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Monday, June 30, 2008

SIWOTI Syndrome...

I had this article shared with me a while ago, and it bugged me enough that I thought it deserved a rebuttal. After all, how could I abide by someone being wrong on the internet?

I think it is important to start off with a brief discussion of what graduate school is. To make sure I wasn't confused about my definition, I looked it up on Wikipedia to get the popularly held concept of graduate school. As I suspected, graduate school primarily refers to degrees earned following a bachelors, and medical school, law school, and an MBA are all referred to as graduate school either unusually or rarely. One way Penelope Trunk may perhaps have realised this, other than looking it up, might have been to think about the names of the standardized tests involved in getting into these different programs. Graduate school tends to require the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), whereas med school requires the MCAT, law school the LSAT, and business school the GMAT.

1.) Her confusion of what graduate school actual consists of is first flagged here. While an argument may be made for the opportunity cost of graduate school (you are not working, and thus are missing out on two to five years of wages as well as possible promotions). However, most graduate students receive at least some money (either as a stipend or from being a teaching assistant) over and above the cost of tuition. Also, not everyone is constantly shifting careers as she seems to think. While it is true that those working in the corporate world often do change careers these days, that change is often as much a change of company as it is a change of vocation. Thus, while obviously graduate school is not for everyone, it is hardly invalidated and obsolete from this objection.

2.) As previously mentioned, graduate school is not synonymous with MBA. Usually it doesn't even mean MBA. For the sake of argument, though, you are referring to an MBA, sure it might no longer be required. But that doesn't mean it isn't an asset. Anyway, I don't really know a lot about the world of business, since that isn't what I want to get into, but I think the fact that you can sometimes get a job without a degree does not mean the degree has no value.

3.) This is really an argument against professional degrees of all sorts, including some undergraduate disciplines such as engineering or a technical program at a college. I agree that it is a problem, but it doesn't mean there is a problem with professional degrees. It means there is a problem with how we educate young people in what options are out there.

4.) I'm not really sure what she is basing this argument on. Just because someone has a degree in something not directly related to a job they are applying for does not mean they are not interested in that job. The main thrust of this argument seems to be relying on a graduate student garnering a large amount of debt, thus forcing them into accepting work to pay it off. However, as was covered in (1), graduate school generally doesn't mean massive debt unless it is professional graduate school. Debt is something to consider, but not everyone plans to open a high-risk start-up company, so having that door closed by having a school debt that needs to be paid off isn't really a drawback for everyone.

5.) This is really just argument 3 focused in a slightly more specific way. However, I think it is rather poorly posed even when focusing on the professional degrees that she means when referring to graduate degrees. Lawyers often go into politics or business. Engineers often go into management and business. An MBA is useful in a wide variety of business related jobs. At the worst a degree is ignored, but even an unrelated degree serves to display a level of intelligence and commitment. The only time it might serve as a drawback is when it puts one at a higher pay bracket than a company is willing to pay.

6.) This one is just silly. Ever heard of an employee review? That is far more detailed feedback than a set of marks. While it is true that performing graduate research with a professor often involves close work with a superior, that isn't always the case. Some professors run their labs like an assembly line. Additionally, courses tend to have very little feedback other than a (sometimes brutally low) number. Most jobs tend to have a direct sub-manager to deal with a small subset of employees, allowing everyone to get direct feedback from someone. This is especially true in project based professional work, which this article struck me as focusing on. One last thing to note, is that graduate work is, for the most part, not coursework, in which case it isn't kids doing "what teachers assign". Graduate work is meant to be research, and while it is guided by experienced specialists in the field, it is controlled and driven by the student. Even in my undergraduate research position this summer I have more control over what I do (or do not do) than when I worked in automation engineering. My professor is well experienced with classical measures and interpretations of EEG experiments, but it is up to me to develop and apply some of the more advanced mathematical techniques that he has never used for EEG analysis. Shockingly, he never even suggested I do this, it was just something that I thought might actual give the research we are doing some novelty and merit.

7.) I have had my quarter-life crisis, and graduate school is where it pointed me. I agree that graduate school should not be a default position, but that doesn't mean it is archaic and obsolete. Graduate school has exceptional merit for those who want to pursue knowledge and research. The fact that many people who go to graduate school (especially when one includes the rather generous definition of graduate school the article seemed to encompass) end up unhappy isn't a clinching argument. Many people in many careers are unhappy. I don't really know a way to fix that, but I believe less education is never the way. Virtually every day I realise just how lucky I was to meet someone who understands the world of academia and decided to take the time to impart that knowledge onto me. It is hard to know what is out there without trying it, but plunging into the working world isn't the only way to get an idea.

