Moontower #72


Harvard or Gap Year?

I’ve noticed 2 things.

  1. It’s fashionable to encourage 18-year-olds to take a gap year instead of dropping $50k for a remote year at Harvard.
  2. The delta between Harvard or “Stansbury” (Jessie Spano anyone?) and a state school is “signaling value” not education value.

People have mixed feelings about #2. There are two poles.

  • Idealists recoil at its imperfect sorting and potential biases. The stakes are high, this is understandable.
  • Pragmatists accept the rules of the game “as is”. They have no time for normative arguments, they have SATs to study for (unless you are applying to a UC!). Every non-rich parent feels this way, a choice Maslow would have easily predicted.

Like those Venn diagrams that all overlap at a”you can be here” center, I suspect most people reconcile idealism and pragmatism effectively enough. By that, I mean pragmatism wins out but idealism gets all the civilized talk when you and your friends are drinking wine around the kitchen island.

But when an idealist uses their contempt for #2 to justify #1 they are confusing their beliefs with reality. In the trading world, these are the same people who care about being right over making money. In law, it would be like being a brilliant litigator who always loses on a technicality. Eventually you will need a new job, preferably one without a scoreboard.

When the idealist argues for a gap year instead of the Harvard Zoom semester they need more than “college admissions is a dog and pony show”. That’s not an argument for opting out. Similarly, we all agree that facetime at work is a sham, while we continue to work late. That’s how Nash equilibriums work. While suboptimal in aggregate, your move is the same one you’d make even if everyone else chose differently. So unless you think that a Harvard ’24 diploma will have an asterisk on your resume forevermore, the case for a gap year needs to be rooted in more than the rejection of pretense.

Loosening The College Grip

Having shown my hand on how I think the university sorting function will maintain perceived value, I would like to hear which forces are conspiring to upend that. If the university is not the atomic unit for compressing a person’s pre-drinking age life into a single string, what will serve that function?

Thinking aloud a bit, diplomas need to be viewed from the employers’ point of view. A diploma reduces your cost to being hired. You paid part of the cost in your tuition. The employer pays part of the cost through higher wages. The university collects a finder’s fee. The university is outsourced HR but since the university is “working” for every hiring company, the employer requires the student to bear some of the cost.

For those rooting for the “death of universities”, they must believe the “finder’s fee” is too high. I’m very receptive to that possibility, but I have questions.

  • So what model emerges to solve matchmaking even if we feel the university’s educating function is settled?
  • Is it a matter of unbundling the signaling effect from education by making the student’s abilities as measurable as their blood pressure?
  • Is Google or Facebook with their intimate knowledge of your behavior better suited to sort you (and if so at what age)?
  • Is your search history more predictive of whatever employers care about than your transcript?
  • Is distance learning going to create more fingerprints that big data forensics can use to identify potential?

Perhaps the risk is not that your resume will have an asterisk, but that you don’t need a resume at all. When you have enough compute why settle for a summary?

The answer to such a question is the breadcrumbs to humanity’s oldest questions. Have fun with that.

Some recent news on the unbundling of signal and education that probably isn’t getting enough attention:

To be blunt, university degrees are only as valuable as the weight applied by company hiring managers, and Google has just signaled that a $300 certificate has parity with a diploma. If you can earn $93k after taking a $300 course, then what’s the future of higher education? (Link)

Higher ed in the next 20 years will be largely influenced by large employers’ hiring practices. We are seeing experiments like Lambda and this effort by Google. I’m funding a 529 for my boys but there’s an outside chance by the time it’s their turn there will be de-risked alts to the 4-year college.

The Money Angle

Financial careerists will find useful ideas in this Shawn Wang post which likely had developers and designers in mind:

How To Market Yourself Without Being A Celebrity (Link)

In fact, if the thought of “marketing yourself” offends you then you are exactly the person who needs to read it.
The entire essay is filled with useful strategies and specific tips down to the tradeoffs of platforms.

