Saturday, April 28, 2007

Something I never expected to happen

(1) I'm really good at learning.

(2) I'm really bad at school.

Unless (2) comes incidentally from (1), that is. I love the atmosphere of a school, the resources, the people, the environment, the opportunities. I'm very bad at following the requirements now. I'm trying to get back the ability to buckle down and check off boxes I may not think I'm learning from, but it's an uphill battle.

If you told me a few years ago that I'd be doing poorly in classes, thinking about dropping out ("but Gill, it's not like I have finals or anything else I'll learn content from") and being really happy and learning and still completely in love with school, I would have laughed at you. I love school so much that it's very difficult for me to be in school, knowing what it could be and seeing what it actually is.

So this is my real final exam: Stay. Stick it out. Find a way to love the checkboxes, a way to make them something that you love. Be responsible. Follow through. Fit in with the standard a little, not because you should be like the standard, but because you still need to communicate with it. Learn how to live as an adult in this world, and graduate. Instead of running away, turn around and try to change the situation.

And with that, my diploma transforms from a rubber stamp to a meaningful rite of passage.

This is one of those posts that I'll look back on and laugh at years down the road.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Design as enlightenment

Joe Kendall and I presented our theory of design this afternoon; it's a triangular space between Functionality, Aesthetics, and Value that grows and then shrinks in time (so it's really two tetrahedons joined at the base, a shape for which I swear there's a name I'm not thinking of) along with a series of names and ways to move within that space. The talk was inspired by our trip to the Osaka competition in January and grew out of our frustration at not having an adequate vocabulary to talk about design with. We're reworking our talk for Expo, and I'd like to write a paper on it to see if we can solidify the theory we've come up with, maybe even do some research on it.

It seems so... fuzzy. And fuzziness is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a difficult, complex field we're talking about. To claim we can solidify terms at this point would be to dismiss the richness of the design terrain. This is where we need to be, wandering in a fog of ideas and absorbing and appreciating the haze while still moving forward towards a hill we can see things better by.

As a student who once dreamed of being an art major - and still does sometimes - I have a love-hate relationship with "artsiness." On the one hand, it's a wellspring of meaning and creativity. Personal expression, sublime beauty, raw emotion, precise articulation. On the other hand... "shininess" is not strictly necessary for functionality. And the engineer half of my brain says, "why bother?" When Eric Munsing talked about how Ben Linder reminded him to fine-tune the font on his resume, half of me went "yeah, noticing those details is great!" and the other half blanched and thought "what a waste of time."

"Well, you have to think about those sorts of things," Eric explained, "because designers - they make every little thing mean something. They don't just wake up in the morning and put on clothes. They look at what the clothes say, what the font says about you. And it's not that they're obsessed with [surface] appearances, but they're aware of it."

"So part of being a designer is being aware of things, being able to be in the present moment," I said, before realizing I'd heard those words before. "It's like this weird western consumerism form of zen meditation." Eric nodded. "Capitalist zen." And it is, if you look at it a certain way. We've combined Western-style intellectual analysis frameworks with an Eastern-style depth of now-awareness. It's a connection I'm going to keep an eye out for, this idea of design as zen.

In other news, I'm definitely sick (nope, the sore throat on Monday was not just dehydration) and having to blow my nose every few minutes is making it hard to write my papers. Whee. The routine is "write a few sentences, blow nose, drink water, cough, write, sneeze, repeat.

In other-other news, I'm starting to find a happy place in social science research - it's an entire fleld where everybody, the whole point, is to be meta. The more meta you are, the better work you do. You collect data, then analyze it, then analyze your analysis, then analyze the analysis of your... it's tons of information, all going around, whirling around, looking for small places to build solidity from, but it's like walking in a swarm of idea-butterflies and thought-leaves, rippling through your hair in a way that's just exhilarating. It's stretching the boundaries of my mind in a way that engineering alone isn't doing at the moment - I get more depth out of engineering if I approach it from this oblique angle of the social sciences. It's almost as if engineering has become too orthogonal, too algorithmic... too oversimplified. I wanted to say "too easy," but that would be dismissive of a tremendously difficult field that I love and respect a great deal, and hope to do more work in someday. It's just that I want to understand around engineering for a little while, not plunging straight into it yet. Yet.

I want to learn more sociology. I don't know very much about it, but I'm really sparking up on what I've experienced so far and I want - maybe to go to grad school and do social science research on engineering education, even. Get a doctorate in that before I get a doctorate in engineering. The current degree-wishlist stands at one master's in product design, one doctorate related to education (either education, sociology, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, technology in society, or something that will allow me to study engineering education) and one doctorate in either engineering or computer science. With the route I'm headed in, I think I'll need all three to do what I want to do - partly for the credentials they'll give me, but mostly for the depth and experience in the formal field that I'll need to get if I want to change that field itself.

It's the old argument, right? Sell out a little if you can remember who you are, because change comes from within... you have a bigger impact if you can change a system from the inside. You need to grok what you want to transform, you need to become part of it and have it become a part of you, and then transform yourself - and that is how you really change the world.

News flash: we're not innovative.

After anthropology class today I was doing research and read this note from the Futurepaths study.

Research from the neo-institutional perspective suggests that despite the effort to innovate, Smith and Olin are likely to develop programs that are isomorphic with the existing institutions. Despite efforts to hire and retain “non-traditional”professionals, the faculty at Smith and Olin, socialized and educated in the dominant, institutional culture of engineering, are likely to mimic and replicate the values, pedagogies, professional orientations, and taken-for-granted assumptions of conventional engineering through their teaching.

It's... true. At least I think it's true. Everything I've heard, seen, read, and done at Olin, coupled with everything I've read about the history of education and higher education, about pedagogy and classroom techniques, about educational philosophies and engineering philosophies and social theories and descriptions of engineering subcultures... all that has led me to the same conclusion no matter how hard I try to escape it. Finally reading someone else's words saying the same thing I'd been thinking for months - and subtly, years - was like a blow to the gut.

Now, this doesn't mean that being isomorphic is bad, even if it's true (and I'm starting to believe that it is, although I can't yet articulate it with a solid body of non-hearsay, non-biased evidence... that's what research projects are for). It's an opportunity. A tremendous chance to reexamine the foundations of our beliefs and assumptions. What have we taken for granted? What is engineering, and what does it mean to teach engineers? Become more aware of what we're doing, what we're not doing, why... and then, if we feel it is needed, we can change it. If we don't change it, we will still know what we are doing and what effect it has, and that's fantastic as well.

The trouble, in my opinion, is when a school does "magic," which I'll define as having something that functionally works while simultaneously baffling everyone as to why it does. Inertia starts because of "magic." You don't want to spoil this thing that's working; touch it and who knows what will happen and whether you can put it back together again? (Think of the hesitancy some non-techies display when faced with the controls of a complex machine, no matter how robust the device actually is.) If you get to the root of the "magic" and understand the system and the tradeoffs you're making, you gain the power and confidence to change it, and the power and confidence to keep it the same out of conscious knowledge, not fear.

That's an important point I don't think is brought up often enough nowadays in the Age of Innovation-As-Buzzword. "Innovation" doesn't necessarily mean WHOA NEW SHINY THING LOOK AT ME ME ME! Sometimes it means understanding old things in different ways. Quiet, subtle musings are just as important as outrageously bold actions.

After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, "Elijah, why are you here?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Summer job to encourage Olin staff innovation, bikes and financial planning

Last night was my mother's birthday. I won't say which one, but she's doing remarkably well for having put up with a pair of young whippersnappers like me and Jason for 20 (or 18) years. Apparently, my family's finally found my blog after months of me telling them they ought to read it if they want to find out what's happening in my world. Huzzah! (And hello to my cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, brother, and whatever other kin may be out there.) I plan on writing the same stuff I've been writing; I'm not good at censoring myself at all, so I won't.

Lunch took several hours, partly because it was smoothie day but mostly because of a long conversation with Allison and Emma from the Admissions department about staff innovation at Olin. Of all the people at our school, staff have the least encouragement and free time to try out and do wonderful things; they're so busy triaging the daily grind that it wears away and their innate awesomeness doesn't get much of a chance to shine through. We need to give them more space. In order to allow all staff members to devote one-fifth of their work hours towards personal projects they think will improve Olin (yes, this is an echo of Google's 20 percent time) we need to make their workloads achievable within 32 hours a week, no small feat since most of them are probably pulling over 40 hour weeks now.

