Saturday, October 28, 2006

Last day in Boston

As Christina has noted, we're almost outta here.

The movers came on Thursday to pack up our stuff and, while it's certainly nice to have somebody pack up your stuff, it is also not without its stresses. In our case, it was having to play a shell game with Zander, moving him from room to room in advance of the [literal] moving front, and making sure our cats didn't escape, terrorized as they were by strange burly men clomping through the house. Getting to our hotel on Thursday night was fun too. We had to transport:

- 1 baby
- 2 cats, in carriers
- 1 baby car seat + base
- 1 stroller
- 1 Pack-N-Play
- 1 large bag of baby accoutrements [clothes, diapers, bottles ...]
- 1 huge bag with our clothes
- 2 large bags of misc. other stuff [cat food, cat litter, disposable litter boxes]
- ... and of course our carry-on bags

... which made me silently vow to not move again with anything/anybody that must be carried, fed, or has special sleeping and excretory needs. And it got better:

- On the way to the hotel, one of the cats decided it really needed to do its business. In case you had any doubts, let me reassure you that

Freshly-minted cat business + car with windows that don't roll down = Totally Not Crazy Delicious

- I didn't have any cash to pay the cab driver, so we had to go find an ATM while poor Christina was left standing in the hotel lobby with a crying baby and a mountain of luggage
- After dumping all the luggage in our room, I was returning the luggage cart to the lobby and was mistaken for a hotel employee by a woman who wanted to know the location of a nearby hotel. I resisted the urge to give her an earful about not every black man pushing a luggage cart automatically being an employee and settled for a curt "Two blocks that way, and, by the way, I don't work here".

Friday was less stressful, as I just had to hang out in our apartment as the movers loaded all our stuff and clean up after them. There's nothing like emptying out your apartment to see all the hidden dirt that is missed during regular cleaning; in our case, I think I swept up enough cat hair to make a whole new cat.

And, so, today is our last day in Boston; we're getting on a 6:20pm flight to Seattle. My next worry is about spending 6 hours elevated 30000 feet above the ground in a small metal tube with 3 entities [2 cats and Zander] that are my responsibility but whose behavior I really have very little control over. All in all, I'll be glad when it's tomorrow :-)

I suppose the flip side of all this is that I don't really have much time to feel sad about leaving ;-)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"These are a few of my favorite things ..."

Since I've spent a lot of the last two years complaining about all the bits I didn't like about Boston, I figured it was time to to talk about the the positive aspects of being here. So, in no particular order, here's what I'll miss and/or liked:

- The Forest Hills cemetery: amazing "memorial sculptures" [aka big-@$$ gravestones] set in beautiful surroundings. Christina shot a few nice pictures here.
- Jamaica Pond: we must have circumnavigated the pond a few thousand times, for reasons like being bored, trying to induce labor, going for a run, and just wanting to take a walk.
- The Arnold Arboretum: another nice spot to take a walk.
- The Endy lab: a collection of very smart, creative, and funny people that I've had the privilege of calling colleagues over the last couple of years.
- All the interesting biological engineering, biology, CSBi and CSAIL seminars
- Zipcars: a pretty good alternative to owning a car
- The Weekly Dig: a really funny weekly paper with an irreverent, yet insightful, take on everything.
- The Wonder Spice Cafe, Royal Bengal, and Family restaurants: good food at reasonable prices, an all-too-rare occurrence.
- All the stuff Christina listed [although I'm not as big a fan of the "free stuff" as she is]

There are also a few things I wish I'd had a chance to do:

- Participate in one of the many [1K, 50K, 100K] entrepreneurship competitions held every year at MIT
- Watch a Robocraft competition
- Take a few more courses [like 7.03, 7.22, 7.23, 7.52, 7.86, 6.824, 6.829 and 6.852]
- Check out Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Vermont and Maine
- ... and, of course, graduate with a PhD ;-)

Update: Another one of my favorite things was working out at the CW Taekwondo club, run by two friends of mine. They've managed to build one of the best Sport Taekwondo clubs in the country, with current and ex-national team members from various countries, including an Olympian, working out there. In other words, it's a great place to get your @$$ kicked ;-)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Advice to a young non-scientist

[Apologies to Peter Medawar]

With our impending departure from Boston, I've been thinking a lot about what I would change if I were to get the chance for a do-over. Below are the conclusions I've come to.

