Drinking from a firehose

YES – I’m talking about grad school. I’m taking, what I understand to be, two of the most difficult courses to start with simultaneously in this program (many forums and the advisors themselves recommend you not do it). These are 6040 – computing for data analysis and 6501 Intro to analytics Fortunately, my computer science and extensive data analysis background is making 6040 a straight-forward endeavor. So far, this class takes me about two nights per week, and I’m about two weeks ahead, which means if I have to blow off a week, and I’ll get to that in a second, without any sort of negative impacts. Even then, that class, in particular, is a bizarre hybrid of basic introductory computer science and programming concepts mixed with fairly advanced and sophisticated data manipulation techniques. For me it’s a weekly ‘language drill’ – for the lack of anything else to call it. I am learning a lot, and the main thing I’m learning is that I’d be hard-pressed to justify the extensive use of python for data analysis in my current context. It’s fast and all, but not the kind of thing that lends itself to summary and computation of dozens of variables.

For the other class (6501), today is the last day I’m allowed to turn in my week 2 homework. This particular week’s lectures, notes, and homework took me, and I’m not exaggerating, just shy of 30 hours. Fortunately, the homework is done (only just, I realized today I’d neglected to scale the inputs for the model). Said homework write-up is just under 15 pages long (with tables, figures, text and shockingly little R code). This class basically gives you a concept, some cool R functions, a handful of sources, and a dedicated discussion forum (which is remarkably productive), and then the homework (or lab, whatever). The homework amounts to maybe 3 questions, one of which is meant to simply assess that you understand how to apply the method being discussed. The other two questions are brief paragraph asking for you to analyze some dataset using the concept & functions discussed along with some end-goal. Your job, as the student, is to analyze that data, write it up, and present it. Honestly, this is how I make my dollars. Granted, I don’t do the deep analysis, just the superficial numerical stuff, but this should be easy, right? NO. not even a little bit. Normally, I’ve got time, on the order of weeks to sift through data, and not only that, when I get stuck, I can set it aside for a day or two, work on something else and come back. This is not possible here. Not only are the concepts largely to me, I also have to develop an understanding well enough to explain the approach, methods, and outcome over the weekend.

Now, for the firehose part (bet you thought I was already there). The lectures and class discussion drop on Monday. This week, I had the good fortune of having Monday off, which afforded me the lovely space on Saturday to get into a totally unnecessary ditch involving a two dozen lines of code that was remedied Sunday morning with a single parameter… Anyhoo, There I was Monday morning, feverishly trying to figure out where to start with question 2 (of 3), when the new lectures dropped and the next weeks’ class discussion questions were posted. Plus, I knew (hadn’t checked, but knew), that this weeks’ 6040 homework had ALSO dropped. On top of all of this, I’m trying to get through a project at work that we do every other year, and helping to kick-off a massive annual project. The only saving grace thinking about next week is that I can reduce my effort in the other class washout falling behind there.

Monday, was not a great day. Ultimately, I kept my nose to the grindstone and things are fine. But, here I am on Wednesday, probably not able to take more than just these few minutes to myself to knock out a poorly written blog post before working my way through the lectures and notes for 6501 in prep for this week’s homework.

So that’s my update – I’m learning a lot, and not just like “oh, cool – I just found out about this k-means model in R, you can use for clustering”, I mean like: “Oh, so with k-means, I can probably develop a state-wide cluster-sample of communities to generate a reliable regional estimate of harvests – or at a minimum demonstrate that it’s not really practical.” Yes, I still have to learn a LOT with any of the topics we’ve been given, but it’s enough to actually implement some of the ideas in the real world – and that’s pretty cool.

Image by AntOne_01 from Pixabay


First week of school (A complaint about the Mat-Su School District)

On Monday, the Syllabus … Syllabi? for my two fall classes for grad school went live. I’ve got a sense of schedule, topics, and platforms. And at the same time, I’ve got absolutely NO idea what to really and truly expect – except that I’m going to be challenged. My kids, however, started on Monday and complaints about classes has started already. I’m usually one to support whatever is going on in the education realm because even if I disagree, they need to know that sometimes you just have to deal with bullshit. This year is a bit different. A new superintendent, who is presumably very experienced and whatever, has completely changed how the high-school curriculum works. Change isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it has to be carefully organized, planned, and executed to be successful and have the correct impact. In spite of all of the best efforts of teachers, administrators, and councilors, the current situation is not good.

