Archive for November, 2008

Inbox cleaning: 192/763


A quote from the book “Good to Great,” from Alex Wheeler and Will Clayton.

The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline – a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which further drives the right people away, and so on.

Huh. Also,

The fact that something is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” is irrelevant, unless it fits within the three circles [of passion-for, best-in-the-world-at, and drives-your-economic-engine]. A great company will have many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Yet more evidence that I was smarter when I was 19.

Don’t. Burn. Yourself. Out! Help people by helping yourself first… [we] need a benchmark for “reasonable effort.”

Reading Beth Sterling’s photo puzzle on dendrification makes me miss her. Reading very excited emails from then-also-much-younger class-of-’06ers makes me wonder how we cool down as we grow up. I do miss being surrounded by students my age who were also high-pass and easily excited. It’s harder to get some of the same folks excited now; they’ve found their focus (for now, at least), and they’re being remarkably effective where they’ve landed.

I haven’t settled, and I’m not sure I ever will. Then again, we’ve got to need some people to stay like this – I hope so, anyway, because otherwise I’m going to be a very enthusiastic little old lady of great obsolesence many scores of years from now, scooting around in the fastest electric wheelchair I can buy or make, unsettling the world.

Also, I re-read an article Mark Penner sent me (this webpage is a reasonable stab at a cliffnotes version) on the difference between teams and working groups. As a younger and much more impetuous Mel, I scoffed and said “why would you ever want working groups? I always want to work on teams.” Now I recognize the necessity of the first, especially in large, short-term groups with memberships that are constantly in flux, and little time to work together – but I still want to build teams, and to make it possible to build teams. Or perhaps that’s just my aversion of power/authority speaking. (Or maybe it’s one of the reasons for my aversion to power – I’d like to be able to claim my fear is a benevolent one…)

Sumana pointed me towards Eric Nehrlich’s blog long ago. I love his self-description as an unrepentant generalist. It sounds strikingly familiar.

I found a list of dreams I’d written my senior year of college for two years out – deadline date being April 1, 2009. I’m not doing all that badly towards them, despite having forgotten most of them (…who needs a coherent single place to post all their goals? I do! I do!). Of the five I haven’t yet done, there are three I still actually care about (for instance, after spending aeons on the OLPC wiki, I no longer feel the need to edit 100 wikipedia articles in order to gain mediawik-fu).

  • be able to run 2 miles in under 15 minutes and/or do 100 push-ups. status: getting there!
  • have developed and released at least one open-source hardware project (probably a circuit design with microcontroller code). status: okay, I slacked on this one, but Chris and I do have plans to fix this before May.
  • be able to go on a solo week-long backpacking trip (currently: have never backpacked) status: uh… yes. I don’t even know where to begin on this. I have still never backpacked. Help.

Finally, Bryan Berry’s post from May on how to make open source work for education. There are no easy answers, but we’re still looking, and I’m proud that we are.

I’m down to a little less than 200 emails worth of backlog – I read, replied to, and archived 571 emails this afternoon. My hands hurt and I need to sleep, but I feel pretty good about this, and it was good to symbolically muck out my brain. Will attempt to finish in the morning.


Inbox cleaning: 477/763


Finding good things in here. Using this as an outlet to synthesize what I can.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

I have this sense that I’ve been sitting down for years saying the same things, thinking the same things, not doing stuff. Just talking about it.

It’s not entirely true, I know. I’ve done stuff. I still… it’s not enough. I’ve tried to live my life by the metric of “am I going to look back and regret not doing this?” and there are still opportunities I’ve dropped, because I don’t have enough to pay all the opportunity costs for the things I want to grab. Still! Can I really say that what I’m doing now is always better than the the other things I could be doing? Am I solving the best problem I could be solving?

Something I wrote over 3 years ago, before I got involved with OLPC, might make this clearer. Here’s 19-year-old Mel, blazing through a world she doesn’t know at all, trying to find answers to these questions… and the thing that bothers me now is that I don’t think I’m any closer to answering them now than was before. I’m a little better equipped to start finding the answers, but I haven’t started.

