Monthly Archives: February 2014

Purposefully Unpurposed

Growing up, I was often told that I was “meant for great things,” or that I “had a great purpose set out” for me. I was told that I was special, that I was unique. That somewhere in my future there was a BIG THING™ somewhere in my future that would validate my existence and make me feel fulfilled.

I’m not sure that’s really the case.

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I sent out a few job applications yesterday. It was the first time in a while that I’d done so. Nothing major, mostly just boilerplate cover letters to openings that I might be remotely qualified for. After all, I won’t get out of Retail Hell without at least some effort, right? But something funny happened after I sent out those emails.

I felt less productive.

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Over the past few days I’ve seen more and more of my SCA friends post and talk about getting ready to leave for Estrella War, and for the first time in a while, I’m kinda wishing I could go.

Estrella was my first big event in the SCA, a little over ten years ago. Until then, I had not done much outside of the weekly fighter practice. True, I had done some local events, like the Toys for Tots fundraiser, but that had been mostly as a bystander. I hadn’t fought in any tournaments, and my only melee experience was via small unit skirmishes in the horse barn where we held practice.

Nothing could have prepared me for my first war experience. Until then, I had considered a practice with 20 or more fighters a “large” one. But at Estrella, there were closer to 600 fighters. On each side. The sheer scale was overwhelming. There were times when the line of our shields stretched as far as I could see (in the admittedly dusty desert air) in either direction, to say nothing of the hordes of “enemies” massed across from us. There’s some indescribable feeling when you see a sight like that, an awareness of the like-minded fighters around you. It doesn’t make it any less intimidating, but it sublimates a not insignificant portion of your fear into exhilaration.

My first war was a magical experience, to say the least. Fighting all day (did you know there’s actually oxygen at lower altitudes?) gave way to a wonderful world of campfires and storytelling (and parties, but that’s never really been my thing) with the setting of the sun. I also learned several things. One: a mummy bag and thin Thermarest pad are not significant protection against the February desert cold when placed inside a large six-person dome tent. Two: taking along a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of Nutella (carbs, protein, and sugar!) as your only source of food will cause others to take pity on you and feed you whether you like it or not.

But like all things, these intense feelings couldn’t last. I’ve been to Estrella several more times and had fun, but the experience was just that: fun, not magical. This, combined with a growing undercurrent of discontent about how the hosts of the war treated their guests amongst my circle of friends, eventually leached most of the enthusiasm for war I had left. As such, it’s been several years since I’ve been back. Admittedly, my decision to go to grad school (and all the time and money constraints that entailed) had something to do with my decision, but it also seemed to be part of a larger malaise.

And yet…

For the first time in a while, I’m feeling a distant cousin of that first war’s excitement. I’ve heard that a lot of past complaints about how things were run have been addressed. People I know and respect are getting excited, and that can’t help but be infectious. I’m still not going to make it this year, but on the eve of my first war ten years ago, I’m starting to wish I could.

Talking Hard, Writing Easy

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been in a ranty mood the past few days. And while these rants were cathartic, that has not been their only purpose.

As a rule, I don’t talk about my beliefs much. I am naturally introverted, and tend to keep to myself. I am also, as I’ve said in the past, somewhat too niche for my own good. This generally results in an impulse to not “rock the boat,” as it were. To keep my thoughts to myself, smiling and nodding along with whatever happens to come my way.

That’s not to say I don’t have my own thoughts. I do, as evidence by my last few posts. But I am reluctant to express these directly, especially in face-to-face situations. When I can see someone, I worry too much about offending them. I find myself paying especial attention to body language and tone of voice, making efforts to shift my conversational style (and topic) in a way that they will respond well to. I also tend to get overwhelmed by personalities stronger than mine. I would much rather let a comment or philosophy I disagree with slide by than instigate a conflict.

The spontaneity of face-to-face conversation also gets to me; I like to be able to take my time formulating my thoughts, ensuring that what I say is as precise and accurate as possible. If I tried to do so in conversation, the dialog would grind to a halt, to say nothing of the insecurity borne by lacking access to proper sources (unless one achieves Batman-like levels of preparedness).

I am also surprisingly adept at playing devil’s advocate, to such a point that I can often think of ways to refute my own point before I make it. Having done so, however, I am reluctant to actually make the point. If you think of a conversation as a game of chess, I possess the ability to think a few moves ahead, but the exponential expansion of point-counterpoint is hard to keep under control.

