Friday, June 29, 2007

I miss creative writing.

Walking from the Hynes stop to Fenway House is always rich with sensory overload to step back from. Puffs of tobacco smoke strain into automotive exhaust and vents, creating an olfactory tour with abrupt temperature gradients. Buses whine and Sox fans travel in packs, waving cigarettes and low halter tops or gelled hair and collared white shirts on top of cosmetically-grunged tees. Crossing lights chirp out no-cross warnings as Sox shirts wade between taxis, parting a sea of yellow chrome, neon Budweiser signs, and old Hondas packed with college kids. A trio of out-of-towners stand on the wrong corner, giggling as they try to flop down a taxi with a folding umbrella. I round the corner at the Historical Society building and skip down the sidewalk, stomach buzzing with caffeine.

I'm acutely aware that I'm not in my own voice right now. It's the residual awkwardness of having read great writing - Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones, in this case. When I soak in a book like I just did on the train, I speak with an accent for a bit afterwards. It's been seven years since I first read Bones in Chris Kuhl's English class my first year of high school, and I still remember drinking in the passages about allowing yourself to write, and the late-night essay I pounded out (assigned title: "I Am...") and how Kuhl stopped me after class a few days later and asked permission to read it in class, and the stunned silence that followed the reading with the class at a loss for adjectives. We let the silence sit for a while - no verbal dissections on the "meaning" of my work, for once - and then we took a collective breath and continued with our lives.

But that pause, that pregnant pause - I was so terrified by the silence that I forgot to breathe, gasping in a draught of air only when the silence ended. It was one of the greatest moments I've had, all the better for being barely acknowledged - classmates trickled up to me for days afterwards with quiet variants on "that was... wow." And the best part was that I didn't feel that it was extraordinary. That the clarity I'd been able to tap into while writing was something I could always reach in and do.

Anyway, after that essay, Kuhl said I really ought to keep developing my writing and would I like to do some out-of-class work with her on it. I did for a bit and it was wonderful - the odd little books and stories she'd lend me had a grace and clarity of phrasing I'd never seen before, and I would just wash the raw honey of the words over me, turning them about, slowly unraveling them, sitting down to write and finding I'd absorbed a tiny bit of them.

Eventually my parents got upset when they discovered some of the fiction literature she assigned as reading mentioned sex. (Never mind that Shakespeare continually brings it up in his plays; those are "classics.") So we stopped the independent work. I took Kuhl's one-week writing seminar during Intersession that year, wrote some short stories. And then... I slowly stopped writing. I'd still fire up on papers, and I still write parodies and little plays, and this blog - but the sustained effort of raw writing, repeatedly digging deep into a storehouse of words for hours at a time, no particular formulae or point of conviction or function to display, just sheer expression - I haven't done that for a while. I feel rusty when I do.

That's why it was so hard for me to start my sci fi story, and why I didn't make it through NaNoWriMo last year. It's like a former marathon runner trying to lope an easy 26 miles after a decade of eating potato chips on the couch. I don't practice now. It's not a part of who I am at present, but the residual memories say it should be. Maybe it can be again. I'm not going to plan for it or try too hard, since that's a surefire way for me to block myself, but I'm just going to watch a little closer, maybe tip the probabilities a little more. In this case, I do something by doing nothing.*

*I may be reading the Tao Te Ching and Tai Chi books a wee bit much. But hey, that's what writing is for - snapshot of your thoughtstream at the moment. Thoughtstreams can change.

Wei wu wei

Not's post earlier reminded me to write this; I've been meaning to for a bit.

I need more adventures, memories that stick out because they’re so odd.

It's easy for me to say that as well, but I think a more accurate statement would be that I want more adventures. I twitch and itch and pick anxiously at the edges of things, grasping at novelty. I'm a high-pass kid in a high-frequency world. I gulp down three glasses of ice-cold catalyst every morning and go through paradigms like cheap conference t-shirts. I want continuous metamorphosis and I want it now. Gritty, transformative experiences. An endless succession of climaxes, rites of passage. New worlds.

But it's not what I need.

I need to balance it, to learn how to sit and be happy. I don't want to be tied to a home, but I want to be drawn to one - to have something constant that I'm willing to go back to time and again. I want rituals with depth, traditions with a meaning behind them that runs out richer the longer I go on. I want to be content to find clarity in stillness and internalize that progress is possible without having to run full-tilt at the wall, or even move forward at all. Those tiny settlings in perception that sink into things, soak deliciously through your mind instead of careening off it with a thundering clang. I need to be open to not changing. It's a kind of coming of age not to need to come of age - I don't know if it's possible to reach that.

I'll still sprint, of course. I'm built to need that, so far. And I can't see myself reaching the kind of peace with the present I've just described. But I'm learning to learn from silence and stillness instead of thinking, and I'm trying to let go of my powerful thirst to learn - it can be an addictive lust as much as anything else can, though there are far worse vices in this world.

That's all.

Back from Vancouver and Seattle! And boy am I full.

