Haunted

My teacher walked into the classroom and frowned at me while I typed.  Apparently my focus while writing is such that I seem angry or upset, as if contemplating a bad exam grade or a disparaging letter to Microsoft for recently mind-wiping my Xbox (The company is sin incarnate.  Seeing the RLoD (Red Lights of Death) twice in the last year, my feelings were such that I considered tossing the box into the nearby pond.  Then I recalled that Gears of War 2 will arrive shortly and thus promptly recinded my Micro-cidal thoughts . . . for now at least.).

“Murph,” he asked.  “Are you ok?  You look a little . . . ?”

“Haunted?” I responded with a smile.  Thinking about Microsoft will do that to you, like contemplating an impending root canal.

“Sure,” he said with a laugh.  “That’s it.  Hey how were your comprehensive exams a few weeks ago?”

“Ok,” I said with a shrug.  The test went relatively well in that I finished ahead of time and felt relatively confident of success.  The residual doubt circulating about my brain questions whether I remembered to type my name on the last three essays or whether it was folly to suggest that Google “lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

My teacher assured me that everything will be fine and strode back out of the computer lab.  In truth, my real worry rested in the job market.  Yeah, I mounted the hurdle of final exams, but now that I (hopefully) have my degree what do I do with it?  Foolishly no potential plans appear before me, nor is it a priority — though it should be.  My difficulty lies not in finding a job, but choosing a good one, one to love and enjoy forever and ever.  Yet I am abysmally slow at making important decisions, and in order to build up my courage on deciding my life’s pursuits, I seek refuge within books, comics, and immersing videogames.

Questions flit hurriedly as I sit there.  Where should I go?  What should I do?  Do I work solely for the money or should I seek out an occupation that stirs my interest and passion?  Should I move away from my family and friends for work?  Or do I continue my present residency?  Dreams or responsibilities?  Fidelity or adventure?  Maturity or childhood?  My head began to twirl.

Halfway through class my head began to spin a little.  My imagination manifested rainbow confetti pouring from light sockets, green M&M’s bubbling from the ceiling, and ice cream sprinkles dribbling under the door like water from an unwatched bathtub.  My professor did not seem to notice and continued his lecture, slowly expounding on program testing, quality calculations, job performance, and other mindless terminology.  The heat in the room failed to abate; the sight of wind-bent trees through the windows nearly drove me insane.  At 6:40 the class ended and I calmly walked to the door as quickly as humanly possible.  An autumn breeze embraced me at the door, as a friend-long lost readily missed.  Yet though released, my mind continued to spin.  Walking to the Metro, the cement tiles of the sidewalk glowed at my step like a disco dance floor or three-dimensional Q*bert pyramid.

At the Metro I unsheathed my latest tome from my backpack as a knight would a claymore.  There I stood and relaxed, immersing myself in other’s dreams and battles, allowing the words to wash away the heat and the stress like the voices of old friends.  The memory of jobs, tests, and homework fade from mind with each passing word.  Like a man haunted by a vision not his own.

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Band Aid

The weekend activities rendered me quite dizzy, sick, and laid out with a bad head-cold.  Thus, much of Monday and Tuesday — freed from my daily academic commute by online classes — I slept most of the day and therefore found sleeping at night near impossible.  Incapacitated by illness and Circadian rhythms, my body and mind found balm in the latest Rock Band game.

Strapping on my guitar, I whipped the crowds into a frenzy in Boston, New York, and Chicago before succumbing finally to restless sleep.  Unfortunately the following morning, Beck’s E-pro and several other crowd-pleasers had become lodged in my subconscious.  Typically this would have annoyed me to no end, but the hypnotic rhythms of the song provided enough audible caffeine to see me through my programming class:

I still have to unlock Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Pearl Jam, Silversun Pickups, and AFI so I might come down with some malarial bug tonight.  Even without the game, several days of fevers, coughing, and sweating alone might actually trump another database class.

Database Delirium

“Ok everyone,” my professor instructed us on the first day of class. “This course will not involve much lecture. My philosophy is that we’re a team here. I’m only going to give fifty-percent of the material. If we are going to master this material, I expect you to contribute the other half. You see, I might not know everything about databases and programming, but together, we will support and teach one another.”

As we looked over the syllabus, my classmates and I nodded our heads as our professor glided around the room with a smile and a friendly laugh. She seemed like a pleasant and amiable lady, approachable and ready to answer questions. Gazing over the projects, papers, and homework, nothing appeared unusual or odd. After all, this was a Masters level course, and we were accustomed to reading and studying outside the classroom, absorbing the necessary materials by ourselves. Therefore, her speech concerning “contributing fifty-percent” and “I don’t know everything about databases and programming” worried us not; that is, until the second week of class, when we began to suspect that she truly and honestly did not understand half of the material . . .

“Ok, does anyone know what an Object-Relational DBMS is? Or what it does? I’m not sure myself. It has something to do with virtual objects? Did anyone read their chapters yet? I can never understand the programming language . . .”

