Weeks Eighteen & Nineteen

perfectionThe new year has started, and life continues. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, because I believe that we should start on self-improvement today, and New Year’s resolutions make it seem like we have to wait until the start of something– the start of the week, the start of the month, the start of the year, the start of a decade– rather than doing it now. I prefer looking at personal improvement as a constant continuum. It’s ok not to be perfect and to slip up sometimes. Of course, I know that New Year’s resolutions work for many people, and more power to them!

In terms of broad strokes, my goals over the last few months and now have been to work on staying within the limits of a reasonable budget, keeping active and healthy, and not failing my master’s degree. Where there are goals, you need an actionable plan to fulfill them. In my case, I have managed to fulfill some of the plans I have made in the last few months to various levels of success, but it is a constant struggle. I think that’s just the nature of plans — you have to constantly adjust them at every stage in your life.

In any case, the start of the new year has certainly not changed my workload. Most of my assignments have involved learning new tools, but not too much on the algorithm implementation side of it. Last week I just had a handful of assignments:

  • I wrote a naive Bayes classifier (for two classes) with absolute discounting for out of vocabulary words.
  • I compared the performance of the Stanford and Berkeley parsers using Evalb and approximate randomization.
  • I prepared for a presentation I have to give on Monday on some papers (so nervous!)

These assignments were a lot easier than the Viterbi and CKY algorithms, so I also managed to sleep at night, and even went bouldering with some friends. Yay for exercise! I’ve also enjoyed the interesting weather. The year started out with hoarfrost and fresh snow, turning the whole world white. After that, it seemed like the weather couldn’t decide whether it wanted to snow or rain. Then there was some crazy wind in the middle of the night. There’s a tall coniferous tree right outside my window, and it seemed like it might fall right on my room and squish me. I’m too young to die in a freak tree accident!

Last week, there was some sort of horrible 3-day bug going around our department.  Something like 80% of my colleagues were sick last week, including myself. We have an international group from different places, and I think this helps bugs like this rapidly spread. I have been sick once a month since I got here 5 months ago. I’m optimistic that it will lighten up in the coming months though. I’m hoping that I’ve built up enough of a catalogue of bugs now… I guess we’ll see.

At the end of last week, a bunch of us went to Chinese hot pot. I was still recovering from being sick, but it was just so great to sit with friends and enjoy a night off.

My fortune cookie was not optimistic though. Uh oh:

fortune

I’m sure it’s not wrong. My to-do list over the next 1.5 months includes:

  • 3 finals
  • 1 oral exam (maybe)
  • 1 paper (probably)
  • 1 presentation
  • 1 programming project
  • 8 hrs/wk of HiWi work

Plus normal homework assignments in the meanwhile, and a dentist appointment and a doctor’s appointment.

Costs:

I went out a lot these couple weeks, but I am actually on a pretty good track to hit my budget this month. Being too sick and busy to do crazy things seems to help.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90.31 – health insurance
  • €117 – dinners/lunches with friends
  • €79.15 – groceries
  • €2 – laundry
  • €4 – video games
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €527.46

Weeks Sixteen & Seventeen

PANO_20161227_121502.jpgBoy was I glad it was time for holidays. My husband came to visit me in Europe and we traveled to Paris, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Saarbrücken, all in the span of around 1.5 weeks. My husband got sick in London, and I caught it from him in Amsterdam, so a lot of our trip was spent sleeping and coughing, but it was still great fun.

In retrospect, I might have done a few things differently about the trip. First of all, I wouldn’t go to London over December 24-26th. It is utterly pointless– everything is completely closed down, even the tube, so you can’t travel or do anything at all. Second of all, I’d probably focus on two cities for the whole time, and then if there were time maybe come home for a short while too, so that our schedule would be a little calmer. Finally, I think the holidays are better with family, so I think next year I will try to make it back to the US instead. Still, the trip was awesome, so I really have no complaints. These are just things to keep in mind for the future.

