Sunday, November 12, 2017

can't buy happiness - but sometimes you sort of can

"You can't buy happiness". That's the sentiment of a lot of self-help books and internet sites. "You need to look into yourself and find the source of your happiness there".

While I don't disagree on a larger scale, clearly there are a lot of unhappy rich people whom we can see sprawled all over the newspapers and internet every day, I would say that a lot of unhappiness (uncertainty and insecurity) can come from not having enough money and that some parts of happiness can be bought.

At least from where I'm sitting right now, having has another conversation with one of my friends who is really trying to get it all together. They are in the same boat as a few of my coworkers. It's clear to me that a few hundred more a month would make a huge difference to them. It's not that they are poor, not per se. They have a place to stay, the have a full time job, it's just that they have no margins at all. Holidays are not on the margin list, not really.

I can tell that the biggest issue for some of my "examples" are that they are single. And with that I mean, they live alone. I know that my biggest saving ever came when I moved in with someone (even when I was footing the majority of the bills and paying for two - I had more money than when I was single). Why? Because it was so much easier to socialize at home as a couple than being a single person and staying in meant most of the time - not meeting anyone. It's also not only boring but difficult to cook for one for cheap, it'll be two or more portions of most anything you try.

The staying in is not the key thing, obviously. It's that the base line cost of living in a place; rent, tv, cleaning supplies, everything else that you have in a place regardless of if you are one or two (or three or more) is pretty high. It's not exponentially more expensive when you add people, the flat fee for being single is always going to be much more. And that makes it hard for someone who has a fairly low salary/wage to save up and then have margins. And that's even without the added "please deposit two months salary for an appartment".

I know I read a number somewhere, but I don't remember where and to be fair I don't remember the exact number, where it was stated that about this much a year makes people feel safe and happy. More money than that isn't adding to their happiness, but less money than that increases the unhappy feeling and sense of security.

This "sometimes it's just a small difference to you, but it's huge to someone else" is a point I'm trying to make now when the Holidays are coming around in the United States. First Thanksgiving and then Christmas and other religious holidays. There is an increase in asking for donations and money for people to help them. To give a good meal. To be able to help with warm clothes etc. It's the season and so on.

I'm not trying to sound like a saint here, I'm really not, but for the last five to ten years my family and I have been removing "gifts to each other" at various occasions - Mother's day, Father's day, Birthdays and even Christmas - with donations to good causes. It started since we have some long time standing volunteering going on with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders. And I have worked with vaccines and developments for a long time so why not donate to "pure drinking water for a year" or "vaccinations against measles in children". When I moved to the USA I found Heifer and Kiva, not to mention a lot of local charities who focus on the city I live in, and it seemed like a good idea to expand on.

On a smaller, closer scale I try and make some meaningful gifts for the people I see close to me. It's a little trickier, I won't lie about that. I'm fortunate that I can do a lot of things I want to and it doesn't mean that I worry about my retirement or my present day rent. I see how much a gift card of $10 to a popular coffee chain makes someone I work with very happy since they can indulge in one expensive drink one day without feeling that they broke the bank. Or the good quality gloves I donated to the "men's wardrobe" last year that one of the workers wanted to have for himself rather than giving it to a homeless man since they looked too expensive to waste on someone who could never buy them themselves... Or giving a dinner gift card to celebrate an 10 year anniversary at work or as a big "Thank you". 

I am aware that this might make me sound entitled or that it might make people feel uncomfortable but there are ways to make it less odd and power balancy. I make it clear that these are not "reciprocal" gifts. It's not that I expect that back (some people will try but that's missing the point since I know I have more money than they and the point was to help them), but that I would like to do something nice for someone. Again, it't not super easy to get this to be non-weird, but if you have some sort of relationship with people it can be done. And also that I personally think it is what you should do as a "manager" or someone "higher up" in the job hierarchy.

In my old job I tried to get the Boss to consider giving the cleaning people and the low paid administrator something extra for the Holidays. Partly because I estimated that Boss made well over five times than the others did, partly because I knew that there was a discretionary fund that could be used. Well, it didn't fly and there was no holiday gifts. I won't lie though, I was pretty happy when my coworkers approved of my idea on Boss' day that we all donated to Heifer and gave a goat to a family in need instead of some flowers and stuff.

For me nowadays? I give "Flock of Hope", measles vaccine, quick testing of malaria, tetanus shots, microloans to sustain a family, or teaching girls to read and write, a Thanksgiving box for families who don't have the means and print these gift certificates for my family and friends. Most of the times it's appreciated much more than random gift certificates with money getting swapped around since "we should exchange gifts". 

