Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Widows and Orphans

While you might think I'm talking about some settings in Microsoft Word, since I just completed my first day at Microsoft, that's not what this post is about. Talk about Microsoft will come later.

This morning, I was reading from the Book of James in the Bible, looking for some inspiration before I start my second day of work at Microsoft Research. There's a lot of things I'm sorting out in my head -- in particular, the reason why I'm here instead of still being in Italy. I already have some simple and obvious answers, but I'm searching for some of the more subtle reasons that, when found, really give you certainty that God really wanted you to do something or be somewhere.

I've also been thinking about what it means to be a Christian in a place of prosperity -- where I no longer stand out from the crowd and I'm no longer considered an international (or foreigner). I'm stuck somewhere between native and non-native, not quite feeling understood by either. What does it mean to be a Christian here?

James 1:27 (NLT) reads like this: "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." Who are these widows and orphans? What is their distress?

Literally speaking, an orphan's distress is not having a father (or mother). The orphan experiences loneliness and lack of direction -- lack of encouragement; lack of affection. Lack of someone to trust or hope in. And the widow? The widow once had a companion -- someone to experience life with and make decisions with. Someone who was at home with them at night and perhaps someone they saw last in the evening and first in the morning.

Widows and orphans. Their needs are great and often their hope is gone. This verse talks about what's important "in the sight of God the Father." A father. An orphan needs a father. A widow was united with her child's father before losing him. Caring for widows and orphans means being like a father. That's something I can relate to as a married man with a baby girl.

But is James just talking about these widows and orphans? It's easy to understand who they are. I think James is using this as an important example of the needs in the society he was living in. These were the people whose needs were greatest. But again, I think that this is an example of how we are to care for people in our community. Orphans in international communities can be the foreigners who don't have a place to fit in -- who might otherwise feel unwelcome or abandoned in this new society.

So, who are these widows and orphans in this new community I'm living in? Even if it's just a few months, "practicing my religion" is just as important as heading to work, which I'm going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Three o'clock in the morning. I'm sitting on my couch, unable to sleep. Life is different here.

I've returned to the United States for a three month internship with Microsoft Research. But I've never lived in the Seattle area before. It's different, yet the same at the same time.

Five days ago began a journey that tested our wits, faith, and endurance. Travel has always been a crazy adventure for us, regardless of how much we try to prepare in advance. In this case, like many others in the past, the drama centered around our dog: Wilbur. The hardest variable to solve for in virtually every equation is the dog. How will the dog travel? Who will accept the dog?

Working with Microsoft's relocation department to book a dog-friendly travel itinerary turned out to be a two week process. But that's a story for another time. We booked plane tickets from Milano-Malpensa (MXP) to JFK airport on the 24th, with an overnight stopover to allow us to rest and for my parents to take the dog home with them. Our journey would continue on the evening of the 25th, where we would fly -- father, mother, and baby -- to Seattle. Unfortunately, the flight on the 24th departed at 10:00 in the morning. Anyone living in Trento without their own car knows that the trains do not allow you to get to Milano early enough for a trip like this. So we were forced to travel on the 23rd instead and stay in a hotel.

In planning a million things for the travel, one thing we overlooked was to verify that the dog crate we used to bring Wilbur to Europe was fully functional. So, one hour before our friend Anna would pick us up by car to graciously drive us as far as Verona, I went down to the basement to collect the dog crate. Only, all of the fastening bolts were missing. Uh-oh.

It's kind of hard not to panic when you've made this big of a blunder. So with Jenn pacing around, not sure what to do, I ran to catch a bus that would take me to the biggest pet store chain in Trento. In the meantime, our good friend +Zekarias Tilahun was helping load suitcases into the car. As I ran to the bus stop, I prayed that a bus would arrive soon. Maybe not such a grand prayer, since the buses arrive every 15 minutes or so, but fortunately, the bus arrived immediately as I reached the bus stop and speedily took me to the pet shop.

Once inside the pet shop, I found dog crates, but they had sliding snap fasteners. Different from my own American crate, but it's all they had. Price tag: nearly two hundred euros in total. Oh well. Nothing I can do but buy it. Surprisingly enough, my assistant spoke very good English which helped expedite and clarify my hasty explanation of what I needed. So I bought the crate, but then I had to run to another pet shop to grab a few other last minute items that weren't in stock.

Again, I ran home and spent an hour getting the crate completely prepared. At least this 200 euro crate had wheels which would greatly simplify juggling 3 suitcases, a baby, her accessories, and a dog. Or so I thought. In the meantime, Zack had run to the hardware store and bought some bolts and screws that unfortunately were too big to repair the old crate.

Anyway, we left home late, which turned into a not-quite-high-speed race to get to the Verona train station in time for the final train leaving to Milano -- at 9:42 PM. Seriously, that early?? Well, unfortunately, we just missed it by 2 minutes. We were stuck. What can we do? Taxi? Try to race the train to Brescia? In the end, Anna graciously offered to drive us the additional two hours to go to our hotel in Milano. Amazing.

In the end, we arrived at the hotel around midnight, exhausted, but prepared to take an hour-long taxi ride the next day at 6:30 to get to the airport. After a refreshing three hours of sleep, we discovered that our flight was delayed by two hours. Which we thought meant that we had an additional hour to eat a proper breakfast.

Once we got to the airport, we went to the check-in desk, where the American Airlines supervisor promptly said: "You cannot travel with that crate." No. Not that. Impossible. After all of the work to get the crate, and all of the buses perfectly lined up to help us leave Trento in the last minute? After my friends' gracious help to get us to the airport for this very moment, you want to stand in our way?

Quickly donning my wits, I made a somewhat poor judgment call. "This woman is Italian. I'm still in Italy. In Italy, you can talk yourself out of anything." So, bearing all my stereotypical assumptions about Italian bureaucracy, I tried every corner of pleading, arguing, and reasoning to get her to change my mind. But she worked for an American business. These tactics almost never work. According to American Airlines policy, only crates with bolts are allowed on their flights. Crates with sliding locks "have the risk of opening during our flights which can put your pet in danger. We will not accept liability for these risks."

"Can I sign a waiver?" were the words coming from my mouth. Does that make me a terrible person, inconsiderate of my dog? "Or I can drill holes in the crate so that we can secure it shut?" Impossible. We were stuck. The only thing we could do was to get a crate that was compliant with their standards. (I thought I had looked into this already, but in my haste at the pet store, I settled with the only crate they had.)

Jenn and I were quite upset and feeling hopeless. Jenn made a quick decision to request that she and the baby take the flight, while Wilbur and I stayed behind. In the end, this proved to be the best decision, because the events to come would have been too trying for her and the baby to endure. Plus, we had a nice hotel in New York for them to rest in and my parents would meet them there anyway. They could help. So we said our goodbyes and I was left, standing alone with a large suitcase, a backpack, a luggage cart, a rejected dog crate, and a confused cockapoo, unsure of why our family was separating.

