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Posts that are Didn’t fit anywhere else-ish
The goal of every Hacker Schooler is to become a “better programmer.” Given that I last wrote on Test-Driven Learning, I feel almost obligated to ask: “what does that mean exactly, and how could you assess yourself on it?” (Another wording, from Dave’s post: “What qualities of being a ‘good programmer’ could you aim for, and how would you know if you had them?”)
There is no one-size-fits-all assessment that would work for every Hacker Schooler — everyone has such different interests, learning styles, experience levels, and a wide splay over every other type of spectrum imaginable for learning programming. (Typing speed. Language preference. Shoe size.) Making a single pre/post test and foisting it on everyone would (1) fail miserably at assessing anything and (2) work against the intentional self-directedness* of Hacker School.
So during my Hacker School residency, several Hacker Schoolers and I sat in Hopper (the big glass-walled room at the end of the space) and brainstormed on exactly that question. Here’s what we have for starters, totally unsorted and only edited for spelling and clarity of terminology.
- length of Hacker School bio page
- number of git commits
- number of “merits” (a currently nonexistent, hypothetical arbitrary credit) given by other students
- list of acquired skills
- contributions to FOSS
- number of pairing experiences
- lines of code per project
- list of completed projects
- total lines of code blogged
- number of roadblocks overcome (subjective)
- happiness/satisfaction (subjective self-report)
- lines of code written without needing to consult external references
- how fast can you make this deliberately slow code?
- Project Euler time trials
- number of job offers
- number of friends referred
- ability to explain concepts to novice coders
- number of people helped
- understanding of software docs
- number of blogs
- hackathons attended
- number of followers in (git) repositories
- time wasted browsing other stuff
- length of time paired
- number of presentations
- ability to improve own code
- usefulness of programming blogs
- refactoring time trials (rewrite code to run faster, as fast as you are able to rewrite it)
- how many lines of code produced
- number of projects done as an individual vs collaboratively
- assessment from peer partner
- ranking of comfort with (programming) languages
- number of times you had to use a search engine to complete a task
- cups of coffee
- number of tweets on technical topics
- how many ways you can think of to code the same function
- total time spent with facilitators
- presence of test suites with code
- number of keystrokes
- hours slept
- debugging time trial
- results of code reviews
- number of git commits
- number of presentations delivered
- number of seminars attended
- number of seminars given
- number of new tools learned
- reading pseudocode
- ability to follow directions
- writing a program from scratch
- alum application reviews vs facilitator observations
- average length of (git) commit
- number of alumni contacted
- independent rating of CV by HR people
- can someone else independently compile & run your project?
- on a scale of 0-5, how confident do you feel as a programmer?
- number of interviews
- frequency of git commits
- number of questions asked of residents and facilitators
- frequency of code revision
- how many errors can you spot and fix in this deliberately broken code?
- time to fizzbuzz solution implementation
- how many technical words on this list can you explain
- grade on open courseware CS class final exam
- Zulip (Hacker School internal chatroom) lines with ? (question marks) in them
- heart rate/stress response during Jess McKellar’s most technical talk
Further ideas quite welcome.
*Tom also pointed out that a pre-test would “prime” students to learn certain things and could dramatically affect their pathway — for instance, if the pre-test had a bunch of CS theory, students would think “oh, I should learn CS theory!” and veer off in that direction, which could be positive or negative (but would most definitely skew the study results). He wondered if we could make pre-assessments that “primed” for certain… habits of mind, for lack of a better term, rather than content.
[Trigger warning: brief mild depiction of depression/suicide imagery from the past.]
Looking just now at a Christmas 2013 picture of me in my (then) brand-new dress, I realized I’m at an interesting point in terms of figuring out what “authentic femininity” means for me personally. Specifically, I now feel like at some point in my life, I will say something like “you know, I used to hate wearing dresses/makeup/dancing/whatever and felt really awkward around them,” and someone who knows me pretty well will be surprised: “YOU used to HATE dresses? What?”
 not necessarily this set of nouns; it’s still too early to see how this might shape up. Part of my definition of “authentic femininity” sees physical vigor as totally badass and loves running and around in a sweat-soaked hoodie and muddy cargo pants (that somehow permit a full range of motion in the hip and knee).