Back from Vancouver/Seattle. I'm happy to report that the 2-4 (our room) has acquired an electric keyboard sans power cord, a disco ball, and an air conditioner which has been rendered partially usable by vigorous applications of packing tape. I've also accumulated several thousand emails, so tomorrow, after I scan some book illustrations and upload a funding proposal, will be... fun. (I'm implementing Inbox Zero. I need to be consistently reachable somehow and I've been historically terrible at that.)

The family reunion was great, despite the insipid amount of traveling it involved. My maternal grandfather's younger sister married my grandmother's older brother, leading to some really weird "I'm my own grandpaw" relationships and a very tight-knit extended family. We bought amazing handmade salami from Salumi (run by Armandino Batali - Mario's father), charred quesadillas atop the cabin's wood-burning stove, watched the kids chase each other wielding empty 2-liter bottles, waded into the (freezing) surf to scatter my grand-uncle Rizal's ashes into the Pacific, carried boxes of pizza across town, and danced disco and played limbo after dinner. It was a lovely time to be with tiny Asian people. "Every time I think I'm short," my mom (maybe 5'3"?) said, "I just stand next to my sisters, and then I go 'okay, I'm tall.'")

One thing little cousins are great at is making you apologize repeatedly to your parents for being that age at some point. I got to explain to toddlers how Jason (18) could be my little brother ("He can't be your little brother because he's big!" "Yes, but he used to be little." "But he's not little, he's big!") and repeatedly sic my cousin Neil (8) on Jason. Neil is going through the "I like to punch everything!" phase, and since he's small for his age, his fists are exactly the height of Jason's behind. This was the first reunion I've been an "adult" for, and it was neat to see my cousin Melanie (now 12) assume the "leader of the children" role that I've previously held. My youngest cousin Audrey (3) decided she didn't like me because she didn't get to drive a tractor, which I had nothing to do with - I just happened to be standing beside her when her mom told her she was too young. (Then she asked me for help getting across the playground. "Do you like me yet?" "No. But Achi Mallory, I need helllllp." "Well, okay. *help* Do you like me now?" "Almost.")

On the long route back from Tofino to Seattle we stopped at several restaurants. At the first, Kei (6) came back from the bathroom asking what the "condom police" sign on the wall meant. ("It's... for grown-ups, dear" my aunt finally managed to say as my mom and I silently doubled over in laughter. "You know, our family is awfully naive," I told my mom later. "Well, sex in Filipino-Chinese culture is very different," she said. "You don't need to know about it when you're in high school because you're not going to have it.")

Our second major degustation was at a huge Asian mall with a marvelous food court with puffy onion cakes which we ate with crisp, cold, thinly-sliced salty-sweet pig ears, soup dumplings (nip a little hole in the side and suck out the rich broth before eating the rest), egg noodles (fresh - there is no comparison) with fat shrimp in wonton wrappers and sweet broth, creamy pan-fried taro and turnip cakes, curried meat and potatoes stuffed into pillowy white bread. (And almond milk! With coconut jelly! And mango shake!) And then there was the picnic later, with grilled squash, peppercorned broccoli, thick grilled ribs and cold pesto radiatore... ah! "There are two sources of cholesterol: food and family," read an ad in the Readers Digest. "I thought those were the same thing," I told my uncle.

I also visited the Commonwealth of Learning headquarters (more on this later, I'm sure - it was awesome), saw my first Red Sox game at the Seattle Mariners stadium with my cousins (Mariners won) while eating the worst value-for-your-money food I have ever purchased; plasticky pizza, sodden fries, and some sort of fibrous, artifical-flavor drenched mass that was supposed to be bbq pork. "No beer," said my mom. "Don't worry, I can't afford it," I told her afterwards. Apparently some people could. "Look for the drunk half-naked Bostonians," I told my brother on our way back from purchasing a Horrifically Overpriced Lemonade. "Ah, yes. Guy who's showing a foot of boxer short. Our seats must be nearby." (We were across from the Half Naked Drunk Bostonians and behind some Very Vocal Mariners Fans, also endowed with liberal amounts of Miller Lite. Family fun!)

I miss them already. But now to sleep. And then awake and to work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This book is not required

Wow. Some great insights on social entrepreneurship in the comments from the last post - I'm going through some books and articles on the topic before I respond, but right now my position is very similar to Matt's phrasing.

In the meantime, I grabbed a $1 book on the way down Mass Ave and read it tonight. It's an underground-education book (best read with a grain of salt; like many good books, it points out interesting topics but has a bias of its own) titled This Book Is Not Required. Ironically, it's since become required reading on several sociology syllabi.

The fundamental premise is that the goal of education is not knowledge, but wisdom, which it (loosely) defines as the ability to live, understand, and direct one's life no matter what that life may turn out to be. The book has strong Buddhist and sociology overtones but is gracious enough to tell you so repeatedly. It's meant as a "everything [the author] would give as advice to her incoming college self" sort of book, and was revised and extended by a spontaneously-formed group of college students after the author's death.

