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August 30, 2008

Cyclopath Now In Beta!

It's live! Cyclopath, the project I joined this last summer has just entered its public beta stage. That means anyone can try it out. So go ahead and visit the website here and take a look. If you're not from the Twin Cities you won't get much out of it, but it's still fun to try.

For those of you who forgot or don't know, Cyclopath is a geowiki. The 'geo' part is because it's a map and the 'wiki' part is because anyone can edit it. It's a map for cyclists near the Twin Cities in Minnesota which anyone can edit. It's like Wikipedia and MapQuest (or Google Maps) put together.

So go take a look!

August 27, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 7

What I really like about computers is the people

Sounds strange doesn't it? My research interests have actually changed since I entered grad school. I came in looking to work on artificial intelligence projects. And I'm still interested in Artificial Intelligence, but there is one area of computer science which I am finding that I am much more passionate about.

This area is HCI, Human-Computer Interaction. In the end, computers are really always about people. That's what they were designed for. To help us. So it's not strange to have an area of computer science devoted entirely to finding out how humans interact with computers.

This includes a multitude of areas, some of which are user interface design (we have to know how users to think to design easy-to-use interfaces) and online communities (users interacting socially, but across the internet). When I come to think of it, what I liked about Artificial Intelligence was also the human side (how to make computers think like humans).

Thanks to this PhD experience, I have found an area within computer science which I am really passionate about and really enjoy. And hopefully, I'll be able to share more of what I learn with all of you in the future. This is all I have for this week, but there are many more things I have learned and will keep learning. Feel free to ask any other questions you might have about my experience as a graduate student. Thanks for reading!

August 26, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 6

Multiculturalism Rocks!

One of the downsides of studying in Puerto Rico was that 95% of the students were Puerto Rican. There isn't really a big international presence in Puerto Rico (except maybe for Chinese, by the looks of the amount of Chinese restaurants that exist).

Here in grad school in Minnesota, I get to interact with people from all over the world. I have made friends from China, India, Argentina, Japan, Mexico, and more. I even got to host a student from Japan.

The experiences you can gather and the amount of things you can learn while working with people from different cultures and backgrounds are just immense. It really makes life, and my PhD, more colorful and enjoyable.

August 25, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 5

It is possible to be a married graduate student

It is not only possible, it's great. Especially if your wife is also a graduate student.

Although financially it can be a bit tight, when both are students you can have someone who can relate to your woes and troubles. And even if your spouse is not a student, it is just nice to have some company, since being a grad student can get lonely at times.

In other words, I've learned that my life as a grad student (and my life in general) has been more enjoyable thanks to my wife.

August 24, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 4

Reading Research Papers

One thing I have done more in this year alone than ever before is reading research papers. I have read dozens of research papers on topics such as data mining, human-computer interaction, and even some on psychology. I have learned how to analyze, understand, and even criticize papers.

I have learned that there are actually many bad papers out there. Lots of poorly done research exists. The hard task is finding the good papers. If you do find them, they can really be worth the read. This is where much of the really innovative stuff is at. Most new technologies that you see appearing in the market today probably appeared in research papers that are 10 years old.

In an effort to get some of you interested in research papers, I had a week devoted entirely to HCI research papers (together with comic strips about the topics). Hopefully, I can continue to understand the world of research papers. This is an area where I have learned a lot, but still have a long way to go. Someday, I will even have to write a few myself. So this is one learning experience that I will definitely value.

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 3

Grad students really have to love what they do

Many of my undergraduate classmates went straight to full-time jobs. And I think most of them are probably earning two to three times what I earn as a graduate student. Knowing that, I realize that I have to be really passionate about my PhD area to be crazy enough to pursue it.

Of course, there is some reputation that comes along with completing a PhD degree, but the sacrifices are many. Low income, endless research, and exams, to mention just a few. But when you really love what you do, it's all worth it. I may not earn as much as my contemporaries, but the experience is an invaluable one.

August 22, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 2

Yesterday I talked about how I learned during this last year how much I don't know yet. Today's topic is:

Being on the teaching side

This year I learned what it feels like to teach. I graded, held office hours, was in charge of a lab, and even gave three lectures. It's definitely a different feeling than being a student. It makes you appreciate more what professors and teaching assistants do.

Grading can be especially tiresome. And trying to keep everyone's attention while giving the lecture is a physical impossibility. But when one student writes in the class evaluation that the TA was probably the best he/she ever had, it makes it all worth it.

I may not become a professor after I graduate, but I don't rule out teaching completely. And the group management and oratory skills acquired during this experience (and during the TA I will be doing this next year) will definitely help me in the future. So, being a TA has been one of the best new learning experiences I've had this last year.

August 21, 2008

7 Things I Have Learned As a Grad Student: Day 1

This day, exactly one year ago, my wife and I arrived at Minnesota. Our lives as residents of this cold state and as graduates students began. Today I look back at myself one year ago and boy have things changed. I have had many enriching experiences throughout my first year as a PhD student. And I would like to share some of them with you. So let's get right to it:

I learned how little I really know

I thought I learned a lot as an undergrad. After all, I worked on many class projects and even did a few internships with IBM. Surely I was ready to survive in the real world. And yes, I know that I could have survived. But oh how much I would have missed.

I have learned so much in this past year that I feel like going straight to the workplace would have left me doing something I didn't really like. The first reason is because I actually discovered that there was another area in computers that I was more passionate about (but I'll talk more about that in another post). My research and classes have also taught me a lot: how to design usable interfaces, what HCI is all about, how to work with lots of data (data mining), a few extra programming languages (Javascript, Adobe Flex, LISP - yuck, python, etc.), and more.

While working on Cyclopath, I have also come to realize how inefficient my programming skills really are. I have always thought of myself as a good programmer, capable of adapting to many programming languages and solving complex problems. But I have realized that my coding style really needs a lot of work. I have an excellent project leader who gives me a lot of feedback after every piece of code I submit. The first time, it took me a while to swallow. But now I see it as opportunities to perfect my programming skills.

One of my goals after finsihing my PhD is to start my own project or even company. For that, I believe that efficient coding skills and solid knowledge of computer science is essential. That is why I know this PhD is not a waste of time. This first year alone has taught me how little I really know and how much is left.

August 20, 2008

Was the Empire Really That Evil?

Even if you're not a big fan of Star Wars, this article is a fun read. It argues that the Empire was not as evil as the movies made it seem. It's fun to see people debating about worlds and characters that don't exist (and this goes beyond nerds, I had to read a few essays of this type about Shakespeare's characters). Read "The Case for the Empire" here.

August 17, 2008

Still Here

Quick post to let you all know I'm still here. I have had a busy, but fun, weekend which included canoeing, volleyball, picnics, a big Puerto Rican party, and a lot of biking. Hopefully, I will post again tomorrow. Hope you all had a great weekend! Remember to follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/FernandoPR.

August 14, 2008

The Ugly Bike Shop

Today we set out to find a seat for a used bike we bought recently. At the first bike shop we went to, the clerk recommended an alternative shop were we could find the needed parts for very cheap. It is a shop operated by volunteers with used parts which are mostly donated. The idea is awesome. A very cheap store run by bike enthusiasts which are, by the way, very helpful.

Unfortunately, the execution was poor. The place was very run down. People were smoking and drinking everywhere. Not a family-friendly place for sure. So, although the idea was great and the people helpful, this was not a place where we felt comfortable. And that drove us away.

How many websites have you seen or heard of on the internet where the idea is great, but the execution just leaves you uncomfortable? The navigation is confusing, the design is poor, the ads are offensive. There are countless ways to make a good idea suck.

Many great products out there are just old ideas with great design. So pay attention not only to how good your idea is, but also to how well it is implemented.

August 11, 2008

Google Makes Mistakes

Today, Gmail suffered a pretty big outage. People all around the world were really affected by this, especially those that use Gmail for business purposes too. I was in the middle of sending an email when this happened. The almighty Google made a mistake.

Of course, the king of outages is Twitter. But you know what? People still use Twitter. And people won't stop using Gmail just because of today's outage. Because these are tools that people value.

Think about what you are working on. Is it something people will value? Then don't be afraid to make mistakes.

I was watching Batman Begins today and the phrase that stuck with me was: "Do you know why we fall? So that we learn to pick ourselves up".

Make mistakes. Pick yourself up. Learn from it. Create something of value.

August 8, 2008

Visit Visit the Coqui

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Just to let you know, I did not make an error in this post's title. I'm talking about a blog named Visit the Coqui.

If you're a regular reader of this blog (or of my Twitter feed), you'll know that one of my favorite off-topic topics is Puerto Rico, my home country. I'd love it if everyone visited that tiny little island at least once in their lifetimes. That's where Visit the Coqui comes in. This blog is a great source for anyone planning or even just dreaming of visiting Puerto Rico some day. I sometimes find activities to do in Puerto Rico that I never even knew could be done there.

If you want to know where to start, I recommend this post, which has a collection of some of the top articles in the blog. Go ahead. Take a look. You'll want to book your vacation right now. (Especially after looking at the mouth-watering picture form my last visit to Puerto Rico below.)

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August 5, 2008

5,000 Hits!

Yesterday I got to 5,000 blog visits. That's more than 1,000 visits in the last month alone. Thank you all for reading!

August 3, 2008

Japanese Exchange Student is Here!

The Japanese student that will be staying home for three weeks just arrived yesterday! My wife and I are very excited. For that reason, we may be a bit busier, but we're sure it will be a lot of fun (and I'll keep posting on the blog!). ???も?れ???