Working Hard

Yew in the courtyard of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland.

Berlin has inexplicably continued to be cool. It feels like I just keep waiting and waiting for summer to come, but it never does. Just as Berlin has failed to warm up for me, I have also failed to warm up to Berlin. I’ve been riding my bike all around this city, seeing more of its little crevices, but my opinion of it has stayed mostly the same. I don’t really like it here… but at least I’ve been busy.

We had a major deadline at work, that we got started on way too late. This resulted in me having to multi-task quite heavily to get things done in time. The end result wasn’t as nice as I would have liked, but that’s how it goes when you have to work fast.

Late superbloom near Gorman, California.

Apart from work, these two months have been full of travels. In April, I headed back to LA to visit my family and for the wedding of a friend. I worked remotely, which put a bit of a damper on my time at home, but I was still able to enjoy the weekends. My family managed to take some time off over Easter weekend, for which Germany gets two national holidays (so I didn’t have to work), and we headed up North.

Southern California is very dry, but every few years, there’s a huge rain. Whenever it comes, the flowers go crazy, all blooming at once, painting the hills in pastel oranges, yellows, and blues. This year, there was a particularly lovely superbloom, so that’s where we were headed. We found the flowers growing in Gorman and Antelope Valley. Since we came a bit late in the season, it was mostly orange California poppies, blue lupines, and yellow mountain daisies, but there were some other kinds as well.

After Antelope Valley, we kept heading North to Big Sur. There we hiked to some waterfalls, saw more wildflowers, observed a huge group of seals on the beach, and played around in some tide pools. It was a bit chillier than I would have liked, so we didn’t go swimming, but we still had a lovely time.

These are the kinds of road trips that I have really missed since I moved away. We used to do this almost every weekend when I was a child, and although we did argue sometimes, mostly, I have fond memories of that time.

The next weekend was my friend’s wedding, which I can honestly say was one of the best weddings I have ever been to (besides my own, of course!). My friends make a perfect couple, so their wedding was also perfect, incredibly honest and just plain fun. The wedding tied together traditional Jewish elements, more modern traditions, and still kept a bit of their own quirkiness in the mix. For example, they did this awesome thing the day before, where their friends all got together for a massive cookie bake. I think there were 30 different kinds of cookies in the end, and these formed the dessert at the wedding, in lieu of a cake. The wedding itself was held at Union Station in LA, in the sunny courtyard, and the reception was inside the old ticket hall, with beautiful mosaic patterns on the walls, high ceilings, and big chandeliers.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Almost immediately after the wedding, my husband and I flew back to Europe, but not straight to Berlin. Instead, we headed to Ireland We met his family there, and spent another week mostly out in nature. Since it was spring, the sheep were having babies out in the green fields, so I got the feeling that Ireland is basically made of green hills, sheep and rocks. Of course, it was much cooler in Ireland than in LA, and it even rained on us a few times, but we still enjoyed our time there.

After a lovely three weeks mostly spent out in nature, it was time to fly back to dirty, grey, Berlin. My husband’s family followed us there, and visited us for a couple more weeks. I was at work most of the time, of course, but we still managed to get together for some lunches and dinners. It was really nice having family nearby… it felt kind of like the continuation of our vacation.

Costs (2 months):

  • €2288 – rent
  • €300 – utilities/internet/phone
  • €132 – clothes
  • €182 – train tickets/travel
  • €555 – dining out
  • Total: €3457
Hiking trail in Big Sur, California.

Settling In

Tip: When you go to an embassy, don’t wear a battery-powered heated jacket with wires all over it.

This month, I had to get my passport renewed at the US Embassy in Germany. Apart from the incident with the jacket (a holiday gift from my big brother), and the government shutdown slowing things down, it went pretty smoothly. The battery-powered heated jacket is pretty sweet, but it was awkward to explain that that was all it was. The border guard made me leave it in his office until I was done in the embassy, because no electronics at all (not even your phone) are allowed in there. Now I have to wait for my new passport to come in the mail, and then to return to the immigration office for an updated visa.

I started my job as soon as we came back from SoCal. I’m now working for a start-up moving into the machine translation (MT) industry. They used to be a traditional translation company only, but are now building up a pipeline with MT included. The idea is to use customized MT models for each client/domain, but to use human translators to proofread the results, for higher quality translations. The intention is for the work to go faster, since the human doesn’t have to translate everything from scratch, only having to fix errors made by the MT system, and that the quality will be better than human translators alone, because the MT should take care of maintaining consistency between different projects for the same customer.

There are three of us MT engineers. One has been there for a while, and has built up some of the early systems for MT in the company. The second started just a month before I did, but did his master’s thesis on MT. Both have CS backgrounds. And then there’s me. I did my master’s in speech recognition, and my background is in linguistics, so I feel a bit behind right now. I’m working a lot to try to catch up with everything going on, and to learn what I don’t know about MT. The office is definitely fast-paced (as start-ups tend to be), and I’m still trying to find my place.