Some MIT Media Lab folks are trying to make $100 laptops (which do multiduty as ebooks and handhelds) for schoolchildren in developing countries. [A now-out-of-print article] shows a particularly spiffy design idea; power cord doubles as carry strap.

This article was a reminder of something a classmate and I had been talking about recently. Some designers focus their work on improving the lives of people in developing regions (also known in non-PC circles as “underpriveleged”). These designers have come up with inventive solutions (see http://watercone.com http://www.lifestraw.com), worked with charities, and implemented many other wonderful changes. I thought this was great and wanted to do exactly that after graduation.

It wasn’t until I went to a talk by Partners In Health (http://pih.org) where they talked about training doctors in Africa to treat their countrymen that I realized that much of the design aid going to developing regions is “descending from above” (Finger-Of-God), so to speak. Educated middle-class designers come in, fix the problem, and leave. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.

Papanek’s book, Design For The Real World, suggests an alternative vision, the design equivalent of teaching that man to fish for himself. Or better yet, teaching him to teach others how to fish (“train-the-trainer”) – that way you reach even more people and create a sustainable education effort that can last after you’re gone by empowering folks to help themselves. However, after several hours of searching and asking people, I couldn’t find a single organization that goes out and teaches these people to design and create their own things – maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I thought an organization like that would be easy to find.

Three questions for the list:

1. Why does design philanthropy often take the form of being the “Finger of God?” (Is this even an accurate assessment of the situation?)

2. Are there any existing nonprofits that do this (and why don’t they market themselves more publicly?)

3. What issues would you have to deal with in creating a “train-the-trainer” design program for developing regions? (How would you start one?) If we can’t find someone that does this already, we’d like to try our best to do it once we’re out of school.

Here’s what we came up with so far: You’d need a team of designers, engineers, and businesspeople with the ability to teach, at the very least; some way of machining/prototyping things, and an understanding of the local situation and a way to deal with it (in a place with high disease rates due to lack of drinking water, ergonomic faucet handles will be laughed at). Your students may come from a background of little or no formal education. Things will be hackish. Designs must be practical and high-payoff. Supplies are limited; you can’t drive to the local hardware store and expect to find epoxy on the shelf. It’s a whole different ballgame.

What do you think? Feasible? Pipe dream? Already done? Crazy? How can designers help others, whether it’s installing solar panels in Sri Lanka or giving speeches to high-school hopefuls touring your New York firm?

It makes me frustrated. Frustrated. I’m not frustrated that we didn’t do this so much as I’m frustrated that we didn’t find something better to do. I didn’t look for answers for these questions well enough – and I’m frustrated, re-reading the responses I got to that message, to find that all the answers I got to these questions were essentially longer phrasings of “we don’t know either.”

Worse, replies like this one from people who actually come from developing nations*…

*I don’t particularly like this term, mind you.

“…it’s difficult to make design here because few people are interested, and we all need in a such a way submit ourselves to the marketing view, otherwise we would not make a living… I don’t believe that design will make my country better because that would be so little related to what we really need…”

I refuse to become cynical and jaded about this. I can get mad.

What the hell are we doing? Why are we sitting around arguing about meetings and budgets and schedules and inter-organization politics instead of spending that time solving the bloody problem? Yes, schedules and budgets can be used in the service of a mission, but I have too often forgotten that they’re in service of the mission, and that reading a goal should never be subservient to the tools and practices you use to get there.

Why am I wasting so much time?

Anger is fine. Anger is good. When I’m mad at myself, I can channel it to do things. Slowly building this up so I have something to point it to.

