Monday, 27 September 2010


There is nothing like 5 weeks of unemployment to make work look really, really awesome. I have never been so excited to go to work on a Monday morning.

I think I mentioned that I was going to contact a temp agency. Turns out they don't get many qualified applicants, and promptly set about finding me awesome positions. First job was playing with WordPress, building a site for a children's charity. I'm currently on the second one, managing the cash flow for a number of grants in a cutting edge biology-related lab, which also happens to be part of the bio-related department at Major City University.

Most of the time, I have no idea what's going on (either in the lab or in my spreadsheets), but it's still very cool. And I suspect a good part of my job will be sorting data and organizing spreadsheets - good OCD stuff that makes my brain happy.

Best of all, I get to be the personal administrator for one of current science's most amazing innovators. I'd tell you more about his work, and what area he works in, but given that he sort of invented the field, it's probably better that I don't. Suffice it to say, it's very exciting and futuristic.

Also refreshing is my return to the standard work week. I work 9:30 to 5:30, Monday to Friday. This means I have weekends. Weekends! Two days off! In a row!

Sometimes, museum work is completely soulless. See: the work schedule.

Anyway, this position is almost certainly temporary. I'm signed on for a couple months or so, and there is a possibility that they will offer me the position permanently. We'll see how it goes. The person I'm replacing thinks they're looking for an actual bookkeeper in the long run, which I most definitely am not. For now, however, work is good.

And weekends!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Why Are Colleges So Selective?


I just read this four-parter at the NYT online, after reading this criticism by Dean Dad. I had been hoping he'd been a little bit wrong.


In a four-part (four!) piece by four different authors (four!) about why colleges are getting more selective, the words Community College did not appear once. Community Colleges: you know, the ones that more than half of America's undergraduates attend? The ones with open enrollment and therefore no (read: zero) increase in "selectivity". Good god, it's like college only means one thing to these people.

One of the respondents, Jane Wellman, at least acknowledges that "[students are] there because they need a job, and they need to get the credentials – and, one hopes, the knowledge and skills behind the credentials – that will get them into the labor market." -- And yet the schools most geared toward the labor market? Completely absent.

Go read the articles and then Dean Dad's response over at Confessions of a Community College Dean.


Sunday, 12 September 2010

Settling in

We're slowly settling into our communal abode in New England Metropolis (NEM). Vellum and I have been spoiled by having our own place. There was a certain amount of trepidation regarding our move, which returned us to the land of roommates.

There are four of us living in our charming 1850s apartment, and by "four of us" I mean four of us - we're all medievalists. There was a vague concern as we moved in that the entire apartment might collapse into the ground floor from the weight of our combined books. So far, so good. Vellum and I have 7 full bookcases; early insular roommate (we'll have to come up with some appropriate pseudonyms) has another 4 or 5, and Chaucerian roommate hasn't unpacked his yet, to the best of my knowledge.

We've already had an entertaining round of "how many duplicate books do we have?" The Ornament of the World and A Distant Mirror seem to be the forerunners (though none of us have actually read of either). And, of course, Harry Potter.

In the pursuit of desks and kitchen counters, we ventured to Ikea yesterday on an apartment field trip. It was life-changing. Being both broke and from the rural lands, I'd never actually been to an Ikea. It was rather terrifying. Why is there an entire cafeteria in the middle of the store? Who are these hundreds of people who found their way into the middle of nowhere to shop in a store full of illegible Swedish goods? What are we doing amongst this throng?

However, I confess to being impressed with the free twine offered in the parking lot for strapping your purchases to the roof of the car - as we unexpectedly found ourselves doing.

Unpacking is slowly progressing. The books are away, which is a miracle in itself. The clothes are mostly unpacked. It's down to the strange odds and ends that don't really have any good place to go. Picture frames, notebooks, binders, boxes of spare buttons and paperclips, a dozen scarves, etc. Some of this will be better once I have a desk (the one I wanted was out of stock, alas), but I suspect most of the rest will find homes wherever they happen to come to rest.

Tomorrow I'm heading to a local temp agency in search of some sort of employment. I still have a number of applications to send out, but strongly doubt that they, like the ones that came before, will come to anything. Vellum is getting back into the swing of classes. And, given that it's autumn once again, I have to decide whether to attempt PhD applications again or not. Expect a post about that later.


Tuesday, 7 September 2010


We have our own internet access! We're back!

We have arrived

Vellum and I have arrived in New England Metropolis. I have decided that I am never ever moving again. Nothing like a bookcase full of hardcover coffee table books to make moving a royal pain in the ass. We're slowly unpacking and settling in. Internet is profoundly spotty (apparently our neighbors turn off their wireless router when they're not using it), but our connection goodies should be arriving in the near future. Expect more posts then.

Now to get back on the job hunt and unpack some books.


Sunday, 5 September 2010

Liftoff in T-Minus 12 Hours and Counting...