I believe that one possible answer is investing in better information management tools for staff so they don't spend so much time wrestling with data, and will be talking with Admissions in the upcoming weeks about simple ways we can make this start to happen. I told her about my side project last summer at Design Continuum where I looked at the usability and efficiency of timesheets (which I started after hearing so many people complain about them) and came up with a report on the financial costs of timesheet inefficiencies and how the company could save thousands of dollars a year by streamlining the process. "Olin students can do this," I told her. "You mentioned you don't utilize your student workers fully over the summer - well, what if you had this be one of their projects?" Basically, act as an efficiency consultant for the Admissions department... and then branch out into other departments if time allows. So we're going to see if we can make this happen. If any Olin students are reading this blog and looking for something to do over the summer, let Allison know.

Why aren't we changing as much? "Why do you think we have so much bureaucracy?" Allison asked. "I think we've become too damn smart," I told her. Risk-taking is inherently a stupid thing to do. You want to minimize it, cut your losses, know pretty much what you're going to get. Starting a brand-new engineering school with no buildings, no faculty, no students - expecting the best faculty and students to come, expecting people to give credibility and support to something that wasn't even a raw patch of ground - that's really dumb. Smart people would never have started Olin. Only brilliant people brave enough to be stupid could have taken the risk to make this place.

And now we've gotten too smart, in many aspects, and need to teach ourselves how to be stupid again.

On a completely separate topic: Gui got his folding bike today. It's a Dahon Boardwalk, about $200 on Amazon. It's awfully shiny. I still need to figure out what I'm doing for transport this summer; I want a bike, but don't know where I'm going to get an utilitarian city bike I can afford and maintain. It would be nice to have a Brompton, but the kind I'd want costs over $1,500, well beyond any budget I'll ever have for the next couple of years. All the same, I wasted an hour today looking at folding bikes that I can't afford, agonizing about what the "best" one would be. I need to stop doing that; sometimes it's best to just make a decision, live with what you have, and improve it when you get the next good chance. Why do I care about the best $1,500 bike when I don't have $1,500? I shouldn't.

Or I should somehow obtain $1,500. I've had a number of good friends yell at me over the past few weeks because I'm undervaluing myself to the point where it cripples what I can do. I feel bad about asking for money, for a decent salary, and I need to convince myself that I'm worth more than $10/hr. Trouble is, I want to be available to help whoever needs helping without expecting much more than some food and a roof in exchange. I wish I could retire young and be able to spend the rest of my life pitching in on wherever I think I'll be helpful without having to worry about the economics of having enough money to survive. Trouble is that in order to do that, I need money first, and the way I'm going, I'm not going to get it.

Anyone have any suggestions for how to get over this? Is there anyone I can go to and sit down with for a couple of hours to (for lack of better words) "figure out what I'm worth" so I can justify not being ashamed of asking for decent compensation?

And as I type this, I feel ashamed, because $10 an hour is amazingly high compared to what many adults around the world are making. People have to support families on a dollar a day, and here's this college kid complaining about making ten times as much in an hour and I certainly don't have kids to feed. But still; my getting a higher salary won't make them get lower ones (at least not directly), and the best way for me to help people is to ground myself in a position of stability first, and financial stability will be a big part of that.

So if you have any suggestions for this, please let me know. And if you're interested in joining me in a personal finance marathon day on May 8th, let me know. I plan on setting up money management software, starting a retirement account (index funds!) for investments, making a budget, creating an emergency fund, and figuring out my bank accounts and credit card. If other people are interested, we can have a little party.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rules of Meta

Came up with these rules at MetaOlin tonight to make our group run smoother with fewer collisions and meetings needed.

  1. When in doubt, email.
  2. If you have something to say, say it.
  3. Ask forgiveness, not permission.
  4. Six to freeze.
  5. Point trumps.
Here's the rationale behind each.

When in doubt, email. Get information out to the entire group as quickly and easily as possible. Don't worry about polishing it, or even about it being terribly useful; sometimes it's not so much about edifying everyone else as it is expressing yourself in a way that enables you to move forward. Also note that this is about getting information out, not waiting for a reply back; it's a "tell, don't ask" philosophy. Email is mentioned here because it's a medium guaranteed to reach all members of the group with equal clarity and roughly equal latency, and also creates a record of the transmission; other media may be used as well.

If you have something to say, say it. We're all smart and thick-skinned, and we trust each other to have everyone's best interests in mind. We need to be honest, we need to be blunt, and we need to be able to say things right away and fast and trust that our teammates will take it in context and handle it in stride. If you spend more time publicly agonizing in front of your team over whether to communicate something than it would actually take for you to communicate it, then just say it already; sometimes pushing words out there just takes less time.

Ask forgiveness, not permission. All actions have to start with someone, so they might as well start with you. Unless your actions will directly harm someone or prevent them from getting their work done, go ahead and do what you're thinking of doing (and as per precept #1, email everyone and let them know). If someone has an issue with what you've done, they'll let you know, as per precept #2. It's also easier to modify and critique an existing artifact than it is to start one from scratch.

Six to freeze.  This refers to the the agreement we have that all actions/features/etc are subject to debate, revision, and criticism unless it's gotten a thumbs-up by all six teammates in some way. If you decide not to ask permission (#3), do something, then let the group know (#1), recognize that some teammates may disagree and be blunt about it (#2) and that you'll have to react constructively and nondefensively to their feedback. This is intended to develop the strategy "hack early and hack often." Make quick releases, send them out for feedback, and release again; don't sink 100 solo hours into a deliverable without somehow making sure you're on the right track, or knowing that you're willing to risk not being on the right track.

Point trumps. Every project or subcomponent of a project has a point person who is responsible for making sure the task gets done whether that's through doing it themselves or getting others to do it. For matters related to a given task, the point person has the power to override all other comments, including the previous 4 precepts. We trust each other to exercise this power wisely.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Parents on unschooling

Some interesting quotes on unschooling from actual (or claim-to-be-actual) parents. Copied verbatim (with edits for length), punctuation/capitalization (errors and otherwise) and all.

They ranged from the vehemently outspoken...
Un-Schooling is for those parents who are LAZY and dont want to do anything. In my PHD studies at Arizona State we studied a lot of families... the parents were usually trying to compensate for their lack of being able to make it in society.
to the globally praising...

From what I've seen, these children will not only get into college, they'll do it at a younger age and graduate with honors. the somewhat illogical. Note that the point of unschooling is that students take charge of their own educations, including finding appropriate resources and mentors to draw upon. It is wholly possible to facilitate the learning of something you don't know.

There is NO good reason to homeschool or unschool your child. Are you a teacher, can you teach every subject?

And then the "social development" argument - because being limited to 15-minute recess arguments with children within a year of your own age prepares you to interact socially with the diverse range of people and situations that are actually out there in the rest of the world.

...will he be able to adjust well when he is finally presented to a group of people ? Will he be able to interact with them? socialise with them? mingle?

Not every approach works for every student. Unschooling isn't a magic pill that fixes all. At the same time, there are developmental milestones, and then there are human-imposed milestones; walking around one year of age is a developmental milestone (and even with that, there's a wide variation and they're all okay), but reading by age 5? That's all human-imposed. You're not "better" or "smarter" just because you can add earlier.

I think unschooling is a joke! I know a family that swears by it and their 12 year old could hardly read a simple 5 year old could read better!

It's strange how with just a few words I start drawing pictures of people in my mind; I should not jump to conclusions about how rigid their ideologies are, how they were raised, how they school their chlidren. I know mine are also biased, and it's always easier to see the mote in your brother's eye than the plank in your own.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cultural effects on self directed learning

Strange semirandom question here that I'm hoping folks might be able to help me shape or track down an answer to. It's not formed very well yet; I'm still trying to mold it into something useful.

In your opinion/personal experience, how is culture a determining factor in the amount, type, extent, or depth of self-directed learning a student tends to do and his/her attitude towards it?

By self-directed learning I mean anything a student decides to teach themselves and does (as opposed to something someone else orders you to learn, or formally teaches you without you asking them to.) Independent studies, self-started side hobbies/projects, and other things that could be construed as "building an airplane while flying it"-ish count as self-directed learning. Classes you're only taking because you're "supposed" to don't.

Rationale behind the potential hypothesis that it does: one could, for example, imagine the (stereotypically) individualistic American culture making it more common to see self-directed learning in this country than in a culture where group identity and/or tradition is stressed. Or that, say, males are more encouraged to pursue self-directed learning than females, or that lower-income students are forced to pursue more self-directed learning than higher-income students to cover comparable material in their studies. Are there differences in who does or values self-directed learning? Why? What does this mean about how we design learning experiences to facilitate student-driven pursuits in various cultures?

