Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On audio input

I've developed a new habit/addiction.

I used to listen to Spotify on my way to and from work, but as much as I love music, it would eventually get boring as music frequently works more as a way of shutting out the world than to entertain or otherwise engage me. I've tried reading - while listening to music, even - but it doesn't really work (and the music or lack thereof has nothing to do with it). If I take the bus I will get travel sick from looking down too much, and if I'm on the subway it's frequently so crowded that it is difficult to find a seat, and reading standing up isn't really my thing.

However, a while back a friend told me about "Serial". The podcast. As I'm sure everyone in the entire world has heard of it by now I won't go into details, but if there are anyone left out there who hasn't listened to "Serial" I think they should. Go find it online. It's free. Listen. Get hooked.

Anyway, "Serial" is over (or at least the first season), and I needed more. With little over half an hour travel time each direction, I need more than an hour per day to fill my needs. Hence, I would need a lot of podcasts. I've tried several, and while others such as "This American Life" or "Radiolab" are good, they don't hook me the way "Serial" did, and with all of them there is a quantity problem. I need more. (I really do sound like an addict...)

Thus, I discovered audiobooks. First, I got a free trial one from Audible (which turned out to be "free", as they automatically connected that to my Amazon account, took my credit card details from there and proceeded to charge me monthly without me being aware that I had signed up for any kind of membership... Bastards!). After that, I moved onto an app called "Storytel" [sic - not a typo - one L only].

Storytel doesn't have the greatest catalogue, but for now I am satisfied. I've been through quite a lot of memoirs, which are made infinitely better when the person having written them also is the one reading (so far, I've listened to Lena Dunham, Stephen Fry, Kaitlin Moran and more). Love that! I wish I could find such audiobooks from the politicians I am writing my dissertation on. Would be so interesting (I did buy another book from Amazon, since they had already charged me I might as well make use of my "credit" - but I'm not sure Jimmy Carter reading about something other than the topic I am researching will have the same effect, and at any rate there is no hope to find anything from Nixon or Ford, and I don't think Kissinger is the greatest audio performer - though he is unmatched when it comes to the written word).

I like thematically appropriate listens, so when I was meadering around on a U.S. university campus (specifically University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) this spring, I listened to Stoner by John Williams. The world of academia is more than a mere setting in this novel; it's almost a character of its own. Thus my circumstance made an already interesting book even more captivating, though I am sure I must have looked odd to the people around me - walking around with my ear plugs staring at campus buildings as though I saw them in 1915 rather than 2015.

When I came home I went back to podcasts for a while, having discovered Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Star Talk", where he enter into discussion about topics reaching far beyond the extent of his field of study (which is saying something, seeing as he basically is studying the universe...). Funny and interesting. After having gone through the entire backlog of this podcast, however, I went back to audiobooks. 

This time I've finally settled for something that will keep my addiction covered for a while. After the season finale of "Game of Thrones" a few weeks back I realized I craved more. Thus far I'd been staying far away from the books, or rather, I started reading them, but they did not appeal to me, This was way back when the first season aired, and the show was following the book closely enough for me to feel it redundant to read them. In addition, the books felt "wordy" to me, which is weird, because I normally really look big, fat, wordy books. 

Anyway. Now everything is different. First of all, it's been four years since I saw that first season. Even if the first book is following it closely, it doesn't matter, as I've forgotten a lot. A lot. 

Secondly, it's almost an advantage that the books are wordy. It means they last longer, and seeing as I listen to them during my commute where constant distractions might interfere, it isn't so problematic if I miss a detail here or there. 

Finally, I really like the guy who is reading (which is a BIG deal for audiobooks). He even does different voices, which I adore. I could listen to him forever (a good thing, seeing as each book is about 30 hours,,,) 

Yeah, that's right. Each book is about 30 hours. And there are five of them (with two more in the making, but as everyone knows by now the release dates of those are anyone's guess). 

I'm already halfway into book number two, though, so I'm wolfing them down a little faster than I'd planned. Somehow, my commute time tends to stretch out these days... The way it looks, I'll be hunting for more sustenance to feed my addiction come autumn. (Insert mandatory "Winter is coming") 

Any suggestions? 

