The New Housing on West Campus

Grass!I’ve been living in one of the new west campus houses (Becker house) since sophomore year.  I think the new dorms on west (oh wait, I think I’m supposed to call them houses) are the best on campus, but that is not to say that they’re perfect.  The best aspects of the housing on west are that they are very close to central campus (~4 min to get to top of slope), they are new and clean, and they are nice and quiet at night.  This is in striking contrast to my far away, dirty, old and nosy dorm room freshman year.  These are big pluses for west campus, do you really need anything more from your housing?  The rooms are smaller than the old gothics on west campus, but that’s not something very important to me.  (pictured right is Rose house (i.e. house 5) below are the gothics with the new Bethe house behind them)

What is heavily pushed by administration is creating a strong community in each house, but in reality I just don’t think it really works.  People in singles often stay to themselves and suites can be pretty social, but not with the rest of the dorm.  For a lot of people it’s just a place to sleep and keep all of your junk, which it is very convenient for.  I feel that those who want a very social living situation go to a frat or get an apartment with their numerous friends; they don’t usually stay on campus.  What is also pushed is student-faculty interaction and while there are some who do this a lot, the majority of students aren’t involved.

The worst thing about west campus hosing is that everyone is forced to purchase unlimited meals.  I think this is unreasonable as this is very expensive and way more than what most people need.  Also, west campus dinning announced reduction in its service for next year right after everyone signed up for housing.

West CampusOn west every new house has its own dinning hall.  I suppose this is to foster community in each house and provide variety, but I think I would rather have one big, very good dinning hall instead of 5 mediocre ones.  But then again there is something to be said abut waking up on a cold windy day and just walking downstairs to get food, never needing to brave the outside.  This way I can spend inordinate amounts of time in Becker without ever going outside.  All the dinning halls on west have the same hours and usually the same kind of food.  I’d like to have the option to get a more reasonable meal plan, or to not have one at all, but alas, I suppose this is the price to be paid to live in the new dorms.

I like the idea of naming dorms after really awesome faculty (instead of big donators), but all the houses seem to be a little too obsessed with the person they are named after and put the persons face and name everywhere.  I suppose this is to help develop a unique character for each of the five different houses.  They all look pretty much the same inside and out; sometimes I still get them confused.  The only person I think it is valid to obsess over is Bethe.  Okay, so maybe I’m biased because I’m science obsessed, but he is mentioned in a lot of my classes, not just because he was at Cornell for so long, but because he is the person that first developed what we’re studying; he really did a lot.

Outside Carl Becker HouseIn Becker house where I live, there is one quote by Becker that is frequently used, “Freedom with Responsibility.”  The only problem with this is that Becker never actually said this.  It should be “Freedom and Responsibility.”  I’m not usually a stickler for slight mistakes, but with this misquote everywhere, it’s rather embarrassing not to get it right.  You might argue,  “It’s not such a big deal, it’s not like it’s written in stone anywhere,” but it actually is written in stone.  They really need to fix this.

Close Up

So while overall I like my housing and think that things are usually run smoothly, it doesn’t quite meet its grand envisioned mission.  I like how the university is trying something a little different, but I’m just fine with plain old housing.

Spring Classes 09

Here’s a quick rundown of the classes I’m taking this semester.  I kind of feel as though I just started them, but they end in only two weeks. (eeek!)

Science in Western Civilization:
For my one non-science class this semester I’m taking the history of science.  Oh wait, I guess this is still science.  Anyway, it’s still a nice break from math and physics all day.  The class is about science from Newton to about the beginning of the 20th century.  I’m getting a lot out of this class.  It’s cool matching people to the equations I use all the time and learning how concepts of reality changed over time.  I now have much more appreciation for the work scientists did in the 19th century.  Although the 20th century had more technological advancement, so much of it’s foundation was made in the 19th century.  Like other history classes I’ve taken, grading is based on the regurgitation of facts (well, how else are you going to grade people?), so I’m just taking it pass/fail.

Intermediate Quantum Mechanics:
QM is very different from all the other physics I’ve taken.  Equations aren’t always commutative, things like position, velocity, and energy become operators rather than absolute values.  Also, QM notation is baffling to anyone not already familiar with it.  I find the work conceptually very difficult as I have to approach problems differently.  Often the problems are of simple models that have nice elegant solutions, but when QM tries to solve more realistic situations, things get nasty fast.  QM is crucial in any field of physics I go into; I hope I can finish with a good grasp of this strange material.

