Personal Updates/2009


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These are my old Personal Updates from 2009.


12/18/2009 Lesson Learned and Embracing Scholarship: End of the First Semester at MIT

It is the end of my first semester at MIT. I have not seen any of the grades yet - hopefully I will do well enough to pass. The physics final was a perfect bell shaped curve around 50%.

8.01 Final Fall09 Curve.png

MIT is the first time that I really had to seriously study for a class. As such, I did not do as well as I have historically done. But that is why MIT has pass/no record for the first semester. For 8.01/Physics: Mechanics, I studied 40 hours for the final, 10 for 3.091/Solid State Chemistry, and 35 for 18.01/Single Variable Calculus. If I had worked during the year, it would have been less. But that intensive end of year studying made me realize some things:

It is very important to figure out how you learn best. I went to a one day presentation by Edward Tufte last month. He did not like how an aircraft manufacture mandated that they move to a paper-less system with the design of their new aircraft. He thinks that people can understand something much better when they are looking at something on a piece of paper. Also the process should not get in the way of the result.

I agree, and I realized that I have been sometimes putting the process ahead of learning stuff. I have talked at great length about Tablet PCs. Last year, I did all my class work on a tablet PC, and I talked positively about the experience. This year, I used a tablet in 8.01 and 3.091. I used paper for 18.01. I found that I learned stuff better in 18.01. When I really need to concentrate, I need to write on paper. There are no distractions, I can focus on what I am doing. For studying, I sat down with a large pack of paper and worked through problems.

In a history class, a computer is still great to type notes, and look up stuff. If you have a professor's slides it is nice to write on top of them during the lecture. A tablet is great for making small drawings quickly and digitally. Most people can type much faster than they can write, and writing seems to go slower on a tablet. Apple has shown that a tablet can make a nice mobile interface, if software has been designed for it, but I realize now there is a reason tablets have gone mainstream.

I bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500. It was expensive, but it is awesome! I can throw my entire notebook in it and it will quickly scan through. It has an ultrasonic overlap detector that is fairly good at detecting problems. Its scan quality of typed papers is excellent. It also OCRs typed text to make it searchable in Adobe Reader. Handwriting is still a challenge. When I started I would spend 10 hours putting notes online. By not labeling stuff and doing auto upload I could do it in 2 hours. Now it takes a minute or two.

You also have to pay attention in class. In high school, you could often not pay attention in class and look something up on the internet. At MIT, every minute matters. You also really need to be awake and paying attention in every class. Some mornings that is a challenge, but it will catch up to you.

When it comes time to study, it is so hard to get started. But when you get over the hump, and get started it is easier to stay focused. You also need to stay concentrating, one chat message tears you away and it takes a few minutes to get back into it. You also need to make sure you do not have anywhere to go. One of the biggest struggles in the semester was always having to be somewhere. You can make yourself very busy at MIT, but you need time to study. This was my mistake in this first semester. You need to clear your schedule for the next few hours and work.

For example, I would often go to review sessions or office hours simply because I felt like I should be doing something to study. The sessions, of course, would only be open for a certain length of time, so I would want to take advantage of it. But those session are generally helpful only when you come prepared with questions. Otherwise you just give the appearance of studying. Usually it is best to just lock yourself away in a quite area and study.

Having a clean desk is also important. One student on my floor has his desk in his room completely empty of stuff. He can focus on what he is working on. I always go out in the hall when I need to concentrate. Most recently, I found an old office in the Media Lab that has been vacant. I went in, spread my stuff out, and worked for 6 hours.

In the middle of the semester I felt like I did not learn much of anything; but after studying I felt that I mastered a lot of concepts at the end of the semester. Certainly not all of them (see physics exam final curve) I knew in the beginning of the year that classes were the part of MIT I least looked forward to. Now that I have proved to myself that I can do it, I feel like anything is possible. I knew that it was critical to learn these concepts because classes next semester will use them and will award letter grades. I may now decide to pursue an engineering major.