I can point it towards being quiet, too. It’s challenging (but rewarding) to learn how to turn adrenaline (and sometimes rage) into the sort of sustained deep energy that’s needed to change the things that are feeding your anger-which-doesn’t-stay-anger. Another old email:

We can’t just keep ramping up the “Wow!” factor, though; I think to really get into CS (or any other field), kids have to have an appreciation for the seemingly simple parts of it. It’s easy for huge fire-breathing robots get your adrenaline pumping, but hard for quicksort to do the same thing unless you understand it. Sometimes I’m worried that we teach kids how to react only to Big Shiny Things and less how to be patient enough to appreciate quiet, subtle details, and I’m still not sure how you make the transition between the first (exciting opening grabber!) to the second (serious learning for mastery, but still having fun).

Yeah. I guess I’ll eat my own words and start with myself, then.

The number of tricks I pull on myself to keep myself on something for the long term is pretty amazing. It’s like I can’t stand still, but I can keep on running back to the same spot, and that sort of has the desired effect…


Inbox cleaning: 644/763


Going through my inbox is becoming an education in itself.

One thing that’s come up in conversations lately is my fear of “going into business,” usually phrased as “but I don’t want to be a manager.” It is an irrational and unexamined fear; I don’t know very much about this thing I claim I am afraid of. I have this deep-seated notion that I have to Make Things in order to prove myself as a hacker and an engineer (and I want to be a good hacker, I really do). The train of thought I’m running on says that “businesspeople don’t Make Stuff; time you spend on management is time you don’t spend hacking, and thus learning more about business will make you a worse hacker.”

Erroneous reasoning. Hard to shake nevertheless. Working on it.

Someone once told me that engineers solve the problems others tell them to solve and managers spend more time determining which problems should be solved. They also advised me to try to be both. Ask your own questions. Do something that you are so excited about that you forget to sleep. (I’m not sure they knew just how easy it is for me to get excited enough by something to not sleep on its behalf.)

From an email to a friend:

Some folks are going to have to wade through bureaucracy in order to
allow the really good people to shine and run with projects like they
should be able to. I’m not a fast runner, so I got myself a machete and
started chopping away. You, on the other hand, are a fast runner. [And should run.]

A recurring theme in my life is the need to put aside time and resources for my own learning – try to teach and cultivate my own growth the way I try to teach others. I get around the guilt feelings by trying to find ways to teach other people the things I don’t know myself but want to learn, but I want to be able to confront this directly and be selfish for a little while. That’s not too much to ask, is it? The ability to be selfish?

Do I actually want it?

Gah. All right. I’ve got to go through these emails faster. No more posts until I drop below 500. Go.


Inbox cleaning: 652/763


Okay, it’s for dogs. But it strikes me that a wireless accelerometer necklace (belt clip? maybe attach to my wallet, and have a sensor pad by my bed, and another by my gym bag?) might be a neat way of tracking how much exercise and sleep I’m getting.

(What’s preventing me from just up and making these things straightaway? My tools – both mental and physical – aren’t as accessible as they should be, and the activation barrier is sufficiently high to discourage this lazy bum.)

Also, I should set up ctrlproxy when I have an always-on desktop/server of my own. Many things I want to do – for other project days. Today, my project is my inbox.

652/763 emails left. Time to pick up the pace.

In some of the blues and jazz songs I’m listening to, the guitar strings are slapped so that it sounds like there’s percussion even if there isn’t percussion. At least I think that is what’s happening; I’ve seen street performers do this before. What is this called? How do you learn how to do it? After several minutes of experimentation with a guitar, it seems like you can make this sound by strumming the guitar with your right hand and then abruptly whipping your left hand onto the strings to damp them, but this is extremely awkward when trying to play any sort of song. Damping with your right hand doesn’t appear to have the same effect, but perhaps I’m doing it in the wrong place.

New vocabulary words: surd and vinculum. When you have nth roots of numbers (like the square root of 5, or the 4th root of 3), the whole thing is called a surd, and the little number above/to-the-left-of the radical symbold is called a vinculum. I never knew. (Wikipedia did.) I found this out while reading through some links from an email from Matt Ritter.


