Sunday, 29 January 2017

I am not a "good immigrant"

"We will continue to attract the best and brightest" says Prime Minister Teresa May, as she makes limiting migration the centre of her policy plans for the next five years. Her Brexit speech made clear she is willing to sacrifice everything (the economy, international cooperation, the UK's moral standing) in order to prevent those dratted foreigners from entering the country. Then yesterday happened. The American president passed an executive order blocking all entry to the country, regardless of paperwork, for all refugees and nationals from seven countries. They detained even green card holders *. And Mrs May, who'd been in Washington earlier that day to curry favor with the president, has issued only the most tepid of repudiations.
I am an immigrant to the US. For reasons of history and geography and luck of birth, I am a fortunate immigrant. I am not routinely stopped at the border. I have never had extra burdens placed on me to get either my visa or my green card. But I have never once re-entered the US without some trepidation since I first got my F1 student visa. After yesterday, that trepidation is increased.
As the events at airports around the country have reminded people overnight, in the US it is the border agency that has final say about who can and cannot enter the country. The visa you spent money and time obtaining (every time I had to get my visa renewed or issued was a day off work, and I was fortunate that I lived in London) is only part of the evidence. It is the person at the desk at immigration, at the end of the line labelled "aliens", who has final say.
One of the criteria by which a border agent can deny you entry is if they have a suspicion you carry any of a certain number of infectious diseases. When I first moved to America, HIV/AIDS was on that list. Border protection need no proof you have the disease, a suspicion is sufficient. As a gay man, you see where I'm going with this. Yes, guidebooks and immigration manuals warned me that "looking too gay" could, feasibly, get my entry denied.
When I left America at the end of my Ph.D., leaving my then partner of four years behind, I could not return to America based on that relationship. DOMA was still in force. So I found a job. Luckily, as an academic, visas for jobs are easier to come by. But the easiest one (the J1) is a non immigrant visa with a firm requirement you leave the country after two years for at least a further year. It is difficult to get an exemption from that. The H1-B (skilled workers) visa doesn't have that limitation. But some universities will not sponsor postdocs for H1-Bs, and they cost PIs money. I was lucky, I got one. But even the H1-B has catches. It is non transferable, tied to your employment, and unlike the F1 visa has no grace period: as soon as your employment ends, your H1-B expires and you are automatically residing in the country illegally. Yes, that is correct. If you're on a H1-B and you get fired, you can technically be reported for overstaying your visa that evening. This is why H1-B visa holders tend to be quiet about problems at work.
Through good fortune, a progressive presidential administration, and a liberal supreme court, I became eligible for a spousal green card while on my H1-B. None of those things were guaranteed. Under the Bush Administration, they would have been unthinkable. Under a Trump administration? Well, we can guess how likely anything that makes immigration easier will be at this point. But even then, the green card is not guaranteed (unlike what my in laws thought). It costs $1500 to apply, and the process is complex, opaque, and open ended. I was hugely fortunate in that we had extensive documentation of our relationship, and a very friendly interviewer for the final interview in Cleveland. Will that still be likely in the coming years? Will be guidance be issued? If the so called "first amendment defense act" passes, same sex couples may end up in limbo when faced with unhelpful UCSIS employees. And it may not even take that much to suddenly make spousal green cards much harder to obtain. And mine must be renewed in two years. In the UK, for example, Teresa May now only allows  British citizen to bring a non EU foreign born spouse into the country if they are earning above a certain threshold. Nothing is safe in the pursuit of reducing immigration.
So, no. I don't feel safe or OK after yesterday, despite being from the "right" sort of country, having the "right" skin colour, and being among "the best and brightest". Regardless of claims to the contrary, I know my supposed usefulness to people like May and Trump is secondary to the political capital they get from being "tough on immigration". If you doubt it, watch May's willingness to bargain with the life of my mother, who has lived in the UK legally for 40 years, but has the misfortune of being a French citizen after Brexit.
To be an immigrant, even a fortunate immigrant, is, if you keep your eyes even slightly open, to know you live at the good will of your host nation. And when that good will appears to be running short, no one, not even "good immigrants", is safe. It was not so long ago that the very permanent resident status I have now was explicitly denied to me by federal law. It is not so long ago my sexuality would make me suspect at the border. And, as a former H1-B holder paid out of a federal grant, "American Jobs for American People" is a chilling phrase. Permanent residency is usually treated much like citizenship for job eligibility purposes. Now, with this administration, I begin to wonder how safe that is.
People's lives were ruined yesterday, make no mistake. Some people will die as a direct consequence of that decision. But every green card or visa holder in the country woke up this morning, and wondered just how much the little bits of card we carry in our wallets are worth, and what might have them become as worthless as those held by Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese, Yemeni, and Somali citizens who called America home.
I am an immigrant, I am angry, and I am more afraid than I was before.

* I'm aware that as of today, Priebus has claimed to walk that back. But I'll believe it when I see it.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

And Whither then? I cannot say

I started writing this blog over two and a half years ago. I'd been toying with the idea of starting a blog for a long time. It was a response to a growing frustration at my lack of engagement with the world, my lack, for want of a better word, of production. I had felt that throughout my twenties I had read, watched, listened to so much. I had consumed voraciously. And I pondered and digested my consumption. Yet nothing came of it. I left no mark.
So, eventually, restless, I resolved to start writing about something, anything. It is a small outlet. I am not so presumptuous as to think any of these private thoughts are actually unique or insightful. Yet I wished to return something. And I needed an outlet for those disquisitions and diatribes I would compose in my head at two in the morning, distilling a day's worth of information overload.
In many ways, this blog surprised me. It lasted longer than I thought. It wandered more then I thought. One constant was remains that I cannot predict which posts will resonate and which won't. I guess I still don't know my audience. Some posts I considered very niche have gone far. Some of the posts of which I remain proudest linger unloved.
From the beginning, this blog has been tied to my twitter presence. And in light of what has happened with the world lately, my twitter presence has dwindled. I have had to preserve myself, control my engagement. Initially, I felt guilty, like I was abandoning the fight. But I've made my peace now. I can fight better if I can control my energy. And leaving twitter lets me do that.
I had learnt that lesson earlier with this blog. I realised reasonably soon that posts that were reactions to what was going on on twitter were not always my best. And so I started deliberately not writing blog posts in response to twitter issues. Or entwining them with thoughts I had for a long time. So my blog remained slightly esoteric, detached, the results, I hope, of my idiosyncratic observation of world. After all, I'd staked a claim in the lineage of Montaigne, and I decided to stay there.
But now that I have withdrawn from twitter, can the blog exist separately? In one sense, no. Traffic to my blog is almost entirely from twitter. Without my twitter presence, my readership will dwindle. But in another sense, yes. I am proud of this blog. I find I am attached to some of this writing. That I want to be associated with it. It has been suggested to me more than once that I should take it down as a junior academic, and I have found I cannot, no, I do not want to do it. There are things here that I feel are of value.
On the other hand, no one can deny I've been writing less here of lately. Why? In part, because when it comes to our current unpleasantness, I don't know that anything I have to say is of any value. I've become self conscious in the sea of verbiage of broadly varying quality that has accompanied the turbulence of these months. Does my writing help? Does my voice improve? Or is it yet more half baked, superficially convincing ramblings of an over educated person with an exaggerated sense of his own intellect and importance?
All this to say, I have not written much of late. But the more I think of it, the more I want to write here again. Perhaps write less, perhaps write better, but I cannot leave this place, not yet.
So, if you still know it exists, watch this space. Because here, still, my voice will be heard.



Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thankfulness

I am thankful for my health, mental and physical.
I am thankful for my husband, his unwavering love, his patience, his endless zest for adventure.
I am thankful for my mother, her wisdom, her strength, her clear eyed intelligence, the model she sets for me to remain excited and optmistic and engaged with the world throughout your life.
I am thankful for my brother, his support for all I do, his sense of joy, his commitment to the small pleasures of life.
I am thankful for my sister, her energy, her love, her willingness to challenge me.
I am thankful for my in laws, their generosity, the fact they give me a home away from home.
I am thankful for all my friends, old and new, near and far, for all I learn from them, for all they give me.
I am thankful for my mentor, her commitment to my training as a researcher, her respect for my experience as a scientist, her friendship.
I am thankful for the career successes of the past year, and for people's recognition of them.
I am thankful that a decade of progress on gay civil rights means I can look at the next four years with some confidence our life will withstand them.
I am thankful to have been able, regardless of what happens next, to do what I wanted with my career for ten years. That's not a bad innings.
I am thankful for my dual citizenship, and my three languages.
I am thankful to have grown up in a city of 8 million people, to have gone to a school where students came from seventy countries, to have grown up immersed in two cultures.
I am thankful to have lived five years in Baltimore, to have learnt that America was both like and unlike what I knew from the movies.
I am thankful for three years in Ohio, and summers in Michigan, and all that has taught me about a life other than that I grew up to enjoy and expect.
I am thankful for the beautiful autumn we have had.
I am thankful for dinner surrounded by loved ones.

