Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Birthday Jesus!


I hope everyone is spending some quality time with family, and figuring out what life is all about.

I suggest everyone takes a moment to take a step back and just enjoy life. Don't worry about the little things... don't even worry about the big things. Just look around and see that life is awesome.

Merry Christmas!

(I am guessing a sweet Southern California post is coming, but we are having too much fun for me to stop and write one now...)

Friday, December 17, 2010

La Jolla (pronounced with a "J" not an "H")

Haha... sort of sounds like a Christmas town.

I am currently sitting in the dining room of the Dembinski household, waiting for everyone to get up. I am still on east coast time.

As to the rest of my family having to work up until today, I decided to come visit Holly for a few days, then meet up with my kin in The OC.

We have had a great time so far, very relaxing, and very fun. Wednesday night Holly made a wonderful pot roast. Yesterday we ventured off to Balboa Park, walked around for a bit, checked out the science museum (would have like to have lingered there for a while, very fun.

I think today is going to be spent putting up their Christmas tree!

I hope you all enjoy my reflections. Let me know if I need to write a "Part the 6th" or an appendix :) To the Hogle Clan: Who is ready?

Part the 1st: Introduction

As has already been stated, I am done with my first semester in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Professional Masters program at Carnegie Mellon. The following are some musings, some reflections, some stories, and some thoughts about the past 5 months that I have been in Pittsburgh, figuring out life. It should be noted that there is not going to be that much interesting stuff, so if this is the first thing you read on this here blog, I suggest reading something else first… like the Mad Hatter Post :)

I am going to try to break this down in to different sections as to segment interest, and make it a little more readable. If you just want the summary and the highlights… go to the end.

Part 2: Friends
Part 3: Pittsburgh
Part 4: Carnegie Mellon
Part 5: Summary

Seeing as I am sitting in the PIT airport right now, at 7:05 AM, after being gratefully driven by Gwyn, I think a natural place to start is my reflections on Friends.

Part the 2nd: Friends

As many of you know I am a very social person (in a weird way), and rely on my friends greatly. This is an interesting part about myself that I didn’t fully realize until late in to college. As many of my high school friends can attest (Im looking at you Drew…) I was very reserved, and rather anti-social. Even in to my freshman year at GU, I really only was friends with those immediately around me (or those people Alex knew...). As my life at GU progressed, I grew very close to a rather tight knit group of truly awesome people. These people were my everyday support; they were the people I spent all of my time with. These are the people I am going to start with.

It is amazing how the lack of someone’s presence can affect you more than them being around. But most of you know this; we have all dealt with this. We have all gotten rather comfortable and secure with a group of people, and then for whatever reason had to move on. This feeling was like a slap in the face for me in the Tri cities. There this concept was solidified. I was in a desert, and not just a literal one. Jamie and Alana can attest that I was rather sad; looking back I am grateful for technologies like Skype and cell phones, and my ability to visit Colorado, and Kansas, and Palo Alto. I missed, and I still do miss James’ serenades, Alana’s continuous awkward moments, debriefing the day will Bill as we cooked dinner, Jake’s random harassments, Dannica’s matronly presence (In a good way Dannica!!), and Jamie’s laughter. All of the things that made college awesome. All of the people who I love.

Being here in Pittsburgh, this affection is not gone. I still greatly miss my GU compadres, and I am super excited to see them all in the near future. I would say we were all very grateful for things like Bill and Dannica’s wedding, a time for all of us to come together. There has already been talk of the next gathering, something about a boat cruse… I don’t know. Jamie is in charge. My friends in college had a great effect on who I am. They were able to show me things about this world and about myself that I will not easily forget. And now being in this far away place, we continue to hold these friendships with Skype chats, more phone calls, and lots of typing. I just wish Bill would get on Skype more often!

