Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wearable Captioning Device: a 6th grade project turned real

In 6th grade we had an assignment to invent something. It didn't need to actually be feasible, as evidenced by the hordes of colored-pencil time travellers and teleporters that resulted. I was a practical child, so I turned in a paper on "Automatic Closed Captioning Glasses," a pair of lens with computer screens in them. At each temple was a box labeled "very small computer" ("microprocessor" was not yet in my vocabulary). One box had a directional microphone and speech recognition software; the other side was "the part of the TV antenna that picks up the closed captioning." As you walked, talked, or vegged in front of the tube, the glasses would display captions at the bottom of each lens, with the optics working out so that you'd see the display as floating a couple feet in front of your face. In my paper, I pointed out that all these parts existed already, so what needed to happen was to wait for the technology to get better, and then find a grown-up to put it together. As an 11-year-old who'd never heard of electrical engineering before, that was as far as I could go at the time.

Nine years later, I found out that the technology had gotten better, and a grown-up - Leanne West of Georgia Tech - was building something called the Wearable Captioning Device, which "...is a device that provides text captions to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. The device gets text from a transmitter... the display can be clipped to glasses..." In short, it's the gadget I dreamed of in 6th grade, albeit minus the nauseating orange/lime-green/purple striped frames drawn in Crayola marker. It's hard to describe the simultaneous rush of deja-vu and joy I felt when I read about this - it's not every day you find out a researcher (1) had the same idea you had when you were a kid, (2) thought it was a good one, and (3) built it.

I hope they get this thing off the ground (I want one). It seems like the project's about 4 years old and has working prototypes, but there are no hints of commercial production yet. I'm working up the nerve to email the project director asking about it - trying to come up with an alternative opening line to "Hi! I'm a hearing-impaired electrical engineering student who wrote about your project for my 6th grade assignment, 5 years before you started developing it - what's up?" (Suggestions for opening lines welcome.)

On a more lighthearted note, I'm watching my aunt (a kindergarten teacher in a Quaker school) write her introductory letter, which includes the line "please disarm toys before bringing them to school." I'm imagining 5-year-olds coming in clutching G.I. Joe figures with little daisies stuffed in the barrels of their plastic rifles.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mel on personal finance (you may laugh now)

Today I opened my own bank accounts. Yay! (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for finally letting me do my own financial thing.) I've read a lot on "personal finance" but have no idea how to implement it, but I'm writing here anyway in case it helps someone else out. Or at least for folks to laugh at. So if you have any banking or finance advice for young adults starting out, this is the place to give it, because I don't have a clue.

I have three accounts. The first is a Chase visa, which is a normal credit card. No special reason for picking Chase; my parents use it, so it was the easiest one for me to get credit on. I use it for most daily purchases since it earns points redeemable for cash, travel, and the other usual perks. It also builds credit, which will be important if I want to buy a (yellow) house in the future. I treat it as a debit card, considering money I spend this way already "withdrawn" from my checking account; it's an auxillary to my "money inbox" which I'll cover in a bit. I pay everything in full each statement cycle. Debt != happy.

The second is a Bank of America student checking, which has no minimum balance and is free for five years. This is my "money inbox"; direct deposits, otherwise known as the pittance that is a student worker's salary, goes here (I'll explain why later). It comes with a debit card that I can use to pull cash from the Bank of America ATMs that proliferate like small red rabbits on every Boston street corner. My checking account is my online wallet. If money is in here, I can spend it. For-amusement or otherwise consumable stuff like housing, food, phone bills, and textbooks-for-fun all go here.

Why do I put direct deposits into checking, which earns no interest? One reason. It's accessible - too accessible. I have a tendency to spend as much money as I let myself spend, so it's in my interest to pay attention and get extra money out of my checking account as soon as possible. Also, checking will let me take money out of it whenever and however I want. You're limited to 3 withdrawals from your savings account per month, but there is no limit to withdrawals from checking. That means I can transfer every bit I can afford from checking to savings, as soon as I can afford it... and more importantly, that it's hard for me to get it out again, which means that once in my savings account, money is really saved.

