Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reflections at Middle Age on the Path Not Taken

This morning I received a 'phone call from a friend and colleague from my second posting at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. At my stage in life, re-connecting with an old friend with so many shared memories from a different time and place is a special joy. It was really a boost to my spirits to start my day with a happy chat and to feel his enthusiasm over his important new job at the U.N. and to catch up with news of his family. I am getting used to hearing from colleagues that their children, frozen in my recollection as elementary school students, are getting married, working for NGOs in far off lands, completing Ph.D.s, etc., etc. So I was not surprised when he told me that his young son had just been accepted by the Université de Montréal to study physics. I expressed admiration that his son had chosen physics, a noble pursuit, and so he wouldn't have to be following us into jobs related to political science.

Sometimes I despair that my political science is not really "science" at all. But that I make my living simply spinning tedious stories signifying nothing of sustaining value for 200 minutes a week in term -- as a kind of intellectual fraud. So I been encouraging my daughter to think of a future career in scientific research, not humanities and social sciences. My attitude is a variation on Willie Nelson's "Mama don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys," substituting social scientist for buckaroo. After all she does very well in science and maths in her Grade 7 class. There is a lot of potential there, I think. Actually quite a number of my close friends are mathematicians specializing in sub-fields like combinatorics and optimization. I am not sure exactly what they do but it seems pretty important and of enduring value to society. My math professor friends to a man intensely love music as well. There is evidently a connection between ability at high level math and appreciation of fine music. I like music a lot too. Maybe I should have studied math at university.

Actually, when I was in my first year at Carleton University in 1972, I did take a couple of courses in the then new discipline of Computer Science. I loved that stuff. The programs were stamped into IBM 80-column punch cards and then hundreds of these things fed into a card reader. Often the programs failed not because of a programming error on my part but because one of the cards had not fully descended into the card punch when I was typing it in, so it wouldn't read properly. Then I had to figure out which of my hundreds of cards was to blame and replace it. Anyway I did very well in the computer science courses. In one of them bonus points were given so I ended up with marks higher than 100%. So, as I was showing some talent for this kind of thing, I was approached about majoring in computer science. Being young and foolish I rejected the idea out of hand which, as I recall now, got the computer science professor's back up a bit. My reasoning was that after all, computers might be of value in doing statistical regressions for social science research, but in the final analysis these computers were just glorified calculating machines. I was therefore certain that there was no future in computers. So I decided to major in ancient Chinese philosophy instead. Later I regretted this hasty decision, especially in the 80s when the micro-computers came out. I just had to have one of those cool machines with the 64 kb of ram, 360 kb of storage on 5.25" floppies, 2.5 mhz of raw computing power and especially the 300 baud modem (I was an early adopter of e-mail having an account at Princeton as early as 1984). And after all I am the same age as Bill Gates.

But when the high-tech stocks collapsed in the late-90s, a number of my computer science and electrical engineering grad friends found themselves suddenly out of work and in difficult circumstances in their early-40s. I realized that that could have been me.

By the grace of God maybe things have worked out for the best for me in the end.

1 comment:

羽之助 said...

You're a PoliSci professor, with a doctorate, something way beyond my reach. I'm just going to be an English drone, and if I'm really, REALLY lucky, a high school teacher in Canada or a drone in the Foreign Service or a translation company.

But look at you! Influential, did your university years in China of all places, and order DaShan around on the trains, and Parliament asks you for advice.

I, and lots of students who come into contact with you, feel much envy and respect.

I know you're just pondering on what might have been, but I think you did quite well.