McGill University’s website

Check out the latest XKCD comic. Let’s use this comic to evaluate McGill’s front page, www.mcgill.ca:

Things that the XKCD comic says will be on a typical university’s front page:

  • Campus photo slideshow … ✓
  • Alumni … ✓
  • Events … ✓
  • Press releases … ✓
  • School’s philosophy … sort of, if you count the summary in the footer
  • Letter from the president … ✓
  • Virtual tour … no
  • Full name of the school … ✓

Things that the XKCD comic says that people will be looking for on a typical university’s website:

  • Faculty contacts … no
  • Campus address … ✓
  • Application forms … there’s a link to a page about it (half points)
  • Academic calendar … I have no idea where to find one of those for McGill, and I’ve been a student there for over a year. I’m serious about this. I have no idea how to find out when Reading Week is, officially. Last year, I found out by looking on the McGill Student Union’s site for the week in February when it wasn’t offering any programmes or services.
  • Campus police phone number …no
  • Department/course lists … no
  • Parking information … no
  • Usable campus map … such a thing does not exist at McGill. And yes, I’m aware of this map – it is unusable. Try to find the Bioethics Unit on there without cheating.

Looks like the XKCD cartoon gives a pretty much accurate assessment of McGill’s front page.

If we compare this to the front page of UWO, my alma mater, UWO does slightly better, but not because they have anything more useful on their site. They just don’t have the campus slideshow or letter from the president.

I’m tempted to email this comic to McGill Communications Services, but I don’t want to be a jerk.

A lot can happen in a year

I arrived here in Montreal one year ago on Friday.

A lot has changed.

Sometimes it’s good to sit back and take stock of all the things that have happened, and to think about all the things that one has to be thankful for. Things are generally pretty good now: I had a great job for the summer, I have great friends living in my building, and I was just talking with Pickles today and thinking about how much I appreciate her. I even have a TA-ship and an RA-ship lined up for this school year.

I’m TA-ing the introductory ethics course in the philosophy department this year, which will be exciting.

Things are different from the way they were a year ago. They’re different from what I expected, and certainly different from what I wanted, but I’m okay with the way things are.

On Thursday, I quit my job

… Effective August 1, 2010.

A lot has changed over these past few months. My original plan, coming in to the summer was to work at my job for a year, and take a year off school, or if I could manage it, work at my job and finish my thesis at the same time. As the summer went on, I quickly discovered how unfeasible that plan really was.

First off, when I went to the philosophy department to see if I could find a supervisor, I discovered that there was a professor who would have been perfect for supervising me, but she took last year off for maternity, and this year she’s on sabbatical, and so I just happened to be doing my MA on the two years that she wouldn’t be here.

So a couple weeks ago, I spoke with a professor regarding my situation, asking if it would be possible to take a year off, since that would give me a chance to recover financially and to figure out what to do for my thesis.

I had a lengthy conversation with that was emotionally cathartic, rational and productive. The prof I spoke to was my Human Research Ethics prof from last semester, who was also the acting head of the Bioethics MA programme at the time. When I told him my plan, his response was basically:

“No! Don’t take a year off! You’ll never come back!”

So we talked about that for a while. And the big thing that was keeping me from continuing in September was the money. I had done some math before the phone call, to see what my situation was, and really, I wouldn’t need that much more to make it through the school year. A second TA-ship in my second semester would do it, but I can’t count on getting one of those, necessarily.

The prof called me back a few days later with an offer of some grant money for a research assistant-ship, and he suggested that I re-arrange my thesis so that it aligns with the RA-ship. I’m going to be researching the ethics of prediction in human research.

(The term “RA” is confusing. At McGill, it means “Research Assistant,” but at UWO, where I did my undergrad, it means “Residence Advisor.”)

This is great. Now, I have a supervisor, a thesis topic, and a bit more money.

I estimate that if I take all the money from my TA-ship, my new-found RA-ship, the money in my bank account, everything I will have set aside by September, and what I expect to receive from OSAP, I will have just enough to make it through the school year, as long as there are no nasty surprises.

But I suppose, even after all that, the question still remains, Why did I quit my job?

I’m going to take the MCAT this September. I’ve been preparing for this for the last few weeks (I’m almost done orgo!), and I want to take the month before the test off, so that I can focus on my studies. I’m able to do this because I got paid for some old freelance web design work that I’ve been doing off-and-on for the last few months.

My plan for the month of August will be to get up like I normally do, at 5h, go to the gym for 6h30, be done there by 8h30 and hit the library by 9h. Then I’ll spend the day there, either working on my research, or prepping for the MCAT. I’m going to study like it’s my job.

I’m glad of the design job that I had this summer, but I’m excited about the beginning of August, too. :)

Figuring things out

So I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to be doing, come this September. I have a few options right now, and it feels like on the even-numbered days, I’ve made one decision, and on odd-numbered days, I’m of completely the opposite opinion.

To catch you up, last semester was really disappointing to me in a lot of ways. I was closer than I ever have been to dropping out of school. It got so bad, that in a counselling session with a therapist at McGill, I explored the question of how bad an academic programme would have to be before one would be justified in suing McGill for one’s tuition back.

After I stopped being so bitter about that, I ended up with a job, and a pretty decent one, too. It’s close to where I live, the money is good, and I get to be creative at work. I’m working as a designer at a marketing company. It’s an excellent job, and I’m glad for it. I’m still in a sort of probationary period that will last 3 months, where they’re still deciding whether they want to keep me, and I’m still deciding whether I want to stay there.

I’ve been enjoying living with the privileges of a regular paycheque. I don’t have to worry at the end of the month about whether or not I will have enough money to cover rent. This is a step up from the last semester. They ran out of TA-ships before they got to me, and so money was very tight, and I had a spreadsheet going that calculated, based on my previous expenses, how long I had until my money ran out.

So when I landed this job, my first thought was that I could finally relax a bit. And I have been! Things have been pretty decent of late. I’m enjoying things being stress-free, by comparison to this last year.

One of the options that I am considering is taking a year off school to de-stress, pay off some debt and enjoy not having to worry about money or school. There’s a few reasons I’m considering this:

I don’t think that I’ll get much by way of student loans for this year, and I have no reason to believe that I’ll get a second TA-ship this year either, which means I’ll be in a much worse financial situation than even last year, unless something unexpected and good happens.

To make it through the year, I’d only need a few thousand dollars more. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard to get, but it’s easier to get a full-time job than it is to get a job, even part-time, that is compatible with being a student.

I could probably make it through the year if I knew I was going to get a second TA-ship, or if there was an RA-ship (Research Assistantship) on the horizon somewhere, but things are looking grim.

I’m going to apply for OSAP anyway, even though I am sceptical that I will get anything from them. And I’m going to send out some emails to profs to see if there’s any RA-ships that I can do during the school year. I don’t need a lot of money. I just need enough to get through the second semester.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep my options open as best I can. If I think I can make it through the year financially, I will give notice that I’m quitting my job when the probationary period ends.

Does anyone know any profs at McGill who need research assistants who know philosophy and medical science? I can write, think critically, closely read dense papers, and I know my way around a pipette.

Done!

Rate of write for my last paper
Rate of write for my last paper

This last essay was particularly painful to write. It’s not that I found the material less interesting, or that there was anything about the essay itself that was bad—I’ve just had a huge headache for the past few days, and all I wanted to do today was sleep. I don’t think the quality of my writing suffered as a result, but it was just harder to get through it.

I’ve been drinking water and taking acetaminophen, but I think it’s just the stress catching up with me. I’m tired and I’ve had a hard time sleeping lately.

I was originally planning on writing about hyperintensionality, but I couldn’t find the right sort of sources for the essay I wanted to write, so I decided to write about Kit Fine, the guy that I did my in-class presentation about. He argued for modal pluralism, and I was reasonably convinced by him, and I was going to defend him from Chalmers and his zombie arguments. While writing this essay, though, my opinions changed. I started as a modal pluralist, and ended up a modal monist. Good work, David J. Chalmers.

I would like to note at this point that zombies in philosophy aren’t the same as zombies in the movies. For a philosopher of mind, a zombie is a person who is a complete physical duplicate of a normal human being, but who lacks internal phenomenal experience of her own consciousness. Ooooo … spooky. I sometimes wonder if the term was invented by a lazy philosophy prof who wanted to go to a Hallowe’en party but who didn’t want to bother dressing up:

“No seriously guys, I’m a zombie. I’m a complete microphysical duplicate of the non-zombie me, but I just don’t have any phenomenal experience. There is no ‘what it is like’ for me to be me.”

And, like other philosophers, he would be totally socially unaware of himself, and not notice his friends rolling his eyes at him.

One of the concepts that Kit Fine makes up for use in his paper is that of “schmass,” which is like mass, except that it works on an inverse cube law, rather than an inverse square law. I just like the word “schmass.”

Sometimes I think that the best part of my papers are the titles. I called my paper, “Schmassive problems with zombies in modality and metaethics.”

If you will direct your attention to the graph, you can see that there were a couple plateaus in my productivity, right around lunch-time and dinner-time, which is to be expected, but I generally worked well up until the end. Speaking of the end, the end of this paper officially marks the end of the course-work for my MA. If I don’t want to, I don’t ever have to attend a class again.

