Emily Dickinson: Scientist

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On the Birthday of Emily Dickinson I am delighted to learn that she was a fan of science.  Like another great write, Roald Dahl, she will tell you to vaccinate your child.

Many of the anti-vaxx brigade see themselves as people of faith.  They cleary never learned the lesson that God helps those who help themselves.  If you believe in God why is it so difficult to believe that he created in us the ability to understand the scientific precepts of our world?  Why is it so difficult to believe that God would have created in us the ability to heal ourselves through science?

If you don’t believe in God you belive the same thing, not through blind faith, but through reason.

Either way, why would anyone ignore the best evidence of science in favour of irrational actions motivated by hearsay and anecdote?

Fear.  That’s why.  Try to live a life devoid of fear.

 

Faith; by Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
when gentlemen can see –
but microscopes are prudent
in an emergency.

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This is not a job, it’s a religion!

Clappy

Beware a Job where they keep clapping for nothing.

It is quite simply the most horrific thing I have read in years.   A true horror story.
The scene begins in the Apple Corporation……

Johnson and Jobs wanted ambassadors whose ostensible role was not to sell products – uniquely, Apple store employees receive no commission – but to create positive customer sentiment and repair trust in the brand when it broke.

In 1984, a group of professors at Harvard Business School published a book, Managing Human Assets, aimed at updating workplace organization for a new era.

Previously, the book argued, labor discipline could be achieved in a relatively straightforward top-down manner, but now it required something else. “The limitations of hierarchy have forced a search for other mechanisms of social control,” the authors said. The mechanisms they proposed consisted, at root, of treating employees as nominal stakeholders in business success, but within narrow limits that would increase rather than challenge shareholder profitability.

How do you create an engaged, happy, knowledgeable workforce that can pass, however implausibly, as an entire battalion of geniuses in towns across the country? More importantly, how do you do all of that without the stick of the authoritarian boss or the carrot of a juicy commission?

Apple’s solution was to foster a sense of commitment to a higher calling while flattering employees that they were the chosen few to represent it. By raising the bar of admission, crafting a long series of interviews to weed out the mercenary or misanthropic, Johnson soon attracted more applicants than there were posts. Those keen enough to go through the onerous hiring process were almost by definition a better “fit” for the devotional ethos of the brand, far more receptive to the fiction that they weren’t selling things but, in an oft-repeated phrase, “enriching people’s lives”, as if they’d landed a job at a charity.

“When people are hired,” Johnson explained, “they feel honored to be on the team, and the team respects them from day one because they’ve made it through the gauntlet. That’s very different from trying to find somebody at the lowest cost who’s available on Saturdays from 8 to 12.”

While not the lowest, the cost of these eager staff was still low – relative to industry averages, to the amount they made for the company, and to the $400m that Johnson earned in his seven years at Apple.

Lower wages also had another, less obvious effect. As Apple store managers explained to the New York Times, the lack of commissions meant that the job didn’t pay well enough to support those with dependents: older workers were functionally excluded from representing the brand without the need for a formal policy – or the attendant specter of discrimination lawsuits that it would raise.

Products are clapped, customers waiting overnight to buy them are clapped, their purchases are clapped, claps are clapped. Clap, clap, clap. “My hands would sting from all the clapping,” said one manager. Claps, cheers, performances of rapturous engagement provided, by design, a ready-mixed social glue to bind teams together, reaffirming both the character of the brand and employees’ cultish devotion to it.

Full Article

How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.

 

 

Perception is reality.

Darwin

Charles Darwin and his ancestor.

Every day I see a drama played out in the media, and on social media in particular.  Group A present their reality.  Group B present a counter reality.  Group A argues on science.  Group B argues on pseudo-science overlying blind faith.  Group A is constantly baffled by the inability of group B to grasp reality.  Group B is constantly baffled by the inability of group A to grasp reality.  Group A say “that is not reality – it is perception”.  Group B say “I know what reality is”.

Group B is right.  They do know what their reality is.  Group A ignore perceptual reality at their peril.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was a child I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family.  Seven kids of which I was 6th.  As if the house was not full enough we also, until she married, had my Aunt Phyllis living with us.  I was about 5 when she married.  I was supposed to be the “train bearer” but her bossy bridesmaid, would not let me bear the train.  What I remember about that wedding is the cold.  It was a red raw cold Easter wedding.  In the main group photo you will see me retreating from the church steps to escape the wind by going back into the church.

Phyllis was, to my young mind, the living embodiment of Mary Tyler Moore living in our house.  She was cool, sassy, grown up and not a parent.  My two oldest brothers are over 6 ft tall.  Phyllis is about 5′ 3”.  To my young mind she towered over them.  They were teenagers.  They are my brothers.  She was an adult, they were kids.  She towered over them.

