Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Four Pillars and economic Yoga!: Saving the World is More Than an Idea


= The Four Pillars of True Power in Respectful Confrontation. An important caveat when referring to power:

"a distinction needs to be made between true power and brute force... [The] old-fashioned view of power is not what I would call true power but rather a strategy to use brute force to impose one's will and ensure one's success at the expense of others. George Washington, ... said, "Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused by licentiousness."" - Joe Weston (link to the program website, which I highly recommend in order to feel and and experience the technique.)

As an electrophysiologist, the Four Pillars brought to mind a mechanical model I'm familiar with: the vibration isolation tables that are critical for stable recordings of ion channel and neuronal or muscle fiber activity. (Another intuitive analogy might be the shock absorbers and tires on a car.) When one of the four pillars is overinflated, the vibration isolation function is compromised. A truck or train going by outside, or even someone closing a door down the hall, rapidly spells disaster for the experiment.

Building on meditation and martial arts traditions, the Four Pillars were designed with the intention of improving communication. That is to say communication in conventional linear mode — those times in face-to-face conversation when it's important to be heard.

For the purposes of this post, I'm expanding the model to include the world as described by the parameters presented in "on a World that isn't Round," namely, the Earth (grounding), politics (focus), the global economic system (strength), and all of us (flexibility).

Using the Four Pillar model of the world it's easy to see what the majority of us intuitively know. The economic 'pillar' of our world is overinflated (1). The non-linear model of Mitra et. al. (2015) is undoubtedly, a more accurate descriptor for the complexity of cause and effect, though computing power is required to use it.

No amount of fiddling with human behavior to adjust health, effectiveness, satisfaction and the meeting of needs will be successful at bringing the world back from precipices of crisis, climate or otherwise, without simultaneously reducing the over-inflation of economics. It is only in the context of changing the nature of the economic system that individual efforts to improve communication and life will begin to change the dynamics of our world. No matter where specific needs are situated on Maslow's hierarchy, due to economic stressors individual needs aren't being met and inequalities continue to be reinforced.

"It is the very 'nature' of alienated labor that one has no choice but to work against the interests and needs and desires of one's own being." - McKenzie Wark in Anthropocene Denial Bingo

My prescription for our world based on the above observations is economic Yoga.

economic Yoga is individuals and, more importantly, institutions and governments slowly and carefully releasing 'air' out of the economic system ― the over-inflation of which has disabled function of our politics, institutions, individuals, and the planet.

Because they are working from within the economic 'pillar,' efforts of Wall Street, big banks, and the Fed aimed at keeping the economical system and corporations 'afloat' have done little to correct the height of the economic pillar relative to the others. That's because of the basic assumption that our current economic system is the only way to manage the exchange of goods and services. One result: over-compression of other pillars and not enough 'air' in the cogs and joints of individuals for individual efforts to correct the imbalance. Another result: depriving 'third world' countries of the richness of their own resources by forcing them into the existing system.

As things are, because of our dependence on the inanimate indifferent intermediate of the dollar, individual efforts and the decisions and actions of politicians, institutions and the global aid industry often exacerbate, rather than heal, existing inequalities and imbalances between nations, races and genders.

My vision of what economic Yoga looks like isn't The Man Who Quit Money, Daniel Suelo, giving up money entirely and living alone in a cave ― however laudable the individual asethetic effort may be. When I ask myself what the end point of economic Yoga might look like, I am reminded once more of Donna Haraway's imaginary of the Chthulucene:

"the dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake." Because "Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge."

Donna Haraway recognized the need to reconstitute refuges:

"to make possible partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and recomposition."

Like the name Chthulucene implies, Haraway offers little practical beyond the idea of returning to cultural habits more appreciative of the Earth and "making kin," which does appear to being happening on the Internet in a perverse sort of way (2).

My vision for economic Yoga addresses problems most of us face in the way our economic system and lifestyles are currently structured. It provides an alternative with which to augment existing social services (or Universal Basic Income). economic Yoga would reconstitute community, provide opportunities for training in multiple disciplines, and prevent some of inequalities the pursuit of a single career path and the definition of success in our society encourage.

economic Yoga is a reawakening of the practice of apprenticeship. The idea is an extension from community gardens, 'family projects' from my younger years, and house and barn building projects from days before I was born, as well as my time at Antaiji and Green Gulch Farm. As previously recognized, there aren't enough monasteries in the world to accommodate all those involved in meditation practices, nor should religion, philosophy, or race be a requirement. Moreover, the types of apprenticeships in typical monastic settings — the few that remain — are limited in the type of training and a greater diversity is necessary if apprenticeships are to be more broadly applicable.

