Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Moar New England Hikes!

Hey guys! Or, 您好! I am actually writing this post from Hangzhou, China. Hangzhou is a moderate-sized city in the Zhejiang Province, one of the "top 10 happiest cities in China" according to some vague statistic. I can see why: it is a lot more laid back than its more urban siblings, Shanghai and Beijing, and seems even rather chill in comparison to New York. It is quite nice here, though extremely humid, but it's nothing an A/C can't fix. The not so chill, though. There are literally no rules on the road, and it seems like seat belts are actually obsolete.

Anyway, a blog entry about my current experience as a mentor for high students in Hangzhou is yet to come. This entry is one I should have written a few weeks ago - my itinerary of yet another pleasant hike in the Whites, the Mt. Jackson-Mt.Webster traverse. It was a smaller distance covered than the last hike I went on (Tripyramid Traverse + more) but it was still full of very risky slopes and rock-climbing type rock formations which required significant climbing.

The plan is in yellow! 
Climbing some waterfall type things along the way.

Some nice forest-y ravines!

Living on the edge, yet in contemplation - it's my style :) 

Now I look super chill here, but getting down was extremely, extremely dangerous.
Basically canyoning without a harness. Dunno if I would do again. 

And finally, behold ... THE VIEW FROM THE TOP! 

Okay, okay, I am totally kidding, That is 100% photoshopped. As you may have guessed from the cliff photo, both mountaintops we climbed were immersed in the clouds, so our view was white, white, and more white. But, the waterfall and cliff climbing certainly made up in excitement for the lack of views, and we rewarded ourselves with dinner at a Mexican restaurant on some highway in NH. 

Because of this side trip, we only returned to Cambridge at 2AM, at which point I did not feel like being dropped off at Kendall to retrieve my bike. What can happen in just one night to a locked bike near MIT Medical? Nothing, right? How wrong I was when I showed up behind MIT Medical the next day, and found both my bike and chain missing. That's what I get for not using U-Locks and being lazy. :D I guess getting a bike stolen is one of those life experience you just have to go through at some point, at least as a motivation to combat your own laziness if nothing else. Moral of the story: Hikes are awesome, bikes are too, but do not sacrifice one for the other if you can help it, and make sure you have some awesome German friends who will give you one of their spare bikes when you need it! :) 

Speaking of my German suitemates, I moved out of Tang this Saturday, feeling a little bit bittersweet. After all, I am leaving this view, which I know I'll miss greatly... 

Even more so, I'll miss the late night conversations with three of my awesome suitemates (two visiting students from Germany and Austria) and one architecture masters student, the 8-hour work day that always allowed for outdoor activities afterwards, free ice cream, late-night bike rides to dances and rinks, the ability to do anything I want whenever I feel like it on the weekends, the tapping of summer rain, random concerts on the streets, making friend with grumpy cats, braving the Charles River winds and currents, stargazing and impromptu tea parties... In short, Boston summer, you rocked!!

Also. Guys. Blog. Come on! I wanna hear about how all your summers are going and what new things and experiences you are having. Allez allez allez!!  

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Math, Michigan, yeeee.

Bonjour mes amis!

It’s been great hearing about others’ summers so far on this bloj!  The posts [in addition to Daniela’s reminders to post :)] have inspired me to chronicle some of my own adventures/experiences this summer.  (Especially since I’ve not committed to keeping my journal updated, it makes sense to record some of this stuff somewhere.)

Greetings from rural southeastern Michigan! (Taken from my parents' backyard.)

Anyhow, I’ve been living in Ann Arbor, MI (henceforth abbreviated A2) doing a math REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at the University of Michigan (henceforth UofM).  An REU can be thought of as a somewhat more structured UROP during the summer; a number of colleges receive funding from NSF to give a stipend to undergraduates who are mentored by professors for about 10 weeks.  I’ve been working with a group of about 9 undergrads under Professor Danny Neftin, who is a postdoc from Israel and is very nice, and Professor Mike Zieve, who is both a very good mathematician and…well…quite a character!  (In fact, I think it’s more or less the norm to have some great characters when working with math people, and that’s definitely been exemplified in the REU group.)  It’s great fun!
REU Group Meeting in the Undergrad Math Common Room

