Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Title: The Fault in Our Stars
Director: Josh Boone
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 125 minutes

Plot
Based on John Green’s young adult novel of the same title, The Fault in Our Stars followed the lives of teens who are fighting cancer.

He Said
While the book felt excessively long, the movie felt choppy and like a poorly pieced-together dramatization of various scenes in the book. Without a clear purpose, the storyline was non-existent and consequently lacked development and was hard to follow. Characters were not at all fleshed out and for the most part were poorly acted. Devoid of charm and feelings, this movie had a poor prognosis from the moment it started.

She Said
In an interview, Green expressed that his book wasn’t about death or cancer. It was about people struggling to accept the idea of ambiguity. Unfortunately, the movie only told a story of teenage love that was slightly blinded and incredibly rushed. It was not heartfelt. One of the better parts of the book was Augustus’s metaphorical use of cigarettes. In the movie, he looked like a jerk with a cigarette in between his lips. It doesn’t help that Ansel Elgort absolutely cannot act.

We Say
We disliked the book. The movie was worse. Our favorite scene was when the credits rolled.

How I Met Your Mother: Series Finale

A common plot device/formula that TV series (sitcoms in particular) employ is the on-again/off-again couple. They are the ones that date (sometimes get married) and break-up multiple times before (usually) reconciling for a “happily ever after”. Viewers are stringed along for years because they love the undeniable chemistry.

The most notorious on-again/off-again couple is Ross (David Schwimmer) & Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends. For 10 years, they went through periods of being together always followed by some conflict which led to separation. It was definitely a roller coaster ride. It can be frustrating to watch a couple go through such a tumultuous journey. While there is never a guaranteed “happy ending”, viewers are usually optimistic and support the couple until the end.

This year, another long-running sitcom concluded and viewers learned that it had been following the “on-again/off-again” formula, but the audience response was far from the celebratory one that Ross & Rachel received. The sitcom in reference is no other than How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted (Josh Radnor) & Robin (Cobie Smulders).

After 9 years, HIMYM concluded with Ted ending up not with the “Mother”, but with Aunt Robin. This outraged many a viewer because everyone believed the series’ premise was about Ted & the “Mother” (and their presumed happily ever after). For years, people had followed the series anxiously waiting for the “Mother”… only to find out she dies?!

Season 8 concluded with viewers actually meeting this titular “Mother”, Tracy (the perfectly cast Cristin Milioti), in an extremely surprising but satisfying reveal. I greatly looked forward to watching Tracy & Ted’s love story in season 9. Sadly, season 9 was mostly a time waster, keeping the series at a standstill and unbearably dragged out. The worst part was that it wasn’t even funny or entertaining. I skipped/half-watched the final season. Tracy and the “flash forwards” were the saving graces of season 9. Those scenes were extremely precious and had the full essence of what made HIMYM so awesome a long time ago (full of heart, wit, and often humor). Josh & Cristin had amazing chemistry and I truly felt like Tracy was the perfect match for Ted. One of my absolute favorite scene of the whole series has to be the epic moment when Ted talks to Tracy for the first time; the flawless writing and spectacular acting encapsulated so many emotions and highlighted how “fated” this couple was supposed to be and felt like the big “reward” for sticking it out for so many years to wait for the “Mother”.

As for Ted & Robin…

Despite knowing from the beginning that she wasn’t the “Mother”, I couldn’t help but be infatuated with Ted & Robin during the early seasons. I loved their chemistry! I definitely enjoyed their courtship in season 1 and their dating in season 2. After their initial big break up, I reminded myself that I knew all along they had an “expiration date” and that Ted isn’t supposed to end up with Robin. Thus I forced myself to let go of my love for this couple and continued to watch patiently for Ted’s “true love” (the elusive and mysterious “Mother”).

As the series progressed, Ted and Robin went through multiple partners. Yet, somehow they always ended up at a spot of getting back together and then not. As a closeted supporter of Ted & Robin, I felt frustrated and teased. Why let them have such amazing chemistry and be in such predicaments when they aren’t going to end up together?! I tried very hard to not root for them consequently.

