Thursday, February 23, 2012

the problem with academia and a light in the face of that darkness

I had a breakthrough today in my graduate program, and I'm really happy about it. Lately, I have been feeling like I am running on a treadmill: working hard, going nowhere, and quickly losing energy. I kept trying to make contact with professors, looking for guidance on completing my master's thesis.

I am so passionate about my topic, yet academics find a way to smother that excitement with as much banality and specificity as possible. There are things I knew about academia before I came here, general rules about how academia works, its place in our society, and the culture of it. Here are some of them:

- write as obscurely as possible. that way, no one can critique your work because no one knows what you're talking about.
- pick obscure and highly technical topics. that way, no one can criticize you because no one knows what you're writing about.
- treat the scientific method as a religion. care only about the mighty power of the rational human mind, and scoff at anyone who defies the holy dogma of the Enlightenment.
- care about hierarchy and competition. always find a way to compare yourself to others.
- love individualism. don't help anyone, they're your competition. every man is for himself.
- when someone asks you something clearly and sincerely, give them book recommendations and talk about theories that have big words in them. that way, you won't reveal that you don't know anything about what they're asking.
- never say I don't know.
- promote yourself, market yourself, sell yourself. Always know how to answer the question: 'I am amazing because...'
- truly think that your work is important even while talking about the incremental nature of the scientific method.
- espouse ideas that are en vogue in the discipline, even if they're wrong or make little to no sense. academia is a religion with a thousand sub-cults.
- never tell a story or talk about emotions or senses in your research. stories are for novelists. never mind that they're more compelling. stories are for sissies (or, even worse, dumb people who don't understand logistic regression).

So, I forgot a little about these things last semester. I was all caught up in figuring out my place, goals, and life in this new program. I didn't see the world around me, or I was too cognitively occupied to notice these things. But this semester, these aspects of academia about which I learned in college have again come to light.

I was trudging along, trying to get help and meeting resistance by all members of the academic-stasi who shot down what I want to study, how I want to study it, and why it matters.

Ok, so here's what I care about. I think food matters. I think it matters in a lot of ways. It matters that people have enough to eat, it matters where it comes from, how it gets where it's going, who grows it, how they grow it, how people eat it, how people feel about all of these things. I want to tell a story about some aspect of food. I think stories are the best vectors for ideas. I know how to do statistics, I get good grades in math classes, I just think they're boring and arrogant.

So, my ideas were met with a lot of hostility both for the content and the methods by a lot of people. Yet, the clouds of skepticism broke for a moment today with the chair of our department. She not only nurtured my ideas, my way of thinking, but also filled me with more enthusiasm than I came in with. She pushed me to think about the classical theorists, to consider different ways of thinking about my problem, while also coming up with tangible goals toward a realistic master's project.

She and I discussed the silliness of purely rational thinking, how academics write obscurely and why, the futility of thinking only in terms of the scientific method. She gave me practical advice on how to approach difficult theories (read two interpretations of someone like Marx and then read Marx himself). On top of all this, she said she would be *honored* to be on my committee. Que simpatica.

My chair is a rare gem in this individualistic world of academia. She renewed the spark in me to learn for the sake of curiosity, not just because I'm doing it professionally. Without her, at this moment I'd be lost.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ranting Ron Paul in Idaho

I met Ron Paul in Friday. He was in town for a rally at University of Idaho's student center. I popped in to get a sort of anthropological sense of the event. Who would be there? How many people? What kind of rhetoric would Paul be spouting?

I stepped into the student center only to be greeted with a line of people waiting to get into the auditorium. What were they waiting in line for? The rally had already started. There was no chance that the people filling the auditorium would be leaving -- so what was the point of these people outside the auditorium standing in line? For a country that is remarkably selfish, I was surprised to see how these dumb people just stood around for no end. I walked right past the line to another entrance to the auditorium. I couldn't see Paul from where I was, but I could hear every word.

