Not the best week ...
It's been a rough-ish week. And it ain't over yet.
University classes start next week, and we're already seeing hordes of anxious first-years trying to figure out how to get around the system. ("It's not fair that I have to go into a night lab!" "I need that course for med school!") This surge of activity is expected, and (thankfully) temporary.
There have been all sorts of annoyances and frustrations this week, relating to problems with the enrollment system, miscellaneous (human) screw-ups and the odd-ball situation that has to be dealt with outside regular systems. More screw-ups and system issues than normal this week, it seems, but maybe that's normal too.
My former grad supervisor has been on my back about finishing a paper, and I have been working on it, albeit too slowly for his liking. He might be surprised to discover that the intermittent snide emails aren't all that motivating.
Worst incident (so far) happened today. I came across one of the TAs in the hall outside my office. One of her students had come by to demand additional marks on his lab reports. (It's been several weeks since the summer labs finished.) She called me over (I coordinated the lab in question) and we tried to talk to him. He became increasingly loud and verbally abusive, swearing at us out in the hall. He's also a big guy, and when he started to become physically intimidating to us, I told him that we couldn't discuss the issue that way. Luckily, a couple of male profs were nearby, and one of them helped me get the student calmed down and out of the building. My poor TA hid in my office, trying not to cry. She's maybe 5 feet tall, and very conscientious. I tried to explain that the student's anger was probably a result of many things, not because of anything she did. At the same time, I myself was a bit shaken, and some new and unwelcome thoughts about my physical safety on campus came to mind.
(Ironically, even if we had given this guy extra marks on his labs, it wouldn't have changed his final grade in the course. You have to pass both the lecture portion and the labs independently to pass the course, and he absolutely bombed in his midterms and final.)
In retrospect, I don't think I handled that situation very well. I seem to be able to handle the poor kids who dissolve in tears, but explosive anger is a different story. I feel really bad for that TA, since she is actually one of the better ones I've worked with here. Even when you know that most of the students are good, it just takes an incident like this to make you more suspicious and fear the worst in people. (After any negative experience with a student, I really have to fight the urge to become cynical and bitter. With each successive event, this gets more difficult.)
You know, I actually do like my work. It seems alien to be complaining! That kind of gives an indication of how frustrating the week has been, I guess ...
And I just noticed that I've spilled something (coffee?) on my shirt.
I am going on such a bender tomorrow after work ...
More fodder for cyberloafing
Got introduced to Gizmodo today. (A friend sent me a picture of a Japanese DIY blood-donation machine ... I thought it was disturbing until I saw the automated circumcision gadget!)
Yeah, just what I needed on a Friday, another website that can distract me from work ... ;-)
Green apple Mentos (a limited-time flavour, apparently) are EVIL.
You've been warned.
I check Slashdot every day. It's one of a handful of sites that I regularly read. Every now and again - like today - it occurs to me that I'm not really a techie-geek like I was before. (Still a geek, but more of a science geek again.)
Admittedly, it's been a crazy year with long hours, and lots of learning on my part. (Not complaining - I am enjoying my work more than I ever have in any other job!) Perhaps next year things will be easier, and I can get back to programming as a hobby.
In some ways, reading /. is an old habit. Not a terrible habit, as far as habits go. Mind you, more and more these days, I find myself spending time reading user journals that cover all sorts of topics, not just technical.
How much do you identify with your job/career/vocation?
As I approach (yet another) change in job and career, I find myself musing about the importance people attach to work in perception of our own identity. (FYI: I'm leaving the world of corporate research to return to the ivory tower, this time as the person standing behind the lecturn!)
One of my colleagues in the company also made some comments the other day that I thought were interesting. He was telling me about some issues and frustrations he was having at work. I sympathized, but remarked that he seemed remarkably relaxed about it all. He responded that if this had happened a few years ago, he probably would have been upset and/or stressed. The difference now? He no longer identifies so much with his job.
Thinking about this, I also recall the few months many years ago when I was unemployed. I hated being unemployed for a lot of reasons, but there was definitely one that outweighed the others. I didn't feel I had an identity since I wasn't working (or going to school). I wasn't doing anything in the eyes of society, and this was something that I found difficult to live with. (I began to just dread the instant when I was introduced to someone, and faced the inevitable question: "So, what do you do?")
Maybe it's healthier to be confident in one's identity regardless of employment status, but I also think that it is natural given that we spend so much time and energy investing in our work(or study, if one is/has been a student). To some extent, we choose our vocation based on our own personal values and interests, too, so our identity also affects what work we do.
So ... how much do you identify with your vocation?
In memoriam: Carol Shields
I knew Carol Shields was battling cancer ... but it still came as a horrible shock to learn of her death.
Toronto Star story
My heart is saddened at this loss ...
