Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

I'm pretty sure I'm the first Oliner (or among the first) to see it, so happy 2006 to everyone! (It's a lovely year so far. We just blew up things in the front walk.) Hard to believe that three years ago I was filling out college apps between firework rounds.

Here's to a great one.

Report from the Philippines, week 1

Flying above Manila, you see the flat green roofs of factories and the large colorful houses, laid in straight suburban rows, of the wealthy. Almost like California from above. And then there's the scraggly growth of rusted corrugated metal roofs lining the rivers. These swell in number as you near metro Manila, massing in large swarms that crush up next to the wealthy subdivisions, between the buildings, next to the factories. Corrugated metal, weighted down by old car tires and patched with sheets of thin plastic, with barefoot kids in shirts with holes and skinny yellow dogs and old men sitting on cracked lawn chairs in their underwear. Everything is brightly colored, like the jeepney buses that advertise the names of the drivers' children (names like Boy-Boy, Bing-Bing and Maria N, where N is the set of all female Catholic saints' names). Everything on the rich side is brightly colored too, down to the Jesus Tiles (paintings of him, the Sacred Heart, Mary, and an overly flowery border) posted under the barbed wire on most of the front gates.

My family of four landed in the Philippines last week, stood under the wrong last name sign (WXYZ instead of C) and packed into my aunt's car, which already had four people in it (there are no seatbelt laws or passenger limitations in the Philippines). This is a place where lizards crawl up the traffic-greyed sides of houses, mosquitos are bigger than your pinky, cockroaches are bigger than your thumb, and ice water sweats and smokes out of the glass when you pour it. Syndicated beggar children press their faces against your car windows when you stop at an intersection; people sleep on dirty sheets of cardboard outside the windows of expensive department stores, a full dinner costs a little less than a buck, and the minimum daily wage is about six times that.

When we got past the security gards and the two sets of spiked gates, we walked into the house of my father's parents and were immediately seated in front of huge bowls of noodle soup. Still sleep-deprived from Olin, I crashed almost immediately afterwards and was shaken awake seven hours later by my mom because Manang Lorna (one of my grandparents' maids - it's commonplace for the middle class to have multiple household help) had made breakfast. Breakfast turned out to be a giant assortment of siopao (white buns filled with meat or bean paste), siomai (steamed dumplings), and tao hue (think ultra-soft tofu with maple syrup and you won't be far off). And then Christmas Day mass. And then to my mother's oldest sister's house for more food - my great-grandmother's special chicken soup, lugaw (rice porridge) and some sort of fish. And then back to my grandparents' house for more food like lechon (whole roast pig) and diniguan (pork blood stew).

The Philippines is mostly about food. And family. And combinations thereof. I'm sitting here on New Year's eve having some excellent coffee ice cream, but my stomach is full of roast chicken (from the business of my dad's cousin), soup, mango, pork ear, more chicken, more soup, and tiny fried crabs that taste a lot like popcorn until their legs get stuck between your teeth. And halo-halo, which is a mess of coconut, corn, jelly, seeds, and things I can't remember all piled atop shaved ice. We had fish, so my mom is happy. We got cheap software, so my brother Jason is happy. We got a Barry Manilow Sing-Along Videoke DVD, so my dad is happy, and everyone else will nod and smile politely. I've been promised a trip to the bookstore at CHEAP DISCOUNT ASIAN TEXTBOOK PRICES!!! so I'm quite happy as well.

Moving on to eat the ube (purple yam) ice cream. There's a dog barking outside on account of all the fireworks being set off outside our window for New Year's, which is one reason I'm thankful for my hearing loss. It smells like powdered smoke and mosquito repellent, as opposed to the usual smells of traffic smoke and mosquito repellent, and you can still see across the street through the smoke, which means folks are still getting warmed up with the fireworks.
My entire paternal extended family (minus the youngest son and his wife) spent the last few days in El Nido, a southern island named after the swallows that live their and the nests they spin out of their saliva (tasty). It's a tin-and-cement fishing town where babies sleep in hammocks on the catamarans of their parents. We stayed at the resort part of it, which I have mixed feelings about (yes, tourism boosts the local economy, and it's a beautiful place, but...) and snorkeled in the coral, fished in the sunrise, kayaked in the lagoons, and perpetually rinsed white sand out of our pants and shoes. El Nido has the bluest water I've ever seen. It's like looking at the jackfish and barracudas through liquid aquamarine glass.

On the day our 19-seater propeller plane was to leave back for the city, its battery overheated. Since the sun was setting and the pilots fly by sight (no radio towers), we spent the next few hours at the dirt-strip airport being bitten by mosquitos until a speedboat came to take us back to a resort. The clouds parted, I saw multiple whole constellations for the first time, and the speedboat almost stalled three times in the middle of the ocean on the way to the resort. They didn't actually have extra room there. We would have to stay in the manager's room and in the library. There was a book on the digitization of media in the library, so there were no objections to this on my part.

When we got back, there was... more food. And embarrasing baby pictures of my brother. And food. And less embarrasing baby pictures of me. And food. And pictures of my father that look eerily like my brother, one from when he was 19 and thought sideburns and bellbottoms were fashionable, and a goodly number from when he was dating-and-almost-engaged-to my mom, meaning I hadn't yet come along to tell him he should get rid of the mustache. Also my grandmother's birthday party, which was tiny and informal. By this I mean I did get to wear a nice red shirt and pants instead of a dress (although my grandmother was thrilled that I did purchase a dress, and suggested buying more), and we were able to fit all the guests inside the house by putting tables everywhere that wasn't a bedroom. This means there are no further pictures of formal-Mel that I can be blackmailed with, although I do have a haircut and new glasses and people have been trying to buy me jewelry and clothes. Thankfully, I've had a growth spurt since they last saw me, and they now all know I'm studying engineering, so most of my family is showing me brochures for their new product lines instead of nice sets of pretty flowered pants. In fact, if I get another pair of pretty flowered pants, I'm going to sell it in the tiangge (haggling market) and use the money to purchase textbooks. It's not a millstone around my neck any longer - it's potential inventory.

Mmm, the entreprenurial spirit of the Chinese. Now to watch the boys (Jason and my two cousins Mark and Michael) play computer games.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Return of the sleep debt

It's been a long time since I felt this familiar burning in my brain. It's the heavy "boy I need sleep but I'm still being productive!" stupor that comes from sleeping 3 hours out of the last... 60 or so. Oddly enough, I'm not particularly tired. And the things I've gotten done! I can't believe I used to be in this state all the time. I'm wondering how I can get back to it more.

But my eyes are beginning to burn; they've gotten unused to being open this long after nearly a year without an all-nighter. Instead of pulling a double, I'm going to take a nap in a half-hour or so and regain my ability to see without pain; today's a big day and I wouldn't want to sleepwalk through Expo for the world.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Short random note before I return to Matsci:

I need to stop thinking about my age already. It really doesn't matter any more, except for certain legal things like consumption of alcohol and running for President and so on; back when I was in high school, it didn't matter so much either except for the math team (IMSA only has sophomore through junior years, so I was one of the few that could actually compete at the freshman level). Experience-wise, maturity-wise, knowledge-wise, or what-have-you, there's no reason there should be a difference between 19 and 21, and there wasn't much reason there should be a difference between 14 and 16 back in high school either, aside from not being able to drive.

Truth is, I like the attention. I hate that this is true. It's dumb, and I shouldn't, but the incredulous "you're how old?" and the feeling, as much as it shouldn't be there, that my doing well is somehow more impressive because I'm "young," and the feeling that I can in some small way ascribe some of my failures to being "just a kid" - I know I both use and enjoy these more than I should. In fact, I shouldn't at all. I'm not a kid, and even if I were, being younger is not an excuse or a mark of superiority in any way, and no excuse for immaturity. In fact, using it as an excuse is a mark of immaturity. Age doesn't matter; your capacity to handle things does.

It took a long time for me to internalize this, actually. I used to want to rush ahead and go as far as I could as fast as I could go. Not that that's a bad thing, but if I'd gotten my way in all my educational decisions from age 9 to age 15, I would have graduated from college long before now. And that would have been "impressive," and probably get an article in some local paper for being out of college at the same age as most people get into it, and the fact that I even thought about this makes me ashamed; I don't want to want the limelight (and that was a run-on sentence).

Academically, I probably would have done great. But I would have missed some years of elementary school, at least a year of middle school, a year of high school or more, and gone on the fast-track lots-o'-APs graduate-early course through a college with the sole objective of getting a degree ASAP. But there's value to be had in slowing down and living richly and learning from your life instead of only trying to put the maximum number of acronyms behind your last name. I know I'm getting more out of four years of Olin than I would have in the 2 years it would have taken me to graduate from a big state U with the AP credits I could probably have collected. Faster sounds more impressive, but getting more out of something is what actually makes it better.

What's the rush? Life's a big lesson (among other things). You learn as much as you can from where you are, and you move to where you can learn as much as you can, and sometimes this means staying in the same place. The age you are when you hit an environment doesn't matter; your capacity to handle and learn from that environment does.

Sometimes I feel like I ignored this. I often feel like I should actually be in the class of '08, or even '09, in terms of achievements, knowledge, ability to cope with academic and nonacademic things, and intellectual and emotional maturity in general. I know others here and elsewhere are younger and went through even faster; that's great - that's their choice, and maybe they were/are more ready than I am/was. I wasn't ready for the choices I made, I somehow knew this, and I went and made the choices I did anyhow. So in a sense, I was too young in that I hadn't reached the age at which I personally was mature enough to handle that part of life. But that's my individual maturity level which (hopefully) increases with age, not age as the deciding factor of how one's maturity level ought to be.

