November, 2009

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Taxing Target: Students

So Pittsburgh this year has a $15 million deficit, mostly in the pension funds. But the Mayor of da Pitts has a solution: tax all the students %1 of the tuition! Brilliant I tell you – I couldn’t have done better myself. Oh wait I forgot to use my sarcasm voice. Yeah the one that sounds all high pitched like somebody drove a pitchfork through my stomach. Now while I’m generally not really all that political, an extra $400 a year just because I’m a student sort of rubs me the wrong way. I know students get a lot of tax breaks, but seriously, most of the people I graduated who went into industry are making $60-80k. In contrast, I’m pulling down many factors less than that. And they work 9-5 while I’m…well yeah I’m still up at 6 am posting to my blog after having disassembled and reassembled the lab microsope all night to figure out how to save my advisor some money on scope attachments. Sigh…anyhow, I did go ahead and write my representatives on the city council with the following nice little letter that they will promptly ignore except to squirrel away my email address to spam me.

Dear X,

Last week, “Luke Ravenstahl hosted the Graduate Pittsburgh Summit to increase public awareness of the dropout and college/life readiness crisis in Pittsburgh” (source: Mayor Ravenstahl’s website). How is taxing students going to alleviate this crisis and increase the graduation rate?  According to “Pittsburgh’s Dropouts: A Look at the Numbers” (source: Mayor Ravenstahl’s website), the Mayor’s Office sponsored a survey asking high-schoolers “What would keep you interested in graduating from high school?” and the highest response at 79% was “Money for College.” So further taxes on students are going to encourage them to stay in school?

As a PhD student of the Robotics Institute at CMU, I urge you to reconsider your support for the tuition tax.  I do not pay tuition as a funded graduate student. Instead I get a small stipend from the school and my advisor’s grant money covers what tuition the school charges for classes, resources, etc. Essentially, my relationship with CMU is that of a very low paying job to advance medical robotics research. I could be earning significantly more in industry yet believe that the valuable research I am doing and will be enabled to do in the future is worth a currently much leaner lifestyle than friends I know who did not pursue graduate degrees. Charging me a tax on an amount I do not currently pay is a large burden, one I feel is unwarranted.

Furthermore Pittsburgh has earned such a great reputation for promoting academic progress, and I feel this step towards taxing students is counter-productive and will lead to a lessening of Pittsburgh’s attractiveness to brilliant new students evaluating where they want to study.  Let’s be honest here, Pittsburgh is not all that an attractive of a place to the outside world compared to other basins of higher-learning such as San-Francisco, Boston, etc. Let’s not make it any less attractive by adding student taxes. While an extra $400 a year might not seem significant, it is. Many graduate students I know are funding their education through loans, some of them internationally with large interest rates.

In conclusion, I feel that students are unfairly being targeted to carry the cost of the budget deficit and charging $16 million to a population that is already making sacrifices in time and money to better not only themselves individually but society as a whole simply seems unprofessional.

Brian C. Becker

First Journal Paper

So my first journal paper was written in 13 days. My advisor originally wanted it to be written in a single day but I certainly do not posses such superpowers – not in the least. The reason for the massive rush was my advisor promised a journal paper in the grant proposal by a certain timeframe (which has long since passed). Long story short, I constructed a journal paper from the proposal and an earlier conference paper in record time. Oh and learned how to calculate p-values (ttest2 in Matlab). Anyhow, I did a final proof-read, corrected some errors and sent the last draft off to my advisor at 6 AM. I woke up at 9:30 AM, had a bunch of corrections to make, and we had a nice back and forth until lunchtime. After my advisor submitted the paper, I went back to sleep around 2, thinking I would get a good solid couple of hours nap time. Alas this was not to be as my advisor called me 30 minutes later to schedule a meeting discussing what I would be working on next. Sigh…

One of the most annoying things was the format of this paper. They required Word and not just that, but they insisted on Word 1997 format with figures in TIFF and tables on separate pages. Annoying to say the least. Unfortunately for me, I had written the paper in Word 2007 with the new fancy equation editor they introduced. Saving the document in the old format converted all my beautiful equations into terribly rendered picture representations of my equations. It made me want to cry. I had exactly 100 equations in my paper (and no I didn’t aim for that number) so I didn’t want to retype them. So I resorted to some VBA trickery. First I increased the font of the Word 2007 document by 5-10X. Then I saved to the old format and my giant font equations got saved as giant graphics. Then I wrote a VBA script to go through the document and resize all my equation graphics to get high DPI equations. This approach met with limited success. I was successful, but the side effects were terrible. First, the vertical alignment was way off so I had to wind up cropping the graphics to pad the bottom of the equation so that it aligned with the rest of the sentence. I was all happy that this worked until I realized that this totally messed up the print to PDF function. Cropping the equations even in the slightest caused all the equations to come out with black backgrounds. Gar! Foiled! Finally, I decided I’d re-write them all by hand in the old version of MathType so they would be compatible with the old Word format. But to my surprise, I discovered the new MathType library has a function to automatically convert Word 2007 Equations to old Equation 3.0 style equations. Viola! It worked quite well although it made a few mistakes and mangled some of my paragraph formatting. But it was way better to watch it work for several minutes scrolling through my document and converting the equations by hand!