STEM, Plus

There has been a lot of attention on the so-called STEM careers - science, technology, engineering,
and math - and rightly so.  At a national level, we are falling behind other countries in STEM performance in the classroom and in the workforce.  At a local level, we rightly recognize the importance of early STEM exposure to kids in communities already beset by high unemployment, lest we inadequately prepare them for the kinds of jobs that they will be competing for when they grow up.  All well and good.

However.  If, in advocating for STEM, we run roughshod over the importance of a strong liberal arts education, I would like to get off the bandwagon.  The liberal arts have been beat up of late, whether it is mocking students going into debt to get degrees that seem to have no connection to our modern economy, or hating on students even more for having so much privilege that they can do something as seemingly wasteful as that.

To be sure, if college is just about partying, skating by on a fun major, and then wondering aloud why the economy has left you behind, then that's one thing.  But there is still much to gain from a strong liberal arts training.  As we study the brain more and more, we are learning so much about how innovation happens, and a lot of what is important relates to drawing from diverse perspectives.

This has implications for how we assemble teams as well as how each team member can best play their part.  "Connecting the dots" requires knowing something about many different dots, and the more disparate the more interesting the connections.  As a result, paradoxically the best way to be the best in a given field is to intentionally not just study stuff in that field, but to make sure we are rounding out our information intake with other subjects, even things that seem wildly irrelevant.

Two examples from my undergraduate days.  The first was before I was even a student.  I was visiting the Penn campus during my senior year in high school, and had a chance to meet the person who would be my Wharton advisor.  As we chatted in his office, one of his students, a sophomore, popped her head in the office and said she had gotten a random opportunity to study marine biology in the Caribbean.  Without hesitation, my future advisor said, "Go."  She protested, saying she was a finance major and was angling for an investment banking job upon graduation.  "Wall Street can wait," was his reply.  "Go to the Caribbean and expand your horizons."

The second was during my freshman stat class.  A number of my classmates were also on the finance track, and moaned aloud about the science requirements they had to gut through.  "What does physics have to do with my aspiration to be an investment banker," wondered the ringleader of this group.  Without blinking, our stat prof launched into an extemporaneous lecture on the famous Black-Scholes formula, which is the standard equation used to value stock options.  Turns out it is based on an equation from physics, and its fundamental insight (Black, Scholes, and Merton would win a Nobel Prize for this) was that models used to manage the unpredictability of particles in motion could be applied to the unpredictability of financial assets as well.  My classmates' jaws were agape, and if our stat prof had a mic he would've dropped it and exited stage right.

And so it is that while I cheer on those who are advocating for the STEM fields, I am also hoping that we are saying yes to the liberal arts too. 


Come in to Work

Earlier this month I got a chance to catch up with an old friend, who works in the video game industry.  It is a highly technical field, relying heavily on advanced math, engineering, and computer science skills.  You'd think that programming, of all work functions, lends itself to remote office arrangements.  After all, there are millions of lines of code to write, which can be done anywhere and anytime.  And yet my friend told me how important it was for he and his team to be in close proximity to each other and to their customers, for it was those constant interactions that enabled better, faster, and more accurate output.  (He also told me a surprisingly high proportion of his co-workers come from a liberal arts background, but that's a story for tomorrow's post.)

I relayed to him that my company's output is similarly technical in nature, and yet it also demands a deep understanding of the economic, political, organizational, and human context in which we do our work.  It is for this reason that I encourage my co-workers to invest in meaningful activities outside of their day job, whether it is family time, leisure pursuits, personal development, or civic engagement.  For not only does that help them be whole people for their own good, but it enables more and broader connections to draw from when doing the work itself.

On a related note, one of the interesting dynamics about telecommuting is that a big part of why it is seen as efficient is that it allows folks to avoid the time and hassle of commuting to work.  We think we are being more productive by allocating more time for the work itself than for getting to and from work.  And yet, if part of work isn't just the work but also cultivating pursuits, relationships, and ideas outside of the work itself, I would argue that skipping the work commute makes us less effective rather than more.  The vast majority of my co-workers walk or take transit to work, and I have lost track of the times one of us has, in the course of getting to or from work, either had a burst of insight while lost in thought, or bumped into someone and struck up a conversation that yielded a breakthrough in something we were working on.

I get why it is good to let people work from home, and we allow folks to do this on an as-needed basis, whether to take care of a sick kid or let a contractor in or steal a few solitary moments for uninterrupted work.  And I get why people would want to do it as a rule, if it works for their work persona or personal arrangement.  But there's much to gain from having everyone together.  And, there is even much to gain from having everyone make the trip in and out of the office.  Even for something as seemingly technical as video game design and economic analysis.


Lazy Linking, 189th in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:

189.1 Calling out the NY Times crossword as racist bit.ly/2r2QU7m @outline

189.2 2 takes on Omar, the enigmatic and divisive jester of our neighborhood bit.ly/2rwR6fh @phillynews bit.ly/2ro19Ik @phillyweekly

189.3 Taiwanese defiance: “[our] sovereignty cannot be challenged or traded” wapo.st/2tvUhoV @washpo

189.4 Not sure if baby genome sequencing is good or bad, but I predict it will cost $99 in 10 yrs bit.ly/2sCxISr @techreview

189.5 There’s 20 gallons of pee in a typical commercial swimming pool n.pr/2lyFPJc @nprhealth


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LXXV

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article I just read, "China’s New Bridges: Rising High, but Buried in Debt":

“The amount of high bridge construction in China is just insane,” said Eric Sakowski, an American bridge enthusiast who runs a website on the world’s highest bridges. “China’s opening, say, 50 high bridges a year, and the whole of the rest of the world combined might be opening 10.”

Of the world’s 100 highest bridges, 81 are in China, including some unfinished ones, according to Mr. Sakowski’s data. (The Chishi Bridge ranks 162nd.)

China also has the world’s longest bridge, the 102-mile Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, a high-speed rail viaduct running parallel to the Yangtze River, and is nearing completion of the world’s longest sea bridge, a 14-mile cable-stay bridge skimming across the Pearl River Delta, part of a 22-mile bridge and tunnel crossing that connects Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China.

The country’s expressway growth has been compared to that of the United States in the 1950s, when the Interstate System of highways got underway, but China is building at a remarkable clip. In 2016 alone, China added 26,100 bridges on roads, including 363 “extra large” ones with an average length of about a mile, government figures show.

China also devotes a much higher share of its economy to building infrastructure than the West — about 9 percent versus about 2.5 percent in the United States and Western Europe, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

A primary motive is economic growth: Infrastructure spending surged as part of a huge stimulus program after the 2008 global financial crisis. Each bridge can cost billions and employ hundreds of workers for several years.

But the endless construction has also created a self-perpetuating gravy train, feeding corruption and distorting priorities.


Going Back to Sanctuary

"Sanctuary" is a politically loaded term, so it is impossible to use the word without broadcasting meaning well beyond whatever you are trying to say.  I respect that, because words matter, and the words we choose send a signal that is often louder than the intended message.

Nevertheless, if it were possible, take all of the baggage out of the word and contemplate with me how wonderful the concept of "sanctuary" is.  Our national discourse on topics that use this word have been so heated that I fear we have missed out on thinking about "sanctuary" itself.

It is, in fact, what we all want, for so many places in our lives and for so many people in our lives.  We are tired of violence and want our communities to be safe places.  We drop our kids off at day cares and schools, or ship them off to board school or college, and we hold our breath because out of all the things we want for them while they are away from us, the most important thing is that they are safe.  Our churches, our homes, our workplaces...oh that they would be sanctuaries for us and for others.

As a parent, I care not only about ensuring physical safety about also about creating room for my kids to be themselves, to express themselves, and to stretch and grow, without reservation and without fear.  I think we want all kids to have safe places to wrestle through hard issues, about sexuality and racism and privilege and trauma, and know that they are accepted and loved and embraced.

