The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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The Pants Theory of Unpaid Internships

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Having read a few articles describing the climate of unpaid internships, I am starting to feel frustrated with how people are framing the problem, and with the solutions they are proposing. It’s that special kind of frustration, where you see people kind of arguing in the right direction, but consistently missing the point. Everyone seems to be interpreting the problem as: businesses who want free labour luring the unemployed with some ephemeral promise of eventual work.

I think it’s considerably more complicated than that.

This article is going to come off like a defence of unpaid internships, but it’s not. I am against them. If you really can’t see anything wrong with very vulnerable people being manipulated into working for free, then we probably have no common ground upon which to base a discussion. Off you go then.

The point here is that without understanding the real allure of unpaid internships, no-one has a hope of putting an end to the practice.

A reason to set the alarm

The common reason given (or assumed) for undertaking an unpaid internship is that it may lead to paid work, possibly with the company offering the internship. That may or may not be true, but it’s irrelevant. I’m going to conjecture that this is almost always a reverse rationalisation for what I’m about to describe.

You see, after you’ve been unemployed for even a few weeks, you start to feel.

Like.

Shit.

And this is not even considering whether you have enough savings to pay the bills, someone to support you, etc. Even living in reasonable comfort, if you have spent your days confined to the house, sending out dozens of applications and getting silence back, you will start to feel like crap. You will feel — and I mean genuinely believe — that you will never escape the situation.

You feel cheated and humiliated for getting an apparently-useless education.

You feel paranoid and stupid, like there is some secret (but at the same time, obvious to all but you) system that everyone else knows about.

If you started out in a stable relationship, you will possibly even question whether your feelings are real, or if it is just dependency that keeps you together.

These are not exaggerations. Unemployment is devastating to most peoples mental health. It is a poison. It is awful.

The mere act of getting dressed in smart-casual clothes, getting on public transport with hundreds of other people, and setting foot in a separate building can be an unimaginable reprive. The helplessness and feelings of futility that comes from having your letters ignored are swept away as you indulge in having other people notice that you exist and are able to do useful things.

Not only that, but you are now able to tell your friends and family that you are doing… something! Anything! You have actual news instead of… well, shame and awkward silence.

I cannot stress this enough. Just having a reason to set an alarm for the next morning has a profound effect on someone who’s been slamming their head in the car door of the job market.

Hence, trying to neutralise the claim of “it’ll lead to something paid” with well researched statistics is not going to work, no matter what the numbers say. That’s not the real reason. The hook is not the vague promise of future work. It’s the work itself, paid or not, and the change in psychological state that comes with it.

Crowdfunding Science into the Ground

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There was a time when I felt sorry for Australian scientists.

Caught between uncaring citizens, hostile politicians, and the grateful beneficiaries of their research… the lot of a researcher is not one to envy.

There was a time when I sympathised, and that time ended as soon as I read this: Young scientists use crowd sourcing to fund their research.

Now I just feel angry, and embarrassed for everyone involved.

I want you to imagine a different headline:

Labourers turn to crowdfunding to keep car factory open.

Now imagine that it’s not their factory, they get no share of the profits, and as a result of their efforts they’re on less than minimum wage. Could anyone possibly harbour the delusion that this would ever improve matters?

Oh sure, scientific researchers aren’t expected to be experts on the intricate details of industrial relations. Unlike, say, manual labour, science has slowly “descended” over the centuries from an indulgence of the upper classes. We don’t have the kind of lore that other vocations do about being wary of exploitation and piss-poor safety procedures.

But every scientist, at some point, has had to draw the line. You know, that line, where you say, “your refusal to accept widely established facts does not deserve concession,” or maybe, “go to a goddamned library.”

Working for less than minimum wage to buy essential supplies for a field that produces life-or-death-level drugs and devices is so far over that line you should be doing astronomy instead of medical research.

If you are the kind to deride those who deliberately reject centuries of science, but then you yourself reject centuries of industrial relations wisdom, something is seriously dissonant with your cognisance.

If Programming Languages Were Harry Potter Characters

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C

Let’s start off easy shall we?