Mistakes are just another word for mildly painful lessons in retrospect, so it's not time wasted, and it's not a "could have been so much better" situation. I live, I learn, and so I do better in the future. Such is life.

So here we go for the last time.

I am 19 years old. I turn 20 in May. I am young, dammit. Young.

And it doesn't matter. I am mature as I am now, and I am as old as I am now, and only the first one is important.

And now I shall never use this a bragging point or an excuse again. And I shall return to Matsci.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Can Olin's grading system be changed?

Was talking to Amanda the other day about grading at Olin, and she made a very good point.

There needs to be a way for external people to see us and understand who we are and what we've done. Heck, we need to understand who we are and what we've done. The thing is, the grades we give now - what do they mean? They're constrained to what the rest of the world thinks they mean: "A" means you did well, "B" is just barely passable, "C" means you must have slacked and been an idiot all semester. (I can assure you this is not universally the case. I know more from some of my 'C' classes than I do from my 'A' ones.) According to our official school papers, the grades I've just cited are all bumped up a whole letter. But since we've got to compensate for what external viewers will think when we speak this language of grades, we end up with this.

Instead of patiently trying to transcribe our A-B-C grading system into theirs, if we actually want to evaluate ourselves differently, we should just speak a different grading language entirely and give them the keys to translate it. One of the first things we learned in Human Factors was that "slightly off" things are deadly because people assume they're not off at all. If you're going to be different, be so ridiculously different that nobody could possibly mistake your foobar from the classic ol' foobar. Make them examine it and assign it their own meaning, not the "automatic" meaning they assume when they see a normal ol' foobar.

Humans are curious, Amanda argued. And they'd be willing to give us a chance. We're no longer crazy nobodies from a nowhere school; people know us, they've heard of us, they've heard of the people we work with, and they'll actually take a second look at us It's the difference between "Eh, 2.5 - I know what that means; toss it" and "An E in teamwork? What does this mean?" and a closer look at your application.

Becoming the same as the rest of the world is no way to change the world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reading: My superpower

Lynn just had us write our final reflections for HFID. Here's part of what I told her.

You know what else I realized? I really like books. I thrive on reading. I can do so much of it so fast and retain so much information, it’s a big part of what I can bring to a team; so many times I’d bring up other articles and books during meetings, and it would add value to the conversation because very few students can get through the pages-per-day that I find trivial.

(Note wherein Mel feels really sheepish about semi-bragging: Reading a technical textbook in a week is very doable for me; reading it in a day or two is possible if I'm not pwned. I read Harry Potter books 1-5 in one leisurely day while waiting for the 6th to come out, and started the Lord of the Rings after breakfast one morning and had finished all three books and their appendices by the time I headed to dinner on the same day. I'm trying not to brag here, really - this is just... what I do, how I read. Without trying. Usually without even thinking about it.)

I can’t follow lectures. I hate making phone calls. I don’t have a large store of technical expertise on any particular subject. But I read fast and well and can transfer that knowledge concisely to others, and this super-reading ninjahood is actually an asset and not just a trivial thing that “anyone at Olin can do.” And reading things related to my classes isn’t a waste of time unrelated to homework, it’s sort of like my version of “extra studying,” so it’s okay if I do it if I find ways to make it useful towards my work...

...I’m still trying to figure out how to apply this to everything else that I do, but I do learn by book, and I become much more receptive to other modes of learning after I’ve done my background reading. will soon begin to receive a 10% tithe of my annual salary.


Curse my finite humanness. And bless it too. It's taken far too long for me to realize this on more than an intellectual level, and even longer to begin acting on it, but the reason I do terribly at everything is that I expect myself to do well at everything. Sure, it's probably possible for me to become great at mathematics, a wonderful programmer, a good writer, fluent in Mandarin, composing, circuits, machining, design - individually, I can learn each of those jobs, and I can learn them very well. The problem is that since I know I can do them all individually, I expect myself to be able to do them all together. The end result is that I don't make it to the end of anything at all, and I think I'm a slacker because - well, I could have done all this stuff.

It might be too late to do that for this semester. HFID's sweet and has taken much of my time, and Matsci is hot, and I do enjoy CompArch even if I've been a slacker at it; Human-powered is of course rockin', and then there's teaching which I love to death. But there's no one thing I can point at and say "yes, this was my life." There's no lab that I live in; there are many that I frequently visit. And I do get a bit jealous of my friends who have found their homes. And at the same time, I can't give up my wandering yet. It's not quite time.

The other trouble that is if you expect human things, you get human things; if you expect superhuman things, sometimes you'll crash and burn and fail - and sometimes you'll learn that "human" actually goes farther than you thought it would.

I live for the long shots, but I've got to accept the odds that come with it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

I'd like my nasal passages back, please.

I have been productive! I have been hydrated! I have been warm! I have been not overly stressed, and after spending the last six hours of my life sitting on my suite lounge couch with papers all around me, I HAVE FINISHED GRADING FOR THE REST OF THE SEMESTER! There are many things I love about teaching; a two-inch stack of Stuff To Grade isn't particularly one of them. Also, I'm sad at the lack of depth of my knowledge. I've really got to learn a lot more about everything if I ever want to teach anything properly (I've totally been faking it for the last five years.)

By the way, if you're reading this and you're interested in TAing for something but don't think you're qualified, you probably are. Do it. Do it now. It will give you a perspective on school, academics, and communication that'll change the way you deal with everything forever. Yeah, it will pwn you at occasion, but it feels great, and it's lots of fun, and it's just worth everything and anything to at least give it a shot.

Small victories. Got to celebrate 'em; they're all I've got right now. Assuming I remain awake for the rest of the CompArch papers, I did everything I said I'd do except for matsci experiments, which was largely because I thought for the longest time that EDS was broken. And I went above and beyond on at least one of the things tonight. The 5 hours of sleep might not entirely pan out for today, though.

My mother's been complaining that I don't email her long anecdotes about my day or talk to her over the phone. Well, if I had an extra hour a day, sure. I don't think my parents entirely understand exactly what I mean by "really busy." Busy, for most adults, doesn't last 24 hours a day on top of all the normal things (banking, cleaning, brushing teeth, eating) a body's got to do. When you get to the point when you debate whether the 15 minutes you'd take to stand in line for a hamburger (which you'll then wolf down as you read your assignment) is worth the time you'd lose from work, you're way past the boundary of sane workload. Mind you, I've not reached that point since... Monday?

Right, so end 10min typing break and now it's back to reading.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sanity management


I am overworked, behind, and sick. Everything is okay. Everything is okay. I'm taking a deep breath now. I am overworked, behind, and sick, but this will all pass. As a matter of fact, I think I smell an engineering problem. Optimization of self - go, go, go! Project time span: 3 days. By 3pm on Friday the 9th, I will no longer be overworked, behind, and/or sick.

Issue 1: Sick.

Fix-it plan:
  • Sleep - at least 5 hours a night, uninterrupted.
  • Water - At least 96 oz a day. Juice does not count.
  • Food - Hot food. Good nutrition. No more skipping meals - at least 3 a day. No junk.
  • Medicine - Purchasing some sort of effervescent cold remedy. Taking religiously.
  • Warmth - Will wear jacket when outside at all times. Will take hot showers every morning and night to clear sinuses OF DOOM.
  • Exercise - No running, but study breaks will consist of stretching.

Issue 2: Overworked.

Fix-it plan:
  • Company - work in lounges and labs and classrooms with other people as much as possible for sanity's sake.
  • Breaks - at least one full hour of every day will be devoted to doing something I want, no matter what is due.
  • Workspace - my desk will be kept clean. No matter how in a hurry I am or how late I will be, I always have time to put whatever it is back in a folder or drawer.

Issue 3: Behind.

Fix-it plan:
  • Tuesday evening: Finances, filing, family obligations.
  • Tuesday night: ECS grading.
  • Wednesday morning: Comparch reading.
  • Wednesday afternoon: ODO research.
  • Wednesday evening: Comparch writing.
  • Wednesday night: Matsci experiments and analysis.
  • Thursday morning: HFID coding.
  • Thursday afternoon: Matsci draft writing.
  • Thursday night: HFID presentation.
  • Friday morning: Matsci final writing.
  • Friday night: Formal dancing. Lord help me.
Doing later:
  • Comparch studying.
  • Comparch coding.
  • HFID writing.
  • HPV compiling.
  • HPV designing.
  • Matsci presentation.
  • Matsci studying.
  • Career fair publicity.
  • Expo prep.
  • Discrete testing.
  • Personal correspondence.
I'll post progress updates in the comments. Go, go, go!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Burning the candle at both ends

My laptop is fixed! Mostly. It has issues with randomly not coming out of standby and sometimes going "whoop! I'll shut down... now!" when I didn't tell it to, but at least I've got it back and can do things like read my files again. (Lord, I have so much grading of labs to catch up on now that my data is accessible.)

I'm sleeping a solid 5 hours a night when I should be doing work, and it bothers me that this doesn't bother me as much as I think it ought to. It also bothers me that it bothers me in the first place. Silly brain.

Olin expects a lot from us and we expect a lot from each other, but we expect even more from ourselves. Too much, sometimes. Half my mind says we're going to burn out and crash and this isn't worth it - the other half is having the time of its life and knows it wouldn't be happy with anything else. And the third half (ssh, I can do fractions) secretly nurtures dreams that us going crazy right now will somehow lead to us saving the world in the future.

