Category Archives: About Me

A Stanford Farewell

I’m officially a Stanford alumnus.

On Monday, for the first time, I left Stanford not knowing when or whether I would return. Before this final departure, I could always count on another quarter on the Farm. After my first visit on April 7, 2007. After an unforgettable freshman year in Roble. After a quarter abroad in Beijing. After Thanksgiving break in 2007. And 2008. And 2009. And 2010. After every winter, spring, and summer vacation for the last four years, I always knew I would be back. But I don’t know anymore.

Commencement Weekend left me in a state of emotional deshabille, caught off-guard by the swift rate of change, tripped up by the steep derivative of college life. I cherished Senior Dinner on the Quad on Thursday night somewhat more than I have most of the other class events scattered throughout senior year, but no more than necessary: I fully expected to see all my friends for the rest of the weekend, to meet their friends and families at graduation parties, at the Class Day Lecture, at Wacky Walk, at Commencement, at our department ceremony. That didn’t happen. I blinked, and they were gone. I managed to catch a few on Sunday night, but the vast majority of my Stanford community packed up and peaced out without a final hug or backward glance.

I suppose it’s understandable. Once we leave behind our hometowns to pursue our college dreams at the college of our dreams, we rarely see our own parents and siblings, let alone grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant members of our genetic networks. And Commencement is like a wedding: Families reconvene, people meet, worlds collide. Parts of your life that you’ve always kept filed away neatly and separately—freshman-year dormmates, IHUM section-mates, classmates, roommates, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, professors, mentors, TFs, TAs, RAs—all come together in a mishmash of Cardinal-Red emotion. Your furious underwater paddling starts to splash. The Stanford Bubble pops. With every senior busy trying to keep so many balls in the air, all the while packing up 4 years of Stanford memories and charting a course for those first wobbly steps off the Farm, it really is too much to ask for a full and satisfying goodbye.

Leaving us right back where we started. Sitting in our parents’ homes around the country, around the world, clicking through commencement photos on Facebook, wondering how we—the Class of Oh-Leven—went from Stanford’s newest admits to Stanford’s newest alumni when we still remember our first hall meeting like it was yesterday. It had to end someday, but did it have to end Sunday?

Maybe it did. For four years, long while they lasted, we owned that campus. Stanford belonged to us, just as we belonged to it. But for me, and I suspect for many of my classmates as well, it’s time to let go. We set off into the world now to improve and enrich lives, both others’ and our own, and even if we never return to 94305 (or collect our mail at 94309), we will forever see life through Cardinal-tinted goggles. We will always have a little Stanford in us. So this really isn’t goodbye.

Remember how we used to sign off emails to our freshman dorm lists?

Roble Love. Stanford Love.

It never gets old.

-Joel

Proud Stanford parents.

P.S. This post sounds like the writings of a religious cult. The Cardinal Cult? I’m a proud member. So is Dean Julie. Here are her farewell remarks, too good to be abridged, from the Class of 2011 Plaque Dedication (courtesy of my friend Racquel and the SAA). Readers from the Class of Oh-Leven, be careful, this will make you cry.

“The Next Truly Great Class”
Julie Lythcott-Haims
June 10, 2011

Thank you, Mona, for that kind introduction, and I want to thank you, Molly, Pamon, and Dante for the exceptional leadership you’ve brought to the role of senior class president. A role I know well from having done it myself 22 years ago (though I was not as good at it as you have been). I hear from the staff who work with you that you are among the very best senior class presidents they’ve seen ever. You gathered Oh Leven up after the scattering that is the Junior Year, refocused them on togetherness, community, belonging, put on amazing and well-attended events, and took the class pride – class love – to a whole new frothy level as seniors. And you made those dank, bomb-diggity, off the chain, prime, wicked, absolutely badass tank tops everyone is now sporting. At the next event – Senior Class Gift – we’ll talk about other ways in which you have led the class in historic ways. For now, let’s just give Dante, Molly, Mona, and Pamon a big round of applause.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Leven. [Oh Leven] I have done this before, as a senior class president standing with my own, great, class, right here, 22 years ago. And I’ve been lucky enough to stand here with all the classes I’ve seen graduate since being Dean. But there is something different in it for me today. Because you are one helluva class, Oh Leven. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Yeah, I know what you want me to say. To acknowledge. Just hold on. Let me get there.

When you were just juniors in high school, we decided what to call you. The class of 2010 was being admitted and after oh six, oh seven, oh eight and oh nine, our potential transition out of the “ohs” and the single digits was upon us – twenty ten? One-oh? But in the middle of those head-scratching, vexing discussions about what to call the class of 2010, a student on the NSO team, Brian Salomaki ’06 said, “I don’t know what we’ll end up calling 2010, but the next one can be Oh Leven!” “Get it,” he said? “Not ‘oh-eleven’ or even ‘eeee-leven’ but Oh Leven.” I got it. I liked it. Actually I loved it. Loved what we would call you even before we’d ever laid eyes on you. We had a full year to wait to try it on you, when we discovered to our delight that you liked it too. Most of you. Took some of you some time to warm to it. Right Doc? But you love it now. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven]

A year later, it was May 1, 2007. “Heads up,” the admissions office called us to say. “The frosh yield numbers are way up. We’re going to have 1750 freshmen. 75 over target.” I swore. I’m sure I swore. Because if you know me you know I have a mouth like a sailor at times. Part of my alternate identity. The part that loves I’m on a Boat, and the other version of Forget You. So after an appropriate expletive I laughed exasperatedly, “The next truly large class.” And then UAR began to spread the news to those who would need to find more IHUM fellows, more PWR lecturers, more beds. Don’t get me wrong, in UAR we love undergraduates. Some of my colleagues are here in the audience right now because you were their first class, or because you’ve been just so great to work with over these years. So for us, nothing is better than starting the four-year cycle again with a new class, just as today we are excited about FIF-TEEN as they start to round the bend toward Stanford. But let’s be real. Learning on May 1, 2007, how many of you had said yes to the admission offer was sort of like finding out in the ninth month of your pregnancy that you’re going to have twins. Our thoughts of “Oh Leven” quickly turned to “oh no,” “oh gosh,” and, well, worse.