This point may not come for many, many years. But I now believe it will come, and that feels weird in (what I think is) a good way.
I used to be like this for computers and technology. You know, I used to — well, not hate computers, but certainly I used to feel awkward and incompetent around them. I thought I’d never be a decent programmer, I thought a breadboard was a baking implement, and I certainly didn’t think I was going to engineering school. I remember telling my parents in high school “well, the first decision is easy; I can scratch everything that’s not liberal arts off the list of schools I’m looking at.”
And then there are the other things that I believe I’m going to say someday, if I’m not already saying them now.
You know, I used to hate being deaf, and felt really awkward about that.
You know, I used to hate needing to have a body, and felt really awkward moving, and wished I could just become a robot or computer program so I wouldn’t have to deal with things like muscles and breathing. Dancing? Ahaha. Ha.
You know, I used to hate silence and solitude, and felt really awkward and like I had to get the hell out of it as soon as possible.
You know, I used to hate the thought of getting married and settling down and being a mom and maybe not working for a little while so I could stay with my family, and felt like I should avoid the slightest possibility of that at all costs.
You know, I used to hate having to take time off to sleep and rest and relax.
You know, I used to think I’d never have or want any close female friends. You know, I actually used to think I’d never actually have friends at all.
You know, I used to hate having to be alive. There was a period — an extended, multi-year period — in my preteen and teenage life when I would beat at my curiosity with Small Mel Fists of rage, because the question of “what’s going to happen next?” was by far the strongest argument for not throwing the whole damn thing away. It wasn’t being “lifted up on the wings of hope in the midst of despair” or anything picturesque like that. It was more like being dragged unceremoniously over a black pit by a monofilament that cut into my gut like a knife and whooped annoying things like “BUT MAYBE THE FUTURE IS SHINY!” as I flailed at it with whatever cutting edges I could find, cursing it for not shutting up and letting me drop already.
You know, I’m glad it didn’t.
When I’m in the middle of an intense worksprint, I explode all over the kitchen and living room. A just-cooked, half-eaten pot of curry soup is on the stove; the sink is piled with plastic tupperware that used to hold the pre-chopped meat and vegetable ingredients. Grapefruits, a platter that formerly contained cheesecake, and a bowl with traces of curry soup are sprawled across the kitchen table with my phone, two newspapers, my research journal, and a set of coupons for AJ’s Burgers & Beef.
I am piled on the couch, a tangle of speaker cables at my feet blaring Ingrid Michaelson and Jason Mraz. The speakers were dragged from my desk earlier in the week when I decided I wanted music and my couch at the same time. A glass of tea is perched beside the couch; a miniature French press brews yet another glass, witnessed by an empty San Pellegrino bottle and a grocery receipt for $117 worth of spinach, eggs, potatoes, chocolate, and all the rest of my calories for the month.
There’s something about the sprawl of half-open, half-cooked, half-cleaned, half-eaten things that feels sort of like my brain when I’m letting it wander between a multitude of half-baked, not-quite-formed-into-words ideas, fragments of reading notes, crappy first drafts. I’ll get up, dance around the room (quite literally: I’ve got a lot of choreography to figure out before Monday), refill the tea, and dive onto the couch to type again.
I know that when things start to feel more solid in my writing, I will want to clean the space; as my ideas converge, I’ll feel the need to go and wash the bowl and put away the pot and tuck the soup into a clean plastic container in the fridge. I will clear my desk, resettle my speakers by their usual chair, recycle the San Pellegrino bottle. At some point — probably before I proofread for the last time — I will want to take a shower, scrub clean both my body and my mind, and then look at the thing I’ve made before it marches off into the world. And then I’ll go and get new groceries (we have run out of both water and salad greens) and sit down with new books to read.