Making friends is hard: We didn't fully realize before we left Seattle how lucky we were to have so many friends and family close by, and how difficult it is to rebuild that sort of network in a new city.

The core of the problem was that neither Christina nor I had much exposure to people our age. Before starting classes, I hadn't fully internalized that I'd be surrounded by people who had, for the most part, just finished college, and were about eight years younger than me. An eight-year post-college difference is a pretty big gap in life experiences and expectations, one that made it hard for me to make many new friends. Christina's job was also pretty limiting in that respect in that it was, in some ways, tantamount to solitary confinement. And, since she worked at MIT, most of the few interactions she had were with students as well. Compounding these difficulties was the fact that most people in their early thirties have their social network in place and aren't necessarily actively trying to expand it, and so it's not easy to "break into" an existing circle of friends.

All this is not to say that we didn't make any new friends, but there were few enough of them, and we saw them so infrequently, that being in Boston was a pretty lonely experience. All that said, short of joining some sort of social club [*shudder*], it's not clear to me how we could have changed this bit of our stay here.

The high activation energy of mobility: When we moved here, we decided not to buy a car, but instead use Zipcars as necessary. On one hand, that worked out reasonably well, in that we didn't have to think about insurance, parking etc, but still had access to a car when necessary. On the other hand, it also stopped us from doing things that would have made our stay in Boston more pleasant, because there was always a very definite cost associated with using the Zipcar: for any activity, the question became "Do we want/need to do this enough that we're willing to pay the Zipcar fee for the necessary period of time ?". At $7-$8/hour, that sort of calculus brought with it the pressure to make every trip extra-worthwhile, which made us much less willing to try trips with uncertain payoff, like, say, exploring Massachusetts. It also made it hard to be spontaneous, because each trip required reserving the car a few days in advance, and we needed to plan our trips down to the hour to stay within our reservation window.

All in all, the delta between what we paid for Zipcar rentals on a monthly basis and what it would have cost to own a car was probably small enough that the additional freedom would have been worth it.

Going big sometimes considered harmful: I had two conflicting impulses when I started graduate school. One was to take the safe route to getting the necessary credentials: pick a research area that played to my strengths [ie purely computational work], pick an interesting but reasonably safe project, do a solid job on it, and get out quickly. The other impulse, based on the reasoning that since I was making such a large switch anyway, I might as well do it properly, was to become equally at home doing experimental biology and computational work, and pick a thesis project based purely on being the coolest thing I could think of, with little or no regard to safety. In other words, choosing the "go big" option of the "Go big or go home" philosophy espoused by a friend of mine.

I tried to chart a path through the middle, by looking for a thesis topic that would allow me to develop the computational skills that I figured would make me the most employable in industry [namely, machine learning/data mining] and applying them to the area of biology I find the most interesting [synthetic biology]. That took about a year, and still wasn't totally satisfactory, as is usually the case when you try to force a compromise between two incompatible bedfellows. In the meantime, I also figured out that I really don't like experimental work -- the slow, repetitive, everything-takes-forever-to-do, debug-by-semi-randomly-trying-stuff nature of it drives me crazy. In other words, I realized that I really should have taken the safe route; unfortunately, 2 years in and with a new addition to the family, doing that sort of a reset really wasn't in the cards.

I wish somebody had sidled up to me a couple of years ago, gently tapped me on the shoulder, and quietly said "Uhm, dude ? You already went big by going back to school; there's no need to get even crazier. Play it safe." Or, as a professor who switched over from "pure" computer science to CS applied to biology put it recently: re-orienting your vector takes time, and the important part is getting pointed in the right direction, not trying to get to the endpoint as fast as possible.

