Monday, February 27, 2006

A Cadeic Cadenza - geek poetry

Wow! A poem - a nifty reference to classic maths and other puzzlers.
Solutions elegant & difficult. See in the passages. Just follow to
peruse link:

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Harvard Guide to Happiness

Some Harvard professors wanted to find out what made a happy student. This article, The Harvard Guide To Happiness, details what they found out and what they're doing about it.

Incidentally, the structure of Olin is set up such that we're encouraged to do all these things - talk to faculty, get involved in extracurriculars, take fun classes alongside required ones. Or at least Olin's theoretically structured as such; some folks manage to find ways around it (mostly the "take fun classes alongside required ones" part). So please, don't do what I did and frontload tech classes because you want to get them "out of the way"; I'm taking my first AHS courses since freshman year this semester, and I'm happier with my courseload than I've ever been since... freshman year.*

Coincidence? I think not.

*To be fair, I enjoyed my courses in the last couple semesters as well, and I would have had an AHS class every semester except for one had it not been for a series of weird scheduling conflicts and things falling through. But don't let them fall through! Get yourself at least one Fun Class per semester. This sounds obvious, but for someone with a thick skull such as myself, it takes a while to sink in.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Being biased against bias

The following is from an email I sent to my aunt, who is an elementary school teacher.

Dear 5-ee, (NB: My aunt Lynne May is the 5th of 8 girls; we call our aunts by number.)

Small note of curiosity.

I was wandering the Teaching For Change website ( and it says they've got "anti-bias children's books."

Is that possible? Anti-bias anything?

I think that anything a human writes or says is going to have some bias or another. It's impossible to move biases completely; the best thing we can do is to be conscious of it and openly state it. Knowing what biases exist and how they affect things is better than pretending we've gotten rid of them all, but to be anti-bias is to be... biased against bias. If we're really tolerant, shouldn't we tolerate intolerance?

It seems to me that sometimes when people attempt to remove bias, they end up creating more bias, just of a different kind that they don't recognize as such. I'm thinking of this mostly in the context of elementary education and how you teach kids these sorts of things.

Anyhow, idle meanderings from someone who should stop procrastinating on her Anthropology assignment. Back to work.


The long work-haul: insert triumphant music here

You know those movie scenes where the heroes struggle dramatically across some forsaken desolate landscape, clearly on their last legs, their clothes bloodstained, their faces dirt-smeared, their charge a last desperate attempt set to Swelling! Dramatic! Music!

Think Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom.

Now replace Frodo with the freshman class and the burden of the Ring of Power with tremendous amounts of math and physics homework, and you'll see why I'm getting rather worried. Meanwhile, the upperclassmen are busy hacking away at our own Orcs-o'-Work in front of the Black Gates and can't exactly rush to their aid as effectively as we'd like. (If we do, we'll get a nice arrow in our back, and then what happens to Middle Earth?)

But this will change. Oh, this will change. We're talking to Burt and Rebecca about the frosh workload, and I think - I have hope - that stuff will become Okay, or at the least, Better. So freshmen, hang in there! We're trying...

I'm feeling pretty Frodolike myself. My to-do list is running down the entire length of my monitor; one task per line, 8 point Arial font. And that's just for tonight. And I've already completed a good 1/8th of it (it used to not fit on my monitor). And I'm still reeling from the nasty round of strep - fever's gone, cough is diminishing, but my body's telling me it needs 10-12 hours a night of sleep right now as opposed to the 3-5 I'm used to needing - but I really can't get that hourage right now. I'll pay for it later. So be it.

My robotics team is saving my soul and sanity right now. Matt and Andrew are working in my room, all three of us on different things, but it's just really nice to know you're not alone. Plus Andrew brought a tub of cookie dough. It's past 3:30am, and life is good. Exhausting, but good; I think I'm getting somewhere.