My checking account also has Online Bill Pay, which is great since I always forget to note down checks I've written. Online Bill Pay lets me go to my computer, type the check, and walk away. The bank will print your check and mail it for you. Free. Your recipients will get a little check in their mailbox as if you'd written it out yourself. All the transactions are already noted online, the data's on the computer, the funds are taken care of, and the lazy geek is happy. Because of this, I have no paper checks.

I've also opted for paperless statements and requested that my balances be emailed to me every morning, thus forcing me to keep tabs on my finances daily. I've also asked to be email-notified of direct deposit postings so I know when all my paychecks have come in. I also set an alert to email me if my balances dip below a certain panic-inducing amount, which with luck they never will.

My final account is a Bank of America student savings. Normally it has a $300 miniumum, I got that waived for the first year (ask!). Interest rate is low (0.5%), but this account only does two things. First, I've tied it to my checking in case I overdraw, as it's better to pay a $10 "whoops!" fee than a $35*n one, where n is the number of transactions I make before I realize I'm overdrawn. Second, this acts as my short-term piggybank. It's where I'll keep money until I accumulate enough (over the minimum of $300+cushion) to get a certain investment. Aside from the normal stocks/bonds/CDs/yada things, I also consider substantial utilitarian spending like tuition, bikes, computers, and donations to charity to be investments, albeit of a different sort.

The charity thing begs some explanation. I was raised to give part of what you get, no matter how little. Trouble is, the traditional 10% of my paycheck is currently pretty pathetic, and mailing it off to a charity twice monthly would result in my donations being mostly to the US Postal Service. So I'm going to keep a tally of how much I would have donated each paycheck instead; when that number's big enough to carry out a concrete action. Enough to get books to a library (and pay for gas to drive over and volunteer there for a day), pay for the materials for a house (and send me to the Philippines to help build it), or whatever crazy idea I come up with at the time that requires me to put my time and knowledge as well as my money. Then I'll take that amount and give it all in one go. Basically, it's like a mini-grant that lets me fund my volunteering in any capacity I want to.

As a side note, Bank of America has a really cool "My Portfolio" overview, which is like a Netvibes or Google Homepage for your financial data. You can even view your non-BoA accounts there (I'm watching my Chase credit card) and it'll tally your net worth so you can see exactly where you stand. I wish it'd take a hint from web 2.0 and let you choose and move around the modules you want to show. I have no investments, so I don't care about the "investment manager" module that currently takes up the best screen real estate; I want my "assets" module there! However, it's the best thing of its kind I've seen so far, and makes the daily "check in on your finances" web tour much less tedious.

That's pretty much it. I know this system is primitive and suboptimal, but right now, simplicity is king. Better to start with a less optimal system I'll stick with than try to perfect the beta and never actually use it. Eventually I hope to start with the whole "throw blah percent in an index fund and let it grow until you retire" thing, but I'm concentrating on paying bills and building that emergency cash fund first. I'm prone to random medical surprises and not likely to take a regular corporate job for long stretches of time, so the emergency fund is really important.

It's all uphill from here, though. Not upwards to wealth; I don't really want (nor do I need) lots of money, and chances are I'll do things with my life that mean I'll never be rich in the financial sense. But I am, I hope, on the upward road to... financial adulthood. Knowing what I have, being in control of what I do with it, and being able to use what I've got in the way that I think will bring the most good.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Blueberries yes, voting no.

Happy: Frozen blueberries are fantastic. The skin thaws and falls off instantly in your mouth, leaving you with a sweet soft berry-flavored nub that leaks happiness between your teeth. They also puree to make an excellent blueberry-and-soymilk sorbet.

Not happy: It looks like I'm an idiot and won't be able to vote this year either. Illinois requires first-time voters to either register or vote in person, something I discovered last election season. Since you can't register as a minor, and I was in school at Boston on my 18th birthday and stayed in Boston working and studying until after election time (meaning that I didn't visit my home in IL), I just... couldn't.... vote.

This made me pretty disappointed (patriotic slacker and all that). So this time I made a note to register while I was at home, as I would simultaneously be (1) over the age of 18 and (2) in Illinois, which as my parents can tell you is a pretty rare occurence. While going through the List of Things to Remember Before You Go Back To School, I found the note. And guess what? The government offices you can register at all close at 4:30 on Friday in my area. The time I read my list? 5pm Friday. I fly out Sunday morning.