But saving the world is hard, and it's easy to lose track of it in the messiness of daily life. There are rough spots, arguments, dropped jobs, broken promises, everything you thought you'd gotten away from when you came to a place like Olin. Everyone's supposed to try hard, do their best, try to make everything okay no matter what it took. But there's more work than there are people to handle it. We're a few hundred people trying to reshape engineering education in four years, and most of us are kids struggling to make a difference in a world we haven't entirely grown up into yet.

We knew we had to make sacrifices when we came, but "no matter what it takes" shouldn't include the sanity of half the population. So we cut back, whether we decide to or we're forced to - I know I once worked through a week and slept 5 hours in as many days, turned in everything, and then just fell on my mattress and didn't move for another 14 hours. And that's the longest I've ever slept in my (non-infant, non-comatose) life, nearly three times the amount I usually get. And then we wake up and feel guilty for being human.

Because, you know, we should be superhuman. Because sometimes it seems like we are, or that we're supposed to be; we're supposed to do great things. Go, go, go! You people are extraordinary! Why are you crying over your exam grade? What do you mean, you can't debug your program? What are you doing staring out the window at the snow when you're supposed to be writing your paper? Don't you know you're supposed to be saving the world?

I've been burning the candle at both ends for eight years now. Sixth grade was when I kicked into high gear and began pulling allnighters and going overboard. For fun. I can barely remember not being this way any more; it's one of the reasons I'm planning on taking some time between undergrad and graduate school to do... one thing at a time. One simple thing at a time. Something I can put my entire self into, but something that's actually humanly sane and reasonable to do. The trick is finding something that will let me rest and sleep while not letting me feel like a complete slacker.

Burning the candle at both ends is a choice, just like everything else. I know full well I'm driving myself to work, and I know full well I'm letting myself slack. And I know both are things I have chosen, and I know the consequences of those choices. I'm not always proud of them, but I know I'm the one who made those decisions.

You know what? Not too long from now, I'll actually look back on these days with a sort of nolstagia. It's happened to my high school years already. The times I fell asleep with my head on the keyboard in the middle of coding because I was just that tired. The times I did make it into bed and would wake up seated against the headboard with a physics book in my lap. The times I sat up all night worrying about a friend. The times I stayed up helping my classmates pass math, then staggered back to my room and sat on a pillow on the bathroom floor (so as to not wake my roommate) and started my own very, very neglected homework around 3am. (This is the reason I became a night owl in the first place. Nobody asked for help at 3am.)

And then there were the nights when I climbed out on the tree over the pond in the back of the school and just looked at the lights over the dark water and watched my breath fog, or went running up and down the hill, or huddled with my bare feet on the hot radiator on a cold night when the heater wasn't running high enough to keep up with the Aurora winter. Once I saw a deer standing between the dormitories before it suddenly turned and ran through the early morning fog; I think I was the only person in my building awake then. There were quiet times and there were good times, and there were times when I wished I knew how to cry (I can't) and wished the world would just stop and I wouldn't have to wake up for another morning of work ever again. In the end, though, I remember the good ones more.

Geez. I used to do so much in high school. I used to do a lot my first year and a half here. What happened? Am I really that burnt out now? I can't drive myself through lack of sleep like I used to, and I like kicking back and hanging with my friends, even at some times when I should technically be working. I'm growing more selfish in the name of sustainability. It's a choice. I'm not sure that it's the right one.

Check: Am I happy?


Good. Carry on, then.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Ron Jeffries on Passion

Ran across a Ron Jeffries writing called "Born For Passion." I agree completely. He puts it into words far more eloquently than I can. Here's what he says.


I was born for passion, passion in my work and the people relating to it. I have great success in building teams with a mission and getting things done, and some great failures in the trying. I've had people love me and had people hate me, and while I prefer the love by a wide margin, I kind of prefer either to indifference. Because I'm not about making indifference, I'm about making a difference.

That's what I think this movement is about: making a difference. That's what I want it to be about: making a difference.

Here's what I try to be, and what I like to find in those around me:

  • I want to stay the course with the people who converse with me, not just drift away as if no longer interested.
  • I want to argue passionately without rancor, let you call me names in the morning and drink in peace and affection with me that night.
  • I want to hold others in the true respect that allows them to be what they are, act like they will, while working as hard as possible to influence them to try other things.
  • I want to give my ideas away, confident that my little gift will come back to me manyfold.
  • I want to try every way I can to communicate with my colleagues, to get my ideas across and to get their ideas back in return.
  • I want to honor the passion that people feel, to honor the strongly held beliefs and ideas of others as much as I honor my own
  • I want to crash-test those beliefs and ideas hard against each other, confident that even better ideas will come out of the testing.
  • I want to assume that we do this from love, that we care about each other, and that we welcome the crackle of real passion, real work, the real interaction of ideas.

I do my best to be that kind of person. And I want to be with other people like that. Thanks for being around.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Information Design - a new discipline?

I've been thinking a lot lately about knowledge management and its ultimate usefulness (or uselessness, depending). Data continues to burgeon, and we're totally unprepared as a society to handle it. We need a thinking shift. I'm not sure I would call it knowledge management, if by knowledge management we mean "Look, lots of data - store it." A better term might be information design. I'm not sure if this is a discipline that already exists; if it does, some pioneers might be people like Steve Jobs, Edward Tufte, Garr Reynolds, or Don Norman. If it doesn't exist, I think we need it. We need design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that's geared towards

(1) communication and
(2) organization/productivity.

How do we make use of massive streams of data while still getting things done? We can't shut the doors and say"we can't deal with this much input, so we'll ignore its existence." We can't go "All right, let 'er in!" and then drown in overload. There is too much to do; there is too little time and too few people. (3 people + 2 days + 12 people-days of work = Olin Syndrome.)

Forget motivational speakers and their exhortations to "take charge of your life" and "get organized." We know all that stuff. We roll our eyes at it. Our work habits are still a mess. It's like the couch potato that knows he should hop off his bum, stop eating TV dinners, and exercise. And yet he doesn't. How can he create a plan so he will? This is an information design problem.

Or you're presenting your new project at a conference. (Steve Jobs is reportedly insanely good at this.) How do you manage your slides, your speech, your lighting, your talk - how do you get your audience engaged and engrossed in your concept? Numbing their brains with powerpoint bullets is not the right solution, but what is? This is an information design problem.

You want to explain to your students the design process they're about to go through. You want it on a poster you can tack to the studio wall, but there's so much data to abstract. (Edward Tufte is reportedly insanely good at this.) You don't want a gigantic text dump, but at the same time, a big unlabeled triangle doesn't really tell you much... how do you make content concise yet intuitive, simple yet full of meaning? This is an information design problem.

You're working with a software team. Bug reports and revisions are flying through the air. How do you create a CMS to hold it all together? How do you share information, delegate tasks, ask questions, talk to one another, keep the wheels turning smoothly - what makes a good team good, and what can bad teams do to get better (or is all hope lost for certain group dynamics?) Where do you store what you know? This isn't just a matter of what variable name in what database on what server; this is also things like "Betty's our resident skateboarding expert, but Dan is really good at giving speeches" that nobody ever writes down but everyone just internalizes. How do you formally describe this so you can make the process better? This is an information design problem.

I have not articulated this very well because the concept isn't yet clear in my own mind. I'm hoping it'll come together soon. I'd love to hear what other people have to say, even (especially) if it's "Mel, you're crazy," "It'll never work," or "Someone's done this already." (In that case, let me know who they are so I can learn from them!)

The following websites give a strange, hop-and-skip spot overview of what I'm thinking about. None of them quite hits it, but all of them, with the addition of sociology, psychology, human factors, cognitive science, graphic design, marketing, theatre, and communications (and lions, tigers, and bears oh my!) blossom fairly close to the space I'm trying to define. ("Geek to live, not live to geek.") (I'm planning an informal series of HFID-style experiments to test these out. Any interest in being a co-experimenter... or guinea pig? Both?) (who wants to go to his seminar in the spring with me?)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wait, I don't have to be an ECE?

After Emma and I got back from the Take Olin Home thing at IMSA (which, despite our complete and utter improvisation of everything, went well), I brought some chocolate Culver's custard home for Jason's 17th birthday and sat around the dinner table which was full of takeout Chinese food. (Happy birthday, kid.)

So, parents. You know they'll ask you how classes are going. They've been on my case because of a few little letters that they've never seen before dotting my transcript's last two semesters. You're an electrical engineering major, my dad says, you shouldn't be getting C's in your electrical engineering classes. And I look slightly sheepish and apologize and say I'm trying. And all this is par for the course.

But this time I start talking about my other projects. I tell them about reading the entire HFID bookshelf during lunchtimes, and staying several hours overtime talking Human-Powered design with Eric and Chris and not noticing, talking about Better Bags and asking them what they think of this solution and that one and asking how bags are manufactured. (And this is a several-hours long conversation that ends with my design notebook open on the table, plastic bags strewn around, me entirely forgetting the original topic of my bad grades, and the dishes still not cleared into the sink.) "I don't think I'm going to be an electrical engineer when I graduate," I said. "It's a good thing for me to learn, and a background I want to have, and I like it, but the thing I really want to do is design."

"Well, maybe you shouldn't be an electrical engineer," my dad said. "Maybe you should switch your major to Engineering with Design." And my mom agreed.

