Math, Programming and The Ultimate Fighter

I track statistics on my blogs, of course, both this one and my personal blog, which often discusses judo and other martial arts. Normally, this blog has three times as many visitors. Despite what graduate students imply, most people are more interested in statistics than in getting knocked down or punched in the face.  A couple of days ago, though,the visits to my judo blog were way up, almost as high as this one. About the same time, several people I’d never met tweeted or emailed to me,

“No one has the right to beat you. Thank you for my favorite quote ever!”


“No one has the right to beat you! I’m sure you meant that literally, but I’m taking it metaphorically and applying it to my life.”

I was bewildered because that IS one of the things I used to say to my daughters all the time,

No one has the right to beat you.

I meant it literally. No one has the right to defeat you in competition. I also meant it in the sense that no one has the right to lift a hand against you. I always told all of my girls, if anyone ever hits you, pick up the largest, sharpest thing you can find and hit them back as hard as you can. I will bail you out of jail, come to the principal’s office and deal with any adults in your life, whatever, but

No one has the right to beat you -ever – no matter what.

I know that doesn’t sit well with the yuppie mommy set, “We use our words”.  Yeah, well, you tell the big kid how mean he is and I’ll hit him with a brick and we’ll see which one of us he tries to pick on at lunch time next week. I am sure right now my oldest daughter, who lives in Cambridge, MA – the exact geographic center of yuppie motherhood – is second-guessing her decision to leave the care of her two children to me next month and is frantically searching the fine print to see if perhaps her tickets to Europe might be refundable after all.


But, I digress.

I was wondering how the heck all of these people I had never met knew about advice I would give my daughters and why the spike in web site visits. It turned out that I had been so busy working on THE GAME to get our beta version out by Monday to all of our Kickstarter backers that I had completely missed the fact that darling daughter #3 was a guest coach on the TV show The Ultimate Fighter and gave a pep talk that included words of advice from good old mom. Mystery solved, and I did eventually watch the show, since our Tivo is programed to record anything with Ronda’s name in it.

What this has to do with math and programming – I get pissed off pretty regularly about reports in the media that talk about how much Americans suck at math, at programming. The latest bullshit was some article about how Vietnamese 11th graders could all pass exams given to Google engineers. Then I read another article about the gaokao (the test Chinese students take to get into university) in the Wall Street Journal with this quote,

“When I prepped for the GRE, I didn’t study for the math part at all. In China, the U.S. standardized math requirement is junior middle-school level stuff.”

Um, fuck you. In America, most people don’t consider it appropriate to go on about how country X is so stupid that our kids are doing in junior high what they can’t master until graduate school, ha ha ha you’re so dumb. Why is it considered acceptable for people to continually say that the average student in country X is smarter than American engineers? Why is it not racist to say we’re all stupid but it is racist when I say that’s a bunch of crap? You might say, “Well, it’s true, just look at the test scores.”

No one has the right to beat you and they don’t have the right to talk shit about you without being called on it, either.  Coincidentally, I did my dissertation in 1990 on standardized testing, specifically, on construct validity (which is the extent to which a test measures what it claims to test).  It turns out that items on standardized tests are not handed down by God on a set of stone tablets but rather are made up by some group of people. While standardized tests may do well at predicting how well people do on other tests, they are not all that great at predicting other things, and when they are, some of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if we don’t let you into college unless you do well on a test, and then you don’t make as much money as someone who did go to college, was it whatever the test measured, or your lack of college education that made the difference?

I’m just wondering if every Vietnamese high school is full of people who could be engineers at Google why Google wasn’t founded in Vietnam. It’s really a very legitimate question to ask.

This week, I wrote a few programs in JavaScript, PHP and MySQL. As I said, we’re working like crazy to get the beta version of  Spirit Lake: The Game out. I laid out the story line and terrain for the next seven levels of the game. While game one is an overview, demo, which we’ll be revising later, game two is focused on statistics and probability.

In between, I worked on a database for a client, which is almost done, and the statistical analysis of experimental data for another client. I have to get back to a doctoral student’s question about how to use SAS to analyze her data. Not all Americans are stupid and lazy. Not all Americans are bad at math and programming and it is insulting to imply that.

