My posts and thoughts

A Little Bit Less This Year

2013 was a significant year for me. It was full of all sorts of new challenges and successes that are brand new to me. While it’s all felt very fulfilling, there’s the more difficult matter of what to do with it all. At times, it’s incredibly overwhelming. Some days there’s just too much. That’s why, in 2014, my resolution is to make a larger commitment to minimalism.

There are plenty of benefits to minimalism. And perhaps the greatest part about it is how personal the definition of it is. While one of the primary focuses of minimalism is owning fewer things (something I’ve already started), it’s also about identifying the things that truly matter to you and eliminating everything else. Focusing on your passions, and disposing of anything that distracts from them.

Leading up to New Year’s, I spent some time thinking about what actually matters to me. What things I really want to focus on this year. By picking out the things I sincerely care about now, I can find what needs to get out of the way.

This includes getting rid of "stuff". I have too much stuff. I want to have less of it. I won’t be counting my possessions (though some minimalists do), but I will be actively looking for things to get rid of. Along with having less, I want to better organize what I do have. Finding more permanent homes for things will not only help me keep things clean, it will help me identify things to get rid of. If something can’t have a permanent home, maybe I don’t need it.

To really be effective at having less, I need to learn to say no to free stuff. I mean, we all love free stuff from time to time, but do I need another pen when I have half a dozen that work perfectly? Do I need another water bottle when I hardly use the two I already have? Stopping stuff I don’t really care about from coming in should be easier than getting rid of what I already have.

This paring down of things is extending to my digital lifestyle as well. I’m in the process of eliminating an email address (four is just way too many). I have files spread across three different cloud storage services - sorry Google Drive, time for you to go. I seem to be a bit all over the place with social media. Don’t get me wrong, I find social media fascinating and I thoroughly enjoy it, I just have a difficult time figuring out what I should post where and I’m considering creating a set of rules for myself to straighten that out.

By eliminating a few things that take up my time, I can start digging more into the things I care about. I took just 5 minutes to think of things that I sincerely cared about and made a list. If I couldn’t think of it within 5 minutes, perhaps it’s not so critical to me. And from this list I compiled, pretty much everything fell into one of five categories.

In 2014, I will focus more on writing by continuing with ShittyiPhoneApps, writing more in my blog, but also starting a personal journal. Too often I feel like I’m overwhelmed because I don’t put things down on paper. Being me, this paper will be proverbial since I’ll be using the popular app Day One as my journal, but I will write daily, regardless.

I will also focus more on music. I love music, it’s rare that I don’t have music playing while I do everything from walk across campus, to homework, to reading articles online. I’ll finally get through organizing my library to the full extent I’d like, I’ll spend more time using my mixer, and more time appreciating my whole collection.

In looking back on 2013 and even 2012, I was reminded of why I changed majors. In Computer Science, my work focused on algorithms and making things tick, rather than crafting things. What I really want to do is make things. So I switched to Information Technology where I can focus on web development and make things that have the potential to reach thousands or even millions of people. When it comes down to it, I love creating things. So in 2014, I will focus on things that let me be creative; my writing, small web projects, or hell, even Minecraft from time to time. I feel best when I make something, so I’ll spend less time consuming and more time making.

One thing that will not be lost in my move to minimalism will be my love for technology. New gadgets or cool applications of technology are one of the things that keep me going. If I ever have the money to get my hands on Google Glass, you bet your ass I’m getting it. I’ve already pre-ordered a Coin, I pre-ordered my FitBit One back in the day, and I have little doubt the world will continue to produce exciting electronics I’m bound to love before most people. This is one area in which I will feel little guilt in acquiring more, but I will exercise constraint. Perhaps focus on trading up for better devices, rather than simply getting more.

