Year 1 Retrospective

IMG_20160915_212159Well, my first school year is now over! (Almost. I still have a couple projects to finish.) There’s a lot to say on many topics, so I wanted to write a year 1 retrospective, in order to have one place that summarizes my feelings on the program as a whole. (Caveat: my experience is very much biased from the US perspective.) Anyways, here we go!

Contents

  1. Bureaucracy
  2. Accommodation & Costs
  3. Getting Around
  4. Food
  5. Weather
  6. The University System
  7. The LST Department
  8. Courses
  9. Final thoughts (TL;DR)

Bureaucracy

Getting through the bureaucracy to get your student stay permit takes 3 months (the full time of the Shengen Visa waiver you get as a US passport holder). The hardest part is just figuring out what to do and when to do it. You have to go to a million different offices, and bother people constantly to figure out what to do and then to get it done. Most things take twice as long to get done as you would expect. Also, the Internet is one thing that seems to take extra long to set up. I already had internet set up at my place, but many friends reported that it took them a whole month.

The good news is many people speak English really well. In fact, many people speak 2-3 languages fluently. (Most of Europe is more multilingual than the US, in fact.) The people at the Welcome Office at the university will most likely be able to communicate with you, plus they know what you have to get done.

In terms of learning German, unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time to do it, because I really spent a lot of time on my LCT courses. So my German isn’t as good as it could be, which is just a shame, but it definitely did improve some since I got here (I’m probably low B2 level now).

Germans do seem to like rules, and even young people are less likely to overlook rules, whether official or unspoken societal rules (e.g. politeness, respect of authority), but although the bureaucracy is bad, it’s not that bad. You can manage it.

Accommodation & Costs

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The dorms aren’t too bad for the price. It’s a 1-person room, with a kitchen and bathroom included.

Finding a place to live at the start of the school year is really hard. You will get interviewed by your potential roommates to see if you are a good fit. With that said, costs are pretty low. Most rooms in a shared flat go for 250-350 euro (plus or minus for heating/water/Internet). If you come for the intensive German course at the start, they set you up in a dorm for a month, and this is a great opportunity to focus on German, get to know the area, meet cool people, and have time to find a real apartment and get your paperwork done. It’s expensive though.

By the way, the houses tend to have these weird shelf toilets. They are pretty gross and loud when flushing. LPT: If you place a couple of sheets of toilet paper down at the start, it makes clean-up easier. Yes, it’s a bit of a waste of paper, but otherwise, you waste water when you have to flush the toilet some more in order to clean it with the brush. Ew.

If you sign up for the German national health insurance (which was worth it for me because I am on regular medications and need to have regular doctor’s visits), you will pay 90 euro a month. If you’re on this, you won’t pay anything to go to the doctor or dentist (English speaking ones can be found), and medications should be cheap, I think. This is really nice compared to the huge premiums we pay in the US, plus copays, plus deductibles. Ugh.

Electronics are way more expensive here than in the US. Buy your laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. when you are in the US. Also, shipping things here is not always that reliable. Stuff seems to get caught up in customs, or vanish sometimes, so you probably don’t want to be shipping expensive electronics. Have someone bring them when they visit, or bring them back yourself.

In short, cost of living is quite reasonable, and the Erasmus Mundus scholarship should more than cover it, unless you are like me, and spend a ton of money on travel and food (way more than I need to or should). Still, you can very easily find a HiWi for some extra cash and be just fine.

Getting around

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Art in front of a cafe in SB.

There are buses that go around Saarbrücken, but Google maps doesn’t show them. You can get updated schedules through the Saarfahrplan app. The buses don’t come as often as you’d like (especially on Sundays and holidays), and sometimes road construction really hampers them. On the plus side, SB is small enough that you can get around by bike pretty easily. In short, I think having a bike was worth it.

SB is centrally located in Europe, so you can travel around pretty easily. There’s an app for Deutschebahn, but it doesn’t work very well (it always crashed for me). I prefer using the Trainline app, because they make it really easy to find the cheapest tickets and you have the ticket on your phone when you need to show it. In retrospect though, I would have bought the student pass for Deutschebahn, because I travelled a lot and it would have been worth the money. As for the trains, Deutschebahn is pretty awful, so be prepared for train delays. Transfers of less than 10 minutes are risky and not recommended.

Paris is only two hours away by train, so I visited it at least four times. They have the best cheese, and that makes me very happy. Luxembourg is two hours away by bus, and also a great place to visit. Trier, Heidelberg, and the Saarschleife were nice day trips nearby. Frankfurt is a couple of hours away, which is great for catching planes elsewhere. Flights on Ryanair can be as cheap as 25 Euro, but you have to book way ahead of time and fly out of Frankfurt Hahn, which is no where near Frankfurt (there’s a bus that goes there from SB though).

Food

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Decor at Zing, a local bar.

Typical foods from this region are high in carbs and starches, so make sure you cook with plenty of vegetables at home. The cured meat and cheese is great though. The US has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to cured meat and cheese in comparison. I’m also going to miss real Bretzeln (soft pretzels).

I didn’t go out to restaurants in SB too much, but I did enjoy a few:

  • Zing – great local bar with a chill atmosphere to hang out at with friends
  • Flammkuchenhaus – all you can eat wood-fired Flammkuchen (like a very thin pizza with creme fraiche for the sauce and all sorts of toppings)
  • Mei Thai – really good Thai curry, and you can get it real spicy (not just German spicy)
  • Henry’s Eismanufaktur  – homemade ice cream with interesting flavours
  • China Restaurant – all you can eat hot pot with reservations, great for big groups
  • Taiha’s – very affordable Chinese food
  • Street food – whenever they have a street food festival, I get Baumstriezel, whenever I am at the train station I get hot Bretzeln, and whenever I am on campus I get Laugencroissant (which is a totally Saarland thing)

In terms of shopping for food, keep in mind that everything is closed on Sundays! This is a very annoying thing about Germany. Do your shopping on Saturday!

In terms of grocery stores, you have a wide selection. I usually go to multiple stores to get everything I want though:

  • Edeka is the best grocery store, but it’s all the way on Mainzerstraße in SB.
  • Aldi, Lidl and Rewe are also ok.
  • Netto is a cheap budget store. The produce there is kinda crappy, but you can definitely save money by shopping here.
  • Kardstadt has a grocery store in the basement that’s a bit expensive but has good fish.
  • Diskontopassage (the thing that looks like a subway in the center) has various specialty stores.
  • There’s a farmer’s market on Saturday from 8:00-14:00 in the center at St. Johanner Markt. This is a good place to get fresh vegetables, and there is a vendor there that has the best yogurt ever.

Speaking of food, the cafeteria (Mensa & Mensa cafe) at the university is pretty bad. They serve mostly bland carbs, in too-salty sauces. They sort of manage to make edible curly fries, Schnitzel and Flammkuchen, but that’s about it. Anything that claims to be “Chinese” food, or “Gulasch” or anything even slightly non-German sounding is basically really gross. There are no easily accessible microwaves, so bringing your own food can also be tough. But I found a microwave on the second floor of C7.1 building. I don’t think it’s meant for general student use, but no one has stopped me thus far!

Weather

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Frost in SB in January.

The weather is not unmanageably cold, but it is annoyingly cold. There are weeks in winter when it snows, and weeks when it goes below freezing. Most days it hovers around freezing though. Personally, since I come from sunny SoCal, I was happy to have a winter coat, gloves, hats, a wool scarf, sweaters, and layers.

The summer doesn’t really start until June/July. Even in the summer, it’s not always that warm, and it can rain a lot. It can get hot (30+ degrees C) but it doesn’t stay hot. Most places don’t have AC. Windows don’t have screens, so in the summer you get bugs.

It seems the pathogens here are somewhat different because from September to May I was sick as many times as I had my period (both period and illness randomly skipped in March). That’s just not right. You’re not supposed to be sick that much! But since June I seem to have broken this streak.

When you are sick, if you want meds, you have to go to the Apotheke (pharmacy) and talk to them to get what you want. For some meds, like pain meds (e.g. ibuprofen) I think you need a prescription. So consider bringing those with you from the US for less hassle as you are settling in. Also, they don’t have NyQuil pills here in Germany. They have MediNait, which is like the disgusting liquid version of NyQuil. I would definitely bring NyQuil from home.

The University System

The university systems in the US and in Germany are somewhat different. It’s hard for me to judge how much of it comes from the specific universities I attended, and how much from the German system in general, but here is my comparison.

US (UCLA) Germany (UdS)
There is a central admin for grades, rooms, finals, hiring post docs, organizing a curriculum, etc. Each prof does their own admin for the above (as I understand it)
University-wide website for courses and dept.-wide prof pages Each prof does their own webpages
Many profs prioritize research over teaching Nearly all profs prioritize research over teaching
Some teacher training sometimes provided, and profs get evaluated for every class Evaluations happen haphazardly (do profs even look at them?)
Assignments, midterms, finals, and often attendance count for a grade Assignments qualify you for the final, but the final is your entire grade, attendance is optional
You need to be signed up and paid for to take the course You can visit whatever lectures you want (great way to learn extra topics)
All classes start and end at the same time, with breaks and finals at the same time Exact time frames are up to the department and prof for each class
Sign up for courses in the first ~2 weeks, drop in the first ~4 weeks Sign up for finals near the last month of the semester
Tuition fees are huge (>10,000) so you have to take out loans Tuition is nearly free (~230 euro)
Most classes require you to buy books It’s up to you if you want to learn from books

In general, I think you get a better education in the US, because you have guidance in the topics and accessible professors willing and able to explain complicated topics. Professors are able to synthesize all the information out there in the world, and you are guided in correct direction and progression for the best learning outcomes.

In Germany, most classes are little more than a list of topics with some crappy slides, and you have to go out and teach yourself those topics. Professors don’t have time, don’t want to, or maybe just don’t know how to guide you down the path of learning, so you waste a lot of time flailing about every which way before finding the right way to learn the topic. The number of times I heard “just go look it up on Wikipedia” from a professor is shameful. My entire year of study here is best summarized as being a year of independent study, plus some exam hoops to jump through.

The LST Department

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Homemade card game about countries, kind of like “Go Fish!” on steroids, in Czech. Plus beer, of course!

Let’s start with the good. It’s a very international program, which is great. The other students especially are smart, fun, and just a joy to be around. Without them, I would have probably dropped out a long time ago. The faculty has plenty of smart researchers and you can take many different subjects and topics that sound interesting, so that’s nice. There’s a strong computational focus, and there’s also a good psycholinguistics section. The pure theoretical linguistics isn’t as strong as it was at UCLA, but it’s fine as far as I can tell. Overall, the education seems better than at some of the other LCT partner universities (I’ve heard bad things about San Sebastian, and Nancy in particular.)

Unfortunately, the department here is completely disorganized, and this shows in everything:

  • There’s no centralized web site for the department, sometimes no website at all for courses.
  • Classes start at irregular times, not in sync with the rest of the uni.
  • Finals happen within a wide span of two months, so it’s hard to plan around them.
  • Intensive block courses fill up any breaks you might have, so you won’t have vacations.
  • The same slides, assignments, and final exams (yes, even final exams) are reused year to year (so get study notes from the previous year if you can).
  • Requirements are a mess, and second year LCT students get especially screwed, since they have to take a lot of extra crap for no good reason. Don’t come here as a second year LCT.