The lesson: sometimes you go big and you go home ;-)

There are probably a couple of other little bits and pieces that could have gone better, but I think the stuff above covers the biggest chunks. Now all I need to do is build a time machine so I can go back a couple of years and give myself the benefit of all this experience, thereby creating an alternate universe in which I become a mad scientist and destroy the earth via my green goo run amuck. Wait, maybe that's not such a great alternative...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Happiness, in 3 acts

Here.

More ads that make no sense

Time for another installment of "Ads in the subway that Alex has issues with".

In the last few weeks, I've seen a bunch of ads that have the tagline "Kids with asthma can ... [perform activity X]" and then say something like "Is asthma preventing your child from [performing activity X] ? Talk to your doctor !". Choices of [activity X] are playing, sleeping, learning, and doing sports.

Here's the thing I don't get: is the assumption behind these ads that people whose children have asthma -don't- talk to their doctors about trying to provide their kids with some relief, and need to be encouraged to do so ? Maybe that there is a subset of parents who regard asthma as the inescapable result of Divine Will, and are not aware that it's treatable ? The ads aren't sponsored [at least not directly] by a pharma/biotech company that just happens to make asthma medication; it's underwritten by a bunch of generic "benevolent" organizations. That seems to rule out the profit motive, so I'm left wondering why anybody would roll out such content-free advertising.

Maybe the next ad campaign these folks will come up with will be targeted at people with serious injuries and say something like "Have you just lost a limb and are geysering blood ? If so, you may want to consider consulting a medical professional."

And while we're on the topic of meaningless ads, there was one I saw last year, promoting this lady's candidacy for sheriff, that said "Actions have consequences. Think before you act.", to which the only appropriate response, I think, is "No sh!t, Sherlock".

One thing I will miss about using Boston's subway system is the opportunity it afforded me to be curmudgeonly about it. A friend of mine performs a similar service for the Seattle bus system, with the difference that she likes public transport, so her observations tend to be much more positive than mine. Or maybe that's just because Seattle is superior to Boston in this respect as well, leading to less opportunities to gripe ;-)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Leaving the hallowed halls of academe

I've decided to leave my PhD program and return to Microsoft. A lot of reasons contributed to my decision, but the end result of summing over all of them is that the [certain] downside of staying in school finally outweighed the [mostly uncertain] upside, especially in light of my newly-acquired responsibilities. So, I'm currently trying to pull together a coherent Master's thesis, a task made somewhat difficult by the fact that I've bounced around a lot over my two years here. I think I have enough stuff that sort of fits together get by, though :-) ["Small pieces, loosely joined" ...]

We're heading back to Seattle in pretty short order -- the plan is to be gone from here in about 2 weeks, and I'm slated to start work on November 6th. Christina is very happy about our move and, while I'm bummed that I won't be finishing up the PhD program, I'm definitely also looking forward to being back in a city I like, close to friends and family, and living an "adult" life again. And it doesn't hurt that I'm going back to what promises to be a really cool job, writing code for large-scale distributed systems and working with people I know and like. One bit that I haven't quite figured out yet is what to do about my still-existing interest in biology, but I expect that keeping up somewhat with what's going on through a subscription to Science or Nature will help scratch that particular itch.

Overall, for all my whining and moaning about Boston etc, it's been a good two years, in a variety of ways. I learned a ton of interesting new stuff, met some good people I plan to stay in touch with, and don't have to live with the "If I'd only tried it" specter that would have haunted me if I hadn't taken the plunge and gone to graduate school. Oh, and I'm [hopefully] getting a Master's degree without having racked up any debt ;-)

So, that's that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The coolest labs at MIT

... are clearly the Endy and Knight labs, as this video shows.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Something not to do with your baby

... is described here. The boy has serious pipes, made all the more emphatic when enclosed in the small space of a car. If the volume of his protestations is any measure of his willpower and stubborness, we're in for a world of hurt once he becomes mobile, agile, and hostile, and learns the word "No".