So coming here to Pittsburgh, I was ready and aware of the struggles in making new friends. You may have noticed that my actions have been foreign to the high school aged me. At one point, Jeff commented as to my interactions at the YadGrad kick off barbeque in September, that he was thankful that I tried to interact with everyone there. When he said this, I was surprised, that is not something I do… I almost asked him what he meant. Then I realized that I did in fact try to communicate with everyone there. This still surprises me. Apparently I changed somewhere. In general the YadGrad group has allowed me to surround myself with good and very interesting people. The spectrum spans recent college graduates who are struggling to find a place in life, to Pittsburghers who are well established, both in their profession and life in general. There are grad students (obviously) and there are professionals; Artists to lawyers to Bio chemists to museum curators.
 There is a YadGrad list-serve that most people are a part of, which provides for a perfect avenue for communication. In the past year (other than Jeff) I have been the leading contributor to the list. You have heard about most of the events, things like the 5th of November night, and the failed attempts at culture. I am grateful for the YadGrad’s willingness to adventure, for their acceptance of random activities. There have been some great activities, and there are a load of plans for this next year (Pi day, Pancake day… you know… the usual). In other areas, and I have already mentioned this, Jeff has asked me to lead a series of Movie viewings that are going to look at the embedded spiritual messages in rather secular films. I am really excited about this. It is going to be awesome!

At school, I have also found some awesome people to surround myself with. Through many weekends working on Machine Learning, I have gotten to know Mitch and Cassidy, wonderful people. And many an hour has been spent sitting in the Wean hall cluster with Skanda; most of the time working on Computational Photography… but sometimes just shooting the breeze or playing silly flash games. Conversations with Skanda are always interesting, he is an Indian native, however he grew up in Oman;  two things that I previously knew nothing about. The cultural learning has been great. Also the fact that Skanda has been at CMU for 5 years helps with knowledge of the school, I am just now labeling him my official CMU tour guide.
Ah, to quell any rumors, and to inform my grandmother and some of my aunts who would ask otherwise: Nope, there is no ‘special girl.’ I learned in the Tri Cities that given a set amount of time in a certain place, it is a poor choice to enter a relationship that you know is going to end. I have taken this to heart here. And to be honest, it is a relief, I just don’t worry about that sort of thing, and so far it has not been an issue. On a separate, but very related note, my mother and sister forbid such action any way…

Looking back on my time here in Pittsburgh so far, it has been interesting to see the contrast between when I moved to the Tri Cities and moving here. I am grateful, and miss the friends I made in the Tri; however, the diversity and depth of friendships I have already made here is encouraging. So to those of you I miss: Alex, Drew, Ryan, Chris, Darren, Jessie, Holly, Jamie, Alana, Bill, Dannica, James, Jake, Ben, Brian, Alan, Kirsten, Bethany, Joe, Ted, Natalie, thank you for supporting me, thanks for the fun adventures, thanks for making me who I am. And, don’t worry, I look forward to many more trips, and visits. And for those of you who I have met here: Mitch, Cassidy, Skanda, Ricardo, Joe, Randy, Jeff, Matt, Lexi, Gwyn, Tracey, Sam, Andrew, Bart, Jackie, Jessica, Mike and Mike, Luke, thanks for accepting this weird guy who talks way too much about Spokane (apparently we say It funny) and who is far too excited about the little things, you all should be stoked about what is in store for next year. Now that I know what you are up for, be prepared.

Part the 3rd: Pittsburgh (PGH)

As for this interesting city, The City of Bridges, the City of Champions, a city full of yinzers, I am glad I am here. From living in Spokane, I always wanted to try out a big city. Just to see what it is like. Granted, Pittsburgh is more like a giant collection of neighborhoods, and no one actually lives downtown (or dahntahn if you are from here…), I still have enjoyed the urban atmosphere. I love that I can walk wherever or take the bus. I love people watching here, it is great! There is such a diverse population. I am growing accustomed to the local fare (even though I am stoked about getting some decent Mexican, thank goodness I am flying to San Diego!). I am even figuring out how to get around in my car without my trusty GPS. This city has a lot of history (like most do…), and a very diverse history.

But the interesting thing to me is how passionate people are about their city. “Luv ya Black and Gold” is plastered everywhere, On game day, grocery stores are ghost towns. And you may think: “Yeah, but that is just people being excited about their team…” Nope. The Stillers, the Bucks and the Pens are more than just sports teams to this city, they are part of the Pittsburgh identity. To wear a Steelers shirt is to support Pittsburgh, and vice versa. This passion goes down to the very neighborhood you live in. Being around Jeff (who is not from Pittsburgh, but embraces the love for the city) and Gwyn (who does bleed Black and Gold) I have come to appreciate this. Most recently they were discussing how the location of the bar where you celebrate your birthday says a lot about what you think of yourself. It was a long conversation, but some of the highlights include: If you are in a bar in the strip it means that you are a Pittsburgh Lifer, your dad, and most likely your grandpa sat at the very same bar on their 22nd birthday. If you are in Shadyside, you are just trying to relive your college days. If you are on the south side you are trying to be cool and hip… and for Jeff young. If you are partying in Oakland, there is something wrong with you.  I have heard people say: “No I couldn’t live there, I would not fit in. I am more of a Highland park, or Squirrel Hill (pronounced Skerrl, light k sound instead of q, and drop the ‘el’ sound)  person.” Not that I have beaten this point to death, there are shirts for specific neighborhoods. They are great!

On the topic of Pittsburghese: I don’t know if I have gone in to depth about this. I know my mother commented on it in their post on my parents visit. List some places, Pittsburgh has a local vernacular and dialect. This very strongly relates to the local identity of the city, this would be were the term Yinzer comes from. Locals, even those who don’t use the language, still identify with it. Generally speaking, the “educated middle class” and up stay away from using it, like most accents they think it is associated with being uneducated. I unfortunately don’t really hang out around Pittsburghers as I go to an international school. The slight glimpses in to this language have been highly amusing: most notably Luke, who intentionally slips in to (his version) of the accent for amusement, and Catlin, who as a gift to Gwyn for her birthday, read a children’s book in Pittsburgese. “The” is never fully pronounced, it is more of “da.” Down is pronounced dahn, so Downtown is dahntahn. Yes, yinz (which is used a lot) is you all. Reddy or Redd up, is to clean something. Gum band is a rubber band; this is the first encounter I had with the different words. I cooked some frozen peas, and asked Larry if there were any rubber bands. He said: “There is some Gummies in that drawer.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Slippy is when it is slippery. The list goes on and on. As stereotypical as it is, think of a old steel worker. Mix that with George from “Of mice and Men” and you get the general feeling of the accent. I cannot really do it any justice, but it is quite the thing.

If you have been reading this blog, you know about my fascination with the little pockets of joy, also known as Pierogies. No they are not originally from Pittsburgh, they are a Polish creation. But given that one of the neighborhoods in town is called Polish Hill, there is a large population of them here. Kilbase (I don’t know if this is different than Kilbasa) and Pierogies are very common. As an analogy, Pierogies are to Pittsburgh like Cheese steaks are to Philadelphia. I still have yet to go to a church and by some, apparently this is the true way to get them. I really have only had the ones I have made (which I have been told by a Polish descendent were good) and the ones at the Church Brew Works (which I was also told were rather authentic). I will continue to perfect the art, as well as infusing some alternate fillings… potatoes and onion is just so boring when you could have pieracos, or tacogies (I don’t remember how my dad said it…). Another local ‘thing’ is French fries. They put them on the strangest things. Yes, you have heard about them on the famous Primanti’s Brothers sandwiches (or samich here), but it extends to pizza (both on the pizza, and as a side), the Pittsburgh salad (which is more or less a chef salad with fries), and yep pierogies! I overheard some foreign students on the bus discussing how Pittsburgh has a lot of comfort food, lots of greasy, fatty, glorious comfort food. People here are big on Hot Dogs, Hoagies, meat and potatoes, and fries. I wouldn’t say I have had anything that I have not had before, but I have certainly enjoyed this interesting take on standards; or, been in an establishment like the O shop that is a rather successful business based solely on selling Hot Dogs.

And one last note about PGH: Bridges and Tunnels. According to the locals, if it is over a bridge, or you have to go through a tunnel, whatever is there is too far. Seeing as the majority of the city is packed right between the Monongahela and Allegheny (yes Gramps, the confluence) rivers, there are a lot of bridges. Back in the old days, the main part of the city housed the factories and mills, and all of the people lived on the hills on the opposing sides of the river. This construct still stands, but the factories have been replaced by large office buildings. The people still live on the hills surrounding the main part of the city. The bridges were built, and still function to get people from one side (the housing) to the other (the jobs). In addition to this, the city’s expansion seems to not care about the natural binderies like valleys, thus even more bridges are spanning the great valleys that are all over the land mass. This is where the city gets one of its names, The City of Bridges. I partially know why people don’t like the bridges… getting to them can be a bear. The city planners (or more like the city modifiers here…) had a heck of a job, and they did the best they could. The roads here are super confusing, and rarely make logical sense. The use of 6 to 8 road intersections is common, and they are rarely ever 90 degree intersections. I argue that as a result, people are rather generous drivers. They don’t follow most traffic rules, but they generally are fair and nice drivers. In situations where you have merging traffic, there is a strict, every-other flow. Drivers are rather aware of driving situations, and tend to force traffic so that it flows better. A perfect example being the “Pittsburgh left:” at a controlled intersection, if the first car is turning left (unprotected) and they are paying attention, they will be given the right of way. Sometimes this extends for 2 cars, so two left turning cars take the left, in front of a line of straight moving traffic. But, if you stop and think about it, traffic ends up flowing better, for the line of cars to wait for one single car to turn, it allows all of the cars behind it to pass though. If not they would have to wait for an entire cycle to go. Amazing! I just need to pay attention to not do that in Spokane!

(on a side note, there is a girl who is falling asleep, and doing the whole nodding off thing… but she is not just leaning forward a little, but violently coming close to hitting her head on the seat in front of her. It looks like she is head banging to a really slow song.)

Again, I will restate: I have enjoyed living in this town so far. It is a very livable place (look it up! It is one of the most livable!). I love the uniqueness and quirkiness of some of their customs. It is no Spokane, but I could live here for a while.

Part the 4th: Carnegie Mellon

Yes, my lovely pastime, being a student. I was a little worried going from real life working and the transition back to student life. Turned out to be ok. I was a little weird when on the first day I realized that I was 5 years older than some of the other students on campus, but Ill survive. Carnegie is a very interesting place. I am certainly humbled every day. Every person I talk to seems to exude intelligence, being to top of your class is the normal at CMU. There is certainly a reason for it being one of the number one schools in so many fields. It amuses me that on one side of campus exists one of the greatest computer science departments in the world, and on the other is top of the line and talented music and fine arts program.

When I first got here, I commented on the overwhelming international population. My feelings are just about the same. From conversations with Skanda, these students were trained just for this sort of thing. In high school, many Indian students take collegiate level math and science. They are expected to be proficient at things that most American students loathe. The flip side of this, is that there is overwhelming pressure. This idea of academic excellence is so strongly upheld that if you do not make it to a technical university, you might as well pack up and go home. Interestingly, Skanda’s (who is a rather proficient and capable computer engineer) dream job is to own a book store. When I asked him why he was not pursuing this, he said: “Yeah, you know what they said about Asian parents… well I gots Asian Parents.” This level of pressure causes some interesting results. It is obvious in some students that this newly found freedom from oppression gives way to an adoption of the lazy frat boy life style. In other cases, students are so unbelievably dedicated that nothing (sleep, food, or cleanliness) can stand in the way of academic excellence. Another interesting note of this focus on technical ability is the lack of all liberal arts training. I accept that I am not the most formal writer. I am not a pro essayist. I don’t get to read as often as I wish… but some of my classmates have no idea what is going on. I was amazed at some of the writing that I ran across.

