Stanford Five Year Reunion: Friday: Welcome, Developing for the Third World, Legal Fiction, and Taiko

Friday, October 13th 2006, I headed down to Stanford bright and early for the official welcome to reunion weekend given by the president of the university.

Welcome and Opening Panel:
The president's welcome formed an odd contrast with the panel that followed. President Hennessy announced a five-year four-point-something billion dollar campaign to raise money for a variety of initiatives. He spent much of his time exhorting alumni to give money, citing many examples of great things Stanford and its alumni do, then trotted out one of Stanford's new nobel laureates. (This is slightly ironic given the laureate did his award-winning research before coming to Stanford.) The laureate gave a speech in a similar vein: look how great Stanford is; give money. Both especially emphasized annual giving.

The panel that followed these speakers, "Designs that Make a Difference: From the Classroom to the Third World," focused on a particular design school class that makes students design incredibly inexpensive products that improve the quality of life of people leaving in impoverish conditions. The panel included one of the professors who teaches the class and three students who designed neat projects, including a solar-powered LED flashlight to reduce the use of kerosene lamps in India, and a new frame for a foot-powered well (a device that brings water up from a well much faster and easier) that decreases the cost of buying a foot-powered well by fifty percent. Pretty cool stuff and a pretty cool panel. These are good examples of students doing good for the third world and was rightly introduced as look-what-our-students-do.

There's irony here. Think about it: these students are proving how huge an impact one can have with very little money. I bet Stanford didn't think deeply about how this appears next to a speech on the importance of raising a huge amount of money.

Digression: It appears many alumni haven't gone to lectures in a while -- during the first half an hour of the welcome, cell phones kept ringing every three minutes or so. People are out of the habit of turning them off. But they learned relatively quickly; all the other events were relatively unmarred by these disruptions.

Killing Time:
With a few minutes to kill after the welcome, I headed down to the Gates building. I'd planned to log in and do some work. I thought despite having my regular school account expired that I'd be able to use my CS account (which is still valid) to log into the pup cluster, a lab of CS machines. Happily or sadly, they'd replaced these machines. They were now configured to require a school login, not a CS one. So instead of working I headed back out to read in the sun for a while.

It was a stunningly beautiful sunny day, even more so than normal for California. I really wished I had my camera, as the glow from the stones in the quad and the sparkle of the fountain by Gates would've made excellent photographs. In fact, many places were photogenic, as Stanford put down new mulch, cut grass, and spiffied everything up in honor of reunion/homecoming. When I was a student I always snickered at these activities. Today I appreciated them.

Class Lunch:
At lunchtime I picked up one of the box lunches and made my way to the class tent. There were a handful of alumni, perhaps several dozen, scattered among many tables. Sitting with the person I re-met the previous night, I met a few alumni I never knew while a student. They were all cool. We traded stories about where we were in life (political staffer, medical student, computer consultant, business school student). Perhaps the most interesting observation from our lunch discussion was that a bit more than half of us were bored with, disillusioned by, or simply antsy about our current jobs and ready to do something new.

In a later conversation, a friend of mine hypothesized this is a consequence of our school system. We never remain in one place for more than four years. Thus, after four years doing the same thing after graduation, people naturally start to feel antsy.

Anyway, what would a blog post be without the obligatory food description? The boxed lunch consisted of a sad mass of teriyaki chicken breast of precisely uniform texture, a perfunctory salad, and (yay) a fresh strawberry and a tasty brownie.

Oh, I also ran into someone I knew: an ex-roommate's ex-girlfriend. I wonder what he'll say when I tell him I saw her.

Law and Fiction Panel:
After lunch I headed to a discussion of how popular culture views the law system and legal dramas. The panelists included a law professor and novelist, an attorney and novelist, and a television producer, all moderated by an editor of Slate who also writes the Supreme Court Dispatches and Jurisprudence columns. (These are columns I enjoy when I have the patience to sit through Slate's advertisements.) The television producer seemed a bit out of place. His most recent work was 24, which I don't think of as a law show. He did, however, previously work on LA Law.

Everyone agreed the reason legal dramas are so common is because they are engines for stories. It's easy to keep the same characters but get an entirely new situation each week. They also agreed that is why most legal shows focus on the courtroom, not the day-to-day drafting of papers and settling of cases out of court. These latter activities take 90+% of lawyers's time but don't make good stories. None of the panelists minded shows ignoring this boring aspect of law even though it gave viewers an incorrect impression of the discipline.

