Monday, December 14, 2009

Productive Semester

Well, despite the lack of updating, this has been a rather successful semester. Everything for the TA is rounding out in the next week, I've submitted multiple papers, and I'm working on additional papers that will hopefully be finished before Christmas. I'm well organized for conference deadlines starting in January, and looking forward to a productive rest of the winter. I even start a new project soon, which will be a nice change from the norm.

The next week is going to be really busy, but what else is new?? The rest of December will be spent on visiting family, planning my wedding, and working on research. I'm really quite OK with that, and I'm looking forward to getting it all done so I can move on to the next to-do list!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to Actually Help the Undergraduate Program

It's interesting what types of cuts our university is willing to make in order to keep the quality of the undergraduate education. Obviously education is the goal, and when you have over 25K undergraduate students they are also the priority to some extent, even in a research focused university. However, one of the cuts the university makes in order to maintain the apparent quality of undergraduate education (i.e., keep from increasing tuition even more or cutting too many classes) is to decrease the funding given to departments for Teaching Assistantships for graduate students.

I can't imagine I'm the first person to consider that this can't possibly keep the same level of education, when students suddenly have fewer TA office hours to attend, and fewer TAs (and therefore less TA time) to answer e-mail or grade homeworks. This is why I say it is keeping an "apparent" quality of undergraduate education, even if it's not really keeping actual quality. As the sole TA for a class of 40+ students, I can say from just a few months of experience that this definitely impacts the undergraduate students. Luckily we were able to hire another graduate student as a grader for 10 hrs/wk, so I have more time to tend to the students' questions, design their homeworks, and put together the lectures I'll be teaching. But I still don't have enough hours in the week to help them. I can't imagine what TAs do when they aren't lucky enough to have just one other person to help with grading! Even spending the 20 hrs/wk I'm technically paid for isn't really enough. I enjoy what I'm doing, and don't want fewer responsibilities; but I'm really overworked, which is NOT good for my students!!

I wish this cycle was more apparent to the upper level "management" of the university. If you want good undergraduate education, pay your graduate students! We do more than research, and we're often a great resource for students. When there is 1 TA to 40 students, the number of minutes they can spend helping each student is minuscule. How does that keep the quality of undergraduate education?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New England Heating Oddities

The process of heating your house is definitely different between New England and Virginia. This of course is not too surprising, given the colder climate up here. But what I really find interesting is the varied types of heating. In Virginia, almost everyone I knew either used electric heat or a wood stove. Up here in Massachusetts I've had electric heat, oil heat, and now gas heat.

Supposedly gas heat is really cheap, so I'm a bit excited to see if our energy bills go down now that we aren't on oil heat. Apparently it was very expensive a year or two ago though, so I have to cross my fingers that prices won't go up again. The gas heater is really weird though; there's a heater in our living room that is permanently attached, but still is essentially a piece of furniture on one wall. It's supposed to heat the entire house, but it seems like it will just make the living room too hot to bear, and the rest of the house not hot enough. We also have electric heating in the floors that we can turn on (a separate thermostat for each room!!), which is supposed to supplement the gas heat. It will probably take a few weeks of actual use to really find the right process for making this combination work well without a lot of wasted energy. So far the house seems to keep rather warm (thank you, south facing windows and brick exterior!), so I'm hopeful that we won't need to use as much heat as we needed to keep the old rickety house warm. But the idea of having this big heater running while we're not home is not so appealing.

The other confusing part of the gas heat is that there is no real thermostat on it. we can't, say, set the temperature to "60" and then just let it decide to run. You set it on a scale of "low" to "high" and as far as I can tell it continuously runs at whatever point it's put at. The electric heat has actual thermostats, but would require setting them in every room, and is supposedly more expensive to use than the gas heat. I hope we are able to figure out the right algorithm for making this all work out correctly!

This is all on my mind because tonight is our first night it will be below freezing, so I will probably have to turn the heat on. I'm hoping to figure out a way to just keep it around 60 to 65 though!


I enjoy a wide range of hobbies, which can be very difficult sometimes with how much time I spend on work. It also doesn't help that I spend lots of free time with friends! Not that I'm complaining about that!

So, often my crafts go untouched for too long, and then suddenly I get inspired to work on them again and get tons done very quickly (and then don't touch it again for many many months). This has been happening as of late: I haven't worked on my scrapbooks since March or April, the cross-stitch I was planning to start in February didn't even get purchased until July (or was it August?), and the yarn box hasn't been touched since the main parts were finished in April or May. As you can see, the summer was not very productive on the hobby side of things; not only did we have softball games and a million weddings to take our time, I also had my thesis proposal.

Now, however, I have finally started crafting again! It's very nice to again make something without the use of a computer. I'd say it helps my eyes, but I think starting at small boxes and stitching on them isn't so eye-strain-free. The exciting thing though is that I've stitched at least an hour every day for the past week, and I'm making OK progress! I'm not sure I can keep up the pace of having an hour every night, but most nights I need an hour to myself which ends up involving the TV, so I am hopeful it will work out since cross-stitch and TV watching work well as a multi-tasking duo. The goal is to finish before Christmas (this is a strict deadline, actually), since it will be a Christmas present.

