Things I’ve learned

For the last few months, I’ve been reading and participating in discussions in the reddit community r/cscareerquestions. Most of the discussions are started by people who are starting a career in programming or who want to start a career in programming. Lots and lots of people in their early 20s who are still in college, are about to graduate or are in their first year or two after graduating.
I’ve learned quite a few things from the discussions in this community:
  • When I was in my early 20s, I really thought I had to change the world, do something remarkable with my life. I now have a new appreciation for just how typical that is with people that age.
  • The flip side of this is tremendous anxiety. So many of these young people feel that their entire future is riding on their current endeavor: passing a class, getting that first job, etc. It is heart-breaking to see these people suffering so much anxiety.
  • Many of them are motivated solely by money and status. They are completely obsessed by getting a job in one of the biggest, most successful tech companies today (I’ve learned the short-hand for this: FAANG). People with this kind of drive and motivation exist in every generation, but what has changed in recent years, I think, is that software engineering is now one of the career paths that people with this motivation think will get them that success. It used to be other careers: finance, business, etc.

When I make comments in these discussions, it’s often to try to reassure these young people that not getting a job at Google does not equate failure. In actuality, very few software engineers work at these top companies; the vast majority of us make a good living at companies you may not recognize, and have quite happy lives.

The observations above are pretty mundane and, for the most part, not unique to either the time or place of r/cscareerquestions. However, I’ve also noticed a lot of economic anxiety among the young participants in those discussions, and I think that may actually have a component that is unique to recent decades at least. 

For most of the 20th century, parents in the United States could feel pretty confident that their children would have a higher quality of life than they themselves had. But this began to change with Gen X parents: stagnating wages and increasing economic inequality led these parents to fear, legitimately so, for their own kids’ futures in a way different from their own parents. And I think this economic anxiety is at least partially explains some of the parenting behavior of the last couple of decades: the dreaded helicopter parent.

I saw this among our cohorts when our kids were young. Katie saw it when she was teaching college: parents who felt that every action they and their kids took could have lifelong economic impacts: make sure that the kids are in the best school, participate in the right extracurricular activities, get the highest grades, make the highest scores on college entrance exams, get into the best university, etc. A feeling that a failure at any point could doom their children’s future. Push, push, push.

This is not a brilliant new theory that I’ve formulated. A lot has already been written on the economics of the recent past. But when I’ve mentioned this theory in discussions on r/careerquestions, several young participants have identified with it. “Oh wow. That was me!” they say. For some of them, this is a new idea. I bring it up in the appropriate discussions in the hopes that helping to provide some perspective to some of these anxious, driven young people might help them to lead happier lives.


Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” As I was reading the letter in its entirety, I was struck by the addition of “self-purification” to the steps:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

and later in the letter:

We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

Making sure you’re confident that you can withstand the consequences of direct action certainly sounds like a sensible step, but I find it interesting that he calls it “self-purification.” I would probably need to do some in-depth reading about Dr. King to understand this better.


A few days ago, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time chatting with a 29-year-old programmer coworker. During our chats, he mentioned that in addition to his day job, he and his wife ‘have three startups.’ I gather that these are mobile applications that he has developed and deployed to the app store. Furthermore, he explained, while he didn’t really expect any of those projects to ever turn into anything, he had hopes that he would make some money off of one eventually.

My coworker’s use of the word ‘startups’ really struck me. Based on my understanding of what he and his wife are doing, I never in a million years would have described them as ‘startups.’ I would describe them maybe as ‘side projects’ or ‘small businesses’ but not ‘startups.’ The fact that this usage struck me so strongly made me think that he means something very different than I understand in the term ‘startup.’

I took this question to Facebook, and Susan Brumbaugh, who was my partner in similar extracurricular work back in the day, provided the clue that I think explains my puzzlement. Back when Susan and I were in a similar situation, our primary motivation for our side projects was learning, not money. Don’t get me wrong; we charged an hourly rate for some of the work that we did for others, but we also undertook a lot of technical projects solely for the sake of learning and working together.

So, maybe basic motivation explains my coworker’s use of ‘startups.’ Maybe he is more directly motivated by the potential to make money than we were.

