Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Life Lessons of 2012

'Tis the season!
Hey again everybody, it seems that the Christmas season is upon us again, which of course means that it is a great time to reflect on the important ideas of peace, love and harmony, and to spend time with friends and family. It is also a great opportunity to reflect on the past year and gaze into the next one, which is what I intend to do today.

2012 was a very odd year for me overall, sort of a transition year from my schooling into real life. It has been a full year now since I defended my masters degree, and though objectively I am not much further along than the day I finished my degree, I have grown a tremendous amount in the last 12 months. Between the six months I spent working in a retail electronics store, and the 6 months I spent primarily job hunting and unemployed, I gained a ton of life experience and came to have a better understanding of what I want to do with my life, as well as what I want from my future.

There are also two very important lessons I have learned in the last year that I would really like to express here, in the hope that perhaps somebody reading this can gain something from hearing it.


The first lesson, and easily the most important to me, is the understanding that every person on Earth shares some manner of similarities with every single other person, and that is what makes us human. More importantly though, each and every person also has something or things that make them totally different from any other person they will ever meet. As I grow fully into adulthood, this really comes sharply into focus. This is the reason that life is a wonderful, beautiful thing, but it is also the reason that nothing will ever be perfect. For every intellectual, there is an idiot. For each angel, there is a Westboro Baptist.

Every single person on Earth has weaknesses, but most have strengths that outshine any inadequacies. In the same way that people can join together and provide assistance to hurricane victims and their families, there will always be politicians and lobbyists clamouring to defend terrible, antiquated legislation to make a quick buck or gain power and influence. We live in an ever-changing world where absolutely nothing can be known for certain, and knowing and believing that is a very humbling experience. All anybody can do is their individual best to find happiness, while passing that happiness along at any opportunity. If you are currently being presented with a chance to be happy, but worrying about possible negative impacts or fallout that decision may have, you have not fully grasped the idea that the world we live in is a truly random place, wherein incredible and horrible things happen all the time in equal measure.

It is my strong personal conviction that you should always take a chance on love, whatever that may entail. If there is someone in your life that you care about, tell them today before they disappear. If you are passionate about anything in life, you need to attack it with every fibre of your being, or risk losing the chance to be truly happy. If you find yourself worrying about making the wrong decision about something you feel you truly love, then what you should really consider is whether that love is real. The decision to withhold anything from yourself on the basis that somebody might make you feel guilty about it later is just an awful way to live your life. Unfortunately for 85% of the worlds population, guilt-based decision making rules our modern world.

There are certain obvious circumstances, such as those regarding illegality and massive financial endeavour, wherein a desire to do something does not necessarily mean action is warranted, but in the vast majority of situations, moral code dictates that nobody should have the power to hold guilt over you.

To close out the details of this first lesson, it has recently become evident to me that living in modern human society, if you truly love something, you can wait your whole life for something to be perfect, or you can spend your life enjoying every day, bathing in the pool of randomness, and gaining a better understanding of what you truly want. Yes, this is also a recipe for making mistakes, but forgiveness of those small mistakes while attempting to achieve happiness should be rewarded, and not punished. Seize the day, as though every one after Dec. 21, 2012 is just a bonus.



My second lesson, which in some regards is just as, or even more, important, is that everybody has a place in this world. Though I have not yet found my ideal niche, I know there is a nest out there for me that is a perfect fit, and that an impassioned search will yield results.

There are always going to be two kinds of people in the world, those who help, and those who create. A select few people will certainly be both in equal parts, and people who help will definitely create as well, and vice versa. In order to be successful in life, you must either find something you can do that can help out society, or you can create new things that you feel are important. What matters most in either of those domains is the idea of passion.

In my search for a career in a modern world, I have come to the realization that the simple matter of having a university education does not, and should not, qualify you for anything. To actually spend your life doing something worthwhile, you must apply concepts learned throughout your schooling, as well as your life, to something you care deeply about. In trying to make myself appealing to potential employers, I began my quest by simply listing everything I have accomplished up until now. While this is by no means a fruitless enterprise, nobody is ever going to hire a graduate based on the fact that they graduated. Getting a job is much more about timing than it is about qualifications. If you make a good impression on someone, and they are looking to hire right now, you can get that job even if you are lacking experience.

This goes back to the fact that all humans are the same, and here's an example:
If I walk around downtown Ottawa, and I hand out business cards to strangers, telling people that I have a degree in chemistry and referring them to my website, does that person have any inclination to offer me anything? Likewise, if you received an unsolicited phone call from a telemarketer offering you a product you hadn't heard of and telling you it is great, would you accept the offer?
 The answer, in both cases, is probably no. There is an off-chance you run into a chemical researcher who happens to be looking for a research associate, just like there is a chance you own a dry log cabin in the woods and you are offered fire insurance. The odds of finding someone who needs your particular skills get fewer and further between the more education you have. At a certain point, you must demonstrate how you can fill a need in that persons world, and simultaneously show them that you are passionate about what they need you to do.

For me personally, the most important part of this lesson for me was the fact that I need to create more. I help people constantly, and in some cases that help isn't even asked of me, or desired. So I have decided to focus more on creation. In writing this blog (over the last 6 months or so especially), I have come to realize that it doesn't even matter what you create, so long as you are doing so passionately. If you create something you care about, it will benefit you in the long run. If somebody recognizes the importance of your creation, that is even better, but you have to be doing it for yourself as well if you want it to truly mean something.

I have a passion for writing, putting words into cohesive (sometimes) thoughts really makes me feel like I have accomplished something. I also have a passion for other more theatrical creative pursuits, but these are not developed in the way that writing has been for me. I have no evidence to date that anything will come of this, but I will certainly continue to do it as long and as often as I feel so inclined.

I am also going to do my best to make myself appealing to those people who preceded me in entering the adult world, so that one day I can join them in considering myself a true grown-up.


So, those are the lessons I have learned the last 365.25 days or so, I really hope you were able to take something from it, I know I learned a lot in writing all of that out. I sincerely hope, for those of you who are spending time with those you care about right now and over the coming days, that you have told them recently just how special they are to you, and that you will continue to take every opportunity to do so.

tl;dr Love unashamedly and pursue your passions, and you will be truly happy!

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday,
Love,
Rob

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What should the next hangout be?

Okay, I've gotten a lot of good feedback about the first hangout, and though I know there are a few kinks and issues, as well as some unfortunate timing for a couple of people, I'm very pleased with how it went, and for those of you who are interested, the link to the video on YouTube is right here, and I've embedded it here as well. I'm going to try out a few more things in the meantime to make the information more available and relevant, and it also ended up showing off a few of the more interesting features of hangouts, a marquee feature of Google+. Ideally there would be a way to annotate the video to fast forward to specific topics, but really what it comes down to is participation from you guys. Whether it's asking questions beforehand, or coming and asking during the hangout, on video or through some form of messaging, it makes it much more interesting and compelling if you guys give your say. In that light, I'm going to make a little informal poll to see if there is any interest on a specific topic, as well as to see if there is a time that works better for a larger audience. I might also take it upon myself to do a few shorter videos in the meantime, on more specific, easily digestible topics.





Thanks guys, I really appreciate hearing from you. I will keep everyone updated!

iMessage (a wonderful life, when it works)

Last year, upon the release of iMessage, I described and suggested to friends a method wherein users of iPhone and iPad/Mac computers could receive messages on both their phone and other device, so long as they used their email address with iMessage, since sending an iMessage to a phone number only resulted in the iPhone getting the message. An iMessage email address could be tied to any number of devices, and messages would be synced across all of the devices.

And a year ago, iMessages that were sent using email addresses always seemed to be somewhat delayed in reaching the iPad as compared to the iPhone. While at the time it seemed like that was just a quirk with the iPad and iMessages not being configured quite well for them, I have to change my opinion on iMessages from my previous recommendation.

