Friday, March 31, 2006

On the future of libraries

Note: This is also an updated version of a post from my personal blog. I’m migrating some relevant old writings over, and then the new content rush will begin.

On a recommendation from Dee Magoni, I read an article written 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. They discuss 10 trends, which I’ll elaborate on here.

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.

This 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 Olin 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.

In conclusion

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.

Information Design: engineering datastreams

Note: This is an updated version of a post I wrote on my personal blog back in November of 2005.

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 (ID).

What is information design?
Wikipedia says that information design is “the design of visual displays of data.” I agree, but think there’s more to it than that. There’s a nebulous whole that includes the wikipedia definition, information architecture, usability engineering, engineering-style project design, lifehacks, Content Management Systems (CMS), and more.
This is a discipline that’s so new that not many people have heard of it. In fact, it’s hard to say exactly what ID is, but my best shot is to say that ID is design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that’s geared towards:

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

Pioneers in the field might be people like Steve Jobs, David Allen, Edward Tufte, Garr Reynolds, or Don Norman. There are also companies like xplane, which generates information graphics, and firms like IDEO and Design Continuum that make heavy use of ID to manage their project workflow and sometimes deliver it as part of their consultation for a client, but the field still appears sparse and ill-defined (so here’s your chance to get in the door as a pioneer).

Information design problems
Perhaps the best way to clarify what I mean is through examples. Here are a few problems I’d imagine falling within the realm of ID.

  1. 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. Never before in history has the ratio of information to people been so high, so accessible, or so quick to grow.
  2. How do you design a life-management system? 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? (David Allen’s elegant solution is presented in his book, Getting Things Done, which I highly recommend.)
  3. How do you present your new project at a conference? (Steve Jobs is reportedly insanely good at this, according to Guy Kawasaki via Garr Reynolds.) 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?
  4. How do you simplify complex things into simple schema? 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 - thanks to Matt Colyer for the recommendation.) 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?
  5. How do you store working data amongst a group of people? 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?

Further Resources
I have not articulated this particularly well because the concept isn’t yet clear in my own mind. What do you think? Is there a better word for the conglomeration than “information design” (which already means something)? Is this a valid discipline, or a combination of many? Is this something that would be useful for people to study? Why? How can we make it so?

In addition to the links in the post above, 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. This is not an exhaustive list; further recommendations are very much welcome.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

How to cultivate an uberstudent population

First of all, I'm working on a new website, Before you get all "Oh god, she's trying to look professional and stuff!" let me reassure you that I'm still completely just messing around with no coherent goal, structure, or overarching plan. I figured that I've never had a domain name, never played with wordpress, never tried to write about a coherent topic on a regular basis - hey, why not?

This blog will remain as a personal blog on Planet Olin; the other one will be a... non personal blog. (earth-shattering, yes.) If there's something on the second one that I think Oliners would get a kick out of seeing, I'll cross-post it here.

Like this one: how to cultivate an uberstudent population

It comes from the NCCI (National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education) conference at MIT this Monday. Thanks to the awesomeness of the conference organizers and Sherra Kerns and Ann Schaffner, I was able to attend; it was an eye-opening experience that got my brain to spinning. At the end of Sherra Kerns’s presentation, “Creating a culture of continuous improvement with students as partners,” the following question was posed to me (the only student in the room):

How do you get students interested in changing a school?

In other words, how do you create Oliners? Are we just hyperactive overinvolved freaks that would try to change whatever worlds we were put in anyhow, or is there a way to make more people do what we do? In my case, I believe I was made an Oliner, not born one. I was such a scared little kid in high school that if I hadn't come to this kind of environment, I would probably be a dutiful Asian engineering student doing what they were told to do very, very well somewhere else.

In any case, I'd like to hear people's thoughts (please comment on the article in the comments of the actual article and not on this blog, by the way.)

How to cultivate an uberstudent population

MIT hosted a NCCI (National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education) conference this Monday. Thanks to the awesomeness of the conference organizers and Sherra Kerns and Ann Schaffner, I was able to attend; it was an eye-opening experience that got my brain to spinning.

At the end of Sherra Kerns’s presentation, “Creating a culture of continuous improvement with students as partners,” the question was posed as to how to get students interested in changing a school. In other words, how do you create “uberstudents” that are involved not just in getting good grades in their classes, but in changing the actual workings of their institution for the better? Every school has them. They’re that magical 5% of overinvolved kids who want to work on and change evvvverything. We call them the crazy ones, the innovators, the active populace of the student body. The question is how you can get more of them.

