Archive for May, 2007

Ondelettes are adorable.

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

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

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

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

**Not…that I’d mind that, really.

Glory be, I can write about education again!

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, help a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. — Herbert Simon, cialis 40mg Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and the A.M. Turing Award

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

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

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

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

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

Mindblurt the second: Libraries and self-directed learning

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

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

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

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

So I turned 21…

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

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

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

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

Another milestone?

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

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

Guy: “And so you can see that the shell is injection-molded ABS, a low-cost plastic that’s…”

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

Guy: “Well, you’re supposed to-” *smoke comes out of toaster*

Me: “COOL! Okay, so that lever is the…”

Guy: “We cover that in unit three, where…”

Me: “Wait, is there a toaster book somewhere?”

Guy: “The recommended list of textbooks…

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

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

Me: “Well, you have your setting on ‘Apparition Of The Virgin Mary.’ But if you turn…”

Guy: “Wait! That’s not approved! The evaluations are next Tuesday!”

Me: “…and there you go! Elvis.”

Classmate: “Whoa!”

Me: “I know!”

Classmate: “Thanks!”

Guy: “But you don’t know how it works!”

Me: “I think I’ve figured out how to use it – okay, so tell me, what’s this nichrome wire stuff?”

Guy: “The nichrome wire has a linear resistance of 1.75 ohms per foot, which, at 120 volts…”

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

Guy: “We don’t cover that until -”

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

Guy: *shaking head* “She’ll never learn.”

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

Graduation speech: Pass it on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voice rec keyboard

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

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

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

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

Short update

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

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

  • It’s in the tough times when you find out what’s really important to you. Do I care about certification, or do I care about learning? Do I care about school or do I care about education? Do I grow hungry for math and engineering theory when I don’t get it? Hands-on building (precision or hacking)? (Learning, education, oh yes I do, and mostly hacking.)
  • I don’t suck at math! I think.
  • Being sick is really annoying.
  • Families are awesome.

Ding! Food. Back to work. If all goes well, I’ll be done with two classes by the end of the night.