there’s been an earthquake: the train will continue in a few minutes

I was one stop from getting off BART yesterday, underground, between the Ashby and Berkeley stops when the train suddenly lurched to a halt. After a minute the conductor got on the PA and said, “the train is stopped because there was an earthquake.” Not the most reassuring thing to hear. But, since she used the past-tense, and I wasn’t dead, I figured it was probably safe to go back to reading my book. It turned out that the earthquake was actually 200 miles or so away, and they just stopped the trains as a precaution. Still an interesting experience.

On my way from Soda to a friend’s house in Berkeley, we passed by first a fire truck, then a person lying in the street on a stretcher being tended to by several paramedics, then a woman sobbing, then a car with a smashed windshield. It was surreal, because we were there before a crowd had gathered, so just right in the middle of our conversation, these things just surfaced my perception. Kind of messes with you.

I’m off school today, trying to cover more ground on my various projects and helping Leslie with a few errands she’s getting done while not teaching school. And I’ve just begun drinking beer.

slicing and hooking

Relaxing weekend – Star Wars: a New Hope on Friday night, Saturday night some great steaks, and Sunday I went golfing–yes golfing with Phil and a few of his friends. It was an interesting experience. I alternated hitting the ball with inexplicable accuracy and total incompetence. Still, it was fun–not a sport I’m going to take up any time soon, I don’t think. Too slow.

I spent most of the day on Saturday coding my first programming assignment for my splines class. It’s not very exciting, but it’s a start. I’ll probably post the code on overt once the due date is passed. The rest of Saturday I wrestled with Makefiles and dependencies trying to get SLIDE to build correctly on Mac OS X. Made quite a bit of progress, but I still have a ways to go.

I’m now reading Claude Shannon’s really old and really important paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” for my classic papers class. The man may have been a brilliant information theorist, but I can’t say much for his prose.

squishing bunny rabbits

What a week.

On Wednesday I finally got to talk to James O’Brien, the last of the graphics profs at Berkeley who piqued my interest. It’s always a little weird going into these situations. I try to get out of the way quickly that I have an EE background, an EE degree, and that I was admitted as an EE student specializing in networks. Then I get to tell them about how now what I really want to do is graphics. You’d be surprised how well this usually turns out. I love Berkeley!

Anyway, James seemed leery but was willing to give me a shot. He set me up with a project that he described as “straight-forward.” Basically, I’m supposed to take this paper from this year’s SIGGRAPH and merge it with this paper. Clearly a piece of cake! Just extend Poisson-based triangular mesh editing to tetrahedral meshes, then project the tetrahedral mesh back onto a polygon soup to model deformations! What could be simpler?

I’m a little terrified, but also very excited. This is really a chance to sink my teeth into a project and impress someone. I’m not sure how it’ll go, but I’m definitely going to do my best to succeed. To restate what I’m actually doing in terms that mean something: Any random thing is hard to smoosh. But nice round things are easy to smoosh. So, take a random thing, cover it in goo so it’s round, smoosh the goo, then take it away to reveal the smooshed random thing. Simple. See?

tractor smoosh

Should be fun. In other news, I’m trying to teach myself MATLAB so that I can do a little project for my splines class, and I’m also still working on SLIDE for Carlo. I’m busy. It feels like my mind is really expanding again, for the first time since I left UT. I love it.

it rained.

On Sunday. It was beautiful. If only it were possible to time my visits back to Texas such that I could be sure to catch a thunderstorm. I miss them most of all.

I dropped a class–too much time spent on problem sets. I really have grown lazy in my old age. Still, I’m hoping to pick up another independent research project before too long to fill in the gap. For now, I’ve got plenty to keep me entertained with my one real class, my one real research project, and my seminar. I found the main library stacks today. They’re amazing. The bookshelves are on tracks, and you have to slide them around to squeeze into the actual shelf you’re interested in. So many books. Still need to investigate DVDs.

1515 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709

Monday was a triple feature, and the finale was C├ęsar, a tapas bar on Shattuck next to Chez Panisse. Very nice atmosphere for a bar; the music was not too loud and as always in cali, no smokers! We went with the intent of getting some strawberries and cream, but I guess they are already out of season, so we had to settle for some chocolate pudding which was so think and rich it was almost like fudge. But somehow, it managed not to be heavy. It was covered on top with fresh whipped cream. I had a sour cherry soda to drink which was absolutely delicious. Definitely a nice place to chill out after some other activity. I’m not a big fan of tapas for meals because it would cost me about $100 to get full. But in this case, it was the perfect fit.

berkeley food #9: truly mediterranean

1984 Shattuck St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 540-9997

Another winner here. I had dinner there on Monday with Stefani–it wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that I rememered in time to write a fair impression. The interior of the place is pretty plain, with maybe 20 tables and a few booths. It does have an open kitchen, which I always find encouraging. It was pretty empty when we went in around 9, so the service was fast. The staff is very helpful and attentive (I’m no expert at this kind of food). We started with some “arabic tea with mint” that was delicious. I’m not sure what kind of tea it was but it came with several fresh mint leaves floating in it that I let infuse until I was done drinking it–very soothing. I had sabanekh (lamb and spinach stew) with saffroned rice on the side, and Stef had roasted chicken. Previously I’ve had roasted lamb, falafels, dolmas, hummus, baba,
tabouleh, cucumber salad, and kanafeh for dessert, which is sort of a spin on baklavah.

