Archive for May, 2008

Applying to things is annoying.


(I’m sure I’ve vented this before.)

I do not like writing cover letters and resumes. I do not like feeling like I am peddling myself to other people. I do not like having to actively seek recognition, because it’s usually something I don’t quite feel that I deserver (yes, I’m working on eliminating that feeling by using The Power Of Rational Thought). I do not like thinking about how much I “should be worth” in terms of salary and such. I do not…

I just want to be able to do things! Contribute to things! Help people! Learn stuff! You know – be useful. I do not feel useful, or even meta-useful, when I am doing self-promotion. Time I spend “selling myself” is time I don’t spend Getting Stuff Done (other than self-promotion).

Applications (for jobs or otherwise) are a useful mental tool to use for self-evaluation. They also bugger me all to freaking heck (I’d use stronger language, but would end up waving my arms around frantically while gabbering incoherent syllables) when I feel like I’m taking them way too seriously.

I do like sleep, and that is what I will do now.


People. They are complicated.


Failed Olin challenge again today. Apparently Carmelle and a quartet of Oliners (Chris, Justin, Nancy) live along my route to the train station. We discovered this at midnight when we got off the same train – a pleasant surprise, especially since I was feeling somewhat lonely and bereft of peopleness that particular night after bidding farewell to the ILXOers at the Boylston train station.

I’m not sure how I would survive without friends. After discovering I’d left my wallet at Mike’s house and that it wouldn’t get back to Boston until Wednesday morning, Chris, Andrea, and Nikki trekked out to South Station to meet me, marched me to Allston and made me eat Real Food (I’d discovered 87 cents in my pocket, just enough to buy a small granola bar at a gas station – this is not, however, a good substitute for lunch and dinner), let me sleep on their couch, and repeated the process until my wallet finally did arrive on Thursday. They wrestle me out of the office and into the sun once in a while. They listen to my voicemail so I’ll understand it. They proofread my resumes. They feed me. Last night when I badly needed to decompress, they opened their apartment to me when I called at close to midnight and listened while I stammered out the (trivial) things weighing on my brain.

I hope that I can do as good a job in watching out for them. Right now I’m doing a pretty miserable job of it due to constant overdistraction and intermittent overconfidence. I led us on a wild goose chase for lab equipment today only to get lost and find the donor lab late and already gutted of useful things, and followed this up by picking an unspectacular random Chinese restaurant for dinner. (The ice cream and movie, at least, were good.) In general, I’m not being that good at getting them the resources they need (notably funding and office space). They’re my team. They should be my first priority. I’m trying; I just don’t feel like I’m doing them justice and being as good about keeping them in the loop as I ought. They can cope with my occasional flub because they’re brilliant, adaptable people – all the more reason why I should Do Better, because they deserve better from me.

On a side note: I’m aware that I’ve been posting less over the past week or so because I started to self-censor and feel obligated to write well, or to write this or that, when the OLPC portion of my feed started going to Planet Laptop (at my request). I’m trying to just Write Things – the same unedited braindumping as I’ve always done – and then tag them as OLPC if I want them to go to Planet afterwards.

Ending on a “people” note for the night before I get back to work – sometimes it’s nice to have space. Sometimes it’s also nice to have people around you. I’m the type of person who needs the option of free mobility between the two. Right now I feel lonely… but I also feel like I need to sit by myself for a little while, and that this feeling of empty space is good to touch on for a bit again. If it’s still like this when I wake up tomorrow, I’m going to go hunting for people.


Happenings in DC and 1cc for the past week


Last Friday… was spent on a bus. The good thing was that the bus had wifi. The bad thing is that I primarily used that wifi to transfer approved developers program applications into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets so that XOs could get sent out to people. The kind-of-good thing was that this only took 4 hours of my life to half-complete (yay). The kind-of-bad thing was that the bus arrived 2 hours late, eating up my entire allotted “in case the bus is late, I can still eat lunch” flex time and ending with me running down the streets of Manhattan with a duffel on my shoulder trying not to miss the second bus and being ridiculously hungry at dinner due to not having eaten anything for 24 hours.

