Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Soup and other goodness

I made the stock for the soup earlier this week and A___ finished the soup today, just in time for the damp, chilly end of January. I used to make the broth with a whole chicken but realized that this results in far more meat and hassle than I need (cjblue will attest to having called me once while I was "boning a chicken"). I recently switched to using chicken breast, 2 split breasts, bone in. This makes enough stock for a large pot of soup, and a little extra meat that can be used for chicken salad. Making soup is great because you get to clean out your old veggies and create something that is exceptionally yummy and good for you with enough left over to freeze. This is all very exciting for a low income grad student with some nutrition problems.

Some of the other grads and I have been joking for a while now about how we should make a grad cookbook. "How to Cook and Eat Healthy on an Apprentice Model Budget" or something like that. Chapters would include things like "Avoiding scurvy", "101 things to do with peanut butter", and "Pasta is a TA's best friend" We could sell it (at a large mark up) and put the proceeds into a graduate conference travel fund, a fund which has consistently been cut by my university over the past few years.

While the soup simmers, I am reading two papers on auditory cues for induced self motion and writing up an outline for an experiment I am about to record stimuli for over the weekend. Yes, I am kind of blowing off my dissertation research, although that is somewhat justified by soundbooth noise related delays. And I am most certainly and unjustifiably neglecting the evil manuscript from hell I've been working on for (gulp) way too long and should just finish no matter how much thinking about the horribly designed experiments makes me want to puke. But who can do that when there's a brand spankin' new research project with an extremely efficient faculty member whose enthusiasm for it is infectious. And there is kick ass soup and a movie with my loving neighbor A___ to look forward to when I'm done reading and writing tonight. Who could ask for anything more? Ok, maybe a loaf of fresh baked bread from Kate.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


The mild winter is being mean to my allergies. I never had "allergies" growing up, not of the sniffling sneezing itchy eye type at least. Not until I was in my late 20s and living in Michigan did I finally know what misery people go through. Since that started, I have learned to I look forward to snow, cold, and dryness after a November of leaf mold has had my head spinning, literally. But with this weather, I am finding my allergies active in January. It's just wrong.

I spent too much time today in the soundbooth trying to troubleshoot "noise" in our recordings. We don't know what it is or why it's there, but we do know that you shouldn't have to filter recordings made in a fucking soundbooth. It sort of defeats the purpose. Sadly, I am not an engineer so I can only use trial and error to isolate and eliminate the variables in a very mechanical way...this mic, that mic, this jack, that one, high, low, etc. Frustrating and cramped, I fled finally knowing nothing conclusive. I think there's a soundbooth psychosis that sets in. By the end of two hours in there, I started saying things like "La la la...I'm Brittney Spears" for the soundcheck (for some reason, wearing a headset mic makes me feel like a former mouseketeer turned pop star). These recordings sound especially great since I have the allergy thing going on. I sound like Maryann Faithful.

Ok. Enough whining. Today's daily kitten is adorable - go check her out. She looks like a smaller fluffier version of my cat Max. She even has the Max pose down, on the back with the legs every which way.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Wacky fortune

Today I did battle with the Student Financial Aid office.
scroll all the way down to the bottom of the main page of my blog to see my battle cry, btw

Someday, they will do me the honor of releasing my loans so I can be more in debt. Oh but it's "GOOD" debt. Don't you fucking hate when people say that?

Anyhow, another stupid generator for today's post, rather than an incoherent rant from me. This is my "wacky fortune cookie generator" fortune.

Your Fortune Is

Man who snatches kisses when young, kisses snatches when old. ("...in bed").

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mai Tai....

Got a big old rant in here just waiting to come out but no time now. For now, I am a Mai Tai. It is much more fun and exotic than "I am a stressed out grad student"

You are a Mai Tai

You aren't a big drinker, but you'll drink if the atmosphere is festive.

And when you're drunk, watch out! You're easily carried away.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

God is Love

"There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable," (Pope Benedict XVI) said.

I am proud to say I have been doing my part to advance the cause of the faithful and God's will by concretely loving my neighbor, at least twice a week. Next time, I'll think holy thoughts to make it more special.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Depressing Day

I just read this. One of the little news blurbs I get in my browser homepage.

Depressing Day
If you're down in the dumps, don't blame yourself -- blame the calendar, according to an expert.

A British psychologist said Jan. 24 is the most depressing day of the year. Dr. Cliff Arnall has created a mathematical formula that takes into account the weather, holiday debt, time since Christmas and time since failing to make your New Year's resolutions.

Funny thing, huh? I mean funny strange, not funny ha-ha. Funny ha-ha are some of this guy's cultural assumptions. Hey Dr. Arnall, I made my New Year's resolutions, don't have a lot of debt, and I'm still not happy. I wonder why he left out the fallout from holiday family feuds/recollections of family trauma triggered by just seeing nasty old uncle what's his name's kids. Oh and then there's the whole "christmas came and went and it didn't make anything better. There was no christmas miracle and it is the end of January so I guess it isn't coming" feeling. There should be a word for that one. I think it's an emotionally relevant concept for most people in our culture, so it would be nice to be able to refer to it more easily. So anyhow, I suppose Dr. Arnall's proposal might not be 100% silly, although I contend the "mathematical formula"part is indisputably stupid.

Now Depressing Day for me personally is December 23. It's 3 months after my birthday, plenty of time to feel like this year was NOT going to be that much different than the last, that older didn't necessarily mean wiser or better. It is also 3 months into the school year, usually finding me failing my ass off in at least one class ("Do you see all these zeros?" asks the teacher, pointing to my name in the grade book. I squeak or nod or somehow indicate that indeed I do. "Those are the grades for your assignments," teacher sighs and closes book. I look at my shoes, his/her shoes, at the brightly colored shiny cardbord anthropomorphic numbers and mathematical operators under a "Math is fun! Meet The Decimals!" banner. My teacher asks "Couldn't you just turn in one or two so I don't have to give you a zero? You are such a bright blahblah potential blahblah smart blah" And I look at Mr. or Miss Teacher's sincere, concerned but disappointed face, thinking "I really want to turn in one or two assignments. I will still fail but at least s/he will love me again." Then I go home and end up re-reading three of my favorite fiction paperbacks over the weekend instead of doing the one or two make up homeworks my teacher just knows I can do.)