Intermediate Electrodynamics:

Conceptually this class isn’t that hard, but it is rather heavy on equations.  There are a lot of different equations for different situations, although they all can be derived in theory from the four Maxwell equations.  The math can also get pretty hard with its heavy use of vector calc and complex numbers.  There are a lot of useful real world applications to what I’m learning and now I can talk to my peers in Electrical Engineering and have some idea what they are talking about.

CS 2800 Discrete Structures:
In this class I’m finally properly learning lots of different little subjects in math that I should already know well.  “Simple” problems often appear very easy, but contain subtleties you haven’t thought of.  This is primarily a sophomore class, so it’s composed mostly of people younger than me, something I’m not used to.  Yet another sign that I’m getting old and that my days here at Cornell are numbered.

Introduction to Astrophysics and Space Sciences II:
This is in the same style as last semester’s part I of the class but with different material.  The first half was on the Interstellar medium, lots of differential equations involving different states of matter.  The second half is about cosmology, lots of crazy cool ideas about the universe that really bends your mind.  Astro is a strange science in that you can’t really do anything practical with what you learn, but what greater knowledge is there than that of the vast universe?

Disproportionate Attention

Everyone likes complaining, especially over silly things.  What I like to complain about is people complaining too much.  A lot of people here at Cornell like to complain about how the university charges too much for everything.  While some of the complaining is merited, I feel like more attention should be placed on tuition and it’s raising cost.

Printing: When I go to print something on campus it costs 9 cents.  Some people are outraged by this, claiming Cornell is just finding more ways to take our money.  I would hate it if Cornell had free printing, why?  People would abuse the system and print way more than they need.  Then printers would always be busy, and constantly run out of toner and paper, thus depriving me of printing out my one page of homework problems.

Also, printing is expensive.  There are a lot of inherent costs besides paper we don’t think about like, maintenance, toner, and initial capital costs.  I think 9 cents is a good deal.  I do all my printing through Cornell and it only adds up to about $10 a semester, although I don’t have to print anything very long like papers and slides.  Having my own printer would cost me a lot more and it would be a lot less convenient than being able to print anywhere on campus.

Textbooks: yes textbooks cost too much, no, this isn’t Cornell’s doing.  Publishers make textbooks expensive, not schools.  The problem with selling advanced textbooks is that not many people buy them, so in order to turn a profit, publishers make them expensive.  Cornell helps a lot with the cost of books with the semesterly book buyback.  At 50% of the books original value it’s not a bad deal, the major downside is that they usually only buy back the more common textbooks.  So if you are in a small class with a lot of obscure books, don’t expect much.

Student Activity Fee:  Every student at Cornell pays a fee of about $100 a semester that goes towards student clubs and events.  I think this is too much and that the funds are often misappropriated.  If there are students who want to organize an event that costs a lot, they should be willing to pay for it themselves.  But then I compare this cost to the cost of my tuition and then I just don’t care anymore.

So why don’t we seem to complain all that much about tuition?  The cost of these small fees next to the cost of tuition really is negligible.  Even yearly tuition increases are an order of magnitude greater than the student activity fee.  Increasing the price of something while you’re in the middle of it just doesn’t seem right as you’re kinda stuck with it.  People do complain about this too, but not nearly as much as I think they should.  I call for at least a ten-fold increase in complaining about tuition increases.  I find it rather amusing how everyone is happy when the tuition increase is less than projected.  Shouldn’t we complain when they raise tuition?

Time Breakdown (again)

Towards the begging of my sophomore year I kept track of my time for a week.  I wanted to see how things have change in my work habits since then so I did it again.  This week that I recorded turned out to be kinda average: there have been some weeks lately where I worked a good deal more, others a good deal less.  I had a prelim Thursday night, after which I kinda crapped out and couldn’t bring myself to do anymore work.

I recorded how much time I spent sleeping, going to class, eating, and working outside of class.  Time spent doing none of these things I consider “other.”

My total class time was 16 hrs, my total time working was 31:15 hrs, so together they make up a standard work week, which is rather respectable.  But compared to how much I should be working it isn’t quite enough.  I have on average 3 problem sets a week.  To get them mostly finished I probably need a good 8 hours on each.  There is also research that I do that I should spend 10+ hrs on.  Then there is time I need to spend actually learning my material, say 10+hrs for all my classes combined, although I learn a lot of it by doing problem sets.  This comes to 44+hrs, so I should be working about 50% more than I do.

This is perhaps not the best way of determining how hard I actually work.   Time spent “working” can sometimes be intense mind-bending learning, and sometimes it can be staring idly at a question and daydreaming.  It’s highly dependent on how I’m feeling, and often even though I have time to work, I’m just lacking the mental energy to be productive.

