Thursday, January 19, 2012

Two Easy Recipes, and a Bonus Low-Rent Dessert!

I basically only cook things that are extremely easy, so here are two simple recipes, plus a bonus dessert.

Chicken and Rice Soup
1 package chicken thighs (bone-in)
1 cup rice
1 bag frozen mirepoix (diced carrots, celery, and onions)
1 tsp salt

Put chicken thighs, salt, and mirepoix into a pot and cover with plenty of water. Boil until thighs are cooked (about half an hour). Remove thighs. Remove and discard skin, and separate meat from bones. Return meat and bones back to the pot and simmer another half hour or so. Then remove the bones and add about a cup of rice. (Confirm by eye that there is at least 2 cups of liquid in the pot; more if you want genuine soup rather than, as I prefer, something more like chicken and rice.) Simmer for another 20 minutes.

Beef Stew
1 package (1-2 lbs) stew meat
1-lb bag baby carrots
2 or 3 large potatoes
2 cups beef broth
1 cup wine (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
pepper if desired

Cut up potatoes (peel first if desired) and place all items into a large pot. Simmer gently until cooked, about 2 hours, or cook all day in a crock pot on low.

Low-Rent Banana and Chocolate Dessert
1 banana
part of a chocolate bar (I use 2 squares of a Lindt 85% cocoa bar, but any chocolate bar should work)
plain yogurt (I prefer whole milk)

Cut up the banana into a bowl. Break the chocolate into small pieces and microwave for 30 seconds at a time in a tiny bowl until melted. Gently spoon/pour the chocolate on top of the banana pieces. Glop a bunch of plain yogurt on top. Enjoy!

Reading Course FTW!

This semester, I am doing a reading course in probability & measure (using Billingsley). It's the first time I've ever done a reading course or any kind of independent study (other than my grant, but that was very different).

This was the first week of school, so last week I emailed the professor to ask when he'd like to meet or whatever, and we set a meeting for today. He gave me a section to read and some exercises to look at.

I've spent probably literally (not counting Internet-procrasting-time) 20 hours on that section and the exercises this week. The book is very dense for me and the exercises were difficult. I ended up with 10 typed pages of answers. I wasn't sure if he would want me to turn those in or just discuss them or say that I had done them or what.

So we met today. The scoop is that, whatever questions we don't discuss to his satisfaction in our meetings, he will have me turn in (I ended up turning in the whole set since I had it all stapled together, though we talked about most of the questions). The meeting went well - I was comfortable presenting answers on the board and discussing the material. He told me how to do the problem I hadn't managed to figure out, and the answer was really cool (really cool).

I've been exhausted all day. The first week of school is rough and I've been working hard. I'm the kind of tired where my head naturally goes slanty and I become slack-jawed. I'm the kind of tired where I think I must look really tired even from the outside.

But that meeting was so energizing, and I think this course is going to be great. I'm realizing that, actually, I think reading courses are super fun, way better than classes. Instead of sitting in class for 3 hours a week (which I hate even when it is informative), you get to work on your own with a book (which I love even when it is really hard). It's fun in the way that my summer of qual studying was fun.

Guess what? Reading and figuring out math on your own is more fun than a class. That's a really cheerful thought for me.

I'm still worried about my workload this semester. I have two core courses plus this reading course. But I feel motivated towards at least one of my courses, and of course towards the reading course, so I'm feeling pretty good right now. And I'm looking forward to doing more reading courses in the future, bigtime.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Silas Marner

I just finished reading my second George Eliot book, Silas Marner. I chose it to read because I wanted to read another book by her and I had heard of it. I got it for free (in Kindle form) from Amazon.

The basic idea of the book is that a man named Silas Marner has lost his faith after being (in essence) exiled from his (what we would now call) fundamentalist religious community, and has settled in a new town, where he becomes a miser and a recluse. Then a series of strange events involving a nobleman and an unwanted child alter the course of his life.

Before I read it, I read a review on Amazon, by a Susan Hallander, which begins thusly:
Question: How can you ensure that a person will hate a book? Answer: Make her read it for 7th grade English class, make sure that the language is old-fashioned, and above all, make sure that the ideas and concepts are over her head. If that's what happened to you, and that's why you have an aversion to Silas Marner, and you are now over 30, pick it up again. Read it twice. Silas Marner is one of the greatest novels in the English language.
As a result, while I was reading it, I had that context in the back of my mind - what would it have been like to read this in 7th grade?

Ultimately, while I enjoyed reading it, and was always reasonably eager to continue, I found Silas Marner disappointing. In some ways I would have enjoyed it less in 7th grade, but in other ways, 7th grade might have been a better time to read it. I probably would have appreciated its folksy moralism better when I was younger and less cynical.

I don't know what to say about this book in terms of anyone's decision of whether to read it or not. The book it most reminded me of, that I did read in school, was The Scarlet Letter, but that's probably a rather ignorant comparison.

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Changing Musical Preferences

I was emailing with Sally today about the increasing distaste I feel for the habit of rating everything one encounters, and it occurred to me that this relates a bit to my changing tastes (or, really, a change in the way that I have tastes at all) in music.

