Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement

This whole attitude is weird to me:

He says his name is George but declines to give his last name. He’s 29 years old, holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been unemployed for a year and a half, not counting the five months he worked as a street cleaner.

“It’s more difficult for the highly qualified,” he says. “The market thinks we will cost too much.” He’s applying for a position as a secretary, a job that requires a high school degree. For a couple of minutes, he and Stratigaki discuss whether his education will be an asset or a liability, and then their names are called.”

People aren’t owed jobs because of (possibly bogus) qualifications or credentials; they get jobs because they can do something valuable for someone else. Degrees don’t necessarily show that, and I’ve met plenty of doofuses in advanced degree programs or with advanced degrees, who I wouldn’t hire, and plenty of people without degrees, who I would hire.

That point doesn’t say much about the macro situation in Greece, which is dire and a human tragedy. Nonetheless, the idea that being “highly qualified” automatically makes someone worthy of a job is bizarre to me yet also seems endemic among many of the people I run into, who view educational credentials as accurate proxies for valued skills. Yet I look at many of the people I’ve met in various forms of higher education (law school, grad school in English lit) and am struck by how few of them I would hire to write proposals.

Among people in the English grad department, I can think of no one I would want to hire—students or professors. Perhaps I am judging them unfairly, but the stories about marginally employed “professors” on food stamps makes sense to me, because what else are many of these people going to do? Many don’t even seem to realize that, given their sometimes tremendous writing talents, getting a blog is the way to spread ideas and make connections. Many seem to have a limited sense of possibility. On the other hand, I’ve met two different people on the Internet who, if I suddenly needed a writer, I’d seek out, since both are already competent writers who can get things done.

By contrast, generic grad students frequently spend a decade in grad school and have literally nothing to show for their effort other than their degrees; a few have peer-reviewed articles that are only 25 pages long and intellectually vacuous at that. Many perpetual students don’t seem to care about whether they provide value for someone else or somehow just deserve jobs for existing.

To my mind, the question of “What value do I provide for other people?” is paramount, so much so that I keep citing it again and and again in this post, even if “What degrees do I have or can I get?” is easier.

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs passes and the Internet speaks

I’ve never felt sad at the death of a famous person or someone I didn’t know. The recent news, however, does make me sad—probably because it seems like Steve Jobs’s personality infused everything Apple made. Maybe that’s just Apple’s marketing magic working on me, but if so, I’m still impressed, and I’m still not sure how to analyze a feeling of sadness about a person I never met, or how to go beyond what others have said about the loss of someone whose work and life’s work is so insanely great.

Like so many people writing about Jobs, I feel compelled to mention the hardware on which I’m doing it: a 27″ iMac with an impressively fast SSD and incredibly small footprint given the monitor’s size. Since getting an aluminum PowerBook in 2004, each subsequent Mac has been more amazing than the one preceding it—especially because I didn’t think it was possible to be more amazed than the one preceding it. There’s an iPhone sitting nearby, and in the near future that might become an iPhone 4S. So few devices feel so right, and I think people respond to Apple because it understands the link between technological function and feelings as few others do or few others can.

I look around to see what else I use and think about whether I know anything about the people behind those things: certainly not the Honda Civic I drive. Not the tea kettle I use to boil water. Not the Dell secondary monitor, whose badge could be stripped and another appended with absolutely no one noticing. I know a little about the Jeff Weber, who designed the Embody with Bill Stumpf, but that’s mostly because of wonky interest on my par. Try as I might, I can’t think of anyone else remotely like Jobs in achievement, fame, importance, and ubiquity. That person might be out there, but I don’t know who he is. His work is anonymous in a way Jobs’s has never been. He makes stuff with character in a world where so much stuff utterly lacks it.

Take the Apple logo off the iMac, and you’ll still have a machine that makes one stop and take account. And those improvements! Jobs offers lessons to the ambitious: Good is never good enough; you can always go further; done is never done enough; and, even if those things aren’t true, time will make them true. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 200 years from now, Jobs is still taken to be one of the pillars of his age, known to some extent by non-specialists, like Edison or Ford.

The Internet is saying a lot about Jobs. People are linking to the text version of his 2005 Stanford graduation speech. The Atlantic is explaining Why We Mourn Steve Jobs. Here’s someone almost as obscure as me writing Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011: “Today marked the end of an era. Each of the quotes below is linked to a eulogy or collection of reflections on the passing of Steve Jobs.” Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica and A New Kind of Science fame remembers Jobs and Jobs’s encouragement too. There are probably more tributes and commentaries than anyone could read, even if they had the inclination. Let me add to the pile, and to the pile of people saying they feel a strange connection to the man, however ridiculous that feeling might be. It’s ridiculous, but it’s real, like that connection between person and tool, user and computer. The connection is real in part because Jobs helped make it real.


EDIT: See also Megan McArdle on the Jobs speech:

The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers: the folks who have made a name for themselves in some very challenging, competitive, and high-status field. No one ever brings in the regional sales manager for a medical supplies firm to say, “Yeah, I didn’t get to be CEO. But I wake up happy most mornings, my kids are great, and my golf game gets better every year.”

In addition, I usually hate watching videos on the Internet because most are overrated, but Colbert on Jobs is not. Also available in the funny / genuine vein: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies,” courtesy of the Onion.

Heres’t the tech columnist Walt Mossberg on Jobs.

September 2011 links: Jobs, leads, feminism, the new pants revue, shoulds and wants, demand for software engineers, plagarism, and more

* This is how you catch someone’s attention with the lead: “I became a feminist the day my sixth-grade math teacher dismembered and spit on a white rose, telling us, ‘This is you after you have sex.’

* The shoulds and the wants, highly recommended and possibly related to the link immediately above. See also the penultimate link.

* One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities.

* My job is to watch dreams die.

* The New Pants Revue, by Bruce Sterling: “Since I’m a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail.”:

I should explain now why I have been wearing “5.11 Tactical” trousers for a decade. It’s pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.”

If I didn’t live in Arizona, where pants are appropriate maybe three weeks of the year, I would’ve already ordered a pair. I, too, have too much gear.

(Hat tip Charlie Stross.)

* Demand for software developers is still high.

* Turnitin: Arming both sides in the Plagiarism War. The term “plagiarism war” is part of the problem: it’s not a “war,” and students and instructors shouldn’t be adversaries. I don’t spend a huge amount of time hunting for plagiarism, mostly under the theory that the primary person hurt is in fact the plagiarist, who isn’t developing the writing skills he or she will one day need. The market punishes people without skills harshly enough, as so many of the unemployed have discovered the hard way in the last three years. If I find plagiarism in students papers, I deal with it, but I wonder if schools would be better off adopting honor codes and expecting students to abide by them, rather than militarizing the issue, even metaphorically, and hunting for violators.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “french sex games.” I suspect they were disappointed, although I also wonder what else they found.

* More on that ever-popular topic, “Why does the female orgasm exist? A popular theory has been criticized as male-centric, but it might have unexpected feminist results.”

* Two thousand years in one chart, or, “we make a lot of stuff these days.”

%d bloggers like this: