Saturday, October 22, 2011

Don’t study engineering or science

Thomas Friedman writes today in his column, One Country Two Revolutions

if one result of the downsizing of Wall Street is that more of America’s best and brightest math and physics students decide to go into science and real engineering rather than financial engineering, the country will be a whole lot better off.

The rest of the article is a glowing account of Silicon Valley and some of the inspiring people he wants us to emulate.  Just for fun, I looked up the education histories of the people he cites:

  • Alan Cohen, VP at networking company Nicira (MBA, MA Int’l studies)
  • Scott Wilson, designer mentioned in Fast Company (B.A. Design)
  • Alexis Ringwald, founder of an education startup (B.A. Political Science)
  • Marc Benioff, CEO of (B.S.B.A. Entrepreneurship)
  • Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn (B.S. Economics from Wharton)
  • Jagdish Bhagwati Professor at Columbia is of course is a BA Economics.

(By the way, Mr. Friedman himself has an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies)

Not a single one of the people he praises is an engineer or scientist!

Like I said after watching the education movie 2 Million Minutes:  Science and engineering are important, but by themselves they are technical skills, like welding or car repair, that can be mastered by anyone with some discipline and training.  You need to be much smarter than that. I’m reminded of the common entrepreneurial wisecrack: “If I need an engineering degree, I’ll hire one”.

China and India have plenty of engineers and scientists.  To compete in the future, we need innovators and risk-takers, along with a culture that encourages people to try new things, even things the “experts” and regulators think are too risky or likely to fail.  The future belongs to people with curiosity, open minds, willingness to change, an ability to empathize with people of different backgrounds, work well with others, and a society with enough flexibility and freedom to allow for many ways of getting there.

If science and engineering are your passion, by all means go for it. But if you (or your kids) are studying it just because experts like Thomas Friedman say you should, then you’re missing the whole point.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

What happened to me?

I just spent eleven nights in the hospital – four of them in ICU. I’ve always been a pretty healthy guy. What happened?

The short answer: a bowel obstruction – a kink somewhere in my intestines that kept food from passing through – plus aspiration pneumonia, which I contracted shortly after they inserted a three-meter tube through my nose and into my tummy.

Exactly two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to return to Beijing feeling a little tummy ache – I thought it was some Mexican food I’d eaten – but the high altitude of the flight – which tends to bloat the internal organs—apparently worsened the situation enough that I was pretty sick by the time I arrived, unable to hold food or water. I pulled myself together enough to complete my MacWorld keynote address, and then headed straight to a clinic for treatment.

Those horizontal lines are not good: it means something is blocking the normal passage of liquids.

Bowel obstructions are nearly unheard of in younger people, but in my case the cause is clear: abdominal surgery as a child left bits of scar tissue that accumulated over the years enough to occasionally wrap around the intestines. Although full obstructions can be somewhat common with a history like mine, I lasted nearly thirty years without trouble, and I’m hopeful that this time was just a fluke that won’t bother me again.

Treatment is pretty straightforward: doctors insert a tube to let the pressure off the obstructed area, and wait for it to heal naturally. Doctors try hard to avoid surgery – after all, it’s the surgical scar tissue that causes the problem in the first place –but it’s always a backup option in severe cases. I’m recovering fairly well, so that doesn’t seem to be a necessity for me.

The pneumonia, meanwhile, made my situation worse than it might have been. We’re not sure how I contracted it. I had a bit of a cold the previous week – did my weakened condition cause it to flare into something worse?  Or, maybe in the process of inserting the tubes, something in my throat disturbed the lungs somehow and tipped me into a much worse situation?  Either way, this was quite a scare and it necessitated the ICU, a week of breathing with an oxygen mask, and plenty of antibiotics, which I’ll need to continue taking for several more weeks.

It’s been two weeks and although I’m much improved, I’m not out of the woods yet. I’m recuperating at home, which of course is much better surroundings than in the Chinese hospital I left. This week is a Chinese holiday, and while it’s a bummer that I can’t get out and enjoy the vacation, I’m not missing any work either. For now I’ll just continue this way, taking it slowly until I’m back to my old self.