Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pleasures of Being a Professor II: Hangouts

Professors are available to graduate students in different ways:  in dept coffee rooms, in their office behind open doors,  at weekly dept talks,  via email,  who knows, maybe some via their own apps!  I do a video hangout with CS graduate students of Rutgers every week. It lasts 1 hour and is open to all: not just my students -- they dont make it --- or theory or database students, but all students. I did this in Spring and am doing this again in Fall.  In Spring, we explored questions such as:

T1: How to apply for jobs.
T2: how to apply for internships.
T3: How to attend a conf
T4: How to give a talk.
T5: How to polish a research paper 1 hour before the conf deadline.
T6: How to start a company, if you want to...

There maybe like 10 students in many sessions, most students speak freely during the hangout (because I do), and even though I schedule it for 1 hour, the informal nature of the conversation continues for 1.5--2 hrs. New topics emerged and we abandoned a few of the topics above. Some sessions got technical, eg., into machine learning, others remained more social. Two topics worth mentioning:
  • On collaboration:  I summarized that students collaborate with their advisor or summer internship mentees: in both cases, for most part, the other party takes the responsibility to think ahead and steer the course of the research as needed. Most students dont know what I called "peer collaboration" which is to approach another prof or student at conf or elsewhere and successfully collaborate. This involves one to start off describing some problem, may be even feeding initial observation, and when other part is not hooked,  up the ante and maybe even send initial latex docs, the collaboration gets to a new place when the other party contributes some observations and starts editing the joint latex doc., and pronto, you are collaborating. Latex is the matchmaker! Is this all worth it? Yes, collaborations once begun, dont typically die, they begut more research and even academic friendship over time. 
  • On attending conferences. I communicated that even the social moments -- coffee breaks, banquet cruises --- are in academic context and one should not break away from professional or academic behavior. 
For Fall, the topics are:
T1: What did you do in the summer, re.  CS Research
T2: How to set research goals for the semester and follow up
T3: How to find an advisor and research topic.
T4: How to make use of NY area research resources.
or whatever comes up.

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Pleasures of Being a Professor I: Phd Students

Alex Nikolov defended his thesis related to discrepancy, and is now on his way to U. Toronto, after a brief stop at MSR, Redmond. Congratulations, Sasho!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Resilient Research Community

Ron Graham taught me many things. Like, "think of individuals first, community next, company last". I am thinking of individuals now, and in rare occasions like this, it becomes one of thinking of the entire community of  MSR SVC.  Research community has shown resilience before, like recently when Yahoo! Labs splintered and other organizations stepped up with parachutes. This time, I hope the community shows similar resilience. 

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Arithmetic of My Life

I was born once, as a simple man; I died twice as a grateful son; and, I am born twice as an indulgent father. This is the arithmetic of my life. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Solved Problem in Ornithology

Marbled Murrelets are cute birds, for long time, with a mystery. This article starts with "The nest and nesting habits of the Marbled Murrelet remain unknown. This is the more remarkable when it is  remembered that the bird is common throughout the summer season from Alaska and Kodiak Islands south to Washington, and that many able field naturalists have sought to penetrate the mystery of its home life.''  and ends with, ``Which Ornithological detective will solve the Marbled Murrelet Mystery?"  It was discovered quite recently that they nested in Douglas Fir found in the Big Basin State Park. Here is a detailed note on the challenges leading to this discovery.

The nature of open problems is clear, be it in Ornithology, Math or CS. It should pass the test of time, repeated assaults by talented researchers and hopefully be relevant. Beyond the grand open problems (in Biology, Neuroscience or whatever), I like the art and culture of stating, attacking, solving, bite sized open problems, lining the way to the grand ones. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Waiting

When you ask people what they are doing, they usually say they are doing a project, starting it, finishing it, or looking for one. I am in that exquisite state of "waiting", a pressurized promise of something to happen, it is out of my control, but I anticipate it any moment, and when it happens, my muscles, brain and bones have to respond, explode into action. Sonatine by the unbeatable Beat Takeshi is a great ode to waiting  where a gang waits by the beach -- pick on each other, invent silly games, distract oneself with some girl,  all with half a mind, half the focus, with no wants of days ending or beginning -- for the boss to call them to action, and they can go beat up on someone. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Art of Window Maintenance

There is Phaedrus in each of us.

I am going to tell you about the crank in the window I had to fix. The house is old, so is the window. The crank was rotten and fell off, all rust and dust. The new cranks worked fine but the arm got stuck when closing in. I knew I had to file some of the metal off the arm, and got started with a flat, double cut, bastard file. In any project I do, one gets started in some direction, it might look long, even boring, but it promises to show progress.  I get going in that direction, but am constantly looking for the new insight, an idea, a spark that will take me off that initial direction, in a short cut, in a clever turn and that is when  the project takes hold of you and you are from that moment on, inevitably intertwined, your ego and the project, one helix strand hugging the other, you will not relinquish.

In the case of the window crank, the key idea eventually sparked: a key portion that needed filing, I could just file the metal window frame instead of the crank arm which is a lot tougher. This got me going with more energy and showed quicker progress. But in all projects, ideas by themselves dont work, you need to sweat too. In this case, the window frame I had to file off was hard to work with, because of tight space, I had to make short filing moves, constantly taking care to protect my skin, nails, and all else. Ultimately, after substantial sweat, the crank arm fit in snug and the window shut tight, with a sweet sweet snap.

Phaedrus will not stop there. One uses a single cut file and polishes the window frame so it looks nice, but goes further,  to  file and polish the crank arm  too (as a true engineer, I had chosen to file the underside of the crank arm so the file marks wont be visible, but it still has to be polished, even if no one except an obsessive engineer will notice it). 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Two weeks of Art

I helped host some slovak artists in Santa Cruz area: Erik (big guy, drawing from huge swath of themes for his large paintings), Zuzana (her every move is dance), Fero (plays piano, even moving ones), Lucia (layers ornamental motifs behind the grit), Matej (graphic designer utterly open to new possibilities), Lenka (do it all herself designer), Veronika (an empathetic observer of a visual artist). All incredible in their ways, and each able to morph their working conditions, styles and themes to the Redwoods setting in Santa Cruz for two weeks and produce original art in 2 weeks, you can see in theApricity gallery at the Tannery.  Enjoy!

New Story

At the end of a long week of work, art and what is life, I got home. Took out the largest pot I had, filled it with water, boiled it and watched Spaghetti slide in, adding some oil and salt. I took the largest pan I had and made the sauce: tonno, chick peas, plum tomatos, garlic, and some eccentric ginger. Then I took the biggest bowl I had, heaped as much Spaghetti as I could and as much sauce as it would take, and ate it, bowl after bowl, each with teaser shavings of Parmigiano.  That was my weekend. When I need to recover, I go to my version of Italian. That is what I told my bartender friend Haruki, when I returned to work on Monday.

Haruki eventually closed the bar and moved on.  But bar folks eventually find each other, beer flows through us all. I saw Haruki a few years later at a new bar I was working, and he told me he wrote a short story about my Spaghetti. I didnt think much of it. I didnt think there was much of a story either. Sometimes you just have to spend the weekend eating spaghetti, or drinking beer, or whatever. But that weekend, I needed to eat spaghetti.