As of the most recent update to Mac OS X, you can receive iMessages on your Mac from a phone number as well, so long as that phone number is associated with an iPhone using the same Apple ID. The same is true of FaceTime, the Apple video chat application. Same thing goes for iPads as well, phone numbers can now be used to have messages sent to all of your devices.

Starting new conversations from your phone
number is asure way to ensure your
messages will sync across devices.
If you are like me, and think that having two devices at which you can be reached is silly, you should definitely use your phone number as the main hub for all of your messages. While there still seems to be a delay on iMessages to email addresses on iPad or Mac, no such delay is present for phone numbers. Now, I understand that for some people, having your text messages show up on your computer might be cause for concern, especially if you tend to leave your computer in places where other people might come across it. Text messages are generally considered to be one of the more private forms of virtual communication, but if you aren't concerned so much about getting outed by someone reading your conversations (most probably do tend to be fairly vanilla), I would seriously recommend doing this. Really, it is just bringing us one step closer to a universal messaging system.

Read receipts are
really handy!
Finally, there is an option in iOS messages wherein you can send read receipts to the people you iMessage with. This is a very nice option to offer to the people you talk to, and while I have spoken to people who really don't like it, if you think about how often you wonder with a text message whether or not your message has actually been read, you can understand how nice a feature this really is.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Unboxing of the new iPad (4th Gen. Wifi + Cellular)

Welcome indeed!
Okay, so I have been looking forward to reviewing new toys I get, and since I was sitting at my computer while opening my new, 4th generation iPad with wifi and cellular connectivity, I decided to take some pictures of the unboxing process, so I can discuss the iPad, how it has changed in the new generation and what to expect from the new version. I should point out, I owned the 3rd generation iPad from launch day, and it has been my favourite thing since that at day.


The baby is going to get all the attention.
Most people are extremely confused by the new iPad, because the iPad 2 is still on sale in Apple stores. I will admit that if you don't follow the news, it is pretty difficult to understand what is the newest product. Even apple store employees have trouble explaining this. If the progression of iPad naming was linear and consistent, you would have four iPads all named by their generation of release (1st, 2nd, 3rd and now 4th generation iPads all in order). The problem arose when after coming out with the iPad, they called the 2nd iPad the "iPad 2". When they introduced the 3rd generation iPad, they went back to the standard naming convention, and dropped the numeral in the title. So for the last 2 years, you could buy the iPad 2 (the old iPad) or the iPad (the new iPad, which could have been called the iPad 3 and now iPad 4, but is just called iPad). The iPad 2 saves you $100, but is now 2 generations and almost 2 years old. It has a very low resolution screen and runs on an outdated processor. It is well worth it to spend the extra $100 to upgrade.



First, opening the box, you see that everything is perfectly laid out to protect the iPad and its accessories, but also to make it easy and convenient to remove them. Apple always goes to great lengths to make every step of the opening process easy and simple.

After removing the iPad from its protective plastic sheath, starting up the iPad gives you a glimpse of its beautiful, high resolution screen. The process of setting up the iPad requires you to get it onto the Internet to activate it, but aside from that and signing into your iCloud account, the process only takes a few minutes. Soon you will be having fun playing with your iPad!

The 4th generation iPad, on the outside, has very little visible difference from its predecessor. There are, however, several important differences that will have an impact on your everyday use. The only visible, and most important difference, is the lightning connector on the bottom. This is probably the main reason this iPad was released, because it brings all of the newest generation of apple products up to the same connector. This connector is 80% smaller than the old 30-pin connector, is reversible, and does seem to allow for some faster charging than the old connector. Additionally, on the outside, the iPad AC adapter was improved, going from a 10W charger to a 12W one, an increase of 20%, which should allow for faster changing as well.

Another difference that will actually be visible is that the front facing camera was been updated to a much higher resolution, so that you will actually be able to take front facing photos and partake in video chats without having an incredibly blurry face. This is noticeable right away and will allow for a huge improvement in your experience.

The processor in the new iPad is also twice as fast as the previous generation, which definitely makes day to day tasks and loading programs much faster. Additionally, on the inside, the cellular and wifi radios are improved in order to allow the iPad to connect to LTE networks in more places around the world, while wifi performance is doubled compared to the old generation.

Start using iPad: don't mind if I do!
Lightning!
Other than those differences, this iPad is pretty similar to the old one, and you definitely shouldn't worry about it if you have the 3rd generation iPad, you are not missing much. I expect the next generation iPad will have a form more like the iPad mini, and should be the upgrade you hold out for. Whether or not that happens on the old release schedule (around March) or the new schedule (almost a year from now in October), any retina iPad will do just fine until the next upgrade cycle.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Hangout: Saturday, December 1st @ 1PM - Smartphones

Alright, the date is almost upon us. In trying to prepare for the discussion, I think it would do well to come up with some sample topics. I could probably talk about cell phones for hours on end myself, but that just would not be interesting to anyone but me! I think it would be better with some audience participation, but I only get ideas from you guys. Luckily for me, I have had enough conversations about smartphones that there should be plenty to talk about.

First of all, there are a large number of ways people could be using their phones that they simply don't know about. There are also hundreds of little helpful features that modern cell phones come with to make everyday life easier and simpler. I would like to share a few of these that I've found over the years, as well as perhaps hearing from some of you, if anyone has a neat tip for smartphone users who are maybe less comfortable than they could be.

Second, I know I want to open up a little discussion about cell phone contracts. Obviously, there are some upsides to signing onto three year plans with your favourite cell provider, but there are also a few pitfalls, and things to watch out for. I will share some of my "horror" stories with cell phone contracts, and I'd love to hear if anybody else has any interesting stories.

Next, as I have written about on a few occasions, I would also like to discuss the differences between the various cell phones available on the market today. I have no intention of starting a flame war, as I have no problem with Android or Windows Phone, but having done considerable research on iPhone, I would like to share some reasons why I chose them over my other options.

There are also a few other discussions that I feel would fit well with this theme, like tablets (their uses and function, how they are, or should be, used), phone cases (both form and function, and the look of a phone in a case versus the protection it gives), apps (from must-haves, to ones that are great every once in a while), and lastly perhaps a discussion about the future of smartphones, Google Glass(es) for example.

As I mentioned before, if you have any input, please don't hesitate to make it known to me, and I will be sure to discuss any questions people bring up as well.

Lastly, on the topic of signing up for, or using Google+, the registration process is quite straightforward at plus.google.com, so I won't bother explaining too much, but once you have signed up, if you add me to one of your circles (there is a link to my profile on the right of this page) you will be able to access the hangout from a desktop computer when it comes up. I will also be posting the live link to watch the video, if you don't feel like participating, about 10-15 before the hangout, so you can follow along). I incorrectly stated that you will be able to join the video chat from your phone, this is not yet possible for this type of broadcast, but hopefully it will be added soon.

Currently the time for the broadcast sits at 1PM, and I will be sure to alert everyone should that be delayed at all. I hope to see everyone tomorrow!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

iOS - Tips and Tricks: Keyboard

See "Shortcuts" near the bottom.
 I am hoping to do lots of these little guys, since they are pretty useful and only take 5 minutes. In preparation for my first Google+ Hangout on Air on Saturday (around 1PM), I would like to give you a taste of the kind of little things you can expect to learn in 2 days time. This little trick isn't that new, but I have found it to be extremely useful, even if you only use it for this one purpose.

Basically, on iPhone (or iPod or iPad), under Settings> General> Keyboard, right at the bottom is an area titled "Shortcuts". This allows you to create shorthand phrases for things you commonly type into your phone (for me, that is my long, annoying email address). As you can see, I have set it up so that when I type the characters ratt into anywhere on the phone, my email will pop up as an "auto-correct" type popup. Simply hitting space, or pressing on the popup itself will complete the entire address, saving you a lot of switching between keyboards for the various characters needed for email addresses. This is something I use every single day, and that everyone should know about.


