Biz Stone on how he faked it and Google hired him. One genius moment of believing you’re who you could be. And now he is.
I interviewed Michael Rappa, the North Carolina State University computer science professor who created the first master’s in analytics program, back in 2007. He’s got more experience training data scientists than anybody else in academia, so I asked him whether companies have realistic expectations for the data scientists they hire. He said companies want data scientists to be strong at both programming and mathematics.
Almost nobody has this background. Rappa shared with me a slide he put together showing the number of MIT undergraduates who graduated with a degree in what’s called 18C, mathematics with computer science. The numbers are tiny, certainly far less than one would hope. This is MIT, an intensely technical place. The chart also reflects a big year for 18C. See for yourself:
I interviewed Amy-Jill Levine in advance of the release of her new book, Short Stories by Jesus. She’s funny and enormously knowledgeable at the same time, and the book is like that, too. Never did I expect to find myself thinking about how Rocky and Bullwinkle are like the parables. I have this quote I’m not likely to use in the Q&A. It doesn’t fit. But I liked it. It said something true about leaps of faith.
“I’m frequently asked, since you know so much about Jesus and since you so appreciate his teachings, why don’t you worship him? But belief, faith, I don’t think have anything to do with academics or how smart you are. Belief is not like sudoku, that if you’re smart enough you can all get the right answers. Belief is more like love. What makes perfect sense to one person makes absolutely no sense to someone else.”
We know the world isn’t flat, but spiky. Whether we can do things about those spikes drives U.S. domestic political debates. Do we want a society tilted towards conserving resources for those who already have them, or are we stronger if we shift resources towards liberating people from circumstances they didn’t create, but weigh them down? Can we smooth the frictions created by things like where we’re born and in what circumstances? At its core, US domestic politics is about whether helping others really helps.
One of the most difficult questions in this fundamental debate involves whether spreading resources can be made to work broadly. We know that it betters our society as a whole to pool resources for public education. Even though public education is terribly uneven, ensuring the vast majority of Americans can read, write and do math is good for our overall society. We know it betters our society to share resources to make sure there is clean water. Clean water improves everyone’s health and life expectancy, creating a more stable society. But what about sharing resources to actually lift people out of poverty?
Farah Stockman, the talented Boston Globe columnist who is also a friend, volunteered years ago in a summer camp for kids from public housing. She went back two decades later to see whether the camp she worked in had made a difference. What she found in this series of six articles was complicated. The ones who made it out seem so focused and disciplined that they might have done it anyway, though it’s clear that they benefited from the networking opportunity found in a camp that connected them with outstanding Harvard undergraduates. The ones who don’t get out show how our public policy system actually can encourage single motherhood, even for people with talent and some drive.One intriguing individual seems to succeed in her own way, but she avoids Stockman and so we’re not really sure what worked. I hope Farah’s well-deserved Pulliam Fellowship means she can continue to explore the questions she raises in this excellent series.
Don’t have time to read all six pieces? The New York Times summarized them here.
I re-read The Longest Day recently. I read it as history the first time, when I was in high school. I was in its thrall then, but I didn’t think of it as a study in narrative journalism (not that I thought about narrative journalism at all when I was in high school). I re-read it in part because I ran across Michael Shapiro’s article arguing that The Longest Day was the foundation of modern narrative reporting, and because it was June 2014, 70 years later.
A friend asked me what I thought of the book as an example of narrative reporting.
I still think it’s better thought of as history than as narrative journalism, but perhaps I am overly influenced by books like The Right Stuff and Soul of a New Machine, where the reporter steps above the story and indeed manipulates the reader’s experience, to transcend the story itself.
Ryan’s book is straight. For a guy from Dublin, Ireland, he did a great job keeping his opinions about Brits out of the book. There is an almost wistfulness to it when he writes about the Germans, who were prepared to respond to the invasion everywhere but where it hit. I was impressed by that impartiality.
He does achieve narrative greatness in his remarkable reporting. That leads to scenes and set pieces that are as good as anything I’ve read in non-fiction. In some ways, The Longest Day is better than Hiroshima, the John Hersey book that popularized the blending of fictional writing techniques and journalistic reporting. For one, Ryan isn’t just talking to a small group of Catholics and their acquaintances affected by a terrible bomb, as Hersey did. Ryan’s book is more representative of the German, British and American perspectives, from officer to private, and even works in French civilians.
But Ryan is putting us in the narrative and leaving us alone, not nudging us to make sure we get the joke. He gets at some of the emotions of Sebastian Junger’s War or David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. But Ryan passes over those individual moments without comment; we become intimate with a battle, not a person or a group.
My friend thinks Ryan unsophisticated in his approach, too trusting of the notion that the war was justified. My friend recommended I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for a look at an approach similar to Ryan’s, but reaching real narrative heights. I’ve been meaning to do so anyway, so now I have a purpose.
For a classic novel, Don Quixote gets downright cartoonish. It starts with a brilliant, still-searing social satire about the destructive power of media-driven obsession — when we meet Don Quixote he is as addled by romance novels as the most Warcraft-obsessed 20-something you can imagine. Next comes perhaps the most famous moment in literature, Quixote tilting at windmills, followed by trenchant commentary on male/female relationships, with the bold Marcela pointing out that women are not to blame when men become so obsessed by them they go and do something stupid.
But then, things get a little loopy, for about 100 pages. You start to wonder if Cervantes will spend the rest of this massive book abusing our hero in sophomoric fashion. Perhaps the windmill scene is so famous because no one can read the rest of the book. I had read the novel in college, and got an A for the class I took on it, yet could remember nothing of it past the story of Marcela. I began to think there were good reasons for that.
At one point, Cervantes himself refers to the novel’s “tortuous, winding and meandering thread.” And I scribble in the margin “yes!” But the story has become rich again, as we read of Cardenio and Dorotea and their twin narratives on fidelity and friendship. Cervantes’ sly interpolated narrative on a man’s “reckless curiosity” stands in sharp contrast to the actual stories of our characters. There is also a slickly executed commentary on why some made-up stories feel more real than actual histories.
Cervantes even starts working in deep theological observations from the story’s equivalent of a fool, Sancho Panza. Like this line: “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”
[translations quoted from Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation]
I am restored in my enthusiasm for this novel and its glorious stories.
What if religions were like species, evolving — mutating — to best survive in their surroundings? That was that topic for a piece I wrote recently in Nautil.us, a young, science-oriented publication. The piece was titled “How the Mormons Conquered America” (if I had input on the headline, I wouldn’t have picked this, but I am not a gifted headline writer).
It wasn’t strictly about the Mormons; I chose that religion, on the advice of religious scholars, because of its growth, its prominence in popular culture, and because we have a record for pretty much the entire history of the religion. We can see the doctrinal debates play out in a way we can only infer for a religion like Christianity. (What really was going on between Peter and James and Paul?) It gives me things to think about in the way I look at the events in the New Testament.
Drafts of the piece looked more at events in Christian history, including the Protestant Reformation. Those were cut.
I had at least one scholar tell me it was a bad question, and in a sense, he’s right: religions don’t have genomes. They don’t evolve in the biological sense. They do change (that is, mutate), sometimes quite rapidly. And they do adapt based on societal mores.
I didn’t know much about Mormons when I started this piece; some readers would argue I don’t know much about them now. I talked with several Mormons for the piece, and they were unfailingly respectful and seemed genuinely decent folk. It’s a religion that has always encouraged a focus on community and family; in some ways it seems like a reaction to the intensely personal aspects of 18th and 19th century American Protestantism. Some reader comments were antagonistic towards the Mormons because of their focus on community, which leads to exclusion and even shunning of those who disagree too loudly. Lots of organizations stifle free expression, notably companies (especially media companies). Whistleblowers and dissenters are everywhere under siege.