That all being said, the written format of blogging provides several advantages. Even though I am blogging under my own name, the fact that I am posting on the Internet conveys some semblance of anonymity: I can say things I would never say in a face-to-face conversation. I can take all the time I need to choose words and make points, both when writing the initial post and when responding to any comments or critiques. In short, I can account for a fair number of my shortcomings.

I also like to think that in some ways writing offers less chance of accidental offense. True, written communication lacks the nuance of body language and intonation an actual conversation does (there I go, countering my own argument!), but one has the ultimate ability to decide whether or not to read, or whether or not to skip certain articles.

Not that I hope any of you skipped what I have written over the past few days. I feel better after having done so, in effect taking the chance to may some thoughts that I usually keep to myself more widely known. While avoiding conflict is to be commended, after a certain point it becomes exhausting. People can assume things about you that are nowhere near true, just because you didn’t have the strength to disagree.

So this has been me attempting to strengthen those muscles. For those of you who have continued to read, thank you. If you have any questions about what I have written, please feel free to comment or email me privately. I hope you enjoyed this insight into my thoughts, and I hope to continue to give you a better view.

It’s probably going to be quite a ride.

I Want To Break Free

The dark voices inside my head were clamoring especially loudly this morning. You may know these voices. They’re the ones that say things like:

Maybe you are just lazy.”

You wouldn’t be in this situation if you just tried harder.”

If you’re miserable, you must have done something wrong.”

You screwed up, and there’s no way to fix it.”

You suck.”

In other words, all sorts of friendly, constructive things designed to encourage self-love and healthy worldviews.

I’ve made efforts to quiet these voices, but every once in a while they crop back up. Even when they’re not screaming at me, they’re all too often murmuring in the background, a never-ending susurration of bile and self-pity. But where do these voices come from? It’s different in everyone’s case, but I would think there are some common threads, ones that most likely involve unhealthy internalized philosophies.

I was not raised in a traditionally religious household. My family was originally Catholic, and I got as far as my First Communion before they moved on. After that, it wasn’t uncommon for us to refer to ourselves as “spiritual but not religious.” a moniker I used myself for some time. The kind of New Age spirituality that proposed positive thinking as a panacea and focused on the “energetic” nature of things.

In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t exactly subscribe to these ideas any more. But somehow I still find my life shaped by them, in ways that often blindside me. I must have been exposed to them at just the right age that they settled deep within my subconscious, and have since resisted determined (and not-so-determined) efforts to remove them.

Let me give you an example: I must have been in third or fourth grade, and my family was still going to Catholic church. Something must have been said to me at Sunday school that day (I don’t remember what), but it literally put the fear of Hell into me. I couldn’t sleep that night; every time I closed my eyes I was faced with lakes of fire and brimstone where I was convinced I would spend the rest of eternity for the most minor of transgressions.

Once my family changed faiths (which is really what it amounted to, in the end), that guilt stayed with me. But this time, it wasn’t because of something I had done, it was because of something I hadn’t done. “In a bad situation? Well, just think positive! Put your intentions out to the universe! Didn’t work? Well, you must have just not been trying hard enough! Everything happens for a reason!”

Telling a teenager/young adult who might be starting to struggle with undiagnosed depression to just “think more positiver” isn’t exactly the most helpful advice.

But somehow I still managed to internalize some of these ideas. One sometimes jokingly refers to “drinking the Kool-Aid” in reference to taking odd, outside-the-norm ideas to heart; it’s not so much that I drank the Kool-Aid, it’s more that I was exposed to it in an aerosolized form, absorbing it more through osmosis than anything else.

And I think that’s where some of my dark voices come from: the internalized, however unwillingly, teachings of my youth. And because we’re exposed to them so young, it can be hard to excise them later in life. They get laid into the foundation of our personality, literally shaping how we view the world. They are, in effect, already inside our defensive perimeter.

How can I get rid of them? I don’t know. In all likelihood, they’re a big enough part of my personality that I may never be rid of them. At this point, the most I can do is to try and quiet the voices of doubt and guilt, keeping them at bay.

But in the dead of the night, when you’re alone with nothing but the darkness inside and the darkness without, it’s hard.

“I Don’t Know”

That simple phrase, that answer to so many questions, has been the bane of my existence since I was a child.

“I don’t know.”

