Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hackable == green

This is the biggest Gannt chart I've ever seen.

Readers of Make: blog have seen their maker's bill of rights, which I love. Worldchanging has a great article about how design for hackability is actually design for sustainability, since handy types can fix/upgrade their devices instead of tossing them when they get broken or obsolete. Sweet - I smell a change in the world.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Geek moment #0x3c52ab9

For no particular reason: the beat frequency between the LEDs on the CAN-enabled PICs blinking on my desk and the Ben Folds song "All U Can Eat" is ~0.06Hz.

I wonder how you make a program that can automatically detect the bpm of a song (for syncing with slideshows, for instance)? Low-pass it and look for regular spikes at bass drum frequencies? There's always the option of having someone tap on the spacebar in rhythm to the first 30 seconds of a song, then averaging the time between taps.

Okay, now I'm just procrastinating.

Live the questions now

I first saw this on mchang's fridge. At some point I should make a collage of all these quotes and frame them up on my wall.

Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. --Ranier Maria Wilke

So the question is: how do you live a question? I suppose this quote is telling me that I shouldn't look for the answer to that one and let it hang unresolved, but that would be an answer, which is contradictory.

It's always been a disquieting yet quietly triumphant thing to me that humans are able to live with logical contradictions while knowing they're logical contradictions. Definitely wouldn't go so far as to say that Godel's incompleteness theorem explains what makes us human - it doesn't say anything of the sort - but contradictions are still an amusing and pervasive phenomena that I'm still trying to come to grips with. Does not compute... but it's kind of cool that it doesn't.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

You might be a future grad student if...

...you really like reading papers. Gosh, I feel like such a non-engineer when I say this.

I mean really like. Last year my favorite readings (edging out even sci-fi stories) were the Robotics papers for Gill's class and things like Shannon's original paper on information theory. I stayed up nights earlier this semester reading Papert's stuff. Now I'm kicking myself for not doing theoretical research earlier. All the research stuff I've done at Olin has been "hey, a new lab! buy equipment, haul furniture, hello I am a code monkey." Haven't done much research, to be honest. And in high school I read very few papers, they were mostly biotech, and I just didn't get into that stuff as much (too many immunology acronyms to remember) and that was for fun, not for research of any sort.

I'm currently crawling my way through "Opportunistic beamforming using dumb antennas." It breaks my previous slow record for reading in English; 3 hours net reading and I'm 3 pages in (out of 19). The previous record holder was the Calculus of Variations textbook I crept through for my PDEs project two years ago, and that was 18 pages in 6 hours, three times as fast. It takes time for me to work through the math and look up new terms (did you know there's an imaginary error function? It's called erfi. I'm pronouncing it "er-fee," which makes it sound like the name of a puppy.)

It's a great balance, actually. Mathematics, but applied mathematics. Complex and abstract enough to be entertaining, but tied to reality so I actually care enough to keep going when the entertainment factor fades. A mix of probability and discrete math, with a good heap of graph theory thrown in - my favorites. Something where good programming skills helps, but it isn't all you do. Where hardware knowledge helps, but it isn't all you do. Where the boundaries between doing abstract mathy stuff, computational simulation, and actual physical implementation are paper-thin and crowded close together.

Did I mention the math? Ah, textual data - if it's mathematical, it's got to be written down, and so I can read it! In contrast to this, I'm still looking for a good textbook on how to lay out PCBs properly. It appears to be something people "pick up." (My PCBs are awful - I can use the software, but I really don't know what I'm doing with it aside from plugging the right things together. "They're all connectedlike!" "Holy cow Mel there are huge loops everywhere and what the heck did you do to the ground plane.")

I wish more electrical engineers would write good books about their work. I have a nagging feeling that I'll be trying to fill this gap as time goes on.

It's good that I'm forcing myself to take some time off to travel and work, otherwise I'd just stay in academia forever, and that wouldn't necessarily be good for my growth. Strength in diversity of experience, Mel. The paper you're reading now mathematically proves that (in a way).

Finish this section! Model Rayleigh fading! Sleep so you can get up when the sun rises and get more glorious natural light!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Blinky lights

This is likely a reprint, because I swear I've written this somewhere before.

The Blinky Lights theory of electrical engineering: they make us happy and confuse the heck out of everyone else. How strange must it seem to an outsider to walk into a lab and see adults cheering at a tiny flickering red dot? "What's that?" "THE LAST THREE YEARS OF MY LIFE HAVE BEEN VALIDATED!" And then a slurry of acronyms that leaves the observer bewildered as to why they're getting so worked up at an effect a preschooler could have produced with their thumb on a flashlight button...

