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Grad School Quandary, Part 1 - Transience Divine
October 27th, 2009
12:10 pm

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Grad School Quandary, Part 1
What does it mean to serve humankind?

The great challenges of the next century revolve around the environment. Billions will die as a result of climate shifts and dried up resources. By 2050, 40% of species, most wetlands and reefs, the sugar maple, Louisiana, and southern Florida will be gone, and there's nothing we can do about it.

But we can stop the damage there, with work (take last Saturday's 350 day). "How do I help?" is a question with many answers.

I'm a card-carrying computer geek-- I make web pages for fun, I read xkcd, and some of my favorite foods are chips and cookies. But the world does not need computer geeks. Certainly scientists, engineers, and technical others help people, and we need some of their work. But I believe our impact on the world's poor and climate is largely negative, and our efforts are at best tangentially directed at people.

To enter grad school in international development or environmental policy would be to voluntarily let my talents rot and my computer go cold. I might be able to use technical tools to help-- to bring opportunities to developing countries, inculcate lifestyle change in the West that will diminish our impact, model the effects of projects on the needy and nature. But to pursue an education or more experience in those things is irresponsible without a deeper delving in the world of salmon-saving, bungalow-building, and AIDS-aiding.

I think I have the obligation to do it whatever the world calls for, and my background is mostly a curse. But how can one know?

Socrates dedicated his life to corrupting the youth of Athens, in willful misinterpretation of his reoccurring dream the he should "make and cultivate music." I wonder sometimes where we'd be if he had decided to learn the lyre.

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From:little_e_
Date:October 27th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
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If you want to help people, there are plenty of ways to do so which don't require any grad school at all. I think the important thing is to have a definite goal, first, not a general direction.
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From:jrising
Date:October 27th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
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A good point. I promised myself that I wouldn't go back to school until I had a particular thing I wanted from it-- and I do. I want the piece of paper. I'm in no way lacking definite goals, nor a way forward on them (I should write some of them up...). What I lack is the 8 hours out of my day that I could otherwise be working on them.

Hey, are you still in DC? What are you doing?
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From:little_e_
Date:October 28th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
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Haven't been in DC for a while. In Denver. Got two kids and am trying to figure out a job that Klarfax won't hate. Denver's a lovely city--it's great to look out my window each day and see the mountains--but I miss the college environment. I'm reading an excellent book called "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" by Dr. Price.

How are you?
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From:quality617
Date:October 27th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
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If it wasn't for computer geeks to enable the spread of news of the good deeds of others; deeds that are ignored by the mainstream media, those deeds would go largely unnoticed.

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From:siderea
Date:October 28th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
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To enter grad school in international development or environmental policy would be to voluntarily let my talents rot and my computer go cold.

Unlikely. Really, once the code is in your blood, it stays. "I must go down to the C again, the lonely C and vi// and all I ask is a fast chip, and a prompt to steer her by." Being a programmer isn't just a skill set, it's a way of looking at part of the world, and no matter where you go or what you do, you'll see the world that way... and wind up responding to problems in novel ways which involve generating code.

Unless, of course, that's the appeal of the fantasy of doing something else. Are you hoping, perhaps secretly, to get out from behind the keyboard?

But to pursue an education or more experience in those things is irresponsible without a deeper delving in the world of salmon-saving, bungalow-building, and AIDS-aiding.

OK, so while you're sorting all this out, maybe you should be checking out local programs in macro social work, maybe take a class in special student status, maybe do an internship on the front lines.

my background is mostly a curse

Your background is crosstraining for whatever else you decide to do; it will always make you stronger and have usefully novel perspectives on problems.

The only difficulty will be getting over the ego-blow of having to be a beginner again, and not treated by others as any sort of authority or expert. That's the hard part.
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From:jrising
Date:October 28th, 2009 05:40 am (UTC)
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Are you hoping, perhaps secretly, to get out from behind the keyboard?

It's true, but only until I get the direct mind-link that I was promised. I am a programmer down to my bits, and I'm sure I'll be putting those tools to good use my whole life. But coding is not just one way of looking at the world. It's a quickly expanding wild-western frontier, and I do wonder if I won't seem a city-slicker if I want to collaborate on some coding in another ten years, with my [then] outdated ways. My fast-draw may never be as fast as it is today.

Your background is crosstraining for whatever else you decide to do; it will always make you stronger and have usefully novel perspectives on problems.

Totally agreed... though I meant more my perspective-background, not my experience. Every perspective brings it's own strengths and weaknesses, and I will never exhaust the uses of my computer-geek background. But the strengths of my math/coding/science perspective shine when applied to math/coding/science problems, and I don't actually think I should spend time solving those kinds of problems any more. Now I need to bend the perspective and salvage what I can.
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From:jrising
Date:October 28th, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
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Also, I love your C narrative. Like you and caffeine (or vampires and blood?)-- if I don't program for too long, I can't sleep, and my hair starts falling out.
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From:catullus_5
Date:October 28th, 2009 04:44 am (UTC)
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You'll think I'm just starting a flame war, but this is a serious question I have... and not really a question for you, just a question.

Have you heard all the buzz in the last few years about prediction markets, how the wisdom of crowds, in essence betting on securities that pay X if condition C is met in the future and 0 if C is not met, very often proves to be a highly accurate predictor of C's likelihood?

Well... I've read more than one scientist who claims that Miami will be underwater in a few generations, and so my question is, why haven't we seen the market for south Florida real estate take a gigantic dive?

Either the scientists making this prediction, or the wisdom of crowds buying and selling land in south Florida, are wrong. The disparity is curious to me.
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From:jrising
Date:October 28th, 2009 06:13 am (UTC)
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The wisdom of crowds is a good bet in the absence of solid information, but we also know that people on average perform worse on tests of history than random chance.

Climate change is a classic boiled-toad phenomenon. Our senses are evolved to recognize rapid changes, not ones that inch up on us over decades. So I do expect them to fool public opinion.

Plus, they're a bit outside the 20 year maximum time window of the commercial world. Eventually we will see market effects as the ocean reclaims reclaimed coastal city land, but the worst loss in Florida will be the Everglades, which markets won't track.
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