I never actually thought I'd hear those words come out of their mouths, to be quite honest. I expected them to go into a tirade about how ECE is a nice known major, yadda yadda, I should get a strong foundation and then branch off into design, something something looks better to employers. (And in fact they have gone off on that tirade before, except replace "ECE" with "engineering" and the alternative with "art school" and transpose the conversation to my senior year of high school, or replace "art school" with "Systems" and transpose it to sophomore year of college.) But no! This was even my father (he's a MechE-turned-MBA) sitting down and outlining some course suggestions in marketing, manufacturing, psychology, art... "If you want to do design, you should take these kinds of classes." And all the classes he suggested sound wonderful.


Now the decision is back in my hands. I'd never considered not going ECE because I thought they'd kill me if I suggested an E-with-blah degree, but they won't. They're actually encouraging this. So I have to figure out what I want to do. On the one hand, I really, really like design. I mean, really, really love it. And want to do some form of it as my life's work. On the other hand, I can't help but feel like I'm copping out. ECE is "nice and rigorous," and gives you a great background that would be useful to me, especially since I want to be able to design things heavily involving electronic components. I want a nice technical grounding. All the design stuff I've done feels like Happy Fun Playtime For Mel and not "hard" at all. Then again, that's the feeling you get when you love something, no matter what it is. I mean, I got a bit of that feeling doing abstract math, and that's pain and torture for other people. And I'm a grand total of one class away from an ECE degree and it's a class I'm going to take anyhow, whereas I'd have to go Whoosh! Bang! Overhaul! Studystudystudy to go for a design degree.

This makes for an interesting mix of thoughts. Elated because I have my parents' blessing. Sinking feeling that I've discovered this too late. (Knowing that 19 is totally not "too late" to change your mind about what you want to do in life.) Fear of "wimping out." (Knowing that I don't have to prove myself to anyone, and that probably nobody will look at me and say that Mel switched majors because she was Too Dumb to be an ECE.) Worrying, as much as I hate to admit it, that, uh, an ECE degree is... more... normal and attractive to employers and grad schools and stuff (you know, the kind of things I'm not supposed to let myself care about).

Lots to think about now. At least I'm getting 10 (Yes, ten! I must be completely burnt out!) hours of sleep a night here.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Laptops out, family in, schedule almost set

A few hours after leaving Olin, my laptop crashed. It claims it's missing some vital Windows file or other, and I apparently need the WinXP install CD to fix it. Great timing, right? This is really an indicator that I should use Ubuntu more. But that precludes important things like Solidworks and Photoshop and Evernote from making me happy, even if there are alternatives like Gimp and the supposedly-happening Linux release of Evernote coming out.

So I won't be rewriting my CompArch labs this break, it seems. Yes, I was planning on doing so, just as an educational exercise; I'm not entirely satisfied with what we ended up with because of the lovely world-falls-apart coincidences that led to all our code being rushed and partly broken. And I won't be solidworksing that little project of mine. And I won't be able to give long-distance Simulink help to ECS-ers because I neglected to install Matlab on my Linux partition, though I might still be able to help with explanations and not-too-involved Matlab debugging.

On the other hand, that's not what Thanksgiving break was made for. I've got a brother to catch up with, first of all. Jason's turning 17 tomorrow, and I haven't really been at home for his birthdays since he was 12. In the meantime, he's grown about a foot, his voice has dropped a fifth, and when I walked into the bathroom we both shared as little kids, I blinked because there was a razor and a can of shaving cream standing next to his toothbrush. I'm not sure when my little brother started turning into a young man. It's strange to think that by this point in my life, I'd already sent in my "Yes, I'm Coming To Olin" letter and was getting ready to go to college. That wasn't all that long ago.

Jason's lucky, though. He's got more time. He's an early birthday and he also decided not to skip a grade, which - in retrospect - was probably a wiser choice than the one I made. He knows better what he's doing, he has more time to prepare himself in high school, more time to spend with our parents, more time to think, to grow up, and just more time in general. In the end, he's going to go to college ahead of where I started maturity-wise, and that's good. (No, he doesn't know which college yet; he likes architecture, design, and engineering, and has a strong entrepreneurial/marketing bent. And yes, he's heard of a place called Olin College.)

I also need to get him a present. I was going to give him a nice knife, but he said they're not allowed to carry them in school, where he spends many of his waking hours - and our parents aren't entirely enthralled with the idea of us with Sharp Blades, so nix on that.

Then there are my parents, who haven't gotten to see me grow up since I turned 14 and happily left home for school. I have a much higher appreciation for how hard that must have been now (and how hard it still is). I'm pretty sure it's nowhere near the full appreciation I'll get when (if) I have children of my own growing up someday, but geez.

Talked to my mom about my growing attraction to design and teaching (at the cost of neglecting the stuff I'm "supposed" to be studying). She gave me the "finally, you realize your parents are smart" look and reminded me that about five years ago, both she and my father told me I'd probably end up working for a company like IDEO. Concentrate on your studies now and get a good foundation in electrical engineering, and then you'll be able to bring more to the table when you go into design, she advised. I know it's the best thing for me to do, and I still do love all the ECE stuff - heck, I'm stil fascinated by everything - so as long as I make sure I do a little bit of design and teaching every semester to make me happy and to let me apply all the rest of the the things I do to that, I'll be happy and edjoomacated!

Speaking of which, schedule.

  • 6 Books That Changed The World (1st half) and Science Fiction and Historical Context (2nd half)
  • 6 Theorems That Changed The World (I hovered between this and Circuits, which arguably is more applicable to my major and would be a fantastic educational experience, not to mention that Brad is teaching it - but I need a semester of things that will make me deliriously happy, and I haven't had abstract math in so long.)
  • Anthropology of Southeast Asia (My first class at Wellesley!)
  • Robotics (My only Engineering class next semester. This is a drastic change from my past three semesters of only engineering/required lab/applied math classes. Lord, how I welcome this.)
  • And.... that's all. 14 credits of mostly AHS courses. You don't know how weird this feels.
  • Incidentally, all these classes are on Tuesdays, Fridays, or Wednesday early morning. Wow.
Not Classes (tentative)
  • Working in Ozgur's brand-spankin'-so-new-it-ain't-been-built-yet design lab with Eric M and some-other-student-yet-to-be-determined. My design fix for the semester! I might finally have a lab in the AC that I'll practically be living in, the same way Beth's starting to take up residence in the Matsci lab or Jon spends his waking hours in the Robotics one.
  • If things work out, I'll be doing a sort of teaching apprenticeship (math, science, instructional technology) at a very cool little K-8 school in Cambridge, one whole day a week. My teaching fix for the semester!
  • If things work out, an independent study on the dynamics of design teams, alternating between weeks of reading/discussion and case studies/interviews (trying to actually go out and interview designers and businesspeople).
  • If things work out, auditing Politics of the World Economy on Wednesday afternoons, just for fun. I thrive on reading-dependent classes. To give you an idea why, I read the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy for the first time at a nice relaxed pace between breakfast and bedtime of the same day, and can still quote passages, family lineages, and draw out specific plot points from it years later.
  • Aikido.
  • And continuing to volunteer for Bikes Not Bombs.
  • I am not overloading this semester, though. There will be free time. There will be side projects. There will be as little sleep debt as possible, and what debt I do undertake will be happy, voluntary "I'm so absorbed I just can't stop working on this!" sleep debt. This semester is my semester.
Slowly I'm starting to move towards what I really want to do with my life. I'm not sure what that is, but I think this is in the right direction.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Asking good questions, nocturnality, tradition, and in memoriam

Today I caught myself being isolationist. You know the kind of attitude people have when they're willing to help, but you know it's grudging? "All right, hurry up so I can get back to my work!" This is the first time I can recall myself considering, if only for a brief second, helping others to be a less efficient use of my time than something else. At the same time, my time really isn't all that valuable. I'm a lowly undergraduate, and not a particularly skilled one at that. So I don't want to jump out with suggestions on How You Can Make Better Use Of My Time. That's arrogant and just plain silly.

I don't ever want my time to become so valuable that people treat it as such. Sometimes I feel guilty at asking professors and TAs for help (and I know I'm not the only one) because they, this amazing and brilliant person, is stooping to reiterate blatantly simple concepts because I was too lazy to get them through my thick skull. I'm also pretty sure that people feel guilty asking me for help sometimes. I used to do a better job of hiding my exhaustion, but I'm starting to slow down in my old age. :) I admire that our professors at Olin are willing to waste their time on us, and that they don't consider it a waste at all. In fact, I'm astounded by it, because sometimes I can be a real inconsiderate idiot. I want to be like our professors someday. I want to never be too busy or important to help anyone with anything

From past experience, there is nothing that makes good teachers happier than working on a well-made bug report (for any topic, not just programming). If you know exactly what is stopping you, have a clear and specific request, have already explored all avenues you can think of, and can communicate this in an extremely concise manner, then they'll love you. Even if the trouble is "I'm lost and confused and don't know where to look, and I'm hyperventilating!" you should say so and tell them what you've tried. Why are you lost? Is there anything you are not lost on that we can use as a starting point?

Second item. I've been shifting to a nocturnal cycle lately, and I've got to say that if it weren't for the fact that I actually have things scheduled in the mornings (and shouldn't be sleeping through them), I'd enjoy this very much. 5:30-10:30 am seems to be my best down-time, which means reading and sleeping; I'm not tired, I get work done, and I just feel good. I wonder if I can manage this schedule for real somehow. How important is it to be in sync with the rest of the world, anyway?

My parents would complain.

Another thing that's been on my mind the last few hours is Chinese culture. I'm of Chinese blood. There are traditions, customs, and cultural restraints involved in living that sort of heritage, and I do many things to please my parents and older relatives (filial piety is a big deal). When I'm with them, it's not a problem; I'll respect their wishes, for the most part, and do whatever little things they'd like me to do, like wearing red on a birthday or burning incense before our ancestral shrine.

