Thursday, April 20, 2006

One Miserable Year

Luca and his commentors get dreamy-eyed over Berkeley but not everyone has such fond memories of that place.

I arrived in Berkeley for graduate school in August 1985. When I went to the off-campus housing office, there was dead silence as hundreds of people looked over a small number of listings. A TV news crew arrived to interview some students who had been looking for months for a place. The ridiculous rent-control laws of the city led to an incredible housing shortage. I ended up moving into a dorm at Mills College, thirteen miles from campus.

The city had a horrendous homeless problem which meant you couldn't walk down the street without being constantly asked for money. Berkeley, home of the free speech movement, was in fact the most intolerant place I have ever been to. Many ads for housing, jobs and the school newspaper required applicants to be "politically correct". And my favorite: A man drops garbage on the front lawn of City Hall, calls it art, and there is an actual debate on whether the town has the right to remove it.

Initially I didn't fit in well socially with the other theory students, partly because I lived so far from campus and didn't have an office my first semester, and party because I didn't fit well into their culture. I broke my finger playing touch football with my dormmates. Some theory students thought I made the story up, how could I be so foolish to play such a game. Others said "serves you right".

I nearly dropped out of graduate school that year. When my advisor, Michael Sipser, decided to move back to MIT I happily followed him.

I did have some good experiences from that year in Berkeley. Many of my fellow graduate students at that time are now some of the leaders in their fields and I consider many of them good friends. MSRI had a special year that year on Computational Complexity with many visitors and seminars. Berkeley hosted STOC and the very first Conference on Computational Complexity (then called Structures), a conference that would become an important part of my life. And I can't deny Berkeley has great food.

The following fall at the MIT theory group picnic we played touch football. I found where I belonged.


  1. How can a renter be politically incorrect? Does that mean saying something politically incorrect to neighbours or landlord? Or something entirely different?

    I went to Berkeley 12 years later. Must have been a completely different place by then.

  2. fortunately, the housing situation seems to have changed considerably--a majority of the students I knew (that didn't live in SF) were within walking distance of soda hall.

    as for american sports: you can find our main theory student office stocked with three baseball mits and steve chien's baseball.

    and finally, as a former Berkeleyan, this makes me exceedingly proud:

    A man drops garbage on the front lawn of City Hall, calls it art, and there is an actual debate on whether the town has the right to remove it.


  3. I'm guessing it might have to do with wanting to be roommates with someone who isn't going to blithely throw around racial epithets, misogynist comments, or implicitly heterosexist phrases without a second thought.

    After all, I'm guessing that Berkeley's undergraduate population is relatively diverse politically, and from what I can tell, PC meant something a little different back then.

    For the record, a while ago, I had been accepted to Berkeley's EECS Ph.D. program but chose not to attend as I got the feeling that I wasn't being treated that well before and partially during my visit.

    Cry discrimination, I will not. It was probably a mixture of my anxiety and their obliviousness anyway, and some of the students and professors seemed very nice.

  4. I hear when Reagan was Gov of California he specifically set policy so that UCSD would "not become another Berkeley."

    Alas, your story shows that the far-left can be every bit as nutty as the far-right. (Except, the far-left seems much less likely to go into stupid religious wars. The Right has a monopoly on that.)

  5. You have got to admit your story was hard to believe.

    You broke a finger by touching a football? Were you playing goalie?

  6. Come on, lawn is lawn,
    it is a good place to organize
    protest for a few hours, but it
    isnot a place to show art,
    be it real or not.

  7. luca, you're thinking of hockey. there's no goalie in football.

  8. Obviously Luca is thinking of soccer, not football.

  9. Just which Berkeley were you at? I arrived as an EECS grad in August of 1985, got an apartment 2.5 miles from my office(closer than I was at Michigan State, where I lived *on* campus), and became part of a multi-racial group of friends with evangelical & liberal christians, jews (atheist and agnostic), wiccans, lesbians, non-jewish atheists, etc. I don't think we had any right-wing conservatives; I think we would have tolerated them, but I don't think they would have tolerated us :-).
    There were tons of homeless people. If you wanted to ignore them, you could. If you stopped to talk with them - surprise! They're people! I got some great stories in exchange for taking folks out for a cheap lunch.
    And I played a lot of football. (The real kind, like Luca was talking about.)
    The city politics was as full of absurdities as any other city's politics - but Berkeley's absurdities were much more interesting.

  10. I thought Luca was making a joke.

  11. Berkeley is the only place where I have enjoyed the presence of the homeless people. I have given them the occasional spare change. They have given me detailed directions, good wishes when I needed them, and sometimes interesting conversation.

    Berkeley is also the only place in the US where I position myself politically to the right of the mainstream. That's actually a very comfortable position.

    The political intolerance which I have also seen there is refreshing. It's like talking to an idealistic teenager who wants to change the world. Some may find it annoying, but I find it endearing.

  12. My money is that Luca wasn't joking. Why should a non-American know what "touch football" was, or "flag football" for that matter?