Then you showed up. Move-in Day, Tuesday, September 18. When Dean Shaw spoke at Convocation, making an official handoff of the class from admissions to the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, he shouted “Oh Leven” at you. You know what you did? You applauded. Wildly, yes, but it was just applause. When he glanced over his shoulder at me somewhat bewilderedly, I whispered, “Tomorrow.” It’s somehow so poignant at this point to think back to that day when you didn’t yet know who were. Here. What to do. Or maybe you knew, but wondered if the rowdiness of class pride was appropriate within the formal construct of Opening Convocation in this sacred Inner Quad. After all, you had not yet been on Band Run, so you had not yet been inducted into the complete congruity of intellectualism and irreverence that is the hallmark of the Stanford undergraduate experience. You would come to know, love and live that intersection so well.

I got to meet you the next morning, Wednesday, September 19, the morning after your first night here, the drum beat of the Band Run still thudding in your head, the day after your loved ones made a tearful goodbye and went home to the place of your childhood. We had asked your dorm staff to choose who among them would bring you to MemAud – MemAud was built to hold only 1710 after all. On that morning, you came roaring into MemAud waving dorm flags and chanting cheers with people you had not known 24 hours before, with a rapturously excited innocence that brought tears to my eyes and took my breath away. “Look at them,” I thought to myself, taking deep breaths to calm my mounting emotion. “Listen to them.” You were well louder than should have been the case with 75 extra freshmen. Louder and prouder than any class had ever been. Spinal Tap’s “This one goes to e-leven” came to mind. It was your second day.

On that morning of your second day, I told you that “To get a real sense of your place in the Stanford family, you need to Walk the Walk – that is, go check out those bronze-covered time capsules commemorating each class that has preceded yours, located in the Inner Quad.” I suggested ways in which you might make that walk and what to think about along the way. And then I said, “And finally, although it is not yet there, stand and gaze four stones ahead to where ’11 will be.”

Welcome to the purpose of our gathering today. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Thinking back to the first of your days on the Farm, I realize now that you had me at hello. Intellectually curious AND kindhearted. Clever. Funny. Fun-loving. Giving. Selfless. Humble. Loving. And exuberant about being here and about each other. Grateful. By the end of your first few weeks, people all over campus were buzzing about your class. “There‟s something different about them,” people said to me. “Not quite sure what. Not more humanists or more engineers or things that are easy to measure.” I asked for examples, and people said things like, “they stayed behind after a frosh event and helped us break down the tables and chairs and recycle the water bottles.” Things like that. That spoke to your character. Your spirit. How you were raised. How you show up in the world. I called Dean Shaw. “Did you do something different this year?” “Yeah,” he said, “we want smart and kind. The other kids can go somewhere else.” People ask me if I love my job… How could I not love a job where that is the objective and you are the result?

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better came the piece of evidence that Oh Leven would be in a category of its own: Your frosh council was the first to wear the class banners as capes, Winter Quarter freshman year. With that small gesture on the part of your dorm leaders, you became superheroes to me. Superhero geeks, in paradise, with a band run. That early on, I was forced to ask myself, “Are they going to be a great class? One of those truly great classes that comes around only every, uh, 22 years?” I have never owned another class’s t-shirt. But seeing yours around campus these last few weeks, I felt yeah, it would be an honor. I know what you want me to say. Hold on. I’m getting there.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] From September 2007 to June 2011, it was your time here. And now, it is over, your time. Great class, go back with me now across the moments of which your Stanford life was made. You studied and wrote and solved — and invented and unearthed and discovered — and created and spoke and inspired — and cried and tried and achieved – and praised and preached and swore — and coped and failed and survived — and danced and sweated –and drank and sang — and yelled and cheered and my god, cheered until your heart was spent in the Red Zone, here and at the Orange Bowl — and whispered and smiled –and liked and like-liked — and hooked up and left and inexplicably hooked up again — and left, this time for good — and met and laughed — and found and loved and said it – to the person, and declared it on Facebook — and crashed and burned — and texted and tweeted and blogged — and friended and broke up, again on Facebook. And you discovered. New knowledge in your field. An empty practice room. A sandstone sculpture hidden from view. A sense of self. And you ran. The Dish. An organization. Away from other peoples’ expectations. For office. And you gave. Your time. Your effort. Your heart. Of yourselves. And sometimes it was more about Farmville than the Farm. And then you were tryna. Tryna get a drink. Tryna get with that girl or guy, yo. And you chose. A major. A mentor. To come out. To love yourself. This is some of what it looked like, felt like, to be an undergraduate here at Stanford.

Oh Leven, whatever happened here, wherever you go, whomever you are, whomever you become, whenever you actually graduate, whether you actually graduate at all, to be honest, you will forever and for always be a member of the class of 2011 at Stanford, whose time here is marked for ever more with the placement of this time capsule and the laying of this plaque which commemorates your place in the Stanford family. We are a family. And the Stanford family’s future is as much yours to write as it is anyone’s.

