Monday, August 27, 2007

Free textbooks - different philosophies

Josh Gay came to the OLPC office to hang out tonight and we butted heads (in a frustrating but ultimately good way - disagreement makes you think) on what "free textbooks" meant, should be created, or look like. Didn't really realize why until I re-read the development philosophy on his site,

Josh's philosophy

Many of the existing education projects out there are primarily
focused on developing software and standards with the hope that educators and volunteers will propogate their web sites with educational and teaching materials once a framework has been built.

This project takes the philosophy that software and standards should be based upon the data that is collected and the problems you are trying to solve. We place priority in technology projects that make it easy for contributors to contribute and organize the data.

My philosophy

Many of the existing education projects out there are primarily focused on developing content and tools for making content with the hope that educators and volunteers propagate their web site frameworks with educational and teaching materials, other teachers and students will actually use and learn from them.

This project takes the philosophy that the ultimate goal of any education project should be based upon creating a great learning experience at a specific moment for a specific learner or group of learners. Rather than contributing something to a general pool "for the good of humanity" or so it will be useful to some vague hypothetical set of future students, we place priority in creating the resources that an active group of learners needs to get to the next step they want to be at, now.

In a nutshell

Josh and I want to design for different user groups. Josh wants to serve content contributors and creators by giving them a reason to contribute, an easy way to do so, good ways to get started, small task-chunks they can take on if they don't want to sink their life into something - because students can't learn from resources nobody's made. I want to serve students by giving them blue foam interfaces to build their own airplane as they fly it, throwing down guidance and resources one step ahead of them, or by their own direct request - because folks are more motivated to create immediately relevant resources when students are going to be learning from them 5 minutes after they create them.

It's partially a chicken-and-egg problem - but it'll be interesting to see what happens, as I'm sure this topic of conversation will spring up quite often.

Now... where did I put my ECS textbook? I wonder if I can get one or more of the ECS NINJAs this year to test it out as a resource for their class - it'll make me write new chapters to stay ahead of the first-years, since I was only able to really finish one chapter I'm marginally proud of (everything else I'm scrapping). (If you are reading this, plan on being an ECS NINJA, and are interested, give me a ping.)

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The past 24 hours have been - interesting.

Man, what a weekend. I was simultaneously working on my new laptop (new laptop! I love my new laptop!), decimating my personal property ("Do I need 14 polo shirts? No. And I don't even wear them."), happily eating Crenshaw melon, but otherwise feeling really sluggish, unproductive, and confined-to-quarters - I love my aunt's house, but wish it was much closer to public transportation - and wishing I could make it into town for Mako & Mika's housewarming party, but having no way to get there.

After battling kernel modules and getting Feisty to boot consistently, I fired up wireless, installed Xchat, and headed for the #olpc-content channel for the first time in a long while. Chris (Crschmidt), Mitchell, Julius, and Adrian were talking about meeting up for a beer. I wished out loud I could come, but reckoned it wasn't going to happen because I didn't want to walk several miles to the under-construction Green line in the middle of the night. The next thing I knew, Chris had swooped out to pick me up, and we headed to The Cellar on Mass Ave to meet up with the rest of the crew. During the next 24 hours, I...

  • Hung out @ the Cellar playing with laptops and giving informal demos - such a good way to recruit new potential volunteers!
  • Went to the new Acetarium location (Mako & Mika's new place) in Davis Square, where I tried the worst blueberry-coconut smoothie ever (apparently vodka makes things taste bad) and saw SCUL riding down the streets of Somerville from the Acetarium's roof.
  • Decided we were hungry at around 3am. Piled into multiple cars, drove across town to the South Street Diner, consumed copious amounts of cholesterol-laden comfort food.
  • Crashed for all of 2 hours on one of Mako & Mika's many couches, bounded up refreshed at 7:30 ("Did you sleep?" "I don't usually, yeah.") and washed dishes from the night before as a relaixingly productive way to start the day.
  • After an amusing episode involving Mako's attempts to decide whether or not to wake up Ben Swartz, we headed for brunch at Johnny D's. They had excellent quesadillas and live Jazz music on a Sunday morning. I had my second bowl of cheese grits, which were delicious.
  • Spent the day replying to email, reading a book on typography, and (apparently) micronapping intermittently, all on the Acetarium's couch. Was reminded (via email/IRC) by Steve Longfield and Nikki Lee how much I miss long conversations with Oliners about randomness and learning and life. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone when they move back in on Tuesday.
  • Eventually headed out with Mika to meet the guys at Harvard Yard - ate chips & salsa and played a card game about bean farming, which is a lot more fun than it sounds like (and reminds me that I'm a terrible card player - although I ended up in a 3-way tie for second place).
  • Wandered down Mass Ave, bubble tea in hand, past throngs of people (including the closest-to-naked dancers I've ever seen) coming back from the Cambridge Carnival, which had apparently happened directly in front of the OLPC office. They were breaking down the booths as I went by, and the delicious smell of roasted meat and plantains was thick through the air.
  • Hit the 1cc OLPC office... and stayed.

Yeah, I spent last night at the office. And I wasn't the only intern to do so on a Sunday night. Rafael and Joel were there through most of it as well. I'm not sure if Rafael slept; joel and I both took naps on the couch. My couch-nap accidentally made me miss the MIThenge moon event at 4am, which I'd intended to wander off to as a break from slogging through a month of email backlog. Oh well.

