Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Social Networking

If you've seen the timestamp you can probably guess that there's a greater than fifty percent chance this will deteriorate into mindless ramblings. Diet Dr Pepper was a great choice at the time, but even though I'd love to claim otherwise, it seems caffeine still works as well on me as it always has.

As an aside, I find it amusing that I feel a need to justify and downplay my reasons for posting here. I clearly don't want anyone thinking that I actually enjoy it. Anyway, getting on with it...

With employment looming (just realized I haven't posted since I accepted a job, so if you didn't know, that happened) I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I spend my time, mainly because it will all be changing drastically in the very near future. Some of the things I spend my time on are solid, useful things. Homework. Checking my blood sugar. Eating. Sleeping. All good things. Other activities are productive or meaningful in different ways. Prayer. Spending time with friends. One time-sink that I still haven't quite wrapped my head around though is the internet.

I'd be lying if I said I spent less than six or seven hours a day on the internet. It might be more, I've never really taken the time to document it. Granted, if I'm on my computer, I'm on the internet, and as a computer scientist that happens to be almost all the time. Large chunks of time are spent on homework (well, the chunks SEEM large), but the lions share tends to be spent checking email, facebook, twitter, and any number of other online communities that I'm a part of.

In thinking about how social networking affects my relationships (I typed, then deleted, "real relationships" there, but I'm not entirely sure that there's a distinction... which is sortof my point.) I found myself wondering why it is that people, including myself, spend so much time tending to these digital representations of ourselves. The conclusions I've come to aren't exactly novel, and I'm certainly not the first person to think about this, but it's fascinating to me nonetheless.

First of all, we spend time on social networking because in so many situations, our digital, online presence is the only presence we've got or we can use it to make us seem better than we are. Applying for jobs, schools, or anything else? Better make sure your facebook profile, your linkedin profile, and your twitter feed are in order. Polish your rough edges so you can edge out that guy who has a picture of himself with a beer at a New Year's Day party.We spend time on these things because it's beneficial and profitable for us to do so.

Second, and this might be the biggest reason, we spend time on social networks because we're conceited. You know as well as I do the shot of endorphins that come with that "like" or comment you got on that last status update. I regularly find myself wondering, "How many people read that tweet and found it really deep and impactful."

Social networking strips away all of the interesting things about interaction and replaces them with carbon-copied, pre-defined actions. Like that status? Click "like." Like that tweet? Click "retweet."

The same is true of controlling who sees the things we put online. In the real world, we're careful about who we share things with because there's no other way to do it. You say something, and the people within earshot hear you. They get one chance to hear it because after that the sound waves have dissipated and they're left with silence. Online, the opposite is true. We technically have the ability to control who hears us, but it's complicated and time-consuming (by design, I might add...) to be perfectly efficient communicators online, only saying things to the people we mean to say them to.

Social networking discretizes our actual social lives, not only by literally storing it as zeros and ones on a server farm somewhere in silicon valley, but also by forcing us to enumerate individually who we do and don't want to hear or see what we're sharing.

So what's the solution? I don't know. Besides being terrible, social networking and the internet are awesome. They allow communication over distances that would otherwise be unimaginable. I don't plan to shut off my accounts, but I do plan to try to avoid condensing and simplifying my interactions unnecessarily if I can.

And yes, I fully realize the humor in the fact that in order to share this, I've posted it on facebook and twitter.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lightning Strikes

Well, this semester is approximately 1/3 complete, which is absolutely absurd. The classes I'm currently taking aren't all that interesting to me, but that doesn't mean I'm itching for them to be done. School has been my life for so long, and I've loved every minute of it. (It's possible to love something without liking it all the time...) Time trudges on at an ever increasing pace, and I'm dragged along whether I like it or not.

The biggest sign of this is my job search, and I seem to be making at least a little progress. Next week I'm interviewing at a company in Holland on Monday before flying out that evening to Madison, Wisconsin for an interview at Epic Systems on Tuesday, followed by a technical phone interview with MathWorks (makers of MATLAB) on Wednesday.

The fact that I'm getting interviews at all is a huge blessing, and I couldn't be more thankful for the opportunities, but at this point I'm still feeling a bit apathetic about the whole process. Anyone who knows me well could probably tell you that I prefer long-term decisions are backed by complete confidence. I hesitate to take a first step unless I know what the end result will be. I'm sure that quality has saved me a fair bit of grief over the last twenty-three years, but the great things I'm bound to have missed force me to consider it a character flaw. I want so badly for a job description to send a shiver down my spine; a lightning strike of serendipity and mutual interest to hit me right between the eyes. (If you think you have a job, or know of a job, that might be such a lightning bolt, my contact information and resume are located at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pnbloem/index.html. I look forward to hearing from you.)

It's probably naive of me to expect that, but that's not going to stop me from praying constantly that it happens. That prayer happens to be comically short and repetitive, but I'm holding out hope that it will be answered:
Show me where you want me. Show me what to do.
Let's be honest, decisions about the location and objectives of the coming years of my life will be handled much better by someone with a better big-picture comprehension than me.

So I'm standing on a golf course during a thunder-storm with my five iron in the air. Hit me.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Considering Mortality

Yes, I'm typing this on my MacBook Pro, and I've owned quite a few iPods of different shapes and sizes, but I wouldn't exactly call myself an Apple fanatic. I appreciate good design, take genuine pleasure in things that work incredibly well, and don't have a problem with companies that make said products charging a premium for them. (Side note: If you claim Apple's products are too expensive, you don't understand economics. Once people stop buying them because they cost so much, they've become too expensive. When the company is one of the largest in the world and selling things at the rate Apple is currently, things are priced pretty darn well.)

Steve Jobs was a lot of things. He was the epitome of the American dream, a visionary, and incredibly intelligent. His biggest asset, in my opinion, was breaking through all the crap consumers have expressed as what they "want" and figuring out, time and time again, what they need. His life and accomplishments  are documented thoroughly across the web, so I won't take time to re-hash them. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs) 

One thing has stood out to me throughout the coverage of and conversation over his passing, though, and that's the sentiment that when someone this influential dies relatively young, it forces us to consider our mortality. In fact, Jobs himself touched on this when he said:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
Many people have described how this event is causing them to reevaluate their lives and to take some chances. I'm not convinced.

I agree with everything Jobs said in that quote, and I hope I can take it to heart and act on it, but let's be honest for a moment here and recognize the fact that there just aren't that many people out there that are going to change their day-to-day lives because a person they've never met is now gone. I might have a moment of inspiration, but if I really want to do something great, the motivation for that has to come from within, and I have to do something about it.

This post serves more as a reminder to myself to improve in this area. And if I'm lucky, maybe I'll prove myself wrong about this whole thing and I can thank Steve for forcing me to consider my mortality and its ramifications en route to making the most of myself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No Answers

One of the (numerous and varied) highlights of my week and a half long trip around the west coast at the end of the summer was visiting Mars Hill (the Seattle version) for Church on a Sunday morning. Everything about the service was inspiring and convicting, and I walked away refreshed.

