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.)