My thoughts have been dark of late, but I still have much to be thankful for. More than many, less than others, but by any standard, enough. Tomorrow I will be frightened, and angry again. But not all the time, and not today.

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On not falling over

Once, when I was on a skiing holiday with a friend, we got to talking about our week so far. I said that I was glad I hadn't fallen over yet. My friend responded "If you haven't fallen over, it means you're not trying hard enough". I was surprised by this. I'd just done the hardest run in the resort that day. To my mind, not falling over meant, simply, that I was good at skiing.
I have a feeling similar to this every time people discuss grades at school and university, and, more specifically, the importance of failure as a learning tool. I don't doubt that recovering from failure shows determination (though when we praise those who overcome failure, we should be careful of survivor bias). And I don't doubt that evaluating someone solely based on grades, without looking at grade progression, background, research experience and so on is foolish. But the description of straight A students, therefore of me, that tends to accompany these debates, sticks in my craw somewhat. Because, like my friend's assessment of my skiing ability, the fact that I'm good at what I do is taken as prima facie evidence that it's all effortless and, somehow, a scam.
Being a straight A student is not effortless. It takes work. In my case, it took discipline, a lot of it. Furthermore, the idea that just because the grades don't show a progression, there is no wrestling with concepts, ideas, no struggles, is erroneous. Those things happen. It's just that, for some reason, with the straight A student, the breakthrough happens before the test, so there is never any evidence of it. The illusion of effortlessness is just that: the straight A student is the swan, gliding gracefully across the mirror like lake, legs paddling furiously underneath.
The other idea that attaches to straight A students, which characterizes me even less, is that somehow, we do not learn the material, we merely learn to take tests. I won't deny that good grades can act as a motivator (and, more tellingly, that bad grades act as a discouragement). But the relationship is more subtle. For me in particular, the good grades worked in combination with my genuine interest in the subjects to create a virtuous circle, one where the external rewards of effort combined with the internal drive of interest to make working for school fun. Yes, fun. As much as exams stressed me, there were times when being given 3 hours to write essays on topics I loved (looking at you general paper from part II zoology) was actually almost a pleasure. 
There are limitations to being a straight A student. Most obviously with me, the fact that I started out good and became excellent in most academic subjects meant that it took me a long time to learn how to deal with those things I wasn't good at from the start (sports comes to mind, but also the violin).  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't good at the things I was good at. It just means that I didn't devote much energy to things I wasn't good at. Then again, many not straight A students do this too (we all do, in fact). The other issue is that straight A students have trouble differentiating adequate performance from actually bad performance. It also took me a long time to recognise that, when hard work yields a reward (a good grade), it is easier to do then when it doesn't. I have immense respect for the C and B students of this world who work their arses off consistently, despite never seeing a consistent A.
As for the question of failure, I have mixed feelings on this. I never failed academically by any measure. Perhaps my first true failure was failing to secure employment straight after my PhD. I overcame that failure, but I'm not sure what I learnt from it. That I was tenacious? I think I learnt that from teaching myself linear algebra in grad school just as much. And besides, my failure would have been impossible to overcome without the successes that came before it. When we focus on failure, we deny people the joy of success that comes from practiced skill.
When we overly lionise the educational importance of failure, and fail to recognise the effort that goes into sustained success, we undermine a lot of hard work. And when we suggest that all straight A students are intellectual frauds, we deny them the joy of their achievement, and the value of their work. These messages reach straight A students early: I think I was nine or ten when my teachers first started telling me to expect to start failing at some point, some as a warning, others, somewhat more gleefully. No one likes a tall poppy. I can understand teachers not focusing on straight A students. I have more trouble with teachers undermining them. It happens more often than you might think.
It is possible to critique the narrowness of our systems of evaluation, and the flaws inherent in our educational systems, without casting aspersions on the efforts and joys of those individuals who do well in them. There is pleasure in racing down skillfully from mountaintop to village, carving into the snow with practiced ease knowing that this, you are good at.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

