Why don’t you like Berlin?

“But why don’t you like Berlin?”

I don’t like Berlin for the same reasons I don’t like most big cities. It’s dirty, expensive, and full of people. The streets smell like cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and literal shit. There’s rats. There’s no easy access to nature–

“What do you mean? Berlin is one of the greenest cities in the world!”

A park full of trash is not the same as nature. And as for the lakes and hikes within easy travel distance, well, they are packed to the gills on summer weekends, so they don’t really provide an escape. Anyways, there’s not many opportunities to try, since it’s just cold and grey and rainy for 7+ months out of the year.

“Ok, but there’s much more to do here. Why don’t you check out some of the bars or clubs nearby you?”

Well, I’m not a big drinker, especially when it comes to beer. I mean, it’s true, that if you are into clubs, techno, graffiti art (some of which is awesome, but the vast majority of which is trashy), drugs, beer, and punk atmosphere, then Berlin is definitely the place to be. However, since my interests don’t intersect with any of those, I don’t find much to do here. There are some things I like about it, though. the nice public transport, the museums, the varied food choices, the easy access to anything you may need, including many different hobbies… but for me, the positives don’t outweigh the negatives. There’s nothing wrong with liking Berlin, by the way. It has a lot to offer to some people. I just don’t think it’s for me.

“Maybe there isn’t much around your place. You should move to a nicer neighbourhood.”

Moving to a different part of the city doesn’t change the fact that I am still living in the city. Actually, I kinda like my location. There’s not much just nearby, but I have a pretty nice apartment, and it’s well connected. I am just a few minutes away from two of the more interesting areas in the city, and I roam around on weekends, exploring different areas. I haven’t seen anything that stands out to me anywhere around the city. Like I said before, I’m not really interested in the types of things Berlin has to offer.

“You don’t speak German, do you? You’re not trying to connect to Berlin.”

Actually, I do speak German. Not completely fluently, but it’s a start. No one here speaks German to me, though, even when I start in German. Many people here are from all over (which is one cool thing about living here), but it means that English is a very common language. People quickly switch to it when they hear an accent. In any case, I do have some hobbies I participate in, but even there, everyone is too busy to take time to connect. We all just move from one task to the next, always in a rush, sometimes without even speaking to one another. I don’t blame people for this; that’s just life.

“You’re just not giving it a chance! You should look on the bright side. Berlin is a place you can have freedom, which is not something ubiquitous. Some places are much worse.”

Yes, there are many worse places. There are dictatorships. There are also starving children in this world. But there are also many wonderful places full of clean air and nature and a healthy lifestyle. Much of the West, at least, and many other places too, have freedom. Freedom is important and we shouldn’t underestimate it. But freedom in and of itself is not a reason to like Berlin, in particular.

“You’re just too pessimistic. You need to change your attitude.”

Staying In

The last month didn’t get any easier. The weather was still cold, gray, and often rainy. Sometimes, the sun poked through the clouds, but it didn’t life my spirits. I spent most of the month working and playing video games. We did spend a couple of days visiting Szczecin (where the pictures in this post are from), a small Polish town close to the border. We also happened upon a cool exhibit of super old Mercedes-Benz while we were there. Finally, I bought a bike, and this got me out a little bit, which was very good!

I bought the bike from a great little second-hand bike shop in Berlin called Bikeopia. They were very attentive, honest, helpful, and they gave me a big discount, even on top of the sale they were having. The sale was set up for Women’s Day in the first week of March. Their motivation for the sale was that women still make less than men on average in Germany, so this was their way of bringing awareness to the issue and recognizing women. In fact, Women’s Day was also big topic around the office this year. Tensions had been running high for a while, and this seemed to be a catalyst for a culture clash. The same arguments we’ve probably all heard were thrown around time and time again. Mostly, there were some arguments between the men about how best to recognize the women in their lives, and of course, some men, that felt excluded by not having a “men’s day” for themselves.

I wasn’t shy about my feelings on the topic:

I feel the point of Women’s Day is to raise awareness of the inequality women still face around the world, e.g. lower wages, lack of career choices or even being barred from some professions, experiencing gatekeeping in activities outside of work, lack of control over their own bodies, shame in and/or objectification of their bodies, lack of female role models in high ranking positions, etc., and especially, being silenced when speaking out on such issues. Of course, everyone likes tokens of appreciation in general, but I think on this day, women typically don’t really want to be given those things, so much as they simply want these issues to be acknowledged. In the long (or preferably short) term, they want to be treated as equals by default– neither as less-than, nor as somehow on a pedestal– so that we no longer have to bring these issues up. At least as a woman, that’s what I want.

