Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Thursday Quote - Mordechai (Moti) Ben-Ari

"If Tiffany wants to become a professional singer, I would not try to dissuade her, but I would prefer that she pursue a CS degree part time while she tries to advance her singing career."
Non-Myths About Programming by Mordechai (Moti) Ben-Ari, from Communications of the ACM July 2011

Sometimes, commencement addresses and keynote speeches are worth hearing, and worth reading later on if you're not lucky enough be there live. It depends entirely on who's speaking, and Mordechai Ben-Ari is one of the best. The mere fact that his articles appear from time to time in the pages of the Communications of the ACM makes it worthwhile to become a member.

Anyway, I'll let Mordechai provide the setup for today's quote:

The decline of interest in studying computer science is usually attributed to a set of perceptions that students have about the subject. Many educators react to these perceptions as if they were myths and try to refute them. I believe the perceptions of students are roughly true when viewed in isolation, and that the proper way to address these non-myths is to look at them within the context of "real life."

To understand Tiffany and how she got involved in Mordechai's keynote, take a moment to read the short play presented before Mordechai began speaking: "Aunt Jennifer".

Tiffany appears throughout Mordechai's speech, with today's quote being one example; here's the wider context:

Non-Myth #7. Programming Is a Well-Paid Profession

That's great. Potential earnings shouldn't be the only consideration when choosing a profession, but it is not immoral to consider what sort of future you will be offering your family. It would be a good idea to remind Tiffany that the chasm between the life-styles of her mother and Aunt Jennifer is not the result of luck.

I recently read the controversial book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The third chapter - "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" - based upon the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh is quite relevant to the issue of potential earnings. As a graduate student, Venkatesh was able to observe and document the lives of the members of a drug gang, and he eventually obtained their financial records. These were analyzed by Levitt, an economist, who came up with the following conclusion, expressed as a question: So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary was only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job? The answer: Well, for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood. For the same reason that a high-school quarter-back wakes up at 5 A.M. to lift weights. They all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune (to say nothing of the attendant glory and power). The result: The problem with crack dealing is the same as in every other glamour profession: a lot of people are competing for a very few prizes. Earning big money in the crack gang wasn't much more likely than the Wisconsin farm girl becoming a movie star or the high-school quarterback playing in the NFL.

Ambition to succeed in a glamour profession is not something to be deplored, but a young person must receive advice and support on what to do if she is not the 1 in 10,000 who succeeds. If Tiffany wants to become a professional singer, I would not try to dissuade her, but I would prefer that she pursue a CS degree part time while she tries to advance her singing career.

Next week: Kinshuman Kinshumann

No comments: