A Degree of Modesty

Recently, I decided to pop by the university and get a PhD. Since then, a lot of people have been asking, “do you feel any different now that you have a PhD?”

Well yes, of course I do. Whenever I insist that someone call me “doctor Mike”—whether it’s government documents, or my friends, or the lady serving me a shawarma—I get a nice little reminder that I am, in fact, superior to all the common people without PhDs. That’s a great feeling.

It also feels different knowing that I’m now qualified to force my opinion about anything on anyone. Also, I don’t know if you knew this (you don’t have a PhD, after all), but a psych degree comes with a free license to kill. It also makes you a god in the sack, lowers your THAC0 by 3, and allows you to glow when you get in a fight.

Actually, I set up a camera to record my PhD defense so you can see what it was like:

Err but for serious, being The Last Dragon a doctor is, for me, a relief but otherwise no biggie.

These past 6+ years of grad school have certainly been important to me, but my degree was only one project I was working on. It’s not what has defined me as a person. So I’m proud of checking one more thing off my list of accomplishments, sure, but it is only one thing.

As a polymathic sort of person, I get pleasure in pursuing a variety of goals. Reaching those goals is rewarding, but often secondary to the pursuit. I don’t feel different when I complete a multi-year project, because the ongoing learning and building I’d been doing all those years was already fulfilling the reasons for starting the project.

Now I can focus on some other pursuits more. Substantial ones like kicking ass at my job, publishing some of my research, and finishing up those half-completed novels that are sitting around, but also more nebulous ones like building relationships with kickass people, blogging, and contributing to the good of mankind.

I’m proud of my PhD though. Sometime I should tell you guys what my research is all about, because I was extremely lucky to be able to study what I actually wanted to study, and it turned out pretty cool. Until then, cheerio.

— Dr. Michael E. Battista, M.Sc., Ph.D., O.M.G.

David Sedaris

I don’t usually admire people. Maybe it’s cynicism or maybe it’s a large ego, but I see the vast majority of celebrities as equals; average people who got lucky.

Yet I found myself in awe of David Sedaris when I saw him perform live on Friday night at Centennial Hall. His way with words was inspiring. His sentences were carefully constructed yet natural, weaved into not-quite-fables that jump and twist yet always feel cohesive.

It was clear that it wasn’t just a well-rehearsed routine. While answering audience questions, he was able to produce pure improvised wit. And while reading from his diary—which was kinda like hearing someone read a blog, except one actually worth reading—he still had enough cognitive resources left to simultaneously ponder and write down notes for improvements to future shows. That sort of mental athleticism impresses me far more than any sports star or guidar shredder.

When I met him at the book signing after the show, somehow, within a minute, he had me confessing how much I cried when my dog Willow died. Then he predicted that I’d get a cat soon. So, you know, he’s not perfect.

Still, it was nice to admire someone for a change.

Spoiled

You know how outdated media companies could combat piracy? By seeding file sharing sites with files that have spoilers in the file names. I’d be reluctant to try searching an illicit download site if I’m likely to come across Harry_Potter_6(DVDRiP)_SNAPEKILLSDUMBLEDORE.avi or SurvivorS01E11_Richard_Wins.XviD or Six_Feet_Under_hey_guess_what_everyone_dies.mov.

I don’t want to encourage them, but it’s not like dying industries read blogs or are capable of trying anything creative.

This new Apple TV, however, is at least a step toward aligning media distribution with this newfangled “internet” thing. There is a sweet spot where it becomes worth paying money to avoid the hassle of searching for something that is otherwise free. At $99 for a device that can instantly dish out 99¢ TV episodes, that sweet spot’s hit, at least for me. I’d rather just pay my loonie than take the time to hunt an episode down across multiple sites, download it into submission, then drag it back to the device I consume it on. Sometimes it’s better to just order a burger instead of killing your own cow, y’know?

Plus, if I can cancel my cable subscription, it’s a net gain.

By the way, I have a full time job now, so all my blog posts will either be really short, or rambling nonsense that randomly goes nowhere, fueled by sleep deprivation and the crushing weight of adulthood.

So, how about baklava eh?

99 Problems But a Fish Ain’t One

Yesterday I saw a turtle squashed in the middle of the road. It’s not something you see every day in downtown London, so I figure it was an omen that it would be one of those days when everything that could go wrong would go wrong.

My first of two thesis defenses was scheduled for 1:00. I gave myself an hour after I got to school to have lunch and go over my introductory presentation. I’d written it the night before, but hadn’t practiced it yet. Last minute I guess, but I work best under pressure and there was much procrasturbation to be had.

When I picked up some sushi and a drink, the server made fun of my “bucket of coffee.” It’s true though, a venti is approaching a litre of friggin coffee. On my way back to my office, my labmate told me that I looked really chill. Which I mostly was, because all my preparation plans were in place, and all I could do was my best.

I got to my office, then flipped on my computer.

