Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why now?

I asked this question of the fledgling Olin student product design firm IdeaTree at the end of the semester. "Why now? Why not 5 years from now?" In the case of IdeaTree, I was asking them whether it made sense to start a design firm now or to start working towards* a design firm with a firm deadline - no pun intended - of full operation 5 years in the future, when the students involved (all frosh and sophomores) have industry experience and contacts?

*This is what Chris and I are working on, starting off as "geekspeak translators" that help folks talk about their tech needs with engineers (usually through writing specs and giving technology overviews). We've had two projects so far and things are going well, although we really need a better way of describing ourselves and a punchier name than "Human Readable Specs."

Anyway. For any decision of whether to take an action or not, there's a list of Reasons Yes and Reasons No for any point in time - call these Y(t) and N(t) and label them green and red, respectively, in the figures that follow.

In the simplest case, you take the action at the maximum Y(t) and minimum N(t) possible.For instance, the question "when should I die?" usually yields the answer "as late as possible." (fig 1) However, "when should I wear diapers?" has a much different answer for most people (fig 2) and "biologically speaking, when should I have kids?" usually peaks in your twenties. (fig 3)

"But Mel, the max value of Y(t) and the min value of N(t) usually don't coincide." True. So you can take the difference Y(t)-N(t) (fig 4, purple) and go at the maximum value of that, since it's the time when the positives most outweigh the negatives.

"But every issue is both positive and negative!" (or: "for every good reason to do it there's also a bad one!") Okay, okay. If Y(t)-N(t) is always constant (fig 5), go for the minimum value of Y(t)+N(t). In other words, when you have the fewest issues and therefore the least situational complexity (fig 6, blue) which could lead to uncertainty and definitely just gives you More Stuff To Deal With.

Astute former ECS students of mine will notice these graphs have few labels, no scales, no units, titles, etc. This brings up one last point - that there's also the question of whether the question deserves as much thought as that - some things are most optimal when you don't bother obsessively optimizing them. There are more ways to deal with the world than enumerating and rank-ordering items - stop planning and start living. Do it now.

Toothbuds and commercialist zen

Wouldn't it be great if dentists could implant tooth buds into your jaw when they do a crown or make a filling? That way, when the filling reaches the end of its lifespan several years later, the matured tooth will wiggle it loose and shoulder in, white and shining, to take the filling's place. No need for repeated fillings which get progressively more invasive. I've got a vested interest in this, as my teeth are particularly susceptible to decay; since my extended coma occurred in early childhood, I have weakened enamel in my adult teeth.

Turns out some folks are working on this. (see the first abstract, "tissue-engineered odontogenesis in dog mandibles.")

And another random thought from a long-ago conversation with Eric Munsing. Is design a western variant of meditation, a sort of commercialist Zen? It emphasizes awareness, attention to details both large and small, the connections between things, subtle meanings. Its practitioners spend hours in contemplation and creation. It uses both sides of the mind (often denying there are two sides at all), leaps across cultures, transcends classes. It's about being here, awake. I recognize I'm mangling terms and possibly clutching at straws here, but what are the connections between the burgeoning field of "design thinking" and traditional notions of cultivating awareness?

Finally looked at my transcript.

Since I've graduated and can't affect them any more, I've just looked at my grades[1] for the first time in a very long time.

It's a strangely detached feeling, lovely in its peacefulness. I grew up as a Studious Asian Child (TM). I used to wait anxiously for grades, work towards them, fret over them, and agonize over anything less than a B+. I pored over gradebooks whenever I could, making sure I was jockeying for a top score. It was another game to play, but it became an overriding input of my life. In middle school, I once spent an afternoon scrubbing a refrigerator to get an extra half-point to push me into an A- so I could get a 4.0. I kept a running total of points on my calculator. I was a grade addict, an plus-junkie, a check-head.

Sophomore year of college I went cold turkey. Now I don't even remember to check them until over a week after graduation, and that only when I read Boris's post about checking his. No drama, just mild surprise. They're numbers on a screen, measurements by one metric, some more meaningful to me than others, all small parts of my mental picture of "how I did" in a given class.


