How Robin Burke Works


Location: Wherever I happen to find myself with a little time. Train cars, waiting rooms, etc. I have three offices, if you count the one at home, but I never seem to have very much uninterrupted work time in any of them. I’m writing this in a cramped Red Line car. Very narrow seats in the new models: #fail.

Current Gig:  Professor of Computer Science, CDM Digital Humanities Liaison, Co-Director of the Web Intelligence Lab at CDM, Member of the Cross-College Collaboration Task Force.

One word that best describes how you work: Collaborative. All of my research work these days is done working with others – mostly, my colleague Bamshad Mobasher and the students in our research group. I can work reasonably well on my own, but it is easy for other priorities to interfere with research time. A live discussion brings everyone together thinking about the same problems and questions.

Current mobile device: Two-year old Nexus 5. Despite being a computer scientist, I am not an early adopter or gadget geek. I waited a long time to get a smartphone, and I would be still using my old Google G2 phone if the screen hadn’t died from taking a dive in my dog’s water dish.

Current computer: Home-built Windows 7 desktop at home, kind of wimpy actually (AMD Phenom 8450 3-core 2.1 GHz CPU, 4 GB, 1 TB disk, ASRock mobo, no fancy graphics card because who has time to play games, really), MacAir laptop, generic Dell at work (the dual monitor setup is nice, though), for research, my own Linux (Ubuntu) server for heavier computing and web site serving. Probably the MacAir gets the most keyboard time but I do a lot of work on my work computer via remote desktop.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

  • Outlook calendar. I am hopeless about remembering dates and times.
  • For other kinds of note keeping. I frequently lose paper notebooks, but not my phone.
  • Great for someone like me who loses things with regularity. If your phone is missing, the web site will tell you where it is and even make it scream so you can find it in a snowbank – true story. Best of all, when you start up the app it says “Everything is OK”. Sometimes we need all the reassurance we can get.
  • Password Safe Pro. I like a good secure password, but remembering them is another story. With this app, my memory isn’t a limitation and I don’t have to use the same password for everything. (You know that’s a bad idea, right?)
  • The ultimate text editing tool. Its control key combinations are wired into my spinal cord from 14 hour days of programming in graduate school.
  • A programming language and environment for statistical processing. Think of the Hanging Garden of Statistics, where thousands of data heads have labored for decades, cultivating their favorite algorithms. It also has some of the most inscrutable syntax known to man – you can tell it just evolved, rather than being designed by somebody.
  • iPython Notebook. Program code embedded in a web page, with documentation and execution results all in one place. This is a great environment for teaching computing and data science.
  • Remote Desktop. Lets me have my work desktop as my main machine wherever I am, saving the trouble of copying files around.

What’s your workspace setup like?  Both at home and at work – messy. I have to conduct a complete excavation about once a quarter to sort things out. Perhaps to compensate, my computer files and folders are fairly rigorously organized. I can find files going back many years from my previous institutions pretty easily.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? Do you automate something that used to be a time sink? Being a programmer means that you think about automating things all the time. For example, I have an entire system of Perl scripts devoted to grading my C++ game programming courses. I have scripts for checking to see who has submitted the assignment, downloading each code base, compiling it and running it, filling in answers in a grading sheet. When I’m done with one, it marches on to the next student, forcing me to keep going until all the assignments are graded.

Do you relegate email to an hour a day? LOL.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? I use Evernote and that’s good for the long-term, but sometimes I find that it is too easy to ignore what’s there, so when I have a lot to do in a short time, I go back to paper and pen. There’s something satisfying about the physical act of crossing things off when they’re done.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?  The little swiss army knife that I have on my keychain. I doubt if a day goes by when I don’t use one of its tools. I have lost 3 or 4 of these to airport security checkpoints over the years, because I keep forgetting that I have them with my keys.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?  Not really an everyday thing, but I think I am pretty good at editing our scientific papers. Graduate students often have a hard time finding the right level of detail and the right mix of theory and example to match the venue and audience. They also tend to be verbose about things that can be brief and terse about things that need explanation. Two secrets: my father owned the local small-town newspaper and I got a lot of practice editing there — in the days when cut-and-paste was not a metaphor. I am the go-to man for cutting when a paper is too long. My other secret: reading out loud. Everything I write I read to myself at least once out loud all the way through in a single sitting. (I even did this for my dissertation, multiple times. Yes, this article, too.) Your eyes can deceive you into thinking your prose is readable, but your ears – not so much.

What do you listen to while you work?  Usually I listen to jazz: from Louis Armstrong to Robert Glasper and most everything in between. I have a number of favorite Songza playlists or when I’m home, my iTunes collection. I have soft spots for Sun Ra, Miles Davis’s fusion albums, Thelonius Monk, Teddy Wilson and Sonny Rollins, all for different reasons. For massive grading sessions, nothing beats the Lord of Rings movie soundtracks and / or Mahler’s symphonies.

What do you do to stay inspired? Who are some of your favorite artists?  Collaboration is essential to staying inspired. People from different disciplines ask different questions and look for different kinds of answers. I think shifting gears is also important. I have been studying jazz piano for about 5 years now, and playing and practicing are good for recharging. Other favorite breaks are spending time outdoors (preferably with the family and/or the dog) and cooking.

My favorite artists are those that create their own worlds, and manage to make them totally compelling, where each work is like a glimpse into an alternate universe. Thelonius Monk, Salvador Dali, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Chris Ware are all examples.

What sort of work are you up to now?  My overall research area is recommender systems and my biggest project right now is studying how to use the data found in online social networks to enhance recommendation. I just started on three years of NSF funding for this work, supporting two PhD students and an undergraduate at the moment. I am also working on recommendation for out-of-school time activities for middle and high school students in collaboration with Nichole Pinkard and the Chicago City of Learning project. I am also working with John Shanahan on a project in association with the Chicago Public Library to do data mining on data associated with the One Book, One Chicago initiative. I also have various course ideas in the works: in robotics, in computational advertising, and in social network analysis.

What are you currently reading?  I am usually reading several books at the same time and generally make only slow progress on them because of time constraints. Right now I’m in the middle of Phantasmal Media by D. Fox Harrell. It’s an interesting way of thinking about computer systems, especially interactive ones. Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman. Don’t read this on the quiet car on the Metra, because people give you dirty looks when you burst out laughing. I’m also reading A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media by Mikolaj Jan Piskorski. It’s not the kind of thing I usually read (a business strategy book) but he has some good examples I plan to steal and use in my courses.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both?  Introvert. Do you really need to ask this?

What’s your sleep routine like?  My circadian rhythm is very resistant to change, so I wake up at the same time every morning (around 6:30 – 7 am), whether I want to or not. That kind of determines when I need to go to bed: 10:30 – 11:00, but depending on what needs doing, it is sometimes later. If I’ve had a late night, I’ll sometimes take a nap at the office.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.  Why?  Bamshad Mobasher. Because he seems to have twice as many balls in the air as I do, and I don’t know how he gets everything done.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  My father was fond of saying “Beware of what you want, you might get it.” It seemed very paradoxical when I was a kid: of course, obtaining the things we want is the goal, right? But, as an adult, I know that often the things we want (or think we want) come with unexpected costs, particularly opportunity costs. This advice is a reminder to focus oneself on those goals that are worth having and whose consequences you can live with. In a world that bombards us with things that we are supposed to want, this injunction is a useful counterweight.

The How I Work series featured on the re/search blog is shamelessly stolen from Life Hacker’s How I Work series.   The SSRC’s version asks DePaul’s heroes, experts, and individuals of note to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Jessi Bishop-Royse at jbishopr [at]


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

Leave a re/ply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s