Of course, this brings up the bigger question of the meaning of the term ‘startup.’ To me, you start with an idea, work on it, and maybe if it seems viable in some way, you take money from others in order to be able to put more effort in it. And if things work out, maybe you make money from it. I think that’s an ‘old school’ view of what constitutes a startup. These days, I understand, a lot of people have the goal of starting a startup. To me, they have it backwards: the business is the primary goal, the idea is a detail.

On Political Correctness

A few months ago, I joined a couple of neighborhood Facebook groups, and like previous times when I’ve participated in lightly moderated or unmoderated Internet discussions, I was once again shocked by people’s opinions and behaviors. You’d think I’d learn. Anyway, one of the groups was a neighborhood ‘Crime Watch’ group, and several times when recent local (thankfully, not terribly severe) crimes were discussed, some commenters immediately assumed that they were perpetrated by the [mostly Latino] workers building new homes in the area. In two of these instances, the probable perpetrators were caught (in part due to awareness raised by the Facebook page, to give credit where it’s due), and the alleged criminals turned out to be white teenagers who live in the neighborhood. So much for people’s desire to believe that the crimes were perpetrated by outsiders.

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted to the Crime Watch group a link to a news article about two accused burglars who’d been caught, wondering if they had been active in our area. The news article displayed the mugshots from both alleged criminals, and as it happens, they were both African American. Predictably, some of the first comments on the Facebook thread were pretty horrible and/or racist, in my opinion. One of those first commenters simply wrote, “Thugs.” I added a comment, “‘Thug’ is a racially charged word. Best to avoid it.” In my mind, I hadn’t openly accused the previous commenter of racism, though in truth that’s what I was thinking. Naively, I did not anticipate the pile-on that subsequently occurred. The original commenter added that she herself was Hispanic and therefore couldn’t be racist. Later came accusations of political correctness, which quickly degenerated into flat-out name-calling. It got very ugly quickly.

For weeks prior to this, I would recount to Katie the appalling narrow-mindedness I saw in discussions in the Facebook pages, and Katie would always respond by asking me why I continued to frequent them if they caused me so much grief. Fair point. The name-calling pile-on brought her point home, so I resigned from all of the groups for my own mental health.

But it has continued to bug me why I was so unprepared for the responses that I got to my last comment. A few days ago, I ran across this Youtube video, and it helped me to understand better what happened:

Here’s the heart of the Youtuber’s point (thanks to Fred Clark for the transcription):

That mindset right there is what does as much as anything to perpetuate injustice all over our society. That assumption that only a “cretin” or a monster or a bad person would ever be racist or sexist or harbor any sort of bias or prejudice.

That right there is the Big Lie. There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people. That’s just not how being good works. And that’s not how being a human being works.

The truth … is that all of us, as good people, are still naturally prone to doing bad things. We all have natural tendencies toward implicit bias and prejudice and bad habits. …

I now realize that I had a different definition in racism in mind than some of my neighbors on the Facebook group. My definition is more like the one in the video: we all have biases, and even if we don’t, then those who read our words might. Therefore, it’s best to avoid terminology that might be understood as racist–even if not intended that way. The people who reacted so strongly to my comment, however, define racist as the overt, intentional racism of ‘bad people.’ Therefore, my suggestion of racism was, to them, an accusation that they are that type of person.  Unmoderated internet discussions are not a good place to explain nuanced views.

The psychology of poverty

I recently had a short conversation with a coworker about poverty and providing social services. My coworker expressed the opinion that he’s reluctant to provide social services to poor people since he has observed poor people spending money on luxury items. I told him that I disagreed, but unfortunately we were interrupted by work and never got to finish the conversation.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation since then, and while I have some very firm opinions on this matter, it dawned on me that I may not be able to communicate them very coherently. So, I took this issue to Facebook to get input from friends.

One friend pointed me to research on the psychology of poverty. In summary, the additional cognitive load of being poor directly contributes to poor people making poor decisions. With a little searching, I found this paper (PDF) which offers a good analogy of how one aspect of this works:

Imagine packing for a trip, using either a small or large suitcase. If you have a large suitcase, it is an easy task to pack everything important with room to spare. You may even choose not to completely fill the suitcase. With a small suitcase, however, the task becomes much more complex. If not all important items will fit, you must consider trade-offs, such as what to take out if one more item is added. The suitcase can represent any resource, such as money. In that case, someone with ample resources can easily purchase all needed items with money left over. They may consider the wisdom and value of a particular small purchase, but are not likely to explicitly consider what other item must be given up in its place. In contrast, someone with limited funds must spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about what to purchase, as each item chosen means some other item or items is foregone. In other words, having fewer resources makes decision-making much more complex. Complex problems draw on limited cognitive resources, which in turn means that there are fewer resources available for self-control.

