Thursday, October 20, 2011

Considering Grad School? Do Whatever the Hell You Want

"*sigh* Poop." - Me, in a text to Erin

Sometimes I feel like my being considered an adult is an elaborate prank being played on the world, and I feel it with increasing frequency since starting grad school. People ask me what I'm doing for school, and I say "political theory" and it sounds very important and fancy, which is nice, except I know the reality of my grad school experience and feel like I am pulling off some kind of Ocean's Eleven grade heist of dignity. In truth, I spend much of my time complaining bitterly about math and procrastinating, and making jokes about Heidegger that are deeply inappropriate.

It's not that grad school doesn't take work, because it does, but in my case, being allowed to focus on what I love makes things much easier than when I had to muscle through, for instance, undergrad core curricula, about which I did not care. Instead, the work for me comes in the form of the DOING - the reading and writing and general getting things to the right people at the right time. There is plenty of hard thinking to be done as well, but because I enjoy that, it doesn't faze me.

Before I went to grad school, I got a lot of advice. A number of people told me various things I would need to do because That's How Grad School IS. None of them were right, and none of them were wrong. The thing about graduate study is that you are more fully in control of your academic destiny than you have been and will be, so How Grad School IS is contingent on your own initiative and relationship with your field and your department. This is why everyone was right AND wrong.

My Dad got his Masters at Shippensburg State University in Pennsylvania. He got admitted in an interesting way. He was out riding his bike and thought, "you know, I've been planning on popping in to pick up some information," so he walked into the math department, sans shirt, and wound up having a coffee with the department chair and one of his colleagues, which turned into an admissions interview. Did I mention that Dad went to Antioch College for undergrad, which did not give out grades? It didn't matter, because Shippensburg apparently liked what they saw and heard from Dad, and that was what mattered. Dad told me this story and finished it up with "the same thing could happen to you, you know," which sounds ridiculous because...that doesn't happen to ANYONE, Dad, but he's also kind of right. I COULD fall into a program or conference or academic drinking night by chance and have it turn out grandly, because that's how advanced study IS.

One of my mentors told me about his time in grad school, talking about how he buckled down incredibly hard for the duration of his program, eating Ramen because he didn't work because he was focusing on the Life of the Mind and what have you. He's also right. Both my Dad and my mentor are where they are now because of the way they chose to engage and capitalized on their graduate schools.

Now, there's probably an argument to be made that someone who sends texts that read "*sigh* Poop." to their cohorts should not be allowed near the Aristotle. But I also know that grad school is what I make it, and one of the things I choose - for myself and only myself - is to get through it with humor and a relatively low stress level, insofar as that is in my control. That's what I want of my experience, and other people will choose differently. The beautiful thing about academe is that you have that choice. When I talk about my undergraduate program, I often talk about two professors and the tension between the two of them. One is very much of the old school, "I will give you the wisdom of the ages - memorize it first, and then we can discuss a little," approach, whereas the other is less concerned with the material than teaching you to question everything that comes before you. It's the pairing that makes an Assumption College political science education so exceptional...not just the one or the other, but the combination of the two. There is always need for teachers of both kinds, and many more, and even more variety of people in non-academic fields.

Grad school is what you make it, in accordance with what you want of it. This is why, when people ask me for advice about applying and fields of study, all I suggest is that they know what they want to do with their degree after they obtain it. You need to know that to direct your study, and everything else comes after.

Posted on the move from my iPad; edits for grammar and spelling may be made at a later date and will be noted accordingly.

Location:Commonwealth Ave,Boston,United States

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

UPDATE: Still Not Watching the Debates, and Vindicated

A while back, I wrote a bit about why I'm not watching the Republican debates right now (though I may once we get closer to primary season) and since there's one going on right now, the detritus of which I am currently wading through on my tumblr dashboard, I do find myself with one more comment on the debates.

I was totally right to ignore them and neener neener.

Even though it's late and I'm tired, I DO actually have a more coherent comment (though I am a fan of elementary school level insults).  The main thing I want to note is that the coverage of the debates and the candidates has swung around so much that I feel I was correct in my assessment of the debates as largely unrevealing of the candidates' respective strengths.  The first debate was in May, and at that time everyone was peeing their pants over Michele Bachmann, who was unceremoniously dumped from frontrunner status for Rick Perry, who is of course now taking a back seat, buzz-wise, to Herman Cain.  This is all in a swing of just about five months, and of course leaves out the spectres of Romney and Paul, both of whom sit in a weird kind of popularity netherworld in this field.  It seems to me that the media is too busy jumping all the guns they can find to tell anyone anything about the candidates, and that is the whole point of a debate, particularly in this kind of pre-primary setting.  We should be hearing from the candidates about what sets them apart, and I do not get the sense any of that is coalescing, with the exception of Herman Cain's (utterly ridiculous and illogical) 9-9-9 tax plan, which I suspect is WHY he's currently so popular...he's the only one throwing out something concrete.

