Maria Holland

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

Dat View

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2015 at 10:17 am

The sky was blue today!!!!!

IMG 20150630 121621

I feel like I’m a plant, with my physical and emotional well-being completely dependent on the sky.  I was full of energy and couldn’t stop smiling all day.  The people of Beijing are not plants.  They seem to go about their lives without giving the air or weather quality a second thought.  They don’t wear face masks when it’s polluted, and they don’t linger outdoors when it’s nice.  My whole day is different when the AQI is 300 and when it’s 30, from my clothes to my mood. 

 As we got our bikes to go to dinner, I asked if we could get food and eat outside.  At first they were confused by my words; I had said 外面, which means outside but I realized in this context meant off campus.  When I changed to 户外 (outdoors), though, it didn’t seem to get any clearer.  I guess the Chinese are not a big picnic culture . . . takeout is a staple of life here, and I almost tried again with that, but just gave up.  We ate inside.

A similar instance of understanding the words, but not the concept, happened during dinner.  One of the guys asked where I was going back to, and I felt stupid as I kept asking what he was saying.  They all thought I had forgotten these basic words – “where”, “you”, “go”, “return” – but I just didn’t know what he meant.  I’m going back to the hotel tonight and eventually I’m returning to America, but you know all this so why are you asking??  Turns out he wanted to know if I was going back to the office with them after dinner.  Oh . . . then yes.  

As we ate, I mentioned that I had spent Chinese New Year at the home of a friend from church, so one of the guys asked if I am religious.  This led into a discussion of what it means to be “have religious faith”.  He asked if he prays to Buddha before a test, is that religion?  I said, no, that’s superstition.  Huge thank you to Anki, my awesome flashcard program, which had shown me the “superstition” flashcard literally 20 minutes before.

After dinner, we ran into a friend of one of the guys and he introduced me.  I said 你好 and then, as if on cue, his face changed to one of incredulity and he exclaimed that I speak Chinese so well!  I laughed, and said that it always feels funny when people make such comments after hearing me say literally one simple two-syllable phrase.  He defended it, actually, and has somewhat of a point – most foreigners pronounce each syllable like a word, he said (“Ni. Hao.”) or with no tones (“nihao”) but I spoke smoothly and properly (“níhǎo”).  Maybe 你好 is actually a pretty good Chinese shibboleth?


I stayed so late at work that I saw the sun setting out the office window. Cheng saw me staring and asked if I wanted to take pictures. Yes, but the office window is too dirty, I said. She suggested I go upstairs to the top of the building. Um, yes please! She told me how to go up, and I discovered my new favorite place. Our building is 11 stories tall, definitely one of the tallest buildings on campus. What a gorgeous view of the city we have!!


There’s a nice open area up there, too, that seems to just be begging to host a happy hour . . . 

I caught the sunset over the mountains and stayed there until it was all the way behind them, just breathing and smiling.  

IMG 2207 

Today I learned: 

I’ve been pronouncing “who” wrong ALL THIS TIME?!?  It’s one of the question words and probably in the first 100 characters I learned.  APPARENTLY INCORRECTLY??  At Mass this weekend, I noticed the priest pronounced 谁 oddly, as “shuí” instead of “sheí”.  I thought it was an archaic pronunciation, or like the way we pronounce 了 as “liao” instead of “le” when we sing.  Or maybe he has an accent?  He has a few verbal quirks, like saying 好 in between pretty much every clause, so I didn’t think too much of it.  But today, when one of my labmates did it, I asked him about it.  Is it an accent, or a regional thing, or some dialect?  No, it’s pretty standard, he said, even the news announcers use it.  I didn’t believe him, but when I got home and looked it up on Pleco, my favorite Chinese app, it lists

shuí: 1. who 2. (used in rhetorical questions) who 3. someone, anyone 4. (used before 都 or 也) everyone, anyone.
sheí: a variant pronunciation for 谁 shuí.


What Do You Do Here?

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Now that I’ve finally got my computer set up and am working, perhaps I should talk a little about why I’m in Beijing?  

The official abstract for my NSF EAPSI grant is: 

EAPSI: Investigation of the wrinkling and buckling behavior of layered soft materials, with applications in the developing brain.

During the third trimester of gestation, the human brain evolves from having a mostly smooth surface to the characteristic ’wrinkled’ appearance of the adult brain. How does this happen, and why does it sometimes go wrong? The mechanics community has been interested in these questions for decades, attempting to model the brain as a thin, stiff, growing layer (gray matter) attached to a thicker, softer layer (white matter). Recent mechanical tests, however, have revealed that gray matter is actually slightly less stiff than the underlying white matter, challenging many prior models and assumptions. Through collaboration with Dr. Feng Xi-Qiao of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, an expert in the wrinkling and buckling of soft films, this project will explore the behavior of thin growing layers on substrates of a similar stiffness. This research will lead to a greater understanding of brain development in light of these recent findings.

For a stiff growing layer on a soft substrate, the formation of sinusoidal waves is expected, while the growth of a soft layer on a stiffer substrate will lead to creases with pinched valleys. The transition between waves and creases happens gradually in the region of interest for brain tissue. Using both analytical and numerical approaches, this research will explore the behavior of soft layered materials with stiffness ratios close to unity. Numerical simulations will be performed in the finite element software Abaqus, using the built-in linear perturbation analysis as well as user-defined material models that simulate volumetric growth.

