Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Missing mental screws

Peace of mind isn't at all superficial to technical work. It's the whole thing.

Whenever I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it makes me want to study philosophy so I can better understand and critically evaluate the thought structure Pirsig lays out (the Metaphysics of Quality school of thought). The same thing that drives me to track down Euclid after reading Flatland, or search for more background information on almost every sidenote from T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Letting things rest unquestioned has never been a talent of mine. I have to consciously put things down, step back, and say "I'm going to be okay not understanding evvvvvvvvvverything about this right now." Otherwise I'd just keep following random intellectual threads and tangents, and I would be happy but not content because I wouldn't actually focus enough to get something concrete done.

Sometimes I don't say "stop" in time. I want to call that time fully worthwhile, as it's time spent learning interesting things, but the truth is that it often gets in the way of me completing the things I actually have to get done. I want to do everything, and I also want to have free time to wander... well, everything else.

It's a tragic combination of a sense of responsibility towards the whole world that makes it very difficult for me not to commit to things, an optimistic "hey, we can do that, it's not too bad" underestimation habit, and a perfectionist streak that wants to go overboard on... if not eating or sleeping, the vast majority of other things I do. All three are fantastic qualities that have gotten me to a lot of great places, and the perfectionism-random-wandering in particular is part of what I think makes me want to be an academic (intellectual exploration, yay!) and also why I worry about my ability to be one; sitting down and concentrating on something is not what I'm good at, to put it mildly. I can get lost in what I'm doing, but haven't learned how to have that kind of focus on command - it tends to just happen, and tends to happen a lot with things that aren't work.

Sometimes I wish I could just not sign up for anything for a semester, start playing with random things, and let my professors know a month or two in "hey, I... inadvertently ended up being completely obsessed with fractal mathematics this term, can I retroactively put that on my transcript? Look, computer simulations I've written!"

It feels like the different parts of my brain are wild horses that I have to continually keep in check - but which keep on charging forward, pulling me onwards in this glorious chaotic rush. Barely contained. Life is kind of like that; your greatest strengths are also your greatest weaknesses. They're the tiny things that keep you from exploding into greatness. It's like having a machine with a couple screws loose, or stuck, or out...

Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle, because the motorcycle is actually valueless until you get the screw out. With this reevaluation of the screw comes a willingness to expand your knowledge of it. --Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Communication/Learning Analogy Visuals

I just wanted to toss up a visual representation or two. I tried putting them in the post, but the resolution was atrocious. Instead I put a simple scenario here and a more complex one with a couple of bits being transferred at the same time here. This is nothing brilliant but I'd made the pictures while explaining some of Meta to a friend and thought I might as well put them here. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Graphical description of systems problems

Mouse-over the text at the top right that says "kinds of problems" and you'll have another perspective on the "what is systems engineering?" debate. Also see Wicked Problems.

That is all.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Communications: the aftermath in Mel's brain

(Note to self: someday, write notes about the end of systems, and about diversity. Carrying on...)

In approximately 45 minutes, Raymond Yim managed to completely metastasize - and I use that word in a positive sense because it was a HAPPY MIND BLOWING VIRUS OF UNDERSTANDING - all six of our minds. We started laughing in recognition halfway through the lecture and couldn't stop. I think we're going to have to go back and explain to him why we were laughing. Hopefully it wasn't to confusing.

He managed to, without knowing it, touch on every single point, every single class, assignment, lecture, EVERYTHING - we had covered with three other professors in three separate modules during the first half of the semester. Everything. On top of it, I was laughing because last semester's Analog and Digital Communications stuff suddenly snapped into focus (not perfect clear focus, but it was definitely a large discontinuous jump towards better understanding) - and beside me, Chandra was scribbling notes down about how to apply this to her AHS capstone - and I can only guess at what the other four were thinking, but I'm going to be observing Marco and Andy tomorrow morning for my anthropology homework and will be doubling that up by observing their transactions from the standpoint of a peer-to-peer communication channel.

Some terms from Diversity, badly mangled
  • epistemic privelege - a receiver that compensates for a lousy channel can appreciate "how much better" it is with a good one, and cope with a good channel.
  • stereotype threat and lift - when transmitting to multiple receivers, you can have a scheme that selectively transmits to the antennaes you "think" will do better... so of course they will do better.
  • admissions criteria and affirmative action - you're going to transmit a certain type of message at your college, you need to get the right kind of receivers so you maximize your throughput.
  • class strata - incompatible communications schemes, like having an FM system trying to pick up an AM signal.

Some ideas from information fluency, similarly mangled

  • Understanding the system of how people decode and deal with a diversity of sources is an information fluency skill. (Heck, that gets all of them.)
  • Moving along the information-to-knowledge spectrum in the pedagogy domain could be facilitated by using engineering concepts to convey pedagogical techniques to engineers.
Definitely one of the most enlightening hours I've ever spent in a classroom. In fact, class excited me so much that I went to the library to read and type about communications because I was just so worked up about it and didn't want to lose momentum. Figured I'd be there for maybe 15 minutes before the steam ran out, would just be a little late to class. Nope. I was in there for three hours. I was learning stuff the entire time.

Okay, so I ended up roaming far, far away from communications (somewhere in the middle of fluid dynamics which turned into chemistry which turned into a dinnertime discussion about low-pass filters which - come to think of it, actually brought me back around into communications) but wow that was good. Once the walls between systems, diversity, information fluency, and communications crumbled, it was like no disciplinary walls existed whatsoever for an afternoon and I just ran around and learned stuff and it was... felt... so... good. Instead of jumping spasmodically between my projection spaces for various disciplines as I switched gears, one sort of morphed slowly into another so that I was understanding things the entire time. This. was. weird.

Alas, this feeling is very much not conducive towards getting homework done, which is what I have to do now. Nap first, though. Nap, then work, and then someday I can tackle the long list of things I now want to learn as a result of this afternoon. Ye gods.

MetaOlin's MetaLecture

Today's lecture was absolutely fantastic. I cannot remember when the last time I was so thoroughly happy/content/excited was -- incredible.

Ray's lecture was the first time that I thought Meta really lived up to it's promise. The idea of using different mental models is great, but our goal lies largely in the overlap between them. Systems was broad enough that we could fit other modules into it; however, the way that communications was presented allowed us to use it as a paradigm on the same level as our other modules that had incredible overlaps with them instead of as a framework that the other modules fit within. The part of the lecture I found most appealing was that it even ended up having significant overlap with itself. The lecture itself represented a great deal of what Ray was talking about -- it was truly a MetaLecture.

I'm really excited about keeping track of how I learn. All this semester I've been keeping track of the time I spend on each class, and I think adding how I'm spending time on learning (as well as how effective that time is at turning information into working knowledge) will be a great source of insight. So cool.

btw- this post gets to be MetaMetaMetaLecture (post,olin,lecture). Teehee!

The spiral on steroids

WOW. Raymond's lecture on communications networks and their application to the diverse Olin system completely blew my mind. The communications analogy to understanding the college is very well thought out and capable of being expanded, which will be highly motivating in the next two weeks as we talk more about it and look to create a useful deliverable. But the cool part of the lecture was the way it tied together EVERYTHING we had worked on in Meta this semester. I don't know how Raymond managed to do it, especially since he knew little about what we worked on in previous modules. Our original model of Olin as a complex system was very relevant in connecting student and professor nodes and modeling their information flow. The concept of diminishing returns with increased energy mirrored the focus of our deliverable on burnout. The idea of fading also connected to the diminishing returns of information (I) when there is little sleep (P). Our second module of diversity took a number of different views at why people do different things and learn differently based on physical characteristics and family background, as well as how people interact differently to shun or be overly inviting to these people. This can be easily applied to how people project different meanings of the same thing onto their own type of understanding. This diversity of people can also complicate teaching a group, and the 80-20 law may mean that only 20% of a lesson is useful for one person, but a different 20% may be useful for someone else. This is why a good prof will try to use lots of different ways to teach the same thing, hoping that everyone will understand it in at least one way. Then comes the information literacy minimodule, where we learn how people find information. This can also be applied to many parts of the information transfer and what "antennas" people use to learn.
This was lecture was one of the most amazing hours of my life. I was shaking with excitement when I walked out. Wow.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Quick Recap

So I wanted to get a post in before we started another module; we've already been through three and we only have Mel's thoughts here at the moment.

I learned a lot from this module. The idea of every complex thing being a system with stocks, flows, feedback and delay is simple and powerful. It feels like one of those ideas that has a huge number of levels of understanding one can reach about it (like, for example, a derivative). At a simple level it's Gill's ever-present bathtub analogy. But the water analogy can't handle the multitude of inputs involved in real-world systems like oil exploration or even something small like Olin. The other big lesson from this module was about working. All of us spent a huge amount of time coming up with a model that we felt could represent everything we wanted a simple model to represent about Olin. At the end of a grueling paper-writing process, I believe we came up with and had a basic understanding of a model that did just that; however, our ability to convey that knowledge was terrifically bad. We ended up having little time to write and even less time to edit; it was a disaster. Oh well. That'll teach us to keep on having our little thinking sessions instead of getting tangible work done.

This module was really intellectually stimulating. Our discussions in class were fantastic. The readings were interesting and provided us with both the vocabulary and background to have intelligent discussion, but it was really the discussions that I found compelling. The only times I would leave the conference room were when I had class immediately afterwards. Reluctantly. There's something fantastically refreshing about hearing views that you do not normally have accessible. The most impressive views from my standpoint were our ladies'. Mel, Chandra and Zhenya pointed out a number of times when they felt they were treated differently because of their gender. There are societal expectations. They are rooted so deeply that I doubt a reasonably quick change is plausible; one experiment showed that when people were shown pictures of men and women and asked to estimate heights the males would show up as being taller than females of the same height. So much cool stuff! Anyways, the autobiographies and then our 'what if...' autobiographies were all incredibly interesting.

Information Literacy
The thing I got most out of this class was a single phrase. This is that information literacy is about "moving information along the spectrum to knowledge." This insight taps into the fact that we are rapidly reaching a state were information is nearly infinite. We, as mere humans, cannot possibly keep up with the increase in information generation. We must be adaptive and we must constantly learn.

Anyhow, I'm really excited about the upcoming communications module... after all Raymond already had some cool ideas in this realm even before we talked with him.