You Can Always Visit the Olin Community Cairn

You can find photos from the event at

Our community gathered on the gloriously sunny early fall afternoon of September 10th to lay down some of the heaviness each of us has garnered over the past year, building the Olin Community Cairn. Cairns are symbols used in a huge variety of cultures around the world.  They can serve as memorial markers, a way of signifying mourning and grief.  They’re also used as wayfinding tools, markers that help you not get lost, that offer directionality.  We asked every member of the Olin community to return to campus with a stone.  This migration of stones from all over the world was meant to represent the heaviness that each of us has experienced during the pandemic as our community was dispersed.  Importantly, the stones were ones we could travel with – they were literally and metaphorically the heaviness we could get our hands around.  We placed the stones in a container, to both organize the physical structure of the cairn and also to symbolize the ways in which our heaviness can be contained, together.  During the ceremony, students, staff, faculty, and President Barabino all spoke about the importance of pairing action with reflection, recognizing that people drawn to engineering are also people who tend to be drawn towards doing, sometimes at the expense of vital reflection.  The ceremony was fundamentally about reflection, both personal and communal.  It ended with a shared storytelling activity.

A cairn was intentionally chosen as the focal point of our ceremony because, as an artefact in nature, it will remain a fixture on campus while also changing and fading over time. The chalk drawings on some of the stones will slowly wash away, the pile of stones may shift and change, and the container itself will weather over time.  Similarly, our memories, sentiments, and attitudes may stay with us, but they also fade and change with time. Our hope is that the Olin Community Cairn will be a place for continued reflection and support for each of us.  It is both a symbol of our collective heaviness as a community over the past 18 months and also a symbol of how we can come together and move forward, re-emerging as a community. 

Whether you were at the ceremony or not, please know that you can always visit the Olin Community Cairn!  It’s at the edge of the woods behind Milas Hall, off to the side of the Great Lawn.  Our deep hope is that it will continue to offer you a space for reflection on the heaviness of the pandemic and new heaviness in the years ahead.  It is a place to remember and also a place to offer you direction if you’re feeling lost.  You can always place a new stone there – the cairn should change over time as we all experience change in our lives.  We are so proud to be a part of the Olin community, where a ceremony like this could take place.  We’re a community that doesn’t need to pretend everything is great all the time.  And we’re a community that doesn’t believe heaviness ought to be a solitary experience – it’s something we can and should all carry together.  Those values won’t change over time.

Swing and a Miss

How many times must you be spun before you completely lose track of the piñata? It’s fun to watch, but foolishness truly is swinging at nothing and convincing yourself you’re close to the target. For me, my target at the end of the day is change and I worry that this whole engineering thing is a big swing at nothing. 

Now this is a bit of an under-exaggeration. Just like societal change is a much larger target than a piñata, engineering is much more consequential than missing a swing. Engineering is a primary driver of negativity in the world. Its outputs are used for violence, consumerism, and to drive an already drastic socio-economic gap in our community. Even most of the “helpful” technologies such as electric vehicles and medical devices aren’t nearly as helpful as they claim to be. 

The reason this is true is also the reason why this doesn’t have to be the case. Engineering today is driven by the oppression of the unseen yet critically important majority of humans. How could engineering be a tool for positive change if a sheer 99% of applications for engineering today are to create a more favorable position for the oppressors? For instance, I spent the past summer in the medical device industry, everyday I felt the whiff of a missed swing against my cheek. 

It was a problem for me that the primary end-user of a lot of the products in the company’s portfolio was the same group that owned the company, which was the same group that filled most of the engineering jobs. And the groups that benefited the least from the medical devices out there were the ones doing the cleaning and in general holding the most underpaid positions. Regardless of the intent to “save lives,” you can’t deny that there is an unbalanced distribution of lives saved in the population which says something for the unequal perceived value of our lives by our community. 

On the input end of things, while this company’s public position involved nice-sounding words like diversity and sustainability, on the ground floor neither were visible with the naked eye. It didn’t stop employees from explaining why they believe in white supremacy and when asking about sustainability to upper management, they had no clue if there was anything more actionable about the company’s practices than them asking manufacturers and vendors if they were sustainable. At all points there is a lot of energy directed into a swing in the wrong direction and with each failed, unrestrained swing discombobulation compounds, gaps widen and people are harmed. 

But this doesn’t need to be the case. We live in a world driven by a very small percentage of the population. As engineers, we have the largest impact on what the output of engineering is, and so, if the output of engineering is widely negative, then that is on our shoulders. 

