Archive for September, 2011

Topology Seminar

September 28 2011

Morten (an IST intern turned into PhD student) asked me to teach him the basics of topology.  I had forgotten that I agreed to this, until he reminded me when I returned to Austria earlier this month.  Filip also expressed interest in learning topology.  So, I set up a seminar so that I can teach him topology in about one month’s time.  When Novi caught wind of this, he signed up as well.  So now, I have 3 students in my topology seminar.

The goal of the seminar is to get them familiar with the fundamental tools that a Topologist uses. I will lecture a little bit, but will use most of the time to work on problems together.  Since Herbert is teaching a Geometry/Topology class in the Spring, I am alleviated from teaching Homology and Persistence.   I decided to start with the basics, in point set topology.  The minimal goal is to get to the fundamental group.  We’ve had two sessions so far and we’ve made it through the first chapter of Munkres’ topology.  At the end of the last seminar, I ended with the definition of a topology (and refused to tell them why the definition allows infinite unions but only finite intersections of open sets).

Tomorrow we’ll take a little bit of a detour from my plans to talk about Category Theory.  The topic came up at the end of the last lecture, so I thought it would be appropriate to introduce it in this class.  We’ll also look at some of the examples of topological spaces  (including the torus of course!)

Hopefully I don’t torture them too much with these seminars, but they asked for it, right?.  (A note to Novi who I know reads this: there will be a quiz tomorrow since I know you didn’t do your reading to catch up).

Computing Hessians in My Sleep

September 23 2011

Herbert and I are working on a paper that will be a good portion of my dissertation.  We want to prove that a particular critical value is a maximum.  Sounds easier than it is, since the function I am looking at is an n-dimensional Gaussian Mixture Model (a sum of Gaussians in high-dimensional space).  After my discussion with Herbert about graduating and finding a post-doc, I decided that I need to finish my dissertation first.  So, I’ve been working extra-hard to finish the result.  Seems like an obvious step, I guess.

After working on this one part of the problem for about a week, I was beginning to think that I should put it aside and start thinking about something else for a little while.  But — last night, Dave called me just as I was on the brink of falling asleep.  I right away ask him “when is e^(-x) = x?”  He was confused, but plotted it and told me that it was around 0.55, which was the answer that I was looking for.  Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to reconstruct my almost-sleeping thoughts, I had Dave send me an email to tell me this.  It took me all day to reconstruct the proof that I thought of in my mind in five minutes, but I believe that the proof is complete now!  Moreover, I convinced Herbert that it is plausible.

Post Ratings

September 21 2011

I’ve added a new feature to my blog: the “Rate this” option at the bottom of every post.  I’m not sure what information I’ll learn from how you rate my posts, but feel free to rate them.  If I find anything interesting, I’ll let you know of course.


September 20 2011

Every day after lunch, we play a game of Tischfußball (table soccer).  Usually, there is a rush for the tables after our meals are complete.  Last week, IST Austria was a little empty, so the usual after-lunch rush to play Tischfußball did not happen.  And one day, I found myself facing Michael one-on-one.  Previously there was such a discrepancy between our skill-levels that he would play with one hand against me.  It was usually the left hand.  Moreover, he would win.  Last week, however, I allowed him to play with both hands.  And guess who won? ME!

So, in conclusion: I am now better at Tischfußball than Michael Kerber.

Mail Call

September 18 2011

Going through the mail is one thing that needs to be taken care of on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, that is a difficult thing to do if you live in a different country than your mailing address.  Fortunately for me, Dave allows me to forward my mail to him (I recently learned that I can forward the mail to Europe, but there is a significant delay in getting that mail … it’s probably not worth it).  This summer, Dave was in Pittsburgh.  So, yesterday we just finished going through my mail from the Summer!

The logistics of going through my mail remotely are rather interesting.  For items that Dave is used to dealing with for me, I usually get an email saying “I am going to shred these things and save those things” to which I usually reply “ok.”  With so much mail, we couldn’t do that this time.  So, we talked through it over Skype.  Dave showed me the wedding invite for Jen & Greg’s wedding (which was in August) and for Dave & Lesley‘s wedding (which is in November).  He told me that my name was sent to a debt collector for a medical bill of $9.12 which we had actually paid.  He wasn’t too happy about that, and neither was I.  And, he reminded me that Macy’s refused to give me a credit card “because my debt to income ratio was too high.”  Grrr!  My credit is fine, the only problem is that the numbers don’t look good when you owe >$100K on a house and you are earning a graduate student stipend (which allows you exactly enough to eat and have a roof over your head, and to purchase an occasional new shirt).  Oh well, I guess I won’t be applying for any more credit cards any time soon.

One night he put all of my mail on his bed when he was sorting it.  During this process, he got tired and was going to go to bed … then he realized that he couldn’t because my mail had taken over the bed!  Sorry, Dave.

So, this post is dedicated to Dave, who goes through all of my mail for me.  Thank you, Mister David!  🙂

Dave on Skype

Dave shows me mail over Skype

Job Market

September 17 2011

I’m officially on the job market.  It seems funny, as I am still working on my dissertation, but it had to happen sometime.  I guess it gives me motivation to solve this seemingly impossible problem that I am currently working on.

As I said in a previous post, I started by updating my website and my CV.  That process took a little longer than I expected, but I needed to update it before emailing people.  So far, I have emailed one professor at CMU and found out that he does not have funding for a post-doc.  I’m sending an email to another professor at CMU soon.  I know one of his previous students (or, rather, Dave knows one of his previous students), so maybe I will have better luck with this professor.

I am looking for jobs in the Pittsburgh area, since Dave already has a job there.  I am looking for an interesting job somewhere in the Pittsburgh area, perhaps I’ll find a post-doc or a teaching position somewhere.  If you have any suggestions for where to apply, please let me know.

I also started looking for funding opportunities.  They seem to not be in favor for people in my position.  Since I will graduate in less than a year, I am not eligible for grad student fellowships, and since I do not yet have my PhD, I am not eligible for most post-doc -fellowships.  And, the fellowships that I can apply to require me to know who I will be working with and what I will be working on … if only I knew that!

Post 100

September 14 2011

After I published my last post, I noticed that it was post #99.  The next one (this post), being the 100th post is certainly a milestone in my blogging.  (I don’t really think of myself as a blogger, but I guess that I am … hmm.)  So, I was thinking for the past few days “what can I post about on my 100th post?”  Today, I received an email from my uncle and I immediately knew that the subject would be appropriate — 11 September 2001.

The email my uncle sent me was a prayer chain.  It was entitled “Meet Me in the Stairwell”, and it made me think.  My thoughts are what I will share in this post.  First, the email began with powerful pictures of September 11th.  Looking at these pictures, I realized that in 2001, I did not understand the impact of the events that happened on that tragic day.  The world trade centers were absolutely enormous.  The actions of many were nothing short of heroic.  The fact that this could happen at all was terrifying.  But, let’s continue with the letter:

You say you will never forget where you were when
you heard the news On September 11, 2001.
Neither will I.

Where was I on the morning of September 11?  I was in class, at the Mount. Specifically, I was in math class.  The announcement was made very solemnly shortly after the first plane hit.  Then, as the day unfolded, we were kept abreast of the events.  After the first block, we had a homeroom session.  We didn’t do our usual announcements in this session.  Instead, we watched the TV coverage of the attacks for 15 minutes.  I knew that was a tremendous blow to the US, but perhaps what happened in AP History class formed my opinion of how to handle the day.  As soon as we walked into class, the teacher acknowledged what had happened that morning.  Then he said something along the lines, “but, we can’t discuss that now.  AP History must go on.”  And, he started just where he left off at the end of the last class.  Looking back, his words have had a profound impact on me.  When things go wrong, I often say to myself “well, life goes on.  Get over it, Brit.”  However, this attitude caused me to be baffled when I found one of my friends crying at lunch.  She knew no one who lived in New York (nor has been there herself), but she had mourned the loss of the people who died just as though she knew them personally.  With my opinion shaped by the words of by my AP History teacher, our reactions to the day could not have been more different as I did not let it affect me emotionally.

I was on the 110th floor in a smoke filled room
with a man who called his wife to say ‘Good-Bye.’ I
held his fingers steady as he dialed. I gave him the
peace to say, ‘Honey, I am not going to make it, but it
is OK..I am ready to go.’

When I read this, I first thought it was a survivor talking.  I quickly realized the “I” in the story is God.  But, it started me thinking — what floor was the highest floor to have survivors escape after the attacks?  Certainly, 110 was too high.  After looking around the internet for a while, I found a USA Today article that gave amazing statistics about the collapse of the towers in NYC.  The 92nd floor of the north tower had survivors.  That astonishes me.  It is tiring to go down 92 flights of stairs, yet alone to do it knowing (but probably not yet comprehending) that something tragic just happened.  Perhaps the adrenaline kicks in and you do it autonomously.  I think of how long fire-drills take in the buildings I am used to, with maximum 6 floors.  The evacuation of the WTC was at such a bigger scale, that I cannot even begin to comprehend it.

The poem goes on, and I will forward it to you if you’d like.  But, the beginning of it was what had the most powerful impact on me.

Ten years later, the attacks on 11 September 2001 are more realistic to me than they were in 2001.  Inside my high school, we were protected from the terrorists.  We were able to watch the devastating footage behind the protection of many miles allowed by the TV broadcast.  In the past ten years, I’ve moved out of the shelter of my parent’s house (and heck, even my own house).  I’ve known people who were robbed (and even kidnapped) from the streets that I have walked on.  I’ve been followed at airports (don’t worry, I went straight to the police!) and I’ve lost some of the most important people to me (Poppy, Poppop, and Nanny).  I now know personally that tragic things can happen to me.  Experiencing these things has helped me to understand how terrifying the terrorist attacks really were.

If you want, let me know where you were when you heard the news on 11 September 2001.



September 12 2011

I just finished updating my weekend project: updating my website.  If you have any comments/suggestions, please let me know!  I will be sending out emails shortly (hopefully this week) looking for post-doc positions.  🙂

While doing this, I came across two websites that were helpful for me.  First, the Color Palette Generator takes the URL of an image and gives you the color palette that matches it.  The second website was the Color Schemer.  If you give it a color, then it gives you a potential color scheme for you to use.


September 11 2011
My knuckle turned red after one of the spines was stuck in my skin.

Aftermath of Washing a Kaktusfeige

Yesterday, I went to the Naschmarkt.  At the fruit stands, I kept seeing a colorful fruit, the Kaktusfeige=cactus fig.  It looked like a cactus, so I wondered if that was just in the name or it was the fruit of a cactus, so I decided to buy a basket.  When I got home, I washed them because one had been bruised in the transport and had leaked juices.  When doing this, one of my fingers started to hurt.  It turns out that it was a tiny cactus spine that had lodged itself into my skin on my knuckle.  When my other knuckle touched the one with the cactus spine in it, it hurt like a splinter or a bee sting.  So, I carefully removed the almost invisible spine from my skin.  The picture to the right shows my knuckle after this happened.  It’s a little red.  During this painful experience, I realized that Kaktusfeige is a prickly pear.  I’ve had the juices from the prickly pear before (in drinks) but never the fruit.

Kaktusfeige = Prickly Pear

The Kaktusfeige

I went back to my office and worked on updating my website as I was chatting with Amit online.  I told him about my purchase and he convinced me to taste it.  But first, I looked up how to eat a prickly pear.  I was entertained by the fact that steps one and explained how to pick a ripe Kaktusfeige from the cactus, and frightened by the fact that step 2 says to use thick leather gloves and step four said to use duck tape to remove any spines from your hands (and I had no duck tape at hand).  When discussing my concerns with Amit, he said “You are faced with the most interesting problems.”  This one, I suppose, is my own fault, as I bought a fruit with the name cactus in it.  How could I not expect it to be prickly?
Kaktusfeige Skinned

Results of Attempting to Peel the Prickly Pear

After washing the Kaktusfeige (which resulted in more spines in my hands), the next step was to peel the fruit.  I took out the peeler and realized that it was not sharp enough for the tough skin of this fruit.  So, I massacred the fruit with the vegetable peeler.  Then I cut the Kaktusfeige into cubes … or, cube-ish pieces, and took my first bite.  It was pretty good, but there were way too many seeds to enjoy it as a fruit.  Perhaps I will use my lemon juicer to extract the prickly pear juices and make myself a nice drink.
First Bite

First Bite

The Seeds

The Seeds


September 7 2011

Occasionally, I get an email from a company asking if I want to work for them, either as a software engineer, an intern, or some other technical position.  A month ago, I received one that actually infuriated me (I’ve replaced the company name with Some Company, but if you want to know who it is, just ask me)

Hi Brittany!

I came across your profile while looking for rockstar engineers and was wondering if you would be interested in SWE internships or new grad positions we have here at Some Company. I know my coworker, Some Name, contacted you ealier but for some strange reason, you haven’t replied. WHY? Our headquarters is located in sunny Some City, CA so relocation is required. For someone with your talent, I am not sure why you are not in silicon valley already. Here is your chance!

If you are interested, I would like to you take a stab at a programming puzzle.

If you successfully solve the puzzle, you can automatically move to a technical phone interview with an engineer here at Some Company. It doesn’t hurt to try, right? After all, this could potentially be your dream job…

The puzzle invitation will expire in 7 days. Also, the puzzle is timed so once you start, you cannot stop.

Do you want to accept this CHALLENGE?

Let me know when you are available to work on it and I’ll send you an invite. Make sure you reply with your email address you want me to send the invite.

P.S. I know I know. It takes a lot of time to reply to headhunters (or nice sourcers like me) all day. It’s not my fault you are such a rockstar. Go ahead..point your cursor over the reply button and click. A simple yes or no would suffice.

I know that it is ridiculous to be infuriated by such a letter.  But, I will try to explain to you why:  First, the use of the words “rockstar” and “dream job” makes me take this email less seriously. In fact, this person sounds like a stereotypical sorority girl or valley girl (is there a difference? lol).

In this email, they offer me a programming puzzle.  If I choose to accept this challenge, I can then move on to a phone interview.  If they heard of me from someone or read my CV, they would know that I am not a programmer.  So, offering me a “programming puzzle” is not really enticing.  Second, it is probably not a challenge.  If it is like any problem I’ve heard about from them and similar companies, it is a problem that takes some insight to solve, but is not really a true challenge, yet alone a CHALLENGE.  (I might not have had issue with the word challenge if it were not all capitalized).

The statement that bothers me the most in this email is: “For someone with your talent, I am not sure why you are not in silicon valley already.”  Now, this is a very cocky statement.  Why do they assume that everyone with talent needs to be living in silicon valley?

Although I’ve never received an email from Some Name, I am living up to their expectations by not replying to this email.  Perhaps I am giving up my dream job without really trying, but I doubt it.  Curiosity might get the better half of me one day though.  I expect that if I am bored on a cold day in Austria, I will email them to find out what the puzzle is.

Oh, I almost forgot to include the subject of the email: “FW: Hola from Some Company”  Really?  Is that supposed to look professional?