Monday, November 19, 2007

Migration time

I have no idea how this post will look, as I'm writing it from within lynx to avoid the Great Firewall of China this time. But yes, I'm moving house.

The new blog is up at, and I'll be posting there from here on out. All past posts and comments have been imported (hurrah wordpress) but the site itself looks extraordinarily ugly still; I'll be fixing that over the coming days, but wanted to shunt people to the new content asap. I'll put instructions on updating your feeds there in just a moment.

In other news, I'm in Shanghai. To make a gross understatement, it's somewhat colder than the Philippines.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A nose by any other name would still smell.

Warning: If you wince at the sound of the Chinese language being mangled, do not read any further. (Then again, if you wince at that, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog in the first place.)

Question: How does one go about getting a Chinese nickname?

Background: As most of you know, I've been learning Mandarin. Slowly. With a terrible American accent. But learning nevertheless. And as I learn about the actual meanings of words I've seen before (like my name, for instance) I can't help but think "man, these could be more amusing."

So. Armed with a dictionary and utter lack of regard for tradition, here goes.

Current name: Cai Jia Ling (蔡佳铃) - good ringing-of-a-bell. Or "nice-sounding chiming from a bunch of jade pieces thwacking together." Something in that vein.

Personally, I like the (inevitably over-romanticized in novelizations, I'm sure) Native American tradition of adolescents being given new names upon their passage to adulthood, names that convey something important to know about the person. Unfortunately, "If-you-cannot-find-her-just-look-in-a-library-or-at-the-nearest-computer" is a little long, and sounds terrible ("jia ru ni pu ke yi fa jue ta...")

Let's try some reasonable criteria here to narrow down the field. Let's say... must sound phonetically alike, even to the point of sticking to the "proper" tones: cai4 jia1 ling2.

And look how much more entertaining this is! 菜加零 ("adding zero vegetables") It's more appropriate for my brother the carnivore, though; I personally enjoy vegetarian food and tend to cook mostly without meat when I'm home. Also, I'm not entirely sure I want my name to be Bad-Luck-Vegetables. It has the lyrical sound of impending botulism.

For the sake of not being confusing, I think I should keep my last name. But I still don't think I'm a bell. Or a belle, for that matter. "Lovely tinkling" sounds way too girly for my taste, and I haven't even reached the Age of the Shrinking Bladder yet.

So how about these?

蔡佳聆 = good-listener Chua (never mind the severe high-frequency bilateral whatsit; you don't need to hear consonants anyway)

蔡加昤 = adding-sunshine Chua (mmm, optimism. and vitamin D.)

蔡家零 = brains-of-the-house Chua (this title rightfully belongs to mom, though)

蔡佳领 = quality-leader Chua (see? I'd rather be a leader than a bell.)

And my personal favorite,

蔡加零 = Chua+0 (no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives either.)

Since any native Mandarin speaker will probably stare at me in befuddlement and horror if I use any of these "names" - or more to the point, since my parents and at least one of my grandparents would likely object, I'm sticking with "Hey, Those Expensive Green Stones Sound Great When You Hit Them!" for now.

But really - why be a bell when you can be a mathematical statement?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Backwards balikbayan box

I'll probably be switching out of Blogger soon. Christie's warnings of "no blogger in China!" have finally spurred me to set up some wordpress-fu after about 9 months of being in the "eh, I'll get around to it" stage. The new blog is still in the "Mel hasn't finished playing with php yet" stage so I'm still using this one, but you might see me popping off Planet Olin and onto my own site in about 5 days. We shall see.

Today I went to the supermarket with my aunt and cousin and (thanks to my aunt) got enough stuff to fill my backwards-balikbayan box (balikbayan boxes, or return-to-home-country boxes, are usually headed to the Philippines) with good Filipino food to cook back in New England.

Any Bostonians feel like coming over for some kaldereta, sinigang, kare-kare (with bagoong), champorado, adobo, lechon, lugaw, or a halo-halo party sometime when I get back? (Yeah, I'm going to make you look up what all those foods are.) I'm also learning how to make lumpia (monster-big fresh spring rolls) and huana miki (Filipino noodles, the "chicken noodle soup" of my childhood) and bringing home banana ketchup, which is good on everything. And spaghetti sauce - the sweet Filipino kind.

And mango. Dried, sorry - but perhaps that's for the best; I haven't been able to enjoy mangoes in America ever since I ate my first mango in the Philippines; Filipino mangoes just spoil all others for you. Another "darn, I can't take it with me" item is buko, fresh young coconuts (of the "lop off the top for an instant juice cup... and meat!" variety, not the shrivelly brown hairy dessicated overpriced specimens found in some U.S. groceries.) I also haven't figured out how to make taho, which is super-soft tofu that you eat with a sweet syrup and sago (tapioca pearls) and one of my dad's favorite foods.

Other than those three, laing (a creamed spinach-like dish with local ingredients) and bicol express (main ingredients: coconut milk, hot peppers, and several gallons of water to drink between bites), I think I can make all my favorite foods from this country back in the states until my sauce mixes run out.

I have probably misspelled an atrocious number of words here, since I'm phonetically transcribing Tagalog that I'm only vaguely familiar with. Oh well.

Hypothetically, I'm also bringing back some candy (including polveron, which is sugared powdered milk compressed into tablet form, and much tastier than it sounds). We will see how much is left by the time I actually fly back to the US in January. Once I begin to eat Ovalteenies (malt chocolate tablets) it is very hard to get me to stop.

I also wrote my first essay in Mandarin on my failed attempts to find vegetables at the supermarket. Other things covered via creative combinations of my limited vocabulary:

  • My memory, or lack thereof, for remembering the names of fruits.
  • Filipino supermarkets sell soap, medicine, and other things to whiten the skin. In contrast, American supermarkets sell tanning lotion.
  • The word for "brown" is literally translated as "the color of coffee." There's an old word that just means "brown," but I'm told that using it sounds really old-fashioned. (I wonder when the linguistic shift took place.)
  • Artificial food coloring. I didn't know the word for "artificial," so I said "not-real," where "real" is the character used in the previous post's song fragment about true/real/genuine love. The effect is more melodramatic than intended, something like... "foods that have - o, vile tricksters! - reneged on the true nature of their hues, breaking their promises and - and - *sob* hea-art!"
I also have two new favorite Mandarin phrases. One is "meige haizi, yige diannao," or "each child, one computer." (Hey, you know you want one.) Tagalog version is "isang laptop kada bata." I've been collecting translations of the phrase in as many different languages as possible because I think it'll make a kickass t-shirt.

The other (which has no connection to the first) is "bai wu liao lai," which is the rough equivalent of the English "bored to death," and, if I'm reading the dictionary correctly, literally means either something like "one-hundred nonsense disclaimers," or something like "one-hundred occasions of yakking away to kill time and dammit it's someone else's fault."

It's interesting to see how we create meaning (linguistically and otherwise). Last year's simultaneous foray into a little book by Applebee, and some stuff on Chomsky's work has really sent me down the "learning as language" path, and I've been there so long I'm trying to kick myself out of it, if only to see the thought-path I'm headed down a little better. But how do you kick yourself out of thinking in terms of words? (Extensive meditation?)

Friday, November 09, 2007

More incoherence!

Folks looking for technical and/or enlightening content can skip this entire post, which is another brainsplosion.

First the events of yesterday. It was my Guakong's (mom's dad) death anniversary, so we had mass and visited his crypt. Then lunch (Filipino-tasting Italian food), then I went to the dermatologist (my aunt's classmate, at the insistence of my grandmother) where I got my clogged pores scooped out with a miniature melon-baller. Then dinner with my dad's college friends, the "gang of 5" he hung out with all the time, with me standing in for my dad - the first time they'd come close to being all together for almost 30 years.

. Now...

While my teacher and I were singing today, my Ama (dad's mother) came in and told us that the song we were in the middle of was actually one of my Angkong's favorites.

You ask me how deep is my love for you,
how can I count the love I have for you?
My feelings are also true,
My love is also true,
The moon is a reflection of my heart.

My grandfather wasn't exactly Frank Sinatra, and my dad inherited his musical ability; whenever they turned on the karaoke machine at home, Jason and I bolted for the door and a long drive in the name of "sibling bonding." (Actually, those conversations and critiques of Chicago's architecture were some of the best conversations my brother and I had as teenagers, so "karaoke nights" were a good thing.)

All the same, it's nice to think of him singing that to her when they were young, just like my dad sings "Misty" when he's feeling far too sentimental - overdramatically, complete with hand gestures and puppy eyes towards mom as us kids groan around him. (My emotional immune system hates sappiness - a good indication that's something I have to work on.)

I'm used to thinking of my dad's parents as more formal, traditional people, but that image has been cracking during my stay here. Okay, my grandmother still wants me to wear dresses and be more ladylike. Sure, my grandfather never flew - even across the ocean - in anything other than a suit and tie. But as my aunt reminded me last night, the affection and love they showed for each other was unusually visible for their age and time and culture. You can't imagine one without the other. Same with my mom's parents. And my parents. I'm very lucky.

As time goes by, I'm becoming more appreciative of my tight extended family. When I say "tight extended family," I mean that two of my mom's sisters are married to two of my dad's boyhood friends and classmates, my grandmother's brother married my grandfather's sister, both my parents' eldest sisters were classmates, and so on. It's a big clan.

I'm simultaneously exasperated by it and in love with it. Nearby houses with cousins and aunts swarming around all the time. Everybody always asking what everyone else is doing. I grew up in a house full of aunts and uncles, and apparently when I was a toddler I declared that nobody else could get married because I'd noticed a direct correlation to my relatives getting married and them moving away and not playing with me any more.

In the absence of solid computer time - my usual platform for hacking - I've been forced to move to a different one, namely myself. Which is inconvenient and insanely frustrating and partially as intended. I spend a lot of time thinking. Sleeping, too... and god, it's nice. Just last week I started having regular vivid dreams for the first time since... before high school. I try hard not to feel guilty about taking the time to do this.

I've noticed that my English is getting more fragmented as I learn more Chinese; in the back of my head I'm always trying to figure out a parallel translation for what I want to say, and there isn't always one. I've also noticed that my thoughts are jumping around more - and I can let them do that now, and I'm actually conscious of it. I know that if I release the reins and wait instead of trying to beat the ADHD-ness out of my head, my brain will dance a marvelous dance, longer and deeper than what I'd originally planned on "forcing" it to do.

I've also noticed that whenever I have these periods of MASS CONFUSION!!! they're typically followed by a Period of Massive Growth and Productivity in whatever area I'm confused about. So when I'm befuddled, my tendency is to try to make myself as confused as possible as fast as possible, and let it all stew out and then explode back into clarity (more or less) on its own schedule. (This usually doesn't coincide with an academic semester schedule, really.)

Somewhere in the middle of this mess and confusion (and often aggravation) is the trying to figure out how to hold seemingly contradictory things inside myself, since I'm a walking statistical anomaly who's recently become aware of the various facts that make up that statement. (It's a lot easier to be a girl who loves math before you learn that being a girl who loves math is weird.) I need to recompile all my header files, so to speak. I've also forked too much, and now I'm figuring out how to merge all the changes back into the main repository for the next release.

Oh, there's getting work done in the "conventional" sense, of course. Always is. This is work of a different sort that's also there. Summary: I'm alive and confused and happy, all three of which are sort of the same thing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007


I did my first useful bit of translation last night - redirect instructions to the new wiki in Chinese. I showed it to my grandmother for checking before I hit the "Save" button, and she read it and said it sounded correct but what in the world was Ubuntu and what did I mean it had relocated? So I ended up translating from/to three languages; Mandarin, English, and (as Chris would say) Bahasa Geek.

Yeah, I know I am way too excited over the "I can speak Chinese!" thing. I daresay my family's getting tired of me trying to translate every Chinese-language sign we walk by, carrying a dictionary in my pocket, etc but I'm just amazed at being able to understand - it reminds me of being a kid and reading about something new in physics (or whatever) and running around excitedly going "and-and-and does the magnet stick to this? YEAH!" (Sometimes this led to "and does the do ?" *CRASH* "Whoopsie..." situations. But it's always fun.)

I also did my first semi-extended bout of translation on my grandfather's eulogy (which had actually been delivered by my dad in English, then translated into Chinese - I wanted to see how well I could do in porting it back to English). It matched up reasonably well, aside from the idioms I wasn't familiar with. I think I'm ready to try something with no English language equivalent now. Armed with the power of Dictionary, that is; my vocabulary is still forlornly small.

Yesterday's dinner was a family favorite - lumpia. It's the Chinese equivalent of a burrito. Take a lumpia wrapper (much, much thinner than a tortilla) and put a lettuce leaf on top so it won't get soggy. Put shredded vegetables, top with a mixture of sugared peanuts and seaweed with white crackers, roll, and eat. Here's a lumpia before wrapping, followed by my Ama (paternal grandmother) demonstrating correct eating technique.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


I am a lakwasera. This is a Tagalog term for someone with a great wanderlust - always itching to go out and explore, can't stay at home (of the female variety; the male equivalent is 'lakwasero'). Today I had my Chinese lesson al fresco - my teacher's family went to Tagaytay, so I went along.

It turns out that my teacher and I are actually related by marriage - she and my mom are something like third cousins (discovered during a conversation about our extended families). Chua laoshi was the last Chinese-Filipino I'd met during my entire time here who I didn't think I was connected to in some way. I give up. We're either related to or classmates of (or related to classmates or classmates of relations of or...) everyone in the Fil-Chi community, or so it seems. I gave up trying to keep track of who was who long ago, because if I met the daughter of the niece of the second wife of the father of my paternal grandfather for 2 minutes when I was in 1st grade, I will probably not remember.

Anyway. Today I saw pineapple bushes for the first time. We bought bits of tree trunk from roadside stands (with young coconuts and bananas attached), I mangled the national language of the People's Republic of China, the view was gorgeous, the air much better than Manila except for when we passed the piles of burning garbage - common practice here, alas; one pile was the size of my parents' front lawn and sent a thick gray plume into the air that we could see for kilometers afterwards.

Another new food was also introduced: fish crackers, which are simply small fish about 8cm long that have been battered and fried. No gutting. You just dip them in vinegar and eat, eyeballs and guts and bones and all, with the feathery bones making a calcium-rich crunching sound between your teeth. ("Are you going to eat that?" one of my distant aunts said, smiling at my extended close scrutiny of the food item. "Yeah - I'm just trying to get over the fact that it looks like a fish," I said.) It's pretty tasty, but I'm not too fond of the bones.

One of the nieces of my teacher, a woman twice my age who's a professor of dentistry in one of the main area colleges, pointed out a(nother) field of goats as we drove by. "I know there are also animals called sheep that are similar," she said, "but I don't know what they are." "A sheep," I explained, "looks like a goat with an afro."

We had a dinner of homemade noodles in Chinatown. This video (taken with permission from the restaurant's owner) is how they make them. It's also a nice example of powers of two, for the younger folks following along. The noodles were delicious.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Oooh, fishies.

Happy birthday, dad! My dad loves fish, both on a plate and in a pond. Whenever he sees a body of water with fish inside, he turns into a little boy - "Ooooo, fishies!" (If the body of water has no fish, he peers inside and with a dejected voice says "Awww, no fishies," then reverts to his adult self.) He's wanted a koi pond for I don't know how many years.

I'm learning something new about Mandarin every day. Yesterday it was the large embroidery that hangs on the living room wall; it's got 9 fish leaping upstream, and four characters: a weird complicated one I didn't recognize, then "have" (you), then "year" (nian) repeated twice. I assumed it meant that something - whatever the first strange word meant - had two years, although that really made no sense.

Yesterday I learned that the weird word meant "overabundance," was a homonym for the word "fish" (yue - hence the picture), and the words were written from right to left. Whoops. So it's "nian-nian-you-yue," or "year-year-have-overabundance," or "every-year-have-extra (food)." Chinese and Tagalog both do the doubling-up thing; in Chinese if you want to say "every day," you say "day-day," in Tagalog, if you want to say something's especially pretty, you say "pretty-pretty." Nice and efficient.

Local elections ended a few days ago here; leading up to that were a few days of traffic clogged by poster-plastered cars, buses, bikes, trikes, and marchers with matching t-shirts headed by a couple people banging on large rolling drums. I have never seen so many election posters anywhere. They're like wallpaper on the buildings and walls outside, mostly for barangay captain and kagawad (...kinda like the head of a neighborhood and the multiple assistants of the neighborhood head, respectively). My aunt and eldest cousin showed up one night with fingers dark purple from indelible ink.

Oh, right. Jumping back to the first sentence of this post, this is my dad. He works for a medical supply company and gives very, very interesting product presentations to the salespeople there. His name is Captain Electrode (shown here with offspring).

Apparently it's genetic. (Me, Halloween 2005.)

Happy birthday! Miss you, dad.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hofstede cultural dimensions

My friend Chris Watkins from Appropedia introduced me to Geert Hofstede's work last night when we were swapping notes on Indonesian and Filipino culture. Hofstede originated the idea of "cultural dimensions," ways you can describe societies and compare them to one another. Yes, countries are not cultures, and individuals can act out of type for their nationality - but this doesn't claim to be anything more than what it is; a broad, sweeping overgeneralization of the dominant national culture - as Hofstede found it, anyway.

Since you can only compare two countries at one time on Hofstede's website, I whipped up a quick chart. The labels, from left to right, stand for Power Distance Index (the acceptance of uneven distribution of power), Individuality, Masculinity (the relative value placed on stereotypically male or female personality characteristics and actions), Uncertainty Avoidance Index, and Long Term Orientation.

The first two things you notice are the Huge! Orange! Bar! by IDV and the even more gigantic blue one by LTO. That's America being insanely individualistic and China shooting for a long term view, respectively.

This could explain conversations like the one I had with my grandmother this morning about renewing the lease on my great-grandparents' tomb in the Chinese cemetery, which expires in... either 25 or 50 years, we're not sure. Her response was that well, we'd need to call the council of elders together, and then ask all their children, and then tell my generation, and so on. It also explains why my parents talked to me as a young kid (early elementary school) about the importance of saving money to put my future children (which I shall of course have) through college, and so forth.