“Ma’am?” one of the students asks, raising his hand above a laptop. “According to Wikipedia, it has something to do with user interaction with databases. Like the emergence of GUI and early user-friendly interfaces.”

“Ah,” my professor ponders. “That sounds about right . . . I think. I don’t know, maybe we’ll come across it later . . .”

At first I interpreted his whimsical personality and ignorance to a teaching style, a method of feigned cluelessness in order to encourage participation. Yet such a performance – if in fact genuinely manufactured – only pushed us into greater confusion and heightened our irritation.

“Now,” she asks me. “Who interacts with the books in a library? What carbon-based life-forms use the books?”

I scratch my head at that, flummoxed by the simplicity of the question. Obviously the patrons and users would access the database to the books, but surely there must be some deeper meaning behind this question. A series of circles and squares connected like a toy railroad to thick lines served to illustrate her model. I sighed. Last year my previous professor had likewise relied heavily on shapes to relay relationships between information systems and society. One year later and the method still seemed rather silly and superficial. Thus, unlike most in the class, I felt ready to state the obvious – that is until her ‘carbon-based life-forms’ comment which left me a little bewildered.

“Um, I suppose, the uh . . . users?”

“Absolutely! Now I wonder what users do with books at a library? Now users perform some operation on the books in a library. We should consider what operation or action this is.”

These last few questions are more statements than questions; so obviously, most of the class is stymied. Our professor continues to dance around actually asking a question: “Hmm . . . I don’t know. What operation could this be? I wonder.”

Finally some brave soul raises her hand to spit out the answer to this riddle: borrow. Users borrow books. She of course is delighted, and scribes the three words in the circles on the board: users — borrow —- books. We should grow accustomed to this style of model mapping, she explains. Every object has an operation that affects another object. She then continues her lecture, delving into the history of the database and computer systems.

The lesson is a good one, but it takes us nearly thirty minutes to arrive at the punch-line, as she intermittently pauses to consider, wonder and ask questions in the form of statements.

“The database stores information. Information needs to interact. There is word that signifies this interaction. How data table can reference each other. One table can affect another table’s data. They interact in a specific way . . .”

“Uh . . . ma’am, do you mean they relate?”

“Excellent!” she shouts. “Tables relate to one another . . .”

Between consulting the clock and these frequent tests of our common sense give me cause to reconsider our professor’s knowledge. Her whimsy and confusions seems more authentic as the lesson draws to a close:

“Ok, so hierarchical models are built like upside-down trees. However, though organized well, they are much slower . . . no wait. This [her powerpoint slide] says it’s quite fast. Hmmm . . . I thought it was slow. Oh well . . . so you see hierarchical models are much faster than previous models . . . ”

Those cannot be her slides, I realized as we pack to leave. She borrowed or pilfered someone else’s presentation. Suddenly my regard for my professor deepens; she obviously must be quite skilled in improvisation and the ancient Irish art of malarkey. It seems I have much to learn from her after all.

Disbelief

“Why on Earth do you read them more than once?”

The questioner’s tone of voice drips with shock and disbelief as if I had casually admitted to sniffing white-out. Moments prior I had casually mentioned to the girl sitting next to me (a beautiful freckled young lady equipped with a British accent, a passion for Jane Austen, and a wedding band) that I habitually reread some novels every year. She nods rigorously chewing tuna salad, when a question breaks into our conversation.

I drop my sandwich onto the lunch table, swallowing before I answer. The rest of the lunch table has now turned their attention towards me and David, my fellow student-turned-interrogator in this week-long summer class on digital libraries. From nine to five, we sit and listen to technical lectures about our future careers, while I daydream about summer movies and dinosaurs. If a giant scaly monster crashed through the projector and ripped me in half, I could save several excruciating hours trying in vain to remain awake.

I take a sip of room temp Pepsi.

“Yeah,” I shrug. “It’s like revisiting old friends. Some books like The Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Pride and Prejudice, I read about once every year.”

“Ugh, why?” David scoffs this time. And I am reminded why I do not like him much. Like me, David has admitted to some previous experience as a scientist – philosophy apparently. Unfortunately like many scientists, he retains a personality akin to the man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” never bothering to develop an imagination or a sense of humor.

“I guess that I just enjoy reading,” I laugh. “I can be quite passionate about my stories sometimes.”

“But when do you find time?” he persists with such astonishment that I pause, wondering if I had misunderstood the question. When he speaks, he shakes his head with wonderment revealing a thick furry beard, the barbershop love-child between Chuck Norris and a muppet.

“Um . . . I don’t know,” I say. “On the metro, before bed, during my free time . . . uh lunch. I guess that I just make time to read.” After all, stories are important to me. Like taking showers in the morning or putting on your shoes, you learn to piece reading into your lifestyle.

