Plov

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When in doubt, add more garlic!

Plov is a popular Russian rice dish that came to Russia via central Asia. Everyone makes it differently. For example, some time after we came to SoCal, my mom had an idea to use cayenne instead of black pepper, which I’m pretty sure is a non-standard, but, in my opinion, awesome change.

Before we start, I have a few quick ingredient explanations and advice on substitutions. Firstly, if you don’t like chicken organ meat, the best alternative would be lamb. Secondly, barberries are a small, sweet and tart red berry, but they are kind of hard to find in the US. If you can’t find them, I think a good substitute would be pomegranate seeds or chopped up dried apricot. Finally, although I like to cook for family, I don’t consider myself a chef, so please don’t take the numbers below too seriously– do experiment with the amount of spices to your taste (I usually put even more garlic and cayenne). Enjoy!

Plov

  • 2/3 lbs (300 grams) chicken hearts and/or gizzards (or other meat)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups (200 grams) white rice
  • 6-8 cups (1.5-1.8 liters) water (approximately)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) whole coriander (or ground)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) whole cumin (or ground)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) red pepper flakes (or ground cayenne)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 grams) dried barberries (or other fruit)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1/2 head of garlic, peeled (yes, half an entire head, at least)
  • vegetable oil for frying
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Dried barberries. Yum!

Wash the gizzards thoroughly, and clean off any fatty/tough bits off of the hearts. (They don’t always do a good job of it at the store.) In a pot, brown the meat with a little bit of oil. Cover with 6 cups of water, add the bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Then turn to medium, and cook until tender (around 30 minutes if using chicken hearts/gizzards).

In the meantime, dice the onion and shred the carrot (e.g. on a cheese grater). Heat up some vegetable oil in a pan. If using whole coriander/cumin, roast them in the pan for a few seconds before adding the onion. Cook the onion until soft (around a minute) before adding the carrots. Cook for another two minutes.

Once the meat is tender, put two cups of white rice directly into the water. Add more water if too much has boiled out; it should be approximately 2:1 ratio of water to rice. Add the onion/carrot mixture to the water. Add the red pepper flakes/cayenne to the water. If using ground coriander and cumin rather than whole, add that to the water now now too. Mix it all together, and cook on medium until the rice is almost ready (around 18 minutes).

In the last few minutes, stick the whole cloves of garlic deep into the rice at regular intervals. Make sure they are well covered by the hot rice. Let stand until the garlic is soft (around 3 minutes). Then mix in the barberries (or other fruit), making sure they are evenly distributed as well. Serve hot.

Weeks Twenty-Two & Twenty Three

At the start of this year, my bike was parked in the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) while I went off to travel. When I came back, it was not stolen– I was a little surprised to still see it standing there. But when I took a closer look, I noticed that a big chunk was missing out of my saddle. When I took a closer look still, I noticed that… this was not my saddle. Yes, someone had stolen my bike saddle and replaced it with their old one. Thanks for the replacement, I guess?

Anyways, I hadn’t actually ridden my bike since then. Now I have, and so now I know why they stole my nicer saddle. This one doesn’t stay in place that well; it sort of see-saws up and down. This makes it incredibly difficult to go up hills. There are other issues with the bike, so I think I want to sell it now. But I don’t want to be out of a bike, and I also don’t want to go through the hassle of buying a new bike for just one semester (and having to resell it again when I leave). Even if I am selling it, I need to find a wrench to fix the seat or no one at all will buy it. Paradoxically, I almost wish the thief had just taken the entire bike, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Worrying about things is a problem in general right now. Finals are coming up and I’m studying like crazy. Besides that, I have a project, a presentation, and a paper to do, all of which I am slightly freaking out over. March is supposed to be the time that I work on the project and the paper, but I am planning quite a bit of travelling then before my intensive summer class starts. So yea, the next few weeks are going to be very very busy.

I don’t want to blabber on and on about school and stress. Unfortunately, I have nothing else of particular interest to share with you, apart from that I bought a whole smoked mackerel at a random market for only €4, and it was quite delicious.

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An old German study book a friend had from I think the early 1900s. I love the picture on the bottom left describing “die Mitternacht (midnight).” It’s a shame that I haven’t had much time to study German lately.