Some of you may remember the cross-stitch I was working on 2 years ago for my first niece Evelyn, pictured above. I didn't completely finish it before Christmas, but gave it as a gift anyway and then took it back to finish it before I had to head back to New England. This year, however, I plan to have my newest niece's cross-stitch finished before then! The first cross-stitch was top secret so I didn't mention it much here, but since I already started the trend, I don't think I can really make the second one a surprise to any adult in the I think I'm free to blog away!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Politeness or Professionalism Classes: Required?

Now that I'm actively involved in undergraduate courses, I've noticed a disturbing trend among students: unprofessional e-mails, inability to remember deadlines, not paying attention in class, and a lack of time management. Even graduate students have been prone to another problem: inappropriate types of question asking during presentations and class (the overbearing, you're wrong and I'm right, type of "question" that is really a statement and is usually incorrect).

I feel that college is the best place to either learn about professional and appropriate behavior or to improve one's behavior even more, so that upon graduation it will possible to interact correctly in any work environment including graduate school. So why do we not require students to take a professionalism class? I was lucky in that my university (Virginia Tech) required computer science students to take a professionalism seminar their junior or senior year, but I have since discovered that is not normal. We not only discussed and practiced interactions and professional writing, but also had panels related to ethics and the social impact of computing. I don't think this class was done perfectly (for one thing, anyone who did internships could have used it much earlier in the curriculum), but at least it was there to prepare students. Other computer science departments should really consider this type of class as well!

We do have professionalism seminars that happen a few times a semester at my current university, but they only cover a few topics, are the same every year, and are more geared toward applications and research methods for graduate students. This is great, but the undergraduates really need more guidance!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Teaching Assistant Life

So, I'm finally living the life of a graduate teaching assistant. I was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, but had not yet been one as a grad student. It's actually great, because my responsibilities are much higher level than they were as an undergraduate.

It could have been a horrible TA semester though; there are 42 people in the class and I'm the only TA. Can you imagine the grading? I can, since I graded as an undergraduate. But as an undergraduate we had multiple people grading for that same size class! It would have been horrible. Luckily, another graduate student is getting paid to grade 10 hrs/wk, so I have little to no grading to do.

That means I have more time for the more interesting aspects of being a TA! I am creating the homeworks, I'll create the midterm, and I might even create the final. I also had to create the answer keys, which were a decent amount of work themselves, but at least mostly done in the creation of the homework (I don't want to give impossible problems!). I'm also giving multiple lectures, with the first one being next week. Unfortunately that lecture is on a topic I'm not particularly comfortable with, but I know I can ramp up in time to teach it. The series of lectures I'm giving later in the semester will at least be things I know relatively well already.

Happily, I'm getting lots of great experience this semester. Sadly, it is time consuming even when I'm not doing the 20 hrs/wk I'm paid for! Just a little bit of a peek into the life of faculty, I think.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thesis Proposals

Well, a few weeks ago I passed my thesis proposal. For our proposals we have a 1 hour talk that is open to the public, the audience can ask questions, and then after the audience Q&A only the committee members and the student stay in the room. They then discuss the work, what they think of the proposed work, etc. Then the student is kicked out of the room while the committee discusses the work further, then the student is let back in to be told that they passed and what the committee wants to see for the thesis to be considered complete.

I was actually nervous, even though I essentially knew I'd pass. I think many of my practice talks went much better than the real one, but everyone said it went well and that they were intrigued by my work. Our department chair actually stopped by my cube last week to ask a question, give a suggestion, and say he was really interested in what I was doing. So it seems to have gone well! Also, multiple students have stopped me to talk about it and how it might apply to other fields, so I'm feeling better and better about it!

Now is the crazy part: all I have left to do is finish it! My goal is to be done in May 2011, although I hope to finish most of the main research before next fall so that I'll be ready to start sending out applications. How exciting!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Obama Fencing!

This is so cool! Apparently two Olympic fencers were at the White House on September 17th, and they showed the President some fencing moves! The best part is they were saberists!! I'm so jealous. Can you imagine both being an Olympic saber fencer AND getting to meet President Obama?? Hopefully Tim Morehouse is right, and this might help encourage people to start with the sport who have never considered it before, or might help encourage areas without fencing lessons to find instructors. It's a lot of fun, but so many people never even try it or know if there are lessons near them!

One thing I think is pretty funny though is that they were wearing their lames and other electric fencing gear, even though they weren't fencing electric! I guess non-fencers would be confused by a saberist not in full saber gear, but it's still amusing. At least they don't appear to be wearing wires...

So Broke!

Wow, having a fellowship can really work out in your favor! Although I knew that, I'm really feeling the effects right now. The past three years I was paid via a fellowship. Now that the fellowship has run out, I am a TA for my department. I make $600 less a month now! That is really going to make a difference in my budget. Sure, I saved money over those years, but I also didn't worry about going out to eat every now and then, or stress too much about travel expenses for all these weddings I keep going to. Yes, I'll be fine, I lived on this amount easily my first year of grad school (before I had the fellowship). But it's hard to take a pay cut!