Brain core dump finished - I just don't want to forget the mindblowing whirlwind that's been the past day. Back to backlog!

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The best thing for being sad is to learn something

Left without a computer, I've been reading a lot (unsurprisingly). As I've read, tiny bits of books stick and tumble around and over in my mind - here's one that's been swimming in the back lately, from The Once And Future King.*

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn... "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."

*I actually have never read this book. I've read multiple books that cite it, and know many people who adore it, and should probably pick it up sometime.

Now the actual update. First, I can still get by on very little sleep, which is good to rediscover. I've been crawling lethargically around the house for the last week blowing my nose a lot; not sure if that was allergens, a cold, or a combination of both. It was probably best that it happened during my week of worst connectivity, though... I started clearing up right about the time I got my new laptop.

Ah, yes. Laptop. I'm wired and mobile again! I'm typing this post from my brand-spankin'-new Thinkpad. It is a thing of beauty, and needs significant modifications to the default Ubuntu install to be truly awesome (for instance, sound would be nice, as would the ability to go on standby) but it has (1) firefox, (2) working wireless, (3) xchat, and (4) the ability to ssh, so it's getting there.*

*update: Bluetooth works (after a fashion), I no longer have to modprobe piix every time I boot up, and thunderbird is present but burping slightly on occasion. Progress. I'm trying to enable one new feature every day.

Also: I'm in Boston again, as opposed to fairly-remote-suburbs-thereof-without-bike-or-car. Thanks to a late-night ride into the city from Crschmidt, I'm typing this post from a sofa in Mako & Mika's apartment, having just washed plenty of dishes from the Acetarium housewarming party last night, with help from the other folks who crashed here this morning. Note: Blueberry-coconut smoothie sounds great, but tastes nasty. Also note: Late-night diners are expensive but filling and tasty. Also also note: Roofs are wonderful! Why have I not been up on them more?

Proximity and connectivity are two things I've lacked for a while, and it's good to have them back, albeit in temporary and limited form. I'm wincing at the amount I have to catch up on, though. Should just shut up about how much I've got to do, and just do it.

Reading back through this post, I'm shaking my head at how dissolute and unordered my thoughts are this morning. Right, though. To work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Thumbs up, thumbs down.

Good things, bad things. Bad things first:

No Australia for Mel.

My talk/tutorial (on Jams and Summer of Content) for got turned down (it was a long shot - over 75% of proposals get rejected, and I'm a little newbie punk with no credentials) so it looks like there's to be no Sydney for me this coming winter - ah well, such is life.

Computer goes kaput.

Also, I'm spoiled. I depend too much on the infrastructures that usually surround me for support; lack of easy transport and stable computing are severely debilitating for my communications and productivity. My Dell has given up staying together in the physical sense. I am balancing the monitor on my knee as I type this; the hinge has fractured at three points (and is slopping around on the monitor cable and one last desperate clinging screw, the plastic panel covering the lights and buttons above the keyboard has snapped off and been replaced by saran-wrap to avoid water or something splashing into the now-exposed circuit board. Also, my Dell is narcoleptic, and I'm slowly migrating everything off its hard drive before files start getting mangled (as it is, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a chunk of archive emails somewhere - that'll teach me to save them in four different local folders...).

Stop saying I can't learn languages.

Frustration: My mom says that I'm not good at learning languages. Something about it being difficult because of my hearing (which was the reason I wasn't allowed to take Spanish classes in middle school). I used to believe that for a long time, because adults told me that was the case. Now I don't. I just reckon it means I need to learn them differently than most folks do. But (as of 2 days ago, anyway) Mom still does... I told her that there were things called books, and things called self-fulfilling prophecies, and that I was going to use the former and to please stop saying I wasn't good at languages lest the latter continue to occur.*

*The bulk of my language-learning activities this summer (Spanish, and now Tagalog) have been filled with deliberately easy victories and low-hanging fruit - reading Wikipedia pages in parallel with their translations, learning about nifty little linguistic idiosyncracies, reading about minimalist syntax (which gets me stoked on the topic of learning actual languages). I tried starting with classroom-like activities and just froze up; I couldn't get rid of the voice that said that I wasn't Good at the way you're Supposed to learn languages in School. So I'm looking for a back-door.

I secretly hate doing well.

It's weird; as I meet more and more smart, independent, self-confident young people, I become more and more painfully aware how much I'm terrified of succeeding (much more scared of it than failing) and how many of the voices inside my head and out tell me I don't have the ability or the right to do this or that or the other, because I'm too young, or too deaf, or too female, or too idealistic, or too... something - or I'm not naturally a linguist or an athlete or a good concentrator or a something else I want to be.

Whatever. I'm just going to keep on Doing Stuff, and occasionally looking back and pointing out to the voices in my head (and, somewhat more politely, the ones outside my head) that hey, this is proof by counterexample that I can do things. The trick is, apparently, that I can't realize I'm doing the proof-by-counterexample thing when I start. When I read a book on minimalist syntax and love it, the voices in my brain don't recognize it as a language learning activity at first, so the "you're not good at laaaaaanguages!" mantra doesn't switch on until I'm enjoying myself too much to stop anyway. That's what I mean by going through the back-door on stuff I want to learn.

It also makes me wonder how much of my love of mathematics was made possible by discovering the grown-up math section of the library just barely before middle school, when the "you're not good at maaaaaaath!" voice seems to start for most girls (if I remember the research lit correctly). Maybe by the time I realized math wasn't a common or cool thing to like, I liked it enough to be able to keep doing it anyhow.

