About researchers and politicians

These days I’ve been thinking a lot about politics… I realized this is a problem around the world, and politicians are usually seen by non-politicians as bad people. Non-politicians usually think that politicians are greedy, selfish, lazy and that, in the end, they are not interested in helping society whatsoever. Of course most non-politicians have their exceptions, that one or two politicians that they really believe in, and if they are not doing enough, it’s because the system does not let him. I started thinking if it was possible that so many people in politics really did not care about doing some good for society. I mean, this should be their main motivation for getting a job there in the first place, no? So what happens??

There is an interesting experiment in psychology called the Milgram experiment, where some people, test subjects, are told to give electric shocks on another person if they do not memorize some words correctly. Although the learning person is already screaming in pain, most participants do not stop giving the shocks, since they were told so. At a first analysis, the results of this experiment seem quite disturbing… How can people be so mean? It was just a stupid experiment, they could have stopped once they realized the other person was in pain, right? Well… not really. I mean, yes, they could have stopped, but a deeper (and less sad) analysis of the whole thing takes into account the environment in which this test subject was. And you have to keep in mind that you might just as well be one of the people that continues to give shocks.
Yes, yes… but what does this have to do with the politicians?

The point is that, it’s very easy to judge from the outside. “He should have done this, he shouldn’t have voted for that, he shouldn’t have accepted that money, how can he be so unethical??” But we don’t really know the point of view of somebody who is on the inside. It is actually easier to follow the rules as they are posed then to try to fight them… Even if you think that they are wrong.

As I thought about this, I realized that it happens to me, and most researchers and PhD students I know. We are all very aware of the way universities decide which people to hire: they check our publication list. Of course they don’t read all of them, and I doubt if they actually read the titles carefully… They check how many there are and in which conferences/journals they were published. There is a huge discussion on whether this is the right thing to do, and most researchers I know, young or old, agree that this is not a very good system, and the relevance of the publications should be taken into account, no matter where they are published. But as we go into this academia field, we are pulled by the current and we believe the only way to survive is publishing… So we become one of those people that try to publish no matter what. We behave as if we accept the system, even though we disagree with it. And we think: “but what can *I* do? I am just a PhD student…” Everyone knows that it’s up to us to end this journal industry and to change how we are evaluated, but who’s brave enough to start this? If this person is alone (or only a few), she’ll certainly perish… It’s a high risk to take. So no one takes it, and we are swallowed by the system, just like the politicians we so much condemn. 

Changing the world

So here’s my list of stuff I think we can all do to make a change. Feel free to disagree, warn me about something that I am doing wrong and specially add things there!

– Smile to people. (Harder than it seems unfortunately. Specially when you are a girl and many men think that you’re flirting just for smiling).
– Be nice just for the sake of being nice.
– Recycle as much as possible. I recently found out a place near where I live where I can give old broken electronics and kitchen oil. Inform yourself.
– Don’t use plastic bags.
– Save water by turning off the tap when washing the dishes.
– Save water by turning off the tap when brushing your teeth.
– Save water by turning off the shower while scrubbing (this is extra hard, I’ll admit, specially in winter).
– Save water everywhere, not only at your house because you pay the bills.
– Don’t be petty.
– Don’t spend on unnecessary things. When you want to buy something, breathe and let the idea of buying sink in for 30 minutes. Only get it if you really want. Most of the times you’ll realize that the will goes away.
– Be vegetarian once or twice a week (maybe 5 times!). And by vegetarian I don’t mean people that eat fish! I mean real vegetarian.
– Don’t buy pets. There are plenty homeless pets ready for adoption at the local kennel.
– Don’t litter. If you need to throw something away and there’s no garbage bin nearby, just keep it in your pocket or hold it if it’s something disgusting to put in the pocket. You’ll eventually find a place to throw this away.
– Use only one paper towel to dry your hands, or use no paper at all.
– Reuse the back side of papers.
– Print two sided documents. Staple them not to mix the order.
– Turn off your screen or put your laptop to sleep if you’re not using it.
– Turn off the lights. Again, not only in your house because you pay the bills.

