LCT retrospective

Prague Castle

Last month I attended the annual meeting of my study program. This year, the meeting was held at Charles University in the beautiful capitol city of the Czech Republic, Prague. Since I have already graduated, this was probably the last LCT meeting that I will attend (although who knows!). As usual, it was an absolute blast.

As the graduating class, we participated in a small, but very formal, graduation ceremony. I already have the two diplomas from the two universities, so this ceremony was just something extra. We did receive a supplementary LCT document with a pretty nice description of the program and its requirements. I imagine this is something I could submit to anyone asking for more details about LCT, but I doubt that I will need to submit it anywhere ever, since it’s not an official diploma or transcript of records. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the ceremony, because the format was close to that of American graduation ceremonies– that is, it was very formal. There were speeches by professors and a student, there was organ music and singing, and it was held in a beautiful old hall in the Charles University in Prague. 

Insignia of the Charles University in Prague.

It was liberating being one of the graduating class. For one, I didn’t have to worry too much about making it to any particular talk or event, so I was able to sleep in! But also, I found that I did get a new perspective on the LCT program by coming for the third year.  Having graduated a while ago means that my life has moved away from all of the discussions on lectures, studying, advisers, etc. Hearing all of that talk again, reminded me how urgent it all felt at the time. Looking back made me realize how much and how quickly my life had changed– for better or worse. Either way, despite being a graduate, I still felt welcome. I met other graduates there, who were moving through similar experiences as I was now. So even though I am not in the university mindset anymore, I can still feel like I am part of this larger community.

The LCT students are incredible– not just the ones from my year or my universities–but from all the years and universities. Just about each person in the program is driven, open, and interesting in their own way. As ever, there are people who like to work, there are people who prefer to party, there are some who work hard/play hard, and there are some who chill. Nearly no one comes from the same country or the same background, which is probably the best part. As an alum at the meeting, I felt like I got to look back at the program and see it with many eyes and many points of view.

Now that I am in the workforce, I can see that having had the time to explore and meet new people was the biggest advantage I gained from LCT. I feel I learned how to be part of a community and how to go out there and find answers and guidance for myself when I needed it. Now, I have a stable career that I feel will propel me forward, but I don’t have as much time to explore new things. Still, I have to keep learning, which means I have to do the learning on my own time.

I have to keep learning… a LOT. Because what I learned in the LCT program wasn’t enough preparation for the professional world. I now have to introduce myself to a whole host of frameworks, design paradigms, algorithms, technologies, work methodologies, and attitudes that I have never had to face before. During my coursework, I spent little time on hands-on practice with modern tools. Not only that, but since I am further missing the computer science background and the web development experience that many programmers have these days, I have to learn all of those things afresh as well, in order to compete with/work alongside these people in the workforce.

To give some concrete examples, in just the last couple weeks I was struggling with CUDA drivers installation (for the billionth time), Docker, REST APIs, python’s Flask web framework, the OpenNMT-tf framework for machine translation (I already struggled with Marian, Sockeye, and OpenNMT-lua a while back), making a presentation on some recent research (i.e. reading papers and dissecting math) on a specific topic in machine translation, and a bunch of code refactoring. That’s just in the last couple weeks.

Prague Astronomical Clock

It sounds exciting, but actually, it’s very stressful to have to learn everything at once. I wish we had had some more practical courses in my master’s that would have taught us some of these theoretical ideas by using real tools (e.g. scipy, tensorflow, matplotlib), provided assignments in standardized formats (e.g. APIs to query or Docker containers to run) just so that we could get a little bit more used to those tools, if not completely comfortable with them.

I suppose one could ask how is it that professors could possibly keep up with all of the tools coming out all the time, to be able to teach us that? I would respond: how are we managing it, then, with much less experience? Because we, the students, do eventually manage it all on our own somehow– you just do what you gotta do– but it’s lack of guidance from our mentors in this area that easily leads to unnecessary stress and a steep learning curve. Another response might be “you have to learn how teach yourself.” Of course that is true, but learning how to teach yourself and having guidance in your studies are not mutually exclusive. At my unis, it wasn’t just like this with practical topics. It was like this with many things, much of the time. I won’t say “all the time” because there were a few gem classes/professors, but much of the time, the students got together and taught each other things they had learned 5 minutes ago. This is why the LCT program was so invaluable– it was full of students ready, willing, and able to do this, and to make it a fun thing, rather than solely a stressful one.

In the end, doing the LCT program was the right decision for me, because even though I feel the education was probably of lower quality than what you’d get at a top (in my field) US public university, I gained many soft skills and many many worthwhile experiences. If I could go back, I would definitely do it again, but only after studying a bit more on my own in the prerequisites/background topics first. In short, I would teach myself 75% of what I need to know on my own in terms of skills and theory, and then come to LCT for the last little bit on research. Things would be calmer then, and I think I could get even more out of the LCT program this way. I wonder, is it like this with all the Erasmus Mundus programs or all unis in Europe? Professors themselves seem to bounce around a lot, so is it just luck based on what professors are there the year you happen to go?

The LCT meeting was a great opportunity to look back and process everything that has happened in the last 2+ years. But now that I’ve spent some time looking back, it’s time to start looking forward. As usual, I don’t know what comes next. I have a lot of vague ideas and few concrete plans. Visiting Prague was really nice, because it reminded me that even though I don’t like big cities that much, there might be bigger cities out there that could still fit me– unlike Berlin, which is really a mismatch for my preferences, I think. In the long term, I know Berlin is not the right place for me. In some ways, it might make sense to move back home to the US. I think the salaries are still quite a bit higher there for programmers, and it would be nice to be closer to family. Eventually, I definitely want to do that… but I have to think about whether I’m ready to stop traipsing across the world already!

View from Prague Castle

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