Thursday, June 7, 2012

Value Added

In 2004, Ken Jennings won 75 consecutive matches of T.V.'s Jeopardy quiz show, winning over two and a half million dollars before being bested by another contestant.  Jennings, most recently, was called out of Jeopardy past player's exile in 2011, along with all-time Jeopardy money winner Brad Rutter, to compete against, and summarily be trounced by, an IBM supercomputer called Watson built expressly for the purpose of playing Jeopardy against humans.  

(Incidentally, if you missed out on watching history in the making, or you simply want to learn more about the cutting edge computing and artificial intelligence embodied in Watson, then I highly recommend you watch the following episode of PBS's NOVA: The Smartest Machine on Earth.)

Anyway, when Jennings isn't appearing on T.V. as one of the best Jeopardy players (statistically speaking) of all-time, he's busy parleying his fifteen minutes of trivial fame into a successful career as an author.

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed his first book about (what else) trivia and trivia buffs, entitled Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.  Jennings is a funny and insightful author who writes books that anyone can find enjoyable, even if they tend to be about topics many people wouldn't normally be interested in.

I'm currently reading his second book entitled, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.  The book is about... well, admittedly I could probably better tell you what it's about once I finish it, but generally, it's about the importance of maps, cartography and geography to humanity now and across the ages.

I was reading this book when I came across the following passage, which I'd like to briefly recreate for you here:

Imagine the poor geographer trying to explain to someone at a campus cocktail party (or even to an unsympathetic administrator) exactly what it is he or she studies.

"'Geography' is Greek for 'writing about the Earth.'  We study the Earth"

"Right, like Geologists."

"Well, yes, but we're interested in the whole world, not just the rocky bits. Geographers also study oceans, lakes, the water cycle..."

"So it's like oceanography or hydrology."

"And the atmosphere."

"Meteorology, climatology ..."

"It's broader than just physical geography.  We're also interested in how humans relate to their planet."

"How is that different from ecology or environmental science?"

"Well, it encompasses them.  Aspects of them.  But we also study the social and economic  and cultural and geopolitical sides of --"

"Sociology, economics, cultural studies, poli sci."

"Some geographers specialize in different world regions."

"Ah, right, we have Asian and African and Latin American studies programs here.  But I didn't know they were part of the geography department."

"They're not."

(Long pause.)

"So, uh, what is it you do study, then?"

And... scene.

I think Jennings has hit here, explaining the plight of the poor misunderstood geographer, on an important misconception amongst all of academia that I've been ruminating on for quite a while. In academia, 'what do you study?' is what the Buddhists would call a question wrongly put (vlogbrothers / John Green shout out!).  The disciplines in academia all seek the same thing; to understand how the world (the universe?) works and how that knowledge can inform us and our decisions.

Ken Jennings goes on to say:

(Geography is)... made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place.  Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning -- there are geographers studying all these subjects and aspects of geography taught in all of them.

I think, then, that the question rightly put would be, 'What is the lens through which you have chosen to see the world?'  This is what I want my college students to know, degrees are little more than marketing ploys invented by colleges and universities to entice prospective students; no different from ploys like whitening agents, or mint flavoring in toothpaste.  The power (and saleability and value) of your educational experience is directly proportional to how well you learn to explore questions from far and wide through the lens or lenses associated with your field of study.  Geographers use the lens of place and spatial relation while chemists explore the same fundamental questions through the lens of chemical interactions and computer scientists look through the lens of information theory.   

Computer science students (and software enigneers and M.I.S. professionals) are not primarily valuable because they can write programs, or use computers better than someone self-taught at these things; but because they can help society (and their bosses) better and more deeply understand the complexities (and occasionally the answers to) problems that have nothing inherently to do with math, or programming, or even computers at all.

In academia, there might be room to argue about the power of our respective lenses (a tempting but, I think, dangerous prospect), but there's no room to argue about how well we've carved out our fields or how important our areas of study are, because our true areas of study, thought about complexly, must necessarily completely overlap.      

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ode to a Car

In 2003 (or, maybe 2004?) Tabitha went with her father (this was B.R., before she became a Ray) to a Toyota dealership on Skyland Blvd in Tuscaloosa, Al (Tuscaloosa Toyota, as it happens), looking for a new solution for her automobile needs.