Here’s my attempt an an answer.

what they are: uberstudent, n.

In any given university, an uberstudent is one who is very involved and active in running and changing their school. You’ll probably find them as active club leaders or movers and shakers in student governments, but not all club leaders and student government officials are uberstudents. There are also a few uberstudents in every school with no official positions; they simply go in and talk with administration - productively and maturely - about revising this, or petition - productively and maturely - about changing that, or they talk to professors about transforming classes or labs so other students can learn more effectively.

Uberstudents are catalysts for change. They don’t just care about getting good grades and a good job and making themselves happy; they care about the intitution as a large whole, and work towards improving that instead. Basically, if you ask “who are the kids who Make Things Happen on this campus?” you’ll probably come up with a list of your uberstudents. They’re the ones you wish you had a thousand more of.
Synonyms: Change-agent student, innovators, active students (Thanks to Patricia Brady for suggesting the clarification and definition given here.)

Prepare the soil: an innovative culture

Uberstudents create (and thrive in) innovative cultures. Innovation” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, almost to the point of meaninglessness. What does it actually mean?

Innovation: The art of learning how to leverage yourself and others for maximum positive change, often leading to unique and nontraditional results.

Innovation isn’t a set concept or action; it’s a philosophy and a skill that needs to be developed like any other. I’m an engineering student, so this is an engineering definition, but it works well for Olin, where creating innovation is regarded as the ultimate engineering optimization problem. What’s the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference?

An innovative culture can be characterized by three things:

  1. Nobody knows what they’re doing.
  2. Everyone knows nobody else knows what they’re doing.
  3. And that’s great!

In an innovative culture, passion is more important than experience. Everyone’s trusted to be intelligent enough to learn how to do what they’ve got to do, and everyone’s trusted to have the best interests of the community in mind. Because everyone’s learning, mistakes are accepted, even encouraged; failures aren’t failure but an opportunity to learn (or as Edison would say, nonfunctional prototypes that lead to a working one).

Since innovation is a learned skill, you can teach it the same way you teach any other thing - that is, convince students they should learn it, help them learn it, and then reward them for learning it. It’s the only type of environment in which you can rear seedling uberstudents and have them thrive and change your school - and then the world.

Sowing the seeds: sprouting uberstudents

Tell them who they are.
Make it clear from the start that ownership and innovation are expected and rewarded. As students, your job isn’t to learn what you’re told; your job is to learn how to learn, and to learn how to decide for yourself what to learn. Becoming an uberstudent isn’t just an option; it’s your job.

Don’t just use existing uberstudents; create new ones.
Naturally, when we want to do something a little wild, we look to the existing uberstudents first. They’re doing it all already - they can do more, right?

Instead of asking the existing uberstudents to lead the way and hoping the others will follow, ask the others to lead. The uberstudents will follow; they’re drawn to change like moths to a flame. Most students secretly want to be uberstudents. They’re just waiting to be asked. Instead of waiting for them to take the initiative, give them permission to do so.

There are 109 schoolwide committee positions at Olin. 31, or 28.4%, are filled by freshmen. Why? At Olin, when nominations for school committees come out, many students make it a point of nominating freshmen (who they’ve known for all of a few weeks) and then hunting down those freshmen and asking them, in person, to serve. “I don’t know how!” they often reply. “You don’t need to,” the upperclassmen say. “I didn’t.” This brings us to the next point, which is that…

Uberstudents beget uberstudents.
Make it a cultural norm. A sense of shared ownership is a very valuable one to cultivate. It tells students that they’re not alone; “I’m not the only one who cares about this.” Their peers and elders are doing it; they can and should as well. Because innovation is a learning process, they understand that less experienced people can, will, and should make mistakes; it’s not a matter of the good getting better and the not-so-good not getting to do anything at all.

There needs to be a shared sense of patience while uberstudents-in-training learn how to make themselves effective. The most crucial concepts are that of focus, purpose, leverage, and minimum effort. Figure out what you want, why you want it, and the smallest possible action necessary to carry it out. A sense of appropriate scope, timing, and audience evolves over time, as do presentation and communication skills and the ability to make others believe in your idea.

Since everyone in the community is figuring out how to do this at the same time, a constant background hum of tiny changes takes place. This is more genuine - and more effective - than large amounts of formal rah-rah “Innovate!” marketing initiatives. Uberstudents breed other uberstudents. Uberfaculty breed other uberfaculty. The more ubermembers you have in a community, the more likely the other community members are to go uber as well.