The moderator brought up a good point: law is like religion in that both involve precise rituals, often seemingly impenetrable to the uninitiated. The moderator tried to take this idea further, claiming lawyers were the priests of our society. None of the panelists bought it. (The moderator bothered me a little. She put forth too many of her own ideas into the conversation. Instead of helping smooth the dialog, it helped make it slightly less coherent.)

(North American) Taiko
I enjoy listening to Taiko and feeling my whole body vibrate to the drums, but I don't often get the opportunity to listen. Hence, I headed to the class on Taiko: a one hour lecture with two performances. I learned some of the history of how taiko get started in Japan and in North America, and how this isn't really an ancient tradition. Aside from beating drums at festivals, taiko (well, kumidaiko) was pretty much invented in the 1950s and soon made inroads in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose before spreading to the rest of the country.

In addition to learning the different types of instruments used and the different ways of hitting them, I learned there isn't a formal written notation for songs. Rather, they are taught orally, much like a rap using the words for the types of beats: don, don, doro, ka, ka, tsu, don, doro, kara, doro, tsu...

Drums ought to be made out of the trunk of a huge tree. Apparently, however, the much less expensive option of using wine barrels tend to work almost as well.

And, like all other classes and panels, I was once again one of the few young people in the audience.

With nothing else I wanted to attend after the taiko class, even though it was late afternoon and I'd taken a vacation day, I decided to head back to work to compensate for not taking a vacation day on Thursday.

Stanford Five Year Reunion: Thursday: Check-In, Consultants, and Death Tour

Time passes quickly. Before you know it, it's already time for a major reunion.

Thursday, October 12th 2006, was the official start of my five year college reunion. There were few events scheduled for the day, yet since I had selected the registration option that allowed me to get into everything, I decided to drop by campus and go to the ones that sounded interesting. Thus after eating lunch at work, I found myself driving to campus. (Ah, it's so easy when one still lives locally.)

I registered, then flipped through the class book (a book about what each student has been doing since graduation; I hadn't yet received mine in the mail). I also flipped through the class of 56's book, just to see the contrast between where they are in life and where we are.

Although I'd hoped to be on campus in time for the first batch of "classes without quizzes" (i.e., neat lectures by faculty), I had no such luck. Rather than go into a small class quite late, I headed to MemChu for the organ demonstration "class." The class, upstairs by the organ, was full so I settled myself in the chapel itself, planned which events I'd attend over the weekend, and listened to the organ. Pieces of the lecture floated down to me ("the largest pipe organ west of the Mississippi," etc.). Memorial Church is a beautiful place, on par with many of the elaborate churches I saw in Montreal (described in another post), although once again I had to snicker about its "non-denominational" designation. Non-denominational my ass: there were images of christ plastered everywhere.

After class, I headed to my next class: "Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies." The speaker, Professor Barley, had given this talk in the east bay a year ago. I had wanted to go to it then but couldn't make it. I'm glad I got a second chance: he's an entertaining speaker. The talk described, with many neat anecdotes, his anthropological research on how consultants live, why some choose that life, and why more have been choosing it in recent years. Like the pipe organ class, most of the other students were much older than me. In this case, this turned the class into a discussion; many of them had jobs as consultants for a time and had thoughtful insights into the subject.

My afternoon classes completed, I headed back to work to get stuff done. In the late evening, I returned to campus to attend the "Death Tour." It was a small group, tilted slightly younger, and led by professor Rick, a man that seemed familiar and I finally placed by realizing that while shopping for classes I sat in Anthro 1 for a week when he was teaching it. Rick is a great storyteller. The best aspect of the tour was not walking by the big red barn, the angel of death, or the mausoleum, but rather the tales Rick wove about the history of Stanford and the land on which it's housed. While some of the talk was the standard death-of-Leland-Jr and the mysterious-death-of-Jane-Stanford, some was stuff I never heard before about the characters (yes, they were characters) who owned the land before Leland-Sr and how Leland-Sr acquired the land at a rate well below market value. The talk also included great stories about the original mausoleum, the original family house, and some other buildings that don't exist anymore.

