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Archive for January, 2010

the great watson experiment

Watson smiles

So.. we got a dog!  And thus, it’s been a week of high expectations and stress and patience.

Our doggie is a very good dog.  We’re had the surprise yesterday to discover he’s not really a mutt.  He’s the spitting image of a Glen of Imaal Terrier, and I’m feeling prepared to say he’s not a mutt at all.  Add to that the fact that he’s surprisingly well trained, and I think we have an escaped fancy dog.  I don’t understand how he failed to get adopted in the pound, since we got him from a rescue organization.  Perhaps the rescue groups just pick up all the good dogs from the pound as they come in?  At any rate, he’s house trained, he kennels, heels on the leash, doesn’t bark, ignores our cat (99% of the time), and doesn’t beg.  He loves  belly rubs, brushes, and sleeping on his doggie pillow.

Despite all this, the life adjustment has been a little rough, but pretty fulfilling.  We’ve been trying to be proactive about getting him exercise and entertainment so he’s manageable at home and tired for when we kennel him.  So Lewis and I have been getting up at 7 to take him on a walk so we can fit it in before classes, and then again when we get home and take him out of his kennel.  It’s been working really well – he gets mighty sleepy after he gets home and eats, and he’s been really good about kenneling and sleeping through the night.  All the fresh air and exercise is good for us, and a very pleasant way to start the day!

All in all, I think that makes the dog experiment successful.  I’ll be glad when Watson gets his silly cone off (he’s been bothering his neutering scar) which should be in a day or two.  It’s been a mighty expensive week, but making a happy and whole household sometimes means taking a dive like this.   So here’s to another good week, tired and distracted though it may be.


Just got back from an excellent show – managed to get tickets to the house show David Bazan was playing here in Sacramento.  It’s a nice concept – only a handful of tickets given out so you can see him play in someone’s living room, who hosts for free, presumably.  Anyway, good crowd, good vibe, good set.  I’m feeling lucky to have gone, though looking forward to seeing him in a few months at a bigger venue, too.

Seeing a good show always makes me want to relive my life 10 or more years ago.  There’s a wonderful sense of escape I get at a show I get nowhere else.  I think this is what film buffs get going to movies, or some such.  Anyway, there’s a tangible feeling of bliss that settles in me when a band is good, and there’s really no external thoughts polluting my moment.  It’s not often in my life I find a place where I’m free from worry, but concerts do it.  I think most my happiest moments growing up were at shows, with or without my posse, or with my band.  I want to dive right into it again, after a night like tonight.  Sitting on that floor, I was planning how I could force myself to go see more bands in Sac and get some of that back, though knowing the whole time that it’s a futile effort.  Until I feel free and rich, going out to shows must be an extravagant luxury, both mentally and monetarily.

I should have been keeping track of every time I’ve seen Dave Bazan.  It’s uncountable now, the total number.  I can think of at least a handful of different venues I’ve seen him in – this house, now, the Independent, the Bottom of the Hill, Bumbershoot, a teen recovery center in Bellevue once… the RKCNDY?  I miss the RKCNDY.  I tried to find pictures of it online the other day, only to realize that there aren’t many (save this tag set on flickr),  This means that the RCKNDY, like so many other formative things from my childhood, exists functionally only in my mind.  Like my childhood home(s).  Like Teriyaki.  Like Marbletop, and the Java Jump, and 2nd Time Around, and the Fremont Sonic Boom.   And these days, even like my best friend.  I know life moves on, but I wish I had, at some point, realized that I was trading a new world for my old world.  I thought I could have my cake, and that the plate would still be there when I got home.  Turns out, even the house is gone.

Uncorrected Proof

Epic meeting with my advisor today.  He set up a regular weekly meeting with all his grad students, and I’m the lucky kid with the first meeting slot.  I thought this might make him less strung out than getting him later in line, but no.  As I should have expected, he had already bumped the meeting after me, and I was bookended by non-regular meetings which appeared to be a bit intense.  I do feel bad for the guy, but I guess when you’re hard to get a hold of, or are prone to forgetting required things, angry meetings do tend to crop up when you can be found.

