diary of an aspiring grad

Nerves tight, mind singing,
Phone perched atop nearby ledge.
But when will it ring?

On my plate today was a phone interview with UC Berkeley's EECS Department, that being one of the two schools I applied to for graduate school in the fall.  The other one was MIT's Media Lab.

With respect to the phone interview, it was puzzling.  I frantically asked many people I knew what I might expect from such a thing, and everyone I asked responded that they had never heard of a CS department doing phone interviews.  Hm.

For the record, it was what one might expect from such a thing: it was a few pokes into what makes me tick.  The only three questions were "why CS?", "which school would you go to if you had your choice?", and "how do you plan to pick a professor as advisor?".  The complications of the interview were largely related to the tenuous phone connection that we had... the caller was on Skype, and it simply didn't play well with my phone for some reason.  Although I genuinely couldn't make out more than 20% of the actual words he said, it was still easy enough to understand the questions.  There's a psychology experiment in there somewhere.

Here are my thoughts on the schools/grad school in general/the phone interview questions:
  • They are both doing cool things.  I think some of MIT's projects (like Color Code) are a little too... ah... out there for me.  Then again, they do have loads of really fascinating augmented reality and intelligent surface projects.  Berkeley's department is merged computer science and electrical engineering, which leads to a lot of awesome robotics-type projects.  I am pretty excited about robotics.  Both schools are strong on interdisciplinary projects like bio-inspired materials and robots.
  • I like being near Evan.  I like the Bay Area.  Berkeley is here.  Points.
  • Stanford is also around here, but they are a farm for startups.  I don't want to start/join a startup.  I want to get a PhD.  That's, er, why I applied to get a PhD.
  • I don't want to find myself wasting away for 5-7 years in a school I'm not super excited about.  If I have to wait another year and explore my interests further, so be it.
  • How to pick an advisor?  To be honest, I hate the system for choosing them.  I had to fill out the names of people I would be interested in working with when I did the applications, and it was kind of silly.  An advisor isn't just someone you have to know, it's someone you have to spend LOADS OF TIME WITH.  There's no way to tell if you'll like a prof as a person until, um, you meet him or her in person.  I mentioned this in the phone interview, and the interviewer was amused and echoed that he thought it was silly also.
  • I am still scattered on exactly what I would like to do for a thesis.  I don't even comprehend precisely how large a project needs to be to be "thesis worthy".  It will be something related to robots, technology and society, or green engineering (or all three).
I suppose there are probably other things I want to say, but the State of the Union is about to start over at whitehouse.gov!  Watch it!

circuitous hackery

After about a month of talking about it, we finally took the plunge: this Monday, at roughly 2000, we crashed through the doors of Noisebridge, hung our bikes on their wall-mounted rack, and set to building our very own Volksduino as part of the regular Circuit Hacking Mondays (photos start here; you can see us hard at work with our soldering irons.)

And yes - they both work! Milo (the guy who was helping everyone out) popped in his homebrew serial-to-USB cables and test-drove them from the Arduino IDE, including a quick test of the shield connections using the LoL (lots of LEDs) shield.

So what are we going to do with our newfound 2KB-of-flash-ROM power? Well...we've committed ourselves to Thing-A-Day, and we have at least one project in the pipeline that could make use of an Arduino (or clone thereof) with wireless transmission capabilities. We're planning to head over to Noisebridge as often as possible to pick up the technical knowhow for such a project, so - if you're in the area, join us!



our kitchen, also noisebridge, thing a day, and the google

The ancient ring of
Steel cross iron vibrates the
Pot while it's fired

First, while the haiku is fresh in your mind, I want to say a few words about the Google.  The ACM Tech News e-mail I received this morning included a link to (and summary of) an article on NPR about how Google is doing some AI research to develop algorithms for translating poetry into different languages.  It's neat stuff!  Just think: someday, everyone in the world could appreciate my haikus.  :P

Nerdiness aside, what I wanted to talk about was our interesting kitchen setup here on Market St.  Since it's such a small space and we're so newly on our own, we don't have that many different things.  We do have a few that are AWESOME that I want to advocate for a minute and share with y'all.

This is a handsome little cast iron teapot that Evan gave me for Christmas.  It makes nice tea.  It's also a good size for two people, and it happens to hold the same amount of water as one of our pots (we don't have a tea kettle yet, but we're hoping to get one soon).  It's lovely!  The two teas that are sitting here are Japanese green tea with brown rice (the rice makes a huge difference, just trust me) that we purchased at a Japanese grocery store in SF and Turkish tea that we brought back with us from Istanbul.  We've also got a box of Twining's assorted black teas (English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey, and Lady Grey) that we like, but we don't use them nearly as much as these teas.  Yum!