In at least one small way, I've managed to master my education rather than the other way around, to use its metrics as an (occasionally helpful) guide to my own rather than the gospel to which my life is held. It sounds really simple, stupid, and obvious, but - hey, I'm a slow learner. It took me 15 years of getting grades to learn how to look at them this way. And if you've been raised in a "grades! grades! grades!" culture, it's easy to step back and calmly evaluate yourself when you're getting decent scores. It's much harder when you start tanking (by their standards). Accepting volatile information into your input stream and letting it affect your judgment but not cloud it - that's tough. I'll be old and wrinkled before I ever get a grasp on that, if I ever do. But this is a step.

Now to print the screen and give my parents the letters they've asked for for 4[2] years.[3] And work on The Project.[4]

[1]To anybody who has the notion that I actually get good grades, I will say (1) Hah. and (2) class grades don't necessarily correlate with how much you've learned.

[2]homophones wheeeeee!

[3]I love footnotes.

[4]Dun dun DUNNNN...

Addendum - 1:30am is the best time for your mother to read such documents, because she's sleepy enough to not be able to react much.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mel Chua, college graduate... and furniture mover.

Got shanghaied for another impromptu job today. Furniture relocation for a family friend who's moving to a retirement home. An entire dining room set from her apartment to our house, starting with the chairs. "I can carry two at once." The chairs were big but light, perhaps 10 pounds each. "No, no, you need to be careful with them." "I can carry two and be careful with them!" "No."

We lifted them one at a time from the living room to the hallway, from the hallway to the elevator, from the elevator to the lobby, from the lobby to the front door, from the front door to the sidewalk, from the sidewalk into the van. Then we drove the van home and carried chairs from the van to the front door, from the front door to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the dining room...

Then we drove the van back* and moved the tabletop. All I will say about the tabletop is that (1) it was delicate dark wood with a hinge in the middle and a glossy, impeccably varnished finish (2) the floor was alternating strips of carpet, raspy tile, and concrete (3) were it one foot larger in any direction, it would not have fit in the van, period and (4) ow, my back.

*it was rush hour. Joy!

I also got a talking-to from my mother about not trying to please everyone all the time. "You can't keep on giving if you don't have anything" was the overriding sentiment. Translation: "Please try to find some source of income instead of volunteering." If I didn't look out for myself, she said, nobody would (except the family, of course). I really need to get some sort of automated income - I hate having to think about earning money, I want to be able to volunteer all my life. Book royalties? Website advertising? 37 cents in interest from Disney stock every year (a birthday present from 20 years past; I own the smallest portion of Disney stock that it is possible to own). At least my housing and food are paid for until August 19. I don't know anything about this making-money stuff.

Time for a trip to the library. I need to learn, and fast.

First, however, I need to learn how to organize a conference. I'm doing so in the hardest way possible right now - giving it a shot and making all sorts of wonderful inexperienced mistakes. My "do NOT do this again" catalog is expanding exponentially right now. God, I'm looking forward to running my second conference and not making all these blunders - it's gonna be great the second time around!

'Course, it's going to be fantastic the first time too. So now I get back to my flood of emails...

Design Squad @ Continuum (belated)

Last summer during brainstorm training at Continuum we did our final round on ways to build a hill for the upcoming Design Squad show (a game show for teenage engineers). Since the episode hadn't started filming yet (alas, they shot about a week after I left) we weren't supposed to talk about it at the time in case one of the contestants would hear. Now that it's out, I can say that they designed "summer sleds" that roll down grassy hills - the end products resemble either toboggans-on-wheels or very low-riding wagons.

I finally watched the episode tonight (episode 13, "Winner Takes All") and the grass hill in the office - they built one inside by the main staircase - looks even better than I'd thought. Continuum is really as cool as it looks, especially after the office renovation - although there isn't incessant screaming, cheering, and camera zooming a-la MTV as per the episode. It's also really weird to see your former coworkers on television. I'm biased, but seeing Continuum people up there was the best part of the whole show for me.

Ok, so I could have done without the incessant pop licks and Really! Upbeat! Cheerfulness! but shows like Design Squad are a step in the right direction towards making engineering cool - and just as important, more transparent - to students. I'm looking forward to seeing where they go. My own documentary* on engineering teams is going to take a less scripted, more reflective approach - it'll be interesting to see how the two compare.

