Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Twists and Turns

A meter from the historic preservation of Substation 21 powering part of the NYC subway system. I can relate to this energy reading.

A meter from the historic preservation of Substation 21 powering part of the NYC subway system. I can relate to this energy reading.

You, dear readers, have no doubt noticed a lack of stories, photos, and news here. This is, in part, because my life in this city has become more and more full as time has worn on. I’ve also been doing a great deal of travel. Said travel has not been for school but to visit friends, family, and a certain lady in my life. And come to think of it, I believe I’ve hosted more visitors in the past year here in the Big Apple than perhaps ever before.

It is also true that I'm at an all time low on energy. This is directly attributable to school—not because of the workload but because of the twists and turns.

My dissertation proposal process has been bumpy to say the least. I did not start strong as I was new at all this and there is really no one else in my department in my area to draw upon for help in navigating the process. Since that time I’ve had all kinds of further trouble. From the start I have not been invested in my direction that developed from the synthesis of certain expectations, traditions, and history. Part of my committee has been quite disengaged and very slow to respond (if at all on more than one occasion). And a component of my dissertation work required of me has proven to be quite problematic to bring to fruition. In fact, my proposal is still not yet fully approved—or, rather, its status is ambiguous due to lingering issues with its makeup and the issues with my committee. I am floundering in trying to make my proposal work so as to direct my efforts in the ongoing projects expected to be components of it.

But hold on. There’s more.

Two weeks ago my advisor announced her decision to leave my university at the end of this month for another position as a full professor elsewhere. It was not an easy thing to do, the circumstances were complex, and I can respect her decision. The plan is for her to continue to advise me remotely as she has done for the last year while she was on sabbatical. In the meantime, problems with my proposal, committee, and my dissatisfaction with my direction have inspired the notion of reformulating my committee and beginning anew with a different proposal. This is far from certain. I know little of how this would come to be and how much more time it would take me to complete—if it is truly an option. On the upside, perhaps there is now an opportunity to pursue something closer to what I intended when I first began.

In all honesty I’ve entertained quitting several times over the last year. It has felt as though this train is going off the rails for a while now or maybe has already fully derailed. I knew when I started that I would be required to jump through various hoops, and the process would not go exactly as I hoped. But present circumstances are objectively well beyond such concessions.

I hope you can appreciate how my attention has not been here in detailing my various adventures, triumphs, and disappointments as this has all played out. I do so appreciate all your encouragement and the requests for updates and checking in. Thank you for that. Very much. The struggle at present is to remain positive, to abide in gratitude for my immense blessings, and to be open to something better than current circumstances suggest is possible.

Woah! I’m in the Wall Street Journal!

Wall Street Journal.jpg

Today the Wall Street Journal published a big article on some of my Fidget Widgets work. The article is available online for free and reportedly takes up half the front page of the Personal section of the print edition. It’s all very fancypants with video, illustrations, and animations.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little geeked out about all this.

Get Creative at Your Desk With a Little Playtime


That tunnel? With the light at the end of it? Still pretty gloomy in here…

Upon repeated failures to garner a response, I emailed this to a potential dissertation committee member. I heard back in minutes. He said yes.

Upon repeated failures to garner a response, I emailed this to a potential dissertation committee member. I heard back in minutes. He said yes.

It’s been so long since I’ve written that word has reached me suggesting some of you are wondering as to my well being. I’m still here. Still alive. I am so far out of the habit of writing posts that as time passed it began to weigh on me more and more, preventing me from writing and so yet more time would pass. A vicious circle. In particular, this past summer was especially full and entirely exhausting. This post is as much an update as it is an exercise in breaking that cycle.

I will save my various adventures since my last update for future posts. As a teaser, a sample of said adventures includes: a Broadway show, a conference hosted at Facebook, starting a company over the summer, a camping trip and visit to Storm King sculpture park, a once-a-year tour of a historic airline terminal, a visit to the New York City subway system’s sign shop, a participatory theater production set in a sorta New Age Sci-Fi space colony, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a Hip hop version of the Nutcracker, a visit to the most ridiculous and over-the-top neighborhood Christmas lights you’ve ever seen, and a semi-successful attempt to throw paper airplanes from the top of Rockefeller Center.