As a Ted & Robin fan, I can’t exactly say I’m upset with the ending because their final pairing was what I secretly rooted for since the beginning. The main problem I have with the ending is that it negates all of the character development that occurred in later seasons. In particular, the multiple seasons-long journey of Ted letting go of Robin so that he can meet and be with the “Mother”. It feels almost pointless.

While the creators stand by the fact that they had planned out the whole story since the beginning, I can’t help but feel like their hands were tied by an ending they had filmed nearly a decade earlier (HIMYM was at risk of cancellation during its early years so I believe the creators had this pre-filmed ending in their back pocket “just in case”). The original intention was actually to not even have the “Mother” be a character in the series (save for her reveal in the final moments). Perhaps they should have stuck with that plan rather than giving us the simply adorable Tracy. I would rather not know the “Mother” at all if she was supposed to be an “insignificant” character all along.

I believe most people are upset with the ending because it makes them feel cheated and misled. It was too sudden and contradicts most of season 9. Ted & Robin would have been easier for viewers to “swallow” if the writers dedicated sufficient time to fleshing out this story. The most important aspect of effective storytelling is that the audience has to believe it. Perhaps the intention of HIMYM was to point out that life is unpredictable, but when it comes to TV watching, viewers expect a certain “script”. Twists/surprises are wonderful, but they must feel earned and credible; this is where HIMYM failed.

In the history of the “on/off couple”, Ted & Robin are probably the most frustrating and hard to accept (even though I really loved their chemistry).

How to Show Up, Shine, and Succeed at Work

My friend once said that if you hit the Snooze button three times (or more) in the morning, you don’t love your job enough to get up. If you’re stuck in a job that doesn’t hold personal meaning or challenge, it will suck energy and joy from all your life’s domains. So let’s fix that ripple effect with the following three steps:

1. Find Your Purpose
We wrote before that you shouldn’t follow an old adage that may be misleading: follow your passion. Instead, create your passion. Look at where there is overlap between what you’re good at, what you care about, where there’s value and a need in the marketplace that creates opportunities, and where you have some experience and skills. You’d be surprised that the answers may lead to your current job. After all, there is a reason why you sought and got that job in the first place. Sometimes, work can seem mundane. But don’t forget that you can reinvent your work. No one is stuck doing exactly what the job description says. Find where you and the job agree and focus on that aspect.

2. Stock up on Grit
Grit is the perseverance to stick to your long-term goals. Cultivating grit prevents burn outs and promotes resilience. How, exactly? Start by breaking a large, overarching goal into smaller parts. When you consistently realize these small goals, they build satisfaction, pride, and a steady appetite for accomplishments. You’ll start seeing your tasks as opportunities to excel and reach a greater good. Soon, that big goal will look a lot more attainable and you won’t be tempted to quit midway. Also, many studies have illustrated the strong correlation between exercising and grit. The hard work you put in at the gym to tone your muscles actually helps build your mental muscle. So, get moving!

3. Practice Self-Compassion
Embrace the fact that to err is to be human. Accept your mistakes and learn from them. Don’t ignore. Don’t overcompensate. Do not fear failure. Fear, instead, the inability to learn from failure.

We Say
It’s hard to always be perky. It’s hard to always be your best. The great news is… you don’t have to. We can afford a bad day. Even a bad week won’t amount to anything in the grand scheme of life. Don’t allow a few hurdles to interrupt your life. Get on track. Get going. When things get tough, hit the Reset button and persevere. It’s okay if things aren’t perfect, aren’t what you expect — that’s the beauty of life. Find your purpose, break down your goals, and keep on keeping on. Don’t forget that being you is always more than good enough. :)

How to Study for the GRE

Recently, my former research assistant reached out to me:

Hi Nhi!

I just thought I’d email to see how grad school is going. I’m in the process of applying to schools. I also recently took the GRE, and used the study materials you gave me several years ago to prepare for the reading/vocab section. After getting a 50th percentile on the practice test, I think my 95th percentile on the real test shows they worked!

I was ecstatic to receive this email as I was (and am) very invested in the success of my mentees. To hear how well they’re doing gives motivation for my style of pedagogy. As more and more students seek me for GRE help, I thought I would summarize my tips in a blog entry:

How I prepared for the GRE (in a nutshell)
First, I took a free test on Princeton to figure my areas of weakness. No surprise, my Verbal was weaker than my Quantitative. So I purchased the Princeton’s Verbal Workout, the Barron’s flashcards, subscribed myself to The Atlantic, and perused novels after novels. I learned new vocabulary best by clustering them into groups of similar meanings. For words that are most difficult to remember, I create funny (mental) images of them based on their pronunciations. Reading the news, novels, and research articles also helped me focus on short passages and quickly comprehend their gist.