This was written for lay people (especially the first paragraph) so I’m assuming this is all crystal clear to you, right?

If not . . . Okay, so I’m a mechanical engineer, and I study the brain.  Yeah, it’s weird.  My field, more specifically, is solid mechanics, which is the study of how solids respond to forces (as opposed to fluid mechanics, which is the study of how fluids react to forces).  Even more specifically, I do computational (as opposed to experimental) solid mechanics, which means I make mathematical or computer models of objects in order to predict how they will respond to forces.  Even more specifically, I do computational biomechanics, so the objects I study are biological systems.  And, for one level of specificity beyond that, the group I work in at Stanford focuses on biological systems that grow (add mass) or remodel (change their physical properties).

During my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, I spent four years studying the behavior of engineering materials, like steel and concrete.  These are super important, as we build houses and bridges out of them and stuff.  They’re also fairly simple (well, at least in hindsight).  Under normal conditions, their behavior is well-known and reliable.  

Picture an ordinary steel pipe.  If you compress it (squeeze it from both ends), it will get shorter, exhibiting a linear elastic response.  “Linear” means that if you doubled the load on it (squeezed twice as hard), it would deform twice as much (shorten by twice as much).  “Elastic” means that if you unloaded it (stopped squeezing), it would return to its original length immediately.  Not that you would probably notice – under normal loading conditions steel exhibits small strain deformation, meaning that its length would change so little that we can assume its new length is approximately the same as its original length.  It is also “homogeneous”, meaning that if you cut it into shorter pipes, each of them would behave identically because the material is the same everywhere.  And finally, it is “isotropic”, meaning that if you cut square out of this steel, you could compress it from side to side or from top to bottom, and it would behave the same.

But, I study the brain.  Many biological materials, including the brain, differ from engineering materials in a few major ways.  They are generally not linear, elastic, small-strain, homogeneous, or isotropic.  Instead, they are usually “nonlinear”, meaning that as you compress or stretch them, it may get easier or harder to do so.  They may be “viscoelastic”, which means their response depends on how fast you compress or stretch them (like Silly Putty), or “plastic”, which means they don’t return to their original shape when unloaded (think of a paper clip).  Or both!  They can exhibit large strains.  Squeeze some of the skin on your arm together – if you can reduce the distance between your fingers by half, that’s 50% strain, waaay larger than the 0.02% strain range that engineering materials operate in.  They’re usually “inhomogenous” – your bones, for instance, have different densities throughout, in order to bear the weight of your body most efficiently.  And they’re often “anisotropic” – muscles are a great example of a fibrous tissue, with muscle fibers running along their length because the direction in which they contract.  Finally, biological materials can grow, or add mass.  Steel doesn’t do this – if you have some quantity of steel now, you’ll have the same quantity of steel a year from now.  

All of this stuff makes biological materials more difficult (and more interesting?) than engineering materials.  Just like engineering materials, however, biological materials respond to their mechanical environment – the forces they experience acting upon them.  I’m studying the development of the brain, trying to understand what influence mechanical forces have on the development of the wrinkled shape of our brain.  


A lot of things in computational mechanics start very simply.  Very much like the joke, “assume a spherical cow”, all of my work this summer will likely be on rectangular brains.  This allows us to focus on what we think are the essential characteristics of the brain, at least from a mechanics point of view – there are two materials (a thin layer of gray matter laying on a thicker layer of white matter) and they are connected to each other as they grow.  

Over the last ~30 years of people studying the brain, we thought the thin gray matter layer was stiffer than the white matter.  These equations are fairly easy to solve (on rectangular brains, at least!), especially when the gray matter is a lot stiffer.  When the top layer grows or is compressed (mechanically, the two loadings are the same), the results look something like this, with regular sinusoidal waves.  


But last year, some colleages of mine tested animal brains – literally, got them from a slaughterhouse and poked them with a very sensitive machine to see how stiff they were.  They found two things: First of all, brain is less soft than Jello!  More importantly (although probably less likely to be shared as a fun anecdote at your next dinner party), the white and gray matter are pretty much equally stiff; if anything, the white matter is stiffer.

(My dad asked me why it’s so hard to measure the stiffness of the brain – “Come on, it’s 2015!” he said.  Things like steel or aluminum or even wood are easy to test because you can cut perfect shapes, and you can grab on and pull them easily.  It’s much harder to cut a nice cube or bar out of a slowly disintegrating fresh brain, and harder still to stretch or squish it in some measurable, repeatable way.)

Given this, there are a lot of past assumptions that need to be reevaluated.  For layered materials with an “inverse” stiffness ratio (where the substrate is stiffer than the thin layer), you see patterns more like this, with creases developing under loading:


These two behaviors transition into each other gradually, looking something like this in between:


The brain lies somewhere around here.  My project this summer is to increase our understanding of the behavior of layered materials with inverse stiffness ratios (the 2nd and 3rd pictures), which I would then apply to my research on brain folding.

Bo Li, one of the professors I’m working with, found a paper that’s similar to what we’re hoping to do – they investigated both wrinkles (the first picture) and creases (the second picture) but in a single material, whereas we are looking at two layers of different materials.  I spent the day working through the first part of the paper, making sure I understand what they did and looking for the parts that we will have to change for our purposes.  It was nice to have a very concrete task and get a glimpse of an outcome similar to what we’re hoping for.  


