Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Lowest Common Denominator

First of all, to all five of you who actually read this, I apologize for this rant, because it is a re-hash of an earlier post. But what the hell, it is the situation I am in right now, and I have a right to complain about it, right?

So I will get right down to it. The lowest common denominator. Used in math for addition of factors, where you figure out what number you must multiply your fractions by to get them to the same denominator, making it simple to sum them up. A simple process, one that a person who has the development beyond the 4th grade in elementary can understand. My question is, why do some people insist on teaching to the lowest common denominator? While attending this fine scholastic institution known as New Mexico State University, I have the pleasure of taking Physics for Engineers and Scientists...Basically a watered down version of vector algebra (which I am also taking at the same time, but that is beside the point). It is a class with 80-ish people in it, so no one gets much attention from the Ph.D. that instructs us. It is a Sophomore level class, intended to re-enforce other classes (of which you must have a good background in math to get into). There are university ordained guidelines to make sure that, say, and idiot from the education department could not take the class unless they were able to take Calculus, or another "high" math, so they have the background to take the class.
Well, it seems that the Physics department doesn't understand that people will come it with a working knowledge of trigonometry, i.e. how to figure out an angle, or the sides of a freaking triangle. We have been going over a vector problem in this class for 2 days (that is 2 hours), and we are barely through it. It isn't a hard problem, it is just that, well, they teach to the lowest common denominator.

Imagine if you will, you are learning something that is relatively new to you, let us say, how to build a bookcase. What would you expect to learn in this class? You may learn how to make certain cuts of wood (assume you are building it from scratch), measure out the pieces that you want, nail the damn things together, and then stain it (any carpenters out there, don't berate me for not explaining how to build a bookcase, this is a metaphor, not actual instructions). Well, what if, to learn how to build this bookcase, your class had 80 people in it, who have all taken (or learned in some way) how to build stuff with wood. You would assume that you will be able to learn how to build a bookcase in the first day, and then put a few together, learn some techniques for adding more features to your bookcase....doors, glass facing, lighting, etc....However, instead of the instructor assuming that you know what the hell a hammer is, he assumes that 5% of the class have no idea what a hammer, a nail, or even wood is. So, instead of going ahead, and teaching the 95% of people who have a clue (some may not know how to hammer very well, or some may be bad at staining, but all know what a hammer and nails are), said instructor decides to catch the lagging 5% up, and teach the basics.

This is a hammer, it is used to hammer nails into the wood. Remember what wood is? This is wood...yes, that is plastic, this is wood.

You see how frustrating this would be, don't you?

I don't claim to be the smartest person in the world, but, for God's sake, please don't treat the majority of a friggin college level class like they are in the 1st grade. I felt like it was time for a snack and nap, right after finger painting, at the pace we were going.

Why are our colleges wasting time and money on allowing Ph.D.s to NOT teach 70-ish people, just because 10-ish shouldn't be in that class? I have noticed this, in the past 2 1/2 semesters I have enjoyed being at NMSU, that, any class that doesn't have ME before it, is a waste of time. They assume that people don't know anything at all about anything, and teach from there. I have an idea, just assume that I don't speak English, and then start teaching me the language in Physics class, so I can have a background when you start teaching the numbers, colors, and how to piss standing up.

I feel really sorry for some of these people that are going through this type of instruction, they are learning one thing only, that to get a degree, all you have to do is be the lowest common denominator and skate right on by. They will do great at their next job...."Would you like fries with that?"


Anonymous Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good rant!
I think the only reason they teach to the LCD, is to keep paying LCD's in the school.
Too bad you can't challenge the course, pass the test, and be done with it.

12:19 AM  
Blogger reddog said...


You're going to ace these classes, so mellow out, get a life.

Drink beer. Chase girls. Join a club. Get a bartending job. Take up speelunking.
Set up an independant study program for yourself. Some of those PHDs will help. Then you'll still be way ahead when your classmates are trying to claw their way to the next level. If you wait to learn something in a formal setting, you will spend your whole life waiting. If you press on, you can snag a fellowship to MIT and get one of those PHDs of your own.

