Which Distro? An Introduction to Picking “a Linux”

Every few days, someone on the Linux users group on Facebook posts a question that goes something like this: “I’m new to Linux. Can you recommend a good distribution for blah?” Where blah is usually something like gaming, media, or learning Linux. Like many people who are new to Linux, when I was first exploring the Linux world, I tried out a lot of distros. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter which distro you choose. I’ll explain a bit more about what a distro is, what kinds there are, and why it does and doesn’t matter, below.

What is a Distribution?

It’s hidden right in the name, but it’s not immediately obvious: a distribution of Linux is the Linux kernel, packaged up and distributed in a usable form. Linux, by itself, is just a kernel: the part of an operating system that manages the hardware, and provides interfaces for the various pieces of software and hardware that make the computer usable. If you were to just boot the kernel all by itself, the machine would start and do nothing. It would spin the fans and hard disks faster or slower, handle new device connections, and maybe even accept user input, but the computer wouldn’t be usable, because the software that interacts with the user (you) is not part of the kernel – no text terminal, no on screen menus or mouse pointer, no nothing. Once the kernel is running, it spawns other programs that handle user interaction. This is a basic model of operating systems.

So, apart from some basic patches and alterations that the makers of Linux distros might make to their specific release of the kernel, the underlying kernel is basically the same from distro to distro. The difference is in the software they install around it, and that’s also one of the reasons Linux is more customizable than any other popular operating system today. For example, there are quite a few different graphical interfaces that support Linux: KDE*, Gnome, Unity, XFCE – these are all visually different interfaces that function differently. And that’s just a very, very small portion of the desktop environments available. So two different distros with the exact same kernel can look and behave very differently on the surface. This is, to a large extent, how various Linux distros differ: the packages included with the base system, and their initial configurations. Ubuntu and Kubuntu, for example, are two distinct distros, yet they are mostly the same except that Ubuntu ships with the Unity desktop environment, and Kubuntu ships with KDE. One could easily uninstall Unity from Ubuntu and install KDE.

Major Differences: Package Management

Arguably the most fundamental distinction between various distros is the way they facilitate software installation. On a base Linux system with no package manager, the way you install packages is by copying the executable binary and it’s shared objects to the proper locations. This isn’t the easiest or most convenient thing to do, as it doesn’t allow you to easily keep track of what software package is installed where, or what version it is. So most Linux distributions ship with a package manager like apt (Debian-based), yum (Red Hat), portage (Gentoo), or pacman (Arch). These package managers will not only install packages from a central repository – all of which has been checked so that it is compatible with all the other software in the repository – but they will install all the dependencies as well. Everyone who has ever tried to install a package from source on a freshly installed system will tell you that this is a great relief, and saves hours of hunting online for tarballs**.

Which package manager you choose is largely a matter of preference, and this is the basis on which I think you should make your decision. Debian-based distributions come with “apt”, which is – from my biased perspective – a reliable, relatively easy to use package manager. Distribution upgrades (i.e. major upgrades) can be done without nuking the system and starting over, it has support for multiple architectures on the same system (e.g. installing 32-bit packages on a 64-bit machine), and is pretty painless. Even the most frustrating problems can sometimes be solved by throwing around a bunch of apt commands semi-brainlessly.

Red-Hat/Fedora-like distributions (like RHEL, Fedora, OpenSuSE, CentOS, and Oracle Linux) use “yum”, which installs rpm files. The last time I used yum was years ago, so my opinion isn’t worth much in this regard. I’ve heard that you have to nuke a Fedora system in order to do a distribution upgrade – that is, you have to do major upgrades by wiping the system and starting over – but I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend using one of the other options, but this is my wholly biased opinion; take it with a grain of salt (and maybe a trial of Fedora on a VM).