After a 30 minute conversation with the airline company, I was given an objective: find a new dog crate in the Milano area by tomorrow morning, and we could take a flight that would reunite us with Jenn and Julia and allow us to finish our journey together. Okay, great. But I don't have a car -- let alone much of an idea of where I need to go. So after wandering semi-aimlessly through the airport, asking for advice, I did some research on my mobile phone and discovered that there was one of those pet shop chains that sold me the dog crate about 20 km outside of Milano. Most of the other pet stores were in Milano anyway, so I took an airport shuttle back to Milano to plan my next strategy.

I tried calling a friend for advice, but he knows just as much about Italy as I do -- not enough. Unsure of what to do afterward, I decided to rant on Facebook and pray for God to give me an idea of what to do. All of the pet shops in Milano appeared to be tiny according to my internet searches. I was running out of hope. Then, I got a reply on Facebook from an American friend from our church who has lived in Italy for over 25 years. "Can I do anything to help?" Geez, why didn't I think to ask her before?

So I called Gilda, explaining everything from the standoff at the airport to the failed crate purchase at the popular pet store chain. She recommended that I should indeed go on the 20 km journey to the pet shop and return the crate. She called the pet shop, explained my situation, and got a guarantee that the shop had a crate that would work on the flight and that the pet store would accept my return. So once arriving in Milano, I deposited my heavy suitcase in a luggage valet and took the metro and a bus to Corsico.

With a dog leash in one hand and the large and awkward rolling crate in the other, I walked along the busy highway from the bus stop to the pet store, which was tucked away in some obscure street. Thank goodness I had 3G and GPS on my phone. So rationing out my phone battery and the remaining half liter of water between myself and my dog, we tiredly arrived at the large and ominous pet shop. Relief at last.

I entered the shop and spoke with the cashier and manager in poor, hastily crafted Italian, explaining the situation. The manager immediately identified me with the call from Gilda and asked to see my receipt. After a quick glance, she laughed and pointed at the top of the receipt to show the cashier. "You came all the way from Trento?" I nervously laughed in reply and explained my situation. "Well, we can't accept this crate. You didn't buy it from our store."

I was set aback. Didn't she know that already? "But...can't you negotiate with the other store? You're the same company." (of course, my Italian didn't sound that good.) "Absolutely not. If you want to return the crate, you will have to go back to Trento."

"Fine then. Can you show me what other crates you have?" Pause.
"We only have this type of crate. It's the only type of crate that's sold in Italy. All of the Italian carriers accept this crate. Yours should, too."
"But they don't. It's an American airline and they require a different lock."
"All we have is this other crate." They showed me a wire crate that looked more suitable for a gerbil. That thing would have collapsed if you breathed on it wrongly.

Again, hopelessness. I quickly prayed for an alternative. Overwhelmed by two people ranting in Italian about how there's nothing else they could do and that there wasn't anything any other pet store would be able to do to help, I called Gilda again.

"Well, what if I go to the hardware store and buy bolts and bring you your old crate? I can return the other crate to the store in Trento for you. I'm in Trento anyway."
"Well, Zack already tried that, but maybe there might be some smaller bolts."
"But how would I get in your apartment?"
"Zack has a key. I could ask him to meet you. But I don't want you to have to come all the way to Milano." A thought came to my mind. "You live close to Verona, right? Could you just take the crate to the Verona train station and I'll meet you there?" Bingo.

So, Wilbur and I had to make the 20 km trip back to the Milano train station -- in a combination of walking, bus hopping, and packing into crowded metros. When we arrived in the train station, I quickly bought a train ticket and hopped on the two-hour train back to Verona. Gilda had figured everything out with the crate and we swapped items, not entirely unlike people making shady business transactions. (Just kidding. It just sounded right to say.)

So this time, I was able to take that final, 9:42 PM train back to Milano. Human and dog both exhausted from the journey, we were dozing off on the train when some unsavory guys got on the train and started casually harassing passengers. When our turn came up, they decided to start by talking to the dog. Wilbur had no patience for them and he let them know by unleashing an unceasing chain of curses in barking form. After about 30 seconds of utter surprise, the gang-affiliated men walked away and didn't return.

Once we arrived back in the Milano train station, Wilbur and I walked to the baggage valet to retrieve our bag. We would then take the shuttle back to the airport and wait for the morning. Unfortunately, the baggage office closed 30 minutes before our arrival, meaning that we would be booking a night's stay on the cold floor of the train station. Which we did. With about 15 other passengers, all waiting for their early morning train connections. Without a jacket or warm clothes aside from my thin button-up shirt and the rain-soaked T-shirt from the previous day in my backpack that served as a mediocre pillow, I slept on the icy floor with my faithful dog curled up beside me. In 15 minute intervals of sleeping for 5 minutes, waking up because of a random noise, and then 5 minutes of trying to get comfortable, we spent our final night together.

The next day we collected our luggage from the valet and took an early morning shuttle back to the airport. The crate was accepted and we got on the flight, which was also delayed two hours. We were reunited with Jenn and Julia and my parents took the dog home. And we were able to catch our Seattle flight together and move into our apartment around 1:00 AM (PST) on the 26th.

Three of our friends: a Brit, an American, and an Ethiopian, worked tremendously to help us get here -- all of whom were connected through our church. Without them, I'm not sure what we would have done.

Well, that's enough storytelling for now. I still have a lot more to write about culture shock and returning to a different way of living, but an hour has passed and I should fight the jet lag before starting my first day at Microsoft. Thanks for your patience in reading this story.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Grief: Words just aren't enough

Grief is an inexplicable pain. When you see someone suffering this much, it makes you feel helpless. Sometimes hopeless. Sometimes it makes you want to grieve.

And when you're the one grieving, you oftentimes feel isolated. "Why does the world carry on, ignoring my despair?" Even close ones feel distant to you. Grief is messy. There's no classy way to grieve.

Nevertheless, it's important. Without grief, there can't be healing. It's worse to fight grief and to try to suppress it in order to stay strong. Caging this unwelcome feeling and always making the excuse, "I'll deal with you later." Will you ever plan time to deal with it? Or will it hit you when you are unprepared? In the past I've worn facades. I know they don't last. And it's even messier afterward.

If you're someone (un)fortunate enough to encounter someone filled with grief, what do you do? What do you say? One time in high school I was sitting at lunch with friends and the girl sitting next to me suddenly broke out in tears. She was a good friend of mine -- someone who later helped me out with my own pain. But when it came to consoling her, I had no idea what to do. So I sat there awkwardly, munching on my sandwich, silently empathizing with her pain. But was I helpful? Did she even know that I cared, or did I just look like another insensitive person, like the rest of the cafeteria? One of my other friends did the right thing. He went over and put his arm around her shoulder. That was enough. I was paralyzed with fear of what was right to do on that situation, and in turn, I did nothing. At least, not until I had an example.

Clearly words weren't needed in that situation. People often just need the presence of others. Even just a bit of confirmation that they are still human and that they aren't alone. No words we say are effective enough to stop the pain. But we don't need to stop the pain. We need to experience the pain with our loved ones, crying out together with them for God to help. But when we come to God for help, what do we say?

Again, our words can't express how we truly feel. There aren't enough words in any language to describe the situation going on in our hearts. But we don't need words to express ourselves to God. That's what the holy spirit is all about. "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26, ESV). It means that the very groans or cries we make speak more than the words we struggle to create. It means that every cry -- even a sniffle -- communicates our exact situation and needs to God.