    As for endearing teenagers... I guess once you get over that phase in your life, and you realize what an absurd waste it was to vote Nader in 2000 you just get sick of it all. Particularly the blatant lies and distortions necessary to get anyone into a fringe group: It works by demonizing another group. In the case of the greens, it's demonizing the Democrats. Sure, they aren't perfect. But they are hardly tools of WalMart to destroy all that is decent in the world.

  13. It's bad enough that you explained Luca's joke, now you're claiming to have been oblivious to the sarcasm altogether?

    Maybe the chip on your shoulder is obscuring your view of the world (or at least the blog).

  14. I arrived at Berkeley in fall, 1987. Yes, it had a lot of radical politics, but it wasn't so hard to live with it, as long as it stayed just talk.

    I didn't like the rent control either. The first year some friends and I had an apartment in El Cerrito. After that we found a place that was not too far away from campus, 2412 Dana Street.

    I did not find the homeless people so charming. I learned not to mind them after a little while, which was related to me becoming a more mature person. But after a few years, my patience and maturity wore thin. Our roommate was mugged at gunpoint in front of our apartment. We also witnessed the Barrington Hall riots, and some other unpleasant events.

  15. I'll vouch for the description of Berkeley that Charlie Farnum gave, while gently reminding him that there was at least one "right-wing conservative" in his circle of acquaintances! I grew to genuinely like nearly all the people I met, though my adjustment period lasted considerably longer than a year.

    BTW, one reason the housing shortage is not nearly as acute now as it was during my time is because some of us conservatives lobbied for and eventually got state pre-emption of some rent control laws through the Costa-Hwakins legislation. My hardline free market instincts would love to get rid of rent control altogether, but being a right-winger at Berkeley taught me how to be effective through compromise...

  16. BTW, do you know any exciting result which is submitted to FOCS?

  17. Greg Kuperberg said: I did not find the homeless people so charming. I learned not to mind them after a little while, which was related to me becoming a more mature person. But after a few years, my patience and maturity wore thin. Our roommate was mugged at gunpoint in front of our apartment.

    Muggings are rarely perpetrated by homeless. There are certainly undesirable areas close to Berkeley, particularly south side (where Greg lived) which is close to Oakland. Nowadays there are plenty of choices for accomodation that do not suffer from much crime.

  18. Anonymous: There is some truth to what you say, so let me make my point more carefully. Homelessness is not a rigorous concept and you can assume a broader or narrower definition. The narrowest possible definition is someone who cannot find a job or an affordable place to live, or at least doing both in geographical proximity. I can believe that most people like that need help and probably don't usually mug people. On the other hand, I'm not sure how many people in Berkeley are homeless in that narrowest sense.

    The broadest definition of homelessness would include people who simply have a very loose notion of employment and residence. For example, someone who probably could look for a job, but hasn't in years; who could then find his own place to live, but instead shares an apartment with 20 other people. People like that have a lot of free time and may be perfectly willing to beg for money, or if they get tired of that, mug people.

    Of course, there are also a variety of in-between cases. When I lived in Berkeley, or rather when I lived one block from Telegraph, I saw a range of types who simply spent a lot of time loitering outside. Some of them seemed able-bodied and some of them didn't. I didn't know their personal affairs and I didn't want to know. I can only assume that they included a lot of the muggers, because why would someone who likes to mug people hide indoors?

    Anyway, I mostly liked Berkeley. Most of what I didn't like I at least didn't mind. The thing that bothered me the most was personal safety at night. Or maybe it's what bothers me the most now, in hindsight. Certainly 2412 Dana Street, which is still a mile and a half from the Oakland border, would not have been a good place to raise children. I don't think that Oakland can be blamed for all of the problems there.

  19. I can only assume that they included a lot of the muggers, because why would someone who likes to mug people hide indoors?

    is this a joke? Am I missing the sarcasm this time?

  20. I guess I mean it this way: Why would someone who can afford rent mug people on the street? In any case, mugging is not like robbing banks. It happens with some frequency and the muggers don't particularly have to hide from the rest of society. A lot of the time it's teenage gangs, in fact.

  21. In OB San Diego there are plenty of "beach bum" types. Some are mentally unstable and need help. Some are disabled and could not work unless they had the brains and training of Stephen Hawking. Others just lacked ambition.

    I usually give money to those who don't ask for it but obviously need it. I never give money if they are smoking. Sometimes, they turn down my offers!

  22. It would be nice to see some more numerical data about what Berkeley was like 20 years ago crimewise, rather than heresay "It's a lovely place" or "I didn't feel safe." Often times, people's perceptions either ways can be based on poorly correlate factors.

  23. There are some statistics here. I could only find statistics broken down by census tract, unfortunately. However, the overall picture is that crime did indeed decrease from 1990 to 2003.

  24. Of course, similar crime statistics are down nationwide over the same time period. I wonder how Berkeley compares with other places by that measure.