Go with a smile!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Taking Stock

One by one, I see that people are involved in all kinds of funky adventures, and it’s quite liberating and inspiring.

I used to live in my own little world, reading a lot of books, probably far beyond the point where they would be useful. If I were honest, I would say that all that acquisition of general knowledge should have stopped around the time I was 30. I was reaching the point of diminishing returns. But that was OK. I started late (say – 22?), and therefore I probably should have ended late. A lot of “normal” bookworms start off when they’re 15 or something.

Yes, I had this ambition to finish a marathon. Or, let’s put it this way. The ambition to finish a marathon lasted around one year. I started training up to run a half marathon because Shingot and I saw a few people from our workplace completing marathons. Then he asked around for people to finish marathons. I ended up running a half marathon. Some other people didn’t do that, not because they didn’t have the perseverance that I had, but because they had better things to do with their lives, and I didn’t. So I had all this time and energy to spare, and I went out and did it.

So I went out to finish a half marathon, and I did it. I turned to my jogging partner and we agreed to go one step further and do the full marathon. Until I did it, and even after the first 40 kilometers, I wasn’t assured of my success. I probably ran more miles that year than I did in my entire fulltime NS days, although I must add that I spent half of those years as a clerk. So my ambition to run a marathon lasted for 1 year, from the time I completed my half marathon, to the time I actually crossed the finishing line of my marathon. After that, I knew that running another marathon would not be feasible. I’ve not even run 10K at one go for 3 years already.

In a way, I probably know that I had checked off one item on my bucket list, and it would no longer be necessary to go back and revisit it. Another one is to prove myself as a playwright. It is very difficult for me to assume that I’ll ever revisit it, so I’ll have to check that one off and assume that I wouldn’t be going back to that any time soon.

After that, it was time for my next “small project”, which was to get myself admitted into university to do a master’s in computer science. That was a partial success. Partial because if I knew then what I know now, I would not have done it the way that I did it. It’s always a chicken and egg problem. Now that I am in the uni, I know best what I should have done while I was working. What skills I should have picked up during those years, in order to maximize my learning during my years that the university. But if I didn’t come here, it would have been a little more difficult for me to learn just what it was I should have learnt. So it’s a chicken and egg problem.

During those years, I had two other smaller projects. One of them was caring for my grandmother. I’m a little ashamed to say that I had neglected her health issues for around three years. As it turned out, I helped look after her for around three more years, and after that, she died. She died when I left Singapore, exactly as I had feared. If I didn’t leave, she would have lived a little longer, but in the condition that she was in, living a little longer is of dubious benefit.

The other project was catching up with the music that had sprouted up in the last few years when I stopped buying CDs. There was an incredible amount of music to catch up with. It all started when Sembawang Music Centre, where I had spent a great deal of my teenage days, closed down. There was a fire sale, and I went in to grab everything that I could. I probably should be ashamed of myself, but I’ve bought more than 1000 CDs since, from Cash Converters when I was in Singapore, and from eBay when I was in the USA. No regrets – since letting them go for a pretty decent price afterwards was always an option for a great number of those CDs. The other thing was - I had a hunch that CDs were about to disappear as a medium, and now was the time when a lot of people were flooding the market with it - so much so that a second hand CD purchased off eBay is actually cheaper than downloading stuff off iTunes. So why pay for downloads?

Basically, I had three big objectives in my life at that point (other than my real day job of course). They were, that master’s degree, getting hitched and being a rock star – or at least proper indie musician.

Being hitched – there was that very brief episode with teapot. She’s married now, I heard. I don’t know if anything would have resulted beyond the 4+ weeks I spent trying to go after her. We’re not 100% compatible, that much I can tell. She wouldn’t have made a horrible girlfriend. Her current estimated potential (CEP) would have been “short term / steady”. Codfish’s was “steady” – I’ve never been convinced she was wife material, and subsequent events in her life have not changed my mind. Water Girl, the one I stalked, I found out about more about her. I’m kicking myself over the time I wasted on her. Her CEP was “crush”. Nothing more. She’s not dumb but she’s definitely not intellectually oriented. We would have lost patience with each other. Cat woman, she’s “short term”. In fact it was more like she was looking for someone than I was attracted to her. I later went through her facebook feed and found a lot more emotional baggage than I deemed acceptable in a girl. That would have been a little tough for a person if I had a strong emotional attachment to her. Without that, it was simply a deal-breaker. So even though she’s a nice person, she’ll have to be just a friend.

No, I’ve not met anybody with a CEP of “wife”. Most probably that would take place long after we’ve dated. Dating is for you to update somebody’s CEP from “short term” to “steady” and then to “wife”.

And I’ve not been swept away by a torrent of emotion or anything like that since codfish. My MBTI type is INTP. INTPs are the least emotional people of the 16 types. Einstein was an INTP. He was not unsuccessful with women, but it was pretty clear he didn’t care that much for them either. I have a few friends that I believe are INTPs, and quite a few of them do not have girlfriends.