Sorry, Uncle Sam; you won't be hearing from me this time either. It's entirely my fault for being dumb about it this time, so... yeah. I'm hoping that I'll be home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas this year and able to register then. Please let the offices be open and able to register me on a day I'm able to access them. I'd like to be a responsible citizen, but the requirements aren't exactly making it easy.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you."

Would that I could actually say the title of this post. Here's Steve Jobs in his commencement speech at Stanford:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

So as the past 7 days have made clear, I sort of suck at following my heart. It's like a familiar song; once you know it, you can recognize it played through a low-res supermarket speaker over the noise of a thousand screaming toddlers, but you need to know what to listen for first.

It's easy to have an inner voice when nobody else is trying to drown it out, but that ain't the case here. I need time without the background noise so I can hear my own wants clearly enough to actually follow them through the shouting.


No. Must sit down and write out a long, well-reasoned letter to my parents on the frustrations that have been building up for the past... decade now, almost. Complete with illustrative diagrams and mathematical models, if applicable. Since I'm too much of a wimp to actually talk to them in person - or rather, too much of a wimp (or idiot) to stand my ground intelligently when I try and they begin to disagree with me.

BAHBC: Days 4-7

Living in the Real World:

Day 4: Happily interacted with people (including '10ers and their parents) at Kristen's house for the IL Olin gathering. Oh, it was good to see them.

Day 5: Went to church. Had discussion with father about going to church (or rather, how I don't). Realized that I am quite unable to give a good rational explanation for why I do not go to church, but don't think the rational reasons my father put forth for it were sufficient.

Day 6: Was taken to father's office for No Apparent Reason while mom talked to the office IT about fixing her broken Dell laptop. Read outside. Got bored. Examined all external wiring, tubing, pumps, and parking layouts. Read more. Got bored. Tried to climb silo (Do Not Climb sign: no, ladder: yes, platform: yes, railing: yes, height: 10 feet) to get a more comfortable seat and a more interesting vantage point. Apparently this was not a good thing to do, a point driven home by a hysterical mother-lecture about growing up properly and 3 hours of glowering (her, not me). Interacted with non-library world primarily through the computer thereafter. Bad Mel.

Day 7: Da Vinci museum exhibit followed by my first stop to the original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. Appreciation of that stuffed spinach pizza alone... gosh. You haven't tasted pizza until you've had it in Italy and in Chicago's original Pizzeria Uno. (Warning: one slice == stuffed to the gills.)

Random stranger:

Day 4: Thanks to the IL Olin picnic, much random-stranger talking ensued.

Day 5-7: Whee. At least not in person. I'm bad at this.

Nontechnical book(s):

  • 2 books on vegetarian diets, whose titles I am too lazy to walk over and look up. Being vegetarian - really, pseudovegetarian - around my mother is impossible. Multiple hourlong (not kidding) "not eating the food I take so much time to prepare for you and how can you selfishly break apart the togetherness of this family" tirade impossible. I'm just too tired to fight this right now, so I ate the freakin' fish and turkey.
  • Chomsky on Miseducation. Fantastic writer. Very good at twisting your brain around in circles. Must read more Chomsky.
  • Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card, whose prose I admire for its vivid descriptions of strange things as if they were utterly normal.
  • More on qigong.
  • An essay by Richard Hamming entitled "You and your Research," which I recommend to all researchers who dream of greatness. This part especially:

What Bode was saying was this: "Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.'' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Technical book(s): Got sidetracked from Learning Python (one... massive... section... left...) by Head-First Java. Must try to learn one language at a time.

Productivity: FWOSCOPE proposal finished, SWE webpage mocked up, Bootstrap project pretty much finalized, Bridge program writeup section sent, new Beethoven sonata learned. Not too bad.

