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annual report, 2008-9

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I think it’s time for another annual update, though I doubt that this one will be shorter than the last. The “shock of the new” has worn off, somewhat, and there have been fewer surprises. It hasn’t been a boring year, however.

university

The second year at University College Dublin (UCD) did not go quite as well as the first, but I’m still on track for a solid 2.1 degree, a.k.a. “Second Class Honours, Grade I” in B.Sc Structural Engineering with Architecture. A “First” is a little beyond me, since it requires excellent results on all subjects, and I don’t see that happening. In some subjects – not all – I’m running in to problems with the teaching and assessment methods.

My grade point average (GPA) was dragged down by two subjects in the second semester: in one, Theory of Structures, I enjoyed the lectures very much, and did well in tutorials etc., but when it came to the exam, I found that I could not remember every procedure and every formula. So much of it was empirical in nature, derived from experiment and not from first principles, so there was nothing “behind” most formulae for me to hang on to.

In another subject, Statistics, the problem was that the lecturing was frankly poor, with the lecturer often late and wasting time on silly things. He seemed to expect the students to be computers, remembering random pieces of information from his and other subjects. When no-one gave an instant answer to an integration problem (from calculus), the result was a 20-minute rant on how we were not trying hard enough. As if that was not bad enough, I found that Statistics affected me like no other subject ever has: an overwhelming, enervating, sense of “I don’t care”. I know that some of it is relevant to my future – I was already aware of some parts – but I could not help thinking that most of it was not, and I may never see any of it ever again.

In particular, I’m getting more frustrated with examinations. For most courses in my programme, I think it does not make sense to have the whole course depend on what I can cram in to my head and regurgitate on to paper, by hand, in a room filled with students, in a two-hour period. You end up studying to pass the exam, not to further your understanding of the subject – though you would expect those two goals to overlap. The degree to which this applied depended on the subject, an in one subject in particular, there was no exam, and the entire course was based on continuous assessment, i.e. assignments.

If this was happening in every subject, I would start to suspect that the problems lay primarily with me, but a few other subjects showed me just how good it can be. In Mechanics of Solids, the lecturer was excellent, focusing primarily on actual problems and not on abstract theory. The assignments were challenging but doable, and the exam fell in to place nicely, leaving me with a solid A-.

In my past work experience, the standard of work we had to produce meant that it was always necessary to check sources, and use whatever resources and tools were available to us, and not try to do it all from our heads with pen and paper. I do not expect my future to be much different: rather than using my head to store information, it will be used to process information in to knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom. I thought about drawing a “wisdom pyramid” to illustrate what I mean, but a quick internet search shows that many are thinking along the same lines. The diagram to the right is courtesy of the Institute for Innovation & Information Productivity (IIIP).

At this stage in my degree programme, UCD seems to be expecting me to operate at the lower levels, wasting energy that could be better spent on a deeper understanding of the subject. It looks as if I that will have to wait for the Master’s years – if I can afford them.

health

The only thing to report on this front is that I’ve passed the end of the two year trial of FTY720, and am now on the extension phase of the trial. In this phase, I’m definitely on the drug – no more placebos – but I’m not being told what the actual dose is. I should soon be told what I was on in the first two years of the trial.

With multiple sclerosis (MS), the symptoms can be highly variable, and dependent on factors other than the MS itself. It changes how your body reacts to certain stimuli and situations; for example, I have been warned against extreme heat, a warning I definitely violated this past summer (which I will say more about later). In general, though, I can consider the situation well under control.

There are certain constants in my case: the L’Hermitte’s Sign in my neck can be considered a marker of permanent spinal cord damage: I can not bend my head forward without tingles shooting down to my feet. The severity varies: it’s worse when I am tired, but also first thing in the morning, after my spine stretches during sleep.

Some things vary, such as my memory performance, which partly let me down during the last university exams. I do experience fatigue, but it doesn’t just happen: I don’t get tired if I don’t do anything, but when I do things, I get more tired than I used to, and more quickly. I can still walk miles a day, but I feel the effects more. Still, this is turning out to be a very manageable condition.

summer

After a few attempts at finding work, I could see that the employment situation here in Ireland is such that I need not bother. Where there are openings, they are being bombarded with applications, with the result that you need to be a perfect match to the position, complete with plenty of relevant experience. (I saw reports of a thousand applications being received for one simple temporary teaching post.) At this in-between stage in my study, with only summers free, I am not a fit to any job at all.

