Archive for April, 2011

Bug report: I’m boring and moping about it.


Haven’t been writing much the past few… weeks? Months, really. This time, it hasn’t been because I’ve been too busy – actually, the other way around. It’s been too lonely. Quiet. I wouldn’t call it a sinking spiral of depression or anything like that – there have been good times, happy moments – but most of the time, I’ve just been sort of going along, existing. Eating because it’s time for lunch. Working because I knew I should be trying to do something useful. But no fire, almost no passion, no spark… I woke up in the mornings for days in a row and didn’t jump up and do something I was inspired about, with the exception of last weekend’s workshop at CCSCNE.

That was – is – terrifying. Life was no longer in Technicolor. Life was… normal. Dull. My god, was this what happened to adults – was this what it felt like when the world just got to be another thing, not because you fought something and lost, because you’d at least then have something you believed in, tried for – but because you never tried at all? It’s like a quiet, subtle fog – nothing’s quite wrong, you’re doing stuff, but… where was the Mel I liked, the happy one that saw all sorts of possibilities in everything, the one that ran around and saw things and learned things and was inspired by people and kept on growing? I felt like I’d stopped growing, had stopped learning, didn’t know quite how to start again. Once in a while – getting and writing emails from old friends, my last few posts on language learning – that spark would sputter up… and then it would die. I wasn’t sure what was happening to me. I’m still not. But I’m not happy about it – I’ve become boring.

Temporarily, that is. You can’t fix a bug until it’s reported – sitting around feeling sorry for myself and moping is dumb and won’t get me anywhere. (Sebastian phrased this somewhat more tactfully last night, but the underlying “stop moping and go do something about it” message is still true.)

Let me try this – what have I been inspired by lately?

  • Diana Kimball writing her heart out about the collision of random ideas she’s come across, sharing music that’s touched her lately.
  • Sumana Harihareswara getting out there and starting her standup comedy performances again. 
  • Matt Ritter’s attempt to restart the Action Trumps Everything alumni network – I’m poking around on Facebook for the first time in a while now.
  • Erin Dowd and George Jemmott and language-hacking – it’s wonderful to find people just playing around with this stuff too!
  • Andrea Lai’s future adventures in New Zealand biotech. My friends go to some pretty cool places. :)
  • The seemingly inexhaustible ability of Leslie Hawthorn to attend and speak at events one after the other and still stay atop blogging and email. I need to lower my standards for replies – a fast, imperfect answer is better than a perfect one that never comes, or comes late. Really, Mel. Really.
  • Asheesh Laroia’s ability to keep hacking on the front lines while keeping up the sort of travel/speaking schedule I would love to get back into again.
  • Sacha’s experiments with doing her talks online, remotely… actually, I might want to try doing that – classes mean my ability to physically travel will be restricted, but why should it get in the way of speaking?
  • My brother Jason, whose lightchimes project got covered by the Make: blog. He’s the one with the buzz cut on the far left of the video still – I remember crashing on his couch last summer looking at some of the early prototypes and asking him about the epoxy they were filling the tubes with. And yeah, his handwriting and drawings and sketches have always looked like the ones shown in the video, except I’m used to seeing them on things like ID cards and immigration papers for our stuffed animals (we were strange little children) rather than, y’know, featured on a major hacker blog.

Dammit, I need to step up my game and make cool stuff again. Somebody challenge me!


Learning kana by butchering the English language


I was recently asked how I learned the Japanese writing system. Actually, there are three: hiragana and katakana, which are phonetic systems, and kanji , which are basically Chinese characters embedded into Japanese text and pronounced as Japanese words.

The answer was that I was really bored the summer before I started high school, and had no qualms about butchering the English or Japanese languages. I’d also recently read Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – so when I pulled out Japanese stuff from my local library, I went “wait, these are phonetic systems… they’re just different ways of writing sounds.” So I happily started writing English sentences in the Japanese phonetic writing system.

For instance, a poem beginning:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

Becomes…

りすてん まい ちゅづれぬ あん ゆ しゃる ひる
li-su-te-n ma-i chu-du-re-nu a-n yu sha-ru hi-ru

おぷ で みづないっと らいど おぷ ぱいる れびる
o-pu de mi-du-na-i-t-to ra-i-do o-pu pa-i-ru re-bi-ru

…and so forth.

Basically, I learned kana as an alternative phonetic system with which to write English, then switching to use the same phonetic system to write Japanese once I had it down. (I never did build up a good Japanese word vocabulary – but I can still read and write kana fluently to this day. I just don’t know what the words I’m saying mean.)

Kanji, on the other hand, I never did find a good way to learn. It helps to think in terms of breaking characters down into radicals, but beyond that you just have to memorize each one, as far as I know. I did learn that studying Chinese and Japanese back-to-back is a bad idea, though; to this day, when I’m reading Chinese, sometimes the Japanese pronunciation of a word will pop out in the middle, confusing the heck out of everyone – and the reverse happens as well. I still haven’t figured out a way to learn grammar, either. But that’s what further explorations are for.


Language learning for deaf autodidacts: Praat


My friend Erin Dowd, a talented linguist (and engineer, musician, and cook, among other things) who spends her days thinking about things like phonological inventories and has better Mandarin pronunciation than I do, shot me an email last week.

I was using Praat for a paper I’m writing, and I thought you might like to play with it, especially if you’re still trying to change your accent. I use it to analyze formants in sound files, but it’s got a lot more functionality that I haven’t explored.

Praat is an open source phonetic analysis suite developed by Paul Boersma and David Weenink at the University of Amsterdam. It’s GPL(v2) licensed, ridiculously cross-platform (Mac/Win/Linux/FreeBSD
- but also SGI/Solaris/HPUX), has been around since at least 2007, and is still under active development (the latest version was uploaded on April 15, 2011, which is 4 days ago as of this writing). There’s no public version control repository – I’ve emailed them about that – but you can download the source tar and dig around; it’s mostly C++.

It’s fun to play with. I know Praat’s intended for speech analysis, but couldn’t resist playing some guitar into the microphone (on the theory that the guitar – even with its many harmonics – would produce purer frequencies than my speaking voice). And you can see it picked up on the short 4-step ascending and descending scale I played before I confused with with chords at the end – the blue line in the bottom graph (the spectrogram) goes up and down in sync with the notes of the guitar.

Voice data was even more fascinating. I’ve been trying to work on my “deaf accent” for several years now, and Erin’s been amazing with helping me explore that whenever we get to hang out together; she’ll notice strange little things nobody else does. It was her observation that the “accent” decreased when I tilted my head back that eventually led to the discovery of how to control my oral-nasal resonance, which makes me sound a lot less deaf when I remember to do it.

Pratt – which has a ton of features I don’t fully understand – is sort of a computerized Erin. In addition to plotting the spectrogram, it gives you pitch contours (in blue), formants (red), and intensity contours (yellow) – and all of these can be manipulated. Oh, and you can annotate the images with phonemes and words pronounced if you want. The graph below is for the spoken words “hello, world!” (what else would I say)?

Erin suggested using Praat as a beefed-up version of language software that “trains” your pronunciation to be like a native speaker’s. Plot your voice, see how close you are to average formant values in a phonological inventory for your desired accent, plot again, do it again until you hit it right.

She showed me an interesting variant on this theme; Praat can also manipulate the formants, intensity curves, pitches, etc. of audio waveforms, meaning it can take your voice and change your intonation, accent, etc. So these researchers took second-language learners, recorded their voices in the target language (where they had an accent), used Praat to transform the learners’ voices into non-accented speech, and gave them back their “perfect” pronunciation records to imitate and measure themselves against. Holy cow, I thought. I could hear myself with a perfect American English accent. Or gorgeous Mandarin pronunciation. Or…

I’d love to see this made into a language-learning game. Imagine the possibilities! Pronunciation training like this could blow away any of the “speech recognition” functionality in commercial language-learning software currently on the market; instead of matching against one native speaker’s recording (no matter how hard you try, you’ll never sound like someone else), you could norm your own voice into an accent-average compiled from data from thousands of native speakers, and match against that. When combined with something like librivox, an initiative to make open-licensed audiobooks from public domain works like Project Gutenberg, the by-products of language learning could actually accelerate the building of a shared cultural library. Anyone looking for a software engineering, game design, linguistics, or signal processing project?

Praat is, by the way, not yet packaged for Fedora.


CCSCNE notes


After months and years of repeatedly having to explain and define “open source” at academic conferences, it was wonderful to be able to sit down and watch a keynote by Stormy Peters, have a professor walk up to me and explain that his son’s interning for Mozilla, walk into dinner and be greeted by conversations about CMU Sphinx… we still have much work to do, the idea of teaching open source is just the beginning of a germinating seed – but there’s life, there’s green, it’s sprouting – and to see that is incredibly rewarding.

In other words, Sebastian and I just returned from CCSCNE, a large regional CS education conference (the “NE” is for “North East”) that’s been organized by a number of our friends from Teaching Open Source (TOS) for the past few years. Thank you to TOS community members Heidi Ellis, Karl Wurst, Bonnie MacKellar, Lori Postner, Darci Burdge, and Mihaela Sabin, who all served on this year’s conference committee, for making it the most FOSS-tastical CS education conference I’ve ever been to.

Heidi and Greg Hislop invited us to do the Friday morning portion of their NSF-funded faculty workshop on teaching open source – in two hours, we decided, there was no way we could really teach professors how to get their students involved in FOSS, so we used the time as a POSSE teaser trailer instead, aiming to teach them how to lurk – giving them enough context and vocabulary to watch a FOSS project in operation and ask intelligent questions of individual contributors. Imagine trying to ask questions about how “school” works without knowing that there are things called “classrooms” and people called “teachers,” that the day is divided into “classes” which run during “semesters” for which “students” receive “grades” – you’d be pretty lost. That’s the level of basic structure we taught them to spot; projects are created by communities, we said. We ship releases in release cycles, have feature processes that determine what things get worked on for each release, talk on IRC and mailing lists, use version control to collaborate. These are all simple things, but you need to know you should be looking for them before it becomes simple.

The format of our activity was simple, based on foreign-language lessons that start with a real-world conversation (“Would you like a cup of coffee?” “Yes, thank you.”) and then deconstruct the vocabulary (“coffee,” “thank you”), grammar, and cultural hints (“tea is also a common morning beverage”) used in that dialogue. We asked the audience to shout out a FOSS project (“Pinta,” they said!) and Sebastian, who’d never seen that project before, improvised his way through scoping it out for contribution for 10 minutes while I rapidly transcribed what he was doing on a side projector. (At least he knew what the Pinta program was – it wasn’t until about 2 minutes in that I realized it was a paint program.)