A major reason for this was the worship team, a band called Kenosis. (A big thank-you to Olivia for passing on exactly which praise team was on duty that Sunday.) Frankly, I don't think I've ever heard a praise team as good. Check out that link for several of their songs, they're fantastic, and you get a bit of a feel for what the entire service was like.

All the songs that morning were fantastic, but one stood out to me then and continues to stand out as I continue listening to it. It's not an original song, and if you've grown up in the Church or attended for any significant period of time you've probably heard it. It goes by the name "How Deep the Father's Love For Us," and it's a pretty powerful faith anthem. (I posted it on my Facebook wall, so if you came here from there, go back and give it a listen.) Regardless of my mood or situation, there's always something in it that grabs me, and today it's the following line:
Why should I gain from His reward? I cannot give an answer.
This is a point lost on many, including me, these days. I think if asked most Christians that question, you might get quite a few responses of "I follow the ten commandments," or "I tithe," or "I volunteer." By the same logic, there are numerous responses to the question "Why shouldn't so-and-so gain from His reward?" There are countless people today doing magnificent things for the glory of God, and there are countless people doing atrocious and abhorrent things just to spite Him. What's interesting is that it doesn't matter one tiny bit who's claiming he or she deserves this stunning mercy and grace, the appropriate response is and always will be stunned and utter silence. It's not that our answers just aren't very good, it's that we literally cannot give an answer.

That sucks, but thankfully it's not the end of the story. The fact that we're even trying to answer to the "why" question implies we expect answers to the "who, what, when, and how" questions as well. We don't get all of those answers spelled out as clearly as we might like in this life, but we do know that Christ redeemed us when He sacrificed himself for our wrongdoings.

He's the answer.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Units of Measure

As a fidgety person, I tend to find a lot of little pointless things to do in my head to pass the time. Usually these things happen while I should be concentrating on something else, but that's another matter entirely. One of the things I often find myself doing is unit conversions for one reason or another, and while on the subject today my mind wandered somewhere interesting. 

It's been three weeks and one day since I found out I have diabetes. Let's put that in some context, shall we? I've known for approximately 196 hours. That's 11,760 minutes. 705,600 seconds. That's the obvious set of units. Moving on.

I've been a diagnosed diabetic through four Michigan football games. That's 552 rushing yards by Denard Robinson, 128 points, and one miraculous win.

Some other metrics for the last three weeks:
  • 13 classes
  • 3 project meetings
  • 5 interviews
  • 3 beers
  • 1/2 a liter of used needles
The crazy part? Besides the sad puppy face I keep making at the doughnuts that show up mysteriously on the kitchen counter on Saturday mornings, the fact that I'm actually eating decent breakfasts, and the ~15 minutes a day I spend actually taking care of my shots, nothing much has changed. It's a conversation starter, and a heck of a way kill peer pressure. (Not really an issue in the first place, but the exchange, "Hey you want another beer?!" "Nah, thanks though!" "Oh c'mon, why not?!" "Diabetes." "Oh..." will probably never get old to me.) My daily prayers don't consist of pleas for relief; I have more stressful things going on than this.

Life goes on, with or without shots.

I guess it's at this point that I'll apologize for the scourge of diabetic posts I've hurled on the internet in the last few weeks. No promises that it doesn't continue, but at least you know that I know that it's probably annoying and comes off as a bit passive aggressive towards my (good-for-nothing, deadbeat) pancreas. 

But now I need to do homework. Thanks for taking part in my distraction. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The New vs. The Old

If you were on Facebook before bed last night, you may have witnessed a miraculous feat of engineering and planning. Granted, you may not have known exactly what you were experiencing, and you may be nonplussed at the result (I'll get to that in a moment), but I think it's important to point it out:

Yesterday evening, Facebook performed an overhaul of its entire user interface seamlessly between page loads.

It might not seem that impressive, and you might hate it, but take a second sometime and go to Facebook, right click, and click "View Source." That gibberish has to work together flawlessly so that you can know what everyone else is doing all of the time. Ridiculous amounts of planning, coding, testing, more coding, and re-testing went into that gibberish.

That's enough CS apologetics for one post. The other thing I want to touch on is how hilarious it is that every time an update is pushed to the users they get so worked up about it. Do you remember what Facebook looked like 8 years ago? 4 years ago? Last year? Probably not. The problem is that people hate change. They want to be comfortable. The fact is, Facebook as a company has a whole lot of interest in keeping its users around, so they're not going to just throw together a whole bunch of crap and say, "Well, we hope the users like this, but we don't really care because we think it looks cool!" What shows up when you navigate to www.facebook.com has been tested internally for quite a while by people with a very critical eye.

Now, Facebook is great and all, but this mentality isn't restricted just to social networking sites. The mantra of the public these days isn't so much "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but "We know it's broke, but we're used to it, so don't you dare touch it!" This is true on the web, and it's true in the education system, politics, professional and college sports, and the list goes on. As soon as something changes, it's often deemed worse than its predecessor on principle before anyone has a clue about whether it's an improvement or not. 

In many cases, the old actually is better than the new, but let's not jump to that conclusion before even giving the new a chance.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Diabetes

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." -- Jeremiah 29:11
Sometimes, scratch that, every time we make plans, big or small, we forget that our plans are actually pretty meaningless. We think we know our plans, but rarely if ever do they align perfectly with God's.

Personal example: I was in the process if working up some pretty awesome blog posts (which may or may not get written now... it's hard for me to go back and work up an idea again) about my summer, my adventures, the incredible relationships I formed and strengthened and renewed, and what I think might possibly come next. I probably would have had a post or two about running all over the west coast with my brother Timm. I might have even included in those posts how I downed as many glasses of water, hit up as many drinking fountains as possible, looked for every excuse I could find to go to the bathroom, and still somehow ended up with a constantly dry mouth.

Wait. What?

Admittedly, that last one would have been a pretty boring blog post, but it was something to write home about. When your mom is a nurse and you're seeing those symptoms, the natural instinct is to have her set up an appointment to get it checked out, so I did. One urine test and some quick blood-work later, I'm sitting at home with a bunch of (the best) friends shooting up insulin in the dining room.

I have diabetes.
  • Yes, it's strange to write that. 
  • No, I haven't wrapped my head around it yet. 
  • Yes, it's a hassle to inject myself four times a day (for now... doctor's appointment Friday should have me being a lot more precise with my dosages). 
  • No, it doesn't really hurt. The needles are very small.
  • Yes, I have the most incredible group of family and friends a human being could ask for.
I need to expand a bit on that last point. 

