31 December 2011

Sugar plums dancing in our heads

I've sadly missed it for this season, but the Nutcracker (particularly the Balanchine version - sorry Boston ...) has always been a personal favorite.  When I think about Christmas, coming close after Jesus in the manger are images of party scenes, battles between mice and toy soldiers, and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

When my brother and I were young, the Nutcracker made my family crazy.  For 4-5 years, we were both in the Nutcracker at the same time and running around to various rehearsals and performances, I as a child dancer and he as a vocalist.  His boys choir would sing the signature "ahh's" during the Snow scene before the end of the first act, and my ballet school trained the children who performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Young kids didn't have a particularly difficult part to play - unless you were Marie, Fritz, or the Nutcracker/Prince - although I loved being on the same stage as some of our ballet heroes, the principals (and now artistic staff) of the company.

There was a distinct hierarchy to the roles one could play, though.  The youngest and smallest were always angels, who came out at the beginning of Act II as a prelude to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  The party girls (of the house scenes*) and polichinelles (emerging from the impossibly immense skirt of Mother Ginger) were the most coveted roles.  The rest of us would become toy soldiers and even mice for the battle scene.

At the time I never understood why certain girls - the same girls - always got what seemed to be the "best parts."  Was it their skill level?  Or maybe their body build (preference given to the not-too-tall and slender)?  Or did they have the most connections?  It wasn't clear to a small Chinese girl with what she thought was a too-round face and a too-curved body.  These questions about body image bothered me as a child, but I later came to terms with the fact that I didn't have the build nor the desire to become a ballerina - and so laid aside the discipline of dance for the disciplines of design and music.

But I still had the fun opportunities to perform as an angel, the soldier trumpeter, and then as a soldier wielding a saber.  As an angel, we paid a small price for looking cute.  We wore heavy gold crowns that stayed on only with the help of bobby pins and hoop skirts that restricted our foot movement to small shuffles.  If you took one real step, there was the danger of stepping on your skirt and then falling flat on your face (whoops) - something that did happen many times in the rehearsal studio but fortunately few times actually on stage.

Being a soldier was probably one of the most fun roles.  We got to throw foam cheese blocks at the storming troops of mice, slash fake plastic swords at fat mouse costumes, and eventually be carried off kicking by the mice when the toy soldiers lost the battle.  Our cheeks were emblazoned by bright red circle stickers that sometimes came off in the heat of the tussle.

And although I've moved on from that part of my childhood, I still can't help but play Tchaikovsky's score over and over again for the entire month of December (or longer).  The choreography has faded in my memory - and I've become a bit long-winded in my reminiscence - but the Nutcracker itself never will stop being part of my Christmas.

30 December 2011

Be still

I came across this recent NYTimes Opinion piece and found it quite insightful, especially during the Christmas holiday time leading up to New Year's Day when we are split between the frenzy of gifts and company and the reflection of resolutions and years-in-review.  This quote struck me in particular:
"When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister."

// Pico Iyer, "The Joy of Quiet," 29 Dec 2011
Perhaps this is a secular call to a Sabbath?

Being in graduate school in architecture has made the idea and practice of rest both one of my greatest longings as well as the greatest challenges to achieve when surrounded by pressures to be productive - every moment of every day.  Simply taking time out of the day to pray, to read a leisure book, to take a quick walk outside, to eat a full meal at the table with no distractions or multitasking - are challenges to the idea of "pressing on," but I've realized are disciplines that can make me more productive and less strained, if I choose to do them.

I still need to reflect on this past year and this past semester in particular, but one thing I know is that I don't want to repeat the anxious frenzy that characterized my fall, but remember the "joy of quiet" even in the midst of work and busyness for the spring.

20 December 2011

Inventional season-ing

MIT's official holiday greeting - featuring one of my professors (Walter Hood, visiting from Berkeley last semester) and some of my residents (in Ohms)!

01 December 2011

Faux pas in another language

This video reminded me of my summer days in Beijing all those 5+ years ago.  Perhaps you, too, can relate to the anguish of erred tones and "dui bu qi ..."  - or, on a more universal level, just trying to learn another language and have a native speaker give you a quizzical look (or worse, one of utter horror) when you try to say the simplest of sentences.

The tune sounds just like a Chinese pop song, too. Good job, guys!

And for another rendition of struggling "wai guo ren" attempting to master Chinese (because ... I guess I am in that category despite my deceptively Asian looks) :

First video courtesy of Stephanie, second courtesy of Diana - all of us ABC's (American Born Chinese).

11 November 2011

Tools in everyone's hands

I especially like the compressed earth block machine.  Pretty amazing (and faster than a concrete block maker, too)!  See the ArchDaily post for more information and an informational TED talk video of the founder and his vision.

thanks to Ann for the reference

09 November 2011

[ayiti] Simple rubble math

Let's do some simple math related to rubble and (wo)man power.

The question is, how long would it take to process all the rubble necessary to build a single family home?

This wasn't the question I set out to answer today.  Instead, I just need to crush up some concrete debris some new friends of ours of Maple Hurst Builders gave me as part of thesis research.  The equation was actually

me + sledgehammer + large rubble + a good pair of safety glasses = crushed rubble

And certainly, the assumptions in this equation to answer the above question are that:
  1. This is done by purely human power, not mechanical means (potentially applicable to areas where machinery can't be reached)
  2. You have a woman doing the work (and a small one at that, given my own size)
  3. The measurement is for a rubble gabion house because this building method requires hand-sized pieces.  (A rubble crusher would be necessary to make the debris size any smaller.)
Anyways, when picking up the concrete debris with my trusted strongarm Marcus, we estimated that we hauled back about half a ton of rubble.  (As in, he carried most of it.  Thanks :)  )  I broke almost all of it into hand-sized pieces or smaller in about 1.25 hours.