The Wall and the message

Last weekend I went to Roger Waters’ concert “The Wall”. For those that don’t know (and I explain this because an American colleague didn’t know Roger Waters and “have heard somewhere” about Pink Floyd), Roger Waters was part of a very cool rock band called Pink Floyd. “The Wall” is the title of one of their albums, from 1979. It includes the very famous song “We don’t need no education… Hey, teacher, leave the kids alone!”. Anyway, the whole album is pretty good, although I don’t have the habit of listening to this kind of music. It is so good that, 30 years after its release, this guy decides to do a world tour on it and the concerts were almost sold out everywhere.

I read that at the time it was an album that told the story of a character, called Pink, and his psychological problems, relationship difficulties and isolation. There is even a (quite disturbing) movie about it. But this more recent tour focuses mostly on other issues, such as war and capitalism. And it really makes an impression. It was interesting the stream of feelings I had during the show, how overwhelming it was. I don’t think I had ever felt this before during a concert. So here’s me trying to explain to myself why it was so exciting and disturbing at the same time.

First of all I should note what happened before the concert. One of my friends from Brazil was visiting Vienna for a few days and we met to catch up. It was very nice. I was very happy to see how well he’s doing. At some point he mentioned how I was in Brazil in April and hadn’t told anyone, which is true… I don’t know for sure why I did this. In any case, it was wrong. This made me a bit sad and disappointed at myself.
I was also reasonably stressed because after the concert I had to help my sister with a test and pack my bags to leave to Istanbul for a conference the next day. But I was willing to go to the concert and have a good time.

From the first 30 seconds we knew it was going to be amazing, with fireworks, props and visual effects (just take a look at the opening). It was super cool.

At some point, the huge round screen in the middle of the stage started showing faces of people followed by their information. They were all people that had died in wars and conflicts around the world. I started noticing that the deaths were all more or less recent, all in the years 2000 and something. This touched me. You see, I think I am a pacifist, and every time I see these conflicts on TV (Syria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, etc.), I think: “Why are these people fighting? Don’t they realize that there are people dying?”. For me, the suffering of losing loved ones and destroying your home should be stronger that any political fight. So seeing those pictures made me very sad. My eyes even watered.

One of the people showed, and for whom Roger Waters made a special tribute, was a brazilian called Jean Charles. This guy died in 2005 in one of London’s underground stations, shot by police officers. I remember the news at the time, but I never fully understood what had happened. At the concert, Waters mentioned how he was cowardly killed, shot in the head even after the cops had caught him and put him on the ground. I didn’t know about this, and if you think about it, it was complete non-sense. This made me… angry? Disappointed? Frustrated? I cannot find a word actually…

Then there was intermission and I calmed down.

On the second part there was strong criticism to capitalism and this whole culture of profit and exploitation. At this point I started thinking how things could have turned out like this. How can people seem so heartless? How can they not see the damage of their decisions? And I thought about this and I saw images of soldiers reuniting with their kids and injured people in the concert and this made me cry. I think it’s very disturbing to realize how people can cause so much damage without noticing it. And I am afraid of being/becoming such people. And every time I think about this, I just want to do something that would change the world and make a big difference. But I am more and more convinced that a big difference requires lots of people doing the right thing. So I’ll do my part and do the right thing (as I gradually find out what the right things are… people that know should make a list).
Let’s just hope I don’t become comfortably numb.

I think in the end it was confusing because it was a concert. And I should watch it, sing the songs and feel good, like it was in Paul McCartney’s. Except it was not like this. I watched it, thought about life, got sad and disappointed in the world and wanted to change it. Well, I guess if half of the people there had the same feeling and are willing to do something about this, it was the most successful concert of all times.

Ladybug and stuff

This weekend a visitor came to my plant. I call her Jo Ann. She left yesterday sometime at night… I think she’s cute, isn’t she? Just like those ladybugs we see in cartoons.