A few interesting passages. As usual, I'll start with one on grades.

I want you to understand the vital difference between operating within a set of rules and internalizing those rules. The cardinal point here is that what you don't internalize can't really hurt you...

In the next few pages, Bell suggests an experiment which I'd unknowingly been doing for the past three years; in order to tell how affected you really are by grades, notice how tense you are right before you're being handed back a graded paper. The amount of anxiety you have that moment is a good indicator of how invested you actually are in grades, regardless of how you think you're doing or where you'd like to be with respect to them. (It's totally ok to be invested in grades and have them as goals - just understand what that means and why you're doing it.)

How much, Bell asks us, does our education enable us to understand and live our own lives better? To that I would answer "as much as you make it," and also that Bell is probably a Myers-Briggs introvert-intuitive (INXX) who places a high value on self-knowledge. I don't dispute it's a portion of education we often ignore in formal institutions. I'm a very "know thyself" sort of person, and this "how can I use this to understand my life?" aspect was one of the things I valued highly about MetaOlin. Self-knowledge is not the primary driver of everyone, nor should it be; some folks have temperaments that pull them in different directions.*

* I can't resist saying that some modicum of self-knowledge is helpful to know what direction you're being pulled in, but that's my inner INFP speaking.

Another section reflects on perceptions of self and how they're influenced by the media. Another (one of my favorites) dissects college relationships in Western culture by looking at it through the lens of an Eastern philosophy ("Hm," I thought for a moment, "perhaps I'm not asexual - just unconsciously a Buddhist sociologist with regards to this topic.") It also has the calmest "Fight The Establishment! The Big Bosses are blinding us! Down with The Man!" passages I have ever seen, mostly on the topic of lack of self-directed inquiries in college.

The very format of school works to ensure boredom. At 9:00 a.m. three times a week you are supposed to become engrossed by medieval history. Never mind that you broke up with your boyfriend last night, or that your parents are on your back for not majoring in business administration, at 9:00 a.m. it's medieval history... our education has, all along, been answering questions we never asked.

It's a mildly written but quietly counter-cultural book and satisfyingly chewy food for thought. Because of the clear biases in the book, you have to mentally masticate the material instead of swallowing it blindly, but that's exactly what the author advocates - so hey. Nice meta-book-design.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Beer and an unrelated note about social entrepreneurship

Ray, Chris, and I scored some free Sam Adams glasses yesterday when we went on their brewery tour. The beer (tiny glasses of Boston Lager and the Summer brew) was... well, I can't enthusiastically say it's my favorite thing to quaff in the world since I'm still at the point where I haven't gotten over the bitterness of the hops and astringency of the alcohol-taste, but it was tasty, and different (and much better) than I thought beer would taste. If you add the tiny glasses up, this was the first complete glass of beer I'd had.

I was able to tell that the two beers were different, but that's about it; I'd like to taste a few more so I can start noticing more subtle things, similar to how I now taste tea (I used to think they all tasted the same too). Apparently 1.5 beers is also enough to physically affect me; it felt like my perception had a tiny bit of inertia. When I turned my head, my head would turn, my vision would go right with it, and then a half-second later my brain would say "Oh, I'm looking that way now!" and everything would be all synced-up again.

My cousin Mark came over for brunch this morning. He had some cereal while I wolfed down half the leftover Fiesta Nachos from Sunset yesterday (three young people, one $10 plate... leftovers for two servings afterwards. It's a big plate.) He's staying across the Fen with the son of our uncle's classmate and a graphic designer roommate and working for an internet marketing firm. One thing I'm learning from the jobs that Mark and my brother Jason are working this summer is that the work world often takes shortcuts that, while entirely legal, make me feel a little sketchy about the values they're espousing. I still need to reconcile my entrepreneurial desire to take advantage of opportunities with my conscience which prevents me from doing anything that could be construed as "taking advantage" (in the negative sense of the phrase).

Dad said once that the key in business was to reconcile your head and your heart. One tenet of "social entrepreneurship" (although I want it to exist badly, I'm still questioning whether that's even a valid phrase) is "doing well by doing good." Is the idea of social entrepreneurship (to quote a grad school classmate) "bullshit"?* I can't convince myself that it isn't, so I'm going to try convincing myself that it is bullshit. I need to see where both perspectives are coming from.

So tell me - why is social E! total bull? (or why isn't it? I think the first type of response will be more helpful, though.)

*Matt and Ben, before you kill me, look up the phrase "proof by contradiction" - but note that I'm not aiming towards such; I'm really trying to prove that social E! is bull. I'm not going to hold back on this, because it's the only way we can test it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visiting the Zen center

Gosh, it's nice to be able to take things one at a time, switch tasks when you feel like it, take some time to pay attention and relax into what you're doing without feeling pushed to do more things faster.

