Monday, June 22, 2015

Conquering the elements!

I just came back from my first windsurfing experience several hours ago. BEST. THING. I'VE DONE. IN A WHILE. The result of the 2.5 hour lesson was me totally drenched (yay swimsuit though!) but with the widest smile on my face that I still can't shake.

But let me tell you, it's no piece of cake. It's HARD. When I first tried to raise the sail while standing on the sail board, I felt like a total loser. I kept falling over and over. My feet were shaking. It seemed impossible to keep my balance while lifting the darn heavy thing from the water, while it's mostly submersed in it! Finally, I realized how to do it, with the instructor guy screaming to use my shoulders rather than arms to pull it up. It worked!

Then came the harder part: actually positioning myself on the board when the mast is up. At this point, I had to move my feet in a different position, behind the mast, and adjust my leaning angle, while completely extending my arms holding the sail. THIS was hard. I fell over and over again, with no avail. Water was pretty nice though. :) At the end I got a tiny amount of balance, gliding just a meter or so with the wind. Then - splash!

Finally I switched with someone else, jumping into the motor boat with the other learners, and watched to the other boards either struggle (the total beginners like me) or sail pretty smoothly (those with some experience) in the water. The Charles was really pretty, with the sun just beginning to set.

The wind was also pretty low, which did not bother me at the least. Heck, I thought, I can do this! I jumped at the next opportunity to get the board. They dropped me off on a board somewhere in the middle of the Charles, and this time I got on without any hesitation. My feet were no longer shaking, and I could stand confidently on the thing. I pulled up the mast like it's what I usually do at 7:15PM on Monday nights, and positioned myself accordingly. Somehow, I was heading upwind -- so I extended the sail and then brought it parallel to myself. This caused me to accelerate rapidly against the wind, and I was gliding! I was fast! I controlled it! I controlled the wind and water - both elements, with my body weight in delicate tension with the mast and sail. It was the most amazing feeling of unity and power.

Then, when wind started changing direction, I tried my best to adjust my position and the sail position relative to the wind. I felt like I needed to turn, but they hadn't taught us tacking yet. I tried to improvise, but -- splash! That was that. Ah well, swimming is fun :D

Coming up next: conquering earth and fire? :)

P.S. Speaking of earth.... This weekend I also finally went to the MITOC circus, and hiked the Tripyramid loop + 2 other peaks, a total of 28km (17 miles) with cumulative altitude gain of 6,000 ft (1,800m!). This was done in about 10 hours with less than 4 hours of sleep -- and no caffeine! Perhaps there is something energizing in just being in the wilderness; the body is fueled by sunlight, the lungs with the purest breeze, and eyes with excitement and wonder of the surrounding nature. Hey, I know it's corny, but it's true! :D Check out these sweet views from Mt. Whiteface, for instance (not even one of the Tripyramids!):

Ok, I am being pretty sleek about this, but we were pretty darn exhausted by the end. Check out the progression of our smiling faces throughout the 17 mile journey... 

In the beginning, about 2 hours in:

~6 hours in, second to last peak: 

10 hours in (check out the ripped muddy pants, twitching eyes, "smiling" faces, etc): 
 Well... it was worth it! :) More nature-y photos here -- get inspired! 

Also, here's the trail map of what we covered for anyone curious, or wanting to repeat it:

Map credit to this site

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The big roadtrip : Boston to Colorado

Bonjour la maison!

Since the day after I left MIT - graduated, even! - my mom and I have been driving west, with nearly everything I own packed into and on top of my battered Buick.

Map and image: Google maps
I've just left my things in a little self-storage facility near Denver airport, so I can fly straight into Denver in August. James has been following us on his new motorcycle (vroooom!) and will continue on towards Los Angeles after I fly for Santiago tomorrow. Mom is flying back east.

For now I'm sunbathing at a motel pool, eyeing toddlers who get too close to splashing my laptop. James is out shopping for toothpaste, since we accidentally came all this way with just one travel tube for the three of us.

