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2010

Advice for New Graduate Students

Link: Advice for New Graduate Students: ""

If you know anyone in graduate school (oops, or if you are in graduate school yourself, or planning to go to one), this is interesting reading: Advice for New Graduate Students from Freedom to Tinker:

[Ed Felten says: This is the time of year when professors offer advice to new students. My colleague Prof. Jennifer Rexford gave a great talk to a group of our incoming engineering Ph.D. students, about how to make the most of graduate school. Here 's what she said: ]

Those of you who know me, know that I collect quotations as a hobby. (The short version of the story is that I moved around a lot as a kid. Quotations are small and very portable, making them a good hobby.) Anyway, two eminent scientists, Albert Einstein and Lewis Thomas, who were at Princeton the 1930s both have something interesting (and seemingly contradictory) to say about the role of the individual:

Albert Einstein (physics): "All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual."

Lewis Thomas (medicine, biology, Princeton class of '33): "There is really no such creature as a single individual; he has no more life of his own than a cast-off cell marooned from the surface of your skin."

These two quotations embody so much of what graduate school is all about.

Individual Development

First, graduate school is a highly individual experience. Compared to the somewhat anonymous experience of college -- where you sit in large classes, do the same homeworks, and take the same tests with many other students -- graduate school is a highly personal. Nobody else is doing quite the same research you are doing (or at least you hope they are not), and you get direct (sometimes pointed) feedback on your individual work -- from your advisor, from your peers, and from reviewers of the papers you submit and the talks you give. And when your work is good but not great, you don't just take the A- and move on to the next assignment -- you keep plugging away and get more feedback and, eventually, you nail it. This is an amazingly efficient way to learn, grow, and create great scholarship.

Yet, there is a downside. The critique of your work, however well-meaning and "good for you," will sometimes feel relentless. It requires some toughening of the skin, and a delicate little dance to simultaneously be in love with your work (so you have the tenacity you need to always dig deeper) and yet have enough emotional distance to be able to take constructive criticism of how your work looks in its early stages. It's not an easy balance to strike, and I'm sure all of us who do research still struggle with it. I know I do. This is one of the many ways in which grad school is as much as emotional challenge as it is an intellectual one.

Another important aspect of the "individual" in graduate school is to learn your research "taste." You may not know it yet, but you are weird. You come to research problems with some peculiar sensibility that nobody else has. You are attracted to a certain kind of research problem -- maybe a messy practical problem, or a sharply formulated (but very hard) theoretical problem, or something in between. You notice a certain kind of weakness or gap in other people's research. You have a particular set of techniques or approaches to solving problems. Graduate school is a wonderful time to figure out what your "taste" is, so you can craft your own agenda for the technical problems you pursue in the years ahead.

So, then, graduate school really is the epitome of what Einstein called the "development of the individual." And I hope during your time here, you get the kind of opportunities for individual development that you deserve. Experiences that will let you produce deeper scholarship that expands the base of knowledge in your fields, and become more accomplished at conveying new and sometimes complex ideas to others.

Part of a Group

Yet, for all of my blathering on about the individual, graduate school is also a collective experience. You are part of a research group, a department, a discipline, (for many of you) an engineering school, a graduate school, and student groups like GWISE.

I want to say a few words about your research group, because it is so important. Your officemates, and the other graduate students around you, are such an important part of your graduate school experience. Not only do they provide a sense of community, and a community that truly understands your experiences, though that is certainly important. But they also mentor you on topics small and large.

I had a great officemate, Jim, in graduate school. He took ten years to graduate, and had already been there seven years when I arrived. So, Jim knew everything about everything. He taught me an important lesson I value to this day -- how to be efficient. He would sit at the next desk and admonishingly say, "Jen, I hear the sounds of repetitive keystrokes. Today you will learn Perl." To be honest, it was kind of creepy at first, but Jim would watch out for me out of the corner of his eye. He taught me things that would save me time, leaving me with the time and energy I needed to tackle bigger and more interesting problems.

Your classmates will also provide wonderful moments of professional serendipity, random encounters over coffee or foosball that make you aware of a body of work you didn't know about, or recognize a previously unappreciated connection between two disciplines. You may even become the match-maker for the faculty, bringing two professors together to collaborate because you see a connection in their research that they were unable to see. The chance encounters, the candid feedback on your research, the unplanned discussions about research taste and philosophy -- these are all a great part of interacting with your group mates.

I must caution you, though, about an important enemy against this kind of informal interactions. The Internet. Okay, so my research focuses on the Internet, so it may seem strange for me to be so negative about it, but this is important so I'll make an exception. The Internet makes it far too easy to work from home, or a cafe, or on the train, rather than in your office or lab with your peers. Your choice to work away from the office is, in fact, perfectly rational. Coming into the office has a defined cost, in terms of your time and (perhaps) having to get out of your pajamas and take a shower. And, all of this is in exchange for some vague, speculative benefit -- that you might have a chance encounter that truly changes your research. And, frankly, in any one day, you probably won 't have a profound experience in your office, and your officemates may not even be in the same scholarly mood as you. But, I entreat you to go anyway.

And, I encourage you to have a broader sense of community with each other, whether in your departments, or the school of engineering, or in groups like this one. Not only for the professional serendipity -- though that will happen. But for the friendship and support. Graduate school is fun but it is also hard, and sometimes frustrating, and having some balance in your life will make the whole experience more worthwhile.