Final grade for the day: Overall, pretty dismal for days 4-7. Somehow I get the feeling other hackers have much more supportive - or at least permissive - families than this. Home is great, but this house is totally not hacker-friendly.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Lifehacker: tips for off-screen reading

Woo! The good folks at Lifehacker have posted my query on how to read without killing your back. A lot of great responses there, but my favorite is using a lectern or music stand - I've played various instruments for 15 years, but it never occured to me to put my schoolbooks on the same place as my sheet music. As with all great ideas, once you hear it, you slap yourself on the forehead and wonder why you didn't think of it.

I'm going to try both a music stand for reading and a standing desk when I set up my dorm room this coming year. Not sure how I'll pull off the second one yet.

There's also this gem:

Not the advice you asked for, but--for better grades read unassigned but relevant secondary sources. Your profs will admire you.


BAHBC: Day 3

Living in the Real World: Not really. I drove to different department stores with my mom. This is as close to $uburbia living as I'll probably ever get. I did appreciate dinner, though. A family friend came to visit and we went to Lawry's, which was a heck of a way to end my experiment with vegetarianism (verdict: can't be a strict one, as it worries my parents to no end - also, I appreciate good meat once in a very rare while). I finally had prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, which I've been curious about for ages. It's quite good. Now I go back to eating Very Little Meat. Mm.

By the way, how did those of you who are vegetarian manage to keep your parents from freaking out? Mine fret and frown whenever they see my plate without some meat on it. I'm sure I'm not alleviating their fears that I'll "turn into a hippie or something," but there must be some way to show them that it's not weird, socially alienating, rude, unhealthy, or otherwise bad to not eat meat.

Of course, it'd probably help if I did more research on nutrition and how to eat properly. Anyone got a good book to recommend?

Random stranger: I'm really slacking in this department. Darn it, Mel, talk to people. Today is the Illinois area Olin picnic at Kristen's, so I'll be forced to do this. Yay!

Nontechnical book(s): Finished book on qigong, which is much harder than it sounds (okay, you try standing still with your arms extended for 10 minutes and then tell me how you feel). I wish there was a qigong or tai chi cocurricular at Olin; I'm much more motivated to do something physical when other people are involved. Don't know if other people are interested in taichi/qigong, though. Anyone?

Technical book(s):
I can proudly announce that I have one centimeter left to read in Learning Python and a huge respect for good technical textbook writing. Need to learn how to do it fast, as that's supposed to be my AHS capstone.

Productivity: When you spend half the day in department stores (not by choice, mind you) it's hard to get much done. Please convince my mother that I do not need new clothes. I don't want to go back there!

Final grade for the day: F. Today's report should, however, be immensely better.

Book review: Self Renewal

My train-ride book yesterday was Self Renewal: the Individual and the Innovative Society by John W. Gardner. I'd recommend the first half to anyone who subscribes to the Phoenix Philosophy of continuous improvement. Some passages, like this one, seem tailor-made for idealistic Oliners:

The great virtue of a free people is to be that fertile seedbed; not - as some have supposed - to be always right or enlightened but to be the soil from which enlightenment can spring.

In other words, "keep trying, but don't get a big head about it." There's also a passage on the benefits of being normal.

...creative individuals as a rule choose to conform in the routine, everyday matters of life, such as speech, dress, and manners. One gets the impression that they are simply not prepared to waste their energy in noncomformity about trifles. They reserve their independence for what really concerns them - the area in which their creative activities occur.

If you look and act like most of the world, you've got a better chance of getting your crazier ideas accepted by them, because - well, you're practically one of them. Not one of those wacky loons out there. When you do something strange, they'll know you're doing it because you honestly believe it's functionally better, not because you want to look cool or get attention. It's like mellowing out the flavors in a soup so that one beautiful note of sweet butternut can come through.

My father once told me that he was ok with me going to Olin because "out of all the engineering schools we visited, it has the most normal people, and maybe you'll learn to be normal as well." I know, anyone at Olin (or IMSA, for that matter) starts choking with laughter when they hear someone referring to us as "normal." All right, maybe we aren't. But the reason we're so successful is because we can interface with most of the world. Sometimes who you can connect to is just as important as what you can actually do (although we're Darn Good Engineers as well). What use is a brilliant idea if it only stays in one person's head?