I think the bigger worry for me though is whether or not I'll have full funding next year. I'm planning to apply for dissertation fellowships, since my department doesn't usually have enough money to pay full TA-ships to everyone who needs it, and my advisor may or may not have RA money for me. I'll be a sixth-year graduate student then, and even though that is still below the average number of years it takes to graduate in our department, many sixth-year students find themselves without full funding. People have ended up with 1/2 funding, which isn't even enough to pay the necessary bills and buy groceries! Let alone gas, medical expenses, required travel to conferences, etc. Who knew that in a wealthy area such as Computer Science, even graduate students making good progress have to take out loans just to be able to eat? I want to avoid that; I thought by being a computer scientist I WAS avoiding that, but c'est la vie.

So, thus begins my second round of fellowship applications. Hopefully I'll be as successful as I was last time! And hopefully I'll still find a way to continue to save a little bit of money this year as well. Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sorry we missed you, Summer!

Wow, it's already the middle of September. How time flies! I have multiple half written blog posts from earlier in the summer that I should finish later. Maybe this weekend?

It really feels like we never had summer at all this year. We had some nice days, and two weeks of sweltering heat, but mostly we had rain. Once it got nice out I was so busy working on my thesis proposal that I didn't really see much of the sun! Now it's getting cold and dreary out, which really is more of what I expect for the school year anyway. At least the new students had a week of sunny days before the dreariness swept in. You would think we were in Seattle!

There are so many things I wanted to do this summer: hiking, biking, vacation. We did some of it, but not as much as in the years past. I think this is due to Tim working on his proposal in the beginning of the summer, me working on my proposal at the end of the summer, and most of free time spent either moving or traveling for one of the 4 weddings we went to. I enjoyed all of that time, but I guess it really ate into the time for other outdoor activities!

The good news is that we still have at least a month before it's too cold to do hiking and biking without tons of layers, so we are going to try to get out as much as we can between now and then. Technically it is still summer until the end of the month, not that it has felt that way the last few days. But we'll make the most of it! And maybe by then we'll be finished moving in and can spend our free time actually relaxing. Assuming we have any to spend on anything!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Working at a cafe

I have to say that one of my favorite places to work is at a cafe in town. I'm actually there right now, so since I'm blogging it probably will not be too convincing to say that I get a lot of work done here; but I do! The music right now is awesome, with "Boys of Summer" just finishing. It's like having Pandora playing, but without the need for headphones! I think I'm partially lucky that they play music I really like, if that wasn't the case it would probably be really annoying.

However, I work best in a well lit area with either complete quiet, or constant expected noise. It's the intermittent noise (like people entering and leaving the room, coughing, etc) that distracts me the most. I suspect that is the case for a lot of people, hence the reason cubicles are so detested.

Of course, this all also means that I may just like working at the cafe because my desk is in a windowless room that resembles a well decorated dungeon. Sure, the posters and such make the room seem less dreary, but it doesn't really help with the lack of light. Even the new brighter ceiling lights don't seem so bright anymore, which makes me scare to think about how dark the room must have been my first few years before the light replacement.

Anyway, if you are looking for a good place to work outside of your own dreary office/cubicle/desk in the corner, consider your local cafe! The pot of tea makes everything better, not to mention you can actually get natural light! Just don't get too distracted with people watching, and you'll be OK...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Softball Semifinals! First time ever??

This summer is my fourth season of playing on a town co-ed non-umpired softball team. I was on a different team the first two years than the most recent two years, as it was created as an overflow for my current team. The team I used to be on (called the Turkeys) is a very good team, with very competitive people and a rather beefed up line-up. The team I'm currently on used to be consistently one of the worst teams in the league, but I have loved playing with them anyway. There are a lot of decent players on the team, but maybe not as much confidence as necessary.

Well, this year has been different! This summer we ended the regular season as number 5 out of 12 teams, with a winning record of 11-9. We got a bye in the first round of playoffs, and solidly beat the number 4 team in our first playoff Tuesday night. That team narrowly beat us twice in the regular season, so our 17-3 win was fabulous.

So, we are on to the semi-finals and possibly the finals tonight! In the semis we play the team that is undoubtedly the best team in the league, the Diamond Studs. If we manage to pull out a win, we'll play either the Turkeys or their semifinals opponent in the finals. This is definitely a big turnaround for us Coyotes!

I'm so incredibly busy right now, but it's good to get some exercise in here and there. Wish us luck for tonight, both that we don't get rain delayed to next week and that we pull out the win!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Organizing Proposal Writing

Now that I'm really trying to hunker down on the proposal writing, I have found a few techniques work much better for me than others (although I can't guarantee I'm in the majority here):

  • Lots of hot tea drinking. It's calming, but more exciting than water. I'm an avid tea drinker to begin with, but usually drink less in warm weather. However, it's helped me concentrate very well over the past week, as well as forcing me to need to get out of my chair every few hours.
  • Make a proposal playlist, and listen to it. I'm partially stealing this one from my writer friend Kathleen, as she makes playlists for her different books as she writes. I'm currently using music that is not distracting, but still upbeat to help keep my energy levels up as a write. Lately I've been spending all of my music time on Pandora, as I wrote about before, but sometimes you just need to have too varied of music for that to work. However, if you don't own enough music for your playlist, this could be a nice alternative.
  • Break the file into individual files. Assuming you are writing in LaTeX, this is pretty easy, but is something I never do for writing. Basically, you make a file for each part of your proposal (introduction.tex, chapter1.tex, etc), and then include them in the main file using the command \input{filename}. Fairly straightforward, but makes it easier to find where you are in the file, AND it helps keep you from getting overwhelmed.

However, the most important piece of advice have so far is this: don't work all day on it. Unless you are one of the few people who can work 15 hours/day without ever getting burned out, don't torture yourself from dawn until dusk. Today I really figured this one out, and it's why I decided to post. Today I put all of my proposal and previous writing work on my lab computer (fairly new, so I still use my laptop for a lot of my research). Now, my plan is to only allot time for proposal writing during the day, in the lab, unless I specifically plan to work outside of the lab that day (in which case I'll just have to get the files). This way I feel more pressure to be productive while I'm at school, and can concentrate on other things in the evening (other work, hobbies, wedding planning, moving, etc). Overall, I expect this to lower stress levels significantly, at least for the next few weeks.

I'm lucky in that I have exactly 2 months before I defend my proposal, meaning that if I take a month to finish writing and revising I'll still be done early. But of course that means that motivation on some days can be hard. Therefore I have my last piece of advice for now: if you have enough time between when you start and need to finish your proposal, be sure to have other projects to work on too. Now, all PhD students should have tons of work they should be doing instead of writing their proposals, so that having the work to do shouldn't be an issue. But the point is that if you have enough time to have low motivation, do some work on those other projects! If they are related to your thesis anyway, it's useful even for the proposal. Just don't get too caught up in them; the proposal should be the primary focus, otherwise you'll never get it done.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Buffy vs. Edward

Earlier this week my housemate sent me a link to a video created to depict Buffy (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) beating up Edward (the vampire from book/movie Twilight). The point of the video was basically to show that yes, Edward is a creep, and yes, Buffy could totally take him.

Buffy Summers takes down Edward Cullen

Since I've written before about enjoying Twilight, and vampire stories in general, it seemed appropriate to also share this link. If you know anything about these stories, you will hopefully find great amusement in the video! Also, as you may notice in the credits, something from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was used; see if you can find it, it's only a very short clip, but if you think about it, it becomes very obvious!

First Biology Conference

cropped version of conference poster from

Last week I went to my first biology conference, Systems Biology of Human Diseases, held at Harvard Medical School. It was definitely different from the computer science conferences I have been to thus far. Of course, for me the biggest difference was that I was surrounded by people that were experts in a completely different field from mine, but yet were still working on some similar problems. We just happen to have very different vocabularies. Overall though, I think it was a worthwhile conference to attend. I learned some new keywords, learned more about how biologists describe cancer, and got some new ideas for how to present and do my research. Not bad for a day's worth of time. Unfortunately I couldn't stay through the poster session thanks to a migraine, so hopefully next time I won't have that problem. Luckily this conference will be in Boston again next year before they merge with a European conference, so I will have easy access for at least that year. After that we will have to decide if it is worth traveling to Europe for it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Undergrad Class Again

Earlier in the year I wrote about experiencing undergrad class again. Later in the semester I sat in on two lectures of my own department's intro programming class, as part of an observation for my "teaching undergraduates" class. I was in the same horrible classroom/auditorium I was in for the other class, but it was much emptier and thus quieter.

Overall, I was very impressed with the faculty member giving the lectures. Sure, he wasn't perfect, but he had a great energy to him. This is one of the reasons I had chosen to observe him over some other professors; I knew he brought a lot of energy and excitement to teaching at the graduate level, and I really wanted to see that happen at the undergraduate level.

In the second of the two lectures he brought his research area (Computer Vision) into it. He helped the kids think about how they might go about solving problems in the area with what they had learned in the class: arrays, I/O streams, etc. Really, I think if more professors used this type of lecture throughout their intro courses, we would have a better retention rate in Computer Science. It takes a step back from what can often be boring topics, and shows that there is an interesting use for all of it after all. I hope when I start teaching I am able to bring this sort of thing to my lectures as well.

Monday, June 22, 2009

E-mail becoming unusable?

A few days ago our e-mail system went down overnight. Most people (who I know, at least) didn't notice for awhile. However, I had a big clue: no junk mail. My e-mail account had gone all night without acquiring any spam. Since I tend to get about 45 junk e-mails over the course of 8 hours each night, getting none was quite suspicious.

This leads me to wondering whether or not e-mail is really starting to become unusable. If we don't win against spam, phishing, etc, will we become too frustrated with it? I can get 100 spam messages in a single day. Many of them are moved to the junk e-mail folder; however, when I'm sitting at my computer doing work and the new message icon appears in my system tray, I always end up looking to see what it was, and it is almost always junk. I like to have this indicator, but it's starting to become not worth it.

I think most of my junk e-mail is due to a mailing list I'm on. I'm hoping that once I am off this mailing list in September, i will see a dramatic decrease in unwanted mail.

My Gmail account also recently started having spam issues. I never see spam on that account, and starting earlier this month I started seeing a few e-mails of spam a day. It hasn't happened for a few days, but I am sure it will happen again.

I feel like my e-mail box has become much like my real mail box: mostly just ads for services I don't need or want. How do we fix this? This is not my area at all, so I have no great solutions. I don't like the proposed solution of making e-mail cost money, as right now it's a great medium for staying in touch even just throughout a day (I have entire conversations through e-mail throughout a single day, that sometimes involve 20 messages, which could really add up in cost). I do believe we need to find a way for it to not be profitable for spammers/phishers to bother; or would that just mean even more e-mails, as the likelihood of finding someone who will fall for it is low? I hope that in a decade it will be common knowledge what types of e-mails to ignore, but my brain tells me that is unlikely. Won't spammers just keep evolving with the technology? So how do we get spammers to give up? Maybe we need psychologists to work on this problem.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Well, now that I've experienced one type of proposal, I need to worry a bit more about the other type: the PhD proposal! I've decided that it's not as scary as it seems. True, you are putting your work and ideas out there to be critiqued and questioned, and you are defining what the remainder of your PhD will contain. But still, it's more of an opportunity for you to get feedback before you try to defend the dissertation, and it's really there to make sure you are on the right track.

I'm rather excited about proposing, which will happen this August. I've had a general view of where I want my thesis to go for a little while now, so it's great to finally get that out there. I wish I had done it earlier, and I wish I understood more about what a proposal is a few years ago. So here is my attempt to make a short list, that at least applies to my own department:

  • Propose as soon as you can! - My advisor was suggested to me that I propose before I was really mentally ready to think about, and it so it was put off for a few years. Looking back, I probably could have done a reasonable proposal LAST summer, which would have been great for making sure I went in the right direction this past year.
  • Think of it as an opportunity - Like most things, it's both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that you will be totally stressed out unless you are never stressed out about anything. The blessing is that it's a great time to take a step back and make sure you're going in the right direction, to get great feedback from successful professors other than your own advisor, and a big step at really defining the core of your thesis.
  • Don't spend forever on the writing - Our department just changed the expectations (de facto requirements) for the proposal: it should be less than 20 pages, and not look anything like a thesis. Those of us who are the first string of people to propose under these guidelines are extra stressed since our proposals may not look like what people are used to, but really it's for the better. A shorter proposal might actually be read, you can spend less time on the writing, and it makes the presentation much easier to put together. This is not a published document, so don't waste lots of time! (I'm still having trouble following this piece of advice)
  • Schedule early - I scheduled my August proposal defense in May. With 4 professors needing to have the same time slot free, don't wait until the last moment. My fiance almost had a fiasco because he waited too long to schedule a time, and everyone's times were conflicting during the month (yes, the entire month!) he wanted to have his proposal during. He fixed his problem by doing the first day of the following month. But the point is still valid: plan early.
  • Propose in the summer - I'm not sure if this is good advice yet, but so far I like it. There is less pressure during the summer, so it is easier to work without feeling stressed out. Hopefully your professors will be easier to schedule for the defense as well, since they won't have teaching and office hours as conflicts.
  • Listen to your advisor - This advice holds for most things. They are faculty already for many reasons, they won't (generally) lead you astray. If they tell you to wait to propose, they probably have a good reason; hopefully your relationship with them is one where you can discuss why you should wait. If they tell you to get a move on, there is probably good reason for that too (probably).

If I come up with any other great suggestions as I work on my proposal, I'll post again. Hopefully I will still be feeling optimistic in a month or two.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life: everything at once!

The last few weeks have been absolutely crazy. I have not only been working on my own multiple research projects, but I have also recently starting working a project that a younger student in my lab is doing. I'm helping out from now until his paper deadline in June, to help with getting the work done in time, and to help by just being an additional person with ideas since the project is complex. It's an interesting project, but there is lots going on and lots to fix. I hope we get it done in time!

In addition to all of that actual work (think "too many projects"), I've also been actively trying to find a place to live next year, dealing with the fact that my car failed its emissions test during inspection, and planning a trip to look at wedding locations. Unfortunately everything seems to need to be done during normal business hours, which is quite a hassle.

Today we found 2 places that we'd love to live at next year, but each have draw backs. We disagree on which drawbacks are important, so it will be interesting to see if we can compromise or if we'll just keep looking and risk losing these places.

As far as the car is concerned, the first place we took it said the repairs would probably cost over $1,000 and wasn't worth doing on such an old car (to which I thought "oh my, my car is 9 years old!). I was going to apply for the Economic Hardship Repair Extensionso that I wouldn't have to fix it right now, but then I realized that we didn't take it to an official registered emissions repair shop, and therefore the quote wouldn't count toward it. So we took it to another place in town, and they couldn't replicate the error codes, and told us to drive it around so it could gather more data. Today we took it back, it had enough data but no error codes, so we returned to the inspection station and it passed with no problems. Are there still unfixed problems? Maybe. Am I concerned? Only marginally, since it's not a safety issue. I might be in the market for a new (i.e. new to me) car soon though. Not that I have any other expensive events coming up...

So planning for our trip has been annoying in the sense that I have to call people during business hours, and I'm very busy with work and meetings during the day. So far I've managed to make appointments for us to see 3 potential locations for the wedding and reception, but still need to make more. And we are traveling to visit them next week! You would think that being a graduate student would mean you could find the time for this sort of thing, but I think I am proving that is not the case. It's only true when you are in a non-busy time of year, and right now is ultra busy for me!

