Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

Activists and Engineers

Tufts is an activist’s college. You can hardly walk across campus or read The Daily without encountering arguments about the Middle East, sexual assault, racial or class privilege, the LGBT movement, or any other social movement. Don’t get me wrong, these are worthwhile causes and injustices worth correcting. But nevertheless it becomes grating. Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, and it’s tiresome. My housemate summed it up when she said, “there are eight sides to every coin”. My campus doth protest too much.

What if I’m tired of ambiguity? What if I just want to curl up into my own little corner of knowledge marked “Engineering” and make things that work? Unfortunately, I don’t get the choice.

Today was the final project presentations for my Visualizations class. The field straddles art and science. One one hand, we learn about the human visual system, the mathematics of multidimensional data, and the coding techniques behind certain graphics. On the other, there are many subjective design and aesthetic choices to be made. What questions do you ask of the data, and then how do you present them to the user? Success is cruelly defined by whether the target user can navigate and learn from what you produce, which is as definitive as any physical phenomenon but much harder to predict or explain.

Later in the afternoon I attended a colloquium by Mike Eisenberg (computer science and cognitive science, U Colorado). He spoke about education technology that does not involve traditional screens. He asked how we can design physical spaces and materials to be conducive to science and math education. My mind wandered upstairs to the electric engineering lab, where I had been the beneficiary of an obsessively-organized collection of resistors and capacitors in constructing a complex circuit for another final project. I then thought back to the machine shop where I built robots in heigh school, which was called “Chaos Central” for a reason. Tools did have their homes, mostly, but old robot parts hung from the ceiling and it was never truly clean. Much as I would like to fantasize about a large, organized workspace to host my own robot team years down the line, I realized that chaos is part of the equation, even (especially?) for engineering. Eisenberg read my mind, rather literally. He said that although math and science are rational disciplines, the paths into them are anything but. The apex of his talk used language quite similar to what I have previously used on this blog: if only we could find the perfect way to present material, the universal narrative, education would be a solved problem. But we can’t, because it’s idiosyncratic, subjective,  and personal. My head reeling, I wondered: how can we eliminate the stigma and misconception that the sciences are dull and austere? They are anything but.

Then, later that night, I attended a talk given by Daniel May, Director of J Street U. Try this one on for size: a Jew, speaking mostly to Jews, about the right of Palestinians to a state, because it was the right thing to do. (Liberalism defined). Some of the questions he fielded were from even further left. The conflict has been notoriously divisive, even by Tufts standards, so it was pretty jarring to hear reasoned and well-articulated criticism of Israel. The larger point was that this was not a utopian undertaking but rather meant to be merely a more perfect union, an improvement over the status quo.

I have nothing against those who take up advocacy of Cause X, but I realized tonight that it’s not my narrative. Zoom out enough and you get “righting wrongs”, a banner most college students will happy walk under. But zoom in just a bit on Tufts and you get “righting social wrongs,” and that’s not what I’m in to. I want to right intellectual wrongs. I want to change education, to end the stigma over science and math, and stop those who deny the ways in which we have made such tremendous progress. Homeopathy upsets me. The antivaccination movement infuriates me as much as any other activist trying to end the senseless deaths of children. And the fourth-grade “science” quiz that’s been circulating the internet makes me livid.

The secret to life is education. It’s really that simple. Yet I feel that my chosen institution of education, for all that I love about it, has a subtle yet core value not quite aligned with mine. Change doesn’t begin in a foreign country with one of the most intractable conflicts of human history. Luckily, Tufts realizes that engineering and education don’t take place in a vacuum. I can’t treat people as robots or build robots without thinking of people (although many do). On the other hand, I do not want to fight against every injustice every committed. There just isn’t time or energy. The political causes I support have objective grounding: if you can’t get someone to accept a fact, how can you ask them to accept a person? Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, but maybe the engineers will actually make some headway.

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A week without social media

The Jewish holiday of Passover requires adherents to not consume or possess any leaven during its eight days. Leaven symbolically represents excess, to be puffed up and arrogant. As I became increasingly aware of the time I was wasting on social media, I hit upon the mechanism that sites like these use to identify you: cookies. Which are leaven, right? So I decided to spend Passover without Facebook or Twitter.

It started small: I would stare at my phone where the apps had been idly looking to kill a few moments. Instead of needing to be on top of my newsfeeds, I found myself putting my phone away more readily and engaging in what I was doing. I began to notice details in the objects and buildings around me, but human contact proved elusive. Without sifting through other people’s half-baked ideas on an hourly basis, I felt like I had a tremendous amount of free time on my hands. The time I would have spent clicking “refresh” became time I spent walking around campus lost in thought. Unplugging led to a good deal of, not necessarily loneliness, but solitude.

Sometimes details matter, and a focus on trends leads to dangerous generalizations. The problem with social media is that it’s all details, with no underlying story or pattern to cling to. Our brains are taxed by trying to glue these shards together, but no two come from the same whole. Occasionally we manage to create a passable mosaic.

After all this introspection, I came to be more at peace with my religion. There are things that we know to be true, like evolution, and we should promote them. And there are things we know to be patently false, like homeopathy, and we should decry them. But a lot of things fall in the middle, not least of which is the human condition. The most visible parts of religion espouse certainty, but the Passover seder is really about uncertainty. It invites questioning and varying interpretations. Judaism embraces ambiguity and even contradiction. (Especially contradiction.) This is a welcome break from a world of pithy opinions crammed into 140 characters and relationships pigeonholed into a dropdown menu. It’s complicated, indeed.