During the tour, I ran into my first class of 2001 person of the weekend. Surprisingly, it was someone I actually knew: a roommate of a good friend of mine. He'd flown in from Boston and we spent some of the tour catching up. I guess this means the weekend already truly qualifies as a reunion.

Northern California Renaissance Faire 2006

I went to Renaissance Faires several times in junior high and high school but haven't been since then. I'd always wanted to go back. I've known about the Northern California Renaissance Faire for a couple years but hadn't yet made it until on Sunday, October 8th, 2006, I finally did, returning with a friend of mine.

The faire was fun and almost as I remembered it. Many people wore costumes from some era (Middle Ages, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Victorian, etc.). It was difficult to tell who was a paid actor and who was simply an enthusiastic participant. Acting the part, accents and expressions and all, takes practice; the few attempts I had at brief conversations with people playing it up really failed as I my skills weren't up to par.

Most costumes, foods, and shows were European, especially English, Irish, and Scottish, though pretty much anything within a couple thousand miles of the Mediterranean seemed to be fair game. My friend called the atmosphere surreal. The booths were traditional for a renaissance faire: many clothing (including costumes, cloaks, and hats) and knife stores, and an assortment of booths selling pewter figurines, jewelry, puzzle boxes, leather, ceramics, artwork (mostly fantasy), wooden mugs, etc. One booth had quite pretty and very heavy stone drink coasters.

Although these pictures and videos do a fair job of showing my experience at the faire, they're missing some events and observations described below.

We went out of our way to attend Marlowe's Shadowe, a hilarious troupe that presents condensed comedic interpretations of Shakespearian plays, frequently in verse.

With good fortune, we arrived to the show early and got to catch the end of the previous show, a musician named Kenny Klein. The one song we heard "What Do You Do With An Old Dead Gerbil?" cracked me up. Here's part of the chorus:

Hey hey rigor mortis,
Hey hey rigor mortis,
Hey hey rigor mortis,
Early in the morning.
He sang it in many different styles including reggae, country, and bob dylan, each accurately portrayed. With the constant switching of musical genres, the lyrics never get old.

We also watched the Albion Schoole of Defense, a fairly decent show full of staged swordplay and historical information about the evolution of fencing. Do you know the difference between the English and Spanish style and the swords they used? And yes, they actually do teach swordplay, though the show was produced by their theatrical unit.

Some Scottish and Irish dancing done by Siamsa le Cheile was neat to watch and guess who was related to whom. (It seemed like it probably was a family dance troupe.) It turns out we were wrong; judging by the biographies, it's not a family troupe.

The final show we saw was a demonstration by an experienced glassblower. He's been blowing glass for multiple decades and it was obvious this was his life's passion. I had forgotten blowing glass actually meant literally blowing air into glass. Both watching glass expand as one blows and watching the molten glass simply change shape under gravity were cool. He made a large glass bowl (unexpectedly, as one couldn't tell what it would be until it was nearly done) and made and demonstrated the properties of a Rupert's Drop, a cool phenomenon with which I was already familiar. (Go read about it if you don't know what it is.)

I had what my memory of renaissance faire food is: a turkey leg. I ordered a small turkey leg which turned out to be huge -turkeys have big legs!- and dry -blah-. My friend has fish and chips and I tried the chips (fries) and they were definitely good. Other than that, the faire had a wide assortment of food from the expected regions, much of it offered on a stick/skewer/bone/whatever, including frozen chocolate covered bananas and the amusingly named sin on a stick (chocolate-covered cheesecake).

For dessert, we had a orange frozen ice, actually served in half an orange peel. It was so frozen it took half an hour to soften in the sun before it was easily spooned.

Other Remarks:
My t-shirt which says "wear art not advertising" in a fancy celtic script got three compliments, including one girl who said she wears her art on her and showed me a tattoo on her shoulder, and one guy that hassled me in friendly way, claiming that my shirt was an advertisement for art itself, but still gave me one of those chocolate coins with a gold wrapper.

The boundaries of the faire were demarcated by drapes (as seen in this photo). It's neat, because as one sees employees enter and exit, it's easy to imagine there are countless secret passageways leading who knows where.