The question is how much of this I'll carry over when I don't have to do it for them any more.

Specifically, when a grandparent dies, you're supposed to wear only dark colors and white for the next 100 days. No bright colors.

Now, I have a closet full of almost entirely brightly-colored things. I really don't like wearing lots of dark clothes. And to be perfectly honest - and I feel awful saying this - but that tradition carries no meaning whatsoever to me. It's not a rebellion thing. I don't want to not care, but I don't care. At least not enough to wear dark, if it were left up to me.

But it's not just me. My parents expect me to do this; so do my aunts, my cousins, and my grandparents. I know that when I'm home, I'll be wearing dark. When I'm in the Philippines with my grandparents for winter break, I'll be wearing dark. They wouldn't be mad if I didn't continue at school; they would understand and be ok with it, but they would be disappointed in that terrible sad way.

I'm a firm believer in only carrying out actions that you believe in. Don't carry them out just for someone else. The only way I can justify this is by saying that I believe in honoring the wishes of your elders, and so if they request something I do not necessarily believe in, I will carry out that request to honor their wishes and fulfill my desire for filial piety. It seems a rather slippery argument, though.

Incidentally, I'm wearing a bright pink shirt as I write this. I guess we'll see how it goes.

I do want to take a moment to remember my Guakong (Fookien Chinese term for your mother's father), because I'll forget this as I grow older. His name was Herminio Lim.

He was the oldest child in his family and grew up during WWII, living in the Philippines during the time of the Japanese occupation. He was smart. And I mean smart. He taught himself how to read and speak English by going through old newspapers at night. He taught himself art. He taught himself everything; he had to, because he never really went to school. Instead of going to college, he worked to put his 9 siblings through university. He sacrificed his chance at a future so they could have theirs.

I admire that. A lot. I don't think I could ever do that.

My brother Jason and I, as two of the three eldest, are among the very few of the 14 grandkids who can remember him as someone other than the wheelchair-bound old man who, through Alzheimer's, slowly lost his ability to recognize us, and who, through Parkinson's, slowly lost his ability to go out with us.

I knew him as a very different person when I was small. Summers when I was little were Guama and Guakong time. Spring started when they flew in from the Philippines, and summer ended when they flew back home. Mom and Dad would pick them up from the airport; when Jason and I saw the van pull in, we'd run out and help them bring their luggage to their room. (We never called it the guest room; it was always "Guama and Guakong's room.") They always had presents.

He was a normal part of my life back then, and I'm grateful for that. I'm thankful that I had a time when seeing him wasn't a special occasion. I'm thankful that I could, when I was little, just sort of assume that he'd be around. Guakong was curious about everything. He read incessantly and drew when he wasn't reading, and picked up random things and just kept them in his room and desk drawers. His space was just crammed witih random stuff. According to the stories my mom and aunts tell, I'm a lot like him. When I was small and would pick up certain books and ask questions in a certain way, mom would ask me whether I was turning into Guakong.

The way he drew was very different from the way I drew; while I was still struggling to put lines into my mental image of a thing, he was laying down detailed patches of shade and color that somehow fell into a picture of whatever he was looking at. I do know that watching him draw that picture was what triggered the realization that you didn't have to make a drawing look like an object - you just sort of drew, and if you put down what you saw, then it'd come together in the end. It changed the way I sketched. I still try to draw like that today.

When I was little, I wanted to learn how to do tai chi like Guakong. He tried to teach me a few times, but I was too young to understand. I thought I'd wait another seven, eight years and ask him again when I was a teenager. I'd be grown enough by then, I thought, to be a good student to him. I'd be able to learn from him as an adult, not a child. When you're a kid, you know intellectually that people grow older, but you still believe somehow that all the adults in your life are going to stay the same, at least until they watch you grow up all the way.

Things do change, though. After a while, they stopped coming to Chicago in the summers. The last time he came to Chicago was to watch me and Jason graduate from middle and elementary school, respectively. We started going to Seattle to see them instead. And that was normal. We'd go to their apartment and walk along the streets of Seattle to the waterfalls and art displays at the convention center. Later, Jason and I would push him in his wheelchair to see the paintings, and that was normal too. Things become normal very quickly to you when you're a kid.

The memory of Guakong I least understand but most cherish is from when I was about seven years old. I'm usually a late sleeper, but that morning I'd gotten up early, during that time before the sun's really woken up and the light still has that faint smell of dawn. I padded downstairs in my pajamas, and there in the back yard was Guakong, doing tai chi in the morning fog. It was just the two of us awake. The colors were vividly muted, and he moved through them with such grace that it seemed perfecly natural to be doing it - an old man walking softly on the cracked cement of a suburban Chicago backyard, floating slowly through time while most of the city was still asleep. I remember watching quietly through the window for the longest time, not wanting to disturb this time where he was. At some point he must have realized I was watching, I know; at some point he must have come inside, and everyone else must have woken up, and we must have had breakfast and gone on with our lives. But I don't remember that part. For me, the memory ends with watching my grandfather and the morning, moving in the sunlight, dancing together and waking up the world.

This, I think, is how I will honor him. It's something I've wanted to do for more than a decade now. I will learn tai chi, I will learn it properly, and every time I practice, I'll remember.

And I'll be wearing a brightly colored shirt as I do.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

On the future of libraries

I read an article by the DaVinci institute on the future of libraries. Since the point of a library is to make as much information easily available to as many people as possible (and not to act as a book museum), it's actually an article on the future of public information access. Comments follow.
Trend #1 - Communication systems are continually changing the way people access information.