And the final category that comprised my list was relationships. With my friends, my girlfriend, new people I meet - all my relationships in a general sense. I’d like to make more of them a bit more meaningful. To really get to know a few more people beyond the surface level that is so common these days. We’re so focused on making more and more connections (demonstrated by high Facebook friend counts), that each connection tugs on our attention and each one becomes less meaningful. I’d like to make a few of them just a bit more meaningful by giving them the attention they deserve.

While it sounds like I’m aiming for a total life transformation in a single year (which would be an impressive feat), I do a lot of these things already. I already spend time creating, organizing my music, learning about new technologies, writing and socializing, but I don’t do any of them to the extent I’d like to. Things get in the way. I have to clean up stuff I don’t even care about, I have to organize all the time just to keep my life straight, I have emails across four accounts to check and more. It’s time to start eliminating just a little bit.

This isn’t a total life transformation now, but establishing a lifestyle now will set the stage for the rest of my life. Turns out, our 20’s are pretty important. I’d hate to squander this opportunity, so why not try it? If it doesn’t work out, I’ve got plenty of my 20’s left.

A Very Full 2013

It seems like each year continues to be a bigger and bigger deal for me as college progresses. 2012 was fuller than 2011, and now 2013 stands as the fullest year of my short life. Before I participate in the annual futility that is the New Year’s Resolution, I’d like to take a minute to reflect on this year.

On the professional front, it’s been an incredible year. I completed a second season with iD Tech Camps, and excelled at teaching like never before. The second time around I felt more confident, and loved teaching programming far more than I expected I would. I took on a second term as an Orientation Assistant (OA) for RIT’s New Student Orientation and met an incredible group of students, a few of whom I’m still in contact with. My success in my second year as an OA led me to apply and be selected for a Lead OA position for 2014. I also helped pioneer a new position within the Academic Support Center at RIT as a Peer Advisor. I even went so far as to write a lesson for the course I was advising for and have made a commitment to help improve the curriculum further.

At Resnet, I’ve taken on the additional responsibilities of being a Senior RCC, which basically means when things go wrong I get to deal with them. I also became the lead developer for our internal ticketing system, and fared better than I expected in developing various features. Working with a messy, undocumented web app is not the most pleasant experience, but I learned a lot from the challenge and pushed my skills as a developer forward. Both of these experiences proved immensely valuable in securing my first co-op, which I will be fulfilling this spring with Brand Networks in Rochester. I have no doubt that I would not have been hired without the experience I gained this year at Resnet.

In 2013 I made the transition from using a Wordpress.com-hosted website to hosting my own sites with my own server. I learned how to setup and maintain a web server (which for basic tasks like I’m doing is quite simple, actually). In addition to my personal website and blog, I started a site dedicated to the iPhone App Reviews I write. I spent time designing a custom theme for the CMS I use (Anchor), and have started mapping out further plans for it. By utilizing Facebook and Twitter, I reached a peak visitation of 440 unique visitors totaling nearly 600 visits in the month of November. Not bad for a small side project.

On top of it all, 2013 marks the start of the third decade of my life, a period that is, apparently, more important than many people realize. While 2014 marks the “important” 21 years old landmark, the dawn of the next decade seems more significant to me. And from a personal perspective, a lot has happened this year.

I visited places I’d never been before, including Lowville, NY, New York City, Ocean City, NJ, and Long Island. I’ve continued to excel in school, despite the increasing difficulty of much of my work and my increasing obligations. I survived a partially collapsed lung which involved 3 days in the hospital - my first stay in a hospital since my birth. The first car I ever owned finally died beyond my willingness to repair so it was sold. A few months later I purchased a car on my own for the first time and secured financing without a co-signer, a feat that seemed to really impress the salesman.

I legitimately had my heart broken for the first time when the longest relationship I’ve had came to an unexpected end. In the process, I discovered a bit of strength I didn’t realize I had, and took the time to again figure out what it is I’m looking for in life. This led me to an increased interest in minimalism (a concept I’d been mulling over for a few months prior), and to another new relationship. Being with someone who shares a very similar big-picture view of life and the world as me, with large differences in smaller details and personal passions is a wonderfully refreshing experience.

