Go with a smile!

Monday, January 23, 2012


I was reading some stuff in bed the other day. I’m still reading random books, even though I’m supposed to be studying – bad habit I guess. I was reading this compilation that edge.org publishes every year, when I came across this article, saying that school is a form of childhood.

It didn’t seem that way at the time when I was in Snowy Hill. I think it was a happy delusion for 4 years that it was a form of adulthood, when real adulthood came knocking on the door, it was a shock that took a few years to recover. So what is real adulthood now?

The article says that childhood is like R+D, while adulthood is like production and marketing. You get exposed to a lot of things in childhood, but it narrows down in adulthood, and you are supposed to pick 1 or 2 things to excel and be very good at. That would be your niche. Childhood is like academic learning in school. Adulthood is like actual practice in real life. That way of splitting things up does make things a lot clearer for me. But it is not a lot of comfort.

My first culture shock in the adult world was national service. That was when I found out that I didn’t have a lot of skills that I would later need in life. It was a great relief to be back at school in Snowy Hill, and I actually did think about trying to acquire some of those skills. I was successful at some of those skills, like improving my writing. I did have to formally learn some things about human psychology – I guess I’m not as astute as many other people for whom it comes naturally. And I realized that the traditional way of education – of shoe-horning a person into 1 particular academic subject at the expense of everything else – while it made sense a few hundred years ago, which was when the system was designed, it just wouldn’t do. So I arranged a curriculum that was sprawling and messy. Up till now some people believe I have a maths degree, but that’s because you can learn a lot of different stuff and still call it maths.

Looking back, there are a lot of ways I shunned adulthood. When I was in Snowy Hill, I didn’t specialize. Now, specializing is a bit like the “child” side of the dichotomy because the academic knowledge is concentrated in 1 particular part of the spectrum, and learning too much of the same subject will give you an education that fails to capture the complexity of real grown-up life. But it is also adult-like because becoming really good at something, and being an authority figure and a leader in that segment is also adult like. I didn’t go for research experiences. I didn’t go for higher degrees.

I did have a job, but it wasn’t important enough to count. It was a good experience to be teaching Physics, it earned me 1 good letter, without which I might not have made it to the University of Mexico. But it wasn’t really enough.

I turned away from engineering. I even turned away from computer science. It’s hard to say that I really regret turning away from computer science, because learning maths 10 years ago, and then computer science now is also pretty good. In fact there are very good reasons for putting off learning computer science as late as you possibly can – because it’s a much cooler subject today than 10 years ago, when the internet was in its infancy and stuff wasn’t yet set up. But one thing I sacrificed was my ability to learn how to plan and make decisions. There is remarkably little decision making involved in mathematics – based on the premise that there is often only one correct answer to the question. In fact, I learnt a lot more decision making while writing term papers – in figuring out how to choose between many ways of making an argument. That was a very good skill to have.

When I was at work, I turned away from front-line day to day work, where plenty of decisions had to be made without thinking too much about them. I opted for more long term projects that took more time to bring to fruition, with the increased risk that a lot of them would not make it because the great big hazard about long term projects is the lack of immediate feedback.

I could have joined activity groups. But instead I spent a lot of time reading books. To a certain degree, the books were necessary because I had to fill myself in on all the branches of knowledge that I had only started to open for myself at Snowy Hill. But the book habit did go on for a little too long.

I could have looked for a life partner. That would have taught me something. But there were always other things to do – my work. My books. My long distance running. My application for a post-graduate degree. I just couldn’t balance it all.

I did become a keyboard warrior, and a few disastrous episodes aside, I think I’m a pretty effective one. I can debate effectively with people. That’s a good skill to have, but that is meager reward for all the hours I spent.

During my first few years at the job, I was thinking, “I really should get back into academia. That’s where my strengths are.” But academia is very competitive, and if there was a good time for me to get back into academia, I’m probably past it by the time I got here. Still, earning a master’s degree, which was for me the first thing I thought of that I wanted to do after quitting my job, stuck in my head. And it’s just as well that I’m here and getting some needed perspective.

Yes, I’m here because I liked learning academic stuff. I liked learning new ideas, and where better to learn about ideas than computer science, where you have to grapple with every conceivable method of representing knowledge? And I came in here, adjusted to life, learnt more ideas in computer science, got decent results in my first quarter. But at the back of my head, I’m always wondering – what is it that I really want now?

The crux of computer science is not really about academic knowledge. It is about practices. And I’m not getting enough of that. After a few sleepless nights tossing and turning about my future, it occurred to me – finally, I have to think about operating like an adult. Acquire the adult skills.

