Friday, December 30, 2011

A Taste of Peru

I just returned from a week in Peru with my extended family. (Photos here.) The Andean scenery is incredible, the blend of Incan and Spanish history is fascinating (short summary: the Spanish stuck crosses on top of everything), and its mixed-race population has a beautiful, distinctive look. Wireless internet is surprisingly ubiquitous--a phenomenon perhaps explained by tourism being Peru's most rapidly growing industry (see Wikipedia).

It is important to show up to Peru with an appetite: food is central to Peruvian culture. Peruvian cuisine seems similar to, if a bit lighter than, Mexican cuisine. Peru's main crop is corn: they have a large-kernel corn that was quite novel and delicious. Tomatoes and cereals such as quinoa feature prominently in Peruvian cuisine. Peru is also known for its ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lime. Dishes I have never seen elsewhere include alpaca meat and guinea pig meat. Peruvians also have great desserts, including a tres leches cake, rice pudding, and a purple corn pudding.

We spent three days in the highland city of Cuzco, former Incan cultural center and a major Peruvian tourist destination. We saw the archaeological ruins of Saqsayhuaman, a stone fortress complex that provides an incredible view of the city. We took a day trip (3.5 hours each way by train, as an alternative to the four-day Inca Trail hike) to Machu Picchu, the 15th century Incan city in the clouds never conquered by the Spanish and famously "discovered" by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. (See photo.) Back in Cuzco, we toured the Cathedral of San Domingo, which was formerly an Inca temple: the combination of the Inca stonework foundation and the 16th-century Spanish religious oil paintings was fascinating. Finally, we made a trip to the Sacred Valley, where we visited the market in the town of Pisaq and toured the archaeological ruins of Ollantaytambo, which had a valley village surrounded by stone-lined terraces and stone structures in the surrounding Andean slopes. Ollantaytambo was my favorite site because of its breathtaking scale: the hills surrounding the village are completely covered with beautiful stone structures (and they rolled the stones up the mountains themselves!). (See photo.) Travel tip for those visiting the Cuzco area: bring a warm jacket and drink lots of water to combat the effects of high altitude.

During our day in Lima, our expert half-Chinese, half-Peruvian tour guide Tino showed us the Incan remnants and Chinese restaurants in the district of Miraflores. (Lima has many Chinese immigrants and, according to Tino, over 3,000 Chinese restaurants. Peruvians even have a term chifa--based on the Chinese 酒饭, "food and drink"--that refers to Chinese Peruvian cuisine.) Lima is a modern city that reminds me of Los Angeles with its smog and abundant palm trees and of Brussels with its large neoclassical urban monuments and wide roads. The two most prominent themes of tour were the Pacific Ocean (see photo of the view from dinner) and the Catholic cross (see photo of Pizarro's initial cross). We visited El Parque del Amor, Lima's main square, a random gastronomical museum, and the beautiful Monastery of San Francisco, which has incredible 17th century Sevillan tiles and incredibly creepy catacombs (with human remains sorted by bone!) below. I would love to spend more time in Lima seeing more of the architecture and getting to know its fusion of Incan and Spanish cultures.

For those of you considering such a vacation, the actual travel to Peru is not so bad. It is about a 9-hour flight to and from Los Angeles. We flew red-eye both ways; nine hours is actually an ideal length of time for a red-eye because you can comfortably fit in two meals and a semi-decent night's sleep.

As we were traveling in a large group (with many teenagers) for a short time, our trip consisted of going from site to site via various modes of transportation. I would love to return to Peru to spend more time engaging with the culture and terrain (for instance, eating at local restaurants and hiking the Inca Trail). And with a better camera!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reasons to Pursue a Ph.D.

Several months ago, I spoke with a former schoolmate who is considering whether to leave Google to pursue a Ph.D. Since I like to believe I make good decisions, I immediately gave a rundown of the pros. As a responsible advice-giver, I initiated the same conversation between the schoolmate and a Ph.D. graduate whom I know to be actively against recommending graduate school. Surprised I could agree with so many of the cons, I reevaluated my stance and again convinced myself that graduate school is worthwhile. I discuss the reasons in this post.

