Browsing posts in: Education

Rethinking Polymathism

Aristotle is described as being the last person in human history that probably knew “everything”. He was a pioneer of knowledge in a wide array of fields including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government. Others have since then have had that title ascribed to them. For example, Thomas Young in the early 1800s demonstrated that light is also a wave, did work in linguistics and Egyptology which later helped researchers decode the Rosetta Stone, proposed the tri-chromatic theory of vision, read or spoke at least 11 languages and played the flute. However, the CV of most recent of popularly described polymaths are quite a bit shorter. It seems in today’s world, the body of human knowledge has grown so large that no single individual can “know it all”. Most modern polymaths, like physicist Freeman Dyson or former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold seem to exist largely in a professional silo with writing or product development products that are related to their prior knowledge or work.

This shows some very interesting things that might be useful to take into account as you plan for your future and think about the trajectory your career could take.

  1. Go deep. In a world with a billion people, Thomas Young’s world, the competition one would face in their pursuit of any given field will be much lower than it would be in a world with 7.4 billion people. This affects some fields and industries more than others. (It’s unlikely that anyone is going to write Harry Potter before JK Rowling or that Benedict Cucumberpants will miss all opportunities for a breakthrough performance.) However, this does suggest that you must be mindful of the fact that in any given field in which you wish to be a generalist, you are guaranteed to be facing a swarm of specialists. This doesn’t mean you can’t still add value by combining knowledge in new ways, but it’s important to be aware of. If you don’t find an area to gain deep knowledge in, you run the risk of becoming an intellectual dilettante. Someone who’s is very impressive at party banter, but incapable of building anything with their knowledge.
  2. Find the overlap. Successful modern polymaths seem to find their best success by building off of their core knowledge. For instance, Nathan Myhrvold has intensively studied math and physics. He’s also a very well known chef and cookbook author. However, his expertise didn’t come from a fancy culinary school. He applied his knowledge of physical phenomenon such as thermodynamics to study how food and the chemicals that make it up can be manipulated. Another example: Richard Posner is a judge who has studied economics extensively and was a pioneer in anti-trust law. He now writes on a wide variety of subjects like history and human sexuality, but his analyses always take an economic approach. These thinkers find the edges of their field and figure out where it overlaps with other interesting fields.
  3. Business and action are your best weapons. One thing you’ll notice as you read about polymaths of the past 100 years is that they are often described with initials. PhD in this. MS in that. MBA, JD, MD, EIEIO. The real basis for evaluating someone’s success as a polymath has been institutional. Not only that, as Richard Posner from above points out:

    “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.
    “The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.” -Richard Posner

    However, with the Internet, many of the industries that Posner is speaking of have been flattened. The gatekeepers, those who might try to keep you from participating in an industry by developing artificial barriers, can’t keep you out. Do you think “industry standards” have stopped Elon Musk from building spaceships? Not anymore. And it won’t stop the companies following in his wake building satellites and new ship prototypes. Want to publish a book? The opinions of the New York Times or even publishers don’t matter much when you can self-publish and sell millions of copies. In short, the most wild forest of obscure professional jargon and certifications can’t stop someone who proves the value of their ideas in the marketplace.

  4. Be curious and don’t waste time. The nature of polymathism may have changed, but this remains the same. Those brave pioneers who can successfully transcend the boundaries of a single field must not only remain curious about knowledge outside of their realm, but the must also use every moment as fuel for their curiosity. There is too much knowledge to gain to stuff it in between Netflix episodes.



Value Potential Graphs via Machine Learning

After watching a few videos on machine learning, I feel like there’s a very, very large opportunity in using it for what might be known as “job placement”. I put that in quotes, because I think in the future that concept as we know it now might be pretty foreign, because I don’t think it will be divorced from education, and I don’t think it will be as structured as it is now.

It seems that whenever we, and this is potentially me projecting here, discuss something like job placement it has a very structured, top down feel. A central body evaluates you and points you somewhere else. However, if there were instead a machine learning network in place, you could perhaps do monthly little learning boot camps and provide feedback on how you enjoyed it, and be served feedback on how quickly you picked it up. That would turn an aspect of your skillset into labelled data allowing your self to be further sorted towards value activities of best match.

Machine learning isn’t wholly a top down assignment. Semi-supervised machine learning is internally assigned values, spot-checked by participants, surfacing patterns in the data and giving you a better idea of where you can offer the most value to the world.

What if “higher education” was simply an iterative process of labeling your progress in an internally consistent machine learning network.