Other than that… We are all melting in Vienna. It’s been a few weeks now that we have temperatures over 30, and this week has been over 35. And it’s summer vacation. And I am working. Damn.
But work later. Nice things first.
Last weekend I went swimming, just because being at home or anywhere else was unbearable. And where did I go? To the Danube! Yep, I swam in the famous river of the song. It was nice. We got there at 10 in the morning, which I thought was late and it would be crowded because we are in Austria, and you know how these Austrians are all organized with their schedules and such. And we all know that it is better to get the early sun of the morning, although we are always too lazy to wake up at 8 on weekends. Anyway, it was not crowded, we got a nice place under a tree, played games and swam with the fish and swans. Yes, there were swans there, lots of them!! And they were really close to us, like 2 meters. The fish I don’t like to mention, since they would be a reason for me not to go in, but the heat beat the fish, and I swam anyway. It was a nice Saturday 🙂

Still not about work.
A few weeks ago a saw a movie in youtube, actually, more like a documentary, about animals. It shocked me, really. If you like your meat, don’t watch it. Since then I have been trying to avoid eating meat whenever possible, and you know what? Not so hard as you’d expect! Of course you need to be careful and get those proteins somewhere else, like in eggs (but not too much! I’ve heard they have lots of cholesterol…). In any case, I recommend the movie. If you don’t want to become vegetarian, that’s ok, you can cut meat a few days a week, it’s not so bad and it might be actually healthier. We do eat a lot of meat…

Time for the afternoon snack now. No time to write about work, for your sake (and mine)  🙂

A plea for information

Socrates said once that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. At the present moment I say that the unexamined opinion is not worth giving. I will explain why.

A few weeks ago something interesting happened in Brazil. Something unexpected and that I never thought I would see: people protesting. They were protesting initially against raises in transportation costs, then against the world cup costs, then against corruption, then against the low quality of life, then against… well, against everything you could protest. Initially I thought that this was good. Finally people were noticing the absurdity in Brazil’s politics, how much is left undone for stupid reasons, how many problems could have been solved so far and how corruption and private interests get in the way of social development. I thought people had noticed that things could be much much better, so they went to the streets to protest, and as a way of relieving all the frustration. So far so good. I think this is ok, it is a legitimate way of showing the government that we are not happy with the way things are, for a long time now.

But (there’s always a but)…
People in general like very much to “go with the flow”, and with social networks now this is easier than ever. I have four examples.

A few posts ago I mentioned a problem that happened in Brazil with the financial assistance for the poor. A rumor was spread that this assistance would be over and in one weekend thousands of people went desperate to the bank in hope to get their last payment. As soon as a person gets such information, they don’t even think it can be fake, they don’t suspect it and don’t search a reliable source. Instead, they share with all their friends… who do the same. And before you know there are thousands of people desperate for a fake reason. This is very very serious.

For a long time I have been puzzled why public education is so bad in Brazil. I decided to send an e-mail to a few people I know that are teachers in public schools. I thought they were the best people to tell me what was indeed the problem. Well… only one of them replied, and she told me what I did not expect. She said that infra-structure is not really a problem. That the city hall had enough money for materials and such. Teachers just needed to present a project stating that they needed these or those books, games, etc. and the city hall would provide it to them. She didn’t even mention the teachers’ salary. But she could not pin point the problem for me. So in April I went to Brazil and I spent a day in a public school. My conclusion was the the problem was *not* infra-structure, or the teachers’ salary, but it was much harder and serious. (Maybe I’ll write a post explaining my point of view in the future…). The point is: there are many many people that think the problem of public education is lack of investment, either for paying personal or for buying material for the kids. Why do they think that? Because that’s what everybody thinks! And everybody cannot be wrong, right? Wrong.