Costs:

Unfortunately I had a major fuck up and spent 100 Euro more than I needed to on a mistake in travel planning… arrgh. I plan to spend some more on travel soon as well, plus I have to pay school fees this month. I should still be able to spend less than I earn, as long as I actually eat everything that is currently in my fridge.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €20 – phone bill
  • €65 groceries
  • €20 – random market
  • €22 – dining
  • €28 – bouldering
  • €10 – small donation to a good cause
  • €300 – some March travel plans
  • Total: €780

Officialization 8: Going to the Doctors

Officialization TOC

Going to the doctors

You may recall that I had to sign up for the national health insurance (or else waive it) earlier in the school year. I decided to sign up for it to ensure that I would be covered for my pre-existing condition. Since then, I went back to the health insurance office and picked up my insurance card.

Since that time, I have gone to the doctor and the dentist a number of times, and I have to say, it was a breeze. The hardest part is making an appointment, since you might have to do it in German, but actually, a lot of doctors speak English, so even that part can be easy.

So basically, you just make the appointment, come in, show them your card, wait for the doctor, get your turn with the doctor, and then leave. No money gets exchanged and no bills get sent out, although you might pay for some prescription medication.

In terms of the wait, I haven’t had to wait longer than 15 minutes so far, and once you are in their office, they aren’t running around to other patients like they sometimes do in the US– you get them for the full time.

They do seem to be a little less thorough in the questions they ask you, but I think it’s more because they expect you to bring it up when you don’t feel well. Also, I did bring my medical records with me, and they came in handy when I had to double check the amount of thyroxine hormone that I was taking previously. They still took my blood to make sure I was on track (as usual), but because of the records, I was able to get everything done a little more smoothly/quickly.

Since I’ve been a few times now, I can give you the breakdown of costs for the services I received here and in the US:

  • Monthly fee:
    • US: $10-15 (but my employer paid the larger share)
    • Germany: €90
  • Synthetic thyroxine medication:
    • US: $10-15 / month
    • Germany: €5 / three months
  • Doctor’s appointment with blood work:
    • US: $100-150
    • Germany: €0
  • Dentist appointment:
    • US: $30
    • Germany: €0
  • Mouth guard that the dentist said I needed:
    • US: $300 (never bought it because of the cost)
    • Germany: €0
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Look at this awesome cast/holder thing that the mouth guard came with!

After calculating my health insurance costs in the US per year, and the costs here (including the monthly fees in both places, the copays/deductibles in the US, the cost of medication– everything), it has become apparent that being generally healthy in the US vs. being generally healthy in Germany costs about the same, at least for my situation.

However, as I understand it from the services covered under my insurance here, it seems like being sick in the US costs thousands of dollars more per year. Having children would also cost thousands more in the US. I can’t necessarily speak to the level of care that I would receive here in those situations, because I am mostly healthy now, thank goodness, and not pregnant. But judging from the level of care I have received so far, I believe it would be quite adequate.

Long story short, if you are covered under the national insurance system here, which has an affordable monthly cost, going to the doctor is cheap and easy!

Liberty and Justice for All

My family has Jewish heritage, and life in the Soviet Union wasn’t great for us. I don’t remember it, because I was too young when we left, but my parents told me how it was. My mom couldn’t follow her dream to be a lawyer because of her race; food was scarce at times; you couldn’t trust the people around you. Despite the challenges of having to learn a new language and culture, of having to make a new life from literally ~$300 and a suitcase each, of leaving loved ones behind, and of expecting another child (my mother was pregnant at that moment), my family decided to leave. That was how bad it was.

We left the Soviet Union right as it was collapsing to go to Israel. We didn’t speak Hebrew, and we weren’t religious, but because of our Jewish blood, Israel took us in. Three years later, the US accepted us thanks to my dad’s then-boss, who sponsored a visa for my dad to be able to come for work. We got citizenship in the US as fast as we could, but it still took forever (~10 years), because of constantly shifting laws and bureaucracy. Since then, I have felt like whatever happened in the past could stay in the past. Since then, I have known peace, comfort, and acceptance. I became an American, and I have always been proud to correct people when they tried to say that I was anything else. I will always be grateful to my parents for facing that terrifying unknown, in order to make a better life.

