Friday, April 29, 2011

The difference between what you can do and what you want to do

I know it’s been a while since I last posted. A lot has happened since then. Maybe I’ll give an update about it all at some point … maybe not. I know I was in the middle of a series of posts that were supposed to explain some newfound mindset and framework for thinking and for my life. My friend Jesse, after I explained it all too him over a few pints, suggested I write a book about it. Maybe I’ll do that too. I’ll be done school soon … maybe that will be a new project to take on. How’s this for a title: “The Dehumidifier: How I Went From Loving Star Wars to Star Trek”? Sounds pretty sweet right? Actually, after seeing it written out, I kind of like it. Anywho, today’s post will be something off the topic path I had created in earlier posts.

I am coming to the end of my master’s degree. It looks like July 14th will probably be my defense date. After that day, I’ll probably have to write up a few papers for publication and then I’ll be done with it, at which point I’ll have to move on to something new. This is presenting a problem. I don’t really know what to do. I kind of hate what I’m doing now, and I know that I don’t want to keep doing it but I don’t know what I want to do.

This problem stems from the fact that I’ve been pretty lazy in terms of trying to figure out what I want to do and trying to plan for that eventual future. I kind of assumed I would fall into something that I loved, thereby allowing the fates to decide for me. The problem is, however, that the fates have yet to decide for me. They’re pricks like that … only showing up when it’s convenient for them.

Another problem is that up until this point, I’d failed to make the distinction between what I can do and what I want to do. When I was in undergrad and when I was deciding on a master’s program, I never asked myself if what I was doing was what I really wanted to do. It was stuff that I knew I could do, and so I did it, assuming that being able to do it would also translate into liking it. For example, my master’s is on death feigning in flour beetles, and for my project I had to do a lot of poking beetles with forceps to get them to play dead. When I took the project on, I thought that death feigning sounded cool and that I would be able to tap beetles, therefore, this was a project I would enjoy. I was wrong. I’m not saying it was necessarily the wrong decision … I did learn quite a bit, and it did spark this revelation, which could be really helpful in the future. It was probably just a bad decision (is there a difference between the two?).

A third problem is that I have a very superficial idea of what it involves and what you can expect to get out of other jobs. For example, I talk a lot about maybe wanting to do something involving outer space. The problem is that when I envision working on space projects, it usually involves fantasies of lasers and super artificial intelligence and cool machines (that I just know how to use because I do) and montage scenes if building stuff… kind of a cross between Iron Man and From the Earth to the Moon. I usually don’t take into account all the struggles and boredom and failed experiments and failures to get funding and having to compete with other people from jobs and the fact that the space budgets are super small compared to what needs to be done. Nor do I take into account the education required to work in the industry and the fact that I’m not sure if I could handle the math and physics required for an engineering degree, let alone if I could even handle doing another undergrad degree.

Furthermore, I tend to have so many ideas and be superficially interested in so many things, that it would be impossible to try every job that I might be interested in or work on every project I come up with. It requires some decisive action and intense research … two things that I am either not ready to do or not currently able to do. So, as the clock ticks down, I’m excited to be finishing my master’s, if for no other reason than I’m tired of doing it. As to what awaits after, who knows. It’ll be a laugh finding out though.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Intermission 1 - Sometimes we all need a little Stairway

(I'm using intermission posts to discuss things that I don't want to wait to post and that don't necessarily fit in my current series of posts.)

I started this post several months ago and I’m finishing it now because I feel that it’s time. I’ve been going through my old music on my computer, playing song after song, trying to rid old demons from my bones, and I’m left awestruck at all the memories that come flooding back.

I used to live in Chatham-Kent, which is only about an hour and a half from Detroit. As a result, I was able to get some of the best radio stations you could ask for, and with my little trusty alarm clock (which I still have ... thing must be like 22 years old) I would often stay up quite late on non-school nights and just listen to whatever I could pick up. Mainly it was classic rock but I also tried to incorporate a little oldies, with splashes of motown. It was amazing. It was just me and an endless stream of some of the greatest songs of all time.