In the midst of frustration and protests, there are many people worried that a law project, called PEC37, will be approved. They say it’s the “impunity PEC”, that it is very bad for us and we should also protest against its approval. I have even received e-mails asking for my signature against this thing, so I decided to find out what the hell it is. I read a quick explanation on a news paper (it seemed unbiased), then I read the article that would be changed on the constitution and I read the proposal, that states how this article is changed and why. Honestly? I don’t think I understood 20% of it. And I am wondering now how many people can be such experts that they really understand and strongly oppose this change. How did this come to be?? Well, somebody decided they were against it, maybe this person actually know about it and this is their opinion. And then they shared, it came to the media, and more people shared, and now everybody is fighting against this that they don’t really understand.

Remember those e-mail chains you got saying that you’d get a penny for each reply or that somebody was missing? Have you ever wondered how many of those were true?? I looked for more information on some of them, and I never got a single one that was real.

My brother in law argues that the same is happening with the protests. If you go in Facebook now, it is almost annoying the amount of messages of people giving their opinions on PEC37, on the health system, on the protests, on the police… etc. But are these really their opinion? Or are they sharing things because all their friends say the same? I think it’s time to stop sharing and start thinking. We are people with lives and jobs and families, it is not likely that within a few hours we can decide what we think on such difficult subjects. Opinions require information, a lot of information, and time.

I leave my plea for people in Brazil to reflect and find out why they are so unhappy. Then, use this energy to study and propose solutions. Then you protest for this, and not against everything else.

About social networks

It’s been a long time since I have this inherent annoyance and restraints against social networking. The mere though of thousands or millions of people checking around on other peoples’ lives on the internet makes me nervous. Nevertheless, I am also part of this world. Although I did not want to, originally, moving countries and having people that I am only able to contact via Facebook kind of made me do it. More or less the same reason why my grandma now can call me on Skype. I realized this some time ago, and sent her an actual written letter. After all, why is she the one having to adapt to my means of communication when I can very well use hers? Turned out to be a very nice experience, writing a letter and all, and I will do it more often.

But back to the Facebook thing… After some thinking, I guess I can finally point out some reasons why I dislike so much this kind of interaction. And maybe this will shed a light on how I should use this in a way that makes me happy, and not angry.

The first thing is what I read on some news today (what actually made me finally write this… I’ve been meaning to do it for a while): “Endless sharing and clicks on “like” are, after all, far easier than taking the time to work out what we actually feel.” (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130104-pay-attention/1). I must be honest that the few times I clicked on “like” was because I did not want everybody to see my comment on the subject, although the person that posted was expecting a reaction from me. It’s ugly and I am embarrassed, but I would really rather that things directed to me are sent to me only, and not posted on some wall for everyone else, expecting a public reaction from me. Anyway, I agree with the guy that said this… liking and sharing is much easier than figuring out how you really feel about something, but it’s very shallow and lazy.

Another thing that annoys me is the amount of unwanted information you get from people. So somebody got married… graduated… had babies. Facebook tells you this. What are you going to do? “Like”?? It was not even the person that told you this. I never know if people really expect some reaction from a mere Facebook status change (“What do you mean you didn’t know?? It was on my Facebook!!”) or if they never stopped to think on what’s being published or not (“Ah… thanks… but how did you know it? Facebook? Ah… yes…”). Unfortunately not all people have the patience to go through the endless privacy configurations and filter who gets to see what. My policy: if you want me to know something, tell me. I am rarely on Facebook, and even if I am, don’t expect me to go to your profile to find out if there’s something new.

Speaking of the privacy thing, I will not even begin to argue how dangerous this can be (just check http://pleaserobme.com/). We all know that (I hope!), but what I am most concerned recently is what people are sharing about other people, without their consent. You post a picture of you and your friends at some place, suddenly you reveal some information about all the people on the picture, ever thought of that? Maybe some of the people in the picture don’t even know this, or maybe they don’t like to publish photos online. But out of politeness, they won’t tell you this, and just avoid taking pictures with you the next time. There’s an option to remove the tag from the picture, nevertheless, all the people that know you and see the picture, know it’s you. I think it’s just rude, and I have warned my mother about it (the only person I was brave enough to do so). If you want to put pictures online, please ask first the people on the picture. It’s polite to take into account others’ opinions. In fact, not only pictures, but any personal information. If it’s not yours, it’s not yours to share.

