Scrabble in Purley

For Mother’s day I went with Alice to her mother’s house in Purley, North Carolina. Purley is a rural area, and out there in the country the first thing I noticed was that the cricket noise didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular – it was just ambient. It was nice. What was also nice was the abundance of green fields, as pictured below, and the general simplicity of life out in Purley, where most residents seemed to be retired and very little was going on at any given time. Purley is a nice place to cool down when one tires of the big city life.


Below are Alice’s family. They factor into this story only to the extent that they participated in a game of Scrabble.  This game of scrabble turned out to be very interesting indeed.


Sandy, on the left, is very good at Scrabble. He denies it categorically, but his score by the middle of the game made the truth clear. Here is part of the Scrabble board near the end of the game:


If you look near the center of this image, you will see a word “welp.” Those of you skilled in the ways of spelling will note that, in fact, “welp” should be spelled “whelp.” I did not notice this word when Alice played it much earlier in the game, or I would never have allowed it, but once a word is on the board, there’s no contesting it. By this point in the game, I had narrowly been able to get back in the lead past Sandy with “movie” on a triple word score with an “i” on the double letter score for thirty-three points. Sandy was poised to pull back into first by adding a single letter to the partially obscured “treat” to make it “treats” while simultaneously making “welp” into “welps”

This is where Sandy’s plan fell apart. Unfortunately for him, although I had not been paying enough attention to stop Alice from playing “welp” in the first place, I could stop him from modifying this nonexistent word to make another nonexistent word “welps.” So I did. Sandy lost his turn, and I won the game.


What’s Next?


Now that I’ve completed my written qualifier, also known as a written preliminary exam, there are two official hurdles left to earn my PhD. These are my oral preliminary exam and finally my dissertation. The oral preliminary exam, much like the written preliminary exam, is a bit of a misnomer. Each exam contains both oral and written components.

The written preliminary exam, the one I just passed, is referred to as such because it used to be more like a conventional test that confirmed that  a given student knew all there was to know in the fields immediately surrounding their own. So since I’m focusing on machine learning, I would have to know everything there is to know about all the various machine learning techniques as well as many other similar artificial intelligence techniques such as planning. Thank goodness, it is now assumed that one has a working knowledge of computer science from one’s undergraduate degree, so the written prelim is designed to gauge the extent to which a student will be able to write well enough to submit to a conference and present well enough not to make a fool of his or her advisor, department, and school at said conference. I meet these requirements.

Next I will move onto the oral preliminary exam, for which a more descriptive title would be the “dissertation proposal.” In this exam, I write a paper where I explain what I intend to do for my dissertation and write up a defense of why this is appropriately ambitious but also within my reach. I choose a small committee of professors who judge me in another defense much like my qualifying exam, except more demanding. This exam is not a simple pass/fail, though. Instead professors critique the proposal and say what they will want to be different in order for them to be satisfied when this work is presented to them again as a dissertation.

Finally, some say the dissertation is actually the easiest part because the requirements are clearly defined in the oral preliminary exam. Just do what you said you would and how can your committee (the same committee as before) do anything but pass you? So long as you were not overly ambitious in your proposal, it’s basically just writing a very, very long paper and then defending it in another defense.

So, that’s the overall arc of the rest of my PhD career, but it’s important to note that I won’t be doing it right away. In the meantime I build systems, do research, and publish papers. Papers are a big part of how folks will measure my success, so that’s priority one right now.

My Written Qualifier

Sam Qualifier

Well, I’m qualified. I’m not a masters, yet. I still need to dot some “i”s and cross some “t”s for that. Boy, was it a ride, though. Let me give you some of the highlights.

I started writing my qualifier maybe a year ago, and turned it in six months ago. For four months, my advisor was so busy that he was not able to look at it at all, then when he did he effectively said “hey, wow, this looks pretty good as-is!”

I prepared for my presentation for weeks. I practiced maybe five times leading up to my qualifying exam. When I arranged to get my committee, both of my committee members were pregnant. One a woman directly pregnant, another a man part of a pregnant couple. The man, it turned out, was unable to attend when his wife delivered early, so I was informed he would be replaced by another professor. This professor was well-known for asking very hard, technical questions only tangentially related to one’s presentation matter.

What’s more, I had a bad cold. The day before the exam my cold got so bad that I was worried that I might not be able to think/speak for what I expected to be the hardest presentation of my life thus far.  I hesitantly contacted the director of graduate programs, who shrugged and said “just reschedule, It’s fine.”

A week later, I finally did take my exam. By this time I had recovered and practiced five more times, roping in my girlfriend to be my presentation as well as exercise coach. I gave her a couple pages of tangential questions to ask at inopportune times, and after the first few times watching my presentations she came up with her own confusing, irrelevant questions. Just kidding, honey, they were good questions.

The morning of I donned my blazer and dress pants – conveniently matching to look like a suit – and my orange creamsicle undershirt –  and walked to my presentation room. The first thing we noticed when my advisor and the committee member who had nearly been replaced with the scary committee member arrived was that the other member was not there yet. Her still being very pregnant, we all wondered if we would need to reschedule again. Fortunately she arrived.

After so much build-up, my presentation was smooth, and none of the questions gave me any trouble. At the end, one committee member apologized ahead of time for asking a very “mean question,” and then posed  one that would certainly have thrown me. Fortunately, I had been asked that same question in one of my dozen practice presentations, and I rattled the answer off like it was nothing.

Afterwards, my advisor said the committee members were very impressed, then he said it again an hour later. The next day he brought it up in front of some other folks in my lab. He said that I prepared one standard deviation more than the average PhD student, and it showed.

My Personal Trainer

That time I climbed mount Iwate

Now that she’s been sick and nearly bedridden for two months, my girlfriend Alice is at about the same level of physical fitness as I am. This makes for an interesting opportunity – while she trains herself back into shape, I can train alongside and get into shape for the first time. So far, things are progressing nicely. I suspect that even recovering from a debilitating disease, Alice is still finding she has to go easy on me, but that’s not much of a surprise.

Currently our plan is to exercise for twenty minutes each time she visits, which is frequently. We’ve just started recently, so we’ve only had two workouts. The first workout we used a Wii game in which you perform various exercises that are measured by Wiimote instruments strapped to your body. I thought that I had mine in the right position, and when I squatted as the game asked me to my on-screen character squatted, but the game still didn’t register it. So, I did about five or six squats for each one registered, and then I squatted over and over again twelve or thirteen times with no response on the part of the system. Fortunately, we were on our second run-through (the first did not have this issue) so eventually we turned off the system and called it a day.

Nevertheless, my quadriceps are quite sore. When I’m in a state like this, I feel that I can begin to empathize with the plight of the arthritic. I walk stiffly, fall rather than sit into chairs and couches, and approach stairs with suspicion and distrust. I dare say I haven’t been this sore since that time I climbed Mount Iwate.


Sam and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Paper

This poor cat expected more from me than this awful paper. It also represents my reaction to the price of a stock photo of an “F” written on a piece of paper in red ink.

Apologies to Judith Viorst.

This is the story of a paper with no good results. I took a system I hadn’t made, tested it on a dataset that was only half-finished, and ended up with data that said things, but not very impressive things, and not very convincingly. These results had no business being in a paper, but I really wanted to submit something to an upcoming workshop – Building Educational Applications using Natural Language Processing (BEA). Workshops are generally known for being easy to get into, but BEA is different. Some of the most able professors I know have had papers rejected from this workshop.

My results were so bad that I was convinced it would be an insult even to ask people to review any paper I wrote on it. I hesitated to send my paper to someone who had volunteered to read it for fear I was wasting her valuable time. I confided in my roommate, who prefers to be referred to as J, and he said that even if I don’t expect the paper to be accepted, it’s important to make submissions and that early in my career people won’t be offended to look at ones that might be less than amazing. So, still feeling selfish and awful every step of the way for making people deal with such mediocre work, I wrote the paper as well as I possibly could and submitted it.

Last Thursday I got a response from BEA. The reviews focused mostly on the same issues that I had been concerned about myself. They were generally positive, though, and I was invited to give a poster presentation. I hope that this story helps anyone else who may feel that he or she doesn’t have a really great result be more confident in making a paper submission. It’s often worth it.

Radical Interpretation

First off, I would never buy a t-shirt like this. I don’t think jokes belong on t-shirts. If something is going to be on your body to be read over and over and over again by everyone you meet, it should be something weightier than a snarky one-liner. Nevertheless, this particular snarky one-liner is a good lead-in to this blog entry.

I do correct grammar on-the-fly in my head. I don’t do it any more when people are speaking to me, but if I’m reading an academic paper, especially one that hasn’t been written or proofread by a native English speaker, I often used to find myself getting upset with awkward phrasings and missing words. Now instead I will read the sentence, correct any particularly displeasing issues in a sort of pre-conscious part of my mind, and then and only then let myself really start to parse the sentence.

It recently occurred to me that I could apply a similar tactic to larger issues. For instance, as any literary scholar will tell you, a work of fiction is a cooperative endeavor between author and reader. The author’s statements provide a skeleton that the reader fleshes out with his or her own experiences and understanding. Two different readers can often get very different understandings of the same book, especially if it’s a good book, or the Good Book, for a famous example.