I could pull out other stories to illustrate the other parts of this chart here, but that's all ex post facto - I can pull out stories to illustrate almost any "fact" I want most of the time. I do see the first column's gap here, though - and it's the one that rubs up against me the most. As a nicely-dressed Chinese, I'm allowed entry into pretty much everywhere, even without ID in most cases. Less well-dressed Filipinos are chased away by security guards or made to line up by entrance gates for identity verification. (On the flip side, it's "safe" for them to run around on the streets, whereas I'm confined to quarters because it's "too dangerous" for me to go outside - so we have as hard a time entering their world as they do entering ours.)

After four whirlwind-filled years of college, I'm used to brazenly batting ideas around with folks with impressive-sounding titles - they're people, after all, and when I get really into a conversation or I'm really passionate about a topic, I don't care what their nametag says. It also makes me incredibly uncomfortable treating people as anything less than an equal. I can still get away with that here to some extent; I'm the American balikbayan, young and impetuous (and tall), and (if all else fails) an engineer and therefore a geek, so my lack of "conventional social graces" turns into a point of humor and even endearment. (I'm sorry, but I make eye contact and speak in sentences rather than statements that trail into questions?)

The discrepancies only crop up occasionally, but they jar me when they come. I squirm whenever I hear a well-to-do person talk pityingly (or denigratingly) about "the poor," as if they were a homogenous lump of helpless and/or lazy shiftless bums. It means I'm having a hard time getting used to being served, and a hard time adjusting to the submissiveness of those doing the serving. (And I flinch whenever I hear a grown person in the "lower classes" referred to as a "boy" or a "girl," and try to make a point of saying "man" and "woman" in my own speech.)

Problem: The gap between social classes is sufficiently ingrained that it makes them uncomfortable when I act as if we were equals. And when in Rome - right? What's the line between "a righteous crusade of JUSTICE! and FREEDOM!" and just plain ol' blind cultural imperialism?

It certainly keeps life interesting. And it makes for memorable conversations - like when my (female) cousins were astonished to find that you can keep your last name! when you get married! ("I'm going to move to the US so I can keep my last name!" one exclaimed excitedly) and another time when I was equally astonished to find that it's legal here to specify gender* for a job posting and require all applicants to submit** a picture*** of themselves. It was explained to me that sometimes men and women had different characteristics - women are more nurturing and make better nurses, etc. I replied that the current statistics might make certain combinations more likely than others, but that wasn't the same thing.

Conversations like that usually end up with a shrug and a "yeah, I know, but what can you do? It's the ," where is almost always China, the Philippines, or the United States.

*obviously, sometimes gender does give you an advantage - a job posting for a wet nurse or a sperm donor, for example. But I can't for the life of me figure out why a construction supervisor should be a man, or a secretary a woman, and was puzzled why my gender should keep me from applying to some engineering positions I saw posted. To be fair, while many job postings specify gender (and height), many don't.

** "pix plz"

***even for non-customer-facing jobs. I mean, if you're auditioning for a play, I can understand why you'd want headshots, but do I care whether my programmer's gorgeous?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Is open source actually open?

Today I explained "open source" to my Chinese teacher in halting Mandarin - I was pleasantly surprised to find that I know enough words after 3 weeks to be able to get the concepts across at a (very) rudimentary level. It reignited this ill formed draft that's been turning in my head for a while; I'm not sure how to put it into the right words and finally figured just blurting it out might help.

Here's the premise: open source isn't really open.

I'm not really talking about legal or physical access here, although of course that's a barrier as well. [1] I'm talking more about moving from being a user to being a contributor. Hypothetically, there shouldn't be that many barriers. Hacker culture values self-taught learners, so lack of formal education is no big deal; anyone can jump in and help, you can shield yourself from stereotypes to some extent by not telling folks that you're in high school, or homeless, or a terrible stutterer. [2]

Nope. The biggest problem is that the folks who can "teach themselves hacking" were the ones who were thinking like a hacker in the first place. I hypothesize that open source hackers, to some extent, are raised and not born. Yes, they eventually make themselves - but it's awfully hard to make people who realize they have the ability to recreate and reteach themselves and share things with the world.

Many people don't follow or understand the open source development culture. "Just do it," "Start something," "Hack now fix later," "Ask forgiveness, not permission" - they're not necessarily optimal or natural ways of thinking, but it's assumed without question that contributors to the project do think that way. [3]

Culturally, some people - in particular, those who aren't western males - may actually be raised to behave in the exact opposite manner; the appearance of consensus, proper identification of leadership, attempting things indirectly to save face over being bluntly efficient and potentially contradicting something in public, or watching out closely for one's own group instead of broadly for all.

How do you get involved with and contributing to something that may go against some of the basic social norms you're surrounded with? How many people are willing to live with two (or more) lives - one as a contributor in the open source community, another as... whatever - if those two lives don't intersect, acknowledge, and value each other?

I have no answers. I don't even have much in the way of a well-formed question. But I wanted to get an artifact out there so there's at least a concrete mass of words to tumble about and argue with. Thoughts?

[1] Not everyone is equally free to download, modify, and share "open" resources because not everyone has access to a computer, the 'net, the knowledge of how to use these, and the time and opportunities to do so in a socially acceptable manner. ("Why are you playing with your mom's computer? It's not for kids. If you break it, she can't work. You should be watching your baby brother.")

[2] Many people consider the attributes that stereotype them to be integral to their identity and don't want to hide that they're female, Latino, etc. but will get short shrift in some way if they do, so this is really a case of some groups having "less freedom" than others - but that's an entire series of posts all to itself, and others have written about it with much more eloquence.

[3] You have no idea how hard it was for me to wrap my head around "ask forgiveness, not permission." It was like having a mental concept with no direct equivalent in my native language. I went through high school and half of college trying to convince myself that it was possible to think something like that.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Regarding money...

You don't need it. Really. Sure, it makes a lot of things more convenient, but it's not in the same category as air, water, and food; you won't die without it. Cash (and later, credit) is an invention we've adopted into our social conventions because it serves as a handy shorthand for barter. Money is worth exactly as much to us as we think it is. I'm writing this after a month of not having spent a single cent (I am, however, racking up a gigantic karmic debt to family, but that only brings me tighter into the circle of blood relations; this is what we do for each other).

It's like having a degree - the important thing isn't that you have one for the sake of having one, but in what you can do, with or without the sheet of paper that proclaims you proficient in something. Similarly, what do you want lots of money for? Not for the sake of having lots of money, I hope. If you want to start a business, there are many options other than loans, VCs, and being independently wealthy. I usually put in sweat equity, do some bartering, see what other people are trying to get rid of and make use of that.

First: do you really need it? What's the worst that could happen? I realize not everyone has this same luxury, but I'm able to do a lot of stupid things because I know that even if I lose everything, I can convince a passing stranger to let me use their cell phone to call - or pop into a library and grab a public terminal to email - a friend, a family member, someone who'll let me stay with them, no questions asked, while I get back on my feet. I also know it's not beneath my dignity to cook, clean, babysit, or take a minimum wage job - and resourceful enough to find other opportunities fast, or create them. I think that knowing I have a fallback plan makes me much less liable to use it.

Can you trade, convince someone else to share, or even just ask for it? Can you cook dinner for a friend who gives you a lift to the airport? I'm making websites and doing a little tech stuff for the family members who are so graciously hosting, feeding, and (despite my protests) clothing me here, and they know I'll do the same to them if they come by my place.

Can you make it instead of buying it? My cousins and I went to visit an outlying barangay of Abra, a city in the northern province of Ilocos. Their cash flow is almost nonexistent; this is a place where ~$100 a month is a princely sum that can support an entire extended family. But they have fruit trees, a clean creek, some wandering goats and chickens, own their own land and homes, hand down clothes to younger kids - they don't really need to buy much, because they can make or find most of whatever they need. I hope that a certain little project will someday render their (incredibly expensive in proportion to the total amount of money they have) expenditures for schoolbooks obsolete as well.

This may require a more collaborative mindset from that usually cultivated in the US. Money provides a convenient buffer between us and the holders of whatever goods or services we might want - no need to get to know them, figure out what you can do for them and vice versa - just hand over a wad of the green stuff and out pops a product. No need to ask permission or to share; it's private property, yours, and yours alone. Liberating? Kind of. I think it's actually restrictive. If "I can buy that!" is your only hammer, you're blind to everything except nails.

If you've got money, you might as well do something sensible with it. If you're reading this and you haven't gotten a savings account and an investment account, do it now. I don't care if you're only 20, or 17, or 13, or 9, or claim you don't have any money. Hey, Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) says it's a good idea. Even a couple of bucks a month will get you in the habit. Put a chunk of every input to your income in a high-interest savings account like ING or Emigrant (there are many options). Get an IRA (fancy name for a special type of investment account that gives you tax savings) by opening an account with Etrade or some other broker - the cheapest one you can find. The point is to make very few trades as infrequently as possible and for as little money as possible.

Then, once a year or so, buy stuff and hold it. By "stuff" I mean an index fund, which averages a lot of stocks automagically so you'll get a pretty low-pass-sampled version of the market. Any index fund. Then don't touch that money except to add to it every year or so, until you retire. This will make it possible for you to retire in the first place. (How did you think you were going to pay for that condo in Florida? Compound interest, baby.) If you love a company you think will be around and growing 50 years from now, buy stock, but that's making stuff more complicated. That's it, if you want - no need to read bazillions of complicated. If you don't want to fuss with this "investing" stuff (I don't), get your younger brother to do it in exchange for website help.