It kind of rained today, which was nice for two reasons.  First of all, the sky had a legitimate reason for being gray, and actually had some cloud-like texture to it instead of its usual appearance, which has all the variety of a concrete wall.  Secondly, rain usually brings cleaner air.  (Which, I can’t help thinking, means that the rain is washing the pollution out of the sky.  It’s a wonder the raindrops don’t burn my skin!)  Look at what happened after Friday night’s storm: 

Screenshot 2015 06 27 16 40 40

Too bad we weren’t outside from 10pm to 1am, when the air was so nice!  I’m hopeful that today’s improvement will last a bit longer . . . 

This evening, I tried to Skype with my Dad but the hotel internet is terrible in the evenings.  It’s kind of absurd to me that I have Skyped with my parents from all over the world, including a “small” Chinese city five years ago, but here in the capital of China in 2015 it’s just too much.  

Today I learned: 

My N100 mask keeps out scents significantly better than my N95 mask.  I bike by a large, open garbage dump on my way to work, and the smell makes me almost throw up every single time I pass it.  I’ve been trying to hold my breath, but I can’t hold it for long enough.  The N100 mask worked well enough that I think I’ll start wearing it, even though it’s too big for my face.  

Chinese Catholic Art

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2015 at 10:52 am

I was woken up by one of the most disturbing texts I’ve ever received, from an EAPSI colleague in Shanghai:

I woke up in the midle of the night to a woman screaming.  Look outside my window to see a man beating up a woman.  I go to the front desk and ask them to call the police.  They call the police and the police “don’t want to get involved”.  Amazing.

I went to 北堂 again today.  I had the route figured out and, feeling healthy, had a bit more pep in my step, so I made good time.  I got to the church at least 10 minutes before Mass started, and was able to stake out a good spot near the front.  This is important because I don’t think the music is in hymnals, just on two screens near the front, which I couldn’t read last time.

The only thing I caught from the homily today was that “we all have our own crosses to bear”. I did find myself wondering what people in the pews were hearing back home, and praying for my country.  A lot of “I’m so sorry, Father”s.  

I’ve written a lot about the Church in China in the past, and most of it holds true here in Beijing.  The main new thing I’ve noticed is the fairly regular occurence of priests or members of the congregation taking Hosts back from people who try to walk away with It.  I think I saw this once in Xiamen, and it was very confusing to me at the time; I only later realized what must have happened.  Maybe we get more tourists at the Beijing cathedrals, who don’t know what’s going on but want to get the snack that everyone else is getting?  I’m not sure, but I’ve seen this happen at least once at each of the Sunday Masses I’ve been to so far.  I am really impressed and gratified by the sharpness of their observation, and their courage in confronting people (gently); as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at my home parish, I know it’s a difficult task for many reasons.  

Last week, I took a taxi home immediately because I wasn’t feeling well, but this week I took the time to look around.  I visited each of the side altars, and was struck by two of them in particular:

IMG 2184

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They’re both images of Mary with the child Jesus, but with Asian features and dress.  These aren’t great pictures, but I also bought several prints of each at the religious goods store.  Plus a book on The Art of the Catholic Church in China!

I took my time walking back to the subway as well, and stopped for noodles on the way.  

In the evening, I got a few friends to go to the U-Center for fish.  This was a great choice.  We got one big fish with potatoes and broccoli, plus rice and tea, for the four of us for 100元.  And afterwards I splurged on a kumquat-lemon drink from Coco which was all that I had hoped for, and more.

Today I learned:

You can see a forecast of the pollution at  The next two days are supposed to be more of the same.  I haven’t seen a hint of blue in the sky since last Sunday.  

Location and Identity

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2015 at 10:41 am

I went shopping with the other Beijing EAPSI women today.  We’re going to a 4th of July party at the US embassy on Thursday, and the guys got suits made so . . . the stakes have been raised.  We actually had a decent amount of success – one time I even had to tell the shopkeeper that a dress was too big!  This had never happened to me before in China.

I bought a few dresses and some cute cards.  They had pretty scenes on them, along with “recipes”:

Travel recipe
there are a lot of things that we canlearn through
traveling to different places experience
culture and your information

Reading recipe
in today’s world,
training and learning do 
not stop when
we finish schoolthey
must nowcontinue
throughout our working lives

Shopping recipe
use a shopping list
you also need to think about what you
can afford to have

Sleep recipe:
i spread my wings and i’ll learn how to fly
wanna feel the warm breeze
sleep under a palm tree

The last one was my favorite, because it is literally some of the lyrics from “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson.

About halfway through, I started noticing my own behavior and seeing in it a mirror of the behavior I see around me.  Chinese people are beyond generous with the people in their ‘inner circle’ (family, friends, colleagues, etc.), but people on the outside of this circle are really not extended any basic courtesy.  I think in the time I’ve spent here, I’ve internalized this attitude more than I’m comfortable with.  In Chinese, it’s easier for me to be demanding, dismissive, curt.  Even five years later, it’s an easier skin to slip into than I realized.  