Then we broke it down. What tools, processes, cultural maxims had we encountered – what
are they, why are they used? Ah, he noticed that there were many recent commits, but only by one person. What might that mean for using this project in a classroom? If you decided to bring your students into this project, they may be dependent on only one mentor. Wait, what’s a “commit”? Ah, you’re asking about something called version control

As a roadmap to this improvisation, we handed out a revised version of our POSSCON flyer, removing the event-specific material and filling in more of the framework so it could stand alone as a cheat-sheet guide to a newcomer who’s beginning an open source apprenticeship under the guidance of a mentor. Not a standalone study-sheet, but a framework and a conversation starter; things to ask about, tools to ask about, processes to be aware of. I also designed the flyer so it could serve as a checklist of what we had and hadn’t discussed as a group, to make sure we had good topic coverage even if the chosen project didn’t happen to have a certain piece of infrastructure, but the 10-minute Pinta whirlwind actually ended up touching on everything except blogs and blog aggregators, which the Pinta community doesn’t have.

Our pacing could have been better, but we were quite pleased with how it went overall, even if we had to leave a little early to get Sebastian back to campus in time for class. The professors interrupted with great questions throughout (even better, at some point they just started talking with each other about the topic, and we sat back and listened), and several attendees approached me afterwards about continuing their explorations in FOSS through attending a POSSE workshop or some other means. (Thanks also to Clif Kussmaul for his feedback on our teaching!) I’d like to write out this format into a more structured “instructors’ document” so it’s easier for us and others to repeat the exercise later on.

The next day, I headed back to the conference to cover Stormy’s keynote speech and to film interviews (I’ve got video from Stormy and Clif to edit now) as well as catching up on some research projects, proposals, and ideas that I’ll have to write about at greater length later, once more of the surrounding details are able to go public. (Ah, blind review. I understand why you exist, but you make it awfully difficult to default to open.”) Watch for those coming out on opensource.com/education over the next month or two.

Next up: a FOSS participation student materials development sprint in Springfield, Massachusetts in May. Gotta start prepping for that one now…


Mel’s hunt for a citation management system


As I work more and more with professors on incorporating open source into education and research, I’ve run up into the need for a better way to manage, cite, annotate, and reference large numbers of scholarly papers. This is likely to be a combination of process and tooling – let’s see how I can go about figuring this out before I’m overwhelmed by Chicago-style bibliographies and writing deadlines.

Step 1: Wander around the search space exploring options.

Aside from googling terms like “citation management,” “paper management,” and other terms that came up (bibliography, academic paper, reference) in conjunction with the term “open source,” I also put the same queries to sourceforge and the Fedora repositories, leading to a bogglingly large number of options. This reminds me of what I actually forgot to do…

Step 0: Define what you want.

To be fair, until I wandered around the search space a bit, I was pretty hazy on what was possible. Did people do this online? Offline? On paper? Save just bibliographies? Integrate them into browsers or readers or text editors? Save annotated pdfs? Was it important that notes be text-searchable? Did everyone keep their own notes, or was this some sort of collaborative endeavour? (It seemed wasteful for thousands of academics to MLA-format the same citation over and over and over…)

The answer I found to all these questions was: yes.

Okay, so there wasn’t One Right Answer or Several Clear Standards for this sort of thing – it was an individual choice, with some choices being somewhat more popular than others. Nice to know. What were my criteria? A first pass:

  1. Open source. I want to be able to share this solution with other people, and tweak it if need be (though I admit I do not modify the vast majority of software I personally use).
  2. Exportable in readable form. I don’t want to be locked into some custom format that’s hard to share with other people (who may have a different system) or to browse myself; if I can’t write my own parser for its storage format, it’s officially Too Complicated. Also, export/import is vital for backups, and I’m wary enough of Murphy’s Law to know that my computer will crash the week before my thesis defense is due. Being prepared!
  3. Store notes (different types, flexibly/dynamically determined) as well as bibliographic information. I spew lots of thoughts while reading. I need a way to capture them. That’s it.
  4. Handle both pdf/print/book and online documents with notions of “frozen” and “moving” resources. I’ll need to wrangle many scholarly papers and “traditional” reference materials like books, of course. But I also swim in an open source universe, and need to be able to easily refer to online resources – blogs, wikis, chat logs… transient and changing things. It would be great to be able to store a copy for “downloaded on this date” searchability and still point to the updated upstream, with disclaimers that things may have changed in the meantime. If need be, this is something I’m willing to hack in.
  5. Searchable text. Whenever possible, I’d like to be able to access the full text of the documents I’m working with, along with the full text of my notes.
  6. Easy copy-paste of bibliographic information in the desired citation format. I want to be able to hit a button and go “MLA transforms to… APA! Copy-paste!” without having to manually grab information out of each form field. This sounds stupid, but when you consider the number of times I’ll be doing it, it gets really important.
  7. Citation cross-linking. I’m not sure if there’s a word for this, but I’d like to be able to note which books and articles cite each other, lead to each other, reference interesting ideas that contrast with each other. I’d like to be able to put the papers I write in this database, and point to which papers they cited – building up a picture of where I’m looking and what I’m citing over time.
  8. Enable spontaneous metadata. In other words, tags.
  9. Runs on Linux. Bonus points if it’s cross-platform, but it’s got to run on my operating system, at least.
  10. Easy to share my notes with others. I know I can’t share the papers in the vast majority of cases, but I would love to be able to open my notes and bibliographies and reading list to the rest of the world. Bonus points if I can tap into a community that’s already doing this and not need to recreate a little nucleus all my own… but I recognize that perhaps this starts drawing questions about scholarly integrity vs collaboration, etc. (what’s your own work, if you grab a citation list from someone else and refer to their notes on the papers as inspiration for your own?) and so people may not yet be doing it and I will need to learn more about this and learn to write some clear-cut guidelines around what I’m up to.

