Formula for academic success

October 21st, 2010

From Hacker News | The Real Problem with Waiting for Superman 18 points by jamwt 11 days ago | link

Sorry for the length. I’d write a tl;dr but I can’t stomach the idea of people reading random shit online being picky about their time.

I try not to generally opine too much. I think maybe I’m too cynical, too weary of ideologues when I usually just see shades of gray, too ambivalent given the fact that I feel “public” knowledge (including my own) is painfully devoid of the real complexities that make these issues difficult to solve.

But I’ve been feeling strangely compelled to say something on this issue and this movie because it feels kind of personal. I have several close family members that have spent significant portions of their career (from teaching to counseling to administration) in California public education for the last 40 years. (My opinion, however, is based on my observations of their experiences, but doesn’t necessarily directly reflect their own beliefs.)

Now, this is a simplified model, of course, but there seems to me to be this function that (roughly) determine’s your “success”, using the common score-based or elite-college-acceptance-based measure, in educational pursuits:

S = ?I + ?F + ?P + ?T

S is Success

I is Intelligence (“Nature” IQ, Personal Ambition, etc.. innate properties)

F is Family Factors (“Nurture”, Education of Parents, Expectations, etc)

P is Peer Group (aka, the ambient F + I of your adjacent students)

T is Teaching (quality of instruction, instructional program, instructional personnel)

They’re not entirely independent, but close enough to do fake science. For the sake of argument, let’s say “I” is fixed for each individual, so I’m ignoring it.

The big question, it seems, is what exactly the constants are at each question mark.

I believe these films and essays and ponderances and political campaigns that focus so entirely on the “T”, are focusing on the wrong thing. It probably has the smallest constant–and the least impact, positive or negative.

Granted: there are numerous, valid arguments to make about tenure being terrible. There are myraid complaints that can be fairly leveled against unions. Yes, public educational programs can sometimes be uninspired, obsolete, and unambitious.

But fantastic teachers in “bad schools” do worse (in their students’ aggregate S terms) than apathetic teachers
in “good schools.” If you talked to teachers, and they were in a candid mood, my guess is you’d discover this is widely accepted.

They know how hopeless it can be to fight upstream in a “bad school”… and that’s because the F and P factors are stacked against you, and those constants are much larger.

Teachers, even good teachers, seldom can trump the influence of family and peers.

If we take the charter schools in the film as an example, I think self-selection bias is at play. It really fits _perfectly_ with the forumla and the low-T-constant theory:

The parents who elect to enter the lottery are exhibiting a strong “F” factor, and, if they succeed in winning a slot, their child enters an environment with a bunch of other kids from high-F families, resulting in a great “P”.

And yes, the teachers might be better too, and the instruction might be better. But the teachers themselves are self-selecting! The very act of teaching at a school where people fight to get in generally provides a student body full of willing students coming from encouraging families. Of course those kids will learn!

And the “better” the teacher is, the more mobile they often are and the better shot they have at the “good” teaching jobs.. aka, the classrooms full of willing students.

Granted, there are amazing, indefatigable teachers who spend a career teaching in “bad” classrooms, but they’re the exception, not the rule. In my observation, the common case is enthusiastic, smart, well-educated young teachers can stick it out for a few years. Then, they’re human after all, they capitulate, exhausted, and drag their
shattered ideals to a different school with a more receptive classroom environment (if they remain in teaching at all). It’s job satisfaction; it’s self-preservation. (Analogy: generally, great hackers don’t want to be test engineers even if that’s possibly where they could do the most good.)

I say: the real problem is cultural (and literally, cultural, not racial). Maybe, it’s who our heros are, and our parents’ heros are, and the dubious-expected-outcome nature of the “American Dream.” Maybe it’s what’s viewed as “the way out” by older
brothers and sisters and friends. Maybe’s it’s a generation’s assumption that the last 100 years of American prosperity was inevitable, predestined, God-given, and not the product of a whole damn lot of work by their predecessor citizens. Hell, I dunno, cause figuring that out is the hard part that probably has many potential answers.

If you really look at all those other countries that ourscore the US–I think it’s worth examining the cultural assessment of the value of study. The classrooms, the teachers, the salaries, and the very students, are a natural outgrowth of that.

