Saturday, February 27, 2010

prayers for the people of Chile...

They just got hit by an 8.8 magnitude quake.

That's monstrous. That's like more than 5 trillion tons of dynamite being set off. (the Haiti quake, by way of comparison, would have been about 32 million tons: information here). (Richter scale is logarithmic, IIRC.)

I don't know what kind of anti-earthquake codes Chile had - I suspect they had SOME in place, and my understanding is that they are more prosperous and stable than Haiti is - but there's still going to be a lot of death (78 was what I heard most recently, and it's early hours yet).

(I do expect that, as usual, people around the world - including Americans - will donate money to the various groups that provide disaster relief. Because that's how people tend to be.)

But still, my heart goes out to them. And to anyone in the Pacific who may be affected by tsunamis resulting from this.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"It was.....SOAP POISONING!"

There's a piece of music - I think it's called The Heartless Landlord or something like that - that's widely used in cartoons to depict a pitiable situation. And it was used very effectively in "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie was imagining how SORRY, how VERY SORRY his parents would be after he went blind from having to get his mouth washed out with Lifebuoy.

Well, I kind of feel like that needs to be the soundtrack for all the people coming out of the woodwork with their health-insurance sad stories.

Okay, don't get me wrong: it sucks when health insurance screws you over. People should have some recourse when some clerical error makes things bad. Or when a company decides to drop someone. Or whatever.

But I become IMMEDIATELY cynical when these kinds of sad stories are brought out as evidence that Something Must Be Done, NOW! Because acting on something that is not strictly urgent - and treating it as if it is VERY urgent - can lead to some very bad solutions indeed.

Yes, there are problems with how health care is administered right now. There are problems with insurance companies. There is a problem when people have to wait four or five hours in an ER. There is a problem when people are out of work and have major problems like cancer.

But: we didn't get into these problems in a few days. Trying to solve them in a few days with sweeping legislation makes me fear the Law of Unintended Consequences. Especially when it seems that certain people are saying stuff like, "We just need to get it done. We don't need to look at details. We don't need to hear from the other side. We don't need input from the majority of the American public who are happy with their insurance."

And: I kind of love Senator Lamar Alexander right now, for saying something I had been thinking about, but not been able to articulate:

"Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized for Washington to write a few rules about remaking 17 percent of the economy all at once. That sort of thinking works in a classroom, but it doesn't work very well in our big, complicated country. It doesn't work for most of us and if you look around the table -- and I'm sure it's true on the Democratic side -- we have got shoe store owners and small business people and former county judges and we've got three doctors. We've got people who are used to solving problems, step by step."

As we say on Internet fora: THIS.

(His full press release is here)

My two big concerns with how people are going about this process - well, I have many concerns, but two of the major ones are:

there's a push for a one-size-fits-all solution

there's this sense of terrible urgency, almost that it's better to pass a bill that will be bad for some people, than to pass no bill at all.

We got into this problem over a long span of time. Solving it in such a way as to cause the least harm to the greatest number of people, I suspect, will take a long span of time.

It's like losing weight: none of us blimp up overnight. None of us put on 25 pounds in a week. And yet, we have all these commercials suggesting we can take that weight off fast, no consequences. So you get people taking stuff like Fen-Phen (which caused heart valve problems in some people who took it). Or taking weird herbal mixtures that are unsafe. Or starving themselves. Or trying to exercise six hours a day. And if it doesn't kill you, it makes you damn miserable - and less likely to stick with it. But the person who decides to lose weight, who sits down and says, for example, "I will cut back on sweets so I am only eating them two or three days a week, and I will cut back on fat, and I will stop going to fast food places as much as I do, and I will start exercising 15 minutes a day and work up from there as I get stronger" - they are more likely to succeed.

Also, if they get input and support from friends and knowledgeable people (doctors, nutritionists), they are more likely to succeed.

This is why I'm so twitchy about the tone some take of "we must pass something, now!" People are not dying in the streets - contrary to the extreme sob stories you hear. Most people are doing fine. Okay, pass something to help the people in extremis. But don't say, "Because five women with breast cancer lost their health care coverage, we must let the government take care of all women's breast health."

Also: if the government runs stuff, and they wind up screwing you over, to whom can you go?

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I've talked about tiny houses on here before. They come in a lot of different sorts, but the kind I love - that I envision - have certain amenities.

Indoor plumbing is a "must."

A sense of coziness and style is important.

And the interior being wood-paneled - I don't know why that's important, but to me, it says "tiny house."

Well, here's an example of one from Tiny House Blog that fits my vision (in part) of the ideal Tiny House.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

People at work

I like watching documentaries that show people "making stuff" - whether it's furniture, or building houses, or making food.

It always seems to me that craftspeople are so calm and so happy in their work. It's one of the things I admit I fantasize about, when I'm lying in bed trying to fall asleep: chucking it all and apprenticing to a cabinetmaker, or learning to weave and working at a loom all day.

Of course, the important element of any fantasy is that you gloss over the bad parts - the place where, because it's an economic downturn, no one's willing to pay for your handcrafted chairs. Or where it's hard to get health insurance because you're a sole proprietor, and (if you do dying or pottery work), you're working with potentially hazardous substances.

But sometimes, when I've dealt with one too many challenging people in a day, I begin to think about how nice it would be just me and the wood. Or me and the clay. Or me and the flour. And how I could close myself up in a workshop and just make stuff, and earn my living that way.

Don't get me wrong; I like my job. I probably am happier than most people. But there is an element of "the grass is always greener" in seeing craftspeople at work.

Growing up, I lived not too far from one of those "living history" places. They had weavers and glassblowers and blacksmiths and carpenters and I always enjoyed taking trips to the part, because I liked (even as a kid) to see the craftspeople at their work. (Oh, yeah, I know now, they were really out-of-work actors or history teachers making a little bread over the summer break, but I thought of them as full-time craftspeople).

I admit it; it's one of those little fantasies that keeps me going during difficult days at work: "I could always quit this, and...I don't know, make quilts for a living or something." It's a funny little safety valve.

Monday, February 22, 2010

bang. head. here.

I think one of my lab students showed up high this afternoon.

Glittery eyes, talked really fast and breathlessly, couldn't sit still, couldn't follow directions worth a crap. I kept following him around just to be sure he didn't hurt himself.

Look, my policy on drugs tends to be: do what you will do, AS LONG AS you are not harming someone else*. (My preference would be for people to NOT take drugs, but whatever, people are going to). But it borders on harm when you show up to lab stoned and jittery.

(*And yeah, arguably, you could point out that buying drugs could technically cause harm, seeing as some of the money - for pot and meth at least - goes to violent drug gangs that have turned Nuevo Laredo and other border towns into lawless hellholes. But I'm talking about harm like getting behind the wheel messed-up and crashing into a school bus or something)

I'm just glad it wasn't the day we were working with cyanide. Or the Bunsen burners.

It didn't help that he was wearing a t-shirt that, for all intents and purposes, declared that the wearer was a "Dick" (and no, his first name is not Richard.)

It's gonna be a loooooong semester with that class, I fear. I may have to pull the guy aside and ask him if he's OK, really? if he shows up like that again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Something happier.

Because I need happier things to think about than idiot lunatics who think killing other people is OK.

This is a slideshow (in the NYT Home section) about a man who lives in a tiny studio apartment. 178 square feet. That's like, 10 by 18 feet. Amazing.