Care and feeding : Keeping your uberstudents going

Don’t wait for perfection. Grow now, tweak later.
The best time is now. There will never be a perfect sunny day when the heavens will align and your project will magically take shape. That day is today, but you need to make it so. Just do it.
If uberstudents have specific driving ideas they want to work on, fantastic; let them do that. If they have lots of energy but no specific direction, give them a starting point and encourage them to tinker with it a little bit and then open it up to the community. It’s easier to start with something and then ask for feedback on it than to give people a blank slate; this applies both to students working on a project and to the community they will take the project to for feedback later.

An even better strategy is to let people mix and match among several options. Even if students might not like one idea, they’ll probably like at least one component of one idea, and it’s easier to give constructive criticism on the parts that aren’t so great if you can also compliment something you’re especially impressed by. Hybrids and mutts are often nice and hardy.

Constraints make uberstudents wither.
“Ask forgiveness, not permission.” That’s what one of our professors told us as freshmen. Don’t worry about students blowing up the building; they have sufficient maturity not to do anything that will seriously hurt a person or the institution. The problem is usually the opposite, where students want to do something but aren’t sure if they’re allowed. Make it clear that they are, and that they can go ahead and do it - they don’t need to wait for approval. They can approve themselves.

Lower the activation energy it takes to get an initiative started. You get hit for every form you have to fill out and every person you need to get permission from. Half the projects drop out at each layer of bureaucrcy. All right, I just made up that number, but the concept remains; each successive hurdle is something to convince students not to put forth the effort, and the effects of this compound fast. If you want students to empower themselves, they need to have the freedom to do it.

Uberstudents thrive on information.
There’s a game that some teachers and bosses play. It’s called “Guess What I’m Thinking,” and it’s one of the most aggravating in the world. The game is played by having the boss tell the employees to go forth and be creative, come up with something really wild - and then when they come back, having gone forth and gone nuts, the boss says “We-eeell, that’s not what I was thinking.” And the game ends with everyone frustrated; the boss doesn’t get what s/he wanted, and the employees are angry because they were scolded for doing exactly what they’d been told to do, which is to be creative.

The end result is that those employees will probably never go wild again; they’re always wary that the boss has some hidden expectation in mind that they’ve got to go poking around in order to “do things right.”

If there are bounds you want the students to stay within, tell them. If there are qualifications and rules and procedures you’d like them to follow, let them know. Don’t pull any surprises; a student should be able to sit down and plot how to get from point A to point B, and how they will deal with tinstitution to do it, and there should be no administrative surprises along the way. Would you rather be told of requirements in advance and how to fulfill them, or be told how easy it is to get things started and how you’re completely free, only to discover later that this isn’t true?

Making the walls more transparent also has the added benefit that it forces you to deal with them and see whether they’re really vital. Do we actually need triplicate for a funding request? Why does this need to be signed by four professors? Be honest to the students, and they’ll be honest to you as to what you can do to improve the institution in return.

Remind them to sleep sometimes.
In other words, make sure your uberstudents don’t burn out. Remember, small changes are great; you don’t have to revolutionize the universe in an afternoon. Dream big, but don’t have any expectations coming in. Remember that sometimes sitting back and using a prefab default method lets you save your energy to change the things that are really important.

Fertilizing your uberstudents : making it worthwhile

Instant feedback is a great reward.
When students give you feedback, respond right away. The Black Hole of Feedback is death; it says to a person “Hey, you’ve put this time and thought into an issue, and… well, nothing’s going to come of it.” By not responding to feedback, you’re telling people that they’re wasting their time by giving it.

Note that being open to change does not mean obeying all requests for change. If you try to please everyone at once, you’ll end up pleasing nobody. However, you should acknowledge requests for change, even if you can’t fulfill them. Explain why things are the way they are; open up an intelligent discussion and channel that productivity into making things happen. Tell students that their effort was wonderful, their thoughts were intelligent and correct, they made you consider this issue, and their work was productive… and even if you can’t follow their suggestion, how else might we work together to resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction?

Failing is awesome.
“Fail faster to succeed sooner.” –David Kelley, IDEO

Failure is a fact of life. Being innovative means trying new things, and trying new things means taking risks. Taking risks means that there will always be a chance of failure - where failure is defined as “things not working out the way you wanted them to.”