The point is to get to the point where you'll feel secure that you're not making decisions because of money issues any more. This is a different point for every person. If you can do this with no money, awesome. If you can only do it when you have 50 million in the bank, fine. But get out of being an indentured servant to cash as soon as you can. It should be your tool, not your master.

And think about what you're going to do with this stuff in the future, since you can't very well take it with you when you kick the bucket. Personally, I agree with my parents; I want my descendants, if I have any, to earn their own way through the world. Not that I'll have much to give them, other than funds for college if they so choose. I hope to exit this earth at a nice ripe age with exactly $0 in net worth, having already spent it all on getting other people to take charge of their own educations.

And the occasional fruit smoothie, because you do have to live a little. Be a tightwad, but not a miserable one. It's totally cool to splurge on the occasional gelato if you'll really appreciate it and it makes you happy.

Note: I don't actually know anything about money and/or investing, but it's a good idea to think about it as young as possible so you won't have to waste time later on getting it set up. Other people can give better advice, but you've got to spend an afternoon taking it, or nothing will happen.

Where are my eyebrows?

It struck me that what I'm writing here is an excellent derivative of my life. That is to say, it doesn't really describe what's going on, it describes the changes in what going on. I first noticed this when I got concerned about the lack of technical content (and tech-related content, like - say, engineering education) on this baby, and then realized that this was because I already saw that as an innate part of my identity and thought "but of course I'm doing some technical stuff, and of course I'm still doing some engineering education stuff," and assumed I didn't have to put that in for folks to know I was doing it.

So that's... kind of nice, actually. I do think of myself as an electrical engineer, albeit one in training. That's new, and I didn't expect it to happen for a very, very long time. I wish Chandra was around to explain this in terms of identity theory; it would make more sense that way.

On the other hand, I still haven't come to think of myself as a language learner, or a member of the Chinese-Filipino culture, so I keep writing about that. I'm also not used to thinking of myself as a young woman, so... well, you can read about that now.

Longish hair is fascinating to have. It's still quite short by most criteria, and I can't quite sweep my bangs into a ponytail (I can barely gather enough for a stubby thing at my nape) but for someone used to a short black crop, it's a little weird to have hair brushing your shoulders. It also takes longer to shampoo, which is why I'm going to cut it again once I grow it long enough to give me an idea what long hair is like to have (not sure how long that will be yet).

My hair also has red streaks in it - the one concession I was able to extricate from Operation: Make-Over-Mel. My hair has been trimmed "in a comely fashion," and yes, it has highlights. This, I learned, involves getting your hair foil-wrapped in pasty grey froth for several hours while a dryer revolves around your skull, making the air smell like hydrogen peroxide and making you wish desperately that you were anaerobic.

Alas, said highlights are a subtle red*, not the "blazing neon" I asked for. This, too, was a compromise. I usually wouldn't get highlights; they said I should try it. I groaned and said as long as I was in for one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences I'd give bright red streaks a shot. (This is a wink on my part; hypothetically, red is off-limits since we're in mourning. However, if I have red hair, nobody will make me shave it off, as my mother has forbidden me to get another buzz cut.) They looked horrified and said highlights should be dark brown so they wouldn't show.

"Why would I get highlights that don't show?" I asked. "That's like putting on makeup so you don't look like you're wearing makeup." "Of course!" they said, as if that was the entire point. There is apparently some sort of parallel twilight zone of estrogen where these things make sense.

My eyebrows are also, ah... shapely. I'm not entirely sure why they're shapely, but my aunt claims that ripping out portions of one's eyebrows with thread makes your eyes look like a woman's eyes ought to. As far as I can tell, ripping out portions of one's eyebrows with thread gives one sore eyebrows. ("Where are they?" I whimpered afterwards, running my fingers across my now-much-smoother brow. "My eyebrows! Where did they go?") They brought out the fashion magazines and pointed out that all the women in them had shapely eyebrows, therefore it must be normal. I am not entirely convinced.

I also possess twice the clothing I arrived with despite not having purchased any further clothing myself. Some of the new arrivals have lace. Some are dresses. I am washing my t-shirts and cargo pants repeatedly in an attempt to minimize the occasions on which I have to wear these Things With Lace.

Next I am supposed to have a manicure and pedicure. This is apparently to clean my nails. I am not sure what that means, as I've told them that I trimmed my nails yesterday and they're quite clean and I can go at them with a brush if they needed to be even cleaner. They say it's a different kind of cleaning, but don't worry, they wouldn't make me put on nail polish. Thank you for the nail polish decree, I said, but what the heck was there to clean from my nails if I already cut them?

That will also be interesting to see. I am putting up with this because I'm filing them under the category of "once in my lifetime" experiences, emphasis on the "once."

In happier news, the 60-something-year-old ladies at the Tai Chi group can totally kick my butt. They've been (ever so patiently, bless them) reteaching me how to walk. It takes about two weeks to learn how to walk, they say. After a few hours of just putting one foot slowly in front of the other, I was drenched in sweat - more soaked than I would have been after running a few kilometers or lifting weights in the gym.

As I struggle to balance in a straight line with aching legs, they wave swords and fans around with impossible grace as they stand on one foot. Then again, some of them have probably been doing this for longer than I've been alive. Huzzah for pursuits that take a lifetime to master - they're what make a lifetime worth having.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tie an orange ribbon...

Orange ribbons lined the streets outside the house today. Why? Erap Estrada is coming home. Mind you, I don't think this is a great idea. In fact, I think it's patently unfair.

The former president of the Philippines, who was convicted of inane amounts of plunder after being forcibly removed from office by the populace, happens to live on the same street in the same subdivision as my grandmother. My aunt and I drove by the other night and saw his house brightly lit, with a contingent of white-baronged security men standing outside.

The current president (Arroyo) pardoned him today because of his age (70), his promise not to run for public office again (big whoop, he was President) and the "hardships he's endured" (read: confinement in a luxurious mansion under house arrest for 6 years). The announcement went out over the radio as we were driving down the orange-ribboned street (Estrada's favorite color, to celebrate his homecoming). "Great," my aunt groaned. "And then there's going to be a motorcade coming through here, and the whole Philippines will be stuck in traffic."

My cousin was somewhat more vehemently vocal about the level of political corruption here, which makes American politicians seem like choir boys. I won't recount the stories of first-hand experiences at government budget meetings, state dinners, etc. I've heard from various people here, but every single person - from a variety of backgrounds, stations, industries, jobs, races, ages, genders, everything - I've spoken to about volunteering in the Philippines has immediately said "don't go through the government! You have to go through private channels!"

There's a lot of history around here, and it's not all good. If I step outside our subdivision, I can have dinner at the same club where Cory Aquino took oath as President after People Power ousted Marcos' martial dictatorship. Driving to the office yesterday, we passed the mall where a bomb exploded a few days back while I was in Cagayan (in another mall, actually. "Don't go 2 d mall - bomb just went off in makati," texted my aunt. A day later, I read the news reports on the carnage.) I can see the prison where my great-grandfather was held and executed during WWII, or the monument including two of my grand-uncles who were kidnapped and deported during the Marcos regime... woo, legacy.

I hear stories about slum schools built in landfills (and one where the mountain of trash collapsed, burying the school and killing the children in it), see barefoot kids in elementary school selling flowers on the streets (a cousin had to interview several for a class, and the ones she found told her that they sold flowers after school, had to sell them all before they were allowed to return home to surrender the money to their parents, and that their earnings were used largely for gambling), get followed for several blocks by women with their heads wrapped in t-shirts holding grubby infants and moaning "baby hungry, baby hungry," even after I told them I didn't have any money (I don't - and these people are often part of large begging syndicates, too). One of the most common prescriptions at the charity clinic I visited was multivitamins - a lot of folks get real sick here just because they can't eat right.

The first time I came to the Philippines, I asked permission to get out of the car and give my hamburger to the other kids my age who were rapping at the car windows. It was explained to me that this would be both dangerous and prone to start a street fight among the kids for my leftovers; we drove on. Past people sleeping under highways. Rivers the color of thick chocolate, dotted with wrappers. Walls that smell of stale urine. I know exactly why they keep me inside the gates and inside the car, and I can't stand being inside when that stuff is out there. I know the above descriptions sound melodramatic, but I'm trying to say them as matter-of-factly as possible. That's life here. For some people.

I'm mad. No, not mad. But burning inside somewhere. It happens every time I come to the Philippines, and crops up occasionally between visits. How am I supposed to change a world that's been deemed too dangerous for me to explore? How do you even begin to find out what's going on? How do you jump from a school whose first Honor Code clause is "Do Something" to a country where the most common response to my questions is "oh, you/we can't do anything, that's just how it is"?

Aha. A challenge.

In other news, I learned about polyphase filters today. They're really a fancy name for saying "If you're convolving stuff and then downsampling, just downsample first before you convolve, so you'll have less to multiply." It was one of those "eh wait, there's a name for that?" moments - less awe-inspiring than the one that went "wait... you call that calculus?" some years ago, but cool nonetheless. Laziness is fun (and computationally efficient). I need to learn more about how Python handles memory, though - I can see what's happening in assembly and C (woo malloc and free), but as far as I'm concerned, things get stored in VAGUE-LAND! in Python. ("I work at the STORE! I do THINGS!")

The stuff I've studied and done as an electrical engineer seems so far away from what people here need, though. And that thing is still seeping frustration inside me. And I can't get out to do things here. And...

