September 16, 2008

Writing for programming

Two years ago, TAing a software engineering course and attempting to explain to Computer Science majoring undergraduates that yes, you still had to know how to write well even if you were a programmer, I really wish I’d been armed with my current experience.

In the past twelve months, while supposedly employed as a programmer of some sort, I’ve written over a hundred pages of RFPs, proposals, and functional specifications. I’m willing to bet I’ve written more words of copy than of code.

Just in the last week I’ve done about fifteen pages of proposals (of which about one page could be easily copied from one to the next, and even that took some editing). Looking at the six-page proposal on my screen this afternoon (which isn’t even done yet; there’s probably two more pages in it) I said out loud, “I can’t believe I used to sweat blood over three-page papers in college.”

In the discussion following that, we agreed that the projects we’ve documented most thoroughly before we started coding were the ones which have been most successful. So take that, writing-avoidant undergraduates!

Now Playing: Chewing Gum Weekend from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

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June 13, 2007

Perfect record

The department staff forwarded around an email from a new grad student (starting in September) looking for housing. I was amused to discover that it was the student I’d convinced to apply last December on my otherwise-futile recruiting trip to Amherst and Northampton. Apparently if he was accepted elsewhere, they failed to make a better case for attending.

This also means I have a 100% recruiting success rate. Apparently if I talk to you about Computer Science grad school at the University, you’re as good as enrolled. I find this amusing particularly because a great deal of my argument was along the lines of, “Well, if you really want to do X, and you’re accepted at Y and the University, of course you should choose Y instead of us.”

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June 5, 2007

Lack of organization on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part

I think the title is all I should say about this one, actually.

Now Playing: Johnny Yen (Live) from Tomorrow by James

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Distributed responsibility

Thinking about graduations in the past few weeks, I also thought about everyone’s bête noir, the Class Notes, that quarterly litany of your peers’ successes and triumphs.

I imagined a commencement speaker…

“Those of you sitting before me will lead corporations and nations. You will invent, address the world’s great problems, save lives, and battle disease. You will peer beyond the edges of our world…”


“You do understand that you don’t each have to do all of these things, right?”

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May 24, 2007

Missed a chance

Academic regalia always seems like a costly investment; Bog knows what’s going to happen to that cap/gown/hood now. I suppose there’s at least one possible future career path where it will come in handy.

I sort of envied the undergrads with their brown and blue tassels on their caps. (Not that I would trade my hood for one, of course.) I just had the anonymous black one, with an “07”, which I actually found faintly annoying—graduate students don’t really identify with a class-year cohort the way undergrads do. I wished, briefly, that I had thought to snag one of the tassels still hanging in my bedroom in my parents’ house. The “extra” one which I actually wore at high school graduation would’ve been a diplomatic faux pas at commencement, since only PhD graduates wear the gold tassels we had to indicate honors in high school, but the blue one I didn’t use at the time would have done just fine, even if it was the wrong blue.

And I probably would’ve been the only “92” there. My parents found a phone message about my 15th reunion when they got home.

Now Playing: I Turn My Camera On from Gimme Fiction by Spoon

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May 14, 2007

Wrapped up

I haven’t yet written the triumphant “semester’s over” post I did for the last three semesters. That’s because this semester wasn’t one of those put-down-the-pencil-exams-are-over sorts of semesters.

My one class-for-grade was over on the last day of classes, and I expect to be hacking on my “masters project” for several days beyond Commencement. (Nobody is bothered by this, since I will technically continue to be a grad student here for at least a year of “leave.”)

On Friday, we wrapped up grading final exams for Programming Languages, a week after the exam was given. We poured the grades into a spreadsheet, generated semester numbers, translated those into letters, and put them in the online system. (I got a question about one of those within two days.)

We had two anomalies which I can safely discuss because I doubt I even have enough information to identify the students in question. First, one student who did all the homework and sat for the midterm, but didn’t take the final exam. I thought this was a bit unusual until we discovered that they weren’t listed on the class roster—not even as having dropped the class. As far as the registrar is concerned, this student was never associated with the course. We can’t figure out why they would bother doing as much work as they did.

Second, we had a student enrolled who didn’t hand in any work—no homework and neither exam. My guess is that they registered and somehow neglected to drop the course. There was no photo with the class roster, so we’re not sure if this student ever came to class.

Having willfully ignored all pleading from the registrar to register for courses next fall, I think I have only three interactions left with the University: commencement, my final paycheck (which may have already happened) and the completion of this project.

Now Playing: Deacon Blues from A Decade of Steely Dan by Steely Dan

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May 11, 2007

When it matters

Today I finally determined that I belong to the University’s School of Engineering. I think I probably could’ve reasoned this, but it’s not immediately obvious. The major divisions of the school appear to be between things like the med school, law school, vet school, sundry smaller institutions, and the “School of Arts, Science and Engineering,” which contains the majority of the local population of undergraduates, among others. I was pretty certain I fit in that, based on various bureaucratic clues.

The confusion comes when that subdivides into “Arts and Sciences,” which is basically the section most like my undergraduate experience, and “Engineering.” To further muddy the waters, Computer Science has undergraduate majors from both schools, unlike any other department on campus.

However, I confirmed that all our graduate students are under the school of engineering. (Otherwise, I might turn up too late to collect my degree.) Which is good, because as of this afternoon I am equipped for next Sunday’s ceremonies with an orange-trimmed hood. The interior is pale blue and brown, which does not look nearly as bad as one might expect.

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May 9, 2007

Working in translation

I think the reason I have put this project off as long as I have is that I am not comfortable working in Java.

One of the things I’ve learned from TAing the Programming Languages course this semester is how some languages require the user to think in a particular way. Prolog is perhaps the best example of this; students are used to thinking of functions as something which does something, and Prolog rules don’t really do anything. To write good Prolog, we needed to shift to thinking about conditions—X is true under the following conditions—rather than actions.

Java is not quite as dramatic as Prolog, but it does require the programmer to rearrange the way they think about the problem. I’ve spent more time in languages like PHP, or even C, where once I’d conceived of a means to solve the problem, the translation into code was fairly straightforward. Java’s object-orientedness forces the code into an organization I might not otherwise have used; beyond that, it makes it harder for me to read others’ code and make sense of how to use it. There have been times when the way I conceived of a problem made it easy to code up in Java, but not many of them.

This is not (necessarily) a shortcoming in a language. But it does mean I’d avoid Java in most cases. Maybe if I’d been taught Java in intro CS, the way the Shipwright was (in my day, it was taught in Pascal), I would think differently.

Now Playing: Everything’s Not Lost from Parachutes by Coldplay

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May 7, 2007

I want to give you a good grade

An itch is a curious thing; it’s a little pain which drives you to inflict more pain on yourself. The things I’ve been itching to talk about lately are things I shouldn’t talk about here; little soap-opera dramas I’m only an observer in, or the travails of a TA at the end of a semester. I won’t even detail the grading dramas with pseudonyms; it’s easy enough to make the connection from who I am, to my class, to a pretty small set of students.

A TA in another department observed, recently, that she doesn’t think students know how much their TAs are pulling for them. It’s really easy for the students to see grading as something that’s adversarial, student vs. assignment, with the grader as a hostile judge. It’s also too easy for them to consider the purpose of grading as ranking, or somehow assessing a quality of the student.

It’s neither, of course; the TA knows that well-done assignments are easier to grade (“Happy families are all alike…”) and that well-written assignments lead to well-done assignments. The hours of office-hour help sessions and group reviews are, in that sense, an extension of the assignment sheet itself; they’re intended to clarify the assignment and help the students understand what’s expected of them, to better enable them to produce a good answer.

The entire teaching staff wants the students to do well, if only because it makes them look good; we want the sheer blinding force of our teaching skill to deliver knowledge like an electric spark to the students. (N.B. Having only lectured once, any discussion of my personal teaching skill takes place largely in the hypothetical plane.) Less dramatically, we want to pull them up the learning slope so they’re better able to engage in “interesting” discussions in higher-level classes.

But the students are conditioned to see class requirements as barriers and grades as battles. Their determination to emerge victorious is fine, but this conditioning can be counter-productive sometimes.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Now Playing: There’s No Other Way from Leisure [US] by Blur

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April 26, 2007

This doesn't feel like an ending

I didn’t realize until it was nearly over that I probably sat through my last classes for quite a while today. I’d say “ever,” but that’s a dangerous statement. Assuming I am actually judged to have satisfied the requirements for the Masters degree, they’ll be handing me paper in less than a month. (I am actually turning up to graduation, though there was an option for me to just have the degree mailed to me.)

I am being automagically rolled into the Ph.D. program, but I have had my request for leave (i.e. time away that won’t be counted against my “time to complete the degree”) approved. There’s a chance that in the next year, I’ll decide that I really want to be back in a Ph.D. program in fall ‘08. There’s also a chance that I’ll be struck by lightning. I suppose I’m more likely to decide that I’m cut out for research than be struck by lightning, but not by much.

I’m still reluctant to rule out ever going back to school, but I think it’s more likely to be a part-time sort of thing than another two years of full-time grad school. My grandfather, as I’ve mentioned before, had three masters degrees, so I don’t feel any need to be constrained to a Ph.D. as my only future option.

N.B. There does seem to be some belief that just because I haven’t signed on with a corporation offering health insurance, that I don’t have a “real job” after graduation. This is not the case, of course. And, if you should happen to have a few thousand dollars that you can spare for an almost unquantifiably risky venture, drop me a line.

(What I learned in grad school: how to properly use e.g., i.e. and N.B..)

Now Playing: She’ll Come Back for You Tomorrow from Uninvited, Like the Clouds by The Church

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April 8, 2007

Professor Coach

I’ve mentioned before how our building contains Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Athletics. Professor β’s office has coaches for several doors on all sides, so last Sunday some of her grad students changed her job description. (I grabbed a phone-cam shot.)

Professor Coach

Now Playing: Money Talks from Live From The Bowery Ballroom by Kathleen Edwards

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April 4, 2007

Professor's revenge

  • Get the first copy of the campus newspaper off the stack in the morning.
  • Solve the sudoku.
  • Post the answer as your first slide in each class.
  • Your students without laptops now have nothing to do but pay attention.

(Posted, of course, as someone who was working on lecture slides in colloquium yesterday.)

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April 3, 2007

My very own lecture

Once I got used to it, I really like Keynote. I wish we’d been able to do the business plan presentation with it. It’s like all the cool stuff from Powerpoint, with all the cruft stripped away. I was able to run the lecture from my MacBook in two-screen mode, with the slides on the projector (one screen) and the “presenter view,” which shows the current slide, any notes, and the next slide, on my own screen, so I always knew what was coming next. Other than a few muffed transitions (I mis-programmed them) and some sections where I talked ahead of my own outline, things went pretty smoothly. I was easily able to click out of the presentation into demos online, some of which were actually running on my machine.

Except, of course, for the usual snoozers. 1:30 PM is a lousy time to have class; one of the women said last week that she found she needed to have her afternoon coffee early to get through this block, even when it’s not me lecturing. If I had time to re-do, I would hack more of my code samples into stuff they could easily download and try out on their own. I did show them how to switch on the web server on a Mac, and hinted at how it’s done for Linux. (Looking now at the default Ubuntu build I have in Parallels—didn’t I mention that my Mac now runs both XP and Linux?—I see that Apache isn’t installed on the standard Ubuntu, so maybe fewer students have a built-in Apache than I expected.) I also gave them the URL for my laptop (a DHCP URL only valid while I was jacked in to that ethernet cable) so they could run my demos on their own.

It turns out I was able to recycle some unused work as an example. I did this site over winter break (not the design, but the infrastructure) in Perl, then discovered that the host didn’t support Perl CGIs, so I redid it in PHP. (Pretty easy, actually; it’s a single HTML template, a CSS file, a couple images, and some plain text files. There’s not a whole lot of code involved.) I used the Perl version as a code example for the HTML::Template module, then the whole thing as a demo for the idea of using the filesystem as a simple database.

I also told them that one of the biggest sites built on PHP was one probably everyone with an open laptop had visited at least once during that class block. Several people guessed Google, but then someone guessed right: Facebook. Whereupon we got one denial… from a student who recently “friended” me on Facebook.

Standing in front of a class and talking requires a tremendous amount of mental energy; you have to be on all the time you’re up there. It’s like performing in that sense, I suppose. I feel burned out and unable to focus afterward.

Now Playing: Blue Pastures from Whiplash by James

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April 2, 2007


Professor Σ is away until Wednesday. This has been fairly common this semester, due to his long list of non-class responsibilities. In the class I TA, we had a visit from Career Services once, and a midterm review (which I ran) last time.

Tomorrow, I’m lecturing. Fortunately, not on our recent class topics (lambda calculus and denotational semantics) but on something a bit more practical: programming for the web.

I wrote up a brief outline, and now I’m hacking together slides in Keynote. I have to say, I’m hugely impressed with people who can lecture with slides twice a week. This is an incredible amount of work! I can only hope someone learns something.

Now Playing: Red Army * Blues (Song Of The Steppes / Red Army Blues) from A Pagan Place by The Waterboys

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March 8, 2007

How do you start learning about game design?

One of the undergrads I work with is an interesting case. He’s quiet, hard to draw out. He comes from one of the state’s desperately poor mill cities, and though he’d never say it, I think he’s still a little uncomfortable at the University, even after a few years. I bet if I described “impostor syndrome” to him, he’d be nodding before I was halfway done.

I think what he really wants to do is write games. I think that’s what drew him to CS, and I think that’s what keeps him at it—or, failing that, the unspoken promise of a well-paying job on graduation.

I’m not a gamer; I can play strategy games, but a few too many times I found that I’d blown a whole afternoon when there was something more important that I really should have been doing, so I just steer clear. As a result, I know next to nothing about the machinery of the games world. I know that graphics and rendering engines have a lot to do with it; I know there’s a lot of custom language development and language parsing that happens in games companies. That’s fine, I can steer him that direction.

But I also know there’s a whole branch of—sociology? anthropology? psychology?—focused on the study of games, what makes good ones, and why people play them. They call it ludology and it really is a serious academic specialty. I don’t think it’s worth steering this kid into that study, but I do think it would benefit him tremendously if we could find some kind of survey of the field so he’s aware that it’s out there; if he can develop an ability to apply their theories, that could help him land a job in games. Maybe.

So call this a sort of LazyWeb query. Does anyone know of a sort of survey of ludology?

Now Playing: Should I Stay Or Should I Go? from Combat Rock by The Clash

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Snoozing students

The singular thing about graduate school may well be this: within a few hours, you can both doze off in class, and watch people doze off in a class you’re teaching.

With the professor out on Tuesday, I filled in to do a review for the midterm (today.) (If we had been a bit more forward-thinking, the midterm would’ve been Tuesday, but we weren’t.) Maybe it’s the chronically under-rested state of most undergraduates; maybe it’s the fact that class is from 1:30 to 3:00 in a chronically over-warmed classroom. I’ve dozed off in that room several times, myself. I didn’t count, but I can visualize at least four, maybe five of the students “resting their eyes” while I talked.

And I couldn’t really blame them, so I didn’t say anything.

Now Playing: Valentine from Pleased to Meet Me by The Replacements

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March 1, 2007

The low-stress job hunt

It’s funny the kind of assumptions people make when they hear about my plans for next year. (My co-conspirator, who will need a pseud here soon, reports the same problem.) One is that we’re going to need jobs to pay the bills while we get things off the ground. It’s distinctly possible that we’ll need jobs in the not-too-distant future, possibly even by this time next year or sooner, but so far our optimistic plan is to go to work full-time for ourselves immediately following graduation.

Rather than explain this to everyone, it’s easier to just go to the recruiting presentations. It doesn’t hurt that they usually feed the attendees, and I’ve been doing pretty well this week. Julia’s company brought in a very nice lunch yesterday, for example, and this evening was pizza on Google. For a company which supposedly offers good food at all their offices, the pizza idea came off as a bit lazy… but if the turnout for yesterday’s presentation had been as large as it was for the Google crew, it could’ve turned quite expensive. And Google handed out t-shirts at the door, which they ran out of before I left.

Now Playing: Transcendental Sports Anthem by Devin Davis

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February 22, 2007

In which programmers in glass houses throw stones

Our home-grown grade-tracking software (written, according to department folklore, in some thousands of lines of Lisp,) was retired at the end of last semester in favor of a department installation of Moodle. (The perfectly rational reason for this was that the only person in the department who really understood the old system died last spring. Considering the time I and others spent wrestling with Sakai last year, there’s some irony in the choice of Moodle.)

We’ve decided that Moodle is too much solution for us in the class I’m TAing this spring, so we went looking for a simpler way to keep students up to date on their progress. (In any other field, handing back paper with written comments ought to be enough, but this is CS and most of the assignments never exist on paper in the first place.) It turns out that our widely-used perl utility for collecting assignment files, provide, has matching components for recording grades (profess) and displaying them to students (progress).

There’s also a utility written for checking to make sure configuration files, etc. are all set up properly. It’s referred to as a “sanity-checking” utility and is called, of course, prozac. From the manual page:

Like the real prozac, it makes provide happier in 95% of all situations, and otherwise becomes homicidal.

Now Playing: Nothing Like from God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin

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February 20, 2007

The Great Undergrad Empire

Writing assignments for this spring’s class is turning out to be the biggest brain drain. Grading them is tedious but not unmanageable; coming up with good questions is a colossal headache, particularly since one of my complaints about other undergrad courses in the department is the uninteresting and un-engaging quality of most of the exercises. (Really, who wants to write a business expense tracking system? Practically nobody.)

We’re throwing them into ML now (a few weeks ago it was Scheme) and I’m coming up with types and functions. I had the bright idea of basing this assignment around a text-adventure theme. What kinds of objects can be found and picked up in, say, Zork? What different qualities do they have?

The original Zork just has some kind of count limit on how many objects you can carry, be they matchbooks and keys or teapots full of water. Say we define a series of artifact types, e.g. containers, weapons, tools, treasure, and miscellaneous (there’s a use for a placemat, for example, but it’s not obvious.) What’s the distinction between them? They all have names, possible numeric weight and/or numeric value, but what qualities distinguish the groups—say, range of weapons, or uses of tools? Any ideas? How do you build the type structure of Zork? (And then, how do you describe the constraints to the students without simultaneously giving them the solution to the problem?)

Now Playing: Попробуй спеть вместе со мной from Группа Крови by Кино

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February 3, 2007

How much do you really need to know?

The more I learn about computers, the more things I discover that I really don’t know. (This is related to the theorem that there’s always someone who knows more than you do.) But it seems like there’s really a pretty small core of tools a student needs in order to explore Computer Science; knowing them well (and being willing to apply oneself to learning) is probably 80% of doing relatively well in the field.

The tools are sometimes surprising. One of them, the Theory Tool, I didn’t really grasp until this past summer; it boils down to the idea of proof by induction.

Proof by induction and construction through recursion are the same process running in different directions; this is the means we use to take ones, zeros, and the concept of time, and build everything that can be done with machines and electrons. It’s a hairy topic; we’re taking the Programming Languages students through the “recursion” aspect of it now, and sometimes you can see their minds double-clutching.

I only recently bumped into an article suggesting that some people will simply never learn to program. It cites a paper arguing three things make up the primary hurdles in CS:

  • assignment and sequence
  • recursion/iteration
  • concurrency

There’s induction/recursion in the second spot. The third, “concurrency,” is what my advisor describes as the “too much milk” problem: say you notice in the morning that you’re short on milk. On the way home from work, you stop at the store to pick some up. But wait: did your roommate just do the same thing? Buy the milk, and you may have twice as much as you can use before it goes bad. Don’t buy it, and you may have to go without. You have a concurrency issue. Modern humans invented cell phones as a solution for this problem; computer scientists have some tricks for it too, depending on the context (and it’s a major headache in some contexts.) Concurrency still gives me headaches, which is a bit of a problem considering that parallel processing fascinates me.

It’s the first hurdle which is sort of staggering. Assignment. It’s where you take a labeled container and put a value in it. The authors of the paper suggest that success in introductory computer science courses can be predicted by a simple test of a dozen questions or so. Here’s the first question:

Read the following statements and tick the box next to the correct answer.

int a = 10; 
int b = 20; 
a = b;

The new values of a and b are: 
[ ] a = 20 b = 0 
[ ] a = 20 b = 20 
[ ] a = 0 b = 10 
[ ] a = 10 b = 10 
[ ] a = 30 b = 20 
[ ] a = 30 b = 0 
[ ] a = 10 b = 30 
[ ] a = 0 b = 30 
[ ] a = 10 b = 20 
[ ] a = 20 b = 10

Easy, huh? Well, if you thought so, you may take to programming. If you didn’t, the second option (a = 20, b = 20) is the answer.

It would be cool if we could just teach those three things, then spend the rest of our time investigating the fun stuff, but there’s a lot of detail and ramification that needs covering as well. (I’ve heard it said that the goal of our entire Data Structures course is to make sure undergraduates understand the concept of a pointer.) We can let our machines build a lot with recursion, but we still need to pick the base cases and specify how to make them step, and doing that properly takes some care and practice which take time to learn.

But it is a little humbling, and perhaps inspiring, to think of all the work one can do just to fully understand those three ideas.

Now Playing: Orange from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

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January 24, 2007

Enough with the athletic metaphors

I am writing a homework assignment, and had to stop myself from labeling the questions “Warm up” and “Main set.”

Now Playing: Empty glass from I’m on my way by Rich Price

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January 16, 2007

Making things deliberately difficult

This morning, after I spent an hour and a half or so sitting on stools in the stacks of the library with Professor Σ looking at textbooks (we seem to have finally found one) I took on the task of writing the first homework assignment.

We assume that the students know some C++, but probably not much else as far as programming goes. (That’s going to change in a hurry.) Professor Σ’s stated (if ambitious) goal for this course is to give the students a feeling for why one would choose one language over another in a given situation, and what makes particular languages good for particular tasks. So this assignment was to ask a language to do something it’s bad at—in this case, to ask C++ to parse a text file.

The assignment I came up with asks the students to write a C++ program which parses /etc/passwd, ignoring comment lines, and print the first, sixth, and seventh columns. (Columns in /etc/passwd are separated by “:” characters.) Then I tried doing it myself. I’m not an ace C++ hacker, but I was able to do it with Perl in eight lines… and in C++ I took 37 lines.

I suppose an optional way to make it tougher would be to require that only entries with valid shells be printed out. Perl, again, could handle that with maybe three or four more lines; I can’t even imagine how I’d do it with C++ (though, again, I’m sure it’s possible.)

It looks like I’ll be learning some Scheme. And I’m tinkering with Ruby anyway…

Now Playing: Too Fast For You from Hindsight by The Church

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January 2, 2007

Scenes from the first day after break

Technically, it’s not “after break,” because classes don’t start for another two weeks (plus), and grad students aren’t required to be back until the week before classes start. So I was one of only four grad students in “the extension” this afternoon. (The extension has offices for sixteen of us.) The other three were various international students who do not, generally, go “home” over breaks. I saw two other grad students and only two faculty members all afternoon.

One of the four of us in the extension, who mentioned last month that I was “working much harder” this year, turned up while I was eating lunch. After sitting at her computer for ten or fifteen minutes, she turned back to me and exclaimed, “Classes don’t start until the 18th!”

I nodded in agreement.

“We don’t have to be here until next week!”

I nodded again.

“I thought classes started today!”

My best guess is that when you’re ABD and not actually taking any classes, this sort of scheduling detail isn’t always high on your radar screen. Actually, no, better guess: she has children, and for them classes probably did start today.