For me, it feels strange to still be having these conversations. Of course, I’ve faced plenty of sexism in the past, but because I’ve lived in pretty liberal places in the past, it was always easy to find a bastion of normal people to hang out with. When I interact with colleagues, I feel that their gender rarely comes into consideration for me in regards to how I behave with them. But since starting to work here in Germany, I have had to adjust my tone a lot, depending on who I’m talking to. Actually, I’m not sure if it has to do with gender, the STEM field, or my particular situation. All I know for sure, is that it is exhausting.

Costs:

This month looks more normal (my husband covered the groceries this month, which is why they aren’t included below). April is gonna be bad though, since we’re headed back to the US to visit family.

  • 1166 – rent
  • 150 – utilities (including final costs from Italy, wtf!)
  • 220 – bike
  • 150 – dining out
  • 25 – internet
  • 25 – phone
  • 40 – misc
  • 32 – electricity
  • 60 – entertainment
  • Total: 1868

Hunkering Down

Street art in berlin
Street art in RAW-Gelände.

I guess you could say I’m still settling in. Or maybe I’m hunkering down. In any case, this month has been far from exciting. I haven’t been getting out as much as I should, and I can feel myself slipping back into those old bad habits. I’m busy with work, and indecisive about my future plans.

These last few weeks, I have spent long days at work, mostly just programming some infrastructure (as opposed to researching as I would like to). I’ve been staying much later than I intend to, because it’s hard to get anything done when things are going on in the office. It’s a little easier to focus once people are gone. Furthermore, last time I went to aerial, I guess I injured my thumb somehow (twisted it or something), so I’ve just been waiting around for it to get better. Of course, I should exercise at home while I wait, but I don’t, so I’m just getting lazier by the day. I did make it to some doctors this month to address some issues, but they weren’t particularly helpful, so I have to make an effort to find someone better.

Making an effort in anything sounds like the hardest thing in the world right now. This fact in and of itself frustrates me. Therefore, I have made plans to go bike shopping this coming week. I think that if I finally get that bike I’ve been dreaming of for two months, I’ll feel better. I’ll be riding every day to work (except maybe the rainiest days), which will give my body the boost of exercise it needs, and hopefully bring me out of this funk I’m in right now.

Mauerpark

In terms of the future, I haven’t decided yet if I want to settle in Berlin, but if I stay here 21 months (less now) and pass the B1 exam, I can get permanent residency in Europe. This is very appealing, because then I’ll be free to travel around between Europe and the US. I’m just not sure yet that I want to tough it out here for 21 months. Berlin is not particularly nice, in my opinion. If you’re into clubs, street art, and punk atmosphere, then you’d probably be happy in Berlin, but I’m not really into any of those things. I’m starting to miss Rovereto, because although living there was hard in some ways as well, at least I was greeted every morning by beautiful mountains, fresh air, and vibrant colours. In Berlin, everything is flat, grey, and smells like smoke. In any case, I have to consider my longer term life goals, but it just feels very overwhelming to think about, let alone make plans.

Although I consider myself somewhat analytical, I’ve never enjoyed making any sort of plans. For example, I’d rather arrive at a destination, and start walking, than make an itinerary ahead of time. But I’m not sure how a person can achieve their life goals, if they always put off the planning phase. I’m going to have to master my repulsion towards planning if I want to get anywhere. Otherwise, spring is arriving, crocuses are blooming, and I am just sitting around doing nothing productive.

Costs:

Astronomical. First of all, plane tickets to the US for vacation in April and other travel has been super expensive. But the worst has been dining out. I went out with friends, coworkers, and my husband probably more times than we cooked. This month can be taken as a cautionary tale of what happens when you fall off the wagon.

  • 1166 – rent
  • 81 – monthly rail pass
  • 30 – phone
  • 26 – aerial
  • 144 – utilities
  • 209 – groceries
  • 527 – dining out
  • 2000 – travel (including tickets to the US for me and my husband in April)
  • Total: 4157

Moving to Berlin

A few short weeks after graduation, while I was still traveling after a conference, I realized that I would be moving to Berlin to start a new job in machine translation. All of this happened so quickly– much quicker, I think, than I was mentally prepared for. But now the frenzy of bureaucracy is finally slowing down, and I’m looking forward to a trip home for the holidays. I’ll be starting work in January. In the meanwhile, I’ve been working on getting a visa and finding an apartment. I’ve also visited a few of the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets). The one in Charlottenburg was by far the best, with tons of craft vendors and all the usual delicious street food you can expect (although the one in St. Wendel is still the best one I’ve been to).

