Spring 2020: How to Wrongfully Start A Decade

Time flies, especially when you are stuck inside your room.

Posted by Boyang Li on 05-17-2020

We are living in the cycle of history with a period of 100 years. In the 1920s there was the Kansas Flu and in the 2020s, Covid-19 will be one of the most memorable events.[1]
However, because of the transition from in-person classes to online ones, this semester was also the most unique one one could ever experience.


After taking only 2 technical classes in Fall 2019, I decided to step it up this semester by taking 22 units and 5 classes, including 2 breadths and 3 technicals. Agan, if you would like to know more about the academic side of those classes, especially the EE/CS ones, feel free to check out [this summary] of what I learned from those classes and how I applied those knowledge to the projects. This section of the post will mainly focus on the experience of taking those classes.

CS 61B

Academic wise, here is the specific review of CS 61B along with many other interesting EE/CS classes I took at Cal.

Unlike John DeNero from CS 61A, who while destroying people’s GPA can still be one of the favourite CS professors at Cal, CS 61B is taught by the “notorious” Paul N. Hilfinger. He is famous for not only his heavy course load but also being a “grumpy old grandpa”[2]. Besides, One of his most famous signature phrase is “RTFM”, which stands for “read the f*****g manual”.


Other famous Hilfinger quotes include “I’m Paul Hilfinfer the terror of the computer science department and Severus Snape of Berkeley” and “You are responsible for the sum total of human knowledge on this exam”. In fact, on each exam he would actually have a bonus question on topics ranging from Shakespeare to geography.


May I present you PNH, a living fossil of the Berkeley EECS Department

Despite a lot of people not liking Hilfinger for his heavy course load and non-stop project grinds throughout the semester, I liked PNH a lot and perhaps he is still my favourite CS professor by far. His CS 61B version is the best resource to offer someone new to programming extensive real-world application experiences because of the heavy course load which is mainly on projects. Because of the heavy emphasis on projects, they also take up the majority of a student’s final grades which makes the exams irrelevant compared to other CS classes.

Story-like code spec

Description of one of the files for the very first project -- Signpost. Working till 3am became the new norm that semester

Story-like code spec

"Have you seen Los Angeles at 4am?" "No, but have you seen Berkeley at 4am? Because I sure have."

Paul N. of House Hilfinger, the First of His Name, Regent of the Berkeley EECS Department, Protector of the Soda, Cory, and Etchverry Kingdoms, the Severus Snape of Berkeley, the Terror of CS 61B participants, the Destroyer of Mental Health for Cal CS Students, the Enforcer of Manual-Reading, and the Releaser of Gitlet.

The last class was conducted on Zoom, which made it impossible for me to get the picture with professors (which I intended to make as a tradition before Corona Time). I was the one suggesting it to the entire class, which Hilfinger agreed but was not able to do it as he did not set up his webcam. It is in fact us having a picture with his portrait.


For all Berkeley CS students, this is probably the class that they hate the most. If one phrase is to be used to describe this class, that would be “Melting Pot” as all sorts of EE-related contents are shoveled into the course content; the class has three modules in total – linear algebra, introduction to circuit analysis, and machine learning related topics which again is linear algebra. I also started appreciating taking Math 54 last semester as Math 54 was a structured linear algebra class as opposed to EECS 16A, which teaches you scattered topics when you need to use them in solving EE problems.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the instructors of the class a lot. The class was taught by Thomas Courtade, who was responsible for all the math parts, and Prabal Dutta, who was responsible for the circuit part. I could not speak too much for Dutta here as he did not teach the majority of the class, yet Courtade definitely made the terrible structure of this class a lot better by covering a lot of the theoretical and proving side of linear algebra, which for a lot of students is a fine start to the linear world. His midterm I was not hard either, as his class and covered topics were structured like Math 54, despite some people might not like it.

EECS 16A is supposed to have a lot of lab contents and hands-on experiences too. However, due to the transition from in-person class to online class, I did not have the same experience compared to students taking this class in other semesters. However, you can still check out the projects in this class along with other EE/CS classes I took at Cal in this post.


My doodle for the instructors based on their portrait on the course website. This was also my only cheat sheet for the exam.

Math 53

Philip Wood is built differently not because of his big brain but also the way he tried to adapt to us younglings (although to be fair, he did go fully Anakin Skywalker on the final exam). He went to Harvard for undergrad and got degrees in mathematics and computer science. Despite having the same major as I do, he chose the math-focused path and went to Rutgers for PhD. Our math class is his first class taught in Berkeley probably.

