Monday, February 20, 2017

"We are not peasants"

There are a few things that my late grand mother installed in me. I sometimes forget until I run into a specific situation and then I can literary hear her voice in my head. This last week I found myself stating it out loud while talking to a coworker. I had just received news that I would go to a funeral this week. I was worrying, as I am prone to do going to something I've not done before, since I don't want to stick out. It's my first catholic funeral, and it's in the south (well, Louisiana so it's even a little more different). I'm simply not really clear on the "local customs and culture" and I don't want to offend anyone.

Back home when I grew up it was easy, you dress up in black clothes (or dark grey) without looking like a waiter and show up for church service. [Unless explicitly stated in the funeral notice, sometimes it's more "a celebration of life, please wear blue" or similar.] Afterwards there was "some food and drinks while people talk about the dead person". Where I grew up there was no "viewing of the body", unless for the immediate family. And not too much more to worry about.

Here? In the south USA? Totally different. I think I've mentioned before that one of the things that have made the biggest impact here is the speed of having the funeral. Within a week. Everyone drops everything and goes to the viewing and/or funeral. If you're a coworker or a friend or family, or a fellow friend from the congregation. It's very kind and I think it's a support for the grieving. It's just the way it is. You show up. Needless to say, I've been to a few funerals during my decade in the south. Most of them though has been in the episcopal church (similar to my upbringing) so I haven't needed to fret too much about it*.

There are a few differences though. Not all the funerals have been heavy on the black clothes. People have shown up, that's the important part, in nice clothes but not necessarily in black. Also, the viewings before the funeral where you go and pay your respect to the living family and the deceased. It took a little getting used to, seeing a dead body with make up but nowadays I would say it's one of the traditions I would like to take back home. We did use to have viewings before 1960ies. I know because my grandmother told me as a child.

So, the saying that came into my head and out my mouth the other week? Well you see, it's the everlasting conundrum I find myself with here in the hot south. I was brought up that to be properly dressed when wearing a skirt or a dress you wear pantyhose. Very seldom would I go to work with bare legs. In summer when it's hot and you bike to work - maybe - but it wasn't that often I felt ok with doing it. However, in Sweden there are only so many days when you really want to be barelegged so it's a very small issue (imagine end of May, June, July and perhaps beginning of August - that's a good year).

Here? In the south USA? A huge issue. It's hot pretty much all year round. Bare legs abundance. And still I insist on my pantyhose to work. Although when it is 26C< / 85F< it might seem strange (at least to a lot of the natives I know). And I don't want to stick out. Talking to my coworker about "what to wear" (even though I probably pay too much attention to this, but it is my stress response) I hear myself saying "I don't want to be too overdressed nor do I want to be embarrassing. It's going to be hot, weather scheduled to be 85F and sunny (meaning even hotter) so it's a fine line between over dressed and "needing to cover shoulders and knees inside the church". However, I know I'll be wearing hose". My friend looked at me with a raised eyebrow since this was my one thing I knew about the clothing. I quickly responded: "Going to funeral church service barelegged? Not a chance in the world. 'We are not peasants my dear'" as my grand mother told me a few times when I was younger and did something that didn't fit with her notion of what it meant to be a lady. (I so hope you see me how I try to be a lady every day mormor.) My coworker burst out laughing, knowing exactly what I meant in that instance.

The irony of course would be that my grand mother came from a long line of proud farmers on her paternal grand father's side (as a lot of Swedes in the 1850ies). They owned their land though, and were not 'peasants'. Class definition at its best (lowest). Tomorrow I'll think of you mormor. I hope I make you proud. As every day.

*I know, it sounds awfully shallow to focus on "my clothes" since more often than not I'm not the grieving party and really, who cares what I do?! However, it's my way of dealing with stress. I focus on silly small things since that is something I can do something about. I can't make the dead undead. I can't know if someone will fall apart at the funeral and start wailing and help them. I can't make a promise "everything will be ok". All I can do is show up, be there for my friend/person who has lost someone and hope that I'm not a part of making the funeral worse than it has to be. And dressing inappropriately is one of those things some people get hung up on. Respect and all.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

snoring, choices and grad school

It feels like a thousand years have passed. I woke up at 5 am this morning, staring into space, trying to remember what my dream had been. Why it had woken me up. It took me a second to realise that it wasn't the dream. It was the hand that had reached out from beside me and shaken my shoulder, to disrupt my snoring sleep. I do that. Snore, that is. Some nights more than others. It's funny to me. It's one of those things you don't know about yourself. Someone else has to tell you about it. "You snore when you sleep".