You know, speaking of the time capsules, rumor has it there is a piece of pizza in one of them. Ratchet, I know. What can I say? The world was far less amusing back then. No Angry Birds. No Xbox. No cell phones. No internet. No electricity. No wait. Yeah, we had that. But still, back in the twentieth century, we had to do things like put pizza in a sealed time capsule for amusement. Eighty-nine.

Forgive my trip down memory lane; to you it’s irrelevant when I went here or what I did here, I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but, this is what alumni do. And guess what? You’ll do it too. And trust me, if you reminisce near an undergrad at your 10th reunion in 2021, they’ll smile vacantly while trying not to roll their eyes thinking “like I care?” Of course they’ll have some newfangled way to diss you that even YOU will have trouble understanding. It’s just hard to relate to a different generation. This, my dear Oh Leven, is the reason we focus on the class numerals. It is our secret handshake, our password whispered through the door. It’s how we tolerate each other. Here’s what I mean. Some guy from the class of ’59 walks by me and wants to talk about when he and his buds pulled a great prank on the all-female residents of Branner. And I want to just go (in my best eighties voice), “whatever.” But instead I smile and point at his name tag and say ’59 and he beams. Get it? So it is with me and you. I can’t understand what you’re talking about most of the time, word woot whomp whatever. That’s why I’ve got you all to memorize my class year so we have something to talk about. I mean, I can figure out the abbrevs and I know when to say FML and then SMH, but when did dope become dope? And don’t get me started on ballin’ versus baller. But if you say ’89, I light up, right? And while you’re humoring me now, I’m here to tell you one day it WILL be you. You’ll be back in 2036 for your 25th, yawing about how you went steam tunneling and broke into old chem, and the seniors, the class of 2037, will be all, ee-yeah. And you’ll be all, no really, it was dope. And you’ll try to reel their youthful attention in with, “wait, wait, we had George Clooney, The Roots, and Natalie Portman on campus,” and they’ll have this look of non-comprehension that says, “who?” and you’ll be like, “What is wrong with the youth of today?” And then you’ll say, “OK. We beat USC football THREE OUT OF FOUR YEARS. And they’ll go, “USC had a football team?” as they politely turn away. But then they’ll see the ’11 on your name tag and smile, and go E-Leven [thumbs up]. And you’ll beam. And you’ll correct them – “it’s Oh Leven actually…” And you’ll start to tell a story, and they’ll glaze over. You will. They will.

And why do we beam when we hear our class year? It’s not because of the technical fact of when we went here, but because it represents all the people who walked alongside us on these pathways as we grew up here. The people who made a difference. The people we loved. Oh Leven, you were 18 together and you’re 22 together, and one day you’ll be 30, then 40, 60 and 80 together, and you’ll still look the same, at least to each other, and you’ll always be Oh Leven. And that, my friends, is what the class numerals are all about. A way to represent your love for your class, each other, this place. The class diamond symbol has been on T-shirts, decals, videos, emails, keychains, hats, sunglasses, flip-flops. Today you get to see the real live everlasting class diamond itself. When I first walked up on it today, tears sprang to my eyes. Could it be? You’re leaving us? So soon?

These bronze numerals that officially mark your time here literally protect the artifacts you chose to place beneath. It also symbolizes the memories, all of the things that can’t be put into a box and retrieved later. I was there. With those people. This is what we did. And I am different for it. Changed for the good.

This plaque goes in the ground today and commemorates those memories. Becomes the space you will always visit when you return. As a way to call up the ancestry of your Stanford experience. The faces. The places. These halls are sacred to us alumni. We come here to be flooded with the feelings, awash with appreciation, gushing with gratitude. We come here to feel tenderness, our feet at these time capsules, time and time and time again. We alumni feel tremendous love for what we cherished about our experience here. For the people. For Stanford.

You are about to be one of those alumni. You also know you’re a very special class. You’ve known since you got here. You’ve demonstrated it in every imaginable way. Shoot, at the dinner last night someone handed me one of those sick tank tops and I put it on over my black velvet dress. Never worn another class’s stuff. Symbolically, for me, I can give you no higher praise.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Speaking of that incredible dinner, the man behind the office that says “We need to do that dinner. For those seniors. No matter what,” is Howard Wolf, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and President of the Stanford Alumni Association. Standing right over there, this extraordinary human, Class of 1980, is responsible for how we nurture the relationship between Stanford and her alumni. A relationship that is about mutual respect, trust, shared experience, ongoing education, fun. And yes, it is also about love. So now, just as Dean Shaw handed you over to Vice Provost Bravman at Opening Convocation in September 2007, today I don’t have to, I get to be the one from your past who hands you off to the person of your future. Howard, I present to you the Class of 2011. In my humble opinion, they have in fact earned the title of the last truly great class at Stanford.

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Why TV Shows Aren’t A Complete Waste of Your Time

I used to think that watching TV shows was a complete waste of time. But I just changed my mind.

Exhibit 1: Hilarious TV show.

What changed?

I realized that watching a good TV show clears my mind.

These days, I always have at least 10 things circling like vultures around my mind at once: research ideas, problem sets, upcoming meetings, graduation, grad school, summer jobs, summer housing… It’s way too easy to get distracted by an “urgent” email while I’m working on a research problem—Mac Mail’s red email indicator kills productivity without fail—and the closer I get to graduation, the more thoughts of post-Stanford life start to pop up at inopportune times (i.e., all the time). It gets harder and harder to clear my mind and focus.