It’s all been very tasty. Fresh, hot, and convincing enough to fool a neophyte like me into believing it’s “truly” mediterranean. I’ve already been back to this place twice, and I can see the pattern continuing. Cheap, fast, filling, friendly.

berkeley food #8: kurry klub

1700 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 849-4983

Jackpot! Monday lunch was had with Jen, a third-year Berkeley undergrad who knows plenty of good places. We were going to go to Cheesboard Pizza, which she claims is her favorite place in town, but they’re closed on Mondays, so we decided on Kurry Klub instead on the way back to campus. It’s a little Indian place, as you’ve guessed, and it has very nice interior of carved wood with all-wood tables and carved chairs. The have a $7 lunch buffet, and it is incredible! I spent most of my time putting korma over basmati rice, but I also tried some chicken curry and paneer. It was all wonderful, served with naan and accompanied by a very attentive staff who kept our glasses full of water. The korma was my favorite–creamy but not too heavy. The curry was also great: spicy but manageable (I mellowed it out with some yogurt). For those of you from Austin, I would compare the quality of this buffet to the Clay Pit–it’s that good. I’ll definitely be frequenting this place.

oh yeah… homework

School really got cooking this past week with plenty o’ problem sets to be done. I really had forgotten just how much harder it was being a student than working my full-time job at Apple. I’m sure there are plenty of jobs out there that work you to death, but I realize now that I never worked as little as 40 hours a week as an undergrad, and I never worked more when I was at Apple. I’ve been basically lazy since I graduated, about 1.5 years ago. My brain is rusty, my work-ethic, everything.

But I’m glad my ass is getting kicked. That horrible, terminal feeling of sameness that pervaded my job just isn’t present. Every semester, reset to some new classes, a new schedule, new people. Clear progress toward a clear goal. I know I can’t go on like this forever, but I’ll take those five more years, thanks. Then maybe I’ll finally venture out into a world where the metrics of success aren’t so clear. But for now, I’m happy to settle for another problem set in the bank.


berkeley: the first week

What a week. I’ll start with my first impressions of Berkeley from the point of view of a student. Big. Diverse. Liberal, and proud of it. Saddled with a huge bureaucracy, just like UT. But the bureaucracy seems porous, just like at UT. Full of good restaurants–see the previous n posts. Hilly–enough to wear you out compared to UT, even though the campus seems much smaller. Full of great professors and great classes, hidden in a giant course catalog, begging for me to find them. Nestled against hills on one side and a beautiful, funky town on the other, all over looking the bay and within spitting distance of San Francisco. It really is heaven on earth.

I didn’t actually have any classes to go to on Monday, but I did have a research group meeting to attend in the afternoon, so I hopped on the train. I spent the morning making use of my hastily-purchased climbing gym membership and climbed pretty much alone for a few hours. Then I went over to Berkeley to find a place for lunch–a tale told in detail below. My primary concern on Monday was the fact that we are all, as new grad students at Berkeley, expected to find advisors by the end of our first year. For some reason, this made me feel like I had approximately 2 days to get the matter mostly in hand, and I began to frantically research professors’ web pages, lists of current grad students, research interests, &c. I then wrote emails to several of them, asking to meet and talk or something. This sort of felt like the equivalent of cold-calling someone and trying to sell them life insurance they didn’t need. You see, I was admitted to Berkeley because of my prowess in networks, but I wasn’t emailing networks professors–I was emailing graphics professors. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere, and introducing myself seemed like a step in the right direction.

Finding an advisor under any circumstances is a strange sort of dance. You want them, because they pay for your graduate education out of their grants, and ostensibly guide you and mold you from being a student to being a peer. They want you because, ultimately, good students are what make a school (and a professor) good. But it’s (almost) always a one-to-one pairing, and in that sense it’s a lot like choosing someone to marry. You want to pick the best possible person, since you’re stuck in a monogamous relationship with them for the next four or five years. But before the monogamy is the time where you date… hopefully with a lot of different professors, to build confidence that you’ve chosen well. Professors might see it more as the building of a harem, since they can collect several students (some times as many as 10 or more), all working for them, as long as they feel like they can handle them all. Needless to say, I find the prospect of all of this kind of daunting, especially since I have no credentials, really, to be adopted by a graphics professor.

