Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Things that are good ideas when you're drunk. #1 Buying that $150 round of drinks.

Exactly what is it in alcohol that transforms me from a normal, everyday graduate student to the richest man on the planet? Seriously, I can’t figure this out. I wouldn’t go to McDonalds and order 20 cheeseburgers and just start handing them out but I have no problem going to the bar, buying 10 shots and divvying them up among total strangers. I actually feel my wallet getting heavier with each drink veritably shouting “Release me from this pocket! Put my plastic contents on the bar and sign away!”. Unfortunately I too often heed this call. It must be something to do with the occurrences that I associate with drinking. I can’t remember the last time I went out to a bar, didn’t get drunk, and had an absolutely wonderful time (BTW: “Wonderful time” is code for “bringing home an attractive woman” but could just as equally mean having a great time with the guys.). I suppose it is a Pavlovian conditioning of sorts. I have come to learn that more shots, more drinking, eventually equals some reward which in turn reinforces the behavior.

Now, don’t take this to mean that I’m a total alcoholic. I drink, at most, one night a week and even then I try to avoid getting too “nice”. I think in my old age I am beginning to appreciate getting up on the weekend and not feeling like someone stuffed my mouth with salt during the night then sat on my head. Does this mean I’m ready for a committed relationship? Probably not. I think it just means that I’m tired of going out here as I no longer find the people interesting enough to sacrifice my morning to nausea and headaches. In any case, I’m going to start leaving my credit cards at home.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Things that are good ideas when you're drunk. #2 Making out in a Club

The power of alcohol to affect my decision making process still amazes me (and I’ve been drinking for quite some time). I went to NYC to visit my best friend TJ and met my ex-girlfriend for dinner. We went back to TJ’s place where we met some of her friends, had some drinks, and headed out on the town. I think we all were having a good time.

What is it about people that when things are going well we always have to push further? If one drink is good two must be better, if an hour on the phone is great, three must be the best, if talking to my ex is good than making out with her on the floor of Lotus must be the awesome. Was I drunk at this point? Yes. Did I know exactly what I was doing? Absolutely. Apparently sometime around 3 a.m. sprawling out on a couch in the VIP section of a club became a work of genius. (Actually, I’m sober now but I still think that was a good idea) There is more to this story that you people will never hear mainly because I have no idea who you are but also because it’s quite possible that I’ll run for office one day and if the Wesson oil/ Saran wrap finish to the evening gets out I’m screwed.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Gay Marriage

It seems to me that homosexual couples should have the right to marry but the social consequences of all such endowments of “rights” should be considered (Marriage is a social construct and I therefore have trouble conferring the word “right” upon it). The obvious corollary question would be, should the “social consequences” have been considered when extending the right of African-American children to attend segregated public schools? I would argue that education is not a social construct but a fundamental right and it is therefore not an appropriate analogy but would submit that the process of desegregation should have been much better researched in terms of the consequences to the African-American students. This is not to say that the desegregation should have been delayed in order to make time for the correct policies to be fashioned; indeed the fact that our schools were ever segregated is a yet another black-eye in the history of racism in our country. It does seem though that in the rush to make the “responsible” choice on gay marriage the social consequences which may ensue should be considered and the appropriate policy changes effected.

For example, African-American students at the time of segregation were well behind their similarly aged white counterparts due to the insufficient quality of education provided by the “black” schools. It would have been advantageous if the schools had put in place an accelerated program over the summers to allow the black students to “catch up” academically to fellow classmates. This would have addressed the stigma attached to those students when they were found to perform at a level below that of their classmates due to the past injustice (Which was then attributed to the notion of their “genetic inferiority”). I would argue that marriage has always been defined to maximize the likelihood of producing socially viable citizens (i.e. raising children. Of course, there are already heterosexual couples who decide to remain childless, but they are still a small, but growing, minority). I do not disagree in principle with altering this definition but it must be done with care. For example, if the majority of homosexuals do not have children how will it affect the stability of their marriages? Will high divorce rates of childless homosexual couples result (as in their heterosexual counterparts) and if so, how will this change societies view on the viability of long-term homosexual relationships? Adoption is a viable alternative (and advisable as there are many loving, financially secure homosexual couples) to the normal process of procreation (I am deliberately ignoring in vitro fertilization procedures as they are prohibitively expensive and it is doubtful that they would be widespread among homosexual couples). The addition of children to the family may help to better fashion the homosexual household into the heterosexual equivalent (Not that it must be their “equivalent” but it seems that family structure is best supported, and solidified, by the presence of a necessity other than mutual support namely, raising children).

