Saturday, July 22, 2006

Wikimania bloggers needed - citizen journalists unite!

Calling all bloggers: Wikimania 2006 is looking for your take on the upcoming 2nd annual international conference on all things wiki. (try saying that ten times fast!)

You can blog before the conference (August 4-6 at Harvard University), during the conference, or after. You can blog at the conference or from a distance (the conference will have a lively virtual presence, and the physical sessions will be transcribed, IRC'd, podcasted, and what-have-you). You can blog a short paragraph, write a long article, videocast, podcast, photoblog, scan napkin scribbles, or do interpretative dance. What we're looking for is wikimania as seen through the eyes of as many people as possible, archived for posterity. You can blog about the conference as a whole, or individual sessions. You can blog about open-source, education, politics, technology, journalism, or anything else that strikes your fancy. This is about how you see things; your take on Wikimania, your voice.

If you're interested, hop over to and see what's going on. Tell your friends - spread this around the blogosphere. We want as many diverse voices as possible, whether you've barely heard of wikis before or have been developing them for the past 5 years.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Not quite on earth

Traveling with a small child takes an excruciatingly long time. Audrey (age 2.8) is actually not that small any more; when she decides that your stomach is a trampoline, it's a very good idea at this point to dissuade her.

Went to Allandale Farm in Brookline for the first time today. They're the last working farm in the Boston/Brookline area, and boy are their strawberries good. I feel so disconnected from the world in this 2006-techie lifestyle; my food comes from cans, my transportation from a large lunk of steel, I sleep in a drywall box, wear clothes spun from plastic, and talk to other people by hitting buttons and reading letters on an electric screen. Sometimes I feel like I don't actually live on this planet at all, but I don't actually know how to; if you booted me out into the woods with a knife, I'd be dead within a month.

I admire people who design technologies that help connect us with the world instead of adding another layer of abstraction between people and people or people and nature.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Oh frabjous day!

When you begin working on a computer peripheral,

And then spend two days building the hardware,
And a week on the firmware,
And three days on the software,
all developed separately and tested and all that good stuff,

And you spend hours tracking down bugs and whacking your head against the wall and being really confused by datasheets and re-reading Kernighan & Ritchie and accidentally melting two connectors with an overzealous soldering iron and feeling idiotic for your sheer lack of productivity,

And then you double-check that your hardware and software and firmware are spitting out and taking in the inputs they're supposed to, albeit into simulators or printfs or mostly thin air,
And then you plug everything together for the first time and hit the button nervously,

there is no greater feeling in the world.

My entire last 3 weeks of existence have just been validated.

Now it's time to make this baby do some really cool stuff. documentation for my reams of code, and schlepping a final PCB together, and trying to make the serial port cooperate, but hey; that's later.

Right now, I'm just going to bask in the glow of functionality. I made a Gadget Thingy. And it Works Good. That's enough for me.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Too many topics to count

You know you go to an engineering school when you end a note about a cool vegetable shop with and get a response back saying "tsk tsk, closing tags you didn't open isn't up to standards."

It looks like my passionate pursuit next semester will be Tai Chi. Or at least I'm finally doing it, credit/funding or no. It's taken a lot of consideration to say this; tai chi itself holds a lot of meaning to me (mostly because of my grandfather), and I've been holding back on starting because I know it's not something I will - or can - undertake lightly, or just give up once I've started. And I haven't been reliable or committed enough in the past to allow myself to take it up in good conscience. I'm not sure if I'm adult enough now to do that, still. But I think I'm at the point where I can try.

Interestingly enough, there's an old Chinese saying that the Tai Chi student searches N years for a good teacher, where N = 3. (So they didn't quite phrase it like that.) And it's been - almost exactly three years since I've started seriously looking. So we'll see.

Today at work we got an email asking people to come downstairs and help turn a bowling lane into a conference table.

I'm not kidding. A bowling lane, still with the markings, stains, and scuff marks on top of it, yards of solid wood maybe 4 inches thick - sawed in half to make two of the funkiest conference tables I've ever seen. (Or will make, rather; they need to be sanded and actually attached to the frames and all that.) So my coding break this afternoon was spent with about 30 other people hoisting these slabs of wood on top of good-sized steel frames. Funkiest. Tables. Ever.

White mountain creamery sweet cream ice cream needs to be savored one spoonful at a time. You'll need to share a large bowl with friends, or it'll melt all over you before you're done.