Going for inbox zero


Sunday. Spinach and feta cheese croissant, blues music alternating with Coldplay, and me on the sofa with a big black jacket because of the cold, determined to end my email backlog, and to end it here and now.

I am looking forward to it being warm again. I am looking forward to people being here again.

Okay, email backlog. Let’s scope this out a bit; there are 763 messages I’ve got to get through, some of them over 2 years old. Some I’m afraid to reply to; some I haven’t had time to read. Some I shouldn’t reply to at all, but haven’t brought myself to cave into that realization yet. It’s dumb, but I worry about having an email backlog far too much. It’s the constant tinny ringing noise of things that haven’t been done. And it bothers me.

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You filled my inbox. Prepare to die.


The problem of articulating problems


I’ve just joined Planet Sugar Labs, so for those of you who haven’t read my posts before, I write in an uncensored stream-of-consciousness style. What you’re about to read are literally the thoughts that are going through my mind as I wander through a problem.

Using the XO to monitor bees? Sweet! (Thanks to Mike Lee for the tip!)

I’d love to see more experiments and Activities for experiments like this out there, but I’m not sure what needs to be done to foster/encourage/make-it-easier for this to happen. I wonder who else out there is interested articulating good problem statements for Sugar Labs and OLPC – we have an overabundance of people who want to help us solve problems, and a shortage of well-stated problems for them to solve.

Thinking off the top of my head:

  • Maybe we could have a Problems Articulation Sprint (…with a better name) every other week to flesh out and find supplemental resources for things we need help on.
  • Short sprints, so people won’t get too tired. Not too frequent, so they won’t get burnt out. No obligations, so you can help flesh out a problem and then walk away and expect others will solve it – the point is to make the problem more attractive to solve, either by providing resources so it’s easier, or making the potential impact larger, deeper, or clearer, so there’s a bigger payoff to solving it.
  • It strikes me that this is quite similar to the concept of bug advocacy. Bugs are problems waiting to be solved, after all.
  • One could imagine a well-moderated feed (blog?) of OLPC/Sugar Labs “problems to solve” – so that people can watch it to see neat project opportunities floating by.
  • I’d want high editorial standards for what gets onto that list, though; we’d have to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a good problem articulation.
  • And we’d need to find people on all sides of the pipeline; stakeholders with problems, people to flesh out the problem, people who want to solve articulated problems, people to use and measure the impact of solutions generated for that problem.
  • This is also similar to the idea of flash conferences.
  • I think this is very closely aligned to my (as yet vague and unarticulated-into-goals – should change this) desire to make both projects into newbie-welcoming communities that volunteers can grow within.

I’m running out of steam trying to brainstorm solo – can someone help me pick this up and flesh it out? It’s a meta-problem statement – the problem of us not having clear problems to solve. Here are some parts of the meta-problem as far as I can see them.

  1. Our problems don’t have scope or scale. What kinds of skills, tools, resources, time are going to be needed to get this done? It’s scary to start tackling something with an unbounded resource allocation; you have no idea what kind of expenditure or risk you’re in for.
  2. It’s difficult to tell when a problem’s been solved. What’s an unambiguous way to know when you’ve reached the goal, or how far you are from getting there?
  3. It’s not clear what impact solving a problem will have. Who wants this? What difference do we think it will make, and what guarantee do I have of knowing the exact difference it’s made – and how long will it take for me to get that information? Is this a difference we want to make? (Is solving this problem aligned with the larger goals of the project, or at least with my own personal goals?)

What else is there?

For my part, here’s what I’m going to try. I’d like to try running half of one of our upcoming (OLPC) community test meetings as a problem articulation sprint – they’ve served parts of this purpose already a bit, but not particularly consciously. Goal: leave meeting with at least one well-articulated, here’s-how-you-know-it’s-done, annotated-with-relevant-resources, clear-measurable-impact problem statement – for a testing-related problem, and some notion of how we’ll find people to take it on.