We observed many costumed women in dresses with low bustlines and wondered if these were culturally appropriate during the renaissance or any similar age. After failing to find the answer on the web, I asked my knowledgeable ex-roommate. She said that yes indeed in some periods dresses with such low cuts were culturally acceptable and provided some examples: a low-cut a dress from the 1740s, a very low-cut dress from the 1630s (painted by Reuben) (zoom in to see what I mean), and even Mona Lisa's dress.

Getting to the faire was neat as well. We got to see the sprawling full service series of businesses that is Casa de Fruta. We witnessed countless quite artistic rusting discarded old farming equipment on the side of the road. And we got a odiferous drive through Gilroy.

Hayward Greek Festival 2006

On Saturday, October 7th 2006, I spent late afternoon and evening at the Hayward Greek Festival, a festival I attended last year. Participating was comfortable as everything looked identical to the previous festival: same foods, same layout, same booths selling books, jewelry, and clothes, the same dance floor and largely the same dances, and even a similar booklet (though with more typos this year) with advertisements for Greek-owned businesses, cooking recipes and advice, and Greek words and phrases. One neat new item for sale was a homemade cookbook with the recipes for every dish they cook at the festival. (I decided not to buy it.) The only other cookbook for sale was right next to it, labeled Hellenic cooking. I can't figure out what the difference between Greek and Hellenic is...

Since it's primarily a food festival, exploring the booths was pretty fast (as there were few and I'd generally seen them before), so I spent my couple hours there reading, waiting in line for food, eating, watching dancing, reading, getting more food, watching a slide show on modern Athens, reading, drinking, listening to a lecture about the design of an eastern orthodox church, eating more, and so on (in some order). The slide show was better than what one expects when watching one man's vacation slides. And the talk about the architecture, decor, and iconography of an eastern orthodox church was fairly neat too. Did you know that every church altar when consecrated gets sealed inside it a fragment of bone or cloth or something similar from a saint? If the church moves, the altar must go with it because it's not allowed to be destroyed.

As is traditional for festivals, I stuffed myself:
* a greek salad. exactly right.
* metaxa (a kind of brandy). I had it on the rocks and thought it was a solid brandy, liking it as much as I like many brandies (which actually isn't much).
* spanakopita (Greek spinach pie). decent, though a little greasy.
* mixed veggies (zucchini, squash, eggplant, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, tomato paste). nothing too exciting: veggies in a light, slightly sweet tomato sauce. I could probably make this pretty easily.
* gyro - great, as usual. Lamb, onions, tomato, tzatziki, and that wonderfully tasty, thick, and chewy pita bread that I don't get anywhere besides these festivals.
* karidopita (honey walnut cake). a sweet, moist, and quite tasty dessert. I liked it enough that I found a recipe on the web and made it a few days later with fairly similar success.
* melomarorona (honey cookies) - good. similar to the karidopita but with more of a orange zest undertone and practically no walnut flavor.
* koulourakia (like a butter cookie in softness and taste though in the shape of a bread twist) - decent.

Interesting Articles: September 18th-October 16th 2006

* High-protein diets boost hunger-taming hormone (Science News). In short, a causal study links increasing a percentage of ones calories coming from protein to higher levels of a hormone related to feelings of satiety. The source article, Critical role for peptide YY in protein-mediated satiation and body-weight regulation (Cell Metabolism), is online.
* Radiant plasma may combat cavities (Science News). Amazing: not only the ability to create a plasma in a hand-held tool at room temperature, but using such a tool to clean teeth. For details on the technology, see some of the listed references.

* Sperm in frozen animals still viable years later (Science News). A la Jurassic park. The source article, Spermatozoa and spermatids retrieved from frozen reproductive organs or frozen whole bodies of male mice can produce normal offspring (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), is available online.
* Problem Paternity: Older men seem more apt to have autistic kids (Science News). Another article (see the last interesting articles post), again non-causal, relating some feature about men to the health of the babies they father. The title basically says it all but if you want more, the abstract of the source article, Advancing paternal age and autism (Archives of General Psychiatry), is online.

* Faker... and Harder (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). (Scroll down for the story.) Reports on a study (that could have been better designed) finding The Daily Show has the same quantity of hard news as network news broadcasts. The press release, It's no joke: IU study finds The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to be as substantive as network news (Indiana University Press Release), is online; I haven't yet located the scientific paper on the topic. (Maybe it's still unpublished?)