I didn’t know Apple computers could have a blue screen of death, but there it was: a blank blue screen. It was perfectly fine just 30 minutes earlier when I left the house, and now, it’s giving me sass with this blue screen. I reset it, and the blue screen was fixed! Except now it was this grainy rainbow screen of death.

I frantically Googled on my phone. I safe-moded and start-up-item-altered and make-verbs-out-of-phrases-ized as fast as my fingers would allow, but nothing that the internet suggested would help.

I took a moment to bite into my sushi. I say “bite into” because the salmon sashimi was this stringy unchewable mess. But as I stared at the spit-out wad of rancid meat, in the light of what was now a grey nonfunctional screen, feeling less than chill, a supernatural clarity came over me. I found myself reaching for a video adapter thingy. I poked it into a hole in the side of my laptop, then removed it.

No more screen of death. Like many grumpy people, my computer just needed something hard shoved into a random orifice.

I quickly loaded up my presentation. Even though I hadn’t worn a tie in a year, I let my fingers figure out how to tie it while I practiced my presentation at quadruple speed.

I got to my defense with sushi breath (I was out of gum, naturally) and a screaming bladder full of venti ounces of caffè. Of course, one of the people who needed to be there didn’t show up, so we started late anyway. But the bottom line is that I got through the presentation and the rounds of difficult questioning, and passed like a boss. Revisions, one more defense, then I’ll be a doctor.

The lesson here is that even when things go horribly wrong (in a first-world-problems sense, anyway), let them go wrong, and it will probably turn out fine anyway. They might even give you a PhD.

The Emotional Ramifications of Bleeps and Bloops

The iPhone needs more options for the new text message sound. There are only six beeps, bongs, and honks available, with no ability to add new ones.

I say this not out of a vain need for customization, but for the emotional well-being of iPhone users.

This is modern life:

You meet someone you like, and she likes you enough to give you her phone number. You send her an innocuous text, then wait with breath abated for a reply. BONG, an innocuous text in return. You do this back-and-forth a few times and soon each message contains not just neutral words but embedded emotion.

Eventually it’s BEEP BEEP here are your plans for the evening; DING! here comes a compliment you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You precede those consequences with that sound enough times, and they become inextricably linked. A smile hits your lips and your heart leaps into your throat with every buzz of your pocket.

Maybe you go on a few adventures. Maybe you screw. Maybe you make plans for the future. But nothing lasts forever, and when things inevitably go sour, all the positive associations with that tone become ambivalent, then negative. Finally, DONG! we need 2 talk.

Those associations are embedded deep, and they never quite go away. Alerts for even the most frivolous texts now make your mouth go dry; they’re Pavlov’s bell in reverse.

It doesn’t take long to cycle through all six tones.

Technology is so embedded in our lives that we must increasingly consider not only its practical ramifications, but the full spectrum of human emotion as well.

Book Review: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

You could describe Ender’s Game as Harry Potter in space. It’d be a pretty crappy way of describing it, since Ender came long before Harry , but the similarities are there. We’ve got a school full of kids who are special, an upcoming war, a sport that involves flying around and reaching a goal, and one really special angsty kid who’s destined to save the world.

The similarities “end” there, though. Ender’s Game is not fantasy, but hard science fiction. For a geek like me, it was a delight to read the intricate details of how to maneuver in zero gravity; not only how it affects people physically, but mentally as well (“the enemy’s gate is down”).

The sci-fi doesn’t come at the expense of character development, however. Ender is a flawed, rounded out character. Flawed in a Jack Bauer kind of way though; you always know he’ll figure out a way to deal with any obstacle. Often violently.

I was amazed at the prescience of Card’s vision of the future. The short story the book is based on was written in 1977, yet many of the technologies described are just coming to maturity in 2010. The Internet plays a large role (especially in the interesting but ultimately rather pointless side plot about Ender’s sister), taking over media and political influence in a way we are sure to see soon. He even threw in a line about kitchen appliances being online; in the 80s, the idea of a human being able to type something up then post it for the entire world to see (hi) would have been mind-blowing, but somehow Card was already imagining Twittering fridges.

Part of his genius was keeping descriptions just vague enough that your mind fills in the details with plausible technology. For example, the students’ “desk” computers are described as fitting on a lap and having a screen, but the exact control mechanism is never specified. Of course, I imagined them as iPads.

Speaking of which…I got an iPad. This is my first post written on it. My typing is slower and I can’t figure out a way to include a picture, but I still feel like I’ve arrived in the friggin future. Full impressions coming up later.

Book Review: World War Z, by Max Brooks

World War Z was not what I expected. Brooks’ previous effort was The Zombie Survival Guide, and I thought World War Z would be his attempt at a straight-forward zombie novel. That is not the case.

The book can be considered a collection of very short stories that take place in the same world (which happens to become overrun with zombies). They are in rough chronological order, so an overall timeline develops, but characters only rarely appear in more than one chapter.

The amount of detail, breadth, and creativity in these tales is incredible. Brooks is well aware that no segment of society is safe in a worldwide zombie apocalypse. Stories cover everyone from Paris Hilton and her chihuahua to the K9 units in the military to the soldiers who specialize in fighting zombies under water.

