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MIT student blogger Cam T. '13

Construction by Cam T. '13

Thoughts on a major.


When I applied to MIT, I put down on my application that my probable choice of major (or however it is they ask you what it is you want to do) was mechanical engineering. I liked to build things and create things, and I thought that led me to being a mechanical engineer.

Fast forward a year, and I’ve had some new thoughts on the matter.

I’ve always enjoyed making things; that hasn’t changed at all. This summer, for example, I built a bike. Working at MITERS, one of MIT’s student groups which I believe I’ve mentioned before (and will someday blog about), I decided that I wanted to have a bike for when I came to campus in the fall. I didn’t want to bring the nice bicycle I had at home, which my grandparents had given me my freshman year of high school; everybody had told me that living in the city, you’d have a bike stolen at least once — if you were lucky.

However, I didn’t want a piece-of-trash bike with a rusty chain and a metal post for a seat (ouch). I wanted something nice, something snazzy, something that I would still enjoy. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money, so I set about trying to acquire something meeting all those criteria, on the cheap. Yeah, I’m picky.

One day this summer, the very-much-publicized Charles Guan sends out the following e-mail:

3 bikes in mostly good repair on the loading dock.

also, someone’s nuclear apocalypse survival kit complete with soviet literature
and yellow bunny suit. but i already claimed that.

get the rest y/n


Score! A few e-mails later, and Charles snagged one of the bikes for me. That afternoon, I came by to check it out: an older, Ross-brand single speed bike, with a kickin’ retro seat and a basket on back. I liked it, but wanted to touch it up. I began by stripping the paint, painting it blue, and failing at putting it back together again: (I could’ve sworn there were more parts in the front fork… Gremlins must’ve taken them.)


Also, I soon came to the (aided) realization that I had a women’s frame. With my masculinity feeling threatened (and the frame being too small for me), I set about acquiring a different (but used, cheap) frame.

Fast forward a medium amount of money, a lot of time digging around a *bike graveyard* and in the bike store, and I had most of a bike. I ended up with a maroon frame, sweet plain handlebars, the old seat, and a really nice 3-speed gearbox. Because I was building the bike, and because it sounded like a really cool idea, I didn’t want lots of sprockets and tensioners and shifters; I opted to buy a wheel with a planetary gearbox in the wheel hub, which gave me three speeds with no shifting roller chain. (Fyi, three has proven more than enough for the city) Some elbow grease, some bearing grease, and some pizza grease (from Chicago Pizza) later, I had a bike.


(Note: I know that when I talk about this as “building” a bike, it really means that I just assembled a bike from mostly junked but already-existing bike parts. Nothing too impressive; however, there are some people at MIT who’ve actually designed and built bicycles from scratch, and that’s pretty cool).

Where am I going with this? Hang on, I’m almost done.

This semester, after finishing my critically acclaimed (what does that even mean?) fork, I decided in my freshman seminar that I wanted to build a steel table. It took three+ weeks of forging (working a few hours a week), which make for a fairly boring story, so I’ll only share the end result with one awesome detail: when I finished making the table, from 18 feet of steel rod, we put a piece of sheet steel on it as a test surface. Instructor and general cool-dude Mike Tarkanian took out his iPod Touch, and took me by surprisre: he bought an app, on the spot, that would use the iPod’s built-in accelerometer as a surface level for the table. As much as I am *not* an Apple fan, I thought that was pretty awesome. Also awesome was that, through eyeballing my handiwork, I had built the table to within 1.3 degrees of level (referenced to the floor). Woot!

Anyway, here it is; the picture was taken in a bathroom because I wasn’t sure where I could find a nice backdrop for a test shot. Also, the glass top is borrowed; I haven’t bought one of my own, yet.

Anyway, what does this all come down to?

The reason I enjoyed building this table, the reason I enjoyed building my bicycle, and the reason I enjoy using linux — not Ubuntu-“everything works and looks shiny!”-linux, but “darn, I have to compile drivers again, this sucks”-linux — is the reason I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I do like building things, but I like building them because I want to be a part of the creation process, I want to understand and have some part in the things around me. I like customizing things, I like doing things the hard way, and I like taking things apart even when I can’t put them back together; I like all this because I like to create. I don’t know yet if that means creating things in the mechanical realm, as a choice of course 2 for my major would suggest, or in other fields — perhaps algorithms? — but I do know that I like to take the hard way, often for less effective results (the chain fell off my bike while I was riding it, a while back, putting me on crutches >_<), and I know it is that quality that will lead me to whatever major I do choose to pursue here at MIT.

In a less overarching sense, though, that has some consequences for the present: During my first few weeks at MIT, both of the (old) laptops I had brought to campus broke (A three-year-old Compaq I’d bought in high school, and a $140 tablet I’d snagged on ebay at the start of the summer). Although I’ve been getting by on a netbook since, an Eee PC does not make for a good primary computer.

Time to get building!

Till next time,

[Sneak preview: Next week may be some of my thoughts about the college essay, although those thoughts do not reflect any opinions of the MIT admissions office (blah, blah, blah). This is for you, regular-action procrastinators!]

[Of course, it may not be, if I decide to write about something else. I change my mind often.]

25 responses to “Construction”

  1. Steph says:

    Very nice work. Building (or fixing up) a bike sounds really fun. I’m going to look into that.

    The table looks pretty professional as well. I could picture seeing that at a furniture shop.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Why next week about the college essay? The deadline is FRIDAY!

    I need every fragment of tips NOW.


  3. QA (14'?) says:

    Great job Cam. No wonder MIT admitted a construction maniac like you. ^^
    Just wondering: your table looks strong with steel but still makes me feel unstable. Have you tried to kick it to test its stability?
    Sorry but I don’t get the part where your cool dude Mike uses his accelerometer. You probably didn’t try to measure some acceleration, did you?
    Keep this up, Cam. I love to read science project from an MIT student. It gives me some real sense about what is going on there.