Speaking of requirements, there’s actually a lot of prerequisite knowledge that would be really good to have before you start this program. The program takes people from varied backgrounds, but the truth is, that if you have already studied certain subjects, things will just make a lot more sense.

For those of us with linguistics backgrounds, keep in mind that since you cannot take bachelor’s level math and computer science courses for credit, you will lag behind most of the time. That’s not to say you can’t pass the program, just that you won’t get as much out of it, which is a shame. So I would say, try to learn up on math and programming before you come.

In general, I would recommend knowing:

  • Calculus
  • Linear Algebra
  • Statistics & Probability (though you will be taught much of this)
  • Python programming
  • A proper course on introductory linguistics where you have covered phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics (or at least basic logic).

I would also like to say that I would probably not recommend doing LCT as a self-funding student without the scholarship. There is an option to come to LST (the local Saarland program) directly, or to transfer from LCT to LST once you get here, and if you don’t have the scholarship, then you should consider this. (It makes sense to do LCT with the scholarship, since you get a free education out of it.)

The reason I say that, is because although Saarland has it’s problems, it is one of the better schools in the consortium as far as I can tell, and interrupting your studies to start over at a second university (basically doing most of the first year two times) is not worth it. Maintaining consistency, getting to know professors, and getting the chance at better internships here (since most jobs want you to be around for a while) is probably better than swapping schools. The other intangibles you get (e.g., meeting awesome people, living abroad, learning a new language, etc.) are still attained if you stay at Saarland. Of course, I haven’t done my second year at Trento yet, so take this with a grain of salt. I might change my mind after the end of the second year, but this is just my impression so far.

Courses

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Machine translation and speech recognition are big topics here.

Since there are no official course prerequisites, and most courses don’t really mention requisites, I would just like to summarize what I learned here about the implied requirements for the courses I took (or started taking and dropped). I’ll also take this time to give mini-reviews of the courses. I’m going to be completely honest in them, so if a prof ever reads this blog, hopefully they will understand that my criticism is meant to be constructive rather than destructive. There are many courses I didn’t visit, so this will just be a list of the ones I did visit.

In general, finding study notes and mock exams from previous years will help you.  I also cannot stress enough that you should work with other students whenever possible, because you have to teach yourselves mostly everything in the German school system, which is much easier to do when you have another person to bounce ideas off of.

Core Courses:

  • Computational Linguistics (Koller), prereqs: python
    • Great introduction to basic comp ling algorithms, but the class moves quickly, so be prepared to work hard. No exam, final project instead. You won’t get grades back for a shamefully long time. Recommended for learning the basics, as long as you don’t need grades right away to graduate.
  • Foundations (various profs), prereqs: none
    • Why is this still in the curriculum? It’s a waste of time, but it’s a required course. Fine to skip class most days (don’t skip Klakow’s), but review slides rigorously for final.
  • Language Technology I (Dehdari), prereqs: none
    • I had Dehdari for this, but he left SB recently. This is a gentle introduction to basic topics in comp ling, but the topics you will go over are covered in more depth in all of your other classes. Only recommended for easy credits, not that useful otherwise.
  • Language Technology II (van Genabith), prereqs: none
    • You can bring all materials, including a computer to the final. Skip lecture, study the slides, get an A. Only recommended for easy credits, pointless otherwise.
  • Semantics (Vanhuizen), prereqs: none
    • Good balance of lecture to exercises, and expectations are clear. Some exercises can be much harder than what was explained in lecture, but prof is very approachable. Recommended as a good introduction to semantics.
  • Syntax (Avgustinova/Clayton), prereqs: syntax
    • Syntax is a great topic, but this is not a well-taught introduction, so you’ll lose your passion for it. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.

Other courses:

  • Methods of Mathematical Analysis (Clayton), prereqs: calculus
    • I didn’t finish this class. It’s billed as a class to teach linguistics students the basic math skills they need, but you will be teaching almost everything to yourself. The final was reported to be way harder than the assignments. Not recommended; teach yourself instead.
  • Speech Recognition (Klakow), prereqs: linear algebra, machine learning
    • I didn’t finish this class, but my impression is that it is one of the hardest CoLi classes, probably for the same reasons as the other Klakow classes (see SNLP review just below).
  • Statistical Natural Language Processing (Klakow), prereqs: python, machine learning
    • Terrible slides, awful tutors, little guidance, hard homeworks, even harder final. It’s possible without having taken machine learning (I managed it), but it will take you a long time, and you will teach yourself everything. Recommended only if you handle frustration well, and have a good partner to study with.

Seminars:

  • Natural Language Generation (Koller/Demberg), prereqs: general knowledge of NNs
    • Present on a topic with ~2 other students. Can work together as little or as much as you like. Good seminar to write your paper in because you get a lot of material to base it off of. Recommended for writing your paper, and if you are ok waiting on grades to come back.
  • Question Answering in Applications (Neumann/Heigold), prereqs: none
    • Boring, but a good place to do that oral exam requirement since it will be exactly what was in your presentation. Not recommended due to how boring it is.
  • TTS/Voicebuilding (Moebius/Steiner), prereqs: none
    • TTS is boring, but required for Voicebuilding. It’s ok to skip most classes, but study the slides rigorously for the final. VB builds a voice with MaryTTS which is an annoying system to work with, but you learn a lot of other tools (linux, gradle, sox, docker, etc.). You’ll likely get good marks in these. Recommended for the tools.
  • Semantic Parsing (Koller), prereqs: semantics preferred
    • You are helped and encouraged to make a good presentation, and you have a lot of freedom for the project, so you get out of it what you put in. You can do it without having taken semantics (I did), but I think it’s better to take it first. You will get a good grade if you do the work. Recommended if you are interested in this topic.

