Whether it be social, recreational, or professional, some of what represents me is here. Post a comment, or contact me at should you so desire.

The posts are in reverse chronological order, and are pegged by topic on the links to the left. For more of an introduction, please see the About this site page listed above.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Quantum Leap

"Theorizing that time travel was possible within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and vanished!

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past. Facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.

His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.

And so Dr. Beckett finds himself, leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap, will be the leap home."

These are the opening words to the NBC science fiction show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989-1993. Starring Scott Bakula as Sam Beckett, and Dean Stockwell as Al, the show followed a simple format and is summed up quite nicely by the opening words, listed above.

I remember watching this show as a kid, and I wonder what I liked about it back then. I most likely missed 90% of the subtext, context, and humour, but maybe I just enjoyed the oddity of a man walking through things (Al) or of another seeing the face of someone else in the mirror (Sam).

Recently, Netflix has been adding a lot of content. I mean A LOT! Scrolling through the selection, I saw Quantum Leap and decided I would check it out again. Parking myself on the couch, I then proceeded to watch the entire first season. I found that I still enjoyed the show and, as is common with many things, I found that I enjoyed it more now that I am older.

First thing, the show is quite formulaic; Sam leaps into the body of someone else, and they leap into his body in the future. He is faced with a humorous and difficult objective, defined by Al and his computer's historical memory banks and with luck and effort, Sam accomplishes his task and "leaps" to his next adventure at the end of every episode. What is beautiful about the show is that they follow this simple format while building on it an episode at a time. Through a few key design choices, they make a show which could have just been a series of unconnected events into something which grows with the characters and the audience over time.
Dr. Sam Beckett played by the immortal Scott Bakula
The first brilliant design choice is that they gave Sam partial amnesia. Affectionately referred to as his "Swiss-Cheese memory", it seems that the leaping process has interfered with Sam's memory. In the first episode, he has no idea who he really is and he thinks he is insane when he sees Al while no one else can. This choice is brilliant as a method of exposition, as Al's explanation of things allows the audience to catch up, and share in the suspense of Sam's lack of knowledge. Over time, Sam remembers more and more, often being reminded by his present (or past) surroundings.

This choice allows Sam to grow as a character, and allows just the right amount of abstraction. If Sam knew everything he did before leaping, the show would be a lot less interesting. But instead, we learn about Sam, his hobbies, skills, and history, and we connect more with him.

The "man out of time" trope has been used often. The first one which comes to mind, other than this show, is Back to the Future. A popular setting in science fiction, it allows the writer to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. As I reread this, I thought of changing the above to say "person out of time", but I can only think of a few female time travelers; Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of  Azkaban, Kate Erickson from Timeline, and Claire Fraser from the Outlander series. While my knowledge of science fiction isn't exhaustive, it is extensive and I find it interesting that there haven't been more women lost in time. If you can think of more, let me know. I am interested in women who make a distinctive addition to the time-traveling genre. By distinctive, I mean they are more than just companions, or Companions (for you Dr. Who fans out there). (In order to avoid the ire of Who fans, let it be known that I mean to find out more about women who are the primary character involved.) Anyway, I digress.

Sam's situation ranges from the downright humorous (leaping into the life of a woman and working to get 3rd prize in a beauty pageant) to the serious (saving lives, preventing accidents and bad choices) and often this range is covered in the same episode. Sometimes, Sam is in a familiar part of American history, and sometimes, he is just in some remote part of the past. No matter the case, his situation is never historically important enough to make any big changes, however the show does feature "brushes with greatness". For instance, Sam inadvertently gives the lyrics to Peggy Sue to Buddy Holly, tipped a young Donald Trump to the importance of real estate, and showed Michael Jackson how to moonwalk.
Admiral Al Calavicci played by the hilarious Dean Stockwell
Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell are excellent together and they help make the show heart-warming and engaging. Stockwell's Al is a hilarious, caring, cigar-smoking ladies-man whose personality is as colourful as his wardrobe, wildly differing from episode to episode. Bakula's Sam is seriously responsible, intelligent, but almost innocently naive. One thing which confuses me a little is that Sam is supposed to be an incredible scientist, holding 6 doctoral degrees, yet he is so emotionally driven. I am not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but Sam is guilty of acting rather illogically, which I find odd, but it also is probably the reason the general audience keeps coming back. Sam is thrown into situations which require that bridge of intuition between logic and feelings, and so I guess it makes sense that Sam's heedlessness is warranted.  

