Simon Willison’s Weblog


Weeknotes: first week of Stanford classes

30th September 2019

One of the benefits of the JSK fellowship is that I can take classes and lectures at Stanford, on a somewhat ad-hoc basis (I don’t take exams or earn credits).

With thousands of courses to chose from, figuring out how best to take advantage of this isn’t at all easy—especially since I want to spend a big portion of my time focusing on my fellowship project.

This week was the first week of classes, which Stanford calls “shopping week”—because students are encouraged to try out lots of different things and literally walk out half way through a lecture if they decide it’s not for them! Feels really rude to me, but apparently that’s how it works here.

For this term I’ve settled on four classes:

  • Strategic Communications, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This is an extremely highly regarded course on public speaking and effective written communication. As you might expect from a class on public speaking the lectures themselves have been case studies in how to communicate well. I’ve given dozens of conference talks and I’m already learning a huge amount from this that will help me perform better in the future.
  • Classical Guitar. I’m taking this with three other fellows. It turns out my cheap acoustic guitar (bought on an impulse a couple of years ago from Amazon Prime Now) isn’t the correct instrument for this class (Classical Guitars are nylon stringed and a different shape) but the instructor thinks it will be fine for the moment. Great opportunity to do something musical!
  • Biostatistics. I want to firm up my fundamental knowledge of statistics, and I figured learning it from the biology department would be much more interesting than the corresponding maths or computer science classes.
  • Media Innovation. This is a lunchtime series of guest lectures from different professionals in different parts of the media industry. As such it doesn’t have much homework (wow, Stanford courses have a lot of homework) which makes it a good fit for my schedule, and the variety of speakers look to be really informative.

Combined with the JSK afternoon sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’ll be on campus every weekday, which will hopefully help me build a schedule that incorporates plenty of useful conversations with people about my project, plus actual time to get some code written.

… what with all the shopping for classes, I wrote almost no code at all this week!

I did some experimentation with structlog—I have an unfinished module which can write structlog entries to a SQLite database using sqlite-utils (here’s a Gist) and I’ve been messing around with Python threads in a Jupyter notebook as part of ongoing research into smarter connection pooling for Datasette but aside from that I’ve been concentrating on figuring out Stanford.


Stanford classes come with all sorts of required reading, but I’ve also made some progress on Just Enough Research by Erika Hall (mentioned last week). I’m about half way through and it’s fantastic—really fun to read and packed with useful tips on getting the most out of user interviews and associated techniques. Hopefully I’ll get to start putting it into practice next week!