Let’s break down the GRE
It’s a gruesome computerized test that takes roughly 4 hours. It consists of three main sections:

Verbal: Two 30-minute sections testing vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Question types include text completion, sentence equivalence and reading comprehension.

Quantitative: Two 35-minute sections testing arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis skills. Question types including comparing values, solving word problems and analyzing data. As of Aug. 1, 2011, a calculator is permitted.

Analytical Writing: One section with two separately timed 30-minute essays testing your ability to write clearly and effectively. The first asks you to state and support your opinion on an issue, and the second asks you to evaluate an argument.

The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded on a 130- to 170-point scale in 1-point increments, and the analytical writing section is scored on a 0-6 scale in half-point increments.

Create a Study Plan
You should always start by taking a practice test. They are readily available at Princeton, Kaplan, and around campus. Carefully evaluate the answers you got wrong so you can pinpoint general areas for improvement. Then, depending on when you will be taking the GRE and what your target score is, develop a study timeline. You can find example study plans here. No matter how busy you are, you should count on studying every single day. Cramming will not build your vocabulary.

Prepare for Verbal
Follow what I did in the nutshell above. Study daily! My main resources:
Princeton’s Verbal Workout
Barron’s flashcards
number2.com
General tips for Reading Comprehension:
– Read questions before passage
– Spend 1-2 minutes to familiarize passage: Focus on topic & concluding sentences; Come up with main idea
– Paraphrase answer before looking at choices
– Avoid extreme answers
– Avoid direct repetition
– Don’t answer specific questions from memory
– Half wrong = all wrong
– Focus on flaws during process of elimination
– Main idea questions: cross out specific answers; cross out narrow & broad answers
– Inferences: look for what’s implied, not stated directly
– Tone: usually it’s politically correct; cross out too negative or too extreme; cross out detached tone
General tips for Sentence Completion:
– Ignore answer choices; come up with your own terms first
– If presented with two blanks: eliminate answer choices using one blank at a time (with the blank you’re more comfortable with)
– Re-read sentence with selected answer(s) to make sure it’s/they’re fitting

Prepare for Quantitative
I find the Barron’s guide to have the most comprehensive and effective Math section. [The Princeton's dumbed it down like you're studying for a 5th grade exam. The Kaplan's made Math sounds more like Verbal.] No matter how good you are at Math, Barron will make you re-think your approach and arrive at a solution faster. Their flashcards also offered new patterns and insights. I honestly fell in love with Math all over again when I was prepping for the GRE. Additionally, I did daily drills with number 2.
Here are general tips I have:
– Always draw diagrams for geometry questions
– To find area of shaded region, subtract area of white region from total area
– If you get stuck, back solve starting with C (because answers are ordered from small to big or vice versa)
– If presented with a percent of an unspecified number, assume number is 100
– On quantitative comparison, ask can they be equal and must they be equal. Also, don’t calculate. Compare!
– Read answer choices before solving

Prepare for Analytical Writing
I suggest the following timeline:
– 2 mins: choose a topic
– 7 mins: outline your response
– 30 mins: type your response
– 6 mins: edit
It is a good idea to practice outlining a response on a daily basis. You only need 7 minutes! Then, once a week, type up a full response. Click here for the official essay prompts! Also, we are happy to provide feedback on your writing.
Basic Plan for an Issue Prompt
Introduction: State your opinion on the issue (agree/disagree/agree with some elements)
Second paragraph: One reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Third paragraph: Another reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Fourth paragraph: Another reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Fifth paragraph: Any counter-arguments. Show that you are aware of other possible opinions, and explain briefly why you do not think these opinions are as valid as yours.
Conclusion: Reaffirm the opinion you expressed in the introduction in slightly different words. Sum up how the evidence you have given in the essay supports your opinion.
Basic Plan for an Argument Prompt
Introduction: Make it clear how you rate the writer’s argument – is is perfect? Slightly flawed? Very flawed? Or utterly unconvincing and deeply flawed?
Supporting Paragraphs: Write one paragraph for each flaw in your list. For each flaw, quote from the writer’s argument: e.g., “The writer states that..” . Then argue how the writer should have interpreted the facts: “In fact, the evidence contained in the piece actually suggests that…”
>> Common Fallacies: correlation is not causation; drawing general rules from specific examples; small/unrepresentative sample; unstated assumptions; missing information
Conclusion: Give your opinion overall on what has been the writer’s key mistake(s) – have they misinterpreted facts? Made false assumtions? Ignored evidence? Based their argument on limited data? The conclusion is a good chance to sum up what is wrong with the argument and what argument should have been constructed from the evidence instead.

