Category Archives: Navel Gazing

Course Impressions Fall 2014

Most of my online presence has been in other venues recently, but I’ll at least make sure my semester before/after chain here remains unbroken.

Taking CS571: Computer Networks
I’m pleased with the general design of the course. There is nice mix of textbook structure and primary document context, and the assignments look to offer the generally desirable mixture of explicit problems and programming. Unfortunately, while it is well designed, the instructor seems a little weak in classroom execution, so the lectures are fairly traditional and not particularly good at that. I’m also a little weirded out about differences in background affecting which things are expected context – wire encoding and line delay are being presented as more novel concepts than packet encoding and topology, while I think of of them as things we do with sophomores. I’ve long felt guilty about my lack of formal networking background for ages, so it’ll be good for me.

Taking CS535: Intermediate Computer Graphics
Taking to finish out my core requirements, because it sounded more fun than numerical methods. The instructor is a bit of a slide-reader, and so far we’ve had more context than content. I’m all for context-heavy instruction, but it’s getting to the point where it’s misleading because what we are being provided is out of date and slightly hand-wavy, and what content we have had has been distressingly shallow. It’s a small class and we’re almost all pretty friendly, so it’s working out anyway. At worst I finally have an excuse to learn some rudimentary OpenGL.

Taking EPE672: College Teaching & Learning
Like all Preparing Future Faculty program courses, it’s a room full of jaded grad students, being jaded. That situation is always fun, and it’s no more grim than all those courses. We’re mostly reading a whole bunch of primary publications and discussing, which is a good course format that I don’t get to do often because it’s unpopular in engineering disciplines.
I’m a little pissed that it manages to block both the weekly Keeping Current seminar and Collexion open hours every week, but I’ve been trying to get into it for over a year, so I’ll take it.

Teaching: EE101
I’m not a standard instructor, I’ve been brought in to run the embedded systems unit that I helped design a couple years ago. Leading 230 freshmen through recognizing all the little embedded systems their world is built out of, and building neat shit with Arduinos and bags of parts to get an appreciation for them.
I’m not exactly being well-compensated for doing it, but they are paying me, and both the material and course composition are always a good time.

It’s not lining up to be a terribly stimulating semester, but it also won’t be terribly difficult, and will get me fundamentals and basic credentials in some things I should have them in.

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Spring 2014 Semester Retrospective

Continuing my habit of posting before and after notes on my courses, after notes for Spring 2014.
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Fall 2013 Impressions

Following my habit of posting Before/After notes on my semesters, some impressions for Fall 2013 now that every class has met. I’m getting to the point where the bulk of coursework I can and would sign up for tends to be special topics courses, which is a very interesting, if sometimes strange, phenomenon.
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Spring 2013 Semester Retrospective

I lost this draft right after the semester ended, but spotted it while preparing to write up another project, and am now polishing and posting to continue my habit of posting before/after documentation for my semesters. I spent more of the semester than I probably should have on a variety of enriching distractions (like a 3D Printer), but still did very well at all my course obligations, and the distractions were enriching.
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EDC 2013

I made an EDC post back in 2009 that is now woefully out of date. I’ve had the little pen case thing I carry come up a couple times recently, as people are more in to this sort of thing now, and thought I should update.