But, y'know, do what you can, learn what you can, and keep your eyes open, right?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I can has babelfish?


OH MAN. (With the help of a great many cobbled-together technological aids), I'm understanding Chinese! Yes, I'm getting way too excited about this, but look, I get hyperactive about everything, okay?

世界 = (shi jie - both 4th tones) means "world." The characters, individually, mean something like "era" and "divided." I had to look this one up. I'm still not sure where they got that from. (I'd like to think the world is more than a bunch of divided eras.)

正在 = (zheng zai - both 4th tones) means "is in the middle of doing." The characters, individually, mean something like "correct/righteous" "at/exist," so it's talking about an ongoing process that's positive. I had to look the two up together - I hadn't seen them in a pair before.

傾訴 = (qing su - 1st then 4th tone) is something related to being interested, along with the word for "announce." Together they (apparently) mean "to pour out one's heart." I had to look this one up and I'm still not entirely clear on the exact usage, but eh.

你 = (ni, 3rd tone) "You." Yeah, pretty simple.

聽見 = (ting jian, 1st then 4th tone) means "listen." The first character is an ear and a bunch of other stuff. The second character is the symbol for "eye" over one of the variants for the symbol for "person."

了嗎 = (le ma - no tones) make it a colloquial question.

So... shi jie zheng zai qing su ni ting jian le ma = World is currently pouring out its heart (and this is an awesome thing to do). You listening, dude?

And then we check it against the actual Global Voices slogan, and sure enough...

The world is talking. Are you listening?

Di tou si guxiang.

I love the gurgling ascending scale a large bottle of water being poured into a water bottle makes. If I needed a sound effect for a machine powering on, I'd love to use that. (Wonder if I can find a good microphone and make it my laptop startup sound.)

I've discovered something else I like here: massages. They are unbelievably cheap by American standards - 200 pesos per hour, or roughly $4. My aunt and cousins were astonished to hear that massages cost at least 10 times that amount in the US. Minimum wage here is about $8 a day, though.

Now an explanation of what the post title means. This morning, I read (or rather, struggled through with massive amounts of assistance from my teacher) my first classical Chinese poem. I need to figure out how to type tones - probably just accent marks over the right vowels. (I refuse to do things like "ta1 shi4 wo3 ma1 ma1" where the number at the end refers to the number of the tone; it's just ugly to read.)


Chuang qian ming yueguang,
yi shi dishang shuang.
Ju tou wang ming yue,
di tou si guxiang.

A rough word by word rendition:

Bed front clear-bright moon shine,
Doubt is on-the-ground frozen-water,
Raise head look-hopefully clear-bright moon,
Lower head reminisce home-town.

My translation:

Moonshine is beaming down before me on my bed,
I half-believe I see a frosted blanket on the grass.
Clear moonbeams fill my gaze when I uplift my head,
Bowing, I think about my homeland in the past.

Ok, it's a crude first attempt, and I have so much respect for translators right now. But it's fun to translate, and it does sound a lot better in the original Chinese. Buoyed by this, I'm starting to translate some of my favorite English poems in the other direction. Mind you, it's terrible Chinese I'm producing, I'm actually supposed to be writing characters repeatedly for "homework" instead, and my teacher will probably laugh uproariously when she sees it, but at least I'll have fun and find out what I'm doing wrong.

Rudyard Kipling is probably not a good task for beginners ("If" is what I'm using for my first attempt) but if I don't try, I'll never know how I'll do. Also, I like the poem and there aren't many tricky double-meanings to render into an unfamiliar language. It is much easier for me to translate Chinese into English, but I lack appropriate reading material to tackle. (I can't actually read that many words. I can use the dictionary, but looking up Chinese characters is aggravating; you do lookup by radical, then strokes, then...)

I'm really tempted to do the Ballad of Mulan, or the Tao Te Ching (the only two works in Chinese I know of that I really want to read), but both have an archaic vocabulary that will be hard to find definitions for and won't do me much good to learn, plus their study has stymied native Chinese scholars for ages. Sort of like suggesting to a new English speaker that they ought to start in on their Shakespeare analysis. I could find or create readings with but a speech by Bill Clinton isn't really on my "woo I want to read this NOW!" list.

Maybe I can tackle some Wikipedia articles, or try reading Global Voices. I'll be slow, inaccurate, and in some amount of pain at the start no matter what I do, but I might as well attempt to be helpful and/or read "real stuff" instead of baby books that serve no purpose other than acting as grammar exercises.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Why am I blogging?

Why am I blogging? It's almost ludicrous; I'm sneaking online in the middle of the night, trying desperately to catch up on email and work, have thousands of other productive things I could be doing, and... the first thing I nearly always do is post here. (For the record, every blog entry since October represents nearly every time I've managed to get online. So you can see why I've got a growing backlog.)

I write most of my posts offline (as I write most of my emails now, and read most of my webpages). This one is an exception. It means it typically takes about 30 seconds to actually post the thing live - so yeah, I stay productive online. For the most part, it's spent in a furious attempt to keep up with wikis and docs and remote server configs and occasional forays onto IRC to stem the flood of "shit, I have to catch up" panic by talking to Bostonians up far too late.

Efficiency aside, I blog because it's one of the things keeping me sane. I need to talk, to spout, to hash out things that may occasionally be more in keeping with Western cultural norms than Eastern ones, to use complex English words and American slang, and (most importantly) to yammer about technology and geekiness and crazy ideas about education with... anyone. People. Even if I'm tossing these words out into a black hole most of the time, I get to say them. Sometimes I even hear something back.

I need to speak and not have to explain for the umpteenth time why open source is not ridiculous, to not have to bang my head repeatedly against the "but this is the proper way to teach children because otherwise the poor misguided souls won't do things correctly" wall. To speak into a space where I've made myself belong somewhat, instead of into one where I'm expected to belong but don't quite. To feel entirely and completely, even for a brief moment, like myself again, and not an awkward variant of the young lady I'll probably never properly become.

I guess that's it, really. Despite this being a post where I'm trying somewhat to explain myself, the internet - and my blog - is a place where I don't have to ask permission or explain myself. I blog so that the person I want to be gets a chance to de-rust her vocal cords once in a while and speak (however incoherently) so that I don't lose her in the rush of things which are often beyond my control.

Despite the ranting, I'm really having a great time in the Philippines - it's just that this part of me needs feeding too, and I don't know a better way to get it.

Cagayan de Oro

Friday: Philippine Airlines has in-flight snacks that exemplify the national culinary obsession with meat; during the flight, I snacked on chicken-flavored peanuts and beef-flavored crackers. (There is an ad for "meat seasoning," which it describes via sultry voiceover as "a woman's secret." This isn't seasoning for meat; it's seasoning for vegetables to make them taste like meat so that the men in your life will... love you more, says the TV.)

I was flying to Cagayan de Oro with Tito Pax, who once threw my dad into a lake when they were college kids at UP Diliman. Tito Tophie (who helped Pax dump my dad in the lake) was going to meet us at an event called "Go Negosyo" (Go be an entrepreneur) for which Pax was speaking. Pax and Tophie aren't actually my biological uncles; we call the friends of our parents and the parents of our friends as if they were our aunts and uncles here. Also, they claim my father used to be a nerd. I do not believe them.

Several hours later, after the "Go Negosyo" theme song was running circles around my glazed eyes (short attention span + long lectures in a foreign language = MEL IS DISTRACTED) we had some fantastically spicy Filipino food (and in my case, three bottles of water) for dinner. Cagayan has more {space, trees, breathable air} than Manila, and the persistent hacking cough I've had for nearly 3 weeks slowed dramatically as soon as I arrived. We met up with Tito Tophie's family, ate fantastically spicy Filipino food, and left for school. Er, home.

They're actually the same thing. Tito Tophie's family runs two Montessouri schools in Mindanao, and their house is a small loft above the mountainside classrooms with a gorgeous view of the bay. At night you can see the tiny pinpricks of fishing ships at sea, and hear the "EH!-gou, EH!-gou" calls of the large geckos that swarm the trees and buildings.

Saturday: Foundation Day! This is an annual festival where the entire 200-odd group of K-12ers at the school put on a musical extravaganza. This being a predominantly Catholic school, the (very, very long) play progressed from the Garden of Eden all the way through Noah's Ark, then split into presentations of cultures of countries around the world that came from Noah's descendants.

The show was an unintentionally hilarious one, as it turns out. The preschool Adam and Eve couldn't get the Apple of Good and Evil off the tree and had to shrug and eat the Invisible Apple of Good and Evil instead before grabbing the Large Cardboad Fig Leaves of Nakedness Covering. Noah played baseball with his Gnarled Staff of Aged Infirmity offstage right when he thought nobody was watching. Toddlers in paired Winnie the Pooh costumes jumped up and down and waved their hands, except for a lone penguin who stared forlornly into the footlights, slightly stunned at the multiple copies of Eeyore and Tigger (isn't the wonderful thing about them supposed to be that there's only one?) costumes leaping on the grass beside him.

Music was... nontraditional, to say the least. I recognized the Gladiator movie theme, as well as the Hobbits theme from Lord of the Rings. The Russians got their segment from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the Egyptians strutted to "Walk Like An Egyptian," and Germany... well, Germany's presentation featured small, decidedly non-Aryan children in costume waving cardboard cutouts of sausage, cheese, and beer. Then the music started, and suddenly the SS men and the pretzel ladies were doing... the chicken dance.

