I take the morning off to go shopping. I buy a filing cabinet and get it as far as the door to the dorm before I realize I have no way of getting it up the stairs to my room. I know I should ask someone to help, but my disorder, which I have recently diagnosed as a surfeit of empathy, prevents me from imposing. The file cabinet now sits quietly outside. Apparently no one can figure out how to steal it yet.

At lunch, I take my reader's advice and sit at a new table to try to make friends. I sit down next to Joe [a psuedonym], a senior wearing a "BEAT BUSH" t-shirt. Joe is a "peer academic advisor" and wants to know how orientation is going. Our afterschool special, "Stanford: The Real World", is tonight. "The rape victim is hot," Joe informs me.

Later, I go to the somewhat-pompously titled panel "Thinking About Thinking: What is News?" On the way over, our dorm practices a new, more up-to-date cheer, which includes words like "hizza". Inside the auditorium, the various cheers mostly cancel each other out. The panelists come out on stage, and notably don't react the the raucous cheering. There are four of them: A fellow from the Hoover Institute, who argues that voting isn't all that important so getting educated about things is mostly a waste of time. The famed Geoffrey Nunberg, who takes a moderate-liberal position. Debra Satz, a philosophy professor, who shifts between the two sides. Moderator Michael Krasny (whose birthday is today), a local NPR host, who takes what I like to call the "radical centrist" position (basically, we need to listen to both perspectives and neither side should be too loud), including bashing the Daily Show (it doesn't provide a "multidimensional sense" of the news), insisting NPR, the New York Times, and the LA Times "skew[] to the left", and being duly chastened by the "inauthentic information about President Bush's service record" provided by CBS.

Krasny hosts the panel like an episode of Nightline ("Joe, can you answer my follow-up question for John?"), never asking the same person two questions in a row. The discussion rambles around quite a bit, and, like most of these things, is moderately rather uninteresting. The panelists decry the confrontational type of politics found on TV, but at least the confrontations usually have some educational substance. (Even Sean Hannity teaches valuable lessons in talking over people.)

I ask a question ("How do we solve the large institutional flaws of the news?"). Nunberg responds and gets the panel to discuss the push to the right from the "liberal bias" myth, but nobody really provides any solutions. Afterwards a couple people talk to the panelists on stage. I suggest to the Hoover fellow that he has his cause and effect backwards. (He was arguing that since people mostly voted about whether they were angry with the incumbent, we should gear campaigns towards that system. I suggest that people voted anger because the two highly-similar campaigns left them little other room for expression.) Maybe I wasn't clear, because it seems to just bounce off him. The other kids seem to like the whole thing, though. As we walked out, one comments "I think I'm going to enjoy the next four years."

It's hard to say this without sounding even more superior than usual, but it doesn't strike me that most Stanford students (and professors) are exceptionally bright. I suppose this is not too surprising, since the requirements for admission do not really test for this quality. And unlike, say, MIT, Stanford doesn't interview students as part of the admission process, nor do they demand any examples of real work (which seem like decent ways of finding intelligence). I was led to believe that Stanford was a magical place where everyone was a genius. This is somewhat disappointing.

If I wanted to start a more effective university, it would be pretty simple: Hire the smartest people and accept the smartest students, get them to work on projects that interest them, get them to work together on stuff that interests them, organize a bunch of show-and-tells and mixers, and for the most part let them figure stuff out on their own. (This system might be cheaper too.)

I decide to check out some books from the library. It turns out Stanford's library is a mess. First, they chose the Library of Congress catalogging system. This system, quite popular in universities, replaces the simple decimal with the much more advanced period-separated list of alphanumerics. This system, aside from generating absurdly long catalog numbers, is also confusing to sort and search through. (Partisans assure me that the Library of Congress system has a better internal catalogging system. I'm not convinced, but in any event, who cares?)

Stanford has kindly added to this confusion by deciding to carve up the sections and distribute them randomly around the building. For example, books with catalog numbers starting with P are on floor W4, those starting with PA through PZ are on floor W6. Yes, that's right, W6. Stanford has decided to divide the library in half, then take one half, give it another name, and then cleverly place floors inside its floors. (The outside ones look all impressive; the inside ones have exposed walls and pipes. Guess which side has the books? (The latter.))