If concrete weighs, on average, 150 pounds per cubic foot, then I crushed about 6 cubic feet, or 0.17 cubic meters (because we like meters in Haiti - and in all other parts of the world except for the US).  A rubble gabion house contains 46.3 cubic meters of rubble (calculations based on the Haven/Oxfam gabion pilot house in Clercine).

Therefore, it would take 341 hours or 6 weeks working 9 to 5 to crush enough rubble to make the house, let alone actually build it.

This number isn't particularly significant except to say that although I'm glad I can do this work, that is a LONG time.  At least I am not making a whole house for my thesis, nor am I doing this work alone because there are such people as men and more women, and such things as machines that can help get stuff done faster.  Oh, progress.

But indeed, women aren't afraid to sweat!

On another front, my mini material tests worked and didn't fall apart!  A preview for now:

[Note: no, the one on the right is NOT a big gray cake ... although it does look like frosting.  It's hiding a secret instead!]

03 November 2011

It is only by God's grace that I can have a thesis!

This encapsulates how I feel right now.  After shouldering my way through worry and fear, I can finally feel some joy again - and not feel like I'm just wading through mud.  Hallelujah!

Currently: finalizing an experimental design and procuring rubble from all over Boston, with the help of the Tall Man and a myriad of other people I have pestered into giving me some.

29 October 2011

[events] Wasteland's Lucy Walker @ MIT

Upcoming ACT event with filmmaker Lucy Walker, who directed the documentary Wasteland.  This documentary has been on my "to watch" list since even before its Oscar nomination.  Hooray for trash people getting press!


Monday, October 31 at 7:00 PM
Filmmaker Lucy Walker

99 Is Not 100 – Documenting the Transformative Power of Art, or the Art of Transformative Documentary
Keynote: Lucy Walker, Filmmaker (UK)
Respondent: Claude Grunitzky, Chairman, True; Sloan Fellow, MIT (USA)

How do we observe or quantify the impact of an artistic intervention or the impact of a documentary film? Lucy Walker will be reflecting on the experience of making and showing the film Waste Land, a documentary about artist Vik Muniz’s collaboration with the self-designated recyclables materials pickers of Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world. The film has won over thirty international awards and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Lucy Walker has directed four award-winning feature documentaries: Devil’s Playground, Blindsight, Waste Land and Countdown To Zero.

Lucy Walker’s latest film, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, is among the eight shortlisted contenders for the 84th Academy Awards’ best Documentary Short Subject category, of which three to five films will earn Oscar nominations.

MIT Bartos Theater, Wiesner Building (E15)
20 Ames Street, Cambridge
(See directions below.) Free and open to the public.

Studio sunrise

Yuliya and I were privileged to witness a most amazing sunrise the morning of our thesis midreview.  And although the review itself ended up not going so great, I'm still glad I saw this as a reminder that there is beauty in the beginning of a new day.

photo courtesy of Yuliya's phone

21 October 2011

[ayiti] The smallest construction site

 Last night, the smallest construction site was in operation from 11:15-11:35pm. Some of my thesis studiomates had a good laugh at this process.  It just seemed so ... real yet fake.  I was working with "real" materials, yet in such miniscule quantities that it was more akin to doling out medication doses than cubic meters of construction matter.

Welcome to my studio-turn-production center.  Maybe it seems silly, but I wanted to do a (literally) little test of a recycled concrete mix design, what material is best used for formwork, and what release agent is ideal for the process.  Scaling a building panel down to 1/10th its size meant that each piece was roughly the size of a credit card.  How much will I learn from it?  Well, it's something.  The concrete is still curing.  In the meantime, I made this stilted animation courtesy of Phil's smart phone and a little bit of Photoshop* :

* while I figure out how to upload animated GIF files to this blog - 
a subject that many a blogger has struggled over but have not come up with a simple solution - 
click on the photo for now to see the animation.

It involved mixing concrete using the following essential ingredients:
  • cement = Quikrete (because I don't have time for the real 7 day cure)
  • large aggregate = gravel from Killian Court as "scaled rubble"
  • fine aggregate = playground sand
  • water = taken from the women's bathroom
  • work area tarp = trash bag
  • work gloves = latex-free gloves from the fab lab
  • release agent = WD-40 (a real release agent, but perhaps too powerful for corrugated cardboard)
My mix design was essentially 1 part cement, 4-parts gravel (inaccurate due to using plastic cups for measurement), 6 parts sand.  I might need to use more sand and less gravel next time, or let these things cure longer since the first one broke after I separated it from the bottom formwork to reveal a mini piece of concrete reminiscent of a gray Blondie with chocolate chips.

In any rate, more experimentation to come as our thesis midreview looms!

    18 October 2011

    Who builds the house?

    1Unless the LORD builds the house,
       those who build it labor in vain.
    Unless the LORD watches over the city,
       the watchman stays awake in vain.
    2It is in vain that you rise up early
       and go late to rest,
    eating the bread of anxious toil;
       for he gives to his beloved sleep.

    Psalm 127:1-2
    A good reminder of the right perspective on control and the right attitude based on trust, especially in the midst of thesis and other work that threaten to overwhelm me.  Pressing on!