I almost knocked over the speakers laughing.

Sunday: My knees hurt. Whitewater rafting was involved. Apparently, my upper torso is sufficiently sun-browned to warrant only a coating of mild sunblock, but my pasty-white "I've been in jeans inside an office all summer!" legs... are not. They've metamorphed from pasty-white right to an angry stinging pink which I'm continually slathering lotion on top of. So that's what sunburn feels like. Ah, new experiences.

Monday: Visiting Tito Tophie's high school, which is built on a farm (the students run the farm as part of their studies). The school's a year or two younger that Olin (depending on whether you count Partner Year). My blog entries get exponentially shorter as I attempt to hit the minimum parental description demands before passing out in preparation for a 5am wake-up call.

Good night.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ha! productivity!

It's been a lovely and productive day at last. My grandmother went off to volunteer at church for most of the day, so in the last 36 hours I've popped off two project spec drafts and the majority of a Trac install (with lots of help - there are a good number of dependencies and the remote server I was working on is configured a little differently than usual), given a presentation, and coughed less phlegm down the sink than usual, which felt good (or at least less bad).

I also finally got to start catching up on OLPC stuff, which is kind of like trying to plunge from a standstill into the midst of a herd of stampeding wildebeest. So that's going to take a while. But it's a start.

Also: acquired an inordinate amount of hopia, a porcelain bowl, and two behemoth tupperware containers at the mooncake festival last night. Luck was with me; I won 3 of the 4 second-place prizes offered in all the games that evening (only my aunt had a luckier streak - she rolled a string of 2's and got to take home a mooncake larger than her head).

On the other hand, now I'm stuck with large amounts of Lucky Tupperware and a Lucky Porcelain Bowl that I've been told firmly and repeatedly not to give away because - well, they're lucky. I'm supposed to bring them to China, then back to the Philippines, then to the US and back to Boston so I can take the luck with me - don't I want more of what I experienced at the game? "It depends," I told them. "Is the luck for attracting good fortune in general, or just free serving dishes?"

Finally, I changed the company website of my aunt and uncle from this to this. I hadn't planned on doing so, but after seeing the old site I couldn't take it any more and asked for ftp access and permission to do them a favor.

Old site: huge flash animation that took up most of the screen real-estate in garish blue-grey, stiltedly misspelled English, One Gigantic Image File. (Yes, the text is an image. The entire webpage was one gigantic non-searchable jpeg.) Total: 4.7+ MB.

New site: standards-compliant strict xhtml and css, easily extensible page templates, Total: 28kb, which is... nearly a 175x reduction in size. Sure, I'm not the best at writing ad copy, and the color scheme needs to change, and I need to get some product pictures so the site actually features what they sell, but still.

It's still a few hours before dinner - there's plenty of time yet to get more stuff done. Whee!

Some starting thoughts on SparkEs

Rant #1: (subject = grandmother) (direct object = me) (verb = fuss). Gah.

Rant #2: Installing and configuring Trac is like running a marathon through the woods. You know you start at A and end at B, and that the distance as the crow files is finite and not-that-bad, but the path keeps doubling back in weird loops until you have no idea how long it'll take, you're getting tired... and then THE ICE WEASELS ATTACK. I've done it a few times before in the past few years, but it's taken inordinately long each time (I'm finally taking notes this round) and it's... not my favorite thing to wrestle with.

So, yes. Content. Poorly structured and organized as usual. Ah, braindumps.

I'm convinced that we need a primer titled "What the heck does a SparkE do." There are many people in the world that haven't the foggiest idea what the (not-so-mystical) art of Electrical and Computer Engineering actually is. This isn't their fault or their shortcoming - it's our fault for not adequately communicating what it is that our field is for.

But if we don't do that, how are they going to know what we can do? And if we don't do that, how are we going to get more people - with their different talents and perspectives - to join us?

Disclaimer: I don't know what the heck a SparkE does. Heck, I'm not sure I barely qualify as one myself (despite the piece of paper that claims I can "BS my way through Electrical and Computer Engineering").

If you don't come in with some background in what you're studying, you can wander around in a haze for years because you don't see the big picture. I know this because that's how I spent most of my undergraduate education.

I spent most of my undergraduate education in a haze because I am a masochist. I chose my major (yes, ECE) with a dartboard and decided to stick with it because it was the degree that I knew the least about and thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how I could learn how to learn something I hadn't heard of before.

The answer, by the way, was "not very well." However, I did learn how to learn electrical engineering. I also learned how to learn, so thrown into a similar soup in the future I think I could flounder better next time - and in fact am doing so now.

But what I'd put in a document like that is what I wish I'd been told 4 years ago, and it goes something like this:

0. Engineering is not about doing lots of math or building shiny machines. It's about solving problems.

1. Electrical and computer engineering is about making things communicate. Whether they're circuit components, a wall outlet and your PDA's power port, bits of computers, computers, people (using technologies that you've made - cell phones, for instance), the point is to do whatever translation you need to do in the middle in order to get things to talk to each other.

2. To make a grand understatement: Electrical and computer engineering is a huge field. And I mean jaw-droppingly huge.

3. It's fun! This was a huge surprise to me. I totally didn't expect to have this much fun.

4. Hypothesis: there is a peculiar state of mind called "SparkEness" that ECEs enter at some point that gives them a peculiarly SparkE way of looking at the world (and fixing ECE-related things). It's kind of like... electric satori. (Younger SparkEs may have occasional experiences of kensho.)

It is very, very easy for SparkEs to forget that not everyone has had the same revelations, and that in fact most people are staring at acronyms and spaghettilike diagrams in terror while muttering the single debugging phrase available to them: "It doesn't wo-orrrrk."

The common explanation is that these people are "stupid" and that those who become SparkEs must be "really smart." This is not true. (Proof by counterexample: I am a SparkE.) It's just a different way of thinking about stuff that's hard to switch into if you're not used to it. Native English speakers have a tough time learning Mandarin, but that doesn't mean native Mandarin speakers are smarter than native English speakers. Same deal.

It's that last point that I find elusive and hard to clarify and explain... and hopefully, eventually, teach - or as John Holt would say, "t-each."* And it's that last point that's become the driving purpose of my life over the years; helping people slip in and out of different ways of thinking as they wish (especially technical ones, particularly those related to electricity and computers).

*T-eaching is turning your student into an obedient robot: follow this formulae, do this worksheet, clean the board, yes ma'am. In contrast, t-eaching is helping your student learn how to become her own master. The job of a t-eacher is to make herself obsolete.

So there are some thoughts, and my brain's swimming in them now between projects. Wonder what will come of it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Tiny roadblocks

I'm not the only one who's remarked on this recently, but reading the blogs of friends is an excellent remedy for depression. If all the cool people I admire have their moments of despondence and occasionally feel incompetent, then... maybe I'm sort of normal.

I'm still fighting past nontechnical problems in order to be able to solve technical ones. I am no longer bolting for the tissue box every few seconds; instead, I'm hawking phlegm into the sink every few minutes. It's an improvement; at least it's a great incentive for me to constantly chug water. Also, the wireless router is now more frequently on but the quality of the connection is somewhat more finicky (hey, have you ever tried to configure Trac on a remote server when your connection keeps hanging?)

Finally, I have yet to convince people that I'm not actually on vacation and that I have work to do even if I don't go to the office for a regular paycheck. (Also on my list of myths to dispel: being an electrical engineer does not mean I can wire your house or fix your computer. My idea of "fixing your computer" probably involves installing Linux on it.)

Ok. My connection seems kind of stable now. Armed with the power of screen, I'm going to try getting Trac up again.

Market day & visiting grandfather

Grandma logic: "Can I do boxing?" "No, boxing is not for girls. It's too violent." "How about kung fu?" "Kung fu is okay." "So... learning how to pummel people unconscious with my hands is too violent, but learning how to kill people with sharp pointy weapons is okay?" "Yes."

Going in and out of air-conditioned rooms isn't the most pleasant thing for my nasal passages, which have continued to drip into my lungs at an amazingly prodigious rate. My usual activities include chugging water, sleeping, and talking to people in a congested-sounding voice. The first thing people say to me is now "do you have a cold?" (instead of the usual "you are so tall!" - I'm 5'8" but tower above nearly all the women in Manila... clothes shopping is entertaining because I've never been an XL before).

We went to the market this morning to get food for the week (I carried a box of tissues with me). Market day is not for the squeamish; fish guts and scales fly through the air, with skinny men in Mr. Bean t-shirts smacking cleavers into questionably sanitary wood blocks. Everything is packed in ancient styrofoam chests held together by faded stripes of packing tape; a pig's head gazes hungrily at its own roasted hindquarters by way of advertisement for purchasing the latter ("My butt is so tasty even I want to eat it!") and white squids lounge across the grills, dangling charring tentacles languidly above a sea of ash.

Some fruits and vegetables I almost recognize. The carrots are stubby and fat, the green beans are a half-yard or so long, the asparagus is downright midget-sized, but the mangoes are amazing. Others I pointedly avoid. Durian, which is a large spiky fruit on a stout stick that looks like a medieval torture implement, actually is - an olfactory one, at least. It smells like a cross between mildewing garbage and a backed-up toilet - tastes great, though. Then there's ampalaya, a knobbly green melon that works wonders as a cough remedy because its sheer bitterness makes the phlegm choke itself out in an attempt to get away. (Ampalaya tastes great, says my grandmother. Ah, so I need to wait for more of my taste buds to die, I tell her.)