I'm exaggerating and stereotyping for comic effect, but that's the thing about software and electrical engineering; the things that look most difficult are often the easiest to accomplish, and vice versa. Get this peripheral button to send a keystroke to the computer? Agonizingly hard. At the end of it, what do you get? "Congratulations, you typed a B." But once you have that, it takes all of 5 minutes for someone else to modify your code to send the entire text of Galileo to the computer with the same keystroke. "Wow! Brecht in a button!"

Little blinking lights symbolize the completion of an often tricky technical solution. It's like telling someone "wave this flag when you get to the top of Everest." The flag is a low-resolution indicator of the journey. You wouldn't ask the climbers why they didn't just wave the flag in their backyard in the first place. That's not the point.

Flight of fancy: instead of hooking your system up to the blinky-LED, route the end "success!" signal to a magical black box, which does the following when it's triggered:

  1. Plays the opening of Handel's Messiah in loud, high-fidelity stereo, followed by upbeat disco music
  2. Beams a multitude of brightly colored spotlights around the noble engineer who's just finished the... whatever it was
  3. Cue robots, strategically positioned around the room, to pop out and burst into applause and loud praise
  4. Cause a large cake and several bottles of cider and champagne to descend from the ceiling
  5. Send a press release notifying the folks who print birth announcements that "module 21b8 of component 382c0x4 first demonstrated its functionality today," complete with (automatically snapped) photo of the module with its proud makers
Ah, I wish.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hair and sun

In her maternal zeal, my mother has given me what can only be described as a "cute" haircut of the "bowl" variety. As in, my 3-year-old cousin wears the same style. I need... gel, or something to muss it up or otherwise make me look older than 10 (I would use scissors, but that just sounds like a bad idea).

The lack of sunlight is bothering me this year more than I've remembered it doing in the past. I've always gotten peeved at a lack of long days, but now I actually grimace when I look out the windows at 5pm. Is this why people go to grad school in California? Anyways, darkness signals my brain to stop studying and start lazing around with books, which is bad during the end of term crunch. I have projects to finish, darn it. I want my sun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Back to IMSA

After visiting my old high school with Yifan (IMSA '06, Olin '10) on Monday, I finally got my IMSA password reset and seqed through a backlog of messages. It's been a while - months, verging on a year - since I checked my high school email and notesfiles (messageboards), so I've been woefully out of touch with the IMSA gang. Apologies for that, folks. I'm going to need to get better at keeping up wtih my alumni groups.

Walking through the hallways visiting teachers made me realize I was finally one of those crusty 20-year-old alumni that the 15-year-old kids look at with "who are you?" eyes. The last time I was back at IMSA, at least some of my younger IMSA friends had been there; now they're all graduated. None of the people at the couches (my old hangout between classes) knew me, nor did they know anyone who'd known me. Nobody was at the womb (another hangout nook under a staircase enclosed by a bench). I tried to sit in my old spot, but I'd grown a few inches and didn't fit quite as well any more.

Then I went through notesfiles and found out that while I've been chugging away at Olin, the folks I knew in high school have gone travelling, graduated, gotten jobs, gotten married, and then - baby pictures. That's a lot of people and things to keep track of - I wonder how older adults do it; they know so many more folks. I used to be amazed that my parents sent out hundreds of holiday letters every December; now I wonder how they keep the list down to so few.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The babies! They are everywhere!

Just saw two short videos of two baby boys screaming their tiny heads off. Welcome to the world, Julian and Luke! My father's youngest brother's new twins bring the Chua-side cousin tally up to 9, rapidly catching up to the Lim side's 14.

Also, I'm continuously surprised to find out that my shy little brother has somehow turned into a confident young man (really an adult - he's 18 on Tuesday) sometime in the almost-7 years I've been studying away from home. If I've got one regret about going away for school, it's that I didn't get to see him grow up. But I really like the person he's growing up into. I'm not-so-secretly hoping my grad school will be near his college so we can get to know each other again.

Happy birthday, kiddos. And a birthday shout-out to my cousin Mark (who goes to Babson) who passed the "I'm not a teenager any more!" mark this month as well. Mmm, milestones.

Random Acts of Engineering

I'm home in IL for the holidays, wandering bored through a shopping mall because my mother's returning things, when I get a phone call.