But that means it’s the F, and consequently the P that have the biggest constants.
The T is–honestly–noise. A blip in the trend line. Good teachers can accelerate good students, but they don’t make them.

So why isn’t this the predominant dialog?

Teachers and teaching are an easy scapegoat because, yes, they have evident problems, and because it’s sort of deceptively intuitive that if people aren’t learning, it’s because they’re not being taught. But I think, really, the criticism centers on them because teachers aren’t us–every family, and critically, every voter. People want an outlet for their anger when Americans are undereducated. But what politician will face the camera and say to the voting population “it’s mostly your fault”? Who wants to go see a movie where the audience is the villain? (Aside: actually, that sounds kind of rad.)

So, shades of gray reality check: I have no idea what the answer is, but the first step seems to be ensuring we’ve actually identified the problem. That’s the programmer in me talking.

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School is a free ride

May 10th, 2010

From Hacker News | Many gifted children fail academically

Things I wish I had known when I was younger…

The current education system is essentially a massive gift to people* who are willing to make the most of it.

You get a ton of free time which you can use on any project you like. People (in education, business and especially government) are willing to put in a huge amount of time and effort to help you if you ask. Any (business) mistakes you make, even quite serious ones, are treated with leniency and there is no stigma to failing and starting over.

For a good portion of that time trivia such as cooking and cleaning can be entirely delegated to someone else, provided you are engaged on a venture that can be described in a way that makes it meet with parental approval.

The only thing you have to do to stay in this paradise of self-determined education and exploration is to turn up to some classes (40 hours a week! that’s hardly a full work load) and occasionally pole vault over a final exam. If you really are so smart you should be able to do that with ease.

Frankly I think that people who think that the current educational system let them down probably failed to hack it to their best advantage. I know I didn’t take full advantage of it, but I acknowledge that it was problem and not the fault of the system.

*At least, people with parents willing to help you work out how to pay the bills.

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How Engineering Companies End

May 9th, 2010

From Slashdot Developers Story | Slow Oracle Merger Leads To Outflow of Sun Projects, Coders

Re:Huh? (Score:5, Interesting)

by sunderland56 (621843) on Thursday September 03 2009, @02:48PM (#29302835)

Normally, silicon valley companies end like this:

  • As the company grows, management makes engineering work on boring projects and support issues
  • The top-tier engineers jump ship to newer, smaller companies for more interesting work
  • The company limps along for a while with second-tier engineering
  • The shell of the former company fades into oblivion and/or is bought out
  • The new, exciting companies everyone went to become larger and more successful than the original

For example, SGI may have died, but nVidia and Mozilla (to name only two) are doing quite well, thanks.

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Advertising is the Culprit

April 4th, 2010

From Slashdot News Story | White House Issues New Gas Mileage Standards

Re:Smaller engines would be a good start. (Score:5, Interesting)

by Dirtside (91468) on Friday April 02, @11:20PM (#31712616)

It wasn’t always so. Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau very eloquently expressed a thriftiness that was uniquely American. It went hand in hand with self-reliance. When I see the over-fed, demanding, soft, food-stamp using Americans of 2010 who are claiming to champion a return to “every man for himself”, I wonder how long they would last if any one of them were to actually be expected to pull their own not inconsiderable weight.

It’s become obvious to me lately that advertising is a big culprit here. For the last sixty years, Madison Avenue and friends have been refining ways to convince us to do things that aren’t in our best interests: buy more than we can afford, buy things that we don’t need, buy, buy, BUY!

Advertising is corrosive. It sells an idea of a world where everything has a simple solution. Buy our product, and life will be BETTER! Even if you’re smart and assume that advertising is always lying to you, being exposed to lies for years on end will start to make you believe them, or at least believe the normative view they come from.

My friends’ kids, and my older son’s friends are frequently obsessed with this cartoon character or that. Ours aren’t. Why? We don’t have TV. We haven’t for about three years now, and so our son isn’t getting exposed to constant advertising that exhorts him to eat shitty fake food at shitty fast-food chains, or to harass us to buy character-branded toys. All the video we watch, we watch on our computers after he’s in bed. (And it’s all ad-free; I don’t really want to see ads any more than I want him to. In fact, I’d happily pay $2-3 per episode for the few shows we watch, if it meant no ads.)