And yet, he has everything he needs. He has books (up on a shelf over the bed! I should do that - well, I would, except my "inspiration wall" where I have framed sayings and a cross and gifts from friends is up on that wall). He has a bedroom and a living room space and a desk that serves as his office. He has a tiny kitchen (although he admits he doesn't really cook, because the smell gets to be too much in such a tiny space).

And I admit, I couldn't really do that - well, for one thing, I own a largish piano, and I'm not giving that up. And I own a crapton of books...if I had an apartment that small, I'd have to have bookshelves on every wall and under the bed. And I'd have nowhere to store my craft supplies.

But still, I find tiny living spaces fascinating: how people make use of the space, how they make space for the really important things (the things important to them). It requires a level of paring-down that I would find hard to do (though I probably could, if I had to).

I still, from time to time, check into the Tiny House Blog that I posted about a long time ago. I admit, I'm not so crazy about the occasional smug-story about someone who thinks they're Better Than You because they have a smaller footprint.

But I do love seeing the houses, and how they are decorated. I love the idea of everything being that close within reach, with everything designed for convenience. The self-containedness of it makes me happy.

I think also, it's the privacy thing: most people who live in such small spaces live alone. Or at most, with one other person (usually a beloved spouse or other partner). So rather than being a "showplace" of sorts - and I tend to find houses-as-showplaces kind of impersonal and uncomfortable - the home becomes a very idiosyncratic place: it's more of a shelter or a cave or...something. I can't think of the right word, but something very personal, something that is designed and outfitted for the comfort and ease of the people who live there, rather than to impress people that they have over.

And I guess I like that for a couple of reasons: first, I think when you're selecting furniture or decorating a space with a mind more to "what do I love, what do I want, what do I need to lead my life," you wind up with a more interesting space. I can get a better sense of what a person is like when they've decorated a room (or chosen furniture, or dishes, or whatever) with a mind purely to "what do I like," rather than with the thought of "what is popular now? What will impress people?" Sometimes there's the unfortunate situation of (usually) the husband's taste and stuff being pushed out of the way in deference to what the wife wants.

What I'd rather see is a home than a house...something that represents the accumulation of furniture over the years, where there are "funny" things on the walls - like, the old medal someone won years ago in a 5k race, or a framed drawing from a younger sibling when they were a kid. That tells me something about the person who lives there, and it makes me happy to see it. Houses that look too much like an anonymous hotel room (and I've been in a few that were like that) make me feels sad and uncomfortable. Houses don't have to be perfect!

That may be part of the reason why the "writers' rooms" that Sheila posted about a long time ago fascinated me: those rooms were almost pure idiosyncracy - they were set up for the writers to work in, so one person's room was very spare, another's was crowded, yet another's had lots of floral prints, while still another was done in stark orange and white. The diversity of what made a 'good' room was interesting.

So the smaller spaces, smaller houses interest me. Because there's less of a division (if any) between the public rooms and the private get to see more of the personality of the person come through. And maybe, people who take a more idiosyncratic living space are also less likely to be swayed by fashion or what is "done," and instead say, "Well, I'm going to have my house this way because I like it, and if people think it looks funny or is a little tacky, I don't really care."

I love the idea of a tiny space - of coming home, being able to see your possessions. Of curling up on the bed or the sofa with a book...and if you want a different book, the bookshelf is right in arm's reach.

I admit it: I lived in a studio apartment for a while as an undergrad. It was mostly ok, the main thing that bothered me was the kitchenette. (I didn't like having to see the pots and pans out drying on the rack when I laid in bed). And it did get kind of "close" or cramped feeling during periods of bad weather...but again, I was an undergrad. I was using the rental furniture that came with the unit (plus an extra bookshelf of my own, and a little rickety table for my radio and more books). And I wasn't allowed to make holes in the walls, so I only had a couple of posters stuck up with blu-tack as decorations...but if I had owned the place, if I had had the right to paint it, and to bring in my own furniture, maybe it would have seemed even cozier and nicer. (And I could have done things like used more bookcases as room dividers). As I said, I doubt I could do that now, but it was okay when I was 19 years old.

But the whole idea of a small, tight, ship-shape house appeals to me still, even if I'd never actually (practically speaking) be able to live that way.

And it gets uglier.

There's a news story out today alleging that it was feared that Amy Bishop had booby-trapped the biology building with herpes virus (which can, apparently, be very dangerous in airborne form: it can cause encephalitis) before she went on the shooting rampage.

This story is now reading like the plot of a scary mystery novel - one I'd actually stop reading because it was "too creepy," or an episode of "Criminal Minds."

(I find it hard to watch "Criminal Minds" - I love the solving-puzzles aspect, I love the interaction of the FBI agents and their characters - but seeing the crimes committed is painful to me. There was a re-run the other night with a guy who trapped people in their homes, and then burned the houses down, and I just had to walk away from it for a while).

I know I'm kind of obsessed with this news story, but I think it's because I'm a biology professor that I find it so creepy and scary. And also, I keep reading - because I think I really do want some justification, some explanation of, "This woman is not anything at all like any of the other biologists I know."

It's fairly well-known that a lot of "weird" people go into academia: extremely shy people, people who are extremely easily distracted, people who might be classified as borderline Asperger's, even people who have "difficult" personalities. I count myself as "weird," though I think my own brand of it could perhaps best be described as "unworldliness."

I suppose sometimes with that weird you also get people who can do harm. (It was alleged that the anthrax-mailer, back in 2001, was actually a researcher from Iowa. No firm evidence ever came to light, and I think the scientist has since died, but there were some pretty strong pieces of evidence linking the particular anthrax strain to the lab he headed).

The problem is, sifting out people who are "merely" weird from people who have that malevolent streak. I think maybe part of my concern and obsession with the news story is the thought of "What if they start declaring that we all need psych evaluations, so that they can 'weed out' the dangerous ones?" or "But now we're all being viewed with a mix of alarm and suspicion, because of what this one person did."

And of course, that's not true at all. (Oh, the academy has always had its detractors, and I still hear the occasional populist commentator saying things like "Universities are useless, let's shut 'em down and funnel the state funds that go to them somewhere USEFUL like filling potholes") But I do worry about anything going as supposed evidence to those who would either want to demonize universities or call for things like, I don't know, requiring professors to be in the classroom 40 hours a week. (Oh, we put in 40 hour work weeks and then some. But it's not all in the classroom. But a lot of people don't seem to understand that...that grading takes a lot of time, and prep work takes a lot of time, and things like counseling students about what classes to take next semester takes time).

So I worry. I worry about us being viewed as "powder kegs," in the same way that I worry when some shooter comes to light and they describe him as "quiet and kept to himself," which is pretty much how I am (except for the evil part and the killing part).

It's kind of like the nutcase who flew his plane into that building in Austin: you KNOW it is going to be used as ammunition as why "those small-government proponents are DANGEROUS!" rather than "Here was one lunatic who gave into an evil impulse and did something very wrong."

I don't like walking around wondering what's happening in this country. I have a terrible feeling of foreboding, that things are going to get worse before they get better: that there are going to be more people flipping out in a variety of ways, and doing things that are interpreted as "political protest" by some, and given as evidence of why protest should be shut down before it becomes more dangerous. Or it will be used as justification for searching people deemed "dangerous."

