Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trip to Vietnam: Part 2: "Ritual Components"

The first major cultural experience I had in Vietnam was going out with my mom on a mission to perform a traditional Vietnamese prayer ritual to pray for the health of her brother, who is in the hospital with cancer. Religion in Vietnam is an eclectic mix of Buddhism, animism, and lots of ancestor worship, so it is kind of interesting. The theory behind Vietnamese intercessory prayer is that you have to "save a life to get a life", and the way you "save a life" is by purchasing small animals to release into the water at the pagoda (a kind of temple). There is a street in Hanoi that has a market that happens every five days where you can buy animals for this purpose. We went to the market but couldn't find what we were looking for. My mom forgot to bring her Vietnamese phrase book, so in order to communicate with the locals he had to take out a BlackBerry and use a free translation Web site. At first we asked about where to buy "animals to release for good luck," and we were directed to a street that seemed to just have some pet stores, but no market. We also asked where the "five day market" was but they couldn't understand us. Eventually we found our way to a fish store that had someone who spoke English, and they informed us that the "five day market" actually occurred the previous day. So we just bought three fish there for 5,000 Vietnamese dong (about $0.25) each, what a later passerby informed us was a "rip-off", and it should have ben more like 2,000 dong ($0.10). There were also lots of vendors that sell votive offerings to burn, including packages of replica $100 bills. We went to the pagoda, where we pray in front of a large golden Buddha flanked by columns of packaged food items, then go to an area where we burn the money to have it rise up to our ancestors, and then went to release the fish. Since I was under the impression that Buddhism was all about transcending your material needs, I was surprised to see the commercial imagery such as the money and big golden stuff. It's clear the Vietnamese are really into the whole religion thing, as throughout Vietnam there are a whole bunch of vendors selling ritual components, including paper replicas of motorbikes and clothes to burn. According to Vietnamese tradition, burning paper replicas of things is how you send them up to heaven to provide for your ancestors in the afterlife, and Vietnamese believe that your ancestors need the same things in the afterlife that they needed in our life. For example, if your ancestor was a heroin addict, you should burn paper replicas of heroin needles to send them up there. It makes sense, I guess, because if you're already dead anyway, it can't harm you any more to inject some heroin, right?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Teaching Assistant Job

This semester I will be a TA for CS 477: Formal Software Development Methods with Madhusudan Parthasarathy. This course is about how to mathematically prove that programs (or at least parts of them) are correct. The first 3-4 weeks of the course is about propositional and first-order logic (which I mostly already know) but after that the stuff will be new to me. There are a total of about 30 students in this class, 15 of which are I2CS students - I2CS is the online program. I am the only TA for this course. I will not be giving any lectures or leading discussion sections but there will still be a considerable amount of work to do. I will be doing the following:

1. Helping to write the homework assignments and answers, and also grade the homework assignments. The professor also has money in the budge to hire a grader but we don't think that will be necessary (also, the graders are all undergraduate students, so it will be difficult to find a grader that knows the stuff in this course).

2. Communicating with the I2CS students via e-mail. Also I will have "office hours" which will be conducted via Skype.

3. Operating the camera that records the lectures to be posted on the Internet for the I2CS students. The camera is mounted on the ceiling and it is operated remotely from a "Media Services" room in the basement. Most of the process is automated; there is an "Echo 360" system that is programmed to automatically record during the period of time that the class is scheduled and then post it on a secure server for the I2CS students to log in to. I just have to make sure the camera is working and pointed at the professor. The system is kind of cool - the projector and the screen that the projector projects on to can also be controlled remotely, just in case the professor can't figure out how to operate them.

4. Updating the course web site with the lecture notes and stuff.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trip to Vietnam: Part 1 - "Wondrous Items"

I started my journey to Vietnam by taking a train from Champaign-Urbana to Chicago. I spent the evening in Chicago, and I went to a Dave & Busters and went shopping at a bookstore and a Best Buy. Then I took a cab to the airport and got on a 12 or so hour flight to Narita, Japan, where I would take a connecting flight to Hanoi. On the flight there was a SkyMall catalog, and it was funny to look at all the stuff in it. The primary demographic for this catalog is clearly metrosexual secret agents who have trouble when it comes to science and technology, as is evidenced by the following categories of items, including:

(1) Items that can't possibly work as advertised according to known scientific principles, including an acupuncture device that claims to heal you using the "latest ancient technology" (actual ad phrase), a "Wine Aging Accelerator" that claims to accelerate the aging process of wine by using magnets, and a "Hollywood Cookie Diet" that claims to allow you to lose up to 21 pounds in 13 days by eating nothing but cookies.

(2) Espionage devices, including the Covert Alarm Clock Camera, Covert USB Audio Recorder, Spy Sunglasses, and Cell Phone Spy Recon device. And if you are worried about the enemy purchasing one of these gadgets and using it against you, you can always engage in counter-espionage of your own by using the Mini Handheld Bug Detector.

(3) Multimedia format converters, including the USB Turntable (LP to music file), Cassette To CD Recorder (cassette to CD), Slide And Negative Converter (slides to picture file; I don't know why you wouldn't just use a scanner).

(4) Personal grooming devices, including the 3-In-1 Smart Groomer, HairMax hair laser comb (for only $460, it uses laser technology to help regrow your hair, which is confusing because I thought lasers removed hair), and Home Electrolysis Roller.

Eventually, I got to the Hanoi airport. It was a much smaller airport than either Chicago or Narita. Also because we are in Vietnam all the signs are in Vietnamese and English, and there are some amusing translations. For example, the list of items you're not allowed to bring through security includes spears, scimitars, tridents, and laser guns.

This was in the paper yesterday

"Even with a 2 percent a year spending cap written into the bill, Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said state spending would be able to grow 17.5 percent over four years."