The Importance of Being a Douchebag

Life update: I’ve moved to the wonderful land of Seattle, Washington to work at Amazon.com! Now on to the meat.

No matter how hard you try to be a good person, the sad reality is that you have probably done something dumb, mean, or inconsiderate at some point in your life. You may even have done it intentionally, and with malice aforethought. Maybe you were even consistently a jerk at some point in time. But the important thing is that you have (hopefully) gotten over it, apologized, and gotten on with your life.

Today, I want to talk about the process of recognizing your faults and trying to fix them. It’s easy to criticize other people for being douchebags, but when you are the one being a douchbag it’s often harder to accept. To start off this discussion, I’m going to tell you about George. This person’s name and the situation have been obfuscated slightly, because I still interact with George on a fairly regular basis, and having him realize that I was talking about him would be more than slightly awkward. Still, I think it’s worth having the discussion. And George, if you’re reading this and you realize I’m talking about you,  know that I’m terribly sorry that I was a douchebag.

George

Even the nicest people have things that piss them off to an irrational degree. No matter how peace and love you are, someone out there will do something some day that will really stick in your craw, and make you want to punch them in their stupid little face. For me, this person was George. It wasn’t that George was stupid or mean. On the contrary, most people liked George a whole lot. But for some reason, George and I rubbed each other the wrong way and I was astonished with the level of irrational anger I felt toward him. I caught myself criticising him for things he did that – when I stepped back to think about it – I realized were perfectly correct, and were probably better than what I would have done in the same situation. Sure, maybe George was a little overconfident sometimes, but that surely isn’t any reason to hate someone.

This led to a period of about two weeks where I was in complete emotional turmoil. On one side, I recognized that George was in the right, and I was in the wrong. But on the other side, my inner cave man wanted to hit George over the head with the biggest club I could find, and feed him to a saber-tooth tiger. I was constantly fighting the urge to disagree with him on things he wasn’t wrong about, and I struggled constantly to resolve the dilemma: How can I dislike this person so much when they’re not a bad person? Why don’t I like them if it makes no sense? This was at a point in my life when I had recently figured out how to think deeply about other peoples’ perspectives, and on the whole, I considered myself a fair and non-judgmental human being, and the anger I felt toward George was in direct conflict with that belief. Most of the time, I just wanted the whole situation to go away. I wanted to never have met George, to never have said the things I said, to never have done the things I did, and to continue living my life as though none of this had ever happened. Needless to say, my experience with George really (as Jeff Bridges said in the movie Tron: Legacy), messed with my zen thing.

The truth is, there are things that simply piss us off. I subscribe to the idea that, to a large degree, we are a product of our experiences, and especially our experiences during childhood. Things that happen to us as children become woven into our personalities, and sometimes the events of our adult lives resemble a situation we experienced in the past so closely that they set us off for seemingly no reason. One of the most important such situations in my life is feeling patronized. A sure-fire way to get me to fight your idea tooth and claw – no matter how much sense it makes – is to put me in a situation where I feel like my authority is being overridden, or I feel like you’re treating me like a child. Logically, I understand that people who patronize me either aren’t communicating effectively, or are responding to something I’ve done that is foolish or immature. And I understand that the best response is to figure out which it is, and respond accordingly. Emotionally, however, being in that position pisses me off so much that it occasionally overrides my ability to respond rationally.

Hating Yourself

I have a friend who told me once that the teenage years are about hating yourself, and that it’s important to hate yourself during that time because it sort of irons out the kinks. At first, I didn’t understand how he could say it was good to hate yourself. But then I thought about it a bit more. We often use simple words to encapsulate larger, vastly more complex ideas that the listener is supposed to infer from context. In this case, it isn’t about hating yourself, it’s about recognizing you have flaws and trying to resolve them. But it rarely happens as calmly and deliberately as that. It’s often an emotional battle between the part of you that wants to be right, and the part of you that wants to be a better person. Feeling like you did something wrong is one thing, but feeling like you charged headlong into a bad decision on purpose  is far worse. When you know that you were wrong, not because you didn’t have all the information or because you accidentally overlooked something, but because your core values and habits caused you to make a poor decision, it’s a lot harder to deal with. In that case  it’s not just what you did that is wrong: a fundamental part of who you are is wrong. And that’s a hard thing to come to grips with.

Hating yourself doesn’t mean you think you’re worthless or that you’re a stupid, horrible person; hating yourself – so to speak – every so often, and for short periods of time, means that you recognize that you have been a douchebag, and you are trying to correct the root cause of that douchebaggery. You know that you’re awesome, but that awesomeness requires maintenance.

Balance and Conclusion

Obviously, there is a balance to be struck between “hating” yourself and recognizing your self-worth, and that balance is hard to find. Personally, I think I’m a bit hard on myself, and that prevents me from going as boldly forward as I’d like to sometimes. While I’m not sure I’ll ever feel completely at ease with George and what happened between us, I know that the struggle keeps me on my toes, and that those events were a huge learning experience for me in many ways. From now on, when I notice a similar trend happening, I’ll be able to look into myself and ask, “Is this person really being a jerk? Or do I need to re-evaluate the situation?” And that’s the point of hating yourself: learning from your mistakes.

x Things That ______ People Do Every Day

From time to time, I go on Facebook. It’s this new website you might have heard of, where people post thoughts, opinions, links, and play various time-wasting games. When I go on this “Facebook”, I occasionally run into a link someone has posted, which is titled in this format: “10 Things To do before ____” or “14 Things You Shouldn’t Do When ____” or “11 Things _____ People Do”. I suspect this naming scheme originates from the popular self-help business book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and on principle, I agree with the concept. The basic idea is this: I want to be more like people who do this, so I should examine what those people do, how they do it, and why, and then I should emulate their behaviour. This is the sort of literary endeavour that requires research, interviews, plenty of rumination, and a fair bit of craftiness to distil the habits these people have amassed over the years into the irrelevant (e.g. separating their food before eating it) and the relevant (e.g. waking up early, using lots of post-its, eating only vegetables.) This is not the sort of thing that one can write – properly, that is – in an hour that would otherwise be spent browsing Reddit, except you haven’t posted on your blog in a while.

What really set me off on this topic was an article that boldly claimed to be a list of some number of “Mistakes Not to Make During your 20’s”. Like most articles of this nature, it contained short, glib paragraphs proffering advice about what to and what not to do during your 20’s in order to be a “successful” person. Ashamed as I am to say it, I read the article, and took some of its advice to heart. One heading in the article that stuck with me particularly strongly, claimed that it was a mistake to “believe you deserve a break.” Weeks later, when I was tired, overworked, and slacking off, the article would pop into my brain, and I would think about how maybe I shouldn’t let my self take a break. It bothered me; if this person who made it through their 20’s told me that this was a mistake, should I not do it? But I’m exhausted and my brain doesn’t work; do I just keep pushing?

One day I realized that was stupid advice. Of course you need – and yes, even deserve – a break sometimes. When you’ve spent two weeks straight doing useless busy work for a University degree that you may or may not use, and that certainly won’t give you the professional skills that you need for a real world job, sometimes you need a break. When you’re frustrated and tired and annoyed, sometimes you need to do nothing for a while, and that’s ok.

Articles like this really stick in my craw because they’re so misleading. It’s easy to take the advice of our elders (even if the “elders” in this case probably aren’t much older than we are), as fact, or at least to wonder if their suggestions will turn out to be accurate. When giving advice, it’s important to consider that you’re giving advice to a person with different ambitions, a different past, and a different future. Sure, it’s easy to look back and what you did when you were their age and say, “You know, I did this, and it really helped me: you should do it to” or “I didn’t do this and I’ve regretted it; don’t make the same mistakes I did.” But it’s far harder to realize that each of us is a different person with our own challenges, and sometimes that advice can do more harm than good.

More than that, however, I find it incredibly presumptuous of a person on the Internet to claim that they know exactly what mistakes I should and shouldn’t make in my 20’s. Mistakes are a valuable learning experience. And who knows, maybe something that didn’t work for them will work for me. As useful as advice can be sometimes, when it comes down to it, we each have to find our own way through this world.

So that is to say, when you really take advice to heart, maybe it shouldn’t be from Buzzfeed. Maybe you should do some research about the author of the article or book, and make sure that they did some research. And maybe you should think about what they’re saying and – more importantly – why, before really accepting it. Or maybe not; it’s up to you.

On Becoming an Adult

Here’s the deal: In April, 2014, I’ll be graduating from McGill with a BSc. in Computer Science. I have one more semester left in school until I start working. I’m an adult, and in around 6 months time, I’ll be putting money in my bank account – money that I’ve earned by working – and living 100% by my own means. None of that was real for me until the other day. What happened? I signed up for my graduation photos.

