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Wake Up and Smell The Matrix

My LJ friends list has quite a few folks in the IT industry as well as "tronkiphiles" who took the much-vaunted Road Less Traveled. While I have great respect for both, I have learned from various writings of both groups that (at least in North America) those who decide to stop and smell the roses sometimes find themselves being whipped along by Uruk-Hai wearing the emblem of the White Hand of Silicon Valley. OK, I'm exaggerating a tiny bit... but only a very tiny bit. :-P

When I was a sophomore at Hopkins, my advisors (Steve Salzberg and Simon Kasif) warned me to read and study what I liked as an undergrad, because as a grad student there'd be less opportunity for breadth and for taking that Shakespeare: Plays to 1600 course you're really interested in.

Memind me sometime to quote you a conversation between the nanotech futurist Eric Drexler and Grant Fjermedal, published in the latter's 1986 book The Tomorrow Makers: A Brave New World of Living-Brain Machines. [1] The essence of the conversation was an apologia for Drexler's intent and desire to download his mind into an artificial body, in that he had about 1500 years of things he'd like to do - which sounds profoundly unimaginative if you ask me, but wotever.

(I suddenly recall Elle MacPherson's character, Janelle, discussing this with Ross Geller on Friends, and am now sad as I realize this scene probably gave the whole concept more publicity than all other documentary TV discussions of it combined. :-P)

Here's my take.

As a university professor in CS, I feel it is our responsibility to be frank and upfront with students and let them know if we see their efforts as leading nowhere fast. Having said that, I think the American university system has tremendous potential for inappropriately crushing the enthusiasm and spirits of young people who are actually very motivated and talented, but just haven't been given the chance (or have had personal issues get in the way).

I have had quite a few very good students and also a lot of mediocre and poor ones, and I often feel in awe of what really talented young people are capable of. [2] So, in short, if you are a student, take criticism in stride, and often with a grain of salt. The criticism of professors is sometimes useful, but we really should take care not to take too broad a blade to people's aspirations, and too often we do not. Don't let it get to you.

What was it that Dr. Einstein said?
Do not worry about your difficulties with mathematics; I assure you that mine are greater.

Certainly, I wouldn't have a Ph.D. in CS now if I'd listened to the first instructor to dump a bucket of cold water on me in my early undergrad days. :-)

Edit: Talk of The Nation: Science Friday - highlights from the Ig Nobel awards. Thanks, deire! My favorite is the Peace Prize, to Lal Bihari, founder of the International Society of Deead Epople.


[1] Here is the Amazon.com page for The Tomorrow Makers, and here is a bookseller that sells used editions.
[2] Case in point: courtesy of the web-sniffing skills of those wacky kids in cty_therapy, here is Daler Mehndi.

--
Banazîr

Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
hfx_ben
Dec. 12th, 2003 07:00 am (UTC)
The ethology prof I worked with (I was using VRML to visualize field notes) remarked a number of times that some truly great academics had not achieved stunning results as students. Dunno that this reamins operative, though ... a few might be as lucky as I was to get into research through the back door, but the rest rely on GPA to get started.
Slightly related: I was amazed and impressed when the prof in Research Methods (a real ball-buster 2nd year course, and intentionally so; to seperate those with career aspirations from those who wanted bird courses, this was a pre-req for a whole set) began the year by giving a whole lecture over to a single topic: how a undergrad psych degree wasn't likely to do your lifetime earning potential a whole lot of good! Haaahahaha!
p.s. I found a direct correlation between final mark and time spent with the material ... go figure! ;-)
banazir
Dec. 12th, 2003 07:39 pm (UTC)
The ethology prof I worked with (I was using VRML to visualize field notes)

VRML and text infoviz, eh?
When I was a research scientist at NCSA, we used VRML to visualize the output of various algorithms for clustering text documents. (Mostly these were Kohonen Self-Organizing Maps.)
My uncle (my mom's kid brother) used to be head of Cosmo, the VRML division of SGI. We are knot too happy with Cosmo at the moment and are ready to switch over to Java3D or some such platform.

remarked a number of times that some truly great academics had not achieved stunning results as students.

A couple of C students:
Albert Einstein
George W. Bush

I believe the salient comment is "your mileage may vary".