Enter the TV show.

When I’m watching a good show online—i.e., on my own schedule, with no commercials—I get lost in the characters’ world, a sense of flow not unlike what I feel when I’m reading a good book. The characters are crucial: I empathize with some, laugh at others, and the effortless endeavor to psychoanalyze—to make sense of the ridiculous antics, jokes, and drama—washes away all the other thoughts floating around in my head. And once the episode ends, I can jump right back into my work, thinking of nothing but the show. Turns out it’s a lot easier to forget a silly TV show than 10 stressful thoughts about my future, and when that’s gone, my mind is clear.

There are many other ways of achieving the same effect of flow, of total engagement, mind and body. Read a book. Meditate. Play a sport. I’ve tried them all, and they all seem to work. But few diversions have been as widely maligned as watching TV, and it’s comforting to me and surely some others to know that TV shows, correctly wielded, have a place in even the busiest of lives. Watching a good show with friends is like meditating, but more social and more hilarious.

The show that made me rethink TV was Community, a parody of student life at a community college. It fits the “good TV show” mold beautifully—clever, light-hearted, attractive—and it’s got me hooked. In a good way. I think.

-Joel

P.S. For those friends who don’t check Facebook, I’ll be starting a PhD in EE at MIT this fall! Just got my new email address (jjean@mit.edu), and the parka is on its way…

MIT in micro-bubbles (Courtesy of Manu Prakash)

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Life: Applied.

Grad school? Nah. Let's just be astronauts.

I finally finished my grad school (for a PhD in EE) and fellowship (for money) apps! Now it’s time to relax, run, and read some books. But first, let’s reflect

A few years have gone by, but most of us still remember our senior year of high school and the ups and downs of college admissions. Forms. Long essays. Short answers. 500 words. All kinds of letters: ECs. SATs. ACTs. Rec letters. Brag sheets. College Confidential. Common App supplements (WHY?). And of course, the all-important US News & World Report rankings. Man, I’m glad all that’s behind us.

I guess the admissions people have it pretty rough too...

But there are plenty of letters in the grad school application process too: GPAs. GREs. Rec letters. Nothing but a big rat race. Right?

The main difference between applying to college and applying to grad school is what you’ve learned in the intervening years. You can equate research statements to admission essays, GREs to SATs, rec letters to rec letters, but nothing takes away the fact that you’ve lived and learned and attended college for 1461 days from one stepping stone to the next. But… so what?

When you apply to college, you don’t really have any other options. Sure, you can take a year (or even two!) off to travel or start a company or build character or do any number of interesting gap-year activities, but let’s be honest, you—you being the type of person who wants to go to, whose parents went to, Stanford or Duke or OSU or any other seat of higher learning—are going to end up in college, sooner or later. No one questions that: It’s simply, well, expected. And sure, why not? Very few people know at the age of 18 what they want to do with their lives, and everyone knows that college is the ultimate guarantor, the yellow brick road to a successful future. Seems like a no-brainer: Go to college. Apply to a few, choose one, and go.

Now fast-forward 4 years. You spent the last 3+ years pursuing what you hope is your life’s calling, or at least a step in the right direction, which it might be, but maybe not, and who really knows anyway? The real dilemma is that, for the first time in your life, you’re an adult, and you have a real choice to make. College is college, but PhD program ≠ med school ≠ software engineering job ≠ consulting job ≠ freelancing ≠ … It’s not until senior year that you finally feel the weight of all those pesky little underclass decisions. Suddenly you’re 21, your undergrad career turns into your career career, and you still don’t know if you chose the right major.

Seniors always get asked The Question—”What are you doing next year?”—which only adds to the feeling that what we choose to do immediately after graduation will define our life’s direction. Maybe it will. But honestly, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. Just as there’s no right major, only the right motivations for choosing it (i.e., it’s interesting to me, right now), there’s probably no single right career path for anyone. As far as I can tell, pretty much nothing career-related turns out quite the way you expect it to—how many of us have changed our majors, our hopes, our dreams since freshman year?—and it takes just as much courage to pursue a possible passion as it does to pursue a true passion. How are you going to find out which is which, unless you follow through with one?

And that brings us back to the difference between applying to college and applying to grad school: As a high school senior, applying to college, I had every possible career available to me: astronaut, surgeon, chef, engineer, lawyer, anything. It didn’t matter where I went to school; East Coast or West, all those opportunities—all possible responses to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—would remain open to me. In that sense, the college decision wasn’t all that important. But the further I got into college, the more that space of future possibility funneled down into a cone of menacing definiteness—for me, {everything} => {physics, engineering, psychology} => {engineering} => {electrical engineering} => {solid-state devices and optoelectronics}. And that’s scary. But it’s also something of a blessing.

As a Stanford senior, applying to grad school, I know much more precisely what I like and what I don’t like, which means that I can narrow my options in the direction of the former and pursue it without fear. It doesn’t matter if my aim isn’t perfect. (Who knows? Maybe I’m meant to be a coder. God forbid. :)) As long as I’m headed in the right general direction—anywhere in the mouth of that funnel of life—I’m sure I’ll end up where I want to be. Wherever that is.

And I can still be anything I want when I grow up, as long as a PhD in EE doesn’t make me overqualified.

-Joel

P.S. If you’re a college student (±5 years), I highly, highly recommend reading this essay by William Deresiewicz, “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” “That” being your college degree. I think you’ll find it instructive, inspiring, and even a little disturbing in its acuity.

