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Non-stationary Stationery

One of the most painful things I’ve had to do in graduate school is writing. It’s probably the worst necessary evil in academia. I’ll take documentation and giving presentations any day over writing papers. I’ve finished writing the first full draft of the MagAO-X Fresnel modeling paper and it’s going through the comment cycles. But this entry is not about academic writing, it’s about a writing the world as a whole has slowly started to forget about.

My first material love is paper stationery. It manifested during my childhood in the Philippines where I was first exposed to paper stationery shops. It’s a passion that has only evolved in the past two decades, even in the face of technology advancement. I exclusively use 0.38mm and 0.5mm gel and ballpoint pens because it keeps my handwriting the cleanest. I’ve been using the same Uni Jetstream 4-in-1 0.38mm ballpoint multipen and pencil my entire PhD because it writes so smoothly. I recently bought my first fountain pen and I’m completely hooked. There’s particular notebooks I purchase because the paper is smooth and sturdy with just the right level of brightness and no ink bleed through. I discovered dot grid paper a couple years ago when I tried out bullet journaling (bujo). I’ve since stopped maintaining a bujo, but dot grid paper is my standard preference for personal and research notekeeping. Paper stationery products are hit or miss and I’m grateful for Kinokuniya Bookstore in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles for being my first resource into exploring quality products.

A snapshot of my MagAO-X Fresnel model paper planning notes. Using dot grid is the best combination of maximizing blank space with the evenly spaced dots providing just enough guidance to write in straight lines. My eyes can focus on the writing instead of the grids and ruled lines.

While paper stationery usage is one thing, letter writing is a different game. Writing and sending cards occasionally was nothing new for me, but it became a regular thing when I moved to Tucson for graduate school. I was transitioning into a distance relationship and I missed a lot of my friends and family. I sent cards as a form of encouragement for myself and a lot of my friends who started their grad programs. Over time, card writing became my personal creative outlet.

I have maintained a few pen pal correspondences through the years. We’re never quite consistent; we regularly fall off the wagon from our correspondence streak as we each get busy and that’s perfectly fine. There’s no time constraints on these things and we help each other get back on track. We don’t write much, just little highlights of things we want to share with each other. I wrote to one of my pen pals about how excited I was about my monstera plant’s new unrolled leaf had not 1 but 2 holes in it. I’ve amassed so many cards from friends through my PhD that I’ve had to buy another decorative storage box to house them all.

My favorite part about letter writing is adding cute card flair. I love finding out about new stamps coming out and using them in my correspondences. My current favorite stamp is a lenticular printed T-rex. I get to learn cool stuff from stamps, such as Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and her work in nuclear physics (my excitement for female Asian in STEM representation is off the charts). All my envelopes get sent with some sticker by the recipient address and sealed with washi tape.

My first time doing Christmas cards was in 2017, to which I mailed 43 cards. New Horizons got a commemorative stamp set when it visited Pluto in 2016, of course I was going to collect it and use them.

Letter writing has been my private getaway to detatch from a computer screen and hang out at local cafes. Just me, a drink with a snack, a small pile of cards, my favorite pen, and listening to music on my headset. It has brought me to appreciate taking in my environment. Of all the cafes I’ve visted in Tucson, Ren’s Coffeehouse in St. Philip’s Plaza is my favorite letter writing hangout (mostly because they also serve food).

During an internship in New Hampshire in Summer 2018, I frequented Terragia in Nashua, NH on weekends to write cards. Terragia had the perfect writing atmosphere – a small plant shop in a cafe. My second favorite local spot was The Bookery in Manchester, NH where it was a both a bookstore and a meal-serving cafe.
During my visit to Bhutan in August 2019, I would spend a couple minutes in the mornings to write postcards in my hotel room. I intentionally picked the room with an extra window to admire the breathtaking landscape from my desk; the photo doesn’t do a good job showing what I could see. Unfortunately, international mail is very finicky and it’s unclear to the status of these postcards.

In 2001, the USPS dedicated April as National Card and Letter Writing month with the goal “to raise awareness of the importance and historical significance of card and letter writing”. To challenge myself, I made a very lofty goal: write and send 100 postcards to people I know through the month of April. I chose postcards because if I’m going to mail 100 of something, I’m going to do it with the cheapest postage stamp. (Jared is only capable of paying me so much with the graduate student salary limits.)

I came into this project with a lot of pre-existing postcards. I’ve accumulated cards from all over the place: astronomy-themed cards from a past Art of Planetary Science show, Tucsoncentric cards, and some fun cards from Antigone Books. I completely burned through an AMNH illustration postcard set that has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. When I ran through my postcard supply, I bought a postcard set from an independent designer recommended by a friend. Postcards are fairly cheap to buy in a bundle set.

