To Ecuador or Oxford?

Earlier this semester, I decided that I wanted to study abroad. Studying abroad with the CS major can be slightly problematic if you have particular electives in mind. I intend to do the programming languages specialization and the electives for it are offered only in alternate fall semesters. So I looked for Spring 2016 study abroad programs. My choices were limited to English speaking countries. After speaking to an academic adviser, I ended up applying to Oxford and Cambridge to study Philosophy and Logic. Since it’s closely related to computation and programming languages, I was able to put together a coherent application, although I have hardly taken any classes in those subjects.

In March, a housemate emailed our list-serve with information about a class titled “Student Community Partnerships in Latin America”. The class involves learning about and working with a community in Intag, Ecuador, on projects related to sustainable economic development. Intag is a “cloud forest”, with extremely rich biodiversity. Faced with the threat of copper mining which might contaminate the pristine water in the area, the community is developing alternative economic practices. So far, that’s all I know about the class. The class also involves a trip to Ecuador during Winter break, when can students collaborate with their community partners on particular projects. I was strongly attracted to this class for two reasons:

1) It pays a lot of attention to the topic, “What does it mean to help?”. In the past, I have found that a lot of service learning programs underplay the learning aspect and there tends to be an unequal power dynamic. The Intag program seemed to be exactly how I envisioned an ideal engaged-learning program.

2) I learnt Spanish at Cornell and absolutely loved the language. Traveling to a Spanish speaking country would fulfill a long-time wish. Previous participants said that the trip to Ecuador was not very touristy, although they did visit some tourist spots towards the end. That sounded perfect.

So I ended up writing a very enthusiastic application for the class as well. By mid April, I learnt that I was accepted to the Ecuador class. I couldn’t contain my excitement, until I read that I wouldn’t be able to take the trip to Ecuador if I will be studying abroad in the Spring. But I hadn’t heard back about my study abroad applications yet, so I postponed thinking about it. This week, I received an acceptance letter from an Oxford college’s visiting student program for Spring 2016. While I was glad about the acceptance and the prospect of spending a semester at Oxford, I knew I might decline the offer.

I didn’t have to think long to decide which one might be a better learning experience for me. While Oxford would be a fantastic environment to be in, I felt that the Ecuador program would widen my worldview far more than Oxford could. Although there are great cultural and historical differences between Oxford and Cornell, essentially, both are elite universities. So the people I meet and know at Cornell are more likely to similar to those I might meet at Oxford than in Ecuador. The Ecuador class/trip seems like the more enriching life experience at this point in my life.

In addition, a required class for the programming languages vector – the infamous Compilers, is being offered in the Spring instead of the Fall this following year. Staying at Cornell in Spring 2016 makes my academic decisions much easier! So I’ve decided to decline the visiting student offer from St.Catherine’s at Oxford and take the “Student Community Partnership in Ecuador” class instead. I’m already looking forward to next semester!

Intag! :D


Spring Break in Ithaca

I stayed in Ithaca for all of Spring Break. A few other friends, who are also international students, also stayed. The primary concern for undergraduates who stay over breaks is food. All the dining halls and most BRB eateries are closed. Most students survive the breaks by stocking up on ready-to-eat/microwaveable food. Fortunately, I live in a co-op. So I always have access to a full kitchen (with all the utensils I might need) and staple food items like oil,flour,grain,pasta salt, spices, milk ,onions, potatoes.. (it’s a long list). With most basic ingredients readily available, I only had to buy some vegetables and special ingredients for particular recipes.

Since I had the time and resources to make elaborate dinners, a few friends and I made our own meals during break. Each meal took us a few hours to make, consume and clean up. But it was absolutely worth it!

Omelette and veggies

Omelette and veggies

Eggs, fruit salads and soups were as complex as our brunches were. We were too hungry to really cook in the mornings.

Mushroom Paneer Masala

Mushroom Paneer Masala

Having bought paneer from the Indian store in collegetown, we struggled to cook it. Once we simply fried and ate them, another time, we tried adding them to a rice dish (which ended in a disaster and hence no photos of it). But finally, we created this dish with tomato sauce which was meant for pasta. I tried really hard to mask the flavor of basil and other italian seasoning with garam masala and cumin!