If you'd like some interesting thoughts on the Romney Issue as an alternative to my told-you-so-ing, Christopher Bird has a great little piece on the GOP's weird relationship with Romney that I think lays things out well.  It's worth a read and is certainly thought provoking, and Bird's site in general is top notch.  Give it a read!

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Will Make the Streets Run With the Smelt of My Enemies

Dear Big Y,

You are apparently the official grocery store of the elderly. I congratulate you on carving out a niche for yourself and recognize that the elderly, living an unrushed retired life, enjoy a nice long interaction with any and all clerks they happen upon.  That said, some of us want to buy some milk and get the hell out of the grocery store without celebrating a birthday in your aisles, and you are really not making that shit easy.  My problem, you see, is your discount system.

Like all groceries - except Hannaford, which is awesome and magical and 45 minutes away - you have a little swipey card.  Fine.  I can live with that.  What I want to talk about is the coins.
Do you see that pile?  That's not even the whole pile.  My husband hoards them in strange places throughout the house, so there's probably double this amount squirreled away in various pockets and jars.  You will notice a preponderance of silver coins, which I literally get two of every time I manage to spend one.  Not only do I have to take my fucking card to the store, I also have to take these useless pieces of shit with me and then wander your store aimlessly looking for deals, or else spend time looking through your circular.  I HATE THIS.  Of course, they offer just enough savings in theory that I feel bad about throwing them out, so I keep them in a container over by the sink.

Listen to me.  I like you because you're an American owned business and I like when people take care of the elderly.  Also, you're the only grocery store nearby.  But if you do not cut it out with this shit, I swear on all that is good in this world that I will melt these things down and come to your store and start flinging melted metal at every smiling employee you have.  They're clearly made out of junk metal that cannot possibly have a melting point over like, 85 degrees.  DO NOT TEMPT ME.  THIS IS SERIOUS FUCKING BUSINESS.



Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Everywhere

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Thomas Jefferson, 1816 letter to George Logan

I wholeheartedly support the Occupy Wall Street movement.  

My grad school safety buddy and all around fantastic human, Erin Bohanan, recently had an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, entitled "Invitation to a Dialogue: A Protest To-Do List," in which she explained that without clarification of desired actions and the identification of leaders, the movement runs the risk of stagnation and irrelevance.  She'll be responding to some reader responses on Sunday, so be sure to check her out there, too!  Erin and I disagree on the need for the protest to establish policy objectives, but I do agree that if the Occupiers want to lead the policy development instead of leaving it to politicians, they will eventually need to develop policy.  We mostly disagree on time frame, but I also argue that the protest itself does not need policy to be valid.  I think a lot of people have struggled with this because large protests have been on the decline over the past 50 or so years (wow, the 60s were 50 years ago...yikes), and we've gotten out of the habit of thinking of them in their appropriate context.  A protest is just that - a statement against something, a mass showing of disapproval.  Its object is not progressive, but static.  Occupy Wall Street does exactly that, and phenomenally well.  It's where we want to go that is in question, and Erin is right to point to that hurdle ahead.  [Tangent: I also love this poster more than maybe anything.  Absolutely fantastic.]

There has been a lot of hysterical whinging about people not knowing what the protest is about...I think this is disingenuous.  There may have been a period at the beginning of the protest where some confusion was understandable, but at this point, if you're pretending you don't know why the Occupiers are mad, you're being deliberately obtuse.  That said, there is always room for refinement, and I think it's worth addressing some of the criticisms that people raise and misconceptions being thrown around.  One that's particularly pervasive is the idea that the protesters just want things handed to them, and most of all that these folks don't want to work.  It is not a matter of people not wanting to work; in fact, it's the exact opposite. People are upset because they DO want to work and are not able to. There is currently one job for every five unemployed people, so even when all of those jobs are filled, there are still going to be ENORMOUS numbers of people still looking for work. Also, stats like that only account for jobs, period, not fitness of jobs for various candidates. If someone with a Masters in Economics takes a job as a barista at a local coffee shop, not only is that person underemployed, but they're also taking a job that would be better suited to someone working through high school or college. This leaves you with someone without a degree/specialization unable to work a job that would be appropriate to their skills, and another person unable to use their skills in a job that is likely underpaying them.  This helps no one.