Dunno that this reamins operative, though ... a few might be as lucky as I was to get into research through the back door, but the rest rely on GPA to get started.

One of my grad school classmates, Harold Sun, reminded me the other day that one of our professors (who was otherwise quite intimidating to grads by many accounts) was fond of relating the secret of grades in grad school, i.e., they don't matter. Dan Reed (our department head at UIUC-DCS at the time, and head of NCSA until he goes to UNC) gave a talk in the fall of 1997 on landing an academic faculty job. "Most everyone in engineering education knows," he intimated, "that with grade inflation in American graduate institutions, A means Average, B means Bad, and C means Catastrophic".

I found a direct correlation between final mark and time spent with the material ... go figure! ;-)
Well, yes, that too.

--
Banazir
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Dec. 13th, 2003 01:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 13th, 2003 06:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Dec. 13th, 2003 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 13th, 2003 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sidebar: W'as's'ee sayun?!! - hfx_ben - Dec. 15th, 2003 06:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Fun with Dada Chef - banazir - Dec. 19th, 2003 08:58 am (UTC) - Expand
celandineb
Dec. 12th, 2003 11:16 am (UTC)
I feel it is our responsibility to be frank and upfront with students and let them know if we see their efforts as leading nowhere fast.

Well said. That goes at least double in my field - history - as it's not generally directly applicable in RL as CS can be. It's irresponsible on our part to let them think otherwise. OTOH, if someone does love history, they should be encouraged to study it (though the problem of what to do with someone who likes it, but isn't very good at it, is ever-present).

Last final today. Much grading. Augh...

Cel
banazir
Dec. 12th, 2003 08:28 pm (UTC)
Dammit! I just hit "Preview" by accident while copying my post to my clipboard as a backup, and LJ lost it because the server-side POST form had timed out! That's double irony for you.

Rewriting...

That goes at least double in my field - history - as it's not generally directly applicable in RL as CS can be.

Gah. What was it that Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) said in Dead Poets' Society?

/me rummages
Ah, here:

And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

The IMDb quotes page for the movie had it too, but I couldn't remember it verbatim (I was grepping for "worth living").

It's irresponsible on our part to let them think otherwise.
Well, true. I imagine it is so in journalism and law, as well. For my part, though, I think technical education in Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Technology should have its own sense (NB, I didn't say "criteria" or "standards") for what constitutes talent, aesthetics, flair, and "the knack". Otherwise you get a lont of "warm bodies" (I hate that term, but it is apropos here) who are just occupying a desk, while slowly decaying inside (I'm being melodramatic and hyperbolic here, but bear with me, I'm feeling an urge to grab a textbook and rrrrrrrrip out its preface).

OTOH, if someone does love history, they should be encouraged to study it (though the problem of what to do with someone who likes it, but isn't very good at it, is ever-present).
Yes, and yes.

Last final today. Much grading. Augh...
Soon, soon.

--
Banazir
kissmyascii
Dec. 12th, 2003 12:52 pm (UTC)

Interesting. My first year into my degree, I had a CS prof tell me to my face that I didn't have what it took to be a computer scientist. I have my BS in CS now. I never understood his uncalled for "advice". It floored me that a teacher would be so crass and discouraging to a student. I never forgot his pathetic "help". I hope karma comes back to bite him in the arse some day. It kinda already has.
banazir
Dec. 12th, 2003 05:17 pm (UTC)
It floored me that a teacher would be so crass and discouraging to a student.
Hrm, well, I could tell you a story or two about my experiences. The majority of my professors were highly encouraging, but there were exceptions, and how.

I never forgot his pathetic "help". I hope karma comes back to bite him in the arse some day. It kinda already has
Welp, I know it isn't me, acos I've never told an undergraduate that he or she didn't have what it took to be a CS. Then again, I teach only grad courses, so my sample is admittedly skewed.

Laso, I have seen undergrads who, in my estimation, did not have what it took, and would probably have been much happier (IMO) in another field.

I've added you as an LJ friend now, BTW.
Pleased to meet you.

--
Banazir
(Anonymous)
Dec. 12th, 2003 05:34 pm (UTC)
Ah
Dear Kissmyascii,

You wrote: "It floored me that a teacher would be so crass and discouraging to a student."

