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.

Changes to the Blog (or Accepting Money from Readers with PayPal)

Today, I think we’ll forego the usual apology about not blogging for a while, and cut straight to the chase: there’s gonna be some changes ’round here. First, you may have noticed the rather snazzy new theme. The old one was too minimalist. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that I’m not a total slob, but I am far from minimalist. This new theme is clean, neat, and fits my style much better. The fonts are pretty sweet too. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Second, a while ago, one lovely commenter suggested I add a donate button to my site. I did a little research, and got scared off by tales of people adding donate buttons to their sites, and having their funds frozen. Granted, PayPal can’t take money away (that is to say, the worst that would happen is I would make no money at all), but words like “freeze” and “bank account” in the same sentence scare me, especially when the sentence in question refers to my “bank account” being “frozen.” So I put the idea on hold. Today, however, I ran across that same comment, and thought to myself, “Let’s monetize!” So I called PayPal, and got the word directly from the horse’s mouth.

No, a personal, not non-profit blogger can not use the PayPal donation button to collect donations on their site. However, rather than accepting “donations,” you can use a “Buy Now” button, which I presume goes through different internal PayPal channels, and which allows you to accept an arbitrary amount of money from arbitrary people without having your bank account arbitrarily suspended. Brilliant! Then you can use the “Donate” button image for your “not donation” button, and away you go!*

So, if you’ve been itching to give me your money, but you’ve been frustrated that you haven’t been able to, now is your chance! That shiny button up at the right hand corner will take you to a page where you can enter your own “Item price” and give me some money. I will be eternally grateful! And I’ll be more likely to blog more often if I’m getting money from it.

On the other hand, if you feel that I’m a sell out, and that I’m being ridiculous asking for money from you in exchange for the meaningless drivel that I post on the Internet for all eyes to see… don’t donate. For one thing, I’m not asking for your money, I’m giving you the opportunity to give me some money to encourage my ramblings if you’d like to. If you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to. I might not love you as much as I do now, but I won’t hate you… not that much, anyway.

As always, you’re encouraged to express your feelings on these changes in the comments. I welcome your feedback; it helps me figure out what you people do and don’t like to read on the Internet.

And, because I don’t say it enough, thanks for reading.

*To be perfectly clear, these are not “Donations,” in the sense that they are not tax deductible, and they do NOT go to a charitable organization. They go to me filling my face with food, paying my bills, and buying an expensive private jet so I can travel to the Bahamas while sipping Champagne and eating fois gras. You are giving me money, you’re not donating it to any particular cause or organization. Just so we’re clear. (And so PayPal doesn’t smite me.)

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.

Anger

People today have a lot to be angry about. Politics, cars, news, work, construction, bicycles – there are a lot of things that piss us off. What’s weird is that some people seem to actually enjoy being angry. A few years ago, I realized that I was becoming one of those people, and it scared me. I think we’re all that person sometimes. We’ve all clicked on a negative review of a movie we liked just to see “what this jerk is talking about,” or confronted someone about a topic we know will get them riled up, even when we know we should just let it slide.

It really occurred to me that I was embracing my inner dark side while I was riding my bike to school. I was pissed off about something – someone was biking too slow, or a car almost hit me – and I got angry. I didn’t grow huge muscles and turn green and yell “HULK MAD!! HULK SMASH!” But I probably peddled off furiously and muttered something scathing under my breath. Great. The kicker is, I sort of liked it. Being angry felt like some kind of revenge, and I felt secure in the knowledge than next time… next time I would say something or throw a glare, or do something to show the person that I was really mad. And then we’d be even… but would we really?

At the time, I recognized that this wasn’t helpful. After all, the only person with any negative emotion about that encounter was me. The other person went on being their jack-ass self, not caring about the world around them. Maybe it would get them in trouble some day, or maybe not. Either way, in my little world, the only person who was angry was me. A more immediate concern, however, was that I knew I had accidentally been a jack-ass a few times. Sometimes you lose your head, and you cut someone off. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means you made a mistake. So how can you be so sure that the person who just cut you off is a jerk, and that they didn’t make a mistake?

So I tried to change. If someone was going to be a jerk, I would deal with the situation dispassionately, secure in the knowledge that they were a douche-canoe, and they had to live with themselves. If they decided to do something stupid, good for them.

