Hello from Fairbanks, Alaska

Tonight is my sixth night in Fairbanks, Alaska. I must say, I am in love. I feel like I have been missing out very much on the beauty of Winter - it's the kind of beauty I never grew to appreciate. So far in Fairbanks I have been to Chena hot springs, went dog mushing, did some car sledding, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, night gazing in a hot tub, and witnessed strong auroras multiple times.

The nature and mono-color beauty I am finding here is giving me peace. I am with the company of 7 other TellApart/Twitter colleagues and 2 of their companions, and I couldn't have asked for better company.

Today we were all working from University of Alaska Fairbanks, had dinner at a Hawaiian restaurant, and at night Wei, Craig, and I enjoyed being in a hot tub sipping hot chocolate and star gazing in -25 degree weather.

I am trying to get into the habit of writing every day for five minutes. I have a lot more to talk about, but I've been through my five minutes today. Onward.

3D Printing Nuances

I learned yesterday a lot about the nuances of 3D printing. A few things I learned:

  • Masking tape + glue isn't nearly as good of an adhesive as double sided tape.
  • How to change the filament. At first I was inserting the filament in the wrong hole.
  • How to command the 3D printer to extrude or retract the filament.
  • Carbon fiber prints are so much better than plastic prints (more expensive as well)
  • How to handle a filament jam.

I spent a full hour waiting for the index finger of the inmoov robot to print, but then the filament got jammed near the end. Frustrating.

On a more positive note, I printed a shoelace lock - basically something that keeps the shoe laces tight, so you don't have to tie your shoe laces again.

Taiwan! (aka “I’m still alive”)

It's been well over a year since I last blogged. Now that I am forced to write a blog post for my school, I might as well update you (and myself) with what I've been up to the past 15 months.

So many events happened since my last blog post in October of 2012. Here are the highlights:

  • November & December 2012: Worked at the Evernote office in Beijing, China
  • January 2013 - April 2013: My 4B semester at the University of Waterloo in Canada
  • May 2013 - August 2013: Started kottab.org, an initiative dedicated to improving the quality of education in the Arab World
  • September 2013 - January 2014: On exchange for my final semester of school at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan

In addition to the highlights above, I managed to squeeze in trips to Jordan, Korea, Japan, California, Germany, Austria, and the Philippines.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because NTU, the school I have been studying at for my last semester, requires me to write a blog post to document my experience. Therefore, my exchange experience in Taiwan will be the primary focus of this post. I won't be writing anything too personal, but I'll rather focus on observations I have made about this beautiful place.

Taiwan is now a place that's very near and dear to my heart. I fell in love with my university, the people I met there, the culture, the landscape, and even the weather!

The Education

My exchange to Taiwan is the second exchange experience I have. My first exchange experience was in Singapore in early 2011 at National University of Singapore (NUS). While I immensely enjoyed my exchange experience in Singapore, I was very disappointed by the quality of education that I received at NUS. Aside from the Mandarin course that I took there, the technical courses were way too easy and I benefited little from them. This is a huge contrast compared to my experience at NTU. All the courses at NTU, be it Mandarin or computer science related courses, were top notch. The courses were very demanding, well structured, and I benefited a lot from them. In fact, the quality of the courses that I took at NTU is better than most of the courses that I took during my fourth year at the University of Waterloo, my home university.

Two of the three technical courses that I took at NTU were taught in Mandarin. Assessments and lecture slides, however, were in English. This was a bit challenging, but was a very interesting experience. I realized it's actually doable to take these courses without being terribly fluent in Mandarin. The English slides, combined with the few words that I can understand from what the instructor is saying, I can imagine in my head the context and the general message the instructor is trying to convey.

One thing I really admire at NTU was how seriously they take sports and art. You can take courses there in, say, Rumba dancing or ping pong, and you'd be given credit that can count towards your degree.