One of my worries about Olin is that we're growing less fearless and creative over time. "If it ain't broken, don't fix it" is a great philosophy for conservation of energy, but that's not what we're about. Olin's not supposed to be the best engineering school in the world. We're supposed to be the one that's least afraid of changing.

When there is an established way to do almost anything, people are apt to feel that all the pioneering has been done, all the exciting things tried. Though the need for innovation still exists (or may be even greater), it is far from obvious. [emphasis mine]

It'e easy to say that innovation should exist, but hard to take the risk yourself. Better to let someone else do it. Folks, this is a news flash: that "someone else" is us. Did some of my classes suck? Yeah. Did I gripe about them? Sure. Would I change the fact that we experimented with them? No. When designing a scientific experiment, you love negative results because they show you unambiguously what Does Not Work. Positive results teach you less; sure, that thing worked, but nobody knows why.

All too often we are giving our young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. We are stuffing their heads with the products of earlier innovation rather than teaching them to innovate. We think of the mind as a storehouse to be filled when we should be thinking of it as an instrument to be used.

Here's to self-renewal. Guinea pig hackers of the world, unite!

Now go put on your crash helmet and go bump into things.

Friday, August 18, 2006

BAHBC: Day 2

Couldn't report yesterday since Dad took the computer in the evening, so a quick status on yesterday.

Living in the Real World: Full marks on this one. I walked for almost 4 hours and went barefoot in a fountain (Chicago's Millenium park - gorgeous).

Random stranger: Not really random, definitely not a stranger, but I met up downtown with David, a friend from high school (hence the 4 hours wandering the city streets, including the last 15 minutes charging frantically through Chicago trying to get to Union Station before his train left). Yeah, this is me trying to excuse my lack of finding an actual stranger to talk to.

Nontechnical book(s):
John W. Gardner's Self Renewal (which I read on the train) reads like a manual for incoming Olin students. The first half is vastly better than the second. More on this in a separate post.

Also got halfway through a pretty hefty tome on qigong. One of the things I want to learn about when I go to China is the traditional medicine - or actually, their entire concept of health, disease, energy, and healing. In the Chinese mindset, health and medicine isn't something you just go to the doctor for; you heal yourself every day through the exercises you do, the food you eat, and the way you move and think. It's a kind of balance that I'd like to learn, since balance (and stillness) is something that's sorely lacking in my life.

Technical book(s):
Sheepishly swallowing my words on finishing Learning Python here - chapters are not the same thing as sections, and sections are huge. (This is why I need to look at the actual book when estimating reading speed, not the online table of contents). I read about 11 chapters, but that totals to only 3 sections. Got a long, long way to go.

Nope. I do have a good excuse for it, though. Instead of spending the evening coding as I'd planned, I spent it wrestling with the financial software (Quicken) on my mom's laptop. Hurrah for repeatedly importing and checking statements from various banks and financial institutions. Hurrah for brain-numbing work. (Is there personal finance software out there that's human-usable? Quicken and Money strike me as being frustratingly overkill, and I need to find something more than Excel spreadsheets for myself soon.)

Final grade for the day: C+, but an A for effort.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

BAHBC: Day 1

Day 1 of 10 in my self-imposed experimental Becoming A Hacker Boot Camp (not really a full day, actually 5.5 hours). Report back:

Living in the Real World:
Another category I added; my brain is often too far into abstract theory, so I neglect my body (I've had it for 20 years and I'm still awkward) and forget to be present in what I'm doing. Today I rode my bike for 2 hours, pausing every 20 minutes or so to read a book chapter (~7-8min) and then came home and made a (vegetarian) dinner. Oh, yeah. I'm experimenting with not eating meat this week. So far I haven't missed it at all.

We also have dehydrated bananas going (assuming Jason and I don't finish them all before they're done) and a soy milk making machine that's getting used several times a day now. That's one advantage of living at home; everyone here understands my craving for soy milk. It's called comfort food, folks. If you grew up on soy milk and rice porridge, you'd love them too.

Random stranger:
I took a break from biking (note: Glenview is even less bike-friendly than Boston) to swing in a playground next to a Russian grandmother and her 3-year old grandson. Talked to the grandmother, as the little boy didn't yet speak English; made funny faces at the kid instead. He laughed and even waved a shy goodbye when the two went home for supper.