Perhaps adoption laws should be revisited concomitantly to the efforts to allow gay marriage? It may even be advisable to strengthen existing divorce laws to buttress marriages which may not be held together by the “glue” of children. My point is that although it does seem to me that gays should have the “right” to marry it does not follow that we should ignore the social consequences of that endowment or simply assume that they will all be positive.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Morality, Religion, and Society.

I have recently been troubled by the question of moral relativism. As humans we naturally strive to discern “universal truths” on which we may base our behavior. But as we attempt to define these a priori tenets we find that we must often become so specific in our assessment that the “laws” derived from these truths become meaningless (For example, taking life is wrong, except if it is in self-defense, defense of another, in a just war, euthanasia, etc..). I would like to believe that through the process of rational thought we can arrive at moral standards which can be agreed upon by everyone. Unfortunately I do not believe that the process of "logic" or "rationality" consistently results in situations in which two people, when confronted with the same problem, would either come to the same conclusion or would be rationally errant. I often find a great deal of difficulty in rebutting Peter Singer's argument that infanticide is an ethically acceptable practice as his logical mode of deduction is formidable. Perhaps it is the case that a logically coherent answer does exist in all of these situations yet we are somehow unable to "grasp" that solution? That answer would certainly preserve the process of rationality for determining ethical or moral dilemmas but it somehow does not sufficiently address the very real problem of oppositional yet rationally supported views present in certain dialectics. Can we fundamentally solve moral problems by moving past preconceptions and visceral reactions via reason or does morality itself change?

Can morality evolve or is it only possible for our understanding of morality to change? The former proposition would have us teetering on the dangerous ground of relativism while the latter may strap us into the rigid bounds of the past where logical argument dictated, for example, that newborn female babies be thrown in a heap outside of town. More importantly, is the answer somewhere in between and how would we know when an action was morally acceptable if it might not remain so in perpetuity? For example, should marriage rights be endowed to gay couples? There are nuanced arguments on both sides of this debate but an interesting (although somewhat sophistic) argument relates the evolving extension of rights to African-Americans in many societies to homosexual marriage. We can all agree that it was always immoral to deprive a person of individual rights based on their race or gender. This implies that our understanding of morality in the past was simply inadequate and logical arguments put forth in defense of such policies were fallacious. Could this be the case with gay marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, infanticide, or the death penalty? How will we differentiate between a "better understanding" of moral argument versus an "evolution"? I suppose the answer would be to review the logical arguments upon which the previous decisions were made but I am unsure that even with a completely rational review we could find time and context independent errors which would vindicate our new, more enlightened, view point.

This question is particularly relevant to the area of religion as it provides a somewhat unyielding guide to moral behavior. Religion, however, is not immune to the apparent vicissitudes of moral theory (e.g. The Reformation, the Crusades, and many of the actions of the papacy from the 500 - 1500 were justified on religious, if not scriptural, bounds.) although its teachings are commonly identified as continually "better understandings" of the moral truths offered by God in the revealed text. I do believe the teachings found in the bible, in particular the Beatitudes; provide the necessary context for moral decision-making (And believe that these same moral propositions could be arrived at independent of religious belief). The church also serves as a repository of moral thought on which the general population, being generally unversed in the nuances of morality, may rely. In the instance in which moral theory is left to individual rational thought we may suffer the belief among some that their actions, for the moment, are indeed moral. The church offers a guided, albeit sometimes imperfect, interpretation of moral authority which resists change for the reason that all of its actions must be necessarily deliberate. I suppose it is a choice between the tyrannies of authority versus the tyrannies of the individual. Although there are many actions based on the tenets of religion which I disdain, I personally would prefer that the majority obtain moral guidance from an individual such as the pope than base their actions on what they believe to be "rational" behavior. Is it possible for a person to be ethical or moral in the absence of religious belief? I believe it is but it is a difficult path which requires a high degree of knowledge and which, ultimately, rests on what may be fundamentally ephemeral tenets.

So, I still question, are morals relative? I don’t have a good answer to that question now but I encourage all of you to think about the implications. I would submit that there are certainly some actions which are universally immoral but they are much fewer in number than most would believe.

Post Script:

I realize the proposition of religion as a useful moral basis for a functioning society may smack of Marx’s theory of religion as “the opiate of the masses” or, even worse, of Plato’s tripartite society. I honestly believe that a moral theory based upon an evolved Christianity is preferable to leaving the complexities of moral reasoning to an individual ill-equipped to make the enlightened choice. By making this argument I admit that there will be endless attempts to impose upon society religious tenets (e.g. anti-abortion, anti-contraception, etc..) promoted by these very people. These fights will be real and potentially costly but I remain faithful that our legislators and judiciary will see through those arguments and make decisions based not upon religious zealotry, but on the good of society as a whole. We must also consider that simply because some of these arguments are made from a religious viewpoint (The Pope’s concern about the “culture of death” comes to mind) they are not ipso facto fallacious.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Misogynistic behavior

I am sure most of you will be much more surprised by this story than I am (unfortunately).

