Friday, August 27, 2010

We're So Close

I wrote this post on MGoBlog last year with nine days to go before the start of the season. It's rough, it's sensationalist, it's 100% hyperbole, but it still applies almost perfectly except for the part about where I'll be watching the game. Obviously I'll be in the student section. This will be my first season of watching the Wolverines AS a Wolverine. Here's hoping that we witness some magic on the field.

I don't know if you've noticed, I know it snuck up on me, but the Michigan football season is only nine days away. Nine days isn't that long, but it depends on how you look at it I suppose. Using simple math, Usain Bolt could run approximately 9,000 kilometers in that amount of time (neglecting fatigue). Maybe ten days is an eternity.

It seems there must be a single word in the English language that completely describes the feeling in my, and every other Michigan fan's gut leading up to this first gameday of the [2010] season, but maybe not. If it does exist, it could be found by way of triangulation from the words anticipation, desperation, and ecstasy. I'm sure Horatio Caine could run that through some sort of futuristic literary tracking system and come up with the term.

This season isn't like the others I've experienced though. While I've been a fan since the first time I watched my normally reserved father scream like a little girl after a touchdown in our basement, dancing as well as any pale skinny dutch man can, it has never meant as much to me as it does this time around. The Wolverine faithful have been forced into the undesirable position of being apologists for a team that most love to hate. There has been conflict. Fans argue with other fans. Boos still echo within the Big House, rattling restlessly among the bleachers. Michigan has been brought to a knee, and now it gazes at us with a proposal.

All that is asked of us is our undying commitment. We are not asked to follow blindly and unquestioningly, but we must be patient.

I haven't decided where I'll be next Saturday yet. If some ticket options pan out I may be sitting on a bleacher seat in the Big House, otherwise I may watch the game with family, or by myself. Wherever I am, I'll be nervous. My knees will bounce, and my teeth will serve as an interim nail-clipper. I'll be silent, mostly. Breaths will be short and seldom, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I will cheer in the same way I have always cheered: without words, except for the occasional "GO GO GO GO GO!" (I'm a Wolverine Shia LeBouf, obviously...) Beyond that, it's all going to be guttural noises signifying disgust and yelps of pleasure, sprinkled with a (hopefully more than) occasional joyful scream.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Each and every week during the season, we collectively remove our hearts and offer them to the team for protection. Occasionally they are dropped and trodden over, but we do not pull them back to ourselves even in the event of cardiac arrest because we know there will always be one play, one moment, one image that will rub the paddles together and scream "CLEAR!" bringing our pulse back in a single adrenaline fueled instant.

So stand by me Michigan fans, and bravely sing The Victors in the face of our adversaries. More importantly, stand by our team, as they attempt to bring back what we have all fallen in love with using only their bare hands and fatigued bodies. Join me as I pound the air with my fist, proclaiming on behalf of these players, the keepers of our dreams, "HAIL! HAIL! To Michigan, the Leaders and the Best."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Syntax

Of course language is not an infallible guide, but it contains, with all its defects, a good deal of stored insight and experience.
--C.S. Lewis, "The Four Loves"

Every time I pick up a book by C.S. Lewis I find myself captivated. The way he seems to pick words solely by intuition is a trait I admire and covet. One of my professors at Calvin, Paulo Ribeiro (who spent the first fifteen minutes of each class period reading or reflecting on C.S. Lewis's writing), once mentioned that according to a colleague or student of Lewis's claimed that even his first drafts were publishable insofar as their lack of errors and elegance of word choice.

As I said, I often find myself jealous of that ability. Every once in a while I will type out a phrase and think, "Hmm, that says exactly what I want it to say, and just how I want it to," but even after many revisions, I rarely end up with prose I'm entirely satisfied with. Reading C.S. Lewis makes me want to try again, though.

I began reading "The Four Loves" tonight, and was struck by the truth and conciseness of many passages. The passage quoted at the start of this post was written in reference to the usage of, not surprisingly, the word "love" in certain circumstances. While it most definitely applies in that specific situation, it also applies in a more general sense as well.

We cannot simply toss words around without considering their history and connotations.