Friday, May 8, 2015

On Good and Bad Bosses

Being a PhD student (especially in Norway, where it is paid employment) is in many ways a sweet deal. You get to spend time working on exactly the thing you're (supposed to be) most interested in. You get to have a narrow focus on a topic so specific (and often insignificant) that most people know next to nothing about it. You get to become an expert on this topic. You get to devote time, energy, intellectual capacity and whatever skills you've developed over time on working on just one, single issue that need not be of any particular interest or use to anyone else (though naturally you have learnt how to argue that indeed it is of particular interest and use to everyone else - you've gotten some kind of funding for this project, after all...). You get to do all this for a longer period of time, usually about three to four years, and in the meantime very few people are going to bother you in any significant way with meeting deadlines, making progress or doing any of the most basic things most employees are expected to do in their jobs: show up at a specific time, show up at all, actually work...

Of course this latter point isn't entirely true.

First of all, most universities will by now have instated some kind of checks and balances system to keep a little control of their PhD students. It will still vary greatly from institution to institution how rigid this system is, but I would guesstimate that you nowhere anymore can do what seems to have been the "norm" many places in the past - you show up at the start of your doctorate and then nobody sees you again for four (or more) years until you show up again for your defense with a 1000 page dissertation.

These days there are some requirements. You have to take some courses (here I know Norway is still on the lighter side. In many places it still is more than justified to call the PhD students students, as they do plenty of course work and have papers due and everything - our system is more flexible and it can be argued that it is just as correct to call me and my peers PhD fellows). You generally will have some deadlines along the way (we, for instance, have a halfway evaluation, which I will take sometime this summer or autumn). And technically I am supposed to show up for work during work hours at any time I don't have a justifiable reason not to do so (a conference, field work, those courses I talked about), but in reality I am fairly sure I could stay at home for several weeks at end and no one would notice (except my office mate, but she wouldn't tell on me, and a simple Facebook message saying "Working from home for a while" would put her at ease). And even if they did notice, it wouldn't have any consequences.*

Many of the requirements, then, are more for show than actually breathing down your neck like the proverbial distrusting boss would do.

However, I do have one of those bosses as well. The problem is that she is not always a good boss. And before you jump to conclusions about me slandering my boss in social media, I should clarify: I'm talking about myself. (My real boss is a man, so there.)

My Bad Boss - me - isn't always a bad boss. The not bad part is what makes her a boss at all. Because in a system where so little pressure is put on you for any day-to-day production (but HUGE pressure on the long haul production with the far-ahead deadline way out of your sight), you really need to pull yourself together and force yourself to do some work every now and then. You need to be your own boss. You need to tell yourself what your tasks are, and then you need to do them. Otherwise, you've already lost.

On occasion this works for me. I can have whole days and several days in a row, even, where I work like a normal person (one of those with real bosses), and get stuff done. My Good Boss manages to give me clear instructions and as a Good Employee (because I am, honestly, even if this post so far might suggest otherwise) I get it done.

This is improvement on my part.

I remember when I wrote my master's thesis I was absolutely horrid at getting stuff done. Every word came at an insufferable price - it felt like I had to pull them out of me like fingernails from a torture victim (you're welcome for that mental picture).

This is because then I only** had the Bad Boss. The Bad Boss still comes around too frequently for me to be particularly happy about it, though. The Bad Boss doesn't motivate me or give me instructions; the Bad Boss tells me that the final deadline is coming closer with every day (well, duh!). She tells me that I have a come nearly halfway in my PhD, but I have not produced half of the text for a PhD dissertation (and my objections that I have done plenty of other useful stuff that doesn't necessarily reflect the amount of output you can touch and feel but nevertheless contributes to the end result have no traction with her). My Bad Boss makes me feel insecure, worried, and generally pretty useless.

My Bad Boss most frequently visits when I am tired, hungry, stressed out, or that one week of the month where most women feel more insecure, worried and useless (if you're a man and you've no idea what I'm talking about, I envy you and I'm about to punch you in the face. Go away. Bring me chocolate before coming back).

