Learn Mayan and other less popular languages as a career path?

“Oakland clinic offers Mayan interpreter for COVID-19 vaccinations” (Mercury News):

A new COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the Fruitvale neighborhood is offering interpreter services for the Latin Mam or Mayan-speaking community.

This month, La Clinica de La Raza began offering the community-targeted vaccination service at 32 locations across the Bay Area, including ASCEND Elementary School on East 12th Street, where Latinos who speak Mam, K’iche ‘and Q’eqchi’ can get translation help from appointment to inoculation on Thursdays.

The article is illustrated with a photo of a guy who has apparently adapted completely to prevailing American cultural norms (he’s wearing a “WEED; Keep it lit” T-shirt).

Now that the U.S. border is effectively open, especially to those who can credibly claim to be under 18, I wonder if this suggests a good career path for young people: medical interpreter for Mayan and similarly unpopular languages. If folks didn’t learn Spanish when they lived in a predominantly Spanish-speaking nation, why expect them to learn English now that they’re Americans? They’ll be entitled to interpreters whenever they’re taking advantage of public housing, Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP/EBT), etc. At least for some of these jobs, certification is required and therefore immigrants themselves may not be able to perform them (also those immigrants may be undocumented and unable to work a W-2 job at a hospital or clinic).

What do folks think? Is learning an obscure language a good career in what is likely to be a growth industry?

(Also, does “Latinos who speak Mam, K’iche ‘and Q’eqchi’” make sense (leaving aside the issue that it should be “Latinx who speak”)? If a person doesn’t speak any language with Latin or Indo-European roots, is he/she/ze/they “Latino” or “Latinx”?

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Year 2 AC: Public versus private sector jobs

I’ve been referring to everything that happened prior to March 2020 as “BC” (Before Corona, not to be confused with “BCE” for years prior to Jesus’s birth). We’re just beginning Year 2 “AC”, therefore. Public sector workers have been mostly relaxing at home for a year, still drawing full paychecks, e.g., Boston Public School teachers. Should one of these folks fall ill due to COVID-19 or any other cause, he/she/ze/they will be paid via disability insurance.

What’s it like in the private sector? A housecleaner I know had to continue working, accepting whatever risk of COVID-19 was entailed, if she wanted to be paid. She’s around 60 years old and therefore has more age-related COIVD-19 risk than the average public sector worker (many of whom are eligible to retire at 50 or younger). She recently suffered a fall on a narrow staircase in a Beacon Hill home (these structures are fully compliant with all building and safety codes… of the early 1800s; see “For $20.5 million, Beacon Hill town house next to John Kerry” for an example) and broke both radius bones in her forearms. She’s unable to work, of course, and won’t be receiving payments from a disability policy. She’s expected to recover and has a lot of support from family (Brazilian immigrants), but the story made me reflect on the precariousness of a lot of folks’ existence.

(The teachers aren’t “relaxing at home,” you say, because they have to be present on Zoom for some hours each week? While down in Florida in January, I met a Massachusetts public school system employee nearing full retirement (early 60s). She didn’t enjoy being on Zoom so she began to use the months of sick leave she’d accumulated over the years. “It will run out by next fall,” she explained, “but the union says that I’ll be able to use days from the sick bank until I’m eligible for maximum retirement benefits in November.” In other words, she will have been paid in full for 1.5 years without having to get closer to the Massachusetts school than Florida and without having to appear on Zoom.)

Now that economic opportunities exist only when governors give permission, is it more important than ever to prepare young people for careers as government workers?

Loosely related, from February 19, 2021 in Waltham, Massachusetts:

We still have plenty of opioids for anyone who is depressed about losing a private sector job!

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STEM: doing what you don’t love for a short career and minimal extra $$

On STEM boosterism… “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure” (nytimes):

The [annual salary] advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.

Men majoring in computer science or engineering roughly doubled their starting salaries by age 40, to an average of $124,458. Yet earnings growth is even faster in other majors, and some catch up completely. By age 40, the average salary of all male college graduates was $111,870, and social science and history majors earned $131,154 — an average that is lifted, in part, by high-paying jobs in management, business and law.

The story was similar for women. Those with applied STEM majors earned nearly 50 percent more than social science and history majors at ages 23 to 25, but only 10 percent more by ages 38 to 40.

The article doesn’t get into the brevity of the typical STEM career. I know plenty of sales guys who are still working and valued at age 70. Although I know more programmers than sales guys, I don’t know of any programmers who are still working (as programmers) and valued by employers at age 70.

So the lifetime earnings of a STEM graduate might be substantially lower than those of a history major!