I can't express how incredibly loving and helpful my parents have been already. My mom's deep knowledge of what my situation entails is invaluable. My dad's text saying, "Hey, I'm just getting out of a meeting downtown, can I meet you at the hospital while you wait to get into the lab?" calmed me instantly. (He didn't quite make it. Blodgett is actually pretty quick at getting people in for blood-work.) My siblings have taken the news with grace and have been light hearted about it.

And my friends. Wow. I had a party scheduled for yesterday night at my parents house, and the thing I was most terrified about throughout the entire afternoon was having to try to work this into a conversation. Luckily when it came up, they took it in stride, and didn't shy from it throughout the night. Like I told them:
If anyone ever has a hilarious diabetes joke and doesn't say it because I'm in the room, I'll be furious.
They obliged. Jokes flew. Tracy Morgan stand-up comedy on the subject was proudly shoved in my face. And I loved every minute of it. I hope that continues.

That's really all I have to say. It's frustrating, but I've got it, so it's better to know now (found out VERY early from what I can tell, praise God!) than to find out later when there are serious complications like a foot falling off or waking up blind or my brain oozing out of my ear. (I honestly have no idea what all the possible complications are. I'll probably hit up Google a million times in the next week.) I've made up my mind to avoid self pity, do my best to take it in stride, and refrain from complaining.

Now it's time to meet some more of the guys at the Dutch House, get into a school routine, do some job searching, and find out what other plans I have that aren't quite aligning with God's.

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's (Almost Always) Not About You.

I've got a few minutes left in my lunch break, and have spent the last 15 minutes or so perusing a few user experience/interface blogs and websites. Some recurring themes are "keep it simple," and "provide feedback," among others. All good advice.

One site also mentioned that the language you use should be "conversational, not sensational." If you've happened across my previous blog entries where I talk about news headlines and how much I abhor them most of the time, you'll know that this strikes a chord with me. Users don't want software that puts them in a hammer lock, sweeps their legs, and pins them to the ground until they finally gasp, "Alright, you got me, this is awesome!" (Well, maybe some users do. I haven't met them, though.) Users are independent and, for the most part, capable of determining whether a piece of software is worthwhile or not, so you can avoid telling them.

So why is this overbearing self-hype so prevalent these days? Human nature. Pride. Whatever you want to call it. "I built this program/website/app, it's the best in the world, and you should use it to replace whatever you've been using" is a common mentality among developers. That may be an exaggeration, but when someone has spent a large chunk of time working on a project and is finally releasing it to the public, there's a certain amount of desperation for acceptance and recognition.

I'm guilty of this as well, of course, and the more projects I work on the more I see these principles in action. My summer has been spent coding up a concept my mentor/boss thought up for improving on a piece of optimization software. Goal #1 is accuracy. Since you either get the right answer or you don't, that's an easy one to nail down and meet expectations on. (Easy in the sense that determining success is straightforward. Getting correct results is certainly not an easy task.) Goal #2 is speed. The faster you can get the right answer, the better.

I spent the first couple months of the summer getting my head wrapped around the problem and rewriting the software to include the new concepts, and the last few weeks have been dedicated to small performance tweaks and testing. The first tests I ran were promising. Huge gains in performance, same correct answers, life was good. I could see myself standing up for my presentation to the department and saying, "This version is better. Period. It reduces time by 50% and gets the same results, and as you add more computers to the mix, that gain continues to increase. This is a game changer."

That's not what happened though. The next test I tried, my version ran slower than the previous one. It turns out, there are some tradeoffs taking place, and that the new solution works better on a specific subset of all problems it is written to tackle. Now I need to reign in my excitement and be objective about fully testing the software to determine what its strengths and weaknesses are.

That's a long, meandering way of getting to my real point. If you're presenting something you've worked on, be it software, a business proposal, a work of art, whatever, be sure to take a step back and be realistic about what you have in front of you. If you're unable to do that, have someone else do it for you, giving them permission to be perfectly honest. I'm terrible at this, so I know it's a big challenge. Your project will be received much more readily if you aren't oblivious to its shortcomings. (Hint: using copious amounts of superlatives to describe your project is a great way to imply it's not as good as you say it is. That turns people off.)

Why? Because when you're releasing your project on the world, it's not about you anymore. It's about your work and whether it can stand on its own. Let your audience or customers decide on their own.

Users appreciate arriving at a website and seeing a homepage with a welcome message simply stating what the site is meant to do. Readers take headlines more seriously if they're simple and appear unbiased. Audiences love when work is presented realistically and without misguided statements about how revolutionary it is. Well, at least I do.

One small caveat: If you actually have the best software or the most useful website or the most incredibly revolutionary research to present to the world, and you can't adequately describe it without spewing forth superlatives, have at 'em.

Just don't be wrong.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

OS X Lion

Well, after playing around with OS X Lion for a day or so now, I'm liking (not loving) it. I'm not itching to go back, but it's really not all that different from Snow Leopard. Worth the $30, but probably not much more than that for me.

Feature that is great and should have been in there before:
- Resizing windows from any side/corner. How did that take this long?

Features I really like:
- Mission Control. Cool to have spaces and expose integrated like that.
- Airdrop, though I haven't tried it out yet.
- Full screen apps. My day-to-day workflow right now doesn't really require them, but it's nice to have that option, and as more apps get that functionality it should be more and more useful.

Gripes:
- Why did installing Lion mess up my gcc stuff? Had to reinstall Xcode to get that working again.
- Why don't the spaces loop? If I get to the last space and try to keep going, I should be able to go back to the first space.
- I shouldn't have to go all Terminal on my apps folder to rearrange things. I want to move System Settings into a folder, why am I not allowed to do this without resorting to mv-ing?
- This is admittedly minor, but I don't love the look of the new finder. The sidebar looks like it was designed for a kids toy.

Other thoughts:
I don't think I'll really use Launchpad, even though that's one of the biggest "draws" for Lion. My apps are already organized in my Applications folder, which I've already got on my dock, so I don't have much need for it. With Launchpad, Apple is really pushing the mobile feel, which makes sense. If they can hook people into their UI ecosystem, it's just that much easier to take some of their money later on. I actually like the desktop/laptop OS environment as it is (fundamentally... obviously there's always room for improvement), and I don't think it's going away as quickly as Apple might think. Until people can put massive screens and their favorite peripherals in their pocket, there will be room in the market for desktops and laptops, and the fact is that interacting with these types of devices is different than interacting with a phone or tablet. Maybe they'll change my mind eventually, but for now I like it that way.

Other than that, the UI is still very clean as expected. I like the changes to the scrollbars, which are now less eye catching. iCal and Mail both look great, and seem to sync with Gmail and Google Calendar well enough for me to give them another shot. I'm on the internet almost all the time, and when I'm not I can't get new email, so using a mail app instead of Gmail doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but we'll see. It is nice to have a local copy of all my mail, and since Gmail offline doesn't work in Chrome on Macs, this is the next best thing.

