Monday, January 26, 2009

More Ph.D. applications; fewer Ph.D. spots

We all knew this already, but here is a Harvard Crimson article about how there are more Ph.D. applicants and fewer spots to fill. More people are applying because there aren't jobs; schools are taking fewer people because they expect to be able to fill fewer spots in the next few years.

I wonder what the specifics are for computer science, where Ph.D. programs tend to be long and many people coming out of doctorate programs go into industry.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Some notes on cooking

Presentation makes a huge difference. Eating a meal that looks beautiful will leave you much more satisfied and much less inclined to over-eat. things that matter a lot for presentation are good knifework (cut things consistently), good stove skills (most people have these--just don't mash up the food while cooking it), and good serving skills. Having a set of nice bowls that are interesting shapes (I like square bowls and plates) makes the food look way nicer. Food should have enough room to breathe in its bowl or plate; there should be some room on the outside of it, uncontaminated by the sauce. You can be creative with presentation in simple ways. For instance, I acquired a set of frosted colored bowls that are great for serving fruit. Mango looks particularly nice with the blue bowl; strawberries look very good with the light green bowl.

In a similar vein, the bowls you choose determine how you eat. I like serving the food in larger bowls and plates and having small (some would say tiny) bowls and plates for each person: this helps me eat slowly and eat a reasonable amount of food while feeling like I've had a feast.

Of course, the cooking matters a lot, too. :) I have found it important to be attentive to detail (wash vegetables thoroughly; throw out parts of things that are less fresh; be careful with knifework) and to err on the side of too few ingredients rather than too many when uncertain about a recipe.

Cooking with vegetables

Here is the much-promised post about my top 8 vegetarian dishes. Some of these involve optional bonito flakes, which are not strictly vegetarian because they involve fish product.

Some useful ingredients to have around the kitchen:
  • garlic (I keep both garlic cloves and minced garlic; I prefer using cloves but it is faster to just used the stuff in the jar)
  • hot sauces--I have chilli sauce (which is somewhat sweet), chilli sauce with black bean, and various other sauces
  • various peppers: we keep around various peppercorns, whole chillis (which we sometimes grind using a coffee grinder), and ground chillis
  • vinegar and rice vinegar
  • scallions (fresh--you cut them up with scissors when you need them)
  • packages of seitan/tofu for when you run out of fresh ingredients

Recipe sketches:
  1. Stir-fried greens. You can do this with bok choy, yu choy, spinach, brocolli rabe, watercress, and more. Peel apart vegetable leaves and wash thoroughly. If the leaves are large, chop them as necessary. Put oil into a shallow pan and stir fry on high heat until done. Hold off on salting until almost done; this optimizes the texture. For flavor, add some chopped garlic to the oil before adding the vegetables. For fun, I've also tried adding things like ground mustard, cayenne pepper, and anchovies. The only thing I really recommend against is adding acidic things (lemon, vinegar, etc.) because this wilts the vegetables and turns them yellow.
  2. Pickled radish. Prepare a sauce by putting in some amount of rice vinegar, soy sauce, and hot sauces into a bowl such that the total amount of resulting sauce is at least 1 inch deep. The vinegar and hot sauce should dominate the taste. Cut radishes into small pieces and brine in the sauce. Take them out when you've achieved a desirable flavor and serve.
  3. Stir-fried seitan. Prepare a sauce by adding a tablespoon of sweet potato or potato starch, 1/4 cup water, a dash of soy sauce, and optional hot sauce into a pan and bringing the sauce to a boil on low to medium heat. Cut scallions into pieces that are 2-3 inches long and cut seitan into pieces about 1/4 inch thick. Stir-fry seitan and scallions together for 2-3 minutes on medium high heat; add sauce on top when done.
  4. Cucumber salad. Soften cucumbers by beating them with the side of a knife. Quarter cucumbes and cut into small pieces. Prepare a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, and hot sauces. (Make enough sauce so that the bottom layer of cucumbers can be suitable coated by sitting in the sauce.) Put sauce onto cucumbers, mix, and serve.
  5. Bonito spinach. Stir-fry spinach, let cool. Prepare a sauce with soy sauce, hot sauce, and bonito flakes. (If you use bonito flakes, use enough to soak up the sauce.) Once spinach has cooled sufficiently, pour sauce over spinach. (The spinach absorbs sauce surprisingly well. Don't over-flavor it!)
  6. Brats and onions. You might think German cuisine is out-of-bounds, but you can almost have your cake and eat it too! Cut vegetarian brats (teehee) into 2-inch pieces and cut onions into rings. Heat a pan on medium heat and add plenty of oil (the onions absorb a ton of oil!) Add black peppercorns if you desire. One onions are almost all-the-way cooked, add brats. You may also enjoy heating sauerkraut in a different pan and serving it on the side.
  7. Noodle soup. Boil water. To prepare a broth, cut up an onion and a carrot (if you have one--if not, you can take the stems of bok choy or yu choy and use those) and put into the water. Add bonito flakes or dried shrimp if you want. When this had been boiling for a while, add your desired kind of noodles. I particularly enjoy soba noodles, thin egg noodles (which I buy fresh), and Shanghai fresh noodles. If you want, flavor the broth with chilli sauce. The noodle soup is good with stir-fried vegetables. If you eat eggs, you may also want to add a poached egg on top. (Ramen places also like to fry diced shallots in a deep-fry kind of way and put them in the bottom of soup to flavor them.)
  8. Stir-fried smoked tofu. Cut smoked tofu (xiang gan), Chinese leek (jiu cai), and Chinese preserved mustard plant (za cai) into strips about 2 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. Stir-fry on high heat, adding the ingredients in the following order: za cai, tofu, leek (at end). (If you are not vegetarian, you may also enjoy this with strips of chicken. Chicken tip: pre-cook the chicken in boiling water for 1-2 minutes before cutting so you can cut smaller strips.)
Upon request I can follow up any of these recipes with more detailed information and photographs.

