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

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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.

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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

Weeks Thirty & Thirty One

The last two weeks have just been a whirlwind of emotion, I guess. My family came to visit me in Europe, and although it started out great, there was definitely a theme of misfortune throughout much of it. One of the stress points was that I was the only one that spoke any languages, so I had to translate/coordinate things, while also trying to keep my family from panicking. Another stress point was my family’s near pathological avoidance of planning. But those were minor things. The hardest part to deal with was the theft in the second leg of the trip… but let me start from the beginning.

My family landed in Paris. The weather was great, we hit up all the big sights, went to a bunch of museums, and ate a lot of delicious food. Unfortunately, my husband got kind of sick the first couple days, so we didn’t see much of him (at least he had seen Paris with me earlier), but he did manage to join us near the end for a couple things he hadn’t seen before.

The next place we had on our itinerary was Switzerland. As mentioned, my family has some sort of strange aversion to finalizing plans. Thankfully, my mom had ordered accommodation for us near Paris, Geneva, and Munich for the trip, but she hadn’t planned on how to get from one place to the next. We actually weren’t even staying in Geneva or Munich itself for the second and third parts of the trip, but quite far away by public transport in both places, so my parents intended to rent a car once in Geneva and to use it for the rest of the trip.

We took a train from Paris to the small town we were staying at near Geneva (actually in France). The only affordable train that was available by the time we were making the booking would come in after 22:00. Like most small towns, this one didn’t really have a public transport system that late at night, which meant we ended up waiting around for a long time for 2 separate taxis to take us to the house we were staying at.

Then, the next day was completely wasted on trying to get that rental car. We had to split up into 2 groups. One group went to rent a car at a nearby place for the duration of our stay near Geneva, and the second to the Geneva airport (via 3 busses) to rent a different car to Munich. We had to do it this way because the rental car agencies that rented internationally had no cars available since we didn’t reserve ahead of time. Suffice it to say, this was a very stressful and frustrating day for everyone.

The day after, my big brother got sick, and I later caught it as well. (By the way, I’ve been sick 7 out of 8 months I’ve been in Europe.) I was actually expecting to get sick since my family had traveled on planes, so I wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Also, one of the days, my husband ended up having to work so we didn’t see much of him again. But Switzerland, eastern France, and the Alps were beautiful, so we managed to enjoy our time there nonetheless.

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We had to leave quite late on our last day in Switzerland, because we had to do a lot of driving back and forth to drop off the old car and pick up the new one. On our way out, we stopped by Lausanne. My family went to the cathedral, and my husband and I went to visit with a friend.

This is when it all went to shit.

We were having a great time, right up until my big brother called to tell us that in the hour or so that they had been away from their car, it had gotten a window smashed. My husband’s and my backpacks were stolen. These were the only two things in the car cabin (since we didn’t have space for them in the trunk), and so they were the two things that were stolen. Thankfully, nothing else was taken, and everyone’s passports, money, and phones were safe as well. Also, thankfully my friend was willing to waste an entire night with us at the police to help explain the situation, since although I speak French, I would still have trouble with the whole process. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

However, we lost the rest of the day and night to this, and we had to rent a hotel nearby to stay the night as well. Even though it was just mine and my husband’s stuff, we lost a lot of expensive things to this theft, as well as a lot of small things that are just annoying to have to collect again. In my case, I lost my backpack, which had basically my whole life in it (I don’t have a lot with me in Europe). Here’s a summary of the major things:

  • Both of our house keys and my husband’s car keys (~$60 for me to replace, ~$800 for him to replace the electronic car key)
  • My husband’s expensive MacBook Pro (~$1700)
  • Much of my husbands collection of Netrunner cards, along with his winnings (promo cards, special tokens, etc.) from championships (~$350)
  • A brand new Nintendo Switch my husband had just gotten me as a gift with the new Zelda game (~$350)
  • My backpack which I had spent 6 months finding to be exactly right for my needs (~$100)
  • My work laptop that I just bought a few months ago (~$600)
  • A huge external hard drive with a bunch of pictures; thankfully I have the pictures backed up elsewhere (~$100)
  • Almost all of the clothes I own including my nice button up shirt, my travel towel, my toiletries (~$170 I guess)
  • My glasses case with a spare pair of glasses, and most of my glasses cleaning cloths (~$200)
  • Chargers for everything, including my only USB Type C to Type C for my phone and my US extension cord for all my appliances
  • All the little junk I carry in my backpack (e.g. a pocket knife, a combination lock for when I go to hostels, a pen+stylus, plug adapters, my key chains, etc.)
  • My Blizzard authenticator, so I guess I have to figure out how to cancel that
  • All the little souvenirs I had just bought from Paris (magnets/postcards)
  • Around 6 months worth of my thyroxine prescription meds that my husband had brought me from the US

So yea… after this, the vacation got less fun (and of course the two days after I come home are Easter vacation days in Germany, so I can’t even buy replacement clothes right away). I am very lucky that I was with my family during this time though, because they really helped me out. My big brother and dad generously generously offered me their laptops (I ended up taking my big brother’s). My mom bought me some clothes, my dad bought me some chargers and a cheapo backpack, I bought my husband a full collection of Netrunner cards… Basically, all the stuff will be replaced eventually.

After all that, what were we to do, but continue on with the plan? We drove to our AirBnB near Munich. We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, I climbed up to the top of a cliff to catch the sunset, we ate more amazing food, and eventually, we said our goodbyes.

It’s gonna sound weird to say, but despite all of that shit, I had a good vacation. Even though so many frustrating things happened, I didn’t realize how much I had missed my family, and of course my husband (who is still living in the US). And as for the stolen stuff, well, it’s just stuff.