It’s a difficult question for me, how to find a balance between assimilation and authenticity?  If I could, I would remove any trace of an accent in my Chinese, remove any indication of my American-ness.  There’s much that I admire in Chinese culture and want to make “mine”, most especially the incredible generosity among friends.  I have enough relativism in me to know that Chinese behavior towards strangers is “rude according to Americans”, not “rude”, but . . . I’m an American.  Should my behavior be governed by identity or location?  A bit of both, no?  I don’t quite know what the test is, but I think it comes down to a comparison of values.  When it comes to food, for instance, I go with location: my gastronomical repertoire has increased markedly because I value “accepting gifts graciously” over “Americans don’t eat that”.  And in public transportation, “getting on a bus at some point this week” does outweigh my American belief in “queueing patiently”.

In dealing with shopkeepers, it’s something like “acting less obviously foreign” vs. “recognizing the people I’m interacting with as human”.  The former (besides being a hopeless cause) is simply not worth sacrificing the latter.  

So I started to make a conscious effort to look people in the eyes, smile, say ‘thank you’.  I know that it’s super American to say thank you so much, but I can’t hide my foreignness in my outward appearance, and maybe I shouldn’t try to hide some aspects of my culture any more than the color of my skin and hair or the shape of my face. 

The Language Game

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2015 at 10:38 am

Today was a pretty good day.  I finally mailed the first batch of postcards (the hotel staff “doesn’t do that” and the guy at the campus mail room wanted me to fill out a form for each of the 22 postcards with their intended destinations).  I bought an awesome bike raincoat that I’ve been eyeing since I got here; it covers all the way over my bike basket in the front, protecting my legs and the contents of my backpack, all while allowing a refreshing breeze to cool me while biking.  I couldn’t do laundry, though, because it was supposed to rain today.  (Heaven help us if we’re waiting for sun; I haven’t seen that since last week.)  

I went into Tsinghua for the weekly seminar.  The first speaker was an American professor, and I got specially introduced to him before the talk.  Like the rest of the event, this exchange was a slightly awkward game of language tug-of-war.  

There are so many factors at play in a situation like this.  First of all, we have to start with outward appearance.  He’s of Taiwanese ancestry – I’m not quite sure of the distance, but he was born in the US.  Basically, he looks Chinese and therefore, in China, is expected to speak Chinese like a native.  I very much do not look Chinese, and thus no expectations are placed upon my language abilities; anything I do is above and beyond expectations.

Secondly, there’s language ability.  Surprisingly, it’s generally not the factor with the most influence.  According to a labmate of mine here who recently studied with him for half a year, his Chinese is 一般 (“average”).  I was personally super impressed that he gave a research talk in Chinese – that vocabulary is not easy, and it was not obtained in a classroom; intro language courses don’t teach you “adhesion”, “micrometer”, or “elasticity”.  The average Chinese person is impressed by my Chinese, but of course it’s all relative to expectations.  (As he pointed out, he hasn’t spent a year in China, so in a colorblind world the burden of expectations would weigh much heavier on me.)  The truth is, both the visiting professor and I speak simply and struggle with tones.  Our struggles are common – he hesitated before saying 蜜蜂 (“bee”) in exactly the same way I have done many times before, making sure I don’t say it backwards instead (because 蜂蜜 is “honey”).  This makes it easy for us to understand each other, but also marks us as intermediate-level non-native speakers. 

Finally, one of the most important factors in the language game is face.  It’s complicated, but I think you get face by speaking well, and lose face when you mess up.  You also seem to lose face if someone has to accommodate you, but gain face if you are able to accommodate someone else.  This often interacts with (and sometimes opposes) another factor, which could be characterized as generosity.  Here you gain points for graciously accepting someone else’s effort, and lose them for snubbing such an attempt or making someone else lose face.  Related to this is the question of larger audience – are other people around who would be excluded by the choice of language?  Are the other people important?

So, given all this, consider this situation:  my Chinese host, whose English is probably on par with our Chinese, introduces me to this professor in English.  The professor says, “It’s so nice to be able to speak English!”  Then, my host mentions that I speak Chinese.  Question: What language do we speak after this?

Answer: an awkward mix of mostly Chinese.  I switched back to English after the formalities (yes, I speak Chinese, I studied in Xiamen for a year) but he persisted in Chinese so I switched back.  I would say it was partly feeling each other out, gauging the other’s ability; partly courtesy towards Prof. Feng, who was in turn being courteous to us; partly the environment (we’re in China!).  But also partly absurd.  Why are we not speaking our mutual native language, for these few moments at least??

He gave a very interesting presentation on three of his research projects, all very “sexy” (as in, exciting and accessibly to the general public) topics in biomechanics.  He spoke at a manageable pace for me, and I learned lots of new words.  But he has a Taiwanese or southern accent, plus a little bit of the careless (or unclear) pronunciation that I sometimes I catch myself using, so a few times I was surprised by what I thought I heard until I figured out what he meant.  For example, when he was talking about self-cleaning materials, he told us to imagine that we were covered in xiǎo kēlì (小颗粒, “small particles”) but I thought he said qiǎokèlì (巧克力, “chocolate”).  I don’t know, it sounded like a laundry commercial, you know?