I found out years after December 23rd started overtly and consistently sucking for me that it was the day my grandmother's father died fighting a fire in Boston. That is kind of interesting, it's like a legacy I inherited or something.

But, I gotta say, January 24th is a big runner up for me. I figured that was because when I was 14, my sister was hospitalized right around then. When pressed, I blank on the exact date, but around January 24th it finds a way into my mind. The date alone is enough. Before I read this news blurb, I had just typed the date in an e-mail and thought something like "oh right, January twentything".

This time of year, I usually feel a little bit of hope because the light is returning. Cold blue light, but more light than we've had for too long. I think when you're an adolescent in the midst of some genuinely miserable shit, those small bits of hope can feel nearly simultaneously extremely beautiful and excruciatingly painful. Beautiful because the are so unlikely that they feel like blessings. Painful because of course they are short lived, adding to a growing sense that all joy and hope might be illusion.

I think it was a half day at school but I am not sure of that either. What I am sure of is that I was on my way home and anticipating hanging out with my sister. I was packed into the rattling stinking T bus. Salt and dirt constantly crunched between my unsensible 14 year old shoes and hard grooved rubber floor mats. I shifted through arbitrary pockets of overheated space and freezing blasts by the doors, no easier to tolerate or avoid despite being entirely predictable consequences of doors that could never fully close. Outside was cold blue daylight no longer a remnant by afternoon.

I felt hopeful and decided to stop at the 7-11 to pick up snacks for me and my sister. I don't remember specific plans, but I know I had a firm belief that she and I would be hanging out that day when I got home. I hadn't seen her at the T station after school, but I thought she'd be along eventually. I got home and went to the room we shared. Played music. Tried on different make up. Tried to coax the deck of tarot cards into providing me with a more definitive set of answers, explanations, and promises. Maybe I made a tape. I remember eventually watching the sunset out the window, leaning my elbows on the boombox and my forehead against the window. We had a great view out our bedroom window. Western, over the tops of other houses, clear over the Southeast Expressway. Boston was over there somewhere, which was a comfort to me in the murk of suburban January. I think I might have eaten all of what I bought at 7-11. I don't know for sure. What I know for sure is I remember feeling angry at being ditched, feeling like I had been stupid to think that day could be good. In that context, if my earlier hope had been realized as a hostess snack offering, then it makes sense that I might have eaten the snacks when I was steeped in denial of that hope. I think this because I remember feeling guilty, as if something I was doing signaled giving up hope on my sister. Go ahead and laugh, it is sort of funny in a very not funny way.

My sister came home very very late. It was dark, at best just one barely noticable shade lighter than dark. I was mad at her for leaving me waiting for her while my belief drained away while she forgot about me and took off to get fucked up with her friends...some of whom I felt were truly despicable people who were far far beneath us. Some were ok, like us, adolescents who were just trying to get through. Some were better than others. Michelle was a trusting stupid idiot and Mandy, well she was a different kind of idiot but the first to get pregnant and the last to stop. As I saw it, most of the people who swarmed along the edges of my sister's friends were older guys who I saw as of a limited kind: unspeakably stupid or maliciously wise-cracking, smelling unwashed or hosed down with buckets of Polo, and whose only discernable goals seemed to consist of getting head on a regular basis, keeping their cars running, and having enough money in their pockets to keep them and their child-brides in marlboros, Bud, and weed for the week. This is probably a harsh assessment, but this was my honest genuine impression of these men. This is why when I was allowed to hang out with the big kids back then, I did things like hit Mark in the head with a swing, repeatedly. Or try very very hard to trick these guys into showing how incredibly stupid they were. Most of the time, I had absolutely zero interest in hooking up with (in those days, "scooping on") any of them.

Since I had this very harsh view of the people she was spending her time with, I felt extra dumped when she didn't come home that afternoon.

Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one waiting that afternoon. My parents ambushed her. I'm not even sure she and I got to talk before they got her. The rest of that night was really horrible. To try to tell all the stories from the many perspectives would be hard. And to tell just mine would be so incomplete that it would be wrong, in the bad way and in the inaccurate way. I spent a large part of the night in my room after being threatened with arrest for screaming at cops in my kitchen.

But HEY, it's kind of reassuring to know that due to the wonders of silly math and cultural irrelativism, on this day, I am reassured that many people are sharing in this less than uplifting mood. Usually that sort of shared murk is only for special holidays, like Mother's day and Christmas.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Who's the wacko?

I had noticed in the past few weeks or so (by which I apparently mean months as I tend to telescope time around the holidays) there were several news items about Venezuelan oil. Specifically, I noticed stories about Venezuela offering discounted fuel oil to low income areas in New England.

Venezuela Gives US Cheap Oil Deal
BBC News November 23, 2005
Officials from Venezuela and Massachusetts have signed a deal to provide cheap heating oil to low-income homes in the US state. The fuel will be sold at about 40% below market prices to thousands of homes over the winter months. Local congressman William Delahunt described the deal as "an expression of humanitarianism at its very best"
The deal involves shipping some 45m litres of heating oil from Venezuela to Massachusetts at a discounted rate via Citgo Petroleum, a US-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company.

I kept seeing more reports of communities that elected to benefit from this program. A January 19, 2006 story in the Boston Globe (reporting from Vermont's Rutland Herald) gave a list of areas offered discounted heating oil to date. It includes Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island as well as "parts of Massachusetts and New York City".