Nontechnical book(s):
Linux and the Unix Philosophy by Mike Gancarz. I belive many unix/open-source development tenets are useful in engineering and business in general, namely small is beautiful, choose portability over efficiency, and use leverage to your advantage (meaning "don't reinvent the wheel" and "build on / stitch together the work of others whenever possible").

Getting Things Done by David Allen. Great theoretical system - now I just need to pick a platform to implement it on (paper? computer? web?) If anyone has suggestions for a good implementation, I'd like to hear them. Right now I'm experimenting with Webnotes on Netvibes as well as Hiveminder, but neither of them quite fits in. iCommit is promising, but requires too many mouseclicks. And none of them are exactly portable. For those of you wondering what GTD is, Merlin Mann's 43folders is a good place to start.

Started in on The Art of UNIX Programming by Eric Raymond. Didn't finish. Normally I'm a more prolific reader, but I can only read so many books in 6 - [timespent.biking + timespent.cooking + timespent.eating + timespent.helping(mom, mom.computer)] hours. Hopefully finishing this tomorrow (although Learning Python takes precedence).

Technical book:
Almost done with Learning Python, which I started on the plane on Sunday. I'm going very slowly through this but am hoping to get through chapters 3-7 tonight (102 pgs) and finish tomorrow (80 pgs). I'm coding two projects in Python at the moment, so everything I'm picking up is being used right away.

I can't believe I've never used exec()before. It's insanely useful. Or at least fills a nagging "I wish there was some way to do this!" gap that formerly existed in my mind. This is why I read so much, and why I need to read more.

Minor project:
Not the one I intended to finish, but I got some Trac and documentation work done for Grrlcamp (planning for a weeklong coding marathon in which we'll be building a complete open-source project from scratch. I'll holler if more information goes public.)

I also decided on the whole BAHBC thing, set up my laptop so I could tolerate using it (read: hooked it to a real monitor, keyboard, and mouse - I love my laptop, but I also love my spine), and started the "mom, you're not doing anything with the old desktop, are you?" plea, so it's not like it's been an entirely unproductive day.

Report card:
A little light on practice and heavy on theory, but a good start. I like the things I'm learning from this. I need be braver at finding Random Strangers to talk to. I also need to produce Real Working Code tomorrow. Today's grade: B+.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Plan for the next 10 days

Met up with two old friends this week; Sharon, my high school roommate, and Ashley, who I knew from elementary all the way up through middle school. We've all changed a lot; as one of my high school teachers put it, "you only become a Real Person after high school." You can see faint shadows of the adults we're becoming now, and they're getting darker and more present every day.

Among the people I knew before I turned 16, I'm probably walking the furthest out from the beaten path, and trying to wander farther still. Spending time in the suburb where I grew up reminds me of how nice things are out here, and how much I don't want to grow up to have a "nice life" like this - our house is gorgeous, but there's nothing but houses and high-priced boutiques around it. Everyone's kids are going to college in fairly lucrative careers, everyone has a nice car and does Pilates and golfs on the weekends. Lovely, high-paying, stable life. Not my kind.

I need instability. I want to have chances to fail, because I want to do new things and make new things instead of just successfully using old things. I want to bike around the city in the middle of the night, train-surf, talk to street musicians, and sing loudly in the middle of parks. I need randomness, geekiness, and less inhibition in my life, and I need it now. And it feels like I'm the only one around here that wants to do this, although I'm sure it's not true.

I'm dismayed by how soft and lax my body's gotten, but have almost no motivation to get out and run or bike - my mom won't let me out of the immediate area; even the only mall with a bookstore, 5 miles away, is too far (and once she dropped me off there, I found out the bookstore had been replaced by a seller of designer handbags). Within the vicinity that I am allowed to roam in, we have... houses. And houses, and houses. And good public schools that aren't actually open at the moment, otherwise I'd wander in there and offer to help out in the classrooms.

So here's my compromise. I'm going to bed early (~1am!) and waking up early (6?). I'm stealing my brother's bike to roam around town, probably outside the technical area-I'm-allowed-to-be-in, but as long as I'm not explicitly forbidden from it, I'm going.