Most annoying of all - my Bad Boss makes me a Bad Employee. And as I mentioned, I am not really a Bad Employee. I am a Good Employee. Whenever Good Boss is around it's pretty visible too, so you don't even have to take my word for it.

So. Like a terrible academic*** I have arrived at the problem far too long into the text I'm writing. In order for me to be a Good and Productive Employee, I need my Good Boss to speak louder and more frequently than my Bad Boss. But how do I do this?

Like an even more terrible academic I was very close to ending my text with a question. Because a question, at this point, is about as good as I can do. I don't really have an answer. I can't predict when the Bad Boss will show up, or how long she intend to stay (though I can of course try to avoid the situations I know she is most likely to appear, but even so - it's not like I can avoid work one week every month, no matter how relaxed the system might seem).

My best bet is on the realization that I have a Bad Boss, and that I have a Good Boss. I know there are two of them. So for the times when it feels like only the Bad Boss is the one showing her ugly face, I can try to tell myself that she will not linger forever. The Good Boss will show up eventually. In fact, if I manage to ignore the Bad Boss she sometimes tires of pestering me, and goes away all on her own. Sometimes, sometimes, even the Good Boss pops her head in directly after, just to check on me.****

So it boils down to this: I need to get rid of my Bad Boss but I should probably also be aware that she will never disappear completely, but rather keep in mind she will also never stay put for good.



҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉҉



*For the record, I also have a supervisor, and she is very active, and she probably would notice both my absence for longer stretches of time and definitely my failure to meet deadlines and produce text. So in my case the potential slacking off has a very real limit. But not every supervisor is as active or attentive, so it is not entirely impossible that you would find cases where not even he or she would know if the PhD student had stopped working altogether for a loooong while.

** This is a truth that needs some moderation. I did write the damn thesis, and it's not all bad, so at some point the Good Boss must have been around then as well. But it didn't feel like it - I suspect maybe the Good Boss simply was a deputy back then, and thus did not really dare to challenge the authority of the Bad Boss. At least that is my theory. I am glad that the Good Boss' career has taken an upward turn!

*** For some reason I really want to write "academidian" instead. But then my Bad Boss told me I could not justify a title clearly derived from a crossover between academic and comedian. As I am neither (can you see what this hag is doing to me? I need her to GO AWAY!!! And not come back - not even with chocolate).

**** Sometimes she brings chocolate! :)

Friday, April 17, 2015

On leaving the U.S., again

Let's start at the beginning: what does a pop tart really taste like? I have been in the U.S. long enough that I should have had plenty of opportunities to find out, but honestly, I've never tried one. And never really felt like trying one either. Especially not for breakfast. I have vastly different ideas about what a good breakfast should and should not entail than what most Americans do (judging only from the breakfast aisle in any given grocery store, naturally).

Well, even if I am leaving I have made sure I'll get the chance to figure out this mystery. I've bought a box of pop tarts. I fully expect I won't like them very much, but at least now my expectations aren't too high...

Don't get me wrong, I approve of a lot of breakfast related things here too. For instance the concept of going out for breakfast (even if I normally would choose a different dish than pancakes, but even I get that this only makes me weird...). Or even better, brunch. One of the restaurants in the vicinity of my hotel in Atlanta advertizes that they serve bottomless mimosas* or Bloody Marys for Sunday brunch. Even if that makes me think of Kenny Falmouth of Monkey Island, it does sound like a sweet deal.

My own breakfast routine most days while I've been in the U.S., however, has been quite a bit more sober than that. I've been in two different hotels in two different parts of the country, but I could always find some channel that showed reruns of old shows - especially "Charmed". Interestingly I never really watched "Charmed" when it was a big deal way back when I was a kiddo (many of my friends did, and I can't remember exactly what made me not watch it, though I suspect it might have had something to do with the fact that we didn't have cable or satelite, and thus a very limited range of channels). Anyway, with all these reruns - and not just this time, but last time I visited the U.S. too, as well as when we went to the U.K. for vacation in November - it seems I have the show pretty much covered. But then, yesterday, the seemingly endless string of reruns ended. The very last episode of the show! Now what will I do for breakfast? I suppose it was only fitting as I am leaving today. Also, I am ignoring the fact that they started over again with the very first season this morning, so I really could watch it all if I only stayed a couple of months more - with three episodes per day that should probably cover it...