Getting a Visa

Two years ago, I moved to Saarland to start my master’s in computational linguistics. Last time I was applying for a study permit, and the process was such a headache, that I had to make a flow chart for myself in order to understand everything I had to get done. This time I’m applying for a Blue Card for me and my husband, which allows both of us to work in Germany. The process is nearly the same, that is to say, just as annoyingly complicated.

The problem with the German system, is that it seems like there’s some sort of circular loop on the documents that you need to get a stay permit. For example, to start working, you need a visa. To get a visa, you need an apartment. To get an apartment you need funds. To have funds, you need a bank account with money in it. To open a bank account, you need to be registered at an apartment (you need an address). You also need to be working to have funds. Like I said, to start working you need a visa. It’s a headache that no one fully understands. In practical terms, the flow chart I created last year is still pretty accurate (replacing the school enrollment documents with a signed work contract instead).

The boss at my new company was under the optimistic impression that I could get all of the documents and appointments completed in around 2 weeks in November, and/or that we might be able to skip a step here or there. I was also being optimistic when I estimated that, with the backing of my company, we could get it done in around 4 weeks, before I left for the holidays at the end of December. In the end, it did take right around 4 weeks, so my optimism was not misplaced.

Unlike last time, when I had to figure all this stuff out mostly on my own, this time, my company helped me with filling out and collecting many of the documents, signing me and my husband up for national health insurance (this time with TK, but it’s similar to the AOK I had before), and they even came along with me to the appointments at the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office).

Finding an Apartment

The main task that was left to us was to find an apartment. There are a number of websites available, but I found Immobilien Scout to be the most useful in this task, whereas, if I was searching for a WG (shared flat), I would have probably looked on WG-gesucht, like I did last time in Saarland. Temporary places and shared housing can also be found on Facebook groups (e.g. this one), but you just have to be extra vigilant for bullshit. To apply for apartments, we needed a number of documents proving that we would be good renters, including:

  • A positive SCHUFA (German credit check). It costs around 30 euro to get from the official website, but there are some possible hidden fees on there. If you get it from Immobilien Scout, you get a premium account for a month which helps in the apartment search (just cancel it immediately), and you get an option to download and print a PDF immediately, which you don’t get from the official website.
  • A work contract or pay slips with your net income, which must be 3x the monthly net Kaltmiete (cold rent, which excludes heating/utilities).
  • A letter from your previous landlord stating that you don’t owe them any rent. We were able to use the receipts from our AirBnB, combined with a bank account statement instead (since our last landlord didn’t speak German or that much English). 
  • A Selbstauskunft (typical application form, which the landlords will provide you). 
  • Your passport for identification.

People say that Berlin is cheap, and maybe it is cheaper than cities like NY, Paris, London, SF, etc., but I think people underestimate how much costs have risen. The market is definitely not in favour of renters at the moment either. Basically, any apartment that is reasonably priced is besieged by 30 or more people (literally– there was one we visited, where there were 30 people there on that day alone). Berlin is also separated into different districts, which makes it quite difficult to figure out where to live. I don’t know the city that well, but it seems like Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg have a lot of families, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are nice for young professionals (and may be undergoing gentrification), and Neukölln is the more gritty immigrant/artists area. I’ve only been here a few weeks though, so I can’t talk too much about these and the other areas.

Another peculiarity of looking at apartments in Germany, is that many of them don’t come with kitchens. Essentially, renters tend to buy their own kitchen (such as at Ikea), and then move it around from apartment to apartment, so when a renter leaves, they often take their kitchen with them. Some may try to sell their kitchen (and other apartment “upgrades”) to the next owner, or at least to get the owner to accept the state of the apartment as it is (i.e. with the upgrades). They have to do this, because otherwise, they need to revert the apartment to the state it was in before they began renting it. We really didn’t want to deal with the hassle of buying and installing our own kitchen, so we only looked at apartments with an Einbauküche (built-in kitchen). 

We ended up looking at 20 apartments in the span of around five days, 15 of which we viewed in just three of the days. Our top choice of the ones we saw was apparently everyone’s top choice, because it got snatched up by someone who had probably already had the application in before we even went to the viewing. It makes sense, since this apartment was cheap, at around 800 euro Warmmiete (rent with heating costs), in a good location, and only missing a fridge.