Slowly, painfully, and set to Swelling! Dramatic! Music!, but somewhere.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Buying kitchen knives

This semester, Beth Sterling, Chris Carrick, and I are doing a Passionate Pursuit in cooking and food chemistry by taking weekend Basics classes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and reading food science books like the classic McGee On Food And Cooking. Both the classes and the book come highly recommended. I have never cooked so efficiently, eaten so well, or liked chemistry this much before.

It goes without saying that knives are important in cooking. I'm still deciding whether to buy a set and what to get if I do, but here's what I've found so far.

Olin student recs

According to Krystin Stafford's informal poll, Olin students suggest:
Alton Brown recs

Alton Brown is a celebrity chef to win a geek's heart, and for good reason. Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen is his witty walkthrough of sharp and shiny things, two adjectives which corresponds to the stuff engineers find appealing. His take?

  • What to look for
    • Metal: Carbon steel is the most easily sharpened material and holds the sharpest edge, but is prone to rust. High-carbon stainless steel blades trade rust-freeness for less sharp edges. Insert Jon Stolk's matsci lectures here.
    • Tang: Alton doesn't think tang's all that important, what with the advances in materials and manufacturing. Any decent knife should hold together, no matter the tang, so full-tang knives are still nice, but no longer an absolute must.
    • Handle: There's no material that's better than the rest. Usually handles will be of hard wood, plastic, metal, or some combination thereof.
    • Feel: The most important thing to check. Go with what feels comfortable in your hand, whatever that means.
  • What to get
    • Individual knives: Buy them one at a time; only buy a set if you'd buy each knife alone. You'll get a better selection of knives this way and end up saving money because you'll use every blade you purchase. Alton goes on to list the top three knives he couldn't do without, and being a minimalist and a cheap student, I stopped reading the list there. His list and mine follows.
    • 8-10 in. chef's knife - French style is good for everything, including hacking through bone. Alternatively, a slightly smaller (7in) Asian-style vegetable knife like a Santoku is also good, but can't do the hack-slash-bone thing.
    • Straight 2 in. paring knife - peeling, slicing, small vegetables.
    • Serrated bread knife
    • Kitchen shears - the two-piece kind for ease of cleaning. Shears were not technically on Alton's "gotta get 'em" list, but I use my mother's so often that I can't imagine a kitchen without them.
  • How to store them
    • Knife blocks: No. They collect dirt and germs, and having a finite number of fixed-width slots restricts the knives you can buy. You want to be able to buy the shiny sharp things you want, right?
    • Magnetic strips: Aside from satisfying the primal geek urge to make all functional parts visible, it's - well, magnetic. Infinitely flexible. Knives stay clean and dry. People get to see you have many shiny sharp things. General awesome ensues.
Beth Sterling's knives

As stated before, I'm a cheap college student. Wusthof is beautiful, but a single knife sets me a month back in spending money. That's why I was psyched when Beth showed me her lovely Rada knife set.

These things are cheap. Really cheap. We're talking less than $4 for the small knives. At first glance, they seem somewhat sketchy; they offer their "amazing kitchen knives" to groups that need fundraisers, promising that raising cash "is EASY!"

But boy, can they slice! They're sleek, silver, and high-carbon stainless steel. For folks with small hands such as myself, their shape is a boon; they're a tad shorter and slimmer than most knives I've tried, meaning that I actually feel in control of a chef's knife for the first time (as opposed to "Yikes, I'm waving around a pointed object on a stick that's too big for me to hold!").

You can buy them online, too. I've got my eye on a few in particular (prices current as of the 19th of Feb. 2006).
  • R101: regular paring knife and their most popular item, $4.40
  • R141: deluxe vegetable peeler (beautiful!), $7.20
  • R138: serrated slicer (smallish), $7.50.
  • R131: French chef's knife (8in), $12.90
The best part? Total cost of these four is exactly $32 before shipping. This is less than half the price of what I might spend for a professional quality chef's knife alone. I'm going to ask Beth if I can take her knives for a few more spins, but Rada (and their prices) are awfully attractive.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

New monitor == isolation, mother's coming, application time

My monitor - a 19" widescreen LCD - arrived two weeks ago. I love it. With that monitor and the addition of an ergonomic keyboard and the "I'm not a travel mouse!" mouse, my back and wrists don't yell at me after extended computer sessions.