We’ve been working on the Hurwitz problem, which is, at it’s core, both an algebraic geometry problem and a topology problem.  We’ve classified a number of “putative ramification types,” giving reasons for why they’re not realized as the actual ramification type for some branched cover.  (For further explanation, you can read the report I’m working on or the paper we're going to publish.)  It’s been an interesting problem, and it’s a different sort of thing from what is normally done in REUs because the problem and its methods aren’t really contrived for undergraduates to be able to solve:  we’re simply working on what Prof. Zieve has been working on.  It’s given me a taste for what math research is like, which has both inspired a greater interest in it as well as given me some things to try to improve upon such as breadth of math knowledge, problem solving ability, and comfort “exploring” a mathematical situation.  Thus, although my personal results are fairly trivial, I’m happy that I’ve gained so much from the experience.
The math department has a piano and a ping pong table,
both of which are in frequent use.

In addition to research, the Zieve REU group has had a few forays into the world outside of East Hall (which houses the UofM Math Department).  First, we went on a picnic to a park a few miles away from downtown A2, which was awesome.

Picnic at Gallup Park

At the group meeting a few days before the picnic was planned in more detail, Professor Zieve simply said, “I was told we should go do something as a group.  I have a grill, charcoal, and an inflatable kayak, so...we should do something.”  We kayaked on the inflatable kayak and got a frisbee lesson from Professor Zieve (who is in the the pink shirt in the photo) and his Ph.D. student, Trevor (on the left side of the photo, holding a paddle).  We also played some soccer, which was awesome; I played all through high school and have been missing it lately.

More recently, Professor Zieve treated us to dinner at a Chinese buffet, which sounds like it might be kind of disastrous, especially considering almost half of our group members are from China.  However, it turned out to be the best Chinese buffet I’d ever been to, and the Chinese students didn’t care–it was free food in mass quantities after all, and we're college students.

A guy in my REU group, Carsten,
wearing one of the free ninja outfits.
Earlier this week, we went to a Korean BBQ restaurant, which I had been to a couple times before (when I was in high school).  It was pleasant, but the best part was that afterwards, we went to Ninja Training at a nearby martial arts place.  We got a free lesson with free “ninja uniforms,” and Professor Zieve was absolutely giddy about the whole ordeal.  We’re planning to wear our uniforms during the final presentation for the rest of the UofM math REU students after we’ve completed our last free lesson, at which point we'll get our white belts.

Overall, I’ve had a lot of fun with the other people in my REU group–from teaching some of them to cook to listening to long upperclassman rants about grad school applications to becoming ninjas.

As for my living situation, my apartment building has sketchy elevators, but I really like my suite,
and it’s kind of fun being on the 18th floor of one of the tallest buildings in A2.  Also, because I have an extra room (no one else subleased the second bedroom), I sometimes have guests like Kelly, James, and Kelly’s mom!  They were road tripping from Pennsylvania to Colorado/California, so they stopped by, spent the night, and took me to breakfast in the morning.  It was so cool!

I really hope they replace these soon.

Kelly, James, and Kelly's mom on the UofM Diag!

Since my hometown is a 45 minute drive away from A2, I’ve also been able to see some of my best friends from high school to watch movies, have bonfires, go for very long walks through farmland on dirt roads, etc.  My parents come up to take me out to dinner from time to time, which has given me a feel for what life would have been like had I gone with my original plan and only applied to UofM for college.
Five-ish miles from my (parents') house, taken when I was walking around with
my friend Caleb.

My friend Caleb in my apartment.  I think maybe he's shooting up dat insulin
(he has type 1 diabetes)

Plus, I’ve gotten to explore the beautiful UofM campus.  To me, it’s the perfect combination of basically-city and not-exactly-city (I hesitate to say urban, rural, or even suburban for various reasons).  Ann Arbor is what I still consider a decent sized city although many people would call it small (and they have a point…I live in one of the tallest buildings in the city, and it only has 19 regular-height [as opposed to super tall ones like in the Green Building] floors [well, actually 18 since they skip the 13th floor]), but the UofM Central Campus (where the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is) lies smack in downtown A2, so I can simply walk out of the math department or the undergraduate library (the UGLY) doors to grab lunch or dinner at decent restaurants.  Central Campus, especially the heart of it--the Diag, seen in the photo of Kelly, et al.--is home to the fattest, laziest squirrels I’ve ever heard of.  UofM North Campus (where the College of Engineering and the School of Music are), however, is a 15 minute bus ride away and feels like a totally different college.  The buildings are beautiful, and North Campus also has lots of nice patches of woods around.  There are literally short hiking trails that connect some parts of the campus and branch out into the woods; I see deer around there constantly and a wild turkey occasionally.  The spread-out nature of UofM’s campus is perfect for “exploration running,” which is my favorite kind.  I basically just run in one direction until nothing looks familiar and I’m slightly lost before I try to find my way back.  (Sorry I don’t have photos from my runs; perhaps I should invest in an arm band to carry my phone with me for that purpose.)
View over the Law Quad.  Notice the big faraway M that marks the Michigan
football stadium.  Taken from a window of the Grad Library.

