Category Archives: College

My College Experience

Cornell

Yesterday, I took my final final exam. Now, short of receiving a piece of paper, I am done with college and also with the formal education system (for at least the time being).

I’m not a sentimental person, but I am a reflective person, so I feel compelled to write about my experience.

Several other posts already covered various aspects of college and also of Cornell specifically:

There are in total 35 blog posts (as of writing this) under the College category, including the ones listed above. But the most important post comes from before any of these, before even stepping onto the Cornell campus, and it is related not directly to Cornell, but to the University of Chicago, a post on Andrew Abbott’s “The Aims of Education” speech.

Abbott’s main argument is that education is not a means to an end, but the end in itself. He goes through why education is not best viewed as a way to improve financial status, a way to learn a specific skill, a way to improve general life skills, or a way to survive in a changing world. Instead, “The reason for getting an education here—or anywhere else—is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself.

This philosophical point I carried throughout my college experience. It is why I find it absurd to worry about the GPA of oneself and others so much: you’re here not to beat other people, but to be educated.

There is a lot of interest in the relation between academic study and the real-world job market. One hears jokes about English or psychology majors working in jobs having nothing to gain from an English or psych degree. But my situation is actually similar. As a math major pursuing a theoretical track (originally thinking about academia), I’ve encountered concepts that, at least currently, have no practical application. That’s a blessing and a curse. In the post I wrote about why I chose math, one of the pro points was precisely the abstraction of it. So, even though I will be working in a math-related area, it is almost certain that knowing that normal spaces are regular, or that the alternating group on 5 elements is simple, is useless.

Of course, it does help to know calculus and to have a good understanding of probability. But at least over the summer, we rarely ever used concepts that were outside my high-school understanding of probability or calculus. In other words, I could have majored in English and have been just as qualified.*

*(Perhaps taking many math classes trains you with a certain type of thinking, but this is hard to specify. I haven’t thought too much on this so if anyone has other ideas, please share them.)

Another thing I haven’t really talked about in other posts is socializing. I’m an introvert (INTP), and I could easily spend all day reading thought-provoking books or watching good movies without the slightest urge to unnecessarily talk to another person. I used to ponder this, but after reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet, I’ve decided to not worry.

Academically, I’ve expanded my horizons a lot since coming to Cornell, though not from math courses. While academia in general can be thought of as an ivory tower of sorts, math (and/or philosophy) is the ivory tower of ivory towers, so it is sometimes refreshing to take a class in a different subject that is only one step removed from reality.

In addition, I managed to keep this blog alive through college, though there was a period of time in late freshman/early sophomore year where there were few posts. By junior year, I was back in a weekly posting routine. And a couple of months ago, I started doing 2 posts per week, and that has been consistent so far.

Finally, I also subscribe to a quote allegedly by Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Even after college, I will always find opportunities to learn.

Overall, Cornell has been a great experience, and I would definitely recommend it, even if not for the reasons you were looking for. Enjoy, and keep learning!

The Hypercritical Condition?

liberalism-hegemony

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Young Minds in Critical Condition.”

It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.

Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?

Being a student in the sciences, I don’t experience this kind of humanities phenomenon directly. But this ultra-critical mindset pervades everyday life, at least at an elite university. Students engage in this “intellectual one-upmanship” all the time without even realizing it. Try using Thomas Jefferson in a pro-freedom argument and you get the response that TJ owned slaves, thereby invalidating whatever moral or legal progress he allegedly made; therefore, the takeaway point is that the liberal notion of freedom was built on detestable foundations.

Also from Roth:

Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Even for my own blog posts, I sometimes run into critical comments which, instead of saying something substantive, completely miss the main point and belittle some small detail that I had usually already considered and addressed elsewhere in the article. One is powerless to defend against such criticisms, as preemptively placing ample amounts of caveats is no deterrent. It just changes the criticism from “The author does not consider X…” to “The author dismisses X…” followed by a pro-X argument, where X is a counterargument that the author has already considered.

Not that critical comments are bad—they’re quite useful. Constructive criticism is a hundred times more helpful than praise. Perhaps the issue is a self-fulfilling prophecy of blogging: since people don’t expect complex arguments with caveats, they assume that everything you say is absolute, even when that is clearly false. And it is not just in academia or blogging. Go to the comments page of any remotely controversial news story (I really enjoy reading CNN comments), and you can effortlessly predict which arguments and counterarguments are used.

Hilariously, one of the comments perfectly demonstrates the point of the article.

