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.

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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.

#6party: Evicted

I arrived at McGill today at 8:45am. An art project that I’ll be posting on Tuesday necessitated some early morning photography, and a long walk in the freezing bloody cold from Westmount to McGill. Ironically, while I was defrosting my extremities, settling in at the lab, and getting ready to work, the partiers in the James Administration building were being evicted.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that the occupation of the sixth floor ended this way. Given the chosen location, the McGill administration’s tactlessness, and the attitude of the partiers, this seems to have been inevitable. Two infinitely stubborn groups of people ended up in a sort of “arm wrestling” match, and the stronger arm won.

Given my position on the 6 party over the past few days, I might sound like I’ve changed sides. I haven’t. The truth is that I did, and do support the efforts of the 6 party, and I’m very interested to see how this event affects student life. While I don’t entirely agree with their actions (as I’ve said previously,) I admire their tenacity, their eloquence, and their guts. I also happen to agree with their objectives.

I believe that the 6 party accomplished something even more important than the goals they originally strove for: they got people talking. No matter your position on QPIRG and CKUT, fee opt-outs, student activism, or any of the other issues discussed, the majority of people seem to agree that there is a problem somewhere. Students at McGill are apathetic about their student government. I have to admit that my participation – aside from a lot of talk on the internet – has been minimal, and I think that’s a big problem*. Lack of student involvement is why the administration can simply renew Morton Mendelson’s term, an action that prompted a complaint memo from the presidents of 11 of McGill’s undergraduate societies. Lack of student involvement is the reason most people hadn’t even read the questions on the QPIRG and CKUT referendum (and yes, they were vague, even though that’s no reason for the McGill administration to subvert the students’ democratic process.) Lack of student involvement is why people grow up to be non-voting citizens, who sit idly by while politicians sign into law terrible pieces of legislature all over the world.

It’s time for people to wake the hell up and pay attention. Your studies are important, but so is your involvement in your government, be that student government, local government, provincial, or even federal government. Get involved and pay attention. I know I plan to.

*I don’t mean that to sound like “HEY GUYS I’M SUCH A BIG DEAL! I SHOULD GET INVOLVED MORE!” I meant that I think my level of involvement is probably typical at McGill, and that’s a big problem.

The 6 Party: on Compromise and Peaceful Protest

As much as I want to avoid this becoming a political action blog, I can’t help but write about the “6 Party” that’s going on at McGill right now. If you want background on the story, click here.

Let’s start with the reason they’re protesting. The demands made by the partiers are that 1) the QPIRG and CKUT funding referendum be accepted, and 2) that Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning Morton Mendelson resign. However, this protest, as I’ve stated on Twitter, is a natural result of the complaints of a large group of people being disregarded and marginalized. The McGill Administration’s attitude toward students is one of distance and condescendence: they want to their rules to be accepted without question, and they don’t want to have to get involved with those pesky students, except when it looks good for the university. As an example of this, if you are a student at McGill University, have you ever seen Morton Mendelson? This man is supposed to represent our interests to the administration, and I don’t even know what the man looks like. I could be wrong, but I think I speak for most of the student body when I say that. Students are sick and tired of being treated as “clients,” and of having their role in the community that is our university become less and less important. People are frustrated.

Now, let’s talk about laws. Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, there were laws called the “Jim Crow Laws.” These laws essentially said that white people could do whatever they felt like doing – with impunity – to black people. The Jim Crow Laws continued until many black people and some white people got together and peacefully disobeyed these laws (look up the “Greensboro Lunch Counter Protests” on Wikipedia. Interestingly enough, those protesters were met with a similar style of resistance to the force used against the protesters at the James Building on November 10th, 2011.) Is it legal for students to “occupy” the James administration building? Probably not. But legality is not the point of non-violent protest. The point of non-violent protest is to say, “We have a grievance, and we will not go away until you listen to it.” This is how Ghandi fought British oppression in India, how African Americans fought the Jim Crow Laws and other kinds of oppression in the United States, and how students fought for their rights in Tienanmen square.

What McGill needs to do in this situation is to ignore the protesters. McGill needs to let the protest continue, with the attitude that these are a bunch of radicals who do not represent the views of the public – let the movement die down on its own, or take steps to address the concerns of the students. I am astounded by how badly the McGill administration has reacted to situations that have tested its public image manipulation skills. In this situation, for example, they cut off internet access to the protesting students. Since most students these days have access to data-enabled smart phones, this was an utterly futile attempt to prevent the students from contacting the outside world. In fact, the only thing it did accomplish, is making it look like McGill is trying to hide the fact that the students are unhappy. This image was made even stronger when McGill cut off media access to the campus as well. The goal of non-violent protest, by the way, is to peacefully goad your opponent into tipping their hand and using force to silence you. McGill has tried to forcibly silence the students by cutting off their internet access, cutting off media access to the campus (for a while,) and by physically cutting off their access to food (the building is closed, and a rope that was being used to raise food to the protesters was cut by a security guard; an action that can at best be described as immature.)

