Justin Li


Scattered Thoughts

2011-09-12

In lieu of writing single posts about each of these topics (which would require willpower I don't have), I've decided to give one paragraph abstracts of my thoughts. If any of these particularly interest you though, I might spend the time to refine and lengthen it.

Computer Science Education

The gist of this train of thought (and it's a fricking freight train) is that computer science education should be mandatory much earlier on, in the same way that maths is. There are many arguments for this, the most powerful argument being that while computers are now ubiquitous, many people still view them as magic, aka. "sufficiently advanced technology". Another powerful argument is that, like literature and mathematics and science, computer science teaches a different way of thinking. If science is the study of why (things are the way they are) and mathematics the study of what (is the relationship between structures and its implications), then computer science is the study of how (to achieve a specific effect through many small steps). I sincerely think that computer science is the study of process, of the "how" of things; programs are merely a formal language for describe how to change things from one state to another. Since this is about computer science education, I also think that computer science is relatively easy to teach, precisely because computers are everywhere. Students don't need to wait for the teacher's validation - if their program works, it works! On a negative note, a recent paper suggests that not everyone can become good programmers...

Mike Rowe's Testimony to Congress (transcript)

I heard about this from the Blogosaur, and another friend of mine agrees with her, but I have a slightly different opinion to share. I don't disagree that plumbers, welders, and other "dirty jobs" and skilled laborers are as necessary now as they are before, or that they are worthy of respect. What I disagree with is Rowe's suggestion that hard work is no longer valued, or the more blatant assertion that technology does not require hard work. Programmers at start-ups work no less hard than the skilled laborers of yesteryear, and these are the same people who would be fascinated by metalwork and paved roads and suspension bridges 40 years ago. Rowe talks of people who don't know how to fix things, who are afraid to get dirty; how many computer owners know how to fix their computer? Do computer technicians get any more face time with their customers than plumbers? Market economics suggests that as wages for skilled labor increase, this gap will be filled. It might not be filled by Americans, but more likely, people will be more willing to go into those jobs. If plumbers really are as essential to our society as psychiatrist, is it so bad an idea that we should pay more for the latter? Isn't that, in itself, a reflection of our culture's valuation of plumbers?

PS. This goes nicely with my thoughts.

Finite and Infinite Games (wikipedia)

I read this on a friend's suggestion a few years ago. I recently found my notes for it, reported back to my friend, and have since thought a lot more about its subject. The big take away for me is that you can only lose a game if you are playing a game, and you can only play a game if you willingly join it. A corollary is that if you're losing a game, you can always decide to play a larger game instead - until you play the largest game of all (aka. life), in which no one can lose. It supports something I've come to firmly believe: if you don't like something, either change it or change yourself. It also fits into the "Ha Ha Only Serious" hacker mindset, as well as why I derailed my philosophy class onto unicorns for 15 minutes. But that's a different story.

Teach For America (wikipedia)

Some of you may know that I had planned on Teach For America as my backup in case I wasn't accepted into any grad schools. I abandoned my application when I was accepted into Michigan, but I also did a little more research, primarily by reading Donna Foote's Relentless Pursuit. Hindsight is 20/20 and it sounds like sour grapes, but I have philosophical disagreements with the TFA philosophy. While their goal of education equality is commendable, I don't think having a bunch of recent graduates teaching for two years is the best way to do it. This approach is inherently transient, despite the stated goal of hoping TFA fellows will go on to impact education at the policy level. Another stated assumption, that good leaders will be good teachers, may also be unjustified, and that's without taking into account whether the people they hire are good leaders. I personally believe that to become a good teacher one must first know and love the subject, which is more than I can say for most graduates. That applicants to the program has surged in recent years provides additional evidence that people are not seeing it as an opportunity to solve the education problem, but merely as a sentence on their resume (if, of course, they make it through the program). Undoubtedly, my views would be different if I did go through the program, but I would like to think that at least I've done enough teaching outside of TFA to know that I like it.

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