Despite my explanation, David does not appear to understand, which honestly shocks me a bit. What must he do in his own free time to merit such incredulity? Although as I recall, David excels at asking awkward questions. Once during a cataloguing class, he felt inspired to reveal his revulsion of the social tagging site, del.icio.us.

“Why do all these websites have such stupid names?” he would ask. “Meaningless names that have nothing to do with what they do. Google, del.icio.us, Yahoo. They don’t make sense. They don’t mean anything. It’s stupid.”

Silence.

“Um . . .” someone remarks. “Unusual or quirky names, I guess, help people remember, right? Like cereal brands or detergent names.”

“But the websites names are asinine. Why can’t they tell us something about the site? Or what it does?”

No arguments concerning marketing and memory could convince him. Someone even mentioned that Google was now a verb in the dictionary. People after all who can easily remember site names are more often to visit them.

“It’s still makes me sick,” was his only reply.

Lunch ends, and as we leave I ask David what he enjoys reading.

“Nothing,” he says. “I don’t read. Or watch movies. I don’t have time.”

“Oh,” I blurt, surprised at his answer. I mean who does not have time for a book or movie every now and then? Oh but maybe he means fiction . . . “Well, I have a cousin who doesn’t care much for stories or fiction either, but he’s a great fan of news, biographies, and histories. Did ever read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone?”

“No, I do not read,” David reiterated, emphasizing the ‘read’ as if I had just been rendered deaf.

“Oh.” In the end that was all I could say.

Children don’t read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology…. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff…. When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don’t expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

A Fable: Of Cereals and Spoons

Seeing my dazed and despondent look on my face, a fellow classmate asked me several weeks ago how my one o’clock class had gone. I answered him with a story, whose moral could be applied to any of the various classes attended this semester:

Once upon a time in Japan there lived a young boy who lived with his grandparents outside many of the major cities. The boy grew up immersed in the old styles and customs of the country as his grandparents shunned many of the modern traditions and habits adopted by the urban populations. Although he loved and respected his grandparents, the boy wished to see and experience the world a bit. He particularly yearned to visit the Western world and taste its delicious food for his grandparents would only eat rice, night and day, day and night. The boy was in desperate need for a change of a palette.

Then one day, the boy got an invitation asking him to visit his cousins in America for the summer. Overjoyed at this news, the boy — after obtaining permission from his grandparents like a good grandson — quickly packed and left for America. When he got to the house of his cousin, he decided that his first experience was to sample American cuisine; therefore, on the morning of his first day he slipped downstairs early in the morning and grabbed a box of flakey cereal and a glass of milk. He had many good things about how delicious cereal in America was and how you eat it not with chop-sticks but with Western utensils, namely a spoon.

The boy had just poured the milk onto the snapping flakes and readied himself for the first bite when his cousin’s father trudged downstairs. The father was an out-of-work academic and seeing the young boy with his first bowl of cereal used this opportunity to refresh his teaching skills.

“Hold on, Kyon,” — for that was the boy’s name — “Wait a moment before you eat that.” The boy, Kyon, hesitated, just inches away from sampling the the spoonful of crunchy sugary cereal.

“Before you eat, let me explain a little history to you about the utensils that we use here in the States. It will help you to better appreciate that meal of yours.” The boy set down his spoon into the bowl and waited, while the milk slowly soaked over and into every morsel of breakfast cereal.

The father then began explaining the history of the spoon, its uses, its origins, and what types of food were created specifically for the utensil: soups, custard, porridge, and grapefruit. He delved into the types of spoons from soup spoons to ladles, to spoons with holes and spoon-straws. “An amusing invention,” the father said, “but quite absurd unless one is eating an orange slush.”

He explained the composition of each spoon, reveling in the stories of ancient wooden spoons, its uses in warfare, and the eventual advent of metal leaden spoons and then lead-free metal spoons: “A practical and eventual discovery, but wonderful nonetheless.”

He then described the architecture of the spoon. How he had coined the round curved section as “bowl” and then thin metal handle as the “handle.” “All of this,” he chimed as his lecture climaxed, “paved the way for the invention of the . . . spork!”

He said this as if to receive an applause, but none came. The boy looked on. His face a strange mixture of boredom and incredulity as the father then descended into another lecture about sporks, eventually transitioning into forks, their uses, their history, and why no one had every thought of such an incredible utensil before.

Eventually after what seemed like several hours, the father paused. The morning paper had landed on the lawn and the sprinklers threatened to soak the Classified and Unemployment section. The father ran outside, accidentally locking the door behind him. Quickly the boy used this opportunity to taste the cereal, which — as you might have guessed — had now turned into pile of mush floating in lukewarm milk. This was worse than week-old rice, the boy thought, promptly tossing the mushy mess, spoon and all, down the garbage disposal.

The moral of this story, for those who have not guessed it, is that even the most delectable exercise can become unpalatable if weighed down with too much instruction. Sometimes the best way to teach anything is by not teaching at all.