Will This Work?

The term has started. In fact, the first week is almost over, and it was about as crowded and turbulent as was to be expected. This morning came with an unexpected respite though, because the start of the first distributed systems lecture has been postponed until 10 a.m. So here I am again, with a coffee in the cafeteria, like so many times before, writing a blog post. There won’t be many more chances for that, this term. In fact, just this morning I briefly pondered whether I should discontinue this blog. There are only so many hours in the day and days in the week–way too few as it is, already–and writing a blog is plainly non-essential. But then it would mean totally giving in to mere survival. I think I shall write on.

You may recall my most pressing schedule problem–the distributed systems practicum and my compulsory choice module being in the same Wednesday morning time slot. This could only work if I managed to get a place in the single practicum group whose schedule did not overlap with that of the module. So there I was Monday morning 10 a.m. last week, with a knot in my stomach, nervously refreshing the campus system display every 30 seconds so my connection wouldn’t time out, ready to select just this single practicum group, nothing else, and quickly hit save, hopefully before everybody else. No such luck. The moment the selection came on, the system froze for me. When it came alive again, the group was gone.

What a way to start a term. And what irony that in four previous terms and nearly 20 practica I got my desired group every single time when it didn’t matter at all. And now that nearly everything depended on it–in fact, getting this to work is my only way of doing all required courses and completing my studies in the regular time period–for the first time it went wrong. Disastrously so. I was completely rattled.

The other irony was that two guys in my study group got in the practicum group I need even though they don’t. In fact, a lot of people who don’t need it (because they are participating in a compulsory choice module that’s in a different time slot) must have selected that group. So the natural course of action was asking someone to swap. But then I got really jittery and made a bad mistake. As usually happens, a while after all three original practicum groups were full, some more were opened in the system. So on an instinct I selected one of those, thinking that it couldn’t possibly get a worse than being in a group that I couldn’t attend anyway.

But of course it could, as I realized belatedly, and only after my place in one of the original groups had been snatched by somebody else. It would have been comparatively easy to swap that place with one in the group that worked for me, because they were in the same time slot. In fact, one guy in our study group had already offered to swap when push came to shove (of course, we would all of us have preferred to be in the same group, so swapping among ourselves was not our first choice). On the other hand, nobody yet even knew when the additional groups would take place. In a schedule that was already insanely crowded and completely fragmented, there was a very real chance that they would overlap with one of our other lectures, or meet at an impossible time, say yet another evening (and there remained only two in the week where there wasn’t already something else on the schedule). So suddenly it seemed almost hopeless to find somebody to swap places with.

But the real problem was yet to come. Because the anxious waiting for an updated schedule that included the additional practicum groups took nearly a week. A week in which I had nightmares about running from pillar to post, trying to convince the professor who read the lecture, or the one making the schedule, or the student counsellor, or the department head, or all of them combined that I just had to be in that particular group because I had a right to be allowed to complete my studies in regular time, even if had I no luck in the clicking lottery. All the while I couldn’t even ask for somebody willing to swap, because I had no idea what I was offering. That waiting nearly drove me crazy. Somehow I am missing this natural conviction that things will somehow work out. I guess I have to often seen them not work out. Literally until the weekend before the first lecture I had no idea whether this term would work out or not. Friday night at 10:30 there was an email from the professor who makes the schedules saying there was finally one that included those additional groups. I instantly checked, and saw to my great relief that things had, after all, worked out. The additional groups were taking place at the same time as the original ones, just in different rooms. So I switched to that new group that paralleled my original choice and was all set.

Two final ironies were still to come though. Monday morning, with the choices still open, suddenly a place opened up in my original favorite group, so I changed my selection yet again, just for the satisfaction of it. All fine? Not quite. Because yesterday, in the first meeting of the compulsory choice module, the professor announced a change in schedule. One lecture would be moved to a different week. Where of course it now clashes with one of the meetings of the practicum group I had fought so hard to get into. So the whole house of cards collapsed and I could really have saved myself all the trouble. It was no problem to not attend one of the lectures, said the professor. There were lecture slides, books, video courses. I could have had that right away though. Next time I’ll worry less. Only there won’t be a next time.

Other than that, the compulsory choice module looks fine to me. Well, and maybe other than there being a written exam at its end, when I had selected this module primarily because half a year ago when I sent her an email asking about the exam the professor had said it would almost certainly be oral. I will still try to hold her to her original promise of course, because a written exam is completely needless stress. I have now done 15 in this course of studies and won’t have another one if I can possibly help it. Particularly not this term.

But the great relief about this course is that the practicum assignments are small enough to be done in the actual practicum meeting, and are in fact meant to be done there. And in fact, while “process mining” seems to be a different kind of animal than most of us had originally thought (so far it looks more like intelligent systems all over again–in fact we started with computing entropies in decision trees), it still looks interesting, and very hands-on. The practicum had us analyze data with the RapidMiner data science tool, and that was really quite cool.

The point is I will desperately have to limit the workload this term. What with working two days, there is really no other choice, unless I want to sacrifice my (or rather, my family’s) week-ends yet again. Monday morning was the first meeting of the “project” course titled “learning agents” where we work in small groups on an ungraded term project. The professor (the same one I did last term’s compulsory choice module on adaptive systems with) treated us to the usual insane workload requirements numbers from the study regulations, according to which we have to work 18 hours a week for this single course. Impossible. In fact, attending the course itself for six hours 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, or at most adding the remaing two hours until the architecture lecture at 4 p.m., will have to suffice.

Accordingly we gathered, six of us from our semester group, to find a project that sounds cool enough to obviously satisfy the requirements for this course while at the same time being doable in those 6 to 8 hours per week, at least if you work reasonably efficiently. And I think we succeeded. Officially we split into two three-men groups, one of which will do a text mining tool that uses a neural network to predict the genre of a piece of (popular) music by analyzing it lyrics. That’s the group I am not in, and that’s a great relief, because my programming partner and one other hyperactivist programming nerd are in it. Our group will do a tool that optimizes neural networks by genetic selection, so that the other group can give us some parameters and we will provide an optimized network for their analysis. That’s state of the art, sounds intellectually quite advanced, yet is (I fervently hope) doable with a quite limited effort. Which is really not only essential for me, but also quite fine. Last term I did nearly half of the coding in a four-men group for the software engineering practicum, and I totally overdid my adaptive systems project. So both vis-Ă -vis my co-students and the professor I have every justification for taking it easier this term.

So this is how it looks like. Monday totally taken up with the project, and the architecture lecture in the evening. Tuesday I am working all day, and every three weeks there is the architecture practicum. Wednesday morning the process mining module every other week, and the distributed systems practicum (four times), leaving a few mornings free for studying. Wednesday afternoon the process mining practicum every other week, so there are a few free slots as well. Thursday morning the distributed systems lecture, with the afternoon free. Friday I work until 4 p.m., then the seminar until 6 p.m.

So for all practical purposes that’s half a day every week and another half day every other week plus a few occasional hours. For all the studying for three courses, and all the practicum assignments for architecture and distributed systems. That’s really nearly hopeless! Particularly since the technical CS professors who do the hardware-related basic lectures in our study programm make a habit of handing out tough, complex practicum assignments, as if to make up for their peripheral role in this course of studies. Last term, the chat server/client assignment for computer networks took me nearly a week to do. That’s simply out of the question this time. I am afraid I will need some week-ends. And how will my family take this? In fact, being away 2+ evenings a week is already an impossible proposition. How should my wife handle three kids all alone most of the week? She is working too.

I guess this term will be all about survival. And I am not yet quite prepared to see it this way. Particularly, I am not ready to give up trying for the best possible grade, even though I might be willing to submit some less than perfect solutions for practicum assignments, for the sheer impossibility of finding the time for doing more. But you know, going into a practicum with a half-baked solution is extremely stressful too. What if the professor refuses to accept it and we have to redo it? I really have no time for that. Doing it right the first time might just be the easier thing to do. In comparison.

I figure I will have to find some creative ways of squaring a few circles this term. After all, what are computer scientists good for?

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