Some Questions about the Recurse Center

& (verbiage overflow)Sun 22 May 2016RSSSearchSubscribe

In February of 2013 I entered the Recurse Center (RC) and have remained active in its alumn community ever since. I am fifty-four and this has been one of the most fruitful associations of my life. Now people often ask me questions about RC — here are some of those that I have heard less often than others and that I think may interest people considering application to RC:

What has the difference been for you between being at RC and coding/learning on your own?

RC has given me code review, pairing, stimulation in unexpected ways, and a network of extraordinary people. All four of those items are pretty hard to set up for oneself outside of the environment cultivated by RC.

How has coding been connected to your non-coding life or interests?

  1. In my sinological research, which remains my most abiding passion even though I no longer make a living from it, I have used my coding skills to speed tasks that would have been impossibly tedious if I’d attempted them manually. Those research projects have included:

    a. Taiwanese cantillation, manually transcribed with music-notation software, from which XML can be output and then analyzed programmatically.

    b. (In collaborative work with a mathematician) using Chernoff bounds to estimate the probability that

    1. prosodic behavior in medieval Chinese poetry is the result of random choice of word-tones, and

    2. a certain medieval prosodic effect is observed by chance in Chinese poetry written 500 years earlier.

    c. A dictionary project organized using a database and Python code, and typeset in programmatically-generated LaTeX.

    All of these are basically rudimentary applications of coding skill, and would not be of theoretical interest to people with minds inclined to the abstractions of computer science.

  2. I have begun one project developing an idea I learned from theoretical computer science: a Classical Chinese grammar project that circumvents Chomsky’s argument about the need for transformational principles. I presented it at a programming conference and it represents new research territory for me — something I hope I am able to develop much more fully as my other obligations recede.

  3. I hope to make the teaching of programming into the mainstay of my coding career, and I have found a number of the practices customary among programmers very useful to my own learning and to my study of how to teach programming:

    a. blogging about things that interest me,

    b. collecting miscellaneous notes (exposed on a public repository),

    c. giving lightning talks,

    d. mentoring junior coders, and

    e. preparing finished slides to illustrate things for instruction.

What did you find set you most apart from most other RC people?

In my first batch I was around twice the age of the average person — I was fifty, and the average age of the rest of my batch was, I think, twenty-six or so. I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person ever to enter RC up to that time.

I was also a mid-life “career-changer”. I put it in quotes because I don’t like the term — it means that I had already had a full first career in a field totally unrelated to programming or peripheral subjects such as math, physics, or formal logic. I believe I was the only such batchling up to that time who was also a very inexperienced programmer.

How did you deal with that?

I kept my head somewhat down about both my age and my past career, although my pedantic academic ways are hard to conceal for long. But my fellow batchlings were welcoming and tolerant, and have remained so.

But neither they nor RC were aware at first of the difficulties that mid-life career-changers generally encounter when trying to enter the tech industry. Overall, I find it an intrusion into my own space when a younger person, meaning well in every sense of that phrase, expresses regret about the prevalence of ageism in tech. Then again, my own reactions to various ways of life and outlook that I’ve encountered among the young are perhaps “ageist”, too. Having realized the need to face that error, I’m not in a position to complain about how the young view me and my situation.

Did you always think you were a fit for RC?

Initially I wasn’t sure, but a friend who was informally mentoring me urged me to try, so I submitted the best application I thought I could and then just put it out of my mind.

During my first batch, in the first day or so several JavaScript mavens found each other and began pair-programming together rather loudly. I had the impression that I was the only person in the entire batch who didn’t know JavaScript, and that gave me some discomfort for a time. After several such experiences, involving different technical skills, it dawned on me that I was misjudging the situation. Since then, I haven’t been bothered by other people’s superior technical skills, real or fancied.

Well, I guess, with one exception. There is a certain kind of intellectual aggressiveness exhibited by some programmers with strong backgrounds in mathematics or computer science theory. While engineering aggressiveness is normally avoided at RC, and indeed the social rules are designed to eliminate much of it, this one variety is likely to persist because it is a source of innocent pleasure for an important subset of the community’s members. (I do mean that it is innocent — I am not talking about the obstreperous way a gaggle of male engineers sometimes behaves.) The many batchlings who are uncomfortable with these fields will just have to deal with the situation, as I have. But there is a mild antidote I can recommend for people experiencing that discomfort.