Whether they were browser-based or text-editor extensions or webapps didn’t matter to me. Based on this initial list of 10, I cut down the massive ream of search results (ok, 36 browser tabs, most with an aggregate of various software options) to a bunch that seemed like they might meet the criteria.

Step 2: Presenting the first list of candidates.

  • JabRef – Java-based and therefore cross-platform and designed specifically to work with BibTeX, which is the standard bibliography format for LaTeX, my favorite document prep system. Which I should re-crash-course myself in, really. JabRef looks highly customizable, which is a big plus – and it’s an active project. Not sure how user-friendly the interface is, or whether I want to work with Java.
  • Zotero – this seemed to get a large number of rave reviews. A Firefox plugin (so using web citation is obviously already a key feature) developed by a collaboration of academic centers (including a library one!) it seems like a nice case of user-driven design, and trumpets its ability to sync remotely (working from multiple machines yay!) and publish one’s process. Not sure how it deals with random notes, tags, and metadata yet. Also, stability questions pop up on my end.
  • RefBase has a nice batch of features – web-based and highly integrated with other tools that sound appealing to me (email, Zotero, RSS). The email-everyone-when-a-new-record-is-added feature is particularly fascinating; I could see this being a potentially nice piece of TOS infrastructure if it works. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like the best way to keep book notes.

There were some second-tier contenders that would be nice to check out if there’s time.

  • Aigaion – seems like a smaller niche and less active program, but the bare-bones minimalism and solid good sense that seems to be exhibited by its developers (they’ve got all the right things – bugtracker, wiki with basic documentation, etc) attracts me.
  • Connotea – a web-based social bookmarking system for academic bibliographies, created by the Nature publishing group. It’s open source (GPLv2) and looks quite full-featured, but development has slowed – the last mailing list post was in 2009, and there were 2 emails to the list that year.
  • KBibTex (KDE), Pybibliographer (GNOME), and Referencer (GNOME) are organizers designed for specific Linux desktop systems – that having been said, the latter two especially look quite attractive and hackable (if not uber-maintained – in fact, the latter is looking for a maintainer). Possibly worth tinkering with; I’ll have to decide whether the desktop lock-in is worth it, and these are less easy to publish with.
  • Bibus could be nice if my workflow were centered around LibreOffice (or
    OpenOffice), but it’s not – however, it’s mature and full-featured enough, and seems to be designed for collaboration enough to warrant consideration. AuthorSupportTool appears to be in a similar vein; it was done as a class project 2-3 years ago but there’s still some development activity going on.
  • Software not specifically intended for citation management – specifically, MediaWiki… although I’d love a lighter-on-the-server wiki that still maintains interesting metadata tagging/category/etc management features, honestly.

Appendix: Interesting candidates that didn’t make it.

I see these things as exciting for inspiration, possibly useful for other people, and a way to make me think about different workflow possibilities. Remember, when a feature doesn’t exist in a piece of FOSS software, it’s usually because it hasn’t been coded in yet…

  • Mendeley – not open source.
  • Endnote – not open source.
  • Papers – not open source, Mac-only.
  • BibDesk – open source, but Mac-only.
  • TextCite and Wikindx – open source, web-based, but both seem dead and out of use now – however, at one time each had a fair number of users. This was just 3-4 years ago – how quickly the software landscape changes!
  • reSearcher and Heurist looked fascinating – reSearcher in particular is under active development by a library group in Canada that’s dogfooding their own work, which I always think is wonderful – but I just couldn’t figure out quickly how they worked or what they did, and seemed a little less mature as open source communities and products, so I’ll pass on them for now. Still, there may be some interesting sparks to fan here, and I’d personally love to chat with any developers from either project about what they’re trying to accomplish.

Appendix: Supplementary tools

These are various things related to bibliography management that I thought might be interesting to use, but aren’t themselves really scholarly resource management tools.

  • Bebop – a way to generate nice webpages from BibTeX entries.
  • Actually, I expected to find more of these. It’s clear I’ll have to relearn LaTeX and grok BibTeX (which I never really did use in undergrad) – I wonder how much I want to depend on LyX as a tool.

What’s next? I’m not sure, nor am I sure when I’ll be taking the next step, though I’m sure that a pressing need to write something else academic will be a factor in inspiring me to pick this up again (so if you see me working on this aggressively in early May, it probably means FIE accepted the first draft of the paper we submitted). Feel free to crank away at this if you’d like, or chime in on some of the options if you’ve tried them – Wikipedia’s comparison of reference management software may come in handy.


I’m going skydiving!


So this was sort of an unexpected birthday present. Apparently I’m going skydiving with my family in May when I head to the Midwest for a week to find a grad school apartment and attend the weddings of two friends – my high school roommate one weekend, a college buddy the next.

I have a hard time imagining my mom and dad suiting up and jumping out of a plane, but it’s going to happen. Actually, I can imagine my dad talking about it in the same voice he uses to describe his fishing exploits – and I could see him talking my mom into it, so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched. My cousin Mark, too – who’s the skydiving veteran of the bunch, as he went with a group of Olin students when he was a Babson undergrad a few years ago.

