Harvard Engineering and the Quest to Build an Ultimate Barbecue Grill

This is a great story in The Boston Globe about a Harvard engineering course in which students were tasked to design an ultimate barbecue grill:

For months, this 16-person team had been designing and modeling and building the prototype for the ultimate barbecuecooker. The handcrafted Harvard smoker is their solution. Tested by countless computer simulations of virtual brisket smoking, nearly two dozen weekend smoking sessions — often in snow or sub-zero temperatures — and 220 pounds of meat, the smoker is a rigorous, data-driven tool for making a feast.

How did the idea for the unusual class come about?

The idea for this unconventional engineering class, offered to Harvard juniors, came three years ago when engineering professor Kevin Kit Parker attended a barbecue-cooking competition in Memphis. Parker grew up in the South and has a deep appreciation for barbecue, and when he looked up from his plate that day, he saw a problem that lacked an optimal solution.

Many products have been refined by cycles of science and engineering. Barbecue, however, has been a veritable Wild West in which pit masters build mishmash setups that incorporate garbage cans, cinder blocks, a giant rotisserie. There seemed to be little in the way of deep understanding of how — or why — one smoker was better than another, Parker said.

And lest you think the class sounded like a joke, the students spent 40 to 50 hours a week on the project! In the end, there is a patent pending and perhaps an actual product in store shelves in the very near future.

The Most Frequently Awarded Grade in Harvard is a Straight A

You want to talk about grade inflation in America’s colleges? Look no further than the Ivy League’s Harvard College. The Harvard Crimson is reporting that the median grade at Harvard is an A-, while the most frequently awarded grade is an A. This is both outrageous and depressing at the same time:

The median grade at Harvard College is an A-, and the most frequently awarded mark is an A, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said on Tuesday afternoon, supporting suspicions that the College employs a softer grading standard than many of its peer institutions.

Harris delivered the information in response to a question from government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 at the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meeting’s question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”

Then there is this bombshell:

The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.

Where I went for undergrad, Georgia Tech, there is actually grade deflation going on. The median GPA is below a 3.0, while it is closer to 2.5 to 2.6 for the engineering majors.


Jeremy Lin: From Harvard to the NBA

The New York Times has a great story on Jeremy Lin, an NBA player currently with the New York Knicks. He is an Asian-American in a league devoid of them (the only other name that comes to mind is Yao Ming). He is the N.B.A.’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent and only the fourth Asian-American in league history.

Lin received no college scholarship offers, even though he lead his Palo Alto High School team to a 32-1 record and the California championship. At Harvard, he was twice named to the all-Ivy League first team and delivered a signature 30-point performance against 12th-ranked Connecticut. In June 2010, he went undrafted in the NBA. His defense, jump shot, and just about everything else seemed subpar compared to the NBA elites. Why is he receiving so much attention all of a sudden? Not only is he helping the Knicks overcome a mediocre season, but

[T]he Lin phenomenon transcends race or nationality. He resonates with devout Christians, because he speaks openly of his faith, a sort of Taiwanese Tim Tebow. He taps into the passions of Harvard alumni, Ivy Leaguers, New Yorkers and anyone anywhere who loves an underdog.

Below, some highlights of Lin’s ability to pass, score, and play defense:


Related: this piece on Jeremy Lin reminded me of the Remarkable Story of the Caltech Basketball Team.

Stay Classy, Harvard

The extent of my knowledge about social interactions at Harvard comes from The Social Network. I’m only half kidding.

So I was pleasantly intrigued to read this piece in The Paris Review about social dynamics at Harvard. This paragraph grabbed my attention, for the way it conveyed the “classiness”:

A thing that’s very nice and very terrible is that those class differences are very rarely talked about at Harvard. So you might have some sort of movie image where the snobs are sort of looking down their noses at the poor kids, but the reality is that once you’re at Harvard, no one’s a poor kid anymore. You’re all, instantly and at that moment, in one of the most privileged positions of the American upper class.

Does the following apply to other Ivy League institutions? It’s very clever:

If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

The interesting part about the piece is that it was written by Misha Glouberman, a native of Canada. So what does Harvard do for Canadians?

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here. There are equivalent upper-class communities to some degree, like maybe people who went to Upper Canada College prep school, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. I mean, partly there just aren’t the same heights to aspire to. There’s no equivalent to being the editor of The New Yorker in Canada, or being an American movie producer or anything like that. Partly, the advantages of class aren’t as unevenly distributed in general.

I have not met any Canadians that have gone to Harvard, so I cannot be the judge of the authenticity of that statement. Anyone?

On Competition

In the December 2010 issue of Wired, Jason Fagone writes about teens who perform in competitive Algorithmic Olympics (“Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics”). The piece primarily focuses on two kids: Neal Wu (from the United States) and the heavyweight favorite to win the competition, Gennady Korotkevich (from Belarus). I read the story with great interest, not least because I competed in a number of academic competitions when I was in high school and college as well. Below, I highlight some interesting passages and then comment on academic competitions as a whole (from my experience).