For a God that desires to "wipe every tear from [our] eyes," this is enough. He promises that "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4, NIV). It doesn't mean that the pain is gone now, but it means that God is working in this world to bring it to the place where this becomes reality.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How far is comfort?

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4, ESV)

Jesus said these words to speak truths about how God wants to enter people's lives in a way that radically changes everything. This verse by itself looks empty, but in the context of the entire message, Jesus is describing a God who is concerned with suffering in the world: who promises to do something about it. But when you're suffering - when your heart is wrenched and your eyes are full of tears -- when you don't see how you're going to make it through the pain you're suffering today, how far away is that comfort?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46) Jesus himself cried out these words -- the same person who declared boldly these promises from God. What does this say about Jesus? Was he just another spiritual leader with empty promises?

"O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest" (Psalm 22:2). Suffering, despair, hopelessness. This is the human condition we live in. Many of us are sitting on the floor with our face in our hands, crying out, reaching out for someone -- anyone -- who would listen. Anyone who cares. Anyone that understands what this pain is like. But the irony is that despite our isolation, there are so many others around us who do understand. But they also feel alienated by their pain -- shame from their despair. Can anyone really help you when you're hurting?

You've heard it many times. God can help. Just turn to God, "Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7, NIV). But if he cares so much, why doesn't he do something about it right now? Where is this comfort that was promised to you? How long must you wait?

I don't have a good answer for these questions. I don't think anyone honestly has a good answer to this problem of suffering. All I can say for certain is that I've seen what God has been capable of doing in the past -- in my own life. And this is what helps me to carry on.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Relevance and Reverence

Is it okay to be posting memes like this? Is this making a mockery of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? Or is someone attempting to take the story of Jesus' death and resurrection and making it understandable to today's culture? I don't know the intention of whoever made this meme, but I can say one thing: I find it hilarious. Not because I think that a person being crucified is a laughing matter. In spite of the shame and rejection Jesus experienced on the cross, he rose up victorious, conquering death. Of all the things this could have Jesus say, a "nah bro" seems to hit the mark.

So, is this just irreverence, or does it say something more? And if it is irreverent, what does God think about it? Or is this meme something that's relevant to us today? I use this meme as an example of a greater phenomenon in our society. People are getting tired of imposed reverence without relevance. By that I mean that there seems to be a stigma about the church that it just propagates worship and submission to God (and Jesus, of course) without thinking. But if there isn't some relevance to what the church is doing in its worship services and in its messages to people, then it might as well be another brainwashing camp as many other things in the world are.

Ever seen the movie Jesus Camp (2006)? This movie approaches this question quite well -- and makes the evangelical movement look pretty bad in the process. In a gist, the movie highlights several "youth camps" that focus on spiritual training to help teens and tweens become dedicated to God. But it's really a masquerade where these vulnerable kids are being indoctrinated into something else. The sad thing is that these kids are genuinely longing to become closer to God and to faithfully follow him. They're brimming with potential and you can see the start of some amazing things about their character. But instead of being taught something relevant -- and, in particular, true -- their spiritual leaders are drawing them away from God and toward some superficial hyper-moral conservative activism. You could even say "legalism."

I've talked to friends from different countries who have expressed their frustrations with what they've seen in the Catholic/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank church. Many think that Jesus was a pretty incredible guy, but their church experiences have left them in an agnostic uncertainty about what God thinks of them and how (seldom) involved they think God is in their lives. Their main complaint: these churches are teaching/imposing dogma and forbidding them to question the status quo.

But if you look carefully in the Bible, you don't see that message being propagated. For example, Acts 17:11 says good things about some Jews who critically tested what they heard: "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." What does this mean? These people didn't just accept whatever was spoon-fed to them. They fought with it. What does this mean for you? You should wrestle with what you hear. You don't have to accept everything you hear at face value. You don't always have to walk on eggshells, worrying about being irreverent -- or letting others bully you into that. That's why there's a whole section of the bible called "wisdom literature" (we'll take a look at some of this later).

Sometimes you have to walk on the edge of irreverence to get to the relevance. Churches can't pretend that everything is squeaky clean and smooth. Life is hard. Faith is hard work. But if you test your faith and test what you hear, it should come back as true. God can take the heat. If anything, he appreciates honesty. And if you believe if God is omniscient (sees everything), then you know that he knows what you're thinking anyway.

This is a message that I've been saying for a long time -- particularly when I was actively involved in youth ministry. The only way to understand God is to ask him questions. And if the church wants to be relevant to the needs of society, it needs to suck up some of the irreverence and create a safe space for people to learn and explore. Note my tone here: I'm saying this to highlight my point.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Take off the Training Wheels!

So after my last misadventure with road cycling, I got a bit reflective. For me, wearing cycling shoes with clipless pedals is like taking the training wheels off your bike all over again. For a road cyclist, this is a necessary transition to allow them to ride faster, more efficiently, and also look like they belong to the sport. It's part of a growing process.

But pretty much anyone that made this transition can tell you funny stories about their first falls. Some even put their friends' experiences on YouTube for the world to laugh at. What makes them funny is that each situation looks easily avoidable. It's not like they're accomplishing much when they fall.

Now let's get metaphorical.  Taking off training wheels isn't easy. It's risky. But it's a necessary process to be mature in cycling. Kids can't stay on training wheels forever. In many areas of life, we have our training wheels. It's no different for Christians. Let's look at a few examples of training wheels in the Christian life.

Sunday school. Churches teach children at young ages important things about the Bible through programs like Sunday school: stories like Noah, Moses, or Jesus, and do a pretty good job of explaining the importance of things like Easter. Young Christians are taught how to steer and ride their way through early life by listening to the teaching of their elders. But the things you learn in Sunday school are not enough to get you through any obstacle. The purpose is to provide young Christians with a basic understanding of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian -- and most importantly, to point them to the scriptures to learn for themselves. Teachings similar to these will only get you so far in life - and certainly not through the hardest parts.

Clichés. Did God "place something on your heart" to say or do recently? Are you going through some hard times? Didn't you know that "God will never give you more than you can handle?" And that "Everything happens for a reason." Some people like to call things like these "Christianese." It's like another language. If you "aren't saved", then you're probably confused by some of this. Clichés are memorable. But they also lose their meaning from overuse (read also "over abuse"). Sometimes they are offered to people in need at exactly the wrong time. For example, if someone experiences death in their family or another terrible life-changing situation, simply saying that everything happens for a reason is enough to make someone walk away from God forever. Are you prepared to offer a theodicy that will ease their suffering? And are you ready to clean up the mess when it fails to ease their pain?

Other times the clichés you've come to know and love are completely wrong. Did Jesus or his disciples really say that money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)? Or does Paul, Peter, and the other apostles really teach that God will never give you more hardships than you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13)? The reality in the Bible is that people suffer often. They are often placed in circumstances that would be impossible for them to overcome -- without God stepping in himself to fix things. Not only that, simply saying that someone can bear with their sufferings robs them of their grieving process and their plea for help.