Now Playing: She’s On Fire from Drops of Jupiter by Train

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January 1, 2007

Plans and decisions

I’ve been wishy-washy here for a year about what happens when I finish my MS at the end of the spring semester.

For the last month, it’s been increasingly clear that I’m not ready to move on to the Ph.D. For one thing, I haven’t lit on one area that sets me on fire, one thing I’m willing to devote three or four years of research to. Without that, I think going on is probably a bad idea for everyone. For another, the open doors have been closing; Professor β has decided I’m not such a great fit for her group (basically, my math skills are deficient, and I’d have to spend some time catching up,) and Professor Γ didn’t get the grant she wanted to fund me with. I could still try to work with Professor Σ, and I will be doing my MS work with him, but I’m starting way behind.

So it looks like I will take my paper in May and run. (Actually, I will be automatically rolled into the Ph.D. program, whereupon I will immediately go “on leave” for an indefinite period.) I’ve been talking with another student in the same situation, and he and I have been cooking ideas for a little website which we may try to turn into a going concern once we’re finished in May. I’ll post more as it becomes interesting. (Other than it being a website, it’s not an area I’ve worked in before, so let’s not get too excited yet. It’s the technology that interests me.) That will probably mean a lot of work, some of which is actually starting tomorrow.

But yes, of course this new project will have a weblog, too. Isn’t that the first thing after the business plan, nowadays?

Now Playing: Wings from Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

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December 15, 2006

Executive summary

My brain is toast. I have about five posts I want to write, but they’re all too long.

  • Finals: It’s all over but the gradin’. I’ve been neck-deep since Sunday night; I’m short on sleep and haven’t been to the grocery store for so long that scurvy is starting to be a legitimate concern. Today I shaved and got a haircut so I’d look a bit less like a shipwreck survivor.

  • Academics: I am, based on what my professors, an average student at best, and my math background is deficient. (This is not news.) However, I am in great demand as a TA; Professor γ was counting on having me another semester, but apparently while Professor β doesn’t want me in her research group, she does want me as a TA… and the department chair thinks I’ll be most useful with neither of them. (It looks like I will be both TAing and doing a Masters’ project in the spring with yet another professor, who I’ve mentioned before but I will now officially dub Professor Σ for brevity.)

  • Apparently the University has had some small national notoriety in the past few days due to some so-called satire published in the campus conservative rag which some think crossed the racism line. I haven’t read the inflammatory text in question, and I think while there’s nothing wrong with holding the responsible authors and editors up to the ridicule of the University community—or, at the very least, explaining why their biases are wrong rather than simply chastising them for holding them—I also think that multiple public responses from the President’s office both overstates the importance of the publication in question, and lowers the President’s office. The editors in question are in a hole; let ‘em figure out for themselves when to stop digging.

  • Racing: I will be at BU all weekend. Saturday morning I’m running a 3,000m on the track (I need to get out my old college logs and see if I even have a PR at that distance) and apparently that afternoon I’ll be in a relay or two over at the pool. (My team is looking for a good finish at the SCM meet.) Sunday I’m swimming 400m and 200m free, and more relays if I can still stand on the blocks without shaking at that point. Word is there’s wireless in the pool, too!

Now Playing: Boat from Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight by Marah

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December 14, 2006

Late policy

This semester was the first time I ever needed to think about stating a late policy, and I didn’t think of it until too late.

I’ve seen a few variations on the late work policy. Prof β this semester simply refused late work, because of the nature of the class. Last spring, her policy was 10% off for the first day an assignment was late, 50% for the second (and after that, why bother.) Another professor this fall gave us three “late days” to be used as we found necessary through the semester.

I’ve been liberal in my own grading. Labs tend to be graded on a ten point scale, but there are really only three places on that scale: 10 for excellent, 9 for good but not great, and 6 for incomplete (and, of course, 0 for nothing.) I accepted late labs for full credit until the last day of classes, yet there are still a lot of 0s in the grade book. The written assignments, graded on a 100-point scale, are trickier. Most students didn’t bother submitting them late, but when the first seriously late one came in, I made up a policy on the spot: five points off for each day late.

This turns out to be a bad decision. See, you can be a week late and still score (potentially) 65 points. (Nobody does, of course, because if you’re a week late you’re not turning in a perfect paper, either.) That’s a lot better than 0, so it doesn’t discourage the perpetually tardy terribly much.

What I need is a function over days late which starts small, increases by healthily large chunks per day and exceeds 100 somewhere around 5 days. 20 points per late day might be sufficient, but it’s too linear; I’d like some curve in there.

What would really be perfect would be if I could express the late policy as a function which requires greek-letter variables.

Now Playing: Starman by Dar Williams

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December 11, 2006

The effort shows

Since I’ve been a full-time TA this year, I’ve spent more time in my “office” at the department. (Last year, I did a lot of work at home, or in a particular basement lab.) Last week, one of my office-neighbors observed, “You’re working much harder this year.”

Now Playing: Be My Prayer from Seven by James

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December 8, 2006

You have 38 days to finish and mail your application

As a result a series of emails that started mid-November and got somewhat confusing right around Thanksgiving, I returned to the College career center today to speak to any students potentially interested in CS graduate school, to pitch the University specifically and to answer other questions generally. Following my hour at the College, I had a tight connection over to Smif in the hopes that I’d get higher turnout from that institution if I didn’t ask them to take a 40-minute bus ride to the College.

The audience at the College was… small. One senior and one of the career center deans. The senior was a CS major who had already sent five or six applications but was still uncertain about what, exactly, he wanted to concentrate on. I managed to convince him to cut-and-paste from his existing applications into the University app (due January 15 for those planning to start in September ‘07!) so I suppose my yield on that meeting was 100%, which isn’t too bad, but if he’s accepted (and I suspect he will be,) he’s most likely to go to one of the other places that accepts him. The advisor had a lot of good questions, I was able to give her a good picture of why she might suggest the University to other students, and I left a folder full of University information there for anyone else.

And then I got caught in traffic on my way to Northampton, arriving at the designated auditorium ten or twelve minutes late to find it empty (and unsigned.) So I suppose I did get higher turnout by making that trip: many multiples of zero are still zero. I dropped off a few more folders at the department office, checked email at a public terminal in the campus center (which had another college’s webmail in its browser history) and headed home.

I’d planned to get in a run on one of my old Northampton routes, then maybe dinner in town, but after the disappointment of the non-meeting, I couldn’t get motivated to find a place to change and put in the energy, so I more or less went directly home. On the way back I thought, this is why I couldn’t work in sales. It’s not that I can’t sell; if I believe in what I’m selling, and I can be honestly positive about it, I do pretty well. It’s that I’m so keyed up for it that something like that empty auditorium makes me almost disoriented.

I find that have to remind myself of the small victory and not be overwhelmed by the subsequent failure. The most useful result to the University is probably the contacts I made. I can now write a short manual for contacting these institutions and arranging information sessions; the College (in the person of the dean) expressed interest in having a sort of panel of people from several departments at the University, though organizing things like that is way over my pay grade. I did put the University on some radar screens, and spread some seeds which may sprout much later. I suspect I added sentences to some future recommendation letters coming from my University by making this happen at all.

But all of this building karma for the future stuff is pretty tedious when you don’t know when—or even if—it’s going to pay off.

Now Playing: Exhuming McCarthy from Document by R.E.M.

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December 6, 2006

Strategic use of leftovers

A few years ago—perhaps when I was a sysadmin and therefore a sort of de facto part of the support staff—I realized that it pays dividends to be on the good side of whatever support staff keeps the basics happening in the department I’m in. Applying to grad school really drove that home; it didn’t help me get accepted, but it did help me round up recommendations from absent-minded professors.

Today was the last meeting of the semester for the undergraduate group I mentor for, and I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies from my mother’s recipe. (Actually, it’s Marge Standish, but it might as well be my mother’s. There are several things my mother does which I will never, as long as I live, be able to match, and two of them are chocolate chip cookies and apple pies.) Best batch of cookies I’ve made in years—maybe decades.

Cookie photo

After our lunch meeting, I left about a dozen and a half extras in the department office. Subject line of the email I got from the Staff Assistant an hour or so later:

You get an A++!

Now Playing: Living It Up In The Garden from ‘Mousse by The Nields

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December 4, 2006

Reinforcing cycles

It is an unavoidable coincidence of timing that the time in which a student is most busy—namely, the week or two leading to the end of the semester—is also the time in which a TA is consequently most busy.

Thus making me doubly busy.

There’s a payoff for this somewhere, right?

Now Playing: We’ll Inherit The Earth from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

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November 29, 2006

Technology weirds language

I was a little surprised at how many students weren’t conscious of the fact that “software” is a plural noun with no singular.

It is possible to use “software” in such a way that it looks like a singular—the example one student gave was, “Software is hard”—but actually, it’s an object, not a subject in that case: “Selling software is hard.”

But companies can’t produce “a software.” They can produce “a software product” or “a software solution” or even “a software upgrade,” but not “a software,” just as you can’t walk into the nearest Home Depot and buy “a hardware.” (Nor, for that matter, can you buy “a linen” at Linens ‘n’ Things, as near as I can tell.)

I had previously thought this was a quirk of our students who aren’t native speakers of English, because they often have subject/verb number agreement difficulties, but it turns out some of our native speakers have this problem as well.

I also explained to them, last night, that pronouns are variables, and just like programs, their sentences will produce unexpected results if they aren’t careful about how they assign to those variables (or if the variables aren’t assigned before use.) I can never use that analogy again; I’ll never have another audience that will get it.

Now Playing: Released from Winter Pays For Summer by Glen Phillips

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November 28, 2006

I don't get out much

I was crossing the gym on my way to the pool, looking down at the basketball game against Springfield, when I made a discovery: the University has cheerleaders.

I don’t know why this is such a novel concept to me, but the thought that I’m a student at a university with cheerleaders has been amusing me all evening.

Posted by pjm at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)

Short strokes

A few weeks ago—I forget the context—I used the phrase “short strokes” and then had to explain what I meant. (It’s a golf metaphor, apparently, and not in wide use; now I can’t figure out where I picked it up.) But now that’s the best way to describe the semester. There are two weeks to go, we’ve drawn up our checklists of what needs to be taught/programmed/completed/graded in that time, and we’re just trying to get to the end of it.

When a former roommate and I were toying with learning to play golf, we used to go to a local driving range once or twice a week. We never, to my recollection, ever actually played golf; we just went to the driving range. I don’t think he even owned a full set of clubs, just three big drivers. Putting is what’s fundamentally frustrating about golf; everything else is whaling the skin off a little white ball, which is satisfying if you don’t slice like I do. So we’d get a medium bucket of balls (each) and try to smack them out of sight until our shoulders were sore.

The presentation went off today, I was barely prepared and took my lumps for it. (The draft I handed in a week before has not yet come back; I expect to take some lumps there, too, but I’m hoping to at least have a final paper that stands on its own.) I have a slew of coding and lab-sheet-writing and re-experiment-running to do over the next two weeks; I have my checklist written, the list of due dates lined up like wood that needs splitting, but no map of when to split it. There is no driving left; it is all putting.

I’m not the only grad student scratching at putting together my data and making it work. Scott is gathering data for his research, too, and while you can’t help me gather data (unless you ran Boston last spring, in which case you already have, thanks,) you can help him, particularly if you have a weblog. Read, understand, and give him a hand; we can’t push the ball into the hole, but at least we can give him a good lie.

Now Playing: Little Wing from Still in Hollywood by Concrete Blonde

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November 27, 2006

Presentation in progress

I ♥ gnuplot.

Now Playing: Song For The Asking from After Everything Now This by The Church

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November 22, 2006


That’s how many pages of double-spaced Software Engineering draft papers I have to read and mark up before being on vacation, counting title pages and references (from those who figured out BibTeX). So, nothing interesting to say right now. Lots of marking, though. These are engineers; they didn’t know they would be expected to write well.

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November 17, 2006

Judgement calls

Is it fair to be biased against finding useful ideas in a paper when it contains a misspelling in the abstract?


I worry that their thinking may be as sloppy (and potentially hard to follow) as their spelling.

Now Playing: Car Underwater from What To Do When You Are Dead by Armor For Sleep

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November 15, 2006

A long run

I put together a script to run a decision-tree algorithm on all the various permutations of my data set (the 2006 Boston Marathon results.) Then I started the script on a timer, and went to do a workout.

When I came back, I found out the complete run had taken just under an hour. (56m40s, if you’re after precision.) An hour long test run! I almost feel like a real scientist.

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November 7, 2006

I'm not usually early

It turns out that the degree sheet isn’t actually due until sometime in January. So instead of being ever-so-slightly late, which tends to be my usual state, I’m nearly two months early. The only explanation I have is that I thought I was late.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know How It Feels from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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November 6, 2006


The nature of classes is that one tends to focus on the immediate future to the exclusion of the long-term. You worry about the problem set due tomorrow, and not the project due in three weeks, because the problem set is in your face.

So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I went in for course registration “advising” (irrelevant, because the only course I need to register for next spring is a Masters’ Thesis/Project) and my advisor said, “We need to fill out a degree sheet for you, don’t we.”

As a result, I spent part of Friday flitting around the department printing forms and trying to get signatures from people who weren’t present. I wound up with a sort of paper assertion that I intend to receive a paper and some letters from the University next May. Given that it has only been about fourteen months since I started here, it seems too soon to be planning departure, but the sheet confirms that I’m pretty close to done.

I checked the box saying I planned to continue for another degree, not because I positively have such plans, but because it seemed more prudent to leave that door open. However, the time for reaching a decision on that score is coming soon.

(Yes, I’ve barely been posting here. I’ve been busy… and scratching.)

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October 26, 2006

Nobody likes a smartass

Plenty of people have pointed out that it may be difficult to predict DNFs purely from split data, given how many unmeasured variables affect the decision to drop out. I nodded to this in my project proposal, saying,

This [potential outcome] is what I think of as a “Tolstoy result”: successful runs are all alike, but unsuccessful races all fail in their own way.

Professor β asked for a citation on that, so it looks like I either drop the joke, or put Anna Karenina in my references.

Somehow the second course sounds like more fun to me.

Now Playing: Ghost of a Girl by Bluerunners

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October 19, 2006


I read this on a job seeker’s website a few weeks ago:

This is the point of divergence. All of these potential futures become distinct universes in the coming weeks.

Distinct universes, as in choosing one excludes the others. Not something I’m looking forward to, myself.

Right now I’m (supposed to be) writing a proposal for a term project for machine learning. I’m going forward with the marathon split analysis, having been given the thumbs up by all involved, including two people who’ve done a little research in a similar area and are now interested in seeing my results. I turned down a few interesting projects to do so, including one which felt a little less… frivolous?

I also now have two “if I get this grant, I’ll be looking for grad student RAs, so be thinking about it,” offers. The one from Professor β, of course, is contingent on my doing well in this class (I’m interested, more so than I am by my other class, but the papers we’re reading are distressingly bewildering.) The good news—I think—is that the chair pointed out, in a discussion of the Ph.D. qualifying exams (not for me this time,) that everyone should come into quals with at least two faculty members who are willing to do research with them. So even if I’m otherwise completely unprepared, I could check that one off. But what if I like both projects? Choosing one excludes the others.

And, of course, there’s that big “so what are you doing next year?” question. I’m still chewing on that one. It increasingly comes down to the question of whether I like research, or at least whether I’m good at it. I’m beginning to get a feel for how it might be fun, but then, being a musician was fun, too. I just wasn’t good enough to do it for a living.

Now Playing: Seen Your Video from Let It Be by The Replacements

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October 18, 2006

The best demonstrations are accidental

The scene: a group of undergraduates, maybe around thirty of them, selected from “under-represented” populations in given fields. (So, majority female, more racial minorities than usual at this university.) We’re in a large first-floor lounge near the lobby of a dormitory.

The discussion is about social class, that subtle discrimination that we pretend doesn’t exist in this country. We’re discussing ways we’ve noticed class differences on campus, and one of the students points out in the lobby at a big stack of brightly colored cloth bags. “There’s one right there.”

“I was wondering about those,” says the facilitator. “What are they?”

Almost in unison, the students chorus, “Laundry bags.”

“Do you mean some students have their laundry done for them? Don’t all the dorms have laundry machines?”

In unison again, “Yes.”

The facilitator makes a face. I think they would have laughed, then, if it hadn’t been so sad.

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October 16, 2006

The real problem

The edition of Brooks that we’re using includes “No Silver Bullet,” a 1984(?) essay explaining why the problems facing software engineers were unlikely to go away quickly or soon. (The older the essay gets, the more right he looks.) Brooks’ argument centers on the idea that the dramatic improvements early in the computer era were achievable because they countered “accidental” difficulties, not “essential” ones. Essential difficulties are problems which are inherent to the process of communicating ideas in code; accidental difficulties are inefficiencies embedded in the available tools and the costs of hardware in the early days. Brooks’ contention is that the accidental difficulties were “low-hanging fruit” and were comparatively easy to solve; the remaining essential problems will be harder to solve, and the solutions will offer smaller incremental benefits.

The concept of accidental vs. essential problems is not simple for anyone, and I’m not surprised many of these literal-minded engineers trip over it. But I wonder how many of our people for whom English is not their first language easily understand the concept of a silver bullet?

Also, someone has tagged the book with my first name in Amazon. I don’t know who did it, but it has to stop.

Now Playing: T.B.D. from Throwing Copper by Live

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October 12, 2006

Media I/O

If Mark Will-Weber is to be believed, some time in the 70s Duncan MacDonald, a contemporary of Don Kardong at Stanford, was congratulated after a race by a fan who then asked, “I see you on television and I read about you in the papers. How do you do it?”

MacDonald answered, “I don’t watch television and I don’t read the papers.” Whether he meant it in modesty or irritation isn’t clear.

I feel a bit like that about graduate school, except a stellar grad school performance isn’t likely to get me on any television broadcasts. My weakness tends to be the newspapers, although I need to broaden that category to include “any non-academic reading in any format whatever.”

Posted by pjm at 9:35 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2006

The Facebook question

Do I or don’t I?

I’ve been eligible to create a Facebook account even before the recent opening-to-everyone. (I suppose I could’ve used my address even before I came here.) I haven’t done it, mainly because I didn’t have much interest. I’ve avoided 90% of the so-called “social networking” sites (the other 10% being in response to a specific request for help; I’m now having difficulty remembering which site it was.)

I still have only limited interest, but the more I work with undergrads, the more it becomes useful to have some kind of visibility in their social space. I discussed it briefly last year with an undergraduate TA, and dismissed the idea with, “I’m too old for Facebook.” It does seem a bit sketchy—as though I’d be one of those adults who’s trying too hard to be “cool.” And I’ve heard about (and seen) too many cases of poor public-image management on the part of students to really want to be involved. (Begging the question: Is this site a case of poor public-image management on the part of this student?)

But I am seeing a point in putting up a face, so to speak. At least one other person I know through track is on, focusing on his work in his University’s athletic department. He’s making himself visible and accessible to the students he works without trying to compete with them in presentation—using the medium to present the image he wants to present.

So I wondered: as a TA, and as a “mentor”, should I have a presence on Facebook?

(This isn’t actually as important to me as this post makes it sound; I just thought I’d share the thought experiment.)

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October 5, 2006


I know you all, like my lab students, are comfortable with my infallibility, so you’ll be shocked to hear that I’ve mistakenly misled you all. Last spring, I contemplated the number of possible configurations of an Othello board and decided that the game was just too complex for the current state of computing. Yesterday, our colloquium speaker pointed out researchers from his group at the University of Alberta had written Othello-playing systems which were beating human champions nearly ten years ago.

As usual, there’s always more for me to learn. And I almost contemplated going back to Edmonton.

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Last night, I presented a paper in poster format to my Machine Learning class. Actually, about eight of us did; the class milled around the room, nodding distractedly as the poster presenters tried to distill eight- and ten-page blobs of theory into five minutes of talking with illustrations.

We didn’t have the facilities to print proper posters (one sheet, about three feet by four feet: think half a sheet of plywood.) Most people went by the alternate route of creating a bunch of slides (nine to twelve) in Powerpoint, printing the slides, and taping them up. I wanted a bit more consistency across my pages, plus I have a stated aversion to Powerpoint, so I made my “poster” in OmniGraffle.

OmniGraffle is a wonderful tool made mainly for building graphs; it comes with a bunch of “stencil” shapes for standard graphs like UML diagrams or network maps. In that way, it’s a lot more like Visio than Powerpoint, but in this case that’s its strength. It also allows the “canvas” for a single chart to spill over several pages, and that’s exactly what I did for this poster. It happens that I made the poster fit a series of discrete pages for ease of printing, but when I was working on it, I had all the pages sprawled out on my screen so I could see how they fit together.

A detail from my poster

Also, whenever I came in with a draft, the T.A. looked over the pages and said, “Can you use less text here? And here? Can you illustrate this?” I went back around two or three times adding color, trimming text, and generally cartoon-ifying the whole thing, until I felt like I was cutting important concepts.

I think I wound up with a very good-looking poster, and I thought it stood out among all the Powerpoint slides (though maybe I’ve spent more time looking at layouts than most CS grad students.) OmniGraffle wants to deal with layout elements, not text. It doesn’t lend itself to bulleted lists or large paragraphs. It’s possible that it took me too far in that direction, but I think it helped me.

(It has also been extraordinarily helpful in drawing DFAs and NFAs, first for my theory course and then for Compilers this fall.)

Now Playing: Rosebud from Cold Roses [Disc 2] by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

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September 26, 2006

University Holiday

Apparently the Trustees have declared today to be “Return the Algorithms Books You Borrowed From pjm Day.”

Unfortunately, that holiday doesn’t come with the “No classes” designation.

Now Playing: Honey Bee from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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September 25, 2006

Refresher course

I have a theory—actually it’s more like a fear—that if I stay in this field, I’ll need to take Calculus biennially simply to understand the readings.

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September 23, 2006

In the homestretch

When I realized that half of my homework for one class was going to be almost trivially simple—it’s a review of some concepts from this summer’s class—it really began to sink in that this year is better than last year.

Not easier. I’m still pretty strapped for time, and assignments aren’t getting enough attention early in their life-spans to avoid stressful last-minute work. Some of my assignments still give me headaches.

But, somehow, better. Perhaps it’s that I have more than 2/3 of my classes done, and there’s a feeling of having the end of the M.S. in view. Being reminded that classes are additive, that what I’ve learned in the past year is helping me now, is a good feeling.

On Wednesday, I sat in on an information session for undergraduates considering graduate school in CS. At some point, the presenter said something like, “Most graduate students, if they can get through the first year, go on to finish.” And I thought, “Well, that’s good news.”

I may even have said it out loud.

Now Playing: All The Young Dudes from A Box Of Birds by The Church

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September 21, 2006

That mindset thing again

I’ve mentioned that the Software Engineering course I’m TA for starts off by reading Brooks. The book is, for the most part, thirty years old, and shows its age in many ways. Mostly, the problem is technical details; the core principles still hold.

We asked students to pull out five terms they didn’t understand, and provide definitions. A lot of them were expected, but a few have taken me by surprise.

One of them: microfiche. If you’re my age, you remember hours in the library (libraries) doing literature research on microfiche, but for today’s undergrads, that’s apparently such ancient history they don’t even know the term.

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September 20, 2006

Learning from the data

I’m contemplating a course project based on “knowledge discovery” in marathon chip data. Not published results with 5k splits, but the raw, direct-from-the-mats chip data, the stuff the timing company uses to re-run the previous year’s race as a system test.

Knowledge discovery (usually called “machine learning” at the University, but also sometimes known as “data mining”) is an interesting field, because it’s implies the idea that there are patterns in data which are too subtle for us to see. One of the major tasks is classification, often used in medical applications to distinguish a set of symptoms as ill vs. not ill.