P.P.S. Merry Christmas!

 

Get a room, guys.

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10 Reasons to Visit China (AKA Stuff I Bought)

After my earlier post about some of the less savory aspects of life in the world’s most populous country, I think I owe it to my Chinese friends to balance the scales by writing a (literally) uncensored post about China’s better half. Now if only they had access to the Internet… Anyway, here goes.

Note: In including Taiwan’s finest in this list, I have no intention of making any sort of political statement about Taiwan’s sovereignty or the current state of Cross-Strait relations.

1. Chinese bakeries and bread – I don’t mean to hate on American bakeries, but 4 dollars for a tiny pastry? You gotta be kidding me. Chinese bakeries are like the land of the Lotus Eaters, only slightly less narcotic: The moment you walk into a Chinese bakery, a blanket of divine scent envelops you, and you never, ever want to leave. And that’s before you’ve even tasted the bread. During my 3-month stay in China, I never managed to escape a bakery with less than 2 pounds of bread, and it never failed to disappear within 24 hours.

Feeding the hungry beasts (AKA Big Brother and Robin)

2. Efficient public transportation – With a population of 1,324,655,000 (as of 2008), China has had a pretty good reason to develop an efficient, high-capacity public transportation network. In my opinion, it’s a little too good: Beijing’s 2¥ (equivalent to 29 cents US) subway, which took us from the 4th Ring to the heart of Beijing faster than any car, probably holds several world records for human close-packing, a game that I don’t particularly enjoy. On the older Lines 1 and 2, anytime from 8AM to 10PM, you can consider yourself lucky if you’re touching fewer than 4 people at once. For a quarter a ride though, I can’t complain.

Shanghai's 270mph Transrapid maglev train is pretty cool too...

3. Boba (pearl milk tea, or 珍珠奶茶) that actually tastes good – And not just good, amazing. I’ve never been a big fan of boba, but then again, I’d also never tried Taiwanese boba before. Food typically tastes better in its country of origin, and boba is no exception. The milk is delicious—I’m lactose-intolerant, and I still couldn’t resist drinking it—and the palm sugar tapioca pearls are bigger, chewier, and simply better than the best California has to offer…

The best boba in the world: Taiwan's 青蛙撞奶 ("Frog hits the milk")

4. Cheap stuff – As a tribute to Inception, here’s a list-within-a-list of things I bought in China that were so-cheap-they-should-be-illegal-…-oh-wait-they-probably-are-illegal…

1.)  Tailored suit (made from scratch in 18 hours!): $88
2.)  4 tailored dress shirts: $59
3.)  A billion DVDs: See number 6
4.)  Dinner at a fancy restaurant: $5
5.)  2 pounds of sweet rolls: $1
6.)  Train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai: $100
7.)  Subway rides across Beijing: $0.29
8.)  North Face jacket: $33
9.)  Chinese prostitute: Priceless

Just kidding.

5. Street food – If you’re willing to risk your stomach lining, there’s cheap, delicious food to be had on every street in China’s major cities. And in reality, it’s not actually all that risky: as far as I know, no one in the Stanford group ever got sick from eating street food. Some of our favorites included roasted yams, sweet buns, pineapple skewers, haw skewers (bingtanghulu), and peanuts.

Bingtanghulu: Haw fruit on a stick, coated in sugar

6. Movies that come out on DVD the day after they open in theaters

Fact 1: Today is August 2, 2010.

Fact 2: Ironman 2 comes out on DVD on September 28, 2010.

Fact 3: I own Ironman 2 on DVD.

Interesting…

7. Night markets – Taiwan’s night markets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. A massive conglomeration of food stands, street vendors, arcades, and random shops, you could spend days browsing around and still not see (or taste!) everything. Most famous among them is the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. The best strategy of attack is to starve yourself for 2 days before hitting up Shilin.

Shilin Night Market's "XXL Crispy Chicken": A big slab of fried chicken

Mianmianbing: Super-fine shaved ice covered in sweet red beans and condensed milk. It's heaven on Earth.

8. Baozi (steamed buns) – During every quarter of the Stanford Program in Beijing, students gravitate to the Songlin baozi restaurant on campus. It’s such a simple concept—meat, veggies, or sweet custard in a steamed bun—but baozi have the addictive potency of crack cocaine. I couldn’t help visiting Songlin at least 4 times a week during my stay at PKU.

Fried shengjian baozi in Shanghai.

9. Hot springs (and other beautiful scenery) – A picture’s worth… well, at least a few words.

The Stone Forest in Yunnan Province

Taiwan's legendary Sun Moon Lake. Chinese kids grow up reading stories about this place, so when they visit Taiwan, they all want to go to Sun Moon Lake.

Me, Robin, and Neal on the Great Wall

10. New friends – It amazes me how close our group of 14 Stanford students grew in just a few weeks and how quickly and easily we became friends with our Chinese classmates at Peking University. In sharing stories and comparing life experiences, we each learned about the other’s culture and discovered that we weren’t so different after all, that the college student’s experience is (somewhat) universal: A mutual understanding seems to arise when you talk to any undergrad about all-nighters and finals, papers and GERs. Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t often meet people who were truly international, and I now realize that my 3 months of living and learning in China actually gave me more insight into my own life and my own (American) culture than into the Chinese culture that I was immersed in.

Stanford Shaolin in Pingyao. After summer internships and independent travel in China, my classmates are slowly drifting back to the US. Welcome back, guys!

