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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Remote Mentorship

I read a lot. And I learn a lot from what I read. When I discover a writer I really like, whose work is particularly insightful, I glom onto them — I’ll tear through their whole archive, or if they’re particularly prolific, read all of their classics (defined as the pieces they themselves reference the most).

The internet’s casual and iterative blogging culture encourages this behavior in a way that the offline world doesn’t. Sure, you can read every book an author has written. But what about doing that and following their life on a day-to-day-basis? Social media lets you get to know someone in real-time even when they have never registered that you exist.

Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick. Remote mentorship is possible because of this technology.
Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick.

The term I use for this process is “remote mentorship” — it’s similar to traditional mentorship, but without the constraints of time or place. The mentor doesn’t have to be interested in the mentee or pay any specific attention to them. There’s no need to meet for coffee or exchange letters. In fact, this is scalable mentorship: someone can post once and influence many, without having to dispense one-on-one advice to each enthusiast.

I maintain a public list of people who shaped my intellectual growth. Some of them have mentored me in the traditional sense, and some are friends, but the majority are busy professionals who have maybe acknowledged me once or twice on Twitter. It’s not the same as dedicated hands-on mentorship, but I get just as much out of reading Slate Star Codex as I have out of personal coaching relationships.

Remote mentorship is a combination of the intellectual hero-worship that’s been around forever (boosted by the printing press), and today’s burgeoning influencer economy. It’s like the nerdy version of lusting after Instagram stars.

I’ve been thinking about this for literally years, but I owe a hat-tip to Venkatesh Rao’s “Cambrian Explosion of Consensual Realities” for the immediate inspiration. Guess what Rao qualifies as 😉

Stack Overflow & Discouraging Beginners

“The thing is, bad questions don’t destroy the community. […] But this hostile behavior does destroy the community. It pushes beginners away, who may ask better questions later once they get a bit more of a handle on what they’re doing. And it pushed people like me away; people who are there to help, and willing to do so even for beginners.” — lambda on Hacker News

Despite saying that I was not going to learn how to code, I’ve been playing around with Learn Python the Hard Way. The author has a smart practice of posing questions to the student as quasi-homework — your job is to Google around until you find the answer. Thus you build the habit of solving puzzles via research.

snake clipart

In the “Study Drills” section of the fifth exercise, the author instructs, “Try more format characters. %r is a very useful one.” I suspect I’m not the only student who instantly searched “Python format characters”. One of the first results was a page from the Python 2 docs. The answer was in there, but I didn’t realize that because it was way the hell down the page (here). The top of that page said this, which I found incomprehensible:

“The principal built-in types are numerics, sequences, mappings, files, classes, instances and exceptions.

Some operations are supported by several object types; in particular, practically all objects can be compared, tested for truth value, and converted to a string (with the repr() function or the slightly different str() function). The latter function is implicitly used when an object is written by the print() function.”

I read that and thought, “Well, this must not be what I’m looking for!” Back to Google. The next place I went was a Stack Overflow question:

"I've been looking for the list Python format characters for a good 30 minutes. I can't find any. Examples are %d, %r etc but I need a list with them along with a description if possible please." Closed on Stack Overflow as "not a real question".

Aha! Someone had the same problem I did! (Granted, I was a couple minutes into my search, not thirty, but the original post was from 2010.) Underneath the request for help, a closure note called this… “not a real question”? Hmm, okay. I guess the OP didn’t follow all the “You Must Try, and then You Must Ask” rules (which I wholeheartedly believe in, and to which Stack Overflow’s guidance seems similar) — but it was pretty clear what they were looking for.

I scrolled down to read the answers. This was the first one, ranked by upvotes:

“Here you go, Python documentation on old string formatting. Took me one minute to find (tutorial -> 7.1.1. Old String Formatting -> ‘More information can be found in the [link] section’), something must be wrong with your search strategy ;)” — user delnan

This is helpful because it provides the desired information. But it profoundly fails to empathize with the beginner’s struggle. I suspect that the person who asked this question, like me, found that docs page easily. It was just totally non-obvious that the answer was in there! I appreciate the third Stack Overflow response, which has a tenth of the first one’s upvotes:

“In Topic = 5.6.2. String Formatting Operations then further down to the chart (text above chart is ‘The conversion types are:’) [¶] The chart lists 16 types and some following notes. [¶] My comment: help does not include attitude which is a bonus. The attitude post enabled me to search further and find the info.” — user oceandreamer

Another user, Lennart Regebro, commented, “The first hit [on Google] is now tragically this stupid question” instead of the Python 2 docs page. Well, the docs didn’t help me at all without access to “this stupid question” and the explanations it provoked. Because you don’t know what you don’t know — reading the top of that docs page made me think it had nothing to do with what I was looking for. Yes, I was wrong, but that’s because I’m a goddam beginner! By definition I’m not good at parsing technical documentation!

