Thursday, May 27, 2010

War and Peace

Now that I have gobs of spare time, I've started reading War and Peace. It took me a while to get into - at first I could only read in short patches - but around 100 pages in I finally started to get invested. I've just finished Book 1 (of five, each divided into parts, each of which is divided into short chapters).

There are a lot of characters, all with the Russian patronymics and whatnot. It doesn't help that a lot of names are used over and over for different characters (e.g., in the Bolkonsky family, Prince Andrei is the son of Prince Nikolai, but over in the Rostov family, there is a Count Nikolai who is part of Prince Andrei's generation. And there are two Vasilly's as well.) It also doesn't help that a lot of the book concerns the Napoleonic Wars. I am both ignorant of the history here, and generally uninterested in (and cannot easily follow) military history and descriptions. For instance, I don't know the different ranks in an army so whether a corporal or a captain or a sergeant is of higher rank, I couldn't tell you. (Yes, it is possible to look these things up, but it's not fun to read a book if you continually have to look everything up.)

On the eve (in the book) of the Battle of Austerlitz, I did stop and read the Wikipedia article about it, out of pure curiosity. I wasn't concerned about spoilers since it seems likely that Tolstoy would have assumed his readers would be familiar with its outcome. But it was very surprising to read the names of some characters from the book in the article. It is as though in some alternate reality, these characters in a novel were living people. I enjoyed looking at paintings of them as well. I've also been supplementing my reading by doing google image searches on words like "hussar" and "Cossack."

As with Anna Karenina, there are parts of this book that sort of blow me away and that I find myself thinking of over and over again. Unlike Anna Karenina, I don't find it a totally captivating read. But it's captivating enough to be worth it, given that it's also a great work.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


This morning, I greatly enjoyed Community College Dean's takedown of DIY U by Anya Kamanetz (it's the "edupunk" one you may have heard about). I haven't read Kamanetz's book, but I already basically think it's full of crap, so I surely won't.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arroz con Pollo

Friday evening, I made this arroz con pollo recipe. I pretty much followed it exactly except that I also put in two jalapenos and two red peppers. I used chicken thighs.

It came out pretty good, though it was much improved with a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper (which I'll add next time), and it was the kind of dish that, once you've made it once, doesn't require a recipe at all. It's dead easy.

It was also cheap. I think I spent about $12 total (and you could economize by buying less-fancy chicken broth or using green rather than red peppers), and it made six generous meals, plus we had rice left over afterwards.

Next time, I don't think I'll bother dredging the chicken in flour - I don't think it added much taste relative to how much trouble it was. I would probably use even more peppers and possibly slightly less rice. But anyway, this recipe gets a big thumbs up from me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dreaming False Memories

When I was very young, perhaps around 4, I had a nightmare. In this dream, I would be in a room, and the floor would tilt a little bit and bubbles would start seeping in at the base of the wall. I'm not sure why this was dangerous, but it clearly was. It was something that had happened before, too. When I woke up, I knew that the bubbles had been a dream, but I still believed that it was a dream about something that had really happened before. It took me a long time (months or years) to convince myself that the bubbles were only a dream, and not even a dream I had had more than once.

Until recently, I hadn't often (as best I can recall) had dreams that implanted false memories like that, but lately, I have them all the time. I will dream of something, let's say smurfs, and wake up thinking, "God, I have dreamed of smurfs every day this week! What the hell is with the smurfs!" And then I'll think, "Shit, is this one of those dream memories?" And sooner or later I will realize it is.

Sometimes it has stages. I'll wake up being annoyed that I've dreamt about a smurf revolution all week, then realize almost immediately that, although I've been dreaming about smurfs all week, the revolution part is new, and then realize hours later that I hadn't been dreaming about smurfs at all, up until that point.

Sometimes the dream memories aren't about dreaming. Last night in bed I realized that all week, or all month, or something like that, I had been thinking and fantasizing (while awake) about something like foursquare (the playground game, not the iPhone app). And then I slowly started to question that and to realize that I hadn't even been thinking about that while awake at all, much less more than once. I only dreamed that I was, and had been, doing such a thing.

I'm starting to find the frequency of this experience disturbing. I think it happens several times a week. (And I'm pretty certain that that is not itself a false memory; I clearly remember thinking about this while awake many times over the past year or so.) I like dreaming, but I don't like waking up believing things that are not true. Is this common?

