Friday, June 29, 2007

No really, good things happen in GradShitTownVille

I ordered two bras online. They were both on sale. They both fit.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What do you want to hear first?

The good news? Or the bad news?

Good news

The grant that I wrote for my advisor was accepted. That's right, rather than spending time actually relaxing over Winter break, I was a stress-case about an NSF proposal. Fortunately, it paid off. Now I can relax a little more during my god-damned-well-deserved summer break in July.

Bad news

I got a paper rejection last week. One of the reviewers gave the classic 4 line,

"This paper is inadequate. It is only a survey. It's not awesome enough for the awesome journal of awesomeness. I do not recommend it for publication."

Where do people learn how to write these reviews?

As a result, I'm feeling a little stuck. I don't feel inspired to work on my paper due in September. I don't feel inspired to rework this rejected paper and resubmit it. I'm not inspired at all.

Given such lack of inspiration, instead of working on research today, I spent five hours installing track lighting at the community radio station. Turns out, being the daughter of an electrician, I'm one of the most highly skilled volunteers at that place. At one point, someone asked,

"Could I have the wire cutters?"

I replied, "You mean the diags or the Kleins?"

Confused look.

At least I have another fall-back if this PhD doesn't work out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Awesome functions

Over the phone, the boyfriend and I laugh at horrible research proposals.

Me: I think I'll work on writing a "Do-Over" system, so that when something bad happens in the computer, it will just do it over, and everything will be fine.

Bf: I'm going to write a "No Take-backs" function that will increase security of a system and enforce safety protocols.

Me: I'm going make a "Triple-Dog-Dare" function that will cancel out your "No Take-backs" function.

Dilbert-Style Management

I was in industry for a handful of years. Back then, I didn't read Dilbert for the same reason I don't read the Ph.D. comics today. These comics that others find so funny, I find utterly depressing. They just reflect things in my life that I find miserable. I had the pointy-haired boss. I was Alice, always trying to manage my temper. Now I have the demanding advisor. I watch people piss away several years trying to graduate. Why sit and read a comic about my own pathetic life? I'd rather spend my time trying make change.

In this place, I still see pointy-haired bosses. Advisors manage their groups using the same management style that I saw in my first job after graduating in 1998. I quit that job after two years.

Consider a small subsidiary of a huge company. The small subsidiary has to make enough money to be viable, otherwise, the huge company will close the subsidiary. Cut its losses. Hand out the pink slips. Reduction in force, or RIF, is what they called it at my subsidiary. I think they call it "denied tenure" here. Worse, my subsidiary had to suffer the decisions of the huge company, and yet we had to make money based on those decisions. Their decisions pitted us against Intel.

Question: How much money does a subsidiary of 45 second-rate engineers and 5 good ones make when competing against Intel?
Answer: $27.50.

Whenever we got a customer (which was once every three months or so), we had to completely reorient all our goals. Qualcomm signed a contract, so suddenly everything we did was about cellphones. I started work on a soundcard driver. Then Wacom, and everything was about tablets. That only lasted a couple of weeks, then they cancelled the order. Then Nintendo gave us a look, just a look, and we were immediately simulating Mario Bros games on our hardware. I worked on a flash memory driver.

I never finished a project at that company to any successful degree. Admittedly, the soundcard driver limped along, and I could at least read and write to flash memory. I was miserable. I had four bosses. People asked me "howseitgoing?!" all the time. I got in trouble once for yelling at one of my bosses.


Got a letter in the file for that one.

Like I said, I quit after two years. Then I worked for the best place in the world: Dragonfly Consulting. That Dragonfly Consulting doesn't exist anymore. In the wild, dragonflies only live about four months. In a capitalist economy, it's five years.

I miss that job. Had it not been bought by an evil corporation, I might still be sitting in my little cube, working happily on hardware. I worked on small focused projects until I got them done. I learned a lot. I wrote software that brought a computer to the C-prompt: TLB handlers, boot loaders, memory partitions. I could read Assembler as fast as I could read English. I could debug anything with just two LEDs. I worked with five very smart people. It was the perfect combination of great pay with a grad-school-style working environment. Except that they insisted nobody work more than 40 hours a week. West Coast hippies.