"Hey! So, ah, Eric found this design competition..."
"Where are you?"
"We're in the library. I know you're in Illinois, but - are you by a computer?"
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but when's the deadline?"
"Ah.... midnight?" (It's 6:30pm.)

There goes my evening. The next 5.5 hours were spent happily chatting away on phones and laptops while simultaneously brainstorming, developing, and presenting 4 different product concepts for the (month-long, apparently) competition. Papers flew. Pixels flew. I completely bewildered my mother by asking her to pose next to an electrical outlet. And the final products were... not too bad, in my biased opinion - downright decent if you consider they were done with no planning on a randomly assembled distributed team in the span of a night, minus dinnertimes.

Random acts of engineering. That, plus the excellent potato-leek soup we had for lunch, just completely made my day.

Speaking of distributed teams, I just want to say I LOVE MY TEAM*. Phil and Hiroo from Scotland are gorgeous designers and absolutely wonderful to work with for our distributed engineering design course project, and Chandra was infinitely patient with everything and totally kickass at making our prototypes both structurally sound and manufacturable. Hopefully I made up for my ineptness over videoconferences (can't... read... lips...) by introducing shiny software; since it was a more mechanical-ish design challenge (coffee cup holders) I thought my computer skillz would go unused, but awareness of online collaboration tools was definitely helpful.

*originally intended to refer to the distributed team, but thinking about it right now I can honestly say I love every single team, group, and committee I'm on this semester - not just "like," "tolerate," or "uh... it's a valuable learning experience," I really love the people on them and the spirit in them, which is incredibly unusual... and boy, it feels good. I want this feeling more. The world is such a happy place when you have awesome teammates to work with.

It's 2am Eastern, so I'm getting an early snooze in an attempt to make up for sleep debt. G'night, folks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ooh, a memory dump.

This is more amusing if you've taken CompArch, and only works if you're running Windows.

  1. Go to Start > Run and type "debug" (no quotes).
  2. type "d f000:0" (no quotes, and those are zeroes).
  3. hey look, it's a memory hexdump!
  4. now type "u f000:0" (yep - no quotes).
  5. hey look, it's assembly!
  6. You can look at different chunks of memory by changing the numbers you type after the "d" or the "u."
  7. now type "?" (...right, no quotes) and hit enter. Muahahaha.
  8. q is for quit.
Okay, so it's not the most exciting thing in the world, but I wasn't aware that interface existed before. The random things you learn when you browse through books (in this case, Essentials of Mechatronics by John Billingsley). Mr. Gutenberg, I don't know what I'd do without you.

When you procrastinate on art homework by sniffing around Windows memory dumps, you know you really need a Thanksgiving break. I'm off to the studio.

Learning journals and peer commentary

Two project ideas floating around here, both of which are struggling to get from the idea realm to the reality one - any suggestions or comments on whether they're worth pursuing or how one should go about best pursuing it would be awfully welcome.

Blue Sky The First: Engineering Project Notebooks That Don't Suck

In the book "On becoming an innovative university teacher" by John Cowan, he suggests keeping a learning journal, a practice inspired by a book by Jenny Moon. The idea is that you keep a learning journal for every topic you study - like class notes, but with more emphasis on personal reflection - and then if you teach students in the subject later, you pass on your journals so they can read yours while they're making theirs. Keeping a learning journal helps you keep track of your own educational goals, and serves as a record for the transformational thought processes you've gone through.

"Sweet," I thought when I first read that. "I'll do that!" A month later, I'd found that the learning journal concept works beautifully for art and writing, but not so great for engineering. Data on paper is beautiful but dead. You can't type it, compile it, run it, or analyze it mathematically without a lot of rote cranking. I'll be darned if I'm going to print out my code and neatly paste it inside one of those little lab notebooks just so I can point it out to my students years later.

Blogs are the closest things to learning journals I've found on computers, but if I go completely electronic , I lose the ability to quickly sketch diagrams or hash out math notes. Maybe other people can type LaTeX or LyX fast enough to keep up with a lecture - I definitely can't, and besides, I do math with plenty of diagrams. Besides, if I type LaTeX into a blog (assuming I can even figure out how to make that display, whether it's with MathML or something else) it still has no mathematical meaning; I have to re-code it all over again in Maple or Matlab to be able to maniuplate the numerical data.

Enter Matt Tesch, who provided a starting point - a proposal to combine handwriting recognition with LaTeX and a computational library. The idea is that if you have a tablet PC, and you scribble your math syntax in, it'll be recognized as two things simultaneously: (1) LaTeX syntax, so your chicken-scratch suddenly turns into beautifully typeset math, and (2) computational entities, so that you can finish scribbling an equation, highlight it, click "evaluate," and actually get an answer. Your handwriting will have both mathematical and typographical meaning, and it'd be a start in taking math notes this way, at least.