I ran into a story on Reddit a while ago that really changed my feelings about anger. I might not retell it exactly correctly, but the gist is there:

The Buddha was walking in a market one day. A man on the street noticed him, and started cursing him, insulting him, and jeering at him. He threw horrible insults at the Buddha. The Buddha looked at him with a peaceful smile, and walked on. The next day as the Buddha walked through the market, the man saw him and again, he insulted him, insulted his family, and cursed his beliefs. Again, the Buddha smiled peacefully, and walked away. On the third day, the man did the same, but before the Buddha walked away, he stopped and said, “I have stood here insulting you for three days. I have said horrible things to you, and all you do is smile and walk away. Aren’t you offended? Aren’t you mad?” The Buddha looked at the man and said, “If I were to give you a gift, would you accept it?” “No!”, said the man,”I would never accept a gift from someone like you!” “Then to whom would the gift belong?”, asked the Buddha “Well, you would still own it.” “Exactly,” said the Buddha, “and if I don’t accept your anger? To whom does it belong?” (paraphrased from a Reddit comment thread here.)

My effort over the past two years or so is to let other people hang on to their anger, rather than taking it on myself. An extension of this is that if someone is being inconsiderate or selfish, I try to let them wallow in it, rather than letting it make me upset. I let them shoulder the burden of their own dickishness. And if they just made a mistake, then I won’t blow up at them for no reason. It’s tough to do sometimes, but I feel a lot better about myself for it.

A good example of this happened a little while ago. I was walking home (having just bought Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood, I might add,) when I was almost hit by a pickup truck, driven by a man who was clearly not paying attention. “Jesus!” I yelled instinctively, as I turned around and glared at the man. “Excuse-moi! Excuse-moi!” he shouted back to me (he was francophone; he wasn’t being cheeky). I turned around and walked away, slightly shaken, but not angry at all. In fact, I was struck by how little anger I felt. The thought occurred to me that maybe I should turn around and yell at him, curse him out, and tell him to watch where he’s going. But something else occurred to me that was even better:

What I did was worse for him than getting angry. If I had gotten angry at him, I would be angry, and he would have cause to be angry at me for not being understanding of his mistake. It would have given him the slightest excuse to deflect his anger at himself toward me. But I didn’t leave him room for that. The only options I left open to him were to forget about the incident, and to be angry at himself. If he forgets about it, then he wasn’t going to listen to my swearing anyway. And if he’s angry at himself, he might just be more careful next time. But either way, I felt fine, and I went home to play my new video game, completely unfazed.

It might sound like I’m peddling some kind of weird hippy crap that makes no sense. You might assume that you would eventually blow up at someone, releasing all kinds of pent-up anger that you had been storing for years. But I really believe that – like the Buddha said in the story above – the anger stays with the person who created it. When you open yourself to the possibility that 1) the person might have simply made a mistake, or 2) that becoming angry will only make you feel worse, you start to catch yourself becoming angry, and you start to let it go. It’s not about letting anger go completely – sometimes anger can be a useful emotion – it’s about not getting angry destructively. It’s about only getting angry when it counts, and letting yourself enjoy the rest of the time.

I may write more about this subject, since it’s an important part of my life. If you have comments, suggestions, questions (although I don’t pretend to be an expert on this,) or anger deflection stories of your own, please do leave them in the comments.

No Resolutions 2013

Every year, it seems, I write a blog post about how I’m not making New Years Resolutions. It’s getting a bit old, a bit monotonous, and I feel like I’m repeating myself. I feel like I’m berating my readers with the same drivel over and over again… but I’m doing it again this year, so suck it up!

Month: January, Year: 2013, Resolutions: None. Not one. Let’s review. The main reasons I don’t do make New Year’s Resolutions are because 1) if I need to make changes in my life, I make them in “real time;” that is, as soon as I realize there is a problem. 2) I think people use New Year’s Resolutions as an excuse. How’s that? Most people don’t follow through with New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, they go to the gym for a few days, maybe even weeks, but eventually they stop. There are a variety of reasons for this, but for the purposes of this discussion, what’s important is that most people don’t follow through. I think people use that as an excuse. Stopped going to the gym? So did a bunch of other people. Stopped “eating healthy?” You’re not alone. Still drinking too much coffee? Next year…

This is not to say that I don’t believe in making lifestyle changes at certain intervals, it’s just that I don’t think the first day of the New Year is a good day to start, especially when there are so many other people to fail with. I set goals at the beginning of semesters, especially after the summer break. After the semester is over, I’m in a better place to sit back and think about what I want to do in the coming term. What do I want to improve on? How am I going to do it? How will I know I have improved? Then I implement, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work, I try again next term, or later in the same term.