(Hah. I'd like to see them try to search my office. Going through all the mounds upon mounds of journal articles, the printouts of data analysis, the giant stacks of old student papers (because we're supposed to keep them for something like five years, lest there is a grade challenge) and all of that. It would take them days. And they wouldn't find a thing, because I don't own anything that could be deemed dangerous or a weapon.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dear student, (or not)

Dear student,

I've seen the campus newspaper here. Frankly, it's not that great. It's six pages long. Two of those pages are articles culled from the "college news wire," one of those pages is about our mostly-losing sports teams, there's a comic done by someone whose love of manga is far greater than either their understanding of it or their talent for drawing, there are the usual puff-pieces by faculty or administrators to make themselves look good, and then there are the boneheaded opinion pieces by students who confuse "facts" with "things I personally think are true and that I pulled out of my anus, just now"

So I'm really extra insulted when you whip out the paper in the middle of my class and start reading it. I mean, really. You're telling me that a story on how our basketball team lost again is more interesting to you than Darcy's Law? Or that some idiot who can't even spell ranting about fuel-efficiency standards is a more valuable use of your time than listening to my explanation of what you're going to be doing in lab?

I mean, OK. If it were the latest "Twilight" saga book, or if it were, I don't know, "The Economist," I might understand. But our silly little campus paper? Really?

Or were you just looking to see if they had Domino's coupons?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

a dirty little secret?

Sheila, I'm sorry for your loss. There was a case of a campus I was on (some years ago) of a student threatening to kill his chem prof (after he failed the class for the third time). Luckily, they took that fairly seriously (for a while, at least) and told the student that if he came back on campus, he would be arrested.

But then a couple years later, they let him re-enroll. Nothing happened so I don't know if it was an issue of his needing medication (and having gotten it) or if he matured to the point where he realized having a violent temper was not going to help him in the world.

One thing that I suspect is a dirty little secret on many college campuses, I think (having been associated closely with four in my life), is that a lot of the "petty" crimes - or things like threats being issued - DON'T get out in the main media. I suspect there's a push on a lot of campuses to keep things "quiet" in order to protect their reputations. And while that's maybe not such a big deal with students getting CDs stolen out of their cars (the "grapevine" gets word around, anyway: hey, don't leave stuff out on your car seat), some of the more serious would probably be a good idea if it were more widely known.

I've heard of, in my time as a student and prof, an assault not being publicized, the threats from the student I mentioned above not being publicized, a break-in and theft in a campus building not being reported...and I'm sure there are cases of things like "Is it or isn't it" date rape not being reported and gone after (And yeah, I realize, it can be a gray area. But I think if a person does not clearly give consent - or if they tell the other person to "stop," and they do not, it would be rape).

There was also a case of a student falsely claiming they were robbed at gun point. The original story didn't make the media, nor did its later retraction. But a lot of us were kind of on edge for a few days until the word got out that the story was a hoax; considering it was allegedly a robbery in the middle of the day on central campus.

There also tend to be communication with the fake-robbery issue. There was never a hint given that "We think this is hinky" during the time it was initially reported, and a lot of us were somewhat concerned, especially those of us who sometimes come into campus very early, or stay after most everyone else has left, or come in on weekends. And there have been cases of stuff that could potentially affect people only ever getting to them through "the grapevine."

The other issue comes in with HIPAA. While on one hand, it's great - I wouldn't want even the minor medical stuff I have written up on the campus website for all to see - at the same time, we are not permitted to know if a student has problems. I once had a student with terrible anger problems. He would come in to my office hours and shout at me when things were going badly in class, to the point of which, one day, I was so shaken and so scared that I actually called the campus advisement center (he was a freshman and was getting his advising there) and tracked down his advisor. This was because, literally, I wanted there to be a "paper trail" if he came back and did something violent. The advisor said-without-saying, "Yeah, we know he has some problems, we're trying to get him back on meds." But profs are not permitted to know if they have someone in their class who has had problems in the past - even in the vaguest of terms. We have to figure out for ourselves, "Oh, this guy seems to have a problem controlling his anger."

It also can make accommodating disabilities difficult; you get a sheet saying, "Student X needs A, B, and C" but unless the student discusses with you, you don't know which of those are truly essential (I've had students of whom it was claimed they needed extra exam time come to me and say, "No, really, I don't. I want to take the exams in the regular class time" and they did fine), or even an inkling of what the disability is. We have to guess. I have a student with what I assume is autism this semester. I was not prepared for it; I think I actually scared her a little one day. If I had known, I might have been able to be even more sensitive. But I'm not allowed to know, not unless the student comes to me and tells.

I've also heard - no names attached, of course - stories of students deciding that it was "OK" to go off their medications. Things like medications to control seizures. It would be scary to have a student in class go into a seizure because they had decided, against medical advice, to stop taking their meds. And it could be dangerous in some classes, for example, where Bunsen burners were being used...the student could be injured.

We plead with students to tell us - in confidentiality - if some of them have medical conditions that might affect lab safety. But if they don't tell us, we can't know.

The problem, of course, is the in loco parentis thing. A lot of schools in the past took that seriously - to the point where, especially for female students, you had to get "passes" if you were going to be out of the dorm after 11 pm. And while I don't think we want to go back to that (I know I wouldn't have, even though I was really never out of the dorm after 11 pm), on the other hand, there should be the consideration that although students (and faculty) are adults, they are also living and working in very close community with others - and things that someone chooses to do, that are unwise, can be a bigger problem than they might be in another situation.

I don't know. I realize it's a "drawing the line" type of situation. And in the past, the line was probably drawn to be too paternalistic. But now, where a blind eye is turned to lots of things (binge drinking in particular, but I think colleges are now realizing that they have a real liability if someone is injured), I think they may have gone too far in the laissez-faire direction as regards students: a lot of the 18 year olds on a campus are out in the "world" for the first time, and I've seen people do stuff that was really foolish and risky, and could have seriously injured themselves, because they lacked common sense or because it was "woo! I'm free of parental influence!"

And while I tend to be OK with people "failing" when they fail to use common sense, in a lot of cases the foolish behavior doesn't just put the student (or prof) in question at risk: it can endanger other folks. I had a friend who talked about his early days as a TA, where he had a student who would toke up before class and come to lab stoned. My friend said he was always very cautious to make sure the student wasn't doing anything too foolish (one time the student hooked a Bunsen burner up to the water faucet - thinking it was the gas - and created a fountain. But if he had hooked something else up to the gas, and turned it on - or turned the gas on and left it unlit - that could have put everyone else in the class at risk). And when I took Organic chem, I remember the lab prof vaulting across the lab one day and tackling a student - the guy had been cleaning a piece of glassware with ether, there was still residual ether in it, and he figured that he could get the ether to evaporate by holding the glassware over an open flame...again, that could have put the rest of us at risk.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The world is a strange place.

The more I hear about the Amy Bishop story, the more bizarre it becomes. (For example, she allegedly punched a waitress at an IHOP. Because she didn't get a child booster seat for one of her kids.)

I'm going to go ahead and opine, a bit, even though I admit I cringe sometimes when people do this.

This is a woman who should not have been in a university post. She was dangerously unhinged. There was a pattern of past behavior- always, apparently, covered up in some way - that suggests she was someone who was at least sociopathic.

(I wonder how much of the covering-up was "She's a Ph.D. from Harvard!" Apparently she used that line a lot, after slapping someone or threatening someone. And look: I have a Ph.D. I value my Ph.D. But it is NOT a weapon to use against others, or something that magically gives you entitlement to the best seat in a restaurant or what you want. And to me, people pulling that crap devalue the Ph.D. for the rest of us.)

I'm not sure what universities can do to protect themselves against people with this kind of lack of conscience or morals (and I do think it's a lack - anyone who can shoot innocent people in cold blood as she apparently did, has to be missing something). Maybe background checks? Some profs I've mentioned this to are horrified by this and trot out the, "Oh, no, what if they were arrested at a protest when they were in college? What if they drank a little when they were underage? You need to protect people from being unduly harmed by their past mistakes!"