This will cross off another thing on the “list of things to do before I die” list (which I’d love a less morbid name for). Travel and learning and flying and soaring and freedom are a recurring theme for the things I dream about doing – and it feels absolutely wonderful to do them now, to steadily work towards these things one (okay, a dozen – I’m ADHD, I multitask, some of these quests are longer-term) at a time.

Here’s to flying.


Scrapbook of Mel’s brain on Sunday night


Messing around on my team’s IRC channel (Ian wanted me to post this last week):

13:08 < mchua> Sometimes, we get to see the grand plan the universe has laid out for us. The years of toil, sweat, blood, tears – it has brought us all together on this day…
13:08 < mchua> rbergeron’s years and years marketing prowess, ianweller and ricky spending so much time learning infrastructure-fu, sdziallas’s past 3 years of making remixes, spevack’s half-decade of trolling practice, mizmo’s graduate studies in graphic design… we thought they were for things like “Fedora” or “school”
13:08 < mchua> A grander, larger purpose has been revealed.
13:08 < mchua> ALL HAIL OUR NEW GOD

Rolfing occasionally hints at interesting effects the pneumonia had on my movement patterns. Since I can’t hear, I focus a lot on vision, meaning that I tend to tunnel-into whatever I’m facing, giving me a very forward-leaning orientation and little peripheral awareness (which glasses don’t help with either). My Rolfer Jason has also noted that my torso is very flinchy – I can take bodywork on my arms, feet, shoulders, etc. pretty well now, but get anywhere near the vicinity of my ribcage, and I tense in a way that I still struggle to gain conscious control over and relax. He pointed out that this should actually be the case for me – in addition to the ribs/gut/etc being a vulnerable region in anyone, it’s also a particularly traumatized one for me because I have so many chest tube scars (I’m even told by my mom that they stuck one in without anesthetic at one point, but don’t remember this because I was (a) 2 years old and (b) in an induced coma at the time). So yeah, if I weren’t flinchy after that, it would be surprising. Gentleness and time, and just letting things relax and open up in their own way.

Diana Martin has some great notes on the application of the lean startup methodology to grad school.

I laughed:

“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful
objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill
gives us modern art.” –Tom Stoppard

And laughed ruefully at this one, because I seem to be on the opposite side of the gender role for many things involving “dealing with emotions.”

“The… tactic known as “stonewalling”… was identified by
researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson at the University of
California, Berkeley. Gottman and Levenson found that when men and women
in close relationships talk about subjects over which they are in
conflict, men often stonewall – their faces become frozen, bereft of any
emotion, unreactive to their partners. Men also refuse to talk about
the emotional subject, often becoming silent or walking away as women
try to work through their differences. It’s not that men aren’t feeling
any emotion. They just refuse to show any emotion, because they can’t
deal with their own feelings or the feelings of their partner.” –The
Power of Women, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD.

Old musings about opportunity cost.

How do you
choose which doors to leave open behind you? They might as well be
closed, because you’ll likely never have the time to come back to them
again. –Feb. 5,
2007
(senior year of college)

I miss
my family
, flung out across the world, keeping in touch through
scattered messages, balikbayan boxes, and hand-carried items passed from
luggage to luggage over spans of months as individual sisters fly in
and out of each others’ homes.

We look at the
emailed pictures of preschoolers we’ve never seen; we send clothes and
hope they fit, hope a hand-me-down can somehow hold the memories of
multiple little girls climbing on sinks to brush their teeth,
complaining that they’re not yet sleepy, growing up until the sleeves
reach halfway past their wrists… This is one way I know my family – by
the boxes that they send, by the luggages full of toothpaste and
seasoning and dietary fiber and Pepto-Bismol I haul to them when I
visit, and by the same luggage stuffed with dried mangoes, Mama Sita
mixes, jars of nata de coco, pouches of Mang Tomas, and paper-wrapped
tablets of tsokolate on the way home. Long-distance love, highly
asynchronous. And I wonder if, many years from now, I’ll be packing
sneakers into a box to send to my cousins’ children somewhere across the
world, and whether they will fit.

It’s a fact of life for me, distributed asynchronous connections with the people I care most about. It always has been. I have no idea what it’s like to have all of the people you know be in one place, to have all your connections be local, in-person… to have it be normal to see people and weird to email or Skype with them. In times preceding Skype, the Christmas, New Year, and Birthdays Long Distance Phone Calls were a staple of my childhood. Half my very early childhood memories are of bawling my eyes out when one or another of my aunts moved out of the house they shared with my parents, brother, me, grandparents, and the sisters-that-hadn’t-yet-gotten-married, because I knew in my tiny little mind back then that it was the sort of goodbye I wouldn’t get them back from. And I find myself now at 24 not knowing how to set down roots and build much in the way of local connections, place-based relationships that last more than a few months or years – because all the communities I’ve ever cared about have either been transient (school enrollment) or distributed (relatives, open source). Heck, even my high school friends came from all across the state – hurrah for residential magnet schools! – so even teenage summer gatherings were tricky logistical affairs, and reunions nowadays are downright impossible.