On the downside, I spend a lot more time working in my room. As opposed to working in the lounges and being - well, social. Sure, I'm being hyperefficient. Out of dire need, too; a week of high fever sapped all the productivity out of me, so I'm catching up on 5 days' worth of backlog, a nontrivial task. On the other hand, I'm rapidly reaching my tolerance for isolation. Gotta get out more.

Just found out that my mom is flying up right before spring break to accompany me to the doctor's office. (My jaw's out of alignment, which is a nuisance to me and a Terror-Stricken Harbinger of Doom for her; Mom's an ex-dentist.) I told her that I was almost twenty and perfectly fine on my own and please save the money from the plane ticket, but it "makes her feel better" this way. I also don't know how long she's staying. Result: goodbye, spring break plans, hello, mom. Hopefully I'll be able to convince her someday that I'm actually an adult. Or close enough.

I also need to find a way to prove to places - namely, Study Abroad summer programs - that I'm a somewhat intelligent and responsible individual, despite not having (anywhere near) a 4.0 GPA. Ah well. I chose to deal with this problem when I decided to care about learning over grades. Things will work out.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How to give a presentation without speaking

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily recommend that you do this. Rest, fluids, and fever-reducing medication (all of which I am employing) are better for your health than powerpoint.

So I've been running a low-grade fever since last Wednesday, which culminated yesterday with an even higher fever and a cough, and continued today with the complete and utter loss of my ability to speak. Tonight was also the night that my robotics team was supposed to present our proposal to the class; we had the speeches rehearsed and the slides all ready.

I'm a big believer in putting as few words as possible on a powerpoint slide, which meant that many of mine consisted of a picture, or maybe a labelled diagram. Without the dialogue, it looked like a bad photo slideshow. So what's a presenter to do?

This (link to powerpoint presentation).

For background, my group of three was originally going to model a cello-playing robot, but changed tracks and decided to go for evolving martial arts robots instead. My section was on the physical modeling of the robot in code, and was followed by my teammates (Matt T and Andrew) with sections on the virtual sensors and the genetic algorithm we'll be using. I've just included my segment here.

How did it work? Quite well, I think. The class was laughing through much of the "talk" and I believe I communicated what I wanted to very well. The three of us were even able to take questions afterwards (with me typing on a blank text document on the projector).

Why did it work, despite breaking what I consider several cardinal rules of presentation design? Let's go through these one by one and see.

  • Lots of text is bad. I circumvented this by having the text appear line by line - think of it as subtitles.
  • No, really. Text is bad. The focus should be on the presenter. It was, thanks to the disclaimer at start that I had no voice and would be miming vigorously in compensation. And I did mime vigorously in a way that supported the text. (Ok, some of it was for humor value too.)
  • Animations are bad. See first bullet point. I only used appear and disappear - and it worked great with the diagrams, so I could bring their attention point-by-point to the model I was building onscreen.
  • Humor is good. Didn't break that one at all. In fact, it was my saving grace; silence is awkward, but laughter isn't silence.
Mannerism is another. Instead of apologizing for being voiceless and thinking "oh, my presentation will be terrible, I can't speak" or trying to ignore it and rasping out things in a harsh gutteral tone (frankly, I don't even know if I could have done that - my throat was really gone), I was very matter-of-fact and took it as an opportunity instead of a setback or something to hide. Ok, so I don't have a voice. So I did this! And we go onwards to coolness!

'Course, another big reason why it worked was because I was in a fantastic class with good-humored friends, and everyone knew I didn't have a voice, so that helped with the forgiving of the lots-o-text. So thanks, Robotics, for putting up with a rather deviant presentation tonight.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Two random memories

For some reason, these two memories popped up in my head tonight and won't let me sleep until I write them down. So here goes.