Tabitha had, in the preceding months, driven her mid-80s era white Pontiac Grand Am to the point that the poor creature literally tossed a push rod out of the bottom of it's engine, through the oil pan, flinging the abused piece of metal down I-20/59 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in a trail of brilliant orange sparks.  The car was as dead as one can be (though, incidentally, it was later resurrected by it's next owner who dropped a refurbished engine in; I wonder if it's still on the road somewhere, even now?)

As you can imagine, Tabitha's lack of a car was a problem.  So, the saga continued when Tabitha's father acquired a used late 80s BMW from a relative.  That would have been fine, but THAT poor beast needed a new controller computer for the electrical system.  Without warning (and with a knack for choosing in-opportune times), it's computer chip would overheat, causing the electrical system (and thus the engine, starter, and ... everything, really) to cease functioning.  The solution was to jump out, pop the hood, and take the positive terminal off the battery.  It would have been possible to repair the offending piece, but the drawback to owning a car, like a BMW, which tends to keep its value over the years, is that it's also prohibitively expensive to buy the parts and find someone with enough skill and expertise to work on it.  The second or third time Tabitha performed this operation in the middle of the road she'd had enough.  

So, when Tabitha and her father wandered over to the used car section at Tuscaloosa Toyota and found a model 2002 Toyota Sebring (light blue, no bells or whistles) she fell in love and within a day she'd settled with the dealership for a ten year loan (a loan that was paid off ahead of time). 

Let's face it, the venerable Chrysler name doesn't mean what it used to.  I haven't been able to keep track of who owns the Chrysler name these days, but back then Dodge owned it.  And if you put a 2002 Dodge Stratus next to a 2002 Chrysler Sebring you will have to squint REAL hard to determine which is which.  They are the same car with different maker emblems and a few nicer plastic components inside the Sebring.

That said, when the transmission broke into a pile of grinding gear teeth at around  the 60,000 mile mark, we actually weren't too surprised.  Tabitha's dad had had enough forethought (I think he would have preferred Tabitha get something else) to purchase a power train warranty from the dealership.  (Incidentally, when the repair man showed us the $1500 repair price tag he asked, weren't we glad we decided to buy the warranty.  One the one hand, yes, but of course, on the other, I'd already figured that over the lifetime of the warranty the transmission could have died in exactly the same fashion twice more before the dealership began to lose money.  Luckily(?) that didn't happen.)

Furthermore, when the timing belt broke on the Interstate near Morristown, Tn with Tabitha and I on our way to celebrate Christmas in Alabama three years ago we were extremely inconvenienced and put under a bit of a monetary strain, but we weren't terribly surprised when all was said and done.  (Incidentally, the Sebring has what's called an "interference engine" design, where the valve head and the piston head partially occupy the same space inside the engine as they slide back and forth.  Ideally, they never touch, but when the timing belt breaks going down the road at 70 mph, things start to get dicey.  By some stroke of luck, the life of the engine itself didn't die three years ago as it could have if the valve and piston had knocked in to one another).

So, with all of this, why am I calling this post an "ode" (ignoring the fact that there's not a lyrical verse to be found in the whole post)?  Because I've come to see that car as a a survivor.  I've been driving the old car full-time for almost two years now.  I've spilled battery acid in it's trunk, I barely ever wash the thing, it needs new tires ever more desperately.  It long ago lost, one by one, all four of it's fancy (plastic) Chrysler hub-caps and has steadfastly refused to wear any cheap replacements.  It's headlights are cloudy and it's paint is fading.  It leaks oil and leaks steering fluid, but it gets me reliably where I'm going.

This week, I've loaded it down repeatedly (probably ten times so far) to take our stuff to our new house.  It's living a third life as a work horse for us.

It's silly to personify machines.  Nevertheless, the other day I was thinking that, as it rolled off the assembly line and was slapped with the name Chrysler it never imagined it would have such a hard life.  Probably, all it's Chrysler buddies would make fun of it if they could see it now.  But, there is honor and reason for pride in working hard. 

The car may die tomorrow (personally I'm REALLY hoping it'll stay alive for another few years), but even if it does it can go to it's final rest knowing it's owners got their money's worth; for sure.