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Creative Vs Reactive Processes

It seems like most people, when faced with something that they don’t like, pick out the problems and set about coming up with a solution.

I think the reason that my plans get so big is that when I’m faced with something I don’t like, I figure out what it does that is useful and then throw everything else out and come up with an alternative that does the stuff that I liked about the old system, but does whatever I please otherwise.

Granted, things to tend to get a bit unwieldy, but I think that the fundamental process is a good one for at least generating ideas. It certainly helps you to get outside of the box a bit if you first identify why you needed the box in the first place.

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Getting Out Of Grad School

Brother B sent me a link to a quirky comic, Jim Monroe and Marc Ngui‘s Time Management for Anarchists that helped me give me the last 5% of certainty I needed to know that getting out of graduate school is the right decision for me.

The ideas are pretty close to my own in many ways, but there is one section in particular that was pretty much dead-on for the question of what to do about grad school:

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My Summer At Sun

I’m home again after my time in Boston with Project Aura. As I look back over my summer I am certainly nowhere near where I expected to be at the outset.

One part of the difference is simply that once I took the concrete step of saying “I don’t like robots and am going to actively pursue finding something I really do like,” it shifted how I see the world significantly. That process has largely been internal, but the external experience of working for Sun and being an intern was also significantly different than I expected it to be.

HR sent around an intern survey to ask us about how much we enjoyed our work experience and how we would rate the organization and whatnot. I filled in the blanks and was not looking to make any serious commentary. At the end, however, the survey wouldn’t let me finish without putting something into the blank for “What would you recommend that management do to make this a better place to work?”

The problem is the question is not a simple one to answer, so as is my wont, I gave them likely far more information than they wanted:

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A Deliberate Life

After a recent visit to Walden Pond, I’ve been reading Thoreau’s thoughts on living a deliberate life and they really seem to fit with where I am right now:

[E]verywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. … I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. … Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? …

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. … [T]he laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; … He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.

The point that I think Thoreau is driving at is not simply that an obsession with works cuts us off from our deepest natures, but that one can become so focused the minutiae of daily life that we actually lose the ability to discern those desires.

For the last year I have been with the HMT lab at Vanderbilt. I applied to several schools with only a very vague idea of how graduate school worked or what I would like to study. I have wanted to teach for a long time and was very happy to be accepted to the program.

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Leaving the Ocean Unboiled

I’ve been wandering a bit about intellectually. There was a method to this madness. Here was my plan for profit:

  1. Semiotics — Separate items and their meanings. Rather than considering a song a discrete thing that a user has a preference for, think of it as a complex symbol that has meaning for a user.
  2. Memetics — Examine shared cultural myths as philosophies of human nature and argue that the process guiding their specification is the same as the one driving philosophies about the world toward sciences.
  3. Preference as Conditioning — Distinguish between cultural symbols (guys wear pants) and simple symbols (the sun meaning warmth), argue that music communicates both types and that a unified perspective of messages can incorporate both.
  4. Hidden Markov Models — Posit that preference arises from the conditioning of a relatively small number of elements. Attempt to use patterns in the expressed preferences to guess the layout of this hidden network. Introduce the concept of ego as a state maintenance function on a stateless network.
  5. Vector Distance — Come up with some sort of unified way to train a Markov model on cepestral coefficients, tags and lyrics and use the weights of the nodes as a vector for computing user similarity (or, by examining the networks of the users liking a certain thing, compute a vector representing the messages communicated by a complex sign).

So, kinda out there as an idea. I didn’t really mean for it to come out quite that strangely. The task I was given was, “come up with a collaborative filter.” Recall that my definition of “collaborative filter” is pretty amorphous. I’ve read several papers on collaborative filtering, but none of them is particularly explicit. The definition I got from wikipedia was:

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Scheduling Productivity

This last week has been less than stellar for me productivity-wise. The issues have been, to some extent, systemic.

One of my biggest problems has been a simple one of biology. I do pretty well in the morning. Getting settled in, catching up on e-mail, doing some coding… I cruise along until around lunchtime when I hit a lull and, if I’m lucky, end up in a stupor staring off into the space about two feet behind my monitor. Equally unproductive, but slightly less discrete is lolled back in my chair snoring slightly and drooling on myself.

I’ve tried various methods for combating this phenomena. It isn’t just that I’m worried someone is going to catch me, it’s how pointless it is. If I’m going to be productive, I want to be productive. If I’m going to rest, I want to rest. What I’m doing with this half-breed amalgam is the worst of both worlds — being unproductive in a really uncomfortable way.

I thought for a while that it might be the act of eating. Maybe energy necessary for running my brain was being redirected to my stomach, so if I reduce resources going to the stomach, I can keep the brain going stronger. This line of reasoning led to the not terribly successful experiments in boosting energy levels by not eating.

I did have some luck with the grazing pattern where I make a sandwich and eat it a bite at a time over the course of five or six hours. (A really good diet strategy, fyi. It significantly reduced my overall caloric intake.) Part of the reason I’m here at Sun for the summer is the people I’m around. When I go down to lunch I get to hear interesting people espouse unique ideas, and I think it might seem a bit odd if I just came to lunch and took two bites out of my sandwich in half an hour.

Grazing wasn’t a complete solution in any case. The central issue is thinking is taxing. If I was loading hay all day, I wouldn’t try to come up with some magical plan whereby at the end of the day I’m not tired. Because the work of an engineer goes on inside our heads, we are more apt to assume that we can simply change the ramifications of doing it with moral resolve. Just because the action isn’t visible however doesn’t mean it is less real.

The solution I’ve been relying on for the last week has been a tasty one: chocolate covered espresso beans. Coffee might taste like dirty water, but the magical font of Goodness that is chocolate manages to make it delicious. Honestly, I think if I stuck with it for long enough I could condition myself to enjoy the taste of coffee (much like I now enjoy beer, which pretty much every first-time drinker agrees tastes like horse pee).

The problem isn’t really solved though. I do manage to stay conscious through the afternoon, but my focus is sharp right after a shot of caffeine and sugar, and drops off again with increasing rapidity. The big problem is there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch — three nights this week I got home around 6:00 and was asleep by 7:00 only to wake up at 2am unable to get back to sleep. (And being up from 2-5am leaves one with the reactive efficiency of roadkill the following day.)

I suppose I could view making it through the work day as a success and say that it is unprofessional of me to consider my discomfort at home when structuring my schedule, but I’m pretty sure that is the express train to getting your soul sucked out. (Something that would ultimately not only be bad for me, but for Sun as well.)

I figure though that my specialty is systemization, and if there is solution to be had, I can find it. I’ve got a more formal set of ideas on the process for doing that, but for the sake of brevity I’ll not go into all that. I’ll just mention that the plan for the next week is to work 7am-2pm, go home, probably nap and then work another hour or so in the evening. I’ve not got the criteria yet for doing a more formal evaluation, but I figure I’ll at least get a sense of how it leaves me feeling.

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Everyone’s Watching

Got a post from a guy who was fired for his blogging. He raises some interesting issues about an individual’s public and private lives in this increasingly connected era.

It also makes me think I shouldn’t talk about braining people with robots, or at least not specific people who could figure out I’m talking about them.

I used a particular person as an example in an attempt to make a general introduction to the concept of objectifying cognition more approachable. I suppose though I can get the same effect using a fictitious person.

Sigh, the thing is I don’t even really know how I feel. I respect the fact that my writing can be taken out of context and could be used by a malicious party to negatively portray myself or someone else. We do live in a world though where the slightest nuance of language is subject to scrutiny, so I suppose it’s better safe than sorry.

Years from now when I’ve got tenure or am dead or whatever, I’m going to try and get the sum total of my writing online. There’s some interesting themes that recur over the years. I’ll not have the freedom to do that for quite a while though.

Off to censor myself and correct my indiscretions…

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I’d Be Happy with Five Hours

I’d say I’m generally happy with five productive hours in a day.

Interestingly, as I was failing to find an article I remember reading on working less I instead found an article on how we rely on Google to remember everything for us. Apparently our benevolent overlord is not without a sense of irony.

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Corporate America

Well, I got my summer internship paperwork in the mail today. About the same time I got a Paul Graham article from Titivillus: You Weren’t Mean to Have a Boss about how ideal working groups for humans is about 8-10 people and how corporations stifle our creativity and steal our souls.

I’m certainly curious to see how my soul holds up over the summer. So far the people seem nice enough. None of my forms had to be signed in blood or anything. At the very least if I see anything suspicious (fillet of baby sandwiches, M$oft fanboyism, etc.), I’ll try to warn y’all.

Remember, the password is desgraciadamente. If I can remember the password without any trouble, then something else has taken over my brain. Normal me has been attempting to learn that word (“unfortunately” in Spanish) for four months without success.

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My first semester as a graduate student has come and gone. It has certainly been a learning process.

So far as the amount of actual information I learned, it was acceptable. I had Human-Computer Interaction which primarily dealt with user interface tests for software development. I’d seen most of that in work before, but there was some bits about doing statistical analyses that were new and interesting.

Statistical Inference was my favorite class. It was also mostly a repeat of information I’d had before, but we had nice little tables instead of all that messy integrating. The different tests were new though and the review was useful. I also managed to get more of my notes types up this time which I figure will be useful in the future.

Artificial Intelligence was drudgery. They combined the grad and undergrad sections since one of the professors was off on sabbatical. The main difference ended up being huge amounts of homework. I’d certainly not claim that I didn’t learn anything, but the process was at times a bit frustrating.

All in all though I’m still happy with my decision to start this trip. Grad school in some ways aged me. Having two or three homework assignments that required 30-40 hours to complete over the course of two weeks actively sucked some of the fun out of me. It meant I spent quite a few nights at home while the_archange1 was out and about. I’d like to be able to say that when I had fun it was all the more intense, but honestly it wasn’t. The stress and the fatigue made me more boring, but I learned how to get a shitton of work done and that’s a skill I’ve been wanting for a while.

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