*Yeah, I really need to figure out how to get digital film equipment. I knew microphones were expensive, but sheesh! Any recs for getting budget cameras/lights/microphones/lens/software/etc? I'll need it pretty long-term, a bit over a month (July to mid-August).

Monday, May 28, 2007

ECS tutorials follow me into my sleep.

My SCOPE team was watching Gallimore present to a bunch of collared-shirt-and-glasses types in the back of a room that looked like AC109. He was doing very well. I was getting very restless. Most of the audience seemed to be following the presentation, but the front row was made of 6 kids (aside from them all speaking English, they were the most diverse group of kids you could imagine) around the ages of 10-11 years old who were utterly lost. Too many abstractions in the presentation for the NDA's sake. "I'm Vague-Man! I work at the store! I do things!" I wanted to burst in and whisper to Eric that dude, the kids didn't get it. But that wasn't the point of our presentation; they weren't our customers, so he was giving the right kind of talk.

So when it came my turn to talk, I ignored the collared shirts, hunkered down in front of the kids, and gave the example of using our system to control... a Lego motor. And the scene gradually shifted into an ECS tutorial. A motor materialized at my elbow when I turned around, and when I turned from drawing diagrams of torque on the blackboard it was not surprising to find it hooked up to a DAQ, which was plugged into a laptop chugging MATLAB which had definitely not been on the table before...

We talked about Ohm's law (again) and I found myself thinking, for completely unrelated reasons as the kids pretended to be electrons, that I should really pick up a book on semiconductors afterwards (I should). It wasn't until a towheaded boy piped up about the nonlinearity of various components that I realized it was odd for 5th graders to understand the differential equations associated with viscous damping. How are they asking these questions? I thought in wonder. Oh! I'm dreaming!

Gosh, I should add this stuff to the textbook!
I thought, and found myself staring at the side of a digital alarm clock, followed by a slight wave of disappointment that I wasn't actually teaching.

Lots of thinking to do. And lots of work. I just need to be at my computer long enough to do it. The family's been doing a good job of keeping me away from my laptop, but I'm going to tell them that today, after lunch, I really need to get work done now.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

In Chicago, and glory do I have a communications backlog.

I'm finally back home in Chicago, meaning that I've got a lot of correspondence catching-up to do (how does one accumulate over a thousand emails without noticing?) and I'll be on radio silence for another day or so taking care of that. However, I would like to note that:

  1. I failed the Olin challenge twice in the airport - Lynn Stein was on the plane to Paris that was boarding at the gate across from mine, and then I turn around and get on the plane only to discover Joanne Kossuth on the same flight.
  2. My brother is a cynical little man*. And I say this with as much affection as possible. We are very different people indeed.**

  3. Other families give graduation gifts like... I don't know, cameras, or computers, or even cooking equipment. My graduation present... was underwear. "Well, you need to buy it sometime," my mom says. I must admit that it is a rather pragmatic gift, since it's surprisingly expensive stuff and this certainly saves me money. But still. (And she complains that I'm strange!)
*A hypothetical scenario is probably the easiest way to describe this. Imagine giving each of us a paperclip.

Me: A paperclip! Oh boy, a paperclip! Thank you, thank you! I'm gonna figure out a million things to do with this paperclip - ooh, maybe I could use it as a jumper wire... or a pin... or - hey, look at this shiny paperclip! You want to go find out about how it was manufactured? Hey, could we teach other people how to use paperclips? Wow, a paperclip! I have a paperclip!

Jason: Thank you for the paperclip. How can I get another?

**which is why he's going to Stanford. Something about wanting to study business. Our parents say that we would make a very good partnership (opposites balancing each other out and all that) as long as we don't kill each other first. I told them we got over that back in elementary school when I learned that he could beat me up and he learned that I had a social network (at the time, the network was called "Mommy") that would exact vengeance in my place.

Catching up, thinking, and sleeping a lot. But mostly catching up now.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Justice or mercy?

Sometimes there's both. Even when you don't deserve either.

I'll sort this out later once I'm done grading, packing, cleaning... and graduating. Right now it's time to do what has to get done.