I have greatly enjoyed my classes… nope let me change that. I greatly enjoyed Ethnography and Computational Photography. Let me start with what I did not enjoy: Machine Learning. Ugg… that was rough. Forever more, Machine Learning will fascinate me. Yes, it is amazing. It can do powerful things. But the people who work in that sort of thing are on a new level of geek. Take a super programmer, someone who dreams in binary, and throw them in to a blender with a math genius, someone who talks in equations, and eats vectors and eigen values for breakfast, throw a bit of probability and some learning theory: and you get this weird person who will never operate on the same level as us mere mortals. I am not one of those people. So me, talking 10-701 aka Machine Learning for Machine Learning students, was a little rough. Lots and lots went over my head. I did learn a ton! It is a little creepy to think about a program that can ‘learn’ and when applying learning theory, which is basically the same if you are applying it to programs or children, gives me the willies.

As for my other classes, highlights include: Professor Efros, in general; Learning how to passively observe people, and how this will forever change my people watching skills; Working on code that changed pictures not just ascii characters; enjoying one of the greatest TAs; listening to Steinfield go on tangents about his work. So for those of you who may not know, Ethnography is more or less technical studying. It can be boiled down to technical people avoiding the age old: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It has been observed that engineers tend to come up with a sweet technology, then try to force fit it to a situation. Ethnography is about looking at a situation, and truly understanding the situation and how technology can best be adapted or developed to help out. Other than the 3 hour long Friday lectures, it was a great class. Now for Computational Photography: So cool! Hopefully you have all check out my projects, and you might be able to see why it is awesome. This class dealt with things that I had never messed with, things that were way out there. And the professor is super excited about the field, and after looking, I found out he is one of the top guys in the fields as well. Yep, it is true, this class can be boiled down to the workings of photoshop. The basic idea is how to manipulate photos (or videos) as to give more meaning, or more understanding of the image. I know you all know this, but in a TV show, when they see an image, and someone says “Enhance that image…” yeah, not possible. There are techniques, but nothing comes even close! So far out of the three that I have taken, Computational Photography is by far my favorite, sort of like Digital Logic, or Embedded Systems at GU.

(so same girl who was falling asleep earlier, is now watching The Hangover… and the ending credits. If you have ever seen the ending credits, they are more or less softcore porn. Interesting choice for a plane… I guess I was not any better watching Walking Dead, with tons of gore…)

Part the 5th: Summary, with Highlights

This has been a good semester. Those of you who knew me in the Tri Cities, you knew that I was sad, and a little depressed. This is certainly not the case here. Life is going well. I am learning a ton. I am experiencing a new place, and loving it. I am greatly enjoying CMU. I like the church I am at. I have made some friends, who are awesome people. We have had plenty of ridiculous adventures, and have plans for more. But don’t worry; I dearly miss a lot of you. I miss home (but as I am figuring out, I can always go back). I can’t wait to be back.  

If I had to make a trailer for this past year, here are the clips:
-Hanging out in the Wean cluster with Skanda
-Restaurants: Primanti Bro’s, O Shop, Chipotle, The Curch Brew Works, The HaufBrau Haus, MAXIMUM FLAVOR!
-Late nights in the attic, coding, having philosophical discussions with Jamie or scheming
-V for Vendetta
-Failed attempts at Culture
-Shadyside Sundays (church and YadGrad)
-The taste of Pittsburgh with Tracey, Gwyn and Sam
-My Parents Visiting
-Hanging out with Kendra
-Silly Youth Group events

The following would not be included
-Machine Learning causing sadness
-Being so far away from my family and friends
-Waiting for Buses
-“What? You can’t hang out because you have a girlfriend now?”
-My boots attempting to eat my foot
-Lame grocery stores
-Not living with like-minded individuals (but hopefully that might change soon)