# Let’s Try Anyway

A great problem in any job is orthodoxy. I see it everyday in myriad ways at the University where, despite nominally being all about the future (students, research, etc.), we really do the same things, uniformly, over and over.

A few moments ago, I head a colleague talking about a class she is a teaching assistant for. All I head was someone asking if it “would work with three people,” and her saying, “Well… probably not.” This particular conversation is not important, but it’s an example of something that happens a thousand times a day in this building alone. I’m certain of it!

We make many snap-judgments in our hectic, university lives. How to grade, how to teach, how to assemble experiments in vacuum environments. A good deal of these things are simply based on prior experience; things which haven’t necessarily been taught, just picked up. A lot of these things have never been thought through. Some of them don’t even make any sort of sense when thought through. Some of them make sense but don’t hold up to scrutiny.

I would like to work in a place where people say, “I don’t think that will work, but let’s try it anyway.”

I think it implies that people have enough time to explore, that they are supportive enough to want to explore your ideas, and that they are open to the possibility that they are wrong.

I dislike the capitulations that seem to be required of any statement today, but I do concede that these moments of support and understanding happen – but only occasionally. They should happen in far greater numbers, though.

# Multiple Cursor Mode

In case you haven’t already tried it, Multiple Cursor Mode for emacs is awesome. I actually got chills the first time I used it to edit multiples lines of work on a physics problem. All those repeated lines of LaTeX code, and now I can change them all at once!

It’s in Marmalade, so go try it out!

# The First Days

So now I’m about two weeks in, I have homework, about 40 lab reports to grade, and need to find a sub for my lab TA section. I’ve gotten a social insurance number from the government of Canada (the Canadian equivalent of a social security number) and it seems likely that I might get paid this Friday. Now, while I have a few minutes before I go upstairs to get to better know some of my new colleagues over lunch, seems like as good a chance as I’ll get to go over what I’ve been thinking about since I started here at the IQC.

First, dealing with office staff is always frustrating. As a foreigner, even from the US, it was a mess of people not telling me what I needed to do in time. I still laugh thinking about the email that came out a week or two before classes from the international office explaining how to put off coming to school for a term because they hadn’t really told people in time to apply for visas.

Getting my study permit was something I got done well in advance and, consequently, without much help from the university at all. The SIN was another one of those things. Sarah and I biked out to the service Canada center on a hot day and arrived sweaty, carrying our stacks of documents, only to find that Sarah, who doesn’t yet need a SIN because nobody is paying her anything, could get a number, but I – the reason we were in the country in the first place – hadn’t been supplied the right paperwork by the University to get mine. There were a number of other small things as well, but that was the one that required the most physical effort by far.

I’m now slowly being won over to the idea that the university might actually care about some of us, but they certainly didn’t show it at all until long after I’d arrived and started attending classes.

Now that I’m here, though, it’s nice to be teaching a little (as a Teaching Assistant) and good to have some things to think about during the day. The minor office snafu’s keep coming (I wasn’t given a key to the room I TA in yet), but we’ll iron them out and hopefully I’ll have less and less to ask of confused people in offices as time goes on.

There are people from a lot of different countries here. It’s hard to tell how much is the university and how much is Kitchener-Waterloo generally, because both seem to be fairly diverse. The grad students from India have commented that they can get some of the same food as at home since there’s such a large population with Indian heritage here.

After our year in Evanston/Chicago, I think we’re doing a pretty good job of setting up a life here. Making new friends is hard, and takes a lot of time. Sadly, I don’t really get to see the other grad students much other that at lunch, which I try to make the most of. Hopefully, some of them will be friends, and perhaps someday, we’ll make it to Food Not Bombs here in Waterloo or in Kitchener, closer to home, and meet some people there, too.

I’ve often thought about how damaging advertisements have been to the structure of the internet. Recently, I think it started to impinge on my life in a specific way – I’m looking at new smartphones.

There are plenty of shiny, mostly closed source Android phones. Google didn’t do anything to stop proprietary drivers or other forms of walled garden and now they’re working on DRM extensions for HTML5 so they can keep pushing content with devices that have been turned against their owners.

As a matter of fact, there was a great interview with Cory Doctorow recently on how the deal has soured for libraries. It also makes some points I’ve wanted to articulate about how they’re doing their customers a disservice in the name of short term gratification – by accepting a shit deal so they can loan ebooks – while giving publishers permission to rent them ebooks that disappear far quicker than a paper edition ever would. You can listen to the interview here, and I suggest you do!