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Nobel-winning physicists discourage young people from physics as a career

From a CNN article on the latest Nobel Prize in Physics:

Peebles, who is Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, had a message for budding scientists.

“My advice to young people entering science: you should do it for the love of science,” he said at a press conference following the announcement.

“You should enter science because you are fascinated by it.”

In other words, “Don’t do it for the paycheck or the working conditions, as you might for most other career choices.” (Nobody says “You should train to be a dental hygienist because you are fascinated by teeth”; the stress will be on the $75k/year median wage following a two-year degree and on the flexibility to work anywhere in the U.S. and any number of days per week.)

[Apropos of nothing, CNN goes on to note

In 2018 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman for the first time in 55 years, and for only the third time in its history. Donna Strickland, a Canadian physicist, was awarded last year’s prize jointly with Gérard Mourou, from France, for their work on generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses. They shared the award with an American, Arthur Ashkin, who at 96 becomes the oldest Nobel Laureate, for developing “optical tweezers.”

The preceding year’s Nobel had nothing to do with astrophysics, but it continues to be newsworthy because of the gender ID of one of the winners? (If, indeed Dr. Strickland identified as a woman at the time of the research or award, is there any evidence that Dr. Strickland continues to identify as a woman?)]


  • In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions. https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/06/14/losing-the-nobel-prize-on-careers-in-science/ : “There is a fierce competition that begins the day you declare yourself a physics major. First, among your fellow undergraduates, you spar for top ranking in your class. This leads to the next battle: becoming a graduate student at a top school. Then, you toil for six to eight years to earn a postdoc job at another top school. And finally, you hope, comes a coveted faculty job, which can become permanent if you are privileged enough to get tenure. Along the way, the number of peers in your group diminishes by a factor of ten at each stage, from hundreds of undergraduates to just one faculty job becoming available every few years in your field. Then the competition really begins, for you compete against fellow gladiators honed in battle just as you are. You compete for the scarcest resource in science: money.”
  • https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/09/20/75-percent-chance-of-career-failure-considered-in-a-positive-light/
  • “Women in Science” (compare to medicine, for example)
  • “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM” (Atlantic): “In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.”
  • An academic career need not be entirely bleak: “College professor spends nearly $190K in federal grants on strip clubs, sports bars” (USA Today), regarding an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor who spent tens of thousands of dollars of grant money in strip clubs and then wasted the rest….; Philadelphia Inquirer story on the same guy says “Once confronted, Nwankpa decided to bare all” and noted that his colleagues had selected him to be department chair

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Microsoft is out of step with Silicon Valley?

“Microsoft staff are openly questioning the value of diversity” (Quartz) quotes from an internal Microsoft discussion forum:

“Because women used to be actively prohibited from full-time employment many decades ago, there is now the misguided belief that women SHOULD work, and if women AREN’T working, there’s something wrong…. Many women simply aren’t cut out for the corporate rat race, so to speak, and that’s not because of ‘the patriarchy,’ it’s because men and women aren’t identical, and women are much more inclined to gain fulfillment elsewhere.”

James Damore was the Google heretic because he shared the company’s goal of increasing the number of women doing the dreary job of coding, but suggested that they go about the project in a different way. It seems that Microsoft is nurturing actual infidels who reject the entire religion of gender diversity. It is just one step from the above quote to the Harvard undergraduate who told us “I used to want to be an investment banker, but then I realized that I could just marry an investment banker.” (Presumably nobody could survive at the company after asking “Why would an intelligent person want to work 80 hours/week at Microsoft when having sex with two Microsoft employees can yield roughly the same spending power?”)

[Anecdote: Our suburb is packed with women who have elite professional degrees and yet work part-time or do no W-2 wage labor at all. These women worked full time for 5-10 years following the completion of their education and then, as suggested by the Microsoft infidel, decided to “gain fulfillment elsewhere”. Most of their current spending power is derived from the wages of someone else, either a current spouse or a person whom they sued for alimony and/or child support.]

Readers: Measured against the coastal elite pillars of faith, are these Microsoft programmers more severely deviant than were the Googlers who questioned the company’s diversity schemes?


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Scientists identifying as women are held back by men, but won’t gather in their own institute

“‘I Want What My Male Colleague Has, and That Will Cost a Few Million Dollars’; Women at the Salk Institute say they faced a culture of marginalization and hostility. The numbers from other elite scientific institutions suggest they’re not alone.” (New York Times) is about three elderly biologists who are suing their employer for gender discrimination after they were replaced with younger employees, purportedly due to their failure to raise sufficient grant money.