A description of Gennady Korotkevich, comparing him to Neal Wu:

A tall kid with skinny arms, short brown hair, and a bashful smile, Gennady Korotkevich started competing at IOI when he was 11. When Wu was 11, he didn’t even know about programming. At last year’s IOI in Bulgaria, Korotkevich upset Wu and everyone else to take first place, becoming the youngest winner in the contest’s 20-year history. This year Korotkevich is back again, at the ripe age of 15, looking to deprive Wu of his last shot at winning IOI. Next year Wu will be in college and therefore ineligible.

Approved languages at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI):

The three approved IOI programming languages are Pascal, C, and C++. The Western kids, including Wu, tend to use C++, the most modern and streamlined of the three. But Pascal still has a following in Eastern Europe and Asia, even though coding in it is like “building a car with just a screwdriver and a wrench,” says Troy Vasiga, this year’s IOI chair.

To get a sense of how competitive the landscape is, this passage about China at IOI shed some light:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year. Then he—the competitors are almost all male—has to sit on a stage in front of hundreds of onlookers and answer questions in English like “How will you show the traditional culture of China to the foreign friends?” says Yi Wu, a member of China’s team. China is an extreme example, but pretty much every kid roaming the Waterloo campus this week has beaten hundreds or thousands of countrymen just to get here. Even the losers are brilliant.

The article has good descriptions of the problems faced by the competitors at this year’s IOI event (including the approach that Wu and Korotkevich take to solve the problems):

Every year at IOI, there’s a question so difficult that it humbles even the adults who try to crack it. This year, that question comes on day two. Called SaveIt, it’s a classic ad hoc problem, not solvable with any standard algorithm. SaveIt asks the coder to calculate a table of the shortest distances through a large transportation network consisting of 1,000 cities and 36 hubs. Then, to get the full 100 points, the coder has to cram that table into an incredibly small space and decompress it without losing any information. It’s as if someone gave you an inflated beach ball and said, here, pack this into a cookie jar. If you find the air nozzle, it’s simple. Otherwise, it’s impossible.

After finishing the piece, my impression of this competition is that it is severely stressful for the competitors, and there’s tremendous pressure to perform (not least because many students are representing their home country). I wish the article went more in depth about how the competitors felt about competing at this level (not how they solved the problems, but what the competition did to their stress levels, mental acuity, etc.). In high school, I competed at a number of such events as well: Math Counts (at the regional level), Academic Decathlon (regional and state level, where I won the Super Quiz category at the state championship my senior year), Science Bowl, and Quiz Bowl (regional, state, and national level; our team won second in the state championship twice). I took these competitions seriously, of course, but I never let them interfere with my priorities: doing well in my course work. I personally knew of coaches from other schools that made these events a brutal chore: long study hours, regimented practiced schedules, etc. And while I believe that a strong work ethic is pivotal to doing well in these competitions, I retrospectively look and think that the moment the competition stopped being fun and became a chore, this was the moment I had to step back and re-prioritize my options.

Reading Jason Fagone’s piece, I couldn’t help but think that the majority of the students competing at this level aren’t having much fun: the event is stressful, ultra-competitive, and while the rewards may be incredible (world-wide exposure for placing in the top ten or twenty), at what cost is it worth it? If these students are losing sleep, sacrificing their interactions with friends, and stop paying attention to their health, I argue that the opportunity cost of doing well (or simply competing at that level) may be too high. Now, of course there are students that derive fun from such intense competition (Gennady Korotkevich strikes me as one of those types), I absolutely do not believe that the same can be said for everyone.

I’m worried for some of those kids: the sacrifices they’ve had to make, the burn-out they may experience. It would be interesting to see how the IOI has influenced them in years to come: what college courses they take, what extracurricular activities they pursue, what jobs they take after they graduate from a university.

Speaking of future endeavors of the students, the article mentions that Neal Wu is attending Harvard; one of the courses he is taking is Math 55, a course so demanding it has its own Wikipedia entry:

Problem sets are expected to take from 24 to 60 hours per week to complete. Of those students who could handle the workload, many became math or physics professors, including many members of the Harvard Math Department such as Benedict Gross and Joe Harris; also, Harvard physics professor Lisa Randall ’84 and Harvard economics professor Andrei Shleifer ’82. Moon Duchin ’97 was one of the 17 women to complete the class between 1990 and 2006.

More interestingly: one past student of Math 55 included Bill Gates, who said the experience of taking a class “where everybody had an 800 on their SAT and 5 on their AP” exam was a “neat experience”.

Math 55 is a two-semester sequence of courses, titled Honors Abstract Algebra and Honors Real and Complex Analysis. The course sounds like a hard-core version of ACM 95/100 (three quarter sequence; course description here) that I took at Caltech. And while I’ve never had weeks where I spent 60 hours per week on an ACM 100 problem set, there were at least a couple of weeks where I devoted 30 hours to finish a problem set. And while these problem sets were extremely demanding, the fact that collaboration was allowed (nay, encouraged) made the course a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I remember finishing one problem set early and going to a study room in the library, the night before the problem set is due, and teaching the undergraduates (the course had both undergraduates and graduates) everything I knew in a span of six to seven hours. I love teaching and helping others; this was the fun factor for me, many a time: seeing other students comprehend the concepts as I explained them.


What are your thoughts on this article and competition in general? Have you ever competed at a high-level (academically, in particular) and experienced stress and burn-out? Share your thoughts in the comments.