Next is a photo of our Italian espresso maker, our new milk foamer, and a bag of espresso grounds we picked up in the Castro.  We like these A LOT.  The milk foamer is tons of fun (and super easy) to use, and at just $30 it started saving us money after we'd made a week's worth of cappuccinos.  Plus we've discovered the joys of cold foamed milk + sugar + sunny seed drops as a delicious and refreshing snack in the middle of the day.  We were taught how to use the espresso maker in the Napolitana style by a friend we met in Italy (it's all about the shape of the espresso grounds), so we drink good coffee around here.   :D

This is an image of our knife collection.  They are currently the only knives -- other than butter knives -- that we own.  But we love them!  The two on the left are in the santoku style, and they are pro for cutting vegetables  The ceramic knife (the smaller one) is incredibly sharp, and it was a steal at $20.  We also got a ceramic peeler to to with it!  The half-moon knife on the right is also interesting to cut with... it actually came with it's own, specially-shaped cutting board!  It's about the safest knife there is, since there's not as much up and down-type finger-endangering motion, and as it's German-made, it's a super high quality cutting instrument.

That is our oven knob.  Notice that this is the "Oven Temp," which in my experience is measured in degrees rather than as "low," as "low" is not descriptive enough for baking.  Also, note that this is the "off" position of the knob (as the oven sees it).  We speculate that someone must have broken off the original knob and replaced it with an incorrectly-oriented other-oven-knob at some point.  Either that or the manufacturer was drunk.

These are my mixing bowls.  A rainbow!  They're satisfying to look at, but I regret that we don't have any ceramic bowls, especially since we've started making bread now.  These bowls aren't oven safe, nor are they heat safe, so they're generally terrible for especially the rising part of making bread.  I do love them, though, as we have a mixing bowl to suit any need that may arise.

Er, anyway, that's all I wanted to talk about re: kitchen, I guess, and mostly I was just using it as an excuse to show some photos.  We're still posting more over at http://picasaweb.google.com/biketotheearth , though be warned that the quality might be a little strange as we're now both set up to upload from our mobile devices.

Stuff!  I spent this morning doing the overhauls necessary for my bike, including installing a new tire and ordering a new rack.  Who knew that my rack would crumple from being mailed after it carried 40 lbs for 6 months?  Hrm.  :)

Thing a Day!  We're committing to do Thing a Day, though we aren't going to sign up in any official capacity because we have no desire to get another user account for a website.  They want us to join something called posterous.com?  Has anyone even heard of that?  Anyway, we bought a bunch of materials yesterday for use doing our thing-a-day projects.  We have a lot planned, but if anyone has interesting ideas for short projects, we have a couple unfilled days!

Noisebridge!  We went there for the first time last night to watch their Five Minutes of Fame presentations, which are monthly talks during which people can share whatever it is that they've been working on with the group.  There were a variety of presenters who talked about everything from a watch that talks to your smartphone to Maslow's hierarchy of needs to clown porn.  I think we're going to enjoy spending more time there in the future.  :D


american virgins

Rattling shifters
And four underfilled tires
Belie their glory.

We took our bikes out yesterday for a glory ride around San Francisco at sunset.  MY GOODNESS WAS IT GLORIOUS.  Strangely, it was the first time either of our bikes had been ridden outside in the US, despite their rather long stint in Europe's out-of-doors.  Although they've been bruised and beaten by their boxed travel from Istanbul to London to Chicago to Indianapolis (by plane) to San Francisco (by post), they were ridable immediately with a few brake adjustments and some tire pumping.  Here's the map of our ride : http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/27151974/.  Just 15.15 km, but enough to fill us with rapturous glee.

Also this weekend was the West Coast Wiki Conference.  It was actually an "unconference," which is to say that the attendees set the agenda of talks and discussions the morning of.  It was a neat experience... my friend Eugene Erik Kim of Blue Oxen Associates helped with the organization and funding for the conference, and he was the one who pointed me and Evan at it originally.  His work focuses on collaborative intelligence, which is to say, helping people work together better.  It seems like a natural thing for him to support such a thing as wikis, then.  :)

The big topic of the conference was non-textual media.  The morning keynote speech from Ward Cunningham (the inventor of the wiki) got everyone fired up about where wikis could go in the future.  It doesn't seem unreasonable that a system could be built which does the following things:

0) allows many users to make changes online, probably using a timeline-type interface with simple cut/paste functionality
1) supports and provides clips with Creative Commons licenses
2) avoids rendering the video as a single file in lieu of streaming single clips at Youtube quality
3) permits download at HD quality if desired

So, go to it!