From user “reaylward”:

“Critical” in this context means close or analytical, not disparaging or condemnatory. Thus, a critical reading of a text means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. The “historical critical method” of interpreting the Christian Bible, for example, means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. “Critical thinking” doesn’t mean “exposing error”, it means thinking analytically. I think they need a dictionary at Wesleyan. And I mean that in the critical sense.

And a response by “Austin Uhler”:

Your comment is an example of the type of thinking that the author is discouraging. While you are correct about the strict meaning of “critical” in this context, your uncharitable reading means you are missing the author’s point: it is becoming more common for students to take critical thinking down negative, dismissive and unproductive paths.

This is probably the best comment-response pair I have ever seen for a NYT article.

Is the hypercritical condition a legacy of postmodernism? Is it simply a byproduct of the Internet? Are we becoming more cynical? I don’t know.

Being hypercritical is certainly a better problem to have than being uncritical. I appreciated Roth’s article nonetheless, for addressing the overly critical crowd.

When Principles Collide

One of the things about growing up with a sheltered life is that you rarely ever have to stand up for your principles. This could be due to several reasons: maybe they’re not really your principles, but your parents'; maybe you’re just not placed into situations where conflicts occur; maybe your principles themselves seek to avoid confrontation. I recall so many times when I was younger that I had some well thought-out idea for something but then instead went along with someone else’s idea without question, in the interest of avoiding conflict. I’m not saying that you should always insist what you’re doing is correct, but I think on the spectrum I was too far on the side of passivity.

Throughout college (and perhaps starting senior year of high school), I found myself more often at points where I needed to disagree. It wasn’t really conflict for the sake of conflict, but rather to get to the truth or to make a situation better, by challenging faulty ideas or plans. I think this change is evident on my blog: in the past, most of the topics I wrote about were very non-controversial, but recently, they have been more questioning of commonly held ideas. Granted, my online persona (including on Facebook) and my real life character are still quite different—in real life I don’t go around seeking to criticize peoples’ religious beliefs, an activity that is reserved for the internet. That’s another topic.

Contradictory Principles

For a really simple example, consider the principles “be honest” and “don’t be a jerk.” Everyone follows these principles, and most of the time they support each other. You’d be quite a jerk if you lied to your friends about so many things to the point where nothing you say has any credibility. However, when you find minor fault in something someone did, you could be honest and tell them, but most of the time it’s better to be silent about it. Of course, the best choice depends all on the situation.

contradiction-signs
I respect both ownership rights and aesthetic cleanliness—do I pollute whitespace by citing the image source, especially if the image isn’t all that special?

Perhaps a more pertinent contradiction is that between tolerance of others and… tolerance of others. For example, most of my audience probably tolerates the LGBT community. Yet, there are many people in America who do not. This leads to a tolerance paradox (that I think many of us don’t think about): Is is possible to simultaneously be tolerant of LGBT individuals and tolerant of people who are intolerant of them? Is a hypothetical all-tolerant person also tolerant of intolerance?

This depends somewhat on how you define tolerance, but it points to a deeper issue, that simply using the principle “tolerate others” is insufficient in these fringe cases. There must be some overriding principle that tells you what to be tolerant of and what not to be tolerant of. I think that being intolerant of intolerance is still tolerant.

In chess, one of the most important principles, among the first to be taught to new players, is to never lose their queen unless they can get the opponent’s queen as well. While this is a great principle 99.9% of the time, there are cases where losing your queen (for no pieces or just a pawn in return) is the best move, and there are even cases where it is the only non-losing move. It’s because the principle of “win the game” overrides the principle of “don’t lose your queen.”

Interestingly enough, even meta-principles can contradict one another. For me, “stand up for your principles” is a good principle, and so is “be open-minded about your principles.” Often blindly standing up for principles is a very bad idea (in the typical novel/movie, the antagonist may have good intentions but focuses on one idea or principle to the exclusion of all others, thus causing more overall harm than good; on the other hand, this principle seems required to become a politician).

Throughout my first two years of college, I wanted to go into academia, and I naively shunned finance because I thought people went into it just for money. Of course, once you start thinking about what to do after college and the need for money comes closer, you realize that you need money to live(!) and that despite the negative outside perception, the industry is not all evil people trying to figure out how to suck away all your money. Of course, on the “stand up for your principles” front, this change fails pretty hard, but it follows “being open-minded about your principles,” which I consider to override the first in this case. After all (to add one more layer of contradiction), it is standing up for the principle of being open-minded.