Turns out my physicality and intellect are highly intertwined. Don’t even get me started on how spirituality, sexuality, and affective/emotional states blend into that — I do not understand it in the slightest, but it’s awesome to experience and keep discovering. I’m pretty sure my future family is going to think “okay, mom’s really weird,” but these quirks and cycles I have now will mature and metamorphose into whatever that future looks like, and I’m curious to discover it too as it comes along.
Oh, man — the possibilities! I like being a person.
And I will end this break and get back into editing now. Hello, Derrida!
Around the time I graduated from college, happy but worn down with frantic overwork, David Levy at the University of Washington wrote a paper titled “No Time To Think: Reflections on Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship.” It’s a nice paper to read while sitting on the couch in a patch of sunlight and resting your hands between proposal-typing spurts.
The quote that struck me most was from Josef Pieper, a German theologian who drew on St. Thomas Aquinas to make sense of how to turn a devastated world towards “meaningful” work in the wake of WWII.
“Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness as this is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power… has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”
How are you with silence? Solitude? Feelings? Discipline? I was asked all these questions at the start of the school year by different people, and answered them all with nervous laughter as I buckled down on each one. When I look at how I write about the future, I can see I need this sort of living contemplation to spring forth into the action where I also feel alive.
“A cozy home, a life intertwined with the community and with scholarly colleagues. Big kitchen with a window with a view, good food to feed the brains and hearts and hands tumbling through tough ideas at the table, wrestling out research and life together. Sleep, food, and faith. Friends. Music, movement. Sunlight. Writing. Tea and satisfaction.” (December 2013)
“A sort of worn-in comfort; cozy-looking gates and windows, an absently roaming garden jammed with flowers, grasses, and a plethora of charmingly mismatched lawn doohickeys… a fireplace, a lounging couch with laptop power cords winding towards it, shelves and shelves and shelves stuffed full with books, desks stacked happily with papers and coffee stains. Everything in a sort of happy flow, absentminded of the cooling mulled cider because of an intense, expansive mental presence in a problem space, dogs and cats and spouse and kids tumbling in and out of a researcher’s field of vision. The night grows crisp, and the tea kettle runs out and is rinsed with hot water and placed upended on a towel to dry…” (October 2011)
I do not often find that balance. I am still learning to become myself. But yesterday, I woke up early, read and studied, wrote several solid pages, danced, and ran leaping down the sidewalk in a light drizzle, Hug Panda around my neck, shouting gleefully as I passed bewildered friends. “Happy Easter, Mark! WheeeeeI’mgonnaparkthecar!” “Look look look Abbee, squirrels!” (“Mel! The walk sign!” “BUT BUT SQUIRREL, ABBEE!”) And then scrambling into a meeting: “Hi Megan! Brandon! Everyone! Oh right! I need… a… BOOK!” — my continuous sprint into the room turned into a vault-over-tables to get to the bookshelf (with efficiency!), whereupon I turned around to realize the whole group was falling over with laughter at my acrobatic entry.
Working hypothesis: I’m called to a multifacted hospitality (more on that someday) as well as a punctuated contemplation in the world; my actions bubble up, spring forth, from silence and stillness and rest and a making of home-ness for both myself and others.
But I don’t know, and that’s okay. Before I sleep at night these days, I lie in bed quietly stretching out my shoulders and my ankles, nuzzling into the nest of comforter and pillows, grateful for being in the world, wondering whether I did it right. It’s not an anxious wonder, it’s a curious and hopeful one. And then I tumble into sleep. And then I wake and stretch again and start with leisure: showers and tea and (now that Lent is over) eggs. (Eggs!) And then I work, and contemplation is my work, and being Mel is also my work, and sometimes I write papers and things while being-Mel…
Not sure why I am writing this. Thoughts half-formed. This post is a half-chipped block of marble; lots of mess, a ton of extra stuff, a tangle. But. Nice moment, sunny day; good break from “real” work, and now… I go back into it to write a chapter on poststructuralism for my proposal. Hello, Barthes. How are you? (I am a Mel. Let’s go!)
