Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Club: The Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express
Discovering the World... via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
Carl Hoffman
Broadway Books, New York

Last Friday, having spent most of the day plowing through the revisions to my PhD dissertation as suggested by members of my examining committee, I took a break and went to the Starbucks coffee shop in the Murray Library (the main library branch) at the University of Saskatchewan. Charlie gave me a gift card a while ago that I've been refilling every so often for my froofy pseudo-Italian coffee beverage fix; go ahead, call me names because I unironically say the phrase "Grande Latte, please" on a somewhat regular basis. Hey, the uni library isn't as intolerably yuppie / hipster as what I used to do, which was drive my BMW to the Starbucks on trendy Broadway Avenue and order a Grande Latte. 

Pictured: BMW, Anachronistic Yuppie-ness. Not pictured: Latte, Starbucks, Fax Machine.

Where was I? Oh, right, in line at the university Starbucks. To take advantage of the captive audience in the queue for caffeine, the staff of the Murray library have (excellently) installed a set of bookshelves near where one stands when the line is particularly long, as it was on Friday afternoon. Onto these shelves they place the newest books the library has just acquired, and a selection of books through the SPL on Campus program. The SPL is the Saskatoon Public Library. Public libraries, unlike university libraries, tend to focus their acquisition efforts (and budget) on books with mass appeal; best-selling novels and popular non-fiction are much more available at a public library than at a typical university library. Obviously, a decent university library will not only also have those best-sellers (in single copies compared to the public library's half-dozen or more per branch) but also access to esoteric academic materials, including broad swathes of the scientific literature and obscure, long-out-of-print materials that never rose to the leve of "classic". 

I was feeling a strange need to read for fun to balance the intense proof-reading I'd been doing pretty much all week. This book was standing up in a small metal bookstand on top of the SPL on Campus shelf unit, and I picked it up and started reading while I was standing in line. I made it to page 20 by the time my latte was ready, so I checked it out and took it home.

Mr. Hoffman is an experienced travel writer and it shows in this book. According to the micro-biography in the back, he's a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveller and Wired - and while I like most things National Geographic, Wired has always struck me as pretentious and excessively neophilic. Some parts of this book read a little like a Wired article, with essentially common experiences or not-particularly-interesting events presented as stunning revelations about life, the universe, and everything. Fortunately, such episodes are few and far between.

I enjoyed this book, and this is a Book Club so I won't really review it. I will note that the match between the text and the map at the front of the book is not close - Mr. Hoffman simply does not talk at all about large segments of his journey around the world. I assume the passage from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Nairobi, Kenya, by way of Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam by air and from Tanzania to Kenya by bus, was not interesting or dangerous enough to describe. This omission is a little strange, like the editor decided this book had to come in under 300 pages (the Appendix - regarding communication with an insurance actuary - starts on page 281) and so cut some of the slightly less hair-raising adventures. 

The theme of the latter half (or so) of the book is about loneliness and interpersonal connections. Mr. Hoffman, it emerges in slow parts, is separated from his wife, mainly for reasons of his constant travel and his wanderlust when at home in Washington, DC - at least, according to him. His experiences among the less-than-affluent, especially in South America, Indonesia, and India strike him with a mixture of feelings regarding the Unity of Man and the Need for Connection and other such ennui. I believe him when he describes his own feelings, of course, but it was difficult for me to sympathise. Perhaps if I had also thrown myself into a project that necessarily included episodes where "the very idea of silence was unheard of" (pg 88, Kenya) or if I'd stood "in a line next to roadside stalls, a trillion insects flying and buzzing in the lights, pissing into a trench that had years of plastic water bottles, plastic wrappers, toilet paper"... (pg 203, India) I might be more inclined to identify with his crisis of traveller-mindset and his apparently intense realization that what is missing from his life is strong human contact. Mostly, though, I read about his escapades with the kind of fascinated dread normally associated with graphic depictions of violence.

The book mentions his blog, but all I found was his website - - and his twitter feed - @lunaticcarl - I think I'll follow him, he doesn't tweet very often and when he does there are often pictures. He travels widely and writes clearly and very well, even if (to me) he comes across as a bit emo sometimes.