But today, I saw an AP blurb about what McCain (who is starting to sound like he's campaigning again) thinks of the Venezuelan heating fuel assistance deal.
"We better understand the vulnerabilities that our economy, and our very lives, have when we're dependent on Iranian mullahs and wackos in Venezuela," said McCain
(see Bloomberg.com for a slightly different quote)

I do agree with McCain that it is fucked up and scary how dependent our economy is on the price of a barrel of oil. I don't agree with McCain's base appeal to the ignorant - Eeek! Iranians and Venezuelans and Bears, Oh My!

Hey Senator McCain, can you say "Saudi Arabia"?

Indeed, Venezuela's discounted oil program threatens not only to show up the US politicians' inability to advocate for their constituents. It threatens a new record profit for the oil companies by diluting the panic driven market with cheap oil for the needy. I can't help feeling like the Republican Senator's comments reflect less concern about our country's economic stability and national security than a deep commitment to protecting the interests of US oil profiteering. I am pretty fairly convinced (based on the last year's oil money "windfall") that oil people, which include the ruling families of the United States and their friends, were looking forward to making the mostest money ever based largely - if not entirely - on speculations about what oil prices would do after a winter of tv images of pipes breaking in the homes of freezing poor Americans.

McCain is not the only or first person to complain about these crazy Venezuelans and their evil ne'er do well plan to help poor people afford to heat their homes this winter. Pretty much any news story on the deals reached to buy Venezuelan oil includes comments like: Larry Birns, executive director of the progressive think tank, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Chavez is trying to counter Bush administration criticisms with"petro-diplomacy". [1] and Chavez's opponents accuse him of using Venezuela's oil wealth to win friends while trying to one-up President Bush. [2]

What these stories don't all include is information about what the alternatives might have been to the Venezuelan discount heating fuel plan. They don't mention what alternatives were proposed and rejected by our own government. They don't mention what steps could have been taken which might have, among other things, allowed "Patriotastic as fuck" fellas like McCain to not have to witness our excessive dependence on the kindness of South American socialists (Heaven Forbid!).

Let's go way back to early Fall when the gas prices seemed like they would never come down. People confided in one another about the cheapest gas in a 50 mile area, made gloomy speculations about whether it would hit $4 a gallon before it came back down. People wanted to know why costs were so high. People were PISSED OFF, and our lawmakers heard us. At least for a little while. Unfortunately, they didn't really DO anything about it.

In November 2005, Fox News had one of their "fair and balanced" stories about how the Senate Republicans "beat back" Democrat attempts to "pinch" oil and energy companies posting record profits. But it wasn't just Democrats who were asking the oil companies to share the wealth back then. From a November 22 Bloomberg.com report: Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked oil companies to donate 10 percent of their profits to help families pay heating bills.
CNN Money reported in October 2005 that... The (record oil company) profits have led even some Republicans...such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, to call for hearings into the profits gushing from the nation's energy producers.
And in November 2005 that ...A number of lawmakers, including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)...have called on oil companies to donate some of their profits to boost heating subsidies to aid low-income Americans who can't afford their heating bills.

The windfall taxes did not pass, at least not in any form where consumers saw rebates or lower prices. What about the call for oil companies to donate to low income heating program subsidies of the types proposed even by Republican lawmakers this past Fall?

According to this recent local report in the Pawtucket Times, it seems those calls went unanswered . Last October US Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) had written ...a letter to the CEOs of the nine largest oil companies, asking them to donate a portion of the record high profits they had just recorded to help low-income families, disabled citizens and the elderly pay their heating bills.
So did the 9 largest oil companies, who seem to have dodged the bullet on government mandated largesse, do the right thing? According to the Pawtucket Times story, Senator Reed claims Venezuelan owned Citgo was the only company who responded to his letter.

McCain is concerned about the vulnerabilities in our economy produced by a dependence on the second and third largest OPEC producers. His reference to "our very lives" is clearly a thinly veiled attempt to connect OPEC producing countries with countries which threaten national security. But what a glaring omission that McCain didn't mention our dependence on OPEC's largest producer, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, outpost of liberty and democratic principles, the country which gave us 15 of 19 hijackers who walked onto planes the morning of September 11th, 2001. Saudi Arabia, which supplies more crude oil to the US than Venezuela.

I'd really like to ask Senator McCain "Who's the wacko?"

Hani Saleh Hanjour, Saudi Arabian citizen and 9/11 hijacker believed to have flown American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon.
public domain image wikipedia

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, Venezuelan President who implemented the Bolivarian Missions. From Wikipedia: Aims of the Bolivarian Missions have included the launching of massive government anti-poverty initiatives, the construction of thousands of free medical clinics for the poor, the institution of educational campaigns that have reportedly made more than one million adult Venezuelans literate, and the enactment of food and housing subsidies.
(Foto: Victor Soares/ABr - hor-58)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

BS in BS?

Boy stuff like this does make you wonder. The American Institutes for Research released a report that says that college students are graduating with only basic performance levels on a number of crucial skills. The study measured three different kinds of literacy.

1. Prose literacy - the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. (e.g., editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials., document literacy, and quantitative literacy)
2. Document literacy - The knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats. (e.g., job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels)
3. Quantitative literacy - The knowledge and skills required to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials. (e.g., balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement)

Here are some highlights from the press release:

- Students in 2- and 4-year colleges have the greatest difficulty with quantitative literacy (as opposed to with prose or document literacy): approximately 30 percent of students in 2-year institutions and nearly 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have only Basic quantitative literacy. Basic skills are those necessary to compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu.

- There are no significant differences in the literacy of students graduating from public and private institutions.

- Literacy level is significantly higher among students who say their coursework places a strong emphasis on applying theories or concepts to practical problems, in comparison to students who say their coursework rarely touch on these skills.