McGill has had numerous opportunities to repair its badly damaged image as an institution that does not care about its students or employees, and it has ignored all of them. Instead, it chooses to enforce the attitude that what McGill Administration Says Is Law. Their tactic is to say that the demands are “impossible,” pointe finale, and that the students should really just shut up and go home before the administration has to call their parents. It was this way with the Architecture Cafe, with the MUNACA strike, and with the current situation. In each case the administration has tried to marginalize the demands of the opposing group.

I can’t say I condone the way the 6 party went about their non-violent protest. Their public image isn’t looking great right now either; most major media outlets don’t seem to be taking their complaints seriously because of the “party” nature of the protest. But I certainly support and agree with their concerns.

We – students, faculty, staff, and administrators – are all part of a community. We all contribute to that community, and we all benefit from it. To make this community work, we need to be able to communicate and compromise. And compromise, for those who have forgotten the meaning of the term, means that sometimes you have to do things you don’t like so that in future, others will do something for you in return. We’ll support you, McGill Administration, if you’ll support us. The ball is in your court.

The Tale of the Horrible Desk Mess

It’s amazing how easily our eyes adjust to chaos. Papers, books, a stapler, a roll of film, a ruler – quite a few things you’ve no intention of using – all spread out on your desk, and you don’t notice them. Maybe there’s a voice in the back of your head saying “I really need to clean my desk,” but it’s hard to wake yourself up and see the God-awful, soul-wrenching, vomit-inducing, disgraceful pile of crap that was once a workplace. If you haven’t experienced this feeling personally, take it from me: it’s a very easy trap to fall into.

As you may have guessed, it’s “Clean your desk with the blogosphere” time here at WBg (see what I did there,) which signals the start of a new semester. I’m always – not shocked, but exasperated – by how much of a mess my desk can become in just one half of a semester. In a way, I’m fortunate that I’m sensitive to dust: when I walk into a room and my nose gets stuffy, it’s time to clean. A few days ago, however, I took a good, hard look at my desk and realized what a trash heap it was. If the principle business of life is converting chaos into order, then an alien might have easily concluded that I was long dead. But when you’re in the moment – working on a project, studying for a test, writing a blog post – sometimes you’re so focused on what you’re doing that cleanliness doesn’t even occur to you. The thought that flashes through your brain is “papers in way of computer: move pile of papers.” Which you do. Where do you move them? Irrelevant – doesn’t even come up*. After all, this email you’re writing is taking up 99% of your attention, and in the 1% left over, the best solution you can think of is to move the papers to some indeterminate place.

Of course, this is all a very round-about way of saying that putting things away doesn’t really occur to me when I’m thinking about something else. Maybe some people would call this a “one tracked mind.” I call it concentration. And as long as I can get myself to clean my desk once or twice a semester, I’m fine with it.

* Of course, another way to mitigate this problem is the strategy I’ve suggested before: make it easy for yourself to be organized. If there’s a place for miscellaneous papers right on your desk, then you’ll probably put then there.

Tuition: Why Should We Pay to Fix What Others Broke?

McGill and Concordia students marching toward UQAM to join the protest march.

In Quebec, we have very low University tuition. It costs about $1600 a semester to go to school, which is the lowest tuition price in Canada. The Quebec government, for those who don’t know, has decided to raise tuition fees from about $1600 to $3793 a semester; Quebec would remain the province with the lowest tuition in Canada. What’s the price of the tuition increase? About 30 thousand students who won’t be able to afford a university education.

At 1pm today, I began walking down McGill College avenue with a group of other McGill students protesting the tuition hikes. We shouted, we carried signs, and we took pictures and videos. A police escort led us to Saint Catherine street, where we met up with several hundred Concordia students, and began our march down Ste Catherine street toward the UQAM campus. The protest was mostly organized by the French universities, but the English universities joined in to fight against our common problem: tuition hikes that will make education too expensive for an entire university’s worth of students.

My take on the issue is this: doubling our tuition over the next five years doesn’t seem that drastic in comparison with tuition fees across Canada and in the US. In fact, it seems reasonable during hard economic times, right? But not when you consider the reason the government subsidizes education in the first place: because an educated population creates a better economy. The more available education is, the better the economy will be, because there will be more people innovating, creating better products, solving problems, and pouring money and talent into the community. When you consider that fact, raising tuition prices doesn’t make much sense at all. In fact, it makes more  sense to lower tuition prices even further. We shouldn’t be striving to achieve everyone else’s status quo, we should lead by example and keep our tuition prices low. Daniel Zinian, the president and director general of the Conférence des Recteurs et des Principaux des Universités du Québec, was quoted in the Montreal Gazette as saying: “We believe the people who benefit from universities should contribute to their financing…” I agree! The public benefits from university education because educated people create jobs. Education is the last thing that should suffer during an economic crisis; why does it seem that education is always the first thing to go?

