Formal Education is for Skills, not Knowledge

When I started engineering school, there may have been some bragging about this major was the best and it’s so great and those damn liberal arts kids aren’t learning anything. That went away, pretty quickly. Mostly gone after the first year, it’s bothersome to hear that idea said now. A quote like “She studied psychology? She’ll never make any money!” Who cares? You go to school to study what you want to study. Learn what you want to learn. You’re paying for a service, you’re paying for exposure to people to teach you things. In the US, you’re paying for the ability to get hired, since a majority of jobs now require a Bachelor’s degree for employment.

That was more of tangent than I meant. A friend of mine, also in the tiny world that is the Earth Systems and Environmental Engineering program, was talking about how people often think majors define them. Or define what they’re doing. For example, they’ll take an introductory Mechanical Engineering course and say “Holy crap this is what mechanical engineers are gonna do? Ok this is what I’m gonna do.” And to quote him, “It’s not. It’s what the professor does.” The fluid mechanics professor? He studies the boundary layer of the atmosphere. Not how to build a piping system. The guy teaching Environmental Site Assessment? That’s what he does. That isn’t what you need to do.

It’s also easy to think that mechanical engineers study how to build small things. Environmental engineers must study municipal water treatment, which is the traditional definition of environmental engineering. Oh and those electrical guys? All they must do is build cool gadgets! What you major is not this narrow, restrictive set of rules and life opportunities. Environmental engineering students now study remote sensing, renewable energy, and climate change. A ton of mechanical engineers study fluid mechanics! Look at the guy teaching the course!

This brings up the idea of what going to school even means. You go to school, and get an “education.” Said education teaches you. I would argue that you go to school to learn how to learn. There is no way you’re going to remember every individual course and its information after you graduate. The majority of us do not have photographic memory. However, you will develop a skill set. What that skill set is up to you. Maybe you’ll learn how to read and analyse papers amazingly quickly. Maybe your writing style will become fine tuned. Maybe you’ll learn how to prove that irrotational flow is given by the curl being 0.

A college education is about developing yourself, and adding knowledge on the side. When someone says “I am a chemical engineering major! Chemical engineers make the most money.” It doesn’t make you’ll make the most money buddy. Especially if you piss everyone off.

So, go to school and think about how you can learn better. Make some friends. Learn how to derive complex principles, and how you can solve problems from the principles of physics and mathematics. Learn how to analyse, so that you can create. And stop talking about how your major is better anyone else’s!

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Specific utility and General utility

As someone learning how to program as both a hobby and a class requirement, a major thing that comes up is the ability to reuse something you’ve done. That is to say, to write code that can only does one specific thing, once, is not very efficient. For you, or for people attempting to build upon your work. To give an example of this, over the summer I used “R” to construct linear regressions of climate data. Part of this involved trying different kinds of linear regressions for a months worth of data, for all the months. That meant making 5 regressions per month, or 60 regressions per year. It would be insane to individually write this, or to call an identical for loop for each region that was being studied. So I built a couple functions that would generate the regressions and then plot the data with the regression. Then I just called that for each region.

The tedium of making this “work-all” and more general purpose (but still highly specific) tool made doing further work in that field easier. Almost nothing being made had a single purpose. It would be rewritten to be generally applicable for the same process, if the process was being re-run. That isn’t even a great feat, and the tools being made were still basically useless outside of what I was doing. But it just doesn’t make sense to spend a bunch of time making this one thing that does absolutely one thing.

This comes up in life often, when looking at how many things are produced for highly specific purposes and their possible utility ignored. From the ubiquitous single use plastic wrappers to automatic tie racks, many things are designed with one use in mind. Tools and objects are created to be bought, used, and tossed. Generally within a matter of days. It’s incredibly wasteful. An old boss of mine one day said, “Have you seen how much wrapping is on a single flash drive? There’s a ton of paper and plastic to get a tiny bloody thing.”

potatoes

Source: http://www.goingveggie.com/plastic-wrapped-potatoes/

It doesn’t take much to fill a sheet of paper with the amount of items that are used and discarded, and never touched again. An artist friend of mine walked around with all the trash he generated for the week in a large garbage bag. It turned into 2, and was filled mainly with empty coffee cups, cigarette packs, and beer bottles. The first and third item on that list could be transported in reusable containers, quickly reducing the amount of waste produced.

This idea, to me, is paralleled with another issue: That of making things so general that they lose their specific purpose, and their identity as an object. Take a poorly made multi tool – Sure it has a ton of stuff including a corkscrew, but when will you use a cork screw on your utility knife?! Maybe I am speaking from ignorance of necessity. You get this item that tries so hard to be useful that it is useless.

I recall this coming up with some software, but can’t recall it at the moment. If you have any examples of this with software, please shoot off an email or leave a comment!

This is not to say that either general purpose tools or specific tools (think of a single head screwdriver) are inherently bad. This is to call for tools built to last, built to be learned and reused, built to help the user. Not built to break or tossed away after one use. Not built to sit in a box, waiting for the next time someone needs to tighten the screws on the bed frame.

This is a call to consider the materials around you as part of your life, to bond with the people and things in your life. Not to find solace in materials, but to understand that items are not useless, not one-time throwaway junk made by some faraway factory. Take pride in what you have, and take care of it. Take pride in what you make.

And stop throwing away so much stuff!

Good customer service makes for good business

I had the saddening experience of learning today that my recently purchased Surface Pro 3’s battery is defective. By defective, it won’t work without being plugged in and resetting the battery drivers doesn’t fix it. This is an especially poor time for it to fail, since this is the first semester I’ve decided to integrate a laptop into my courses and it’s become an amazing resource to take notes on, program, and have reliable computer access anywhere. It’s also my only Windows install, with a Linux-Mint install on my increasingly older desktop at home. So this isn’t the end of the world, which is extremely lucky, and there’s pretty good computer access throughout the school, which is also amazing, so this is at worst a major inconvenience.

The SP3 was refurbished when purchased, and its warranty (from Microsoft) expired last month. So after doing the regular troubleshooting, called up MS today and found out after about 40 minutes of going through re-installing the battery drivers that the battery was defective. The service rep then checked on the warranty, and informed me that the MS 30 day grace period expires in 3 days, and there’s still coverage. Have to send in the laptop and it’ll get fully replaced. Crappiest part about the whole thing is that there’s no way to renew/extend the warranty, so if this happens again it’s gonna hit the wallet. Severely.
Similarly, a day or two ago, a good friend signed up for a free trial with Audible to get a book for class. She got it, started listening, and was suspicious of the total play time, 1 hour…which was due to it being the abridged version. She called them up, and told them what was wrong, and even though she had only 2 free books as part of the trial, they gave her the full copy of the book, and refunded the original. That was awesome!
Both of us hear Audible commercials all the time on podcasts, and honestly have not considered subscribing…until now. She’s considering signing up just because of how awesome they treated her.
The concept of amazing customer service from a faceless large entity is so pleasing because often, one is met with the complete opposite. Apathy from the person on the other end of the phone, and a total lack of empathy from anyone, allegedly human, from the entity. It doesn’t matter if it’s private or public, but is based more on the size of the entity.
The commitment to treat people using your service as humans and valued is working! This isn’t to excuse the people mistreated on the other end of the chain, especially the people making your products. This is to promote humanizing the trading of goods and services. Thanks MS. Thanks Audible. Y’all did awesome. We’ll be back.