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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

We Are The Future

I have written before on the idea that we can all learn very important life lessons from our parents, and how it is important to let our elders influence and shape our relationships and understanding of the world. I made the argument here that there is no real need to take what our role models say or do to be the right thing on faith alone, but that their teachings should be adapted to fit our own experiences and the changing world we live in. Just because something has been done unquestioningly for a period of time doesn't mean that it is the be all and end all, de facto way of doing something. As is often the case, the so called "old ways" tend to be upheld by conservative thinkers, simply because it is the way they have always known.

The particular reason I decided to write this piece came when I was watching the episode of the Office in Season 6 when Pam and Jim are getting married. This is one of my favourite episodes, and the montage with the cast dancing down the aisle to "Forever" cut with Jim and Pam electing to be privately married in the spray of Niagara Falls by the ship captain should have won awards for its tear-jerking quality. Anyhow, this part of the episode is not what caught my attention. I should point out, before I get too much further, that I have watched this episode at least 7-8 times since it aired 3 years ago. However, it was not until this most recent viewing that I actually picked up on how strange the particular scene I will describe unfolds. I think the reason for this might just be the point I'm at right now in my life, where these are things I think about on a day to day basis. It is certainly possible that this scene is actually only strange to me, in that I have never experienced anything like it in my life, and I hope that when I die I can say that I will have never experienced it.

A major plot point in the beginning of the episode is that Pam's grandmother (henceforth referred to as Mema) is to be kept unaware of the fact that Pam and Jim are living together premaritally, and that Pam is in fact several months pregnant (the main reason the wedding is taking place when it is, though they are soul-mates and could get married in a sewer, or on Mars and things would still work out). The members of the Office are told that Mema is very old-fashioned, and that for that reason, she is being kept in the dark, because she would surely disapprove.

Of course, later in the episode it comes out during a toast that Pam is pregnant (strongly implying that she has engaged in premarital intercourse) and has been living with Jim for a period of several months. Mema decides that in light of this news, she is not going to attend the wedding, a source of panic in the episode. At this point in the story, Michael (Steve Carell) attempts to quell her emotions and convince her that its really not that big a deal. In the end, though it is never mentioned after this conversation, she is later seen at the ceremony. I expect that this scenario is not exactly how it would play out in reality, but for the sake of television they are forced to simplify the issue, as well as try to make it funny.

I have personally never met anybody who I would see as reacting this way to the lifestyle and habits of a family member, or anybody else, but as I understand there are many groups of people who would behave in a very similar manner, though would probably argue more vehemently and with much more conviction than this television scenario would have you believe.

Now, I don't think this is necessarily a religious argument, but I can see it breaking down into one. Personally, I know many people who have no apparent problem with living together without being married. This can be said of people who make religion a big part of their lives, just as much as it can for people who are actively non-religious, so in my mind it really comes down to morality, which is guided by religion but doesn't necessarily strictly follow it. I should point out for completeness that I personally have no issue whatsoever with people who wish to live together before getting married, or even who wish to live with a significant other even if there are no immediate plans to marry that person. I see it as a matter of convenience, both in terms of being able to spend time with that person, and in terms of sharing living costs. It stands to reason that two people who wish to spend such a large amount of personal time and space with another person would want to at least make sure they were doing it with someone compatible before making it "permanent".

Now, on to the pressing issue of how this relates back to me. I have not actually discussed the issue of cohabitation before or after marriage with my parents or any other family members, but I would be keen to get their views on this issue. I don't really see any members of my family (living or deceased) having any moral issue with my living with a significant other premaritally. Frankly, if they did have a problem with it (strictly on moral grounds of course, if the person in question is terrible, or a drug dealer, or a delinquent they should certainly be voicing their concerns) I expect that I would actually have a problem with them feeling that way. For example, if I was in the same situation as Jim or Pam, and found out that one of my family members wasn't attending my wedding on this grounds, I don't think it would bother me in the slightest. I think I would be disconcerted that someone who I know and love felt this way, and chose to protest my life by boycotting part or all of it. I would be glad to be an agent of change towards open-mindedness in a world of staunchly opposed views.

We are told that children are the future, and I think that still applies no matter how old you are. It is up to the newest generation to be open to the personal choices of people around them. It is akin in modern society to a family disowning a member of it because of their sexual orientation. It isn't right, and nobody should have to justify their choices to anybody, much less the people they are closest to, just because traditionally it was frowned upon.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that people should be allowed to make decisions that are in their best interest, and the least of their worries should be morality police telling them that they are morally bankrupt for trying to be happy. I am just glad that the people I choose to associate myself with all seem to follow this policy.

Edit: This is a real site: http://www.halpertbeesly.com/