EDC2013

A – Belt, 1:00- Generic suitably sized phone holster, with clearance for the headphone jack cut out.
B – In the holster – T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide (AKA HTC Doubleshot), currently running a recent unofficial CM9 build. Detailed impressions here.
C – Wrist – My over-decade-old Fossil Blue AM-3314. It’s a dual face (analog/digital), and makes a good grounding strap.
D – Clipped in to right front pocket – Keys, on a snap-hook. RFID fob for the office.
E – Left Front Pocket – Wallet. Leather, with card slots, and an integrated coin pouch.
F – Right Front Pocket – Self-made pocket organizer, holds Black, Blue and Red 0.5mm Uniball Vision Elites, 0.7MM mechanical pencil, Flash drive, and Chap stick. Discussed below.
G – Belt, 5:00 – Leatherman Wingman. Much lighter/thinner than a Wave, particularly since it clips on directly instead of needing a sheath. Not as well made, and the screwdrivers are way worse, but the smaller/lighter/cheaper (I’ve lost/destroyed two Wingmen in the last couple years) makes up for it.
H – Right Cargo Pocket – A pair of non-isolating earbuds (safe for wearing while walking). The current pair are Sennheiser MX300s.
I – Left Cargo Pocket – ThruNite T10 Flashlight. 1xAA, three mode (Hi/Md/Lo) with NO stupid blinking modes. Detailed impression here.
J – Right Cargo Pocket – A couple of spare snagless hairbands.

The major changes are that I’ve downsized my multitool and consolidated my ubiquitous computing device. I’ve also stopped regularly ruining cheap belts and started wearing a 5.11 1.5-Inch TDU Belt, which is thus far impervious to damage or problematic wear.

The interesting bit is, as always, the custom part. The current version of my pen case is this thing:
Pencase2013

It’s getting a little bit worn, and shows some minor design issues, but has been riding around in my pocket doing its job for several years now. The primary issue with this one is that every layer of material has a seam along the bottom, which allows the pencil point to escape through the stitching. When eventually I get around to replacing it, I think I’ll make the lower piece out of a different material (thin split leather?) and wrap it so there is a fold at the bottom and stitches up the sides, the current mid-weight upholstery fabric is otherwise adequate (light, inexpensive, and non-abrasive). I never made a proper pattern, just mocked it in paper then cut fabric to match, so there will be some work in replicating.

This would feel totally ridiculous if it weren’t so entertaining to read these from other people.

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Pharoah

Pharoah_Final_Crop

We had to put down my parent’s ~19 year old cat, Pharoah today. We got him as an young adult, and have had him for about 16 years, so he has been a presence for more than half my life.

When we got him, he had been returned to the pound for unspecified reasons. We picked him because of his personality – he was remarkably docile, and very attentive to humans, traits that, as we hoped, he imparted to a number of less-social housemates over the years. Shortly after we got him, we noticed he looked a little odd and didn’t clean himself. It then became clear that, as they started to grow back, the intermediate owners had clipped his whiskers short and, because it came off when we bathed him, dyed his gray and brown undercoats black. Even after such a terrible second owner, he had abandonment issues for his entire life. He was an indoor/outdoor cat for most of his life, and made friends with all the neighbors. Whenever someone was upset on their porch (which, in a neighborhood full of college students, happens rather regularly) he would go try to console them. He somehow communicated to a family across the street that he wanted a water bowl with ice in the summer, and got them to oblige. Neighbors worried when they didn’t see him for a couple days.

In another personality-establishing story, the first time he was allowed outside after we got him, he climbed a tree and couldn’t figure out how to get down. We set up an extension ladder to help him down, but he decided to jump instead and broke his toe. It was December, so the vet wrapped his leg in green, red, and white bandages, and told us he would remove it in a matter of days. Three weeks and a drive up to Wisconsin with us to visit family later, the cast had to be cut off. He always liked decorations: Large collars. Ribbons. Tags. Bells. He would be visibly distressed for hours when he lost one, and would sometimes bring things that fell off back to be reattached. Hurt feelings could be fixed with another bit of ribbon tied to his collar. As he aged, the wear from his preference for elaborate collars gave him a bald spot on the back of his neck, but nothing could be done because we couldn’t take them away from him.

Near the end, his never-terribly-sharp senses had dulled to the point where he didn’t always know where he was, and he had lost partial control of his hindquarters, but he hung on, enjoyed himself, and made the resultant messes until it got so bad he was unable to perform the most basic acts of catdom, as is the prerogative of old pets.