I'll update this if I think of anything else, but I think that covers my feelings for now. Things are done compiling here, so I've got work to do!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ask, Seek, Knock

As I mentioned last week, in Bible study we covered Matthew 7. Part of the "Ask, Seek, Knock" section says:
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"
One thing that was talked about that I had never really considered is the converse of that statement. If I had a son and he asked for bread, obviously I wouldn't give him a stone. At the same time, if he actually asked me for a stone because he thinks that will satisfy his hunger, it would be absurd for me to give it to him instead of the bread he actually needs. He might not be old or mature enough to understand that a stone is the last thing he needs when he's hungry, but hopefully I have that insight.

So we've established that most of the time, parents have the best interest of their children in mind. As the passage says, "how much more wil your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" This is the awesome part, because (like many things in the Bible) it serves to free us. Consider for a moment the ramifications of this passage:
  • If we ask for good things, God will give them to us.
  • If we ask for bad things, God knows what we actually need.
If that is the case, then
What are we waiting for?
We should be asking God for things constantly. We should always be trying to determine what God's will is, and what we might be in need of. These requests usually shouldn't be for a new bike or an iPod (though who knows, maybe in some cases that's exactly what you need), but spiritual gifts like patience and courage.

A small caveat here is that the Bible makes it clear that there are things God will give us only if asked. There are abundant spiritual gifts that God is waiting to shower down on us, if only we have the presence of mind and the desire to come to him with arms wide open, pleading for his gifts.
As a side note, it's important to recognize that a lot of the amazing things we should be asking for are actually terrifying in a "be careful what you wish for" type of way. You can bet that if you pray for patience, God will find a way to put you in a situation where you will have the opportunity to develop it. If you ask for the chance to witness to someone, be prepared for some conversations you might not have expected to have.

Conveniently, or more likely providentially, the sermon on Sunday focused on prayer as well, and though it covered many of the same things as I've already discussed, there was one thing that was too good not to share. Personally, I have a lot of trouble finding the time and motivation to pray. The pastor, who did a fantastic job of acknowledging all of our shortcomings, suggested the following prayer (I don't remember the exact phrasing, but this the general gist):
God, help me, I'm really messed up.
Try it sometime. If you think to yourself, "I should be praying more, maybe later when I have more time," just throw that one up. You'd be surprised how much good it can do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Now Do It

After a short hiatus, the time now seems to be right for a renewed commitment to writing on a regular basis. At this moment it is impossible to tell whether anything will come of said commitment, but I seem to have a significant block of time most mornings before heading to work that should lend itself quite well to some reflections.

Tomorrow evening, I will be joining Michael's Bible study group for the first time as they wrap up a series on discipleship. The text comes from Matthew 7, and includes many iconic passages relating to how we as Christians should approach salvation and evangelism. Sections include: "Judging Others," "Ask, Seek, Knock," "The Narrow and Wide Gates," "True and False Prophets," "True and False Disciples," and "The Wise and Foolish Builders."

Most people who have spent any time in the Word would probably be able to give a fairly detailed account of the contents of most of those sections. The problem for me is that having grown up with them, I have a hard time gleaning new insights from the words.

Making a point to find new insights helps a bit, though, and then the challenge becomes, "now do it." Unfortunately that is the hard part. Come to think of it, not only is it hard, but it happens to be humanly impossible.

Imagine for a moment how much different the world would be if it was easy. The rules and guidelines laid out in this passage are almost universally accepted as life's best practices.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Don't judge others.
  • Allow your actions to speak for your beliefs.
I want to put those into practice. I try to put those into practice. I just fail. Miserably. Constantly. Mostly because I still attempt them on my own.

I look forward to getting some other perspectives on this chapter tomorrow night, and I will report back if there is something worth sharing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Comfort Zones.

I've officially been here for over a week now, so I'm starting to get a little bit of a feel for what the rest of my summer will be like. (Except for the mass exodus of interns that will be coming, evidently while I'm in San Diego with my family, to spice things up.) Even after a week, I'm already finding myself outside my comfort zone enough to feel some growth beginning to happen.

I always find it interesting how just being stretched and mildly uncomfortable (not necessarily in a bad way) in one area of my life has the potential to force me to rethink most of the others. Simply getting on a plane and flying five hours west has put me in a situation where I'm thinking a lot more deliberately about my faith, my professional goals, my social skills, and so on.

The biggest thing I've been thinking about was brought up in Church last week, and is the idea of being "in the world, but not of it." (If you remembered that I mentioned I would talk about this in my last post, double brownie points!) Getting out of the Grand Rapids/Calvin College bubble has put that on my heart in a huge way, and it's a subject that, while incredibly important, really has no easy answers.

If I had to take a shot at what the best way to approach being a light in the darkness of society, my answer would be three-fold:
  1. Be an example as much as possible without getting in people's faces about it. Being very outspoken all the time is a great way to turn people off to the gospel. Do as much right as you can, with the Spirit's help, and allow your actions to speak louder than your words.
  2. Jump on opportunities to share your faith when they arise.
  3. Pray.
Certainly different situations call for different approaches, and being more forward and demonstrative can be necessary at times, but often those types of obvious displays of piety can cause more harm than good.

This morning, I was unable to make it to Church due to my current housing situation (had to change rooms at 11am), but I listened to a sermon from Mars Hill a couple weeks ago about works righteousness vs. gift righteousness, and came away convicted. A lot of the time, we think about our actions, how right they are, how good a job we're doing, and how great a job we're doing at being cities on a hill. Unfortunately, that attitude is destructive as well. Looking down on people is never the answer.

So that's what I've been thinking about. Questions? Comments? Concerns on my worldview? Do share!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Great Reminders

The past couple days have been gigantic blessings, to the extent that I find myself in awe once again. I'd love to pen some epic oration that expresses my wonder at the providence of the Lord, but I'm already getting a bit tired (8:30pm here... I'm a lame-o). So, in lieu of that work of art, here's another list (I know, lame.) that will hopefully get some of my gratitude. So without further introduction, here are just a few of the blessings that have been heaped upon me.
  • Sunday morning's worship service at Michael and Sarah's church was fantastic. Their pastor preached on the importance of being "in but not of" the world, and made a lot of great points that I think have been skipped over in other sermons I've heard on the topic. I always thought I understood that passage, but he brought it to a whole new level. So many nuances to that passage that really need to be teased out before you can fully catch what's going on. I'll try to remember to write up my specific thoughts on that sometime soon.
  • Michael and Sarah were once again incredibly gracious in taking me on a walking tour of downtown Palo Alto, introducing me to the tri-tip sandwich, and giving me my first taste of California froyo. All great things.
  • I was also provided with an extra measure of comfort and patience this morning as I was told the room I thought was reserved for me was, in fact, not. But, one large payment for 16 days of a hotel/motel/dormish room later, I'm safely settled in, and should be able to find a room mate (and the 50% reduction in room cost that comes with that) within the next week or two. Normally in situations like that I find myself panicing, especially since I can't just go crash at my parents' house this time, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that my blood pressure hadn't gone through the roof after getting everything sorted.
  • Finally, after wondering for most of the day how long it would take me to walk to the grocery store so I could stock up on a little bit of food, Michael and Sarah offered to take me home for dinner once again, and even took me to the store. (I was not blessed with Michigan grocery prices though... California is expensive in every way, shape, and form.)
It's strange, and a little disconcerting, to be this far from home, but everything so far has either worked out as well as I could have imagined, or at least been sorted out in a way that all of my creature comforts are taken care of, even if it is costing me a bit more than I expected.