You can use that definition to your advantage. If the success or failure of an initiative isn’t tied to a certain outcome, but rather to a learning experience, then it’s practically impossible to “fail.” You see this in scientific experiments as well; the disproving of a hypothesis isn’t a crushing disappointment, but rather an exciting opportunity. If Michelson and Morley’s experiment had gone as they expected, the concept of relativity in physics would never have come to fruition.

The faster that students - and the institutional culture in general - gets used to failure, the better. Dealing with failure teaches you:

  • How to recover from failure.
  • How to learn from everything that happens to you.
  • How not to be afraid.

The last one is particularly important. Most failures are really successes in disguise, and that’s a subtle yet crucial point to get across. So it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. Wonderful! What do you know now that you didn’t before? How can you use this to change what you want to change?

The magic words

Here’s what I wish someone had said to me when I was a freshman and full of crazy ideas and not enough confidence. In fact, it was said to me, although I didn’t realize it at the time; the message took a million different forms, most quiet and nonverbal, but it eventually got through. It’s the magic script that turns inexperienced teenagers actively contributing young adults.

  1. Take ownership. You can do it. You don’t have to know how - we sure don’t (and that’s okay). We believe you’re intelligent enough to learn.
  2. We’ll support you. You’re not the only one that wants to do this.
  3. Here are things (procedures, forms) you need to know about. You have freedom in everything else. We’ll help you remove roadblocks; just ask. Nothing will stand in your way.
  4. Failing isn’t failure; it’s a wonderful chance for everyone to learn.
  5. What you’re doing will make a real difference. This is the most effective use of your time and energy if you want to see results.
  6. Go do something! Now!

This is a pretty rough post, and some of the ideas aren’t as fleshed out as I’d like; I’d love to hear feedback from students, professors, adminstrators (heck, anyone) on this. Is there something I’m missing? Something here that’s irrelevant or just plain wrong? Does this match anyone else’s experiences?

Monday, March 27, 2006

The world is too much with us

Ever get the notion that you've shut yourself down somehow because if you felt, you'd feel entirely too much?

Enter Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us."

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Musical phrases of happiness

There are a few musical passages of great beauty that make your heart dance a little whenever you hear them. Two of mine:

Vivaldi, "Winter " from The Four Seasons; the rising passage of six notes that is repeated thrice, one note higher each time, by a sweet violin floating over the harmony.

Mozart, "Andante" from Piano Concerto 21, the "Elvira Madigan" theme: after the piano melody builds up for the first time, there follows a descending violin (I think it's a violin) passage of 7 notes. It is immediately repeated and picked up by some other instrument, and recurs several times afterwards.

Music really doesn't translate well into text. But I have a small pause of happiness inside whenever I hear one of those passages. It's the same with a few math theorems, and a couple of lines of poetry, a couple of sets and the lighting and movement of the actors or dancers on stage for just that moment, and a small number of paintings, and some views out a familiar window - when you encounter those tiny bits of them, there's a small quiet ping! and you sigh a little inside, and you continue on with a lighter mind.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Design team dynamics

Tim Smith, Eric Munsing, Liana Austin, Chris Carrick, and myself are doing an indepedent study on design team dynamics this semester. We met last night, and what we talked about turned out to be so useful that we all want to share it with more people (the most common refrain was "Man, I wish we'd talked about this before the start of (insert-our-last-project-here)!" followed by "This should be required reading for (choose one of: UOCD, Design Nature, POE, incoming freshmen, Expo)."

Topics covered were presentations, email, dialogues, and specification sheets, though the talks we had ranged over far more topics than the mechanics of those four modes of communication. Notes on the evening and our readings are at
, or ask one of us what's going on. I'd particularly love to hear what people think of the questions Tim brought up on dialogue (cooperative talking where everyone becomes observers of their own perspective, as opposed to discussions where people try to "win" by making everyone agree with their perspective).

Tim's questions:
  1. Peter Senge (in his book "The Fifth Discipline") likens team dialogue to "being in the flow" - like a jazzy musician or a basketball player. Is this something you've experienced in a team?
  2. Do we interact as colleagues at Olin? Is there a perception of hierarchical meritocracy? Does that - and should it - color our discussions of teamwork?
  3. Are we exposed to dialogue at Olin? What can we do to try to integrate this kind of team consciousness into the Olin curriculum?
  4. How do you encourage people to suspend their assumptions? How do you practice suspending assumptions? Do you think you're comfortable with it?
I love my independent study group. They're making me think about things that I've never had time to consider before.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

AHScap and closing doors

It's strange. When you're young - and I see myself doing this when I look at the folks I teach and tutor - your value is in your potential; not what you do, or what you are, but what you could become. How much of the world is open to you? What's the best you could reach? When you're young, nothing's impossible; you just haven't tried a lot of things that are possible yet. You don't know.