Somewhat behind this is my unchallenged assumption (which I'm working to eliminate or at least understand the flip side of) that enabling self-directed life-long learning should be a primary objective of education. I want to thank Nikki especially at starting to chip away at this long-held bias of mine, and Kristen for reminding me that individual psychology matters as much as if not more than group membership in determining how students learn (in other words: stereotypes are generalizations, and can only go so far if they go anywhere at all).

Workin' on it.

Learning how to practice music

Holy... [noun].

My mind hath been blown. There is an entire field - teachers, books, seminars - devoted towards learning how to learn music. Not just how to play music. How to learn to practice music. The history of it. The cognitive science of it. The biomechanics of it (how do the muscles in your forearm help you produce good tone on the piano keys? relax your shoulders and the sound changes!). The mathematics of it, after a manner. (Beethoven and group theory, here).

How does the way I carry my body affect the engineering work that I'm able to do? I hear about proper posture for RSI prevention, but not about how my body mechanics (and body language!) affect what I say and think, how people perceive me. How do I "practice" engineering? How do I learn it?

Depending on how in-demand the Fenway House* piano is this summer, and if I have time, I may try this book and see how it goes. I'm well aware that I want to learn a million things and can't learn them all, so we'll see what I actually end up studying this summer.

Also, a great, not-too-technical introduction to the acoustics of stringed instruments (primarily the violin).

And I need to focus on work again. This has been my autodidactic break. Ach. I wish I had time to go chase this interest down - I want to go to the piano now, and play...

*Oh, yeah. I'm living at Fenway - along with Gui, Joe, and Chris - this summer. It will be interesting, and not just because of the company - I'm (very, very mildly) allergic to cats, and have always secretly wondered how I'd adapt to living in a house with one. (Also, I won't be around the house that often.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

On unschooling

Boris says I'm an educational extremist in some aspects. I think it's more accurate to say that I agree with several uncommon philosophies that fall to the edges of typical ideological spectrums on the topic, but it doesn't mean I think they're unilaterally better (the yardsticks you measure by determine the winners as much as the things being measured themselves). However, I do believe unschooling is a good way of looking at education; since it forces the student to treat life itself as their school.

My sentiments on unschooling are similar to my sentiments on improvisation. (I started doing improv comedy in high school.) I believe improvisation is effective because life is improvised. We aren't usually given scripts at the dinner table, at our board meetings - not printed ones, anyway. Being aware of creating your own script in performances and how what we say and do influences the flow of conversations on stage makes you more conscious of the unwritten social scripts you're handed and gives you more control over what to do with them.

Just as improvisation teaches you that you are responsible for shaping your presence and performance throughout your daily life, unschooling teaches you that you are responsible for shaping your learning. It is perhaps unfair for me to say this, since although I consider myself an autodidact, I have always been "schooled" in the conventional sense as well. Unschooling is true life-long learning because you don't try to artificially separate learning from life. You learn exactly what you need to learn in order to get the things you want to do done - just in time learning. Not everyone needs to know calculus. Not everyone needs to know how to run lighting for a Broadway musical. You learn what you need.

Note that I believe people should be exposed to and aware of opportunities for learning as much as possible - I should certainly know there's something called "algebra," what it is and how it might help me, and how I might learn it if I so desired. But I should also know that there are things called accounting, and gymnastics, and auto mechanics, how they might help me, and how I might learn them. Being exposed to and aware of something and having it available for you to choose is very different than being forced to learn it.

If you worry that for the first few months folks would "slack off," you're not alone; the unschooling literature I've read almost always discusses this point at length. The consensus from the unlearning side seems to be that after an initial adjustment period of up to a few months, the pace of learning kicks up to an even faster rate than before (as measured by standard curricular metrics). I've not yet found refutations of this from sources speaking against unschooling - if anyone has seen them, I'd love to read them.

We also need to revise our definition of "slacking," or more accurately our definition of what constitutes a valid activity or pursuit. First, burnout needs time to wear off. Adjusting from a rote world to an unstructured one takes time (I'm reminded of transition programs for ex-prisoners who have just been released from jail). This is time well-spent; it's the reason we take vacations, time off for mourning a spouse's death, sabbaticals, paternity leave; humans need time to restructure their thinking and settle into a new role.

Second, people are smarter than our behavioristic educational system has trained us to think. We're not dumb animals who will never do anything if there's no carrot attached. People naturally have drives and interests of their own; if allowed the freedom, they will find them. If one of those interests is playing video games, well - hey, that's something! You can learn art, computer science, psychology, writing, physics, and many other things from getting interested in video games. You can become fascinated with cooking chemistry after making fudge one afternoon or slide into history after talking with a war veteran over lunch in the park. And you'd be free to chase that interest down as far as you wanted; there would be no dioramas of Jane Eyre due the next day standing as a discouragement for learning about your interests. You become passionate about everything you learn, so you learn how to learn. In the absence of an enforced intellectual currency system (this paper is worth 100 points, your quiz was worth a B), you learn how to assess and create value in your own life and in the lives of others.

Ironically, I believe that a lack of structure in an educational system teaches people better than anything else how to appreciate structure through creating their own. You appreciate most what you have to bring into being yourself, and tend to make sure you get the most out of what you create. Through making their own structures, students learn how to appreciate the reasons behind deadlines, regular meetings, and even the inefficiencies of bureaucracies. Hierarchical structures become things composed of rational thinking people that one can deal with, not illogical idiocy from on-high. As part of unschooling, students may choose to enroll in a formal course, later on even a program of study. But they do it in pursuit of a goal of their own and know they retain full power and responsibility for their own learning; they're not in a course because they're "supposed" to be.

This is the same reason I'm advocating less structure in Olin's curriculum, incidentally. I believe we need structure. I believe we need to learn how to create those structures ourselves, how to design our own education. Yes, it's less "efficient" than the optimized mass-production-factory approach. But education isn't about efficiency as measured in the common sense - or indeed, in any measurable sense at all. (Think about it: it is logically impossible to specify an evaluatory metric for "innovation.") We need to take advantage of this gift more fully.

I'm still learning about unschooling and different paradigms for education, so if you know of good resources (from any perspective at all) or want to talk and think about this, holler. I love thinking about these kinds of things with people.

A request for designers

I want closed captioned glasses, gosh darn it. I feel like a broken record for saying this over and over again, but there's so much in the world you can't have access to if you're disabled. My nemesis is audio. But the vision-impaired, the mobility-challenged, the - it's not that we're less capable people, but we are in a way handicapped because we can't access some portion of the world most people take for granted. We may get a lot of support and encouragement and help, but the world is fundamentally not designed for us, and that is what makes the term "disabled" instead of "differently-abled" apply.

It's for purely selfish reasons that I'm saying this, I'll admit. Making complex technological aids to benefit a small fraction of people in the world isn't efficient in the least. But it makes a world of difference to that small fraction, let me tell you. Of the videos on Google, I've watched many of the ones with subtitles not because they're the best, but because I can understand them. When MetaOlin watched videos for our discussion assignments, I wasn't able to participate because I didn't know what they were saying - I read books on the same topic instead as an alternative, but it wasn't the same. I love that all the rooms at Olin have flashing fire alarms, because in high school I was restricted to living in one of two dorm rooms because the rest didn't have alarms with lights, so while my friends upgraded to new halls and cool rooms, my roommate and I were stuck.

I was so happy when DVDs came out and when I discovered movie transcripts online - so thrilled with closed-captioning that when I was a kid and our street got its first captioned television I'd stand in my neighbor's back-yard watching their TV through the porch window just to see words on the bottom of the screen; I didn't care what the show was. It could be CNN talking about tax laws, which is one of the most boring things in the world if you're ten years old. Whatever. People on TV were talking. I could understand them. That was enough.

It's like having a driving hunger for information that's locked away from you and doesn't have to be, a pang in your stomach you don't even notice because you've lived with it so long and don't ever expect to be fed in that way. You can't imagine it unless you've experienced something similar.

Imagine living in Germany and not being able to understand German, but one day waking up and realizing that - you still can't understand German, but all the radio announcers are suddenly speaking English! It's like a world opening up, and you'll spend the entire day just listening hungrily to different radio stations, your entire day is spent rejoicing that you can understand radio shows. Before this, maybe you could ask a bilingual friend what the radio show was about, and feel guilty taking their time to translate things. You could hire a language interpreter or page through a dictionary and make yourself awkwardly conspicuous. If you were really lucky you could get a script of the radio play, park your car on the side of the road (making yourself an hour later than your friends who could keep driving through the show), and flip through the booklet as the actors talked, but those were few and far between and as good as it got. And now you can listen to the radio whenever you want. You don't have to make any special arrangements or put anyone through any more trouble. Any radio show you want. Any time.