Do you really want to tackle these kinds of mountains with training wheels on?

Cliques. One of the best encouragements as a Christian is to have a family. Not just a blood-related family, but an entire community that can support you. This is both biblical and true by experience. You can have meaningful communities that can challenge you to work beyond Sunday school teachings and cliché remarks. This can be the next step in training, if we want to keep the cycling analogy. This is like riding with others: sometimes with training wheels, and other times you're just training with the pros. This reminds me of my experience at Houghton College. I grew in faith and experience there, but also I have to wonder: what were the challenges I had to overcome in my Christian bubble, compared with the struggles going on in the real world? Am I really in touch with everyone else out there when I'm in my Christian cliques?

Training in Christian cliques is like training on the same course over and over again. Sure, you get good experience -- and you even start learning when to anticipate that sharp turn or that difficult road you're heading on. And likewise, you know how to deal with those situations. But following the same course over and over again is...boring. The purpose of training is not to be perfect on a single course, but rather, to take the training off the well-known paths and into the unknown. Training is meant to prepare you for unexpected roads and intense situations. Training is supposed to teach you how to respond to those situations. While I could stay in that clique and go through life in security, I wasn't meant to do that. Some of the most exciting and challenging experiences are when we're outside of our cliques and doing things that no one would expect us to do. For example, leaving everything and moving to Europe.

That being said, training wheels aren't a bad thing. Training through elders, learning encouraging (and true) words and proverbs, and spending time in Christian communities is certainly not a waste of time. But keep in mind that these things aren't meant to be everything we live for. If it is, we'll find our Christian lives unfulfilling. We're meant to take off the training wheels and experience things beyond our areas of control. It's challenging, but it's exciting. Training wheels can't take that kind of stress -- they were never meant to in the first place. And without them, we'll fall sometimes and we'll get beat up a bit, but that's part of the process of building character. Nobody looks up to a cyclist that wears training wheels; nor would they look up to a Christian who's afraid to shed unnecessary layers of security.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Time to move on

There comes a time to move on. It seems that this moment is drawing close for Jenn and I. Effective mid-May, 2013, we will depart from Trento, Italy to explore the frontiers of Washington. We don't know exactly what this means for us, but we know that we are to depart soon and spend part of our lives in this area.

Redmond, we are coming. For those of you remaining in Trento, you still have some time to spend with us. Stay tuned for more updates.

Important update: For those of you still reading, I thought it might be a good idea to provide you with a little more information. In the United States, there are important times of the year to tell people important information. On the other hand, there are days where it's not as good to share. For example, today is April 1, 2013. The day after Easter. It also happens to be another special day on our calendar: April Fools' Day. Said another way: there is a chance that someone fooled you today. That someone being me.

I know, shame, shame. So now to divulge the entire truth. Jenn and I are going to the Seattle/Redmond region, effective mid-May. Just not permanently. I was offered an excellent internship opportunity with Microsoft Research, working on speech translation. I will be working with a team of excellent researchers who do high quality work -- both in terms of production software and research publications. I am excited to have the opportunity to learn from them and also to (hopefully) contribute to the research success of the team and to have some fresh inspiration for my thesis!

The internship will last for twelve weeks. In other words, approximately three months. So don't worry, Trento: we'll be back in early autumn. That being said, we will still miss you during this time and we hope to spend time with all of you before we go! We still have a month and a half.

To the Americans out there (including one especially important American living in Italy), sorry for any heartbreak or shock I might have delivered. Jenn didn't like my prank idea, so she's let me know how terrible I am for tricking you.

More information will come about the internship soon.

(By the way, the map above is a special April Fools' Google Map. Who knew that there was buried treasure in Seattle?)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Training Wheels: Part 1

So I just finished riding my road bicycle to the office. It's a short ride, only about 3.5 km (a little over 2 miles), but it's uphill. Most of the way. Actually, it's up a mountain. Here's a map of the general route:
(I'll post some riding statistics later.)

See that tiny white building on that mountain? That's about the halfway point, in terms of difficulty. The hill climbing can get a little tiresome, but the overall route isn't too bad, especially when I'm zipping along on my road bike. One problem: I didn't wear my cycling shoes. I wore these puppies.
Pumas ≠ cycling shoes
So here I am, in semi-full cycling gear. I've got the nice compression shorts that hug the curves on my bum, as well as a nice, light cycling jacket with rear pockets, and a helmet that says, I'm ready to race. But the shoes...oh, the shoes. You see, my bike has LOOK clip-in pedals, not some cheap pedal you'd use with street shoes. Instead, I'm defiling the purpose of the pedals by balancing the flat sole of my Pumas on them as I surge up the mountain.

Why would I do something so ridiculous? Especially since I have these beautiful Sidi shoes.

Beautiful, aren't they?

The problem is: I'm scared. I don't know how to use them properly. I have a semi-rational fear of pedaling uphill on the road, only to not have enough momentum to keep in motion and not being able to clip out of the pedals before coming to a stop. I don't want to fall in the middle of a road with cars going by!

I've had these shoes for over 6 months now, but I haven't taken enough time to practice with them. Well, I tried doing that today. Today was my first day riding to the office this season, so I wanted to give it a shot with my Sidi shoes. I decided to do some practice riding, much like what you'd do with your dad when you're getting off of training wheels for the first time. You look like a complete fool, but everyone understands that it's a necessary process to get you comfortable riding. Unless you're 29. And riding a professional bike. With professional-looking gear. They expect you to be a man, not some sissy with scraped knees because you don't know how to stop properly. Well, I tried to overcome that. And I did a pretty good job. I did some laps around the parking lot nearby, practicing clipping in and out with simulated stressful situations. I didn't fall. Yippee.

So I decided to hit some (flat) roads. It was a little cold, but nothing bad. I was riding along a bike lane, feeling pretty confident, so I decided to start riding at my normal cycling pace: Fast. No cars were around, so I felt like I didn't have to worry about clipping out every 2 seconds when I saw a leaf blow the wrong way. Unfortunately, a car decided to zip by and turn right in front of me to head to whatever gym made him so cool. No warning, no turn signal (come on, this is Italy). So instinct kicks in and I squeeze the brakes hard. No problem, not hard enough to flip over the handlebars. But wait a second, I forgot to do something...what was it again? Oh, yeah. I forgot to clip out. So as I brake safely to a stop, I realize that my feet are shackled to the bike and down I go, like the little boy I once was, saying "I can't do it."

But it's okay. Bella figura, right? Nobody's watching, right? Oh, except for that guy standing outside the gym with his cigarette, taking in the humor of the entire situation. No words. No "Sta bene?" Just staring. And the guy that cut me off? He casually pulled into his parking spot and walked into the gym without so much as a glance. Well, at least he's got bella figura down.

So, clumsily, I pulled myself up and after a couple of minutes, I decided to ride on. Actually, to ride home. Today was not going to be the day that I would ride up that treacherous mountain with these shoes. Time to slip back on the Pumas. Not bella figura, not one bit. So with my tail between my legs, I ride on to my office. At least I didn't fall when it counted. At least I was safe. Just like when I rode with training wheels.

