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.