When I was a kid (through middle school or a bit beyond), I liked most of the music I heard, though of course I liked some things more than others. But I was largely unconscious of what I liked - I usually didn't know what bands or artists or albums the songs I liked came from (with the exception of the music my mom really liked, which she would tell me about). I just listened to the radio and liked what I heard and was crazy about a few things. (Some songs I remember being crazy about: Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? by Rod Stewart, Strip by Adam Ant, We Built This City by Jefferson Starship.)

Sometime in high school, I started to really have taste. There was some music I loved (Erasure, Depeche Mode, Midnight Oil, Jane's Addiction, The Cure, plenty of other stuff I'm not thinking of at this moment) and other music I loathed and detested (New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Madonna - who I had loved when I was younger - and in general most top 40 things). Through college and beyond, I developed and expanded and refined these tastes, and they were a part of my identity. (This identity-by-tastes seems really common among my friends, particularly younger ones.)

When I was 19, I think, I did have a surprising experience. I hated the song "Vogue" by Madonna. I was visiting the Netherlands at the time, and I walked into a club with some friends. In the club was a leather-clad half-naked guy in a cage, and he was dancing to "Vogue." And it was the perfect music for exactly what was happening in that moment. I had not known such a phenomenon could occur: that a song you hated could turn out to be perfect for a particular occasion.

I've noticed over the years since college that my musical tastes are not only expanding but in general just loosening. There began to be a ton of music that I enjoyed hearing despite not officially "liking." (For instance, I am now ready to admit that I really do love hearing the song "Dust in the Wind." I will always sing along.) Sometimes I felt as though, if my friends learned of my real tastes, they'd think less of me.

That kind of anxiety is part of why we (some of us, anyway) identify with the famous xkcd cartoon about Pandora:

It seems silly that there is such a thing as "embarrassing music" in a way. People make all this music for us to listen to and enjoy - what is embarrassing about enjoying it? I mean, I'm embarrassed about liking "Dust in the Wind" which is not exactly nazi death metal or anything. It's pretty innocuous.

I am moving more and more towards viewing my musical tastes as being more probabilistic (I tend to enjoy dance music, alternative, 80's pop, blue grass, dixieland jazz, and Beethoven, and don't tend to enjoy metal, classic rock, new country, or jazz, but I can enjoy a lot of things in the right context) and not really related to my identity. It's actually hard for me to let go of the idea that musical tastes have more than practical importance.

But I am getting more and more to the point where it seems useless to describe various artists as good or bad. Sally and I both remember a time that Robin defended Pearl Jam (who Sally didn't like) as "a quality product," but most commercially produced music could be so described (depending on what qualities you think are important). Does Garth Brooks suck just because I don't really like his sound and his lyrics aren't clever and edgy or deeply meaningful (for me)? Or is he great because his music (apparently) brings pleasure to millions of people? Who cares what I think anyway?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Where My Money Goes

Unlike in my former life as a corporate worker bee, these days I spend more money than I earn. Not counting the tax hit from the bonus I got when I left my last company (which, after all, came with a bonus), I'm about $2000 poorer (in terms of cash and short-term savings) now than I was a year ago.

I'm not too upset about that. I started grad school with some savings that I expect to partly deplete by the time I graduate. At the same time, considering that I live in a relatively cheap apartment ($675/month) with a roommate (so that my rent + utilities is typically under $400), my TA stipend (about $22,000 a year including the extra summer work) really ought to be enough to live on. Many people are supporting families on such a wage.

I keep track of my finances in Mint, so for your amusement and/or horror, let's take a look at how I spent my money in 2011. First, here is an overview of all of my spending:

A few things really stand out:
  1. Wow, I spend a lot of money on food!
  2. And shopping!
  3. What am I spending all that "Auto & Transport" money on?
  4. I wonder what is in "Other"?
(In case you wonder, the Education spending includes $5 of tuition and the rest is books and office supplies. Some of the books are textbooks and others are supplemental reading. I also spent $180 on eBay for the tablet I teach from.)

Let's look at where my food budget goes:

So, it turns out that I eat out a lot. This shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me. And this aspect of my life has proven extremely unresponsive to my attempts to apply budgets to it. It turns out (via the magic of revealed preferences) that eating out, and in general having nice things to eat, is important to me. I'd still very much like to spend less money on food. Over $20 a day seems a bit excessive.

Now, about the shopping:

I'll admit it shocks me that I spent over $1000 on clothes in 2011. I don't think of myself as buying many clothes (even including shoes, which are included here). I'm fine with the money I spent on books. The 'hobbies' money here was the money I spent having the photo albums of my childhood digitally scanned and I don't regret that either.

Now let's take a look at where my "auto & transport" spending is coming from:

The parking is mostly for school, of course. I shouldn't need to spend money on this at all given that I live half a mile from campus, but I started buying parking because I developed chronic foot problems that seem best remediated by avoiding walking. Hopefully over time I can cut that expense. The rest of this is just the normal costs of car ownership.

