Monday, September 24, 2007

Explaining a tracheotomy to young children

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

*brief silence*

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sherlock Holmes for engineers

I've fallen in love with a book again. If I only changed the software, why is the phone on fire? is Sherlock Holmes for geeks and should be required bedtime reading for students in POE (the Olin class that says "here, a microcontroller; go build something mechatronic"). It's a collection of tales involving electrical engineers at a fictional consulting company trying to figure out embedded bugs (the bugs are based on real-life fiascos).

There are occasional code snippets and prompts telling the reader to stop and take a glance to see what they can figure out before proceeding with the story, but instead of making the book feel hokey, they actually make you stop and appreciate it more (and grimace at some of the code; Lisa Simone has included some realistically icky pieces of C in order to demonstrate how good and bad code "feels" - thankfully, that particular chapter involves refactoring the ugly mess.)

My favorite character is Li Mei, the bright-but-hesitant team newbie who's fresh out of school. She knows stuff by the book but is less versed in the unwritten tricks of the trade, and contributes (not always correct) guesses in a combination of timidity and enthusiasm that reminds me a lot of... well... myself. She's eventually taken under the wing of Josie, the cool, experienced engineer who serves as the right hand (wo)man of Oscar, a blunt and efficient ace debugger who's just been promoted and is still getting the hang of managing people rather than components. A young, quick, but just a mite too independent hardware hacker named Ravi is the last member of the quartet. Eduardo from testing (formerly a programmer) makes occasional appearances and shows just how far you can get in debugging without having to look at code.

Some comments:

(1) Holy cow female electrical engineers that aren't token minority inclusions. Josie and Li Mei actually think, talk, and act like female SparkEs I know - in particular, Li Mei's hesitation (I'm not the only one that worries about wasting my coworkers' time and overcompensates with perfectionism?) and Josie's slightly protective, gentle approach to mentoring (she asks Li Mei how she's doing which gives her "permission" to respond - in contrast, Oscar assumes Ravi will speak up with the inevitable questions about what he doesn't know how to do). It's not that different from how male SparkEs act, but I appreciate that the two characters aren't just male engineers with larger breasts and higher voices.

(2) Engineers are people too. The ones in this book get frustrated, cheer each other up; their work is affected by how they're feeling, they get angry at each other, they rejoice together, they socialize over dinner and beer at the pub down the street, they make mistakes, miscommunicate, get cranky when they're tired, their eyes light up in realization right when they're on the verge of fixing a tricky bug. It's a neat view of life in an engineering department. If you haven't gone out for an engineering internship yet, read this book first. I sure wish I'd had it before my stint in Continuum.

(3) Neat pedagogical tricks for hacks you usually don't find in textbooks. Instead of throwing an explanation of PWM in the appendix, we see Josie explaining it to Li Mei during a site visit where a temperature sensor's gone awry (complete with diagrams and Li Mei asking those questions you always wanted to but felt stupid to say out loud). Instead of a dry footnote about checking processor speeds when porting to different hardware, we see Oscar showing Ravi an old Pong game he'd written in 1993 and how it's been rendered unplayable by the orders-of-magnitude-faster CPU of a new computer. By following Li Mei through drawing a flowchart, we learn how to make one ourselves. By watching over Oscar's shoulder as he tiles "DEADBEEF" into flash to check where a program is storing its data, we learn about memory fill patterns.

(4) Code and problems that look real. They're messy. Sometimes they're ugly. They're confusing. Sometimes they' not thoroughly tested or well documented. Customers are irate. Emails are written in caps. Variables don't get initialized. Long strings of if statements show up where switch statements should be. Off-by-one errors pop up in array indexes. Receivers don't receive what the transmitters say they've transmitted. Equipment needs to be debugged on the factory floor, not by dissecting the intermittently failing machine (which is still in operation) but by talking to the non-technically-trained foreman, whose answers need to be translated into engineerspeak. At least these have nicely explained answers at the end for those who want a sanity check on how they did.

(5) It's fun to read. This above all - it's well written and actually keeps you up all night turning the pages. It may be slightly unfair for me to say this, since I tend to get more absorbed in books than most, but oh! Would that other writers of electrical engineering textbooks could take a cue from Randall - with some intro tutorials and a ramp-up series geared towards raw beginners (Oscar teaches his twin middle-schoolers about the AVR Butterfly?) this might be the kind of thing we need to get more kids interested in electrical engineering. I wish there was a regular column of these coming out - I'd totally subscribe.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Other people being funny

I don't usually do blog posts full o' links, but these made me chortle (and humor is something I need massive doses of at the moment). Actual original content coming next.

From: Six videogame gimmicks that need to die

Game villains must have no interest in ever leaving their various lairs and/or hideouts, because the sheer number of spinning blades, falling blocks and other torture devices crammed into every conceivable corner renders them all horrible deathtraps. It’s a wonder Bowser can find his way past the Whomps and rotary knives to go to the bathroom, let alone oversee his military operations outside the castle (not to mention having to deal with the multitudes of work-related injury claims from his Koopa staff).

Maybe the reason why I'm terrible at gaming is that I learned physics before I learned video games.

Even better: 5 things hollywood thinks computers can do.

Beyond #5 ("You Can Blow Up Shit At Will – With Hacking") there are gems like... (From "A Computer Might Become Self-Aware At Any Moment")

The microwave-sized IMSAI 8080 computer the hero [Matthew Broderick's character in Wargames] used to take over the nation’s nuclear missile fleet had 64KB of memory. That means if it tried to open this article as a Word document, it’d get about half way through before it ran out.

(From "Computers can talk to *#%*@ UFOs")

The Earth is under attack by a race of vastly advanced aliens, so Jeff Goldblum creates a virus from his PowerBook that disables the entire apparently Macintosh-compatible fleet of ships... But of course, there is exactly one reason why the aliens were defeated by a PowerBook in Independence Day: because Apple paid for it as part of the product placement. Yes, my friends, the entire plot culminated in an advertisement, and one you paid to see.