Other fast, easy, and tasty things to eat that are vegetarian are Tofurkey sausages (which require microwaving/heating in a pan--I enjoy the chorizo ones for breakfast) and sliced Tofurkey sandwiches. I am also very into yogurt: I enjoy eating plain yogurt with fruit or jam, Greek yogurt, and kefir, a cultured milk product.

When I went home for winter break my dad showed me his method of making both scallion pancakes and scallion rolls. It is quite delicious; I will post that (with pictures) sometime soon!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

25 most dangerous programming errors

I found this recent article on the top 25 programming errors linked from Lambda the Ultimate. From the article:

...experts from more than 30 US and international cyber security organizations jointly released the consensus list of the 25 most dangerous programming errors that lead to security bugs and that enable
cyber espionage and cyber crime. Shockingly, most of these errors are not well understood by programmers; their avoidance is not widely taught by computer science programs; and their presence is frequently not tested by organizations developing software for sale... Just two of them led to more than 1.5 million web site security breaches during 2008 - and those breaches cascaded onto the computers of people who visited those web sites, turning their computers into zombies.

The sensationalist tone of the article may be appropriate for discussing the very real and scary subject of how programming errors affect everyone in the world. People know how to fix these things, but consumers of software seem blissfully ignorant/tolerant of unnecessarily buggy software.

Listed errors include cross-site scripting, cleartext transmission of sensitive information, race conditions, and other classic errors. There are also things like "improper initialization" and "incorrect calculation." (The descriptions can be amusing: "Just as you should start your day with a healthy breakfast, proper initialization helps ensure...")

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cooking with fruit: it's sweet

As part of my new year's resolutions, I have been trying to cut down on my red meat consumption and eat less crap. While eating the foods I haven't been eating and restocking my kitchen, I managed to find a spare hand and mouth to discover the joys of cooking fruit.

I've learned that you can basically cook any kind of fruit you've seen in a dessert with any kind of sweetener and it'll taste good. Some ideas below:
  1. Caramelized bananas. Chop the desired amount of banana into one-to-two-inch pieces. Mix a small amount of butter (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) with brown sugar on medium to medium-high heat. Once the sugar melts into the butter, add bananas and cook for a few minutes until they are brown and have the desired level of softness. Make sure to stir during the process.
  2. Cinnamon apples. Cut peeled apples either into slices or small chunks. Add 3/4 cup of wine of your choice to a shallow pan. Add one to two tablespoons of honey. To enhance the taste, add a stick of cinnamon and a few cloves and remove them before adding apples. I also experimented by adding a Thai chili for a few minutes while making the syrup. This changed the aftertaste in an interesting way. Cook until the wine is reduced to a small amount (the amount of syrup you would add to cook the apples). Add apples and cook on high heat until the liquid is almost gone and the apples are soft. Stir apples, sprinkle cinnamon. I enjoyed eating this with Greek yogurt. (Instead of a wine and honey syrup, you can use butter and sugar or olive oil and honey.)
  3. Poached pears. Peel pears, cut into halves and scoop out the core. Make a syrup as you would for the apples. (I used Calvados, an apple brandy, and added candied ginger, cardamom, and dried cranberries for additional punch. Since the pears tend to be very sweet, something sour like cranberries is good to balance out the sweetness. Alternatively, you could make a syrup from wine or port.) Add pears to the syrup and cook, covered, on low heat until they are soft and flavored. I ate this with kefir, a cultured milk product.
Since I have developed a sudden and extreme interest in cooking, this is not the last you will hear. Up next: my favorite vegetarian dishes.

Oh, oxytocin!

The New York Times ran an article covering neuroscientist Larry Young's explanation of human love and describing one of my favorite scientific anecdotes of all time, that of the prairie vole and the effect of oxytocin on its ability to form pair bonds. (Suppressing the normally monogamous prairie vole's oxytocin absorption impaired its ability to form bonds with its partner. Compare to the polygamous meadow vole, which had different receptors and therefore do not form such bonds.) As a rather unromantic realist who is fascinated by the idea of love as a chemical addiction between two people, I am pleased that these ideas are entering into the mainstream.

Rise to power: switching from bikram to power yoga

Some time ago I stopped going to bikram yoga because 1) it was too much of a time commitment to commute to Harvard Square, acclimate myself to the hot room, and shower afterward (3 hours total a day--and I found that I had to go every day to get full benefits), 2) it was getting too cold for 105-degree yoga to be pleasant, and 3) bikram is not great for my neck injury because I don't have full mobility in a couple of my vertebrae.

I have since discovered power yoga, another form of heated yoga marked towards competitive type A's who may not be ready for more authentic forms of yoga but who are tentatively embracing the ideas of workout alternatives to running and yoga as a form of relaxation/meditation. While power yoga doesn't drain me as much as bikram did, it is still a fairly intense workout and has an intensity level comparable to recovery day (as opposed to a training day) of running.

Power yoga is a flow yoga that takes place in a 97-degree heated room. Flow yoga seems to involve "flowing" through different positions, switching positions on inhale and exhale. (Bikram yoga, on the other hand, was static--you hold each position for ~30 seconds, depending on the position.) Each power yoga class is about an hour long and usually begins with a warmup of various things to warm up the back (rag doll, the downward dog/upward pushup combo), various things to get your heart going, core strength things, and leg stretches to cool down. At the end there is a long sabbasana where they turn off the lights and you lay still. At the beginning and end of every practice we all say "Om" together; I enjoy this very much. My first class was particularly fun because it happened to be a partners' class: the instructor showed us various poses including ones where partners do a double dog (one partner is in downward dog; the other one has his/her feet on top of the partner), somersaults over each other, and pair stretching. I was paired with a Finnish stranger who was somewhat larger than me; the experience was quite amusing. In general, power yoga involves headstands, handstands, shoulder stands, and other cool inversions I want to learn.

The experience of power yoga is quite different from that of bikram: 1) it feels much more like an aerobics class (or some sort of other group exercise class--I have never attended any group exercise besides bikram), 2) it is much less regimented (in bikram, instructors insist on the correctness of the pose; in power yoga you can do any variation), and 3) it is different each time. Power yoga, like most yoga, allows the instructor a fair amount of discretion on the positions for each class. Other differences between power yoga and bikram are that power yoga gets much more crowded (my mat was almost touching other mats on all four sides during more than once!) and the demographic is slightly different. I've seen fewer men at power yoga than at bikram, but the women who go to power yoga seem to be younger and more fit. It seems like a lot of them are runner or other kinds of athletes. (Power yoga seems to be less of people's sole workout, whereas there were people I'd see at the bikram studio every day.)

I enjoy power yoga more than bikram. Because it is more laid back and dynamic, I find it more relaxing. There are also logistic reasons: Central Square is closer, I don't have to shower at the studio for power yoga because I don't get as sweaty, and I do power yoga while still maintaining a good running schedule (instead of going to bikram every day).