Some sections I especially liked:

  1. Personal branding strategies

    Anything but average: I identify as a “Basic Bro” – I have my PS4, and Nintendo Switch, I like Marvel movies and watch the same Netflix shows you watch. Just like the million other Basic Bros like me. Totally basic. Totally boring. NOT a personal brand. In fact anything not “average” is a good candidate for inclusion…

    Identity + Opinions: [Shawn gives examples] I really want to give you more hints on this, but I’m afraid if I gave more examples I might limit your imagination.

  2. Marketing Yourself In Public

    Don’t Lie: Stephen Covey calls this the Speed of Trust. Once you lose trust, everything you say gets run against a suspicion check, and you have to put up more proof points to be taken seriously.

    Don’t share secrets: I always think about Christopher Lee, who fought in the British Special Forces in World War 2 before his legendary acting career. When pried for information about what he did in the War, he would say: “Can you keep a secret? Well, so can I.”

    Inbound vs Outbound Personal Marketing: Borrowing from Hubspot’s Inbound marketing and Seth Godin’s Permission marketing. Outbound Personal Marketing is what most people do what they look for jobs – only when they need it, and trawling through reams of job listings and putting their CV in the pile with everyone else. Inbound Personal Marketing is what you’ll end up doing if you do everything here right – people (prospective bosses and coworkers, not recruiters) knowing your work and your interests, and hitting you up on exactly the things you love to do.

    Market Like Nobody’s Watching: Because normal comfort zones are not set up to market yourself, you should try to do a little more than you’re comfortable with. An aggressive form of this advice? If you’re not getting complaints about how you’re showing up everywhere, you’re not doing it enough. This makes sense to some people, and is way too upfront and annoying for others. We all have to find our balance – it’s your name on the line after all.

    Market Like One Person’s Watching: Marketing is more effective when it is targeted at a specific someone instead of just everyone…

    Market for the Job You Want: This is a variant of “Careful what you wish for… You just might get it.”

Last Call

  • This thread goes behind the scenes on a ransom paid to a hacker. It’s shockingly polite and even includes the hacker providing details on how the victim can improve their security going forward. You could almost say the way the negotiation proceeds the hack was the cost of routine bug bounty. Almost. (Link)
  • “Nightclubs in the hills”. Mansion parties in LA are being blamed for the spread of Covid. The city is battling back by cutting utilities to offenders. (Link)

    If that story is inspiration instead of a warning you can rent your pool out by the hour using Swimply. $60 seems to be the going rate.

  • Have you ever wanted a handy way to know which philosophers were associated with particular ideas? I am looking for a dictionary like that. Like a super abbreviated version of SEP, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If anyone has one in mind please share. In the meantime, Existential Comics demonstrates concepts with humor. (Link)

    H/t to Beno for the rec.

  • How many teens today would recognize “No Scrubs”? How about “Enter Sandman”? The Pudding’s latest music visualization studies how our collective recognition of songs decays over a generation. (Link)

From my actual life 

My brother-in-law was exposed to his brother who tested positive for Covid. That meant Yinh’s sis and her kids were at our house all week. In a prelude to the upcoming school year we turned our living room into Camp ZoMaZaMa (an alliteration of Zoe, Maddox, Zak, & Maxen…don’t ask, I’ll just say this wasn’t consciously intentional).

The room is staying that way. School starts this Thursday in our district. This is fine [visualize ‘dog in burning room’ meme].

Interesting postscript to the Covid story. Both my brother-in-law and his brother took mutliple Covid tests each this week. All negative other than the one that launched the quarantine. Everyone they had been in contact with was also negative. So in the end my bro-in-law got a self-quarantined bachelor week, the kids ruined our productivity, and we suspect the rare false-positive test result. But for all the inconvenience, we did get a summer week of unscripted fun before school starts. The kids will remember that forever. Zoe even made a Camp ZoMaZaMa website using to memorialize it.

I should probably buy the domain name.

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