Then there's the "Bad grammar makes me [sic]" shirt, which I would totally have gotten for my editors at Frankly Speaking years ago, if I'd seen it then.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

20 guiding principles of computing

I wonder how many posters nowadays start out as cool random things people run across on the internet. The 20 Guiding Principles of Computing (now hanging in abridged format next to the 1cc printer) is one of them. Here's the short version, with my commentary - I do recommend going back to read the original link, though.

1. Brooks’ Law: Adding More Programmers to a Late Project will make it later.

Usually, but not always. If you have a good project manager who's able to focus solely on handing compartmentalized, completely independent, non-vital (but still helpful - what Dave Barrett would call "#2's*") tasks to enthusiastic volunteers, you may be able to make your project not get later. In fact, you might hit on some really good helpers and get it done earlier. This does sink the time of one of your good project managers, but it's the kind of time-sinking that needs to be done especially in open-source projects where programmers will try to add themselves to a late project anyway.

Nothing new here that folks like Mike Fletcher haven't already pointed out. But yeah, if you're in a panic and think you need MORE MANPOWER NOW!!! you're wrong, because you're in the wrong state of mind to utilize that (hu)manpower.

*How Dave describes the scope of SCOPE projects to the Olin engineering seniors who tackle consulting problems for companies every year: #1's are mission critical, live or die problems for the company. We don't want those. #3's are problems nobody cares about; their solution won't matter to the company. We don't want those either. #2's are potentially cool/beneficial things that aren't bad if they don't get solved - stuff on the "cool to do, but not spending our limited resources on right now" list. Those are what we want (as SCOPE projects). And these are the things we should be handing out to volunteers (on open-source projects).

2. Choose the Middle Way: bad ideas are just good ideas carried to extremes.

Note: this doesn't mean always doing the mundane thing. There are 3 ways to make an extreme idea middling. The first is to cut down the extremity - do the mundane. But you can also cut the number of people involved; a small number of people with permission to run wild is called a skunkworks and can have startling success for minimal risk. You can also cut the timescale - in fact, "everyone go nuts for an hour!" is usually called a "brainstorm" in corporate circles, and can be rather refreshing.

3. Conservation of Complexity: Simplicity is Complicated

I wholeheartedly agree and will defer to John Maeda on this one.

4. First law of logic: logic doesn't always work. Embrace Contradiction.

"The opposite of a Profound Truth is another Profound Truth." Years ago, I hated this quote. Now I've grown to love it. Mostly because of the next item on this list:

5. Gould’s Spandrel: Things are the Way They are because They got that Way.

Why? Because. Some things just are, without any plan or reason (or for a reason that's long since ceased to exist).

It's the kind of answer that's annoying when you know there's an answer that they're just not telling you, but wonderful when you realize there really isn't an answer, because you can loosen the furrowed brow of intellectual consternation and really just... wonder.

6. Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when taking into account Hofstadter’s Law.

This makes me think of two things: (1) Hofstadter's law is a strange loop, and (2) I wonder if Zen philosophies might be a good coping mechanism for folks with ADHD - we tend to have a hard time with this scheduling/planning stuff, so why not just live in the moment since we're only present in the present anyway?

7. Occam's Razor, a.k.a. K(eep) I(t) S(imple) S(illy/tupid).

Yes, but remember - simplicity is complicated. See Dan Ward's simplicity cycle.

8. Lubarsky’s Law of Cybernetic Entomology: There’s Always One More Bug.

Also known as "stop being a perfectionist already" - or take the Linus Torvalds approach and get others to help (Linus’ Law: Given Enough Eyeballs, All Bugs Are Shallow).

9. There are Many Ways to the Mountaintop make up your own mind which you want to take. You know those product FAQs where you ask "which will I like best, is best for me?" and they reply with the frustratingly circular "ultimately, it's about which is best for you - which one will you like best?"

Well, they're right.

Also, it's a lot easier to tell people the wrong routes up the mountaintop. Mostly because it's impossible to tell them the right ones. (You can, however, tell them the ones that have worked for you and many others - but it's no guarantee it'll work for them.)

10. Moore’s Law: Computing Power Doubles every 18 Months

And that's why I'm not worried the XO now costs $188. People, stop calling it the "$100 laptop" and fussing about how it's not. That name was just a catchy meme, plus there's this lovely thing called economics that talks about things like inflation and currency fluctuations and yada yada yada - basically, prices are to some extent arbitrary, and Moore's Law says whatever prices* are now, they're going to get cheaper later on anyway.

*for the majority of electronic devices in the medium-term foreseeable future. Obviously, this does not apply to things like signed memorabilia, stocks, or bottles of fine wine.

11. Murphy’s Law: Anything that can Go Wrong, Will.

And then there's O’Niel’s Law: “Murphy was an optimist.” Far from sending you into a sinking depression at the hopelessness of your project, this should instead inspire a joyous sense of fearlessness - things are going to go wrong! We don't know what they are and we're going to have to figure it out along the way - it's going to be an adventure!

12. No Silver Bullet

Along the lines of there being many ways to the mountain and blah blah blah - there's no one-size-fits-all solution to your problems. Yeah, stuff is hard, but just think for yourself and have fun, and you'll probably be all right.

13. Pareto Principle: The 80/20 Rule

80% of your gains comes from 20% of your expenditures (and vice versa).

But remember Joel Spolsky’s Caveat: Although 80% of people use only 20% of the features. “Unfortunately, it’s never the same 20 percent. Everybody uses a DIFFERENT set of features.”

Does that mean you should leave everything at 100% expenditure anyway? No. It means there's no silver bullet for deciding which 80% to cut. You'll have to make up your own mind.

