Quora: What is it like to be a humanities major at MIT?

Most MIT humanities majors have the humanities major as their secondary degree. If you’re only interested in humanities, I don’t know why you’d go to MIT, and neither will the other students. Other people will probably think you’re not hardcore enough to hack it in a “real” major, and if you are truly interested in only a humanities field then the MIT education is a suboptimal way of achieving expertise in that field because you’ll be spending a lot of time on hard math and science classes that wouldn’t really contribute to your goal. I also question the value of a degree in writing, especially a BS which is what I got (MIT only gives BS’s). You need degrees for hard sciences to pursue many of the goals involved in those fields but MIT people who get degrees in the humanities, unless they’re going into academia, basically do it just because they can. An MIT Bachelors of Science in Writing is meaningless and “ironic” on its own and doesn’t qualify me for anything.

After attending my first session of an MIT writing class, I seriously considered transferring. After the students apathetically struggled to interpret the most basic reading, I was concerned half my brain would starve to death in such an environment and seriously considered leaving. Then I emailed Alan Lightman, a physicist and writing professor, who told me that science was for young people whereas writing often improved with age, so why not study both if I liked both? He asked to read my work, was really supportive, and recommended I avoid the intro classes. For discussion driven humanities classes, the interest and talent of the other students are vital to having a good class experience, and I found this was only true in classes such as small workshops that most students wouldn’t take to simply fulfill a HASS requirement.

After my initial doubt, studying writing at MIT was awesome.
1) As the only writing major of my year, I got lots of attention. I won grants and writing prizes because there wasn’t that much competition. All the professors opened their doors to me and were eager to read my stuff and help me write better.
2) Great faculty. MIT has a lot of money for a world class faculty, even in the humanities departments. Junot Diaz was my main writing teacher, and he ended up winning a Pulitzer.
3) In comparison to the class I took at Harvard, MIT students are in general less well-rounded and well-read, so the discussions will take a pretty different path at MIT than at Harvard. Although Harvard kids know more about literature etc (so I guess are better educated in these areas), I think MIT kids are more direct in their feedback.

What is it like to be a humanities/social science major at MIT?

Chicago Things To Do

Although I left Chicago a week ago, this blog can lag my activities and whereabouts by a few weeks so this post is about my Chicago April activities (my tumblr is somewhat more uptodate).

I attended a showing of Mortified at Schuba’s. The lone male presenter had me breathless and crying with laughter because he reminded me of mitri! My date remarked that the female presenters’ readings from their teen journals revealed much about the teenage female mind and condition: he felt the journals clearly showed the relative intelligence levels of each woman. The show included photos of the presenters from their teen years, and my date said that the ordering of hottest to ugliest was the same as the ordering of dumbest to smartest. Coincidence, or an example of a stereotype being true? Does being less attractive cause/force you to be smarter or are the traits just genetically entwined?

Other April Chicago activities included:
-an improv class at Second City (I want to take an acting class now),
-an Improvised Shakespeare show at the IO Theater (really impressive, I love when improv groups make up songs on the spot that rhyme),
-scuba certification at Underwater Safaris (the e-learning part of this reminded me how great I am at taking tests and how satisfying it is to whiz through an absurdly easy test with fake math),
-a male strip club show called Hunkomania (I attended this with 2 married women and though I have lots of photos I will not post them because this is a family website. My main impression from this experience is that being a stripper is so unsanitary- they were putting dollar bills into their mouths and stuff. Gross!),
-shows at Schubas featuring Emily Wells and the Portland Cello Project (I’m yellow and I like the cello! I also play the piano and the violin- deal with it),
-the Lincoln Park Zoo (I used to live right across from the zoo and hear the lions roaring. This zoo is awesome! It’s totally free and includes gorillas, polar bears, lots of stuff), and
-the planetarium (space: our destiny).

Mom: Just the Happy Stuff

I”ll never forget when I was 8 years old she taught me how to fight.

“What’s wrong?” she said.
My mom left the room and came back a little later with some Ovaltine. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s all your fault.”
“No it isn’t! Kevin Jameson is just a show off and I only challenged him because I was scared he was going to throw Chen’s book out the bus window.”
“You challenged him to what?”
“I said I knew karate and that I was going to beat him up tomorrow at the bus stop.” At this point, I burst into tears. “I wish I were dead!”
“Don’t say that! This is what you do.”
I’m not going to tell you the rest of this story about how I hilariously defeated a 5th grader because, in retrospect, instead of a triumphant story about a tiny Asian girl standing up to a bully, it sounds a little like me bullying and psychologically destroying a terrified kid. But the point is my mom always had my back.