Then, imagine this in a world where many companies had their hierarchy mostly distributed. That means no HR department. That means a “Value Potential” graph introduces you to someone at a company and you make a contract with that person to do work for their company. This kind of completely distributed corporate hierarchy exists, and I can only imagine it will grow in popularity.

Everyone’s afraid of AI these days it seems, but what if our entire concept of what AI can do for us is wholly tainted by top-down way our societies have been managed for hundreds of years. It’s hard for us to think of anything else. But, absent of centralized state control, what can AI order us to do? Really, in that scenario, general AI isn’t a commander. It’s a tool for us to find our local maximum. To gain perspective on where we are in the mix. To turn each of us into the most informed decision makers we can be.

Applying Bruce Lee to Learning

I was listening to an interview with Bruce Lee in which he discussed his philosophies, and one part really struck me. It did so because if you took out the words “Martial Arts” and replaced them with “Education”, you get a quote which beautifully describes one of the key principles of learning and highlights just how intimately Bruce Lee understood the fundamentals of human action.

As you read through this quote and Lee talks about the flash and show, just imagine the ridiculous buildings colleges are erecting and the money they spend on marketing materials and tribal pomp and circumstance. As he talks about being “flooded with cocky” just think of the elitist attitude that the institutions of college attempt to imbue their students with: “You’re here, and that means you’re the future! You’re a which means you’re a winner!”

Here’s Lee’s quote

Man, listen to me, ok? To me, ultimately, EDUCATION means honestly expressing yourself. Now it is very difficult to do. I mean it is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling and then feel, then, like pretty cool and all that. Or I can make all kinds of phony things, you see what I mean? And be blinded by it. Or I can show you some really fancy movement, but, to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself….and to express myself honestly, that, my friend is very hard to do. And you have to train. You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it…it’s there! When you want to move, you are moving and when you move you are determined to move. Not taking one inch, not anything less than that! If I want to punch, I’m going to do it man, and I’m going to do it! So that is the type of thing you gave to train yourself into it; to become one with it. You think….(snaps his fingers) ….it is.

Watch the video of the interview here.

The Education Stack

This is an idea I’m going to be revisiting quite often, I believe, because I think there’s a revolutionary concept waiting to be chiseled out of this rough brain nugget.

If you’re not very familiar with how software design works, then you’re going to need to try to grasp the concept of “the stack”. If you’re already familiar with this concept, feel free to skip the purple section.

To grasp the concept of “the stack” you’re going to need to understand, at least a little bit, how websites and the internet work, and as someone who barely understands it myself, obviously I’m in the perfect position to do the explaining.

At its very core, the internet is two computers sharing information between themselves. That’s the dumbest explanation of the internet you’ll find. When you go to a website, it’s essentially your computer asking another computer for the information your computer needs to build the website you’d like.

If you go one level deeper, though, you find that this process is divided up into a string of different activities that must take place to get information from this other computer to your computer. From here, the explanation can get pretty technical, so I’ll try to avoid that. The basic process that follows from you entering in and hitting enter (not that you would… would you?) is that a request is sent to a specific computer that owns the information your computer needs to make the web page. It would be like sending a letter to your Aunt Ethel to get her recipe for… cake, or whatever Ethel does. Now this computer at the other end will probably be one of those giant fancy server computers like you see on hacker shows, but really it’s just like the computer you’re reading this on now (assuming you’re using a lap/desktop). Only, rather than running on Windows or Mac it uses an OS called LINUX, which you can actually download and use on your computer right now. When this computer running LINUX at the other end receives this request, it uses a program called APACHE to figure out where your information is located within its guts and then give you access to it. Once your request has access to the information it needs, it uses language called PHP to interact with the giant data table (basically a giant Microsoft Excel spreadsheet), a program called MySQL, to find the exact information it wants. This could be your username, your password or an embarrassing yearbook photo of you. When this info is found, it’s then packaged up and delivered back to your computer where the browser you’re using (Firefox/Chrome/Safari) turns it into the web experience you see before you.

So, in the end, your internet experience is just a whole mess of different tools connected together to take raw data and bring it to you in a useful way. So, you can imagine LINUX, APACHE, MySQL and PHP “stacked” on top of one another, filtering your digital needs into useful action. This is called a LAMP stack, and this is the stack Facebook began on.

Guess what, though. There are other kinds of stacks with other kinds of tools. Another very popular one right now is the MEAN stack, which is MongoDB, ExpressJS, AngularJS and NodeJS. How exciting is that? Despite the fact that everyone’s underlying goal is the same (I just want!), different tools can be used to create entirely different user experiences on the end and business models/value structures in the middle.

