Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Lambda the Ultimate informs me that you can read Christopher Kelty's book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software online. I haven't read this but would like to better understand the implications of free software, so this is on the list. I found it interesting that the public can use this book as they can free software by modulating it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Readers by Author

Thanks to Neha for sharing this fun post on Readers by Author via kottke.org. Some highlights:
  • Ayn Rand: Workaholics seeking validation.
  • James Joyce: People who do not like John Cusack movies.
  • Richard Dawkins: People who have their significant other grab them under the table in order to shut them up whenever someone else at a dinner says something absolutely ridiculous and wrong.

If you judge me by my favorite author according to this, I am a female high school French teacher who has my masters' degree. ;)

Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Another one of David Brooks's recommended essays of the year, David Grann's "Trial by Fire" is a masterful piece of journalism about how law failed Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely wrongfully executed for arson in the fire that killed his three daughters.

In Brooks's words, "Grann painstakingly describes how bogus science may have swayed the system to kill an innocent man, but at the core of the piece there are the complex relationships that grew up around a man convicted of burning his children. If you can still support the death penalty after reading this piece, you have stronger convictions than I do."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stuff Asian People Like

I recently discovered this blog on what Asian people like, similar to the popular blog Stuff White People Like*. Among my favorites are #38 White Guys and #63 Squatting**.

* Stuff White People Like has been around since January 2008; Stuff Asian People Like started February 2008.
** It's probably not what you think it is--unless you are Asian.

How to get into grad school and stay there

Harvard computer science professor Matt Welsh has two useful blog posts, How to get into grad school and How to get your papers accepted.

David Brooks's recommended health care essays

David Brooks gives out annual Sidney awards to the best magazine essays*. The essays about health care are quite good:
  • Atul Gawande's "The Cost Conundrum", the most influential essay of 2009, investigates why McAllen, TX is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Gawande writes, "When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no more difference than changing who pays the electrician. The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes. You get McAllen." He says, "We will need to do in-depth research on what makes the best systems successful—the peer-review committees? recruiting more primary-care doctors and nurses? putting doctors on salary?—and disseminate what we learn... we... need to fund research that compares the effectiveness of different systems of care—to reduce our uncertainty about which systems work best for communities. These are empirical, not ideological, questions." He holds up the Mayo Clinic model as an ideal in opposition to McAllen's model and calls for incentives to encourage that model: "The decision is whether we are going to reward the leaders who are trying to build a new generation of Mayos and Grand Junctions. If we don’t, McAllen won’t be an outlier. It will be our future."
  • David Goldhill's "How American Health Care Killed My Father". Goldhill writes, "The most important single step we can take toward truly reforming our system is to move away from comprehensive health insurance as the single model for financing care. And a guiding principle of any reform should be to put the consumer, not the insurer or the government, at the center of the system. I believe if the government took on the goal of better supporting consumers—by bringing greater transparency and competition to the health-care industry, and by directly subsidizing those who can’t afford care—we’d find that consumers could buy much more of their care directly than we might initially think, and that over time we’d see better care and better service, at lower cost, as a result." I disagree: while people should be given incentives to remain in good health, people should have some financial protection against accidents. (To friends who have thought more about this: this is your cue to comment.)
  • Jonathan Rauch's "If Air Travel Worked Like Health Care", which, in Brooks's words, "takes the form of a customer trying to book a flight with a customer service representative."

* This is the first year I've been aware of them; I'm taking his word on it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

MIT missed connections

I came across I Saw You MIT, a Craigslist-style "missed connections" page. I'll admit that I never read Craigslist missed connections, but this page seems like a decent winter break procrastination tool*.

* Especially for those fascinated by MIT undergraduate culture. I'm looking at you, you-know-who-you-are.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Star Trek turns women away from computer science

Thanks to Derek Rayside for sending me this article about how Star Trek decor "stops women from becoming computer scientists. Prof. Sapna Cheryan at University of Washington reports on a study where they surveyed the impressions of college students on computer science after spending time in a room decorated with Star Trek and other "geek" paraphernalia and after spending time in a "neutral" room. They report that women were less desiring of joining the "geeky room" after graduation while men did not express a similar bias. While the results of this study seem somewhat "well, duh" and the experimental setup may seem a bit cheesy*, this sort of research is probably important for helping institutions identify what is driving underrepresented minorities away from fields like computer science.

* It seems like a cleaner way to arrive at the same conclusion is to test whether women express stronger preference for room decor than men do. The current setup (and the current reporting) makes all sorts of assumptions about the gendering of geek culture and women's interest in Star Trek and comic books. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it perpetuates gender roles which 1) may be societal constructions and 2) may be harmful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Python is for girls

Thanks to Phil Guo for sending me this.

Guido van Rossum, the Benevolent Dictator of Python, said he was going to wear this shirt to PyCon: "Python is for Girls."

From the site: "This Design is actually one of those ideas you get when you had a couple beers with your friend. Even if the design isn't clear about it, lets make sure we are on the same page: Python is a great and powerful language and so easy to use that even cute girls can use it. This is proved."


* My issue here is that this perpetuates harmful stereotypes about the abilities of boys and girls. By the way, before men co-opted programming as a "macho" task requiring special masculine abilities, programming was viewed as "women's work." Also, I must remind you that with the ease of use of Python comes with trade-offs. Recall my favorite programming language conversation:

  • Naive friend: Does your thing take a really long time to run for n=10,000?
  • Powerful Jean: Um yeah. It takes a whole minute, maybe?
  • NF: Oh. Mine has been running since before dinner.
  • PJ: Haha. Should have used C.
Girls, if you care about performance, use C. ;)

IAP C/C++ and Haskell classes

Over IAP*, Sasa Misailovic and I are teaching a three-unit, 6-day/lecture C/C++ course focusing on C memory management (why you would use a C-family language rather than a memory-managed language) and C++ classes (why you would use C++ rather than C for this purpose). We intend for this course to be most useful for undergraduates who want to learn C for systems classes. (60+ undergraduates have already registered!) More information here:
Joe Near and I are teaching a two-day Haskell course: the first day will be an introduction to Haskell concepts (the type system, monads, type classes); the second day will be a demonstration of applications for which Haskell is useful. We intend this course to be for people familiar with functional programming who want to pick up Haskell. More information here:
* MIT's Independent Activities Period between terms in January.

Spotlight on ginger

Many know of my obsessions with coconuts, yogurt, fruit, and soy chorizo. One of my lesser-known (but equally strong) obsessions is with ginger snacks. I usually get crystallized ginger (made by cooking ginger with sugar), which is supposedly good for colds and indigestion. Today I came upon naked ginger, which is uncrystallized but still involves sugar. (I prefer naked ginger to crystallized ginger.) I always feel good about eating ginger because it tastes like candy but makes me feel like I am doing positive things for my body*.

* This is kind of like my previous 5-day-long fling with Viactiv, but healthier**.
** I would like to think...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Naked Comedy Showcase

After attending The Slutcracker, I topped off my night of nudity by going to the Naked Comedy Showcase at the Oberon in Harvard Square. The show was hosted by Boston comedian Andy Ofiesh and featured local comedians including Cameron Moore, Phone Whore, Chris Fleming, and Zach Sherwin* (a.k.a. MC Mr. Napkins). All comedians performed in the buff; some of them made reference to their nudity while others just did their bits. They also took a few people from the audience who came up to the stage told jokes in the nude. There is another show January 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm: consider going!

* A hilarious hip-hop rapper comedian. Top hits include Plush Pig and Sphygmomanometer ("and now in morse code...").

The Slutcracker

The Slutcracker, a "sexy freaky holiday zeitgeist spectacular" burlesque version of The Nutcracker, is playing now in the Somerville Theater*. Starring the wonderfully talented dancer Malice in Wonderland as Clara and based on the slutcracker prince (a pink and glittery personified vibrator) fighting the prude fiance, the show is thrilling and well-choreographed. Dances include the Bacchanalia Harem (featuring dancers with names like Cherry Phosphate, Decolletage, Femme Brulee, and Havana Tormenta) and the Dance of the Reed Pole (featuring Sugar Dish). I recommend catching it while it's still playing**. Read the press here.

* I saw it this past Friday; it's showing today and next weekend (Dec. 17-20).
** Leave the kids at home.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hyatt layoffs

Fellow CSAILer Rachel Sealfon brought it to my attention that several Boston area Hyatts laid off their workers and replaced them with half-wage temporary workers under circumstances with questionable ethics. Though many important people, including Governor Deval Patrick, have asked patrons to boycott the Hyatt until the workers have been re-hired, the Hyatt has done little to rectify the situation. We wrote a letter to MIT President Hockfield asking for MIT to use its partnership with the Hyatt on Memorial Drive to pressure the Hyatt for more ethical treatment of its workers.

You can do the following to show your support:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Grad school application advice

CMU professor Luis von Ahn (the inventor of Captcha) has this blog post of application advice. Advice #1: "DON'T start your research statement with a quote from Albert Einstein. You may think that's a good idea, but so do the other 50% of the applicants. Hell, don't start it with any quote, unless it's from something like Gossip Girl. XOXO."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Environmental chemicals: feminizing boys?

Yes, I'm somewhat behind on blogging--I just finished a big deadline on Saturday.

(A couple of weeks ago) Owen sent me this Slashdot story about an unofficial Danish study suggesting that environmental chemicals are "feminizing boys." From Slashdot:

"Denmark has unveiled official research showing that two-year-old children are at risk from a bewildering array of gender-bending chemicals in such everyday items as waterproof clothes, rubber boots... A picture is emerging of ubiquitous chemical contamination driving down sperm counts and feminizing male children all over the developed world. Research at Rotterdam's Erasmus University found that boys whose mothers were exposed to PCBs and dioxins were more likely to play with dolls and tea sets and dress up in female clothes... '"

Yikes? I didn't realize that chemicals could change culture and socialization in such strong ways*.

* Sarcasm.

Write badly well

I love this hilarious blog, how to write badly well, by one of the authors of the book Who Writes This Crap? A quote from the post "Learn about syllepsis, then refuse to stop employing it":

"As he ran a red light, the conversation back in his mind and away from his troubles, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of rising panic and the soft matte finish of his hand-stitched leather steering wheel. Angelica had been absolutely right and his wife for fifteen years, so why was he running scared, these kind of risks and this deadly gauntlet of illicit entanglements?"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

How not to write your statement of purpose

While talking to a friend who is currently applying to graduate schools, I remembered that blogger FemaleScienceProfessor had a hilarious Statement of Purpose essay contest last December. If your essay starts sounding like this, this, or these, you might want to whip out that red pen a few more times before you submit those applications.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Yes means Yes: perspectives on and proposals for American female sexuality

I just finished Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power in a World Without Rape, a collection of essays discussing the use of sex as a weapon (as in rape) and how a sex-positive environment that celebrates rather than denies sexuality would discourage this practice. The main argument of this book is that sex should occur not in the absence of objection, but in the presence of (active) consent. Among the interesting perspectives the book provides are the following:
  • There are a couple of essays about how the black female is hypersexualized in our society and how this is harmful. In Trial by Media, Samhita Mukhopadhyay talks about how because our society views the black female as always sexually available, it is not possible for black women to complain about sex crimes committed against them.
  • A related theme in many of the essays is that of "victim-blaming:" the legal system (and society) dismisses rape charges by women who have been dressed provocatively, drinking, doing drugs, consenting to spend time with her attacker(s), etc.
  • In Invasion of Space by a Female, Coco Fusco talks about the use of female sexuality as a weapon in military torture.
  • An anti-rape activist talks, among other things, about how pornography can be positive for people to overcome trauma and figure out their desires. This was interesting to me because I had previously thought of pornography as harmful and anti-feminist.
  • In Why Nice Guys Finish Last..., transgender woman Julia Serano talks about how women help perpetuate the predator/prey relationship between men and women by liking "assholes" rather than "nice guys." Serano says we need to stop viewing women as prey, making the following interesting point: "...many people in both the political/religious Right, as well as many anti-pornography feminists, seem to take what I call the "virgin" approach. Their line of reasoning goes something like this: Because men are predators, we should desexualize women in the culture by, for example, banning pornography and discouraging representations of women... that others can interpret as sexually arousing or objectifying. This approach not only is sexually repressive and disempowering for many women, but it also reinforces the idea that men are predators and women are prey. In other words, it reaffirms the very system that it hopes to dismantle."
  • In Who're You Calling a Whore, three sex workers talk about how in the current sexual environment, being a sex worker can be empowering because it allows for having boundaries (for saying "no") and for experimentation. One quote that stuck with me was Mariko Passion saying that because she had been assaulted, being able to say "no" again and again was very therapeutic for her. This was very interesting because I had always been very confused as to what to think about sex work re: female objectification and empowerment and the only other primary sources I really had before was those of anti-raunch feminist writer Ariel Levy and former sex worker Shelley Lubben. (I've read interviews with Sasha Gray and Jenna Jameson, but the journalist usually paints them as somewhat deluded about their empowerment as a result of earlier trauma.)
The book also made me aware of various issues of injustice: for instance, the rights that illegal immigrant women, sex workers, and drug-addicted, low-income pregnant women have over their bodies. I highly recommend this book, as it made me think about many things. Since sexuality is inextricably involved with male/female power dynamics, it is important to explore one's views about it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Upcoming event: Malalai Joya in Boston

I would like to thank Alyssa Aguilera for letting me know about this.
Malalai Joya is speaking at various locations in Boston (including MIT and Harvard) in the next few days. There is a schedule here. From Facebook:
Malalai Joya, called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan", is a former member of the Afghan parliament who has repeatedly stood up to the warlords, for women's rights and democracy. A former teacher who set up secret schools for girls, an orphanage and free clinic in her impoverished home province of Farah during the Taliban era, she ran for parliament in 2005 to protect her schools and won, becoming the youngest person elected to Afghanistan's new Parliament at the age of 27.
From the End Violence calendar:
Thursday, October 29th, 2009
Malalai Joya comes to MIT to talk about women's rights, her work, and the struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan.
Called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan", Joya is a member of the Afghan parliament who has repeatedly stood up to the warlords, for women's rights and democracy. Despite having had four assassination attempts against her, she refuses to remain silent and continues to fight for women's rights.
Location: MIT Campus Room 10-250
Event starts at 7 PM
Event is free and open to the public. Donations for the costs of bringing Joya here and for the Defense Committee for Malalai Joya are encouraged and appreciated.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Breaking out of the "Good Girl" mold

I recently finished Rachel Simmons's The Curse of the Good Girl, which is about how expectations of perfection limit girls' personal and professional development. Simmons presents a societal perception of "good girls" as being intelligent but not opinionated, accomplished but not intimidating. Good girls always say yes, never complain, and always do the right thing. Simmons argues that the impossibility of these standards causes girls to lose their identities*. Because the pressure to be nice causes girls to avoid addressing conflicts, many girls only have "nice mode" and "out-of-control mode" and enter into adulthood unprepared for addressing emotions of anger and frustration. The pressure to appear perfect also causes adolescent girls to be risk averse in the classroom and on the playing field, keeping their mouths shut and "playing nice." Because society expects girls to be perfect, they also take it much more personally when their mistakes are made known. The combination of these behaviors prevents many girls from making mistakes, getting feedback on those mistakes, and learning from their mistakes. Simmons asks parents and educators to recognize what is happening in order to change expectations and, ultimately, girls' behaviors.

While I wish Simmons had provided some speculation as to 1) how these standards of the "good girl" came about and 2) ways in which society reinforces them, I liked this book for thoroughly exploring the consequences of society's expectations of girls. Simmons's main points particularly resonated with me because the "curse of the good girl" is one of my main complaints about Harvard as a male-dominated institution. It had always bothered me that the "good girl" is a ubiquitous character at Harvard, playing the nonthreatening and admiring audience to the equally ubiquitous omniscient male "section hero." As my college roommate Marianne puts it, at Harvard it is difficult to be a woman who thinks about these things without becoming cynical.

I recommend this book to all parents of daughters, to all educators, and to women who wonder why they find themselves and other women exhibiting self-destructive nice-girl behaviors**.

* The book Reviving Ophelia raises questions about what causes the loss of self in adolescent girls. This had been something we talked quite a bit about in my all-girls middle/high school.
** I get the feeling that this book is primarily for people who deal with adolescent girls. There are many exercises in the book for the reader to do with an adolescent girl. While I still found the book useful, doing those exercises alone was somewhat awkward. ;)

Feministing tour

I attended the Feministing blog tour at Boston College today. Miriam Perez and Courtney Martin from blog and a BC senior Rachel Lamorte were held a panel discussion about feminism and feminist activism after they spoke briefly about issues important to them. Rachel spoke about feminist activism on BC's campus, Courtney spoke about how she became a feminist, her life as a feminist blogger/writer, and what blogging has taught her, and Miriam spoke about coming out as queer. Courtney and Miriam also signed books: Courtney signed her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and Miriam signed Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, in which she has a chapter.

Before this panel, I had not thought much about how much the blogosphere has facilitated the evolution of "young feminism." As Courtney joked, blogs like Feministing provide a way for the "lone feminist in Arkansas" to connect with like-minded people on the internet. (I didn't realize that Feministing has half a million unique readers per month.) Feministing (along with Shameless, Bitch Magazine, etc.) have been great for me personally in exploring my views on various feminist and other issues (portrayal of women in the media, reactions to feminist/anti-feminist comments by public figures, male chivalry, "sexy" Halloween costumes, general activist issues, etc. etc. etc.). I had not realized that I had stepped into something fairly new: the internet has enabled bloggers to evolve "the face of young feminism" and to reach out to a much larger audience than the older generation of predominantly white, upper-middle class female feminists.

Attending this panel made me realize that both at Harvard and at MIT, I did not encounter a women's group like the one at BC. BC seems to have an active group of feminist activists; they also seem to have men's groups interested in stopping sexual assault etc. I was happy to see some men at this event, a couple of whom asked questions and commented about men's roles in feminist activism*. Maybe it's just that I haven't been paying attention, but a quick search of MIT resources doesn't turn up much. (Harvard did get that controversial women's center while I was an undergraduate there.) If anybody knows about feminist activism on MIT's campus, please let me know.

I bought Yes Means Yes! and it is amazing so far. Thanks to Alicia Johnson, BC '11, for organizing this event!

* Courtney had a great answer to this question: she said that playing the apologetic, priveleged role puts men in a disadvantaged position. She suggests than an "authentic way" for men to particpate in feminist conversations is to think about the ways in which they have an haven't been privileged and the role this has played in their lives.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some useful websites

Umbrella today? texts you in the morning if there is a forecast of rain. You can set the time at which it sends the text.

Gethuman gives you tips about how to get a human on the phone for various customer service websites for banks, phone companies, etc. It also tells you average wait times, etc. Some highlights from the instructions:
  • Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages.
  • Don't press or say anything.
  • Say "Technical Support" or "CRG" if you want to cancel services. If you want to make programming changes say, "ACE". The robot woman will then say, "One moment while I transfer you" instead of asking you about 50 billion questions.
  • Press 000#; at prompt press #

A nice counterpoint to de Millo, Lipton, and Perlis

Asperti, Geuvers,and Natarajan have this fun paper, Social processes, program verification, and all that, which provides a nice counterpoint to the 1979 De Millo, Lipton, and Perlis which supposedly killed the verification effort at the time. The De Millo paper argues that because proofs are social processes verified by the intuition of mathematicians, mechanized verification is a useless effort.

My favorite quote from the De Millo paper:
The verification of even a puny program can run into dozens of pages, and there's not a light moment or a spark of wit on any of those pages. Nobody is going to run into a friend's office with a program verification. Nobody is going to sketch a verification out on a paper napkin. Nobody is going to buttonhole a colleague into listening to a verification. Nobody is ever going to read it. One can feel one's eyes glaze over at the very thought.

From this paper:
As we have already observed, the gloomy predictions of De Millo et al. have been largely refuted. Formal verification is at present a concrete reality, permitting correctness proofs of complex software applications. For instance, in the framework of the Verifix Project a compiler from a subset of Common Lisp to Transputer code was formally checked in PVS (see Dold and Vialard (2001)). Strecker (Strecker 1998) and Klein (Klein 2005) certified bytecode compilers from a subset of Java to a subset of the Java Virtual Machine in Isabelle. In the same system, Leinenbach (Leinenbach et al. 2005) formally verified a compiler from a subset of C to a DLX assembly code. The Compcert project, headed by Xavier Leroy, has recently produced a verified optimising compiler from C to PowerPC assembly code, based on the use of the Coq proof assistant both for programming the compiler and proving its correctness (Leroy 2006; Tristan and Leroy 2008). Similar achievements have been obtained in other fields of computer science, spanning the range from hardware (Harrison 2007) to operating systems (Alkassar et al. 2009; Klein 2009).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vegan/vegetarian food shopping note

If you subsist mostly on almond milk, organic yogurt, and vegan fake meat products, you are better off (on average $1/per item) shopping at places like Harvard Organic Co-op than Star Market, which kind of rips you off on these things (and has far worse selection). The fruit is actually comparably priced as well.

Deal hunting with RSS

A cool thing in life involves adding RSS feeds from deal sites (for instance, monitor deals from Ben's Bargains) to Google Reader. You can just add the URL directly as a subscription. <3

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sharing good reads

I recently became a member of goodreads.com, a website that allows friends to share books they have read along with ratings and optional reviews of the books. Become my friend to see what I have read!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The memoirs of Donna Williams

I recently read about Donna Williams, an Australian woman thought to be deaf and psychotic as a toddler and later diagnosed as autistic. She has written several books about her life, the first of which is the once best-selling Nobody Nowhere. She writes of its accidental publication:

I wrote the first of my four autobiographical works, Nobody Nowhere, on the verge of suicide after a wild half-crazy life with abuse, homelessness and ultimately hope for belonging only to find I was terrified of real closeness. I had a last inkling of hope that I couldn't truly say I'd tried my hardest to cope if I'd never fully disclosed the nature of my own private world. So I wrote out everything that mattered... and decided to give it to one child psychiatrist in the hope they could tell me what kind of mad I was... My intention was to then shred it, burn it and leave this world. Instead it was passed on to his colleague, then from her to her publisher, from him to an agent and from there out into the world it became a number one international bestseller...