I will see how a Flock of chicks plays in the Dirty Santa game we play at work in a month. Maybe it will be stolen more than the "salt stone lamp to increase healthy air"someone brought last year?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

some thoughts on #metoo and women

Like everyone I've seen the feeds of #meetoo on social media. I didn't want to add myself in the mix while I was thinking. Mainly because I thought it was fairly common knowledge that women are being harassed, partly because I am private about "what happened to me" since it's private. Yes, this would be one of the issues that make the harassment difficult to stop, the shame and non-privacy aspect.

Anyway, after these more than two weeks since it broke a few things stand out to me.

First, it's been a huge thing in Sweden where equality work and feminism is on the active political agenda (two of the political parties have very clear wording on what they would like to accomplish in terms of future society, and almost all party leaders call themselves feminists). It's been a drive to "stop this culture of harassment now!" and demonstrations and now the latest the secretary of arts becoming involved with the national dramatic scene since 456 actresses published an article today telling their stories of harassment and sexual abuse in their work spaces (theatre and movie industry as well).

Second, the comments from not just one man but several in my vicinity where they've opened with various comments as "I just don't understand, those allegations refer to something that happened years ago" and "really, it's just a comment - it's not that bad", not to mention "Do you really think all these women have had something happened to them, maybe just someone calling them cute in the workplace, that's really not harassment". And of course, with utmost sincerity "well, it hasn't happened to you right - so not all women" and the subsequent shock when I had to reply to them "It's happened to me, several time and degrees. I don't think I know any of my female friends over 25 who hasn't had an inappropriate come on from a coworker/manager, and let's not even go into the bar scene where everyone I know have had a least one man grabbing their boobs or butt" (I tend to separate the drunken incidents from the general discussion since I have noticed that "I was drunk" is a common point of excuse and takes the focus out of the actual problem - the touching/harassment.)

Third, the subdiscussion coming out of this where a bunch of men, and women, start yelling and talking about "this makes it impossible to joke at the workplace" and "all these women turning into victims and this isn't helping women's image as strong at all". It's been a surge in the "let¨s all do the Mike Pence way and not be alone with a woman if you are a man" thinking. Not as much discussion about what kind of jokes are you really throwing around in a workplace? It's not your home you know.

To me the obvious faulty step with the third point is that it really says "a man can not be left alone with a woman since then he will assault her because he can't control himself". I call BS on that. Most men I know have no issue being alone with a woman and nothing goes out of hand. Some men are bullies(opportunist/sociopaths/harassers/bad people). These people are always going to use a one-on-one situation to their advantage. For the life of me I can't understand why not more men are raising to the occasion and saying "I don't want to be associated with those men, therefore I will not be the silent witness around".  Not to mention that the idea that a man can't control their behaviour around a women when opportunity arises to be doing something alone seems to me to be.... let's say very animalistic and basic, not really civilized and being in control of your own body and mind. Something similar to the argument that a woman can't be president because we don't know what will happen when her ovaries gives her PMS and she has access to the nukes. Yes, BS.

If we bring it back to the science scene, rather than the acting scene since I'm a trained scientist and have spent more than two decades in academia and pharma. Science and art have similar feature when it comes to perpetuating the genius image. You know the "he is so talented and successful, super special" feature. The golden lab with the associations. The PI who gets all the grants, the PR and the glory. The lab where you go and then you get invitation letters to the ball with the keys to the kingdom after a successful grad studies/post doc/first appointment.

And when genius is involved, a lot of things slide. Same with money, when money gets involved - a lot of things are overlooked. You want to keep the golden ticket and be associated with the gold and the glitter. Especially if you have invested in them. The higher up, the more protection. Nothing new about that.

I'm missing the biggest discussion I have had though. I touch on it in the second comment above. "It doesn't seem so bad that someone would lose their job now 15 years later" - mentioned in context about "he touched her thigh under the dinner table at a state dinner" and "he talked about oral sex in front of me when I thought we were going to talk about work". I had to get into the nitty gritty details and explain the surrounding extra things that to my surprise was not on the radar of the person I was speaking to. Then again, while talking I remember again that the perception of "threat" is very different when you are a tall man compared to a average woman. Not to mention that if you go to a state dinner to discuss affairs of the state, is it a positive to realize that the man next to wants to touch and grab you, rather than respecting you to know your thoughts and politics about the issues at hand?