I’m afraid of what is happening in the US and the world today, because it resembles what happened in past decades. I have to believe that many of us in the US– most of us, in fact– are better than this, because otherwise I will give in to lament, and eventually, to apathy. I think that we can still turn this around. I don’t have the proper words to express my feelings, so I hope you’ll forgive me for asking the poets of the ages to come to my rescue.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum :

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–Emma Lazarus (1849–1887)

Weeks Twenty & Twenty-One

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Being on the German-French border, Saarland has the Laugencroissant — a most delicious pretzel-dough based pastry.

I am still here. Still in Germany. Still studying. So much has happened and so little. Things are getting really busy. Finals are in 3 weeks, and I signed up for probably way more than I should have (of course); I hope I can get it all done. I’ll just try to take it one task at a time. In addition, watching everything that has been going on at home in the U.S. has been kind of stressful, so need to try to spend my time in more productive ways here on out. Finally, I tend to use food as a way to make myself feel better, and since I’m not exercising enough either, I’ve also gained weight. It doesn’t help that the carb-based foods here are quite delicious! So that’s another thing I need to work on.

Part of last week and this week was spent on implementing IBM Model 1 for machine translation, using the Expectation Maximization (EM) algorithm for word alignments. I would say this one went easier than the previous implementations I’ve had to do, although I’m not sure if that’s because the assignment for the class was easier or because I’m actually learning more. Reading the math formulae is still really difficult for me, even when I conceptually understand what the story is about.

For a different class, I’ve also started playing around with Keras, a Python deep learning (neural network) library for TensorFlow/Theano. It really reminds me of the work  I did at my previous job for a speech recognition company, where I was training acoustic models, only this time I don’t have a fancy server cluster to play on, but just a laptop. It’s alright though, I don’t need a lot of power. I’m just making a rudimentary Twitter bot trained on Edgar Allen Poe’s works, which I probably won’t even bother to deploy.

In terms of life and culture, last weekend I went to a Charleston dance workshop, which was pretty fun. I have done some dance in the past, in particular west coast (8-count) swing, east coast (6-count) swing, ballroom waltz, ballroom tango, salsa, foxtrot, and cha-cha. I’ve always enjoyed it a lot, but I have never kept doing it in a consistent way, so I’ve never gotten past the beginning level.

However, since we had too many girls, this was my first time being a lead. Being a lead is stressful! You not only have to think about all the normal physical stuff, like keeping a good frame and doing the right step, you also have to simultaneously plan ahead on what you are going to do, and you need to correctly signal that plan to the follow. Plus, after the move is complete, you can’t let the whole thing fall apart– you have to keep going and plan the next one! On top of that, you have no idea if you are doing a good job or a bad job, and you just hope you aren’t fucking it all up for your follow. Finally, I still don’t speak German that well (since I spend each day in English at school), so even when I had questions, I didn’t know exactly how to formulate them, so I just didn’t ask. Oh well. It was still fun.

Costs:

Though there were some unnecessary costs these two weeks, for the first time since I got here, I am completely under budget for the month. Also, I made extra money from my HiWi so I can actually save a lot this month. Yay! Of course, next month I have to pay school fees…. but, hey, let’s celebrate the victories as they come!

  • €101 – groceries and snacks
  • €12 (I think) – dance class
  • €10 – bouldering
  • €10 – video games that I probably won’t have time to play =(
  • €10 – new student ID because I lost mine ><“
  • Total: €143

Weeks Eighteen & Nineteen

perfectionThe new year has started, and life continues. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, because I believe that we should start on self-improvement today, and New Year’s resolutions make it seem like we have to wait until the start of something– the start of the week, the start of the month, the start of the year, the start of a decade– rather than doing it now. I prefer looking at personal improvement as a constant continuum. It’s ok not to be perfect and to slip up sometimes. Of course, I know that New Year’s resolutions work for many people, and more power to them!

In terms of broad strokes, my goals over the last few months and now have been to work on staying within the limits of a reasonable budget, keeping active and healthy, and not failing my master’s degree. Where there are goals, you need an actionable plan to fulfill them. In my case, I have managed to fulfill some of the plans I have made in the last few months to various levels of success, but it is a constant struggle. I think that’s just the nature of plans — you have to constantly adjust them at every stage in your life.

In any case, the start of the new year has certainly not changed my workload. Most of my assignments have involved learning new tools, but not too much on the algorithm implementation side of it. Last week I just had a handful of assignments:

  • I wrote a naive Bayes classifier (for two classes) with absolute discounting for out of vocabulary words.
  • I compared the performance of the Stanford and Berkeley parsers using Evalb and approximate randomization.
  • I prepared for a presentation I have to give on Monday on some papers (so nervous!)