Following the conference, we had tickets to the Wikipedia 10th Birthday Party celebration in SF, which was conveniently a few blocks from our house.  Featured were a DJ playing music from around the world, several noteworthy guests (the chair of Wikimedia, for instance), and a projection screen with the tail of Wikipedia's edit logs scrolling by.  Also, a giant cake in the shape of the Wikipedia logo (that cake is actually from a different celebration, but they all look similar).  Super sweet!

Other things about the weekend... well, FreeCiv.  My friend Joe and a friend of his, Brett, invited me and Evan to play for a couple hours on Sunday afternoon, and we had so damn much fun that we wound up playing much of Monday, too.  It *is* enjoyable, if you're a strategy/empires games person.

Oh, and we have a new decoration in our apartment now, too!  On Saturday we went out to Lowe's to get a strawberry pot, potting soil, curly parsley, rosemary, chives, Greek oregano, strawberry plant, basil seeds, and hot pepper seeds.  We put it all together, and, voila!, we have an herb garden appropriate for a tiny studio apartment.  I love strawberry pots because of the space-conserving possibility to plant lots of varieties of plants in a stack.  I'm not sure about the potting soil we got, though... we didn't read closely until it was too late, and technically the soil says it's for mixing with topsoil outdoors?  Any gardeners know if this will be a problem?

Last week we entertained our first guest off couchsurfing.org.  His name is Matt, and he's actually around the area for a week or so more; we're hoping we get to hang out with him again sometime.  In support of couchsurfing, I would like to say that I've never had a bad experience with either hosts or surfers, and that the strength and security of the site come from its socialness.  You all should really consider listing yourselves.  Even better is to list on warmshowers.org: it's a hosting site for touring cyclists exclusively, and I have to say that you'll never run across a rude or lazy touring cyclist.  It simply doesn't come with the territory.

Oh, and a recipe.  We made some delicious "emergency food" one night when we were too lazy to go out to the store and didn't have much left in the house.


2 bundles soba noodles
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp water
1 pinch sugar
1 small bunch chopped green onions
1/3 package tofu, chopped
1 small package fish flakes (kezuri-bushi)

Boil the soba noodles for a few minutes until they are tender.  Run them under cold water until they are nice and cool.  Transfer them to something that won't leak.  Mix the soy sauce, rice vinegar, and water together in a dish with the sugar, then pour it over the noodles and mix them around a little.  Serve the noodles into bowls and garnish with the tofu, green onions, and kezuri-bushi.  Yum!


tost, a name we call ourselves

First off: yes, I started work at Facebook - about five weeks ago, more or less immediately after coming home from a six-month-and-11000-kilometre-long bike trip. (Well, okay, there was time enough in between for American Thanksgiving at Valkyrie's house, a few days with my parents up near Toronto, frenetic rounds of packing and unpacking and repacking, and a 3.5 day cross-continental train trip through some of the most fantastically picturesque mountain passes in good old America. All of which was packed into about two weeks.)

Before you ask what I do for Facebook: all engineers do Bootcamp for the first six weeks, after which they pick their team/project/generic business-sounding term for subdivision of work. I'm leaning backend - which means you probably won't see what I do, but it will somehow make your experience better: faster, more secure, more feature-rich, whatever. In the meantime, Valkyrie and I finally moved into our apartment about half a week ago. Yay!

Tost. What the hell is tost?

Well, we were biking along through Greece when we saw signs for τοστ, a snack-stop mainstay that turns out to be roughly the Greek equivalent of a panini. Yeah, you're supposed to pronounce it "toast", but it looks like "tost" - which we thought was hilarious enough that we decided to adopt it as part of our name.

So, tost. That aside, now that we've moved into our apartment and have a kitchen at our disposal, we've taken our hard-earned camp stove cookery skill and put it to work, scouring cookbooks both paper and online for deliciousness-ness. (And no, we haven't made tost yet; we haven't got a toster.) Without further ado, here are some of the results in recipe format.