A messy machine

This week in journal club, we revisited a classic paper of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin's famous/infamous The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme, a paper that, among other things, has made amateur architectural history something of a cottage industry among evolutionary biologists. "Spandrels", as it is often known, is almost impossible to discuss as a scientific paper among biologists of a certain age.* It is a cultural artefact, a signifier of its times. Any discussion of "Spandrels" immediately becomes a historiography, an attempt to, on the one hand, understand it in its context that is no longer around us, and, on the other, detect its influence on the different world in which we now live. "Spandrels" is, depending on who you talk to, either the hallmark of a small but significant paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, or the beginning of an unhelpful tangent that has needlessly distracted evolutionary biologists for decades.
But taken on its own terms, "Spandrels" is a bizarre thing. Certainly, it is a kind of paper we would be unused to seeing today. It is a straight up, unapologetic, highly (and variably effectively) rhetorical polemic. As its name implies, it is a critique, not of data, but of ways of thinking. "Spandrels" is all argument, no new data.**
What I think is most interesting about "spandrels" in that regard is the insight it gives us into the messy machine that is science. Specifically, it challenges simplistic notions about what science is.
In her speech accepting the nomination for  presidential candidate for the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton said at one point "I believe in Science". The reaction among scientists (on social media, because that's how I gauge reactions among scientists) was divided into two camps. One we shall call camp relief (as "Thank you, thank you, an existential dread has been slightly lifted from my shoulders"). The other we shall call camp epistemological frustration, best exemplified by this facebook response. Specifically point 2 "Rather, science is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods". To which I would add only one thing:
"science, among other things, is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods"
Because science is also a social activity, undertaken by people (Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin) supported by institutions (Harvard University, the Royal Society of Great Britain). And these are very much things we can believe (in the sense of have faith) in. Science is values, such as assumptions of good faith (sorely tested of late) and "nullius in verba". Science is also norms of ethics and even of esthetics. Some will argue that these things are ancillary to science's epistemological foundation. Which I think is nonsense. Unless you want to subscribe to some Walden-esque neo-Rousseauian vision where science is limited to ascertaining the depth of ponds we can measure by our own, the social and institutional structures of science, and the Trust which underpins them, are as crucial to science as any theory of knowledge. For without them, no aggregate, collaborative, progressive, growing science is possible.
Science is a messy machine, and like all messy machines we are tempted to make it seem simple, But when we say "science is self correcting", it is like when we say "markets find solutions", or "the eventual overthrow of the Bourgeoisie is an inevitable consequence of capitalism". It makes complex, non linear, messy human processes seem cleaner than they are. And in the process, it obscures all the awful things that humans do when they feel they actions are not being judged.
Because the attitude that limits science to an abstracted epistemological process, the attitude that obscures the social structures that allow science to work, even when it is for the best of reasons, is cousins to the attitude that tells people of color, and women, and disabled folk, and gay folk, and people from developing countries, that the barriers they face are not part of science.
Only an inclusive definition of science, that includes as parts of science the epistemology as well as the institutions, and ultimately, the people DOING the science, can argue that the structural inequalities of science are scientific problem. And to solve those structural inequalities, we must believe they are a problem, and we must believe we can fix them.

*I've noticed with some amusement, being at the tail end of that generation, that younger biologists are completely nonplussed by the paper's tone and cultural importance.
** In that respect, it is very similar, and knowing Gould I suspect this is no coincidence, to Simpson's slim Magnum Opus Tempo and Mode in Evolution