Delivering more than laughs and drama, Quantum Leap works like any good piece of fiction, sometimes as a mirror, sometimes as a lens. Being reminded of the past gives us the chance to reflect on our cultural perspectives then and now, and to more closely examine the transition which took place. The show features episodes which examine segregation, women's rights, religion, and several other important issues. As the episodes progress, themes of sacrifice and morality play a larger role.

At times, both Sam and Al comment on their inability to control the leaping process. While Sam stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator prematurely, a fact left out in the opening sequence of the later seasons, it seems odd that they have no control or idea over the control of the experiment. In the end, they attribute the control to time, fate, God, or some other force.

I find this point interesting because its implication is one I have seen in many works of science fiction. The implication is that there is some kind of plan, and whether it be a sentient force at work, or just the way of things, it seems that the writers of this fiction, and many others, believe that there is a set way things should be and the universe will work toward making that happen.

What does seem clear, both inside and outside the context of this being a piece of fiction, is that Sam's leaping revolves around his own life. The idea that one could time-travel within one's own lifetime has an extra meaning in the sense that the leaping process seems to be contrived to reflect upon the person doing the leaping. Sam finds himself in situations very similar to ones he faced in his own past, or remind him of it in some way. Sam gets indirect and direct "second chances", indirect being the times he faces a situation similar to his own past which allows him to reconsider his choices and perspective, and direct being the times he literally relives moments from his own past.

These moments give Sam the opportunity to grow, and allows us to become better acquainted and connected with Sam. He has made mistakes, and he has desires which make some choices difficult. Some of these situations offer Sam the chance to fix mistakes, while others seem to be there to remind him of the inevitability of them. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but some of the most heart-wrenching episodes involve Sam having to make a choice between doing what he knows to be right and what he wants to be true.

In the end, the show entertains me, and makes me think, which are two key elements I desire in my life. Should you find any of the above attractive, I advise you to check it out. Whether it be the simple format, the heart-warming acting and direction, or the morality-questioning and heart-wrenching story, Quantum Leap is an experience which brings me back time and time again.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Finishing with York University: Looking Backward and Forward

I am done!

After all the exams, after all the assignments, classes, late nights, and stress, I am done with York University and I have finished with their undergraduate engineering program.

That image of Freddie Mercury embodies everything I've been feeling lately, and I'd like to take the time to share some of it with you. As the song goes, "Lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it's been."

First off, I finished my undergraduate degree at York University. I have graduated with my Bachelor of Applied Sciences, specialized Honours in Space Engineering degree and I post the full title here not only for my pride, but because people always ask what I'm studying, so now they have a reference. 

It has taken me several years to finish this degree, and I have learned so much during my time here. While I look forward to updating this blog with many of the technical content, today's post is about sharing some of the non-engineering lessons I have learned. I have grown quite considerably during the last few years and I am proud of the man I am today.

When I started at York University, I was very excited. I came from a small town and I was looking forward to living life in a big city, full of people, and opportunities. Several people have asked me if I was nervous or found it unsettling in making the transition from rural Ontario to urban Toronto, but honestly, I was never bothered by it. I have known since I was very young that I wanted to work in the space industry and so it was likely I would be in Ottawa, or Toronto, or some other big city.

My parents raised me to be a competent, hard-working, responsible person. They instilled more lessons than that, but those were probably the most important for me in making the transition. I had been taking care of myself since I was young. My parents were always there for me but they raised me to stand on my own two feet and know how to take care of myself. So, moving out to live on my own was not scary at all.

