Sunday, June 12, 2011

Random Roundup

1. Why would-be engineers end up as English majors
Well, to dispense with the obvious, it's not for the job opportunities. Things are bad out there for engineers, but I'd hate to be trying to parlay a literature degree into paying work these days. And I've seen how hard even brilliant writers have to work to be noticed. There is an insult built into that headline.

This article was thrown out by the RPI alumni association, and I was uncharacteristically moved to respond. The problem is that I fail to grasp its justification that we need more scientists and engineers. As mentioned, the job market for even experienced engineers and scientists isn't great, or at least no one's falling over themselves to hire me. We're not so valued that we're actually paid a whole lot compared to the remunerative sort of "knowledge" work (unless we go into management), especially if you're a science researcher, which career path also includes some massive opportunity costs. It seems like the establishment job opportunities are shrinking, and there are not such prestige positions floating in the manufacturing plants anymore to inspire the working class kids, because the damn plants are gone. Thankfully, there remains hope on the new ideas side of science and engineering, and I agree that innovation is incredibly important for our economy. To be an innovator, that's an exhausting life of start-up-like environments, but it's great if you make it, or fit that mold, but you're basically on your own swimming in the big world with a rational probability to sink, and as any manager will opportunistically tell you, managing a startup is not necessarily the same skill as science and engineering.

I do not agree to the full faithful extent that innovation will fuel American job growth. It should, but how long has it been since this was actually the case in America? (Outside of the defense industry?) Seems the first thing that happens to a startup project when it hits the big time, they go and build a production plant in China. The problem of disappering manufacturing in the US has little or nothing to do with science education.

Like teaching, science and engineering is basically a professional field that American society pretends to value more than it actually values, and I'd complain about it more, except I have not missed how much less they value teaching. The real utility I see for science education is meta: the country would probably be better off with a bunch of trained engineers and scientists we don't hire rather than with a bunch of trained lawyers we don't hire. Our society suffers from our abject terribleness at quantitation and empiricism. But I don't think training kids in liberal arts is a bad idea either, and disagree it's an educational ultimatum. Our society also suffers from our abject terribleness at humanity.

RPI is an institution that, at least in the early 90s, unrepentantly adopted the sink-or-swim system. Lots of incoming freshman, and they gave us the "look to your left, look to your right" deal at orientation. As a student, I had little problem with it, although it did feel pretty impersonal. I doubt that learning to flourish in an environment where I could perform without really interacting with the professors or grad students did any wonders for my character or my later career. I did like it better than the grad school environment, where I didn't feel any particular expectations.

As a parent seeing college in the not-so-distant horizon, I am a lot happier to imagine a system that's liberal about admissions, but rigorous about academics. This at least gets kids through the increasingly ridiculous application and acceptance process (at least if all the scare stories are true), and gives a chance to the young people who have the capacity to tough it out, or who have an aptitude that is not well-reflected by their SAT score. It's already bad enough how kids are classified and sorted as alphas, betas, etc., at the frist opportunity, and sink-or-swim at least gives them the opportunity to swim.

And personally, I'd love an English-major type of job. How do I get one? I am vain to think I might get a little farther as an engineer who dabbles in English than as a wordsmith who decides to take up engineering, or at least I've seen it happen that way more often. Or maybe I'm already there. My boss told me last week that what I really produce is PowerPoint slides. Depressingly, he's right.

2. Obligatory Weiner Stroking
I'm brave about statements like that right up until I actually enounter people who are good at English, at which point I can be counted on to, uh, um, do some speak-stuff or something, er, and stuff. It's more accurate to say that I've seen mediocre engineers turn to mediocre wordsmiths more than the other way around, but the quality literary folks seem to be cut from some other cloth entirely. This sorry segment is derived from a comment I left among my betters in wit and words over at alicublog. The fuckers.

I'd like to firm up an opinion here, take the wax off the subject, but it's such a damn tiresome thing to flog. I don't approve of celebrity worship either, but what ever happened to placing these guys up as the world's most unlikely hearthrobs? I mean Jackie was a fashionable gal, but Jack? The dude looked like he just emerged from under a bridge. The next batch of under-50s were more fuckable than he was, by the questionable judgment of this straight stiff, but look where that ever got 'em. The one dude, it got impeached. The way I see it, politicians, even the good guys, already live a prurient double life. There's the public face of integrity, representation and idealism, and then there's the actual business end of it, forging compromises with the deeply anti-democratic power elite. Weiner, to his credit, thrust against a famous supreme court justice, not just his disreputable tendency to address the female staff with porn and pubes, but the slim feller was gripped in a campaign to confront the quiet man's wife's conveniently undisclosed lobbying efforts. Andrew "supervillain" (thanks, Roy!) Breitbart's cozy relationship to the selectively adjudicating motherfucker is a factor here too.

And although recent news looks as if Weiner's boned, if that public/private friction only comes out as fairly juvenile dick pix, then to this citizen, it's almost a relief. I mean, it sure beats the sort of fucking the Clarence Thomas family endorses, and at the very least, Weiner wasn't a hypocritical Family Values sort of bullshitter.

The whole thing makes me wonder how much more ridiculous politics is going to be for the generation that came of age after digital photography was commonplace. I can see it now. "Judge Stuart, your record is remarkably impartial and you are highly respected by your peers, presenting only the most serious judicial countenance. But on the other hand, how do we know you can be trusted not to once again" [dramatic pause, and then flourished photos] "go wild?" Either we're going to reach a point where we only elect the most horrid prudes to office, or else evidence of mild deviancy is going to be so common among the general population, we'll finally stop giving such a righteous fuck about it all. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter--hell, I wish I had a little more deviancy of my own as a reference, but I also wouldn't rule out the next Not-So-Great Awakening hitting us as everything else in the world goes to shit too.

3. Traveling, Part N+1.
I've got another trip coming up next week. Yeah, you've already heard a hundred-and-four ways that I loathe these trips, so why not offer number up the 105th, even if we're getting into the territory of sheer pettiness.

A day trip is bad enough, but let's observe for a moment that your typical military-industrial hub is frequently peppered with museums, and, less frequently, nice restaurants. Does the trip have to be so joyless, boss? I'm figuring if you're willing to dump twenty-five bucks to feed me at the mid-scale airport chain, then fine, I can spring for another twenty-five for a quality meal and a glass of decent wine and the privilege to not have to think of any anodyne conversation to fill up an otherwise spiritually vacant forty-five minutes of my life. Find a hotel in walking distance of something, you soulless monster, or at least let me borrow the keys to the car for once. The scheduling of these things, and next week's is no exception, is an inspiration of dullness. Land at about 7:30 (clamber into the hotel room a little after 8) for a 9 AM meeting. Brilliantly, this leaves me a wealth of time to listlessly stand around, but not quite enough of it to shoehorn in a movie, even. It's enough to drive a man to blog.

At least when I used to work in Washington, I had an excuse. I was limited by where I lived (the least interesting highway stop in northern Virginia) and worked (the other side of the river), and a need to hightail it back to my young family every night. It's an extra special "free" time of travel, however, when I can depend on a dinnertime flight out of Boston (mmm-mm, Logan's finest, and no booze), a morning meeting, and a carefully scheduled return trip designed to preclude any stops on the way to National Airport's feasts of grease, salt and upscale plastic utensils. I can't wait!

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