The blog of DAVID KOUŘIL

2020

The plan for the year 2020 is the following: Submit a third paper, get a car, finish the PhD, and get visible. High hopes for this year as you can see.

Submit a third paper

The beginning of the year is traditionally going to be about working hard to submit a paper to the IEEE Vis conference. That would be the third one, and hopefully last one, in my PhD. I’ve done this in the last two years so I know how it’s gonna come down: from now on until the end of March it’s heads down, work hard, not much other distractions. Just go to the gym, go to work, make sure to have some good time off. The rest of the year will probably be more exciting.

Get a car

When we were living in Vienna it didn’t make much sense but now that we’re back in Brno I really want to get a car. Suddenly there’s just so many more reasons to go somewhere: visit relatives or friends, go pick something up, even going grocery shopping became much more cumbersome without a car. Really don’t like having to always ask somebody to drive us places. So that’s definitely a goal in the first half of the year, to become more self-reliant and honestly more grown-up.

Finish the PhD

Definitely the biggest goal and expectation in this year is to actually finish the PhD. It seems like it might just happen—right before the year ended, I received some good news about my second paper: it got a minor revision decision, which means that if I can address the brought up remarks, it would get published in the highest journal of our field. This paper got initially rejected from a conference and it really made me question if it’s worth to continue. I reworked it, submitted it again, and here we are. Having two papers published at this level of a venue practically guarantees that I can get the degree. The question is whether I can get a third paper done, and therefore reach the highest grade.

Get visible

The last point is related to what happens after I finish. I still don’t think academia is the best place for me. While I can absolutely appreciate all the things I’ve learned thanks to doing the PhD, I feel the urge now to go and try to apply these skills in the “real world”. What I want to do this year, is to basically put myself out there: sharpen my skills, figure out what I’m about, work on side projects that I believe in, and put it out there to see what happens. I’m basically hoping that I’ll find out what kind of options I have.

Naturally there are other small things that I would like to do this year: keep writing the blog, learn more German, continue with the training in gym and focus more on my diet. But these are secondary to the four items that are central to me now.

I’m feeling extremely motivated. When I look back at the last year, and what I wanted to do and accomplish then (PhD-wise, as well as our USA trip with Gabi), I have to say that it was a great year. Of course, since I’m a bit superstitious, I’m conscious about all the bad things that can happen. But if everything goes as well as it has up till now I can’t help but imagine that a year from now I’ll be on a completely different level. And that just makes me excited.

Autumn trip to Canada

Many things have been happening this autumn, and it’s about time I start writing it down before I forget it all. My trip to Canada is first on the list.

The most important conference in our field, the IEEE Vis, was happening this year in Vancouver, at the end of October. Me and three other friends from the academia environment took advantage of that to go on a road trip before the conference started. We ended up driving from Calgary to Vancouver and getting the sights “on the way”. If I remember correctly the route was roughly this: Calgary, Banff, Icefields Parkway to Jasper, then back through Golden, Kelowna, and finally Vancouver.

All the photos from the trip can be found here: Canada 2019.

I liked Vancouver a lot. It was a great spot for the conference, right at the waterfront with many great places to get food. We also caught it in the peak of autumn, the trees had very nice colors. It was already pretty cold though (with a lot of rain).

Funny side story: we have a collaborator in Seattle, so me and my supervisor used the opportunity to visit him and his group. On the way there we took a seaplane (which was great, although the weather almost prevented us from going) and a Greyhound bus for the way back (way less glamorous experience).

Moving from Vienna

A lot has changed since we came back from our vacation in the USA.

Probably the biggest change was our move from Vienna back to Brno (Czech Republic). After living in Austria for two and a half years, it was a time for change (for several reasons).

The two cities are not so far from each other, so we did the moving ourselves, in the same way as when we moved in the opposite direction: rented a van, asked some friends and family for help, and then powered through for a few days. It was a tough extended weekend, mainly because we had to scrub every surface of the new apartment before we felt good in it.

I haven’t even had time to properly enjoy our new place, and experience our new life back in Brno, because I had a trip to Canada planned. First we went on a roadtrip with three other colleagues-friends and then we went to the IEEE Vis 2019 conference.

The second change was a re-submission of my paper (second in my PhD), which I actually managed in a hotel room in Calgary.

Autumn this year is extremely busy. After coming back from Canada, I have a week of rest but then I’m going to Saudi Arabia (KAUST to be more precise) for a summit. KAUST is where my supervisor moved a year ago and now he’s organizing an event, so I said I will join because I’m also interested to see how it is out there.

Hopefully once I’m back from all this traveling I’ll have some time to rest. I’m already looking forward to a regular gym routine, eating better, and spending some free time with Gabi.