Before I continue to complain, I want to make it clear that my experience with everyone at the school has been a case-study in professionals trying very hard to make sure our students are getting what they are supposed to out of school. I am fully confident that my kid’s whole school is full of people focused on student success. I genuinely don’t believe that is the case with the superintendent. In fact, I’d argue that’s he’s set up our educators for an unnecessarily challenging year with a profoundly vague plan to improve MAP scores. Which is to say, he gave them a directive without even bothering to think it through.

My main complaint is one of the changes to graduation requirements. I’ve got concerns about several aspects, but the largest is a new intro class called: Intro to Career Pathways. In the first class my middle child was treated to a full-on repudiation of college in favor of ‘certificate’ programs. ie: Why would you get a college degree when you could get a certificate for less money and make as much as anyone with a bachelor’s degree? That’s a bloody great question. By some accounts, plumbers make up the largest segment of people making more than $1M/year – and I generally believe this is true (have you ever paid a plumber?). But you know what? If it were the typical case where I could jump over to plumbing and make more than ten times what I do now, I’d change my job TOMORROW.

Realistically, that’s not how it works. I think we all know that – a good, skilled plumber has years of experience, training, expertise etc… I mean, if someone told you: Go into plumbing, you’d make a mint. Wouldn’t you do it? You would, right?

You know why people don’t?

I already said it. Look at the paragraph above about all the training. Where the hell do you get that? There is no real ‘path’ for students. The same goes for virtually any trade. I’d even argue that super popular classes like auto-shop don’t offer a path to employment. That’s why there’s an apparent dearth of ‘qualified’ applicants (of course, if companies were a little more keen to hire people at something approximating a living wage, with no experience, this would be a different story). Yes, there are ‘trade’ schools, and programs at universities that support this, but it’s not remotely enough. If there aren’t enough qualified people, clearly, the education system is the place where we have a problem. Nobody doesn’t want to do these jobs.

When I was in high-school, one of the career paths I was interested in was carpentry. Hell, I still love working with wood and building things. I even loved building my house even though it brought me to tears more than once and nearly killed me and my marriage – but why didn’t I? Why did I go into computer science? Because there wasn’t a path to get into carpentry. When I started looking, there simply wasn’t any way to get to a job that didn’t involve having someone already in the field give me an opportunity.

The best advice I could drum up at the time is stupid shit like: Get apprenticed (with whom, exactly?). Oh, an apprenticeship program with the union? The same union that takes 30-40 applicants a year? (Full disclosure – I am 100% a full union supporter. I refuse to cross anyone’s picket line, no matter how distantly connected they are to my work.). The point is that the school district (the superintendent) has decided it’s a great idea to shit all over college prep and tell kids to go into a ‘trade’, without actually doing anything meaningful to develop a tangible path. Had my child been assigned welding, machine shop, auto repair or even sanding wood 101, I’d have been perfectly fine supporting that because they’re learning an actual skill. This class is pretty clearly designed to indoctrinate kids into a false conservative narrative designed to get them to accept lower wages.

When it comes to college, you can’t deny it’s as expensive as hell. The benefit? It opens up a whole suite of opportunities, and (to be perfectly blunt) is open to everyone. This is not the case for ‘trades’. Even if you get an, I dunno, MBA, this opens up a whole classification of jobs. We’re talking about dozens of possible fields. I know computer scientists who do admin work, biologists who are doing social science work, mining engineers who wound up doing petroleum engineering most of their career. The point is that the batchelors degree is the main point of entry.

A huge stink is being made about not enough kids getting into ‘trades’ and people somehow disrespecting trades – literally nobody disrespects the trades. Hell, if it offered benefits most of the time and you could find a way in, it’d be just fine if not GREAT.

Unfortunately it’s exclusive – you have to know someone or get lucky. There’s a certain amount of luck required after completing your college degree. I am NOT going to refute that. My own position I got because of luck and whiteness initially. I hold that job by making sure that I follow through. However, my luck aside, I literally had dozens of opportunities across a huge swath of industries and occupations. So, instead of waiting for an apprentice carpenter job to come up somewhere, maybe very, very remote, I can apply for a dozen jobs in my own town. So there’s trade-offs.

