Friday, February 23, 2007

OT: Prius cult

Late this afternoon, as I was on the treadmill, the ABC news came on and trumpeted a vital piece of information. No, it wasn't that cars don't get the MPG listed on the sticker or even that the Prius doesn't get the 60/51 that it's supposed to get.

Here's the money quote, from a Toyota dealer interviewed in the piece.

Q. "Do you think that people will stop buying the Prius now that the mileage figure has been revised?"

A. "No, it won't stop them; they'll still buy them. Those people are a cult."

Why does this give me the mental image of all of us cult members in our Priuses (Prii?) converging on a village square a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dragging our trailers full of compact fluorescent bulbs behind us?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

You can lead a horse to water . . .

Recently, I was in a meeting with a colleague when he commented that a grad student "must have gotten bad advice from her advisor"; the context was something to do with a particular theory that a student did or didn't use.

Maybe yes, and maybe no. As profgrrrl and others have commented from time to time, sometimes we're giving advice and they're not taking it. Sometimes the smaller stuff is easier than the large stuff: we can suggest that if they want to submit something to Journal A and Journal A wants Chicago style, they'll have a better chance if the manuscript is in Chicago style. That kind of thing is a no-brainer. The same holds true if it's a really big question--of ethics, say, or of a university deadline.

It's the mid-level stuff that's the problem. Students aren't Play-Doh, after all. We can advise getting in touch with X person or including Y person on a committee, but ultimately we only have two kinds of power: moral suasion and the veto power enforced by quitting a committee. Since no one wants to do the latter except in the most extreme circumstances, we're left with persuading students that what we're advising really is in their best interests. Sometimes they don't believe us and go their own way. Sometimes they're right to do so.

Sometimes, though, they're wrong, and their project will leave people scratching their heads about the "bad advice" they got from their advisors.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Enormous Radio

I've been thinking about John Cheever's story "The Enormous Radio" lately because of experiences that remind me of it. The story is a nice little parable about a couple living in an apartment building who one day discover that their new radio can pick up the sounds of their neighbors all over the building. They gradually get more and more hooked on listening to their neighbors' lives, even as this knowledge starts to undermine their faith in human nature and in each other. Cheever couldn't have dreamed how much of this would come to pass in living color what with reality tv and celebrity culture flooding the airwaves.

I once had an office across the hall from someone who kept his phone and answering machine on speakerphone, which meant that unless I leapt up and shut my door every time I heard his phone ring, I had to listen to every detail of his conversations, from what he was picking up for dinner to symptoms described to his doctor.

The part that's currently intriguing, though, is some kind of technological glitch that makes other people's car radios intrude when I'm driving. I'm not talking about the turn-it-up-to-11 booming bass patterns that some drivers like to share with the rest of us, so that we can better experience the feeling of having our ribs shake with the sound. I listen to the iPod in the car through one of those adapters that plugs into the car's electrical system, which somehow transmits the sound to the radio. But when certain cars or trucks pass, they override the signal from the iPod temporarily. I don't know how this works (Bluetooth? two-way radio?), but the end result is getting several seconds of sound from the other car. The result is that I get to hear--and speculate about who's playing--everything from Christian rock to oldies to hip hop and to try to figure out which of the cars in the line of traffic is transmitting it.

So--a glimpse into others' lives, but not one that I seek or can control. It keeps things interesting.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


  • Most absorbing pastime of the last few days: trying to make the hypothetical fax modem in my computer act like a fax machine. Most frustrating pastime: failing to make it work.
  • Most common pastime of the past few days. Driving in fog. Driving in fog. Driving in rain. Driving in fog at night. Driving in rain and fog at night. Being grateful that I don't live in a place that can get 10' of snow but gets fog and rain instead.
  • Other pastimes: Writing award recommendation letters for students. Preparing and teaching class. Reading. Meeting with grad students.
  • Least common (but pleasant) activities: Walking in the fog (I like the cool mist). Seeing the sun (10 whole minutes the other day!).
  • Books on the iPod: Simon Schama's Rough Crossings; Gore Vidal's Point to Point Navigation; Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World. If you listen to the last one, be forewarned: you'll be 3 hours into it before you get beyond the Paleolithic era.

    [Updated to add]
    Professor Zero says in the comments that the fax modems in computers never work, and I think that's true. This one is a true diva: it declines to send faxes but is eager to answer my phone and greet callers with a piercing fax whistle. I finally unplugged it.
  • Saturday, February 10, 2007


    It's been a long week, and, Friday being the traditional night to cut loose and enjoy yourself, I didn't hold back, as you'll see from the following wild activities.

  • I spent some time playing the piano (at which I am completely terrible. I read music by spelling it out, like a 5-year-old reads words, although I can hear a melody once and at least pick it out on the keyboard).
  • I watched a movie I'd seen before and fast-forwarded through the dull parts to my favorite parts instead of dutifully watching the whole thing.
  • We got Chinese takeout food from the good Chinese restaurant rather than the one that's closer to us. For some reason, getting takeout food or going out to eat gives me all kinds of energy to work in the evening, whereas if I cook (even similar dishes), I'm ready to call it quits pretty early. This is a sign that I should get to eat out all the time, don't you think?
  • Sunday, February 04, 2007

    Note to ProQuest: You missed one

    We now have access to Proquest Historical Newspapers (well, the NY Times), and I am deeply thankful. I've spent some time just running searches to see what a thing of beauty it is.