There were times when that was something I was so embarrassed about. It scared me when starting dating (or for that matter, if you ended up with a short term fling). It's usually not like that in the romantic movies, obviously. Girl meets boy, hook up and go home to sleep together in a bed. Girl snores unbelievably loud and makes strange sounds in her sleep. Of course, someone will inevitably tell you that "snoring happens if you are overweight and have excess fat and tissue in the throat area". Others will tell you that "you can't snore if you sleep on your side" [I can, does that make me special?]. Others offer "you don't sleep well if you snore,".

The last part always makes me laugh. No, it really doesn't make me sleep well - since the person I share my bed with wakes me up to stop me from snoring! If I'm sleeping alone and snoring, there's not a care in the world. I wake up refreshed and happy (as happy as I can be in the morning that is). It's when my snoring bothers others that my sleep gets interrupted. And to be fair, it's two people's sleep that is affected. Or, as it happens when I grew up, three people since I could hear my dad snoring away on the other side of two doors. How my mother could sleep next to it, I don't know.

I was going somewhere with this.... ah, so earlier this week I remembered to make plans for a celebratory drink with one of the younger people in the lab. They applied to grad school before holidays and have now been accepted into one of their choices. They have been very interested in talking about potentially going to grad school, career choices and such with me since they started in the lab as a tech. And when we talked about the drink they admitted "I think you'll have to give me some wisdom, I'm probably going through my quarter life crisis. I don't know if I want to do grad school anymore. 7 years in that town?".

I, being the honest and slightly blunt person that I am, responded "I'm not sure that I have any wisdom, I'm quite confused about my life choices myself these days". Well, apparently the mere thing that I'm about 15 years older, having gone to grad school and "having a successful career with a great job in science" [listen to other people telling me how it looks from the outside!] makes me qualified to talk it through with them. I'm partly joking here, I think I could offer them some thinking points to make up their mind, even if I don't have my own stuff sorted out all that nicely as I would've wanted.

I'm going to have to tread lightly in my talk with them though. It's more about asking questions than giving answers (they have to sort out the answers themselves). It's a little interesting though since when they started in the lab they were happy with the idea of a Masters, and staying in science. After a year, interacting in our fairly competitive environment they got more convinced that the PhD was the way to go. Not sure that it's really what they want, or what they think is expected of them? (Which of course is part of the problem most of the time, isn't it.... you go with what others expect, what you expect and sometimes don't really give it too much thought.). I'm glad for the heads up since I've been thinking about choices we make at times. The choices I have made that led me to this place where I am today, warts and all. How changeable some choices are, some closes doors that can't be opened again. And most of all, that pesky question that doesn't seem to be answered anytime soon; what's the meaning of all this, what's meaning of life?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

emotional overload - stress response

If I thought I was doing well lately, these last two weeks have shown me in too stark light that I'm on the verge of what I can do. After holiday break there was a change in the projects I am involved in and I got involved in some more hands-on-project with a new small group. I forgot that I've always been a little apprehensive in the beginning of working with new people. I am reserved and private, I put on a good smiley American face and go with "it's all so good and we can do it".

The difference now is that I presumed (which you should NEVER do) that these people whom I've known for several years knew me and could see beyond the "non smiley resting bitch face" that I have when I'm thinking over strategy and trying to sort out the best way to move forward etc. Since I'm the safe person that everyone knows, I'm also the one you can make fun of to make the group small talk.

Somewhere in here is a compliment I'm sure. That I have joked about myself earlier and have a sense of humour. That I am the person they all recommend and state all the time "she's the one who knows this, she is great at this". However, in times of emotional stress this is all getting to me a little too much and I'm having a tough time to smile at all the jokes all the time... (over sensitive, I know. Such a cliche for a woman.)

It doesn't help that I'm waiting for two things that take up my emotional capital and thoughts when trying to sleep. One is a personal medical result, one of the reasons I don't like taking tests at the doctor's since I map out the scenarios in my head - from the best one to the worst and work on steeling myself in case it is the bad outcome. (I know, most likely one should go with "wait for results and don't worry in vain".) Second is a phone call to tell me there is a funeral and this is the date for it. It's not my immediate family but it's never easy, especially not with someone who isn't that old.