Often people, including myself on countless occasions, claim ignorance or social injustice when defending their word choice, and I'm beginning to realize that those excuses are simply not appropriate. When called out for using a racial slur such as the pervasive "n-word," responding by saying, "If they can use it, why can't I?" is at best ineffective. Using such a retort ignores the fact that this word actually does carry a huge amount of baggage, and should be treated as such.

Needless to say, this is something I need to work on as much as anyone (not that I've been tossing around racial slurs or anything...), and I plan to at least try to be more cognizant of my word choices.

There are about a dozen other short passes in the introduction to "The Four Loves" that caught my attention, and I am sure I will have written about a few of them by the time I finish the book. It is not long, only 100 pages or so, and if the introduction is anything like the rest of the book (or any of Lewis's other works for that matter), I would highly recommend picking it up.

I'm sure I'll have plenty of other topics to write about in the near future as I move to Ann Arbor, start classes, explore the city, and do all the fun stuff that comes along with that. I'm nervous, but I can't wait to get settled and into a groove over there.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Waiting and the Little Things.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
-- Colossions 3:23-24

A couple months ago, my brother gave me a CD with a pretty wide variety of songs on it. It's got everything from Sleigh Bells to Jack Johnson, MGMT to Kings of Leon. I've spent a lot of time listening through it, and I've picked up on a few new favorites of mine. "Roll Away Your Stone" by Mumford & Sons is absolutely fantastic, and there were a few surprises that took a few listens to get used to as well.

One song keeps drawing me in though, and not because I think the music is all that fantastic. It's a great song, but not what I would consider a perfect fit for my tastes. It's the lyrics.



I haven't spent enough time thinking about the lyrics to try to figure out exactly what Colin Hay is trying to get at, what his ultimate meaning is with this song, mainly because I get stuck every time I hear the title.

"I'm waiting for my real life to begin."

That's sad, isn't it? Maybe I just find it sad because of how close to home it hits for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. I don't think that's a bad thing in and of itself, but I tend to forget that, for now at least, I don't live in the future. My life is happening here. Now.

I heard myself say in a conversation today that someone shouldn't worry too much about something that's going to take up a significant amount of time because "it's really just a means to an end." That's wrong though, isn't it? (Coincidentally, that's why I'd rather email than talk on the phone most of the time. So I don't give stupid advice or say something I actually don't think is true. I'm also horribly awkward on the phone. Don't believe me? Call me sometime...) We really have no idea what the end is going to be, so we really should be focusing on what we're actually doing. I've got a lot of "plans" and things on my "to-do list" that may or may not come to fruition, but for that to happen, I need to be doing something about it now. There are certainly things we don't want to do, or jobs we feel like we just need to get done so we can go back to living our lives, but that ignores the fact that those experiences are part of our lives as well.

I'm sure this philosophy should lead to all sorts of changes in how I approach my down-time, mundane tasks at work, and how I plan for the future, but I'll do that on my own time. This is your life, and I'm not going to waste it with that stuff.

Living in the now (Wow. That sounds horribly cliche.) also requires us to focus in a little bit more on the details of life than the big picture. There's a time and a place for both, but I've been trying to recognize the impact of little things more lately. It's astounding sometimes how big that impact can be.

Once again, I'm going to use a work example. Tune out the next paragraph if necessary.

I spend the last week and a half at work debugging some code. It was a strange problem because the code worked perfectly in one situation, but blew up in my face somewhere else. From what I could tell, both situations were identical. I poked and prodded and talked to my boss and made zero progress for a week or so. After getting frustrated to the point where I was ready to go work on something else just to clear my head for a bit, I glanced back through the code and noticed one subtle difference between two lines that should have been the same. One referenced a student ID number, while the other referenced a record ID number. After swapping in the word "record" for the word "student," everything ran beautifully.

Anyone who's done any programming, or even filled out an Excel spreadsheet with a formula or two can attest to the fact that computers are very picky, and don't give a whole lot of grace when you don't give them the correct instructions.

The same is true in a lot of other things, though. One small, absent minded insult can ruin a relationship. One glance from the road to a text message can cause an accident. I see situations like this every day, and even more frequently now that I've begun looking for them. The rubber hits the road when you begin to realize that you control these little things, and can start something pretty impressive just by being conscious of your actions.