The People

I found the Taiwanese very hospitable and welcoming. I had two language exchange partners there and one of them, 彭新韵, I spent a considerable amount of time with. A friend of mine was a Taiwanese Canadian and she also introduced me to her family, whom had generously invited me over dinner and took me on a trip to Jiufen, a beautiful gold mining town off the northern coast of Taiwan.

A couple of other observations:

  • Honesty: I found the people in Taiwan a lot more honest and direct than those in Mainland China. When I was in markets in China, I usually had to bargain down to one third of the price initially proposed. In Taiwan, although more expensive, sellers propose reasonable prices and leave little room for bargaining.
  • Beauty ideal: I observed that the Taiwanese adopt the Western beauty ideal and it was something that I, an Arab, was able to experience up close. Whenever I am accompanying Westerners, I very often notice how the Taiwanese would often give them a more "special" treatment compared to the way they would treat me. That's not to say that they weren't super friendly to me, but that a slight disparity in treatment (compared with those who are tall, blue-eyed and/or blonde) was noticeable.

With Mainland China

How the Taiwanese and Chinese perceived each other was a matter I was really curious about, but it was something very difficult to observe first-hand. My Mandarin was not good enough to tell apart Mainlanders from Taiwanese. From what I have gathered though, the Taiwanese didn't think very highly of Mainlanders and consider them less developed. On the flip side, I have seen several cars driving around Taipei with a huge flag of mainland China. They had large microphones mounted on top and giving speeches that are presumably trying to persuade the Taiwanese to be part of China again.

For the Taiwanese, it's easy for them to visit China. China even offers big incentives and high salaries to those who wish to move and live in mainland China. The Chinese, on the other hand, need a visa to visit Taiwan and, from what I heard, might need to be part of a tour group to visit.


I found the streets of Taipei very clean (or, at least relatively, given that I moved there after months of living in Cairo, Egypt). It didn't take me very long to notice though that there are very few trash cans. From what I understood, the reason is they don't want households and shops abusing it for disposing their own waste. It ends up being a slight inconvenience having to carry an empty cup for an hour after you finish a drink, but you quickly get used to it. Recycling is a big thing in Taiwan as well, and that's something I highly admired.


There were tons of food options in Taipei, especially in Gongguan where I was living. Aside from the traditional Taiwanese food, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines are available in abundance.


I fell in love with the nature in Taiwan. From hot springs to geological parks to gorgeous little islands, Taiwan has an excellent transportation system that makes all these places easily (and cheaply) accessible.

Here are some quick highlights of places I have seen in Taiwan:

  • Jiufen (九份): A town on the northern coast of Taiwan. Jiufen used to be a gold mining town at the time of the Japanese, but it has now turned into a tourist destination thanks to its scenic views of the Pacific ocean.
  • Yeliu (野柳): A geological park also on the northern coast of Taiwan. The rock formations (known as hoodoo stones) are a very distinctive feature of this place.
  • Taroko (太魯閣): A gorgeous national park with very beautiful nature. There there is a place known as the "Eternal Spring Shrine", a shrine built on top of a waterfall and considered one of the scenic landmarks in the area.
  • Green Island (綠島): An island off the coast of Taidong in Eastern Taiwan. Aside from the beautiful landscape, it is home for some really nice scuba diving spots.

As you can probably tell, I wrote this post in a bit of a hurry 🙂 I'll try to discipline myself to post more updates in the future.

San Francisco Startup Weekend

I participated in a startup weekend event last weekend in San Francisco and, I have to say, I feel like I have learned so much in 54 hours.

Our team originally consisted of five members - myself, Steen Andersson, William Martin, Cyril Dorsaz, and Maurice Mauser. We were set out with a task of creating a digital photo frame. Our differentiator was that, instead of pulling photos from a memory card, we'd pull it wirelessly from Facebook, Picasa, iCloud, or whatever. After doing some market research, however, it turns out that similar products already exists and that the digital photo frame market isn't a particularly growing market.