    I also realized that I haven't been very good about posting updates directly about my thesis research ... or really, anything else that I've been working on recently.  Hopefully I'll find some moments to put a few things up and reflect - or just pretty pictures as they come.

    09 October 2011

    1 litre, lanterns of light

    In any conversation about working in developing countries, the term "capacity building" comes up time and time again - but what does it really mean, or begin to even look like?  And what is the role of our education at MIT in relation to locally-grown knowledge?

    In our eLuma project meetings, there has recently been quite a bit of discussion about training and knowledge transfer.  As a possible exercise or real life example of 'capacity building,' one of our teammates brought up the example of the "bleach and water light bulb" - which I didn't quite understand until watching this video:

    For more information about the MIT-seeded, community-grown initiative, check out the organization, called Isang Litrong Liwanag.

    01 October 2011

    [ayiti] La creativite naturele

    Another take on life in Haiti, through the eyes of local artisans.  I had previously heard about the art of converting old oil drums into steelwork, but seeing the process, people, and other examples of craft was a refreshing inside look.


    via Architechnophilia
    Thanks to Juliet for the link!

    23 September 2011

    [ayiti] La Difference on camera

    Watching this video almost made me cry - more out of delight than anything else.  This was our 'last stop' before flying out of Port-au-Prince last month, but it is also my strongest memory of Haiti.  (Ok,  I guess the hysterical moths that came out to mate during the rainstorm at GRU is also a pretty vivid memory.  Or any conversation with Harvey.)

    La Difference also inspired me to consider how something as simple as paving can figuratively 'pave' the way for further clean up and community development.  Is there a way to go back?  J'espere que oui.  (And hopefully I'll sometime be able to translate that into Creole.)

    - - -
    video via Citizen Haiti and The Haiti Independent

    21 September 2011

    Be serious or paranoid?

     from Times Online aerial photos

    As we in Boston saw with Hurricane Irene, sometimes official predictions of natural hazards and preparations outweigh what actually ends up happening.  Girls in my dorm were decidedly underwhelmed by the winds and rain, leading to a general skepticism about "the boy who cried wolf."

    But in other cases such as the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009, seismologists are being charged with manslaughter for NOT being serious enough about the data received before the quake.  An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes the start of the trial, leading to questions about the exactness of predictions and human attitudes towards hazards.

    Is it paranoia or preparedness?

    This semester I am taking a course with Prof. Jim Wescoat, Disaster Resilient Design, which lays out a theoretical and practical framework for thinking about and applying these issues.

    The topic also fits in with my thesis and makes me consider the role and responsibility of professionals and academics is within the field, as well as what it really means to "build back better."  This last phrase is thrown around so much by NGOs, the government, and whoever else is involved in Haiti or elsewhere.  Is "better" an objective or subjective term?  If it's the latter, who determines it?  How can we know if one strategy is successful without 'testing' it in the next big quake/fire/hurricane/famine, etc.?

    Although I can't address all (or even some) of these questions within the scope of a one-semester MArch thesis, it's worth mulling over in the back of my brain.

    12 September 2011

    GQ's delayed summer issue

    Two of GQ's newest models pose for the 'Waiting for the Wedding reception to start' featurette in its delayed summer issue.

    Behind the scenes, chatting with two of the high heel models before the next shoot.

    - - -
    GQ Summer 2011 issue v.2.0
    Event: Gerhard and Megan's summer wedding of architects
    Location: Watertown, MA
    Featuring: Marcus, Kunle (male models); Gao Yu and Runo (female models), and a spread of cheese (not pictured)
    Clothing:  Versace, Calvin Klein, Clark Kent, and other fastidious European labels
    Photographer: author of this blog

    03 September 2011

    [ayiti] Someone to watch over me

    I've been going through my photos and picking out ones I want to print for thesis.  I was about to pass this one up before I stopped and took a closer look.

    You first notice the woman carrying the basket of fruit on top of her head.  Everywhere you see extraordinary women (and sometimes boys) like that, who can confidently and deftly saunter down the street without so much of a teeter.  Most of the time, these are the 'traveling salespeople,' walking around with their wares and advertising them to passersby.  Marcus and I learned to pick up the sound of "sashay dlo," which means "bags of water" for the thirsty.  These are the most common and convenient ways to get clean water, although you still find water bottles all over the place - mostly tossed into road-side canals.

    Then you have the man watching up in the corner.  This is a common sight, particularly along Boulevard Toussaint L'Ouverture - one of the major thoroughfares that runs by the airport, UN Logbase, and other MINUSTAH compounds.  Someone is constantly watching.  What I found funniest, though, was that Haitian merchants and artisans have been able to profit from this constant official presence.  Because most all of the peace keeping soldiers and other relief workers are foreign, they make for a bizarre class of tourist.  Want a souvenir to show family and friends that you went to Haiti and back?  Artisans have shrewdly set up their wares right outside compound walls for easy browsing.

    23 August 2011

    I feel old

    Yesterday we had training for graduate resident tutors, in which we learned all about the nuances of what incoming freshmen will go through as they navigate their first year of MIT.  I already met one of my fresh(wo)men, and the other will be moving in this coming weekend.  To get into their psyche, one of the administrators in charge of the 'First Year Experience' sent us "The Mindset List" for the class of 2015 ... which instantly made me feel old.  Some items aren't very significant to me, but the ones of note include:
    • Ferris Bueller and Sloane Peterson could be their parents.
    • Amazon has never been just a river in South America.
    • Life has always been like a box of chocolates.
    • They’ve often broken up with their significant others via texting, Facebook, or MySpace.
    • Frasier, Sam, Woody and Rebecca have never Cheerfully frequented a bar in Boston during primetime.
    • “PC” has come to mean Personal Computer, not Political Correctness.