Let me digress briefly but with purpose. There is an Amazon review by a well-known computer scientist who says that people who don’t like Sussman and Abelson’s Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP) are — I paraphrase — lazy thinkers. In reality, getting through SICP requires a lot of abstract thinking of a particular kind. Programming was once the private playground of people with a knack for this kind of thinking and perhaps also a penchant for exclusivity. Fortunately, the field is now wide open to people with far more diverse kinds of minds.

Whenever I remember that SICP review, in the next gust of thought there arises this line from Alistair Cooke’s Six Men (New York: Random House, 1977; p. 6):

André Malraux, in one of those blasting sentences with which [certain intellectuals] love to seal off whole tunnels of inquiry, said that “the death of Europe is the central fact of our time.”

The antidote I am speaking of is this: don’t let other people seal off the tunnels of your inquiry. Pursuit your own quest and, if you care to, do it on terms you choose. Anyway, don’t let yourself be discouraged by people who tell you, as that eminent computer scientist is doing, that your way is no good.

Were there any expectations you found hard to meet, or needs at RC that you found yourself particularly suited to meeting?

I can think of no expectations I found hard to meet.

I think I’ve been of occasional use to people preparing conference presentations and proposals, young people contemplating marriage, people afraid of career-change or a hostile job market, and people who have found some inspiration from my intransigence in such petty matters as using an old-fashioned text editor or avoiding the use of a mouse.

It seems to me I made quite an impression on the faculty during my first batch because of my extensive note-taking habits. (Those poor people have since been almost drowned in my logorrhea.)

What has inspired you to stay connected to the RC community after your batch?

The network of alumns at RC is the organization’s crown jewel, and no “inspiration” has been necessary.

What motivated you the most when your progress seemed to slow at RC?

One tactic was to change to a short-term, small project to take my mind off some bigger project that had stalled.

Long walks — of an hour or two — helped, too. Movies helped, conversation helped, assorted distractions helped. Another trick was to time my work sessions and when the timer went off, immediately force myself to stop work and do something else entirely. I’ve read that that was Igor Stravinsky’s method of composition.

Above all, persistence and patience helped. Mel Chua, now and again a resident at RC, often speaks about the uneven progress that our brains make during the process of learning. Periodically the human brain seems to slow down to a crawl and you find yourself in a funk — but that is when it is consolidating what it has learned, and the crawl doesn’t mean you’ve stopped learning at all. That’s been helpful to remember.

How did your initial goals differ from what you actually did at RC?

I haven’t looked back at my diaries to check this, but my impression is that my initial goals bore very little relation to what I actually did in batch.

In some cases, what happened to me was far better than what I had “planned” for. In others, I failed to learn something that I really had my heart set on, and that I still hanker for control of.

Were you able to make the best possible use of RC during your batch? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I went through two batches, and there are things I wish I had done differently both times.

The first time, I pair-programmed relatively little — probably because others were intimidated of me when I asked if we could pair, meaning for them to be “driving”. In retrospect, I see that I should have pushed for more pairing encounters, inviting others to pair, with me driving. I failed to take steps that would have made pairing take place. The driver in a pairing arrangement is more emotionally vulnerable than the “navigator”, and since my age and past profession make me especially intimidating to many people, I should always have put myself in that position for the first encounter or two.

In addition, I had a long-scheduled class that I had to teach after hours two days a week. At that time, RC’s rules were not enforced as energetically as they are now about the inadvisability of working at a job while in batch. Realistically, I could neither reschedule the teaching job nor cancel it, so I just left a little early two days a week. But it happened that that was the first batch during which Thursday presentations (now a fixture of the weekly schedule) took place, and I had to miss all but two of them. I don’t know what I could have done about that, but I wish it hadn’t happened.

In my second batch, I paired and collaborated much more, but I continued two practices from my first batch: working mainly in Python and doing projects with heavy emphasis on string-manipulation, since my domain of greatest comfort is a branch of natural-language linguistics. In retrospect, I see that I should have worked entirely in a language either new or very unfamiliar to me, and I should have worked entirely in graphical or numerical data rather than strings.

What surprised you the most about RC?

The first really big surprise I had was realizing how pleasant and interesting all the people there were. At that time, the network was not yet featured on the website as RC’s most valuable aspect. I suspect, though I’m not sure, that the founders only really began to understand about the network around the time of my first batch.