It’s an arduous task, but I manage it in stages through the week. I eagerly look forward to spending my Friday or Saturday evening binge writing through postcard bundles. To be honest, I believe it’s been the only reason why I’ve been able to not lose my mind with writing my papers. Writing these cards is an enjoyable process with the right setup. Here’s some progress photos through the month:

Writing postcards 1-40 with some blooming tea and matcha roll cake. Glass teapot from Seven Cups Fine Teas in Tucson. Blooming tea from Teabloom. Matcha roll cake from Sandyi.
I learned my lesson last time and bought a proper floor pillow online. Highly recommend, my back hurt far less.
Writing postcards 45-60 while basking in the sunset with some charcuterie and agua fresca (jugo de jamaica). Beehive cheeses are seahive and teahive flavors from Flora’s Market Run.
Writing postcards 74-95 while spending time with my new balcony companions. Pan dulce from La Estrella Bakery (the best panaderia in Tucson) and mug is full of Ibarra hot chocolate (Ibarra >> Abuelita any day).

I’m happy to say that as of two days ago, I met my goal and completed my 100th postcard. (If you want to be fully technical about it, I mailed them out today.) It was fun to pick card designs for the recipients and allocate dedicated time away from the computer. I’ll probably do something like this again, but not to the extent of 100 postcards within only 1 month. It’s been a rewarding experience all around. The best part is that I’m starting a regular pen pal correspondence with 2 more friends!

Letter writing is a bit of a dying activity in this technological age. Despite that, I believe it’s a worthy pursuit. While email, texting, and social media allows for easy and quick access, there’s something extra special about maintaining a snail mail correspondence. After all, isn’t it nice to receive a surprise letter in your mailbox? The sillier the card, the better.

SONG OF THE DAY

Of course I’m going to choose a song by The Postal Service. Where were you in 2003? Because this song was EVERYWHERE.

The Postal Service – Such Great Heights

First Closed-Loop Experiment with the GMT Simulator

Tonight was supposed to be MagAO-X’s third night on sky with the Magellan Clay telescope in Chile, but due to the pandemic, MagAO-X is still sitting in the lab in Tucson. It’s sad that we haven’t been to Chile since 2019, but we have been making the most of the time that we do have with MagAO-X in the lab. In fact, we have even started to use MagAO-X on a different telescope! …sort of.

Meet the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) simulator, otherwise known as the “High Contrast Adaptive Optics Testbed” (HCAT). This testbed sits in the room next-door to MagAO-X, and its job is to trick MagAO-X into thinking that it is actually observing at the Giant Magellan Telescope.

The Giant Magellan Telescope simulator. This feeds light through a hole in the wall and into MagAO-X.
The solid model of the GMT simulator (right) feeding light into MagAO-X (left) through a hole in the wall.

The purpose of HCAT is to test things for the GMT, hence why it is called a “testbed.” Specifically, we want to see if an extreme adaptive optics instrument like MagAO-X would work with the GMT and its unique seven mirror design.

We have been working hard over the past several months to build and align the GMT simulator with MagAO-X, and just this week we have finally achieved the first closed-loop experiment with MagAO-X! Below is a video of our first closed loop experiment:

First closed-loop experiment with the GMT simulator and MagAO-X.

In the video shown above, you can see the image go from a blurry mess (because of simulated turbulence) to a corrected image (thanks to the adaptive optics system). But the corrected image may look a little strange to some. This is because the GMT simulator pupil is actually only four GMT segments instead of seven. So the result is a strange, asymmetric-looking image. Below is a simulation of what the image of a star looks like for our 4-segment GMT simulator versus the actual 7-segment GMT. We use these simulated images as a reference to know what we are looking for.

This was a huge step for the GMT because now we have a real GMT extreme adaptive optics simulator working in the lab. We will start to do some really cool experiments with piston sensing and AO control over the next couple of years which will be crucial for the success of the GMT and the search for life in extraterrestrial solar systems with GMagAO-X.

Fake it ’til you make it

Steward Observatory and Department of Astronomy tradition is to spend valuable[citation needed] grad student time concocting plans to amuse, vex, or embarrass the principal investigator.

Note to P.I.: This also means any embarrassing mistakes you’ve seen me make have been absolutely intentional.

We call these pranks, though I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. In any case, we cannot hope to rival the time someone used computer administrator access to bamboozle a CNN-addicted advisor with a fake homepage. I think of them more as artistic expressions of the self, mediated through the constraints of graduate school and the cult of personality inherent in any advising relationship.