Sunday, 12 June 2016

There is work to be done

At our wedding a little over a year ago, my mother gave a speech. It was not the standard wedding speech, about me and my husband and our love. Rather, my mother, historian, 60s revolutionary, woman, gave a rousing barnstormer. She celebrated and reminded all of us present of all that had been achieved in living memory to make our same sex wedding, surrounded by friends and family, possible. And she ended with a warning, a warning that none of these things that had been achieved were set in stone. That there were forces set on taking them back. We all loved the speech; it is one of the things that everyone remembers from the day. But after today, I find myself looking back on my mother's speech, and wondering at her prescience.
Two men set out to kill LBGT today, in the midst of our month of celebration, in our safe places. One of those men failed, thankfully. The other succeeded, horrifically. Their stated reasons were probably radically different. And here lies a deep, sad, awful truth of today: there are many, many voices in the world today that will preach murderous hate of LBGT people. And many of those voices have great power and great reach. Some are adherents of violent Islamic sects, some represent strands of Christianity in Africa, or the US, and some are simply political viciousness. We cannot pretend those voices are not there, are not loud, do not have power. We cannot pretend that those that would harm us have been kept in check by recent changes. We cannot pretend those changes are  not still weak, and could not be taken away.
And so, there is work to be done. Have some of us become complacent? Perhaps, but let us not be too harsh on that. The illusion of normalcy, the scenery of security, how long some in our community have yearned for those. It was tempting to buy into that. I doubt there is an LBGT person in the US who still feels secure today, no matter how blue their postcode, how nice their wedding album. It is a hard awakening.
What is to be done? We must, in our communities, our schools, our families, oppose those voices, even if they are just whispers. We must affirm those who do righteous work, who support and embrace the humanity of queer folk of all stripes unequivocally. And in our communities we must censure those, no matter where they come from, who equivocate on this. Note I said censure, not censor. This is not about legislating hate speech, or tiresome debates about freedom of speech. This is about the values which we choose to uphold. We cannot allow these voices of hate to nourish the actions of those who desire to spill blood for infamy.
It is unacceptable that the humanity, indeed survival, of LBGT people are used as political tools in Africa and the Middle East. It is unacceptable for Islamic clerics, or evangelical church leaders, to preach death against non cis-hetero people. It is unacceptable when the Catholic church denies the full love of God to its gay members, and ignores its responsibility in their suffering as a result. It is unacceptable that the Anglican communion has chosen a fig leaf of unity at the expense of upholding the humanity of its LBGT congregants. It is unacceptable that the dignity of Transgender individuals has become the political tool du Jour in American culture wars.
And conversely we must affirm what we believe. If your school does not have a PFLAG chapter, found one. If your congregation is not explicitly inclusive, demand change or leave. Do not sit through homophobic sermons, or speeches, or thanksgiving tirades. Do not let children learn cruel patterns from the adults around them.
Some of these changes will require law, and we must agitate for that. But others, many, will require instead the difficult work of changing a culture, changing what is acceptable. And we must support all those who affirm our humanity, as much as we censure those who do not.
The epidemic of American mass shooting indeed has causes outside homophobia, or racism. But those who commit these acts do so in a complex cultural bath that involves gun culture, notoriety, and social rhetoric about who is other, who is less than, who is to be hated. We must fight those who provide justification for violent hate, and stoke the fires of murderous rage.
The arc of history does not bend toward justice; we pull it there.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What my husband sees

A propos of many things preoccupying me right now.

My husband doesn't see the stalled papers, the floundering analysis, the discovery of unforeseen sources of error that send us back to the drawing board. My husband doesn't see that the first trial of new experiments to yield the preliminary results for my grant didn't quite pan out. My husband doesn't see the deadline get skipped, the need to do a second batch of experiments unplanned between now and the all hands on deck summer.
My husband only hears second hand the balancing act of resources between projects: the grant that pays me, the project that may be my own grant, the preliminary data for my PIs new grant. My husband isn't there for the meetings to plan what happens next, to allocate time, to discuss overcoming setbacks, to distribute tasks. My husband doesn't feel the continuous, ever present feeling that there are not enough hours to do everything. My husband isn't there when my PI and I have long, frank conversations about what I need to do to get hired, and how to balance that with what I need to do for the grant that pays me.
All my husband sees is that I have worked most weekends in the past two months. All my husband knows is that I asked to move our first year anniversary weekend trip by a few weeks to put in those few extra experiments. That almost all weekends between now and mid august are booked, taken by science. There'll be no back country camping trip, or trip to the beach, this summer. All my husband knows is that every get together with friends starts with a list of evenings I can't. "You go, but I have pigs. Maybe I'll join you later".
My husband also sees me exhausted, and defeated, when things go wrong. He sees me after I've been kept awake for hours wondering how I'm going to get everything I need to get done done. He sees me work long hours, then come home and always be tempted to run to my office to do an analysis, or read a paper. He knows when I'm going to negotiate a Saturday morning at work. He sighs wearily when I say "I'm taking my laptop with me on the weekend".
My husband has been with me since grad school, and he understands that I need to work hard. He understands this is a grueling game I'm playing. But in his eyes, I already put in more hours then I should. In his eyes, my work is already everywhere, like a Virginia creeper that needs to be watched and fought lest it stifle the house.
I'm currently working very hard on eliminating counter productive time sinks from my nine to five, to maximise what I get out of the day. Partly, it's for me. I need to be more productive, I need to use my time better. But partly, it's for him. I've begged and borrowed and stolen enough hours from us. There needs to be a limit.