And you can only do those little things right now. Wishing you'd done them does no one any good. Planning to do them doesn't count.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Topics and a Wedding.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.
-- Philippians 4:8

Writers block isn't something I've normally run into; there's usually something on my mind that I think is worth jotting down a few words about. Lately, though, I've tried to be a little more selective and consider which thoughts are worth preserving. Most of the time, I "reject" a topic because I just don't have enough to say about it to flesh it out into something worth reading. Every once in a while, I'll get the urge to make a long bulleted list of short thoughts, but it doesn't happen all that often.

Where I'm running into trouble now is just a shortage of topics in general. The list of individual things on my mind is pretty short. I've got work, grad school, Michigan football, whatever the last sermon I heard was about, and music. That's about it. Other things come and go, but never command my attention for long enough to demand transcription from thought to written word.

I have had the opportunity to write a few things lately, though. Scribing long emails is something I greatly enjoy (if you'd ever like one, just ask), and I've written several in the past couple of weeks. I like covering a lot of topics in a short period of time, and trying to make them as fun to read as possible, often with mixed results. I also was asked to write an evaluation letter for a professor. Depending on the professor, that could be a good thing or a bad thing, but in this case it was fantastic. She was one of the best I had during my time at Calvin, and it was fun to go back over in my mind all of the ways that she helped me. It was an English professor, so I had to be very careful that I didn't slather her in compliments while making simple mistakes. (I did notice one blatant error in subject-verb agreement. In my defense, I had it right and Word decided to correct me. I was in a hurry and didn't look it over well enough to catch it before sending the letter. It will haunt me for years, I'm sure.)

(Side note: I'm either stalling at this point--typing until I stumble upon something worth writing about--or I'm teetering on the edge of a ramble. Let's hope it's the former, because the latter would be a waste of everyone's time.)

One thing I can write a little bit about is an experience from this past weekend. I had the honor and privilege of being a part of a close friend's wedding. I've known Chris since we were in early elementary school, maybe longer, and I can't express how awesome it was to see him and his fiancee of five years enter into married life. I couldn't help but think throughout the ceremony and reception how perfect they are for each other, and how incredibly unprepared I would be for that type of commitment at this point.

Chris has never been the kind of guy to get nervous or worked up about anything, and his wedding day was no different. The groomsmen gave him the requisite ribbing about how he "could still get out of it if he wanted" and "Canada is only a few hours away!" He just gently smiled. When asked by the pastor if he was nervous at around 15 minutes before the ceremony, he answered, "Not at all," without a hint that he might be bending the truth even a little bit. Clearly he's done a bit of growing up since the summer during high school when we became movie gluttons and took in 80 or so over the course of a few months.

I said this at the reception, but it bears repeating: I look up to Chris. I pray for only the best for him and his new bride. I hope someday I stumble across a love like the one they've found.

I've got a lot of maturing to do before I'm ready to be in that situation, though. That's a topic for another time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Decisions and the Little Things.

Slight disclaimer: there will be a lengthy portion of this post dedicated to a situation I encountered at work today. It will get semi-technical, and I will not be offended in the least if you skip over it. I'll clearly indicate where it begins and ends to accomodate those who have no interest in my web development exploits.

I've been subjected to a lot of discussion about tradeoffs this summer. Many people around me are making big life decisions, and not many of them have been afforded a clear-cut "correct" choice. Friends are deciding where to live and work, family members are making career decisions, and relationship conundrums are popping up occasionally. Well, that's life I suppose, and at some point we need to get good at buckling down, praying about an issue, laying out the pros and cons, and making an informed decision. It's still possible to choose incorrectly, but most of the time even making an educated guess will help someone avoid royally screwing him or herself.

These types of decisions have always fascinated me, probably because I haven't encountered very many of them (I'm the one who told people in sixth grade I was planning on going to Calvin for a degree in computer engineering, maybe a math minor, and continuing on to Michigan to get my masters degree. For better or worse, I've had things planned out for a while.) and they still retain a bit of their novelty. At some point, I'm sure I'll get sick of them and just hope I can relax and keep doing what I'm doing for a while, but who knows if that will ever happen. Life is fluid, and attempting to keep it static is futile at best, maddening at worst.