That's all the depressing braindumps I had. Now the great stuff.

New laptop is coming!

First, I'm getting a new computer. It's supposed to arrive late this week. It's a Thinkpad. I am now thankful I put money into that "new computer fund" throughout college. I'm going to start that again.

Komp(uter untuk an)Ak

Languages make me happy! The fledgling OLPC Indonesia group wrote today that instead of literally translating "One Laptop Per Child" they wanted to translate "OLPC" as "KompAk," short for "Komputer untuk anak" (The Children's Computer). As an added bonus, "kompak" means "to integrate," "to unite," "team-work," and similar in Bahasa Indonesian. Was this okay?

I told them it was more perfect than they could imagine, as the original name for the laptop was "The Children's Machine," which is almost certainly from a Papert book of the same name. The book was about... integration. Collaboration between disciplines, between people, blending things together to make synergy happen. Aided by computers, of course.

Food is awesome.

Finally, in the absence of stable computing, I've spent more time in the last few weeks doing things away from my keyboard - especially cooking and paring-down-stuff. The sweet smell of roasted fall vegetables is thick throughout the kitchen, prepping for a creamy soup by bubbling into softness in a pot of homemade chicken broth (made from the roast chicken carcassfrom several days back); I'm about to bring out the (super-ripe) raspberry sorbet, tomatoes broiled with balsamic vinegar have been tossed with seasoned parmesan over spinach-cheese ravioli, the miso rub for the salmon later tonight is waiting in the fridge, and there are peaches to grill for dessert. (Oh, I love my aunt's kitchen, there are ingredients to cook with!)

Minimalism is also awesome.

And in the paring-down-stuff department - I'm working to get (and I think I'm going to make it!)

  • All my clothes (minus shoes) in one luggage
  • All my bedding (pillow, comforter, sheets, everything) in one duffel
  • All my electronics and development tools (minus a monitor and printer/scanner) in one backpack
  • Everything else in two bins: one for archiving (the "leave in someone's basement for a decade because this will be a rich source of stories and delightment 10 years from now" box) and one for stuff I actually use (lamps, cooking supplies, decorations, etc etc).

That leaves only my library to deal with, and I have a plan for that (Chris and Boris have heard it, but not many others as of yet). But otherwise, I can carry my life in a luggage, a duffel, and a bin ( Some Container to hold my few pairs of shoes, monitor, and printer, but hopefully a solution for that will present itself).

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cam: fishing for better prices with mobile phones

Via Vinay's blog: a fascinating article that made me think of Caslin's Social E! class all over again. It's about Cam, "a toolkit that makes it simple to use phones to capture images and scan documents, enter and process data, and run interactive audio and video." Big whoop, right? But that's the entire point of appropriate technology: tiny changes leverage into huge benefits.

When fishermen from the Indian state of Kerala are done fishing each day, they have to decide which of an array of ports they should sail for in order to sell their catch. Traditionally, the fishermen have made the decision at random–or, to put it more charitably, by instinct. Then they got mobile phones. That allowed them to call each port and discover where different fishes were poorly stocked, and therefore where they would be likely to get the best price for their goods. That helped the fishermen reap a profit, but it also meant that instead of one port’s being stuck with more fish than could be sold while other ports ran short, there was a better chance that supply would be closer to demand at all the ports. The fishermen became more productive, markets became more efficient, and the Keralan economy as a whole got stronger.

My favorite part, however, is the one that you usually don't see in articles about Social E! and appropriate tech. It's the sober admission that you can't help everyone at the same time. Economics isn't a zero-sum game, but often, when someone benefits from something, someone else is disadvantaged anyhow. There are many counterexamples to that generalization and many more ways to minimize the effect, but it's still there more often than not. As we help thousands of people leap the digital divide, we still leave others behind.*

It would be a mistake to see Cam and technologies like it as a panacea for the problem of underdevelopment. While it's easy to become infatuated with the promise of microfinance and small-scale entrepreneurship, it's also easy to overestimate how much influence these things can exert on developing economies, which often face structural problems that won't be solved by making local markets more efficient. And it's also the case that, in the short run at least, the arrival of new technologies can widen the gap between the prosperous and the struggling: if you're buying more from the Cam-equipped farmers, you'll probably buy less from the non-Cam-equipped ones. In other words, not everyone will win.

*That's okay. We don't have to save the world ourselves. That's why there are another 6,602,224,174** of us.

**(according to the CIA Factbook this month)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Jamendo rocks (no pun intended)

Do you like music? Like playing music, listening to music? You need to see Jamendo.

It's a... music community, for lack of shorter inclusive phrase. Bands can host, publicize, stream, etc. their creative-commons-licensed music, listeners can remix, playlist, rate, download, etc. them... artists can get revenue through donations and advertising, and the project aims to put musicians back out in front of their audience (instead of stuck in recording studios in order to make money).

Are you creative? Do you want your music to be listened to by a wider audience? jamendo brings the artists back on stage. Music is done by artists for the public and now is the time to get rid of exclusive intermediaries.

Their business model is fantastic. Seriously, it's like YouTube for music, but... open. My (occasional) band, License Server is recording a song just so we can put it on Jamendo. It's that cool.

As if that weren't enough, they're also partnering with OLPC. I was lucky enough to be able to meet Sylvain, the CTO and founder of Jamendo, at Wikimania this year. (And when I say "amazing," I mean "we had a single conversation one evening and by the following day he appeared with a music collection bundled for the laptop and scripts to autogenerate more, along with a press release for recruiting more Jamendo musicians.")

