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Journal: Riding the Bus

Journal by michael_cain

Like most colleges, the University of Colorado at Boulder is not automobile-friendly. That creates a parking problem for students like myself who don't live in Boulder and must commute. The answer in this case appears to be to take advantage of the fees I pay that entitle me to ride the buses almost anywhere they go in the Denver metro area. Parts of Boulder have excellent bus service. For most of the past two weeks, while math camp has been in session, I drove up to the south side of town, parked in a small Park-and-Ride lot, and took the circulator up to campus. There's a bus stop almost directly in front of the Economics building. Riding the bus is... different.

You have to realize that (1) I grew up in a small town and then the suburbs where there was no bus service, (2) when I went to college, I always lived within bicycling or walking distance of campus and downtown, and (3) I worked for 25 years in suburban New Jersey and Denver, at locations where the buses didn't go. Or at least, they didn't go there in a sane fashion. It was possible to get from my house to my first Denver work location by bus -- but it took three transfers and two-and-a-half hours if everything ran on time. And if you missed one of the buses in particular, you were stuck because it only ran once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

The answer to the question of how to get from point A to point B in Boulder by bus is not always obvious. Last week I had an appointment to donate blood (if you live in the Denver metro area, please call Bonfils and make an appointment; they seem to be rather short on supplies these days). I didn't have my full map, but knew which routes went in the general direction I wanted. Unfortunately, the quick and efficient way to make the trip is to start out in the opposite direction from campus. By the time I finish the Ph.D. program, I ought to have this down cold.

The other thing is the people that ride on the bus. Last week, I had brief conversations with a 60-year-old woman who has lived in Boulder all her life who lives in a converted garage and makes her living cleaning houses and babysitting, a mentally handicapped man who will be going to New Hampshire on his own next month and is incredibly excited by the prospect, and an out-of-work cowboy just in from El Paso looking for an old girlfriend and their two kids that he thinks live in Boulder. Automobiles, the suburbs, and working as a professional doing applied research for large corporations insulates you from a large part of the population.

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Journal: Math Camp 1

Journal by michael_cain

The Economics Department at the University of Colorado requires all incoming graduate students to pass a two-week "math camp" before starting their first semester classes. As my friend who is a former faculty member explains it, graduate level economics is heavy on math and their biggest concern about people they admit is that they don't have the math ability required. Another of the professors that I talked to described the first year of graduate economics as the worst year of his life, because of the difficulty that he had with the math (apparently he found an area of specialization that did not require math on an ongoing basis). The department made copies of last year's math camp final available to incoming students. While I'm certainly rusty, and didn't have the economics context for a couple of the problems, none of it involved math that I hadn't seen before.

This year's math camp played to my strengths. By negotiation between the professors teaching the first semester classes, and the graduate student teaching the camp, the emphasis was on real analysis and reading and writing proofs. I loved real analysis when I took it as an undergraduate many years ago. And I loved optimization, which depends heavily on analysis, when I took that in graduate school. And I enjoy sitting down for an afternoon of developing a proof for a useful theorem. Given a continuous function defined on a compact domain, prove...

I'm afraid the instructor may have set me up for a certain amount of grief in the coming year. During the review session, he had put something up on the blackboard, then turned to the class, looked at me, and asked, "Mike, is that right?" I told him that I thought it was, and he added, "I like having Mike in the class, he keeps me honest. You should all get to know Mike." I'm already an odd person out since I'm twice as old as most of the new graduate students. I'm not sure that I want to be a resource that the people having trouble with math turn to automatically.

Anyway, I passed the math camp final exam, so that's one more hurdle out of the way. This is an off week for me. The new TAs have a certain amount of training that they have to complete this week, but I'm not teaching this term. The graduate student organization (union?) is running a variety of orientation sessions for new people, but those seem to be concerned with how to find a place to live in Boulder and what to do on Friday nights. My big chores this week are to straighten out health insurance premiums (Comcast neglected to pass their service agent all the information about the benefits and payment schemes those of us who retired under an AT&T plan are entitled to) and getting my son installed in a dormitory in Greeley for his sophomore year at the University of Northern Colorado.

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Journal: Committed

Journal by michael_cain

I have committed myself to the graduate school path. I have sent CU a deposit check. I have received the catalog and registration schedules for the fall term. I have started brushing up on calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, and catching up on intermediate micro- and macroeconomics. Most importantly, perhaps, I am no longer looking for a regular job. If Murphy is on the ball, that probably means that a job will come looking for me before too long.