I'll also try to give a little bit of background on the types of work I'm doing, at least as much as I'm allowed to say, some time soon as well. There are lots if intriguing projects going on here, so it's going to be fun getting my hands dirty on some real world stuff here pretty soon.

Also, if anyone wants to skype at some point, let me know and we'll set it up! The internet in my room now appears to be reasonably quick and reliable, so I think it would work fine.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Adventureland

This blog is probably going to morph into something more like a journal over the next few months as I use it to document what I'm up to for family and friends to keep track of. If you have a problem with that, feel free to ignore everything I write from now through the beginning of September.

Yesterday was a long day. Got up at 4:45am ET, finished a little bit of packing, and headed on over to the airport. Both of my flights were on time, and I got an exit row seat on the first, so I was good and stretched out, at least for the start of the second leg of the trip. The first flight took me from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis, and the second dropped me off in beautiful San Francisco. (Technically just south of it.)

The weather yesterday could not have been much better, at least until it started to drizzle in the evening. High 50's, some sun, and a light breeze: pure bliss. The forecast is a little shakier for the next couple of days, with the possibility of some thunderstorms, which I'm told are very rare here, but that's fine. It looks like I brought a little bit of Michigan along with me.

After Michael (my cousin) picked me up at SFO, he took me over to Stanford's campus (gorgeous place) for an event being held by BUILD, which is where Sarah (Michael's wife) works. Great organization that helps to teach high schoolers about how to run businesses. At the event, teams were participating in a business plan competition as well as setting up small stores to sell products they had created, such as water bottles, phone holsters, and t-shirts. Very cool to see them all so excited about their projects.

The other main reason for stopping by there was the fact that they had food, and I hadn't eaten for 9 hours. Huge sandwiches were provided, so I was covered.

From there Michael took me on a driving/walking tour of Palo Alto and Mountain View with Andrew (Michael and Sarah's 1 year old son). I got to hang out and read some books with Andrew while Michael got his eyes checked, although he was more interested in banging a water bottle against the table than paying attention to the books. Can't blame him, he's good at it.

The final activities of the night were dinner at In-n-Out (double double animal style), which was delicious, and a viewing of The Informant over a bottle of Anchor beer. Got the whole story behind the Anchor brewery, and while I don't consider myself a beer connoisseur, it does taste just a little bit better when you have some sense of a specific beer's history.

Unsurprisingly, my body decided that despite the 21 hour day yesterday 6:30 would be a good time to wake up, so now I'm hanging out until heading to church with Michael and Sarah, grabbing some tri tip sandwiches (I have no idea either, but supposedly they're fantastic), and relaxing before I start work tomorrow morning.

I'm also quickly building up a list of "must-sees" in the area, so if you can think of anything that should go on there, be sure to let me know. I don't have a car, but I'm sure some of the other interns will have them and will be looking to see as much of norcal as they can as well.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Paradox of Service

I'll be honest, I sit around altogether too much. I've been doing better lately (or at least it seems that way) as I've been busy working on school, taking care of errands, and trying to keep myself in some sort of decent shape. One thing I don't do enough of at this point is serving others. Serving can take a ton of different forms, and occur in numerous settings, but it can be difficult for me to find things that I "can fit in my schedule" and that I really want to do.

Both of those excuses are matters of the heart. As many wise people have said,
If you want to know where someone's priorities are, look at where they spend their time.
Another similar proverb says the same, but substitutes money for time. Both are equally true. Look at someone's calendar or checkbook and it is easy to see what he or she values.

That's not the main topic I want to address now though. In considering what types of service I should be doing, all kinds of past sermons and lessons come flooding back. Most of these seem to center on one of two things:
  1. You should be focusing on serving where your gifts will be used to the fullest.
  2. Here are some causes that need help, and you should help them even if it makes you uncomfortable.
The problem is that these can contradict each other in many situations.

For me personally, certain areas of service are highly unappealing. A lot of situations make me uncomfortable, regardless of whether that feeling is rational or not. Service opportunities that involve a lot of person to person contact make me cringe. It's not that I don't want to help people, it's just a part of who I am. (More on this in a moment.)

On the other hand, service opportunities that let me be more "behind the scenes" are great. I was blessed to take part in my Church's stewardship committee for several months, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I love donating money and other resources when I have them available. These types of "safe service" are essential, and they get me excited.

So the question I'm left with is, "Is that enough?" Is it enough to remain behind the scenes instead of going out onto the front lines of service? Is it ok to look at a potential need and come to the conclusion that someone else is probably a better fit for that specific situation, so I'll leave it to them, while focusing on the things that I do best?

The answer is certainly somewhere between the two, but it's something I struggle with a lot. Stretching ourselves is vital, but so is using our gifts to the best of our abilities. Maybe the key is to focus on service that takes advantages of our strengths, occasionally make an effort to take on a challenge that we know will make us uncomfortable, and allow our focus to evolve as those challenges open new opportunities for us.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Is Impossibility Possible?

One of my best friends requested that I write on this topic about a week ago. I thought about just sitting down to pound it out, but I figured it would be a better idea to take some time to actually think about what I actually believe and why.

The question was:
Is it possible for something to be impossible?

There are two different sides to this question. There is the strictly physical, mathematical side, as well as the metaphysical, spiritual side. I'll start with the former, as it is a little easier to tackle.

The word "impossible," at its core, requires a level of certainty and proof that human beings are incapable of providing. I read not long ago science, at its core, is wholly incapable of showing certain black-and-white facts to be true, but incredibly adept at proving opposing facts to be false.

Take gravity for instance. General knowledge says, "Gravity causes anything with mass to fall to the ground." Science says, "In every recorded trial, something has caused anything with mass to fall to the ground." (Obviously simplified, ignoring buoyancy, etc.) It cannot say anything more. There is no way to say with absolute certainty that the NEXT trial will not be the one that sees a block of steel float in the air, against conventional wisdom and thousands of years of science.

What science can say, without hesitation, is that there is no physical law that will cause that block of steel to float in opposition to what we have named gravity all of the time. If you have a hard time believing this, hold something heavy over your foot and try to tell me that you have mathematically proven gravity does not exist. The chances of that object resisting gravity are as close to zero as we can comprehend.

So my answer to whether something can be impossible in the physical world is yes, even though we may not be able to determine with perfect certainty what those things are. For all intents and purposes, there is a zero percent chance that you will fall through the center of the earth at any given moment and end up in Asia unharmed.