Some proposed details for economic Yoga include shifting to a three-week work month, the fourth week to be spent on a community apprenticeship project. It should begin at an early age (12?) and represent a service payment towards social services including housing, food, health care, day care and an additional contribution to retirement. economic Yoga should also provide a path distinct from higher education and/or military service for some of the same types of positions. Community projects could include gardens, projects and services approved via small grant applications; apprenticeships could include apprenticeship employment with a variety of institutions and firms. People in high level positions should take time to work at more manual, though different tasks; unemployed or underemployed should be given priority for institutional and corporate apprenticeships - in this way we all benefit from interacting with a broader range of people.

In addition to reconstituting community, economic Yoga increases opportunities for interdisciplinary innovation both between individuals via the creative flux inherent in interactions across disciplines, and within the same individual because of exposure to a greater diversity of thought and life modalities.

(1) My definition of inflation and deflation are intuitive and do not necessarily correspond to the classic definitions.

(2) I consider the possibility that the 'sense' of perversity is an emotional reaction to the limits of our cognitive capacity to 'grasp' the non-linearity of cause-and-effect which via the Internet is increasingly perceptible. Those with strong ties and responsibilities in daily life perceive these identities and events as correlations because of the focus of their attention. Those with weaker ties in daily life have cognitive space in which to perceive the sometimes-visible-sometimes-not shimmering strands of cause-and-effect.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

of a World that isn't Round: My ActionPlan For How To SavetheWorld (II)

I'm looking at you from what may as well be the opposite side of the Universe. The realization I need to share is that our world isn't round.

Our world isn't even round plus time.

The conglobulate world we live in is an amoebic shape stretched along a multitude of dimensions we often only gain awareness of when things go wrong.

In fact, right now, a lot of 'things' are wrong. The perception that things are 'right' is the delusion. And one of the most problematic features of the delusion is that it's being manufactured by the corporate powers that increasingly control our lives. No one has to be a buddha to perceive the truth behind the delusion. We each momentarily perceive the delusion of 'rightness' with each new disaster ― whether that disaster directly and immediately affects us, or not.

Some of the parameters that define the world we live in include: (A) planet Earth, distances, time and the climate crisis, (B) the global economic system, (C) politics* and (D) our individual lives and perceptions.

* In fact, B and C are so entangled as to be inseparable; so B and C should logically be combined into one variable: C/B.

In this world of ours:


One of the biggest disasters getting news coverage, especially with the Paris talks right around the corner, is climate change ― marked by scientists as the onset of the Anthropocene. As recognized increasingly by politicians and the media, the prospects for the human species and the rich diversity of life on planet Earth will be terrifying within a generation if we, as a collective human species, fail to change course. In fact, amoeba or amoeba-like organisms could end up being one of the few life forms left.

Unfortunately, even if the Paris talks meet with success and countries promise to reign in carbon emissions to minimize the duration of the worst effects on our environment, the promised changes will likely fall short of their target because, as recognized in the recent paper by Burke et. al. (2015), not all dimensions of the true nature of the world we live in will have been integrated and therefore the root causes of global warming will not have been addressed.


As with global warming, we have already passed the threshold for economic collapse. Every dollar has already been 'promised' over ten times between different interdependent coorporations and institutions that are the drivers of industrialization and technology. It is only by juggling the promise of this false money -- which almost might as well be monopoly money -- that corporations are managing to convince most of us that 'business as usual' is possible.


Whether referring to gridlocked governance within or between nations, political collapse occurred when corporations gained control of our governments and governments ceased serving citizens. Politicians are dependent on corporations for their election. National and international negotiations no longer serve either citizens or nations because corporations have vested interest in multiple countries for materials, labor, and logistics. The means of production that contribute to the Anthropocene are the same, whether for the 'individual' or for the 'state', so differences in existing political ideologies and philosophies cannot be held solely accountable. Furthermore, whether via corporations buying-off politicians and media for elections, or via petitions asking for donations from citizens already experiencing economic hardship, we as citizens are subsidizing the inseparable entanglement of corporations, governments and nations through a transference of cost.


We are being assimilated.

We are being assimilated by a technology that, in the best of our imaginations, was intended to give each human being equal voice. However, the desired equality has already been compromised by propogandic manipulation, biased algorithms, and technological warfare. Moreover, increased quantities of data are accompanied by increased risks for misinterpretation, misrepresentation and falsification.

The invasion of privacy that has accompanied the increased reliance on the technologically-driven Internet is a continuation of the chain of events that began with the disruptive effects of industrialization on community and family. But is an increase in technology-mediated communication an adequate substitute for community, friendships established through experience, and family, given that so many cues to normal communication are absent? What happens when individuals chose not to respect even direct long term interactions? The intrusion on privacy that may initially seem like nothing more than a pin-prick of irritation in exchange for convenience reaches more serious proportions when combined with the mentally stressful effects on attention span and the decreased opportunities for and effectiveness of interactions in real life. Yet most all of us are already invested.