I hope you can make good use of it! I am expecting to get together a short instructional post about signing up for a Google+ account, which will be required to actually participate in my Hangout, this should be available in the next 24 hours. However, if you are impatient, you can visit plus.google.com, or download the Google+ app from either your iDevice or your Android phone/tablet, and follow the instructions, which are pretty straightforward. If you already have a Google (or Gmail) account, things couldn't be simpler, all you have to do is accept the terms for Google+ and you are ready to go.

For those of you who do wish to participate, all you have to do is head to the link on the right of this page by the G+ logo and my picture, and you can add me to one of your circles. Otherwise, you can always just submit your question, as per the contact info here. I really hope to see you all on Saturday, and I will be releasing a list of topics I'd like to get through, ideally tomorrow, so that people can look through it and suggest changes or additional topics. Thanks!


Monday, November 26, 2012

The Time has Come

Okay guys, I have thought about this enough, it is time to act. I have decided on a time for the inaugural vodcast I mentioned in a previous post here. If anybody would like to actively participate (i.e. join the video chat directly) I will be coming up with a set of instructions on how to do so in the next day or two, but if you have a Google+ account already (that you should, but never do, use) all you will need to do is find the link at the appropriate time and you can join the hangout. I will also be posting a link to Facebook and Twitter for those of you who don't feel like being in front of a camera, but who would still like to participate, so that you can watch and comment, or ask as many questions as you can come up with.

Though this chat will be broadcasting live through Google+, it will also be up on YouTube during and after the fact, so even if you don't want to join Google+, you don't have to miss out.

As for the topic of the show, I am expecting very little participation right off the bat, so I will have a few topics prepared, but for the time being my focus is intended to be all about smartphones. Be it features, choices, prices, options, tricks, tips, anything under the sun, I will open up the floor to questions anybody might have on their current or future cell phone. I will be taking questions by email (me@RobAttrell.com), through the Facebook comment thread (robert.attrell), by SMS or iMessage (613.255.3311), via Twitter (@RobAttrell) or Google+ (see profile at right of this post), and of course you can always join the Google+ hangout itself and say hello, to ask your question in person.
Even Barack Obama has done one of these.

Currently I am looking to do this on Saturday afternoon, around perhaps 1 PM. I will update if that changes or if it needs minor adjustments. Those of you who have expressed an interest in helping me with this or participating on-air should let me know if they have anything they would like to add. I am also open to suggestions for new future topics, I would like to branch into science-based topics as well. I would really love to hear from all of you, after all, there are no stupid questions.

I will update everything as events warrant it, and I look forward to you all seeing me Saturday!

Monday, November 19, 2012

When I grow up, I want to be _______

Okay, I got a fun idea for a little mini-series that will let me kill two birds with one stone, given that I want to write as much as I can in ways that will be helpful to my future careers, as well as round out my online résumé. On that note, I am going to write a series (starting) with 4 posts about careers which I feel qualified for, as well as why I feel I could do them and what specific job titles fall under that categorical umbrella. The first one of these will be posted momentarily, and all of the essays will be linked to this post eventually, once they're done. Hopefully by the end of this experiment I will be able to narrow down my focus to only one or two career options.

Up first: Research Scientist!

Ps. For those of you who frequent the blog, you will notice a pretty stark change in scenery. I did this to make it a little more consistent, at least logistically, with my website itself. This will hopefully facilitate navigation, as well as making the blog load faster, which I am sure you will notice.

When I grow up, Part 1: Research Scientist

Why I would like to be a research scientist:

The jobs I feel this title encompasses includes (but is not at all limited to) doctor, astronaut, researcher, science officer, engineer.

Since I was a very young child, I have always been fascinated with Science. It is a field of extremely useful and relevant insight into the human condition, and can help us simultaneously understand the smallest bacterium and the largest galaxy. The fact that all of the same rules apply anywhere in the universe is a very humbling idea, but also a very powerful one. Science can be used to peer into the deepest, darkest reaches of the universe, or inside ourselves down to the atomic scale, yet the same basic set of facts hold true.

For most of my life, in fact in my whole living memory, I have been extremely curious about pretty much every scientific domain. Whether that is chemistry (which ended up being my primary field of study at the post-secondary level), physics, biology, medicine, astronomy, or geology, I have always found myself captivated by the joy of collecting knowledge and information.

Growing up, and in most cases to this day, what I learn lines up with what I already know, validating the current knowledge base. But this is not where the joy of science comes in. I think that is a common misconception of “civilians” when discussing science as a method. When something comes along that flies in the face of what we have agreed is the best explanation for a given phenomenon, we have to alter the theory so that it fits all evidence. This is not a failure of the scientific method; it is actually its most wonderful feature. If everything that happened in the universe fit perfectly into our existing knowledge base, the world would be an incredibly boring place. There could be little or no scientific or technological innovation if we learned everything there was to know about the world, or if new experiments ceased to give us new information about our existence. If science had run up against that wall at any point in history, society as a whole would be much worse off.

The absolute most wonderful part of science is its ability to see past political lines, beyond personal opinion or celebrated intelligence. For example, in the Middle Ages, or perhaps a little earlier, it was commonly thought that the world was flat and that that the earth was the center of the whole universe. This in itself is a very egotistical idea, but nevertheless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that view at the time, and scientists around (umm aflat?) the world, given their evidence, had no choice but to think that. However, the problem arose when scientists like the famous Galileo Galilei started to encounter evidence to show that the Earth had to be round, and that it was very likely that the Sun was actually in the center of our little universe (the solar system). This evidence was merely the scientific method at work, and required modification of the existing theories about our world, but certain parties considered it heresy and (infamously) banished him to house arrest.

The point of this story is that in order to be a scientist, at least in the strictest definition, you really have to be able to put the truth above all preconceptions and personal notions. I think of myself as being ideal for this type of work because I care deeply about understanding the universe the way it is, not fitting it into some template of prior expectations. In this way I am more than capable of being objective in the face of unexpected results in any part of my life. I am always very excited to let the scientific method determine the outcome of experiment.

In the course of learning about chemistry at the post-secondary level, I have come to realize that none of the sciences are really so different once you understand one. So while I have training in chemistry, and specifically in solid-state NMR and computational methods thereof, my training has also prepared me to learn and understand any of the sciences. Over the course of a four year university degree, we are taught to read up on scientific literature, ask any questions we have, and then enter into a lab environment to perform specific experiments based on the learned concepts. In general, extensive training on these concepts is not given, and experiments in these labs are rarely done more than once in the same way. By this logic, for a competent scientist, an experiment which holds interest for the experimenter can easily be accomplished with minimal training, regardless of the specific scientific discipline.

All of this considered, I believe I have the experience, know-how and specific skills and aptitudes to be an excellent research scientist.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing on the Internet

I would like to dedicate this post to Matthew Inman, creator of the Oatmeal.

He wrote a really wonderful and beautiful post today about writing on the internet. You can see it at the link above, but basically it outlines why he loves writing and cartooning and comicing on the internet. It really is a fantastical place once you get to know people and people start to get to know you. Of course, Matt is a major success story, very few people can actually be successful doing what he does.

The great thing that happened to me as I was reading it, though, is that I found that probably the best and best known writer on the internet encounters all of the same problems and nuances of writing as I do. From spending hours thinking about a topic and writing nothing, to waking up at 3 AM and pouring your heart out, you do what you have to when the mood strikes. I would absolutely love to get the chance to write professionally on the Internet, but I'm not quite there yet. I hope that one day soon though, that I would be so lucky as to get the chance to do what I am so passionate about as my primary job.

That is a pretty basic human desire, and we should all get to do it, at least for a little while in our lives. For the time being though, I am going to keep writing about what I love, and I hope you all enjoy reading what I have to say. I definitely have a few ideas cooking, and I intend to see them through.

Do go read the comic I'm talking about at the Oatmeal though, here's the link:

(The Oatmeal)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Growing up

In my continual hunt for reasonable, grown-up employment, I find I continue to bump up against a ceiling which is probably the only step on the road to adulthood I was never warned about. Growing up, I was given to understand that in order to become a functioning adult, I should go through school, toeing the line and staying out of trouble. If I did that, and got good grades while doing so (which really isn't that difficult if you stay out of trouble), it was said that I could go to university. The land of academia, especially of the post-secondary variety, was my biggest aspiration in my mid-teens. What I forgot to consider, though, is that there is life beyond academic endeavours.

Though while I was growing up I considered many professions, including but not limited to lawyer, doctor and astronaut. I wrote these off, as I had no interest in pursing a career whose status is such that a high degree of competition would mean that my enjoyment of the work would be lessened by having to spend perhaps years in a cut-throat environment where nice guys like me are sure to finish last, regardless of aptitude or intelligence. I decided that given my enjoyment of the sciences (chemistry in particular), doing research to further my understanding of the world around us would be an excellent intellectual pursuit. I attended university in those interests, satisfied my curiosity, and completed all the tasks set by my various professors. When it came time to finish my studies and leave university, all indications were that it would be reasonable to delay my exit from academia for a while, as the economy, and therefore the job market, were not conducive to finding relevant employment. Since I had forged a few connections with faculty on campus, I was able to arrange a master's degree, even though from an academic standpoint I was a pretty big risk for professors using their funding.

Over the course of my master's work, which was a follow-up to research I began during my undergraduate degree, I became disenfranchised with the focus of my studies, solid-state NMR. I maintained a scientific curiosity, but had very little interest in pursuing this kind of fundamental research as a career. I arranged to wrap up my research and complete the degree in a little over 12 months, it was not worth leaving at that point in the degree, given that I had already handed a few thousand dollars to the university. In the end, I was able to finish the degree in 13 months, and felt confident my background in research and evident love of science would qualify me for any number of jobs.

While I was working in the lab during my undergraduate and master's research, I also developed a love for computers, computer science, and technology in general. This is a passion which sticks with me to this day, and in fact has only grown. The field of computer science, and the myriad opportunities it holds, are also of great interest to me in terms of careers.

What I have found, more than anything so far since I left home 6 years ago, is that given a small amount of necessary training, I can accomplish pretty much anything I set my mind to. However, you cannot get hired to do "anything", and therefore I am having real trouble narrowing my career focus. The resulting uncertainty is extremely disconcerting to me, my family and my close friends, but the fact is I would prefer not to actively exclude any particular career, especially if I can work at an interesting company, where I can perform a variety of tasks and would be given some free rein to work on things which I consider interesting and productive. I am certain a career of this nature is out there somewhere, it's just a matter of finding it.

Wish me luck!

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Future Phone

Edit: I will begin this post the exact same way I have chosen to end it. Your choice of phone is a big part of who you are, especially for those of you who use a phone for several hours every single day. I do not take choosing a new phone lightly, and for those of you who ask my advice on phone purchases, the following is a pretty good condensed version of what goes through my head before answering you. I have done extensive research and reading on all of this material, hopefully so you don't have to. Alright, now back to the story...

Hey guys, this is a question I get pretty commonly, and I've essentially devoted the last 2-3 years of my life to answering this question, among other more important questions. I am often asked "I'm in the market for a new phone, which is the best for me?". This question comes in many, MANY variations, the most frequent being "I want to get the [insert new Android phone here], what do you think of it?". If you are one of those people who really only has any intentions of using a cell phone to make phone calls and send SMS messages, then this article is not for you. I will hopefully get around to doing another story entitled "Cost/Benefit Analysis (aka how to spend your money smartly)" in which I intend to validate the additional costs incurred in the everyday use of a smartphone by what that piece of technology can do for you. Coming up to the end of 2012, with smartphones having been on the market for about half a decade, if you can afford a smartphone (which you can), by not having one you are really just being a hipster. Anyhow, I am getting off topic, this is a very important subject to me, one I reflect on every single day.

In the smartphone market, there are many, MANY players right now, but your choices boil down to three real options (BlackBerry notwithstanding, as the new set of BB handsets are due out in about 6 months, and no informed person in their right mind would buy a BlackBerry today). Your choices in smartphone today are actually very, very limited if you are an informed person making a good decision. There are three really wonderful mobile operating systems (OSes) which have been released as of today, November 9, 2012: iOS 6 (Apple), Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" (Google), and Windows Phone 8 (Microsoft). Of these three, you would be hard pressed to find two of them on shelves today, because all three have only been released in the last 6 weeks or so. If you were to buy a phone today, and couldn't wait the weekend, I would unequivocally point you in the direction of iOS, be it on the just-released iPhone 5 ($199 for a 2-3 year contract), the iPhone 4S (can be found for $99 on 2-3 year contract) or even (if you don't need to be on the cutting edge) the 2 year old iPhone 4 ($0 on 2-3 year contract). This is because even though the two competing OSes have been released, there are no phones which can be purchased and used today on either Android or Windows Phone 8 (at least to my knowledge). That being said, let us move about a week into the future, when several phones from each of these competitors will be unleashing these phones on carriers in Canada. This will give a fair assessment of the competition and will allow me to provide my thoughts on all three systems and how different users will fare given their choice.

Pre-publication edit: This thing, as I assumed it would be, is rather long. If you don't feel like reading all of this (though if you're buying a phone and wish to be informed, you should), please feel free to scroll to the bottom and read my final recommendations.

I would like to break this down and discuss each operating system one at a time, starting with the most promising:

Windows Phone 8

This operating system, while seeming like a minor upgrade from the existing, and very similar looking Windows Phone 7, it is actually a complete overhaul of the platform. You'd be hard pressed to find too many visual differences between the Nokia Lumia 900 (Windows Phone 7) and its new counterpart the Nokia Lumia 920 (Windows Phone 8).


To the unassuming eye, this seems like a minor upgrade (like you would get in an iPhone update), but in fact everything about the system has been completely overhauled. In fact, the old system, even the Lumia 900, which by all accounts is a new phone (released on April 8, 2012 with Windows Phone 7.5 software) is completely different from the new Windows Phone 8. This phone will never be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8 because it is programmed more like a computer than a Nokia phone. These (old) new phones were updated to what was called Windows Phone 7.8, which visually mimics Windows Phone 8, but in fact cannot hold a candle to it. If you are going to buy a Windows Phone, wait until you can get one of the new phones.

Essentially, with Windows Phone 8, the desktop and mobile versions of Windows are finally going to be unified. Windows Phone is a very simple interface which cuts through having to use separate apps to see what is going on, and really takes a phone interface down to the bare essentials. With their so-called "live tiles" you can see messages and emails and phone calls without leaving the home screen of your phone. The interface is very minimal and aesthetically pleasing, and doesn't get in your way. While the system doesn't have the ease of use and quick learning curve of the iPhone, it is fairly easy to understand and can be picked up quickly based on its simplicity.

There are going to be two choices for the foreseeable future here, with the HTC Windows Phone 8X, and the Nokia Lumia 920 scheduled to go on sale next week in Canada. I will discuss the differences between those two phones in a moment, because having to choose between those phones is a cakewalk compared to the next category.

Bearing that in mind, here's a side-note for anyone in the market for a new phone who claims that they want "an Android phone". I give this information, not as an "Apple fanboy", but as a rational, technologically inclined person who has done extensive research and testing on many Android phones, I can assure you that I am not at all biased in these opinions, they come from a place of love for the truth.

Caveat*

Now, the most important thing you have to understand about phone manufacturing is that there are many different manufacturers, many different phone carriers and only a handful of mobile operating systems to choose from. Now, in 2005, for example, you could choose a Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, etc. phone, and you really wouldn't notice any difference in usability or functionality. There were differences, and in fact each phone was quite different, but usually in minimal ways that no one user would ever notice. If you had a contract with Rogers, your phone would usually have Rogers stamped on it in one or two places, and probably say it on the screen, but that's really all you would have to deal with. The performance of the phone, and its functionality, could only really be impaired if your network was of lower quality (see ATT circa 2007). Looking at the situation today, you have major manufacturers like Nokia, Apple, HTC, LG, Samsung, BlackBerry, Motorola (now owned by Google), etc., and the problems which appeared 10 years ago have only gotten worse. This growing problem is most noticeable on the Android platform, in what is referred to as fragmentation. Let's go for a little ride...

Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean"

I would like to start off right away by saying that of all the operating systems discussed here today, Android is by far my favourite. My friends will probably scoff at that, but those who know me best also know that I am a big fan of customization. I have spent many sleepless nights working on perfecting the look and feel of my jailbroken iPhone, even dedicating days at a time downloading custom skins to make it look like an Android phone. Without question, Android is best known of all the mobile operating systems for the ability to make it your own. That being said, in general it is several generations behind the other platforms simply because every hardware manufacturer, and cellular carrier, has its own view of what "the best" looks and feels like. This is going to be a long explanation, but I am going to do my absolute best to make it readable, and break it down in bite-sized chunks.

1. Manufacturers have the ability to work with raw Android code to make the operating system look and function the way they want it to (actually, anybody can do this, as almost all Android code is open source, for those who wish to do that themselves, however, it would be a very time-consuming undertaking). This is done with a so-called "skin" or user interface (UI) which is used by phone manufacturers to distinguish their phones from the others. While this in principle, and marketing-wise, seems like a great idea, in essence what it does is take up valuable computer resources which have been finely tuned by Google engineers to run smoothly, and throws virtual wrenches into all of the tiny machines in the phone. Each manufacturer does it, with HTC's Sense UI, Motorola's MotoBlur, and Samsung's TouchWiz interface, and they are all just (sometimes) nice looking ribbons which get in the way of the phones actual function. Now, there is a Android experience to be had which is as pure as it can get, and it is called the Nexus line. What Google has done is taken a phone manufacturer, worked with them to create the best blend at the time between hardware and software, and released it under the "Nexus" moniker. First, the Nexus One (HTC), then the Nexus S, followed by the Galaxy Nexus (both from Samsung), and most recently the Nexus 4 (LG), were all made in collaboration with Google to create what they say is the purest form of Android at the time. This phone is always going to be the best showing of Android in any generation, even ignoring the next point.

2. Android phones, generally speaking, do not get updates. Yes, the Nexus line is almost always the first to be considered for updates, but even those have their problems and delays. Because the manufacturers get to determine the release of updates, and those manufacturers are concerned with selling their best and brightest phones, generally speaking you will not see any major software upgrades once you have purchased your Android phone. There is a small exception in the Nexus line, as those tend to keep up with updates, but anything else, if it will get an upgrade at all, it will get it six months after it has been shown to the world, and will generally only happen if the phone is quite a bit less than a year old.

3. All of this has been done without even having the carriers (Rogers, Bell, Telus) involved in the discussion yet. Generally, when you buy a phone through a carrier, it will come stamped with the name of the carrier, but the carriers will also determine a few other things about phones, especially in the Android ecosystem. In general, on the Android platform, each carrier will get the same 2-3 phones, and you can decide which carrier you would like to use and purchase your phone. In reality, however, the phones which are released to each carrier are very different, with a few differences in each meaning you really have to do your homework if you want to be sure you know what you are getting. In some cases, you can have differences as large as 3G/4G connectivity, different processors, different camera specifications, and even different designs completely, to the point that I have seen phones which are allegedly the same which look totally different and whose cases are not even close to interchangeable. There are also a few carriers which add unremovable apps (bloatware) to the system and slow it down even more, which is something they will never write press released about and are basically free advertising for their partners.

4. Yes, Android phones do get some of the latest and greatest features first, but this is in general a bigger deterrent to adoption than it is a help. Features like 4G/LTE (fast data speeds), new screen technologies promising better contrast and less reflection, near-field communication (NFC, similar to the chip in your VISA which allows for things like making payments at select retailers with your phone), and inductive charging (which lets you put your phone onto a charging pad and wirelessly charges the battery. All of these features have been put into Android phones over the last year, and all have had their (sometimes severe) drawbacks. These are essentially experimental technologies in their implementations in these phones, and are not reasons to get the phones. The simplest way to show that is that the newest (about 2 weeks old) Nexus 4, which is so new it hasn't hit shelves yet, doesn't contain any of this technology. Google and LG put their heads together and designed the best phone they possibly could (and, without having used it, I am certain it is a great phone) and it doesn't include any of these technologies which Android purists have been raving about. The fact is that the technologies simply aren't ready for the big time yet, and on a budget (the Nexus 4 will be released in Canada starting at $309) they are not feasible. 4G/LTE on Android generally wreaks havoc on battery life, NFC and wireless charging take up room in and add weight to the phone without adding much usefulness, and the newest screen technologies are still not generally as good as the exacted versions of regular old LCD screens.

5. Now, before I go ahead and dismiss Android altogether, their saving grace could, and hopefully is, the new version of their operating system, Jelly Bean. This update, along with a systematic overhaul of the programming in the phone, called Project Butter, make Android 4.2 a very interesting proposition. Having only used one phone with Jelly Bean installed, I can say that the difference between it and Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), even on a phone like the Galaxy Nexus, is absolutely night and day. For anybody that has used Android, no matter how die-hard a fan you are, you much concede that dealing with systematic lagginess on even superphones like the Samsung Galaxy SIII is a pretty hard pill to swallow, and has actually been a deal-breaker for me. Before Android 4.2, this was just a price to pay for using Android, and it was a very high price for those of us who know that better is out there. However, even though I have only used Jelly Bean for approximately 3 seconds, I can easily say that I can recommend it for anybody looking for a good, solid Android operating system. The lag inherent in previous versions is completely gone, and though I cannot speak for phones with a slower Android skin like the SIII, I would love for the smoothness I saw to still be there on those phones running Jelly Bean. The propagation of Jelly Bean, though, is going a little slower than would have been hoped. I have done considerable looking and actually cannot find any phones which have gotten the Jelly Bean update natively yet (Galaxy Nexus does seem to have some permeation, but official carrier updates are extremely sparse), though it was announced in July 2012 and released shortly thereafter. This is the upgrade cycle of Android, and something its users just have to deal with. There is, after some research, actually one phone which HAS been released with Jelly Bean on it already, the Galaxy Note II, a massive 5.5" screened phone with a stylus running Samsung's skin. It will be interesting to see how that TouchWiz skin interacts with Android 4.1, to see if the inherent smoothness remains.

6. The last issue with Android deals not with version fragmentation, but with apps and screen size fragmentation. Because every manufacturer has to build phones that are different and fill all screen and price points, you end up with a very strange predicament for developers trying to make apps for the platform. With thousands of different possible screen sizes, and a variety of shapes and features, developing for Android is enough to drive someone crazy.

I hope I have shown you some of the reasons why I have stayed away from Android so far, getting to my favourite part of this article in the present.

iPhone

This is by far the easiest part of this article to write, because everybody already knows pretty much all of the basics of the iPhone. There are many virtues to controlling your own software and hardware, the first being that you get to control every step of the process. You will not see a Rogers stamp on any iPhone, in fact (in general) the only indication you are tied to a carrier at all is the name of the carrier on the top left of the screen in the header bar. As far as fragmentation goes, after 5 years of iPhone, they have just recently announced their third phone resolution, and second screen size ever. Its no wonder developers flock to the Apple app store like no other, even though the price of admission is fairly steep for new developers ($99/year).

It's not to say there aren't problems with the iOS operating systems. I have my own qualms with it from time to time. But these problems generally are reconcilable by developers in their own apps. In essence, if you want something simple to use, and which is beautifully manufactured, and will generally be updated well past its warranty, I always recommend iPhone.

