Sunday, March 18, 2007

Abuse for Knowledge

I am reading a scholarly, scientific article, “Mapping From Motor Cortex to Biceps and Triceps Altered by Elbow Angle,” by Graziano et. al. It’s for a paper I am writing that will count for 70% of my Sensory and Motor Perception grade. I am researching what has been found to be anatomically different in the brain between reaching and withdrawal behavior, particularly concerning these areas’ visual and tactile receptive fields.

Unfortunately, this particular article has disrupted my research, today. I was happily (or at least diligently) plodding along, deciphering what was meant by “We hypothesized that the effect of cortical stimulation would vary depending on joint angle in a manner consistent with pulling the joint toward a goal angle” (395)—which means that they thought by zapping some neurons in the brain, a monkey would either flex or extend its elbow depending upon how the elbow was initially angled—when I started stumbling over the experimental procedures. And by stumbling, I mean became increasingly horrified.

  • “The monkey sat in a Lexan primate chair with the head restrained by the head bolt…. An acrylic skull cap was fixed to the skull with bone screws…. A steel guide cannulus (18-gauge syringe needle) was lowered through the hole in the skull.” (396)
  • “During the experimental session, the monkey was given an injection of ketamine (10 mg/kg im). Within 10 min of injection the animal was fully sedated, that is, no longer emitting spontaneous behavior and no longer reactive to touch…. On five testing days, the monkey was allowed to awaken from the initial ketamine dosage during the following 4- to 5-h experimental session, such that the effects of stimulation could be tested in the awake condition.” (396)
  • “One monkey was killed with an overdose of sodium pentobarbitol and perfused through the heart with 4% paraformaldehyde…. The second monkey is still in use in experiments.” (398)

This article was published in 2004. That was only three short years ago, not back in the dark ages, when animal torture was perfectly acceptable for scientific advancement. I have never read about this sort of treatment of animals for scientific research before. It truly makes me want to write about this, and not reaching or withdrawal or receptive fields, at all. How can I care what part of the brain scientists think I use to pick up my glass of water when they are drilling into the skulls of monkeys and forcing them to sit, sedated, for hours a day with metal helmets on just to find that information out? Monkeys are living creatures. No one would dream of drilling a metal skullcap onto a human baby. Behaviorally, there isn’t much difference between a monkey and a baby; in fact, a monkey is probably more advanced. You might even argue that it is more cognitively advanced, as well. So where lies the justification?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Culture, Actually

I met a Japanese boy who lives on the second floor last night. He, Fluf, Eddie, and I all watched Love Actually in Fluf’s room. While I did remember that the movie was set around Christmas time, I hadn’t remembered that Love Actually was a British movie. It is, however, completely British—set in London and everything—and once again, Americans are completely unfairly portrayed. There are three American characters in the movie, only one of whom I would qualify as even partially “normal.” The other two are the President of the United States—who is portrayed as an arrogant, pushy, bigoted prick who tries to steal the Prime Minister’s “girl”—and an eleven-year-old African-American girl—who is depicted as being able to sing like the next American Idol and puts on a performance complete with gospel choir and participatory audience. Poor Americans. We are either cut down by stereotypes or expected to live up to them.

After the movie, the four of us began a discussion that ranged from voting practices in our countries to cultural differences between US, Japan, and the UK. I was shocked that, of the four of us, I (who was the youngest in the room; the others were 23, 26, and 30) seemed to have the best understanding of overall political systems and parties. I spent at least fifteen minutes explaining the US voting system, of which the others had absolutely no knowledge. Fluf was convinced that our people voted for our President—which is different from how the UK elects its Prime Minister, since each political party elects its own candidate—and I had to explain to him not only the intricacies of primary elections, but also the workings of the Electoral College. All that for a non-political science major…I must give thanks to St. Robert Bellermine, St. Maurice, and Woodland Hills for my grand American education.

After the political discussion, the Japanese boy (whose name I cannot pronounce, much less attempt to spell) wanted to know if there was a great difference between America and the UK. I replied that there was, but it was comprised of many many small things. If someone from the US were just plopped down in Britain, they wouldn’t immediately say that it is tremendously different here. I attribute that to our shared language and the fact that the two cultures exchange so much in terms of fashion, entertainment, etc. Still, when you encounter all of the little things affecting daily life, the US is pretty different from the UK. It starts with language (“trousers” for “pants,” “jelly” for “Jell-O,” “cheers” and “mate”—words we would never say in the US) and works its way up to trends in lifestyles. Here, people walk their dogs without leashes, and they walk them as a form of recreation, not just in order to prevent the dog from peeing on their dining room floor. They walk their children, too, and the styles and designs of baby carriages I have seen probably outnumber the different models of cars they sell here. Also, as I have mentioned before, things are generally smaller here: the stores are smaller, the number of choices are smaller, even the toilet seats are smaller. America is a country of opulence and options: you can have your pretzel in a mini twist, a jumbo twist, a rod, a mini rid, ultra-thin, ultra-thick, sourdough, with salt, without salt, cheese-covered, cinnamon-and-sugar, soft, hard, and in any size portion imaginable. Here in Brighton, there are two varieties: Penn State brand mini twists, 175g bag, salted or sour cream and chive.