Eight years later, history repeats itself. Again, I am suffering from the "1-big customer" management style. Again, I am miserable with meaningless work that changes faster than I change air filters in the furnace.

Except this isn't a job I can quit.

Let's just hope I can catch another Dragonfly.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Walker Percy and His Moviegoer

Last time I was this bored, I ended up dyeing my hair orange.

These days, I am a moviegoer. Ticket stubs litter my wallet. Away from Her. Mr. Brooks. Oceans 13. I try to draw lines around what I won't see. I divide the garbage from the acceptable mediocrity. Then a day comes when I am especially bored and I have to renegotiate. Hence, "Oceans 13." I hope that I can hold out against Shrek 3.

Typically, I like summers in GradShitTownVille because it's so desolate. The thousands of undergraduates have gone home. The coffee shop isn't packed with laptop surfers. Not every night is douche-bag night. But there is a price. Summer is also the time that friends typically go on internning adventures or take their final bow. My boyfriend is at Microsoft until August. My favorite movie buddy has graduated and left town. I'm left trying to figure out which of my remaining friends will put up with me. Trying to figure out if I should make new ones, or just build a hermitage.

Boredom doesn't mean a lack of work. There's plenty to do. I have two more papers planned for a September deadline. Boredom means a lack of engaging human contact. A lack of new things to see. Even when I dyed my hair orange two years ago, I had a friend to keep me company in the bathroom. She's in Chicago, wondering when I will tear myself away from work to come visit. Part of me wants to. Part of me wants to graduate as soon as fucking possible.

I bought myself a half-dozen roses tonight at the 24 hour grocery. I wasn't cheery enough for my favorite Gerber Daisies. The roses seemed elegant, dark and somber, a nice complement to my movie-going self.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Taken from "Affectionate Technology" by Philip Agre

On a humorous, but nevertheless significant note: A friend of mine created a computer "character" that you could converse with in written English. One of the things he found that was crucial to making it seem human was that it not listen to you very carefully. It had its own agenda and invariably it would bring the conversation around to, say, its sick grandmother living in Arkansas. No matter what you talked about, eventually the grandmother that lived in Arkansas came up. It is rare that computer scientists have not-listening as a design goal--but it is a human characteristic.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Letting Go

I went on a little adventure to a nearby city last weekend, taking the opportunity to listen to the old cassettes that haunt my glove box. The pick of the drive was Tina Turner's 1983 release, "Private Dancer" which won the Album of the Year award in 1985.

I noticed the cassette cover art was essentially a thumbnail of the vinyl album artwork pasted into the top two-thirds of the cassette. Despite the cassette being rectangular in shape, the graphic artist could not let go of the square form factor of the original album. Even today, with iTunes cover art, one sees the same artificial form factor. There is nothing particularly "square" about an mp3, and yet that is how iTunes cover art is displayed:

Stepping away from that artificial form factor proved fruitful for Stefan Sagmeister who won a grammy for the design of the Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime Boxed Set.

In fact, stepping away from the artificial structures is how a lot of effective research can be done in many subfields of computer science. Because software isn't bound by the rules of physics, or materials science, or practical cost--because one can do "anything" in software--computer scientists have to create their own artificial structures in order to make sense of things. There's no real reason that there are seven layers in the networking stack, somebody just made that up.

These are my approaches to research: to examine those artificial structures with a skeptical eye, to redesign them in the context of a specific domain, or to throw them out completely. I believe I'm good at this because I've always been good at letting go of material goods. I bought a new car. Hated it. Sold it. Bought a sensible used one in its place. I bought a house. I was accepted into graduate school in another state. Sold it. No big deal.

I was at the nursery on Friday looking for some perennials for my shade garden. I considered buying some annuals, but I caught myself thinking, "I'll get them next year when I sell the house." Already pushing myself to get out of here. Already getting reading to let go of the material goods that have accumulated in my stay in GradShitTownVille...

...and I still haven't prelim'ed yet.