I enjoyed going to his classes – in Dwinelle Hall where the Math 54 class took place last year, you can get the feeling of an introductory math class full of STEM kids at any given U.S. public university. I also quite enjoyed playing Club Penguins and Seer, the equivalency to Club Penguins among Chinese teenages of my age, with my friends when he was delivering contents we have already learned in high school.

Wood looked like a man in his 30s, although his actual age is a decade older than it seems. Therefore, he also experienced quite a transition when we switched online and the Zoom chat will always be filled with “F“ when he lost connection or his iPad was shut off. I did appreciate his effort to adapt to our language, but “Press F to integrate” is a terrible dad joke that is not even that funny. But again, I still appreciate the effort and pressing F to do integrations definitely added a little spice to my plain Zoom life in the second half of spring 2020.

F To Integrate

Apparently Wood became famous after trying to adapt to the modern online texting culture.[3]

Philosophy 12A

Philosophy 12A is an extremely volatile class – not only does the policy change every semester but the textbooks and covered contents also change from instructor to instructor as well. Therefore, if someone recommends you to take this class after they enjoyed the contents, it is very important to ask them which instructor they had. I was the lucky one as I went into the class thinking it is going to be an easy one without asking anyone else, and ended up having one of the best instructors for Philosophy 12A – Seth Yalcin

First and foremost, I have to say that 12A has the most interesting and probably the easiest contents as it is essentially a math-ish class designed for philosophy majors. As a result, the average look of students taking 12A is also higher compared to other STEM classes as at Berkeley, the least good-looking classes are those of CS majors and math majors and the most good-looking classes are those of political sciences and history majors (which I can definitely verify because I took a history class that semester). The instructor of the class is also very handsome and dresses up very properly. His words have a certain type of charm that simply draws you in.

Besides the superficial aspects of the class, the grading was also in students’ favor as 50% of the final grade comes from the weekly problem sets and 50% of them comes from the weekly quizzes. Not only does such a grading scheme ease the stress coming from midterms and finals, it forces us to study and review for the contents as well.

Also, normally you would expect to write essays for a philosophy class, but no, not this one.

Yalcin Class

One of Seth Yalcin's classes on Zoom. I was sitting on Sucheng's seat the morning after he left, reminiscing the good old days.

History 124B

As a STEM student who does not quite speak English or have any interest in humanities classes, I was surprised when I took AP U.S. History back in high school and scored a 4 without studying for the exam. In fact, I am interested in the American history and the Chinese history, especially in the past century. Therefore when I learned that there is a class on U.S. history after World War II and I can use that class to fill one of my breadth requirements, I immediately signed up for the class.

Natalie Novoa, the instructor of the class, had a very clear mind and delivered every class efficiently; if you are on your phone browsing Instagram for a minute and then come back to the class, you should not expect yourself to be able to catch up. As I mentioned before about the correlation between class department and the hotness of the class, this is probably one of the most good-looking classes I have taken at Cal, which makes it an enjoyment to go to the classroom every other day.

Luckily, Novoa made my life better by not having a final exam and instead I wrote an essay. It is a guilty pleasure that despite me not listening to a single lecture after classes went online, I still did fairly well on the assignment – just like how I finessed that 4 on the APUSH and the APELC exams by writing so much that all 16 pages given on the exam were used up.

Here is my final essay on a documentary on Obama’s final year in relation to his speech in 2008.

CS 197 & EE 198

After taking the Micromouse DeCal last semester, the staff team hired me as one of the Teaching Assistants for the class. Meanwhile, I also applied to the Academic Intern position for CS 61A during the winter, for which I was accepted later.

I have always been interested in teaching and education, and this is a great opportunity not only for me to talk to and help different students struggling in those classes (especially 61A), but also a chance for me to learn the material better throughout explaining them to students.

For 61A intern, I had to travel to the north of the campus in order to attend the “Office Hour” held there. A ticket system was used for which a student files a ticket if he/she has questions and the TA/AI will answer the ticket if he/she is free and feel like answering the question. The in-person section was transitioned to Zoom later when classes went fully online. Although I did miss being able to have face-to-face interactions with students, talking non-stop for minutes while having a N95 respirator on is definitely not something comfortable.


P H A T 2

A chonky squirrel I saw on my way to a Office Hour section streching himself



A pigeon feeder on Durant Avenue

Were the only social interactions I have my first semester come from pledging a frat? Yes; Will this trend keep going? No because I did make a group of international friends, whom I did not interact much with for the past semester. Since most of them are from Freeborn Hall in Unit 1, the fourth floor of Freeborn became my new study room.