Oh, and a quick warning to the underclassmen: moving is bloody expensive. I've already paid my Boulder landlord three months' rent (first month, last month, and deposit), and this trip cost some hundred dollars for each of gas, food and motel rooms (read on for my futile attempts to reduce this by camping), and the self-storage rental. Sigh.


In eastern Pennsylvania we stopped at a place called Frances Slocum State Park. Mom and I arrived after dark, so we left money in an envelope at the ranger's station and found a campsite tucked far away in the back of the campground. We set up my tent and hammock,went out for Chinese takeaway, and pulled our breakfast things out of my boxes, and talked about the night's weather. I spent another hour listening to every car and wondering what James and his motorcycle had gotten up to over the last 300 miles before his single headlight finally shone on the road below.
My very favorite bug!
In the morning we brewed coffee on our camp stoves and hunted bugs. Inchworms, we decided, like to crawl on round things. Green inch-long worms walked in circles around my coffee pot, and when I shook my tent three bark-colored inchworms as long as my hand fell from the tent-poles.

James and I spent a week with my parents in Pittsburgh. I ran with our elkhound, Fei; cooked lots of vegetarian curries and soups; tore rogue grapevines off of our garden walls; and almost bought a hand-made wool coat at a local art and music festival.

The we drove up to Ann Arbor to see Ben! 

Don't be deceived by the sunniness of U Michigan in this photo. Between Pittsburgh and Michigan we ran headlong into a big thunderstorm. We drove 35mph along the interstate and no one passed us. Poor Ben had to let us in out of the storm at about 3am.

The next day, mom and I stopped at the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan
Here at Indiana Dunes State Park, the lake looked and sounded like the ocean - waves crashed into sand; vans solf overpriced hotdogs and ice cream; teenagers played volleyball in their bikinis. It was a surprise to walk into the water without feeling the familiar sting of salt on my legs. The only thing which broke the illusion was the western horizon, where Chicago's silhouette is faint but visible above the waves.

In Illinois, we tried to camp at a small county recreation area - a patch of preserved trees amongst endless farmland. Mom and I arrived after dark, so we drove around inside until we found the campsites (almost all empty). Since the website said that reservations weren't required, we figured we could go pay the rangers in the morning. We went back to the entrance to wait for James' motorcycle headlight, but instead, after fifteen minutes, we were hit by flashing red and blue lights. The gates were closing for the night (locking in any campers?), and the ranger was duly surprised to find a silent car, with a full trunk and roofrack, staring out towards the road. Our 'third party member delayed on the road' story didn't go over well, as James wasn't able to pick up his phone, and we ended up driving another half hour to find a motel.

The Midwest - we spent two full days in Iowa, Nebraska and Eastern Colorado - was even bigger than I had imagined it, though less flat. Western Nebraska in particular is covered in beautiful rolling hills. They reminded me of English farmland but on a much greater scale. 
One beautiful part of the flat farmland - panoramic sunsets.
We stopped overnight in Lincoln, NE to visit one of my mom's cousins, whose wife absolutely spoiled us with her lovely house and a good Italian dinner :-)

Two Days in Denver

Finally, Denver. I rented a storage unit big enough for my car with all of my boxes piled on top. Mission accomplished!

We visited a tasty microbrewery, and made the inevitable stop at the Natural History Museum:
We planned to camp at Golden Gate Canyon State Park the next night. When we got there we were kindly told that, although their website states that reservations are not necessary, people who want tent space on a pretty weekend in June really should have booked at least six months in advance. Ah, well. James and I ran up to the highest peak in the park - 10200 feet, the Rockies are high - and climbed around the rocky summit for a while.
James working a pirate/cartel mountain look.
Then we came down and ate noodles and watermelon with mom as the sun set over the Rockies. Good mountains. Good day.
Alright. This took a while. I'm now in the airport, and my flight has been boarding for the last ten minutes. Adios!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cheese and Other Cultures


People, write blogs, I'm lonely here! Let me know if you need a login.

I've been living in Paris for a week and a half now. I'm in a double on the sixth floor of a dignified old building off the Boulevard Montparnasse, a busy street of expensive restaurants, bookstores, bakeries, a single terrifically ugly skyscraper, and a rich artistic history. I walk half an hour to work in the mornings, and come back after some wandering in the evenings to cook dinner and try to get the wi-fi working and sleep. 

I had a very cultural weekend, and it's made me think about why things become famous. On Saturday, I went to a farmer's market down the street and bought a bunch of very cheap (although somewhat past their prime) fruits and veggies. The market was right in front of a cemetery, so I went in to take a look around. It was a very pretty cemetery; I was heading out after a couple of minutes, when I saw this.
Aaand that'll be the only photo here, because wifi.

Oh. Wow. That was unexpected.

Turns out this place also contains the graves of Eugene Ionesco and Serge Gainsbourg (aaah this makes me fangirl so hard. I'm living down the street from the grave of one of the most talented and influential and connected and interesting and demented musicians of 20th century Europe. That might be slightly morbid... but he was a pretty morbid guy, so it's only fair.) and Charles Baudelaire and Samuel Beckett and Henri Poincare (the mathematician gets the grave in the back corner near the toilets…) and Man Ray and Robert Desnos and Guy de Maupassant and so many other people. 

This discovery made me really happy for a few reasons - one, bumping into something like this felt very Paris. Two, the place wasn't swarmed with tourists. Three, and most importantly, all these people are on the placard at the entrance because they did something - they created works that were original and beautiful, and changed their fields, and influenced the people that came after them. Some of them had terrible characters or were flat-out insane, but they were still great minds and great talents. In some alternate-universe version of the Montparnasse, they're all having a big party and and arguing over lots of wine.

So that was a much nicer experience than my trip to the Louvre the previous day. The Louvre is enormous, in a beautiful building, filled with thousands of artworks, and it’s an absolutely terrible museum. The works are just slammed on the walls one after another, with no curation or explanation: fifty identical Roman statues here, sixty Greek vases there, two hundred landscapes along this hallway. There’s no atmosphere to speak of - there are people everywhere, but none of them are looking at the art. The Japanese tourists are taking selfies, the Americans are wearing stupid t-shirts and dealing with their kids’ whining, and everybody is waiting in line for the disgusting overflowing bathrooms. Nobody seems to be having any kind of emotional connection with the art; everybody’s there (including me, to be fair) because going to the Louvre is something you’re supposed to do. The huge Egyptian and Asian sections are completely empty, because everybody’s checking off the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory.

And above all, there’s the Mona Lisa - this single little portrait with funny cheeks, hidden behind a thick layer of bulletproof glass, guarded and roped off on all sides, with a giant crowd taking photos of it instead of looking at it. I have no idea why it’s become the face of Art. Da Vinci was undeniably an extraordinary genius, at least as much as my Montparnasse Cemetry friends - but there’s nothing to make the Mona Lisa itself so famous, except for the fact that it’s so famous already. The same thing, I think, applies to the Louvre: it’s not actually a pleasant museum. But everybody goes there, because it’s the place that everybody goes.

I saw an answer to the Mona Lisa at the Musee Rodin on Sunday. The permanent exhibitions were closed, sadly, but I still had a great visit -  the sculpture gardens were lovely, with notes for each work, and there was an intriguing little exhibit about Rodin’s artistic process. People were strolling slowly, savoring the flowers and the art. Even here, though, the iPhone cameras came out for the most famous work: The Thinker, perched on top of Rodin’s tomb. It doesn’t seem any more expressive or skillful than ant of the other statues - but famous it is, so famous it will stay.