The methods we, in first world countries, are relying on for self improvement, stress reduction and increased efficiency are methods that have already sold out to, been co-opted by, the stress producing systems the methods are supposed to counter-act. For example, just think of all the pharmaceutical companies and psychoanalysts that would go out of business if corporations and governments produced reductions in war induced post-traumatic stress disorder, gun violence, violence against women, and family and work related stress and depression. (Dear Twitter, I imagine changing the favorites symbol from a star to a heart was probably well-intended, but the change adds insult to injury when either rude commentary or reports on violence are favorited, may place women of other cultures at further risk, and is not adequate compensation for the harm individuals belonging to oppressed groups currently may experience as result of using the service.)

The whole world
In a dewdrop not knowing
It's overdue.

Whether people believe in climate change or not, the bigger problem is that the 'patches' our governments and corporations have been negotiating and designing to provide solutions isn't taking enough of complexity into account. Whether the solutions have been temporarily effective or not, the solutions have increased the overall complexity of the world we live in — the result being a further increase in the difficulty of producing changes in momentum due to inertia. Up until now, the 'patches' have been linear solutions attempting to resolve the problems inherent in a nonlinear, multi-dimensional system.

This post has been a non-data driven attempt to provide further definition to the variables suggested by Mitra et. al.'s model (2015) in order to use the model to address climate change. On first reading, L, latitude describes the flexibility of individuals; R, resistance, describes our political-economic system; and Pr, precariousness, describes the climate crisis.

Because multiple crises exist in the world we inhabit, it seems dangerous to solely rely on promises made by governments regarding carbon emissions. In my next post I hope to suggest a method that might be used affect each of the parameters in a concerted beneficial way. Possibly scientists with access to the necessary resources can use existing data to determine whether the suggestion would have a chance in hell of producing the desired effects overall.

Special thanks to David Chandler who, even though he doesn't follow me, happened to miraculously reference Mitra et. al. (2015) as I was writing this post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My #ActionPlan For How To #SavetheWorld (I): Statement of the Problem

An Open Letter To Presidential Candidates, the President, Congress and the World:

Whether we acknowledge the reality of global warming or not, most of us sense and acknowledge the stresses of a world that is drastically out of balance. The variety of ills our countries and cultures face is at odds with how the world ought to be given the good will, kindness, patience and effort most of us already exhibit on a daily basis.

For evidence of a world out of balance we need look no further than the electoral system in the United States, broken by gerrymandering and Citizen's United, and the gridlock in Congress, which like the dysfunction of our daily lives, have become standard fare and deny citizens the effect of their vote even if the favored candidate is elected.

The gridlock of government is reflected in the hundreds of petitions that regularly accumulate in my email inbox addressing a diversity of issues. One more way that we, as individuals, are asked to demonstrate resilience and pick up the tab for dysfunctional government and economic systems.

The myriad issues that need to be addressed include the prison-industrial complex, black lives matter, militarization of police, starvation and homelessness, the immigration and refugee crisis, health care, education, social security, endangered species, unrest and war in a number of countries, and an increased frequency in natural disasters caused by an increasingly unstable environment.

The need for, not only individual, but systemic change has reached a critical, code red, level.

Photo of Hurricane Patricia from NASA via @NEWeatherWx

The need for, not only individual, but systemic change has reached a critical, code red, level. One way that government and corporations have attempted to address the crisis -- and another way that individuals are picking up the tab -- is an invasion of privacy that borders on harrassment of every citizen in the name of surveillance and datafication for corporations and the NSA. Furthermore, the convenience promised by the computerized wireless system that increasingly runs our lives is quickly belied by frustration when the underlying infrastructure causes errors which no corporation has clear responsibility for and the individual is forced to take extra steps to correct. If more individuals could take time out from their day-to-day activities we might hear a collective scream in response to this parasitic invasion of our minds and lives.

It shouldn't be a surprise that as individuals we need more from our governments, the United Nations, and NGOs than a greater diversity in the colors and slogans for our t-shirts and magazine covers to address the above issues and the disasters of the day, though it is not my intention to be disrespectful of great sacrifice. Celebritization of our politicians rewards rash rather than reasoned behavior, is financially wasteful in astronomical proportions and distracts from the serious problems at hand rather than working toward solutions. Especially in first world countries the cost of the infrastructure and logistics on which we depend to live our daily lives exceeds what the individual is able to produce. We have reached a point in the story of humans as a species in which no amount of meditation, yoga, recycling or individual planning will pull the human race and the planet back from the brink.

The brink of what? The Anthropocene, an epoch in our planet's history in which the boundaries of sustainability have been exceeded. World-wide systemic change at the levels of governments and corporations is needed to support individual effort. Without drastic systemic change our governments, militaries, the United Nations and NGOs are, in effect, lost in debates and uncoordinated efforts to plug up the cracks of a pressure cooker of a planet and society that will give rise to increasing levels of devastation and, in a generation or two, most likely will burst.

In the writing of this special thanks go to Matthieu Ricard, David Chandler and contributors to #spir700, various individuals of the San Franscisco Zen Center, and Joe Weston and group.

In this group everyone is included!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

It's My Metaphor and I'll Cry if I Want To*

The title of this post is derived from of one of the chapter titles of a book that 'jumped out' from the poetry shelves at a bookstore in Mill Valley called: How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster. (The actual title of the Chapter is 'It's My Symbol and I'll Cry if I Want To.) I haven't had the chance to read more than a few passages out of the book yet. But what I did read resonated deeply. Namely, a section that discusses that whatever authors write inevitably gets transformed in readers minds into different contexts than what was the authors' intention. He adds that this is part of the mystic of literature and poetry. And that in present day, initially authors can be disturbed by the transformation process but need to learn to accept it as a cultural given.

There is one particular haiku that I wrote that has been interpreted entirely differently from the actual intended meaning. This particular haiku has caused a substantial amount of reactivity in myself and others which continues to this day, so the context in which it was written is worth reviewing in order to put it to rest and re-assert the original context.

During spring season at Antaiji, we often were working in the fields in incessant rain. There was no clothes drier at Antaiji and it would take clothes several days to air dry. Speaking for myself, the situation was aggravated by the fact that that I hadn't been able to find my rain pants when packing in preparation for the trip. (My husband typically neglected to put away gear after he went canoeing.) In short, the rain pants I had were borrowed and didn't fit. Whatever pants I was wearing got soaked within five or ten minutes of being out in fields. The haiku, though not one I particularly like:

A storm: hard to walk --
When you're dripping wet, and when
Sitting, drips stain cloth.

I know this haiku got taken out of context, largely due to the presence of a poet that would often mix zen with more erotic haiku. I particularly loved the haiku in the zen vein but, speaking for myself, I found some of the other haiku problematic. I was aware that he was part of a group of writers that 'corralled' women to form attachments and make choices they wouldn't have made outside of this active process. Given the poet's tendency to anger quickly we developed an antagonist relationship, though I kept him within view -- largely due to the subliminal details in his haiku, information he shouldn't have had access to.

The transformation of symbols, metaphors, etc as they metamorphose through online environments can give rise to some very spurious results. But the inclusion of subliminal facts that individuals should be unaware of makes it particularly problematic and can have a hypnotizing effect since the process is out of writers' control. Unfortunately, for women, the 'corralling' process is not unlike that described in an article about the Congo from the Huffington Post that refers to 'male bonding' as a motivating factor, though I still think a sense of entitlement is also a cause.

Thankfully, the on-line environment is not real life, though it has real life consequences. And how are affected women supposed to deal with a trauma they don't have any evidence for and whose lives aren't respected?

Pennies In Her Eyes*

I'm about to leave for a meeting next week. Some old favs from poetry days gone by to tide you over. (Any corrections will probably have to wait until I get back.)

A Chord-uroy Poem

I missed you when you
Were a pair of cords.
So now I draw the sky
In flannel sheets for winter,
Extra protection against the cold,
And take comfort in the landscape
Of ridges on a second down cover.

The hoody is a familar face
Too, in these differing climes,
No eyes or mouth if
You toe it right and don't lose
Your teeth or easy with
A tee, and lasting through
Multiple gigs and infusions.

I'll have you know, as a girl
I loved the vintage look,
Or brown-black velvet,
Smooth to the touch
To go with my Docs and leather.
And drums were my chime. Now
I knit socks. I'd ask what size, but
I don't really think you need them.
This poem has feet and wears socks
In mix and match colors.


Meet you
at the end
of the rainbow
where there are pennies
for our eyes.


Sometimes Empty & Sometimes Full

Of us and of us,
these two worlds I drift through,
this one born of shock.
Who knows which is more real?
Does it even matter, except
to the sadness this happiness carries?
There is so much eavesdropping
and fault finding, no matter
where I find myself or who judges.
Are these straights a way
or another sensation,
the outflows of which
are just as untrustworthy as the rest,
and so, a perception that loses me?
If I backtrack my passing, I find
the crossroads of March in Mays
and barely know why I took that turn in time, except
for the half flickering signs and the observation
that everything I see and write comes true,
though differently... and in the realm of duality.
Is letting go losing me and finding you?
Where do I go for my undoing? There are places and times, and fountains of you
I've barely said hello to, much less gotten to know, touch the walls of, or wander through.