The Wikimedia conference is coming to Boston. I'm excited. I've stopped pretending that I'm not good enough to contribute to open source and open content; yeah, I don't know much, but know something, and I'm learning. Open content saved me, and it's time to give back. Since I can't pick up lectures, the radio, or snippets of conversation, almost everything I know comes from reading. Libraries are glorious, but books are often static repositories of beautifully polished one-way communications, set down as gospel. The internet adds real-time updates, a broader range of in-development information, and most importantly the ability to communicate with others without the terror that I'm lipreading someone wrong.

Instead of debating in classroom discussions, I hash out opinions on the internet, on forums and wikis and IRC (which, in turn, emboldens me to speak up in classroom discussions that I can't fully follow). Instead of my hearing being a liability, it becomes an asset; since I've learned how to assimilate visual and textual information very rapidly to compensate for lack of sound, I can data-surf the web with impunity, mentally collating information as fast as I can scroll through a browser. Interestingly enough, the increasing trend towards podcasting and video is actually making the internet less accessible to me; I haven't figured out a way around those yet, but I'm sure there'll be one soon (if someone else doesn't make it, I will).

My aunt June (Aunt 6 of 8) is visiting Boston for the week. We got a trunkload of vegetables from Russo's last night before stuffing ourselves with sushi at Minado's, and today I made cheese polenta with mango-zucchini shrimp and parmesan-broiled vegetables with red pepper. It's nice when family visits; you get an excuse to indulge under the pretense of being a good host.

I've lost track of how many topics this entry has.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Realizations of the week

Realizations of the week:
  1. Ergonomics are important.
  2. Embedded systems are awesome.
  3. I am female.
Ergonomics are important.

I used to laugh at people that bought expensive chairs and keyboards, and weird curvy mice, and wrist braces and such. Three years later, I now have a funky ergonomic keyboard, a weird curvy mouse, and wrist braces. My body is much happier (my back and wrists are learning). I've also learned that spending an hour or two setting your workstation up just right is time that's more than gained back in the increased productivity later on; I don't care if you have to prop your monitor up on textbooks to bring it to the right height; just do it.

Embedded systems are awesome.

I've rambled happily on this at length, I'm sure, but I've found my Happy Place (tm) as a Real ECE - or at least I know how I might become one. I've been around long enough to pick up the words that I need to understand in order to learn how to be a proper ECE. Never mind that it feels like I should have reached this point at the end of my freshman year instead of the beginning of my senior year. I'll make the best of it.

Electrical engineering is a hard thing to start learning. With software, you can use a relatively high-level language like Python, click and install, type "print hello world," and you're in business. With something mechanical, where you might get some helpful klunking noises and can hear/see/feel what's broken or not working.

The trouble with getting started in electrical engineering is that you need to have started in everything to get started in anything. If something tiny - be it software, hardware, high or low level - in an electrical system isn't working, nothing will work. It will just sit there, leaving you to curse the LED for not blinking. Chicken and egg.

But I now have something to start with, and having learned to flounder in the completely nonintuitive (to me) Pool of ECE with no background whatsoever, I think that I can be thrown into the deep end of any pool and be expected to learn how to flounder in a productive manner that will someday emerge as swimming. If that's all I learn or remember from three years of Olin, I'd say it was time and sleeplessness well spent.

I am female.

Unfortunately, these sorts of things appear to matter when you're in a technical discipline.

When I (a not entirely incompetent ECE) go out with a bunch of male MechEs, and we run into other tech geeks who wants to talk about engineering or similar, I expect them to speak to the MEs more when talking about ME stuff, since they know about that kind of thing and I don't as much. Echo for bio stuff for BioEs, matsci stuff for E:Matscis, and so forth. This does in fact happen; it's logical.

I also somewhat stupidly expect them to talk more to me when speaking of ECE stuff, since... ah, I'm an ECE. Instead, what usually happens is that they speak entirely to the MEs (if the MEs happen to be male) when speaking about ECE stuff, despite my introduction as the only ECE of the group, and several interjections of "yeah, Mel's done that" or "actually, one of my projects was..." It is only when I am in a group of entirely female non-ECEs that I am actually spoken to as an ECE.

I used to carry around math textbooks, science classics, and Shakespeare when I was in elementary and middle school so nobody would make assumptions and start speaking in monosyllables to me because of my hearing aids. Do I need to start toting the Art of Electronics around and wearing a Maxwell's Equations t-shirt in order to be seen as an electrical engineer?