Entire cities razed and raised.
The same hue of grey...
Those who have gotten to know me would probably say I'm an overly pessimistic son-of-a-bitch, and going to grad school hasn't exactly changed that mindset. I've had the good fortune of getting into web development and programming at an early age, attending MIT, spending time at startups with hungry entrepreneurs, and staying up-to-date on the forefront of robotics research (the academic ones, at least). Despite that, I can't manage to shake this feeling of disappointment.
My first website was a simple project on the International Space Station (before any modules ever launched) for the local science fair in the 6th grade. I made it in Frontpage (eww) with my mom's help, and I ended up taking home a nifty trophy in the "Multimedia" category. In 9th grade, I took an actual 'webmastering' course using Dreamweaver (eww x2), and I made a site that stored all the notes I took in school. Every page was hand-coded and uploaded manually. I don't think I even knew that you could even run anything server-side at that point. This site made me pretty popular in school (well, as popular as a website could make a bookish nerd), and I think it was key in getting me admitted to MIT.
The web seemed pretty magical to me at this point. I realized that if you had the right content others wanted, good things could happen. You just had to get it to them and remain relevant. Turns out, relevance is pretty difficult to maintain. No matter what shiny new framework, set of design guidelines, or interactive library is used, content is still king, and there's no documentation for what's good and bad.
The latest flood of startups have been a pretty hot topic ever since Facebook was still in its infancy. Mix together a few hot-shot programmers fresh out of college, some basic, not entirely horrible business model, and a few months of hard work, and you too could be the next big IPO, right? For most attempts, the reality instead appears to be: you either die after a few failed pivots or see yourself get acquired (if you're lucky).
For a while, the startup landscape almost felt like a grown-up kindergarten, where every idea got its own gold star, and everyone was told that they could be whatever they want to be if they just work hard enough. Nevermind that you also need the right timing, environment, support, and sometimes insane luck to pull off even the slightest bit of success. Nevermind those fortunate enough to get a taste of success often lose it and spend years trying, and failing, to get it back.
This is a bit melodramatic, but it's a little disheartening to read about strokes of genius and sparks of brilliance only to see that they're surrounded by their predecessors burning to the ground. The successful founders are lauded for their bravery and foresight, while the underachievers are slammed for making the wrong moves, but everyone's the same: just groping around in the dark, hoping to find the right exit in time.
I've always loved robots, and I don't think I'll ever shake off the mecha fanboy in me. By all accounts, I should be ecstatic, working in a lab with 5+ years of job security working on the cutting edge of research. Guess no one really mentioned how dull that cutting edge would be.
Academia in the US is really weird. Then again, maybe it's just really weird everywhere. You enter grad school with little to no plan (for the most part), sign up to work for some project you know next to nothing about, essentially get assigned a research direction that makes or breaks your career, and then work until an arbitrary decision on your graduation date is made.
At the same time, the same nonsense and meager advances show up at every single conference. The robots of today look eerily similar to the ones we've had since the 80s, made with the same designs and control strategies. The academia game feels like a well-practiced march with little tolerance for impromptu innovation. Everyone (rightfully so) is so overwhelmed by the steady flow of the status quo that it's almost impossible, and certainly not smart, to challenge it.
The Here and Now
It feels weird to be exactly where I want to be and still feel so stuck. I absolutely love robots, web development, and the startup culture, and I don't think I'd swap my current position for anything else. Despite that, it's as if I was gifted a steak dinner in a steel cage: I can see it, I can smell it, and I can savor it, but I'm not eating it until I find the key, and the food's getting cold.
I'm really, really hungry.
Update (2-11-14): In retrospect, this post came off a lot more entitled than I meant it to be. Oops.