Bye, 2016

Welcome back

Well it certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it. My last post was over two years ago, and as you can imagine, a lot has happened since then. Let’s make a small list, in no particular order:

  • Dog (yay!)
  • Motorcycle (huh?)
  • Various and sundry mechanical keyboards (also huh?)
  • House! … rental (oh…)
  • Started learning Irish (you what?)
  • Cured of Diabetes (just kidding)

A few weeks ago, I realized that I missed blogging. It’s not that all that many people read my blog, but I enjoy it. Having a place to show off my various personal projects encourages me to do more of them, and writing about my thoughts encourages me to think more deeply. In short, I’ve decided that blogging is good for me.

They say that it takes an average of six attempts to form a new habit (source: a class that I sat in on in college; totally reliable). And I think this is probably attempt number two, in recent memory. So who knows which side of the bell curve this latest blogging revival is on. But we’re going to give it a go.

The Year in Review

Let’s be real for a second: lots of things about 2016 shat. Yes, the latest trend on Facebook right now is to say, “I’m sick of everyone complaining about 2016. Therefore I refuse to do it, because everyone else is doing it. Harumph!” And, honestly, 2016 wasn’t all that bad. But parts of 2016 were an absolute shit-storm, and I think it’s ok to say it out loud: 2016, we’re disappointed in you. 2017, DO BETTER.

But since this is my blog, and since I call the shots here, let’s have a look at my 2016.

2016 started out with a new place to live. I rented a house for the first time, which, because of the absurdities of the Seattle housing market, ended up being cheaper than the apartment I was previously renting, and comes with more amenities… go figure. Plus, I now have a front lawn and a carport. Sweet.

Oh yeah, it snowed here in 2016 also... what? It doesn't snow in Seattle.

It also snowed here in 2016… what? It doesn’t snow in Seattle.

2016 also ushered in the age of the motorcycle for me. I bought a used, 1978 Yamaha XS650 in late 2015, got my license, and then started to ride early on in the new year. Because Seattle is wonderfully temperate, riding year-round is a possibility, and my first few months of riding occurred during the winter. This made summer riding an absolute treat.

Isn't she beautiful?

Isn’t she beautiful?

Since the bike is 38 years old, it needs a lot of love, but the engine runs great. Most of the work it needs is cosmetic, and I’m having a new seat made for it now. Other things it needs are a new tank and side-covers (or to have them repainted), new rims (I’m thinking mags), and to have the entire engine gunked and cleaned off.

In January, 2016, I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of getting an amateur radio license. For those who don’t know, amateur radio is a hobby that dates back to the early days of radio. Certain radio frequencies are reserved for people with a special civilian license, which allows them to transmit radio signals (most people are only allowed to use walkie-talkies on something called the Family Radio Service band). Radio Amateurs (sometimes called Hams) generally use their radios for hobby purposes like trying for the furthest radio contact they can make, building new radio equipment, or chatting with people all over the world. But they also volunteer as emergency and event coordinators, relaying information to make things run more smoothly.

I haven’t done much with my license yet, but I’m planning to get a nice base-station radio and start messing around with it more at some point this year. If there are any hams reading, my call-sign is KG8QEM.

This year I also delved into the world of mechanical keyboards. Yes, I’m one of those guys who make all manner of annoying clattering noise when I type. Trust me: it’s better. Honestly, I don’t really notice that much of a difference in terms of typing speed or comfort while typing, I just like the way it sounds. There’s something satisfying about the clunk of the keys as you hammer out an e-mail or a line of code. It’s nice. And everyone around me has to deal with it. (Actually, plenty of other people at work had mechanical keyboards before me, so it’s fine.)

Another life-long dream that I’ve fulfilled this year is starting to learn Irish. For those of you who are saying, “You mean English?” or “But, don’t they speak English in Ireland?”, let’s take a moment to talk about Ireland. Ireland has its own language called “Irish Gaelic” or, simply, “Irish”. It’s related to Scottish Gaelic and Breton (spoken by some people in northern France), but it is far different from English. Irish is the official language of Ireland, although most Irish people do speak English primarily. Presumably this has something to do with the fact that the British Empire ruled over Ireland for a long time, just like it did the United States, India, Canada, and a variety of other countries. Like most of those countries, Ireland broke off from the British Empire and formed its own Republic, which happened in 1949.