Monday, January 05, 2009

Checkpoint: reflections of the second-semester first year

My first semester as a PhD student in MIT's CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) has ended. I should document the beginning of my long and illustrious graduate career* before my memories fade into the night of personal truth.

Synopsis. I acquired an advisor, an office, two projects**, and some repetitive stress injuries. I took a couple of classes (machine learning and algorithms), took up yoga, and spent a bunch of time writing in my blog. I highly recommend the graduate experience to those similar to me.

Full version. Due to repetitive stress injuries I should really stay away from the computer, so you must request a personalized oral retelling.

Some things I learned about graduate life... Does Russell's paradox prohibit me from being a parody of myself? :) These lessons may also transfer to real life.
  1. Graduate school can give you more freedom than many of your friends. I had a lot more freedom this semester than a lot of people I know. I two college roommates who do Teach for America, one who was Tim Johnson's press secretary, and one in graduate school in Oxford. I have more or comparable amounts of free time than they do, and I seem to have much more control over what I work on. (I work during the day and on nights and weekends when I need to, but the actual hours I work are fairly flexible, and if I slack the biggest letdown is to myself.) Sure, I'll be here longer than my friends will be at whatever they are doing, may get paid less, and will eventually face the end of the honeymoon period, but for now it's very fun.
  2. An ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure, or however that goes. My repetitive stress injuries still haven't gone away. I now spend all of my meager graduate stipend on healing techniques! Good ergonomics is incredibly important.
  3. Having a schedule can be very helpful. In the beginning I really enjoyed that I only had 6-10 hours of total commitments (classes + meetings) a week, but I soon realized that having plans for when to get up, when to go to bed, when to eat, when I was going to work on what, and when to work out is very important. Just today I spent a bunch of time trying to decide whether to run or go to yoga and when to do it and this caused me a good deal of anxiety. This is why I usually plan these sorts of things. :)
  4. Courses matter very little, at least at MIT. We only have 4 course requirements to get our masters', and we're not expected to put a lot of work into them. We are supposed to get at least 3 A's, but from what I have seen and heard this is not nearly as difficult (work-wise and many intellect-wise) as it was in undergrad.
  5. Yoga is cool. I used to think yoga was for spiritual people and trendy anorexic girls, but I'm starting to see that yoga is very nice as both physical exercise and as a relaxation activity. (Maybe I'm becoming a spiritual people.) I've tried bikram and power yoga, both of which are marketed towards type-A competitive athletic types, but I'm working my way towards the more authentic stuff. Bikram, which is static and in a 105 degree room, is very intense and got me into way better shape; power yoga is more chill, more about movement and breathing, and has more variation.
  6. Eating right can make you feel a lot better. I have felt much better ever since I got a kitchen and started cooking for myself rather than eating the dining hall crap. I've greatly reduced my red meat intake, greatly increased in my vegetable intake, and almost eliminated greasy gross things. I rediscovered tofurkey, tofu turkey, and seitan, wheat protein, both of which are delicious meat substitutes.
  7. Sleeping does prevent illness. I never had the luxury to sleep enough pretty much until now, but either I have developed immunity for Cambridge college germs or sleeping does actually help.
  8. It takes more discipline to maintain a healthy schedule and a good balance of work and play than to work all the time. Working all the time is not the most productive thing to do. (Gasp!)
I also discovered the art of nail buffing, which fascinated me for a good couple of hours after I acquired a 7-stage buffing device.

* Graduate students are usually not proud of particularly long graduate careers, but for the time being I will embrace my future enthusiastically.
** I am working on a language for programming with uncertainty and a project involving computer-aided programming related to the SKETCH system. I'd be happy to talk at length about either project.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Yet another reason exercise is good for you

This New York Times article talks about how researchers have found that as the body loses its ability to regulate glucose, the parts of the brain responsible for memory lose blood flow. This affects not just diabetics but everyone, as glucose regulation begins to decline in one's thirties. From the article:

“When we think about diabetes, we think about heart disease and all the consequences for the rest of the body, but we usually don’t think about the brain,” he said. “This is something we’ve got to be really worried about. We need to think about their ultimate risks not only for cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders, but also about their cognitive skills, and whether they will be able to keep up with the demands of education and a fast-paced complex society. That’s the part that scares the heck out of me.”