Note: In case you didn’t notice, the previous paragraph was an attempt to stuff as many clichés as possible into a single paragraph. I think I succeeded.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

P.S. Number 11 on the list would have been “New takes on old things,” for example…

Taiwanese spork.

The definition of "fruit"

Viagra (This is actually some sort of candy...)

Tall buildings (Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world; the tallest is in Dubai, of course)

T-shirts

English (This is a sign for a bathroom)

Self-service restaurants (This one made us catch our own fish for lunch)

Definition of "edible"

Birds' nests

Toilets

Trash cans

Palm Drive (This is at National Taiwan University; compare this with Stanford's Palm Drive)

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10 Things You Won’t Miss Until They’re Gone

There are some things in life you simply don’t notice until they’re not there.

Take toilet paper, for example. After 3 months of living and traveling in China, I’ve become a outspoken advocate—OK, maybe not that outspoken—of toilet paper in public restrooms, because it simply wasn’t there. Even when you don’t need it, it’s comforting to know that your ass is covered (pun intended), that you can waltz into the nearest restroom and grab a few squares of 2-ply just in case you spill some soymilk on yourself or realize that the street food you ate really doesn’t want to stay in your stomach.

On a related note, you can’t just walk into a public restroom in China. If you’re in a part of town where you look around and see more foreigners than you can count on one hand, there’s about a 65% chance that a trip to the toilet will cost you 1¥ RMB, paid in cash to the little old man sitting outside the restroom door. Sure, with a $1 to 6.8¥ exchange rate, it’s a drop in the bucket, but it still pains the Patrick Henry in me just a little to be taxed without representation for an act that stray dogs on the streets of Beijing perform free of charge, anywhere, to their hearts’ content. At least I don’t have to worry about getting eaten. Fair’s fair.

And they're not even that great…

Here are 10 things that you don’t fully appreciate until they disappear from your life, derived from my recent travels (travails?) in China:

1. Toilet paper – Enough said.

1A. Free restrooms

2. Personal space – As necessitated by their country’s 9-digit population count, Chinese people are quite comfortable living, eating, and working in extremely close quarters with complete strangers. I am not. We Americans like our “personal space,” the couple-foot-radius bubble of open air around us that gives us the sensation of independence and safety, and we defend it with suspicious stares and reflexive backpedaling. In China, such strategies are hopeless. Say you’re at a market in Beijing, and the shopkeeper gets a bit too close for comfort. You could back away, but your Pyrrhic escape wouldn’t be worth the energy, because two things would surely happen the moment you took a step back: 1) You’d run into 2 other strangers, and 2) The shopkeeper would pursue you. Leaving you in a circle of 3 random Chinese people. Fantastic.

2.1. Silence – Every once in a while, you just want the world to leave you alone. In Beijing, that’s the cue for someone nearby to make a thunderous choking sound and spit. I think it’s a Pavlovian response to excessive silence.

3. Clean water – When you have to use waterless hand sanitizer after you wash your hands under the faucet, you know you’re in China.

4. Breathable air – As the home of over 20 million people, Beijing has a little problem: Its air cannot sustain human life. Even after the government pulled a large proportion of the city’s cars off the road, the situation is hopeless. Running outdoors is out of the question. One of my friends tried it and immediately got sick. And the particulates in the air are so small that you can never escape them, even indoors: I would wake up in my bed each morning blanketed in a fine layer of dust that had settled overnight. After one week in Beijing, I couldn’t tell if my lungs were still alive, not until we went on an excursion to the Great Wall and I found myself marveling at my ability to take full breaths.

4+. The Sun – The pollution has a way of blotting out the sun. I felt like a dinosaur awaiting the Great Extinction.

5. Grass – As a son of the Midwest and its sprawling farmland, I’m pretty fond of grass. It’s great for relaxing, running, playing soccer, wrestling with your siblings… Too bad people in China don’t really do any of those things. (To find out why, see #2, #4, the 2010 World Cup, and the One-Child Policy, respectively)

6. Guns and Obesity – China has neither.

The real 6. Non-oily food – It seems all the food in China—at least for us commoners—is stir-fried or deep-fried. Can’t I just have a salad? Oh wait, lettuce is 95% water and washed in water, and water in China is poisonous… Darn.

7. Facebook – Sometimes you just want to Poke someone. But, oh no… You can’t. Because you’re in China. And the CCP took away the Internet.

7-and-3/4. Did I mention that the government censors texts too?

Chinese censors work a lot like this…

8. Democracy – Because it’s good to be free.

9. English – Even though I speak Mandarin somewhat fluently, my reading skills aren’t quite up to primary school standards. I never realized how exhausting everyday life can be, when even reading a restaurant menu requires intense concentration and a bilingual dictionary.

10. Family and friends – I missed you all. A lot.

The takeaway lesson? If you’re in China, always go to the bathroom before you leave home. If you’re traveling to China in the near future, practice holding it in, starting now.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

The Spring 2010 BOSP Beijing group at our graduation. Thanks for an awesome quarter, guys!

On our trip to Taiwan, I saw my grandparents and a bunch of relatives for the first time in more than a decade. Here's a "family picture" with my brother, me, and my parents' wedding picture in the background.

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A Quarter in Beijing

I just got settled into the international student dorm (read: hotel) at Peking University (PKU), where I’ll be spending the rest of my junior year. Since the Great Firewall of China won’t let me get on Facebook, I’ll post pictures and updates on this blog throughout the quarter.