Random Catholic Musing: the Joyful Mysteries ought to be called the Terrifying Mysteries. Sure, they’re joyful — but we call them that thousands of years later when we know how everything plays out. Rephrased, these 5 rosary decades are:
- Unwed teenager notified of unplanned pregnancy she could be executed for. She gets to tell her fiancé he’s not the father.
- Aforementioned teenage girl’s first family reaction to said pregnancy.
- 15-year-old gives birth alone in a cave in a strange town without access to medical care. She is immediately visited by hoboes wielding weapons (shepherds were not cuddly, polite people) yammering excitedly about some trippy-sounding vision that involves the baby.
- While registering her infant’s birth, young mother hears very disturbing prophecy about swords piercing her heart. Fun for the whole family.
- 12-year-old boy disappears from family trip, still missing after 3 days; distraught parents hunt in city.
It’s easy to forget this when all the Christmas cards are filled with excessively twee poetry set in italic calligraphy and soaring orchestral music. I don’t like twee poetry; sentimental historical depictions make me gag. But terror? I can do terror. I can do aloneness and unplannedness, and societal pressure and being lost and getting approached by random people who might look a little sketchy, and having to tell people things they probably don’t want to hear.
I just can’t do it with quite as much grace — for me, that part is the mystery — but I reckon that’s why Mary is a saint.
Here’s what a self-portrait in acrylic looks like when you don’t know what you’re doing beyond following the order of paint colors in an Instructables tutorial. First you sketch the outline with yellow (super-rough) and purple (less rough). If you’re me, you get your face proportions wrong, but: onwards!
Then you add red for the blush on the face and your pink polarfleece. In the meantime, your cousins (who’ve initiated this Happy Fun Paint Time) are painting more logical things like geometric shapes or bowls of soup.
Shadows with green. Insert skepticism here about the tutorial, because you look like the Incredible Hulk with a sunburn. But you’re too far in to stop now.
More shadows with blue. I didn’t realize I should have drawn different shadows with blue than with green; overlapping them results in mud. It has also started to grow apparent that I’m going to have a halo between my head and the background because I don’t trust my accuracy working any closer to the hair. However, the underpainting is now done.
The overpainting of the face with orange leads to more “um… I’m not sure about this tutorial…” mutterings as I start looking like a human carrot. Then white to lighten it, and — magically, a human being appears! I whitened a bit too much, as it turns out; I now look like I have talcum powder on my face. Also: badly dyed hair. However, the portrait is done, and it’s… for a first time, it’s not bad. Subsequent iterations should improve considerably.
And the original picture, taken hastily on my phone for reference so you can see the mouth is way too big.
This commentary is rather self-deprecating, because humor’s a good defense; I do know that this is both a reasonable first try for an amateur and a far cry from anything that could be called skilled. The cautiousness, I think, comes from a parallel universe from 10 years back when I majored in engineering instead of art (parents). Wondering what I’d have become as an art major. Nervous to discover I wouldn’t have been a good one.
But we don’t live in those parallel universes; we live in this one. This is what I painted now, not what I would have painted 10 years back. And one painting now doesn’t mean I need to keep on painting ’till I’m as perfect at it as I’d like to be; it means that for an evening, I had fun, whether I paint later or not. So, er… process of becoming an artist, I suppose. Wanted to mark and share.
(Semi-relevant comic here.)
I grew up in other people’s basements, couches, guest rooms. The beanbag in Andy’s room. Gill’s dinner table, Heidi’s kitchen; anywhere Lynne May’s kids weren’t already sleeping. Sumana and Leonard’s apartments, under wildly colored blankets on the floor or on the pull-out sofabed. Matt’s futon, living room, and futon; Steve’s loft. In Andrew’s tent, on Maker House’s kitchen floor in a sleeping bag on a yoga mat, on pika’s porch. The places and people who took me in when I was running away from… I’m not sure how to articulate what I was scared of, but away from that. Spaces where I could try myself out, take a shot at being in my own skin.