I see your path never took you anywhere near an art school, and for that you should thank your lucky Zeus. :D

Hugs,
Hax
Re: Ah - banazir - Dec. 12th, 2003 07:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
f00dave
Dec. 12th, 2003 02:00 pm (UTC)
I started my BCS as a hot-shot coder. I'd been coding since I was 11 or so, actually, and didn't learn a goddamned thing in my first 5 terms, except some relatively-useless languages (COBOL, APL, PL/1, MODULA-2), some marginally-useful languages (FORTRAN, LISP), a few bits and pieces of OOA/D/P I hadn't already encountered, and some morsels in Data Structures. Then I stopped going to classes, midterms, and finals and got kicked out (obviously).

Flashforward 10 years, and I'm sick of coding database-driven enterprise apps for a living, and came back to school, where some of the profs attempted to crush my spirit. "Fuck 'em!", said I, "I'll play their game, but take what I *want* to take, and learn *despite* them."

Turns out it's not the profs (so much, anyway, there's one asshole that has had it in for me since I started, apparently), but the program itself. If I was at a better school, apparently they would *start* with theory, not three semesters of programming languages (got to get the co-op students in shape for their summer jobs coding COBOL, don't you know). Hell, the best schools (I've been told) don't cover languages at all; the students are expected to pick them up on their own (which is perfectly reasonable, if you're educating scientists, not training programmers).

So I graduated on the Dean's List, with honours, and am most of the way through my MCS, now. I still do what I want to do, and the only voice I really trust -- in our entire faculty -- is my advisor's ... probably because he's always done his own thing, too. A degree from my University (at least in the CS program) is worth about as much as toilet paper to me. But not to the industry in the province, since they get a steady supply of well-trained, cookie-cutter programmers. I fucking hate that.

But anyway, science is never advanced by the small-minded, the politically-correct, or the administrators, but by those who "wake up" and take charge of their own lives. Wake up and smell the Matrix, indeed!
f00dave
Dec. 12th, 2003 02:22 pm (UTC)
Also, here's a (low-quality RealMedia format) copy of the video for Tunak Tunak Tun, from which that Flash was inspired. He's nuts. =)
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 12th, 2003 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - f00dave - Dec. 13th, 2003 04:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 13th, 2003 05:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
banazir
Dec. 12th, 2003 07:55 pm (UTC)
I started my BCS as a hot-shot coder. I'd been coding since I was 11 or so, actually, and didn't learn a goddamned thing in my first 5 terms, except some relatively-useless languages (COBOL, APL, PL/1, MODULA-2), some marginally-useful languages (FORTRAN, LISP), a few bits and pieces of OOA/D/P I hadn't already encountered, and some morsels in Data Structures.

10 here, and it would be... lessee...
BASIC, FORTRAN, APL, Pascal, and a harmful bit of C before undergrad; C, Prolog, Scheme, SML, CLIPS, and C++ as an undergrad; LISP, Haskell, Perl, and (nominally) Java as a grad student, plus a whole bunch of utility languages of which I will bring no report to darken the light of LJ.

Then I stopped going to classes, midterms, and finals and got kicked out (obviously).
Knot so boviously. Wlokay, midterms and finals, yes. :-P
I did an amazzlingly low amount of work as an undergrad, I now realize, and it was only by testing well, reusing lots of my own code from machine problem solutions (acos my profs did not coordinate on what homeworks had been given afore), and laso doing a looooot of reading for interest that I did well and got into a top grad school. At Illinois I had a 4.0 GPA (which - see above - means "average"), and yernow wot? It doesn't make a trasking bit of difference. :-)

Flashforward 10 years, and I'm sick of coding database-driven enterprise apps for a living, and came back to school, where some of the profs attempted to crush my spirit. "Fuck 'em!", said I, "I'll play their game, but take what I *want* to take, and learn *despite* them."
Learning despite your professors is lamost lawaz more satisfying than learning acos of them - another poorly-kept secret of university education. ;-)

Turns out it's not the profs (so much, anyway, there's one asshole that has had it in for me since I started, apparently), but the program itself.
Wlokay, that too.
I'd like to take this opportunity to mention to any of my students that may be reading this that - get this - I dknot have it in for you. :-D

If I was at a better school, apparently they would *start* with theory, not three semesters of programming languages (got to get the co-op students in shape for their summer jobs coding COBOL, don't you know).
Ewwww.

