Welcome to MIT … dumbass.

Sep 05 2004 Kelly Norton

UPDATE: Some students were notified that they had to take technical writing, and I wasn't. So for now, it seems I am ok.

A couple of things became very clear to me during my first week at the Media Lab. First, there is a finite number of hours in the day and the expectation at the lab is that you will devote all of them to your research. Classes don't begin for another five days and I'm already spending twelve hour days down at MIT. That would not be so disheartening if the more experienced medialabbers were not always issuing warnings like, “enjoy your free time, because this place gets really busy when the term begins.” When the term begins? The second thing that occurred to me was more of a confirmation than an epiphany. After failing a writing test on Friday (yes, a test the week before classes begin), I concluded that I'm the lab's village idiot. Someone has to play that role, right? Technically, I haven't yet officially failed the writing test but considering that I did not finish the writing assignment worth 65% of the final grade I would say it is safe to assume the worst. My punishment for not being able to cough up a technical paper in two and a half hours will be yet another technical writing course. I guess it is imperative at MIT that you not only write with clarity, but hammer out your thesis in a couple of hours with a pencil while sitting in an auditorium. Maybe I'm just bitter that I have been burned by that test format too many times, but it doesn't seem a very effective means of evaluating writing ability. According to this test, I communicate in English about as well as non-native speakers.

My desk in the PLW with new mac On a brighter note, I'm starting to get my hands on toys. The first day I showed up at the lab, I was directed to my new mac with its 24- and 21-inch flat-panel monitors. I'm coming up to speed on OS X pretty quickly, but the simple things still sometimes stump me like when I accidentally hit an exposé hotkey and all of my windows disappear. Of course, I also had to ditch that silly one-button mouse that came with the machine in favor of a Microsoft Optical model with a scroll wheel. I may be a mac novice, but I have no need for a training mouse.

My desk in the PLW with new mac The other toy that seems to be shifting into my control, is a cool cluster of 14 iMacs that is currently functioning as a media wall. The software that drives the wall was written by a student who just graduated, and one of my first duties is to take over babysitting duties from him. The cluster looks very cool sitting in the corner of the lab displaying various types of media taken from the groups digital studio. Though it's not shown in the photo, images are often scaled across multiple monitors. Like all other prototypes, though, it is not without bugs. It is still unclear if I will be asked to fix any of the bugs or just keep the thing up and running in its current state. Either way, I do get to “test” it out often.

I also spent some of last week brushing up on my long underused Tomcat/JSP knowledge. It looks as if another of my initial duties will be to help in designing a new back end architecture for the Treehouse Studio. I spent much of my last few months at Connexxia on a similar project that was all built on top of .NET and SQL Server. The Treehouse looks to be a little more complicated, since there are parts like the media wall, RFID tags, and other little hardware devices that must also be tied into the architecture. I'm still a little unclear where we're headed with the Treehouse Studio, but I suspect I will have a much firmer grasp after helping with the design.

So, it's still too early to make any predictions about my happiness at MIT. For now, I'm just keeping my head down and trying not to get too frustrated by the obstacles.