Now serving: tasty food with a dash of guilt

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Sep 182013

The only thing standing between me and my enjoyment of all-you-can-eat-every-day-deliciousness are people with a food conscience.


I would still be happily mirroring unawares if I had never read an article such as this one. Now I’m often self-conscious about it.

When my mind starts to wander to other people’s heads

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May 072013


Sometimes while listening to talks (usually attended by computer scientists and physicists), my mind starts to wander, and… [snip, snip, snip]:

Of course I totally respect individuals’ hairstyle preferences and trust that they are better than mine and don’t mean to imply anyone should do anything with their hair (except that if your fro measures more than 2′ in diameter you probably shouldn’t sit in the front row unless it’s amphitheater seating).
But the reason I bring this up is that recently at the most excellent German-American Frontiers of Engineering meeting:

There was simply nothing to be done.


The story about the boy who did not want an owie

There once was a boy who tripped and fell. Just as he was about to get an owie on his knee he said

– I don’t want an owie on my knee.

– What? – said the owie – if you put your hand out, I can go on your hand instead.

– But how will I ride my bike if I can’t hold the handlebar? –  said the boy.

– Then I’ll land on your behind – said the owie.

– But I need it to sit on! – said the boy.

– Hmmm, how about your nose? Tip forward and I’ll land on your nose.

– My nose is too small, you won’t fit.

– Then how about your shoe?

– OK – said the boy.

The owie jumped on the boy’s shoe and the boy didn’t feel a thing. The owie stayed on the shoe, and eventually was given away with the shoes once the boy’s feet outgrew them.

The story about the girl who loved chocolate milk

There once was a girl who loved to drink chocolate milk.  She asked for it at breakfast, snack time, lunch, dinner, and of course at chocolate time.  She drank so much chocolate milk, that pretty soon you could hear a ‘slosh-slosh’ from her tummy whenever she moved. The neighborhood kids made fun of her for it, and she was sad.

Then one day as she was slosh-sloshing down the street to the laughter of the other kids, a music talent scout noticed her.

That, my dear girl – said the talent scout –  is music to my ears! With a little practice you could be a great performer.

The girl became a renowned musician with a unique (slosh-sloshing) sound and traveled across the country to give concerts. And instead of a tour bus, she rode on a milk truck, a chocolate milk truck.

The story about the boy who wanted to go poop but the poop would not come out

There once was a boy who wanted to go poop. He sat and sat on the potty but the poop would not come out.  Finally he pleaded with the poop:

– Poop, won’t you come out?

– No way – answered the poop – it’s nice and warm and cozy in here.

The boy thought for a moment, then he said:

– Listen. Whenever I go poop, I get 5 M&Ms. If you come out, I’ll give you two M&Ms.

PLOP! went the poop and then demanded:

– Now I want my two M&Ms.

The boy quickly flushed the poop down the toilet, washed his hands, and ate all 5 M&Ms by himself.

The story about the boy who did not want an owie and went flying instead

There once was a boy who visited his great grandfather’s grave at Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii. As he was leaving he tripped and found himself flying through the air. He knew that if he landed he would get a big owie on his knee. So he decided to keep flying. He flew higher and higher, and pretty soon he could see the entire Punchbowl crater below him, and then he flew even higher, and he saw the ocean and the mountains.  He then turned and flew toward Waikiki’s highrises. There he saw a little old lady on one of the lanais (balconies). It was his grandma. He flew right into her arms and she set him down carefully. The boy never got the owie.

The story about the girl who loved lollipops

There once was a girl who loved lollipops. As soon as she entered the Great America amusement park, she made a beeline for the sweets shop and bought the biggest lollipop they had. Her friends ran to the different amusement rides and asked her to go with them, but she was too busy licking the lollipop: slurp, slllurp. Then they asked her to come to the water park.

– No thanks – said the little girl – my lollipop would dissolve in the water. [Slurp. Slurp].

After the water park, the kids ran to the playground and started playing in the sand pit.