A huge problem with “free” TV (that is, ad-supported TV) is that there’s a cost associated with watching ads. As I said, it promotes a false worldview; even if the ad is relatively accurate, its sole purpose is to get you to spend money on something that you may not actually have any real need for. And the advertisers don’t care if you spend money you don’t have, or spend money on a product you don’t need instead of saving for retirement, or your kids’ education.

Okay, okay, I could go on for hours. Rant over.

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Investment Bubble

March 14th, 2010

From Slashdot Technology Story | Dot-Com Craze Peaked 10 Years Ago This Week

Being naive, I lost a lot of money that year (Score:5, Interesting)

by cytoman (792326) on Tuesday March 09, @04:37PM (#31419550)

I hate being reminded of the dot com bubble. I had some good money in blue chip stocks and good mutual funds. I saw people making money like crazy all around me by investing in mutual funds that were heavily into tech stocks. So I took out a huge portion of my money and transferred it to the tech mutual funds and very soon after, the bubble burst. I had the misfortune of buying at the peak of the bubble and lost a very large amount of hard earned money. I don’t know when I’ll get over that.

Re:Being naive, I lost a lot of money that year (Score:5, Insightful)

by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday March 09, @04:46PM (#31419670)

It depends: Did you do the same thing in mortgage banking a couple of years ago?

And you’ve learned some important lessons about investing, like:
1. Don’t trust hype.
2. No, really, don’t trust hype.
3. If you invest on momentum, you’ve probably already missed the boat.
4. Profitable companies are better investments than unprofitable companies for a reason.
5. Don’t be afraid to be conservative. You might not make as much as the folks who risk a lot, but you’re much more likely to hang onto your cash.

Re:Being naive, I lost a lot of money that year (Score:3, Interesting)

by TheNarrator (200498) on Tuesday March 09, @05:59PM (#31420606)

If you are into investing in bubbles remember this famous quote:

“Economic history is a never-ending series of episodes based on falsehoods and lies, not truths. It represents the path to big money. The object is to recognize the trend whose premise is false, ride that trend, and step off before it is discredited.” – George Soros

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Scheduling Theory and types of “speed-up”

March 14th, 2010

From Slashdot Linux Story | “Mythical Man-Month” Supposedly Busted By MIT Startup

Re:Diminishing rate of return (Score:4, Interesting)

by godrik (1287354) on Wednesday March 10, @11:46PM (#31434598)

There are two things here. Several things can happen in term of ‘scheduling theory’

-you can have ‘super linear speed up’ : put 2 workers and go 4 times faster. Think about building an ikea furniture that REQUIRES 2 people alone. Or about specialized workers : it might be better to add a microwave to a kitchen than a second oven. In computer systems, cache/memory can lead to super linear speed or dedicated hardware acceleration like graphic cards.

-you can have ‘linear speed up’ : put 2 workers and go 2 times faster. This is usally the case when the problem can be divided in a lot of independent task like painting 20000 doors. In computer systems this happens when uncompressing videos for instance.

-you can have ‘sublinear speed up’ : put 2 workers and go 1.3 times faster. This happens when you need to do extra work to allow some several workers to work at the same time. As in tagging files so that other people can handle them (In computer science, computing a prefix sum array in parallel follows this principle). It also happens when there is not enough work for everybody (the 9 pregnant women case)

-you can also have ‘negative speed up’ : put 2 workers and go 1.3 times slower. This happens when people get in each others way fighting for the brush to paint. In computer systems, this is often the case when adding processors increase communication too much.

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How to Win Friends and Influence People (summarised)

March 14th, 2010

From How to Win Friends and Influence People (summarised)

How to Win people to your way of thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge.
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The right way to build a startup

March 14th, 2010

From Both Sides of the Table | Why The ‘Fail Fast’ Mantra Needs to Fail

What is the right way to build a startup?

  • Define a market problem that you believe you can solve
  • Research this market by doing market sizing, looking at existing products, talking to customers and deciding how you will make money
  • Validate that you can make money before starting. This means looking at what your buyer pays for similar products now, what the history of other people who have tried to monetize in this way have experienced, what your costs to acquire customers will be and what you believe you can make over the customers’ lifetimes.  These are all assumptions – nothing more.  I believe passionately that if you don’t do a financial model you shouldn’t spend any time or money building a product.  You want to talk about the ultimate “fail fast” – how about if you fail before you’ve spent any money building product because you validate there isn’t a big enough market or you can’t make money?
  • If you believe there is a market then build a prototype product that you can show customers, investors and potential employees.
  • From there build the MVP (minimum viable product).  I believe in launching with a small set of features and learning from the market before you spend too much money building out a feature rich product or before you put serious capital to work.
  • If you validate that there’s a market then go for it!  If you don’t believe that your product is resonating then pivot and find one!

