Twofish's Blog

September 29, 2007

Caveat Emptor

Filed under: academia, Career, china, ghosts, gifted children, mental health, new york city — twofish @ 11:42 am

One of the things that I’ve learned is that history doesn’t end, and problems don’t end.  You get what you want, and that resolves some problems, but the world changes, and you end up with new problems.  They might be better problems.  But unlike a movie or a novel where you reach the end, there is end to history.

One new problem that I’ve found is that I’m now in a position that I’ve giving advice to people, mostly about careers and strategy.  That worries me a lot because anything that I say is going to be incomplete, and I hope it is not incomplete in a way that will get people into trouble or which is misleading.  People thing in terms of “scripts” and “stories.”  There’s the “American dream” script, the “model student” script, the “patriotic overseas Chinese” script, and what I’m often asked to do is to basically help people conform their lives and efforts to a script.  Recently, it’s usually the “successful person in business” script.  What worries me is that a script is an incomplete description of a human being.

What I found is that sometimes you get a better idea of reality by asking the right question. If you ask enough questions and design an experiment well, you get answers. If enough people ask the right questions, you can make a huge amount of progress.

And sometimes the right question is something completely obvious?  Why do I write some much?  Why do I have such a strong urge to help people in their careers?  I think I have a vague understanding of my motives, and it’s a story I don’t want to tell you, and in some ways I can’t tell you.  But it’s something that doesn’t quite fit into the “successful person in business” script or in the “classic immigrant story” script.  Behind my motives, there is a lot of things that most people would consider “negative.”  There is fear, pain, anger, hate, shame, sadness, and guilt.  There are shadows all around me.  When you have lots of bright lights in the big city, shadows are difficult to avoid.

Let me talk about a recurring nightmare that I often have…..

There is a brick floating in mid-air.

That is frightening to me.  Brick don’t float in mid-air, they fall to the ground.  Maybe, one day I will see a brick floating in mid-air, and if that happens, then there is something very, very wrong.  That’s why I care a lot of about physics, math, economics, and law.  They provide certainty or at least the illusion of certainty.  If I see something, it should explainable by the laws of conservation of mass and energy, or it should be consistent with the Peano axioms of natural numbers, or it should be explainable via judicial precedent and constitutional law.  But what it doesn’t.  What if I see a brick floating in mid-air without any explanation.  They I know something is very wrong with the world, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling.  If a brick floats in mid-air, and the laws of physics no longer hold, then what keeps me from falling into the center of the earth.  If I’m in a situation where there is no constitutional, legal  or economic framework, then what keeps “them” from doing nasty, unspeakable things to me.

I want to know that I’m sane, and that the world around me is sane.  That’s why it is important that 2+2 keep adding up to be 4, because if it ends up adding to be something else, then I’m not safe any more, and much of my life has been to deal with the horrible reality that things are not as safe and secure as I would like them to be.  And if they world starts going crazy, at least I want to know how crazy it is.  Maybe when I add 2+2 I don’t get 4.  Do I get 3.99999, 1, -2, or is the answer that I get when I add 2+2, magenta elephant or something that else that is not even a number.

The annoying thing is that the world being as confusing as it is, that I often don’t get 4 when I add 2 and 2.  Sometimes I get 3.999, sometimes I get nothing.  Sometimes I get -3.   Maybe I added wrong.  Maybe there is something I’m ignoring.  I don’t know.  But I find those moments very frightening and disturbing, because when I add two numbers and they don’t come out exactly right, I get the glimpse of that brick floating in mid-air.  And my strange insecurities and frustrations about numbers, gets me to the social embodiment of numbers….. Money…..

Money is a funny thing in that I found that people who seem to care a lot about money, really care about something else.  I care a lot about money.  For me, money is a sign that I am sane and that the world is sane.  In business there are so many things that can go wrong, and it is a constant struggle against chaos.  Being able to make money is hard, and making a profit demonstrates that in some way, you are connected to the rest of the world, and that you aren’t in your own little reality disconnected from the reality in the rest of the world.  Having money and making money allows me to convince myself that I am sane.

I say this because one day I might end up labeled as a “business success” and that happens, your story gets repeated, and like all stories, it is incomplete.  Descriptions of reality are always incomplete, but they can be incomplete without being misleading.  Just be aware that there are shadows following me.  I don’t want to tell you what they are, and pretty much everyone who finds out wishes that they didn’t know.  Just be aware that they are there…….

August 7, 2006

Babies R’Us and 26-100

I got out of academia because of something that happened at Babies R’ Us. My wife was expecting, and I was still a RA. I was looking around for baby decorations and cribs and other things, and I realized that I couldn’t afford any of the stuff on a RA salary or a post-doc salary. It’s hard to describe the awful, humilating feeling being in a large room full of decorations and baby things, and to realize that other people can give that stuff to their babies, but you can’t.

I got back in because of something that happened in Room 26-100 at MIT a few months ago at the reunion. The physics department had set up a bunch of physics demonstrations, and my kids were just loving it. There is the pendulum that demonstrates potential and kinetic energies, and I was able to use them to use that to teach my six and eight year-olds some basic facts about phase diagrams and resonance. When I was going through that, I was thinking to myself, you know, I’d make a damn good physics professor if someone just gave me the chance. I was also thinking to myself, maybe my kids are a little too excited about MIT. They think of it as some fun cool playground (which it is). I didn’t quite have the heart to tell them about the bullsh*t undergraduate admissions process which elite universities use to separate the worthy from the unworthy.

I had the same bad feeling when I did the video at wikimania for the MIT Media Lab and MacArthur Foundation. When you start me talking about science, I start getting very animated, but in the back of my mind, I feel a little disgusted with myself. Actually more than a little disgusted. I’m getting people interested in science and then submitting themselves to an inhumane and terrible system that will brutalize and abuse them, that turn their idealism into bitterness and worst of all will make them think that its their damn fault.

I mean, we have this really, really, really stupid stuff like the NSF report on the future of science in America. I am utterly amazed at how the brightest minds in the science and engineering can come up with just total stupid garbage. It’s because the people writing the report are the “winners” of the system and there is no way for us “losers” to say anything useful. People are trying to get more and more kids interested in science and engineering while ignoring the fact that there are no science and engineering jobs at the back end.

This is just disgusting, and the more one thinks about it (which no one with an NSF grant has) the more disgusting it is.

The people on the NSF panel are some nice people, but their institutional interest is to get more funding for science and technology for universities.  If this results in a massive overproduction of scientists and engineers, they don’t see it as their problem, and they certainly aren’t thinking of the human costs of getting kids interested in science and engineering.

You are getting kids interested in a field, and having them enter a brutal process designed to weed them out. What the HELL is all of this about? I’ve seem just too many bright and idealistic high school seniors at University of Texas who want to be physicists and engineers that then go into those stupid undergraduate weed-out classes (which I should point out that MIT does not have), which leaves them bitter and brutalized.

OK, that’s merely anger. What is turning this into total rage is this…….

If I don’t do something to change the system, my kids are going to go through it.

July 25, 2006

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