By the way, apart from looking at pretty buildings, we ate a shit ton of amazing food for pretty cheap during our travels. In Paris, we liked Les fous de l’IleBistrot des CampagnesLa Crèmerie and Du Pain et Des Idées. In London, Al Arez gave us a stupid amount of Lebanese food for crazy cheap, and it was delicious. In Frankfurt, we had some of the best pho I’ve ever had at Vipho.

On New Year’s Eve, we were back in Saarbrücken, so we spent the time partying with some friends, which was really great. New Year’s Eve is a big deal here, so we got to experience the fireworks display on the bridge. This was completely batshit crazy. You know how in the US, most cities have a municipal fireworks show, where you sit safely 100 meters away and music plays as the fireworks explode in the air?

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That orange line at the bottom is a firework rocket right next to us.

Apparently things are a bit more relaxed in Saarbrücken (or maybe Germany or maybe even Europe?), but I have never seen such chaos before. We stood on the bridge, and on all sides around us, people were shooting store bought rockets out of spent wine and beer bottles into the air. At one point, people started shooting them off literally 1 meter away, and of course, some of them started to go crooked. It was a crazy spectacle, but also quite dangerous, so we decided to head out a bit early.

On our way home, there were people throwing ground fireworks into storefronts to scare their friends, there were loud bangs of rockets from side streets nearby, and cops were on the way with fire extinguishers to kill a street fire. If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought it was a riot. But nope. Just New Year’s Eve!

Costs:

I splurged and didn’t keep careful track (probably a bad idea). Most of the money went on food for the both of us (he paid for travel), and I think it came out to around €600 (i.e. €25 per person per day).

The Screen

Trees grow tall and lean upon the hills, swaying gently in the light breeze, as their green leaves soak up the midday sun. It’s not hot any longer, but it isn’t cold either, so I can get by with just a light jacket. I have a shopping trip ahead of me, followed by an afternoon of cooking for the week, and then a long evening of work. The shopping trip makes a nice pretext to go outside, a welcome opportunity after the busy week. It’s so sunny today that it seems a waste to spend the whole day inside.

Small neon markings blur and waver on the screen in front of me, forming unnatural words and choppy phrases. An invisible network connects each word to another elsewhere in the document, and the colors help classify the words into their intended purpose. It seems the network is more complicated than it needs to be. Once again, I have dug my rabbit hole far too deep. I rub my eyes, and hunker down for a long night.

My bike zooms down a steep hill, past maroon, burnt orange and pale yellow houses. Their muted colours cannot match the true oranges and reds of the autumn trees, whose leaves stand out sharply against the backdrop of the dreary sky. It’s chilly now, and the wind stings at my eyes, making them water. The hill carries me down and down, towards the small city I’ve gotten to know over the last couple months. Grey skies like this are not uncommon here, and it feels good to be outside despite them.

My fridge is full of groceries, but they go unused, for the screen has entrapped me in its web. Each strand of the web’s surface leads me ever deeper into the complicated machinery of a process I cannot fully grasp. I sleep, but my mind won’t rest, instead struggling to unravel the trap I have created for myself. There is a weak point in my understanding, but I cannot articulate it well enough to form a coherent question, and even if I could, there would be no one to pose that question to. My frustration mounts and I rub my eyes.

The trees stand barren, their useless leaves now scattered across the sidewalk and encrusted in frost. The frost makes them glitter in the weak rays of the winter sun, as though embroidered with tiny diamonds. A low fog has settled over the world, muting all light and sound, and the morning seems quiet and still. The trees of the forest nearby have clad themselves in white, each one standing tall upon the hill, like pale dancers frozen in time. It’s cold– so cold that my fingertips feel like they’re going to fall off– but it’s beautiful. Even in the white and grey of winter, the weak sun manages to bring more colour into this world than the bright neon lights of the screen.