Oh, yeah. I was going to Washington DC. Which is why I woke up the next morning surrounded by 3D-printed green things with a rolling alarm clock to my left and a giant photography… umbrella… thing…. looming over my feet. Thanks to the hospitality of the Lee family (Mike, Cici, me – Amy is holding the camera – and as implied by the first sentence, they have a wonderful basement), I was able to make the DC Learning Club OLPC grassroots meetup at Gallaudet on Saturday.

There was a mix of attendees present, from hackers to kids to parents who had XOs with their kids but no background in technology. I love hanging out with all three – including nontechnical adults. While they usually have more inhibitions than the kids about playing around with things without direction, they have marvelously different, open-minded perspectives on what computers are and how they’re used combined with a surprisingly wonderful willingness to try things and great domain knowledge in Some Other Subject, be that accounting or biology or whatnot.

The challenge is in encountering people who want their XO to do all the things their Windows computer did; the less someone is willing to experiment and make a paradigm shift, the more difficult it is to adjust to the XO, which is a paradigm switch by virtue of its design. They have to get things done – they can’t “afford” to take the time out to learn; they don’t have time to deal with the productivity drop. It’s a tough place to be in, and I wish our cultures allowed adults to take more time to play.

Mike raffled off several items during the meetup, among them some “unofficial” XO chargers. This is a bigger deal than it may first appear. The XO can take a wonderfully wide range of power inputs – 11-25V optimal – which means anything can be plugged into it, more or less… if you have the right plugs. The trouble is that he power plugs going into the XO are almost, but not-quite, standard. Mike apparently spent ridiculous amounts of time and money trying every rumored solution – every single Radio Shack plug, chargers from obscure stores online, etc – until he found a random overseas manufacturer whose plugs were a perfect fit.

Saturday afternoon was spent walking around DuPont circle talking with Sa’am Oliver, Olin ’06, just relaxing, talking about life and things, enjoying the blessedly wonderful weather, ducking into bookstores, and eating salmon tea rice soup (it’s delicious, and I can’t remember the real name. Ochazuke, perhaps?)

Later that night I had my first mojito at Wayan’s house with Mike, Christoph (OLPC Austria), and Aaron (OLPC Austria) and we had a good, long discussion about the state of OLPC grassroots that needs to be written up and posted – essentially, a job description for a community liason, something that would be wonderful to have.

Several states away and about a month ago on the Repairs front: Cortland Setlow and some friends in NYC held an repair bash and unbricked a suitcaseful of XOs. Here are pictures which I’ve been meaning to link for ages.

Also at 1cc the past few days: New interns (Ankur, Charlie, Francesca) arrived. We resolved to (1) make sushi and (2) get ice cream at Toscanini’s at some point during next week. After walking to Radio Shack with Ankur so he could get a power adapter for his laptop, Francesca, Nikki, Chris, Tank, and I talked with Diane across the street at Cosi’s about pilots – what makes them difficult to start, and specifically what challenges a Boston pilot would have to tackle. (We’ll see what comes of that conversation.) Rabi from OLE Nepal came by and was a wonderful wealth of information about starting small grassroots groups and pilots independently – I have yet to process my notes from that; it may takes my brain another day to settle.

Wad and Richard released the first round of a diagnosis guide for broken XOs and Nikki, Chris, and Tank continued their work on disassembly tutorials, and I made a draft portal for pulling the two together (warning: it’s an eyesore). Francesca announced the start of open Saturday sessions at 1cc – you should go if you’re in the area! This is all I can think of at the moment; more as my brain pops things up.


What are my contributions?


It’s kind of odd to be in the hacker world but not function as a pure thing-maker. From a conversation with Seth Woodworth last month: “The outcome of our work is other people having outcomes.” After talking with Mike Lee in DC on Saturday morning, I’ve reframed it as a question: How do you recognize the value of your work when you’re not trying to optimize under the metrics of any of the fields you’re collaborating with?

The usual numerical metrics – dollars of sales brought in, people recruited, physical artifacts produced, bugs fixed – don’t really measure up (we look downright paltry by their standards) even if we count our partial progress towards multiple metrics. Bridging amongst and switching between tasks – and domains of knowledge – takes a nontrivial amount of mental effort and time, an investment that’s not always recognized as a valuable one.

My individualistic tendencies make me want to fight the impulse to quantify all my work, because I know that the only reason I’d do that right now is to prove my worth to other people. I’d like to think I don’t use those metrics to mark myself other than in quick casual glances to help me establish a non-countable gut feel as to whether I’m doing something I should be doing.