In the last few years, and increasingly as it makes it into the wild, there has been a slowly growing buzz about Mozilla’s OS for smartphones, somewhat predictably called Firefox OS. I’m excited, because I trust Mozilla more than Google. (I don’t really think Google is evil, although I think as it grows, what is in its interest will diverge further from the interests of its customers.) Mozilla, though, seems to have similar ideas about what the internet means as I do. That it can be a force for even greater good, bring the world together in meaningful ways, and that making information available in machine-readable forms means people can manipulate it in new, better ways.

With all of that bubbling in my head, I was excited to see there was a phone being made with more mid-level hardware that would run Firefox OS. It’s called the Peak+ and is made by a Spanish company called Geeksphone. It doesn’t seem like many apps are out for the OS yet, but that’s probably to be expected for something that only just had hardware announced in the last month or so.

It makes me think how special things like Wikipedia are, which let you use their content for free, with no ads. Those are the bits of the web that make me proud of humanity. It’s the sort of thing I hope Firefox OS will be, in its own way: software that exists for the users.

# Moving Again

Hopefully, a week from now I’ll get up at my Aunt and Uncle’s in East Lansing, Michigan and start out to the border with Canada. Hopefully, later that day, Sarah and I will move into an apartment in Kitchener and start setting up a new life there for a few years.

Chicago has been a rough nine months. I pushed for moving here because it seemed like I was going nowhere in New York. I had gotten work at two colleges there as a lab assistant in shitty conditions with decent pay and then with great coworkers and very little pay. I was at the end of my rope and thought there was nothing more for me there, that I could never afford to live there and would be back in a parents house or living off of Sarah forever. Then I moved to Chicago, where nobody was interested in hiring me for anything more than one tutoring gig that lasted about two months.

Financially, it would seem, I moved to Chicago to burn money.

Luckily, though, there were a number of upsides. I got to meet a lot of nice people mostly Northwestern students but a bunch of great people from Roger’s Park community organizations like Food not Bombs, who are doing awesome things in kitchens and gardens and on the streets!

It’s given me some hope that I can still make new friends and try new things, and I’m hoping to bring those feelings with me to Kitchener and my new job and my new school.

Here’s hoping I see everyone again soon.

Anyone who has bothered reading here will have some idea that I’ve been learning about making games lately.  I haven’t written in a bit, because it’s a lot of learning and I have very little that’s finished enough to show off.  Yesterday, I got bored of working on my networking code, and decided to learn what these things called shaders were.  Luckily, I already knew about the CLinch framework, which had some shader support built in, so I could dive in without having to worry about linking and compiling them myself.

I played around a bit and made a spinning cube with some shading working, but man, having to work with C syntax again was frustrating.  Even more so was having to define the variables for the shader programs both in their explicit code and twice in the lisp that managed them as well.  That sort of work duplication is the sort of thing I think Lisp is well-suited to avoid, so I decided there needed to be yet another library for parsing lisp syntax into a lower-level language, so I started cl-glsl.

It’s 5:30 am now, and it can already turn this:

(cl-glsl:translate
(defun main ()
(let ((intensity :float)
(color     :vec4)
(tex-color :vec4 (texture2D texture01 v-texture-coord)))
(setf intensity (dot light-dir (normalize normal)))

(cond
((> intensity 0.95)
(setf color (* tex-color (vec4 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0))))
((> intensity 0.5)
(setf color (* tex-color (vec4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.6))))
((> intensity 0.25)
(setf color (* tex-color (vec4 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.4))))
(t
(setf color (* tex-color (vec4 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2)))))

(setf gl_frag-color color))))

into this:

void main () {
float intensity;
vec4 color;
vec4 texColor = texture2d(texture01, vTextureCoord);

intensity = dot(lightDir, normalize(normal));
if (intensity > 0.95) {
color = (texColor * vec4(1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0));
} else if (intensity > 0.5) {
color = (texColor * vec4(0.6, 0.6, 0.6, 0.6));
} else if (intensity > 0.25) {
color = (texColor * vec4(0.4, 0.4, 0.4, 0.4));
} else {
color = (texColor * vec4(0.2, 0.2, 0.2, 0.2));
}
gl_FragColor = color;

}

Which I’m going to call a resounding success and maybe go lie down now. Links to cl-glsl will appear here when and if it proves useful at all.

Good night!

Today is the second day of our trip to Canada to look at apartments. So far, we’ve learned

* Your phone is not unlocked, even if the internet seems to say it should be. If it seems like Verizon did something kind, that information is wrong.
* Getting a cheap, prepaid Sim card with a phone is pretty easy. Tel us gives you \$20 credit when you buy a phone.
* Canada looks a lot like the US but the store names are different.
* Finding apartments is horrible regardless of which country you’re in.