Book Club: Mind of the Raven

Mind of the Raven
Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
Bernd Heinrich
Harper Perennial
New York

I picked up this book from a discount bin at a local bookstore; I like ravens (Corvus corax) and I wanted to learn more about them. This book provides lovely information about raven life-history and behaviour, so I succeeded there. Book Club entries here are not supposed to be book reviews, I will say I enjoyed this book and I would recommend it.

The author is a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont; he is an ecologist by training, with some specialization in ornithology though I don't think he would describe himself as an ornithologist; his interests are too broad for one vertebrate class. At several points in this book I was struck by the evidence of his career as a scientist, such as when he talks about his model of raven behaviour being congruent with the observational data, and his frequent references to the trouble he's had getting some papers published. I have been criticised in the past for not providing a summary of my project or proposal that was written for an "interested non-scientist" or having too much jargon in my attempt at such a piece. It's very difficult to write about science for a non-specialist audience without coming across as condescending or dumbing it down too much. I don't know if Dr. Heinrich succeeds, because I have enough training in ecology to skip right past the words and phrases that presumably lead non-scientists to pause and scratch their heads (or roll their eyes). 

I enjoyed this book, so I think I'll try again to find some more science writing that I can read and evaluate for a different audience (i.e., different from me).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tomorrow I Defend

Tomorrow, January 15 2015, I will defend my PhD. I expect to pass, with some revisions required to my dissertation. I had a committee meeting in late October at which the consensus was "looking good", I've written my presentation, and I'm not feeling particularly nervous. I assume tomorrow morning I'll be a bit more nervous, increasing up to the start of my talk, when I hope I'll get over it and get on with it.

I've practiced my talk a few times and I'm pretty happy with it - it's about the right length (around 25 minutes) and covers what I think are the main points of what I've been doing for the past 5 years (with the procrastination and spinning-wheels-frustration omitted, of course). I've received a few very nice emails and other messages from people wishing me good luck and bolstering my confidence, and overall I'm very optimistic. Obviously, there is a distinct possibility that I'm delusional in some way and tomorrow will not be the positive-but-hard event I'm anticipating, but there's little I can do regarding my own delusions on that front.

On the other hand, I have been spending some time today searching for the next thing: a post-doctoral position, somewhere. This presents a mix of emotions, but most of them are positive - I find the prospect of traveling to a new place, starting a new project, and learning new skills quite appealing. Getting paid to do that sounds pretty good, too.

Besides looking up advertisements for positions, I've been reading a fair bit about the current state of science, scientific research, and scientific careers. That's where some other possibly-delusions come in. Much of what I've read, not just lately but stretching back several years, have been articles and blog posts decrying the horrible prospects for fresh PhDs in the academic career field. Nearly all of these articles are based entirely on the situation in the United States; I've seen very little about Canadian post-docs and nothing about post-docs in Europe or Australia. I am looking at post-doc positions in the USA, so some of what has been said, such as discussions of cost-of-living and salaries, or academic culture, certainly applies to me. But I do not wish to become a professor in the States, because I do not wish to live there for longer than a few years; I like Canada and I like living here, though I would very much like to live a few years in other places.

It's frustrating because so many of these articles are essentially "only a delusional idiot would accept a job as a post-doc. The smart thing to do is to leave science because the whole enterprise is broken". I don't want to leave science. I love doing science, and I cannot see myself gaining real satisfaction from an occupation that didn't include the raw intellectual curiosity - the ability to pursue any avenue, regardless of its predicted utility - and celebration of intellectual achievements that I see in the modern practice of scientific research.

"Go to industry!" - sure, if there were a) actual jobs on offer in "industry" for someone with my skills* and b) those jobs included 1/10th the intellectual freedom offered to even a constrained PhD student.

"Consulting!" - this sounds like a reflex word, something said when all other options have been discarded. Surely a job as a consultant - without any description at all of what such a job might entail, short-term and long-term, day-to-day and paths of promotion - is an option? For somebody?