Hello, adulthood. Here I come.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The exponential decay of attachment

Contrary to popular belief (if it ever was one to begin with), graduation day doesn't indicate a clean release from your school. It's a marker in the middle of a long fading-out that begins months earlier when you start thinking about job-hunting, and ends months or even years later (indeed, for some people it never quite ends at all).

I'm in the middle of typing up grade reports for ECS, the last bit of TAing I'll do as an undergraduate. When that's done, I still need to migrate my website, switch over my email, update my address, track down all the websites I have control over and hand them off, do a committee writeup, and on and on and on... it's the longest goodbye. I'm trying to rid myself of all Olin obligations (but not connections!) as quickly as humanly possible so that I can let go of it, and it can let go of me, and whatever I do for Olin in the future is out of choice and not obligation. So... transition documents, yay! I also have another personal project up my sleeve that won't be finished for another week or two after graduation day. More on this later, most likely.

My mother says that I am loyal to a fault. That it takes me a while to decide to become part of a group or to make someone a close friend, but once I have loyalty to something I will march into the jaws of hell for it, go out of my way to do anything for it. It's always been hard for me to detach, even when circumstances change; my loyalties have high inertia. But circumstances are changing, and I am letting go. Letting go. Letting go.

Easy to type, but hard to do.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Suite dinner

My suite went out for dinner a few nights ago. It was a microsm of why I'm going to miss them so much.

We drove to Oga's (a local Japanese place), sat down, and waited. Chandra and I had a conversation about how to redesign the umbrella-wrapper in the corner (it places your umbrella in a plastic bag so it won't drip) so that it would be cheaper to manufacture. "You don't actually need springs there, so what quantities would it take before it's cheaper to injection mold it rather than folding the sheet metal?" "Actually, I would extrude it..."

Got our seats. Sat down, ordered, waited. Conversation ranged from robotics to buying houses to fathers to how the glazing process worked for the tiny ceramic dishes that were supposed to hold soy sauce. (Kristen explained the pottery production process in 60 seconds.)

Got our food. Ate, ordered dessert, waited, got dessert, ate. Discussed the mass-manufacturing techniques that could have made the glass bowl that ice cream came, in while admiring its design (flowers). On the way to the car, Chandra mentioned that she wanted to make drunken watermelon (soak watermelon in liquor, in this case sake, so that it absorbs the alcohol - the classic way appears to be drilling a hole, sticking the neck of an open bottle into the watermelon, and waiting) and we had an argument about osmosis, with me advocating sticking two different liquors in the watermelon, one in each end, so that we had a drink-type gradient, and Chandra holding firm on having separate sample containers with watermelon slices soaking in each type of drink to maintain control over the samples.

On the way back to Olin, Gallimore's car radio started playing "Bring Me To Life," which was a song we rehearsed for License Server (our band) once upon a time. We'll probably never play together again; life is taking us to too many corners of the earth (and our instruments are too big to haul on a whim). When we turned into the front drive of Olin, Eric stopped the car and Kristen hummed taps to mark one of our last entrances into campus.

VanWyk started taking down the large Japanese paintings from our lounge today. The walls are glaringly white, and the corner formerly known as "Pile Of Tools" shockingly empty. My shelves of books are being packed into blue tubs, and I now own 1 computer (this laptop) instead of 4, but I now have enough money to pay rent and food for the entire summer and buy a folding bike, so life is good. It's always good.

Graduation rehearsal in 45 minutes. I should pick up my gown.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ondelettes are adorable.

W00t. Just sent in a paper on using swarm robotics as a model for classrooms (yes, this is related to Boris's project). It's the counterpart to his model of the teacher-student broadcast system, which works well for lectures; my premise was that student-driven small group projects are better modeled by a purely peer-to-peer system of mobile robots with a mesh network (no teacher-arbiter). Along the way, I learned about wavelets* and now want to learn more; apparently Gilbert Strang, one of my textbook-heroes, has written a book on it... and the book is expensive. Plus I have many more books to read. And I can always hang out in MIT's libraries this summer, and I know they have that book because I looked it up for a friend there years ago. Yes. That's a better plan.

