Monday, November 25, 2013

Cal Lecturer's Letter of Encouragement to Students

Alexander Coward teaches a math class for undergraduate students at UC Berkeley.  On its face, his letter encourages students to attend class rather than support the UC workers' strike.  I am pretty sure he meant to encourage students to value their education regardless of whether or not they choose to participate in this particular strike.

I was really moved by many parts of the letter.  Perhaps if I were to make a compressed version of his letter, it would be this.

If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected.
I’ve discovered that there is no unique or obviously best way of setting up society. For every decision and judgement you reach, there are people who benefit and people who lose out.  
Every judgement you make in life is a question of balancing different interests and ideals. are not going to be able to avoid making these kinds of judgments, just as I cannot avoid making a judgment about whether to strike or not. all need to know that there is not some great pool of amazing people in some other place who are going to shape the way our species navigates the coming decades. 
In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think. 
Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.  
I like that he mentions that being apolitical is basically impossible.  Any system will have winners and losers.  Not having a policy is a policy!

I also found it really touching when he addressed the insecurities of the students.
One of the things you can lose track of when you attend a top tier university like Berkeley is just how exceptional and amazing you really are. 
I’m not just talking about some of you. I’m talking about all of you. It’s a privilege to be your professor. Sadly, however, I know many of you don’t feel that way. The difficulty you all face is that as you look around at all your fellow students, it’s easy to have your eye drawn by people doing better than you. Or rather, I should say people who look like they’re doing better than you. In reality the true extent of how much people are learning can be difficult to measure. Sometimes failures and adversity are better preparations for long term success than effortless progress.
As an undergraduate, you are still trying to figure out how your abilities compare with others'.  Sometimes the professors or graduate students seem so much more polished and accomplished, you feel like you could never be like that.  To you, the professors are like the "adults" in the world who will solve the big complicated problems, which is sort of a secure feeling.

I find it kind of sad to realize now that that's not really the case.  On the one hand it's motivating, but on the other hand, I feel sort of sorry for the world that it is partly up to me to come up with solutions.  I know that nobody will really blame me or anything like that, but I know I'm not always trying my hardest and that I miss opportunities. I didn't cause all the problems so it's not my responsibility in the direct sense.  However, since not having a policy is a policy, perpetuating the current system while being just as qualified as the next person to change it makes me partially responsible.  I feel a desire to compensate those who will inevitably be affected by my and others' inability to do better, but knowing that we can't is kind of sad to me.  I take solace in the fact that we can only move forward and do what we can.  ...And maybe future talented people really will emerge as the adults, and then the rest of us will be off the hook again...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Climate Change Data Management

"To achieve a leadership position in supply chain sustainability, companies should have strong capabilities in data, process and governance" - CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) - the 2013 Supply Chain Report

Yay! I'm into all those things!!  

Monday, November 11, 2013

College Admissions Essay: San Mao Showed Me

This was my MIT admissions essay.  The prompt was something like "tell us about something that inspired you."  I always really liked it although it never occurred to me to share it with anyone before.  I found it again recently at my mom's house.  Although some of the word choices are a bit off, I still really relate to this essay.  

About once a year, I take out my box of children's books and sift through the colorful pages remembering how things used to be.  A couple of years ago, as I was indulging my nostalgia, I remembered how the picture stories made me feel and decided that they had much more literary value than I had previously thought.  One such piece particularly meaningful to me is a Chinese comic book called "San Mao," directly translated as "Three Hairs."

It's a pretty bland comic overall - nothing like the vibrantly colorful Disney cartoons, inviting children into warm and fuzzy worlds of fantasy.  "San Mao" was all black and white and most of the stories were pretty depressing now that I think about it.  The main character is a young orphan, who suffers from such extreme malnutrition that he only has three hairs.  Thus, he is dubbed San Mao, or Three Hairs.