I spent the morning and much of the afternoon sending thank-you notes. Lots of them. 6.5 hours' worth. After a quick stop-in at the OLPC office, I set off for the Cambridge Zen Center's free introductory session, after which we sat on dense blue cushions atop faded green mats and asked questions of a visiting Masai chieftain (38 years old, a chief since he was 18) who wore a gold watch and black and white checkered cloth robe over his slacks and collared blue shirt.

I asked him what made a person a good leader, and he responded that it was a lack of selfishness and giving everyone consideration regardless of who they were. He does this by example as well. Masai are polygamous, but instead of four wives and 40 children he has one wife and four children - and three adopted children - because one issue facing the Masai right now is population control; "when there are more people, the land becomes small." Asked whether he worries about his children (who are attending private school) moving to the city and forgetting the Masai ways, he replied that he could not say he does not worry about it, but that he tells his children that it is their responsibility to give back to the Masai community they came from.

After the talk, we clustered around a beautiful wood table by the kitchen where huge bowls of carob-chocolate rice pudding, warm banana-pineapple chunks, and whipped cream were sitting along with a pot of smoky tea. "You mean we can just... eat it? People that just walked in?" "Yes," said a young man who lived at the Center (who'd originally mistaken me for a friend, causing mild confusion and then a good laugh). We talked about life. After I told him about going to college for engineering, he asked me if it had been fulfilling. "Yes," I said. "Well, it fulfills a part of me." There's a part of me that really needs to build and read and study. But studying can't tell you how to live or what to believe.

It was a warm night, so I walked back from the Center (by Central Square) to Fenway, a stroll that took about an hour. A twentysomething man was sobbing loudly onto a streetlamp across from a Thai restaurant, his friends in baseball caps and faded hoodies clustering around to comfort him. Soft rock guitar and somebody's trumpet battled for aural dominance by the Berklee apartments.

Fenway was, according to Harvard historians via the House Manager's manual, actually built in 1903 (or thereabouts), well after the end of slavery (so Gui was off by several decades). Turns out the wee rooms were servant quarters. I also know how to exterminate cockroaches in the kitchen now, and on the table in the lounge is a black book with yellowed pages falling off; I opened it to a 1981 entry in blue ballpoint where a boy describes his disappointment at the lack of anarchy at Fenway, how he'd grown more radical over the course of his studies but that the house hadn't. "I feel like a snake shedding its skin," he wrote as he prepared to leave.

Some black and white photos of young men in scruffy beards amidst piles of books were pasted within the pages. Those young anarchists are my parents' age now. I wonder if they grew into collared salarymen with slight paunches and a lawnmower in their garage. I hope they didn't. All the same, I'm acutely aware my current behavior (not spending money, no job, living in a crazy painted house, eating at random hours, walking across the city) is tolerated precisely because I'm young and "going through an experimental phase," and at some point - twenty five? thirty? I stop being a cute, eager kid and start being a kook who never learned to live in normal society.

I feel the vague itchings of "I should really be studying something technical" in the back of my mind. I'm deliberately ignoring it and letting it build - I want to make sure it's real desire to learn instead of a sentiment of obligation because I have an engineering degree - and when I can't hold that back any longer, I'll devour something with intense speed and relish... I'm hoping my appetite will turn towards Proakis, or Horowitz and Hill, but we'll see; I've been enamored with the idea of learning kernel hacking, as of late.

Normalcy can wait. Tonight I start a new book - on ethnographic fieldwork methods. Mmm! Time to read.

Game Jam pictures, finally

At the Game jam, we had programmers...

Team Minuteman, who had to skip the last day of the Jam to graduate from high school

We had food... (thanks to the tireless efforts of the Olin crew)

And we had judges. Oh, did we have judges! So... many... judges...

And a very tired - but happy - Mel.

Now I know why most conferences are run by older people with lots of contacts, experience, and more funding... and of course, I'm going to be doing this again. :-D

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Entrepreneurship without a business

Andrew Coats, Erik Kennedy, Lindsay Redmond, and myself were panelists for an Olin-Babson conference on entrepreneurship education for engineers (somehow this becomes the acronym SvE^3). I missed the bus there by one minute, which led to me running pell-mell from the next bus (a half-hour later) down Great Plains, backpack swinging, waving a bright yellow sign that said "PLEASE GIVE ME A RIDE TO BABSON! LATE STUDENT!" and giving desperate looks to passing drivers.

I did get a ride about halfway there, and ran breathless into the room four minutes early (technically 26 minutes late for briefing), then followed the eloquent trio of Andrew, Erik, and Lindsay talking about Olin's entrepreneurship programs by telling the audience all about how I'd stayed as far away from formal programs at Olin as possible, swearing not to follow in the footsteps of my dad, a MechE-turned-MBA. "But I still consider myself an entrepreneur," I told them (roughly paraphrased). "It's not just about starting businesses. It's about creating value." When an audience member asked what Olin students went on to do after graduation, Andrew and Steve Schiffman pulled out the Post-Grad-Planning sheet and read the numbers of alumni in startups, going to Harvard Business School, and so forth; I piped in and said that the kids going to grad school or industry would  be acting entrepreneurial within their institutions as well.