"Government!" - Um, you've seen the current state of Canadian government science, right? They're firing people (when they're not simply gagging them), not hiring. I could see myself happily employed by a branch of the federal or a provincial government, but not this month. Maybe not this year. Maybe next year, if the election this year leads to a major change in government science policy.

My current plan - OK, I'm just using that word, rather than looking for a better word to describe my mix of optimism, cynicism, and whatever-else-ism - is to find an interesting post-doc position that will provide me some useful new scientific skills and introduce me to new people and new ways of approaching fascinating questions. I'll start on that next week; most of the post-doc applications I've found ask for evidence of my completed PhD, and that should be easy to provide after I get those revisions done.

* My skills center around walking around outdoors and working out the characteristics of the environment I'm standing in. Seen here:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Club: Crawling from the Wreckage

Crawling from the Wreckage
Gwynne Dyer
Random House, 2010

This book is a collection of Gwynne Dyer's columns - syndicated in many, many newspapers around the world - from 2005 to the end of 2009, re-organized into thematic chapters such as "South Asia" (chapter 8) and "Nukes" (chapter 17), each containing 3-5 essays ranging in length from about two pages up to about five. He also includes introductory or post-script remarks before and after almost every essay, where he points out changes that occured since he wrote that essay (i.e., between the time of the essay and sometime in 2010), emphasises certain points, or says things he thought he wouldn't be able to get published in a newspaper but fit into the book - most of these have to do with direct insults to various individuals (a former deputy Prime Minister of Japan is called "old and stupid" for example), or greater emphasis of his opinions regarding religion (he's not a fan, generally speaking).

I quite enjoy Gwynne's writing, he maintains a simultaneous tone of both exasperation and sarcasm at just a light level that works well to combine cynicism with, surprisingly enough, optimism. The theme of the book is that despite the overwhelming bad news generated daily - wars, poverty, crime, et cetera - the signs of progress are there if you're willing to look for them. He's a supporter of international organizations such as the U.N. dedicated to preventing wars and promoting human rights and expansion of democracy, and many of the essays centre on victories, minor and otherwise, of such organizations.

This was a good read, a series of thought-provoking short works arranged logically. I suspect I would have enjoyed this book even more if I'd read it shortly after it came out. Chapters dealing with Ukraine and Russia, for example, are fairly optimistic, having been written years before the current crisis. Similarly, the predictions regarding parts of the Arab middle east - Syria, Egypt, and Morocco are each mentioned specifically several times - were all written before the "Arab Spring" of 2011 and the Syrian civil war. Presumably, Gwynne has updated his long-term predictions accordingly, and I'm looking forward to reading his new opinions.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Time and Money

I am approaching the end of my PhD, after approximately a decade as a graduate student. What can I say, speed is not my forte when it comes to large-scale academic projects. This time comes with a large number of interesting thoughts and emotions, which I'm going to try to make sense of here.

1. Money
This is the big issue at the moment. My PhD at the University of Saskatchewan was supported by a scholarship from NSERC, the "Canada Graduate Scholarship - Doctoral" (CGS-D). This was for 36 months, the last of which was April, 2014. I didn't get paid at all in May (today being the last day of May), though through a weird little side project and some creative financing by my advisor I'll receive around $350 once the casual-labour paperwork gets sorted out. Similarly, I'm not expecting (as of right now, things can change) any real income in June, aside from a similar amount from the casual labour I will devote (probably around 20-25 hours) to that side project.

The other inflows of money I'm expecting in the near term are all reimbursements for things like conference travel from the last few months. I beat my head against the particularly rocky wall of the university's expense-claim system last week, apparently successfully and I'll be able to pay down a large majority of my credit-card debt (where those expenses went - airline tickets, conference registration, hotels, etc.) as soon as that clears - probably this week.

So, while my income is close to zero and my debts are several thousand dollars (and tied to obnoxiously-high interest rates) I'm not actually feeling too money-stressed, yet. If things go to THE PLAN (see below) over the next month I should be able to avoid anything too nasty on the financial side. 