There was that one time that priceless works of art appeared to decorate the office while its occupant was abroad in Chile, and, more recently, the Merry MagAO-Xmas display. Both of these relied on having a group of graduate students with Photoshop™ skills to render 2D images that reveal the essential nature of the subject.

For the next iteration, we had to step things up. Kick it up a notch. Take things into a whole new dimension. Could we photoshop our advisor into… a movie? Haha, just kidding! Even a short clip would be many hundreds of frames. Unless…

What if there were a tool that leveraged image processing, GPU programming, and machine learning to automate this for us? We’re high-contrast imagers; we know these things. I immediately set to work on a literature review.

It just so happened that a fellow graduate student had (unknowingly) answered our prayers in “Motion-supervised Co-Part Segmentation” by Aliaksandr Siarohin et al. from ICPR 2021. Or, more importantly, the associated open-source code. Armed with a bottom-shelf NVIDIA GPU and a refurbished Dell workstation, I dug in to the code. It seemed like I’d be able to get a good “face swap,” but there was one nagging problem.

What does my advisor’s face look like?

In pre-COVID times, one would have simply ambushed him with a camera sprinted off before he realized what happened. Confined to my home, I was forced to rely on the collective memory of the research group: in other words, this very blog.

I quickly discovered that the meek Dr. Males was camera-shy. How else does one explain his tendency to shrink into the backs of group photos? Or to grace us with only a partial mug? It’s almost as if he doesn’t even want a deep-fake model trained on his appearance! Nevertheless, I found a handful of suitable photos among the thousands, and I moved on to the next question:

Into which clip shall I face-swap my advisor?

After discounting Top Gun (for a lack of suitable pithy quote clips on YouTube), I eventually settled on this one:

The Godfather – I’m Gonna Make Him An Offer He Can’t Refuse

“You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest well.”

Don Corleone

Who wouldn’t want to hear that from their advisor? (Maybe we don’t want to hear the first part, but let’s not lie to ourselves.)

Source material in hand, I fired up the deepfake machine, and…

Yikes. Undaunted, I continued my analysis of the archival image data.

It turned out that Jaredification performed better when the Jared used was clean-shaven, limiting us to vintage blog photography. I found what I was looking for in this post from 2012 and gave it another go.

“You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest well, and a month from now this Hollywood big shot’s gonna give you what you want.”
“It’s too late; they start shooting in a week…”
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Ultimately, I wouldn’t say this was an unqualified success (except in that I’m “unqualified” to do deep learning on videos). There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which photos segmented well and which did not, but I was unable to acquire additional data without tipping off the subject to what I was doing.

Further investigation is needed, promising directions have been identified, funding priorities elucidated, etc. Until then, it helps if you just kind of squint at it.

When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Song of the Day

“Reflections On The Screen” by Superorganism

Sunset Here But Not There

The sun has just set here in Tucson. But we were supposed to be watching the sunset at LCO tonight, taking our usual break from preparing our instrument for a night of observing. On the schedule, this was to be our first of eleven nights exploring the sky with MagAO-X.

An LCO sunset taken from the Clay catwalk, from what seems like forever ago:

Spoon – “Got Nuffin”

Noodle Adventures

Carbohydrates compose what are good in life: rice, noodles, bread. While Tucson has some very solid Asian noodle options (Noodleholics, Fatman Kitchen, Tuk Tuk Thai, Miss Saigon, Raijin Ramen…), I still reach out for the instant noodle packages that I buy from my local Asian markets. Come take a journey with me through some instant noodles I’ve been eating lately.

INSTANT RAMEN

Most Americans are familiar with Top Ramen or Maruchan when it comes to instant ramen and its affordability ($0.10/packet). Instead of Top Ramen, I grew up with my family eating Sapporo Ichiban, particularly Original flavor. You can find it at some major grocery stores, but they can be as expensive as $1/packet. My family usually buys Sapporo Ichiban packets in a 24-pack box from the local Asian market for $14ish. I grew up with my parents managing a big household, from as few as 5 to as many as 12 people, and they made sure to never skimp out on good instant noodles.

Instant ramen is only a vehicle, it is up to you to own up to the flavor you want through the toppings. I enhance the soup base with stuff in my pantry – garlic paste/powder, ginger paste/powder, chili bean paste. I squeeze in fresh lemon juice (but only for the Original flavor, doesn’t quite work well with the others). I top it off with fresh chopped green onions. The easiest protein to add in is egg. In my opinion, boiled egg is the best version. However, if not available, then I usually cook the egg in the pot while the noodles cook. I wait until the noodles soften up enough, usually about 1 minute in, then drop in the egg. I don’t like mixing the egg around, I like it practically poached. There are others who will disagree and say the mixed egg is superior, but we can all agree that ramen is not complete without egg.