Previous observational studies have shown that physical activity reduces the risk of cognitive decline, and studies have also found that diabetes increases the risk of dementia. Earlier studies had also found a link between Type 2 diabetes and dysfunction in the dentate gyrus.

The way to improve glucose regulation is to engage in physical activity. Also from the article:

Sheri Colberg-Ochs, an associate professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., said her research has found that regular exercise, even light physical activity, can offset the potentially negative effects of Type 2 diabetes on cognitive function. It is not clear what the mechanism is, she said, but may have something to do with the effect of insulin.

Especially since there have been few studies concluding that regular exercise is bad for you, keep this in mind when you make your new year's resolutions!

My battle with size inflation

The first time I fit into size 0 pants, I was so pleased that they fit that I bought them. I continued to feel the rush of being a size 0* for a few more months, until I was browsing among the Banana Republic sale racks when a woman confided in me, "I'm not a real size 0. I don't know where the actually skinny people shop these days."

Then I realized that I had been duped by vanity sizing, a gimmick companies use to get women to buy clothing by making them feel good. I had always heard that though Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16, she was not actually fat, but I had not realized to what extent clothing sizes have been shifting. The growth seems to have been particular aggressive in the last couple of years: as the Boston Globe says, 0 is the new 8. When I was 12, I was a size 3/4; at 22, I have become a size 00 in and can no longer find appropriate-length pants in American stores. Though I seem to decrease in American size each year, I remain a size 4 on the European scale..

Vanity sizing is harmful because 1) it encourages obesity while 2) perpetuating unhealthy pressures to look a certain way and 3) makes it very difficult for small people to buy clothing. When women try to lose weight, they often have clothing sizes as targets. This becomes meaningless as the sizes become moving targets in favor of those who have gained weight. Also, a woman remains the same size over the course of a few years may have actually gained a significant amount of weight. Especially since Americans have grown larger and obesity has become such a public health issue that New York governor Paterson has proposed an "obesity tax", it is not a good change that clothing sizes no longer serve as an indicator of whether someone may need to watch his or her weight. One argument people have made in favor of vanity sizing is that because size 0 is now associated with average-looking people, it takes away the pressure for women to be anorexic waifs. But wait a minute, isn't shifting the whole sizing chart just a way of legitimizing pressures to be a smaller size (and helping people cheat at it)? As long as there exist people who are rail-thin (naturally or otherwise), there will be clothing manufacturers who make clothes for them, and there will be girls who yearn to be that thin. Inflating sizes does not get rid of the size-0 fetish, it just decouples the size-0 fetish from the actual size 0. Inflating sizes also makes it more difficult for the previous size 0's (and previous size 2's, 4's, and 8's) to buy clothing. As clothing has become larger, the list of stores where I can shop has been shrinking and I can never get anything on sale. For instance, I cannot shop at J. Crew for pants at all anymore! I have spent increasingly more money and time just to buy clothes that fit.

Many people say that vanity sizing is not as bad as the lack of a standard. Differing rates of vanity sizing makes buying clothing inefficient, as I now have to try on a range of sizes even at stores where I knew my size 3 months ago. It is also impossible to predict how things will fit when shopping online. (Sometimes the inflation is so bad that I know to just go down a size from the previous time. Absurdly enough, by the time I run out of sizes the store may hav
e added an even smaller size--e.g., 00, XXXS.)

Though I do not know how much longer stores can go enriching their Petite lines and adding smaller sizes, it seems unlikely that a brand will stop or reverse this process. One way to stop this is to have regulations for standardizing clothing sizes. A way to implement regulation is to create a standard based on measurements and tax companies that do not adhere to standards by an amount comparable to how much they make from vanity sizing. (To address the argumen that a medium-sized barrel-racer need not fit into a medium-sized tutu, the regulation could either exempt niche clothing or have different standards.) Other countries have begun regulating sizes, though for the purpose of reversing pressures for women to be too thin. Vanity sizing is bad enough for American women in the other direction that regulation would not be inappropriate. (Does anyone know of studies on how vanity sizing has affected the sizes of American women?)

* Size 0 used to be associated with the anorexic-waif look, which was unattainable by most but desired by many. Since recent size inflation, this association has become meaningless.