Minor in Computer Science

I’m not convinced there’s any value in an undergraduate minor degree.  

I remember very few theories, facts or general themes from my five courses in Political Science.  And given the natural overlap between the two, it’s unclear whether exposure to Political Science complemented my Economics major or merely stole hours away from a deeper exploration of my main focus.  

That’s not to say my Political Science courses weren’t interesting, because several were.  But while glossing over case studies on national sovereignty and political legitimacy, I was forgoing classes that were more different, more expansionary, and potentially more useful in the long run.  

In hindsight, this opportunity cost* has become crystal clear. 

What would I have done differently?  

  1. Forget the minor.  Maybe still take the one-off Political Science class that truly piqued my interest, but on the whole, taking an array of five survey courses added up to nothing.  
  2. Math. Unfortunately no one told my 20 year old self that if you really want to study economics, linear algebra probably trumps almost any senior seminar in the catalogue.  I’m also fairly confident that more math classes never made anyone dumber.  
  3. Computer Science. It didn’t seem obvious at the time, but it hopefully does today: no matter what you do professionally and personally for the rest of your life, you will spend an overwhelming amount of time working and playing on or with computers.  A familiarity with how these machines work will never hurt you.  Furthermore, for young, smart, driven students, right now there’s no better guarantee of a stimulating and well-compensated first job than a foundation in software development.  
  4. And probably more Economics.  Those are the classes I really loved.  Should have done more of that.

 

But that’s just what I would have done differently myself.  What would I encourage my younger cousins to do?  

  1. Major in the topic that interests you most.  Full stop.  Set aside any professional ambitions you think you have – either real or suggested – and just consider what topic you best enjoying thinking about in your spare time.  How do you view the world around you?  When you read the newspaper, what narratives and angles are you drawn to?  Major in the subject that best complements these interests and perspectives.  For me that was economics.  While I’ll never become a real economist, my coursework has informed how I think about the world around me, and for that I am deeply grateful.  
  2. Once you’ve locked in your primary focus, expose yourself to skills that might help you land an actual job.  Given my current position, I’m biased towards computer programming – I’m convinced it’ll never hurt.  That being said, courses in statistics, communications, teaching, etc. all probably fill this bucket.  One caveat to this: I haven’t heard much recently on the benefit generalist programs in “Business Administration” or the like.  Concrete, hard-skills that align with employers’ demands are obviously ideal.  
  3. Don’t take bad classes.  And never, ever, take a bad class to fulfill a requirement for some bullshit minor (see above).  In your entire life, you’ll probably only get to take ~32 college classes, don’t waste a single one of them.  

The truism throughout all of this is that a liberal arts degree is not about academic knowledge gained, but rather learning how to observe, analyze, and communicate in the world around us.  You’ll probably get all that just by showing up.  But you probably only get fours years of college, might as well make the most of it.  

 

* As someone who views the world through the lens of economics, if you don’t understand opportunity costs, please do at least take intro micro.  Thanks.

 

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    Response to “Kony 2012”

    If you have seen Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video and it piqued your interest, please read one or all of these three pieces:

    http://justiceinconflict.org/2012/03/07/taking-kony-2012-down-a-notch/

    http://securingrights.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/lets-talk-about-kony/

    http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136673/mareike-schomerus-tim-allen-and-koen-vlassenroot/obama-takes-on-the-lra?page=show

    To write everything I would like to say about this would take too much time – to say less would be imbalanced.  Judge for yourself.

    Friday afternoon in the office

    Three stooges in Kampala:

    “Don’t disrupt me, I’m three lines of Stata code away from ending hunger!”

    “Well I’m one IRB application away from solving world poverty!”

    “I was just enjoying the view from up here…”

    Researching Research

    I have lots of internal debates on the recent trend towards blogs covering formal publications and vice versa.  As an example, over the winter break I happened to pick up a copy of the Economist – a obviously great publication – to read a summary of the recent debates on evaluating Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Village Projects.  The debate itself did not play out at a big conference, well, it probably has, but the article was tracking the discussion on the World Bank’s impact evaluation blog, written in part by IPA affiliate David McKenzie.  In this one case I happen to have read the full debate beforehand – perhaps the only moment in my life when I’ve been a half step ahead of such a publication.  Just struck me as odd that this implies that for nearly every article in the entire publication there are more than a few people thinking wow, the Economist is a few months behind on this one.. The debate itself is worth reading, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    All that is to preface saying that this is a post about an article from another famed publication, The Atlantic.  I’ve recently been mentioning this article to so many people I figured I might as well post it here, even if it’s two months old.  It’s an article on meta-research – perhaps the driest realm imaginable to some – but a great introduction into the inquiries of how we know what we know, how science and academia and business are all so closely intertwined, and how minor adjustments to small underlying assumptions can turn great research findings on their head.  Dr. Ionnidis set up a lab in Greece to crunch big numbers and keep the clinical trials industry honest – and they, as a scientific community, seem to have embraced his oversight.  Best news coming out of his work is that we should really trust very little of the “evidence” produced by all these nutritional / health trials; common sense reigns again!