After each of the three sections, he invited questions.  Almost everyone asked them in Chinese, and he was generally able to answer them, in Chinese.  But one person spoke her complex question quickly and quietly from the back of the room, which left our visiting professor completely lost.  A very Mark Zuckerberg moment . . .  He looked around for help, and a professor up front ended up restating it for him (in Chinese) in about 10 simple words.  Why couldn’t that have been done the first time??

Most people think it’s insulting to speak slowly, loudly, and clearly to “foreigners” (which I say as a joke, really meaning people who don’t speak your native language), but I think it lies somewhere on the spectrum between making an accommodation and causing someone to lose face, depending on the actual language ability of the listener.  Personally, I know my limits in this language and I love it 95% of the time.  I cherish those Chinese people who are masters at the speaking of their language with foreigners.  

Anyway, after that debacle of a question, one woman asked her question in English.  And then the professor began to respond in Chinese.  Nervous giggles spread through the room.  Too many layers for me to unpack, but each of them was simultaneously making a generous effort on behalf of the other, and forcing them to accept accommodation.  Which wins?  And how does rank play into this (the two parties being a graduate student and a well-known visiting professor)?  I’m still not quite who lost face there.  Maybe they both did?

The next speaker (yes, back-to-back seminars, in Chinese!  A mental marathon for me) was a native Chinese professor.  He spoke SO FAST, as if to make up for any time lost by the previous speaker’s nonnative hesitancy.  His research was on . . . I don’t know, there was something about microstructure and electrical charge, which is not my area, but then later when I paid attention again he was doing wrinkling, which kind of is, so . . . again, I don’t know.  I understood so little that even the English bits didn’t help at all.  Actual sentence: 

The DFT calculations are performed in the VASP code with PAW and PBE exchange-correlation functional.

Including articles and prepositions, I understand 10 out of those 16 words – none of the acronyms.  This sentence appeared twice, too, so it must have been important.  Sigh.  

Most of my labmates skipped the second talk (unfortunately, I didn’t realize that was an option…) so I ended up having lunch with just GuoYang.  This ended up being great, because he ‘had’ to talk to me the whole time instead of a few of them going off in rapid-fire Chinese conversation.  We talked about money – his parents still give him money, in addition to his stipend of about 2,000元 per month.  But their rent is less than 1,500元 per year!  One of the other EAPSI fellows had reported similar figures, but I thought there must have been a miscommunication until I heard them corroborated.  (My rent, in a subsidized on-campus apartment with the cheapest living situation at Stanford in which I have my own room, is over ⅓ of my stipend.)  He asked me if Americans drink water out of the faucet just like they do in movies.  

And we talked about families.  He’s his grandparents’ only grandchild.  I asked him to guess how many grandparents my 爷爷 and 奶奶 (my dad’s parents) have, and he clearly went out on a limb to guess 5.  By my reckoning, including my cousins’ spouses, there are 39 of us, plus 12 great grandkids.  I don’t know which he found more unbelievable – the magnitude of the number, or the fact that we don’t all get together at least once a year.  

The funny thing about this conversation is that words for family members in Chinese are very specific – your maternal and paternal grandparents are called different things, and that’s just the beginning.  GuoYang had difficulty with these terms, though, and I’d seen this with my Chinese roommate back at Stanford as well.  Yanyang sometimes asks me what your father’s older brother is called, for instance, or what’s the difference between 伯伯 and 舅舅.  I always thought this was odd, but now I kind of understand.  My family is so big that I have at least one of every kind of family member – my dad has sisters and both older brothers and a younger one, my mother has both sisters and a brother, and they all have kids.  When I learned the word 叔叔, I associate it not with “father’s younger brother”, but with “Daniel”.  For the average Chinese, the single child of single children, “father’s younger brother” is merely a concept, and not a familiar one at that.  (In a similar way, I really can’t keep straight the way that I would call my husband’s parents and the way he would address my parents, because they’re faceless, theoretical people.)

We also had lab meeting in the afternoon, which made for a long day of being talked at in technical Chinese.  I may or may not have dozed . . . 

But in between and after this, I got some work done!  My computer was magically fixed overnight so I can now run Abaqus with all of its functionality on my own desktop, which is awesome!  So I ran a sample job, and actually got it working!  They use a different Fortran compiler, and unfortunately it’s one that actually cares about line length, unlike ifort.  So for the time I’m  here I have to code as if it were going on punchcards like back in the day :)  

It’s a pretty trivial fix – a few line-continuation characters here and there – but is another item on the list of “trivial things Maria can and will frequently forget when coding”.  This list is greatly lengthened by my recent crossover from Linux to Windows: in addition to the backslash/forward slash (no pun intended!) difference I discovered yesterday (which doesn’t seem to be an issue, actually, because apparently Python is smarter than this?), Fortran files have to end in .for instead of .f and the command line is in DOS (so, ‘dir’ instead of ‘ls’  and “cls” instead of “clear”).  Plus some of my error messages are in Chinese.  Woohoo!