So the two of us are plugging away at that - Matt on the handwriting rec side (since it's his independent study this semester anyhow) and myself on the typography and the numerical computation backend (since it's a hobby of mine anyhow).

Ideas, suggestions, and things we've completely missed are very, very welcome. Is this idea completely useless? Are there things already out there that do what we're trying to do? Do you know of any projects or papers we should look into in the process of figuring out how to make this happen? And the questions I'd really like to find the answer to - do you keep an engineering project notebook? Do you like it? How could we design a program that would entice you to keep your project notebook on your computer instead?

Blue Sky the Second: Peer Review (interface for simultaneous commentary on a paper)

Then there's the problem of commenting on other people's papers. Ben Salinas pointed out something to Matt Ritter and myself one afternoon: tools like Google Documents and Gobby do a great job of letting you edit simultaneously, but what happens if I have a paper draft and want to let a lot of people make comments on it? I can ask them to write comments on the paper as a whole, in which case their comments can't be tagged to specific locations in the document.

This isn't a big deal when you're asking about a 1-paragraph email; it's a problem when you're writing a 300-page thesis. I can also ask them to use Track Changes and Notes in Microsoft Word, but let's face it; that's a less than perfect solution. Aside from the red lines swarming all over the place, it's not really collaborative, and your poor commenters will end up with a dozen different versions in their inbox which they'll have to merge.

The above image is a quick attempt at drafting an interface solution. It's pretty simple - all it is is attaching comments to specific locations on a paper. In order to comment on (blue) or suggest a rewrite of (red) one area of a document, you just highlight that area (no matter how big or small it is) and type. Your comment will be "pinned" to that location, and the section of the document you just wrote about will be highlighted subtly in order to show that it's been commented on. Each successive comment on the same section darkens the highlight. You end up with a commentary heatmap of sorts - heavy highlighting indicates the parts a lot of people are talking about. There are no "threaded discussions"; if you want to comment on someone else's comment, highlight the same part as they did and post a reply.

Here's the catch; these comments aren't usually all displayed, because there might be thousands on a very long paper. In order to view the comments on a section, you highlight that section. In this image, some of the text has been highlighted (yellow) and the two comments applied to that area are displayed on the right. If you want to see all the comments, select the whole document. If you just want to see comments on one chapter or paragraph, highlight those. You could potentially sort & search comments on the right side by author/date/subject/tag/whatever, but plenty of interfaces for that have already been developed and it wouldn't be a hard add-in, as far as I can tell.

Yeah. As I said, it's a pretty lousy demo and a poorly done image, but hopefully some of the ideas squeak across despite my hackish graphics skills. Thoughts? Worth building, not worth building? More importantly, how the heck do you go about making something like this? I come from a programming background of mostly control/simulation software, and should probably pick up Ruby on Rails and Ajax and such at some point; I'm not sure what tools this kind of thing would typically be built in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Prodigy Point

Gui emailed me last night calling out a specific passage in the last blog entry. (Gui is very good at catalyzing long streams of random thought. It's one of the things that makes him a joy to be around.)

Years later, the things that caused you the most cognitive friction are the ones you're most likely to remember.

This reminded me of something Mark Penner and I once talked about several years back. I call it the Prodigy Point for lack of a better term. It's the point at which something you were originally "naturally good at" turns very, very hard. For instance, I've reached such a point in my drawing; up 'till this semester I'd tinkered happily along and learned how to turn out pretty decent stuff with no formal training. I was "naturally good" at art. I didn't need to think about it or work on it. It just happened to be that way.

Then this semester, BAM. Prof. Donis-Keller made me realize that what I'd really hit was a plateau of stagnation, and that to get any better I wouldn't be able to rely on my old "it just comes naturally!" habit any longer - for the first time, I'd have to struggle and study like everyone else - perhaps even harder than everyone else, since I wasn't used to struggling with drawing - and I was faced with the Prodigy Point (not that I was an art prodigy by any stretch of the imagination, but y'know). Do you keep zooming along on the plateau, or do you swallow your pride, set to work, and have a chance at becoming truly great at what you do, a greatness based on real skill and hard work, and not just talent and dumb luck?

