Thursday, October 6, 2011

In a Blink

Hey again everybody,

There has been plenty of discussion about Steve Jobs in the last day or so and in the interest of not duplicating the thousands of articles and memorials I would like to talk about a somewhat related but personal take on my feelings in the last day.

These sentiments have presented themselves fairly often recently for me, with finishing up my masters degree very soon and figuring out how to start my adult life, I've been able to reflect on the many changes coming to my lifestyle in the months to come.  In recent weeks I have come to the realization that I am 23 years old now. This seems obvious, but it's actually something that hasn't really occurred to me in a while.  Considering that the odds of my living past 90 are extremely slim, this means I've made it a quarter of the way through my life.  Looking back at what I've accomplished so far does make me quite proud of how far I've come, but I have also come to realize that I have many ideas as for what to do with my life, but have executed very little of the overall plan.  From the time I was quite young, it was always expected that I go to university, and since I loved learning so much it seemed like an obvious choice.  I will always enjoy learning, and if I was given the choice of perfect career for me now it would be incredible to go to medical school or become an astronaut, though neither of those are really realistic choices.

I have always thought this, through all of my schooling and any time in life. I was always pretty sure I could go out and get whatever I wanted if I worked hard enough, but you cannot just go out into the world with no reputation and be hired or start your dream job.  People need to know what you are capable of before they decide to trust you to make decisions on your own.  It would be incredible to work at a company like Microsoft or Apple and I'm sure I could do an excellent job there, but just wanting it isn't good enough, no matter how hard you work.  Actual achievement takes more than that.  I have been told that I'm a fairly good writer, and in every endeavour I do my best to be the real me, which means that I always have to consider my impression on people.

Many, many people are extremely self-conscious, and I am not going to try to pretend that I'm not exactly the same as them, but I do approach situations differently than most people would.  I make mistakes like the next person, but I live with the mindset that if I am the real me all the time, I can still earn people's respect for it.  Nobody is perfect, and anybody who tries too hard to be will often be disappointed in themselves.  I know that I can't always give everything my best shot, there will be situations where I will be lazy, or make a bad decision which will wind up costing me opportunity.  I refuse to dwell on these decisions and their consequences, instead dealing with the problems which come from them and ending up a stronger person for it.

In the last year or so, I have set myself down a path which has been the result of some of these decisions.  For example, I am trying to learn computer programming, and have been for almost a year now.  When I first took the plunge I still had a fairly good understanding computers, both in how they work and how to use them to their full potential.  The main problem I have is that I keep trying to learn, because this is what I was trained by almost 20 years of education to do.  What I have so far failed to do is actually apply this knowledge to solve my own problems.  Since computers have been around for a few decades now, a lot of the hard work in programming is already done.  What remains makes it quite easy for newcomers to essentially pick up lego bricks and start building.  However, I have so far been unable to actually use these pieces to create something new, instead ending up using what other people have done for my benefit.  It is very difficult for me to comprehend why I have been unsuccessful so far, but I do intend to keep trying.

Another important point about adult life is the idea that as I am aging, everybody around me is also aging.  While this is extremely obvious when you have been away from your family and friends (as I have) for almost a year, gradual changes in people you seem on a regular basis are very hard to detect.  Many people I am friends with who I met in university are now full-fledged professional adults.  This happened quite gradually, for example I knew when people were graduating but it never really occurred to me that this meant that they were no longer in school and were finding jobs and careers.  I realize in talking to these people now that many things I take for granted no longer apply to them (such as student bus passes, student cell phone plans, etc.).  The thought of joining this world baffles and terrifies me, but it is also kind of exciting.  I know that nobody in the world is sitting watching my progress ready to offer me a job the second I finish school and I could continue on the same path I'm on unemployed and eventually either find a job or descend into hobodom.  I wouldn't really like to be homeless, but at the same time I don't intend to make a career out of something I don't really love.  What I really need to do is get out of the mindset that I am a student with no direction in life, and go find a compass.  I will never be found if nobody out there is looking for me.  Now that I am on the verge of finishing school, I very much need to find myself something new to try and really dedicate myself to it.  Only then will I find what I'm really meant to do.

