Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Three Billion Blind Sheep

     I spent a lifetime raised by nerds.  We were not necessarily stereotypical nerds, but we were nerds.  And darn proud of it.  When I took an I.Q. test and scored 175, all I could think was, "Thatís IT?"  And yep, my mother had the same reaction.  But y'know -- that's how I felt it should be.  That just happens to be how I was brought up.  The first computer I ever touched (a C64) was hardly ever used for games.  It was meant for programming.  Thatís exactly what my brother and I did with it.  Oh sure, we had a game or two for it...  Arkanoid, Turrican, LazerZone... but other than that, there was just good ol' BASIC.  And that was fun for me.  It got to the point that I would today prefer to look up info on the latest processor rollouts and algorithm research than play a network game of Counterstrike.  That aspect of me has loosened up somewhat, but not too significantly.  Part of that is attributable to one other thing Iíve always had engraved on my skull - a college student is a person who is not entitled to enjoy his/her life for 4 or more years. Prior to being in college, I was intent on salvaging what few years I had left before having to face the arduous hell that would approach.  At the same time, I wanted to make sure my time in college was short.  Iíd heard of all the people who went into college not knowing what they wanted to do, and jumped around from major to major, all the time only prolonging their years in the prison known as the university.  I was not going to let that happen to me.  I started my search long before any normal person would have.  I experimented with some 15 options.  It just so happened that programming and music were the things that stuck.  Music went on and off, but programming was permanently affixed to me like some sort of barnacle.  Now I enjoy having my blood sucked out.
     For all the learning I did outside of school, it was mostly sparked by a certain event on May 17, 1993.  I downloaded and executed a certain VERY special program.  UNREAL.EXE.  If you think this is the Epic Megagames Unreal, then you're a deprived and sad fellow.  Besides which, that game did not exist in 1993.  This program was NOT a game nor did it have any significant interactivity...  It was a simple standalone demonstration of what the programmers, musicians, and artists in a small, unorganized group of 7 could do.  Then again, so is Sounds & Visions, but that's another matter entirely... ;)  Moving along, the point is not that Unreal was the culmination of everything, but it was the spark that ignited a great roaring flame.
     But there was a certain problem.  This problem was an institution that sought to cause endless suffering.  This organization would not rest until we would grow pale and roll over while breathing blood.  They watched as every individual cell in our bodies chilled and fell dead and into rigor.  They drew endless joy in witnessing our degeneration into a sea of protons, neutrons, and morons...  No, I'm not talking about Microsoft.  This is and entirely different millstone around our necks that has plagued the world even longer...  We simply call it "school."  School was especially harmful around 1995.  This was a period where the PC demoscene evolved VERY rapidly.  There were huge leaps and bounds being made overnight.  And here I was being bored to tears being fed "soh cah toa" 5 times a week.  While it was certainly true that democoding was just a hobby, it was a hobby that involved some "|\/|(-|d 5k1||z."  In short, not something that will ever be taught in any school.  However h4x0r=i5h it was, they WERE undeniably useful skills.  In particular, the fact that it involved some halfway decent knowledge of the subsystem architecture.  And there was some hardcore code optimization in there.  Vsync was one of my faves...  sooo much cooler than Vretrace!!!
     Well, eventually, a magical year known as 1997 rolled around.  Why was 1997 important?  I finished high school that year!!!  Moreover, that summer was my most relaxing in a long time.  I was not taking a full load of classes.  So I had chances to actually catch up to the scene.  That I did.  And in 6 weeks, for that matter.  Yes, that's right folks...  My makeshift d3mo-gr00p and I managed to make up for about 18 months of lagging in a matter of 6 weeks.  PMODE coding?  done.  VBE 2.0 LFB?  done.  XM & IT playback?  done.
     This led to a new question.  What made that rate of learning possible?  Sitting in classes for 15 years never did that much.  In all fairness, the same wealth of information was not so readily available 15 years prior, but information is only as useful as the mind it enters.  The formal education system was also about conveying information.  What made the progress of the system so weak when compared to an obscure hobby?  One could say that it was because I was so incredibly interested in it, but I did have, as probably everybody had, at least a few school subjects that I found interesting.  Moreover, the practice of most graphics algorithms involves an intense math background.  I knew I had to be diligent in my math classes or I would not have any value in the space of the hobby I loved.  Those math classes, however, simply did not make the same progress that my own hands made for me.  I would not have had even a tiny clue as to what Pluecker space is if I never went out and sought the information myself.
     The obvious argument is that it should make perfect sense that I would do better on my own than to follow some set curriculum.  If that makes sense, though, why do the schools not take advantage of that?  The simple answer is that it takes too much effort on their part.  To do so involves faculty that get closely involved in the process of tracking students individually.  There are a few schools that attempt to manage learning in this way.  These are the same schools that would require a multi-millionaire family to take out a second mortgage on their homes to cover tuition and fees.  Either that, or they are meant to be purely supplementary.  In either case, it is a tremendous added expense.  To think of formal education as a system by which people learn at the limits of their capacity is naive.  School is not a place of learning by any means.  It is quite simply a business.  In a more global sense, the sole value of a university is in its facilities.  If college were solely used in a supplementary fashion, that would be quite ideal, but the definition of "ideal" may as well be "that which cannot exist."
     For those of you who are studying practices that involve hard-nosed experiments and such, I can still guarantee you that the teaching abilities of the school are several trillion times less capable than you are monkeying around and electrocuting yourself.  You do need facilities.  What you do NOT need is class.  You do need the occassional supplemental personal sources.  You do NOT need someone telling you what to learn.  You can learn basics on your own.  You can learn intermediate things on your own.  You can learn advanced topics on your own.  You can learn cutting-edge hyper-advanced topics with a little help.  And that's about it.  This is basically the conclusion I've run into after witnessing examples of the products of several schools.
     For all that, I should have run across at least one that seemed at least adequate.  In theory, a business such as a college should seek to outdo its competitors by providing a superior product or service.  This didn't happen in any of the schools I'd seen.  In all that time, they were answering to higher powers.  They had always tried to maintain a relatively fixed standard.  It wasn't the standard that was convoluted, but the idea of standardization itself that caused all the problems.  I could only reach the conclusion that the standard, basic system that I had seen was there to make the jobs of the faculty easier.  They wouldn't have to think or adapt to
anything.  Just stick by what they know, and that means they can just ride along and milk the cash cow.  This is in fact, all there is to life...  If you think that being a long-standing practice makes it right, then you rank among the most naive people to walk this lithosphere.  Sadly, the "master-student tradition" argument is probably the most common one I've heard.
     I've always found that intelligent people do not dominate the world.  Whenever I saw people praise prodigal children on television, it begged the question of "why?"  If there were many smart people on this planet, one more smart person isn't a big deal.  The problem is there are not very many smart people on this planet, and that is why a prodigy is such a big deal.  If there were smarter people in this world, the average IQ would be a great deal higher than the 90-105 range that it is today (not by the definition of IQ itself, but you should get what I mean).  The threshold of genius would not be the pitiful 140 assigned to it right now.  If I was unimpressed by an IQ of 175, why should the world be so amazed by 140?  Moreover, how do you define smart?  Is it just the fact that someone KNOWS STUFF?!???  That's utterly pitiful.  So that guy
who won lots of money on Jeopardy is super-smart!!!  He should rule the world!  Yyyyyes, Pinky!  How does beating your friends at Trivial Pursuit make you smart?  For god's sake...  it's called "Trivial" for a reason!  If that really is smart, then I guess school really IS about making people smart.  After all, we are fed information down our throats and expected to memorize and regurgitate it all back.  Well, having the ability to spout facts means that we're smart!  Oh, brother...  ¬_¬
     Moreover, how great does one have to be to be smart?  Getting straight A's?  That's utter BS!!  Getting an A involves being in the upper 10% echelon.  Depending on the class, that can mean getting a 70%.  Sure, a 70% average got me an A.  But since I got an A, I must be ultra-smart.  By that same logic, I could go up to a piano, and attempt to play a song.  I can get 7 out of every 10 notes right...  and people would call me "maestro."  Rrrrriiiiigght...  But no one sneers at that 70% A grade.  No one sees the very concept as being "tainted" or "foolish."  We've been programmed.  We respect a piece of paper because we're all too stupid not to.  The only thing that is gained for the world is a certain guarantee that everyone with said piece of paper has achieved a certain minimum status of knowledge.  This is a very tenuous guarantee, at best.  For one, you're depending on the memory of thousands of people.  Two, they're being told what to learn by other people -- not all necessarily by the same person.  And you close your eyes to the prodigies who were previously praised as if their potentials were beyond imagination.  I guess we can't imagine very much.  After all, we're told what to think about from day one.
     There was this time when I was given the chance to do a guest lecture at Texas A&M.  This was a video conferenced sort of thing, so nobody had to exchange any money and I didn't have to go anywhere.  Naturally, the reactions of a lot of profs included phrases like "You?  But... you're an UNDERGRAD!"  Thank you for that, O professor.  Now please allow me to cut off your head just so that I can spit down your throat, you lowlife scum.  Well, the topic was visibility algorithms and I started with something basic -- regular old Z-Buffering.  Not more than 2 minutes in did a hand raise and he said "We JUST covered painter's algorithm."  I think I took pause at that for about 15 seconds.  Mostly mulling over the fact that I was lecturing to grad students.  This was sad.  This was a whole other level of sad.  This was higher education.  A short discussion with Paul Nettle some time before that signaled to me that this was not a unique experience or anything like that.  Whatever happened to the days when you coded day and night not sleeping and you typed and typed until your keyboard was covered in blood?  And you didn't do it for the sake of getting an assignment in on time.  You didn't do it to meet some deadline.  You did it for yourself.  I MISS those days.  I would give anything to go through them again.  Sure, I'll probably die young if I do that too much, but I wouldn't mind.  Death isn't scary.  Seeing a whole generation of CS grads who don't know what a Z-Buffer is ...  THAT is scary.