I can not decide what major to do. On one hand, Course 17/Political Science, is something I am interested and has the least requirements of any major, allowing me to explore more different things that MIT has to offer. The department has a single digit (<10) number of students per year. On the other hand, many people have urged me to take an engineering major. About a third of MIT students do Course 6/Computer Science, but I feel like I want a smaller, more individualized program. Course 3/Material Science would be something completely different. I now know that if I focus, I can do it, but will I be happy working on something like that? The analytical and problem solving skills that you learn there are applicable to anything. You feel that you can master anything.

Now don't get wrong, MIT is an awesome place. I have plenty that I would rather do than classes. As I talk about in the last update, I would rather be a grad student - free to work on projects.

The new Media Lab building, E14, is now open. Photos on Flickr. The building really really looks nice. The lab looks to have gained many more students - it hasn't - they are just more visible now. The grand opening is next year.

This January I will be in China with MIT, with the 6.A53 advising seminar. I am really happy to be going. As always, photos will be posted. For the last class, our advisor brought in Zach Anderson. Zach not only did the MBTA subway hack, but now works full time in a startup to make energy recovering shock absorbers. It is Popular Science's Invention of the Year. The project has caught the notice of military top brass as well as GM, since it can lower fuel costs by around 5-10%. Zach is an awesome role model.

Next semester, I pre-registered for 18.02/Multi-Variable Calculus, Phyiscs Electricity and Magnetism, 21F.403/German 3, and 21W.732/a writing class. I am also going to be a listener for STS.050/The History of MIT. I am also doing MAS.111/Introduction to Doing Research in Media Arts & Sciences which should not be much work.

I am doing German 3, because I got an internship at Deutsche Bahn this summer in the Touch&Travel department. Here is an article in English from 18 months ago It will be very challenging, due to the language, since I will be working with hardware, and programming for an enterprise. I knew German from my mom and can speak it at home fairly well. I lack, however, the business and technical vocab words. In addition, I've never really read or wrote German. I can read if I go very slowly and sound out the words. In addition, working with hardware is something that I've not done before. I've ordered an RFID kit and some books to start working with the stuff. I hope to replicate Zach's experiment and learn how to build a system which is Zach-proof. You can make stuff secure - if you really try hard. If you make some small mistakes, (like wireless WEP encryption) your stuff is, as Ars Technica puts it, crap-o. Mobile is also a very interesting space. I am excited to be working internationally, for a transit company, on mobile products after my freshman year.

One of the things I realized at MIT is how hard it is to do things when you start from scratch. At the Media Lab, we work with technology that is at least 3-4 years from the market. We don't know how something will actually work, we must make a good decision and hope that it will be good in 15 years. The Mifare system is a good example. When it was first designed in 1993, it was several years from its first implementation. Today, billions of rides have been granted using the cards, and there is no way to fix the broken system. I talk about this a lot on The Weekly Spin audio podcast.

--ThePlaz 21:53, 18 December 2009 (EST)

10/11/2009 Update from MIT

My first semester is halfway over at MIT. My 3 hardest classes are 3.091 (Solid State Chemistry), 8.01 (Physics), 18.01 (Calculus). All 3 featured content that I also learned in high school, although at a far more difficult level. Physics forces you to work with derivatives and integrals to understand what's really going on. Calculus revolves around the proofs. If you are not perfectly clear on the rules of algebra, it's a real challenge. The work revolves around the edge cases which require you to really understand the material, not just memorize formulas. Chemistry is taught by a professor who is big into battery research, in fact he is fairly wealthy as a result. He gets really into his lectures too which makes it fun. You can watch them online

The first semester is pass/no record - which is a good because I still need to find the right amount of studying to do. I need to be better at memorizing what I am not interested in. I think I never properly focused the time on academics in high school. In Middle School, I had built up so much momentum that I coasted through the first part of high school, and in the second half, I was able to make it through thanks to grade inflation and cramming. I really need to get on top of things more. During the week, it's a challenge to get done everything I need for just these 3 classes - let alone get ahead. I've felt like I spend a few days really working to start being comfortable in one class and then I am behind in the others and it becomes a never ending cycle.