He was the most human-centered cat I’ve ever encountered, and will be missed dearly.

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Spring 2013 Impressions

Since I’m in the habit of posting about classes I take at the beginning and end of the semester, and often find something interesting when I look at them later, some quick impressions for courses I’m involved in for the Spring 2013 semester.

Teaching: CS275: Discrete Mathematics
I did this last semester, but under a different primary instructor. I again have pretty much free reign over the recitation period for an hour a week, but this time I do get to do a little bit of new material instead of just examples, and the suggestions on this I should cover are shorter and less specific. I’m more comfortable with the material having done it recently, and my classes seem a little more lively, so it should be a little more fun this time around. That said, doing the same lesson twice back-to-back is slightly more demanding than with a gap, and it is very easy to forget what you did with each group. I’m balancing being a little less organized in the first section with tending to run out of time in the 2nd, so I think they’re getting similar coverage, although the second section is probably having more fun.

Taking: GS650: Preparing Future Faculty
This is a two credit hour, once a week evening course for graduate students who think they might end up in academia. I’m building up a pile of technology-related degrees, have a deep well of contempt for the tech industry, and like teaching, so that sounds right. It actually seems like it will be more useful to me than I expected, in addition to being mostly composed of reading the appropriate news streams, listening to experts talk, and reflecting on both, which is basically what I do with myself anyway.

Taking: LIN511: Introduction to Computational Linguistics
I can talk about how I’m taking this because I thought it would be good for me to look at the other kind of language tools, and how my interest in the cognitive science aspects of computer systems covers it, but I’m really just taking it because it sounded interesting, no one told me I couldn’t (and in fact all the appropriate people encouraged it), and why else have I ever done anything, ever? There is one other CS student in there, and about 34 mixed graduate and undergraduate linguistics students, so my perspective is certainly the minority perspective, although the instructor came to linguistics from computing (and is hilariously British). I came in expecting to need to self-teach a lot of linguistics material, but talking to my classmates, they seem to be having to work as much on the linguistics aspects as I am, and having trouble with the computer parts, so I guess I’m ahead? So far the bulk of the assigned material has been structured manipulation of character srings (Using DATR, which is basically a generic string class system implemented in an ancient dialect of Prolog…), which is for me mostly a good exercise in remembering the OO way that many CS folks view the world. It is interesting, and I’m not suffering, so we’ll call committing to this whim a good choice.

I’m also still not rid of my MS project. I’m deeply tired of it at this point. I’m working to arrange the thing I would like to be working on as a PhD while I continue to try to clear out the parts of the MS project that have never worked, hopefully it will be reasonably fast and graceful.

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25!

Once again, a year older and largely unchanged.

I sent out another round of Ph.D. applications, got another round of shitty responses, threw my hands up, and took an offer to stay at UK and do a Ph.D. with the CS department here. The dichotomy between how pleased folks at UK seem to be about keeping me and how little interest I got elsewhere is a bit distressing, but I understand how it happened, and UK has been and continues to be amazingly accommodating, so I can’t complain much.

In the coming semester I’m TAing for CS275 (undergraduate Discrete Math course), which lacks many (by which I mean “all”) of the exciting hands-on aspects of EE281 and EE101, but is sophomores (which are generally my favorite to teach), and is a sufficiently presentation-dependent set of material that it has serious potential to be be rewarding. I was asked about teaching any of several things for ECE again after CS picked me up, because apparently people think I know what I’m doing in front of a classroom, which might have been more fun, but I had already committed, and this will certainly be more broadening.

I amazingly failed to get clear of my MS for another year, largely because the lack of medium-range plan pressure supplanted with a bit of a reddit habit made it easy to avoid cleaning out the remaining not-fun bits – things are mostly written and written up, it’s just a matter of sucking it up and dealing with the last few bits and pieces. As I’m finishing that I’m trying to arrange people and resources to just do a Ph.D.-sized project I’ve had in the back of my head for years …but that is a large separate topic.