  4. Faris says:

    What graphics card are you installing on that thing???? It looks pretty powerful…

  5. For some reason you seem to have dropped into normal parentheses usage, as opposed to your old style. Anywho, nice write-up.

    And core i7? and the n260gtx? You got some serious hardware there. ( I forgot how to make the wide eyed smiley )

  6. Anonymous says:

    hi.. m an int applicant.. planning on aeronautical.. haven’t had my interview yet n my grades are not so good.. any ideas on how to impress my interviewer?

  7. parav says:

    @QA(’14?): I know your question was meant for Cam, but I cant help myself answering it.

    I don’t think he was trying to measure the acceleration of the table. There is an app( on the App store that helps to measure the slope of the surface(degree of tilt with respect to the horizontal). The iPhone uses the earth’s g-force to do the measurement and hence the name accelerometer.

  8. Dan says:


    @Anonymous: I’m so with you!!!

    I’m freakin’ out….!!!!

  9. Cam says:

    @Anonymous: Next week before Friday, if I do it at all wink

    @Dave: Somebody on my floor finally convinced me to go to Arch — I was looking to migrate from Ubuntu to either Debian or Fedora, but they turned me onto Arch and I’ve been loving it for at least a month smile

    @Anonymous: The big deal ISN’T the UI (Although there a number of very customizable UIs). If the UI’s the bit that makes a big deal to you, then of course, make your choices based on UI.

    @Faris: The Nvidia GTX260. I’m going to liquid cool everything, too, mostly for fun. I wanted the challenge of putting it together smile

    @Southpaw: Yeah, I have to be in more of a writing mood to spit out parentheticals like that. When I’m not quite in that writing mood, it comes out more like this.

  10. Oce says:

    Great writing.
    I always love and enjoy reading your posts.
    Do keep them coming!!!

  11. Val'14? says:

    Ggggreat table!!
    I enjoyed every one of your post.=)
    Hope no parts of your laptop will fall off.=D

  12. neongreen says:

    I took apart the bike I have now. After I’ve put it back together, my mind is constantly tricking me that every “clink” I hear when I’m riding it is a part falling off…
    I’ve always wondered if the adcom would accept “building/taking apart things” as an activity. Since that might be what I’m going to put on it next year. (’15)

  13. nikki says:

    Yay! An Arch user! :D

    I personally use (and utterly love) Arch. I was reading about ‘Athena’ and other things at MIT, it seems it’s mostly RedHat, and I was worried. Are they very picky about what OS you’re on, or are you generally free to use whatever you want as long as you get the work done?

    If you like building stuff, do check out my site! I’m into software programming and Linux. grin

  14. JonTec '13 says:

    Before I came I was told several times over that no one cares what OS you use… after being here a semester, I can confirm that it’s almost definitely true. And from my experience, “you *are* generally free to use whatever you want as long as you get the work done.” Of course, there will always be things that are easier to do on one OS or another, and it’s up to you to decide. Both Linux and Mac users, though, will probably find it useful that MIT has a license agreement with both Microsoft and VMWare. :D

    Concerning Athena… the new version of Athena (10), called debathena, is actually a set of debian packages meant to run on any debian-based OS (guaranteed to work on Debian and Ubuntu). This means to have “Athena” you just need to get these packages installed. Athena 9 was the version based on RedHat and is currently being phased out on on-campus machines.

    If you or anyone else is interested in this kind of “stuff”, you should definitely check out SIPB (the Student Information Processing Board), MIT’s computer club– they actually developed debathena!
    Links: &

  15. nikki says:

    Wow, thanks for the SIPB link JonTec! I’m gonna browse around the site a bit, interesting stuff there.

  16. Dave says:

    What Linux distro do you use? I’ve been running Arch for about a year.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I’ve played around with several Linux distros and just can’t seem to understand what the big deal is with it. sure, it’s superior “under the hood”, but the UI differences and everyday functionality is nothing special to me. Of course I have plenty of grips with windows 7 and snow leopard.

  18. Mehmet '14? says:

    @Cam: Good to know that you have old school linux guys who like “”darn, I have to compile drivers again, this sucks”-linux”. Yet again ubuntu is more on the practical side and I do prefer to use it more often. I would recommend Karmic Koala to other linux users.

    @JonTec: Thanks for the links! SIPB was interesting to read about.

  19. I built a bike last year, pretty rudimentary but it seemed to work. 4 months back the handlebar split for some reason (rust?) and I got 8 stitches. It’s not worth the effort.

  20. It’s me again. Just wanted to say:

    Mandriva FTW.

  21. Xinyi says:

    Woo Linux. I rescued a laptop with Puppy, although I just got a shiny new one. It’s got Windows 7… but I don’t think I should play with it yet. >_>

    And that’s definitely a sweet table.

  22. QA ('14?) says:

    thanks parav. It’s clear now. yeah I’m *not* as much as an Apple fan either, that’s really awesome. And Cam, you are awesome too for making that table (1.3 degree of level, I still can’t believe it O.o) without such device. Did you use a plumb-bob or you relied on your architectural sense?

  23. nikki says:

    @Mehmet ’14?: It depends. If a person actually wants to mess around with the kernel/libraries, and install all his packages from scratch instead of having some one else choose ’em for him, he might be interested in a ‘thinner’ distro like Arch.

  24. nikki says:

    @JonTec ’13: I found the SIPB site to be a good source of information about general computer hacking (note: not the ‘security’ hacking, but the ‘geek’ hacking) at MIT.

    I want to read a bit more about this stuff, do you know any other similar sites? raspberry