I will:
  • talk to at least one random stranger per day (still need to find mine for the day)
  • read at least one nontechnical book per day (today: Linux and the Unix Philosophy, and probably The Cathedral and the Bazaar)
  • read at least one technical book per week (today: Learning Python, which I never actually read cover-to-cover. I'm picking up a lot of small useful features and notes I never realized along the way.)
  • finish at least one minor project per day. I am incredibly thankful that the things I like to do - coding and design - only need my laptop. (today: a little GUI app for the ODO.)
Basically, I'm pretending to be a very lonely and isolated freelancer right now, just one that has to listen to her mother all the time. (No, really. It's good to be home. I love my family. But I miss my fellow students and coworkers and geeks something awful; I'm going through crazy-people withdrawal.)

Right. Off to bike. Not coming back until I'm good and sweaty, and done reading this book.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Back at home with Mom's Macbook

Several things of note since I last posted.

1. Wikimania conference - more about this later, but suffice to say it was awesome, educational, awe-inspiring, and boy did I meet a lot of great people there. The Olin panel (thanks to Mark Chang, Debbie Chachra, Allen Downey, and Andrew Bouchard!) was nothing short of stupendous, and I kept on hearing compliments about it well into the evening and the next day. Sweet.

2. Work ended - I loved my time at Continuum, and plan on visiting next year (in two weeks for a brainstorm, actually). Olin people, check this place out; you'll have a great time and learn a ton, and meet some wonderful people. Aside from the obvious internships in the engineering departments (I was in the EE dept, but there were a few ME interns as well), there's also the Strategy department, which essentially does UOCD for a living.

I got a spiffy orange scarf and some chopsticks as a going-away present. Now that's utilitarian. I use chopsticks on a not-infrequent basis, so this is a welcome alternative to the cheapo plastic sticks I'm used to.

3. Tax-free weekend was taken advantage of - I never thought I'd see my mom waiting in line outside a computer store at midnight, but tax-free weekend in MA sent its siren call out and we spent the afternoon - and then the night - at the Apple Store in Burlington getting a Macbook. This replaces the creaking Sony VAIO and Dell Dimension desktops downstairs. With the glory of ProCare, I no longer have to be my mom's tech support, so the midnight run was well worth it (heck, I would have done it anyway; it was fun.)

4. I'm home - in Glenview, IL for the next two weeks. So if you're in the area and want to say hi, drop me a line. I'm technically working as a freelance coder from now 'till school starts, but I'm hoping to spend more time riding my bike around town than sitting in front of my laptop.

Speaking of which, I'm going to go out and bike right now.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Crenshaw melons

One of the greatest pleasures in life is splitting a yellow Crenshaw melon the size of your head in the grass with a pocketknife, then smothering - alternately - your face and a spoon into it, making mandatoriliy loud slurping noises as seeds and juice and melon drip every which way.

When you're down to the last shred of flesh and the skin is flopping around loose in your hands, you'll be holding a bowl of sweet Crenshaw juice. Then you pour that down your throat, down your chin and shirt, and you're done; no longer hungry or thirsty, and sticky with the smell of honey.

So then you move on to the strawberries...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Muse - my first concert

Muse at the Bank of America pavilion was my first real non-classical concert. Amanda had her own ticket, but DJ coordinated the getting of tickets for myself, Ginneh, and EricVW. He also coordinated the forgetting of said tickets in his car back at Eliot, something he realized when we stepped off the bus in front of the pavilion. So we listened to the opening bands from a bench outside a nearby restaurant while a slightly frantic DJ crawled through Boston traffic back to Newton, returning with tickets shortly before Muse started playing.

Concerts. Are. Loud. My eardrums were buzzing inside my head, and I could feel not only my pants vibrating against my knees, but my collar against my neck, my bangs against my forehead, and if I placed my hands on the side of my mouth, I could feel my teeth chatter along to the bass. There were the apparently requisite flashy media projections against the back, but the music was superb (although I couldn't understand a single word of the lyrics, save for "Time is Running Out," and that's only because I've played keyboard for it.)

