x Things That ______ People Do Every Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enough With the God Bashing

It’s time we had a talk about religion, Internet. It seems that there are some misguided people who, flying under the flag of atheism, have taken it upon themselves to fight theists as though they were a plague. I know it’s a touchy subject, but I think it’s time people realized that attacking people for their religious beliefs is no more justified than attacking people for their sexuality or skin color.

To be clear, the only side I’m going to take in this blog post is not being a dick. My own religious beliefs are not in question here, and in fact, I’m not even sure what my own religious beliefs are. So before you yell at me for being a theist, or for being an atheist, let’s get this straight: I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t persecute or harass other people for their beliefs.

Argument number one is the easier to digest of the two. We’re small beings, living on a small planet, on the edge of a small galaxy, somewhere in a huge freaking universe. This makes people feel small and lonely. If some people are comforted by the idea that there is a greater purpose to all this emptiness, then who are you to screw with that? I agree than some religious people are zealots and fanatics who support horrible things, but those people do not represent all religious people. By classifying ALL religious people with the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church, you might as well make similar generalizations about black people or gay people, and we all know how that ends: bigotry.

Speaking of bigotry, a bigot is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary, as “A person who is prejudiced in their views and intolerant of the opinions of others.” So yes, if you attack people for believing in a God or Gods, then you are a bigot. Welcome to the club. Other members include the Nazis, the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church, the old American South, opponents of Gay Marriage, and many other perpetrators of nastiness throughout history and the present day. Attacking people for believing in God doesn’t make you a hero, it turns you into exactly the sort of person you hate: a bigot.

Finally, let’s say that the atheists are right. There is no afterlife, and we’re all just going to die and rot and eventually be vaporized when the sun burns out. Congratulations, atheists, you were righ – OH THAT’S RIGHT YOU’RE DEAD AND GONE SO NO ONE CARES. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who’s right. (To be fair, I’m also unaware of any religions that will exclude all their members from the afterlife because of the existence of non-believers.)

The spark that ignited this rather frustrated blog post, was a Jezebel article whose message is essentially, “I’m ok with theists who stay out of my business. But wow, look at all these idiots who believe in God!” Anyone who has spent time on Reddit, and who has encountered r/atheism, knows exactly how much theism-bashing goes on online these days, and it’s really disheartening. You’re not helping, people, you’re just proving that people can be bigoted for reasons other than the fact that they are religious.

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.

Summer Recovery

I have a theory about summer. First, it’s important to relax during summer so that when school again you don’t burn out in the first week. That doesn’t necessarily mean not working, but it means doing a job you enjoy, if you can, and taking plenty of time for yourself. Second, to relax, you have to procrastinate to the extreme, and you have to forgive yourself for it. For me, the second part is less of a choice and more of an inevitability; my urge to procrastinate increases by 100 fold while my work ethic for things I don’t necessarily have to do decreases by about as much. I know that I’m adequately relaxing when I forget what day of the week it is.

This leads to a few rather tumultuous weeks of staying up until 3 or 4 am, starting a ton of projects and finishing only one or two, forgetting to post on my blog… that sort of thing. I’m usually quite a tired, sleep-deprived mess for the first few weeks of the summer, and I don’t really go out of the house during those few weeks of detox unless I have to.

A funny thing happens after a while though. Not all at once, but in bursts, I start accomplishing things that I’m supposed to do. It starts with cleaning my room, and usually progresses to either filing papers or cleaning my fish tank. After a few bursts of this, I’ve usually got my life in fairly good order, and when I start to get tired of organizing, the joy of how freaking clean my room is usually inspires me to keep going. It usually takes until the end of the summer, cleaning on and off as I feel like it, for me to get myself in complete order (though every year it seems to happen faster,) but it usually takes one swirling fury of organization before the term starts to get myself in order for doing school work again.

I don’t know if this is a good life practice, or if it’s going to help or hinder me in the long run, but it’s the way I work, and I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter. People seem to think that disorganization is a thing to fight and get rid of; it’s like a tumor that will debilitate you for your whole life if you don’t excise it at a young age. And while I agree that children should be taught how to organize themselves and their things, I don’t believe in the campaign against disorganization that seems to exist today. Disorganization does not create failure or even disorder; some people can work in a very orderly manner even though they have papers and books and pens all over their desks. Sometimes people need to find their own level of organization and live within it.

Remember Kids: Electricity is Dangerous

Here's the camera with case, screen, and most of the buttons removed. The most important tools when taking almost anything apart are screwdrivers and a Swiss Army Knife.