That’s you Irish history lesson for the day. Irish sounds really cool, and for whatever reason, I’ve wanted to learn it for a long time. So I’m doing that now.

Finally, there’s the Diabetes thing. No, I haven’t been cured. Neither, for that matter, has everyone else. My feelings about diabetes have developed a lot in the past year though, and I’m going to save that discussion or discussions for other blog posts. However, I did ride in the annual Tour de Cure for the second time this year, and I plan to ride again in 2017.

With alien-head deely-boppers... because fundraising.

With alien-head deely-boppers… because fundraising.

That’s it, my 2016 year in review. All said and done, 2016 was a good year for me personally, even though the world as a whole lost a lot. I hope 2017 is better for everyone.

Oh yeah, I also got a fish in 2016. His name is Norbert.

Oh yeah, I also got a fish in 2016. His name is Norbert.

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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.

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.

Fun Slide

Fun Slide

I’m on vacation with my family in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. It was an 18 hour drive, spread out somewhat unevenly over two days; the majority of it on the second day. One thing we learned from the trip was that long drives should be spread out evenly, or at least with the shorter half on the second day. The second day was a marathon 12 hour drive down I-81. We finally arrived at the hotel, exhausted and road weary, and ready for the beach.

Carolina Beach is a fairly commercial area, with lots of shops that sell fishing gear and bait, and even more that sell cheap T-shirts, bathing suits, and beach toys. Boogie boards are ubiquitous at such stores, and I’m sure most families that visit this area with young children end up going home with at least one. The beach is nice, not too crowded, but there are still a lot of people on a sunny day like today.

What grabbed my attention tonight was not the ocean, or the beach, but the small amusement park two lots over from our hotel. It seems to have grown bigger since last year, and has a rocking pirate boat, a spinning wheel with spinning buckets attached, and a two-sided ferris wheel, among other attractions. All of the rides light up in bright colors. Tonight, walking in from the parking lot, I noticed a rather unusual sign on one of the rides. It was about 4 to 6 feet tall, and read – in bright, color-changing LED lights – FUN SLIDE.

I think the sign is hilarious. This is a cheap carnival, and the organizers apparently didn’t care to come up with a more creative name than “fun slide.” Amongst rides at other parks that have names that celebrate how monstrously large they are, or the theme they have been decorated with, this slide merely purports to be fun.

On another level, I like the honesty and straight-forwardness of it.  In a world where everything needs to have a special name to sell – razors with names like quattro, and turbo, and enumerable products called “fusion” – the makers of this slide didn’t feel the need to say anything more than that it is fun. The slide is an advertisement in and of itself, and any kid can see that it’s tall, it’s a slide, and that it’s probably fun to slide down. So nothing more was needed in naming the attraction than to drive that point home: it’s a fun slide.

Have I been down the fun slide? Hell no. For the most part of this vacation, I’ve been in one of three places: the comfortable chair in our room, reading or working on a coding project that needs to be done by the weekend; at the beach, walking or swimming; or in bed sleeping. That’s how I like my vacations: relaxed, and without the need to be busy.

Deschooling

The first few weeks of summer are always a bit of a drag. It’s like diving head first into a cold pool – the shock washes over you as your body acclimates to its new surroundings and temperature, and it takes some time before you feel like you’ve completely normalized. A few days ago I read about a concept called “deschooling.” Deschooling is what happens when home-schoolers* first leave school. They sit around and play video games, get up in the late afternoon, waste time, and do nothing. It happens all the time. After a while, they get into their element, and realize that they want to learn stuff. Then they start learning.

I don’t know any of this from first hand experience, so I can’t really make any claims about the accuracy of how that process happens, or how often it happens. But I do think I deschool every summer. When the rigidity of my class schedule finally gives way, I find myself plummeting into the cold waters of freedom, dazed and confused, and not sure what to do next. I waste time, I sleep late, I watch TV, and – reluctantly – do whatever work I need to get done. Working part time seems to slow the deschooling process, and my assumption is that to properly deschool, one has to engage in sloth as fully as possible before returning to a normal state of being able to get out of bed on time and do things like a normal person.

