Advice to a Junior in High School?

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at
Wed Aug 27 22:38:48 CEST 2003

Stan Graves wrote:
 > [Lots of good advice snipped]

Wow, this is really good advice on becoming a decent human being! I 
could not have put it as well or succinctly. This is much better advice 
for someone finishing high school soon than on any specific technical 
direction. It reminds me a bit of Robert Heinlein's quotation: "A human 
being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a 
hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, 
build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, 
cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch 
manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die 
gallantly. Specialization is for insects".

We live in a beautiful and mysterious world -- seemingly infinite in 
time and space and meaning, perhaps with multiple nested levels beyond 
our current understanding (individual or collective). Stan's advice 
touches on how to come to grips with these deeper issues indirectly by 
engaging deeply in the human experience through the ways he outlines 
(volunteering, compassion, art, dance, music, frugality, etc.) to grow 
some deep roots to rely on when branching out into a specialization like 
computer science or Python internals.

One good resource in the area towards career understanding is Richard 
Bolles "What Color is Your Parachute".
and his related books on Life/Work planning.

Still, I might add, from a technical side, become aware of Moore's Law 
if you want to try to predict where the computer field is going to go 
over the course of your career. Computers have increased in computing 
capacity for a constant cost on the order of close to one million times 
over the last thirty or so years. In the next twenty years or so they 
will probably again increase by a factor of about another million from 
where they are now.
Ever more sophisticated virtual reality simulations and robotics (e.g. 
cars that drive themselves just for one application) will be just a few 
of the sorts of possibilities this kind of computing power will enable, 
as well as all sorts of things we can barely imagine now. Cars can even 
drive themselves now using laptops, but they will be presumably even 
safer and more capable then...
On Moore's Law and exponential growth see for example:
Moore's Law type growth is one reason sophisticated languages like 
Python are now succesful (over using all C/C++ all the time) and may be 
ever more succesful as time goes by. As a corollary, today's level of 
desktop computing may well cost one-millionth of what it does in twenty 
years, and so may be effectively free (well, a penny) and so may be 
embedded everywhere (so studying embedded sytems might be useful, and 
for example, learning the computer language Forth might be relevant).

Also, to elaborate on Stan's suggestion to study literature, read lots 
of things (including, but not limited to, science fiction). For one 
optimistic view of the future, see James P. Hogan's writings, especially 
"Voyage from Yesteryear".
I always return to that novel and his other writings as a way to regain 
some hope for the future. And for a cyberpunkish vision, try "The 
Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson.
But don't skimp on other classics, from "The Machine Stops" to "The 
Skills of Xanadu".

It's quite possible in twenty years that much of your work in computing 
may be almost inseperable from nanotechnology matter replicator 
programming (i.e. your programs might compile to the hardware). 
Self-replicating space habitats made easy by related technological 
advances in computing and materials fabrication may then well produce 
trillions of Earth's worths of living space around our solar system.
Those sort of possibilities realizeable through dedication and 
commitment of young people like yourself (as well as oldsters :-) make 
all this current fighting over oil and water and land and weapons all 
seem so childish and outmoded as a civilization... Hogan's vision of a 
universe of plenty if we can just cooperate and show compassion and try 
to avoid living in fear is a good one to embrace. Choices by millions of 
people such as yourself will shape whether and how much and for whom the 
future heads in this direction.

On the science front, read anything by Freeman Dyson (like "Disturbing 
the Universe") because he is a very decent human being as well as 
citizen-scientist. And of course, read more broadly than that -- 
biographies, "Harry Potter", history, and so on. Two useful historians 
to read include:
   "A People's History of the United States"
and "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook 
Got Wrong"
The concepts in these books may well shape the US political spectrum in 
the next couple of decades, and our technosphere may well then be 
reconstructed to reflect these changing social values. See also, 
"Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political 
Thought" as it grapples directly with this issue of technological 
development reflecting social values (it's kind of dry, but some of his 
other writings may  be more accessible).
A computer language like Python (as opposed to C++) in a way reflects a 
different mindset about accessability and changeability (see Guido's 
"Computer Programming for Everybody")
in the same way that local solar panels or home biomass fuel cells or 
better home insulation alter the political power landscape as opposed to 
large centralized nuclear or coal power plants or oil tankers. Always be 
aware that the technological systems you build reflect your values. It's 
kind of not a surprise to me that Python came from the Netherlands 
(progressive social system) or Smalltalk from sort-of-hippies in 
California :-) or GNU/Linux from Finland (well, OK, and RMS/GNU in 
Boston post-MIT, which sort of wrecks that analogy :-).

And beware the PhD pyramid scheme. See a comment by the Vice Provost of 
Caltech on the state of science jobs today as testimony to Congress:
In short, Prof. Goodstein says because of this focus on the PhD in US 
science, much US education and educators down to the high school level 
are somewhat inadequate to the task of imparting useful skills for other 
than those heading to do the most elite abstract research, unlike say 
the technical education available in some of Europe.

An excerpt from that page: "The problem, to reiterate, is that science 
education in America is designed to select a small group of elite 
scientists. An unintended but inevitable side effect is that everyone 
else is left out. As a consequence of that, 20,000 American high schools 
lack a single qualified physics teacher, half the math classes in 
American schools are taught by people who lack the qualifications to 
teach them, and companies will increasingly find themselves without the 
technical competence they need at all levels from the shop floor to the 
executive suite. To solve this problem will take nothing less than a 
reform of both education and society. We must have as our goal a nation 
in which solid scientific education will form the basis of realistic 
career opportunities at all levels, in industry, government and in 
education itself, from kindergarten to graduate school. As long as we 
train a tiny scientific elite that cares not at all about anyone else, 
and everyone else wears ignorance of science and mathematics as a badge 
of honor, we are putting our future as a nation and as a culture in deep 

I'm not saying don't get a CS PhD someday down the road to realize a 
dream of becoming a computer scientist if that is what you want 
(although please understand the difference between a software developer 
and a mathematician who studies algorithms and how that relates to the 
courses you take and universities you choose to attend) -- just 
understand what you are getting yourself into and how that PhD system 
has distorted science and technical education in the US at present (and 
that link above explains why in some detail).

Also, on the issue of volunteerism Stan raise, contributing early and 
often to various open source / free software projects that are of 
interest to you (such as contributing to Python) is a way to both gain 
visibility in the computer world as well as to leave a meaningful legacy 
behind no matter where your career and life takes you. Obviously, get 
your parent(s)'s or guardian's permission first if legally or morally 

All the best.

--Paul Fernhout

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