– Will you play with us in the sand? – asked her friends.

– No thanks – said the little girl – I don’t want sand to get on my lollipop [Slurp. Slurp].

Eventually it was time to go home, and as the little girl and her friends piled into the car, her friends felt sorry that she didn’t get to go on any of the rides, or play in the water or in the sand. The girl didn’t mind, she just licked her lollipop: slurp, slurp. The car had driven hardly a mile when it hit a huge traffic jam. The light was out at the intersection and there was no policeman to direct traffic. The girl hopped out of the car, held out her big red lollipop and used it like a stop sign to direct traffic, first letting one direction go through, then the other. Pretty soon the whole traffic jam was cleared up. The girl took a bow with her big lollipop as her friends clapped. Then they all drove home together.

Loving an unloved romance film

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Aug 072012

Tristan and Isolde was director Kevin Reynolds’ last movie to see theatrical release. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris never had another screenplay turned into a feature film. Producer Ridley Scott seemed to have distanced himself from it even as it was being filmed. It was the last film Franchise Pictures distributed before going bankrupt. James Franco, the male lead, regretted it so much, he bothered to write it up as his favorite mistake, 7 years later.

I saw it by chance (chance engineered by I had wanted to re-watch ‘Elizabeth’ in the earlier days of Netflix and Amazon Video, when neither had it. But Amazon resourcefully recommended Tristan and Isolde. I watched it. I thought ‘huh’. But then a few months later I watched it again, and thought it brilliant. Unfortunately, any friends I have managed to get to see it share only my initial reaction of ‘huh’.

After becoming a bit obsessed with T&I, I bought the DVD, not so much because I needed the physical DVD, but because I was hoping to express gratitude and in a miniscule way boost global sales. I was also hoping that the extra features would show that the cast and crew appreciated the brilliance of the movie even if the film critics had failed to do so (it was 32% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). But all the interviews contained were repeated complaints about an extremely tight budget, frigid water, and gnats.

My last hope was Georgaris, the screenwriter. After all, even though to my untrained eyes and ears the film looked and sounded great, it was the intricately woven plot and the sparing and intriguing dialogue that surely made the movie. Alas, all Georgaris had to say was that he was originally thinking of setting it in space, and that an earlier draft was deemed too cheesy by a friend.

It’s not my favorite realistic romance (that goes to Before Sunrise + Before Sunset), but it’s my favorite unrealistic romance. Not that I know all that much about the genre (for example, I’ve never seen Titanic and can count on 1 hand the number of romance novels — all horrible — I’ve attempted to read). The weird early-teen magic-potion suicide mix-up of Romeo and Juliet never much made sense to me, and neither did Wuthering Heights (even the house-remodel in the Notebook seemed a bit strange).

I won’t spoil the movie by giving away to much, just in case you are looking for that ‘huh’ experience. What separates this movie from others (besides the awesome screenplay) is having a male romantic lead who is brawny, brainy, and loyal to a cause/person (and gets to show this off during the movie). But unlike other hero-focused movies where the romance subplot is intended as another opportunity for the hero to overcome a challenge (e.g. by rescuing the girl), Tristan doesn’t rescue Isolde (at least not intentionally), but instead she saves his life. Maybe I read too much Prince Valiant as a kid, but what other movie has a valiant knight in an interesting romantic entanglement? You’d think there would be scores of these, but… And so I join scores of Amazon and imdb users in adoring a movie that is unloved by its makers and critics.


 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Superwomen
Jun 242012

Everyone’s read the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece in the Atlantic on why there are so few women on the upper rungs of government and corporate ladders. Most of the discussion of the piece I’ve seen is about work/life balance, etc., but what resonated with me is Prof. Slaughter’s insight that the women we aspire to be (Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, etc.), and who advise us that we can have it all, are superwomen. I agree, except that I think we don’t have to look at the upper rungs to find them. I run into them all the time. And here are my observations from the field:

While the rest of the world sleeps soundly, the superwoman steadily advances science.