We're moving tomorrow, from Rural New England Micropolis to New England Metropolis. Should, hopefully, have internet by middle of the week. In the meantime we'll be trying to get jobs, unpacking, assembling furniture, exploring, and otherwise trying to get into the spirit of things. I'll also be visiting offices, filling out paperwork and doing readings for the first classes of my new project. I'm calling it: A PhD for Vellum, Year 1. I even heard word that I may get (shared) office space on campus at Gothic Revival University, where I'll be for the next five or so years.

So if I survive the next five days, I think it'll be a good time.

I'll let you know.

Or Vaulting will, if I don't survive.

But if the site goes dead for two weeks, don't just assume we've both died. We could be fine and internet-deprived, or very tired, or something. Distracted, maybe. By kitties.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

This Is Your Brain on A Series Of Tubes

I was going to call this post "OMG The Intertubes Are Ruining Everything Forever: The Nicholas Carr Story", but I dialed down the snark a little. Just a wee bit. Hardly any at all, now that I think about it, given that I included that other title regardless. Hm. Oh well.

The reason for this post is this article over at New Scientist. It's a brief interview with Nicholas Carr, author of a new book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The basic tenet of this book seems to be that the internet is ruining our capacity for extended concentration. As the article at New Scientist says, "by reshaping our minds, the internet is robbing us of the ability to think critically and creatively."

The problem seems to be that the majority of his evidence is either anecdotal or nonspecific.

Anecdotal: "A few years ago I noticed I was having trouble concentrating. When I sat down to read a lengthy article or book, I'd find it difficult to maintain focus for more than a few minutes. My mind wanted to behave the way it did when I was online: juggling lots of things and digging around for bits of information instead of focusing on one thing. The book is an attempt to get to the bottom of this."

Nonspecific: "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of physiological evidence to show how the net affects the brain - but there's some, and it is compelling. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, shows fairly extensive changes in patterns of brain activation from moderate use of search engines."

I can only believe that the UCLA study he is referring to this one (reported about here), as there aren't likely to be two groups of people at UCLA studying the effects of search engine use on the brain.

Basically, the idea of the study was to scan the brains of two groups of people: "net-naive" (people who hadn't had much previous use of search engines) and "net-savvy" (people who had). First they scanned their brains while they were reading text, then they scanned them while using search engines. Then they did the scans a week later, after the "net-naive" folks had been using the internet for a week.

What they found was that the brains lit up the same way when they were reading text, and it was in the search engine task that things differed. During the first scan, the "net-naive" subjects' brains lit up the same way as if they were reading text. The "net-savvy" subjects' brains had those areas lit up plus other areas. After a week, both groups had the same readings, as the "net-naive" subjects had, in effect, become "net-savvy".

According to the study: "the Net Savvy group demonstrated significant increases in signal intensity in additional regions controlling decision making, complex reasoning, and vision".

So back to Nicholas Carr. He calls this evidence "compelling" and implies very strongly that it supports his theory that the internet is ruining our ability to "focus on one thing". What it says to me is that not only is your brain focusing while using the net (to the same degree as when reading text), it's also making decisions, reasoning, and making visual distinctions (ones presumably not being done during the reading of text alone).

Does this mean we're more distracted? I don't think so. Think about it this way, as two different skill sets, say, fixing a watch and juggling. If you can fix a watch or juggle, that's great. If you can fix a watch while juggling, that's something else. But I have a hard time understanding how being able to fix a watch while juggling would negatively impact your ability to do either on its own. In fact, your brain would probably find it easier to do each alone, without the distraction of the other.

If he wanted a study that backed up his claims, he'd need one that showed that after internet use, the parts of the brain associated with focusing on a single task were activated to a lesser extent than they were before. And this study doesn't do that.

In fact, what this study does is the following:

It shows that "internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience. These observations suggest that in middle-aged and older adults, prior experience with Internet searching may alter the brain's responsiveness [read: increase the speed of the brain's responses] in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning."

What the study doesn't do: shows that the internet is ruining our attention spans.
What the study does do: shows that the internet is helping us make decisions faster.
These are not the same.

Enter me, editorializing:

Every now and then someone trots out another article or book talking about how technology is ruining everything forever. TV is rotting our brains; video games are making us violent; the internet is giving us ADHD. But like all things, it's a matter of circumstance and degree. Just as some tv shows are mind-rotting garbage, some video games look as though they were designed by Ted Bundy, and some parts of the internet are, well, "goatse", by the same token some tv shows are edifying, some video games can stimulate the imagination, and some parts of the internet are actually about the spread of intelligent discourse (not here so much, but some parts).

I guess what I'm saying is, if the internet were really ruining our ability to focus, then as someone who spends a stupid amount of time on it, I should be a prime candidate.

And I just wrote a thousand-word response to an article I stumbled upon this morning. How's that for focus?