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Weeks Fourteen & Fifteen

xmas01.jpgThese two weeks were the weeks of Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas market) for me. I visited Strasbourg, St. Wendel, and of course the Saarbrücken market as well. It seems like Christmas time is party time around here. A Weihnachtsmarkt is like a fair with ample Glühwein (mulled wine) and adorable ceramic mugs. In Strasbourg, the entire center of the city gets taken over by the market, and it’s really quite insane. It can get kind of repetitive though. The stalls tend to go like this…

  1. Glühwein
  2. Bretzeln (soft pretzels), Churros, or other fried dough treat
  3. Christmas ornaments
  4. trinkets
  5. cookies, candied nuts, or other sweets

…and then this pattern repeats again like 3 times. Occasionally you get Bratwurst stall or a shop with knitted sweaters/hats/gloves.

img_20161210_151103In St. Wendel, the market is more cozy and artistic than the one in Strasbourg, and it’s combined with a Renaissance Faire market. It also has these awesome old gas tanks that are decoratively cut for use in outdoor fires, with easily accessible logs nearby. I really appreciate that you could stand around them and get nice and toasty before heading back into the chilly night air of the market. This was definitely my favorite market by far.

The Saarbrücken market isn’t bad either though. It’s like a neverending food and drink fair. I think it’s been going since the start of December, and I expect it will go through the end of Christmas. I’m pretty sure it’s been going on longer than the other markets I’ve visited so far. They have typical Saarland Schwenker (meat grilled on a circular hanging grill), Dampfnudeln (giant bread rolls with sweet cherries and vanilla cream), waffles, crepes, and of course plenty of drink. My favorite is what they call “Knecht Ruprecht” here, which is hot Bailey’s with lots of whipped cream.

Other than Christmas markets I barely poked my head up… I barely slept while trying to complete all of my assignments on time. Somehow, I got it all done, and among other things, I managed to implement the CKY algorithm.

Vacation started yesterday, and thank goodness for that — I get to sleep and eat properly! Even better, my husband is coming to visit me from the US, and we are travelling to Paris, London, and Amsterdam. However, the work doesn’t end when you’re on vacation, of course. I’ve got piles to get done over the next couple weeks, so I’m going to try to work a couple hours each night. That’s how it goes.

Costs

Too much money spent at Christmas markets.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €30 – Strasbourg market (mostly food, some trinkets)
  • €30 – St. Wendel market (more food, more trinkets)
  • €18 – Saarbrücken market (food, drink, cute mugs)
  • €40 – groceries
  • €69 – a warm scarf … I hope it lasts a long time
  • €14 – some lunch/dinner out or snacks at school
  • €10 – fill up the Mensa card for more cafeteria food =\
  • €2 – laundry
  • €57 – tickets for some travel
  • Total: €270 (+€585 for rent and health insurance)

Weeks Twelve & Thirteen

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Santa flying over the Weihnachtsmarkt.

The last couple weeks have been relatively quiet. Not much has happened outside of work and sleep (and less so the latter). I did go to the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Saarbrücken with some friends, which was quite fun. There was a line strung up between two buildings, which allowed Santa and his reindeer to fly over the town center as the announcer told Rudolf’s story.

I also saw another movie (that makes two in two weeks, which is as much as I usually watch in a year).  “Arrival” is a movie about a linguist based on a short story called “The Story of You.” I think I prefer the short story, because I don’t think it translates that well to the movie screen… but to be honest with you, the short story is also a little odd.

The most stressful thing to have happened in the last two weeks is that my computer developed a hardware issue (which does not yet render it inoperable, thank goodness). After much discussion with the various branches of Acer, it turns out I have to send my computer to the US for repairs (on my own dime). I really cannot be without a computer during my master’s program, since our computer lab currently has no computers in it so I would have no where to work (yea, don’t ask me to explain that one because I have no idea either). So in the meantime, I have ordered a new, relatively cheap laptop. I bought the laptop off Newegg which only ships to the US, and my husband will bring the laptop to me when he comes to visit in December. This made the cost much cheaper than it would have been to order a similar quality laptop in Germany.

