What are you eating?

When we think of healthy foods, American cuisines rarely come first to our minds. It is certainly not a coincidence that Americans have been stereotyped as couch potatoes and junk food gluttons. To create a safe and intellectually stimulating environment where we examine this issue, Cosi chairs Georgia and Wen invited residents of SP to participate in a dinner discussion on June 29, 2014. The topic of the discussion is “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”. A group of about 15 S-P residents with a diverse range of cultural backgrounds participated in the lively exchange. Universally agreed upon was that there is a problem with unhealthy eating habits in our general populace. Identifying the cause and the mechanism behind the problem had also been straightforward. But conflict arose when solutions were proposed.  Three main approaches were vocalized by various participants. First, regulatory measures such as taxation of “fatty foods” should be imposed on food suppliers. Second, regulations on school lunches should be set to cultivate healthy eating habits at a young age. Third, the public should be further educated on the harmful effects associated with junk food indulgence, and people should be aware of marketing strategies food companies employ to promote their products. During the discussion, participants shared their personal experiences regarding food choice, and a few mentioned differences in diet across different cultures. The dinner concluded with potential topics for future discussions, one in particular being the current state of higher education. Be sure to keep an eye out for upcoming announcements from the Cosi chairs if you are interested! Additional references can be found here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&#commentsContainer

http://theweek.com/article/index/240554/should-the-us-adopt-a-fat-tax

Ivory Tower

A hall event on July 2, 2014 brought together more than 8 SP residents at Kendall Square Cinema for a showing of “Ivory Tower” – a documentary on the state of higher education in the US. Directed by Andrew Rossi, the film introduces the history behind higher education, compares the vastly different cultures of colleges across the country, and examines the issue of exponentiating tuition costs. The film criticizes the phenomenon of colleges competing against one another for “prestige” by means of large capital expenditures in facilities, some of which can almost be interpreted exclusively as for luxury. Rather than focusing on academics, higher education has become a business where students pay institutions and loan services for a unique “college” experience. The film looks into specific universities and the difficulties each faces, such as Harvard with its rigorous curricula and Cooper Union with its recent controversy surrounding the abolishment of the “free education” ideal. The film also covers creative solutions like online classes through Coursera, reformative mindset pioneered by the Uncollege movement, and alternative institutions like Deep Springs College. It also comments on their respective popularity and effectiveness. The documentary contains a good amount of statistics and sources to back up many of its claims, but is not politically neutral (in my personal opinion). It is certainly thought provoking, and I encourage you to check it out if you have the chance!

Movie Review with Thraves

Charles Thraves, S-P resident

Charles Thraves, a graduate student in operations research at MIT and a resident at S-P recently watched the documentary Ivory Tower. We asked him for his thoughts on the film.

Thraves: Before going to the questions, I would say that I found a very interesting documentary, and that even though I suggest the outing to this event, it doesn’t mean that I agree 100% with all what it claims.

SPeaker: What did you know about the state of higher education in the US prior to watching the movie?

Thraves: I have known that there are plenty of offers in what higher education regards, where many names are in the top of the world. Also that higher education is a big step in life for U.S. citizens, and so is a big achievement to succeed in life.

SPeaker: What is one thing you learned by watching the movie?

Thraves: I learned different facets and issues that have been arising over the last decades. For example, the increasing student’s loans which now is exceeding a billion of dollars. This by itself may be reasonable since students are investing in their future. However, numerous institutions are operating like a business just aware to capture students by offering careers which hardly have a working field. In addition, some Universities are shaping according to stylize ranking measures, leading to huge expenditures on things which are very apart from educational purposes, and therefore increasing tuition costs. Also how online courses are entering into the stage to make knowledge more accessible, nonetheless many students feel that the learning is quite less compared to a classroom lessons. As a result, online courses are solving the symptoms of a problem (that accessibility to higher education should not depend on the student’s wealth), however, this is creating a segregation of two classes of students: the ones that can pay and so are eligible to face-to-face classes, and a second tier group which will just watch classes on YouTube.

SPeaker: What can you tell us about higher education in your home country? In particular, can you share one similarity and one difference from the system in the US?

Thraves: Higher education in Chile (my home country) is also expensive, and students debt is also an issue. We have numerous Universities that are literally like a for profit business. These institutions minimize costs as much as possible, they don’t spend on full time professors nor research, but just on marketing to capture students and classes (even better if they are online). Unfortunately information in these “markets” is very fuzzy. So plenty of people apply to these institutions receiving a low quality education while going into big debts which they hardly will be able to pay in future. One difference would be that Universities in Chile are more local, in the sense that they don’t have a mix of students of all over the country nor other countries as much as in the U.S.

SPeaker: Who would you recommend this movie to?

Thraves: People who like the education topic in general.

Heartbeat

Hunter Zhao, S-P resident

Hello S-P! My name is Hunter, I’m your newsletter chair of 2014-2015. One of the visions I have for this year’s newsletters is to incorporate contributions from SP residents that are artistic in nature. Having spoken with several leaders at S-P, I’ve been encouraged to share with you a chapter from my novel that is currently in the workings. Feel free to comment and offer any suggestions! Also, if you would like to share some of your own artistic compositions (doesn’t have to be writing!), please contact me at: sp-newsletter-chair@mit.edu.

I hope you enjoy my writing!

Prologue

It was almost midnight. The thick, red curtains rippled as wind carried the scent of the city into the room. Dimly lit but well-defined, the living quarter exuded an elegance rarely found amidst the streets fifty stories below. A man stood at the entrance to the balcony, facing the outside.

“That is all I have to report, Your Reverence.”

“Your observations are consistent with those of other Inspectors.” A gentle, feminine voice replied. “You have done well, but I request that you stay here a little longer.”

“Shall I continue with the investigation?”

“That won’t be necessary. We have all the information we need. I want you to keep an eye on the Valentines.”