14. Parkinson’s Law: Work Expands to Fill the Time Allotted

Fortunately, this is true - for as many have pointed out, the natural corollary to this is that Work Is Compressible. Witness Ben Fisher's impressive half-hour hacks, and his prelude to such:

This blog is the result of a paradox. I am more productive when under constraints. A busy schedule keeps me driven to do more with my time. I live my life on the run. If you had all the resources you wanted, and any amount of time or money available for a project, realistically, you would spend years creating a bloated, over-complicated application, possibly never even finishing.

And then look at the kind of stuff he's been able to pull off in 30 minutes - yes, Ben is amazing (I think our first conversation alternated between Ben typing on his laptop and me saying "oh my god!" every 15 seconds or so) but he also understands that his mad skillz are occasionally better in concentrated form.

15. Patrick's Population Principle: Individuals are Individual.

You can view communities as a super-organism, or a bunch of Individuals, or as a Swarm.

We all belong to groups, but we are not the groups we belong to.

16. Shapiro’s Observation: Technology Changes. Economic Laws do not.

This has also been expressed as the Law of Disruption: “Social systems change incrementally, technology exponentially.” Also see David Shenk’s Second Law of Data Smog: “Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes.”

And this is why it's so important for engineers to understand the people they're making things for, why sometimes the best solution is not a technological one, and why education is one of the most powerful technologies (in the sense of tools-able-to-change-things) ever created*.

*This is not necessarily a good thing. John Holt has some choice words on why the power of an education system is dangerous and potentially harmful to learning.

17. Slingerland’s Law of Fools: No System’s Foolproof, because there’s Always a Bigger Fool

Basically, Murphy's Law applied to users. Yes, there's plenty of repetition in this 20-item list, but they all sound so snappy and good! (Although if I practiced Pareto, I should slash this list to 4 "fundamental" principles and be done with it.)

18. There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

...but you can finagle things so that you're doing work you enjoy in order to pay for yours.

19. Everything is Connected to Everything Else

Culture + New Technology YIELDS New Culture

And this is the reason I am going to study education and sociology before going to graduate school for electrical engineering.

20. Veblen’s Principle: All changes help some people and hurt others.

Personally, I would have ended on a more inspiring note. But yes, no free lunch. This doesn't mean life is a zero-sum game, though; the magnitude of the hurt may be more or less than the magnitude of the help (depending on what scale you're using - there's no absolute rating for "goodness").

The good you do may end up having not-so-good consequences you should watch for, and try to alleviate and understand, and ultimately accept. It's part of the job of trying to do good. You can only ever do good to some people, and from a certain point of view.

Again, you get to decide. Which is a terrifying - and liberating - charge to have.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Flying and gloves

As tangentially mentioned in a previous post, a family friend tried out his new pilots' license by taking us up in his 4-seater Cessna. It was loud as all heck - I soon ripped off the headphones and just stared slack-jawed out the window at the view (the bay! the bridge! the horrendously expensive homes!)

I've wanted to learn to fly since I was in second or third grade, so the prevalence of radio communications worried me - I couldn't understand a word the control tower was saying. Asked around afterwards and it turns out, thankfully, that I can still become a pilot. With some limitations, of course - I won't be able to make flights requiring the use of radio, which is the auditory equivalent of being required to drive with your glasses on. But. Someday, when I can afford lessons, I can learn how to fly. Good to know.

Also, my aunt sent me a link to this guy's book - hearing loss worse than mine, also lives in the hearing world, flew out to Africa for 2 years in the Peace Corps. Meh, I reckoned. Another memoir. But then I read the excerpts and his blog and thought, "whoa, there's someone out there that experiences and copes with it the same way I do!"

7:20: wash hands.7:25: pour wine, drink.7:30:
cut piece of bread, eat it. Someone flips a fish. Why is my apron
yellow while everyone else’s is white? Someone's talking to me -- nod.7:35: drink. 7:40:
look at skyline from window. Try to figure out which route Spiderman
could take to get to a baby trapped on a fire escape on 86th street.7:45: is this fish for me? Thank you. Wow, delicious. Drink.7:50: what’s everyone talking about? I’ll laugh now in a friendly manner.7:55: that knife has to cost $70 bucks easy. How come they don’t have those ginsu commercials on TV anymore? 8:00: drink.

Yeah, that's roughly what life's like in a large group of people where you can't always read lips. Dah dah dah dah dah fake it fake it dah dah dah wonder if they can tell dah dah dah dah everyone else is laughing so I should too.

Also, the kinds of things that go into latex glove manufacturing are totally cool. Imagine a long row of ceramic (I think) hands on a conveyor belt, dipping down into a smelly pool of latex, coming up dripping just short of the elbow; a little roller that brushes around the forearm to make the lip at the end of the glove, a puff of air (and powder, perhaps) shooting from within the hand to blast the glove into a stack - paCHING! the amazing shooting hand. Gloves lined up on nozzles, like translucent blue udders, bulging with water to check for leaks. Gloves!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

fdisk /dev/life

(Apologies in advance to any readers and to hell with the rest of the productivity I was supposed to have tonight. It's going to be a rant, or I'm going to explode.)

It is 11:54 pm. I'm sitting on the toilet seat of a hotel room in Mountain View with my laptop on my knees. Every few minutes I reach up to turn the timer that keeps the light (and fan) on so it won't cut me off in the dark mid-sentence. I'm trying to work. It won't matter after 2.5 hours because that's how much longer my battery lasts, and there aren't any outlets in here. It won't matter after another day, because my mom's going to join us in this hotel room, and then I won't be able to sneak away to work in the bathroom.

I'm tired. I'm grouchy. I'm terrified of the amount of catching-up I have to do. I'm struggling to find a way to simultaneously be a good daughter and a happy, productive person. I'm trying to partition my life again - here are the things I'm supposed to do, to be "Good Girl" (that's actually the translation of my Chinese name) during the day, and Mel during the night when everyone's sleeping. Spending my own time late at night has been my solution around the demands of others for years; I started sneaking into the bathroom while my parents slept so I could read math books when I was 11. It's how I became an insomniac. It's the reason I pull allnighters. The night is mine, so I take it, because it's often all I've got. (The bathroom timer shuts off. I turn the light on again.)

