How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.

 

 

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Work? You don’t know work.

Keyboard

I worked some pretty bad jobs in my time.  Weeks serving food on grotty ferries.  Long days stacking shop shelves and sweeping grubby floors.  Disgusting days lifting coughing patients in a chest ward, or turning geriatrics with turgid pee bags and soiled pads and all for pretty low wages, but I never complained at that.

I worked some pretty great jobs, running hard from morning to night, days gone in a blink, boxes ticked, tasks completed, a blur of achievement richly rewarded. I certainly never complained at that.

I worked a well paid job in a comfortable office with little or nothing to do.  I watched the hands of the clock march slowly around the dial praying for the end of the hour, the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the year, the end of my life.  I literally wished my life away.  I complained about everything.  I longed for a geriatric to be turned, or a floor to be swept.

That’s not work.  That’s prison.

Fear and Fame; by Philip Levine

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

Now for Rónán Mullen

Yes

 

I voted against the 8th referendum in 1983.  I was in the minority and it passed.  I was 20 years old and I felt out of touch with my own country.  I could not understand how the holy Joe brigade won on that day.

I clearly remember them handing out lapel badges with tiny feet on them, to represent the feet of foetuses.  I remember the praying women, bearing their crosses and their rosary beads, marching up and down the central reservation in O’Connell Street, saying the rosary.

I remember the convents being cleared out on the polling day to make sure that nuns who had not been outside their walls in decades were engaged to cast their votes.

Thirty years on the climate has changed in Ireland.  The winds from Rome have weakened considerably.  They iron hard grip of the church on society has slackened.  The hand of the church is liver spotted, wrinkled, veined and atrophied.  The church has failed to move with the times and faces dissolution.  It is losing control of its two strongest bastions, education and health.  Ireland is well on its way to becoming a fully secular nation.

I am not anti-christian.  I actually think the Christian church was in its day the greatest force for positive change on the planet.  The preaching of a message of peace and love was a giant leap forward from some truly awful religions.  The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine as votive rites are much more civilised than chaining virgin girls to rocks, stoning sinners to death or slitting the throats of sheep and goats.

My issue is not so much with Christianity as it is with organised religion.  My position is summed up by a speech from the film “Kingdom of Heaven” where the Hospitaller knight says to Balian:

 I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. Holiness is in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires is here [points to head] and here [points to heart] and what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.

In summary:  Regardless of your intentions, we are what we do.

In the Repeal the 8th campaign we saw, yet again, what the Religions Right actually do.  They lie.  They cheat.  They bully.

These are people who hold themselves up as the model of morality in our society.  Their intentions are all good.  But their actions are a disgrace.  They intentionally distort facts to make their point.  Sometimes they lie through omission and they have been caught in outright overt lies.  When they are called to account on their lies they employ the tactics of “Deny, Delay, Defend”.

Uniquely in this campaign the social media giants like Facebook and Google decided they would not accept political campaign postings in the lead up to the vote.  OK this is anecdotal but I did notice a fall off in “Repeal” material on my social network feeds.  On the eve of the election I was still seeing “Vote NO” material.  The no campaign exploited every loophole they could find to keep their campaign going.  I classify this as cheating.

The bullying was overt throughout the campaign.  Removal of Repeal posters.  Attacking campaigners in the streets.  Toppling their tables.  Throwing their leaflets to the ground.  Shouting down debaters in public discussion.  It was all ugly behaviour and none of it was reflective of what I think of as the Christian ethos.

These are people who took the lesson of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and use it as a model for how to wage every campaign.  They weaponize religion.

They lost this campaign.  They lost the same sex marriage referendum.  They lost the right to travel referendum.  They lost the divorce referendum.  But every loss makes them smaller, tighter, closer and more and more fanatical.

Rónán Mullen is the tip of this spear.  Elected by my own Seanad constituency.  Who, who, who is voting for this Smeagol, this Gollum, this hobgoblin.  Out, out, out I say.  This must not stand.

 

How does your garden grow?

Titchmarch

Today,  May 2nd, is the birthday of Alan Titchmarch who is one of the UK’s most celebrated TV gardeners and gardening authors.  As an avid gardener myself I have great time for people who can turn an introspective pursuit into mainstream entertainment.  This is a classic example of what I call #tainment as in #Edutainment, the blend of education and entertainment that makes education accessible.  So Titchmarch is a proponent of #Gardentainment

There is a Chinese proverb which says : If you want to be occupied for a year get a job, for a decade get a wife, for a lifetime get a garden.

Paradise is derived from the old Iranian word for a walled enclosure, paridayda which described a royal palace enclosure or park.  These might be hunting parks, or simply royal gardens.  In any case just remember when you are ripping out your weeds by hand, it’s another day in paradise.

Titchmarch has been decorated many times with things pinned onto him by the Queen of England.  So what does a celebrated gardener, TV presenter and author do to top off his life?  He writes a book of poetry of course!  His book is called “The Glorious Garden” which is a beautiful name for a book of poems.

 

Winter Garden; by Patrick Kavanagh

No flowers are here
no middle-class vanities - 
only the decapitated shanks
of cabbages
and prostrate
on a miserable ridge
bean-stalks.

Cavafy Birthday

Cavafy

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents on this day in 1863 Constantine Peter Cavafy is 100 and a half years older than me.  Below is a poem inspired by the Odyssey an enduringly favourite theme of mine.  It reads a little clunky because of course it is a translation from the Greek.

The theme is important and a lesson in a philosophy for life.  All life is a journey to a destination, the ultimate destination.  Make sure you stop and listen to the birds, smell the roses along the way.  Don’t rush headlong into your coffin and then complain that you missed out.