CS Courses:

  • Artificial Intelligence (Hoffman), prereqs: programming, basic algorithms
    • I didn’t finish this class. A lot of the linguists take this class to fulfill the CS requirement, because it seems manageable. It still takes a lot of your time, and to me, it didn’t seem to be that practical.
  • Database Systems (Dittrich), prereqs: Java
    • I didn’t finish this class. Inverted classroom is nice. Mandatory quizzes, final based on quizzes. Homeworks are a lot of work. This is one of the classes that seems like it could be manageable for linguists, as long as you have time for it.
  • Software Engineering (Zeller + Tutor), prereqs: object-oriented programming
    • Completely dependent on project assignment and group dynamic. Homeworks are required for a grade, but a massive waste of time. Don’t rely on your tutor for much help on them either. Final is 3x longer than mock exam, so use the cheat sheet you get wisely. This class is very practical and you will most likely learn new technologies, which is the good part, but it will take a lot of your time. Competency-wise, it’s manageable for linguists trying to get the CS requirement. Recommended if you have lots of time, and you get the project and group you want.

Language courses:

  • Deutschkurse für internationale Studierende (DaF)
    • The summer intensive program is expensive but worth it to get settled (good chance to search for accommodation) and get acquainted with other international students. They have weekend trips which are great for getting to know the area.
    • Both summer and yearly courses are very dependent on what profs you get (Ralf is great), but this is a great way to meet other people from all over the world, and an ok place to get conversation practice. You probably won’t learn much grammar, so teach that to yourself.
  • Deutschkurse through MPI
    • Also very dependent on what profs you get (Kate isn’t great), but it’s worth trying this one out as well to see what meshes with your learning style best
  • Sprachenzentrum language courses (Italian, and French)
    • At the lower levels, these courses are taught entirely in German. They like to spend most of their time explaining the grammar, and you don’t get enough speaking practice or a large vocabulary.
    • The higher level conversational classes seem to be a lot more fun.

Final thoughts (TL;DR)

  • This is a year of independent study, with some exam hoops to jump through
  • Don’t come here as a 2nd year LCT student, the requirements are too stupid
  • The program is disorganized, so be ready to follow up on everything yourself
  • Finals and classes happen at weird times throughout the year, so vacations are hard to plan
  • Before coming, try to take calculus, linear algebra, and python, plus statistics/probability if there’s time, and at least an introductory linguistics course plus maybe syntax since the course here on it isn’t very good
  • The other students are amazing and make this worth it, plus living abroad is always a great experience in my opinion
  • The scholarship is more than enough to cover a frugal cost of living in a shared flat, and a small job for extra cash is easy to come by (email your profs)
  • Travel is easy, but don’t take train transfers of less than 10 minutes because Deutschebahn is often late
  • Get the Saarfahrplan app for bus schedules, and the Trainline app to buy train tickets, Ryanair for cheap airfare from Frankfurt, plus the bus that goes to their airport
  • Health insurance and going to the doctor is easy, even with medication prescriptions, but bring Nyquil and pain meds from home
  • Electronics are expensive, so buy them at home
  • The weather likes to hover around freezing most of winter, bring hats
  • Lifestyle is typical for the West, and many people speak English
  • Everything being closed on Sundays and stores closing at 8pm really sucks
  • Saarbrücken is pretty boring, and a little dirty, but it’s got almost everything you’ll need to live a normal life (except on Sundays)

Overall, I enjoyed my first year. I got to meet so many amazing students, and see a bunch of new things here in Germany and in Europe. At the end of my first year here, I would recommend the LCT program for the intangibles, and the free education. Without the LCT scholarship, I would recommend coming to Europe for a cheaper education, but not swapping schools in the middle. Mainly, if you are really dead set on getting a good education in computational linguistics, and/or are not strong in teaching yourself, and are willing to stomach the massive loans you have to take out, consider top US schools like Carnegie Mellon or University of Washington instead.

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Weeks Forty-Two through Forty-Five

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My favorite part of Paris! (From La Fermette)

I was very busy with finals all month. I’m afraid things didn’t go as well as I hoped. I studied a lot throughout the whole semester, but my studying often seemed to lead to more confusion rather than clarity on these topics. It’s also true that while I studied a lot, I spent a lot of time not studying too. For example, I traveled, once to wedding in the US (causing lots of jetlag in both directions), and once to Paris to see some of my husband’s family that were visiting from the US.

At least now, all my exams are over…. but I doubt I got great marks. Doing poorly on an exam is really demoralizing, because it feels like despite all the  hard work you did throughout the semester, you didn’t seem to learn anything, or otherwise, you feel like you learned a lot throughout the semester, but you didn’t get a chance to show what you know on the exam. Some of the exams this semester seemed disproportionately hard, or completely unrelated to what was done in class, and judging from others’ reactions, I wasn’t the only one that felt that way.

Apart from exams, I have two group projects still due. The first is an iPad app for the software engineering class. Through this project, I learned a lot about Swift, Xcode, and iOS app development. The class itself, like the classwork and the exam, were pretty pointless. But I actually kind of enjoyed working on this project in the end, because I got to make something concrete, and because I actually enjoyed working in our group, for the most part. We all fell into our own little niches by the end, and I think we did a good job of handling all of the responsibilities, and trading them off when necessary as well.

The second project involves semantic parsing using neural networks, and unfortunately, I legitimately feel like I didn’t contribute enough to this one. It’s not quite over yet (I guess it’s due at the end of August), so hopefully I can somehow earn my keep on that team. If not, I guess I’ll just take the hit to my grade. I don’t think I actually need the credits at this point (unless I failed one of the finals).