I’m trying to build these sorts of skills. And trying to keep connections open. Sat down and wrote emails and letters to some of my cousins today – but these ties seem so feeble, disconnected, and bereft measured against the standard of connection that my mom and her sisters have – or had – growing up in a big house with multiple families and kids under the same roof, visiting relatives every weekend. I tell myself that this is a new world, we’ve got different sorts of lives here (and honestly, I couldn’t stand up to that much of a torrent of relatives for long!) but still – I miss… connection. Family.

I do, however, note with pride that some of my aunts are starting to check chain letters against snopes when they appear on our family mailing list. Score!


A desperate attempt to keep up


After reading emphatic recommendations in multiple books that people with ADHD exercise regularly, I started paying attention to the correlation between my physical activity and my mental focus. As it turns out, exercise does seem to help with regulating the steadiness of my energy and ability to concentrate – and I think that upping the intensity and regularity may help even more. So last week, I finally got up the guts to walk into a local Crossfit gym – after envying the intensity of their workouts for several years but wimping out because I didn’t think I was in shape enough to start – and asking whether a floppy nerd like me could work towards becoming a badass grad student. Yes, was the answer. As long as I was willing to work hard, things could be modified. After checking out several places, I decided on Triangle CrossFit and started showing up to “Elements” classes, a 4-series that teaches basic principles and exercise form. Things I learned during the first class:

  • Intensity is awesome.
  • My back is not yet flexible enough to allow me to remain upright during a proper squat.
  • Neither are my hamstrings.
  • When done properly, squats work your entire legs – calves, quads, glutes – up to your back… because that’s what’s sore the next day. I was literally staggering out of bed the next morning – not because I was sleepy, but because whoa. Sitting down and standing up became much more… interesting for the two days following my introduction to (lots of) proper squats.
  • But my shoulder flexibility is actually not that bad now – it’s somewhere around average, which is awesome for someone who’s been down (and is still traversing) the long road to recovery from crippling RSI.

The second class had us learning different types of presses, which showcased my utter lack of upper body strength (okay, the pushups on the first night did that already). My biceps, triceps, and pectorals are consequently slightly awkward with things like “putting on a jacket” today. I’m sore, but it’s the very good kind of sore. Mmmm. I like. The Mel approves. As with anything, the struggle is going to be keeping myself consistent – sticking to this – but the intensity and the varied exercises, not to mention the ridiculous amounts of technique I’ve picked up in the first 2 classes alone, are a big incentive for that.

Other things that have happened in my life recently – I went and volunteered as a safety advisor at the local FIRST regionals, a high school robotics competition I’ve watched peripherally for years thanks to the efforts of some of my Olin friends who were/are diehard FIRSTies. Thanks to Marie Hopper, the NC regional coordinator, who roped me into this when she visited Red Hat for a panel I was on – the depth of her passion for this was inspiring (she’s been doing this for 10 years now), and you could tell that the kids loved her (there were some tears as the winning teams came up to the stage – most everyone got handshakes, Marie got full-out bear hugs). The event itself was fun, but I was exhausted and not in the best of shape (apologies to my team, who mostly got a listless newbie who wasn’t good for much more than reminding people to wear their safety goggles), and oh my god LOUD MUSIC – but still, whatever gets folks interested in playing with technology gets a big +1 in my book.

I finally adopted a filing system more sophisticated than “pile papers
in a box and hope you can find them later on” (okay, to be fair, I had a
few folders before). I finally got to the point where I had
enough documentation that I wanted hanging folders (categories) and
file folders (subcategories) – I don’t have many files and I hope to
keep things simple, but it’s nice to know this system scales a little
better than THE PILE, and that I can actually find, say, my internet
subscription information within 5 seconds instead of
I’m-not-sure-how-long-this-stuff-took-me-before. I’ve also started
looking for apartments near Purdue; I’m going for a 2-bedroom this time
so that I can have a dedicated office, but haven’t quite stopped
flinching at the prices yet. Now that I know how much I’ll be making
between my salary and my fellowship, I need to sit down and rethink my
budget for when the transition to a bit less work and a lot more
studying happens in August.

Thanks to Sebastian, I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream of going to the cherry blossom festival in Washington DC last weekend; I drove up, he flew down, we met in the middle and walked around the flowering trees right after a thunderstorm with a bottle of San Pellegrino in my backpack. That evening, we watched The Music Never Stopped, which is ridiculously hard to find in theaters. I’m usually not a movie person because I struggle to understand the dialogue (mmm, deafness) when filmmakers decide to do things like reaction shots and voiceovers that prevent me from lipreading. However, when (1) it’s about neuroscience (it’s based on an essay by Oliver Sacks) and (2) features Beatles music and (3) you’re watching it with someone who’ll fill you in with dialogue after the movie, it is an experience. It just has to be done the right way. And yes, the trees were beautiful. I’m glad we missed the “multimedia experience” (read: PARTY) later that evening in favor of the movie, because fireworks and booming music with thousands of strangers would have overwhelmed me – but the trees and the blossoms were gorgeous. Mmmm.

I haven’t done grocery shopping since March – not (just) because I’m trying to cut down on spending so I can go to the gym and such, but also because I’ve been coming to the realization that I want to empty my larders before I move out of Raleigh in June. So I’ve been eating through my freezer and pantry – although it’s likely that I’ll cave and get some fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement things soon (after I do something with the massive bag of onions and carrots – I may have Onion And Carrot Recipe Hunting Day when next I cook). And you know what? Chicken really does freeze well. Quiche… not so much. I’m learning.