The man bowed his head. “Please enlighten me.”

“I found someone who possesses the Gift. His intervention might help us avert the war.”

“Your wish is my command.”

“And one more thing, Eli,” she chuckled, “you don’t have to be so stern around me.”

“Your wisdom is the highest, Your Reverence. It is my honor to serve.” Eli replied.

 

Chapter 1 – May

 

“Father, you know very well it’s going to work as they say. Why do you insist on opposing the resolution?” Steven shoved past the doors to the seemingly empty conference hall. Anguished footsteps echoed as he stormed across the glazed atrium. “Why are you so hung up on petty politics when you can prevent millions from losing their homes?”

“Steven, I was expecting you!” A cheerful voice replied. “So you managed to catch our negotiations after all.”

A man in his late 50’s emerged from behind the podium. Tall and well kept, gray hair, brown eyes, sturdy posture, suit and tie. Unfazed by the young man’s attitude, he continued to collect papers and tuck them away in his leather folder. Facing him were three levels of uniformly themed desks and chairs, each embodying a carpentry that spelt art instead of practicality. The furniture arrangement curved around the central podium and formed concentric arcs. Overhead, a chandelier immersed the room in exquisite class.

“You are stubborn and cannot be reasoned with!” Steven barked, his voice cracking midway through the sentence.

“Watch your mouth, young man.” A hint of annoyance smeared across the middle-aged man’s face. “This is hardly the way to speak to your father.”

“You had me come all the way here just so I could watch you defend your pride before a bunch of fools!”

“Fools? I thought you admired these brilliant minds.” The father sneered.

“They were foolish enough to waste their time with YOU!”

The father’s head snapped up and locked onto the approaching figure. He took a sharp breath, ready to unleash a torrent of anger, but not a single word came out. He had long exhausted everything he could say. Even if he hadn’t, he knew it would be counterproductive in reconciling their relationship if he were to deliver anything on impulse. Slowly, he straightened himself and looked away.

“Steven… you know that things are not always so simple.” A shade of weariness dawned on his face. “You’re right. I can save those people today. But with every compromise we make, we back away farther from our stance. If we continue to concede to their advances, our independence will be lost.”

“So you deem the publicity of this organization more valuable than human lives?!” The young man slashed back, unrelenting.

The father was silent.

Steven halted his advance towards the podium. Gazing defiantly at his father, he swallowed back the words he had prepared for what the man might have said. His vision blurred as tears flooded into the chambers of his eyes.

“The pursuit of an ideal always entails sacrifice.” The father muttered quietly. The man who enveloped the whole atrium with energy just a few seconds ago now appeared tired and beaten. He inserted the last of his documents into the folder and tucked it under his arm. With a loud sigh, he stepped around the podium and headed towards the door. As he walked by Steven, he rested his hand briefly on the young man’s shoulder. Steven stood motionless, still glaring at the now absent figure behind the podium. Seconds passed like hours, until a voice from the doorway suddenly shook him, “The reception has been moved three floors down. They said it’s drizzling up on the deck.”

The father exited the room.

Like all other conferences regularly held there, an extravagant reception always followed afterwards. But Steven was in no mood to socialize. He only came because his father had insisted on it more than a dozen times. Just minutes ago, representatives from nations around the world gathered in this auditorium. They discussed and voted on the proposition to deploy a technology that sought to alter climate on the global scale. Steven spectated from an adjacent room. Although the proposal contained much more technical detail than the untrained ear would like to hear, he understood everything and found the mechanism behind the concept quite fascinating. The technology was the first of its kind and indeed carried potentially unforeseen risks, but he was confident that it would function as designed. After all, aside from a few vocal outliers, accredited academics from around the world independently verified and acknowledged the idea. If implemented, the calamitous weather patterns and rapid sea-level rise could be abated. Inaction, however, would lead to the emergence of millions of climate refugees. Father chose the latter.

Although Steven hated to admit it, he had been hopeful for this discussion in particular. He thought that maybe his father would be more reasonable. Maybe he would signal a new course of action for his political compatriots. Maybe he would choose saving lives over saving face. Steven clenched his fists. He loathed his father’s twisted ideals and strategically fabricated demeanor. It was why he didn’t want to come in the first place. Politicians disgusted him.

Steven exited the room. Offices lined neatly along the corridor. Paintings decorated the space between doors. Steven didn’t care for their content, but he liked their symmetric arrangement. Consistency was beautiful. He turned around the corner towards the elevators and saw no one else in the lobby. Everyone must have already left for the reception.

The elevator arrived. It had been merely five seconds or so since Steven called it. It is only fitting to adorn such a magnificent high-rise with the most efficient personnel transportation network, he mused. There were multiple sensors in each car. When a car was empty, it would shoot towards its destination floor at breakneck speed. But when a car was occupied, it would limit its acceleration to ensure the safety of its occupants. Cameras monitored passenger traffic on each floor; the information is used to optimize the standby position of each car. Steven took pride in this knowledge. He scoffed at the irony that such an elegant technology would be adopted by people who rallied against its inventors. As he stepped in, the scent of appetizers and wine saturated his nose. He pushed 58, the topmost floor. Floor 58 was where the wings of the skyscraper converged. The whole floor was just one enormous, circular lobby blanketed with marble and buttressed with pillars. The space was designed specifically for hosting receptions, and contained no interior walls other than for bathrooms and elevator shafts. The hall also harbored a fountain underneath a circular shaped cutout from the ceiling. A spiral staircase led up to the roof, which served as an outdoors deck. Steven wanted to spend some time alone. Because of the rain, no one should be on the deck right now. He proceeded to scan his badge for authorization. The elevator doors slid shut.