In perhaps the only really substantive difference, I’m living alone in an apartment instead of in a house with people I’ve known since high school. I’m enjoying being able to impose order on my entire living space, and the greater opportunity to spend time, as a former housemate was fond of phrasing it, free from the tyranny of pants, but there certainly is less built-in variety.

I’m pleased with the state of my existence – perhaps too pleased in that I’m getting a bit complacent – but I’m not really suffering on any time scale as a result of not being in a hurry, and I’m getting to indulge in all sorts of interesting side projects, so I’m pretty OK with it.

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As a fun aside to the previous post, there is a story my parents like to tell from my childhood, which generalizes the kind of permissive learning objects learning computers are an instance of. When I was very little, I had a log into which I drove vast numbers of random fasteners – nails and bolts and screws and things of that sort. The log was just a piece of scrap wood, and the fasteners were leftovers and foundlings and other unimportant bits given to me, but it was undoubtedly good for my hand-eye coordination in general and tool use in particular. It also probably contributed to my now fairly developed mechanical intuition. At some point the ridiculous fastener-studded log came to be referred to as “the porcupine,” and for some years it was mined for fasteners whenever something odd was needed, until it began to rust and crumble and was thrown away.

To learn anything well, you need to do the thing repeatedly, you need to experience the variation in the thing, and you need to be free to experiment without worrying about how messing up this thing will affect other things. There is nothing better than a pile of scrap material to learn from.

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A Year of Google Reader

A year ago today I switched from visiting websites to consuming through Google Reader as my primary means of reading web content. Like most such time-saving conveniences, rather than letting me read the same amount of Internet chatter faster, it just means I consume more of it. A lot more of it.

The mediocre “Trends” metrics page built into reader tells me I have read 119,568 Items this year, which will grow by something on the order of 2,000 over the course of the day.
To be fair, that statistic is rather misleading for several reasons. First, I tend to skim feeds by locking my hand over j (next item), k (previous item), space (next object), and middle click (open in new tab, there is an upper midddle mouse button for the Trackpoint on Touchpads), so it shows my reading everything even if it flickers by as I parse the headline. Second, I’ve added some ” chatty” feeds in the last couple months, particularly Y-Combinator’s HackerNews feed, which is a ~105 item/day noise machine, full of stereotypical startup douches, presented headline-only. I tolerate HN because it brings me some truly excellent oddities that I wouldn’t see otherwise, and does so on a regular basis. For scale, reader tells me I’ve clicked 406/3000 things from HN in the past month, and only perhaps half of them were inflammatory headlines that were closed as soon as I realized what they were. Which is still more than the next most clicked feed.

The more meaningful metric is that, according to the terrible “Export starred items, then do a wc on the json file, and subtract one” method, I have starred 1188 items in the past year. Also working around the Trends page sucking by making note of the value in the 30-day sliding window from time to time, I seem to actually click into between 750 and 1000 items a month, of which I fully read probably 2/3.

As for Reader itself, I’m not fond of the current visual (re)design, and Plus is wildly inferior to the pre-Plus sharing mechanism, but in terms of features and convenience, it is still the best feed handler I’ve seen. The closest I can find is TinyTinyRSS, which is a self-hosted solution with an Android app. It is apparently something of a resource hog for cheap shared hosting, and currently doesn’t have a good “share with note” mechanism, but I’m keeping a close eye on it because it is very close to a drop-in replacement, the idea of self-hosted appeals to me, and Google dependency makes me nervous. If someone hacks together a clean flow for sharing with note into something a reasonable blog type CMS can syndicate, or Google gets any less functional/creepier, I could easily see myself making the switch.

So I have a slight reader problem, but it is an awful lot of fun, and I think it makes me a more interesting person. For the curious, my exported list of feeds is here.

Posted in Computers, Entertainment, General, Navel Gazing | 2 Comments