Waking up to something better… picking up where I left off

morning fog over a pondI love when this happens. I woke up this morning with the solution to the sticky problem I’ve been having with a manuscript I’d all but given up on.

I started a novel back in 2015. This was for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) during that November. And I was making good progress with what I felt was a really interesting storyline. It’s basically the tale of a woman who meet one of her college friends after 30 years of almost no contact, and notices some striking difference in the way she behaves and interacts with everybody around her. It’s about how we connect (ha – no surprises there) and how we perceive others (and ourselves), when we learn new things about them.

Of course, I had to throw in some technology too… so the main character is one of the founders of a startup that’s struggling to finalize it working proof of concept for investors.  There’s tension there, too — generational tension, programming languages conflict, even a bit of Emacs vs. Vi contention. How could I resist? 😉

Anyway, I was making really good progress with manuscript some four years ago, and I was sure I was going to be able to get it done by the end of November.

But, of course, life had other ideas, and I ended up getting stalled during the last third of the book. Actually, it wasn’t just life that stalled me, it was the technology piece that I was writing about. At the time, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the company’s fictional approach. I thought I understood the underlying issues the company was aiming to solve. But the more I got into it, the more I realized I didn’t know. And the less confident I felt writing about that whole piece of it.

It wasn’t something I could fake, without undermining the whole premise of the book.

It’s tricky, right? If you’re going to write about something, you’d better know more than a thing or two about it. You can’t write a novel about dogs if you really aren’t familiar with canine characteristics, behaviors, and all the things that make dogs… dogs. Likewise, you can’t really write about technology if you don’t understand it, especially if you’re writing about a company that’s developing an innovative product that’s going to solve a sticky problem for an entire industry.

That derailed me pretty well, so I tucked the manuscript and my notes into a couple of manila folders and put them on a book shelf where I wouldn’t lose sight of them, but they wouldn’t get in my way. Every now and then, I’d look over at the shelf with a sense of longing… and then get back to what I was doing.

But this morning when I woke up, I found a way through. I realized I could write much better about a completely different type of technology that’s much more familiar to me, and which I really do know inside and out. I understand the ins and outs, the persistent issues, as well as the opportunities a better solution would provide. Heck, I even built a similar solution over 10 years ago, when I was noodling around with some ideas I had.

So now I can take a step back, rewrite the technical pieces, and really flesh out that part of the story in a much more satisfying manner.

The main thing is that I do justice to the story, as well as readers. The last thing I want to do is insult anybody‘s intelligence, and I also don’t want to overreach if I don’t know what I’m talking about it. Some people can fake it, but I’m a terrible liar, and anyway, I’d just as soon write about something I’m intimately familiar with.

So, now I can go back to work on my novel. I’m probably a lot closer to finishing it than I think I am.

We shall see.

Feeling underrepresented? Of course! So, I handle it myself.

According to a new paper Degrees of Difference: Gender Segregation of U.S. Doctorates by Field and Program Prestige published February 6, 2017, women not only earn fewer doctorates in fields that are traditionally separated by gender (golly gee, “Math is hard!”), but also are separated by prestige. Here’s what they say about the paper over at Sociological Science:

Abstract: Women earn nearly half of doctoral degrees in research fields, yet doctoral education in the United States remains deeply segregated by gender. We argue that in addition to the oft-noted segregation of men and women by field of study, men and women may also be segregated across programs that differ in their prestige. Using data on all doctorates awarded in the United States from 2003 to 2014, field-specific program rankings, and field-level measures of math and verbal skills, we show that (1) “net” field segregation is very high and strongly associated with field-level math skills; (2) “net” prestige segregation is weaker than field segregation but still a nontrivial form of segregation in doctoral education; (3) women are underrepresented among graduates of the highest-and to a lesser extent, the lowest-prestige programs; and (4) the strength and pattern of prestige segregation varies substantially across fields, but little of this variation is associated with field skills.

It’s not much of a surprise to me. And looking at the graphic of the distribution of PhDs, why look – there I am in one of the least represented areas – Comp Sci – which looks to be #5 from the bottom, with philosophy not far behind.

soc-science-phds

At first blush, it’s a little irritating (that’s catching me at the start of the day after 9 solid hours of sleep). It speaks to systemic issues of segregation, exclusion, good-ole-boy-ism, and so forth. You know, the standard-issue stuff that women in STEM come to take for granted, but never 100% get used to. Maybe 97.352636%. Or maybe not.

