Looking Back on 2015

Written by J. David Smith
Published on 01 January 2016

It seems that every year of my life is more eventful than the last. 2015 was a big year in a lot of ways. I graduated from the University of Kentucky, moved away from home for good, and started grad school at the University of Florida. I worked 3 different jobs in 3 different states. I finally got my drivers license, and over the course of the year bought 2 cars and wrecked 1.

My Last Semester in Kentucky

I could've had an easy last semester at UK, but of course I opted not to. I continued learning German (something that I have let lapse, unfortunately), working in Dr. Jacobs lab, and did multiple projects for classes. The project of note was learn2play, which was an attempt at learning to play Hearthstone by watching the screen. Despite all of the changes that have happened to that game this year, my project actually should still work. This pleases me. The skills I gained in this semester have been invaluable. I learned how to use scikit-learn, which has paid more dividends than any other library I've ever used save numpy.

I also made a point of overcoming my aversion to lists during this semester. I was given a notebook for my birthday, and began using it for, well, everything. In particular, whenever I had a set of tasks to do, I'd write down the list, with blank checkboxes next to each item. This immediately helped me stay on top of the many non-school tasks I had, and is probably the reason that I managed to make it to Boston without forgetting anything.

I've Never Been to Boston in the Fall

After the semester ended, I started a second but very different internship at IBM. Instead of being in the ExtremeBlue program, I was working with the AppScan Source team in Littleton, MA near Boston. AppScan Source is a security-oriented static analysis tool. Going in, I had some idea of what I'd be doing, Machine learning to reduce the false positive alerts given to users by the tool which turned out to be entirely wrong. I actually ended up working on a somewhat blue-skies In that the form of the resulting visualization was unknown, as was the set of inputs to build it. We knew that it would be a visualization, and hoped that it'd be helpful for understanding the product's reports project.

This project is probably my all-time favorite. Although I had no idea going in, it turns out that I really like working on data visualization. I got a couple of Edward Tufte's data visualization books for Christmas and have already gotten most of the way through one of them (*The Visualization of Quantitative Information*). I got to do a ton of experimentation on not only different ways of viewing the data, but also different ways of constructing it. I spent 4 days one week writing finite-domain Prolog code. It was glorious, although the result was impractical. The final version of the visualization ended up being beautiful, and I wish I could put an image here. Once it gets deployed in the product or I get some other indication that I'm legally allowed to, I'm going to see about printing a poster-sized visualization of something.

This internship was great not only because of the project, but also because of the team. Kris Duer was my mentor for the project, and was great to work with. I wasn't his only intern over the summer, and people constantly joked about him building an army. The team as a whole was great to work with, and when pass through the Boston area again, I'm definitely going to try and see them.

The summer wasn't all work, though. I got to hang out with my good friend John Bellessa, who was one of my teammates from the previous summer. Doing the Freedom Trail with him and his fiancé Lorraine was one of the highlights of my summer.

During this time I also began learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Fenix in Lowell. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I'm glad that I did. BJJ is much different than the martial arts I'd done in the past because it focuses almost exclusively on ground work. When rolling (BJJ-ese for sparring), we'd start on the ground and stay there 99% of the time. The instructor at Fenix is great, and if you're in the area I'd highly recommend checking out his gym. I've continued practicing BJJ now that I'm in Gainesville, and plan to do so in the future.

Of course, I have to mention that I totaled my first car while I was in the Boston area. By rear-ending someone at a red light. Oops. I really liked that car, A 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. I drove from Boston to just south of DC (~500mi) without stopping for gas. On the trip back I took the scenic route. I got about 10mpg better on the way down. and am really disappointed that I only got to use it for about two months. Having to buy another in short order was a stressful experience that I hope to never have to repeat. I have had a lot more trouble with the car I bought to replace it, which overheated multiple times on the trip from Boston to Florida. Being stuck on the side of the road many hours drive from anyone you know is by far my least favorite part of the year.


Once I actually got to Florida, things looked up. I didn't have any more car trouble. I ended up renting a room in a house from a fellow graduate student, Elaine. She's an older student who is finishing up her PhD in Journalism/Anthropology this semester. Having someone to talk to that was familiar with the area was invaluable. It was also nice to get to talk to someone whose research area is so far removed from my own.

Classes at UF haven't been particularly remarkable. I took grad-level classes at UK, so I wasn't surprised at all by the level of difficulty. I did have to do two projects this semester, both of which turned out reasonably well. For one, I used Markov Chains to show that the performance of attacks on Mix networks changes when multiple adversaries act independently. For the other, I showed that by replacing words with synonyms authorship attribution on Twitter can be defeated. In the latter project, I constructed a visualization that I quite liked.

I found an advisor, Dr. My Thai, relatively quickly. She works on social network-related projects, which is what I'm really interested in. I started working in her lab in late October. I'm pretty happy with my decision thus far, but it is very early in my career. I like my lab-mates and Dr. Thai seems to be understanding and in general nice to work under.

Applying for the NSF Fellowship

One thing that UF has that UK didn't is a course dedicated to helping students write the NSF Fellowship applications. Run by Dr. Mazyck (who definitely has a strong personality), the course focused on helping us avoid common and not-so-common mistakes in the application process by starting early and constantly revising our essays. I spent so. much. time. on those essays over the first ¾ semester, it isn't even funny. I'm hopeful that it will pay off, but I won't find out for another few months. I based my application on detecting throwaway harassment accounts without compromising user privacy, which made it easy to cover broader impacts but more difficult to detail the intellectual merits of my proposed work. The biggest thing I got from this was from the personal essay. In writing it, I discovered that much of the work that I've done is actually relatively well tied together – and that it rather clearly points in the direction I'm heading now.

Progress on Goals for 2015

The goals I set for 2015 were simple: get over my list-phobia and become more consistent. I can't say that I really succeeded at the second, but I definitely succeeded at the first. I pretty routinely write out lists in my notebook to organize my thoughts. As for consistency and self-discipline? I still don't have a decent daily routine, so that one goes down as partial failure. However, I do at least have a pretty reliable weekly routine which will be getting upset next week by my class schedule change.

My overarching 'Otherness' goal is still just that: a goal. Thinking back on the year, I feel that there has been very little interpersonal conflict. The majority of difficulties I faced this year were from events such as wrecking my car, not people. However, I do still catch myself snapping at people. It is rare, but it happens. Mostly to my baby brother when he gets really talkative in the middle of me trying not to die to Zed mid-lane. Not an excuse, but context is important. I am making an effort to better hold my tongue.

Looking Forward to 2016

Somehow, I doubt this year will be crazier than last year. Only time will tell, but I wouldn't really mind either way. I do have a few goals for 2016.

My 'career' goals are to publish at least one paper first author, and to finish my quals (which are now an extensive lit review for your proposal at UF). Pretty self-explanatory. I simply want to make progress on my PhD. I would also like to look into teaching a class myself. I TA'd this past semester, which was an experience I enjoyed, and will be TAing this coming semester. I'd like to take the logical next step and teach a class myself. It is unlikely that I will get to do so this year, but I'd like to make progress on getting to do so.

My only other goal this year will seem a bit odd to people that know me, as I'm really a rather indoors-y person: I'd like to go backpacking. Not like backpacking on a mountainside for a day, but more like backpacking from one state to another. I've not done much looking into this yet, but I'm hoping to take a couple of weeks this summer and go somewhere (the Pacific Northwest? Europe?) to do this.

The past year has left me very hopeful for the future. I managed to survive the general insanity of moving cross-country twice in a year, and have acclimated reasonably well to first-year-grad-student life. The future is bright, and full of potential. Here's hoping that I won't play too much XCOM to take advantage of that.