To take a moment to call out a soon-to-be old lover of mine. Electrical Engineering is a huge and very significant part of this equation. From the beginning of the supply chain to when it ends up in a landfill, the outputs of electrical engineering only perpetuate an unsustainable culture that has been built on the backs of non-white and low-income people. There is more hope in my eyes for organic electronics, but our current and silicon-based technology gets to us, the electrical engineers, filthy with oppression. How can we balance that out? I am not convinced we can turn these filthy components and supplies into a technology that counteracts and supersedes that hurt. And our intentions do not change that hurt.

Our responsibility as engineers does not end with intent, but with impact. We have to accept that responsibility and in doing so decide whether we will continue peddling oppression or whether we will aim towards brighter horizons. Most swings so far have been misses, but if we focus more on the end goal we can definitely start hitting the target. 

Pandemic Art: Dada and Creativity Practicum

Last fall, I took the Olin class Creativity Practicum, a studio class about understanding and finding your own voice in art and design. One of the first assignments has you watch a video titled “I Could Do That” by the YouTube channel The Art Assignment. The video talks about why people who look at art, such as a Pollock painting, and say something along the lines of “that’s not art, I could do that” should really think before they speak, but that’s not relevant to this Frankly Speaking piece–no, I mention the video because for approximately two seconds, a piece of art was splashed across the screen, and it completely changed the way I approach art.

But before we get to that, a little bit about me: I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a crayon. Art-making has been a part of how I express myself, reflect, and tell stories for my entire life. In high school, I made art like this:

Skull & Mirror

Extremely detailed, highly accurate observational work. And I loved it! The process of observational drawing was (and still is) extremely meditative for me, and I’d sometimes become so absorbed in the process that I’d stand for four or five hours straight. However, I didn’t work quickly. A single piece would take me weeks or even months to finish.

Creativity Practicum, on the other hand, pushes you to work fast. There isn’t any emphasis on the quality of work you put out, or even on the idea that you’re “making art” at all. Each week you explore a different idea–sometimes a specific artist’s work, sometimes a more abstract concept–and then on one page of a spread you’d put images you associated with the week’s assignment, and on the other, you’d create a summarizing image and write a half-page reflection. I went about completing the first assignment in the way I usually do, and inevitably didn’t finish, but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t need to have a finished piece. And then I watched the aforementioned YouTube video, which features this collage by Hannah Hoch:

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer  Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany – Smarthistory

The title is Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany. Concise… but I was captivated by it. I love how the crowded composition makes your eye dart around the picture, and how carefully cut out and placed each individual part is (such as the man juggling his own head near the center of the image, which, upon closer inspection, seems not to be his own head). I love that it’s disturbing and funny in the same breath. And, ironically, I love that whenever I look at it I think, “Wait a minute–I could do that!”

I was already thinking about the different images that came to mind for each assignment and taking note of them. What if instead of putting all this time and energy into a piece I crafted by hand, I simply took those images and arranged them in concert (or in chaos) with each other? I tried it out:

Untitled Sketchbook Page

Okay, this was cool. Only one problem: the pages of my sketchbook were curling from all the glue. Then I remembered a girl in one of my high school art classes showing off some of the pages she’d made in Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, an interactive workbook that asks you to–well–I’ll let you figure it out. Her pages were wrinkled and torn and the notebook didn’t even close, but the pages inside were incredible. So I made the conscious decision to actively destroy every single page I worked on.

Throughout the semester, my art improved tenfold. Not only that, but instead of making one piece in four months, I made thirty. Less than half of them are things I’m proud of, and almost none of them are portfolio-worthy, but for the first time, I felt like I was conveying complex ideas and showing my personality through my work.

At home in the pandemic, I was constantly in the company of my childhood pet, Hobbes. His relentless affection was mostly reciprocated, but I sometimes felt he was a bit… needy. One day for fun, I made this:

Resist! (Sketchbook)

Hobbes began to feature prominently in my work. Everyone in the class became familiar with him, and not just because whenever I unmuted they could hear distant meowing. For the class’s final project, a collection of postcards, I decided that each one would feature Hobbes among images from photographs I’d taken. And throughout the whole process, my mind kept returning to the collages of Hannah Hoch.

Hoch was part of the Dada art movement, which developed in Europe and New York in direct response to World War I. Hoch’s work specifically centered around identity construction–what does it mean to be a “modern woman” in the aftermath of such a devastating event? During the pandemic–which hasn’t ended!–I felt comfort in the way that Dada embraced nonsense. Nothing else in the world made sense, after all–why should our art?

Although we’re back at Olin, things still don’t feel “normal,” and there’s no promise they ever will be. But I can continue to grow, as an artist and a person, in spite of that. And I’m glad to have found my “mews.”



OCLOACA (Olin College “Look Out! Anomalous Creatures!” Association) has been hard at work over the past month since our return to campus. We seek out those creatures whose existence seems to reject reality, and warn the community of any dangers or delights associated with them. We are pleased to finally present a partial catalog of anomalous entities observed, or thought to have been observed, directly or indirectly, at Olin College of Engineering.