Late into the night:

It's 11pm, do you know where your stack of work is?

or the wee hours of the morning.

When even the squirrels are still sleeping.

If she has volunteered for an especially critical task, the superwoman does what must be done:

If she is deprived of sleep for another reason, well, that’s just another opportunity for the superwoman to advance science:

Unlike the rest of us, the superwoman does not need to catch up on sleep. The superwoman never naps…  well, almost never.

And when duty calls for her to save another part of the world, the superwoman flies back on the weekends to take care of her responsibilities back home.

To the superwomen out there: you’re all my heroes. And to the supermen, you have my admiration as well!


 Uncategorized  Comments Off on dress
Jun 212012

A while ago I commented on how I haven’t practiced dressing up too much. Apparently Visa’s fraud detection algorithms have detected this.

dress[click on image to see bigger version]



On a recent visit to NYU I accidentally activated an alarm by exiting through the wrong door. As I sheepishly retraced my steps back toward the security guard, he admonished me ‘Didn’t you read the sign on the door?’. Actually, I try very hard not to read signs. That little voice in my head likes to read them to me. In my undergrad house at Caltech, I’d sometimes get up from working on a problem set to go to the restroom: ‘I wonder if I approximated the functio… “PLEASE PROP DOOR OPEN WHEN NOT IN USE” .. uh… what was I thinking?’. I tried to move the sign or dispose of it altogether, but it would reappear in the same spot shortly.

Recently my attempts to think on the way to and from lunch have been foiled by the brilliant “Thanks to Berkeley” campaign. As I walk down Berkeley’s shady paths, I’m greeted by smiling faces telling me all that they can do thanks to their fine university. Staring at the ground is a pity in such pretty surroundings, but it did pay off recently when I had to step over someone sprawled in the middle of the path, possibly protesting something, possibly not.

Perhaps my most pathetic repeat reading is that of art posters specifying the artist and the exhibit featuring the work, e.g.:

There are studies recording a higher incidence of traffic accidents within viewing distance of attention-grabbing billboards. But who is keeping track of the many small crashes our brains experience when exposed to reading material?


[Information nutrition label: facts supported by data: 0, relevance to research:0, international affairs: 0, politics: 0, personal story of no generalizability: 100%]
How many of us can trace some interest, hobby, or even career choice to a youthful infatuation?

I encountered Ivan in my grandmother’s kitchen in Split. He had requested an extra strong shot of Cedevita (a powdered vitamin drink), and my aunt obliged by filling the glass half-full with powder. He brushed his floppy hair aside, downed the fizzy concoction, grimaced, and laughed. That vacation he rang the doorbell a few more times, while I sat around writing poems about him and how I wished the doorbell would ring. On the one visit to his apartment in the building next door, he showed me a fantastic self-portrait he had painted, and some exercises he was doing in art school. He was 14. I was 12.

The following year I was again in Split, but just for an evening. Ivan and I wandered around the old city, eating corn on the cob bought from a street vendor. Ivan was so funny, I nearly peed my pants. Maybe I even did pee my pants. When we got back, I dug up the poetry I had written for him. He listened, amused, and when I walked him to the door, he leaned in for a kiss. I momentarily panicked and closed the door in his face, which was the last I ever saw of it. He and his mom moved the next year, possibly related to the collapse of their 2nd floor balcony on New Year’s Eve, when everyone had piled out onto it to watch the fireworks.

The reason I mention Ivan is that he nearly made an artist out of me. Not only did I increase my Cedevita intake,  but I started painting in earnest. Every once in a while, I would pull out a photo of Ivan’s self-portrait for inspiration. In the following 1.5 years I painted enough for a small portfolio that gained me admission to 2 art magnet high schools in NYC. I opted for Stuyvesant HS instead, and pretty much abandoned my interest in art for a while. But it was a close call. Ivan went on to become a professional illustrator and published a graphical novel (as Google tells me).