Gentoo (and probably some other distros based on Gentoo) use “portage”. Portage is pretty freaking cool, in that it compiles every single package from scratch. It’s a somewhat agonizing experience (although not as much so on today’s faster machines), especially if you want to install a huge software package like KDE. But the benefit of doing things this way is that every binary on your system is optimized specifically for the box sitting in front of you (or under your desk, or wherever it is you have the thing). It’s more useful if you actually know what you’re doing, and can manipulate the various compiler flags effectively, but I’m sure there’s some speed-up even if you don’t entirely know what’s going on under the hood. Gentoo is my favorite distro for learning the ins and outs of Linux, and if you’re a first-timer and really want to dive into Linux and get a good head start, I can’t recommend enough that you take the time to do a full, manual, Gentoo install. Just… uh… don’t be discouraged if you fail the first time. Or the second. You’ll learn a TON, trust me.

My experience with other package managers like pacman is minimal. I used Arch for a while, and it’s a very nice distro. It’s something of the best of both worlds between Gentoo and more user-friendly distros like Debian.

Smaller Distros

The Internet is replete with smaller distros with funny names, and there are too many to mention. Most of them are offshoots of one of the main distributions I’ve described above, with various configuration changes. There are some medium size distributions as well (Linux Mint, Puppy Linux, etc) which tend to do a pretty decent job, and are sometimes designed for very specific situations Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux, for example, are designed to be very small and light weight, and are especially useful for booting from a CD or USB key to do system repairs. Linux Mint, in particular, is a refreshing spin on Ubuntu. I tend not to trust the really small distros though (the ones you’ve never heard of with websites straight out of the 90’s), because I’m dubious as to whether they’ll continue to be supported in the future, and whether they’ve been tested thoroughly. There are probably good ones out there, I just don’t shop around too much anymore.

Choices

In many ways, it all comes down to choices, and the number of them you want to make. If what you want is a plug-and-play operating system that isn’t Windows or Mac OS X, go with Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, or a similar distro that has a one-and-done type install: you pop the disk in the drive, set up your language, time zone, and login credentials, and away you go. These distros have default packages that support most of your day-to-day needs, and it’s fairly easy to install components that aren’t pre-installed. They work on most of the common hardware out of the box, and they have a lot of online support options.

If, on the other hand, you want to make the choices yourself, choose a distro like Gentoo, Arch, or Debian. Gentoo and Arch, in particular, don’t even choose a default desktop environment for you, so you can choose any configuration you want right from the beginning without having to undo someone else’s work. One time, I installed Gentoo only to realize that I had disabled the kernel configuration for my hard drive controller, so the system couldn’t boot: that’s how much control you have. Debian has some base packages that install a very minimal system, as well as some options that will install a lot of common packages for you. It’s more immediately usable than the other two, but allows you to install a minimal system if you want.

At the far end of the spectrum of choices is LFS: Linux From Scratch. You compile the kernel from scratch, and gradually start loading things on the disk until you have a working operating system. I’ve never done this, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. You can find resources for doing that here: http://www.linuxfromscratch.org/

Stability

One last thing I want to mention is stability. Stability is probably the other most important dimension of a distro, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about it just a bit. If you’re cycling through different distros exploring the Linux world, you might not care too much about stability. Honestly, if you play around with things enough, you’re going to wreck your distro no matter how stable it is. But if you’re looking installing Linux on a machine you care about, stability is very important.

Because the distro packagers are usually on the same team (or are the same people) as the people who maintain their distro’s package repositories, their attitudes and values contribute to how stable the resulting collection of packages will be. Debian, for example, is know for being fairly conservative and FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) fanatical, which makes for a very stable, very reliable system, and makes it a bit harder to install proprietary software (not much harder, though.) Ubuntu, on the other hand, is less gun-shy, and uses more up to date packages at the expense of a slightly increased probability that their packages will have unresolved bugs. It’s worth doing some research to find out the attitude of a perspective distribution’s repository maintainers before making your final choice.

