Occasionally, I come up with new lyrics for existing songs. Here's some I recently wrote for my husband, Randy Westlund, about his favorite operating system:

BSD

(to the tune of Let It Be - The Beatles)

When I find Gentoo is too much effort
And Linux uses systemd
It's time to reconsider, which OS for me
And when Windows goes to blue screen
Allan Jude stands right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, install BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

And when the broken hard drives fail
There's no quick recovery
There will be an answer: BSD
Though data seems corrupted
It's not 'cause ZFS can guarantee
Your files can be saved by FreeBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
If you hate closed software, try OpenBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
If you have a toaster, there's NetBSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
It's more user-friendly with PC-BSD

You wake up to a big new update
Rebuild packages throughout the tree
Compile until tomorrow - BSD
And when you run your own homeserver
Focus on security
Set up jails for your users with BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

BSD, BSD
BSD, BSD
Which OS is better?
BSD

Creative Commons License
BSD (Let It Be) by Jacqueline Kory Westlund is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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question marks on a purple background

What are you doing with your life? Why?

Last year, I took a seminar for Media Lab PhD students. During one class, we pondered what questions we ought to be asking as we began our journey toward seemingly distant proposals and dissertations.

We asked questions about ourselves. About our research. Why we do what we do. How we can do what we do better. Who we care about. Our visions. Our passions.

We were given a handout with the following list to start us off:

13 Questions Every PhD Student Should Ask

compiled by Prof. Judy Olson, University of Michigan, for HCI graduate students.

  • What is the problem? What are you going to solve?
  • Who cares? Why do people care about this problem?
  • What have other people done about it?
  • Why is that not sufficient? What are the gaps and unanswered questions?
  • What are you going to do about it? (Approach)
  • What are you really going to do about it? (Methods)
  • What do you expect to find?
  • What did you find? (Findings)
  • What does this mean? (Conclusions)
  • So what? (Implications)
  • What are you going to do next?
  • Where are you going to publish?
  • What are you going to be doing in 5 years?

Then we had to brainstorm our own lists of questions. Here's what my seminar class came up with:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2014

  • How are you going to use it in the real world?
  • How are you going to change people's lives?
  • Will other people use it?
  • What is the question or opportunity? Where have we not gone yet - where are the new frontiers?
  • What does your advisor think you should do?
  • Why is it not incremental? How are you changing the conversation?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Why would the world (or your grandmother) be excited about it?
  • How can other people build on your work?
  • How could you fail?
  • How do you define success?
  • What other skills should you be learning now?
  • How do you take in the right amount of criticism?
  • How do you work with others and collaborate?
  • Who do you want to share your work with?
  • Who should you interact with to learn more about your field?
  • What's the best way to share your research?
  • What's the best way to get media attention?

Then we got to see the questions brainstormed by students in previous years. Here's what they asked:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2012

  • What am I interested in?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How do I want to learn those things?
  • Why am I here?
  • Why me? What is my uniqueness to solve this problem?)
  • What special skills do I bring to this?
  • Why do this in an academic environment?
  • What is the solution (not the problem)?
  • What is my vision?
  • What is my passion?
  • Why now?
  • What are my "bets"?
  • Who do I want to work with?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2011

  • Does a PhD enable me to accomplish my dreams? Is this what I want?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • How can I leverage resources around me?
  • What new activities can I enable (rather than problems I can solve)?
  • How can I most effectively impact the world?
  • Who should I choose as collaborators?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2010

  • What is my field?
  • How can I balance my research with the rest of my life?
  • How do my strengths contribute to my chosen field?
  • Am I happy?
  • Do I have the right advisor to accomplish what I want?
  • Can I get this done in time? (Scope of work)
  • Do I have the right background for this - should I take additional courses?

Additional questions from Mitch Resnick

  • How will my work expand possibilities and opportunities for others?
  • What principles and values will guide my work?
  • Can I create a map showing how my work relates to what others have done/
  • Who could I collaborate with?
  • What are some compelling examples that highlight the important of this work?
  • What community do I want to be a part of?
  • Can I make progress on this problem through an iterative process?

A lot to think about.

Can you answer them all?


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If I had a blog...

Well, I do have a blog. But.

You know how there are people who are food bloggers, travel bloggers, fashion bloggers, research bloggers, etc., etc., etc.?

I was thinking, if I had to pick just one kind of blogger to be, what would I pick? What do I often notice about the world? What would I want to share? The problem I was having, thinking about this, was that I know that as much as I like baked goods (for example), I'd probably get tired of writing about the same thing all the time.

Then I had an idea:

I could be a color blogger.

I could share things that are interesting colors. Nice arrangements of colors. Interesting patterns.

Not like the design bloggers or interior decorator bloggers or crafty people who share how to pick colors that go together in quilts or anything quite as useful as that.

Just colors.

Here are my colors for today:

yellow leaves against a blue sky

(I'm not going to switch to only posting photos of things that are colors I like, mind you. This is a thought experiment. A thought experiment that might include more photos of things that are colorful in the future.)


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Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.


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artificial color 3D point cloud of a room

New (old) project!

I've finally added a page about my summer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2011! I worked with over forty interns at Mike Comberiate's Engineering Boot Camp. The project I worked on was called LARGE: LIDAR-Assisted Robotic Group Exploration. Essentially, a small fleet of robots were designed to autonomously explore and map novel areas. Check it out!!

Finished year one!

I've recently finished my second semester of grad school at MIT! It was amazing. Updates soon -- my summer plans include revamping the website, adding more recent projects, and documenting some of the exciting things that have happened this year. We'll see how I do.


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