Rappers on the bus

Got stuck in traffic yesterday, so badly that it took us an hour and a half to extirpate ourselves from Marseilles. Fifteen minutes after the ride started, two blokes behind me started chatting each other up. Well, chatting each other up in a ‘bro’ sort of way, I mean: becoming friends, all the while carefully mentionning their love of pretty girls just in case there was any ambiguity, in a way that reminded me of what so many women do when getting acquainted with a man–mentioning The Boyfriend as often as possible in case someone accused them of sending mixed signals after the first 94827 mentions went unnoticed.

Funny how so many men sound the same when trying to get into someone’s good graces. ‘Chatting up’ often amounts to a long, very long sales pitch. What they do now. What they’ve done. What they like. What they are like. There are questions interspersed in the middle of course, most of the times (after all, most men are reasonably competent when it comes to social interaction), but they’re not the focus of conversation. What they’re really here for is try and get out as much information about themselves as they possibly can. That’s how I learned that both these young men were rappers, that one of them MC’d for a crew with a name in the form of a disreputable pun about a famous landmark in Aix, that they both were very proud of drinking like fishes, partying like there’s no tomorrow and shagging like rabbits (but only girls, remember), that one came from the Alps and was recently back from Paris where partying had wrung him dry, that they loved travelling, especially to faraway, exotic places, that they wrote very deep shit, man, that they knew the value of keeping calm and carrying on even in the direst and most exhausting circumstances like their bus being late, and that one of them was performing this very night. I also leaned their names and the name of their crew, which I subsequently googled because I had nothing better to do (I considered adding one of them on Facebook just for giggles, but I’m not that stalkerish). They talked quite loud and, entertaining as the conversation was, I considered politely asking them to shut the fuck up at some point because I’d had a long day too, when one of them exclaimed–

‘Look! Over there! A rainbow! Crap, it’s behind the building, you’re going to miss it. No, no, it’s back! Look!’

And that’s how they started talking about how cool rainbows were and comparing the best rainbows they had seen in their lives in the most impressive locations. They still had the same teenage world-weary tones, but they were talking about rainbows. Just like that, they went from annoying to endearing. I suppose I’ve been spending too much time around teenagers…

That Internet being the wonderful thing it is, here’s what the first one’s music sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZLt5bJIz94

Another day at work

Two days ago, a student was stabbed in front of my school.

Fortunately, the wound was not too serious. Given that he was stabbed in the back of the thigh, it was quite a relief. One of my colleagues and I had just gone out for sandwiches. We did not see the whole fight, but we heard a cry (well, she heard it; it seems my brain doesn’t even register individual sounds in Marseilles anymore), and there he was, clutching his bleeding thigh and walking supported by two guys I didn’t know. There was blood all over the place, on the ground and walls of the school. That’s hardly the worst part.

The two guys were yelling at passers-by who dared to stop, including those who tried to take out their phone to call for help. They slapped one across the face, and it’s lucky it happened to be one wise enough to walk away without letting the situation escalate, otherwise we would have had a fight on our hands on top of things. Perhaps they didn’t dare yell at teachers, however, because they let us phone an ambulance while other people from the school struggled to keep the situation under control. Eventually, they started to walk away. We had to wave at the ambulance from afar so they could catch up with them. And all the while, they yelled at people not to call the police, not to call the boy’s parents, or anyone else–and they were so busy doing that they didn’t once check on their mate. The only thing I can think of is that the boy was very lucky the knife didn’t reach his femoral artery. With that kind of escort, be would have bled to death before anyone managed to reach him.

I’ve registered to take a first aid class in a couple of weeks. I’ve meant to do it for years; now I don’t see how I could pospone it anymore. Next time, the wound could be far more severe. There could be no one around with a charged phone. But if there is a next time, there’s one thing I won’t know how to handle: two screaming bastards who don’t want an ambulance called in case the police arrives as well. How do you go about fixing that? First aid is all well and good, but sometimes what one needs is training in dealing with bleeding arseholes–and I don’t mean the medical kind.

On Friday evening, my boyfriend and I watched a recent Homeland episode, which included a character yelling at people because he didn’t want to be taken to a hospital so as not to call attention to himself. How do we get rid of that culture, that still tells people that it’s best to handle things yourself without drawing the attention of the authorities? I’m quite aware that these boys didn’t make a fuss because they got the idea on TV. I understand they must have been in a difficult situation in the first place (I’m only guessing, as we’re not certain what caused the fight in the first place). Still, ideas don’t come out of nowhere. It’s bad enough that some people are so scared of the police they will do anything to avoid them. Should we really add a layer of heroic TV characters fixing things on their own?