Yeah, great. But I'd also like to have a little protection from a nutjob who views me as an obstacle best taken out so she can get her way. I think it's possible to look at someone's record and go, "Oh, they were caught with an open beer in public when they were 18" versus "This person has had the police called out to their house five separate times on domestic violence calls"

(Though then again: I don't know how much of what's now coming out about the shooter would show up on a background check, seeing as she seemed always to get off without being charged.)

Most other careers require a background check. Heck, I had to have a background check to work with the youth group at my church!

Seriously: if my 75 year old father, who is essentially disabled because of severe osteoarthritis, has to take off his damn SHOES at an airport before he flies, just to they can be "sure" he's not a terrorist, shouldn't university search committees have some access to people's pasts?

(I've served on several search committees. We don't. Mostly what we get is the candidate-supplied information. And there's a lot of stuff we're not allowed to ask. For example, if there's a gap in employment - we can't ask why. Oh, maybe it was that it was a parent who took time off to raise kids - well and good. Or maybe it was someone who went back for more education (though that would show up somewhere else). Or it was someone who took time off from working to care for an aged parent. Or it could be that the person was unable to work - under house arrest, for example. But we aren't given that information - or at least, never have been - unless the person volunteers it. (though if it is a woman who stayed home to raise her kids to school age, she almost ALWAYS mentions that). But I wonder at times - it seems like it would be possible for someone with a prison record, whether for continued DUIs, or for domestic violence, or for theft - could slip through and possibly be hired. And while people can and do reform, and you don't want to automatically penalize someone for past mistakes...still. I would not want to have my office next door to someone with a pattern of violent past behavior.)

I don't KNOW that any of our applicants have ever been convicted of a crime. And I don't KNOW if we'd even be allowed to know. And while I don't care about someone's ethnic background or marital status or sexual orientation or age, I would care if they were someone who had been violent or abusive.

I don't know. I tend to be against the giving up of yet more freedoms. But there has to be a point where a university hiring committee can and should know, "Hey, this person has a record of getting violent when they don't get their way. They may turn out to be a bully. Or they may turn out to be worse." University departments tend to be small enough and "tight" enough that even someone who is merely a bully in the verbally-abusive sense can make other people miserable - and could easily lead to the departure of folks who can pick up a career elsewhere (i.e., the really talented people in the department). I've heard of it happening.

I don't know. This is something very sad and I'd like to be able to say it's something that won't happen again. But I fear that it will.

It's very hard to balance the protection of the individual (from not being unfairly denied employment) against the protection of other individuals (from not being attacked or killed by a co-worker who has lost it).

I don't know. I guess I can say I'm glad I'm not the one who has to decide.

Monday, February 15, 2010


A lot of commentators are using the Amy Bishop story to flog their "Tenure must end!!!" beliefs.

Okay. There are some problems with tenure, particularly the fact that at some institutions, people with tenure can (theoretically) get away with teaching from crumbling 20-year-old notes, can refuse to ever again serve on a committee, can be openly rude to students.

But tenure as a concept, is a good idea. In part, so folks with differing political views (not that there are many of us, and most of us are not "out" about it) on campus don't see repercussions. Or, so that a whim-driven administration decides that The Future Is Nanotechnology and decides to sweep away all the chemists and biologists not doing nano-research. (An exaggeration, but there are some campuses that are dealing now with a surfeit of people in some disciplines and a lack in others, because of past hiring fads).

The other thing about tenure is that it prevents colleges from, for example, terminating people, or letting them attrition out, and then re-hiring adjuncts to fill the slot. Adjuncts are, by and large, poorly paid, receive few benefits, "worked hard and put away wet." I know people who adjunct who drive several hours a day between campuses - or who wait tables at night to make ends meet - and who wind up very bitter because they worked as hard as, say, I did, but because of changes in hiring practices, they now are being paid something like $1000 a month less for MORE work than a tenured prof would do. It leads to a lack of loyalty, and adjuncts are (rightly) unwilling to do things like committeework - meaning, in adjunct-heavy departments, the tenured folk have to pull a heavier load there.

And it can be VERY hard to get good adjuncts, especially in certain areas. Sometimes you have to accept less-skilled people - or people with attitude problems. Some adjuncts are fantastic but some are not.

It's kind of like the difference between, say, a dedicated computer store that has computer "guys" working in it - people who know computers, who care about making things work right, who take it as a challenge when you bring in a malware-infected laptop and say, "I don't know if you can fix this for me but I'd like you to try" and a place like any of the big-box stores, where there's less of a loyalty for the employee to the employer (and vice versa). Where if you bring your laptop in once, you may get Vince the Wonder Repair Guy who fixes it perfectly, and then the next time, you learn Vince has moved on, and you get someone who doesn't know a transistor from their elbow. Or you get people who give you the distinct impression they don't care about your problems, because they're a short-timer.

So you wind up not necessarily hiring the best people, but the most convenient people. The people who need a buck. (In my part of the world? You have to have a real reason to stay around if you don't have a job.)

And while some "training" can be done that way, I rebel against the thought of college teaching becoming another McJob, where people are interchangeable and there's no plan of having someone teach at a place for more than 3-4 years at a go.

Also, for some areas - genetics, computer science, engineering, some of the chem fields - people can earn more in industry, and tenure is a nice carrot. A way of saying, "You won't come in to work and be told your job's been outsourced."

(Incidentally, the shooter in question - from all I've read - could have earned MORE outside of academia in industry. So it was some kind of screw-loose, malignant-narcissist thing)

I consider tenure to be one of the great attractions of academic life. Granted, I saw getting it more as a vote-of-confidence: "You're doing fine. Now just keep it up" than a laurel: "Okay, you can relax and stop working now." And I think that's how the rest of my department is - we all work pretty hard, I don't know of anyone refusing to do something (e.g., unpaid overload) for the good of the department just because they had tenure.

Of course, the problem is, as with all good things, there will be deadheads and freeloaders. People who quit trying as soon as they have job security. Or who let the "nice" exterior drop, and what is really inside come out. But I think that's the exception rather than the rule - and I've spent all of my adult life around college campuses.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are expectations on both sides, when you're a prof: you have the expectation that you will keep up with recent advances and research, and will teach your students, in addition to do research and committeework. But on the other hand, there's the expectation that your administration can't come to you and go, "You know, there seems to be a downturn in people going into ecology. Yes, I know you also teach all these other classes but we've decided to replace you with another cell biologist instead."

Now, I wouldn't be averse to tenure review - and in fact, we do something like that here. Oh, you can't lose your job, but I do think if you slack too much you are strongly counseled to pick up the pace (or so I assume; I've never been told anything but, "Keep doing what you're doing now."). But to teach in an atmosphere where job security does not depend fully on your performance - which, I think, could be the case if tenure did not exist - would be very insecure and uncomfortable. (I could see, for example, half a department being swept away and the remainder being told, "We're going to an online teaching model. You can stay if you want, if not, hand in your library access pass.") I don't like the idea of academia becoming more like the prevailing business model - because there is too much chance for people who don't really understand how academia works coming in and saying things like, "Oh. So you teach 120 students a semester. Well, we can increase your efficiency by having you teach 240. We won't have to pay you any more; we'll just put you in a bigger room."

Already, as I talked about, there are little bitty things being added on - the latest being the textbook-request procedure for the bookstore: it has suddenly become twice as involved and complicated, because someone over there decided it would be more "efficient" to do it this way. More efficient for them; more work for the profs.