Is there anything you wish you had known, going in? Or are there any questions you would advise applicants asking themselves as they consider applying?

Are you ready to take risks with your own learning, and persistently prevent yourself from getting too comfortable with any project? That would be the best way to get the most you can out of RC.

Has there been a single most important benefit for you?

Hard to name just one, but high on the list is my understanding of what it means to be a programmer — that was the paramount insight of my first batch. Joining the network of alumns is another item high on the list.

How about a single biggest struggle?

Many people enter RC with no more coding experience than I had but they are half my age. Seeing how much more easily they get job interviews than I do — granted that they may, even so, not get job offers — has been frustrating and I haven’t always handled that well at all. The only half-solution I can offer for that is to point out that most of those people are building a first career; this is my second career, and some differences arise inevitably from that point.

Was it difficult to make the time in your life to attend RC?

It was hard on my family for me to be so completely abstracted from them for three months.

I didn’t get much exercise while at RC — I had been following a substantial workout practice until then, but RC put an end to it utterly, and I’ve never really recovered from that.

I didn’t sleep much while at RC — I was too keyed up and learning too intensely, and during those months I often dreamt that I was writing code. That happened during both batches, and the state of hyperagrypnia gradually dissipated during the month after my batch ended.

Have you had any other experiences that in part resemble your experience at RC?

My first couple of years in graduate school were somewhat like RC, in that I felt newly admitted into a restricted guild where people helped each other to learn.

My two-and-a-half years in rural China doing dialect fieldwork for my dissertation were also similar, with respect to self-directed, hands-on learning. No academic research project I have done since then has been as much like RC as that was. I had only very occasional contact with my Doktorvater, far off in the United States somewhere — we communicated by paper letters at that time and between those places. (My shymuu 師母, my advisor’s widow, recently sent me the whole sheaf of letters he had kept.) While in the field I learned a vast amount from the old men I was collecting language from, and the younger men I interacted with in the Government offices that sponsored me, and most of all from struggle — on my own terms — to make sense of the language data I was gathering.