Something people are often surprised by me is that I’ve never pulled an all nighter.  I’ve gotten pretty close say, work -> 4hrs sleep -> class, but never have I done zero sleep.  Sometimes when I am hopelessly behind in work late at night I try to push on, but when it reaches about 2:30 my work begins to actually be detrimental so I give up and go to bed.

Compared to sophomore year, I’m now sleeping over an hour less than I used to.  It’s really starting to take it’s toll on me.  Waking up can be very painful and some days are just wasted from being too sleep deprived.  I can probably increase the time I spend working if I sleep more.  Speaking of which, time to go to bed goodnight.


I remember how in my freshman year I was very curious as to how it would be focusing so much on physics.  Now I have a much better idea since I’m in my second semester Junior year and well into my upper level engineering physics courses.  So here are some of my general thoughts of what’s it like to spend most of your time working on physics problems.

One of the surprising things of higher level physics for me was the overarching interconnectedness of certain concepts.  Every subject seems to have influence on every other; topics I’ve learned in one class will always come up sooner or later in another.  In that sense everything I learn builds on itself and the more I learn, the more things come together and make sense.  It gives me a sense of progress like I’m actually going somewhere that I find very satisfying.

Being good at physics is largely being good at problem solving.  There is no grand methodology to just regurgitate everything into; you have to carefully think about how to approach the problem.  Solving a physics problem for me goes like this:  My problem gives me a certain situation and I want to find the value or more generally the relationships of a certain parameters.  I need to ask myself, what equations are valid in this situation?  Which ones are useful and relevant?  Do I then have enough information to find what I’m looking for?  Then I try to figure out how to use everything to solve the problem.  Problems can require a lot of creativity to solve at times and have not so obvious solutions.  Sometimes there are problems that just completely stump me and I stare at them for hours without making any progress.  But I try to not let this discourage me, and do the best I can.

I like how in my classes there is little emphasis on memorization and number crunching.  The way I figure it, computers are way better at memorizing and computing things than I am, so let them do it.  Yes, understanding math is crucial in physics, but the really complicated things can just be thrown into a computer and solved numerically.  I’ve never been expected to know how to do every integration under the sun, just the very basic ones.  What’s important and difficult is how to set up that integral, not how to evaluate it.  That work is conceptually very easy; what is conceptually very hard is finding the instructions you should tell the computer.  There are, however, a certain few equations that are so basic and fundamental that you have to know them by heart.  If you really know what you’re doing you should in principle be able to derive any other complicated equation you may need from these few basic fundamental ones.

I’ve gotten so overloaded with cool science work lately that I now call what I study super-science.  Also, I’ve developed the problem of considering the word science to mean just physics.  All other science seems to me to just be the application of physics on a specific subject.  As Rutherford once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”  I don’t want to belittle the awesomeness of other sciences, but that quote rather captures my biased view.

On the SlopeSo despite all the pain and struggling of homework and all the stressing out about tests, I think that it’s worth it.  What I walk away with from most of my classes is really cool and useful and I can’t picture myself in majors other than Physics or Engineering Physics (well, maybe CS too).  Everything else seems like it’s either too arbitrary, too boring, too much grunt work, or not useful enough for me.  I genuinely enjoy my work; I just hope I am able to be diligent enough to make it through all the way.

Picture is completely unrelated – it’s the zoomed out version of my current header image for anyone who’s interested.

Drinking at Cornell

Last semester I turned 21 and got interested in what was with the whole drinking thing.  I can’t say turning 21 was what really got me try out drinking as I don’t have any serious qualms with underage drinking, but it did make me feel as though it was time for me to find out why so many people enjoy it so much. There is always so much talk about it, I wanted to see for myself.  I suppose I didn’t try it out earlier because far too often freshman year I would see the “results” of parties.  There was just too much overindulgence and loss of control; it by no means inspired me to check out what was going on.

So I tried out some frat parties to see what they are like.  Well, they were pretty much what I expected; many people in small spaces, darkness and blaring music, the smell of alcohol, bad perfume and sweat.  As you descend towards a crowded dance floor the temperature drastically increases.  Needless to say, it really isn’t my thing, but I can now kinda understand the draw it has for some people.  A sort of mass hypnosis and blinding of the senses, a way to forget what’s going on.

But frat parties aren’t the only places to drink at Cornell (although perhaps the main ones for those underage), there are also a lot of bars in Ithaca.  I haven’t been to many of them, but the ones I have been to are pretty cool.  They’re often dark, crowded, and loud, but not nearly as gross as a frat parties.  I go into a bar and I’m like “Wow, everyone in here is old, I wonder why that is.  It’s as if everyone here is 21 or older.”  It’s definitely a very different, more relaxed environment.  It can be pretty expensive, but whatever, it’s worth it.