Practice Full-Length Exams
Make sure you take at least three full-length exams before taking the real thing! And be sure to take the exams provided by ETS as the software mimics the layout/features of the real exam. It is ideal to study and take the practice exam the same time as your registered exam. This way, you are wiring your brain to be more alert and focused at a certain hour of the day. Be sure to mimic the testing environment – no noise, no distraction.

Prepare Physically
The exam takes four hours. You bet it will be mentally draining! Make sure you give your body sufficient rest and nutrition. Do not study, review, or take a practice exam the night before. Just sleep. On the day of the exam, drink apple juice instead of water to give yourself an energy/glucose boost. Stay away from coffee unless that’s your everyday routine (don’t change life habits on the day of). Eat an orange before taking your exam. Oranges are a great source of folate, which boosts recall and information processing. Vitamin C in oranges also reduces your stress hormones so you won’t be as nervous. Breathe deeply. Take a moment to do relaxation exercises if you need.

Best of luck! Please feel free to hit the Comments below if you have any specific questions or concerns!

Into the Kitchen: Sushi Rolls

Sushi is a hallmark of Japanese cuisine. In a nutshell, sushi are usually rolls comprised of rice and various proteins and vegetables encompassed in a toasted sheet of seaweed (or soy paper). Some rolls are also topped with sauces, tobiko (fish roe), and/or crispy flakes. Thus there is a vast potential for different combinations of ingredients. Making truly exquisite sushi requires the skills, training, and knowledge of a sushi master, but homemade rolls actually aren’t that hard to make!

1. To make sushi rice, cook the medium-grain, premium Japanese sushi rice according to the instructions printed on the packaging. After rice is cooked, transfer to a wide, shallow bowl (or rimmed baking sheet); you want to be able to spread the rice out evenly so it can cool faster. Add sushi rice vinegar (as instructed on bottle and based on how many cups of rice you cooked) and gently and evenly combine into rice. Be careful not to mix aggressively. Cover with a damp towel until you are ready to proceed. Note: We like Mitsukan brand Sushi Seasoning & Nishiki brand sushi rice.

2. Prepare desired ingredients by cutting them into elongated strips. This is where you can be creative and make whatever you’re in the mood for. Avocados (tip: squeeze lemon juice over sliced pieces to prevent/delay browning), seedless cucumbers, imitation crab, and shrimp tempura are common favorite fillings.

3. To prevent the rice from sticking to your bamboo sushi mat, cover it with plastic wrap before proceeding to roll. Make “vinegar water” (combine 1/4 cup water with 2 tsp rice vinegar) to use to prevent rice from sticking to your hands when you are making the rolls.

4. Cut toasted seaweed (nori) sheet in half crosswise (follow the folds on sheet). Place the shiny side of the seaweed down onto the sushi mat. Spread your cooked sushi rice on top in an even and thin layer with your hands using the “vinegar water”.

5. Flip the seaweed over (meaning the rice now faces the bamboo mat and the shiny side of the seaweed faces you). Add your desired fillings in a long row near the bottom of the sheet. Do not overload; otherwise you will have a hard time rolling!

6. Roll your sushi tightly according to directions found on your sushi mat. If desired, sprinkle toasted sesame seeds (or other topping) on top.

7. To cut your finished roll, wipe some “vinegar water” onto your sharp knife and slice through. Clean your knife each time before cutting again.

8. Serve with Japanese soy sauce, wasabi (if you like it), and pickled ginger (generally available at Asian groceries).

For more specific instructions, including exact recipes for various rolls, sauces, and fillings, please check out Just One Cookbook.

