I have been visiting Berkeley for the end of last week and beginning of this week, and part of my job was to clean out this old box of papers and printouts that I left when I moved down to UCSD. Most of the papers I printed out in grad school didn’t make it down, and a small fraction of those I ended up re-printing at ITA. It’s a sad waste of paper, but I also noticed that I printed out lots of them because someone said to check them out and I did print-first-read-second. Thankfully as time wore on I have switched to the other direction, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do the all-electronic e-reader thing. I just love marking up papers with a red/green/purple pen. Some of the more heavily marked ones are coming back with me. Hopefully they won’t weigh down the plane too much.

One of the little gems I found among the photocopies of old reimbursement forms, conference schedules, and mouldering reprints of my optical queueing article was Bob McEliece‘s handout from his 2004 Shannon Lecture on “Some Information-Theoretic Anagrams”:

  • A Sound Channel
  • Brainy Coed
  • Rome Noodles
  • Cubed Roots
  • UCLA Shenanigans
  • Coordinate Spasm
  • Momentary Mixup
  • Acquiescent Yelp

Over at Crooked Timber, guest blogger Eric Rauchway has a set of links about academic freedom. Over here at Berkeley there’s a bit of a push to get the law school to fire John Yoo, author of the infamous “torture memos,” which provided the (il)legal justification for contravening the Geneva Convention. Yoo has tenure, so firing him is quite an extreme move. The argument for firing him is that he engaged in gross professional misconduct and is a war criminal and letting him teach constitutional law is questionable given his willingness to toss out the Constitution. The other side says that as a matter of academic freedom, he should be allowed to engage in whatever political activities he likes outside the academy and that he has already been judged an excellent scholar by the standards of his discipline. Firing him would set a dangerous McCarthy-esque precedent and we should err on the side of caution.

In my view, unless Yoo is formally censured by his own peers, public pressure to fire him is just that — public pressure. Jane Kramer wrote a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about the tenure battle of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard who drew the ire of some fringe pro-Israel because her book, Facts on the Ground tries to eludicate the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense) of archaeology in Israel and its relationship to Zionism and the concept of the Israeli state. These groups organized a petition threatening Barnard and Columbia in order to get them to deny her tenure. There too we saw a public outcry over perceived harmful actions of an academic. In Abu El-Haj’s case, her detractors basically made up things about her, selectively and misleadingly quoted from her book, and pretty much didn’t have a leg to stand on. Yoo’s case is different — he clearly wrote some odious memos that have had horrible consequences. However, unless he is disbarred (which is possible), I tend to side with those who say finding a loophole to fire him would do more harm than good.

Somewhere, languishing on my shelf is the book Academic Freedom after September 11. I read half of it and then switched to something less dry, but maybe I should go back to it now that my interest has been re-whetted.

Berkeley started curbside collection of food scraps in the last few months, and it’s been a great boon to my somewhat forgetful lifestyle. Because my trash no longer smells and I only generate one bag of trash every other week, I only have to remember to wheel out the trash bin Wednesday night on alternate weeks. The compost bin provided by the city is not very good — it’s too big to clean out in the sink, stuff sticks to the sides, and it starts smelling after a week. I’ve repurposed a glass bowl that I keep next to the sink for food scraps, take it out every other day, and clean it before refilling. I vote two thumbs up on curbside composting.

Unfortunately, the amount of paper that I have to recycle from junk mail is ridiculous. I feel like the membership dues I have paid to the ACLU must have gone entirely towards defraying the costs of asking me for more money. It almost makes me want to end my membership, except I know they’ll keep harassing me for years to come, so the gesture would be wasted. There should be a national do-not-junk-mail list like there is for telemarketers.

At the end of last semester I got a memo from our department trying to make TA-ing a more attractive prospect. In reality, a grad student in EECS is a TA here (or Graduate Student Instructor (GSI)) for one of three reasons : they’re a first-year and don’t have an advisor (yet), their advisor is low on funds or doesn’t have funds for their particular project, or they are fulfilling their teaching requirement to graduate (one semester only). The difference between being paid as a TA and as a research assistant (Grad Student Researcher (GSR)) is significant — the union negotiates the pay scale for GSIs, and the University is not going to let salaries rise if they can help it. In some instances a student’s advisor can bump up their salary to the GSR level. So now the department recommends:

  • If you are doing research the same semester you’re teaching, your advisor should give you a partial GSR to help out.
  • You can be appointing as a 100% GSR during winter break if you are around.
  • If your advisor can’t afford to pay you and you are GSI-ing to fulfill the graduation requirement, then the department will give you a unconstrained fellowship.

All in all, it’s seems like a much more pleasant deal — how this will end up changing the dynamics of TAing is unclear though. It also makes things much much nicer in EECS than in other departments, which seems somehow unfair in the end. Why can’t all GSIs get better pay?

I saw Argonautika with Alex on Thursday at the Berkeley Rep. It was quite the visual treat, but I expect no less from Mary Zimmerman. Alex, being Greek, was confused by the Latinization of some of the names (he thinks Pollux should have been Polydefkis or something), and upon further reflection it seemed the naming was inconsistent — Aphrodite, not Venus, but then Hercules, not Herakles. I’m sure others reading this had a similar reaction (Darcy, I’m looking at you).