There are many reasons not to go to graduate school. If you are in computer science, your income will be about a quarter of your market value. (There will also be no onsite massages or free dry cleaning.) You will probably be working on problems that are difficult to explain to your friends and family. You may not see positive results for months, even years. Even if you get results, your work may not have impact on the greater society for years—maybe never. Nobody will understand you or your work, including your fellow graduate students, who will often be unhappy. After you graduate, you will find that you did not need a Ph.D. for what you end up doing. And then you will cry.

Less hedonistic people will tell you to endure this suffering for longer-term goals: that faculty position, that job in science policy. As someone who believes in short-term pleasure, I have other reasons for recommending a Ph.D. While I would not mind becoming a rock-star professor, I am in graduate school for the freedom and for the opportunities. Graduate school is an all-you-can eat buffet for ideas and self-development. Rather than serving as a mercenary in implementing someone else's vision, I am paying (with opportunity cost and time) for the chance to solve open-ended problems of my choosing. In realizing the solutions, I can choose which skills to focus on developing: for instance, delivering a talk. In exploring questions, I have access to the experts in their fields. I can even call random companies to ask questions about their operations. (I have done this.) I also have access to almost every course at my university, as well as the library collection and academic journal subscriptions. As long as I can demonstrate progress on a potentially interesting problem, nobody complains. Even if I do not use my Ph.D. in my future career, it will have been a fun (and productive) few years.

The freedom and opportunities of graduate school also extend to lifestyle. Graduate school is conducive to a fabulous lifestyle—and I mean this seriously. Since entering graduate school I have become an avid yogi, explored aerial acrobatics, and co-founded Graduate Women at MIT, which now has over 800 mailing list members, two annual conferences, and a mentoring program. Since entering graduate school, I have traveled—for work and for pleasure—to Ireland, Canada, Germany, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, China, Belgium, Peru, and various US locations. I have a fantastic social network of fellow graduate students, many of whom have similarly rich life interests. (My officemate does bike racing; several friends do outdoors activities almost every weekend; another friend has had his own company for several years.) I am also in a book club called Whiskey and Words: we discuss literature over scotch. The flexibility and community of grad school have facilitated the exploration of my personal interests.

Before you get too envious, I should admit that graduate school is not always a party. With the freedom to choose what you work on comes with the possibility that what you work on may not be interesting valuable to anyone else. My first paper with my advisor was rejected five times over the course of two years before it was accepted to a major conference. I have spent months working on ideas and implementations that I will not ultimately show to the world. For the majority of my time in grad school, I have worked alone with my advisor or internship mentors. Fear not that I am some sort of happy freak: I have done my time in states of questioning, despair, and isolation. The struggle, however, has been part of the learning process: of developing my taste in research problems and of learning how to realize a high-level vision. It helps that I have a high risk tolerance and do not take myself that seriously—and that I have a sun lamp to augment the short days of Cambridge winter (made shorter by occasional deadline-driven visits to Samoan time*).

A caveat is that various logistical advantages have contributed to my positive experience. For my first three years, I was supported by a fellowship that gave me some flexibility and bargaining power. I have an advisor who works closely with me, believes in the work, and gives me a fair amount of freedom. (It also helps that he is an assistant professor who is, arguably, on a more demanding clock than I am.) I have also done a couple of internships at Microsoft Research that have helped me both establish additional credibility in my field and finance a more luxurious lifestyle. Not everyone has the advisor and/or funding situation that yields such freedom: it is important to ask the right questions to know what to expect.

If you like the freedom to work on open-ended questions, then graduate school may be a good fit. Pursuing a Ph.D. provides amazing opportunities not just to make an impact in your field, but also to develop life skills and to indulge in personal exploration. While there are tradeoffs (financial, time, and other), pursuing a Ph.D. is an experience I recommend**.

