Thursday, October 14, 2010


I've moved! Please visit my new site at, and my blog at

I think posts will remain here for posterity, but I've mirrored them all at the new place.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Sensory Deprivation

C has come down with me to Atlanta. It's been a challenging little while, because we don't have any connections down here, nor a car that she can get around in. As a consequence, she's been at home a lot.
C: i am lying in bed with the blinds drawn
and blankets over my head
i'm pretending i'm in a vacuum
not the roomba kind of vacuum. the black hole variety

me: why are you in a vacuum?

C: i don't know
i'm just in one
sound and sight depravation
sight is a bit hampered by my laptop light
but it's close to dark as i guess i can get it

me: you know, you're supposed to go nuts if you go into sensory deprivation

C: yeah. i know

me: are you trying to induce that?

C: yes

me: great
anyway, when you are done, are you coming to school to work out and take me home?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's Done

Well, I finally finished. There were lots of times when I was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen, but it did. I'll do a longer post on that some time. In the meantime, I thought it would be the right thing to do to post the acknowledgments section as it appears in the dissertation.
I admit that this section has received more thoughtful consideration more frequently and more consistently than any other section in the entire dissertation. I thought about it when things were going well, and I thought about it when things were going poorly—a testament to what the PhD challenge was for me: an intellective one, certainly, but also an emotional one. I now see those times, the good ones and the bad ones, differently—they were all things that helped to prepare me to become the person that I am and will become. And—as challenging as many of those moments were—I am grateful for them, and for the people that saw me through them.

Cheryl, my best friend, my partner—thank you for the long nights of listening to me whine and complain, for sharing in the highs and lows, and always trying to support me in the ways you best knew how.

Sid, my supervisor, my biggest critic, and the one that best knew how to make me into a better researcher—thank you for pushing me the way you did. It was undoubtedly challenging, but helped make me into the researcher I am today: one who is more thoughtful, critical, and careful.

Carman, my friend, my colleague, my mentor—thank you for your friendship, your thoughts, and the countless hours of reading drafts, commenting on them, and for talking me through the hardest parts.

My committee, Kelly and Peter, were immeasurably helpful at each critical time. Thank you in particular to Kelly for helping me to frame my thoughts, and to help me find my confidence in my own analytic ability.

To my local “research family,” Joel, Nelson, Mike, Leah, Karyn, Kirstie, Karen, Nicole, Meghan, Garth, Rock, Matt and Ian, thank you for your companionship and support: you helped me ride through the worst of times, and pushed me up onto the saddle when I was too bashful during the best of times.

To my remote research family, Petra, Nelson, Mark, Gregor, I have appreciated your support and friendship—it will be fun continuing to make a splash in the research world with you.

Saul, Sheelagh, and Joanna, my life-supervisors, you have been invaluable as life mentors, helping me to understand my needs, my goals, my strengths and my weaknesses.

I thank and acknowledge NSERC, NECTAR, and UBC for financial support.

To my volleyball family, Jill, Becky, and Heather, thanks for keeping life light, and for helping to remind me that there can be important things outside of work ... and to not take life too seriously. Thank for helping to keep me sane when the research threatened to drown me.

Finally, to my buddy and brother Jonathan: you are the best friend a guy could ask for. I can't count the times I needed to chill out, and you were there. Whenever I think about the possibility of having done this PhD elsewhere, I can't help to think where our relationship would be. To have been able to spend the last five years growing up with you as I went through this challenge is a blessing that I cannot put into words.
And then my dedication page:
For my mother Eva, and my father Tom.

Thank you for sharing in my dreams.

Friday, April 10, 2009

PhD Core Competencies

I wrote a partially tongue-in-cheek post a few years ago about what I termed "PhD depression."  In the time that it has been up, it has somehow managed to crawl up the google rankings to sit #1 for searches on "phd depression."  A funny thing started to happen: depressed PhD students from around the world (who had presumably stumbled onto the post after googling "phd depression") began posting comments.  Sometimes, the comments were words and ideas that echoed my own; other times, students posted their own depressing experiences.  I think though, that many students simply posted that they were glad to see someone else was going through what they'd been going through themselves... somehow, the awareness that "they weren't the only ones" made everyone feel a lot better.
In the few years since I wrote that post, I have had even more experiences as a grad student (and a PhD student).  I have seen many smart people whom I respect leave the program, and I have also seen many smart people whom I respect complete their programs.  Even though each person's particular experience is unique to their particular circumstance, what draws us all together is that we are going through a PhD, and I think there are some unversalities to that.  I have discovered that the PhD is not the institutionalized "degree" that I'd imagined it to be at the outset.  Instead, it's a very personal /process/ -- one that comes with a lot of soul searching, reflection, and self-discovery.  Ultimately, doing and finishing a PhD is a decision one makes, and completing a PhD is more a reflection of conviction rather than intelligence.
Interesting Thoughts
"You don't give up, you just kind of give in." - PhD candidate near completion
"The PhD process is the exact opposite of the therapeutic process.  In the therapeutic process, you set up an environment of non-judgementalism, and allow for self-discovery through dialogue.  In a PhD, you are thrust into an environment with existing ways of scholarship and thinking, and your work is immediately (and often harshly) critiqued against existing work." - Counseling psychologist
Core Competencies of a PhD Student
I have come to think that successful PhD students have several core competencies.  It is possible, I think, to complete a PhD without being "excellent" in each of these things, though I suspect that it is a might bit harder.  The reality is that people are often lacking in these areas when they come into a PhD, and so a big part of the PhD is like remedial work where you "bump up" one of the core competencies.  That said, I think many of the "star" students are essentially those that came in with all of these, and were probably a bit more creative than the rest of us.
Communication: Do you bore them with your elevator speech?
Ultimately, you have to be able to organize your ideas and be able to succinctly, concisely, and effectively communicate the myriad of ideas floating around your head.  If you are unable to communicate, whether it be spoken or written, then you are at a severe disadvantage, because knowledge and ideas are not useful if they locked in your head, or difficult for people to gain access to them.  A particularly successful HCI professor actually prides himself on actually making communication ability one of his primary recruitment filters.
Ability to Focus: Can you zen out?
The PhD process is a funny one where they ask you to essentially focus on a single idea, or a single set of ideas for a very, very long time.  This is difficult, because the mind wanders and becomes bored of the idea long before the usual 3-6 year term is up.  In the long-term, this means that you need to be able to focus on "the prize" so to speak, without becoming distracted by other opportunities that may arise (in the tech industry, many such opportunities arise).  In the short term, one also needs to be able to focus: it's generally hard to come up with something new since it is much easier to just remember or come up with something someone else has already said. 
Confidence & Conviction: Are you willing to speak your mind?  How stubborn are you?
During the PhD process, a student will face many obstacles: both in terms of the ideas and work s/he is trying to produce.  The reality is that the work that one is attempting to complete is novel, and often there is harsh judgement being placed on it.  At any given point during the PhD process, there are far more reasons to stop what one is doing than to continue.  One's conviction to continue along the existing path is related to one's self-confidence, and so your self-confidence has a big role in determining how quickly you finish.
Curiosity and Humility: Do you know what you don't know?
I don't know if this is a core competency, but to me, the best researchers seem to be the ones that are always asking questions: not questions to the speaker, necessarily, but questions of the world, of the knowledge out there, of themselves.  Essentially, these researchers are those that know they don't know everything -- and also know what they don't know.  If you think you know everything, you'd never seek anything else out.  The best researchers are those that understand they don't know anything, and even more imprtantly, know what they don't know.
Concluding Thoughts
I have no data on any of this, it's just a collection of thoughts and ideas from the many discussions I've had with PhD students -- not about their work, but about the thoughts they've had.  I could be wrong about all of this.  What I do know is that I've seen people leave a PhD, and it has nothing to do with how smart they are or how talented they are.  It's difficult to understate how many things have to go "right" for the 3-6 years it takes to complete a PhD: real life, boredom, timing with respect to the community, supervisor fit -- all of these things have an impact on a PhD student's likelihood of success... and the amazing thing is that many are out the student's control.  I'll leave with three thoughts:
  1. There are certain things the best researchers seem to all share, but just having them doesn't guarantee success.
  2. A PhD is a process and reflection of conviction -- not of intelligence.
  3. Everyone gets depressed during a PhD because of all the judgement that one is subject to. This experience is unbelievably normal.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Wisdom of the karpar: On Famous People

One of my favourite stories belongs to KM, who remarked, "Frogs really do look slimey," to a famous person during a visit to an aquarium. "It was all I could think of," she protested when later recounting the story. I suppose it wouldn't have been so bad, except KM never got to speak with that famous person again during the conference.

During my recent visit to San Jose, I remarked to karpar how difficult it was to talk to famous people (in academia), waxing eloquent about the anxieties a grad student faces when trying to come up with interesting things to say to them. Without skipping a beat, karpar posited:
KP: Well, remember: everyone poops.
I guess that's better than imagining them without their clothes on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Famous People

Academia is interesting, because it makes rock stars out of geeks. Walking through a research facility or university, you will often pass by random people that look no different than the average Joe, but to his research community, is absolutely famous and adored.  It is interesting that "famousness" goes with the territory: if you're not in the research community, this guy's just an average Joe with average Joe problems.

Case in point, yesterday evening, I saw SUPER famous guy having to deal with his kids. The funny thing is that his kids will never really understand just how famous he his. To them, he's just, "Dad -- the guy who doesn't let me eat ice cream for breakfast."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wisdom of the karpar: On Geekiness

I spent the weekend with my good buddy KP, of "there's a frog in my salad" fame, who lives down in the Bay Area.
T: I find I am pretty geeky.  Even for geeks.
K: Try being down here.  You'll realize either you're not as geeky as you think, or you'll be like, "I'm finally home." Soon, you'd find Transformer bumper sticker on your car.
T: Really?
K: Oh yeah. Transformers bumper stickers are far more common than is comfortable.
T: Is that why all the women are single here?
K: Disappointment at every turn.