I didn’t come to the University of Mexico because it was good at teaching. I didn’t come here to attend classes that professors meticulously prepared for me. I came here because it had a good reputation for research. (Same is true for NUS, but well, here’s more of an adventure.) And now I realize that by coming here, I have a better shot at the IT jobs here. That the job hunt and the research have actually superseded the classes in order of importance.

Computer skills – they weren’t going to hand me computer skills on a platter. I already have the ability to learn computer skills on my own, but the really hard work is doing it – practicing by doing things.

It’s not necessarily pleasant, because it involves doing stuff that I’ve studiously avoided doing for most of my adult life. But it’s necessary. And so I suppose I do have another form of focus again.

The other thing is that this world that we live in has become a lot more complicated than when I was a kid in the 80s. Back then, you just had to do the right thing, obey authority figures, work hard, and you probably became moderately successful. Even though you probably did not have a lot of freedom to say what you really thought, and do what you felt was correct. Now, you have to do a lot of crazy things in order to show people that you are special. I remember my parents asking me if I was getting good grades at school. If only it were that simple this time around! No, the grades were probably just the tip of the iceberg. The real important thing that people really wanted to see was the skills. And you had plot your own chart with that.

Around the time that I was mulling leaving my job, I asked myself – you are leaving your old life behind. What do you regret? Of course, regret is a very strong word, because you aren’t suppose to regret, according to the new school paradigm of psychology which states that you are supposed to avoid negative emotions. But regret is important – or at least remorse is important. Only by positively identifying aspects of your life that you wish to change, will you have any chance at all at improving. OK, this division of skills into child skills and adult skills is very useful for my thinking. Now we have that answered, which is good.

What is not so good is that I realise that going back to school was in part a desire for more of that "child" academic knowledge. And I was going to have to put that aside now and focus on the "adult" stuff. It's not nice that I have had to switch targets. I suppose that life does go downhill in middle age because when you're young you learn all the things that you found fun, and you were always leaving the unpleasant stuff out until they all caught up with you.

Being in school is a form of childhood. And for the Singaporean male, it’s something that you only graduate out of when you’re 25. That’s very late, and 1/3 of your productive life is already gone. It’s not only in Singapore that we have an obsession with academic results. In most of the East Asian countries, it’s also the same. A proper education was so important to the growth and prosperity of the middle class that it assumed almost mythical status. But then it didn’t do a lot of good to the people who went through the system. The difference between a person who didn’t study in school, and somebody who studies hard is plain to see. But the added difference between people who study hard – to a conventional extent, and Japanese kids who go to cram school, and put themselves in front of the books 12 hours a day, is not much. And all that extra studying, at the expense of learning more practical “adult” skills in life is probably not beneficial at all.

A lot of the skills that I spent learning in school were terribly 20th century. Physics. Chemistry. Maybe even trigonometry. It’s incredible that I managed to graduate out of high school without learning much about computer science or economics. Or politics. Then I had to scramble hard to rectify that in my adult life. I didn’t learn much about planning, about design. I probably had the chance to learn about leadership, but I avoided it.

I have to be fair to my schools – they did teach me critical thinking and creativity, and they taught me well. But there are too many deficiencies in the education system that you really have to fix.

Anyway, I suppose I have loaded myself up with enough things to worry about for the time being.
1. Get involved with research.
2. Get involved with a project.
3. Find that job.

I expect these pains in asses to be with me for quite a while yet. I suppose – better they be pains in asses than twiddling my thumbs and wondering what the fuck I’m going to do all the time.


Blogger visceral said...

I beg to differ. You can be a great planner when you start to appreciate OR and stochastic processes.

3:15 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I was an OR practitioner for a long time. OR is good when it comes to certain tasks. There are tasks for which OR is pretty useless. I remember being taught the Black Scholes equation in an OR class - people now regard that model as worse than useless because it helped to exacerbate the financial crisis. OR does not help a lot when it comes to analysing traffic jams. A lot of calculations in OR make unwarranted assumptions - especially those concerning the independence of events.

And I've also seen people with PhDs in OR not doing very good jobs of planning and executing either.

If you want to talk about OR, you can write to me in real life at metalconduit at yahoo dot com dot sg.

6:02 AM

Blogger visceral said...

I stand corrected. If nothing else, OR should teach us thst we need to plan with the dependencies in mind, and not all tasks must start sequentially

9:03 AM


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