The comic starts out with him gazing dejectedly at a sheep and her lambs in the countryside.  He cried (and I cried) because he was deprived of such an unconditionally caring relationship.  He then finds his way to the bustling streets of Shanghai, one of China's most congested cities, hoping for a life of peace and plenty.  Instead, he finds Shanghai in a state of riot and turmoil with multitudes of people just as pitiful as he.  Disappointments abound, he finds that Shanghai also has multitudes of people living in luxury, possessing only disdain for the surrounding poverty.  It made me feel personally affronted.  I was hurt that people were so inconsiderate and avaricious.  How could anyone sit cozily inside with the space heater eating ice cream, while others froze in the bitter cold of winter?  Couldn't the police see that San Mao was just trying to make a meager living by shoe shining?  So what if it's illegal?  Did they really have to confiscate his chair and box of shoe shining equipment?  

Reading San Mao was definitely not a conventional means for moral training.  Written in 1952, the social afflictions and unrest of Shanghai depicted in the comic can seem anachronistic.  However, the lessons are global and timeless.  I didn't know this at the time, but San Mao showed me at an extremely young age how good and bad can be conditional, and that no one is above this conditional scrutiny, not even a policeman.  Furthermore, since everything is seeped in chagrin and irony, individual blame is almost completely irrelevant.  Subsequently, all that remains is an image of helplessness and a yearning for a better world.  

At one point, as San Mao starts to whet his appetite for idealism by reading a book directly translated as "World Enlightenment," he witnesses a man being robbed.  He becomes so discouraged that he rips the book apart.  In contrast, my early exposure to calamity has helped me overcome this initial sense of disappointment.  I decided that San Mao's tragic kingdom does not have to be so tragic.  San Mao showed me things that I do not like and initiated within me a resolve to work for things that I do like.  

Since then, I found out that San Mao is actually as popular as Mickey Mouse in China.  It was written by an alcoholic communist, who was depressed and cynical about the poverty in Shanghai.  Its popularity is a reflection of the trauma and turmoil of modern Chinese history.  I'm sure the children growing up in China now can't really relate to it as much.  

When I wrote it, I felt I was taking a big risk, especially since by then I already knew it was sort of about communism.  I really did want to get into MIT, but I also felt the need to "test" them I suppose.  I wanted to know that mildly unconventional thoughts would be welcome.  I'm glad I did since it did make the admission feel more legitimate, since they accepted me knowing who I am.

Nowadays I still relate to the essay because it's probably the best description of why I don't really get that depressed about the state of the world no matter how bad things sometimes get.  For example, many people will say how they get discouraged when they read more about global warming and how so little is being done about it.  I mean, I know it's because nobody really wants to put in effort for something that might be a lost cause.  But I'm not concerned about that since it's not like I have something better to do, and seeing immediate results isn't that important to me.  Anyway, global warming and everyone else's lives will move on whether you're depressed about it or not, so you might as well give up feeling hopeless and fulfilling self-fulfilling prophesies.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Romance With Chinese Characteristics

I went to see the Shanghai Ballet at the Zellerbach perform the Butterfly Lovers this weekend, which is the classic Chinese love story originally from the Tang Dynasty.  The girl, Zhu, pretends to be a boy so she can go to school where she falls in love with a boy, Liang.  She is arranged to be married to someone else, though, and then they both die of sadness.  Heaven takes pity on them and turns them into butterflies.  

I've also been watching another Chinese drama, the Legend of Lu Zhen, which is mostly an epic love story.

I'm seeing a lot of common themes in Chinese romances.  One is that the romance often starts when they don't fully know each other's identity.  Usually the poorer one doesn't know the other is rich since it means they really love each other for who they are, not because they are gold or power-digging.  Another is that the romance often takes place over a longer time frame where they are friends first.  Finally, the girl is often smart and capable, and that is actually important to making her attractive to the boy, and vice versa.  

To me, the first two themes are about trust.  Someone who likes you for your personality is less likely to move on to the next pretty face or next richest person.  Someone you know very well for a long time is more likely to be someone you can trust.  I thought that the last theme was a more modern theme to relate to modern Chinese women, but then again, it's also in Butterfly Lovers which is from the 8th century or so.  

Now I realize I've been influenced by Chinese romance themes my whole life.  "Love at first sight" and "happily ever after" princess stories never seemed that romantic to me.  Even though it was exciting that Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast liked to read, the Beast didn't really care about that.  And anyway, her favorite book was some other princess story.