Thursday, February 26, 2009


I think I am a collector at heart. Just look at all the junk I've collected over the years. But lately, I've noticed that I don't only like to collect physical things, but non-physical things as well. I think the term "jack of all trades" is appropriate here. I like exploring different interests but never really have the time (or heart??) to delve deeper into any of them. But I like to be able to say that I've tried, that I know something.

Architecture. Lately, it's been architecture and design. I've always avoided architecture because when it comes down to it, it's an art.* But there's something to be said about aesthetics. Used in the right way, it can make people's lives so much better. So I've been attending a few architecture related lectures lately as well as reading some magazines about design and planning. It's ironic though if I want to go into geotech. There's really no need for architects in geotech... Seriously, there's not much you can do to a tunnel. They come in fixed shapes.

Languages. Learning languages is a time consuming activity. I really wish I can call myself fluent in more than one language. I don't think I am though. Only English. I think if I really tried, I can learn more languages. But actually, I think the "more languages" part attracts me more than "fluent" part. I can't seem to settle for any one language. I'm always hopping around and learning bits and pieces of others. It's fun. In the beginning, you make a lot of progress because you know nothing. So it's rewarding. And then it gets harder...

Linguistics. And last semester I took linguistics and that turned out to be pretty interesting. I even got some books on linguistics and language acquisition from a book sale. But of course, they're still sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

History. This is another one of those things I avoided in high school. High school history wasn't all that great anyway. But having taken two history classes at MIT, I find that I really enjoy reading about how people lived, their stories, their ambitions, etc. I've also done a lot of traveling in the past few years and understand the history of a place really adds to the experience.

Traveling. This one is really a collector's item. I've been to... You get the idea. At some level, I ask myself why I want to travel. Why do I want to go see the Great Pyramids when I can just google it on the web? Just to say that I've been there? That seems like a waste. But if that's true, then so are stamp and coin collecting. After you've "collected" the money, you can't use the things anymore. Is that a waste? Or is there something deeper in this?

Cooking. I like to experiment but I also like edible food. And I like to say I know how to cook many different things but usually it's just a hit and miss.

So what does this mean? What does it say about me? Am I just undisciplined and can't stay with one thing for a long time? It sure if I improve on some of these interests and skills, they will certainly become very useful. But then again, is it worth it to push yourself through something you don't enjoy?

[This is not supposed to be depressing or sad or anything like that. At least it's not for me. I like collecting. And displaying naturally comes with collecting.]

*Why do I not like/appreciate art? I remember going to art class in first or second grade in China. I think I really enjoyed it the first few times and said something along the lines of "Art is my favorite class" or "I want to be an artist." And then, someone completely shot this down by saying that art is useless and you can't ever make a living out of it. It's just like playing and people who try to be artists are being childish and should get a real job. I didn't want to end up like these people so from that day onwards, I didn't take art seriously. I treated it like playing hide and seek, Something could be fun but you can't make a living out of it. I mean, I still enjoyed drawing and such but I didn't take it seriously. I would look at art museums and artists with skepticism. Who knew an off-hand comment like that can have such a big impact?

Toilet Paper

Did you know that soft toilet paper comes directly from trees instead of recycled stuff? Read below:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Monday night I was looking through some of my junk and found these good luck charms that I have. One is a pair of fish (necklace?) that my grandmother gave to me years ago. The other one is a keychain from Greece. So feeling anxious about this whole grad school situation, I taped them to the cabinet above my desk. And... the next day, I got another big envelope in the mail, this time from Stanford. I was, of course, happy and excited. But I was probably more relieved than anything, "whew, not stuck going to Cornell (cold place in the middle of nowhere)." Not that I'm making any final decisions here but it's good to have choices.

Applying for grad schools is so different from undergrad. I was so happy when I got into MIT. I felt so lucky and fortunate. But grad schools are more like, "why haven't I heard back yet? am I not good enough? what did I do wrong? why aren't they coming after me with offers and money?"

Anyhow, now I need to look up flights for going home over spring break. I bet all my course 1 classes will have very low attendence those few days before spring break. I think they will understand though.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ESP, SWE, and life in general

Okay, quick updates on my life.

Last Sunday, Yalu and I went to a ESP retreat. There were 20 of us all cramped in a basement talking about various issues that affect ESP. It probably wasn't as efficient of a process as it could have been but it was nice to hear everyone's views on things. Overall it probably served better as a bonding experience than a getting things worked out party. We went out to dinner together at a "Asian" restaurant at Harvard. It's one of those places that tries to be Japanese. The food was probably not very authentic Japanese but I liked it anyway. And of course, ESP paid for it so I'm not complaining.