Our second and third choices were both renovated apartments with a Kaltmiete (rent without heating/utilities) of around 1100 euro. One was in a fancy new sky-rise building, literally across the street from Ostbahnhof train station. There’s nothing in the direct neighbourhood except the stores in the station (which includes a nice Rewe grocery store), but getting to my work is incredibly fast. The other was a bit cheaper, and in a neighbourhood with schools and families, but far away from transport and grocery stores. The second choice had the closer location to my work and Rewe. Since I had to travel one hour on multiple transports each way last year,  I’ve gotten really fed up with commuting. We also liked the kitchen at the second place better, since it was much bigger and opened up to the living room, in a more typical American style (in Germany, many apartments have the kitchen in a separate small room). Although the second choice was missing a washing machine (which is also pretty typical here), we still decided to go for it based on the other factors. We signed the lease a week later, and another week after that, I am happy to say, that we have a place to rest our heads now!

Unfortunately, we failed to understand one more thing the second choice was missing– light fixtures. Yes, apparently light fixtures, like washing machines and kitchens, are considered “upgrades,” which don’t come pre-installed. Actually, we did notice that there were no lights in the apartment when we saw the place, but we figured that since it was a new building this was something that was still being worked on. We asked the person showing us the apartment about that, and she said “they will install that.” We assumed that meant that the building company would do this. It was only after we signed the lease that we realized we were wrong (and/or she said a small lie to get us to sign). We did try to install one of the easy-to-reach light fixtures ourselves at first, but we quickly realized we’d need a lot more tools and time to do the job properly. This is obviously rather infuriating. In the end, we decided to contact the Hausmeister, and ask them to come in to install lights. The cost of the light fixtures and the installation will probably total around 100 euro more. Obviously, this is infuriating. On top of that, we still need to buy the washing machine, all the furniture and all the stuff a livable place needs, that people tend to forget about (cleaning supplies, trash cans, kitchen supplies, etc.). Fortunately, I’e found that sleeping on a semi-firm mattress on the floor is actually my preferred sleeping situation in terms of comfort (we did it this way for 3.5 years in Portland too, and it was really the best sleep I’ve ever gotten), so at least my bed is cheap. But in the end, this is becoming a very expensive apartment.

To be honest, in retrospect, I think we might have done this whole move wrong. The better way might have been to rent a short term (1-3 months) place, and look for a more permanent place in the meanwhile. However, I’ve heard that Berliners themselves have been having trouble finding a good place, with some people spending even up to a year searching (at their leisure though). In addition, in order to get a work visa before the end of the year and be able to start working in January, we needed to have registered our apartment at the Bürgeramt (administrative citizen’s office). We could have done this with some temporary apartments, but felt it would be easier to be done with as much bureaucracy as possible early on. So I think we should be happy that we did find something suitable after all, and even managed to get our visas done before the holidays. (I actually have one more step left, where I have to renew my expiring passport, so I can get the final Blue Card, but I already have an appointment to do this set up.)

At the end of the day, what helped us the most in being able to make this sudden move was having liquid cash ready to be used. I’m not the biggest saver, and I tend to splurge on expensive things now and then, but I still try to keep a saving mindset when I can. I’ve also been lucky to have a lot of parental guidance and help over the years. These factors have allowed me to have a small bit of cash saved up for these situations. I know many other people would be in a much more difficult situation. I guess that’s partly why I feel a bit uncertain about our decision to go with a somewhat more expensive apartment– I don’t like cutting into that hard-earned cash that I have, for fear of not being as prepared in the future; in particular, in case things don’t work out here, and I just have to move again. Nevertheless, I hope that, in the end, it will pay off in sanity and a convenient living arrangement, leaving me to focus on improving my skills in my new job. Time will tell. 

The NLP Job Hunt

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Castelvecchio in Verona

Around a week after graduation, I sent off a very small handful of applications to a few different companies in computational linguistics. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the whole thing, because shortly thereafter, I left to attend EMNLP (a big comp ling conference that was held in Brussels). After that I headed to Paris to meet some friends, then returned to Trentino to hike a bit more in the Brenta Dolomites, and then went to Berlin. Below I’ll describe my experience and advice I’ve gotten for applying to both smaller companies, and big companies, interspersed with images of my recent travels for fun.

Searching for jobs

First of all, it was pretty easy to find jobs that looked appealing or related to my studies in smaller companies. One nice source was nlppeople, who had the most relevant openings. Other sources like linguistlist and corporalist also seem useful, and then there are the typical postings on LinkedIn or Indeed that seem to target typical software engineers a little more. Another couple of places I found later on, but didn’t explore were remoteok.io and remoteml, so I wonder if those are actually useful (anyone have any experience with them?).

On the other hand, finding jobs for the big companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, etc. entails going onto those guys’ websites and doing a search. The correct job opening tends to be called something like “Applied Scientist” or “Research Scientist” and has some description of the field you’d be working in or the project you’d be working on. It’s not always clear what exactly you’d be doing, and it’s easier to get an interview there if you have an acquaintance that can push your resume through to the right recruiters.

In any case, finding interesting jobs and actually getting an interesting job are different beasts.

Small company interviews

Interviews for normal companies (and start-ups) seem to consist of the following stages:

  1. introductory phone screen conversation
  2. technical interview
  3. coding project
  4. follow-up interview and/or final interview

My (limited) experience with these has been pretty positive. The introductory phone screen has typically talked about the company’s work and business model, and has asked about your own background and cultural fit. The technical interview asks machine learning and computer science questions, with a skew towards the position you’d be working in. The coding project has typically focused on a task relevant to what the company is working on. The follow-up interview might ask a few more questions about your knowledge, to see how you are stacked up against other candidates. The final interview will already talk about logistics such as salary, start times, moving, and so on.

This interview process is not easy, but it also does seem very reasonable. The questions I saw were typically to the point, and not outside the bounds of what I should be expected to know about after completing my degree, and planning to move into industry. In terms of time frames, the small companies were pretty quick on getting back to me, usually taking only one or two weeks after receiving my resume to respond, and just a few days in between each step thereafter.

It’s possible I got lucky with the small companies I interviewed for, because I heard that other people had strange interviews, where the small companies were trying to replicate the interview process of the big companies, which I believe would be a mistake.

Big company interviews

Interviews for big companies (Amazon, Google, etc.) are very different. The best way to describe it is as a massive comp sci entrance exam. Everyone takes these entrance exams, and typically, after passing, you get further interviews with the specific group you would be working with. The process seems to consist of the following stages (though I admit that I myself did not complete the whole process, so I’m not sure about the end):

  1. phone screen with behavioural, basic comp sci, and basic machine learning questions
  2. phone technical interview
  3. on site all day technical interviews with whiteboard coding (and sometimes presentation of own work)
  4. follow-up interviews with teams of choice
  5. final interviews with logistics

I won’t sugar coat this. If you are taking the big company entrance exams, you need to have a computer science degree and remember a good chunk of what you learned, or you need to (re-)teach yourself computer science fundamentals. This is really shitty for us who are coming from a theoretical linguistics background and the LCT program, which does not cover these fundamentals (although I think they really should offer them to those who don’t have them). Below I’ve assembled all the advice I’ve received from various sources on what to study before making applications to the big companies. Some companies may ask for less of the computer science stuff, and more stuff related to your degree, but it’s better to over-prepare than under-prepare.

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Hiking trail in the Brenta Dolomites

Behavioural questions

First of all, some of the companies ask you behavioural questions, like “Have you ever had a conflict with a coworker?” or “Have you ever failed to meet a deadline?” or “What are your weaknesses?” For me, I kind of handle these questions on the spot. I feel that the best way to deal with them is to say “Hmm, let me think about that…” and then start thinking about working conditions at your previous job/internship/whatever. Usually, something relevant pops to mind.

Some people might find it easier to research the most common behavioural questions, and take time to think of a scenario for the most common ones. There is also a formula that can be followed which leads to a succinct answer to these types of questions, called STAR. These methods might be the more principled way to attack behavioural questions.

In any case, I feel like these questions are sort of bullshit, and I find it easier to bullshit my way through them, because that also leads to a more natural way of talking about the problem for me. I also have a lot of prior work experience, so it’s not that hard for me to conjure up some scenarios. I don’t think I’ve ever flat out failed this section, but I’ve also never applied for leadership positions where this section is probably a lot more heavily weighted.