She wanders through you
in the pouring rain to find
flowers for Buddha.



We walked the unreal.
Clouds grazed vacuously
Across sky's surface.
Only, that word. Only
Dipping into the green
Mountain presence
In one location
As if it were fog.
As if. Into, then into


Even the sky grays
As helicopters bring in
More wounded and dead.


Measures & Weights of Things

The mind works it's abacus
Casting it's weights
In columns only it sees.
The sums cancel each other
out & add up
Upto some other thing,
Immeasurable like sky.
How quickly
The hands move
When moving in this dark dust,
Dust-filtered light
Through substances
Fragile, breakable, tender.


Someday, when we are gone from this world
My dust will know your dust
So well, no-one will be able to tell us apart.
My soul will know your soul
So intimately, there will be no need
For stories or secrets,
Though it will be pleasant
Just to hear your voice.
Somedays, I know we have already
Come from there.
It doesn't matter how many
Clouds there are.
Today the sky is perfectly
Blue and clear.


Another hundred
Folks unfollowed I won't miss
And that's a sorrow?

Artist: Natasha Nicholson


You gave me the map
To my soul, but I am still
Trying to find shoes.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (IV): Patriarchy and the ball-and-chain mechanism of inactivation.

I'm referring to mechanisms of inactivation of potassium ion channels in allusion to the accumulation of negative effects in women's careers.

In truth, the multi-factorial formula that slows advancement is much the same for all oppressed populations, although the 'contents' of specific variables differ (income, gender, sexuality, race and cultural constructs of language and socialization). Two variables that are universal in the equation of oppression, however, are (a) blame/responsibility (b) the indifference of power. Power, like money, is an indifferent intermediate that magnifies errors in perception and communication. (Hopefully, I'll have a chance to write more about these variables and how I think they work in a different context.)

In this post, I'm turning back even further in the past to present more details that I'll use in a subsequent post(s) to suggest possible improvements in academia in relation to the Pipeline Problem. I'm also turning back to describe the reasons I felt I had reached a tipping point as function of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics. When I, myself, looked back on my CV, there were enough times when my career had stalled, even before the hostile takeover -- at least on paper.


While growing up, I received a quadruple dose of keeping the peace -- most often by staying silent, giving in and finding a 'work-around' to obstacles. I was (1) a girl, (2) an only child of (3) immigrant parents doing their best to fit in and succeed in a new culture. The fact that we moved several times as my father moved up the corporate ladder meant that my parents were my only source of a sense of stability. Their disagreements felt earth-shattering. I learned to adapt as much as possible to avoid the discomfort of argument which, as for many couples, were typically triggered by minutia without addressing root causes. My father having to lay off 40 engineers due company restructuring -- a shock to my parent's idealized American dream --, the death of my brother a few days after birth, and the stresses of immigrants trying to fit in, to name a few.

My Undergraduate Years: Psychology and the Transition to Neuroscience

I grew comfortable in the realm of ideas while growing up, so it's not much of a surprise that I chose undergraduate work in Psychology.
I loved Psychology and Sociology coursework and appeared to have an affinity for it. After completing the degree requirements for a double major, however, I instead decided to pursue studies in Neuroscience, in particular, Auditory Neurophysiology.

The decision was motivated by several factors. First and foremost, I had become enthralled by the possible existence of neurons acting as feature detectors for phonemic distinctions. Scientific understanding of auditory processing lagged behind the understanding of visual processing for which feature detectors had been found. I rationalized that auditory physiologists might not have been looking at the right features. If phonemic feature detectors could be found, at least for the phonetic distinctions already present at birth, it might then be possible to work backwards to find organizing principles for sound, and gain understanding beyond the processing of pure tones and noise and the localization of sound that were the focus of researchers at the time.

My switch to Neuroscience and an academic career as a researcher also was motivated by my experience of psychology in practice. More advising and/or a strong meditation practice back then might have affected my decision. It's difficult to look back and say for certain now.

My honor's thesis, a multi-variate analysis of the factors affecting parents ability to cope with having a developmentally disabled child, was emotionally draining. I had designed a questionnaire which, if I recall correctly, was sent out to approximately three hundred couples whose addresses were supplied by an organization affiliated with the Department. There was an approximately 80% response rate. I scored the answers myself -- no need for a double-blind since most of the questions were multiple choice, although often parents provided additional comments. They were a personally invested population. For myself, the process of going through the questionnaires was emotionally charged with empathic resonance. Some of the couples had gotten divorced and, in some cases, the children had died. I remember being upset that the organization hadn't kept their mailing list up-to-date. The pain and anger of some of those couples was palpable.