Penne in Tomato Sauce

Penne in Tomato Sauce

A can of olives, a jar of seasoned tomato sauce, and some mushrooms found in my house’s pantry warranted this delicious, free meal.

Thai Curry

Thai Curry

We found some red thai curry paste in the pantry. So we bought some frozen vegetables, some coconut milk and paid a lot for a handful of bell peppers and baby corn at the salad bar in Atrium Cafe. The result was delicious. That evening, I also cooked the rice perfectly and was finally declared a true South Indian.

Thai Curry with Rice

Thai Curry with Rice

Other nights, we made sweet potato and spinach quesadillas and also resorted to some ready-to-eat meals a couple times. At one point, I had the surprising realization that we had cooked Thai, Italian,Mexican and Indian food over the course of a few days. I guess that’s how you know that you live in the U.S. – by the ridiculous variety of cuisines in regular meals.

I also developed a great appreciation for the people who cook my meals. At home, my mother cooked all three meals, every day, from scratch, in addition to having a full time job. I have come to the belief that she must have superpowers, because cooking two meals for myself left barely enough time for other activities (like trying to go the gym, compelling a friend to teach me to play the ukulele and sleeping 10 hours a day). So I’m glad that I can get my dinner tonight at a dining hall, although I did really enjoy cooking during the break.


An Encounter with Speed Reading

At any point, I have two or three library books in my room. They aren’t textbooks; some of them are not even remotely related to my classes. Right now, I have “Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth”, Graham Priest’s “Beyond The Limits of Thought” and “My Life in My Words” – a composed autobiography of Rabindranath Tagore. The list of books to be read is even longer. Yesterday, I read an excerpt of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and felt compelled to borrow the book from the library. When I finished reading Logicomix, I decided I had to read the author’s other book – “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”.

Although I keep borrowing these books, hardly do I find the time to read them. Two weeks ago, I found “Logicomix” , a graphic novel on Bertrand Russell’s life and work, in the Mathematics library. I spent the next four hours curled in bed, holding the book open next to me. When I finished reading, it was 8:30PM. I had a homework due for my algorithms class in 3 hours and I hadn’t completed it. I ended up taking a late day and devoting all of my Friday evening to completing that homework.

Making time for leisure reading during a semester is difficult, and mostly happens at the expense of academic or social pursuits. It’s hard to decide which to prioritize. I can’t neglect coursework because it’s my primary job here. I can’t shut myself in my room and read forever either, but probably never again in my life will I have access to a library like Cornell’s.

So when I saw a poster advertising a speed reading program at Cornell, I thought I had found a solution. If only I could read faster, I could read my books without sacrificing the time spent on academics or friends. I attended the first session for speed reading last week. A peer tutor introduced me to spreedr and some techniques for reading faster. I tried a couple passages with it. I didn’t understand all the details, but I got a good gist of what I was reading. The tutor said that it was normal; the idea was to absorb as much as possible in a shorter period of time.

Later that night, I tried spreedr with a passage I had to read for my philosophy class. I got a general sense of the author’s ideas but I didn’t catch the details of his arguments. I didn’t understand enough to form my own opinion on the topic. Still, it was enough to help me get through philosophy lecture the next morning. It seemed like a great tool if I needed to cram for an exam or skim through some reading for class. But I realized that it beats the purpose of leisure reading.

When reading for yourself, the concept of speed makes no sense because time doesn’t exist there. I can dwell on a particular paragraph I find beautiful or turn the pages back because I missed a minor detail there. It’s a break from the days of rushing from one commitment to another, of micro-planning my time to finish routine homework and other tasks. It’s liberating to simply be in one place and give my complete attention to the present experience, without worrying about a deadline for it.

Introducing the concepts of speed and productivity to this experience felt like a violation of a sacred space. I decided to allow the books to rest on my desk; there was no hurry to finish reading them. In the short time that my schedule allows me, the experience of reading with presence is more important to me than the quantity of information I absorb. I ended up cancelling the next session of speed reading.

Earlier tonight, I read two chapters from “My Life in My Words”. In it, Tagore’s poem “Where The Mind is Without Fear” was printed alongside its original title in Bengali “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo”. It struck me that I’d heard these words several times in the song “Jagao Mera Des”, without knowing its meaning. I spent the next hour carefully listening to that song by A.R.Rahman. It starts with the original poem, as written in Bengali and then a Hindi interpretation follows. I memorized some lines in Bengali just because they sounded beautiful.

