Tag Archives: work

Back up in your RSS with the resurrection

Yeah, I’m still here.

It’s very strange to sitting at home while my academic colleagues are being bombarded.  Inundated.  Drowned.  It’s not that I don’t have work to do – I have a thesis to finish and a number of research projects to work on – it’s just that, without a job, without An Office, I am dangerously prone to idleness.  I’m exploring the feasibility of sneaking into local universities’ libraries to get some work done, because otherwise… well, the temptation of Mario Kart Wii (wahoo!) is grave indeed.

However, I should mention that I am employed again.  After two months of job searching, I feel like a citizen once more.  My job is only ever so slightly social-scientific; those jobs seem to be in scarce supply, or else I am so profoundly inept that I can’t grasp my own ineptitude.  I nearly got one – there is an agency here that does tobacco cessation (who comes up with these phrases?) research.  I had applied for a grunt work job – stuffing envelopes for surveys, data entry, etc. – but they were so impressed by my data managemenet experiences that they gave that job to someone else while promising me a position that would be mostly data management and survey analysis, but with the tantalizing hint of independent research.  That job, of course, never materialized.  Budgets, accountants, etc.

Thus, I stand before you blog to you as a Voting Machine Technician.  Somewhere in Colorado, there is a warehouse with 1,100 voting machines in it.  Voting machines that must be tested before the election.  And I – I shall test them.  Fear not, citizens!  I shall defend your democratic rights and electoral integrity!

If CNN reports 100,000,000.333 votes for “Anarchy!  Muahahaha!” emerging from Colorado… well, you know who to blame.

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Fucking Sociologists! (A rant)

Stories like this one from the NYT (“Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness”) and articles like this one from Teaching Sociology (sorry, non-university peoples) often get me thinking about what precisely the point of social science is. Or should be.

I really enjoyed the NYT one: here were two generations of researchers bringing evidence to bear on a relevant social question – what makes people happy? – and debating the results. Easterlin claims that money only goes so far, while Stevenson and Wolfers present compelling evidence that that may not be the case. I thought Easterlin’s response, at least as presented in the article, was somewhat overly defensive: “He said he liked Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers personally, but he thought they had put out “a very rough draft without sufficient evidence.” Frankly, I have no room to really make a argument about whether or not the Easterlin paradox is true, but it’s certainly an interesting debate.

But I did find this statement from the author’s article striking: “Recent research* has also found that some of the things that make people happiest — short commutes, time spent with friends — have little to do with higher incomes.” Uh – short commutes and time spent with friends have little to do with higher incomes? I’m not so sure. Stratification systems don’t just determine how much money we get – they have many other rewards and punishments. Your position in the social hierarchy determines how much you get paid and laid. And, I’m willing to wager, how short your commute is and how much free time you have. I know many high-earners work insane hours – but so do lots of working class people, and without the ability to hire help. The latter certainly don’t get to take time off to fly their family to Barbados, either.

In part, that’s what my thesis is supposed to be about (it was also supposed to be about laying the groundwork for my Fulbright, but I’m a mere alternate). I’m looking to see how job security, employment security, and economic security (if they are indeed noticeably different things) interact with on-the-job autonomy and job satisfaction. My basic hypothesis is that (some form of) security and autonomy are both requisites for happiness. I could be wrong; there are certainly people who are perfectly happy with a secure job (the slaves), and there are a lot of people who could care less about being secure as long as they get to do whatever they want (the madmen). But I suspect that autonomy and security both go to the people further up the hierarchy – the same ones who are happier and getting more money in Stevenson and Wolfers’ study. Because of that, I can see the Easterlin paradox holding in the face of S&W’s study; it may be that money only provides happiness up to a certain point, while increases in security and autonomy (and God knows what else) step in to provide happiness beyond that point. It’s just that in most Western economies, you don’t get high levels of security and autonomy without getting a big paycheck, too. The real test, I think, is among the oddballs: small business owners, government employees, professors. If professors making $60k a year are just as happy as executives making $300k, then I think there’s probably something to my hypothesis.