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your passport/money/phone on you. This saved our bacon.
  • Don’t leave stuff in the car cabin. This makes you an easy target..
  • Don’t bring expensive stuff on trips. Then it hurts less to replace.
  • Leave a few pairs of shirts at home so you have clothes for when you return.
  • Have great friends and family. I don’t know how to do that, I just got lucky.

Costs:

  • rent – €225
  • replacing some of my things (should be in the mail soon) – ~$250
  • the gift of an entire Netrunner card collection for my husband – $350
  • souvenirs (most of them now stolen) – €33
  • transportation – €129
  • lockers to store stuff at the train station – €30
  • food (my family paid most of the time) – €60
  • cold medicine/cough drops – €8
  • Total: €404 and $600

Weeks Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine

These last two weeks I did nothing but work. I had a “block” (i.e. intensive) course on voicebuilding (text-to-speech synthesis) that lasted the whole two weeks, and then I had two deadlines for a paper and a programming project due at the end of those two weeks. This means all this beautiful spring was wasted on me.

The voicebuilding course covered many similar things that I did at my last job, where I worked for a speech recognition company. It was a bit of a flashback in that way, but whereas at my last company we had homegrown tools, this time we used a bunch of different open source software. As a result, the project ended up being a massive sprawling mess of interconnected systems. We worked in groups, and I actually got to record my voice for synthesis in the studio, since I was one of the native English speakers. That was neat. Some of the tools I got exposure to were:

  • MaryTTS – the text-to-speech synthesis platform using unit selection,
  • HTK – a hidden Markov model based TTS synthesis tool,
  • webMAUS – a web based wav file force alignment tool,
  • Kaldi – a more modern speech recognition toolkit that can be used for force alignment as well,
  • Praat scripting – for annotating and editing wave files; of course I’ve used Praat before but never scripted in it (it’s clunky),
  • Sox – a command line tool for audio manipulation,
  • Gradle – a build tool which we used to keep the project together and automate everything,
  • Docker – a tool for creating portable virtual environments.

Although I got some exposure to the above from the class, I would not say that I got an in-depth understanding of all of them. We worked the most with Gradle throughout the process, and I actually enjoyed that, since it seemed very practical, but it did occasionally add a layer of complexity that didn’t seem entirely justified for a small class project. In terms of Praat scripting, I can see how it makes sense to use it for specific tasks, but in general, I would try to avoid it as much as possible. Docker seems great at scale, but for small class projects, it’s a bit of overkill. Juggling all the different formats and phonetic symbol sets between the force alignment tools and the TTS synthesis tools is a nightmare, as usual, so half of the tasks revolve just around getting this right. Keeping everything in Git is, as ever, a good idea.

Apart from the voicebuilding course, I had to write a sort-of literature review style essay on natural language generation. I’m not entirely sure if I did it the way I was supposed to–the problem was that the papers I was meant to write my essay on all use neural networks (the prevailing machine learning model used for nearly everything in computational linguistics these days), and although I worked with neural networks at my last job, I never really learned how they worked.

So instead of talking out of my ass about things I didn’t know, I decided to take a good couple of weekends to just focus on learning. My essay became a sort of “intro to neural networks,” plus a little bit of discussion about the contributions my citations made to the field. Basically, I covered feedforward networks including backpropagation, CNNs, RNNs, LSTMs, and word embeddings. I don’t know if I’ll get a good grade from this or not, but I know it was worth learning it this way. Now I know a little bit more about the math behind neural networks. In the future, I hope I will have the chance to try to implement one on my own (or with a little bit of help), because I think this would be very instructive.

Finally, I had a programming project to finish. In this case I was trying to re-implement (using Python3) Keshava & Pitler’s algorithm for unsupervised morpheme induction. I wish I had more time to work on this, because I don’t feel like the final product turned out as I would like– but the deadline came up on me, and with everything else, I had to just throw a few things together. First of all, I’m pretty sure this thing is fucking riddled with bugs. Also, its performance is shit, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of a failure in my implementation (very possible), or because I manually threw together a crappy evaluation corpus (since it would have taken me too long to convert other corpora), or if it was because there was some important implementation detail not mentioned in the paper, or if it was because the algorithm is legitimately not that great. I needed to explore all of this a lot more, but I just didn’t have time. Long story short…. =(

So basically in the last two weeks, the voicebuilding course went on from 10am-5pm most days, and the rest of the time I just worked on those other deadlines. Since I had traveled the entire start of March, I only had a basic outline of work done for both of the deadlines, so these two weeks I had to really knuckle down. I basically didn’t go outside nearly this whole time (except for one day when my resolve could not withstand the siren call of the spring sunshine), didn’t exercise, didn’t eat very well, and didn’t sleep much. There was a stint of days there where I rapidly decreased the amount of sleep I was getting from 6 hours, to 4 hours, to finally just 2 hours at the end.

I turned everything in on Friday, but I couldn’t go home yet because I had to wait around on campus for some appointments. The weather was nice (yay, spring!), so I went outside, found a nice patch of grass, and crashed out. It was fantastic– the birds singing in the forest behind the campus, the light breeze, the soft mossy grass, and the sweet relief of a peaceful slumber, knowing that there were no more upcoming deadlines.

In fact, the birds have been going crazy all spring, and it’s been so nice:

Yesterday, I finally exercised, did laundry, cooked, and just basically took care of myself. Now I am off to Paris to see my family and my husband who are visiting for two weeks. We will travel around Paris, Geneva, and Munich in the next couple weeks. It’s gonna be great.

Costs:

  • €85 – groceries (but honestly, lots of crappy snacks to avoid cooking)
  • €4 – laundry
  • €34 – eating out
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €133