Identity crisis

I have to fill in a form now to renew my passport and I should put my occupation. It sucks that they have an exhaustive list with 50+ occupations, including specific stuff such as “Music and precision instruments assembler”, and I have to mark “Other occupation not previously specified”.

GUADEC 2014: the aftermath

It’s been more than a week since I am back from GUADEC in Strasbourg, and I must say it was an amazing experience! I went there in the middle of a chaotic time: I had just finished my PhD defense, was helping organize a huge logic conference and, because of this conference, had many friends around and even one at my place. This did not leave me much time to think, which was in fact good. Because if I stop to think about it, I was going to this place I did not know, alone, to meet people I met only over the internet. It sounds like something my parents would strongly oppose, if it was 1999. But it was not, and so I went.

I must say that, coming from a very technical conference, the talks at GUADEC were refreshing. There I was, a complete newbie, able to follow a lot of interesting stuff. But what made me most happy was in fact the people. You know when you are among a group of very cool people and everyone is so nice to you that you just think “I have to be part of this!”? This is how I felt. I got there and I did not know one soul, still people were very friendly and integrating. There was always company for lunch and dinner, and there were always programs for the evening. And in the meantime, I could even program 🙂

Evince’s hackfest on the days before GUADEC was very cool. Not only did I meet my mentor and all the other evincers, but also had progress on the annotation handling. I have a branch now on which annotation works, and we are currently working on optimizing it and organizing the code. Since I found out KaL is the only maintainer, I am trying to make my patches as easy to understand as possible to try and facilitate his work. It is almost certain that these will not be ready to be pushed to master by the end of gsoc, but honestly, I don’t even see this as gsoc anymore. I will continue working on it until it is ready, then I will go trolling for other bugs 😛

It’s funny how things happen sometimes… I enrolled on gsoc because of a career mishap on the beginning of this year. I wanted to prove something, for myself, at least. I listed some projects, some more academic, and gnome, just because I thought it would be so cool to contribute to something I have been using freely for years. My head was already full of science stuff, so I decided to go for gnome. Although academia-oriented people would say it is a waste of time, I do not regret one second. It was a very fulfilling experience, that went way beyond the point I wanted to prove, whatever that was. Maybe it took me some time from research, but I feel like I was doing something that mattered. I felt useful. It feels good 🙂
I wouldn’t like to let that go.

I hope to see you all in Sweden next year!

Or maybe you should.

A few weeks ago I had a job interview. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I seriously considered moving to the dark side of the force. Seriously. I went through the interviewing process and everything. Unfortunately, they turned me down… That hit me harder than I expected. Before getting the result I thought that, if they said “no”, things would just go back to what they were. That’s not really how it went… They said I had not enough software engineering experience. Well, of course I don’t. I am a PhD student, in *theoretical* computer science… What did they expect? I do take part in some small and medium size projects, but this was not enough. They need some more technical experience. All I have for me is the ability to understand really freaking hard problems, and try to come up with solutions. But it’s not like the subject of my thesis will help me with anything else than that. Also, my advisor recently admitted that the problem was harder than he had expected, and it’s ok that I have only partial results in the thesis. It’s disappointment all around.

In any case, this rejection unleashed a chain of reactions that I am still trying to make sense of. At first I was really considering getting a job in industry, and getting this damn experience that I am lacking. I checked companies I like and projects I think I’d be happy working for. Then I started thinking what is that I like to do. What would make me happy? And I made a list because I like to make lists. They help me organize myself. Here it is:

– solving puzzles
– programming
– mathematics
– music

It’s not very helpful though. What I need to know is what kind of job will give me that, and at the moment I don’t know. I am in academia for a while, and I know I can get the first three things at least. But it seems they have not been enough. Maybe it’s because I am reaching the end of my PhD, because I’ve been working for three years in some problem nobody understands and getting only partial results nobody will ever use, but I am sick and tired of this research already. If in the end I decide to stay in academia, it’ll really do me some good to change research topics to something more applied. What about industry? Is there some kind of job that will require me to work on things of this list all the time? The job announcements I saw in the companies I selected claim so. But it just seems too good to be true. I’ve had jobs before and I know how boring it can be. How so not challenging. But then again, I didn’t have a real job in one of these cool companies that claim to have cool jobs. You see my dilemma?

In the middle of despair I took two career tests to see which careers fit me the most. The result of both was basically that I have the profile for research, programming and engineering. Really? Well, *that* I knew already! I am not trying to decide whether I should study literature or computer science.

Anyway, in the end I decided to explore possibilities… Learning about new research topics and about bigger projects in industry (as an intern, employee or volunteer, there are few possibilities I checked). But I am really focusing on getting this mysterious software engineering experience, either in academia or in industry. I learned over the years that you cannot tell me I can’t do something. That’s probably one of my biggest motivation triggers. And they told me I could not get the job… you shouldn’t have done that.

About happiness

This has been a recurring theme in the past few weeks on my random walk on the internet (maybe not so random). It started with an article on the BBC Travel about the cities to visit in the happiest countries in the world, which led me to this report:

It is a nice report, and I wish I had time to read it all, but the first chapter alone gives a nice overview of the document. It you’re curious, here are the top 10:

1. Denmark
2. Norway
3. Switzerland
4. Netherlands
5. Sweden
6. Canada
7. Finland
8. Austria o/
9. Iceland
10. Australia

This is interesting, because whenever I say I come from Brazil, people imagine that I come from a place where everybody is going to the beach and dancing and smiling all the time. And we are advertised as very happy people… And you’d think that countries that have the sun and wonderful beaches would have the happiest people, right? But it’s just the opposite. Nine out of the top 10 countries do not have wonderful beaches, on the contrary. Lots of them have a harsh winter and are sometimes labelled as places with high suicide rates because of the winter depression. So how did this happen??

After reading and watching videos on the subject here and there, I found out that we tend to overrate how happy we will be because of something (or how sad as well). So you might think that winning the lottery will make you the happiest person on Earth when, in fact, studies suggest that it doesn’t. Or you might think that becoming paraplegic will make you miserable for the rest of your life, but studies also suggest the contrary. This happens because we have a tendency to adapt to whatever situation life brings us, it is called hedonic treadmill. There is a very interesting TEDTalk on that. Actually, the experiment the guy mentions towards the end of the talk, reminded me of another very interesting TEDTalk about how we are actually less happy when we can choose over lots of options. This is a curious effect, that haunted me as I was a kid. Turns out I was really bad at choosing stuff, really simple stuff, like new shoes. I would rummage over and over again which shoes would be better for me, or what I liked the most, without ever being able to decide. I remember even feeling a bit nauseous in a few situations. And after deciding on something, I would sometimes regret it. I guess the message of the second video is exactly this: if you have too many choices, the choosing process is so stressful that you cannot really enjoy the thing you chose. And there will always be that mean little voice in the back of your head: “what if I exchange?”. This is what happens when there’s too much space for freedom. When you make a choice and you’re supposed to keep it, our adaptation thing kicks in, and you feel happy with what you got. This reminds me of the Indian arranged weddings… At the time, I could not really wrap my head around the whole concept. How is it that you can have a good life with someone your parents chose for you?? What if you don’t like this person (divorce is not really an option)? Well, they learn to like each other. They adapt, and they are just as happy as someone who dated 20 people before settling down (maybe happier!).

So what does this have to do with the countries there?? I am not sure actually… If we tend to adapt to all situations, what is it about the happiest countries in the world? I can think of two things: (1) quality of life and (2) the need to cooperate to survive.

If you look at the full happiness ranking of the countries, you will notice some relation between quality of life and happiness (not all of the time, of course). In the top ten countries, people don’t have to worry about mobility, health issues, education, security, and this makes an enormous difference on one’s life. I can tell by personal experience. You don’t see poor people begging for money, mothers with sick kids in every block or families living in shacks that are about to fall down. I think this affects us. So I would guess it’s one of the reasons why people in wealthier countries are happier. Not because of the money, but because of social security.

The second thing is more subtle. When winter comes, there’s no such thing as someone living on the streets. They will die if nobody gives them shelter, for sure. So there is a social responsibility of taking care of others, just because, if they don’t, the consequences are too tragic. And as this TEDTalk* suggests, we are happier when we are helping others than we are when helping ourselves.

A third thing just came to my mind. In these countries the seasons of the year are really noticeable. There’s a huge change in temperature the whole year, and as one season comes and the other goes away, we are remembered what is good about each one, and we can enjoy each season’s particularity. I came from a tropical country, but I was never so happy to see the sun as I am in summer here in Austria. After three months of cold, you really appreciate the first rays of warm light again. In Brazil, the sun is shinning the whole year, so you don’t really pay attention to that… It becomes normal and it is no more a source of happiness.

I think the bottom line to all these things is that happiness comes from our actions, and not our stuff. We learn to enjoy everything we choose, so don’t worry too much about choosing. Just be nice to people, smile and they will smile back. And meditate, one of the sources of happiness 🙂

* In the end of this TEDTalk, the guy advertises one of the most interesting charity campaigns I have ever seen. You should check it out too:


I haven’t had much time to write these past few days… But I came across this video and thought it was worth posting it even without explanations 🙂

About researchers and politicians

These days I’ve been thinking a lot about politics… I realized this is a problem around the world, and politicians are usually seen by non-politicians as bad people. Non-politicians usually think that politicians are greedy, selfish, lazy and that, in the end, they are not interested in helping society whatsoever. Of course most non-politicians have their exceptions, that one or two politicians that they really believe in, and if they are not doing enough, it’s because the system does not let him. I started thinking if it was possible that so many people in politics really did not care about doing some good for society. I mean, this should be their main motivation for getting a job there in the first place, no? So what happens??

There is an interesting experiment in psychology called the Milgram experiment, where some people, test subjects, are told to give electric shocks on another person if they do not memorize some words correctly. Although the learning person is already screaming in pain, most participants do not stop giving the shocks, since they were told so. At a first analysis, the results of this experiment seem quite disturbing… How can people be so mean? It was just a stupid experiment, they could have stopped once they realized the other person was in pain, right? Well… not really. I mean, yes, they could have stopped, but a deeper (and less sad) analysis of the whole thing takes into account the environment in which this test subject was. And you have to keep in mind that you might just as well be one of the people that continues to give shocks.
Yes, yes… but what does this have to do with the politicians?

The point is that, it’s very easy to judge from the outside. “He should have done this, he shouldn’t have voted for that, he shouldn’t have accepted that money, how can he be so unethical??” But we don’t really know the point of view of somebody who is on the inside. It is actually easier to follow the rules as they are posed then to try to fight them… Even if you think that they are wrong.

As I thought about this, I realized that it happens to me, and most researchers and PhD students I know. We are all very aware of the way universities decide which people to hire: they check our publication list. Of course they don’t read all of them, and I doubt if they actually read the titles carefully… They check how many there are and in which conferences/journals they were published. There is a huge discussion on whether this is the right thing to do, and most researchers I know, young or old, agree that this is not a very good system, and the relevance of the publications should be taken into account, no matter where they are published. But as we go into this academia field, we are pulled by the current and we believe the only way to survive is publishing… So we become one of those people that try to publish no matter what. We behave as if we accept the system, even though we disagree with it. And we think: “but what can *I* do? I am just a PhD student…” Everyone knows that it’s up to us to end this journal industry and to change how we are evaluated, but who’s brave enough to start this? If this person is alone (or only a few), she’ll certainly perish… It’s a high risk to take. So no one takes it, and we are swallowed by the system, just like the politicians we so much condemn. 

Changing the world

So here’s my list of stuff I think we can all do to make a change. Feel free to disagree, warn me about something that I am doing wrong and specially add things there!

– Smile to people. (Harder than it seems unfortunately. Specially when you are a girl and many men think that you’re flirting just for smiling).
– Be nice just for the sake of being nice.
– Recycle as much as possible. I recently found out a place near where I live where I can give old broken electronics and kitchen oil. Inform yourself.
– Don’t use plastic bags.
– Save water by turning off the tap when washing the dishes.
– Save water by turning off the tap when brushing your teeth.
– Save water by turning off the shower while scrubbing (this is extra hard, I’ll admit, specially in winter).
– Save water everywhere, not only at your house because you pay the bills.
– Don’t be petty.
– Don’t spend on unnecessary things. When you want to buy something, breathe and let the idea of buying sink in for 30 minutes. Only get it if you really want. Most of the times you’ll realize that the will goes away.
– Be vegetarian once or twice a week (maybe 5 times!). And by vegetarian I don’t mean people that eat fish! I mean real vegetarian.
– Don’t buy pets. There are plenty homeless pets ready for adoption at the local kennel.
– Don’t litter. If you need to throw something away and there’s no garbage bin nearby, just keep it in your pocket or hold it if it’s something disgusting to put in the pocket. You’ll eventually find a place to throw this away.
– Use only one paper towel to dry your hands, or use no paper at all.
– Reuse the back side of papers.
– Print two sided documents. Staple them not to mix the order.
– Turn off your screen or put your laptop to sleep if you’re not using it.
– Turn off the lights. Again, not only in your house because you pay the bills.

The Wall and the message

Last weekend I went to Roger Waters’ concert “The Wall”. For those that don’t know (and I explain this because an American colleague didn’t know Roger Waters and “have heard somewhere” about Pink Floyd), Roger Waters was part of a very cool rock band called Pink Floyd. “The Wall” is the title of one of their albums, from 1979. It includes the very famous song “We don’t need no education… Hey, teacher, leave the kids alone!”. Anyway, the whole album is pretty good, although I don’t have the habit of listening to this kind of music. It is so good that, 30 years after its release, this guy decides to do a world tour on it and the concerts were almost sold out everywhere.

I read that at the time it was an album that told the story of a character, called Pink, and his psychological problems, relationship difficulties and isolation. There is even a (quite disturbing) movie about it. But this more recent tour focuses mostly on other issues, such as war and capitalism. And it really makes an impression. It was interesting the stream of feelings I had during the show, how overwhelming it was. I don’t think I had ever felt this before during a concert. So here’s me trying to explain to myself why it was so exciting and disturbing at the same time.

First of all I should note what happened before the concert. One of my friends from Brazil was visiting Vienna for a few days and we met to catch up. It was very nice. I was very happy to see how well he’s doing. At some point he mentioned how I was in Brazil in April and hadn’t told anyone, which is true… I don’t know for sure why I did this. In any case, it was wrong. This made me a bit sad and disappointed at myself.
I was also reasonably stressed because after the concert I had to help my sister with a test and pack my bags to leave to Istanbul for a conference the next day. But I was willing to go to the concert and have a good time.

From the first 30 seconds we knew it was going to be amazing, with fireworks, props and visual effects (just take a look at the opening). It was super cool.

At some point, the huge round screen in the middle of the stage started showing faces of people followed by their information. They were all people that had died in wars and conflicts around the world. I started noticing that the deaths were all more or less recent, all in the years 2000 and something. This touched me. You see, I think I am a pacifist, and every time I see these conflicts on TV (Syria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, etc.), I think: “Why are these people fighting? Don’t they realize that there are people dying?”. For me, the suffering of losing loved ones and destroying your home should be stronger that any political fight. So seeing those pictures made me very sad. My eyes even watered.

One of the people showed, and for whom Roger Waters made a special tribute, was a brazilian called Jean Charles. This guy died in 2005 in one of London’s underground stations, shot by police officers. I remember the news at the time, but I never fully understood what had happened. At the concert, Waters mentioned how he was cowardly killed, shot in the head even after the cops had caught him and put him on the ground. I didn’t know about this, and if you think about it, it was complete non-sense. This made me… angry? Disappointed? Frustrated? I cannot find a word actually…

Then there was intermission and I calmed down.

On the second part there was strong criticism to capitalism and this whole culture of profit and exploitation. At this point I started thinking how things could have turned out like this. How can people seem so heartless? How can they not see the damage of their decisions? And I thought about this and I saw images of soldiers reuniting with their kids and injured people in the concert and this made me cry. I think it’s very disturbing to realize how people can cause so much damage without noticing it. And I am afraid of being/becoming such people. And every time I think about this, I just want to do something that would change the world and make a big difference. But I am more and more convinced that a big difference requires lots of people doing the right thing. So I’ll do my part and do the right thing (as I gradually find out what the right things are… people that know should make a list).
Let’s just hope I don’t become comfortably numb.

I think in the end it was confusing because it was a concert. And I should watch it, sing the songs and feel good, like it was in Paul McCartney’s. Except it was not like this. I watched it, thought about life, got sad and disappointed in the world and wanted to change it. Well, I guess if half of the people there had the same feeling and are willing to do something about this, it was the most successful concert of all times.

Ladybug and stuff

This weekend a visitor came to my plant. I call her Jo Ann. She left yesterday sometime at night… I think she’s cute, isn’t she? Just like those ladybugs we see in cartoons.

Other than that… We are all melting in Vienna. It’s been a few weeks now that we have temperatures over 30, and this week has been over 35. And it’s summer vacation. And I am working. Damn.
But work later. Nice things first.
Last weekend I went swimming, just because being at home or anywhere else was unbearable. And where did I go? To the Danube! Yep, I swam in the famous river of the song. It was nice. We got there at 10 in the morning, which I thought was late and it would be crowded because we are in Austria, and you know how these Austrians are all organized with their schedules and such. And we all know that it is better to get the early sun of the morning, although we are always too lazy to wake up at 8 on weekends. Anyway, it was not crowded, we got a nice place under a tree, played games and swam with the fish and swans. Yes, there were swans there, lots of them!! And they were really close to us, like 2 meters. The fish I don’t like to mention, since they would be a reason for me not to go in, but the heat beat the fish, and I swam anyway. It was a nice Saturday 🙂

Still not about work.
A few weeks ago a saw a movie in youtube, actually, more like a documentary, about animals. It shocked me, really. If you like your meat, don’t watch it. Since then I have been trying to avoid eating meat whenever possible, and you know what? Not so hard as you’d expect! Of course you need to be careful and get those proteins somewhere else, like in eggs (but not too much! I’ve heard they have lots of cholesterol…). In any case, I recommend the movie. If you don’t want to become vegetarian, that’s ok, you can cut meat a few days a week, it’s not so bad and it might be actually healthier. We do eat a lot of meat…

Time for the afternoon snack now. No time to write about work, for your sake (and mine)  🙂

A plea for information

Socrates said once that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. At the present moment I say that the unexamined opinion is not worth giving. I will explain why.

A few weeks ago something interesting happened in Brazil. Something unexpected and that I never thought I would see: people protesting. They were protesting initially against raises in transportation costs, then against the world cup costs, then against corruption, then against the low quality of life, then against… well, against everything you could protest. Initially I thought that this was good. Finally people were noticing the absurdity in Brazil’s politics, how much is left undone for stupid reasons, how many problems could have been solved so far and how corruption and private interests get in the way of social development. I thought people had noticed that things could be much much better, so they went to the streets to protest, and as a way of relieving all the frustration. So far so good. I think this is ok, it is a legitimate way of showing the government that we are not happy with the way things are, for a long time now.

But (there’s always a but)…
People in general like very much to “go with the flow”, and with social networks now this is easier than ever. I have four examples.

A few posts ago I mentioned a problem that happened in Brazil with the financial assistance for the poor. A rumor was spread that this assistance would be over and in one weekend thousands of people went desperate to the bank in hope to get their last payment. As soon as a person gets such information, they don’t even think it can be fake, they don’t suspect it and don’t search a reliable source. Instead, they share with all their friends… who do the same. And before you know there are thousands of people desperate for a fake reason. This is very very serious.

For a long time I have been puzzled why public education is so bad in Brazil. I decided to send an e-mail to a few people I know that are teachers in public schools. I thought they were the best people to tell me what was indeed the problem. Well… only one of them replied, and she told me what I did not expect. She said that infra-structure is not really a problem. That the city hall had enough money for materials and such. Teachers just needed to present a project stating that they needed these or those books, games, etc. and the city hall would provide it to them. She didn’t even mention the teachers’ salary. But she could not pin point the problem for me. So in April I went to Brazil and I spent a day in a public school. My conclusion was the the problem was *not* infra-structure, or the teachers’ salary, but it was much harder and serious. (Maybe I’ll write a post explaining my point of view in the future…). The point is: there are many many people that think the problem of public education is lack of investment, either for paying personal or for buying material for the kids. Why do they think that? Because that’s what everybody thinks! And everybody cannot be wrong, right? Wrong.

In the midst of frustration and protests, there are many people worried that a law project, called PEC37, will be approved. They say it’s the “impunity PEC”, that it is very bad for us and we should also protest against its approval. I have even received e-mails asking for my signature against this thing, so I decided to find out what the hell it is. I read a quick explanation on a news paper (it seemed unbiased), then I read the article that would be changed on the constitution and I read the proposal, that states how this article is changed and why. Honestly? I don’t think I understood 20% of it. And I am wondering now how many people can be such experts that they really understand and strongly oppose this change. How did this come to be?? Well, somebody decided they were against it, maybe this person actually know about it and this is their opinion. And then they shared, it came to the media, and more people shared, and now everybody is fighting against this that they don’t really understand.

Remember those e-mail chains you got saying that you’d get a penny for each reply or that somebody was missing? Have you ever wondered how many of those were true?? I looked for more information on some of them, and I never got a single one that was real.

My brother in law argues that the same is happening with the protests. If you go in Facebook now, it is almost annoying the amount of messages of people giving their opinions on PEC37, on the health system, on the protests, on the police… etc. But are these really their opinion? Or are they sharing things because all their friends say the same? I think it’s time to stop sharing and start thinking. We are people with lives and jobs and families, it is not likely that within a few hours we can decide what we think on such difficult subjects. Opinions require information, a lot of information, and time.

I leave my plea for people in Brazil to reflect and find out why they are so unhappy. Then, use this energy to study and propose solutions. Then you protest for this, and not against everything else.