Ithaca; by Constantine P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean.

The Coyote Who Fasts

Nezahualcoyotl

When the Spanish conquered the New World they did a pretty thorough job of erasing anything good, positive or civilized from pre-Columbian American culture.  The goal was to say that Americans were savages, Spanish were Civilized Christians and the culture of the latter should erase the culture of the former.

From time to time it is possible to catch a glimpse of something else.  If you look very very carefully you can find traces of the rich tapestry and layered civilization that existed before Cortes arrived in Mexico.

Nezahualcoyotl (the coyote who fasts) was a philosopher king, poet and warrior who ruled about 50 years before the Spanish conquest.  His deeds and his poems were passed down through oral traditions.  When the native Indios learned to write they set down the history of Nezahualcoyotl on paper.

We get a picture of a wise and thoughtful king who would have been celebrated in any Western realm.  He ruled the Acolhua people from his capital of Texcoco.  One of his main preoccupations must have been to keep his people independent of the influence of the larger and more powerful Mexica.

As a child his father was killed by the powerful neighbouring Tepanecs, closely related to the Aztecs, who took control of Texcoco.  The young Nezah was taken to the great city of Tenochtitlan where he was educated by the Mexica, learing about their legal and administrative systems.

He worked over the years to build the alliances that put him at the head of an army of 100,000 troops.  On the battlefield he displayed strategic and tactical genius.  His victory resulted in a new ruling order in the Valley of Mexico, the triple alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

He then demonstrated that he was not just a warlord.  He made his capital into a center of justice, learning and creativity.  Spanish friars later described his capital as the “Athens of the West”.  He assembled a library, built fine water gardens and held a court of “wise men”.  He established strong legal systems and the rule of law.  In lake Texcoco he constructed a dyke to separate fresh water from brackish.  He constructed aqueducts to transport the fresh water to his capital.

He rejected the blood thirsty human sacrifice driven religions of his neighbours, which were such a powerful propaganda tool for Christian conversion by the Spanish.   Instead he constructed a temple which was an empty space for an unknown and unknowable God.  He did not permit any sacrifice and worshiped by the burning of incense.  It was clearly in the interests of Spanish propaganda to sideline the legacy of such an evolved philosopher.

The following poem gives a sense of the man.  Given that it was written 100 years after he lived, and that it was originally Nahuatl, translated to Spanish and subsequently translated to English I have taken some liberties with it.  For instance in the second verse I have assumed that the “Eagles stained red” were battle standards, things we know well from the Roman legions and Napoleonic French Corps.  Also in the same verse I say the Princes are scythed down.  The pre-Columbian Americans had no wheat or barley.  They had no scythes to harvest grain.  But I am trying to convey the metaphor for the battlefield as a harvest of lives and the metaphor of the scythe just works.

Finally today is given as his birthday so he gets onto my “Poets’ Calendar”. Born April 28th, 1402.  Read the poem below and take note that this was written around the time when Europe was so civilized that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy.

 

A poem by Nezahualcoyotl (Edited heavily by Donal Clancy)

He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him.
Come to see the Huexotzinca.
On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
loudly cries the Mexica.

On the battlefield we raise toasts with the divine liquor of war,
where the eagle standards are stained red,
where tigers howl,
where precious stones rain from fine armour,
where rich plumed headdresses wave like fields of grain,
where princes are scythed down.

There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life.
Far off I see it. My heart yearns for it!

And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.

Thus they said:
‘When we die truly we die not because we will live,
we will rise, we will continue living, we will awaken,
this will make us happy.’

Thus the dead one was directed when he died:
‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
a new dawn has come,
hear the flame-coloured guans sing,
see the fire-coloured swallows and the butterflies fly.’

Thus the old ones said that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there’
meaning ‘He has died.’

Even jade is shattered,
even gold is crushed,
even quetzal plumes are torn.
One does not live forever on this earth.
We endure only for an instant.

Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death?
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we yet live?
Does one exist again?

Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows; just once do we live.

Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
friendship sparkles.
Like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.
Our song is a bird calling out a melody,
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.

The earth is a grave and nothing escapes it,
nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, streams, springs and waters flow,
but never return to their joyful beginnings.
Eagerly they rush onto the vast realms of the rain god.
As they widen their banks,
so they carve their own burial urn.

The bowels of the earth are filled with detritus,
once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of men who sat thrones,
judged cases, presided in council,
commanded armies, conquered provinces,
possessed treasure, destroyed temples,
exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power.
Vanished are these glories,
just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.
Nothing remains of them but the words of a poem.

Happy Birthday Joy Davidman

DavidmanLewis

Joy Davidman & C.S. Lewis

Born on this day in 1915 to a New York Jewish family Helen Joy Davidman was considered a child prodigy, graduating with a masters from Columbia aged 20. The poem below was written in 1936 in the period when she became an atheist and Communist, supporting the Republican cause in Spain.

In the 1940’s she and her first husband, William Lindsay Gresham, began researching religions seeking meaning in their lives. They looked at Judaism and even experimented with Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s system that would become Scientology. Ultimately they were attracted to Christianity, in particular by the writings of C.S Lewis.

Divorcing Gresham after he had a affair, Davidman moved to the UK, and ended up marrying C.S. Lewis. The marriage was largely one of convenience, their relationship was professional and they collaborated in work. When her Visa ran out Lewis offered to marry her to keep her in the UK. He wrote of her;

She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more

Snow in Madrid; by Joy Davidman

Softly, so casual,
lovely, so light, so light,
the cruel sky lets fall
something one does not fight.

How tenderly to crown
the brutal year
the clouds send something down
that one need not fear.

Men before perishing
see with unwounded eye
for once a gentle thing
fall from the sky.