That’s not a simple task for marathon data; what are the classifications? Did the athlete beat their seed time? Did they finish? It might be intriguing simply to see if a program could predict, based only on chip data, the gender of the athlete wearing that chip.

The profusion of data with a high level of variance is a big problem for this hypothetical analysis, but another one is the mentality. We know there’s a huge number of variables in play, and at some point we discard the possibility that we could ever make sense of it all. But one of the strengths of machine learning is that the software decides which variables are actually relevant, and which are just noise.

It’s also approaching the problem of identifying which data are representative and which are outliers; our gut instinct is to suggest that we’re all outliers, but that’s clearly not the case, or there wouldn’t be thousands of runners crossing the line every hour.

So if you stop worrying about whether the answer can actually be found—that’s a question to be answered later—and just think about questions you might ask, what would you look for in marathon data?

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September 14, 2006

When "chair" isn't exactly the right word

I had a brief one-on-one meeting with the department chair yesterday, and while I think my initial apprehension had some basis in fact, I think I’ll get along well with her. If this woman had gone into the military, she’d be on her way to General Staff by now. She has clear ideas about the way she thinks things ought to go, and is talented at convincing everyone else to make it so without bulldozing them—more likely they’ll leave thinking it was their own idea in the first place.

She reminds me, in many ways, of the theater group director in my high school, though quieter. (At least two of you now know exactly the kind of person I’m talking about.) She’ll give you all the work, responsibility, and/or corresponding glory you can handle, but woe betide those who expect the rewards without the responsibility. I’ll do fine as long as I stay on her generally-good side, but I suspect everything I do for her will come with some low-grade, possibly-unjustified fear of not making the grade and being consequently cast into the abyss.

But I have to have respect for any manager willing to use the phrase, “read the riot act.”

Now Playing: Pizza Cutter from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

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September 13, 2006

You studied what?

My classmates never cease to amaze me. Today I discovered that one of the Ph.D. students I run with regularly has an undergraduate degree in Fine Art—drawing, specifically. And that before he got in to graduate school in CS, he was turned down (he says, thankfully,) by an MFA creative writing program, and an Ed.D. program. “So, yeah, I’ve got that Russian Lit degree of yours covered,” he said.

I also discovered that the department chair was a double major in English and wrote her undergraduate honors paper in literature. The next time someone drags out the myth about CS types having a narrow focus, I want to invite them to our department, to visit our little colony of escaped engineers, classicists, and lit majors, et alia.

Now Playing: Appalatia from Forget Yourself by The Church

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September 11, 2006

I need to work on my estimating skills

I was worried about my lab students finishing the first lab too quickly.

It’s now over an hour after the lab period ended, and there’s still two students working. Only one finished in anywhere close to the scheduled time. Apparently I was worried in the wrong direction.

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September 6, 2006

Encouraging results

  • Several years after the parking lot in the Bird Sanctuary, Zipcar is coming to the College.

  • The female undergrad (sophomore) who wanted to know how many courses until she “caught up with all the boys who already know everything” last year is in Comp 20, the “multimedia programming” course that’s a forerunner of the “advanced web programming” course I took last spring. She asked me which course I was TA for, and acted disappointed when I named the Software Engineering course, which is only for grad students, seniors, and ambitious juniors.

  • So far, I have been able to debug all the problems Professor γ is having with PHP and web forms. I am tempted to unilaterally declare myself course webmaster and fix all her code; I apparently have significantly more experience with PHP. (This may be true for most professors.)

Unrelated, but interesting: does anyone know of a PHP function for translating Perl POD documentation to HTML?

Now Playing: Riding on the Subway from The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin

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September 5, 2006


Friday afternoon, I participated in a panel for new graduate assistants in our CS department. There were far more “experienced” GAs than new ones in the room; while the cohort joining the department with me last year was apparently relatively large, comparatively few (five or six, I think) are coming in this year.

One thing I learned was that the University has gone ballistic about plagiarism this year; supposedly that was the major topic of the University-wide new-TA orientation in the morning. Last year it was hardly mentioned. I was amused to see that the University has now contracted to use to help sniff out plagiarism; I’ve been seeing their bot in my server logs for years now. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble someone could find themselves in by copying indiscriminately from this site, even if the sourcing wasn’t detected.

I’ve also committed to help out on the mentoring project. I raised a few questions with the department chair, who had good answers for them. I expressed reservations about my qualifications, and she pointed out first that they wanted students with a range of experiences, so with the other grad student being post-quals and into dissertation work, they needed someone early in the process as well. (So I was selected for my inexperience—thanks, I think.) The fact that I’m not doing research with any of the project faculty (or any faculty, for that matter) means the students can ask me questions without betraying confusion or ignorance to people they’re trying to work with.

Finally, she pointed out, “We’re trying to help them through a successful graduate school application process. You’ve done that, right?”

I couldn’t really deny it.

Now Playing: Snow is Gone from Live at The Paradise Rock Club (Boston, 12-11-04) by Josh Ritter

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September 4, 2006

Going way back

This weekend, at the wedding of a younger cousin, I talked with her other grandfather (i.e. not the one we shared.) Turns out that not only did he get his undergraduate and medical degrees at my current University—a feat now known as a “Double Jumbo” for reasons stemming from the University mascot—but he ran cross-country.

Class of 1936, or thereabouts. I wish the University posted all their old team photos the way the College did so I could see if I could find him.

The bride’s other grandparents were represented by a photo from their own wedding day; they were married in the same church about seventy years ago. The photo was taken at the reception, on the front lawn of the house I knew as theirs. In black and white, our grandfather looked even younger than than the ten or so years younger than this photo, with even more hair; our grandmother looked startlingly like the mother of this weekend’s bride.

My older niece was easily distracted, playing with her necklace; the younger, rapt. I whispered, “Promise you’ll invite me when it’s your turn?” She nodded solemnly.

Now Playing: Leave Them All Behind from Going Blank Again by Ride

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August 31, 2006

Negative data is still data

This afternoon, I passed through the campus bookstore to see if I could figure out what the text was for my Compilers class. (The sooner I know the text, the sooner I can try to order it online. Online bookstore fulfillment for textbooks can be slow this time of year.)

Both that class and the one I’m TAing—in fact, nearly the whole CS department—are listed as “No book order placed.” I know that’s not right about Software Engineering; I have “desk” copies of the two books.

I was passing through the CS building afterward, so I looked in on Professor γ and let her know about the missing books. Hmm, a puzzle, she was sure she’d made that order—but now she’s checking up on it. Better to find out today than on the first day of class.

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August 30, 2006

I'm already "old school"

Well, that didn’t take long.

This afternoon someone noticed my hat—a year and a half old and already faded to an indistinct blue-brown—and joked, “They’re gonna take that away from you; it doesn’t use the Official University Font.”

Seems you can’t get hats in this design anymore, or for that matter those traditional block-letter sweatshirts; they’re pushing visual brand identity now. So I’m holding on to this hat; it’s going to be a collector’s item, right? Scarcity drives up demand?

Now Playing: Guitar Song from Strangest Places by Abra Moore

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August 25, 2006

Advice welcome: mentoring

I continue to be surprised by the gap between my own assessment of my academic abilities, and the faculty’s apparent opinion of me. An example came in this morning’s email:

The position of “CUSP [Computing Undergraduate Scholars Program - ed.] grad mentor” is an “add-on” position to a fully-funded RA/TA/GA position. Although in general an RA/TA/GA cannot take on extra work, there is a small codicil that says that in the case where it is to the mutual benefit of [the] University and to the graduate students, one may take on up to an additional 5 hours/week at an hourly rate. [snip] Other hours would be for planning what happens at the lunch meetings or possibly meeting with CUSP students individually not in the lunch meeting. Overall, it is similar to CSEMS [Computer Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars - ed.], but with fewer students, with them involved in computing research projects, and with the goal to mentor these students to consider graduate school seriously, as well as summer research. …

… I hope you will consider being a part of the mentoring team. I have heard good things about what kind of energy and creativity you might bring to the program that would of course impact the students’ experience.

Now, “energy” and “creativity” are not words I would have used to describe my year in graduate school. “Tenacity” and “thickheadedness,” perhaps. (“Energy” comes between “empty-headed” and “failure” in my dictionary, not that that means anything.)

Still, my own cognitive dissonance isn’t the issue here. (Maybe later.) I need to figure out what to do about this mentoring program. Pros and cons:

  • It represents a pay raise (upper bound of 20%, if I’m figuring correctly.) I’m not as hard up as most grad students, but I still want to have good reasons before I turn down a raise.
  • This is an opportunity to do something good for the field. If I’m vaguely serious about sticking with it and becoming faculty someday, this is exactly the sort of thing I should be doing.
  • It will give me greater exposure to real research in the field and presumably help me clarify whether I want to do that as a career.
  • It’s another positive line in the recommendation letters people will be writing for me when I’m eventually trying to get a job at any level. In general, very good karma.

And, on the downside,

  • It’s another time commitment, another chunk of every week gone. I am already overprogrammed. I sometimes run with the Ph.D. student who is the other mentor; she’s unquestionably on the harried side.
  • I know little enough about research that I’m not sure how useful I will be.
  • Is it responsible for me to mentor others to consider graduate school? This is unquestionably a recruiting program; do we as a field really need more grad students? (Well, yes, of course we do, but we need the right grad students.)
  • The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Anyone else have suggestions or advice? (I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in CS, but don’t let that stop the rest of you.)

Update, a few hours later: Looking at the web pages of the various faculty involved, nearly every one is involved at some level with the problem of attracting and retaining under-represented populations in engineering disciplines—for example, almost all of them are listed as co-authors on a paper titled, Model for Mentoring and Retaining Engineering Students from Underrepresented Groups. So add my stated interest in that goal to the list.

Now Playing: Sheltering Sky from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

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August 21, 2006

I only have two weeks left

Actually, there’s less time than that before the semester starts; our weekly, obligatory colloquia start this Wednesday, and my “first day” will probably be the Friday before Labor Day, for the departmental Grad Assistant Orientation. (This year, I was asked to offer orientation, not be one of the disoriented; I wonder if they missed the memo.)

So here’s what I’m doing to get ready for my job switch:

  • Rereading Brooks. I now have two copies of Brooks, since I got a “desk copy” of the nice 20th Anniversary edition. My old copy was a pre-20th-anniversary edition, complete with pencilled notes, which I picked up from a table marked “Free Books” one evening at Westfield State. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to get much for it on the used market.

  • Playing with Audacity, which we’ll be using as an example in class. Not just as a programming example, though it’s probably that, but an example of a modularized software product—a system, perhaps—as opposed to a single program. It’s also a decent example of an open source project as opposed to commercial development, though the Audacity community probably isn’t as large as, say, the Mozilla community. This is probably for the best. I’m going to have a use case for the software tomorrow; sometime soon I should open up the code and have a look at that, too.

  • Thinking about lab scheduling. It’s “traditionally” on Friday mornings at 10:30, I’m told. I’m not sure I’m fond of that idea.

  • Thinking about office hours. I didn’t need to do office hours before. I don’t know why I’m thinking about them too much, since many other grad students report that they generally don’t have many visitors during office hours.

  • Checking my stock of “TA pens.” I may have mentioned this before: I find red pens unnecessarily garish and perhaps harsh, but it’s necessary to mark papers in something that’s not blue or black. The two remaining (useful) colors are purple and green, so I have a small stock of purple-ink pens. I am still amused by the idea of grading papers in a CS course.

Now Playing: Check It Out from Play by The Nields

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August 15, 2006

Where's the "unsend" button?

I just had one of those moments where you wish you could recall an email.

I got email from the department chair this afternoon about my role in orientation (this year, I’m one of the supposed voices of experience, on the panel of grad assistants telling the new cohort how to do well,) and she mentioned in passing that she’d noticed that I didn’t have a grade entered for this summer’s course.

Now, this made me panic a little bit. Not that the grade was missing—I know how I did in the course, and I consider the letter irrelevant—but that the department chair, who I have yet to meet, thought this was an issue. I’m intimidated by this professor’s reputation, and I don’t know what to make of the fact that she’s taking an interest in my transcript (though least hypothesis suggests simply that as chair, she skims these things now and then.)

I whipped up a quick but polite email to the professor of the summer course, asking if perhaps I’d neglected to turn in some major assignment, or otherwise crash landed in a way I might be oblivious to.

When my mail client connected to the SMTP server to send that message, it also checked in with the IMAP store and downloaded the message from the chair, saying, “Never mind, I checked with him, the grades just aren’t in the system yet.”

So I had to send another message, saying, “I just had one of those moments where you wish you could recall an email.”

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August 8, 2006


I admit it: I took the library for granted. So much of what I do (so far) is available online, I didn’t really explore what was available through the University library.

On Friday, though, somebody at MPOW pointed out that through the library website, I could link into Safari Books Online, which bills itself as an “electronic reference library for IT and programmers.” It might be easier to explain that they have a near-complete line of O’Reilly books, plus several other tech-book publishers (I found all of Julie’s books, for example,) available as browser-readable text.

So instead of riding down to Quantum Books in Kendall Square and coughing up $100 for an array of JSP and XSLT titles, I could have accessed all of them and several others on the topic through the library. Yesterday I was comparing my hard-copy O’Reilly XSLT book (Tidwell) with the New Riders book on the subject (Holzner) on Safari; they both covered the topic I’m beating on (the key() function) slightly differently, and it’s been invaluable to have both perspectives. (Of course, the stylesheet still doesn’t do exactly what I want, but let’s not split hairs.)

I was so excited about this, I sent email to Professor α who, last spring, had set up a custom “Safari bookshelf” for our web programming course rather than assign books for us to buy. I pointed out that they’re all available free through the library if he really wants to cut down the cost-per-book for such courses. I think now he’s plotting how to assign fifteen books for his next class and not require the students to buy any of them, so I suppose I should apologize to the undergraduates I pushed to take Comp 20 in the fall.

Now Playing: Penny Look Down by Decibully

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July 27, 2006

Teaching what I don't know

Yesterday I met with Professor γ to talk about my TA work for the fall. This class is the course she came to the University to teach, so she’s solidly in the groove about what she wants to do. I’ve never actually taken the course myself, but it overlaps heavily with one of the classes I took at Westfield State.

Which is a long way of saying, I know some of it, but not all of it, and I’ll need to do some reviewing. I need to brush up on my UML, for example, and (re)read Brooks. We’re going to be analyzing (and hopefully adding to) a particular open-source project, so I’ve been looking around for potential features for it. Also, it’s a required course for certain undergraduates (all majors, I think,) and there’s a subtext of making sure they’ve met some of the skills they’ll find helpful later, so we’re requiring use of version control (though which package isn’t yet finalized,) make, and encouraging the use of TeX, which learning curve I’ve never actually managed to climb.

But one of my work areas will be reading/editing/grading essays. You know, written work. Style, grammar, presentation. Maybe my literature major has some use here after all.

Now Playing: Do It Again by Steely Dan

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July 19, 2006

It's like an annual resignation

I just sent email to my supervisor at MPOW telling her that I’m not coming back in the fall, since I will be TAing instead.

It’s a tricky message; even though the TA work promises to be interesting, and I’ve had my times of frustration with the current GA situation, I feel somehow disloyal. Even though I didn’t really have a whole lot of choice in the matter: the department head presented me with a series of reasons why I should be working for Professor γ full-time, and I couldn’t very well argue. (I feel like I’ve already disagreed with this department head too many times, before I even started here. She was on sabbatical last year, so I’ve yet to actually speak with her, and it’s tempting to attempt to continue this streak.)

Still, it’s like every August all my work becomes Somebody Else’s Problem.

Now Playing: A Pagan Place from A Pagan Place by The Waterboys

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July 15, 2006

Unintentional synchronization

In today’s email: an offer of a full TA for the fall, rather than the half-and-half gig I did last fall and spring. The class is Software Engineering (a course I’d take if there weren’t others I’m more interested in.) The professor is the one I TAed Comp 11 for, part time, last year. This may be another recruiting move; it will probably also mean I’ll be spending some time on Comp 11 as well as Software Engineering.

(It is high time we gave her a pseudonym as well. Having already assigned Professor β, let’s tag the one I interviewed with back in 2004 as Professor α, since I practically called him that then, and this one Professor γ.)

In today’s paper mail: my statement from the bursar. I owe somewhat over a kilobuck for medical insurance, but my tuition is nicely balanced off by the scholarship credit, just in case I’d forgotten to be pleased with my lot in life.

Now Playing: Shooting Star from From A Basement On The Hill by Elliott Smith

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July 5, 2006


Friday evening, I finished up the final for my summer session class. Assuming I didn’t crash dismally, that’s seven classes down and three to go (plus some kind of project/thesis) for the MS. I’ve also covered all the required courses (except the undergrad courses I can’t get credit for.)

I’m hoping now that I can spend all my time either on catching up on hours for MPOW (where I’ve now heard people I don’t actually work for saying they hope I’ll be back next (academic) year,) or a particular writing project I’ve been doing some research for. It’s funny how quickly the summer got booked to the gills; here it’s just been one weekend in July, and I already feel like there’s a limited quantity of weekends to be hoarded, like donuts in a bag.

I have a bunch of posts in mind, most of which consist of bullets on a list somewhere here in ecto. Some of them I might actually write. But in the last few weeks I’ve been (unconsciously) changing the way I’ve been using my online time. I don’t know if the shifts will be visible here, but it’s possible. While I’ve been busy, I kept starting posts in my head, but I couldn’t mentally bring them to a high enough priority to actually key them in.

This is a pretty involved question, to me, but for you it may be simple. For you, what’s the utility of me writing here? And, do you think that should matter to me?

Now Playing: Hotel Womb from Starfish by The Church

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June 19, 2006

Better than a report card

I discovered last week that I got an unexpectedly high grade in a course I’d thought I was struggling in: A- instead of the expected B- or C.

Other grad students have pointed out that, while high school grades can be expected to indicate how you’ll do in college, and college grades can be expected to indicate how you’ll do in grad school, grad school grades don’t really indicate much other than how you are doing. So I’m not taking those too seriously. More pleasant is the letter I got this past weekend:

The Computer Science Department conducts an annual review of all graduate student [sic] to ensure that each student is satisfactorily progressing towards his or her degree.

You are making fine progress toward your degree.

[Glowing praise of my TA work]

We will continue to fund you next year through a graduate assistantship.

What higher praise is there than, “We’ll keep paying you”?

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June 12, 2006

Wakeful strategies

Time shifts have made me sleepy, and a class that runs from 6 PM to 9:30 can look like a sleep trap. (Particularly when the faculty:student ratio is 1:4, this is no time to nod off.) I’ve taken a few different tactics, ranging from timing dinner (for after class rather than before) to simply chewing gum, which keeps me from nodding off.

Tonight I poured the second half of this morning’s teapot into my mug and brought that in. But then I remembered another mug in the car, left from my trip to the airport five days earlier, when I hadn’t had time to finish it before parking. Since it had been in the car, in the sun all day, it was quite warm enough, so I walked in to class with most of two mugs of tea at the ready. I suppose maybe I looked a little desperate.

Now Playing: Torture from All Shook Down by The Replacements

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June 8, 2006

No, you really aren't too slow

I’m going to quote verbatim from another blog now, because he’s articulated something that I’ve noticed a lot while trying to bring other CS grad students out on our weekly runs. (There are two of us who run regularly, and three others who sometimes join us. And plenty more who sort of wish they could join us, but… read on.)

i have the same problem with people going on runs, and it always bother me. it usually goes like this: people mention that they are going for a run sometime in the near future, or that they want to start running soon. so, i mention that i would like to run with them if they would like company. then - almost invariably - whomever i’m talking to says that they’d be too slow for me (remembering that i’m a track and cross country runner). this is where i get frustrated. it’s exactly because i’m an experienced runner that i know exactly how slow and how fast people are, so i know exactly what i’m getting into when i suggest that i join them for a run (that is, if they want to). i know that they’re probably not going to run as fast or as long as i can, and they may not even want to. in fact, if i was intending on a very hard, long, serious run, i probably wouldn’t have offered to run with whomever i’m in a conversation with. but, that’s not what i’m offering; i’m offering to join them on their run. it’s nice to have company. that’s all i’m offering, and there’s no illusion in my mind that i’m intending they run at whatever capacity they think i run at. i’m asking to run with them, and i know exactly what that means.

Of course, he’s using this as an illustration of another concept; this is not limited to running. (My own other example: “I’m not good at math.”)

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May 31, 2006

Redeemed by irony

My math professor turned up this morning in a “Math is Hard” T-shirt.

I am rendered speechless by the many levels on which this is awesome.

Posted by pjm at 1:22 PM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2006


Today was the start of the summer session. I’m in a math course being taught by a professor with a CS degree, and a CS course being taught by a professor with a math degree. I think this means trouble.

Posted by pjm at 10:00 PM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2006

It's over

Unlike last semester, I have more of a sinking feeling about this one. The last exam, just a few hours ago, felt like a disaster; of the four questions, there were two I was able to answer thoroughly and relatively easily, one I had to fluff a bit, and… one total train wreck. It was all some level of math I don’t know, differential equations and linear something-or-other.

Anyway, it’s done now. Time to get back to all the stuff I’ve been neglecting since I got back from Japan.

Posted by pjm at 5:47 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2006

Tunnels, lights, etc.

As of this evening, I have finished two of my three classes, and I’ve completed my TA duties. I have one more exam, tomorrow afternoon, and then I’m done with the first year.

I have plenty of work to do, of course; for one thing, I’m behind on my GA work, and it lasts through the summer.

I think I’ve saved at least one of the two courses I was concerned about. The other one is still an open question. We had four programming assignments, including seven distinct executables. Before this weekend, I had one good assignment and two executables working to spec; on Monday, I had three good assignments and six executables. The seventh one works, in the sense that it compiles and sometimes runs without crashing, but at some point I figured out that my problem wasn’t the programming. It was that I didn’t understand the problem.

I don’t know how much grade I’ve saved; in fact, I’m not really sure how much I might have been behind. Talking with other students today, it’s beginning to look like we’re not really clear on what material is even going to be on the exam; the professor said, “The second half of the course,” but most of the concepts came in the first half; the second half was application.

As I always tell myself, by this time tomorrow, it will be over, no matter how it happens.

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May 9, 2006

Status check

I have reached the stage of Finals in which I become paranoid. Is that exam actually when I think it is? I am convinced I will show up at an empty room, the exam having been held two days previous.

Now Playing: Helicopter from Drums And Wires by XTC

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May 5, 2006

Math is hard

I’m signing up for a second summer course. But not really.

I have an extraordinarily weak math background for a CS student. If I’d been an undergrad major, I would’ve been required to take Calculus I and II, Discrete Math, and something else “numbered XX or greater.” I’m not sure what that would’ve been; I didn’t get far enough to figure it out, stopped cold at Calc I. (Old math joke: Look both ways, lean in close, and whisper, “I’m taking Discreet Math.”)

I’ve cleared up my calculus issues (four years ago, so it’s hardly fresh,) but I haven’t had the chance to take anything more. What I’m missing appears to depend on who I talk to. Everyone agrees I need Discrete; after that, there’s Probability and Statistics (distinct courses taught in consecutive semesters, here,) and maybe Linear Algebra and/or Differential Equations, depending on what I’m concentrating on.

I can’t get graduate credit for Discrete; it’s numbered too low. So I’m registering to audit it this summer. This might be a mistake; I might be signing away any hope of free time this summer. But it might put me on my way to understanding more of the theory sections of my classes, and let’s face it, the only reason I don’t like theory is that I don’t understand it. I’m not bad at math—I just haven’t learned enough of it.