Because of all these experiences, I’ve been very grateful to be in a different city and at a different university for the summer.  Visiting Brown with Daniela and Jelise in the early spring hinted at the idea that seeing other colleges can expand one’s perspective on college life, but this has been really marvelous.  I now have some math goals set for this year, some changes I want to make to my life at MIT, and plenty of new perspectives on careers in math.  I hope everyone is having great summers!  Can’t wait to see you guys again soon!
A little Ann Arbor-Cambridge connection: Trader Joe’s!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Bell over Santiago

Hola chicos,

I have something to confess: I'm cheating on all of you. I've started a new blog.

You can all read about some of my (mountain-y and fox-y) adventures on it.
Zorro in front of the Cordillera

As a side note, I'm still trying to figure out how to do blog. I'm trying to write a science blog - but with enough hiking to show that geology is exciting and adventurous.
No, wait, I'm trying to do a hiking and travel blog but describe the geology so I can offer readers a new way to look at the world.

In short, if you have some spare time, please offer me feedback <3 ESPECIALLY if you take one look at it and think 'Oh god this is the dullest and most pretentious thing I've ever read, I'd rather *read* a rock than your description of one'. Please tell me so that others do not have to suffer the same pains :3

Amor y besos

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Misc. and Mer

Bonjour tout le monde!

Oof. So many things happen in a month of no blogging! (This post was actually written about a week ago, but WiFi). I have

-Gotten drunk on cheap wine sitting in front of Sacre Couer and watching Paris get dark, which was just as beautiful as it sounds…

… and spent the next day nursing my stomach back to health (note to self: the grocery store may have crappy fruity rose for two euros a bottle. That does not mean I need to drink the crappy fruity rose for two euros a bottle.)

-Covered most of the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou in only three hours (didn’t realize how huge that place was), and thoroughly explored the tiny and lovely Musee Zadkine.
Atelier Brancusi next to the Centre Pompidou

-Visited Monet’s gardens, in a gorgeous part of Normandy, which are just as beautiful and inspirational as one would hope and look exactly like the paintings (I’m now not actually sure Monet was an impressionist). 

I made friends with the local cows, and on the way there discovered exactly why it is important to have a properly adjusted bike.

-Seen the pleasant craziness that goes on along the banks of the Seine on Friday nights - hordes of people picnicking or strolling or drinking and having fun - and walked miles along the river to the Eiffel Tower. That was probably the one time so far that I’ve seen why Paris is considered magical - most of the time, it’s high-energy and exciting and often striking, like any city, but seeing Notre Dame glowing from the riverbank has a whole different sort of feel.

-Walked all around the city during the Fete de la Musique, and listened to lots of musicians (of varying abilities but uniformly high enthusiasm). Hearing a bad cover of Another Brick in the Wall in front of a massive 14th-century cathedral creates a weird sense of culture clash.

-Discovered (and rediscovered) (and quite a few more on top) the wonderful place that is Shakespeare and Co. - the English bookstore across the Seine from Notre Dame, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all the cool kids used to hang out, filled with stacks of books and comfy chairs and people playing piano and a slightly grouchy cat and young writers who live in the shop for free. I’ve developed a habit of going there after work and reading chunks of War and Peace, or whatever catches my eye, and enjoying the delightful feeling of being there. The waiters at the restaurant next door are know me now.
-Also explored the very modern seven-story bookstore near Jardin de Luxembourg, which doesn’t have the same feel as Shakespeare and Co. but was delightfully packed with people actually looking for and buying books - I feel like that’s almost disappeared in the US, as Borders dies and Barnes and Nobles becomes Nooks and Starbucks. The same book company has another dozen smaller stores scattered down the street, specializing in scientific literature or foreign languages or CDs. And there are lots of little independent bookstores as well. It all makes me very happy.

-Started trying to learn piano, armed with a Very Easy Queen book that I got at the musical bookstore next door to my dorm. I’m making progress faster than I thought - but between piano and Shakespeare and Co., I’ve been having dinner around 11 at night. Freddie Mercury’s vocal range is even more impressive when you can physically see those crazy jumps.

-Tried to tolerate the increasingly insane antics of the lady who runs the dorm… Makes me appreciate New House.

-Discovered new exciting fruits and veggies - highlights are the fantastically aromatic Charentais melon, which is sort of like a small cantaloupe except way more flavorful, and endives, which I never got in the US but are delicious with a Spanish blue-cheese-and-nuts treatment.

-Seen the random kangaroos and ostriches in the park near work.
-Become acquainted with the phenomenon of the man-bun (of the hair variety, that is), which is a thing here. I somehow didn’t notice this until another of the MIT girls pointed this out, but now I see them everywhere, in various stages of sloppiness and grandeur. French House boys, any of you up for a challenge?

-Celebrated a new paper in my lab in the traditional style, which involves a Chilean liquor called pisco (tastes kinda like tequila, although it’s made from wine - maybe not my favorite). Apparently, my lab has been around since 1948, and in the early days there was a brilliant Chilean PI. So for each significant accomplishment in the last forty years ago, there has been a pisco party. 

-On a possibly related note, really struggled with productivity… I was good for three weeks while my boss was gone, and then I ran out of things to do and fell into the internet rut, and I have had trouble climbing back out. But I’m trying, and decent progress has been made - I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of some of the machine learning basics at this point, and the parade of bugs has slowed slightly.

-Survived last Wednesday, Day 1 of the 100 degree heatwave. My dorm does not have air conditioning, my office barely does (heavily contributed to unproductivity), and overall it was a very unpleasant experience. So - this weekend happened!

Looking at the forecast on Tuesday and freaking out, I decided I wanted to skip town for the heat wave continuation on Friday and Saturday. 

Three hours of frustrating Googling later, I had plans for a town called Boulogne-sur-Mer, which was the first place I found with a beach, a cheap hostel, cheap train tickets, and a cool weather forecast. It’s at the northernmost tip of France, not far from where the English Channel tunnel comes in. My coworker thought about coming along but decided not to miss more work, and MIT people had plans for the weekend at this point, so off by myself I went and hoped for the best.

Thursday evening I spend three hours staring out the train window. Conclusions: trains are awesome and France is really pretty. Lots of seagulls greeted me in Boulogne, and then I settled into the slightly run-down but mostly quite decent hostel (had my three-bed room to myself all three nights, which was nice - although I suppose I’ll have to try again to get the real hostel experience). I have no explanation for this mural in the stairwell.

On Friday I ate the sad hostel breakfast, covered myself in expensive European sunscreen, and walked a couple kilometers to the beach. The beach is huge and gorgeous, with cold refreshing water, cliffs running down it, England just visible in the distance, and old-fashioned cabins and ice cream stands (it was the first seaside resort in France, and it’s very much kept the feel).

I was the only one there in the morning, except for two guys who were punching the sand with a metal tube (presumably some kind of sciency thing?) and were kind enough to rescue my bag from the tide. I had a very nice swim. 

I should probably say at this point that I took three hundred photos this weekend, and I’m not even ashamed…

When I got out of the water, I decided to walk down the beach to check out the cliffs. And then to climb up to see the view, and then to walk a little bit further down to get an even better one… Anyway, I ended up taking an impromptu hike to the next town over. Good thing I was properly outfitted for hiking: I had a skirt, heeled sandals, a purse, and a tote bag with an extra pair of flip-flops, a novel, and a damp swimsuit and towel. But it worked out… I went barefoot for the parts where I needed traction, and the towel turned out to be good sun protection.