In an irony of ironies, I didn't learn that my little brother had died of a severe case of Down's Syndrome, such a severe case that he couldn't process food, until the mid-1990s when my mother and I were discussing my having children. I wonder whether either of my parents were at all haunted by my thesis topic. Even I, in retrospect, wonder why I chose it. Was it a subconscious wish to understand problems in my own family? Either way, plenty of reason for empathic resonance with minimal resources for coping.

In terms of advising, I wonder that no one asked how I was coping. In addition, although theses were still commonly referenced in papers in those days, I'm surprised my advisor didn't suggest publication, especially since the thesis won an award.

Another experience that deterred my enthusiasm in the practice of psychology was my own experience with counseling. Not the same as clinical psychology or psychiatry to be sure, but I became familiar with how insensitive counseling could be in spite of the supposed intention to help.

I went to counseling towards the end of my undergraduate years because I knew I needed to escape from the beginnings of domestic abuse in my first marriage. I had gotten married during the summer after my freshman year, most likely in an attempt to find stability after my parents' divorce. As a married undergrad I was working 20-30 hours per week in addition to a full course load and my honor's thesis research and didn't have much of a social life. As I became more successful at school and found a job with United Cerebral Palsy of Vermont (instead of working retail as I had before that), a rift in the relationship appeared and grew. I had written papers on domestic violence and knew the situation wasn't going to get better and that I had to leave. The counselor I saw suggested I leave immediately even though Christmas was only a few days away. I couldn't bring myself to leave my husband's family with that 'gift' for their holiday. During my next appointment, the counselor decided I wasn't really motivated to leave and recommended a 'great' psychotherapist -- my thesis advisor, a real conflict of interest in my opinion. I left the counselor's office and never looked back. I asked for a divorce when I left for graduate school.

Graduate School

For graduate school I was hoping to backdoor my way into the Neurophysiology program at the University of Wisconsin, which at the time was the most well known for Auditory Physiology in the world. 'Backdoor' because I had made the decision to switch rather late in terms of the timing of applications. Also, in my opinion, it was the only program that had the reputation suggesting the search of phonemic features would get done. The professor I written a book chapter on phonemic distinctions for recommended I attend my first Gordon conference (!!!). While there, he suggested I meet with a colleague from the Communicative Disorders Department at UW that was also at the conference. It was a great conference and I was accepted into the Communicative Disorders program and assured of a research assistant position when I arrived. My hope was that I would be able to arrange to perform the research on phonemic distinctions as part of either the Communication Disorders or Neurophysiology programs.

I was never given the chance. As it turned out, within a week or two of arriving on campus, I went to visit the professor I had decided was most likely to have the enthusiasm and interest in the project based on the papers I'd read and essentially received a polite, but blank stare. There were a lot of auditory physiology professors on campus so I ended up spending many late nights helping one of the teams record cortical responses to pure tones and noise while also completing a Master's thesis on a completely unrelated topic which, honestly, I had only minimal interest in (though it fit with the interests of the lab in which I was employed).

Part of the difficulty I was to encounter during my graduate years was a heavy bias against my undergraduate Psychology/Communication Disorders degree and a bias towards a common core of coursework in the 'hard' sciences. Speaking for the Psychology Department, I consider that bias unfounded. None of the coursework in my graduate years provided as sound a training in scientific methodology and ethics than what I received as an undergraduate. In fact, there were numerous instances in which I was surprised by the comparative laxity. For example, it took awhile to get used to the much lower n (number of observations in a given category) for experiments. Further, because of low observational counts, statistical comparisons were often oversimplified. Low n could be rationalized based on the increased difficulty of experiments and greater control of 'environmental' factors compared to research with human subjects. Based on what is now known about genetic variability in its various forms that rationale is obviously an assumption. I still remember my days at Yale buying seaweed to nurse Aplysia back to health in the attempt to induce the bursting state of the channel that was the basis of my Nature paper. There were several months out of the year and especially after storms along the coast that channels in the bursting state were almost non-existent.

During my masters years I took courses in Statistics, Fortran and Engineering in addition to the more standard departmental coursework. [My first encounter with sexism in academia that I had no trouble identifying as such was when I received a B+ instead of an A in Engineering. Even though I had higher overall numeric score than one of the male students receiving an A. When I asked the professor he said it was because my last exam score (non-cumulative) was lower than for the first three -- the very exam I'd asked to reschedule because I was in court finalizing my divorce an hour before; I had requested an alternate time for the exam as soon as I was notified of the court date, but he'd denied the request. The overall effect of that specific instance, however, was minor compared to the effects of sexism overlapping with other biases.] I also regularly attended the Auditory Physiology departmental Journal Club. I hadn't given up on my dream of having the chance to look for phonemic detectors.

I was admitted into the Neuroscience Ph.D. program after receiving my Master's and officially began working in the lab I had frequented during earlier years. To my dismay, I was again penalized for my Psychology degree in spite of my masters coursework. My advisor recommended, and the advisory committee agreed, that I needed to go back and pick up more common core coursework in addition to the normal requirements.

Another factor that might have contributed to my advisory committee penalizing me with extra coursework was my test scores. My Miller Analogy and GRE scores were average. I was off the charts on the analytic portion of the GREs, but that portion of the test was new and didn't count. In those days, it wasn't yet the trend to spend a significant amount of time prepping for those exams. And knowing what I know about how the tests are designed I'm inclined to suggest that one reason my scores weren't higher was due to cultural differences. My parents' own socialization had been limited by the difficulties they experienced during World War II. For example, I was surprised to find out my father, although an extremely intelligent man, had not heard of Freud. Finally, my scores might have been affected by a mild case of dyslexia I believe I have but have never taken the initiative to be formally diagnosed with. At any rate, even though I wasn't bothered too much by average, it's possible the advising committee was.

I absolutely loved Physics, but all together the coursework was too time consuming in terms of the big picture when I look back on my CV now. In addition, at least in my view, most scientists pick up the necessary information readily along the way and learn better through active involvement doing the experiments. Over the years I found the extra coursework wasn't very useful and had contributed very little to my research.

During my first year in the auditory lab I was part of another collaborative project. Then, instead of being allowed to take the reins and look for phonemic detectors, I was assigned a morphological experiment that required my reinventing the wheel to look at pathfinding of neuronal tracts in the developing cochlea. In retrospect, an implicit bias on the part of the advisor likely suggested that being in charge of recording experiments wasn't the best choice for a girl. As I read the literature on the inner ear, I fell in love both with the aesthetic beauty of the cochlea, mechanisms of resonance, and ion channels. When the University hired an ion channel physiologist, I switched labs and for the next four years worked with the best Zen teacher I've ever had (!) even though he was Baptist. Although I already had developed a desire to investigate the ion channel mechanisms giving rise electrical resonance in the cochlea, the questions we were addressing in terms of the mechanisms regulating ion channels in Schwann cells and axons of the sciatic nerve were close enough.

During my first year we performed experiments together. I learned all the basic techniques, tissue culture, analyzed data -- everything except actual recording. When I finally was allowed to record channel activity on my own I had miraculously acquired a perfect sense of the technique required for patch clamping, which works a little like surfing in terms of the interface between the experimenter and recording equipment, i.e. a certain amount of skill and sensitivity (to the un-initiated, perhaps best understood as a form of balance in the comparison to surfing) was required. In later years, especially at Yale, I had to smile to myself a little when people wanted to learn how to record using the patch clamp technique in a day.

I ended up winning another thesis award for my I felt I had finally thrown off the bias associated with my Psychology degree and the run-around I received while trying to get the opportunity to pursue the search for phonemic feature detectors. I was in business! (After nine years in graduate school and all the while accumulating student loan debt... Though at least those debts were nothing like they are in the present day.)

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (III)

I'm writing about failure. You'd rather hear about success. We all would. Whether on the level of individuals or international policy and politics, failure is a drag. If I write about failure you might recognize yourself in the story.

It's our instinct to want to transcend. Turn the page, start a new chapter. Start a new conversation, all the while evading the more difficult, potentially confrontational one.

We transcend because time keeps going. We're propelled into the future before we understand the present whether we like it or not. And we keep going in the hope we'll have better 'luck' next time. But evading isn't transcending. And, in some cases, the conversation's been attempted too many times with an individual incapable of listening, unwilling to change, or in which bad communication habits have grown too deeply engrained.

To the people I care about, and that's all of you and any person reading this even if in real life it would be unlikely we'd get along (due to differences in politics, ethics, or whatever), please take the time to listen to Tim Wise's "White Like Me" about racism and sexism. About how even those intending no harm can cause harm.

In fact, it's so very ordinary and normal that if we comment on what's happening it's very easy to be "othered" and then the informational content of the message goes unheard.

In these days of the Internet if the conversation is public, as in the recent case of Tim Hunt, the key point gets lost due to mob reactivity. Women students in academia typically ARE more emotional in their expressions of sadness, hurt and disappointment. More senior women learn to suppress and internalize those emotions because emotional expression is badly received and, more importantly, they learn that the intellectual content of what they're saying gets lost. Tim Hunt's joke was not only in bad taste, it WAS sexist in the context of the meeting. Although it contained some truth, just like more rude comments about women's appearance, it distracted from women's overall intellectual contribution and added one more comment to the mountains of obstructions women have to overcome to be heard. It's more than sad that Hunt and St. Louis had to cope with mob reactivity. But also disappointing is that the point got lost -- even in's article.

