Sunday, October 28, 2007

Falling into Autumn

It is beginning to turn a bit cooler in Vancouver these days. Just yesterday I finally put away my sandals, most likely for a while. It still is strange to be coming upon a Halloween without the risk of snow. Growing up in Montana meant incorporating a winter jacket in some way into your Halloween costume. As my birthday falls right before Halloween, the only time I saw other kids' actual costumes was either at school or at my birthday party. When we went tricker treating we all had jackets and often snowpants. Lets be clear on one thing, ninjas in snow pants are not terribly stealthy.

Being in Canada for holidays always feels weird because they just have a different interpretation on what it means. For them Halloween involves fireworks (at least for B.C.) and comes after a very toned down version of Thanksgiving in which they have a three day weekend where the day off is Monday. Christy, a professor in the SA department (who also happens to be Fernando's wife and an American), and I were talking about the difference between Canadian "Fakesgiving" and Thanksgiving in the U.S. She asked her students what the mythology surrounding Thanksgiving was for Canadians. All she got was confused looks. "What do you mean 'mythology,' it is just a holiday." She went on to explain how in the U.S. it is all about pilgrims and Native Americans and the first Thanksgiving. The students were aghast that she had been dressed up as a pilgrim as a child for celebrations. I got to think about it further and came to a shocking realization: They have no Black Friday (Black Friday is the Friday after Thanksgiving where a ton of U.S. shopping takes place, particularly Christmas shopping, and it is often responsible for putting companies into a profit for the year [putting them in the "black"]). How the Canadian economy exist without such a watershed I fail to comprehend.

Another odd thing I have begun to notice about Canada is the odd "one-off" nature of Canadian restaurants. Many of them take on the name of U.S. cities or states and then peddle a product that in the U.S. is not associated with that state or city. Things like Montana's Pizza, Cactus Cafe (despite there being no cacti in Canada), and Hollywood Cafe (a totally creepy Chinese place in a shady part of town). A prime example is Boston Pizza (an underwhelming pizza and pasta place) whose humble beginnings are quoted on the website as:

"It started with Gus Agiortis, a Greek immigrant who had jumped ship in Vancouver, and then opened the first Boston Pizza in Edmonton, Alberta in 1964. He worked tirelessly to make pizza a household name in Western Canada. Gus' first restaurant was known as "Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House."

Now I am sure Boston has fine pizza. But it is not known in the U.S. as a beacon of excellence for pizza as Chicago or New York are. This sort of reinvention of American culinary traditions is rather confusing. Particularly when Canadians assume that these chains have their origins in the U.S. They are continually surprised when I point out that most of the chains don't exist in at least the Western part of the U.S. and that I have never heard of them.

Another common thing, at least in BC, is the popularity of inauthentic "authentic" food. A well regarded restaurant here, The White Spot (which is an unusually appropriate name because the place is totally full of crackers, and not the type you dip in soup), tries to recreate a host of foods from around the world and make them amenable to the bland Canadian/North American palate. The overwhelmingly "Olive Garden" type crowd that frequents this establishment is a testament to the dumbing down of the quality and taste of the originals that are poached to create their menu. While I have no problem with giving people more options for dining, I can't help but wonder why can't people looking for Thai food just go to a Thai restaurant.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Utterly Appalling

A recent report identifies that the Millennium Development Goals in the area of maternal death are woefully off target. This critical issue is something that is often overlooked when health policies and practices are being implemented in international development. This absence is a a crucial one and one that I can't honestly understand. As has been noted by distinguished authors like Amartya Sen, health costs are much lower in countries that are just implementing health policies. This is because the initial steps taken to set up a clinic or extend the range of health care professionals in most developing countries is much smaller.

Another important aspect that is identified in the article is the estimated twenty million unsafe abortions that go on every year. This is a significant contributing factor to maternal death. Safe, legal, and accessible abortions are something that must exist as the need for them is always there. The article does not identify how many of these unsafe abortions are actually illegal but it can be assumed that many unsafe abortions are the result of nation wide bans on abortions. This forces all women, even those who have life threatening pregnancies, to have a "back-alley" abortion.

The report concludes that one reason for such little progress is that in many societies women are viewed as nothing more than a vessel for reproduction. This extremely disheartening conclusion indicates the importance of positive action on behalf of women all over the world to increase their status. Cultural relativism must have its place in discussion of international development, but it cannot be used as a tool to allow domination of marginalized populations.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Best (Academic) Day Ever

Today could not have gone any better. It started out with an MA thesis meeting that I was more than prepared for. It went amazingly well, my senior adviser was really happy with my progress on my univariate and bivariate analysis. I probably overwhelmed him with the massive amount of information that I brought to show during the meeting.

After the meeting I had about ten minutes to grab a bite to eat before heading to one of the classes I TA for. The class is two hours long and then directly after that I have my office hours. I rushed down stairs to one of the cafeterias and hoped to have time to grab something decent. As it was 12:20 PM the places where you can order freshly-made meals were pretty backed up. Glancing down at my phone I saw that it was now 12:25 and I needed to hurry. I quickly perused the area for anything edible that I could just grab and go. To my great fortune I found a ratatouille pizza. Piled high with zucchini, onions, green and red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and most exciting eggplant. I have developed a great love for eggplant in my time as a vegetarian, despite the fact that it has little nutritional value. It looked and smelled so good, so I grabbed a piece and headed to the cashier. Upon arrival at the cashier station, I found the most amazing chocolate cookie that had both chocolate chips and white chocolate chips. I had to get it.

I got to the computer lab where the class is held and found a seat in the back (so that I can see if anyone is having problems with their computers or following along). My pizza tasted as good as it sounds (which means it tasted awesome for those of you who can't appreciate good food when you hear about it) and the cookie was moist and chocotastic. Class went by faster than normal and after class ended the professor had an argument with one of the students about opportunity and social stratification. She was saying that everyone has the opportunity to go to college and that those that don't are just lazy and blah blah blah. Chris (the professor) explained that it wasn't that simple and went on to explain social justice and how the system doesn't truly provide equal opportunities to everyone. I think he really got through to her. Every point she raised, he explained how it was fallacious and unsupported by research. He was really nice about the whole exchange and I appreciated the length at which he went to make her understand the biases that informed her world view.

Afterwards I chatted with Chris about his insane obsession with technology. He hates paper. He is in his late 20s to early 30s and has sworn off paper. To this end he has just found out how to scan his last 75 books into his computer faster than he originally thought. He was explaining how he has four widescreen computer monitors that he has turned horizontally for his computer. This is so that he can read an article (or a book that he has scanned in), run a statistical analysis program, work on whatever he is writing on, and watch TV all at the same time. I expressed that him getting rid of the physical copies of the books was blasphemous for an academic. He then explained that he is scanning them at a high enough resolution for them to be able to have them optically scanned and put into a database. This would allow them to be searched easily, enabling you to find whatever you were looking for easily.

After my class I went to check my mailbox in the Sociology and Anthropology office and ran into my second adviser. Last time I ran into him in the hall, I don't think he knew who I was. I should preface this by saying that we have only met once because he forgot about the committee meeting that we scheduled a couple months ago. He not only recognized me today but he also chatted with me for a bit about the meeting we have next week and one of the readings that he recommended for me. Most excitingly, he offered me an excellent opportunity to be involved with an amazingly interesting research project. The project involves examining the health of guest immigrant workers from Mexico. It will also involve examining the role of government policy in protecting the workers. The project is within my area of interest and on a topic that I can imagine myself working on, but from a U.S. perspective, when Heather and I go to D.C. A guest worker program is probably the next big step in the immigration debate in the U.S. and it would be interesting to be able to play a direct part in creating that policy, using the experience I have gained from studying it here.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Time to Abstain from Abstinence

While those in the public health field have been familiar with this finding for some time it is worth reiterating the point in light of even more evidence that identifies the inadequacies of abstinence education. This report is particularly damning in light of the position of abstinence education as the only form of sex education that is able to receive federal funding. This sort of extreme ideological policy without any concern of its effectiveness typifies the policies of the Bush administration and its backers in Congress (in such wide ranging fields from health care to the Iraq war). Teaching that sex is bad in school stands no chance of competing with the rampant hyper-sexualized messages that teens see throughout popular culture. The report identifies that teaching students about the use of condoms and their importance in preventing the spread of diseases and reducing the risk of pregnancy are much more effective. While academic literature has never been the way in which Bush and his supporters have constructed their policies, it can be hoped that those who replace them take this sort of work into account when attempting to clean up the mess left by those currently in power.

