Thursday, March 23, 2006

Eating the seed corn

I was talking with a guy in China about software development. He had a copy of my resume, and mentioned that China had a lot of well-educated software engineers, but nobody with my kind of background, skills, and experience, because back when I was learning computers and electronics in the 1980's the people of China didn't have such opportunities.

Then I think of today, and wonder: do Americans today have those kinds of opportunities?

Really, the answer has to be "No." While they're more likely to have access to a computer at school or at a public library, the most likely use they'll be making of it will be googling Alyssa Milano's bra size. While the cheap computer equipment that they can buy is much better than when I was a kid -- even a $400 computer from Wal-mart has more than enough power to do anything -- the fact of the matter is that they're much more likely to have a $400 X-Box than a $400 computer in their homes. Furthermore, these are complex computers that are much more difficult to learn from top to bottom than the simple little Apple II's and Commodore 64's of my youth. The programming manual for a 6502 microprocessor was 20 pages. The programming manual for a Intel-architecture microprocessor is three volumes of approximately encyclopedia size.

Once you get past age 17, opportunities are even more limited for most Americans. Most Americans cannot afford college due to declining real incomes and rising college costs, and student loan burdens have become so horrendous that many Americans who graduate college are basically enslaved to their student loan debts for the rest of their lives. The cut-off of most grant-based aid programs in the 1980's, under Saint Ronald Reagan, means that most of the poor no longer have access to college, and George W. Bush loves the poor -- he must, given that he's created so many more of them during his regime.

Meanwhile, in China it is seen as your national duty to learn mathematics, science, and technology. And the Chinese are naturally mercantilistic -- the Chinese are the Jews of South Asia, in every country of South Asia other than Japan the mercantile class is largely Chinese just as it was Jewish in pre-Hitler Europe, and even though those mercantilistic impulses were eliminated from the mainland during the Communist era (for the record, China is no longer Communist, though it still claims to be), when China re-opened for business this huge talented bunch of merchants moved right back in.

There is still the fact that China is a creaky authoritarian dictatorship, and creaky authoritarian dictatorships rarely produce much in the way of innovation. But the fact of the matter is that they are creating their seed corn, and we are eating ours, destroying our educational system and deadening the minds of our youth in pursuit of low taxes and mindless entertainment and something for nothing. When the Chinese evolve a reasonable government -- and there's every reason to think it will happen, albeit it may be decades -- they will be in a position to rule to world. And the United States? Just another third-world banana republic, just like the ones south of the border, with a small wealthy elite and huge masses of poorly-educated servants. Maybe there will be reservations for smart people, like maybe they'll let the SF Bay area and New York City areas continue to be filled with smart people to do the things that the servants can't do and that the elite don't want to do, but the United States as it existed in the era 1945-1980, with opportunity for all, will have otherwise vanished.

- Badtux the Apocalyptic Penguin


  1. And the worst of it is, they're doing it on purpose.

  2. Glad to have you back, missed the snarky insightfulness.

  3. Ironic how the Right talks a good game about being "pro-America," but in reality they're dismantling what made America so great and replacing it with the old Confederacy.

  4. Good afternoon, BadTux.

    You are, of course, correct about the good old days of personal computers. We really could learn them from top to bottom. It was also a matter of the mentality of a pretty decent cache of kids and young adults in that era: we still had that fascination with the guts of technology that came from the space era of the 1960s.

    A lot of science fiction was still about cool technology with an overlay of social issues. Magazines about planes and rockets and stuff like that still had a draw among kids who needed a reason not to be alienated completely from the larger society.

    Computer technology was new frontier, and we could make broad inroads into its future; or at the very least, we didn't see what we were doing as useless, meaningless, and trivial in some overwhelming mass of better corporate offerings of anything we could possibly accomplish.

    Now, every hoehandle and his brother can produce a knock-down, word-processed document. Anyone with half a mind can whip up a great graphic; and all you have to do is select your personal, all-you, ready-to-go Blogger template to have a Web presence.

    And hacking is so not worth it because we all know that the only hackers and crackers out there are bad people.

    And one more thing: "computer technology" has turned into a Time-Life series of this, that, and the other coming-on-the-scene, already-been-done, or so-1990s old stuff that it's just about impossible to have good kung fu across the gamut. All I want to know is, who the heck is pumping out all this new crap that just seems to pop out of nowhere? (And so help me God, if I hear one more drool about hidden-corporate slap-crap like Firefox, I'll just scream my bloody, friggin' head right off and spray my guts out through the resulting, gaping hole in my scrawny old hacker neck.)

    There's just no place for productively alienated kids in computer technology anymore; and until something comes along, the kids will simply slump into their self-absorbed world of violent action and RPG games, which at least give them the good-graphics illusion that they're in a world where they matter.

    The Dark Wraith has wandered in and blustered.

  5. You're right about China being poised to outstrip us as the technological and economic superpower of the world. There's only one problem with that scenario, though: as they hurriedly build themselves an industrial/technological economy, their daily intake of fossil fuels is skyrocketing (it will soon surpass even ours) just as the end of cheap fossil fuels is arriving. Of course, the Chinese are geographically much closer to the world's largest remaining oil reserves than we are, and have the planet's largest standing army.

    But that's not why we're in Iraq. Nope, not at all. We're there to spread Freedom(tm)!

  6. Back in the day, when I was chopping up C++ header files to produce smaller executable code, I believed that device drivers were the thing -- that the technology existed to do everything that could be done that we would possibly want done, provided we had the proper device drivers.

    It seems like today, it's all about graphics, media. All fluff, no stuff.

    It sucks.

    No one cares about having a succinct executable because disk space is cheap and the processing power is readily available.

    I used to say that programmers, though they all want to have the latest power systems, should be given on old 286 to produce programs, and then they would be forced to write efficient code. I still believe it (maybe a 486 these days, let's give 'em a break).

    I have a feeling this comment will get me hated among certain circles. But they still know it's true.

  7. Good morning, Progressive Traditionalist.

    You're preaching to the preacher, here. Disk space used to be at a premium, and we wrote code as if every last line was going to overrun the resources.

    The sloppiness drives me crazy, and I even make a point of rewarding tight coding in my computer classes: five bonus points for the smallest file size.

    And all these programs that do the programming for you smear massive amounts of useless nonsense. Have you ever seen how, for example, Microsoft Excel renders a spreadsheet into a "Web page"?!

    I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: when I was young, we didn't have all this fancy-schmancy hex and decimal crap; all we had was binary... and sometimes, we couldn't even afford the zeroes. Lord knows, we got by, though. You can do a lot with ones, by God.

    And by the way, I still have my 286 and my 486DX (20 Meg hard drive, 16 Meg RAM, VESA local bus), and I still have my WordPerfect 4.2, my FORTRAN compiler, and my smoking Novell DOS 7.0.

    Windows, my ass.

    The Dark Wraith assembles and compiles.


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