Stability is the main reason I forsook Ubuntu years ago, and now only use Debian. Ubuntu is the only operating system I have ever installed (aside from Windows) which has crashed during or right after installation***. It’s a great distro that is paving the way for lots of innovation and publicity in the Linux and Open-Source world, and it has become a stepping stone (at the very least) for new users, but I don’t like the way they do choose their packages, and the default packages that are installed. And, if I’m honest, even though it’s a small and easily fixable issue, Unity absolutely drives me up the wall.

Conclusion

Hopefully this will help you choose the distro that’s right for you. You should play around with a few of them and read up on them (Wikipedia is a great place to do this) before picking the one you intend to use for ever and ever… and always know that you can change your mind at any time. As you learn to use Linux, you’ll likely realize that you wish you had done certain things differently during your installation, so you’ll likely be itching to re-install after a while anyway.

If you’re curious, as you might already have guessed, I install Debian on everything I get my hands on: my desktop, my parents computers, Raspberry Pis – hell, I’d install it on my toaster if I could. After administrating around 20 Debian machines during my two years as a SysAdmin, I’ve come to appreciate its elegant simplicity and robustness, and I wouldn’t replace it with Ubuntu if you paid me. But that’s just my opinion; I encourage you to draw your own.

*It has been pointed out – and rightly so – that the K Desktop Environment (formerly referred to as simply “KDE”) is now properly called “KDE SC”, for “KDE Software Compilation”. For simplicity, however, and since it is still referred to in the Debian repository and popularly as KDE, I’ve left the incorrect acronym as is.

**A member of the Linux Facebook group pointed out that newcomers to Linux might not know what a “tarball” is. Tarball is slang for an archive compressed using the unix tar utility, usually with the extensions .tar, .tar.gz, or .tar.bz2. Source code for many open source packages come packaged in a tar archive.

***It’s true, I’ve had many a Gentoo installation crash on me on or before startup, but that was always because I had done something stupid, and was entirely my fault. The same opportunity doesn’t really exist in Ubuntu; I’ve had installations crash once, and succeed after installing again with the same options for no discernible reason.

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.

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.

Discipline Week: Hindsight

To be honest, I’ve been rather dreading writing this post. The biggest failure of Discipline Week was my lack of blogging, and while there were many successes, the fact that I haven’t blogged in around three months has been weighing on me. Sometimes I feel like the segments of our lives have a theme. If you could put years of your life in a folder, you might label these years after something you learned to do, and these months after someone you were dating, and this week after one idea that completely changed your way of thinking. This semester’s theme has definitely been “Motivation” or, as a friend of mine might call it, “Learning to School.”

In learning how to school, I have learned not only about motivation, but also about priorities, forgiveness, and ardor. I use the word ardor in reference to a quote I read a while ago: “Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor, and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams. When I copied this quote and taped it above my desk early in the semester, I knew it was significant, but it took me a while to learn exactly how it was significant. To me, seeking learning with ardor means that you have to use whatever means are at your disposal to complete your work. If that means staying up late, or asking a friend how to do a problem, or even skipping class, then so be it. It’s not enough to simply be at school, you have to fight for the knowledge you want.

Prioritizing is sometimes part of fighting for knowledge. I have skipped many a Linear Algebra assignment this semester, but I’ve done all but two of my assignments in every other class. In two of my classes, the assignments are worth 10% to 12.5% of my grade, and in another class, I know that I’ll get very far behind if I don’t do the assignments. Given a limited time – for whatever reason – I have to choose which assignment to do based on which is more important.

I’ve also learned to forgive myself. I can’t expect myself to study as diligently as some of my peers – at least not at the moment. After a while, I shut down, and I’m not able to continue studying. Once in a while, I’ll realize that I just can’t study, and I’ll put everything down and watch TV. And I’ve learned to tell myself that that’s ok sometimes.

Scheduling is also important. I’ve realized that most of the time I’ll plan to work on something “later” and not really allocate any time for it. Then “later” arrives, and the assignment is already past due. I have to give myself a time and a place in which to study: at home, at my table, with a pot of tea, at 4:30pm. Now I stack up my day in my mind, like a stack of dishes that need to be done. Sometimes I realize I won’t have time for all of them, and I re-prioritize.