See, for me, music has always been a powerful force in my life. Growing up, I spent good chunks of time by myself, and music was something I gravitated too with natural ease. Beyond simply being a form of entertainment, it became an outlet for my feelings, blending in seamlessly with the events of my life. It was a sage teacher, offering advice and providing words to the feelings I had but could not communicate. Furthermore, it never failed to elicit some of the strongest emotional reactions from me that I’ve ever really felt. Whether some of those now are simply nostalgic remnants of the past, I’m not sure. But here’s a little trip down memory lane.

- Whenever I hear More Than a Feeling by Boston, I still think of a girl who I had the biggest crush on back in early high school.
- I used lyrics from NIB by Black Sabbath in a letter to another girl who I liked for several years
- Cat Scratch Fever by Ted Nugent was a staple song before every swim race
- God Only Knows by The Beach Boys, Doctor My Eyes by Jackson Browne and Learning to Fly still make my eyes water because they are such beautiful songs
- Eruption by Van Halen and Riff Raff by AC/DC still sends shivers up and down my body
- Baba O’Riley by The Who being called Teenage Wasteland still pisses me off and The Seekerby The Who still amazes me at not being a more popular song
- Anything by The Stooges or The Velvet Underground still reminds me of being in high school, dreaming of getting out someday and moving on to greater things
- Anything by Led Zeppelin still makes me feel happy, while Achilles Last Stand reminds me of a girlfriend in undergrad

When I initially started this post, I’d spent the night catching up with my friend Ali, who was in Ottawa visiting. We’d parted ways for the night and I was waiting to catch the bus. Now, if you know anything about me, you’ll know that I detest waiting for the bus, preferring to walk when it’s convenient. I reached into my pocket and found my 80GB iPod, fully charged before I left. So I did what seemed the best thing to do ... I started walking, under a bright moon, along an open canal. As I walked, I drifted between Jimi Hendrix to Alice Cooper, from Alice Cooper to KISS, and settling from KISS on Led Zeppelin. And I found my way to a live version of Stairway to Heaven. And I listened. And I felt good. See, it had been a rough few months, and for some reason, the Stairway made me feel better. It reminded me of my past. It reminded me of better times and the fact that good times would be coming again. It reminded me that, wherever I go and whatever I face, I’ll always have the music as a constant in my life. And I walked on, thinking of all the people getting out of clubs, where they’d spent hours listening to incomprehensible remixs of old classics and the latest pop tunes. Music that lacked the soul and passion and feeling of the old stuff. And I felt all the better, like I’d rediscovered a great treasure that I had lost, and that it was all mine for as long as I wanted. And the demons of that time were bested and quieted. And I was reminded that sometimes we all need a little Stairway, if for no other reason then to help us keep on keepin’ on.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Part 2 - But that's the way it's always been done!

The dehumidifier created a new world. Or, more accurately, it allowed me to see a new world. It broke the traditional world that I had always lived in and showed me a world of unlimited potential. And that’s the enemy isn’t it? Tradition.

See, here’s the problem. You start life out, and if you have decent at all parents, they’ll probably tell you that you can do anything and that the sky’s the limit, and so on. And that’s half true. The sky is the limit and the world presents a nearly unlimited potential to do things, given certain circumstances. Now, I understand that not everyone can do everything and that people are limited by various factors but I appreciate the enthusiasm and optimism. I just wish that people actually believed it and that it just wasn’t some clich├ęd bullshit that parents feel they need to feed their children. Because a lot of parents are dishonest about it. They usually have an ideal of what they want their kids to achieve and how they’ll measure the success of their children. For example, if your big goal in life is to work at a 7-11 or become a manager at McDonald’s, most parents won’t be super supportive of that. Hell, most of society won’t be super supportive of that. Because that’s not the proper goal is it? That is not the norm of what people want, so to want it draws scorn from those around you. I have experienced this, and I know lots of friends who have as well. You’re living your life, and you go visit the folks, and at some point they casually bring up something in your life that needs changing. “How’s that girlfriend of yours? Gonna get married soon?”, “How’s that job of yours? You know, you should go back to school and get a business degree.”,” How’s school going? When are you going to get out there and get real job?”

