The Importance of Being a Douchebag

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

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

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

George

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

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

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

Hating Yourself

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

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

Balance and Conclusion

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

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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.

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.

Discipline Week Update: Day Five

Today is the fifth day of Discipline Week, and I’m pleased to say that it’s going well. But it’s time to up the ante. Time to raise the bar. To kick it into gear. The discipline has just begun.

The Past

But before we up the ante, let’s talk about what I’ve learned so far from this week. I think I expected the burst of willpower it takes to get out of bed at 7am to feel good somehow. I expected that I would feel like it was good for me, and just do it. Clearly, that’s not what happens at 7am. What happens at 7am? Reddit*. For half an hour, and if I’m honest, sometimes 45 minutes. The point is, it doesn’t feel good to wake up at 7am, and it won’t ever feel good – at least not for a long time – to get up at 7am. Exerting your willpower, forcing yourself to do something that you know you need to do, but really don’t want to do in the moment, is no fun. But my aim is to get used to it.

Blood sugar checks haven’t been happening as frequently as I’d planned, and next week I want to address that. More regular blood sugar checks give me more useful information about my blood sugar, so that I can adjust my basal rates (the amount of insulin I get per hour) accordingly. At the moment, I check fairly regularly in the morning and at night, but during the day my blood sugar checks are sporadic. Hopefully logging my blood sugars will help me check at the right times.

While doing dishes yesterday, an idea occurred to me that I’ll probably expand on in a future blog post. To explain this idea, let me define something I’ll call “frames of awareness.” The way you see yourself right now – the way you feel about yourself, the world, what you’re planning to do later, what you feel like doing now, all of it – is one frame of awareness. The way you will be tomorrow is another frame of awareness. They might have things in common, but in some sense you’ll be different tomorrow than you are today. You could think of these frames of awareness as frames in a film strip that make up your whole life. Now let’s define a special frame of awareness: the now frame. The now frame is you as you are now. Sometimes, the now frame can be selfish. Even though it knows the other frames will suffer because it decides not to do the dishes, not to study, or not to eat well, sometimes the now frame just doesn’t care. The now frame can be like a spoiled child: it wants what it wants, and it wants it now. So you have to teach the now frame – just like a spoiled child – that it can’t always have what it wants now. It has to share with the other frames. How do we do that? Willpower!

Maybe that’s all just a sack of crap, but it seems like an interesting model for explaining procrastination. I’ll ponder some more and probably blog about it later.

The Future

Let’s talk about this weekend, and next week. This weekend is MAKER FAIRE MONTREAL. I have wanted to go to Maker Faire ever since I learned about it, and I am SO STOKED for this one. I’m planning to go both days. So that’s what will be happening this weekend. You can expect at least one huge blog post about that.

According to my original Discipline Week plan, weekends should be largely devoted to doing new and interesting things. I’m always frustrated by how infrequently I work on my various projects, and I plan to change that. Even into the school year, I want at least some part of my weekends to be about projects. So when I’m not frolicking around at Maker Faire, I’ll be working on one of the several projects that I’ve started. And of course, I’ll be blogging.

8am is when I’ll wake up, and there is no running on the weekends.

Next week, however, is when things really get started. I’ll wake up at 7am, eat a light breakfast, read for half an hour, go running, take a shower, and start work. Every morning. Rain or shine. I also want to establish a more rigid daily routine, particularly at night. I want to do the dishes every night before I go to sleep, record my blood sugars, and maybe do some writing. What exactly my nightly routine will be, I’m not sure. I’ll think about it this weekend, and probably post it later.
Writing this blog post, I feel like I’m making campaign promises. Maybe it’s because of the upcoming election, or maybe it’s because I’m afraid I won’t stick to all the things I’m committing myself to doing. But I’ve done everything I’ve intended to so far, so my track record is good. I’ve made it through the first week; now let’s see about the second.

Note: I wrote this post this morning, but forgot to post it until now. So I failed at one of my objectives, but I think I achieved the gist of it. Am I making excuses?

*I like to start my day with a healthy dose of r/funny.

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.

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.