Thursday, July 29, 2010


yup, i'm a doctor.  and defending the dissertation was even kind of fun.  and in that magical hour and a half i was transformed from a lowly student into one of those mysterious "experts" that people are always talking about - "experts agree ..." "according to experts ...".  that's right, you can all start citing me now.  not anything i wrote prior to today i guess - i didn't know anything then.  but anything i write beginning today must be true ... because the experts say so.  this is going to be fun ...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

back to school

and now the real dissertation fun begins ... currently saying a temporary good bye to the city and traveling back to grad school.  will hopefully return with a few extra letters beside my name.

Monday, July 26, 2010


in my several years as a graduate student, i have witnessed more than a few students complete the rite of passage that is the dissertation defense.  most have seemed harried and frazzled in the final days. they frantically polished their work in preparation for presenting it to their toughest critics.  for most, the final days are a stressful time.  it is a time when the digestive system suddenly fails.  sleep becomes evasive.  skin loses pigment.  hours staring at computer screens pass like minutes.  preparing to defend is often a miserable experience.

but - in case any of my recent antics have failed to communicate this - i am not one to be overly concerned with conventions for the sake of conventions (i am a fan of politeness, but that is because politeness usually serves functions i consider worthwhile ... but what possible positive function can be served by excessive stress or anxiety?).  and besides, i already achieved (arguably, more than) my quota of graduate student misery - i have been ready and waiting to defend for a very long time.  so what am i doing a mere four days before my defense?  i started the day with a mommy/daughter manicure/pedicure in the village.  we met j for lunch and then spent the afternoon shopping.  we walked several miles, and i enjoyed skin-bronzing, hair-lightening sunshine.  when thoughts of the impending defense crept into my consciousness, the movie legally blonde came to mind.  i may be the first student in the department to (if all goes well) become a tan, freshly manicured/pedicured doctor.  

the manicure/pedicure was an awkward but fun experience.  i assume that the receptionist said hello when i called, but i can't be completely sure.  it wasn't in english or in any of the languages i understand well enough to detect a greeting.  i didn't hear the name of the nail salon in the greeting either.  but we had a nice chat anyway.  i asked if it were the salon.  she responded in non-english.  i apologized for having the wrong number.  she said something else in non-english.  in retrospect, the fact that we politely spoke, stopped speaking while the other was talking, and repeated the process several times is highly entertaining considering neither of us understood a word the other was saying.  not that this doesn't happen when people are speaking the same language - haven't we all had a conversation with that person who is just too busy thinking about what they want to say next that they don't feel the need to listen to what their conversation partner is actually saying?  and haven't we all resorted to speaking utter nonsense and then laughing on the inside when the person just keeps talking as though a real conversation were taking place? (e.g., "i just love this restaurant." "yes, i completely agree.  i once owned a scuba-diving donkey." "they have the best sushi.").  oh ... or is that just me? 

i prepared to hang up, but was greeted again (in non-english) by another voice.  thoroughly confused at this point, i paused.  the voice then said, "hello?"  so i asked again if it were the nail salon.  i then heard, "hello, [name of nail salon here]. how can i help you? hello?" and i somehow managed to set up appointments for us.  the place had great reviews ... and we didn't want to waste half the day choosing a replacement from the remaining 3 million nail salons in manhattan just because of a slight little language barrier.

during the appointment, we communicated mostly in gestures and smiles, with minimal intermittent translation by the youngest manicurist.  while small talk can be awkward at times, the absence of it was even more conspicuous.  it was a strange experience to not be able to communicate anything of even small talk substance with the person who was painting my nails.  it probably didn't help that we decided to tip using stacks of the newish gold dollar coins.  my mom told her manicurist that she was giving her pirate gold as a tip (a type of comment that had been well received by other vendors in non-language-barrier contexts).  her manicurist smiled and nodded.  she said something to her coworker that i can only assume meant, "these girls are lunatics.  just smile and they will go away." 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

where's waldo?

when touristing, many people hurriedly take pictures in crowded locations.  it can be a flustered experience - snapping the picture quickly before someone steps in front of your camera and before competing groups elbow in to get a picture in the same coveted location.  then, if your loved ones had posed for the picture, they might want to swarm the camera to scrutinize their own appearance and to make sure that whatever perceived flaw they possess was minimized in the picture.  else, they may want you to take the picture again.  the entire process can be a stressful ordeal.

in fact, it can be such a flustering experience that many people miss other things that are going on around them.  for example, when your friends swarm the camera, they may be focusing so intently on their own appearance that they will probably fail to notice anything out of ordinary in the crowd pictured around them.  this is called selective attention.  you pay so much attention to some information that you overlook other information, and can even overlook comically salient information in the world around you.  (try this out (or, show this video to someone without telling them what selective attention is): ).