Well, back to work. Lots and lots of things to do, even though it's already past 5PM. I blame the combination of all of these things going on for why I haven't been posting!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Venting and De-Stressing are Crucial!

Occasionally in graduate school you feel frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, undervalued, or some other negative feeling. Generally, graduate students vent about this sort of thing to friends, significant others, or family members. Venting is a very good idea, as it will help you get over it (from putting it out there), see that you're not the only one to ever feel that way (depending on who you vent to), and find a way to move on. It's very hard to be productive when you are overrun with these types of feelings!

Another graduate student in my lab and I have been meeting for lunch each Friday this semester, which we have dubbed something like "weekly-special-psychotherapy-lunch." We are friends as well as co-workers, but we don't see each other much during the week as we don't both tend to work in the same room. So every Friday we find out how the other person's week has been going, give suggestions for how to deal with spoken and unspoken issues, and give overall encouragement. Sometimes I don't even realize exactly what is holding me back from getting something done until I have to verbalize it to someone who isn't my fiance. Yes, complaining to my fiance is my usual way of dealing with stress, but it's very good to have other venues to let it out! A more objective viewpoint (or at least a viewpoint perceived to be more objective) can be very helpful.

Why am I writing this? Well, I think too often people (especially women) bottle it all up inside. Eventually you will start seeing the world in a different way than it really is, and that's when you really start to wonder if you should be doing what you are doing with your life. The answer is almost always "YES, you SHOULD!" but too often we convince ourselves otherwise. Like I said in my last post, a little encouragement goes a long way, and we should always keep that in mind for ourselves and others. Even people who appear to be succeeding can easily be second guessing themselves, or so frustrated with a project they can't see straight. If you are that person, or you friend/co-worker is that person, I highly recommend a weekly special psychotherapy lunch!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Computer Science and Volleyball

One of my few outside-of-computer-science activities that I actually do every week is volleyball. After our intramural game last Wednesday, I was thinking about all of the ways that the two are similar. For instance:

  1. Time Outs - In volleyball, sometimes you just need to call a timeout, mentally regroup, and then get back into it. In our game we were losing 3-9 to a team we had just squarely beaten; I called a timeout, and then we proceeded to win 15-9. What a difference that timeout made! In research it's the same way. Sometimes you just need to take a step back from what you're doing, regroup mentally, and then start off again where you left off.
  2. Team Effort - In volleyball, you have 6 people on the court at any given time. If you don't trust your teammates, you end up running over them to get balls they were perfectly prepared to hit, usually better than you end up hitting them. To really play well, you should back up other people and trust their abilities. In research you also need to trust your group members, but still encourage and back them up when possible. It's all about sharing information, ideas, and letting each other find his/her own way without stepping on each other's toes.
  3. Encouragement - When playing a team sport, you want to try to keep everyone energized and feeling good about their playing. If someone starts to doubt their abilities from a few bad hits, they are going to second guess everything else they do that game. A little "that's ok, you'll get it next time" or "great job!" will go a long way. With research, you should also encourage others even when they are struggling. Everyone needs encouragement in everything they do in life, but especially so in "high" stress situations like volleyball and research!
  4. Practice! - Obviously, if you don't practice volleyball you are not going to retain your skills. Much of it is muscle memory and reactions, which can be learned and refined over time. In computer science research you also need to practice skills such as public speaking, programming, and critical thinking. It may not be muscle memory, but it is still a set of learnable and improvable skills.

It's true that the comparison between team sports and teamwork in school and work has been made many times. However, it's nice to be reminded occasionally that our extracurricular activities really do relate to graduate school, and working on good habits and skills in one can easily help improve the other. All the more reason to be sure to get adequate "play" time in addition to work time!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I love April Fools, all because of Google

The title says it all. Google always pulls really great stunts for April Fool's Day. I especially love this year's CADIE. The entire concept is crazy, as we are definitely nowhere near having artificial intelligence at that level. Google really just makes the holiday so much better for all of us computer folks, because there are even deeper reasons to laugh than the pandas, rainbows, unicorns, and angry faces.

I also love how they incorporated it into so many of their sites: images, blogger, search, etc. I'm also very amused that it is changing over the course of the day; for instance, images had pictures of unicorns, rainbows, etc as the suggested images that CADIE thought everyone would like. Then sometime this afternoon it changed to an angry face, lighting bolt, and other unhappy things (including a glaring panda icon) because CADIE discovered that people in fact don't all love unicorns and rainbows. Hilarious!

For the drab day today has been, Google has really made it much better!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Other March News

Of course, my other March news is that during our spring break, Tim proposed! So I now I have a fiance instead of a boyfriend. Pretty crazy! This also means that we will definitely be dealing with a two-body problem when we are applying for jobs; but we were already assuming that would be the case anyway. I'm not too worried about it though; it will be one more variable, but other people have done it before. I have another year before I have to worry about that anyway though, so I think I'll save my stress for wedding planning!

Last week we looked at scores of reception and ceremony sites (I would like an outdoor wedding), started on registries, looked at dresses, started guest lists, and thought about our budget (not necessarily in that order). We also started a wedding website and blog, where I will post all of my wedding thoughts that don't relate to being a computer scientist.