The world is already littered with different interpretations of the Bible, so I’ll discuss something else here. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” comes to mind. “The Hobbit” is a story of an entire race of lazy, middle-class short folks who don’t like to wear shoes, one of whom happens to go on an adventure. At many points in his adventure, our hobbit friend runs into various different beings: dwarves, elves, eagles nothing at all like the eagles we know, “wizards,” which I suspect may be a species unto themselves, and men, all of whom have their own goals and intentions and are mostly just trying to make their way in life, being neither stalwart servants of good nor nasty, hideous embodiments of evil.

Our hobbit, Bilbo, also meets some other beings who the omniscient narrator himself describes as “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted …[creatures that] make no beautiful things.” This he says of the entire race of goblins.

Never trust a goblin. They’re wicked and bad-hearted and make no beautiful things.

Not one goblin can be kind or good, just as no goblin can ever make anything that is, in some abstract absolute sense, beautiful. Needless to say, I don’t like to imagine a world in my head based on racist blanket statements.

So, what can I, as the reader, do? I suppose I could stop reading, but altogether I’m relatively happy with “The Hobbit,” so I won’t do that. Instead I will draw upon my ability as the reader to interpret the story as I like. My interpretation of this story is that the “omniscient” narrator is in fact a human speaking many years later to us, the readers. This narrator is a flawed narrator, who relates the story according to his human biases, being raised by other humans whose ancestors no doubt went to war with these very same goblins. Since the goblins are no longer around to defend themselves, it makes perfect sense that they would become exaggerated and vilified in the many retellings of the story over so many years.

If you’re thinking right now that there’s no way J.R.R. Tolkien meant for his story to be taken as being told by an unreliable narrator, then you’re right. However, I might reiterate that as a reader, I can make whatever interpretation I want. If you find you’re reading something that makes you upset, remember that no author can force you to believe something you don’t want to. Let your imagination run free!

If you’re intrigued by the idea of alternative interpretations of J.R.R Tolkien’s work, you may like to read the English translation of “The Last Ringbearer” that tells the entire story of the Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s side. This is an even more radical interpretation than mine of “the Hobbit.” It goes so far as to claim that orcs aren’t a different race at all, just a slur that Tolkien uses to describe foreigners. I haven’t given it a read myself just yet, but it’s freely available online, so if you get to it before me, let me know what you thought!


Last week I was in Indianapolis at a conference:  Learning Analytics and Knowledge. This was the first conference at which I gave a presentation, and it went pretty well. It was difficult to tell how I was doing as I was giving the presentation – there’s not much audience reaction to a research presentation for the most part, it turns out. However, I put my twitter handle at the top of the first slide of my presentation, and I got some nice comments.  I also had a number of people talk to me afterwards about various issues surrounding the topic of elementary school short answer assessment, which was a good sign.

Besides presenting, I had a number of interesting experiences in Indianapolis. While I was at the conference, a keynote speaker showed off the “Fish-ix” tutor, finally linking the two very different disciplines of science education and talking fish.  Outside the conference, I got to enjoy the attractions of Indianapolis. I got locked out of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and was warned not to enter the Indiana State Museum with the explanation that in the 45 minutes before closing I would not be able to get my money’s worth.

Outside the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument I went to a soda shop that collects sodas from around the world. This excited me because I had heard of a drink called “Leninade.”

When I asked the cashier, she said “sure, we have Lennonade,” and showed me this bottle.

John Lemonade

“No, no no,” I said, “I’m looking for Vladimir Leninade.”

“Oh, we don’t have that, the cashier said,” but we do have a long line of other dictatorades.  She pointed me to the cooler where they kept a variety of interesting sodas.

This was no substitute for Leninade, so I decided not to get a soda at all. I kept looking around at the different kinds, though, and my eyes landed on the unusual flavors section.IMG_20140325_195144945[1]

This was where my troubles began. You see that “Sweet Corn” soda there? The cashier insisted that everyone who tried it loved it so much they came back again and again for it. I enjoyed the story, but was not yet moved to try the soda myself.

As we were returning to the register, I asked the cashier to recommend Leninade to whoever stocked the shelves. She told me, “you can ask him yourself if you want,” and gestured behind me to a man in a gray-and-black beard. “Hi, I’m the manager,” he said. I  asked him about Leninade and he brought me to his “long line of dictatorades.” At this point I figured he wasn’t going to get the message, so I asked him about the strange flavors.

Without missing a beat, the manager  began singing the praises of the sweet corn soda. “This soda is extremely popular because it tastes exactly like sweet corn.” That swayed me.  I purchased the soda, popped off the cap on a wall-mounted bottle-opener, and took a swig. Fortunately, I managed not to spit it up immediately. To this day I cannot describe what it was I was drinking or the exact nature of my revulsion towards it, but I do know that the look on my face was enough to horrify the manager.

The manager apologized profusely and insisted that I take another soda of my choice free of charge. At first I refused his offer, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so rather than try another strange flavor I got a sarsparilla, which was nice. It tasted like an alternative cola recipe.


It's about whatever I say it's about