Anyway, admittedly I am still young and in many ways unworldly. If I have made blatant mistakes in my rebuttal, I would appreciate it being pointed out to me. That, of course, goes for everything I write, but I tend to be more confident in my statements when writing about scientific ideas than when writing about what life choices people should make.


All right, so I have been neglecting my blog lately. I apologize, but things have been busy. In fact, I haven't really made a lot of progress in reducing my work for the next little while, but it is the long weekend here in Canada (especially since the university nicely decided to give today off in addition to Canada Day tomorrow), so one of the things I have to do is catch up with some blog maintenance.

First off, you may have noticed that Scientist Appreciation has disappeared over the last couple weeks. I decided that I wasn't doing it proper justice with a hastily cobbled together paragraph or two. The thing is, when I started it I had plenty of time on Fridays since that was the day of my lightest course load. However, Friday is now one of my busiest days, since I put a full day in at the lab and often have to come home and switch back into software development mode for my weekend job. Anyway, so the point is that I think Scientist Appreciation will start back up in the fall with regular classes.

Secondly, the reason that I have been neglecting my posts is because I started a long refutation of an article that was shared with me now nearly two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I got distracted and that refutation sat almost finished for a good long while... so that will be finished tonight and posted. In the meantime, I wanted to make a couple of stories that made me smile.

This post over at Pharyngula made me proud of my country.

I found this story quite funny.

Anyway, back to the generation of an actual article. Sorry for the long neglect.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Game Review: Diplomacy, Part I: The Description

A few days ago I briefly explained the concept of a game called Diplomacy to some people in my lab, and afterwards I thought it might make an interesting post to explain why I find it such a fascinating game. I will start with a brief overview of the game before moving into my analysis of it, so if you are familiar with the game you might want to skip this post and simply wait for Part II.

Diplomacy is set just before the outbreak of World War I. There are ideally seven players (although there are alternative rules for playing with fewer people) with each player controlling one of the great European powers of the time: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Turkey, or Russia. The game is played on a map of Europe (with a little bit of Africa's northern bits showing up). The map is split into many smaller territories (some represent specific regions within a country, such as Burgundy and the Rhine, while others represent entire countries such as Belgium or Spain). A selection of the territories are labeled as "supply centres". Control of these important territories allows a player to construct and maintain a fleet or army. Losing control of supply centres, such that a player is left without enough to support their units on the board, forces that player to remove enough units to balance the difference. The object of the game is to gain control of the majority of the supply centres (18 of 32), at which point the player's country is deemed to be the dominating force in Europe and he wins.

The game-play is interesting in that all units are of identical strength (the difference between an army and a fleet is solely in the territories over which it can operate) and all turns happen simultaneously. Without any dice rolling or other randomness, the only way to win a battle is to overwhelm your foe with greater numbers. This is achieved by supporting troops in either attack or defense. The catch is the support does not need to come from your own troops, but could be delivered by rival nations (for example, a British fleet could support a French army attacking a German army in Belgium, allowing the French to capture Belgium as long as the German army had no defensive support). This is where diplomacy becomes necessary and the simultaneous resolution of turns makes things interesting. Each turn has a period of diplomacy lasting fifteen minutes in which all players are free to discuss their strategies with each other (usually in small, carefully monitored groups of two or three individuals). The players then write their orders on pieces of paper and deliver them to a pile, at which point all the orders are read aloud and resolved. Thus, the British player might tell the French player that he is supporting his attack on Belgium, but in actuality he has agreed to aid the Germans by instead moving his fleet into the French port of Brest and cut off that supply centre, likely causing the failure of the French assault on Belgium and forcing the French player to disband one of his armies or fleets before the next turn.

Hopefully that gives a clear overview of the game. Next post addressing this topic will delve into the aspects of the game that I find make it exceedingly interesting.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I have a weird brain...

