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Village of Pittsburgh


Two weeks into my internship in Pittsburgh, I have learned many things. Most notably, Pittsburgh is not a city. Not really even a town. I prefer to refer to it as a village. On multiple occasions, I have met someone randomly at a cafe or on a bus, and then seen them < 24 hours later, in a completely different part of Pittsburgh. I swear this is not normal. So why the Pittsburgh stuff anyway... this summer, I'm doing research at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, which means I'll be an expert on Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh by the end of July, as well as learning a thing or two about learning science, misconceptions about decimal arithmetic, and specifically how examples with errors in them might help you learn.

Carnegie Mellon

Kinda looks like this:


The campus is really nice, pretty small, and you can see the Learning Cathedral from, well, everywhere (the tall thing in the background):


The best part of the engineering buildings is that they’re all connected by bridges. The downside is that you never know what floor is ground level – it can be anywhere from floor 1 to 4 depending on what building you’re in, and the bridges aren’t on the same floors either. After 3 weeks though, I’m confident that I could survive without actually going outside in the winter.

The Gates building is the wackiest looking, but it does have a bunch of nice couches and a balcony that I work on sometimes, when my lab’s lack of sunlight is getting to me (get it, there’s a lot of windows in the gates building… ha…)


The bridge to the Gates building is cool…


…especially at night.


(we had a mini photo shoot there last night):




But the CMU campus is not all fun and games. In fact, there is one horrible, horrible thing going on here… a giant, slanted pole in the middle of the main quad area, with people walking up it:


This thing actually creeps me out significantly. Why are these people walking up into the sky?


Any why must these creepy fake people watch them from the ground? Sometimes there’s real people staring up at the pole too, but I assume they’re fake… as was happening when I took this picture… spot the real boy!



So I started work on June 7. My second week of work, however, was effectively lost, because I ended up volunteering for ITS2010, a conference going on at CMU this year about Intelligent Tutoring Systems, which is pretty relevant to the research I’m doing. Also I was interested in participating in a non-reflections|projections conference and seeing how they do things. There’s a bunch of pics from the conference here. The conference basically involved:
– lots of cool talks about intelligent tutors (computerized educational software that is ‘intelligent’ in some way, usually adjusting to the student somehow)
– lots of free cheese & wine, and a constant supply of coffee
– meeting lots of new people from all over the world who research the interesting stuff mentioned above (yeah, my Japanese knowledge DID come in handy!)
– A kickass banquet, with more of the above-mentioned free foods, plus, pretty plants with little aliens in them! (Banquet was at the Phipps Conservatory)


And Jack Mostow singing…


…and us singing with Jack Mostow:

Pittsburgh Wisdom

Here’s what I’ve figured out and noticed so far…

Public Transportation: The bus system leaves a lot to be desired. There’s not really enough buses to begin with, but the service makes the experience even more unpleasant. Buses don’t stop for you unless you practically jump into the middle of the street and wave at them (and even then, they stop like 30 feet in front of the bus stop), they love to yell at you about you paying at the wrong time (going one direction you pay before the ride, going the other direction, it’s after, god forbid you don’t know which to do). While the occasional bus driver will be extra friendly and help you find your way, asking simple questions to most drivers incites severe rage, such as when we asked about Highland Ave., and the bus driver snapped back at us, “What about it!?” Come on, lady, we’re on a bus, what do you THINK we want to know about it…? or the other day when we got on a bus that had opened its doors, only to be yelled at because apparently it stops and waits before we can get on the bus… let’s just say, I avoid the bus whenever possible, because it just makes me depressed.

Taxis: The lovely bus system ceases to function after around midnight, which means you’re stuck trying to find a taxi. Yeah, good luck with that. The first weekend here, I was stranded with my friend in Southside, the main go-to for nightlife. At 2AM when everything was closing down, we tried to flag down a cab, but there were very few, and the ones that did drive by were full. Upon calling a cab company, they claimed they wouldn’t send me a cab, because I was in a busy area where you’re supposed to “just flag them down.” We had to specifically find a more remote location to wait in order to call a cab, and even so it took 45 minutes for said cab to show up. I have a feeling this is not the last time I will be stranded somewhere in Pittsburgh.

Food: Don’t expect too much. Pittsburgh seems to be really good at bar food, especially half-off late-night food (Fuel & Fuddle is excellent, though getting a table for 14 people at 11 PM does prove to be challenging), but if you’re looking for ethnic food (and I am) you’re pretty much out of luck. There’s a thai restaurant in shadyside that’s good but far too expensive, but that’s kind of the only asian restaurant for almost miles… other than the CMU trucks, which are actually pretty decent. More on them another day.

Weather: Just carry an umbrella with you, all the time. It will be totally sunny, then start pouring for half an hour (right when you need to walk outside, too)…so be warned.