Floor 58. The room was well-lit and air conditioned, albeit devoid of occupants. Steven let out a sigh of relief. The sound of water splashing in the fountain muffled the raindrops beating against the deck. A few small puddles had formed on the ground. He stuck his hands into his pockets and made his way towards the spiral staircase. The misty drizzle would probably ruin his expensive suit if he stayed for too long, but he wasn’t concerned. He could just pick out another set when he got home. It was one of the few perks he enjoyed about being a Valentine. He couldn’t recall the last time money was a problem.

Steven strolled to the top of the stairs. A slew of pink narrowly missed his face. He lost his foothold and fell backwards. His hand reflexively grabbed onto the handrail as he tried to regain his balance. Still shocked, he looked up and caught sight of a female figure fifteen feet away, swerving about in a dance. She wore a white summer dress that ended just above her knees. She seemed about a head shorter than him, and had a rather slender frame. Steven expected an exchange of apologies, but the girl was still darting and turning and bending and swaying with unparalleled finesse as though she hadn’t noticed him at all.

“Hey!” Steven called out.

No response.

“Excuse me!”

Still no response.

Steven grew a little annoyed. He wasn’t used to being ignored. Nevertheless, he decided to watch her in silence for a while, observing her every maneuver. Her fluidic movements were beyond enchanting; the longer he waited, the less he wanted to disturb her. He had to get her attention somehow, but his feet were glued to the deck. This might have been the most beautiful dance he had ever seen.

“Why’d you get so quiet?” A plummy voice broke his concentration. “I thought you were trying to get my attention?”

“W-Wha…” stuttered Steven as he recollected his thoughts. “Hi.”

“And don’t you think it’s a little creepy to be staring at me all this time?” The girl retracted her limbs from a pose.

“No, wait, I wasn’t…”

She rested her hands on her hips and smirked. “You aren’t so good with the ladies are you?”

Steven hadn’t been able to see her face clearly until now. She had an oval-shaped face with unobtrusive cheekbones and round chin. Her hair was a tide of pink draped over her shoulders. Long lashes lined the lids of her dark green eyes, and a small nose sat delightfully above her lips. The tint of her lipstick mirrored the color of her hair. Judging from her features, Steven could tell that she was no more than twenty.

“I didn’t mean to stare at you.” Steven folded his arms awkwardly in attempt to retain some dignity. “I just thought it was unusual for someone to be up here at this hour, and dancing.”

The girl trotted towards him and stopped a few inches too close for his comfort. She leaned in, her hands clasped behind her back. Her eyes narrowed as she examined him. The pressure made Steven shift his eyes away.

“You, mister,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner, “almost ran into me when you came upstairs. I think you owe me an apology.”

“You can’t be serious.” Steven’s eyes widened. “I almost fell down the stairs because of you, and I’m fairly sure you’re not supposed to be up here.”

The girl replied, “well neither are you.”

“How did you get here?” asked Steven.

“The same way you did.”

A frustrated look came upon Steven’s face. They couldn’t have allowed such an improper visitor into the establishment, he thought. He knew all the familiar faces that frequented this place. Even if he didn’t recognize someone, he would be able to tell if she belonged here by her conduct and attire. He couldn’t recall ever seeing this girl before, and dancing on the deck was certainly a first. Perhaps she was related to someone that worked here? But if so, why wouldn’t she be at the reception?

“My name is Steven.” He said. He thought that he should first identify himself if he wanted her to reciprocate. “My father is Joseph. Joseph Valentine. I attended a conference here today, so I’m a guest. I came up because I needed some air.” He muttered sheepishly.

“Oooh! Is our poor little boy upset?” She taunted.

“You should have heard of him. My father I mean.” Steven pressed on. “Who are you here with?”

“With you of course, who else?” She replied.

Steven lifted his hands in an irritated gesture and turned aside. She’s not taking him seriously at all. He would have been far more respected in a conversation with anyone else, let alone after revealing his father’s identity. Maybe he should…

“Dance with me!” The girl blurted. She took a step forward and took hold of his wrist. The fragrance of her perfume shot up his nose. But before he could pull away, she placed his hand behind her waist, wrapped her arm around his neck and railed herself in.

Steven shoved her back.

“I don’t think this is appropriate,” he said.

“Now, now,” the girl pinched her eyebrows into a seductive frown, “don’t be shy, life is short!”

“Look, my day’s been rough enough. The last thing I need right now is harassment from you.”

“Well… would it be,” the girl held up two fingers on either side of her head and squeezed them, “more appropriate… if you continued to stare at me while I danced?”

“Why are you dancing here, out of all places, and alone?”

“Because I love dancing.”

“No, I mean, why the roof in parti-, never mind.” Steven dismissed the question with his hand. He knew he wasn’t getting a straight answer out of her.

“It’s nice up here,” she replied, “the view… the air… the drizzle, it makes me feel alive.”

“But isn’t dancing usually accompanied by some kind of music?” Steven asked, curiosity triumphing over his surprise that she actually gave him a straight answer.

“Of course,” the girl responded, her face beaming. “Can you feel it, the rhythm of your heartbeat? Can you hear the sound of water splashing? Can you taste the raindrops falling on your lips, smell the fragrance of summer air, and see the veins of the city below? This is music, the music of life!”

Steven smiled. Whether it was the absurdity of her response or the silliness of the situation, the bitterness with his father dissolved a little. He must admit that her joy was quite contagious.

“You get what I mean right?” Her emerald pupils glistened. “See, you’re smiling.”

“What’s your name?” Steven asked.

“Don’t get too friendly with me now,” she said, “I still haven’t heard that apology from you.”

“Okay, fine,” Steven whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“I can’t hear you!” The girl put a hand up to her ear.

“I’m sorry I almost ran into you.”

“What was that? This music is too loud!”

Steven slapped her arm playfully while she dodged backwards, laughing.

“You’re a great dancer, do you do this for a living?”

“Sometimes. I dance because I feel like it, whether on stage or just now.”