# No Gods, No Bosses

Andy Wingo from Igalia has started writing about the company and their cooperatively run organization on his blog.  It’s interesting both because of the exciting way they organize and run themselves, but also in the language Andy chose to use to talk about them.

Nobody likes to talk about Anarchism these days, and people who use its lexicon are usually buried in the media, as the recent Occupy movement was.  It’s an immediate red-flag, and I know I intentionally avoid using words like “revolution” and even calling Anarchism by its name because I think people will just shut off and stop listening to me if I say them.  I find this sad, and I’m sadder still that I self-censor in this way, because there are important things to say, that I care dearly about, which use these words.

What I mean to say is that I really appreciate both the content of Andy’s posts and how he chose to write them.  it makes me feel a little braver, a little more comfortable with something that is part of who I am and what I believe, and safer bringing it up in public.

You can find the introduction here and the first part here.

And for something fun and related, here’s some Chumbawamba!

# C2E2

This past weekend was the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo and, having been meaning to try going to a con for a few months now, I decided to get tickets. For my first convention, one-day tickets for Saturday seemed plenty to get me overstimulated and looking for a hole to crawl into by the end of the day.

I met up with my guides around 11, and we made it down to the south side, where the McCormick center is located by a not before 12:30, when we finally made it into the hall.

It was enormous in there.
I have never seen so many little action figures, toys, and comics in one place. Not to mention the art, which was all sorts of styles I don’t get to see enough, sporting all permutations of popular game characters and styles. There certainly was no want of things to buy.

Some of it was really creatively done, but I think in retrospect, with the afterimages of star trek medallions faded from my eyes, a lot of it was crap based on popular shows and comics. This is probably just my mental image of the event not lining up with what it actually was supposed to be, but I would have loved to see more original work there – less of the industrially produced story and some of the greater breadth of storytelling that has been gaining fame in comics lately.

Even the panels had a lot of a corporate feel to them. The first one I visited was on role playing and tabletop games, and what was supposed by the three panelists to be new and exciting in them. They did have a few honest suggestions, which I’m hoping to look into, but after the first run through the panel died the death of industry talk and made up business speak that I hated when I worked at SAP.

The second panel, though, was on censorship and comics, and was far and away the most interesting thing I witnessed that day. There, I heard about rulings as recent as the 80′s, when an artist was told he was not allowed to draw – complete with random house checks by the police to make sure he hasn’t been drawing. The artist was Mike Diana and the comic that landed him in trouble was called boiled angel. An earlier comic battle was back in the 50′s, when Bill Gaines testified in downtown NYC that horror comics were not obscene and should be allowed to be sold as they were. Unfortunately, public opinion was against him and led to strict rules on what could be printed in comics for decades. The speaker was from the comic book defense league, and was a great speaker.

Finally, to end on a question, it was exciting to see all of the costumes at the show. People obviously took a lot of time to design and make them, and it was fun to have superheroes and demons walking around, but there is obviously a gap between the genders in skin shown and body parts on display. I certainly have no problem with anyone wearing a revealing costume, I just worry about the double standards that are obviously there somewhere, and I hope that gap will close somehow in the near future. We need more brave men in sexy costumes, I think!

# Reintegration into Society

It’s been nearly six months now since I held a job I did more than one day a week. It’s been a year and a half since I worked acting close to full time, and even that was an internship. On a certain level, it feels like a cop out to call a matters position in physics my first full-time job since graduating, bit it’s the closest I’ve got, and I’m getting very excited for it, so it will have to do.

While I’m excited about the future and the work I’ll get to do, I’m now faces with for months until I go, and what to do in that time. Certainly don’t of it is to breathe a sigh of relief that I have a job waiting for me, but after that congress the doubt and uncertainty.

Having not worked for a while, I feel anchors about going back to a work environment, even one as open as academic research can be. When you’ve been unemployed a while, you go out less, because you can’t afford to eat out, or go out for drinks, and so you see less of other people as a result.

Can I still deal with criticism? How long will it take to get used to working with other people again? I know these problems will sort themselves out, but there’s still doubt and fear even now as I’m happy to have a chance to do science again, something I thought was slipping away from me.

Fear and doubting aside, realizing how much socializing can cost was disappointing, as was realizing how few ways I knew to do it. Lately, I’ve been spending more time trying to think of good ways of guttering people together with less of a buying things aspect, and I’m hoping to have more game and movie nights, as well as language practice nights in the near future.