Of course this is not the same thing as "anything goes," for I also believe in boundaries and standards and right and wrong, but there is a difference between that and creating a true safe place for kids to work things out.  To give a hypothetical example, my daughter might ask me something about race, and might ask it in a racist way; I need to correct her, but I also want her to feel that our home is a safe place and I am a safe person so she is free to ask and express.

In the Bible, "sanctuary" is connected to holiness, which means a whole bunch of things that I don't want to elaborate on in this post.  But to keep it short, "sanctuary" in this sense means being set apart from others, and it means adherence to a certain moral code, and in both cases what it ultimately means is reflecting the character of God.  This too is a beautiful concept, which I wish we would think on more, is the notion of "sanctuary" as not only a physically and emotionally safe place but as a place that is dedicated in every sense to the beauty of the purity of the character of God.

There is much more debate that needs to happen around topics in which the term "sanctuary" is evoked.  That is appropriate, because those are important topics.  But, entirely apart from that, the notion of "sanctuary" is worth contemplating, for it is beautiful to think about - and help make more possible in our world and in our lifetime - the existence of places that are set apart to be safe, pure, and God-honoring. 


Lazy Linking, 188th in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:

188.1 Philly claims 3 of America's top 100 burgers bit.ly/2qMOi0j @thrillist

188.2 Subway-style map of ancient Roman roads (btw do you know the trivia behind "trivia"?) bit.ly/2rXHePt @myboytrubetskom

188.3 As I stick my foot in my mouth at every mtg, I need this advice to let it go in 7 seconds bit.ly/2swz3rp @jezebel

188.4 Surprise! Red states are leading in volume and policy re: renewables nyti.ms/2rGvW1G @nytimes

188.5 Photo essay on parts of the world where the people have long since left theatln.tc/2qR6zK9 @theatlantic


A Tale of Two Murders

A couple of years ago Penn Press released a book chronicling Penn's evolution in the 2nd half of the 20th century.  Entitled "Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic University, 1950-2000," it is by no means a hagiography of the institution, according to my read of reviews of the book (I haven't yet gotten around to reading it myself, so I reserve the right to modify my comments once I do), but delves fairly deeply into past wrongs and their present ramifications.

My informal subtitle for the book, and of that era in Penn's history, is "A Tale of Two Murders."  In 1958, In-Ho Oh, a grad student at Penn, was murdered during a robbery attempt (which family member David Oh powerfully recounted at In-Ho's grave when David announced his candidacy for City Council for the first time, in 2003).  Penn's response back then embodied much of what passed as "urban renewal" during that era, which was to trample over its immediate neighborhood in an attempt to manage campus safety and growth aspirations through a fortress mentality.

When I was an undergrad at Penn in the early 1990's, Vladmir Sled, a popular professor was stabbed to death on the sidewalk not far from where he lived, not far from where I now live.  It was a do-or-die moment for the university, and under the leadership of President Judith Rodin and Executive Vice President John Fry Penn embarked on a different path than 30+ years prior: investment and engagement.  Soon after the shocking murder, Penn implemented a mortgage incentive program, supported a new public K-8 school, and subsidized public lighting for local residents.  They aggressively invested in retail corridors where campus and community met, and helped seed a special service district called University City District to provide additional clean and safe resources.

It is inarguable that these efforts are not without their downside, since investment and engagement is tricky and Penn hasn't always been right.  Gentrification and displacement are real things, and they are set into motion by many forces global and local, with the most devastating effects sadly borne by the most vulnerable among us.  Still, I and my neighbors of different vintages, from those who are new to the area to those who have been here multiple generations, have seen a significant enhancement in the quality of our living experience, on just about every measure that matters for urban living: safety, school quality, retail choices, public spaces, and so on.  So there is much good to balance the bad, and unquestionably Penn's response to Sled's murder was better than to Oh's.

The Penn story goes back almost 300 years, and has many more chapters to go.  The future is all that's left to live, and if we hope to have a good one, and even to play our part in making sure it is so, we do well to look back and learn from what was.