To put this in a little perspective, at last count, around 2% of Android deviced on the market today have 4.1 or 4.2 Jelly Bean (most of this is tablets, I would not be at all surprised if that number is more like 0.1%, if you only consider phones). This operating system was finalized in July. Compare that to iOS 6, which within 24 hours of release had about 15% adoption, and after one month had 60% of people on board. With bilateral control of the whole phone, Apple can pass along updates to all of its customer base at once, seamlessly and without too much effort or knowledge on the part of the consumer.

If you want a phone that is easy to use, has all of the newest features, and in hardware tests demolishes phones with much higher specifications, you should really buy an iPhone. That being said, if you wish to go with something else, I will offer one recommended alternative from both the Android family, and the Windows Phone family.


LG Nexus 4


This phone is the absolute best and brightest in terms of Android today, and it is affordable to boot. It is the first phone to come with Jelly Bean 4.2 natively, and will probably be the only phone to have it for a while. If you want an Android phone, this one is the one to wait for. It is expected to be released in Canada next week.

HTC Windows Phone 8X

Between the Nokia Lumia 920, which has wireless charging (making it weigh almost a half-pound) and a very fancy low-light camera, and this phone, I have to choose this phone. After reading extensive reviews of Windows Phone 8, this would be the phone to buy if you are looking for a sleek, nice Windows Phone 8 experience. And with the coming union of the just-released Windows 8 for desktop/tablet, Windows fans should rejoice at the release of this platform. This phone is expected to be announced on Rogers next week as well.


iPhone 5

This phone is my current top recommendation. The reason is simple, it gives the best overall phone experience you can ask for, in comparison to all of the reasons given above in terms of what to expect from other phones. I have not yet tried out the two phones shown directly above, as they may yet reign over this phone in my mind and in reality. I have very high hopes, because iOS does have a few well-documented issues which need rectifying, but as for the overall package I am happy to provide extensive reasoning for this choice.







To anybody who has ever asked me for phone advice, if you wonder why I hesitate before answering you, this is the reason. As for those of you looking to buy phones in the near future, please think about what I have discussed here. You should REALLY either buy an iPhone, or wait a week. I guarantee either of those options are well worth your while.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Going Forward

Hey guys,

I know this is a little bit later than I usually write, but I figure it's best if I don't catch people getting off work around 5 when people are primed and ready to be social (that's what you workadays do when you finish the day right, check social networks?).

I wanted to do a little test, as well as give you just a little bit of homework for the next little while. Whether or not you actually go through with it is exactly why I am assigning it. Since most of the feedback I get from people is through actual word of mouth from friends, I am hoping that you guys can do me a small favour to help me out. Here's the motivation for this little experiment:

The feedback I get from this writing is generally positive, though nobody is really going to tell me to my face that my work is crap. That, and there's no dislike button on Facebook. What I want to know though, is how social networks and self-promotion can actually affect traffic to this site. As with all artists (writing is a form of art, right?), all I am looking for is to know that my work is being seen. You don't have to agree with what I'm saying, and the discussions are generally much more entertaining if you have something to disagree with. Here's what I'd like to try...

First, pick a post of mine that you like, your absolute favourite one. For me personally, it is this one 5 Years in my Life, a paste of my thesis acknowledgements section from my masters work. From the numbers Google keeps on page views, statistically your favourite is this one: Back to the Future, a post about Siri and voice control assistants like her. If you don't have one in mind, just pick this post. Anyhow, once you have chosen the best post in your opinion, I would like it if you could click the "Like" button at the bottom of the post. You're welcome to use the +1 button, or the Tweet button if you so choose, but again if I'm going with the numbers, you use Facebook much more than those other networks.


I am simply trying to inform myself about what you would like to read, you are certainly under no obligation to follow the directions above, but I would be very appreciative if you would let me know what I can write about to keep you reading. And of course, if you're feeling particularly smitten with anything you read, I encourage you to share it on the aforementioned social networks, I would love to hear what your friends think about what I have to say.

One final note, if you do like what you are reading, feel free to let me know personally via any of those networks, or by email. me@robattrell.com is a great place to start.

ps. I am thinking about starting both a YouTube channel (topic(s) undecided) or doing regular Google+ hangouts. Thoughts? I'm happy to explain what a Google+ hangout is another day.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I'll be a Student as long as I can

If you are an up-to-date reader of this virtual publication, you will surely be aware by now that I currently find myself without any long-term employment. After having undertaken and completed 5+ years of school, I find myself thrust upon the world with plenty of knowledge and experience, but little that entices most employers to drop me into the ranks of their company.

I put half a decade, tens of thousands of dollars and calories, and innumerable millions of neurons into my desire to better understand our world and the things within it, with little pragmatic thought as to how this could be applied to the world outside academia. Realistically speaking, my colleagues and predecessors who are now professors and researchers never left that world, and they continue to receive money from the government, as I did, for decades after completing their "education". Now I don't want to imply that privately funded research doesn't happen, but the fundamental understanding of our universe that has been gained (and its current real-world applications) are almost without exception publicly funded, in full or in part.

Our current government in Canada is actively trying to slow this apparent flushing of money, while showing their severe lack of forward-thinking and lack of understanding of innovation and research. With little or no funding, the progress our country makes in medicine, technology and industry will surely stagnate, as is happening or has happened across the United States. There are past, present, and future generations of brilliant and imaginative minds who are excited about the history and prospects of scientific endeavour, and who are ready and champing at the collective bit, but who face larger and larger barriers to continuing to learn and understand and explain the world we live in.

In that I am one of these people in the present generation, itching to find a job to be able to develop and apply new and exciting ideas to novel research, I will always consider myself a student. Even though I am no longer formally enrolled in a university program, I continue to be fascinated and perplexed by science, but I do not fear this, but aim to wrap my head around its intricacies and its wonderful complexities. In this way, I will always be a student, in that I will continue to learn, and better understand our world, life and the universe we live in.

I am currently unemployed, and trying to find a way to start repaying some of the money government has been so generous to devote to my education, and to show them that their investment in me and the countless others like me can pay dividends if they will allow us to mature.

And so, for the time being, if you ask me if I am a student, I will undoubtedly reply "Yes, absolutely!", especially if it gets me a discount on groceries on Tuesdays. For the foreseeable future, students will undoubtedly be poor, social sponges who have curious minds and learn new things at every opportunity, but have yet to find and be at home in their calling in life. In that way, I perfectly fit the definition of a student, and in my mind, I will always be a student of the universe.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Future of Morality

Hey guys,

I have been getting a lot of really good feedback on what I consider my less interesting posts, I like to think of them as the medicine pressed into doggie treats, so I would like to continue expanding on those kinds of things, occasionally also peppering you with some science and technology stuff. I hope you're okay with that, because you really don't have a say. By the way, I finally got a comment in the contact sheet from my website, and although I think it might be sarcastic, I'm going to approach it anyhow very soon. Even though Google App Engine (what I use so my site loads quickly and so my internet service provider (TekSavvy) doesn't come tell me I breached their terms of service) is being extremely slow thanks to some outages, I encourage all of you to check out my new home page, version 2.0 at RobAttrell.com and leave me a little message. Even if it is anonymous, I always like to hear comments or suggestions, and there is plenty of public forum to discuss things as well. Anyhow, I would like to discuss what I consider to be a slightly sensitive topic today, that of religion and morality.

I would like to start off by saying that I am a pretty laid-back person. I am the first person to avoid discussions of religion, simply because I know that some people take it very seriously, and I am certain knowing the history of most religions, hereticism is considered a major party foul. I feel as though this discussion will probably raise the ire of some people, so consider this a warning that if you continue to read, I am not responsible for your reaction. I sincerely hope that you do stick around, because I consider this very important, but I understand if you don't, and if you got this far, I already got your page view, so I'm not that concerned.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

No Hope for the Future

I spend a lot of my time just thinking, mostly about ways I could improve the world, though sometimes I'll admit I get a bit selfish and worry about my own needs. However, most times when I reason out different problems with the world as a whole, there are some very important reasons why things really aren't going to get much better than they are now.