Being surrounded by so many people was not scary either, it was incredible exciting! I did not really have a lot of close friends at home (due to a lack of self-understanding which I'll talk about in a minute), and so I was excited to meet new people! When I started at York, there were over 50 000 students enrolled. That was over 6 times the population of my town! Thus, I knew the odds were ever in my favour and that if I found people I didn't like, or if I made a fool of myself, I could just turn around and meet a whole new group of people!
And did I ever. I went from being the guy who liked to stay at home alone most of the time to the guy who was constantly surrounded by friends. Like most first-year student, I had parties every week, and was always surrounded by friends and good times. 

I mentioned before that my reason for not being too popular in high school was due to a lack of self-understanding. What I mean is that I did not know myself very well in high school. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew certain things about myself, but I was still very unsure, and that uncertainty caused me to never really try to make connections.

University has been an excellent experience for me and the lessons I have learned about myself probably equal the material I've learned within my program.

While I believe true strength comes from within, sometimes it can be fostered from without. Surrounding myself with friends was not only fun, but it was very ego-boosting. Because I grew to like and respect them, I had to grow to respect their choice of friends. This caused a feedback loop (yeah, I've been watching a lot of Star Trek) which meant that I came to like myself more because I was friends with someone with whom I respected. Through my friends, I learned a great deal about myself and was able to push past the boundaries I had established long ago, and was able to really grow as a person. 

I became daring, outgoing, confident, I laughed more, and felt happier and far more comfortable than I had in years.
I became so bold that I started wearing a cape around campus! Red on one side, black on the other, reversible but still super awesome no matter which side it's on, I came to appreciate my own oddity and learned just how special and unique I was.

While I could go on and on about my friends, how they helped me, how I helped them, and the many adventures we had, it was not all fun and games, or rather it was, until second year.

As expected, that much socialization had an impact on my grades. My GPA dropped, and dropped hard, but oddly, that was not so much because of my time with friends.

No, it was my lack of computer science knowledge which caused me to blunder my way through and fall behind in my studies. If I could go back in time and give myself advice (which I would never do as it would violate the time stream, and I have a MAJOR problem with this), so, err, the first thing I would tell any new university student, is to know what is expected of you, right from the start.

While I knew York University was the place for me, I will admit that there was a lack of information on what was expected of its first year engineering students. This problem is probably quite common. I can see how even a standard curriculum can have variation and so I can imagine how almost everyone's educational experience can differ. Thus, it might be tough to ensure that everyone who meets the general requirements actually meets the expected requirements involved in a program.

For me, my knowledge was pretty good, except for computer programming. My high school did not have a class covering this topic at the time and I didn't realize how behind I was given that I had zero experience with it. While the first computer science class at York was entitled, "Introduction to Computer Science", the coursework seemed to assume a background in the topic which I, and many other students, did not have.

The professor assumed we already had a solid, but limited footing, and thus flew through the first few chapters and assignments. I quickly became lost, frustrated, and jaded by the entire department. I found that I needed help, and that there wasn't any for me to find.

So, find out as much as you can about your program and try to become familiar with the top-level ideas, at least.

My lack of understanding in this area caused me to essentially fall a year behind. I had classes on top of classes, and course prerequisites were becoming a problem.

This lack of success, and a lack of academic support, plus a York-wide strike, caused me to become jaded. Like many students, I had lost my way, and didn't know what I wanted. I felt lost and disoriented and stopped planning ahead, instead I lived in the moment.

Now, you may not know me very well, so you may not realize how incredibly irregular this is for a guy like me. I have had it in mind to work for the space industry since I was 5 years old. Had I a mentor or a better high school counselor, I would have had my life planned out exactly from that time forward. However, I was blazing a trail, covering new ground, and so I had to learn a lot as I went along.