If your answer to this problem is “read the entirety of every docs page to make sure there is no relevant section”, you’re being totally unrealistic — it’s just not going to happen. Maybe the original asker and I should have done ctrl + f for r% — but that didn’t occur to me, so I assume it didn’t occur to them either.

Beginners need guidance. They’re dumb and they flail around and they get stuck on “easy” problems. That’s why resources like Learn Python the Hard Way and Stack Overflow exist in the first place.

I don’t think the docs of a programming language should be tailored to newbies who have no idea what they’re doing. That would be silly. I do think that people who participate in learning-oriented spaces should not answer questions with this jaded, snarky, put-upon air. It is the opposite of welcoming and it does nothing to make me feel delighted about talking to programmers. But hey, if you don’t want a friendly community or you don’t want more people to learn how to code, then you’re doing it right.

I quoted Hacker News user lamdba at the beginning, but their comment is so good that you should really go read the whole thing.

It’s Okay to Not Learn How to Code

Sometimes — actually quite often — I think to myself, “I should learn how to code.” When I’m feeling particularly peppy, I open up a Khan Academy tutorial. Then after a few minutes I get bored and scroll through Twitter instead. Sure, programming languages are cool and useful, but so is geometry, and I don’t spend my free time on that either.

Image created by Octavian Arnaut. Posted with this comment: "EveryMatrix is looking for programmers."
Image created by Octavian Arnaut.

Here’s the thing: if I were the type of person who would be good at coding, I would have already been playing with Python and Ruby for years. I would have been entranced by HTML in fifth grade — instead of learning the rudiments from Neopets and moving on — and I would have branched out from there.

Realistically, I don’t want to learn how to code. I want the social cachet of being able to build stuff using computers, and I want the high salary a programmer can command in today’s labor market. But there are much easier ways to garner social cachet, ways that exploit my comparative advantage. Maybe I won’t make as much money as the wizards who design APIs and put together apps, but that’s just a function of supply and demand. In other words, it’s a reflection of my skills’ economic value, not a reflection of my value as a human being. Besides, I’ll earn enough.

Illustrations of dev work by Cathy Zhu.
Illustrations of dev work by Cathy Zhu.

Even if I forced myself to learn to code, I still wouldn’t be competitively good at it, because I’m not interested. There’s nothing in particular that I want to build that I can’t already hack together using basic OSS or otherwise freely available tools. I have found that it’s impossible to teach myself anything that I’m not enthused by, so why bother trying? There are so many subjects that I do find fascinating — better to focus my energy on those areas instead.

I’m giving myself permission to NOT learn how to code. If something changes and I find myself drawn to it, or if I need more technical capabilities to advance a project, I’ll revisit those Khan Academy tutorials. Either way, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Smart Kids Should Skip High School

Disclaimer: more thought experiment than actual advice.

Unsorted books make librarians sad
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

Skipping college is almost middle-class mainstream at this point. For example, not graduating is an oddly inverted rite of passage in the world of tech startups. Of course, working-class people have been going straight from high school to full-time jobs forever. For as long as there have been universities, educated middle-class or wealthy parents — who are disproportionately white and otherwise privileged — have looked down their noses at the less-rich “unwashed masses”.

However, lacking a bachelor’s degree doesn’t incur the same amount of disapproval as being a high-school dropout. Dropping out of high school is like getting an MFA — it guarantees you’ll end up at McDonald’s (if you can believe the snide, faux-pitying comments). Unlike skipping college, dropping out of high school is reserved for losers and astonishing child geniuses who get admitted to Stanford at twelve. If you can believe the widespread perception.

Technically, I dropped out of high school. I skipped senior year to go to Reed — it didn’t work out in the long run, but that’s beside the point — so I took California’s GED test in June, 2012. It was dead easy. I felt cheated out of three years of my life, because I could have passed the test right away at the end of eighth grade. Maybe I would have needed to study a little to grasp all of the math, but I suspect I could have performed much worse and still passed the test. In retrospect, I probably didn’t need to bother taking the GED at all.