Bubble tea: A major issue for any new place I live in… and Pittsburgh has by far the worst bubble tea situation out of any place I have ever lived. I have tried four places now and only one has been good enough that I might go back.
Stay away from:
– The kiosk in front of the learning cathedral… not enough boba, flavor was eh.
– Lulu’s: possibly the worst bubble tea I’ve ever tasted. Threw it out halfway through.
– Oriental Express: Probably the best option in walking distance of CMU, but still pretty eh. I liked the Taro, but have heard bad things about fruit flavors (which I never get).
The only good option so far is the Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill. It had your standard bubble tea that one might expect from every bubble tea establishment… not enough flavors, but I’ll take what I can get.

Paper towel dispensers: I have never been to a city that has such a hard time with dispensing paper towels in bathrooms. Across the city (including my own dorm, and places at CMU), the dispensers just don’t work, the paper gets stuck inside, or whoever is restocking the paper just completely gives up and there’s just a roll of paper sitting on a countertop, outside of the dispenser. WHY IS THIS SO HARD, PITTSBURGH!?

Mt. Washington/The Incline: Is definitely worth going to after dark for an awesome view of the city.




Lots more Pittsburgh insights later, DC next week, and more. Peace out.


Spring Break Toronto


Screw going south for spring break – Toronto made a pretty kickass spring break destination this year.

Inspired by Ryan North who drove down from Toronto for Reflections | Projections 2009, I realized that Toronto was easily reachable by automobile.

Or not so easily – we spent the first day of our trip dealing with car trouble, and returned back to where we started (see Dave’s blog for details). On day two, our new plan worked and we made it all the way across the border and to Niagra Falls.

Lesson 1: Niagra Falls in March is a GOOD IDEA
$115 gets you a 42nd story suite overlooking the falls. We did not have to actually go visit the falls, which is nice, because it was cold. IMG_8588

On day 3 of trying to get to Toronto, we got up and left Niagra Falls, drove another 1.5 hours away or so and finally reached our destination!

After navigating the numerous one-way streets of downtown, we finally found our hotel, the Strathcona which had a great location (right in the middle of downtown) and sadly no parking. We did manage to scam our way into free parking though, by finding a parking lot where they had a flat overnight rate but no ticket or any marking on the car, and then leaving it there for 3 days without leaving the parking lot. 1 day’s parking cost for 3 days (and it was like 20 bucks, so it’s pretty significant savings here!)

One other essential item the hotel did not provide was free internet. We looked for a coffee shop, and got extremely annoyed at the sketchy internet connection at Second Cup, so we paid for one day of internet and laid out a game plan, using the map. Having this map was really helpful, and it highlights kinda the “important” neighborhoods in the different colors and explains them. Yes, Gaybourhood is the one in pink.


Tuesday Adventures
1) Headed for Yonge, the downtown shopping district (in yellow on the map). Checked out some record stores and such.


2) Went to the World’s Biggest Bookstore which was sorta big, but really not all THAT big. There was a smaller bookstore right next to it.

3) Took the subway west to Koreatown which might be my favorite place in Toronto. We went to a restaurant called “Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu” and YOU ALL SHOULD GO THERE TOO. Look at our glorious feast. SO DELICIOUS!!!



Wednesday Adventures
This is the day we walked way too much.

We started by walking east to the St. Lawrence Market, where we found wonderful baked goods and tea to eat and drink for breakfast (my first scone consumed in the country of Canada).

Then we started walking farther east to explore the less city-like parts of the city and eventually arrive at Pizza Pide, a Turkish pizza (and some lahmacun) place.

Area near the hotel

The CN tower is visible pretty much anywhere

My delicious feta/spinach noms.

We took a streetcar west, passed through little Italy but did not stop, and walked south until we were in the Queen Street West neighborhood. It was artsy and we stopped by the very small Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

Afterwards, we needed to regroup a bit and get some internetting done. Due to our horrible experience at Second Cup, we realized a bit more research needed to happen before choosing a cafe to visit. Luckily, blogTO had an article about the best cafes with free wifi. We went to the White Squirrel, which was just about the size of a living room, but somehow reminded me of the Dolores Park Cafe in San Francisco (there was also a park near this one, and something about the layout of the cafe… I dunno.)

Queen West as a neighborhood was pretty interesting. It had a lot of clothing stores and kind of a wilder bunch than most of the other parts of Toronto we’d walked through. The street itself sort of reminded me of being in downtown Santa Cruz. CRAZY.

On the way home, we hit up The Beer Store to get Dave’s precious Labatt 50. The important thing to know about The Beer Store is that when you walk in, there is NO BEER. There is an empty room, and a menu on the wall of beers, quantities, and prices. You walk up to a guy behind the counter and tell him what you want, and he brings it to you. Based on the signs around the store, they have a pretty serious recycle policy too, when you bring back empty beers. Oh yeah, and The Beer Store is a chain. We saw like 50 of them in the week we were there.