* Computer science conferences seem to have decided midnight Samoan time is the most fair time for paper submission cut-off.
** This is only based on the first 3.5 years of my Ph.D. We will see how I feel in a couple of years.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ramping up the Graduate Women at MIT blog

Graduate Women at MIT now has a new blogging initiative. If you have been following my blog to hear about gender/women in science issues, please follow the GWAMIT blog as well!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lessons from Startup Bootcamp

I recently attended Startup Bootcamp, a one-day free workshop that brings in startup founders to talk about lessons learned. Here are some brief notes about what I learned from each speaker:
  • Paul English, Kayak. The team is most important: assemble the best possible team and advisors.
  • Leah Culver, Convore. Show up and do something. It might be hard work.
  • Andrew Sutherland, Quizlet. Dogfood your product.
  • Naveen Selvadurai, Foursquare. Build around an atomic action.
  • Charlie Cheever, Quora. Looking at qualitative data is important.
  • Drew Houston, Dropbox. Surround yourself with people you want to be like.
  • Alex Polvi, Cloudkick. Take care of your team.
  • Anthony Volodkin, Hype Machine. Just fucking do something.
  • Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb. Work hard, be creative, and keep pushing forward.
  • Patrick Collison, Stripe. Starting a company is a great way to apply academic ideas.
The 3000-attendee registration and the number of business people looking for tech cofounders confirmed that we are indeed in a bubble.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Caramelized Leek Soup

A great dish to try as you brace for colder weather is caramelized leek soup, which requires about an hour of preparation in a heavy kettle. I tried it with ciabatta bread (for dipping) and broiled chicken with roasted green beans for the main course.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moving in Cambridge

This past weekend, I moved in time to bunker down for Hurricane Irene (which proved to be little more than a windy storm for Cambridge, MA). As most of my previous moves have involved primarily storage/shipping, I'm a little late to the game when it comes to knowing how moving works. During my move I learned the following:
  • Do not move on September 1 if you can help it. I haven't ever done this myself, but our move was initially scheduled for September 1 and it was difficult even to reserve a UHaul--and this was at the beginning of August. If you have to move September 1, plan early.
  • If you can't get a UHaul, try the suburbs. We initially had non-overlapping apartment leases (Aug. 31/Sept. 1) and needed to reserve a truck overnight to store our things. We ended up finding one about an hour outside Cambridge.
  • Cambridge issues moving van permits. You can apply for one here but they will cost you money and it may not be honored. I paid $45 for two spots and even though the city put up signs, cars occupied the spots for the duration of my move.
  • Wardrobe boxes are brilliant. Wardrobe boxes (available at the UHaul store and other places) allow you to hang your clothing intact onto a built-in bar. They take up a lot of space, though.
  • Becoming a minimalist is a good idea. I don't think of myself as someone who likes having a lot of stuff, but apparently I have too many things to move comfortably. I have been making good use of the MIT reuse list, the Planet Aid clothes/shoes donation box at MIT, and the book/item exchanges in my building for giving things away.
From my roommate I also learned some cool things about the car-sharing company Zipcar:
  • MIT has a great Zipcar deal where students pay $25 a year.
  • If your Zipcard does not work, Zipcar can remotely open the trunk of a Zipcar, where backup cards are waiting. They will be able to remotely activate a new card for you.
I am currently looking forward to the September 1 looting, which occurs when everybody moving out realizes they have too much stuff and begins selling/giving away things. Being a minimalist may limit my options somewhat.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google Sites: Why I Believe in WYSIWYG Again

If you have been looking for a mindlessly easy way to create and host slick-looking websites, your life is about to get a heck of a lot better.

I recently discovered that Google Sites provides an amazingly usable interface for creating websites without programming. Sites I've created using Google Sites include a site for Graduate Women at MIT (screen shot to the left) and a personal wiki for posting links to useful things. In this post, I describe what you can use Google Sites for, what you can't use Google Sites for, and how to get started using Google sites.