The bulk of Saturday was spent brainstorming until we settled on an idea in the afternoon. We created GetSlide (www.getslide.co), a tool to help presenters share their slide decks online and helps attendees annotate these notes online. By then, there were three of us left on the team: myself, Steen, and Will.

A few key points:

  • The biggest lesson I learned during that weekend, as obvious as it may sound, is that building the product didn't matter very much. It was the customer validation, surveying, the business model and how to acquire the first key customers that mattered.
  • Worked and met some great people.
  • I pitched three times during the weekend, which was some good practice.
  • I went through the frustrations of pivoting from one idea to another (and another).
  • I did surveying with another team called "Split my tab". We marched down the streets of San Francisco asking people if they had any problems in splitting their bills.

Done Chinese 1!

After spending six hours every week in Chinese lectures for the past twelve weeks, today the course has - sadly - come to an end. I was fortunate to have both a lovely teacher, Ms. Lin Chiung Yao, and awesome classmates. I definitely learned a lot from both Lin Laoshi (Laoshi is Chinese for "teacher") and from my classmates. Throughout the term we learned approximately 180 chinese characters and 150 phrases to communicate in simple daily situations. Will try to practice whenever I can!

Learning Chinese is an eye opener for me in many ways. Besides the obvious intent of learning Chinese for the purpose of communicating with Chinese people, there are some insights that I can see. Let me give you some examples:

1. Tones

Being both an Arabic and an English speaker, the concept of tones was very new, and very strange, when it was first introduced to me. It turns out that the pitch in which you pronounce a syllable determines the word that you intend to say. To see what I mean, listen to the audio clips in the table below. The four rows in this table refer to the four tones/pitches that are found in Mandarin Chinese. They are all pronouncing the same syllable, but the pitch in which it's pronounced determines which of the four words below you mean.


Pinyin Chinese Character Meaning Sound Clip
mother [audio:http://ielashi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/1.mp3|titles=First Tone]
hemp [audio:http://ielashi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/2.mp3|titles=Second Tone]
horse [audio:http://ielashi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/3.mp3|titles=Third Tone]
scold [audio:http://ielashi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/4.mp3|titles=Fourth Tone]


Weird, huh?

2. Culture and Society

In case you didn't know, Chinese doesn't have an alphabet. It is, more or less, a set of characters, the majority of which are based off of pictures. Consider the Chinese character for the word "home" (pronounced "Jiā") and how it evolved over time:

Current Chinese Character In 259 B.C. In 1046 B.C.

Looking at the origin of the character, it is a picture of a house with a pig inside. This gives an insight in what the Chinese consider to be a home (shelter, roof and live stock) at least at the time the character began to be used.

Another example is 外婆 (pronounced "wàipó"), which means grandmother on mother's side. This word consists of two characters. The first character ("wài") means outside, indicating that the grandmother is considered an "outsider" in the Chinese family.

In Arabic we have the saying "من تعلم لغة قوم أمن مكرهم", which roughly translates to "He who has learned the language of people is safe from their mischief". Looking back, I couldn't agree more with this statement. When you learn a language you are not just learning how people communicate with each other, but also how they think.


  • http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html
  • http://mandarin.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/tones.htm

Finding and Downloading Gigapixel Images – Part 1

In the last few years, my father spent a great deal of his time building a new home for us. In the living room he had this really big, yet gorgeous frame. The frame was roughly 10 feet wide and 5 feet high. We spent some time looking for a great poster that we can use to put in the frame, but with no success. An alternative solution was to obtain from the internet a photograph of an extremely high resolution (i.e. one gigapixel and above) and have it custom printed to the size that we need.

In this video, I'll be sharing where I found these images and how I downloaded them.

If you're following with me, you'll need to have a tool to download websites, such as HTTrack Website Copier (Windows) or SiteSucker (Mac OS X).