A female in my lab (an extremely hard worker, and bright to boot) was called down to my advisor's office where he asked her if she would like to attend one of the larger conferences given in our particular corner of science. One might think this would be a good thing but of course he managed to take a potentially positive event and turn it into a horrible, vile train wreck. He "generously" offered to pay for her stay in a dorm in the area (A whole $49 per night. He won't kick in the extra $8 for a hotel she located) but then refused to pay for her attendance (Not more than $200. To put it into perspective when he goes to conferences it is nothing but the best.). He suggested that she pay the attendance fee, and then refused to reimburse her for travel (He once had me attend a conference then, when I submitted my travel expenses, refused to pay the $54 because he had agreed to pay only for flights which, ironically, cost $90 and were available online for 10 minutes). When she balked at paying he said, "That's just a haircut and a pair of shoes to you." Am I crazy or does that seem a bit untoward for a professor to be saying to a female graduate student (Who is by no means profligate in her personal spending, not that it should matter)? It would be excusable if he had not treated other female students in the same fashion.

Go to the Deans you say! Write a letter to the editor of the student paper! Contact your local congressperson! All sound great, in theory. The reality of graduate school is that the professor (especially a tenured professor) holds ALL of the cards. If you disagree with what may be obviously immoral, unethical, or downright illegal behavior there is really little recourse. Should you decide to go to someone you have flushed your time spent in school down the drain. If you have invested 4 years of your life in a program with the end "just" around the corner you learn to grin and bare much more than you should. The reality is that there are no options. There is no recourse. You are owned, branded, even controlled by your advisor and unless you are willing to throw it all away (No, you can't go to someone and realistically expect to stay in the group) you must persevere.

There is a certain learned helplessness to it all. Graduate school places you in a situation in which there is a great deal you can do absolutely nothing about. I know, you were about to say that describes life in general and you are correct, to a point. If someone hates a job they can often start looking for a similar position elsewhere. That is not possible in the later years of graduate school. You simply must acquiesce to the whims of the professor (Academics like to describe themselves as something that reminds me of the “Benevolent Dictator” described in Plato’sRepublic”. They see themselves as the educated elite, unconcerned with the trappings of physical pleasure, able to see the true world instead of the shadows on the cave wall, and certainly capable of making decisions for the “masses”. Of course those decisions quite often reflect what's best for the advisor, not the student. I would also say their success in this practice is something similar to Plato’s students at his academy.). A graduate student eventually “learns” that they can have no impact on his or her advisor’s decision and quite often slumps into a depression, convinced of their own inability to effect change in their own life. This mode of thought can have disastrous consequences and even the most optimistic students (me included) can fall into the trap.

So if you should come upon a bitter or depressed graduate student you may want to consider cutting them a little slack. They are (hopefully) getting a great education but their situation is often difficult and their future is more uncertain than you might realize.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The gods of Airplane Seating Hate Me

I have flown numerous times in my lifetime. In fact, over the past several years I have averaged at least 1-2 flights per month (Mostly to San Diego, the most beautiful place on earth. I am sure you are asking how I do this as a graduate student. That's my business my friend.). There are two problems I run into when I fly. The first is that I have yet to be seated next to a REMOTELY attractive female. How is this possible? I postulated that for some reason attractive women do not fly, or at least do not fly as often as the rest of the population. This may be possible and I don't have the analysis resources to tackle the question but it is still statistically unlikely that one would fly at least 30 times over a certain period and never have a beautiful woman seated in the same row. The second major problem is that not only am I not seated next to a smart, beautiful, funny female; I am almost always seated next to an obese man who thinks that he owns the arm rests because he has eaten 5 cheeseburgers a day for the past 20 years (For future reference, one person's elbows get the portion of the arm rest closest to the seat, the other person's forearms get portion farther from the seat.).

Would it be possible for airlines to require photos of travelers and then make them available to other passengers when they are making their reservations? It may help in security (It couldn’t hurt for the attendants to know what the passengers are supposed to look like.) but would definitely help when picking seats. We have all seen (or at least most of us) those little pictures of the plane with stick figures sitting in the seats to indicate availability. What if there was a picture of each individual instead of that stick figure? We would be forewarned that there was a man resembling Godzilla in seat 17C and perhaps, that there was an attractive female in seat 13A.