At the end of 2013 I wrote about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. That light is still there, but the tunnel feels awfully long, cold, and dim right now. I am told I should expect 12–18 more months to finish. I’ve been done with classes for almost a year. Research projects continue as does the far more recent process of assembling a dissertation committee and finalizing a dissertation proposal.

For a brief few days at the end of the summer I was entertaining quitting my program. That was a dark few days. I wasn’t really serious. It mostly just felt good to fantasize about it.

The dissertation phase of a doctorate program operates differently across disciplines, schools, and continents. Suffice it to say that I have found the process and expectations on me to be less than inspiring and much different than I hoped. I am a misfit in my department and a misfit in my own lab. I have struggled to find and refine a dissertation topic and to maintain much enthusiasm about it. Where I seem to be ending up feels insignificant and far from where I hoped I would finish out this program. Motivation and confidence are scarce while questions and work abound. That said, I hear from friends and others that this is quite a common experience—everyone feels this way at this stage. In fact, my own advisor took a year hiatus at the end of her doctorate program until she was ready to engage her dissertation topic and make it down the path before her.

While I do feel rather down, on the other hand, I know my feelings are not necessarily reality. I try to practice gratitude in remembering how blessed I am to have this opportunity. Precious few in the world get to experience the opportunity I have. And it is also true that I have a truly great dissertation committee (see the list below). They even said that what I am working on “is important.” But to be entirely honest, I have not a clue why they said that! I struggle to make sense of all the feedback, questions, and suggestions they provided when I first presented my proposal—I experienced the proverbial fire hose.

I’m now in the throes of finalizing my dissertation proposal. I’ll share the topic another time once it is better cemented and fully approved. My prayers these days are for diligence, creativity, insight, and perseverance. While the light at the end of the tunnel feels faint, it continues to glow nonetheless.

Das Trip

Guten Tag. Three months have passed since I traveled to Germany. Thankfully, at least I gave you a taste of the trip the last time I wrote. Given all that happened on my trip and what has happened since (that occupied me to such a degree that it is only now that I am telling my tale of the Fatherland), I will write a separate post about the months since the trip and my upcoming summer.

The purpose of my trip was school-related, of course. I was in Munich to present a paper and participate in a grad student consortium, both at TEI 2014. I then hopped from Bavaria to Berlin in order to meet a particular researcher my advisor knows in order to talk shop. I was given the opportunity to extend my stay in both cities to take in some of Germany. Several steins of beer and a couple pretzels later, I can confirm that I did just that.

The paper I presented to the conference was all about my fun little project Fidget Widgets. This was my first full paper at a conference as a graduate student—something of an important milestone. As I took the lectern to give my presentation, I asked the audience to smile for a photo. They did. See the photo gallery up top. Note that one guy about four rows back—he’s waving. The keynote speaker for the conference emailed me a photo of me delivering my talk (also in the photo gallery). As I've mentioned before, this process of submitting papers to conferences can be rough. This time, however, I was well received. In fact, during the Q&A after my talk, someone came to the mic and told me that what I had presented was “inspirational.” I don’t know if the audience saw the look of surprise on my face or not. I saw some great projects and met some very interesting people. Of the dozen or so conferences I've attended as a professional and as an academic, this was the best so far.

I spent most of my trip in Munich. I loved Munich. It’s a small but bustling city where the very old and very new sit comfortably next to one another. I arrived several days before my conference. My days consisted of breakfast at the hotel and then working through the morning at a coffee shop. In the afternoon and evening I would head out sightseeing. It took me a while to readjust my sense of scale. Munich subway stops are only blocks apart, and I bet I could spend barely a half hour underground traveling from end to end of the system. In New York City, it’s not hard to spend well over an hour below ground and never get anywhere near the end of that line.

I wandered Munich’s city center. I strolled through part of the English Garden (Munich’s equivalent of Central Park—actually larger) and read by a lake. I visited the odd showroom and wannabe world’s fair exhibit that is BMW World. I took in the architecture and grounds of the 1972 Summer Olympics (the main stadium was built from a World War II bomb crater). I had dinner at Munich’s oldest brewery (established 1294). I ate bratwurst and sauerkraut and potatoes and drank a gigantic vessel of beer the waiter chose for me. I don’t like sauerkraut, but in Germany I liked sauerkraut. Try as I might, I could not finish that beer, however. The highlight of my time in Munich involved sneezing at the beer hall. My conference ended with a huge dinner in the cellar of another beer hall. We ate and drank within two cavernous vaults of brick fifty feet underground where barrels of beer were once stored.