     Really, the art of learning is not going to happen if someone tells you what to learn.  By our very nature, we do not want to be tied down and locked in a singular path.  Sure there are people who are weak and helpless.  We call them "grad students."  There are people who are probably never going to sort out what they want to do in life.  We call them "burger-flipping grad students."  Even more sad is that people whine about some of the things that they really shouldn't whine about.  If anything, we all have it easy.  I simply have to retch every time I hear a high school senior whine about calculus being too hard.  This is math that people have been doing for almost 330 years.  300-year-old math is hard?  If this is an example of humankind getting smarter every generation, I really don't want to know what previous generations were like.  Granted, there are evil and highly pointless areas of study that many of us are forced to learn.  I'm not getting into that.  Many of these evil areas are theories formed within the past few decades.  Everyone did stupid things in the twentieth century.  And academia always takes the crown in that area.  However, whining about things that have today become so utterly fundamental is just not right.
     All it boils down to is pushing yourself to your own limits in gathering and compiling information.  Our brains are pitifully slow, but they excel in the art of making sense of a jumble of info.  That is education.  A person will always do best outside of a standardized system simply because people themselves are not all alike.
The very existence of schools and classes would be better justified if their funcions were solely supplementary.  A school is where we should go when some information we seek is not so easily acquired.  And those who learn on their own can judge their limits and where they might need help.  No one can judge your own knowledge better than
yourself.  Anyone else is absolutely unfit to do so.  If anyone thinks they are fit to judge your knowledge, they are hopeless fools.  But at the same time, it is useless to argue with idiots in that order of magnitude.
     Well, the other side of the coin is that one could simply go through standard curricula and just work to our limits on that material and thereby gain volumes of knowledge, but also satisfy what the world asks for.  There are a few problems with this.  One, you assume that such a thing is possible.  No matter how you slice it, there will be at least one class for which a person cannot be motivated.  Without motivation, there is no way for one to push his/her limits.  Two, you will still end up a sheep.  You may be one of the finest sheep in the meadow, but you are a sheep, nonetheless.  We do not learn so that we can be assembly-line products.  Having the force-fed so-called knowledge that is unleashed in a university setting can only make you identical to all the other Model T's out there.  Nothing makes you good.  All you are is adequate.  Three, you still have no idea what you want to do.  There is no point in any curriculum where the curriculum is focused.  Oh sure, there are trade schools, but we're generalizing here.  Besides which, trade schools have their own problems.  Not the least of which is cost.  Sure there are people who become great in spite of it all.  Every possibility exists and I also have magical powers.  Sure, you might be different.  Of course, your field of study may be a special case.  Life is filled with "could have's" and "should have's" and "maybe's."  I MIGHT actually be Enrico Fermi...  but I'm not.
     I'm not saying that we should idealize the world.  After all, that's never going to happen.  If we tried too hard to idealize the world, we'd probably end up regressing into an Ancient Roman re-hash of sorts.  And I'm not saying that we should get rid of universities altogether, either.  For one, there ARE always going to be those weaklings who can't do anything constructive unless they're told.  There ARE always going to be those who are completely brainwashed and will forever remain in those nascent stages where they believe in the value of so-called higher education.  There ARE always going to those people who fear the non-ideal world out there and wish to remain completely out of touch with it.  There has to be a place for those people.  As long as people like that exist, there will always be a way to make money off of them.  What I AM talking about is the mistakenly high respect that is placed on school.  And that is exactly why people still "have to" go to college.  People put so much stock in it that there is no recourse.  We have approximately 2 billion orders of magnitude too much value in this outdated system.  I say outdated because it was perfect for ancient times when books could not be printed in volume.  Back to the times when experimental equipment only existed in a handful of places around the planet.  Back when there was no web or coffee-selling bookstores.  Take away the books and assume there's only a few copies of any book or paper in the entire world.  Take away all the eCrap and iGarbage.  Take away the lattes and frappucinos.  And in that kind of world, you absolutely HAD to go to classes and learn from masters.  You absolutely HAD to memorize and regurgitate because you certainly couldn't get it any other way.  You would be quite hard-pressed to find a child prodigy who wasn't the son/daughter of a living legend.  You simply could not teach yourself is what it really means.  Today, it's much easier to teach yourself.  There are no exceptions.
     One could say that we're in nascent stages but that would assume that change is either occurring or is due.  I don't believe that it is.  People don't like change.  And the education system is actually something that has been socially programmed into us all.  The moment it is subject to change, people will cower away in fear.  People who think they're making it better are not.  You can't fix a problem by using it more and more.
     The only other thing to deal with is the sheer amount of work.  Some people are just too lazy to spend life researching on their own time.  If you're not strong enough to deal with the difficulties and pitfalls, then you just don't deserve a better chance in life.  If you are just plain lazy and weak, then fine...  SOMEBODY has to flip burgers.  Now all we need is enough cows to go around.
View the Soapbox archives.
Back to my home page.