Monday, May 2, 2016

"Everyone Should Learn to Code" Part 2

A couple of nights ago, there was a "Learn Python" workshop being held on the University of Arizona campus. There was a call by the organizer for anyone in the community who knew Python well enough to come down and walk around while the class was happening to help people struggling with the code on their machines. I've taught Python workshops before, and since I had the evening free, I went down to pitch in. I was sincerely impressed by the turnout. It was composed entirely of undergraduate students, and demographically it was very diverse. I was also far from the only volunteer: there were at least half a dozen others circulating amongst the students to help them overcome obstacles.

I've always been interested in teaching others how to code. This was the primary reason I was drawn to helping organize tech events and entrepreneurial competitions in California. I often got the chance to swap skills with others, teach others how to do something, learn new things from others, and most importantly, help facilitate an environment that would connect people with each other. I'm grateful that I've gotten the chance to participate in, and to contribute to, this kind of culture.

In most of the technology jobs I've had, there has been a shortage of people around to do the work that needs to get done. This is a problem on the supply-side. As technology has become ever more pervasive in our society, encompassing every aspect of life like The Blob, there is a lack of people with sufficient programming and technology experience to do the work required by society.

In the face of a lack of competent people to work in technology fields, what we're observing comes as little surprise. I once read a book about video game programming, in which the writers made it abundantly clear early on that the mathematics of game programming are intense. They suggested that anyone who feels intimidated by video game math should consider an easier profession, like rocket science. Many of our greatest programming minds, then, are currently occupied with producing entertainment.

Video games are simply one example; I don't mean to pick on them or decry people playing video games. The brilliance that these individuals exude, the sheer amount of effort in collaboration that must happen between many people in order to make a single video game a reality, is astounding to me. Given the mobility of the people working in these fields, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that very few of them are choosing to move to help solve the more serious problems in society.

This comes down to individual decisions. If you are a programmer and you have your choice of what job to take, you're more likely to take a simple, very well-paid position at a tech company that produces video games than you are to take a job where you can use your technical skills to combat sex trafficking, for example. The former job will not only pay much better, but will likely be more straightforward in both job responsibilities and execution strategy.

The technology gap is widening. This might be one of the more pressing issues of our time. Everyone needs technologists, but that technologists gravitate towards the better salaries. They do as the line from the film: they "follow the money". As has generally been the case in our society, the money fails to attract the people to where its needed most.

This will change with time. As more people gravitate towards learning how to do computer programming, the shortage on the supply side will start to catch up with the ever-increasing demand for these skills everywhere.

This is already in progress. In the class I helped with at the University of Arizona, there were tons of students from all manners of disciplines. They weren't just computer scientists students supplementing their own curriculum by learning a popular programming language; there were representatives from the social sciences, natural sciences, political sciences, and all other manner of sciences, labeled or otherwise. We are at the dawn of an era that will turn loose upon all of us a new generation of people who can program, but who will do more with their computer skills than merely try to be a founder of "the next Facebook".

So should everyone learn to code? Nah. But I posit this: if you want to help society, if you want to help people, then explore the option of entering a computer field. If you're studying another field, learn to program and strive to use this to make new kinds of contributions to your field. We need you, because new ideas are needed everywhere.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

My Biggest Fear

I'm currently on a tightrope between a fairly stable past and an uncertain future, at that point where it would be more difficult to turn and go backwards than to simply press forward into the unknown. We fear the darkness where demons dare, but even nature Herself has devised a complex ecosystem of nocturnal organisms that flourish in this darkness. The night is not something to fear, but merely another niche to fill with life.

I'm scared of a lot of things. Chief among them is what most men are afraid of: inadequacy. I'm afraid that I simply can't or won't be enough. I fear that when confronted with the challenges life tosses at me, I won't have the courage or strength to rise to the occasion, or the wisdom to know how. And I'm afraid that this very fear will keep me avoiding those challenges.

Like most people, I've spent most of my adult life attempting to overcome my fear of inadequacy by consistently shrinking my own world and managing it in order to keep it small. The best way of convincing yourself that you're adequate is to minimize what you're responsible for. It's certainly much easier to feel like a big person when you keep yourself confined in a small space than if you venture into the great wide open.

I now believe the people who insist that you should have grand aspirations. In dreaming big, you don a garment that might be several sizes too big for you, but with persistence, you'll grow into it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Equality in Right to Marriage

I wouldn't have guessed it even five years ago, but we've come to a point where anyone can marry whoever they wish in the United States, regardless of the gender of both parties. I haven't followed the political battle that's been waged over the last decade in getting same-sex marriage legalized. When I was asked about the issue, I plead ignorance, claiming that I simply didn't know enough about the specifics to make an informed judgment.

That's still true today, for the most part. (There's one exception: I've studied Christian scripture over the last couple of years, and I'd conclude that marriage between same-sex couples isn't something that's at odds with anything in the New Testament.) I'm still ignorant of the political, economic, and social implications of legalizing same-sex marriage. But the point is that I don't need to be completely informed about every aspect of this issue in order to reach a decision about it.

Marriage is a right our society grants to people marrying those of the opposite gender; therefore, it is not a right we should deny to people who marry someone of their own gender.

It really is just that simple. You can make the issue more complicated than that, by insisting that homosexuality is a choice and calling into question the ethics of homosexuality itself, or that the drawbacks of it will cause problems in given insurance scenarios, or any number of other things. These are irrelevant. Allowing a freedom to one class of people based on sexual orientation and denying it to another is wrong. As a society, we simply need to do what is right. It's been a long time coming, but I'm happy the United States has.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Graffiti Drones

I'm a big fan of street art. I'm also a technologist. I never put these two together, but some intrepid person realized that drones can carry cans of spray paint and reach surfaces that a single person might not be able to.