What's left: a SCOPE poster (which is waiting on Eric Gallimore), editing a paper on the history of Olin's curriculum revisions, and then a Thursday afternoon presentation for my anthropology class which is half-meta; the first part is on observations of an engineering student (me) learning anthropology and why it's been both tremendously difficult and incredibly enlightening, the second part on my research proposal to study the subcultures of engineering education in universities around the world. I was originally focusing solely on pedagogical techniques, but conversations with Pres. Miller and feedback from the discussions at the President's Council meeting have persuaded me that it's the pervasive culture of a place that makes a difference in student learning more than a mere tally of what methods are used in the classrooms. (Culture, of course, is much harder to "pin down." If I'm not careful I might end up with a doctoral thesis on my hands.**) More about this later.

The sun rises. Time to sleep. I'm exhausted and a weird mix of conflicting emotions right now, but the dominant feeling is peaceful happiness so I'm going to run with that and just fall into bed for a couple of hours.

* in French, ondelettes. Note: Naming your ideas well is important. Half the fun of learning about wavelets is being able to say a word that means "little waves" over and over again; it's the signal processing equivalent of calling it the iNoun. Instant theoretical coolness.

**Not...that I'd mind that, really.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Glory be, I can write about education again!

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. -- Herbert Simon, Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and the A.M. Turing Award

I've been on a blog hiatus for a while because I thought it would make me more productive/less distracted. As it turns out, it does the opposite. Writing allows me to solidify my thoughts (through creating "physical" artifacts) and gives me a way to let ideas go because I know they're recorded somewhere. It's the "output" side of the equation, the input side being my astonishing reading rate. I didn't realize my reading speed was a working asset until my junior year of college, surprisingly - up 'till then I'd thought it was a handy recreational ability that helped me waste time reading stuff I "wasn't supposed to" (meaning that it wasn't assigned). So I'm back.

Mindblurt the first: personal learning environments for managing individual explorations into "hard" topics.

What's missing from the learning resources we have today? Here's a quote I love from "The Search For Design In Electrical Engineering Education":

"Finally, we didn't realize until mid-stream the importance of having  appropriate textbook references available, because otherwise there are so many unanswered questions that frustration easily occurred. When teaching in a “do-learn” fashion, we must give students very good resources to find answers to their questions. We now realize that we need to write a new text-book (or at minimum a set of course notes) that presents the material in a manner appropriate for a “do-learn” subject. Current text books, for example, explain synchronous detectors, but use language that depends on a semester or more of ECE."

Yesterday I met the founders of a great project called e3f (education for everyone everywhere - for free). They're creating a place where people can rank and review learning materials on the web, especially material past the K-12 level - I'm looking forward to seeing where they go! One of the things they discussed was enabling people to eventually build "portfolios" and personal learning environments (PLEs) to keep track of the things they're learning, so I sent them some of the links I've been reading through on PLEs:

Mindblurt the second: Libraries and self-directed learning

I'm also struggling with the relationship between libraries and autodidacts. I know there is one, but what is it? From an email I sent MetaOlin and Dee Magnoni (the head of Olin's library) this morning:

I think of librarians as (among other things) teachers and propagaters of information fluency rather than The People Who Are Really Information Fluent... I'm still struggling to pin down a global and concise definition of "library" and "librarian" - just like it took years for me to summarize "engineer/engineering" as "problem-solver/solving problems."

Not quite sure where this train of thought is going yet. It shall be fun to watch. I feel like I'm drifting away from engineering, but I haven't really - I'm just starting to focus into the domains of using technology to teach, and teaching about technology, and taking a sabbatical to get more of a grounding in education before I jump back into the study of engineering. Someday, somehow, I'm still going to get that second* PhD in EE or CS. At least that's still the plan.

*The first is going to be something related to education, although whether it'll be an education degree, an anthopology degree, or something else entirely is completely up for grabs still. If I want to bridge these two ivory towers, I'd better become part of both of them first.

So I turned 21...

...and learned that alcohol burns. It's warm in your throat and your stomach, and it makes your tongue feel all bitter-tingly, although you can't taste the alcohol as much when it's moving through or around in your mouth, but mostly after you swallow. I wonder why? Is it because that's when you inhale so it gets the chance to evaporate/oxidize? Anyone know organic chemistry?

