Students of the Cubicle

Expectations of qualifications in the hiring world seem only to go up in scope and complexity, so much so that I think people forget that they’re not meant to be in school forever. I hope that as I grow and gain new experiences I’ll get a clearer idea of how to address or attenuate this confound.

Nearly two years ago, a professor of mine assigned our class to read Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article “The Problem with Silicon Valley,” which is how I originally came across the writer’s work. I’ve closely followed him since then and more recently started listening to his podcast Plain English in my spare time. So when Thompson’s then-latest piece “We’re Missing a Key Driver of Teen Anxiety” came out a few weeks ago, it might not surprise you that I dropped what I was doing to read it. In the piece, he starts by recapping the ongoing debate over the economic and psychological implications of Columbia University’s decision to remove standardized testing requirements from its college applications. By the end of the piece, though, he highlights “the paradox of wealthy nations,” in which countries appear to have happier adults with societal advancement while yielding increasingly unhappy youth. The culprit? A culture of obsession over high student achievement that’s seeming to cross into unhealthy territory today. “Adolescents go through a kind of happiness slingshot, in which stress early on springs them toward greater wealth and well-being later in life,” Thompson said. I found his take to be particularly refreshing for a number of reasons, especially as social media’s negative impact is becoming a tired trope with hardly any useful insights as far as I can tell. Maybe it also resonated with some deep-seated resentment stemming from my own experiences and how I’ve come to believe that one’s life can be infected by such cultures and obsessions. If I had the inclination, I could list right here several personal qualms that are either brought on directly from school, exacerbated by school, or rendered insurmountable due to competing interests of so-called “student achievement” that demand the time and energy I would need to deal with the issues. But I digress. What initially arrested my attention was that the article appeared to be about adolescents, judging from the title, yet the featured image at the top included young individuals sitting in cubicles.

When I stop and think about it, the pervasiveness of these negative experiences of youth seems almost obvious, dare I say. Perhaps my line of reasoning is misguided, but when I try to imagine my life in the absence of school—an institution that has been some significant part of my life for as long as I can remember—it seems like it would be a profound weight off my shoulders. That said, it’s uncontroversial, at least in my neck of the woods, to say that pursuing a degree in higher education is an essential undertaking that cannot be omitted. It’s a time-tested source of stability and social mobility.

But if there is an equivalent in a university to working in a cubicle, that’s probably the state of mind in which I’ve spent the past few months—years, even. I do feel quite often that I’ve already crossed the point of diminishing returns, and pushing through this last part of undergraduate study is more performative than it is substantive. I hope that I am wrong about that.

More generally, Thompson’s thesis is so simple and glaring—and maybe that’s why it stunned me. As he’s also suggested, many of us in the ivory tower are rewarded for writing dense prose that wraps ideas in ever-inaccessible layers of abstraction. I appreciate that he can bypass the fluff, cut to the heart of the matter, and manage to throw some humor in there as well. I think that to surrender to the educational system as it is structured currently almost normalizes the misery of school while ignoring the ephemeral joys that can be found in daily life as a student. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone decry the mentality of “well, when I do or get x, then I’ll be happy.” Yet that’s tacitly the mentality anyone embodies if the necessity of unpleasant aspects of their daily life is based on some distant promise—such as the next revered academic appointment or an impressive job title at an influential company. All the while, expectations of qualifications in the hiring world seem only to go up in scope and complexity, so much so that I think people forget that they’re not meant to be in school forever. I hope that as I grow and gain new experiences I’ll get a clearer idea of how to address or attenuate this confound.

Gripes notwithstanding, it would be misleading not to mention the many academic experiences from this past quarter that have harbored some faith. For example, MATH 159: Discrete Probabilistic Methods was one of those gems where you can explore something deeply fascinating and nuanced with unbounded curiosity, while succeeding academically as well. On the first day, while Borga was reviewing bipartite graphs, he mentioned in passing that there are some proofs related to what he’d written on the board that were open questions for decades before people fully figured it out. “So lots of the homework questions are going to be like this,” he said. “They will either be labeled ‘hard’ or ‘very hard.’” As you can imagine, this remark sent a chill down my spine, but after a few days I came to love the class. Professor Borga’s lectures reminded me of Professor Piech from a previous class I took, in subtle ways. There was never a dry moment during lectures. Borga’s wit and compassion were always there, and I enjoyed talking to him during office hours about partial differential equations and his favorite math YouTube channels, Numberphile and 3Blue1Brown.

CS 224N: Natural Language Processing with Deep Learning is another course I took this quarter that holds a special place in my heart. Indeed, I had wanted to take it since I came across a YouTube video in high school that exposed me to recurrent neural networks in TensorFlow. Well, actually the interest had been developing before then, for ultimately, I am someone who loves stories. I love to read stories, tell stories, and learn about how the methods of storytelling have evolved alongside humankind, including with the relatively recent innovation of writing. There are a ton of languages spoken and written around the world, even though I just speak one of them natively. That said, by dipping my toes in various other languages over the years, I actually got a better, more traditional understanding of how the English language is grammatically structured. Analyzing language through NLP methods presents yet another perspective into these fascinating systems we’ve developed over time to transmit our thoughts and feelings from one place to the next. And of course, with ChatGPT, we’re getting a sense of how powerful (and fallible, alas) large language models can be in a range of applications. Incidentally, it’s also given me all sorts of ideas for how the technology can be applied to the journalism space. Not to mention, essentially every lecture of CS 224N brought something new to mind that I had not considered before, and many of the topics seemed to keep pace with current events and the latest developments at the frontier of the NLP field, both academically and industrially. To be part of that movement, discovering the limits of what humankind knows to be possible, is an exhilarating feeling.