Standing Up in a Crowded Theater, Studying for Tests, and Other Game-Theoretic Dilemmas

Everyone is sitting down in a crowded theater, comfortably seated and with a good view. All is well until one person decides his view is not good enough, so he stands up to get a clearer view. This ruins other peoples’ views, so they stand up as well. A while later, everyone is standing up but has the same view as before, resulting in each being in a position strictly worse than when everyone was sitting.

This particular example is typically avoided since the social norm in a theater is to sit. In fact, in numerous examples of this game, there are either direct (laws) or indirect (social norms) methods of control to prevent such disasters from happening. Here are two for illustration:

  • Crime. If one person stole a little, this person would be in a better position and society would not be harmed by much. However, if everyone did this, society would collapse. The criminalization of theft prevents this problem (for the most part). This concept applies to many types of crimes.
  • Environmentalism. If one person polluted more, there would be virtually no change to the environment. However, if everyone did so, the environment would feel the full effects. (This still isn’t quite resolved, but in most developed countries it is well on its way.)

From a game-theoretic perspective, however, each individual taking the selfish path is making a rational decision. The problem is that the system may not discourage the selfish activity sufficiently.

Someone who doesn’t recycle may (justifiably) argue that they do in fact care about the environment, but that the impact of their not recycling is negligible to the environment. While this is true, if everyone thought like this, then we would all be standing up in the theater. The main point of this post to go over some less commonly cited situations.

Studying for Tests

I would argue that studying for a test falls into the category of standing up in a theater. From both high school and college, I have observed or have heard of people studying hours upon hours for tests and often barely remembering any of the material after a semester. A test should measure how well you understand something, not how well you can memorize and cram facts into your brain for the next day.

People who know me from high school and college know I don’t study much (if at all, depending on the class) for tests. Perhaps some see this as a sign of not caring, but I would argue that I care about the knowledge just as much, if not more, than people who study far greater hours. In the cases where I do study, I go for the “why” rather than the “what,” and I study to load the concepts into long-term memory, rather than the details into short-term memory. If you do need the details at a later time, cram it in then when it is relevant and when you have the big-picture understanding.

Let’s pretend that studying for tests were not allowed. Then what would a test measure? Would it measure how much attention someone paid in lecture? How well they comprehended the main points? What part of the homework they didn’t copy from someone else?

In fact, everyone’s grades would still be similar. In classes where grades are curved, if everyone does “worse” on a test the same way, then the grades will be unaffected (though there may be some shifting around). The tests would just become more genuine.

So it may seem like I have something against studying for tests. But what part specifically of studying for tests do I have an issue with? Well, as mentioned before, I think if everyone studied for tests, it makes the test scores more a measure of who studied the most and who could cram in material the most efficiently, instead of who actually understood the content. But even if this problem were somehow irrelevant—letsay an irrefutable study comes out tomorrow saying that cramming ability is just as relevant for the real world as understanding—I would still have an issue with studying, namely the time spent. Suppose someone is taking 4 classes and studies 4 hours for each midterm and 8 hours for each final. That’s 48 hours spent studying in a semester. Multiply that by 8 semesters to get 16 days spent on studying. These 16 days are the difference between sitting down and standing up.

Preparing for Colleges/Job Interviews

Sure, the informative power of some of the tests I’ve mentioned above may be arguably above zero. For example, maybe it’s feasible that a dedicated premed student university should cram before a bio test because the details do matter, though the question remains of whether such a student will remember anything years later. But there’s still one very important test taken all around the country that really has no arguable intellectual merit: the SAT.

This test is probably the biggest insult to intelligence when taken seriously. I try my hardest to resist cringing whenever I hear smart people talking about their SAT scores. From the CollegeBoard site:

The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a suite of tools designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that’s fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.

Yes, I’m sure it’s very “fair to all students.”

sat-scores-by-wealthAnd I’m sure that by “keep[ing] pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century,” what CollegeBoard means is that the skills required for success in today’s world are… wealth, certain racial backgrounds, and access to prep courses.

Anyways, I guess my point is that if nobody studied for the SAT, nobody took prep courses, and no one cared so much, then:

  • Students wouldn’t be wasting their time studying for it.
  • Many families would save time and money on SAT prep by not having to do it.
  • As a result, less privileged students would stand a better chance, and thus the test would be more fair.