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


love your blog, even though I am a retired 'lifer' nuke MMC(SS), believe it or not. what you are finally realizing, my friend, is that you truly ARE in that top 10 percent that your recruiter told you about. You need to face the reality that, now that you are off the boat, you will be surrounded predominantly by people who are incredibly stupid. Until, that is, you get a job as an engineer, then you might have the occasional moment of feeling stupid next to some MIT PHD who eats, sleeps, and breathes quantum physics. So, I agree with reddog. Let your hair down and relax. You've earned it, my nuclear brother, and I know that first hand. Best of luck to you.

8:37 PM  
Blogger lazlong said...

Reddog and MMC(SS)

Thanks for your comments. I am really not all that wound up, I just like to rant about it. I know there are stupid people out there, but it is the educated idiots that annoy me, not the clueless 19 year olds, they have an excuse. I really am having fun in college, believe me (allthough I take it much more seriously than the average just out of high school student).

Oh, and MMC, thanks for your service for the full 20, I bet you miss it more than a mere 7 year guy like myself does.

5:05 AM  
Anonymous Flounder said...

Looks like the start of a good blog.

I, like many before us, and like many after us will continue to do so, have taken the path from nuke to college to great paying jobs as you are taking now. Reading your blog is kind of like a support group for the nuke to college set. I had many of the same realizations as you are having now - nothing is better than a good rant to sort it out. You should make this a collaborative blog for the nuke to school crowd to vent their collective frustrations - see also my comment to your "2002 Sh*t Storm" for my own personal misadventure.

Caution - take with a grain of salt because it was written to be sarcastic. If you are offended by anything below, go into the bathroom, look into the mirror, and ask yourself why the hell it is you are too damned sensitive.

A bit about me: Ex-nuke MM, NPTU instructor at D1G/S8G (probably left before you were SPU there), finished BS ChE after the Nav, worked at Intel for about 2.5 years, went to law school to become a patent attorney.

Truth, Lies, and Observations:
The line about being the best of the best or top 10% of the top 10% - Sadly this is true, and I knew some pretty f'd up people that were nukes. I am not a sociologist (I'd have to kill myself out of honor), so I cannot wax philosophically about why. But all the anti-liberal themes that Navy life develops in you such as, self-reliance, self-determination, personal responsibility, professionalism, and honor and integrity, stand in contrast to the namby pamby values the seem to ooze from the nanny-state raised kids that I went to school with. In the Navy and especially the nuke power program, if you can't hack it get out, and in any case, quit yer bitchin and get it done. It is rare to see that sort of mentality in any other work or school environment, although I feel it is more common in the engineering world. You are the cream of the crop of American society - get over it. Don't actually get over it, because a good rant is as fun to read as it is to spout.

Education System is broken - The truth is that the education system is broken (could write a book). College is a business. It is there to make money - learning is your responsibility and it sounds like you are up to the task. The biggest impact on how much you will learn will be you (also makes your cost/benefit lower). My free advice (worth = what you paid for it): study hard, take hard classes, and spend your free time as productively on interesting stuff as possible. As a Chem E I took graduate level courses for my electives (Analog & Digital Signal Processing, Microprocessor Architecture, Protein Engineering). It has helped me land jobs and has earned compliments about the breadth of my technical competence.

Don't stop with a BS - Getting your degree is a wicket that you have to pass to open doors in life. That said, especially in engineering - other than civil, because everyone knows they are just glorified ditch diggers - the more *S's or *D's you get behind your name the more doors it will open - no matter how sh*t-hot you are. Case in point, Intel entry-level pay structure was dictated by degree type. When I took a regular job at Intel, I was hired along with an MS holder to co-manage this semiconductor process module. The person was a complete idiot, unprofessional buffoon, had no prior engineering experience, had the technical competence of a jiffy-lube tech (that is a compliment), and was constantly screwing up the product. And in a semiconductor fab every mistake can run up the cha-ching pretty quick (think X wafers per box times X chips per wafer times $200-800 revenue per chip; think 100's of thousand of dollars to millions per mistake). The worst part was that because she had an MS, she was making some $10K plus more than me, and I was constantly either fixing her mistakes, or having to look over her shoulder to ensure she wasn't making mistakes. The other thing about only having a BS was that even though the work was somewhat interesting and well-paying it was monotonous as hell (think full production environment). You thought taking logs was boring as hell? Try reviewing over 100 process control charts X times daily. And the more interesting process development jobs generally weren't open on an entry level basis to anyone without MS or higher. Stay in school while you are there and get it done and then get on with your life - you will be glad you did, it is always easier while you are there to continue rather than go back.