I wish I could be like some others and not over think, to rest and be zen about it "what will happen, will happen", and i'm better now than I've been before in my life. However, it's the convergence of things that make it difficult. Especially since I am not the person who talk too much about my feelings and personal stuff at work. I've been open with a select few about parts of the issues, but that's as far as I am willing to go.

Though, considering what happened last week, I think I'm going to have a heart-to-heart with someone in power this week since things are, as we say in the north, cracking like ice when you glide over the lakes with the sun shining down. Let's hope it doesn't turn as bad as my brain has been stressing about this weekend. What's the worst thing that can happen really? That they say "I'm disappointed in you, you haven't done the A game lately"? Well, that happened two weeks ago so... it can only go up from here?

/end of sad venting. It's been awhile for these.... normal blogging will resume shortly. I'm taking my mind off all the stuff and re-watching Battlestar Galactica since it's on hulu so I don't have to dig into my dvd discs ;)

Sunday, February 05, 2017

let's talk H1Bs for a second

I had planned to write my thoughts on FDA and the upcoming selection of the new Director and what policy decisions have been flagged for this week. A lot of them stemming from what I can only think is a naivety and non-understanding/misconceptions what FDA actually does and what is meant by saying "FDA approved drugs".

However, plans don't always go as you want. This morning a Huffington post article made the rounds in my twitter feed and since H1B was an issue that was floated around last week as well ("there's a draft that the president will soon sign"), I thought I'd tackle it instead.

Mainly because while the article seems to make some sense - especially to people who want to think "immigrants are taking the jobs from Americans" and the people who think "immigrants on H1Bs are getting vastly underpaid and this will help them" - while in essence it is talking about a very specific subset of jobs and people and dragging it to an "over all conclusion" that is non correct (or to the very least should acknowledge that this is not the whole story).

Also note that the article doesn't mention the idea of H1Bs being the visa for a lot of other workers in other sectors; non-profits (NGOs), post-docs in academia, pharma or other places. These places doesn't have the same salaries as Silicon Valley Tech and are not of the authors main priority as coming from the computer science field. It is worth noting that the far reaching suggestions in the article doesn't take these various places into account though.

First of all, anyone who reads this blog knows I'm an immigrant and I grew up in a place where there were unions, collective bargaining and student representatives present with voting rights when hiring professors at universities. This also means that I read any type of suggestions for "this is for the best of workers" with extra interest, simply because I grew up hearing that the USA didn't really care that much about workers but about the companies/employers.

I wouldn't mind having salaries public, so everyone in a company knows what everyone makes. Nor would I dislike having "similar salaries for similar jobs" and a suggestion from the legislature/union on what the job should pay. Neither of which is a reality in my state of the USA and everyone negotiates on their own. It's one of those "nice American opportunities where you as a skilled worker can argue your case and get lots of money if you are good". (Used a lot in the private sector, especially in finance/law/tech.) And one of the reasons companies who want to attract the best of the best have a lot of freedom to do so.

This article is a prime example of such a thing as posing as "this is thinking about the American worker and their salaries and the future of the country" while muddling the waters with all these odd ball comments that don't line up apart from "blame the immigrants"*. While in reality one should look at what the companies are doing when they are hiring "the cheapest labor" rather than "the skills needed for the job" and look further than to blame the lowest person on the scale.

Let's start with facts. H1B visas are for skilled workers. This means that there has to be a degree specification in the job advert and that the level needs to claim required - required to perform said job, not preferred or "if you have it, that's nice" but "you NEED this to do the job". (Anecdotal story; I applied and got hired for an industry job where the job ad stated "PhD preferred" [since they wanted to hire the best fit for the job and keeping it open to many applicants]. Thus not making it possible for me or anyone else to apply for an H1Bvisa since that wasn't eligible for that category. This "required" is an important point and piece of the puzzle, as you will see if you read the article since the author wants to use this to argue how immigrants take away from American workers.

Second, there is no obligation to pay _only_ the salary that is the limit for the H1B. If you want to hire someone who wants more money than the H1B floor because they negotiate well and you find them worth it - and that person turns out to be American - that's your choice (you might have to argue with HR and make sure that you didn't mislabel the level of work, but that's not the H1B issue). There is no "we have to hire the person with the lowest bidder for salary" for companies, especially not for "for profit Silicon Valley Tech companies". You think they ask their higher level candidates who wants the least? This is mixing two different things together as seen in passage below, which is directly arguing these two points. Maybe you can see what I mean that there are some difficulties getting both the arguments working with each other? Adding in the middle is the idea that "Americans are out competed by immigrants from their own universities to do doctorate degrees [that might not even be needed - in the second part - my emphasis] and these doctorate degrees are also on a visa status that should be curbed.