Photo by Don O'Brien: "Classmates of mine in the Worthingto (Ohio) High School class of 1942. [...] I don't recognize the boy nor do I recall why I took the photo."
Photo by Don O’Brien: “Classmates of mine in the Worthington (Ohio) High School class of 1942. […] I don’t recognize the boy nor do I recall why I took the photo.”
I could have spent three years writing and reading and working on interesting projects, instead of enduring the sociocultural hell of high school. Sure, I had a few good classes and a few good friends. But it was mostly tedium. I don’t like to think about how much time and energy I expended doing busywork and memorizing facts I really did not need to be able to recite at the drop of a hat.

(People worry about Google and the instant availability of knowledge making people dumber, because we don’t have to memorize much anymore — Socrates felt the same anxiety when writing and reading were invented. There is no need to refuse to use the tools available to us for the sake of intellectual authenticity or whatever bullshit. Memorization for the sake of memorization is a waste of resources. If you work with information on a regular basis you will memorize it naturally, and if you don’t use the information often, why bother memorizing it?)

Much as I think the current curriculum and organizational structure of high school are crimes against all the budding human minds who are subjected to them, I don’t believe that every single student should skip grades nine through infinity. If you want to be a doctor, a scientist, a lawyer, etc, then you’re stuck. Even otherwise, dropping out will only work if you’re smart and reasonably self-motivated. Creativity and confidence also help tremendously.

Assuming those conditions, going through high school is a colossal waste of time. It doesn’t matter whether you care about attending college later — contrary to what teachers and school board members might want you to think, getting into college is easy if you’re intelligent and work hard to do interesting things.

the smarter you grow
Photo by Enokson.

If your parents won’t play ball and you’re not willing to run away and support yourself — don’t do that unless your parents are actually abusive, not just buzzkills — then you pretty much can’t skip high school. That sucks, but that’s life. However, if you can work on your parents and cajole them into changing their minds, you can escape the terrible and all-too-common fate of lugging textbooks back and forth from your locker in between strictly scheduled boredom sessions.

First off, tell your parents that wanting to skip high school does NOT mean forgoing education. Learning is important and wonderful; putting knowledge into action is even better. Choose and develop a project! A months-long project that will stretch your abilities while occupying your passion. Then study for the sake of working on the project. Build something — a miniature greenhouse for the backyard. Write a novel. Learn how to sew clothes (geometry + art).

And don’t neglect macro planning. Write a four-year outline that predicts what you’ll do instead of high school. Make a budget to match. Then let me know how it goes…

Reminder: thought experiment!

Wealth-Adjacency Privilege

gold ingots and gold coins
Photo by John Louis.

Sara Bibel writes on The Billfold about having a rich uncle:

“When I was making big bucks, I offered to pay my uncle back for the tuition assistance he had given me. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I don’t need it.’ I feel guilty about this privilege, that I am not saddled with the debt that has made life difficult for so many people I know. I do my best to pay my good fortune forward. […] Access to wealth, and the knowledge that comes with it, is like getting compound interest on your entire life.”

I said this on Facebook, but I think it’s worth noting here for posterity: I also have the privilege of wealth-adjacency — more than that, actually, because my immediate family is financially comfortable as well as my relatives. I would be in a drastically different situation without robust health insurance and parents who could support me into my early adulthood. That doesn’t even address the money-manipulation comfort that Bibel brings up in her article (which I’m still learning).

"Invest in sharing!" A street art stencil featuring the "get out of jail free" card image from Monopoly board-game. Found painted on the sidewalk in New York City in 2007.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Something that should happen more often: Rich people mentoring poor kids specifically regarding personal economics. (Also systemic policy reform of various kinds, but let’s not get too excited.) If I’m ever wealthy by virtue of my own actions, I hope I will take the time and energy to hang out with a low-income high-school student and, I dunno, impart some knowledge. And buy their textbooks. Is that an unrealistic notion?

Of course, the policy reform is what would really help — if only moneyed interests didn’t have such a stranglehold on politics! One of the cruelest symptoms of growing up poor is that the whole arrangement is rigged: financial security is unattainable — but if you somehow magically attain it, you can’t handle your newly healthy bank account because you haven’t been able to practice not being broke. (Warning: both articles contain offhand references to sexual violence.) is not your typical progressive publication, but apparently they had the sense to make John Cheese an editor. The brilliant Tressie McMillan Cottom has also written wonderfully on this topic.

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