And it’s not just the parents. It’s a lot of people. Huge swaths of our society cling to these ancient traditions of what a life is meant to be and how it should be done. Beliefs are passed on from one generation to the next and they’re taken without any question. I’ll cover a few examples that have really impacted me in future posts. While I understand that these beliefs make life a bit easier and provide a template for living, I see that they can also make life so much duller and tedious, at least, if you don’t think about them. Traditions are a fine thing, and traditional views are cool, if you really think about them and decide that they are what you want. But to wander along without ever questioning what’s possible and the potential for what life could be is to doom yourself to a lesser existence that you can’t really say you chose. Or maybe you did and the lack of choice is a choice. But what do I know? All I can really say is that, at the end of the day, I feel it’s better to have done it my way and attempted to recognize and achieve my full potential, then to be a cog in a machine, punching my card and waiting to die. And I don’t want that last bit to be seen as some type of jab at time card/ blue collar jobs because it shouldn’t be. Those jobs are necessary and totally cool. Being a CEO of a multimillion dollar company when you hate it and would rather be swinging a hammer is a let down in my opinion. But that’s just me. And as always, what do I know?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Part 1 - The Beauty of Machines

(A brief note: I am going to try and explain things. This will take several posts and a whole bunch of time. Feel free to ask questions and post comments as we go. Thank you.)

This all began with a dehumidifier. It’s important that you know that. I probably wouldn’t be who I am now if it weren’t for that dehumidifier. I recognize that you may not have any idea what I’m talking about, but I hope to change that. I’m going to do my very best to explain the changes that have come over me in the last several months because they are important. They represent one of those major shifts in thoughts and beliefs, which take one person and leave another. But … let’s start with the dehumidifier.

It was a random summer day that held no significant promise of anything eventful or important. So, naturally, it was the ideal day for insight. I was in my basement room in Ottawa, lying in bed, thinking random thoughts. But I couldn’t think straight. The dehumidifier was too loud. So I got up, moved over to the dehumidifier, bent down, and picked up the bucket of water that was almost overflowing. Then it hit me:

The dehumidifier is taking water out of the air.
It just filled up this bucket with water.
That is awesome.
That is really awesome.
That is fucking amazing.

And so I turned away and took the bucket and started up the stairs to the kitchen to empty it out. And the whole way up, all I could think about was how amazing the dehumidifier is. I mean, it takes water out of the air. How does it do that? What magic does it use? What gods possess it? I mean, it seems so simple and so ordinary and mundane. But when you really think about it, it’s so awesome. And then it hit me. Machines are beautiful and amazing and wonderful.

Now, I want to make it clear. I never had any interest in machines growing up. Cars bored the hell out of me. I was too frightened to really try and fix the computer. The thought of trying to understand machines seemed complex and time consuming … time that could be much better spent watching television or video games. But here I was, standing in a kitchen, emptying a bucket of water, ready to race out of the house and climb the tallest mountain to shout the praises of machines. It was an interesting moment.

In that moment though, I saw it all. I saw the beauty of machines. I saw beyond the simple exteriors and apparently mundane tasks. I saw the logic behind them. I saw the order to them. Most importantly, I saw the triumph of humanity. For that is what machines are. They represent logic and reason. They represent creativity and a driven curiosity to understand and to change our world to what we can imagine. They represent hard work, passion and vision. They represent the greatest parts of humanity.

After the dehumidifier, things were different. It started slowly. For a while all I could think about was the dehumidifier. But slowly, the floodgates opened, and everything started to take on a new significance. The best way I can describe it is: imagine if you were a small child again, and you were seeing everything for the first time but you were able to appreciate its importance and achievement. It was like looking at the world through new eyes. Naturally, this new found attitude extended itself beyond machines and began to spill over into all aspects of life. And it raised questions. And it raised more questions. And the sacred traditions and beliefs that had chained me for so long began to break apart and unravel. But that is still to come. For now though, I would like to finish with this:

Machines are beautiful. They represent so much creativity and knowledge, and to try and understand them is to try and embrace the greatest elements of humanity. But, the most important thing is this: machines represent unlimited possibilities. They represent freedom; the freedom to think and create and solve; the freedom to shape your world into what you want it to be. And it was a dehumidifier that woke me up to the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

You're a rainbow in the dark

I know I haven't updated this in a while, and I am sorry. I've been busy for a bit and just haven't been in the right frame of mind. I've been cooking something up though. Thinking about some stuff that I will write down, hopefully sooner rather than later. At the moment, however, I just wanted to write a quick post before I have to get back to math camp shenanigans!