I've hit that point with math, and have chosen to plateau on it for now (until winter break, when Rudin and I will meet again and I'll wrestle through Analysis). I've hit that point with music, and have been in a plateau for... I'm ashamed to say it, but almost 7 years. It's really cute when a toddler can pick out melodies on the keyboard by herself, but when the kid turns 20 and isn't much better, it's not cute any more. Man, it's hard to break out of that plateau - especially when your first "this is easy!" plateau might be at a way higher level than most people will ever reach through years of struggling. It's easy to rest on the laurels of arrogance. I definitely do it a lot.

You can hit the Prodigy Point with engineering, when you realize that messing with power tools in the school garage was awesome but you're going to have to hit the books and learn DiffEq to build something on the next level. You can hit it with programming, when you realize you've been a clever little hacker but can't wrap your mind around hardcore CS yet (learning Scheme was a major turning point for me in this). One of the things places like Olin and IMSA are good at is making a lot of folks - not all, but most - hit their Prodigy Points. Hard and repeatedly enough that you can't ignore their existence.

Do you love what you do because you honestly love it, enough to sweat and cry over it? Or do you love it because it's easy for you to be good at it and you enjoy coasting on the compliments? It's a turning point where something that was formerly easy becomes hard, and the way you deal with the Prodigy Point tells you a lot about who you are and what's really important to you.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

PBL doesn't work?

Ran across a very interesting paper today that I'd like to discuss with people.

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark

The abstract:

"Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load. While unguided or minimally-guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half century that consistently indicate that minimally-guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide ‘internal’ guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described."

In short, this guy is saying that Olin's "squirt-squirt"/"throw-'em-in-the-deep-end" method of education is not effective because it "does not fit human cognitive architecture."

Among other things, it says novices "in the deep end" are unable to build a cognitive map of the information, so much of the learning is lost the first time around ("spiral learning") which is often the /only/ time around. Worked examples or process sheets (which guide you step by step through solving the problem yourself) are more effective, according to the studies they cite. It also presents the problem of "lack of clarity about the difference between learning a discipline and research (or work) in the discipline," which is the same as the gap between the engineering classroom and the engineering workplace we've been talking about at Olin.

It concludes with the question of why on earth are we using PBL if it's not effective. I agree that before you can do PBL, you need to have knowledge of where to find knowledge (which is not the same thing as prior knowledge). I also agree that you tend to perform "directed" tasks more efficiently, which is not the same as deep learning of that particular subject. Years later, the things that caused you the most cognitive friction are the ones you are most likely to remember.

I'm not sure how to design a study to properly respond to this, or whether one has been done - it's adding to my frustration at being essentially an illiterate in the educational field, and to my desire to fix this somehow (grad school?).

Update: Sam, Chris, and DJ all pointed out that the link to the paper was broken. It's been fixed - thanks, guys!

Hurtling towards the void

For those who don't know, I'm in a band called License Server Hates You (usually abbreviated "License Server"). It consists of me (keyboard), Tesch (brass/guitar), Gallimore (percussion), Amanda (vocals), and DJ (bass/backup vocals), and we're performing "Army" by Ben Folds for the coming ExpressO (our prior performance of Muse's "Running Out Of Time" was well-recieved last year).

Anyhow, after a long practice we were walking out into the quiet, humid night, and we started talking. Even though it's November, graduation's rushing up on us. It's like hurtling towards a void. And when we reach it in 6 months, this place isn't not ours any more, and we're not its students and we're not each other's (even though we'll always be Oliners and have a strong connection). It's making a lot of us cling more tightly to one another at the same time as we're hungrily drifting apart. It's a phenomena that gets repeated every year with every graduating class, but it still hits hard when it's you in there.

I feel home, but I know it's a home I can't stay in much longer. It's not something I'm going to dwell on overmuch; there's plenty to do and a lot to appreciate while things lasts, and a lot of possibilities to move forward into. Still, it seems like you never really realize what you've got until you realize you're going to lose it someday. And that moment is an odd one, when it comes.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Overloaders Anonymous

One of my greatest regrets from high school and the start of my Olin career is that I overloaded. I still do, but I'm much better, very conscious of it, and try hard to monitor it so that it works for me instead of against me.

I thought the point was to cram as much knowledge and experience into my tiny little brain as possible. Going outside and lounging with friends? Feh. Must stuff physics into brain. Enjoying a leisurely dinner with my aunt? No way. Coding was so much more productive. The more things I could do, the better off I'd be in terms of what I could contribute to society, and so forth.


