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.