“So how long have you danced?” asked Steven. He was becoming more and more intrigued with this strange girl.

“For as long as I can remember. I studied dance at the Juilliard School at one point,” she replied. A streak of pride leaked through her eyes.

“Then you must be on summer break right now.”

Cheerfulness faded from the girl’s face. She looked down in order to conceal her sudden change of expression.

“No. I dropped out of school,” she said.

Steven wasn’t sure how to respond. In one part he felt responsible for ruining the atmosphere, in another he wanted to find out why such a talented girl would drop out of school. He figured that since she was so enthusiastic about dance, she must be just as sensitive when it came to the topic. It was probably better to just leave it alone.

“Voluntarily.” She added hastily, noticing Steven’s ambivalence.

“Did you find a better place to dance?” asked Steven, still puzzled. For someone with a more modest family background, the cost of tuition might have been a natural guess. That thought would never cross Steven’s mind, of course.

“No. Health problems.”

“Ah, that’s unfortunate. I’m sorry to hear that,” Steven said, with a lower pitch than before.

“I don’t need your pity,” the girl retorted. “It gave new meaning to my life.”

She walked to the outer edge of the deck by the windshield, folded her arms and leaned on the railing. The bustling city below seemed farther away than the dark clouds above. She stared into the glass, unsure whether she was looking for her own reflection or a particular raindrop. In a way, they had a lot in common.

Steven walked up next to her. He hadn’t planned on chatting with anyone, but the girl’s presence distracted him from thoughts of his father, which was what he came to accomplish anyway, so he didn’t mind.

“Did you know that Boston is an unplanned city?” said Steven, hoping that a change of topic would lighten up the mood.

“What’s the difference?” she asked.

“Planned cities are built according to a blueprint designed by an architect. They are complete cities from the start, and their futures have been conceived before they spring up from the ground,” explained Steven. “An unplanned city is what a city becomes after the planners leave.”

Steven pointed towards a bridge across Charles River. “Follow Mass. Ave. and you’ll see that it doesn’t have a consistent orientation throughout its span. In fact, that goes for most of the major streets here. Sometimes you can’t even tell one block from the next because everything’s so jumbo’d up.”

The girl’s head followed his finger as he went on. “And the streets are rarely numbered. In L.A. on the other hand, almost every street has a number, and the city practically sits on a grid.”

“Where did Boston’s planners go?” asked the girl.

“Well this city’s about as old as America itself, so it’s probably safe to assume that the planning’s been passed down across several generations. Inhabitants, entrepreneurs, developers, immigrants, they’ve all been shaping the city.”

“Can’t they just rebuild sections of the city to make moving around a little easier?”

“It’s not that simple, especially not with a historical city like Boston. In fact, the subway network had to tunnel around Harvard when they extended it because George Washington permanently exempted the institute from eminent domain laws.”

“That seems rather… selfish,” said the girl with raised eyebrows.

“At least they’re doing some good things,” said Steven. “I’ve heard that the Harvard Corporation has to meet certain annual returns on investment just to break even with all the financial aid they give out every year.”

He turned to face the girl. “Outside of their business school, of course,” he wisecracked.

“Do you go to Harvard?” she asked.

“No. I attend Zenith, one of the Solomon Academies.”

“So you’re one of those,” she mocked.

“Hey, I know what you’re thinking. I fought long and hard to get there, against my father’s will on top of it all.”

“As long as you’re happy, I guess.” She added. “You think it’s worth all the white hair on your head?”

“Very funny.” Steven rolled his eyes. He indeed had white hair. Not few, not many, but all of it. It wasn’t the result of an accident or stress from work. He was born with it, along with a complementary package of lifelong ridicule. He didn’t mind at all, though. It wasn’t so much of a handicap as an eccentricity. However, coupled with his analytical nature and stellar intellect, it quickly became the catalyst of an overused joke.

“Never thought I’d be dancing in front of a creepy math nerd when I woke up this morning,” she joked.

“It’s an integrated education that actually produces useful people for society,” said Steven. “At least do some research before you start oozing ignorance.”

“Okay, so tell me, what exactly do you study there that makes you…” the girl quoted again with her fingers, “useful for society?”

“Lots of things, pretty much all the disciplines under the experimental sciences. You also have the option to pursue theoretical fields like mathematics and certain branches of physics, or delve into applied areas like software development, business, or engineering. There really isn’t a clear divide between classes when the professors outnumber the students.”

“And… you’re an expert in all of them?” the girl seemed incredulous.

“No, of course not,” replied Steven, “I do know a bit of everything, but I like space engineering and applied mathematics the most. Because after a while, you start to realize that everything can be modeled under some abstract framework.”

“See? I was right, a math nerd.”

“If you insist.” Steven decided to play along. “But you left out the space part.”

“Right, and that’s supposed to make you useful?”

“Come on, this stuff took us to the moon!”

“To a piece of white rock really far away.” She contended facetiously.

“A dark grey collection of rocks, mind you.” Steven replied in kind. “The only thing white over there is probably the flag we planted fifty years ago. It doesn’t take long for the radiation to bleach the paint off the fabric.”

“Hmm, like how Michael Jackson turned white because he did too many moonwalks?”

Steven laughed. He was beginning to grow fond of this girl.

“Oh and by the way, you can call me May,” she said.

Quick, Refreshing Boston Getaways

By Sumit Dutta, Sidney-Pacific Outing Chair 2013-14

It can be easy for us to get soaked knee-deep into our studies at MIT. Fortunately, we need not look far to find the occasional escape in our bustling city. Since the vast number of attractions around us may be overwhelming, I would like to share a few outing ideas that have resonated well with graduate students.

I have had the pleasure of organizing a number of outings with students in Sidney-Pacific. These outings appeal to a variety of tastes, and I present a few of these ideas here.

Hike the Middlesex Fells

Sumit hiking the Middlesex Fells.