Eric noticed me looking around the pavilion during the concert instead of watching the stage, and asked if I was ok. Some people go to concerts to watch concerts; I go to concerts to watch concerts and to watch how people react to concerts. A sea of folks from goth punks to yuppies to balding middle-aged men were standing in the strobe lights, brows furrowed and lips bit in a pose of feigned with-it-ness, bobbing heads, screaming drunkenly, and dancing in their seats (which nobody sat in) as if they were the people on stage, not Muse. I wonder how many of them actually got into the music and how many of them danced because that's what you're supposed to do to appear cool at a concert. A half-clothed man clambered on the chairs behind us to get beer, using our shoulders as an unwilling handrail. Every time Muse spoke, folks would pump their hands, formed into a fist with the pinky and index finger sticking up (don't know what the gesture is called) into the air and scream.

People are very interesting to watch. I don't understand them.

I would, however, love to play with the lighting rigs they had there. Gels of all colors stuffed into the ceiling. Fog machines and small swiveling projectors that sent fingers of light through them. Strobes. There was a catwalk suspended from the center of the stage with four huge spots on it - and no visible means of getting to them. You'd have to take a crane up and back down. The acoustics must be fantastic.

Mel goes to Stanford

Last Monday I get an email from Ozgur; our NSF subcontract has, after 9 months, finally come through from Stanford. Could I fly out that weekend?

Four days later, I step out of the airport and am momentarily stunned by the brilliantly flaming sunset of San Jose. There are mountains. And trees. I'm not used to this, having only lived in the flat industrial plains of Illinois and the . It's the same visceral gut reaction I had to the thick fall leaves of Boston when I first went to visit Olin - something about the dynamic of the place, as Ozgur takes me through Palo Alto and around Stanford's campus, just feels right.

Spent Saturday afternoon in the lab working on Informedia with Malte; we finish in 8 hours what Ozgur was afraid would take more than two days. So I spend Saturday evening at a wine-tasting restaurant with Ozgur and his old friends and colleagues (they have wine, I have lemonade and astoud everyone by having a full dinner and then tackling a huge banana-chocolate calzone; an almost-teenage metabolism has its benefits). I read all night at the W hotel, where Ozgur has somehow managed to get amazingly cheap rates. It's the first time I've ever had my own hotel room. Designer sheets, funky soaps in the bathroom, a bathrobe - never worn one of those before - and $4 bottled water which I didn't dare drink. I wonder what percentage of the markup goes towards design.

While I'm still able to have extreme irregularity in my food habits - I can absentmindedly forget to eat for 48 hours and still not be hungry, or down two lunches and three dinners in the same day without blinking - I can no longer do so for sleep. No more double allnighters followed by a 10-hour crash; I'm no longer 14, and need at least 3 hours a night, preferably 4-5. So I do that, wake up, read some more (a mix of investment books, tracts on higher education, and one on the dilemna of being a "renaissance soul" who likes doing everything) until Ozgur's awake.

I had absolutely no responsibilities for Sunday; Ozgur was going around town with some friends. So I end up tearing across Stanford on Malte's bike as fast as a slightly-too-large cruiser with broken brakes will take me. It's a gloriously sunny day, and when it gets too hot I stop periodically to duck into air-conditioned buildings and ask people questions about Stanford culture while the sweat dries off my back and shirt and hair; repeat. This is punctuated by a quick trip to the Stanford bookstore (during which I read a book about the wartime experience of modern infantry and another on the mental process of learning to play jazz piano), a Stanford tour (where the tour guide? finishes every statement? as a question?), a longing peer into the Product Development master's program studios ("we teach engineering to artists and art to engineers" - words to win the heart of this engineering student who really wanted to be an art major), and a sticker-shocking detour into Palo Alto where I attempted to obtain dinner for under $10 and failed.

An hour before Ozgur is supposed to pick me up at Stanford, my phone dies. I run to the library and desperately email helpme, then run to the CDR (Center for Design Research) lab in search of someone with Ozgur's phone number. Fortunately, Chris Carrick back on the east coast gets the email and calls Ozgur, so I make my flight. Chris, I owe you a lavish dinner or cookies or something.

The 5:30AM flight back to Boston was totally worth it.