It was an interesting first exposure - a lot of my friends came over to watch me try my first drink (a rum-pineapple-orange concoction by Kristen Dorsey). I made the mistake of sipping the shot and immediately made a terrible face that Mark Penner may or may not have caught on camera. The subsequent sips of cold white chocolate liqueur, courtesy of Ray Young, were much better. I didn't have very much, since I had to write a paper that night; I've yet to get tipsy (and somewhat doubt I'll ever really get drunk, which suits me fine).

Some folks ask me why I waited until my birthday to drink. Personal preference, really. I don't think it's morally wrong to consume alcohol at any age, and think that the current legal minimum age law in America (21) is wholly arbitrary, and to be honest, a little dumb. (This is assuming responsible consumption - not that you don't get drunk, but that you make sure everything and everybody is safe and fully informed, which is a good general rule of thumb for all activities in life anyway. I vehemently oppose reckless drinking no matter how old you are.) I don't think responsible drinking ought to be an act of rebellion. However, I never had a burning desire to try alcohol, and the "wait 'till you're legal" thing was very meaningful to my parents, so I waited. That's it. Not a big deal. Doesn't make me any better, any more prudish, any less social than my friends who didn't wait. (And I'm very grateful to them and the drinking environment at Olin, since I've never felt pressured to try alcohol before I wanted to.)

Having tried alcohol now after years of listening to descriptions of it, I'm fascinated by the relationship of my previous conception of alcohol and my current understanding of what it's like to drink - sort of the theory vs. practice gap, or the "how do you describe red to a blind person" thing. I've got to find out more about the psychological and physiological effects of alcohol now, beyond the dinky little symptoms lists I found online the night before. I realize that the usual effect of having a few drinks is to make you stop thinking intellectual thoughts, but hey - to each their own.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Another milestone?

So. I'm twenty-one. I went and had my first shot (rum and orange juice, plus a series of tiny jello shots to see what the effect of alcohol on gelatin's ability to coagulate was - turns out that pineapple has a bigger effect thatn alcohol does.) Oh. And alcohol... tastes... nasty. But really, birthdays - not such a big deal any more. An occasion to mark the passage of time, an occasion to have some nice food (with my family later tonight) and to reflect a bit, but otherwise like any other day - which means that... yes, I'm working. Writing papers. YAY PAPERS.

Gui's post captures how I sometimes feel about the educational system. My comment captures what I (try to) do in response.

Guy: "And so you can see that the shell is injection-molded ABS, a low-cost plastic that's..."

Me: "Oh whoa, a toaster! Hey, what does this button do?"

Guy: "Well, you're supposed to-" *smoke comes out of toaster*

Me: "COOL! Okay, so that lever is the..."

Guy: "We cover that in unit three, where..."

Me: "Wait, is there a toaster book somewhere?"

Guy: "The recommended list of textbooks..."

*reading manual* "Ohhhhh, that's the darkness setting. Okay, I'm going
to need some more slices of bread... hey, is your toaster okay?"

Classmate: "I can't get an image of Elvis burnt onto my toast! What am I doing wrong?"

Me: "Well, you have your setting on 'Apparition Of The Virgin Mary.' But if you turn..."

Guy: "Wait! That's not approved! The evaluations are next Tuesday!"

Me: "...and there you go! Elvis."

Classmate: "Whoa!"

Me: "I know!"

Classmate: "Thanks!"

Guy: "But you don't know how it works!"

Me: "I think I've figured out how to use it - okay, so tell me, what's this nichrome wire stuff?"

Guy: "The nichrome wire has a linear resistance of 1.75 ohms per foot, which, at 120 volts..."

Me: "Oooooh. Hey, that must be why that burnt. Why nichrome, why not... I dunno, tungsten or something?"

Guy: "We don't cover that until -"

"What's the thermal mass of tungsten? Wait, don't tell me, I'll look it
up and you can holler if I'm wrong. I gotta go read. Ooh!" *distracted
by shiny*

Guy: *shaking head* "She'll never learn."

My John Holt books came in the mail today, along with one called "Talking About Leaving," which is on a study about why undergraduates leave the sciences. I'm looking forward to reading that this summer. Right now... papers. Yes. And two 3x5ft posters for SCOPE.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Graduation speech: Pass it on

Since the most excellent and eloquent Mr. McBride will be giving our commencement speech, I wanted to share what Yrinee and I wrote as our version - seemed pertinent today after the Presidents' Council meeting, and with graduation less than 2 weeks away.