Google Sites is really done well--not only does it provide support for a comprehensive set of website creation actions, but it also gets the little things right. It has the following advantages:
  • Easy creation of websites, wikis, blogs, etc. You can edit web pages the way you edit Google Docs. Google Sites has four built-in templates: a regular website (editable almost exactly like a Google Doc), an announcements page (for making a blog-like page) a file cabinet (for uploading files), and a list (for entering spreadsheet items). This makes it quite easy to public many kinds of content.
  • Easy publishing of content such as spreadsheets, documents, calendars, and photos. Google supports easy embedding of other Google technologies such as Docs, GCal calendars, and Picasa photos/albums.
  • Collaborative site editing. Google Sites has the same collaborative editing format as Google Docs, making it easy for several people to work on a website together.
  • Automation of site creation tasks. Google Sites gets many of the details right. For instance, you can copy and paste the contents of another website into a Google Site with the formatting preserved and images appropriately displayed and linked. Google Sites also makes it easier to include an image: it supports automatic resizing and automatically inserts a link (which can easily be removed) to the real photo.
  • Customizable templates. Google Sites supports many design templates and also allows the user to change properties such as the appearance of the navigation map (along the top or on the side, tabs or boxes, etc.) and colors and fonts for the text. Google Sites also allows the user to insert a logo into the header (More actions > Manage site > Site layout > change logo)--the GWAMIT site above was done this way.
  • Escape hatches. You can view and edit the HTML source of any page. I find this helpful when there is a weird space I can't get rid of in the Sites editor--WYSIWYG* can only take you so far.

If you want to make a site with a unique design or a lot of functionality, Google Sites may not be the way to go. As for design, Google imposes a fairly standard template onto the site and doesn't allow editing of style sheets, making it difficult to get a page with a different format. As for functionality, it is not completely straightforward to embed Javascript for things like Facebook Community pages and Twitter feeds. Google Sites does allow the user to insert Gadgets wrapping HTML/Javascript, so it should be possible to wrap arbitrary functionality inside a Gadget and then put it in the page. (There is at least one gadget for wrapping Javascript, but it didn't work for me.) I found this helpful post about creating a Google Gadget to wrap Javascript to display a Twitter feed.

To get started with Google sites, go to, activate your account, and start making pages. To create a new site, click "Create new site." Once you choose a template and a name, you'll be directed to a page for editing your site's homepage, the page that shows up under[your site name]. You can edit this site just like a Google Doc. You may also create other pages for your site, link to them, move them, etc. Google has a nice getting started guide here.

* What You See Is What You Get.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday, August 08, 2011

Before Grilling Season is Over, Try Watermelon

I was recently made aware of NY Times food columnist Mark Bittman's recipe for grilled watermelon and prepared it for the first time yesterday. Grilled watermelon burgers with cheese are a surprisingly delicious combination of sweet and savory flavors. They are also quite easy to make. I recommend being generous with salt and pepper and also using a milder cheese.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Clothes Shopping on a Grad Student Budget

The bottom of my wallet has been taunting me this summer, my first without a Microsoft internship. Determined not to let the halving of my income degrade my quality of life, I have been investigating lower-cost alternatives to my usual indulgences. Initially skeptical of buying used goods, I have made significant spending reductions in the clothing category by turning to thrift and consignment stores.

The main reason to buy used clothing is to acquire interesting accent pieces (either vintage or design) that are higher quality and interesting than comparably-priced alternatives at department or chain stores. My prized vintage purchases (both under $20) include a purple dolman-sleeved button-down dress and a black dice print dress with dice buttons on the back. My favorite gently-worn designer purchases (both under $30) include a khaki Marc Jacobs jacket and a gold-sequin Trina Turk shirt. I have compiled the following tips for picking out interesting/appropriate/timeless pieces among used clothes.

First of all, thrift and consignment stores can be quite confusing to navigate due to the large amount of and variety in the clothing. Here are some tips for approaching the shopping experience:
  • Figure out how the store is organized. Racks may be organized by color, by size, or by some other criteria. Figuring out the organization of the store can help you find what you want much more quickly.
  • Browse methodically. It's can be overwhelming to browse at random when there is only one garment per look/size/color, so it can be good to pick a category (for instance, summer t-shirts) and look only in that category until you are finished.
  • Have an idea of what cut, colors, fabrics you are looking for. This goes for clothes shopping in general, but being able to quickly rule out items of clothing will make your shopping experience much more efficient. Knowing what size you are in different brands will also help.

Once you have found an article of clothing that you like, you should make sure it is a worthwhile purchase. Here are things I have learned:
  • Check the quality of the clothing. Carefully inspect the garment for stains and tears. Make sure the garment will not fall apart after one washing.
  • Don't go for trendy pieces. If someone else has already given away a piece of trendy clothing, you may not be able to get much more wear out of it.
  • Recognize good brands and watch out for fakes. Having a good sense of which brands make clothing that will last through a few washing and wearings will help you pick out worthwhile purchases. Knowing which brands tend to make poor-quality trendy pieces will also help you avoid bad purchases. It is also important to watch out for fakes.

I recommend buying the following things used:
  • Statement pieces. It may be a combination of the fact that people tire of statement pieces quickly and that they don't get reworn too much, but I come across quite a few interesting shirts in good condition.
  • Cardigans and layering pieces. It's nice to have many of them, they usually aren't what make an outfit interesting, and it does not matter that they look brand new. Also, I have found more than one nice cardigan for $10.
  • Leather belts. A tip from my friend Rachel, who finds belts on eBay: these seem to hold up pretty well and cost much less used.
  • Vintage-style clothing. Vintage pieces look cooler if they look more authentic and you could potentially find something nice for a fraction of the designer vintage-chic price.
  • Formal dresses. Formal dresses often do not get much wear: I have seen very nice dresses at consignment stores for very low prices. (I have seen a Vera Wang silk evening gown for something like $38 at the Garment District.)
I would advise acquiring button-down shirts caution: I've had to resew the buttonholes on a couple of shirts.

Here are some thrift and consignment stores around Boston:
  • The Garment District: this place has everything: a dollar-a-pound section for random lucky finds, a costume section, gently-worn designer, and gently-worn other used clothing.
  • Poor Little Rich Girl: a chain of well-curated gently-worn designer.
  • Second Time Around: another chain of well-curated gently-worn designer.
  • Raspberry Beret: "consignment, vintage, and unique items."
I have a friend who also likes Boomerang's, but more for furniture and home items. Have fun!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Implicit Bias and Affirmative Action

A few weeks ago, the MIT Tech ran an opinion piece "It's good to be king" ("Innate ability may explain gender gaps") raising questions about the "deeply suspicious" nature of the "subtle bias" used to justify measures taken to increase participation of women in the sciences at MIT. This well-written piece argued that the gender-dependence of intelligence variability may explain the gaps of women in the sciences. The Tech ran a subsequent counterpoint "Intelligence variability is not gender-dependent" that argues against the intelligence variability claim, pointing out that this is not true across cultures.

I am glad that The Tech is taking on this interesting question and would encourage them to dig a bit deeper into the literature of and issues surrounding gender inequity in the sciences. I wrote a Letter to the Editor that ran yesterday about how in the argument about affirmative action, it is important to consider the (often implicit) biases that the action is intended to counteract.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Grad Women @ MIT: Reflections from the First Full Year

My main non-research interest at MIT has been Graduate Women at MIT, which I helped found in fall 2009. Last year I was involved with establishing GWAMIT with the MIT administration and leading the Spring Kick-off, our first week of programming demonstrating the tone and content we envisioned for future events. My main GWAMIT projects this year have been co-chairing the planning committee for the inaugural Spring Empowerment Conference, developing the organization structure, and growing the GWAMIT web presence (on the website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter).