Losing my mom to lung cancer last fall (she never even smoked!) was like losing a lung myself- I’d never really thought about what it’d be like to lose her but now she’s gone sometimes it can get hard to breathe. After years of doctors and hospitals, sometimes you don’t remember there was anything else, even though there were actually 23 years of being a normal rambunctious mother-daughter duo. So for Mother’s Day, just the happy stuff:

Because I can be really lazy and neglectful in a sleep-on-a-mattress-for-years-without-getting any-furniture kind of way, my mom always worried I wasn’t taking care of myself properly, so she got me different housekeepers and set up every room and apartment I’ve lived in (except she’s never been to my NYC apartment, which is why it’s such a mess and I’m still living out of boxes despite having moved to NYC over a year ago). She talked about me at length to these housekeepers- about how I worked so hard I didn’t have time to do laundry, how much she hoped I’d find a good boyfriend (a nice, steady, mature boyfriend from someplace wholesome like Iowa, who wasn’t too brainy and introverted or our kids would have autism because I was already rather introverted, someone from a good family whose love for his mother was surpassed only by his love of Jesus).

She cooked me so much food, always leaving me with a fully stocked fridge and freezer. My favorite food was food she made me, but I never learned to make it. When she wasn’t cooking, she was traveling. She has been everywhere. New Zealand was one of her favorites while Dubai was one of her least favorites.

My mom’s mom died when my mom was really young, so my mom worried about being a good mother to me, wanting me to avoid her mistakes, therefore I should do everything she said. For example when I told her I was thinking about getting a dog, she manipulated my friends into telling me how great a cat would be, resulting in informative calls from mitri about his cat. Later, when I told my mom I was worried about leaving my cat alone when I went to London, she came to Chicago between rounds of chemo to watch my cat Mimi. This is a photo my mom sent me of Mimi sitting on her lap:

Mom, even when I was mortified by your irrationality and emotions, I was always secretly proud of you. Even when you were being completely crazy, you were caring and charming. Because of you, and because you were never afraid of anything, I don’t fear a single thing. Even though there were times when I really could not stand you and I usually forgot about Mother’s Day and stuff like that, I really miss you.

Citizen of Facebook

After disappearing from the internet for the past few years for my post-college all-consuming job, upon emerging I used Facebook to reconnect and figure out everything that I’d missed (who knew non-traders have their own form of colocation except they call it peering?). I put up my new website and integrated it with Facebook, which turned out to be awesome because everyone can share and comment on posts using their Facebook identities.

During my years invisible to the internet, I considered myself elevated above those who were on Facebook hours a day (I have never owned a television and went years without internet in my Chicago apartments because

1) I was too lazy to get it installed and rationalized the diminishing returns of getting it installed because I would be moving to a new apartment in x days anyway (I moved every year). I use this rationale to get out of many annoying tasks, but incidentally used the same rationale to persuade (other) people to do tasks ASAP. Weird, huh?

2) I was always at work and hooked into the internet anyway, but not browsing for anything unrelated to work obviously. During my no-tv no-internet lifestyle, I mainly read my kindle constantly and used my phone for email, but it was a really old phone so I couldn’t download most apps onto it.

3) My computer was really old so I couldn’t download most things (like Chrome) onto it and my trader workstation had spoiled me for any inferior setup: I needed my ergonomic keyboard, my wireless ergonomic mouse, and eventually my gamer keypad controller. Interfacing with a flat laptop keyboard became intolerably suboptimal).

During those post-college work years, I viewed Facebook as a time sink and smugly considered myself superior for using it rarely, but now I think it’s a tool that makes it easy to connect with your friends, to share information and form groups. A lot of the tech innovations are like ways to waste time, but some of them also fundamentally have real value and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that, which is part of why I started trying twitter etc.

When I got back to the world, I asked my friends to tell me everything I’d missed on the internet, and it turns out some stuff had happened without me noticing- for example, social games. I tried my first ipad/iphone social game DrawSomething at Yinmeng’s recommendation and played it a lot for 2 weeks before getting tired of the same words while moving on to sketch club as an outlet for my drawing needs instead.

After visiting Zynga I decided I did need to check out what this whole Facebook app thing was about considering it’s a bazillion dollar industry (this is the same reason if it’s ever revealed I’ve looked at porn or done anything otherwise questionable- purely for research and educational purposes), so in addition to testing some games I read The Facebook Effect, the contents of which are the topic of the rest of the post. Apparently while I was invisible online, Zuck was off executing on his vision of Facebook as a platform, an ambition that impresses me because he had this idea back in the day when few companies had that vision.

Although it’s possible that hindsight and the human instinct for narrative spins lucky randomness into deliberate strategic decisions, Zuck certainly talks and acts like a visionary, confident leader. He says, “We can make the world a more open place… Let’s build something that has lasting cultural value and try to take over the world.” Repeatedly refusing to sell the company, first for tens of millions, later for billions and tens of billions, Zuck comes off as passionate about the project, really believing his ideology, not caring about money, and thinking extremely long term.