I don’t expect to find out my grades from this semester for a very long time. In fact, not all of my grades from last semester (4-5 months ago) are in yet. Submitting grades seems to be up to each professor (as I’ve mentioned before, this school has little central organization), and some seem to enjoy taking their time. It’s really quite appalling.

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The battery meter shows how the battery just dropped right off (and the phone turned off suddenly) at around 58% battery left.

In other news, my phone battery decided to crap out. It now drains incredibly fast and dies when the battery claims to be between 20% and 60%. It’s the kind of phone where you can’t easily open the back and replace the battery. I can try to muck about with it (voiding the warranty), or  I can send it back to the US to get a replacement. Messing with it means possibly breaking it and being without a phone, and sending it back means I would have to be without a phone while it’s in the mail. So I would need to buy a phone in the meanwhile, even if it’s a cheap-o one. Thankfully, my husband’s family is once again coming to my rescue, and helping me buy a proper, new phone as a birthday present. This one just has to not completely fail on me in the next month.

In general, I feel that the trend of these types of phone problems has been on the rise. I don’t know if it’s planned obsolescence or if it’s just an actual failure in battery design, or if it’s a combination of the two. Either way, it’s clear that the big phone companies will continue to skimp here.

Bunch of bullshit, if you ask me.

The worst part is that I know that I am the one that gets myself into these situations– I am the one that chooses to buy phones from the companies that get away with this nonsense, because I use my phone in every aspect of my daily life. It’s an every-tool, but it’s also a shiny toy, and it’s one of the categories I am willing to drop a lot of cash on.

Long story short,  it’s been a stressful month, and now, I need to finish planning the move to Italy! I am also trying to plan some travel in August before my move, because I don’t want to waste the whole month just sitting around… but we’ll see if those plans come to fruition so late in the game.

Costs

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €25 – phone
  • €5 – meds
  • €5.5 – school supplies
  • €20 – bouldering
  • €133 – groceries
  • €61 – dining
  • €50 – trip to Paris (family helped with the bulk of the costs)
  • €89 – new phone (family helped with the bulk of the cost)
  • €450 – deposit on apartment in Italy (the initial one to hold it, another will be due once I get there)
  • Total: €1153

Walls and Birds

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Here, the sun beats down brighter than in the north, and the air smells of the sea. There is another scent there too– one of stone and golden sand and very fine dust. Ten generations have walked passed these walls; walls saturated with the histories of those who lived and died within them and without.

Birds gather on the palm trees and stone arches, displaying their many-coloured plumage. Each of them comes from a different place, and their colours range from shimmering green, to vibrant red, to snowy white. Despite their varied origins, they chirp happily to one another, their voices raising a cacophony of noise to the heavens. One flies away, and for a moment, the others fall silent, but only for a moment. They know this place is just a stopover, and each of them understands the pull of the seasons, for they must all hurry back and forth across the world, ever in chase of the best meal in the south or the best home in the north.

The old walls stand as they ever stood, stoic to these comings and goings. They drink the heat of the sun in the daylight, and keep the cold at bay during the night. Patience is their only virtue, but they have it in spades. Some of them are destroyed and rebuilt to serve new purposes. Others are worn down by the years until they are only dust, and this dust is spread amongst​ the same winds that carry the birds to their next destination.

In our travels, we are not unlike the birds. Some of us chase the summer sun, others run from winter’s cold– or towards it– and others still know only that they must leave, but never why. I wonder if the walls are ever perplexed by our migrations, haphazard as they must seem. But one day, even the walls will travel on the wind, just as we do with each passing generation. Perhaps they look at us in envy, wishing they too could so easily experience the change of scenery, before they turn to dust and ruin. Or perhaps they laugh at our whimsy, before turning their faces back to the warmth of their beloved sun.

(These are the birds outside my window that keep me up at 4:30am… but it’s hard to stay mad at them. The picture here, and the one above are from my trip to Malta.)

Weeks Forty & Forty-One

rovereto

Rovereto, Italy. Population: ~37,000.

This is the town where I am going to live next school year. It is full of narrow alleyways and wide piazzas with adorable restaurant patios. It is small. Compared to what I am used to, it is tiny. I took a trip there last week, to get a lay of the land. Of course, I liked the mountains best of all, but since I don’t have a car now, traveling to the best hiking spots might be challenging.

I am apprehensive about leaving.  I’ve made a lot of friends/connections here. Although there is much about the system here that I dislike, and I don’t really like my apartment or the town that much, I’ve become used to the way things work here, and who’s to say the next place will have a better system. Anyway it will take me time to become accustomed to everything again. The bother of dealing with bureaucracy again and the language barrier in particular concern me. I don’t speak Italian hardly at all.

On the other hand, I am excited about leaving. The new place is beautiful, I get to learn another language, I get to live in the mountains again (I missed that), I will meet more great people, and I will just get to experience new things.

In some way, I don’t exactly know how to feel. But the plans have been laid, and things will happen in the order that they happen, and I will tackle them as they come.

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Trento, Italy. There are many buildings with beautiful frescos here.

The trip to the Trento area from Saarbrücken was very nice. I went with two other people, one of whom had a car and was willing to drive. We made a road trip out of it. It was great being on the road again, like at home. We stopped in Innsbruck on the way there, and on the way back we stopped by Ehrenberg Castle in Austria, which has the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. The bridge swayed as we walked across it, but the view was amazing. I wish we had had time to stop by even more places, since I can’t imagine I’ll be back this way by car again, but it was great to see as much as we did, given that we took a random weekend off (and skipped some classes) to do it!

