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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Winter Miscellania by Yan Z. '12

I'm (b)ready to go back to MIT al(b)ready.

I have done exactly three things since winter holiday ennui sprouted all over the dessicated grids of my post-semester calendar:

1.Baked bread.
2.Read Feynman.
3.Written this list.

On second thought, make that four:

4.Unsuccessfully re-installed MATLAB (twice) because my license keys obnoxiously expired while I was busy playing minesweeper* or something likewise pre-installed and useless.

*I kid, because I have swept nary a mine since bidding goodbye to the tender age of microwaved pizza rolls, Windows 98, and messily penciled sonatas of elementary algebra on crumpled graph paper. Years ago, I convinced myself that minesweeper was prototyped during the Vietnam War to sharpen the reflexes of future army enlistees, and that Bill Gates had cleverly developed a way to hook up my parents’ computer to mine-detonators in remote Third World countries. When I first learned the word “career,” I imagined myself as a top-secret military agent whose patriotic duty was to sit in front of a CRT monitor and play minesweeper to protect U.S. troops from setting off hidden mines in the Midwest or whatever. If I cleared one of the smaller minefields in less than 10 seconds, the government would issue me a bunch of yellow smilie face stickers and a “HIGH SCORE” certificate.

Every Christmas morning, I momentarily revert to my childhood definition of an agnostic (me) as someone who regards God’s existence as unknowable due to lack of sense-based observations and Santa’s existence as obvious due to presents-based observations. This year, however, the solid grounds of my agnosticism turned to swamp when I noticed that Santa hadn’t visited my house and left me a licensed copy of MATLAB.

“Santa doesn’t exist,” you interject. (By which I mean, I interject on behalf of you since you can’t leave a comment on this blog before I finish it. Furthermore: FIRST.) Normally I’d agree with you, but at this transitional, trans-semester stage in my life, I interpret Santa as a wave function whose time component peaks around Christmas season and spacial dependence peaks in countries with a large population of Christians and high GDPs. The fact that I didn’t get a present this year is simply the result of the Santa wave function experiencing destructive interference with economic recession.

Nonetheless, I’m the first to admit that “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” is much more metrically flexible than “Santa Claus’s Probability Distribution Has a Local Maximum in Your Vicinity.”

Furthermore, I’ll concede that the Santa function is complex and probably has a sizable imaginary component. It may be renormalizable, but it won’t renormalize your family’s opinion of you as you explain to your 5-year old cousin the dual nature of Santa as both a wave and a barely-employable guy at the local mall.

Anyway, while I was busy drafting the lyrics to “Carol of the Bell Curves,” “Deck the Hall Effect,” and “Do You Hear What I Hear, Or Do Our Observables Fail to Commute?” an anonymous commenter on my previous blog queried:

can you summarize
your other activities
outside of classes?

(i figured a bit of e.e. cummings would grant me some internetz)

My response follows:

Dear Anonymous,

I slept, sometimes. Other nights, I’d stay awake and think about a nice, rustic loaf of bread.

Best wishes,

According to Facebook, my other activities included:

*UWIP = Undergrad Women in Physics
**FASAP = Freshman Arts Seminar, an advising program that paid for countless free dinners and concert tickets last year. Highly recommended, even if I don’t remember what the “AP” stands for.
***ATS = Association of Taiwanese Students. I am neither Taiwanese nor an association of any sort, but thanks to ATS, I’m now Taiwanese by association.
****Katelyn Gao = my former roommate, not an acronym.

In the past week, I’ve splurged a semester’s worth of energy, motivation, and Googling on amateur breadmaking. After 19 hours of tango with mercurial thermostats and Schrodinger’s yeast (is it dead or alive? I can’t tell), I tossed Loaf #1 into the oven with a hearty dash of pessimism, clocked off 30 minutes, and pulled out:

A lithospheric formation of charred crust, high density, and too much compression in the . . . um, upper mantle.

Loaf #2 turned out better after a 25-hour rising period. Biting into the bone-thick, morbidly crunchy crust to pillow your molars on the soft spongy tissues of dough inside was like experiencing the most delicious dental surgery ever.

After two nights in a plastic-wrap cocoon, Loaf #2 was reincarnated in a casserole dish under 375 degree heat. A modest serving of leftover bread stuffing with apples and red onions inexplicably wore the aroma of red wine like a secondhand dress from a seamy thrift shop. I’ve come to accept the strange personality flips of maturing yeast.

In context, the stuffing made a terrific pairing (tripleting?) with sweet coconut chickpea curry and roasted brussels sprouts, the dinner I cooked for mom on Dec. 24.

Interlude: The rest of the coconut milk from the curry went into a cauliflower flatbread, because I was getting fed up (figuratively) with yeast getting fed up (literally). If you understood the previous sentence, congratulations.