There's a lot in the report. Something that pops out to me at first blush is that it seems there may not be a very strong effect of college education on basic skills, or at least not as measured by performance in the types of literacy assessed. This is a very casual and loose conclusion. It is based on what I see as a repeated pattern of results: student groups that have characteristics associated with underserved backgrounds tended to show lower scores than students from groups associated with higher levels of socio-economic privilege.
For example:
Students in 4-year colleges with the highest levels of personal or family income had higher prose and document literacy than students with the lowest levels of personal or family income. Differences based on financial dependence were not significant between students.

The study did find that students enrolled in colleges (2 or 4 year) had better overall performance than adults who had not attended college. This was in the AP reports, as if we should all breathe a sigh of relief and think "at least there's some benefit". This does not change my initial impressions though, as I think it's just reflective of how colleges are set up these days, those who go to school (and especially to a 4 year school) go because they can. They can go because they are the kids who have privilege over their peers. Higher income areas and better safer school systems tend to go together. The apparent beneficial "effect" of post secondary education might just as easily be the result of the actual effect of that privileged background on those kids. That is, what they got pre-college.

Further, "The average literacy of U.S. college students was generally the same regardless of how long students had been in college, their enrollment status, or the number of postsecondary institutions they attended." So what is the effect of the college education? If there were one, shouldn't there be a significant positive correlation between skill and years in college, or higher scores for people in college vs people who dropped out 5 years ago? This seems to be missing.

It's a little creepy.

I know this is cruel and cynnical, but regarding the overall finding of lower than expected levels of quantitative literacy across college students, I have to wonder what would happen if the assessment had asked the kids to calculate which bar had the best beer special on Thursday night.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I think I am going to be sick...

The AP report begins:
An alumni group is offering students up to $100 per class to supply tapes and notes exposing professors who allegedly express extreme left-wing political views at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Holy Senator McCarthy Batman!

When will it be clear in the mainstream that things have gone too far? Where is the sense?
When I read this story, just a little blurb really, I felt like I was falling.
When I was little, I used to wonder how things like the rise of the Nazi party could have happened. I mean, weren't there sensible people who witnessed the build up....the book burnings, the systematic and seemingly growing isolation and persecution of various groups, you know, all that stuff we see in movies and old news reels, weren't there people who saw that and who thought "I have to DO something." ? Even if it meant risk, because the risk that is allowed by doing nothing is too great and inevitable.

Wouldn't it have seemed worth it? Otherwise, you'd do what? Sit on your ass and let this happen. Tell yourself you were too scared, too small, too unimportant, too ignorant, too anything to absolve you of your duty as a reasonable thinking human. How could anyone not be moved to action in this type of climate? I used to wonder when I was little.

Now I am watching this here. I am 34. I am horrified. I look around for the others. The sensible reaction, the one that should be so prevalent that the news stations are just filled with people's horror, outrage, demands for this to cease. And I don't fucking see it. Instead, I am witnessing how a collection of amoral intolerant bastards can use fear and blind faith to seduce an entire country into betraying a national trust and acting as one huge evil machine that can be turned on anyone....other countries, leaders of other countries, its own citizens.

There is so much more to this reaction, but that will be for later. For now, I encourage you to go read about it for yourself. And for the love of god, do something, even if all you do is find some public way to express your outrage.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fluffy happiness

In my side menu links, I recently added the Daily Kitten. I found the link on the blog of Kate (who has the flu - feel better!). Thus far, it has been the best antidote for my beginning of the semester stress induced mood. I dare you to stay in a bad mood while viewing the fluffy kitteny cuteness.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

got cookies?

Yesterday, A___ and I made a trip to the fabric store. It's a terrible place to be. I mean, it's nice but depending on how busy it is, it can really suck a lot.

The goal of the trip was to pick up some heavyweight fabric for A___ to use as winter curtains. I say to use as since although I own a sewing machine and presumably do know how to sew, the machine sucks severely. It's the Singer Touch and (Don't) Sew. I just found the machine on a page with the title "Relics", so that tells you what we're dealing with here. It's not a good relic either. You can go see pictures here. Years ago when I was living in Ann Arbor, my mother pulled a switch on me. She said she'd bring my machine out but instead used the opportunity to substitute her piece of crap Touch and Don't machine for my own, which was much nicer and genuinely easy to use. Now this may not have been actually as devious as I make it out to be. She might have just been so drunk that she didn't know which machine was hers and which was mine. Either way, I'm stuck with the relic. Which means larger scale sewing endeavors involve glue guns and oversized safety pins more often than they involve any actual sewing. Given this sorry state of affairs, I was not about to use the Singer to teach A___ how to sew. My contribution to this project was helping to isolate areas of the massive fabric store where there would be stuff like cheap heavy fabrics (remnants table in the home decorating section) and velcro ("What the fuck are notions?").

After navigating the parking lot and alternately cringing and laughing at soccer moms and dads in SUVs - they drive as if the SUV could somehow be made smaller and less offensive through ambivalence and hestitancy - we were greeted at the store entrance by a table covered in GIRL SCOUT COOKIES!

Two young girls were dressed up like cookies and two women sat at the table handling the cookie money. One of the girls wore a Peanut butter Patties costume (aka Tagalongs) and the other had on a Peanut butter Sandwich outfit (Do-Si-Dos). As people came through the entryway, the girls were deployed. "Would you like to buy some girl scout cookies?!" they shouted, dancing around. "Oh yes indeed I would" I said. I went into the store, promising to catch them on the way out. Surprisingly, I thought the kids looked cute. I still do. But in retrospect, I realize it may have been the proximity of all those cookies casting a sort of enduring glamour over the scene.

On our way out, A___ got hung up because even though he was buying the entire 2.8 yards of remnant left on the roll, he had to have it "cut" before he could check out...which he found out as the sales clerk rang him up. Who knew? While poor A___ had to go back to the cutting table, I ducked out to choose my cookies. I ended up buying a box of thin mints and a box of what are now known as "Carmel Delites" but which in my cookie selling days were called "Samoas". Standing there in my cookie daze, I watched as women passed the table, looking tempted but refusing the cookies, mostly on stated grounds like "Oh I sure don't need cookies!"