When you're older, glorious amounts of future potential don't appear by default, because you've gone down some of those paths and found that they don't work for you. Some doors close. Deeper doors open. Your potential and worth stands more on what you've done, because that's an indication of what you could do in the future. I might be listening to my father too much, but I get the impression that many people look down upon dabblers past a certain age, because if you've got a track record of mini-hacks in lots of subjects, it bodes ill for you settling down to work on whatever they're interested in having you work in. But if you're young, that's ok. You just haven't seen the world yet, and you don't know what you can be interested in.

Incidentally, I'm often jealous of my classmates who seem like they've got that focus. They know where they want to go. Grad school in this! Research in that! You can see them narrowing down on something and getting ridiculously good at it, be it cell biology, robotics, webdesign, or python. All the doors down that path are open to them. They can skyrocket as far as they want. They've got clear skies for the rest of their lives if they want it.

I'm nineteen now, and I feel like I'm getting too close to the border of "respectable dabbling age." I want to hack at thousands of things for the rest of my life, but I feel like I've got to make that "respectable" somehow. This is why I'd like to work for a product design firm for at least a number of years; I have a vision of it as a happy intellectual playground where I can do a million things, one at a time, one after another. Need to find out if that's really the case, though. I don't want a dream that doesn't correspond to reality. I'm looking forward to IDEO's visit to Olin tonight. I also need to find what else is out there in the world. I don't know what I want to do when I grow up because I don't ever plan on growing up, so I need to find what there is out there for a Very Big Kid to do.

I promised Tim I'd purge some thoughts on the AHS capstone out on this blog. As I understand it, AHScap is about making or doing something AHSlike that's an indication of a fair amount of mastery in the AHS field(s) of your choice.

My AHS capstone is in a bit of a pickle, as it's cross-disciplinary, multi-semester, mushed-in with NINJAing and OSS, and in something I haven't taken any classes in. (I tend to be an idiot and not do things the easy way.) In a nutshell, if it all works out, I'm going to help Gill and Brian compile the ECS textbook and lab manual. I hope.

I claim this draws on art and graphic design (because someone's got to do diagrams and photograph labs and layout the book, right?) which I've got lots of informal experience in but only Seeing and Hearing on my actual transcript for, and also education, which I've got lots of TAing experience in but no classes whatsoever for, even if I've been reading a fair number of textbooks on educational theory since high school. I'm doing an OSS during the first semester of next year to make up for that and learn the things that will give me "formal background" in those two disciplines, the education one in particular; the actual AHScap will start in the spring. Gill and Brian (even if they're the people I'll be working directly under) can't be my advisors, because they are not AHS people. So I need a design/art advisor and an education advisor in addition to Gill and Brian, which brings me to a total of 4 mentors thus far.

It's an interesting situation. I know this is what you get for trying to build a plane while flying it, but I think it'll work out, and it's all part of the fun. I'm doing AHS cap prep right now in an attempt to get this cleared up before next year, so I'm learning about the process (which seems wonderfully self-defined) as I go along, but there are still a few things I'd like to find out.
  1. Absolute expectations. There's nothing more frustrating than a vague homework assignment that has an explicit rubric behind it that the teachers don't tell you. If something's open-ended, it should be clear that it's open-ended, and it should actually be open-ended. If something has restrictions, those should be listed as well. I'm still not clear on the AHS capstone restrictions, though I have some thoughts on what those should be.
    (Seniors, what are your perceptions on the current "rubric" for AHScap? What makes a "good" one? What "should" we do?)
  2. Current time breakdowns for students and faculty, especially faculty. There's buzz that faculty spend so much time on AHS capstone advising - what is that time spent on? I'd like to ask a few faculty to post their AHS capstone timesheets so we can see if there's something that can be done to make that more efficient.
  3. Seniors, if you were going to email yourself at the start of your AHScap semester, what would you say? What didn't they tell you or what didn't you know that would have made life much better?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Sleep and dad

I'm getting better! My sleep hours are inching down from "you're-sick-and-need-12-hours" back to "you're-normal-and-need-6-hours" and are well on their way back to "you're-normal-Mel-and-need-3.5-hours." Productivity, how I've missed you.