Memory 1: Boy with accordion

My family was walking in downtown Chicago one winter; I was maybe 11 at the time. As usual, there were folks on the streets looking for handouts - unshaven guys with dogs, Vietnam vets in wheelchairs, an old man who rattled the coins inside his plastic cup and didn't say anything.

Then there was this boy. He was probably in his early teens, not much older than I was at the time; he had glasses and neatly trimmed dirty blond hair and was bundled warmly except for his fingers, which were red with the cold and playing the accordion. To his right was a tired but determined looking woman with the same blond hair and a guitar, probably his mother; to his left was a little girl around my younger brother's age with a tambourine. There was a sign that said "Homeless, 3 kids to feed, please help." I wondered what happened to the third kid.

Both of the children looked loved; clean, well-groomed, not hungry, warmly dressed. The little girl was happily shaking away at the tambourine (probably a little bored, too). The boy didn't look embarassed, or desperate, or even unhappy. But there was an expression on his face, the kind that people have when they understand something they don't want to understand and shouldn't have to be ready to face, but choose to take it on for someone else's sake. He seemed like a nice kid. It didn't seem fair.

It still doesn't. I wonder what happened to him. He'd be in his early twenties now. Did they get back on their feet? Did he make it through school? Maybe their fortunes turned around and now he's graduating from university. Or maybe things got worse, and he's out on the streets still with an accordion and a cardboard sign. I don't know.

Memory 2: Ship's worker

My first big boat was a short cruise to Alaska when I was 16. It was a stunning luxury; I'd never been somewhere that fancy before. Though the ship was American, the staff on the ship was virtually all Asian, mostly Malaysians and Filipinos who spoke English.

I was reading in one of the ship lounges in the wee hours of the morning and one of the staff workers, a young Filipino, came by. He said hello, I said hello, he asked me if I was studying at this hour of the night and was I a student somewhere. I told him I was going to go to college in a few months to study engineering.

"Ah," he said. "I also went to college to study engineering." I must have looked surprised, because he went on to explain that he had studied and saved as a teenager to get into university, and was accepted - not a small feat for a public school kid (Filipino public schools are notoriously bad). He wanted to become a professional engineer, but after a few years of studying all day and working two full-time jobs at night to support both his education and his siblings, he couldn't keep going; he was just too tired, couldn't stay awake in classes, concentrate on schoolwork. So he dropped out a year short of graduation and took this job vacuuming on the night shift.

I asked him if he'd ever want to go back to school. Yes, but he probably never would. Sometimes he'd read textbooks at night in his bunk belowdecks to try and improve his English, but school was a distant possibility now that he had a family of his own to feed. "Will you go back home to see them when we get back to Seattle [in 3 days]?" "Oh no, we go back to Alaska with new passengers; the season ends in two months, I go home and see my family then."

Yeah. The questions you ask when you're young and don't know anything about the world. God, I felt bad afterwards when I talked to my dad. He told me that this job - waiting tables and cleaning the rooms of rich American tourists - was a lucrative opportunity for college graduates from those countries. They'd leave their homes and sail away for months at a time, missing their wives, their children, the births of their babies, all because they could earn an order of magnitude more pay this way. I asked why they didn't get better jobs if they were college graduates; he said there weren't any.

Why us?

I don't think I'm any more deserving of a good education or a house or a good shot at a good job than that kid with the accordion or the man on the ship. They worked harder. They kept trying. I certainly don't work two full-time jobs to pay for my engineering tuition, and sometimes I slack completely at it because I know it won't go away if I do. I don't play music on the street in order to get a place to live; I even complain when I have to shovel the walk (and we own a house with an actual front walk! driveway! a car!) Even if I'm lazy, even if I take the easy route, I'm practically guaranteed at least a warm apartment and a decent industry job that'll pay me enough to get a computer, pay for a car, and let me vacation on some nice beach two weeks a year. And it'll be a "good" job, a desk job, not a vacuuming job or one picking up pillowcases.

To quote an old saying,"To whom much is given, much is expected." And man, is a lot expected of us. And we try to live up to it, we really do.

But I still don't understand why we were the ones who were given to in the first place.