After stating the obvious, the article goes on. "What is the ultimate form of communication, and will we ever get there?" And then it says that books and writing are but technologies (albeit long-lived ones), and every technology has a limited lifespan. This, along with the second trend, which is...
Trend #2 - All technology ends. All technologies commonly used today will be replaced by something new.
...implies that books and writing are on their way out. Back into the chasm of illiteracy, onwards! We live in the age of the sensory overload, the article seems to say, but soon it won't be overload any more; we'll absorb this information as naturally as we breathe.
Don't we do this already? We react to the temperature of the room we're in, the smile of a friend, the motion of the people around us as we thread through a crowd. If we only reacted to the information that came to us in the form of words, we might as well be Perl scripts.
Most people consider only word-based information to be "real." According to McLuhan's classic work Understanding Media, this stems from the recent development of a highly literate society combined with high data transfer rates. Words are digital (chunked) encryptions of the (analog) range of meaning we wish to communicate. They're so portable and effective that we find it difficult to express thought without them. It's almost like a PIC attempting to emulate an analog signal through pulse-width modulation. Societies without high literacy rates or fast communications lines tend to be more aware of nonverbal information present in the world.
Since words work so well, much of the information people consider important is in word form. Currently, the most efficient and searchable way to store words is in text. (Compare a speech transcript with its audio file; which will you more quickly extract information from, and which has a smaller file size?) ) It's not just finding an alternative format for text that's our concern, it's finding an alternative format for words. That's going to take a while.
Trend #3 - We haven’t yet reached the ultimate small particle for storage. But soon.
The problem isn't how we store information so much as how we look at it. There's no sense in having the capability to store millions of terabytes of data if we aren't able to work with it.
Trend #4 - Search Technology will become increasingly more complicated
There's only so much complexity that people will take before someone invents a new way. Within a decade, the amount of information we need to handle will balloon past the capability of our current search paradigm to handle and search technology will become something we haven't even conceptualized yet.
The article argues that librarians will become increasingly more necessary as searches become more complex. But what will the librarians of the future be like?
Trend #5 - Time compression is changing the lifestyle of library patrons
"People today sleep, on average, two hours less per night than 80 years ago, going from 8.9 hours per night to 6.9 hours. 34% of lunches today are eaten on the run. 66% of young people surf the web & watch TV at the same time. Basically, we have more needs faster."
I'm surprised the article doesn't treat this topic in more depth. Instead, it goes on to talk about the impending doom of keyboards. Granted, interfaces will change like mad in the next few decades. But let's step back and talk about life changes first. Our lives are broadening and speeding up. In the old mentality, your worth was determined by the amount of information you had access to (usually through training and memorization). The information you could get to was limited enough that you could reasonably master it. In the new workforce, almost everyone has access to a huge amount of data spanning all sorts of topics. It flattens the old hierarchy based on information access; now your value is measured by what you can do with the data. Instead of rewarding people for knowing things, we reward them for creating. (This makes me unbelievably happy. It's also the reason I think our school system needs an overhaul; we still teach kids how to function in the old world. But that's another writing for another day.)
Why are we so much more rushed and busy than we used to be? We're dealing with incoming data the same way we used to, but now there's much more of it. To use a bad analogy, it's like being a librarian writing due dates on check-out cards. This works great for low-volume flows of patrons with books. After a certain point, your writing speed will get increasingly frantic until it maxes out and you can't physically keep up with the book flow any more. So you buy a date stamp. (And that works great for a while longer, but then it gets to be too much... and you buy a barcode scanner.) Search technology right now is in date stamp phase, but some people are still stuck back in handwriting, and they're scrawling so desperately they're going to get carpal tunnel soon. Something in the way society handles data is going to give, and it's going to give soon, and it's going to give big-time. Whatever it is, I believe it'll simultaneously calm our lives and push them towards breakneck-speed insanity. There'll be a widespread awakening of the world due to knowledge management sometime soon; it'll be on the order of magnitude of the awakening that occured when the internet first started to spread like wildfire about a decade ago.
Trend #6 - Over time we will be transitioning to a verbal society
According to the article, not long from now we'll see "the end of the keyboard era. Dr William Crossman, Founder/Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures... predicts that by 2050 literacy will be dead." You've already heard my argument for why it won't be. That having been said, there will be much more information used in non-literate form.
It's not just a more verbal society that we will see, but a more tactile and physical one. Computer-human interactions are pretty sad right now. Think about it; all your feedback from this wonderful device is limited to a tiny flat screen and some tinny beeping speakers. All its feedback from you is in the form of keypunches and a little arrow moving across its surface. Now think of having a conversation with another person. You can nod, blink, smile, imitate an accent, roll your eyes, wave your hands in the air. There's an amazing amount of information you're transmitting that the computer never sees. Conversely, there's an amazing amount of information you're able to recieve that the computer can't yet give you. I see this changing as computing power becomes cheaper, smaller, and increasingly embedded in everything.
Trend #7 - The demand for global information is growing exponentially
Trend #8 - The Stage is being set for a new era of Global Systems
Trend #9 – We are transitioning from a product-based economy to an experience based economy
The world is shrinking, there's no doubt about that. Our horizons are broadening. We're no longer thinking as linearly as we once did, and we see things as a facilitator of experiences and not an end in and of themselves ("I don't want a half-inch drill bit; I want a half-inch hole.") I agree on all three counts.
The article says that books "will transition from a product to an experience." We already evaluate books on the basis of the experience they provide, whether we're aware of it or not. Why do people read Nicholas Sparks novels? They like the emotional wistfulness it provides. Why do people read Feynman's lectures? They appreciate the humor and the elegant physics. It's not the dead blocks of vegetable matter we're enamored with, it's the thoughts stored within them.
However, I believe that the capabilities of books (or written material) in terms of providing an experience will broaden as we become more and more aware of them. The invention of hypertext opened up new possibilities for the written word, freeing it from the left-to-right, down-the-line gridlock; any word in a story can now lead to any other word. Media (sound, music, pictures, etc.) can be embedded within text, adding to its meaning.
Look at the writing style of today, with its snappy pose and emotionally-resonating stories, and compare it to the writing style of just a half-century ago. Instead of merely putting down content, our textbooks are trying to find ways to make that content accessible and engaging. In an age where information is cheap, what counts is the way you can present that information to others. Creating reading experiences sells, and authors are becoming more cognizant of this every day.
Trend #10 - Libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture
This is where I believe Olin's library is caught right now. It wants to be a center of culture that, by definition, provides help finding information. However, cultural habit is strong enough to dictate that it's still focused on being THE center of information. The library has tried to move towards being an information helper rather than an information provider by outsourcing a lot of the actual content providing that other libraries do. Interlibrary loans and online databases in lieu of buying thousands of volumes for the library shelves are the most striking example; we have a tiny library, but it makes a huge realm of data accessible to us.
The way in which the library organizes its information strongly reflects the school culture. Look at the library website and compare it to the google homepage. Something look familiar? To Olin's internet-savvy, google-using students, something sure does.
Note that the library webpage (and the library itself) doesn't necessarily contain the information you want, but tells you where to find it instead. Most of the content on the webpage is actually provided by external companies; there are links to databases, handbooks, online versions of texts, and the holdings of the other libraries in the consortium. I would estimate that I use interlibrary loan for approximately a fourth of the books I get through Olin's library. In this case, the library is acting as a gateway to more information and not necessarily a keeper of it. In this age, there is enough information to manage that the time of an institution is better spent knowing who has what and how to get it, as opposed to trying to keep it all by itself.
The Olin library explicitly tries to be a center of culture as well. Walk in, and you'll see toys on the shelves. There's a Go board, K'nex, legos, chess, little wind-up toys, samples of strange materials, and other fun tinkering things that engineering students would find fun. There are sketchpads and colored pencils at every table. Feedback post-its are stuck to the support posts, encouraging dialogue. We're allowed to bring food into the library, which turns it into a comfortable hang-out spot. There are team rooms in the back, meaning that groups will come work here for the space and the laid-back atmosphere even if they don't specifically need any of the informational content in the library.
In fact, none of the things I've just mentioned are dependent on the library as a source of content. Olin's library is doing for information centers what Starbucks did for coffee; instead of just serving up the stuff, they created an experience around it that made you want to come back for more. You don't just go to Starbucks for a good expresso; you also go for the laid-back feeling, the "I'm taking a break" mood, the place to hang out (and the free wireless). You don't just go to the library for books; you go there for the playful intellectual buzz, the company of like-minded others... all right, and the free wireless.
The evolving library and dynamic librarian as guides that help you find a good data experience: Probably.

The evolving library as the end-all-be-all revolutionary new technological way to handle data without words: Eh. The biggest difference in libraries in the next century won't be the snazzy teched-up materials we find (or don't find) on their shelves; it'll be in our minds and the way we conceptualize the relationships between libraries, information, and ourselves. The technology and the paradigm shift will support each other.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How do you learn unleadership?

You know you love what you're doing when your breaktimes consist of switching from one type of work to another, and you like it that way. Ah, life. I'm still terrible at handling it in a mature, adultlike manner, but gosh, it's grand - and I'm learning.

I've been reminded lately of a quote from the Tao Te Ching. "The best rulers... when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark 'We have done it ourselves.'" But how do you learn to lead without leading?

I lead a lot. Too much. I always feel like I'm "taking over" something, be it a classroom, a discussion, a team, a group, whatever. I can't contain my energy, so it ends up just whooshing off and dragging me behind it until we all get exhausted. I take ownership, but while I never intend to keep other people from taking it - in fact, I would be thrilled if they grabbed it back - the fact that I've already taken an initiative sometimes discourages others from doing the same.

How do you make that encouraging instead of discouraging? How do you make it an inspiration to take ownership instead of an impulse to sit back and relinquish control?

How do you get other people to lead?

The ironic thing is that I don't even like leading. Or at the very least, I dislike enjoying leadership. I want to be a reluctant leader, but sometimes I just... go. And then step back and think "what have I just done?"

Must... shut... mouth...more. Must follow.

...ironically, this will make me a better leader.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Mel's off-duty vest

The last few days have seen the implementation of the Mel's Off Duty Vest. It's a maroon polarfleece given to me by my grandmother about 7 years ago. When I'm wearing it, I'm not allowed to be Supermel. I'll either be relaxing or working on my own stuff, most often the latter. When I'm wearing it, I'll have to politely decline requests for academic help. I won't be wearing it often.

I'd love to be able to help everybody all the time, but sometimes I need my own space, and sometimes (er, often) I forget that and spiral into a chasm of unsustainability. Theoretically, I'll also be more productive with my own time, because the faster I finish my work, the faster I can take off the vest and be useful again! It also means that nobody will ever have to feel guilty about asking me for help any more, because if I'm not vestified, I'm essentially holding wandering office hours.

But mostly it's a reminder for me to buckle down on my own work more.

Swallowing pride, finding a focus, loving design, and breaking aluminum

CompArch is actually teaching me more about coding in a team than anything else. Piling into a room and just starting to type wasn't doing us much good, and just chunking out modules to each person wasn't working because we couldn't communicate our code to each other effectively enough to avoid lots of time-wasting debugging. I thought that since we could all write code by ourselves, we could write code together. Nope. (Yes, I'm naive.) My respect for professional engineering and design teams (and managers) continues to grow.

The second Matsci project is going wonderfully. We hauled more bikes out of dumpsters and pooled our resources to buy carbon fiber tubing and sawzalled off samples to flexure test in the Instron. There's something mildy satisfying about watching a little metal hammer literally rip its way through a hefty chunk of aluminum. Flexure testing was fantastic; there's nothing to make you appreciate ductility like watching steel bend like butter under a three-point frame. Apparently the carbon fiber test was even more spectacular because the little fibers make high-pitched popping noises as they snapped; while I couldn't hear it, I could see the jagged lines on the graph that corresponded to the tiny crackles and the sudden drop that was the rest of the fibers snapping (which I did hear - it was like a gunshot. Awesome!) Soon we get to learn to weld. About 15% of the reason I was all about bike frames for a matsci project is because it was a good excuse to learn welding.

It's amazing how much more smoothly things go the second time around. The worse you do the first time you try something, the more you learn and the better you do all the times thereafter (assuming you learn from your experiences, that is). It's not that we know what we're doing, because we don't; I think it's more that we're comfortable improvising around the space of Matsci and that we know better where that space and our skills can take us.

This week was the first time I've ever dropped a class. Analog-Digital wasn't going well, and between doing things badly now (and then never looking at them again) and doing them well later, I would rather take some time, read some books, play with some circuits, become more prepared, then come back next year and take full advantage of the course. I know it shouldn't make any difference, but just having the class dropped makes me feel so much more free and gets me jazzed up about playing with the material (because it's optional now! it doesn't count! it's for fun!) I also know I waited far too long to talk to Oscar about this. Mostly this is because my pride is very high. I'm still learning how to fail. I'm not comfortable with failure yet, so I don't recover from it as well as I should. I think I missed out on that part of freshman year where I was supposed to learn how to fail, get used to not being the "fast kid" in my classes, learn how to ask for help instead of giving it all the time... and now I'm afraid to because it's "too late" for me to learn something that everyone else learned two years ago. It's a dumb thought. I'm attempting to overcome it. But I still feel like I'm supposed to know how to be pefect already.
On a happier note, I had formerly worried that TAing would be a strike against me when I was looking for a corporate job. I thought I'd be behind since I've never worked at a business before, but it was pointed out to me this week that I'd actually have a more developed set of communications skills as a result (which may be why I write so much documentation for my teams and end up explaining things to non-technical people a lot). Look, ma! Academia hasn't rendered me happy-but-useless. Go go gadget cross-applicability of skills!

