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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Mi Grande Aventura Gringo

Summer 2008

So it turns out that I have done something I swore long ago never to do—go to a foreign country without learning at least the basics of the language. For a grammar-nazi like me, it was especially difficult to be unable to understand or correct anyone’s grammar. I kept thinking, “what did I get myself into?” Armed only with my knowledge of Latin and Japanese, the Spanish vocabulary I’d learned in 3rd grade (a few colors, some numbers, and random animals), and a Spanish dictionary from 1994 (It still lists ll and ch as separate letters), the situation seemed rather hopeless. Even the walking orientation was difficult, despite the everlasting pep and pizzazz of our program coordinator Maria Demello, because everything was in Spanish. Fortunately, Alice lent me her magical grammar book, Barron’s Spanish Grammar, and I started reading right away. That night all kinds of strange and interesting aspects of Spanish were revealed to me. Did you know Spanish has a different set of pronouns for the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, use with prepositions—and that those and the reflexive pronouns come before most conjugated forms of verbs, but should be attached to the infinitive or the imperative to make one word (Don’t forget the accent on the verb if you attach two of them!)? I didn’t. As the trip continued, I read that lovely book cover to cover, and it helped a lot. However, I still had a vocabulary problem that was crippling my ability to communicate with my non-English-speaking host family. They thought I was very serious because I didn’t say anything for the first few days!

Speaking of my host family, they were two of the nicest women I’ve ever met. Magdalena, a soon-to-be-83-year-old woman, was a bit of a firecracker, and said some of the funniest and most interesting things. She usually spoke in absolutes. The gems are probably “Todas las correanas son gorditas.” and—well I can’t remember what she said, partially because I couldn’t understand it at the time, but when we asked her about politicians and the police she always made this motion where she placed her hand on the table and moved it into her pocket. She also always cracked jokes, which I unfortunately also can’t remember. Lydia, her fifty-something-year-old niece, was always trying to tone down what Magdalena said or explain it in a kindler, gentler way. They were both quite patient with repeating themselves, speaking slowly, or explaining Spanish words to us (Lydia more so than Magdalena, or as many affectionately call her, Madga). And man could they cook. Actually, Magda couldn’t cook because she had an eye operation, and her doctor told her not to have her eye around heat, but her mole is famous for being delicious. Lydia made us all kinds of egg dishes with beans and tortillas for breakfast, and had a seemingly never-ending supply of different waters and juices for lunchtime. Lunch is a big meal in Mexico, and she always had a soup, rice, or pasta course in addition to the main course. It’ll be hard to go back to Tex-Mex, but what’s a guy to do?

The city of Guanajuato itself is somewhat different from many other cities in Mexico because it’s a colonial town. That means that the streets and buildings have been there for hundreds of years. Well, that’s only half true because they rebuild the streets and restore some of the buildings every so often, but the city comes complete with extravagant old churches and cathedrals, fancy stone streets (not cobblestone fancy mind you, but fancy nonetheless), and historical sites. The must-see places of interest would have to be the Museo Mommias (apparently some of the graveyards around Guanajuato are natural mummification locations), the Museo Iconographico (dedicated to artwork about Don Quixote), the Museo Casa De Diego Rivera (the house of Frida Kahlo’s husband), the Museo Alhondiga (former granary and site of an important battle of the Mexican Revolution), and the statue of El Pipila. The Pipila statue sits in a high part of the city and has a wonderful view, especially at night. In fact Alice and I went up there one night in the rain to get some cool pictures (and because the rain was raining on our panaderia [bread shop/bakery] parade, oh how I’ll miss those fantastic stores where I could buy a huge bag of bread and pastries for 3 or 4 dollars). You’ll be happy to know the city has great drainage, with the water just cascading down the city’s steps like waterfalls into the streets (There are sidewalks on both sides of the streets several inches above the street.). The only complaint I have about the city is that because some of the streets are very narrow, car exhaust/fumes tend to hang in the air if too many cars or buses drive by in a short period of time.