In my life, I have always considered myself shy or introverted. There’s always a part of myself I keep hidden in conversations with other people, and I definitely feel the stress of navigating social situations. On the other hand, I have always enjoyed learning new things, and making connections with other people. A lot of the time, to learn something new (especially a language), you have to talk to people. You have to ask them questions about their work, or their lives. Sometimes, people don’t feel comfortable talking to someone they don’t know, so it makes sense to share a little bit of yourself in the process. I’ve tried my best to be my honest self with other people, in so far as I can be, but it’s never easy to open up. Sometimes, I can’t keep track of people’s reactions, and I start to go on a rant about something I feel strongly about. I don’t notice that I might be coming off too strong.

For the first time in my life, after the road trip, I was called chatty.  It was such a stark contrast to how I have been described in the past, i.e. introverted, nerdy, quiet. I don’t feel like I have changed from that introverted personality that I have on the inside. However, perhaps I have somehow changed how that personality is realized. Instead of running and hiding from these social situations, I must have decided at some point to face them head on.

It’s kind of like the ocean waves. When the wave is coming, you can either run from it to reach the safety of the beach, letting the wave peter out behind you, or you can dive into it head first and come out on the other side. The other side is deep, and you have to keep paddling to avoid drowning, but you get to swim amongst the fishes.

I don’t think one choice is better than another, but it’s good to know that the strategy can be changed when the need arises. Apparently, I have somehow managed to change it once subconsciously. I would like to learn to do this at will.

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Innsbruck. (Europe seems to really like coloured houses on riverbanks.)

Once in Italy, I managed to do some apartment searching. The choice of where to live is overwhelming, especially with the travel considerations. Rovereto is where the faculty is located, so it’s where most of my friends will probably be, and it’s cheaper to live there, but it’s really small (37k people). Trento is a nicer city for what I am used to (117k people), and I felt more comfortable there. It’s closer to the other parts of the university campus, i.e. CS and language and probably sports too. Travel between the two takes only 15 minutes by train, but the train only goes Rovereto -> Trento until 23:00 and Trento -> Rovereto until 21:00. Travel to the CS campus is apparently another bus ride away (I didn’t get the chance to try to do that though).

Without knowing exactly where I will be taking classes, it’s hard to judge the best place to live. However, since we arrived on a Friday, we had a little bit of time to search around. There was a train strike going on, so we didn’t manage to make it to Trento that day, but we did look a bit in Rovereto. Surprisingly, I saw some places that really appealed to me. The language barrier was a real thing (with one person not being able to speak anything but Italian), so I actually learned a lot of new words (well, since I hardly speak Italian, there is a lot to learn, and these are all pretty basic):

  • il appartamento – apartment
  • il propretario – the owner
  • il contratto – the contract
  • la lavatrice – clothes washing machine
  • il riscaldatore – heating
  • l’acqua – water
  • la camera – bedroom
  • il bagno – bathroom
  • la cucina – kitchen
  • mio marito – my husband (I had to explain I am moving with him)
  • il gatto – cat (most apartments seem cat friendly)
  • la luce – light (electricity)
  • il gas – gas (for stove)
  • il letto – bed
  • il divano – couch
  • le spese condominiali – condominium charges (for the building)
  • pagare – to pay
  • potere – to be able to (io posso, tu puoi, Lei può, noi possiamo, voi potete, loro possono)

I am actually emailing with one apartment right now. Hopefully this will work out and I won’t have to worry about searching for a place in August. I think that things will be more expensive in August, and also, I’ll be busy doing many other things. It would be nice if this could just get settled right now.

Costs:

  • €173 – dining out/ snacks
  • €34 – groceries
  • €55 – hostel
  • €59 – trains, gas
  • €30 – phone (more expensive this month)
  • €16 – clothes
  • €2 – launtry
  • Total: €369

Weeks Thirty-Seven through Thirty-Nine

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Valetta, seen from the ferry to Sliema.

Malta was lovely. It was three weeks ago now, and I still find myself daydreaming of limestone walls and the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean. It was hot and dry like back home, but the sea was much more pleasant. The water tasted of salt, but without the sharp bitterness that I am used to from the Pacific, the temperature was warm and pleasant, unlike the bone-chilling cold of the ocean, and the water was calm so you could just swim for miles. There were jellyfish in some places, like St. Peter’s Pool, which was a place we went cliff diving, but that was the only bad thing, and it wasn’t everywhere.

My trip there was organized by the Erasmus LCT partner universities, and the point was to meet the other LCT students. Since there are a number of universities in the LCT Consortium, there are LCT students all over Europe who I would never have met, had they not organized this. They do it in a different place each year, and those of us from Saarland were certainly happy that it was in an awesome place like Malta this year!  When we didn’t have meetings, we spent the days swimming, hiking, or cliff diving, and the nights eating seafood and chilling with some beers. As lovely as Malta was, all the wonderful people I met were lovelier still, and it was fantastic to get the chance to meet so many interesting people, and to get to know such a great community.

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A caper flower (like the capers that we eat).

Coming back to real life in Saarbrücken was not easy. In fact, since I came back, I’ve done nothing but work. I had a presentation, I had to finish my HiWi job (no more extra money coming in after this), and my other classes have also really picked up.

In Software Engineering, I am starting to “program” in Xcode using Swift. There are huge air quotes around “program” because apart from the fact that I have no idea what I am doing, I would also say that Xcode is a pain, especially for new people:

  • The whole thing is quite slow, and the simulator that you use to debug with tends to lag, crash, or simply not update. Sometimes you have to restart the whole computer to make it fix itself.
  • Xcode uses some sort of flat file to keep track of project files, so you can have project files strewn across half your file system if you aren’t careful. Adding and removing files from your project is also a hassle.
  • You use a GUI to design a UI and then you literally drag-and-drop using the GUI from the UI elements to lines in the code (wtf?). Presumably you could write actual C code instead of drag-and-dropping (at least I hope that’s true), but finding those C files is also not easy (plus I am not good in C yet).
  • Last, but certainly not least, you have to use a Mac and it has to be a newer Mac if you want to build for the newer iOS. This translates to being rich enough to buy a new Mac every few years.