I don’t have all the right words to describe it, but it’s been a year of intense self-discovery and future planning. This year marked significant events across virtually every aspect of my life. I’ve been challenged and presented with opportunities as a student, professionally, personally and financially. It’s been a lot to take in and handle, but it’s the hand I’ve built. All I have to do now is figure out what to do with it and where to go from here. But that, I think, I’ll save for another post.

30 Steps to Simple

All month long I've seen a portion of my Facebook friends continue the annual November tradition of posting something they're thankful for each day. It's a decent practice, noting things you're thankful for, but the need to do so all month long simply because Thanksgiving is also in November is odd to me. Shouldn't you be doing this every day? Or on a regular basis? I don't doubt many of them do, but doing it in plain view of everyone else simply due to the calendar seems like a grab for attention. A, "look at how good of a person I am, please validate this for me" move that continues for a full 30 days.

But the practice did get me thinking about my own 30 day challenge. Not one I'll be posting daily about, but one I believe I should record, if only for my own benefit. For the past year or so, I've been mulling over the concept of minimalism. There are a range of interpretations about what truly constitutes a minimalist, but there are some core values each view shares, and those are the characteristics I'm chasing after.

A seed was planted in my mind roughly a year ago when I read a book called Insanely Simple by Ken Segall. While the book focuses specifically on how Apple achieves success by holding simplicity at the core of everything they do, I firmly believed the ideas could be applied to one's personal life. In starting to explore, I stumbled across a website called Becoming Minimalist. Operated by Joshua Becker, the site is devoted to his own experience in becoming a minimalist and inspiring others to do the same. He has written two books since starting the site, both of which I've purchased but not yet read.

What I've gathered over the last year, is that minimalism isn't really about not owning things, or merely having less. It's more about being intentional in the things you own. Owning things for real purpose, and being content with just a little bit less. It's the idea that you don't hold onto possessions, "just in case", or keep boxes of items with "sentimental value" tucked away somewhere. Everything you own should be something you truly enjoy and interact with. And more importantly, that you don't buy into consumerism, which suggests that buying and owning more will make you happy - but it really does the opposite. Instead, experiences and valuable relationships are what lead to happiness, and this is at the core of minimalism or "intentional living".

So, with my new aversion to "stuff", I've stopped asking for things. My family has asked what I want for Christmas, and my answer is that I really want, well, nothing. I don't need more stuff. I have too much stuff. My goal now is to get rid of stuff.

Which brings me back to that 30 day challenge. A couple days ago I started getting rid of stuff. Just one item each day, for 30 days. On December 20th, I will get rid of my 30th item and I will own less stuff. It's not all big possessions. It could be anything from that old sheet of paper I've been too lazy to deal with to the t-shirt I haven't worn in a couple months. I'll be recycling, giving away, selling, or simply trashing 30 items. One day at a time. It's simple now, but I may have some tougher choices 20 items from now.

It's only a start. And making a significant lifestyle change doesn't happen overnight, or even within a month. But I've got to start somewhere. By getting rid of my excess stuff, I'll start making room for the people and activities I truly care about. Don't believe me? There's some data to suggest the average person spends 9.5 hours a day living for stuff, instead of living life. This is certainly worth a try.

The Social Connection Balancing Act

Something I've been struggling with for a long time is how to balance connections on social media websites. As a typical high school student, I accepted Facebook friend requests almost like candy on Halloween night. If I had so much as seen the person who wanted to be my "friend", I clicked the little blue accept button. Before long, I accumulated well over 300 "friends". By simple numeric measures I should've been pretty popular, right? In reality, though, I wasn't popular, and a vast majority of these people weren't my friends.

Shortly after I graduated high school, I was that person who delivered a very liberal "fuck you" gesture by abusing the wonderful "unfriend" button. Dropping my friend count from roughly 350 to a mere 89 was an immensely liberating feeling. Fast forward to college, and that friend count started creeping a little higher. But by the end of my first year, I'd only climbed back up to around 150, not too bad. I'd also developed a more serious system to limit access to certain information by placing my friends on lists.