First of all, let’s clear this up for good: graduation photos are a fraud. Why? Because you don’t actually take them when you graduate, and you’re not wearing your graduation gown when they’re taken. No no, you take them an entire 4 months before you graduate, and you wear a gown they lend you for the photo shoot. It is all a lie. There isn’t even cake. When you sign up to have your grad photo taken, you’re still not even 100% sure that you’ll graduate. Hell, you haven’t even applied to graduate. Which is also a thing, students: you have to apply to graduate.

Now that we’ve covered that little detail, let me talk about why all this “becoming an adult business” slapped me in the face when it did. You see, I’ve never really put much stock in all the accoutrements surrounding graduation. In fact, I’ve technically had the opportunity to attend three  of my own graduations, and of those I only attended one. In some ways, not attending graduation has become “a thing” for me; it’s like a tradition that I feel I have to uphold. But despite my feelings on graduation, and not wanting to be paraded around in front of a bunch of teary-eyed parents while some school official I’ve never even met berates me and my colleagues about the value of education, making the appointment for my grad photo was somehow a wake-up call for me. When I submitted that web form, it all became real. This is it: I’m becoming a real, proper, certified adult.

Rather than doing the sensible thing, and quickly signing up for a masters degree or adding a minor to my degree, or dropping some classes next term – anything to stay in school a bit longer – I actually felt pretty satisfied with myself. Never having to go back to school again is freeing. I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt, and now I’m free. And it’s not that I want to stop learning – on the contrary: now I get to learn even more – but I can do my learning on my schedule. I’m jumping off the treadmill of assignments and exams and quizes and essays. I’ll get to make things that have never existed before, and I’ll get paid to do it.

Sure, it’ll be hard. I’m about to start a whole new chapter in my life, in a totally different environment. Perhaps my next blog post will be about what I realized during my first job interview: that as much as I feel like an old hand at school, I’m going to feel like a total “n00b” in the workplace. But as scary as change is, it’s also exciting. It means new things, and I think I’m ready for them.

Projects: I Need Them

Yesterday, I went to McGill’s Tech Fair. All manner of companies were there, scouting talent and taking applications, looking for young students who need jobs. Needless to say, they found plenty, and I was one of them.

It was the first time I had ever been to the Tech Fair, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’ve been told my CV is impressive, but I didn’t know what companies would be looking for, or even what – exactly – I was looking for. Among the myriad mining companies (I counted around three gold mining companies) and engineering firms, I managed to find a few software companies that interested me. I chatted, asked questions, and tried to make myself seem knowledgeable, curious, and passionate. The one question I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the question I expected to be the most prepared for: what projects have you done lately?

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who does projects. I’ve always done projects. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been building things, even to the detriment of my own schooling. I have all but four volumes of Make Magazine that have ever been published. MacGyver is my hero. On any given day, I would rather code for five hours on one of my own projects than for one hour on an assignment for school, and yet I couldn’t think of a single project that I have done recently for my own interest, and of my own volition.

This realization has been a long time coming, I think. School and extracurricular activities (read: work) have sucked up a lot of the time I would ordinarily spend hacking and coding. And when I’m not studying or working, I’m usually too lazy and worn out to start working on something else. Sure, I’ve written some little programs here and there on the weekends or over the summer – coding is a part of life for me – but I haven’t really built any of the super cool, outlandish, crazy awesome projects that I used to build when I was younger and cared less about school. And that’s a shame.

So today is when it changes. This evening, I’m going to blow a TON of time that I could be spending on a DOZEN other things, writing a program that I’ve wanted to write for a few weeks. I’m not going to finish it tonight – I may not even finish it in a week, a month, or a year – but I’m going to start it, and I’m going to have fun. I’m going to tap into my passion again: I’m going to focus on what’s important.

Fun Slide

Fun Slide

I’m on vacation with my family in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. It was an 18 hour drive, spread out somewhat unevenly over two days; the majority of it on the second day. One thing we learned from the trip was that long drives should be spread out evenly, or at least with the shorter half on the second day. The second day was a marathon 12 hour drive down I-81. We finally arrived at the hotel, exhausted and road weary, and ready for the beach.

Carolina Beach is a fairly commercial area, with lots of shops that sell fishing gear and bait, and even more that sell cheap T-shirts, bathing suits, and beach toys. Boogie boards are ubiquitous at such stores, and I’m sure most families that visit this area with young children end up going home with at least one. The beach is nice, not too crowded, but there are still a lot of people on a sunny day like today.