After spending over 30 hours on planes and in airports, I’m pretty glad to finally be able to leave my baggage unattended and get some rest. On the plus side, today I discovered an airline that stands head-and-shoulders above any other I’ve flown, bar none: Korean Air.

What makes Korean Airlines the best airline in the world?

1. Comfortable seats – So. Much. Legroom. It made me wish I were taller, just so I could take better advantage of the ample airspace between me and the screaming baby ahead of me.

2. Thoughtful service – The (seemingly) all-female flight crew swarmed us, offering complimentary water bottles, headphones, hot towels, steamed bread, pineapple juice, and just about anything else you could ever want or need on a 13-hour trans-Pacific flight. They adjusted the blinds in sync to get everyone accustomed to the time zone at our destination, Seoul-Incheon International Airport. They even put disposable toothbrushes and toothpaste in the lavatories. Did I mention the flight crew?

3. Free in-flight entertainment – “Hollywood Hits,” games, music, and kids options––all free. I witnessed The Invention of Lying and Twilight: New Moon… OK, bad example. I also read Camus’s The Stranger, which was more exciting than both movies combined.

After years of flying domestic carriers and running around domestic airports, I realized today that Korea has us beat, at least when it comes to traveling in style. Seoul International Airport was all class, with lounges and comfortable waiting areas, open even to the commoners without 7 million frequent flyer miles to their name. Even the walkways for getting on and off planes were all-glass and infinitely more inviting than their gloomy American counterparts.

I met up with 6 other Stanford students at Gate 21 in Seoul, and a quick 2-hour flight later, we were taxiing into the terminal in Beijing. Peking University sent a bus with 4 students to pick us up and act as impromptu tour guides. We passed the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, artifacts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on our way to the PKU campus, and finally arrived at the dorm around 10PM.

Orientation starts tomorrow at 10AM. I can’t wait.

-Joel

Our common room - The room consists of 2 singles, a bathroom, and this shared space.

My room at PKU

Inscription on the free backpack waiting in our rooms. (Translation: Stanford Program at Peking University)

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Are You A Procrastinator?

Stanford philosophy professor (and 1980s Soto RF) John Perry has discovered “an amazing strategy… that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

He calls his theory “Structured Procrastination.

How does it work?

Picture the To Do list you keep on your Windows 7/Mac OS X desktop, on your iCal/iGoogle, on an explosion of Post-Its all over your workspace, wherever. Now imagine doing everything EXCEPT the 2 or 3 most important tasks on that list. How much have you actually accomplished?

Not much, you might say, considering that you didn’t do what you most needed to get done. But if your To Do list was organized correctly––i.e.,  in line with the tenets of Structured Procrastination––you’ve probably never had a more productive day.

The key to Perry’s theory lies in the structure of the To Do list. Most people organize their list in order of importance, with the most important tasks (“Sign up for classes”) on top, moderately important tasks (“Brush my teeth”) in the middle, and trivial tasks (“Brush my dog’s teeth”) on the bottom. Note that a To Do item doesn’t have to be on top of the list to be well worth doing; working on these “less important” tasks becomes a way to put off working on the first few items on the list. And by putting tasks that only SEEM important and urgent (e.g., “Write a blog entry”, “Check my PO Box”) on top of the list, you can make progress on the tasks that really matter.

I don’t know if this game plan works for everyone, but I know I’ve been using a similar strategy for a long time. I’ll work on my research to avoid writing a paper, or make a flyer for ASES to skirt a trip to the post office, or plan out my classes for next quarter to escape packing. Try it out. Sometimes self-deception can be a very powerful tool.

-Joel

P.S. A word of warning from Perry…

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

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A Stanford Winter

Kyle, me, and Lauren on top of a mountain

Lantana Snow Trip: Hitting up the slopes at Squaw Valley

Maybe it was the 2 weeks of mono-induced torpor and swollen lymph nodes that I barely survived early in the quarter. Maybe it was the countless hours I spent preparing for my big research presentation. Or maybe it was the endless February rain that had Stanford’s entire bike-riding population––i.e., the entire Stanford population––praying for spring to come early.

I don’t know why, but I can’t help but wonder: Where did winter go?

I woke up early––read: 8AM––this morning to go for a run and realized that spring’s already here, at least in California. It’s kind of like when you lay down on the couch for a quick afternoon nap and open your eyes to find the sun sinking below the horizon and another day gone. Except this time, it’s an entire quarter, gone. Almost. We’ve still got one more week of classes, a not-so-dead Dead Week, and finally finals, but at the rate we’ve been going, we might as well be done.

But I’m not at all stressed out. It helps that I’m taking a relatively light courseload this quarter: EE41 (Physics of EE), EE108B (Digital Systems II), EE216 (Principles and Models of Semiconductor Devices), and EE191 (Special Studies in EE). At a time in the quarter when most students feel the weight of an ambitious Week 1 course selection, I’m staying even-keeled, with the constant workload of research tempering the inevitable ups and downs of an academic term at Stanford.

And with winter’s demise comes the advent of China: I’ll be leaving for Beijing on March 25 and studying abroad at Peking University for all of spring quarter. At the end of the program, I’ll be going to the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai with my mom and brother, then possibly visiting Seoul or Taiwan or both. The visa application process turned out to be quite a pain, but the light at the end of the Chinese government’s proverbial tunnel is getting brighter.

Much more about China to come… It’s super exciting and I can’t wait, but winter quarter’s definitely not over till it’s over.

