Techies care about education, but not enough

In a posting on LearnBoost Rafael claims that technologists care about education, but don’t care enough to actually do anything to solve the problems of education. He’s completely right, and he’s also completely wrong. He doesn’t even try to think of a single reason why this is the case. I will tell you those reasons.

This is why you see these passive signals of techies caring about education via the repeated upvotes on communities like Hacker News. Techies care a little bit, but still it’s not enough to drive change. Another way of putting it: there is a lot of demand for change in education but not enough people supplying that change. So we keep repeatedly celebrating the few education innovators.

Techies care about education, but not enough

Let me tell you something Mr. Rafael. I care a great deal about education. If I could pick any job in the world, I would pick to be a technology teacher in a high school somewhere. Now, why aren’t I currently employed in that dream job of mine? It’s not because I didn’t try. The reasons I am not a high school computer teacher are the same reasons that technologists don’t care about education “enough”.

Reason number one is money. Technology skills are very rare, and very valuable. Almost all of my college professors worked in the private sector during the summer because that’s where they made their real money. Even with all the extra benefits from the teacher’s unions, a teacher’s salary isn’t even remotely enough compared to what I can make at even a normal tech job. If you want technologists to help with education, you have to pay. The reality of the world is that corporations have a lot more money than schools, so that’s where technologists go. I don’t know how well a school would handle a brand new computer teacher being paid more than the principal.

If it’s just a matter of money, I look like a greedy tool, so let’s look at the other two issues. The first of which is lack of freedom for the teacher. Most teachers do not have freedom to teach as they please. They have to follow curriculum. They have to teach a certain way. No decent technologist can tolerate that. They would demand to teach the subject matter they want in the manner of their own choosing. A technologist would chafe if they were told what to do or how to do it.

Even worse, many schools will not hire you to just teach technology. I looked into it, and most schools will hire you has a math or science teacher with the opportunity to teach one or two technology courses, if that. That just isn’t going to cut it. I have no interest whatsoever in being a math or science teacher, grading papers, or other bullshit. I want to have a classroom full of computers, and other stuff, and I want to be the complete dictator of that room. The school exists only to put students into and out of that room.

That ties into the last problem which is the bureaucracy of the school as a whole. You see plenty of stories all over tech sites about a kid being suspended for having his boy scout knife in school, or some other nonsense. Back in my high school I got reprimanded for installing the flash plugin on a school computer. Technologists are nothing if not infuriated at the moronic policies and limitations that are placed on students and on the school computers. I imagine I, and other similarly minded folk, would be fired almost immediately by some cowardly principal who always follows policy to the letter.

If you want technologists to help with education, you have to pave a path for us. Because our technological knowledge is rare, we have great power. We are holding all the cards. Therefore, you have to grease the wheels if you want our help. Even if we want to help you, we can’t as long as the walls of bullshit are still in our way. Even if you can’t offer us as much money, you have to eliminate the bureaucracy and idiocy. We won’t tolerate moronic school policies whether they are applied to us or to students. We’ll probably show up at the school, tell everyone they are stupid, wave the middle finger around, and be sent home, if not to prison.

We would love to come and help you, but I think it will have to wait some time. Call us when you’re really ready for technological egos to roam your halls.

Something Deeply Wrong With Chemistry

Over on the Chemistry Blog, Mitch has posted a professor’s letter to a doctoral student. After reading the letter, I can’t even fathom what kind of horrible person the professor is. I imagine that if I spoke to this professor, I would not be able to refrain from punching them in the head.

In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all members of the group to work evenings and weekends.

Something Deeply Wrong With Chemistry

Sadly, this problem is not unique to chemistry. It’s not even unique to academia. It’s a problem all around the world in a wide variety of employment scenarios. I have encountered many of these scenarios in my lifetime, and they all have upset me a great deal. Allow me to share a few examples that I have seen.

The one that bothers me the most is that restaurant wait staff in the United States are not considered hourly workers. They are paid less than minimum wage, and it’s totally legal. This is why in the US we always tip the wait staff at least some amount, where in other countries you only tip for excellent service. Without tips the wait staff are underpaid. If you don’t tip, you get blamed for being a bad person. Well, the real bad person are the legislators who don’t correct the law. If wait staff were paid minimum wage, we could reserve tipping for excellent service. Prices would go up on menus, but customers will pay the same if they leave no tip.

Another similar scenario is the summer camp counselor. They are also not hourly workers. They get paid a flat fee for the entire summer. A really good camp counselor at a fancy sleep-away camp might make a few thousand for eight weeks of camp and one week of pre-camp. The US minimum wage is presently $7.25. 9 weeks times 7 days times 24 hours times $7.25 is closer to $10,000. Yes, camp counselors do not really work 24/7, and they get a few days off. Even so, most are horrendously underpaid.

