March 31, 2013

What's Your Biggest Weakness?

With the big contest reveal coming tomorrow I thought a departure from the usual theme would be a good idea. A friend of mine recently interviewed for a job, and while it went really well, there was one interviewer who was hell bent on asking some really off-the-wall stuff. Well, if you've heard the expression "There are no stupid questions" before I'm here to politely inform you that there are, and if you're a certain type of interviewer you're probably asking them.

When conducting an interview, hiring managers always want to make sure they are getting the right person for the job. Candidates often come so well prepared and polished that it can be very difficult to get a good read on someone just from a couple hours of talking through the standard set of questions. Many companies will try to put candidates through a veritable gauntlet of interviews, with 4, 5, 6, or more people each getting 30-60 minutes to lob question after question, scenario after scenario at them; looking for hidden faults, but more often looking for a spark of genius.

No doubt you've all read stories about some of the fabulous questions that the likes of Microsoft and Google have asked their potential employees. Many of these are extremely well thought out, but are also remarkably unconventional and designed to help ferret out specific nuggets of information that would be otherwise hard to extract if they were to keep to the same sort of predictable script.

I was a co-op student at the University of Waterloo, so I'm no stranger to job interviews and some of the crazy questions that one can encounter. I was also a hiring manager for software development and testing for over a decade in a variety of industries. I've tried to come up with a list of generic questions relevant to each position with limited success, but one thing is certain: I outright refuse to ask certain questions, simply because they are stupid. That may come off as a bit flippant, and I don't necessarily mean stupid in the strict dictionary definition of the word, but nevertheless there are just some questions that aught not to be asked in a job interview.

For starters, don't ask people riddles. At least, don't ask riddle-type questions for which you already have an answer in mind. A friend interviewed for a job as a statistician and was asked, "How many piano tuners are there in New York City?" Initially, this would seem like a really stupid question, but it wasn't because the interviewer didn't want a precise answer. Answering 1328 versus answering 472 was inconsequential when compared with how the question was answered.

I've been asked how I would build a clock for a blind person. After several minutes of me trying to understand the requirements (example: plug in vs. battery operated vs. wind up) I was told, "Just take the glass off a regular alarm clock." The person's tone was incredulous as well, as if I had deeply offended them by not knowing the answer. This was a stupid question, with an even stupider expected answer (every time you check the time you'll change what time it is!).

Questions like this remind me of those Mensa questions or silly things you see on Facebook. "What's the next symbol in the sequence?", "Which number comes next?" These are little more than party tricks that, once you've seen a couple, you can figure out the answer without having to even think at all, let alone showcase practical life skills.

How about this? Interviewers of the world listen up! Instead of asking seemingly open ended questions that are just riddles in disguise, how about you take a minute and put on your thinking caps for a change and ask your candidates questions that allow them to use their knowledge and experience to provide a solution to a relevant problem.

Remember, that with so many highly skilled and talented people out there, the likelihood is that they are interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing them and we wouldn't want you to look stupid, now would we?

~ Andrew

March 24, 2013

When Make Believe Is All That Remains

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
- Richard Feynman

I've mentioned in a previous post the one of the benefits of being a writer is you get to make stuff up. There is a serious problem, however, when wordsmiths of a different kind resort to making stuff up a tad more often than they should. I'm speaking of the scientists, the government, and the media - the ones who synthesize, distill, and report findings; who direct funding for research and make policies; and who relay information to the masses.

When Canada voted against science I was right there standing up and crying foul. Like many others my initial impulses had me all a Twitter (and a G+ and a Facebook). This is an outrage! Will no one come to the defence of science? At the very root of my anger is my belief that objectivity and truth still exist and not enough people are fighting for them.

I turned almost immediately to Gordon Bonnet, who, along with being a science teacher down in the States, also writes a great blog called Skeptophilia. In a matter of hours he turned around a much less knee-jerk response with the message that data, in of itself, cannot have an agenda. The problem is politicians and media outlets do, and I would assert that out of self-preservation (and the fact that they are human) scientists have one as well. However, the scientific agenda is normally kept in check through critique and review by one's peers. When that process gets handcuffed, well, all bets are off.

"The only thing worse than a blind believer is a seeing denier."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

A friend with whom I like to debate such matters pointed out that "the human soul is corruptible." Indeed it is, but that's a sociopolitical discussion for another day. He also pointed me to this Maclean's article which happens to be a a very level-headed take on things. The author, Julia Belluz, sums it up by suggesting that scientists raising a stink in the form of 60's style protest aren't doing themselves any favours, and on this I have to agree. 