And tenure is part of how academia is not like business. As I said, I would welcome a post-tenure review...I would welcome some pressure being brought on the people who refuse to do committeework because they have tenure and "don't have to any more." Or the people who refuse to teach Tuesdays and Thursdays because they've always gotten those days off. But I don't want to see a situation where faculty could be terminated or moved around or dicked with, and lose their jobs for reasons unrelated to the quality of their work.

Is the tenure process stressful? Sure. But with appropriate transparency (like my school has), you pretty well know where you stand. (Also, here, I think if you miss tenure the first go, you have a couple years to polish your record and try least, that's what I was told. You don't have to leave, you can keep teaching and publish a bit more and try again. I think some other schools have that?)

So I twitch a little when people try to blame the evil act of this woman on big, bad tenure review. Or act like tenure is this dirty secret of academia that should be abolished. (A lot of the tenure abolitionists seem to be people who are either untenured lecturers, or who were refused tenure at at least one school...). Most of us aren't unionized (yes, some campuses are, and I shudder to think of what those meetings are like) and tenure does provide some levels of protection that unions do for some folks. And I also think it's a realization, on some level, that universities aren't like Initech - jobs are a lot less portable, there's a certain value in people who "know the ropes" of an institution, who know its culture, sticking around.

But I expect there will be increasing hand-wringing about tenure, what it means, and what tenure review is. And maybe a push to "protect" people from the horrors of tenure review, but winding up throwing the baby out with the bathwater on that.

I don't know. I admit, as a somewhat libertarian-leaning person, I recognize that I should be opposed to tenure on certain principles. But on the other hand: when it works well, when you have people who don't take having tenure as a license to slack off, it works VERY well.

Evil. That's the only way I can explain it.

I've been thinking all weekend about the shooting at University of Alabama - Hunstville. Friday afternoon, seeing it on the news...then hearing that it was a faculty member denied tenure...then hearing more of the information as it came out.

Lots of people have tried to explain it, tried to come up with reasons. I don't see any "reasons" that would make sense to a reasonable person. I have to conclude - as I did with the guy who was the shooter at Virginia Tech - that this is an individual who chose to give in to an evil impulse, and as a result, ruined their own life and the lives of numerous others.

I don't even want to address the question of mental illness, which some have brought up: I have known people undergoing treatment for various problems, and all of them would be aghast at the thought of doing something like this.

But I do see the same, usual, disturbing trend on some of the commentary sites: trying to find either a political issue to get behind, or even some way of blaming the victims (indirectly, of course, and they'd never actually own up to it and would be ANGRY if you suggested that was what was being done). And it makes me sad.

First of all, of course, is the whole "guns" issue. My understanding is the shooter had a non-permitted handgun. Meaning, I am to assume (I don't know a whole lot about these things) that she got it illegally.

So: what the freak is making the gun laws "stricter" going to help? I doubt, based on what I've read of her background, that she could have gotten a gun legally.

But of course, there are people who claim, "Make guns illegal and this won't happen any more." No, it just means that someone will go to a black-market dealer for their gun. You can't legislate away evil, as much as you'd like to.

The second issue I've seen discussed is the tenure process. Yes, it's stressful. Yes, I suppose it's a lot worse at Research I schools than teaching-oriented schools like the one I'm at. Yes, I suppose at some schools the process is a lot less transparent than it is at mine (where you pretty much know, as you are making your tenure or promotion packet whether you have a decent shot at it or not). Oh, yeah, there are still political stupidities that get in the way - but that's what the appeals process is designed to deal with.

And even at that: if you don't get tenure, that doesn't mean you are unemployable. It may mean you want to get out of academia - I know, had I not got tenure, it would have meant I would have considered long and hard if I wanted to stay in academia, or get an agency job instead, or call up the guy I knew in grad school who ran a consulting firm and see if his offer of a job still stood. There are always other options.

I suppose, actually, that's the big difference between someone who does something horrible and impulsive (actually, it's more common for people failing to get tenure to commit suicide than to do something like this): the ability to say "There are always other options."

I was once asked to leave a position. It's nearly 20 years ago now so it doesn't really hurt any more to think of it. At the time, my main thought was, "I'll just find a job. I'll wait tables, or clerk in a shop. I'll do SOMETHING to earn enough money to live on." Of course, I wound up staying in academia - when I thought it through more I realized that the "being asked to leave" was really probably not evidence that I shouldn't be a biologist, but rather, evidence that I didn't want to be at a large, Research I school - where you were looked down upon if you went home over Christmas break to spend time with your family, rather than staying in the lab or library and working.

Anyway. I'm sure lack of foresight plays a role in these things.

But I've seen other, more disturbing things. The biggest one being that people say "Oh, this is because people in the South treat northerners badly."

Wait, what? You're justifying someone killing three people, wounding others, because MAYBE the town was less friendly to her than it might have been?

Okay, this rankles me. I LIVE in the South. I come from the North. Yes, it was strange and a little uncomfortable at first. I will admit that most of my first year here, I was alternately going, "What have I done?" and sending off applications to schools - even ones without positions open - closer to "home." None of them panned out - and by the time my tenure process rolled around, I had settled in. I mean, I'm still not wild about being 10 hours from my nearest family member, but I would be highly unlikely to leave this post just to become closer.

One thing some of the commentary on websites has revealed to me is that there are still a lot of folks out there with some pretty pervasive prejudices about the South. About how "intolerant" Southerners are, how stupid, how narrow-minded.

The seven-year-old in me wants to retort, "Takes one to know one." Seriously, some of the most smug and closed-minded people (though they never could see that) were from the supposedly liberal and "enlightened" Northeastern cities.

The South is pretty much like everywhere: there are some really wonderful and kind people, there are some people who are basically good but who may have a few blind spots about things, and there are some people you prefer to avoid. But I really haven't seen any more narrow-mindedness here than anywhere else. If anything, people seem more willing to live up to their failings or prejudices rather than trying to explain them away or claim "no, that's not really what I meant..."

But blaming "the South" for this - that's blaming the victim. That's like saying, "well, it's kind of ok she shot those people, you know, because they live in a place full of intolerant jerks."

Incidentally, if you look at the ethnic backgrounds of the victims...not one of them is a "good ol' boy" redneck type.

(And UAH apparently has a very high density of Ph.D.s, which, while that doesn't necessarily indicate open-mindedness, also means that the town is not exactly the inbred backwater some of the commentators want to make it out to be).

I've also seen this being blamed on "bullying." And again, that makes me irritated. Because: if bullying makes a person a killer, then there are an awful lot of us running around who are like powder kegs. I was bullied A LOT in school. (Fortunately, it ended around high school). Yes, bullying sucks. But as an adult, you learn how to deal with it: again, you maybe decide, "If this is how people act to each other, maybe I don't want to be in this particular place" and you find a place where people DON'T bully each other (and, I suspect, bullying in an academic department is the exception rather than the rule. I know there are some pretty non-collegial departments out there, but I've never really truly seen "bullying."). Or you grow a thicker skin. Or you figure out a way to razz back at the bully, if it's verbal can tell people to F off if you have to.

So again, I don't see that as a valid motive. And even if bullying is horrible, it doesn't justify a person being killed. (Their car coated in peanut butter, maybe. Or the toilet seats in the john they use regularly wrapped in Saran wrap.)