USA roadtrip 2019

I finally went through, edited, and put up on the web our photos from the road trip in the USA. I split it into two parts:

Changes

We came back from vacation in the United States at the beginning of June, actually a month ago. Few days before we got on the plane back, I received a notification that the paper I’ve submitted at the end of March has been rejected.

Being at that time in San Francisco, almost at the end of our road trip, it made me think. What do I want? What do I want to do? What do I want to achieve? Where do I want to do it?

I decided there that I don’t want to continue with the PhD.

We took a walk from the Fisherman’s Wharf towards the Palace of Fine Arts and talked about it with Gabi. I can pinpoint the exact bench at the Palace park where I decided that I’m not happy in the current situation and I that want to do something about it.

I haven’t been happy for some time. I’ve actually debated it (and leaned towards leaving) at least twice before. Once after my first paper got accepted and I felt like I don’t really to do this all over again (two more times). The second occasion for my “PhD crisis” was last November, right before my supervisor gave me a strong direction for what my second paper should be about.

This time it was after a rejection, but I like to think that it wasn’t because I got discouraged by it. It just made me realize that I don’t have the necessary passion for research and academia.

I’m gonna say it—I am not excited about writing papers. I don’t see myself as an academic/researcher. I don’t like to think about a project in terms of how it differs from stuff published before (the “related work”).  I believe that nothing is completely new, somebody’s already had your idea before, maybe in a different context, maybe in a different application, but it’s there. And your job as a researcher is to defend your work, find the specific arguments why what you came up with is new, novel. For some reason this defensive approach to creating is bothering me. And, most importantly, I realized that a paper is not a satisfying end-product to me, a fulfilling result of my work enough to justify the energy that’s needed. I look back and I feel almost zero pride about the work that I did in the last two years. That’s, at least in my book, a strong indicator.

I know that a part of being successful is getting rejected and afterwards improving as much as you can (and minimize the random chance factor of the process by simply doing great work). But honestly I just don’t want to improve in this. I don’t want to shape my skills in the discipline of getting papers accepted at conferences and journals.

Finally, I’ve got to the point where I have a great need to find my place outside of the school/university environment. I’ve been at some school for most of my life and I want to break away from that so much. I want to figure out if I can survive in the “real world”, find my place in it. This might sound like a pretty stupid reason to quit (of course academia is real world too) but at this moment this is how I feel about it.

Couple of other factors contributed to my decision that I want to leave academia and once I came back to Vienna I started talking to people. I told my supervisor about my decision to quit the PhD, talked with other senior people, told my colleague/friend. This time I was determined to do something about it and the most appropriate solution was to just quit. However, once I started talking with people, other factors came into question and another option opened up.

The thing is, I still believe that PhD can give you a lot when it’s structured in the right way, you find the right environment and know what you want from it. There are aspects that I definitely appreciate. You learn how to express ideas, how to put them in context with what’s already out there (not that it’s my most favorite thing to do, but it’s nevertheless an important skill). I’ve had the opportunity to practice presenting our work on several occasions (internal meetings, talking with international guests, presenting at a top conference) which is something I’ve actually quite welcomed and enjoyed. Lastly, even though I don’t enjoy writing papers as much, I do like writing in general. And if I’m to judge, I did get better at it thanks to my time in academia.

I also started to feel a bit bad about leaving my last work unfinished—as I started reading the reviews and thinking how it could be improved. Even though the initial instinct was to just “fuck it all”, I would still like to finish what I started (at least to some extent). And of course there’s “sunk cost fallacy” which makes me feel like I’ve already invested this whole time into the degree, so I might stick it out for a bit more and then get it (even though getting the degree wasn’t ever the main goal for me).

In the end, the situation right now is this: we are moving from Vienna back to Czech Republic, which is going to put us closer to our friends and family, and basically give me a better (familiar) support network for deciding what to do next. I will still be employed at TU Wien and staying in the PhD programme for the time being. Working remotely, I’ll finish a revision for the rejected paper, and afterwards, until my contract runs out at the beginning next year, either try to go for a quick third paper or try to wrap up the degree somehow. We’ll see how everything works out (lots of unknowns).

It took me a long time to put this together because I’ve been chasing and connecting different thoughts. There are some significant changes coming and it does make me excited (and scared obviously). I’m excited because I’ve come to realize that a very important thing for me is to live my life on my own terms, powered by my own motivations. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m being pushed into some direction. I want to take action.

In between

These days have been weird.

After the deadline I’m not sure what to do with myself. I’ve wrapped up some missing implementation but honestly I had a hard time getting myself to do it. On the positive note, however, I found out that I really love to blast out some music into my headphones and just dive into the code.

I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit burned out. For me, and this is really just a personal feeling, scientific paper is not the most fulfilling output of my hard work. Somehow I have a problem to attach myself to it. Maybe that’s because I’m still not too good at it and I’m not exactly sure how it all ends up together. Submitting a paper is then a very anticlimactic event.