So, to be floundering, to not plan ahead or think about what I wanted to do with my life, this was a terrible and uncharacteristic place in which to be. And it all happened so gradually that I didn't realize it for too long of a time.

Once I saw what was happening, I knew I had to do something. My plans were ambitious. I was not simply getting a degree to then get a job. No! I wanted to start something, I wanted to innovate and accomplish great things!

Some time ago, my mom learned of an adopted a very simple strategy for keeping herself focused. When she has a goal, she creates a visual reminder of that goal and puts it on display. By seeing it everyday, she is constantly reminded of it and it helps her focus her attention.

I decided to try this. Finding a picture of Scotty, I printed it out and hung it on my bulletin board.
Anytime I looked up, there he was, hard at work, reminding me that I should be doing the same, and reminding me of what I wanted out of life.

Suddenly, everything seemed to have a purpose, I had a purpose! Assignments weren't merely homework, they were field guides for learning important material necessary for a space engineer. Material which seemed uninteresting at first suddenly became crucial as I imagined that everything learned brought me one step closer.

This reinforcement technique was so powerful that I ended up redecorating my apartment entirely. I placed more emphasis on the things which inspired me. My bulletin board became full of photos of the Space Shuttle, blueprints for the Enterprise-D hand-drawn on mylar, and I even went so far as to place all my action figures in such a way that they all looked at me with inspiring motivation.

It sounds very silly, I realize this, but all of this gave me the energy I needed and I soon thrived upon it. While others would fall short, give up, move on, become lazy, I found I was not only a better student, but a happier one.

I continue this habit to this day. As I write this, I look over to the mantle above my fireplace and I see: 2 models of the starship Enterprise (NCC-1701 and NCC 1701-D), 2 models of the Space Shuttle (one made out of lego), and several Star Trek toys. These things remind me of the fantastic aspects of my chosen career, and help keep me excited about working within it.

Around 3rd-4th year I found that while I was motivated, I was also becoming distracted by my relationships. I don't know why exactly but I started taking on the anxiety and concerns of my friends and family. I also seemed to have completely changed from an introvert to an extrovert. This was very alarming once I realized.

I found that I didn't like being alone and that I grew anxious thinking about everyone's problems and in an effort to be the part person who knew about and planned around everyone's concerns, I ended up becoming extremely anxious myself. It was a strange scenario but again I think it comes from a lack of focus. While I had helped motivate myself to do well in school, I wasn't looking past that. Also, I grew so accustomed to having friends around that I didn't seem to function properly without them. There was also the fact that I had gone through a few romantic relationships and was learning how to deal with the emotions involved. In summary, I felt as if I was tearing myself apart, trying to accommodate too many angles at once.

I needed a break. I needed to get away. 

I was drifting, and I had lost touch with who I was.

I know, I make it sound so serious, but it was to me. I like to experience life like a stone surrounded by water. I have a firm core which houses my values, goals, and ambition, and I try to surround it with an adaptable, flexible perspective. Without that stone, without that inner core of confidence and direction, I drift and become lost.

I needed to find myself, but I was surrounded by school and all of my friends.

So, I went to Edmonton. The need to get away was the first reason for going. The second was finding some work to occupy my time between courses.

My time there was incredibly well-spent and I am thankful for every minute of it. The summer was a great way to unwind after a long school year, and by only having to think of myself and one other person, I was able to look inward.

Halfway through my stay, a friend and I had a falling out. Any drama was entirely my doing, and I've learned quite a lot from the experience. My only regret is that we don't talk much today, but people grow apart. Still, whenever I have had need to call upon a friend for legal advice, mostly in crazy science-fictional situations, she has been there.

This falling out was just as important as the trip was. I realized that I was still protecting myself through this friendship. I was not taking the proper time to re-evaluate my life, and thus was not making the most of my time there. The next few months were tough. I spent all of my time either alone in my apartment or at work. I met some interesting people at work, connected with some of them, but I was mostly alone.