Those two bold questions are important. Motivation research (and common sense) shows that specific goals with specific measurements are more likely to lead to success, and that most people set fuzzy goals with no measurement of success. Many people, for example, set the goal of “eating better.” What does that mean? If you eat one less burger in 2013 than 2012, you have technically eaten “better” according to some arbitrary standard. If you fail to bring fork to mouth one less time in 2013 than in 2012, you have – by some standard – succeeded in eating more skilfully (i.e. “better”) than you did in 2012. Congratulations. A specific goal is this: “Eat meals comprised mostly of vegetables three times a week.” Even that’s a bit fuzzy. How about this: “Eat white carbohydrates less than two times a week.” That’s a great goal. That’s a goal you can monitor. That’s a goal you just might be able to stick to.

Now that I’ve done my pedantry bit, let’s talk about my goals for this term. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I’ve been working on discipline. I’m pleased to say that I’ve done well. One of my specific goals last term was to get two A’s. I did not meet that goal. I did, however, boost my grades compared to previous terms. This semester, same goal: two A’s. Second goal: do all the assignments. My weak point in school is that at some point during the semester, I get frustrated and bored, and I stop doing assignments. I don’t just do them half way, I stop doing them altogether. That changed last semester, and in all but one of my classes, I turned in all or most of the assignments. This semester, ALL the assignments. Everything I am assigned, I will turn in. And not only will I turn it in, I will do it right. How will I do that? (Forming a plan of action for achieving your goal is also important.) I’ll do the assignments early, and I’ll check my answers. The details of this goal are still in the making, since I’m still fitting into my schedule, but that’s ok. Another goal was to brush and floss my teeth every single night. I used to brush most nights, and floss frequently, but I wanted to do it every night. Done. I think I’ve missed one day since a week before the start of last semester. This semester, I’m adding a morning brushing to that goal.

Those are a few goals I’m continuing to work on and I’ve added another: meditation. I want to be more disciplined, and more focussed. Meditation does just that sort of thing. There are lots of ways to meditate, but the one I’m going to focus on is the one found here. From what I’ve read, this type of meditation strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that delivers willpower. So I’m going to meditate this way every night before I go to sleep. So far, I have meditated every night this semester, and I’m still going strong. I started out with 5 minutes, then 10, and I think I’m going to kick it up a notch and go for 20 tonight. It’s tough, but that’s what I’m looking for.

Finally, I do have some fuzzy goals. There are some things I want to do that I don’t really care to define properly, because they’re things that I want to work on, but that I don’t want to interfere with my other goals. If you pick too many goals, all of them suffer, and the three goals I’ve mentioned here are more important and concrete. I want to encourage my curiosity. Instead of just reading about a concept – mead making, say – and glossing over it, I want to immerse myself in it. I want to dig in, and learn some cool things about it. If someone were to come up to me after I read an article about mead, and ask me what I learned, I want to be able to tell them something cool, not just say, “Uh… well…” That’s just a waste of time. I also want to keep my room cleaner, do the dishes more frequently (which I’ve been doing,) and go to sleep earlier.

And yes, I want to blog more often. I’ve been neglecting my blog again, but some day I hope to get back to it. My life has been changing a lot lately, and blogging didn’t really fit in my mind. Now, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to focus on it a bit more. But who knows. One reader suggested that I add a donate button to my site, and I think I may well do that. I don’t want you to feel pressured to donate, and I won’t add it unless I start blogging more often, but it would certainly encourage me to blog more often (and contribute to the Help Me Pay My Rent And Things fund) if people threw some change my way every once in a while. If you have thoughts or opinions on this (or any) subject, please do leave them in the comments.

Also, if there are things you want me to talk about (or not talk about) in 2013, please let me know.