The place was packed. It was mostly students, but I don't know if that is because it was at a university, or because young people have been flocking to Ron Paul lately. The usual republican types were there -- the leather american flag jacket type, the collared shirt buttoned up to the top type, the old and racist-looking type -- but at least there were no corporate types. There were a decent amount of young student-types, and I couldn't tell if they were just gawking or supporters.

I like some of what Ron Paul had to say, mostly his anti-war policies along with his monetary policy. He knows it is expensive and reckless for the American military to go policing the world in our own interest. It is so rare to have a mainstream candidate spouting this kind of anti-military isolationism, and it is refreshing. I also really like his populist rants against the 1%. He knows that the reign of the monetary system in the country (and therefore the world) is over. The creation of fiat currency away from real value commodities like gold has been taken to an extremely abstract place. One where money doesn't really mean anything anymore since the idea of trading paper has been abused by financial investors for all of us.

But the flip side of Ron Paul's love for a gold standard is his love for true free market economics. Economies will not regulate themselves to do what is in the best interest of the common good. He thinks they will, and for this he is insane. He went on and on at his rally about how government is taking away civil liberties (which it is, NDAA), but governments don't necessarily do this. This reminds me of a few posts down when I added this Elizabeth Warren video from the Daily Show. Just because THIS government is corrupt and useless doesn't mean ALL governments are.

The governmental system in this country has most certainly already failed. It is not going  to fail, it has failed. That's for sure. The country is too big, too heterogeneous for a two-party system, too injected with capital to be any good for anyone but the already powerful. Yet, that doesn't mean that any government is necessarily bad. We need laws. Laws represent us coming together and agreeing that some things that people (or groups) do are not good for all of us.

Well, since I've given up hope that this country will turn around long ago, I guess Ron Paul is the best candidate for radical change. Even if his platform is really messed up in a lot of ways, at least we'd see some radical transformations under President Paul.

So, after the rally, I saw that Paul was exiting out of the side of the building. I quickly moved outside to the door where he'd be leaving. I was standing there alone. A crowd of a few thousand people and I'm the only one who thought to meet him at the exit? Hm, bunch of geniuses here in Idaho, I guess. I waited there casually as his security were covering the door, I pretended to be waiting for a friend and called Patrick.

He came out within a few minutes and I pointedly asked him if he would put the US back on the gold standard and get rid of fiat currency, something Max Keiser has been ranting about for a while now. I don't think he heard me, or thought I was crazy, so he kept on walking. Oh well. A moment alone with Ron Paul and I didn't even get him to do his little elfish gold dance. Dang.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The suburbs

"So can you understand why I want a daughter while I'm still young? I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done. But if it's too much to ask if it's too much to ask, then send me a son."

Will there be any beauty left to show? Maybe in some remote corner of the world, far enough away from the capitalists and the killers to have some beauty remaining. We'll go there and live a life that few in the world will ever experience again. One with cool shade under big trees and soft grass to walk on, clean water to drink and birds flitting through the trees. No sirens or smoke stacks or weapons. Just lemonade and fresh baked bread and warm blankets at night. Is it too much to hope for this life? Is it too much to ask? 

"So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass."

A motto for the rest of my life. I hope I can find some grass to lie in and show my children a world without concrete and polluted air. Where we don't have to worry about dying from cancer from all of the man-made chemicals in our daily lives. Where I won't die by car accident. Where breast milk isn't toxic. Somewhere where there are no suburbs.

Empire of illusion

"societies that break down economically... have political consequences that are immense."

Bleak, bleak, bleak. I read this book, "Empire of Illusion" by Chris Hedges years ago and all of his cassandra-like indicators of the death of this society are becoming more and more visible in our everyday realities.

We are living in Weimar Germany, we better get out of here before Hitler comes to power. Political boundaries matter in this era of nation-states. I know people like Sharon Astyk call people to adapt in place; not to move, but to make a home and a place wherever you happen to be. Yet, you can put up all the electrified fences you want, but you are not stopping the heavily armed American populace from stealing from your pantry once the supermarket shelves run dry.

Each day that passes induces in me more urgency to protect myself. I am not sure what my threshold is to finally stop preparing for my inevitable emigration, but just to pick up and leave. If it is not the passage of the NDAA, then what is it?