I, however, sure DO need cookies. While my weight is finally no longer going down, I still can't break 120. The antibiotics I've been taking for the ear infection I got (the result of the cold that was kicking my ass all break) aren't doing wonders for my appetite this week. So eating right now is sort of a chore. I was also one day premenstrual and in a bit of a shitty mood on account of having the last week of winter break wasted in febrile, dizzy, and half deaf stupor. I feel I quite legitimately need the cookies.

After I realized it had been a while, I called A___'s cell phone. "Hey...I've got cookies...where are you?" "Still at the table" he said. I could hear forlorn note of store fatigue in his voice. Largely loathing shopping myself, I empathize completely. I came to the table wearing a garland of green and white silk carnations, waving my bag o'cookies, and yelling "Erin go braaarrrrggggh!" The women waiting in a semi-organized cluster around the table glared at me and then went back to glaring at A___. "Is there even the semblance of a line here?" I asked, too loudly. "No, I don't think so," said A___. "Ok, Fuck this, come on -" I said and headed for a counter in a less hostile section. We found one in quilting. "I think they were mad at me for standing on the wrong side of the cutting table," A___ admitted as we walked. Probably. I'm sure my festive Irish foliage didn't help.

As I left the store the second time, the Peanut butter sandwich jumped in my path. "Would you like to buy some..." she started, then pulling her hat off her eyes she laughed and said "Hey I recognize you! You bought cookies!" "Yep. Get him though!" I whispered to her and pointed at A___. A___ bought another thin mints and a box of shortbread cookies (aka Trefoils). We are way stocked up on cookies, to my complete and utter delight (caramel, minty, and otherwise).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Plans of Study

My friend A___ is beginning his graduate Plan of Study. The Plan of Study is where we list all the relevant courses we took or will take to get our PhD. It is, of course, nowhere near as simple as that sounds. Think Gilliam's Brazil and you'll be in the right ballpark. The Plan of Study is something we grads must do before we can take our preliminary exams. We do it largely without any real help from our advisors since they are too important to have to know how to do this sort of thing. As with most things in grad school, we get it done with a lot of help from our friends.

So I told A___ I'd look for my Plan of Study to see how I did it. As I was looking I found lots of scraps, memorable moments from my increasingly lengthy graduate career. Ugh. This trip down memory lane made me cringe. Whenever I see 1998 on a graduate transcript I shiver and think Good Lord Almighty will I ever be done?!!??

Then I came across artifacts from when I transfered from my old program to my current one. And beneath that stratum I found the few bits of physical evidence from the episodes I think of as "When My Former Advisor Completely Lost His Shit". It is somewhat reassuring to look at these things now and then. It ireminds me of what I got through and why it's taking me longer than is normal to finish. It's not like I'm fucking malingering....ok, well I'm dragging my ass a little, but I look at this stuff and I realize that I have had much more work to do than most of the grads I know. And it is legitimate work. Not only have I had to do the normal work of a PhD student, I've had to get my masters in self advocacy, harassment, and university policy while I was at it. Included in that never defended thesis was also a long chapter on maintaining self esteem and holding it together under pretty significant threat and with very little institutional support.

You're wondering what the fuck I'm talking about. I'm pretty sure my former advisor, we'll call him "Professor Psycho Jerk", wanted an inappropriate kind of relationship with me. I can't say for sure he wanted sex and the like, although he made a point to mention on more than one occasion that he had been on a date since being married. No, the date was not with his wife. And he brought up sex a bit too often for my comfort level. A friend who had spent some time living in my advisor's country of origin told me that this sex as a conversation topic was just cultural (Mediterranean) and that I should use that knowledge to modify my American context when I interpreted it. Ok. This fit since while I've had my share of sex, romance, and the like, I am not exactly Miss Glamorous and I am not used to assuming that men are throwing themselves at me.

So I couldn't say for sure that he wanted sex, but I can say as I felt his behavior was becoming less professional and I tried to insert some tactful distance and professional boundaries in there, he got nutty.

We had always had what I considered a casual, informal academic relationship. I liked this because I am not a formal person. I don't stand on ceremony or any of the sort of social garbage that I feel muddies the social interaction between two (or more) people communicating. So we'd have an impromtu conversation that started off with a question about sound change in English, moved to Proto-IndoEuropean reconstruction, discuss tone as possible feature of early languages, talk about how linguistic reconstruction of the kind that leads to theories of ideal syllable structure is possible using languages like Sanskrit, etc. But we'd also talk about his kids, why he chose to study at MIT, my educational experiences, some current events stuff, and philosophy. It was nice.

But then there was the important professor (who had been my advisor's advisor), world famous and all that, who my advisor called me over in front of but didn't introduce me to. My advisor had given me an A+ in his class that year. They just don't give A+ in grad school folks, so I assumed he would introduce me as his star pupil, 'cause clearly he thought I was (A+, right?). Instead, my advisor put his arm around my shoulder and urged me to come to dinner with them. The older famous professor chuckled and looked away, chatting with the other faculty who had introduced their (male) advisees. I remember thinking maybe my advisor had told the professor who I was before he called me over, but felt a nagging discomfort growing. Then there was the meeting about my qualifying paper which had to be at my advisor's house because he had to be there to watch his children. When I got there, his children were nowhere around and he kept turning the conversation to him (whether or not he looked old) and his marriage.

The last straw was the "welcome back/beginning of the year" party my advisor was planning to have at his house in Fall 2000. He consulted me on nearly every detail. The nagging discomfort was turning into something more like a siren. Finally, I told him "really I think you should serve whatever you want. I mean, I don't think I should have so much say on this. I think it's great that you want to host this party, but I might not even be able to go, so please don't put so much on my opinion...."