Getting it right
I had a pleasant surprise dealing with a government service the other day. (Never thought I'd say that!*)
In Ontario, there is a network of self-serve ServiceOntario Kiosks. These kiosks look like bank machines, and I've seen them in a few malls. I never had a reason to use one before last week, when I moved. The kiosks allow you to order personalized license plates, renew plate stickers, pay fines, get a driver's abstract, renew your "outdoor card"** ... and change your address (which is the only service I can actually comment on).
Changing the address for my driver's license and health card was amazingly easy. It took me under five minutes to change them both! The only moment of confusion I had was when it asked for my street number. I wasn't sure if it wanted only the number, or the number and name ... but when I tried to type the name, an alert quickly informed me that all I had to enter was the number. Using my postal code and just the house number, it was able to pull up my entire address from a database.
This is just the sort of thing I think is a great example of appropriate use of technology. The location was convenient, I didn't have to worry about the hours of operation. I didn't have to wait in line in a dingy building, or get served by a harried civil servant. It was straightforward to use it.
Anyhow ... sometimes it's easy for me to rant about things that I don't like, or that don't work well. It's nice to occasionally mention something in a more positive vein. :-)
* j/k - I've had both good and bad experiences dealing with government offices.
** What is an "outdoor card"? A hunting/fishing license?
Tim/Timothy? Coffee? Where are the doughnuts?
Alright, I admit, I have not put in much in the way of research on this topic. But isn't it strange to have a chain of coffee shops called "Timothy's" when we already have the "Tim Horton's" uber-chain here in Canada? (Okay, the full name is something like "Timothy's World News Coffee" or the like, but who actually uses that entire string???)
Oddly enough, this question did not even occur to me until I was trying to arrange a meeting with a friend, and I suggested that we meet "at Timothy's". He thought I was referring to the Tim Horton's - which happens to be all of a block away from the place I was referring to.
Oh ... and whatever happened to Grabba Jabba?
New spam: steak knives
Wow, something to break up the monotony of the porn spam, online prescriptions, penile enlargement products, and too-good-to-be-true mortgage offers!
Of course, I wonder what else is in the works ... salad shooter spam? Ab exerciser spam? Body hair removal lotion spam?
Is spam going the way of Saturday morning infomercials?
STEAK HOUSE BRAND
4PC STEAK KNIVES
If you are a steak lover like me, then you know
what a beauty these are! They slice right through
even the toughest of meat with ease! Don't be
fooled by imitations that you might see in your
local store, these knives are only sold directly
to all the major steak houses.
Is the media making SARSes out of us?
I live in Toronto.
Toronto is a pretty tense city right now. The news of war in Iraq was disturbing enough to be accosted with each day ... now the other big news story is on our very doorstop. (And I'm not talking about our recent ice storm, here.)
SARS! It's deadly! It's new! We don't know what causes it! We don't know how it is transmitted! There's no vaccine and no cure! Everyone's buying masks, and avoiding public places!
Alright, I added the exclamation marks. You won't see those in a written news article, generally. Yet, when someone talks about what they heard "on the news", they definitely include that sort of emphasis.
(A quick note here: I am a scientist, trained in microbiology. I work in the research wing of a Toronto hospital, and am required to wear a mask at all times in any hospital building. Am I personally worried about SARS? No. I might feel differently if I were a senior citizen, with existing medical problems. However, even in that case, I'd be more worried about regular pneumonia or influenza than SARS.)
So far, at least in Toronto, they can trace back SARS cases to direct contact with a known infected person. This form of pneumonia is less deadly than many other viral diseases - and we don't have vaccines/cures for most of those ones, either. I wonder how many people have died of influenza or regular pneumonia over the same time period that SARS deaths have been reported ... I'd wager that in North America, those deaths would far exceed SARS-related ones.
Some people have asked me what they should do to avoid SARS. I tell them the same thing that I'd tell someone who wants to avoid other droplet-borne diseases (like colds, or the flu). WASH YOUR HANDS. Thoroughly (with soap and water, for at least ten seconds.) Often. Before you eat.
The media coverage is both good, and bad. I think it is good for people to have access to information, to be able to make informed choices. (From what I've heard, the fact that the Chinese government did not allow reporting about SARS for several months probably contributed to the spread of the disease.) Yet ... I see people overreacting to this "threat", afraid to let their children attend after-school activities, refusing to eat in Asian restaurants. When the news contributes to instilling fear into children, and fueling ignorant people to treat Asians with intolerance, I wonder whether the North American style of news coverage is really doing us much of a service.
Of course, while I think that the media coverage of SARS is overly apocalyptic, I know that we cannot just put the blame there. A recent conference of cancer researchers that was to be held in Toronto was just cancelled (Globe and Mail Story). If we see paranoia from medical researchers like these, how can we expect other people to react? Sure, maybe these researchers did have to deal with concerns of their patients ... yet, aren't physicians supposed to inform and educate people about medical matters?
I don't know what can be done to report issues like SARS in a more balanced way. But I hope that one way or another, the panic over SARS dies down soon.