GWAMIT has had amazing growth this last year and a half: we went from having a leadership structure of three people (Kay Furman, Megan Brewster, and me) to a leadership structure that includes an Executive Board, a General Board of over 30 departmental representatives, and active planning committees for each of the flagship events (the mentoring program, leadership conference, and empowerment conference)--you may read some of our personal mission statements here. We have now become a centralized point of contact for MIT's graduate women, with over 650 members on our weekly digest, over 50 mentoring groups in the mentoring program, and 250 unique attendees at each of the conferences, which have had five events each. The GWAMIT community includes not just graduate women but also undergrads, postdocs, alumni, faculty, and staff--some of whom are men and some of whom are affiliated with other area universities. In this first full year of programming, we have raised over $20K from generous MIT and external sources.

I have compiled the following advice for people starting a student organization or similar kind of group.

Be concrete. In the beginning, we had to justify why we wanted to start GWAMIT, how GWAMIT planned to be different from existing campus resources and departmental women's groups, and how we were going to achieve these goals. To answer these questions we did detailed research on statistics about women at MIT, existing resources, and potential sources of funding. We described our plans in terms of concrete details, complete with timelines and budgets. Having concrete data helped address most questions.

Dream big, but have realistic plans.
From the beginning, we had the ambitious goal of launching all three flagship programs. We understood, however, that with limited funding and human resources we would have to keep the programs at a manageable scale. Thanks to Kay's realism, our initial plans for the programs required a minimal budget and were only intended to serve a group size that could be handled even if we did not recruit more members immediately. Knowing our vision allowed us to scale up each of the program when the funding and enthusiasm poured in, but having the bare-bones backup plan allowed us to launch in the first place.

Execute as soon as possible.
Before we had funding or members during our first full semester of operation, I pushed to have the Spring Kick-off. We bootstrapped our funding by laying out possible sources of funding and approached each potential funder with our funding plan and how they would fit in. We recruited our initial planning committee of members who were passionate about helping out and believed in the cause. The Spring Kick-off was a success, with five catered events, including a keynote on implicit bias and a panel on collaboration from the perspectives of academic women. Having the kick-off was beneficial because 1) it showed our funders and constituents we were serious, 2) it demonstrated to everyone what GWAMIT's niche would be at MIT, and 3) it spread the word about the organization and got people onto our mailing lists. The momentum from the Spring Kick-off helped us recruit members for flagship planning and helped us establish the credibility to get additional funding. Execution is the best way to be organized and to be concrete.

Leverage collaborations. When it was just Kay, Megan, and me, we leveraged each others' strengths and interests and also the strengths and interests of our collaborators. Each of us had different areas we were more interested in pursuing (mentoring, empowerment, establishing internal MIT relations, establishing external relations, etc.) and we worked together to allow each of us to pursue our interests while making sure the big picture still made sense. We could have a distributed execution model because we trusted each other to make the right decisions without having all three of us present at all meetings or for all small decisions. Leveraging our collaborations outside GWAMIT was also incredibly helpful: for example, for the Spring Kick-off we had events with external collaborators such as keynote speaker Freada Klein, workplace diversity expert, and internal collaborators such as MIT Ombuds, who helped us lead a workshop on navigating difficult situations. We have, individually and as a group, learned the advantage of being organized and communicating to collaborators how they can help us.

people to pursue their passions. GWAMIT has only been able to execute programming at such a large scale because so many members people who propose and execute ideas. The planning committees, and also the executive board, operates in a democratic way. The committee structure is in place only to make sure the planning is on task: event leads who propose an idea or take on someone else's idea is responsible for developing event content. This has led to innovative content like the online personal branding workshop (Empowerment Conference '11) and innovative event structures like the keynote that was half Q&A (Leadership Conference '10). Event leads have done fantastic jobs in executing events, in large part because, as one former event lead puts it, they are driven to contribute not for the credit but out of personal interest.

