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by SS at 9:34 pm on Wednesday 12th March

Having been relatively underwater for the last seven weeks or so, I'm relieved, now, to finally have some time to sit and reflect under the breathtakingly blue sky above me, in my favourite concrete patio outside the Civil Engineering building on campus.

February and March have been whirlwinds of romance, logistical coordination, gaining some clarity about my future and, as always, assignments. Very many assignments.

The week immediately after my birthday, I was pleased to receive an offer from Mesosphere, the startup who I interviewed with on my birthday. After some negotiation (negotiating equity in a startup is an unorthodox affair to me, having always worked for large corporates), I signed my offer at the begining of February. Out of the places I'd looked at working when I first came to Berkeley, they seemed like one of the most interesting: fast growing, fascinating technology and somewhere, close to my interests, where I could learn plenty. Plus, they're in San Francisco!

In parallel with this, I withdrew from the startup, UnmannedData, I've been helping build, in varying capacities, since June last year. The plan is help them out as much as possible until graduation but it looked like our funding situation wasn't going to align in a way that would help me support myself after that. Being a international Master's student will leave me with almost nothing in the bank when I finish this program and, having recently started their second business, I can't rely on my immediate family for financial support. This was somewhat emotional - I had invested a not insignificant amount of my time (to the detriment of my health and social life) into the project. Still, a worthy experience and I wish them all the best going forwards.

Around the same time, I kicked off the application process for my California driving license. Having procrastinated hard, I spent just 30 minutes preparing hurriedly for the written test. Luckily, having driven for nearly 9 years back home and being capable of rational thought helped me get through the 36 questions with just 4 wrong. (6 wrong and I would have failed.) The process of visiting the DMV was, as popular opinion suggests, somewhat painful. Despite arriving on time with everything listed on the website, I was told I needed my I-94 admission number - this is an electronic record of entry to the country.

This was easy enough to fetch online on my smartphone. I wrote it down, went back into the office and was told that I needed a printed copy. It was then necessary to hunt down an internet cafe or similar. My first thought was to check out the El Cerrito public library. This opened at noon, and wanting to minimise disruption to my day, I had booked my appointment for 8:30am. Oops.

The next step was then to look for an internet cafe on Yelp. I went to the closest one to discover that it opened at 10. This was not a viable solution. Resigned to wait until then and despairing a little, I looked around. Success! I spotted a Copy Central opposite and cycled safely across the dual carriageway. Arriving in the store, I was happy to see a small cluster of computers with 17" CRT monitors running Windows XP. Sadly, they had a $2 dollar minimum charge for 10 minutes of usage and printing cost 10c per page. Opening up a private browsing session, so as not to accidentally 'auto remember' my passport number, I printed the I94 receipt.

The person before me had decided to print something in landscape and Chrome had handily saved these settings. This meant that my single page receipt printed on two sheets, with one line of text at the top of the second page. Total damage, including tax was ~ $2.31 to print this receipt. Oh well, I returned to the DMV and queued up again.

When I eventually made it to the correct counter, the lady took my paper receipt and typed the long number into their system. She gave the page back to me. It took some self restraint to avoid bringing my palm up to my face.

A few weeks later and after a brief practice run driving a pickup truck around the city of San Francisco (to help a friend move a couch or, as they call them here, a 'love seat'), I went for my 'behind the wheel' test. I had booked a Toyota Yaris (the first car that I owned, loved and eventually drove into the ground back in England) but, rental car agencies basically randomly assign you to the smallest free vehicle they have at the time. In my case, this was a Chrysler 200. This is a mid size sedan, which was actually rather nice to drive, with the usual underwhelming interior but a solid sound system.

My friend and I took the Chrysler up into Marin County and to the beach - making full use of the day rental to go sample the countryside. She, being wary of my rather aggressive driving style, was a little cautious and then a litle carsick as we took the curves back down. On the other hand, we didn't roll off the edge of the cliffs, so I count that as a successful roadtrip.

The next morning I drove up to El Cerrito for my test itself. My instructor, a middle aged man with an odd (read: twisted) sense of humour told me immediately not to drive any differently to normal. Also immediately, I disregarded this advice and drove far more cautiously than I would normally. This test was free of any notable issues - my only minor point being when I gave the incorrect hand signal for stopping a car before we had even begun. (I blame years of cycling where hand up means stop, versus hand down in a car. I may also have been doing this wrong for years.) The test was graded 'excellent' which is possibly the highest score I'm going to receive in any examination this year ;-).

The other significant logistical issue was to apply for OPT - essentially an extension of my F1 student visa which will let me work in the US for 12 months. Since this is a commitment of a few hundred dollars, I wanted to make absolutely sure I had filled out the documentation correctly. This required two visits to my bank, two visits to a photography shop (apparently a light-coloured shirt on a white background may be rejected for being low contrast?) and several visits to the international office. In the end, it was all submitted quickly and receipt was acknowledged by the USCIS. Fingers crossed that the application is accepted and I'll be able to start work in early to mid June.

The courses this semester are going well. The work load is about as high as last year but is more evenly distributed amongst my courses. Our parallel computing course is great fun and I'm enjoying writing c++ code (*gasp*), and, especially, having access to a NERSC supercomputer. My favourite email of the last few weeks was being told that a watch command I had kicked off and forgotten to terminate was slowing down the job scheduler. Oops.

The other CS course I'm taking is the 'Introduction to Machine Learning' course. This is a crosslisted graduate and undergraduate course and I feel the pain of the undergraduates at Berkeley. The sheer number of them in this class is huge and the scale at which teaching happens here makes it very hard for undergraduates to necessarily get the support that I used to back at Cambridge. There are about 300 students in this class and many students were rejected arbitrarily, based on their performance in another course. Many didn't know about this requirement and so I can see how they might feel aggrieved - paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and majoring in computer science, yet unable to take a fairly pivotal class. The system is broken.

It's now mid March. In very slightly over two months, this course will be finished. My parents, aunt and cousin will arrive for a long weekend to see graduation and with any luck, Phil and I will be cycling from San Francisco to either Yosemite or San Diego. The next two months are going to be a rollercoaster and will probably violate my caffeine consumption tolerance by some and then some more. It's been a fun adventure so far and it doesn't look likely to stop soon.

3 comments posted so far
Wayne Woodward wrote at 10:05 pm on Wed 12th Mar -
Sounds like business as usual for you Sunil. Hope all continues to go well for you.
Karen Reilly wrote at 10:03 pm on Tue 20th May -
Sunil, congratulations on your recent graduation and I wish you all the best for the future in the states. Don't neglect your photography because when you are my age you will look back on all of your travel memories and experiences with great fondness. I always check 500px and appreciate your eye for composition.
Franz wrote at 1:39 am on Wed 9th Jul -
My dear fellow Geek...and cyclist.

I thought you would be interested in this new invention, a bicyle radar, that gives cyclists a sixth sense! (http://crowd.backtracker.io)

Would love to know what you think!

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