Anyway, I did get my full hour meeting, and we talked over my research proposal.  Last night I dreamed that he was really disappointed with it and found it unprofessional and not the quality of work one would expect from a graduate student.  Today didn’t go as poorly as all that, though he wasn’t real excited about it either.  I think that’s his professional face, and I took it pretty well.  He made some changes to it that I am thankful for, like shortening the overall length and breadth of the experiment, and we hacked off even a good portion of the critical stuff.  So it will be a small, pilot-y type study, but it will give me the opportunity to do something quickly, without staking too much of my life on it.  And in the end, he thinks that we’ll still get a paper out of it, so what more could I want?  I get my free fMRI experience, and hopefully a publication.

The more interesting part of our meeting was the non-QP stuff.  Turns out all the leading questions he was asking me about the decisions I made in my proposal was so he could feel me out for a different plan.  He’s cooking up some sort of holy trinity of researchers and wants me to be the dedicated monkey/grad student for the project.  It’s entirely nebulous as of yet, but it involves liasioning with all three of the language researchers at the CMB and doing something that combines my strengths – sublexical phonology – with theirs (sign, music, fMRI).  It’s a huge undertaking, a thesis-level project for sure, and definitely more like the primordial soup which precedes creation than a tangible and easily managed plan. On the other hand, what better beginnings are there for ones PhD topic than your advisor waxing poetic about the clouds you could reach for and asking you if you would be the monkey/Moses to make something out of it.

To pat my own back here, I feel I must mention that he described me as someone comfortable working in a broad network of seemingly unrelated things and that I was able to think creatively and outside-the-box about things, and this is why he thought I would be the person to lead this effort.  It’s not at the zenith of complements, but coming from my awkward advisor, it was really nice to hear he thought well of me and had been thinking about my future.  Next up is a meeting with these three brains, and it’s going to be quite a trick to keep myself grounded in the fact that I know some things these researchers don’t, and have (am) the manpower they need, without feeling like I’m an inferior member of the group because they’re all brilliant tenured lab managers, and I’m just a dopey grad student unfamiliar with their work.

All-in-all, a very successful but grounded day for me.  And productive to boot!

Yeah buddy, peanut butter.

Messing around with images in wordpress today, and I threw together this little set of pictures of my band from waaaaay back.  We’re talking 1997 stylings here.   Such good times.

Mana reqsisqani

The quarter is starting to get to its feet over here.  I’ve had all my classes save one, my neurolinguistics seminar, which I’m rather looking forward to tomorrow.  Monday was a bit more harried than I anticipated, as the professor I’m TAing for wanted us to hold section.  This is rather unorthodox for the first week, let alone the first day!  On the bright side, he also is in the habit of preparing exercises in advance, so there was not much work to be done in that short preparation period.  Section is required for this class, and as such it was completely packed this week – not a single spare seat in the house.  Teaching in cramped conditions is a little difficult because the room gets hot, and the kids are a little less apt to volunteer in a large class.  Last quarter I averaged something like 10-15 students in my non-required sections, and yesterday I had about 30.  It’s slightly ridiculous, and I think slightly unnecessary to have required section attendance, but on the other hand, this class is also going to be a fair bit more difficult. Other than a bunch of TA stuff, I only have Quechua on Mondays, so it works out nicely to have several low-stress hours of class attendance and then just one hour of teaching.  Very nice indeed.