The dough for Loaf #3 chillaxed in the fridge for two and a half days in hopes of coaxing the lively, nostril-curling flavors of sour yeast from a wet marsh of flour and water.

Yet again, I forgot that the thermal regulator on my oven had been clinically diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Volcanic bursts cracked open the marred crust as the thing was cooling on the rack.

The loaf was tastier this time but still not French enough to belittle me. Isn’t there a French proverb that goes something like, “A good loaf of bread is condescending toward the cheese”? (I hope not, because I just made this up and I think it sounds copyrightable.)

And that’s what I did over Winter Break. I baked bread that wasn’t condescending toward the cheese.

42 responses to “Winter Miscellania”

  1. Yan says:

    @ Caio:

    Thanks, good call on the periodicity of Santa.

  2. Oasis '11 says:

    I LOVE brussel sprouts!…but I can never find anyone who likes them! :(

    So +1 on the brussel sprouts :D

    (but supposedly they have a tendency to, erm, “create air” raspberry case in point:

  3. NathanArce says:

    Bread-baking! I still have to try making bread in a rice cooker….

  4. Manan Gandhi says:

    Hey Yan, I am a prospective undergrad physics major… I would like to have a conversation with you about that….. PM me at my mail address…..

  5. Manan Gandhi says:

    Manan Gandhi, her e-mail is at the top of the page smile

  6. anonymous says:

    good post….i love bread

  7. Anon says:

    Ahh that bread looks delicious! My memaw recently taught me how to make Italian wedding soup (she used to own a restaurant!), and I’m super excited to make that. I love the holidays, there’s always so much great food!

  8. “Schrodinger’s Yeast”…I laughed so hard I almost cried…good one! I love your sense of humor smile But I think you spelled “spatial” wrong in the “Santa doesn’t exist” paragraph…

  9. Anonymous says:

    I ADORE your skillful use of scientific terms. The Santa-wave theory is the most wonderful idea I’ve read in a long, long time.

    That bread looks yummy, by the way, even though it can’t live up to its cultural stereotypes. raspberry

  10. Yan says:

    @ Amethyst:

    Oddly enough, you’re the second commenter to point out my unusual spelling of “spatial”/”spacial”. Both spellings are correct, but the previous commenter apparently discovered that “spacial” refers to three dimensions whereas “spatial” refers to two. I’m actually not sure which one is more appropriate in this case, and I wasn’t thinking of the distinction when I typed the original sentence.

  11. Lainers '12 says:

    Hey, I understood and greatly appreciated that sentance. It had a enjoyable, commendable sort of funky parallelism to it.

  12. Caio '14? says:

    Your ability to turn everything into scientific theories is AMAZING! The period of Santa is one year, and its amplitude is global :D

    And I truly don’t know how to bake things :

  13. Caio '14? says:

    WTF? I posted a comment above and put Manan Gandhi on the name field. hahah. Lack of sleep is something terrible :

  14. Anonymous says:

    Santa-waves can exist only in 2 dimensions. Everyone knows that. n00bs.

  15. anon says:

    FASAP=Freshman Advising Seminar Arts Program

  16. neongreen says:

    Yan-nice post! I went down and had lunch after reading. What exactly do you use MATLAB for? (just curious)

  17. @Yan: Ah, I thought it might be something like that smile But I wasn’t sure. “Spacial” would be more “discussing space” while “spatial” might be more “spatial distances”. I think. I love words…

  18. Yan says:

    @ neongreen:

    Thanks! My previous UROP (undergrad research project) was entirely MATLAB-based. I wrote scripts to read and plot raw data from the NASA cluster spacecraft. I’ve been trying to refamilarize myself with the syntax and get a better handle (pun intended) on GUI over Winter Break.

    Incidentally, my next UROP will probably also be MATLAB-based.

  19. Anon says:


    So did you have to have MATLAB experience before you could get the UROPs?

    And what’s it like trying to balance your extracurriculars with the workload at MIT?

  20. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    Not necessarily. The first day, I walked into the lab and my supervisor asked, “Do you know how to use MATLAB?” I replied that I knew how to open it, but otherwise, no. He said, “You will,” and immediately gave me a plotting assignment.

    Anyway, I was pretty comfortable with MATLAB after about two weeks.

    As far as extracurriculars go, it really varies. I took 4 classes last term, cooked for about 2 hours per week, spent 3-4 hours per week on UWIP, spent probably 7 hours per week running, walked to pika and back (around 20 minutes each way) nearly every night, UROPed occasionally, and blogged for 2-4 hours per week. There were some weeks when I had approx. ten minutes of free time per day, and there were also one or two weeks when I ran out of work to do and (literally) had to email my TA’s asking them to post next week’s problem sets already.

