Monday, January 23, 2006

Grad Schools.

For the last six months, I've been working on applying to graduate schools. Although I haven't mentioned it here, it's been a pretty big part of my life, and for the last month in particular, a huge time-sink. I've generally been applying to economics programs, which was the first reason it was so time consuming - this is a complete change of direction for me, and I had to do a lot of research online to write what I though was a reasonable statement of purpose. Second, I'm kind of paranoid about not getting in, and so applied to thirteen schools to boost my odds. Third, I'm doing it all from Kazakhstan and without a guidance counsellor, and so I have to find out a lot of stuff on my own through the internet. (A big thanks to my parents for doing a lot of telephone and fax work that I couldn't do from here.) But at long last, the process is drawing to a close, and today I got my first offer, so this is a good time to mention what's going on.

I applied to these schools:

MIT (economics)
Harvard (international development)
Northwestern (economics)
Stanford (process engineering)
Berkeley (industrial engineering)
Duke (international development)
Washington University (economics)
London School of Economics (mathematical economics)
University of Michigan (economics)
University of Iowa (economics)
University of Southern California (economics)
Princeton (economics)

I also applied for an NSF grant. My mission statement, in a nutshell, stated that I want to do game theoeretic computer modeling of complex social systems in economics. The engineering programs would both allow my to take a lot of statistics courses with econ electives on the side, and transfer to an econ program after a master's degree. Washington University and Duke have grants for returning Peace Corps Volunteers, and even in those places, I'm looking at most likely living a lot poorer than I have been in Kazakhstan. At least I can save laundromat money with the plunge-o-matic.

And today I got an offer from LSE, which to be honest, was my first choice because (1) it has a special program for engineers who want to become economists, (2) it's a great school, and (3) it's in London, and as everyone who watches the Harry Potter movies knows, studying in England is really cool. I can't wait to get an owl. But they haven't offered me money, and I have not yet begun the LSE grant applications, so whether or not I go there is still far from certain, and there is still a road paved with paperwork stretching out farther than I can see. And whatever grad school is at the end of the road, I am certain of one thing that will be there: a bottle of certified Chianti Classico I've been saving.

(That reminds me, can you think of anything cuter than baby owls and baby skunks? I can't, except this: just imagine a baby skunk RIDING on a baby OWL. Because they're best friends. At the baby owl and skunk preschool! Damn, that would be cute. You know, whatever grad school gets me will sure be in for a treat. Not everyone can think this stuff up.)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bryan's Conference

For the last month or so, Bryan has begun almost every communication with me with the phrase, "I will never organize anything again." But despite his worries, and due to a lot of hard work on his part and on the part of his college, his two-day teaching methodology conference was a great success. For two days, about sixty teachers attended session led mostly by volunteers and visiting Peace Corps staff. The teachers were active and interested, and the logistics, though suffering the normal kinds of hiccups that one expects in Kazakhstan, all worked out well.

A starring role was played by Theresa, my good friend from the Kaz15 Kazakh language training village, now serving in the south near Kyzylorda, whose Kazakh fluency was unceasingly adored. There was news report about the conference, which I haven't seen, but which I suspect is as much about an American speaking near-fluent Kazakh as it was about new teaching methods. On the taxi ride to the college, early in the morning, Theresa and I were asked (in Russian) where we were from. I told the driver to guess. He said, "Well, I don't know, but I saw this English girl on the television last night, and she spoke Kazakh, and I'm not saying you guys are English, but there are a lot of Kazakhs here who don't speak their native tongue, and it's embarassing for them..." I started to ask, "Would you be surprised..." and he interrupted, "Of course I was surprised! An English girl! Speaking Kazakh!" "No, would you be surprised to find that this woman was sitting in your very taxi?" Even after this revelation, it took him a while to be convinced that he could speak Kazakh with her.

Other highlights were the invention of the "penguin-surpise-rabbit" and "jazz tyrannosaur" dances (thank you to Josaih and Amanda), a nine-shot-of-vodka celebratory lunch in Borabai (thank you to the director of Kazped college), a really strange christmas-tree-decorating rice-throwing singalong celebration of the Orthodox New Year (thank you to Makhabat and her cadre of Kazakh carolers). Yes, a fine weekend was had -- fine enough, I hope, for Bryan to someday change his mind about never organizing anything again.

Frost Day

Today it is thirty-three below zero (C) and windy, and school is cancelled. This is called a "frost day". I had to go to school to confirm that it was cancelled, since the phone was alternately busy and not answered, but I'm happy nonetheless. "How he rejoices," said Aiman, of me, when I found out. Today it really is cold. I'm well used to my nose freezing inside, but my eyelashes freezing together was a new thing.

A propos, I would like to list some of the keys to staying warm I've learned here:

- Thaw your eyelashes periodically. A curling iron might be appropriate for this. After that,

- The most important thing you can do to stay warm is not live in a village. I have city central heat, which though ineffecient, uncontrollable, and a little unpredictable, means that my apartment is constantly at least not cold. In the village, where your house is heated by coal, the house is generally heated twice a day, in bursts, and for carbon monoxide and tending reasons, is unheated at night. Waking up in a village house absolutely requires

- Pajamas. Getting up in the morning in the cold is so much easier if you have pajamas.

- Scarves. I never wore a scarf in America, and I shiver to think how many joules I've wasted over the years, bled out the neck, joules that could have gone to learning the mandolin or improving my handwriting or something.

- Shoe inserts. This is a recent revelation. I purchased a new pair of big furry local boots for this winter, since my old ones were leaking badly and the fur was patchy. The new boots looked identical to my old ones, except my feet were always cold in them. I blamed all sorts of things: bad socks, poor recollection of how cold my feet actually were last year, my being a wuss. However, the culprit was poor inserts. At the bazaar last week, I bought new, thick, wooly-looking inserts, and my feet haven't been so warm since summer. Don't underestimate the power of inserts. And generally speaking, don't underestimate

- Local clothing. The Kazakhs know how to stay warm. Buy local clothes - they're cheaper, you'll be stared at less, and you'll be much warmer. And finally, I recommend:

- Oatmeal and Earl Grey tea, taken leisurely early in the morning. I don't know how much warmer this makes the body, but for the soul, it is indispensable. To augment the effect, listen to Mozart piano sonatas or Sufjan Stevens. If the Sufjan Stevens album happens to be about Illinois, you will be futher warmed by soft nostalgia. And if you're having breakfast with someone you like, then...well, that whole thing can be a good keeping-warm technique, too.

Monday, January 16, 2006


I went to Thailand with my parents for the winter break. I didn't realize how many Americans were living in Almaty until I got on the airplane and heard more English than Russian or Kazakh. Fleeing the Kazakh cold for Christmas seems to be the Anglophone thing to do.

Thailand itself was wonderful, wonderful enough to be difficult to leave. I contemplated losing my passport (but not too seriously), and I got the business card of a school where they said I could teach English. Some highlights were the frenetic, golden temples, the canal neighborhoods of Bangkok, a marriage proposal from an eighty-year old woman who was visiting a monastary (I said "ok", which was one of the few things I knew in Thai at the time), worn vaguely Buddha-like shapes in the Khmer-era ruins, a city where monkeys live as thick in the streets as pigeons in Chicago, and elephants. As my new t-shirt proudly and orangely announces, "I Love Elephant". Our guide, Dao, and her daughter, Bess, and our driver, Boonma, were wonderful, and despite my reservations about taking a guided tour, they made it a lot of fun. And of course, I got to spend a lot of time with my parents. I give Thailand a 5+.