Troubling shifts in American higher education

Not sure where this goes, but reading this and this on the same day has me greatly concerned for what might happen to America’s great universities, not the least of which includes my own alma mater.

While I am certainly an advocate for significant change in how higher education delivers its value (and I know first-hand the power of a good education), I am alarmed to see shifts that appear unplanned, as if old institutions that have worked (albeit with drawbacks and some limitations) are thrown away–but without offering a suitable replacement for those institutions that we have any confidence will be better than what came before.

What are we doing?

Tenets of my faith

NOTE: saw this article today, and decided to update this post from July 2009.

I’ve been thinking for a while about science having a common foundation with religion, and how science is a parallel, direct alternative to religion.  The commonality between the two is faith.  By religion, I should clarify Christianity as widely practiced in the United States; to some degree, what I say about religion here may apply to broader definitions of religion, both geographically and philosophically.

So what are the assertions or tenets of my faith in science?

  1. That there is a universe.
  2. That we exist together in that universe.
  3. That we can observe it together.
  4. That we can share our observations of the universe with one another.
  5. That the universe at least sometimes operates consistently according to a set of rules.
  6. That we can know at least some of those rules through observation.
  7. That we can use some of those rules and our shared knowledge to sometimes predict outcomes.
  8. That we have some free will to choose our own goals.
  9. That we can affect the universe.
  10. That we can use some of our knowledge of those rules and our shared observations to effect the realization of some of our goals.

And that final tenet is the key differentiator with religion: it presumes that we can effect the universe sufficiently to realize the goals we set from our free will.  Religion, on the other hand, suggests that ultimately some of our goals are not ours (e.g., our tendency towards sin), and that we are to some extent powerless to effect the universe (e.g., it’s in God’s hands; God’s will be done).

What separates this faith from that of religion or other schools of philosophy is a single quality: consistency.  It asserts that we can use the observed consistency of the universe to affect the universe to achieve our goals, and that when we observe our goals being met that consistency is affirmed.  The consistency travels in a circle, complete in itself, even though the ultimate reality, completeness, or veracity of that consistency is unknowable.  Yet within that circle we find no contradiction that breaks its utility.

Religion, on the other hand, is riddled with inconsistencies.  If God made the world 6,000 years ago, then how to explain the presence of fossils that have lain under the earth for hundreds of millions of years?  How do we explain the vastness of a cosmos that extends 13 billion years in all directions?  How do we reconcile the goodness of God with cancer, with the existence of Hitler?

All of these tenets swirl about one central aspect: consistency.  These tenets have reliably shown they are true together, and continue to behave, well, consistently together.  Yet why?  What if one day the universe (or God) decided should not be so consistent?  Just for that one day?  Or perhaps from this day on be consistent, but under a new set of rules than we have ever seen?

And that’s why science itself still rests on faith: an abiding belief that what was true yesterday will continue to be true tomorrow.  So far, that has proven itself to be true, and even when it appears the rules of changed, we simply discover that we had deduced the wrong set of rules. But we take it for granted that the universe has this consistency.  That is faith.

The Fabric of the World

Since Einstein, we think of our universe as substance floating in a vast, four-dimensional ether.  That ether (the space-time continuum) connects here to there, the earth to the moon, and the sun swims through it on its billion journey around the galaxy accompanied by its little swimmers, the planets.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if time and space aren’t what connect the parts of the universe together?

Maybe the real connections are the ones between people.  Each of us moves through our own world, our own private universe, and only occasionally are we so lucky to have those worlds link up for a brief time.  Through the shared experience of a significant event, a moment of inspring beauty or of terrifying tragedy, our worlds merge.  Or through the sharing of stories, each a memory from our own universe, passed in the telling over to the universe of the listeners.  The tale becomes a bridge, linking the listener to the teller, and here to there.  For those shared moments, worlds join and become one, often only to separate again once the instant is past.

Could we instead, though, linger in that other world? Could we, through the telling of a tale, jump the link and stay for a while?  And what happens then, if we listen to another tale, listen enough to jump again?

Ah, that is the real fabric of our world, the real ether in which we move, the true line joining point A to point B.  The tales we tell, the moments we share, the occasions of our humanity together bind us to each other.  Space and time does not matter so much as the distance (or closeness) between people.

So, if you are feeling restless, and yearning to take a trip, go find a stranger, and listen to their yarn.  Worlds await you.

Liberation

On my father’s 68th birthday, I had a realization:

“When we give ourself permission to be different than who we once were, that is liberating”

I think it highly appropriate that it happened on this day, for I don’t think my father found the liberation he once sought.

The Aesthetics of Code

Far too often, we describe the discipline of programming–or the writing of software for a computer–as “software engineering.”  Indeed, there are many qualities of engineering applicable to the actual delivery software into our user’s hands, but the term mischaracterizes an important characteristic of programming: the art or aesthetics of code.