But what, exactly, is the point of all this? I know that for many sociologists, it’s to make the world a better place – by, say, creating policies that increase those things that have been shown to contribute to happiness. In fact, my department’s slogan is “Making the world a better place starts here.” Ugh. I am all about making the world a better place – I think about it a lot, and I actually think that my ideas are both sound and system-oriented enough to make a real difference. But I think that holding sociology out as something that makes the world a better place muddles the difference between science and technology. Physicists (yeah, I’m one of those positivists with physics envy) don’t head into the lab thinking, “Gee whiz! I can’t wait to discover a new particle that will make life better for poor people in Africa!” They do basic research. Granted, I’m sure many of them feel – as I do – that research does make the world a better place. Knowledge, even obscure and seemingly useless knowledge, makes humanity stronger. And the products of sociological research can certainly be adapted to make the world happy and shiny; but they can also be used to make it a fascist hell (criminologists, I’m looking at you!)

But a lot of sociology’s public image is basically that we’re a bunch of do-gooder liberals who were too dumb to be economists or psychologists. After attending my first conference, I’m not so sure that’s a totally false accusation – throughout the social sciences, I see people who are just there to shill for what they think would make a better world. It’s not like I don’t have those thoughts myself – and while they certainly guide my research interests, the ultimate point of social science is to explain why society exists, why it takes the forms it does, and how that impacts individuals.

But above all, my beliefs aren’t something I teach. That’s why I was profoundly disturbed to see point #8 in the Teaching Sociology article referenced above. The researchers asked a bunch of sociological “leaders” (read as:winners of ASA honors and grant-earners) what they thought was important to teach students. Most of it was nice, if boring: sociological imagination, sociology as science, critical thinking, social construction of ideas, the important social institutions in society. Super.

But what gave me pause was #8: “The importance of trying to improve the world”. What the hell? Quote from a “leader”: “I take as a starting assumption the premise from the International Declaration of Human Rights that all people have equal rights…” How the hell is that assumption even remotely sociological? If anything, that is anti-factual. The International Declaration of Human Rights is a blindingly-social construction. You can take equality as a starting assumption if you want – but that makes the arguments you build on that assumption philosophical, not sociological. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’re teaching it as sociology. Here is my (sociological) starting assumption: “People exist and may on occasion interact.”

Other “leaders” used service-learning to “instill [in the students] the idea that we can be engaged as citizens and have our voices heard and use our knowledge… [to] help improve the world.” Jesus. Let’s cut the high-school civics bullshit, please. I have a degree in political science and am wrapping up a Master’s in sociology, and I think it is far more factual to tell students that their opinions don’t mean shit to the way the government is run – unless they have money or mobs. Do young people need to learn to engage in the power systems that will influence their life? Hell yes. Is that my job as a sociologist? No. My job is to demonstrate to them with empirical evidence that those power structures exist and impact their lives. If they’re smart, they’ll engage those systems; but that is not for me to tell them.

Let me put it this way: how many sociologists would be mortified if an economist told students, “Because I have clearly demonstrated to you that government interference reduces the output of economies, it is your job to go out there and advocate for reduced taxes and less regulation. 10% of your grade will come from volunteering with anti-tax citizens’ groups…” I would go batshit on that economist. If he has empirical proof to back up his claim, great (but markets don’t really exist without- okay, okay, I’ll save it for another post). It still doesn’t give him the authority to tell students what is normative for them to do with that information – and he definitely cannot grade them for doing something that he feels is normative, rather than economic… economicsological… um… something that actually has to do with real, empirical economics.

Eh, I’m being melodramatic. But I just feel like a number of sociologists (and, god knows, other social scientists) are getting their morality into my science, and the result is not delicious Reese’s peanut butter cups. If somebody uses social science to make the world a better place, groovy. If that person happens to be a sociologist, that’s peachy. But when that person is acting as a sociologist – e.g. when they’re teaching students – they need to lay off the moralizing. The point of sociology is to study society. THE END. Dammit.

Oh – hat tip to Backstage for the NYT article.  Right up my alley.

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Maybe it’s just me

Right after writing my big, long post despairing on the nature of available work, I read this set of posts about a really cool-sounding conference organized by some Columbia stats grad students:

http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2008/04/conference_what.html
http://flowingdata.com/2008/04/09/what-can-you-do-with-a-degree-in-statistics-a-follow-up/
http://flowingdata.com/2008/04/12/reflecting-on-life-after-statistics-rip-minghui-yu/

Granted, I’m not a statistician, but I think their lessons apply (hell, half the classes of my program so far have been statistics, anyway). The most resonant message for me – and one that is standard advice for anyone who is thinking about a job – is to make sure that you’re doing something that you love. It’s good advice, although I use it in a modified form: do something that you find meaningful. I tried the whole “love” thing awhile ago as an English major, but I found that doing something that I loved professionally somewhat soured the romance. Now, instead of picking apart something I love – books – I slice up something that often infuriates me: society. Nobody wants to dissect Rover in biology, but the neighbor’s yappy little dog is another story…

Which makes me think a bit. I do love being an academic, despite my grousing below.  I like it all, and I think it is probably the only job I’d even have a chance of being happy in.  Much to my surprise, I really do like teaching.  I really dig research, too.  I’d like to do both; I just don’t want to do as much of both as seems to be the norm.  Academia, to me, is like a glorious all-you-can-eat buffet with a 6-plate mandatory minimum.  Everything I could possibly want is there, but I can’t stop when I’ve had enough.  Is that true across the board?  Do faculty positions that balance teaching, research and non-academic life still exist?  If so, what do you have to do to get one?

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Progress

In violation of my long-time policy of not working on the weekends, I’m in the office now. I have too much that needs to get done. Thus, I’m blogging.

On the walk over here, I was pretty brutally reacquainted with how much my quality of life has deteriorated in the last two years. I was surrounded by who I used to be: undergrads swarming everywhere, basking in some of the warmest weather we’ve had yet this spring. They were on their way to play outside, or to get something to eat with friends, or just sitting outside reading a book. And I was on my way to hunch over papers they didn’t care about to scrawl comments that they wouldn’t read.

It’s just hard for me to see much progress in anything that’s happened… well, in a long time.* Much of what was good about industrialization was just undoing the self-inflicted problems of agricultural societies and swapping them for a new set of issues. Instead of having to rely on disease-spreading animals for power, we relied on disease-spreading fossil fuels. Food is incredibly abundant; but now we sit on our asses so much that we barely need the calories, so we have to go to gyms so that we don’t get fat. Cars are pretty nice – but the only societies than can produce cars are the ones whose economies disperse families to all corners of the globe and pack so many people into cities that you need one of the damn things just to see your moms and get around day-to-day. None of these are my original thoughts by any means: they come to me via books like Ishmael, Guns, Germs and Steel, and my various readings other readings on how radically different much of what we do is from what we are evolutionarily adapted to do.

I think the ultimate example for me, however, is that ADHD has the words “deficit” and “disorder” in it. “You are not good enough at paying attention to boring shit for eight hours a day. Have some drugs.” Most of history’s geniuses probably would be diagnosable today. “Dammit, Da Vinci, you’re a painter! Quit fooling around with all those hare-brained inventions!” Seriously. Go read the first two paragraphs of Da Vinci’s entry in Wikipedia and tell me he wouldn’t be sucking down Ritalin today. Society just doesn’t have room for people with diverse interests anymore, which I think is especially hard on sociologists. I’m in sociology because it’s the broadest of the social sciences, which seemed like a good place for me. I love to think about the mechanics of companies and governments, but I also obsessively read Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were. But specialization is just as important here both anecdotally and empirically. It’s just messed up that, even in the industry that seems most welcoming to those with broad interests, you are basically required to stomp on your human curiosity just to succeed (albeit to a much lesser degree than, say, accountants or factory workers).

…. which brings me back to the undergrads. Why do we spend 17 years teaching people about all these diverse topics, building up the illusion that undergraduate education is in any way preparing them for the real world, and letting them get used to having time off to play and vacation, when all of those things are anathema to what you’re really supposed to do once you graduate? It’s like we acknowledge that all of those things are good – but not good enough to incorporate into life after 22. We adults are too focused on important things to fool around with that kid stuff, dammit! Things like progress!

*Except the Internet. 24/7 access to a significant proportion of humanity’s knowledge is pretty unequivocally a Good Thing. And yeah, I guess democracy that incorporates people of all genders and races is pretty cool in theory. But ultimately, democracy – at least in the American form – is just a band-aid for the fact that a society this big and complex requires coercion to function.

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Work and Life: Balance or Assimilation?

In response to my last post’s mention of Google’s policy of allowing its workers some free time to pursue their own projects, asks, “Doesn’t Google also basically have people living there? I mean the idea is to make it a fun environment, and it looks like one, but doesn’t it end up with people basically having no life outside of work (kinda like being an academic)?”

As far as I know, that’s true.  Google takes the infamous Silicon Valley “go-to guy” culture to an extreme.  Rather than relying on hierarchy or financial incentives, Google and many other software companies rely on the Valley’s subculture of competitive insanity to keep workers at their keyboards into the wee hours.  Google isn’t really unique in that regard; what makes them unique is the degree to which the company lends structural support to this madness.  My major professor’s son works for a software company; when they’re pulling an all-nighter, they get cots and pizza.  Google?  The Wikipedia description of the Googleplex doesn’t really do it justice.  Look at this, or this.  Yeah, tenure sounds nice and all, but can I get a massage after class?

Google employees basically don’t have to leave work.  Ever.  Which casts

It’s a hard question for me.  I’ve spent much of the last decade trying to figure out two things: how to avoid work, and how to get paid to do work that I like.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to find the right balance as an academic.  But Marx’s old concern for the paid laborer underlies a lot of my concern for people (in industrialized countries, at least): work is “that which is most our own, yet most taken away”.  I want people to have jobs that they enjoy, that give them a sense of fulfillment, of humanity.  What if that’s what Google does?  I think it sounds a bit sick, myself, and yet any objective observer would take one look at the shit I’m putting myself through in grad school (for much, much less) and think that I’m the sick one.

Just about every non-alienating job that I’ve ever read about – be it Google, farming, or working for a democratic company – also seemed to extend well beyond the nine-to-five.  Real, non-alienating work gets as deeply integrated into your life as family.  We just have a hard time with that, I think, because so much of the US’s work culture is based on the assumption that the Man is trying to wring you dry.  When you yourself are the man… well, we just don’t have the beliefs, values and norms to comprehend that.  I wonder what it’s like in Europe, where there are much more substantial barriers between work and life – does that help in the long run, or does it lock the Europeans in to an unnatural work-life separation?

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Treading water

I am way, way behind.

I have papers to grade.  I have stats homework that I’m beginning to realize I don’t even know how to do.  I have 77 emails in my inbox, even though I usually try to enforce a limit of 20.  No need to even mention my thesis.

I am exceptionally skilled in the art of biting off more than I can chew.  Two advanced statistics courses in the same semester that I’m supposed to be writing my thesis?  Both using different stats programs that I’ve never used before?  And one of them requires calculus, which I’ve never taken?  No problem.  Labor-intensive coding of over 10,000 webpages?  Sure – in fact, let me learn how to program so that it can go more smoothly.

Ugh.  This is not the contemplative life I anticipated.  I realize I’m exceptionally inept at taking on the right number of obligations, but I don’t think I’m alone.  Individuals and organizations do the same thing.  I think there are a few underlying causes:

1.  We’re really bad at predicting how long tasks will take. All but the most routinized chores are fraught with unexpected delays.

Why I Suck: I can barely get my morning routine right.

Why We Suckhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man_Month

2.  When we have some free time, it’s all too tempting to fill it – leaving us no room for overflow later.

Why I Suck: I was having a great semester.  Then I sat in on a stats class to take notes for a friend, and fell madly in love with the subject matter (okay, okay, and the instructor).  I had plenty of free time back then.  Now?  Well, I’m posting at 7am – and I didn’t just get into the office, y’all.

Why We Suck:  Financial markets define efficiency for Americans in 2008, and they do it on a quarterly basis.  If your workers are only busting their asses 95% of the time, you need to find more for them to do.  There’s not really any room in the ledgers for using that extra slack time to communicate with each other, tweak their workspace, or (God forbid) just recuperate a bit.

Why We Might Start to Suck A Little Less: 3M and Google have recognized the importance of letting their employees have some time to do work that is of actual interest to them.  If those two giants of innovation can get away with it, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.  Then again, maybe they can only get away with it because they already are so successful.

3.  We’re really just plain awful at statistical theory.

That one’s all me, folks.

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And the blog is immediately undone

So here I go through all the effort of finally making a blog, and I’m totally ruined. Paul Graham just said everything I want to say. This will be the one and only post Mad Man or Slave post ever. Maybe.

Graham’s article is titled, “You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss”. Essentially, it’s advice to young programmers to avoid working at a big company – but it’s also a really good statement of many of the ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for the last three years.

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