I walked at random from there, and ended up on the other side of the Seine, in the largest farmer’s market in France (which was only happening that one weekend)! I spent a good while very happily sampling cheese and beer and sorbet and milk jam, and then went into another museum - the not-so-Petit Palais de Musee des Beaux-Arts (the yes-very-Grand Palais is across the street, for next time). I hadn’t heard of this place before, nor of most of the artists, but it was absolutely wonderful. The art was arranged and annotated with humor and good taste - mixing styles and periods in a surprisingly successful and thought-provoking way, in small rooms that weren’t overwhelming, with a single modern sculptor’s works sprinkled throughout as a temporary exhibit. I ran out of time for the impressionists, sadly, but I came away happy, having had a new experience, knowing new names that I’d like to see more of.

So the general trend seems to be that the good stuff is buried (possibly literally) somewhere to come upon by surprise, and the famous stuff is only famous because it’s famous. That’s probably not very helpful for planning future weekends… 

But I’m still wondering - what makes the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, the Thinker such standouts in the world consciousness, when there’s nothing that intrinsically differentiates them from the competition? Can people just remember one thing from a certain category? And is this a ridiculous thing to be complaining about in Paris, which is pretty much to cities what the Mona Lisa is to portraits?

In less philosophical phenomena -

Work is going pretty well. I’ve finally gotten used to the keyboard and installed the right libraries, I’ve learned a fair bit of useful statistics things, and I have p-values of 10^-135.  Started figuring out today how to do proper machine learning. 

I really like how social the lab is - we had a nice, if slightly awkward, outing to a classy wine bar on Tuesday. But half the people will be gone for the next two weeks, off to a big conference in Hawaii… Alas, interns not invited. By coincidence, there’s another American undergrad who sits next to me (same home state and birthday, too). It’s nice to have company - I don’t feel so much the odd one out (although people are very welcoming), and we have been helping each other on the quest to learn everyone’s names. 

I haven’t been using French all that much, except in shops - it’s mostly English in the lab and with the MIT interns in my dorm, and I barely see my French roommate. But there are lots of small cultural elements that are noticeably different from the US. Everybody says « Bonjour » in the hallway, even strangers. There’s a pharmacy on literally every block, with a totally different model from the US - you describe your problem to the pharmacist (who has extensive medical training), and she picks out a drug for you. And the boulangeries are even more common than the pharmacies :) 

On the less-healthful side, everybody smokes - the doctors and nurses on break at the hospital, coworkers during casual conversation, a ten-year-old girl at the museum while her mom chats. Most of the time, I’m assuming people know about the health risks and just don’t care - but when there’s a dad smoking while pushing his baby’s stroller, and baby has carefully been outfitted with sunglasses to protect his delicate eye health, I kind of have to wonder. Even the Spaniards and Italians complain about the smoking here.

I had some other observations, but they elude me at the moment. Utterly unrelated: I saw a pigeon today carefully walk across the street, on the crosswalk, during a green light. Pretty sure he's the only Parisian who does that.

Oof, this has turned out long… if you read all the way down here, I appreciate it, and my apologies :) [Will hopefully at some point be updated with the photos that were supposed to go in here.] 

"Lass uns gehen!"

I was woken up by a very loud buzzing in my ear, like a refrigerator, but louder -- and frantic German. I wasn't really about to get out of bed, until one of my suitemates shook me by the shoulders, shouting something in German (I have no idea what, I don't speak it). That was more effective than the buzzing. I immediately got up and followed my suitemates, who were rushing - no, sprinting - out of the suite with their stuff. Completely flabbergasted, hazy thoughts raced through my head: Are we being attacked? Is it a bomb that's making this buzzing sound? Everything was hurried as we dashed through the hallway  from what I thought was a potential source of explosion.

"Er... should I get my stuff?" I gasped uneasily as I jumped outside of our aprtment door, barefoot, in just pajamas.

"No!" came the frantic reply.

Shoot. I thought about my laptop, my camera, my guitar, and phone, left in my room close to that odd ominous source of buzzing. How would I continue my research with my computer destroyed? Oh, well, better save myself , right?

We took the stairs from the ninth floor -- or ran down the stairs, more like it. I ran barefoot, still uncomprehending what is going on and actually completely panicked. I did not expect to be in this situation...