Even if I haven't watched it religiously in the past, however, I still know the show well enough to have the benefit of rewatching, as the best thing about watching old shows, of course, is that you don't have to pay very careful attention. So I could walk back and forth, take a shower, get dressed, eat, or even work a little while it ran in the background. While this has been a perfect mode for the minial task of sorting through archive documents as afterwork from my visit there during work hours, I am relieved it is over. My back aches from being slumped over my laptop for long stretches at the time, in uncomfortable seating positions in a hotel bed. My eyes are sore and my head hurts from trying to remember archive codes and sorting the files into their right place. My fingers have paper cuts from old documents, and I am sick of working twelve hour days (even if portions of them have been accompanied by "Charmed"). I even missed out on vacation days during my stay here, as most Norwegians take the whole week of Easter off.

Another good thing about ending my TV-meets-work streak now is that I don't have to watch commercials anymore. We have commercials on most channels in Norway too, but first of all I don't watch all that much TV at home (I have Netflix and HBO Nordic, after all), and secondly, last time I checked our commercials were less disturbing than many of the ones here.

What mostly baffles me are the medical commercials. This and this drug will help you with this and that disease. It will have the following side effects: [insert long list of terrible things that almost always ends with DEATH for good measure]. Talk to your doctor today!

Talk to your doctor? Why would I, as the patient, go to my doctor and explain about some drug? Isn't it the doctor's job to tell the patient what the best treatment for whatever disease or ailment they have should be? I realize doctors in the U.S. are frequently sponsored by the medical companies and thus might have preferences for specific drug for other reasons than what works better, but if that's the case you really ought to find another doctor with a better sense of ethics, rather than presenting the one you've already got with a lecture based on a TV commerical.

But that set aside, back to the commercials themselves. Can we all agree that they are pretty disturbing? Listing all those side effects is obviously something they are obliged to do for legal reasons, but I still find it amazing that someone would take them up on the offer of talking to their doctor after having heard all the horrible things this drug might inflict, presented to them in a voice of an actor you can *hear* is wearing a fake smile (how can you hear that, you ask? Well, just listen the next time one of those commercials are on. You can hear it).

Secondly, why are they always walking on the beach in these commercials? Strolling along the shore, or in a forest, or playing in the garden with a pet or child. Always the same setting. Fake smiles. Super disturbing.

Finally, the most disturbing thing to me isn't the medical commercials themselves, but in combination of another type of commercials: the mass lawsuit ones. "Have you or your loved ones experienced [insert terrible side effect caused by medical malpractise]? You might be entitled to compensation!" I realize there isn't a coherent line from people suggesting to their doctors what medicines to take for their ailments to them suing the doctor (or whomever) for having suffered consequences of malpractise. But it seems to me there is something strange about where the system puts liability. The patient is supposed to advice the doctor, while the doctors and other parts of the healthcare system are forced to focus on covering their butts legally rather than providing the best possible option for the patient. I'm not saying it's necessarily different elsewhere or that I have a solution to this, but I am saying the frequent commericals serve to give a creepy reminder of what a nasty world it can be.

I'll miss things too, though. I might have issues with certain parts of commercial America, but I don't think I'll ever stop marvelling at the selection in stores here. Whether it is grocery shopping or browsing for dresses, I keep finding myself enchanted. It's dangerous for my wallet, but it's making my little shopping heart burst with joy. Every time I visit the U.S. I seem to end up with a new wardrobe and don't even get me started on bookstores. When I came here in 2009 the selection seemed wider (I miss Borders!), but give me a good Barnes & Noble any day, and I'll be lost that day. They even have coffee in there! Why would you ever want to leave?

More important than the things I leave behind (good or bad), though, are the things I'm going back to. I miss my home, I miss my friends and family, I miss the regularity of my daily routine (the normal one, not the one involving "Charmed"), Norwegian language, food and weather (!), Oslo, my apartment, all the things I know and love. Most importantly, I miss my boyfriend. Four weeks is a long time to be away from everything, and even though I've enjoyed my stay in the U.S. I can't wait to go home.