The “minBERT” final project was stressful at times, but overall I think I managed the workload relatively well. One aspect of the class I did not anticipate was that hundreds of people take this class every year, and this year CS 224N was actually the most popular class out of all being taught in winter quarter. So often I had trouble accessing a member of the teaching team when I was stuck. At the end of the day, though, it never ended up hurting to spend more time refining my PyTorch skill set, as well as my familiarity with setting up virtual environments for deep learning, reading NLP papers, and using matrix calculus to represent statistical relationships between words, phrases, and linguistic constructs.

That brings me to CS 206: Exploring Computational Journalism. It was a phenomenal way to bring people together from across disciplines to ask fascinating questions, tinker with technology, and consider the rapidly shifting journalistic landscape. Throughout the quarter, students are put into groups and work together on software that addresses a specific problem space in journalism. My group was focused on simplifying and informing editorial decisions on what to cover, when to cover it, and what stories to prioritize. I wore several hats in this project-based course, but I think my contributions were strongest when I could act as an intermediary. A lot of this class is about bridging gaps between people from different backgrounds to enhance how journalism is practiced and how readers can best be served, and emphasizing robust software without getting bogged down in the weeds for too long. Drawing on my intersection of technical and journalistic experiences, I defined high-level goals and identified several familiar APIs and React libraries that enabled us to come running out the gates. We never looked back.

The end result was Storytracker, a web app that aims to assist users discover real-time differences in the subject matter, emphasis, and timeliness of various publications. We had imagined it being used to evaluate how coverage of a story has evolved over time, comparing how different newsrooms cover the same story, and comparing the density across topics for each newsroom. Source code is on GitHub.

The objective with UI design was to embody the look and feel of a newspaper, with minimal color, touches of serif typography, and a generally clean aesthetic. For convenience’s sake, we chose three high-volume publications to showcase in our software: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News. Given how many stories they publish every day, we had tons of data points for web scraping and analyzing features of their newsworthiness decision-making process. That way, we figured, there might be more ways for us to discover and deliver insight into what kinds of decisions newsrooms are making and possibly why, given the emphasis, context invoked, related concepts or sources interviewed by one publication and how those may differ from another publication, even when covering fundamentally the same story as it develops.

Of course, if we could just define, in English, what we mean when we say newsworthy and then have a computer magically attend to that definition we provide in real-time, it would be pretty nice. One step at a time. Besides, newsworthiness can mean something slightly different for every reader, reporter, and editor, but for reference, this how my group defined it, in four segments:

  • Impact. The gravity of implications for an audience or distinct group of people.
  • Timeliness. How long ago an event occurred; dynamically changing circumstances.
  • Incongruity. Something that disrupts the status quo or preconceived notions; conflict, weirdness.
  • Prominence. The “why” of a story; physical or social proximity, human interest.

If we had more time, I think that we could have made something even more refined, but with the quarter system, we had 10 weeks, which really was more like eight since we spent the first two weeks just trying to get organized into groups. In any case, it was a lot of fun, and I’m proud of what we did. Not to mention, the teaching team was phenomenal, and I’m just so grateful to have had the opportunity to be in that class.

By the way, speaking of moments of joy as a student, I haven’t yet mentioned PSYC 215B: Introduction to Psychedelic Medicine. Prior to January, I had not, in earnest, taken a look around the School of Medicine before. Despite the distance I had to cover every time I went to PSYC 215B lecture, I’m better for the walk. Otherwise, I might have never discovered this space so serene.

Charming, isn’t it? Oh, and there’s the class itself as well. PSYC 215 was a fascinating, continually evolving class that could use a blog post of its own. We learned about the frontiers of psychedelic medicine and the related science, culture, and phenomenology. My final presentation, if you’re interested, was about the parallels between the effects of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine and near-death experiences, and heavily referenced this 2018 study on the topic. That area of research and treatment appears to be quite nascent, but I’ll be following it closely. The class also acts as a great branching-off point for members of any discipline. Shoutout to the teaching team for putting together this remarkable intellectual and spiritual expedition.

I also took CS 161: Design and Analysis of Algorithms this quarter but am struggling at the moment to think of something inspiring to say about that course. Whoops. Well, I do remember after CS 161 lecture one day, exiting the Huang Engineering Center, I was a two-minute walk from the Physics and Astrophysics Building. It just so happened that on the balcony of that building an event was about to be held by the Stanford Quantum Computing Association (SQCA). Professor Stephen Shenker of the Department of Physics was slated to speak. Typically, for whatever reason, I receive email announcements from the SQCA leadership about events on the day they take place without any prior notification. This time was no exception; the only reason I knew the event was happening was because I happened to notice when it dropped into my inbox at 8:48 that morning.

It was a wonderfully relaxed event. Only a handful of people were there, maybe 12 altogether, so we sat at a table and talked over pizza. I got to ask him questions, and he asked us questions about our lives and interests. His down-to-earth nature, humor, and infectious curiosity brought a smile to my face as I listened to him describe the story of his life, the daily schedule of a physicist, and his breakthrough discoveries in string theory. My one regret is that I didn’t manage to ask him about his research collaborations with Professor Leonard Susskind. Moreover, there’s this beautiful, awe-inspiring video on Quanta Magazine’s YouTube channel that recently came out, and I would’ve loved to hear his thoughts on how some of the ways that quantum gravity and quantum information are far more connected than one might initially suspect—or his thoughts on how the holographic wormhole experiment holds up and whether it can be reproduced.

Next time. That was probably Week 5 when SQCA put on that event, and midterm mania was reaching a fever pitch. As the story goes, one’s mind can start to feel like a slush of random words and numbers when the proverbial foot refuses to let up on the gas. So thankfully I had that time to speak with Professor Shenker, as his inspiration provided great solace and continues to do so.