Each one of us, regardless of gender or race, has been guilty of othering, more often than we like to admit. Each one of us has been othered and not been heard.

Othering occurs, at least in part, because as a species we tend to operate on emotional autopilot. More visceral emotions and intuitions based on our inner beliefs play a larger role in affecting our decisions than our rational intentional mind wants to admit. I think men have learned to externalize their negative reactions (most typically anger), whereas women have learned to internalize their negative reactions (most typically hurt and disappointment) -- at least before feminist thinking grew to be more common.

Part of the pipeline problem, however, is that the frequency of being unheard occurs more often for women and minorities and the negative effects accumulate to have big effects on their lives and livelihoods over time.

In the case of gendered conversations, women's intellectual contributions are marginalized and women tend to be remembered for the wrong reasons by both men and women.

One point I missed in my last post is that when married tenured women DO exercise their assertiveness (by expression, tone, quantity or volume) or their feminine powers to be heard, it has less of a negative impact on how they're judged because our implicit mental weighting of their femininity and nurturing remain unchanged. Their marriage and children act as a counterbalance in observers' minds. But a price married women pay for this protection and success in the perceptions of others is that even the most productive married women's contributions usually end up being overshadowed by the contributions of their spouse in the public eye.

At the University of Michigan I can't tell you how many times my contributions at the seminars of invited guest speakers, faculty meetings, administrative functions and social events were overlooked. More numerous than I can count. I made an effort to contribute, an effort because of my own shyness, but rarely, if ever, was that contribution recognized. It grew even more frustrating when I realized that my ideas continued to flow through the discussion, but that others would receive the credit. When I mentioned this phenomenon at an assistant professor's meeting, I was told I was being oversensitive. When I mentioned it later at a tenure committee meeting, the official meeting minutes emphasized the patience of the all male committee and neglected to mention the point itself. Over time it grew more difficult to overcome my shyness to contribute at meetings.

All of this is even more ironic when you consider that NSF Advance was making an effort to correct sexist biases in hiring and the work environment at the University, but many of the senior faculty had failed to attend the seminars presenting the research indicative of the many ways sexist biases affect judgments and behavior.

About women's intellectual contributions being overlooked, Virginia Valian writes:

Those whose comments were ignored have suffered a small loss in prestige, and their contributions have been labeled, implicitly as low in value. Because they now have less prestige, they will be listened to less in the future; they will carry their previously earned labels into the next encounter... If everyone understood explicitly what some people understand implicitly―that success comes from creating and consolidating small gains―no one would counsel women to ignore being ignored...The well-meaning advice often given women―not to make a mountain out of a molehill―is mistaken.

While at the University of Michigan I, somewhat like Cheryl Gore-Felton at Stanford, tried to change the dynamics of the interactions. There was to my knowledge no poker night, but I joined a social hour once a month in which my colleagues and I, and sometimes students from our labs, would talk science over a beer at a local pub*. Unfortunately, I was the only woman, most of these colleagues were from outside my Department, assistant professors, and in the Medical School, though the conversations were some of most enjoyable during my time at the University -- part of my vision of what being a scientist was about. Without saying a word, I even forgave one of the tenured males from the Medical School for making googoo eyes at and flirting with the bartender considering we were in a pub. Without doubt, I would have preferred if we could have put our minds together and figured out a way to rescue my career after the hostile takeover.

Speaking for myself, the most significant case in my career of my contribution receiving less recognition than it deserved occurred prior to my time at the University of Michigan when my postdoctoral advisor chose to present my research at a prestigious Gordon conference himself. I was neither informed of the meeting nor invited to attend and missed out on an early opportunity to network and gain recognition. Maybe he considered it more important to promote his lab or someone else. At least my paper pulled his lab out of a bit of a slump. And I did get invited to a conference in Armenia many years later, even though I had to pay the airfare myself and I already had failed to get tenure.

In terms of the pipeline problem, the accumulation of negative effects in my case translates to the scientific community studying ion channels and synaptic plasticity having lost an enthusiastic contributor, colleague and friend.

*Conversations like this, in the absence of alcohol in this case, were also one reason I enjoyed Green Gulch as much as I did. Though we didn't talk about ion channels or synaptic plasticity. We talked about our individual experiences, the environment, and other problems of our world. (I never quite made it to The Pelican Inn outside Green Gulch borders, but possibly that will change sometime in the future.)