Of course, while this may sound good, it is easier said than done. To not study would be shooting yourself in the foot, or in this case, to sit down in the theater in which everyone is standing. It would be like one country’s reducing its greenhouse emissions while other countries are not decreasing theirs.

(Personally, I refused to study for the SAT, though at the time I had to give off the impression that I was studying for it to appease my Asian parents. If you really want the story, it’s in the latter part of this post.)

I would go further to say that preparing for job interviews in some ways fits this type of game. On this subject, however, I have very little experience as my only important interviews were of the type where it would be very difficult to prepare for, i.e., math puzzles. Answering such questions did not hinge on knowing certain advanced equations, but instead on using simple tools that almost everyone knows, in unusual ways.

In addition, I understand that an interview not only judges the answers to the questions, but also the interviewee’s character. If it is evident that someone prepared a lot for an interview, that fact in itself would be considered in the interviewer’s assessment. However, I think that in a world in which no one prepared for interviews, both sides would benefit as the interviewee would save time and stress while the interviewer gets a more genuine view of the interviewee, not a carefully constructed outer shell.

And for a preemptive defense, to the claim that studying or preparing is simply a result of competition, I have nothing against capitalism or competition. If anything, freeing up students’ time from studying for tests would make them be able to compete in other areas, and be able to take additional classes or learn new skills (I picked up programming while pretending to study for the SAT). I see the time wasted as an inefficiency. The point of not studying is to have more time, and hence be more productive.

Sitting down in a standing theater is a difficult decision. But if everyone sat down, we might all live in a better place.

On Senior Year

Cornell Tower

I’m a couple of months into my final year of school. This post is a reflection on my senior year so far and the Cornell experience in general.

Differences

Senior year has been quite different from any other year. This is largely due to a more carefree attitude resulting from having post-college employment already lined up. In addition, this is the first semester in which I don’t have to take any distribution requirements, so I get to take whatever I want.

At first glance I seem less incentivized to do work. But in fact, it has made me more productive than ever before. Not having to research companies/grad schools, fill out applications, prepare for interviews, etc. frees up a lot of time. I feel much less stressed than in earlier years, and I feel happier in general. I now have the time for introspection, to put aside the act and think about what I truly care about.

Cornell

Cornell

Even though I am majoring in math, most of the greatest classes I’ve taken were not in the math department. Intro classes in astronomy by Steve Squyres and sociology by Ben Cornwell were very eye-opening. Computing in the Arts (by resident genius Graeme Bailey) was a refreshing multidisciplinary class that truly combined everything together. And in math, the honors intro sequence (2230 & 2240, by Ravi Ramakrishna and John Hubbard respectively) shattered and rebuilt what I thought math was.

But the learning extended far beyond classes. I’ve met some really amazing people here from all over the country (I wanted to say world, but that would be a lie). And of course, the Cornell experience wouldn’t be complete without seeing famous people, whether through lectures, connections, alumni status (Bill Nye), or even pure coincidence (*cough* Bill Murray).

The Future

It feels strange knowing this will be my last year of school. If you count kindergarten as a grade, that’s school for 17 years consecutively, and that could have been more if I were going to grad school. I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in the academic life, and it feels like almost a relief to be headed next year into the real world.

My Spring 2013 Semester (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

I’m finally done with the semester. As I wrote in part 1, this has been my busiest semester at college. Most of the time was spent on one class: CS 3410, or Computer System Organization and Programming. I’ve probably spent twice as much on this class than all of my other classes combined.

On the other hand, I did learn a lot from this course. While I do not regret taking it, this kind of workload does call into question the decision to go for the CS degree. As I wrote before, going for the CS degree will negatively affect my ability to take more advanced math courses. Even this semester, I felt I had almost no time to study math on my own. In my math classes I was pretty much doing the bare minimum so that I would have time to work on CS. Next semester I will most likely be going pure math.

Relatively-Prime-Grid-Points

Anyways, for the summer I have an internship in New York City, with one week in London.

My Spring 2013 Semester

I am sorry for not having posted in a month. My schedule has been busymainly from some heavy projects in computer science courses.

pipelined_processor

For instance, one of our projects was to implement the above with fully functional logic circuits. If anyone is wondering, this diagram outlines the high-level design of a pipelined computer processor. We then wrote some assembly code to run on this processor, specifically to compute the stopping time of the hailstone function.

As a result of the CS workload, I haven’t had much time to do math—my math blog has not been updated since March.

Anyway, this has been my busiest semester yet at Cornell. Now that classes are over, I will get back into a weekly posting schedule.