Life is great if you’re a scientist identifying as a man:

Some current and former Salk employees identified Wylie Vale, Ron Evans, Stephen Heinemann and Rusty Gage as the men who, along with Verma, seemed to enjoy extraordinary resources and status (though only Verma was mentioned in the lawsuits). These men, titans in their fields, spoke often at faculty retreats, and on milestone birthdays would reign over symposia in their honor.

If anyone typified the male “rock star” scientists said to have held sway over the Salk, it was Verma. As of 2015, he was the Institute’s highest-paid scientist

The Institute’s 2015 Form 990 shows that the purported superstar male scientist, Inder Verma, raked in total comp of about $437,000, i.e., about half of what a dermatologist running a cosmetic laser clinic in the neighborhood might earn. (The article also shows that Verma’s career was ended by accusations of sexual harassment, something that would have required a lot more work to achieve to inflict on a dermatologist running his or her own clinic.)

The article definitely shows the superiority of medicine as a career to science (see “Women in Science” for more on this topic), for humans of all gender IDs. By getting their jobs at Salk Institute, these women were among the most successful scientists of their generation. Yet their earnings were much lower than what a medical specialist could obtain, their years of earning were cut short involuntarily, and they had limited choices regarding where in the U.S. to live and work.

From my comment on the article:

There are great biology research institutions all around the world, at least some of which are run by people who currently identify as women. If there are great scientists who identify as women who are being held back at male-run places, why wouldn’t they simply move to the female-run places and accomplish their world-changing research there? The NYT informs us that women can be hired for 70 percent of the cost of equally qualified men. So the female-run and female-staffed science labs should have a huge edge over competitors. (One part of the article that rings true is that success in academic science is all about the Benjamins!)

[Response from a virtuous reader: “Sigh. I am weary. … Some humans who identify as men will never get it.” Yet if men are so generally clueless, how is it that at least a few have been credited with some scientific discoveries? Nearly all of those who “get it” are women, but a handful of outlier males “got it” and were sufficiently observant to function in science? Or behind every credited man there is the woman from whom he stole everything? (see Katherine Clerk Maxwell, for example, the likely true developer of Maxwell’s Equations, or Rosalind Franklin, to whom all credit for DNA structure should go)]

There should be no shortage of female-identifying labor. The article says “the biological sciences are one of the only scientific fields in which women earn more than half the doctoral degrees.” (but maybe a lot of them change their gender ID to male after graduation in order to soak up the privileges that are reserved to male scientists?)

Readers: In a world that funds science more lavishly than at any time in history and in which changing institutions is as easy as getting on an Airbus, why wouldn’t the brilliant female scientists gather in their own institute and crank out the Nobel prizes?

[Top-rated comment by NYT readers:

How many diseases have gone uncured, how many scientific discoveries not made, because men’s priority is their own power, and do anything and everything to hold on to that power and keep women down? They will never give us equality voluntarily.

Isn’t this a great argument for a women-only research?]


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Career advice: be a harbor pilot

In 2016, I wrote “Earn $400 per hour in a government-regulated job” about today’s harbor pilots, whose jobs are protected by the U.S. Coast Guard. That’s about 20X the U.S. median wage.

How stable is this premium?

From The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon:

All of these changes [From World War I] put a greater burden on Wyatt to ensure the harbor’s safety. His exposure was compounded by the lack of enough local licensed harbor pilots who could guide the ships through the tricky Narrows. Given the eightfold increase of cargo during the war, the need to increase the number of harbor pilots was obvious. But by 1917 the harbor still had only fourteen pilots on duty, partly because the pilots liked it that way. The pilots’ coveted civil-servant posts were the products of local patronage, not merit or military rank. They could earn as much as $1,000 a month, extraordinary money when soldiers like Ernest Barss were earning $33 a month to risk their lives overseas. When the RCN proposed greatly expanding the number of licensed harbor pilots, the current pilots forcefully rejected the plan because they were none too eager to see their windfall diluted.

So it was a 20-30X job 100 years ago too!


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If programmers are anti-social, how did they end up in the bustling hives of Silicon Valley?

People often are drawn to computer nerdism partly because they prefer interacting with machines rather than with other people. (James Damore made this point while working at Google and learned that free speech is for Americans who don’t need to work!)

Yet the coder in a modern Bay Area software plantation is sandwiched tightly between two other galley slaves (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). He or she has less personal space than a McDonald’s cashier.

How did it come to pass that people who went into programming because they could be alone with their beloved machines are now packed like sardines into densely populated coding plantations and, after hours, packed like ocean liner steerage passengers into shared apartments?