I ate dinner with a few of the guys, then biked home.  I stopped at U-Center for milkea (I hadn’t actually been back since discovering the Coco there!) and as I was leaving the building, was treated to a powerful (and beautiful) display of nature over this concrete jungle in which I live.  The sky to the north was lit up by near-constant lightning.  The pollution (around 150 today, just “unhealthy” with no intensifiers) diffused it throughout the whole sky, with no visible thunderbolts.  The wind, too, was building to a frenzy, and I was nearly knocked off my feet – literally, because my skirt was acting as a huge sail.  I biked home as fast as I could, keeping one eye on the incredible light show and one eye on the road as everyone else also tried to get home as fast as they could.  The atmosphere in the air was a little frantic; only I seemed to be enjoying it at all.  I’ve been in California for a while now and can only remember one thunderstorm in the last few years, so this was super exciting to me!

I made it home right before the downpour started.  Perfect timing to curl up with my milktea and the end of Three Men on the Bummel.  It was largely as enjoyable as its prequel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), which I can’t recommend enough.  I particularly liked this quote at the end: 

“A ‘Bummel’ . . . I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.  Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days.  But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand.  We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way.  We have been much interested, and often a little tired.  But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”

I generally describe individual excursions in China (say, to buy a SIM card or to visit friends in Zhao’An) as “adventures”, with a desired destination but also openness to changes.  After reading this, though, I think each of my five trips to China could be perfectly described as a ‘bummel’.   


Today I learned: 

All animals take about 20 seconds to pee.  Similarly, bladder pressure is essentially constant, while bladder volume is roughly proportional to body mass.  An elephant’s urethra is about a meter long and as thick as your leg.  

Tsinghua University makes it own ice cream!

We have a ‘normal’ (which is a Western-centric way of saying ‘non-squatty’) toilet at work!  I don’t mind squatting all, but it’s nice to have options.

Today I Learned:

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2015 at 10:11 am

Today I learned:

My bank account has not actually been set-up for online use.  I don’t know why they called me back to the bank yesterday afternoon.

International postcard stamps are only 4.5元.  The guy at the Temple of Heaven sold me 5.4元 stamps, and charged me 6元 for them.  Ouch.

Windows filenames use backslashes instead of forward slashes?!  I tried to run an Abaqus job on the lab server here, one from a Python file I know works . . . on Linux.  The task of creating correct filename strings is left for tomorrow.  

My Passport’s Bank Account

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2015 at 10:47 am

Baidu Maps says the American embassy is 1 hour and 22 minutes away from where I live by public transportation.  This is a lie.  It is at least two hours.  At least.  

Good thing I left almost two hours before my appointment, and biked to the subway station! 

The newest subway line in Beijing, Line 15, is being built very close to us.  The line isn’t completed and doesn’t seem to be very busy yet, but it’s a convenient way to get to other lines sometimes.  Today I took that and (after a 30 minute wait) a bus to the embassy.

Going to the US embassy in China is an odd feeling.  I kept flashing my blue passport as if it were a VIP ticket or backstage passes, but I kept being beckoned in without any questions.  This was greatly appreciated, as the line of Chinese nationals waiting for their visa interviews did not inspire envy.  

Once I got up to the counter of American Citizen Services, I felt myself subconsciously relax.  Maybe I could sometimes do things in China in English, but I never do.  Here, though, was an English oasis.  My people!  Fellow native speakers of my mother tongue!

I was at the embassy to get a letter notarized, indicating that I had replaced passport #xxxxxxxxx with passport #yyyyyyyyy.  I’d emailed and they’d said that was no problem, just bring photocopies.  They did not mention that it would be $50 (USD!  Not divisible by 6!!!!), so I nearly choked when I saw the fee schedule.  That’s almost half of what I payed to renew my passport!!  

The whole thing was painfully trivial, too.  I literally filled in my name, both passport numbers, and swore that everything was true while he stamped it.  I paid my $50, and left the oasis.  

I went to Bank of China immediately afterwards.  I had gone through all this hassle to reopen a bank account from five years ago that surprisingly contained about $300 more than I had expected.  That was great news, but for some reason my account seems to belong less to me, and more to my passport.  Instead of the passport being used to prove my identity, it seems that the passport is my identity.  Because of this, the fact that I recently got a new passport presented quite the difficulty – hence the embassy trip. 

I got there right around lunch and had to wait about an hour to see someone.  She spent at least 30 minutes shuffling through the papers, taking innumerable pictures of each one, and clicking on her computer.  I signed in a few places.  Then she handed me carbon copies of all the forms and said I was good. 

That was when I mentioned that, by the way, I also don’t remember my password.  She had clearly been ready to be done with me for a whlie now, so this was not good news.  “You’re quite annoying!”, she exclaimed.  

I had thought that re-opening a frozen account for a foreigner with a new passport would be about the most difficult operation she does in a day, but somehow resetting my password took at least twice as long and just as many signatures and pictures of my documents.

I got home and, about an hour later, got a phone call.  It was the bank, telling me I still couldn’t use my card online (which I had also, after her outburst, requested), so could I come back in? I walked back and it appeared that the woman who had helped me earlier had had lunch and a nap and was refreshed and ready to deal with me.  She took all my forms, took more pictures, got a few more signatures, and then pushed it all back to me and said I was ready.

So, that was an all-day affair.  Let’s not calculate my hourly wage, shall we?

Today I learned: The real name of the United States of America.  For the entirety of my first 8 Chinese-speaking years, I have said that I am from 美国, but today I was confused by the Chinese translation on the official embassy letterhead – 美利坚合众国.  They’re basically just equivalent to American and the United States of America; the former is almost always sufficient, but it is good to know the actual name of one’s country.  