According to a book by Howard Gardner (whose title I've forgotten) that was on my aunt's shelf, the Chinese way of thinking about teaching is not huge on experimentation. The point of education isn't to learn how to figure out things. The point of education is to learn how to do it perfectly, where "perfectly" is defined as "whatever your elders handed down." Match this standard. Match this standard. Match this standard, you punk, don't try to make your own. it got hammered into my head hard in ways I've just barely begun to realize.

In retrospect, the only reason I've been able to do amazing things in the past is because I was fast enough at doing all the things other people wanted me to do (like algebra homework or watching kids) that I had free time in the margins to fit in things I wanted to do, like read math books that had no relation to what we were studying in class. I wonder how many other kids could have had fun reading math books, but had to spend too much time doing their algebra homework and ran out of time for reading. I wonder how many people could do wonderful things if they weren't forced to meet a lot of other obligations, play a lot of other roles.

I had a great childhood. Lots of opportunities. A fantastic, close extended family network. Good schools. Concerned parents who really wanted me to do well. All the same, I was (and still am) jealous of the kids who didn't have to cram things secretly into the margins. Had parents who didn't define "do well" as rigidly. Who let them bike more than a block away, cross the street alone at 16, left them to their own devices. I disagree with my parents on this - doing things like that is not a mark of not caring about your kids. In America, it's the way you help them grow up. You're raising a little cowboy. They're supposed to go venturing out into the unknown on their own account.

In college when the things other people asked me to do took up enough time that I didn't have free margins, I learned (a little, but not very well) how to make other people want me to do the things I wanted to do, and it was great. Not perfect. I almost flunked out because I didn't learn how to do it well enough. But better, much better, than anything else I'd ever had before; nobody had ever asked me what I'd wanted to do before, and I remember being utterly astonished by it - "you want me to tell you what I want to do? You mean I can do it? I'm supposed to?" It took me about two years to believe it.

At the beginning of this summer - glorious summer! - I owned all my time for the first time in my life. It was the most fulfilling and productive period I've ever had. I was working on something of my choosing at all times. Nobody had a sword to hold over my head. And then the slow creep began; I was out from under the protective title of "student," which had given me freedom for the past 7 years. Back then, I could sweep random projects under the "but I'm pursuing X degree and this is how we do it!" rug. Now I'm being treated according to "adult child with no real job" protocol, which means I'm back to having to play a role set by someone else, live a schedule set by someone else, ask permission (not forgiveness) for everything. I want to decide what I eat, when I sleep, whether I answer the phone. I've gotten "too Americanized," says the Asian family I'm struggling to fit back into. It's tough to simultaneously be an American adult and a good Asian child. I'm really, really bad at being a good Chinese kid.

I read a book about Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, living in a crummy little apartment the year after she graduated from college, starting a movement she cared about, and it made me want to cry. I want an unstable life in a lousy apartment working inane hours for a cause I'm passionate about. (The bathroom timer shuts off again. I turn the light on. Again.) I had that a little at the start of summer and I want it again; I want to grab a 10-gallon hat and blaze new trails roughly instead of following old ones perfectly. I want to move without eons of history and the voices of a collective family tree dragging behind me. I want a "get out of filial piety free" card because I can't bring myself to just up and run.

I don't want to play a role. I want the person I'm supposed to be to be the same as the one I want to be. I want to be able to stop thinking and fussing and making entirely too big a deal about this, and I want to stop feeling torn, want to stop having to steal my nights for being myself. I want to love - not resent - my family, appreciate them, honor them, make them happy... while disagreeing with a decent portion of the things their culture has carried into my life. I want to be one person and have everyone be okay with the person I end up being. I should stop complaining about being two people, and start being one, and doing what I want to do - but how much of my happiness is tied to my family's happiness? How much is who I am being part of that group, its heritage and traditions and values - and how much is... well, what else is there?

Enough. I'm going to fall asleep with happy things in mind. The twisted white trees in Monterrey are among the most lovely things I've ever seen, and a simple floured and pan-fried fish filet is hot and delicious, tasting faintly like the sea. A jovial old man who produces theatre and builds sets in a tiny town for the love of it; lurching through the air in the back of a 4-person Cessna dreaming of when I'll be able to get my own pilot's license, noodle soup too scorching to sip without vigorous fanning of each spoonful. It's been a good trip. It's been a good trip. It's been a good trip.

Degrees don't limit you.

Stumbled upon this today while looking for something else. I wrote this a year and a half ago to a friend who was having a hard time figuring out what to do after engineering school, and I'm posting it (anonymous-ified) now because I needed someone - even my 19-year-old self - to tell me this now. I think I've just conclusively proved to myself that I was actually wiser at 19.'s not that getting an engineering degree limits you, but it changes your perceptions of the options you can pick from (mostly because it looks like it'll change other people's perceptions of you). Graduates from an engineering program, especially one like Olin, and particularly because you're the first class, are expected to do "well." By normal terms. Which means an upwardly-mobile corporate job, a highly-regarded grad school, or at the very least a spunky little startup. Anything "beneath" that is a waste of talent, or training, or intellect, or opportunity, or...

Cognitively, we realize this. Emotionally, it's harder to reconcile, especially with lots of neighbors and friends and relatives and their combined expectations. It's like applying to Olin in the first place. I'm pretty sure all of us, at some point, got incredulous stares and a "What do you mean, you don't want to go to MIT/Stanford/? What's this... Olin place? Have you gone bonkers?"