    20 August 2011

    [ayiti] How to summarize a week in Haiti

    The short answer is: You can't.

    Some people told me I didn't need to go in order to have a perfectly proper thesis.  Others urged me see the place for myself - that it would change everything.  I ignored the naysayers and knew that I needed to somehow get to Port-au-Prince, and only when God made a way for that did I understand instantly - maybe even just as I saw the coast loom into view from the plane window - that this was so true.

    The thing that hit me - overwhelmed me, and still overwhelms me - is how Haiti engages your senses.  Just reading news stories or seeing pictures isn't enough - it's not simply visual, but also intensely seizes your ears, nose, tastebuds, and even skin (because it was about 115 degrees F and humid everyday - and dusty).

    On the flight over there, I was puzzled by the number of Haitian men who had boomboxes as their second carry-ons.  What an odd piece of luggage, I thought.  Once we landed and were launched into the midst of the chaos called baggage claim, I realized what they were for: mood music, of course!  They turned up the calypso and became instant DJs - perhaps to lighten the frustration that came with an hour of searching for our bags.

    Who is big in Haiti?  The media says NGOs, the UN, and everyone who is there to help bring the country back on its feet.  Tap-taps, the local bus transport, say it's God ("L'Eternel est grand"), and I would also have to say it's the people and those who stand alongside them.

    I still find it hard to tell people in a "nutshell" how was my weeklong trip to Haiti.  There's a lot to process, but hopefully little gems will come out from the sifting of thoughts, emotions, and memories - not to mention images, sketches, and notes made along the way.  I'll try to write at least one post per day I was there, in the hopes of somehow piecing out the experience.

    11 August 2011

    More than first travel blues

    I don't remember where I found this photo, but it's one of my favorites of live revived in PaP
    I recently read an article by the Frugal Traveler about the 'blues' typically faced by travelers on the first day, when you're bumbling around in a new city, not understanding the language, and nothing seems to be going right.  I have certainly faced those times, but typically it just gets better and, as he concludes, it's these 'trying out' times that make one feel actually familiar with a new place.

    I can't help but think how different visiting Port-au-Prince for the first time.  It will likely be filled with a certain level of confusion and discomfort, but not because of the typical traveler's dilemmas.  Instead, it is the first-hand experience of a havoc only read about in the news or heard about second-hand.  Some say it's horrible, lamenting the slowness of recovery.  Others say it's a beautiful place - and my, how the beaches are lovely!  (A Haitian woman told me this, and I smiled.  Maybe next time?)

    I'm actually tired of using the word 'disaster' because it is a term devoid of hope, although there are few alternative ways to phrase it without resorting to euphemisms.  But who knows what my first reaction will be?  I asked one of my friends how to mentally prepare.  She told me to be ready for some level of shock, but that it would be individual to the person.

    So I won't get lost because I will always be with a driver or someone who knows their way around.  I might not get to wander the city at night because of a 10pm curfew and safety measures.  I will meet other travelers, but not ones who somehow "stumbled upon" the destination but rather those who came knowing they were risking their lives to a certain extent.  Will it be overly somber?  Exuberant in the resilience?  It's hard to say now, with two feet firmly planted on American soil.

    I'll let you know tomorrow.

    09 August 2011

    Food for thought

    While writing a Katerva blog post about the Oxfam GROW campaign, I came across this fun video that is basically a brainstorm of favorite foods from people interviewed all over the world.

    What are yours?

    I would agree with the noodles person, particularly if they were 'soup' noodles.  Cheese would also be another, yum!

    05 August 2011

    [foodage] Grilling and toasting

    Somehow, this picture's colors remind me of the '50s
    Food verbs are so fun, especially when they are tasty.  The other night, M and I tried out two of them: grilling and toasting (and some saute-ing).  Instead of going out as per our summer Thursdays ritual, we decided to cook to save a bit of cash.  However, we quickly discovered that going to Whole Foods and letting the die-hard meat lover pick out the main dish are not good strategies for being frugal... but it ended up being quite the delicious home-cooked meal with:
    • grilled marbled ribeye steak generously flavored with The Spice House's Bronzeville Rib Rub (thanks Jenny!) and kosher salt
    • grilled onions with the same spice
    • sauteed broccoli with lemon
    We didn't buy anything for dessert, so I searched online for some quick and easy ones and found this great recipe for toasted oats with fruit.  It had just the right combination of sweetness and crunchiness, with the nutty flavors of walnuts and coconut to accompany the fruit.  Instead of yogurt or raspberries, I sprinkled the oats on top of a few slices of canned peaches for a simple version of peach crisp without the hour-long wait time - and I already had all the ingredients, so it was affordable, too!

    via Everybody Likes Sandwiches

    Next time we'll try some other combination of food verbs, yum.

    04 August 2011

    Stepping out

    "... Our journeys of faith, it seems to me, are just like that. We respond to the call of God by stepping out, one graced step at a time, into a luminous darkness. Our direction is clear, but the route reveals itself only as we put one foot in front of the other. We cannot know beforehand exactly where we are heading or how we will get there.  Nevertheless we trust in God to show us—and to be for us—the way.