It's a tremendously powerful feeling.

So why am I writing this? I'm writing this because I know most of the people reading this blog are hackers, engineers, creators in some way. The people reading this post are going to be the ones that build the world we live in tomorrow and the technologies we use to interface with them. And when you design these things, and you think of what features to put in them, please give a thought to accessibility. Please go out and make sure wheelchairs can navigate the blocks of the city you're designing, that color-blind people can read the websites you're making, that we don't need five perfectly articulating fingers to man the controls of your device. Provide transcripts and subtitles if you can; make plaintext content easy for screen readers to pick up on - you don't have to do everything, I know we can't always do something, but anything you can do helps.

Even if it's only going to help one tenth of one percent of all the people who use it. You never know who's in that tiny group of people. I can ask you to design for me or for people like me, but there are millions of others out there in the world. They might be your friend or neighbor, your uncle or classmate. Someday you might be one of them.

When you design things, think about whose worlds you can open up with what you're making.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Grouped tightly for your scheduling convenience

April hasn't been such a great month.

Week 1: Grandfather has heart attack.
Week 2: Grandfather's funeral. My first car accident.
Week 3: Grandmother's brother passes away.

Since we're a very tight-knit family, the ripples of these things happening spread far and hit hard. Please, people, no more of this stuff until graduation, okay?

On a lighter note, mental frameworks are possibly our most powerful tools. How wonderful it is to have convenient ways of understanding things! (How uncomfortable to not be able to fit into the frameworks you hold!) How easy it is to slip into categories! How dangerous!

Sometimes mental frameworks that are just slightly off are more dangerous than ones that are completely out of whack. At least the second type tends to get noticed and fixed.

Carrot on a stick

This is the only coherent sentence in this post; you have been warned.

I'm spending the next 18 days walking through checkboxes towards a carrot on a stick because I need to graduate. On a very raw, fundamental level, this bothers me immensely. On the other hand, I'm walking towards the carrot now. I feel guilty about this at the same time as I know it's the right - or at least the "right" - thing to do.

Actually, I'm walking towards the carrot because Gill says I need to graduate, and I believe that my advisor's counsel is probably much wiser than my youthful frustration is making it out to be at the moment. Right now I'm too mad (at myself, mostly) to be rational about much. Intellectually, I know he's absolutely right and that this would be the stupidest time in the world to stop trying. But in that flaming pit in the center of my chest, there's a voice that's been repressed for 20 years and wants to say "screw diplomas; school should be about learning, not ticking off points on a nice big chart." But that's using radical ideologies as a convenient excuse for practical slacking, and that'd just be dumb of me.

I think my idealism switch exploded and kept - is keeping - me from getting things done properly. It exploded in part because a lot of crappy recent events have piled right behind each other (my grandfather's heart attack, losing 3 days of work to a really depressing funeral, my car getting wrecked and having to walk everywhere until it's fixed), because I rode my life too close to the edge of the limits of what I could handle and wasn't able to cope with the unexpected crashes, because my coping mechanisms for life are outdated and need upgrading, because of a lot of things.

I'm still operating in part on my strategy for the last 1.5 decades, which can roughly be described as "learn everything fast enough ahead of actually arriving at the class that it's all easy anyway, and last-minute your deliverables creatively enough that they do well." Unlike what seems to be the usual trajectory for Olin students, I didn't crash and discover my limitations during my first year. Nope. I'm 7 semesters late for that, and there are no contingencies for seniors discovering that well crap, it's not easy any more. At least I'm finding my limitations in college instead of while... I'm doing open-heart surgery or something that actually counts.

But this technically "counts." Diploma diploma diploma. I know why I "need" one, but why should I need one? I know I need to sell out and buy into the systems I want to change so that I can change them more effectively from the inside, and I know that's a fact of how human society works that I probably can't ever change (you never know) but it doesn't mean I have to like it (and I don't; I really don't).

The perfect is the enemy of the good. "It doesn't matter if you do it well as long as you get it done." This eats at me. I want to take pride in everything I do. I want to release finished results that I deem worthy of calling mine. I don't need to stop taking so much pride in my work, but I need to take on less work so I can pursue the work I do to the level where I am able to take pride in it. I've been cutting meetings and tasks and work and turning down offers for everything like a churning rotary trimmer whacking pretty flowers down left and right.

At some point in my life, I should probably work as a field applications engineer or some other form of highly educated tech support. In this hypothetical scenario, I would be the best goddamn tech support ever, because I would be so obsessed with helping customers that all the responses would just be way over and beyond. And I would get fewer tickets done than my peers and consequently less pay and promotions goodness, but ridiculously good reviws from the few folks I did get to help out. And I'd be less effective than I could be, and screw myself over completely because I want to help people too much.

Because helping other people is a lot easier than focusing on your own damn problems, isn't it?

Bedtime. Then wake up and work more. Good donkey.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Biology, the blockbuster

This post was inspired by a discussion with Woodie Flowers in which he compared the manpower (small closed group or solo author) and expenditures (small, but higher than warranted) put into producing an average textbook and the collaborative manpower (huge!) and expenditures (whoa!) put into producing a feature film.

What if textbooks looked like this? Not just as "supplementary materials" or "outside exercises," but imagine showing this (without narration, but with really great music as in this clip on Youtube.

What if bio class looked like this:

  1. Before the first day of class, have students read handouts - short handouts, almost like field guides - on different components, phenomena, and apparatus in the cells that appears in the video - but don't tell them that - and don't expect them to read them very well, don't give them any quizzes on the material, just let them read it (and some will read it blindly and robotically, and some will complain, and some will frantically attempt to memorize it, but whatever.)
  2. On the first day of class, introduce yourself (5 seconds), remind everyone that they had read something prior to coming to class, hit the lights, and without further explanation, start the movie (with music, no narration).
  3. Hopefully by this point most of the students will be going "WHOA! I think that was my part but what was that and how does this work and what are the spiral things poking off the yellow blobs and what was that?"
  4. Break students into groups according to the reading they did (so that each reading has a representative in each group). Have them go through the video and produce an explanation - or narration - of the clip, as best they can.
  5. Then have these small groups pair off, with each group in a pair talking through their narration or explanation of the movie to the other group. When that's done, bring the class together, fielding quick questions or discussions for a few minutes if there are any pressing outstanding debates.
  6. Next, hit the lights and watch the long movie with the narration by the original movie creators, asking the class to note how they explain the phenomena - not that this is a correct interpretation, but that it is a variant of one. Get a little meta afterwards. Ask them about the effectiveness of the movie, the accuracy (and biases) of the "official" narration; encourage them to write to the creators of the movie with comments, thanks, and suggestions.
You can go on from there. The intent is for students to always have more questions than answers, and to be sufficiently driven by those questions to find their own answers, and to recognize that there is no "absolute" way to search correctly for an answer, and often not an "absolute" answer at all. (The bio textbooks I've seen are written with the material portrayed as gospel where the fact of the matter is that they're theories in development, just like any other field, and this is our best guess as to what's going on at the moment.) This is how you develop fluency as a scientist, the ability to move within a field and converse with your fellow practitioners.

Olin BioEs: is this the kind of stuff Joanne is into with regards to teaching biology?

Stepping outside the story you live in

I'm trying to stop myself from turning into an radical; one-sided rants, no matter how much passion they are delivered with, don't do much towards promoting understanding between different sides. I'm trying - often with great difficulty - to seek out, understand, and appreciate perspectives disagreeing with my personal beliefs without making it a token "here, I've heard them out" act, a secret opportunity to convert people to "my side," or a wishy-washy they're-all-right-in-their-own-way fence-sitting that saves me from having to consider the issue any further or take a stance regarding it.

Other people think differently than I do. This does not mean their perspectives are misguided, irrational, misinformed, or necessarily "less" in any way, or that all choices are equal and therefore it does not matter which perspective you happen to have. (There I go implying the prevalence of numeracy in my world view again by implying that all things can have a greater-than, equal-to, or less-than relationship).