The “lowlight” of my trip was visiting the Nazi concentration camp Dachau outside Munich. The interior spaces throughout Dachau were all fittingly cold despite the pleasant warm weather that day. I saw the cramped bunks of a reproduction barracks. I looked into the soot-stained cremation ovens, and I stood in a Nazi gas chamber designed to look as though shower heads were embedded in the ceiling. While records indicate the chamber was only tested and never used, it had a profound effect on me. I left the memorial deeply contemplative and troubled by my fascination with the Nazi medical experiments depicted in the museum. As I walked back to the bus stop I found myself wondering how I, in my privileged position in the world, unknowingly contribute to the exploitation and subjugation of people around the globe. At the bus stop outside the memorial a young couple was busy being affectionate towards one another as young couples are wont to do. This irritated me, and I felt rather indignant about the seeming disrespect of their carrying on. And then it dawned on me… in the face of such old horrors, what more fitting way is there to act than to be in young love?

From Munich I flew to Berlin for the last several days of my trip. Berlin has a distinctly different character than Munich. It’s a much grittier city. It feels much more worn, like a face aged and wrinkled before its time. Given the deep lines that once divided Berlin, perhaps this is a very apt description. My apartment was just down the street from an amazing indoor market. I bought groceries there and had coffee and did lots of people watching.

I was in Berlin to talk with an academic at the Design Research Lab. The point of our conversation is not particularly important. What is important is that the Design Research Lab has a swing! And so I swung on that swing.

Parts of Berlin remain very divided in terms of the architecture and design. The bleak East Berlin lives on even if Communism does not. Of course I visited what remains of the Berlin Wall and was struck by how peaceful the surrounding area is. I got to see one of my favorite people from New York City in Berlin (she now lives in the Netherlands). We went exploring and saw all the big touristy sights and found our ways to off-the-beaten-path restaurants and shops.

My most amazing experience in Berlin is difficult to explain. It entailed finding a bohemian salon in old East Berlin and then crawling up and down and over and around through a multi-story maze as art project that was inspired by peristalsis (the movement of food through the digestive system). The waiting area smelled of incense and thumped with live, almost-aboriginal techno music. Entering it required a blindfold and a mystical introduction by a guide. Passageways and ladders and slides were studded with stuffed animals and video screens and pieces of machinery and strobe lights. It took us about thirty minutes to both take in everything and find our way out.

When I started graduate school I had no idea how much of the world I would end up seeing. I had thought I would stay squarely in the Big Apple. Instead I’ve become an accidental globetrotter.

Name heard nationwide. Had to leave the country.

I returned from two weeks in Munich and Berlin almost three weeks ago now. It was a great trip and included the best conference I've yet attended (either as a grad student or during my working years). I have so many photos and stories to share. But they will all have to wait as I am presently consumed with projects. I will, however, share my favorite highlight of the trip.

I arrived in Munich a few days before my conference in order to see a little bit of the city while I was also tackling schoolwork and related projects. On the second night there I found my way to Augustiner Bräustuben, a centuries old beer haus whose original monastery brewery is the oldest in Munich. The main beer hall is all brick and copper and wrought iron and large wood tables and benches for communal eating. Wedged in among the local patrons I had a plate of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and potatoes. Mind you, I don't actually care for sauerkraut. But, here in Germany, suddenly I really liked the stuff. I let the server pick the beer I would drink. I ended up with a mug of roughly the same volume as a child's backyard plastic swimming pool. It was good beer. I almost finished the whole thing. After my plate of dinner, I got busy doing more of the reading that will eventually feed into my dissertation work. As I read, a sneeze came upon me. I dutifully made use of my nearest elbow to sneeze into. Immediately thereafter a perfect stranger turned to me. And that was when I got to hear an actual German say to me in proper German a proper “Gesundheit!”

I will share further adventures at a later date. But allow me to leave you with a little something else. Just before my trip my advisor was on NPR's Science Friday radio program. She talked about me and one or two of my projects. I actually first learned of this not from her but from people who heard my name on the radio elsewhere in the country and promptly freaked out. In fact, I still have not taken the time to listen to the episode. But I'm told that it's quite good and that you can get a real sense for why I appreciate my advisor so much [listen to the show].