I've been to the real world, and found it a dark and scary place. Thus, my overall career goal is to barricade myself inside the Ivory Tower of academia; the view is nice, at least. Anyway, a key sub-goal in this is getting my PhD. There are some who know me who believe I can finish my dissertation by July 1 - that I can hand in my dissertation to my supervisor by that date. Such "deadlines" have come and gone before, recently and further back, so I essentially have no firm opinion of that opinion - it's possible, I suppose. That doesn't sound very optimistic, so I'll emphasize that I also think it's very possible, and a good, useful goal to work towards.

My dissertation is not *yet* finished, but it's close. I like to quantify things, it's a side-effect of training as a scientist, but I can't really say any numbers that would have any meaning in this case. Anyway, there are a few components that need finishing, or starting, including the Introduction (here's a number: 95% done), the Literature Review (85% done), the third data chapter (a manuscript to be submitted to a journal around the same time I hand in the whole thesis, call it 40% done, though as many readers might know, writing a scientific paper is a very non-linear process), and the overall summary of my dissertation (0%, not started yet). That non-linearity and large uncertainty is why I'm uncomfortable talking about an overall "this much completed" value for my dissertation, but it does exist and represents a series of solvable problems.

3. Uncertainty
My life at the moment is made of uncertainty. Obviously, there are many things I'm quite certain about, but some of the things that I'm used to being able to answer questions about in an intelligible manner leave me shrugging and muttering. I've got a few post-doc applications out there, though of course those are highly uncertain (mostly in the sense of not-bloody-likely), but without a solid offer I have no idea where I'll be living and working in a few months' time - nor do I know how many months away my eventual move and job change will be. One possibility, for example, is that I move to Australia for a 2-year appointment (though that could be more accurately stated as 1-year with [strong] possibility for extension) starting in September. Another possibility (more likely? less?) is that I stay in Saskatoon until December or January, then move to some other university in Canada. 

It's an exciting time, both in the sense of the many, equally-possible possibilities (Australia! United States! United Kingdom! Germany! various parts of Canada!), and the stress and inability to make plans that come with this impending change.

Anyway, there's some blather to fill space on this chronically under-used blog.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Club: Arguably

Essays by Christopher Hitchens
12, 2011

I picked up this book because it was in one of the bargain bins at McNally Robinson - not the end-of-the-line cart, but one of the shelves in their reduced-cost area. Anyway, I'd been meaning to read some Hitchens for a while, and I bought this not long after his death; I think it is the last book he wrote, though perhaps there's a technicality there because very little of this book is new material written in 2010/2011, it's nearly entirely essays, reviews, and similar short pieces previously published in such places as The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, or Vanity Fair.

Hitchens was an excellent writer. Even if one disagrees with every last one of his opinions, it is impossible to avoid the realization that he knew, very well, his way around a keyboard. He was also a monumental reader, and equiped with the kind of memory that can keep the important details of an entire library of books, fiction and nonfiction, ready at hand to build unexpected connections between disparate concepts. Many of these essays begin with a few paragraphs that seem utterly disjointed from the main topic of the essay, until he provides a bridge from, say, contemporary Iranian literature to a controversial piece of Russian literature. That bridge from Reading Lolita in Iran to a review of a new-at-the-time discussion on the works of Nabokov (author of the original Lolita) is merely the first of many that stood out to me as a kind of signature of Hitchens' writing style.

Another style point of Hitchens' was his attention to authors of the mid-twentieth century. I admit I know next to nothing about P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene, but Hitchens spends about 1/4 of this book on essays describing such people, their effects on later writers, their opinions and troubles when such opinions clashed with those of others, and occassionally reviewing a book that presents new or rehashed information about these people. The section "Eclectic Affinities", running from page 139 to 387 of this 750+ page tome was thus barely comprehensible to me. The fault there is entirely the result of my own interests not overlapping with Hitchens in those cases. It was a bit of a slog to get through that part, is what I'm saying. But your mileage may vary.