Unlike some “serial entrepreneurs” whose goals are to create a company with the intent of getting acquired, Zuckerberg, an idealist (one anecdote that shocked me was that Zuck was found crying during a dinner with VC’s because he felt so guilty about considering their superior offer after giving his word to another VC- when was the last time you cried out of guilt? When was the last time anyone cried out of guilt regarding a business decision? Did he react like this because he was so young, such a crybaby, or such a dreamer? I think it’s got to be because he’s so idealistic, which is sort of unbelievable but somehow to me the most believable possibility), really does not want to sell and took time to conceive of a principled business philosophy and worldview. For example, he said he “wanted outside apps to help keep Facebook honest by forcing it to make its own remaining applications good enough to compete successfully.” Welcoming competition seems like a really big picture, long term, global-optima seeking view that I don’t hear many other CEOs talk about. Is it a necessary cognitive bias for a successful leader to be sure he’s working on something fundamentally good and world changing, or is a strong ideology what makes a leader successful in the first place?

Zuck also expressed insights into the tech industry and its interplay with human psychology. He says [Facebook] is about people; Google is about data; Facebook is “a technology company. Myspace is a media company.” Insisting Facebook is a utility, “Zuckerberg… realized that Facebook wasn’t a tool for keeping track of news made somewhere else. It was a tool for making news.” Young men are always the revolutionaries- I’m very curious to see what happens as time passes and Facebook has even more success.

While “The Social Network” dwells on interpersonal dramas, The Facebook Effect doesn’t really talk about that, instead explaining some of the conditions and strategy surrounding Facebook’s success:
-“Facebook’s ultimate success owes a lot to the fact that it began at college. That’s where people’s social networks are densest and where they generally socialize more vigorously than at any other time in their lives.”
-“The Harvard connection makes a product less suspect.”
-Immediate popularity because “Harvard students are preternaturally status-conscious.”
-They were able to roll out iteratively and incrementally bc each college was its own network, allowing them to wait to make sure they had enough servers etc before rolling out to another school and taking on more users, thus assisting in avoiding getting Friendster-ed.
-They employed a peer pressure “surround strategy:” “if another social network had begun to take root…. thefacebook would open not only there but at as many other campuses as possible in the immediate vicinity.”
-To ensure demand, “When the number on the waiting list passed 20 percent of so of the student body, thefacebook would turn that school on.”

Because this book was published in 2010- forever ago in internet years, it doesn’t include some of the more recent developments, and a lot of questions remain to be answered. While “a trusted referral is the holy grail of advertising,” I want to learn more about how Facebook will revolutionize advertising beyond engagement ads. The tagline is that Adwords “fulfill demand,” whereas Facebook “generates demand,” so will the people who generate the demand (the other users) get incorporated into and paid by the model in a new way? What developments have occurred since 2010 that the book doesn’t cover?

Another question arises on accessing content. As more and more content becomes user generated with privacy settings, how will Google access, search, and distribute this information? Will Google integrate with Facebook and show different search results depending on which friends’ content is accessible? (Also, how can Facebook help resurrect Microsoft from obsolescence? I don’t dare short Microsoft while Facebook is on its team.)

Much of the author’s info comes from interviews, as evidenced by his erroneously calling a drug “Provisual” instead of “Provigil”- a mistake that would most likely occur from confusing the spoken word (Don’t ask how I know about Provigil, a drug I would not recommend to anyone since you still feel sleepy- you just can’t fall asleep, so it’s worse than useless for keeping your brain functional for higher order tasks). All of the remarks were positive about Facebook, so the book may be somewhat biased.

Nevertheless, you leave the work feeling impressed by the success of the company, acknowledging that it has already changed society and social interaction, and wondering what will happen next. Will Facebook’s currency take over? Will Facebook be the new basis for society and government? It also raises philosophical questions, like do you think it’s true that “a more transparent world create a better-governed world and a fairer world?”

Zuck says, “You have one identity… the days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers … are probably coming to an end.” While Facebook does allow you to only share info with people you friend, etc, Facebook does push transparency as a core value. Should transparency be a value? Is openness really optimal? Do people only have one identity? Demand for Linked-in would suggest people want to have multiple identities, but is that an outdated cultural idea, along with privacy? Will the single profile enter our collective consciousness and cause us to view work as just another attribute of our unified identities?

The internet is changing human relationships, intelligence, society, government, culture, and Facebook is determined to be a driver of that change. On the internet, we are all created equal (more so than offline at least), and if the most popular website Facebook has taken over the internet, then are we all citizens of Facebook? Has Facebook already allowed us to unify as a species and become truly global and we (I?) just haven’t realized it yet? Facebook started as a model of real life social relationships, and quickly evolved into a real world where social relationships are created and lived. I cannot wait for this Facebook IPO!