On the flip side, I started using Twitter my freshman year. My Twitter has always been public. Anyone in the world can pull up my account and read every tweet I've ever made (and not deleted). And I'm completely comfortable with that. Twitter is my place to spit out observations, ideas, have the occasional conversation. It's an open book. But it felt really contradictory to my experience on Facebook, and still does.

I'm actually really comfortable with having a completely public profile and sharing myself, though. My expectation of privacy on the Internet is rather low, despite my vehement belief that Internet users have an inherent right to a significant level of privacy. I simply choose to leave certain avenues completely open for sharing about myself. So why, then, do I frown upon people with Facebook friend counts in the many hundreds? Why do I still participate in regular cleanings of my friends list?

And finally, I think I'm coming to grips with an answer. It all boils down to the relationship that exists with connections on Facebook versus connections on Twitter (or even Google+).

One word: reciprocity.

The reason connections on Facebook bother me so much is because of the implied reciprocity. "Friend" is not a one-way relationship. In order to be connected to someone on Facebook, both parties have to agree on maintaining that connection. Compare this to Twitter, where the act of two people following each other is actually two mutually exclusive events. If someone wants to follow me on Twitter, I am under no obligation to follow them back. The same cannot be said for Facebook.

Someone asking to be my Facebook friend is immediately implying a two-way relationship where one doesn't necessarily exist. By becoming Facebook friends with someone, I allow increased access to my profile for my new "friend" while simultaneously gaining increased access to theirs whether I want it or not. This also means they appear in News Feed unless I go out of my way to tell News Feed to hide them. Under this model, using Facebook becomes a chore due to the need to constantly manage the content I'm served. That's why it's so much easier to simply unfriend people when their connection becomes virtually irrelevant.

By placing my friends on lists, I kind of improve the situation by categorically limiting their access. It also allows me to assess the worth of being connected to them. As it stands, people are placed under "Close Friends", "Close Acquaintances" or "Acquaintances". The first and last are created automatically by Facebook, and privacy settings have a convenient setting for "Friends except Acquaintances" which made changing privacy en masse really easy. "Close Acquaintances" is a list I use for people I don't want to limit but aren't necessarily people I'm in frequent contact with or have a close relationship with. This still leaves the problem of those connections that are more one-way in nature, though. What to do with them?

For a while I'd thought about creating a list for people that should be more limited and that I can easily ignore in my daily use of Facebook but that for one reason or another deserve some sort of connection. I finally decided to try that paradigm and found that Facebook automatically has a list for such a purpose. The "Restricted" list is meant for those people I had no idea what to do with. They are connected to me, the list can be used in privacy settings, and they are hidden from News Feed.

So, that person I'm only friends with while in class? Restricted. Those people who have really drifted apart? Restricted. Ex-girlfriends? Restricted. Distant relatives of significant others I've never met? Restricted.

This sort of resolves the reciprocity issue of Facebook connections. Restricted friends can see more of my profile than non-friends, but significantly less than acquaintances. New posts (from now on) are hidden from restricted friends (unfortunately the limit past posts feature is not robust enough to retroactively apply settings this advanced), but I can change this on a post-by-post basis as I see fit.

All I've really done is further burden myself with more management, but I'm also allowing myself to relegate connections I feel obligated to have to a more comfortable state. I have no idea if this paradigm will work, but in the process I get to clean up News Feed by pushing a few people away. This alone makes it worth a try.

You Should Learn to Code for One Reason

It's been tossed around a lot in the past year or two: "You should learn to code". In fact, it's been tossed around a little too much. There's article, after article, after article, after... well, you get the idea. It's gotten to the point where many are sick of hearing it.