I'm trying to gain the ability to step out of the orthogonal, comparative, and numerical world view of engineering and the hard sciences, which has become so ingrained in my way of life and thinking that it's difficult for me to notice it. I'm trying to do this by stepping into the perspectives of other disciplines first; the social sciences, the arts, various facets of nonacademia. Hopefully eventually the ability to step "out of" a discipline's viewpoints will not require me to step into the premade viewpoint of another one; I want to build and understand my own way of thinking and understanding the world wherein I am conscious of what I am accepting as fact, what I am questioning, what I am proving to myself. I don't need to build my thought structure from scratch, but I need to understand what I've got.

The above paragraph is a good example of how you can never really escape the space that surrounds you. The notion that an individual can have her own viewpoint is cultural; I am a person, not just a member of a group. The notion that ways of thinking are "built," or that there are such things as "fact," and that things can (or should) be "questioned" or "proved" - as I speak of avoiding bias and assumptions, I expose my own. (Even the notion of bias itself is a bias.) The statement that I am seeking to understand thing, and the implication that understanding gives me some level of control, and that this is a positive result, is a sort of lens. The refusal of blind acceptance is in part a rejection of attempts to understand that point of view.

These kinds of questions are important because when we strive for a goal, we must recognize that this goal is one of many possible goals we could be striving for, one of thousands of places we could be standing. If I'm to work towards my variant of educational reform, or for a certain usage of my language, or a spread of certain media, or the tenets of a certain religion, I need to understand that the reason I'm working towards it is because I think it is best, and that this does not necessarily make it the best one. Cinderella's sisters all thought their foot would be the best fit for the slipper. But unlike the fairy tale situation, we have no absolute "slipper" metric, no absolute judge of what is "best" or "good," unless we make or believe in such a metric or Creator of metrics ourselves.

It does not mean, either, that no such metrics or Creators exist, or that they do, or that we can or can not prove or disprove their existence. We believe in what we cannot prove, but the notion of proof - and of belief, for that matter - are themselves cultural constructs (at least that is how they are defined within the culture that I am speaking from at present).

The meta-level of this post is jumping through the roof.

To make things a little more concrete, here are some notes I took from Clotaire Rapaille's book The Culture Code which I'll briefly describe as "the cultural ethnography of purchasing perceptions of individuals from various countries, written for the layperson." The subtitle declares it to be "an ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do." In the chapters I took these notes from, Rapaille is describing his perceptions of the "codes" of American culture (he's originally French but moved to America).

Americans associate themselves with adolescence and impulsiveness, health with movement, home with returning to a circle of belonging, jobs with self-identity and money as proof and gauge of their self-made efforts, quality with functionality (rather than polish or bells and whistles - the 80/20 point) and perfection with stasis and subsequently death.

Great service is more important to Americans than great quality. People have stronger bonds to companies they receive good service for broken products from than to companies whose products never break down at all.

This matches up with what I've noticed in schools; students who interact frequently with the teacher in a positive manner (even if they're struggling but trying very hard and making some progress) tend to be more highly regarded by that teacher than a student who is perfect but unobtrusive. But I digress.

What Rapaille describes are cultural constructs, viewpoints, unconscious stories we've been given by Mother Culture (to use the syntax of Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael - which I admire the craftsmanship of but don't always agree with, by the way). These are examples of the kinds of things I am trying to become aware of so that I may make a choice regarding my conduct within, around, and using them.

Finally, because I am becoming far too verbose in an attempt to precisely articulate that which I mean to comment on (and there are many subtleties that I feel are important for me to set out now as I build up the basis of my attempts - I'm well aware that I'm falling into the conventions of mathematics and Western philosophy as I do so -), I'll let someone else speak for me in part, and describe the cultural code and story which, in bothering me for much of the past 13 years, has eventually led me to write this post (if your culture believes in both such causality and in free will). The paradox of the preservation of change.

...when human beings find they enjoy or appreciate some aspect of life, they "institutionalize" it and protect it from further change. What was once a rational response to social need becomes a ritual, performed without regard to its origins. This leads to a puzzling contradiction when a society learns that it can benefit from technological change: scientific discovery becomes a kind of ritual. In this view, scientific research laboratories are the institutionalization of change; they are the facilities set up so that "tomorrow can be better than today." --Richard Burke (paraphrased)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Kernel dump

Hurrah, vague rantings with many indeterminate objects and ambiguous sentence subjects!

The only way to guarantee something gets done is to take the initiative to make it happen yourself.

Note that this isn't "the only way to get something done" or saying that "you have to do it yourself."

I'm tempted to say that you're entitled to complain about something only if you've done all you can to both understand the various sides of the entire situation and to fix it, but that's unfair. I can't declare the metric I use for myself to apply to the rest of the world. (Why do I not complain much, except about my own actions? Now you know.)

My actions need to become much more binary (because they tend to backslide into a grayscale gradient). If you see an action that needs to be taken, either do something about it and commit to it fully, or get out of the way and leave it behind. I mean really leave it behind. Don't just put it in your "to-do-later" list. Don't even have a to-do-later list. Be here. Now. Act here. Now.

As long as I'm spitting out disjointed fragments of thought: I'm sorry if I've been giving off radio silence (via email or in person, mostly) and been oddly distant lately (on occasion; it's not a 100% of the time thing) and given no explanation. It's partially out of necessity; there's a lot of stuff going on in my general life-the-universe-and-everything domain right now (workdeath included), and I've withdrawn somewhat so as not to impose crap on other people. I'll be fully back as soon as possible, and I'll try to do better at making it clear to people when I'm unable to fully interact with them at some particular point in time (even if the intent of the interaction is to make me feel better - I really appreciate it, and it means a lot, but I can't always respond to it at that moment). I'm really bad at saying no, so what you usually end up with is half-assed interactivity. I'm trying to say no when it needs to be said.

Friday, April 13, 2007

History of grading

Ok, now I'm really curious. Neither Chris Morse nor Nick Tatar knew the answer to this one, and when Chris and I searched the internet later, we couldn't find much either.

What are the historical origins of the modern ABCD/GPA grading system used in American universities today?

It's got to come from somewhere, right? But we can't find where it started. Note that we're focusing here on the ABCDF (5-point numerical, with letters standing in for number grades) system, and there are many other possible systems used elsewhere in the world, but usually they are just different numeric scales.

Here's what we've found so far.

  1. Wikipedia says it comes from a man named William Farish, and references a book by Neil Postman.
  2. In Neil Postman's Technopolgy: The surrender of culture to technology (1992), he includes the following sentence: "In point of fact, the first instance of grading students’
    papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish." That's it. He goes on to talk about how nobody knows who Farish is, really.
  3. The preceding sentence has a footnote that we... can't access because we don't have the book. Need to get our hands on this book so we can see where Postman gets his information from (or at least we're hoping that's what the footnote shows).

Postman goes on to say a few more provocative things (emphasis mine):

And yet his [Farish's] idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself... Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.

I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar... If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did.

In every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. And it is what Thamus wished the inventor Theuth to see.

This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

Corollary to "all models are broken"

All metrics are broken. Metrics measure specific aspects, aspects pointed out by various models. If there is no perfect model, there is also no perfect metric. Any claim to fairness espoused by a metric is a shadow of an unattainable Platonic ideal, just as any representations of a geometric point must fall short of the ideal zero-dimensional object.

My heart often gets in the way of my head. After MetaOlin class today (Chris Morse, on pedagogy with a subtopic of grading - Gill Pratt came in partway and joined the discussion) I was... enraged. Furious. Things were not fair. Never could be. I had - have - unfair advantages and was propagating injustices by the positions I took, the places I lived, the people I studied with. This falls far short of the trembling, seething frustration I was experiencing. It was a rage I couldn't justify or name, even when Chandra tried to talk me down from it afterwards.

I exploded out on a Greening Olin bike and splattered mud all over my clothes and came back from Wellesley still seething a little, but in a simmer instead of an explosive rout. I'm typing this in an attempt to quell the rest of it down so that the voice of my head speaks louder than that of my heart, so that I can be productive and do things that will make a difference in the areas I care about.

Chandra just came in and asked me how the bike ride was. I said it was good and that I was still coming down from it. She apologized for Meta breaking me so much (it really has). I said no, that's okay, it's my own damn fault, and besides real learning only takes place when breaks (usually a mental model, but that often correlates to equipment, experiment, personal, emotional, or some other form of failure). So years from now I'll look back on these as a transformative experience. Or something. "Yes, but I'm sorry you have to experience pain now," she said.

Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. --The Princess Bride

Just need to duct-tape my brain together well enough to get my paper done. Trouble with these "transformative experiences" is that they're rather inconvenient; you can't choose when or where they'll appear, and often you don't have space for them in your life... so you smush them when they come.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

It doesn't matter where you're going as long as you know where you are

From a discussion in my qualitative research methods class today:

It doesn't matter what you're doing as long as you know you're doing it.

There is no "best" or "recommended" methodology for doing things, no position you're supposed to take that's "better" than another. Choose your own way to do your work, because ultimately whatever works for you is best. Also, reflection and self-knowledge is vital to good work in the social sciences, because no research project is "untouched by human hands." We're all filters. I need to remember that.

I want to write more about this, but I need to take a nap so my brain unlocks enough for me to do AHS capstone. I have this terrible mental block (getting back to campus made me so depressed tonight because I knew I had capstone hanging over my head), burning eyes and a headache, and I'm definitely not coming from a place of abundance right now; I'm stressed, I'm grouchy, and I'm starting to snap at people.

I want to immerse myself in ethnography for a while. It's such a deliciously complex world with all these twists and tunnels and blossomings of ideas, especially when you understand technology and can write software to simulate social networks and facilitate data sorting. There are so many things I would like to go to graduate school in; sociology, product design, education, and computer science (or electrical engineering, but it's undeniable that I'm drifting towards the software side of things). Maybe I can get a master's and three PhD's? Yeah.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Results of the artistic streak

I said I was going to do some art tonight, so I did. (Yes, it counts as art. No, it's not perfect, but I'm going to stop now. Yes, I want to replace it all with textpattern templates, but I'll do that later.)

I believe this has provided me with enough momentum in making stuff that I can actually work on things that actually count for credit now. This is good. I also have to wake up in less than four hours. This is not so good.

Onwards to the sleep, then forwards in the systematic reduction of responsibilities.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

They won't tell me what to do

This is not the post I started out writing.

I was originally going to write about how frustrated I felt - mostly with myself - after the conversation I just had with President Miller two hours ago. I wanted to save the world, do something that would help us understand engineering education at Olin and beyond; I wanted action. Now I don't have concrete goals. No concrete action plan. I have an even vaguer idea of what I'm doing than I did when I walked into his office. I was aggravated because I felt like I was wasting his time because I couldn't figure out what to do and I was burning to do something and help and why couldn't someone just tell me what to do already.

During the drive to Wellesley, I realized that was just it. I'd been trying to get him to tell me what questions I should be asking. And like any good teacher, the response had been "I'm not going to tell you that. It's something you need to find out for yourself." I just hadn't been willing to hear it.

It's something I've been struggling with a lot, this refusal from my teachers to tell me what I should do. Just as I think I understand the rationale behind one layer of independence, they pull another rug out from under me. "Say something! Tell me something!" I'll beg. "That's great!" they say, with a twinkle in their eye. And I rant, and I rave, and I learn - reluctantly - how to stand on my own feet, how to evaluate myself, how to work with sensitivity to the input of others but confidence enough in my own words to forge ahead in the face of silence.

Hypothetically, at least. It's a long, slow path.

(It's worth noting that I only realized this because I was walking into my tutorial where I say exactly the same thing to students all the time. "No, there is no rubric. I am not going to tell you what to say in your paper. Do you think that data point looks reasonable?" I should keep teaching, if only because it makes me a better learner.)

I'm forgetting a lot of things in my attempts to be productive and forge ahead (an overshoot reaction to my recent extended bout with wheel-spinning chaos and overanalysis paralysis). When I waxed philosophical on the effect of different teaching methodologies on classroom effectiveness, Pres. Miller told me to turn around. I did, and two feet away from my nose was a plaque talking about how fundamentally, "we are not teachers of subjects, we are teachers of persons."

He told a story about a professor who once walked out in the middle of a lecture with no explanation because he'd gotten an idea for a research paper mid-stride and just left his students hanging, wondering whether he was going to come back - an extreme version of the worship of ideas over the appreciation of people. Not necessarily a terrible thing. Ideas are important. But is that the priority I want to have? Am I focusing on knowledge for its' own sake, or because I want to impact lives - and on what level?

He reminded me that truth is not the only thing you can seek. There's also the beautiful. There's also the spiritual. And that we forget that what is fundamental to us is usually not fundamental at all, and that we remember this when we work with people different than ourselves; the further back we need to go to find a common denominator, the more we need to examine the basis of our communication and our work. It's the reason I'm getting so ripped apart in humanities classes. I've forgotten how to be an artist. Just a little bit, but enough.

So I'm going to do a little bit of art now. Perhaps it will get me back in more of a balance. Balance! It's always a balance, seesawing between the sharp teeth of several utterly incompatible unstable equilibria. What I need is more time.

No. What I need is to do less. Not just do less and think more. Do less and think less and be more. Be present.

This is going to take a while.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Rice and salt in paper packets

Funeral noise is still going on downstairs; lots of people are in the house. I'm holed up in my parents' bedroom trying to get away from it, but the voices are still soaking up through the stairway.

It wasn't so bad. We went for the visitation in the morning. He didn't really look like he was sleeping, which is what everyone always says about the deceased. No corny pinstriped or red plaid pajamas, no slippers by the side of the pillow, no loud snoring. Everyone cried softly in a mix of Tagalog, Fookien, English, and Mandarin. We went through the rosary and a few boxes of tissues. There were shreds of kleenex scattered on the chair cushions because the grandkids had to keep pulling them out so fast to keep up with the demand.

The coffin was closed; we had the funeral mass, and my 18-year-old brother and 20-year-old cousin were pallbearers ("it's very heavy," I was told when I asked if they needed help). My dad gave the eulogy. He actually had folks laughing through most of it. I carried up some of the offertory (which involved picking up a container of wine, turning around, walking two feet, and handing it to the priest) and collected envelopes afterwards. There wasn't much to do.

On the way back we stopped to rub paper packets of rice and salt over our suits (a Chinese tradition to nullify bad luck) and dropped them in the garbage bin outside the Jewel-Osco.

It's odd to be the only one in my family that's coming in from the outside; my mom was there right when he had the heart attack, my brother drove to the ER, my dad got to the hospital not long afterwards, and I'm a week late. Last night dad was up writing the eulogy in the loft (next to where my mattress was) and having a hard time because he said he'd been taking care of so many of the arrangements that he wasn't able to let himself open up and feel hurt.

I don't feel deeply grieved or anything, but I've been having a hard time working. I brought all my books and my paper outlines and suchlike, but my productivity this weekend has been... not zero, but very close to it. I can't do much but stare at my screen and read books (mechanically, and not very fast; I feel like I'm just pushing my eyes across the page and nothing's sinking in). Just trying to get away from the people that have been coming into the house all weekend, and the noise, and the constant sympathies. I even went to sleep at 10pm (!!!) last night trying to get away from it, intending to wake up early and work, but turns out the adults woke up before I did (I guess when you're mourning, you don't sleep very much).

At least there are dishes to clear and babies to play with and Disney movies to watch with the little ones that have come over with their parents. And I have a meeting for class right after I get back to campus. Stayin' busy.

On a less depressing note, I got the new Thunderbird today. It looks fantastic; the UI is much more space-efficient (particularly with the miniBird icon set displayed without text). I love how one of the installation steps is "cleaning out the birdcage" (deleting old files, I assume). And they finally have message tagging! Now if only it and Firefox wouldn't be such huge memory hogs.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

An unexpected homecoming

Instead of making movies, eating hot dogs, and telling stories around the bonfire last night with my friends, I spent a mildly awkward evening in Chicago getting ready for my grandfather's funeral (my Angkong, my father's father; visitation yesterday, Mass today, funeral tomorrow). My brother and I kept volunteering to go on grocery runs because being in the house was just so depressing. And since my twin baby cousins have displaced me from my room, I'm trying to write my AHS capstone paper in the middle of the night while sitting on top of a foam mattress crammed into the corner of the loft - it's not tall enough for me to sit up straight while typing, so I'm lying on my stomach to use the laptop, with my books and papers propped up on my luggage so I can read them. I'll get back to campus a little past midnight on Tuesday, just in time to be really hosed.

Ah, life's unexpected moments. Those reminders of how fragile the equilibrium of staying alive really is.

