December 24, 2022

Under the Hood

Ultimately, my schedule is starting to constrain me to mostly technical coursework, and I’ve resisted less and less as time goes on. But I still find ways to integrate the humanities into my daily life. Oh, and ChatGPT put generative artificial intelligence on the map this autumn.

The first few weeks of the school year are a fever dream every time. You’ve got thousands of young adults coming in from all over the world, filtering into their respective dorms. These students frantically attempt to restore some sense of home by unpacking cardboard boxes with their personal possessions and decorating the walls with posters or stocking the bookshelf with an alphabetized selection of novels that they’ve “been meaning to read.” Then, precisely 72 hours later, students find themselves sitting in a lecture hall or classroom as they embark on the first lesson of one of several courses in which they have enrolled. All the while, friends want to find a time to catch up, student organizations are ramping up their activities, and in Stanford’s case, Silicon Valley’s greatest stars are graciously showering our inboxes with invitations to on-campus recruiting events.

Coursework kept me busy, and more than 300 people applied to The Stanford Daily this year, so it was a big effort getting people assigned to the right teams and up to speed but well worth it. Overall, I think the school year is going well. The zeitgeist is definitely better than it was a year prior. Just by the arrow of time alone, we’ve all been able to get some distance from the darkest days of Zoom University, although in many subtle ways, I think for certain demographics especially, we are only beginning to see the ripple effects of the pandemic. Personally, there’s a lot that I’d love to put behind me, but I’m learning the hard way that not everything sheds so easily. The best I can do (well, maybe this isn’t a healthy strategy, actually) is to give off the impression I’m unscathed. How I desperately wish.

During fall quarter, I took three classes: CS 109: Introduction to Probability for Computer Scientists, CS 111: Operating Systems Principles, and CS 279: Molecular Biology: Structure and Organization of Biomolecules and Cells. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of instruction, as well as my level of engagement with the material. In Molecular Biology, I found the kind of boundless, interdisciplinary adventure that colleges advertise. It seems I found a class that lives up to that pitch. Each lecture featured some new idea that I had never thought about, which was thoroughly exciting, and I got the impression that I was diving into a topic to learn much more than I was taking the class to check off another box on a list of academic obstacles to graduation that have become so dominant over aspects of my psyche. Finally. The pace and assignments were fair, and as long as you’re learning about what fascinates you, you’re doing alright. I smiled a lot in that class. At the same time, my professor encouraged us not to oversaturate our schedules with technical coursework and instead seek a more complete education and personal development by exploring the humanities as well. It’s hard to understate how refreshing that was to hear. Ultimately, my schedule is starting to constrain me to mostly technical coursework, and I’ve resisted less and less as time goes on. Every now and then, I try to meet up with a friend or two for coffee or a walk, and one week I saw the Stanford Chamber Chorale perform. But the general trend that I notice is that students are intensely preoccupied with their own day-to-day obligations and optimizing them, and there’s not much of an incentive to go out of one’s way to help a fellow student or meet new people. As a result, the community turns ever-atomized and risk-averse.

In any case, CS 111 has its charms, too. While I likely would not have taken it had it not been a requirement for my major, I enjoyed my professor’s lectures and learned about a lot of fascinating material, like filesystems, memory management, and synchronization. That was not meant to be sarcastic—it sounds mundane at first, but when you’re staring at a computer for so much of the day and then get to pull back the curtains just a little bit and ask about how things work under the hood, it really leaves you wanting to know more.

As for CS 109, well, the professor I had is a gift to humankind. He took us on a journey, starting from the mere act of counting on the first day, to random variables, to the forefront of what we as a species currently know about artificial intelligence and the approximation of nonlinear functions. Each lecture was creative, compassionate, and funny, leaving a smile on my face. Problem sets were put together with care and had many of the types of questions that would make you itch to answer. Again, going into the quarter, I had pretty moderate expectations, but my expectations were surpassed time and time again. It baffles me. Somehow, this course was different, and it gives me hope. Perhaps it will give you hope, too.