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Brussels Town Hall

Topics to cover

For the computer science entrance exams at the big companies, you can use leetcode.com, topcoder.com and projecteuler.net to practice, and read the well-known book Cracking the Coding Interview as well (behaviour quesitons are in there too). In short, you will need to know:

  • algorithm complexity (big-O notation for runtime and memory)
  • sorting: n*log(n) complexity algorithms such as quicksort and merge sort
  • hashtables: how they work and how to implement one in code using only arrays
  • trees: how to construct and manipulate binary trees, n-ary trees, tries, red/black trees (and/or splay trees, and AVL trees); how to traverse trees using breadth-first search and depth-first search; the difference between inorder, postorder, and preorder
  • graphs: objects, pointers, matrix, and adjacency list representations of graphs; how to traverse them using breadth-first search and depth-first search; their complexity, tradeoffs, and implementation in code
  • other algorithms: Dijkstra and A*
  • NP-complete: what this means, and problems such as the traveling salesman, and the knapsack problem
  • combinatorics: n-choose-k
  • probability: bayes, likelihood, prior, posterior
  • statistics: significance testing, distributions such as Gaussian and Poisson
  • concurrency: processes, scheduling, locks, mutexes, semaphores, monitors, avoiding deadlock and livelock and how to avoid them, parallelization on multi-core systems
  • object oriented system design: features sets, interfaces, class hierarchies, constraints, simplicity and robustness, tradeoffs
  • development practices: validating designs, testing whiteboard code, preventing bugs, code maintainability and readability, refactor/review sample code

In addition to computer science, you will need to know machine learning. If you only took one course on it during your LCT program, you will probably need to study some things that you missed, including:

  • supervised/unsupervised/semi-supervised learning
  • generative vs. discriminative models
  • clustering
  • classification
  • regression
  • overfitting/underfitting
  • cross-validation
  • regularization
  • bias-variance tradeoff
  • ROC curves
  • train vs. dev vs. test data
  • ML algorithms: naive bayes, linear regression, logistic regression, decision trees, random forests, KNN, K-means, SVM, HMMs, Viterbi, GMMs
  • neural networks and their specific issues: feedforward DNNs, RNNs, LSTMs, vanishing/exploding gradient problem, attention, stochastic gradient descent, learning rate, mini-batches, etc.

You will want to be familiar with the issues in computational linguistics and your specific field, which will depend on what the company is doing and the job you are applying to. This part you might not have to study as much for, since it will depend on your interests and will probably be related to your studies. In any case, it could include topics such as:

  • language modeling, including smoothing
  • FSTs and regular expressions
  • word embeddings (and sentence embeddings)
  • common traditional and state-of-the-art algorithms in your chosen sub-field (e.g. for machine translation you should know SMT models and also Transformer NNs, for speech recognition you should know about HMM-GMMs and also TDNNs)
  • handling big data and data cleanup (e.g. text normalization for language data, detecting misaligned data for MT, disambiguating speech from noise in speech data)
  • other issues specific to language processing (e.g. different scripts, word orders, phonologies, etc.)

Finally, you will want to know some modern technologies for working with machine learning, neural networks, computational linguistics, and software engineering in general, such as, for example:

  • common sources of language data
  • common data formats (e.g. XML, SQL databases, etc.)
  • Python and packages like numpy, scipy, matplotlib, spacy, nltk
  • MATLAB
  • c and/or java could also be helpful if you know them
  • TensorFlow, Torch, Keras, deeplearning4j or similar for NNs
  • Kaldi for speech recognition
  • Git for version control
  • cloud computing
  • Docker
  • Linux and bash

There might be more topics that I missed, but that’s the gist of it I think. It seems like a lot, because… well, it is. It basically covers an undergraduate degree in computer science, a graduate degree in machine learning, and one or two courses in computational linguistics. You likely won’t need to know all of it for whatever job you’re applying to, but it’s not unrealistic to have questions asked from any of these topics. You may not know an answer to every question, and that might also be ok, but it’s good if you know the larger majority.

My feeling is that if you come from that comp sci background and studied comp ling, you will just have a little bit to brush up on, while if you came from theoretical linguistics and studied comp ling (at least in LCT), you will need to spend an extra semester (or more depending on how quickly you learn) to properly learn what you need to know.

At the big companies, I was told that I should apply in the topic I had the most experience in (speech recognition for me) rather than applying to other topics I might be interested in, because this is where I had the best chance of getting actually hired.

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The Eiffel Tower in autumn

Final thoughts

For me, I admit that I certainly don’t know all of the things I’ve listed above. First of all, since I don’t have a comp sci background, I never studied any of the comp sci topics in a structured way. Second, I feel that the LCT program did not have a curriculum that progressed in a logical order over the course of the entire two years, which would have supported me in learning what I needed to know. In essence, I had to restart my progress at my second uni, because my second uni didn’t really have a curriculum that allowed me to keep learning on the same track I was already on. In addition, many of the topics that I did cover during my studies were taught in a disorganized way, and/or a superficial manner, and/or in-depth but very quickly. Therefore, those items that I did cover of the topics above, I covered in a way that didn’t really solidify my understanding of them.