So, what to do next? Will I continue to ride with my ridiculous Pumas, or will I train, so that eventually I'll be like a *real* cyclist?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Christian Rap is cool, I promise! (just like MySpace)

This is a post about Christian pop culture. Why do Christians need their own form of pop culture? Some people think that Christianity and pop culture should never have mixed in the first place. Consider this argument for a moment: When in any other time in the past were Jesus and his disciples popular?

If Jesus and his disciples weren't particularly popular from a cultural perspective, then does that mean that Christians should abandon pop culture? Personally, I don't think we have to go that far. However, it should make us think about why Christians are immersing themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has immense cultural influence. It's one of the most effective cultural mediums for communication with large numbers of people. It's also a space where philosophies and ideologies are juxtaposed. So in that way, it seems like the Christian faith should be welcome. However, in the music industry for example, anything related to religion is cast off to a sub-genre -- mostly due to other religious "baggage" that becomes attached to the music.

Is this something that Christians have done to themselves? What are the motives of the Christian content producers? It's clear that pop culture is a powerful vehicle to propagate ideologies. For some Christians, it can be a way to propose a different way of living. But pop culture is entertainment, which is why it's...well...popular. There are some Christians who try to create a cheap substitution for mainstream culture. We have these cheap imitations that are created for the purpose of saying, "Hey, we Christians are cool! We offer everything mainstream culture offers, but we have JESUS! You can be just as cool and have just as much fun without being SINNERS!" They create counterfeit copies of mainstream culture and use them to fight against the mainstream. But let's face it: nobody can beat a competitor by copying their playbook and removing their most effective players.

Let's take hip hop as a case study. It's been around since the 1970's and it came from West African culture, which used lyrical speaking and chants to communicate ideas. It's full of potential because a single song can communicate a lot. Unfortunately, most of the songs in the Top 100 nowadays present messages surrounding ego, fame, fortune, and power. It's particularly appealing because many of most influential artists in this genre come from life situations where they were at the bottom. For many of them, it's a testimony of rising to the top and celebrating their power. That can be quite inspiring. However, in the celebration of power, much of the music over-promotes self-destructive behavior to people who follow in the footsteps of the artists.

Now, many might say, "Whatever, it's just fun music I can dance or bob my head to. Nothing else." I agree on many fronts with that. Hip hop has the catchiest beats and it's certainly a good genre for having a good time. The problem comes from people who look to media for inspiration -- particularly youths dealing with hard times.

Enter Christian hip hop. Where does it fit in this cultural dialogue? It's really up to the artists to define that. Do they want to reach the world with their message, or di they just want to perpetuate Christian living and deepen the divide with the "secular" world? Let's look at some examples of recent album releases.

Exhibit A: Da' T.R.U.T.H. He's had some good stuff in the past, particularly when he was a part of the revolutionary Cross Movement - but he made the bold move of releasing an album with the title: Love, Hope, War. He's been in the hip hop scene for quite some time - hence why his rapper name is so...old. Some of the tracks on the album are pretty solid, but the album overall is geared toward Christians sharing a particular worldview, rather than the entire culture. Take for example the confrontational message in his opener:

One review describes the first song as follows:
Da’ T.R.U.T.H. ... calls for real Christians to stand up, take action, and "tell the world we declare war.”  He says we Christians have been silent for too long.  He points out that "Every time we stop moving they find a way to remove something,” going on to say that’s how they removed the Ten Commandments from courthouses, prayer in school, and more.  He uses his lyrical flow to challenge all of us to take a bolder stand for Christ and stop sitting around, letting things just happen.  He cries out that we are at war and have to stand up and fight.
The problem is that his message deepens the wound that the conservative evangelical movement has been inflicting in the U.S. These messages are closing up opportunities for conversation in the culture and is interpreted by the culture as "Conservative Republicans ('evangelicals') trying to take over the nation."

This is not the type of music that non-Christians can relate with. They won't listen to Da' T.R.U.T.H.'s message, regardless of whether his MC name has "truth" in it. I call this style, rap for Christians only.

Exhibit B: Lecrae. Recipient of a Grammy in the Gospel genre this year for his acclaimed album, Gravity. He got the Grammy for a reason: inspiring lyrics that invite dialogue with the mainstream hip hop community. Here's a playlist with two powerful songs: the first from his recent album. Additionally, his testimony. I encourage you to listen because this guy is as real as it gets.

Lecrae's style isn't to preach at the world, or incite Christians to "war." Instead, he delivers a message that describes his first-hand experiences and how God got him through it all. He's respected by "secular" culture because he's honest and delivers his message in a way that not-so-religious people can understand. I call his style Christian rap for the world.

Now, why did I throw MySpace in this post's title? Remember that social network, anyone? Remember when it was cool to use it? In my opinion, Christian rap or pop culture that tries to perpetuate the Christian agenda or provide cheap alternatives to mainstream culture is like MySpace crying: "Come back to me! I'm still cooool!" Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have long since overshadowed it with better services. Can we say the same about mainstream culture?

To further drive the point home, I hereby enclose my meager attempt at being a Christian rapper back in college. Guess where the tracks are? On MySpace.
Wake Up (beat by Official Rap Beats)

Want to read more on this topic? Check out this recent blog post.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are your opponents your enemies?

Shortly after publishing my last post, describing my turbulent application process for an Erasmus Mundus European master's scholarship, I received the following comment from a friend: "I think I was one of those three Americans. :-)" (I kept the original smiley face so that you wouldn't think he was boasting.)

This got me thinking. Were we opponents at one time? Certainly: we were applying for the same program. We competed indirectly for acceptance into a program with a limited number of scholarships. We wanted the same prize. But at the time of applying, we didn't know who our competition was. We just knew that we had to stand out above the others to be accepted. To win the prize.

When the curtains were raised and we were revealed as "winners," we were no longer competitors, but friends. But what about the many others who were rejected or did not win a scholarship? Certainly, I was almost one of them. I'll probably never know all of these people. All I know is that in every competition, some people lose, but we never want to be the one who loses.

Assuming you know your opponents during a competition, how should you treat them? How intense is the competition? Is it a just a football game, or is it something that will change your life? Should that affect the way you think about your opponents?

Back in high school, I was a track runner. My best event was the 800m. I was pretty good. When I was a freshman, I was swimming with potential. I wasn't the best, but I was improving at a rate that made coaches pay close attention to me. One thing that made me good was my drive for success. I wanted to win. I learned strategies to keep me competitive, even against opponents that were clearly better. Coaches teach that the most important key to succeeding in a competition is to stay focused. "Don't let anything distract you from your goal." Good advice, but the application is subject to interpretation. My peers taught me a particular way to stay competitive: consider your opponents as enemies on the track. They will do everything to stop you from winning. So, you must win at all costs -- just don't cheat. So I tried it. I put on a face that screamed: "don't mess with me." With anger and determination, I always placed well in the races.

