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.