Nov 23 2008

On Work, or What I do all day

by at 8:19 pm

Jackie says no one Stateside has any idea what I do all day. On Twitter, Judy responded to my request for blog ideas by asking a bunch of questions about my work (and one question about the weather). Meanwhile, I think people in my lab know what I do—if any of them are still reading my blog, maybe they’ll leave a comment—but I’m not sure I’ve successfully explained my work to anyone else on campus or beyond. (For those like Judy interested in the weather: it snowed the other day, but didn’t stick. The temperature is dropping and it remains inscrutably Celsius.) 


Swiss “latkes”

So, work: I was hired to work on a project in the Media & Design Lab at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). EPFL is a tech school, so you should think MIT in terms of the types of students and research. The Media & Design Lab is an interdisciplinary lab between the computer science and architecture departments. I don’t know from architecture, so I can’t compare it to, for example, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). But the lab itself has a large proportion of people formerly of the GSD. In fact, our Swiss representation is quite low—I’d guess almost everyone in the lab knows about Toscanini’s, while not everyone is quite familiar with an important Swiss food called rösti! (a Swiss version of latkes, originally eaten by farmers, fried on both sides, sometimes topped with eggs or cheese.)

The project I’m working on is a collaboration between my lab and an organization in Geneva called the Foundation for Geneva. At the Foundation for Geneva there’s a guy named John who I’m working with. (Hi John!) He’s got a political science and economics background so he’s focused more on the sociology and urban studies aspects of the project, whereas I spend my time collecting data into a database and creating very rudimentary web applications to view and interact with the data. But there isn’t (I hope!) a clear delineation in terms of responsibilities, and my desk is currently stacked with non-tech books I keep meaning to read. John works from home or in Geneva, so we collaborate by phone, e-mail, and of course, Google chat. The other people working on the project are the professor who runs the Media and Design Lab and a senior person at the Foundation who actually used to be posted in Boston at the Swiss Consulate in charge of the Swiss House (another person probably familiar with Toscanini’s!)

The project I’m working on is a very heavily data-driven research project on “global cities,” with a bit of computer science, a bit of urban studies and sociology, and a fair amount of data mining and data visualization. I’m really excited about the last piece, data visualization. From what I can tell this is a very hot field, both within academia and beyond. Check out some of these highlights I’ve come across recently:

  • The New York Times’ Visualization Lab, a collaboration with the folks who do the fantastic Many Eyes
  • San Francisco MOMA’S ArtScope, which provides a neat and fun interface for visually browsing and learning about their art collection
  • “Obama Elected By Rich Loamy Soils of Cretaceous Seas” — explanation here (headline is from kottke)

(I found out about most of these through the blog information asthetics, which I highly recommend if you’re into this kind of thing.)

I can’t give too much away about the project here since it’s not public yet, but feel free to send me an e-mail if you’re dying for more details. Hopefully, I’ll have something really cool to show off in the next few months. In the meantime, this post was supposed to be about what I do all day.

What I do all day: a normal day consists of me arriving at work sometime between 9am and 9:30am. Our lab is a nice, bright room with a bunch of tables and computers. There’s a window that looks out into a big enclosed sunlit courtyard, or less charitably, an enormous hallway. It’s not really a laboratory in the sense of lab equipment, though we do have a laser cutter next door, which I’m hoping someday I’ll have an excuse to use. The lab has anywhere from 0 to a 7 people in it at a time, depending on whether or not some of the members are off teaching for the lab’s architecture studio or running human/computer interaction studies, or whether guests or master’s students are hanging out, doing their thing. I have access to a sweet European style espresso machine and I drink a couple of fresh cups of coffee during the day. Mysteriously, the rest of the lab almost exclusively drinks tea, which I have nothing against and drink a fair bit of as well. 

Every other week the four people working on my project meet in Geneva to discuss progress on the project. Thanks to my experience in Marshall’s organizing course I’ve been pretty consistently bringing agendas, but my facilitation isn’t what it was at its height when I’d facilitate a PJA meeting and Jackie would give me immediate feedback afterwards. (If you don’t know what “facilitation” is or why it’s important for successful meetings, Marshall’s syllabus says the go-to source is Kim Bobo, Organizing for Social Change, Chapter 12, “Planning and Facilitating Meetings,” p. 94-102. You can also read Marshall’s take in his Organizing Notes on pages 71-74.)

So basically, I sit in front a computer all day, reading computer science and sociology papers, writing php scripts, and trying to learn about information visualization. I’m also hoping to learn a web application framework like Wicket or django, a visualization tool like Adobe’s Flex or the lab favorite, processing. I also need to learn a lot about networks, as studied in physics, computer science, economics and sociology…quick!

Overall, and in summary, I feel like I have too many opportunities and I’m afraid I’m not taking advantage of all of them. I’m not a student, so I don’t have any classes I need to take or homework I need to do, but I could and hopefully will audit a class next semester. I’m in a lab that does architecture and design, so I’ve been trying to pick up some of that here and there. I’m at a school with a top-notch computer science faculty, but I’ve felt busy with my project and thus I haven’t been going to as many talks or generally talking to as many people as I’d like. I get to take free French classes at the Language Centre, but I’m not learning as quickly as I could be if I put myself in more situations where I was forced to speak French. I use (and often modify) lots of software libre tools all day and cook up useful scripts (i.e. simple, short computer programs) for useful tasks, but I haven’t been taking the time to write any of what I do up for others to find. And the list goes on. (Also, I’ve been neglecting my Twitter feed, but maybe that’s not a negative. Follow me on Twitter if you feel otherwise.)

So I think that sort of somes up what I do all day, but maybe I’m wrong. Questions?

(Legally speaking, I believe that because of that delicious picture of rosti, the content of this blog post is under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reduce, reuse, recycle away!)

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8 responses so far

8 Responses to “On Work, or What I do all day”

  1. Judyon 23 Nov 2008 at 10:14 pm

    I love it — thank you for the explanation! I find it so interesting to hear how people spend their days. And it sounds like things are exciting!!

  2. Sethon 23 Nov 2008 at 10:45 pm

    No problem!

    …so, what do you do all day? I expect that you have an accurate, down-to-the-minute picture, or at least used to? (Oh twitter…)

  3. Nathanielon 24 Nov 2008 at 10:09 am

    I still drop in occasionally, though that doesn’t mean I really know what you’re up to over there at that desk…
    ps. The laser-cutter is ideally suited for cheap and thoughtful-appearing holiday cards; I’ll probably be making a batch of the Christmas variety soon if you’d like a tutorial.
    pps. Possible Thanksgiving potluck this weekend. I can’t promise tofurkey, but I’m sure there’ll be something delicious sans meats.

  4. Sethon 24 Nov 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Sweet! Put in your request now if you want a holiday card…

  5. Daphneon 24 Nov 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I made pretty excellent thank-you cards for an architecture school fundraiser last month. my advice? be sure to turn on that really loud vent-fan-thingy, so you don’t start a small fire…

  6. Sethon 25 Nov 2008 at 1:54 am

    Sound advice, although Nathaniel and I did just recently attend a multi-hour long training session for EPFL staff with a breakout session on dealing with fires.

    Speaking of advice, thanks for the advice on the UPZ website! I’m trying to figure out a better green. Try this website with hex color #2464B2 and tell me if you like any of the greens.

    Other readers are invited to play this game as well. The current green I’m using, as you can see on the UPZ website is #9dcc85. Daphne says it could “pop” more. Help!

  7. […] a job where I’m expected to learn new things every […]

  8. Jackieon 20 Dec 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Here’s a photo of Seth at work! http://www.flickr.com/photos/jgranick/3113750723/

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