On top of all this, companies are making record profits while not hiring. This is in large part because of a line I'm sure everyone recognizes: "well, at least you HAVE a job." When the economy tanked and companies laid people off, the work didn't evaporate. If you're a company that was doing a collective 4000 hours of work a week by having 100 people working 40 hours a week, and on Friday you have to lay off 25 people, when Monday comes around, you're still going to have to do that 4000 hours worth of work to maintain your business.  This means your remaining 75 folks now need to figure out how to squish 1000 more hours worth of personpower into their workweek. Since the company laid people off for financial reasons, they probably don't want to start paying each person 13 extra hours of overtime, so you now have pressure on you to do 53 hours worth of work in your 40 hour workweek, because if you can't hack it...well shit, man, you're not doing your job, how can you expect to keep it? Everyone's scared, because they have bills to pay and they don't want to lose their jobs, so they pick up the slack. This is a GREAT deal for businesses - now you only have to pay one person for one-and-a-half, two, three, four people's jobs. Why would you create more jobs and "waste" more money on people? When all that matters is profit margins, then people aren't people, they're just assets.

The thing is this: businesses qua businesses are morally neutral. Business is conceptual, its only function is to make money through some kind of enterprise. However, to take business from concept to production, you need people to run it, and that's when you need to start thinking about the ethical ramifications of employment. We haven't been doing that. We've allowed the most basic function of business, making money, to block out our concerns for people's wellbeing. This is a mistake not only because it's callous and douchey, but also because business can only rise to glory through people. Without innovators and grinders and copy monkeys and interns and CFOs and receptionists and people working to use the construct of business to make something exceptional, business is just something in a book. To reach the best of business' potential, you need people to be enthusiastic about their work, to be healthy so they can work, to make money that allows them to live their lives, and to have time to enjoy their lives so they remember what's so worthwhile. If all you worry about is the bottom line, then you don't make time for that, and everyone suffers, including, eventually, business. The people on Wall Street, and in Boston, and in Denver, and in Seattle, and everywhere else, don't want to see what we've all built fail.

There is a second issue in play, that being the "Fuck You, Got Mine" thinking in the finance industry. Loans and banking have reached a point of ridiculousness that everyone just has to take because there have become fewer and fewer banks. It sounds counterintuitive, but a free market's virtues need to be preserved by regulation. We've had less and less regulation, and as a result, our options for functioning within a free market have diminished. I like this chart in particular: 
Click through for larger version

In 1990-95, you had 37 banks holding about 20% of our collective financial assets. Now, you have 54% of our assets in the hands of four banks. FOUR! Now tell me this...if you hold 13.5% of a nation's fiscal assets (assuming equal distribution), which by the way are NOTHING compared to your own corporate holdings, and those people want to change their terms with you...why the hell would you even take their call? You wouldn't, you'd just do whatever the hell you wanted. And they have.

I started my first business at 20 and my second at 22, so I have had to make hiring and firing decisions, and I have also had to pull those late nights and unending weeks doing the work of three people (or more) to make my business work. That is not what I object to. If it's my business, then the choice is mine to put my shoulder to the wheel and shove, because it's my business and I want to make it work. What I object to - and what many of these protesters object to - is when an employer hires an employee with one understanding (say our 40 hour workweek above, doing whatever job they applied for), and later demands that the contract be drastically changed after the fact, for the sole benefit of the employer and without a corresponding change in remuneration or benefits, and further demands that the employee abides by the changed contract essentially by threatening them with the "at least you have a job" line, since that line has a silent "because you know no one else is hiring, good luck making rent" at the end. Now, we might argue that the employee should saddle up and do the jobs of three people because the job provides his livelihood, and that's fine, except that's really only justifiable if the employee has the OPTION of doing so, and that is not the case. That is wrong, and it is very different from a business owner deciding to work a superhuman number of hours to save their own enterprise.

Many people argue that we don't need to hire people to count paper clips or sit around to restore the economy, we need to get people back to buying stuff, to create demand.   How, then, can we do that? The way I see it, there are two options. You can have the government put more stimulus funding into creating jobs that can develop infrastructure of all kinds, which puts more money into more pockets, with which people can buy stuff and increase demand and eventually create job openings which these infrastructure developers can transition to. Many people don't like this option because they're concerned about the National Debt, which is valid (though a total, irreparable collapse of the economy would screw us worse than any giant debt), or because they don't like the idea of government expansion.  If that option doesn't appeal to you, then you have the second option: require employers to take some of those profits they're hoarding to pay an actual living wage so employees CAN buy things instead of being perpetually struggling to barely keep their head above water. The minimum wage hasn't kept up with cost of living increases, and that's part of why people are having so many problems. Companies aren't going to do that on their own because as I mentioned above, we've allowed "it's just business" to permit us to look at employees as assets. This happens less in TRULY small businesses, but the mid-size businesses that like to pretend they're "mom and pop" shops and the gigantic businesses that employ thousands don't care. They are simply not going to start paying a living wage unless forced, and they have spent the past three decades proving it. Someone I was arguing with recently said "yes, corporations are saving their cash, but they would be happy to spend the cash if they could build their business." They can build their business by paying their employees enough that they can buy products and giving them enough time in the day to buy things or spend money on going out, etc.