In this book about her early life, Williams discusses extensively her "ghosts" Willie and Carol, two different and opposing personalities who help her exist in society. From the website:

Carol plays the mother's doll, intertwined with Willie's violent and defensive outbursts and fierce self protection mechanisms. Between Donna's autistic responses and behaviours, Carol, behaves like people on TV sit-coms, goes to school, even goes through the motions of 'friends', and develops a broad range of mimicked speech, stored phrases and charicatures, saving Donna from a life in an institution and often from the very real threat of death.

As the teenage years approach Carol and Willie fight it out for control of the body with the real Donna on the sidelines as the lot of them drift into homelessness, poverty and domestic prostitution passed from stranger to stranger.

I plan to read this book once I acquire it. Williams also has an extensive website which I recommend reading.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The novels of my nonage

In my abundant spare time today (read: while crossing streets) I reflected upon the books that shaped my youth. Since I love reminiscing and since I think they are rather telling, I will share my most memorable reads here.

Middle school: Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. I love historical fiction and detective novels (there was a lot of Agatha Christie). I also loved those female novelists of the Victorian/Romantic genre: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, etc. (I read Jane Eyre maybe 10+ times. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 5+ times.)

An embarrassing truth is that I read a ton of young adult novels (Beverly Cleary, R.L. Stein, Babysitters' Club, Caroline B. Cooney, etc.). I do not recommend that other middle schoolers take this path.

9th grade: This might have been the year I lost to being a teenager, the year I read only magazines outside of the required school reading (Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Bible, King James Version)? The Odyssey was probably the book that left the biggest impression me.

10th grade: I was a huge romantic: Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky) made the concept of atonement enter into my thinking; This Side of Paradise (Fitzerald) made me fall in love with the F. Scott Fitzgerald rich-intellectual-white-1920's-boy lifestyle. (I have since fallen out of love.) Bruce Hall's Tea That Burns about the history of American Chinatowns also gave me some perspective about my life as a Chinese-American.

11th grade. I was such a wannabe-intellectual: The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Sartor Resartus (Carlyle). I also continued my Fitzgerald obsession and read things like The Beautiful and the Damnehd, Tender is the Night, etc. I even read Zelda Fitzgerald's autobiographical Save Me the Waltz. (I recently got closure with respect to this from reading Nancy Milford's biography, Zelda.)

12th grade. Looking for meaning: Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf). Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles also made me think a lot about life. This may have also been the time I was in love with Oscar Wilde's poetry, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol. King Lear also left a deep impression. I also found Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead fascinating, but I did not become an Objectivist.

Freshman year. Soul searching: Siddartha (Hesse); The Bhagavad-Gita; A Room of One's Own (Woolf). This might have also been when I read Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and stopped eating forevermore.

Sophomore year. I read a bunch of Greek tragedies which I liked a lot. I also read The Brothers Karamazov, which I had started shortly after Crime and Punishment changed the way I thought about things. By this point, however, I was too jaded (or something) for Brothers to capture my attention/imagination in the same way.

My favorite book this year was probably Introduction to Algorithms (Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, Stein).

Junior year. Lolita (Nabokov)--this was when I discovered Nabokov. I also read Hemingway's Garden of Eden, which made me think a bunch about gender roles. After reading Watson's The Double Helix, I became fascinated with the concept of the "gentleman scientist:" if Watson and Crick played squash every day while discovering the structure of DNA, then I should be able to have leisure and greatness at the same time, too!

Senior year. I started reading Saint Augustine's Confessions, which was really interesting. I also read some Camus. By this point a lot of ideas were already in my head, so I don't know that things really "changed my life" the way they used to. The closest was probably Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, which sparked an extreme interest in gender ambiguity.

Post-graduation I've been reading a lot more non-fiction and discussing most of the interesting books in my blog, so I won't list them again. :) I would love to hear what your favorite books were!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sheryl Sandberg: Don't Leave Before You Leave

Claire Le Goues sent me this nice article by Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg about how women should not plan too far in advance to slow down their careers before they actually have children. Sandberg says that this tends to slow down women's careers more than it should and gives the following advice:

Making decisions too early, trying to plan life too carefully, can close doors rather than keep them open. Any time you make a plan, you do it with imperfect information; the further in advance you make that plan, the less information you have. You never know how you will feel or what choices you might face. Take life one step at a time and don’t make decisions before you have to.

I think this article gives great advice about not letting perceived limitations get in the way of one's career.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Overhead on the MIT Saferide shuttle

I overhead the following conversation conducted in earnest by two (presumably) undergraduate women on the shuttle to Boston the other day:

Woman #1:
Sometimes I don't know what the point is of working so hard. I mean, what if I graduate college and then get married right away?
Woman #2: Yeah...
Woman #1: I mean, that's what my mom did.
Woman #2: I think I'm going to work for 5-10 years, then start popping out the babies.
Woman ?: I would get so bored. There would be so much Oprah...
Woman ?: Yeah, a lot of talking on the phone...

I will admit my first reaction was one of disbelief: a combination of "can you believe these girls?!" and "what a waste of an MIT education!" I was struck by how resigned these girls were to their fates, and how unreflective they seemed to be about the other life possibilities out there. I was particularly surprised to hear such a conversation on an MIT shuttle: it seems like if you are going to spend all this effort (and tuition) on an undergraduate education in order to stay at home, it is a waste of your own time/money and the institution's time/money that you did not get a liberal arts education.

Though it is easy to blame these girls for not having more agency in deciding their futures, we must take some societal responsibility for these attitudes. Most people do not really know what's out there for them at age 20 and follow models that others have set out for them. While the young man who does not know what he's doing with his life will often find himself enrolling in law school, business school, or some prestigious Ph.D. program, the young woman who does not know what she's doing may have much less career-oriented paths to fall back on*. While I fully believe in the freedom to choose, it is not freedom if the chooser is not aware of what the choices mean. Choosing to go to MIT and work hard seems to be at odds with the "choice" to stay home with Oprah and the phone; I believe that if these women were aware of their life choices, they may choose differently. (Even if they chose to stay at home, they may discover that Oprah and phone are not the only possible activities.)

While on the shuttle, I wanted to tell these girls that they do not have to be like their mothers. Perhaps I will do that if there is a next time.

* This is an instance of the phenomenon where many women default to their mother's template of domesticity, often without reflecting upon why they are doing this. (I discuss this in my post about My Mother My Self.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Aggressively marketed enlightenment

Allow me to begin with an anecdote about the time I almost joined a cult.

One day last May I was innocently wandering X* Square when I came upon a sign regarding massages at a Dahn Yoga studio. Always in want of a good massage, I inquired within. What commenced was the most extensive set of influence techniques** I have ever witnessed. Each event below ends with an influence technique:
  1. I walk in and ask about massages. Y*, the head of the studio, asks to make an appointment to see me in 45 minutes. (Asking people to make small commitments to enhance their bond to the thing in question.)
  2. All around the studio, there is information about how Dahn yoga can improve every aspect of your life and there are testimonials about how it has changed people's lives for the better. (Yikes.)
  3. Y asks me to fill out a 10-page questionaire (Small commitments thing again. People don't like to think they've put in effort for nothing.)
  4. Upon hearing that my physical therapist told me to seek more restorative forms of yoga, Y asks, "So you would say your PT sent you here?" (People like to be consistent; you can take advantage of their desire for consistency to bend what they say slightly in order to influence them to do things.)
  5. We jump around for about 30 minutes in a one-on-one session. (One-on-one attention makes people feel like they owe something.)
  6. The whole time, Y told me things like the vibrations from jumping around were good for my brain, and that I was loosening my organs. (People are suckers for things they want to believe.)
  7. After the jumping around, Y gave me a brief massage. When the massage was over, my contact was bothering me, so I was rubbing my right eye. Y began rubbing his left eye and said that his eye was bothering him too. (Mirroring, a phenomenon that occurs when people are bonding, is oftne used by salespeople for influence purposes. You can also hypnotize someone by mirroring: if you consistently lag without the other people noticing, you can begin leading and have them follow. Apparently you can make someone's cheek itch by scratching your own cheek.)
  8. Afterward, Y asked me how I liked the session. (Asking people how they feel after you give them something will influence them to say good things about your product. Then you can take advantage of their desire for consistency.)
  9. Y then told me that I had a lot of passion, which made me a good fit for Dahn Yoga. (Appealing to people's vanity is a great way to get them to use your product.)
  10. Y said since I liked the session so much, since I was looking for something to help with my neck/shoulder injuries, and since my PT sent me there, it looked like I should continue going. (Consistency again.)
  11. Y told me that there were often weekend gatherings where young people get together and there is a lot of energy. (Appealing to people's desires for community can get you a lot from them.)
  12. Y then asked me if I would be willing to commit to multiple years of Dahn Yoga. Then he pared down to one year, then six months, then three months. I finally gave in at one month. (Asking unreasonable things of people will cause them to feel guilty and be more likely to acquiesce to smaller requests.)
  13. When I was leaving, Y asked me when I was going to come again. (Commitments.)
  14. Y said that I should plan to come either a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late so that he could show me take-home exercises. (Commitments.)
  15. I never went back. For a couple of weeks afterwards, I often got phone calls from "Y from Dahn Yoga, X Square," asking when I was going to come back. (Connection/commitment.)
It was fortunate that the few bigger things caused me to notice the subtle manipulation: apparently these techniques are what causes many people to pay a lot of money (and sometimes devote their lives) to Dahn Yoga. The most sketchy thing was that 1) jumping around is not yoga and 2) there is no scientific basis to the "brain vibrations" business. I was also somewhat disturbed/confused by the "Brain Respiration" uniforms hanging in the bathroom. What caused me to think that there was intentional deception rather than just innocent evangelism of bogus ideas was the mirroring. Upon returning home I read their Wikipedia page, which linked to some references about how people had complained about Dahn Yoga's manipulative marketing, how people claim it is a pyramid scheme, and how at least one family has asked a cult deprogrammer to intervene with their son who had sold all of his possessions to live according to the way of Dahn yoga.

My Dahn yoga experience caused me to think more about the aggressive marketing of Bikram yoga (also see Wikipedia page and the Bikram Boston site.), a multi-million dollar franchised corporation which similarly claims to solve all health problems and has many testimonials from people saying that this has changed their life (and solved all of their problems). Bikram yoga has a similar script of telling you during the practice that. Bikram also has its own set of influence techniques: the instructors establish a clear teacher/student relationship and make you feel that you are not good enoughand must improve, causing you to return time after time even though you are spending a lot of money to be uncomfortable. (At least, this happened to me.) After a month and a half of Bikram, I talked to a middle-aged couple who said that everyone they knew who had done bikram had quit after less than six month due to injuries. This caused me to quit abruptly after I realized I wasn't getting any better. Though I wanted to believe the instructors when they said "this is the best thing to do if you have a neck injury" and "don't worry, you'll get worse before you get better," I had lost faith in Bikram.

I hypothesize that, like me, many are drawn to "programs" like Bikram because of a combination of 1) injuries and 2) desire for an easy path to spirituality. If I had not had that neck injury (that, by that point, had not healed for 10 months), I would not have been so desperate for things that promised to fix everything. I have also been told that though I am areligious, I have a strong desire for explanation and order: religious tendencies, if you will. I had come across bikram/dahn at a time when I believed that I could find "the solution to everything," " the relevation that changed my life." I also had many qualities that made me particularly receptive to this form of prepackaged, aggressively marketed enlightenment: I was not accustomed to waiting long to get anything that I wanted, most of my life and self-image were already comprised of aggressively marketed components, and the specific marketing of Bikram/Dahn appealed to my needs***. In an alternate universe that has a slighly more unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, as I would be living in blissful, ignorant poverty?) outcome I could see myself devoting large amounts of time and money to something like this.

While the aggressive marketing aspect of Bikram and Dahn are harmful, they are not necessarily all bad. On one hand, this aggressive marketing is harmful because it preys on people's desire for spirituality and desire for an answer in order to market a product that is, essentially, fake. On the other hand, many people do believe in things like Bikram and Dahn and are perfectly happy about that. Bikram and Dahn could also be giving people health benefits, since they may not otherwise stretch or exercise****. The mental aspect (placebo effect) could also be improving lives. The major thing that makes something like Dahn Yoga more harmful than a religion is how aggressively it extracts money from Dahn practitioners. One might say that people who spend all of their money on Dahn deserve it, but many are young people who may be living on their parents' money. (See the external links on Dahn wikipedia page for stories on Dahn harm.) These people can believe what they want, but it may be our duty to make the information available to them that they are worshiping at the (very expensive) Church of McDonald's.

Since leaving Bikram, I have found a form of aggressively marketed enlightenment that better fits my lifestyle needs: heated vinyasa flow yoga. I like these studios much better because they do not claim to solve all problems and they do not claim to be the end-all be-all of spiritual needs. In fact, some instructors recommend other forms of yoga (like yin) that are more restorative. While it is somewhat ironic that instructors tell me to relax and breathe while cuing me through cycles of posture changes so fast they leave me out of breath, this has been a step in the right direction for my type A, impatient personality. I have become better at relaxing, better at being patient, and better at not pushing myself too hard--learning to modify postures in yoga has been one of my first lessons that it is often better for me not to do everything that I possible could. My dabbling in Spirituality Lite has had positive effects on my wellness (by first of all teaching me that this is is a concept), both physically and mentally. One day, I might be ready for The Real Thing. ;)

* Names obfuscated to protect ...?
** Good thing I read Cialdini's Influence, a book on psychological influence techniques used by salespeople, prison camps, and cults alike.
*** The message of both was that if you paid them money and kept coming, everything would be better. (The Bikram instructors' incessant "constructive" criticism also addressed my need to have my butt kicked.) This is an easier message to swallow than the prescription to slow down, take it easy, and find spirituality within. (For Bikram, the heat also tells you that you don't need to wait for your body to be ready to open: we'll just heat up the room so it happens instantaneously! This panders to the need for instant gratification in an extreme way.)
**** Bikram is actually a pretty good workout. One of the reasons I first took it up was because when I read the bios of Olympics athletes I discovered some of them would do 1+ days of Bikram a week to maintain flexibility. The Harvard crew team at one point also required a day of Bikram a week.

Tech interview preparation

This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote in January 2007 (when I was a junior in college--after I'd gotten internship offers with Google and Microsoft but before I knew anything about life). Though my Google full-time conversion interviews were more of the same (of the technical stuff--the interviews were longer, so the questions were a little deeper), this is probably mostly relevant for applying to internships.

For Harvard people: At the Office of Career Services they have (or had?) a nice small booklet on how to prepare for the interview. It gives some pretty good advice about how long you should spend preparing (the number of hours in proportion to how long your interview is) and it has you do a self-evaluation.

Here are some websites with puzzles:
The programming questions on this one are good as well.