I am far more interested in my MAS.110 and 6.A53 classes, as well as my UROP. MAS.110 covers typographic design and how we interact and think about technology. It is an introduction to the Media Lab, part of the Media Lab freshman year program. 6.A53 only meets for a few hours each week and is fairly informal. One person owns a clothing store in New Jersey, and my advisor owns a [http:// company making hi-tech gloves for the military]. In class, we are doing a basic introduction to China and we talk around business. Recently we have been planning for a business plan competition. I am wondering which is better - a business that grows agilely and uses rapid prototyping to get out in the market fast to test its ideas, and then finds funding ("bottom up") - or the slow and steady approach of building up relationships and team members for months before having a big launch ("top down").

I also have a UROP in the Media Lab, working on SocialSaver, a project to study if knowing what your friends are buying/doing will affect you. I created a mobile HTML menu (for iPhone), as well as UI and design for the group. It's great because I am working with 3 other undergraduates who have different skills in programming. Unlike the SeniorQuoter group study and Videre in Governor's School, everyone can program. In addition, there are so many parts that each person can work on a different part. One person is making a native iPhone app in Objective C, another is programming for Android in Java, and a third is working on the back end with Python in Django. My advisor, Kwan, manages the project and designs the interfaces to make all the parts work together. It's a really good experience to work on a highly-talented programming team. I'll post more about the project once it is public.

I also try and attend various talks and lectures. On Monday, I am going to Startup Bootcamp. Last week I went to a talk by the former mayor of Shanghai, and the week before that I listened to Noam Chomsky. I find these peripheral activities much more interesting than classes.

Geoov is done as well. You should be able to add your own geotagged photos on the map. My issue is always publicizing the sites. I need to do more to help that. I was also behind the Sprout contest on Facebook. For big brands, it shows the power of social networks to spread awareness without traditional advertising. For me, it shows what a big brand can accomplish just by putting its name on something; Tecker 911 was never even close to that level of popularity. Perhaps we should have been more adapting to the needs of our audience.

My Palm Pre has been very useful for the fast paced life at MIT. I can quickly check my schedule or look something up. I also use it a lot for talk; I went over by a few minutes last month! I am also getting to explore Boston. See my flickr photos. --ThePlaz 00:57, 11 October 2009 (EDT)

8/21/2009 Roundup Summer 2009 Edition

So the summer is coming to a close. I leave for MIT in about 48 hours. Let me tell you what went on this summer.

The first thing you may notice is that has a new look since July 12th! It's called Nuvola for the Nuvola icons it uses. I wanted to make the site easy to use and make it look less like Wikipedia. The first big change is that the dropdown menu is now "part of the site" instead of "part of the page". In addition, the subjects have big icons and a better looking and working drop down. The drop downs was one of the first things I programmed in 2006. Second, the sidebar is redesigned to make it easier. User actions are hidden unless they are needed. The edit button is big and yellow. I separated out page operations and site operations. I integrated the MediaWiki and Google search boxes. The third big improvement is the new footer which has lots of info about me. One column is my friendfeed which brings together my flickr, twitter, delicious, blog entries, etc. Once I publish this update, it will be on the list. The second column is my most recent 10 flickr sets. The third column has my sites that used to be in the header and some info about me. Finally, I spent several hours optimizing the site for quick loading on slow connections. It should work with Firefox, Opera, IE 7 and 8, and WebKit (Opera, Safari, Palm Pre). IE 6 works without drop downs. If you are using IE6, please do the internet a favor and upgrade. Read more about the Nuvola Skin

Geoov is a new prototype I created. I was frustrated that there was no way to get an overview of your geotagged photos on flickr. I did some investigation and I was able to use Google Maps's MarkerCluster in order to solve the problem of too many points on one page. As you zoom in, the clusters break up smaller and smaller until you read an individual photo. When you click on the pushpin, the photo appears. Check it out! Geoov only does my photos now, and make sure you are running the latest version of your browser.