Everybody involved appears to be approaching it all wrong. I am left to wonder though, if that's the wrong way, what the hell is the right one? As the maxim goes, if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then what happens when you've tried every approach you can think of and still nothing changes?

It seems that people on both sides of any argument go though this eclectic transition of approaches. The precise order and length of each one is impossible to determine, but the following popped into my head as a plausible chain of events: 
  • Start with the presentation of pure facts. 
  • If that doesn't work, involve your peers to provide supporting information and try to open a dialog. 
  • If that doesn't work, then compare and contrast opposing ideas in the form of debate. 
  • If that doesn't work, then start removing facts and bring in "expert opinion" and hype. 
  • Finally, if that doesn't work, resort to pure, unadulterated propaganda and rhetoric. 
  • If all else fails simply resort to sarcasm and ridicule (enter social media).  
This is pretty much where we're at right now, and quite frankly I think this tailspin makes a complete mockery of it all and just ends up dragging everyone down to the same subhuman level, leaving slander and lies as the only pieces left on the board.

"The great thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Maybe I'm naive to expect more out of professional conveyors of information, but when it's all reduced down to a contest over who can out crazy who it makes you wonder if the people who make stuff up for a living aren't the sanest group in the whole lot.

Next election I'm voting for a writer.

~ Andrew

March 17, 2013

One of These Facts is Actually a Lie

You can go to The Big Reveal post to find out who our winner is. Congratulations and thanks to everyone for playing along.

I think this is a good time for you to get to know me a little bit. Though instead of doing a Q&A or blather on about myself I thought I'd do something different. Here are 18 main points and 5 sub-points that are all facts about me - except one.

To make it interesting I am asking you to guess which one of these is a complete lie. Until 23:59:59 on March 31st I will be accepting guesses, and if at that time I have 10 or more guesses I will reveal the lie and someone will win stuff!

First, the prize: 
  • (Up to) 10 digital downloads from Andrew's Alphabet
    • Free for you to use however you want, as many times as you want (provided you do not resell them or use them for any commercial purposes). 
    • I will also include the story behind each image. One paragraph per picture about how I came to get the picture in my collection.
Next, the rules:
  • In the section below enter your email and other relevant information (it will NEVER be given out to anyone or seen by anyone but myself)
  • For your comment simply put down the number (and sub-number, if applicable) of the statement you think is FALSE (e.g. #4-2 or #7 or #18-1). Feel free to actually comment too!
  • You may only guess once
  • You may only pick one statement (i.e. if you select #4 you have picked that statement and not all the statements below it)
  • On April 1st if I have received at least 10 guesses...
    • ...and one person has guessed correctly - I will award them the prize
    • ...and more than one person guessed correctly - I will award the prize using a random draw including just the correct guessers
    • ...and no one has guessed correctly - I will award the prize using a random draw including everyone who has guessed
  • Once the winner is declared they will have until April 15th to visit Andrew's Alphabet and select up to 10 letters. I will send you an email and you can just reply with your choices and I will send you the images (Note: all images are suitable for printing in 4x6, many will print much larger)
Those who know me (or who have been paying attention) will know for certain some of the truths. Don't spoil it for others! Just comment with your guess and see what some other people think :)

Without further delay. Here are the facts (and one lie):
  1. I have scored a game winning goal at Maple Leaf Gardens
  2. I have assisted Penn & Teller on stage with one of their tricks (Mofo the Psychic Gorilla)
  3. I have been paid as a freelance writer to provide original content to a video game
  4. I have had a 1 minute conversation and spoken five scripted words on a nationally broadcasted television show (US and Canada) 
    1. The episode aired more than once and I have been recognized by at least one complete stranger for this appearance
    2. It was 20 years before I saw it
  5. I have played, and won, hockey games on both the 1932 and 1980 Olympic hockey rinks in Lake Placid New York 
  6. I have had a 500 word anecdote selected for inclusion in a Darwin Awards book
    1. In the first printing (hard cover) they incorrectly spelled my name
  7. I have stood in the room where Winston Churchill was born
  8. One summer in Europe was spent working as a groundskeeper for a Canadian embassy
  9. I have had a 5000 word short story selected for inclusion (and soon to be published) in an anthology
  10. I have appeared as a street fighting bum in a rap music video
  11. I have eaten snake soup
  12. I was once qualified to instruct both flat water canoeing and small vessel sailing
  13. I once stayed awake for over 100 consecutive hours
  14. I have appeared in a TV commercial for a financial institution (singing & texting - but no talking)
  15. I have been a teacher's assistant for English as a Second Language children (ages 6-10) with behavioural problems
    1. This job was a block away from the most crime riddled area of Canada's largest city
  16. I have broken or cracked the following bones: toe beside the big one on the left foot, left foot, left ankle, left tibia, left arm (radius AND ulna), left pinky and middle fingers (separate breaks), several ribs, right ankle, right wrist, right pinky finger, nose, head (stiches), and brain (more than 4 concussions)
  17. I have driven my car to the publicized geographic longitudinal center of Canada
  18. Last year of high school I did not take notes or use anything but a pencil to write assignments/tests in Calculus.  I got 94%.  Last year of university I studied more for my Calculus 3 course than any other subject.  I got 51%
    1. In school, we covered in 3 lectures (9 hours) what took Isaac Newton over 20 years to uncover and write down (granted, he had other things going on).
~ Andrew