Now stop whispering, “Old dog: new tricks,” will you?

Now Playing: Solitaire from The Fine Art Of Self Destruction by Jesse Malin

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May 4, 2006

Temporary stay

The next four or five days will be spent living in C.

I have a final programming project (for Prof. β) due on Monday; that’s in C, and I’ve started roughing it out today. That’s the top priority.

Close second, though, is that the professor for my parallel computing class has re-opened grading on all previous programming assignments—three assignments and six programs, if I’m counting. Of those six programs, precisely one of my previous efforts works to spec. Most of the others are in the state where they work fine on one processor, but blow up when they’re run on multiple processors. (I think at least two of them don’t work particularly well on one processor because I spent so much time trying to make the first part of the assignment work on several.)

Undergraduates worry about failing courses, or about their GPA. Graduate students don’t worry about failing; we worry about getting credit. If I get a sufficiently low grade, I don’t get credit for taking the course. That’s annoying enough considering the time I’ve put into it, but more frustrating is that I’ve carried a full load all this year (and into the summer) largely in order to earn myself some breathing room for next year. Blowing a class would be an unpleasant setback, and this re-submission opportunity could be my chance to save this course.

So I’m returning to some of this semester’s disasters. Let’s see if I’ve learned anything.

Now Playing: A Pagan Place from The Essential Waterboys by The Waterboys

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May 1, 2006


I’m pretty sure I was recruited today.

That is, a specific professor—the one who taught the only class I feel like I’ve done well in, out of three this semester—flagged me down in the hall and specifically asked me to take her 200-level class in the fall, specifically for the purpose of figuring out if I could be useful to her research. (She didn’t put it quite that baldly, but she also hasn’t completely cracked my shell of cynicism yet.)

(Now would probably be a good time to tag on a pseudonym: let’s call her Prof. β, which is logical for more reasons than I’ll go into here.)

Unfortunately, I’m well past the satisfaction of the final exam grade from her class, and wallowing in the pure frustration of two other classes where I haven’t been able to do anything right since before spring break. When I talked with Prof. β, I was far from my sharpest, and I suspect she walked away from the conversation wondering why, exactly, she’d thought I might be worth recruiting. I was confused, stammering, and not really contributing much to the conversation—I suppose I wasn’t really feeling worth recruiting, either.

I’m not sure this is necessarily a good match. The area she’s steering me towards is not one I’ve seriously considered before; it’s likely to tax my (sorely deficient) math skills and grasp of theory. On the other hand, if I can wrap my head around it, it could be wicked cool.

I should probably write an email apologizing for my inarticulateness and at least register for the class.

Either way, this does provide some evidence that I may not be paranoid.

Now Playing: Better Things from End Of The Summer by Dar Williams

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April 28, 2006


There are fireworks going off at the University; I can see flashes over the treetops, probably more if I went upstairs to my office. I can hear them pretty well.

I think it’s one of the annual University celebrations; Spring Fling is tomorrow afternoon, I believe, and I think there’s something connected to that.

But maybe it’s a measure of how disconnected we are from most of the University, over on our own side of the Commuter Rail tracks, that I had to think about this; at first, I thought that, like the backyard barbeque I just returned from, it was somehow connected with the Ph.D. students who sat for their written quals today.

Update: Here it is.

Now Playing: Deacon Blues from A Decade of Steely Dan by Steely Dan

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April 10, 2006

Getting the name out

While I was in Japan, I talked with another journalist who is very active in promoting Kenyan athletes. You wouldn’t think they’d need promotion, but what he’s generally focused on is image control: communicating individual personalities (as opposed to a faceless group, “the Kenyans,”) and understanding of the backgrounds from which these stellar athletes emerge—the relative poverty, the farms, the bare-bones training camps.

One of his most recent projects is using athletic ability to get talented students accepted and/or funded at American colleges and universities better known for their academics. More than a few Kenyans have run on athletic scholarship at NCAA Division I universities; this effort is focusing on sending the best Kenyan students to Ivies and some Division III schools, none of which offer athletic scholarships. He talked to me about one of these students, who he was trying to connect with the College, but who had also had interest from M.I.T.

“Prestige is a problem,” he explained. “The only schools they know by name are M.I.T., Harvard, and ‘Ya-lay’.”

Now Playing: Cherub Rock from Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins

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April 7, 2006


One result of losing six days to travel and work—particularly right after spring break—is that there’s classwork due on return, and it’s not easy to be well along on that. Starting Tuesday, amid the jet lag, I’ve had two programming projects and a midterm—the midterm kindly make-up, since the rest of the class took it while I was away. That one, oddly, I may have done best at. The first programming project was an utter hash; I gave up when the deadline came, handed in what I had, and happily moved on to the next. That one went in a few minutes ago; I’m sure if I’d started on time (it was assigned the day before I left,) that one would have been fine.

Unfortunately, programs tend not to be partial-credit sorts of things: they work, or they don’t. This one, so far, doesn’t, though it pretends to in some situations. It looks like I’m going to exercise the 10% one-day-late penalty and try again tomorrow.

This is, of course, nobody’s fault but mine; I made the decision to be away. Still, ouch.

I’ll be head-down through the weekend, as well, while I try to get on top of the stuff due next week—and the week after that, so I won’t have to work through Marathon Weekend.

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March 16, 2006

The right place

The course I’ll probably be taking this summer is being taught by a professor visiting from the other university which accepted me. I noted that in a short discussion with my advisor this afternoon, and quipped, “Now I’ll get to see if I came to the right place.” He said, without a blink, “Oh, you came to the right place.”

I talked with him some about what I’ve been finding interesting lately and what, in consequence, I might want to do in preparation for the next academic year. (It’s nice, now and then, to look up and past the next week.) Then later this afternoon, I was unofficially and indirectly invited to join a grad student working group focusing on systems administration—the group that produced this year’s best paper at LISA. Which is flattering even if I don’t do it.

And the day before I fly off to Japan, one of my classes is adjourning to attend a lecture by the man I owe my career to.

Sometimes I think my life is characterized by this sort of blind luck—gut decisions, made for irrelevant reasons, which put me in good situations out of pure coincidence. Others have suggested that this is simply a good outlook on life—I don’t spend much time thinking about other places I might be or other things I might’ve done.

Or maybe I am in the right place.

Now Playing: What You Need from Listen Like Thieves by INXS

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March 12, 2006

Useful crack

I’ve made comments before about my belief that Powerpoint slides are like crack for presenters; it seems like everyone who even comments on the ubiquity of .ppt files is complaining about some presenter who just reads from their slides, or the impossibility of reducing everything to bullet points. I have professors who exhibit degrees of reading-from-the-slides-ness, some who build their own presentations following their own outline (which is also printed and handed out to us—I use them to take my notes on,) and others who blithely page through the chapter presentations supplied by the book publisher.

We had a guest lecture in one of my Thursday classes from Mudge, a net.personality who briefly (and understatedly) introduced himself as, “I’m the guy who testified to Congress that I could take down the entire internet in half an hour. Things have improved; it would probably take an hour and a half, now.” I’m paging through the printout of his presentation now. It’s pretty obscure; if you weren’t there for the talk, it’s not easy to see what these diagrams are all about. On the other hand, when you were in the talk, the slides actually did illustrate what he was talking about.

Why am I not surprised that someone who figured out how easy it is to crack Windows passwords would have figured out an effective way to use Powerpoint?

Now Playing: 2053 by Vallejo

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March 10, 2006

Read me three times

I’ve reread one of the programming assignments due soon, and realized that I’ve been making it harder than it needs to be.

I’m not sure if I should be relieved, or annoyed with myself for not figuring this out sooner.

Now Playing: Wings from Live at The Paradise Rock Club (Boston, 12-11-04) by Josh Ritter

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February 25, 2006

Bruce Schneier visits the University

We had a visit this weekend from Bruce Schneier, as part of the ongoing EPIIC project here at the University. I missed the panel discussion yesterday due to a prior commitment, but at the urging of a professor (multiple emails to the class list,) I figured out which building on campus would hold the second “break-out session” (for CS students only,) and got myself over there on a Saturday morning. (Saturday morning isn’t much of a feat. It’s finding a building on campus which isn’t either the CS building, the library, or one of the hidden corners associated with MPOW which is difficult.)

The students there were from my security class and a cryptography class being taught this semester as well, using one of Schneier’s books. The professor in attendance (from the crypto class) implied that the former was a grad class and the latter an undergrad course, which was an interesting characterization considering that I’ve not seen much sharp division in the catalog; most of my classes so far have been mixed.

Schneier implied that missing the panel he’d been on hadn’t been a big loss due to a pretty scattered subject matter, and only rehashed a few points from it, one of them having to do with the old security theory about risks and mitigation: one considers the cost of “getting whacked,” multiplies it by the annual probability of an incident, then compares that with the annual cost of mitigation. If mitigation is cheaper, you invest in prevention; otherwise, you accept the risk. He pointed out that in the case of terrorism, the cost is enormous—nearly infinite, in fact—while the probability is close enough to zero that it’s much smaller than the rounding error in any available statistics. Someone implied yesterday that the result of this math was zero; Schneier’s contention is that in fact it is whatever you want it to be: a little fudging with the data gives a massive change in the result. “People win the lottery every week,” he reminded us, “but statistically, nobody ever wins.” His suggestion is aggregating risks until there are enough numbers to work with.

His continuing theme for the talk was that people don’t understand how to think about security. He cited Ross Anderson in particular, and the idea that programmers code for “Murphy’s computer” (preparing for anything which could go wrong) instead of “Satan’s computer” (where there’s an intelligence looking for the one worst thing which could go wrong.) The fact that an attacker can survey the defenses and then pick the weakest spot should always be kept in mind when analyzing any security efforts, and it really highlights the futility of efforts like “protecting the Olympics” and so on.

He also suggested that “educating the users” wasn’t going to be a good security solution because there’s no good message to educate them with. The “right thing to do” from a security standpoint keeps changing, so the messages from the user-education sources will keep changing, and the users aren’t likely to learn any of them. Not a great situation.

It wasn’t a revelatory experience, but I was glad I spent the time to go; it was a refreshing new perspective on the things we’re discussing in class.

Now Playing: Old Time Sake from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

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February 21, 2006

This is not an extension

I just got a homework assignment for one class via email. A due date was not mentioned, which confounds me: how can I procrastinate properly without knowing how long I have to put it off?

Now Playing: Ripple from Priest = Aura by The Church

Posted by pjm at 10:30 PM | Comments (0)

Does this count as an extension?

The due date on a programming project was ambiguous, listing both midnight tonight and in class this morning as due dates. I was ready to hand in what I had for class, but the professor clarified to make the deadline midnight. So I have twelve (or so) more hours to debug.

I’m half tempted to just go with what I have so far, but there’s an ethical issue. The TA for this course is a running partner, and he’ll be doing most of the grading. Odds are this will make him grade me tougher than average, to avoid any ambiguity. So far my strategy in this class has been to always hand in my best possible work for that reason. So I should probably push to make this as close to perfect as I can. I could use some sleep, though! And it’s not as though I have nothing else to do.

Posted by pjm at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2006

Catching the details

Classes were not so bad. The sections definitely were at different levels of engagement with the material; one section asked lots of questions, the other was mostly determined to be quiet.

I plugged my laptop in to the classroom projector to display the review sheet on the class website, which gave me an appreciation of how many things instructors need to consider when using such things. I’ve seen faculty bumping up font size and adjusting screen resolution, etc., before, but the real unexpected part was while I was discussing levels of abstraction in code, and my screen saver kicked in. It’s hard to hold the class’s attention when you’re competing with this image projected six feet high on the screen:

Sleepy kitten

Now Playing: Fisherman’s Blues from The Live Adventures of The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 4:03 PM | Comments (0)


The Comp 11 professor is out of town this week, so the students get an exam on Wednesday (because they’ll miss less teaching this way.) This does mean that today will be an exam review for both sections, and since I am the only one who can make both sections, I get to do it. The drill is, 75 minutes, roughly split between lecture and exam review, repeat for two sections.

Except that I have very little idea what the lecture is supposed to be, and I wasn’t in the last class, so I don’t know where they left off. I’m not sure if I was told what I was covering, or if that’s just slipped everyone’s mind. At least I know what’s on the exam, so I know what I really need to cover in the review.

I really need to not think too hard about this.

Now Playing: Election Day from Nothing For All by The Replacements

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February 10, 2006

Not Getting Things Done

The lead TA tried to herd the rest of us together to grade a programming assignment, but made the mistake of saying, “Or we could do it next week after we finish the lab exams.” Nearly every other hand went up in favor of waiting until next week, but of course, at this time next week, I’ll be working. So, yeah, I’m in favor of putting it off, too, if nobody else feels like looking ahead at the consequences of procrastination.

I wonder how much of the storm we’re supposed to get this weekend is going to settle in Van Cortlandt? The National Weather Service seems to think New York will get off lightly.

Now Playing: Fountain Of Youth from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

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February 8, 2006

Steering in fog

Sometime last week, I was sitting in my “office” at the department, and the interim department chair—who also teaches one of my classes this semester—came by on another errand. She looked at me quizzically for a moment, then asked, “Whose student are you?”

I misunderstood the question and told her my name. Once we got straightened out (“No, I know who you are,”) I told her I wasn’t really anyone’s student (yet), and about my multiple advisor situation. (The department thinks I have one advisor; the registrar thinks my advisor is someone else.) She asked about my undergraduate college. (Everyone does, even though in my case it’s barely relevant, but it’s easier to answer than to explain.) Then she looked thoughtful and left after an exchange of polite pleasantries about the town (she got her doctorate at the large university there.)

Am I allowed to be paranoid about what things like this might or might not mean, or am I being sucked into some kind of surreality?

Now Playing: Like A California King from So Much For The Afterglow by Everclear

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February 6, 2006

" to see if they've crashed..."

It isn’t often that my class reading makes me laugh out loud.

You can simply start with early Windows DOS attacks (Ping of Death, Winnuke, etc) and move up a little further to attacks such as Teardrop and Land. After each attack, ping them to see whether they have crashed. When you finally crash them, you will likely have narrowed what they are running down to one service pack or hotfix.

Now Playing: Straight To Hell from Combat Rock by The Clash

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January 26, 2006


The semester has been underway for a week now, but I’m still easing in to it. I’m short on TA work, and waiting for feedback from others in order to make any progress on GA work. (In the interim, I’m figuring out how to re-do some previous Perl work in Python, using both old-school books and new-school books. And I have to say that this one looks wicked cool.)

There’s not much question of books, because only one of my classes uses one, and to date we haven’t been explicitly assigned reading from it (though we’ve gone over pretty much all of Chapter 1 in class; the professor lectures directly from the publisher-provided slides.) Another class has small assignments which go from class to class, and are pretty easy to handle; the third has only had one assignment, which is due Sunday but I handed in on Wednesday morning. I can’t figure out if this means I’m going to have an easy semester, or if we just haven’t built momentum yet. By this point last semester, I was afraid for my life.

Now Playing: Blackbirds from Distillation by Erin McKeown

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January 25, 2006

High demand

I’m back to TAing our introductory CS course. Last weekend I cooked up a web form to grab the students’ preferences for lab hours. We offered ten options and asked for first, second and third choices. So far, none of the labs are full, but there are about twenty students who may not have filled out the form yet.

I’m proud to note that so far, the three times I would cover are among the bottom half chosen. If we break ties with second choices, my sections are second, third, and fourth worst; the only section with fewer people choosing it is a 9 AM section. It seems likely that at least one, if not two, of my sections will be cancelled.

Now Playing: Might Be Stars from Be A Girl by The Wannadies

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January 18, 2006

On teaching intro CS

See Jane Compute has started what she promises will be a “miniseries” on teaching computer science, with Teaching the intro courses. Tomorrow is the first day of classes here, and my first TA meeting for my second semester on our intro course, so it’s good for me to read things like this:

The biggest challenges I have at this level are (a) maintaining everyone’s interest in the material, without losing or boring anyone along the way; (b) making sure that the lesser-prepared students aren’t intimidated by the blowhards (many of whom really have sub-standard skills, but they know the lingo and they know how to sling it around); (c) introducing an overwhelming number of concepts in the first several weeks, and making sense out of them; (d) making sure that at the end of the class, everyone has some baseline skill in programming a computer.

There’s nothing like having the goals plainly laid out. I think (b) and (c) will probably be the ones that most come into my view, but (a) might pop up some as well. I hope we can do a better job than we did in the fall.

Posted by pjm at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006


I finally figured out the magic incantation needed to get the University’s web information system to cough up my grades from the fall semester. I already knew one of them, because the professor emailed the grades, something they refused to do at Westfield State. The other two, I had figured out my numerical average within a few points based on the graded work which was returned to us, but I wasn’t sure how those numbers would translate to letter grades.

Now I know. It looks like I have a B+ average now, which isn’t where I would like to be, but isn’t in the danger zone, either. The grades map pretty well to which courses I thought were toughest, but I’m disappointed that I didn’t do better in one which was challenging but fun. (Disappointed, I should add, in myself; the grade is inarguable.) It looks like the curve helped me in the course I almost dropped, because I thought I did worse than the grade indicates. And I did better there than I did the first time I took calculus. (The fact that I refer to “the first time” should be a clue to how that turned out…) In fact, come to think of it, I’m doing better here, gradewise, than I did in Russian language courses.

Now Playing: Green Eggs from Sister by Letters To Cleo

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December 27, 2005

Tough questions

The hardest question I’m asked about graduate school comes in a few forms. “What degree are you going for?” is one; another is, “How long until you finish?”

The most truthful answer I have is along the lines of, “Ask me again in eighteen months.”

My school is more honest than most about the ambitions of its graduate students. In order to start the Ph.D. program, we’re required to finish the M.S. first. I know this doesn’t sound any different from most Ph.D. programs; the difference is that there isn’t much distinction made between those of us in the “Ph.D. track” and those who aren’t. Aside from some suggestions about whether we do a “project” or a “thesis” in the final semesters of the M.S., the biggest difference is in the paperwork required to advance into the Ph.D. program.

I like this, because my own ideas about where to stop change roughly once a day. (There are plenty of days when I don’t think about it at all; I change my mind more often on the other days in order to keep the average up.)

What’s pretty obvious, though, is what they want me to do. Most of the people I talk to in the department are either in the Ph.D. program already (students,) or went through it already (faculty.) Of course I should go the whole way, they say. I haven’t been so rude as to ask why I should, because I don’t think they would have a good answer; for the most part, I think they’re more in favor of the idea of me as a student than thinking about me on the job market with a Ph.D.

The open question is research. Will I like it? Will I be good at it? If the answer is “yes,” then I’m in for five years and the full boat, because that’s what the Ph.D. is all about: proving I can do research, so someone will pay me to do it. If the answer is “no,” I stop with the M.S. and find someone who will pay me to develop and/or run nifty systems.

And until I’ve done most of the coursework for the M.S., I won’t be seeing much research, let alone figuring out whether I like it enough to make it a career. So… ask me again in eighteen months or so.

Now Playing: It’s Good To Be King from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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December 16, 2005

It's over

I just finished my last final. The semester is done. I’d like to thank my cat, my laptop, my girlfriend, and several pounds of jellybeans.

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December 14, 2005

Maria Klawe: Why do so few women major in computer science?

This is a really long post, because I got a lot of notes from Monday’s colloquium. The title was “Gender, Lies, and Video Games: The Truth about Females and Computing,” and proposed to discuss

…how girls and women differ from boys and men in their uses of and attitudes towards computers and computing. From playing computer games to pursuing computing careers, the participation of females tends to be very low compared to that of males. Why is this?

I’ve known one or two women in CS, but the gender balance issue wasn’t a big one for me until this semester. After all, what could I do about it? I happen to be in a department with roughly equal numbers of men and women as faculty and graduate students, which seems to be an anomaly in the field.

Then, a few weeks ago during registration for the spring semester, one of the (relatively few) women in Comp 11 asked me if she should register for the next course in the series. Of course, I said, if she likes what she’s doing in Comp 11, she should take Comp 15. Then she floored me with the next question:

“How many courses will I have to take before I catch up with all these boys who already know everything?”


Continue reading "Maria Klawe: Why do so few women major in computer science?"

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December 13, 2005

A load set down

Algorithms is over, and I survived.

I still have an Operating Systems exam on Friday, and I will be studying for that over the next two days. I will also be doing normal-person things, like sleeping and buying groceries. And I will catch up on a few posts I have in the queue, including Audrey’s request for bike-winterization notes, a long post about Maria Klawe’s talk yesterday, and maybe some discussion of what my experience this semester showed me and where I’m going from here. Maybe.

Maybe I’ll find a place that sells decent beer, instead. Or exercise, or something.

Now Playing: You Don’t Know from Monday Morning Cold by Erin McKeown

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December 8, 2005

Not the longer post I had planned

I have a programming project due at midnight this day, but I think it’s worth making time for this:

Gender, Lies, and Video Games: The Truth about Females and Computing

Maria Klawe
Princeton University

This talk explores how girls and women differ from boys and men in their uses of and attitudes towards computers and computing. From playing computer games to pursuing computing careers, the participation of females tends to be very low compared to that of males. Why is this? Opinions range from girls wanting to avoid the math and/or the geek image of programming to girls having better things to do with their lives. We discuss research findings on this issue, as well as strategies to increase the participation of females in computing.

Posted by pjm at 5:59 PM | Comments (1)

December 7, 2005

One down

I’m about an hour removed from the end of one of my three classes. We submitted the last of our five projects last night, and since each one built progressively on the last (we developed crude games in Java,) we demoed them today in class.

I volunteered to start, because, I explained, I was insecure about mine and I wanted to show it before anyone could compare it with anything other than their own. I ran through it, realized I was rambling, cut it short and sat down.

Then I was both reassured and impressed by what my classmates had done. Reassured because I had imagined everyone else was doing really intricate programming, when in fact I’d been just as involved, maybe more, as anyone. The visual appearances ranged widely—one guy had rewritten his for Java3D after we’d covered it in class, and others hadn’t gone far beyond squares and circles—but I was really impressed by the range of game play, considering that we’d all been working from the same assignments. I wouldn’t claim any of them are about to take the world by storm, but one woman actually had a format I’d never seen before and can’t actually describe; you’d have to see it.

Now, that’s done: on to the Algorithms final, tomorrow at noon. High noon. Cue the showdown music.

Now Playing: This House Is Not For Sale from Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams

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Strong feelings

We had a colloquium on Monday featuring a talk from a Yale professor. The topic was relatively interesting, though I probably looked disinterested since I was so exhausted I was ready to nod off in the middle.

The curious part, however, was that rather than the ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, she had hand-drawn transparencies. At this two-day remove, I’m probably not word-perfect on this quote, but she explained it like this: “I don’t think it’s possible to do really good computer science unless you hate computers.”

We must have looked puzzled, because her expansion of that comment was, “You really need to use them a lot to get to hate them.”

I guess that’s a different kind of passion?

Now Playing: From The Skyline Of A Great Big Town from Kids in Philly by Marah

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December 1, 2005

The light of the oncoming train

We’ve reached that stage in the semester where there is a pretty clear accounting of what must be covered in class (not much) and what work must be done (quite a lot) before it is Over. My list is long, but seems manageable; I have two sit-down exams and two projects between three classes, plus a last homework assignment in one of them.