Actually, wait. The word “value” connotes a quantity. Maybe I should stop using that word. Maybe a better way of asking it is to ask what my contributions are and what I’d like them to be. Then you can start slowly adding the notion of “improvement” in without the numerical connotations by asking how you could make those contributions most effectively (not efficiently, which presumes a measurable output – efficiency contributes towards effectiveness in some, but not all, cases).

For instance, one way I want to contribute to projects and organizations is by creating a welcoming environment for new participants and new ideas. I could be more effective at this if I made sure that the transition between (to paraphrase Gill) “the warm nest and the wide world” is both expected and prepared for. I could also be more effective if I could remind others how bewildering it is to enter into a new domain and how painful it is to be dismissed.

Or maybe I also want to contribute by being able to rapidly prototype and make-functional the visions that I and others come up – largely technical and social, but also political, economical, procedural, and so forth. I’d be more effective at this if I could improve my ability to see through the eyes of people who are trying to communicate to me. I’d also be more effective if I had better physical building skills (sketching, machining, fabricating, programming), ready access to a workshop and resources/materials/tools designed for rapid prototyping, and the confidence to throw more of my work out there without being fearful or ashamed.

These aren’t particularly good examples, but one thing I’m noticing is that the things that make me more effective at doing whatever I want to do will also make me more effective at helping others understand the contributions that I do make because I’m “articulating the conditions that would contribute to improve success,” to sound like something out of a glossy brochure.

Time to step away from this line of thought for a second and get my hands dirty with action before I go pontificating meta-things again.


(more) XO repair guides


After Wad’s talk on repairs and support for large-scale XO pilots revealed an outcry for guides on repair being something that was needed “soon – like yesterday,” Nikki Lee leapt into action and demonstrated that she actually has 8 hands by managing to disassemble an XO while simultaneously photographing and documenting the process. The result: a small but growing set of repair tutorials on topics like screen replacement, keyboard replacement, and (coming soon) other common yet simple procedures for getting a broken XO back in action. Comments, translations, additional tutorials, and better photographs are welcome. Greg Marra, creator of The Blue Alliance, is coming to 1cc tomorrow to help film yet more tutorials. Now if we could only get Nicholas Bodley to post his repair center manual outline (hint, hint)…

Chris Carrick is firing up on his charging peripherals research project by reading two year’s worth of mailing list archives and talking with all the engineers he can find. Tank Lai is working on something which should… hopefully go public this weekend, to leave everyone with a cliffhanger. Melanie Kim pulled me aside this evening to show me some design aspects from other games she’s thinking of incorporating into her language-learning RPG project. I ran around the office like a decapicated chicken helping workshop attendees reflash their laptops, doing mind-numbing data transfer between the developers program database and shipping spreadsheets (yes, it’s getting automated… I hope), and occasionally eating pretzels.

I’ll be on a bus tomorrow en route to the OLPC Learning Club meeting at Gallaudet. Fortunately, these buses have wifi, so I might actually get some overdue proposals written… more coming on this soon, but most of them were works-in-progress that highly pertain to C. Scott Ananian’s call for a community liason, so stay tuned. I’m also a few days past when I originally planned another round of Sugar bug triaging. (On the up side, sugar-jhbuild works on my laptop now.)

My aunt has Rachmaninov piano concertos! (#2 and #3.) BLISS!

On a final note: my year off is officially over, and I’m looking for interesting things to do come September 1st when the sunset clause on the ILXO office expires. A few things I do know: engineering (electrical/software), open licenses, education/learning, and being able to travel and deploy with, design with, and observe actual users spark me off and get me going. Jamming with hacker communities, working insane but flexible hours, and surfing on the edge of chaos are all things I like. The less I know about a field and the harder/scarier it appears to be, the more I like it. If you’ve got ideas for good problems to solve, adventures to go on, places to study, or teams to join, drop me a line.


Looking for successors


I’ve decided that it’s time to start passing some of my projects on. This includes firming up, documenting, and then passing them on to other people so that (0) I’m not a bottleneck, (1) fresh perspectives, yay! and (2) I have fewer projects and can focus better on the ones that are left. Here’s to posting things publicly to keep me honest. Folks, feel free to bug me on these, both if you don’t see me doing them, and if you’re interested in taking over the reins.