I feel a little guilty that I don't feel more sad, and that I feel mildly frustrated at the timing of this - it's not like someone can choose when to have a heart attack. But the truth is, I'm glad it happened this way. He was old, he'd lived a grand and full life in relatively good health, he'd just gotten to see the children of his youngest son (which he'd been waiting for for over a decade), he went quickly, without very much pain, and he was with his wife and my mother outside on a beautiful day nearby a good hospital, not alone in a house in the Philippines; no what-ifs, no "if only I'd been there"s, no "if we'd had a doctor around it wouldn't have"s. The best of all possible ways to go. You don't want it to happen, but you know something will happen eventually, and since it's got to happen, then - well... this is really the best way it could have happened.

My brother and cousins and parents and uncles and aunt seem to agree. My grandmother's been hit hard, though. I've never seen her this quiet. I'm not entirely sure what to do; she says she can't come to my graduation now that she's lost her traveling companion, but I think that coming and being with the family will be better than sitting by herself in the big empty house they used to share. Four years ago, I thought all four of my grandparents would be able to see me graduate this coming May. (I was the first grandchild to go to college.) Now I'll be lucky if any of them come.

Another thing this has made me notice is how far I've drifted from my family's particular variant of Catholicism. They hold onto it so strongly; it's like a lifeline now, with everyone talking about God's grace and the communion of saints and talking about spiritual messages and His will. We even have a novena, printed in small booklets on the countertop, in my grandfather's name. (Proceso. I was going to get him a food processor for his next birthday and use sandpaper to erase two letters from the label as a joke.) It's not that I don't believe in the things they're doing - it's that I don't feel the same need to hold to it so tightly at this time, or use Catholicism as a citation for the words I'm saying. And I feel strangely irreverent and detached, and feel like I should feel more guilty for that, feel more grief over this... feel less able to cope with things, more confused over what's going on. But it's - well, this happened. We miss him. It was his time to go. It's not ours, yet. We keep living. Life goes on.

The winter after Guakong (my mother's father) passed away after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer's, we stayed with my father's parents in the Philippines for the holidays. I told my Angkong that I wanted to learn Tai Chi in memory of my Guakong. (In our dialect of Chinese, you call your paternal grandparents Angkong and Amah, and your maternal grandparents Guakong and Guama.) Angkong took me out to the shopping mall later that week, early in the morning when the parking lots were filled with people practicing boxing, dancing, qigong... and Tai Chi. He introduced me to the Tai Chi teacher there, and I was able to learn most of the Short Form that day.

That's the first memory that comes back now - that and the evening, when I was still in elementary school, that he sat down after dinner with the grandkids and told us stories all night about his exploits in WWII. Or his 80th birthday/anniversary party in the Philippines when I was in high school which was a "small, intimate gathering of family and close friends" which occupied an entire ballroom (we ran out of chairs). My grandfather loved parties.

My dad and his siblings are flying to the Philippines with my grandmother next week for the burial. Dad's taking his vacation days to do this, which means that the family summer trip to Italy that we've been planning for a year - my parents' 25th anniversary, my college graduation, my brother's high school graduation - is off. I'm okay with that. I was looking forward to it, but these things happen.

And now I'm going to go and catch up on the gigantic backlog of work I've accumulated.

Friday, April 06, 2007

We should be making beautiful things

Every once in a while when I get really bummed out because my idealism-o-meter is continually whacking its cranium on the roof called reality. ("But... I like running around in the rain. I don't want a roof." "Nonsense. You'll get hypothermia. I'm cold; put on a sweater.") At these times, it's good to know that there are adults - brilliant adults - who are still daring enough to think idealistically. It's possible to grow up and not sell out. Good.

The following passage is from Ian Bicking:

Damn, I want beauty, and the workflow machinations of a distrustful management are the antithesis of beauty and goodness.

And I should be making beautiful things! I shouldn't be making ugly things to enable me to spend some time on beautiful things. That's a shitty compromise. I don't have to apologize for beauty, it's not like making beauty is some luxury, or that my making beauty somehow deprives someone else of something many things suck in this world because people don't have the imagination to see that they can be better, if we'd only try. I want to work on imaginative software, I don't want to write software that is just an enabler for disfunction and distrust. Moreso, it's unethical to enable that. I shouldn't lower my expectations of myself to do no direct harm.

Meaningful work. Meaningful, beautiful work that creates value through functionality and has a positive effect on people's lives. To use our talents for anything less would be a shame.

Ok, I'm done.

I just spent the entire morning spewing out prolific streams of stuff onto the keyboard. I think I can stop now and do work, if only because my wrists are starting to get sore from typing. Apologies to readers who suddenly find themselves with this huge textdump. I considered saving everything as a draft and just releasing one new post a day, but that wouldn't have been very honest; this is a brainstream and stands as such.

My work habits are ridiculous sometimes.


I've been meaning to write this rant for a while, so it's just going to be crap streaming out from my brain through my fingers with no organization whatsoever. Perhaps someday I'll collect these thoughts into actual polished pieces. But it's better to get them down first.

Sometimes I feel really left out from the geek community. Hackerspeak is a language; if you don't pick it up by intensive immersion or within the first two decades or so of birth, you'll miss out on the tichy little fables, idiosyncracies, sayings, turns of phrase, tiny cultural things like that.

When the guys swap stories about coding in BASIC in elementary school or building cars with their dad in middle school or making robots in high school, it seems silly for me to chime in and talk about how that was when I got totally into Shakespeare, or fractal mathematics, or pastels. I can't share those early experiences. I love hearing about them! They're fantastic stories! But I don't have them and can't connect to them on that level.

And the worst thing is that I know I'm in a really good position compared to many others. That I didn't actually get in that late. That I'm lucky enough to have grown up by a library which happened to have a math book section, lucky enough to have been able to push my way into a magnet high school, lucky enough to have had friends who taught me how to code, lucky enough to be at an engineering college, lucky enough to even be here and be legitimately able to call myself a hacker. So I'm not missing out, really. Not that much.

I wonder how many other people feel like they're missing out.

From Joel On Software:

The good news about our field is that the really great programmers often started programming when they were 10 years old ...they were in their dad’s home office trying to get the Linux kernel to compile. Instead of chasing girls in the playground, they were getting into flamewars on Usenet about the utter depravity of programming languages that don’t implement Haskell-style type inference. Instead of starting a band in their garage, they were implementing a cool hack so that when their neighbor stole bandwidth over their open-access WIFI point, all the images on the web appeared upside-down. BWA HA HA HA HA!

So, unlike, say, the fields of law or medicine, over here in software development, by the time these kids are in their second or third year in college they are pretty darn good programmers.

Some people didn't have computers when we were 10 years old. Some people didn't know programming existed when we were 10 years old. I'm not saying that hey, affirmative action, it's not our fault we're not as fluent in code so companies should hire us anyway - I'm saying that it's just really hard sometimes to catch up to the kids who've gotten a head start. I'm not running because I feel this desperate need to catch up, I'm running because I think it's fun. But it often feels like a losing race, even if I'm not trying to race.

Sometimes it feels like I'm running by myself with crappy sneakers and parental shouts from the sidelines asking why I'm wasting my time on a path that doesn't lead to an industry-standard job (less true now, but much more true years back when I was still just toying with tech and therefore couldn't do anything really useful yet, and the usefulness of hacking skills hadn't yet become apparent to the general public). And then I look over at these other people who have - oh god, they have actual running shirts, they've gotten coaching since they were 5, they used to watch their mom race, their dad is always cheering them from the sidelines, yes it's useful, hacking is awesome, join the community, go.

And I think "man, I wish I could have grown up like that." Or even "if I managed to get this far, how much faster could I have been if I'd grown up like that?" It's a moot point, because that's the past and it didn't happen and I had lots of equally valuable experiences and all that stuff. It's like wondering how much better I'd be at the piano if I could hear. My hearing has shaped my piano technique and the way I play and made it a certain style - my style as a pianist - just as my background has shaped who I am as a hacker.

I still have fun running around and hacking. I have a lot of fun, or I wouldn't be doing it. But sometimes that feeling makes it a little less fun. (I try to ignore it; it doesn't come very often.)

But every so often I'm reminded, like in this post about how what Fog Creek looks for in a resume:

Passion. We look for evidence that the applicant is passionate about computers and really loves programming. Typical evidence of this:

Jobs with computers or experience programming going back to a very early age. Great programmers are more likely to have spent a summer at computer camp, or building an online appointment scheduler for their uncle the dentist, rather than working at Banana Republic folding clothes.

Extra-curricular activities. People who love programming often work on their own programming projects (or contribute to an open-source project) in their spare time.