The picture on the top is my lab partner's EEG over a period of 20 seconds. The picture on the bottom is mine. It might not be clear, but the y-axis is different by an order of magnitude of 10. For some reason, despite not actually moving, my EEG was full of 'artifacts', massive spikes of activity that overpower the regularly present brain waves. I'll discuss this further when I have more time, but I thought I would put the images up now before I go home for the evening.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: Francis Crick

Since I missed last week's Scientist Appreciation installment, I figured I had better make sure I managed to remember this week. The scientist I have chosen is Francis Crick, although not for the reason that most people think of him. Unfortunately for Dr. Crick, much of his memory has been somewhat tarnished by the, as far as I understand it, substantially spurious claims that the credit of his jointly won Nobel prize and discovery of DNA was unfairly and intentionally withheld from Rosalind Franklin. Of course, I really have not studied the history much, but the most specious of those claims is that she should have also won the Nobel prize. That is simply ludicrous, since she had been dead several years before the time of the prize's presentation, and nominations for the Nobel prize are not allowed posthumously.

Anyway, this installment is not about the Nobel prize. It is about Francis Crick and his amazing commitment to knowledge and science. After he became a Nobel Laureate for something that was both profound within science but also simple enough to be widely circulated within the public, Dr. Crick could have basically retired and lived off his fame and accolades. However, he didn't do that. He went on and tried to tackle what he saw as the next big question in the life sciences: consciousness. With steadfast devotion to a naturalistic view, Dr. Crick understood that the hazy concept of a supernatural soul was just as baseless as the rest of religious creation. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, he discusses his approach and findings into the matter of human consciousness, and I think it would make an excellent introductory book to anyone interested in the subject. Also, his work in consciousness inspired one of his students, Christof Koch, to continue such endeavours. The only reason Dr. Koch has yet to be the subject of a Scientist Appreciation is that I am waiting to read more of his two books (which are sitting on my shelf right now).

Anyway, I wanted to close with a story about Francis Crick and religion that I read somewhere. In 1960, Churchill College, where Dr. Crick was a fellow, elected to erect a chapel. Francis Crick, believing that a religious institution had no place at a university dedicated to knowledge, made a fuss. During the fuss, he was apparently sent a letter by Winston Churchill pointing out that the funds for the chapel's construction had been raised by private means, and nobody would be forced to attend. Francis Crick's response was to propose the construction of a college brothel, since after all nobody would be forced to attend and he himself was willing to begin raising the funds for its construction. Unfortunately, while he did manage to offend, the logic of his humorous retort didn't seem to fully resonate and he ended up resigning in protest. I think stories like that poke a few holes in that ridiculous title "New Atheist" so often thrown about in reference to the commendable few contemporary fellows attempting to raise public willingness to question religion.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Oh, how I miss the sciences...

I had forgotten how frustrating I found the task of writing papers. It is now 2:30 in the morning and I am sitting with a comparative essay between the presentation of the role of spirit, anger, and manliness in motivating political action in Thucydides' On Justice, Power, and Human Nature and Plato's Republic. I have a maximum word count of 1500 words, I have already removed three paragraphs, I am currently sitting at a little over 1000 words, and I have yet to mention Plato. Granted, I was planning to focus most of my analysis on Thucydides since I find Plato annoying to read, but since it is a comparative essay I really think I ought to at least mention both works...

I do enjoy writing, it's just that I always found essay writing in humanities and social science classes had a distinct feeling of futility involved. Perhaps it is like music and epic poetry in that I just don't get it, but I think I made the right decision to devote my life to science and not try to pursue a career in history as one of high school history teachers seemed to hope I would. Anyway, I should stop procrastinating, push that feeling of futility into the back of my mind, and cram some Platonic analysis into whatever space remains between the beginning of my last five hundred words and the wonderfully epic concluding paragraph that has been hopefully fermenting somewhere in my brain for the last few hours.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Perhaps Another Addition to the Places of Interest?

My friend Kari has a blog that I didn't add to my places of interest, mostly because she very rarely posts there. However, today, in a flurry of internet activity, not only did she comment on my blog but she also put up two posts to her blog. If she keeps that up, then I will have to add her to the places of interest...

In the meantime, I thought her second post of the day deserved a link for any of my readers that have an interest in the intersection of humour, politics, and pirate references.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I just read one of the most enjoyable opening lines of a preface I think I have ever read in a textbook:

"Popular treatments of chaos, fractals, and dynamical systems let the public know there is a party but provide no map to the festivities. Advanced texts assume their readers are already part of the club."

It just struck me as clever. I have only the vaguest notion of the mathematics of dynamical systems, but I will endeavour to change that over the next little while. Luckily, I have this wonderful sounding textbook (available online here), so everyone can join me at the mathematical party.