False Contrition

Despite China's supposed attempt to reign in bad business practices, a recent report found that some of the merchandise for the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has been produced under such deplorable practices as child labor, forced overtime, and extremely low wages. Along with other recent problems such as lead paint in childrens' toys and poisonous contamination of pet food, it is difficult to argue that a sufficient regulatory industry exists for products made in China.

This sort of behavior is accepted as normal in the global economy and does not bring much outcry. The entire business of hosting the Women's World Cup and then the Olympics in totalitarian state that abuses its people is disheartening at best and a crime against humanity itself at worst. I fail to understand how we can justify such close ties with such a despicable and deplorable regime. If it didn't have as much capital or as large of a consumer base, there is no way we would be as involved with it (see Myanmar, Syria, North Korea). The fact that companies and countries are willing to make condolences and refrain from criticizing Chinese policies is one of the largest failings of public morality of our time. The money we invest in China is used daily to repress and create fear within an already troubled country. While we see photos of the massive amount of development and consumerism in the ports and cities, we don't see the rampant extreme poverty experienced by those in the rural areas. While engagement with all forms of government is important in the international system, such unquestioning patronage to China is dangerous and provides no carrots or sticks (international relations terms for rewards or punishments, respectively) for them to move toward democracy or more adequate worker protections for their wide range of businesses. The brutal repression of democracy movements in China continues and companies like Google continue to uphold the abhorrent "Great Firewall" while still claiming some level of ethical business. It will be interesting to look back and see how these facilitators of oppression are viewed when the history of this time is written.

Neo-Liberal Morality as a Life Lesson

Most people by now have probably heard of The Secret, one of the newest crazes in the "self-help" genre. While normally I don't pay much attention to them and find their premises often mildly pointless, The Secret really struck me as unusual. The underlying ideas about social reality reflect much of the cultural zeitgeist in the Western capitalist world, particularly that of the United States. Notions of personal responsibility, individual efficacy, and blaming the victim all play a central role in creating a mythos that embodies the neo-liberal ideology that has come to infiltrate nearly all areas of American life.

The Secret argues that you need to put positive energy out into the world and it will come back to you in the form of the wishes that you have made. The positive energy focuses on simply telling the universe telepathically what you would like (be it consumer goods, health, love, etc.). While I am all for positive thinking, this movement takes it to the level of cultish psychobabble. Those who are failing in life are not making their wishes to the universe in a sufficient way. Much of The Secret is focused on bringing in material goods as well such as cars and houses. This individualist ideology comes at a time of hyper-selfishness and extreme consumerism; The Secret reflects both of these tendencies. Similar to other ideologies of its ilk, it does not even attempt to identify the role of social and structural factors in the creation of life opportunities (which is not surprising in the least given that it is simply a "self help" book"). While I never cease to be amazed by the mystical inclination of the American public, The Secret plays upon the biases and under education within the United States to create another self help movement to bilk people out of their money as they go in search of even more money.

Future Plans

I am unsure if I will be going on for my PhD directly after my MA. This is because at some level I have become disillusioned with a large part of academia. I feel that many of the debates that are carried out between the smartest people in the world are more semantic than substantive. While two researchers may, for the most part, agree on some fundamental issue, they are split on something like the "level of analysis" or whether a particular hypothesis adequately takes into account context. Though the differences may seem huge to the individual researchers, the policy prescriptions that would come out of them often seem rather similar.

Currently I plan to work within the field of public policy. For me public policy or possibly an activist oriented NGO would be a good place for me. I am interested in working on what I see as issues of substance. I really enjoy studying issues of inequality and neo-liberalism. I think that neo-liberalism is an overarching hegemonic social structure that affects our daily lives in a myriad of ways. These include things as distant as the rise and fall in the value of the American dollar and as close as the price of food and gas. Most interesting for me is that it represents a fundamental shift in the way governments think about legislation and their role in public policy.