The stress from the computer thing has really taxed me. It doesn’t help that I’ve been very busy. Classes, programming assignments, plus my HiWi (research assistant job) have taken up my days almost completely. In terms of the department here, overall, I’m kind of disappointed with the master’s program so far. Like everything else, classes are very disorganized. The disorganization of a class manifests in one of three ways:

  1. The class is too easy/boring, particularly the linguistics classes, which so far have covered little more than what you would learn in an undergrad intro to linguistics class, but cover it in a patchier way
  2. The profs are unprepared for lecture, sometimes so much so that they use some unrelated old conference presentation as their lecture and/or tell you to go look up info on Wikipedia to fulfill your assignments
  3. The class expects you to know so much background, and the prof doesn’t break it down, so the material is nearly unapproachable for many students (some second years and/or comp sci people seem to do ok so maybe it’s just me).

This semester I would say I have only one class that strikes the right balance of difficulty, hands-on practice, and computational theory, and I really enjoy this class, although I work incredibly hard to implement the algorithms we are learning. However, even in this class, there is really no one that I can go to for help with problems except for the other students (thank goodness we are all in this together). There are office hours but they are kind of limited.

The Erasmus program further hampers my learning prospects, because it breaks whatever continuity I would have had from studying in the same uni for two years. There are HiWi jobs that don’t hire you and projects you can’t participate in because you are only here for one year.

Long story short, judging from my experience so far, I don’t think I would recommend the program at this school to someone who doesn’t already have a background in comp sci, or at the very least has taken math through linear algebra and probability theory, because you won’t be taught those necessary foundations here (at least from my experience thus far). You can still come, as I have, and I’m sure you can learn a lot from it, but if you do already have the proper background you will just get a lot more out of it.

Costs

Yep, I’m still overbudget (even not counting the laptop, but especially with it included). By the way, by the end of November I stayed right in line with my maximum allowed budget, which is the hard budget I need to stay under (per month, on average) to keep from going broke and being in financial trouble at the end of these two years. Obviously, it would be much better to stay within my ideal budget, which is the money that I make while living here only. The good news is that now that I have my HiWi, the ideal budget should be a little more relaxed starting in January (I get paid at the end of December).

  • €12 – laundry
  • €4 – feminine hygiene
  • €10 – fill up school card for lunches and printing
  • €36 – groceries
  • €32 – Weihnachtsmarkt
  • €22 – tickets to Strasbourg later
  • €95 – a snuggly sweater because it’s cold
  • €5 – medication
  • €25 – dining
  • €12 – movie tickets and snacks
  • Total: €253 + $580 USD for the laptop

Weeks Ten & Eleven

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The US went crazy the week before last, which made it very hard to focus on anything. I know I’m supposed to just ignore it all, hunker down and keep working, but it’s hard when your job is to learn, i.e. use your brain, but your brain can’t focus.

This week I did .. sort of… choose my classes. My uncertainty stems from firstly, my complete lack of understanding of the requirements set upon me. Secondly, there are a lot of interesting topics, but not a lot of time to get all the work done. Thirdly,  there are a few classes where the teachers clearly have very little actual teaching experience, and I’m trying to nail down which course I can stomach better, which is a shame. I also decided to drop Database Systems because even though I was actually enjoying it quite a bit, I don’t think it will quite fit into my requirements that well (once again, assuming I understand them correctly), which is also a shame.

Anyway, I’m going to take these classes for credit during the semester, which puts me right at 31 credits (30 is the normal amount):

  • Foundations (required course which includes a little bit of everything)
  • Computational Linguistics
  • Language Technology probably, but maybe Syntactic Theory instead
  • Question Answering in Applications seminar
  • Text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis seminar

The following are intensive seminars that are held during the semester “break” (not a break for us, basically), that are counted as even more credit hours for the Winter semester, but that will hopefully not cut into my actual Winter semester schedule too much. Taking one or two of these this is the plan, but I’ll see which one once I get there. I’m signed up for the first two already (and who knows, maybe I can manage both):

  • Machine Learning for NLP (might drop this one because it might be over my head)
  • Natural Language Generation
  • Voicebuilding (the TTS seminar is a pre-requisite)

The following are classes will be ones where I attend during the winter semester but don’t sit the final for and may have to drop if time constraints get to be too much:

  • Deutsch als Fremdsprache (German as a second language) offered through MPI
  • Deutsche Allgemeine Sprachkurse (German general speaking course)
  • Italian 1+2 (it takes place twice a week instead of once)

Unfortunately I missed out on taking Speech Recognition, which was one class I was really looking forward to. Basically, the prof assumes you know a lot of background really well, and doesn’t break things down, and so I need to learn more math before I can take a class like this. I’m hoping that with the time savings from not taking the class, I can start to learn more about probability, linear algebra, and multivariate calculus on my own and then maybe take a similar class at Trento next year. I hope they have something like it.

Finally, I also started a HiWi (research assistant job) that I will be working 8 hours a week on. The project is on co-reference resolution, and I will be in charge of annotating the corpus. Hopefully I can code a little bit to speed things up here, but in any case, the corpus will have to be manually checked over at the end. Maybe not the most exciting thing, but this will add €450 to my monthly income of €1000, which I feel will be very nice, and I’m sure to learn something anyway.

In my personal life, I went to a Tchaikovsky and Glinka concert last week. I also visited Heidelberg last weekend, including the awesome half-ruined castle there, and tasted Glühwein (hot wine with spices) for the first time. I hung out with my classmates/friends a bunch, and at one point we saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (I thought it was pretty cute). As a side note, the popcorn that you buy at the movies here is sweet, kind of like the US caramel popcorn (except a little less caked on)– I prefer the salty kind. Anyway, all of this was very fun, but I really got no work done over the last couple weeks.

Well, I guess I did implement the Viterbi algorithm, and that was cool.

Costs

The last couple weeks, I bought a ton of groceries and then ended up being too exhausted to cook and going out a bunch. That doesn’t make any sense to do… if I’m not going to cook, I shouldn’t buy vegetables! ><”

  • €27 – Italian textbook (hope I end up using it)
  • €80 – groceries
  • €5 – clothes
  • €18 – movies plus popcorn
  • €28 – dining out with friends
  • €10 – charge up the student card for printing and cafeteria lunches
  • Total: €168

Hate

refugees_welcome.jpgWe have seen the rise of terrorism and hate in the US, as neighbours, classmates, and colleagues turn against one another in fits of reprehensible rage. I am not talking about who won the election right now. I’m only talking about the daily acts of terrorism from people on all sides such as the shooting at a polling place on election day, the brutal attacks against LGBT people, blatant racism, and numerous attacks in the streets against basically anyone who is not a white cis-gendered male. Note also that this is not all one sided. People are talking about assassinations, about reaping what you sow, about seceding from the nation. Some are blaming whites for what is happening, which makes as much sense as blaming all non-whites. You can’t fight racism with racism; that just spreads more hate.

Who won the election is of little importance in comparison to the enormity of the crimes Americans are committing against one another today, on all sides of the political spectrum. This is completely heartbreaking. Look, it’s not rocket science: treat others as you would want to be treated. Stop trying to split up into an “us-vs-them.” We all live on the same little blue planet (though for how much longer, I fear to speculate). You cannot blame politics for your shitty attitude– no, that is entirely on you.

In the wake of all this terrorism and hate, I feel completely at a loss. Whatever I say here has been repeated many times before. Anyone who reads this post would have already heard it. Anyone who agrees with it, will continue to agree with it, and anyone who disagrees with it will continue to disagree with it. Most likely, anyone who is reading this is not one of the assholes that is committing these crimes anyway. My small words can’t make any difference. Even if I was home right now, I don’t know what I could do. Half a world away, I am helpless to do anything at all.

I guess we just go on with our lives, and try to be the best people we can be, despite the hate. I guess we do our best to hold each other up, particularly when we see harassment in the streets. I guess we just try to be strong, and face the hatred head on with reason, compassion, and empathy, trying to hide the fear that makes us tremble inside.