I’ve not been able to look for people in Mexico. There’s too much to do. I probably should have done my dating when I had a steady job. So I’ll put that off for now. The other project I had for a while was being an indie musician. Now that’s something I have a shot at being successful at. I’ve written music that I’m not ashamed of. I’ve stockpiled around 50 songs, although – due to other commitments, progress has been slow. When I was 7, I used to draw staves. I pretended that I was writing a symphony. Of course, that symphony was never started, let alone completed. I wrote my first song at 8 – it was a homework assignment. Yes, I was in a special class for talented musicians. One of my classmates is directing a choir in NYC. Another one released stuff, performed in public, became a model, etc. She’s known for other stuff than being a musician. A third one, I’ve lost touch with him but I heard that his sister became a professional arranger / musician. A fourth ended up in Snowy Hill as an assistant professor and probably left, but what a fantastic achievement!

Later on, I got my grade 8. After that, I started listening to a lot of rock and alternative music as a teenager. I stockpiled so much music that my parents were begging me to stop. They can’t stop me now, haha. I spent way too much time downloading music in my college dorm in Snowy Hill – that’s the thing I regret. I tried to form a band in Snowy Hill. There was this nice American guy and I jammed with him a few times. But then I told myself, I came to Snowy Hill to study, not play music, so I stopped.

What did happen in Snowy Hill was that I wrote a few songs. That was a significant discovery because those were my first proper songs, not the childish shit I wrote at 8, not really knowing what I was doing. I did take one course on digital music, and for a final concert, I received a standing ovation, even though I hardly turned up for class. That was a very nice gesture, and after something like that happens, I’m afraid you must consider the possibility that you’re really a musician.

Two years ago, I stopped by and auditioned for a few places in a band. But because I was preparing for my postgraduate degree 2 years ago, I had to stop. I probably should make use of the time that I’m in the USA to research on musical equipment but there’s not a lot of time to do a hell of a lot of things. I started writing another blog a few weeks ago, penning down my thoughts about the art of songwriting, but the viewership on that one has been so low that I’m tempted to not continue until / unless I become more famous. For the purpose of keeping my real life identity separate from this blog, I will not be linking to that blog. Sorry.

Right now, I’m doing the one thing, out of the three (the master’s degree) that is incompatible with the other two (getting hitched and music). It’s not a terribly happy situation. But it’s out of necessity. I had, with a fair amount of difficulty, begged three people to write letters on my behalf. I had pored through enough textbooks to bluff my way through a computer science subject test GRE. And of course, I had written the standard GRE. I had bullshitted my way through my personal statements. Getting admitted into a postgraduate degree in computer science is no joke. In contrast, getting admitted into Snowy Hill at undergraduate level was a breeze (1 in 3, but that was a long time ago). Getting admitted into the local uni for a master’s in computer science, you had a 1 in 4 chance. For University of Mexico, the figure was 1 in 10. And if you were talking about the top universities like Stanford / Berkeley / MIT / Carnegie Mellon, it was more like 1 in 30. (I tried but failed to get into a few of the top universities).

I had gone to the local university and studied part time for one semester. It was pretty hellish, frankly, and I don’t think I got a decent amount of work done. To make matters worse, a colleague left and blew a gigantic hole in our department, and I had to scramble to put together the pieces, and at the same time pave the way for my own departure. Then I got accepted to Mexico and I’m here. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with a master’s in CS, but since I got in, I might as well come here and expand my horizons (and CD collection). As it turns out, the story was the same with Snowy Hill – this is not the end of a learning journey, but the beginning. I’ve learnt a lot, but there’s so much more to learn. Yes, I may be a good composer, a good scientist and maybe even a good playwright, but as an engineer, I find that I’m only above average. Well, one can’t be good at everything I suppose. I made myself a long list of things to do this summer and I only managed to do a few of them.

I’ve visited four major cities when I was here. The hiking here is good, but unlike my sis I’m not an outdoor person. I even managed to go snowboarding in the hills. I found four or five used CD shops in the area. I’ve relearnt how to cook.

My current university is not one of those top few universities. I think only those that I mentioned would be truly strong at AI, since AI is such a difficult subject. Anyway, learning about computer architecture actually gave me some insights that I could really use in other engineering projects. I took a course in algorithms merely to satisfy requirements, but I could have opted out of it to save time. I would have learnt something interesting in computer programming, but I think merely being able to use Java would have been more than good enough for me. I built and trained a neural network but it didn’t do what it was supposed to do: it was only good for making sure I didn’t fail a course. I learnt about Bayesian networks, and that was really exciting, but nobody really knows how to put it to good use, and anyway in their rawest form, Bayesian networks scale really badly. I learnt a lot of data mining tools from the local university, but the thing about the local uni is that they like to cram you with a lot of knowledge, and you can always name drop a lot of things and show that you’re very clever, but there’s not very much real insight, unless you’re willing to go much further. Still, it’s very good to be aware of all sorts of tools that are lying around.