One thing I've come to realize is that I really love design. I'm not excited about technology because it's technology. I like engineering because it's a great tool I can use to make stuff happen. That's what keeps me up through cranberry-juice fueled allnighters - not so much the code itself, but the thought that the code I'm writing will be useful to someone. I like societal problems that can be solved with technology more than I like purely technological problems. It's caused more than a few doubts about my major (I've been on the verge of switching to Systems or Design multiple times), but I reasoned that I'll be more useful as an ECE that can design than a designer that has seen a little of everything. It's IDEO's idea of a T-shaped person; depth in one area, ability to work across all areas. I'm not sure if I'm going about it the right way, or if it's something I should even be going for. At any rate, I still feel like I'm wandering about without a depth; there's no one thing I can point to and say that it's "my thing," since I still like playing with everything under the sun. This is a bad thing if I'm going to grad school, since I'll need to pick something for my thesis, but I'm not sure how much of a liability it'd be in the working world.

One of the biggest things I'll miss about being a student is the flex time. I can stay up 'till 5am working on things when I get really into them, and then a few days later I'll be able to crash and sleep in until noon because I don't have class until the afternoon. Granted, this is rare, since I usually have work and meetings in the morning, but on a few wonderful occasions per semester, it is glorious. I've never felt good about chunking my time into neat little blocks, but I'll have to learn it soon. There's a balance between not allowing yourself to tangent (which stifles cross-idea-pollination, where most of my happy thoughts have come from) and letting yourself tangent too much (which makes you task switch to the point of utter nonproductivity), and I'm not sure I've found it yet. How do you manage creativity? That was a badly parsed, oxymoronic statement, but how do you organize things so that you don't have to organize them? (For the record, I'm an INFP.)
Class registration time is coming up. I'm not sure what I'm taking yet, but it will include humanities. I've had no AHS since my Foundation freshman year.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Dee sent an interesting article on the future of libraries that I intended to post as my blog last night, but I haven't finished writing my reply. Instead...

You've died. Suddenly. Flash forward next week to your funeral. What will people say about you? Type for five minutes.

Mel Chua

Mel never quite settled down, so it's hard for us to say "what a loss!" because we don't really know what we lost. Nobody knows what she would have done in the future. That path was still fuzzy, and sometimes it seemed she was actively trying to fight finding it.

She tried to give a lot to people, but sometimes - often - she ended up overextending herself and not being as effective as she could have been. But Mel was a good teacher. She'd take the time, no matter how much homework she had or how late at night it was, to sit down with people and go over things in as many different ways as possible. She loved helping other people understand things.

Mel had a hard time letting karma flow the other way; that is to say that one of the gifts she was very bad at giving was the gift of recieving other people's givings with gratitude. She never wanted to have anyone else care for her more than she cared for them. She taught, but wouldn't let herself be taught. Mel read everything in books instead. Her pride was pretty high in that regard.

She laughed a lot and tried to cram 30 hours into a 24-hour day. Mel was a geek, but a sort of unconscious geek. Strange intellectual connections bounced out of her head at random intervals. She'd probably be making a bad math joke if she was here now.

End epitaph. That was poorly written. My verbal fluency has dropped dramatically since high school when I was writing nearly every day.

Two things I've noticed from the above:
1. I haven't actually done something that matters yet, or become someone that matters. I don't mean famous, either. Impact-wise, I've bounced around a lot and never stuck with something or someone long enough to really change it or them.
2. I don't really let people in all that much, do I? The net giving/taking thing is something that's been on my mind lately. I haven't found a realistic balance that will satisfy me yet. I know I take a lot, and in trying to give more than I take, sometimes I end up doing exactly the opposite.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Solitude isn't all that bad. is my new homepage. I dump my RSS feeds here, google search here, keep my to-do list right on there... ach, it is lovely. Now I want to understand the technology behind it.

After Suzanne's singing audition (she's directing a lovely Rachmaninoff vocal piece that I cannot spell the name of), I barricaded myself in my room today, leaving only to take out the trash and briefly watch Mary Poppins in my suite lounge. Once in a while, a little isolation is good.

I'm nearly done reading McLuhan's Understanding Media, which is mildly old-fashioned in tone and content but has some interesting insights anyway. McLuhan was, as I understand it, the first person to study the effect that media (clocks, newspapers, phones, telegraphs, radio, the lightbulb) has on society rather than focusing on the content they transmit. "The medium is the message" was a phrase coined by that book. Reading it is like listening to a grand-uncle tell you the discoveries of his old days by the fireside; you nod and smile politely on occasion, but it's genuinely interesting stuff for the most part. For instance, McLuhan classifies media as "Hot" or "Cold," depending on how involved they make the individual feel. Does a media make a society more individualist (radio) or more tribal (print)? What does it mean for the social structure when information suddenly flows orders of magnitude faster than it ever has before? I think McLuhan would have gotten a kick out of the internet. I wonder if someone's written an equivalent book for the modern age.

One thing that came up in conversation when Chris and I were driving back from Bikes Not Bombs on Friday is the idea of just... living. Which I've never done. I spent my entire teenage life away from home working my brains out in magnet schools (IMSA and Olin). I'm not entirely sure where my childhood went. I had fun, but... well, math textbooks aren't entirely subsitutes for normal 12-year-old peer companionship. Between the ages of 14 and 19, I celebrated a grand total of one birthday at home, and that was only because I decided not to go to prom. I've never gone on a random road trip or seen a good night sky. I've never biked past the borders of my town or had a crush or pulled a large-scale prank. I have cried, for very short periods of time before regaining control, finding a solution, and laughing for real again, in front of a grand total of two people who were not my parents (and I a small child).

I have never really let myself be vulnerable to anything. (Even the act of writing these words in this blog, which might make some people vulnerable, does not make me uncomfortable, because I see it as an objective analysis, a sort of self-audit, and not particularly a revelation.)

There have been moments where I know I've lived: I've danced in the dark on a frozen lake, sat on an ice-covered tree for hours, played soccer in a warm downpour, and yelled poetry into a blizzard because it felt like the right thing to do at the moment. I live when I design, when I teach, and when I learn about lovely ideas like I mentioned in a previous post. I have painted cardboard armor and run down the hall in war stripes and played guitar in string-blistered fingers. But even now, too much of my time is spent attempting to observe life and analyze it rather than participate in it.

I don't take my academics obsessively seriously, and I have a lot of fun with what I do, but I've never actually stopped and had time to have a life, had space to have a life, or let myself... have a life. No overloaded classes, no crazy job, no family obligations. Just kind of being there. Appreciating things. Reading good books. Eating good food (when have I last cooked a full dinner from scratch with truly good ingredients?) Going where I want to go when I want to go there. I've always sold my time to somebody else, and I don't want to any more. I need a vacation. A very long vacation. *slips on ring of power, vanishes*

Kidding aside, I do need to take some time to step back and be still and quiet for a while. Knowing me, "still and quiet" means going off on some ballistic rampage quest o' fun, but the lack of obligations, attachment, and responsibility are what I"m going for. I'd like to take a year between Olin and whatever-comes-after-Olin to do something for myself. Options include volunteering somewhere like City Year, the Peace Corps (I know that's two years), Teach For America, shipping myself off to China or biking to Mexico or heading to the Philippines to do what I can, or sticking around Boston and trying to find something.

There's also the idea of heading across the country on a low-budget tour to learn about the American educational system. I'd like to write a book. I'd like to watch classrooms, see how they're being taught, see how local, state, and federal mandates affect education, see how they're supported. Talk to teachers, talk to students, talk to parents, administrators, government officials. How does a country help its children grow into good adults? What's out there? What's going on? It's a vague idea, and I'd need to find a more specific focus for it, not to mention a way to feasibly carry it out well.

I'm far too much of a dreamer for my own good.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.
Now put foundations under them.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


There's nothing like a nonfunctional laptop power cord to make you realize how dependent you are on it (and how much it limits your motion to be plugged in). I'll talk to IT tomorrow morning. In other words, I'm seriously considering getting a PocketPC, a Palm, or something else handheld - my laptop is great, but sometimes I just need... a small computing thing that syncs with Outlook and has wireless. I think the battery would last longer on those, too. (I can just imagine people with handhelds laughing at me now. "The fool! She thinks they have good battery life...")

It was not altogether a terrible day, by which I mean it was actually quite nice. The Wellesley book fair is awfully tempting to be at, especially when stuff is going at $5 a bag. Frell yeah. I hadn't planned on going until Karen and Beth showed up at my door, but now I have a sack of educational psychology books I didn't have before, along with such classics as Hume's "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" and a Bible (New American - the official Catholic translation). I should actually read, with good depth and seriousness, the central book of the religion I was raised in. I also got a translation of the Book of Job, which is one of my favorites because of the way it hits home. It hits home painfully, but it hits.

There's also an old, slim copy of Romeo and Juliet in the bag. I have to finish writing that Rhomeo and Julihat script from freshman year, and this will hopefully provide impetus. I want to have it complete before the seniors graduate. I shudder at sappy things, but I actually love some of the passages in there between Romeo and Juliet; they're beautifully written and not just gratituous sugar. Sometimes that's how I feel about math and other beautiful ideas in math and science. I think Shakespeare captures the reverent awe very well.