The metaphysical side of the question is where you will get different answers depending on who you talk to. (There may be some dispute over the physical world definition of impossibility, but probably not a whole lot.) It really all comes down to what you believe. As a Christian, I am compelled to believe that at any moment, God is in control of every single minute detail of the universe. Miracles have happened and continue to happen, and they are, by definition, impossibilities made real.

As a scientist and engineer, this can be a tough pill to swallow. Miracles are not easily found, and are impossible to conclusively classify as such. However, the Christian faith requires miracles. Without miracles, there is no resurrection, and there is no salvation.

Such is life with the knowledge of an omnipotent God. So is it possible for something to be impossible? Yes, in the absence of divine intervention.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Do People Learn in Classrooms?

I've spent the last week or so working on a final projects and studying for exams, and it has raised some questions in my mind about how well the standard academic system works. I'm not going to claim that I haven't learned an incredible amount from the classes I've taken, but if I'm completely honest, I'm not great at learning while actually sitting in a classroom or taking tests.

My problem is that unless I'm actively engaging in what's going on in class I get distracted. (I should probably stop taking my laptop to class, that can't help.) If I'm not distracted, I'm busy copying down the notes on the board word for word without really paying attention to what those words mean. At the same time, I do pretty well in these classes. My grades are good, but there have been many classes I've gotten an A or A- in where I definitely had not mastered the course content.

What I learned instead was how to do well in each specific class. I determined how much time I needed to spend on homework, what I needed to study, what I needed to put on my exam cheat sheet, and how to write to cater to the professor's idea of what a decent paper should look like.

So where HAVE I learned a lot? Outside the classroom. The most educational experiences I've had throughout the course of my education have all been projects. I've been required to do projects in every single class I've taken in grad school. A quick rundown:

Intro to Artificial Intelligence:
  • Search algorithms in Java
  • Machine Learning in Java
  • Planning using PDDL
  • Decision analysis
Intro to Operating Systems
  • Disk Scheduler and Thread Library in C++
  • Memory Pager in C++
  • Secure, Concurrent Web Server in C++
Microarchitecture
  • Forced determinism in multithreaded applications in C++
Advanced Programming Languages
  • Type Checker in Java
  • Survey of Checking Practices for Scripting Languages
Advanced Cryptography
  • Paper summary
Web Databases and Information Systems
  • LAMP stack setup
  • Basic MySQL, PHP, and HTML
  • Sessions, Login, and Cookies
  • JavaScript validation, APIs, and interactivity
  • Search Engines and Indexing
  • Final Group Project
Dang. That's a lot of projects, but that's exactly why Michigan cranks out so many great engineering graduates each and every year. Calvin is the same, just on a smaller scale, especially with Senior Design and lab projects. When you have to actually DO it, you learn it.

If you have an even somewhat challenging and fulfilling job, you'll never be called upon to sit in a room and listen to someone for four months before having to try to guess what you were supposed to retain. You will be called upon to work with a group of people or by yourself on a project, and you will be judged on your results.

The key is to find great projects for students. If professors want their students to learn to the best of their abilities, they need to assign projects that put large portions well within the reach of the students' knowledge and abilities, and some smaller portions just over their heads. It might sound a little mean, but it's important to get students' confidence up before cutting them back down to size and letting them clamber back up. That's how we grow.

I couldn't tell you specifically what many of my professors lectured on last year or even last month, but I could talk for days about the things I learned while working on the projects they assigned.

So go sign up for some classes with lots of projects. If you can't find some, make up your own projects. If you're really ambitious, do both.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter.

Every Easter I imagine God thinking, "You know what, I gave them language and I gave them bodies, but I don't think I'm going to give them the ability to quite express this emotion."

One of the biggest lessons I continue to learn is that nothing I do will ever express my gratitude. I sing songs in Church, I pray, I try so hard to do something that allows me to step back afterwards and say, "Yes. That's exactly how I feel."

It never works out that way. It comes out jumbled. I miss a note. I close my eyes during a hymn and use "Thee" instead of the "You" that's been displayed and the dissonance makes me cringe. I trip over the words in my own head. My mind wanders even though I beg it not to just this once.

But that's the best part.

Every Easter I imagine God saying, "I know what you mean. You're welcome."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Simulating Awkward Interactions

While I worked at Steelcase I got a lot of newsletter type emails. Jim Hackett, the CEO, would occasionally send out "state of the company" emails, detailing stock performance, providing revenue predictions, and giving sincere messages of encouragement. While interesting to read, as an intern I didn't have a whole lot of vested interest in their content. More intriguing to me were the emails sent out by Bob Krestakos, the CTO. During the time I worked there (and from what I've heard from my dad, for a long time before I got there) he was involved in a lot of strategic decisions about the role of IT in a large furniture company. A lot of times the emails he sent out included musings about which technologies might catch on as ways to improve work environments. (That is, after all, Steelcase's mission statement.)

Since I left about a year ago now, he has evidently continued to send out those emails, and today my dad passed one on. Apparently Bob had been invited to try out a new telepresence system in which a user controls a robot that virtually becomes the user's physical presence in a room. He went on to talk about how as he was guiding his robot down a hallway after a meeting, he ended up passing another remotely controlled telepresence robot and struck up a conversation with its operator. All of this happened across vast geographical distance.

My immediate question was "Why is this necessary in any way, shape, or form?" How could it possibly be more efficient to take a telepresence system, which works fine when it's set up statically in a room, and put it on wheels? You don't hold teleconferences in a hall. You don't need telepresence in every room, but even if you do, there are relatively portable units available on the market now. Why waste the design and engineering time, the materials, and the electricity to add that functionality?

I responded with these questions, and my dad responded by saying that maybe it was similar to why business people fly all the way across the country to meet with someone when they could just pick up the phone or use a telepresence system. It's more personal. Whether it's logical or not, physically bumping robots into each other, albeit remotely, just feels more personal than standard telepresence.

That's a great insight. I don't know whether it's worth the cost off the top of my head, but I'd be willing to bet that studies would indicate that it's more worth it than you might think at first glance.

I think there's something more subtle at play though.

First, take a moment to think about how many contacts you have in your social networks that you could get in contact with at a moments notice. You can see when they're online, one click and you could be chatting. In fact, webcam sessions (identical to telepresence, just with lower fidelity audio and video) are just as accessible through Gmail and Skype. Think of all the great conversations you could have at any given time if you just made a tiny bit of effort! We rarely take advantage of that resource though, except with close friends.

Now, think about the last time you bumped into an acquaintance in a hallway at work or school. More often than not, pleasantries are exchanged and a conversation might even occur. I've heard about businesses (Steelcase is one) that actively try to avoid private offices for this exact reason. Get people walking past each other! Get the IT veteran to talk to the marketing guru for just a few minutes and who knows what might happen!