    This week in Kampala…

    … a young man of maybe 25 walked up the stairs to our office (all five flights) and approached me on the front balcony – he looked a bit old for secondary school but with a bundle of papers under one arm and an ill fitted tie I was prepared for either the “I’d like a job” pitch or the “can you help me with school fees” pitch.  Instead I got:

    Him: Hi, I have just started an investment company.

    Me: Oh.  Ok, what can I do for you today?

    Him: Well, how can your business help my business?

    Me: Well, we’re not a business.  Wait a second, what did you just say?!

    By far the best business pitch I’ve heard all week.  I debated, and then refrained from, explaining that occasionally we evaluate interventions that seek to train micro-entrepreneurs in basic business practices and maybe he could sign up to learn something about sales.

    … a four car freight train came rumbling through town, crossing a main artery during rush hour, backwards.  Here there aren’t exactly any flashing lights or electric wands that descend to block the flow of traffic.  Fortunately a few astute drivers had their windows down, heard the extending blare of the fog horn and looked up in time to stop traffic.  I pulled up just in time to see the unlit backside of a freight car leading the way through town as the conductor, at the other end, was leaning out his door to see if they were about to crush anyone.  And then we proceeded.

    … a man riding a bicycle down a hill by my flat with a full size six foot overstuffed couch strapped to the back.  Of all the things I’ve seen carried, that takes the cake – I hope someone was meeting him at the bottom of the hill.

    … MTN, the largest telcom provider in Uganda, has a massive new billboard up the road that reads:

    The UN has declared that internet access is a human right.  So we’re giving you that access for free.

    Definitely the wittiest crack at the UN I’ve seen in the public forum.  Also an indication that internet here is really starting to catch on.  For a town without too many internet cafes (professionals / expats all have wireless USB modems) there are now a slew of billboards by Google promoting Gmail and the wireless providers promoting various packages.

    Part of the challenge with keeping the blog going has been that many of the things I see day to day are no longer such novelties – this was a good week for novelties.

    Homeward Bound

    This evening I’ll take a plane out of Africa for the first time in 11 months.  Sound like a long time?  It feels like a long time.  And yet I immediately think of a story told by a development old-timer who did Peace Corps in the early 80s in Niger.  His posting was rural but not inaccessible – a fellow volunteer, on the other hand, had been placed in the north, in an area where there were no roads, only open grasslands that one could venture across with the appropriate vehicle and, presumably, a local guide.  This other volunteer, probably younger than I am now, was dropped off by such a vehicle and left there for two years until the same vehicle reappeared on the horizon to announce the end of his stay.  Now perhaps this story has gained some flare over time but, regardless, two years in rural Niger without any sort of access to the outside world or the multitudes of comforts I take for granted in Kampala – now that’s tough to wrap my head around.  Does it make this experience seem inadequate or any less real?  No, but it does make me appreciate both the rapid, albeit limited / inequitable, development of the last 30 years and the resulting relative ease of doing business as a development professional in Africa.

    My thoughts on going home?  First to family and friends I’ve gone too long without seeing.  And second, perhaps oddly, to the anonymity of being an American in America.  You’ll all know where I’ve been these last 11 months, but, when I walk down the streets of D.C. tomorrow morning nobody else will have any idea that I’ve been abroad, that I’ve been living a life that some consider blog-worthy.  What’s the appeal?  In some sense the anonymity allows me to lower my guard – to know that I can walk down the street without catching a disproportionate number of eyes.  To enter a gas station, café or pizza shop and receive the customary service – be it with a smile or otherwise – as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about my presence.  Third, the cold.  I’ve recently caught myself wearing flannel shirts and hoodies and then checking the weather to learn it’s 70* – I’m actually a bit nervous.  Fourth, home cooked food and VT beer.

    I can already anticipate seeing the beggars in the subways; their reminding me that I need not travel so far to find poverty, and me recalling that I’ve still never answered the question as to why I choose to venture abroad nonetheless.

    I have a vivid image of driving home along the long open stretches of route 89 through New Hampshire – a nice rural road by any standards – a superhighway without comparison in the context of east Africa.

    I promise I won’t complain about unloading the dishwasher this winter.

    In going home I just might go an entire day without hearing a rooster crow.  I work on the 5th floor of an office building in one of the nicer business / NGO districts of Kampala and I’d say with some confidence that there hasn’t been a single day in the last 300 without the sounds of chickens mixed with traffic.

    In all likelihood I’ll go an entire week, or even four, without experiencing a power outage.  “Power outage” isn’t even a term here.  We now come into the office every morning and ask, hopefully, if power “is there today?”  That’s a lie – most days the answer is made obvious by the presence or absence of a series of cheap petrol generators spewing a low rumble and noxious fumes on the small balcony of each office.  Why?  The continued aftermath of a government that emptied the treasury on a reelection campaign and the purchase of antiquated fighter jets.  I’m ready to come home and reconnect with a place I love, and a place where such stories are simply not normal.

    That said, am I ready to be done with Uganda?  Not quite.  Come January I suspect I’ll be ready to return.  But I am certainly ready to come home now, if only for a month.  Perhaps check back in 2012.

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    Maps of Uganda

    By some accounts World Vision is the largest NGO in the world. They are quite active in Uganda as well as many other African countries.

    Below, the map of Uganda according to World Vision:

    And below, the map of Uganda:

    Think I’m being ridiculous?  Maybe, but it’s about the equivalent putting the label for Washington D.C. somewhere in Connecticut, which would be kind of funny if you ran an organization that worked in all 50 States.

    Zambian President’s Farewell Address

    This Guardian article is about as much as I’ve read about the recent election in Zambia.  It doesn’t make the outgoing President Banda sound like the people’s champion but if his words below area a fair representation then he could certainly teach his northern counterparts a thing or two:

    Zambia’s Rupiah Banda bows out with grace and honour
    FAREWELL SPEECH BY HIS EXCELLENCY, MR RUPIAH BWEZANI BANDA, 
    FOURTH PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF ZAMBIA,

    ON FRIDAY, 23RD SEPTEMBER, 2011 

    “I HAVE CALLED THIS PRESS CONFERENCE TO SAY A FEW WORDS. THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN OF 2011 IS OVER. THE PEOPLE OF ZAMBIA HAVE SPOKEN AND WE MUST ALL LISTEN. SOME WILL BE HAPPY WITH WHAT THEY HAVE HEARD, OTHERS WILL NOT.

    THE TIME NOW IS FOR MATURITY, FOR COMPOSURE AND FOR COMPASSION. TO THE VICTORS, I SAY THIS: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO CELEBRATE BUT DO SO WITH A MAGNANIMOUS HEART. ENJOY THE HOUR BUT REMEMBER THAT A TERM OF GOVERNMENT IS FOR YEARS.

    REMEMBER THAT THE NEXT ELECTION WILL JUDGE YOU ALSO.
    TREAT THOSE WHO YOU HAVE VANQUISHED WITH THE RESPECT AND HUMILITY THAT YOU WOULD EXPECT IN YOUR OWN HOUR OF DEFEAT.

    I KNOW THAT ALL ZAMBIANS WILL EXPECT SUCH BEHAVIOUR AND I HOPE IT WILL BE DELIVERED. SPEAKING FOR MYSELF AND MY PARTY, WE WILL ACCEPT THE RESULTS. WE ARE A DEMOCRATIC PARTY AND WE KNOW NO OTHER WAY.

    IT IS NOT FOR US TO DENY THE ZAMBIAN PEOPLE. WE NEVER RIGGED, WE NEVER CHEATED, WE NEVER KNOWINGLY ABUSED STATE FUNDS. WE SIMPLY DID WHAT WE THOUGHT WAS BEST FOR ZAMBIA. I HOPE THE NEXT GOVERNMENT WILL ACT LIKEWISE IN YEARS TO COME.

    ZAMBIADESERVES A DECENT DEMOCRATIC PROCESS. INDEED, ZAMBIA MUST BUILD ON HER PAST VICTORIES. OUR INDEPENDENCE WAS HARD WON, OUR DEMOCRACY SECURED WITH BLOOD.

    ZAMBIAMUST NOT GO BACKWARDS, WE MUST ALL FACE THE FUTURE AND GO FORWARD AS ONE NATION. NOT TO DO SO WOULD DISHONOUR OUR HISTORY.

    TO MY PARTY, TO THE MMD CANDIDATES WHO DID NOT WIN, THE LESSON IS SIMPLE. NEXT TIME WE MUST TRY HARDER.
    WE FOUGHT A GOOD CAMPAIGN. IT WAS DISCIPLINED. I STILL BELIEVE WE HAD A GOOD MESSAGE AND WE REACHED EVERY PART OF THE COUNTRY.

    WE TRAVELLED TO ALL NINE PROVINCES AND WE SPOKE TO ALL ZAMBIANS. TO THOSE WHO WORKED EVERY HOUR OF THE DAY, I SAY ‘THANK YOU’. YOU HAVE DONE YOUR BEST. BUT, SADLY, SOMETIMES OUR BEST IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

    DO NOT BE DISHEARTENED. THE MMD WILL BE BACK. WE MUST ALL FACE THE REALITY THAT SOMETIMES IT IS TIME FOR CHANGE. SINCE 1991, THE MMD HAS BEEN IN POWER. I BELIEVE WE HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB ON BEHALF OF ALL ZAMBIANS.

    FREDERICK CHILUBA LED US TO A GENUINE MULTI-PARTY STATE AND INTRODUCED THE PRIVATE SECTOR TO OUR KEY INDUSTRIES. ZAMBIA WAS LIBERATED BY AN MMD IDEAL BUT MAYBE WE BECAME COMPLACENT WITH OUR IDEALS. MAYBE WE DID NOT LISTEN, MAYBE WE DID NOT HEAR.

    DID WE BECOME GREY AND LACKING IN IDEAS? DID WE LOSE MOMENTUM? OUR DUTY NOW IS TO GO AWAY AND REFLECT ON ANY MISTAKES WE MAY HAVE MADE AND LEARN FROM THEM. IF WE DO NOT, WE DO NOT DESERVE TO CONTEST POWER AGAIN.

    THE ZAMBIA WE KNOW TODAY WAS BUILT BY AN MMD GOVERNMENT. WE KNOW OUR PLACE IN HISTORY AND WE KNOW THAT WE CAN COME BACK TO LEAD AGAIN IN THE FUTURE. A NEW LEADERSHIP WILL BE CHOSEN, AND THAT LEADERSHIP WILL BE FROM THE YOUNGER GENERATION.

    MY GENERATION… THE GENERATION OF THE INDEPENDENCE STRUGGLE– MUST NOW GIVE WAY TO NEW IDEAS; IDEAS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. FROM THIS DEFEAT, A NEW, YOUNGER MMD WILL BE RE-BORN. IF I CAN SERVE THAT RE-BUILDING, THEN I WILL.

    I MUST THANK MY CABINET FOR DELIVERING ON OUR PROMISES. WE DID A LOT OF GOOD FOR ZAMBIA.  MANY OF OUR PROJECTS WILL BLOSSOM INTO BRIGHT FLOWERS. SOME OF YOU WILL BE BACK TO SERVE ZAMBIA AGAIN – I KNOW YOU WILL DO YOUR BEST FOR YOUR PARTY AND FOR YOUR COUNTRY.
    TO THE CIVIL SERVANTS AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, IT HAS BEEN A PRIVILEGE TO SERVE WITH YOU. WE HAVE WORKED MANY LONG HOURS TOGETHER. WE DID IT NOT FOR OURSELVES BUT FOR ZAMBIA. SERVE YOUR NEXT MASTERS AS YOU DID ME, AND ZAMBIA WILL BE IN GOOD HANDS.

    I MUST THANK MY FAMILY AND MY WIFE. THEY HAVE STOOD BY ME AND I CANNOT ASK FOR MORE LOYALTY THAN THAT WHICH THEY HAVE DISPLAYED. I LOVE YOU ALL DEARLY AND I WILL ALWAYS BE IN YOUR DEBT.

    BEING PRESIDENT IS HARD WORK, IT TAKES LONG HOURS OF WORK. AND BECAUSE OF IT, I HAVE NOT ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR YOU. YET, STILL YOU WERE THERE FOR ME.

    WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS THE DEPTH OF MY LOVE FOR YOU ALL. ALL I ASK IS THAT MY FAMILY CONTINUES TO SERVE ZAMBIA AS I HAVE SOUGHT TO DO.

    BUT MY GREATEST THANKS MUST GO TO THE ZAMBIAN PEOPLE. WE MAY BE A SMALL COUNTRY ON THE MIDDLE OF AFRICA BUT WE ARE A GREAT NATION. SERVING YOU HAS BEEN A PLEASURE AND AN HONOUR. I WISH I COULD HAVE DONE MORE, I WISH I HAD MORE TIME TO GIVE.