There was one particularly important competition that was my last chance to qualify for districts. There was a star runner at the meet -- a senior. He was quite possibly the best in our district. In our track meet, he was seeded first position in the 800, while I was seeded second. I guess he had heard about me from some friends. He made it pretty clear that he didn't like me much. He was a pretty intimidating guy, but I wasn't going to back down. We braced ourselves at the starting line and the gun fired. He played a dirty move and tripped me while throwing some elbows and I fell at the line. The gun shot again, signalling a restart. I pulled myself up and got ready again.

This time I wasn't going to let him do it to me again. The gun fired again and I was ready with my elbows, too. We batted at each other as we fought for first position. The gun fired yet again, signalling another restart. And once again. Three restarts. Finally, after the fourth starting gunshot, we took off again. I backed off a bit, hoping to regain on him later. It didn't work. I was too tired out from fighting on three false starts. In the end, I didn't get a personal record. I didn't qualify for districts. I blamed that guy for my failure. I didn't like him.

I kept that competitive attitude all throughout high school. It wasn't until college that I got a better perspective. I went to a Christian college with Christian coaches and Christian captains. The captains were quite good. But they treated competition much differently. I watched them shake hands with each of their competitors and wish them good luck before each race. If things got dirty, they could hold their own. But they never took advantage of other competitors. They would even congratulate the opponents that beat them -- and encouraged runners that lost to them. They had relationships with their opponents that spanned beyond the track. They were serious about their sport and they fought hard in every competition, but they honored their opponents and made it clear that they were privileged to race against such good athletes. It wasn't just because they were Christian. It was because they had good character.

I was ashamed of the attitude I carried all those years. What did my attitude say about my character? Coaches blab on and on about sportsmanship for a reason. It's not just for sports, but it's for your life. Is it necessary to fight bitterly against your opponents in any competition? Or is there a way to pursue your goals while encouraging others in their own pursuits? Certainly, some of your opponents are competing for things that are important in your life. But should you disqualify your character by forfeiting humility for success?

Jumping back to my application for the master's program. My opponents weren't my enemies anymore. I knew that if God wanted me somewhere, he'd make it happen. I have too many stories that prove this in my life. Nothing is worth risking the dignity of another. Even if it means that they rise above you.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why Europe? Part 3: When a Door Opens

[This is Part 3 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 2]

In my last post, I attempted to outline the practical reasons that led me to come to Europe. While you might have considered these reasons -- well, reasonable -- you might be thinking, is that all? Because surely there were other good opportunities I could have considered...right? Certainly. And another person with the same opportunity and same lifestyle as me might have made a different -- and valid -- choice. So, if you're still asking me "Why Europe?", maybe I have other reasons I haven't mentioned thus far.

Here goes. I mentioned in my previous post that I was "eventually" accepted into the LCT Erasmus Mundus European Master's program. This is important. So, let's rewind back to 2009 again, back to one early morning in the office at my previous job. I had submitted various applications for PhD programs in the United States and also to this lonely master's program in Europe. I had already received a few acceptances and rejections from American universities (C'mon, let's be real. You wouldn't really expect me to get accepted everywhere, would you?). I had also been accepted to the LCT master, but I was on the waiting list for the LCT scholarship. I was told that I would find out by the end of May whether or not I would receive a scholarship -- but that email never came. So about a month before this day, I had resolved that I would not receive a scholarship and thus my pipe dream about going to Europe had ended.

But apparently, this was not the case. At 8:00 am (EST) on July 2, I received an email from the LCT secretariat:
We have had a cancellation from the main list, and are therefore able to advance your name and offer you the Erasmus Mundus scholarship under the following conditions:
- Your choice of partner universities has been changed to: year one University of Groningen, year two The Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.
- Due to the late date, I have to set a deadline for you to confirm your participation in the program by Monday, July 6.
Congratulations, I hope you will be able to join the program.
Wow. I was shocked. I had just arrived at my office, doing my normal email scan and found this beauty. My life had just changed in an instant. I was on an emotional high. I knew my decision: Yes! I took the next 20 minutes to call my wife and my parents to tell them the great news. I played through the million scenarios involving sharing the news with my manager and resigning from my job. It was a great job, but this was the opportunity I was waiting for!

A few hours later, I received another email:
Let me clarify my mail from this morning by giving you more details: We would like to advance your name to the main list PENDING FINAL APPROVAL from the European Union, which observes certain national quotas. Generally they can only approve 3 scholarships for any one country. We already have 3 Americans on our main list, so your name may not be accepted by the EU. Therefore, I am waiting not only for a reply from you, but also for a reply from the European Union on this matter. So, in your own interest, do not cancel any other program you may have been accepted to until we have a final notification. I am trying to contact our program officer now and will keep you posted.
Okay, a bureaucratic hurdle. No need to get upset, right? These things happen all the time. A few minutes later, I received a follow-up email.  After contacting their program officer, they could not offer me the scholarship, since there were already 3 Americans receiving the scholarship and that they must observe national quotas. I was crushed.

A lot of thoughts went through my mind. "God, why did this happen? I had already settled the matter in my mind before today." This was one of the worst emotional roller coasters I had ridden at this point in my life. A feeling of acceptance, followed by a swift rejection. I couldn't let it go.

I talked with Jenn and we prayed about it a lot, but I just wasn't satisfied with the situation. The next day, I asked the LCT secretariat if there was anything else they could do. Nope, case closed. But I had this deep feeling of incompleteness and I needed closure to move on. So I did some research. I couldn't find anything in the flood of information about the Erasmus Mundus scheme that described scholarship quotas. Only this quote from an obscure PR article from Brussels advertising the LCT program.
"Graduates from around the world can apply [for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship], and winners are selected on merit, with no national or regional quotas, commission officials said."
After trying to sort out these mixed messages in my mind and spending more time praying about it, I decided to contact the European Commission. I didn't expect any replies any time soon -- from my experience with US bureaucracy, I expected a reply sometime in November, where they would briefly cite the fine print about quotas. That would have been enough for me. Instead, I received an email reply 2 days later, saying that the commission would look into the situation.

I spent more time praying about it. I prayed the following:
God, you are a God who makes all things possible. You open doors that others have sealed, and you close doors that others have opened. If it's your will for us to go to Europe, please open this door again. I just need closure. Please, let your will be done and help me to accept the decision.
In the meantime, Jenn was at the local library, looking for travel books on Latin American countries for her students in her Spanish class. Her eyes stopped on a travel book on The Netherlands. She browsed through it for a while and decided to bring it home. That night, we looked at the book a little bit and prayed some more.

The next morning, at about 6:00 am, I rolled out of bed to check my email. For some reason, I felt like it was necessary to check right away. In my inbox was an email from the LCT secretariat, stating that their officer clarified the issue with the secretariat and that they were now able to offer me the scholarship! Praise God!

After my prayer was answered, Jenn and I knew what we had to do. After many talks with our skeptical parents, I accepted the scholarship within the razor-thin response period and we planned our hasty exit from the United States -- tales of which will follow.

This is why we came to Europe. Not just for pragmatic reasons; not just to be different from other Americans. We came to Europe because we believe that God made it clear to us that we should go. In the past, I had never imagined leaving the US. I even scoffed at the idea. "Programmers can do their job anywhere. Why should I go somewhere else?" But I'm not just a programmer. For some reason, God decided that Europe was for me, at least for a while. And I thank him for this opportunity, because I know that I've changed so much because of this door he opened in my life.