COBOL programmers are destined to code COBOL for the rest of their lives, and thereafter.
- Bertrand Meyer


Hell, the best schools (I've been told) don't cover languages at all; the students are expected to pick them up on their own (which is perfectly reasonable, if you're educating scientists, not training programmers).
That's wot happened at JHU and UIUC, nazwaz. Weeelll, it happens here at K-State, too, but I don't know where you'd draw the line of "best schools". :-P

So I graduated on the Dean's List, with honours, and am most of the way through my MCS, now.
Grats, there you go!

I still do what I want to do, and the only voice I really trust -- in our entire faculty -- is my advisor's ... probably because he's always done his own thing, too.
Your advisor seems pteery cllo, acksherly.

A degree from my University (at least in the CS program) is worth about as much as toilet paper to me.
I am meminded of a certain beer commercial... >_<

But not to the industry in the province, since they get a steady supply of well-trained, cookie-cutter programmers. I fucking hate that.
*bwushes in shame acos he had to loonk up wot NB stood for - Gnu Burnswick for lal yew non-Merkians/Canadians*
Wot do they do with well-trained, cookie-cutter programmers in NB? Sire them and sent them out by night to do their nefarious bidding? Oh, waut, that was Wolfram and Hart.

But anyway, science is never advanced by the small-minded, the politically-correct, or the administrators, but by those who "wake up" and take charge of their own lives. Wake up and smell the Matrix, indeed!
Hear, hear!

--
Banazir
(no subject) - f00dave - Dec. 13th, 2003 04:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 13th, 2003 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - f00dave - Dec. 14th, 2003 03:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - banazir - Dec. 18th, 2003 05:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - f00dave - Dec. 20th, 2003 07:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
yahvah
Dec. 13th, 2003 12:34 am (UTC)
My first question, answer at your leisure.
Given your experience and background, how long do you think it will take until we become a Robotic Nation? I've been following this sort of sociological issue for a short while now since I've been highly influenced by and interested in A.I. after watching way too much anime as a young teen and now adult.

As an IBMer, I've been privy to a lot of propaganda regarding their On-Demand computing initiative (which isn't doing so well, if you ask me) and their Autonomic Computing initiative, which has some of its first-fruits located here. I think you might be pleased that they wrote it in Java; however, it also might be of interest to you given that it seems to accomplish some of which BNJ accomplishes.

I have a hard time thinking that Mr. Brain's scenario will play out in 50 years due to the slow manner in which technology is evolving and assimilating into corporate culture; but at the same time, I realize that 50 years is a long time for innovation and persistent development effort. Given the scariness of what can happen in a capitalistic society like ours, I fear for our future like this man does. Though, I'm more than happy to admit that I'm being highly emotional and fanatic, like he might be. Perhaps human society will come up with a way to support those who find themselves unemployed for ridiculous amounts of time. But I'm afraid I haven't been given much historical reason to have any faith in humanity's ability to innovate for the common better of society. Innovation is driven by capitalism and ego-inflation. ;-)

That's my $0.02, but I'm more interested in yours. As I read through your journal, I found you to be a very intriguing person. :-)
banazir
Jan. 2nd, 2004 09:52 am (UTC)
Re: My first question, answer at your leisure.
Sorry it's taken so long to get back to you.
Your question is a good one, and I will start by pointing you towards Ray Kurzweil's article on the IT Singularity and a quick disclaimer: I grew up reading things such as science writer Grant Fjermedal's The Tomorrow Makers (lately out of print, but still available) and the works of futurists such as nanotech advocate Eric Drexler and roboticist Hans Moravec.
I'll post more on the IT Singularity later, but here are four links I just gave to twinbee:



The IT Singularity is a generic term for a technological paradigm shift that has been touted as everything from mass downloads and Matrix-style subsumption of human wetware to the TechnoRapture.

A "tech Singularity" is a projected brief interval of time in which the practical innovation rate becomes so fast as to seem essentially instantaneous to humans. For example, consider innovations such as the personal computer, the fax machine, the automobile, the gene chip, object-oriented programming, quark theory, abstract algebra, et cetera. Once a few hundred innovations of this magnitude occur each day, we will have definitely moved into the Singularity. Basically, a tech Singularity is a near-mathematical-singularity in the rate of technological advance.