Joe Pitt, the Mormon cum pariah in Angels in America, is portrayed as outwardly decent, but completely lacking in sympathy for those not like him. I wrote a bit about the difference between Kushner’s portrayal of Mormonism and the portrayal of Mormons as eccentrics by the Book of Mormon: The Musical. This, too, was cut, likely because it probably has more to do with differences between Tony Kushner and Trey Parker than it does with our society now versus 20 years ago.
I am now thinking about writing on apostasy. We see people shunned in many contexts. I remember a CEO who professed belief in aliens, and was forced out of his company. Recently, another CEO lost his job for being against gay marriage. Athletes can be banned for life for various acts, from gambling on sports to steroid use. Hawthorne’s Scarlet A is not just a vestige of religious stigma, but it feels to me like religious shunning drives more anger. Does shunning perhaps act as a way of driving out bad chromosomes? Oops, there I go, being all materialistic with my metaphors.
“All the skills I’m passionate about were valuable in all the other centuries, too.”
That was one of the quotes that struck me in an interview with Alec Resnick, co-founder of an innovation high school in Somerville, Mass., the STEAM academy. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. It seems to me that these fields art the core are about process, experimentation, logic, exploration and creativity, things that have always mattered.
I also noted Alec’s comment on technocentrism’s effect on society, causing us to ask “How can technology help us do what we’ve always done, better?” instead of, “What are the new activities and approaches technology enables?”
I liked, too, that the person who inspired him most was a high school English teacher.
The press pass seems like a badge of honor. Freelancers, especially, seem to crave them. I’ve spent most of my career writing about technology and business, and I’ve only had to get a formal press pass for one job. That was at ZDNet, then more of a general interest technology site/broadcast operation than it is now. The pass was issued by the San Francisco police department. I’m not sure anyone on staff ever used the passes (I think we mostly got them because the news director came from a general news background).
But people ask frequently about how freelancers can get press passes. In my experience, press get passes to things mostly on a one-off basis — this conference, that meeting. I was interviewed recently for a story about how to get a press pass. There are some good points in it (and not just from me).
, a es http://contently.net/2014/06/19/resources/freelancer-playbook-scoring-press-passes/
Being mentioned in the same context as Hannah Arendt is a kind of landmark moment for a writer. Arendt’s keen intellect and clear writing on complex, abstract subjects make her a revered intellectual figure. I was linked in a blog on education, Juvenile U., from the Hannah Arendt Center. It noted a piece I did, MOOCs lead Duke To Reinvent On-Campus Courses, on how a Coursera MOOC was reshaping its teachers’ real-world university philosophy courses.
The reference was not a happy one. The blog post focuses on how education is being conflated with knowledge dissemination, and it dislikes what the professors I cite are doing with their classes:
What we see here is that the mass appeal of MOOCs and their use as a way of replacing lectures is not being seized as an opportunity to make education more serious, but as an excuse to make college more fun. That professors at two of this country’s elite universities see it as progress that classes are replaced by murder mystery games and scavenger hunts is evidence of a profound confusion between education and infotainment. I have no doubt that much can be learned through fun and games. Children learn through games and it makes all the sense in the world that Finland allows children in schools to play until they are seven or eight years old. Even in primary or at times in secondary school, simulations and games may be useful. But there is a limit. Education, at least higher education, is not simply fun and games in the pursuit of knowledge.
The post’s author is not being entirely fair; the students are still getting the lectures, because they have to watch the taped lectures on their own time. My gloss on what is being done in class is a bit of a disservice to the exercises, which are meant to help students work through the implications of what they are learning, with live feed back. In theory, that should reinforce the lessons and make them stronger.
MOOCs dissatisfy almost as many people as they please. They are not yet revolutionary, though they are having an impact on some kinds of education. I wish I had seen this post when it was published, almost nine months ago; I might have gone to the conference it was highlighting.
Maybe someday I’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Hannah Arendt (and if I’m lucky, it won’t be to point out that “Michael Fitzgerald is about as far from Hannah Arendt as Homer Simpson…”).