Making a Success of Grad School

by Kieran Healy on September 27, 2005

Let’s say you’ve already read Tim Burke’s “Should I Go to Grad School?” and pushed on past the short answer. (“No.”) Then it’s time to read Fontana Labs’ “Twelve-Step Guide”: to life while you’re there. Your experience of a graduate program will depend in part on each of (1) The field you’re in, (2) The quality of the program, (3) Your own attributes, (4) The strategy you pursue. Once you go down the chute and find yourself in a particular setting, (1) and (2) are exogenous in the short run, and at the beginning you have no real sense of the social structure of the field anyway. So FL’s advice sensibly emphasizes the difference between undergraduate and graduate education and what that should mean for your approach to it. To boil it down to a one-line characterization: in academic environments, expectations are high and monitoring is low (but decisive when it happens). Many grad-student pathologies spring from a failure to deal with this problem.

The singularity and the knife-edge

by John Q on September 27, 2005

I’ve been too busy thinking about all the fun I’ll have with my magic pony, designing my private planet and so on, to write up a proper review of Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near. The general response seems to have been a polite version of DD’s “bollocks”, and the book certainly has a high nonsense to signal ratio. Kurzweil lost me on biotech, for example, when he revealed that he had invented his own cure for middle age, involving the daily consumption of a vast range of pills and supplements, supposedly keeping his biological age at 40 for the last 15 years (the photo on the dustjacket is that of a man in his early 50s). In any case, I haven’t seen anything coming out of biotech in the last few decades remotely comparable to penicillin and the Pill for medical and social impact.

But Kurzweil’s appeal to Moore’s Law seems worth taking seriously. There’s no sign that the rate of progress in computer technology is slowing down noticeably. A doubling time of two years for chip speed, memory capacity and so on implies a thousand-fold increase over twenty years. There are two very different things this could mean. One is that computers in twenty years time will do mostly the same things as at present, but very fast and at almost zero cost. The other is that digital technologies will displace analog for a steadily growing proportion of productive activity, in both the economy and the household sector, as has already happened with communications, photography, music and so on. Once that transition is made these sectors share the rapid growth of the computer sector.

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