So it was this state of mind that drove my feverish reading and emailing. At the end of the day I went to a research meeting of one professor I’d spoken to at the visit day, who’d expressed some interest in working with me. The research he does is mostly related to medical applications of computer graphics. In particular, he works on mathematical models of the human eye, as well as modeling the affects of different diseases on vision, like amblyopia (which I have). I’m going to keep going to the meetings and I’m also going to try to help out to see how I like the stuff.

Tuesday was the first day I had any classes. What was supposed to happen was this: 9:30-11, I take an upper division CS class with 150 undergrads (I signed up for the class to fill inadequacies of my undergrad education, during which I neglected to get a CS degree). 11-12: Judo. 12-1: Tae-kwon-do. 2:30-4: Splines. 4:30-6: Seminar on classic CS papers. Great. If any of you knew me as an undergrad, you’ll know that I was usually pretty on top of scheduling, prerequisite chains, professors and whatnot, and pretty much stuck with my schedule once I set it up. On Tuesday morning I discovered just how glorious being a grad student can be. I got to my 9:30 class a few minutes early (I thought). I ended up waiting around outside the giant lecture hall for about 10 minutes before we all filed in. I then waited until about 9:42 until the professor actually said something. I remember thinking to myself, “this guy’s pretty lax about time…” I looked around me. Huge quantities of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergrads. I asked the guy next to me if he was an undergrad, and he said, “uh, yeah, this is like the first upper-division class that most undergrads take.” Warning #1. Still, I thought the syllabus of the class looked worthwhile, so I waited to hear what the professor would do. He began describing the class, purely in administrative terms. Which TAs (of the 5!) were for which discussion sections, where homework would be turned in, when the tests would be, whether this or that was allowed. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Warning #2. I suddenly realized that I had been in this class before about 1000 times as an undergrad and I had no desire to do it again. Quite rudely, I stood up in the middle of the auditorium while the prof’s back was turned and shuffled out.

Strike one for my schedule. I crouched in a corner with my trusty iBook formulating a plan of action. I looked through other classes on the schedule to see if any fit into my idyllic T-TH only schedule. A graduate course on quantum computing. Starts at 10:30. Alright, sure. I show up at 10:30, to an empty room, and pull out my laptop again to try to sort through what exactly the graduate class requirements are. The trouble is they are so flexible as to be almost non-existent. Please take 6 classes or so, maybe some in EE/CS, for your master’s. Oh and later could you take like 3 or 4 more for the Ph.D.? Thanks! That pretty much sums it up. Around 10:40 the prof and seven or so other students for the class showed up. At that very moment, I thought I read something in the course requirements that indicated that the class wouldn’t count toward anything, so I promptly stood up and walked out on the beginning of yet another class.

Strike 2! I went back to the hallway and noticed that the successor of the undergrad class I’d walked out of was scheduled at the same time and had only 30 students in it. Okay, I thought, and walked into it at about 10:45. At last, a class that seemed to fit. Undergrad, but advanced. Small, just one TA, no projects. Later in the morning. Beautiful. I had done something impossible as an undergrad (at UT, at least)–just decided that one class was a waste of my time and promoted myself along the chain. And no one cares! I can take whatever I like! Bwahaha! I love this game. And one other mystery was solved–at about noon, nervous that I was going to be late for my next class, I leaned over and asked the girl next to me if they didn’t give you time to get from class to class here. She said at Berkeley, instead of ending 10 minutes early, they start 10 minute late. And since you might have a lunch date scheduled after a class, what this actually means is that everything happens late. And just like everywhere else that people are chronically late, they name it after themselves as though they were the first to do it: “Berkeley Time.”

Strike 3 for my schedule was having to drop Judo because it overlapped with the new CS class. But I dutifully showed up for tae-kwon-do at noon+10. I sat through the usual lecture about not using fighting to attack, the years of practice that were required before using it for self-defense, blah, blah. I started to get a little irritated by the sixth-degree black belt instructor and wondered whether I would have the stamina to dash all the way across campus and change in 10 minutes. About 1:50 I decided the answer was no, and walked out. Ashtanga rules you all, I thought. Strike 4.

The rest of the day actually did go according to plan. I posted my schedule here. I ended up at the equivalent of the co-op at the end of the day, tucked in among all the textbooks, communing with my brother on the travails of being a first-year grad. In all, a good day.

Wednesday I stayed home. Since I don’t have anything to take me to campus on Wednesday and Friday, I think I’ll be doing a lot of this. Just stay at home, work, run errands. It’s pretty sweet.

Thursday was less eventful than Tuesday, except I got to talk with another graphics prof: Carlo Sequin. I asked to talk with him because I found his art and had to talk to him. My favorite:

Volution 5 by Carlo Sequin

I’m going to be working with him on a system to improve modeling of abstract surfaces for art–a sort of getting-to-know-you project. Should be fun.

So it seems I’m more or less a grad student now. I even made it to some classes this year, so maybe I’ll stay.