Introduction to linguistics

The answers to this Quora question provide an entertaining introduction to several aspects of linguistics: What are some English language rules that native speakers don’t know, but still follow? Among several very good answers, this one is very succinct:

Expletive infixation

If you want to insert ‘fucking’ in the middle of a word you know exactly where to do it. You say Colo-fuckin-rado, not Co-fuckin-lorado.

Even more surprisingly, if you want to insert ‘diddley’ in the middle of a word, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, you know where to put that and it’s not the same place. (Note: Flanders’s also duplicates a syllable so it’s slightly different.)

Still more surprisingly, the rule that explains this placement can be explained in terms of prosody which is an entire dimension of linguistic (and almost musical) rules that few people seem to be aware they use.

Racial injustice

This story reminds me of an experience that I had many years ago that made a deep impression on me. In 1989, I think it was, while I was in grad school, I taught German at Southwestern University for a semester while the German professor there was on sabbatical. On my first drive through Georgetown, I got a speeding ticket in a school zone. For the record, I had slowed for the school zone but sped back up when I thought I was through it. I wasn’t paying close enough attention–I was still in the school zone.

Being an idealistic young man, I decided to appear in court to plead that it was my first drive through town, etc. So, I showed up to my court date, wearing a shirt and tie, or course. When I got there, the court room was packed with probably over a hundred people. Like the Episcopal priest who recounted the story I linked to above, I was surprised at the racial diversity in the room.

The judge went down hist list of accused, reading the charge and asking the person whether they would plead guilty, innocent or no contest. As he read one Hispanic man’s name, a woman stood, explained that the man doesn’t speak English and that she was his sister. The judge asked her if she could translate for him. She agreed.

The judge read the charge (public intoxication, if I recall correctly). When the judge asked how the man would plead, my Spanish was good enough to understand that the sister only translated guilty or not guilty but not no contest. Either the sister didn’t understand what it meant or how to translate it, or both. The man pleaded guilty.

It struck me that the court receptionist was bilingual but nobody in the court itself was. Justice was not served that day due to a language barrier and the court’s lack of preparedness for it.

Racism and the Obama presidency

Ever since Barack Obama became president, I’ve pondered the role of racism in regard to his presidency. Now that we are in the final days before the 2012 election, I have finally come to a conclusion about the issue. Racism is alive and well in the US, but you cannot chalk up  the large number of people who hate Mr. Obama simply to racism. Instead, I have concluded that base-level racism just puts people at a different starting place. I look at it this way: a lot of people really hated Bill Clinton when he was president, but at the heart of the matter, he more or less was a good ol’ boy Southern white guy. Racism gives the same people a different starting place with regard to Obama. The hatred for Obama is fundamentally probably no worse than it was for Clinton, but the race issue puts these same people at a higher starting point, therefore the overall level of hatred is higher.

Scientists discover the obvious

The hot scientific pursuit is putting people in fMRI machines and recording their brain activity while certain things happen. On his excellent blog The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses the findings of a recent experiment where scientists recorded brain activity while the subjects listened to music:

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors.
The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of “low-probability notes”. While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty – we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns – that’s exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance. (That’s why the unexpected pitches triggered the most brain activity, synchronizing the activity of brain regions involved in motor movement and emotion.)

As a musician, those conclusions reinforce my own layman’s observations about music appreciation. The definition of music appreciation that Jonah compares this to is, in my opinion, pretty unsophisticated.
My question is: how to we explain why some people like totally predictable music? (I admit, there’s a lot of snobbery in that generalization)

This is why I read science blogs

Earlier this week, a story was all over the place about the man who was supposedly misdiagnosed for 23 years as being in a vegetative state when he was, in fact, completely conscious but unable to communicate. I skimmed a couple of paragraphs about the story and went on. This morning, I read an interesting blog post by a scientist with serious suspicions about the story, and I learned what ‘facilitated communication’ is. Interesting.