Finally, when we got outside, people were patiently standing around the building, waiting. I ask my suitemates, "What is this? Why are we outside?"

"Oh, it's a fire alarm!" one of them says.

I breathe a sigh of relief, realizing that our suite wasn't in a direct danger of exploding, and laugh. Welcome to Tang Hall.

About half an hour later, we were finally let back into the dorm. Turns out someone was smoking in the elevator hallway, right near the smoke detectors, setting off the first fire alarm in the past 6 months (which I found pretty impressive). This is probably the first time I actually appreciated the NH fire alarm, because it actually talks and doesn't sound like something about to explode.

 So yep, not your typical morning. Some context: this is the first summer I am spending in Boston (and in this country in general, too - wow, that's pretty crazy). I am doing a UROP and living in Tang Hall, the best graduate dorm on campus (according to myself and the gorgeous Boston skyline that is visible from both my room window and our lounge). Don't listen to the jeering grad students on this matter, they're all wrong. :)

We just so happened to spot a full rainbow over Boston, finally!

This is already the second week of summer, and I've tried more new things than I thought was possible in this small period. So far I've tried:
  • Swing dancing - MIT holds free lessons and swing dances every Wednesday during the summer - check it out, it's really fun!
  • Salsa dancing - there is Salsa in the Park in the South End until August, and it is lots of fun to dance outside. Even for beginners like me :-) 
  • Sailing - I just completed Class 1 this week and will do the actual sailing on water next week. I also went sailing with a friend who kept leaning the boat on one side on purpose. It was  pretty extreme experience for me, but pretty entertaining for my friend. -_-
  • Bouldering - I went to try bouldering for the second time at Central Rock, it was great, even if I could only do problems up to level V1 (the "problems" or the climbing paths range from V0, beginner, to something like V6, very advanced, at this place). Definitely recommend! 
  • Slacklining - How. Do. You. Get. On. The. Stupid. Rope. I don't get it. It takes like half an hour just to learn to balance on it on one foot for five seconds. Also, it is definitely not as "slack" as it sounds, and pretty painful when it hits you! My goal is perhaps to do something like this one day:
I've also attended music nights and tea parties pretty much three days in a row on the weekend. One tea party with a group of visiting students from Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and Israel; we drank tea, played cards and other games. Another one was with a group of Russian expats, consisted of the guitar and singing outdoors until pretty much midnight (no idea how all the neighbors were okay with this!) and drinking... homemade kefir. Yep, homemade kefir. Summer research student life is pretty sweet. :-)

My past two summers were spent in the land of wine and cheese; the first few weeks were filled with crazy adventures and getting used to the neighbourhood, meeting a great deal of new people and learning software and material for my internship from scratch.

This time around, it's slightly different; I am already familiar with the material, I have been working on the project little by little, so work goes at a good pace. Even without the cultural novelty, I am getting a much better sense of the thug lyfe PhD life than I did in France, where most of the interns I met were doing a 6 month or 1 year internship as part of their Masters thesis, for instance. It is a good way to see what I may be getting into if I do stay in this country for graduate studies -- and so far, I am liking what I see. There is something about the spending 4 years on a really worthwhile project that really appeals to me. Even if its through complaining, blood, sweat and tears, equipment not working or continuous debugging, I love the idea of working toward an idea, a possibility of true advancement.

Anyway, I love the lifestyle, too -- really, the majority of the work you do just takes place while you are in lab. When you leave lab, it's basically total freedom. No psets, no exams, to study for, just you and this awesome New England summer! :)

When my family visited, we explored Boston a little bit... 

By swimming with the ducks...

Taking a stroll through the harbour

And eating yummy sushi!

 The Maparium was pretty cool, but they didn't allow to take pictures, so these are the ones you get. :)  A week later, I also witnessed my first Cambridge street festival at Mass Ave and Sidney Street. It was pretty cute!

Next stops? Some nice hiking in the white mountains, NH, with MIT's Outing Club! Join me if you're here for the summer! And don't forget to blog, too! :)