Sapporo Ichiban. My childhood version was eating this with egg, fresh green onion, and fresh squeezed lemon. I’ve since enhance it with garlic paste, ginger paste, and chili bean paste. I eat instant ramen at home with a fork because I’ve been eating it like that for longer than some of XWCL’s members have been alive.

Other recommended toppings are pickled ginger, or whatever pickled vegetable is in your refrigerator. (I maintain a steady supply of pickled cucumber and yellow pickled daikon radish) Leftover meats are always great, like some beef Bulgogi or chopped pork belly. Aldo and I once went through the whole two-day process of making chashu pork. We overnight steeped soft boiled eggs in the leftover chashu pork sauce. Instead of us making our own ramen base and noodles, we served and ate it with Sapporo Ichiban. Still turned out fantastic.

The one thing I don’t like about instant ramen is how the broth thickens up after it has cooled down long enough. My best friend (hi Michelle!) recently recommended the Menraku brand to me. I found a packet locally and it costs $5 for 2 servings. I bought it while shopping at Sandyi Market, a local small Korean market near midtown Tucson. Highly recommend them for more specialty Korean items if Lee Lee’s isn’t good enough. They earned my loyalty when I found they sold my preferred brand of honey citron tea (Sura Wang).

Menraku restaurant syle ramen, enhanced with fresh green onion, boiled egg, ginger paste, sauteed mushrooms and garlic. Topped off with sparkling water.

I went a bit further for this one by adding in sauteed sliced shitake mushrooms in minced garlic. I wasn’t in the mood to drop cook the egg, so I boiled eggs separately for it. The noodles for this one is unusual in that it’s not the usual curly fried noodles but rather straight, dried noodles bundled like soba. The broth was super good and did not thicken up while eating. I highly recommend these noodles if you want to go a bit fancier at home.

INSTANT PANCIT CANTON

Pancit” in Tagalog translates to “noodles”, and usually the word after it is the style. (Technically it should be pansit because there’s no letter “c” in the Tagalog alphabet, but it’s commonly known as pancit.) Pancit Canton is basically Chow Mein. I tasted pancit canton for the first time when I was 10 years old and relocated to the Philippines. It quickly became one of my favorite things to eat. When I relocated back to the US at 13, the only version my family could find was the original flavor. But I like the kalamansi (Philippine lemon) version, my brother liked the spicy one. When my parents traveled to the Philippines for family-related business, they always brought back shoeboxes full of those noodle packets for us. Here in Tucson, I drive to Nick’s Sari Sari Store in the east side to buy instant pancit canton. It takes me 30 minutes one way, but it’s always worth it because I get to practice my Tagalog and it’s my small dose of Filipino community in Tucson especially when I am feeling homesick. Sometimes Lee Lee’s has it, but there were a few months where it wasn’t available.

I like these noodles as they are. But, the packages are a bit small and I find 1 package not filling enough. So, I mix it up with another flavor packet. In the Philippines, we enjoy eating pancit with some form of soda. I couldn’t find Sarsi at Nick’s Sari Sari Store, so instead I’m drinking some Thai iced tea I made.

Unlike instant ramen packets, instant pancit canton comes with an additional packet filled with oil and sauce. Depending on the weather, the oil may solidify. While the noodles are cooking, I liquefy the oil by hand using my body heat. I also use this time to mix together the powder with the liquids, so when the noodles go on top, it all blends in together. Instant pancit canton also tastes really good with Chinkiang vinegar, which blends in just right with the oil.

KOREAN INSTANT NOODLES

Sandyi has a whole aisle dedicated to instant noodles that are worth perusing. I’ve only sampled saucy noodles so far and have liked each one. A lot of the noodles tend to be spicy, but note that Korean spicy is its own game. It’s a quick, compounding build-up of spicy that stays in your mouth. It makes you eat more and more, just to keep the spicy at bay. However, once your meal is over, the spicy feeling lingers away from your mouth 5 minutes later. It’s a spicy where I need to take off my jacket and socks because my whole body is warming up and starting to sweat. It’s the best kind of suffering, existing only while you are eating and not a long haunting. I love eating Korean spicy noodles in the colder months.