There's a certain thin, clear sweetness to the rhythm of a grueling night of work. There is something to be said for singleminded devotion to a problem - or a host of problems - and a frantic period of activity, mad dashes, a mind bubbling with idea overload, knowing that you're making sacrifices because the thing you're working on is just that important. And you get a lot done, that's for sure. It makes life worth living.

But there's also a lovely part of life where you can go dancing, lie in the grass reading Milton, slowly sip some very hot, rich chicken broth, play music, hug people, and kind of... well, not do anything particular at all. It's glorious. It's productive in a different way. It makes life worth living in another way.

The first kind makes the second all the sweeter, and the second gives you space to do the first. It's like being an athlete; you need to push yourself to perform, exceed your limits, occasionally collapse gasping on the floor because you've run too fast or tried to do too many push-ups, or you won't get any better. But you need rest periods to rebuild and refresh. And I always love the feeling you get after a hard workout, after a long shower, when you finally lie down and almost glow with a light tiredness; it's satisfying and makes the rest seem much more vivid.

By doing less, I give myself the freedom to do more. I've done more intense sprints, seen more moments of gloriously quiet beauty, gotten more done, been happier, and touched more lives - as far as I can tell - ever since I started saying no. I'm still bad at it, as anyone will tell you. But I'm slowly finding my balance.

Do I miss pulling allnighters? Yeah.
Do I like getting at least 4 hours of sleep a night? Oh yes. It feels so good. I haven't fallen asleep mid-class since I stopped pulling allnighters; it makes a huge difference.
Do I wish I didn't have to make the tradeoff? Heck yeah.
Is the choice I made (sleep is important) the better one? Well, yes. For now, at least. And I'm okay with it.

I remember going to Gill's office sophomore year. This was when I was pushing 20 credits plus research and 2 jobs, committees, projects, FWOP, TAing, and pulling 1-2 allnighters a week. I was drained, bleary-eyed, dog-tired, desperate to overload even more, and agonizing about the things I'd have to turn down ("aw, Gill, if only these three classes weren't scheduled simultaneously - I'd take them all!")

Now, y'all know that Gill's got the exact same problem of wanting to do everything. But he told me that life wasn't about trying to do everything, it was making choices (one of those choices being the choice to try to do everything). And that if you had two options, and decided one was better, it didn't mean the other one wasn't good also. You make a choice, you go with that choice, and maybe you wish you could have done the second as well, but you know you made that first choice for a reason, and you accept that and enjoy the things you are doing instead of fretting about all the things you aren't.

Easier said than done, especially now that my world of opportunities has exploded; when you spend the first umpteen years of your life butting up against a ceiling of possibility and desperately looking for people to talk to and things to do, and all of a sudden
that ceiling vanishes and possibilities appear, it takes a lot of self-control to not grab 'em all at once; it's like offering an everlasting buffet to a man who's been living in famine for 15 years. But if you eat too much, you'll get just as sick.

Making the most of abundance doesn't mean you should overfill. Abundance means you have the freedom to choose what you want - not that you should grab as much as you can just because it's there. It's all about enjoying the food.

Slow down. It'll help you run faster.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The future of transformational learning

Went to the NI Technical Symposium (excellent!) today and was enthralled with thin-clients, but I don't want to talk about that. The thing that struck me most in the last 24 hours is from an article called "The future of transformational learning." Original emphasis.

...the way to measure success in our public schools is not to reject academic standards, but to return to an evaluation system that measures quality by the school's contribution to community development. Thus, we are changing the focus of public education to what should be its primary purpose - community development. The academic standards can be handled by third, sixth, and eighth-grade level passes if reading, math, science, history, and the arts are successfully completed through competency-based instruction. Yes, no grades!

Quality is not test scores on standardized tests. If you think so, read Deming's "Out of Crisis." Quality means students doing action research projects that improve the local, regional, or global community. Students learn how to learn when they choose to learn something that is important to them, but an added incentive is when it also meets a community need, a bioregional need, or a national need. An example is energy independence. Why not give high school, community college, and college students the opportunity to research a variety of energy options that would lessen the national dependence on fossil fuels?...

The question of how we evaluate our schools is really a question about what we think it means to be a good person. We say that schools are successful because they prepare children in certain ways, ostensibly in ways that will encourage them to have an impact, which is (we hope) the difference we'd like them to make.