Overall, it's very exciting, and already stressful! I have tons of research deadlines that I absolutely will not be compromising due to wedding planning, but still the planning has to happen. So far working on wedding in the evening and work during the day has been successful, but that can't go on indefinitely! So this will definitely be an interesting time management experience.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MS Degree

A few weeks ago I received the paper version of my Masters degree in the mail! In our program the MS degree is just proof that you've gotten to a certain stage as you work toward your PhD so it's not as exciting as it could be (this concept still baffles my family). However, it did give me something exciting to tell my family at the beginning of March! My grandfather was the most excited, I think. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote back to everyone on the e-mail I sent (I've edited using standard punctuation to denote my edits):

...We now have five such degrees, either MA or MS, in the family. This includes your dad, [cousin's husband, other cousin's husband, cousin,] and yourself. I was within two credits of completing mine, when attending night school and summer sessions on the GI bill while teaching full time, when the first of my credits earned started rotting because of excess time. By that time I was within just a few years of my second retirement and decided that the increased effort to reinvigorate old credits would not be worth it. I do admit, however, that I would LOVE to be in the group listed above and I have the greatest respect for the intelligence, focus, and willingness to persevere required to achieve this and higher objectives. You GO girl, we all love and admire you...

I share that part of that e-mail because I think it's very indicative of a lot of things. The first, is that I have a very supportive family that totally encourages both the men and women to pursue whatever type of career/degree path they desire. A lot of women don't have that, and I believe that's one of the reasons that technical fields in general see fewer women in them.

The other aspect is that it is not assumed that anyone will go for a graduate degree even if they do pursue an undergraduate degree! It's amazing to me that some people I know have parents with graduate degrees, grandparents with graduate degrees, etc. They are all almost expected to obtain that level of education; even if they aren't actually expected to, there is at least that perception growing up. I will be the first in my family to get a PhD (at least as far I am aware of!), which makes it feel even more exciting! I guess the MS qualifies for that general type of status as well (being part of the first generation with a large number of MS degrees). I certainly don't think I'm better than other relatives for having done this, but I do think it's interesting to have chosen this path despite not having many family members to have also done so. This is especially true when I think about how few women in the US go for the PhD in general!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Barbara Liskov wins Turing Award!

What an amazing day! I was just casually checking my e-mail and what do I find out? That another woman has won the Turing Award!

MIT Press Release
ACM Press Release

Although I feel bad to be surprised about the fact a woman has won (why should anyone be surprised about that??), I don't know how I could not be excited. When Fran Allen won it seemed like a barrier had been broken, but it still seemed like it would a long time before the community was willing to honor another woman. Apparently we are better than I thought! From reading through the press releases she sounds like an amazing researcher. I wanted to share a few paragraphs from the ACM Press Release:

The award cites Liskov for her foundational innovations to designing and building the pervasive computer system designs that power daily life. Her achievements in programming language design have made software more reliable and easier to maintain. They are now the basis of every important programming language since 1975, including Ada, C++, Java, and C#. The Turing Award, widely considered the "Nobel Prize in Computing," is named for the British mathematician Alan M. Turing. The award carries a $250,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation and Google Inc.

The first U.S. woman to be awarded a Ph.D. from a computer science department (in 1968 from Stanford University), Liskov revolutionized the programming field with groundbreaking research that underpins virtually every modern computer application for both consumers and businesses. Her contributions have led to fundamental changes in building the computer software programs that form the infrastructure of our information-based society. Her legacy has made software systems more accessible, reliable, and secure 24/7.

I want to go dance around the block! Maybe one day (in many decades) my research will be great enough to receive this type of acknowledgment. Once can only hope! Despite her obviously being a deserving recipient, her success will help highlight what great things women can do (and are already doing) in the field of computer science.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Guitar Hero World Tour!

Last month was Tim's birthday, so some friends and I got together to buy him Guitar Hero World Tour with the complete band. We had a huge debate about Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero, and in the end Guitar Hero won out.

Since then, we've played many times. Recently we bought 2 more Wii controllers (we only had 2) and a second guitar so that we could have 4 people playing at once! Our first Guitar Hero "party" was a big success, and we plan to have more. Since our living room is small, we can't have very many people over at a time, but we'd like to have everyone over eventually who helped buy the game for him. Between that and Killer Bunnies, we have lots of weekend activities and not enough time to do them!

I've become a big fan of the drum set. I didn't realize that it came to me more naturally than others until we had our Guitar Hero party and multiple people had problems with the basic drum beat. I've never played drum before (although I've always thought it would be "cool"), but I've been involved enough in music that I can easily keep a beat. It's a lot of fun to learn how to control your hands independently so you can hit the 5 different drums/cymbals in many different patterns. I'm nowhere near an expert, but I hope to be able to play all of the songs on Medium difficulty soon on drums!

One of our friends actually plays guitar, and he was a natural at Guitar Hero guitar. He was very quickly playing on Medium difficulty, and had no trouble with songs that Tim and I couldn't play (even though we'd played Guitar Hero guitar for many hours on Medium before then)! So it seems that musical experience can definitely help in this game.