Again, the only explanation-of-sorts I see for this: this person was tempted to do something evil. They gave into the temptation. I know that "evil" is an unfashionable word in this day and age, that people like to believe that actions can be explained away in some other means, but I do think in cases like this we have to call evil "evil."

And yes, I have seen the stories hinting at a pattern of past behavior - the brother killed, the possible mail-bomb. Which even more puts me in a mind to say this action can only be explained by "evil" - someone whose conscience didn't develop properly, or who learned to override it.

My thoughts and prayers are with the family of those killed and wounded. And with the entire campus at UAH. I cannot imagine what it would be like going back to work on a Monday after something like that happened.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Our National Nanny

Apparently Michelle Obama decided that low-controversy issues (like literacy: I can't imagine anyone being opposed to literacy. Well, unless they were a Taliban guy and it was literacy for women) are not for her.

She's going to attack childhood obesity. By pushing healthier food and more exercise in schools.

I have a general opposition to government pushing that far into people's private lives. One of my biggest concerns in re: government-paid-for healthcare, is that arguably, the taxpayers (who are really the ones paying) would then have the right to dictate what is and is not acceptable behavior: maybe skydiving as a hobby is too risky? Maybe chubby people should be forcibly made to diet, or at least banned from buying fast food? (You laugh, but they talked about trying something similar in Mississippi.)

The issue of childhood health and diet is such a charged one. And what I seem to see are three cases of how people raise their children.

1. Case the first: the parents strive to get healthful food into their kids, but don't make a big fat hairy deal about it. There are set meal-times. Dessert and pop may be possibilities but it is made clear that they are treats, an add-on to an otherwise healthful diet. Fast food and things like pizza are consumed, but again, they are treats, not the usual. There's also allowances made for exercise: the kids are encouraged to go out and play, and if they express interest in a sport, the parents find a team for them to play on. In other words: parents trying to do what's best for their kids. From what I have observed, this is the vast majority of parents.

2. Case the second: Parents want to be their kids' "friend." Or they're really not that well equipped to parent for various reasons. Or they don't know much about nutrition. Or whatever. And they let their kids eat whatever the kids want to eat. I admit to being kind of shocked by the amount of pop some parents let their kids have - more in a day than I as an adult would drink, and far more than what I was allowed as a kid. (And I admit, my main concern is not so much the calories, but the fact that a lot of this is caffeinated pop...I carried out an unsuccessful campaign to not have caffeine-containing pop at Youth Group because there were a couple kids that it severely messed with the attention spans of, but those kids didn't have sufficient self-control yet to say, "No, I shouldn't have that kind.").

These are the parents I think the anti-obesity crusaders are targeting. And yeah, some parents make poor choices. But the problem is, forcing more activity in school or requiring more healthful meals isn't going to really change things that much.

The kids from these families will grow up, and either continue in pattern, or, maybe, they'll realize, "Hey, what I'm eating isn't that great for me, maybe I better change my diet." But it's their choice; it should be there choice. I cringe at anyone who suggests removing kids from a non-abusive home (and say what you will, letting your kid eat Chicken McNuggets isn't abuse) because they're fat - as has been suggested in Britain - is a troubling over-reach of government. Also, nannying at people doesn't work...I'm pretty conscious of health and nutrition and I cover my ears and go "shut up, shut up" when some talking head on the TV goes into a rant about how Americans eat too much salt or too much sugar or whatever. And this is because of...

3. Case the third. These are the parents who are the "alpha" parents. They want to be the best. They want their kids to be perfect. If their kid gets sick, they consider it a personal failing. These are the parents who push their children to exercise an hour a day. And who withhold all sugar, and who also won't let their kids go to birthday parties, or partake in parties at school. These are the parents for whom purity of diet is close to a religion. And they're gonna hear the anti-childhood-obesity message and either feel very smug ("We're better than all the rest of the stupid Americans. Maybe we should even move to Europe") or they're going to get scared and redouble their efforts. ("What? Too much salad can make you gain weight? Better cut the portions and stop serving dressing.")

And yes, that's an extreme, and I'm exaggerating, but I've seen kids who were afraid to eat. Or parents who wouldn't let their kids go out and do the normal kid-socializing thing, because white sugar or white flour or artificial color or food with fat in it or something was being served. And people like this can become crusaders for their cause...and they can get very tiresome.

And their kids grow up with problems. Worse problems, I'd content, than a lot of the fat little kids. The kids don't know how to choose food - they've always had their diet so structured and so accounted-for that when they're faced with a dormitory cafeteria, or a stop at a fast-food restaurant out of necessity on a church mission trip, either they don't eat (because there is no food that is "safe" for them), or they go the opposite direction, and gorge on what was, in the past, "forbidden fruit." And they turn into adults who either rebel against parental strictures and do not make attempts to eat healthfully, or they become like their parents - paranoid, scared about food and safety, and imposing the same restrictive rules on their children. (And as always: I exempt allergies from this. It can be a challenge to raise a kid with peanut allergies (say), and I'd hope that parents inviting that child to birthdays and things would be completely sure to serve food that would not cause a reaction.)

I once saw a commentator on some news show talking about how bake sales in schools should be banned, and treats at parties be replaced with raw veggies. And I've heard it said that any cafeteria worker who's overweight should be made to lose weight or fired.

And these kind of people make me very tired. Again, it's the "this size fits me so it should fit everyone" solution to things.

I acknowledge we have a problem in our culture - we have gone from times of fasting and times of feasting to a time where a lot of us are feasting all the time. And that's arguably not good for our health. But I don't think the other extreme, where all pleasures are banned, where people are made to feel guilty if they don't fit the athletic body type, is a good solution.

I would also suspect that the intervention into the schools will have relatively little impact. I know, there are some who'd like to remove kids from the home influence as much as possible and raise them in Brave New World-like school systems under the "control" of some entity, but that's a really bad and wrong idea. Kids are going to learn attitudes from their parents - right or wrong.

How about, instead of declaring all parents irresponsible and therefore unfit, deciding that parents - at least most people planning on being parents - DO care, DO want to make an effort, DO want to do their best (even if it's not perfect) for raising their kids? And accept the fact that there will be some imperfection, that we don't want an army of state-raised robots who believe the same thing, eat the same thing, do the same work...And yes, continue to remove kids from the home when there is real and true abuse and neglect, but generally let parents do the raising?

(Incidentally, there have been a few cases in the news of "apparent neglect" - where the kids were thin and seemingly undernourished - where the parents were health fiends who were paranoid about their kids getting fat. So they underfed them and did things like restricting fat for kids under 2. Which you should NEVER do (except in some rare metabolic-disorder cases), it screws up normal brain development.)

I really don't like all the "but this is for your own good that we're telling you what to do" attitude in the world today.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Ha! Tell me another one.

I can't find a link to a story that actually comes out and says this online, but I half-heard on the news this morning that apparently someone in the U.S. Government has suggested they oversee the Toyota recall, so it can be done "more efficiently."

BWAH hahahahah! US government, and greater efficiency, together in the same sentence! It's like, one of those oxymoron things.

Is there gonna be a Recall Czar? I'm sure either Rahm or our President still have a few friends who are seeking cushy jobs.

In all seriousness: I wonder how much of this is media hype, and how much of it is stimulated by the fact that Toyota has pretty much whupped GM's tail for 20+ years.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

oh, for freak's sake...

I get the magazine Country Living. I enjoy it a lot even though it's a total fantasy for me (My house will never be that neat, I will never find just the perfect antique whatever).

But, like a lot of publications these days, I kind of wish they'd drop the letters to the editor. Because they get some complete wtf letters that make me stabby.