Finally, one of the most important things: I’ve gotten rid of my “smart complex.” I read an article a while ago about how children who are told they are “smart” tend to give up more easily on intellectual challenges, and I realized that describes me to a tee. It sounds like an excuse or a an attempt at diagnosing an imaginary affliction, but I think it’s a useful tool for analyzing myself. If your parents told you all your life that you were stupid, chances are you would start to believe them after a while, and you would relegate yourself to a life of intellectual boredom. So what happens when your parents constantly tell you that you’re smart?

I think you start to believe it in just the same way. You do well in school, because maybe you are smart, until you reach a point where smart doesn’t cut it anymore; now you have to do real work, and you’ve never had to do that before. That’s when the identity crisis hits. You start looking for a way to reconcile the idea that you’re “smart” and the fact that you’re performing poorly in school. “Maybe I’m not cut out for this,” you think to yourself, “maybe I’m in the wrong program,” “I’m not enjoying this, so maybe this isn’t my subject.” When grades don’t agree with your vision of the world, you start comparing yourself to other people, trying to see where you stand on the intellectual spectrum. But it’s all in vein, because intellect doesn’t matter here: work is what matters, and you’ll get nowhere until you realize that.

The trick is to realize that you cannot afford yourself the luxury of being smart. Smart does not exist in this scenario, for all intents and purposes, and the sooner you can force yourself to realize that, the sooner you can start working on the real problem: how to do the work. Pushing “smart” out of your mind will help you succeed.

It took me a few days to stop comparing myself to other people, and to stop thinking about how my performance reflected on my intellect. For a while I was even annoyed with some of my friends who I perceived to be “smarter” than I, because I was the smart kid once. Soon, I realized that they merely have more self-discipline than I do. This problem is by no means fixed, and I’m still getting a feel for how to deal with it. But I am dealing with it.

For those who would like to read more about what I have called the “smart complex,” here is the article: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

Maker Faire Was Awesome (Formerly Untitled, Because I’m Silly)

Update: Yes, I forgot to title this post. I’m silly. It’s been a weird sort of day, please forgive me.

You may have noticed that I missed a blog post yesterday. I can explain… I totally forgot. I managed to do everything else on my list in a timely, orderly, disciplined manner, but the blog post fell off the edge of the Earth. In the end, I decided that it was better to get to sleep on time so I could go running this morning than to stay up and derail my entire week. So that’s what I did.

Yesterday, as planned, I went to Montreal’s very first Mini Maker Faire. It was everything I had expected. I spent nearly three hours wandering around the medium sized tent that had at least six different kinds of 3D printer, ham radio enthusiasts, makers, crafters, hackers, developers, and spectators. The $6 entrance fee seems a measly offering compared to all the awesome I witnessed there, and the best part was that I could stay as long as I wanted, walking around and absorbing it all.

I started reading Make magazine around seven years ago, and I’ve been a subscriber for maybe 5 years. Every year, as I become more and more adventurous, the idea of travelling to one of the great Maker Faires around the world has grown more and more appealing in my mind. One of these days, I’ll certainly go, and I might even go to more than one (especially since New York is only a train ride away.) Even so, it’s wonderful to be able to attend a miniature version of the fabled Maker Faire right here in my own town.

But that’s not the most exhilarating part. For me, the most exciting thing about the mini Maker Faire was seeing all the people who make things in Montreal and the surrounding areas. To find out that all these exciting things are going on around me is inspiring, and makes me want to get making! Before I got to Montreal, I was the only person I knew who had even heard of Make Magazine. I would tell people about it, and how exciting it was, but few people really understood what I was so excited about. At mini Maker Faire, I told people that I had a Cupcake, and they totally knew what I was talking about*!

After about two hours and 30 minutes, when I had seen every booth, and talked to most of the people behind them at length about what they were doing, and how they were doing it, I walked out to see the second level, and reached my saturation point. My brain started turning off; there had been too much to see and experience, and I had taken in about as much of it as I could. It was time to go home.