We’re doing a kick-ass job on this game, and even the younger people in our company are not so young. We’ve got a couple doing historical research and testing in their mid-twenties, but the rest are from 30 on up. The majority of our staff is Hispanic or Native American, just because we tended to hire people we knew were really good – which means people that we knew.

What really, really pisses me off though is how many young and not-so-young people have internalized that constant drumbeat of how bad Americans are at math and programming and how we can’t do it. If you look at Microsoft, Apple, Facebook – they were all started by Americans. One of my favorite tech company success stories is lynda.com, founded by Lynda Weinman who, the story goes, learned programming by reading the Apple II manual. No, she didn’t go to MIT which she got into based on perfect SAT scores.

It just makes me livid when I have managers tell me that they need to get more H1B visas because they cannot find programmers in the United States. The reason this infuriates me is that those managers generally have an entire building full of people, at least some of whom could learn to code and be good at it, with just some support and encouragement.

Decades ago, when I got my first engineering position, I was told that I couldn’t have the job because I did not have a masters in mathematics (I had an MBA). Since they didn’t have anyone else that knew the esoteric programming languages they were using, I got the job when the person who had it left and did well enough to get promoted within a year. I’ve been told I wasn’t “really” a programmer because I didn’t use COBOL, then because I didn’t use C. Through it all, I’ve learned one language after another and written stuff in it that actually works.

It seems like we’re constantly being given messages about how we’re not good enough. I don’t know if it is because some managers are just clueless about what programming entails or they want to convince people to take a lower salary by emphasizing what they can’t do.

What I do know is this … No one has the right to defeat you, to tell you what you can’t do. If you are white, black, old, female,Hispanic, American or whatever other demographic doesn’t fit with the “good at math and programming” … screw that – do it anyway.

So that is #16 of the things I have learned in (almost) 55 years.


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  1. This is brilliant and you encapsulate how I feel about the whole “we need to import skills” argument which, particularly in tech (even here) raises its head a lot. We can invest in our own people sometimes but this does not tend to occur to large company management – or they deliberately avoid the option. This is a complete lack of vision and leadership.

  2. Your dissertation sounds interesting, but not surprising in the least.

    I graduated from an AACSB MBA program with a perfect 4.0. I scored the _bare minimum_ required on the GMAT for entrance into the program. Why? Because I refused to waste my life training on a useless skillset: taking the GMAT. I figured I’d give it one shot on natural ability in the hopes it was good enough. It was. Many students scored much better than me on the GMAT, and I schooled them in the coursework. So, based on my own experience, there simply is no relevant correlation between GMAT score and b-school success. It is, however, likely a “decent” rubric to separate the wheat from the chaff since seats are limited. The question to ask is if having an entrance exam achieves a better end result for student selection than not having an entrance exam. I would propose it probably does. If the only barrier to entry is tuition, it is my belief classes would fill up with less capable students, and the educator would have to address a lower common denominator than otherwise, bringing the overall net result of education to a lower point. Again, this is my humble opinion based on my own experience.

    I work as a software engineer. I taught myself C at 13 yrs old (pointers and memory management, too, not just hello world) and understood the tenants of OS design and computational theory (turing machines, automata, etc) well before I graduated highschool. I don’t consider myself to be some gifted genius, either. I simply took an uncommon route to expose myself to these things because I found it interesting. I think our country would find many many people could handle these (useful) topics at an earlier age if we would simply expose them to the topics! There’s simply no reason to waste K-12 beating English into a student’s brain year after year after year, or rehashing history for the 5th time. Teach kids useful shit!

    Finally, I would respond to the Vietnamese with the point/question you hinted at: who invented an overwhelming majority of the shit we use today? Oh yeah, Americans. Was the majority of the inventions that power our world made by college graduates? No. They were made by people who taught themselves shit and tinkered around until they figured it out on their own.

    This notion that the only way to success is attending class, learning precisely what a professor tells you to … is absolute horseshit.

    I toned my vernacular to fit your style, hope you don’t mind. 🙂


  3. I did fairly well on the GMAT, but not a perfect score, and like you, I didn’t study for it much. I figured the graduate school was lucky to get me (when I graduated from college I was 19 and had a bad attitude. Some would say I haven’t changed in the ensuing 35 years).
    I am with you that many innovations come about from extensive tinkering with things.

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