I’ve talked before about how I don’t like making decisions, but this goes beyond that. When I was a kid, I was chastised for answering a question (ANY question) with “I don’t know.” Admittedly, sometimes that phrase was used to deflect responsibility for making a decision. But there were also times when it was used to stall for time: “I don’t know… let me think about it.” Of course, without the second part, both uses sound the same.

Even as an adult I can’t escape the shame of “I don’t know.” It’s even more maddening when I use it in cases that I TRULY DO NOT KNOW the answer, usually to big questions like “What do you want to do with your life?”

What do I want to do with my life? You know what? I’m not sure! In fact, I’m not even sure that one needs to “do” ANYTHING with their life! Can’t the beauty of the unknown be enough for some people? Do we need to compartmentalize everything into nice plans and purposes? Can’t you just accept that I, like so many people of my generation, are coming to the realization that life may not have an inherent purpose or meaning?

Look, I’ve thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life. When I graduated high school, I KNEW I wanted to be an astrobiologist. I even had it all planned out: what classes I would take, where I would go to grad school, et cetera. That plan came crashing down after my overloaded first quarter. Later, I thought I wanted to be an architect. I was still skittish, of course, given my previous experience, but I stuck with it and got my Masters. Then the global economy tanked, and I ended up having to compete for entry-level internships against people with 10 years’ working experience. Is there any wonder I ended up in retail? Is there any wonder I’m even more skittish about giving up what stability I have to “chase a dream?”

In fact, I even challenge the assumption that people need to find “their purpose,” the career that’s perfect for them and fulfills all their earthly and psychological needs. At this point, I don’t know if there’s anything I’m passionate enough about to devote my life to it, and the things in the running are really hard to make a living with. No one wants to pay me to play video games and read all day, or spend my weekends dressing in medieval clothes and hitting my friends with sticks.

So what do I want to do with my life? I don’t know.

Thanks for asking. Let’s move on.

Computers and Education: Modern Era

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Dell Inspiron 4100

The computer I went to college with. Once I decided I was going to the University of Denver, with its requirement that every incoming student have a laptop computer, I started eagerly poring through the various Dell catalogs that kept getting delivered to our house. In a fortuitous development, my parents decided they would sell the upright piano (that had been practically untouched since elementary school) in order to pay for my new computer. In other words, I was trading one computer for another.

I had a ton of fun customizing various options and configurations on the Dell website. I remember being quite excited that I could customize the color of my laptop. Unfortunately, the green panels ended up costing extra, so I went with a quite outlandish School Bus Yellow (this was also during my phase of wearing obnoxiously loud Hawaiian shirts as often as possible).

I actually still have this computer sitting on a shelf in my office. It was quite the beast when it was purchased in 2002, and actually aged fairly well. It had a whopping 512 MB of RAM, a GeForce 2 graphics card, and a native resolution of 1600×1200. The front bays were adjustable, meaning you could replace the floppy drive with a DVD-ROM or even an extra battery. Unfortunately, it did not have a built-in WiFi antenna, so I had to add an external one through the built-in PC Card slot.

I ended up using this computer for about six years, until I went back to grad school. It traveled to France with me. The battery is long dead, and the DVD drive tends to crash the computer if it’s not seated just so, but it still holds a soft spot in my heart. It was even the source of my first hard drive crash scare (TL;DR, I lost all my pictures from France, but years later was finally able to recover them).

Man, good times. Good times.

Dell XPS M1530


Still my current system, and the first one I had to pay for outright with my own money. I bought this one when I decided to go back to grad school, as I figured I would need a more robust system for doing things like running AutoCAD and modeling in SketchUp (to say nothing about the new games I was itching to play). Plus, I still had money at the time. So back I went to the Dell website, tweaking and customizing the specs to get the best computer I could for my money.

I think I did a pretty good job. I was able to get a staggering (at the time) 4 GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 320 GB hard drive (how would I ever manage to fill that up?), and a nice, fast Geforce 8600 graphics card (my current gaming bottleneck). The only downside was that it came pre-loaded with Windows Vista. So the first thing I did, once it came in the mail, was take my Windows XP disc from my old laptop, format the hard drive, and install the old OS on it. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that XP didn’t have the proper audio drivers for my system hardware. I begrudgingly re-installed Vista, but XP SP3 eventually fixed that issue. I have since upgraded to Windows 7 (64-bit, to take full advantage of my RAM and GPU memory), and it’s been working great.