    - Deborah Smith Douglas
    Weavings, July/August 2002

    I'm a planner.  I like to know what's going on and what steps I need to take to get there.  There are situations in which I'm not exactly sure what to do, but there are few times in which I absolutely have no clue.  This is the case right now, in light of going to Haiti.  On one hand, I sense that God has told me and is still telling me that I will be going.  On the other hand... the question, then, is when?  And how?  With whom?  Realistically, time is running short.  I find myself doing things aligned with normal preparation: getting my vaccines, buying hand sanitizer, packing my travel towel.  This seems funny because I have no flight nor a definite group to be going with.  I have, by now, a whole bundle of leads and connections thanks to kind colleagues and responsive NGOs, but no actual plug-ins.  In it all, I can still be thankful for the pieces that have been coming together, while being reminded to keep trusting even when it seems either illogical or uncontrollable.  May my character and faith be all the more refined in the end.

    03 August 2011

    Food's flight patterns

    via irresistable
    A recent grad in graphic design, James Reynolds devised an alternative to traditional produce labels that inform consumers about just how far those Argentinian tomatoes really traveled to get to your store - and plate.  Would the "Far Food" project change people's buying habits?

    02 August 2011

    A storm by any other name ...

    via NOAA's storm tracker - see the website for a larger image
    I recently made the discovery that I'm a tropical storm threatening the Caribbean and Florida.

    I also was reassured that despite that, I am not - in fact - a Rhino command.  Phew.

    courtesy of jo'c

    26 July 2011

    Being abroad - made live

    cover of sketchbook #5
    Back in June, I wrote a post about a travel reflections project I had once contributed to called Being Abroad.  A few days ago, I had received word that the project site has now been made live after a few years' hiatus.  I finally got to glimpse what I had written and drawn all those years ago, and seeing the sketches again brought about feelings of nostalgia and regret, along with reflection on the sentiments expressed about being abroad, now recorded in Sketchbook #5.

    Although I claim to document my reflections "three parts," they only really represent the two countries where I had most recently studied abroad: France and China.  I was in France for the Spring of my junior year in college and predominantly lived in Paris, with a brief week-long homestay in the southern part of the country.  This was the start of my intense love for travel, adventures, and the idea that I could transplant myself and live elsewhere and somehow blend in.  My daily 20 minute walk to school, the food I ate, the culture I absorbed, the classes I took were all small parts that made up the whole of this amazing experience, convicting me that every student should try and study in a foreign country if they could.  The stretching-ness and just sheer fun of it changed my perspective about home.

    Studying in China was also a similarly joyous situation - this time, the 3 months of summer right after graduation.  This, though, was more defined by the friends I spent time with, the intense language training, and the new knowledge learned about my heritage.  It was also a trip, though, that challenged me more than I thought - not simply because Mandarin was harder to learn than French for me, but that I somehow had hoped to "blend in" more easily than I actually could.  Perhaps this has to do with the fact of being Chinese American, having been raised in the States and not fully knowing the language of my 'people.'  I looked the part, but couldn't act it - was far from it in many ways, although I worked hard and made great strides in that short time.  Like many others at the boundary between two cultures and two nations, I felt - and still sometimes feel - regret about what I couldn't be, although over time I've come to accept the different strengths that come with a hyphenated ethnicity.

    My time abroad - particularly in these contexts, but in subsequent journeys as well - has been marked by both a profound sense of place as well as a certain placelessness.  In each experience, I had the opportunity to soak in a new culture, new language, new environment, new friends and 'family' - all very specific to the context.  Living in Paris is quite different from living in Beijing, as if it weren't already clear enough.  But the placelessness was more about identity, where nationality became the key to defining who I was.  In France, people could never pinpoint it.  They actually almost never thought I was American, but rather asked if I were Japanese or even Brazilian Native American (... this was true!).  In China, I got similar questions of "where are you from?  No, where are you FROM from?" because I looked Chinese but spoke with an accent.  Most taxi drivers then assumed I was Korean, which made for entertaining explanations.

    In more recent travels, the role of language has changed a bit.  Instead of being an indication of self identity or something about myself, I found that the power of speaking in the same tongue is more about the people you are communicating with.  In Cambodia, my Khmer was less than conversational but the villagers we worked with appreciated those gestures - no matter how paltry - because we were attempting to genuinely communicate in a way that they could best understand.  It enabled me and my teammates to form relationships over English/Khmer lessons on the construction site, singing "cement/simong" every time we went to mix more mortar or accidentally flung some onto each other.  I suppose it was a way to say, in minimal words, that by caring enough to learn a language, we were showing care for that person.

    Being abroad - eye-opening, self-revealing, relationship-making, and fun-filled, it becomes about people and crossing borders to find commonalities instead of simply about places and capturing the monument on camera.  So, where to next?

    21 July 2011

    Barbie can be modern, too

    ... with a real live architect-designed dream house such as this design below :

    The AIA has partnered with Mattel to sponsor a design competition for Barbie's next dream house.  Like many design competitions, this one will also not be built but is, rather, what they call "a fun way to play and engage with Barbie® I Can Be™... Architect regardless of your age."

    Too bad for architects, though - their designs can't even be realized in the fantasy world of toys, although it's an interesting way to engage other disciplines in the potential education of children, in technicolor pink.

    One fun note (if the pink wasn't enough) : One of the judges is a former coworker of mine from my days prior to MIT.

    20 July 2011

    [musica] j.montague / fly on

    Discovered via the Design & Thinking documentary blog.  The electronica + banjo puts me in the right summery mood.  Instrumentalization reminds me a bit of Sufjan - but unique on its own.  Check out more of Jacob Montague, or get your own cool widget.