I think you should... do whatever you think will make you a better human being. Because ultimately that's what life is about - it's not about being a CEO, or even a really good engineer; it's about being a good person, and whatever that means to you - if it's being a CEO, that's cool; if it's having wild experiences, that's cool too - if it's being a good mother, or a musician, or getting involved in local politics, or recycling everything, or knitting... there's a lot to life, and it's your life, so should do what you want to do. In the end, you'll be left with lots of memories, so there's no sense looking back with regret.

You don't "lose a year" any more than anyone else; years go by regardless of what you're doing. There is actually no such thing as "falling behind." It's just a different way of deciding how to spend your years. And those that recognize that and are able to control it and be happy with it are the lucky ones.

Also, these "quirky experiences," or whatever you want to call the off-the-successful-engineer-beaten-path stuff, will make you a better CEO (or designer, or whatever) in the future. Lots of "successful" people can't help those that aren't "succesful" because they've never been there. They don't understand the world outside the one they live and work in. I think it's great that you want to go beyond that. I think this is one of the few chances you'd have to do so, the space between graduation and your first job; you're still fresh into the world, you're still impressionable, you're still open-minded and able to learn. And while you'll still be open-minded and thirsty for knowledge later in life, there's something especially nice about a blank slate. No preconceptions.

I'm planning on taking at least a year to do something different (current plan: roadtrip hopping from school to school and writing a book about american k-12 education - or - teaching english/math/science/design in some non-US country, probably China.) I want to understand a different kind of life, one without privelege, assumptions of education, internet access, piano lessons, and consistently clean running water. I'm also planning on working in the corporate world and going to grad school at some point so I can be an Olin prof for some period of my life.

I figure they won't think less of me for spending a year living in the back of my car, as long as I get as much (or more) from the experience as I would have in . Doesn't have to be the same thing, but needs to be worthwhile, by whatever standards you judge worth. I reckon if I think I'm a better person to hire a year down that road than I was before, and they don't think so because it's "not normal," then I probably don't want to work for that company in the first place. Wherever I go, I want to go off the beaten path, so they need to be ok with me veering off in the first place.

You're not alone.

Yeah, but I sure feel like it now. I want to go back to Bossssston. And be surrounded by haaaaaackers. And live as an individualistic Amerrrrrican instead of a family-bound Chineeeeeeese. ; Not really. I need to learn how to cope with this part of my world again. I've been relatively free from it for 7 years, being away at school, but I've got to learn how to live within the culture of my family again instead of running away from it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Online and offline laptop usage

it's distressing to find how reliant I am on my laptop and the internet, and how readily I equate the two. I take ready access to online storage and apps for granted, and find myself crippled by not being able to yank something from flickr, or pull up a google doc, or look it up in wikipedia. I need to keep reminding myself that the kids who get the laptops will by and large be in the same situation, and that i've been spoiled by the last four years of being immersed in outlets and wifi and other people with lots of laptops around.

So as best I can through the finicky wireless I can only access at night in the hotel while my family sleeps, I've been trying to restructure my digital life to get around this. Rough steps:

  1. My laptop is a tool, not my life. All the same, it's an immensely powerful tool, and I love using it to keep lists, take notes, and so on... my usage of my laptop is limited by access to power; I ration my battery now. I wish I had a human-powered charging option for this thing.
  2. My laptop happens to have the ability to access the internet... sometimes. Offline caching, composing, etc. is handy. All my email is now downloaded for offline use. Think in batches of things to send, download, read, etc.
  3. My computer should do merging and syncing, not me. Set up scripts to automatically sync up online and offline versions of important things (I had merging working with my local and online dokuwiki install for one glorious day, then it mysteriously borked - still trying to track that one down) and to do things like automatically send/receive emails when it detects the siren song of wireless.
  4. Back up! While you're at it, make your computer sync to an external flash drive. Or at least the important bits - I've got a thumb to hold my email and wikipages-to-upload, and a 120gb flash to back up my entire laptop hard drive.
  5. There exists something called paper. It's useful. I usually go through notebooks pretty fast, but I'm discovering just how fast... I need to review that shorthand cheat sheet Boris gave me again, because my hand is cramping up in protest.
  6. There exists something called memory. The organic, brain-based kind. It's useful. It's harder to upload to the 'net automatically, though. Much of my backlog is "well great, I know exactly what I need to type for all these, but it takes a bloody long time to type them."
  7. There exists something called life. It is present away from the computer. It's pretty cool.

Yeah, it's often annoying, since I'm still getting used to the switch. The reason I liked webapps is because I didn't need to worry about keeping stuff on my hard drive, being conscientious about backups, and so on. I like outsourcing. I did it a ton for info/data storage. (I should do it more for work.) So trying to download everything I need late at night is a bit of a pain. Should have done this when I was swimming in internet.

One big missing piece is a sane way to read and contribute to wikis offline. I suppose I could nab the offline image of - for instance - the OLPC wiki daily for browsing, and store my edits in a text file, but that's a lot of bandwidth to download unless there's a clever way to do a diff - like through Recent Changes - and it's also a hassle to merge my changes back up into the proper pages. I really can't wait to see Mako's thesis on this.

Okay. I'm exhausted. Bed.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Moment of silence

Two Olin students were in a motorcycle accident this weekend. They didn't make it.

I was just on campus to visit last week. Didn't meet Rachel, since she just started this year and I've graduated. But I saw Matt in passing, promised I'd send him that email I owed him - it was waiting in my inbox to be sent when I next hit the internet, but I saw the email with the news that he'd passed away first. Can't imagine what it must be like on campus right now. In a school with only 300 students, the loss of two hits home hard. And it's hard to imagine that someone you know, just a little younger than yourself (they were both 19) has died.

Hope everyone out in Needham is doing ok.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

pulling an Erdos

Update: AHA! Found the port that allows me to send email from my new laptop consistently. Now I no longer have to carry the broken one around... assuming I transfer over the hard drive stuff before the taxi comes in 3 hours. Boy do I rely on electronics for communication. Stable email! Stable IRC! Stable cellphone with text messaging! That's all I'm asking - but that's a lot of infrastructure to need.

