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January was a Month of Adjusting

18304270_78188350a8.jpgThe lovely Janelle has been visiting, so I’ve been neglecting the ol’ blog in favour of spending my free time doing things with her, like eating calf brains at Boneta (verdict: delicious) and watching Project Runway (verdict: hell of a lot better than I expected). But she’s in the spare room sewing and listening to Kevin Smith’s podcast at the moment, so I thought I’d give my as-promised report on how the thesis is going.

It’s been an interesting transition back to full-time PhD-dom. While working, I was much more focussed on productivity than creativity, meaning I went to Yaletown around 9 every morning and left around 6 or 7 every night, and worked on mostly fairly-immediate new features and bug fixes. When I did research, it was to find the solution to a problem, not to investigate something novel. While perhaps not entirely “creatively fulfilling”, I do get a lot of satisfaction just from the feeling of accomplishing and producing something pretty much every day.

The grad student lifestyle is a big a shift from that. For one thing, it’s a lot less structured. I am still working with Worio a couple of days a week, which forces me to manage my time a bit, but I generally work at different places and different times and decide day-to-day what needs to be done. This is not great for short-term productivity, but I find it very important for creativity. As an academic researcher in Machine Learning, there’s not usually a lot of payoff in incremental improvements and fixes — you need to take more chances and do something new. Which is why I spent a chunk of January working on a conference paper that ended up not being submitted. Most of the rest, I spent reading a couple of books and a stack of papers, some of which were interesting and some of which weren’t. I’m much more of an applied-science guy than a theorist, and much more of a doer than a reader, so the upshot is that I sometimes have to force myself to sit down and do the reading instead of diving in and doing the coding and experiments. But I think it paid off. I literally had one of those in-the-shower moments, where you have to get out of the shower, grab a notebook and write down a multi-page detailed description of your idea, complete with sketches of figures. It all felt very scientist-y. If it works, this is a publication and a chapter of my thesis. If it doesn’t, it’s a big chunk of lost time. I’ll know in a few weeks.