Like any good montage in any good movie, I put this time to good use. I jump-started my blog, putting up articles on space engineering. I began researching grad schools, and the hazardous effects of the space environment. I learned what true friendship was, what harm I had been doing to mine, and I found the strength, the confidence, and the motivation I had been fostering all along.

I came back feeling like Bruce Wayne after his training with the League of Shadows. I felt like a new man, trained and ready to face any challenge.

I struck a balance between work and play, and stopped leaning so hard on my friends. When facing a situation in which I was perturbed with something or someone, I took it as an opportunity for growth and inspiration. I became proactive, positive, and I felt an emotional healthiness that I had not felt for some time.

I became dedicated. Other than the occasional TV show, or the weekly D&D session, I spent all of my time working. I got more done in 3 months than I think I did in an entire year, and I grew better and better at being productive.

I began to look ahead, and really focus on what I wanted and where I wanted to be. I took up the research for graduate studies and found many opportunities overseas. With some guidance and support, I finished my applications and sent them off, full of hope.

In the end, I learned a lot. I graduated from York University with my Bachelor in Applied Sciences, Specialized Honours in Space Engineering degree. I obtained my Advanced and Basics with Honours Amateur Radio Certification and this year I earned a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction in an introduction to Astrobiology course from Coursera.

I attended the Calling of the Engineer and wear my Iron Ring proudly. It reminds me of the struggles and accomplishments in my short career, and the responsibilities therein.

But mostly, I learned about myself. I learned more about who I am, what I want, and how to accept things about myself, and challenge my own limits. I have learned the meaning and true worth of friendships and have amazing people in my life, despite geographical distance.

This post was written about 2 weeks ago. At that time, I was getting ready to start exams and I was apprehensive about my future. I had sent off applications but there was always the chance that I wouldn't be successful. I had nothing but support from everyone else, but life is tough and one always has to plan for the worst.

However, as many of my friends and family has seen, my worry was for nothing and my path is clear:

I have been accepted into the Masters of Space Studies program at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France! A one year program, focusing on the design of spacecraft systems and missions, the ISU works to help create the future leaders in the space industry. I also received notification that the European Space Agency has committed to helping me with some of my tuition costs. I am so completely happy and, contrary to what is normal, am taking the time and opportunity to feel proud of myself.

I have worked very hard to be where I am today. I have sacrificed some things, but I have gained so much more. While part of me would like to put my accomplishments on display to irritate anyone who has ever doubted me, I am mostly concerned with sharing my success as an example of what hard work, dedication, and support can achieve.

This post probably suggests a certain level of narcissism about myself. (the amount of I's would definitely lend credence to this idea) While I have become a lot more self-focused in the last few years, I work hard to be considerate of others. Still, I thought I had been slacking in the big brother department, but I am happy to say that is not the case. My sister has recently been accepted into almost every program for which she applied, including her #1 choice at Brock University! She hasn't decided yet, but I think she's going to choose to go there. It's an exciting time for her and I am incredibly proud of her efforts. Two years ago, I was worried she wasn't going to be too successful past high school, especially in any field which required math. However, she impressed us all with her focus and dedication and has not only brought her marks up, but has out-achieved even her expectations.

It is a time of change for my family. I'll be heading to France in a few short months, and my sister will be off to start her undergraduate degree. My parents are, of course, incredibly proud, and while we are worried about some of the financial logistics of all of this, we are happy for the opportunities and look forward to the future.

My summer looks to be full of activity. I plan on spending more time with friends, working and earning money, campaigning and working to raise the funds I'll need for overseas, finalizing any logistics involved with studying/living in France for a year, and going on more adventures, whether they be social, academic, or both!

Thank you all for your support, and thank you for reading. I know I can be verbose but I hope the effort to read is worth it. Stay tuned here over the summer as I hope to share some more of the engineering concepts about which I am interested, and remember that everything is impossible, until it no longer is.