Generally speaking, when I talk about being able to vastly improve life, I am referring to potentially paradigm-shifting technological advancements. Almost all of the advancements in technology over the last 15 years have been huge improvements to communication technologies. Facebook, Google, Twitter, the Internet itself, cell phones, all of these things are really great tools for advancing society and permitting the advancement of ideas through shared intellect. However, many of the most useful changes which have or are being implemented right now will never be as powerful generators of change as they rightly should be. Here are just a few examples:

1. Facebook (and other social networks like Google+, Twitter, and innumerable others) all enable pretty seamless connections between people wherever they are on the planet. Twitter doesn't have video chatting, Google+ has separate mobile and PC chat clients, and Facebook, the behemoth social network, has too many privacy issues to work as a professional network, and doesn't allow voice calls between users. All of these networks and services have problems with them which mean that no matter how much you commit yourself to the platform, you will inevitably have to fall back on something else.

2. There will always be a certain paranoia involved with technology, especially from those who don't really understand it. From the inherent "creepiness" of Apple's Find My Friends application, to Facebook's automatic facial recognition on photo uploads, it seems like we have reason to be afraid of these new technologies, even if they are completely innocuous and benign, or in fact very useful.

3. No matter how good technology gets, we will all be terrible at it. Especially when it comes to social aspects of technology, humans are notoriously bad at social etiquette when not faced with an actual physical interaction. Ignoring the fact that we are capable, and sometimes very adept at lying, computers are very bad at conveying nuanced cues and tics associated with human communication. Whether it comes out in Facebook events where a list of 300+ people are invited blindly to a gathering with no real social contract being offered or accepted, or in a simple text message whose context or meaning is misconstrued because of the mechanical emotionlessness of technology. Technology companies are scrambling to identify how and why people make decisions they do, and what they can do to keep people engaged as long and as often as possible.

4. The social companies are in it to make money. In this case, money generally comes from advertising, at least once the company is mature enough that investors are ready to make some money. This means not only that you become a social commodity, but it also means that most of these companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) have no real impetus to innovate or deliver a lot of new features all at once. This is a very selfish principle, but it will never change. If Apple suddenly made hundreds of very obvious tweaks and changes to their software and hardware, naturally people would quickly become accustomed to those changes and continue to demand more. It makes much more sense for these companies to add features one or two at a time, claiming at the time that it is a brand new way of doing things. One obvious example of this is that outside of Google Voice (which is in the US) and Rogers One Number (only in Canada), I'm not aware of any business which allows you to send and receive messages and make and receive calls both on your phone and on your computer. This is such an obvious feature which would spell out the downfall of cell phone carriers in terms of their massive profit margins, that it is certain it will be a long time until it can be done on a large scale or for cheap. Apple has recently allowed proprietary video calls to be made over cellular networks, but no such feature exists to use data to make voice calls directly to a telephone number from another telephone number. This feature existing on any one carrier would quickly make it the norm, and would result in much higher competition in the telecommunications industry.

As you can see, things are pretty incredible right now, but since big companies have seen what can happen when technology bubbles burst, they are doing their absolute most to make sure that we keep advancing as slowly as possible, or they will no longer be able to keep making their massive profits. All I can do for the time being is keep hoping that the next little thing that comes out ends up being important to me. If anyone needs me I'll just be waiting here for the future.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Future Work Experience

Alright guys, another fun topic I've been sitting on for a while,

I want to discuss with you all a conundrum which I'm sure has bothered all of us at one time or another growing up. The tautological statement "You need experience to get this job, so just get a job so you can gain experience" is a ridiculous by-product of our modern culture, especially when economic and socio-political times are so tough. The idea that someone is unable or unqualified to perform a task or complete a project because they have not yet done so already is actually fairly demeaning to most everyday people, especially in my generation. Those of us with university-level education are extremely familiar with the job application process in which required experience is almost impossible to attain, especially for young people. Of course, one of the main problems with the vastness and complexity of the internet is that for all the advancements and progress it has brought with it, many people are long entrenched in the old ways of doing things. Having spent the better part of a year searching with varying levels of enthusiasm for a job where I can apply specific knowledge I gained over the course of a university degree, I have found quite a few jobs whose description seems to perfectly match my knowledge base and piques my interest in terms of its pay, location and perks. However, without fail (so far at least) I find myself continually without a job.

I don't mean to come off as being ungrateful to any potential employers, or as though I am moping to people just like me who have found jobs the old fashioned way (90% having a connection, 10% walking into a business and pitching your brand directly in the hope that you have good timing). While I am running low on funds, I am by any metric still pretty far ahead of most other unemployed people. I have an apartment down-town in a highly populated metropolis, I have two degrees in a field which historically has placed many students in cushy jobs with little or no physical labour. I have amassed a fair bit of what most would call luxuries, in the meantime also accruing my fair share of student debt. Yes, it was my choice to spend a lot of that government money paying the older generations' property taxes in that I moved away from my parents in a fit of independence.

I am now faced with what will (on my current course) become crippling debt, if I cannot drastically alter this paradigm. If I had been able to peer into the future, knowing how the world would look in 2012 from way back in early 2006, I almost certainly would have made the choice not to enter university, or at least to take a shorter program. I admit that I was taken up in the beautiful dream of student life, where money quite literally grows on trees, and where seeing seas of enthusiastic faces eager to learn overpower logic and reason. On tuition alone, I spent approximately 11 x $2200 = $24000 over 5 years for the privilege of attending classes and borrowing lab equipment and supplies to nourish my intellectual and scientific curiosity and passion. I made many, MANY mistakes over those years, emotional, physical, financial, logical, sexual, mathematical errors, which end up being some of the greatest lessons university could have ever taught me. Some of those mistakes were so atrocious I have trouble admitting to them even in friendly company, and I don't want to take any of them back. Everything about the university experience has been absolutely wonderful up until the contemplation of having to actually earn all of those wonderful lessons, dollar by dollar, and realizing how difficult that might actually end up being.

Now, I have spent the majority of my adult life working, I do not want to give the impression that I have done nothing to earn this education. Having spent time earning my keep in food service, manual labour, scientific research, providing teaching assistance in a laboratory setting, up to now, where I am a freelance writer on this page, earning about $0.03 per month on average. What I will say is that even in those jobs, I am stuck feeling like what I have earned is not commensurate with the effort I put in for those employers. I began working at age 15, for $5.90 an hour (minimum wage at the time), and I vividly remember getting that money and seeing the world open up its doors for me, welcoming me into the work force with open arms.

While employed at McDonalds, I was afforded regular raises, so that as I gained experience and did more for the company, I was rewarded in kind. However, I quickly found that raises did not keep up with inflation, so even after a year of employment I was still stuck at minimum wage, with new hires sometimes even being considered for raises before me. This led, unfortunately, to a pattern of underpay, especially considering the effort I could put in. The most I have ever earned was at a construction supply company called Totem (Rona), manually loading and moving lumber and other supplies in the hot summer sun 8 hours at a time for $13/hr (which again seemed great at the time). This was the summer of 2007, and really reinforced that I was doing the right thing in terms of getting my education. I certainly didn't want to spend my life doing manual labour. That $13/hr pay rate remains to this day the best I have ever been compensated, and now that I have finished my degrees, I am currently entertaining offers of part time work for minimum wage again, just as I did 9 years ago.

I know that I have many, if not all of the skills necessary to be much more than proficient at most any job in the world. Save for jobs which require advanced degrees (doctor, engineer, nuclear physicist, etc.), I can perform standard tasks above and beyond the levels most people would consider necessary for employment. More than anything else, I want to be able to perform at a job where some of my day is spent thinking critically about decisions that will impact the world. I don't think this is too much to ask, and I should have to spend much more time grinding my brain against the internet or the pavement to get an opportunity to do that.