I enjoy living interrupt to interrupt - I'm working on a ton of projects with a ton of people and responding when they ping me - but I need to learn how to close processes cleanly so I don't leave any dangling obligations when I rush to the next thing. It's very humbling to finally not have anyone (mostly) telling you what to do after 21 years - finally get what you've been fighting for for a long time, and then finding out you don't know what to do with it. I'm starting my unschooling journey as a young adult, but I'm still a very immature learner.

Finally, my travel schedule, in case people want to meet up, do something, and so on.

Sep 11-18 - San Fransisco, CA (Palo Alto, Berkeley, etc. - mostly booked but can meet people Wednesday the 12th, email-available.)

Sep 19-30 - Chicago, IL
(Glenview, Evanston, Aurora, etc. - relatively open schedule, very email-available.)

Oct 1 - Nov 17 - Manila, Philippines
(relatively open schedule after Oct 10, can travel within the Philippines for short trips, intermittently email-available.)

Nov 18 - Dec 23 - Shanghai, China
(relatively open schedule and intermittently email-available after Nov 28, also traveling within China, destinations unknown... yes, I know it's a big country, it's going to be a sort of spontaneous thing here.)

Dec 24 - Jan 8? - Manila, Philippines
(not so much the traveling here; Christmas with the family, so I'm booked, mostly email-available.)

Jan 8? - Jan 15? 2008 - Chicago, IL
(give or take a few days - I'm booked doing an intersession at IMSA, very email-available)

Jan 15? - May 31
2008 - Boston, MA (okay, Somerville. At least that's the game plan so far. Relatively open schedule... so far. Will be going to NYC at least once; I need to visit my uncle in New Jersey, but can extend the trip to see other people and places as well. Very email-available.)

June 1 - August 30 2008 - America. No, really. I'm biking across the United States with Chris Carrick on an appropriate technology tour. Not sure about the email part for this one.

Finally, I thought this was fittting...

Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in
a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other
earnings were in general donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond,
travelling between scientific conferences and the homes of colleagues
all over the world. He would typically show up at a colleague's
doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to
collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many
cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom he (Erdős)
should visit next. His working style has been humorously compared to
traversing a linked list.

I can't decide whether feeling like I'm "pulling an Erdos" somewhat is a good thing or not (oh, I'm not really doing it now, but I could be moving in that direction). I need to learn how to embroider so that I can stitch "My brain is open" onto my travel pack. And then... what? I can't write math papers at every house. (Heck, I don't know how to write math papers. I don't think I could help with one in a few days. But I could be wrong.) Maybe I could learn how to code well enough that I could do something like Ben Fisher's half hour hacks with people. Or broadening that thought, maybe I could do a teaching/learning swap of lessons in exchange for housing and food for a week. And if they have time, I'd ask them to teach me something too. As I went along, I'd presumably know how to teach more things, but I'm polymath enough to give mini-intro-classes on a number of subjects right now.

I wonder if people would actually go for that, if I could do it for - say, if I could do it for a month? Four weeks, four people, four lesson swaps. It'd be a fantastic way to learn about learning. A really amazing way to do some of my education research (...okay, not technically - I'm supposed to be focusing on undergraduate engineering education, and this is more general self-directed learning outside of institutions). A pretty hardcore way to learn how to teach.

Hmm. Not going to try to plan firm stuff more than 3 months into the future for the most part, but... hmm.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A dialogue with my body

Me: Good morning.
Body: Good morning! You're up early. And - oh, water. Thanks.
Me: *glug-glug-glug*
Body: That was good. What's the agen- wait, what are you doing?
Me: It's called running.
Body: I'm moving.
Me: I know.
Body: I don't do running.
Me: You do this morning.
Body: I'm supposed to read! At a desk! I - what's going on? AAH! Respiratory system! Respiratory system!
Me: It's called homeostasis. Get over it.
Body: But what's this stuff that's coming into my lungs?
Me: Oxygen. Remember oxygen? It's much less efficient to be anaerobic. Ever heard of something called ATP?
Body: I can look it up on Wikipedia.
Me: You do that.

Body: Done reading. You're still doing this "running" thing. I'm going to make your legs hurt.
Me: Yeah, I know.
Body: They're not used to this. You're going to have to stop.
Me: Eventually.
Body: Lactic acid! C'mon, my little H+ friends!
Me: Eh, mild discomfort. Lactic acid actually doesn't cause muscle soreness, you know. That's a common misconcep-
Me: Oh, come off it. I'm not going to overdo it. I'm just running at a bit of a clip for 20 minutes, with occasional walk breaks. I'm out of shape - spent the last month far too immobile. Remember how you sprinted 3km through the streets of Taiwan to get your suitcase without getting out of breath?
Body: Yes? Almost? Distant memory?
Me: Could you do it now?
Body: No?
Me: Exactly.
Body: Why do you care?
Me: Because taking care of yourself is good. And not-moving has correlated with me feeling really scattered and sluggish for the last 5 weeks. And because I want to learn tai chi, and that's a lot easier when you can, y'know, do more than 50 squats in a row.
Body: So you're going to do this again?
Me: That's the idea. Right, so we're done. Shower, lunch, some reading, and then let's do some crunches!
Body: ...
Me: Let's go!
Body: *grumble* I know I'll be happy about this in a month, but I really don't like you right now.
Me: Aww, I love you too.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Glenview is ridiculous.

Quickie: "The Unplugged," a short story by Vinay about a (hypothetical?) future movement towards individual self-sufficiency in terms of environmental footprint. Interesting. Possible? Well, that depends on whether you're speaking technologically or sociologically.