I'm not going to quote the letter - it was about their Christmas issue, where they gave gift suggestions - but it was such a SMUG, insane-lifestyle-mentioning letter that it kind of destroyed my enjoyment of the rest of the issue.

It was from some person who sniffed and said, "I was very disappointed in you for offering gift ideas but not listing all kinds of charities that you could send your money to instead of buying gifts." OK, fine, fair. I know lots of people who do that. And maybe it would be nice. Though I would note the magazine is called COUNTRY Living and not PHILANTHROPY Living.

But then there was the little barb: the person made a comment like, "As long as there is one hungry person in the world, for me to spend my money frivolously on such things as gifts is WRONG."

Oh, good Lord. Step off, lady, step off. (I wonder: does she purchase a subscription to the magazine? That $24.95 could surely feed a starving orphan somewhere. Or maybe she goes to the local library and reads it, all the while making snide comments about the people who live in houses larger than three rooms...)

The other thing is this: typically, CL features gifts made by artisans. Or sold by small businesses. Would not it be taking bread out of those folks' mouths to self-righteously refuse to spend money on anything but the necessities of life and charity?

I don't care, as I said before, if someone chooses to go the route of donations-instead-of-gifts (but please, if you do: let the recipients know in advance. It might feel a bit shabby to them if they went out and spent time and money picking out a gift, and then found you made a donation in their name - which you very likely could write off on your taxes. Okay, so I'm a Philistine, but I like getting gifts - even small gifts - on Christmas and my birthday).

But, what bugs me is the implication of the final comment this person made. It pretty much screams, "I know I am much better than the rest of you, and I want you all to know it."

I also remember once someone sending a screed in to an editor (and it got published!) because a "health oriented" magazine published a recipe (horrors!) for a chocolate cake. Because, "No person who CARES about their health would EVER eat CAKE."

Okay, lady. Let me take you off my birthday-party invitation list then.

I can't STAND people like that. Especially people who look at something I happen to enjoy, sniff, and go, "Well, you know, it's really better to do without because..." Whether it's the people who won't eat "white" sugar (and also will very vocally let you know that their children do not, and nor should you or your children), or who don't watch tv, or who tell people they should only eat locally grown food, or whatever. I think it irritates me because (a) I recognize that everyone is different, and the "right" solution for me is not necessarily the "right" solution for you, and (b) I don't like feeling judged. Which I invariably do by these lifestyle-mentioners. I know, I know, I shouldn't let myself feel that way, but it's hard for me. And it does bug me that I feel like someone is contenting themselves that they are a "good" person at my expense, and that they don't see anything wrong with driving a wedge in what could have been a friendship between them and me just in order to feel like they are "good."

Living that kind of black-and-white life, where certain things that most folks regard as morally neutral are EVIL, must be tiring. It must be exhausting to constantly explain why you can't consume anything with refined sugar and flour in it. (I exempt people with celiac disease or any real medical condition; they tend to be normal and polite about the things they can't eat. I'm talking about the people who recoil when you suggest that you once in a while like a piece of cake, as if you had just said, "I like to boil and eat puppies.") It must be a very small life to live in, where you have such strict tight limits on yourself, and even the sort of ordinary daily celebrations - a birthday, a holiday, a promotion - must be turned into moral crusades where you tell others the error of their ways in enjoying something you have closed yourself off from.

It makes me very tired to deal with people like that. (And the funny thing is some of them refer to anyone who has even a shard of traditional Christian faith as a "Puritan" who is bent upon making life dull and gray. I'd tell the person I know who is like that about the mote and the beam, but I doubt he'd understand it and probably only take it as further evidence that I am trying to CONVERT (oh noes) him)

Just because you cannot - or choose not to - enjoy something, do not make it your crusade to destroy others' enjoyment of it.

But the other thing is the Law of Unintended Consequences: if a critical mass of people decide that they will not buy anything but food and the bare minimum of replacement clothing, businesses that make other things go out of business. Authors don't sell books. Artisans wind up having to wait tables - except, because no one is eating out, they can't get that job. And we become poorer and less interesting as a nation. All because people like the smug feeling of "I'm better than that slob down the street; look, he even still uses INCANDESCENT bulbs!"


Friday, February 05, 2010

Something amusing to end the day

Pizza Box Totally Looks Like Happy Cat
see more Celeb Look-A-Likes

Well, you'd be happy too, wouldn't you, if you were full of pizza?

this scares me, actually.

I know it's meant to be a joke, but the "Throw Mamma from the Train Tax" could actually turn out to be a real thing. And what a stupid decision by congress-past.

Pull quote:

Now the U.S. Congress has granted us a social scientist’s fondest dream—or worst nightmare—the perfect “natural experiment.” As of January 1 of this year, the U.S. estate tax has been abolished for the year 2010, and is scheduled to be reinstated in 2011 with rates as high as 55%. ...Of course, the really morbid stuff will happen at the end of this year, when dying in December of 2010 will incur no estate tax, but dying beginning in January 1, 2011 can trigger a tax liability equal to more than half the taxable estate. It’s being called the “Throw Momma from the Train” tax provision.

My dad actually made a joke about how if he died in 2010, my brother and I would be "set for life," but if he hung on past that year, we wouldn't be.

Trust me. I make a decent salary doing what I do. I don't need to be set for life. I do need my dad for as long as I can have him.

(And no, I don't think he'd do anything incredibly rash...but I could see some folks who were not in good health kind of "willing" themselves to die before the end of 2010. And I could see some slimy, greedy heirs trying to off their parents before this year is over.)

The government should not do things that might inspire that kind of a reaction. Personally, I think the estate tax is awful - I know people whose parents owned small farms who had to sell them off when the parents passed to pay the taxes. And people who had small businesses and didn't plan well (with a LLC or whatever it's called) winding up leaving much less to their heirs than they intended.

Also, it seems like double taxation to me: you're taxed on the money when you earn it, and then again (at a higher rate) when you die. That just seems wrong.

And not because I stand to inherit money from my parents. Heck, if I could make it so that my parents had good health and long life so that they only died one day before I did, I'd make that so.

But I'm VERY creeped out by the idea of "die tax free this year! But if you don't die by midnight on Dec. 31 - Muhahahahahahaha! We get 55% of your monies!"

In an ideal world, the estate tax would be permanently abolished. But I don't see that happening, given the greediness of those with political power.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why do I do this to myself?

So, I had gotten the evaluation comments from last semester.

One memorable one (of course I remember the negative ones and forget the positive ones) declared my ecology labs "useless." And I was walking around since I read that, thinking about it. Wondering, what can I do to make them better? Taking the students out into the field more, as much as I'd like to do it, is not feasable, given how Motor Pool works around here and the near-fascist they have in charge of it. (And the shifting rules, and the fact that those rules shift without anyone being told...)

Anyway, I thought I had halfway decent "indoor" labs. Some are simulations, and since I'm a low-tech sort of person, they're actual physical simulations - students manipulating things or counting things, instead of using the computer to do it all. And I was thinking, maybe I just need to give in and look at the computer simulations (though given our current budget situation, maybe we couldn't afford the site licenses).

So anyway, here I am, all inferiority-complexed about my sad little labs and all. And then yesterday, I had my students working on one (it's a big simulation, and they have to do it out in the student lounge area). One of my former students came out there to study for a test in the class he was having the next hour, and he saw them working, and said, mostly to himself (but I overheard) "Ecology labs. Those were always interesting labs."

And you know, I felt good for a moment. A moment. And then I said to myself, "Wait, he was a good student. He earned an A. Of course he'd think the labs were interesting."