The first Korean instant noodle I tried is from a brand called Paldo. I picked it because I thought the picture of the chicken on the bag was cute. This one was interesting for me, because I had to save some of my starch water before straining the noodles. I followed through the process, returned the strained noodles in the pot, added the sauce packet, then mixed it together with some starchy water. I would say it’s similar to making pancit canton, but with an added step.

It was spicy indeed! I had to wash it down with a lot of roasted barley tea. You can find roasted barley packages in the Korean aisle at your local international market.

The second Korean instant noodle I tried is Chapagetti. According to Wikipedia, it’s “the second highest-selling brand of instant noodles in South Korea”. It was also featured in the movie Parasite, to which the company Nongshim released an official video on how to cook the recipe with Chapagetti. Cooking this one was interesting, because the directions tell you to dump everything in the pot and you cook it to the end. I didn’t do it that way, instead I went through the same process as the video and the first noodle packet I tried. Still came out great.

Chapagetti is based on jajangmyeon noodles. I tried to spruce it up like Noodleholics’ Beijing Jajangmyeon, but I forgot to buy cucumber when I did my grocery run. I added in fresh green onion and a fried egg. I should have cooked the egg a bit less, so it would have just the right level of runny. This is not a spicy noodle, if my Korean spicy description scared you away.

MOROHEIYA NOODLES

I first found this noodle a few years ago as the Marukai’s free sample of the day. It’s made from moroheiya (mulukhiya), which is a leaf packed with lots of nutrition. I sampled the boiled noodle mixed with miso and mustard dressing. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor that I bought some. Here in Tucson, you can find the noodles at LeeLee’s. The dressing is sometimes available at LeeLee’s, but I’ve definitely found it at Sandyi. The package comes with 2 noodle bricks and I find that 1 brick is a fairly hearty snack. This is one of my favorite things to eat on a hot day. They also have a yakisoba version which is pretty solid.

GreeNoodle with miso and mustard dressing. Also, boiled egg on the side. Tea is the cold brew Prickly Pear Lemon Drop from Scented Leaf.

CUP NOODLE (NOT CUP NOODLES)

I know I talked a lot about packet noodles, but what about the cup variety? I didn’t eat Cup Noodles until my high school years, and I found it lackluster as opposed to cooking over a stove. I did however learn that Cup Noodles is the American variation for Cup Noodle, which is the Japanese version (source: Serious Eats). I had planned to visit the Cup Noodle museum in Yokohama, Japan during the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Systems 2020 conference, but alas the conference and travel did not come to be. It’s surprisingly tricky to find Cup Noodle in Tucson. I eventually found some at Kimpo Oriental Market, a Korean market on the east side of town. They sell fresh rice cakes on Wednesdays, so I’ll be back one of these days so I can make tteokbokki.

The fruits of my labor. Which one would taste the best?
Surprise – I also made a model kit of Cup Noodle! I bought the model from USA Gundam Store. It took me more time to travel around Tucson searching for Cup Noodle than building this kit, and that was 3 hours!

The flavor base for the curry and seafood versions were very solid. There was a dried potato in the curry one, but I wasn’t a big fan of its texture. I also didn’t like the texture of the noodles too much. I’ve been spoiled for too long cooking instant noodles over a stovetop that it’s very hard to go switch over to a cup version. But, that still won’t stop me from sampling other flavors as I find them.

FINAL COMMENTS

This was only a small list of instant noodles I’ve tried and enjoyed. There’s a few others I like that didn’t get mentioned. I’ve also tried other yakisoba type noodles; Sapporo Ichiban is good, but I think GreeNoodle’s is better. I’ve tried some instant udon buckets, but they were only alright. To my memory, I don’t know if I’ve tried an instant rice noodle packet that I liked enough to eat again. I do have a packet of instant pad thai that has been sitting in my noodle stash for a while now though.

Also, there’s many ways to spruce up instant noodles. I’m interested in recommendations for other instant noodles and how you spruce it up. Instant noodles may not be a complete replacement for the real dish at a specialty restaurant, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to make it better from home. As Chef Jon Kung said, “take what you like and do too much, otherwise what is the point of cooking at home?”

BONUS

I watched a cute Chinese romcom movie called “This is Not What I Expected” on Netflix a few months ago. I think it’s still up there. It revolves around a very particular hotel owner foodie and a walking disaster of a sous chef. It’s cute and there are a few great scenes revolving around instant noodles! Please give it a shot if you have the time.

Instant noodle scene from “This is Not What I Expected”

SONG OF THE DAY

My favorite song by BTS is a version without them singing. (Go figure.) But if I had to pick a lyrical version, I think the Korean version is better than the original Japanese version.

BTS – Airplane Pt 2 Instrumental