Actively manage your image. There are two ways we have been managing our image: through our online presence and through our programming.

We had a GWAMIT website and logo before we had members. On our website we had our mission, proposed events, a list of MIT and Boston area resources we had compiled, and an events calendar. Having a professional online image was something tangible that could demonstrate to our funders, supporters, and future members that we we meant business--and also what that business was. Managing our online image gave us agency in shaping people's views of us: when deciding what to think of GWAMIT, they could get the information directly from us and how we present ourselves.

GWAMIT's brand also includes our event content and execution. We choose event content that is innovative, provocative, and non-overlapping with existing resources. We also pay attention to advertising, putting effort into designing and disseminating our posters (see the Empowerment Conference '11 keynote poster here). At the events, we greet attendees, set the mood by playing music, and have high-quality catering at events we choose to cater. We also bring the GWAMIT banner and also tablecloths and flowers when relevant. People have come to associate GWAMIT with not just a set of ideas, but also a style. This style gives people a good idea of to expect with us and also, we hope, inspires people to join us.


Of course, the primary legacy of any group depends on its sustainability. Looking forward, it will be important to establish sustainable organization and funding structures and ways of passing on experience from GWAMIT leaders. I also have post on the GWAMIT blog about specific areas of interest for next year.

I am lucky to be working with such brilliant, driven, and effective colleagues in such a supportive environment, within GWAMIT and at MIT. I am excited for what is to come.

Interested in getting involved with GWAMIT? Feel free to e-mail me (jeanyang [at] mit).

Social Media, Online Branding, and Twitter Plugs

I've spent the last couple of weeks fascinated by the democratization of the ability to brand oneself. A couple of years ago, articles started showing up on how to use Facebook to project a consistent and cohesive image. The theme of branding appeared with vigor during Graduate Women at MIT's Spring Empowerment Conference, especially during the keynote on how to find power in unexpected places (one of which is in branding and selling yourself) and more explicitly during the Online Personal Branding Workshop. (See the blog post on the whole week here.) Social media has allowed nobodies like me to manipulate my image and establish social credibility in ways previously only available to the Jackie Onassises and Coca-Colas of the world.

A couple of years late (but not too late, I hope), I recently set up Twitter accounts for myself (@jeanqasaur) and for Graduate Women at MIT (@gwamitweb). It has been interesting figuring out how to compose compelling tweets and how to get more followers. Follow GWAMIT to stay in the loop about women, science, and/or academia. Follow me for posts on computer science/tech and other things I find interesting (academia, human nature, life).

Anyone out there have good advice for how to use Twitter (personally, professionally, and personally vs. professionally) or have good pointers to literature on what to make Twitter? Please recommend in comments!

(I'm also trying to figure out how to use Facebook for organizations. Advice?)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Grad Women @ MIT Empowerment Conference

I have been organizing the Graduate Women @ MIT Empowerment Conference, happening Wednesday-Friday this week. Events include a keynote by Cindy Gallop (who has branded herself as herself and gone on to change the world however she wants to), a Power Couples Panel, and a panel on the relevance of modern feminism (titled "I'm not a feminist, but..." to appeal to those who don't yet identify as feminists). There are also workshops on communications and online personal branding.

The conference website is here and there is a Facebook event here.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Weekend in Brussels

After attending the the Seminar on Self-Repairing Programs at Schloss Dagstuhl in Germany, I spent Valentine's Day weekend in Brussels with my friend Kate. (Photo album here.)

Three nights is intense for seeing a city, but Brussels was well-suited for our style of whirlwind tourism. Not only did Brussels live up to Belgium's reputation of having the best chocolate, mussels, fries, and beer in the world, but it proved to be an amazing destination both for seeing old buildings and for dancing. The trip was also linguistically fascinating: there is a mix of French and Flemish spoken in Belgium*. Our Brussels trip was made more great by two accidental brilliant decisions we made.