Jeff Atwood, a well-respected web developer, recently wrote an article titled Please Don't Learn to Code. His arguments are completely valid, but I fundamentally disagree with his conclusion. The problem at hand isn't whether or not people should learn to code. The problem is why people should learn to code.

Almost everything I've seen about learning to code claims that it will somehow help your career. And I guess that's true, if you plan on being a developer, or working closely with developers. But aside from that, there's not a ton of benefit for your job. But I firmly believe there is still value in exposing everyone to programming.

Look at mathematics, for example. Beyond algebra, what value is there for day to day life in learning it? Will knowing anything about parametric and polar equations help me? Or finding the volume of a shape by rotating it on an axis? Fat chance. But the primary goal for most people taking upper level math is the logical skills that come along for the ride. Is programming any different? Arguably, programming can be a more valuable problem-solving tool than absurd levels of calculus because that's literally all programming is. It's problem solving.

During my freshman year of high school, my English teacher brought up the subject about what we (the students) wanted to do with our lives. I proudly proclaimed I wanted to be a "computer programmer" (in retrospect that's an absurdly generic term, but the point remains), to which my teacher responded almost angrily. There seemed to be a perception that wanting to be a computer programmer wasn't aspiring to much. In reality, I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a developer who doesn't find their work mentally stimulating. Programming can be absurdly difficult. Yet somehow, my English teacher seemed to believe otherwise. That striving to be a developer was, somehow, a waste of my talent.

For the past two summers, I've been teaching for iD Tech Camps. I've had the immense pleasure of teaching children how to program in Java. What they quickly learn is that coding is rarely the challenge. Writing code is pretty straight forward. The issue they face is never with code, but problem solving; figuring out what they need to write. It's an entirely different learning experience than they get from their schools because most of them don't have an opportunity to take a programming class. That said, that's not the biggest reason I believe everyone should learn to code.

There was one week this summer where a kid in my class wasn't that interested in Java. Sports were more his thing, but his parents wanted him to spend a week at computer camp to be exposed to something new. It was a challenging week for him. Staying motivated was tough. In the end, however, he walked away with something very important. Even the kids who were really into learning it, I wanted them to walk away with the same thing: a renewed appreciation for the software they use. Until they learned to write a program themselves, they didn't have a grasp of the amount of work real software takes.

At the end of the week, they're really impressed by their simple hangman game. "300 lines of code!" they say excitedly. Then the real lesson comes. I tell them about Google's transition from Webkit to Blink, followed by the amount of code they removed right off the bat: 8.8 million lines. It's not meant to belittle their own achievements, but to demonstrate the sheer size and scope of modern software so they walk away understanding how much work it takes. And that kid who wasn't too thrilled to learn Java? At the end of the week, he gave me one of the most sincere thank-you's I received all summer. "It's a lot more work than I imagined," he said. That's why everyone should learn to code.

Most of us dissect things in high school biology, but do we go out and dissect things every day? A vast majority of us don't, but we learned it anyway. If computers are the way of the world now, is programming any different? I do not for one second believe that teaching everyone basic coding skills will result in a lot more bad code in the world, as Jeff Atwood does. What will happen is more young people will be exposed to possible careers, and more people will have an appreciation for the work developers put into software. The issue isn't whether or not you should learn to code. The issue is saying that it's definitely good for your career. The real reason you should learn to code is a personal one. Everything else is bullshit propaganda.

On Being Broken Up With

Back in middle school, I "dated" a handful of girls. Six or seven, if I recall correctly, including a ridiculous off and on "relationship" with a girl who grew up to learn she's a lesbian. Fortunately for me, you can't really turn someone gay, but that didn't stop the jokes from being made. But let's be honest, middle school relationships basically amount to two close friends who freak out because, "oh my god, we hugged!"

Fast forward a few years to the end of high school, and things look a bit more serious. I was your stereotypical, desperately alone nerd who couldn't help but come across as creepy to most girls. Hardly an ideal dating scenario. I did, however, date a girl my senior year of high school, marking my first real relationship. It was a valuable one, even if it did come to end. It was a victim of timing more so than anything else: with me heading off to college and she staying in high school, a long distance relationship didn't seem to be in the cards. So I called things off.