So... yeah. Go! Find yourselves some great music! (Oh - did I mention it's multilingual and multicultural, and that Peruvian pop and Indian rock sound really good?) Better yet, make some music, CC-license it, and share it on Jamendo. And if you put "OLPC" before the name of a playlist you're making, it'll automatically add it to the OLPC library.

*hums happily*

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Tale of the Scipline Islands

This is a continuing piece (read: I'm tired and need to complete the typing later, although the story's finished) and my first attempt at a learning parable a-la Papert. Many thanks to Chris Carrick, the first audience of the story, who provided many helpful comments which have been incorporated here. I'm curious whether readers can guess where this story is headed (heck, it might be better than the one I've got written already). Bonus points if you can pick up the naming references. (Hint: They're not all that subtle.)

The Tale of the Scipline Islands

There was once a place called the Scipline Islands, a series of island villages in the midst of the ocean (More often the natives just referred to their home as "The Sciplines," and themselves as "The Sciplinarians.") All the Sciplines spoke a similar language, traded amongst themselves, and were generally on friendly terms with each other. It wasn't hard to travel between villages, but most people generally spent most of their time in the place where they were raised.

This was not because they disliked traveling. It was because of fruit. The primary food source of all the villages was an amazing variety of fruit-bearing bushes - many varieties of delicious fruit, but fruit tricky enough for humans to gather that it took some good amount of skill to be able to efficiently pick it. For the most part, everyone had to gather their own food - a skilled adult could gather just a bit more than what he or she needed in a full day of picking, so specialization in things other than fruit-gathering was rare. Most villagers spent their time gathering enough fruit to feed their family. Finally, each island's fruit was peculiar to that island (there had been several attempts to plant fruit from one island on another, but the soil composition was different between islands and these experiments inevitably failed), and the fruit perishable enough and the distance between islands far enough that the fruit would barely last the length of a journey.

This meant two things: First, given the choice of living in a place where you knew how to pick the fruit and having several hours of free time left (after an efficient fruit-picking session and the subsequent tasty meal) to enjoy each day, or moving to another island and spending several miserable and slightly hungry years spending long, inefficient hours trying to get the hang of picking a different type of fruit entirely - well, most people picked the former.

Second, given the difficulty of transporting fruit from one village to another, a small number of traders ran a tricky but profitable business shuttling fruit (usually the sparse extra fruit that others had picked, as the traders had to spend most of their time and energy crossing the ocean) between two islands. But fruit is best when it's picked ripe, and one that had crossed the ocean was never quite the same as a fresh-picked one, so the people on each island though the Inter-Sciplinarians (as the traders were called) must not be terribly good fruit-pickers, as the exotic foodstuffs they brought from the other lands never tasted nearly as good as their own...

One fateful season, a number of hard, round objects washed up on the shores of one of the islands. They were grey, smooth, about the size of a person's head... and, as the Sciplinarians soon discovered, yielded an edible brownish-tan flesh when repeatedly bashed with a heavy rock. Further experimentation led to the conclusion that this new "fruit" was moderately nutritious and not unpleasant to consume, rather versatile in recipies, but nowhere near as delicious as their island's local bush-fruit. Out of curiosity, they decided to plant the remaining objects to see if they were seeds (as some of the Sciplinarians theorized) and would sprout into some sort of plant.

An Inter-Sciplinarians arriving at that island the following season was astounded to see several tall, spindly trees jutting from the usual low cover of bush-foliage. After several queries, she found a boy named Henry who explained that the trees had been planted just the season before, and offered to climb one for her. "In this tree, we get fruit," said the boy. "Indus tree - you get fruit?" misheard the trader. After being shown the hard grey orbs (procured by Henry with some difficulty), the trader decided to take a few of these "Indus tree fruits" to see if they would trade well at the other islands - not as fruit (as it wasn't nearly as tasty as bush-fruit) but as an easy source of plentiful wood.

It turned out that Indus trees (the name stuck) flourished equally fast in all the islands - the first plant known to do so - and since timber and fuel are always handy things to have around, within several seasons all the islands had tiny groves of Indus trees growing amidst their fruit-bushes.

ndus wood grew popular, but the Sciplinarians still hadn't acquired a taste for Indus fruit. Indus trees were yet another plant to learn how to pick fruit from, and their fruit wasn't nearly as tasty as bush-fruit. It just wasn't worth it... for the older adults, at least. On yet another island, some of the younger Sciplinarians began to hear the traders talk about thriving Indus tree groves on the other islands and began to think. It went something like this:

1. We want to travel and see the world!
2. Why can't we?
3. We can, but it's difficult because we have to relearn how to get food every new place we go to, and struggle and go hungry until we figure it out - and figuring it out takes years.
4. Well, why do we have to relearn how to pick fruit at every island?
5. Because the fruit on every island is tricky to pick in a different way.
6. But supposing there was a plant with edible fruit that grew on every island? We could learn how to pick just that plant, and we'd be able to eat on any island...

The next morning, the island's elders were astounded to find a small passle of young people doing pull-ups, braiding long ropes, and (with great difficulty and loud grunts and shouts) climbing the Indus tree grove with great diligence and concentration. They, of course, asked the youngsters to explain themselves. What were they trying to do? Why were they learning to climb trees that yielded not-so-tasty fruit? Wasn't this a waste of time?