I wish I had taken pictures, but honestly I was too enthralled by what was going on around me. I’m always afraid of getting distracted by taking too many pictures, and ending up with the tourist’s dilemma of experiencing an exciting event through the lens of a camera. All in all, I would totally do it again tomorrow. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be on the other side of one of those booths.

*It’s a 3D printer made by Makerbot called a Cupcake CNC. Not the dessert.

My Willpower is a Mighty Beast, Hear it Roar

Today is a momentous day. Today is the start of a new era. Today is a day of willpower. This Monday, the twentieth of August, two thousand twelve, I write to you from my couch, having woken up at 7:00 in the morning, which, as many of my readers know, is a big deal for me, because I hate waking up early. But that’s only a fraction of the reason why today is important. In fact, it’s exactly one thirteenth of the reason today is a big deal. Today is a big deal, because I intend to get up this early for the next two weeks. Yeah, I know: CRAZY.

It’s not because of school, or work, or travel, but because I want to. That’s right, for the next two weeks, starting today, I’m going to pry myself out of bed at 7am every morning, peel open my eyelids, scavenge the fridge for some breakfast, and start my day early by choice. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why: discipline.

It has occurred to me that I go way too easy on myself, especially when it comes to things like getting up early, watching TV, or putting off work. I let myself get away with way too much, and I’m going to change that. I read a book recently called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, which explains that (according to some recent psychological research*,) willpower behaves like a muscle, in that it can be depleted by overuse, it can be strengthened, and it is sustained by food. Although the idea of a “Discipline Week,” had occurred to me in the past as a way to boost and hone my willpower, it never occurred to me to think of willpower as a muscle. If you’re curious about the concept, I recommend reading the book; it’s very interesting.

So willpower is like a muscle: what does that have to do with getting up early? Well, getting up early for the two weeks before I start school does three important things for me. First, doing things that test your willpower (like getting up early) on a regular basis, and turning them into habits, is how you strengthen your willpower. Stronger willpower means it’s easier for me to make myself study, which means better grades, and higher satisfaction with my studies. Second, it will help dissolve the stigma that has developed in my mind about getting up early. I waste a lot of time complaining about getting up early, and it’s time I got over it. Getting up early isn’t so bad, and I plan to show that to myself. Just because you wake up early every day doesn’t mean you’ve given yourself over to the soulless, monotonous existence of bad coffee and boring meetings that I seem to associate with early risers. Finally (and more practically,) waking up early gives me more time during the day to get things done. Rather than having loads of free time at night, I can have more free time during the daylight hours when I can go do stuff instead of watching TV.

Getting out of bed at 7am is only part of the plan though. In addition to waking up early, I’ve also set the following goals for myself:

  • Check my blood sugar more regularly
  • Spend more time on projects
  • Run every morning (next week only)
  • Drink tea in the morning instead of coffee**
  • Blog every day
  • Eat more legumes and vegetables, and less white carbs

Wait, what’s that? Blog every day? Damn right. Not only am I going to increase my discipline with a herculean feat of willpower, I’m going to chronicle my journey on my blog. This will likely not continue past the two weeks, but I do hope to blog more regularly during the year. My writing has become rusty, and I can feel it; I need practice.

It’s important that running in the morning starts next week only. Running in the morning will represent a huge change in my daily routine, and I’ve decided to wait to implement that change so I’m straining my willpower gradually. If willpower behaves like a muscle, then an immediate, all-out burst of willpower will likely deplete it, which is not how I want to start the semester.

So that’s the plan, and I’ll keep you up to date every step of the way***. The point of this exercise isn’t that I have weak willpower; in fact, my willpower is quite strong at times. The point is that I want my willpower to be even stronger than it already is. My gusto tends to putter out toward the end of the semester, and I’m sick and tired of it. I’m tired of getting fed up with studying and homework, and I’m finally going to do something about it. This is not an idle cry of frustration as I plunge into the depths of a viscous circle of things gone by, this is an ultimatum: things are going to change. Now.