if you have recently traveled to the city, you may eventually discover something odd about your pictures.  you may find that a new new yorker and her mother are also posing in the picture.  go ahead and play where's waldo with your recent photos - look for two heads of blonde hair, a flower headband, and the slightly sticking out tongues.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

theater etiquette

this week has been especially exciting because my mom is visiting ... and the visit, so far, has probably given me enough blog fodder for about two months ... but more time spent out playing means less available writing time.  in any case, today, for example, she treated us to mamma mia on broadway.  much fun.  let's just say that men + bright spandex + abba is sure to entertain.

however, today's topic is theater etiquette.  listen, new yorkers and guests to our fine city, let's give everyone an opportunity to enjoy the show.  have you ever sat through a movie or show and had your theatrical experience enhanced by the not so rhythmic kicking of your seat by a child sitting behind you?  that can be so annoying and can really put a damper on your evening.

i'm so glad that the only child near me was sitting to my left, and was truly a model of perfect behavior.  she was probably 12, sat still throughout the performance, and was even privy to, and complied with, the little known secrets of the appropriate times to clap during a performance.   i was fortunate to not have any annoying little adhd cases kicking my seat.

the tall, most likely swedish family sitting in front of us was nearly equally charming - a mom, a dad, 2 teenage/young adultish boys, and a teenage girl.  mom and daughter were obviously engaged in the show, whereas the boys appeared to be good-naturedly indulging the ladies' interests.  during intermission, dad commented (in english) that he was glad his daughter was enjoying the show, but she was probably enjoying it more than he was.  but he said it with a big, genuine smile.  it was kind of charming.  he seemed like such a nice man.  i felt kind of badly that i had to subject him to a little theater discipline.

if you've ever been in a theater, you know that seats are staggered.  there is a reason for this.  by staggering the seats, one can (theoretically) see between the heads of the two people sitting in front of them.  it's a good system ... if people cooperate.  however, it defeats the purpose when someone leans slightly to one side and cocks their head about 90 degrees in the same direction.  and you see, when dad did it, he moved his cranium directly into my line of sight.

at first, i became extremely annoyed, sighed loudly, and motioned to j, who whispered he was sorry i couldn't see and offered to switch seats with me.  i declined because i didn't want him to miss out and because i didn't want to be disruptive to everyone behind me.  i sat, vainly hoping dad was just stretching his neck and would return it to a more natural position.  unfortunately, it soon became clear that the rightward head lean was dad's preferred show-watching stance.  so i sighed again, craned my neck, and most likely obstructed the view of those behind me.  i employed this strategy for about 10 minutes.

and then an idea struck me, and i nearly kicked myself for not having thought of it earlier.  instead, i placed my foot gently against the back of dad's seat.  i slid my foot as far to the left as i could (recall, a child was my neighbor to the left).  then, my foot in place, any time that dad crooked his neck to the right, i ever so gently kicked his chair .. and kept giving him little taps until he straightened out his neck. in the beginning, sometimes i had to amplify the little love taps to a full-fledged kick - but only a couple times.  dad was a pretty quick study.  by intermission, he was sitting with head in proper orientation to body for the vast majority of the time.  following intermission, i only had to tap his chair a few times.  

this, my friends, is called operant conditioning.  i conditioned the man to behave in an appropriate manner by punishing (i.e., providing an aversive stimulus to) him every time he misbehaved, and removing the punishment when he behaved properly. not only did i manage to maintain the integrity of the staggered seating system, but as a special bonus, i also helped dad avoid the killer tension headache that might have otherwise emerged from his neck-crooking behavior.

to the well behaved girl beside me, i really apologize that your sterling image may have been the casualty of my experiment.  you really were such a model citizen.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

ms. fuzzy head

i don't know if i intended her name to refer to her frizzy, crimpy, blonde 80's hair or her seemingly perpetually confused state of mind.  but it fits both, so i figured i'd run with it.  i met ms. fuzzy head on the street yesterday.  ordinarily i take fliers from strangers as often as i take candy from them.  but ms. fuzzy head was offering the chance to screen the movie Miral before final editing would take place.  i read the film description and decided it was something i would pay for, so it was definitely something i'd see for free (unfortunately, i can't talk about the movie itself - apparently such information is top secret).  but i can talk about my experience with ms. fuzzy head.  she was friendly enough, and i took her flier and i saw a free movie tonight as a result (biting my fingers to keep from writing anything about the film).

i encountered ms. fuzzy head again as j and i stood in the line (oops, that is "on line" here in the city - haven't quite got my vernacular down).  the sun was beating down on stagnant air and stagnant, sweat-dripping bodies.  the masses were joking about giving the film bad reviews just because they had to stand outside so long (as you'll find out, ms. fuzzy head might insist people don't do things like that). imagine a fly trapped in a car, buzzing incessantly, flying from one window into the next, only to turn around and fly into the first window again.  that was ms. fuzzy head pacing up and down the line.  she was looking for people to be in the focus group.  she invited me ... but only because she guessed my age wrong - when she found out how old i was, she took her invitation away.  my age group was already represented.

the price for the free screening was filling out a survey at the end.  in the past, the thought of anyone writing something about "survey methodology" on their resume made me laugh - because truly, the subject could be covered in one well-written chapter ... not even a whole book.  but tonight i learned why "expertise" in this field is important.

after the film, we had about 5-10 minutes to fill out an extremely lengthy survey (remember those ovals from the SAT?  they're back) - lots of ratings and just as many short answers.  we were given dull miniature golf scoring pencils (yes, they write like crayons) and were given half of a line (each) to name and describe our favorite and least favorite scenes.  we rated each of the main actors: one rating each on a completely uninterpretable question (not that there would have been time to read the directions anyway).  were we rating how well the actor played the character?  the believability?  how much we liked the actor?  how much we liked the character?  we also rated the film on how sympathetic the film was.  no, not how sympathetic we felt to the film's message.  no, not how sympathetic we felt to particular characters.  we rated how sympathetic the film itself was (and no, not how sympathetic the film was with regard to any particular topic or issue).  apparently i missed the instruction to tell the film how i was feeling and observe its response.

the only things they will possibly get out of that survey is a vague sense of "liked it" or "didn't like it" from frazzled film goers, and a couple scribbled notes on selected questions ... if they are lucky, legible scribbled notes.  it could have been a single-item questionnaire.  if the survey design weren't bad enough, ms. fuzzy head and her helpers buzzed around the room while people were taking the survey, asking them what they wrote for one of the questions (asking them to say this out loud in the midst of all the other survey takers). i was asked four different times.  after the first time, i knew that if i chose a particular underrepresented overall rating of the film, i would be invited to participate in the focus group (one of ms. fuzzy head's helpers buzzed around repeating "we need people who rated it ___."  and i did want to be in the focus group ... but after an intense moral struggle, i gave it the true rating i thought it deserved.

after completing my survey, i had a brief chat with ms. fuzzy head, in an apparently misguided effort to give her a little professional advice (i.e., give her a little information that, frankly, i'm shocked she didn't already know given that this is her job ... oh youthful idealism, you fail me again - causing me to expect people to know how to do their jobs ... but i would have thought in the business world, if people are motivated to produce profitable results, they would get a position like hers only if they actually knew what they were doing ... but the senseless real world crashes in on me again).  i kept it simple - i just tried to explain the merits of anonymity - how if you want honest, relatively unbiased answers, you can't shout at people and ask them to shout their responses back to you (i used softer words than this).  and that is when i saw a thin coat of glaze trickle down ms. fuzzy head's animated eyes.

she explained that they only asked after people had answered the question.  when i pointed out that i was asked 4 times before i had answered it, she still seemed to insist they didn't do that, so i changed the topic, making only one more last ditch effort to help.  i switched my approach to explaining that even doing this could bias their later responses and could bias the people around them.  ms. fuzzy head looked genuinely surprised.  she said "well, not if they are honest ... you or i would never do that"  i tried to explain that (a) some people might feel pressured, despite wanting to be honest, (b) some people are slower than others to form an opinion, and (c) that more often than not, people are influenced by things without knowing that they are influenced.  there is tons of research about this!  people are influenced by things they don't even consciously perceive ... let alone influenced by things that, although perhaps perceived, influence them in ways they do not understand.  many filmmakers are aware of this (or seem to be, judging by the the painstaking process they go through to make sure the music is just right, the selection of background details, etc.).  ms. fuzzy head chalked it up to needing to get surveys done quickly (i didn't bother to explain that you don't give people 4 pages of questions, crammed into 2 pages, half made of short answers if you want the survey to be quick - you do a little math and figure out the reliable questions ahead of time) - she said, "trust me, i used to be in advertising.  everything has to be quick."  i smiled politely, as i watched the glaze continue to coat ms. fuzzy head's eyes.  and when ms. fuzzy head asked if i had ever read the fountainhead by ayn rand and proceeded to change the conversation to a book recommendation, any lingering questions of whether the road between ears and brain was open to traffic had subsided.  so i smiled and politely ended the conversation.

i tried.  i tried to help Mr. Julian Schnabel get more accurate information before Miral hits the big screen everywhere.  instead, he is probably paying a lot of money for not very good, haphazard data (and this is not to mention how they could possibly analyze anything they collect from that survey in an accurate way ...).  Mr. Schnabel, for future reference, there are much better, more accurate ways of getting valid information (even getting it quickly, as seemed to be ms. fuzzy head's only concern).  call me.  i'll hook you up.  just pay me in proportion to how much more useful the results are.  p.s. thanks for the free screening.  i'd say more, but i know you want to keep it hush, hush.  i'll revisit this when your movie comes out.