Actually, I suppose that’s been true since I graduated high school. I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment. I didn’t have to go to university, and I didn’t have to go to grad school after that. And since attendance isn’t really taken at the university level, even though I did decide to go to university, I could have skipped class. (Actually, that’s not true. Many of my profs take attendance in my seminars. I should have skipped class back in my undergrad days when I had the chance.)

Tomorrow I start work, and I’ll let you know how that goes. I called in this afternoon to confirm that I’m coming in and to find out what time I start. I start at 9h. I’ve never had a real 9-5 before.

I’m going to hit the sack early and hope to feel all better by tomorrow. If not, I still have most of a big bottle of easy-to-swallow analgesics, so I should be all right.

Oh, does anyone have a suggestion for a work of fiction for me to read? I finished the Deptford Trilogy recently, and I’m looking for something to fill my “things that I read on the Métro” void.

There’s something strangely satisfying about this

It feels pretty good.
It feels pretty good.

Part-way through this semester, my professor handed me a large stack of official-looking papers relating to an ethics consultation with a CLSC here in Montréal. He indicated that the papers should be shredded when I was done with them, since their contents were sensitive.

It felt good to put them through the shredder. I think it might be the finality of the act. There is a satisfying noise that the machine makes as it takes all the meaning out of the paper that you feed into it.

It’s magical really: Pages and pages of meaningful information go in one side, and then strips meaningless paper come out the other end.

By the way, I only have one paper left, and I have a pretty good idea of what I’m writing too.

Philosophy clothing

I never liked Nietzsche that much

So the Philosophy Department sent out an email last week, indicating that they had designed some clothing that they would have made, and that we could order some.

They are selling an “übermensch” t-shirt (from Nietzsche), which I didn’t like all that much. I probably would have bought one that said “Nietzsche is pietzsche,” though.

The other thing that they said we could order is a sort of sweater-thing with the McGill crest and the word “Philosophy” written on it. So I got one of those. First time I’ve ever bought school clothing, I think.

And then I remembered an idea I had an idea for a fantastic t-shirt back in my undergrad. In order to understand why it’s funny, I’ll have to explain a bit of philosophy of science.

Imagine you’re a geologist and you want to collect empirical data to support the claim that all emeralds are green. You collect a bunch of samples that support your hypothesis, and you think you’re doing a pretty good job, but then Nelson Goodman shows up and says, “Those are pretty good data, but they also equally support the hypothesis that all emeralds are grue.”

So, like a dummy, you don’t just ignore the kid and keep working, but rather you ask, “What do you mean by ‘grue?'”

And of course he answers and says, “Grue means green before January 1, 2050, but blue afterward.”

You say, “That’s just silly.”

Goodman goes on: “And bleen means blue before January 1, 2050, but green afterward.”

So you try to explain to him that it doesn’t make sense that the colour of emeralds would change at an arbitrary date in the future.

“Oh, they don’t change colour. They’re still grue after January 1, 2050.”

And then you say that the colours grue and bleen don’t make sense because they have a weird sort of disjunctive definition. But the problem is that Goodman was raised by hippies, and for him, grue and bleen are more basic concepts that green and blue. And for that matter, according to Goodman, the concepts of blue and green look really suspect to him.

“Am I really supposed to believe in this mystical colour called ‘green,'” asks Goodman incredulously, “that emeralds are supposed to be, and that they will be grue until January 1, 2050 and then magically change to bleen afterward?”

And in this way, you and Goodman argue for hours until one of you goes home, having been beaten black and bleen by the other.

Anyway, my t-shirt idea is the following:

A green t-shirt with “The colour of this shirt is grue” written on it. Or a blue t-shirt with “The colour of this shirt is bleen” written on it. Or maybe something like “This shirt just changed colour from grue to bleen.”

I’ve always wanted a bleen t-shirt.

Class photo

Bioethics Theory Class 2009
Bioethics Theory Class 2009

Here is a photo of me and my classmates and the prof from Bioethics Theory this year. I’ve blocked out faces just in case they didn’t want to be put on my site. I didn’t ask them or anything. Heh.

This is just after our last class, when we watched The Sea Inside, a movie about a quadriplegic man’s 30-year struggle to be allowed to commit suicide. So if we look a little bit melancholy, that’s probably why. It’s a good movie though, if you’re interested in the topics of euthanasia, assisted suicide, end of life care, etc.

This gives you an idea of what a typical class size is for me now. This is a far cry from the second year of my undergrad, when the prof proudly announced at the beginning of my organic chemistry class that we were students in the single largest undergraduate chemistry course to be taught, ever. There were 1600 students in that class.

Now, in my whole programme, there are four of us. There are a couple people who are not in the bioethics programme who are taking the course for other reasons, though, which is why the class is more than four students.