*Research or not, the point is that the ideas presented in this book make sense.

**I have no problem with coffee, but coffee first thing in the morning tends to make me groggy for the rest of the day. It’s weird, I know, but that’s what happens, so I’m going save coffee consumption for later in the day.

***I promise I’ll blog about interesting things, and not just my attempt at increasing willpower.

Having Faith in Chaos

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. I could say it’s because I’ve been busy, or because I haven’t had much to say lately, but the truth is that I’m burnt out. It’s that time of the semester when doing anything I’m supposed to do takes me at least a week, if I have that long. Around this time of year, I start to feel boring. The overwhelming number of projects that fly around in my head causes the rest of my life to pale in comparison. But I know that as soon as exams are over, and as soon as I can go on a TV, staying up until 4am, and sleeping until 2pm binge, I’ll feel better. To alter a quote fromAndromeda, one of my favorite TV shows of all time: School isn’t the best way to get a degree, it’s just the only way to get a degree.

So let’s talk about the future. I wrote a few other drafts before this one, but this is what’s really going on, and it’s what I really want to talk about.

Whenever it comes up in conversation, I ask other students what they want to do when they graduate. I’ve asked this question to a good-sized handful of people, and the answer is almost invariably “I don’t know.” I may have blogged about this before, but I find it really interesting (and comforting) to know that lots of people are in the same position. Some people tell me that they’re going to graduate school because they need more time to figure out what to do with their lives, and why not study in the meantime? Most people I’ve talked to have a few ideas about what they want to do, but they seem like distant possibilities rather than concrete options. And in many people’s voices, when they tell me about their potential future plans, I hear a bit of reluctance to think about the future. Or maybe I’m just projecting my feelings onto them.

My story is this: I’m a Computer Science major. The career path I want to follow has changed every semester since I’ve been at University, and I imagine it will continue that way until the day I graduate, and possibly afterward. For most of this semester, I wanted to do a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. That could lead me to doing research, or working for a company like Google, IBM, Oracle, or a variety of other tech companies. The problem is that I’m also learning how much I don’t like math. I like math, but I have to be in a math sort of mood to enjoy it. And most of the time, I’m not in a math sort of mood. There’s a lot of math in AI. But there’s also a lot of opportunity for cool applications of AI like robotics and space exploration.

The idea that comforts me at times like this, is that I can always forget my degree and open a restaurant. Or I can work some job that my degree will allow me to get, start writing on the side, and use my degree as a safe transition into the professional writing world. It’s comforting to know that I have the skills to do something completely outside of my current education, and I don’t think I would have that without my theater experience, and without a string of fantastic English profs throughout my schooling.

I’ve also talked to several people who have already graduated. A friend of my parents studied business, and spent years running his family business before deciding to become a reverend. My dad majored in Organic Chemistry, and now he works with financial systems. It seems there are plenty of people who start working in their field, decide it’s not for them, and pursue something else. I suppose the light at the end of tunnel is that you can always change your mind.

When you’re faced with the question of what to do with your life, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that life is a fluid sort of thing. I don’t identify with a particular religion, but I do believe that in some way – whether governed by God or physics – the universe throws things at you that you wouldn’t expect, and that often those things help you get to an even better place than you were before. In AI this would be called hill-climbing with random restarts: you start somewhere, and you try to make the best of your current situation. Soon, your situation will change, and you have to continue trying to make the best of the new situations as they come along. Sometimes you’ll do worse, sometimes you’ll do better, but hopefully the trend is generally upward. It helps to realize that life is always changing, and if you’re unhappy where you are now or where you’re going, something will certainly change soon. As scary as it is, it’s comforting to have faith in something, even if all you have faith in is the constantly changing nature of the universe*.

*In Andromeda this is called Wayism, and I’m sort of disappointed that it’s not a real religion.