Having graduated, I no longer see an easy path and time-investment opportunities towards learning them. Yes, there are MOOCs, but my personal learning style really benefits from in-class instruction. I will probably have to keep studying in evening courses if I want to properly learn some of those computer science topics I’m missing. Otherwise, I have to hope that the next job I have provides me opportunities to fill in at least some of the gaps.

In any case, I am going to be very busy soon– I have accepted an offer at a start-up in Berlin.

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Hallo Berlin!

Summer Travels (Weeks 48-51)

August has been a whirlwind. I finished out the first year of my master’s degree, and went on a 16 day vacation full of walking, hiking, and swimming. In total, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona.

Germany

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View from Berliner Dom

My trip started with a train ride to Berlin. The week was a little rainy, but I still enjoyed walking and seeing the sites, and hiding from the rain in museums. I stayed in Wombat’s City Hostel which was pretty comfortable, although my roommates were coming in and out at all hours as usual, so I didn’t get much sleep.

What struck me most in Berlin was how the history of WWII and the Cold War were woven into the fabric of the city. Monuments to those murdered during the Holocaust and tours through old bomb shelters clearly describe the atrocities of those times. Old pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed like art pieces at Checkpoint Charlie, covered in graffiti at the East Side Gallery, covered in gum at Potsdamer Platz, and pocked with bomb blasts in the Typography of Terror museum.

However, the monument that stuck with me the most was probably the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), not far from the Bradenburger Tor. From the street, it looks like a huge collection of unmarked tombs on uneven ground. From within, it’s a dark and claustrophobic forest of pale gray towers. It makes a clear statement against the crimes of war and genocide, and its prominent location in the city is a testament to Germany’s desire to learn from its painful past.

My visits to these monuments was, unfortunately, particularly timely, because the neo-Nazi Charlottesville attack happened in the US while I was in Berlin. The violence of the attack juxtaposed with these stark monuments that scream for peace and unity just underscores the absurdity of hate and terrorism (not that the emphasis was needed). Maybe if the US had more monuments to the courage of those our country has failed and those we have wronged, we would not be headed down a crooked path today.

On my last day in the region, I took a small trip to Potsdam, and walked around the city center and the Sanssouci Palace and gardens. It was a cloudy day, and the gardens were absolutely massive, so there were plenty of places I could relax without anyone else around. The next day I headed out to Dresden to spend one more day walking around the city center. Dresden was completely bombed out during the war, but it has been rebuilt, and is absolutely adorable. Both cities were worth a visit, but a day trip to each seemed like enough (although I didn’t go into any museums there).

Truthfully, by now, I had completely tired myself out from four straight days of nothing but walking through cities, and little sleep. It was a sunny day, so after I’d seen the main avenues of Dresden, I ended up crashing on some grass in a park and taking a short nap. No regrets.

Czech Republic

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Lovely hike in the Czech Republic

After Dresden, I finally made my way to the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to going there, since I would stay with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. He lived a little ways outside of Prague, which was perfect, because we were able to get away from the city for a while and enjoy some of the beautiful forests of Bohemia. He picked me up at the train station, and we began the business of catching up on what had happened in our lives since our last meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled around the countryside on old trains that rattled and clacked, past tiny stations with flowers in the windows, each one manned my a collection of human conductors. It was loud, and shaky, but somehow so charming nonetheless, and the trains seemed to run mostly on time (unlike in Germany). On the first day, we traveled to Křivoklát Castle, an old keep where the kings of Bohemia lived in medieval times.  Afterwards, we ate a tasty Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant, and hiked around some of the paths nearby to a small hill overlooking the river. I’m not sure this is a place I would have thought to travel to, had I been visiting Prague on my own, and I really enjoyed this trip.

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Křivoklát Castle

Although we spent most of our time getting a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city, of course we did see some of Prague as well. I spent a whole day on my own exploring the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and all the little, towers, and passageways of the city. One passageway was so narrow that it had a pedestrian stop light, because only one person could fit through at a time.

After Berlin, I didn’t feel like going into too many museums, but we did see the Mucha Museum (an art nouveau artist) together. It’s a small museum, but it would be hard to find such a large collection of his work in another city. Both days that I was in Prague, I ate Trdelník (Chimney Cake), which was like the Baumstriezel I had in Germany but with ice cream inside. If only this fried dough street food would spread to the US!