Arrived in Chicago last night. On the way to the house, we stopped by the newly constructed Whole Foods that was along the way. This thing is a marvel of modern commercialism and a food lover's heaven. $150 bottles of wine stood behind a glass case with little rubber tubes sipping into them, dispensing $8 tasting samples. Heaps of hot garlic shrimp, bright red beef mixed into patties with expensive cheddar, four restaurants! inside the supermarket!!! shelves of spa products and - oh, you could buy everything. And all I could think was "expensive! expensive! expensive!" and "how is so much abundance possible in one place?" and then "when the store closes in a few hours, I bet they throw all these heaps of perfectly good food out."

Ignoring that depressing note: All four of us (mom, dad, brother, myself) have been wanting to try heirloom tomatoes for... well, years. So faced with them in the market for the first time, we gave in and got four small, twisted heirloom tomatoes this morning and one tiny tub of mozzarella (total: $14 - ow) and sliced them up with a sprinkle of salt, nothing else. Holy cow. It was exploding tomato flavor - four varieties, four tomato tastes - tart and beefy, light, fruity, richly acidic, crisp... and then the cheese was just sweet and white and soft in between, and then the tomato exploded in your mouth again. Ohh.

And so I'm finally sitting - fed and hydrated - in a room of my own (!) in a big house with a nice new kitchen and a fully-stocked fridge (!!) and a mattress that's mine (!!!) and free laundry (!!!!) and relatively stable internet (!!!!!) and I feel incredibly out-of-place because after a summer of doing things like walking 12 miles to save $2 on train fare so I can buy spaghetti, suddenly I'm living in a really expensive, super-nice place that's supposedly the house where I grew up but doesn't feel like it.

The house I grew up in had a non-working dishwasher we used as a drying rack, an oven that kept on sputtering out, a rusted-through Chevrolet. Not a Lexus and a flatscreen TV and the ridiculous beds that have a remote control to adjust the firmness. In some sense, we've become a "normal" family for our area; Glenview is ridiculous, and median household income is nearly twice the national average ($80,730 vs $42,148 - both numbers in 2000). Four blocks away in Northbrook, it's $95,665. (Northbrook is the 85th richest town in the United States with a population of at least 10k.) My classmates in middle school had huge homes and chandeliers and two-story Christmas trees. We had garage-sale furniture and a house we could only afford because it was purchased and inhabited by nearly our entire extended family to begin with.

So I considered myself a lower-middle-class kid growing up in an upper-middle-class town. But slowly, when I went away for school, my family's apparently migrated to the upper-middle-class as well. My parents and brother think this is normal because they've been living here for the past 7 years as the house evolved, but I come back and find a swimming pool where I used to ride my bike and feel very, very strange - and guilty for having it and even enjoying it, a little.

But this is good. I have a bed and internet now. So if that holds constant for today and tomorrow, and I don't have to worry about food, then maybe I can actually get... stuff... done, instead of "Oh, yeah, food. Do I have enough pocket change for bananas? Can I walk to the supermarket and buy bananas?" and then there goes the afternoon, walking back and forth with a bunch of bananas at the grocery store. Now I can do things other than figuring out where I'm eating and sleeping. Novel concept, that.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Back online and not looking forward to it

I HAVE INTERNET AGAIN! Kind of. Not on my "real" laptop, but on my trash laptop. I think we gave the folks upstairs the wrong mac address for my good laptop. But it's my laptop, with my stuff on it, and not a quick steal of webmail on someone else's computer (which I did once, I think - thank you, Gui)

No, I don't need internet that badly. Actually, I got along just fine without it for the last week and ended up building a ton of furniture instead, the end result being that we have chairs and tables now (built in the middle of the night while the others slept) and a ballroom that's been finished being painted green. What I do need are ways to plan my internet outages in advance.

And - and - oh god, the backlog... it's been nearly a week without internet that I didn't plan for. I have to pack before I start sifting through this, but... man, I've missed so much. Especially on the Summer of Content front - and apparently my emails about that didn't actually go out, plus they're stuck on the good laptop, and I need to find a USB drive to transfer them over. It's going to be a long night.

How do frequent business travelers do this? Oh, yeah - they have money and can travel without broken laptops and do things like hail buses and taxis and buy wireless or internet cafe time they didn't explicitly write into their budget beforehand. Also, they have better problem-solving skills. I'm beginning to understand the rationale behind setting aside certain hours for work. I love my no-schedule thing, but sorely need to optimize my algorithm for deciding what things to do at a given moment.

In the future, I need to plan my internet outages in advance so I can actually be a responsible transient (I feel like such a bad grown-up right now). Also, I've upgraded from sleeping on a folded blanket in the corner to sleeping on a mattress (the aforementioned futon was at my aunt's house). My life's become semistable just in time for me to travel again; I sleep at the house one more time tonight (if I sleep tonight), at Olin tomorrow night, in Illinois for the next three, and then in San Fransisco.

Right now I need to pack four climates' worth of clothes (including formalwear, because I can wager there'll be at least one "fancy dinner" to go to in the Philippines) into a carryon, which is an adventure in itself. Then I'll try to sync up online. Gaaah.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Steal, drink, lie, and cheat: skills for a happy life

Futon vs floor: there is no contest. My spine is a happy spine today, and I've slept in too late.

Today: Moving out of my aunt's house. This is a more involved process than it sounds, since I have to pack - in one carryon suitcase - equipment and clothing for business meetings in San Fransisco, winter gear for Chicago, formal dress for a Christmas party in the hot, tropical Philippines, and everything for a jaunt through China... plus research books and all the junk I'm schlepping back to my parents' house to return to them and/or leave there. And then I have to take that suitcase and the associated stuffed backpack through several miles of walking and an hour of public transport and changing trains...

By the way: the four most useful things I've learned this summer are how to steal, drink, lie, and cheat - and I highly recommend you learn them, too. Here's why.

Steal. There are a lot of great ideas out there, many of them free for the taking. Why duplicate work? Take advantage of what others have done - thousands of people standing on the shoulders of those who have come before create giants in their own right. (Corollary: Make your own stuff steal-able - open-license or public domain your work when you can.)