    19 July 2011

    High Line : Part deux

    via Architectural Record
    We like to think of it as a place where people revel in doing nothing, which is an anomaly for New Yorkers.  It has an unscripted, unintended, unprogrammed timelessness. You just get lost in there."
    // Liz Diller, in the NYTimes article
    anticipating the opening of Section 2 of the High Line

    Has anyone seen it yet?  (Some people clearly have.)

    18 July 2011

    Don't talk, just do

    "... it’s true that when we talk about our work, we give ourselves the feeling that we are working on something when truthfully, we aren’t."

    and other thoughts on creativity from Donald Miller,
    author of Blue Like Jazz

    15 July 2011

    Spontaneous occupation?

    Well, this is one way to occupy a slice of the city in more ways than one...

    (found via C&Z's newsletter)

    The train must add a tasty...flavoring to the veggies.  Where is this, though?

    14 July 2011

    On creative work

    "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through." 
    // Ira Glass, host of This American Life (via FreshAir)
     The nature of long hours resides with creatives, not just 'crazy' architects.

    A bit on Ira's history:
    Ira Glass started working in public radio in 1978, when he was 19, as an intern at NPR's headquarters in DC. Over the next 17 years, he worked on nearly every NPR news show and did nearly every production job they had: tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. He spent a year in a high school for NPR, and a year in an elementary school, filing stories for All Things Considered. He moved to Chicago in 1989 and put This American Life on the air in 1995.

    11 July 2011

    [foodage] Salmon + ratatouille

    via Chocolate & Zucchini
    Tonight M and I had a very baked (and nearly smoke alarm-inducing) dinner to fuel visionary conversation.  It consisted of modified recipes for:

    ratatouille confite au four
    one of my French favorites
    lime and honey-glazed salmon
    the smokey culprit that thankfully was completely intact

    plus a "healthy" serving of pastries from Area Four, who decided to give us freebies because we happened to stop by right before closing today.  (Delicious!)

    I have no photographic evidence since it all ended up in our stomachs.  For the future, however, I would
    a) add more salt and maybe a bit less rosemary for the ratatouille ... and make it ahead of time so that the flavors get to settle
    b) add more lime and honey to the salmon to strengthen the subtle flavors

    Note: M was the actually chef for the night.  I only helped to buy the ingredients, pick the recipes, and do some backseat cooking over my laptop.

    10 July 2011

    [FAST] Lightbridge illuminates the crossing

    These videos of the FAST installation Lightbridge came out recently.  The project, conceived by the Media Lab's Susanne Seitinger and Pol Pla of the Fluid Interfaces Group, illuminated the Harvard Bridge with 10,000 LED lights back in May 2011.

    See more images and animations on the project's Flickr site.

    08 July 2011

    The first days

    I was asked to unearth evidence from our first two projects in architecture school, and as I dug around I swear I could smell the must of dust-encrusted work.

    Exercise 1 //  The Bridge
    a project I liked but which induced many of my first all-nighters of grad school, as well as my first introductions to the laser cutter

    Exercise 2  //  The Circulation Project
    (aka interstitial space, or how many stairs and ramps are needed to get from one place to the next)
    a project I liked only in diagram form but really didn't like in physical form, and which manifested in a model bigger than my body

    Oh Level 1... how long it's been since then.  How far we've come (hopefully).  How different Level 1's are today.

    06 July 2011

    Figure 8s

    I'm not sure what to think about videos like this that highlight a building walk-through in such a 'cool' way (with requisite lounge music), but don't say much about the actual experience of living in such a place where the figural aspects of the building itself (shaped like an 8, like the diagram) means a very long road from one's flat to the parking lot.

    Then again, I still like the scenic promenade (supposed to be for cyclists), so the walk-through as a convincing visualization tool works.

    - - -
    Bjarke Ingles Group
    8 House
    2010 / nearly completed

    05 July 2011

    July 4th : The best view in the "house"

    Yesterday, a festive group of GCFers and friends neatly staked out a great spot along the Memorial Dr. side of the Charles River to watch the fireworks.  Thanks to Sam, Yong, and Mark, our area was well claimed, big enough for ~30 people, and - perhaps most importantly - directly in front of the fireworks barge.  We had plenty of food, games, and good conversation to keep people going through until the concert's start and then the fireworks at 10:30pm.

    This was my first 4th of July celebrated in Boston, and it was a splendid one.  We were right near one of the main speaker towers and screens broadcasting the Boston Pops performance from across the river.  When the US Army Field band came on with their marches in full swing, it made me nostalgic.  "Stars and Stripes Forever," in particular, has long been a favorite.  Once upon a time I could actually play that piccolo solo ... can't imagine getting back into shape for that again, but who knows?

    For Steph, who didn't see the smilies
    I was very impressed with the 1812 Overture, the fireworks that followed, and then the main pyrotechnic display to end the night.  What a great show!  Here are some snippets from the night :

    17 June 2011

    What's your secret life?

    One of our very own in the architecture (and EECS) department, Emily Whiting, was recently featured in NOVA's "Secret Life of Scientists" series:


    Although I personally don't know her, I feel somewhat of a kinship because 1) we share the same great name, and 2) we've both done research with the same professor - her adviser and now my thesis committee reader, John Ochsendorf.  I guess we also both like bricks, stone, and masonry, so that might be the #3 commonality.