Monday was a holiday. I tried to make up on not doing any work on Saturday and Sunday. So.. not very exciting.

I woke up feeling sick on Tuesday. I think it was being in the basement with 20 other people, some of whom were sick. Anyway, it's not too bad and I'm feeling better now. Tuesday was one of those disruptions of the space-time continuums at MIT. We ran on a Monday schedule. This is because most holidays are on Mondays so this makes it fair for classes that are on a MW schedule as opposed to a T,Th schedule. This worked out really well for me since I don't have any classes on Mondays. Yes, this meant that I had a 4 day weekend.

So instead of having to go to class, I went to work at the real estate office. I'm working part-time again. I'm not sure how long I can keep this job though since I plan to be pretty busy later on in the semester. haha, yes, I plan to be busy.

Anyway, after working, I went with MIT SWE (society of women engineers) to the Boston Children's Museum to volunteer for Engineering Week. We had a activity exhibit teaching kids how to clean up oil spills. We had pans of water and the kids made boats out of foil, spilled oil on the water, and tried to clean up the oil with tissue and string. I was surprised how many kids did not know what to do when we said make a boat. We wanted them to make very small ones, the size of their thumbs and even had sample boats. But they just had no clue what to do. I tried to get them to do something, test it out, and then fix it. I mean, that's what we do in science and engineering: trial and error. But these kids just stared at their "boats" and couldn't fix them. Okay, some of these kids were little, like 5 years old. I helped those. But I wasn't willing to help those 7-10 year olds. And then I wanted to just hand them the string and tissue and tell them to again, trial and error. But they just stood there, waiting for instruction. They seemed to work best when there was a step-by-step copy-the-instructor demonstration. What fun is that?! If I were the kids, I would want the instructors to shut up and let me experiment on my own. But... I don't know. Is that just how I always behaved? Or it is a product of these few years of studying engineering? Be interesting to do a study on how much college education changes your way of thinking.

Aside from playing with water with kids, I discovered the amazing-ness of the Boston Children's Museum. That place is like a huge playground with lots and lots of toys. It looks like so much fun. There were all these kids dragging their parents around. I wish some of the parents could be less... in the way. I think they should only help their kids figure out an exhibit only when it's absolutely necessary. The exhibits are professionally made, catered to kids. I just think parents should be less intrusive. If the kids want to push around giant chess pieces with no clear purpose, don't make them play a game of chess with other kids. Seriously, did they think the designers expect 6 year olds to be playing chess with each other??

There was a Class of 2009 event on Wednesday night. They rented out the 4th floor of a pub. There were appetizers, a dance floor, music, and a cash bar. So after much discussion about what to wear, a few of us from McCormick went together. It was cool to hang out with people who I will probably not have time to talk to again.

And I've been doing a bit of teacher recruiting for Stanford Splash, which is on April 4th and 5th. Yalu and I will be going! Excited. This will warrant an entry on its own.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Boston University East Asia Conference

I attended a conference on East Asia today at Boston University. There was a wide range of topics that included economics, politics, anthropology, sociology, history, etc. The papers were mostly on Japan and China but there were presentations on Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, and Taiwan as well. Overall it was a really cool "branching out" experience. I was the only person there from MIT and quite possibly the only engineer as well. These people spoke with their own lingo and seemed to have read books and articles from the same famous people, none of which I was familiar with.

The venue was smaller than I expected. People came in and out all day and there were about 30 at the busiest times. The day consisted of 5 sets of panelists presenting papers that they had submitted for this conference. They all talk about their work, then the discussant would give comments, and then open the discussion to the audience. I arrived in the middle of the 2nd set of panelists because.. I didn't want to get up that early. The 2nd set of panelists were about politics and economics. I wasn't all that interested but I found out about ASEAN (pronounced ah-see-ahn, I mean, this just sounds Asian). I think I have a lot to learn about how the world works in general.

Lunch was catered by a noodle place. The organizers ordered a good variety of food which included fried rice, spring rolls, pad thai, and drunken noodles. There were all sorts of Asian snacks as well. I chatted with various people, none of whom had the slightest idea how a flyer managed to get to MIT. There were a good amount of undergrads at the conference as well.