The fruits of Dave’s Beer Store adventure

Later that evening, we hit up Chinatown for some noms, and went to Bread and Circus, a bar with a stage, and a stand-up comedy group was performing that night. Small place, pretty cozy, hilarious show. blogTO strikes again at giving us a good suggestion (downside: now I want a blogTO website for every city in the entire world).

Thursday Adventures
Today was the day to visit the University of Toronto. First we went to The Dark Horse Espresso Bar in Chinatown, where you needed a cell phone to get texted a password (and we didn’t have our phones with us) so that didn’t work out so well. Next the Kensington Market, and then walking up to the University.






Lots of little Hogwarts-like areas too. But the best part was the Computer Science building, which blows Siebel Center out of the water:




Very magical.

Next was the Shoe Museum (this is like the equivalent of the beer store for me), walking through Gaybourhood, and chilling out in the hotel again in the evening, stealing internets from our paying neighbors.

And that, my friends, was Toronto.

On Friday we packed up, headed out, and stopped at a bagel place in Mississauga on the 10-hour drive home. Ahhh bagels.

Overall Impressions
– The weather: was no worse than the midwest. Toronto is a perfectly acceptable spring break destination

– The Europe: You definitely felt the French influence. Most cafes and bakeries were run by French people. This could help explain why there was so much good pastry in Toronto.

– The City: Toronto is kind of like one of those cities you see in movies: skyscrapers, parks, businessmen walking around, lots of people from different ethnic groups who all appear to be socioeconomically similar, and the appearance that nothing bad EVER HAPPENS. It was clean, there were very few homeless people, and even the worst parts of the city were not at all frightening.

– The transportation: Toronto had excellent (albeit slightly expensive) public transportation. We wanted to see a lot of things by foot so we rarely used it, but by using the subway and the streetcars, we could get across the city pretty quickly. The subway was clean and nice and reminded me of a less high-tech (PHYSICAL TOKENS! PHYSICAL TURNSTILES! WHAT IS THIS!?), less crowded version of subways in Japan.
One of the best subway pictures I have ever taken

– The coffee lids: This is my main complaint about Canada. Every lid I encountered was flat and the tab wouldn’t stay down. Here is some other guy’s rant on the same issue. Come on people!!

– The fashion: NO ONE IN TORONTO WAS WEARING PANTS. They all had those stupid leggings. I sent these pics to UIUCNoPants. The no-pants epidemic definitely crosses international borders:


In short, I would totally live there, and just hope they figure out that whole fashion and coffee-lid thing beforehand.

Also, I too, like Canadians, love to eat the Internet for breakfast:


setsubun party!


In my continual efforts to incorporate the best parts of Japanese culture into my life (and a love for consuming wasabi) I decided to bring the Japanese holiday called 節分 (setsubun) to the Midwest.

Setsubun celebrates the coming of Spring, and occurs at the beginning of February (the 3rd this year, though apparently the date varies slightly from year to year). Spring starting in February in Midwestern America is a ridiculous thought, but you can kind of just treat it like Groundhog Day as Spring-welcoming-and-preparation-and-all-that.

Setsubun celebration involves two key components:
1) Sushi. Make sushi rolls, don’t cut them (for good luck), and eat them in silence facing the lucky direction for the current year (west-south-west this year)
2) Bean throwing. Throw beans out your door to get rid of the demons, throw them inside the door to bring luck in. Shout the appropriate things in Japanese (“out with demons, in with luck!”)

Though I planned to have a setsubun party for a while, I didn’t get around to making a Facebook event and inviting people until a couple days before, by which point Dave had already planned a gettogether for the same evening – the first installation in a series of music-by-the-decade parties, starting with the 50s (for unknown reasons). The only reasonable solution was to combine the two into a 50s-themed setsubun celebration.

Here’s how it went down…

Key setsubun ingredients (Pocky is definitely an age-old setsubun tradition)

I cut up ingredients as people showed up and started staring at the random things on the table and/or sock hopping it up. Later, I became the makizushi instructor:


While waiting for their turn at making makizushi, the other guests participated wholeheartedly in the sock-hop that was going on…

Rob lookin smooth

Jake and Mia swingin’ and twistin’

Nathan is quite competitive sushi-maker

Sushi assembled, we all stood ready facing west-south-west

This, my friends, is setsubun

After we inhaled our sushi, it was time to throw beans. Nathan was kind enough to be our demon for the night, and the target of our bean-throwing.


Several synchronous “Oni wa soto” and “Fuku wa uchi” yellings later, all demons and bad luck were banished from the apartment. Good work, team, golly gee whiz!

However, what wasn’t banished yet from the apartment was about three thousand grains of rice and beans all over the floor. Note to everyone considering a setsubun party: cleanup is a forced to be reckoned with.