"Learning this will give me freedom - maximum mobility to get where I want to go," said a teenage girl perched halfway up a trunk. "It's not as good to eat, but it's worth it to be able to travel," added a boy of about the same age cracking an Indus fruit open against a rock. "Besides, we're the ones eating it." "Yes," the girl agreed, "and we ought to be able to decide what we want to eat, right? And if we want to eat it, we've got to learn how to get it." The island elders shook their heads and walked away, some smiling softly.

(more to come...)

Learning parables

This is perhaps my favorite Star Wars joke. The kind that makes you laugh first and think afterwards.

I'm drawn to Papert's playful parables on learning. Actually, frequent glances back at his work along with Galt's, Holt's, Kozol's, and Applebee's (to name a few) are what are keeping me slogging through the rest; I'm still at the point where, if I want to get through "formal academic papers" on the topic of education (or engineering education), I literally have to force myself to sit and stare at the paper, even read it out loud. Some seem to be written with either too many words for not enough content ("excess padding"). Others seem to be written as humorless vivisections of a topic I love - teaching and learning pinned out on a cold and sterile table, every part tagged with an overly polysyllabic name that ultimately tells you nothing about it.

Learning is not a science. It is not an art. It is both; it is more. It is a human endeavor, although even that falls short of a good description... I seethe in frustration at attempts to block-diagram and standardize it.

Anyway. Parables! In an odd, roundabout way, reading Papert makes me want to study Zen. Here's one of my favorites (on the OLPC project), as told by Nicholas Negroponte and reported by Xavier Leonard. It's one of the least parable-y Papert parables I've read, actually.

[Imagine a school in a country where] the only form of communication is speech. Then, one day, someone invents writing and everyone thinks it great. Trying find a way for students get the greatest benefit from this new technology, the school administrators first discuss putting a single pencil in each of the classrooms. Then they decide that a better idea is to take 10 pencils and put them all into one room, called a "pencil lab." Each student would be able to access a pencil two hours a day, two days out of the week.

You can read the wiki version here - if you do, be sure to read these four supporting links afterwards. Especially this one:

I get upset when people say that the point of the laptops is that children can learn “all the time, everywhere.” Of course it’s true. But insulting to children. They are learning all the time wherever they are. Maybe not what you want them to learn – but that’s a very different story.

It is not only insulting, but counter-productive, to count only our kind – or school’s kind – of learning and thinking as real learning and thinking. The central problem of education is not teaching children to think differently, but connecting what we think they should learn with the kind of thinking they can do very well.

Next up: My first attempt at parables (with the assistance of Chris Carrick).

Why you should or should not go to $schoolname

Ran across twofish's old post on why to go (or not to go) to MIT today. It's a compelling read, especially since I nearly went to MIT (but ended up at Olin instead). Some passages that particularly caught my attention - after the usual disclaimer that his post represents his individual experience at MIT, just as mine represents my individual experience at Olin, and your mileage may vary:

There are some great teachers at MIT. There are also some truly awful ones. Research is a higher priority at MIT than undergraduate classroom teaching. The quality of the classroom instruction is not a good reason to go to MIT... the main reasons that the undergraduate experience works, lies outside the classroom.

Coming from a teaching-oriented school at Olin, I'm always surprised by this, even if my professors (and my friends from other schools) have repeatedly described the low position teaching (particularly the teaching of undergraduates, and especially first-years) holds on the totem pole of academia. After being surrounded by Olin professors by four years, one of the main reasons I want to become a professor myself is so that I can teach like them - my (naive) mindset still wonders how can teaching not be your passion if you're a professor.

For me, this is a good thing. I was (and internally still am) a shy, reluctant person who needed that direct guidance and support a good teacher gives in order to jump into adventuring in the wider world. To put it another way: my professors at Olin gave me the courage to learn without them. In fact, they (after many years) gave me the courage to learn without a school at all. I believe that good teaching is good precisely because it gets you to see and interact with the world that lies outside the classroom. For some people, an MIT-style environment is great, because they're already putting more stock in things-that-aren't-their-coursework, but others (like me) won't think outside the classroom unless someone inside the classroom (where they've been trained to listen) leads them out of it.

MIT is a bad place to be if you don’t know who you are and what you want to do with your life.

This made me grin. I've lost track of how many times I've talked to someone at Olin - even in their senior year - and asked what they wanted to do afterwards, and their answer was laughter and a happy "you know, I have no idea!" So... yeah. Different.

If you are sure you want to do something technical, but not sure exactly what technical thing you want to do, MIT is a great place. On the other hand, if you think that you might want to be an artist, a high school teacher, or carpenter, or you aren’t sure that you want to do with your life, then MIT may not be such a good place.

Following off the above comment - while there are a decent number of "I'm going to graduate and be an Engineer with a capital E and I love high-carbon steel and CNC machines and silicon wafers and PSPICE forever!!!" students at Olin, there are an equal (or possibly even higher) number of people who enjoy engineering, are glad to learn it as a background, but want to do something else either in conjunction with or instead of engineering as it's traditionally thought of. (I don't think we have a carpenter yet, but high school teachers and artists, yes.)

The problem is that MIT is a very busy place, and busy places make it hard for you to sit down and think things through. At MIT, there will always be this deadline or that activities, and it is hard to find the time to meditate and think about what you want to do.