Now I'm going to make the hotel cat who has been keeping me company this morning go back out into the corridor so I don't accidentally pack him, and then I'll finish stuffing my suitcase. Somehow, it gained weight during this trip (see section about "shopping" above).











*Huh. When I googled "bottomless" to find the link for Kenny, Google automatically suggested "bottomless mimosas atlanta". Apparently, this is a big deal here!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On people I meet

Sometimes you meet people who make an impression.

This week I met one of the Presidents I am writing my PhD on. Jimmy Carter, even at 90, is still working hard, and thus spends a fair amount of time at the Carter Center in Atlanta. However, for a researcher to catch a glimpse of him is still a rare treat. I didn't speak to him, but must admit I was rather starstruck by his mere presence in the cafeteria where he, like everybody else, queued to have a 4 dollar lunch.

Despite the central role Carter plays in my current work, however, he was only one of the people I've met recently that I will remember for life.

Today I met some guy whose name I didn't catch. I frequently don't catch names here, even when people introduce themselves. The Southern accent is foreign to me, and it often takes me a while to figure out what I understood from what people were saying - a lot of it gathered from context rather than a direct comprehension of the actual words uttered - and names tend to disappear in this process (besides, I am notoriously bad at names. Faces, I remember. Names, never held much importance to me anyway).

Anyway. I was trying to catch a bus. At the bus stop, I was approached by Some Guy. Had it been in Norway, I would have shied away from a conversation. But having been in the U.S. for a few weeks, the last of which in the South, the local social code is starting to rub off on me. I've progressed from small talk to conversations with random strangers (side note: Random Stranger at a zebra crossing the other day - he commented on my t-shirt. It's a Harry Potter shirt, with a big, Hogwarts logo on it. He asked me where I'd bought it, and I said London. He was all impressed that I'd been to London - not yet having realized that I wasn't American, presumably. "You speak any French at all, then?" he asked. I could have pointed out to him that this was a rather strange question to ask after having learnt that I had visited the British capital, but instead I just shook my head, wished him a good day upon the turn of the lights and our departure to the other side of the street, and made a mental note that it was far more important to appreciate the fact that we had this nice little talk than to point out to him his obvious lack of geography skills).

- so conversations with random strangers - and with this new social code guiding my conduct I've talked to everyone from grocery store clerks to the hobo in the park I pass each morning (he just wanted to know if there was a fee to go see the Jimmy Carter museum. I told him I believed it was, but that the grounds were free of charge, and beautiful, so well worth the walk).

Thus, talking to Some Guy at the bus stop wasn't all that strange for me anymore. And I am glad I did.

This was a man with a storage of stories, and the key to open them all at once was simply being an active listener. I learnt all kinds of interesting things about the city of Atlanta, the specific area of Atlanta I'm staying in, African-American history, the Democratic party, and about Some Guy himself. He gave me pointers about things I should see before I leave, showed me a picture with him and Obama (who recently visited the area, apparently), and even shared his hotwings with me. When the bus finally arrived (it was very late, due to a lot of traffic over a Barnes & Noble booksigning with Google later informed me was a YouTube phenomenon - there were crying teenage girls queuing all around the block for YouTube Guy), he told me to pay attention to the driver, as she was a character all of her own.

She was. Talking to herself, yelling at traffic, and making conversation with the passengers made for an entertaining bus ride as well. "What's that guy doing in the Mustang?? Oh, noooo, you didn't!!!" I probably would have given up on the bus without Some Guy, It was worth the wait.

When I go home in less than a week I'll be glad to retract back into my Norwegian shell, where we don't make conversation with strangers unless absolutely forced to, and where the only small talk you make on a bus would be to ask the passenger next to you to let you out if they haven't already noticed all the subtle non-verbal signs you've given them the last minute or so (most do. In all my years of using public transportation in Oslo, I've probably only had to ask about five to ten times, if that).

Until, then, however, I am glad to have been let out of my shell for a while. It makes for good stories. It makes me appreciate the world. It makes interesting things happen, and it makes me learn things I otherwise would have never known.