Sumit hiking the Middlesex Fells.

Hiking opportunities around Boston are just a subway ride away! One of the more scenic forest preserves on the outskirts of the city is the Middlesex Fells Reservation. From Oak Grove, the northernmost station on the Orange Line, you need only walk a few blocks to enter the Middlesex Fells at the trailhead of the Cross Fells Trail. On a clear day, take the Cross Fells Trail to the Rock Circuit Trail to discover stunning vistas of the Boston skyline from various hilltops. The reservation is expansive, as are its trails. It is best to bring your own hiking gear and some trail food, remembering to leave no trace. If you are hungry at the end of the hike, you may want to walk to the nearby town of Melrose for a variety of dining options. There is also a Commuter Rail station there. Right off the Fellsway East path is J. J. Grimsby & Co., a classic diner where you can eat well before your return trip.

Directions to the Middlesex Fells Reservation are available at https://goo.gl/maps/YZ5sL and a hiking trails map is at http://www.fells.org/Fells_Reservation_Map.pdf.

Castle Island and Fort Independence

Castle Island

Castle Island

On a clear summer day, a trip to Castle Island can easily feel like a vacation getaway. It offers a beach, picnic areas, an ocean walkway, and views of Boston Harbor and the Massachusetts Bay. The windy location also makes for great kite-flying, if you feel like exposing your youth. You should also arrive early in the day if you want to see the historic Fort Independence, which has free guided tours in the summer typically between noon and 3 o’clock. Castle Island is actually not an island because it was connected to the mainland via landfill by the 1930s. You can reach the park by walking or taking a bus from one of the stops on the Red Line, or by driving.

Ice Cream on the Minuteman Trail

The Minuteman Trail is one of the most convenient paths to get out of Boston on a bike. The path is a dedicated bikeway between Alewife and Bedford. The Minuteman Trail was built where there was once a railroad, making it a flat and gentle path suitable for all skill levels. I would recommend riders to carry ample water and carbohydrates. Along the way there a number of ice cream establishments where you can refresh yourself. Some examples are Toscanini’s, Christina’s, Bedford Farms, and Kimball Farm. Finding the Minuteman Trail is the trickiest part, but it’s smooth sailing once you are on it. The map below shows a safe set of streets you would take get to the Minuteman Trail: (1) Hampshire/Beacon Street, (2) Somerville Avenue, (3) Massachusetts Avenue, and (4) Rindge Avenue.

Annotated by Sumit Dutta and map data from OpenStreetMap.

Annotated by Sumit Dutta and map data from OpenStreetMap.

The full bicycling directions to take the Minuteman Trail to Kimball Farm are at https://goo.gl/maps/7sRA0.

Catch a Symphony or Two

Image courtesy of Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

Get some peace of mind by immersing yourself in the Boston fine arts scene. If you are committed to seeing the Boston Symphony Orchestra, you can pick up a MIT/BSO College Card for $5 and get free concert opportunities around the year. If you are less committed, plenty of opportunities still exist to get discounted or free tickets at any time of the year for other groups such as the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra or Boston Chamber Music Society, through the MIT Arts Council. Concert venues typically include Symphony Hall, the Saunders Theater, the Pickman Concert Hall, and of course our own Kresge Oval.

 

 

SP Officer Profile: 5 North Hall Councilor

This month, the SPeaker interviewed former 5 North Hall Councilor and current chair of the Halls Mariana Matus about herself and her time as a hall councilor. 

Mariana Matus.

Mariana Matus.

Mariana is a second year PhD student in Computational and Systems Biology.  It is also her second year at Sidney-Pacific.  Her research explores how one could monitor the health status of a city by monitoring its waste waters, using Boston as a case study.  Mariana and her advisor wish to use this monitoring capability to follow disease dynamics in the context of a city.

Mariana has led a fascinating life.  She is from Mexico, born in Mexico city, but moved a number of times. Mariana has lived in a number of different cities and countries, including Israel, the Netherlands, the UK, and now the US, and she enjoys to travel.  Mariana speaks Spanish and English fluently, but also picked up some dutch and french from her time overseas.   While in college, she adopted a baby squirrel back in college, and raised her as a pet. The squirrel is still living with her mother and is almost six years old now!

Outside of her research and volunteering for SP, Mariana spends her down time watching some TV shows and movies.  Her favorite TV shows are Sherlock, The Good Wife and Betas, and her favorite movie is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  Mariana also enjoys learning new things outside of her field, especially things relating to programming, electronics, and machine learning.  She also enjoys visiting museums, oil painting and is currently learning how to swim.

 Mariana became a hall councilor to contribute back to the community because she really enjoyed her first year in SP. She was also extremely curious to learn how to organize events, become a better cook, gain leadership skills, and expand her network of MIT friends.  As a hall councilor, Mariana enjoyed coming up with fun events and making new friends.  These fun events included “Water War I”, a water fight and barbeque she organized with fellow hall councilor Francisco Unda, and “A feast of thrones” in which Mariana and hall councilor Helena Zhang cooked food from the “Game of thrones official cookbook”.  Mariana also organized the Mexican Coffee hour, which included a taco bar, her critically acclaimed* flan, and Mexican bingo.

Mariana enjoyed her experience as a hall councilor so much that she joined SPEC as the chair of the halls.  As chair of the halls, she will lead the SP hall councilors for 2014-2015.

* Fellow hall councilor Marianna Sofman claims it was the best flan she ever had. 

What is Normal?