After a brief rally at UQAM, the massive group of between 15 and 30 thousand students, faculty members, parents, and others who were incensed about the issue marched toward Jean Charest’s office to protest in front of it. I left the crowd at about 3:30 for a meeting on McGill campus, and as I left, I watched the seemingly endless mass of people pouring through the city behind me.

When I left the Arts Building to see what was going on – specifically why I heard the sound of a helicopter outside – I was informed that I couldn’t go back into the building, despite the fact that my raincoat and bag were still inside (not to mention that a group of my friends were still there, and had not been informed that the building was closed.) Fortunately I had left my blood glucose meter inside, and the security guard let me back in to get it. Some students had entered the James administration building shortly before, and the campus felt tense. As I left (with my bag and raincoat this time) I saw around twenty riot police marching in formation from one side of the campus to the other, and a group of mounted police blocking the Milton street entrance. Apparently the protest hadn’t become violent except for a few individuals, but there were a few beatings and some people got maced. I’ll keep my opinions to myself and leave it to people who were actually there to comment on whether the police and/or students were acting appropriately.

We’re living in bizarre, exciting, scary times. People are fed up with the state of things, and they aren’t willing to take it much longer. Throughout the strike, a thought was lurking in the back of my mind: the economy is bad for everyone, and this protest was the students refusing to pay for other people’s mistakes. We didn’t create this economic crisis – most of us were in high school when the seeds of the recession began to sprout – so why should we have to pay for the consequences? The simple answer is that we shouldn’t.

Further reading:

McGill Daily: Students Occupying James Administration Assaulted by Security

McGill Daily: McGill Students Violently Forced Off Campus

Montreal Gazette: Thousands of Quebec Students Boycott Classes

McGill and Concordia students marching down Ste Catherine street.

The French and English Universities, gathered together, about to march.

The crowd of people as I left. It continued for blocks and blocks.

On The MUNACA Rally

The rally as seen from the Roddick Gates.

Friday, September 16th, there was a rally for MUNACA outside McGill. The portion of McGill College avenue closest to the university campus was closed off and totally filled with MUNACA members, AMURE members (another McGill union which officially supports MUNACA’s efforts in this negotiation,) students, and other faculty and staff who support the MUNACA strike. The rally was huge and, apparently, wildly successful.

The rally was centered around a podium on the West side of McGill College avenue, where various speakers voiced their support for the rally, including Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair – a McGill graduate. I’m not sure who was actually running the rally, but he played the accordion well and often, leading the crowd in quite a few protest songs (when it rained the other day, I believe the same guy was mouth-trumpeting “Singing in the Rain” over the loud speaker impressively well. It was epic.) I took a few pictures of the rally, which I’ll post below.

This week, apparently, was McGill’s Aboriginal Celebration week. The only aboriginal themed event that I saw happened on Friday, and was poorly advertised, if it was advertised at all. Aboriginal people always seem to get the short end of the stick, which is another infuriating issue all together, but I think it’s unfortunate that MUNACA’s rally upstaged the festivities for the Aboriginal Celebration week day. The only good thing about the unfortunate coincidence of the two events was that the apparent size of the MUNACA rally benefited from juxtaposition with the small celebration.

Since this is my third post on the subject of the strike, I feel I need to explain why I’ve been spending so much time on this issue. First, the Internet is a powerful tool. As I said in my last post, I can’t afford to not cross the picket line. However, I do have a blog that a few people read, so it seems that the best way for me to support the strike is to use my blog to get the word out. After all, that’s the most important part of non-violent protests: showing the world that you’re not being treated properly. Second, I think it’s important to tell McGill University and MUNACA how this is affecting the student population. We students have a fairly unique perspective on the strike, since we sort of straddle the world of the strike and the world on the inside, and I’d like to share that perspective with the world. I’ll get back to doing some more normal posts eventually, but I think it’s important to talk about this issue now.

Update: Thanks to a response to this post, I realized that I may not have made my position on the strike entirely clear. I suppose that’s because I haven’t been able to find much detail on the actual issues being debated, and as a result, I’m not quite sure where I stand on all the issues. However, I do support MUNACA and their strike. From what I’ve read of the main issues, I feel McGill is being unreasonable, and I think MUNACA was completely justified in calling a strike. My intention for this post was to provide a somewhat neutral description of the rally. For further details on how I feel about the strike, please read my most recent post about the strike, and my first post about the strike.

Regarding the Aboriginal Celebration, after thinking about the juxtaposition I mentioned, I think what makes it so fascinating to me is that the two groups were both being neglected by the McGill Administration: The Aboriginal Celebration Week only really lasted a few hours, and McGill won’t agree to a reasonable wage scale for MUNACA. I think it’s unfortunate that a possible opportunity to promote Aboriginal rights may have been lost, but I believe it was just an unfortunate scheduling coincidence. I’m glad that the rally got the turnout it did.

You can see the Aboriginal Celebration in the background of this picture; you can't see that its attendance pales in comparison to the attendance if the MUNACA rally.