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How much background technical knowledge do LW readers have?

by johnswentworth1 min read11th Jul 201922 comments

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When writing posts, it would be useful to know how much background technical knowledge LW readers have in various areas.

To that end, I set up a short six-question survey. Please take it, so I (and others) can write posts better fit to your level of technical background. If your answer to all of the questions is "zero-ish technical knowledge", please take it, so you're not inundated with mathy posts. If your answer to all of the questions is "I am secretly John Von Neumann", please take the survey, so the rest of us know there's someone like that around. If you are somewhere in the middle, please take the survey. It'll take, like, maybe sixty seconds.

Here's that link again: survey.

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I notice a lot of people using programming jargon/codes to discuss things that have nothing to do with programming, and it always makes their point needlessly harder to understand.

Nitpick: "code" (in the computer programming sense) is a mass noun, so you don't say "codes" to refer to programs or snippets of computer code.

Using mental models from one field in another is a way to make intellectual progress. Researchers in econophysics are productive despite their economics problems having nothing directly to do with physics.

It can be helpful for math.

18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:56 PM

Nice survey. The gap between "one course or played around a bit" and "undergrad major" in some questions felt pretty big - an "undergrad minor" option would have been nice.

(I assumed that these corresponded to roughly the amounts that I'm used to, with an undergrad major being something like 60 ECTS credits worth of courses specifically in that major, and a minor 25.)

Mostly I didn't want to over-complicate the survey with too many buckets. I probably should have elaborated a bit more on "equivalent level of knowledge" - I'd say a minor is 70% of the way to a major in most technical fields, since there's decreasing marginal returns on courses in the same field.

Wait, do people usually use the phrase "technical knowledge" to mean just math and programming? I'm to understand that you have technical knowledge in any science or tool.

Quick note: I've frontpaged this despite being relatively meta because... I dunno it seemed like a particularly object level sort of meta post? (Not sure I have a consistent principle for this but seemed good to at least note when I take an action that's not obviously in-line with our stated frontpage principles)

I think your options are not very autodidact friendly. I've studied many of these subjects on my own, and have no idea what an undergrad or grad equivalent of for instance economics understanding is.

I thought about that briefly, but I didn't come up with a good way around it without making the survey a lot longer (i.e. by asking about specific topics). I've also studied a lot on my own, and I agree it's hard to gauge ones' skill in comparison to more traditional tracks.

Re: the second and third questions:

Is there, actually, such a thing as an undergrad degree in programming? In computer science, sure. But what’s an undergrad degree in programming? Are you referring to something like an “informatics” or “computer information systems” degree? But those don’t typically teach programming—not primarily, anyway; you’re less likely, in my experience, to get any useful programming experience from one of those, than from a CS degree (and they tend to be 2-year, rather than 4-year, degrees).

What exactly is the “undergrad degree [in programming]” option meant to represent?

Think a CS degree with a systems/development/engineering focus, as opposed to algorithms/complexity/computability/theory focus.

It's mainly there for equivalent experience - i.e. someone who's coded a lot more extensively than just a course and playing around, but doesn't work as a programmer. Think someone who could maybe get hired as an entry-level developer, but probably specializes in something else.

I look forward to seeing the results, and more importantly how you recommend whether that posts cater to the average, median, bottom, top, or full range of results you get.

I have no intention of making any such recommendation.

Bummer. Let me rephrase.

When writing posts, it would be useful to know how much background technical knowledge LW readers have in various areas.

I look forward to seeing whether and how it is useful to know this.

If anyone scrolled down without taking the survey and is now looking at this comment, please take the survey! All of us need to take it the moment we see the post, lest johnswentworth suffer the effects of a sampling bias.

Seems like the survey is now closed, so I cannot take the survey at the moment I see the post.

Re: the first question: something is very wrong here!

My undergrad degree is in computer science. It included several math courses, naturally, and high-school calculus was a prerequisite for it. But I have never had to study multivariate calculus or partial differential equations (and only a very small amount of linear algebra)! My friends who studied CS, or engineering, at other schools, had similar experiences.

In other words, you seem to have an odd picture of what the “technical undergrad” level of the “standard STEM mathematics curriculum” is! What you described as the “technical undergrad” level is, perhaps, more like the “undergrad math major” level; almost anyone else in STEM is not going to be studying stuff as advanced as that.

I'd actually view CS majors as the odd ball out, in this case. Most engineers need to cover most of that stuff, and certainly all mathematicians and physicists cover it. Chemists can get away with less and some biologists with a lot less, although at that point we're treading the border of "STEM" fields.

I went to a STEM-only school, and all of the listed courses were core requirements for all students (except PDEs). My understanding is that that's pretty standard for technical schools, or engineering schools within larger universities.

Chemists can get away with less and some biologists with a lot less, although at that point we’re treading the border of “STEM” fields.

Chemists and biologists are the border of “STEM”?! What does the first letter of the acronym stand for?

I went to a STEM-only school, and all of the listed courses were core requirements for all students (except PDEs). My understanding is that that’s pretty standard for technical schools, or engineering schools within larger universities.

This is incorrect.

If chemists, biologists, and programmers / computer scientists do not need to study this level of math, well… that’s almost half of “STEM”, right there.

FWIW, both linear algebra and multivariable calculus are required for students at UC San Diego, which is a large public institution.

(Although it's a little tricky as our university has sub-colleges, not all of which require both).

Thoughts on the survey:

1) I'd distinguish between knowledge and comfort level.

2) I did the survey without reading the comments, which might affect results (on like 1 question).