By Holly Johnsen,

It is easy in graduate school to get overwhelmed comparing yourself to others. Last year, The Tech polled undergraduates and graduates about pressure at MIT (interactive results available at http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N59/pressure/index.htm). One of their findings was that MIT undergraduates play the “I’m-so-hosed game” a lot. They tend to complain about how behind they are on work and sleep, and these conversations are like competitions to see who is more hard core. In my experience, while we graduate students talk about our workloads often too, we play this game by different rules; a winning strategy can either be (1) to complain about how hard your advisor has been pushing you to meet your many deadlines, or (2) to complain about how little you are getting accomplished and what a bad student you are. I think for both graduate and undergraduate students, this game provides an opportunity for some catharsis and stress relief. But it carries an additional benefit for graduate students who are finished with classes. With no grades and meager feedback from our advisors, I think many of us are grasping for some way to evaluate ourselves and decide if our work is good enough. Although it is meaningless to compare yourself against someone in a totally different field, this game offers the comfort of knowing where we fit in. But the combination of bravado, humble-bragging, and self-deprecation are obscuring. To get more straightforward data, I posted anonymous surveys to SP Interest Groups and various social networks about work hours (204 respondents) and paper reading habits (100 respondents).

The work-hour survey simply asked respondents how much time they spent in lab (or the office) last week and what percentage of that time was on-task. While some people reported working more than 85 hours (with reported peaks of up to 120 hours), most people worked fewer than 65 hours, with a heavy tail. The median graduate student worked a reasonable 40-45 hours. Most graduate students reported efficiencies of around 70-80%. There was a slight trend of longer-working graduate students also being more efficient. We can imagine some caricatures: the typical graduate student works an eight- or nine-hour day with an hour-long lunch break and another hour or two of mini-breaks to chat with coworkers, play Angry Birds, or respond to my online polls; graduate students under pressure work hard and long to meet deadlines; burnt-out graduate students spend a few distracted hours in the office; and some students have learned to focus for short but intense periods, leaving the rest of their days open.

Time MIT graduate students spend in lab.

Time MIT graduate students spend in lab.

Efficiency versus hours spent in lab for MIT graduate students.

Efficiency versus hours spent in lab for MIT graduate students.

To stay abreast of their fields, graduate students tend to read often, but not as in-depth as you might think. Each week, most students read several abstracts, but they only download a few of these papers to look at figures and skim the text and end up reading just one or two papers in full. Reading a paper carefully and for complete understanding is a rare event for many students, perhaps taking place only when they are attempting to apply someone else’s findings or techniques to their own projects, or maybe when the paper is assigned for a reading group or class. Students tend to take about an hour to read a paper, but responses varied from ten minutes to ten hours, perhaps reflecting the difference in how closely people read. Students were enthusiastic about the importance of reading papers to academic success, but somewhat less excited about doing it, calling it “grueling” or claiming “I’d rather have teeth pulled without anesthesia.” But overall, students enjoy reading papers more than I expected. Respondents recommended staying organized with Mendeley and Papers. Don’t know what to read? Most people found their next papers through the works cited or works citing lists or searches on Google Scholar, Pubmed, etc.

These data inspired me to stop endeavoring to spend as much time in lab as possible. Instead, I try to be satisfied with myself for working ~40-45-ish hours, and try to make sure that I am using that time efficiently. I’ve found that since deciding to accept 40 hours as good enough, I’m much happier and satisfied with my work, and no less productive. After all, feeling guilty about not working hard enough is usually not a good strategy to work harder. Think you could change your habits for the better? Subscribe to a journal’s table-of-contents email list or set up an RSS feed to find out new developments in your field without any work on your part. There are a number of time-tracking and habit-tracking apps available, such as Eternity or Reporter, that make it easy to see what you’re spending your time on. As elementary as it sounds, keeping track of how many hours you worked or giving yourself a star sticker every day that you read can really help with motivation, especially if you find a way to celebrate your victories (maybe you get to go to Tosci’s for a sweet snack every five stars?). There are resources and classes at MIT Community Wellness to help you enact positive change too. It’s never too late to improve yourself!

Interested in taking the surveys? Follow these links: work hours (bit.ly/1gQvTWl), reading habits (http://bit.ly/1gQvZxb). You can see the results after filling out the survey, or directly here: work hours(http://bit.ly/QvO88K) reading habits(http://bit.ly/1kcKCIY).

 

Humans of Sidney Pacific: an Open Doors Photo Essay

By William Li, Trustee Chair, SP Board of Trustees

This semester, I took the course “MAS.700: Future of News and Participatory Media” in the MIT Center for Civic Media. One of the assignments is to report on a local event. I chose Open Doors Night on Saturday, February 15:

During Sidney Pacific’s Open Doors Night, several residents host small parties in their apartments and residents go around from room to room, meeting new people and enjoying snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and desserts. I decided to tell the story in the style of “Humans of New York“, a blog that features photos and quotes from New Yorkers in their daily lives. Here are the 15 hosts, what they served, and what they said.

Katie (and Georgia) ebelskivers "It's a family tradition!"

Katie (and Georgia): ebelskivers “It’s a family tradition!”

Erin chocolate and plain croissants, teriyaki pork, lamb "Why do you enjoy cooking?" "It's like the PhD grind, but you can eat it immediately!"

Erin: chocolate and plain croissants, teriyaki pork, lamb “Why do you enjoy cooking?” “It’s like the PhD grind, but you can eat it immediately!”

Atul and Pawan aloo paratha, laddu "It's an opportunity to expose people to Indian food and Indian traditions."

Atul and Pawan: aloo paratha, laddu “It’s an opportunity to expose people to Indian food and Indian traditions.”

 

Stephanie and Jen pinwheels (cheddar & bacon, spinach & mushrooms), sushi (spam & pineapple, crab meat & cucumber, salmon & cucumber), salted caramel turtle cookies "This is my fifth time hosting Open Doors Night!" "We thought we were going to be lazy but ended up doing a lot!"

Stephanie and Jen pinwheels (cheddar & bacon, spinach & mushrooms), sushi (spam & pineapple, crab meat & cucumber, salmon & cucumber), salted caramel turtle cookies “This is my fifth time hosting Open Doors Night!” “We thought we were going to be lazy but ended up doing a lot!”