At Stuyvesant I became infatuated with M., who sat in the row behind me in biology class. I almost never talked to M., except to catch him saying “I play violin” (I purchased several violin concertos on CD, lacking any discernible music ability of my own), “I run track” (I joined the track team, even though gym was my worst subject), “I go to ancient greek club in the morning” (this I only tried a few times because at 8am it conflicted with math team), “now I play the cello” (I augmented my CD collection to include cello compositions). Our biology teacher must have noticed my obvious crush, and paired us off for a quiz on human sexuality. M. knew all the answers, except one; I switched his answer of “semen” to “seminal fluid”. We got a 100 on the quiz, but that was just about the only success I experienced with M. (besides when we compared our 1st report cards and he said “What? Your GPA is 98.7? I though my 98.1 was the highest!”).

At the end of freshman year, my family moved. M. stayed. Although I don’t remember any ancient greek at all, I did gain a greater appreciation of string-oriented classical music, and I actually continued to run track and cross country for the rest of high school in an undistinguished way. M. continued his musical training and plays concerts, but is a physician by day (um, thanks again Google).

I suppose that must be what they mean by “impressionable” when they talk about youth. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. Liking boys, and then wanting be like them, made sense. But once I knew who I wanted to be, who did I want them to be? By the time I was a freshman at Caltech, I wanted to be a physicist, or a mathematician, or something like that. E., a sophomore physics major and my first steady boyfriend, was acing his classes. I thought he was great, and so did he. When a few short months later, he dumped me for another, I started dating D., who had published papers already back in high school. D. was a more attentive boyfriend than E., e.g. on the occasion of breaking up with me, he told me a couple of jokes to cheer me up first.

Even before their ends, these relationships made me unhappy. Dating conspicuous academic accomplishment comes at a price. Not only did I have to compete with E and D’s homework /extra credit/research assignments for their attention, but it spoiled my independent fun to know that my significant other had the discipline to work all the time while I sometimes wanted to not work. It was also difficult to maintain self-esteem. While constantly thinking about how great they were, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t as great. When my freshman progress report for a sophomore abstract algebra class generously said that “Lada is getting used to the level of abstraction”, D’s progress report for a graduate level applied math/CS class said that he was far outperforming the graduate students. Even though E and D were always able to help me if I got stuck on homework assignments, my self-esteem and GPA improved after they were no longer around.

So after ceasing to want to be like the boys I liked, I also stopped liking men I wanted to be (exactly) like. Now I’m married to a man I like to love, and who has many fine qualities I can admire without necessarily wanting to acquire.


Last week, not one, but two people at MIT said that they expected me to be intimidating. The funny thing is that, based on past experience (and by now old and likely inaccurate recollections), I expected to be intimidated — by MIT. The last time I had been invited to MIT was  in ’97.
call from MIT admissionsMIT was the first to contact me about having been admitted. This was ’97, before cellphones, and so I took the call on the hallway phone of my undergrad house at Caltech. In shock, I mumbled something in response. Soon I was off to visit MIT in person.

I happened to have arrived on the evening of a big snow storm.

My student host appeared entirely unfazed by the snow, and was formidable in other ways:

The faculty painted a consistent picture of the work culture:

Just out of curiosity, I recently looked up this faculty member and noted his Nature/Science publications.

That day, even lunch was a bit intimidating. 3 faculty, wearing suit coats, took me  (in jeans and a sweater) to a nice Chinese restaurant, but my 3.5 years of eating dorm food (and ramen and Tommy’s on weekends) had not prepared me adequately for this.

I didn’t end up pursuing a PhD at MIT. The explanation I like to give is that I found Stanford a better fit (more on that in another post), but perhaps I was also a bit intimidated by MIT, just a bit.

This time around, I was visiting EECS rather than physics. Again, people were crazy-smart, and yes, they were working incredibly hard, on very interesting projects. Now, as I did back then, I respect that.

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