Everyone’s been saying that C has been dead for… well, more than a decade. Some laugh at it. Others mutter darkly about living in fear of the infamous forbidden curses undefined behaviour. Sure, there remain loyal followers, and scattered cults here and there. But almost everyone who still sees the Sun will happily claim that it’s a dead language, gone forever, and there’s no reason to use it any more.

But.

Scattered around the world there are… things. Little, unregarded things… that keep C from dying out altogether. Embedded devices, household appliances, single purpose systems and various other unseen, disregarded objects carry C’s compiled code within them. And while they exist, and require maintenance and upgrades, C cannot be killed.

C is… Voldemort, the dark lord of languages.

Fortran

Older even than C, Fortran has lived long enough to see the rise and fall of some of the greatest careers in science and computing. A great many extraordinary feats owe their success to Fortran.

But Fortran is… uh… getting on in years, I suppose is the polite way to put it. I mean, there are plenty who will tell you it’s still capable of some amazing stuff… but then, what language isn’t?

Like C, there are bits of Fortran scattered here and there around the world. But unlike C, these are more memorials than horcruxes. Shining testaments to great acts of insightful mathematics and elegant algorithms remain standing, so that those who wish to build upon great works may one day do so with new and shinier code.

Fortran is Albus Dumbledore (who, incidentally, also frowned upon aliasing pointers when operating on arrays — there’s a little known HP fact for you).

Java

This is a language that found its way into the halls of ingenuity by appealing to all the right people at the top. The whole language, its uptake and its culture seems to be based on managerial interference and fear.

It seems decent enough though. Certainly better than… well, You Know What… that’s for sure! No more buffer overflows, no more uninitialised memory, no casting void pointers… and look at the things it’s accomplished!

But after only a few short months, you look up to realise that blatant, horrific evil has been replaced by a kind of dreary, soul sapping awfulness. Actual achievements have been replaced by studying for useless certifications. Design patterns and frameworks are codified as law and hammered into the whiteboards. Gaslighting abounds. Morale plummets.

There’s nothing in here about using defensive bounds checking.
Using bounds checks? Ha ha! Well I can’t imagine why you would need to use pointers in my classroom.
We’re not gonna use pointers?
You will be learning about coding in a secure, risk-free way.
Well, what use is that? If we’re going to deploy code, it won’t be risk-free!
Programmers will raise their hands when they speak in my class.

Java is Dolores Umbridge, and you know, deep down… you deserve this implementation of generics.

This Is Why You Shouldn’t Interrupt a Programmer

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Programmer, Interrupted

Since @kevin_rudds_cat suggested it, I also made a two-column A4 sized PDF version.

Update: So after being retweeted several hundred times and being posted to Reddit, HN, the DailyWTF and so on, my poor website melted down a little. So I apologise to anyone whose carefully crafted comment was eaten by a 503 error page. If you want to share the image some more and this site’s still being flaky, feel free to link directly to this tweet or any other mirrored copy of it (same goes for the two-column PDF).

Lazy, Arrogant and Full of Stick Figures

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Every week, somewhere in the world, a writer wakes up and notices a different pattern of economic behaviour amongst people born around the mid-1980s. These writers are faced with several options.

They could roll up their sleeves and analyse the vastly different economic, social and technological factors that influence decision making at the personal and political level.

They could do some number crunching on the prolific amount of data on employment levels, job security, housing affordability, and personal debt.

They could investigate the effects of the last 30 years of reforms to tax and financial law, and whether they encourage wise investment or protect a generation of people deeply in debt.

Oh but that’s kinda hard, says such a writer. Too hard for me. So instead, they write a fluff piece devoid of verifiable facts; an article full, instead, of insipid generalisations, non-sequiturs, pseudo-scientific surveys posited as “studies” and half-arsed reverse rationalisations.

They write a what’s wrong with Gen Y article.

* Draw bullshit stick figures

Week after week, a parade of hacks publish the same article over and over again. Articles explaining how the generation of people born between then 1980s and mid 90s are entitled, over-educated, and have ludicrous expectations. These articles are insulting to me. But they’re not insulting because I’m a member of this demographic; they’re insulting because they’re so lazy and idiotic.