    The majority of people I know at MIT who are incessantly busy/overworked voluntarily choose to do so. You tend to fill up your free time by reading wikipedia, socializing, building robots, etc., and then realize that you have no time to sleep.

  21. Charlie '14? says:

    Yan, you’re my favorite blogger – your style is impeccable. Rock on!

  22. sepideh says:

    my mom asks for the bread receipt. please would you give us a good receipt for bread #2. I promise we will call it as “yans bread” (if it turns out bad we take the blame on ourself don’t worry about that)
    @oasis I love brussel sprouts and in these twenty years I dwelled in this world I never found anyone else who loves them either.

  23. Yan says:

    @ Sepideh:

    I used Mark Bittman’s famous no-knead recipe:

    The ratio of ingredients is pretty much fail-proof, but I made a few modifications:
    -I used 2.5 cups white flour and .5 cups whole wheat. Any higher ratio of white-to-wheat and you’re likely to have problems with the dough rising enough.
    -Let the dough rise for 12 hours on a counter (around 65 degrees) and then 2.5 days in the fridge. My guess is that the flavor just gets better the longer you let it rise, so you can probably do up to five days in the fridge.
    -I did the second rising for three hours instead of two.

    It’s also crucial to cover the bread in the oven for the first 30 minutes, since this is the step that creates the wonderfully crunchy crust. You can just put a pyrex plate on top of the bowl.

    Good luck! I’m curious to see your results.

  24. Louis '14 says:

    That is probably the most intelligent description of Santa I’ve ever read. Hands Down.

  25. Mehmet '14? says:

    If I were to cook right now the opportunity cost would be too high for me to undertake the task so I leave baking bread to my grandma who does the job wonderfully and way more efficiently! :D But I will forward the recipe to her :D

    I would also be glad to join your quest on finding dark matter! (The facebook list) And I did sleep on the top bunk for 2 months and lived to tell about it too!! (Hypothetical high five to self)

  26. neongreen says:

    Plotting data from the NASA cluster spacecraft-sounds like fun! It seems like MATLAB is the new…new…new…(I fail to find the proper metaphor). But anyways, it seems like it’d be really handy to learn before entering the scientific workforce. Good for you. smile

  27. bloo says:

    I’ve been following some of your blogs and your writing is amazing. Speaking of food… I’m gonna go eat some bread with butter now.

  28. Julia says:

    Please write a book. Or just carry on like this. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that your blog is very enjoyable and I often don’t turn off my computer at night simply because I’ve already got firefox open to this page, and it would be a bother to have to come back to it next time I seek entertainment*.
    Anyways. Splendid. As always.
    *With educational tidbits. My favorite variety.

  29. sepideh says:

    thanks yan. I’m definitely going to try it with all of your tips. I’m planning to make it in three versions. I’ll e-mail you the results when I’m finished.

  30. pooja says:

    Schrodinger’s yeast. Dead or alive?I can’t tell.

  31. Yan says:

    @ NotAPhysicsMajor:

    You just nailed two of my favorite XKCD’s in recent memory. It’s been a good week.

  32. Brit says:


    I agree Yan should write a book!

  33. anon says:


    Not true about the punctuation, because unlike Harry S Truman, the two e’s actually stood for his first two names. Even by his conventions, the periods remained.

  34. Anonymous says:

    e e cummings is to be written without punctuation or capitalization.

  35. Caio '14? says:

    @Julia @Brit

    I totally agree! Yan, please, write a book! :D

  36. Piper '12 says:

    ^ Harry S Truman would often put a period after the S anyway.

  37. Yan says:

    @ ’12:

    And . . . it’s fixed! Thanks a ton!

  38. '12 says:

    I get MATLAB license errors when I’m off the MIT network — use a VPN client (like the Cisco one IS&T gives out) and it should maybe start working. Good luck!

  39. Mason '10 says:

    Yep, the MIT version of MATLAB relies on being on the MIT network in order for the license server to be placated and give you permission to use the software. As ’12 noticed, using a VPN client sidesteps this issue quite nicely smile

    Of course, it’s very annoying when your laptop’s wireless dies on you inexplicably because the Stata Center has over 50 access points interfering with each other in addition to God-knows-what CSAIL is cooking up contributing even more background radiation. Not convenient for last minute MATLABing at all.

  40. Anonymous says:

    1.Baked bread.
    2.Read Feynman.
    3.Written this list.
    LOL… great list! Nice to see you’r using your time well!

  41. Anonymous says:

    1.Baked bread.
    2.Read Feynman.
    3.Written this list.
    LOL… great list! Nice to see you’r using your time well!