Shortly after arriving to college, I met a girl who became my friend very quickly. Within a couple months, our friendship took a turn to the romantic side. It was then I learned that dating in college is dramatically different from dating in high school. The lifestyles are practically opposites. It's the difference between "do we have permission to do this?" and "do we want to do this?". And when summer came this time around, I stuck with it. And for the most part, it all worked out. Coming back into the relationship in the fall felt a little weird after spending nearly three full months apart, though. But high school me was a very different person. I'm not so awkward anymore (at least, not in the same way), and I was talking to her about it. Hell yeah it was hard, but I respected this girl enough to be honest.

Ultimately, I ended the 9 month relationship. Whether it was due to the strangeness I felt upon returning, or because of an interest in another girl, I'm still not entirely sure. I think the combination of the two factors is what really brought me to call things off when I did.

And it's there at the start of my second year of college that I met the first girl I feel I genuinely loved. Our relationship kinda just... happened. She caught my attention by trying to not be noticed at all, and I somehow fell in love with her in a matter of weeks. But we were very different people. I'd like to think we challenged each other in the best of ways and could help each other grow as people, but after 7 months of being together and spending 3 months apart, she begged to differ.

When we both came back to campus a few days ago, everything seemed fine. By the end of our first day back, she revealed that she felt very awkward around me. The next day, she told me that she felt we have nothing in common; that we sit in a room and don't talk, and that we're heading different directions. Rather than put some work into an obviously committed relationship, she chose to walk away. And while I could have made comments about how communication is a two way street and she's not the most talkative person herself, I (shockingly) chose to bite my tongue. And that's how I know I really loved her. My tendency is to strike back when I'm hurt, but I stopped myself. I chose to let her decide on her own. I let her do what she felt like she needed to. And that was a huge moment of growth for me.

We walked away with few words, but I was certainly in a state of shock. I was upset. Deeply upset. But no matter what I did, I couldn't bring myself to cry over it. I was so overwhelmingly sad, I couldn't express anything at all. I just felt dead. And the first couple days thereafter were rough. I relied so heavily on the distraction provided by my job as an Orientation Assistant, and the support of my wonderful new friends to get through the long days. And only now do I get it.

For the first time, my relationship ended on terms that were not my own. For once, I was on the other side of the fence. And it sucked. In my previous breakups, moving on was so much easier because it was all on my terms. I was always sad, but not wounded the way I was this time around. But after a couple days of living with hurt, I simply stopped hurting.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. To go from being hurt to feeling okay and optimistic in such a short time sounds impossible, but it happened. I simply decided that instead of being sad, I could be awesome. I owed it to the new students I was about to mentor to not be sad, but to be genuinely able and willing to help them start the next big chapter of their lives. And perhaps most importantly, I owed it to myself start the next big chapter of mine.

The beautiful thing about working for a college Orientation is that every year is like another fresh start. Why not take the opportunity to start something new yet again? I mean, Orientation had already done it for me twice, why not a third time? The only thing that was stopping me from doing so was a conscious decision to remain hurt instead of seeing the new opportunities before me. So I changed my mind.

It didn't make losing the first young woman I've genuinely loved any easier. The initial loss was still awful. But by merely shifting my perspective on the situation, I quickly came to terms with what happened. She chose what she needed for her. She decided that she could walk away from the one real, healthy relationship she's ever had and move on with her life. Likewise, I decided to walk towards the next portion of my life with nothing but lessons learned, and a newfound sense of adventure.

I can't label this change as a full recovery - that will still take time. But I can mark it as a giant leap forward. With one simple, conscious decision to not be sad and to instead be awesome, I've put myself into a far better place than I imagined I would be a few days ago. And that, at least, is something I can be thankful for.

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