Wherever we went in the Czech Republic, my friend seemed to have something to say about the area, or the people, or the history. He told me about the railway system, the plants in the woods, the architecture, and the Czech nobility. He told me how Prague houses the Czech crown jewels and how during important events, seven important leaders open seven locks to retrieve the jewels and display them to the people. The crown itself may only be worn by a monarch of royal blood, and since the last monarch is dead, it may never be worn again.

My friend had plenty such stories, and this, combined with the beautiful medieval castles, cathedrals, and towers dotting the city, as well as the lush oak and birch woods we leisurely strolled through, made my whole time in the Czech Republic feel like a romp through fairyland.

Spain

It was with some reluctance that I left the charming Czech Republic for Barcelona, where I would split an AirBnB with some friends. I was reluctant to leave, not only because of how lovely my time in Bohemia had been, but also because just two days before, Barcelona, too, was the victim of a terrorist van attack that killed 13 or more, and left over a hundred injured. My friends and I were staying near La Rambla, where the attack happened.

Upon arrival, we saw huge collections of flowers, candles, and small gifts laid out all along the avenue honouring those who had been killed in this senseless act of violence. It was a sobering sight. There were also plenty of well-armed cops dotting the street, but less of a military presence than I had feared there would be. Overall, travel around the city wasn’t hampered too much by any restrictions, but there was definitely a somber feeling in certain areas.

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Gifts in remembrance of the La Rambla attack

Despite all this, in the end, my stay in Barcelona was no less lovely than my stay in the Czech Republic. The place we were at was smack dab in the middle of the historic Gothic Quarter, literally facing the huge Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. Below us was a square where street musicians would gather to play on their accordion, guitar, or violin in the evening. It was one like one of those things you see in the movies.

On one of the days, we met up with another local friend, who showed us around the city. We hit up hit up all the major sights and vantage points, including Montjuïc and the famous La Sagrada Familia, for which we had reserved tickets online (you should definitely reserve them because the line outside was really long otherwise).

The rest of the days were spent at the beaches in town and at Castelldefels, snorkling near Punta del Molar (we took a tour there with Barcelona Excursions, but I think it wouldn’t be that hard to get there on your own either), and otherwise just splashing around in the perfectly warm and clear Mediterranean sea, which was exactly what I needed during summer vacation!

We also ate some of the best food I have ever had. The creamiest paella, the freshest seafood, the most refreshing gazpacho, and the ham… my god… the ham. It tastes nutty and rich, nothing like what we call ham (it’s really quite wrong to use the same word in this context). I haven’t had food this good for months.

The best part in terms of food, was going to La Boqueria Market, and gathering up supplies for a picnic dinner. They’ve got everything there: a variety of otherworldly ham, various salami, cheeses of all sorts (including really good Catalonian goat cheeses), veggies, fruits (e.g. a kilo of fresh figs for just 2 euro), smoothies, baked bread, seafood, raw meat (including atypical meats like tripe and even brain), nuts and dried fruits, chocolate and other sweets, spices… I mean, it’s just crazy. Wandering through markets is one of my favorite things to do, and this market absolutely did not disappoint, although it was pretty pricey, of course.

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Ham at La Broqueria in Barcelona

Looking Ahead 

At the end of this long and wonderful vacation, I came back to Saarbrücken for just 1 crazy working day to wrap up everything I had to do, and the weekend to pack up my things and clean my apartment, before leaving for Italy. I’m still apprehensive about the move, because I have no idea how everything is gonna go down, and I don’t speak Italian. I’m particularly worried about figuring out how to set up the Internet, which I expect I will not have for the first few weeks. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll just have to figure out a way to muddle through it all.

Oh yea, I also just turned 30, so you know, I’m sort of re-evaluating my life’s decisions a lot at the moment. But I believe (and hope) that in the end, it will all have been worth it.

Costs

I planned this trip nearly at the last moment, and I ended up paying a lot, since tickets to everywhere were already fairly expensive. I also spent a lot while traveling, without giving the budget too much thought. Fortunately I saved a good amount back when I worked, so this sort of thing is possible occasionally, but I think I need to watch it more carefully once in Italy. I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a paid internship while I’m there as well.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €54 – clothes
  • €40 – phone (abnormally high since I used a lot of minutes this month)
  • €120 – dining out (not during the trip, since I didn’t buy groceries all month)
  • €1186 – everything for the trip (~200 trains, ~250 planes, ~350 accomodation)
  • €90 – train to Italy
  • Total: €1805