I got a Palm Pre!! photos I felt that I needed a smart phone in order to stay connected at MIT and because I am interested in mobile development. I like the Palm Pre because it seems like it is in middle of everything: business (keyboard, exchange) and personal (fun, graphical); open (hackable, homebrew) and usable (app store, Linux hidden); web programming (using JS and CSS) and native programming (stages, assistants); new (2 months old, not many apps) but liked by reviewers (not N800). I did get the Touchstone (it was on sale!) and the webOS programmers guide. I have a few ideas.....

All summer, I have been doing The Weekly Spin where my friends and I talk about the most interesting technology stories each week. I have advanced access to Microsoft Office 2010, and I've talked about my experiences with that, along with plenty of talk about the Palm Pre. We are still ranting about the cell phone industry and the music industry, and Gdovin is still talking Apple rumors, so don't worry. Subscribe to the weekly audio I hope that I can still do the show at MIT.

Tecker 911 has reached the end! We have shot and edited 100 episodes! Head to to watch them all! I am so proud that we were able to reach our goal of 100 episodes. Thank you also to Gdovin, Reed, and Jordan for hanging in there. The last 40 episodes went especially quickly. Watch episode 100 for a look back at our history.

At the end of the summer, I have been traveling a lot. Not everything is online yet, but check out my most recent photos on Flickr including New York City, Ocean City, MD and Hershey Park. As and always, everything is geotagged! I also did a stone project in my backyard.

Next year, I will be at MIT! (Why MIT) I did get into the advising seminar I wanted. This January, I will be going to China to learn about entrepreneurship, in part on MIT's dime. I got into the dorm I wanted, Baker House. I will be in the Product Design FPOP next week. I don't know what I am doing or what I will post, but look for it here. I applied to be a blogger for the admissions office, so my next post may be on there. Finally, I still plan on doing the Media Lab Freshman Year program. I am so excited to go up there.

--ThePlaz 09:10, 21 August 2009 (EDT)

6/9/2009 ThePlaz Roundup

I've graduated from high school! (pictures on flickr) It has not really sunk in yet; it just feels like a normal summer vacation. I am sad to be leaving my friends behind. In addition, I tried out to give the commencement speech, but Chris Denny won. You can read my speech online.

Our Senior Prank was regarded as the best ever. Even the Principal joined in. Watch the YouTube video

Up until the last minute, I was involved with Haverford High School. With 3 other students, I wrote a new technology policy draft and presented it to the superintendent. I have an opinion/editorial in the school newspaper, The Fordian. I hear that the school is using my policy as a base for changes next year, and that they are currently planning a 3-month test period. Plans, however, are not finalized. The best part, however, was to pass on a tradition of activism to the 3 other students. I am also staying in touch on the new TV studio.

I did my Senior Project on Electronic Voting Machine Insecurity. Check out the very extensive 26-page paper and the PowerPoint presentation. I covered this topic from almost every angle and found that constant vigilance is needed to protect this fragile system.

All of the OneNote Notebooks from 12th Grade are now online. Unfortunately, they only works in Internet Explorer and Opera, because of the method I use. (Come on Microsoft!)

I got a new desktop! My old desktop, an Inspiron 600m from 8th Grade was no longer able to chug through Facebook JavaScript. In addition, because I will be going away soon, I needed my own high powered desktop to be able to edit HD video and manage all of my files. I purchased a new Dell Inspiron 537 desktop. It has an Intel Q9400 2.66GHz Quad-Core processor and 4GB of RAM. I bought 2 20" Dell displays and a dual DVI ATI graphics card to handle them. I installed Windows 7 RC 64-bit. It was all about $1000, and well worth it! Pictures on Flickr.

Next year, I will be at MIT! (Why MIT) I've already signed up for the housing lottery, taken an essay placement test, and put down 5 options for an advising seminar. I most want to get into 6.A53 Entrepreneurship and China since you learn about global entrepreneurship and get to take a 1 month trip to China for $1000. I am also interested in learning more about the electric grid (6.A54), operations research (15.A03), and designing consumer electronics at the Media Lab (MAS.A19). Finally, I may get the opportunity to have Walter Bender, the director of the OLPC UI "Sugar", as my adviser in Games, Puzzlers, and Other Things to Think With (MAS.A12).