Why do I do that? Why should I discount a "good" student's opinion, and value the anonymous opinion of someone who might be a slacker? I've also had cases of students come back to thank me and stuff, and I find myself thinking, "Well, of course they think I was a good teacher; they'd think anyone was."

I think it's probably because I was a decent student myself, and I tended to be more "generous" in my opinions of faculty than some of my fellow students. It was because I really did enjoy nearly all of my classes, and so it was easier for me to put up with people's quirks. Or to be tolerant of those branded "boring" by others.

But couldn't, just as easily, the good students be the ones whose opinions should be more heavily weighted? Couldn't they be the more critical ones - especially, for example, if a class was too easy or contained information that was not useful?

One thing that frustrates me about myself is that I am too prone to write off any praise I receive, but really pay attention to and mull over any criticism - even non-constructive criticism (How does being told your labs are "useless" help you to improve them, anyway?)

the hand you're dealt

No, Dave, I wouldn't condemn you, though maybe I'd more state it as "He took what was a very bad situation for him and managed to do something beneficial with it." Rather than, I don't know, sitting around and wailing about how he couldn't do what he wanted to any more, or demanding that people accommodate him (I am sure there are some made, but I know lots of people who are surprised when I remark that he uses a wheelchair - they simply don't know that because it's not made obvious)

I think about the various Disability Concerns students I've had over the years - I've had blind students, deaf students, students with mobility issues, a student (currently) that I think is probably autistic (though we don't get the official diagnoses, just the information on how we need to accommodate, she behaves a lot like another person I knew with autism). And then the students with the vague alphabet-soup of problems.

And it's interesting to see how differently people cope with the hand they're dealt. The deaf student, for example, as long as I could post notes for her, or she could have a note-taker, and as long as she could sit up front (she could read lips to a certain extent, so I was careful to speak clearly and to face her when I spoke), she did fine. If you needed to get her attention, you touched her on the arm. Other than that, it was not a big deal.

Same with the most recent blind student I had. He managed - amazingly, I thought - he walked all over our large campus without a guide, just with a cane and his memory of where things were (and, I'm sure, his sense of hearing; doubtless he could tell when he was walking between two buildings because of the echoes being different, or when he was coming up to a street crossing). I did have to take the exams for him over to our student support office so someone could read the questions to him, and then write down the answers that he gave orally (And I suppose lab was a challenge, but I didn't teach the lab for this particular class). But again: he managed just fine, and didn't seem to expect all kinds of extras over and above the bare minimum needed to help him succeed. (He wound up earning an A in the class. He recorded my lectures and played them back for himself, and he also had a talking laptop with headphones where he could touch-type notes during class).

But then I've had other the person who "needed" a notetaker, and once one was arranged, stopped showing up to class. Because, if they could get someone to do their work, why did they need to make an effort? (That actually led to a mini-scandal: apparently, I wasn't the only prof - and my notetaker not the only notetaker - who had a "parasite" that semester. Several of us approached the disability concerns office with the complaint that, "Our notetakers are feeling taken advantage of" and they did change the rules to stipulate that a student with a notetaker HAS to be present in class unless otherwise excused, because of illness or something.)

And I've also had a few people with some pretty serious learning disabilities...serious to the point where it was unclear that they'd be able to pass the class under their own steam, even with accommodations, and yet, they had dreams of doing things like being a marine biology researcher or a neurobiologist. And while I applaud people having dreams and seems to me to do a person a disservice to tell them, "Oh, you can do ANYTHING you set your HEART to" when that person has a severe enough impairment that they will be highly unlikely to achieve that thing. (It would be like telling me I could be an opera singer, if I just wanted to hard enough: for one thing, I have a very limited range. For another, I have very little power behind my singing voice. And for a third, I have sinus problems severe enough that there'd be a couple months out of the year I could NOT sing).

But people in the school systems pass 'em along, build 'em up, and then leave it to the meeeeeaaaaan eeeeeevvvvvvviiiilll college professors to dash their dreams by "giving" them the D. Or whatever. Or by trying to gently tell them that maybe they want to consider another, lesser, dream.

I don't know. I suppose it's part of the self-esteem movement and all. And on the one hand, it's abusive to a child to tell them they'll never amount to anything, or whatever. But on the other tell someone who has fine motor-skill control issues that, of course, they can become a brain surgeon, seems wildly unfair to me.

It's a very fine line, I guess. You would hope that someone has enough common sense to realize, partway through their college career: I can't take a derivative to save my life, maybe I shouldn't go into engineering. Or, I throw up every time I even think about blood, being a surgeon is out. And yet, there are some people who seem poorly equipped for a field, and yet, they keep striving for it. (I've even seen people who seemed to HATE the field they were going in to, yet they continued to press ahead, which seemed strange to me.)

I was actually planning on being a geneticist rather than an ecologist.

But I decided partway through my junior year, two things:

a. I don't have that great of lab technique. I can do what I need to do for ecology, but I'm awfully good at breaking glassware and my eyes aren't that great for reading pipettes. And my hands shake a little some times, so fine work is sometimes out.

b. I felt I would be emotionally unsuited to doing what I had thought of doing, namely, being a genetics counselor. Having to tell couples, "Well, if you do decide to have a biological child, there is x% chance they will have this painful and life-shortening condition" (And that was even before I contemplated the concept of doctors/counselors being pressured to suggest abortion to women who might be carrying an ill fetus).

So I thought about what else in science I was good at. And I went with that. And I never looked back. And it was a good decision, because the things I am good at in ecology I am really quite good at, and it makes me happy to be able to do them.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this. It's just, I see a lot of folks who wind up being unhappy because they don't look at their abilities and skills when they are thinking about a career. And they either choose something (often because they read it pays well) that doesn't use a good skill they have, or that requires them to develop a skill that is difficult for them. Or that there are people who are fed great, puffed-up dreams by some people, and who wind up getting upset and lashing out at the person who maybe gently hints to them that that dream isn't really possible.

But that there are other people who think about, "What am I good at?" and "What limits me?" and tries to balance those two things to find something to do with their lives. (And I know of more than one case where someone was on-track for one thing, and then something catastrophic happened - like they lost their sight - where they were able to figure out something new and different and do that.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Popping in quickly to say:

I (heart) Charles Krauthammer. The man is a genius and, I think, the best and most-reasoned columnist writing today.

(I used to (heart) Ben Stein, but then he kind of veered off into anti-teaching-evolution territory and I lost love for him.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Okay, I officially love kefir.

Kefir is kind of like yogurt, except it's more liquid (you drink it) and it has more different types of good bacteria in it.

Kefir made my nasty tummy feel a lot better today. (I usually buy either the raspberry or strawberry-cream flavor. I've had the plain, and it's fine, but the strawberry flavor tastes better to me).

The only sad thing is that I haven't found anywhere in my little town that sells it; I always try to buy some on the trip to the next largest town south of me. The one that has a bigger nicer grocery store. I try to keep some on hand most of the time - it keeps pretty well, like yogurt does - but I do rather wish there were a place in my town that sold it.

Yeah, I know, kefir is one of those hippie-crunchy type foods, but something that makes my stomach feel as much better as it did today is a valuable food in my book.

I like being a girl...

...except for this "Wait, you're not getting pregnant THIS month either, are you?" thing.

Ugh. Upset stomach and cramps. Thanks, Mama Nature.

And I'm in a not-great mood. One of those moods where anything vaguely negative that I read can either make me angry or make me sad. (Or both).