On my target list for OLPC:

Jams – write the “how to run a Jam” handbook, field-test it with the folks at the Grassroots bootcamp, then point people to it thereafter as a resource. Get the Jam in a Box kit created, publicized, and well-oiled in terms of how people get the box and pass it on. Also create a directory of “Jam consultants” so that I’m not the only one listed there for people to ask for advice from. (I’ll still be there, but as one of many.) This should be done by the end of the month.

University chapters (as an important subset of grassroots groups) – get existing chapters to publicize their activities and keep their pages updated. Likewise, form a coalition of university chapter leaders so that new chapters have good places to go for mentorship. This should be done by the end of the fall semester (January 1st) so I’m aiming for a fairly slow and steady transition so that we get a complete school-year cycle solidified.

Would anyone be interested in hosting a University Chapter summit at the end of August? I’m hoping that I’ll be able to walk away, come back a few years later as a graduate student, and have the University chapters people of that era walk newbie-Mel through starting a chapter at whatever school she’s at then.

More to come as/if I figure them out. Transitioning these should allow me to concentrate on (as an intern) building grassroots processes, a pilot mechanism, the ILXO office, and a community membership / volunteer support model, and (as a volunteer) bug triaging, the various Activities I’m developing, repair centers, and trying to do more tech/development things in general. (I love grassroots. I also think I’ll be better at it if I have a stronger base of technical contributions to draw from.) It will also make these projects stronger and more stand-alone in general.

PS: Learning shorthand (for Mentat wiki month) is taking longer than I thought – I keep falling back to my normal scrawl or just grabbing for a keyboard. 10 more days to learn it!


Presentations at the Media Lab today


Gui sent the robotics mailing list at Olin a heads-up on some nifty toys. Nothing earth-shattering (okay, the ability to rapid-prototype stepper motors in a cross-platform environment is cool), but it brought a grin to my face to realize that – well, I’m among people who send each other parts emails as a friendly hullo. Dang, it feels good to be a hacksta.

Continuing the ongoing saga of my OLPC internship…

After a frenetic night with Chris, Tank, and Nikki constantly rebooting XOs with various thumbdrives stuck in them – flash to build 703, flash activities on, flash more activites on, test – I got approximately 2 hours of sleep (before my parents yell at me, consider that Richard stayed up just as late, and Adam apparently pulled yet another allnghter at 1cc) before demos started this morning at the OLPC country meeting, which other bloggers (that I haven’t yet read) have reported on in far more depth.

The gist of things is that (1) there’s going to be a new version next-gen revision of the XO in about 2 years, and (2) there’s going to be another G1G1 in the near future. I’m happy about both, and bracing for the waves and waves of work that Doing Things Right will mean; plenty of lessons are there to be learned by the entire community on both news points. The second revision of anything is (almost) always my favorite to make – it’s new enough that you’re still experimenting and creating by the very fact that you’re making it at all, yet there’s a history there to diff from and to learn from your mistakes on.

First, though, there’s taking care of the work that needs to be done today. The ILXO crew spent much of today (nearly 12 hours) on our feet demonstrating XOs and activities to delegates from various countries. It was like a marathon. Of Awesome. The highlight for me was creating the “Repairs” exhibit table – 4 young hackers, 3 screwdrivers and 1 multitool-screwdriver-tip, 6.8 broken laptops, post-its, a borrowed pen, and 20 minutes – completely impromptu while attendees watched. I’m happy how it turned out, with laptops in various stages of disassembly (with notes and pointers) arrayed sequentially across the table – Nikki was even able to make a repair today when Francesca (an OLPC intern from Yale) brought her broken XO along.

Waves of activity came and went throughout the day. In other words, it was a constant slow oscillation between FLOODED WITH PEOPLE AAH OVERLOAD and “wait… wait, what am I doing here? Am I supposed to be doing something here?” I’ll bring my laptop and power cable to the Media Lab for tomorrow’s sessions so I can get more work done.

Many of the talks were excellent, though I didn’t catch most of them because I was either demoing or straining to hear/lipread (here’s to hoping transcripts are posted somewhere). The one I caught the most of – David Cavallo’s speech – held me spellbound (for the parts of it I could hear) as he sculpted an entire world of learning before our eyes, telling stories about what’s going on in schools, what impact OLPC is having, what impact OLPC could have. I must learn how to speak with that kind of clarity and force; it had an impact. Also, I wish I could go out to deployments; oddly enough, I think I’m at my best as an engineer when I spend time in classrooms I’m not attending. It gives me motivation to go into the lab to make things with the students from those classrooms.