Yesterday we had dinner with friends. We met some of their new colleagues there, and I mentioned the incident at some point. Some of them reacted with horror. Some of them acted blasé, saying that if they didn’t want an ambulance, there was no point in trying to call one anyway. I didn’t argue, even thought that was one of the silliest things I heard all week. It was obvious that for them, the incident had no reality. It was just another way to show their jaded and cynical side to the world, to show they weren’t put off by mentions of teenagers getting stabbed in front of their blood. Well, not to sound self-important, but as far as I’m concerned, I wasn’t put off even though the blood dripped on the ground right in front of me. And I’m still horrified. How can you make it a point of pride to be jaded about that sort of thing? How could I, when I now know that next time, I might be the one who has to put pressure on a knife wound before it bleeds out?

And when, holy fucking when, will people stop thinking it’s manly to act like violence is just a normal fact of life we have to deal with and shut up?

Life in research, or: Why I’m probably going to quit it and so should everybody else

In two weeks, my penultimate stay in Québec will end. I’m happy I’m going back home, although there are plenty of things I’m going to miss: my friends here, first; my housemates’ surviving cat; the cheerfulness of the city centre; that sort of things. I have no idea when I’ll come back, or if I ever will. I hope I will.

I’m also seriously considering giving up research at the moment. It’s been a long, arduous process, first accepting that I might well never make it, and then, little by little, realising it might actually be a good thing. Besides, I’ve been a researcher for the past six years. That doesn’t exactly count as an unfulfilled wish.

There are many reasons why I’ve come to this acceptance, and even more reasons why I’ve long resisted it. I think the first reason part of me just wants to give up is: it can be a frightful amount of work, and let’s face it, it’s not actually useful to anyone but myself. Everybody knows that politics plays a huge part in research life, right? Okay, now square that. And square it again. Now you’re getting a better idea of the order of magnitude we’re talking about here. It’s not just about being friends with the right people. It’s about your work itself: calculating what’s going be successful and when, realising that your research has to be sexy before it is useful (that’s why people have such trouble publishing replications of previous experiments, or experiments that yielded no results: tremendously useful as they are, they just don’t sound as good as nice, new significant results). It’s also a matter of calibrating the minimal amount of effort that can go into making a publishable project, meaning that most published results have very little actual usefulness, and nearly all articles end with suggestions for further research: what matters is not to get usable results out there, but to get results published so it looks good on your CV, period. In the end, twice as much effort goes into calculating what’s going to be profitable for your career as goes into furthering your work. You don’t have a choice. That’s how you get people to fund you. By necessity, it’s an awfully self-centred occupation. And I’ve had it with self-centred.

The second reason is that research is an incredibly unethical system. When I came to Canada, I knew that things worked quite differently from France, and I expected them to suck less. I was wrong. Here’s the thing: research in France sucks because there’s no funding, graduate students are unpaid and university professors generally don’t give a shit about them, tenure is automatic, meaning that once you get a job, you can’t be fired unless you rape a student in public while screaming ‘Heil Hitler!’, meaning that many people soon just realise that they can easily get away with not doing research at all and getting paid all the same. I’m not kidding. It’s that bad. But in Canada, I discovered the one thing I didn’t expect to learn: the North American system sucks even worth. Students are paid all right; but they are basically hired as cheap labour. Professors who hire students to work in their lab know fully well that their students don’t stand a chance when it comes to applying for positions later on. They hire them all the same, not to give them a chance to get a career, but because it’s cheaper than hiring research assistants, and you can pressure them to work 60 hours a week for the same salary. I’m not in that situation, luckily: my own boss hires very few students, and our career is one of his priorities. I’m eternally thankful for that. I’m also aware that this is overwhelmingly not how the system works.

So, using students as cheap labour and then discarding them is bad enough. The system is also woefully inefficient. Students come and go, meaning that on occasion, whole sets of results end up lost somewhere in a computer, after the student who gathered the data left and nobody cared to pick up the study after them. People constantly have to be taught how to do basic things, often with poor results. Once postdocs manage to get a position as professors, they don’t actually do much research anymore. They supervise research from their students, but more than anything, they’re busy asking for funding and calibrating their entire publication strategy around it, a fact that has often been decried as slowly killing research. I can only agree. What I said earlier, that publishing research was more about looking good than about furthering knowledge? That’s because if you don’t look good, you don’t get funds. Which basically means that in the end, the people who actually know how to do research because they spent years as students and postdocs don’t actually do research so much as grant writing; the real research is done by students who often don’t know how to do it; and a professor’s real job is managing his lab’s funds and hiring people, in short, it’s a managerial job for which they haven’t been trained. It’s utterly absurd, a huge waste of money, of people’s time and lives (we’re counting years here, not months), and a monstrously exploitative system. Even shorter, it sucks all sorts of unsavoury genitals.