Let's take a look at "Other":

I'm happy with the money I spend on travel - I think it's money well-spent, relatively speaking. Visiting my loved ones is important to me, and if anything, I wish I spent more money on this. (That is to say, I wish I traveled more. If I could travel more for the same money that would be great too.)

What about that $418 on entertainment?

You might think from seeing this that I buy movies, but that is not the case: if you look at the individual records, it turns out that a few of these are movie rentals and the rest are actual theater tickets. (There is also my Netflix subscription for $10/month.) I hardly ever used to go to the movies, so it's a bit shocking that I apparently saw 25 in the theater this year.

Seeing movies in the theater is a bit of an extravagance, but it results from the social life I have these days that I never used to have. I really relish that aspect of my current existence and don't regret it in the slightest. I will continue to see movies with friends as much as I want.

So that's how I spent my money in 2011. I would like to cut back on shopping and on eating out; otherwise I'm relatively satisfied with my current choices, and very grateful that my life affords me so many opportunities.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Middlemarch, and Being Human

A long time ago at a college far, far away (well, about 6 hours away by car), I was supposed to read Middlemarch by George Eliot for a 19th Century British Literature class. I ended up dropping the class and never reading the book, but then recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking it up, and I love him, so I was inspired to pick it up. I haven't finished the book yet - I've been reading it several hours a day for over a week, but it's a long book - but I want to talk about it a bit.

Middlemarch at first reminded me of Jane Austen's novels - the setting appears similar (Eliot was born around the time Austen died, but from this distance in time, it feels the same) and the book has a large and interwoven cast of characters and is heavily about courtship and marriage. There are three really clear differences, though:

  1. Eliot is much harder to read than Austen; the sentences are longer, use more fancy vocabulary words, and are structured with more complexity.
  2. If you read Austen novels and think, "But what about once they are married? These people barely know each other! Marriage is every day for years and years and years! Also women especially had no options and they didn't even have divorce back then," Middlemarch may be for you, because getting married is just the start of each story, and you get to find out exactly how the matches turn out.
  3. Eliot doesn't limit herself to describing conversations between women or between women and men; she also describes conversations that solely involve men.

There are other differences, one of which relates to an obsession of mine. The obession is the one I'm thinking of when I say, "I don't know how to be a human being," so let me digress for a moment.

Life to me seems like a constant struggle between being a decent human and being a shitbag, and we have two choices - unabashed shitbaggery, or shitbaggery accompanied by struggle and abashedness. I don't see any cure for it, and this, to me, is almost the sole appeal of Christianity - that it starts with a frank admission that we are basically horrible.

Pondering one's own "stuff" gets into what I call fractal territory, which is to say, it leads to an endless descending cycle of realizing what a crappy excuse for a person one is, at the end of which cycle I usually declare, "I have no idea how to be a human being."

I'm not talking about temptations like lying or theft, but actual internal attitudes. I'm talking about things like mocking people we don't like for qualities we readily accept in our friends, or detesting others for traits we ourselves possess, or continually (despite any efforts to the contrary) seeing the world as revolving around ourselves, or constant unremitting disregard for sometimes even really obvious things about the experiences of the people around us, or the bizarre selfish pride most of us feel.

So I guess what I'm really talking about is fundamental selfishness. Of course, some people simply embrace their own selfishness - either by conveniently not noticing it or by taking up a philosophy that justifies it. I know some people who actually seem not to be shitbags at heart, but I have no idea how they attained this state, or whether it's basically illusory. But I know that when I look at myself in terms of my internal states I basically disapprove of my overall implicit attitudes.

And the thing about Middlemarch is that George Eliot seems to really get this. She writes about this sort of thing a lot, and I like it.

Here are some good quotes (not all relating to this topic):

For my part, I have some fellow-feeling with Dr. Sprague: one's self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.

We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions - how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness!


There are answers which, in turning away wrath, only send it to the other end of the room, and to have a discussion cooly waived when you feel that justice is all on your own side is even more exasperating in marriage than in philosophy.


She leaned her head back against the window-frame, and laid her hand on the dog's head; for though, as we know, she was not fond of pets that must be held in the hands or trodden on, she was always attentive to the feelings of dogs, and very polite if she had to decline their advances.


But Duty has a trick of behaving unexpectedly - something like a heavy friend whom we have amiably asked to visit us, and who breaks his leg within our gates.


It is true Lydgate [a doctor] was constantly visiting the homes of the poor and adjusting his prescriptions of diet to their small means; but, dear me! - has it not by this time ceased to be remarkable - is it not rather what we expect in men, that they should have numerous strands of experience lying side by side and never compare them with each other? Expenditure - like ugliness and errors - becomes a totally new thing when we attach our own personality to it, and measure it by that wide difference which is manifest (in our own sensations) between ourselves and others.


The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with [Bulstrode]. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we belief in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.


I think any hardship is better than pretending to do what one is paid for, and never really doing it.


There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.

So there you have it, folks: Tam's guide to Middlemarch.