In fact, for what it's worth, I find the students in my group who are more engaged with other students and student groups often graduate sooner than the other students. They often are better at managing their time, working intensely and efficiently to leave space in their lives for their other pursuits. And, they are more comfortable reaching out to other students for help, whether for feedback on a paper or guidance on an analytical technique or a software tool. They know more about the peculiarities of the faculty, and how to work around them. And, for the students who are not native English speakers, the social interactions also have a side benefit of sharpening their English skills. Mastering a language is, frankly, pretty boring work. Socializing in English is a much more enjoyable way to learn the language than any formal study could ever be.

So, in closing, I do think that graduate school is an unusual experience, both highly individual (in your training and professional development) and highly collective (in how you are part of a research group, a discipline, and a larger community). I hope you find both aspects of your time here at Princeton rewarding, and that you also make time to give back to the next group of students who arrive at Princeton after you. (from:Advice for New Graduate Students)

XMarks is the only thing that will sync Safari with Firefox

Link: XMarks is the only thing that will sync Safari with Firefox: ""

And, it's leaving us:

"The past four years have been a wild ride for us: growing something from nothing to substantial scale, providing a simple service that people love because it simplifies their lives. We’ve learned tons along the way, often by making big mistakes. We’re really sorry that this last lesson means that you’ll have to find an alternative to Xmarks, but the alternatives exist and you’ll have no problem finding them." (from Xmarks Blog)

Again this shows how good ideas don't always win.

This was an excellent idea, but perhaps it suffered from the classic-cliche- VC-quip "It's a feature not a product", or worse, "It's a product not a company". I don't know how much money, not to mention blood, sweat and tears, was spent on trying to get it to achieve escape velocity but I can imagine that it was considerable.

Having built and attracted huge numbers of loyal users is a major accomplishment, even if it didn't lead to a sustainable business. Kudos and all the best to the team.

Really? Gargling With Salt Water Can Ease Cold Symptoms – NYTimes.com

Link: Really? Gargling With Salt Water Can Ease Cold Symptoms – NYTimes.com: ""

Another old-wives-tail bunked. (opposite of de-bunked?)

" At the end of the study period, the group that regularly gargled had a nearly 40 percent decrease in upper respiratory tract infectionscompared with the control group, and when they did get sick, “gargling tended to attenuate bronchial symptoms,” the researchers wrote." (from New York Times)

Google’s servers

Link: Google’s servers: ""

From an article about Google's hardware:

"Google's big surprise: each server has its own 12-volt battery to supply power if there's a problem with the main source of electricity. The company also revealed for the first time that since 2005, its data centers have been composed of standard shipping containers-each with 1,160 servers and a power consumption that can reach 250 kilowatts." (from CNET)

There are lots of other choice tidbits about the design of the millions (?) of tiny servers that Google uses to run its data centers. Quite interesting.

This never happened: Russian Spy

Link: This never happened: Russian Spy: ""

This never happened…

We were working on some piece of software or something and the Russians invaded our workplace and demanded that we create it for them. We were threatened in big ways. We had a kind of a robot thing small which had a video camera and it was left in the Big room while we were put into a Small room. They demanded that we concede but we would not.

I had doubts about it, why not just do it for them and be done with it? Otherwise we might all be killed and whats the point. We coud get the government to help us write a perfect contract that would make sure that if we did it they would release us what shame would there be in that?

Then they decided to give us a little outdoor break and took us by a big war ship on a voyage. It wasn't clear exactly why but it was a break. We stopped somewhere in the very cold (maybe in the arctic) and everyone was allowed to go above to see it.

Chris went but i couldnt find our camera. There was a huge room for personal belongings on racks and among them many cameras many that looked similar but in the end I talked to someone who said it was dark anyway so i went up. I ended up on a different deck from Chris but i could see her.

Now the ship was goin gvery fast and making a sharp turn so they could show off how cool their ship was and the ship listed so much that I could get my arm and then my legs into the water. It was cold but it was fun. Next we went back below and they served us lunch -- waiters and Russian sailors! I think there was a Rueben and something else.

Then we were below again and we were in a room where sailors were working with equipment and they heard an airplane outside so they immediately did a drill to lock stuff down -- I assume thinking there might be an attack.

Then we were back in the dining room and Chris who had brought some trinkets or notes for the natives got up on a table and got everyone’s attention to make some kind of speech -- probably to tell people what she had brought.

But another guy thiought she was getting up there to sing happy birdthday or to congratulate him on his birthday. He was old.

How (not) to design a ballot

Link: How (not) to design a ballot: ""

My head is full of democracy and elections these days. How come, you ask? Well for the last year or so I've been working for the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, on elections technology. This month's focus is generating ballots for two elections happening in November. So more than usual, I am dreaming in black and white forms. Anyway…

I came across a couple of instructive blog posts about the new non-lever voting that New York unveiled this month. Predictably, when dealing with humans, some people don't like them. You can't please them all, right? But really the objections raised here are quite legitimate.

If this important yet rather esoteric topic interests you, here are three good links:

Ever heard of the Johari Window?

Link: Ever heard of the Johari Window?: ""

I came across the idea of the Johari Window during one of the presentations at the Bif-6 Conference. I'd never heard of it before. To me it's an interesting formalism to think about ones self knowledge. Reading about the Johari Window on Wikipedia (where else) but it was an interesting way to understanding personality.

"Room 1 is the part of ourselves that we see and others see. Room 2 is t he aspect that others see but we are not aware of. Room 3 is the most mysterious room in that the unconscious or subconscious part of us is seen by neither ourselves nor others. Room 4 is our private space, which we know but keep from others." (from Wikipedia)

Who knows if this approach (reminiscent a little bit of Myers Brigss) is well known, respected or in total disrepute. It spoke to me, so I thought I would share it.