I didn’t get around to my “tech thing of the day” today – demos and disassembly don’t count, since I’ve done both far too many times (Richard’s whirlwind tour of the motherboard over turkey (me) and pizza (him) was highly educational, and was also yesterday). I’m too drained and sleepy to bug-triage tonight. Instead I purged through grassroots-related emails while setting up my desktop.

Ah, yes. I got a desktop and desk-space at 1cc today (!!) Parkinson’s law appears to hold true for space – that is, work expands so as to fill the space available for its completion as well. In other news, monitors larger than 12″ are wonderful wonderful things. Hurrah for Henry being kind to lowly interns! I’m also wondering how long my solo desk will last, since other summer interns are starting to come in – this is a happy occasion, though, and I’ll glady give up extra space for good company.

Tomorrow I have plenty of writing to do (grassroots jam, pilot proposal process draft, community membership) and I’ll bug-triage during spare moments and… no, that will be enough to do, especially if I’m switching webmaster duties for the ILXO office over to Tank. Tomorrow also marks the end of my year off, so in 24.5 hours, I’ll be allowed to think about long-term plans again.

Feet are aching. Vision flickering intermittently due to involuntarily drooping eyelids. I think a few hours of sleep are in order here; it’s time to crash.


The ILXOers arrive


I swear I’m going to leave this office before 5am because I want to come back at 8am or before.

The ILXO folks (Chris, Nikki, and Tank) moved into their new apartment today, which took most of the morning. I’m amazed at their dedication – immediately after several grueling weeks of finals and projects and presentations, they moved across town the day across graduation and then promptly came into the office at 11:30 pm (without even pausing to unkink their shoulders from hauling blue bins of books up 4 flights of stairs) to prep laptops for the demos they’re running at Ridiculously Early Hours tomorrow morning. And they’re putting up with insanity like this all summer for a $0 salary).

I’m looking forward to the summer. Wait – it’s already started. (YAY!)

Also fun: mad dashes to Radio Shack right before they close, only to discover that they not only don’t carry the sensor you were looking for, they appear to not carry any sensors (as components that aren’t already integrated into overpriced consumer electronics devices on the shelves). Yep, I’m demoing Arjun Sarwal’s Measure activity tomorrow, on way too little sleep, to far too many people…

Okay. Time to post and run – I’m splurging on a taxi this once because I don’t want to wait an hour for the first train to get here. Sleep – it’s a good thing occasionally.


Olin’s class of 2008 has gradumacated. (Crusty silly people.)


Congratulations, Olin’s class of 2008. You’re probably getting sick of people saying “congratulations!” all the time, so here’s a request to boost the information value (read: decrease the predictability) of this post.

There was a whole lot of speechifyin’ today about how you, as engineers, are supposed to go out and build/invent/create/construct/make the future. My request is that you keep two words in mind while doing so: “viral” and “exponential growth.” In other words, part of “building the future” is to get other people to build it as well – and to build it their way. (The corollary being if you want it to be built “your” way, you’d better make your way their way as well.)

Mm. Going to Commencement this year was good in that I got to see people I loved that I hadn’t seen for a long time and celebrate a special rite of passage with a community that’s shaped each other’s lives in powerful ways. It was also good in that it gave me a sense of closure that I hadn’t gotten as much during my own graduation. Last May, I was in some sense being dragged kicking and screaming out of the nest. It was still home. This time I recognized that it wasn’t in a way that was more than intellectual. Olin’s a place that used to be a home for me, and in some ways always will be, but it’s not where I am now. It’s the thought that “oh yes, I did graduate.” It feels strange… and good, in a strange sort of way.

Forth Eorlingas!


English through advertising


Now this is cool: Nick Padmore statistically dissects corporate slogans, teaching you about some entertaining linguistic tricks along the way. Ok, most of the rhetorical devices will be familiar to any American or British kid who finished the 7th grade, but I’d sure rather have learned about polysemy from articles like this than from the umpteenth chapter of a dull textbook. It’s also an equally lovely lead-in to Markov analysis or literary devices.