AQI Apps

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2015 at 10:29 am

I woke up to a flurry of texts in our EAPSI WeChat group (seriously one of the highlights of this experience, sharing our diverse China experiences with 39 other American grad students), comparing air pollution in our various cities – 284 in Shanghai and 349 in Beijing.  

There are several air quality apps available, and I check a few of them.  I don’t know which one this woman in Shanghai is using, but I kind of love it.  In addition to the “air soup” comment, there is a picture of a man wearing a mask next to . . . a glass of wine?  


Apparently this is the suggested method of dealing with it.  This led to my new motto: “Drink up, the AQI is over 300 somewhere.”

One of the apps I use is called Air Quality China.  It offers four monitoring stations for Beijing, with hourly data over the last 24 hours and daily data over the last 30 days.  

Screenshot 2015 06 22 11 27 29

The other one is 墨迹天气, a Chinese weather app.  One of my friends was surprised to hear that pollution changes as often as weather, but really all the weather apps here do pollution, too.  It’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen.  The home screen is a litlte girl dressed for the day’s conditions, with the temperature, highs and lows, current pollution, and tomorrow’s forecast.  

Scrolling down, you can see an hour-by-hour forecast for the next 24 hours as well as a weekly forecast, plus a bunch of other information like what license plates are permitted to drive today, the date on the lunar calendar, fishing conditions, and what kind of clothes and makeup you should wear (true story!!  The answer to the former always seems to be t-shirts, and the answer to the latter (taking into account temperature, humidity, and windspeed) was non-oil-based foundation.)  If you click on the AQI number, it tells you where your current city is ranked among 626 of China’s cities – this morning, we were #619.   

Anyway, I should say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen . . . when the weather is good:

Screenshot 2015 06 22 11 19 13

But this morning the scene looked positively post-apocalyptic.  

Screenshot 2015 06 23 09 16 18

The reading on 墨迹天气 when I woke up was exactly 300, which is the boundary between “Very Unhealthy” and “Hazardous”.  The icon for Very Unhealthy is a full-fledged gas mask, like trench warfare style; later I saw that for Hazardous they don’t pull any punches and just use a skull.  

Gas maskSkull

I laid in bed a little longer, reading those messages and staring out the window in despair.  I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but now I think some part of my subconscious was waiting for some authority figure to recognize that the conditions outside were terrible and give me permission (or an order!) to not leave the hotel.  Like when I was a kid in Minnesota and we saw the snow built up outside and watched the TV raptly, listening for a school cancellation.  

Alas, none came.  I got up, put on my big girl pants and my face mask, and biked to work.  I saw, like, maybe eight people wearing masks all day.  But I also saw two people jogging, which just . . . what?!  There is no way the overall effect of that activity is positive.

I even wore my mask when biking to lunch.  The lab window was open all day, so it’s really all an exercise in futility, but I do what I can.  I asked one guy if he ever wears a mask, and he said “you get used to it”.  There’s something powerful and sad in that statement.  Powerful because, what an incredible machine the human body is, that it can take particulate matter as input when expecting a pleasant combination of oxygen and nitrogen, and still function normally.  Sad because, while the human body (and mind, and spirit) can accomodate any number of terrible situations, it would be better if it did not have to.

I’m still feeling 20% nauseous 80% of the time, so I picked at my lunch.  

On the way home, I saw out the window a worker squatting on top of the next building over, welding.  The light is so distinctive, it immediately caught my attention.  He was holding his hand up in front of his face, quickly lowering it and raising it again to ‘protect’ his eyes.  And immediately, I’m back at the farm, watching the workers weld rebar.  I remember the day Huo JieKuai repeatedly refused my offers to get him a welding mask, and came to work the next day with horribly sunburnt eyeballs.  

One of [the many] ways in which China seems like a paradox to me is the attitude towards health.  I read a lot of China news, and there’s so many stories about this animal being poached or that animal being driven to extinction because of the Chinese demand for one of its body parts for traditional medicine.  There are also stories about the growing demand for organic or, at least, trustworthy food sources after incidents like the melamine scare of 2008.  My roommate suggested I buy fish oil pills to China if I had any old people to visit; tourists to the Bay Area always visit Costco or GNC to buy quality supplements in bulk.  No meal with Chinese people would be complete without being gently forced to eat something because “it’s good for your body”.  My life in China is one of constant chiding about my love of ice water, which is apparently terrible for you.  

But, at the same time . . . the official pronouncement of today’s air quality is that it is Hazardous, masks and air purifiers are Necessary, outdoor sports are Not Suitable, and open windows are Not Recommended, but 99% of what I saw was no masks, outdoor activities as usual, and “open ALL the windows!”.  Smoking, despite a June 1 ban in public places, is still huge.  Welding masks and other basic safety precautions used in American machine shops were scorned.  

Upon further thought, I realized that this is probably no different than the hypocrisy of American attitudes about health.  We demand the best health care but don’t generally take the proper preventative measures.  I think tanning bed use is still depressingly high, and most Stanford students don’t wear helmets while riding their bikes.  