Friday, May 14, 2010

PawPaw Jimmie

Last night before the exam, I got a chance to talk on the phone with my grandfather. This is my father's father, who is (or was, before retiring) a Southern Baptist minister. He's a delightful and warm person, full of humorous stories. I told him about my exam, and he told me a story from when he was in seminary.

He had a professor there who I'll call Dr. Smith, since I can't remember his actual name. At seminary, apparently they started every class off with a prayer, and though most professors would ask one of the students to lead the prayer, Dr. Smith always led it himself. My grandfather said that he would start in to praying and you got the feeling that he was always in conversation with God and you were listening in at this one moment.

But before exams, the prayer was chillingly different. "Father," he would says, "provided that these students have studied diligently, please help them to recall what they have learned." My grandfather said this was not the most encouraging message; during an exam you'd rather have unconditional bolts of knowledge!

At the end of our conversation, he asked if he could pray with me over my exam, and I readily agreed. (I am more or less an atheist, but I never mind being prayed over or with.) He left off the "provided she has studied diligently" condition. Whew.

(An actual picture, found online, of my grandfather and late grandmother.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The End

Tonight is my abstract algebra final. I have a take-home part to turn in, and then the final itself is supposed to take about an hour, though we have two hours for it. I'm not as ultra-prepared as I have been for some other tests, but I think I am prepared enough. The take-home part was difficult but I think I'll have close to full credit on it, and I only need a high D or low C on the final in order to have an A in the course.

This is not just a final exam, it is the final exam. Barring the unforeseen, this will be my last act as an undergraduate. My other classes are finished. Sunday is the graduation ceremony, which I am not attending, but after which I will consider myself to have graduated.

Taking my last exam would feel stranger, of course, were I not starting grad school in the Fall. It will be different from this, but will still feature math, homework, exams, and all of that. Leaving my job in a couple of months is going to be weirder than graduating, I think.

I was thinking about my family earlier, the two sides. On my mother's side of the family, everyone goes to college. My grandfather, mother, aunt, and two cousins (which is everyone I know from my side of the family) all have degrees (did my grandmother? I wonder), and my aunt and cousins either have or are working on graduate degrees of some stripe.

College seems more rare on my father's side of my family. My grandfather went to college and seminary, but my grandmother didn't go to college. Of their four children, I believe only one of my aunts has a degree. My father took some college courses but did not graduate. Two of my three cousins started or are about to start college; probably the older has graduated by now (assuming she did graduate).

I have mixed feelings about graduating. It's not really much of an accomplishment for an intelligent person with a middle-class background. You expect it. I had a perfect opportunity to go to my dream school right out of high school, basically for free, and the only reason I didn't get my degree there was that I wasn't mature enough to actually go to classes, do work, study, and so on.

At the same time, it has taken me a number of years to get this degree while working, and I did, over all that time, develop a work ethic (at least towards school), learn how to tackle difficult material, and gain various academic skills, such that I am, these days, a good student. So I do feel a certain sense of accomplishment in finishing something that was initially hard for me. And it was certainly enjoyable as well.

Anyway, tonight is it - the end of my undergraduate career.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


This New York Times Magazine article "The Data-Driven Life" was pretty interesting. An excerpt (not particularly well-chosen):

For a long time, only one area of human activity appeared to be immune [to numbers]. In the cozy confines of personal life, we rarely used the power of numbers. The techniques of analysis that had proved so effective were left behind at the office at the end of the day and picked up again the next morning. The imposition, on oneself or one’s family, of a regime of objective record keeping seemed ridiculous. A journal was respectable. A spreadsheet was creepy.

And yet, almost imperceptibly, numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal. Sleep, exercise, sex, food, mood, location, alertness, productivity, even spiritual well-being are being tracked and measured, shared and displayed. On MedHelp, one of the largest Internet forums for health information, more than 30,000 new personal tracking projects are started by users every month. Foursquare, a geo-tracking application with about one million users, keeps a running tally of how many times players “check in” at every locale, automatically building a detailed diary of movements and habits; many users publish these data widely. Nintendo’s Wii Fit, a device that allows players to stand on a platform, play physical games, measure their body weight and compare their stats, has sold more than 28 million units.

This sort of thing appeals to me but I won't usually keep up with it if it's not very easy.