I was startstruck when I saw President Carter, but most of my time here I've been struck with awe of the extraordinariness of ordinary people.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

On midwestern adventures (part three)

Five years ago I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my friend Tami. Little did I know that I someday would be coming back for work (and to visit Tami again, naturally).

So far it's been mostly work, as you kinda have to put in long days when your job sends you to the other side of the world for a few weeks to gather material for your research project. You don't wanna come home short on material (so, naturally, I bring home way, way, waaaay too much). However, I did get to hang out with Tami and some friends of last weekend, and this weekend we'll get together again.

In the meantime, my only adventures have been walking around on campus, on my way to the archive. They have geese there. And squirrels. On campus. Geese and squirrels in search of an education, no doubt.



Gesse. Because, geese. 


Squirrel. And some nut who didn't realise her mitten-cup-combo was in the shot...


Column. With a certain phallic quiality, as columns tend to have. 


Crocus. And a surprisingly ghost-ish tree shadow for mid-day. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

On the transvisual transgressions of the transatlantic tranquilizer trajectory.

I spent all my creative energy on that title, so now all that is left is for me to pretend I really meant to and compose a short text devoid of any creativity whatsoever.

It shouldn't be too difficult.

I am, after all, trying actively on a daily basis to subdue creativity to get non-creative things done (insofar there exists such a thing as a non-creative anything). I am getting good at it. Well. Not necessarily at getting the non-creative things done, but at subdue creativity, at least! Hooray!

Now, let's not be bleak. This is a good thing.

Creativity is overrated.

Well, no it's not. I don't actually mean that. I already revealed that I at least on some level believe creativity takes a part in most anything human beings do (not that this belief necessarily demonstrates the importance of creativity, though).

And it's not even true. I don't subdue my creativity. It just feels like a natural part of the process. A process of "growing up", "having a job", "writing a PhD-thesis", "being a normal human being" (except for my belief that "normal" "human beings" actually are "creative" all the time. Except everything, really).

This text turned bleak despite my intentions not to let it. I meant to have it cheerful and happy, in order to present a joyous view on the world (of which there are too few, generally, I think), exemplified in the fact that it's spring (yay!); that I get to go abroad for a month, tomorrow (yay!); that there exist such a thing as semicolons (yay!); and that today we had a solar eclipse (though I didn't see it due to clouds and general indoorness, so yaaeii?).

I'm going to the U.S.

For a month.



I have in the past been eager to travel.

I have in the more recent past been less eager to travel.

I have this time again found that eagerness, but then also, the less eagerness lurking behind.



I get to travel but I have to travel.

I get to see lots of interesting documents but I have to see all these documents.

I get to be all by myself but I have to be alone.



But there are more redeeming factors this time around. I get to hang out with an old friend. I get to visit a new part of the U.S. that I have been eager to see. I get a preview of summer before returning home to full spring. And when I return home I get to stay home. I can travel more, but I don't have to.




Away, away, o'hoi and away!


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On long time, no see

People tend to resurface.




I met this girl, we used to know each other. We said "hello". "How are you?" "What are you doing now?" and that was it.

I met this girl, we never really knew each other. We said "hello". "How are you?" "What are you doing now?" and that was it.

We got out before it was too awkward. The first just before. The second just after.

There was nothing there, other than a mutual agreement that we could not pass each other without acknowledging that we had once known/not really known each other.

We met, we talked, we moved on.

As I was swimming, I saw it floating by, and I picked it up.




I made a scheduled appointment to see someone I used to know. I still know him. But I almost never see him.

I tried to make a scheduled appointment to see someone I used to know. I might have known him. I might still know him. But I almost never see him.

We are actively rekindling what we used to have/still have. We are trying not to make it too awkward. The first because it would ruin everything. The second because we already made it awkward, and then we fixed it, and then we made it awkward again. And then we fixed it.

We'll meet, we'll talk, and then we will move around it for a while.

As I was swimming, I dived down to pick it up and hopefully bring it back to the surface.




I am travelling across the ocean to visit a friend I have not seen in five years.

We have stayed in touch without concern for the distances that divide us. Awkward has never been one of those distances.

As I was swimming, I moored it to the shore, and now I am returning to pick it back up again.
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