-Joel

Shanghai Skyline: It looks like something out of Star Wars... (Click on the picture and look closely)

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The Stanford Bubble

I spent the first 18 years of my life trying to get into college and the last 2 trying to get out.

That’s not to say that I spent my freshman and sophomore years at Stanford biding my time, waiting for the perfect moment to drop out or run away or take some other equally dramatic action––that would be a terrible waste of all those palm trees on Palm Drive that I’ve invested in with my tuition dollars––but rather that I’ve long wondered how best to break free of the Stanford Bubble, in mind and in body.

For the uninitiated, the “Stanford Bubble” is a term often tossed around in reference to the once-in-a-blue-moon frequency with which students get off-campus. The phenomenon stems from the immense size––Stanford, CA is its own city, with its own ZIP code, 94305––and the self-sufficiency of the Farm, and usually refers to the day-to-day physical insularity that students here experience and bemoan jokingly, but it applies just as well to the psychological disconnect that grows with every passing day on the campus of any university, so-called “elite” or otherwise.

I'll try to avoid this...

I'll try to avoid this...

It comes down to a loss of perspective. The exigencies of the quarter system force upon us a terrible triumviral ultimatum: academics, sleep, a social life––choose two. Keeping in touch and up to date with the world beyond 94305 isn’t even an option. And sometimes we get so caught up in the relentless rush of midterms and problem sets and meetings that we simply forget why we came to college in the first place: to continue our education and to make our visions of the future into reality.

But I really can’t complain.

See?

See?

I’m where I want to be, doing what I want to do––i.e., going to Stanford, making new friends, learning a lot, working my ass off, running all over the country. But the weight of the world lies squarely on my shoulders when I think about everything I want to and believe I can accomplish. I do my best to live 100% in the moment, but when “the moment” is 7 hours into a problem set that strains the limits of both my understanding of PDEs/circuits/signal processing and my ability to conjure up reasonable-looking answers, I still can’t help but wonder why I’m spending $200,000 and 4 years of my life “learning how to learn.”

It’s only when I reconnect with a friend I haven’t seen in a while or fly home to my family in Ohio that I can take a step back, recover perspective, and find my center, so to speak. It’s those moments that drive me, that revive me, that propel me forward into every new day with an extra spring in my step. No day is ever better than today, but I still can’t wait for tomorrow.

-Joel

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My Summer Research: Saving the World

OK, not quite. But I did contribute a tiny bit to my research group’s efforts to develop a new type of solar energy converter that could make a big difference in the way we create and consume energy.

I spent most of this summer working in a multidisciplinary research group under the Stanford EE Department’s Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Our work focused on a new solar energy harvesting concept called Photon Enhanced Thermionic Emission (PETE) and dreamed up by Nick Melosh, a MatSci professor at Stanford. I can’t go too much into the details now, since the seminal paper is yet to be published, but PETE holds a lot of potential as a novel source of low-cost renewable energy because unlike traditional PV (solar) cells, which quickly lose efficiency at high temperatures, PETE actually gains efficiency with increasing temperature, feeding off the heightened thermal energy to aid photoemission. As a result, we can combine the PETE device with a solar thermal converter––which, as a heat engine, can only run efficiently at elevated temperatures––and realize some absurdly high theoretical conversion efficiencies. For those familiar with solar cell operation, PETE can beat the Shockley-Queisser limit by taking advantage of below-bandgap photons and heat energy from hot-carrier thermalization.

Anyway, it turns out PETE, as well as many other optoelectronic devices, can get a pretty significant photoemission efficiency boost from the use of semiconductor nanostructures, like nanowires. For that reason, I spent 10 weeks this summer building a Monte Carlo simulation to characterize electron dynamics in nanowires, to help us better understand how electrons behave under various material conditions at nanoscale dimensions. My post-doc mentor, Igor, created the basic framework and helped me build and test the simulation. I ended up with some pretty cool results. I reproduced the negative differential resistance phenomenon in GaAs and matched the experimental scattering rate data surprisingly accurately. The graphic below is a visualization (created in Mathematica) of a single electron trajectory in a GaAs nanowire.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

I got really lucky this summer, with a great mentor who wanted me to learn and a meaningful project in a high-potential field that might have shifted my entire academic and career trajectory toward grad school and solar energy research. That said, I’m still exploring other interests, and entrepreneurship still holds a fundamental appeal to me, so who knows where that combination will lead me? At the end of the summer, I got to give a couple presentations, one to my lab group and one to the entire REU program, advisors, and guests. I had a good time with both, and I’m excited to keep working on the PETE project as the new school year starts.

One of the greatest things about research, especially engineering research, is the flexibility that you often have with your work environment. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want to waste precious desk space in Allen on me, but I ended up working from my dorm, from the library, and from just about anywhere else on campus with an internet connection (and at Stanford, that’s pretty much everywhere). I could, and often did, wake up at 10PM and still get more done than a 9-to-5er by working on my own schedule, at times when I was most efficient, including sometimes late into the night. The 8-hour workday and Monday-to-Friday workweek simply didn’t exist––I might work 13 hours one day, 6 the next, a few hours here and there on a Saturday––but when something needed to be done, I got it done. If a friend needed a 4th man to fill out a beach volleyball team, I was there. And I still found time to read a couple books, go to the beach with friends, keep up my running, and have the summer of a lifetime. And although the task may be harder, the prospect of starting my own company holds a similar allure. After all, when you truly care about and believe in the meaning of your work, why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time with it as it takes to succeed?

Thanks for reading.

-Joel

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