I don't have time to dive into how I think people should make life-altering decisions, mostly because I don't really know. What I do want to talk about is something to consider when making little decisions that have seemingly small tradeoffs.

If you have no interest in programming, now is the time to stop reading. I'll let you know when it's safe to rejoin the conversation.

Since I have this little pet fascination with tricky decisions, I find that when I run across miniature examples in my daily life, be it at work or somewhere else, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering them.

My example for today has to do with a grade-entry tool that I put together in the last month or so for the seminary. Previously, when a professor wanted to enter the grades for a class at the end of the semester, he or she was required to log into an outdated system, worm through several layers of worthless clutter, and finally punch in the appropriate grade for each student. Then, IT had the privilege of passing that data through two other systems, making sure that all of the grades came out unchanged, so that students could view their grades online. The tool I put together is simply a website that a professor can go to, click on which class they want to enter grades for, and quickly enter them directly into the system at the last stage of the previous process. It's fast, it's easy, and it removes not only a couple of steps for the professors, but the entire IT process as well.

Cool huh? I had a blast putting that thing together.

Now for the teensy tiny predicament. When putting together the grade entry webpage, I originally used text boxes. If a teacher wanted to give a student a B-, he or she could type "B-" in the textbox. Simple enough. However, my boss wanted to make sure no one entered a "P+" or a "SDFV," so I threw in a little bit of code to validate the entered grade against a set list of possible grades.

Just as I got this working, my boss turns to me and asks, "How hard would it be to use a drop down list instead?" I thought for a few moments, and figured it wouldn't be tough. Sure enough, a little while later, we've got drop down lists (populated with a list of valid grades) that professors can use. There's no longer any possibility that a professor can enter an invalid grade.

Pausing for a moment here, I just want to explain that this example is 100% EXACTLY what gets me excited in a work environment. The back and forth of "How hard would be be to do X?" "I'm not sure, let me find out!" is what intrigues me about user interface design. There are always improvements that can be made, and ironing out those little details can make a huge difference to the end-user. Little frustrations add up to produce a pretty pissed off person, but the tiny victories (such as software performing as expected) can really brighten someone's day.

Anyway.

I "finished" that web page last week at some point, and figured I was all done until my boss turned to me again today and said, "Hmm, it's a little frustrating that if I punch in a 'B' on the keyboard it automatically chooses 'B+' instead." If you've ever used a drop down box to indicate your state or country, you know exactly what he's talking about. Punching in 'M' won't bring you right to Michigan, it'll bring you to the highest selection starting with 'M.' In this case, 'B+' is above 'B' for obvious reasons, so to get to the 'B' you either need to type an extra down-arrow or move your hand to your mouse to choose the correct entry. (Although I'm sure some students would like it if their grades got bumped up accidentally every once in a while.)

That's interesting! There was a tradeoff moving from the text box to the drop down list. We lost the ability for a professor to just type in exactly what he wanted to grade to be and trust that that was what would be entered into the system. Tomorrow I need to try to see if I can code in there a way for the drop down list to go to the 'B' rather than the 'B+' right off the bat, so we'll see how that goes. If I can, I'll have avoided a decision altogether by getting the best of both worlds.

Ok, sorry about that, feel free to start reading again if you haven't already gone back to poring over Facebook photos.

I mentioned it a moment ago, but I'll repeat and expand on it for those just jumping back in. For most people, their mood when they get home from work or go to bed almost never is the result of some gigantic, earth-shattering incident. Rarely do people go to bed happy because they won the lottery or they fell in love that afternoon. Conversely, people usually don't go to bed angry or depressed because someone ran over their dog or they found out they have a terminal disease. On most occasions, it's because their emotional scale that weighs the little victories against the little defeats has tipped in one direction or the other.

I don't have any great advice for making big life decisions that hasn't been said a thousand times already. However, if you happen to be making a (sometimes incredibly minor) decision that someone might have to deal with on a regular basis, try to consider how you can do your part to provide them with a few extra little victories.