Yeah. Actually, I think this is true for life in general, if you're the kind of bright, fast-paced, ambitious, inventive kid that would go to Olin, MIT, or some other similar school in the first place. If you like life fast, it's going to come at you that way - and it's going to be up to you to remember to take time out to slow it down once in a while.

At some point when you are at MIT, you will likely feel totally miserable. There was one anonymous survey that indicated that most people at MIT had a mental health issue that interfered with their functioning sometime in the past year. The fact that the everyone at the Institute is trying to push themselves at thir limits is what makes MIT a great place, but there is a cost to this.
Ah, yes. The dark side. No matter how much you try to take care of everyone, it happens. Again, I think this tends to happen to bright young people who are ambitious and push themselves hard no matter where they end up. I think that these students tend to do a remarkable job of supporting each other through this. I can't speak for MIT, but at Olin I have also seen faculty and administration go through incredible lengths to help students who are going through a tough time (heck, I've had professors call my friends to check up on me).

Generally: No matter where you are, there are people who care. Ask for help. Don't push them away and don't ignore what's being offered to you, and please don't play up the dramatic "Woe is me! Nobody cares about me! So I must heroically push through, misunderstood, through a lonely tragic life" angle. Yes, life may be hard. It often is. And maybe some people who you may have immediate dealings with really don't care. But somewhere out there, somebody does. Go out and find them.

The final point is that, if you want, MIT or something like it will eventually come to you... Don’t be under the mistaken notion that accepting an admission to MIT is the one and only chance you will have to interact with it, it isn’t.

Amen. There will always be cool places and people and projects - don't feel like you have to grab onto all of them right now. As long as you're doing something you're happy doing, there will always be opportunities open to you in the future.

And if they don't yet exist, you can always make them. If there's anything I learned in college, it's that if a bunch of people (and they're all people - extraordinary ones, but also ordinary ones as well) can get together and "build their own damn school and have it ripple out to touch so many lives so deeply (and that's just as a warm-up!) then... well, who knows what I can help build?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stuff I've enjoyed reading in the past 48 hours

It's time for one of those rarities: a post on this blog made almost exclusively from nifty links.

dotSUB makes me happy (and informed!) It's a site where you can subtitle (and translate) videos and podcasts, and its interface is a lot handier than my WikiTranscript idea (which may still be useful in terms of seeding something like dotSUB with a starter transcription - I need to play with the Sphinx voice rec engine more, though). I have never been able to understand an entire podcast before without the help of a friend or a text transcript hosted elsewhere on a website (and seriously, folks, it's so much nicer when you don't have to scroll through the text yourself...)

Ivan Kristic is amazing. He's the inventor of Bitfrost (which is fascinating; read the spec here), director of security at OLPC... and needs to have his office pranked sometime ;-)

Conference blogging (courtesy Ethan Zuckerman) - you mean there's a word for what I do, and other people post their notes to blogs? Sweet! This brings back memories of last year's Wikimania, when I coordinated session transcriptions (using a gobby document for each talk). Conclusion: notetaking is too much of an individual effort for this kind of thing to work - you end up with one person being the primary typer and others editing. I'm going to try doing this at the next conference I'm at - announce I'm taking notes on a gobby server and invite others to join me, but take responsibility for posting my own notes to a wiki somewhere. I think it will help, since I love taking notes on everything, type pretty fast, and have a hard time catching words sometimes during speeches (basically, if I look away for a few second, I have no idea what the speaker's saying - the disadvantage to being lipreading-reliant and using a Markov-type model to guess missed words through context).

Turn off your air conditioning.

I'm sorely tempted by these t-shirts, although I know I don't need them (and have enough shirts, really). Also, I appreciate that Questionable Content sells geeky girls' t-shirts. I almost don't want to admit this because I have (or had?) a longstanding aversion to thinking/talking about clothes and curves and hate sounding remotely "girly," but they... look (and feel) a lot better on me (as far as I'm concerned) than normal guys' t-shirts. Most of my wardrobe could still be worn by a guy my size, though.

That's all for now.

Laura's on Worldchanging!

I'm probably going to get pelted by her for this, but couldn't resist: a certain fellow Olin '07-er is on the front page of Worldchanging. (Center of picture, holding a white cylinder to what looks like a disc sander.) Her dedication to IDDS (for which she was one of the key organizers) has been amazing, including spending hours every week during her hectic final semester at college riding a bus to and from MIT to make org meetings, not to mention working round-the-clock to keep everyone sane, fed, organized, and happy (and spending long hours defusing discussions and organizing volunteers, to boot).

And now she's going to Zambia for D-Lab. Actually, she's probably already on her way there to save the world (which is probably the only reason I'm able to write this in the first place...) Definitely one of those people you have to keep an eye on, since you have no idea what she's going to do in the next 10 years but you know it's going to be spectacular.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stigmergy: why engineering educators reinvent the wheel?

I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I could sleep. Insomnia is a bummer sometimes.

Fascinating new word today - stigmergy, courtesy Mark Elliott. I adore his intro paper on the topic.

Stigmergy is a method of indirect communication in a self-organizing emergent system where its individual parts communicate with one another by modifying their local environment.
It might - just might - be a clue to how to explain a phenomena in engineering education I've been noticing but didn't have a name to call. Why do engineering educators reinvent the wheel all the time? Why do they keep trying the same "innovative" experiments, barely publish those experiments they do, spend so little time learning about the context, history, and prior work in the engineering education - or even just the education - field? (I stereotype and overgeneralize here, of course.)