Despite the somewhat lower salaries, wouldn’t most of these people actually be better off working as COBOL programmers for an electric utility? They’d at least have a private office or cubicle.

I asked the founder/CEO of one of the companies that I visited in SoMa whether he wouldn’t get more productivity out of his workers with a more traditional office layout. “Interviewees would just walk out if they saw cubicles or rows of private offices. This [array of tightly packed desks] is what they expect for a modern tech company.” He also told me that the grungy industrial space was costing over $70/ft triple net. “It’s actually more than a modern office tower because people want ‘authentic.'”

[The same CEO told me that the monk-like amount of space per coder also is associated with a monk-like abstinence from sex. “The guys are always complaining that there are no woman to date in San Francisco.” (presumably the imbalance is far larger down in the Valley!) Perhaps if they had a better understanding of California family law they would not complain as much and/or would look at neighboring Nevada, with its $13,000/year cap on child support and 50/50 shared parent default, as a destination for romance …]

Is it fair to say that, aside from the cash, Silicon Valley now offers one of the nation’s largest mismatches between workers’ preferences and working conditions?

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New York Times on the financial hardship of NASA employees

This is kind of interesting from a newspaper that prides itself on in-depth reporting… An article on furloughed NASA employees asserts without evidence that they could be making 2-3X more money in a private sector job:

No matter how vital high-skilled federal workers are to the functioning of government, there are usually companies willing to offer them much higher salaries — double or even triple in some cases — on top of the free lunches and stock options.

Are they doing any consulting work during their furlough? If they are valuable to private companies as employees, at least some should be worth $300 or $500/hour to consult, no?

The workers at Glenn are mostly waiting, drawing down savings, wondering about the state of their untended lab work, reading about Chinese spacecraft landing on the moon and pondering the appeal of the public good when a good chunk of the public seems to have little use for it.

They’re “mostly waiting” instead of doing consulting work for these private employers who are desperate for their services?

Yet more stranger (as we liked to say back in junior high): Drawing down savings.

A quick Google search reveals that NASA employees are eligible to borrow money at 0% from their own NASA Federal Credit Union:

Our special Furlough Relief Loan will allow you to access up to $10,000 for up to a 60-month term – interest free and payment free for 60 days.* This offer will be available through February 15, 2019.**

So these folks are geniuses who could get paid $400,000/year simply by walking into the HR department of a private employer, but they aren’t smart enough to go to the credit union web site and click “apply now” for their 0% loan?

How did the reporter and editors miss this? Neither the word “credit” nor “loan” appears in the article so they don’t address the question of how people who are able to borrow at 0% and whose entire annual salary is guaranteed to be paid (albeit with a delay for at least two paychecks) are being forced to deplete savings.

The unedited Web seems to be a lot more authoritative that the Paper of Record. Consider this 2014 exchange on bogleheads.org, “Any aerospace engineers? Pros v. cons of working for NASA v. private sector”:

This isn’t a NASA specific issue, but almost all federal employees are on the GS pay scale. That caps their pay at level IV of the executive schedule, which is now $164,200. … Most NASA employees are in the business of contract management. The real engineering gets outsourced to contractors. If he wants to do research and development, he should go work for a contractor. If he wants to become an expert in federal acquisition regulations, he should go work at NASA.

From a financial perspective, he will probably never make up the lost 4 years or so of income if he gets a PhD.

I worked at NASA for a while… NASA contains a huge amount of unmotivated government employees. They’re so expensive that they have to contract all the work out. Even then money is so badly mismanaged that there is no incentive to deliver a project on time. If you’re nearing retirement, it’s a great place to be as it’s virtually impossible to get fired. They’re just shift you from job to job.

I talked with a SpaceX recruiter. Was going to be a significant pay cut, and the recruiter kept mentioning long (70+) hour weeks. For the high cost of living area, it didn’t make much sense. It was clear they were banking on the “sexy” factor of SpaceX to make up for the hours and low pay.

I worked at Goddard Spaceflight Center… And while the raw salary was meaningfully lower than what the contractors were making at comparable position levels, the overall benefits package was WAAAAAAY better — much, much more paid time off, much better healthcare, and significantly better retirement benefits.

A message from the bogleheads exchange that STEM boosters probably won’t be sharing:

I have worked for a large aerospace company (think Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop) and currently work for a tier 1 aerospace supplier. All big companies are the same, with tons of bureaucracy, politics, mediocre raises, lots of old timers that are dead wood, etc, etc. Hopefully he is passionate about it because he probably will be living a normal middle class life and will make starting 75K/yr – 150K/yr (after 15-20+ years experience) throughout his career.

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75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.


  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)
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