Category Archives: asks

Lessons from an Adult Learner

After a couple of years in graduate school, I wish I could go back in time and retake my undergrad classes. How did I ace all my statistics exams in grad school when I almost failed the class as an undergrad? Why did I pull so many all-nighters in college when I had few time commitments outside of class? Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned by going back to school as an adult:

1. Stay organized from day one.
I’ve been taking 2-3 classes a semester while working full time, so it would be easy to miss a deadline. As soon as I get my syllabi, I put class dates and important deadlines on a “school” Google Calendar. It shows up in bright red and sends me reminders – just the kind of subtlety I need.

2. Read smarter.
As an undergrad I’d do my reading, then later return to study it. Now, with less time, I immediately identify the important concepts and either outline them or, if I will be tested, create flash cards (I use to enter cards on the web and study on my Android phone). This boosts my comprehension while reading and saves hours of preparation during final exams.

3. Keep it all in one place (preferably online).
My notes, assignments, papers, and readings (if possible) are all in Google Drive. If I have an insight when I’m away from the computer, I can access and edit from anywhere. I’ve eschewed heavy textbooks for e-books and Kindle editions so I can sneak in a chapter of my reading in a waiting room or on the bus.

4. Put away the stopwatch and think outside the paper.
As an undergrad, I’d sit in front of a blinking cursor for hours to satisfy some masochistic requirement of “hours spent writing a paper.” As an adult, I realize that offline planning can skim hours off that paper, and it’ll be a much better one too. This week I planned papers in the shower, during a run, as I was cooking dinner…

5. Create weekly study sheets for non-humanities classes.
For classes like statistics and accounting, I got a feel for the scope of the material each week and then broke it down into smaller parts. Each week, I made myself a study sheet with formulas and the various types of problems along with the steps necessary to solve them. This helped me identify the concepts that needed more practice and was so valuable for review at the end of the semester.

Studying Statistics on a Road Trip

6. Make room for school, but don’t put your life on hold.
I ended up practicing statistics in the passenger seat of our anniversary weekend road trip…on a Dunkin Donuts bag. I read e-books on planes and took online quizzes over hotel wifi. The past two years have been filled with school but also fun and adventure. Keep enjoying your life or you’ll get burnt out. If I had been stuck at home, I probably would have been listlessly staring at that blinking cursor.

Musings on Censorship and Civil Liberties

My interest in censorship issues was first piqued by the Parental Advisory Label; its standardization in 1990 coincided with my first music purchases. At the time, my strong feelings about the PMRC led me to write a letter to Tipper Gore (it was written in pencil on 3-hole paper from my Trapper Keeper). I’m not sure if I ever sent that letter, or if she received it, so consider this blog post my 20-year-late follow-up.

Even as a pre-teen I sympathized with parents’ desire to know about their kids’ musical choices (though this would be better accomplished through research and conversation), and I knew that limiting sales to those under 18 was not exactly tantamount to censorship. But the movement and its leaders’ intentions made me wary of the creeping scope to which civil liberties infringements are susceptible.

For example, the PMRC originally proposed labels that were more specific than, say, the FCC’s guidelines for obscenity (which I also find suspiciously subjective). One of their proposed categorizations was “O”, which would apply to music with occult content. This was clearly religious discrimination. After the senate hearing, the RIAA dropped these categorizations in favor of a general label, and the labeling program is voluntary; still, it left me suspicious about the motivations of would-be censors.

Ladies of the PMRC
The ladies of the PMRC, my remix

A related 1985 quote by then-president Ronald Reagan:

“Music and the media floods [parents’] children’s world with glorifications of drugs and violence and perversity, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they’re told, because of the first amendment. Well, I don’t think James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and one of Virginia’s proudest sons, ever imagined that his great document of liberty would be twisted into a pretext for license. I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers ever intended to create a nation where the rights of pornographers would take precedence over the rights of parents and the violent and malevolent would be given free rein to prey upon our children.”

Civil liberties have been on my mind a lot lately. Last week, I went to see Glenn Greenwald present about “Civil Liberties in the Age of Obama” at Brown University. He made many great points, including that civil liberties are hard rules…not negotiable, for example, in “times of war”. We can’t, as Reagan did in the above quote, speculate on the intentions of our founding fathers. The Bill of Rights is so powerful and relevant because of its non-specificity: it continues to protect the minority from the majority reglardless of the specifics of current issues.

I’d like to share a few of the points he made (undoubtedly less eloquently):

1. Many people believe if they aren’t currently targeted, civil rights violations shouldn’t worry them. But Mr. Greenwald emphasized that they should, because civil liberties violations are subjective and bound to have a creeping scope: a scope which may very well include them someday. This really resonates with me.