Thing is, Olin made it really easy to start things. Businesses. Clubs. Independent studies. Classes. Projects. Committees. Hacking the school itself (in the "changing tradition and policy" sense, not the "MIT prank" sense). Our ideas don't have to all be good, or work, or even be remotely sane for people to take them seriously and allow them to happen. They don't so much allow them to happen as tell you to take whatever initiatives you want; it's an ask-forgiveness-not-permission mentality. In Gardner's words, the school is "...a fertile seedbed from which enlightenment can spring" - not that it will spring, but that it can, and part of allowing it to spring up is making it okay for many, many things to fail.

After the panel, we were treated to a lovely dinner at which a soon-to-be-professor from Florida gave me some wonderful advice about being a master of jack-of-all-tradesness. ("Being an integrator is a very important role! You probably won't get hired for that for your first job, so you may have to start with a specific project, then move on to as many different projects as you can, until they find out you're a wonderful generalist... and then you're set.") Once the conference attendees left, Erik and I had a good conversation about IdeaTree (his startup) and then walked back to the dorms, where I ended up staying at Boris' room, then waking up at 6am to catch the train to OLPC. I love my life right now.

Fun fact: Fenway House is over a century old, something I learned from Gui when he showed me the "basement" (really a crumbly dirt pit dug out by the foundations for storage) and pointed out that the upstairs rooms used to be slave quarters. If these walls could talk, indeed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Books vs mobility

Mobility is important to me. I like traveling. I like living in random places (although I prefer my crash locations to all be my own paid-for places so I can come and go as I choose without inconveniencing anyone), coming home at random hours, living relatively simply, packing light.

There's just one problem. I love books.

I love them so much and I read them so fast that I have - after extensive paring, mind you - four blue bins and one large box plus whatever I packed into my suitcase to read or re-read during my two weeks at home. More than half my worldly goods by volume are books. Far more than half if you go by weight. (In contrast, all my clothes, sheets, and blankets fit into a single bin.) At Olin, they took up the entirety of the space under my bed, a stack by my window, a stack on my drawers, and the entire back row of my desk and dresser.

They're an extension of my brain and my memory; I'll randomly grab and reference them for strange things, quoting Minsky in an english paper, Milton in a physics assignment. Some books are sentimental keepsakes (Oh the Places You'll Go! from my parents) and others I keep to remember the strange flips my brain turned when I first met them (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). I started taking down quotes and notes in .txt files so as to not have to carry some of my favorites around, but... how do you get rid of Boyce & DiPrima when you keep on randomly remembering differential equations you've forgotten and want to look up again?

They're also a status symbol. I long to have bookshelves like my professors', well-worn and packed with tomes from all the subjects they're interested in. Quirky additions; a book on fractals, another on negotiation, an old yearbook, a Foxtrot collection. For bibliophiles and graphomaniacs like me, a bookshelf is in some ways a snapshot of our brain. Hey, I didn't know you were into solar cars. Or clocks. Or philosophy.

How do I ensure I have access to the information I want, whenever I want it, without having to carry around too much dead-tree baggage from house to house? Scan them all and put the PDFs on a hard drive? (Ow.) Buy them online? (I like the physical action of page-turning, but that may be a habit I can grow out of.) Donate them to my local library? (I need to stay local to that library.) Have one "permanent" house and wander with sublets from there? (The long-term solution I want, but too expensive at present.) What do other bibliophile-nomads do about this?

Monday, June 11, 2007

A salute to the grounded

I want to take a minute to thank the many sane people whose stability, kindness, and acts of dedication make it possible for the crazy folks to fly.

A good many of the most valuable people in any society will never burn with zeal for anything except the integrity and health and well-being of their own families - and if they achieve those goals, we need ask little more of them. There are other valuable members of a society who will never generate conviction about anything beyond the productive output of their hands or minds - and a sensible society will be grateful for their contributions. Nor will it be too quick to define some callings as noble and some as ordinary. One may not quite accept Oliver Wendell Holmes' dictum - "Every calling is great when greatly pursued" - but the grain of truth is there.

 --John Gardner

Not everyone is an uberstudent. Not everyone wants to be. That's wonderful and no less valuable than burning with an all-consuming passion for something(s). I was always jealous - and admiring - of the folks at Olin who managed to balance their schoolwork with sleep, maybe some soccer, a club or two, the ones who quietly built up their lab, shelved books, talked to their girlfriends on the phone... took time to breathe, have a more normal - if it's possible to be normal at Olin - life. It's wasn't apathy. They still cared. They just showed that caring in very different ways.

The Jam is Over.

I got six hours of sleep last night. SIX HOURS! It was great. I feel all refreshed now.

Today was data entry day. After a trip to Olin to drop off checks (I need to get over my fear of handling sums over $100; in some respects it's a lot of money, in some respects it isn't, but it's just money. That's all.) SJ and I went back to the OLPC office and I typed up the surveys from yesterday's Game Jam tests. The results left me wondering how children find 3-5 hours a day to play video games. Probably the same way the average American finds over 4 hours a day to watch TV.

As a side note, the OLPC office is not unlike Gill's lab; open tables, people grabbing space to work... it's a little cleaner and doesn't have snakes or a Wii, and the age distribution of the people present is much broader than 18-22, but the atmosphere feels similar. I like it. I need to find another OLPC project to work on, because...

...the Jam is beginning to reach done-ness. It is slowly moving off my shelf to be replaced as alpha project by my research proposal - beta project is now my financial infrastructure, which I really need a Crunch Day for, with company. Something about moving thousands of dollars between accounts makes me much more nervous than it should, so I've been doing research and research and putting it off. I need company to help motivate/compete/guilt me into getting my finances set up already, slacker! If you're in the Boston area and want to do this, email me.

The hunt for the replacement of my Dell continues. Omar had a lovely, lovely IBM tablet at the Jam this weekend. SJ as a shiny IBM X60. They are both expensive... but not as expensive as EmpororLinux's Raven tablet (over $3k). That's right, folks; they got the handwriting rec and the fingerprint scanner working. They are shiny, tiny, and I would greatly like one. However, I still have no reliable source of income, so until then, I hope my Dell doesn't fall apart.

Finally, Gloria wrote a beautiful article on women in technical communities. If you are interested in technology or gender equity, please give it a read; I'm curious to hear what folks think and also whether similar behaviors are exhibited within other minorities-in-technology or minorities-in-<field> groups (as in, is this a "women in tech" thing, a "women in X" thing, a "minorities in tech" thing?)

One of the smaller sections at the end describes the practice of writing under a male pseudonym. I actually don't go by Mel because it's a male pseudonym. It was a nickname I chose for myself when I was 7 ("Mallory" was too long, "Mal" meant "bad," and "Mol/Mil/Mul" just sounded weird) without knowing it was a male/unisex name. That having been said, it's rather convenient. I don't hide the fact that I'm female, but people online will usually assume I'm a guy (giving me more "credibility") unless I've been introduced to them through someone else (which gives me "credibility" too). However, I'm also moderately blunt, less apologetic, and in speech/interests/manner more "stereotypically male-like" than most females I know. So there's a particular little experiment I have in mind to run sometime, just to see what happens.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Game Jam, Day 2

Woke up this morning to find the Jam in the Boston Globe. One thing I'm learning: I was a very slow-paced reporter. I like to get to know my interview subjects and ask them what they'd like to share, but being interviewed for this one was like WHAM! Call me asap. WHAM! Busy, call back. WHAM! Question question question thank you DONE. The other reporters took more time, but I'm still reeling from how fast they go. Maybe I'm more of an anthropologist than a journalist; people are a lot more than sources of information. Also got interviewed (on-camera this time) this afternoon so we'll see how that goes.

We have... working... games. They're demoing at the midway check-in right now, and we've got a memory game, an Incredible-Machine-like physics simulation, an Abalone board, a flower breeding game, Reversi... and the games that were working last night (along with more that are very, very close to playable). (3D-pong just got a rousing round of applause - the levels have different-shaped paddles, gravity going down, sideways...)

Lunch was an adventure. Yifan, Bryce, Jessi, Boris, and I sliced and diced our way through obscene amounts of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers - and even more obscene amounts of bread - to make sandwiches to feed a small army, wrapping them in loads of paper towels (with scrawled marker letters indicating which ones were sundried-tomato-beef-cheese-onion and which were honey-mustard-ham-lettuce-pepper-mayo or whatever other permutation we could find), wrapped those in clean garbage bags, and trundled them in a rickety cart through three buildings, an elevator, and rain... and rain... and rain. When Yifan and Boris began unwrapping the sandwiches, there was a collective murmur of "ohmigod" at the sheer volume. We had perhaps 10 cubic feet of sandwich. Probably more. Dinner involved the largest pot of spaghetti I have ever cooked, along with the realization that with said spaghetti one could feed an entire conference for a little over $1 a head.

Judging tomorrow. Whee!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Game Jam, Day 1

So far, so good. Folks came, we had food and soda (had to order a 2nd round of pizza, but eh) and now we have code cranking, amazing music and graphics, games working (or at least functional - they'll respond to things you do with them). I've seen at least two playable games - Kuku Anakula (Number Munchers with a chicken) and 3D Pong.

My feet are sore from walking most of the day in not-entirely-broken-in shoes. My camera is being exercised regularly. The blackboards have a few square feet of clear space left. I was supposed to draw a background for Team Minuteman, but my computer is rebelling right now so it's still in B&W - need to color it tomorrow. And can I just mention again how incredibly talented our full-time musician (Matt Myers) and artist (Roberto Christen) are? I thought I could arrange and draw reasonably fast, but seeing them in action is something else entirely.