It’s Kite Aerial Photography season, people. Let’s get this ish started. Today I bought a camera, and as soon as I got home, I tore it apart. The goal was simple: get in, solder a few wires, and get out before I screwed things up completely. And that’s exactly what I did… sort of.

Ok, so I didn’t tear it apart; I was actually more careful while taking this camera apart than I’ve ever been while taking anything apart before. After all, digital cameras aren’t cheap, and I’m not about to go out and buy a whole new camera if I wreck this one. Right off the bat I knew that there would be two beasts lurking inside the tiny, unassuming black box I had just brought home: 1) wire tapes, and 2) a very large capacitor. Wire tapes, for those who don’t know, are my arch nemesis when it comes to electronics. They’re little tiny tape-like things inside most popular electronics today, and they have a bunch of tiny wires in them. Tiny wires break. Tiny wires breaking ruins the device they’re in. Tiny wires, breaking, make me angry. The plan was just to be super careful and hopefully not break any wire tapes. The other beastie, the very large capacitor, is something I’ve never had trouble with before, but I’m always leery of just in case. And just so I don’t leave you in suspense: this time, it gave me trouble. The capacitor bit me.

I’ve taken this camera apart about four times so far. Each time I realized that the wire tape that controls the buttons wasn’t plugged in properly, so I had to take it apart and try again. But to test the buttons, you have to turn the camera on, and you have to press the buttons. When pressing the buttons you occasionally take a picture, and when you do that you sometimes trigger the flash. Now let’s dive into a some of electrical fundamentals for a second here (I’ll keep the physics babble to a minimum, I promise.) It takes a lot of power to make the flash in your camera do anything useful. Since many cameras aren’t powered by more than 4 volts or so (that’s not a lot,) there has to be a way to get a ton of power to the flash in a really small amount of time (maybe a few hundred microseconds or so.) This is done with a capacitor, which stores energy over a period of time and then dumps it all out when you tell it to, which is how a tiny digital camera has enough power to drive a bright flash. Now in case you hadn’t guessed: the little metal projections protruding from the bottom of the capacitor are not something you want to touch. In fact, it’s a good idea to avoid these things like the plague. The capacitor in your camera will give you a hefty shock. The one in the back of an old tube TV will either kill you, throw you back a few feet, or both. So from all this build up, you can probably tell what I did…

I touched it. I didn’t mean to, but I did. See, once you use the flash once, the camera charges the capacitor in case you need it again. But if you turn the camera off, there’s no point in discharging the capacitor because you don’t get to reuse that power. Well I forgot this fact, and while tinkering with one of the stupid wire tapes I felt a shock in each of my middle fingers, my muscles jolted, and a voice in the back of my brain said, “YOU IDIOT! You touched the terminals on the capacitor!!!” Before I ever realized what was happening I had thrown down the camera and jumped backward. It hurt. And it scared the crap out of me. Not literally.

Now, an ordinary person would have called it a night, and maybe abandoned the project all together, but I’ve dealt with electricity before, and I know that when handled properly it’s nothing to be afraid of. So I dove back in, being careful this time to only touch the camera with one hand at a time. Little did I know that the capacitor had two other terminals which were fairly close together near where I was holding it; I shocked myself again. There was less juice this time, but it still hurt. Fortunately I didn’t shock myself again.

Until I did, and this time I’m not even sure where it came from, but I decided to just give up and go to sleep. I disconnected the battery after the first shock, and apparently the capacitor had enough power to shock me three separate times and scare me each time. The moral of the story: electricity is dangerous, kids. Don’t be stupid.

Those red, janky looking wires are the leads I attached to the buttons so I can control them by remote. That black piece of tape is apparently intended to keep fools like me from shocking themselves on the test points for the flash.

Update: If you want to work with big capacitors safely, you have to drain them first. To do that, you should measure the voltage between the two terminals with a volt meter, and then calculate the required resistance to drain the capacitor without burning out the resistor. The resistance you need is given by: R=V^2/W where V is the voltage across the terminals of the capacitor, and W is the wattage rating of the resistor. Those tiny brown resistors with the colored bands that most of us hobbyists use are 1/4 Watt resistors. Round up on your resistor value. I usually connect each probe on my multimeter to a lead on the resistor and touch the capacitor terminals with the probes so I can watch the voltage decrease. It will probably take 15 minutes or so.

You could probably just short the two terminals, but this way is much less violent.