Why fail fast is wrong, irresponsible, unethical and heartless

  • I’ve read all of the fail fast, fail cheap articles.  I’ve heard the insufferable speeches at conferences.  I understand that many people argue that “fail fast” just means launch products and learn from customers.  Fine.  Then let’s call this “launch and learn” as well as “adjust and pivot” when adoption doesn’t happen.
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Why copy protection is doomed to failure

March 6th, 2010

From Slashdot Games Story | Ubisoft’s New DRM Cracked In One Day

Re:Priceless (Score:5, Interesting)

by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday March 04, @11:00PM (#31366974)

The thing is, “requiring a constant internet connection” isn’t something that you can just tack on in an unhackable way.

You can use the various DRMed binary obfuscation tricks to slow them down; but the hackers will eventually manage to neuter the internet checking stuff, producing a tame version that always returns what the program wants to hear, or a version of the program that doesn’t even care.

The only way to really force the issue is to actually move large chunks of vital game code to the server, and only provide the output of that code to the client. For instance, they could hypothetically ship the game with absolutely no AI code, and have every NPC in the game controlled by AI code on their server, just as if it were a multiplayer game. The trouble with doing that sort of thing is twofold: One is latency. There are only certain parts of a game’s code that can reasonably be moved 100+milliseconds away from the user. AI would be doable, if suboptimal, because of our experience with providing adequate multiplayer FPS results. It’d be worse than doing it locally; but DRM shows a willingness to hurt paying customers, so so what? Second is cost: the more code you move to your server, the more computational capacity you need to maintain for the supported lifespan of the game. The more data you need to transfer back and forth, the higher your bandwidth bills, and the more customers with marginal connections you lose out on.

The problem is, if the internet presence check is purely artificial, hackers will strip it out, just as they stripped out CD presence checks and offline serial key verification checks. If the internet component is vital, the hackers won’t be able to simply strip the checks; because they’ll be left missing whatever pieces are server side; but you run into new issues. If the vital component is static(certain textures or models or something aren’t shipped; but are downloaded when needed) it’ll be extracted and posted on bittorrent inside a week. If the vital component is dynamic(as in the AI example, where the client sends player location data and gets back a series of movement commands for NPCs) it cannot be usefully extracted; but you will take on substantial server load over the lifetime of the game, and whatever that dynamic component is will suffer from latency.

This is where another problem comes in. Since your servers cost money, you want to make the server-side dynamic component as computationally cheap as possible. The simpler it is, though, the easier it will be for hackers to simply write an equivalent version of whatever it is, and make that version, running locally, available in their cracked copies. Unless you can find something that is, simultaneously, computationally cheap to run, very hard to rewrite, and fairly insensitive to latency, you are screwed.

There may, in fact, at least for some games, be an aspect of the game that fulfills these criteria. In that case, anybody who wants to crack the game will, indeed, have to spend weeks or months doing real software engineering to re-implement whatever it was that you left off the disk and on your server(assuming a copy of that doesn’t leak on day two, which would be embarassing) in addition to doing the basic cracking work required to defeat the artificial checks and any SSL style verification of the server the game binary is talking to.

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Does being old make you useless in Technology?

February 28th, 2010

From Slashdot Developers Story | “Logan’s Run” Syndrome In Programming

Re:Obivous Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

by Angst Badger (8636) on Wednesday February 17, @01:25PM (#31173142)

Eventually people do tend to get promoted beyond programming positions.

Sometimes, though it’s obviously a minority, or managers would soon outnumber their subordinates. I’ve turned down lots of management positions. The narcissism of non-technical managers is such that they think everyone wants to be like them, so they are quite sincere in their attempts to reward good programmers with management positions. The problem is that there is next to no overlap in the skillsets, and most often, what you get is a crappy manager in exchange for a good programmer. There are exceptions, but they are definitely the exceptions, not the rule. Some will accept the promotion with the idea that they’ll run things better, but then they discover that the cluelessness of the non-technical manager they are replacing wasn’t all or even most of the problem: there’s the cluelessness of the next level of management behind it.

As it happens, I actually can do a decent job of managing people. The problem is that I’d rather flip burgers. Consequently, I’ve stuck to programming and kept my skills updated, but at 39, I’m looking at the reality of a career change in the mid-term future. I’m not terribly worried about it — I’ll have the kid through college in four more years, and after that, I can afford to live on a much, much smaller paycheck.

Should it be that way? No, of course not. But absent some kind of organized labor movement — which programmers are notoriously, irrationally averse to — it’s not going to change, as the people making the hiring and firing decisions are getting by just fine with the current system. There is then little choice but to adapt, or at least emigrate.

Re:Obivous Answer (Score:5, Interesting)

by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Wednesday February 17, @01:56PM (#31173680)

Consequently, I’ve stuck to programming and kept my skills updated, but at 39, I’m looking at the reality of a career change in the mid-term future.

I’m not sure a career change is a future reality, unless that’s what you desire. I’m 47 and still highly sought by the various teams where I work. I have a broad background as an application/system programmer *and* system administrator (Unix and Windows) which allows me to develop solutions and, possibly more importantly, debug issues that others with narrower backgrounds simply cannot do. In other words, I get the hard problems – which have to be solved.

I’ve experienced the following…. (Score:4, Interesting)

by ErichTheRed (39327) on Wednesday February 17, @02:24PM (#31174182)

(Disclaimer: I’m a systems guy, not a programmer, but a very similar truth holds for us as well when it comes to age discrimination.)

I’m only 35, and I’m starting to see this creeping in on me also. Here’s a couple of random observations I’ve actually (not anecdotally) experienced:

  • Companies absolutely believe the stereotype that older workers are less productive. Usually, this is because management gets promoted out of the tech ranks, where they were used to younger workers. I’ve heard more than one boss say something like “Oh, so-and-so’s kid is sick AGAIN, what a waste of time.” The deadly spiral of “willing to work longer hours, no committments, and they can be paid less” does not help.
  • A corrolary to the above…younger tech workers tend to have much less of an “out of work” life. This is why you don’t see too many older people working at video game production houses…you just can’t hold a marriage together on nonstop 90-hour weeks. If you’re single, and have nothing but a one bedroom apartment and XBox to come home to, you’re going to complain less about constant overtime and that pesky pager duty us systems guys deal with.
  • After being filtered through 2 line managers, and who-knows-how-many project managers, IT executive leadership just doesn’t see the impact of less-experienced people working on projects. Messes are cleaned up at lower levels, usually by spending a buttload of money on consultants, and only show up at the senior level as “minor overages”. Had the job been done right, the higher salary paid to more experienced people would far outweigh paying experts $xxx/hr to unravel some mess put together by someone who just learned Java.
  • Even worse, people at the C-level believe that all IT people are whiny nerds who can be pushed around with very little pushback. This leads to the belief that nothing they do will be questioned.

I only see a couple solutions. A concerted effort could be made to make managerment aware of the actual cost of a project vs. the salary differential. I doubt that will work. You can also become one of those consultants, and get paid loads of money to clean up messes. However, that’s not for everyone…it requires tons of hard work, business savvy and is not at all stable. Try raising a family with no health insurance and a non-guaranteed income stream, especially in a high-cost-of-living area.

I admit that I’m pretty lucky. I’ve managed to land at companies that don’t seem to mind paying a little extra for someone who really knows their stuff. The price of admission for jobs like that is the willingness to invest in yourself constantly. Taking classes or buying software/hardware/books for training, even on your own time, is the best way to keep current. That way, companies get the best of both worlds…someone who knows the latest tech, and knows enough not to implement something half-baked because they want their weekends free. :-) Unfortunately, that stereotype of the COBOL guy sitting in the corner has a little bit of truth to it, and it means we end up gettting painted with the same brush.

One other choice would require a much different mindset than there is now…accept a lower salary and make up the difference by saving and investing carefully. I’ve been doing this anyway, because I know there will come a time where companies stop paying for IT talent and I’m going to be forced to take a huge paycut. Everyone I know, young or old, spends money like their income is never going to decrease. Live within your means so you can last through the bad times that are coming with the next wave of globalization.

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