"The industry especially asserts a need to hire H-1Bs with a PhD, citing the fact that 50 percent of computer science doctorates in the U.S. are granted to foreign students. What they are hiding in that claim is that it simply doesn’t pay for an American student (i.e. U.S. citizen or permanent resident) to pursue doctoral study, as the salary premium for a doctorate is too small. That small wage premium is due to the flooding of the market by foreign applicants,[my emphasis] something correctly forecase with approbation by the National Science Foundation years ago. The industry claim is doubly deceptive, as they are not very keen to hire PhDs because this level of study just isn’t needed. We actually have a surplus of computer science PhDs; 11.3 percent of them are involuntarily working in a non-computer science field."

and further down in the article:
Employers claim that they hire H-1Bs for rare skill sets or outstanding talent ― traits that they would need to pay a premium for on the open market. Yet current law requires only that they pay the average wage.

A lot of the article then moves on to argue that the immigrant workers are inferior/weaker to the American workers who are out competed for these jobs (due to salary and not wanting to apply for these jobs) and therefore the salary requirements for H1Bs should be raised. How do they argue "weaker"?

But research performed at the University of Michigan and Rutgers University, as well as my own work for the Economic Policy Institute, shows that the former foreign students now in the U.S. workforce tend to be weaker than their American peers. On a per capita basis, the former foreign students in computer science file fewer patents, are less likely to work in research and development and have degrees from less selective U.S. universities.

At this point I wonder; does the author know what it takes to apply for a patent? And how it's decided who gets to be on a patent? I can tell you straight up, it takes money to file and the backing of your company and your boss. Never mind the last comment "less selective US universities" or the self citation. Is the author really annoyed that American graduates from "more selective US universities" can't get jobs in Silicon Valley? Or how to interpret this since there surely would be some American workers with degrees from "less selective US universities" who could get these jobs when the immigrants are gone? Or would they also take the jobs from those from "more selective US universities". Should we really make tiers to state "applicants from tier A gets hired, then graduates from tier B" even more than is currently happening with pedigrees and whatnot?

All of this writing and not once approaching the idea that employers - these massive tech companies and venture capital driven start ups in Silicon Valley - have any responsibilities of looking over their requirements or that maybe they are overstating what they need in order to do the work. I mean, IF the jobs are over stated just to attract and hire H1B people (which sounds plausible), when the jobs then are downgraded to not be eligible for H1B since the salary would be too high - the specific people the author is worried about wouldn't
a)get more money (downgraded the job requirements, remember -> less salary)
b)might not even apply since they are overqualified (thus would make them underpaid and overqualified if they get the job)

Maybe what is needed for this to be "fixed" would be more oversight on "how do you level/grade your job adverts to be eligable for the H1B visas" from the government and not leave it to the companies to make this up on their own? (Not that I think this would solve too much but it would solve a little. It sure as mud would place the responsibility where it should be, at the company and the government level. I'm sure you can't get an H1B level application on a janitor job advert for example so there has to be some oversight already.)

But nothing really showed the true idea of the article until the last paragraphs, if anyone ever reads that far anymore?

This approach would give the visas to those who can truly make exceptional contributions to our economy and society. If there is real interest in draining the swamp, [my emphasis] this is a great place to start.

"draining the swamp" ... of all the immigrants? Or what? Really? And here I thought that the "swamp reference" was in regards to a comment made by President Trump while campaigning meaning "the upper echelon of politicians, law makers and lobbyists in Washington DC". But the author means it's the swamp of immigrants that needs draining. The swamp who are to blame for (quote directly from the article as seen above in my post) "small wage premium is due to flooding of the market by foreign applicants"**

Talk about missing the mark so completely, while stating where your political affiliations lie ever so clearly, author Dr Professor from UC Davis.

*I don't get why it's not even a whisper on how the companies, IF they want the best person and currently not getting that, could change how the look for talent. But I do understand it's easier to blame the immigrants for all of this. It's always easier to blame the little guy, especially is they're not even American.

**applicants - let's not get confused that they are even hired at this stage. They shouldn't even be allowed to apply to the position.