Remember, I am on The Weekly Spin where my friends and I talk about the most interesting technology stories each week. Subscribe to the weekly audio

I will be going to New York City tomorrow, look for (geotagged) pictures! Meanwhile, look for pictures from Dorney Park, and my families' Prius taken apart to clean.

Lastly, I am planning on redesigning the CSS drop down menu for It was one of the first things I coded 4 years ago. It works on some browsers, but breaks on others. I can do better.

-ThePlaz 22:05, 9 June 2009 (EDT)

5/19/2009 Roundup

Boy has it been a long time since I last updated this. There is so much to cover that I avoid starting to blog, which only leads to more stuff to cover....

After much thought, I have decided to attend MIT as an undergraduate. See Why MIT for my reasoning.

My second choice was to attend Drexel in their Information Science program, were I received a full tuition scholarship. Penn State had a nice program which was very similar. In addition, I was accepted at their honors college. However, University Park was a bit too remote for me. Temple also gave me full tuition and honors program, but I am not a fan of Northeast Philadelphia and the program did not stand out. I had originally wanted to go to Northeastern, also in Boston, but it would have cost me twice as much as any other option.

I am really looking forward to moving to Cambridge this fall and being among the top 1,000 or so seniors interested in using technology to improve people's lives. I have no clue what to major in (which is interesting because I have always thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do). At MIT, you don't have to pick your major until later, and a major is not too big of a deal. Finally, MIT made me a financial offer tied for first with two other schools.

I am excited for the opportunity MIT provides. I am planning on being part of the Media Lab's Freshman Year Program. The Media Lab is widely recognized as a leading innovator in new technology and user interface design. I am also interested in Political Science and a few other things. We will see. For housing I am going for Baker, Simmons, and German House in that order.

SocialView released 2 new products since I last wrote. ForumsPlace is an attempt to build a new community site and 4Change is a petitions app for Facebook. I think 4Change is promising because it uses the social power of Facebook to spread.

I did get a GPS receiver for the holidays and I took it on a few trips with me. It is a bit of a pain to run and merge the photos with location data, but it is worth it! I am planning on doing a Tecker 911 episode (#85) on it. You can see that in a few months....

I posted a lot of photos to Flickr recently, since I traveled a lot. I went to Boston twice. Once to visit Northeastern, and a month later to visit MIT for CPW. Over spring break my family went to the Caribbean on the Caribbean Princess. I also went to the Met, the Philadelphia Opera, and National Train Day at 30th Street Station. On most of these trips I took my geotagger. More than half of my 23,000 photos are geotagged; you can see my Flickr map. I don't like the way the new Flickr mapping system work since it does not make it easy to discover locations....

Tecker 911 hit a slowdown because Premiere Pro CS4 did not work very well. I have posted up to episode 74 at Today we filmed up to episode 86. Hopefully things will get going again and we can get up to 100 episodes before college starts. Our goal is to finish with 100 episodes.

Recently, I created a Hell's Kitchen spoof and I posted a short film I made when I was 10. I just got a new Canon Vixia HF100. It produces really nice looking HD video provided you have enough light. My friend got a Nikon D90 which is capable, once you figure it out, of taking some really good photographs, like this one.

You may notice that homepage has been redesigned. Check out the new "FriendFeed" section which pulls together my activity on the web from 13 different places including Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Status Updates, Delicious, and many others. This will replace many sidebar widgets and hopefully speed up the site by reducing the amount of JavaScript code. I also moved the site to a new host which is a lot more expensive but does support Memcached.

Remember, I am tagging interesting sites with Delicious. I joined The Weekly Spin where my friends and I talk about the most interesting technology stories each week. Subscribe to the weekly audio

Material from the 1st semester of 12th Grade is now online. I found a way to export OneNote notebooks to the web which preserves its appearance. Unfortunately, it only works in Internet Explorer and Opera. However, it is now very easy to upload stuff; it used to take me hours to do a class.

Hopefully I will post more often in the future. -ThePlaz 23:42, 19 May 2009 (EDT)