At the beginning of the month, I returned to Hacker School for a second residency with them. My first residency there had been over the summer, and I'd visited twice during that "batch" (as they call them) -- once close to the beginning of the batch in mid-June and once close to the end, in early August.1 I'd loved doing it that way, but unfortunately, this fall I couldn't really justify being away at Hacker School twice, so I signed up to go only once, during the first week of December. Excitingly, Alex was also part of the HS residency program this time, and so we got to go to New York together.2
The first week of December was supposed to have been a perfect time for me to be out of town at Hacker School, since my thesis proposal presentation was supposed to have been over with by then. As it turned out, though, my original proposal date of November 21 had to be pushed back because my advisor asked me to work on a mid-November paper submission instead. Then, due to a combination of factors including Thanksgiving, Hacker School, and my committee members' various other commitments, the only day and time at which we could all be present for my proposal was December 6 at the decidedly uncivilized time of 8:30 in the morning. So, the plan became that Alex and I would fly to New York, spend four intense days in residence at Hacker School, and then fly home late on the night of the 5th, at which point I'd grab a few hours of sleep before getting up early, going to campus, and giving my presentation. What could possibly go wrong?
Shortly after we left for New York, our house back in Bloomington was burglarized. Our good friend Rebecca had been coming by the house every day to look after our cats, and she was the one to discover that someone had broken in by smashing a glass panel in our back door. They took a laptop, our TV, our PS3, various video games and movies, a couple of guitars, and a bass guitar, and left some other things broken or in disarray in their hurry to leave.
When we found out about the burglary, we were at a diner in Manhattan, catching up with our local friend Brett (whose art you might like) and relaxing after a long first day at Hacker School, which had culminated in Alex giving a talk to a room full of enthusiastic and inquisitive students about NLP, statistical machine translation, and his work on Guampa. Rebecca was incredibly apologetic about interrupting our trip with bad news. She'd already called the police, and they had swabbed the door for DNA samples; over the phone, we tried to help them make a list of what was missing. Thankfully, Rebecca and the cats were fine, despite there being broken glass all over the kitchen floor and a broken lamp in the living room.
We don't think that anything the thieves took was irreplaceable, and most of it wasn't even particularly valuable. We hadn't even used the guitars in a long time, and certainly none of them were nice guitars. In fact, the thieves may have done us a favor by relieving us of the burden of moving them when we graduate and skip town. The laptop they took was a cast-off old one of Alex's that I had been using as a replacement for an ailing desktop machine; I didn't lose any data, because the only important stuff I had on there was in remote repositories. I'm sure some of the stuff they didn't take was more valuable than what they took -- they didn't take any desktop computers, or our bikes, or either of my keyboards. So I'm not mourning the loss of the stuff itself, just the loss of the illusion that our stuff is safe in our locked house.
I didn't tell anyone at HS about the burglary, since, after all, there wasn't anything they could do about it and I didn't want them to worry. I didn't want to think about the burglary myself, either, since aside from talking with Hacker School students and working on various projects with them, I still had to worry about my thesis proposal presentation. I had to bail out of some social engagements to work on it, and I even hid in the corner to work on it once during Hacker School when I should have been meeting with students.
I'd tried to get it done before leaving Bloomington, I really had! But it took a surprisingly long time to figure out how to frame the talk. Presenting things exactly as they are in the proposal document would have made the talk long, dry, and boring; but on the other hand, if I gave a flashy conference-style talk, I thought it would come across as empty marketing-speak.3 It wasn't until halfway through the week at Hacker School that I found what seemed like a reasonable middle ground.
We headed for the airport right after Hacker School ended on Thursday night the 5th, and during the flight home, I worked furiously on my rapidly-running-out-of-battery laptop to finish my slides and notes. Our plane landed in Indianapolis on schedule, at 11:40pm -- in a snowstorm. This was the last straw. As we trudged across the economy parking lot through blowing snow to our ice-encrusted car, with a long drive ahead of us, a burglarized house to deal with after that, and still more work to do on my talk, I yelled to Alex, "This is ridiculous! Let's just move to Mountain View right now!"
We had to run the heater for about half an hour to de-ice the windshield to the point where we could see. During this time, I used my last few minutes of battery to tether to my phone and send a reminder to my committee that I'd see them the following morning at 8:30. It was now past midnight.
Alex started driving. The roads were terrible. I had expected things to be better once we got on the interstate, but they really weren't -- the plows hadn't been out yet. We couldn't see the road very well, and everyone was inching precariously along at 25 or 30 miles per hour, except for the occasional maniac who would roar by in the next lane, and I use the term "lane" very loosely. Every so often, we'd see a wreck on what we presumed to be the side of the road. I looked at the hour-by-hour weather forecast on my phone: every hour for the next 18 hours said "snow". Actually, that's not quite right; some of them said "heavy snow".
Since I couldn't do any work on my dead laptop, it would have made sense for me to try to sleep on the trip home, but the drive was so nerve-wracking that sleep was out of the question. A drive that normally takes an hour took over two, but Alex got us home at 2:30 a.m., rattled but safe, and we finally saw for ourselves the damage the burglars had done. I took a hot shower to settle my nerves, slept for a few hours, got up at 6 a.m. to finish up my talk, had it ready to go by 7:30, made myself presentable, sent my committee an email urging them to be safe getting to campus in the still-raging storm, set off for campus on foot, and, for once in my life, arrived early for something.
My talk went well in spite of the following snags:
- I didn't have the VGA adapter for my laptop! Rookie mistake! I always have that thing with me. Thankfully, my advisor had one.
- My advisor was ten minutes late due to snow.
- Another committee member was fifteen minutes late due to snow, but gets points for having semi-successfully cycled to campus in the storm. Figuring out which committee member I'm talking about is left as an exercise for the reader. (I didn't start my presentation until everyone had arrived, of course.)
Anyway, I passed, and my committee seems enthusiastic about the work I've done so far and the plan I've outlined to finish the remaining bits and defend next September. Hooray!
Right after my proposal, my advisor asked me to do one of the things I'd just proposed doing that afternoon. I did not do that. I spent the rest of the day -- and, indeed, a large part of the weekend and the following week -- sleeping, cleaning up messes the thieves left, and looking at Twitter, and I can't say I feel too bad about those choices. I've also been applying for postdocs4 -- and, of course, taking care of our cat before and after his emergency kidney stone surgery on Wednesday. Poor little dude. He's home from the vet now, with stitches down his middle, a new diet, and, for the next two weeks, an impressive array of medications that we occasionally manage to actually get down his throat. We also spoke with the police again. Finally, as of yesterday, we have a new back door, this one without any glass panels in it. I think the lack of glass makes the kitchen darker, or maybe the problem is just that it's December 15.
For those of you who know Alex, you probably know that he hasn't made any secret of how tired he is of being here at IU and how eager he is to leave. For the most part, I haven't shared that feeling; I'm in the lucky situation of liking my research group and my general grad school situation a lot, and I feel more or less at home at IU and in Bloomington despite their imperfections. But in the last few weeks, a combination of things -- having my proposal accepted; having our house broken into; having a few colleagues I really like announce that they're leaving; and the cold and the dark and the snow -- have made me eager to finish and get out of here. Let's get this done.
- The fact that I managed to go to New York twice for my summer residency was made possible in no small part by the generosity of my friend Aarthi, who put me up in her apartment during both visits, saving me hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
- As academics who study different things, Alex and I have to spend a lot of time traveling apart, and that shit wears on you. I like to have alone time, but I still want to be able to curl up with Alex at night. So it might surprise you to learn that, when Alex first asked me how I'd feel about it if he were a Hacker School resident along with me, I balked at the idea. It boiled down to me not wanting people at HS to think that I was there because I was tagging along with him, rather than because I was independently interested in HS. Happily, I don't think anyone actually thought that -- probably because Hacker Schoolers know better, but also because, since we do study different things and students' interests vary widely, the two of us ended up working with largely disjoint groups of students while we were there. So I'm really glad I got over my original hesitation, not only because I think Hacker School was better off for having had Alex around, but because he and I now have something else to add to our catalog of shared experiences, something that will provide food for thought for the rest of our lives, and because now, having seen it for himself, Alex really gets what Hacker School is about and why I like it so much.
- Thesis proposal talks are strange. Unlike other talks, where the goal is usually to interest people in, say, reading your paper or hiring you, for a thesis proposal your audience is people who have (hopefully!) already read your proposal, and who have already agreed to work with you, at least insofar as having agreed to be on your committee. Moreover, unlike other kinds of talks, which you might give plenty of and attend plenty more of during your career, you're probably only going to give one thesis proposal talk, and you probably won't have seen any others before you do! (I saw one once -- Will Byrd's -- but his was a special case; his proposal was only two months before his defense, which, according to folklore, led to the establishment of a departmental policy that proposals and defenses had to be at least six months apart.)
- I'm looking for a postdoc or other research-flavored job to start sometime after I defend next fall. Happily, Alex is on track to defend right around the same time. (In fact, he beat me to the proposal by three months.) Please let me know if you think there are opportunities about which we should be aware.