[Just to clarify, LCT is an outstanding program and the administration is very competent. I do not blame anyone in the LCT consortium for this miscommunication. Like I mentioned earlier, I believe there was a reason for this and that the experience made me aware of my desires and where I should go in my life.]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jesus and Justice

Last Sunday, I had the unique opportunity to speak at my church in Italy. It's a very small church -- not at all like the impressive cathedrals found all over Trento. Just a small store-front church near the city center with approximately 80 members. In spite of being so small, this little "evangelical" church is doing a lot of interesting things in the Trento community.

A couple of months ago, our church pastor asked me if I would like to preach one Sunday. I was pretty shocked -- I've spoken in smaller activities: in youth groups, youth retreats, and international groups, and sharing my testimony before church congregations but I had never been bold enough to deliver a sermon. My pastor explained that our church is trying to be more inviting to the international community, and since I'm already leading an international bible study, it would be a way to show everyone how committed the church is to inviting non-Italian speakers into their community. So I said yes.

"Is there anything in particular I should talk about?" I asked.
"No, just speak about whatever you'd like."

Hmm...Tough one. There are so many different topics and bible passages that are particularly interesting. In the end, I decided to try to explain the beginning of one of Jesus' most famous sermons where he seems to be dishing out a series of obscure blessings. There's a lot to digest in this passage, but one thing I particularly wanted to highlighted was how this small passage gets to the core of justice and what God thinks about it. This passage is a poem where Jesus beautifully outlines what God is doing for the oppressed and what he calls Christians to do about injustice.

So, I did it. I spoke in front of about 80 people, with Italian translation about a system of grace and justice that Jesus introduces.

So, if you want to spend an hour listening to my message in two languages, feel free to listen/download here. Please excuse my choppiness at times. I was trying to speak in an easy-to-translate way -- but I also get choked up at a few places.

Don't feel like listening? I don't blame you! I'll let you have the easy way out by reading my sermon notes. There are a couple minor mistakes that I didn't scratch out. I had a fun opportunity of using my HP Touchpad with the latest Android version and Papyrus. If you're a true scholar, then you'll listen to the sermon while reading the notes.

Or maybe you'd just look at more authoritative sources than me.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Not to Do When Applying for PhDs.

I was sifting through some old, old emails and stumbled across a conversation that brought a curl of a smile to the corner of my lips. Take this time to learn the wisdom of my folly several years ago.

In December, 2008, I was contacting researchers at various American universities to inquire about available PhD positions. (Like I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when I had never considered studying in Europe.) At the time, I wasn't fully sold on machine translation, so I was interested in pretty much anything related to natural language processing.

There was one Ivy League university that really caught my fancy. At the time, one of their hot spin-off products was a little service that provided sentiment analysis on opinions based on natural language. Particularly targeting investors, it was a novel way of tracking market opinions on political and social events. Sadly, the service is no longer around.

Anyway, I decided to send an email to some of the researchers in the NLP group at the university. At the time I worked in an IT organization. One thing I had learned in my industry experience was that the cc: field was your friend when sending emails. This is not true.

I sent an email, targeting a Professor Y in particular and cc:ed another professor, X, who I thought was equally interesting and might also be interested in my inquiry. Wrong assumption. Here was the gist of my email:
Dear Prof. Y,
Hello, my name is Nicholas Ruiz. I graduated from Houghton College in 2006 with a BS in Computer Science. I also majored in Mathematics and minored in Spanish. Houghton is located in New York, USA. As an undergraduate, I independently studied machine learning and kernel methods, in addition to taking a course on neural network design. I wrote a bachelors thesis on [blah-blah-blah].

[Industry background]
I have been interested in pursuing a PhD in Natural Language Processing and recently decided to pursue my PhD full-time.

I was browsing [your department's] website and was impressed by the research performed by the department, including your publications on identifying opinionated phrases within a corpus. I am interested in natural language understanding, particularly in regards to machine translation and pronunciation. [blah-blah-blah]

I am interested in applying to [university] and would be interested in learning more about your NLP program.

Thank you very much for your time.
Nicholas Ruiz

I sent the email on December 4, 2008 and received a prompt reply from Professor X (if only it was the mutant academy professor). I was excited.
Dear Nick Ruiz,
I thought I should let you know that you seem to have accidentally
cc:ed your email to someone other than its intended recipient.
Whoops. I had better clarify myself:
Dear Prof. X,
Thank you for your reply. I carbon-copied you as well, as I noticed that you are also very involved in the Natural Language Processing department at [university].
[Other salutatory text here]
Then I received the following reply:
Dear Nick Ruiz,
There is no need to reply to this message, since there's no reason to keep spending bandwidth on this matter, but please forgive me for being bold enough to offer you some advice, which is well-meant.

Suppose you cc: professor X in research group N on an email to professor Y, who is also in research group Y, saying that you have been investigating the work going on in group N and that you are interested in Y's research. This can be interpreted by X as:

(a) a statement that you are not interested in X's research, or
(b) indicating that you are working under the (mistaken, in this case) assumption that X is an assistant of Y who should be taking care of Y's correspondence.
Which is all well and good --- not everything is interesting to everybody, and people do have assistants --- but it's not clear that you benefit by letting X have either of these impressions.
One word for this encounter: schooled. I got professionally reamed by a professor who was instructive enough to use a logical example to make sure I understood her offense at being the recipient of a cc: not explicitly directed at her. In reality, the cc: button was my enemy. I never received a reply from Prof. Y and ultimately, my PhD application was rejected, all due to a naive assumption.

Please learn from my mistake. Industry ≠ Academia. Keep business practices separate from academic etiquette and make sure you know the proper way to address a professor before corresponding.

By the way, I particularly liked the "there's no reason to keep spending bandwidth on this matter" part. The professor really drove it home that I wasn't worth the $0.00003 after my folly. It's actually pretty funny in hindsight.

How about you? Do you have any (in)famous application bloopers you'd like to share?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Europe? Part 2: The Pragmatic Decision.

[This is Part 2 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 3]

In my previous post in this series, I questioned the motives of asking the question, "Why would an American choose to live in Europe?" Not because it's a bad question in itself, but rather because of the stereotypes about Americans and what the US has to offer.

Despite my diatribe, the question itself is still worth answering. So in the next few posts, I'll give my answer to the "Why Europe?" question. There are simple ways and complex ways to answer this question. So I'll let you pick the satisfactory answer.

Back in 2009, I was working for a great company. It was a very successful career track offering a great team of employees and stability -- the latter being a particularly appealing feature in the midst of the dreaded "economic crisis." But the siren call of higher education enticed me after three years of work. Thus, I moved away from pure information technology and pursued research in machine translation.

[As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with machine translation, here's an obligatory video to show how Google Translate (and machine translation in general) works.]

With my study background in computer science, math, and Spanish, I deemed machine translation a suitable career decision. But again, "Why Europe?"

The United States is ripe with opportunities in Machine Translation. Many universities like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, University of Washington, Johns Hopkins, and University of Pennsylvania (just to name a few) have excellent research groups and prominent research grants from research bodies like DARPA, focusing on challenging languages like Arabic and Chinese. Naturally, conducting my PhD research at any of these institutions would have yielded a successful career. And that's where I started looking. However, Google search doesn't always take you where you'd expect.

As I was broadening my knowledge in the machine translation field, I encountered a blog from a graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Language & Communication Technologies European Master's program, describing his experience pursuing a master's degree in Europe. In particular, this type of master's program offered the opportunity to study at two universities from a respectable consortium in the EU. Though I had never considered leaving the US for studies before, the description of the program provided an alternative worth considering.

So, weighing pros and cons about studying in the LCT program in Europe, I observed the following:
  • Europe provides a "real" case-study on the importance of translation. With 23 official languages and an EU-mandate that all documents and government services be provided in these languages, machine translation is a "must."
  • Linguistic opportunities. Participating in the LCT program entails living in two countries (in my case, the Netherlands and Italy). This provides opportunities to learn foreign languages in natural contexts.
  • Intercultural connections. In addition to being immersed in different languages, studying in Europe provides the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world, from locals to other international students. There are many opportunities to discuss intercultural perspectives on issues like culture, government, and religion.
  • Research facilities. Most of the universities in the LCT consortium are connected with research laboratories performing cutting edge research in computational linguistics (among other disciplines). EU-funded projects are in abundance and serve as the counterpart to US-funding for disciplines like machine translation.
  • Travel opportunities. Part of being pragmatic is being honest. Who would pass up opportunities to visit some of the most interesting places in the world?
Just boasting about where I've traveled.
These facts warranted applying for the LCT program. After eventually being accepted into the program, my wife and I made the decision to move to Europe for two years to complete the master's program -- after which I received an excellent opportunity to continue on to pursue a PhD in speech translation under a widely respected researcher, specializing in my exact research interests.

So now I leave it up to you:
Are you satisfied with my pragmatic reasons for living in Europe?

If not, stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Europe? Part 1: The Audacity of the Question.

[This is Part 1 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 2 | Part 3]

I get the same question all the time. Whether being asked by an American from home, or from a foreigner (or even an Italian!).

"Why did you come to Europe?"

I encountered two particularly memorable incidents at the Universities of Bolzano and Trento in Italy. Let's recap.

Bolzano. Located at the base of the Alps in Northern Italy. I, a then-master's student, am sitting in a computer science lab. For the first half of the semester, the professor escaped the need to remember his student's names by referring to all of them as "Your Colleague." Quite a witty idea, actually!

I was working on a project with a Pakistani and an Indonesian student. The professor overheard me speaking and, noticing me for the first time, decided to talk to me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.
"The United States."
"Ah, I thought you were American. Why are you here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Italy. Bolzano. Why are you here?"
"It's a nice university and a good opportunity--"
"But there are plenty of good places in the US."

Our conversation went on and he grew more and more interested in this American coming to Italy. He didn't forget my name after that and seemed to find other opportunities to talk to me.

Trento. Similar story. As a PhD student, I was attending a class chock-full of international students -- again, I was the only American. The professor on the first day of class asked every student to give an introduction. So I gave my introduction in my American English accent: the content of the introduction was no better than my colleagues. Later on, the professor asks me the age-old question:

"What are you doing here?"
"Well, I completed a master's degree in Europe and I had an excellent opportunity to continue my PhD in Trento."
"But you could do it in the US. Tell me, why not just go to the US?"
"What about the other students here?" [gesturing to the others in the class]
"Well, I know why many of them are here, but why would an American"

Frustration. This simple "Why Europe?" question is loaded with biases and false assumptions. It's weighed down by expectations and stereotypes about Americans and other nationalities. The question itself is audacious. "Why NOT Europe?" Why can't an American decide that there are excellent opportunities outside of the "Land of the Free?" Let's break down some of the problems with this question.
  1. The question assumes that the US is the best, period. We've all heard it. The US is the "Land of Opportunity." Now, I don't want to disrespect my homeland. There are excellent opportunities in the US. News articles in late 2012 cited over 750,000 international students in the US. Naturally, so many wouldn't be coming if the US didn't have something to offer. That's not my problem. The problem is the ego associated with the statistics. 
  2. The US can't offer everything. Even with great educational statistics and an increasing international community, international students still experience isolation from Americans. The same news article says:
  3. A study in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication suggests that many international students are disappointed in their relationships with U.S. students. Author Elisabeth Gareis found that 38% of 454 international students attending 10 public universities had reported no strong friendships with U.S. students, and 27% were not satisfied with the quality of the friends they had made. Students from China and East Asia were most likely to be unhappy with relationships.
    While the US is certainly a place that many internationals go to, it doesn't mean it's international. Europe, on the other hand, better represents linguistic groups and cultures, which seems to make it a better place to experience a truly international environment.
  4. The question assumes that Americans form a higher class. Caste systems aren't implemented in most governments in the world. However, discrimination still occurs among ethnic groups -- particularly along socioeconomic lines. Should educators really write off an African or Asian student as coming to Europe for better money and better opportunities, while questioning the judgment of an American? Am I really just a fool leaving a land of riches for folly? In reality, I'm no better than these same African or Asian students.
  5. The question perpetuates the Rest vs. West mentality. Times are changing. The West needs to respond to globalization in a way that recognizes the growth of the international world. Instead of asking Americans "Why Europe?", why not ask the others? Find out their stories. Understand their ambition. While some might not be able to articulate it in such a romantic way as a native English speaker, it doesn't make their stories any less grand. Singling out Americans or other Westerners just makes us more disliked in the long run.
Now don't get me wrong: had the right opportunity (i.e. the "best" opportunity) risen in the United States, I would have ended up there. But that opportunity didn't come. Instead, I was surprised by opportunities in Europe. In this series, I will try to answer the question "Why Europe?" along several assessments. Again, keep in mind what I said in my reintroduction. I'm coming at this question from different disciplines/backgrounds, so some of the answers might not be what you'd expect.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


So my last blog post was four years ago. Sad. But let's face it: people typically don't want to read blog posts. And bloggers typically don't have a lot of interesting things to say.

That being said, you're still reading.

Thank you.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Nicholas Ruiz.

That's nice, isn't it? What's next?

Who am I? What do I do? Is this where I'm supposed to tote my strengths, talents, and everything else that makes me worthy of being read? No thanks.

I'm a guy. A guy whose thoughts perhaps aren't worth the world reading. Maybe not hearing. But here I am, throwing out thoughts anyway. Why bother? Surely my efforts are meaningless anyway.

Nevertheless, I'll try. I'll try to write something worth your time. I'll try to write something to get you thinking. Hopefully about something that isn't so meaningless.

Well, to reintroduce myself, I should at least tell you enough that you might get an idea of what I could write about. I'll leave the rest to your judgments regarding whether you want to read more.

I'm married. I have a 7 month old daughter (as of today, incidentally). I'm a "junior" researcher in speech translation. I'm an American not living in America. God is guiding my steps -- insofar as I'm listening to the drumbeat. All of these things will mush together into a core dump of my consciousness.

Still reading? Wow, thanks.