There was one hellish semester when I had to implement various machine learning algorithms. It was painful, but I learnt cool stuff like conditional random fields, Viterbi, forward-backwards, log linear learning. And I was forced to learn LaTeX so that I could type my stuff up. I was exposed to concentration inequalities and a lot of chim graph theory stuff that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. I don’t really know what I took away from that course, other than the idea that randomized algorithms were really cool. I was forced to learn Java so that I could use some of the packages out there to build a parser. I had to learn how to use a compiler to build a data query engine that could query XML. I took an undergraduate course in operating systems and regretted it – I didn’t have time to do it properly and got the first grade I received that was truly disappointing. But at least I learnt all the basic stuff like demand paging and semaphores and shit like that.

What I really wanted to learn was natural language processing, and I finally got to take a course a few months back when it got available. Boy, was that tough. In effect, it was more a course on probability in human languages than natural language processing. There were all sorts of models with all sorts of Bayesian models attached to it. Eventually for that final project, I opted to do something related to the power law for words in the human language, which was something that I had read about in a popular science book a few years back. Inexplicably my paper was good enough to earn me a decent grade.

I had passed up the opportunity to learn about Haskell and programming languages. I had been tempted to take the course about software engineering but after taking the first lesson and finding out that the professor had set the bar so fucking high, I decided not to take it, which was a great decision since I know now what a pain in the ass the rest of my courses would prove to be.

During this summer, I promised myself to learn more about computers. Not a lot of progress, until I discovered coursera and udacity. If only they had been available earlier, I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much! I went through all the lectures in natural language processing, and it lifted the mystery on a lot of stuff my professor was mumbling about. I’m currently a quarter of the way through the “software as a service” / software engineering course. I’m also learning web programming. I’m going through the UML book. All the same time, I’m appointed as a teaching assistant and bullshitting my way through a summer session computer architecture course.

And then – what happens to all the things I wanted to learn? When am I going to learn HTML? When am I going to learn CSS? JavaScript? PHP? Python? Apache? Subversion? MySQL? Ruby on Rails? Drupal? There’s never enough fucking time! I should have learnt all this shit before coming!

The funny thing is, all that might not even be enough to earn me a job. If I find work in the US, anyway, it’ll only be for a year or two and then after that I’m home. I don’t think I can set up here. I don’t know how on earth my sister manages it, but in case there’s any doubt about it, yes, there is another person out there who’s even more awesome than myself. Most likely what will happen is that I might even go back to the old job and see how I can shake up that place with my newfound knowledge. In the meantime, Nat has left the old job and gone back to his old decadent lifestyle in Russia. Another colleague has also left and gone to work in the embassy of some Latin American country (he had been learning Spanish).

One big thing stands in my way of graduation, and that is to cobble together either a project or a thesis. I don’t know how I’ll manage it, and frankly, with half a year left to go, I’m getting quite jittery. But we’ll see. The problem is, I haven’t completely let go of my old hobbies. I’m still reading about politics a little too much. There was a period of time when it seemed that Singapore was having one controversy after another. (Thankfully I’ve stopped – maybe I just had to do enough of it to get sick of it.)

If and when I get this degree, I will have to think of my next step. Yes, one thing that this CS degree has repeatedly drilled into my head is this: you must always take the first step, even when you don’t know what you are doing. Because the first step will always reveal to you what the second, third or fourth step is going to be. You don’t always know what you’re going to do, but the first step is there to remove some of that mystery for you. It is pretty unfortunate but it is possible that I will never ever get to play with natural language processing ever again, barring some miracle. That is a rotten shame! I’ll never realize my ambition to build another HAL!

But what I can do with this degree is that I can use my newfound skills to do something. More than one person (and my father) has already asked me if I’m going to do a startup. Gee, I’m not a computer guy. I’m only here because I’m so good at bluffing my way through things. I don’t have a business plan. I don’t even know how to set up my website, but chances are, I’ll learn that sooner or later. I have a plan to set up a new initiative back at my old workplace, but the disillusioned people who have left that place have recoiled in shock and horror at that plan.

So when the time comes to strike off “earn a master’s degree in computer science” from my bucket list, it will immediately be replaced by two items, “find work in IT” and “make plans for a startup”. At the same time, I will have to sift through all the books I had collected over the years and see which ones I can sell ASAP, since I won’t be sticking around to read all that shit.

Finding a business plan is unfortunately not something that comes easily to me. I’m not an avid consumer of things (with one or two important exceptions). I don’t readily understand what the average consumer wants. Music? I’ll never make a living through music, regardless of how talented I think I am. Perhaps the only thing I really understand is sifting through data. Even then – why should big companies hand all their data over to an external company, when they can hire their own people to sift through it? Maybe my only hope is to provide engineering support for people who want to do startups.

When I look at what people are doing on my Facebook feeds, I see that one of them is an IT program manager. One of them is running a chain of cake shops. One of them is a proprietor for a fashion boutique, and from the looks of it, living the high life, hobnobbing with fashion models and designers. I don’t care for fashion, obviously, but good for him! Another person was not even good enough to go to JC, but he’s now a veteran of a few start-ups. Those who are managing people usually put up the occasional inspirational message. Good for them. I see vice principals.

Commanding officers. VPs of companies. Professors. I think it will take a long while for me to reach those heights in my career, if ever. But I don’t begrudge them that, I have to live life at my own pace. As it is, I have a shit load of work ahead of me.


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