Much like "The Moth", among this large collection there were only a few pieces I didn't like. There are the I-don't-know-enough-about-this-to-have-an-opinion parts, as mentioned above, a great many very, very good essays, and (skimming the table of contents) only one essay I positively disliked: Why Women Aren't Funny, starting on page 389 (and wedged between quite good essays about the Harry Potter series and Steig Larsson).

Why Women Aren't Funny originally appeared in Vanity Fair in January of 2007; at the time I was aware of Hitchens as a writer mainly because of his prominence as an atheist. That essay sparked considerable discussion, aluded to in the introduction of Arguably with:
"... not quite saving me from the most instantly misinterpreted of all my articles, concerning the humor deficit as registered by gender."

I admit that despite keeping that point in mind - that much of what was said and written about that essay in early 2007 constituted a collection of mistakes - I was unconvinced that some deeper and interesting and important point was lurking under the essay as it appears. The main point is a fairly hamfisted interpretation of evolutionary psychology, itself a dreary and adled discipline, in the narrow field of funny people. The glaring assumption, never addressed in the essay, is that there are far more highly successful male comedians than female, and that one is much more likely to laugh at a story told by a man at a social gathering than one told by a woman, and other such signs of greater funniness among men, is that current patterns in American society are representative of 100 000 years of global human evolution. Bullshit. No other cause for such patterns is seriously explored, and the result is an essay with a huge WTF? metaphorically hanging over the page as I read it. Blergh.

But, one dud out of more than 100 essays is pretty good ratio. And it's useful to be able to point at the exception that proves the rule, here using the correct definition of "prove" in this context, that of a test, and the rule being "Hitchens is a damn good writer".

Other essays made me laugh out loud, including the insults leveled at Gore Vidal, the elaborate punishments for rude waiters who interrupt stimulating dinner conversation, and the strange things sometimes said to Hitchens at various functions. Other essays brought a chill to my spine, especially Imagining Hitler, in which the image is painted in my mind of a fed-up Austrian construction worker booting the young Adolf off of a high scaffold and thus usefully diverting history.

Steven J. Gould was another great essayist. Christopher Hitchens acheives, in my view, the same high level as a writer of the short non-fiction piece. There are tremendous differences in how each wrote, in the topics they chose to cover (to simplify, Gould on baseball, Hitchens on Kingsley Amis' circle of friends circa 1950), and in public response to their writings, but the overall sense of utter mastery of the form comes through.

I've read a fair bit of Gould, and now a little Hitchens. I understand that there are considerable differences in skill required for a full-length book compared to a 5-page essay, and I think I need to evaluate both writers on their longer works as well.

One final cautionary note from Hitchens, though: the ultimate essay in this book is Prisoner of Shelves, a lament on the troubles associated with owning books, books, so many books! I own several hundred books, and I can relate.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book Club: The Moth

The Moth

50 True Stories

Edited by Catherine Burns

I first encountered The Moth, a kind of storytelling stand-up travelling event, when I clicked on a link to a youtube video (this one, if I remember correctly) from a forum thread about interesting videos. The story was well told, and the format had some polish to it that suggested production by skilled people. A little while later I saw another Moth video, and it’s stuck in my mind for a long time without me doing much with that knowledge there’s this interesting thing out there on-line.

While shopping for christmas presents together, Charlie picked up this book and told me she was going to give it to somebody in my family. I was mildly annoyed (in an amused kind of way), because I’d seen the book and wanted it for myself, but I was adamant that I was not to buy any books for myself at the bookstore, especially not from the ever-too-easy-to-rationalize bargain bin. At McNally Robinson, there are layers of bargain bins, different categories of price-reduced books that end with a cart near the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section filled with out-of-print, discontinued, and otherwise not-going-to-be-sold-no-more books. The Moth was on this cart, for some ridiculously low fraction of its cover price.

UPDATE: I failed to accurately describe the outcome of that shopping trip: Charlie was being sneaky and tricksy and lovely and wonderful, and gave The Moth to me! 