Merienda (second breakfast; we're like hobbits) was purchased at the market as well. It consisted of two foods whose spelling I will proceed to mangle: bibingka and puto bunbun. The former is made by pouring a batter, sprinkled with salty eggs, into a leaf bowl stuffed over a charcoal fire, then covering it with a pan of more charcoal until it puffs up into a bright yellow cake. The latter involves neon purple rice steamed and packed in envelopes of banana leaf. I'll need to take pictures of this at the next Sunday market.

After arriving home, we greet my late Angkong('s picture, hanging next to photos of his parents) in the tiny ancestral shrine in the living room, bob long sticks of red incense in front of our faces in his general direction, then bow three times; nobody can tell me exactly why we do this. It's probably for the same reason we rubbed our clothes with packets of rice after the funeral (it "soaks up" bad luck, so of course you can't toss it in your garbage - so the funeral procession detoured past McDonalds to toss the now-accursed papers into wads of discarded Big Macs) and why I technically can't wear red (purple is okay but yellow is "too red," so I'm not sure what color theory the ancients used) and other things.

Anyway. Back to the incense. You're only supposed to burn it during the day because the ancestors, being rational people, sleep at night. This makes me unsure what my children will do if they decide to shrine-ify me after my death. ("Hey, it's 4am and I want to BURN THINGS! Think mom's still up?" "Yeah... where's that flamethrower she asked us to use?")

Then we drove to the crypt. Actually, I drove to the crypt. I think my family was more freaked out by my navigation of Manila traffic than I was. Downtown New York driving is an excellent way to ease into the more advanced Manila navigation dance - one foot for the gas, one hand for the wheel, one hand for the valium.

Angkong's urn resides in space 275F of Christ the King. Getting his ashes to the Philippines (he had a heart attack while he was visiting my parents in Chicago) was an adventure; when you bring a Chinese person's remains home, you have to call to their spirit every step of the way so they won't get left behind. My dad was the one who flew back to the Philippines with the ashes. "Pa, we're going into the car; come with us." "Pa, we're going into the airport; come with us." "Pa, we're going through security; come with us." ("Sir, you're going to have to put your carry-on baggage in the scanner.") "Uh... okay. Pa, you're going through the x-ray machine..."

He's up in a little shelf with a door of pink marble now. It's a pretty comfy spot after a long, full life. Some of the neighboring spaces contain much younger occupants, which sobered me; seeing photos of high schoolers and toddlers in bonnets taped to a spot always makes me remember how close I came to being a gap-toothed picture on a wall years ago. Then there was the single tomb that contained only a photograph of a baby and a single date for birth and death...

On the way back, I admired jeepney decorations. The local buses are usually airbrushed with neon renditions of Catholic saints, cartoon figures, or both. One jeepney proclaimed its decorations were THE JUSTICE LEAGUE! and featured Superman, a trio of colorful people that were either chubby cartoon Power Rangers or "Powerpuff Girls: Age 30", and (at the head of this motley crew), SUPERJESUS! whose main power appeared to be RADIATING BEAMS OF HAPPINESS AND PEACE FROM HIS FACE!!!!

Which is a pretty cool power, if you think about it. Imagine...

Generic Villain: "Blah blah blah monologue about world domination blah blah blah"
SUPERJESUS: ...turns the other cheek and suddenly a BLINDING BEAM of GOD'S INFINITE LOVE AND MERCY hits Generic Villain in the solar plexus
Generic Villain (after vomiting out a couple demons): "My Lord and my God!"
SUPERJESUS: "He's yo' daddy."

I'm trying to persuade my cousins to accompany me, my Guama (my mom's mom), and my mother and aunts to Shanghai next month. "Look, I'm going to be touring China with six women over the age of 45*. Now, if one menopausal mother has to pee at least once an hour... think about the amount of time I'll be spending waiting in public toilets if you don't come." ("We could," I pointed out, "tally how many bathroom breaks each mom takes, and start a betting pool for the grandkids.")

*Technically, the youngest aunt is not quite 45. But still. Even traveling just with my mom requires an order of magnitude more bathroom breaks than I'd usually take alone.

The crabs need cleaning. I must be off.

ARTHRITIS: The Conquest! or: I miss libraries

Old immune system plus new germs means I'm writing this from bed, by dose stubbed dup so dat I dalk like dis, my head feeling approximately like someone's scraped it out with a $2 K-Mart Jack-O-Lantern carving kit (complete with dull injection-molded knives and spoon of questionable integrity) and packed warm, oil-soaked cotton where my brain and sinuses used to be.

Chua Laoshi (yes, my Chinese teacher's last name is the same as mine) is remarkably patient with my incessant questions. How incessant? Well, during our first session where I barely asked any questions, we got through 6 chapters in the book (which is, incidentally, written for 5-year-olds.) During the second lesson, I turned the question-o-meter way up. We barely squeaked through a single chapter.

Tushuguan (libraries) are sorely lacking in the Philippines, and my grandma's private collection of books doesn't quite intersect with the qualities I tend to look for in a library. First of all, all the books in the house could fit in one bookshelf (they're interspersed between the much more numerous photo albums). Half the books are traditional Chinese. The remainder consists of Catholic tracts and novenas with the occasional health book geared towards those considerably older than 21; "ARTHRITIS: The Conquest!" is not exactly on my must-read list.

Learning Fukien/Fookien/Hokkien (my family's dialect), Mandarin/Instik/Putonghua (technically, Putonghua != Mandarin; the former is spoken in the PRC, the latter in Taiwan, iirc), and Tagalog/Pilipino/Filipino doesn't actually help me understand what my family says, as they mix the three languages together with English, shamelessly using the grammatical conventions of one to conjugate vocabulary from another. ("Have you ever heard your 5-ee* conjugate?" my 7-ee said before proceeding to give an example - which I must get her to recreate sometime - of a Hokkien word mangled into Filipino grammar.)

*My mom is the 4th of 8 sisters. We refer to her sisters by number for convenience: 1-ee is the eldest, then 2-ee, and so on to 8-ee. The numbers are in Hokkien: 1= Ah, 2 = Di, 3 = Sa, 4 = Ci, 5 = Go, 6 = Lak, 7 = Chit, 8 = Pue. Actually, the titles of my various maternal aunts is the only reason I can count in Hokkien... and the reason I can only count up to 8 in Hokkien.

Vegetarians and people trying to avoid sugar will probably not be happy here. Incidentally, diabetes is an issue in these parts...

Ok. Head feels like packed cotton. Must... nap. (Dear immune system: if you happen to have my blog in your feed reader, please wake up. Tell those T-cells to hop to it already.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

the day before Taipei

One memory from the summer: going to the ICA with Joe and Chris towards the end of our residency at Fenway. It was a crisp, sunny morning and a spontaneous trip; Joe said "there's dancing," Chris and I said "let's go," and we stepped into the heels of our sneakers and walked through a mini-architectural tour of Boston (commentary provided by the boys) stopping long enough to be denied entry into the conference center across the highway. "What's the point of having a gorgeous building like that," Joe muttered, "if the public can't come in and appreciate it?"

We ran across six empty lanes of highway to the art center, where blue-and-gray dancers were undulating through the building, sweating slightly as they weaved arms before the windows, slapped palms under the staircase with a synchronized sticking sound, and rolled down the entry ramp flapping brown skirts behind them. We watched the dance twice, stopping into the gift shop in between. As the dancers swam off the stairs for the last time, we clambered onto them in time to avoid the first raindrops striking down onto the new wooden deck.

I crouched in the staircase hollow at first, sunken in a gravelly recess so that I was eye-level to the ground, watching the rain splatter cross-section. Chris stood on the outdoor stairs, shielded by the jutting overhang of the building that covered an entire back plaza. Rain rolled fat down the glass highway that covered the entire side of one wall and misted off the deck, sending spray and the smell of the sea to cling lightly to our shirts.

The glassy ocean turned into rough silk; thick fronds of moss brushed it from below, a neon orange buoy pinned it from above, tearing a white rent into the fabric of the water as it waved by. A poem about Orpheus was frosted onto a glass panel that stood at the edge of the water. You could peer through it at the albino-white buses parked across the way, rain streaming from the bright red eyes of their lights, steaming. The rain scoured and scrubbed and swept your lungs with calming cool when you inhaled, out, in, out with the breath of the wind.

When the clouds had hung themselves out to dry and were languidly dripping gray through a number of rainbows, we sloshed through the flooded parking lot in carefully dry sneakers and admired the whirlpool vortices that had placed themselves in precise crystal miniature above the four holes of a closed manhole.

More architecture - this time the world trade center - that we couldn't access, but we ran across a wedding party and a system dynamics conference prep session instead, stuffed bags, took a program with paper abstracts back with us to the bus and then the train to Central square, where we shared Tibetian food and then split, stomachs full of buttered tea and hot lentils.

Chris went to work. Joe and I aimed for the garment district but ended up packing laptops in bubble wrap at the OLPC office instead. Joe hoisted the large bundle onto his right arm, I strapped the yellow kite-bag to my shoulder, and we walked back to the mural-painted walls of Fenway talking about sports bras, hyperbolas, heavy-duty zippers. That was the afternoon, and that was the day, and I went to Taiwan the next morning.