Deschooling isn’t a fun experience. It’s a time during which I have very little control over my sleep schedule, and I’m usually pretty bored. I spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. But there comes a time, a few weeks down the road, when I realize that I’m being a bum, and that I don’t want to be a bum. I get up, and I go do something.

Yesterday, I checked out a few books from the library and started to read. Today, I’m writing a blog post. Little by little, it seems, I’m returning to normal. My brain is rebooting, and the emptiness where once there was the structure and scheduling of school is being filled with my own schedule and rhythm. The freedom is starting to feel good, and soon I’ll be able to fully enjoy summer.

Looking forward, into the next phase of my life, I’m wondering how this dynamic will affect my work. Work, I expect, will have all the rigidity and structure of school, but without the added commitment of having to work at home. The stress of knowing that there’s always something else I should be doing will hopefully be gone, and maybe I’ll be able to “deschool” a little bit each day when I come home from work. I imagine that I’ll be a bum when I get home for the first few weeks, maybe even months. But as I adapt to my new routine, I’ll slowly return to working on my hobbies and outside interests, seeing friends, and generally having a life. That’s the idea, anyway.

*The more appropriate but also more radical term is unschoolers, which refers to children who don’t follow a prescribed curriculum or take standardized tests, but learn their own material at their own pace.

Changes to the Blog (or Accepting Money from Readers with PayPal)

Today, I think we’ll forego the usual apology about not blogging for a while, and cut straight to the chase: there’s gonna be some changes ’round here. First, you may have noticed the rather snazzy new theme. The old one was too minimalist. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that I’m not a total slob, but I am far from minimalist. This new theme is clean, neat, and fits my style much better. The fonts are pretty sweet too. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Second, a while ago, one lovely commenter suggested I add a donate button to my site. I did a little research, and got scared off by tales of people adding donate buttons to their sites, and having their funds frozen. Granted, PayPal can’t take money away (that is to say, the worst that would happen is I would make no money at all), but words like “freeze” and “bank account” in the same sentence scare me, especially when the sentence in question refers to my “bank account” being “frozen.” So I put the idea on hold. Today, however, I ran across that same comment, and thought to myself, “Let’s monetize!” So I called PayPal, and got the word directly from the horse’s mouth.

No, a personal, not non-profit blogger can not use the PayPal donation button to collect donations on their site. However, rather than accepting “donations,” you can use a “Buy Now” button, which I presume goes through different internal PayPal channels, and which allows you to accept an arbitrary amount of money from arbitrary people without having your bank account arbitrarily suspended. Brilliant! Then you can use the “Donate” button image for your “not donation” button, and away you go!*

So, if you’ve been itching to give me your money, but you’ve been frustrated that you haven’t been able to, now is your chance! That shiny button up at the right hand corner will take you to a page where you can enter your own “Item price” and give me some money. I will be eternally grateful! And I’ll be more likely to blog more often if I’m getting money from it.

On the other hand, if you feel that I’m a sell out, and that I’m being ridiculous asking for money from you in exchange for the meaningless drivel that I post on the Internet for all eyes to see… don’t donate. For one thing, I’m not asking for your money, I’m giving you the opportunity to give me some money to encourage my ramblings if you’d like to. If you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to. I might not love you as much as I do now, but I won’t hate you… not that much, anyway.

As always, you’re encouraged to express your feelings on these changes in the comments. I welcome your feedback; it helps me figure out what you people do and don’t like to read on the Internet.

And, because I don’t say it enough, thanks for reading.

*To be perfectly clear, these are not “Donations,” in the sense that they are not tax deductible, and they do NOT go to a charitable organization. They go to me filling my face with food, paying my bills, and buying an expensive private jet so I can travel to the Bahamas while sipping Champagne and eating fois gras. You are giving me money, you’re not donating it to any particular cause or organization. Just so we’re clear. (And so PayPal doesn’t smite me.)