In the end, however, I was a little unsatisfied by the play — perhaps because the tale is so familiar the tension went out of the storytelling. However, the strength of the play is in how Zimmerman tells the story and brings out parts of the story that resonate with contemporary society. The first act’s main event was Hylas’ death at the spring and Hercules’ madness at losing his lover. Zimmerman makes explicit their relationship and how Hercules really needs Hylas. One of the more powerful moments is Heracles breaking down and crying, holding the pitcher Hylas had before his death, and Hera’s gleeful reaction.

Another thing that Zimmerman did bring out was the way in which Medea’s betrayal of her family is coerced (by the gods and then by Jason, who knowingly takes advantage of her). She is a teenager, and her desire for Jason is like that of a high school crush or obsession. Jason, who is not left off the hook in modern stagings of Euripides’s play, is depicted in Argonautika as a bit more human than his demigod crew. After Eros shoots Medea with his arrow, she appears on stage pierced by it, her white dress becoming more and more blood-soaked in each scene. Her passion is a disease which slowly overwhelms her. This arresting visual image was almost enough to carry the whole play, but it didn’t show up until the second act.

One thing I thought about the next day was how Medea’s impulsive behavior at the beginning of this story and her killing of her own children at the end of the story could be used together as a commentary on our times — in Euripides the Greeks might argue that Jason is the tragic hero and Medea is merely the agent of his undoing, but since contemporary performance puts the focus back on her, we can also ask to what degree society (and by extension the gods) are implicated in her actions? There’s another play lurking in there, somewhere…

I saw All Wear Bowlersa at the Berkeley Rep on opening night. It was one of the most entertatining pieces of comedy I’ve seen in a while. The productions I saw earlier this semester (Lorin, Blood in the Brain, and Passing Strange) were good too, but I Bowlers really hit the spot for me in my stressful end of semester dance.

The play is of a piece with Beckett — two hapless fellows somehow get trapped on stage. What’s different is that these two actors, Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, are incredibly skilled physical comedians. Dressed in vaudevillian baggy pants, vests, and coats, the pair clown their way around, messing with the audience (note : do not get seats in the main level, house left corner), and most of all trying to escape. There are wonderful conceits in the play — a silent film rolls and they duck behind the screen and into the film (the mind boggles at the sense of timing), interruptions from the soundtrack, and so on. The piece reminds me a bit of one of my all-time favorite films growing up : Bill Irwin in The Regard of Flight. It has some of the same sensibilities, although Irwin was trying to say more about theater in an overt way, whereas in Bowlers you feel like you’re watching a kind of aquarium show.

I don’t have too many intelligent things to say, except that it’s damn entertaining and its going on tour I think, so if it comes by your neck of the woods, definitely see it.

Last night I saw the Shotgun Players new production, Love is a Dream House in Lorin, by Marcus Gardley. It is an amazing piece of community-generated theater. The production is important to see, especially if you don’t usually go to theater, because it can turn your whole view of the possibilities of theater as a tool for dialogue within the community. Lorin was the name of a town that was annexed by Berkeley in the early 1900’s. It goes from Dwight to Alcatraz, Sacramento to Telegraph. The neighborhood was one of the only places people of color were allowed to own property — as such this area of South Berkeley developed a complex multiracial composition and was one of the first neighborhoods to voluntarily desegregate its schools. As a student, I am far too ignorant of the environment surrounding where I study — Berkeley is a temporary stopping place for me on my road through life, but this neighborhood, in and around which I have lived my entire time, has a complex history that is not at all apparent from its modern-day incarnation as the ‘hood.

The play is centered around a house in the Lorin district and its history. The play’s characters, residents of the Lorin District, are all named after streets in the neighborhood. The story starts with the house being bought by Russell and Adeline Wheeler, a biracial couple ready to start a family in the early ’80s. As we follow their story the history is revealed, from the original Ohlone inhabitants of the area through the building of the first Victorian homes, the internment of the Japanese-Americans who lived there, the black families who made their homes their and on through to Vietnam. The narrative is not linear — although the play is grounded in Adeline’s experience, it is not merely a story being told to her. Each stage of the story is paced differently — the heterogeneity keeps the play breathing and unpredictable. Aaron Davidman has created a physical language for the piece using recurrent physical patterns and motifs that helped the stories maintain their individual consistency while drawing parallels between the different residents of the house (as when a couple in love dances in the living room). The overall effect is hauntingly beautiful but not sentimental. Always looming over the production is the current situation of the neighborhood — drive-by shootings, gang problems, and drug abuse. The play reminds us that everyone who lives here has a story to tell.

I could go on rambling about the play and spoil details of the production but I won’t. If you are in the area, you have to see this play — it is probably the most important piece of theater I’ve seen in years.

I’m really glad I don’t work with anything more dangerous than a paperclip. Also, I’m glad I don’t work in LeConte Hall.

Berkeley has 30 minute parking meters in some places. It’s 75 cents/hour, so that’s 37.5 cents that you need to put into the meter. Using nickels, dimes, and quarters only, mind you. This is how The Man gets you, bleeding you dry, half a nickel at a time.

When I left work yesterday evening I found that someone had tucked a little sprig of flowers into my gear shifter:

Bike with flower

Sometimes it’s the random little things that make one happy.

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