So I’ve learned that in moderation, drinking can actually be kinda fun in a strange sort of mind-numbing way.  It is disappointing though that many of my friends are still under 21 and can’t go to bars yet.  There is growing support for reducing the drinking age, which I am in favor of.  President Skorton isn’t though.


)Yay!  It’s about that time again, time to plan out my schedule and pre-enroll for classes next semester.  This one’s particularly special as it’s the first time my class gets first pick since seniors graduate this semester.  It’s a big glaring sign saying, “You’re getting old, what are you planning to do with your life?”  I don’t really have to figure out my schedule until classes start in August, but planning ahead is fun.  Even then I’ll shop around a couple weeks until I settle on what to take.

Since I’m looking at courses from various departments, scheduling conflicts are inevitable.  Getting conflicts this time is especially frustrating as this will be my last chance at fall classes.  Most higher level courses are offered spring or fall only, some even only once every two years.  So it’s my last chance at taking certain classes.  I only have two semesters left and I want to get as much out of it as possible.  It’s nice that my major only has one required class next semester, it gives me room for lots of other classes I’m interested in taking:

So here are some of the classes I’m looking at:

My one required class is AEP 4230 Statistical Thermodynamics.  This is a really interesting subject that shows up a lot. While I get little hints of it from other classes, it would be nice to learn is properly.

And then there are lots of classes I’m interested in taking that aren’t required:

PHYS 4445 Introduction to General Relativity. Finally I’ve taken enough physics to take a try at learning the insanity known as GR.  With my interest in astrophysics it’s kinda natural for me to learn GR.  I expect this to be really hard as it deals with a lot of advanced math physics that I don’t know as well as I should.  Well at least it isn’t the year long graduate level GR class.

CS 4210 Numerical Analysis and Differential Equations. I would like to know some numerical analysis as I figure it would always be useful down the road.  Likely to bore me death though, as it’s only about solving hard math equations and not about awesome physics.  Conflicts with GR, GR wins.

AEP 3300 Modern Experimental Optics. This is a lab based class and I really could use more lab experience.  Also, optics is a huge area of research now.

AEP 4500 Introduction Solid State Physics. This one isn’t really that high on my list, but it’s also a big area of research and has tons of useful applications.

MAE 4570 (457) Space Systems and National Security.  I’ve been getting more interested in space technology and this course sounds really cool.  Seems like it’s more about politics than engineering.  Sadly, this conflicts with my one required class and graduating would be nice.

ECE 4300 Lasers and Optical Electronics. This class is intended for senior Electrical Engineers.  While I am taking electrodynamics this semester, it might not be enough to keep up.  I took an intro lasers class my first semester at Cornell and I think lasers are so awesome that I should try out this class.

New Physical Sciences BuildingASTRO 4410 Experimental Astronomy. This is a small lab class that does some really neat Astronomy experiments.  Among other things they use the Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory and a radio telescope on the top of the Space Sciences Building (awesome!).  This is some serious stuff and I should only take this if I’m really serious about astro.

ASTRO 2280 Space Exploration. This doesn’t sound very heavy on engineering or science, but nevertheless very interesting.  A not too serious type class could be a nice break in my day.

Even though it will be my last year, I’m still trying to narrow down what I want to focus on.  There is just too many cool things to try out.  Too bad I can’t simply absorb the knowledge of all these classes without doing all of the extremely challenging work associated with them.

Yes, I got a laptop

Me HomeworkingSome of you loyal readers may remember my post a while back about how I prefer having a desktop. Well, last semester I finally caved in and got a laptop just like all the other cool kids.  So what why the change of heart?  Well, Moores law has continued and today’s lower end consumer laptops are quite cheap and more powerful than my desktop.

It’s very convent to carry a magical machine that does anything you tell it to.  From it I can reach the furthest corners of the world and create anything imaginable and except for playing new games, my laptop can run everything my desktop can.  Today computers are limited more by their software than by their hardware, it’s a matter of having them set up right to get the most use out of them.  So when I got my laptop I wiped the hard drive and installed XP and all my favorite programs.  You might sneer, “Windows, how un-1337 of you.”  But that’s what I like and what I am familiar with.  Perhaps the next time I have several hundred hours free I’ll dual-boot Linux.

So am I now inseparable from my computer?  Does it have a name and eat meals with me?  No.  I still believe in avoiding using computers when possible in my work.  Only for programming, number crunching, and sometimes for reference (I still <3 wikipedia) do I use my bring along my computer.