He canceled the party shortly after this conversation.

Ok so I continued avoiding him, even on academic stuff. When we did meet, he was cranky and didn't like my analyses, or my style, or my scope, or my topic (which he had suggested), or the entire theoretical framework I was writing in (again, something I had chosen with his blessings the semester before). I avoided him more and more. Finally, after no communication for, oh, it must have been a month easily, he confronted me in the hall. He marched up to me and told me we had to schedule my defense for the qualifying paper I had been writing. I told him I wasn't ready to defend and that he knew this. He said that we had better meet then. At the meeting, there was not even a pretense of meeting about the paper. He just screamed and yelled and hollered at me for being "disrespectful". It was HORRIBLE. But I'm good at getting yelled at, my dad gave me plenty of practice. I know how to massage and assuage and manipulate assholes into calming down and backing off. I didn't sell myself out entirely, but I negotiated a peace which did involve me biting back my genuine reaction, one of utter loathing and disgust not to mention intense rage at him for behaving in this way. Had this not been my advisor, I think I would have thrown something at him. I am quite sure if I had been younger, I would have slashed his tires or worse. After a lot of soul searching, I decided I did the right thing, making sure I was safe at that moment. My next task was to work on ensuring my safety from further bad behavior on his part.

I went to my department head. Her only suggestion was to "stay off his radar". I went to the University Office that was supposed to handle harassment to let them know I felt my advisor was getting very inappropriate and to try to get something on record so I would have some kind of protection. Can I say that the words "They Sucked" don't even begin to describe the experience? In the end, I tried to stay off my advisor's radar for the rest of the academic year. I changed advisors to the only other guy in my department who studied anything like what I did. He was never there, was barely interested in my thesis until I incorporated his theory into it, and even then offered less help than I'd have gotten talking to my cat.

And soon the Spring semester ended. My then boyfriend T___ and I had moved in together and were so utterly happy. My divorce had just gone through. About two weeks later, I got this crazy letter from my former advisor saying "Rumor had reached him" that I was accusing him of sexual harassment.

And the funny thing was I had no idea what he was talking about. Turns out, someone was accusing him of sexual harassment but not me. In response to the accusation of harassment, the acting department head had arranged for a workshop on harassment. This is one of those things the campus Women's Center does, although with little actual success I think.

Now we are all caught up and I can go back to the artifact I found in my search for my Plan of Study. It was a letter written by another professor from my former department. He wrote this letter to describe an incident precipitated by my (then) advisor at the sexual harassment workshop.

As usual, I have changed the names to protect the mostly guilty, although there are a few innocents in there too. I changed the names of offices as well. While I want to share this, it was given to me in confidence by the person who wrote it so I do want to try to preserve some of that. Even though it's my business. You'll have to click on the picture to see it up close and legible like.

Based on my completed, submitted, and approved Plan of Study, I have been assigned a "termination date" of 2008 or something like that. But I get letters from the financial aid office telling me I have been here too long and no longer am eligible for aid. I get shit from old withered nearly retired and quite bitter faculty in my new department because they are too used to seeing me around. My division head thinks I should be done with my dissertation already even though I've only been in this department for three years. My Plan of Study had no column or box for this sort of thing, which sure is a waste. It seems like I ought to get some kind of credit for having gotten through this, maybe a certificate in Fortitude or an A+ in Coping. I feel like I should have something to show for the extra work I've had to do towards my PhD. Maybe I'll frame this letter.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Sunday, January 08, 2006


Every year for the past several years, I've made New Year’s resolutions. That is not remarkable. What is remarkable is that every year, I found the topic of my resolution the theme of the most difficult personal challenges I faced that year. “This year, I will take care of myself” I resolved last January. In 2003, I had resolved to get better at accepting help from others. It felt pretty damned ironic how things turned out. It also made me feel a little superstitious about my resolutions.

So this year, I resolved to learn at least three new recipes. It was the best I could come up with. I tried not to go too easy on myself. I added to the resolution before the end of New Year's Day that they need to be healthy and easy to make.

Even as I made the resolution though, I wondered what evil tricks Fate might play with it. I also considered whether by making such an out of character resolution, I wasn't in all practicality simply resolving to avoid things that make me uncomfortable or to let myself off some huge hook I'm not sure how I got on in the first place. I guess we'll see.

Friday, January 06, 2006

DO Something - Impeachment Day 1/8/6

No writing today. After I kicked its ass for weeks, the miserable christmas cold has finally got me on the ropes

ee gads, I can't even remember the rule about the indefinite possessive pronoun...apostrophe or no? This is more than a typo. This represents the limits of my brain today.

Below is an important invitation which you should accept and pass on. It comes to me by way of Kate's recent blog entry.

January 8 Will Be Guerilla Impeachment Day!

OK, this comes from Kagro X at Daily Kos.

It seems as though the Kossacks are planning a guerilla impeachment day for Sunday, January 8, 2006. The Impeach Bush Coalition is joining in!

Here is the scoop:

On Sunday, January 8, the impeachment army is going to get as many people together as possible to participate "in an effort to paper their areas with the IMPEACH message in preparation for the Monday commute. Highway banners, yard signs, paper fliers stapled to telephone polls, bumper stickers, Avery labels... everything we can throw at them."

From Kagro X:
"That gives you a week to get ready. Interested in making signs? Follow the IMPEACH link to our wiki page and find instructions on both quick-'n-dirty methods and more elaborate signmaking, not to mention the art of hanging your creations. Interested in making stickers? Instructions and templates can be found there, too, as well as in previous IMPEACH diaries. Can't find them? Ask here! We'll give you direct links! We're easy!"
In the meantime, you have a mission -- and there should be no doubt about your willingness to accept it: organize your impeachment army in your area. Gather your friends, family members, and whomever else you know that wouldn't mind getting involved in the impeachment fight.