Which is why I’m seriously questioning if I still want to be a part of it. If it’s a choice between embracing the French system, with its utter cynicism and rewarded laziness, or trying to steer things towards the North American system which goes wrong in approximately all the places it can go wrong, maybe I’ll be better off teaching children how to spell their names in English.

At least I’ll get to publish a book on zombies. And I’ve survived two Canadian winters and met some truly great people here. In the end, maybe I should take this, thank life and go on my way.

Working, living

So there are two things I’ve figured out, in all this time I was too busy working to do much of anything else including thinking.

Whatever happens, two things, then, will have absolute precedence over my work and career: I won’t ruin my health on account of my job, and I won’t let myself become a jerk.

The first is quite straightforward. Working is supposed to help you make money, which you’re going to use to meet your basic living needs. Ruining your health over your work completely defeats the purpose (I should note that I am fortunate enough to live in a country where it is possible to make a living wage without jeopardising your health, and I don’t intend to spit in my soup, as we say in France). But there’s something else: I don’t believe that, in a just society, anyone should be asked to risk their health for their job. That’s just inhuman. And I’m not going to contribute to a system where it’s normal to expect people to go without sleep, eat crap and give up exercising until their own body gives up on them. So I’ll get my full nights of sleep, eat my veggies and pulses and if I need to take time off work to exercise, I will (I’ve got a pair of ruined knees to mend after all). And I won’t ever expect anyone to do any less for their bodies.

I would have made a long list of other priorities, like family, friends in need, and all that jazz. But then I realised that it all falls under the same banner. I don’t want to become the kind of person who stops interacting with their family on account of work, has no time to check on friends, no energy for any cause whatsoever and generally assumes that they already make enough efforts as it is and won’t lift a finger for anything not career-related. The thing is, too much work does that to people. And I do realise that sometimes people have families to support, and in some countries, working too much can be a necessity when minimum wages are treated like a joke, and I think this is tragic, because too much work is bad for you. In countries privileged enough to give you a choice, working too much means that you’re deliberately choosing to close your mind. People have varying tolerance levels to being over-worked, but there comes a point when anyone can start feeling that they’re doing their share already, and they won’t give a cent to any good cause, they’ll ignore people asking for help, they won’t lift a finger to reduce their environmental impact, because that would be asking too much of them. But really, the only ‘effort’ they are making is to advance their career–their whole lives are centred on doing things for themselves and no one else. Some people call hard work a virtue; in modern societies where you can afford to not work too hard, I thing this is nonsense. Too much work is not a good thing, it won’t make you a better person and save for some rather specific jobs, it won’t help anyone but you. And if you don’t have time for anything or anyone but yourself (and that includes treating any moment you spend with your spouse or children like a big favour you’re doing to them), then I do believe you qualify as a jerk. And I don’t want to become one.

Because let’s be honest: sometimes your job allows you to make a significant contribution, and sometimes… well, it’s not so obvious. I’m not saying what I do is useless, even though I can’t exactly say researching virtual worlds is quite the same as changing the real world order to eradicate poverty or something. It’s just not useful enough to justify sacrificing everything to it. And so far I’ve made enough sacrifices, not of myself, but of others. I’ve fucked up my environmental footprint by making three yearly return journeys over the Atlantic and giving up organic food. I give money to a couple of organisations, but I’ve done nothing myself except clicking a few buttons now and then to say that I disagree with stuff. I’ve left my family in France and asked my boyfriend to wait while I took care of my professional advancement. That’s enough of it. When I’m back in France for good, it will be high time to stop cutting myself endless slack under any pretext I can find.

So this is it. If anyone sees me ranting here about how I’m too good to pay taxes, watch my environmental impact or dedicate some of my precious time to my family and friends, feel free to send me a virtual kick in the backside.

Square one

Hi all. It’s been a while.

Again.

I keep thinking that perhaps one day, I’ll see the end of it. One day I’ll stop saying ‘next year, things should be less frantic’, and I’ll actually be able to sit down and relax. This day hasn’t come yet. Next year is going to be just like the past four: insanely busy, and stressful, and possibly for nothing.