The reason for this logic is pretty simple really, allow me to break it down. As an undergraduate student, and a grad student (though to a lesser extent), it was our weekly, or sometimes two-or-three-times-a-weekly requirement to walk into a room with a set of instructions (or sometimes no instructions) and a collection of seemingly random materials, and perform or devise and carry out the required method in a matter of a few hours time. We were then to leave that room and everything in it for a period of one to two weeks, prepare a report detailing the process and results of the time we had spent, and submit it for grading. I have four years of experience being dropped into various situations with little or no idea what I am supposed to be doing, and figuring it out. If we didn't figure it out, not only did we do poorly on that particular report, but all subsequent sections would now be more challenging because they are based on prior knowledge. All of my colleagues went through the exact same process, and we are now being subjected to having our candidacy for jobs limited to things which we are expected to have done for years. This is after having undergone substantial training in on-the-fly, seat of your pants problem-solving with minimal instruction and little to no supervision. Some people certainly don't handle that kind of pressure well, but at least give the rest of us a chance to be able to prove ourselves before rejecting us completely. At this point, I would say I could get a job, applying for jobs for which I am not qualified, as I have plenty of experience doing that. Although, from my results thus far, I can assure you that I am not good at it.

ps. I am looking for work, in case you couldn't tell. If you or somebody you know is looking for somebody awesome to give money to, odds are I'm perfect for that role. Pass along cv.robattrell.com if that's the case.

Friday, October 19, 2012

In today's news (October 19, 2012)

Hey everyone,

Post writing edit: This actually turned out way, WAY longer than I had intended. Sort of got carried away again. I will try to tone it down a little bit. I really do want to do this every day, but keeping up this pace would be a little bit ridiculous. Anyhow, I may try to make something a little bit smaller for 5 PM as I suggest in the paragraph directly underneath this one. I hope you do read this, and the second half is actually more interesting than the first, even if you have to suffer a little, we can all do with a little more reading in our lives. </edit>

In an effort to actually sit down and write something every day, I would like to try varying formats a little bit here. I still intend to pump out big posts every once in a while, but I'm hoping to stick to a shorter, daily digest type format wherein I share what I've found interesting. Ideally these will go up around 5 PM, coinciding with the end of the work day for most people, but I may also try something smaller in the morning in case people are looking for interesting things to do at work. I will do my absolute best to avoid the trivial in these pieces, but instead stick to things which should be of general interest.

First off, how many of you are users of the Microsoft Office suite? I'm hoping nobody actually raised their hands, but I'm guessing most of you thought "yes, I am one of those people". Well boy do I have a great new way of using Office to share with you. Most of you probably don't know that there is a product out there called Office 365, which is essentially a subscription-based, business version of Microsoft Live (MSN, Windows Live Mail and various other services encompass the free versions of this software). Another piece of technology many of you probably already have access to, but almost certainly didn't know about, is SkyDrive. This is a free service that keeps documents you have and stores them online, so you can access them wherever you are. You may recognize this as being something that already exists on your computer, in the form of Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive, SugarSync, or any other syncing service. All of these platforms have their various strengths and weaknesses, but one very good reason to use SkyDrive is the inclusion of something called Microsoft Office Web Apps. These are online versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel which allow you to view and edit documents in a way that is much more convenient than carrying around USB sticks with important documents or worry about having Microsoft Office installed on any computer you wish you use. The beauty of using this service as opposed to something which is a little more widely known like Google Drive, is that you have access to your documents in their original format, which is incredibly useful knowing that formatting, font, spacing and the like are preserved.

Now, you're probably thinking, none of this is actually new. While it may be something I have never heard of, or even care about, all of this already exists and has for some time now. What I would like to tell you about, now that you have a little context, is a new program called Office 365 University. This service combines Microsoft Office, Microsoft Web Apps, Office 365, and SkyDrive into one affordable package. The service (which requires authentication, typically an academic email address) costs only $80 for a four-year term (which you'll recognize as the length of a typical university degree). The program includes Microsoft Office (plus updates and new versions for the length of the term, and the ability to install Office on two computers), it comes with 60 minutes per month of Skype credit and gives you an additional 20 GB of storage on SkyDrive (which is a LOT of pictures, video and documents). Where software like Microsoft Office would typically cost $150 and you would get Word, Powerpoint and Excel which weren't updated, this $80 package for 4 years is an incredible program. It is worth at least looking into.

The way we pay for software is changing, and that's a very good thing!

(Office News Blog via The Next Web)

Second on the list of topics this morning is a more scientific story, one which certainly raised my eyebrows, having done a fair bit of learning about carbon dioxide and organic chemistry. The story (seen here on the Telegraph) seems very sensational and like it is a revolution that will change the world if it can be done on a large scale. What has been proposed and put into service is a system that takes carbon dioxide, and through a series of chemical transformations, turns (like magic) into viable gasoline. What the article neglects to mention, or at least fails to really explain, is just how much energy goes into making this fuel.

First of all, the idea of taking carbon monoxide and dioxide from the air or from industrial processes to make gases or fuels is absolutely not new technology, and they admit that openly. But what they are saying is new is that they have designed and built a new way to do all the steps required to turn carbon dioxide into fuel, all in one plant, in a reproducible way. First of all, the first step they use is taking carbon dioxide from the air, mixing it with lye (which is mined) to purify it. This step doesn't seem particularly wasteful, as the lye is regenerated, and could certainly be improved by designing a better purification mechanism. The next step involves running water vapour collected by a dehumidifier through a process called electrolysis (which you probably remember from high school) to get pure hydrogen and oxygen. This, again, is absolutely not new, and is a very energy heavy process.

Next up comes combining the hydrogen and the pure carbon dioxide into methanol (methods developed in the 30s), and using processes developed by Mobil to further turn the methanol to gasoline. The small plant they have been working on for years and running full steam (pardon the pun) for three months has in fact produced real, viable fuel. However, the amount of fuel which has been produced couldn't get you more than an hour down the road, even in the most efficient gas-powered cars. They have managed to produce 5 litres, which you'll recognize as not a lot of fuel, in a very, very long time period. Regardless of how you slice up the math of this, regardless of the improvements that can be made to the process, this is the most backwards, oddball way of going about powering vehicles. The ONLY claim that seems to get them any sort of commendation is that they only used renewable energy for all of the wasteful, energy-intensive processes they used to turn carbon dioxide and water into fuel. At least they weren't also wasting power from the grid that could easily run electric cars to develop this waste of time.

I don't even know where to start with this one. First of all, the fact that I am unemployed right now and that there are people whose job it is is to produce 5 L of fuel every three months using 80 year old technology along with wind turbines and solar panels is absolutely terrifying. Second, we actually have ways to power cars that don't involve burning fuel, and could instead just use the electricity from this plant to run any number of factories, heat and power homes, or even just run an electric car for a lot longer than three months. If they had managed to put this fuel cell (because for the purposes of this discussion this is just a massive fuel cell) into a vehicle, and could collect water vapour and carbon dioxide using air intakes which could power turbines (this vehicle could also certainly have solar panel technology on it to harvest even more energy), this would be an idea worth investing in. (Actually on a side note that sounds like a really wonderful idea assuming the math works out, which it clearly doesn't considering the fact that it took them three months to produce 5 L of fuel). Each step in this chemical process which uses electricity to power it actually cannot be 100% efficient, and so all this company is effectively doing is wasting energy in a wasteful way, towards making a real energy problem even worse.

There are many innovative ways that people are finding to solve the impending fuel crisis, and they should be applauded for that effort. This company, Air Fuel Synthesis, has taken what seems like it would be a wonderful way to power the future, and has instead shown the absolute worst way to do it. At the very least, this technology could be used to capture and store carbon dioxide directly from factories that produce it and recycled into new chemical processes, but removing it from the atmosphere is almost as irresponsible as pumping it in, on an industrial scale.

Between renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric (dam and wave generators) and organic solutions like biofuel from algae and bacteria, we have many roads to solving the world's energy problems so that we don't have to burn coal or fossil fuels for power. Making more gas shouldn't be the solution to a gas shortage, especially when it is inefficient in such an obvious way.