Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why I'm Not Flirting with Lesbians In Central Park

I have flown across the ocean to become a Very Serious Oxford Student who can read two books at once, tassel swinging:

I have been told that Oxford will actually expel me for wearing that hat. Today is my one-month anniversary of arriving in England and I’ve decided that I should write a piece or two about what I’ve learned here, in part to confirm to my family that I’m still alive. If you just want statistics, please skip this post and I promise the next one will have lots and lots of p-values.

I have never before gone weeks half-wondering if I’m dreaming. At first I thought it was just jetlag or social exhaustion, but I’ve come to realize that it’s something longer-term: I never fully understood that filling out those scholarship forms meant I would, in fact, fly across a real ocean and attend a real university. So when I sit at formal hall eating smoked duck and drinking white wine in a building about 40 times older than I am, part of me believes that I am, in this well-named “city of dreaming spires”, still asleep. That, of course, is a good dream.
Lesson 1: we forget how many ways there are to live a life. Keeping sane, I think, requires becoming willfully blind to possible lives. Eg, at the moment I am a long-haired computer science researcher in a committed straight relationship; but if I wanted to, by tomorrow I could be a spiky-haired harmonica-player flirting with lesbians in Central Park. In theory. But, of course, I don’t really consider that possibility, because it’s terrifying and paralyzing to constantly consider dumping your boyfriend, switching careers, and crossing an ocean; I get pretty overloaded just deciding what to eat for lunch. And because the grass is always greener I imagine that if we really did discard personas so lightly, we’d often do so prematurely.

But I worry that instead we go too far in the other direction. In Silicon Valley, at least, it’s easy to develop a tunnel vision which I will summarize in the following table. The middle column is somewhat hyperbolic [1], but the right column is (at least loosely) based on actual conversations I have had with people in Oxford.
Complete The Following Sentence
Answer in Silicon Valley
Other Possible Answers
“The fundamental problem is…”
“...our MySQL server won’t sync with the cloud.”
“...the lack of objective morality in a post-modern world.”
“You have to be careful when you sneak into…”
“...the front of the line at the Google cafeteria.”
“You can use social media to…”
“...disrupt the groups-larger-than-three-but-smaller-than-five space.”
“...represent the parents of the children who died at Newtown.”

There is such a range of ways to live! People here put on black robes for dinner and say grace in Latin and sit at “high table” so they can look down on us mortals and it all seems so absurd to me but they have been doing this for eight hundred years. And at the Oxford Union, the debating society, I see eighteen-year-olds in tuxedos giving grandiose speeches on subjects they don’t understand, playing at being members of parliament, and again it seems absurd to me -- but there’s a decent chance they really will be members of parliament. (I have also, incidentally, seen and heard of more sexism, racism, and classism in a month here than I did in a year working in tech companies, but we can talk about that another time.)

Perhaps more important, I think, than these differences in lifestyle is the diversity in worldviews. Part of this I’ve seen from the people who come to speak at Oxford: three-star generals who stand up and defend the Iraq War and Jan Brewer who says that the only thing Obama has done right is “be a good father”. Part of it is due to the other Rhodes scholars. It's nice to meet a bunch of people who don't, usually, code, and hear what it's really like to march in Ferguson and how one sneaks into Burma and what the hell is going on with Turkey and how you get water to remote Latin American towns and why you need boots on the ground to conduct an airstrike at all and why it’s so hard to prosecute war crimes and...

The part that really bakes my noodle is that, of course, even this relative diversity is only a tiny slice of human experience. In Palo Alto they drink $4 coffee, and in Oxford they drink $4 tea: this is a long way from how most people live. I realized that I could not remember the last time I’d had a long conversation with someone who hadn’t gone to college. (Can you?) Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, given my previous work on how birds of a feather flock together; we are astonishingly good at self-segregation, and we build complex mechanisms to facilitate it. After I did the birds-of-a-feather work, I was somewhat troubled to find that someone had used my results to support their dating app that only allows in elites. I’m now at a university where iron gates separate the black-robed students from the beggars outside, where even the way someone speaks is a clue to their class; I don’t think we need to build more walls.

Anyway, hit me up if you’re in Oxford and, assuming I don’t get hit by a car on the wrong side of the road, I’ll keep you posted on the other things I learn in England; also, if you have cool ideas for using statistics to understand the British, shoot me an email.


[1] I should also mention that Stanford, of course, has very strong humanities departments and students (indeed, the other two Rhodes scholars from my year studied history and political science) even if Palo Alto feels extremely tech-focused.
[2] I should perhaps clarify that I do not believe one needs to have spiky hair, or play the harmonica, to flirt successfully with lesbians in Central Park. Indeed, I don't have any idea how one flirts with lesbians in Central Park, or even if there are any to flirt with. Sadly, for the reasons discussed above, I will probably remain ignorant, but feel free to enlighten me.


  1. Your aunt Jennifer has a master's degree and is dating a man who left school in Ireland at 16, moved to London and hasn't done a day of school since.

    So it does happen.

    I have friends in London if you need anyone.

    I love reading your writing.

  2. Aw thanks, person I am assuming is Aunt Jennifer as opposed to someone who merely knows a lot about her love life and education. Good to know that social boundaries aren't always uncrossable.

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  4. Emma, statistically your chances of winning a Nobel in Medicine go up if, when you go back to Stanford, you get a degree in neuroscience, rather than computer science. You'll also be able to make better accreted sense of the world when you combine neuroscience with statistics. Not only that, but you'll discover how sexual assault can profoundly, adversely affect the brain for a whole lifetime. But ... you'll also understand how, along with sunshine, the brain's reward circuitry contributes to happiness!

    1. Persuasive arguments. Who says these options are mutually exclusive? Maybe I can stay in school until I'm 45 or so.

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  5. Old but good!And fits even today in certain aspects(syria)...:)If the majority of your generation of scientists and citizens thinks the same way you do,i am hopeful for our world.!!:):)
    Best regards and wishes for success to whatever it is you ll choose to do,as long as it is humane and just,and doesnt help the few greedy disrupt the lives of many for profit..:):)But i m sure you wouldnt be one of them!!:)

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