What is it like teaching and doing research at a university?

Mar 14, 2017

I told the students in my class Mind, Brain, and Experience that we don't really know most things about neuroscience. That really the feeling of being a scientist isn't the feeling of knowing lots of stuff. It's the feeling of not knowing something that you're interested in. Kind of like not understanding a new relationship with someone who's important to you. It's the feeling of scratching your head and saying 'I wonder how this works', and saying to your grad student 'How do you think it works?', and doing an experiment that probably doesn't reveal the answer completely, but maybe reveals a little bit about the shape of the thing.

When I was in college, the professors I had all seemed to know so much. They seemed to be looking out from a high peak at the landscape below. But that's not the feeling at all. At least for neuroscientists, maybe all scientists. It's more the feeling of looking up at a huge waterfall, and not being able to see the top of it. You don't know where the water's coming from, and you're not sure how to get to the top so you can see where it's coming from. Is there a road that you can drive and get high enough to find out? There's no map. You don't even see a road, just a lot of vegetation all around. Someday someone might find a way to get to the top, but probably not in your lifetime. And instead of discovering the origin of the waterfall you'd like to discover something important about the brain and the mind, like how neural activity gives rise to thoughts, or even how the brain allows us to form habits that we can carry out almost without awareness.

You spend part of your work hours sharing what you know about the field with the undergraduates taking your class (and i love my CCNY students). Then you go back to thinking about pieces of experimental research findings that don't fit together well, and wonder how you might find out more about the waterfall.

Why Do They Say Obama's a Muslim?

Mar 7, 2017

J.D. Vance writes about the perspective of the folks in Middletown, Ohio, where he grew up. Like many others in his community, his relatives came from the hills of Kentucky for good-paying jobs at a factory in Middletown. Like many U.S. towns, Middletown fell into economic ruin after the factory closed.

"I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.

Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor - which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent - clean, perfect, neutral - is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they're frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right -adversity familiar to many of us - but that that was long before any of us knew him.

President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we're not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we're lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it - not because we think she's wrong but because we know she's right.

Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation. Admittedly there is an industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner of idiocy, from Obama's alleged religious leanings to his ancestry. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama's citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organizations have to say about the issue; they simply don't believe them."

This is from Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis

I'm not that kind of person

Feb 27, 2017

I'm not the kind of person who walks around with his fly unzipped. I know some people who do - not all the time - but often enough to be 'that' kind of person (the kind that walks around with their fly unzipped). I'm not saying it's the worse trait in the world either. That person may just be a 'low self monitor' or he may pay little attention to details (like zipping up his fly). On the plus side, he's probably not an egotistical jerk. But he is creating awkward moments for other people.

The point (back to that) is that I'm not the kind of person who goes around with his pants unzipped.  But I do have a pair of pants with an odd zipper.

It's not that it unzips. Everything's all zipped up.  It's just that the fabric covering the zipper often moves to the side so you can see a lot of the gold of the zipper. When I'm wearing these pants and meet the guys in the pastry shop, my friend Cal often says, with a kind of parental concern, "Jon, I think your pants are unzipped."
"They're not, Cal. It's just that the zipper shows. But it's zipped up".
Cal kind of sways his head, moving it back and forth and side to side, with his lips pressed tight together, and he says "Well, it kind of looks like-"
"It's zipped Cal."
I ask Rosa if I should worry about wearing these pants. She insists there's nothing wrong with them. Nobody would think the zipper's open, she says. So I continue to wear them to work, and I'm wearing them now. Rosa's a detail-oriented person, and so the fact that she thinks they're fine probably means it's not a problem. But since Cal always comments on them, there must be some people who think I'm going around with my fly unzipped. Since I wear the pants pretty often, some may think I'm that kind of guy.

The problem is I now have the idea in my head - the idea that people think I'm that kind of guy. I recently gave a lecture in front of a class of over 100 students and some women toward the front were giggling about something. I turned around, and surreptitiously checked to make sure the fabric of my pants was covering the zipper.

This afternoon, I was having lunch with Rosa and told her I was thinking about writing a blog post on this topic.  (Am I running out of ideas?)  I told her I wanted to write about the pants with the zipper that Cal mistakenly believes is unzipped. I mention to her about being in front of the class and worrying about them laughing about my zipper being open.  Again, she emphasizes that there's nothing wrong with that zipper.  I know, I say, but I still can't help thinking that-
 "Think of it this way," she says, "most people have pants where the fabric covers the zipper, so you really don't know whether the zipper is open or closed. You're the only person whose zipper is showing, so people can see that it's closed. Everyone else, you're just giving them the benefit of the doubt."