What grabbed my attention tonight was not the ocean, or the beach, but the small amusement park two lots over from our hotel. It seems to have grown bigger since last year, and has a rocking pirate boat, a spinning wheel with spinning buckets attached, and a two-sided ferris wheel, among other attractions. All of the rides light up in bright colors. Tonight, walking in from the parking lot, I noticed a rather unusual sign on one of the rides. It was about 4 to 6 feet tall, and read – in bright, color-changing LED lights – FUN SLIDE.

I think the sign is hilarious. This is a cheap carnival, and the organizers apparently didn’t care to come up with a more creative name than “fun slide.” Amongst rides at other parks that have names that celebrate how monstrously large they are, or the theme they have been decorated with, this slide merely purports to be fun.

On another level, I like the honesty and straight-forwardness of it.  In a world where everything needs to have a special name to sell – razors with names like quattro, and turbo, and enumerable products called “fusion” – the makers of this slide didn’t feel the need to say anything more than that it is fun. The slide is an advertisement in and of itself, and any kid can see that it’s tall, it’s a slide, and that it’s probably fun to slide down. So nothing more was needed in naming the attraction than to drive that point home: it’s a fun slide.

Have I been down the fun slide? Hell no. For the most part of this vacation, I’ve been in one of three places: the comfortable chair in our room, reading or working on a coding project that needs to be done by the weekend; at the beach, walking or swimming; or in bed sleeping. That’s how I like my vacations: relaxed, and without the need to be busy.

Deschooling

The first few weeks of summer are always a bit of a drag. It’s like diving head first into a cold pool – the shock washes over you as your body acclimates to its new surroundings and temperature, and it takes some time before you feel like you’ve completely normalized. A few days ago I read about a concept called “deschooling.” Deschooling is what happens when home-schoolers* first leave school. They sit around and play video games, get up in the late afternoon, waste time, and do nothing. It happens all the time. After a while, they get into their element, and realize that they want to learn stuff. Then they start learning.

I don’t know any of this from first hand experience, so I can’t really make any claims about the accuracy of how that process happens, or how often it happens. But I do think I deschool every summer. When the rigidity of my class schedule finally gives way, I find myself plummeting into the cold waters of freedom, dazed and confused, and not sure what to do next. I waste time, I sleep late, I watch TV, and – reluctantly – do whatever work I need to get done. Working part time seems to slow the deschooling process, and my assumption is that to properly deschool, one has to engage in sloth as fully as possible before returning to a normal state of being able to get out of bed on time and do things like a normal person.

Deschooling isn’t a fun experience. It’s a time during which I have very little control over my sleep schedule, and I’m usually pretty bored. I spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. But there comes a time, a few weeks down the road, when I realize that I’m being a bum, and that I don’t want to be a bum. I get up, and I go do something.

Yesterday, I checked out a few books from the library and started to read. Today, I’m writing a blog post. Little by little, it seems, I’m returning to normal. My brain is rebooting, and the emptiness where once there was the structure and scheduling of school is being filled with my own schedule and rhythm. The freedom is starting to feel good, and soon I’ll be able to fully enjoy summer.

Looking forward, into the next phase of my life, I’m wondering how this dynamic will affect my work. Work, I expect, will have all the rigidity and structure of school, but without the added commitment of having to work at home. The stress of knowing that there’s always something else I should be doing will hopefully be gone, and maybe I’ll be able to “deschool” a little bit each day when I come home from work. I imagine that I’ll be a bum when I get home for the first few weeks, maybe even months. But as I adapt to my new routine, I’ll slowly return to working on my hobbies and outside interests, seeing friends, and generally having a life. That’s the idea, anyway.

*The more appropriate but also more radical term is unschoolers, which refers to children who don’t follow a prescribed curriculum or take standardized tests, but learn their own material at their own pace.

Valentine’s Day 2013: What Twitter Thinks About Love

Every year, I create some sort of computer art project for Valentine’s Day. This year, I created another video, and I think this may be the coolest one yet.

Two years ago, my video was an attempt at capturing the spirit of valentine’s day by processing a video I took on my bus ride to school. I wanted to go back to that theme this year, but the whole “searching for colors thing” was played out. This year, I decided to get my computer to describe love.

Basically, I had my computer suck down every tweet on Twitter for a certain time period that had the word “love” in it, and then processed it, looking for the most common chains of words. I did this using a method called Bigram Probability, which basically calculates the probability of one word coming after another in a sentence. The more often the word “you” comes after the word “love”, the higher the probability assigned to the word “you” coming after “love.” It’s simple enough, but it produced some beautiful results.