Today all I had was Phonetics, which I fear is going to be equal parts trying and inspiring.  It’s taught by the professor I TAed for last quarter, who is the most laissez-faire professor I’ve seen.  We have no syllabus, no book, no readings, no homework, and no real expectations for our term paper.  This is nice, but it also means he teaches the class with the expectation that none of us are really learning anything, or even want to be there.  He told us this morning that he expected us to attend class “at least 51% of the time”, which I know is a joke, but sets an odd tone for a graduate seminar.  Graduate students don’t skip class – we’re putting a lot of our lives into being here, and we tend to be rigorous and reliable students.  We wouldn’t have been admitted if we weren’t!  For all that, it’s still going to be an interesting class.  We’re doing acoustic phonetics exclusively, and it’s a subject that’s one of my secret loves.  I feel some days like I could have been a phoneticist in another life, if acoustic phonetics had been taken seriously by our Generative-minded undergraduate department.  As it’s not really part of the Generative research paradigm, it wasn’t actually taught at USC.  What little of it I’ve done (which is more than most, admittedly) was from my very favorite professor, an adjunct who USC didn’t hire and who was teaching Intro Phonology, though he was in fact a phonetician.  I got a big kick out of reading spectrograms, and he inspired me to be a linguist.

Sometimes I look back at those days and I see what it was that got me inspired about linguistics and linguistic research.  If I hadn’t continued to bark up the phonology tree (though each class after his was somewhat of a disappointment), I certainly could have ended up as a phoneticist.  There’s a lot of room for phonetics in phonology, actually, particularly in the cognitive science approaches.  I think all three of these things converge in some way, if for no other reason than both being concerned with scientifically describable data with direct language interface.  In other words, both cognitive science and phonetics are among the very few contact points of hard science (biology, physics) and language.  Typology fits into this picture too, if you think of it as an offshoot of applied statistics interfacing with evolution, biology, migration, what have you.  Typology is an interesting grab-bag of domains, which I think takes a particularly large mind to grasp and is probably why Lewis is well suited to it.  It’s like majoring in world history.  The world is a large place, with lots of history, affected by an inconceivable number of factors, and those who can synthesize that knowledge are laudable.

My brain feels flushed with thoughts of career.  And today, I’m feeling determined to be a straight-backed eyes-forward engaged-in-my-life sort of individual.  This happens to me less than it ought, but if there’s anything less useful than being a defeatist by nature, it’s feeling defeated about being a defeatist.  I’m not getting much work done today, but I’m determined not to let it get the better of me.  I’ve been to class, finished my Quechua homework, emailed all my potential referees for the internal fellowship application whose deadline is coming up, and I even found time to blog.  I’m prepared for tomorrow, and I’m not going to feel swamped or behind on anything though I am, at turns, both.  Today, I do what I can, and revel in the very success of doing.


A pause.  A temporary lull between festive diversions and my furtive life.   It’s the last weekend before I start the fifth quarter of my graduate program.

It’s been long enough that I am not nervous whatsoever about the coming course load.  And long enough for me to feel like I’m not going to accomplish anything notable this quarter.  Edging closer to some inevitable department-wide acknowledgement that I’m a good student, and a poor researcher.   This PhD feels simultaneously easy and impossible – the work itself is trivial, yet the outcome is unachievable.   It’s not for lack of resources, or even an inability to understand my subject.   Failure is predicated merely on the fatalistic view of my own trajectory which prevents the fervent spark of inspired research from catching.  I’m green wood on a cool evening; building the fire is formulaic, but a achieving a toasty refuge is improbable.

Despite this, I’m looking forward to the return of a regular schedule.  I enjoy the somewhat tedious monotony of going to class – the endless reading, the hours of taking notes, and the cathartic final essays.  It’s a new year, and it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that the prospect of a fresh beginning doesn’t leave me a little hopeful that this will be the quarter I start making my mark.  To be honest, being a mediocre academic is still less disappointing than what I see as my alternative: a completely forgettable woman. This isn’t the note I intended to start this new year on, but fatalism and optimism need not always conflict.  I think this is going to be a good year.   I have a life I love, with good friends and engaging work.  I’m blessed in so many ways.  If I could only suppress this feeling of ultimate and unavoidable disappointment, I’d be sitting pretty indeed.