I snuck into a campground’s kitchen to fill my water bottle, met some ponies,
Not actually a pony

and got this kind of view. France is so pretty… really made me want to do a big European countryside adventure at some point. 
Next-town-over in the back
There was one terrifying moment when I came to this weird cement structure, inhabited by a hobo and his dog. The dog was enormous and vicious, with dripping fangs, and it was acting absolutely ready to rip me to shreds. I had to walk right past it to get to the trail, and I wasn’t at all sure that its chain was attached to anything - and I would have been pretty far from help if I’d gotten mauled. It seems silly, looking back on it now, but I was scared. Fortunately, the hobo appeared, seemed stern but sane, and told me not to be afraid of the dog.
Psycho dog is the little brown blob on the right - this is before he saw me
Once I got safely to the other town, I went into the closest cafe/pub/lottery-ticket-joint and ordered mussels. They brought me a huge pot of what must have been a hundred astonishingly flavorful, yellow, tiny creatures in a wine sauce - this stuff tastes different when it’s fresh!
That night and the next day, I did more swimming (and enjoying lying on the beach in the sun, which is a new experience for me - north-Atlantic breeze is a big change from Paris meltingness), and I explored the fortified city at the top of Boulogne’s big hill. 
Turns out Boulogne has a rich history going back to Roman times: the fortified city has the best-preserved ramparts in Northern France, a castle, a belfry, a cathedral - all the good stuff. There was an unexpected but pretty cool public art exhibit in front of the cathedral, themed around Heironymous Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things: a themed garden for each of the seven deadly sins, e.g. 
Wrath, with grapes for Steinbeck

and a couple of inspirational messages to keep you optimistic.
("Ciel" et "Enfer" at the top)

Under the cathedral is the biggest crypt in France, which is freezing and eerie and filled with art and really really cool.

And in the castle

 is an art museum representing every inhabited continent, featuring a real mummy (also pretty eerie!)

and Inuit snow-glasses for protection from wind and glare (could have used those this winter)

and cool echoey dungeons.
I really appreciated the cartoony kids’ commentary provided by young Isidore - made me feel like I actually speak French! 

(But for real, interacting with people outside of Paris - so in actual French-speaking France - is super helpful from the language perspective. And people are nicer in the country - it’s so strange to actually have cars stop to let me through!)

And there’s a street with five or six different restaurants displaying the exact same menu to lure the British tourists - three-course dinner for 15 euros, with lots of fresh seafood (Boulogne is also France’s biggest fishing port. It is a very superlatively superlative sort of place.) I took advantage of this Sunday night, and that was a good decision. May I never learn how many calories were in that chocolate mousse.

And sunsets. And views. And fresh air. And countryside prettiness and aaaaaahh.
(To be fair, Boulogne isn’t actually all that tiny and rural - it’s got a pretty sizable population of 42K, and a good bit of it [like the part near the train station where my hostel was] isn’t nearly as charming. But even the non-charming-bordering-on-sketchy part has those gorgeous sunsets.)

Sunday was very cold and rainy (being cold was in and of itself a pleasure after Paris), so I went to the huge aquarium-cum-environmental-museum that serves as the region’s main tourist attraction. It was pretty cool as far as aquariums go - penguins and sea lions and alligators and all the jazz - but it’s got nothing on the gorgeousness outside, and the hour-long line for gross cafeteria food was uncalled for. 

Also, this display outside the gift store made me sad… boys get the Ocean Shark Research Set, girls get plastic Little Mermaids, and even the sting rays are pink (??). Then they wonder…

Then I walked along the cold wet rainy windy beach, which was beautiful in a whole different sort of way. 

I sat in a coffee shop and listened to sounds for a while, and then the sun came out and I went up another hill (using actual streets this time, because climbing on sticky mud in aforementioned heeled sandals wasn’t happening) and got this stunning view (better in person, of course).

The odd structure used to be gunpowder storage, but now it’s a memorial for those lost at sea.

And then I ate a last fish soup and got on the train and went back to Paris. Going into the city felt so claustrophobic and unfamiliar, as though I’d been on the other side of the world for months. I think I’ve readjusted now, a couple of days later, but I’m hoping the images from Boulogne stick - it’s just such an unbelievably gorgeous place, and I’m sure that giant swaths of the countryside are the same way. Why do people choose to live in cities?

Lessons learned: beautiful places are great, and make even wonderful cities seem nasty and dull in comparison. Fresh seafood is great. Trains are great. Crypts and dungeons are pretty cool. Traveling alone is a little bit lonely, but also liberating. And I want to get out of Paris more!