Emotional awareness


Emotions have historically been a weak point for me. My intellect is agile and (thanks to years of rigorous training at both IMSA and Olin) I’m no longer afraid of tackling complex problems; I know my mind is agile enough to deal with whatever comes up, so I can dive in and be confident that I’ll always be able to roll with whatever punches may come up. Not so with emotions – or with physicality. I’d compare my emotional ability to my dancing ability when I first really started trying to learn swing and blues maybe 4 or 5 years ago. It was scary and unknown to me – I didn’t know my body very well, I didn’t know how it might respond to pushes and pulls from a lead, so I compensated by applying intellect. A dance therefore looked something like this:

  1. Sensors scanning! What is partner doing?
  2. Oh. I see he’s moving his hand forward. Okay, what does that mean?
  3. Calculating…
  4. Calculating…
  5. Ah, yes. I’ll step backwards now. Stepping!
  6. Wait, now he’s doing something else. What? But… but… gah! Okay, back to step 1.

The problem was that cognitive processing – the time it took for me to step back, calculate and analyze a “safe” reaction, then do it – took too long. By the time I reacted, I was reacting (1) late and (2) to some sort of generically abstracted version of what I thought my lead was doing, not the actual subtleness of the physical motion he’d initiated. Dancing felt disconnected, jerky, stiff… like my body was a robot decoupled from any sort of living, reactive control center. Responding spontaneously scared me, because I didn’t know what would happen, whether I could handle it, how to develop that control… it was like showing up for your first driving lesson and being told to get from one end of Manhattan to the other during rush hour with a car that accelerated 0 to 100 in 30 seconds. You alternate between timidly inching forward and just sitting motionless and petrified behind the steering wheel.

Anyway. Intellect was my strong point, so I solved the dancing problem using it; I learned about dynamics, read about force-based (“I feel a push, that’s probably the table, let me stop pressing down”) rather than position-based (“I was told the table was at this position, so I will move the- gaaah my arm won’t move more, table’s higher than I thought, mmgnnghh!”) control systems, watched videos of bipedal walking robots (it helped that my college advisor was doing research with a number of my close friends on series elastic actuators and their use in walking robots), and had my engineering friends who were also dancers give me feedback such as “raise the spring constant of your right elbow.”

The intellect alone didn’t solve the problem. I had to dance. A lot. Awkwardly. Painfully. With many mistakes. What the intellectual side of things did was to reassure me – in a way I could prove for myself, and thus believe – that letting go of certain physical boundaries was okay. That nothing, really, could happen. That the strength of the average 20-year-old’s joints, the speed at which I could react, etc. would keep me safe. And then I started pushing boundaries, knowing that I could always back out, stop, scale down… that I was safe.

I’ve been working on a similar thing with emotions, but had a hard time finding appropriate readings – all the books I came across were either clinical and dry and didn’t bridge intellect into emotion, or came from fuzzy unicorn rainbow hand-wavy places that talked about “just feeling things” I couldn’t feel. So I was psyched when I discovered a book at my local library titled Emotional Awareness – co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. The Dalai Lama is pretty self-explanatory; Ekman is a master psychology professor and researcher whose rock-solid, hard-science research on emotions – he deals with measurable factors, like muscle response, heart rate, reaction time – I’ve long admired.

Some notes, below.

The relationship between emotions and moods. Emotions are transient, fleeting things in response to immediate events. They’re high-frequency signals. Moods are low-frequency; they’re mental states that persist, and the mood you’re in makes it easier for some emotions than others to be triggered – it’s almost like they “tilt” the playing field. Emotions can cause moods, too – if you experience the same emotion quite intensely multiple times in rapid succession, it’s likely going to put you in a certain mood. And tiredness has interesting effects on both…

Ekman: On the issue of sleep deprivation… whatever emotion is aroused sets the mood when a person has been sleep-deprived. When people get off an airplane, they ought to hear beautiful music and people telling jokes to put them in a wonderful mood, rather than have them become frustrated that their luggage has not come. You do not want to frustrate people, you want to delight them when they haven’t had much sleep.

Based on this, I’ll try to put happy things in my way when I know I’m going to be tired on a certain day, so that will set my mood – and when I have to wake a tired person, I’ll try to do it in a happy way, because the effect of moods persist and color the rest of one’s day.

On the importance of having a rich vocabulary to express subtle things. One repeated theme that came up was the inadequacy of the English language in describing emotions – the Dalai Lama was constantly explaining how an English word (for instance, “anger”) actually translated into multiple Tibetian words, each with a different shade of meaning… and I do feel like when I try to verbally describe emotions in English, I’m coloring with a box of crayons that only has primary colors. I need to stipple those colors together in complicated ways to get any sort of real meaning out there, otherwise it comes out cartoonish. Need more vocabulary! One of my favorite examples was the breakdown of the English word “pride” – which can mean many things, positive and negative – for instance, pride as in “pride goeth before a fall,” which is clearly negative… but on the other hand, pride in the sense of the Yiddish word naches, which is the feeling that a parent or teacher has when their child or student accomplishes something – it’s a very different sort of pride, a noncompetitive and non-self-centered one. I’m not sure where to find more of these feeling-words, but I’ll be looking for them.

On awareness and pre-warnings. Ekman described the way he and his wife prepared for difficult discussions.