Annnnndd… Welcome back computer people.

So, if the internet is just a way to find, manipulate and transport data between two different digital parties, we could also imagine education as a way to find, manipulate and transport data between two physical parties (people).

Let’s say I want to learn about economics. One way I could do that would be to search for who has the data I need (George Mason University looks nice), find its address (4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA), gain access to the data (“Dear Mr. Dean, I’m a very nice boy.), travel there (Roadtrip!) and absorb the data (keg stands).

While that might actually be a pretty effective way to learn economics, it’s also very time consuming because of the artificial constraints of the STACK of activities I have to perform to absorb the data. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Education isn’t a monolithic entity. It’s nothing but a stack of protocols and processes, which means it can be broken down into smaller functional parts.

If I look at higher education from this perspective, I can quickly start to see how the functional areas can be separated and reconfigured. The ‘ole University route has been a tried and true education stack, but perhaps its time to explore some new configurations.

PS: If you understand why I chose the picture for this post, tweet me the quote and I’ll award you one internet point.

Toothless Credentialism

Let’s be clear about what a college credential is. A diploma is a symbol of the completion of a contract between a university and a student. It’s a promise on the part of the university to use its authority to assure any inquiring parties that the student has jumped through a particular set of hoops. The university says: “Do these things, and when anyone asks, I’ll tell people that you did these things. Now hand me $120k and let’s get started.”

Many other arguments may be made about what the diploma actually is. “It’s a guarantee of intelligence/work ethic/social skills/talent to prospective employers.” “It’s a guarantee of marketability/knowledge/experience to diploma holders.”

Bullshit. If someone is trying to convince you of that, tell them to eat dirt.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the song and dance you perform in the process of completing your contract with the university is useless. It may be that you pick up some really useful skills. But for the most part, such a system forces both student and employer to assume the burden of determining value.

The way this whole system is currently structured, if the song and dance the student is forced to perform turns out to be worthless, the student take a massive loss. If an employer wrongly assesses the value of the song and dance the employer could be out tens of thousands of dollars as well. The only party that doesn’t really seem to lose is the University, because they’ve worked hard to obscure the real value of their song and dance in great heaping layers of rhetoric and petty athletic tribalism. In most instances, the contract between student and university seems very unbalanced. In regards to the University, the contract is toothless.

What if the contract had teeth, though? What if there was a University that had the guts to stand up and say: “if jumping through these hoops doesn’t make you money, help you pass a test, help you reach your goals, you pay nothing?” What if they told employers: “If our students can’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag, we’ll pay for onboarding?”

What if a University cared enough to put their butt on the line rather that slapping a big ‘ole sloppy guarantee on the box? I’d imagine they wouldn’t need multi-million dollar marketing departments to peddle their programs.

“Here’s the way I see it, Ted. Guy puts a fancy guarantee on a box ’cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside… Because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”
-Chris Farley, Tommy Boy

On discovering the future of college.

It’s easy when thinking of what is to come to be distracted by the form of what has been. We tend to forget that the institutions and frameworks and organizations that we participate in are all designed, whether from the bottom up or from the top down, to solve certain challenges in the distribution of materials and patterns. We forget this, and, after a time, become so familiar with any given solution that we forfeit completely an intuitive understanding of the underlying problems the solution has solved, a phenomenon which leaves us with the perhaps impossible task of attempting to address the underlying challenges with the language of the solution.

This can be seen pretty clearly in the context of the modern university. Built to deliver and protect patterns of thought in a world where doing so was difficult, they are increasingly having trouble reacting to a new context in which the value of different patterns of thought change very rapidly. Built to validate and signal value, they are facing a world where value lies in unknown territories. 

So, people discuss solutions in terms of “transfer credits”, “online courses”,  “more financial aid”, “work/study”. They ask questions like: “How will college change? How can college meet new demands?” Like urban planners, they outline and plan and use new materials to make new best practices, but, like modern urban planners, they’re finding that people and property interact so damn quickly and widely, that they can’t predict the consequences of their own solutions

Elon Musk has suggested we approach our own discomforts and visions from “first principles”. Essentially, we must build solution sets from the bare bone physics of what’s possible and necessary so as not to artificially limit the scope of possibility. 

As we march forward in time, I hope to see individuals challenging the very idea of colleges using the “first principles” mindset, and I predict that the outcome won’t be a single over-arching solution, but the rediscovery of a multitude of lost and forgotten problems, problems to be solved by a panoply of elegant, local solutions.