2. Potential civil liberties violations are “sold” to the public by the use of repugnant examples. A case I saw recently: US can conduct off site searches of computers seized at borders. It’s OK, because it helps us catch pedophiles, right? We should be suspicious of this kind of marketing.

An endorsement of civil liberties does not have to be an endorsement of everyone they protect. This famous quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire summarized by Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

3. Bi-partisan disregard for civil liberties is deadening the public debate about these issues. When a Republican was in the White House, Democrats were eager to point out violations of civil liberties, and Obama explicitly promised a change in the way civil liberties were handled. Now that civil liberties violations have continued, and in many cases gotten worse, it’s important to keep the public discourse alive. Two related links about the Obama administration’s failings in the civil liberties arena:

Outsourcing Parallels: Technology and Food

At my day job in a university IT department, I’ve spent considerable time thinking about “the cloud”.  In 2010, I helped our school move all faculty, staff, and students from our Exchange mail server to Google Apps for Education.  Early in the process, it wasn’t unusual to hear expressions of uncertainty about data in the cloud.   Will it be secure? Private?  Google’s service was certainly more secure than our self-hosted email server, but I found that many people had an innate distrust of something that wasn’t, so to speak, in our own closet.

Clouds in My Coffee
cloud coffee: coffee photo mine, cloud photo by aussiegall on Flickr

This distrust of outsourcing services made me think of the other things in our lives we outsource, and not surprisingly, my mind turned to food.  I wondered, why do we distrust the secure hosting of our email when so many of us are perfectly willing to eat a burger made by a pimply 15-year-old in a less than pristine fast food chain? While an email breach would be inconvenient, a problem with our food could literally kill us.

Of course, the reasons we outsource computing and food are similar:

  • The provider can do it better, faster, or cheaper than we can
  • Providers have access to ingredients or services at a quantity, quality, or price which we cannot access ourselves
  • We are looking for something new, be it features or flavors

You could call the move to cloud computing, and the possibilities it offers, revolutionary.  The modern restaurant of the western world has its roots in another revolution  – the French Revolution.   As a result of the French Revolution, middle class citizens were able to access affordable prepared food created by talented chefs who once served the upper class.  This change gave them access to ingredients and preparations that had once been off-limits.  The beginnings of the restaurant also shifted the location of dining from private residences to public spaces.

What begins as a convenience can change the way we live.  Today, we enjoy restaurants for a chance to spend time among others, to see and be seen.  In the same way, shared computing resources are opening new possibilities for collaboration and changing the way we interact with the rest of the world.

As the trend shifts towards cloud computing, our expectations and comfort zone adjust as well – younger generations are often too trusting when it comes to online privacy and security.  On the other hand, in the food world, we’re beginning to question some of the outsourcing we’ve done in the past; growing our own ingredients and preparing meals from scratch is back in vogue.  Which makes me wonder: in fifteen years, will it be retro-chic to host my own email server?

5 Questions: Susan VandenBerg

Susan VandenBerg is the new pastry chef at Gracie’s in Providence. I came across her husband Steve’s blog Eating Out in America, which chronicles their restaurant experiences and occasionally their lives (like in this great video of Susan’s New Year’s Eve preparations at the restaurant). I was curious about Susan and the magic she works in Gracie’s kitchen so I decided to ask her a few questions.

Susan VanderBerg at Gracie’s, from Eating Out in America
Susan at Gracie’s, from a video on Eating Out in America

Is there a certain country or region whose pastries and desserts especially inspire you?
I have to say that France, and particularly Paris, are the areas that inspire me as far as desserts and pastries go. I love the various doughs i.e. croissant, puff pastry, brioche, and my favorite thing is the tart – so many variations and wonderful flavors! Of course I’m swayed by the fact that I went to school and did an internship in Paris. What can I say?

Where, besides Gracie’s or home, is your favorite place to eat dessert in Providence?
I have to admit that I haven’t been out and about much in Providence, since work takes up most of my time, but, so far, Pastiche has my vote for desserts. The place reminds me a lot of a European shop, and their product is delicious to boot.

What’s the most unusual ingredient you’ve ever used in one of your creations?
Unusual ingredient you ask – hmmmmmm, that’s a tough one. I think using various spices in chocolates would be the most unusual – paprika, five spice powder and pepper to name a few.

When did your interest in cooking start?
My interest in baking started many years ago, probably with the standard Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie. I’ve loved baking for a long time and find it very relaxing and comforting.

If you weren’t a pastry chef, what would you be doing?
I would be making handcrafted folk santas, teddy bears, Nantucket baskets and anything else I can do with my hands.

Thanks to Susan for answering my questions and being the first interviewee on this blog. I haven’t been to Gracie’s in a couple of months and definitely have to return to try her desserts!