This website is good for the nontechnical aspects of the interivew:

So some non-technical questions I've gotten are:
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What was your favorite computer science class and why. (You will often be given questions based on what you say your favorite class is.)
  • Tell me about a time you solved a problem creatively.
  • Have you been in a situation where a project you've been doing has gotten off schedule and you couldn't make the deadline? What did you do?
  • Have you ever been in a situation in which someone has pushed you to do something that you didn't want to do? How did you respond?
Some technical questions I've gotten are:
  • How would you represent friendship networks on Facebook? (Say you have a list of people and their friends.) I was asked on what data structure I would use, running time for searching through it, space complexity, etc.
  • Given a vector of numbers, how would you find the median? Second part: say we chose a number and then put everything less than it on one side and everything greater than it on the other side. Assume we could throw away half the list each time. What would the running time be?
  • How could you get unbiased flips out of a biased coin? (Say you had a 2-side coin of unknown probability p of landing on heads--if you wanted to make an unbiased decision between 2 choices using the coins, how would you do it?)
  • Write a hex to decimal function.
  • Write an insert function for a circular linked list. If we are inserting into an empty list, how can we make it circular?
  • Write an insert before function for a singly linked list if you're only given the pointer to the node you want to insert before. (Hint: How can you turn this into an insert after function?)
Some good advice I've gotten has been:
  • The most important thing is to talk through how you are getting the answer. Even if you don't get the answer, talking through it to show how you think is very important.
  • If you get something wrong and they tell you the answer, don't argue with them unless you are sure your answer is right. (Think through it first, and discuss rather than argue!)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mothers and daughters

Upon my college roommate Marianne's recommendation, I read psychotherapist Nancy Friday's My Mother My Self. Originally published in 1977, this was the first work to explore the mother-daughter interaction. It addresses how mothers serve as a role model for daughters' self-esteem, attitudes words men, and attitudes towards sexuality.

While I found this book somewhat dated (for instance, in its casting of the mother as the homemaker with frustrated ambitions) and somewhat unscientific in some its wishful "just-so" descriptions (Friday makes a weak connection between repressed anger and cancer), it helped me to examine and to better understand 1) my relationship with my mother and 2) how I derived some of my views on life.

In particular, Friday makes the following thought-provoking points:
  • Mothers often start out (and often continue) to see daughters as narcissistic extensions of themselves. Friday says this explains the degree to which mothers fuss over their daughters' appearance, reputation, etc. and why mothers are often so critical of thier daughters.
  • Society* tells women they are not complete without a man, without their children, etc. As a result, mothers often cling to their husbands and to their children, especially to their daughters. As a result, daughters are not "let go" in the same way that sons are. For this reason, many women have symbiotic relationships with their mothers. (Friday points out that it is not necessarily bad to have these symbiotic relationships, but it is important to recognize them for what they are.)
  • Often as a result of not being "let go" by their mothers, many women go from having a symbiotic relationship with their mother to having a symbiotic relationship with their husbands. Friday points out that it is good for women to live on their own and have independent lives after separating from their mothers; this helps them realize that they can be on their own and not die.
  • It is not usually acceptible to acknowledge the competition (general and sexual) that almost always exists between mothers and their adolescent daughters. This competition often causes many problems between mother and daughter; it helps to understand the competition as the root of the problem.
  • Women often (consciously or subconsciously) adopt their mothers as a model for how they behave domestically. Many women will have fabulous and independent single lives in their 20's and then become quite similar to their (homemaking*) mothers after they marry. Friday's explanation for this is that these women can invent their own models of how to live while they are single, but they default to patterns they learned from their mothers once those apply. Recognizing this is step towards breaking out of the patterns.
  • Our attitudes about our bodies and towards sexuality have to do with our mothers' attitudes and things she taught us when we were very young. It is helpful and h to reflect on our mother's attitudes.
My Mother My Self was helpful to me because it provided another world-view in which to frame issues I often think about regarding mother-daughter relationships, gender roles, etc. I would recommend reading this book with a healthy level of skepticism. (I have found the phenomena that Friday describes to be true; I am more suspicious of the reasons she provides for their occurence.) If nothing else, it is interesting.

* This is one of the places where (I hope) the book does not age well.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Some more things I learned about saving money

I would like to thank everyone who gave me financial advice!

My friend Jie recommended the following blogs:
From these blogs I learned that there are many online coupons.

I also came up with some more ideas for saving money*:
  • Subsist mainly on free food, such as that broadcast over MIT's vultures mailing list for free leftovers in Stata. (I have friends who actually do this.)
  • Befriend the admins in your building so that they text you about free food before they send out the free food announcements.
  • To fill in other gaps, join as many research groups as possible. Many of these are likely to provide a free lunch or snack. Tangentially collaborating with research groups in other departments will keep the level of suspicion low.
  • To fill in the rest of the gaps, meet a succession of older people with jobs to date on sites like OKCupid* and go on 1+ dates with each of them. Act very poor but charming during the whole dinner; if you are lucky they will pay. (This assumes that these sites contain a large number of people willing to take me to dinner, and that these people do not communicate with each other.)
  • Invest in a sewing kit and a set of patterns. Attend corporate talks and get as many free t-shirts as possible. Stay after the talks to get the leftover XL's that nobody wanted to collect fabric for making pants, dresses, handbags, etc.
  • Hang out in each T stop and befriend the T operators so that you can get free public transportation. ("Sorry, X--I can meet you in Porter Square, but I'll have to leave there between 9 and 12. If you want to stay later, we can meet at Government Center.")
  • Sell your furniture and move out of your apartment. During the week, sleep on a cot in your office. On the weekends, spend the night with hard-partying friends who think you're staying over just because the T stopped running. If this is unsatisfying and you would like a bed to sleep on, date a couple of people at once and spend your time between their apartments. (Befriending some empty nesters with spare rooms/beds should also work.) Either that, or convince your advisor to buy a group bed for one of the offices.
  • Become friends with freegans.
The conclusion is that living in the Stata Center cannot fail you, since it will also let you save on heat, hot water, and electric bills. :P

* Most of these are untested.
** Thanks to Eugene's peer pressure and my own curiosity I had an OKCupid account for 2-3 days (not for this reason!!), during which time I met some colorful people and decided it was best to leave the site.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

My attempts at money management

I recently discovered that I have been bleeding money out of my ears every day. I have taken the following measures to stanch the flow of money/blood:
  • Gotten an account at Mint.com, a website that syncs up with your bank and credit card accounts and shows you how you are doing with respect to your budgets. Thanks, Joe Near, for showing me this site!
  • Started following the advice of the Tight Fist (thanks, Eugene), a great tongue-in-cheek blog about how to save money. (I have been thinking quite seriously about their advice about how using too much soap just makes you need other things more, like moisturizer... If you give a mouse a cookie...)
  • Stopped shopping at Whole Foods/Harvest and started shopping at Star Market. This, combined with a reduction of variety in my diet to the staples of tofu sausage, eggs, noodles, vegetables, and fruits, saves me multiple 10's of dollars on groceries per week now.
  • Stopped buying random things I don't use full price from the internet. The next step will be finding deals when I need them... (I am currently operating under the assumption that I will not require anything new--this is not sustainable.)
Next on my list: using the library instead of buying 10,000 books / year.

I am still not to good at this thing, so please give me tips! :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mitzenmacher's advice to graduate students

I came across this blog post last year and found it to contain very helpful advice.

Balance ball chair

I recently acquired a balance ball chair, which seems to be very nice for making me sit with good posture. The chair is highly adjustable, since you can just deflate it to make it the right height. I had to deflate my 52cm ball quite a bit; I am not sure if I am getting fewer benefits because of this.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rachel Simmons has a new book

Rachel Simmons, who wrote Odd Girl Out about hidden female bullying, has a new book, The Curse of the Good Girl, about how expectations of girls today are unrealistic and harmful. From the review:

...Simmons shows that pressure from parents, teachers, coaches, media, and peers erects a psychological glass ceiling that begins to enforce its confines in girlhood and extends across the female lifespan. The curse erodes girls’ ability to know, express, and manage a complete range of feelings. It expects girls to be selfless, limiting the expression of their needs... It diminishes assertive body language, quiets voices and weakens handshakes. It... follows many into adulthood, limiting their personal and professional potential.