The professors of both sit-down exams have pulled variants on the give-us-more-rope theme; one has given us half the questions for the exam in advance, to prepare at home, (because then he can give us a four-hour exam in a two-hour time slot,) and the other is allowing us to bring “a single sheet of paper” to the final. The composition of this single sheet of paper, of course, will become such an obsession to most students that they will, in fact, study fairly well by composing it. I’m not sure it will work for me; what I put on the sheet will probably end up not helping me much.

I have at least two lengthy posts turning over in my mind, one on women in CS (no deep thoughts, just some observations from what appears to be an anomalous department,) and one about the first arguments in the which-degree-do-I-stop-with case. (I have eighteen months to worry about it.)

Posted by pjm at 10:50 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005


Yesterday’s big positive: another grad student had a question about C. (Specifically, a question about pointers in C. Pointers have been a confusing topic for me since I took Comp 11 in 1992.)

Not only did I answer his question, but I did it in a way that made him say, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

Now Playing: Grunge Betty from Dandys Rule OK by The Dandy Warhols

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November 22, 2005

Decks cleared

With the programming project I just handed in (over half an hour early!) I’m now clear (aside from the omnipresent stack of grading,) well into next week, possibly for the first time this month. November has been pretty thick, work-wise, and even though I’ve had good days, this has been a rough week: first the fruitless all-nighter, then today getting the grade for the bombed quiz. (It was better than I’d feared; I almost went to the professor to argue that I had a higher grade than I deserved.)

So much the better that this assignment went in on time and, for once, with me feeling like I’d met and possibly exceeded the parameters of the assignment. This particular course has been my first extensive experience coding in Java, and while I can’t say that I like it (I still prefer PHP,) it’s getting easier, and I’ll be able to apply what I’m learning to other languages. A big part of programming is learning patterns of thinking, and it’s the ease with which the hacker can implement the ideas in their head that makes them prefer particular languages over others. (That, and suitability to tasks, but that overlaps.) Learning other languages provides new ways of thinking.

A big step towards becoming more comfortable with Java was downloading and installing Eclipse on my Powerbook. Eclipse is an IDE (Integrated Developer Environment) for Java, and it happens to be open-source and cross-platform. It has the usual range of bits like syntax coloring and auto-completion which make it a notch above a text editor, but what helps more than anything is its error-checking (it highlights errors and suggests fixes,) and the ease with which it lets me flick around the many files a Java project produces. I even found myself using the “Refactor” menu, pushing properties and methods up into abstract parent classes. I kept being tickled by how easy things could be.

I understand there are plugins galore to allow one to customize and extend the program, but I’m not quite there yet. Also, the Mac version is still a “Carbon” application, which may run natively in OS X but displays some funkiness. (For some reason, it won’t stay in the dock.)

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to try to get ahead so I don’t get this slammed again at the end of the semester.

Now Playing: Used Cars from Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by Ani DiFranco

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November 16, 2005

Tolerance level

It’s true that nearly every professor makes a note at the beginning of the semester that people should turn off things like cell phones or other stuff that beeps before they come to class, but it’s also true that it’s tough to remember. (I tend to leave my phone on its “meeting” setting for days at a time, which sometimes leads to me missing calls because I forget to also check the voicemail.)

I’m not sure what the etiquette is when the professor’s phone rings.

I also have to wonder about the second ringing phone. Didn’t they check their setting, compulsively, when the first ring woke the class? And, even if they silenced it quickly, didn’t it occur to them that we’d all be hearing their voice-mail alert soon?

Full disclosure: my turn to have a ringing phone in the classroom was during orientation for all new TAs, while the dean of the graduate school was talking. It was my GA supervisor calling.

Now Playing: Alternative Girlfriend from Maybe You Should Drive by Barenaked Ladies

Posted by pjm at 7:40 PM | Comments (3)

November 15, 2005

Time management

I don’t talk too much about the grad school big picture, mostly because I don’t want to turn up on anyone’s Google search for my department (ah, too late,) professors, or classmates. I don’t want to burn anyone here, not that most of what to say would be a problem to anyone but myself. Also, because I’m usually neck deep and digging fast.

The biggest problem has shaped up to be the way I’m earning my funding. I mentioned my three quarters of one and one quarter of another support distribution back in August, and it turns out I’ve answered my unanswered question about it: no, I don’t like it. It’s not working. (More after the jump…)

Now Playing: I Don’t Need A Hero from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

Continue reading "Time management"

Posted by pjm at 8:02 PM | Comments (0)

Wow, that was bad

I was almost feeling like I had a handle on the topic of today’s Algorithms quiz. At least, that’s how I felt until I looked at the first question. I don’t think I’ve known less of the material on a test since the final exam the first time I took calculus. (The fact that I have to use ordinal numbers for that should tell you how it went.)

Fortunately, this particular quiz only counts for approximately 2% of the total course grade. I usually don’t pay attention to that sort of thing (just do your best on everything and the grade will take care of itself,) but it’s nice to know that one blown quiz doesn’t mean the whole semester has augered in.

Now Playing: Paths Will Cross from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 7:05 PM | Comments (0)

November 14, 2005

Did pop music make me think like this? Or do I listen to pop music because I think like this?

Last Thursday’s Algorithms class featured an analysis of collision resolution through chaining in hash tables. (Don’t worry; unlike my professor, I won’t be giving a test.)

The problem came when I caught myself humming, “Some chains are shorter than α” to the tune of The Smiths’ Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.

Now Playing: Antenna from Starfish by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:32 AM | Comments (0)

November 3, 2005


Somewhere early in my class notes for Algorithms—the class I nearly dropped—there is a note in the margin which reads, “Don’t let the gunners get you down.”

I write lots of irrelevant bits in the margins of my notes, getting the ideas out of my head before they derail my class focus. Today, I wanted to flip back and write that note again, as I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates with one hand in the air to answer a question, and three—three!—sharpened pencils in the other hand. Undoubtedly there’s a good explanation for that, but it’s easy to take little snapshots and use them to convince myself that everyone else in the class is more together and better prepared than I am.

“Gunners” is a term that’s familiar to law school students, but less so to CS students. I’m sure I was one, in my evening-college classes before I came here. It’s a funny feeling, when you feel like you get the material and you want to answer the questions and move on to the next exciting bit, rather than waiting as your classmates look perplexed and puzzled and fail to come up with the answer (or the confidence to put forward the answer they have.)

The problem is, one or two guys with all the answers can unintentionally fool the rest of us into thinking we don’t know any of the answers, unless we put our blinkers on and ignore them.

Now Playing: 10 A.M. Automatic from Rubber Factory by The Black Keys

Posted by pjm at 2:19 PM | Comments (0)

November 1, 2005

More studying

The Algorithms mid-term ended a bit more than an hour ago, and my head still hurts. I have to hand it to the professor, though, he knows how to time an exam: very few people finished early, and I suspect I was one of many who finished within two minutes of when he called “time.” This unlike the midterm I heard about in a class I’m not taking, which turned out to actually be a three-hour exam crammed into a seventy-five-minute class block.

I need to get back to book studying soon, though. Yesterday, FedEx delivered my textbook for Sunday’s exam. It’s a media guide for the NYCM, where I will once again be writing the “mile by mile” updates on the race website. This exam will take approximately three hours, and while others might finish early, I probably won’t.

Now Playing: Too Late from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

Posted by pjm at 2:34 PM | Comments (1)

October 29, 2005

Arithmetic effort, logarithmic return

Writing a short C program for a Monte Carlo simulation to approximate π: boring coding exercise

Running the script for 500 million data points on one node of the research cluster: cool the first time

Re-coding the script with MPI to run on multiple nodes simultaneously (with the number of nodes and data points per node both user-specified as command-line arguments): excessively cool

Accuracy of approximation: irrelevant

Posted by pjm at 9:29 PM | Comments (1)

October 26, 2005

Absorption rate

It’s not uncommon for physiologists (or those posing as physiologists) to explain the body’s ability to absorb water as similar to a sponge. A sponge, of course, doesn’t soak up everything you pour on it; incoming water at a particular rate becomes more than the sponge can absorb, and the excess simply runs off. This doesn’t have anything to do with the sponge’s absolute capacity, but with a limit to the rate. The body is the same way: it doesn’t matter how thirsty and/or dehydrated you are, if you drink fluid at a rate in excess of the rate at which your body can absorb it, the excess will, well, run off.

I wonder if we learn the same way. I know that I feel like I’m in the path of a firehose stream of new material, and even though I know I’m absorbing a lot, I feel like some of it must be running off. But I haven’t figured out if there’s a real limiting factor. Can I simply not absorb information at this rate, or can I train myself to absorb it faster? In other words, will I get better with practice? Would I be soaking it up more efficiently if I had a better preparation? (Despite my determination to shed this idea, it’s not gone yet.)

Either way, I keep making an effort to put myself in the line of more. At some point, it will all make sense, right? Maybe that’s the flaw in the reasoning above: that when you can connect the information, hook it on to things you already know, you retain it more easily. And eventually I’ll be able to hook this all together, instead of climbing a ladder that’s not leaning on anything. (Nothing says I can’t switch metaphors midstream, right?)

Posted by pjm at 5:44 PM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2005


I won’t remember this if I don’t write it down.

This is the week when things are falling into place. I’m not going to claim I’m not swamped, or that I’m not still in need of hard work and concentration to stay on top of things. But I can see that I am not only learning new and interesting things, but that my classes and my work outside class is hooking together. The pieces feed each other and work together. I’m finding entirely new ways of thinking about problems, in the same way that I’m finding entirely new routes to run.

There’s a little euphoria that comes with that, because it’s the proof that I made the right decision: that it was a good idea to leave my job and go back to school, no matter how much work it is (and what a massive pay cut it was.)

I make decisions like that too easily, sometimes, because so far I haven’t made one which has proved to be really wrong. It may be that the confidence born of so many right decisions makes me better able to make more of them; it may be that the confidence allows me to make wrong decisions into right ones. Either way, it’s nice to feel like I’m on the right path, even if I don’t know where it ends.

Now Playing: Blackbirds from Distillation by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 11:24 AM | Comments (1)

October 17, 2005

Looking forward

By virtue of trying to get ahead, I’m actually getting to do a little looking forward. One of my current professors will be offering a graduate-level web programming course next semester, for example. I don’t even think it’s a question of whether I want to take it; I think I have to take it.

Posted by pjm at 5:30 PM | Comments (0)

Slipping in some fun

I spent a chunk of Friday and some more of the weekend chewing away at a problem set due tomorrow. I wanted it done before I went to tonight’s concert, and it is done now.

It’s amazing, now that I think about it, how hard I have to work to feel OK about taking a block of time “off” like that. It’s just an evening, but tonight I have class until 45 minutes before the concert starts; in that 45 minutes, I need to meet A., get down to Davis Square, and get something to eat (not necessarily in that order.) And there would be plenty of ways to eat up a few more minutes of even that time—for example, there’s a professor with office hours then who I really ought to be seeing about the next problem set due. I made sure I could go to the show, but I haven’t answered the problem of whether there are other things I ought to be doing.

So instead of taking a day off from work to relax and shake off some stress, I get to take a few hours off from being a student. I guess I’ve just been surprised by the degree to which that is a 24/7 job.

Posted by pjm at 3:54 PM | Comments (1)

October 15, 2005


Beloit College has published its Mindset list for the class of 2009.

I’m not as impressed with this list as I once was; sometimes I think they’re getting a little lazy about the specific years. Yes, it probably means something that these students “have always lived in a single-superpower world,” and that’s relevant; the dozen or so years I have on them means I grew up with a Cold War and they didn’t. But noting various television ad campaigns? I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, except reminding professors that catch-phrases they’re used to may just confuse their students.

I’m also troubled by their free use of the word “always,” for example, “Biosphere 2 has always been trying to create a revolution in the life sciences.” Really? Constantly? Sure, I remember when B2 was in the news when they started, but I thought they had failed by now; certainly we’re long past the point of revolution. I think the only people who have “always been trying to create a revolution” are the dogmatic Communists. (Unrepentant Marxist-Leninists, not mere socialists, that is.)

Posted by pjm at 11:26 AM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2005

Secret messages in the classroom

There are two good reasons, I think, not to keep your hat on in the classroom. First, it’s rude to the instructor: you’re hiding your eyes from the instructor and making it hard for them to do what you’ve implicitly asked them to do.

Second, it’s rude to your classmates: it makes you artificially taller to any students behind you, making it harder for them to see the chalkboard and/or projection screen.

Take it off, or sit in the back.

Posted by pjm at 11:22 AM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2005

Better comprehension through rudeness

This being a CS program, there are plenty of us with laptops, and it’s not uncommon to see them open in class. They’re handy tools; with the back of the screen to the instructor, there’s no indication given of whether you’re attentively taking notes which you will actually be able to read, or if you’ve got the email client (or chat client) open, aside from whether you manage to contribute to the class.

I’ve resisted having the machine open most of the time, figuring that I would rather not even offer the option of inattentiveness. Today, I experimented with the open laptop.

It was a class that leans heavily on Java, and the professor works frequently with examples on the course website. He has his laptop jacked in to the classroom projector, which puts his browser window (at a relatively low resolution, in order to be big enough to read) on the screen. As a result, there’s only a dozen or so lines of code visible at a time, which makes it hard to grasp them in context. When he flips back and forth between the running code and the source, that’s another chance to lose the context.

Today, I grabbed the code from the website early in the class and pasted it into text files open in TextWrangler. With the whole screen available, I could see much more without scrolling, and look around the project if I needed to follow my own thread. And I could compile and run whenever I needed. Despite having that potential distractor, I actually understood more of what was going on. I was actually surprised at how quickly the class passed, compared to my usual clock-watching in there.

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that the building’s wireless connection went down quite early in the class session.

Next step is getting Xcode running (I keep missing software, and discovering that I had installed it at work, not on the laptop,) and using that instead.

Now Playing: The Myths You Made from Somewhere Else by The Church

Posted by pjm at 8:40 PM | Comments (0)

October 6, 2005

Buried deep

In my Algorithms reading, the discussion of shortest paths is introduced by the problem of finding a route from Chicago to Boston. Eventually, this sentence crops up (links mine, of course):

Our goal is to find the shortest path from a given intersection in Chicago (say, Clark St. and Addison Ave.) to a given intersection in Boston (say, Brookline Ave. and Yawkey Way).

Anyone else notice anything in particular about those intersections?

Now Playing: No Promises by Icehouse

Posted by pjm at 11:23 AM | Comments (5)

October 5, 2005

Attention to detail

It is, undoubtedly, unfair of me to say anything here about students in the class I am TAing for. I know it’s not easy for some of them that we ask them to submit text files for their homework assignments, and want them to do that so they get comfortable in emacs.

Still, would you (as more than one of them still does) hand in anything with this header at the top?

;; This buffer is for notes you don't want to save, and for Lisp evaluation.
;; If you want to create a file, visit that file with C-x C-f,
;; then enter the text in that file's own buffer.

Now Playing: I’m Waiting For The Man by David Bowie

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September 29, 2005

Theory vs. implementation

Does it say anything for my inclinations that I’d rather hack on a programming assignment due Monday than review Algorithms for a quiz in less than three hours?

Posted by pjm at 9:18 AM | Comments (0)

September 28, 2005

The extent of my ignorance

Some days I think the value of the experience I’ll get here is likely to be greater than the value of the degree itself. In the small company, I was going to run out of new things to investigate; here, I feel like I’m going to be overwhelmed by everything I don’t know, but will need to know in short order.

I am going to be doing some system monitoring work on the University’s research cluster. The sysadmin (or one of them) pointed me to a few things I should know about to get started: the new cluster monitoring tool which they hope to extend, the cluster documentation, and the current monitoring tool.

This is all great documentation, but it’s opening up more doors I need to investigate. The graphing and data storage tool? Python and XML? The internal networking of clusters? This is all stuff I never would have run in to in the course of normal work.

Of course, it’s all coming at me so fast. How do I do this and classwork?

Now Playing: Cinematic from Grand by Erin McKeown

Posted by pjm at 9:14 AM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2005


I have an “office.” Our building, improbably, houses three departments: Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Athletics. Given the character of the school, it’s difficult to tell if the students entering are athletes, geeks, or both. My office is a not-quite-cube in the “extension,” which I share with another similarly-assigned grad student. He’s never there, preferring to work in the “lab” set up in a dorm basement on the other side of campus. (I have a key to that lab as well, but seldom have call to go there.) It has a shiny new Dell which I can’t (for some reason) log in to, and lockable drawers with little (except the miscellaneous debris of the Dell) in them.

Today I brought the adapter I needed to plug the Dell’s monitor in to my Powerbook. The mouse is USB, so I had no trouble with that, but for the first time in ages I need to dig up a mouse pad. (I’m sure I have one somewhere, but since I started using trackballs, they’ve been pointless.) The keyboard, unfortunately, is a PS2 plug, so I was stuck with the one on the PB. Maybe I’ll find a spare USB keyboard somewhere and let them take away the Dell.

It’s still not as nice as my attic-office here at home; after all, my books are here, and so is Iz. But it’s a helpful place to get a bit of work done between classes.

Now Playing: King’s Crossing from From A Basement On The Hill by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 9:55 PM | Comments (0)

September 24, 2005

Another good excuse

I heard once that the rationalization for including a Solitaire game (or Minesweeper) with Windows systems was to acclimate users, who had presumably learned to use computers via a command line interface, to pointing and clicking with the mouse.

The course I’m TAing for includes a lot of students who’ve never actually used a command-line system; they grew up with GUIs. I found myself wondering if there was an analog to the Solitaire tool—some kind of CLI game that would get people used to typing in commands, hitting return, etc.

I wonder if that would be sufficient rationalization for installing Zork in the Sun lab? Mmm, probably not.

Now Playing: A New Season from El Momento Descuidado by The Church

Posted by pjm at 6:18 PM | Comments (2)

September 23, 2005

Thirteen years too early

I doubt you could pay me enough to go back to being a high school student, but I can’t really let the morning pass without noting this. (Especially considering my opinions on the matter.)

Posted by pjm at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

September 21, 2005

I'll code better with some sleep

Now, there’s a weak excuse if ever I saw one.

I’m flailing in Java. This is my first functional Java program (we won’t count “Hello, World” this time,) but, as I mentioned in an email earlier today, the first derivative of ns in “My first functional n program” has been pretty high lately. (There: you now need some calculus to understand what I’m saying. We don’t talk down to you, here.)

A meeting earlier today suggested that I’ll be learning Python in a hurry, as well as this beast and some components of this. This sort of stuff doesn’t come up in a small-installation sysadmin setting, but I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Maybe with some sleep, I’ll be able to concentrate.

Now Playing: Ain’t No Lights from I’m On My Way (EP) by Rich Price

Posted by pjm at 11:29 PM | Comments (0)


Less than two hours after handing in the kludgy, ugly program I spent most of the night on, I learn the deadline was extended by a week.

Fortunately, I can use that time to revise/improve my code. Unfortunately, I won’t get that sleep back, because there’s a different program due tomorrow in a different class.

Posted by pjm at 4:23 PM | Comments (1)

September 20, 2005

Testy server

It would be a lot easier to finish this program if the load-sharing server I connect to for access to the department network didn’t insist on throwing me off at irregular intervals, causing me to pound my desk, curse, and sign back on again.

It may not help that I keep two sessions open—one to edit the source, and another to compile/run/research.

I’d do it all here on my Mac, but it’s systems programming; the different kernels can’t be counted on to have the same system calls (or respond the same way to the ones they do have in common, or several other subtle variations.)

I suppose I could ride over to the lab, but I’m comfortable here, frankly, and I’d rather have something other than my own kludgy code to complain about.

Now Playing: The Drug’s Not Working from Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 9:35 PM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2005

Classroom manner

I have, in the margins of my notebooks, the beginnings of the sort of collection I once made for one of my Russian professors, and I could easily whip up a post about the verbal quirks of the characters who are my professors here.

However, it’s a bit too easy to figure out who I’m talking about, I think, and even easier for the sort of fond amusement which goes with such things (often the “quotable” instructors are the ones students have the most respect for) to be misinterpreted as derision at the instructor’s expense. So I won’t. (Or, as one of today’s quotes went, “Just because you’re not paranoid, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out to get you.”)

It’s true that we have one or two real characters in the department, and I don’t think I’d have it any other way. The studied eccentricity of the humanities professor can be entertaining, but the out-and-out oddness of a computer geek who either isn’t aware of his own strangeness or, more likely, simply doesn’t care, is somehow more honest.

Meanwhile, we’ve been assigned to write a system monitor which notifies on anomalous events. Consider that in order to test such a program, one needs to create some anomalous events—out-and-out anti-social behavior on the shared machine. Oh, what glee. Infinite loops with large calls to malloc(), anyone? Fortunately, there’s a box dedicated to this class alone. Meanwhile, since I’ll probably be doing initial development here on my Mac, I expect my uptime is going to dive. I should probably not have other apps open if I make it to the testing phase.

Now Playing: No Beauty from The Greatest Gift by Liberty 37

Posted by pjm at 9:41 PM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2005

Bandwidth spike

I knew graduate school would be different. I don’t think I had any concept of quite how different.

Classes are one thing. I had plenty of mind-bending classes as an undergrad, and I don’t think this is any tougher than, say, third-year Russian was for me. The difference is that I am more determined to get it right. In night school, the instructors spoon-fed to the class at a careful and deliberate pace, and I got used to easily absorbing the material retail. This is wholesale; it’s coming at us in shovelfuls. I’m spending much more time than I ever have grappling with the coursework outside of class. At least I managed to protect my Fridays from regular obligations, so far (the department doesn’t offer courses on Friday, and I ducked responsibility for TAing labs then,) but at the expense of a late Thursday (labs until 8.)

But what good is a long weekend when you spend the whole thing in the library? I’ve got five books in play right now, and only two are primary texts for courses I’m being graded in. One of those isn’t even in my hands; I’ve been getting it from the reserve desk at the library and reading it (and re-reading it) in three-hour chunks. The other three are an optional text for one class (and you can bet I’m paying attention to optional texts if they look useful,) the text for the course I’m TAing, which I should probably get familiar with in order to answer questions with the tactful, academic version of “RTFM,” plus the text for a course I haven’t taken but should have for two of the courses I’m in. That’s a lot of reading (and, for that matter, a lot of mass.)

And then there’s MPOW, which is the sort of work which can make you look up and say, did I really start in on this three hours ago? (By pure coincidence, the Sakai installation wrapped up right around five on Friday. OK, I stretched it out a few minutes by going back and cleaning up my known false trails, but it really was coincidental.)

The good news is, so far I’m up to my eyeballs as promised, but not over my head. The less-good news is, I wish I had time to absorb what I’m learning better. I feel like this whole program is going to fly by before I notice it.

Posted by pjm at 3:46 PM | Comments (0)

September 6, 2005

In the corner of my eye

I keep feeling that I’m not the only student in this section of the library, because I can see someone reading out of the corner of my eye. But sometimes I look up and am reminded I really am the only one in this seating area; my peripheral companion is made of bronze, I think. According to her plaque, her name is Sophia.

Over my shoulder

Posted by pjm at 5:32 PM | Comments (1)

Book prices

I walk both sides of the textbook-pricing fence.

See, for the last four years I’ve been employed by a textbook publishing company. You know, those evil profiteers who pump up the prices of their books by including extra, supposedly unnecessary CD-ROMs and study guides in order to charge top dollar for the same old book. In fact, I was technically in the ancillaries department: the ones who produced the extra CD-ROMs, websites, etc. etc.—which are actually part of an arms race between publishers trying to convince professors to “adopt” their book over the others.

I also heard the complaints (whines?) from students protesting that publishers produce new editions too frequently in an effort to squash the used-book market. Sometimes that’s true; sometimes (as is often the case in the sciences) one needs a new edition to catch up with the science.