Sometimes it was uncomfortable, some combination of hard, wet, or cold. For a while, I associated poverty with freedom; nobody could take this lifestyle away from me. I know was never really poor; I was a child of privilege who had a laptop, health insurance, and a couple thousand dollars that would take me from anywhere in the world to somewhere my family would have to take me in. I also knew the tradeoff for that would be independence, so I never touched that buffer, even when it meant skipping meals and wearing holes through shoes and walking hours to save $2 on bus fare, and I worried about money and not-troubling people, and I’m glad people saw that and opened their doors and pulled me in anyway.
All the homes who gave the gift of room and time to an angry, exhausted little nomad: how do I thank them? For the meals cooked, the leftovers packed, an unexpected fancy restaurant glass of port from Chris and Wendy in the middle of days of eating rice and beans in New York? For how glorious a large and sun-swept bathroom is, with long hot showers and a fluffy towel, after you’ve slept inside your car? The chance to see, without coercion, how other people live their lives — how other homes and families might function, so that you can see them as you’re learning to envision anything in future tense? (Andrew recently wrote that my personality is longer-term and more sustainable now; I think one prerequisite for that was seeing myself even just existing past the age of 30.)
How thankful I am, even now, for sanctuaries and retreats. And how I want to build my home to be a temporary nest for wayward strays in turn. “If you run a place,” says Sumana, “if you have the opportunity to provide hospitality, isn’t that amazing? That you can help jog a person out of their rut, that your consulate can offer amnesty?”
I’d like that opportunity. My home will always have a guest room. Right now it’s a sofa. Someday it will upgrade to a comfy bed with fluffy towels. It won’t always be full, but on occasion, it will give the gift of room and time within a household where one has no obligations. And extra chairs around the dinner table, with late-night talks if someone’s hungry for them. And food — to eat, to take home, to be nourished by in more ways than one. Books to read, and space and silence; space and silence above all.
I want to build a home where kids like younger-me can learn one version of what homes are like so they can figure out how they would like to build their own.
I’d like to get back into practice writing thick descriptions, a key ethnographic skill that’s really just an exercise in observation and the memory of presence. So here are a few of family; I am clearly rusty, and not all of these are thick, nor all of them descriptions.
Mia leans into her laptop, white headphone cords trailing across her white sweater. College applications are due. It’s 4 minutes to midnight and her mug of tea is growing cold. We intersperse our sprints of writing work with burying our hands in Chico’s fur and telling him he’s an adorable big dog who really needs to lose some weight.
HELLO HELLO winks the ceiling-light letters in the restaurant. Kei is worried about zombies; they don’t teach zombie-evasion drills in middle school. In teenage-boy oblivion, Neil takes Kei’s elbow and strums across her arm like a guitar, bobbing along to a song inside his head. We rip apart the chicken and pass butter-toasted zucchini bread and watch the cooks pile thin-shaved fennel on thick slices of yeasty bread. Later on, we sit and stab felting needles repeatedly into the forming shapes of polar bears and hedgehogs and ice cream cones until it’s time to eat the pots of curry on the stove.
The Portland food trucks have closed illogically early for a Saturday night. I walk with my dad through the wet streets, looking for dry shoes; in what may be the first recorded case in human history, a father insists his daughter shop longer for shoes in the department store. (I had long since located a satisfactory pair by the time he conceded they would be just fine.) We char our faces by the hotel fireplace while he describes the habit of compassion and connection he’s seen burst out in me, almost uncontrollably, since I was very small: when faced with someone with a need I could meet, I find myself unable to not give.
Sinking so deeply into the hotel bed that I don’t move or think for a good 10 hours; it’s one of the best sleeps I’ve had in ages. Quality beds make a huge difference. Someday, when I can afford it and have settled down a little more, I’m going to nest in a massive Heavenly Bed; along with wooden bookshelves and a baby grand piano, it’s another piece I plan to use to build the sanctuary of my home.
My grandmother’s futon: wrapping myself like a burrito in the quilt to stay warm through the night, turning the electronic picture frames face-down upon the tables and curling away from the crack of light spilling out of the bathroom door. A fridge with food — and food, and food; feeding and eating as a currency of love.
Can’t lipread in the car.