    What is my secret life?  I'm not exactly sure.  Part of me thinks that architecture school attempts to squelch out any other life than studio, although I've resisted.  Would mine be loudspeaker?  Bible study leader?  Trash enthusiast?  Flutist (if I practiced more)?  Sustainability blogger?  Design-builder?  Stationary and sketchbook enthusiast?  Maybe the first question is, rather - can I be considered a scientist?

    What's your secret life?

    16 June 2011

    [foodage] The most stereotyped vegetable

    Poor brussel sprouts.

    Did you know they grew like this?
    Neither did I - but thanks to Eat and Live Green, we know.
    Kids love to hate them.  People in general seem to love to hate them, even.  I think even as a child, the phrase "... not as bad as brussel sprouts!" must have passed through my lips at some point.  If you look at them closely, though, they're actually sort of cute, like the cabbage's impish nephews and nieces.  Although they can be quite bitter if not cooked properly, there are ways to enjoy them - which I only recently discovered.

    My friend Betsy introduced me to buttered sprouts in college, and later Robin showed off his culinary skills by sauteing them with olive oil and cumin.  After buying some of these on a whim at Shaw's the other day, I decided to pair them with beets from the on-campus farmer's market and the flavors of cumin, salt, and pepper.

    Usually in my cooking endeavors, I don't really follow recipes faithfully.  Actually, I typically stray, dip, mix, match, and come out with something that could either be great or a little dodgy (but I would eat it anyways).  I guess that's the nature of creative cooking experimentation.  I found 2 recipes that each used part of what I was interested in, but then fused them together for what I hoped would be a tasty result.  Since I only purchased a small amount of both vegetables and estimated all amounts, I won't include a strict recipe but only a guideline of what I did... improvements welcome!

    The lighting makes the beets look scarily like red meat.
    Thankfully, it did not taste as such.
    In the end, the vegetables were a bit caramelized but could have benefited for a longer saute to make the sprouts more tender and a bit less bitter.  Adding more cumin and maybe even a sauteed onion as suggested by the NYTimes recipe might have also sweetened them a bit, but the beets at least were quite delicious and made up for their slightly bitter companions.

    Ingredients //
    • red beets (I used 3)
    • a generous handful of brussel sprouts
    • cumin, salt, pepper
    • olive oil
    Process //
    1. Boil the beets in a sauce pan for ~40 minutes while preheating the oven to 350 degrees F.  When the beets have started to soften (can be slightly marked with a wooden spoon), fish them out and place them on a foil lined baking sheet.  Roast for ~20-25 minutes (faster if you have a better oven than I do).  Cool for 5-10 minutes, then peel and cube.
      Note: Sadly, beets take a long time to cook, but maybe someone has a better - meaning faster - method.  I boiled first to speed up the process, but then finished off with roasting because roasted vegetables really just taste so much better with the flavor captured in the flesh rather than escaping into the water.
    2. Trim the stems off the brussel sprouts and boil for 7-10 minutes or until softened.  Add a dash of salt to the water to flavor them a bit.  Once done, slice them in half.

    3. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add beets, sprouts, and spices.  Be generous with the cumin!  Cover it up and stir on occasion to avoid excessive burning, until sprouts fully tender and vegetables have begun caramelizing.
      Note: I did this for 5 minutes re: the recipe, but as I said above, I would have done it longer.

    4. Serve!  I actually ate them alone since I had already eaten leftover pasta while I was awaiting the long process of beet cooking, but I could imagine combining this dish with couscous.

    14 June 2011

    The consequences of unsubscribing

    Groupon is pretty clever.

    Rather than allowing people to unsubscribe with an innocuous email submission and requisite "You are now unsubscribed from this list," they actually attach that action to violence.  You'll have to find it on Youtube or unsubscribe yourself to know what I'm talking about...  I didn't take a screen shot of the actual video, but it made me laugh - and then feel a twinge of guilt.  Maybe their tactic worked?

    We'll see if I try to make it up to Derrick in the next couple days.

    13 June 2011

    On display : B+C | A Alumni Show

    I missed the reception, but got to see my work and others on display for the 3rd annual Barnard + Columbia Architecture Alumni Show when I returned for my class reunion at the beginning of the month.  The title of the exhibition is "Progress | Process," essentially looking at the ways in which the design process has evolved.  (Brief below.)  The work is on display on the 4th floor of Barnard's new Diana Center, so check it out if you're in the City.

    Instead of sharing studio designs, I decided instead to showcase two different ways of rethinking the building block from a very material standpoint.  No sleek renderings here, but instead I introduced a little dirt.  Yes, these are group projects (thanks to teams MRG and D-Lab Building Materials aka RHA), but I'm ok with not being the sole author in these innovations.  Sometimes better work  develops with more brains than one, and this is often the case anyways with most design and research.