There are a lot of layers between "is this a good school?" and "what do we want the future of the world to grow up to be?" but the connection is there.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

President's Council dinner

Just got back from the President's Council dinner. It's a landmark evening in many ways. We've just finished our ABET visit and the NEASC decision is coming soon (both major accreditation agencies), we're going through our first curriculum revision where we don't have to reinvent future course years from scratch, and Larry Milas, the man behind the founding of the "whole damn college,"* is stepping down as Chairman of the Board of Trustees tomorrow.

Strangely enough, almost 9 years (minus about a week) tomorrow, Olin College was a piece of paper, a few people, and a dream. We've only been around as a blue sky idea for about that long. 9 years ago they had that piece of paper, and most of us students and alumni were kids in elementary or middle school, playing ball at recess, riding bikes, (or in my case) discovering math in our bedroom closets in the middle of the night.

The dinner tonight was filled with visitors from industry and academia. Presidents and past presidents of colleges, CEOs, CIOs, board members of major companies, VPs and chairs. One question I heard multiple times from multiple people is "what is entrepreneurship?" and "are you an entrepreneur?" Everyone there said that entrepreneurship was about making things happen, not making money (a common misconception). There seems to be plenty of call for integrating that more deeply into the curriculum.

The biggest thing that struck me tonight was how open they were for change, how enthusiastic, how encouraging. As DJ put it, "it's very heartening that people that high up in the administrative chain are having thoughts that radical." The other thing that struck me was how open and friendly these folks were. They're amazing friends and teachers to our instutition, but they're also here to learn from us - I hope I'll be able to maintain that kind of humility when I'm older.

Even if we can't do many (or any - although I hope we'll do some) of the crazy things being proposed, just to know that they're under consideration warms my heart. (Although as Amanda so wisely brought up, we've got to be careful not to innovate wantonly for the sake of just doing something different. 'Tho this be madness, there's method in 't.")

And then I got back to the dorms and Mark brings in some homemade bread and blackberry jam. It's been a good night.

Lots of things to think about. But I've got a lot to do and an early wake-up call for the meeting tomorrow, so I'll have to swing out for the evening.

* The original quote is "why don't you build your own damn college?" from Margie Milas.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Have you thanked your teachers today?

Ana and Nikki pointed out at dinner today that we give lots of feedback, but it's mostly negative (since that's when we pay attention). When things are going well, the usual response is blank silence. She also pointed out that "the staff and faculty are just as insecure as we are" - not that we're inherently neurotic people, but that it's often hard to tell when you're doing things right, so you worry too much that you're doing things wrong.

So a group of students convened in the lounges tonight to write thank-you letters to every single staff and faculty member on campus (Nikki went through the student handbook and labeled envelopes for everyone, and Tim pulled them into some semblance of alphabetical order by the fireplace). They're still sitting in the 1st floor lounge of West Hall, and will be out until Tuesday, when people will start picking them up and delivering them by whatever means they think best.

If you're around, drop by and fill an envelope; most of the letters are a couple lines long on a strip of torn paper, but we all know from experience that a small note is all it takes to brighten someone's day. If you aren't around, do it to the folks you are around. Or send emails and letters back to the folks here who touched your life. It only takes a minute to type a short thank-you.

The best part about teaching, someone once told me, is the students who come back. Doesn't matter how well you did in their class, whether you turned in your papers or not - just coming back and saying "hey, you made a difference in my life" is what teachers live for.

Chicken Feet

Found this from an old email thread about respecting different viewpoints. The issue in question was same-sex unions, but the thing I was trying to say here (however awkwardly) is applicable to a lot of issues (the curriculum revision comes to mind).

Hi. My name is Mel, and I like eating chicken feet.

Some people think chicken feet are absolutely disgusting. All right, they probably shouldn't be able to prevent me from having my tasty snack. However, do I have the right to say that they can't disagree with the goodness of me eating chicken feet? It's not very nice of them to plaster the dining hall with "CHICKEN FEET EATERS ARE EVIL" and nag me about how my chicken-eating habits will damn me to eternal high cholesterol.

As a considerate and respectful person, it would also not be very mature or nice of me to flaunt eating chicken feet in front of them and call them names ("Chicken feet haters! You're so prejudiced against chicken feet!"). I know it bothers them, and I can't force them to change the fact that they're bothered about it. They know I like chicken feet, and they can't force me to change the fact that I like chicken feet. Well, we can try, but it's frustrating and counterproductive effort to drill your beliefs into someone else's head. If I want them to respect my views on chicken feet, I must show respect for theirs. And not just their right not to eat chicken feet - I need to respect their right to not like that I eat chicken feet. Subtle yet crucial difference.