Ekman: We have the practice of saying to the other person, “I have something controversial I want to discuss with you.” Then the other person can first do a mental scan and might say “Now is not a good time. Let’s do that tomorrow” – but we rarely do that. Instead, if she says that to me, I then “set” myself: I focus on mny mental state, both to calm myself and to try to be certain that I will not respond impulsively. I have been warned; I know that what she is going to tell me about is something she thinks is going to be very difficult for me to deal with… by being warned ahead of time, I am able to focus all my consciousness on responding constructively… if you anticipate “i am going into a difficult situation,” even if you are not someone who is self-monitoring all the time, you can use what capability you have in those moments.”

Dalai Lama: …the emotion no longer stays at the level of spontaneous experience; but additionally, there is the dimension of intelligence, memory, and thought processes… in differentiating the actual sequence of experience. When you are warned ahead, you prepare.

Ekman: You can use all of your intelligence.

Basically, accept that maybe you won’t be able to be aware of everything all the time, but also know that you can choose where to use your awareness – if it’s limited, you can choose where to deploy those resources – and that you might want to consider deploying them at the most difficult times, when you need them. I used to be sadly inconsistent about sleeping well and eating breakfast – I knew it was good for me, I just didn’t do it all the time – but I made sure that on days when I had a difficult exam coming up, or a major presentation, or something of the sort, that I slept well and ate breakfast on that day. Focused application is better than nothing.

On dealing with difficult things. The Dalai Lama explained the Buddhist thinking about dealing with “afflictions,” things you know have a tendency to trigger you into states you’d rather avoid. There are multiple levels or stages in dealing with these things, and it’s okay – even expected – to not jump into the last perfect one right away. For instance, if I know that being in messy environments makes me stressed and prone to outbursts of frustration, I have a couple choices, each in ascending difficulty of how much awareness I must have – and how much energy I’m likely to have to expend, at least at first.

  1. Avoid it. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’ll be exposed to the trigger. The former video game addict who never enters an arcade again, the recovered alcoholic who won’t go to a bar or party, my refusal to step into a messy room. It works, but sometimes this ends up limiting your life somewhat – will I refuse to visit my brother because he rarely cleans his apartment? (He’s gotten better at this, for the record, but… still.)
  2. Don’t avoid the triggers, but don’t respond to them at all. Walk into a messy room, concentrate on breathing, don’t bring up the memory of past emotional experiences. Go to a party, but don’t drink and don’t be emotionally affected by the pitcher of beer passing around the table. These are rough sketches and pretty bad examples compared to the subtlety Ekman and the Dalai Lama sketched out in the full book, but you get the idea. I often get stuck here – I move freely through much of life, but like a heavily armored soldier, everything – both good and bad – bouncing off my shell, showing nothing beyond excitement.
  3. Respond to the triggers in a positive manner. Now you’re not avoiding the situation, you’re stopping the negative thoughts, and you’re starting up positive ones. This is hard.

On practice and emotional gymnasiums. Both men agreed that the key to improvement was deliberate practice – why not have emotional gymnasiums, the same way we have mental gymnasiums (schools) for the intellect and physical gymnasiums for the body? Design exercises (biofeedback, etc) to improve awareness of your environment and your internal state as measured by bodily conditions such as heart rate and respiration. Put yourself in challenging situations and plan out a good emotional response, then execute it, practice it again and again. We can think about deliberately increasing our emotional awareness in the same way we think about other sorts of training, and we should.

It’s hard. But it does get a little easier with practice, I’m finding. And it’s starting to be noticeable – when my mom visited, she commented that I’d become much less of a robot in the past year – my dad made a similar remark at Christmas – so I think that means it’s showing. I’m not sure if this will ever be measurable in the same way, say, muscular strength will be, or mental computation time, but I’d like to continue finding concrete things to improve in the emotional domain, because it seems to make me feel more like a person, more like a Mel rather than a robot.

Mm, life – it’s fascinating stuff, this “being alive” business. I like it.


Computational thinking in daiily life


Via Greg Hislop, an article on computational thinking in daily life that made me laugh out loud. I thought I was the only person who did this stuff! (Okay, maybe just me and Sacha.)

Pipelining: Seth
Goldstein, associate professor of computer science, once remarked to me
that most buffet lines could benefit from computational thinking: “Why
do they always put the dressing before the salad? The sauce before the
main dish? The silverware at the start? They need some pipeline theory.”

Hashing: After giving a talk at a
department meeting about computational thinking, Professor Danny Sleator
told me about a hashing function his children use to store away Lego
blocks at home. According to Danny, they hash on several different
categories: rectangular thick blocks, other thick (non-rectangular)
blocks, thins (of any shape), wedgies, axles, rivets and spacers, “fits
on axle,” ball and socket and “miscellaneous.” They even have rules to
classify pieces that could fit into more than one category. “Even though
this is pretty crude, it saves about a factor of 10 when looking for a
piece,” Danny says. Professor Avrim Blum overheard my conversation with
Danny and chimed in “At our home, we use a different hash function.”

Sorting: The following story is
taken verbatim from an email sent by Roger Dannenberg, associate
research professor of computer science and professional trumpeter. “I
showed up to a big band gig, and the band leader passed out books with
maybe 200 unordered charts and a set list with about 40 titles we were
supposed to get out and place in order, ready to play. Everyone else
started searching through the stack, pulling out charts one-at-a-time. I
decided to sort the 200 charts alphabetically O(N log(N)) and then pull
the charts O(M log(N)). I was still sorting when other band members
were halfway through their charts, and I started to get some funny
looks, but in the end, I finished first. That’s computational thinking.”

Clearly, graduate school will be awesome.