Ronnie James Dio has died. The beloved metal god who brought a generation the devil horns is no more. I don't really know what to say. I mean ... he was Dio. Only the coolest of people can be commonly referred to by their last name. In an age of 70's love ballads and disco, of new wave and grunge, of pop punk and boy bands, Dio never changed. He was that rock that remained strong against the battering waters of time. Whenever life got complicated and things just weren't going right, I could turn to Dio, and see a man who was at once so ridicuolous while also being one of the coolest of men. His music inspired me ... to do what I'm not entirely sure. But I was always better after I listened to Rainbow in the Dark or Holy Diver.

Ronnie James Dio ... you were a champion among men. May you find peace and rest in a metal bar in Valhalla! And may the halls of Valhalla never again be without your thunderous voice. We here will continue on without you and will always remember you and what you did for us. And perhaps your legacy will inspire a new generation to seek out rock godery!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Berkeley and Galactica

In the past, I’ve talked about different relationships in this blog. I’ve discussed friendships and beyond. One area that I haven’t really covered are the relationships that we have with inanimate objects, the same inanimate objects that we deal with everyday. Now I’ve been meaning for some time to write a post on machines and technology, and the growing sense of beauty that I find in them. And I will do this at some point. But for now, I want to talk about two different objects in my life, that I have depended on for so long, and that have been quite loyal, if loyal can be applied to an inanimate object. They are Berkeley and Galactica.

Berkeley is my school bag. It is made by a company called Jack Wolfskin, which used to be in Canada, but has, since my purchase, left North America and isolated itself in Europe and Asia. I’m not sure why they did, and it’s a pain that you can’t get their stuff shipped to Canada. But that’s not really relevant. Berkeley is a black school bag that has two large back pockets, and two small front pockets. It has a paw print on the front of the bag, along with the name Berkeley (as is the custom for Jack Wolfskin, to name their bags). I’ve had Berkeley since I was in grade 7 or 8. It has been with me through four separate levels of education (Elementary school, High school, Undergraduate, Masters), and I hope it will be there for many years to come. I love this bag. With the exception of a broken zipper, that I just got fixed at a tailor’s shop, this bag has been perfect. It has met every need that could possibly be expected from a bag, and has stood up to some many different forms of punishment. It was, at one point, run over by a car. Sure, it has a few tears, and one of the pockets has a hole in it, so that stuff put in one will sometime flow to the other. It’s traveled with me all over the world, and has seen me through the good times and the bad. Now you may question the value of a bag in a person’s life but, let me tell you, when the shit is hitting the fan and life generally sucks, it’s nice to have a reliable bag that you can put your stuff in to. I was faced with a dilemma with the broken zipper: do I fix it or get a new bag? I thought it over for a while and looked at different methods to get a new Berkeley shipped from Europe. In the end though, I decided to see if it was possible to get fixed. I brought it in to the tailor and asked if they could fix the zipper. She looked the bag over, and said that she could but that it might be a better idea to just get a new bag, as Berkeley had some tears and was getting on in years. I decided to stick with Berkeley though, because at the end of the day, you have to reward quality and loyalty in kind. I intend to keep using Berkeley until he’s nothing but a pile of fabric.