I am an IT Singularity skeptic, but I am very enthused about nanotech ramifications for (finitely) sustainable (1) development, (2) life extension, and (3) improvement in the quality of life.

Given your experience and background, how long do you think it will take until we become a Robotic Nation?
I think Brain's dates are about right when it comes to automation and job takeover. Rurzweil cites similar numbers in his essay above.
What I think people (especially AI scruffies) have to realize is that it isn't just going to happen as we kick up our heels and reap the benefits of Moore's Law.
Here are some comments from and about Moore in 1997, 2000, and 2003.

I've been following this sort of sociological issue for a short while now since I've been highly influenced by and interested in A.I. after watching way too much anime as a young teen and now adult.
Yes, and wizards have been scratching 'G' runes on the doors of impressionable young hobbits for at least one generation before you.
I did my stint as a starstruck teenager c. 1986-1990.

--
Banazir
banazir
Jan. 2nd, 2004 09:57 am (UTC)
Re: My first question, answer at your leisure - continued
As an IBMer, I've been privy to a lot of propaganda regarding their On-Demand computing initiative (which isn't doing so well, if you ask me) and their Autonomic Computing initiative, which has some of its first-fruits located here.
This is very interesting, thanks.
You work at T. J. Watson in the summers, I take it? One of my former RAs at UIUC (Dav Zimak) did too - I think he worked for Agrawal. If the names Dan Oblinger, Mark Brodie, or Ricardo Vilalta ring a bell, let me know - they were all my classmates.

I think you might be pleased that they wrote it in Java; however, it also might be of interest to you given that it seems to accomplish some of which BNJ accomplishes.
True - say, you might be interested in bayesnets, which I am going to work on jump-starting soon cf. my Yahoo! Group for BNJ.

I have a hard time thinking that Mr. Brain's scenario will play out in 50 years due to the slow manner in which technology is evolving and assimilating into corporate culture
You'd be surprised. Look at Ronny Kohavi's talks for some adoption curves for data mining and decision support systems some time.
The bottlenecks are more technical than NIH or skepticism-driven, which is why intelligent systems developments - brute-force and more engineering application than scientific breakthrough - are often greeted as the barbarian at the gate.

but at the same time, I realize that 50 years is a long time for innovation and persistent development effort. Given the scariness of what can happen in a capitalistic society like ours, I fear for our future like this man does. Though, I'm more than happy to admit that I'm being highly emotional and fanatic, like he might be. Perhaps human society will come up with a way to support those who find themselves unemployed for ridiculous amounts of time. But I'm afraid I haven't been given much historical reason to have any faith in humanity's ability to innovate for the common better of society. Innovation is driven by capitalism and ego-inflation. ;-)
Just so, but it doesn't mean good can't come out of it. A Spanish proverb that Julian May quotes at the beginning of Jack The Bodiless, and which I very much love, says: "God writes straight with crooked lines".

That's my $0.02, but I'm more interested in yours. As I read through your journal, I found you to be a very intriguing person. :-)
Thanks! Likewise. You give me a lot of credit, perhaps more than I deserve. :-)

--
Banazir
CS studies and AI research - banazir - Jan. 2nd, 2004 05:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
kewldeaf
Dec. 23rd, 2003 05:14 am (UTC)
Abt DAler
Saw u were playing Daler in background

Btw
Plz know Daler Mehendi is accused of human trafficking in India.
Stop playing all his songs from home ;) untill he is acquitted.
--Bharat
banazir
Dec. 23rd, 2003 05:16 am (UTC)
Re: Abt DAler
Saw u were playing Daler in background
Btw
Plz know Daler Mehendi is accused of human trafficking in India.
Stop playing all his songs from home ;) untill he is acquitted.


Seriously?
Could you give a citation of this, and a link to any trial documentation? Also, I'd be interested to know what evidence you know of (from the popular media).

--
Banazir
Re: Abt DAler - kewldeaf - Dec. 23rd, 2003 05:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Daler Mehndi trial - banazir - Dec. 23rd, 2003 05:30 am (UTC) - Expand
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