Good morning, everyone. And by everyone, I mean fellow students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, board members, everyone who happens to be sharing this moment here with us now, or watching in from the future (I’m seeing a couple of video cameras around; hi.) On behalf of the class of 2007, welcome to our second commencement at Olin.

Now it seems to me a little odd that we chose one person to speak on behalf of all of us graduating today. After taking statistics, we’re all aware of the dangers of using a sample size of n=1, especially when the population represented is such a diverse group; between the 73 of us, the standard deviation of our spread on almost any conceivable distribution is tremendous. Basically, what this means is that the average Olin student… isn’t.

And what this means is that… none of us can speak for Olin. None of us embody Olin, and none of us as individuals actually represents Olin… because all of us do. This school is made of the sweat and tears (and coffee) and visions and voices of so many that to leave any of these voices out would be giving a less than complete picture of our school, of our experience, of ourselves. For instance, I went and asked ten randomly chosen Olin community members what they would have told themselves either as incoming first-years or as new college graduates, and here’s what we’ve got:

(note: We had planned on going and interviewing people if our speech was selected. We're still curious what the answers would be.)

Just look at that diversity. We contradict ourselves – and we contradict each other – all the time. Isn’t that wonderful?

Four years ago, we were given a contradiction. A school that wanted to be everything to everybody – which is a terrible design spec; it’s not supposed to work. But it worked – and it became what we wanted it to be for us- because what they gave us was the freedom to create the kind of school we wanted for ourselves. That's what makes it alive to us, that’s why we take so much pride in it and why it's been able to transform each of us; because it’s ours.

A few hours from now, it won’t be ours. Commencement is, among many other things, a time to pass things down to the next generation – it’s Olin letting go of us as we fly out of the nest, but it’s also us letting go of the home we’ve built, and learning how to be okay with leaving that behind. We’ll come back and visit, of course. But it won’t be ours in the same way that it’s ours now.

And what we’ve built now – the clubs, the projects, the classes, the homework assignments, the parties – well, hopefully those won’t even be around a few years from now. And hopefully the school we built will be something else entirely. Because others – the faculty and staff and the younger students crowding into the back of the tent today (hi, folks) will have taken this school and made it theirs and built it in their turn, and done all sorts of wonderful, wonderful things. We owe it to them to leave them that freedom and give them that chance.

And if that happens, then we’ll have left our mark. Our legacy, our tradition, is to not leave a legacy. To not have a tradition. To give the future the same chance we were given ourselves – to own a school, and run with it, and play with it, and make it theirs. And as they’re transforming this place, they’ll be transforming themselves in the process.

Today we celebrate what we have made. Today we celebrate where we are going. And tomorrow – well, tomorrow, it’s going to be your turn.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Voice rec keyboard

From the Dept. of Ideas That Won't Go Away Until I Write Them Down: Can someone tell me why this idea won't work?

Basically, I'm proposing a peripheral that enumerates as an USB keyboard but uses voice recognition instead of keypresses for input. Put a good microphone, a hefty Blackfin, and some EEPROM (or have an SD card slot, so dictionaries can be swapped in and out) on a board, perhaps with some (chordable) buttons for additional input. Load the open-source speech recognition engine PocketSphinx on the Blackfin. The processor is dedicated to speech recognition, taking the computational load off the laptop it's plugged into. Note that this is a technologically naive view: I'm not actually sure this is easily technologically feasible (I can find out, but don't have time to right now.)

In order to use it, you'd speak into the microphone (or press a button while speaking into the microphone) when you'd normally type; the Blackfin would translate this to text and either push it out over USB directly or stream the data to a PIC that logically chunks words and translates them into commands ("enter" would get turned into a newline, etc.) and sends them out over USB.

Okay. I think I can stop thinking about this now. Back to work.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Short update

I'm treating myself to a blog post over dinner because I've had a wonderfully productive day. I have three minutes to write this as my dinner nukes, so:

  • Books are expensive! Engineering textbooks are more expensive than education ones, except for the weird out-of-print education titles, which are just as bad as engineering texts.
  • I am going to need a bigger bookshelf this summer. I have a bed with a slide going down to it! and what we've dubbed "The Happy Mel Box" underneath (it's lofted).