    I saw some other familiar names with work showcased, and in general there was a pretty wide variety of projects highlighting what alums all the way from the class of '98 to the class of '09 have been up to since leaving the alma mater.  The other participants include:
    Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal, CC ’08 // “Living on the Edge of a Megacity”
    Edgar Papazian, CC ’95 // “One Competition”
    Irmak Turan, SEAS ’07, CC ’08 // “RAMPed UP”
    Jacob Moore, CC ‘06 // “Unknowing the Known”
    Lizzie Hodges, BC ‘02 // “Redacted”
    Marissa Grace Desmond, CC ‘05 // “Damn the City, Dam the Suburbs” [also a recent MIT alum]
    Meg Kelly, BC ‘09 // “Tracing Shifts of Place”
    Shan Shan Qi, BC ’06 //  “Production House”
    Tom Stewart, CC ’08 // “Salsabol”
    Wendy W Fok, BC ‘03 // “UP – Urban Tower Transformation”
    The brief, crafted by the show committee (including Charles Curran, another fellow Columbian and MITer), refers to the work of a recent visiting faculty member here at MIT:
    In her essay Theory After (After-Theory), Ashley Schafer identifies the emergence of the promiscuous architectural practice, one that works seamlessly through design, contextual study, building, and writing, as a new, agile modus operandi within and beyond the discipline. This conflation of material and theoretical practice (design and concept) fosters great diversity in ways of working, which can be calibrated to suit the constraints of a specific project and the designer’s unique conceptual biases. The Barnard + Columbia Architecture Department offers a similarly pluralistic and promiscuous pedagogy as evidenced by the diversity of its multi-disciplinary faculty and the resultant varied approaches to design instruction. It is hoped that exposure to and experimentation within this liberal environment challenges students to work dynamically, crafting and continuously refining their own program(s) of design research. This year’s Alumni Exhibition seeks to uncover how the design process continues to evolve after graduation.

    12 June 2011

    Graduation from the back door

    on a recent Friday, dated June 3, 2011

    It's a bit belated, but congrats to all our dear MIT grads from GCF, ArchPlan, MArch, and more.  Even from the back door, the view was pretty great.

    The beginning of a new era, with open doors and open skies.

    10 June 2011

    Gratitude ... of sorts

     “Thank you, first sheet of a new toilet paper roll that won’t tear off evenly so I have to scratch and claw and shred three layers of the roll just to get the thing started. But that’s cool. I think I’ll have the last laugh, since I know where you’re ending up."

    From "Thank You Notes" by Jimmy Fallon, recently published and quoted in the NYTimes

    Maybe it IS easy to write a book after all ...

    DoBV represents in Archiprix awards

    This morning's news: 4 DoBV members won or were nominated for top prizes in the Archiprix thesis competition!  The announcement was made at the awards ceremony yesterday at the Guggenheim in New York, which I unfortunately couldn't go to but am glad to hear about.  It's quite the sweep - I'm not sure if any other workshop group had so many notables in their midst.  Out of over 300 projects, 8 were chosen as winners while 24 in total were nominated.

    Congrats to our winner:

    Craig Johnson : National Apiological Network: An Illustrated History (University of Strathclyde, Scotland)
    On the first night of the workshop, when asked why he did his thesis about bees: "I dunno ... I just thought it would be interesting."  That goes to show that thesis projects don't have to have pomp and circumstance from the get go to become good projects in the end.

    Plus, additional congrats to our nominees:

    Thomas Cole : Hawkesbury Ponds Fairgrounds (University of New South Wales)

    Sarosh Mulla : Interconnections of System Densities (University of Auckland, New Zealand)
    Aezad Alam : Su_Per_form®  (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates)

    09 June 2011

    Once upon a time in NYC...

    ... there were mundane objects lying around the city we call the City, waiting to be noticed.  Items like the window air conditioner...

    ... the steam vent ...

    ... the ubiquitous hot dog vendor ...

    ... and more simply pined for attention.  Which they got.  When the Department of Benign Violations came along.

    Suddenly the streets were filled with music.  People chilled (or heated) at bus stops and bicycle racks.  Facades were covered with inflatables, transformative louvers, and even erupted with balloons.  Trees moved to the song of hot dogs sizzling.  Rooftops blossomed.  Taxis buzzed with electrostatic energy and removed the lint off of the sweaters of passersby.  And the streets of NYC were forever changed.

    02 June 2011


    New wallpaper, produced in a day by the three DoBV groups: Census Bureau, Research Team, and Zoning Commission.

    01 June 2011

    NYC's new department

    photo taken by Marina, Archiprix's dedicated webmistress and social media curator
    Meet the Department of Benign Violations, formerly known as Group 6 of the Archiprix workshop competition.  Once a crowd of 11 and now a slim 8, these recent graduate architecture alums hail from both hemispheres and across the globe:
    (That list might have been more impressive as a mapping, but for now, it remains in just words.)  Nick Gelpi and Filip Tejchman at the helm; with me to get coffee cups, scan precedents, and troubleshoot network issues in the side wings.

    Being abroad - from the past

    Way back when I could say that I was officially studying abroad in my college days and wanted to talk about how awesome it was to be abroad, I had come across a cool little project called Being Abroad.  Seemed perfect!  If you signed up and were selected, you would then become one of 100 people mailed one of 10 sketchbooks and add your own artistic entry about your own experiences in the wider world beyond.  It actually worked, in that one day a few years back, I got mailed a sketchbook by a complete stranger from England, and was then asked to ship it off to someone in another part of Europe.  (Not the most efficient path of travel, I suppose.)  The submissions would then be compiled in some sort of annotated book about personal stories abroad...

    Then silence...

    And then... a random email a couple weeks ago.  Ends up the book idea sort of fell through, but the guy behind it wanted to bring some closure to the project and is now making a website with all the entries.  I visited his own webpage and discovered that he now works for the slightly alternative literary publication McSweeney's - which makes him a cool person in my book.

    In any rate, this inordinately long blog post is just to say that my submission will be published online on a URL yet to be revealed.  I'm excited in numerous ways, but mostly because... well frankly, I haven't the faintest memory of what I even drew/wrote, so it'll be like a mini blast from the past or a time capsule of sorts about my days in Paris or Beijing...or somewhere in between.

    An update soon on our own international experience happening within the walls of MIT ...