May was largely taken up by university exams; June by preparations to move house – again – and the move itself. My new place is closer to the university in general, and much closer to the parts of the university I will be visiting the most, specifically the Civil Engineering department. July was a quiet month of settling in, with several hospital visits associated with switch to the FTY720 extension trial. Finally, August arrived.

On the last day of July I flew to Houston, Texas, to visit old friends of mine, staying in their house about 50km north for four weeks. The daytime temperatures rarely went below 30°C, usually exceeding 35°C, which explains why everything is air-conditioned. I think the kids were pleased to see me: there are photos of me, on the couch, with all three of them on top of me (a classic dogpile). We visited Johnson Space Centre, including Mission Control, had a good steak dinner, and even got to go to a baseball game. (The Houston Astros beat the Florida Marlins 4-1.)

My interests in architecture and cities meant that I really wanted to see downtown Houston too, which took some doing. My friends live in a different county, out where the Houston Metro buses don’t run, so the best way to do it was to travel to my friend’s office, which was closer, and get the buses from there. The service was surprisingly good: the buses weren’t that regular, but they did run to schedule, so you could plan the trip. best of all: a trip costs just $1.25, including a free 2-hour transfer if you use a smart card, which I did.

The scale of Houston made it slightly daunting to someone on foot, in that heat, but after a little research and familiarization, I found Houston scored highly on my “friendly city” criteria: you could tell where you were and where you were going, things worked as advertised, and it was possible to leave the map in the pocket and navigate by intelligent guesswork. The downtown area features a network of tunnels linking the various buildings, complete with coffee shops and restaurants; these cater to office workers, mostly closing by 3PM. Up on the street, though, the locals suffering the heat presented the other side of Houston: largely Hispanic or African-American, and clearly impoverished, some apparently refugees from New Orleans.

One pleasant surprise: it was possible to walk straight in to the tallest building in Houston, the Chase Tower, and take an elevator to the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor: no cost, no formalities of any sort, just an elevator that makes your ears pop. I also paid a visit to the Museum of Fine Art, wandered through a wall-to-wall Who’s Who of Impressionism, and found myself standing in a room holding seven Picasso pieces. The place was nearly empty, even though it was Free Thursday.

Back in Dublin, I’m preparing to start university again on Monday, though I’ve already been back there several times. I’m involved with the Mature Student Society there, and helped out on the orientation day last weekend, giving a short speech about my experiences and motivations. I still find it easier to speak in public than in private, for some strange reason.

technology

The Asus eee PC 1000 is still going strong, running the Ubuntu Linux Netbook Remix. It survived the trip to the USA with flying colours, and over the last year, about the only problems it’s experienced have been those I caused myself. In the university library it’s kept me typing for over five hours at a stretch.

My Houston friends gave me a parting gift, in the form of an Apple iPod Touch (8GB). I wouldn’t normally buy any Apple products, due to their corporate policies (DRM, lock-in, the walled garden, etc.), but this is turning out to be extremely interesting. It’s a very good MP3 player, but I didn’t know it had wireless networking, email capability, and more. It’s basically an iPhone without the phone, which coincides nicely with my current plans to cancel my current mobile phone account. (I’ve been overcharged by my current provider, and I’ve had enough.)

The applications are also very interesting. For example, I’ve found a version of the Ilium eWallet software I’ve used for years, for storing passwords and other sensitive information. There’s also a version of Skype, as well as some interesting games, such as Jelly Car and iMafia III. It’s only been about ten days at this time, so I’m still getting used to the iPod.

conclusion

Another year, another birthday, another 60 credits, another step closer to  … what? I ended the previous annual report with a hope that the world wouldn’t fall apart under my feet, and look at what happened. I was expecting a housing market crash, but I was not expecting such a monumental balls-up. Never mind sub-prime mortgages, I had much more to learn about insurance, derivatives, and the dreaded Credit Default Swap. Still, it could be worse: I seem to have picked a good time to be absent from the job market and living a low-income, low-expenditure lifestyle. I’m having health checks and receiving MS therapy at no cost to me, and I even had enough slack, financially, to afford a trip to the USA, so I have to say that life is pretty good. I think it’s time to put this report to bed, and follow it there. Until next year, good night.