I’ll think about this and get back to it tomorrow when I start prepping for this week’s meeting. I’d like to talk with people between now and then about how one might do a good testing-related problems articulating sprint for half an hour over IRC, so if you don’t mind being peppered with questions (or have some of your own), find me before Wednesday night. (Reply here, email, IRC, find me in person, whatever means you prefer.)

Signing off for now.


Brain is quiet


I started the last post before leaving for the party; I’m back now, and my hair’s as long as it was yesterday. Hair cutting places close earlier than I’d expected.

My brain’s oddly quiet. I’m not sleepy or physically exhausted, but I’m tired somehow. Something invisible went shoop! up inside me sometime this afternoon – probably in the library, but I didn’t notice until I walked into the mass of people at Berkman^2 and felt like being very still, and very quiet, and sort of nonverbally interactive*. Towards the end, Hanna got me sparked up talking about engineering education. (Thanks, Hanna.) Some things will drag me into enthusiasm no matter what. It’s probably the best way I have of identifying my actual calling(s) in life, since I usually get excited about everything and excitement is easily mistaken for deep passion.

*Sign language is especially handy for times like this.

I’m lucky to have friends who’ll make me interactive despite myself. I got eaten by a giant whiteboard amoeba and did some area calculations for the missile silo. Worked out an a capella arrangement on the train. I’ve got to find a way to sketch them out on paper now that I haven’t got Sibelius. Lilypond? I’m not good enough at it yet to make the process non-laborious. (I would say the same for emacs.) I should probably invest the time and learn.

For the most part, though, a tiny clear voice is the only thing singing through my head. That’s mostly metaphorical, but not entirely. That’s why I came up with the a capella arrangement (SSAA); it’s a good way to get a song unstuck. It also reminds me that vocal percussion is on my to-learn list. (Oddly enough, I can let that thought go calmly, without feeling the need to get really excited and chase that thought down. See? Weird.)

It’s odd and rare for my mind to be so still. It often means I’m sick, but I don’t think this is the case now. At the very least, it means I have something to think about that I haven’t yet realized I have to think about. The best thing to do in these cases is usually for me to go to sleep.

I used to have a sketch in the back of my old notebook this summer indicating that I was “too tired to ask for hug.” (It doesn’t do any good right now because I don’t have that notebook, and I’m the only one in this apartment.) Years ago I found that leaning my head against something temporarily – wall, window, furniture – is a passable substitute that doesn’t require the presence of another human being, and lets me have a single point of physical contact (which I’m very conscious of) to focus my brain on, so there would be something there for it to stay on without pumping up the adrenaline. (I kinda wonder if a hat would do the same thing, if I didn’t wear it all the time but put it on when I needed to be conscious about focusing a bit.) Stretching works as well, but is less easy to do in public.

My mind is still operating sans its usual –verbose flag. So I’ll stretch out a little, and then I’ll go to sleep. It’s good to more consciously articulate what I’m learning about the way my brain works.


Shameless plugs and languages


Matt Barkau’s Free Icon To Speech is one of those projects you just really want to see succeed; it’s a communication augmentation Activity for the XO that synthesizes speech in response to icon selections. If you’re a new developer looking for some friendly code to play with, Matt’s put in a lot of time to make it easy to work with – here’s an example. If it looks like the kind of thing you’d like to help with, then check out the project’s homepage and the rest of the code. There’s plenty to work on both for developers and other contributors.

Also, since I don’t believe I’ve plugged this here before: check out planet.sugarlabs.org if you want to keep up with the thoughts and work of the growing Sugar Labs community.

Finally, I’ve been growing slowly more interested in ASL and deaf culture (as may have been apparent from previous posts, including the ones where I’ve said things like this before). The grammar is particularly interesting; I’d love to take a class in ASL grammar specifically someday, never having formally studied it. I’ve taught several friends some of the tiny bits of ASL I know, but it often doesn’t look right – we call it their “hearing accent” (I have one too). It’s the tiny subtle things you do or don’t do when you sign something – facial expressions, mouth morphemes, how far or fast your hands move, things like that – I dimly remember enough to tell it looks wrong somehow, but usually don’t know enough to figure out how to make it look right again.