Each chapter is great as a standalone story, and that’s both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Just as you’re getting into a situation, the chapter ends. There’s something to be said for leaving the reader wanting more, but when there is no more, it can be frustrating. Many of the ideas here are so damn good they could have been expanded into full novels of their own, and sometimes I wish they were.

Still, bite-sized giblets of zombie goodness are better than nothing. World War Z is essential reading for anyone who loves the living dead as much as they should.

Podcamp London + Contemplative Goose

On Saturday I attended Podcamp London. A podcamp is a gathering of people interested in blogging, podcasting, social media, and other technologyish internetty stuff. It’s referred to as an “unconference”, because the format is unconventional. There are few rules, and anyone is free to throw a presentation onto the schedule. I guess I count as “anyone,” so I inserted myself into the timetable, and prepared a little presentation.

I talked to a packed room about internet fame, blogging, and how social media and the accessibility of the internet are changing the way creative people do their thing. I was a bit nervous, since I’d never done anything like that before, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

If you wanna see my slides, you can get a clickable Quicktime movie (showing my spiffy slide transitions) here, or a PDF with all my secret notes (ruining the illusion that my witty jokes were improvised) here.

Actual audience reaction. I am mildly amusing.

I got a lot of flattering feedback, and some good suggestions for the coffee blog. From the always-creative Nik Harron came the idea for putting despair in coffee. That is, tears. I wonder if tears of shame taste difference than tears of mourning?

I imagine the former are a little more spicy.

It made no sense btw.

Also: I won a pool for predicting how many dongs would show up in Chatroulette in a 30 minute period (six). I’m like a psychic predicting how many children you’ll have, except it’s how many dongs you’ll see. (See also). It was good times.

There were more substantial thrills to be had, too. The sense of community was palpable. I have another psychic prediction: good things are coming in London Ontario’s future. There is an increasingly-less-underground group of diverse personalities who are passionate about making great things happen in this city and beyond. Upcoming projects like Changecamp London and UnLondon are just a few examples.

Between Podcamp itself and the sloppy after-party, I came across this Canada goose:

I’ve seen him there 3 or 4 times, always just standing there looking at his reflection in the window. He’s, like, a metaphor for life, man. Just staring, all day, pondering his place in this crumbling city. The goose is us, man. The goose is us.


Update May 10 9:30pm: I have been informed (thanks a lot @BillyW64) that the goose stares at his reflection because he thinks it’s his mate that he lost last year. There was a story about him on A Channel (I guess they interviewed the goose to obtain this information). The goose picture is now more sad-deep than intelligent-deep. Man.

Update May 11 3:15pm: Here is the fluffy A Channel story about the goose (thanks @joeradman, you are rad, man). Not sure about the veracity of the story or if it’s even the same goose (mine is in a totally different location). Maybe geese are just vain. Still, it’s sad to think about. There is also a Facebook page for him/her.

Book Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavres, by Mary Roach

Stiff tells various tales about what happens to our bodies after we die. From experiments with car crashes and bullet impacts, to good old cannibalism, it’s a fascinating look at some stories that would usually remain buried.

Aside from being willing to go places few people would dare, Roach’s strength is in the personality that comes through in her writing. Rather than a dry reporting of facts, she describes in first-person her experiences with people—both living and dead—who she sought out to research the book. Describing her own reaction to every odour adds a real punch, but her sense of humour is always there to keep it from going too far.

I listened to the audiobook edition, and Shelly Frasier’s narration is perfect. Her perpetually sardonic tone perfectly captures Roach’s darkly sarcastic writing.

It doesn’t all come up roses. The gross chapters—like the one devoted to research on human decay—are always, um, engrossing. Others can be dry. In the chapter on new methods of disposing of bodies (such as removing all the moister, shattering them, then using them as compost), Roach describes, in great detail, a conference she attended where these methods were debated. While an inside glimpse into the politics of the funeral industry is interesting for a few pages, it goes on for way too long.

Stiff is lively more often than not, though, and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the deader side of life.

Me in Maclean’s. Also: Nuts.

Sooo there’s an article about me in Maclean’s Magazine (April 12th issue, page 62). It goes like so:

Plain old coffee can be boring, so Mike “Phronk” Battista of London, Ont., likes to put “weird things” in his (he keeps a blog about it). [etc.]

Conspicuously absent? The address of said blog. I guess there won’t be an influx of millions of visitors who will buy my crappy merchandise.

Oh well. At least when I’m old, I can brag to my grandkids about my greatest accomplishment. I’ll be all like, “STOP TALKING. Did you know that I was in Maclean’s?”

And they’ll be all like, “WTF is Maclean’s?”

And I’ll say, “It was one of Canada’s most popular magazines.”

And they’ll say, “WTF is a magazine?”

Then I will get angry and rant about the good old days when you had to physically leave the house to get information, then slowly absorb it from paper to your brain, rather than instantly downloading it into your neural implant. Then I’ll graphically demonstrate how the iPad can suck my wrinkly nuts.