Long story short, the upsetting (and unacceptable) part in these stories are when you as a woman have to encounter sexual advances from men while you think that you are discussing work, while they are not remotely interested in you as a contributor to the science, but rather to make them feel good and feel manly and in control. Every such encounter adds to your archive of incidents and after a few years, you start seeing these (what some people call) small incidents as the start of something bigger. It's the "feeler/grooming" territory. It's about not respecting your boundaries since they are not even a part of the conversation. It's also simply about power and a little help from their friends.

It's been said SO many times, most of these men know exactly what they are doing. They are not behaving like this with everyone. They do it when they know they have the power. And maybe most galling, the do it when they know that the other (powerful) men around them will not do anything against them.

I wrote on twitter awhile back "Do they behave in this way in front of their wife or daughter?". If they do, they fall into a very clear abuser definition since they are very entitled. A lot of them do not though. They know where the line is when other people whom they need to maintain a good character in front of are watching. After a dinner at a conference where they are in control is not one of those times.

A friend and I talked about the age old "professor sleeps with student" scenario that seems to be so  difficult to get understanding that it is not appropriate and never excusable. Never mind the post-doc/grad student in a relationship with PI. The latter is especially galling to me since I've heard the excuse so many times "she is a grown woman and can choose what she wants. You don't know thtat the PI inserted influence and there was anything inappropriate going on". (I say her since it's mainly female post-doc/grad student with male PI). Never mind the whole structure in science that we know that if your post-doc PI doesn't support your future career in science, it's going to be very hard for you to get the keys to get invited. And IF your PI opens the door to inappropriate behaviour, how difficult is it to reject the advances without hurting that precious position? And especially if you know that your institution nor the other PIs/people in power doesn't have the best track record of helping you/the non faculty. So WHY would the PI want to risk their reputation on this? (Because they don't risk that much, that would be my short answer).

When I started in science I naively thought that the employee handbook - where it clearly states "no person can have a relationship with someone who is their direct report" - was a rule. My friend works in a place where they have the same rule. I saw that Berkley, San Diego and the other universities that have been in the news for their disgraced PIs lately have similar writings. Yet, when it comes to geniuses, or people who has secured a lot of grant funding, these rules are just not as easy. And most often it's the "oh, would you really want to ruin his life and lab, it was just a little touching, or a late night text. Surely you can take the compliment and not make a fuzz." The colleagues to the person stepping over the line silently distancing themselves doesn't help either.

The long and short of this rant is this:
To me it's obvious what a lot of this confusion is about when it come to "why such a big deal". It's that specific feeling of being regarded as meat, as someone's pleasure, regardless if you have a will of your own since their will overrides everything else. You should be happy that this genius is interested in you - not your mind though - but wanting to be with you. You should thankful that they deem you interesting enough to care about them. I guess they think that the shine will rub off once they sully your body with their hands or their thoughts about what they can do to you.

I don't think they have ever considered how impersonal it is to be viewed only as a piece of meat (boobs, butt or other parts) that makes them feel happy and aroused. Because really, isn't that what being a woman should be all about? Being admired and wanted for our looks. We all apparently want to be Helen of Troy, not Morgaine Le Fay.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

a lab is like a NHL team?

I know, it's a little out there. And it might not be super accurate but the last week I've thought a little more about "what makes a good player/PI/postdoc" and "what makes a good team". It's mostly in the context of some moving a person with specific skills from one environment to another environment and hoping they will thrive in this new place. You know, like it happens all the time in science when a graduate student moves to a post-doc, or a player changes team and moves up to the NHL.

I'd admit, I started really thinking about this yesterday when I read this piece in ESPN and coupled it with what happened with Vegas Knights' player Sjipatjov/Shipachyov (depending on which transliteration you use, Swedish or English). Side note, if you are interested here is the official guide to "how to" from Russia to English from IIHF.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Just because someone is a shiny star in one place, doesn't mean that they are going to be shiny stars in a different environment. In certain things, this is obvious. In other situations, maybe not as obvious. And then there is that additional factor of "the majority of people want to feel comfortable" in order to do a stellar job performance.

The first time I encountered the discussion in a lab setting was as a graduate student with a predominantly homogeneous department. Let's say 90% was speaking fluent Swedish. It obviously meant that any visiting scholar was going to be either "changing the entire conversation into English" or "feel a little isolated when everyone was chatting away in their own language".

I've mentioned it before, it might not be an issue to keep all work presentations and seminars in English (common language) - however the small talk between people in the lab is usually feeling slightly contrived if it is in "not your native tongue when you are in majority in the group" (like being 9 native Swedish people and 1 foreigner). Yet, and I've given this spiel before - A LOT of communication and work productivity is lost if some members of the team doesn't pick up on the general chat that goes on. Of course, as I am not outside of the lab - I've missed that a lot of people nowadays wear headphones all the time so maybe this isn't as much of an issue that I had back in the days?