Anyway, be this as it may (here’s hoping it changes – and I suspect it will), the fact still remains that there are ways to enter those fields without a doctorate. True, you may not be ensconced a the highest tiers of the ivory tower, but you can still get in, and you can still work your way up.

As I have, for example. Back in the day – not as early as the ARPANET, but earlier than most people thought they would ever need an email address – it was possible to build up considerable skill and ability on your own. Get yourself access to a computer and an internet connection (at home or at your local library), print out some documentation on emerging technologies (since there were no books, yet, to teach you), study on your own, practice on your own, built real-life applications and design increasingly sophisticated implementations, and before too terribly long, you’d have a solid skillset you could parlay into a real job. A good job. An opportunity that was only available to people with actual skill.

That’s how I got started web development, back in 1995, and that’s how I landed a fantastic job at one of the planet’s leading financial services firms in January, 1997. From there, it was onward and upward — with a lot of bumps and slams along the way — and guess what. I’m still here.

See, this is what people tend to forget in this age of globalized skillsets, where certification and qualification are the currency of the job-application hopefuls. Granted, with regional and cultural barriers to entry considerably less, we need more ways to figure out if someone is actually going to do what they say they’re going to accomplish. Certifications, degrees, standardized qualifications, etc. are great ways to vet people up front, weed out the wanna-bes and put people through the paces before handing them the reins.

But we can get so caught up in the surrogate screens of official vetting, that we stop thinking for ourselves, relying on those official blessings as a cognitive short-cut to save time and energy. We can lose sight of the validity of actual experience, genuine innovation, and the drive of those who are opening up the jungled path before us… not trailing behind, taking advanced courses in road-paving. The work of opening up a path for the first time, takes a certain type of person, while the work of paving that path, then widening it so heavy equipment can fit, is quite different.

Which is why I can’t lose too much sleep (for myself, anyway) over the barriers of entry to anyone who’s not a well-heeled “pale male”. Yes, it’s troubling that women are so under-represented. But there are corners of the world where it’s possible to practice and contribute and innovate, regardless of academic qualifications. And it might just be that the numbers about segregation in doctorates doesn’t tell the whole story, in terms of the true leaders, the true innovators, the ones who are actually leading the way.

It’s still possible to dive into cutting-edge technologies without an advanced degree and open a new path in ways that no one ever thought possible / necessary. In fact, for the most advanced, innovative, emerging areas, you’re not going to find a whole lot of formal education, anywhere, because standards have yet to be defined, textbooks have yet to be written, syllabi have yet to be compiled. Likewise in philosophy, it’s perfectly possible to use your own mind for the furthering of the practice. You can develop your own theories, you can evolve your own individual thinking process (which is nothing like anyone else’s), and there’s nothing to prevent you from putting your work in writing, publishing it, and carving out a place for it in the world.

This sort of activity, this sort of developmental discipline, doesn’t require the presence or avid support of an academic community. In some ways, in fact, you might be better off not having any of that. You might not have a built-in entourage of colleagues who eagerly support / promote / challenge / criticize / plagiarize your work, but there’s nothing to prevent you — as a woman, as a person of color, as a non-PhD philosopher — from moving your own work forward.

In the end, it’s what we all have to do, anyway. Your mind has to be your own (as much as possible). Your work needs to be original. And it needs to stand on its own. Smart people who take the time to think for themselves may respect your work on its  own merits, and those are the folks you care about, anyway.

A doctorate isn’t going to guarantee that any more than a daily discipline to targeted development that’s totally devoted to your path. So, while it might be nice for various industries to have more diversity in more advanced positions (they seem to think so, based on all those inclusive-seeming Super Bowl 51 ads), it’s not a prerequisite for your own path. You can still do The Work. You can still develop your skills in ways that no one else on earth can rival. Innovation has its home far out in front — where there are no courses or certificates yet available.

If that’s where you belong (as do I), looking back is just going to delay your forward movement. So, look ahead, beyond, above, ahead.

The world needs you there.