At any rate, my salary from four years on the Dark Side is subsidizing my gradual student lifestyle, thanks. So I can forgive them a good bit.

Now, however, I’m on the other side of the price tag. I’m trying to assemble all the books for the classes I’ve registered for, and it’s really a headache.

First, I’ve become a fan of the used book. This partly happened this summer, when I was selling excess books to avoid moving them. Also, I recently read an article in the NYT which pointed out something Amazon discovered when they opened up to used books: a healthy used market makes customers more willing to buy new. So I’m contributing to the healthy used market.

Second, in my time in night school, I developed an antipathy to college bookstores. They tend to feel like ripoffs when I stack up all my books and plop down my credit card. So, I start online.

Saturday, I cruised the course websites, built a book list, and opened windows on B&N and Amazon. I discovered a few years ago that a B&N Membership will really pay off if you’re buying textbooks (the 10% discount pays for the membership inside a semester) but Amazon’s used market is bigger and more competitive. So I shopped each book on both sites, built two orders, and submitted them.

The catch with online book orders is delivery time. I may be past the add-drop period before I have all my books. It’s impossible to tell when they’ll actually arrive, because the predicted arrival times are so cautious, but the forecast dates are pretty scary. I’m planning a lot of library time for reserve reading. I also whiffed completely on one book, ordering the wrong title from the right author; I’ve resubmitted that order.

Fortunately, my Monday-Wednesday courses only meet once this week, which gives me some time to get things together. However, next semester I need to either (a) start earlier, or (b) figure out an efficient way to hedge the arrival times, like shopping a physical bookstore first, or (c) some combination.

Posted by pjm at 4:53 PM | Comments (0)

First day

Is it still the first day of school if you only have one class? What if it doesn’t start until noon?

Now Playing: You And Me Song from The Wannadies by The Wannadies

Posted by pjm at 9:23 AM | Comments (0)

September 4, 2005


After several days thrashing around in orientations, I’m closer to figuring out what my day-to-day life will look like for the next few years, but oddly enough, not much closer to bonding with the institution. The name has pretty much submerged into an adjective used only to distinguish how-we-do-it-here from how-they-do-it-elsewhere; you don’t think of it much. I am a graduate student (or gradual student, if you’ve read too much John Irving,) but I don’t consider myself a Tufts Student, at least not in my mind.

I don’t think it’s like this for the undergraduates. They aren’t bound as tightly to one department, and they are expected to identify with the university as a whole. They play sports, they work on the newspaper, they look down on the other institutions which may or may not have turned them down, and they have reunions and get hit up for cash for the endowment.

There was plenty of identifying done at my college, and I was both surprised by it, and took it for granted. We had a strong rivalry with a (relatively) nearby college, and since a large part of rivalries is about identifying yourself, we dug right in. That was no surprise. Then again, both my high school and my older brother’s college had blue and white colors, so it did come as a bit of a shock to see the house break out in purple before I left for my college. I’d never noticed all the blue. I haven’t gone to brown and blue yet, and I doubt I will; aside from a t-shirt my parents gave me, all I have with the university’s name is a hat A. gave me for my birthday. It started blue, but is fading, improbably, towards brown.

When I started this whole circus, nearly five years ago, it amused me to pick up a hat from the night school I was then attending, and wear it. I only took Calculus there, but it still amused me; it was almost like pretending to be someone else. I was less willing to identify with my night school in Massachusetts, but now I’m tagging myself again.

It’s very subtle, though; when I wandered through the gym yesterday, the emeritus something who picked me up and toured me around the place latched on to my t-shirt from my undergraduate college before he noticed the hat (if, indeed, he ever did mention it.) “Well, you’re in the wrong place, aren’t you?”

“They’ve given me a degree,” I shot back. “You all haven’t yet.”

Now Playing: Never Believe You Now from Strangest Places by Abra Moore

Posted by pjm at 3:35 PM | Comments (0)

September 1, 2005

No stress, nope

I woke up this morning from a dream which involved a fellow grad student calling from a cell phone and whispering urgently into the phone, “[pjm]! Why the hell aren’t you here! This session is mandatory!”

Of course, the session was in Northampton. (Yeah, right across the bridge.) I can’t recall if the fellow student was in my department or not; the role might have been played by a former co-worker. And I was addressed by my last name, though so far we all know each other by first names if at all. And who has my phone number?

But the idea that I should be at the University, not sleeping, has clearly seeped into my subconscious.

Posted by pjm at 11:31 AM | Comments (0)

August 31, 2005

Don't overload

When I talked to my mother about course selection, she cautioned me. “Don’t overload,” she said.

Today was department orientation, and for all the relatively low-content speeches of yesterday, today was somewhat more intense. The department faculty gave the high-level overview of the courses they taught and the research they did, and for those few brief moments (before we began connecting the dots between what we knew and what we’d have to learn to reach that level of research,) we were all ready to sign on for several of them. Also, I knew I had some catching up to do, and I wanted to front-load my course work some in order to prepare for a thesis next year.

Then I talked to my advisor, who turns out to have been a grad school acquaintance of one of my undergrad co-workers. His advice: don’t bother trying to catch up. Take a few prerequisite courses you’ll really need, skip the rest, and pick the rest of your courses like an ordinary grad student. “You won’t be able to cover an undergraduate major and still do a proper Masters,” he said.

So, I’m punting. The current plan, should it stand, is Algorithms, which is a basic that I need; Operating Systems, aka “Learning C the Hard Way,” which promises to be a lot of work, but may be a professor I’ll be doing research with; and OOP for GUIs, which is both catch-up and simply an attempt to do something that won’t make my brain explode. (I haven’t done much proper Object Oriented Programming. In fact, some might argue that I haven’t done much proper programming. To those people, I say, can you give proper declensions of irregular Russian verbs? Neither can I.)

Current grad students agree that this plan is not entirely psychotic. I want to run it by a few faculty before I commit to registration, though.

Posted by pjm at 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

August 30, 2005


Orientation this afternoon was largely content-free, though at least a bit amusing. The main purpose seemed to be mostly symbolic, having all the entering graduate students in one place for one afternoon, but once they had us there they didn’t have too much to tell us. Most of the useful information was on sheets of paper in the packets we got on walking in; five or six of us who had met at a Davis Square meet-up Monday night (arranged through the incoming-grad-student message boards) took one of the sheets and skipped out at the first available moment to the Police office, where we picked up our student IDs, the most substantiative progress of the day.

We’re a mixed bunch. As you’d expect, most of us are 22, with still-drying BAs, but there’s a pretty high percentage of older folks like myself. I met one guy my age (we actually have mutual acquaintances, high school friends of his who I knew in college,) who has spent the nine years since graduation accumulating post-graduate baccalaureates through his first college, others in its consortium, and finally Tufts. He claims to have seven BAs or equivalents, if I heard him correctly, and I imagine it’s possible. He’s planning on a biology MS this year before going to med school next year.

From department to department, the level of handling we’re getting varies. In CS, I have a full day of department orientation tomorrow (including an hour for the entire Engineering School,) plus a good deal of TA orientation on Friday. On the other end of the scale, our German student doesn’t know who her advisor is, nor if she has an orientation; she’s heard nothing from her department since being accepted, and isn’t sure when or how to register for classes.

Now Playing: Man On The Mountain from Still Burning by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 9:23 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2005

A semester goal

I’m composing an email to my newly-assigned advisor (who, as it turns out, is also new to the department this semester.) I realized, in thinking over what to say, that I’m not just cautious about articulating my goals for this program; I’m cautious about letting myself have any. This isn’t right, and it’s going to get me in trouble if I can’t square it away soon.

So, there’s my goal for the fall semester, if not the ‘05-‘06 year: get rid of this feeling that I can’t have goals because I don’t know what’s possible. Figure out what I can be legitimately curious about. And get curious about it, in an informed enough way that I can set more specific academic goals.

Now Playing: If I Were A Rich Man from Knitting On The Roof by Magnetic Fields

Posted by pjm at 9:11 PM | Comments (0)


In my discussions with the department last spring, they had mentioned to me a specific “assistantship,” neither an RA nor TA position. (Note to non-academics: “RA” and “TA” are frequently-used academic jargon terms for the two common jobs for funded graduate students: “Research Assistant,” a coveted position helping with a professor’s research, and “Teaching Assistant,” a position nearly everyone who has gone to a large university is familiar with, respectively. Tufts CS has a third category, sometimes called “System Administrator” but more often not labeled, which involves direct support work on the campus network and IT systems.) In fact, I’d actually been contacted by this other organization (a university support organization outside the CS department) about the assistantship; they put me on a conference call and I got a tag-team interview with them. I didn’t hear anything more about it, and assumed that was settled.

As usual, assumptions are a mistake; today I got an email indicating that I’ve been assigned to TA for CS 11, the Intro course. This opens up a whole slew of questions.

  • The TA position requires more hours, and also pays better. It’s possible that the Department considers this a “better” position and put me in it when the spot opened up. It’s also possible that demand for RAs and TAs inside the department exceeded supply, and they decided not to send a grad student off somewhere else. How do these assignments get decided?

  • CS 11 is both the most generic assignment possible, and maybe the only course I’m qualified to TA (assuming I am, which may not be a safe assumption.) Related to the first question, is this a generic assignment because they’re confused by the other-department position? Is it more solid than the last one?

  • What happened to the other department’s position? Did the position vanish (possible,) or get given to someone else (also possible)?

  • Do I like this development?

Even though I’ve been in town for a week now, I’ve largely avoided going in to the department, because I’ve had a lot to do here and I’ve been apprehensive that they’ll put me to work and suck up the rest of my “vacation” time. It seems like it’s time to break that silence and see if I can get some answers to the questions above, with the second and fourth probably being the most important ones.

It may not hurt to get an appointment with my newly appointed advisor (same email) and start sorting out my class schedule, now that I have at least one time commitment to work around.

Update, 8/25: Apparently the TA position is in addition to the other graduate assistantship, not in place of it. It’s five hours a week to bring me up to the usual 20 (with the corresponding pay raise, as well, though that might not carry through the summer as the other one does.) Huh, they answered all my questions before I could even ask most of them, though the fourth one still stands.

Now Playing: I’ll Be You from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 4:27 PM | Comments (1)

August 18, 2005

Cutting the knot

We ended up resolving the immunization problem with the Alexander method: as Chris suggested, they gave me the shot. They were quite apologetic about it, and wanted me to try checking with Health Services at my undergraduate college (as wolfangel suggested,) but somehow I didn’t see another few turns around the Gordian knot of my documented medical history helping the situation. So they jabbed me and told me to come back in a month for another one. Just now, I checked the shoulder and realized I’ve had a band-aid on ever since, without noticing it.

The tech who gave me the shot observed that this generation is the most immunized in history, and I believe it. I’ve had to have a few shots that didn’t exist when I last needed shots. She also asked if I was allergic to eggs. “Wow,” I said, “That would really put a dent in my diet.” Then, for a moment, all I could think about was that she hadn’t specified what kind of eggs. I mean, for the price per ounce, they could be making this stuff from caviar, wouldn’t you think?

[Now Playing, by the way, will be back when I manage to unpack something like an office and actually have music playing when I post.]

Posted by pjm at 8:43 PM | Comments (1)

August 17, 2005

Puzzle at Health Services

I am faced with an interesting bureaucratic conundrum. The University Health Services is demanding I complete a form prior to enrollment (which, I am daily reminded, is approaching rapidly.) The box on the form which they note (correctly) is un-checked is the one confirming that I have received a particular series of immunizations.

This is, of course, such a painfully basic set of shots that my parents probably would’ve had some interviews with the State DHS had I not had them by, say, age five. It is highly unlikely that I would’ve been allowed to enroll at my undergraduate institution (or, for that matter, high school,) without these shots. I know I’ve had the shots.

The problem is that I can’t prove it.

I have not visited the doctor who gave me the shots in some ten or a dozen years. I did call his office as a sort of pro forma thing, but they just confirmed that they wouldn’t have kept records that long (where “that long” >= 20 years.) My physician in Amherst didn’t give me the shots, so he doesn’t have record of them. Likewise my doctors in Pennsylvania, who I visited so seldom I didn’t even bother calling to check with them.

So, as I stated above, it seems like a logical impossibility that I would have avoided these shots, but I lack a witness, and that’s what they want.

Sometime soon, possibly tomorrow, I’m going to drop by Health Services in person, and see what we can do. It seems likely that the solution will involve them drawing blood and checking for the antibodies directly.

If I can prove these things to the satisfaction of Health Services, I’ll feel ready to take on the Bursar.

Posted by pjm at 9:11 PM | Comments (3)

August 2, 2005

Shredded debt

It’s tempting to read too much in to this, but I’m spending part of this evening shredding a lot of student loan documents.

I’m purging my file cabinets as an effort of mercy for the poor movers, so over the past week or so I’ve been shredding like an Enron executive. Anything with a Pennsylvania mailing address is ribbons, and much with previous addresses here (depending on what it is.) I’ve got enough shredded paper for a small victory parade.

I’m keeping a few sheets. The scary one I first got, while in the internship-that-wasn’t-yet-a-job, telling me what I owed and how I would be expected to pay it off. And the last statement before I did pay it off, probably four and a half years ago, telling me that I was paid up three years into the future.

I had a love-hate relationship with that debt. I hated sending money, and I hated having a future of debt. I felt harnessed by it, and though I don’t expect I would have made many different decisions, it definitely colored the way I looked at my world for a few years. On the other hand, I would definitely be in a different place had I opted not to incur the debt. And once I finally had a handle on it, I began to enjoy sending in the checks early and trimming the interest charges. One of the wonders of compound interest is that once you start getting ahead of it, it gets easier to get even farther ahead, and by the end, sending in the checks was like running up the score against the Yankees.

There’s a discussion about college choices going on at Stay of Execution, where I put my oar in (of course.) A lot of the comments put heavy weight on the expected graduating debt as a factor in the decision, and they cite many of my “hate” aspects. But none of them bring up what was positive about the debt: I wrestled with it, and I won. In fact, after a close early round, I wiped the mats with it. I’m coming in to another spell of tuition-finding in the next few years, and though I’m fortunate not to be incurring debt (at least this year,) having shredded my first round of student debt does good things for my confidence if I happen to need a second round.

Now Playing: Don’t Pass Me By from Open All Night by The Georgia Satellites

Posted by pjm at 10:22 PM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2005

Getting in the mind-set

If I wasn’t already mentally prepared for grad school, I got a tuition bill from the Bursar today. My alleged assistantship hasn’t been applied yet, so the bill is for the full annual amount.

It kinda takes your breath away, seeing the figure there on the page. And this program is less expensive than many (for example, law school.)

Now Playing: Trumpet Clip from Eventually by Paul Westerberg

Posted by pjm at 11:52 AM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2005

What next? or, when the liberal arts education isn't really working out

The alumni magazine from my college is making the rounds. (I’ve heard from others that it has arrived, but for some reason, even though I’m in the same town as the college, it always comes to me late.) Some people comment on the articles, but mostly it’s a ripple of rueful complaints as people read the class notes: “Will you people stop winning awards, earning degrees, getting married and having children?” (This is not unique to my college.)

That, combined with the awareness that the college just dumped a fair number of unemployed “young alumni” on the job market who may or may not have immediate plans or actionable ambitions, began to feel like a call to action. Some of us who graduated in a similar situation, without obviously marketable skills or experience, are sharing what we’ve learned on I led off with my story, which is actually quite reassuring (my best offer at graduation was an internship, but it became a “real job,” and I’ve not had trouble paying the rent,) and today I posted another contribution from a more recent graduate who has held (if I’m counting correctly) three different internships, but no salaried jobs, in two years. I have a third one waiting for me to have time to edit it.

While I suspect the majority wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in the contents of that site, I know there are more than a few who might identify with some of these stories. As I add more, they should all be reachable with this keyword search.

Now Playing: Cowards from Gotta Get Over Greta by The Nields

Posted by pjm at 4:34 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2005


I took the university health services form to my current doctor this morning. The form was slanted towards undergraduates, who would be maintaining a “permanent” “home” address distinct from their college address, so it was often unclear whether I should use my future “permanent” address in Medford, or my current “permanent” address in Amherst.

I wound up getting punctured somewhat more than I had expected, between tests and vaccinations. (I knew I would have to make up some things for graduate school, but I did not expect them to be vaccinations. There are things required now that were not required for my last go-around.) I began to wonder if I should stop drinking lest I begin leaking tea.

Then I asked how long they’d been practicing acupuncture.

Now Playing: Here Comes A Regular from Tim by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 2:29 PM | Comments (1)

May 4, 2005


We had an office meeting this morning, which started out with some announcements from the business manager. “G. and T. are expecting a baby in September… S. and T. are expecting one in October… and [pjm]…” … and she had to stop due to gales of laughter.

When she could continue, it was, “…is leaving in August to have a masters’ degree.”

Somehow I think it will take more than nine months. Otherwise, it will be much easier.

Now, fixing a corrupted Windows installation… now we have some basis for comparison.

Now Playing: Commercial Rain from Life by Inspiral Carpets

Posted by pjm at 12:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 3, 2005

It's starting already

Yesterday, I talked briefly to the head of the department where I may be doing my assistantship. It was the first stage in the complicated modem-squeal process by which technical people negotiate a level at which they can communicate. (This is, in fact, what the squealing noise of analog modems is: two pieces of hardware patiently negotiating a speed and protocol which they both understand.) At my current office, my direct supervisor understands a significant fraction of what I say, and I can usually explain concepts needed to understand the basics of what I’m doing. With most everyone else, conversations are a frustrating series of false starts while I try to find a level where they’ll understand what I’m saying. (Or, I could just be condescending:)

Dilbert for April 28

These folks, on the other hand, are pretty confident at a high level of discussion; heck, they’re running a Tru-64 server and a Beowulf cluster. I don’t even have a Xeon in my webserver, and half my public servers are either recycled or have been with the company longer than I have. They’re figuring out how much they need to talk down to me, which is exciting; I can’t learn anything if I only work with systems I already understand.

The discussion is showing me how, even as I committed to making this jump to graduate school, I haven’t really spent any time looking at how big a change it’s going to be. I think I’ve been mentally lazy, letting my work and my activities (or lack thereof) define who I am to myself, and not thinking about how the picture is changing over time. This is a chance for me to shake off some of the old ideas I’ve allowed to harden around me, and open my mind up. I’m not idealistic enough to imagine complete transformation, nor do I think that’s really necessary, but perhaps an environment in which I’m constantly required to be learning new things will prompt me to stick my neck out a bit more in the rest of the world—and look back at myself.

Now Playing: Jam from Pale by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2005


This morning I finally received a response from the fifth department I applied to last winter, and it was negative. So, two acceptances and three rejections. It’s a good thing the scoring in this game doesn’t actually work that way.

I mentioned, in an aside a few months ago, that I was an early-decision acceptance as an undergraduate, which means I never went through the whole April ritual of thick and thin envelopes in high school. My high school had an open lunch, so I would drive home sometimes to check the mail, and I did that day; contrary to conventional wisdom, the envelope was thin, because it contained only the acceptance letter and the deposit form to be returned. My father, who had seen only the envelope when he brought the mail inside, thought it was a deferral.

So I didn’t have any experience to work from this time around. I’ve discovered that I’m not really all that bothered by the rejections. (Again, I know that’s not the right word, but what’s the better one?) Maybe this would’ve been harder in high school, when it felt like my entire future, or even if I’d been applying as a graduating college senior, but now it seems like the consequences are so much lower. I’m disappointed, sure. But I’m a long way from being upset, especially since I did get accepted somewhere I’m looking forward to going.

Now Playing: North, South, East And West from Starfish by The Church

Posted by pjm at 11:34 AM | Comments (2)

April 20, 2005


The fifth department I applied to still hasn’t sent a response. Their website says, don’t pester us about your application before April 15.

The result is pretty much irrelevant; they’d have to offer the moon, at this point, to change my decision. So I don’t feel a lot of motivation to contact them and ask. But it’s irritating. I paid the application fee, so I’m entitled to some sort of response, right?

Now Playing: Nowhere from Nowhere by Ride

Posted by pjm at 4:14 PM | Comments (1)

April 19, 2005

Now is when everything happens at once

I am getting preliminary details of “aid” now, the complicated system by which I work for my degree instead of paying tuition. I’ve figured the process out by bits and pieces, but the details appear to be a bit different at each institution so I’m trying to fit my overview understanding around the details as communicated in a short series of encouraging emails. It’s an odd place for me because once my priority, the degree, is covered, I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to expect or ask for. When I apply for a job, I have a rough idea about the going rate for people who do what I do. In this situation, which is not a negotiation but sometimes feels like one, I don’t have any benchmarks to work from. I don’t know what’s “good” and what’s standard.

One quirk is that they’re now giving me the option of taking a round of summer courses, starting in July. It would mean leaving my job at least a month earlier than planned and greatly accelerating the relocation process, but it might also give me a good start on the “catching up” process which I expect to consume a large fraction of my first academic year. I don’t feel like there’s a wrong answer to this… but I do feel like there’s an objectively better answer, if only I knew which one. I wish I knew someone with some (specific) experience in this who could make the case either way.

Update: Precious few useful classes are available in that segment of summer starting July 1, which makes summer look less like a good idea. Next summer, maybe, when I have the whole summer to take the wider range of classes scheduled for the full 12-week term.

Now Playing: Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 2:43 PM | Comments (2)

April 12, 2005


Yesterday morning, I sent the deposit form to the university I visited last fall. Today, I returned a postcard to the other acceptance thanking them for their interest, and declining their offer. (As for the school which has neither accepted nor rejected me… well, too late, guys.) It’s a risky step, since the aid at the second school, while limited, was more definite, but I feel more comfortable with the first. Nine years of regular paychecks has given me the luxury of being able to take that risk.

I’ll be in Medford in September. I should get back in touch with the network administrator.

Now Playing: Dan Takes Five from In the Land of Salvation and Sin by The Georgia Satellites

Posted by pjm at 11:11 AM | Comments (3)

April 8, 2005


I kept saying how certain I was that one of the two uncertain applications was going to be a “No.” Turns out, via this morning’s mail, that it’s a “sort of.” They didn’t accept me to the program I applied to, but to a similar one in the same department, which might be all I want or need anyway. And they offered a partial scholarship, while I’ve heard nothing much from the first place.

And that one, which has been positive all along sent another reminder: hey, tell us what you’re planning within a week or so, or we’ll give your spot to someone else.

So the stage is set for a decision. If the fifth (and last) response doesn’t turn up very soon, it will either be rendered irrelevant or complicate an already muddy situation.

Now Playing: Best Imitation Of Myself from Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 2:12 PM | Comments (1)

April 5, 2005

Another way of sharing the responses

I talked about posting rejection letters a while ago, but I was disturbed to find this morning that some clown is actually auctioning his acceptance letter. I wonder if the price will actually make it up to equal the cost of the stamp? And while the seller claims to be “seeing what the weirdest thing I can sell on eBay is,” I wonder if there isn’t more than a little plain old bragging involved. Why not post his test scores for good measure? (Put another way: if he’s such a hotshot, why didn’t he apply early?)

Now Playing: Asking Me Lies from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 11:07 AM | Comments (2)

March 31, 2005

One more step

The deposit form is filled out. The envelope is addressed, stamped, and clipped to the deposit form. If I put the form in the envelope, and mail it, I will be committed. (More accurately, it will cost me $300 to change my mind.)

Why haven’t I done it yet?

It’s not the feeling that it will be a bad decision. I’ve had two negative responses so far, and the two schools I’m still waiting on aren’t likely to be much different. (I think the fact that I haven’t heard from them yet should be telling me something.) I’ve had a good feeling about this school since I visited there. (Looks like my nickel worked.)