Although I could have read two more chapters of the book in that time, I am certain that the joy of reading the book is not derived from the target of finishing it, but from the experiences along the way.

Reasons for All-Nighters

The past few weeks have been hectic for nearly everyone at Cornell, with midterms, prelims and papers and assignments due every other day. Last week was the height of my workload so far and it called for some all-nighters.

On Monday night, I had a project due for CS 3410 – Computer Systems and Organisation. The project was to implement a mini MIPS processor on a simulator called Logisim. Somehow, my partner and I didn’t fully start working on it until Sunday evening. We stayed in Upson Hall till 6:00AM, nearly completing our processor. Every few hours, I would go out and look at the Duffield Atrium. It is encouraging to see other students also working into the early hours of Monday morning.

The next day, we met again and worked on our testing module for the project and wrote a design document. We found a bug in our design 15 minutes before the submission deadline. It was a relatively easy fix, so we were able to submit an hour late. I still don’t know if that one hour will count as a late day. Anyway, I was in bed by 2AM that morning, which felt like a blessing.

On Thursday evening, I had a midterm for MATH 3840 – The Foundations of Mathematics. It is essentially a course in Zermelo-Fraenkel Set Theory. So far, we have been learning axiomatic set theory, the construction of natural numbers and operations on them, defining the principle of induction, proving the recursion theorem, constructing integers from natural numbers and rationals from integers. Currently, we’re learning about real numbers and the “Dedekind Cut” definition of real numbers. It’s a delight to see how set theory accounts for the arithmetic we take for granted.

On Friday morning, I had a midterm for PHIL 2220 – Introduction to Modern Philosophy. The class surveys epistemology and metaphysics of 17th and 18th century philsolophers like Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume and Kant. We had read upto Berkeley for this exam (fun fact: Berkeley is pronounced Barkeley!). The format of this midterm was quite a surprise to me. We received 6 lengthy, comprehensive study questions a week before the exam and were told that we would have to write an essay on one or two of those topics. Thankfully, my class notes and handouts were sufficient study materials. I stayed up most of the night reading for this exam, because I had to catch up with about a week of missed readings.

My reaction to the Modern Philosophy course has been mixed. At times, it frustrates me that the questions being asked can never be answered. What is the point of all this effort if it is bound to be fruitless? On the other hand, it’s an excellent exercise in thinking and making clear arguments (depends on your definition of clear, since no philosophical argument seems very clear).

After the philosophy midterm, I was still not done for the week. I had a homework due for my CS 4820 – Analysis of Algorithms. The material taught in this class starkly contrasts that of philosophy in the sense that we ask problems which have answers. There are problems and absolutely clear solutions to them. The cleverness of some of the algorithms , and the wide range of their applications completely blow my mind away! Last week, we studied network flow problems and we had a homework on it due on Thursday night. I took a late day and worked all Friday afternoon, Latex-ing my algorithms to solve the homework problems and attempting to give good proofs.

Finally, I could catch up on all the lost sleep. But I saw some friends for dinner and not having spent any time with them recently, I decided to hang out with them that night. We watched a Hindi film “Zindagi Na Milega Dobara” in a Keeton House suite lounge. Each of us had already watched it multiple times, but knowing the dialogues, making jokes on the characters and each other and doing absolutely nothing until 4am was enough reason to watch it again.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up being very productive on Saturday. Or even on Sunday. Unfortunately, if I ever think I’m done with my homework, I will be wrong because next week homework’s will have already been released. Since Friday morning, that “due next week” stack has been filling up, and the cycle starts again. So that was a typical prelims week in the life of one Cornell student.

Almost looks like a scene from a horror movie, with the dark clouds in the backgrounds and jack-o-lantern colors of the tower.

Almost looks like a scene from a horror movie, with the dark clouds in the backgrounds and jack-o-lantern colors of the tower.

Since no blogpost from Cornell is complete without a weather report, I am glad to announce that we have had consistently had temperatures above freezing. Instead of snow, we now have rain! There have been rumors like “Spring is in the air”. But it’s a great defense mechanism to always be skeptical about the weather. It won’t be spring until late April.