The first brilliant decision we made was booking the first two nights at the Hostel Grand Place, a charming (read: tiny) hostel just 20 meters away from Grand Place, Belgium's historic city center. Though it was difficult to find at first, it was impossible to fail at tourism after walking out the door. After a confusing 30 minutes of getting completely lost trying to arrive there from the Central Station (nobody in Brussels knows how to get anywhere, including a cab driver who charge me 10 Euros and dropped me off after two blocks because I was "almost there"), I finally reunited with Kate at the hostel. We had a lovely dinner at the Roi d'Espagne**, where I enjoyed a heavy meal of endives covered with ham covered with cheese and we both enjoyed Jupiler beer and cassis wine. Grand Place turned out to be close to most things our guide book said was good, including the famous Delirium Cafe, which is in an obscure "impasse" (alley) with several other bars. En route to Delirium we again got extremely lost and encountered many geographically clueless Belgians, but we did accidentally see many key Brussels sights (such as the Brussels icon Manneken Pis) along the way. We ended the night by consuming frites with hot chili and aioli sauce. Apparently three-quarters the way through I exclaimed, "It just hit me how amazing these are."

Kate and I spent most of Saturday in Bruges, which is an hour by train and which our guide book told us is the "Venice of the north." It may be more like the "Disneyland of the north" given how touristy and insanely picturesque it is: at every corner there is a medieval monastery or some canal with random beautiful buildings. Apparently Bruges is so well-preserved because there was an economic downturn after the Middle Ages that caused it to be abandoned until fairly recently. We spent the day walking the streets of Bruges, taking breaks only to eat waffles and enjoy mussels (though we had 3-5 failed dinner attempts due to it being Valentine's Day weekend and Bruges being the most romantic destination in the world). At some point we even randomly stumbled upon the windmills of Bruges and clutched each other with joy and wonder. (We also wandered into the English convent and met a nun.) We ended our Bruges adventure by purchasing chocolate (Leonidas, which turned out to only be fourth best) and lace (for which Bruges is known). Despite the fact that there are so many tourists, Bruges seems authentic and thus worth visiting.

Saturday night we ventured into the Marolles neighborhood to Fuse, a happening two-story nightclub with excellent electronic and house music. Brussels is quite the place to party: people seem to have good taste in music, men dance (and groups of men will go dancing just to enjoy the music, it seems), and people stay out late. Kate and I felt like we were ending the night early at 3am. Indeed, we later learned that when Fuse closes at 7am people continue dancing the morning away at an after-hours club until 2pm.

Sunday we learned of the brilliance of our second accidental decision of booking the hostel too late to extend it a third night. The consequence of this was that on Sunday we stayed with Julien, a charming (read: fun and hospitable) Belgian friend-of-a-friend. Julien took it upon himself to give us a "real" tour of Brussels and taught us that Delirium is touristy and that Marcolini (not Leonidas, as the guide book tells us) is actually the best Belgian chocolate. We learned that the real way to consume waffles is while walking on the street and that Brussels is a city of people who mean serious business. Julien also introduced me to cherry beer, which is one of humankind's more impressive inventions.

Valentine's Day morning we said goodbye over a decadent breakfast of speculoos biscuits and parted ways. What a weekend.

* Flemish is mostly spoken in the north (Flanders) and French is mostly spoken in the south. Street signs in Brussels have two names, which can become rather confusing if you are not French/Flemish bilingual. Something really interesting is that some advertisements are solely in Flemish. Julien tells us this is because Flemish is the language associated with more wealth.
** The guide book said this was the best place to have a beer in Grand Place and that it would be difficult to get a table. Both of these statements did not seem entirely accurate. This trip showed me how little guide books are to be trusted.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coming Soon: Goodplates

Wish you had a better way to keep track of your meals out, share them with friends, and organize food outings? Some friends are working on a food/restaurant-sharing website called Goodplates. Sign up here.