Are laptops convenient?  Yes, it’s nice to be able to carry around a computer, setup just the way you like it, but are they necessary?  No, my previous post still holds: there are plenty of computer labs on campus and there are never situations where you have to have one.  There some people though who simply expect you to own a laptop, you’ll tell them that you don’t have one and then they will stare at you funny, incapable of comprehension.

The problem is that laptops often end up distracting more than helping.  In the library I look out at all of my peers and few are without their little sidekicks.  What are a good number of people using them for?  Facebook, email, videos, etc.  It’s important to view your laptop as a tool rather than an inseparable extension of yourself.

Fall Classes 08

I enjoyed my classes fall semester. There was a lot of crazy super sciencing and fun was had. Here’s a summary of my classes and how they went:

Mechanics of Particles and Solid Bodies:

GorgeI thought that I would be okay with classical mechanics, but it turned out to be my worst class grade-wise. Just because it’s “classical”, doesn’t mean it’s easy. I should have given the class more attention and worked harder on understanding the curriculum. The professor was very nice and cared a lot about students grasping the material, but her teaching style was strange to me. I would label as very continuous; lectures would be a constant flow of consciousness with every patch of the blackboard filled with notes or drawings. Everything fit nicely together with lots of detail but I’d often lose track of the overall goal.

Introductory Quantum Mechanics (half a semester):

QM was as confusing as I thought it would be (very). I hope I’ll understand it better in my full semester long QM class this spring. I understand some of the underlying concepts of QM, but overall it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Intermediate Electromagnetism (half a semester):

First half of E&M was “Do you remember how to do Freshmen E&M?” My answer was “yes.” Second half was “Can you solve Laplace’s Equation?” My answer was “no”, even though I should have mastered it last year. But oh well, I know the basics of E&M pretty well and I should be able to survive my Electrodynamics class this spring.

Introduction to Astrophysics and Space Sciences:

Astrophysics was very challenging. It was by far the smallest science class I’ve ever been in with only about 10 students, 5 of who regularly attended lectures. Students were mostly seniors in physics with some junior and AEPs. Homework and exams were some of the most difficult I’ve ever had, relying heavily on deriving equations yourself. It’s the kind of work I prefer, using conceptual understanding and problem solving skills rather than grunt work calculations. It can be very frustrating though, when you have a one sentence long question and you still haven’t made any progress after working on it for hours, although it’s quite rewarding when (if ever) you figure it out.

Physical Sciences ConstructionI really enjoyed lectures for this class and learned a lot. Lectures were in the top of the Space Sciences Building in a cool conference room with an nice view of the construction on the the new physical sciences building. Astro combines all sorts of different kinds of physics from E&M to QM to General Relativity to Chemistry to Nuclear Physics to Solid-state Physics to Classical Mechanics and so on. It introduced me to a lot of new things. Somehow I survived it and I look forward to my next Astro class.

Introduction to Nuclear Science and Engineering:

This was a cool class that was pretty light on the homework side of things, which was nice for a change. I’ve long had an interest energy production, nuclear in particular, and this class taught me a lot about issues in the nuclear industry. I liked the nuclear physics portion of the curriculum more than the actual engineering of power plants, but it was still interesting overall.

Surviving Fall Break

Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break Fall Break

Ah yes, the gigantic break in the middle of fall semester that we all look forward to: Fall Break.  Okay, so the break is only two days off (Monday and Tuesday), but since there have been no days off since the beginning of the semester (not even labor day), this break is a big deal.  A huge percentage of students go home for the long weekend.  I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’d estimate it to be about 80%.

Me?  I stayed at Cornell for break.  It’s fun to hang out here when there is no (immediate) work to do.  I played board games, ate food, slept, watched anime, and just relaxed.  The fences blocking of the new grass on west campus were removed just in time for when everyone left for break and it makes for nice walking. Finally all signs of construction on west campus are gone.

The toughest thing about fall break is food.  All the dining halls close and then the closest place to get food is college town.  While it’s annoying I can’t really blame Cornell because with so many people gone it would be kind of silly to have the dining halls open.  Being on meal plan, I rarely eat off campus, so it was a nice change of pace.  When I was here taking classes summer ’07 I ate at college town a lot so it was somewhat nostalgic, but it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of it again and feel the strain on my wallet.

The weather during break was great and made walking the 10 minutes to college town more of a joy than an inconvenience.  The pictures you see chronicles one of my tremendous journeys.  There are two main ways of going from west to college town.  One is by the main roads that you see here and one is through some nice small paths.  After living in west for over a year I still don’t know which one I prefer.

A Different Take on Life at Cornell

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