Maybe they are, unconsciously, counting on stigmergy to be the solution. It's the "throw your hands in the air and give up" solution to the cat-herding problem. If a lot of smart people strike out independently, something will happen, like Mark's paper says: disparate, distributed,
ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the
largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen. However, is it
correct to call these enterprises “collaboration”?

Right. That sometimes becomes the problem. If something happens, it stays localized because of lack of clear communication lines. If something happens, it takes a while to realize it, because people are so busy doing that they don't poke their heads up to "be meta" often enough. Again, stereotyping, overgeneralizing, exaggerating.

Stigmergy assumes a critical mass - or rather, a critical balance of concentration - of people and action. Too little space, and any action crystallizes the mass; people don't feel like they have room to step out and breathe and explore independently, there's too much at stake at every turn. Too much space, and you lose the ripple effect potential; you get affected by the actions of others, but not with enough speed or frequency to be able to pass it on enough to make a difference.

It's the same reason why you should hold classes (and speeches and meetings) in as small a physical space as possible. And it's fascinating to watch communities grow into (and shrink out of) the spaces they've built for themselves, a trail of just-in-time creation (supply-chain style), followed by wikipages and mailing lists... or houses, cities, land, clubs (I think we all know this happens for clubs at Olin), etc lying fallow, dying through selective neglect, ossifying and remaining as muted calcifications on the landscape. Which the next generation, of course, blithely ignores (or thinks they do - they're subtly affected by it nevertheless).

And now, the reason why I like Mark's paper so much:

The following represents some of the current findings of the author’s PhD research on and around collaboration and stigmergic collaboration, and comprises the core components of the theoretical framework guiding this article:

  1. Collaboration is dependent upon communication, and communication is a network phenomenon.
  2. Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative
  3. Collaboration in small groups (roughly 2-25) relies upon social negotiation to evolve and guide its process and creative output.
  4. Collaboration in large groups (roughly 25-n) is enabled by stigmergy.
My gut and experience tell me this is probably true. The scientist in me inserts the <em> tags around "probably." I wonder how we could find out. I'm watching Mark's research with interest.

A related word I was enamored by, several months back (thanks to the E.O. Wilson book of the same title) is consilience. Ah, meta stuff. It feels good to embrace this tendency instead of fighting it (and laugh ironically at my old sometime-handle of "metamel" from years ago before I standardized to "mchua").

Monday, August 13, 2007


Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

I feel like I've been living in Slaughterhouse Five for at least the last week, if not longer. Haven't slept in the same bed more than two nights in a row for the past three weeks. Haven't slept vaguely the same hours, either. I've been eating and sleeping enough, but not regularly; with a lot of work to catch up on and no reason to knock myself back into a normal Boston-hour schedule after returning from Taiwan, I seem to have stepped into a quasi-bohemian mindset that features 3AM chocolate cake munchings, 6am tromps across the city, midnight bookstore-browsing trips, and a growing sense of walking around the world pushing the "view source" button that peels back the technological, psychological, and social constructs I'd normally take for granted.

I haven't figured out how to deal with this "Blaaah! World looks different!" feeling yet, so my mind is consequently quite a mess as it tries as many different ways of handling the new input as possible. Last time a paradigm shift of this magnitude happened, its effects were kept relatively in check by the fact that I was still a student and had classes to go to and homework to turn in. Last paradigm shift was of the "wait, I don't have to stay in engineering?" variety - it was the realization that loving education was okay, and that I could work in any field I wanted to. This shift is more like realizing that I don't have to work in any particular field at all - or rather, that what constitutes the possibilities for "work" and "field" are much, much broader than I'd previously imagined.

The previous two paragraphs probably sounded quite strange. Coherence is something I think I'll be struggling with a lot in the next 9 years - I'm taking the "your twenties are a time of personal growth!" adage very seriously, so any blog of mine is going to sound like a "download: mel.unstable.tzg" release for a while. Translation for the non-coders reading this blog, courtesy Wikipedia (with mild rewordings):

...the term unstable does not necessarily mean that there are
problems - rather, that enhancements or changes have been made to the
Mel that have not undergone rigorous testing and that more changes
are expected to be imminent. Friends and family of Mel are advised to use
the stable version of the Mel-interface if this weirds them out (consult man mel or just say "Man, Mel, I don't understand why you're doing X...") but are requested to test the unstable version if the new functionality is of interest that exceeds the risk that something might simply be confusing and chaotic for a while (for both Mel and you).
I've been experimenting with a (self-invented, as far as I know) TMLMT rubric for two weeks, and it seems to be working pretty well. Basically, every day I try to Teach something, Make something, Learn something, Move (physically - do something that's good for my body) and Think (take some time out to feed the meditative, spiritual, and otherwise contemplative part of me). I formerly tried Ben Franklin's 13 virtues, but found that list to be too long to remember - plus I had to rate how well I did something - whereas this is a handy "one-thing-for-each-finger" check-off. Hypothetically, I could get five colored rubber-bands or bracelets and slip them from one wrist to the other throughout the day if I really wanted to outsource my brain to external memory, but I've yet to find bracelets I actually enjoy wearing.

Particularly important right now is the "think" bit. Homeostasis tends to pull me into constant whirlwind sleepless action, and sometimes I need some time to step back and sort things out (which, for me, usually means "writing things down.") Being busy tends to make me less transparent, but that's exactly the time when I need to be told to stop, go outside, breathe, talk to someone, start making sense again.