Galactica is my 7 year old HP Pavilion a220n computer. I got her when I first started school out at SFU. She was the first thing I picked up in BC. She was identical to the computer my dad had bought a few months prior, and I knew that she would be a good machine. What I didn’t realize when I got Galactica, was what I would learn from her. Now before I continue, I have to quickly discuss the name. I named her Galactica shortly after I first started watching the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series. My roommate at the time got a new computer, and I was running a much older and slower model, so I named mine Galactica and he named his Pegasus (after the last two remaining battlestars in the fleet). The names became more appropriate in time, as my roommates computer eventually broke and had a series of problems, while Galactica, the ever faithful machine that she is, kept on running. Galactica has been a fairly faithful machine, in that she usually doesn’t break too much, and when she does, she gives me signs on how to fix her. For example, the other day, she wouldn’t start up properly. She was turning on, and fans were running, but the display wouldn’t work and she wouldn’t boot up. So I sat there and fiddled around with it, and after a while, I noticed a slight beeping sound. It was very faint, and took some quiet and patient sitting to pick up. Looking it up online, I found that the cause was a loose stick of ram, which I checked and fixed, and she started up like new. With Galactica, I’ve learned essentially all the computer repair and mechanical skills that I know. I’ve taker her apart so many times, and fiddled with everything from graphics cards and ram to replacing the power supply and adding in a new hard drive. I’ve fiddled with software, hardware, viruses, etc. From Galactica, I’ve gained the beginnings of an appreciation and understanding for machines and what they do, as well as a desire to learn more about them. I’ve also developed that overprotectiveness that comes to mechanics when dealing with their machines. I don’t intend on ever bringing Galactica into a repair shop again (once there was a corrupt file when I was much younger and naive, so I took her to staples where they fixed her ... not doing that again). I don’t intend on letting anyone else try and fix her either. She’s mine. And she’s unique. I know that sounds a little weird perhaps but she is. Like I said before, my dad has the same computer, and I use whenever I go home, and it’s different. True, I’ve upgraded Galactica and added new stuff in. But it was never the same as Galactica. It’s hard to explain but it always seemed slightly cold and foreign. I always knew, when I used it, that it wasn’t my computer. It’s kind of a hard feeling to capture, but Galactica has her own personality, that I am in sync with. I can tell when she’s changing, getting slower or louder. I can tell when something isn’t right. I’m also more content to use her than any other computer. The best comparison I can make is that me and Galactica are like Kaylee and Serenity from the show Firefly. I just feel a connection with her. It’s strange I know. But it’s been a fruitful and agreeable relationship .

This is probably the first post I’ve ever written using Galactica. As I’ve written, I’ve been sitting two feet away from a freshly repaired Berkeley. And it makes me happy, to have this newly found and growing gratitude for these objects. In a time when it’s so easy to just toss out a bag or computer and get a newer sleeker one, it’s nice to have ones that last, at least for a while. Ones that can stand with you through the ever changing world, providing some small amount of stability, comfort and dependability.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A graduate student's apology

I am a graduate student. I am doing a masters degree. I have ambitions to continue on and get a PhD, and the potentially do a post-doc, and hopefully, if I can find the right skills along the way, become a professor of biology. I have chosen this road, knowing very well that it will be hard, and not terribly glamorous. I chose this road because it is my dream. It is the one constant thing that I have wanted to do since I was a youngster. I recognize that I may not drastically change the world, or save a life, or be recognized as meaningful and important by the masses of humanity. But you know what? I don’t care. If I can find out one new thing about nature or life or anything, then my life will have been worth it. I’ll have been truly creative, and will have stood alone in knowing something that no one else has ever known, if only for a brief moment. So to all you condescending, asshole, pricks out there, who feel the need to lecture me and advise me on my future and how I should make something out of myself and get a job ... go fuck yourselves!

Seriously, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of people asking me when I’m going to get a real job, or when am I ever going to be done school. I’m tired of people patting me on the back for all my progress with one hand, and wagging there finger at me because I don’t have a firmly thought out career path. I’m also tired of those graduate students who bitch about grad school because its hard and boring and they don’t have a good supervisor and how they should have just gone and got a job. Seriously, why are there so many haters out there?

I make approximately $13000 a year being in grad school, which I think means I qualify as poor. But I couldn’t be happier. If money wasn’t an option, I would be doing exactly what I’m doing now (with maybe a few more trips to warm places ... winter is a bitch). I love what I am doing. I love the freedom of research, and the excitement of discovery. I love learning about how everything works, and how things have evolved over time. I love being a grad student, and I love research and science. And I shouldn’t have to defend myself, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for what I am doing, and I shouldn’t be made to feel inferior or like a failure because of it. I have a chosen to go after my dreams and live the best life I can think of, and shame on anyone who tries to ruin that. Yeah, maybe I don’t make a lot of money. And maybe my job isn’t easily associated with glamor and respectability like some other jobs. But you know what? I love it. I love every day of it. And I will not apologize for that!

(P.S. I think I’m going to get away from using the song titles as titles for the posts. Maybe not for all the posts but at least for some.)