Cossack Pie (adopted from The Moosewood Cookbook, page 138 to fit the ingredients on hand:)

pie crust

pie filling
1/4 lb. mushrooms (crimini works)
1 onion (yellow, white - your choice), finely chopped
1 cup cabbage, shredded or finely chopped
1 crown of broccolus (singular of broccoli!), thinly sliced
1 carrot, grated
salt and pepper
3 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour (all purpose)
1/2 tsp. basil (prefer fresh, but dried works too)
2 tbsp. wine (we used red, original calls for white, whatever)
1/2 tsp. dill weed
1/3 cup cottage cheese
2 eggs
3/4 cup yoghurt (we used Pavel's Russian-Style, ~4% fat)

0. Make crust by mixing together flour, oil, and a pinch of salt until it makes something approximately the consistency, shape, and taste of a crust. (Seriously: if you don't know how to do that, get a premade crust.) Line pan with crust.

1. Remove stems from mushrooms and chop finely. (How finely? We cut them in round cross-sections, a couple of millimetres (sorry, semi-hemi-demi-inches) thick.) Set caps aside; you'll use them later.

2. Sauté mushrooms, onion, cabbage, broccoli, and carrot in butter, salting lightly as they cook. Add spices. Cook a few more minutes. Remove from heat, toss with flour and wine.

3. Meanwhile, whisk cottage cheese and eggs together vigorously. Go heavy on the vigour. (Or you could just follow the original recipe and blender these. We don't have one.) Add salt and pepper.

3a. Start oven preheating to 350.

4. Add egg-cheese mixture to sautéed vegetables (which should be off the heat - if they aren't, DO THAT NOW) and mix well. Spread into crust.

5. Slice mushroom caps and sauté with a bit of butter until they release their mushroomy juices. Yum.

6. Spread yoghurt on top of vegetable-egg-cheese filling, covering the entire pie. Top with mushrooms. Sprinkle generously with paprika. Bake in (hopefully heated-up) oven for 40 minutes. Remove. Let sit for a few minutes. Serve. Eat.

Yum! That's recipe 1 of 2 for this post - the next one is a curry we concocted with some vegan recipe we found and can't refind as a basis. That recipe seemed short on flavour, so we added a bit of chili-garlic sauce and extra-crunchy peanut butter to the mix.

some cabbage, finely chopped
2 potatoes, cubed
2 carrots, grated
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushinated (like with a garlic press)
2 tbsp curry powder
salt and pepper
3 tbsp butter
peanut butter (screw that gourmet crap, we used Jif)
chili-garlic sauce (tuong ot toi vietnam, plus or minus a few language-specific accents)

0. Perform indicated actions on vegetables. Preferably with sharp knives (or your judo-chop-worthy hands, or carefully-wielded dental floss, or...)

0a. At the same time, heat lightly-salted water to a boil - enough to put the 2 potatoes in, since they will need to soften before you add them to the mix.

1. Heat butter in deep pan on medium-high. Add onions, cook 1 minute. Add garlic, cook 1 more minute. Add curry powder, plus salt and pepper to taste. Cook a few more minutes.

2. Add rest of vegetables EXCEPT POTATO. Cook until they start to pack down. Add peanut butter a bit at a time, stirring to melt it and spread it evenly throughout the mix. Add chili-garlic sauce. Stir some more.

3. When potato gets soft enough to easily stick a fork into, remove from water. Cube potatoes. Add to curry; this might dry out the mixture, so keep some water on hand to add more liquid if necessary. Stir every now and then, making some attempt to mash the potatoes down for extra creaminess.

3a. If you're planning to serve this over, say, rice - this would be a good time to start that!

4. If you're making rice, cook curry over medium-low heat until rice is done; otherwise, cook for however long you want (which should probably be at least 15 minutes.) Serve. Eat.

Yum! And that's the last of the recipe action. Enjoy!

moving in and making deliciousness

Sleepless city, home.
People forget, wandering,
When is time for rest?

Our lives now are a far cry from the bike trip ones we were leading.  We went to IKEA yesterday to get some things for our apartment, and we are now the proud owners of a 15" spice mill.  Hm.

It's been easier than I expected, despite the enormous context switch.  Evan is happy in his job at Facebook, and we moved into a studio apartment near the Civic Center.  It's not the best neighborhood or the best apartment, but they run super short-term leases (3 months minimum, month-to-month after that), and we want to be in the City for extra convenience when looking at places to live for realsies.  The company that runs this building has a lot of buildings around the city, actually, and the rent is cheap and the locations are reasonable if you want something short-term.  They're called Trinity Management Services.