These assignments were a lot easier than the Viterbi and CKY algorithms, so I also managed to sleep at night, and even went bouldering with some friends. Yay for exercise! I’ve also enjoyed the interesting weather. The year started out with hoarfrost and fresh snow, turning the whole world white. After that, it seemed like the weather couldn’t decide whether it wanted to snow or rain. Then there was some crazy wind in the middle of the night. There’s a tall coniferous tree right outside my window, and it seemed like it might fall right on my room and squish me. I’m too young to die in a freak tree accident!

Last week, there was some sort of horrible 3-day bug going around our department.  Something like 80% of my colleagues were sick last week, including myself. We have an international group from different places, and I think this helps bugs like this rapidly spread. I have been sick once a month since I got here 5 months ago. I’m optimistic that it will lighten up in the coming months though. I’m hoping that I’ve built up enough of a catalogue of bugs now… I guess we’ll see.

At the end of last week, a bunch of us went to Chinese hot pot. I was still recovering from being sick, but it was just so great to sit with friends and enjoy a night off.

My fortune cookie was not optimistic though. Uh oh:

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I’m sure it’s not wrong. My to-do list over the next 1.5 months includes:

  • 3 finals
  • 1 oral exam (maybe)
  • 1 paper (probably)
  • 1 presentation
  • 1 programming project
  • 8 hrs/wk of HiWi work

Plus normal homework assignments in the meanwhile, and a dentist appointment and a doctor’s appointment.

Costs:

I went out a lot these couple weeks, but I am actually on a pretty good track to hit my budget this month. Being too sick and busy to do crazy things seems to help.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90.31 – health insurance
  • €117 – dinners/lunches with friends
  • €79.15 – groceries
  • €2 – laundry
  • €4 – video games
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €527.46

Weeks Sixteen & Seventeen

PANO_20161227_121502.jpgBoy was I glad it was time for holidays. My husband came to visit me in Europe and we traveled to Paris, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Saarbrücken, all in the span of around 1.5 weeks. My husband got sick in London, and I caught it from him in Amsterdam, so a lot of our trip was spent sleeping and coughing, but it was still great fun.

In retrospect, I might have done a few things differently about the trip. First of all, I wouldn’t go to London over December 24-26th. It is utterly pointless– everything is completely closed down, even the tube, so you can’t travel or do anything at all. Second of all, I’d probably focus on two cities for the whole time, and then if there were time maybe come home for a short while too, so that our schedule would be a little calmer. Finally, I think the holidays are better with family, so I think next year I will try to make it back to the US instead. Still, the trip was awesome, so I really have no complaints. These are just things to keep in mind for the future.

By the way, apart from looking at pretty buildings, we ate a shit ton of amazing food for pretty cheap during our travels. In Paris, we liked Les fous de l’IleBistrot des CampagnesLa Crèmerie and Du Pain et Des Idées. In London, Al Arez gave us a stupid amount of Lebanese food for crazy cheap, and it was delicious. In Frankfurt, we had some of the best pho I’ve ever had at Vipho.

On New Year’s Eve, we were back in Saarbrücken, so we spent the time partying with some friends, which was really great. New Year’s Eve is a big deal here, so we got to experience the fireworks display on the bridge. This was completely batshit crazy. You know how in the US, most cities have a municipal fireworks show, where you sit safely 100 meters away and music plays as the fireworks explode in the air?

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That orange line at the bottom is a firework rocket right next to us.

Apparently things are a bit more relaxed in Saarbrücken (or maybe Germany or maybe even Europe?), but I have never seen such chaos before. We stood on the bridge, and on all sides around us, people were shooting store bought rockets out of spent wine and beer bottles into the air. At one point, people started shooting them off literally 1 meter away, and of course, some of them started to go crooked. It was a crazy spectacle, but also quite dangerous, so we decided to head out a bit early.

On our way home, there were people throwing ground fireworks into storefronts to scare their friends, there were loud bangs of rockets from side streets nearby, and cops were on the way with fire extinguishers to kill a street fire. If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought it was a riot. But nope. Just New Year’s Eve!

Costs:

I splurged and didn’t keep careful track (probably a bad idea). Most of the money went on food for the both of us (he paid for travel), and I think it came out to around €600 (i.e. €25 per person per day).