Next, during this week, you and your army must make your freeway signs, banners, yard signs, paper fliers stapled to telephone polls, bumper stickers, Avery labels, etc.

Be as creative as you wish, but try to stay on point. Remember, we are doing this for impeachment.

On Sunday night, January 8, the impeachment armies will go out and paper the nation with the IMPEACH message, just in time for the Monday morning commute.

Join in! Spread the word!


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How do you want your eggs?

I read about the South Korean stem cell research team today. You know, the one that made big news earlier this year with their (now questioned) findings in stem cell research and cloning. It's been in the news a lot this year. After the initial press, there was a big hullabaloo about the accuracy of the findings of the research. I wasn't following it all that closely at the time but I do recall there was also some talk of how eggs used in the study had come from one of the researchers. I recall that the stories I read at the time had something about them which conveyed the sense that the female researcher was the one who was guilty of unethical behavior by having donated her own eggs. Right. How selfish of her to undergo that risky procedure. I remember wondering at the time "What if a man had made a similar sacrifice? Would he have been vilified in similar vague ways?" In an effort to exorcise the phantom images of the off beat renegade genius scientist who tries the life savingvaccine on himself which were needlessly banging about in my mind, I decided to stop reading the news reports on this.

But now there's a little more of the story coming out. A headline about the research team piqued my curiosity. According to a recent report, Professor Hwang (the PI for this team) is now being accused of coercing junior female reseachers on his team to "donate" their eggs for the study. In an article reprinted in The Seoul Times, it is reported that one of these junior female researchers may have been a graduate student of Dr. Hwang's.

Ok for those of you who don't know, donating eggs is nowhere near as fun as donating sperm. Here's an excerpt from a 2004 article in Nature about Hwang's research:

"....Researchers were surprised that so many women were prepared to undergo this procedure for a research project. Side effects of the treatment can range from general discomfort and emotional stress to clotting of the veins or stroke. "It's a painful procedure and there is risk involved," says Jose Cibelli, a co-author on the paper who studies cloning at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "It would never fly in the United States."

As part of a community of researchers, the expectation that you will participate in a study, that you will offer yourself without complaint for data collection purposes does exist. I'd say the expectation is stronger and the level of participation is greater the lower your status. In my time as a grad, I've seen ethical violations that are similar at a very basic level to the ones alleged to have been perpetrated by Dr. Hwang. Being one of the only native speakers in a Linguistics department meant I was cornered on a regular basis by Europeans brandishing print outs of the most fucked up sentences imaginable.

Please rate which sentence is worse:
'Which pictures of themselves did Mary think that Peter said John showed her?'
'Which pictures of themselves did Mary think that only Peter said John showed her?'
Overall, I viewed those experiences as minor irritations, but there was a bit of risk for me socially since I was not shy about saying when my native speaker judgments did not agree with the judgments predicted by the dominant theoretical leanings. Once, when I refused to change my answers, a Bulgarian woman screamed "You are not being enough of a linguist!" at me over my lunch. I was a first year grad student who clearly didn't know even her own language! As it turns out, if I had stayed in that department long enough, I would have developed a finely honed ability to supercede my own instincts (linguistic and otherwise). I do believe that partly from the perception of my "deviant" sentence judgments, I got a rep among the other linguistics grads as some kind of contrarian with a less than staggering intellect. Neither of these is a good reputation to have as a grad, but I think the former is worse because if the shit hits the fan you'll find your peers who could help you will not stand with you. In fact, they may take a certain amount of glee in stepping on your neck while you're down.

Fortunately, in my current research context, we're all "scientifically" minded enough that we know we would be guilty of cardinal sins if we were to (a) yell at a subject (b) throw a shit fit over data that doesn't fit our hypotheses. Here however, there are more real experiments being run. This means means an increased need for subjects, and thus more chance that you may find yourself giving up an hour or so of your time to sit in a chair and be bored shitless by words or word like letter strings flashed on a screen. Sometimes we grads engage in this as a quid pro quo, i.e., "I run in yours if you run in mine". Occasionally, we are encouraged by faculty to run for one another. The latter bothers me more. And both bother me in that when grads run grads, all our human subject training seems to fly right out the window. I recently agreed to check out a student's study and ended up with him assuming I would participate before he even finished explaining the procedure to me. I thought he was explaining how it worked so I could decide if I wanted to participate. Turns out he was already up and going and measuring data. Not wanting to mess up his data collection, I continued to the end. Ultimately, this was a bad choice for me since the dependent variable was measured using a device that measured hand grip force and I have arthritis. My peer encouraged me to grip it as hard as possible. After the first time I did it (and said "ow!"), I refused to grip that hard again. The experiment was over pretty fast, but the sore hand lasted over a day. By all the human research standards, even what little negligence this student displayed could have gotten his and any associated study suspended. Now, consider what Dr. Hwang is accused of doing.

I have a feeling that in the not too distant future, we will be reading about Dr. Hwang in the human subject training modules. Even if his graduate student was never explicitly told by him "you must do this or else!", the status difference alone is enough to make giving free consent for an invasive and painful and therefore high risk medical procedure impossible (see this link on infertility treatments for a description of the egg harvesting procedure).

But there is something else about this that really deeply bothers me. It seems clear to me that the Hwang methods represent a horrible juncture of the grad-subject assumption and sexism. Treating your female grad student as if she were a Premarin mare can probably be described legitimately as an instance of extreme sexism. However, I think this sort of outcome is not unlikely in an institution with a sort of more free floating sexism . By "free floating sexism" I mean the undercurrent of supposedly implicit, non-threatening sexist crap that we all know exists in academic environments. E.g., the attitudes that allow an invited speaker to make "take my wife, please" type jokes during an academic talk; the beliefs that underlie a senior faculty member telling his female advisee that she doesn't need as much funding as other grads because she has a husband to provide for her; attempts to question Nancy Hopkins' abilities as a scientist because she so visibly and vocally complained about Larry Summers' idiot rantings (see also this item from the Washington Post for some relevant examples of that "subtle" sexism from Hopkins' experiences). The sexism is not all that subtle, not really, but is made free floating - insubstantiable, intangible, and infinitely ambiguous - through the sometimes social but mostly academic conventions which allow plausible institutional deniability for sexism as the or even a motivating factor in unethcial, illegal, or harassing behaviors or contexts.