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  306. Vaclav Havel (1936–2011) on ideology (1978)
  307. 'Factorial' in Chinese (jiēchéng 階乘/阶乘)
  308. Leibniz’s theodicy, dynamic programming, and strategies for learning
  309. Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott on mathematical models and self-delusion (2009)
  310. Y. R. Chao and Henry Sheffer added to the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  311. Two more rules of thumb for the New York subway
  312. Math in the Movies
  313. Jim Coplien on reflection and problem-solving (2011)
  314. Richard Feynman on practical applications of the theory of gravitation (1964)
  315. Karl Popper on understanding a problem (1963)
  316. Galileo on "reason conquering sense" (1632)
  317. Apparent error in Python's priority queue and heapq
  318. Literacy book finally out
  319. Y. R. Chao on his dissertation (1974)
  320. Doctoral pedigrees
  321. Lack of stable sort in Python's priority queue
  322. Suitable pots for making turmeric tea
  323. Neuro-plasticity and strategies for improving cognitive functioning: "The Brain Fitness Program" (2007)
  324. Code-switching between comfortable cognitive aptitudes and the main aptitudes used in math and coding
  325. Wishes for the Orthodox Nativity Season (began 15 November this year)
  326. Two rules of thumb about transportation in New York
  327. Pípá yā 琵琶鴨 (Frisbee Duck)
  328. Testing the reliability of the Python priority queue
  329. Edsger Dijkstra on programming as an intellectual discipline (2001)
  330. Edsger Dijkstra on the name of the field Computer Science (2001)
  331. Edsger Dijkstra on anthropomorphizing computers (2001)
  332. Edsger Dijkstra on mastery of one's native tongue as a vital programming skill (2001)
  333. Edsger Dijkstra on the origin of his shortest path algorithm (2001)
  334. Efrem Podgaits's New York Mass (2001)
  335. Anecdotal report on experimenting with creatine as a study aid
  336. "Suppose" for math proofs, in LaTeX
  337. A rule of thumb in teaching
  338. Graphing flowcharts and automata in LaTeX
  339. Perception of time and suspension of finality (studying math)
  340. Suddenly perceiving the cantus firmus in a Bach chorus
  341. Two of Elvira's arias from Don Giovanni
  342. Identifying robots among human beings
  343. Apparent misspelling in LaTeX command set: \guillemotleft and \guillemotright
  344. Table of contents in a LaTeX book: make the TOC entry different from the actual chapter headings in the text
  345. Competition and sharing in academia
  346. Kuhn and Popper
  347. Herb Gross's calculus lectures
  348. The abbreviation UTC as an acronym
  349. Clyde Haberman on validating one's authenticity as a New Yorker (2011)
  350. The era of lost words
  351. Never odd or even
  352. William Deresiewicz on multitasking and solitude (2009)
  353. Bjarne Stroustrup's advice to up-and-coming programmers (2008)
  354. Chet Ramey's advice to up-and-coming programmers (2008)
  355. Bjarne Stroustrup on the name C++ and common criticisms of the language
  356. Steve Bourne, advice to up-and-coming programmers (2009)
  357. Alfred Aho on the origins of awk (2008)
  358. Leslie Lamport on thinking first and on commenting code (2007)
  359. Pens of choice for linguistic fieldwork
  360. How I learned LaTeX
  361. Some bons mots from Edsger Dijkstra (1984)
  362. Non-paean to Steve Jobs
  363. Annotations of Cormen et al.'s algorithm for a Red-Black Tree (delete and delete-fixup functions only)
  364. John McCarthy on "Generality in Artificial Intelligence" (1987)
  365. Brian Kernighan's summary thoughts on scripting languages
  366. Changes to the inventory of IPython magic commands (v. 0.10 to 0.11)
  367. One man's calm reflection on Java-think in Python
  368. mdfind as a substitute for locate on Mac OS X
  369. Reconsider P. T. Barnum's reputation
  370. LaTeX macro for circling answers on math problem sets
  371. View of the Mariana Trench
  372. Simulating private variables in Python
  373. Choice of formats for basic code documentation
  374. Dennis Ritchie on Computer Science and Commerce (1984)
  375. Inconsistent results of the same seed in random.seed() on different Python installations
  376. An opinion on vi configuration
  377. The virtue of Vim (or: why I do not remap copy and paste)
  378. Shark fin and the economics of Chinese "face"
  379. Two funerary practices and the end of a good story
  380. An important skill for instructors
  381. p::c
  382. Twice-a-day mail delivery
  383. Portmanteau characters in Chinese (abstract)
  384. A math professor I enjoyed
  385. The state of my Netflix patronage
  386. Longevity vs. versatility of code
  387. A new kind of noise in the subway
  388. Router VI is dead
  389. Tinker Tailor remake
  390. Automated upward pricing spiral
  391. Break-in?
  392. Telephantasmia, one of the great gifts of Chinese culture
  393. September 11th sensations
  394. Whether to take a small loss or consent to the devaluation of the US dollar
  395. City checkpoint chaos
  396. Continuing opportunity for techno-elitism
  397. A worry of Donald Knuth's
  398. An opinion of TeX
  399. Advice on teaching English in China if you lack a TEFL degree
  400. "The Highline" Park
  401. Plutarch on the sensitivity and versatility of the human mind
  402. Plutarch's praise of the "fox" temperament
  403. Unagi hitsumabushi 鰻櫃まぶし
  404. My mother and me, at work on the Early China index, 20110526
  405. juémíngzǐ 決明子 tisane
  406. Brillat-Savarin on the pleasures of the fast
  407. University of Maryland, (College Park) general education rated D in a national survey
  408. The EMACS meta key and the standing desk
  409. A rule of thumb in choosing one's tools
  410. Dr. Johnson on the "fox" temperament
  411. Carl Elliott reviews Ginsberg, Fall of the Faculty (WSJ)
  412. Hard copy vs. electronic copy
  413. Deborah Ball's article on the opposition to standardizing the Romansh language (WSJ)
  414. Boris Veytsman's review of Kottwitz, LaTeX Beginner's Guide
  415. Why even 212 phone numbers calling in-area have to dial 212 first
  416. Dr. Johnson on keeping a diary
  417. Against object-oriented design (except in scripting languages)
  418. Worrying about inadequate memory to hold program and debugger (1973)
  419. Consequences of a compiler defect
  420. The Internet and scripting languages
  421. Newton's own suffering at math
  422. Fresh turmeric-root tea
  423. Appreciation of awk
  424. "Computer Science, Modern Languages Most Gender-Polarized Majors"
  425. Food issues during the Siege of Leningrad
  426. Starting a blog