I can see the problems with this scheme. The beautiful girl (I am not mentioning good looking guys because I'm a guy and it's my blog. One would think that the cases would be fairly similar) would never, no matter how empty her flight was, have a row to herself and the guy who’s been making too many return trips to the bacon bar is rewarded with an empty seat next to him every time. This could be balanced by sending “requests” to the person you would like to sit next to which they would, in turn, approve, reject, or rank in order of preference (Or simply not reply. This option gives them plausible deniability should they be forced into a conversation with you in the waiting area.). That way the woman would have at least SOME control over her row-mate. Of course, as the plane filled and seats became scarce the ranking system would kick-in to fill the plane. Something like this already exists in a less structured fashion on Southwest. The “cattle” system allows passengers to pick their own seats. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t allow the person already sitting any control over who sits next to them (And lord knows I’m always in the “C”, or last group to get on the plane. Who wants to get to the airport 3 hours early to get an exit row?).

The real solution to this problem is to only fly to and from one of three cities, San Diego, Scottsdale, or LA (on the weekend flights to Vegas). The concentration of attractive women in those cities is so high you are almost guaranteed a great flight unless, of course, you’re me. United, USAir, Northwest, and Hooters airlines should take note, there is money to be made from superficial passengers (Which is the majority of the world even though most are loath to admit it) via this scheme.

Monday, March 14, 2005

What The Hell Am I Going to Do?

I should begin by giving all of my faithful readers (At this point my mother and a few people who stumbled onto this page by accident. Sorry guys, there's no porn here.) a little background. I am a 30 year old Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at a major research university on the east coast. I have been here for 6 (count em', 6) years and am now faced with the possibility of actually getting out into the "real world" where supposedly all of this time and effort in graduate school will pay off in spades! That's what you believe, right? Many people believe that after getting a Ph.D. in chemistry at a great school I'd be beating off the employers trying to catch me before being out-bid for my vast breath and depth of talent. That is in no way, shape, or form the case.
The reality of graduate school in the sciences is that after spending some of the best years of your life betrothed to a despotic, megalomaniacal, passive-agressive dictator (Sometimes called a professor. We'll get into that later) you are usually pawned off to yet another professor to perform what is called a "Post-doc". This position involves one doing even more grunt work (Putting together experiments, albeit now supposedly completely independently. In reality, you set-up experiments and if they work, your advisor thought of them, if they don't, it was all you. In many ways it is similar to graduate school.) for a ridiculously low amount of money (~25K) for 2 or 3 years before you can even THINK about applying for actual positions. The "post-doc" was conceived for people who would like to be an academic professor (A perfect opportunity to inflict the pain imposed upon you onto others...) but, since everyone started doing them, it is almost impossible to get a job without one (Think of the MBA loop. Really, does an MBA provide the skills that 2 years in business could not? Almost definitely not but, guess what, everyone else has one so you now have to jump through the hoop as well.).
So here I am. I am going to graduate soon and I have to decide what I am going to do next. I can tell you this, bench-top science (That means working with wet chemicals in the lab for all of you non-science types) is OUT OF THE QUESTION. I usually get two responses when I tell people I am getting a Ph.D.. The first being "Wow, you must be really smart!", and the second "God, that sounds boring!". Both are correct. Of course, most people don't go to grad school for 6 years to find out that chemistry, in practice at least, is insanely monotonous (High school chemistry class was enough for most but, what the hell, I guess I’m a glutton for punishment) . Also, if you meet someone getting their Ph.D. don't automatically assume that they are intelligent. I've met some of the most unintelligent people (Socially and intellectually, a column I'll write later) in graduate school. I have to wonder what I have gotten out of all of this. I suppose my analytical skills have improved, I have made some great friends in the area, and the degree MAY help to open up some doors but was it all worth it? That is a question I can't (or refuse, for my own sanity) answer.
So, what is the next step? I have to admit, I wonder that myself. I am attempting to find a position in the business world. Something that will let me apply my knowledge of the theory and application of science (both still cool in my book) to schemes to make massive, massive, massive amounts of money. Fortunately, to most people, science is still a black box. Dark and mysterious it seems that you just throw a few things together and magic happens (The dark reality of graduate school is that this is often the case. Rational experimental design is quite often thrown out the window and the “try everything” approach applied. The results are then rationalized a posteriori. Was Feyerabend correct? I’d have to say no but he was more right than most people realize.). Fortunately, this perceived mystery of science increases my value as a degreed “expert” and allows me to translate the labyrinthine texts of my discipline for a fee. I can then determine how advances in science will affect the business environment. Did I have to go to grad school for that? Probably not. Will I even be happy surrounded by people mostly interested simply in making money for its own sake? I have no idea. I'd like to find that special something that makes me happy. Something that when I get out of bed in the morning I smile just thinking about. I have come to think that the "perfect job" is a fantasy and that if you are going to do something you might not love, you might as well get paid a boat-load for it. Is this selling out? Maybe, but don't worry, I won't give up looking for that one thing that makes me happy. If I find it, you will all be the first to know.

Blogwise - blog directory The Tangled Bank