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Written by brian t

September 6, 2009 at 1:47 am

season’s close

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Earlier this evening, I walked out of the office after my last day as an employee in the IT industry. For now, at least, and for good if I have any control over my future. We had our “official” send-off in the pub two weeks ago, so today there was no fanfare, no send-off beyond a few handshakes, and electronic well-wishes from half-a-dozen time zones. That was how I wanted it; in most senses but the physical, I left long ago.

Tomorrow is the first day of orientation at University College Dublin, a day dedicated to we “mature students”. The main orientation starts on Monday, but I will not be involved until Thursday and Friday next week. The few days off were a welcome surprise that will come in handy. On the Monday after that, the real work starts; in the first year, my main worry is the Maths, since in my last years of school, the introduction of Calculus sent my marks in to a downward trend from A+ to B-. The same was not true of Physics and Chemistry, which I enjoyed all the way to my final A, and which forms a smaller part of my course.

The other side of the course is creative; it is a mixture of Engineering and Design, with the prospect of something more than mere numbers at the end of it. Outside the class, I’m looking for creativity in other fields too, and intend to get back in to playing music after too long away. I ordered a new Tune 4-string bass from Germany, earlier this week, a demo model at a knockdown price: I guess an amplifier is next: something portable.

I don’t expect to escape computers altogether, and I would not want to: I know they will be part of my future studies and work. If anything, not having to deal with a multitude of computer problems may rekindle some of my old enthusiasm for using them in creative ways, but I want and intend to live and work in the real world, once the studies are done. What I am leaving behind is the idea of computing for computing’s sake. Blogging is one example: it used to mean something, to me at least, but those days are over.

If a hunter shoots his gun in the forest, but there’s no-one there to hear it, did it really go off? In the real world, you can go and look at the hole in the squirrel tree, and you have the evidence that the gunshot really happened, and there were consequences. In writing this blog, I’ve been a poor hunter in a virtual forest, taking potshots at tempting targets, and never knowing if I actually hit anything. Today’s bloggers are more focused on a particular target; they know what they are doing out here, and wear better-fitting armour, but they are not much better at leaving holes in the real world.

As a hunting season ends when the majority of the hunter’s prey has migrated to warmer climes, my blogging season is now over; my reasons to be out here, in the chilly virtual evening, have flown away, so I am packing up my weapons and taking them home. There’s not much in my swag bag, but I did not go hungry. My pantry is well-stocked for the winter, and that will suffice. If a new season comes, will I step outside again, blunderbuss over my shoulder? I don’t know; that, too, must suffice.

Written by brian t

August 31, 2007 at 11:59 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, life

wind-up or wind-down?

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giving up blogging - © hugh macleod 2006 A while ago I stated my intention to stop blogging, as soon as I started university. That eventuality is now one week away, and I still intend to go through with it. I’m viewing this move as one step in a larger set of life changes, nearly all of which have been under my control.

It’s well over 5 years since I started blogging, and I’ve seen it develop from a niche activity to a web standard. A process of commercialization is already under way, even if it is not obvious from a superficial standpoint. This is understandable in purely economic terms: anything with mass popularity will be ripe for commercial exploitation.

This blog is hosted by wordpress.com, which was set up as a host for the WordPress “content management” software developed by the same multinational team. It does not charge users for a basic account. They do charge for extras, such as extra storage space or (in my case) the use of my own top-level domain, but these are genuine extras, and I don’t know if they are big cash cows for the developers. I get the impression they are still doing this because they can, not purely for commercial gain, even though the costs of running wordpress.com must be somewhere between “stupendous” and “horrendous”.

Will we see “professional bloggers”? In some senses, we already have them. Blogs, and comments on them, are major weapons in the arsenal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) executives. We also have technology journalists and podcasters such as Robert Scoble and Adam Curry using these media to further their careers, even if stardom is not quite what they want. Me? I just enjoy writing, and found this blog a useful platform for stories about myself, my activities, and anything else that interested me.

Where I am going – for the next three years, at least – I will have plenty to write about, with little or none of it about me. In the remaining week, I may post a little more about the changes ahead of me, or I may not: they are not that exciting or unusual, and not all are guaranteed to take place. For now, I’ll resist the temptation to quote from Turn, Turn, Turn (by The Byrds), and enjoy the Debussy on the BBC Proms broadcast. This must be what old men get up to on Saturday nights.