We Say
Making sushi at home is definitely labor intensive… We’ll stick to ordering from the pros. :P But, making your own is certainly an option if you live far from a good Japanese restaurant! It’s also a fun couple/group activity every now and then.

App Recommendations: Photography

While we [regretfully] live in the age of selfies, good photography is still valued. However, modern photography highly favors convenience and ease. Instead of dragging around a heavy professional camera, we tend to snap photos with our phones. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Apps have allowed our phone cameras to transform photo journalism. Below are two of my favorites.

Camera+ consistently ranks as the no. 1 photography app, and it’s easy to understand why. The app is wonderful at adding brightness to low light photos. Its impressive collection of filters leaves nothing left to be desired. This is my favorite app to use when editing vacation photos. The landscape just looks so much more warm and vibrant after selecting “Backlit” and “Diana”.


VSCO Cam has the best filters around. It will up your Instagram game! The app doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of filters/features, but the old adage is true: quality over quantity. As a picture is worth a thousand words, I will simply provide you with an example:

Original photo:

Filtered with VSCO Cam:

We Say
The convenience of a phone camera – instant, no film to develop – should not, however, sacrifice quality. These apps will truly enhance your digital library and make them worthy of print!

How to Increase Your Productivity

We have all caught ourselves wishing for more hours in a day, for deadline extensions, and for a less flooded inbox. None of these wishes are in our control. Today, I will share four productivity techniques that have worked for me and are incredibly easy to apply. Implement them and you won’t need to wish for Genie!

1) Reinvent the to-do lists
Don’t we loathe those lists? Yet, how can we live without them? You can increase your productivity by making emotional lists. Don’t title them “TO DO”. Instead, create separate lists targeting the emotions you would feel when you’re done with those tasks. Examples:

I will be so proud, elated, and feeling accomplished!
– schedule Master’s defense
– finish analyzing data
– edit manuscript

I will be dirt broke if I don’t do this:
– file tax
– deposit checks

2) Schedule specific times for your tasks
Let’s further reinvent your to-do lists. You don’t make a habit of skipping meetings, do you? And why is that? Because they’re scheduled. So do the same for your tasks! Set specific times to accomplish them. This process is made incredibly easy by using FREE app Timeful. This app seamlessly integrates your tasks and calendar. After adding your to-do’s, you can drag them right onto your daily calendar – in the midst of your events – so you can always have realistic expectations of how much can get done per day. Timeful also suggests healthy habits (i.e. take a walk) and recommends the optimal time to achieving them based on your existing calendar. It’s truly your BFF in electronic form.

3) Log how you spend your time
Rescue Time starts logging all your activities the moment you turn on your computer/laptop. It categorizes everything you do as either productive or distractive. Then, weekly, it will email your productivity report. You can quickly analyze it to see what applications/websites steal most of your time and resolve to restrict access to them. Are there certain sites you wish to restrict access to (i.e. Facebook)? You can use SelfControl for Mac users, LeechBlock for Firefox users, or StayFocusd for Chrome users to block any sites you wish.

4) Employ the Pomodoro technique
Focus your attention to a specific task for an allotted amount of time, then take a short break. Rinse. Repeat. In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo, who invented this technique, recommended working for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minutes break. Researchers now believe it’s best to work for 57 minutes and break for 12. Whatever your time combination, stick to it. The toughest part of finishing a task is to start it! With this technique, it takes the pressure off of completing something. Simply, it only asks that you stay committed to a task for a certain amount of time. Then, see where you are with it. Take a short break to replenish yourself. Leaving a task at a cliffhanger actually makes your brain craves it, much like how TV shows leave you with a cliffhanger. You therefore will be more excited to continue an unfinished task. With multiple Pomodoro sessions, you will eventually finish your task. Try the 30/30 app to help you stay on your Pomodoro schedule!

We Say
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed with mountains of to-do’s. Make your tasks more fun by attaching positive (or avoiding negative) emotions in performing them. Then, schedule those tasks! Try performing them using the Pomodoro technique. Don’t be clueless as how your day has gone to waste. Let Rescue Time inform your habits and work to strengthen your weak spots.

For more apps that help increase your productivity, check these out!