Moving to the United States, this became more diverse and complicated. The majority of the people at my institute were native English speakers. And we had a lot of international post-docs in the labs. A lot of people gathered and got to know each other, some more lucky (?) than others with having a peer group who spoke their native language and getting a taste of home. I still would argue though that if you are in a group of say 6-10 people, I think it is fairly rude to start chatting away in your own language if there is only one or two people who don't speak the language. (Yes, I've been there. As a person who has chosen to live with a person who doesn't speak my native language but hanging out with people who do.... I try and translate and keep him in the conversation since I find it extremely rude and excluding and these situations have decreased.)

It's different if you go off on your own with a small exclusive group, say three swedes go for dinner. There is no reason why we would speak English with each other but rather bond with our native tongue, exploring all the feelings that come from speaking your own language with all the nuances.

I digress from the point of the article. Most often when you talk about language issues and NHL there is a Russian somewhere in there. Why? Because other European countries have more English and do use the same alphabet as English. There have been a few examples of Russian players who come to the United States and start playing for NHL and not knowing any English at all. They have been great at playing hockey, stars of KHL but moving to NHL is a whole different game.

Some teams solve this a little different. There are stories about "host families" who speak Russian and English and take care of the 20-22 year old man who now is living in a completely different world. Others might have "another Russian" on the team and expecting them to guide the new guy into a more American style, interpret and then hopefully get the English going. The rumors around Shipachyov has been that he moved from Russia to Las Vegas as a 30year old who doesn't speak English, no host family or other Russian player on the team and that this didn't work out for him. There is probably a lot of other things, but a lot has been mentioned about this language/cultural barrier and that the owner and manager team might not have done as much as the could.

It's like when some new post-doc move to the new lab from another country and doesn't speak English that well or almost at all. They were good in their old environment, star in the lab, had good publications yet coming to the new lab entails learning where everything is, how things are done, where to go in the city for regular chores etc. Not always so easy and some institutions have a post-doc coordinator or an academic office to help with relocation issues. I know that I benefited enormously from the one that was there to welcome me. I don't know how I would've gotten a bank account, found a car, gotten a driver license and all those other stuff that I fixed the first two weeks of settling in the United States after getting off the plane with two suitcases.

All of this ranting is because I'm trying to avoid being rude. You see, I have a bad flaw when certain people start complaining about "they don't speak English all the time". It sometimes happens when people say similar things about Swedish, although it's easier making excuses for not knowing Swedish (small language, pretty difficult to pronounce), but I'm not as annoyed by it, my bad. My complaint is mainly these people say something to the point that they feel excluded in their own country and that "we need to put our foot down about this". (If you read the ESPN article linked in the beginning, look up Mr Seguin's comment. That's pretty much right on point where my irritation happens.) The unfair thing I want to ask them is "so how many languages do you speak?" Or sometimes, when I'm feel really self-important I'd say "come back when you've learned another language". Partly to point out that it isn't the easiest thing in the world to master a new language. Partly to bring to their attention that maybe, just maybe, they could pick up some new words themselves and make an effort to know something else that their native language?

I realize that it's a lot to ask from a hockey player to pick up Russian when playing in the NHL. And really, if they should pick up something it would be Swedish (109 players in NHL are Swedish, 66 Russian and 44 Czech) but hey - I'm just pointing out that there could be a humility about the fact that even if they are playing in the NHL, maybe that is because NHL is the best league in the world and people want to play there.

Similar to when people want to work in a world famous international lab. Regardless of the lab being in the USA or in France or in Holland, the people want to go there and work with the best of the best in that field. And maybe, just maybe, we have to accept that it means that it will be a little uncomfortable and that everyone, not just the people who move there, will have to make some changes and adapt to make everyone feel welcome and produce the best of their ability?

(Disclaimer; if you read this far - thanks. I personally think that learning the language of your new country is a must if you want to fit in. If my lab had been in France, I would have to speak more French, just as a lot of people moving to Sweden have to learn the language of 10 million people to make themselves more comfortable. What really pissed me off with Mr Seguin's comment was the fact that he lived in Switzerland for a year playing there. While he was there? He didn't speak any of the four languages given as an opportunity but kept on in his American English. So..... I would've hoped that he could've had just a little more understanding and humility than what he explains in the article as "putting down the foot and speak English since we are in the US". I just would've liked him to think that maybe his team mates in Switzerland would have liked to keep talking French/German on the ice rather than accommodating to him. Alas, I have prejudice and doubt he ever went there in his head. Mean me.)