Written by brian t

August 25, 2007 at 8:43 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, web 2.0

24% evil, 76% good

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This site is certified 24% EVIL by the Gematriculator This site is certified 76% GOOD by the Gematriculator

No, it’s not real: the Gematriculator is a spoof Numerology analyser for web pages or text. Well, if this says good things about the site, I can’t take much of the credit: it’s analysing the underlying HTML code too, and most of that is generated by wordpress.com and the Theme I use.

My two years of pill-popping have started: so far I have three bottles of capsules from America, complete with Federal warning labels, each with about a month’s supply of… a lot, a little, or nothing. The capsules are the smallest I’ve ever seen, so small it’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble taking them. Since I have to take one a day, I’ve set up alarm reminders, which means I won’t be forgetting to take my vitamins, either.

I spent most of the day just sitting around, and was able to write a few thousand words of… well, that’s for another day. There was no internet access, so no normal work was possible, but I could take coffee breaks. The worst parts of yesterday’s hospital visit were the ECG exams. (Electrocardiogram, also known as EKG.) I had one in the morning, before the first dose of medicine, and another later in the evening.

If you know about the ECG, you might be asking: what’s the problem? It’s quick, non-invasive, and all you need to do is lie still. Well, all that is true, but in my case the problem is preparation. I’m male, so I don’t get the luxury of modesty: I’m lying on a trolley with my shirt off, while everyone and their sister walks past, or pokes their noses in to say Hi! to the nurse. A pretty female nurse, who has to repeatedly reattach electrodes that refuse to stick to my hairy chest. It took alcohol swabs, surgical tape, and a threat to break out the razor and shaving cream, before they held still long enough for a minute’s data.

What I said before about being patient number one turned out to be untrue: I was the first going in, true, but the last going out with a bottle of pills. Well, not quite the last, because I made a new friend yesterday: Cathy, who stayed a little longer than me, and whom I will hopefully see again, on my next visit in two weeks’ time. After the first hour, during which we both failed to present any symptoms whatsoever, we went out for lunch. We also hung out during the day – but not while she was having her ECG: she, at least, got to enjoy a little modesty.

Written by brian t

July 20, 2007 at 7:32 pm

belated independence

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We’re almost at the end of the day after Independence Day, and I’m finally getting the opportunity to sit down and write a little about my own Independence Day, 2007. I’m not American, but I had one, nevertheless.

July 4, 2007, was the day I started quitting my job, at a major IT company. I say “started” because I haven’t actually resigned yet: it’s too soon for that. I need to give four weeks’ notice; I gave eight weeks of actual working time, or ten weeks if you factor in holidays that I won’t be taking. What I did was inform my manager that I was leaving, with the rest of the team here being told soon afterwards.

Where am I going? Not another job, at least not yet: in early September I will start full-time study at University College Dublin (UCD). The course is Structural Engineering with Architecture, straddling two disciplines. A lot of mathematics, a lot of looking at the “designed environment”, some graphic design, even some materials and construction.

I thought it was a good all-rounder course: while I enjoy architecture and design, I have no illusions of becoming an Architect with a capital A; it would take a certain level of Arrogance that I don’t have or want (I hope). More details to follow as I get them.

That is not the only change around here: not long after the meeting where I made the announcement, a former colleague of ours came calling. He still works for the same company, but in a different area, and he needed a place to stay for a few days, possibly longer. He’s not Irish, but married an Irish lady, whom (he says) is no longer a Lady. As a result, my place is now his “halfway house” on his way to the divorce courts and out of the country. Good thing I have that spare bedroom.

The last change will take the next eight weeks to engineer: the end of this blog. The reasons are complex, and will be the subject of further entries, but the most straightforward is that this blog is out of step with the way things are done today. Blogging is no longer an end in itself, but a means to an end: an end that I have little interest in achieving.

Written by brian t

July 5, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Posted in blogging, life, study, web 2.0, work

rated arrrrrrr

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What's My Blog Rated?I’m dangerous!
(Image courtesy of Mingle2‘s Blog Rating Tool.)

