the health education or to give their families agricultural supplies so that they can live. The things that people in the US would give up certainly don’t have the same moral weight: 14% of the $100 billion of food waste in the US annually is sealed and not expired; people drink 31 billion liters of bottled water at more than a dollar per liter where it would be practically free out of the tap.
Rather than simply relying on his logical argument, he also answers some myths about charitable giving. “Isn’t the US philanthropic?” Even if you count private philanthropy in addition to government aid, less than one thousandth, or about 0.07%, of national income is dedicated to international aid, which puts us second to last among industrialized nations. This is especially weird because most people in the US say that the US gives too much aid. When asked how much aid they think the US should give, they say that 5-10% would be a good amount. In other words, people think that we should “cut back” by giving 50-100 times as much as we currently give. “And what about domestic poverty?” Singer makes a distinction between relative and absolute poverty. Relative poverty means making less money than the people around you. Absolute poverty means that your family has food insecurity, cannot save any money and is constantly making a choice between eating or going in debt, cannot educate your kids, has no stable house, and doesn’t have access to safe water. In the US, 97% of people classified as poor own a color TV and three quarters own a car. That’s not to say that they aren’t relatively poor, but it is a qualitatively different kind of poverty. It’s a question of how you allocate your resources: $200 won’t save the life of a relatively poor person, whereas it will save someone in absolute poverty. He also answers plenty of other objections, but I’ll spare you the details.
What’s good about his book is that he tries to establish a culture of giving rather than solely relying on his logical argument. Statistically, people are more likely to donate if they know someone else who donates. People are also more likely to donate if they know of one specific individual who will benefit from their aid. It’s actually kind of ridiculous: people are drastically more likely to donate when they hear that “Your $1000 will buy the medication necessary to save one life” versus “Your $1000 will buy the medication necessary to save five lives.” I always find it interesting whenever psychologists find evidence that people aren’t rational, economic beings.
I would recommend giving his book a try – it’s a good read, and all proceeds go to, an organization that evaluates the effectiveness of aid and looks at how much is tied up in administrative fees, and Oxfam, an organization that directly helps the internationally poor. I would also appreciate following my lead and giving to an organization like Oxfam that helps those in absolute poverty. Every bit helps!

The last talk that I went to was by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago who writes about the role of a liberal arts education in shaping good people. I don’t think I got a lot out of it simply because I have already read her and authors writing on the same topic. Also, the mission statement of the International High School part of my high school was more or less her idea of what a good education would aim towards, so I grew up with her ideas close to heart. More or less, she argues that people need empathy in order to interact with people from other cultures and to understand the particularities of our own culture, and people need critical thinking in order to be good citizens.

My friend from high school came over one weekend to tour the campus. He’s thinking of going into computer science, so I arranged a meeting with my computer science teacher. I also gave him a campus tour and took him to an event where, among other people, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy was speaking.
That weekend was also the beginning of a week-long flu, though, so I didn’t end up doing much.

Dorm Events
Around the dorm, there have been a few events too.
Up until finals week, there was a ‘spotlight’ activity. Each Wednesday, someone from the dorm would tell about themselves and field questions from the other people in the dorm. It was a good chance to get to know everyone.

There is also a once-per-quarter faculty night. Each dorm has them (on different nights), and the people in the dorm invite one of their professors to eat dinner. The food is especially good that night, and there’s lots of interesting conversation. I invited Mehran Sahami autumn term. Winter term, at the beginning of February, I invited my professor in the Identity introductory seminar, but he already had plans. Every one of my other professors had already been invited to come to my faculty night by someone else at the dorm, though, so I had plenty of faculty to converse with.

Each term, there’s also a hall dinner (each floor of a dorm is considered its own hall), a social gathering sponsored by the dorm. In Autumn, we ate at a Thai place; in Winter, we went to a burger place.

There’s also a SLE play in the dorm each term. It’s completely directed and acted in by students. In Autumn, we did Lysistrata. In Winter, we did Twelfth Night. Both were very humerous (if a bit short), and my roommate was the duke in Twelfth Night. He had some masterfully adapted lines. The Winter one was actually on March 7.
After the Winter SLE play, there was a White T Shirt Dinner. We wore white t shirts and ate spaghetti without utensils. We started out with competitive eating – who could eat their plate the fastest – but by the end it had evolved. Two people would start out at the opposite sides of the table. Their hands were behind their backs. When someone shouted, “go,” they would both dash to the middle, where their plates lay, and try to finish theirs first. The catch? The person on the right side had to eat the plate on the left and vice versa. Whoever got to their plate first would have to resist the other person pushing them over or moving their plate.

During Thanksgiving break, I stayed on campus (except for thanksgiving day, when I ate with Dad and Miriam in Sacramento). There was a movie marathon, and there was a lot of work for a computer science contest in my class. I was trying to make a program that would let the user easily design their own computer role playing game. I didn’t win, but I learned a lot about programming by throwing myself in head first.

During Dead Week (before finals week), there was ‘secret snowflake’ in the dorm. It’s like Secret Santa in that each person has someone else’s name secretly, but rather than giving them a gift, you give them a task. My roommate had to sing a song while wearing only newspaper. I had to dress up like a dominatrix. Lots of good, clean fun.

The first weekend after winter break (Jan 9), my dorm got on a bus and went to Tahoe for a weekend Snow Trip. We got a cabin and had some fun in the snow. And I thought that I went to California for the weather!

There are some dorm-based activities that consistently go on. Kirsti Copeland, my Academic Director, has lunches every Friday where she invites someone to speak on some academic issue. There was one on time management, one on studying for finals, etc. Greg and Sue Watkins, the Resident Fellows, have yoga on Mondays and they make cookies and have a Daily Show with Jon Stewart watching on Tuesdays. I haven’t been going to the Daily Show watchings very much, but I’ve tried to go to yoga. There were Staff Progressives every few weeks where people in all of the dorms in East Florence Moore Hall were encouraged to meet any of the student Resident Advisors that they didn’t know. A friend in Faisan (a dorm adjacent to mine) makes pancakes every Friday morning for anyone who is up early. And there are also movies and video games in the dorm for when there isn’t a more extravagant event going on.

I also managed to get my first bike flat. I didn’t notice it at first. The bike was just behaving a bit sluggishly. Then I finally noticed that it was the tire, so I filled it. The next day, when it was empty again, I took it in, and after the campus bike shop got me a new wheel, all has been well in the realm of biking. The one annoyance is that my bike lights aren’t very well sealed, so they stop working about a day after heavy rain. Ah well.

The Quarter Ahead
Next term, I’m continuing in SLE (10 units in Spring). I’m taking CS109 (5 units), an intro to probability and statistics for computer science majors. This will be the first time that CS109 is offered – they restructured the Computer Science major this year. I’m taking CS109 rather than CS107, the course after CS106 in the introductory series, because Mehran Sahami is teaching it next term.
I’m not completely sure what I’ll be doing with the rest of my units. There’s an introductory seminar called “The Roots of Social Change” (3 units). It’s in the sociology department, and the course will analyze different social movements that have been successful or unsuccessful and figure out why. You have to apply for introductory seminars, though, so I might not get in.
If I don’t get in, I’ll probably take CS107(5 units). If I do get in, I might also take Education 193 (2 units), a course on peer advising and counseling.

I’ll keep you posted when I have any new developments.
Keep in touch!

Sam King