Here are the aesthetic qualities I enjoy in code:

  • Insight. The code  manifests some unique insight into the problem at hand, an insight that, once revealed,  “makes sense” and appears clever.
  • Simplicity. While programmers do run into very, very complex algorithms due to the requirements of the problem at hand, many times the best pieces of code at their heart are achingly simple–and any complexity is only built up from repeated, almost fractal-like re-application of simple constructions.
  • Durability. Even as requirements change over time, the best code is durable: many tweaks on the edges or top layers often leave a durable core unchanged from one evolutionary phase to the next.
  • Adaptability. Closely intertwined with durability (but not automatically the same), the adaptability of code reflects the ability to transform or extend the original design in simple ways to support new, unanticipated requirements or performance constraints.
  • Surprise. Sometimes we discover that the code we have written still works when faced with a new situation or an unexpected set of requirements.  The ability of the code to solve the problems we didn’t anticipate is refreshing, and desirable.

There may be more, but all of these are aesthetics I always yearn to find.

We’re not Computer Scientists

We are Software Product Engineers, or perhaps Software Service Engineers.

A thread on reddit asked what did college CS not teach you about your job, and I replied:

Your job is not to write software, it’s to design, build, and contribute to a complex system of processes (some automated, some performed manually by humans) that periodically and in a cost-effective manner ships a software-based product, or performs, enables, and extends a software-based service for your customers.

Unfortunately, in our industry (and as a field of study) we’ve coddled ourselves way too long, thinking that it’s all about “Computer Science.” Sure, that’s a piece of it, and good CS is still very valuable when it can be done. But so much more of the energy that goes into a shipping product or service is in all of the other non-CS processes.

And that’s what’s missing from our training for software development.  We were taught to focus on CS, which is such a small piece of the puzzle.

What ARE the basics of programming?

A week or so ago, I had a fascinating cab ride home talking with the cab driver about his passion, topology. (Sidenote: did you ever expect to see a sentence like that?)

Before he revealed he was a mathematician by training (dual Master’s degrees, no less), we talked about software, and how he was never very good at programming.  I said that the trick with programming is that it all boils down to some very simple basics, and that once you know those, you are all set.

Great, he asked, what are they?

And I couldn’t answer.

Oh, sure, I blathered on for a bit about “you must remember that it’s just a machine, and it does what you tell it,” but that was as good as I could manage.  In other words: crap.

I’m going to have to mull on this for a bit, because I know there are basics to software, and most languages.  I’m pretty sure those basics center around control structures, and that once you know those, you are all set.  There may be something about variables or scopes or storage or the like, but we’ll see.

Stay tuned.

The end of the Civil War

Another milestone in U.S. history may have just occurred this past Tuesday night: the end of the Civil War, more than 140 years later.

While we are educated to perceive the Civil War as a fight for human liberty, and specifically for the rights of Africans imported to the U.S. as slaves, that is only one aspect of the conflict.  At the time the war broke out, the U.S. was pulling apart at the seams, schizophrenically grappling with how to reconcile what amounted to two nations inside it: the North and the South.  Disagreements over slavery may have sparked the war, but the conflict and tension was already there — and was never really resolved at the war’s conclusion.

We see that conflict today in the ideological divisions between “Red” and “Blue.”  The remnants of the South are predominantly “Red States,” and the winning North is at the heart of the “Blue States.”  Despite its great wealth before the war, the post-war effects left the South destitute and mired in poverty for generations.  Over time, the struggle between former nations became a class struggle, between rich and poor, between the educated and the illiterate.  To some extent it is natural that other equally less-affluent states such as those in the Midwest (Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas) might also begin to feel an affinity for the Red State agenda: their side in the class war, should they choose to engage it, was clear.  The educated upper class, predominantly located in the Northeast, welcomed diversity and progress; the struggling middle and lower classes still harbored desires for racial purity and a yearning to resolve ancient grudges.

All of that leads us to Obama’s victorious election on Tuesday.  To have an educated, intelligent, respected black man as the President-Elect of the United States is a complete repudiation of all that the old South might have wanted to create.  It is the end of white supremacy in the United States, and the beginning of a poly-cultural America where education is valued and the class-war doesn’t have to matter, because we are all in the same ship.  And right now that ship is sinking.  We just might have saved ourselves by choosing Obama to show us how to bail.

Let us hope that this war is finally ended, and that the next chapter of American history is more diverse and welcoming.

My President

Wow, I still can’t be believe it.  Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States of America.  No joke, there were people dancing in the streets once they found out.  That happened in my neighborhood, and around the world.

Last night’s election result is historic for many, many reasons, but one clearly comes to mind, and I am grateful: my earlier hope that Bush’s legacy would be the destruction of the far right as a force in American politics might have come true.  Not only did Obama win by a comfortable margin (at least 7 million in the popular vote as of this morning, but a 2 to 1 margin in the electoral vote), but the Democratic Party solidified its grip on Congress.  Several “sacred cows” of the Republican Party lost:

  • Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina
  • John Sununu in New Hampshire
  • Virginia will have a Democratic governor
  • Virginia, Florida, and Ohio all voted Democrat

One commentator on CNN last night made a very good point that with America’s shifting demographics towards a “plurality of minorities,” perhaps with Obama the transition to an era when white voters do not determine the election alone is at hand.  I might add to that male, conservative, and possibly rural.  Diversity just won the highest post in the land.

The significance of this election will be analyzed and discussed for generations.  For now, I recall what I wrote to a friend last night after hearing the results: when she heard Deval Patrick speak at the beginning of his race for Governor of Massachusetts in the last election, she felt hope again.  Last night, not only did I feel hope, but I believe.

President Obama, my President, I believe.