I guess the last thing (which usually makes me more sad than angry, and then angry for going into Facebook and becoming sad) is what other peoples’ lives look like. I know everybody has problems, I know life is not perfect, but when you only see the people online, it seems everybody is so so happy! They have wonderful pictures of vacations, outing with friends, the staff smiling at work, important events happening… I could go into the race, and post pictures of happiness of my own, but I don’t want to. We shouldn’t need to have to show a happy life to actually be happy. And this accounts for showing everywhere, on and off-line.

After figuring out all this, the only thing I could do was to go over the long long privacy settings on Facebook to block most of the information (and delete, when possible). I am working on removing the picture, but I am afraid this would cause some comments I don’t want to deal with (such as “Why did you remove the picture? It was great!”). For some time I thought of using it only for professional purposes, but this would annoy 99% of the people there. Using it as my blog is certainly not and option… I don’t want to broadcast these posts. What to do then? Oh well… back to work.

PS: The sentence of the day (I saw it twice already) seems to be “your attention has a limited capacity”, so use it wisely!

PS2: A more professional view on the subject: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120703-tackling-technology-overload

About life

So, yesterday night I went to one of the famous Bier Gartens here in Munich. It is a nice place, at Wiener Platz, where they have lots of tables in an open space and several restaurants and bars around where we can get our food and beer. It’s been a long time since I didn’t do this, and it was very nice. Just sitting around, having some beer (or watching people have it because I did not dare to buy 1 liter for myself), eating appetizers an talking about life.

It was particularly different and interesting because of the people. Each one had a different story and opinion. Most of them are married or getting married soon and all are academics. What got me thinking was this guy that was saying how he kind of regretted getting married and having kids so late. He had his first child when he was 31, which did not sound so bad for me, but he was saying that he kept postponing it since he was always traveling a lot and moving to different cities because of his research. Now, for example, he still lives in another city than his family (wife and kids). He sadly said that he’ll probably not live to see his grandchildren getting married, and when his children do, he’ll probably not be able to dance in their marriage because of his age. That got me thinking. I found that most people from academia always liked studying, and keep doing this even after graduation, and, if they make any plans, is about the next post-graduation, or whether to get a job or not. And most people, like myself, never had plans for a personal life, like getting married or having kids. We usually think that this comes naturally, but it seems that it is naturally coming later and later. I have colleagues that are on their 30’s and starting the PhD now. Of course one could say that you should not stop your life because of studying and that it’s possible to have it all (I know people that do), but the thing is that a student does not get enough money for a proper marriage, honeymoon and all (I don’t know why people still think that this is strictly necessary… it’s surely nice, but anyway). Imagine having kids… kids are expensive and take time, and all PhD students are worried enough about all the research, reading, publishing, and since they never thought about family, they probably won’t start to at this point.

My point is, for several reasons, people tend to start a family later in life. And this guy was complaining and I was thinking how I sometimes look at my cousins that are married and have kids and wonder what my life would be like if I just wanted those simple things, and didn’t studied or worked so hard. Sometimes I even wish that I wanted, but the feeling goes away fast. Maybe they also look at me and wonder how’s my life like… who knows.

The conclusion I reached this morning was that times are changing, but they have always been changing. We cannot escape and think that things will be in a certain way forever. That everyone will get married, and that you will have a big family (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they are not big anymore), and that the family can get together in your grandparent’s house (most of my grandparents don’t even live in a house big enough for so many people), and that you’ll see your children having kids and possibly your great-grandchildren… Once upon a time, the families lived close, in the same city or the same block, and this also is no longer the case. So, as I said, things change. All I can expect is to be happy with the time and life I have, whenever and whatever happens, without regrets.

This is a picture of the Englischer Garten, the place I need to cross to get to the university. The streams there have the clearest water I have ever seen. I think they clean it when there’s no one looking…