    However, it doesn't have everything. I had used the old paper versions of the Reader's Guide and Book Review Digest to locate a review of a book by Obscure Author a few months back and, having found one in the New York Times, looked it up on microfilm. It's not available in the Historical Newspapers collection, though.

    The Historical Newspapers project is a real godsend, and I'm grateful for it. The work is done in India, to ensure accuracy (as I read in Business Week* at the gym this morning), and it's clearly a huge undertaking. I guess my point is really a plea to librarians: electronic resources aren't perfect, so please keep paper resources whenever possible so that we can cross-check them with the electronic ones.

    *Our gym has the dullest magazines on the planet--this was the most interesting one I could find, which tells you something.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    No job candidates today! No driving today!

    This week has been all about the job candidates, and our department is not done yet. As a member of the search committee, I've had to be there every day (which means I've put in more hours driving this week than I would in a part-time job), but it's been interesting listening to the candidates talk both in our smaller meetings and in their job talks. Some observations:

  • Since the entire reason we're hiring someone new is that we don't have someone who's exactly in the subspecialty for which we've advertised, it's exciting to hear someone talk about research in fields and eras that would bring a lot to the program. It's exciting to hear people talk about their research intelligently.

  • The turnout was excellent for both candidates and included people from other (related) departments as well. That's important, since (I hope) it showed the candidates that we're interested in them as well as vice versa. It is a courtship dance on both sides, after all, and I'm assuming that as in other searches, the candidates will have other offers.

  • The semi-formal events (lunches, cocktail parties, dinners) are fun but a little tricky. Talking too informally about family life can veer dangerously into prohibited EEOC waters, but at the same time, you don't want the dinner to be just another Q & A about research interests, which the poor candidate has by then been talking about all day. The events I attended struck a pretty good balance, although I did change the subject when someone wanted to go into enthusiastic detail about the many turbulent and terrifying flights she'd had when leaving from our airport--the one from which the candidate was scheduled to depart the next day. [A digression: What's up with people who do that, anyway? There is no circumstance, none, under which I want to hear about a bad flight, especially when I'm on a flight that isn't, shall we say, glassy smooth, and yet people in the seat behind me always feel compelled to tell horror stories to each other in a loud voice.]

  • About the talks themselves: Dr Crazy has a good post about this, so I'll only add the following:
  • Don't worry if you're a little nervous; we expect and allow for that.
  • Dr. Crazy says to be sure that you identify some of your more obscure references, and that's good advice--sometimes. But if you identify someone that people ought to know, you can come across as condescending. Saying "Abraham Lincoln, who was the sixteenth president of the United States," for example, or "Shakespeare, who was quite a well-known playwright in his day" (I'm making this up) is a bit much. I'd rather look up a reference later than hear this kind of statement; it's insulting. We have advanced degrees, too, so trust me: we'll keep up.
  • The "look up the department members to show interest" as part of doing your homework on the department can be a double-edged sword. Some candidates do it, and some don't; some of my colleagues are flattered by it, but I had one person a year or so ago say that she found it creepy. The majority wouldn't agree, probably (I don't find it creepy), but I thought I'd pass that along.
  • Thursday, February 01, 2007

    Inventions I want to see

    Driving home tonight, I listened to NPR and heard that someone has invented astroturf with fiber optic strands embedded so that now commercials can actually be shown on the field during breaks in football games.

    I don't watch football, so I don't know how necessary a technology this is (I'm guessing "not at all" would be the category), but here are some inventions that need to be looked into by those who do such things. (Yes, I'm mostly kidding, but wouldn't some of these be useful?)

  • In addition to searching the catalogue for books, a lot of people like to browse through the stacks looking for books in their field. Since I don't always catch them when they're on the New Books bookshelf, I browse for new books in my field when I'm up in the stacks, but that involves a lot of close looking at the labels.

    Wouldn't it be great if someone invented some kind of label highlighter or ink that would change color with the year? For example, new books each year would have the year on the Library of Congress code highlighted in, say, green, which would degrade slowly over the year to a different color--maybe yellow--and then on to brown, until after the 3rd year they'd just be regular white labels. There wouldn't be a new color for each year; they'd just have to invent one kind of ink that would do this and use it to highlight the year on the label (or maybe the entire label).

  • I also would like some kind of RFID technology that would allow you to wave your library card/university ID at a sensor and just pass through the gate with your backpack or bag of books, so you wouldn't have to unpack the entire load of books from your bag to check them out and then pack them up again.

  • If you drive regularly on two-lane roads that curve up and down hills, as I do, you know that sometimes it's impossible to tell right away whether an oncoming car is passing the car in front of it or whether the curve of the road just makes it appear that way. If roads had sensors that would make a car's lights blink when that center line was crossed (something that'll never happen), it'd be easier to tell whether you needed to dive for the shoulder or not.

    Of course there are fantasy inventions--the keys that shout "I'm right here, stupid!" when I'm looking for them, or the illuminated signs for cars that would say "Back off, fool! Tailgating won't make me go any faster, not in this fog"--but they're pretty ridiculous. I really would like to see the label thing, though.

    What inventions would you like to see?