Overall though, it was a great investment. If you can find a way to afford the $200 for this game, you should definitely get it. We use it to wind down in the evening, or take a break from work on the weekends. It's great for multi player or single player, and it feels great to see yourself getting better! Although music experience may give you an edge, you don't need it to play. You don't even need to be able to keep a beat to start playing this game, although the drums may be the hardest instrument for you. I can't see us getting sick of it anytime soon though!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mists of Avalon - the movie

A few weeks ago I watched the made for TV movie Mists of Avalon. If you haven't read the book, you will most likely enjoy the movie. It tells a compelling story, has decent acting, and is interesting throughout.

However, it tells a different story than the book. If you really enjoyed the book, I would recommend skipping the movie. I was frustrated throughout on how they warped characters, warped storylines, and warped overarching points the author was making with her characters and plot lines. I think if I had watched this movie without reading the book I would have really enjoyed it and found it interesting. But after reading the book it was quite unpleasant and almost upsetting to watch. They completely missed the point!

If you want to watch this movie AND read the book, I recommend reading the book, waiting about 5 years (unless you have a really good memory about books), and then watching the movie.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Mists of Avalon - a must read!

Two Saturdays ago I finally finished the book Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It took me about two years to read (with at least 5 other books started and finished during that time), but was well worth it! The characters are very deep, the storyline is very compelling, and the writing is fabulous.

For those who haven't read it, the book is essentially the King Arthur legend told from the perspective of the women. There are multiple perspectives given for any given period of time, and those perspectives are often from opposite sides of the spectrum. It is a great new way to look at the legend, and is very interesting in how the events intertwine with the social forces that are at work today.

I truly believe that everyone should read this book, as it is enlightening in many ways, but I especially believe that all women should read this book. It is very touching, and actually a bit empowering as you are reminded that women really can accomplish great things even when the social norms may not allow it.

Now of course I want to see the movie (The Mists of Avalon), although I doubt it will be as good as the book. How will it deal with the internal musings that encompass most of the writing?? And how will is condense almost 900 pages into a few short hours? Should be interesting.

I've also just discovered that there are two more books whose storylines occur before Mists of Avalon: Lady of Avalon, and The Forest House (Avalon, Book 2). Despite the fact that I have many other books to read, I may have to pick these up at some point as well. There are also a number of books written by a different author that relate to this series of books.

Since it's been over a week since I finished it and I am still gushing about how wonderful it was, I think it is fair to say that this is one of my new favorites!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Experiencing Undergrad Class Again

Classes just started up again, and although I am officially done with all course credits for my MS and PhD, I am sitting in on a class. This is not just any class though; it's an undergrad biology class! I know, I know...shocking.

The first class meeting was yesterday morning, in an auditorium. It wasn't a huge auditorium though, probably only about 100 people can sit in there (at least if you are limiting people to sitting on chairs). Of course, my first impression was "oh my goodness, they are all so little and young!" but after that all I could think was "shush!"

Sure, sure, I might not be able to say anything about looking young (I can still be mistaken as an undergrad by people over the age of 30!), but I definitely have no qualms talking about the noise level. It was quieter during class than before or after, but the chatter never completely stopped! I can see people thinking they could get away with it in a 200 or 300 person class, but 100? Maybe it was just because I was in the 3rd to last row that I heard it all, as maybe the first 10 rows know how to be quiet, but I doubt it. There was a girl sitting 2 seats away from me who was only quiet when the professor was explaining how the class would be graded. Otherwise she was chattering away with the people around her the entire time!

On top of the general noise, 5 minutes before class was supposed to end it got very noisy. I was very confused for about 20 seconds, and then the professor said "By my watch it is only 12:00, and class ends at 12:05 unless we end early." Apparently everyone was packing up and chatting and getting ready to go! 5 minutes early! I still can't believe it. We knew better than that in high school, and I'm really not THAT much older than these kids. To be fair, where we were at in the slides at 12 easily could have been mistaken for a stopping point, but the professor hadn't stopped. At least they quieted down rather quickly, we had 5 more minutes of class, and then we left.

I do feel sorry for the kids in the class though. They have FOUR exams this semester, quizzes, and the class is going to be taught differently than normal. Usually it is on 2 topics, half and half, but this semester it is primarily only 1 of those topics. It should be interesting to see how much that affects their later classes. Not to mention that those seats are hard, close together, and not very comfortable! There was lots of dried gum under the pull-out writing desk for my seat as well. Gross!

I have to say that I do not miss taking this type of class, and I think it will definitely be interesting to be teaching one in a few years!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New niece!

My sister gave birth to my second niece last night, at 1:28AM! What a night! I had really hoped to be down in VA when the new one came into the world, but I had two conference papers due last night at 3AM! The original due date for the baby was New Year's Day, which I would have been there for, but such is life!

Well, I don't really have classes to worry about right now so maybe I'll get a chance to see the baby some time in the next month or two. That's one of the worst parts about being in MA, I'm far enough away that I miss out on things like this! Of course, having conference submission deadlines in January doesn't really help much in general either. The best part about being a graduate student though is I might actually be able to take off enough time to go down and visit!

I hope everyone's new year is starting off with great events like this as well!