I haven't read this book yet but I will read it as soon as I acquire it*.

* I have a birthday coming up... Hint, hint...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Practicing tourism in San Francisco

This past weekend I was in San Francisco visiting my college roommates Aliza and Marianne (and their respective boyfriends, Jesse and David), both of whom spent the past year doing Teach for America (Aliza in Oakland; Marianne in New Orleans) and both of whom have much more grown-up lifestyles than I do. Every time I go to California I become quite envious of the good climate and food. Here are some activities I did this time around:
  • Went stand-up paddle surfing at the beach behind Aliza's house. Aliza's boyfriend Jesse works at a wind surfing shop where they have all sorts of equipment for doing fun water sports. This made me regret never surfing while I lived in Santa Monica! (Although doing these water sports in the bay is much less treacherous than doing them in the actual ocean.)
  • Hung out at Zeitgeist, a cool bar in the mission that had a secret (huge!) outdoor component.
  • Got a burrito in the mission. (This is apparently what you are supposed to do.)
  • Browsed the antique fair, where there are miles of all kinds of antiques: furniture, china, jewelry, books, etc.
  • Got a seitan Philly cheese steak at Triple Rock, a very good burger place. (My friends said it is a great burger place; I was happy to find that there were also some good selections for non-red-meat-eaters.) According to Jesse the beer aficionado, they also have a good beer selection.
  • Enjoyed some refreshment at Heinold's First and Last Chance, a historical bar where Jack London used to drink. (There are many other cool facts: the floor is slanted from the earthquake, etc.) This is in Jack London Square, where half of Jack London's Alaska cabin was transported (and the other half rebuilt). (The other half is in Dawson City, Yukon Territory as a result of disputes over who gets the cabin.)
  • Got ice cream at Fenton's, a very satisfying ice cream place (which was featured at the end of the movie Up).
Thanks to Aliza, Jesse, Marianne, and David for facilitating my practice of tourism! ;)

On matriarchy and matrilineal societies

Friedrich Engel's treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State answers some of my questions about the inevitability of the modern patriarchal social structure*. You may read the relevant English-translated text here.

Engels describes patrilineage and patriarchy emerging as a result of the pairing family: in early communistic societies where men did not have pairing relationships with women, property belonged to the matriarchal gens (group of families). The notion of private property developed after the domestication of animals. Since it was the man's part to obtain food and the instruments of labor for obtaining food, the man owned the tools, the cattle, and the slaves. The children, however, belonged to the mother's gens, so they could not inherit from their father. This caused mother-right to be overthrown and replaced with patrilineage and patriarchy. The monogamous family**, which develops out of pairing family, is based on the supremacy of man because its "express goal" is to "produce children of undisputed paternity."

While this is clearly part of a greater argument against private wealth***, Engels addresses some interesting issues about the origin and role of male dominance. This piece confirms many of my hypotheses about the subject; I would be interested in reading more sources.

* I have been wondering about matrilineal and matriarchial societies; I would be grateful for any sources on matriarchal societies!
** Monogamy strengthens the pairing tie with the expectation that it will not be dissolved.
*** I make no claim to agree or disagree with his argument against private wealth. One should, however, always be suspicious of learning history from treatises!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The skinny on (Asian) noodles

The most notable thing about my (temporary summer) kitchen cabinet right now is that despite the depth of my inventory, I have quite a breadth of noodle and hot sauce varieties. I thought I'd write about some different kinds of Asian noodles and what they are good for, along with some notes about how to have my noodle lifestyle*. (You may e-mail me for questions about non-Asian noodles various hot sauces; I am very into them.)

Basic kitchen ingredients:
  • Garlic (good for non-broth noodle preparations).
  • Scallions (these don't keep as well as garlic, but they are good for topping a dish).
  • Sesame oil and soy sauce.
  • Hot sauces: I try to have a chili garlic sauce for flavoring, a black bean sauce for flavoring, and Lao Gan Ma chili sauce in oil for spiciness.
  • Having dry Sichuan peppers around is also good for flavoring broths and stir-fries. (Since they are dry, you are responsible for spreading the flavor.)

Basic preparations:
  • Broth. You can make a vegan broth by quartering an onion, cutting a carrot into small pieces, and boiling with water for 20-30 minutes. It is very easy to make a chicken broth by putting pieces of chicken (frozen or fresh) into the broth in the beginning. The broth is pretty robust to overcooking; cook until everything looks done and the soup tastes flavored. Adding salt is a good idea; I also like to add some dry Sichuan chili peppers. You could cook the noodles in the broth, but keep in mind that noodles may absorb a lot of water, so it is usually best to cook the noodles separately. A cool thing you can do to flavor broth is to stir-fry some shallots and put them in the top/bottom of the bowl.
  • "Dry." I usually just throw together a basic noodle sauce using sesame oil and some hot sauces. I usually use a combination of chili garlic sauce and chillies in oil. It is sometimes also fun to grind up some dry peppers to make the sauce spicier. You may also use soy sauce for flavoring. With the right repertoire of hot sauces and some experimentation, it becomes very easy to get the flavor to suit your mood very quickly.
  • Stir-fried. I'm not a pro at this, but you can get pan-friable noodles and stir-fry them with a little bit of water in the pan. One idea for topping the noodles is with scallions and chicken or seitan; you should cook the noodles separate from the other stuff.

Noodle varieties:
  • Wheat (udon) noodles are medium thickness and good for either the broth or dry preparations.
  • Buckwheat (soba) noodles can be served cold/dry or hot in broth. They are quite good with some sesame oil/miso, but since I am Chinese (Hunanese) and not Japanese I opine that everything can be improved by hot sauce. :)
  • Mung bean starch noodles come in various thicknesses. They are okay for broth, but I find they serve the best purpose for "holding" flavor since they themselves don't have too interesting of a flavor. These are a good substrate for a spicy chili/oil sauce.
  • Somen are very thin wheat noodles that can be served cold with some sort of sauce or hot in broth. I love somen in broth; somen has a good enough flavor that it is good with some hot sauce, but it is always fairly clear to me that it was not meant to be eaten that way.
  • Egg noodles come in either thick or thin varieties. Both kinds are great in soup; thin egg noodles often come in a pan-friable variety--but you have to read the label to make sure.
  • Fresh Shanghai noodles are thicker and absolutely great for making dan dan noodles or variations thereof. It is fairly easy to make some approximation of dan dan noodles with some dan dan sauce (or combination of chili garlic/chili oil/black bean sauce) and garlic.
  • Rice noodles in Chinese cuisine usually come in thick and thicker and are great both in soups, as a substrate for spice, and in stir fry. (For the thicker variety, look for fresh noodles.)

Some notes on cooking noodles:
  • Noodles will often overcook if you let them stay hot for too long; if you are concerned about this you should drain them and rinse them with cool water before proceeding to the post-cooking step.
  • Noodle varieties have very high variance in how long they take to cook and how much they tend to expand. Once you get the hang of things, it tends to be pretty consistent.
* Most of what I say is calibrated for cooking for one to two people. With noodles I'll usually make a vegetable and then have either a couple of poached eggs, some chicken or tofu sausage, some seitan, or some chicken (which I prepare with black bean sauce, sesame oil, and chili sauce).