They don't do a whole lot in this video, other than deface a large billboard ad. It's barely discernible, even in daylight. But I'd guess there's a street artist out there right now who's programming a drone swarm, each sporting a different color, to quickly and stealthily vandalize the side of a building.

The future never seems dull.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Greater Divide

No blog post I've written on here is a static representation of my core inner beliefs. When I'm blog a post about myself or my view of the world, each is merely a reflection of whatever thoughts are tumbling through my head at the time. I compose them into language in order to help myself make sense of them, and I publish them onto the Internet because I'd like to believe that there are a few other people in this world who might benefit from joining me through the process.

After I write something and publish it for the world, I often find myself returning to what I've written in my mind. Sometimes I think of a better way I could have worded something; sometimes I recognize how something I've said could be misinterpreted; sometimes the idea itself is too simple or I find a counterexample that makes me think I might have been completely wrong.

I wrote a while back that nothing tells you more about a person than how they choose to divide up human beings. Some people do this based on class, religion, race, nationality, and so on. I think it's true that the schisms a person applies to human beings say a lot about who they are, but I don't think it defines them. I'd like to believe that not everyone draws these divisions amongst their fellow human beings. I'd like to believe that some people can operate without judgment. That might be too idealistic.

I think that the notion that how a person divides up others is a symptom of a larger characteristic. Which human beings a person divides themselves from, and how they divide themselves from them, is one aspect of that person's personality. It falls under a much larger umbrella.

Suffering is universal. As a college-educated middle class white guy in America who's never had any serious health issues, I've managed to avoid all forms of physical pain thus far. Naturally, I've had my own small share of emotional suffering. This is common to all human beings. Even those who might say that psychology is an invention of developed society, all mature human beings know the pain that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

What defines a human being, more than anything, is the manner in which they try to avoid feeling or dealing with this emotional pain. Some use alcohol or other substances. Some use religion or spirituality. Some use too much food or a lack of food. Some people fall in love. Some people intellectualize everything. Some people watch too much television. And yes, some people elevate themselves above, or discriminate against, other human beings. The list goes on.

Everyone experiences emotional pain. Many people find ways of expressing this emotional pain, but every person will, at some point in their lives, do something to be avoidant. A sense of loneliness or fear strikes you one evening, and you have a glass of wine to take the edge off. I'm not saying that every person needs to always confront their emotions, in every situation, or that not doing so is irresponsible. If you're at work, you might need to put your duty before leaning into your feelings. And there certainly are healthy ways of dealing with these emotions. The line between healthy and dysfunctional is a difficult one to draw; television might help you deal with your emotions, but it also might help you avoid them. The difference is subtle.

It's the tool that you turn to habitually in order to avoid dealing with emotional pain that says the most about the kind of person you are.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gender Inequality

My name is Jim, I'm an advocate for women's equality, and I'm angry.

There are several advantages to being a man in our world. One of these is that men are allowed to get angry about things. If a woman gets mad about gender stereotypes, inequality, or voices an objection to the manner in which she's being treated, it can easily be dismissed as hormones or her period or some such nonsense. I'm not the owner of a baby oven, so I don't menstruate, so you're not going to shut me up that easily. Also, a man can so easily dismiss a woman's point of view, simply because she is a woman, but such a sexist dismissal doesn't work if the objection comes from another man.

It occurs to me that all men have this advantage in their respective corners of the world. Eric Metaxas wrote in the introduction to his book Seven Men, "Men are meant to use their strength to protect and bless those who are weaker." I'm not claiming that women are inherently weaker than men, but where gender-based discrimination exists in our society, women are too often made weaker by the circumstances imposed on them. This is where men have a duty to fight such discrimination.

I've barely started going around telling people that I'm interested in fighting for women's equality in our society for a week now. I present my ambition as a nascent idea, one without specific form or direction, but merely as a passionate interest on my part. I've already encountered resistance to the idea. One man did exactly as I would have expected by emasculating me, implying that it made sense since I prefer the company of women as friends given the kind of person I seemed to be. I've always greatly preferred the company of other men, which anyone who knows me would gladly attest to; I have no idea what he was talking about.

Gender inequality seems to affect those of lower social or economic standing more than those in privilege. This is not to say the privileged are unaffected, but the effects are more pronounced as you go down the social ladder. One middle class white woman, who would discourage me from pursuing this ambition, reassured me that she felt in no way disenfranchised by the current structure of our society. I slept no better that night.

For the most part, I've met with general apathy. I mention that I feel this is an important issue to discuss, and people wish me luck, but I get the sense that people feel this isn't a fight that needs to be fought anymore. More likely, I suspect this issue is easy to dismiss simply because it's so huge. It's incredibly pervasive. It's a social problem. It's an economic problem. It's a political problem. It's a legal problem. And so on. It's gets even more complicated when you consider how enmeshed these domains can get with each other.

I'm a technologist, which doesn't seem to fit neatly into any category where this issue could be addressed...but I'm also determined. I believe it's worth exploring what can be done by me with my own set of skills, and learning better how to do it. This has done little to dissuade my interest; indeed, the sheer enormity of the problem keeps me engaged. It's almost impossible to ignore, simply because half of the people that I encounter when I leave the house every day are affected by it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Vetting the Trustworthy

I'd say the one of the biggest corners I've turned in my life is when I stopped evaluating people merely based on how well they treated me, and started giving a much greater weight to how well they treated everyone else.