I think the 3rd set of panelists had the most interesting topics by far. The first presentation was on Macao and explored people's sense of nostagia for the past and longing for development. The second one was about the development of railroads in China and how they were linked to imperialism instead of transport of goods. And the third one an ethnography of people who went to Cha Chaan Tengs (茶餐厅) in Chicago Chinatown. I thought the Cha Chaan Teng one was really awesome. Cha Chaan Tengs are those "Hong Kong style tea houses" or Chinese pastry shops that you can sit down to eat. The grad student who did this paper basically spent a summer at one of these tea houses in Chicago chinatown talking to the patrons and finding out why people go to these places. I thought this was a really cool example of anthropology fieldwork. I downloaded her paper and look forward to reading it. Maybe I'll get to work on something exciting like this for my anthropology class...

The 4th panel was on social conflicts in Southeast Asia and we heard presentation on Indonesia and the Philippines. The 5th panel consisted of historical and anthropological studies from Japan and China. The topics were: hot springs in Tokawaga and modern Japan, the concept of "Chinese food", Japanese super flat art, art and photography of Chinese migrant workers, and the use of honorifics in Japanese newspapers. The conference definitely had a wide range of very interesting topics. I really enjoyed all the presentations. They're all things that I don't think I would have ever encountered, especially with an undergrad curriculum in civil engineering. I think I'm going to try to make it to more of these talks this semester.

There was dinner and cultural performances after the talks. But I left before dinner because it was getting dark. And there were things I needed to take care of so couldn't really stay the whole time. If I'm in the area next year, I think I would definitely try to come again. And maybe I should really keep an eye out for conferences in other areas of study as well. Branch out... Architecture talks on Thursday nights. Civil MEng seminars Fridays at noon. East Asian studies Monday and Friday afternoons. Or at least browse some magazines one in a while.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


This is hilarious:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections on SL

I'm going to try to write small segments of the Sierra Leone trip here over the next few weeks/months.

One of the things that really bothered me during the first week in was that we were ferried around on trucks a lot. Whenever we walked outside, we hopped on a truck and got driven around. We would wave to people on the streets and such but had no real sense of the place. It went on like this for a few days. And then on the first Sunday we were there, we met up with Paul, the local builder, to discuss plans for the latrine. After this, we walked around Lunsar with him to find out prices for building material. That was the first time, since getting into the country on Thursday that I had walked outside of the mission's compound on foot. I really appreciated that experience.

We didn't just walk around to find out prices. We walked very slowly and Paul introduced us to various people. We stopped by the market stall where his family sells things. People started conversations with us and we stopped to talk. There were a good number of people in town who could speak English, which is a big distinction from the villages. At one point, we decided we were done with material hunting and we stopped to watch a soccer game. People don't have TVs in their houses so there are these entertainment places where they basically have a TV and seating for lots of people. So we went into one of these dark sheds and watched soccer games on two different TVs at once. The room was packed full of people. It was hot and musty because it was the middle of the day. I must've sweated a ton in there. And at one point, I noticed that there were no women in the room, just men and boys. Girls don't play football in this country. Not too long after we arrived, Manchester United scored a goal and the whole room just went crazy. People were cheering and hugging each other. It was pretty cool.

After the soccer game, we walked through the market area. I really enjoy market places. I like places where there are stalls and people selling things. I guess there's just a sense of never knowing what you will find in one of these places. Of course, we got harassed by people trying to sell things to us. I never took a picture of this market place and now I wish I had. It would have been nice to spend more time looking at the different types of things that people sell and find out where they get their stuff from. I think I just wish we were able to talk with people more. I guess there's always the language issue. But still, I don't think we got a whole lot of time to explore the town and just hang out with people.

After the market, we walked to the gas station. On the way there, Paul got us oranges. The vendors peel most of the skin off before they sell them. I guess it helps the peeling process? Not sure. Anyway, on the way back, we took the backroads and walked passed people cooking. We came to a gazebo that is a popular hang out for local teachers. That was an interesting find, especially since these teachers knew English.

I just felt that we were too focused on business and projects the whole trip. I guess since it's our first time there, we didn't know how safe the city was and we always tried to go somewhere with a local. I think we would have been perfectly fine walking around town as long as there was more than one of us. And I wish we had done that more. Just walk around town with no real purpose and talk to (or just observe) people.

