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.


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.

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.

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.

Two Full Decades of ME!


11-2-11. I was struck by the symetry of the date when I wrote it in calculus class. Yes, I had calculus class on my birthday. I was inspired to create this somewhat obviously doctored image. If I had the time and inclination I'd try to make it a little less obvious, but I like it the way it is.

Twenty years and two days ago, a child was born. That child, as you may have guessed, was me. A lot has happened in twenty years; four full terms of US presidents have gone by, Windows has barfed up a few more versions, Linux has become stable and usable, Mac has become usable. Web 1.0 grew, fell, and Web 2.0 rose from the ashes, bringing with it Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and cloud computing. I’ve gone from elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and now, finally, to university. I’ve lived in two countries and three cities, and gone to five different schools. There have been quite a few rough spots, and quite a few really amazing spots.

So what am I looking forward to in the next decade? Who knows. Maybe I’ll get a job, move out, and start a new branch of my family. Maybe I’ll get some more fish for my fish tank. Maybe diabetes will be cured in the next ten years. I imagine that by the time I turn thirty there will be a treatment for celiac, and that eating gluten won’t mean feeling guilty afterward; it’ll mean taking a pill 30 minutes before. With practice, I’ll hopefully be pretty good at fiddle, and maybe I’ll even be playing with a band. I might be working in Computer Science, or I might be writing for a living. Whatever I’m doing, I intend to have fun doing it. Maybe these stupid political games the world is playing will be over, and we’ll finally see some peace and progress. I doubt it, but we can only hope.

At any rate, the past two decades have been good decades to grow up in. Standing at 20 and looking all the way out to 30 is a bit like looking up at a tall mountain hundreds of miles away from the summit of a somewhat smaller mountain; I don’t know what the journey will be like, and I don’t know who or what I’ll be when I get there. The only way to find out is to pack up and start hiking.


Image sources:

All images were claimed by Google Image search to be licensed for reuse with modification. If this is incorrect, please contact me and I will remove them.

Visual Effects

I used simple color keying to put this Brownie Target Six-20 camera on the surface of Mars. A bit quick, but realistic from far away, no?

If you saw Tron: Legacy, you were probably blown away, or at least impressed, by the visual effects. If not, then you were probably not looking at the visual effects, but were instead hoping to see a movie with a good story, in which case you missed the point (see the old 1982 film and you’ll understand why it’s not about the story: it never was.) It’s not that the plot and dialog were bad, necessarily, but they weren’t the focus. I saw Tron: Legacy a few days ago… and then again a few days later. I loved it both times, but I find that it has a creepy ability, sort of like Avatar, to suck you into the world of your imagination. After seeing such a brilliant and exciting movie real life seems sort of dull, especially when you’re about to start classes after a two week long winter vacation. When I saw Tron: Legacy, referred to as Tron hereafter because it’s annoying to keep typing Tron: Legacy, I was in the process of watching the original Star Trek series on DVD. Again, one could argue that the point of the original series of Star Trek is not the plot or dialog, but that’s another blog post for another time. What I find interesting in this comparison is the visual effects and our perception of them. Namely: how does our perception of visual effects change as they improve?

If you’ve ever seen the original Star Trek episodes, you know how horribly the effects were. At times you can see the fishing line used to manipulate the plastic model ship, the aliens don’t look at all realistic, and the most futuristic idea of a computer that they could come up with at the time was a box with LED’s and toggle switches that looks about as primitive as the Heathkit EC-1. But at the time, the show stimulated the imaginations of all sorts of people, and inspired at least five subsequent TV series and a number of motion pictures that had significantly larger budgets and better special effects than the original series, the most recent of which was the Star Trek movie that even attracted non-Trekkies (I’m proud to say that I was a Trekkie before it was popular, he says, thumbing his nose.) We’ve come a long way in visual effects since then, and we can now make all sorts of things happen on a movie screen that could never happen in real life. But what will those effects look like in another fifty years? Will my kids see Tron: Legacy and say to me, “Woah, look! You can see the compositing!”

I doubt it, because you really can’t see the compositing! In the scene where Sam Flynn is standing on the Encom tower, it actually looks like he’s standing on the Encom tower and, unlike in the original Tron, you can’t see the edges of the mask or the difference in lighting with an untrained eye (I doubt that you can see the edges of the mask even with a trained eye.) So have we reached a plateau? Have our visual effects become so realistic that film will have to take on another frontier to captivate our imaginations? I think that might be the case.

So what is the next frontier of film? Is it 3D? Is it holography? The purpose of this post is less to suggest where the film industry is going, and more to ask the question. It seems to me that the visual effects we have are already about as realistic as they can get, and the only progress to be made is making them easier to use (e.g. more simple color keying, etc) and more visually appealing (i.e. better color correction.) Maybe there is another sort of visual effect that is much harder to do, but even if there is, won’t we eventually have to explore a new field of visual enhancement?

I’d love to hear what you think about the subject in the comments.

The above image contains an image from NASA, which was found using a Google Image Search for images with a Reuse with Modification License. It was found here: http://mm04.nasaimages.org/MediaManager/srvr?mediafile=/Size4/NVA2-4-NA/8026/mars_surface_vik2_big.jpg&userid=1&username=admin&resolution=4&servertype=JVA&cid=4&iid=NVA2&vcid=NA&usergroup=NASA_Astronomy_Picture_of_the_Day_Collecti-4-Admin&profileid=16

Galactic Roadtrip: Explained

This is one of the most magnificent things I have seen in my life. I want to see more of it.

Several days ago, I wrote a post entitled: Galactic Roadtrip Preparedness List. Without explanation, this post probably seemed a little weird. I believe that weirdness is a good thing – it spices up our lives and prepares us for unexpected encounters in the world – but I think this particular post might need some explanation.

Look at the picture above. It’s called the Hubble Ultra Deep field, and it’s the result of NASA scientists pointing the Hubble space telescope at a seemingly dark patch of sky for a total of 11.3 days. What you’re seeing is a collection of galaxies that are so far away from us that they are hardly visible to the one of the most powerful telescopes ever constructed by man. They are so far away from us that their light took several hundred million years just to reach us – when you look at this image, you are looking back in time.

I don’t know about you, but to me this is one of the most inspiring breathtaking photographs taken by man. When I see it, I want to visit every single galaxy in this image, explore each one fully, and then continue on to the rest of the universe. I believe that exploring that image is more important than the stock market, the economic crisis, businesses big and small, and all of the stupid border disputes everywhere in the world put together. That expanse is so much bigger than we are, and there is so much in it that is so beautiful – how can anyone who sees this image just go back to their little lives and keep doing their little chores? How can anyone see this image and go back to swindling other people out of their money? How can anyone see this image and keep fighting some age-old conflict over who controls some tiny plot of land in the middle of no where? Because after seeing that image, I don’t care which little plot of land it is, or whether it’s in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or North America: it’s tiny, and it’s insignificant compared to the rest of the galaxy, let alone the universe.

At the same time, we are significant. We have culture, society, music, art, love, architecture, and all sorts of other things. We are beautiful, and I personally believe that there are creatures in the universe that are just as beautiful, strange, and incredible as we are. And I want to meet all of them. That’s why I wrote that post. If I had the opportunity to explore the galaxy, I would give all I own to be able to do so, and to record as much of it as I possibly could in the process. My greatest wish is that we will begin to explore our galaxy in my lifetime, and that what we find, and the effort involved in finding it, will unite us all.

Idealistic? Yes. But if everyone is idealistic, then we might fail a lot, but when we do succeed we’ll bound forward.