Mom and I finally have all the shopping trips that normal girls have with their mothers back in high school, back and forth between different stores, through the mall, in and out of the car, late at night. She shows me how a thick black shawl (now dubbed “THE BATCAPE” with great glee, and reminiscent of Lynn Stein) fits over multiple shirts and a dress. I ask dumb questions about how to care for makeup brushes. She tries to get me to wear dangly earrings (fail) and pads a set of comfortable low heels so I can walk in them (success) and we both rejoice when I find an appropriate jacket: I geek out on the well-engineered features of the dual-layer, snow-skirted, thumb-looped, zippered-to-high-heaven, slim down coat, and she breathes a sigh of relief that I won’t be borrowing hers any more.
You look good in orange stripes, says Jason. You look good in jewel tones, says Mom. I am still adjusting to the tall, well-dressed woman in the mirror, but I am growing more and more accustomed to seeing her, straight and tall and grinning, with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that I am no longer afraid of losing just because I put a necklace on occasionally.
How I can leave my things sprawled on the floors and tables of my parents’ house, go out for hours, come back, know that it’s all right — this leaving-out, this not-needing to clean up and tidy myself away, this implicit permission to leave a trace… I think this, too, is a sign of home-ness for me. My messes are accepted. So am I.
Because I’m feeling blocked on scholarly writing, I’m taking a break to do fun writing about Small Mel Self. Here’s how I learned what cold cream was used for.
Small Mel Self was perhaps 7 or at the time, and a voracious reader. I read the backs of cereal boxes, the fine print on credit card offer letters, the parenting psychology books in the church library. (“I want to know what grown-ups are supposed to think,” I told my dad’s best friend when he discovered my odd choice of literature. At least that’s how Mr. Zerwic tells the story; I only remember reading the books.) I see this now as an attempt to fill my world with information at all times, in compensation for a hunger for the data I couldn’t overhear. But back then, I was just a tiny word junkie.
Wandering down the grocery store aisles, I’d read everything on all the bottles, tubes, and boxes that we passed. All the hair care products, I noticed, seemed to have the word “moisturizing.” This was, my small brain reasoned, a good thing. “Moisturizing” was somehow correlated to “lustrous” and “sheen” and higher prices on the labels, which definitely meant the stuff was good.
Some time later, I was in my parents’ bathroom getting ready for a shower, because I was a Big Girl Now and showers were what Big Girls did, all by themselves. Besides, the bathtub in the other bathroom was being occupied by my splashy little brother. In the minute or two it took for the shower water to heat up, I grew bored and started pawing through the little vials and boxes on my parents’ counter. Lotion. Toothpaste. I knew what those were for. But what the heck was cold cream? Puzzled, I flipped the little jar around: Nourishing Moisturizing Cream.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
(15 minutes later)
I padded downstairs for the Big Girl Post-Shower Evaluation, dripping water on the tiled kitchen floor. My mother glanced at me. “You still have shampoo in your hair,” she commented. “Go back and wash it out.” Dutifully, I complied.
“Are you sure you washed it out?” my mother said on my second post-shower inspection. I nodded. She came closer and touched my hair, and I waited for praise. Instead, Mom just looked confused. ”What did you PUT on your HEAD?”
Used to explaining things to grown-ups, I stated the obvious. “It’s cold cream.”
Mom still looked confused.
“It’s moisturizing,” I added helpfully.
Several minutes later, Mom was giving me a Decidedly Not A Big Girl hair-washing with multiple rounds of shampoo that turned into multiple rounds of dishwashing detergent when the cold cream refused to loosen its greasy grip on my short locks. If you’ve never shampooed with dishwashing detergent before, my advice to you is: don’t. Or if you must, wear goggles and try not to breathe. The fumes of Minty Floral Glade Iceberg Freshness was overwhelming, and I emerged smelling like warm tupperware… but with acceptably un-moisturized hair. (“But that means it’s good for hair!” I had protested to no avail. “All the expensive shampoo bottles say so!”)
That was the evening I found out that cold cream was used to remove makeup. (But when was anybody ever going to use that?)
This story has been brought to you by Adventures of Small Mel Self.