Is slavery a presence or an absence? On one hand, I still feel that social media distracts us as a society from what really matters. It fragments our thought processes, and our relationships, by prizing efficiency over effort. On the other hand, technology connects and empowers us; without it we regress. Is social media a way to break down the interpersonal walls on campus, or a cause of their existence? Does the spread of information strengthen the spread of knowledge, or short-circuit it?

I have always felt that long-form writing helps me put together my thoughts on factual issues. In writing this piece, I realized that the same is true in the personal realm. True connection means giving people the freedom to think independently and then express themselves to others. Slavery is to uncritically compress and post whatever comes to mind.

Running to Maturity

Let me tell you about my day today.

Tonight is the first day of the Jewish new year, and my housemates are having a festival dinner. They didn’t ask me to make anything, but I decided to bake a desert my family traditionally makes for the holiday. I’m quite fond of the dish, a chewy honey and walnut rod wrapped in dough, and I thought it would be a good piece of home to take with me. My parents faxed me the recipe, I bought the ingredients yesterday, making a few substitutions. (It wasn’t worth buying a bottle of nutmeg when all the recipe needed was a dash of it.) Anyway, this being my first solo baking escapade, it went about as well as could be expected. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the honey got slightly burnt, the dough was crumbly, and the result was merely edible.

As I was doing my best to preserve family history as a part of a three-thousand-year-old holiday, my housemates were recovering from an alcohol-drenched night out. (I had stayed in uneventfully.) As I called my family several states away, I learned that my older sister was flying across the country, from L.A. where she had a job interview and caught a stomach bug, to Boston where I was before driving up to New Hampshire. My mother suggested I should invite her over for dinner. I texted my housemate and asked if that was okay. It was not, she hadn’t prepared enough food, so I offered to make something and told her my sister doesn’t each much. At this point I received a number of … high-strung text messages from her. (I learned later that she had been in the middle of recounting the story of last night to a friend that had blacked out.) Meanwhile I was panicking about how the cores of my baked dish had turned out hard and burnt. I decided the best thing for my sick and tired sister was to go be a mature, married adult, and stay away from these collegiate shenanigans.

We all have crises, but how do we handle them? And then do we handle the next crisis differently? Continue reading

What I *really* learned from JumpStart Typing

Way back in elementary school, they wanted to teach my class to type. For some reason, they sat us down facing a wall of bulky gray boxes and entrusted a computer program with the job. JumpStart Typing, which I believe is no longer on the market, consisted of a few press-the-correct-letter games (a dime a dozen online today) and around ten WPM goals. These goals were based on a diagnostic test taken at the start of the game. As the player reached each goal, they “recharged a power card” that partially unlocked a door to the trophy room. There were also Olympics-style medals. It was a classic example of goals and badges.

The problem with typing, or for that matter education, as a video game is that it inherits from the medium a singular overriding goal: to beat the game. And that’s exactly what 4th grade me did. He figured out that by deliberately failing the diagnostic test, the WPM goals would be extremely low. That made the game over screen – shiny medal, cool music, plot resolution – easily accesible. He gamed the system, or found the system behind the game, but he never did learn to type. Continue reading

Hacking Medicine

Max. Go to this!!!!!! Serious!!! Register now. Please. U Wont regret!!

That, and a link, comprised the email I got from brother-in-law(-to-be) telling me about a conference called Hacking Medicine that took place last weekend. I had my doubts about getting in, but I applied, and somehow I was accepted. Long story short, I got to spend two days with a roomful of incredibly smart and awesome people at the MIT Media Lab. Continue reading

Right in concept, right in practice

The classroom had two chalkboards with a column protruding between them. On the far left on the left chalkboard, the professor wrote “RIGHT IN CONCEPT.” In the middle of the left board, he wrote “RIGHT IN PRACTICE”. “Many of you have been in situations where the gap between ‘right in concept’ and ‘right in practice’ is relatively small,” he says. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. “How many people met the spec on the homework?” he asks, and then scrawls a zero with a line through it on the board.

“The spec says ‘groups shall be separated by blank lines’. Most of you interpreted this to mean ‘print a newline after each group’.” He then makes a big deal about the single blank line after the last group that the second definition would print that shouldn’t be there. The unspoken response of the class was it’s the right concept and a person can tell the difference, stop making mountains out of molehills. But no. Since many machine-level programs interact only with other programs, he explains, it must meet the spec exactly. He rewrites “RIGHT IN PRACTICE” on the far right of the right board, some forty feet away from its counterpart. “In the real world ‘right in concept’ and ‘right in practice’ are very far away, and there’s a big bump between them!” He slams the chalk on the column for effect.

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Otis the Debugging Dog

Hello everyone, I’m alive! I’ve just been really busy, in part with a very work-heavy machine-level programming course. I dropped by the professor’s office hours yesterday. His cramped office was in the annex of the computer science building, with a whiteboard on one wall, a shelf full of very technical books occupying another, and a window out into the gray rain taking up a third. A desk piled with papers and a peculiar keyboard separated us, and made the space even tighter. For his part, the professor was was wearing a New England Patriots jersey. After some discussion about bit shifts, I asked him what may seem to be a peculiar question: “What is Otis the debugging dog?”

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