An awesome snack

I just concocted the best snack ever: I diced a nectarine, added brown sugar and Life cereal, microwaved this for one minute, and added three tablespoons of plain lowfat yogurt. This was the healthiest and quickest way to approximate a peach cobbler a la mode with the ingredients in my kitchen! :)

Also awesome:
  • Strawberries dipped in plain 2% Greek yogurt and brown sugar.
  • Blueberries and any plain yogurt and brown sugar.
  • Raspberries and any plain yogurt and brown sugar.
  • Plain yogurt with jam.
Yogurt recommendations: for Greek, I prefer Fage 2%; for regular, I like the Whole Foods brand 2% or Nancy's Organic Yogurt 2%. Greek yogurt is thicker than "regular" yogurt and is good for dipping fruits.

Jam recommendations: Bonne Maman has a pretty good flavor/texture--it is best to get something that is not too gelatinous.)

If you are into yogurt you may also want to try kefir, another fermented milk product that is more liquid and has different properties from yogurt.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seattle Underground Tour

Putting in a plug for the Seattle Underground Tour, which gives you a great hour-long introduction to Seattle's history. Started in the 1970's by Bill Speidel to fund a grass-roots preservation campaign, the tour gives you a brief overview of Seattle's early history and takes you through Seattle's underground tunnels, which were the city's sidewalks until they raised the streets. Take the tour to learn more*! ;)

* This is quite an interesting story; if you are not in Seattle I recommend reading about this on the internet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bat pose

Recently at yoga I have been introduced to bat pose, which involves hanging upside-down from a looped strap attached to the wall with the strap on your sacrum (so your back forms the bottom edge of an isosceles triangle), your legs along the outsides of the strap, and your feet on the inside of the strap. It is very fun and relaxing; it has been quite helpful for reducing back tension.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Internet is ruining slang

I recommend reading this fun NY Times article on how the internet has affected the spread of slang. Since the point of using slang is to separate from the actually cool people from the wannabes and the internet makes knowledge of slang available to all wannabes, fairly quickly do slang words cease to be slang and enter the greater cultural vernacular*. The article discusses the spread of slang, the role of slang in social identification, inter-group slang transfer, and the evolution of slang with respect to internet technologies. As a total slang goon, I found this article to be hella rad.

* This might actually be why I create my own slang and abuse the polymorphic term "goon." Only my real friends will pick up the appropriate ways to use my slang. ;)

Bike polo

Today I came upon some pick-up bike polo matches occurring at the tennis court across the street from where I was getting ice cream. It is kind of like roller hockey on bikes: players have sticks with which they handle the ball*. It looks like a technically interesting (and potentially dangerous) sport. I would compare it more to fencing than to something like ice hockey: it seems like technique is much more important than level of physical fitness. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of such a thing!

According to the US Bicycle Polo Association, the sport is thought to have originated in India, where British troops used bikes to work on their equestrian polo skills. It is also apparently growing in popularity throughout the US and world. :) The NY Times also has a 2007 article about bike polo.

* According to internet sources the stick is supposed to be a mallet, but the players I saw had lightweight metal sticks with thin hollow cylinders at one end. (A really interesting thing was they shuffled teams by putting all n sticks in the middle of the court and randomly throwing n/2 to each goal.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The fine line between self-expression and cyberbullying

Model Liskula Cohen won a court case against Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who maligned her* on the Skanks of NYC blog. Apparently Google initially refused but the Manhattan supreme court ruled that Google, who owned the blog, needed to provide the information. Perhaps I do not understand the gravity of the situation, but I am disappointed that one person's offended vanity sets such a precedence for revealing (conditionally) private information**. It is a slippery slope when people start being punished for saying "mean" things.

* They called her a "skank" and labelled photos of her with similarly derogatory words.
** While I understand cyberbullying to be a serious issue, it seems like Google's lawyers could have made a convincing case that this level of bullying does not pose a physical threat. Perhaps the issue is that people don't know what to do about cyberbullying? It does not seem like the court would have been so harsh had this whole thing happened in print media.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Airline pricing

Anyone interested in economics likely finds airline companies interesting: one of the few things I remember from my introductory economics class was the story of how some airline company realized they could make more money by not filling planes; it is also interesting how budget airlines like Ryanair can offer astoundingly low prices by cutting frills. Airline pricing is also interesting because finding the lowest fare for a given route is NP hard; companies like ITA software have sprung up to solve such problems.

Company business models aside, I find airline pricing to be incredibly interesting because it is one of the few things relevant to my life where supply and demand have such an immediate effect on price. According to Wikipedia, airline reservation systems sometimes have perfect discrimination when it comes to filling each seat of a plane at the highest price a customer would pay without driving the customer away. This is in line with the advice I've gotten over the years about purchasing plane tickets: tickets to leave Friday and return Saturday are expensive because there is high demand from corporate travellers, who don't care what they pay; ticket prices tend to drop after midnight (I hypothesize because reserved seats open up again); waiting for fare wars is a good way to plan semi-spontaneous trips. Plane tickets are cool because you can really improve your quality of life by having a good strategy and having a good strategy is fairly low-cost.

Recently I've been spending a bit of time on Bing travel (formerly Farecast), which compares prices over different dates and offers a prediction of whether to buy or wait with an estimate of the price variability. (A cool thing is that it will also let you set fare trackers that e-mail you the daily price--at some fixed time of day--for some trip.) It shows you graphs of the historical lows and the daily low price, both of which are interesting because they can vary a surprising amount (over $200 for tickets that can be in the low $100's) over the course of a few days (sometimes with seemingly random highs/lows). You can also see longer-term trends: an obvious trend is that ticket prices increase the closer you get to the flight date. I've also discovered fairly high variability (difference sometimes in the hundreds) of tickets over the course of a day; ticket prices do seem to increase quite a bit during the course of a day. (The price difference of flying to different locations is also interesting, since it depends not only on distance but also on demand for flying to that city, whether it is a hub, etc. etc. etc.)

I recommend playing around with Bing travel/Farecast if you are interested in this kind of thing. It is also a great resource for planning trips. ;)

Brain stuck in a rut

This popular NY Times article talks about how stress can cause your brain to go on autopilot, making you do the same (bad) things over and over again when you are stressed for too long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bed Buddy: another ergonomic secret

Another item people have seen me using and commented on what a good idea it was is my Bed Buddy, which is this rice pillow you can put in the microwave and then on your neck/shoulders/back. I use it every day; it generates moist heat (as opposed to the dry heat you get with the self-heating pads) that is quite effective for relieving muscle soreness/tension.

Trackpad keyboard for mousing-related problems

After mousing aggravated some of my shoulder problems, I switched to using keyboards with mice in them. I've tried a few, but the Adesso Tru Pro has been the best so far. I received it today: it has the slight elevation/separation between two hands, soft keys, and a nice track pad. It is a little big, but I kind of like that.

Previously I was using the Keytronic trackball keyboard, which was okay but not very ergonomic. The trackball also often got stuck, which was annoying. The keys are also pretty loud. I have also used the Lenovo Ultranav, which is basically the Lenovo laptop keyboard with both a touchpad and a ball mouse. I got the version without the number pad on the side so the mouse is in the middle. I found it to be okay but not sufficiently substantial: my hands get kind of funny after typing on it for a while; it might be because it's a mini keyboard.

If you are having shoulder problems with your mousing shoulder, you might want to try switching to a keyboard with a built-in mouse. I also type with my keyboard in my lap, elevated by a Lapinator so that my elbows can be at 90 degrees.

Worried about switching keyboards because you already have a fancy schmancy one you don't want to give up? My friend who was having mousing problems got this touch pad to use with his Kinesis.

Life lessons: computers are pretty bad for you, but the internet is so cool.