An interesting episode occurred this week while I was reading macroeconomics (well, I think it was interesting). The author talks briefly about the velocity of money, then states that velocity will be assumed to be constant. The way that he made that statement somehow set off all of the mental alarms for dealing with vendors that I have built up over the years. When a telecommunications vendor tells you in a certain way that something isn't important, it means that it is important and you had better probe more deeply. A little digging on the Internet came up with a variety of interesting discussions about the possible role of money velocity when you consider the economy as a system with feedback loops. Perhaps the author just wanted to simplify things, and assuming constant velocity does. Perhaps the author doesn't agree with the economists who think velocity is important. Maybe I'm just paranoid. I wonder if I'll find myself sitting in class and wondering why the professor doesn't want me to think about certain questions?

One of my friends, an anthropologist by training, has taught me that looking at the kinds of jokes told by or about a particular profession can sometimes provide some insight into things. What am I getting myself into? What kinds of jokes are there about economics and economists? Some of the jokes are actually based on economics:

How many economists does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. If it really needed changing, market forces would have already seen to it.

Some of them reflect the inexact nature of the "science" of economics:

Economics is the only subject where two people can win the Nobel Prize for giving contradictory answers to the same question.

There appear to be an unfortunate number of recycled lawyer jokes:

What do you call 100 dead economists?

A good start.

And there are jokes that feed my personal fears about what to do with the degree after I get it:

Did your advanced economics degree help you get a job?

No, but now I understand why I'm unemployed.

OTOH, when I was getting a master's degree in operations research, I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but that turned into a 25-year career. Things will work out.

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Journal: Accepted!

Journal by michael_cain

This week I heard from the University of Colorado, and I've been accepted as a Ph.D. student by the Economics Dept. Technically, the registrar's office could still bounce me, but that seems unlikely at this point. Such an action would appear to be, among other things, an opportunity for an age discrimination lawsuit. More about age discrimination in a moment. The main point for this entry is that now I'll have to make a real decision about the graduate school thing.

I've spent a fair amount of time wondering about why the whole prospect makes me nervous. One of the big concerns is finances, of course. It's one thing to undertake four years of college when you're young and single; it's another to do it when you're older, married, with two children (one already in college, one with one year left in high school), a house, three cars, etc. My wife Mary is encouraging me, and has taken a part-time job to generate some cash flow in addition to the seperation money and savings, but this adventure is not fully funded.

Another fear is that this is an admission that I'm unemployable in my former field. I built a career by being a generalist; current job openings in cable and telecom in the Denver area appear to be for specialists to fit a particular need. I worked myself into a position of providing analysis to senior managers to support their decisions; it's not the type of position that you can step into from the outside, you spend years working your way into it from inside the company. Add to that the fear that I'll also be unemployable in my new field in a few years due to age.

Which brings me to the topic of age discrimination. It feels odd, to say the least, to find that you have become a member of a group which is discriminated against to an extent that makes "protection" necessary. I'm an old guy now -- over 45 is the usual dividing line. When an employer lays off a group of people, they have to worry about de facto age discrimination. When Comcast showed me the door, they were required to provide me with a complete listing of the age and title of all the other people getting laid off, in case I wanted to investigate age discrimination. In theory, if CU had turned me down, they ran some risk of me challenging that decision on the same basis. I'm not very comfortable with the thought that I could take that route to get what I want.

OTOH, I think that the country is in trouble in the not too distant future if age discrimination is a real thing. Within a few years it appears that the baby boom generation (I'm at the tail end of it) will begin to break the bank on Social Security. The politicians have promised it to us for years, but there's no way they're going to be able to actually deliver. The answer, various experts keep saying, is to keep the boomers in the work force and off of SS. I think that there will need to be very substantial changes in the way that careers can be structured in order to make that happen.

Looking ahead, I'll find myself in my mid-50s with a new degree. I will not be interested in moving across the country, or working 80-hour weeks, or moving up the management ladder. I won't need to command a massive salary, though, as I've already accumulated much of the wealth needed for old age -- a house and an adequate (I think) retirement account. Depending on whether Comcast honors the promises that were made by the company they bought, I may need health insurance benefits. IMO, the way that business in this country structures its career paths, it may be a rather difficult fit.