6 hours isn't as insanely little as it may seem. In Why We Nap, a compilation of academic papers on sleep edited by Claudio Stampi, it's shown that while the average human need for sleep is usually 7-10 hours, it's possible for almost any person to train themselves down to needing only 5, if those 5 hours come in a consistent schedule.

My father came for Candidates' Weekend. Every time I see my parents, they're a little bit older, and I'm able to talk to them more. (my little daddy is growing up!) As it was, we spent a wonderful 2.5 days together, ate some good crepes in Brookline, and tossed around the idea of a human-powered trash compactor for refuse collectors in developing countries. So my productivity didn't actually rise that much this weekend, but it's worth it; I can do homework anytime, but I can't hang out with my family that often now.

I don't know how parents can stand to have their kids grow up so fast.

Friday, March 03, 2006

How do you "get" lectures?

Appeal to the Olin metabrain.

I can't get lectures. I have never been able to focus my attention on an academic lecture from beginning to end. It doesn't matter how good the lecturer is - I've drifted off in the midst of Allen, Dr. M, Mark Chang - heck, even Edward Tufte - and the speed of delivery and ability to rewind doesn't matter either (I downloaded the Gilbert Strang linear algebra lectures and the average amount of time I managed to pay attention was... 5 minutes.) It doesn't matter what the topic is. I've isolated all the variables I could think of, and the only conclusion I can reach is that "Mel Can't Do Lectures."

This likely stems from a few causes. First of all, it's habit; I've never listened to lectures, so I never learned to. Second, reading is a much higher-density, higher-accuracy, and time-efficient way for me to obtain information. I read fast, and when I see a word, I know that it's the word I think I'm seeing. I lipread and decipher sentences by context, which means I sometimes don't know what you're saying until you've finished saying it. There's high latency and a high error rate, because if I miss one bit of context, I'm just lost. Naturally, you go for the most efficient way to obtain information. If I can struggle through a 1-hour lecture and think I've maybe got some of it, or sleep half an hour and spend a relaxed 30 minutes reading a textbook and know I've got all of it, I'm going to pick the latter.

Consequently, all the things I know are from books. I learned how to talk to my parents by reading child psychology books in elementary school, I learned how to play baseball from reading sports training books after gym class, I learned how to use the table saw by reading a handyman's primer on power tools. None of this "it's just something you pick up as you live" business; I don't catch those conversations. This is great, because I can learn things that people don't tell me. This is bad because books ought to be an educational supplement, not an education. The no-lectures habit rapidly leads to "if I'm getting things from books and not lecture, why go to lecture?" which leads to my abysmal attendance rates in lecture-based classes.

If I am in a lecture-based class, chances are you'll see me working on my computer, teaching somebody else something, reading the textbook or doing homework (in which case why am I in the classroom in the first place, except to be polite)? This isn't good for my learning, it's not respectful to my classmates or my professors, and it's just... bad. I've tried repeatedly to force myself to pay attention, and it's painful. Imagine being taught calculus in Italian (assuming you don't know Italian). Sure, the mathematical symbols on the board are the same, but you miss all the commentary. You can catch an occasional word or sentence because Italian is similar to English, but now all you've got is incoherent sentences punctuated by the occasional shakily understood phrase that's now completely out of context. Now do this for all your classes. Now do that for 14 years. Now see how much you listen to lectures any more.

I'm approaching the point where I know I won't be able to compensate via textbook any more. As the things I learn become more advanced, I'm finding a dearth of good texts; sometimes there aren't any texts at all. I miss out on the funny stories, the quick tips, the and whole point of having a live teacher. Give me a stack of books, a whiteboard, and someone to email questions to, and I'll get through the material faster and with more depth than I would sitting glassy-eyed through lectures. But I think I'd get more depth if I could listen to good lectures, too. I miss a lot. I don't want to miss any more.

Things I've tried/considered, none of which work all that well:
  • Looking over someone else's shoulder at their lecture notes during class.
  • Borrowing someone else's lecture notes after class.
  • Trying to "read along" with the lecture (follow appropriate paragraphs in my book as they're talking).
  • Having a sign language interpreter (elementary through middle schools).

Dear Olin,

Please help. What do you get out of lectures that you can't get from books? How do you get that from them? What makes them valuable to you, and why can you understand them? Any suggestions for how I can understand them too?

Thank you,

- A frustrated Mel