In my Statistical Natural Language Processing (SNLP) class, we are writing proofs that don’t seem to tie in to much of anything else, based on slides that are confusing or full of mistakes, plus, our tutors either don’t know how any of it works either, or they are inexperienced teachers, but likely both. The class is incredibly frustrating, and not for good reason.

In my Semantic Parsing project seminar, we just started working on our project, which is going to involve using a neural net to parse natural language into Abstract Meaning Representations (AMRs). This is a topic I know very little about in general, but the penalty for failure is low for this class, so hopefully it will be a learning experience. Since we’ll probably be working with TensorFlow in this class, I decided to drop my TensorFlow seminar, because the timeline for the project completion for that seminar would have put me well into the time I should be moving to Italy anyway.

cat01

One of many of the stray cats of Malta, carefully observing me as I try to sneak some pictures.

Speaking of Italy, this weekend, I plan to visit Trento, Italy, where I will be spending my second year, to try to get a lay of the land. My goal is to figure out a good general area to start looking for apartments. I don’t think I will have much luck in the housing search at this time, but at least I’ll know how things look.

I’ve only been to Italy once before, and it was also three weeks ago. During the trip to Malta, we had a layover in Pisa of 4 hours or so, which was just barely enough time for us to run out to the leaning tower, snap a couple pics, and take the bus back to the airport. It was a whirlwind tour of the main parts of  the city, but I remember most vividly the scent of flowers in the air. I think Trento will be a little different though, since it’s in the north, closer to the Alps.

My world is a whirlwind of emotions right now. One day I am hitting my head against a wall of code and math, and the next I am zooming through yet another country, and soon I will be learning another language too. Life never stands still!

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These were the flowers that smelled so nice in Pisa, Italy. Does anyone know what they are?

Costs:

  • €225 – rent
  • €98 – groceries
  • €10 – another replacement student card, because I lost mine again =(
  • €40 – dining/snacks
  • €30 – phone (made some longer phone calls and used lots of data)
  • €175 – Malta (mostly food)
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €588

Weeks Thirty-Four through Thirty-Six

Busy! I thought I’d have an easier time this semester, but I’m afraid it is not so. There are more interesting classes offered this time around, but they are also harder and I am finding very little time to myself. I work every day of the week, usually quite a bit more than 8 hours a day. I haven’t been cooking much due to the busy schedule.

Like at the start of last semester, my schedule this semester is not entirely settled yet, but the classes still in the running are:

  • Software engineering
  • Semantics
  • Statistical natural language processing
  • TensorFlow (programming project)
  • Semantic Parsing (presentation + programming project)
  • Language Technology II

Software engineering (SWE) is a class I need to fulfill the requirement from UdS that states I need >8 credits from a comp sci department class taught by a non computational linguistics (COLI) prof. For this class, we get into groups of 5, and we work on a software project for a client from around the school or area. Each group works on something different. The deliverables for the class are project-management style reports, as well as the completed project. The client basically gets free interns for a semester.

In our project, we are working with a software engineer from DFKI to create an app for psychologists working with patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and similar. The tests involve things like asking patients to name images, or describe a scene, or tell the time. The app records their responses, analyzes the speech, and reports statistics on the data. The speech recognition part and analysis is done by DFKI. Our bit is just the front end. This has to include things like a nice UI, a database for patient tracking, audio recording, and so on. Also– and this is the stickler– it must be an iPad app. The problem is none of us have experience writing apps for iPad, and only a couple of us have Macs that we can use to compile and test the code. So yea, this is gonna be a fun ride.

The next class on the to-keep list is Semantics, which I need to fulfill the last core course requirement, plus it’s helpful for one of the LCT requirements which I haven’t finished yet as well (LT-M3 I think). Semantics is the one theoretical linguistics topic that I didn’t cover in my undergrad, so it makes sense to take it now.

Next is statistical natural language processing (SNLP). This class introduces a lot of the basic computational and info-theoretic techniques that I need to know (although some I already went over last semester); however, it’s a frustrating class, because the lectures and the assignments are completely disassociated, so I am basically teaching myself everything involved. I work on the assignments with a partner, and I feel like we are a good team, although we do have some kinks to work out. Still, even with two of us, it takes us at least twice the prof’s estimated time for us to finish the assignments.

The TensorFlow programming project sounds like a really relevant thing that I want to work on. Unfortunately, this thing hasn’t even started yet (a month into the semester), and it won’t finish until well after I am in Italy. The time frame for this isn’t great, but I am hesitant to drop it until I at least see what it’s about and how it will go.

Semantic parsing is another class that I’m not that sure about. We read a paper, and do a presentation. After all the presentations are done, we work together on a semantic parser, either implementing a system that we read about, or implementing our own system. I am already committed to doing the presentation, but I am not sure how many software projects I can do at once while also taking a bunch of classes.

Finally, Language Technology II just goes over some techniques for machine translation. It has a good curriculum, but unfortunately, it’s a very slow class, and it has very little (if any) assignments. To be honest, I’m just sort of keeping this class in my back pocket for now in case something else goes awry, but I most likely will drop it.

