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The Disorderly March

March 8, 2009

So I’ve reached a milestone, I think – my reading and writing on open source has given me what I need, as a novelist, to create a character for whom OS is a passion/philosophy.  Of course, he doesn’t show up till part two, so I’m kind of ass backwards, but that’s just the way it turned out, me learning things out of sequence as the interest and the moment takes em.  I think OS was an “easy get” for me in that it’s philosophical, i.e. verbal, whereas some of the more arcane things I have to learn for AI are more mechanical/mathematical, where I’m not as comfortable.  Computational Linguistics is a deeply rules-based system with its own private structural language, as befits something more about computation applied to linguistics than vice versa.  But I have to understand it to apply linguistics to computation, that is, to write a believable novel about AI.  God help me when I finally tackle Norvig and Russell with its mathy text. 

I was never the “good student,” the orderly-marching grade grubber who got A’s in everything.  I was the guy in high school who got A’s in history, English, literature, public speaking, debate, theater…and C’s in anything math or science.  Part of it was a susceptibility at an impressionable age to Romantic notions about art v. science, part of it was a sense of myself as enough of a nerd without ending up even nerdier like those science dweebs (remember this was the 70s when “science” wasn’t the key to much work outside maybe defense/aerospace, government or academia).  And of course part of it was that, given my choice between algebra homework and Watership Down, the rabbits won no problem.  In the BizLang that’s dominated our lives for so many years now, reading and writing would be considered “my passion.” 

Which of course meant I failed at that litmus test of competence in the age of the Well Rounded Individual, the SATs (I don’t think I even took the ACT).  My English scores were effortlessly high, but my math was abysmal.  I can’t blame poor teaching for all of it, but mistakenly signing up for algebra in high school with what turned out to be the Passing Grade for Jocks teacher (also the assistant football coach) didn’t help.  On my own, I simply could not see how a A or a B or an X or a Y could be “anything”– a letter was a letter, you used them to make sentences, there were twenty six of them and they were what they were!  Only a few years later, when I had all day at an easy job to muck about with dBase III, did I finally GET IT.  It wasn’t really a letter, it was a box, that could hold shit!  So given my scores, and my parents’ limited willingness to subsidize my education, I was faced with the choice of the local state U, and, horror of horrors, two more years living at home!  That was in itself enough to motivate me to get a full time job and move out, skipping more schooling, with which I was heartily bored anyway – especially when the first two years of college looked to me like the same damn shit I’d been enduring in high school.

In short, everything I’ve learned about computers, and for that matter history and literature and everything else, has been self–directed.  (“Autodidact” is the preferred word for those who are insecure about lacking the piece of paper.)  And of course not having been “To School” held me back in some ways – many of them social, especially in San Francisco where everyone has at least a BA/BS.  On the other hand, I was learning about PCs in the mid–80s at home when everyone else in University were on mainframes and minis, and I found myself able to make a good living on contract with architectural and engineering firms, converting specs from typewritten cut–and–paste horrors to WordPerfect auto–numbered miracles (to give you an idea of the scale of the drudgery involved pre–automation, I direct your attention to Navy specs, with items such as “1.2.3.5.7.9 – Toilets.  1.2.3.5.7.9.1 – The toilet shall be white.”  Imagine what happens when 1.2 becomes 1.1 or 1.3 and the amount of crap involved in sequential renumbering…).  Because I had “humanity” skills, I was also able to teach, holding the hands of anxious executive secretaries as they transitioned from DisplayWriter to WordStar or WordPerfect (WordStar’s Ctrl+KSQP and other arcane commands being all that was available pre–GUI).  I learned a lot on the job, and the only toll my lack of “education” took was that when or if it came time to offer me a full time job, “where did you go to School?” became the interview question that torpedoed my salary – because for some reason, a person with the same skill set with a degree in anything was automatically to be paid more.  There’s a reverse bell curve when it comes to education – you spend years earning less, until suddenly your long and wide experience trumps it and the salaries of the educated and non–educated equalize.

I’m always astonished by the Google mindset, displayed just last week in a New York Times article on Marissa Mayer:

At a recent personnel meeting, she homes in on grade-point averages and SAT scores to narrow a list of candidates, many having graduated from Ivy League schools, whom she wanted to meet as part of a program to foster in-house talent. In essence, math is used to solve a human problem: How do you predict whether an employee has the potential for success?

A scrum of executives sit around a table, laptops in front of them, as they sort through résumés, college transcripts and quarterly reviews. The conversation is unemotional, at times a little brutal.

One candidate got a C in macroeconomics. “That’s troubling to me,” Ms. Mayer says. “Good students are good at all things.”

A C in macroeconomics!  Off with her head!  It’s not really the idea that the best people are the people who are good at everything – it’s the somewhat absurd idea that people who have done everything by the book all their lives, grade–grubbed their way to the top by doing anything and everything it took to match themselves to a template of “excellence” that makes them all essentially cookie–cutter copies of each other, are somehow the people who are going to give us “disruptive innovations,” as promised by Google–sponsored Singularity University, where the attendance fee for nine weeks is $25,000 (and, of course, they want to know what degrees you possess).  People who have spent their lives fitting into systems, gaming systems, manipulating systems successfully, and who now find themselves the beneficiary of their ability to work within structured systems, are going to in turn help sustain the same closed systems that benefit them, especially if those systems give them so much money that $25K for a semester of networking is pocket change.  Google’s obsession with hiring nobody but these types can’t be a healthy thing for them in the long run.

My own route has been a disorderly march, no doubt, on which no Googletarian would ever tread.  Emotional problems, health problems, many self–inflicted, easily bored and never holding one job for more than three years before the mind–numbing sameness overwhelms, mistake after mistake, I’m hardly the attractive alternative to the march.  Nevertheless, it’s the outsiders who come up with the truly “disruptive.”  I am not in any way comparing myself to Einstein, but watching a History Channel documentary about him (actual history for once, sandwiched in between UFO hunts and their usual fare) was interesting and encouraging – he couldn’t get hired in mathematics when he out of school, the Googlers of the time in their Prussian Institutes had no use for him until he had done work that forced them to acknowledge him.  Would he have done the work he did if he’d focused on careerism instead?  Gone into poison gas research like his colleague Haber? 

The advantage of the orderly march is that it does teach discipline – the focus required to do the disagreeable, the boring, the repetitive, to get where you want to go; that golden goal always in your sight.  For me, acquiring discipline has been a late and still imperfect attainment – I wrote eight books, yes, but it came easy, it was part of who I was and what I did with no effort.  Getting hold of my eating, exercising really hard, curbing my shopping, my substance intake, managing my negatives is still a work in progress.  And of course all that has to be done before you can start on the positives – getting fit and healthy, learning difficult new things.  What’s harder than setting yourself to understand AI when you failed algebra? 

I don’t know quite where the project goes next, other than reading the books I have stacked up waiting for my reviews, all germane to the novel in some way:  Wired for War, Affective Computing, Loneliness, I am a Strange Loop, Alex and Me, the blasted Norvig and Russell, and damn me if a 3rd edition isn’t out in August!.  I do know that I’m at a changing station – my weeks of “second job” travel are over, my layoff from the other job is probably imminent within weeks, and I need to take a breath and see where I’m going next with the novel and the research.  (At least if I get laid off I’ll really build up a head of steam here!)  The march will remain disorderly, but it’s the way I make the end product, a good finished novel.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2009 9:34 am

    Do you really have to tackle Norvig and Russell? Surely there are better overview papers/books that will describe both rules-based and statistics based Computational Linguistics/Natural Language Processing approaches without going into real deep details.

    You may find “Programming Collective Intelligence” by Toby Segaran interesting. It takes (some of) CL basics and brings them to life. Useful, even if you skip all the code.

    • ooutland permalink*
      March 9, 2009 9:40 am

      Thanks, I have a Safari subscription so I will definitely check that out – O.

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