March 13, 2013

Losing Vern

Birthdays have been tough since 2009 as it seems every one is a reminder of losing Ryan. Truth be told, very few days go by where one of us doesn't remember him in some way, so it's not so much the actual day as it is just one more reminder. I take solace in the fact that there were so many wonderful things to remember. 

So, another year passes. Loss helps me keep perspective: as long as I keep having birthdays things can't be all that bad. As the saying goes - every day on this side of the grass is a good one! Thank you, Ryan, for showing so many of us how to appreciate living, how to love with all our hearts, and how to laugh as often as possible (especially at ourselves).

March 10, 2013

Remembering Legends

Last week Canada lost a legend of music in Stompin' Tom Connors. Best known in this country for his slap shot hit, "The Hockey Song", Stompin' Tom's music was enjoyed coast to coast by just about every Canadian stereotype you can think of. He died a member of the Order of Canada, with flags flying at half mast at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Everyone loved Stompin' Tom. When he met Queen Elizabeth II at a dinner he outright refused to remove his trademark black Stetson and Buckingham palace came to his defence by likening it to a religious headdress so as to not cause a scene. So what was it about Stompin' Tom that made him so gosh darn lovable?

He smoked 3 or 4 packs of cigarettes a day and drank just as much, but that didn't matter. He wrote songs that spoke to Canadians of every age and of every background. He sang about things that people could relate to. Based on their titles alone you can get a sense of what his songs were like.

  • "Bud the Spud"
  • "Ketchup Song"
  • "Snowmobile Song"
  • "Tillsonburg"
  • "Moon-Man Newfie"
  • "Fire in the Mine"
  • "Canada Day, Up Canada Way

My personal favourite, "Margo's Cargo", is a song written about what can happen when you take a piece of cow shit and turn it into a wall clock:

His nickname may have been Stompin' Tom but I prefer to refer to him as The Canadian Legion's Dr. Seuss.

They say you're supposed to write about what you know; that if people can associate with something they are more likely to appreciate it. My friend Jim Tigwell wrote a song that exemplifies this concept really well. Taking ideas from Twitter, Facebook, and his own brain, he wrote a song about all the things you could do with a simple cardboard box. Everyone can relate to the unmitigated joy experienced by playing with a brand new, kick-ass cardboard box. Have a listen - the song starts at 2:29.

Andy Warhol's art defined a genre, if not an entire generation. His most iconic image is that of a simple can of Campbell's tomato soup. One of the Barenaked Ladies' most popular songs answers the question "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" with answers of Kraft Dinner, faux fur coats, "K" cars, and Dijon ketchup.

All of this got me thinking: What do I know? I am writing a novel, the topic for which I am certainly familiar, but I wouldn't say that I "know" any of the concepts any more than anyone else with access to Google. Maybe that's why I'm having a hard time with some of it. I am doing more research than I thought I would have to and that's hampering progress. I think it will great for the finished product, but it's certainly not doing much for my word count!

This is the time of year where I remember a dear friend and family member who passed away on my birthday in 2009 and one story I do know, and know all too well, is the story of what happened in the days following his death. From March 13th to 17th a unique series of events transpired that, in looking back at it, has me shaking my head and laughing. If you subscribe to any sort of afterlife theory you can imagine Ryan following us all around and laughing his ass off at what was going on. Last December I wrote about it and submitted it to the Orange Karen Anthology - and it was accepted.

Maybe there's something to be said for writing about things with which we are familiar. Maybe "they" were right after all.

Today we say goodbye to two legends: Canadian music icon Stompin' Tom Connors; and my brother-in-law Ryan. Two souls forever linked together in a blog post and by the fact that the memorial service for one will be taking place on the day we lost the other.

We remember Stompin' Tom's lyrics, his black Stetson, and all the toe tapping, hand clapping enjoyment he brought into our lives. We remember Ryan; who had the heart of a giant, the compassion of a child, the soul of an angel, and laughter so honest and pure you you'd swear it was the best music you've ever heard.

We remember them, and all the other people who have shared their lives with us, even if it was just a small part. We thank them for opening up and letting us in and for giving us all something worthwhile to write about.

~ Andrew

March 03, 2013

So I Stopped Wearing Socks

Two weeks ago I was talking about the birth of ideas. Strangely enough, in a perfect example of how some of my ideas form, I was working on a post about motivation and another idea popped into my head. It went something like this:

  • I wrote that I hoped there would be "more ideas to come" and I knocked on wood.
  • That made me think of superstitions.
  • That made me think of Friday the 13th, which happens to be the day on which I turned 13.
  • That made me think of my birthday in general, which falls on the 13th of March every year.
  • Which reminded me that my brother-in-law died on my 35th birthday, which was also a Friday the 13th.
  • At the time of his death I was living in Ottawa and for some reason I wasn't participating in the City of Ottawa Bonspiel (I had played the two previous years).
  • This year I am curling in that event and I fly out the day after my birthday.
  • That made me think of the tournament schedule, which in curling parlance is referred to as a "draw".
  • That made me think of the phrase "the luck of the draw".
  • That made me think of superstitions again.
  • And that's why I'm on this oil rig.1

This all happened in a fraction of a second, which speaks to the immense processing power of the human mind (and to the fact that I should probably still be in therapy).

I grew up playing baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter. I would guess that hockey players probably having more superstitious tendencies than everyone else in the world combined. Add onto that turning 13 on Friday the 13th and what you end up with is one seriously superstitious kid (it doesn't hurt that I'm slightly obsessive compulsive). My skates always went on right foot first, then left, then I tied the left, then I tied the right. I removed the little shiny sticker at the base of my stick (on the shaft just before the heel - back when sticks were actually made of wood) and replaced it with a strip on black hockey tape. Don't even get me started on the laundry schedule for certain items during a winning or points streak (neither of which occurred too frequently).

Those are just a few personal examples - there are literally millions of others that people are carrying around with them every day. Most seem to be centred around sports, but they definitely exist for writers as well. I know people that write with their lucky pens, or in specific patterns in specific notebooks, under a favourite tree, or even facing a specific direction (East). Some will chalk it up to being a "creature of habit" and others insist it's simply a matter of comfort.

I'm superstitious to the point where you'd think that I think it actually matters, and you'd be more right than you are wrong. You can't have one of the greatest days of your childhood (Friday, March 13, 1987) and twenty-two years later have the worst day of your life (Friday, March 13, 2009) and not think that there's something bigger going on - that there's not some sort of connection, or some mystical force of the cosmos working to balance everything out.

Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the Universe", and as a matter of fact he didn't believe in God - at least not as the Mover of All Things. He felt that everything was governed by a grand unified formula in which all matter, and its behaviour, was connected (indeed, even Einstein saw some of the merits of modern Quantum theory). Well, it turns out Einstein was right about more than a few things in his lifetime and I'm left to wonder if maybe what we see as superstitions he would see as just ordered variables of a grand equation.

I'm also left to wonder if there was something more behind his desire to not wear socks.

~ Andrew

P.S. Apologies to bartender Brianna at ski lessons. Had I just sat in the same place as before maybe she would have won on her Tim Horton's Roll Up The Rim cup today.

This is an inside joke from a long time ago. Back in 1993 a bunch of us were watching TV in a dorm room at the University of Waterloo and the guy whose room we were in happened to be a bit of a channel surfer. We were all talking and not paying much attention and he hopped to a channel where there was this funny looking British dude in the middle of the ocean and he said, "And that's why I'm on this oil rig!" Well if we all didn't think that was the funniest thing we've ever heard. After that, any time someone said something even remotely out of context someone else would say, "And that's why I'm on this oil rig!". Fast forward to 1996 and I'm living in an apartment with a fellow physics student. He was obsessed with the show Connections. In summary, it was a show where this guy would take an everyday something like a garden hose and he would walk you though a fabulous series of "connections" starting with the first discovery or invention that kicked off the whole chain of events. It's an amazing show if you have any interest at all in why we end up with some of the things we have today. Anyway, one day we're eating lunch and watching this show and wouldn't you know it, the host jumps to a new "connection" and he standing on a platform in the middle of the ocean and says, "And that's why I'm on this oil rig!". I just about choked on my sandwich I was laughing so hard.