So what's the difference? It's that in situation one, encounters are passive. You know that someone else is online, but by not doing anything you avoid conversation. In situation two, by not doing anything you risk coming off as aloof at best and inconsiderate at worst. You're forced into a mildly awkward interaction, and the easiest way to deal with it is to act like a pleasant human being and say hello, maybe strike up a quick conversation. Not every chat is going to result in some technological breakthrough, but at least you're providing a situation where it's possible.

As a computer engineer, my thought process immediately jumps back to those robots. Seeing someone else's robot zipping past has a bit of the same effect. You imagine the other user thinking to him or herself, "Hey, he just zipped right past me. I know he saw me, why didn't he say hi?"

The bigger question, in my opinion, is whether it's possible to simulate that type of mildly awkward interaction online. If it is, you can save a whole lot of DC motors and kilowatt hours and just go back to using the good ol' internet.

If the answer to that question is yes, the next question is: how?

So who's up for it? Who wants to make the internet a little more awkward in the name of progress?

Comments, suggestions? I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Plans

Movie time!


Ok, so twenty one seconds of movie time. Still counts!

For one reason or another (but mostly one reason, ask if you're curious) I have thought quite a bit about this question in the last few days. Full blown existential crises are not exactly "my thing," and getting all bent out of shape about not being able to see into the future has always seemed worthless in the grand scheme of things, but taking some time to actually think about what my actual plan is has been a bit disconcerting.

To people who actually know me this fact is old news, but I actually have taken quite a bit of pride in my fulfillment of my "master plan." That title is less codename and more apt description than it sounds. At no point in middle school did I sit down and write out what I would be doing for the next ten years of my life and write "MASTER PLAN" in big, bold, sharpie letters at the top. I did go around telling people about my plan though. It was actually pretty simple:
  1. Get into Calvin College
  2. Attend Calvin College
  3. Get a degree in Computer Engineering
  4. Possibly double major or minor in math
  5. Get into the University of Michigan
  6. Attend the University of Michigan
  7. Get a masters degree in Computer Science/Engineering
You can imagine what people probably thought when I told them this. (My guess: "Wow, that's pretty ambitious, but he seems like a relatively smart kid. At least he's got a plan." Either that or, "Hah, oh yeah? And what if life happens?")

Good question. What if life happens?

Well, either I happen to be a great guesser about the future or I was a little bit stubborn while making decisions. I would say the fact that I have checked numbers 1-6 off the list and am under a year from putting a giant X through the whole thing without really ever taking the time to actually sit down and make a decision probably supports the latter. I managed to get through all these steps without allowing the reality of myself influence my path.

As I finally begin to take some personal inventory, some of those choices come into question. I cannot say that I regret crossing the items off that list, but there are certainly places where it would have made a lot of sense to step back and assess. Some of the questions I should have asked:
  • Does a masters degree in Computer Science make sense? (Financially, yes, if I find a job I like.)
  • Is coding what I want to do for the rest of my life? (Probably not.)
  • Would I be better served going into the human computer interface field? (Maybe. I would have enjoyed the courses more, but I'm learning a lot of fundamentals I would have missed out on.)
  • What types of jobs do my strengths and weaknesses line up well with? (Still not entirely sure.)
I am learning a lot, and I think things will work out just fine, but it is a little hard to look at the requirements and sample interview questions for what I once considered dream jobs and realize, "You know what, I'm actually terrible at a lot of those things." I am not a "superstar coder." I have a hard time keeping laser focus on anything for more than a half hour at a time. I would much rather take an idea and get it to work than put in all the extra time to make sure it is flawless. Kludges get me really excited, and I happen to be good at putting them together in software. I would rather talk about a project, formulate a plan, and get involved in design than be the one to actually implement it. I want to lead people.

Some of those things fit great when looking for a computer engineering job. Others, not so much.

Luckily, God has a good handle on my type of mental state, and He provides some stunning words of encouragement:
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." -- Jeremiah 29:11
That is a good thing, because regardless of what my track record might say, I still have quite a bit to learn about plans.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pride

This morning in the Campus Chapel, we were treated to a great sermon on pride. (Hopefully if the pastor reads this, she is able to prevent this from becoming a source of just that.) Pride is a vice I avoid relatively well in its most obvious forms, but often times the less evident forms are the most dangerous. Without even noticing, I look down on others because of the way they look, act, or talk. I may not say it out loud, or at least to their face, but the slight bump in my view of myself that surfaces when I see someone I can rank below me on some sort of arbitrary and rigged scale is indication enough that I have a problem.

The unfortunate reality of pride is that often times attempting to remove it from our lives produces a bit of a feedback loop. When I look for situations where I feel pride creeping in, I begin to commend myself on my astute observation and introspection. Surely by watching my own behavior I am doing a better job at preventing the pride in my life than that person over there... Oh wait. Crap. Back to square one. Someone next to you leans over and says, "Can you believe that guy? I'd never go out in public wearing something like that." I know your reaction, because it would be mine too (unless I was the person making the comment, which happens all too often). How dare he talk that way about someone else. What a prideful jerk! I would never talk that way behind someone else's back. Oops.

How many times have you been in that situation? Probably more than you would like to admit. I know I would be completely ashamed if someone kept track of my slipups in this area.

Unfortunately I am at a loss for an easy way to combat pride during my everyday routine. There are some things I think can help though.
  • Instead of just noticing when I am being prideful, I can try to force myself to take a moment to empathize with the victim of my pride.
  • Honestly consider what it is about me that makes me feel better than someone else. Almost always the answer is something that is or was completely out of my control, and I just got lucky or blessed. I have decent clothes because my parents have jobs. In no way does that make me better than someone whose parents are out of work. Some of our circumstances are self-inflicted or self-achieved, but most of us would could be in a very different situation if we had been dealt different cards.
  • Most of all, asking for constant forgiveness. We truly are all made in the image of God, and pride is insulting not only to the person I put down, but to God himself.
I will admit that I have not taken a ton of time pondering this topic, so if you have any insights or comments, please drop me a note. I would love to discuss this further.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Late Night Stream of Consciousness

I've heard that staring at artificial light before trying to sleep is not recommended, but my lot in life has placed me in a situation where it's inevitable most nights. Every other night it happens anyway because I can only read a research paper or a book for so long before I'm compelled to check my email and see if anything shocking has occurred in my social networks. Most nights I fall asleep just fine, but occasionally, like tonight, thoughts tumble around until I have no choice but to blurt them out. For the sake of whoever might be my roommate at the time, I try to do this as silently as possible, so here I am. There will be very little structure from here on out, so either bail or buckle up I guess.

There are certain social situations I don't think I'll ever be comfortable in. Eating at restaurants is near the top of that list. Also haircuts and orthodontist appointments. Dentist appointments aren't so bad because conversational expectations are always lower when there's a tiny javelin inside your mouth.