I expected this, mostly, so it’s not a crushing disappointment: I got no job in France and I have to go back to Québec for another year. It’s not that I’m unhappy about that. I quite like it there. But it takes a special kind of bravery to go full expat, and I’m not sure I have it. Admittedly, putting an ocean and six time zones between me and my boyfriend does little to help—a fact that my family, in their well-meaning efforts to cheer me up, seem to blissfully ignore, bless their hearts and all.

It’s not like it’s going to make that much of a difference, it being Québec rather than Thailand or Mars, because I’m going to spend most of my time in the lab anyway. Well, at least people will be pleasant on the rare occasions when I’m outside and not at work. And possibly this time I’ll get to spend more time in France, so there’s that as well. I’m not complaining, far from it. I was very lucky to get this job, and a career in academia takes what it takes. ‘What it takes’ includes 60-hours weeks, permanent uncertainty about the future, being very far away from home and having no idea if it will even pay off one day. Well.

It’s a little hard not to feel the slightest hint of bitterness, however, seeing as I came very close to getting a job in spite of my mediocre PhD. How do you keep yourself from thinking that with an actual PhD supervisor who would have done his job instead of not answering e-mails, not reading my dissertation and letting me grope around in the dark for four years, I might have made it? But it’s too late to worry about that now. The time to give up was three years ago, when I started to realise that said supervisor was an incompetent prick who would rather eat crushed glass than lift a finger to help me get anywhere, and when the 10-hours days, seven days a week first started to weight down on my private life. I didn’t give up then (another sort of bravery I don’t have, I suppose), and it’s too late now. I can’t have done all of this for nothing.

There are two things in life I’m actually good at: pretending I’m better at stuff than I really am, and not giving up. So I’ll keep doing what I’m good at.

You know that feeling when you’re walking up a long slope, and you can see the top all the way, but when you get closer to it, you realise that it was just a bump, and the real top is actually miles further? Right, now do you know that feeling when it’s the fourth or fifth time it happens?

I’ll keep going. Maybe I’ll get a job next year. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll have to adjust to the reality that there is no place for me in the career I’ve chosen and I’ll take it hard, and maybe I won’t. Maybe one day I’ll have time to relax, to write and to play my piano and to peacefully accept those are not things I’ll ever be truly successful at, and maybe there will always be something I haven’t foreseen, and I’ll keep treading on and thinking about the future, and I’ll be moderately satisfied or maybe I’ll just get depressed and stop trying.

I don’t know. I’m not sure I even care anymore. I feel like a robot right now.

Carry on.

Phew. There.

I’ve just gone through the very frustrating task of going through my entire blog and friend-locking most entries. Not the most productive part of the year, and it’s entirely possible that this was a complete waste of time triggered by an access of paranoia, but I’d rather be paranoid than sorry. And all that.

See, what’s about to happen is that I’m going to apply for a job as a lecturer in France. The applications start very soon, and the stakes are a bit more impressive than they sound. Professors and lecturers, whatever their grade, are automatically tenured. In other words, if I can get a job, I don’t have to move out until I want to. This could be the day when I finally settle down doing something I like and I can stop running around crazily looking for stuff to add to my CV.

This is starting to make me incredibly nervous. It’s not so much that I’m 29 and I’ve never held a job for more than one year. It’s not the fact that I have a mortgage to pay, because after all, if I don’t get a university job, I can always teach high school. There will be room for me, although perhaps not that close to home, or not even in a pleasant place. What stresses me out is that if I never get to work in a university, then the past five years of my life will have been filled with completely useless compromises and sacrifices. I could have taught high school five years ago. I just didn’t feel like it–and now I’d like all of this to come to a happy conclusion, with me getting the job of my dreams without having to settle at the other end of the planet or get an insane commute. And much as I love to blog here and interact with everyone on LJ, I don’t want to risk having someone on the recruitement board look me up and get a bad impression because, well, I appear to be the sort of person who has a life outside work and political opinions to boot.

Like I said, complete paranoia on my part. Probably. I’d rather not find out the hard way.

So now I’ve started another blog, focusing on my professional life. It’s over here; if you’d like to have a brief look, I’d be very grateful (I’m not sure that having many page views will make my professional blog miraculously appear at the top of my Google search results, but it can’t hurt anyway). I’ll still be blogging here if time allows it, but entries will be friend-locked until further notice.

Such a lovely place

When I leave work at night, I have to walk for a few minutes on the opposite side of the road from the wall of the Hotel California–yes, it’s a long wall. And for a stretch of a hundred metres or so, there’s a very strange echo that makes it sound like my footsteps come from right by the wall, on the other side of the road. The sounds are extremely distinct, as if there was another person walking just level with me and crushing snow under their boots, invisible.

The echo can only be heard at night, though. I wonder why.