But soft! What flux through yonder plane doth break? It is the E, and Julihat is the source!

When I understand a deep idea for the first time, the feeling I get is kind of what I imagine other people feel like when they fall in love with a person. Except this is a more distant and sort of reverent awe, a walking around with your feet floating off because you're seeing that concept everywhere you look. The first time I saw calculus, it happened. When I understood the evolution of the monetary system (when the phrase "time is money" began to truly make sense), it happened too. When I learned about formal visual balance in artistic compositions, I ran around framing the world between my fingers. When I learned there was more than one kind of infinity. When I saw that integrators and differentiators weren't just calculus concepts. I don't need alcohol because I can get drunk on ideas.

The appreciation of that sort of beauty used to be my subsitute for people. It still is my subsitute for people when I don't know what to do in a social situation or when I'm afraid of venting something that'll become a burden to someone else. Books are very safe friends. When you read them, nothing changes between you and them.

End that tangent. Then we had our first Better Bags meeting for Team CHASM (Chris, Herbert, Andrew, Stephen, and Mel; it works out nicely) during which we brainstormed ("Let's have tiny ninjas cart their groceries home!") and then headed to Whole Foods to observe customers. And, er, do some shopping. I brought back rice cakes, jam, and salmon patties.

Revelation of the day: Shopping bags can actually hold up to 60 lbs without breaking at all.

Second revelation: Anything beyond 20 lbs in a grocery bag is really uncomfortable to carry for an appreciably long period of time.

Conclusion: People totally underload grocery bags.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


How to have a good Saturday:

1. Stay up reading and talking to friends 'till 6.
2. Wake up - no alarm - at 10am. Decide blankets are warm. Snuggle back inside bed.
3. Wake up - no alarm - at noon. Decide blankets are still warm, and very comfortable. Re-nap.
4. Wake up - no alarm - at 2pm - to big, fat snowflakes drifting slowly down from the sky. Rejoice, take a hot shower, and lounge until you
5. Go to dinner at your aunt's house and play with small children.

(to be completed shortly)

6. Returning from dinner, have some good productive work time until
7. ExpressO jamming practice with Kristen and Eric, followed by
8. More happy productivity that makes a huge dent in your to-do list.
9. Hot tea and conversations, then
10. More sleep.

Holy Overdue Work, Batman!

After drilling plywood for several hours, Chris and I finished up the aluminum crate for Bikes Not Bombs and got back on campus at 8:30, an hour later than usual. I love volunteering at BNB; there's something great about the rumpledness of the shop, the hackishness of what we do, the grease and sawdust that find their way into your hair, your clothes, everything. We also got another old steel bike frame for our matsci project.

Anyway, this made me late for our Batman costume prep. Suzanne was Batgirl, Mark was Batman, I was Robin, and Andrew was The Riddler. Considering our costumes consisted entirely of a mad scramble to the garment district, a trip to Jo-Ann's Fabric, and a last minute hack, they were beautiful. I'm biased, but really - you need to see for yourself. If I get pictures, I'll post them. Apparently with my hair parted and gelled, my glasses off, and a mask on, I look like a teenage boy (says Jeff and Alex). To appease them (and stop scaring Alex off), my hair is now very rumpled (still gelled, no longer parted) and my glasses are back on.

There were even more awesome costumes at the dance. Notables include the Winnie The Pooh group which had something like 30 people, Joe with a crowbar and a Half Life costume, Brian and Dan as a prox card and reader, Kat (resistor), Kristen (diode), Simon and Eric VW (capacitor), and Gallimore (PCB) as a circuit, and Jon Tse as Mark Chang (the resemblance was eerie). I go to the Halloween dance to see the costumes, anyway. The actual dance + music + crowdingness part isn't something I enjoy all that much.

I have trouble functioning in normal society's recreational activities, particularly parties and dances. I have a hard time having fun with no point. Not that I think dances and parties are worthless, because they definitely let people blow off steam. It's just that I don't really feel like I fit in them. You know what it's like when you belong somewhere, but you don't just quite fit there? It's like being a puzzle piece wandering around looking for its spot. It's somewhere there; it's definitely part of the picture - it's just not... in it yet.

So what do you do then? Make your own fun! After I upload my HFID homework, it's off to the lounge to sit in on the last half of Shrek.

Friday, October 28, 2005

More memes.

10 years ago . . .
- Cried because the first English paper I really let myself write was so different from everyone else's. (This is the paper that gave me the pseudonym "Mouse.")
- Had never heard of abstract math before; I thought calculus was just a more complicated form of multiplication that was Really Hard for grownups and that I shouldn't even dream of tackling it yet.
- Started piano lessons with Mrs. Budilovsky, who taught me over the next five years what it really means to play music.
- Took home the maximum number of books allowed from the school library every day and read them all after dinner every night instead of going over to friends' houses most of the time.
- Didn't hang out with the girls much at recess. I played football, wall-ball, and chicken (wrestle your opponent off the monkey bars while hanging from them yourself) with the boys instead.

5 years ago . . .
- Improvised in front of a stage of people for the first time at Pseudo.
- Played the cello every day in orchestra; had stopped playing piano, and was too afraid to sing.
- Carried a sketchbook in my backpack continuously and drew in it every spare moment. Became known as "The Kid Who Does Art."
- Taught for the first time. Fell in love with teaching.
- Was (at 14) the "kid sister" to all my IMSA friends, who formed a somewhat protective (if eccentric) family.

1 year ago . . .
- Slept in a cave behind Kristen's desk.
- Worked all night most nights in the 4N nook grading ICB papers, doing homework, and arguing with Alex and Mark.
- Wrote my first a capella arrangement.
- Decided to become an ECE by using the Dartboard Method of major-picking. (Seriously.)

Yesterday I . . .
- Slept through my morning classes for the last time this illness
- Went to the first two user interviews for the human-powered vehicles team
- Started work with Team CHASM on a sustainable grocery bags competition (BetterBags)
- Found that kielbasa and cornbread are a great lunch combo
- Was only supposed to be in more than one place simulatenously twice

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

20 things

Wow. Planet Olin is awesome. I'll cave to the meme.

20 things you probably don't know

20. I was on the verge of going to art school three years ago. I've actually got an IM conversation recorded in which I tell a friend "Oh, I'm pretty sure I'm going to a liberal arts school - there's no way I could actually study math, or science, or anything like that..."

19. I was born with perfect hearing, but traded it off in order to survive a bout of pneumonia at age 2. It took three more years for my parents to realize I couldn't hear high frequencies any more. They then worried that I would fall behind.

18. I had a sign language interpreter from 3rd to 8th grade. Despite this, I can still not carry on a fluent conversation in ASL.

17. There are only three things I wish I could hear. Consonants (in spelling bees, I had to continually ask for definitions and whether words were plural or singular, since I can't hear the 's' at the end of plural words), the melodies in flute concertos, and birds. I don't mind playing the right hand of the piano by sight - I transpose it down an octave the first few times I practice, and then things are fine.

Right, so enough talking about my ears.

16. My parents speak English, Tagalog, Fookien, and Mandarin to each other at home. Trouble is they speak them all at the same time. Consequently, I speak... English.

15. As a small child, I once asked Santa Claus for a precalculus textbook for Christmas. By the end of January, I had finished reading it.

14. My favorite Filipino dish is diniguan, or "Pork blood soup," which sounds gross but tastes wonderful. (My family immigrated from China to the Philippines, then from there to the US.)

13. There's a betting pool among my high school friends as to when I will have my first boyfriend and my first beer. Answers range from "freshman year at college" to "never." Currently, "never" is in the lead.

12. However, Tesch and I pulled an April Fools prank on my high school buddies our first year at Olin, wherein we managed to convince the folks back home in IL that I was dating him, thereby massively freaking them out. It was wonderful.

11. I have never TA'd a class beyond the middle school level in which all my students were younger than I was at the time (I have been a TA since high school).

10. I have a small brother. His name is Jason and he's 2.5 years younger. He hasn't actually been smaller than me since he was nine or so.

9. When I was in middle school, I was convinced for some reason that I would never live past the age of 19. I hope I was wrong.

8. My mother is a retired dentist. To her chagrin, I have had more cavities and dental work than any other child in my extended family. (To be fair, the extended bout of pneumonia left the enamel of my then-developing adult teeth severely weakened.)

7. My father works for a medical supply company. He once dressed up as Captain Electrode to make a presentation to his sales reps. I have a photo of him next to my brother and myself as children, striking a noble pose dressed in a mask, a cape, and a gigantic thunderbolt insignia.

6. I once tried to use cold cream to condition my hair because the ad copy on all the shampoo bottles was telling me that "moisturizing" was good. It took several rinses with dishwashing detergent to get it all out. More than ten years later, I am still extremely skeptical of beauty products. (Then there was the time I shaved my forehead because I'd heard that women shaved but couldn't figure out what they shaved...)

5. My laptop used to have a painting of a phoenix on it. Then it collided with a falling desk backstage during a play.

4. Before we got a closed-captioned television, I used to sneak downstairs at 6:30am every morning to watch TV. I muted the sound and lipread the actors so I wouldn't wake my parents.

3. Until I was 15, I had no idea that you could learn to program computers; I thought it was highly specialized work that required a PhD or something (my family wasn't incredibly computer-literate).

2. When I was 12, I told my mother that when I got married (if I got married), it wasn't going to be in a dress. White tennis shoes, white t-shirt, jeans - and no flowers. At this point, my father encouraged me to become a nun (I was raised Catholic).

1. I once spray-painted my sneakers black so I wouldn't have to wear dress shoes to a dance.