Maybe once the threat of physical violence to my person becomes salient, I will go. Either that or I graduate from school. Whichever comes first.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

life timeline

Sometimes I mention to someone that I have been some place, and then they ask, "when was that?" and I really have no idea when it was. So, I wrote myself a timeline of when I was where doing what in the world, and I am going to write it out here. Later, I can refer back to it if I ever need to know when I was, say, in India riding camels.

1985 - born in Oak Lawn, IL
1985 - 2003 in Chicago with a few trips around the midwest (esp. Michigan) and the occasional road trip to see my grandpa in Florida and a trip to NYC in high school
Fall 2003- Summer 2005 University of Chicago, school and some other misc. jobs like babysitting and building managing
Fall 2005 study abroad in Rome
Winter - Spring 2006 UChicago
Summer 2006 travelling and volunteering at an orphanage in Ecuador
Fall 2006 - Winter 2007 UChicago
Spring (break) 2007 Belize, Guatemala, Mexico
Summer 2007 babysitting full time in Chicago
Winter 2007/8 a short trip to Hawaii then to California from which I worked for Obama in Reno, NV. Then went skiiing in Colorado with my family. Then went on a road trip around California and Arizona
Spring 2008 Europe trip from Morocco to Turkey to Sweden to Ireland and everything in between
Summer 2008 babysitting full time in Chicago, trip to Miami, again to California where we do another road trip around the US southwest
Fall 2008 - Winter 2009 Asia: China, Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Taiwan
Spring 2009 trying to find work and subletting in San Francisco
Summer 2009 giving up on work and doing a camping road trip along the Pacific coast, yellowstone and WWOOFing in Washington
Fall 2009 WWOOFing in Italy and the middle east: Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Isreal
Winter 2010 training to be a truck driver - CDL in Modesto, CA
Spring 2010 truck driving
Summer 2010 back to Chicago with trips to Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec), and Florida and Georgia (Savannah)
Fall 2010 Chicago, babysitting and working at UChicago
Winter 2011 Chicago, WWOOFing in Wisconsin
Spring 2011 Chicago, Costa Rica
Summer 2011 Chicago, New York, Badlands National Park
Fall 2011 Pullman, WA, Boulder, Olympic National Park, Seattle, Yosemite
Winter 2011-12 Chicago wedding
Spring 2012 Pullman, Canada (Victoria and Vancouver)
Summer 2012 National Parks, NYC, Delaware, Argentina, Uruguay

Oh, isn't it great to be an American? being poor, body invasion, and illness on the Daily Show

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Money Talks - The Haves & the Soon-to-Haves
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

There has been such good analysis on the Daily Show lately. Firstly, this segment above displays the disgusting flip side to The American Dream. The positive side to the American Dream goes something like "well, if you just work hard enough you can be rich in America too! Anyone can make it big (i.e. become wealthy) in America, it is the land of opportunity."

The flip side of that dream, however, is that if you don't make it (which 99% of us, factually, don't), then it is because you haven't worked hard enough. You failed not because of the structural inequalities that work against you, but because you are fundamentally bad and lazy.

Well, people have been figuring out very slowly since the financial crash that maybe this dream is really a nightmare. It is a way of keeping us thinking that it is our fault if we are poor or in the debt of large corporations or the government. When in reality, many many people are losing their homes, savings, retirement, ability to eat. 14% of Americans are on food stamps. People are beginning to see that it is not just their own individual problem, they are gaining the courage to say: "this is what is happening to me, and it is not my fault."

Here's where this clip comes in. The people who have been perpetuating the American Dream are getting scared. These protectors of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else are trying to spin the American Dream 2.0. They claim we are a country not of haves and have-nots, but a country of haves and soon-to-haves. Oh, if only you work a little harder, you too can have wealth. It is a disgusting lie that has gone back to the beginning of this country's history, as explained thoroughly by Morris Berman in his most recent book "Why American Failed." 

Ok, onto the next clip:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Poor Pee-Ple
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Here there is something interesting happening, and it is not talked about explicitly in the clip, and that's the invasion of the bodies of U.S. citizens by the government. If the citizens of this country are not invaded enough through laws that allow corporations to rape us with debt and take any amount of wealth we save and redistribute it to the wealthy 1%, now there is the actual invasion of our bodies. 

There were signs of this bodily invasion before with the full-body scanners at the airport administered by the Transportation Security Administration. I went to the airport recently and asked if I could simply go through the metal detector instead of this full-body scanner, which I feel is an invasion of privacy. What can they find out by seeing the details of my body that they can't detect with a metal detector? So I refused to go through the body scanning machine and they said that I would then be subjected to a full-body pat-down. 

I was placed in a special holding cell and subjected to a pat down of every inch of my skin by the federal government. Although I prefer this to the radiation of the full-body scanner, both are an incredible invasion of my body and my privacy in the name of security. Just like torture, these tactics are advanced in the name of security, but are doing less to address the problems they seek to solve and instead manipulating powerless individuals according to the sadistic tendencies of an empire that is losing its grasp on world power.

The logic is that if you are taking taxpayer money, then you should be subjected to this screening so that the taxpayer isn't funding something like drug use. Yet, as with the clip above, this logic is only extended to recipients of welfare, or poor people. What about all the bank employees or auto company executives who took taxpayer money? What about government officials? Why does this logic not extend to them? Furthermore, why are drugs (especially marijuana) even criminalized in this country anyway? We have the largest incarcerated population of any nation on the planet, including China and India, but that's a discussion for another day.


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
David Agus
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

There are some important things being covered in this interview. One of the most important things discussed here, something I have been thinking about for a while, is the way Americans think of illness. The way we think of illness is influenced by the Enlightenment and the medical discoveries of that era. During that time, we discovered "bugs" (microbes) like bacteria and viruses that were external organisms which made their way into our bodies. We had to fight them as if they were a foreign invader. 

This way of thinking (fighting an illness that is external to us but temporarily in us), has pervaded our thinking about all illnesses from cancer to diabetes to depression. However, we now know that most illnesses, especially ones that are afflicting Americans in high numbers, are ones that are deeply a part of us. That is, cancer is a result of all of the genetics and environmental interactions your body has experienced throughout your life. It is not some external bug which happened to finally get into your body randomly, it is a part of your very body, a result of your body and your life.

That isn't to say that it is your fault, which is why most people prefer to think in terms of disease as a foreign invader. They want to absolve themselves of the responsibility of their bodily upkeep, and that is one way of looking at it. However, I think the most important lesson here is to recognize that a lot of what causes these illnesses is environmental. For cancer, there are clear environmental causes like interacting man-made chemicals in your body which you might not have even known existed in the products you buy (back to food quality/'s all connected). For depression, you live in a society where the external world tells you through advertising that you suck every day. If you only bought this product, maybe you wouldn't suck so badly.

So what happens is people get depressed or cancer or diabetes and they think of it as a disease which can be cured with a pill (like a microbe). But in reality this illness is a part of them, something caused by a lifetime of interacting with a toxic environment with chemicals (cancer), advertising (depression), or engineered high-fat processed foods (diabetes). 

My only problem with this doctor is that he is so hunky-dory about the solution, and even he is subjected to the individualistic way of looking at cures for these illnesses. That is, he claims if we only walk around then we will have less of these illnesses. Yet, there are structural constraints (cars, for example, or desk jobs), which stop people from enacting this seemingly simple solution. So, then people think "oh man, I just need to walk more," but then they go out of their house to try to go for a walk and find there are not sidewalks and cars are splashing dirty winter slush in their faces. 

It is important to remember BOTH that most illnesses are a part of you and all of the interactions between your body and the environment you've had AND that many of the causes of these illnesses are structural in nature and to start being skeptical of the way people do things since it is obviously not making them healthy. Pay attention to what you put in your mouth, in your eyes, ears, what you let touch your skin, what you breathe, how much you move your body. It all adds up, and if you maintain the status quo, especially in this country, you're more likely than not to end up on an array of pills for depression and blood pressure and pain killers (the pill-pushing is also part of the pharmaceutical industry's influence, but that's a discussion for another time...but it's all connected, again).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

may you live in interesting times

A few months back, when the occupy protests were new, one of our professors sent out an email to the graduate students about an "occupy the future" conference at Stanford. James F. Short Jr. an emeritus professor here at WSU, who is nearly 90 years old, sent this in reply:

This is an ambitious agenda, to say the least. We were at the CASB at
Stanford during the height of Viet Nam war protests and had the opportunity
to hear Linus Pauling and others speak at rallies and marches. While most
activities were peaceful, the Center was firebombed in what seemed obviously
to be a target of opportunity rather than a target of protest. It was an
exciting time to be alive, confirming the ancient Chinese curse: May you
live in interesting times! We appear to have two large-scale social
movements under way and headed for confrontation: the Tea Party, which has
had some time to mobilize politically, and the Occupy movement which has yet
to coalesce around central issues. The Tea Party seems likely to fragment as
it becomes increasingly involved in electoral politics. Perhaps the Stanford
movement can provide the intellectual capital and momentum to mobilize
campuses elsewhere. Stay tuned!

I keep thinking about this note he sent out, especially that center line: confirming the ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. I had never thought of it in that way, but since he said it something has become clear to me. I want an uninteresting life. My ultimate goal is to seek a life of simplicity, peace, and love. 

After I came to the fundamental realization that this world in which we live is not ok, I began to deconstruct why. At what point in history was it ok? The more I searched, the more I recognized that it was the times in human history that were not under the purview of an empire that were probably the most simple and happy times to live. Sure, in ancient Rome they had lipstick, but they also had slaves and death matches for sport. I want to be in a place that doesn't matter, off a "little road barely on the map" as Feist puts it. 

After years of seeking out the most extreme lifestyles my time and place in history allowed me to try, I have decided that all I want in life is to live a life that is above all uninteresting. I think this is the least risky life to lead, truly, and those who think it is taking a risk to break from the status quo should talk to anyone who lived in europe during WWII. They would've taken uninteresting over mass killings any day. Give me knitting by a fire, you can have your collapsing empire.

the dream of the 1890's

This is funny. However, I am still not sure how much of this show just makes fun of everything to the point that it is totally nihilistic. I mean, if you make fun of everything and everyone, what do you believe in? On the other hand, they're comedians and the point is satire, and with that in mind this show is perfect.

But deep down I do love the 1890's. Actually, I take that back, the 1890's were too tumultuous (although it would have been fun to live in montmarte in paris at that time). I am thinking small-town Europe in the mid-1400's. Quiet, simple and beautiful. No industry, machines, petroleum. Just bakers and cobblestone and stone churches and leather and wells. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

college is a rip off

Whole paradigms are shifting.

food security

How much do you think about food security? I never experienced a life in which I didn't have enough to eat, but food security means more than that. It means that you have both enough to eat and food of good enough quality so that you are able o maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.

According to this understanding, 1 in 6 Americans are food insecure, and this number has been on the rise. How does this happen in a country with such an overabundance of agricultural products that we export food? Well, firstly, there are simply poor people who do not get enough money for food through their jobs, food stamps or other welfare benefits.

However, there is also the question of access to quality food. The most simple way quality results in food insecurity is that people who cannot afford to buy more nutritious food for their families resort to calorie-dense but incredibly unhealthy foods such as chips or pop.

However, the more I learn about toxins that are all over the food produced by industrial agriculture, the more I think this definition of quality should be extended to include access to truly safe food.

Is this potato safe to eat?

Some of the most common produce items that people buy have been labelled the dirty dozen and should be bought organic due to the incredible amounts of pesticides they are doused in. How much does this matter to food insecurity? There are unknown chemicals saturating our daily food intake and there is no understanding of the effects of these chemicals as well as the effects of the cross-reactions between these chemicals in our bodies.

One way to solve this problem is to grow food yourself. In your backyard. Then you know where it's coming from, and it tastes better anyway. I think I want to do my master's thesis on this topic: how does household food growing help to address food security?