Book Club has never been for book reviews, but for discussions spawned by the book in question. It’s hard not to start a larger discussion when talking about The Moth so I’ll break with tradition around here and tell you what I thought of this book: it’s pretty good! Out of 50 stories, told by 50 different people, I was unhappy with only two. Both stories I didn’t like were told by religious people about experiences that were directly tied to their religions.

The first was by a preacher who told a story I found rather unbelievable, involving a group of possibly-criminal bikers at a roadhouse in Texas who had no inkling of the easter story – I simply do not find it at all plausible that any English- or Spanish-speaking person in Texas in the 1960s would have been utterly unaware that a central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus was crucified, buried in a cave, and resurrected three days later. It’s basically the most important part of the overwhelmingly dominant religion in that part of the world, in that time and place. The story reeks of Tall-Tale, a cultural tradition of lying by exaggeration I find highly irritating.

The second was by a young Mormon woman describing her experiences living in New York city, and dating an Atheist. Her blinkered ignorance to anybody else’s beliefs or opinions combined with her complete refusal to confront any part of  her own belief system just pissed me off and made me very much not able to empathise nor sympathise with her played-for-laughs story. She just came across to me as an airhead religious fanatic that suckered attention and money out of fools fooled by her “Can you believe it!?!?” act.

OK, now I’ve devoted two paragraphs to bad stories. The other 48 ranged from “good” to “goddam amazing”. Some people are very talented storytellers. Some people have very interesting experiences to tell about. And some people, some of whom did not tell any of the stories here, are very, very good at putting those two things together in one person, and editing and producing their stories to a very high shine.

The Moth is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it for not only a good read but also as an entry-point to broader discussions about story-telling, the role of story-telling in modern entertainment, and how to tell a good story.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Switching Email

In the past year or so, my Microsoft Network email account (; Hotmail with a different suffix - I access it through has been hacked three times. Each time, I become aware of the problem when my inbox starts filling up with two types of messages:
1. "undeliverable mail, returned", often with an identifier for a person I rarely, if ever, communicate with or to a clearly secondary email address for somebody. Obviously, there's a problem in the email address (it no longer exists, there's a typo, etc.) and the system returns the message to me.
2. "What is going on?" from people I actually do know. If that person has quoted "my" email in full, then I can see what was purportedly sent from my account. Embarrassingly, sometimes these messages are along the lines of "I haven't heard from you in ages! How are you doing? Why haven't you sent anything non-spam to me in so long?"

My sent mail box doesn't contain these outgoing messages. There is apparently some vulnerability in Hotmail that allows a malicious bit of software to read my list of contacts (even if they're not email addresses I've taken the trouble to actually add to "My Contacts") and send out a spam message to that list, all without going through the parts of Hotmail I can actually see. 

Hotmail switched from its own long-running unique email program to the online version of Outlook about a year ago, a move I lamented at the time because I knew Outlook's structure is well-known to those people who create such malware. Some large fraction of all viruses I have encountered are built specifically to exploit Outlook, and prior to Hotmail's switch I was effectively immune to all such nastiness. This is one major reason why I have never been particularly exercised about computer viruses - the vast majority of them have no effect on my computer beyond a bit of diverted processor resources when they accumulate, uselessly scanning my computer for their own triggers, based on Outlook or a number of prominent, mostly American, financial websites.

This repeated failure to address a clear security issue in Outlook, combined with Microsoft's terrible, terrible interface issues (the other reason I hate to use Outlook is just how goddam clunky it is - it's like they went out of their way to put tiny little barriers in the way of everything I want to do) and the byzantine weirdness that is the simple (and recommended-to-be-frequent) task of changing one's password (this slows down the hackspam, for a little while) has prompted me to switch my primary email to Google's we're-probably-not-evil system. The move to Gmail was suggested by a family friend on Facebook - thanks Don!

Given the way Google's tentacles extend so far across the internet, this is proving fairly straightforward so far - between Google and Facebook I've already switched over at least 80% of the non-individual email I expect to receive (that is, emails from computers rather than from actual people). The next part, in which I ask people who know me to switch their contacts list to the new address, begins now. This will probably take some time, but eventually I will be able to delete my @msn account and end this stupidity for good.