Because of this method’s simplicity, I had to do a little “post processing,” which involved taking out the garbage sentences that the program produced. In the end, this became “picking the good ones.” Now, that’s not to say that I’m only picking the cute ones. No no, I’m picking the ones that are grammatically correct; the computer is doing the cute all by itself. Or rather, Twitter is.

Then I shot some video of a hike to the top of the mountain (story after the video,) added the text over it, and set the whole thing to some awesome music by Broke For Free that I found on Free Music Archive.org.

Before we get to the video, let’s have some stats. Of all the words the computer processed, the most common (other than love, which was the search query,) was “I”, and the next most common was “you.” Starting with “I”, the sentence with the highest probability was “I love you”. (D’awwwww.) The most common word after “you” was “love,” but if we ignore that one (because it creates an infinitely cute loop of infinite “love you”s),* the next most common sentence was “I love you too.” And if you think it’s cute that the sentences with the highest probability resulting from a search for the word “love” on Twitter are “I love you” and “I love you too,” wait until you see the ones I used in the video.

Note that the video is a bit shaky. If I had a better camera and/or a Steadycam, I might have been able to record more stable footage, and track the text better. The music is by Broke for Free.

A Story

As I walked up the mountain, I was honestly worried that the video would be a little boring. The computery stuff is cool, and I love playing with video editing sofware, but my idea for the background footage seemed a bit boring. Fate brought me the heart-shaped balloons in the trees, which I thought was a pretty cool end to my journey. But actually, that was the beginning of a different, far more exciting journey.

Coming from the direction of the heart-shaped balloons (make of that, symbolically speaking, what you will,) I heard the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies. It seemed to be coming from the woods, but I had no idea who would be playing music that loudly near the park. I thought about trying to find it, and then decided against it. As I was leaving the great patio that forms the lookout on the mountain, something turned me back. Where’s my spirit of adventure, I thought to myself. So I turned about face, and I went in search of the music.

Because I value the integrity of my limbs, I decided against filming my hike through the woods and snow, which took place entirely off the paths in the park that are maintained during the winter (the first thing I did was boot-ski down a staircase that was “closed for the winter”) and mostly off the few paths beaten into the snow by other daring travelers.

I ran through the woods, slid down slopes, and hung on to trees. It was an exhilarating feeling. I’ve always loved running through the woods, and I haven’t done it in a long time. Every so often I would stop, prick my ears, and listen for the music. Sometimes it would fade out, and I had to try to head toward where I thought it had been the last time. My best guess is that someone had set up an outdoor skating rink, as towns and schools commonly do in Quebec during the winter, and that they were playing music for people skate to. But I didn’t come across a skating rink.

Eventually, I reached the road. There was no sign of the music, or where it was coming from. I knew where I was, and I had an appointment in an hour and a half, and I thought I’d head back. The adventure was fun, and I had gotten something out of my search, even if I hadn’t solved my puzzle. So I started walking home, and after a block or so, the music piped up again. It was louder this time. I could tell that it was bouncing off the buildings, so it was hard to say exactly where it was coming from. I hesitated, then took my best guess and started after it again. As I walked down the street, the music got louder, and louder, and louder, until I could finally see where it was coming from.

It was coming from a protest at the Montreal General Hospital. One of the unions there is on strike, and they were picketing and playing music. My mystery music was coming from an amp strapped to the back of a pickup truck. The mystery was solved.

It’s amazing how, sometimes, if you look hard enough, life gives you exactly what you want. I was cranky that day, my mood sharpened by not wanting to get out of bed, and my usual frustration with the commercial assumption that all people everywhere are paired off on Valentine’s Day. Something was telling me, right before I had started my trek, that life was holding out exactly what I needed at that moment. And whether you believe in fate, God, synchronicity, or probability, I felt that one or all of them were giving me an opportunity; a free pass to improve my mood and learn something.

The lesson I learned (or relearned) is this: what you’re looking for is out there somewhere. It applies very well to those of us who are single during this season, and to love, but it also applies more generally to any other pursuit in life. You’ll hit rough patches, you’ll get lost, you’ll have fun, you’ll face adversity, and maybe you’ll even give up a few times, but if you keep your ear to the ground and your goal in mind, you’ll find what you’re looking for eventually.

*Those familiar with bigram probabilities will probably realize that there shouldn’t be repeats. However, the data structure I used to store the bigram probabilities made the usual manner of iteration somewhat difficult, and I wanted to allow some repeats.