I already miss my family and friends back in SoCal. It was good to get the chance to visit them over the holidays before diving into work. We’ve made it a bit of a tradition to go to the beach on Dec 25th (if the weather is good), and this year was no exception. We also went hiking on a small hilltop near our town. I used to think this hilltop was really high up, since you could see the whole valley below, but after living near Trento, Italy, I now know that there are much much taller mountains in the world. We also saw a bunch of movies at the theater, including Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. It was really good, with an awesome art style, and totally worth seeing in IMAX 3D. We rarely go to movies because of the cost and the difficulty of getting to an original voice English language showing, so this was a nice treat. In short, we had a nice and fairly relaxing vacation.

Costs:

Costs this month were astronomical. We had to fill a completely empty apartment, get things installed, and I paid the entire share of the rent this month for us as well. Then there were final fees from Italy plus eating out a lot due to not having energy to do much else… it has all added up really quickly.

  • 1166 – rent
  • 731 – lights installation, furniture, home necessities, misc.
  • 125 – internet installation
  • 165 – last fees for apartment in Italy
  • 182 – last fees for utilities in Italy
  • 80 – transport card for the month
  • 392 – eating out
  • 70 – sport
  • 20 – video games
  • Total: 2931

The goal for next month is to split the rent between us, and eat at home. There shouldn’t be any more installation or fees from Italy, although there may still be some more settling in costs for additional furniture, and I want to get a bike soon as well.

Weeks 68 through 72

This year, I spent the holidays back in the US. I typically only get to see my family once a year, and this is the first year in a while that I have been able to actually get back home. It was really nice to see my family in their natural habitat, as it were, as well as all the friends I had been unfortunately neglecting.

The first part of the trip the weather was a bit suboptimal, and I was super jetlagged, but I visited a lot of friends which was great. The second half of the trip the weather improved but, of course, as it always goes, I got horribly sick (I’m still coughing a little almost 2 weeks later), so I couldn’t do much of anything. I had planned to go hiking and to the beach, but I mostly ended up sitting at home, trying not to keel over. We only made it to Zuma Beach once, but we did see some dolphins (which is what happened last time we were here too). In any case, it was good that I allocated 3 weeks to the trip, since I was still left with enough time to see people despite all this.

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Can you make out the dolphins in the center left in this crappy phone pic?

Being back in the US reminded me of all the things I miss. Firstly, how nice it is to be close to friends and family! I really miss just being able to call someone up and have them be like, “yea! let’s hang out,” spur the moment, without having to overly plan an activity, without having conversations stray towards work, and without worrying about having to reach home at some particular time. I miss this kind of easy company.

Secondly, it’s nice that stores and restaurants are actually open. You can get anything you want at any time. It makes life just a lot more convenient than in Europe, where everything is only open at odd hours. I also missed the wide variety of food, including asian and mexican food (the latter of which you can’t hardly find where I have been living)– and omg, LA sushi! Also, I kind of missed driving. It gives me a nice feeling of agency that I don’t have in Europe, since I don’t have a car here. I also missed not having to breath in a ton of second hand smoke on the streets. Finally, I missed not being rammed into by groups of ladies with giant bags when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t understand it, but Italians just won’t share the sidewalk so you either have to skirt to avoid everyone (which is sometimes literally impossible because you are already at the edge) or just get rammed. They push and shove all the time actually. So inconsiderate.

Then there were all the things I certainly didn’t miss: the traffic, the smog (visible certain times of day over LA), the long travel times (partly due to the traffic, partly just due to long distances), the incredibly high cost of living, and the consumerist/workaholic culture as well, which is, to some extent, the other side of the coin with things being open and available all the time.

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I experienced that culture rather strongly when I went to check out the aerial classes at Cirque School near Hollywood in LA. I emailed them ahead of time, telling them about what I had been working on in silks and they said I should just do a drop in beginning class. So I signed up and I brought my little brother too, who I wanted to introduce to aerial. Unfortunately, this ended up being a terrible introduction for him. It was clear that the teacher at Cirque School expected us to be (a) physically fit and proficient, that is, you can already whip up plenty of push ups, sit ups, stretches, and yoga poses and (b) to be unable to do anything on silks or trapeze beyond basic climbs.

Maybe it isn’t unreasonable to assume that someone interested in aerial is already physically proficient, since it is a really demanding activity, but Cirque School’s tagline is “For anybody with any body.” I am afraid they did not fulfill that promise at all. The teacher was really dismissive of my little brother and of me as well, although I can already manage a few things. For my brother it was exhausting and discouraging, and for me it was frustrating and boring. It was clear that to the teacher, we were just another number on the long list of students that would file through the school, destined never to return– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like night and day as compared to ASD Punto Fitness in Rovereto and Night Flight in Portland, where my first experiences were so warm and welcoming. The teachers there didn’t expect you to be able to do anything, but they still got you up on the silks even in the first class, and they got you working on strength and flexibility right away. You walk away tired, but you feel like you are constantly improving, and it’s always fun and encouraging. I wanted to share that experience with my brother, but it just didn’t work out.

The end of the trip came much too soon. It took us over 24 real hours to get back to Rovereto, with 10 of those being spent on the most uncomfortable KLM plane imaginable. I wish I had taken a picture of how it was oriented, but basically, the seats were offset for some reason, so you had a seat leg right in front of you instead of an open space, and in our row there were additionally some sort of metal boxes taking up part of that space as well. I am a small person, who can fit in just about any seat, and I’ve sort of come to expect bad airplane conditions, but honestly, in this case… fuck that. This is just degrading. If you fly overseas, don’t pick KLM.

In any case, after a 1.5 hour car ride, a 10 hour flight, another 3 hour flight, 3 trains, and a bunch of waiting around in between, we finally reached Rovereto with just enough time to completely crash in bed. The very next day was Monday morning, when I would start my new full time internship, and in the following weeks, I would travel to Florence and Bologna as well. It was going to be busy!

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Cathedral in Florence.

For my master’s here at University of Trento, I need to write the thesis of course, but I also need an internship of 375 hours, which should be on separate data from the thesis work. In September, I applied to a paid research studentship with FBK, a local research institute. They hired me primarily for the master’s portion of my work (which they see as a precursor to doing a PhD with them), but I will also do a separate internship project with them.

For my master’s thesis, I will be working on acoustic model adaptation for second language learners of English and German. This is a piece of a larger project aimed at automatic grading of English and German proficiency exams for Italian speakers. Some of the problems we will encounter are that speech of second language learners exhibits phonological crossover from their native language, making it difficult for a speech recognition system trained on English to recognize that speech; however, there isn’t enough training data available to create a model trained solely on second language learner’s speech, let alone in our specific domain, hence the need for model adaptation. In addition, the assignments have the students produce spontaneous speech (rather than read speech), meaning we don’t have an expected transcription to train on from our domain. The ultimate goal is to be able to assign a grade to the students the way a teacher would, but the teachers are often not entirely consistent in their grading, which is another hurdle. Long story short, it’s a challenging project.

The team at FBK hired me because I have experience in speech recognition already. Actually, I would have liked to work on something new, to get some more cross-pollination, but this position was paid, unlike most other options here (even if the pay isn’t much after the crazy high Italian taxes), and the topic seems interesting. I also hope there will be some opportunities to work on the language modelling portion of the project as well.

For the internship portion, it seems like I will most likely be working on Russian morphophonology. Since Russian exhibits a great deal of inflectional and derivational morphology, a naïve pronunciation lexicon of Russian suffers from having many different forms of the same word. In addition, stress drastically changes the realization of vowels in Russian, and stress often shifts based on inflections/derivations, making speech recognition much more difficult. The task will involve creating a Russian morphology model that can hopefully alleviate some of these issues. This is a problem I remember encountering at my last job as well, so I am excited to get the chance to work on it now.

For the time being, I have started getting used to my new position, learning Kaldi (an open source speech recognition toolkit), and reminding myself how restless I feel after 8 hour days at work (plus lunch and 1 hour commutes each way). Humans were not meant to sit in front of the computer for this long, and I am afraid my long-term health will suffer (I’ve had some hand pain in the past from this). I’ve continued doing aerial which helps me stay fit and I try to take breaks while working. It’s striking how little quality of working life of the average person has increased in proportion to the massive gains we have seen in humanity’s productivity in recent years.

Anyway, after a long first week at work, my husband and I woke up super early on Saturday to travel to Florence for the weekend. There was a Netrunner (card game) tournament there on Sunday that he wanted to participate in. In my case, I just wanted to see the city. The weather was perfect, so we spent Saturday walking around the city together seeing the main sights, and on Sunday I visited some museums on my own.

Of course I saw Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Academia, the beautiful painted ceilings of the Uffizi Galleria along with Botticelli’s Venus and many other amazing artworks, but I think my favorite piece of art was Caravaggio’s Medusa, painted on a ceremonial shield, just because it was so shocking:

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All in all, it was a lovely city, though I would say that 2-3 days is enough to see the most interesting things. Also, I was very happy to visit in the off-season, because even in this chilly weather, the city had plenty of tourists!

This last weekend, we swapped the historic masterpieces of Florence for the modern street art of Bologna. My husband had another Netrunner tourney, and since we have family in Bologna, it made sense to visit. Bologna is a lovely city, and though we visited once before, it was under more stressful circumstances, so I am really happy to get a more relaxing weekend here. The city seems to be just the right size, where you can live comfortably with lots of varied things to do, with the nice possibility to get around (both by foot and public transport), but you aren’t inundated with people or tourists. I can imagine it being a nice city to live in, and it’s been a really nice time just chilling.

Costs:

I didn’t break up the costs that well in my log for this month, so there’s a weird misc category with both gifts, groceries, and some other junk inside there, but oh well. It was an expensive couple of months due to Christmas and travelling a lot, but I should actually still manage to stay within budget. (Once again, having a person to split the costs with is huge.) Also, since I didn’t report costs in the last post, these numbers cover almost two months worth.

  • €450 – rent for two months
  • €123 – utilities (internet and gas/electric)
  • €23 – phone
  • €165 – aerial in Italy and the US
  • €385 – groceries, gifts, misc
  • €514 – travel
  • €186 – dining
  • Total (for almost two months): €1846