In addition to the above, I am attending a few other class in a not too serious way. I’ll probably stop attending these as the semester wears on (the order below reflects the order in which I will stop attending them):

  • Methods of Mathematical Analysis: I don’t like the way the prof teaches, and the curriculum isn’t as good as it could be, but maybe I’ll learn something useful
  • French Culture and Conversation: just a relaxing thing I’m doing for fun
  • German classes (“Grammatik” and “Allgemeine Deutsch Kurse”): it seems silly to be in Germany and never learn any German
  • Italian: I’m moving to Italy, and I’ve barely studied Italian, but I’m finding it difficult to put much effort into it with everything else going on

It’s a shame that I had to drop some of the other very interesting sounding classes, like Image Processing and Computer Vision, Artificial Intelligence, and a seminar on Minimalism (Syntax), but I just didn’t judge that I could manage them and/or didn’t need them as much as some of the required things.

Next week I am going to Malta for the yearly LCT conference. I hope I can enjoy it, because I will also be quite busy due to all the work that is still due.

 

In other news, spring is in full swing! The sun is warm, the evenings are pleasant, and I am finally so so happy with the weather. A bunch of us got together for a Grillabend (barbeque) out in the park. People cooked various delicious things, and it was such a relaxing time.

There were about 18 people there. I have to say, I am normally a fairly introverted person, and I don’t really feel comfortable in large groups. But somehow, I don’t feel that normal stress of having to be sociable when surrounded by these folks, and I actually get energy from hanging out, rather than getting fatigued by it. Moving to Italy is going to be bittersweet.

Costs:

I’m overspending on food (as usual), partly due to busyness, partly due to laziness, partly due to the enjoyment of shopping for food. =\ Next week will be expensive too since I’ll be travelling. By the way, my HiWi job ends this month, so my ideal budget will be getting cut down again.

  • €250 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €60 – replacement key (from when all my shit got stolen)
  • €25 – phone
  • €50 – train tickets for a later trip
  • €10 – bouldering
  • €168 – groceries
  • €76 – dining/snacks
  • €6 – school supplies
  • Total: €675

Weeks Thirty-Two & Thirty-Three

“there was a hole (there was a hole)
in the middle of the ground (in the middle of the ground)
the prettiest hole (the prettiest hole)
that you ever did see (that you ever did see)
and the green grass grows all around all around
and the green grass grows all around
and in this hole (and in this hole)…”

…there was a giant burst pipe (a giant burst pipe)…
…so they had to close off the road, the busses couldn’t run to the Uni from this side of town so we all had to walk, and they had to work for weeks on end to get it fixed.

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Quite late in the hole saga, when they had already started filling it.

The very first day of of the new semester, we all realized the busses weren’t going to the Uni, and we had to walk (I was half an hour late to class as a result, but so was everyone else). I was already kicking myself for not getting my bike fixed earlier.

On the way, we passed the hole. They had said that it would be fixed by the end of the week. To that, I said: lol.

They had dug up nearly the entire road for this thing. As the days progressed, and I kept walking to and from school, the hole actually got bigger. At one point, they began digging a second, smaller hole, near the larger one, and eventually it joined together. It’s been two weeks now, and this weekend is a 3-day weekend. I’m not sure if they work over the weekends or not, but somehow, I still don’t expect it to be done by Tuesday.

There are few busses that go to the Uni now, and those that do have to go all the way around via a different road, quite a ways away. From where I live, I would have to walk back the other direction into town to catch one of those busses, so it makes a lot more sense to just walk the 40 minutes to school (30 minutes if I go fast).

Speaking of walking, I twisted my ankle at a climbing/bouldering class yesterday. It’s not horrible, but if the road isn’t fixed by Tuesday, it’s going to be very difficult for me to get to school. I actually did just get my bike back though (sure wish I’d had it these last 2 weeks while the road has been closed). I could probably ride it… it seems like it would be less stress for the ankle to ride the bike than to walk all that way.

Before this accident, a bunch of us went hiking to the Saarschleife. I have been there once before, at the start of the year, but this time we hiked all the way up and back (around 16km total). It was really awesome to just hang out with friends, and chat about whatever. On the way, we saw a really cool WWII bunker (I guess that’s another type of man-made ground-hole). I’ve never seen one of these before. The only way to get in it was through a little hole in the front that you had to climb through. There wasn’t a normal door into it, although there was what looked like a hatch on the inside. It also had all of these signs on the inside about what to do with the lights and what to watch out for with the air intakes and such, and it was large enough for probably like 10 people.

Anyway, the new semester has started, so I’m back to hard work and stress, and I’ve spent a bunch of money buying some of the things I lost when my stuff got stolen, and overspending on food due to laziness. I guess I’ve sort of thrown frugality out the window, as I have tried to replace some of my discomfort with material possessions and carbs– neither a healthy nor effective strategy. =\ I need to try harder in this regard.

I already have a lot of studying to do, including learning Italian, since I am moving to Italy in September (or sooner).  Just like last semester, there are cool computer science classes that I can’t realistically take because I don’t have enough background in math to pass them, even though I would learn a lot, so I haven’t quite decided on what I will take.

It looks like software engineering, and semantics are pretty firmly on the docket. Statistical natural language processing, a seminar on semantic parsing (programming project), a seminar on TensorFlow (programming project), and information theory are all strong contenders. Other classes still in the running are a seminar on minimalism (syntax), a course on language technology, which covers various topics including machine translation, and what I would call a remedial math course (but hey, there’s no shame in not knowing things and needing help to learn them).

My original goal was to take it easy and to do just the bare minimum that I had to this semester, but so many of the classes are interesting. So once again, I have to carefully consider what I realistically have time for. I might end up just sitting in on some classes, but not actually taking the finals in them.

Costs:

  • climbing classes: €45
  • snacks: €20
  • groceries (including for a dinner with friends where I cooked): €135
  • dining out: €30
  • clothes: €65
  • pens: €8
  • Total: €303