Jessi, Nick, and Molly have been working tirelessly getting food, getting people online, manning the registration table (armed only with vague directions from an intermittently present organizer), and driving hither and yon. The entire Quirk family showed up to both coordinate and code, getting many of the XOs up and running and helping folks out with Pygame. Noah (coderanger) gave a fantastic pygame crash-course, Darius gave an intro to Jamming, Omar and his mother have been setting up our open discussions and acting as a bridge between code and education, and SJ is holding it all together and keeping us (especially me) from going insane.

And the laptops! XOs scattered around the room, icons popping up
everywhere - you can actually see other people on the network. It's a
friendly feeling. I can't wait until our judges (ages 3.5 to 11, so far) arrive on Sunday afternoon.

A bundle of sheets is lying in my temporary EH dorm room still wrapped in plastic as I'm taking the night watch and fighting off sleepiness with adrenaline. I'm hoping to be in bed before the sun comes up, but as that's in about an hour I had best hop to it (there are still teams awake coding, hence I'm awake writing this as my laptop is being too finicky today to do much else).

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Olin students are slackers.

Jon tells me I should post this to a wider audience, so here goes (about 4 weeks later). I wrote this letter to Jon and Debbie (two of our profs at Olin) the day after a meeting for the Task Force on Pedagogical Innovation (TFPI) where Jon mentioned that some people say that Olin students are slackers.

Dear Jon and Debbie,

I was sitting in anthro thinking about what Jon mentioned at TFPI (because as an Olin student I of course am lazy and never pay attention to classwork, especially when I'm studying unimportant topics outside of engineering), and was struck with the sudden realization that - well, they were right. We're completely unprepared, terrible engineers with bad attitudes, and it's going to cause a lot of trouble later on.

Olin students are slackers.
We only do work when we absolutely have to, and even then we don't necessarily do it at all. Instead of studying for a bio exam, we take off early on Friday afternoons and drive to Hyde Park to coach a high school robotics team. Sometimes we'll stumble into math class bleary-eyed after staying up late the night before arguing about topology or something else that wasn't even taught in class and won't ever be on the test (what a waste of time). We start renewable energy businesses instead of turning in our papers free from typos. We have the nerve to walk into our professor's office even after we've failed a physics exam in order to talk - not about the exam, but about life and random topics we're interested in, for no good reason whatsoever.

Clearly we have no sense of priority - if we did, we'd be preparing for our futures by turning in clearly written, well-done assignments for assessment so that we can be certified as initiative-taking, independent-spirited engineers who will lead big changes in the future. How else will people know we can start wonderful things if we don't get certified to do so?

Olin students don't know what the outside world looks like. We live in a bubble and only leave campus to work, go to classes, dance, socialize, present at conferences, attend meetings, negotiate with investors, volunteer, and sometimes just for fun (we're slackers, you see). At the start of our projects, we spend a lot of time quietly watching and learning from people who are able to do things we don't understand, wasting valuable time we could be using to start solving the problem. We astonish customers by conversing articulately with them about their situation - this isn't what engineers are supposed to do, that's not what they hire us for. We've obviously been trained to do the wrong things.

In fact, we're ruined for life. We've lost the ability to lock ourselves up in a windowless room and produce technology unconstrained by the many contradictory needs of the people in this world. We even have the nerve to claim that not all problems are best solved through technology. We're engineers! Why are we proposing curricula, documentary films, business plans, and even the removal of technology from locations that are clearly spending a large amount of time and effort (and money) using them?

This can be traced back to the terrible idea of giving teenagers the freedom to design their own learning experiences; kids have no idea what they want to do or what they need to learn. Without proper guidance as to what real engineers do, we've steered ourselves down the wrong paths.

We insist on being able to make our own mistakes and pursue our own interests regardless of whether the syllabus covers it or not. Such blatant disrespect for authority will cause tremendous upheaval in the organizations we enter after graduation (assuming any of them will even want to hire us at all).

Olin students don't have solid engineering backgrounds. We're unable to rattle off the wave equation from memory and don't know the the mass of a silicon atom or the date the steam engine was invented, vital information that all engineers must know. Ask us what our area of focus is, and you'll often get disclaimers that we're interested in other things as well. Ask us if we know how to read a spectrogram, wire a power supply, or code in C, and you'll get the disturbingly noncommittal answer of "we can learn" instead of the course number where that topic was on the syllabus; we can't possibly have learned it unless we've taken a class. Because we spend our days engaged in intense play, we have done too few problem sets and listened to too few lectures to truly learn anything the correct way.

Raise this reasonable concern to students, and they'll dismiss it with an "Oh, but we can look that up!" We plunge irresponsibly into things without taking the time to amass the necessary background training first, cockily assuming we can handle whatever comes up. We can't! We fail at a tremendous percentage of the things we try, but even with that, we don't realize this is an indication we should change - instead, we call them "learning experiences," pick ourselves up, and launch into the next overambitious plan.

Olin students are coddled. We enjoy posh dormitories, excellent food, and an overly permissive community that allows us to monitor and discipline ourselves when we step out of line. We encourage wild projects and thoughts that have no hope of converging upon the correct answers. We support nonacademic pursuits such as fire juggling and voice lessons at the expense of more vital pursuits such as the study of thermodynamics and signal processing (although students will, with typical impudence and disciplinary inappropriateness, claim that fire juggling is thermodynamics and that singing into a microphone constitutes a signal processing system).