I want to live or work with other people who do ASL at some point; I need more frequent practice, and I’m at the point for that language where immersion would actually do me some good. (I’m not quite at that point for any other languages yet, but could probably get my Japanese and Mandarin there fairly quickly if given… say, a month’s advance notice of such an opportunity.) When I look through the dictionary, I’m amazed at how quickly my vocabulary reactivates. I’ve seen a lot of these words before, I just… never signed them back at anyone. I wonder if learning my family’s dialect would feel the same way. It’s nearly impossible to find textbooks on that, though.


Week in review


As you may have gathered from the last few posts, I’m back in Boston with my trusty laptop. Yay, trusty laptop! There’s currently a Nikki on the couch, and I can’t figure out how to make my laptop like Chris’s Batman DVD. Oh well.

LA is… warm. And when you look out the (numerous, large) windows in Nikki’s house in the early morning (because you’re Mel, and can’t sleep) you see these rolling yellow hills, dotted with wiry green trees and thin stalks that explode into palm trees at the top. There are houses piercing the hills, and at night the sunsets are blood-red, and then trillions of lights turn on as far as you can see so that it looks like someone ripped a bag of pixie dust across the city.

There are hummingbirds. They hover. Standing outside watching the sunset as these little zippy things dart to the feeder a couple of feet from your head is… I’m not sure how to describe this, so I’m just going to jump up and down and wave my arms happily and hope that gets the point across.

(Update: Several hours have passed since I started, and there is no longer a Nikki on the couch, but I have library books on system administration, plus face wash. Also, the dishes have been done.)

I learned how to play Magic from Nikki’s brother Pat, and lost gloriously (curse that regeneration card!) I also lost card games, board games, and stuff on the Wii. I’m cognizant that partaking in recreational gaming more often would make me lose not quite so badly, but I don’t actually mind. We got ice cream, Nikki got a haircut, I did not buy a hat, and we walked around in Old Pasadena with Wayne and it rained. There were fish tacos; I got an ASL dictionary.

Also, tortas in Los Angeles are vastly improved over the wimpy overpriced things passed out under the same name at Taste of Chicago this summer. I learned when to stop eating an artichoke, and that cats vibrate when they purr. (Also that having a cat purring on your lap as the sun rises on the sci-fi book you’re reading is very, very nice.) It was a good week; I also read some woodworking books, and there were pears. This week was awesome. I need to send a thank-you book.

I suppose I’ll get a haircut, go to the party, hang out for a while, be confused, come back home, maybe clean a little bit, and sleep. There are a number of things I could do tomorrow, but I will, among them, attempt to get myself into a state wherein I can learn some PHP (side project; you’ll see it here if it works out). Maybe I’ll go look at some houses. Maybe I’ll get some groceries, because I don’t think I’ll be very happy surviving on a jar of chopped garlic for a week. I’ll probably play piano; I’ll probably (finally) organize my bookshelves and find out why my stereo doesn’t work. I should go through my bank statement, but I don’t want to. But I will anyway.

It will be nice someday to live in a house with a garbage disposal, dishwasher, in-unit laundry, more warmth, and people. Maybe some animals. A big kitchen. A lot of books. An X10 system. Mostly the people, though. And workshops I can build things in.

I can’t think coherently in English anymore, so I’ll just go and get that haircut now.


Image roundup!


Greg with collapsible whiteboard made for Internet parties. Still need to make this into an instructable.

Seth’s fault.

Our fridge is relatively bare, and balsamic-vinegar caramelized onions, mashed sweet potatoes, flour tortillas, and fried eggs don’t quite go together. I am, however, no longer hungry.

Also, my brother Jason is no longer a teenager. Happy birthday, kiddo!