  • It's in the tough times when you find out what's really important to you. Do I care about certification, or do I care about learning? Do I care about school or do I care about education? Do I grow hungry for math and engineering theory when I don't get it? Hands-on building (precision or hacking)? (Learning, education, oh yes I do, and mostly hacking.)
  • I don't suck at math! I think.
  • Being sick is really annoying.
  • Families are awesome.
Ding! Food. Back to work. If all goes well, I'll be done with two classes by the end of the night.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Public Service Academy and We Have No Water Again Again

Now that I've gotten the babbling about engineering education out of my system...

Last week, Chris Myers Asch from the US Public Service Academy came to visit Olin, thanks to David Soo. (I'm going to miss him when he leaves Olin for grad school next year.) The PSA is a proposal for a government-funded 4-year liberal arts college geared towards public service, with full scholarships for all students with the stipulation that they serve at least 5 years in their chosen sector (education, public infrastructure, environment, healthcare...) and Mr. Asch is traveling across the country full-time now, asking people to help him start a school. It remains to be seen how well the PSA is implemented when it eventually comes into being, but I have great admiration for what Asch and his colleagues are doing and will be watching the project with great interest. I believe they will do a spectacular job.

Tonight: For someone who's perpetually dehydrated (something I'm trying to change by walking around with a water bottle), I'm surprisingly dependent on running water. Needham's cleaning out the H2O system again, which means that we have no water at night until about 5:30am for a while (hence the second part of the post title, which comes from a sanity-check wiki where Olin folks posted to make sure the water problem was consistent across all of campus - as you can tell from the title, it's the third time we've experienced this). The failure of little reflex actions like sticking your toothbrush under the tap or leaning down towards a water fountain jolt you out of normalcy and make you realize how much you take water for granted.

I remember staying at my grandparents' house in Manila and brushing my teeth out of water from a little jug and bathing by scooping water from a barrel over my head. And we were among the wealthy ones. That was luxury, to have a jug of filtered water to drink from.

To bed, slightly thirsty and mildly sweaty. Tomorrow morning, I shall rejoice at the tap.

I should be an Engineering:Education major.

Weird. As I become more of a hacker, I move farther and farther away from engineering. I still love it dearly, but it's often through a thin fog now, a bit of distance - it's like leaving behind your best friend from childhood when you move to another state. You write letters back and forth, and you know you'll move back home someday, but that when you meet again you'll have grown up so much as to barely recognize each other and that your relationship will grow all the richer for having to get to know each other over again. Puppy love, and then something more.

Yesterday I accidentally intimidated Chris Morse by posting a two-page dense ramble of engineering education resources in response to Nikki's innocent query to the metaf07 list for thoughts on ways to do a 2-credit independent study on pedagogy at Olin. "Mel, you covered 10x more material than any 2-credit independent study could cover in a semester," said Marco. "What do you think I've been doing for the past 5 terms?" I replied. "I haven't been studying engineering. I've been studying engineering education. I'm an E:E."

The second 'E' stands for education. Or maybe ethnography. Or editing - I enjoy writing a great deal. (You're not seeing me in top form in this blog, since everything I write here is basically a pure braindump with typos removed.)

All excited, I went and emailed Gill. "Gill! Can we talk to you about self-directed learning? About grading, about-" You could see him smiling and shaking his head in his email response. "Get back to work," Gill said. "I won't discuss this with you until you finish your work to graduate." "Sweet," I replied. "Now I actually have a good reason to get my work done." It's like a big carrot - I hate walking towards carrots, but gosh, this is one shiny carrot. And I have a topic for the OSS paper I'm about to write for Gill, too. Little does he know what my topic is...*

How did profs like Gill and Chris ever decide to waste their time teaching punk kids like me? I'll never really understand it, even when I do it myself someday, but I'll always be incredibly thankful for it.

I'll be back, engineering. I'm going to go away and grow up for a while in some other fields, but I'll be back.

*yeah, it's got the words "engineering" and "education" in the title... but a couple more crucial ones, too.