But there are kids who don't have their own computers and can't spend their time hacking. Or whose parents frown upon "frivolous internet usage" and wonder why they would want to talk to people about array indexing online when little Johnny down the street is a perfectly fine child to play with, thank you, why don't you do normal things. Kids who don't have the chance to hack in their spare time because their "spare time" is spent watching their little brother. Kids who... it's not that they don't get any chances, because in this world you make your own chances. But kids who get fewer chances. Or who don't find out until it's too late that they can make their own chances at all.

Sometimes I wonder if there's a radar people have to detect latecomers and fake-hackers. On rare occasions, I feel like I somehow don't look or act like a geek. I'll go to the Swapfest with some MechE guys and I know what the components on the table area and they don't so much but the dude selling the components will talk to the guys first. So they start introducing me as "the computer person" of our group, and I start speaking up first with some question that indicates that I know what I'm doing. But I have to make sure I present myself that way.

Or I'll be hanging out with some coder guy friends and someone's looking for a programming intern, and they'll ask them but they don't ask me and - well, that time I didn't really care, so I didn't speak up, but still- to feel like you've got to speak up to get something, that's something. Is there something wrong or different about who I am or what I do that I've got to keep a big sticker on my hat saying yes, I'm a hacker, not a hacker's girlfriend?

I'm always amused when folks on forums or mailing lists assume that "Mel" is a guy. It's a logical default; most folks on the non-Olin forums and lists I hang out with are guys, so statistically speaking it's entirely rational. Statistically speaking, it's entirely rational to assume that the guys at the swapfest or the conference are more likely to be hackers; it's less probable given my demographics and background that I'll be one. But I am one.

It's not hard to shrug these things off. I do it all the time. I have to do it less, nowadays, since I'm starting to get to know people a little bit, and I'm getting to know the culture, and I'm starting to understand what the stories mean and at which points in them I ought to laugh and what things I should say suck, and what things I should say w00t to, or what. And when you get introduced by a credible member of the hacker community, you get some of that credibility yourself. I'm thankful for the folks who have befriended and mentored me; it's done amazing things for my self-confidence and my ability to tinker with stuff, to make things happen and get things done.

I'm struggling not to pump out a story that sounds like I feel sorry for myself. I don't. I'm sucking it up and dealing with it and doing pretty darn good for myself. But it's frustrating. I forget about this most of the times, but it's still frustrating.

I don't know how to fix it.

Why I won't be earning money this summer

(continuing the long line of "Mel is hyper! Mel can't do work!" posts of the day...)

Note: This is one half of my brain; the other half does acknowledge that I have competence in a number of things and should probably seek reasonable financial compensation for it, but I am taking the summer "off" because I'm trying to make this half shut up a little.

Among other things this summer, I'm trying to find ways to volunteer as an electronics technician and code monkey (and if I can find IDDS teams that need stuff fabricated, a little bit of machining as well). I need to do this and not get paid for a while. It's a psychological block I need to get over.

I'm willing to inhale as much solder fume as it takes. Basically, I want to learn how to Build Stuff, and I'll do gruntwork in exchange for permission to ask stupid questions. (I know I always have permission from other people to ask questions; this is permission I have to grant myself. I always have to emit a net usefulness to whatever group I'm working for. This is how I can get around my perceived net self-un-usefulness.)

I'm trying to quantify how much more I have to learn to become a pragmatic member of a project. I don't feel like I'm useful enough to get paid to do much technical stuff yet. Yes, I know companies expect new hires to need training. I am currently too terrified to be trained as a new hire. This is a personal tic, and my self-confidence in my ability to code or engineer will suck until I somehow get myself past my personal threshold of usefulness/comfort, and I think that a few months of specifically addressing that tic will let me move past it.

This summer I am taking time "off" (read: volunteering at random places) and (re)teaching myself engineering, focusing on EE subjects, until I'm at the level I deem suitable for starting in an entry-level position. It will be the experiment in unschooling I've wanted to do since 4th grade but never had the freedom to pursue. (When you're 10 years old and your parents won't let you drop out of school... well, you go to school.) I want to get a better hands-on feel for how other people design before I go out and make designs of my own.

I feel like I miss so much in my engineering classes because I never got the chance to play with electronics or machines as a kid - maybe my friends who hacked with their dads in the garage don't know as much math as I do, but they sure have a better gut feel for how to slap together an elegant, working board, and they weren't utterly mystified and intimidated by what the heck "solder" was when they first got here. You can cut past the cruft to see the content, the purpose of the things you're learning. You see where things fit into the larger picture of becoming a master in your chosen field.

After a few months of doing gruntwork and quietly watching, then I think I'll be able to really launch out and learn. Right now I'm so afraid of learning engineering that it's ridiculous. I really should have taken that deferred year option before college and trained as an electronics technician, or a junior programmer, or an apprentice machinist - I think it would have given me the confidence to run a lot faster during my four years at school.

But since I didn't do that then, I'm trying to do it now. Anybody need a volunteer?

Boxes and arrows

A freeform poem kind of thing. I'm writing until my brain quiets down enough for me to work. (God damn it. I can't get anything done today. I wonder if this is what DaVinci felt like and why he pumped out things so prolifically.) This is a poorly done rendering of a mental image I had one day when thinking about the kind of engineering I don't like.

Boxes and Arrows

we chunk life into nested boxes.
drill down / drill deep / wrap your details up and outline them.
how cleanly can you draw your lines,
make your abstractions,
and dissect,
your problem?

we went out and saw
in the woods
a young deer. it was lovely.
and we followed it and watched it
as it drank from the water
as it fled from the highway
as it moved like a statue between the trees
as it ran.

it was a nuisance, wreaking havoc
on the petunias of the town.
so we wrestled with the image in our minds
and said "we have to understand it
find its needs and values,
then we can fix it, change it, fix it."
so we shot.

pinned it down, sliced it open,
went through it with a fine pick
anatomy book in one hand,
surgical expert on the phone.
referenced its datasheet model from its ear-tag
traced the blood flow
calculated how many litres were pumping onto the ground
saying to the glassy eyes we're sorry, sorry, but we have to know.
we'll put you back together when we're done
we promise.

and we disassembled and wrapped in plastic
and argued and fought until we could say
this is a model to the first approximation
which is imperfect
but close enough.

we had our boxes and our arrows.
and we'd promised to put him back together, so we did.
everything stitched into its right place,
everything completely summed,
no remainder.

we even siphoned the red pools off the ground and gently slipped them through a needle back into the veins.

we put him in a place of honor in a glass case
next to our diagram
and we said
problem solved.

I suppose in a second revision we could make him animatronic.

Competencies comments

Some random thoughts on Olin's competencies system. In addition to our letter grades in classes, we receive "competency evaluations" in each course where our professors tell us how we're doing with our communications, qualitative analysis, design, opportunity assessment, and so forth. Competencies don't go on your transcript. They don't get seen by anyone other than you and your prof. They're a well-intentioned implementation of a good idea to a pressing problem - the trouble is that the implementation isn't really working because the ratings don't mean anything.

When Ann, Gill, and Mark sent out a survey last week asking us about Competencies, I started writing down my thoughts, and here's what I sent them.

They break down when you try to assign numerical values to them and use them as a grading system - I feel like competencies are a qualitative holistic framework being shoehorned into a quantitative assessment metric, which completely misses the point. It's like rating your Honor Code compliance on a scale of 1-10 for each clause; it doesn't really mean anything. Since it's largely arbitrary and there's no apparent standardization across classes or professors, they're not useful metrics of feedback for us to receive.

Advantages: Competencies are a useful framework for thinking about learning, since they address meta-skills that work across disciplines and are generally good things to pick up in life (see: Woodie Flowers' Big Conversations speech, in which he talks about how we totally forget thermodynamics 30 years later, but remember teamwork skills).

Comments: I actually feel we would take competencies more seriously if they were not meant to be numerical "grades," but pervasive things to consider and discuss with our professors and advisors. The trouble is that you can't mandate meaning; you can only facilitate things that lead to reflection and meaningfulness, but that's no guarantee.


There are a number of students researching the grading and competencies system this semester in an effort to see how we got to these systems, how they're working, and how we could improve them - I know Chris and Cathy are looking at alternative grading systems at other schools, Boris and Matt are interviewing faculty on how they give grades and what they mean when they assign certain scores, Gavin and Boris are talking to employers and grad schools on what data they need to be able to meaningfully evaluate applicants, and Paul and I are looking through eons of old ABET papers to find out how competencies came about and whether they've changed anything (we can't find very much about the history of our grading system - does anyone know where to find this?) If you want to help, let these folks know (or let me know and I'll put you in touch with them.)