But like its predecessors, it’s beginning to show its age. While I definitely got my use out of the 4-year warranty (which I can heartily recommend), my hard drive started giving up the ghost. Luckily the failure wasn’t catastrophic this time, but it was still too close for comfort. I ended up replacing it with a solid state drive (which I’ve written about previously), and it feels a lot faster, which should let me squeeze a bit more life out of it. But I can feel the new tech itch already starting to build.

* * *

So there you have it: a brief account of my history of using computers for school. I know I didn’t go into much detail as to what I used each platform for, but I imagine you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. Just try to keep your mind out of the gutter, alright? I’m pretty sure my parents read this blog.

Anyway, to me, it’s less important what was done with each technological iteration as the feelings and memories each one invokes. For instance, I hadn’t thought about that Brother computer in years, and once I finally found a picture of it online, the memories came flooding back. Same with the AlphaSmart and IBM laptop.

Also interesting is how my technological upgrades have, in the past, been primarily motivated by educational needs and opportunities. Now that I’m done with grad school (and have no intentions to go back [for the moment]), it’s going to be a bit different. I’m going to be upgrading because I want to, not because I have to. As someone who sometimes has trouble doing nice things for himself, this will take some getting used to.

Does anyone else chronicle their computing history like this?

Computers and Education: Pseudo Era

I have long said that I type faster than I write. This has been especially notable when it comes to tasks that require both speed and accuracy, like taking notes in class. While it’s not uncommon these days to see a college classroom filled with glowing laptops of various sorts, using a computer for education is not a new thing for me. In fact, it started pretty much as early as Mario taught me to type. Over the course of my educational career, I’ve had the chance to use some, shall we say, interesting computing platforms.

Brother Power Note

I started using a computer to take notes as early as elementary school. The first “computer” I used in this respect was a Brother Super Power Note. I’m not sure how this brick of a computer came into my possession, probably via a family friend that had finished using it. The biggest thing I remember about it was the black-and-green LCD display, which had an odd interface that looked like a three-ring binder. I have a memory (more of a fragment, really) of me sitting at a counter along the periphery of some elementary school classroom with this thing plugged into the wall. Thus began my journey, which continues to this day, of searching for seats with easy access to power outlets.


In middle school and early high school, things improved a bit. If nothing else, the “computer as learning accommodation” thing was not as unheard of. As such, I actually got some official support from the school. This came in the form of access to an AlphaSmart, a basic word processor that wasn’t much more than a keyboard with a tiny LCD screen that showed about three lines of text at a time. It saved notes as a regular TXT file, which had to be regularly offloaded to a more capable desktop computer. My big memory of this one is of me tapping away in biology class while the other students scribbled in their big binders. That, and the odd gray-green color of the plastic housing. Since these were school property, I couldn’t really take them home, but I think my parents were able to get me one on a more semi-permanent loan.

IBM Workpad z50

The Workpad z50 was the closest thing I had to a “real” laptop in high school. It even ran a version of Windows! True it was Windows CE, but it finally included Microsoft (Pocket) Office! It was light, portable, and had a large (at the time) color screen. It still wasn’t a standalone computing platform, but it felt the closest to one I had been able to use so far. I remember having a lot of fun customizing the look and feel of the OS. I wonder what happened to this one? Last I remember, it was in the bottom of my brother’s closet, refusing to turn on.

To be continued tomorrow…


Everything Is Awesome

TL;DR: The LEGO Movie is awesome. Go see it.

My girlfriend and I aren’t big on Valentine’s Day. Instead, we prefer to celebrate Half Price Chocolate Day. And for HPCD this year, we went and saw The LEGO Movie.

Now, I’m a huge LEGO fan, so I was in an interesting headspace leading up to this movie. I was of course predisposed to like it, but I was also worried about getting my hopes up. After all, I saw what they did to Transformers.

But somehow, they finally got a nostalgia-fueled movie about a kid’s toy right.

The movie was awesome. Not only did it manage to capture that unique feeling of playing with LEGO, it also had a really good message. And I loved the art style: while they used CGI, everything looked like it was made out of physical bricks. Everything. Even the water and explosions were rendered with gentle wear and scuff marks. And all the characters move like they were actual minifigs (read: not much) In fact, I would say this is the first CG movie that fooled me into thinking it was real (or at least stop-motion).

A word of warning: the theme song WILL get stuck in your head.

Now, if you haven’t seen it yet (you totally should), you may want to go elsewhere. I’m going to venture into more spoiler-y territory. You have been warned.

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