I think blogging will become especially important to me in the next few years. In the absence of a fixed physical location, semistable job, and coherent external input in general, the best I can do is to try to produce some coherent, constant stream of output in an attempt to make sense of it all and to make it all make sense to those who are watching. If you're confused and you broadcast it loud and clear, at least others can see, make suggestions, and keep you from stampeding off cliffs. (In other words, given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.)

I can start by going through my Wikipedia notes and writing about what the hell happened to me in Taiwan. (Short answer: lots. mindblowingly lots.) I'm also tinkering with dokuwiki as my eventual all-in-one blog/projects/notes solution, though I won't move cleanly on until the start of September or so. (Really nice codebase & devel community, though. Mmm. I was really tempted to use Semantic Mediawiki, but decided somewhat regretfully that it was overkill and that flat textfiles were my friend. This parenthetical aside is devolving into a technology drool-fest, so I shall end it.)

Sorry about that. My mind tends to wander. But if there's an overarching theme to this post at all, it's that my mind likes to wander, that it's at its strength when spinning off on wild, random, exploratory tangents - and that I'm going to be trying every way I can think of to feed that talent while harnessing its powers for Awesome and still remaining able to interact comprehensibly with the world at large.

Monday, August 06, 2007

This will probably be one of the last posts on this blog

...depending on how long it takes me to get my new Mediawiki one up and running - thanks to Enric for the inspiration and guidance.

Mediawiki is the new Emacs. It's got everything but the kitchen sink (which is nonetheless mentioned in [[Talk:Cooking appliances]], or something). Then my entire web-presence can run on the same software, and I'll have an excuse to actually become a MediaWiki hacker. Sweet.

For those of you whom I've just rendered horribly confused, Mediawiki is a very common piece of wiki software (if you've never heard of wikis before, watch this). Notably, it's what Wikipedia runs. And since I'm currently sitting in Taipei recovering from Wikimania, my head's still swimming around with thoughts of it.

Wait. You're in Taiwan?

Yep. With Herbert. Last week I found out I was going to the Wikimania conference with Sj and a posse of XO laptops from OLPC; life then became a jumbled mass of packing, prepping, wrapping-up, and hoping my parents would mail my passport in time (it arrived in the mail 12 hours before I had to leave for the airport).

Following a heroic early-morning drive by my aunt, I hit the gate with an hour to spare. Sj did not. In between exchanging "where are you?" "I'm coming." "where you?" "there's a line!" text messages as he attempted to shuffle through security before the plane finished boarding, I sat with an elderly Chinese couple learning how to say "RUN FASTER! WE'RE LATE!" in badly accented Mandarin, intending to yell it down the hallway as he came charging towards the gate, but I'd started boarding by the time he finally did make it. I discovered later that Sj actually speaks much better Mandarin than I do, having spent a month in China learning the language some years back.

Across the ocean!

We found Phoebe, Austin, and James in the San Fransisco airport, ate chocolate, and hopped the ocean to Taipei; the wonderful Taiwanese mother next to me watched out for me throughout the flight; it turns out that we share our Chinese last name and are probably thus vaguely related umpteen generations back... and that her company manufactures the wireless chips for OLPC. Small world.

We found Henna, our bus, and our hostel, in that order. Then everyone else went to sleep while Sj and I hunted on foot through the streets of Taipei for a 24-hour internet cafe so we could talk to the OLPC folks back in Boston. (I've probably mentioned this before, but he is the only person I've ever met who's given me a run for my money with regards to sleep, work, and findability habits... or lack thereof. In fact, he may actually win. However, he has an 8-year head start.)

The past week has been a series of increasingly wonderful "there are people like me in the world!" revelations. I tried to explain this to Sylvain and Heather during the party on Saturday night - that people like them make me feel like my life might actually have a shot at becoming marginally useful - but the music was loud and I was babbling, so that probably didn't come across so coherently. By the way, Sylvain runs Jamendo, a creative commons music site which is rapidly changing the way legal music distribution works. I totally want to call a License Server band reunion to compose and record some tracks using something other than Gallimore's PDA now.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. Anyway, back to Wednesday night, when Sj and I were in an internet cafe in Taipei at 5 in the morning...

By the time I crept back into the tiny Japanese-style room (complete with weightbench and spray-painted wall art) I shared with Henna and Phoebe, it was 6:30am. So I lay down, closed my eyes, opened them, stood up, and headed to the Overseas Youth Center to set up for the Jam with the amazing Bob Chao until TC brought us to a coffeeshop for the pre-Wikimania party, which I mostly spent talking to Chriswaterguy from Appropedia when not racing the impending closing of the print shop several blocks down and the even more impending death of TC's Macbook battery to design and print business cards for myself and Sj for the next few days. We made it and now I have an $800 (Taiwanese dollars) set of business cards that proclaim me as an "OLPC Content Minion."

And the morning and the evening were the first day, and lo, it was good, and I practiced Aikido rolls on the wet grass and talked with Cormac and Ray about copyright issues until everyone else (even Sj) had gone to sleep, and then I watched the sun rise again, lay down, closed my eyes, opened them, and stood up. (Since leaving Boston 8 days ago, I have accrued a total of 27 hours of sleep and boy do I feel great!)

Next: the actual Wikimania conference... (to be continued, with somewhat more coherence than the post above demonstrates)

And yes, I've got quite the email and post backlog now. And I'll tackle them back in Boston. Back to work...