Also, any time I submit a paper, I have a really hard time afterwards. I don’t want to think about the paper I just submitted and I also don’t really want to even think about the next one. Because what I only see now, are the tough times. I’m just gonna wait for the review scores and then see what’s next. I guess you could say that I’m really experiencing the after-deadline “depression” and I feel really uninspired and unmotivated.

On top of that, after a long time, I got sick. Although it’s not like I was absolutely out of order, I just really wasn’t feeling well. Gabi said that maybe it was a case of spring fatigue. I’m feeling a lot better now, hopefully I can resume a normal regime next week.

This time period feels like “in between” to me not only because it’s between the paper submission and when I’ll know the results. It’s also because we are leaving for a big USA trip in approximately two weeks. Now that I wrote it down it makes me nervous. There’s still a lot to plan but I’m pretty excited. We haven’t been on a vacation last summer (which I guess wasn’t the smartest thing to do—you need to rest properly!) so I’m very much looking forward to being away.

I need to get my thoughts in order. I need to get away from the usual routine to gain perspective, figure out where I’m going and re-evaluate. I’m sure it’s gonna be an adventure and I want to enjoy it fully with Gabi. The only thing we need to be careful, is to not stress ourselves. We are both recovering worriers, we want to have everything planned and worry about things that can go wrong. This trip is not going to be perfectly planned like that and I want to accept that. I want to enjoy the moment, solve problems on the fly, and just chill out.

Finishing times

This Monday, 2am, I had a second paper deadline in my PhD studies. It for was the same venue as last year, IEEE Vis.

Last year I was totally clueless, had really no idea how to do it and my co-authors really helped out. It got accepted (and even received an honourable mention) and I’ve learned a lot from the process. I guess it’s true that when you’re thrown into the water and have to figure out how to swim, you learn the most.

This year, I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned, but there’s no denying that it was still stressful times. Now that this is over, everything seems to be great. Weather is amazing (it was winter and all of a sudden it’s an awesome spring). I have time to do what I want. It’s amazing how much you appreciate free time after you’ve had to work on something for most of the day and week. I’m sure I’ll slip back into wasting it at least a bit but for now that’s something I’m trying to treasure.

I knew that I just have to submit because I need to get this done, get this off my table for a while. We are planning to go on a big USA trip in May and it’s very convenient if my paper is in review at that time. I will actually get the notification while still there.

Of course, even though I’ve finished this thing, there’s again more stuff to do coming up. So I’m trying to still enjoy this moment before moving onto the next thing.

Now that it’s been already few days, it’s starting to sink in. It has been one of the two primary goals that I had for 2019. It has been something in the works for a few months. And now it’s just done. No matter what the outcome will be, I’ve done my part for the moment. It’s very easy to just go over whatever you’ve been through, whatever you’ve “achieved” and not even pause for a bit to realize how big of a deal it is. Like now with the deadline, it has been on my mind for at least half a year, and I’ve been working on it intensely for several months. But the moment I get it finished, it’s like all this pressure has never been there, like there was no deadline. I feel like there are at least two lessons in this: a) how all the (usual) struggling is momentary, and b) how I need to more realize all the things I’ve already been through and successfully survived.

I’m really excited about future now. There’s just so much that can happen in one year, or even few months, and I have no idea where it’s all going to take us.

Right now I’m getting back to my routine, going to the gym, trying to eat a bit healthier, sleep and relax enough.

And most importantly, we can (finally) start planning our US trip properly.

Reconnecting

Two things I consider wins already in the new year.

First, I completely stopped biting my nails. Second, I started reconnecting with some old friends.

I’m bad at keeping in touch with people. It’s understandable, as you go through life, the paths you take diverge. It’s easer to stay close with your best friend from elementary school if you stay in or around your hometown. But I’m just not that type of person. I wanted to go out and experience the world. I went to university and then moved to a different country, and the people I meet every day have changed significantly.

I like this, I really like going away and be in different, new environments. I love meeting people with different backgrounds, different personalities and learning from them.

But I’m starting to truly realize, how important it is to have old friends. You need these people in your life, people that have seen you grow up, seen you be a totally lame person, been with you through some embarrassing events. Because those are the people that are close to you, they really know where you came from and who you are.

You have a connection with them through the way you’ve grown up.

And the connections that you make with other people are the most important thing in life.

It again reminds me a passage from Wear Sunscreen (something I still come back for life advice):

“Understand that friends come and go, but with the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get the more you need the people you knew when you were young.”

Winter meditations

This is what our life looks like, in the new year, in what is a not-going-away-any-time-soon winter. I’ve been alone in Vienna for some time because Gabi had to go to Brno, but now she’s back, which is great.