A mysterious ceremony

During this time, a protest also happened as the cost of living around the campus became too high compared to the payment GSIs received. The COLA movement happened when the Coronavirus started spreading within the U.S., although at the time there were not any detected cases in Berkeley (and none of the protesters were wearing a mask). The protestors also stormed Crossroads Dining Hall the day it was supposed to serve bibimbap for dinner (when normally it is some disgusting food). SAD!

How the protest was organized was a bit too messy despite most of us support the spirit of the movement

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, we also threw the last party of the year. It was probably the last time I was a typical “college student” as right now staying at home for almost a year has turned me into an old man.


"A reckless path on self-destruction"

I also updated my driver license to a Californian one as the Pennsylvania one was going to expire in the summer. However, my experience at the DMV in the Bay compared to that in Pittsburgh definitely made me dislike California even more.


I mean...just look at that picture...

So while the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak in China, I bought a box of N95 respirator on Amazon. In hindsight this was both a correct and a poor decision: it was correct for obvious reasons and it was a poor decision to only purchase one box as those are the most comfortable yet sealed disposable masks I had ever worn.


Back then when 3M respirators were still available on Amazon; months later all these supplies are reserved for first responders because of the shortage

As the Covid-19 pandemic started in the United States, especially in the state of Washington at its early stages, no actions were taken by the school officials. While students started wearing masks to the packed classrooms (I was among the first wave of them), they were also calling for suspending in-person classes.

Stop da classes

weeks later, we got what we demanded

During this time when classes are partially being transitioned online, we also drove to Vallejo to get some supplies. The public had already started to panic about the pandemic, which made the search for cup noodles extremely hard. We had to travel to a second Costco in order to get the supplies we needed.


First time driving that fast on a freeway; there were four other people on the car too so would not recommend doing so again


The udon was finished up pretty quickly, yet almost a year later today, January 10th, the canned food are still not touched

So days later, we also got exactly what we demanded for.

Classes stopped

And probably a little bit more

While classes are being online, students have more time to enjoy themselves not only after classes but during classes as well. I also spent a lot of time in my friends’ dorm.


Part of my squad ;)

Unit 2

At Unit 3, they do not allow us to go onto the balcony as the structure is not sound; I wonder if the building is any different here[4]

And… Welcome to California, Miss Corona.


Finally, Berkeley is contaminated as well


Probably one of the most relable memes at the time

As soon as the first Covid-19 case was detected in Berkeley, I also upgraded my armors: Now I look like this ⬇️


Bought the last respirator at a hardware store


Or if you actually care, you can go a little harder...[5]

While coronavirus cases were surging in California, the school also adapted some policies to stop the spread. One of the policies was to stop dining in at cafeterias and provide take out food instead.


It is the small things such as Crossroads offering (Americanized) pho that makes your week in those trying times

Some of my friends were also trying to go back to China as the outbreak continued while China got everything under control. Therefore, the dorm I frequently visited for which we called “Homo Den”(not anything LGBT related, however) was also shut down as the last man left.


"Homo Den of Freeborn is closed indefinitely from this day."; it is enough to make a grown man cry


I put the Post-it note on my window as one of the last man left. You can see that dorms are getting empty in Unit 3.


As people are moving out of Berkeley and the school had to refund the rent, in order to save the cost of operation, we were moved into single rooms in Unit 1 and Unit 2; Unit 3, Foothill, Blackwell, and Clark Kerr were shut down

And… the apocalypse came, except that there are no zombies.


"Flatten the curve", except that it is done vertically not horizontally

Four-twenty and Cal Day are two of the largest events in spring semesters: the former as Berkeley is the birthplace of Hippie movement (and marijuana is legalized in California) and the later one because that is when the prospective students visit the campus, the clubs advertising themselves, and the frats throwing parties every day. However, everything went a bit differently this year.

How it should be going[6]


How it actually went

This was the beginning of the new decade. It was also the beginning of Zoom’s era as 99% of the schools are conducting their classes via Zoom. Although I had a lot of complaints sitting in my dorm staring at the tiny screen everyday, I did not realize later how much this form of studying has hurt students’ mental health. It was definitely a wild second semester entering college, but in hindsight I am glad that I graduated the year I graduated high school.

Just imagine not being able to go to Prom a single time in high school and not having an in-person graduation, not to mention enjoying your first semester in college normally. I am glad that I got what I got, and I definitely feel bad for the class of 2024.

[1]: Header image is from Justin Sullivan from Getty Images, and was published with [a report from NBC News](https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/ everything-out-our-control-san-francisco-eases-lockdown-n1163376)

[2]: From one of my floormates who would like to remain anonymous.

[3]: From [Blockeleyofficial](https://www.instagram.com/p/B_5bKMEhA8a/) on Instagram.

[4]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley

[5]: Picture from the snapchat of Yimo Xu

[6]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley