PhD Adventures

August 26, 2014

For those of you who haven’t noticed, I’m gone again. For the long run this time.

I haven’t entirely decided on a new format for the blog, and I’m currently toying with a few design ideas. May ditch the custom themes for a bit.

This is all tied in with my latest new beginning, the third ‘era’ of my blog: my adventures as a PhD student. It will serve first as my diary, as a way for people I know to find out about my life and then, for other prospective PhD students to get a bit of an insight into what life is like. I plan to write at least weekly through the entire degree and chart the highs and lows of ‘grad school’ life.

For those who don’t know, I’ve just started my doctorate in Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s currently looking like I’ll be working on a project in computer security, but more on that later.

The flight over was unfortunately more eventful than I’d planned on. On leaving, I had already accrued enough points of Aegean Airways to merit Start Alliance Silver status, so it all started well. I paid the extra $100 for my second suitcase and departed for my first leg MEL-SYD. That flight was fairly empty with nothing special to report. The next leg however was packed full. SYD-LAX departed on time, with me seated next to two elderly folk from California who insisted that the only way to get through a flight was with the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol. Every time the drink cart came by, it was another two whiskeys for him and another few mini bottles of wine for her.

When I arrived at LAX, I made it through security pretty smoothly, however once on the other side, it was clear things weren’t quite right. A slew of flights were delayed and people were rushing about madly. Another normal day for United Airlines I guess. Both flights to Philadelphia for the day were delayed. The first waiting for another flight to arrive and the second as a result of mechanical failure. I put myself on standby and kept racing between the two gates in case one or the other boarded first. Finally my flight was scheduled for boarding, but it left only twenty minutes for my transfer to my final flight. LAX-DEN was not very successful from a logistical perspective. After a good forty minutes on the tarmac we finally lifted-off.

I was in a cheery mood despite being fairly sure I would now miss my connection, so I decided to be friendly and say hi to the flight attendants/stewardesses, no doubt they were having a rough day too with a plane full of now cranky passengers. They ended up being friendlier than expected, and soon enough I was up the back of the plane with Natalie, Kat and Amanda about life and travel. Natalie was even kind enough to offer me a place on her couch should my flight be delayed. One of the other passengers brought some Indian bread along and soon there was a small picnic in the galley, supplemented by some of the Cadbury’s chocolate  I had on me.

When I landed I raced across the terminal, only to see that the gate for my flight had closed three minutes prior. Close but no cigar. It took me another hour and a half at the airport before I was all sorted with a flight the next morning to Philadelphia. Leaving the airport to where I was staying for the night, I was amazed by just how flat the great American plains were. With the rockies in the background, the sun setting across Denver provided a picturesque moment that I unfortunately didn’t photograph, due to a fascination with the glorious crepuscular rays shining from on high. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep, but twenty-four hours after leaving I was still in transit.

Wednesday/Thursday – 146/147

December 23, 2012

Today was the day to see a show and we picked one that was on the cheaper end for rush tickets: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This was a light-hearted musical based off Charles Dickens’ tale that was left unfinished at his death.

But the first order of the day was obtaining breakfast from a nearby bakery (dual pastries for me, a pain au chocolat et un croissant) and the to pick up some documents I needed printed for my visa application from my cousin’s office downtown. After that it was a light lunch at a vegan/vegetarian fast food joint and then to the show!

The show opened with the warning that we would be voting on the ending for, as Dickens had let it unwritten, the choice would be left up to us as an audience. The show featured heavily non-naturalistic elements including partial narration and frequent breaking of ‘the fourth wall’ but this didn’t detract in the least from the audience’s emotive connection to the story, as frequently occurs. This is possibly because the strong character archetypes that Dickens employs are so designed to arouse a human connection that despite any theatrical additions, the core messages remained. Our audiences chosen ending was somewhat surprising and the actors did a find job of improvising the needed elements. Overall I highly recommend this show, especially given the price for which a student can obtain tickets.

The rest of the afternoon was spent collecting my belongings before eating a little sushi with mum and going to the Port Authority Terminal. Unfortunately with mum being slightly paranoid about me not missing my bus she accidentally ditched me an hour early after misreading the time! Thus, I decided to buy the paper, a book and, a magazine, to while away the two hours before the bus left.

Once on the bus I had a most unpleasant ride, with a large overweight individual of African-american ethnicity with large thighs and loud music sitting alongside of me, reducing my seat to more of a half seat and my sleep to null.

I arrived in Montreal at 5AM, greeted with frozen air and an icy wind that chilled my innards to stone. My nerves protested as I stood outside arguing with the taxis drivers over who would take me. Eventually I made it to 3527 Lorne, Ariel Z, a Melbourne friend’s apartment that he had vacated at the end of exchange just a day prior. His rent carried over for a couple of days and so he said it wouldn’t be a problem if I crashed there. Unfortunately the landlord was later to come and change that…

As I stepped over the front porch, I slipped on the sleet and landed in icy water that made my already burnt nerves scream, and the few minutes it took me to find the hidden key and open the door were painful. Finally inside, I was lost as to which room my key could open and after ten minutes of searching, I found the room, changed out of my clothes and crashed on the bed for a brief forty minutes of sleep I could allow myself before rising to get my visa done.

My visa appointment was at 8AM at the US Consulate in Montreal. It was meant to be a ten minute walk away, however with no internet and no map, it took me close to forty minutes to find the place. Out in the cold again, with not enough cover, this was made more difficult by the fact that I needed to hide from the cold inside apartment buildings along the way so as to avoid frostbite. Once at the consulate there was a line that formed and we were made to wait outside for around twenty minutes. The air was already warming and for that I was most grateful. After a good hour more of waiting I made it through consulate security, past the waiting line for visas and to my interview where I was charged over $300 in fees just to be assessed for the claim. I was then informed that my sponsor institution, the University of Pennsylvania had not paid the SEVIS fee, as was customary for host schools and, that they could not issue my visa until such was done. They took my passport, my I-20 visa application and supporting documents and was thus sent away with information on how to pay the $200 fee myself and also told to contact Penn to get them to pay it too.

From there I headed down the road to find a SIM card so I could call Penn, and a cafe with wifi, to make calls and pay the fee. During this period I was charged ridiculous roaming fees by AT&T. On the scale of $2/min of phone usage and $15/MB of data usage. This meant in 24 seconds of internet usage I was charged $4. Not very fair. I finally made it to the cafe and after calling Penn and being told they couldn’t help, I decided to pay the fee myself. However, on reaching the payment page for the SEVIS fee, was told I needed information from my I-20 which, if you recall, had been taken into holding by the consulate.

I thus raced back to the consulate, trying to make it before the 11AM deadline, only to be told by the security guard that without my documents I couldn’t be let in the building. The tears started to flow and I tried asking calmly if there was anyone else I could speak to about it and he directed me to another staff member who he claimed would tell me the same. She in fact told me to go right on through but the guard, on hearing this questioned her to the point that I was escorted from the building until such time as they could ascertain what to do. After a number of tense minutes, I was eventually readmitted, without any documents to the top floor, where a kind lady handed me photocopies of all my documents necessary to pay the SEVIS fee.

From there I found my way back to Ariel’s apartment and met with the single current resident, Leo from Melbourne Uni, a Bialik boy in my brother’s year and also a Melbourne High Old boy. We had a great many friends in common and hit it off fairly well. He then gave me access to the wifi in the apartment which was a great help and allowed me to pay the SEVIS fee. I then emailed the receipt off to the consulate and from that point just hoped they would approve my application without the 60-90 day administration period that they had told me could follow.

After that I fell right asleep, hardly waking up till dinner. At that point we went out to search for a place to eat. It was that evening that I had my first encounter with the cannabis plant, in this case, a delicious hemp-burger that was served at the vegetarian restaurant around the corner. Perfectly legal, perfectly safe and perfectly delicious.

After dinner I didn’t last much longer and was soon asleep again, finally a chance to relax a little after a somewhat harrowing 24 hours.

Israel – Day 7

July 27, 2012

Today was a bright and early start, 7AM, in order to get to the conference on a “Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Midrash and Talmud”. Since the last time I’d come to Israel, all the bus routes had changed, including the pricing scheme. Think Myki. Unfortunately to obtain one of these smart cards, one was required to go to the central station and present your passport, which requires dealing with Israeli bureaucracy. An absolute nightmare.

After dealing with the transport issue, I arrived at the Shalem Center, where I believed the conference was being held, only to be informed that the conference was in fact located 20 minutes down the road! With only 10 minutes to spare, I sprinted in the heat to the venue, arriving just in time to grab a pastry on my way in to the first session.

The first session was a view of systems of thought, in regards to the story of Adam and Eve, reflecting on an epistemological categorization of man. Of note was the connection drawn between ‘adam’ (man) and ‘adama’ (ground/earth) used to show that Judaism rather than believing that the physical impinges on our mind’s freedom, is in fact vital to it. This was compared to ‘cognitive paganism’ whereby the physical nature of the connection between mind and body is considered to be a limiting factor.

The next session was not nearly as enjoyable or insightful, though it began promisingly. It was presented by two Christians, a philosopher and a theologian. It relied on the premise of god’s foreknowledge of the world and this was heavily debated by a number of conservative attendees.

Lunch was a delicious buffet where I engaged in conversation with a girl Riva, from England. She was somewhat of a puzzle, with a conservative history but a later move to very fervent orthodoxy. A student of theology at the University of Leeds, at 19 years old, she was the youngest there.

The session immediately after lunch I again didn’t find particularly engaging. However, the final one I went to that day was an attempt to draw parallels between trust in science and validation of rabbinical and exegetical views. Through Polanyi’s philosophy of science, he showed how similar to the development of a body of science, where no individual holds the complete body of knowledge, Rabbinical Judaism relies on similar processes.

After the conference I went back to Beit Yehuda to see Adi and Sarah. As they had finally finished the MDA course, them and their course-mates went out on the town for the evening, with me tagging behind. Once the majority of the group  went to the dodgy bars of Rechov Rivlin, we instead chose to go for a lovely dinner at Ha’Marakia, a soup bar with an indie feel. The rest of the evening was spent wandering the streets of Jerusalem, including a brief trip into the old city, where I questioned a few Arab teenagers as to the appropriate phrase to wish someone at the conclusion of a day’s fasting.

Hamarakia (Not My Image)

© 2012-2024 Shaanan Cohney