Through my graduate work I have come to focus specifically on health and health policy as an important area of legislation. For me health policy represents a fundamental social good that the state must play a role in for it to function adequately. The pitfalls of health for profit can be seen through the structural inadequacies and inequalities that are experienced throughout the U.S. system. The argument goes that the market can provide goods and services at a lower cost and more efficiently than with government "interference." In the empirical literature on health we see no support for this notion. The U.S. has some of the least efficient health distribution and the highest per capita costs for health in the world. While this post is not about health policy per se, I do see myself as working towards fundamental changes in health in the U.S. I appreciate and plan to use a wide range of empirical and qualitative academic literature to inform the policies that I eventually will work toward. I feel confident enough in my training to be able to interpret the literature and create informed and relevant measures that could be implemented at a wide range of levels of government. Though I still think that it is important for my work to face the scrutiny of peer review. For that I plan to still look at trying to publish in academic journals. Simply the creation of "gray" papers doesn't sufficiently fulfill my ideas about the role of a sociological researcher, even in the realm of public policy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Irresponsible and Negligent... What's New?

The Bush administration has again struck a blow against appropriate and prudent public policy. Bush has vetoed a bill that would extend basic health care insurance coverage to 10 million children who parents earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance on their own. In recent polls it was found the policy was favored by over seventy percent of Americans. This in a country that is traditionally against social spending, even for the poor. The fact that Bush said that he vetoed this measure because it was too big of an increase in spending is impossible to justify in light of the billions spent each year on subsidies to large companies and pointless military purchases and research. It is difficult to comprehend how providing unneeded subsidies to those who don't need it is unquestioned while providing health care to children left behind by the system is considered a burden. The audacity of Bush to attempt to prove that he is a "fiscal conservative" at this point is bewildering. Even Republicans realize that he is not and never has been a fiscal conservative. Hopefully Congress can push through the desperately needed bill and get back with more "important" business like flag burning amendments.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Post of Convenience

I would have to say the most crucial post in a blog is the second one. For the first one you get some leeway because you have to introduce yourself and identify the reason for creating this node on the "internets." The second post has to prove that you are here to stay. It can't be posted too closely after the first or it seems that you are desperate for attention and it can't be posted too long after or you seem like a shiftless layabout who is attempting to prove they have a "real" life. I assure you that I am aware this may not be the best way to start out a second post; a self-referential discussion of the unwritten rules of blogs. I will try to pick things up.

After the first extremely hectic year of my thesis, things are finally starting to come together. I was going to say things are starting to settle down, sadly nothing could be further from the truth. Even though my schedule isn't as set as it was in the first year, the stuff I have to worry about now is far more important and requires much more concentration to create. Right now I am conducting my univariate and bivariate stats on my dataset. This is a time consuming process and I will not go into the details. This is compounded by the fact that I am using a theoretical approach whose operationalization(a fancy word for turning concepts into something measurable) is contentious and something I have to be ready to defend once I create it. At the same time I am working on three of the central chapters of my thesis. On top of that I still have to TA and RA, along with my duties as chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Graduate Caucus (a committee that has become mostly devoted to getting the alcoholic in the cohort free booze). Now I am not posting this to complain. I can't think of any place I would rather be. I am really enjoying working on and writing my thesis. The theories I am using are really exciting(probably only to international development folks) and provide me with a wealth of information that I am using to construct an engaging thesis.

The grad school experience has also helped me to see what my plans for the future could be. Once Heather and I finish our Masters' we plan on going to Washington D.C. and getting jobs in public policy. This would mean working for a think tank, NGO(non-governmental organization), or possibly some job on The Hill. I am presently surprised by the wealth of interesting jobs I will be qualified for and would be applying for at the moment if I were done already. Compounding this is the fact that we will be going out there in summer 2008 just ahead of what looks to be a watershed year in American politics (let's hope Americans can get it correct for once). While the weather in D.C. will be a huge downgrade from Vancouver, I look forward to going back there. Eating at the same restaurant only a few tables away from an arch neo-conservative traitorous hack (Robert Novak) is just too much fun to pass up. And this time the housing situation won't involve a lecherous roommate who inquires if I will sleep on the couch if he calls an escort service (unless Heather is into that sort of thing, unbeknownst to me).