During the day and on some nights, the streets are full of vendors. It’s very different from the states because everybody actually walks around town. It’s also very strange and interesting to see really modern shops and merchandise (like internet café’s and hair salons) in such old buildings. Because the entire economy and way of life for many places in America is based around owning a car, it was especially intriguing to be in a city not designed around cars. Since many people don’t own or can’t afford cars—and some people are old, sick, etc—everything a household needs has to be within reasonable walking distance in Guanajuato. There are grociery stores, Oxxos (convenience stores kind of like the Kwik-e-Mart, but with reasonable prices), internet and paper places every few blocks. The existence of a cheap and well connected bus system make it possible to get to basically any part of the city with ease. If that isn’t enough there are many taxis that don’t cost much to use in operation for all or most hours of the day. It made me think about how cities and people can be affected by issues such as poverty and transportation, reminding me of how the Dart system just restored service to a certain area of Dallas and how difficult it must have been for those residents while they didn’t have easy access to public transportation.

The classes, while challenging, were very enjoyable. Our History and Literature Professor Hilda’s frequent drawings and hand motions made it much easier for me to understand what was going on in the beginning, and I think all of us have been affected in some way by our Grammar and Conversation Professor Martin’s phrases, jokes, and stories. Taking the intermediate level of Spanish classes was made easier because the teachers had considerable skill in teaching to a group of non-native speakers. Hilda in particular was very good at scoping out whether or not the class knew the words she used and whether we understood what she was saying, in addition to being able to choose more understandable vocabulary on the fly. Other McD’s have recommended taking the intermediate level if you have even the least bit of Spanish knowledge, and I totally agree. While I don’t have personal experience with the beginner level, it would probably be soul-crushingly boring, and I feel that my experience was much stronger and more enjoyable because I took the more challenging classes.

We also had the opportunity to take two large trips on the weekends, one to Mexico City, and the other hiking around La Bufa, a mountain just outside of Guanajuato. In Mexico City we toured through Teotihuacan, an ancient Toltecan city and birthplace of the worship of Quetzalcoatl, all of which we had been discussing in our classes. We also saw Frida Kahlo’s blue house, SoCaLo (the main plaza), and the Basilica de Guadalupe. During the visit, we decided to ride the Mexico City subway, and did it ever put the D.C. subway to shame. The entire facility was more or less immaculately clean, and a ticket (which allowed you to ride any number of trains, as long as you didn’t leave the metro) only cost 2 pesos! It’s subsidized by the government, but impressive nonetheless. The hike through La Bufa and other mountains in the area was incredible. It was a beautiful day with beautiful scenery, and I even got to do a little bit of somewhat user-friendly rock climbing.

Now I’m studying at CIMAT, the center for investigation of mathematics, and it’s a little sad now that everyone else has left Mexico. But the people at CIMAT are all very nice and the work is interesting. I started out learning about genetic algorithms (misleading name), which use the concepts of evolution and genetics to solve problems. They usually operate on sets of randomly-generated binary strings, randomly selecting several data members for reproduction, and then randomly performing mutation on the bits of the data members. Children are produced by performing genetic crossover (trading sets of bits). Add in a function to evaluate the bit sets and select the better solutions, rinse, wash, and repeat (many times) and you have yourself a pretty good answer. However, now I am learning about and implementing an algorithm called Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO). It started out as a simulation to model patterns of bird flocks, when lo and behold someone discovered that it could be used for optimization problems.several research projects later it has evolved into a very simple base algorithm with many variants. Basically, a set particles (called a swarm) that represent randomly chosen/created vectors containing input for a multidimensional function are created that can remember the best place they’ve been and communicate with other particles. The simulation is run for many timesteps, and each timestep each particle’s velocity is changed, giving some weight to the current direction and adding two vectors multiplied by two random numbers between 0 and 1. One of the two vectors is aimed back toward the best point to which the particle has been, and the other is aimed toward the best point of the particles with which that particle communicates. After many timesteps, the particles converge on a certain zone of the function, which is hopefully the global optimum. Now research is done to experiment with particle communication patterns and/or to add other algorithms or strategies to the mix (such as the genetic algorithm ideas of crossover and mutation) to improve the optimization performance of the algorithm. This work has been very interesting because I have never seen an effective non-deterministic algorithm before (These algorithms are probabilistic because so much of them is based on random numbers and chance).

Anyway, I’m having lots of fun and hope to see everybody in Dallas soon!