This semester I'm taking an anthropology class. In many ways, I wish I had taken some sort of anthropology class before going to Sierra Leone. The things we talk about in class are so relevant to development work. But I guess I appreciate the class a lot more now too.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

FE and Habitat

I just started studying for the FE exam and it's almost hard not to panic. There's so much I don't know. I tried taking a "diagnostic" exam for the morning (general) session and... didn't get very far. I got through most of the math section but I don't seem to remember a lot of differential equations or linear algebra. I think I can get those problems with some reminders of what's what though. The scary thing is when the test switched to sections like computers where I didn't know anything. As in, have never seen questions like that ever. I totally do not remember how the periodic table works. And we never really did materials in such depth. I got tired after a while. I will try the statics and fluid sections tomorrow. Hopefully I will have more luck with those since that's what I do... There's so much material in this test. I have 11 weeks.

Today I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. We went out to a site where some condos were being renovated because of a fire a few months before. There were almost 20 students from MIT. It was really cold. I think the first few hours was below freezing. And we were working outside, of course. I got stuck with shoveling snow all day long. They had put a huge pile of lumber and it was buried under a few feet of snow. The guy said they wanted to find wood they had set aside to make the scaffolds. So I thought it was a few pieces of lumber, on the order of 20. What he forgot to mention was that that was where they keep all their lumber for the entire construction. So there turned out to be like 200 pieces of lumber buried and frozen under 3 feet of snow. Shoveling snow and throwing it over the fence is a very tiring job. At some point, we realized they weren't going to use the lumber that day and no one was coming to sort the lumber out. So we just stopped working on this. After that, I didn't feel like doing anything so I held the ladder for Mike. This turned out to be a bad idea because I started to become very cold. Not sure why I decided not to wear boots. Anyway, the rest of the people were putting up insulation for the house. Big house so lots of insulation. We didn't even finish.

I feel like this type of volunteering where you just show up and try to help is not very effective. If you have a team of people working together, you would want to know everyone's skills and knowledge. After you work together for a while, you get to know your teammates and things go smoothly (ideally). But we just sort of showed up and while it's good to have help, it took them a while to decide who's going to do what. And the job assignments didn't utilize the available labor very well. I'm sure we helped out, lend a hand, was appreciated. But I just think we could've been so much more effective, done a lot more. We probably hindered some people at their own work too. Anyhow, I learned all about shoveling snow. So if I ever end up living anywhere cold...

Tomorrow, my D-Lab team is having a reunion Yay! We're having brunch at Fire and Ice. Should be fun. Although it's not as if we haven't been seeing each other all the time. I think we all make time to say hi and chat when we see each other. This trip opened up a whole new world for me: Africa. Such an amazing place. It also brought poverty to a whole new level for me. I think I'm just beginning to understand the meaning of infrastructure.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Settling back in

Classes started yesterday. Settling back into student life. I'm taking a lot of civil engineering classes this term. A lot of design classes, actually. My classes are all Tuesday and Thursday classes. I have a lab on Wednesday. I have no classes on Mondays and only one on Friday. So it's going to be an interesting semester. I don't really like how my Tuesdays and Thursdays are overloaded but I think it's okay. I mean, I think I've had it worse before... Anyway, it's good to see everyone again.

I'm taking 4.5 classes this term. A lot of them have projects so that's bound to be time consuming. Aside from passing these classes, I need to take the FE exam in April and the GMAT at some point. And I need to spend some time looking and applying for scholarships for grad school. Sometime before June, I also need to decide what I want to do this summer.

The practical thing to do this summer is to find another internship with a civil engineering design company, get some experience, and get paid. But there are also cool stuff out there like the Kawamura Fellowship and IDDS. I haven't even decided whether or not I want to apply for IDDS yet. But either way, it's a choice between an engineering design experience or a "personal growth" experience. Not sure what's best.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Schools

On Friday, all the country groups did presentations on their trip. There seemed to be a common theme of things not going the way they were expected, many lessons learned, and cultural experiences. I noticed afterward though, that our group went to one of the most (if not the most) "underdeveloped" country.

The Indian teams talked about the crazy traffic. Where we were, people hardly had bikes, never mind cars. We were usually the only car on the road. The roads were bad and getting around was a difficult. Most people had to walk hours to get into town or the market. We didn't have to worry about dark, smelly latrines because many of the places we went didn't have toilets anywhere. We showed a picture of one of our schools that must have looked really bad to the class. But in reality, this school is one of the better schools in terms of structure. Out of the six schools we worked with, only two of them had walls. The others were just sticks. Even benches for schools were hard to come by. Many kids carried benches from their homes to school and carried them back at the end of the day.

Here's a picture of one of the better schools. When the school was constructed, they didn't have enough money to have a roof for the left part of the school. The rains took away some of the blocks.

Another school. The blue thing is a tarp. So basically very thin plastic.

Sticks and thatched roof for a school.
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