Why? They’re doing some keyword matching, and the reason given was:

  • bomb (4x)
  • dangerous (2x)
  • drugs (1x)

All the “bomb” references must be those in my recent post slagging off the bombers, which was about another plot to bomb London, after the July 2005 bombings. Indeed, the front page (today) has two uses of the word “dangerous”: the first examining the risks of capture that terrorists expose themselves to, in their drive to publicise their acts; the other was regarding the religious indoctrination of children.

The drugs? Well, if I’ve passed all the tests, I will be engaged in a trial of a new Multiple Sclerosis therapy, FTY720 (fingolimod). I also have some other plans in the pipeline, but (like the trial) it’s too soon to talk about them here.

The trial is an unnecessary risk, strictly speaking, as are my other plans; way to live dangerously, dude! I don’t believe I say anything here that is unsuitable for kids, but then I wasn’t brought up in the USA, where kids would grow up totally unprepared for the real world, if their parents had their way. (Not that they always do – YouTube has many examples of failures of parental control.)

No, I’m British, from a previous generation, and all is not lost there, either. This year, the winner of the prestigious Galaxy Book Of The Year Prize was The Dangerous Book for Boys; designed to get them out from behind their computer games and out in to the world, climbing trees, fighting battles, falling into streams, and generally acting like healthy boys should. The book has just been released in the USA, with some modifications: baseball instead of cricket, General Grant instead of Lord Nelson, etcetera.

Can you tie a Reef knot? I can, but that’s about all I remember about knots. A Bowline was about as far as I got, and (I recall) the Sheepshank defeated me utterly. Granny knots, on the other hand, are not a problem. 🙄

Written by brian t

June 22, 2007 at 1:18 pm

Posted in blogging, books, culture, humour

web 1.0 reborn

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I’ve just deleted my account at Twitter, and intend to cut my participation on forums down, even further than I already have. I left The National Midday Sun (TNMS) last year, and the MythBusters fan forum a few months go – two forums that sucked up epic spans of time, but provided little real reward, only an illusory aura of “participation”.

Reboot 9.0 is kicking off, in Copenhagen, tonight: a year ago I was at Reboot 8.0, wondering if I could get a handle on all this Web 2.0 stuff. I came away with an overriding impression, backed up by explicit statements from other bloggers, that Web 2.0 is all about creating more intrusive links between a person and the Internet. This is a double-edged sword, in my opinion.

The first edge is the drive for “personalization”; they will help you get what you want, in the way that you want, so you can make better use of your time and attention. The same information, about your interests and plans, can be used to customise advertising directed at you – something that, it is hoped, advertisers will happily pay more for. It’s an illustration of a universal truth behind any new non-scientific endeavour: follow the money.

The second edge is the drive to put oneself out there, to create the “brand of me”. If you search the Internet for “brand of me”, you can find many examples of how to do this well, but you’ll also note that the practitioners of this are those with something to sell. The most vocal proponent of this approach, that I know of, is Sally Hogshead, blogger and author of Radical Careering, a book which appears to be about careers in general, but seems to me to be focused on “public-facing sales” careers, such as marketing and advertising.

To hear these “brand of me” proponents speak, you would think that everyone needs to be a marketeer, because everyone has something to sell: yourself. This reminds me of something I heard an employer say: “everyone is a salesperson”. (That one got a good laugh at the time.)

I understand there are occasions when such measures are necessary – when looking for a job, for example – but once you are done with that, why keep selling yourself? The stock answer that I’ve heard goes something like “you never stop looking for new work and new challenges, and you need to push your brand message at every possible opportunity”.

This, allegedly, is the way of the future. To reach out to anyone in this attention-starved, noise-saturated world, to survive in a hyper-economy, you need to be faster, louder, and more aggressive, in your drive to make your name known and sell your services. To effectively reap the benefits of personalization, or effectively market yourself, you sacrifice privacy and anonymity, because everyone can see you.

If I look at the steps I have already taken without close examination, and those I plan to take in the next few months, I realise that I have already decided how much personalization I want, and how important the “brand of me” is.

I’m not “dropping off” the Internet. but I am giving up any illusions I may have had about active participation in the “web 2.0 revolution”. My plans are moving from the virtual world back in to the real world. More details will follow in the next few months; not that anyone will notice, since I have not effectively marketed myself or this site. Never mind Second Life; I have a First Life to live. 8)

Written by brian t

May 30, 2007 at 6:40 pm