Just a series of moments I wanted to remember, or at least mark down in passing.

The best thing for being sad is to learn something

News flash: loneliness does take hold when you're on the other side of the world from the majority of people you know and the culture you grew up in and the language you speak (and I don't just mean English - I mean American Hacker English).

Fortunately, I have a lot to catch up on and learn. My current mode is "dah! I want to write and write and write!" so that's what I'll do.

Manila, II

Manila is dangerous, according my elders who must therefore always be correct. (It depends on who you ask, but generally...) Kidnappings, robberies (yeah, even with the fences of glory), carjackings... they're not just things you hear about on the news - they're things that have happened (multiple times) to family and friends within my lifetime, and not just because we're having a string of bad luck. Looking like a Chinese or someone from overseas (or worse: a Chinese from overseas) is, according to my parents, a "mug me! I have lots of money!" beacon - never mind that the entirety of my current finances would barely buy groceries for two weeks. That having been said, OH MY GOD I WANT TO WALK AROUND OUTSIDE.

Traffic... is fun. Manila has the highest population density of any city in the world. Sure, most of that population can't afford cars, but it's bad enough that they used to (maybe they still do?) set a restriction for which days cars could drive on the street (license plates beginning with certain letters could drive on some days, license plates with other letters could drive on the other days). The result? Everyone who could afford it bought another car with the alternate-letter plate. Traffic doubled.

Matt: Eating every three hours sounds fantastic, and it is for the first few weeks. But after a while of lunches and banquets and lunches, you start looking at your plate and the lazy susan full of food that people are still heaping onto it and see endless parades of fish, noodle, and unidentifiable meat dishes in your future... it's not quite as fun any more.

Christie: My fingers are crossed that I'll be able to get around it with scribefire, but not being able to see my blog from China would be a fantastic way to force myself to switch to a custom Wordpress (I was flummoxed previously by Google's move to the "new Blogger," which broke the import API, but they've fixed that now).

Mark: Your room is huge! Boy, the firstborn son thing has perks... I can't wait for you and the other cousins to arrive, though, because it's way too quiet here.

Erin: "Mabuting kapalaran sa iyo," I think... but I don't actually speak Tagalog. Yet.

Today's update is much less exciting. The sobering discovery that the wireless is only on when my grandma's computer is on (and it's in her room, and she turns it off when she sleeps, and...) has made my plans to work during the Filipino night (Boston day) a little more difficult.

However, my throat hurts; I had my first Chinese lesson today, and my vocal cords are not used to the sounds of the language (oh, I've made them before. Just not for several continuous hours). After 4 years of Olin-style learning, it's vexing to have to go back to drill & kill worksheets, canned vocab lists, and handwriting practice - I feel like a computer being programmed - but that's the predominant style of education here, and I want to get a taste of it before starting to suggest my own ideas...

Also, to my vexation, the sounds for j, q, z, s, sh, ch, zh, and x (probably a few more I've forgotten) sound absolutely identical. I really can't tell whether they're aspirated or you're curling your tongue to the back of your throat or not. It's not a question of having "American ears" - the k/t/p/s/sh/ch/c/x/h/...etc sounds are invisible to me in English. Consonants are high-frequency, and I just can't hear them, period. But at least in English I can use context to figure out the words. Not so in Chinese (yet). It poses a slight problem, because the key to successful language learning is constant comprehensible input, and my hearing automatically makes the "comprehensible" part a little harder. I am therefore trying to learn how to read. Fast.

Finally, jet lag sucks. That is all.

Monday, October 01, 2007

In Manila

In the Philippines, currently being deafened by a VERY LOUD AIR CONDITIONING UNIT and attacked by skeeters. I'm surrounded by old photo albums displaying weirdly young and skinny versions of my father. And whoever decided that 1am international flights were a good idea never flew coach.

I packed last night while my parents were at a wedding; one backpack and a laptop bag for my clothes and stuff, and a rolling red luggage for all the gifts they wanted me to bring (Mel Chua, human balikbayan box). Airplane food was surprisingly good. Asiana serves asian food on its flights, and bibimbap (rice and pickled vegetables smeared with a spicy-sweet red pepper sauce) beats the usual sad-looking omelet and dessicated beef hands-down.

My Amah (my dad's mom) and Auntie Lily (my dad's cousin? I think...) picked me up from the airport. First question: Had I eaten? I had. Was it lunch? It was. Was I hungry? Not particularly. "Ok, then we go to dim-sum." (Chinese families: if you're hungry, serve food. If you're not hungry, serve food. The best strategy is to fast before arrival.) Several minutes later I was having dumplings and turnip cake piled on my plate by two elderly ladies who were also spooning noodles from their bowls into mine. I protested the oncoming food in English, then in Fookien, then (in an act of desperation) badly accented Mandarin.

Eventually I ran out of languages to say "wait, no more food!" in, and four dumplings, two turnip cakes, a beef ball, wonton, fish ball, and a bowl of noodle soup later, they relented and I waddled into the van. The traffic was pretty good; we only had 2 or 3 near-collisions on the way. I commented happily on the number of motorcycles in the streets and Amah gave me a "don't even think about it" look. I got the usual litany of don't go outside the subdivision, do you want more food, don't go outside the gate, what would you like to eat, it's dangerous, we're going to have dinner. Food and paranoia: it's how Asian families show they care.

We drove past the armed guard at the subdivision's gate and down streets named, for whatever reason, after American politicians. The driver honked our house's signal (each house honks their horns in a different rhythm to tell the maid to open the door - the Filipino garage opener) to signal Manang Lorna to unlock the GIANT SPIKED METAL GATE OF PARANOIA! Manila is a long, long way from Boston, where I could slip out the kitchen door to buy ice cream at a downtown convenience store at 2am without passing 5 layers of security on the way.

After sleeping through dinner, I woke before sunrise and took a shower - actually, not a shower, but tabo - the much more water-frugal Filipino variant. Basically, it's a Navy shower with a bucket instead of the shower; you fill a large-ish bucket (~5-7 gallons) with clean water and use a large scoop to pour the water over you in the shower. I actually prefer tabo to showering - faster, saves water - but it requires a bathtub-length shower to be really comfortable, unlike the enough-room-for-one-person-to-stand stalls common in American dormitories. (The Olin suite showers could do it, but I'm not sure how my roommates would have felt about that.)

By the time I left "my" room, Manang Lorna was up and making oatmeal in the kitchen. I had leftover noodles from the dinner I'd slept through the previous night, some mangosteen, and atis, a knobbly green fruit with sweet, fleshy white pockets surrounding large black seeds. When I'd finished the sugary fruit, Lorna told me to leave my plate on the table (I've never gotten used to having maids in the house, although it's de-facto for the upper middle class and above here) and showed me the atis tree growing at the corner of the building, and how to tell whether the fruit was ripe. "Have to eat, or else the birds will eat it," she instructed. I told her I'd do my best.

I'm typing this while chewing a mouthful of sticky, bright purple sweet rice. ("Brunch," said Manang Lorna, despite having fed me a full meal less than 3 hours ago.) I think portion control may be a slight problem here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Explaining a tracheotomy to young children

Kid: What's that thing on your throat?
Me: It's a scar.
Kid: You have a scar on your throat?
Me: Yeah, when I was really little I got sick and I couldn't breathe very well, so they had to make a hole in my throat so that I could still breathe.
Kid: Ewwww.

*brief silence*

Kid: Did it hurt?
Me: Not really. I was really small, so I don't remember it, and they put you to sleep first.
Kid: *sounding vaguely disappointed* Oh.
Me: I'm sure there was blood involved somewhere. I mean, they're cutting a hole. In your throat.
Kid: *perking up* Oh!
Me: And you can't talk when you have it in, too - *claps hand over throat* you have to stop it up with your hand if you're trying to say something, or *removes hand from throat, mouths wordlessly, then places hand back over throat* ...hear anything.
Kid: Ewwwwww!

*interlude as Kid pantomimes talking with a hole in their throat*

Kid: (in awe) And so you're walking! Around! With a hole in your throat!
Me: They put a little tube in it, and when they take the tube out you have to wear a band-aid over the hole.
Kid: Can you put stuff in the hole?
Me: You... theoretically could, but you probably shouldn't...
Kid: And when you swallow stuff, would it come out?
Me: I don't remember that part, actually. I don't know where the epiglottis is on the trachea in comparison to-
Kid: (utterly ignoring me by this point) ...and if you were in a food fight could you, like, point your throat towards someone, and eat your food and go BLAAAAHHH! and shoot it out the hole in your throat at them? (this part is accompanied with vigorous miming)
Me: Well, the muscles in your throat probably don't...

*you can see the gears in their little heads turning by this point.*

Kid: And if you didn't like to eat vegetables could you just put them in the hole so they'd go in your stomach anyway?
Me: Uh-
Kid: Or, like, eat them, and then spit them out through your throat when they're not looking? *mimes* BLAAAHH!
Me: I'm not sure that's what a tracheotomy is intended for.
Me: No, trust me, you really don't.
Kid: *running around pretending to shoot stuff out an imaginary throat-tube at people* BLAAAHHHH! BLAAAAAAH! BLAAAAAAH!