As I head over to the cafeteria for dinner, I notice that Stanford frustratingly doesn't seem to have clocks anywhere. I guess that's one solution to keeping them synchronized. The dinner is the same as always == hamburgers -- although this time there is the added excitement of garlic fries! (The last time things got this exciting was when they ran out of buns at put my burger on plain bread.) It appears I will be getting bored of the food quickly.

(As an aside, the small college by my house I went to had better food than this. It also was more like a university than this. I think Stanford's status has made it lazy.)

Slightly tired of trying to meet new people like I'm told, I decide to sit alone at one table, in front of another empty table. I convince myself that I am not being anti-social but trying to attract the type of geniuses who are borderline autistic. The gambit doesn't work, everyone walks past me to sit at the empty table. Maybe no one at Stanford is borderline autistic.

Back at the dorm, it appears interdorm rivalry is insufficient. A group of students are now practicing a cheer promoting the west side of the dorm over the east side. We head over to the auditorium again for our afterschool special. Before the chanting of dorm cheers was somewhat cute, now it is simply annoying -- it makes it impossible to talk. The play itself is difficult to hear because the sound sytem is acting bizarrely: people's mics cut out in the middle of lines, static covers things, and the volume is cranked so high it's difficult to hear clearly. The biggest cheer of the night was when a character supported gay marriage; the biggest laughs were when a linebacker tackled a stalking computer geek.

There were group discussions afterward, but I skipped them to write this.

Just as young children are naturally cute, groups of teenagers are naturally hillarious. There is some combination of being totally clueless while at the same time desperate to appear otherwise that plays as comedy. As is probably clear to you by now, teenage culture is wholly alien to me. Yet, out of my desire to serve you, I decided to try to further investigate by attending a gathering known as a "party".

The party's theme was Hollywood, so it was appropriately held at the alumni office, which is tastefully decorated in the see-how-rich-I-am style of copious marble. Outside was the shocking sight of a stretch hummer ("that thing must get one mile per gallon," one kid commented), along with the more expected searchlights and red carpet.

Inside the party, the clear focus was on the dancing. Teenagers moving their bodies in bizarre and vaguely rhythmic positions in close proximity to one another. I'd seen the practice frequently enough on TV, so on one level I knew what to expect, but on another it was wholly bizarre. It was like watching brownian motion or a complex screensaver, it's completely meaningless and random but it's also complicated enough that you don't look away.

In front of the kids was a DJ playing the weird music the kids listen to today, which, not to be a whining old guy, sounds somewhat like a series of carhorns played over a subwoofer. However, I think I may have located the appeal of the music -- I've found that it does tent to rapidly vibrate one's pelvic area.

Surrounding them were groups of kids chatting. Clearly social rituals depend on communication, which is presumably used to get a sense of the kind of person the other is. In my culture (of vaguely technical people), people converse by sharing information through mutually-beneficial discussion and debate, but the teenager's system is altogether different and wholly alien to me.

I have little firsthand experience, but I have developed an initial theory of how things work. The protocol begins by sharing basic personal information to establish identity, then moves to the humorous recitation of cultural information. (Humorous may be too strong a word; the key point is that there's a lot of laughing.) This is the beginning of a loop. The two parties exchange information, allowing them to get a better sense of each other. If the clearer picture is disliked, the party breaks the loop and disassociates. Otherwise, more personal knowledge is shared as the parties get to know each other better. Discussion moves from cultural issues, to societal ones, to gossip, to personal matters, to deep intimate issues, presumably shared with close lovers or friends.

Again, this is just a theory. One of the problems with the party is that the loud music makes it difficult to collect data -- you can't hear well at a distance and it seems impolite to stand and eavesdrop on people. The chatting kids are surrounded by tables with food, which notably lack any alcohol.

I decide that I've learned all I can, so I leave. Outside, where there's much less noise, I try to tail groups of kids and pick up data that way, but the groups run out before I've collected much of interest. Towards the end of my walk back, I meet a girl who was similarly disappointed with the party, but we don't have much time to talk before I'm back at my dorm. [Maybe I'm just being crazy, but I have a feeling about her.]

created 2005-06-03T19:25:19 #


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Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)