Thinking about my situation: yes, I’m driving my kids to go to college, even though we can’t afford it. Yes, I’m going to grad school myself. Could any of us do better in a trade? … No, actually. In my case, I’m nearly 20 years in. My path is set. Could I have done better in a trade fresh out of high school? … actually, also no, there was no place for me to become skilled an acquire a real job in a trade. My kids? Also no. I can promise they wouldn’t find a job in the trades for the same reasons I couldn’t. College offers the best opportunity, so that’s what we’re doing.

I think my complaint here is that my kids are being subjected to a political class instead of something useful. If my kids were required to take a class to do – I don’t know – small engine repair, or basic automotive skills, welding, basic into to pluming, I don’t even care… any of those things, it would be a FAR better use of their time. What’s more, in my short experience working with students in high school, NOBODY DOESN’T want to do trades stuff, there’s just no opportunities. Jobs, yeah, maybe, but opportunities? No. You can argue, if you like, but you’re a white guy with some kind of personal connection.

For my part, I want my kids to learn skills and have opportunities, not be subjected to political beliefs and false narratives. If you want kids to get into trades, train them, get them experience, and make sure the opportunities are actually present. Don’t present false narratives.

Before you get shitty about me saying companies needing to offer more opportunities to young people – I do my best to maintain internship programs as often as possible with the specific goal of making sure our young people (or even slightly older folks going back to school) get experience and have a vector for entry into my field. It’s a HIGH priority for me and it should be for literally anyone having more than 1 employee.

Full Speed Ahead

As of about a week ago, the most I could tell you about the graduate program I’m starting this fall is that term starts on the 23rd of August and it’s a great program. The program ranks with equivalents at UC Berkley, UC Davis, John’s Hopkins, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (A well known top computer science university) and above many other distinguished programs. As of this morning, I now have my gatech.edu email address, have connected up core security things and am diligently working my way through pages and pages of information to prepare for term. At this point most of that is just making sure my computing environment is all set up to hit the ground running when term starts.

All that ‘administrative’ bologna aside, I’ve now got a better sense of what to expect from the classes through preview materials and videos. I just spent the past 4 or so weeks intensively studying linear algebra and have pivoted over to probability and statistics. So far, it looks like (if nothing else) I’ve done a good job at identifying what’s likely to be critical for success and preparing well. Even then, it’s pretty clear that I’m unlikely to be at the level I’d like to be before school starts. Not so badly it’ll impact success as much as it’s going to result in more study time. When they say this program is ‘rigorous’ I feel like there’s a bit of down-playing going on.

Today was the new student orientation. I was impressed by the concise presentation (I wish every meeting could get thorough as much material as quickly). I thought it was highly effective in communicating a TON of information without making it feel overwhelming. I took a lot out of it, but there’s a lot to digest and internalize. More than that, what I really took away was the impressive range of students. There are people from all over the US and the world: Nigeria, South Africa, Finland, UAE, Russia and even more places. In hearing all of that, it made me ask myself(again): how the hell did I get to this table? I’m just a ‘trash bag’* from Wasilla. —I’ve been in places like this before, surrounded by truly remarkable people, who have remarkable things to say and remarkable stories to tell. It forcibly reminds me that I was a scrappy kid who grew up in a trailer park playing on those big wooden spindles for laying cable, getting in fights, and spending my time being a feral child. My stories aren’t remarkable. At best, I can tell a story that sounds interesting. Perhaps that’s part of my problem —I don’t feel as though I’ve got a great narrative. How can I measure myself against those great individuals who broke trail that I now have to help steward? Just by turning up and doing my best, even though I know I could do better, I’ve been given an avenue for success and recognition that feels vaguely unearned.

How can I live up to that?

I don’t know. I suppose I just have to. I’ve been afforded opportunities I feel don’t belong to me. The only thing I can do is to do everything in my power to make good on them. At this point the only thing I can do is say: full speed head.

*Trash bag – I’m taking this use of trash bag from “The Good Place” TV show. If you haven’t watched this, you need to.