 

Mariana canapés, hummus, tabbouleh salad, tomato bites "I got this book [on Lebanese cuisine] for Christmas."

Mariana: canapés, hummus, tabbouleh salad, tomato bites “I got this book [on Lebanese cuisine] for Christmas.”

Vadim: fresh fruit, croissants, coconut sweets, pizza, tea "What's been the most interesting thing that's happened this evening?" "I like the conversations. We talked about computational biology."

Vadim: fresh fruit, croissants, coconut sweets, pizza, tea “What’s been the most interesting thing that’s happened this evening?” “I like the conversations. We talked about computational biology.”

Isaac (and Fabián): brownies, homemade whipped cream, empanadas "Brownie?" "Sure!"

Isaac (and Fabián): brownies, homemade whipped cream, empanadas “Brownie?” “Sure!”

Julie (and Neel): brownies, cupcakes, chocolate-covered pretzels, raisinettes "This is awesome! You open your door and people come and say hi!"

Julie (and Neel): brownies, cupcakes, chocolate-covered pretzels, raisinettes “This is awesome! You open your door and people come and say hi!”

 

Ramesh and Szymon: stuffed mushrooms, peppermint brownie balls "The stuffed mushrooms are gone! There was sundried tomato and herb and bacon, spinach, and feta... and they both turned out really well."

Ramesh and Szymon: stuffed mushrooms, peppermint brownie balls “The stuffed mushrooms are gone! There was sundried tomato and herb and bacon, spinach, and feta… and they both turned out really well.”

Hoss: nachos, cookies "I'm very thankful for MIT residential life for doing some of the living for grad students. (laughs) That's not grammatically correct!"

Hoss: nachos, cookies “I’m very thankful for MIT residential life for doing some of the living for grad students. (laughs) That’s not grammatically correct!”

Holly (and George): appetizers from the freezer (bacon-wrapped tater tots and more) "What is your favorite recipe to make and why?" "I like new recipes. I've made a new recipe every day for the past year."

Holly (and George): appetizers from the freezer (bacon-wrapped tater tots and more) “What is your favorite recipe to make and why?” “I like new recipes. I’ve made a new recipe every day for the past year.”

 

Sumit: Various snacks (nachos, chicken wings) "I wanted to make what people were familiar with, in large quantities!"

Sumit: Various snacks (nachos, chicken wings) “I wanted to make what people were familiar with, in large quantities!”

Yu-Pu: sweet potato bread, almond hot chocolate "I got into baking because I have more free time this year."

Yu-Pu: sweet potato bread, almond hot chocolate “I got into baking because I have more free time this year.”

 

Rachael: shortcakes "I decided to make lemon raspberry and strawberry shortcakes because they seemed like late-spring/early-summer foods, which seemed like a good idea in a blizzard!"

Rachael: shortcakes “I decided to make lemon raspberry and strawberry shortcakes because they seemed like late-spring/early-summer foods, which seemed like a good idea in a blizzard!”

Steve and Frank brownies, tea "You're the last apartment in my article! How do you want to be quoted?" "We have too much tea." "Live long and prosper." "Tea, Earl Gray, hot."

Steve and Frank brownies, tea “You’re the last apartment in my article! How do you want to be quoted?” “We have too much tea.” “Live long and prosper.” “Tea, Earl Gray, hot.”

Why become an SP Officer?

By Marianna Sofman, James Pelletier, Pedro Perez, and Steve Levine,

If you have ever wanted to become more involved in the SP community, now is your chance!  SP Officer applications are now open! Become and officer and you can:

  • Gain leadership experience
  • Get guaranteed SP housing in 2014-15
  • Get priority on room selection

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, read what some current officers have to say about their experiences in the SP student government:

Marianna Sofman, 1st Floor Hall Councilor

mariannaAs I neared the end of my first year at MIT, living at SP, like everyone else, I needed to decide the fate of my living situation for the next year. Luckily, this was not a tough decision. My first year at MIT was not only defined by my research experience, classes, and the amazing people in my department, but this was all enhanced by the welcoming community at SP. I loved having a sense of home and family each and every day at SP with my friends and roommate, and I have enjoyed participating and volunteering at all the events that were organized. I knew that one way or another, I not only wanted to stay at SP, but I also wanted to become more involved by contributing more to the vibrant community here. Becoming a hall councilor was a swift and easy decision because frankly, I did not want to move, but I also enjoyed the prospect of the great flexibility that being a hall councilor offered. I felt that in addition to serving as a friend, confidante, and source of advice to incoming residents, I could organize fun events for my residents, further fostering a sense of community. I also like organizing joint hall events so my floor can meet and mingle with other floors- who doesn’t love making friends? More importantly, being a hall councilor allows me to connect with other officers on a regular basis at our dinners, officer meetings, and SP volunteer events. I love my SP family, and I’m looking forward to engaging with them in the future.

James Pelletier, Social Chair

Pelletier_JamesI have very much enjoyed the social co-chair experience. As social co-chair, I dressed up as Guy Fieri and guests threw playing cards into watermelon halves; learned some salsa from the MIT Ballroom Dance Team; dressed up as a nucleus, with a big transparent garbage bag full of red and blue balloons; will purchase several hundred pounds of corn starch to make a small pool full of a liquid on which people can dance. Wow – I now realize several of the social events we organized gave me a chance to wear absurd costumes! But the point is, as a member of the SP House Government, you will have many opportunities and a budget to do what you enjoy and share it with the MIT community! I had not before planned, publicized, or registered large events; interacted with MIT EHS, MIT Police, City of Cambridge, and various other groups; submitted reimbursements; or ordered food for hundreds of people – all these were great learning experiences. Above all, I feel thankful for the enthusiasm and generosity of the SP Helpers and SP Community.