I haven’t heard anything about aid yet, and that worries me a bit. Should I have? I feel like I ought to be waiting out these other two schools, but even if they accepted me, would I choose to go there? If I keep waiting, am I endangering my position at this school?

And, down at the base of it…

I went back to this list and thought about how things have changed. A lot of the things I feared are now moot (the first one, for example.) I added one: I’m so long out of school that I won’t be able to focus on the work and keep up. But the one that makes my hair stand on end is the last one: I’ll be so bound up by the things I’m afraid of that I won’t make it happen at all.

I’ve still got a chance to blow it.

Now Playing: All My Sons from Born of Frustration by James

Posted by pjm at 2:53 PM | Comments (1)

March 29, 2005

A semester too early

I realize I’m giving away the current leader in the “who gets pjm as a grad student” sweepstakes, but this would’ve been a perfect pitch for me to hit out of the park.

Now Playing: 12 Bellevue from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 3:40 PM | Comments (2)

March 17, 2005

Hanging it out

When I was a senior in college, it was traditional to post all the negative responses received relative to whatever one planned to do after graduation. Normally, these went on the bulletin board outside one’s door, but I recall some doors which were entirely papered, and there may have been some senior-dense areas where the whole hall contributed to a communal wall of rejection.

Since my job search was pretty half-assed (I actually forgot an interview, and got a call from the no-longer-potential employer asking where I was,) I didn’t have much to post; instead, I kept a public archive of the March of Doom in the form of my major department’s communications about my comprehensive examination. Comps were required for me to graduate in the major, and since my GPA in my major was actually somewhat worse than my overall GPA, there was at least a slight possibility that I would crash-land. Anyway, I had no idea what I was going to do after graduation; at the time, remember, the concept of creating web pages professionally was still pretty new.

The idea of posting the letters, anyway, was somewhat like the Callahan’s motto of “Shared pain is lessened.” We were all in the pool together, and since you only needed one positive response, the negatives were more about bravado than gallows humor.

I bring this up because I haven’t recycled my two letters yet. I felt like I should be doing something with them—filing them, maybe—but tonight I realized that I was planning to post them on my door, without any actual door in mind. They can’t go on my office door at work, I think; nobody would understand why they’re there. (Maybe if I had a cubicle?) Putting them up in the apartment would just be weird, and not in a good way.

Maybe I should sneak back over to the college and post them outside my old dorm room. That would leave ‘em guessing!

Posted by pjm at 8:29 PM | Comments (1)

March 15, 2005

Application update

As of this morning’s mail, I am now waiting on only three applications. The two responses are one yes and one no, and since the acceptance and all three outstanding apps are in the Boston area, it’s pretty much settled that I will no longer be living in the Amherst area come September.

Curiously, as I read the rejection (I’m told that’s not how I’m supposed to look at it, but it’s the only single word that describes it,) I was not upset at not being accepted; rather, I was a bit sad to know I wouldn’t be staying here. I had psyched myself up to thinking I would be accepted when I was doing the work to send in the application, but in retrospect I am not too terribly surprised; I’ve always been a long shot for many departments. Having an acceptance already in my pocket helps, too; even if I get no more acceptances, I think I will be happy with the one offer I have. I think I like the idea of a department that would take a chance on someone like me.

I suspect I have another “no” en route, but I don’t have much more than a hunch about that one. The other two are enigmas.

So, if you notice me dwelling on the nice things about living around here, that’s why.

Update, 3/16: I was right, there was another “no” en route, but not the one I had a hunch about. So, two remaining, at least one of which I expect to be the third “no.” (But since I’ve already “won” this game, I’m more amused than bothered if the other side wants to run up the score…)

Now Playing: A Life of Sundays from Room To Roam by The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 9:01 PM | Comments (2)

March 3, 2005


March is the waiting time. The town’s attitude towards snow, a large helping of which we got on Monday, has altered significantly with the turn of the calendar page, from resignation and acceptance to a mixture of despair and hope. The concrete manifestation is the shift from carefully scraping our sidewalks and driveways bare of white stuff, to grudgingly clearing the absolute minimum of space and waiting for the extended sunlight hours to melt the rest.

The astronomical “first day of spring” is on the same calendar page we are, along with Easter. We know the warm stuff is coming, and that promise is what’s carrying us through the “chance of flurries” graphics which litter the forecast.

Inside, things aren’t much different. I am in that time when graduate programs I have applied to might be responding to me. None have, yet, but they aren’t late yet, either. I know I’ll be moving forward in the fall, but until I know how, there’s not much for me to do but noodle around with transient little projects. I can keep my hands busy, but I feel like rot is setting in somewhere around the ambitious part of my head.

It’s likely to get worse before it gets better. But it’s March, and that means April is right around the corner. Right? Let’s just not discuss mud season, for the moment.

Now Playing: Telepath from Forget Yourself by The Church

Posted by pjm at 4:15 PM | Comments (0)

March 1, 2005

Why I think I am a good student

I’m looking at an email which we got an unspecified number of months ago. It’s a support request from a student at an unnamed university ( email address) for help with a CD-ROM packaged with one of our titles.

pleas can u help, i recently bought thr [title omitted] book which comes with an interactive cd-rom, the only thing is that i cannot download the shockwaves player on to my windows xp. could you please contact me on this email with any solutions that you may have. i have an exam on it soon and i would really find it helpfull if i could sort this problem out.

I don’t remember how I responded, but all I can think is, I really hope they can straighten up their email voice before they start applying for jobs.

And, if this is representative of the undergraduate pool, my grad school applications must look really good.

Now Playing: She Cried from Pale by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 11:03 AM | Comments (2)

January 26, 2005

Checking off the boxes

The Daring Fireball Linked List recently posted a link to a site called Ta-da List. It’s a pretty simple web application: for a free registration, you can keep to-do lists online. That’s not a big step considering the number of desktop applications which perform the same function; what’s useful are the next steps.

  1. You can share those lists, either publicly or with a limited selection of other members. List sharing is on a list-by-list basis; you can share a project list with your co-developers, or make your to-do list public, and still keep your gift-purchasing list private.
  2. You can get (an) RSS feed(s) of changes to those lists, either list-by-list or for all your lists. So you can use your aggregator to know when something you’ve delegated has been checked off a list.

I don’t have any need for truly mobile network access (PDA, Blackberry, etc.) but I imagine that accessing these lists is just as easy with a web-enabled Palm (or similar) as it is from my desk.

So part of me being quiet today is because I’m checking stuff off lists. Mail crash-priority official transcript requests, check. Fax unofficial transcripts, check. Round up copies of recommendation letters, check. Calm acceptance of application karma… we’re still working on that.

Now Playing: National Steel from Failer by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 2:27 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2005

Strike two?

Well, the university which first lost my application has now lost my transcripts and letters of recommendation. The Graduate School says they don’t have them, check with the department. The department doesn’t have them either. (I find this out by following a link on an undated letter received after the application deadline. So much for the importance of being punctual.)

I can’t figure out where they could have gone, since the only reason I originally knew they’d botched the online application was that they sent me an email saying they had all the paperwork but no application. It’s almost pathetically Dostoyevskian that they should now insist that they have only an application, but no paperwork. (So that’s why I studied Russian Literature!)

The department says they’ll take the LORs by email. I don’t know what we’ll do about the transcripts; I can send requests tomorrow, but it’s unlikely they’ll be back within a week. Maybe I give them unofficial ones?

Predictably, I’m so angry I could spit.

Posted by pjm at 2:33 PM | Comments (4)

January 21, 2005

"Outstanding among the morons I've taught..."

Answering a rhetorical question I asked a few weeks ago: I sent handwritten thank-you notes to those who wrote letters of recommendation. Following a hint in a conversation with one of the recommenders (not dropped intentionally, I think) I also included tins of good tea (from a site I found through Abby, and therefore JM by extension, thanks.)

I was able to deliver two by hand, and the remaining ones went in the mail. Since I had two recommenders in one department in particular, I actually sent three notes (and tins) there. The third went to the department secretary. See, while the content and signatures of the letters may have been a big boost to my applications (or a drag, I’m not sure,) the letters themselves would not have been written and mailed to me without her help. (We’re talking about some seriously absent-minded professors.)

I think I’ve put as much diplomatic effort in on this whole application process as I have in the past three years of work. (And, I should note, I handle tech-support calls and email. But that’s retail; this has been wholesale.) Serious work, for me.

Now Playing: Undertow from New Adventures In Hi-Fi by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 1:52 PM | Comments (1)

December 31, 2004

Four down, one to go

I mailed the fourth application today, and submitted the online data. This one gives me a PDF of all the data, so I can easily resubmit if they screw it up. I also resubmitted the dud, and this time got an actual credit card response for the application fee. (I’m spending something like $300 on applications.) The deferral is complete and confirmed. It’s not clear if they are dropping me in the fall applicant pool or the fall acceptance pool, but the spring acceptance makes me confident enough not to worry too much.

I have all the supporting documents (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.) for the fifth and final one, due on January 15th, in a big envelope on my desk. I just need to finish the application (online,) put a cover letter in the application, address it and mail it (probably Monday.) Then all I can do is wait for responses. I think I’d rather wait than deal with the choices that will come with the responses.

Posted by pjm at 6:48 PM | Comments (2)

December 29, 2004


Maybe it’s the applications. Maybe it’s the feeling at the base of my skull like my brain is gnawing its way out. But whatever the reason, the end of the year is feeling more like a deadline than anything else. And it’s a deadline for a project I haven’t started. I don’t even know what it is.

Now Playing: Impossible from Us And Us Only by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 4:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 27, 2004

I'm no longer so impressed...

…with online graduate school applications.

In processing materials submitted in support of applications, we see we have received your letters of recommendation and transcripts along with your cover letter indicated [sic] you applied online. We have no record of your application, payment, personal statement or residency statement. We had been having problems with the online application. Please resubmit the application and other online materials.

Update, 28 December: They say they are honoring applications received by the “old” deadline of 15 January. (15 December was a new deadline this year.) Still… I wonder if this is foreshadowing. Are they always this much of an administrative train-wreck?

Posted by pjm at 10:00 PM | Comments (1)

December 22, 2004

Update on the application process

I’ve only mentioned graduate school applications in passing, lately, but there has been a lot going on in that area.

Back in the fall, when I was frustrated with the holding pattern, I sent an application to the one program on my list which allows students to start in the spring semester. Has anyone ever told you, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it?” Earlier this month, they accepted me, and I discovered that while I (still) can easily see them as a good choice, I wasn’t ready to deal with such a telescoped time frame (at best, six weeks between the offer and the start of classes. And many more complications, which I won’t detail here.)

So, with mixed feelings, I asked them to defer until the fall. They haven’t confirmed that yet, which makes me very nervous about the whole situation, but aside from politely nagging them, there’s not much I can do, right now. I know, other people would love to have my problems.

I revised my list of schools (having one acceptance in my pocket (hopefully) made me slightly less cautious about programs,) and I’ve sent two of the four remaining applications. I have only one more recommendation letter to ask for and two which are requested but haven’t come back, all for one application; all the transcripts are in, and the résumé and “statement of purpose” have already been polished and used a few times, so they only need final molding to the requirements of the relevant applications.

I have, belatedly, become a fan of the online application; aside from transcripts and letters, I’ve been able to submit everything online. (I suppose I had to use the phone to get ETS to send around my GRE scores, but even that was an automated phone system.) Instead of amassing all the documentation and plowing through an application in one sitting, I can fill in bits and pieces, save, and come back to the site later. (There are a lot of bits and pieces.) Some of them have “Check Application” functions which run through and show you areas you’ve missed or incorrectly filled out. The drawback is that this infinite editing capacity allows me to fuss over them endlessly. And this has made some things a struggle, particularly in talking to the program which accepted me. I’ve even had a hard time composing and sending email messages.

I’m not sure what I want to happen. No, that’s not true: I want to have an easy decision, whatever it is. Just one option, or at least a clear difference between a good choice and a bad one. Once the decision is made, I’m confident it’s going to come out well, but that confidence paradoxically makes the decisions harder.

Now Playing: Area 51 from Tellin’ Stories by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2004


I took an errands-walk this morning, mostly dealing with the logistics of the myriad bits of paper involved in graduate school applications (yes, even when submitting most of them on-line.) On my way from the Registrar’s to the post office, I crossed paths with one of my old professors.

That description is a bit of understatement. His was the first classroom I entered in my undergraduate career, first semester, first year, more than twelve years ago now. I hadn’t even seated myself when he had me pegged: “It’s [pjm], the only person in the entering class to have a high school named after him.” We discovered later that he was known for, among other things, memorizing the facebook for each incoming class, and not forgetting for years afterward. I had two more classes with him before graduating, so even now, there’s no chance of passing him on the street unrecognized.

He quizzed me briefly about what I was up to, (“What brings you to this spot, right now,”) noted another former student supposedly teaching in one of the departments I am applying to, then sent me on my way saying, “It’s good to see you, you never change.”

That puzzled me most of the way to the post office. It’s entirely likely that he was talking about my physical appearance, since I could still pass for an undergraduate if I wanted to, despite my advanced age. Beyond that, I wonder what he sees that I don’t.

Now Playing: Not The Same from Where You Been by Dinosaur Jr

Posted by pjm at 10:26 AM | Comments (1)

December 13, 2004

Etiquette question

(OK, I’m a clueless geek.)

What’s an appropriate thank-you for the people who are writing (have written; I’ve got a big packet on my desk) me letters of recommendation for my applications?

Now Playing: Disturbance At The Heron House from Document by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 3:51 PM | Comments (4)

December 7, 2004


I’m sending batches of letter-of-recommendation forms out, recruiting writers and juggling who would be best for which school. (I’m trying to make sure the alumni of particular universities write letters to those universities, for example.) So I’m trying to patch together quick but lucid cover letters explaining how many copies of which need to go in what sealed envelope and sent where by when, address and stamp all the relevant envelopes, and so on.

One of the curious little rituals is signing the waiver: I waive my right to read this letter. I always waive. I figure, if I get in, it won’t matter to me what was in the letters; they did their job. If I don’t get in anywhere, I might contact the recommenders and ask if their letter might have been involved, and if so, what I need to work on, but since I got in to my undergrad college on early decision, I have yet to be turned down by an academic institution. (That’s going to change, I suspect; but where?)

I wonder if it makes a difference; if the admissions committees take a letter less seriously if the applicant doesn’t waive. Or if there’s an alternate scenario where they prefer the applicant not to waive.

One of my writers has already returned envelopes to me, and included a copy of the letter. “I know you signed the waiver, but I want you to see it anyway.” It was good. I hope they’re all like that.

Posted by pjm at 10:17 PM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2004

On the other hand

I did finally get a positive response from one of my many emails to the University Which Won’t Talk To Me. (I’ll have to start calling them the University Which Wouldn’t Talk To Me.) Nine days from initial contact to response, but they aren’t trying to run a customer-focused operation over there. (Or, to put it another way, they haven’t decided if they want me as a customer yet.)

Now I need to get my questions in line. (And start putting the applications together: just over a month to the first deadline, and most of them in two months.)

Posted by pjm at 7:20 PM | Comments (0)

November 8, 2004

Guinea pigs

If you haven’t done so already, please read and consider this request for interview subjects.

Now Playing: Four Days from This Desert Life by Counting Crows

Posted by pjm at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

October 29, 2004


Right, so you all know the difference between a hacker and a cracker, right?

I’m adding a new feature to the CMA of our corporate website. It’s a pretty simple widget, actually, but it’s heavier work than I’ve done on this site for a few months. I added a table to the database, and now I’m writing a platoon of PHP forms to let someone manage that table in a relatively user-friendly way. To do it properly, I need to hunker down here, lock out as many distractions as I can, and stream code into BBEdit windows as quickly as I can remember it. I have browser tabs open to the MySQL manual and the PHP manual as well as the CMA forms themselves, and I have an open SFTP connection up to the server so I can push forms up as fast as I debug them. I have my headphones on (rare, in the office) so I’m not distracted by outside noise. The office manager came in to deliver a new phone book a few minutes ago and startled me, despite my C.H.I.M.P. mirror on the monitor. It’s flow; I cut loose a lot of nonessentials and get in the process.

This is all necessary because of the two parts of the process, planning and execution. The first part, visualizing the problem and the process, is relatively low-stress. The rest of it is, I suppose, a creative act: I take this concept, which I have in my head (and perhaps in a few paper notes) and realizing it in code. If I lose the concept in my head, it will take me hours to get it back. If I get sidetracked from what I’m at, it’s not easy to get the picture back.

But while it’s happening, flowing from my head into files (and running, which is something I love about runtime languages like PHP and web development: it’s there as soon as it’s syntactically correct,) it’s a rush. It’s like being on a wave. I think about the scene, early in Cryptonomicon, where Avi Halaby is about to explain his new business plan over the phone to Randy Waterhouse, and he starts out by announcing, “I am channeling the bad shit! The power is coming down from On High. Tonight, it happens to be coming through me—you poor bastard.”

I think, if I drill down to the bottom of my graduate school motivation, it’s this: I want my entire work life to feel like that. And I want to be able to turn it on and off like a tap. (I know, not bloody likely. But I can dream, right?)

Now Playing: Fast Way from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 5:04 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2004

Morning revivals

On my way to the pool or the weight room, I usually avoid the sidewalk on Route 116 and instead take the college paths over the hill between the Octagon and College Row. This takes me daily past a statue of Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1832, according to the pedastal.

Beecher, who is now probably better known as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin,) was the greater public figure in their own time. As a preacher, he was a driving force behind one of several religious revivals that have periodically swept the U.S. (Some say we’re in the midst of one now, before you think they’re a thing of the past.) As such, he set up much of the abolitionist movement his sister set aflame. If I sound vague about details, it’s because I’m working from my distant memory of what I read as a guide at the Dickinson Homestead in my previous round of student days; since there’s so little solid fact about Emily, we wound up with masses of background detail about the political and social climate of the town and the College. It’s hard to separate the Dickinsons from the College, and the College from Beecher, in that context.

Vague as it is, it explains why they have a statue of one of their earliest graduates (I figure the class of 1832 was, if not the tenth graduating class, in the single digits,) and not one of their most distinguished (that would be President Calvin Coolidge.) It might also explain Beecher’s somewhat sanctimonious scowl. I’ve only recently noticed that he appears to be looking directly at College Hall, a dramatic-looking building which is hard to miss when you’re passing through town.

College Hall used to be the town meeting-house (read “church,” from the days when “religious tolerance” meant allowing Catholics to live in town, and colleges were founded to allow right-thinking Trinitarian Congregationalists to be educated without the need to trek out to the wilderness of Williamstown or brave the Unitarian cesspit in Cambridge.) Beecher preached there on more than one occasion, if I’m remembering my Dickinson biographies properly. How it passed from the town to the College has escaped my memory, but it now houses many of the administrative offices; I clearly remembering standing in line there with various last-minute FinAid tasks (sign this form, write this check, thanks, you can stay for the semester.)

In that perspective, I wonder if perhaps Beecher’s scowl is more a reaction to the changes in his immediate view than a reflection of character. Somehow I think better of anyone who glares at FinAid.

(Actually, it looks like the statue is a duplicate of the one pictured in Wikipedia, which is located in Brooklyn.)

Now Playing: Came On Lion from All of Our Names by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

October 14, 2004

What a waste

Look, I need to gripe for a minute, OK? If you don’t like entries like that, skip ahead. (Or wait for the next one, or whatever verb means not reading this.)

The college at which I am supposedly doing a post-graduate certificate in preparation for graduate work has posted their spring semester schedule. Once again they are offering precisely nothing of use to me. “Once again” meaning, “for the sixth consecutive term,” if you’re not counting the two electives I took to mark time.

A year ago, I went in to talk to the department head about the odds of my ever finishing the certificate if they never offered classes I needed. He agreed that they needed to do something about scheduling required classes in the evening. (See, the school is a solid hour’s drive from my workplace, so I can’t make a class before 6.) Precisely nothing has happened. If I’d known what a waste of time this was going to be, I would’ve given up on them and started applications long ago. I feel like I’ve wasted a year.

The crushing frustration of it is, they were my only option. It’s not like I went there because they came highly recommended; I went there because they were the only ones within an hour’s drive who offered serious classes in the evening. I didn’t know then that they offered the same classes every year, and that after a year and a half I would’ve taken everything useful they had to offer. I didn’t know the only street available was a dead end.

And I’ve already asked my two professors at this college if they would write letters of recommendation. I feel like I should be sending forms now, or I’ll never have the letters in time for December and January application deadlines.

I started this whole adventure because I caught an illusion that it was possible—that I could pick up the courses I was missing, and start something new. That I could learn something in depth instead of skimming the surface of everything. Somehow in the last year the illusion has eroded. I can’t get the classes. And, with one exception, I can’t get the graduate schools to take me seriously—they act like they’ve mis-read my email, I must be inquiring about the graduate certificate program, the part-time program, anything but the serious academic program. “Our Ph.D. program is very selective.” «Yeah,» I’m thinking, biting back the retort, «I’m familiar with selective institutions.» Is it any wonder I prefer to email? And that exception is talking about provisional acceptance. I know I’m a good bet. I just can’t prove it.

I used to get this frustrated at work. I had a foam pig, the stress-ball kind of foam, and I used to spike it at the walls. Eventually someone delicately suggested that I should manage my stress better, and I stopped throwing things. It was fine when I was running; if you’re training properly, at the end of a workout there’s no energy to be angry with anything. Your heart just says to any irritant, “Eh. I’ve seen worse,” and idles along at 45 bpm or so.

Now, I want the pig back. I’m so angry I could spit. What an astounding, inefficient, apathetic waste of time.

Now playing: Everytime from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 9:02 PM | Comments (2)

October 6, 2004


Since I know both of you are waiting anxiously to hear how the rest of my afternoon went, I’ll spill.

Before I get too far, though, an aside: I’m not mentioning the names of the university or the professor, not because I’m trying to keep them secret, but because I don’t (yet?) want to turn up on web searches for those names.

I went in to the department office and grilled the graduate admin for a few minutes. Unfortunately, she’s a temp and had only been there for three months, but she was able to tell me some about aid. This department has three types: the typical TA, the common RA (Research Assistant,) and the decidedly atypical SA. That’s Systems Administrator: they have a number of students helping to run their network. More on this later. I discovered from others that all three are classed as “aid:” they come with small stipends (“Enough to survive in the area”) and tuition remission. Anyway, the admin was very friendly and I made a point of treating her as though she did know things—if, in fact, I go there, and she’s still in that office, she’ll be a very good ally to have.

I went up to my meeting and found the door closed. I knocked to no response (not surprising.) I waited for a while, getting increasingly frustrated. What if I took a precious vacation day from work and hauled my way out here and didn’t have the meeting? Eventually I remembered my allies in the department office. I went back down and asked if they were sure he was in this afternoon. There was another professor in the office: “A. might be in Professor D.’s office. Try there.” Sure enough, they were puzzling out some problem in there. He met me in the hall on my return trip.

We spent ten or fifteen minutes on my situation. Academically, I’m a long shot for them, not because of my grades or unorthodox undergraduate major, but because of two missing courses: Programming Languages (something I’d actually like to take, since it explains things like memory management, the differences between strongly typed and dynamically typed languages, etc. etc.) and Data Structures and Algorithms. “Generally speaking,” he said, “We’re not too strict about the prerequisites. We want some proof that you can take a math class. And we want some proof that you can program.”

Curiously enough, despite having a minor e-commerce system and an evolving CMA under my belt in PHP, I wouldn’t tell you “I can program.” I’m not sure if this is over-modesty on my part, or if there’s some truth to it.

He said they sometimes accept students “conditionally,” which meant that they essentially spent their first semester on academic probation: in order to stay in the program, they need Bs in all their courses. The discussion of “aid” came here. “We’re not accepting you as a student,” he said. “We’re hiring you for a job, and paying you partly with education.”

We then adjourned to a Wednesday colloquium required for all full-time graduate students. The presenter was a professor (a theorist, I assume) from a nearby, much larger university (and, curiously, one which is also on my list,) and he was explaining recent research they’d done which involved linear algebra and, apparently, a method of simplifying the solution to a set of very time-intensive computational problems dramatically. I swear what he was saying made some sense to me at the time, though I had no idea where he’d started (we joined the talk already in progress.) I did determine that (a) CS professors really can actually speak in the jargon I read in their research papers, and (b) I can learn some of that jargon given the right context.

I met a few students as we were leaving the colloquium, one of which Professor A. introduced me to specifically because he was one of Professor A.’s advisees, and he spoke some Russian. So I was introduced as the one who majored in Russian. (I have a feeling this is going to be my parlor trick: “He’s the one who majored in Russian.”) He looked at me, expectantly. “<I’ve forgotten most of it,>” I explained. “<I never knew much,>” he replied. “<My wife is Russian.>” We went back to English, and I asked about which program he was in. The MS, he replied. I asked why he’d chosen not to take the Ph.D. track. “I don’t need that headache,” he explained. “I just want a good job. The Ph.D. doesn’t help you with that. I need to graduate and earn some money.”

Back at the office, I got a full explanation of just what had been explained in the colloquium. Professor A. was so excited by it he was laughing more than once—you’d think the presenter had just explained how gold thread could be spun from ordinary wool. Again, I almost understood what was going on. Then came a brief digression into the recent faculty politics of the graduate school (not department politics, apparently, but university politics) and another swing in which I was taken next door for a tour of the server room. Racks on racks of Dells with Linux, a cluster or two of Suns, and load-balancers. “I’m responsible for four major releases of this load-balancing software,” he announced. “I kept finding bugs.” (Modesty does not appear to be Professor A.’s strong suit.)

The next stop was probably the most interesting one: as we left the server room, it struck him to introduce me to the new head sysadmin. Now, I had skimmed a copy of the campus newspaper during lunch, and this new sysadmin was hired recently to upgrade the network support for the entire graduate school, not just EE and CS. It turns out he’s essentially just planning on scaling the CS network up for everyone, and I found myself in what was almost a tentative job interview. What did I do at work. How was our web server set up. Was I using Apache. What other packages were built in with Apache. What *nixes had I worked with beyond Red Hat Linux. Did I program with C and C++. (Barely, more comfortable in Perl, even more comfortable in PHP.) Then we digressed into computational linguistics—a topic I know little about, but wound up in because I needed to spell my name. Due to the regional accent I grew up with (but, largely, stifle,) people often misunderstand it, so I have to clarify. He was fascinated. How did it differ from the Boston accent. How would my name be pronounced if I wasn’t hiding the accent. He moved in to a databasing project being done by a German professor, and noted that a background in languages could be a very useful thing there.

I didn’t exactly leave with a job offer, but something like, “Stay in touch, we have work for people with your skills.”

I left feeling pretty good about my chances at this university. It was a beautiful day for campus visits, in any case, but all the people I met were friendly, optimistic, and clearly enthusiastic about the work they were doing. I was too late to talk to anyone in graduate admissions, but I left my coin with the mascot’s statue. (I’ll have to leave him unnamed as well, but the pennies go on his trunk, which should tell you all you need to know if you know the schools in this area.) I drove back into the sunset, saw a deer browsing beside the road as I navigated heavy traffic, watched contrails, and had a blinding flash of inspiration about a project at work which I had to pull over and write down lest I forget it.

I need to visit another department so I have something to compare this to. I don’t have a baseline to say, they were good, but this is even better. And while I liked and appreciated Professor A.’s enthusiasm, as I drove home I realized he reminded me of no one so much as my first-year Russian professor, who suckered me in to that department. I haven’t yet established if I should consider this a good thing.

Posted by pjm at 9:56 PM | Comments (1)

Easing in to the pool

I am sitting on a bench in front of the EECS department of a university to which I (tentatively) plan to apply for graduate study. I am something like 45 minutes early for an appointment to talk to a professor who has much to recommend him. I have gone in, walked around, and felt like I was somehow interrupting something. In a few minutes I will need to go back in and talk to someone in the department office in the name of extracting useful information. I could wish that leeching bandwidth from an open wireless network would be all the introduction I would need, but alas, I will need to actually walk in, introduce myself with face and name, and demand time from an actual person. Who knew that this would be the hard part.

I took a campus tour with a bunch of prospective undergrads. That was a waste of time; I’ll know better now. I found a father who was there without his daughter (she toured with her mother, earlier, and he was bringing himself up to date) and we stood in the back and discussed the relevance or irrelevance of the information being fed to us. (On-campus housing, for example, is of no interest whatever to me, though it was to him.) I was reminded, painfully, of the inane babble I myself had produced as a tour guide, lo these many years ago; I spent some time considering the things which appear important on tours which then prove to have so little relevance in the actual college experience. The woman who walked us around apparently belonged to the Fraternity of Long-Haired Blondes, since she waved “hi” to nearly every one she saw.

Near the library I picked up thirty-one cents in change which had apparently fallen out of someone’s pocket as they sat on the grass. One of the campus traditions has to do with exams and the placement of pennies at a particular spot on a particular statue. When I’m done here, I will pass the statue on my way to the graduate admissions office. I plan to leave at least a nickel.

Posted by pjm at 2:03 PM | Comments (1)

October 1, 2004


Well, I’m not doing too well on my Become a Nag campaign. I’m up to three LORs and one appointment, which is progress, but I need more appointments and I need to at least ask about more LORs so nobody has to print a copy for every application. And I need to get cracking on self-documentation: résumé and “personal statement,” the distillation of my history and motivation on this track to two or three sheets of paper.

The interviews are a ton of work, because even once it’s set up, I have research to do. What are the questions I need to ask? What does this person do? What’s their interest? I have to show up with my homework done; I need to be looking for information I couldn’t get on the web.

So, with this work in front of me, I’m working with a carrot. Four new CDs sit on the desk: the newest (I think) from Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter, the other Sarah Harmer, and Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head. I can listen while I’m working. I hope they get me somewhere.

Now playing: Weakened State from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 7:57 PM | Comments (0)

September 29, 2004

Making the connections

It turns out that there’s two kinds of “difficult” about this graduate school application thing. There’s “difficult,” as in, “this is going to take some time to sit down and plug away at.” And there’s “difficult,” as in, “I really don’t feel at all comfortable doing this.”

There seems to be a lot more of the second one than the first. It’s stuff I first heard from an acquaintance who is a CS professor at the College, and had underlined when I talked to the Career office there last week: with my unusual academic preparation, I’m going to need to contact people in the departments I want to study with, talking with them (face to face talking, not “talking” by email,) and find out if they think I’ve got a chance of staying afloat. Actually, I need to convince them that I will stay afloat if they give me a chance; I should also be using these discussions to get a feel for whether I’m likely to enjoy spending a few years in the department.

I also need to ask other people to spend a chunk of their time writing me letters of recommendation. I’ve asked three, two have agreed, one hasn’t responded. I have two others to ask.

I’m profoundly bad at this.

Not at talking to people; I talk just fine, once I get started. Sometimes I don’t stop when I should, actually. It’s making the contact, figuring out who at the department I should be talking with (and sometimes the department appears to be trying to avoid this sort of conversation,) then actually making the appointment and walking in their office. I will procrastinate all of these steps endlessly. I think I could even say I dread them. I don’t know why.

I don’t even particularly like talking to people on the phone, for some reason. I’d vastly prefer email, where I’m in control of my end of the conversation. When you come right down to it, look at this site: this whole thing is the appearance of sharing my life and thoughts while retaining full control over what I really tell you all. Some of you who’ve commented and whose weblogs I’ve read, I’d probably do all right with, but if someone reading this, who I don’t know in any other context, was to approach me “on the street” and initiate a conversation about the site, I would probably be profoundly uncomfortable for a few minutes. (Unless you got me wound up on one of my hot-button topics, in which case I’d forget that I didn’t know you while I unloaded my thoughts on the matter, and you glanced around uncomfortably looking for an escape route.)

I’m not at all crippled by this, of course; I talk to strange people on the phone every day when they call with software problems. I’m actually fairly good at it. I’ve learned that when the call comes, if I just reach over and punch the button and start talking, I’m fine. If I step off the pool deck and plunge right in, I’m ready to start swimming.

But these pseudo-interview contacts are excruciating because I can put them off.

I need to stop.

I need to make a real nag out of myself, in fact, because I can’t do this by myself, and the sooner it happens, the better. Deadlines are coming within a fairly small number of months. I should set a goal, like having at least two, possibly three arranged by the end of this week.

Update, Thursday 9/30: Got a third LOR agreement, a lead on who to talk to at one school, and an appointment (!!) at another. I still need another appointment!

Now playing: The Time Being from Somewhere Else by The Church

Posted by pjm at 1:04 PM | Comments (2)

September 28, 2004

Taking no credit

Julie put up a scorching post yesterday evening starting, “There are a lot of morons in the world, and inevitably my grade will be affected by it.”

The situation sounds familiar to me, and with reason: I’ve nearly throttled my partner(s) on more than one group project in my time taking continuing education courses.

There was the time, in the systems programming course, where we had a programming project to do. I understood pretty much how the program was supposed to work and how I would block it out—that is, I could write the pseudo-code. However, I’d never compiled a working C program before, and the project was to be done in C. My partner didn’t quite get the assignment, but claimed he’d taken a course where they had used C. Great, I thought, between us this should be easy. Well, maybe not. By the day before the due date, with the pseudo-code mapped out and the relevant system calls in place, it became clear that all the C my partner knew was the third letter of the alphabet. I spent a long evening with K&R making something that would compile, and submitted the project with the names of all the people who made actual contributions—that is, just mine.

That was the worst-case scenario. There was another project where I carefully avoided trying to do it myself (though I thought I’d do better on my own than I would with the group,) and we all ended up not really being able to pull it off—the whole didn’t even equal the sum of its parts, because nobody had the missing piece we needed. And I did manage a few group presentations for other classes where we did actually manage to split the work pretty evenly and do a good job.

There are two reasons I think I’ve had what trouble I’ve had. First, I’m a bit of an unusual student at night school. The bulk of night school students are people who, for whatever reason, never finished (or started) their first college degree, not people who are changing their academic field like I am. I’ve got a (relatively) successful academic record behind me, which makes me (ironically) a bit of a black sheep at night school, through no fault of mine or the other students.

Second, I don’t think I ever learned to work group projects properly in my earlier education experience, for various reasons (some of which I suspect I share with Julie here.) Maybe if I’d grown up in a, uh, more challenging school system, but by the time I even made it to high school I was already solidly in the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” camp.

In a way, I think I want to go to grad school to put myself in a position to work on projects I can’t handle myself, with other people working at my level. On the other hand, I fear that I may not be any better at working with a group than I ever was… and that, perhaps, next time I will be the dead weight in the group.

That’s probably enough paranoia for today.

Now playing: Cool In The Backseat from ‘Mousse by The Nields

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September 21, 2004

Things I never thought I'd have to think about again

I’m looking in to the graduate school application process. It has just occurred to me that I haven’t applied for anything for three years, and nothing of this sort for twelve.

Fortunately for me, I live about two blocks from the career center of my former college, and they’re willing to make appointments for alumni. I suppose their image depends on our continuing success, not just whether we have jobs when we graduate. So they can help me with a few points. Such as…

Letters of recommendation. I’m used to providing references, but I’m not sure about letters of recommendation. I’m probing the two professors I’ve had at Westfield State, but what about the third? Do I go back to undergrad? Employers? Former supervisors? Who can speak for my aptitude for graduate study? (And, could they tell me?)

Résumé. That one needs a bit of tuning. I know how to pitch a résumé for a job; I’ve done that. How do I pitch a résumé for a graduate school? Lean hard on my educational background? I’m going to graduate school because I don’t have an educational background in this field. I guess I lean hard on work experience? And, uh, what format is my résumé in? Maybe I should learn some Quark? I wonder if I have time for TeX, for all that. Or if I should suck it up and just work on that Word format one?

Personal statement. This is the one where I’m completely at sea. “Elaborating on your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study.” I know my reasons for pursuing graduate study; I just need to filter out the ones that sound good. I want to chase the interesting problems. I’m running out of problems I can attack on my own. I’m running out of bootstraps, I suppose. If I want to keep chewing on interesting problems, I need, essentially, to learn what the interesting problems are, instead of just making my own. I need to get on the same page as everyone else. And I guess now I need to articulate this in some kind of statement. How long? How eloquent? What’s my audience here? I can write, I’m relatively confident about that, but I feel like I need some clarification on the assignment.

Well, that’s a nice list of questions for my appointment.

Posted by pjm at 9:21 PM | Comments (2)

September 1, 2004


Other than an uptick in sidewalk traffic and a lot of out-of-state cars crammed to the rafters with dorm room gear, you might not notice that the students are back in town.

You can, however, spot the “first-year” subspecies by their characteristic behavior: they travel in herds, for security.

Now playing: Nietzche from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia by The Dandy Warhols

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August 13, 2004

Best dorms

Christina commented asking about the best dorms at Amherst College, because she’s been assigned to Pratt and found me through a web search (which found, I assume, my post about dorm construction at the College.) She didn’t leave an email address, and this is too long for another comment.

The obvious answer should be, “The best dorm is the one you’re in,” of course.

When I was a first-year (over a decate ago, thanks, so most of my information is dated) my girlfriend lived in a triple in Pratt. (Note: Apparently the dorm I know as “Pratt” is “Morris Pratt,” and there’s a “Charles Pratt” dorm due to be created from the building which used to be the Geology building, and was the gym before that.) Back then, Pratt was a mixed-class dorm, and singles went to very lucky juniors, or seniors who got the shaft in Room Draw. (Aside from the Prince Albert suite, which went to the ranking RC.) But with James and Stearns leveled this summer, I believe Pratt will be entirely first-years. I suspect the majority of your class will be in Pratt, so it won’t be quite a fractured a world as it was when I was there. Leave your door open in the single, and you won’t have any trouble at all.

In my day, first-years were assigned either to one of the three first-year dorms (James, Stearns and Valentine had over half my class) or one of the four mixed-class dorms (North, South, Pratt and Morrow.) I think they’ve done away with mixed-class housing, which is a good thing in my view; I recommended exactly that after being an RC in South for a year.

So, probably half your class will be in the newly-renovated North and South, which could be pretty cool. I lived two years in South, and it was a long way from my favorite dorm, but since the renovation they should be much better. I’m not sure if they’re putting first-years in Appleton and Williston yet, but they will eventually. The rest of you will be in Pratt, maybe Morrow, and probably Valentine. Morrow is the mystery dorm: lots of singles, great central location, no soul. Despite being in the middle of everything, the people who lived in Morrow were those who wanted quiet.

Pratt is due for renovation once the new James and Stearns are completed, and I suspect unless they’ve done some significant work in the last ten years it has some significant, uh, funkiness. (Don’t leave food anywhere that’s not ant-proof.) It can be a bit of a warren (the floor plan is very complex) but the singles are usually on the north/south ends of the building, and you’ll have triples right outside your door. Plenty of friends.

I think Pratt’s in a very good location on campus—close to the dining hall, close to the library, close to some of the classrooms, close to Converse and the five-college bus. It could be a PITA as far as the gym, Merrill, and the ACC in SMudd, but if I can walk to the gym from my apartment, undergraduates can walk to the gym from Pratt without sympathy from me, even in January.

Personally, I think Moore is the best dorm, possibly exceeded by Garman (though an argument could be made for Chapman) but as far as I know it’s still only for upperclassmen. We were the second group in room-draw going in to my senior year, and half of us picked Moore. Of course, it was the first dorm to have every room wired for ethernet…

Let me know how it works out.

(There are pictures of most of these buildings at the Campus virtual tour, but the photo which claims to be of Moore is actually Converse, so I’m not sure how much to trust it.)

Now playing: Answering Machine from Let It Be by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 2:56 PM | Comments (2)

July 2, 2004

Explosive decompression

The past two weeks have felt a lot like everything coming to a head at once. At the beginning of last month I whined that “I have too many commitments on the back burner as it is.” Essentially, it’s the age-old problem of wanting to do too many things and not really understanding the time commitments when I get in to them. I had this problem in high school, and I haven’t gotten any better at saying, “No.” (Hence, I suppose, the title of the site.)

Anyway, two of my biggest time-sucks this spring are over now.

Last weekend was the bash in Boston that I was running the website for; essentially, I was home-brewing a CMS and registration database for them, and despite the fact that the principal organizer manages IT people and should understand the concept of clearly-defined objectives (not to mention normal forms) I was making changes late into the process; frequently I was “developing to deadline” in the sense that I was pushing input forms live before worrying about how I would then get the data back out in the form of reports.

Then yesterday was the last day of class. Final proof, I think, that online classes are a poor idea for this student; instead of six weeks of steady study, I wound up with, essentially, two (non-consecutive) weeks of cramming. This may not be the first time I’ve written and handed in an eight-page paper with less than twelve hours from beginning research to sending in the file, but I sincerely hope it’s the last. At any rate, no more class for the duration of the summer, and judging from the DGCE’s schedule for the fall, none in the fall either.

The abrupt transition from “too much to do” to “not enough to do” hasn’t happened yet; I still need to get out of here early and battle traffic up to Maine for the holiday weekend. But I’m hoping that extensive sleeping can be managed somewhere. Sitting in a sea breeze and actually doing nothing would be a nice commitment for a little while.

One hopes that I don’t relax into a little puddle of goo for lack of motivation. (Or, er, panic.)

Now playing: Believe You Me from Some Friendly by The Charlatans

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June 30, 2004

First, pick the right name

There were also some people who commented that instead of calling it a Working Group we should have called it a Task Force, because the resulting acronym would have been much more appropriate. All I can say is that I wish I had thought of that because that would have been a really funny name.

Ian Hickson on the naming of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, or WHATWG

In that spirit, I plan on naming tonight’s venture We Have to Approach Termination on Telecommuting Finals, or “WHAT TF do I need to do before the last day of this class tomorrow?”

Now playing: Strange Desire from Welcome To Wherever You Are by INXS

Posted by pjm at 4:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2004


I was talking about career paths with friends in Boston this weekend. Most of this group of friends are older than I am, and I often wind up playing the smart-ass kid with them, which has its moments.

So I wasn’t quite sure how seriously to take it when one of them started insisting that I had to come work for her. She’s got some exalted management title at one of the gargantuan financial firms in the area, running some team of IT people. And she pitches a good case: though her office is in Boston, her team is up in the part of New Hampshire which is, for all intents and purposes, in Massachusetts. They use about every database package known to humanity (Oracle, MS-SQL, Sybase, PostGres, MySQL, Interbase, DB2, and for all I know Filemaker and FoxPro.) They move staggering amounts of data around the world on an hourly basis, and this is the team with the tools. She claimed corporate support for continuing education, as well (and, whatever bad things I may say about my previous employer, they would reimburse tuition for nearly any course you could reconcile with your job, whereas I’m on my own with Westfield.)

I doubt I’ll even ask if she was kidding or not. I rather like what I’m doing here right now, and I suspect that I’ll be best-off, when I finally get rolling in grad school, if I try to do that one thing well rather than letting coursework be just one of the flaming torches I juggle.

Still, it’s tempting, and I think the temptation is an insight to what I really want out of this degree. What I like doing is solving puzzles. Putting the pieces together and watching them go. To do that on a larger scale, I need tools.

Right now, I’m doing pretty well in that direction, because running a network of thirty-five (or so) nodes and five servers is really just a large-scale application of the same tools you use to run a high-powered home office. When you step up and start with applications that require load-balancing and fat-pipe networking and things like that… well, that’s another big step beyond where I am now. There are a lot of tools out there which I have access to even now, which I don’t really know how to use, and then there are more which I know we don’t need, so I don’t really know them.

I think more than knowing how to use the tools, I need the experience and knowledge to judge which tools are right for the situation. And be able to make my own, if necessary. It’s fun and fulfilling to do a whole lot of little stuff here, but wouldn’t it also be fun to wrangle the really big iron?

In this way, I’m of a similar mind to Dorothea—I don’t research things. I do things, and I learn them when I need to do them (and often by doing them.) I think that’s a serious warning signal when it comes to the kind of degree that begins with “P.” And that scares me too.

And maybe when I get out I can really be a dwarf, and

spen[d] a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power.

Now playing: Everlong from The Colour And The Shape by Foo Fighters

Posted by pjm at 1:56 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004

Things I fear about graduate school

A list.

  • No program will accept me.
  • I’ll be accepted by a lot of programs and make a poor decision.
  • I’ll ask all the wrong questions in the interviews (I did this in undergrad, but made a good decision in spite of myself.)
  • I’ll want to go somewhere where the admissions standards are too high for me to meet.
  • I’ll go somewhere where I can meet the admissions standards, and the program will be weak.
  • I’ll go somewhere I don’t like living.
  • I won’t go anywhere, and won’t like that.
  • I’ll enter a Ph.D. program and hate it within two years.
  • I’ll enter a masters program and wish I’d gone for the Ph.D.
  • They’ll expect me to do nothing but research with no applications.
  • They’ll just teach applications and never address theories and principles.
  • It will eat my outside life (what little I have.)
  • I’ll leave a good job and not be able to find any when I’m done.
  • I’ll be qualified for dozens of jobs I’ll hate doing.
  • I’ll talk myself into going when it may not be the right thing for me to do.
  • I’ll be so bound up by the things I’m afraid of that I won’t make it happen at all.

Curiously, the one thing I’m not worried about is the value of the degree; I’ve seen plenty of job listings asking for an MS in Computer Science (“or BS and equivalent experience,” which I don’t have either—the BS, that is, since I studied Russian as an undergrad and got a BA.)

Now playing: Life Speeds Up from Hindsight by The Church

Posted by pjm at 9:38 AM | Comments (2)

June 15, 2004


I just finished the first exam of the summer course. It’s still “open” for another three hours, but I’m still too far behind on rest to want to stay up past 11.

This, in my opinion, is the big win of the online course, and this professor has given online exams in “real” courses I’ve taken with him as well. I tend to test well, assuming I understand the material of the course, and as a result when I need to sit for an exam, I wind up sailing through the exam, going back and checking everything twice because I’ll feel like an idiot handing it in that quickly, and still being the first or second person to hand it in, usually in less than half the time allotted. It’s almost not worth the drive to Westfield.

Online, I don’t need to make the drive; I fill in the answers, save, and submit from home, in my own chair, with the music on and a drink on the desk. (I suppose it is theoretically possible to have a beer and take an exam, but I’m not sure I want to put that one into practice. Plus, there’s no beer in the fridge.) Low-stress environment. All I need to worry about is the network going on the blink, or the cat erasing my answers by walking over the keyboard. (He’s good at performing little keyboard miracles like that.) And when I’m done, hey, I’m already home.

By the way, a web form is a great test booklet; multiple choice etc. works well with web widgets, and even if a multi-line text input isn’t the world’s best text editor, at least you can cut and paste.

One of these days, my ability to handwrite will have become completely vestigal…

Now playing: Spinning from I’m on my way (EP) by Rich Price

Posted by pjm at 8:38 PM | Comments (1)