A thank you to my teachers

Raymond Yim rocks my world. His class (Analog and Digital Communications) and the way he teaches it is quick becoming my model for how courses can accomodate both traditional (lecture and problem set) and nontraditional (...well, myself for one) learners. I've always wished for someone to do for me what I try to do for most of the folks that I tutor, and - wow. Go Raymond. He's really going above and beyond.

He called me in because I'm struggling in the class, big-time. And he sat down and explained that he didn't care about the grades and the important thing was that I learn what I wanted to learn, and together we went through and designed a Mel-friendly communications class that involves me skipping lectures, reading lots of books and original articles (oh the books and articles!), and designing my own final exam (which is a project on information theory, by the way). Starting after Thanksgiving break, it'll be my job to come into his office and try (probably badly, but I'll do my best) to "teach" him the concepts I'm trying to learn.

I want to grow up to be like my professors. Mchang's wit, initiative, and computer wizardry, Somerville's hardcore physics majesty and deep-rooted curricular rethinking, Raymond's flexibility and continuous learning and crazy math intuition, Diana's giant meld of music and science and her patient counselling on how to bring the million things you want to do together in your life, Brad's component ninja-fu and quiet upheaval of the entire POE experience, Gill as an extension of the engineering philosophy into everything else in life, and as a teacher of teachers...

And then there are non-ECE profs. Lynn, Rob, Allen, Caitrin, Steve, Prof. Donis-Keller, I'm - oh, what the... here we go.

We are so lucky to be here and learning from these people. They're who I want to grow up to be. When you have good teachers, you incur - not a debt, but a responsibility - that you can only fulfill by passing the same experience on to the people you teach yourself, later in life.

I want to say this now for when I read this blog entry in a few decades: Mel-of-the-future, you wouldn't be where you are now without the things that happened and the people that helped you at Olin. You're a very different person now at 20 than you were the first time you came here (remember? that painfully shy and awkward 16-year-old cowering behind a textbook and an inability to accept failure well enough to take real risks?) and you're a different person yet when you read this in however many years it may be because of the experiences between me, as I write this in 2006, and you, whenever you may be.

And then there are the teachers at IMSA. And the ones in Glenview, and the ones that weren't technically your classroom teachers but helped you tremendously anyway; the folks you've met, the ones who have emailed you, taken the time to talk with you, taken slices of their lives to share with you so your own life can grow. And your parents and your family. They teach you as well.

This is a reminder to my future self to give back, and a reminder of how much has been given to me, and a reminder of why I am a teacher, and a reminder of how much I owe to those who have taught me. I have not stood on the shoulders of giants; I have been carried by them.

Heavy on the melodrama, this post is. I'll stop reflecting in a moment and get back to doing. But one of the "doings" is going to be a lot of thank-yous. They're long overdue.

Building Olin, the interlude


The last week's been a whirlwind of Olin-building, and I'm amazed by the people (and the sheer magnitude of the people) who have stepped up to help. I should have written this in the middle of the actual events because I'm leaving out the magic of things as I write this post now, but imagine

  • in the space of one night, covering the entire back wall of the cafeteria with feedback post-its
  • multiple prolonged debates in the 3rd floor lounge of West Hall that started at 7 and ended past 2am - individual conversations didn't carry through all that time, and the people at the end were not the same as the ones at the beginning; it was a hotbed of discussion
  • first-years spontaneously organizing to come together, multiple times, and create proposals to revise their own courses (which, mind you, they've been taking for all of two months)
  • staff members drifting into animated conversation about the curricular revision with Olin students they might not have spoken to before
  • a white paper written by President Miller that proposes radical things, crazy things - things even on the order of "let's restart the whole school"
  • couches, hot chocolate, and David Soo and Gill Pratt spontaneously appearing on the far end of the academic center, when some of us cut classes for a day to sit back and reflect on the whole process (I'm sure there were more people but I was only able to hang out there for part of the time)
One of the biggest things to emerge from the feedback was that almost every comment given was contradicted by at least another comment - that is to say, we're a diverse community, and should embrace that. One size doesn't fit all, and we shouldn't try to make it. I know the things I do don't work for everyone, and I don't expect them to. Problem-set lovers and textbook-haters need to be able to work in the same classroom. Engineers build bridges. It's up to us to figure out how to connect ourselves to each other despite being very different people, and by learning how to do that, we'll also be learning how to connect very disparate things in the rest of the world once we get out of school.

I wish I had a more eloquent way of phrasing that last paragraph. If anyone has a different way of saying it, let me know; I'd love to hear.