My oldest brother, Jerry, is a Solicitor.  Second oldest, Fergus, is an Architect.  Both well educated professionals.  Phyllis was never a professional.  Mostly she was a mother and housewife.  When she married and moved to Swords in North County Dublin my younger brother and I used to cycle out to visit her quite often.  She would feed us and then send us home.  We loved it when she baked a cake that flopped.  She let us eat as much of it as we could before it went into the bin.  In a family of 7 kids cake is a luxury, flopped or not.

So here you have this short woman with no pretensions to a fantastic education.  Beside her you have my two oldest brothers, towering over her, wielding university degrees.  If I have a need to seek advice on an important philosophical matter who am I going to ask?

Phyllis of course.  In the reality of my 5 year old mind she is the adult.  They are the teenagers.

I know, in my 50 something year old brain that my 60 something year old brothers are well capable of addressing deep philosophical issues.  I know, rationally, that they are well educated, highly experienced adults.

This is the point at which Group A and Group B fall out with each other.  You can prove, without a doubt, to the adult mind, that Jerry and Fergus are the more qualified mentors.  You can absolutely convince me on the evidence that I should ask them for advice.  I will absolutely agree with you, and then I’ll go consult Phyllis.

Vaccination protagonists present all the science to anti-vaccination people, who read it, internalise it and refuse to vaccinate their kids.  Astronomers present incontestable evidence to flat-earthers who nod and smile and go back to live on their flat earth.  Democrats present cast iron evidence that Republicans are exploiting the working man and the working man reads it, shakes his head and votes Republican.  Atheists disprove God again and again.  People of faith can’t argue back, but they know what they feel, and they feel they believe, and in belief lies salvation.

Evidence, statistics, facts, research, proof, they are all good.  They are all worthy valuable pursuits.  But they don’t necessarily change our innate perceptions.  Our reality is founded on our perceptions, not on the cold hard realities of the world.

Again and again Group A think they can win by arguing reality.  In truth they will only win by changing perceptions, and that is a far harder task.

Martin Luther challenged the reality of the Christian Church in 1517.  By the 1960’s the church had, for the most part, altered it’s perception, with the enactment of Vatican II.  That was a hard won victory, 450 years and counting.  Charles Darwin postulated the theory of human evolution in 1859.  That took only about 100 years to gain widespread mainstream acceptance.

Changing perception takes time.  It does not take weeks, months or years.   It takes generations.

 

Living with Dementia

100-Year-Old-Man-Who-Climbed-Out-A-Window-Robert-Gustaffson-skinheads

100 year old man who climbed out a window and disappeared

For anyone who has been through the rounds of dementia or alzheimer’s with a parent the poem by Louise Cole below will strike a chord.

The internet is full of warm cuddly fluff such as “Do Not Ask Me To Remember” by Owen Darnell.  That may help us feel all compassionate for five minutes, until you get a bang on your arm from your mammy’s crutch.

There are moments of comedy and pathos in those visits but they are few and far between.  For the most part you are faced with a parent who is a shadow of the person they used to be.  This is all the more cruel because parents are larger in our lives than other mere mortal adults.

You see them deteriorate both physically and mentally.  The first day you realise they don’t know who you are is a hard one.  My mother was a brilliant actress so she fooled many of the family for years that she knew who they were, but the signs are there if you really want to see them.  Imagine the confusion if you woke up and recognised nobody in your life?  However hard it is for you it is ten times harder on them.

If they remember your kids they remember how they were ten years ago as 7 year olds.  This hulking great 17 year old teenager is a total stranger, and very scary.

You see the weight fall off them until they look like skeletons covered in parchment.  They look small and frail and weak, and we want our parents to loom large and strong for us, to be the foundations for our lives, pillars of strength and wisdom.

The days when you arrive at a nursing home to find your mother sitting in her own shit, because the “cleaning crew” have not gotten around yet, those are hard days.  Because today you know you are here, but tomorrow you will be in work when she is sitting in her shit and piss.

Dress your parents well, in good clothes.  Buy new clothes.  Make sure their hair is styled, the men are shaved regularly, their fingernails are manicured.   This may seem a pointless extravagance if they spend all their day in a nursing home.  But know this; well dressed people are treated better than dirty, unkempt or untidy people.  People speak to them more politely, treat them with more respect, and are more likely to shake their hand, give them a hug or do them a small favour.  All those little moments add up.

People who care for the old are heroes.  Anyone can care for babies because they are so cute.  But changing the nappy on a crabby old man who is trying to bash you on the head, that takes the soul of an angel.  Go out of your way to honour the staff who care for your parents, they deserve every ounce of your respect.

As an aside:  the phrase “Fur Coat and No Knickers” is a common Irish phrase used to describe people who are all flash with no substance.  The kind of person who spends money on a fancy car in the driveway to impress the neighbours, instead of fixing the heating boiler and buying new shoes for the children.

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers; by Louise G. Cole

Drawing breath between tales of dead
little brothers and elderly neighbours
moved away, my mother looks inside
a lifetime that’s 92 and counting,
claims no-one’s visited for months,
thinks I’m her cousin Betty
with designs on her fur coat and hopes
of borrowing a fiver.