The people who oppose the protests frustrate me, I don't mind admitting.  It's a strange frustration, though, because it resolves into hope, and a desperate desire to wish them well. I hope they never wind up in a situation where buying a simple cup of coffee is a luxury that requires saving. I hope their hard work always pays off for them and they're able to afford the life they want by its virtue. I hope their children and relatives and friends are all able to pay for college outright and that their work, too, will always pay off. I hope they never find themselves unable to pay for desperately needed healthcare for themselves and their families. I hope they are never rejected for a loan that they need to make it for a few months because something entirely beyond their control happened and their life changed dramatically. But most of all? I hope that someday they are able to realize how lucky they are that so far, they have not suffered any of these catastrophes. THEY ARE LUCKY, and their experience is NOT universal.  Occupy Wall Street is calling out to transform our great society into a place where that existence is the standard, and we no longer need to rely on luck.
Vive la revolucion.
"Manifesto" by Matheus Lopes

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beers for All Your Slow Friends

A lot of my beer drinking is done in the closed environment of the DCU Center, where we watch the Sharks, and as is the case in many arenas, the selection is mostly limited to the major breweries.  My options are usually Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Light, Heineken, and occasionally Michelob Ultra.  To their unending credit, the DCU Center has started serving beers from the local (and excellent!) Wormtown Brewery as well as Sam Adams* in their Charter Zone.  This is not entirely the fault of the DCU Center.  They have advertising and stock agreements with the various companies, and those agreements dictate how and where the beers are sold in the building.  That's a whole other problem.  What I'd like to talk about is how maybe, just maybe, we might be able to see the ascendance of the Wormtown Breweries of the world, because the big breweries are clearly wigged out by the fact that people are starting to realize that beer doesn't have to taste like a foot.

The clearest indicator of this concern that non-boring beer might be on the rise is shit like this: 
From top left: beer for your slow friend, beer for your concussed friend, beer for your clumsy friend, and beer for...your friend who doesn't know to hold onto their beer?
Whenever I see a commercial for one of these bottles, I feel like chugging a case of Brawndo and checking to see if President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho has been elected yet.  Coors Light is my particular favorite.  Would you like to know the most efficient way to figure out if your beer is cold?  Pick up the damned can.  It's literally been working since the beginning of time.  Babies can do this.  However, Coors Light not only thought people could use a hand figuring this out, but thought they needed more detailed help and rolled out a can that has a "cold" bar and a "super cold" bar.  Here's a question.  If you went to a bar, and every time you ordered a drink, you had to listen to the bartender call you a moron, in great detail and at top volume so the whole bar heard them, would you go back to that bar?  Of course you wouldn't, because that bar would be a shitty place with a douchebag behind it, and no one wants to deal with that shit when all you want in life is a beer.  Coors Light is that bar.  STOP GOING TO THAT BAR.  

The other bottles have their own weird stuff; the Miller Lite vortex bottle is apparently for people that never learned to tilt the glass as you pour a beer (or, you know, just drink out of the bottle), and the Bud Light bottle...?????? If you need to rely on your beer bottle for entertainment, you probably have more problems than a little square of personalizable space on a sub-par beer can solve.  But what is consistent across all of these is that the beer itself is not being marketed, but rather the container it's in.  That's a sad statement on consumerism and the way we approach beer, isn't it?  "Buy this thing, it's shiny."  It seems to me that these beer companies acknowledge that their product cannot compete on a taste level, which to me only says good things about the smaller breweries who have begun to be more visible in recent years.  I hope so, not only because I would like some non-gross beer to be available, but also because I think business is most productive when many smaller businesses are able to compete amongst each other and strive to create the best products possible.  

All that said, I'd like to commend one beer for their searing honesty.  That beer has chosen to market their product with this spokesperson: 
Smooth like Keith Stone.
Exactly, Keystone Light, exactly.  Your skunky-ass beer tastes EXACTLY like this sheisty hipster-failure looks.  Well done.  Not sure if it's actually good to point this out, know.  Bravo?

* NB: This is not to say Sam Adams is not a major brewery, but rather that it produces beer that tastes less like piss-water than the others noted.  This is less an assessment of quality and more an identification of the fact that Sam Adams at least has a flavor, rather than going for "generic beer."