If you haven't seen the video of Steve Jobs giving the 2005 commencement address at Stanford, I highly recommend it.  Beautiful, moving stuff.  I guess I have a lot to think about.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Multi (hold-on) tasking

After over a decade of using Windows-based PC systems (ranging from Windows 95 through the developer version of Windows 8) and two years of iPod Touch and iPhone operating systems, I have learned quite a few things about how computers work. However, that is not what I intend to talk about today. What I want to discuss today is what I've come to realize about modern computers systems and what we can learn about ourselves when it comes to these systems.  In the early days of computing, DOS and UNIX systems were based on text entry, and these only allowed one program to run at a time, due to limited resources.  These were days before computer games had amazing graphics and before internet video became possible because you had to dial into the internet.  At this time, you could only realistically do one thing at a time, and it was fairly easy to focus on one thing at a time.

Sometime in the late 90s, a drastic change was made to systems like Mac OS X and Windows 95/98 which featured graphical interfaces and windows which contained much more interactive programs featuring menus and a variety of options within the program.  Under this paradigm, you can use several programs all at the same time, which leads to the ability to play music, surf the internet and play a game all at the same time.  This new idea brought about a major change in the way people get work done, because it enables easy copying and pasting of information between programs.  However, not everything about the way this works is good news.  With the ability to perform multiple tasks across multiple programs simultaneously comes the ability to be very easily distracted.  In more and more modern computers, and with modern operating systems, this ability to do more has become even easier.  In using Windows Vista and 7,  and the various incarnations of Mac OS X, is it very easy to get lost in a multitude of programs and lose sight of any work or task at hand.

I have found that this is also true with cell phones and with internet enabled televisions.  Basically if you can do multiple things on any one device at once, you get lost in a limbo wherein you can only half-heartedly focus on either one but you lose sight of both.  For example, when participating in conversations with people, it is possible to fully invest yourself in the conversation, but if any or all of the individuals have cell phones or laptops with them, it is easy for the whole group to fall into a pattern of texting, checking email or reading and lose the conversation.  Now, while this is certainly an effect of these devices, this isn't necessarily a horrible thing. In fact, it can be beneficial to have one or more internet enabled devices when in conversation as it quickly clears up informational gaps and settles disputes (this was actually where the original idea for the Guinness book of records came from).  The problem I have discovered with this happening too often is that you actually tend to lose sight of the task at hand when several tasks are presented to you. With a conversation in person and via text going on at the same time, it is very difficult to separate the two and focus on each. When watching TV while on a laptop, it is very difficult to pay full attention to the show, and it is a very different experience.  One of the major points made by iPad detractors is that it is not capable of true multi-tasking, although that is actually not really true.  The reality is, the iPad is simply not going to show you the content of more than one app at any given time.  It will notify you of something happening elsewhere on the device, but that is all that will happen.  Some say this lessens the overall experience, but allow me to make a different point.

I find time and time again, when watching a television show on the iPad, I tend to pay more attention to it, even if I'm chatting on it, because of this single-task functionality.  When something happens, I can choose to ignore it, or I can leave what I was watching behind, reply to the message, and then return to the video and restart it.  While this seems like a hassle, it allows for real enjoyment of the video, and actually lets me multitask less (spending more time focusing on the task at hand). The same is true of Mac OS X Lion and Windows 8; I can focus on tasks in full screen mode, blocking everything else out and replying or doing other tasks on my own schedule, I don't give myself extra excuses to stop working.  I sincerely do hope the computing world continues in this direction, we will all be much more productive if that is the case, especially because switching between tasks endlessly is what allows us to spend so much time procrastinating.  Maybe only doing one thing at a time isn't the worst thing ever.