Let's consider some of those conventions. Myths like the "liberal academia" make it nearly impossible to address sexist behavior or the consequences of it because they state that sexism does not exist in higher education. If it does, it happens in the margins. It is undergrads dormitory grab ass games gone too far. It is one lone professor who forces himself on an unsuspecting 18 year old who will "do anything for a higher grade". Sexism can't be as much a part of the environment as the air I breath or the food I eat at a colloquium dinner because according to the liberal academia myth, faculty are just not capable of sexism. Its so...base. These enlightened and rational individuals may make a jokes here and a reference there but everyone knows these are made out of a higher sense of cultural satire. This one is so hard to fight and is so horribly insidious. I think this one is related to the belief that only the most egregious acts, like unwanted sexual contact or making advancement contingent on consenting to such contact, constitute reportable harassment.

Then there is the habit of using scientific inquiry to mask personal sexism or bigotry. Take Larry Summers. Or, for example, a TA might always use sex as a variable for every single example in a cognitive psychology class. Apparently such a person expects there are measurable and valid differences in male and female performance on cognitive tasks. Without discussion of the different social histories for the two genders, and with "gender" and "sex" treated as fully synonymous terms, this is nothing short of blatant sexist bullshit that the students not only must endure but possibly be tested on. If you fail to see the bigotry here, replace "sex" with "race" and think about it again. Pick your favorite social dichotomy, insert, experience reaction. Consider trying to study while experiencing reaction. Consider working and sharing office space with this TA.

Outcomes like those in Dr. Hwang's study are obviously part of the cycle of sexism in the academy. In fact, practices like Dr. Hwang's seem to be a result, the logical - albeit extreme - conclusion of such sexism. This style coercion of research associates would not have been possible without the social structures and hierarchies set up and enforced even in a context tainted only by the free floating sexism I discussed above (as opposed to a culturally condoned and institutionally accepted sexism that may exist in other culturally based academic environments). We are set up for this kind of explotation because it is not just the sexism that we experience, implicitly only if we are lucky. We also experience the lack of response which pervades modern academic institutions and which tells us any complaint will cost us dearly so it had better be air tight and sure. Even in the free floating sexism evironment, female graduate assistants and junior faculty may feel they have more to lose if they are not perceived as "team players" who give their all and then some. And even here in the supposedly liberal gender equal American university, they may in fact have more to lose.

In my own experience as a grad, I have watched as faculty nearly knock one another over to mentor male grads. Among other things, this gives the male grads a very practical advantage by way of increased opportunities for multiple pre-dissertation publications. I can honestly say I have never seen the faculty going as far out of their way to mentor female grads. Note that I am not asserting all male grads get this beneficial treatment. They don't. But I have not seen one single female grad student get the royal treatment I have seen doled out again and again for male students who, while they are certainly smart and industrious, seem in all ways to possess potential equal to their female counterparts. The edge they have is that someone chooses to believe in them and that someone has the funding power to back that belief up. This can really take you a long, long way.

Another source for extra challenges to female grads can be the inherent and implicit devaluing of female researchers' contributions to research projects. This can sometimes be ameliorated by a strong policy of fearless self advocacy. I'm a big fan of ensuring in advance that working as a researcher on a project will result in appropriate credit - co-authorship, pay, or course credit (or some combination), depending on the nature and amount of involvement. Unfortunately, I have noticed many of the female grads are not comfortable bringing up subjects like this with their academic advisors or research supervisors. I guess the reluctance is due to the years of brain washing, er, um, I mean socialization we get. The cherry on this cake is that even if the women do overcome the years of gender socialization and learn to pre-emptively speak up and self promote, they may still very well face bias or harassment from their peers, their supervisors, and their advisors which limits opportunities in areas like authorship, funding, assistantship duties, work space, physical resources, and evaluation of the worth of their contributions and efforts.

I read the Hwang articles and I think the sexism that underlies the coercion of junior female researchers to "donate" eggs for stem cell research is the same kind of sexism I see in academia in this country. It's just that this one situation is an example of how far this kind of sexism can go in a cultural context where it may have even fewer checks than in the American system. I sometimes think the backlash to the second wave of feminism is still tipping us towards this extreme end in the American universities. I.e., when complaints about harassing, abusive, demeaning, limiting, or coercive behavior in the academic professions are so readily and easily dismissed a priori, we move towards a context where something as bad as what Hwang is accused of seems not only believable but likely.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

My Hero

Just checking out the news today. At the Boston Globe site, there's one of those "most e-mailed stories" links on a side menu. Here's one that caught my attention, from Ohio.
Cat Calls 911 To Help Owner, Police Say

The cat's owner, Gary Rosheisen (who it seems has some chronic and serious health problems) had fallen and was unable to get to a phone or his medicalert systems. Police got a 911 call from Mr. Rosheisen's home, but no one said anything. When they called back, no one picked up. They responded to the call and found Mr. Rosheisen's cat Tommy lying by the phone on the living room floor. Mr. Rosheisen was lying next to his bed, presumably nowhere near a phone. After reading this story, I wondered "What, did Tommy hang up the phone when he was done?" I re-read it and saw it mentions the phone having a speaker button. Ok, that's a little less implausible.

Towards the end of the story, we are told that Mr. Rosheisen had tried to train Tommy to dial 911 but was "unsure if the training ever stuck." Apparently it did.

This got me thinking. My cat Max is an orange tabby, like Tommy. I have to wonder...

...Could this cat call 911 in an emergency?
More importantly, would he?