Silver platter people/LCD teaching - Yes this sucks, and I don't know where it comes from - probably the nanny-state liberals again. These are the same people that always ask stupid questions about how to do stuff on computers because they refuse to RTFM. These people need to be hit with a giant clue stick. When you get out into the profession, beware of these types as they generally become management and end up taking credit for all your hard work and innate brilliance. Either that or they will constantly be sucking your life-force just to exist in the corporate world without screwing up the works (see Intel Co-worker story above). The worst experience I ever had with this (aside from Intel Co-worker) was back in Chem E Computer lab on some Matlab homework. If you have haven't used Matlab, it is essentially CLI (not much GUI at least as of version 5) in which you create a bunch of script to calculate the meaning of life (oddly always came out to 42). There is great text help but you have to learn how to type, get ready for it . . . drum roll . . "help function X". This chick would constantly ask about how to implement this function or that function. I am as patient as anyone, and I like to do things myself (I call it learning) so I helped her out the first few times by walking her through everything step by step. After about the 15th or so time of being interrupted, while I am trying to figure it out for myself mind you, I finally decided to tell the chick "type help function X" every time she asked "how do I . . . ?". After about the 15th or so time of me telling her to "type help function X", she finally figured out that the only way she was going to get it done was to do it the only was she knew how. She went to the TA and had him walk her through it. The best part is that she came back in to the lab when she was done and was strutting about the lab telling everyone she was done. Bottom line is these people will never learn, because they don't want to. The only solution is to identify these people early on and put distance between them and you - don't let them suck your life-force. Once I get my space based Vulcan Death ray able to vaporize these people, you can send me a list and I'll add them to the queue.

Spectra - Across any grouping of people, be it Navy, nukes, coners, politicians, educated, uneducated (in the degree sense), Attorneys, McDonald's drive through workers, Honey Bee Wranglers (if that is what they are called), etc., you will find the entire spectrum of people characteristics (assuming sufficient sample size for you statistically minded people) from the truly exceptional hard-working geniuses to the "oh my god I can't understand how he/she continues to breathe while performing even mundane tasks." Whether it is work ethic, innate intelligence, common sense, creativity, initiative, or whatever, I have come across many groups of people from all walks of life, and I continue to be amazed at my amazement over how stupid/lazy/selfish/unprofessional/irresponsible/whatever some people can be - I should have learned by now. Part of this comes from the false expectations such as: PhD should be smart (some are people that could afford the time and money and had minimal competence to write a highly scripted paper on a topic of minimal significance and are passed by judges who may be returning a favor for some professor who passed one of their marginal PhD candidates); all lawyers are sleazy - OK mostly true - but there are many fine people (again think spectrum not generalization). The truth is the Naval Nuclear Program screens out most of the non-hackers, so that what we were used to as a low bar as a nuke is actually a pretty high bar for society. This is still cold comfort for me. That is why when I take over the world . . . well, better not reveal my plans just yet.

You'll never find a job if you leave the Nav - Blatant lie told either by people looking to keep force numbers up with minimal cost (training and incentives), or those trying to justify to themselves why they are doing themselves an economic disservice because they are too afraid to take the risk. I landed a job at Intel (intern) right out of undergrad making $67K at the height (depth) of the dot-com bubble burst in 2001. Within three months, the module engineer left and they offered me the job at $78K (they recognized I had skillz). I turned it down because I didn't want to work for boobs (I could write a how not to manage book with the examples). The engineer that took the job (and whom I trained) was former Intel and so she recommended me to Intel-OR where I got the job. I took a pay cut but it was a post 9/11 world, the market had just tanked, and it was essentially a geographical pay difference. Since I have been out of the Nav, I have interviewed for 6 jobs, got offers for 5 of them, and took 4 of them (all sequentially mind you). I may have sent out as many as about 40 resumes (if that) over the course of the 8 years since I have been out - do your research and be selective - and I have never used a recruiter (brings back too many bad feelings). Just for a numerical recap:

Navy pay on honorable discharge: about $40K
Undergrad debt after G.I. bill and working: -$19K
Internship/Job after BS: > 1.5 X Navy
Law School Debt: ~$65K
Patent Attorney: ~3 X Navy (starting and with paid medical)

Earning approximately 3X Navy pay after 8 years while having the infinite flexibility to do whatever I want: Priceless.

Some may argue that a more rigorous economic analysis would reveal that (1) I have forgone certain levels of income over the 8 years; (2) I did not receive the excellent benefits provided; or (3) other self-reassuring reasons why my plan is flawed. I would respond that money doesn't buy happiness, but going from scrubbing bilges and practicing P.O.D.A.R while having some JO-EOOW tell me that I COULDN'T do what he does, to managing a module of 12 people (including a retired ETSC) making Pentium 4s, to writing patents on some of the latest and greatest technology since sliced bread certainly might. And don't get me started about the Navy benefits - The Doc sent my friend home with a collapsed lung (life-threatening) with Motrin because they thought he was malingering. Or the time that I was dressed down by some quack PA because I wanted a second opinion because he misdiagnosed a condition that I had successfully treated previously (I ended up self-medicating to correct the problem). I have not had continual medical insurance over the last 8 years, went to the doc once, and have successfully treated numerous colds, likely fractured rib, likely fractured tibia, a spider bite, and many other things I like to play sick for so that my wife takes care of me. Might be the radiation in my blood, but I think I may just be indestructible. I think I am the best medical care I ever had (Seinfeld ripoff).

Moral of the story is that if you want a job, with your training and experience you will get a good one with excellent benefits - I made a small fortune on Intel Stock through the stock participation plan and short-term market fluctuations.

Miscellaneous: If you are interested in becoming a patent attorney and are also interested in the fields of EE or CS, I would recommend those fields over aerospace due to the sheer numbers of potential opportunities. This will give you more opportunities overall as well as more geographical flexibility (as I would think aerospace is more consolidated). Go with your passion, but be aware of the impact a choice of major makes early on. Think about potential employers and geographical areas as you choose your major. If I could do it all again, I would have chosen EE (both for my passion and for geographical purposes) - if you don't want to make toilet paper or petrol, your west coast choices are pretty much OR or CA for a ChemE.

Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook for the numbers from you library or career services if you haven't already.

Last and best thing about College after nuke life - I met my intelligent, hot, and loving wife of 2 years, together 7.5, (also an attorney) while in school.

Happiness is out there; it is yours for the taking. Thank you for your service, now get on with the business of enjoying your hard-won freedoms. I wish you luck in your studies and dealing with all the incompetent educated people you will encounter. Above all, have fun - I enjoyed my undergraduate time more than any other period of my adult life to date.

And for all you retirees, navy or otherwise, submariners or otherwise, please don't take anything I have said the wrong way. We all owe you a debt of gratitude for our freedoms and ability to sleep soundly at night. My family probably has well over 100 years of collective service in the enlisted military on all branches (except maybe coast guard), and has fought in (been in theatre all except Bosnia) or served during every conflict (whatever it may be called) since World War I. I am not dissing military life or service. I am merely providing some counter examples to illustrate life on the other side, for those who chose it. If you have guys choosing to better themselves on the outside rather than in, you should encourage it and be honest about their prospects for success. You will win their respect and loyalty that way (my chief did).

Feel free to IM me if you want at fl0und3rz(at)hotmail - I don't check email there just use it for IM. I am always looking to help out a vet, especially they are looking to better themselves.

8:29 AM  

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