One issue that really bugs me is child labor laws. Yes, of course we need these laws to prevent children from being exploited. However, these same laws also sometimes result in minors being unnecessarily restricted. I know many teenagers who would willingly do more work, and make more money, but the labor law prevents it because they are not eighteen. And no, the extra work wouldn’t interfere with homework. These extra hours are spent idling at home playing video games.

Lastly, let us look at countries as a whole. In Europe, many countries have a minimum of thirty days paid vacation for all employees, period. In the US, you are lucky to get ten. The number you get will inch up by one or two every year, assuming you stay at the same job. Switch jobs and you’re back to square one.

This is just criminal. There are people who live to work, but most people work to live. They only work to get money they need to survive in this world, and they would rather not be there. With so few vacation days, you can begin to question the point of living. People need vacation time to actually enjoy the life they have earned. The only reason I haven’t traveled the world already is not due to lack of funds, but due to lack of vacation time. It doesn’t even need to be paid vacation. Just let me leave for a few weeks and promise me that I will still have my job upon return.

Lastly, I must point out the horrible abuses laid upon some salaried employees. If you are paid hourly, or by commission, you might think that a salary is great. You get paid the same no matter what. Yes, that swings both ways. The employer can use threat of termination to get a salaried employee to work extra hours for no additional compensation. Someone with an hourly wage will typically receive time and a half, or some such. Not so for the salaried. They can make you stay late to finish the job for not a single dime extra.

Yes, the labor law is complicated because different jobs are different. Truck drivers, for example, have a completely different structure to their employment than stock brokers. The labor laws for one would be broken in many ways if the same exact rules were applied to both.

Even so, there needs to be some leveling of the board. Some basic principles can be applied equally to all employment. Nobody should face any consequence or demerit for leaving work, if they have put in eight hours that day. Anyone who freely chooses to put in more than eight hours per day should receive some form of extra compensation. Everyone should receive a minimum of thirty days per year vacation time. Even if you are not an hourly worker, your wages, not including tips, shall not be under what the minimum wage would be for the same number of working hours. Rules like these, and many others, should apply to every employment scenario, even the graduate students working in the lab. We already have a few good laws on the books, but we need quite a few more.

There are some people who love their work so much, they would stay there all day and night. Just because they would willingly sacrifice their health and well being, does not mean that everyone else should be forced to do the same. Give them the freedom to work their brains out, if they so desire, but do not force it on the rest of us. Many people look down on companies using off-shore labor, where practices are very bad. Well, there’s little room to talk if similar practices are widespread and legal right here at home.

And you know what, we have an unemployment rate in this country that is rising. If people no longer work extra hours, employers will have to hire more people to get the same work done in the same amount of time. I don’t think decreased profits from having some extra employees is going to hurt the economy all that much. We can just pay the workers with cuts from the CEOs salary.

Why Johnny can’t code

I saw a post on Salon.com which reiterates something I feel strongly about, and have been saying for quite some time.

BASIC used to be on every computer a child touched — but today there’s no easy way for kids to get hooked on programming.

Why Johnny can’t code

Yes, absolutely yes. If you bought any PC prior to the Mac and DOS era, it came with programming built in. It was most likely BASIC, or some similar language. You turn on an Apple 2, Commodore, or Atari computer, and you can immediately start typing in a program that will execute.

If you want to get even close to this on a modern computer, you need to either use a much bigger and more serious language, like Python, or you need some piece of software to help you. It’s not built into the computer. Even if you install Linux, the only thing you can do on the terminal is shell scripting. That shell scripting creates a barrier between the user and other programming languages.

Every operating system should ship with some sort of BASIC-like interpreter. It wouldn’t have any significant additional cost. Just one more icon in the start menu or applications folder. That one icon has the potential to open up an entire world of programming to a new generation.

Now, I was born beyond the BASIC days. I used some Apple computers at school, and learned some LOGO, but I was primarily in the DOS/Windows 3.1 era. How did I learn programming without having a prompt shoved in my face every day? Well, I put some effort in, going to science camp and selecting programming classes as an activity. But more than that, I had a TI Graphing Calculator, which comes with TI BASIC built in. I did a great deal of programming on that calcuator to ease my way through math classes.

And that brings me to my final point. Yes, I agree with this article. We need to expose simple, yet useful, programming interfaces on modern computers for educational purposes. However, the author of this article clearly doesn’t know about the large number of these that exist and can be easily acquired. There are TI Calculators, Microsoft Small BASIC, Arduino, Squeak, LOGO, and may more entry-level programming environments to learn on. If you have kids, or are looking to learn programming yourself, I highly suggest you try some of them out. We do not have a shortage of such things, we just need to get some of them pre-installed.