I think we are all selective about the things we worry about, and the ways we feel capable of action.  In China, there seems to be a high value on traditional medicine and ways of eating, but these traditional beliefs don’t seem up to the challenges of modern China, with 1.3 billion people competing for these scarce ingredients and some of the worst air pollution in the world.  In the US, we place our trust in technology and reactionary medicine, and undervalue preventative measures.  

After work, I biked to the U-Center at 5 to meet Hannah, another EAPSI fellow.  My work chair is broken in 3 places so I needed to invest in some pillows, and she was looking for a wallet.  I bought an adorable and super squishy stuffed elephant, and then we stopped at Paris Baguette.  I’ve been a somewhat vocal critic of eating American food in China, so it was with some self-loathing that I did this.  But my reasoning is solid: American food in China is generally sold at American prices and is not as good as American food in America; while Chinese food in China is both way cheaper and way better than both American food in China and Chinese food in America.  I try to enjoy what I have, when I have it.  

With that said, I haven’t been hungry in a few days and I’m trying to give my stomach what it thinks it wants if it will agree to then eat it.  So I bought a garlic baguette, a cream-filled donut, and egg tarts (which aren’t even American, they’re Portuguese and imported so long ago they’re essentially Chinese).  And I ate, and my stomach was reasonably happy about it.  


In Uncategorized on June 22, 2015 at 10:51 am

Stomach uncertainty continued today.  I slept a lot, then read a lot of news.  Drank a lot of water and yogurt.  It’s not getting worse, but also not really getting better?  Just solidly a notch below ‘meh’, with occasional exciting moments of ‘uh-oh’.  After all of our talk on Friday about the vomit on the streets (one guy texted me a picture of two more piles today), whenever my stomach gives me the slightest discontent, I am gripped by a fear of vomiting on the street and ruining my pristine record.  Thankfully, no vomiting anywhere yet.  (Sorry if this is TMI, but living in China with foreigners tends to lead to many digestion-based discussions.  I once shared two bathrooms with 16 people for a summer; many taboos were overcome.)

I went in to work at 1.  Late, I know, but today is technically a holiday even if I’m not convinced my labmates know the meaning of the word.  Also, stomach.  At any rate, there were a few guys there when I got in, and they asked me if I knew it was a holiday.  “Yes,” I said, “but you’re all here . . .”.  And they called me hardworking!  The only time I’ve gotten called hardworking for showing up at 1.  

One of my labmates had told me he was going to reinstall the operating system on the computer I’m using on Saturday, so I went in today hoping it was done.  (As a reminder, this computer is hobbled both by the owner’s forgetting the administrator password, and by the faulty setup of Fortran.  Basically useless to me as it was.)  It was not done; in fact we appeared to have regressed, not only from Windows 8 to Windows 7, which I’m sure was intentional, but also from a mostly functioning computer that just wasn’t able to do the precise technical tasks I came to do, to a computer that could no longer connect to the internet.

I hung around for a few hours, while no further progress was made.  Tomorrow the “computer company” is coming to look at it.  

Before I left, I downloaded a few TV episodes.  Might as well not let that 2 GB go to waste, right??

I hadn’t eaten since dinner last night, except for yogurt, but wasn’t that hungry until dinner anyway.  We went with the hotel restaurant again – a safe and convenient choice – and I introduced a few EAPSI people to some of my favorite dishes: shredded potato, muxu pork, and 地三鲜 (eggplant, potato, and green peppers).  We lingered over dinner to talk, mostly about Chinese.  I’m the only one who had studied it before, so I ended up trying to explain some features of pinyin that I had found confusing when I first studied Chinese, like the fact that and qu rhyme but that qu and chu don’t.  I can’t get over how brave these people are for coming to China without knowing the language, although rationally I realize I did the same thing . . . like, 3 times.  

North Church

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2015 at 10:46 am

I didn’t feel great when I woke up this morning (maybe the spicy food from yesterday, maybe just my period starting).  I faced a difficult question – what about Mass?  My stomach was vaguely unhappy – it could get worse, but it was currently not bad enough to not go to Mass . . . just bad enough to not go right now.  The problem is that 8:30am is the last Mass at West Church, and one of the later ones in the city.

I ended up waiting another hour, feeling slightly better (or at least not worse), and deciding to go to Xishiku for their 10am Mass.  Every church in Beijing is at least an hour away by whatever various combinations of walking, biking, buses, and subway that I use.  This one was no exception: I biked to the 五道口 station, took two subway lines, including a lengthy walk to transfer, and then walked another kilometer to the church.

Xishiku, more commonly known as the North Cathedral, is beautiful.

IMG 2178

I liked the church, the music, and the length of the homily (of middling-to-low importance to me usually, but a serious consideration at Chinese Mass), plus the option of 8am or 10am Mass is nice.

After Mass, the children’s choir sang a song for their dads, and the big screens showed pictures of them with their dads (hard to see here).

IMG 2179

It made me think of my dad!  Happy Father’s Day!

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I felt weak and tired after Mass, so I took a taxi home.  First time using Kuaidi, a Chinese taxi-calling app, and it was wildly successful!

I spent the afternoon in the hotel, taking it easy.  I took some charcoal caplets, took a three hour nap, drank some yogurt, read a lot.  I had dinner in the restaurant downstairs – we just found out that you can order food there, and it is so nice to know that I can get a huge variety of good food at good prices downstairs any time before 8:30pm!