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Journal: Taking the GRE

Journal by michael_cain

In order to be considered for the graduate program in economics at CU, it is necessary to have current GRE scores. This seems at least inconsistent; the department insists on having transcripts with my undergraduate grades from 27 years ago, but won't take my GRE scores from that same time. Well, the scores may not actually be available. I believe that ETS only keeps scores for 20 years. University grades are apparently kept forever.

Once I decided that I was going through with this and scheduled the exams, I bought a study guide (Cliffs TestPrep). That turned out to be a good thing because there have been some changes in the GRE in 27 years. Two were particularly important:

  • The tests are administered on a computer rather than paper (unless you really insist on the paper, or are outside North America). You have to answer questions in the order presented, you have to answer the current question before you can go on to the next one, and you can't go back and look at a question after you've gone on. I'm very glad I knew this in advance, since it shoots down my usual time-management techniques for allocating more time to the harder questions.
  • There's a writing section! That's new since I took the exams many years ago, and it was good to have a chance to think about how to approach the two different essays you need to write.

Cheating must have increased in the past quarter-century, since they seem to be much more paranoid about it now. They took my pen away from me and made me use their pencils for scratch work. They provided the scratch paper, which was collected and shredded at the end of the period. Each test station was monitored by video camera. Open windows are not allowed in the test room. That led to one of several fairly irritating items.

The air conditioner necessary for cooling the small test room was quite noisy. They provided earplugs (uncomfortable badly-fitting ones) to control the noise from the keyboards and the air conditioner. The computer monitors were such that there was a serious glare problem from the overhead lights. Overall, it was a considerably less pleasant process than what I remember.

The good news about testing on the computer is that you get some scores immediately. I scored 800 on the quantitative, which indicates that I was careful and paid attention -- there's nothing in there that's hard. I did find myself admiring the way they structured some of the questions, giving you lots of opportunities to answer the wrong question (eg, setting up a problem that requires division and asking for the remainder, but listing the correct quotient among the answers).

I scored 630 on the verbal sections. I seem to recall doing somewhat better than that the first time around. I suspect that raising two children and 25 years in industry where "write it simpler so the executives understand" is standard has done some damage to my working vocabulary and handling of subtle analogies.

The essays have to be scored by hand and I won't know how I did on those for a while. I think I did fine.

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Journal: First entry

Journal by michael_cain

There's a quotation about large companies and the side effects of the various deals they make with one another to the effect of "when the elephants are dancing, the smart mice go down their holes and stay there." This past November, I was finally squashed in the elephant dance of the ongoing telecom-and-cable merger-and-acquisition frenzy, despite doing my best to keep my head down. Comcast bought AT&T Broadband and eliminated all of the Denver headquarters positions related to technology. I found myself unemployed at age 49 after 24+ years in the industry, in a terrible job market -- seriously depressing stuff.

As a side effect of some of the deals that had been done, though, I was qualified to retire, and the retirement benefits had been beefed up. I had some assurance that I would have medical and dental insurance for the next few years. The lump sum settlement from the pension fund(s), combined with 401(k) and IRA money, looked like it would be enough for a real retirement in a few more years. There was a substantial seperation cash payment. My wife and I had paid off the mortgage a few years ago. Certainly, things were not as bad as they are for many people who get laid off. After a few months of actively seeking a new job without success, I decided that perhaps this was not a disaster, but a disguised opportunity to do something different.

I am in the process of getting ready to go back to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in economics. There are only two places to do that in Colorado, CU and CSU. CSU is too far to commute, so I have applied to CU and am going through all of the paperwork things that have to be done: transcripts, letters of recommendation, GREs. Part of me finds the whole process terrifying. Will CU accept me? Will the money last? Will I get started and discover that I'm not nearly the caliber of student I once was? But part of me is really excited about the opportunity to be a student again, learning new things!

I've been a Slashdot reader for quite a long time (user #66650), and for the most part, have found the site to be an interesting and useful source of information and opinion. I've never used the journal portion of the system, but I've decided to put entries here from time to time just to see what happens. I expect them all to be related to the "adventure" of being a non-traditional graduate student. You know the definition of "adventure": someone else having a really tough time of things, well seperated from you in time or space. We'll see.

If you hype something and it succeeds, you're a genius -- it wasn't a hype. If you hype it and it fails, then it was just a hype. -- Neil Bogart

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