Pedro Perez, Aquarium Chair

Generally speaking, people become residential officers for three perks: 1) interacting more closely with fellow students, 2) improving their living environment, and 3) integrating better within the larger MIT community. Well not this guy right here:

pedroIn fact, my initial motivation to become the Aquarium Chair was to secure housing. Well that, and being able to work with fish, which I have a long-standing passion for. Unfortunately, I had to partake in the aforementioned “perks”. It was truly awful, I had to plan and attend free-of-charge trips for Whale Watching and the New England Aquarium. To make matters worse, I had to take a group of people with me and socialize with them. I even became friends with some of them, the horror. In addition, thanks to SP-sponsored officer events, I met some dudes, formed a band, and have been playing all over campus in different music showcases for the past year. We even had an event with over 200 people, what a snore. Finally, thanks to being an officer, I get constantly invited to community events by other officers. Just the past few weeks, I’ve had to drink free beer from a brewery, go salsa dancing, and play in an intramural basketball team that made it to the playoffs. So unless you’re willing to put up with having an interactive social life, attending unique events all over the city, and learning about neat hobbies from your fellow colleagues I highly advise you against becoming a Sidney Pacific Officer. It is truly not worth it ;)

Steve Levine, Publicity Chair

steveI was at first extremely hesitant about becoming an SP officer. Would I have the time? I don’t know the other officers well, would I fit in? Would it actually be fun? But now, I can say with certainty that it’s easily been one of the best decisions I’ve made since living here. It’s gotten me so much more involved, and made SP feel like so much more than just four walls and a bed. Since becoming an officer, I started meeting many of the awesome people living right here in this same building.  I started volunteering at a lot more events, such as brunches, CoSI lectures, and coffee hours (a lot of fun by the way!). It’s that sense of involvement – of making SP partly your own through service – that I find the most gratifying about being an officer. And to me at least, it really matters. In grad school especially, I find it’s way too easy to ignore a crucial aspect of living life – branching out and meeting people. Becoming an officer and being generally active around SP has allowed me to do that fantastically. Plus, I do something I enjoy as a publicity chair – computer graphic design (I help make many of the elevator posters. And sometimes I make giant displays for the lobby, or even slides for the infinite corridor projectors). So, if there’s one takeaway about my experience so far, it’s yes – becoming an officer certainly has been rewarding, and has made SP feel much more like a home to me.

Apply online at http://s-p.mit.edu/apply! The application for committee chair positions are open until April 11th and the application for hall councilor positions is open until April 15th!

Fogo de Chao – A Meat Based Treat

By Dan Kolodrubetz, SP House Cup Coordinator

Fogo de Chao, 200 Dartmouth Street, Downtown Boston.  Picture courtesy of the Boston Globe.

Fogo de Chao, 200 Dartmouth Street, Downtown Boston. Picture courtesy of the Boston Globe.

Now, my Portugese is certainly weak, but I’m pretty sure that a direct translation of the name of this restaurant imported from Brazil is something along the lines of “We Love Meat!” If you feel the same way and are looking to treat yourself to some of the highest quality cuts of animal flesh to be found around Boston, Fogo de Chao is the restaurant for you.

Fogo follows the same simple format as other Brazilian churrascaria’s. You pay a flat (and admittedly high) rate for an all you can eat meal. Waiters roam the restaurant with giant skewers of meat, stopping at each table to cut off individual slices prepared the way you like. There are also a hot side dishes at the table and a fairly extensive salad bar.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise here comes from the salad bar, which I went in thinking would merely be an afterthought to my main carnivorous goals. However, with interesting choices like hearts of palm, a giant wheel of parmesan cheese and tabbouleh to accompany some more standard salad fare, it was impossible to resist returning several times to the chilled dishes that dominated the middle of the restaurant. Personally, the raisin apple chicken salad (perhaps not particularly Brazilian, but damn delicious anyway) was a perfect compliment to the heaviness of the meat.

Not everything was as stellar as the salad bar options. The hot sides that were brought to the table were good, but did little to blow me away. While some people swear by the cheese bread, I found that it was basically a standard roll with a bit of a cheese taste. Additionally, the polenta, mashed potatoes and caramelized bananas were all tasty, but lacked the wow factor of most of the other things I ate. Of course, that didn’t stop me from eating a ton of them in between bites of meat, but I think that says more about me than the food.

Meats being fire-roasted at Fogo de Chao.  Picture courtesy of the Boston Herald.

Meats being fire-roasted at Fogo de Chao. Picture courtesy of the Boston Herald.

Finally we come to the star of the meal, the glorious hunks of flesh that are appropriately paraded around the dining room with the respect they so rightfully deserve. There are around a dozen different cuts of meat. Most are seasoned very simply to allow the flavor of the animal to shine through. While the choices are dominated by beef, there is also some pork and chicken making the rounds, as well as perfectly seasoned lamb, which was probably the highlight of my meal (I’m pretty sure the guy carrying around the lamb thought I was into him baed on how many times I tried to get him back to our table). The other choices that stood out were the filet mignon wrapped in bacon (though this should surprise no one) and the top sirloin, sliced for me to be exactly medium rare, emphasis on the rare. Though those were the choices that I requested from the waiters again and again, I didn’t have a bad piece of meat among the many (many many many) that I sampled.

Overall, Fogo de Chao provides an unforgettable experience. It is a bit pricey, so skip it if you don’t like meat or aren’t prepared to really take advantage of all the options (i.e. act like a glutton while you can). Another excellent tip is to go for lunch, when the price point drops significantly. No matter how hungry you come, you won’t leave that way and probably won’t want to eat for at least 24 hours. Of course, I’m sure you’ll find room for the delightful after-meal chocolate mint, located near the door. You will want to savor every minute of this meal, because once you exit Fogo de Chao, you are reentering a world where you cannot simply get all of the delicious vegetables, cheese and mouth watering meat that you want, and that is a hard world to rejoin.