I try not to mind the care home smell
and wonder what else to talk about when
the devil himself taps my shoulder
suggests I unburden, reveal secrets
never before shared, so I offer a revelation:
I lost my virginity four times
before I was married. She’s never yet listened to me
so it is no surprise she doesn’t hear,
continues with a rattle about imagined walks
in the park yesterday, shopping
trips she’ll make next week.

A carer comes to tuck her in,
brings weak tea and egg sandwiches,
asks if I’d like some,
is relieved when I decline.
I get up to leave and the frail old cripple
who used to be my mother
spills her tea and demands
to know when cousin Betty intends returning
the fur coat, says quietly: ‘I always knew
what a little whore you were’.

 

 

Happy Birthday Clifton Snider

Clifton

The best poetry is painful.  In many cases it carves open the poet, exposing their deepest insecurities to the world.  In certain cases it carves open society and exposes the rot at the core.  When poetry does this it becomes political.

When the Nationalists murdered Federico Garcia Lorca in the Spanish Civil War they said his pen was worth a regiment.  Brendan Kennelly in his Cromwell poems brutally illustrates that violence is perpetrated on all sides in conflict, and rejects the attempt by any one side to airbrush out it’s hand in the bloodletting.

Clifton Snider approached poetry through the lens of Jungian psychology.  In this regard I share an appreciation of his journey as it mirrors my own in some respects.  Snider is an academic who challenges conformity.

He took the US administration to task over the war in Iraq, setting up his own anti-war page. A Poet Against the War

He has been targeted by the Right in the USA for his criticism of the military led, profit oriented approach to US Foreign Policy.  His life has been placed in danger by the right.  When an ultra right wing mouthpiece denounces an academic they are aware that there is a legion of stupid white men out there, wrapped in the US flag and armed with assault rifles who are happy to pull the trigger on any clearly marked target.

An academic who specializes in psychological decoding of the works of Oscar Wilde : duck in a barrel.

But Snider is a fighter.  His poems are not shy retiring allusions or hidden allegories.  They are full frontal attacks, and he names the beast!  I doubt you will hear his poetry read on Prairie Chapel Ranch down there in Texas.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: by Clifton Snider

The woman with a scarf
at the food stand
asked for an ounce of flour:
she had three children
and a little water.

The American leader
squinted, eyes like oil pools.
He shot her point blank
in the temple.

His secretary of state
lopped off the arms & legs
of a soldier, pressed into service
by the sword of antiquity.

The minister of defense
ordered smart bombs to explode
the brains of a man in turban
old enough to remember
the American president
who provided his people arms
to fight their neighbor.

Nominative Determinism

Originally the concept of nominative determinism arose as a humorous feedback thread in New Scientist Magazine as readers observed how authors names reflected their research topics.  Polar explorations by Daniel Snowman,  a urology article by Splatt and Weedon.

This was a build from joke books of my youth.  “The Tower of Pisa” by Eileen Over.  “Legal Jurisprudence” by Argue and Phibbs.  “Treating Tennis Injuries” by Savage, Racquet and Ball. There are lot of those:  Funny books and authors  

Erik the Red, who founded the Viking colony on Iceland wanted to keep the island for his own people.  To dissuade other Norsemen from following he gave his colony an unattractive name.  His son, Lief Eriksson, did the opposite in an attempt to encourage colonists to settle in his new discovery, Greenland.

Some people have begun to take nominative determinism more seriously.  Some pointed to the fact that many names originated in the middle ages when people were named for their trade, and families stayed within a trade.  Thatchers roofed houses.  Wrights made wheels.  Smiths beat metal.  Fletchers made arrows.  Is there a genetic disposition to excellence in a field of endeavour?

A family that has genetically poor eyesight will not survive long in the lacemaking trade.  Do genetic traits in agility, intelligence, strength etc contribute to our aptitude for certain careers?

Then there is the environment.  The child of a musician is raised in a world of music practice, has a learned knowledge of what harmonies work well, grows up playing with musical instruments.  Learning to read music comes easier than learning to read language.  Smiths know the techniques for tempering steel, learned over many generations and passed orally from Father to Son.  Fletchers know how to make good glue.  Dyers know the recipes for pigments that stain cloth but do not fade rapidly in sunlight.  Tanners are used to the smell of piss and shit.

So in the modern world, when we are socially mobile, does our heritage still carry cues to our abilities.  Is nominative determinism a real thing?

For me the funniest example of nominative determinism is given in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.  With a surname of Major a vindictive father stepped in when his wife was comatose after childbirth and named his son Major Major Major.  The child is drafted into the US Air Force in WW2 as Private Major Major Major.  It is only the work of a short time and standard military bureaucracy before the Private is promoted, by clerical error, and assigned as Major Major Major Major.

Miniver Cheevy; by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.