The Weeping Capacitors

These electronic components, found primarily in the iSIM lab but occasionally spotted elsewhere, are notably emotionally sensitive. If you curse at them in the heat of circuit-related confusion, they will cease to properly function until you cradle them in your arms and apologize profusely. Just don’t make them cry. We still don’t know what their tears contain. Also, we kinda want to protect them now.

That Perfectly Shaped Circle Of Moss We Saw On The Dining Hall Balcony That One Time, And I Just Had To Take A Picture Of It, Because Come On, It Was Such A Perfect Circle

I miss it every day.

The Anti-Mimics

These irritating pieces of text consist of a single symbol, or a single collection of symbols, that can be associated with many completely separate concepts. Most Anti-Mimics actually live in harmony with us, helping us communicate more concisely. However, many specimens can be particularly nefarious. One such specimen was recently sighted within the covers of a Discrete Math textbook: P(x) referring to the power set, and then only 2 pages later the same P(x), this time referring to a propositional function? We consulted one expert, Dr. Hexter, who specializes in malicious symbolic anomalies, and they had this to say: “[series of incoherent noises]”. After some guttural-noise-frequency analysis, our current hypothesis is that they were trying to evade the harms of the Anti-Mimics by creating a single-use, disposable word for every concept, but we’re not sure.

The Mist of Guilt

These microscopic organisms often build up in places like team rooms, classrooms, and poorly ventilated areas, but their multiplication is greatly accelerated by occasions where sleep-deprived yet passionate people have been talking in one room for too long. The Mist has a characteristic smell that doesn’t register as a smell to humans; rather, it registers as a strong feeling that you must solve all of the world’s problems now, or else — and not only that, but that you must do so alone. After being accidentally released from the site of a failed superhero creation experiment ██ years ago, many institutions have had to deal with periodic infestations of the Mist. If you begin to feel the effects of the Mist at any time, you must stop your current activity, evacuate the contaminated area, and do something else for a while, to allow the contaminated room to air out.

The Unknown Unknowns

The class of anomalous entities that we don’t know that we don’t know about. The only thing we know about these creatures as a class is that the number of entities belonging to it is probably extremely large, as well as incredibly huge. Maybe.

The Impostor

This monstrous creature skulks around every Olin location at once. Though it has been observed by many, its true appearance cannot be described. If one is exposed to it too often, it may follow them around anywhere they go. Contrary to popular belief, the Impostor’s most dangerous property is not being “sussy”. If you observe it, you will be strongly induced to believe that the Impostor is you — that you are watching yourself skulk about from a distance. There are many ways to prevent this. One involves recognizing your own goodness. I guarantee that if you’re reading this, you are not this creature, as the only thing that this creature ever does is try to make others believe in it. Have you been skulking around all places at once, at all hours of the day, making everyone think that they’re you? I thought not.

Join OCLOACA now, to help us better understand the reality-breaking entities that affect our lives every day. And remember — only you can prevent ████ █████████ ████████.

What Your Dorm Says About You

The Floor Is Laundry

What’s the point of making your bed when you’ll sleep in it the next day anyway? You have open containers of food and clothes strewn all over the floor. You haven’t taken out the trash in three weeks. You don’t get many visitors and you don’t know why.

The AmazonBasics Dorm

You forgot that dorms are supposed to have decorations, so you purchased everything off of Amazon when you got here. You have a Great Wave poster and a map of the world because those were the first things that showed up when you looked up “posters”. You used the rubber tubing and dowel as your hopper trigger.

The Dorm With All The Plants

You have given names to your plants and talk to them daily. You bought your water bottle from REI and decorated it with national parks stickers. Your favorite shoes are Birkenstocks or Tevas and you own at least one article of clothing from Patagonia.

The Food Pantry

Your fridge is overflowing because you make frequent trips to Trader Joe’s and hoard food from the dining hall. Your parents never let you eat snacks when you wanted, so you’re overcompensating now.

The “Live Laugh Love” Dorm

Everything you own is color-coordinated. You own scented candles and have used them more than once since first getting them on Etsy. Your favorite thing from home is your Fujifilm Instax and you hang your polaroids on your wall with string lights.

Your Floor Is So Spotless You Could Eat Off the Ground

You clean your dishes right after eating. You always put colored pencil sets into rainbow order when you’re done with them. You tell people “my dorm is so messy!” when the only thing on the ground is your shoes. Your hopper worked on your first try.

You Have Apple “Think Different” Posters On Your Wall

You check Hacker News every day. You’ve read Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things. You frequently quote Paul Graham, wear Allbirds, and use words like “scale” and “pivot” more than necessary. You are taking classes at Babson.