PSA: If you are ever going to work with a large capacitor (or any sort of high voltage,) make sure that you only work near it with ONE HAND. If you use both hands, the current will ark from one hand to the other, passing through your heart, and could potentially stop your heart. There has to be a lot of voltage to do that, but it’s not worth the risk.

Gay Gene

A while ago I heard that scientists were trying to find a gene that causes people to be gay. A lot of people are excited about this, because they think that it will somehow legitimize homosexuality. But I have two big problems with the idea. First, a genetic basis for the existence of homosexuality will create the ability to screen for it. Some people will undoubtedly push for homosexuality to be classified as a genetic disorder, while others might want to get their children tested for homosexuality. And what if we find the wrong gene? Kids who are tested for homosexuality (and genetic testing isn’t the high tech, difficult thing it used to be – people will figure out how to do it even if it isn’t mainstream,) there will be a bunch of gay kids who are neglected or even in therapy because they’re “trying to get attention” by “pretending” to be gay. What happens when we develop gene therapy? Fundamentalists will want their children “un-gay-ed,” and some fool is bound to try to provide that service.

Second: the reason for homosexuality isn’t, and never has been the issue. The issue is that people need to keep their noses out of other peoples’ sex. If a guy wants to sleep with another guy, who cares? It’s their choice. As long as they’re two consenting adults, leave them alone: their personal lives don’t affect you. If you think God will send them to hell, tell them and let them make the decision on their own. We shouldn’t care why people are gay; isn’t it enough that they are? The bottom line is that people need to grow up and let other people be happy. And this doesn’t just apply to homosexuality; as I’ve said before, there are ignorant people everywhere, criticizing other people’s behaviors for no reason other than they disagree. I’m guilty of this too: I’ve become involved in many a Linux vs Windows argument. It’s partially because Linux and the Free Software movement are things that I believe in strongly, but my reaction, instead of anger, should be, “Well, if you choose not to use it, that’s your choice. I, on the other hand, like Linux. Don’t attack my Linux and I won’t attack your Windows.”

It’s hard not to react to disagreement with anger, but it’s part of growing up, and I don’t think society will be able to tolerate different people until it grows up enough to learn that different people are just that: different, but still people.

Feeding the Birds

Look at that face. He's saying, "I'm hungry! And all because you giant apes with your superiority complex cut down all my ancestor's trees!"

It Westmount, the city/borough of Montreal in which I live,  it is illegal to feed birds. I’ve heard from several people that it is, in fact, illegal to feed birds in most of Montreal. The argument is usually that birds will become dependent on humans as a food source, and that they won’t be able to find food in their natural habitat. I usually have trouble coming up with a counter argument to these points, but I’ve been thinking about it lately, and here’s my argument: look around you.

Do you see any “natural habitat” for birds anywhere? No. You don’t, because you’re sitting in or near a large human-nest that we call a “building,” most likely located in a city full of these buildings. We destroyed those bird’s natural habitat and built ourselves a habitat instead. How’s that for interfering with their natural feeding habits?

Second, what do you see outside your human-nest/building? Unless you live in a God-forsaken concrete hell, you probably see plants, planted by humans. Who planted them? Well I don’t know who exactly, but you’d better find them and arrest them! They’re feeding the birds! Even now, their evil act of legal defiance is being carried out as birds peck at the seeds of those plants, trying desperately to survive in this concrete and metal landscape we’ve built up around them.

Finally, take a look inside a Walmart, Home Depot, Airport, or any other large structure. On any given day, one of those structures may contain quite a few birds. Know why they’re there? They want to eat all the crap that we leave behind. And they apparently live quite well. Looks like you’d better pull out the handcuffs again, because Walwart’s feeding the birds too.

My point isn’t, “Everyone is feeding the birds and they just don’t know it.” My point is that we’ve already destroyed much of these animal’s natural habitat, which has a much bigger impact than people feeding them bird seed. The damage is already done: birds in the city are already dependent on humans for their survival, because our plants, trash, and bird seed are the only things they have left to eat in what use to be their home. We’ve destroyed their homes, and now it’s our responsibility to try to provide what we’ve taken from them.

And finally, it’s not like we’re going anywhere, are we? Chances are that if there were a huge catastrophe that prevented all humans from ever feeding birds again, there wouldn’t be any birds left to be fed, or humans to want to feed them. And I know that’s not the reason that making birds dependent on us is a bad thing, but as I posited in the last paragraph, they already are.

Note: This is an issue I feel strongly about. If you like my ideas, please share this post and/or leave me a comment. If you don’t like this post, or you disagree with me, please leave a comment telling me why. I don’t bite, I promise.