It's no wonder our faculty are burnt out; they are in the terrible position of having to deal with such students in such an environment and simply cannot teach things the proper way. These students are wasting the time of some of the smartest people in the world. Instead of absorbing in the most efficient manner the factual knowledge these brilliant minds contain and thereby aspiring to imitate their success, students have the arrogance to tell their professors what they want to learn. We are unable to simply accept the authority of those with more experience.

Who would ever want their students to be as lazy, clueless, unschooled, and spoiled as Olin students are?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Obligatory my-little-brother-graduated-from-high-school post

My brother Jason graduated from high school yesterday, leading to the looking-back-now-I-can-laugh-at-it picture of me in an unkempt academic robe, hood sliding off one shoulder, (parents wanted a picture of both of us in grad gear), mortarboard in one hand and typing with the other fielding phone calls and chats for the Game Jam while intermittently dashing away to take family pictures.

The speeches were interesting, if somewhat predictable. The alumna speaker talked about how much more fortunate we were than the students in Africa that she works with, which was nice - but I grinned when she told the students they could be anything they wanted to be, like "a doctor, or a lawyer..." We live in an upper-class suburb indeed.

The other thing that struck me was how much the ceremony was like an assembly line. A huge, government-funded, 12-year, 700-kid assembly line.

Step 1: Reader calls the kid's name with the Graduation Intonation (TM) - first-name? middle-name? last-NAME. Since this is Glenview, home to the upper-class which includes plenty of Asians, we had a steady stream of "dah-dah? dah-dah? CHANG.", "dah-dah? dah-dah! LEE." and "dah-dah? dah-dah? PARK."s in the lineup. I thought we would never run out of Parks. (I wonder if any are going to school in Boston so we can tell them "Pahk, your cah's in Hahvahd yahd.")

Step 2: Kid stands next to the podium in dark blue gown and mortarboard and smiles for the camera. Acceptable variants include mortarboard upright on head or pinned back nearly perpendicular to the ground; honors sash or Glenbrook-scholar hood (visual distinctions based on GPA - I don't agree with this practice, but there it is), and sheepish/proud/I-know-you're-taking-my-picture smile.

Optional: For a few kids, family members or friends will whoop and cheer in the background as step 2 occurs (despite the request to refrain until all students have received their diplomas) followed by a muttered grumble of annoyance rippling through the audience

Step 3-7: Kid rotates 90 degrees clockwise, walks across the stage, shakes hand, gets diploma, shakes another hand, takes picture, joins long line of marching blue-robed students shuffling back to seat. Basically, step up, here? is? your? NAME. rotate, walk, shake, take, shake, picture, shuffle, shuffle, sit. Like boxes being packed and processed (with the Glorious Rewards of KNOLLIDJ, no less).

It was a long ceremony. They looped Pomp and Circumstance more times than I'd care to remember. "Some people need ceremony," my dad said on the way to the theatre. "I don't." "So why are we going?" I asked him. "Because we have to." Afterwards we went to dinner with one of my mom's old classmates and her husband, and then Jason went off to some graduation party which he came back from at 5am, proceeding then to sleep for 12 hours (he called from his cell phone upstairs to complain that I was playing piano at 3pm. "Why didn't you walk downstairs and tell me?" I asked. "I'm lazy," he said.")

Happy graduation, dorkboy. Wake up already so I can play piano.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The question is will it get done, not who is doing it

Finally at home with a (mostly) working laptop and a working cell phone. I'm somewhat overwhelmed with the OLPC conference, definitely having a series of "why did I think I could do this?" moments, but I've been scheduling "grit your teeth and just get down to it" sessions which are helping a lot and chipping away at the mountain of Stuff That Needs To Be Done. Learning a lot.

From a Worldchanging article on OLPC:

If other projects can put a laptop in every child’s hands, the project achieves its goal, even if the laptop is not the XO.

Now that is exactly what I was talking about at the Presidents' Council for Olin. There's all this talk about other countries "beating us," other engineering schools someday becoming "more innovative," as if the objective were to come out on top of a hacker's horse race. We can't let that happen! some of the trustees cried.

Actually, I said, we should. Our competitors are our friends. If we inspire other folks to try new things, that's great! They certainly do the same for Olin. If other schools offer crazy, make-your-own educations, fantastic. And if other schools inspired by Olin someday surpass it in sheer magnitude of innovation and quality of education - well, the phoenix rises from the ashes again.* The greatest joy of a good teacher is to have your own students surpass you; it means you've taught them well.

The point is to get a laptop to these kids; it doesn't need to be an XO. The point is to get a good education to young engineers; it doesn't have to be an Olin one.

*And sometimes there is no "best," there is no "optimal" - there are many ways to be excellent, and we shouldn't try to rank-order everything.