I’m working on my paper. I’m definitely taking a different approach than last year. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned through last year’s experience and I just hope that I’m doing it better this time. But I still expect that it’s going to get tough and I’m not going to have enough time and that I will panic.

Maybe also because of that, I’m trying to prepare myself mentally. I’m reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and this book is amazing on many different levels. For example the fact that something so old can be so relatable for today. But mainly because it’s  helping me to get my mind to the right place regarding many aspects of my life (things I’ve been struggling with for years). I really feel like there’s a lot of change happening in how I’m starting to think.

In 2019 so far I’ve been really disciplined when it comes to the gym. In January alone I had 25 trainings, which means I didn’t go only 6 days in the month. I think it’s logical what my next step is: focus more on resting properly. Weightlifting (and I guess sports in general) is nice in how you step-by-step figure things out.

So currently I’m really trying to make sure that I have enough sleep each night. I wake up early in the morning (5:30am most of the time) which means that in order to get around 8 hours of sleep I need to be in the bed around 9pm. I know that it sounds like I’m 70 but I don’t care, as long as it helps me.

And for some final news: we bought plane tickets for our trip to the USA. There was no reason to wait anymore, the flights had a pretty good price now and we decided that we want to go sooner than later. We fly in and out of Los Angeles and now the next step is to plan out where we’re gonna go, and then book a car.

Since we just definitely decided that we are doing this now, not leaving it for end of summer or anything, this also changes the way I think about work. It’s now head down and push towards my deadline at the end of March. I have to put everything into it, and I definitely have to submit something solid there. That’s the only way I will be able to go on this trip with clear head, enjoying it, knowing that I did everything I could to move forward.

Focus and Discipline

Scratch all that I wrote before, the two main things I want to really work on and improve are focus and discipline. Although that basically encompasses all that I said before.

Discipline

I wouldn’t say I’m an undisciplined person but there’s still a lot to improve. My problem is that there is a disconnection between my dreams and my actions. I have big ambitions but my day-to-day structure is not mirroring that. It could be a big problem in the future, when I realize that I haven’t accomplished what I set out to. In my eyes, discipline is what powers each day.

When it comes to discipline, the start of the year looks great. I am waking up early, going to the gym, working on myself. I have a deadline coming up so I need to stay sharp.

This is what I’m currently sticking to:

  • gym 6 times a week (Mon-Sat, Sun is rest day)
  • go hard at gym, not give myself excuses, do extra reps, extra exercises
  • no youtube on weekdays
  • phasing out facebook (not logged in since Dec 31)
  • no reddit or instagram when at work, putting my phone away

I’ve been experimenting with social media usage in the past, for various reasons trying to quit. I think having literacy in social media is going to be a very valuable skill in the future. It’s not that they are bad, the thing is that you need to know how to use them and when they could be dangerous to you.

For me I know that looking at instagram and reddit can hijack my own values, interests, and motivations. Ultimately, my goal is to find truly my own motivations, things that drive me. I want it to come from my own core, not that I saw somebody somewhere and I want to be like them.

Focus

But being disciplined is just one side of the coin. Even if you make yourself sit down to work, if you don’t focus then it’s for nothing.

Recently I’ve learned something game-changing to me. I think that in the past I’ve misunderstood the pomodoro technique. Everywhere you find written that you’re supposed to work for 25 minutes and then take a break. But it somehow didn’t really work for me, I was always hesitating to start the second work session, and in general this tempo didn’t fit.

But then I learned about a different way to look at it. The key is to go for the flow state, and that takes some time to get into. What I’ve also learned is that it takes around 25 mins to even get into this state. So basically I’ve been stopping at the point where it’s just about to start getting productive.

But you can use the pomodoro as a starter, to get you going. The key is not to stop at the crucial moment. Since finding out about this, I’ve been experimenting with longer work sessions and it’s been working so much better so far.

What I still need to figure out is how to properly prioritize. Interestingly, this hasn’t been a problem for me so much up till now. I had just mostly one big thing in front of me. But recently I’ve been taking on more and more stuff, taking more responsibilities and working with more people. I need to learn how to give priority to activities that really make me progress, as opposed to just doing work for others.

Small Life Update

I could write a lot about the importance of time and its value. It was worrying that I didn’t have anything on my hand for a while, I don’t like having to grab my phone every time I want to see what time it is (it’s especially annoying when cooking).

I’m glad that I figured out my watch situation. Since the fitbit I got from Gabi for Christmas 2017 broke, and we got the money back, I was thinking what should I get as a replacement. I really wanted to have something tough, something I can wear all the time without worrying that it’s gonna break. Which is basically the definition of g-shock.

So far I’m extremely happy with it.

And what I’m even more happy about is that it’s basically a Christmas gift from Gabi 🙂