I started one job at the closing of the year, and I'm diggin' it.  I'm doing some unknown-term part-time consulting work for Blue Oxen Associates, and the boss is a cool guy.  The other software developer on the team is also pretty awesome... he actually did the No Pants Subway Ride last year in SF, and I'm hoping he'll turn out today for this year's!  I'll be starting another part time job (hopefully later this month) at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Complex working with the people on Inspire; basically, doing stuff related to what I was doing at CERN.  I'm also talking to some people at Nuance about maybe working there later.  I'll hear back from grad schools around April to see if I'm headed that way, but if it turns out I'm not, it's no big deal.  I don't mind these part-time things.  :p

We've shifted our free-time focus drastically, too.  Now that we don't have bikes to watch over all the time, we have started going out!  Last night found us at the DNA Lounge, a local dance club which was started by one of the lead programmers for Netscape Navigator (that page is good for lulz).  They have things like A KNIFE-THROWING SHOW such as we watched last night wherein a father threw knives at his drag queen son on stage while Bootie played in the background.  This city is a terrific place to be.

But some things don't change.  On the trip, we were enormous food snobs, and we are here, too.  Now that we have more than a one-burner camping stove (admittedly, our new kitchen isn't much more), we are cooking up a storm.  The things we've made since we arrived include slow-cooked shiitake mushrooms (breakfast this morning alongside some eggs with seaweed flakes), okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes... we halved the recipe in our book and it was still way too much food), lightly-steamed spinach with sesame (a delicious companion to the okonomiyaki), cabbage and potato curry (we had cabbage left over and needed something to do with it...), and cossack pie (I've never thought to make a yogurt crust on a pot pie before).  Recipes below!

Slow-cooked shiitake mushrooms (slight changes from the Greatest-Ever Sushi & Japanese Recipes, p.67):

20-ish Dried shiitake mushrooms
Vegetable oil
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp sesame oil (we forgot this, but it would probably add a lot of deliciousness)

Soak the mushrooms at least overnight (we only soaked ours for 10 hours or so, but longer would probably be better) in a dish of water.  Cover the dish with a plate to make sure the mushrooms don't float, lest they not absorb water evenly.  Save 200mL of the water you soaked them in, then dump the rest.  Remove the stems from the mushrooms and throw them out.  Heat vegetable oil in a skillet.  When it's hot, add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the leftover water, the soy sauce, and the sugar, then stir well and allow to reduce (that takes a long time... >20 minutes).  Then add the sesame oil, and enjoy!  These mushrooms are called vegetarian steak (our cookbook says so), and they are pretty frickin' delicious.

Okonomiyaki (slight changes from the Greatest-Ever Sushi & Japanese Recipes, p.59):

2 c flour
1 c water
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
4 green onions
7 oz cabbage, finely chopped
vegetable oil
Okonomiyaki sauce (Japanese grocery stores have this)
1/3 block firm tofu
ao nori (seaweed flakes)
kezuri bushi (fish flakes)

Mix the flour and water and eggs.  If the batter isn't kind of runny (pourable), add some more water or egg as you see fit.  Mix in the salt, onions, and cabbage.  It's best to add the cabbage a little at a time so that it all gets coated with batter.
I really like these next instructions, from the cookbook, "Put a frying pan over a hight [sic] heat.  When hot, oil the base.  Remove from the heat when the oil smokes and wait until the smoke dies down.  Reduce the heat to medium and return the pan to the heat."
Put a ladleful of mixture into the pan.  Cut some tofu into little cubes and sprinkle it on top the pancake, or arrange it tastefully if you desire.  When the edges of the pancake look browned, turn it over and cook the other side.
Remove the pancake and add the ao nori and kezuri bushi.  Squirt some okonomiyaki sauce on top, too. Repeat this process until all the batter is gone.  Yum!

Lightly-steamed spinach with sesame (slight changes from the Greatest-Ever Sushi & Japanese Recipes, p.53):

1/2 lb fresh spinach
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp sesame seeds

Bring some lightly-salted water to a boil.  Dip the spinach stems in and hold for 15 seconds, then drop it all in and boil for 20 seconds.  Remove the spinach into a colander and run cold water over it.  Squish it in your hands to remove the excess water.  Squeeze it into a rough log shape and put it in a dish.  Pour the soy sauce and water over it and let it sit.
Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in the bottom of a dry pot over medium heat until they start popping.  Remove from heat.
Cut the spinach log in half and sprinkle it with the sesame seeds.  That's it!

Evan is taking over the typing of the cossack pie and curry recipes.  :)