Drink. It doesn't need to be alcoholic, but it needs to not be alone. There's more to life than work. Getting to know folks is fun, makes it easier to work with you, and spurs plenty of random ideas for new collaborations. You get more done if you're not thinking about productivity all the time. (Corollary: Stay spontaneously grab-able. If someone announces they're going out, you want to occasionally - not always, but occasionally - be able to pick up and waltz out the door.)

Lie. A better word for this might be "just-in-time truth." If someone asks you a question, it's not dependent on a physical law of nature, you don't know the answer, and you're pretty sure nobody else does, then make it up - someone's going to have to eventually. "Do you know where we're supposed to meet for the party?" "Ah... Harvard square!" Improvise. (Corollary: Publicly. Invented truths don't do any good if they're not spread.)

Cheat. In the video games sense - the fact that your character can jump only so high is an arbitrary line of code you can punch in a few symbols to modify. Most rules aren't actually. Know which "oh, we're not supposed to!"s or "but we can't!"s are actually "most people don't, but nothing actually prevents us from doing so"s. (Corollary: Publish your cheat codes so others can take advantage as well.)

Is this the real life, is this just fantasy

The Oliners have gone back to school; life continues as usual for them, with slightly different roles. Classes, projects, hanging out in the lounge, late night conversations in the lounge, work, clever furniture arrangements, chaotic solidity, wide-eyed frosh who haven't gotten bags under their eyes yet (they come chattering in excitedly from ice cream instead). My old suite is occupied by Liz Kneen & Co. and sports an even more spectacular sound system, the total cubic footage of which utterly dwarfs the full-size fridge in the corner. I stayed a night and slept in Yrinee's empty room (Jon's room last year) and drew on Matt Crawford's student handbook; campus felt comfortable but faded, like an old shirt you've loved but wore through and outgrew. It still feels familiar, but you don't quite fit it any more.

Chandra came. We went to dinner with the two dozen Olin students who responded to Boris's spur-of-the-moment email. Chandra lives in New Hampshire now, in a proper apartment, with a little patio, and carpet, and a bedroom with a walk-in closet. We assembled furniture, sat in boxes of packing peanuts, lit the wall sconce in her apartment for the first time (flickering red candles; lovely), and spent too much time at the outdoors store picking out a traveling pack (glory, backpacks are expensive) and travel towel (amazingly absorbent) for my treks around the world. She agonized over floor lamps at Bed Bath and Beyond and compared frying pans. I browsed through quick-drying underwear wondering which ones would dry out fastest on a hostel clothesline. Our lives are taking very, very different paths right now.

Kristen's at a post-Olin house by Central with 3 other alumni - Chris, Susan, and Pearl - and some MITers. She cooks excellent spaghetti and introduced Chandra and me to the Super Bomber Man video game over raspberry beer floats. I also live - for this last week before travels, anyway - in a post-Olin house. Maker House. A reasonable-length walk from Porter and currently stinking of paint, meaning I have a roof over my head but it's the kitchen's or the workshop's or whatever the room with the softest floor is that hasn't recently been attacked with a roller and I've yet to sleep in the same place more than two nights in a row this month and we don't have internet there either but might start sharing wireless with the Ryans (two people, first names, both genders, upstairs) soon but not yet so I'm at my aunt's house one last time so I can get 'net for a night and pack my books for Chicago.

It's a scary thing when Gui and Jenn are the most stable people in your household. With Not in Zambia, Matt sleeping on a couch on the back porch of an MIT coop - quite nice, actually. I took the second back-porch couch once, and the sun filters through the upper deck before the chainsaw from next door wakes you - and me without any space to actually call mine, we're a house of bohemian transients... definitely not "proper adults" as I was taught you were supposed to become. I spend a couple hours a day now scrambling for a place to sleep and transportation to get there (walking is slow). I've considered claiming a corner of the dance studio with my sleeping bag, but I think they painted that tonight. Sleeping in a different spot every night means I need to find a different spot to get 'net every night - and that some nights I don't, since I'm largely staying in friends' apartments that haven't quite been set up yet. (revelation: houses don't come with internet. Someone has to come out and install it.)

Also, houses don't come with furniture. You have to get it and build it and put it in; until you do, you get to eat pancakes and scrambled eggs cross-legged on the floor, or last night's orange-glazed chicken stir-fry while balancing on the arm of the single sofa which is the only seat in the room. Stability? I think I used to have that, used to sleep in pajamas instead of my clothes, under comforters instead of in sleeping bags. I'll be glad to return to Boston in 2008 and have a room that is mine, that I can bike home to every night, where I know I'll get wireless, food, and friends. When I can spend my day thinking about fixing bugs, closing tickets, reading books, starting businesses - not where am I gonna eat, sleep, find a shower. (I've never worried about not being able to find one. It's just a matter of where and how it's going to turn up.)

Then again, that's homeostasis speaking. I want to learn how to keep an inner compass - something I don't have so much, I rely on externally imposed input, structure as a scaffolding. I need to learn how to consciously preserve certain habits even when the rest of my life is unstable - something I hope traveling will teach me. How to keep up little rituals of productivity that require minimal infrastructure. How to keep walking towards my goals in the absence of someone telling me what they are. How far can I let the reins go on my hyperactive attention span before I slip over the edge of not making sense to most of the rest of the world.

I've never missed school as much as I do tonight. There were professors there, and even if I rebelled against classes in the end they at least gave me something to push against, and I miss the people - and I miss living in a world I knew how to run within. The ocean's so much wider than the ponds I've been, and I haven't even begun to fathom how far out it goes.

I keep telling myself I chose not to take the easy route - a job, an apartment, a car - because I'd wonder for the rest of my life what would have happened if I didn't. But they don't tell you how terrifying adventures are when you're actually living them. I'm the happiest I can remember being, and I'm learning at an amazing rate... and I am always - always - afraid.