It shouldn't be so hard to come up with fresh ideas. Considering how absurdly random the chemical interactions in our brains are, it seems odd that brainstorming sessions usually just result in reinventing the wheel.

I've done a lot of thinking about the topics that are covered in Rob Bell's book Love Wins in the past week or two. I haven't read it, but I've read about it, and I'm trying to formulate my opinion on the subject matter before I do. Some things I think are important in the discussion:
  • "Christ Alone" is non-negotiable. Always.
  • How someone views the mechanics of heaven and hell is not a matter of salvation.
  • We don't get to do any judging. Rob Bell brought up Gandhi as an example of someone who seemed to be a good person that many Christians would say is in hell, but others would give the benefit of the doubt. The flip side is someone like Hitler, who almost everyone would agree is (and should be) rotting in hell. The problem is, we don't get to make either of those decisions. Pretending that we've got some sort of secret code that lets us decide where to draw the line between the saved and the unsaved is at best arrogant and at worst a damnable offense in and of itself.
  • Many more things. Please don't take this as my whole belief system. Not sure blogger can handle that.
I've gotten back on my bike in the last few days, which has resulted in some wheezing and a sore hind end. Soon it'll be warm enough for me to get out for a significant weekend bike ride instead of just the 10 minute commute to class. Can't wait.

Parsing back through my day, I'm trying to figure out if I ingested something that would be keeping me awake. I had a Mountain Dew at noon, but I doubt that's it. I really hope I didn't accidentally get caffeinated milk. If I did I'll probably be up for a while yet.

I discovered that if I ever want to teach I'm going to have to work on my chalkboard skills. Profs make it look so easy (and I always mentally complain if someone's handwriting on the board is messy) but I gave a half hour presentation today and it's much more difficult than I remembered. You start writing big and neat and within a few words the audience needs a pair of binoculars and your line is sagging down towards the chalk tray by about eight inches.

That said, I would still love to teach. Now to find something I can learn enough about that someone would actually let me teach it. Let me get back to you on that in a few years.

I'm going to try to sleep again now. Questions, comments, concerns? There's a comment box for a reason.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Investigate First.

Newspapers and their online equivalents often bug me. Collectively, they serve as the primary avenue for citizens to hear about things that are going on. They are important, but more than ever, the motivation behind the stories is money. Sensationalist headlines bombard us, misleading at best, blatant lies at worst.

That is a problem, to be sure, but there is another issue at hand as well: the readers. At what point will readers realize what is going on and decide to actually read articles before making up their minds about the issue at hand. If an average American cannot read an article, pick out the important facts, and come up with a reasonable conclusion, our society is failing in some pretty foundational ways.

As an example (used only because it popped up this morning), take a look at the headline of an article from TorrentFreak.com. It reads:
Google Starts Censoring BitTorrent, RapidShare, and More
"Oh no! Corporate censorship!" scream readers. Without any other information, I would have to agree with them. I would rather not see Google censoring their search results. But wait a minute... after finally taking the time to click the link and read the article summary, I see this:
It’s taken a while, but Google has finally caved in to pressure from the entertainment industries including the MPAA and RIAA. The search engine now actively censors terms including BitTorrent, torrent, utorrent, RapidShare and Megaupload from its instant and autocomplete services. The reactions from affected companies and services are not mild, with BitTorrent Inc., RapidShare and Vodo all speaking out against this act of commercial censorship.
Still outraged? Take a closer look. Google is actively censoring terms "from its instant and autocomplete servies." The change made here is that if you want to search for BitTorrent on to Google homepage, you will have to type in the whole word and tap the enter key. The results are exactly the same.

Of course, some readers are still just as angry as they were before reading the article, but hopefully less so. The problem is that the headline was not written to inform citizens of what they are about to read, it was to get them so pissed off that they click on a link, driving up site statistics. There is legitimate information in there, but it comes wrapped in deception.

This brings me to my challenge to you:
READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE
Refrain from making a decision based on headlines. Avoid outrage before taking the time to discover whether it has any rational basis. Sometimes it will, sometimes not, but either way at least you will know.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Relax.

Relaxation is not a foreign concept to me. If you know me, you know that I relax way too much. I have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to work on improving the quality of my resting time.

The first thing that improvement requires is the phasing out of procrastination. Coincidentally, that happens to be the thing I find most difficult. With TV and the internet, there is always something to do instead of what I should be doing. Procrastination has been covered on my blog already I believe, so there is no need to rehash it except to say that it is wildly destructive and unnecessary.

So that brings me to my actual point. I spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks engaging in useful relaxation. Whether it was going on a brewery tour around West Michigan, going to a couple of Michigan Basketball games, or finally getting to a couple of Ann Arbor landmarks (The Jolly Pumpkin and Blimpy Burger), there was always one common denominator that made the difference: good company.

We are social creatures, and while I happen to be an introvert, rebuilding energy while I am by myself, I always come away from good conversation refreshed and ready to get back to the grind.

Now if only I could convince myself to turn off the The Dark Knight and focus on a couple of assignments, I would be all set.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Still here.

It has been a while since I took the time to write an update of where things are for me, but I have a hard time believing my rambling has been missed. A lot has happened since a few weeks ago, but nothing too earth shattering.

One thing I spent a lot of time thinking about was my relationships with both my family and friends. I was blessed to spend a lot of time with both groups, and while there were no massive parties there were a few get togethers that afforded me the opportunity to sit down and chat with a lot of people I rarely see anymore.

Those conversations are something I find myself enjoying more and more as I get older, mainly because there is more to talk about. My friends are all working, going to school, or looking for work, and each has a new and interesting perspective on life. At the same time, my family and extended family continues to evolve and I get to hear about what they are all up to as well.

If I talked to you over break, consider this a sincere thank you for your time and insights.

I also did some reading over break; a habit I hope to continue now that I am back in Ann Arbor. Maybe at some point I will do some short book reviews on them, but no promises. It had been a while since I sat down and actually read an entire book cover to cover, and I learned a lot.

Using my extra motivation and carrying it over to Ann Arbor a little bit, I have spent a few days making a personal website. It essentially serves as an online resume, but maybe it will expand to something more than that at some point. (I want to refrain from getting too attached to it since I have no idea how long Michigan will keep the free web hosting available after I graduate next year, but it has been fun regardless.)

You can find it at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pnbloem/index.html

As I have told everyone so far, if you take a look and have any suggestions at all, please let me know. I like the general look and feel, but I want to keep updating it continually. Your input is appreciated.

Finally, I am ramping up my efforts to find some summer work. My cousin Michael was kind enough to pass around my resume to some of the folks he knows out in California, which illustrated to me in very short order the truth in the statement "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Within two days, I have received responses from folks working at Google, Microsoft, and Apple, along with some information about possible internship opportunities at NASA. Granted, there have been no interviews or offers yet, but it is great to have some leads to work off of, and it can be fun to entertain the thought of spending the summer in a place like California or New York.