    OUR POTENTIAL IS GREAT. OUR RESOURCES ARE IMPRESSIVE.
    I URGE YOU ALL NOW TO RALLY BEHIND YOUR NEW PRESIDENT.
    YES, WE MAY HAVE DIFFERENT IDEAS BUT WE BOTH WANT THE SAME THING – A BETTER ZAMBIA.

    NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR VIOLENCE AND RETRIBUTION.
    NOW IS THE TIME TO UNITE AND BUILD TOMORROW’S ZAMBIA TOGETHER. ONLY BY WORKING TOGETHER CAN WE ACHIEVE A MORE PROSPEROUS ZAMBIA.

    IN MY YEARS OF RETIREMENT, I HOPE TO WATCH ZAMBIA GROW. I GENUINELY WANT ZAMBIA TO FLOURISH. WE SHOULD ALL WANT ZAMBIA TO FLOURISH. SO, I CONGRATULATE MICHAEL SATA ON HIS VICTORY.

    I HAVE NO ILL FEELING IN MY HEART, THERE IS NO MALICE IN MY WORDS. I WISH HIM WELL IN HIS YEARS AS PRESIDENT.
    I PRAY HIS POLICIES WILL BEAR FRUIT.

    BUT NOW IT IS TIME FOR ME TO STEP ASIDE. NOW IS THE TIME FOR A NEW LEADER. MY TIME IS DONE. IT IS TIME FOR ME TO SAY ‘GOOD BYE’.

    MAY GOD WATCH OVER THE ZAMBIAN PEOPLE AND MAY HE BLESS OUR BEAUTIFUL NATION.

    I THANK YOU.”

    Famine in Somalia

    Somalia is facing a tragedy – a situation so bad that one academic is quoted in the Times as saying, “We’ve lost this round.  The numbers are going to be horrifying.  We’re too late.”  The number he is referring to is the estimate of deaths for the coming months: 750,000.

    There’s a small but compelling number of articles on the situation, the Times’ piece might actually be the best.

    1. Times
    2. BBC
    3. Kristoph
    Unsurprisingly this seems to not have made the news cycle back home.  I’ve also barely heard discussion about it here.  Feels oddly like this could be one of those things that gets a lot of press in a month or two and then we expats will all wake up one day to realize that we were in the region for one of those humanitarian tragedies that people will remember.  One of those things that galvanizes grandiose responses from world leaders – after the fact.
    Here’s a list of organizations working in the area.  I’ll (mostly) keep my (mostly uninformed) opinion about each to myself.  But here’s a link to the International Rescue Committee’s website and they seem to be the best / most comprehensive / most active in the region.

    Crossing Borders

    I spent the better part of the past week in western Kenya checking out the scale-up of IPA’s Safe Water Program.  This is one of the development interventions that IPA has evaluated and declared a “Proven Impact” project.  One of the things a lot of folks don’t realize about IPA is that when something does work we’re pretty big on seeing it go to scale – so instead of reaching a study sample of maybe 500 or even 5,000, taking the same intervention and trying to reach entire districts, countries, or even regions.  It’s exciting stuff but brings with it it’s own set of challenges.

    Those four days were really the first time I’ve spent in Kenya since I studied there in 2008.  It was really nice to be back – I guess I can’t say whether it’s just a little change of pace from Uganda or whether there’s actual some intrinsic difference but it was refreshing nonetheless.  I can understand maybe a third of the Kiswahili spoken around me, which is a third more than I understand of any local language in Uganda; the food is definitely better; tuk-tuks are awesome; fewer calls of mzungu in the village; and a little bit more of a spring in the step.

    One interesting thing – crossing the border from Uganda to Kenya you fill out a 5 by 7 inch immigration card which they barely glance at before picking up the rubber stamp and attempting to punch a hole in your passport.  However, returning to Uganda through the dusty little border town of Busia you now receive the same high-tech treatment promised at any international arrivals terminal in the States.  Metal detectors, fingerprint scanners, the little camera, 3M passport scanners, computers, the whole works – which works fine until the internet goes down, which of course it does at regular intervals.  It’s also just amazing to see what the government of Uganda is spending funds on these days.

    Perhaps the biggest indication that I was back in Uganda was getting cut in the queue by a full grown man who then looked at me and said, oh, I’m sorry, as if  he hadn’t noticed that he had been standing behind me for the last five minutes.

    About

    A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.