3 Apr 2000 crackmonkey   » (Master)

Get Well Soon

I'm sorry to hear about mbp's accident, but I'm glad to hear that he's okay. Get well soon, Martin!

The Idea of a University

This little thread about higher education is actually fascinating to me. I recall when Seth Schoen and I spent a couple hours on a trunk call between California and Massachusetts discussing this very thing. I explained why I had left the University of San Francisco, and also why I had attended in the first place.

Here begins a story...

My parents are both hopeless academics, polyglots, and renaissance types. My father speaks ten languages with comfortable fluency, and can bluff his way through almost any foreign country on Earth. He's a philologist, classicist, librarian, and holds two masters degrees. My mother is the lightweight as far as academic credentials go, with only three or four languages and a single lousy masters. Of course, she also has some programming experience and definitely has a head for numbers and computation that my father seriously lacks.

It was just assumed that I would go to a four-year university and possibly graduate studies after that. My mother, having programmed only on mainframes to make ends meet, was horrified that I wanted to study computer science. Her basic problem was that it seemed like a trade school education. Her experiences with programming were more like factory work. She completely ignored the word "science" in the phrase "computer science", and begged me to study something sensible and enlightening like history or politics or even, God forbid, math.

She could understand mathematics as a field fit for a University. CS, however, was relegated in her mind to lowly colleges and trade academies and night schools. Being her son, I understood why she wasn't happy. I also had this feeling that I was missing some piece of the computing puzzle. I had learned Pascal and C syntax, but still wasn't able to figure out how people put it all together to make programs. I was missing The Right Thing. I was missing the AHA phenomenon.

So I set off South for San Francisco, determined that in a school with only a couple thousand people, I was bound to be able to chat with professors and find the science in computer science. I would have my AHAs, meet and hack with other geeks, and generally get out of my parents' house.

I did find a small community of geeks at USF, but they were all in the Math and Physics departments. The CS students all had dollar signs in their eyes, and were trying to learn a trade. I was heartbroken. My mother had been right. There were no CS hackers at USF, and I would be stuck among those who had no hacker spirit.

I finally figured it out when someone quoted Don Marti to me the other day: (to paraphrase) "You have to be a fool to go to college during an economic boom.".

It's not so much that there are so many opportunities to be found outside of school, or that there is gold in them thar hills. The real problem is that during an economic boom, the quality of fellow student tends to go way down. All of your colleagues are looking to get a bit of the gold, and are less interested in The Right Thing than they are in What Industry Wants.

So, discouraged, I communicated with my friends back in Seattle and hacked around on my own. Finally I discovered the Unix admin department at school, and installed slackware on an old 486 in order to impress them. They seemed like hacker folk -- arrogant, confident, and most of all clued-in. They enjoyed what they did with machines, and they were good at it.

What's more, I discovered in the free software community a feeling I'd had for quite some time. The reason I wanted to learn CS and hacking was that I had seen the community of hackers that worked on Citadel BBSes in Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Citadel BBS software was public domain, and the source code was just sort of naturally available. What's more, the Citadel BBSes networked and formed a forum for discussing desing and implementation issues of the code. I wanted to be a part of that, and I was crushed when the BBS scene seemed to vanish around 1995.

Ultimately, I got a student job with the USF Unix admin department that lasted the last year and a half I was there. I worked as a SysAdmin there until my tuition money ran out and I had to just strike out on my own. I realized that the hackers I had found were all the folks at the CABAL, and that I was doing all the things I had wanted from school, but entirely independently.

I will say this, however: moving to San Francisco was a good thing, and school was definitely a good excuse to move. Also, I did get that AHA! effect from the place. I got some good courses in (especially the Applied Mathematics Research Laboratory, where I learned neurochemistry, a little more calculus than I would have liked, and parallel programming with the MPI environment). It wasn't a complete bust. Heck, I even learned assembly programming and systems hacking there.

What will I do in future? Well, if things calm down, or the economy takes a turn for the worse, I'll go back to school. I'd like to study something other than computers, of course. To tell you the truth, my idea of a University is a place where one just studies whatever is interesting at the urging of an advisor. Declaring a major is just too limiting to me. I am, however, interested in the prospects of going to grad school at MIT without having an undergraduate degree. If I had an impressive enough research project to warrant it, I'd give it a try.

Well, I've got a little black notebook with a vinyl monkey sticker on it that is calling to me. I'm still working on the design of MonkeyCit. It's still beginning to gel, but I'm at the stage where I should start banging in code soon.

Bonus points to anyone who can tell me where the title of this journal entry comes from. It was featured heavily in my debates with my mother.

Latest blog entries     Older blog entries

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!