If I had covered all of the differences, I would have been going all night. So I mentioned the words and the pretzels. He said Japan and the UK offer about the same number of grocery store brands and varieties. Then he wanted to know if the people were different—their attitudes or personalities. This is a harder trend to explain. The answer is “yes, they are different” but even more subtly so than the “cultures.” The best way I have of explaining the general difference in people comes from observing interactions between students in Holland House. The Americans aren’t afraid to come out and say what they think. They will start conversations with the Europeans and with each other, argue over issues, and send food back in restaurants because damn it, they’re entitled to good service. British people are generally more reserved. They’re perfectly willing to talk to you…if you initiate the conversation. They also have less of the fight-for-my-rights spirit. If something is substandard, they are far less likely to complain. Their mentality isn’t, “Hey, I paid for this,” it’s, “Well, at least I got something.” I take this difference in personality to account for the country’s lagging technology and the shoddy state of public facilities in general (particularly the gyms). Still, I would say that British people are, on the whole, friendlier than American people. They are less self-centered, perhaps because they are less “driven;” they don’t seem so focused on the goal of “getting ahead” all the time. This works to their disadvantage—in sports, most obviously—but it also makes my task, as the American, to initiate conversations here easier than in America!

According to the Japanese boy, the difference between British people and Japanese people is that the Japanese are more reserved. Thank goodness I didn’t study in Japan. Initiating conversations with the British is hard enough.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

For the Curious

We found out that it was a heroin overdose. No one knows whether it was intentional or not. I feel sorriest for his former roommate, a French guy who moved out at the beginning of this term because of “differences.” Apparently he was a pretty antisocial guy: treated the people on his floor rudely, didn’t wash his dishes, that sort of thing. I talked to a German girl on the bus this morning who lived on his floor, and she said he must have been pretty lonely, but always looked perfectly healthy, no like a junkie at all. Appearances can be deceiving.

Death is such a strange thing. I have seen so much of it, yet I have felt far more affected by the living than by the dead. Even when my old dance teacher Jean died, I only cried a little when her daughter (and my more immediate dance instructor) Darcy told me that she had read and enjoyed the letters I sent everyone from college. I wasn’t crying over her death; I was crying over the fact that I had actually impacted her life, and someone else knew about it. I can cry for people I love who are living, but somehow, I cannot cry for them once they are dead. Or perhaps the most important people to me just have not died yet. Maybe I am that lucky.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Death Knocking

It's "now," not "know." And the fifth paragraph cannot be its own sentence.

He was "discovered" in his room? What the heck does that mean? And when did he die? Last night? Of "natural causes?" I doubt Sue will be very willing to answer those questions.

He was American.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

English Major Celebration

I’m living amongst English majors, and I love it.

My Singaporean friend Angela is an English major concentrating in Linguistics major, and when I found that out yesterday, we had a little rant about the under appreciation of good grammar. Then, our conversation progressed to writing styles, good writing, “good” reading, guilty pleasure reading, and, finally, to the books we had read growing up. I have never met anyone else who admits to having read and enjoyed the Sweet Valley Twins series, much less any of the other books I devoured in my youth: Nancy Drew, R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike. I just rattled off the authors, and she had read and loved their books, too! Moreover, neither of us ever liked the Babysitters’ Club, and today, neither of us are pursuing English Literature degrees, despite our love of literature, because of the seemingly useless regimes of ISMS imposed upon reading interpretation: structuralism, colonialism, post colonialism, modernism, postmodernism, existentialism, transcendentalism—and the list goes on. I probably don’t even have those in the right chronological order, but that is because I never properly learned about them. If I never do, I will only feel at a loss when discussing literature with other English majors; Carl and Jamir, for instance. They just sound so much more educated than me when we talk about what we’ve read. Then again, I took a class that studied Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, while they were learning about the theory of sexual inversion (which, as I learned from Carl, is what people in the romantic period believed was the reason men were homosexual: they were really women trapped inside men’s bodies) and goodness knows what else. But except for the occasional “What? You don’t know that?” look and a bit of ridicule here and there (quote: “God, what do you learn at your school?”), I don’t mind not knowing the nitty gritty academic theory behind everything I read. As Angela put it, “Don’t tell me how to read my book.”

Friday, March 9, 2007

Brilliant Blake

Not being much poetry fan, I can’t say I particularly enjoy reading the work of William Blake. However, he has written some rather wise words in his poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Here are some Proverbs of Hell with which I heartily agree, or at least which made me think:
  • The most sublime act is to set another before you.
  • The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
  • Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
  • The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
  • What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
  • If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
  • Exuberance is Beauty.
  • Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
  • Wednesday, March 7, 2007


    For those of you who have not heard of this movie, here is the premise: an English actor (Sacha Baron Cohen) pretends to be a journalist from Kazakhstan. He travels across America, allegedly making a documentary about his travels. As he interviews people, he performs outrageous stunts under the guise of “Kazakhstan rituals/beliefs/customs” in order to get reactions from real American people, and he films the full extent of these antics.

    The idea sounded funny and a potentially interesting way to reveal the prejudices of Americans until I realized that the entire mocumentary is filmed in the South. There, Sacha manages to find the most racist, bigoted, Confederate-flag-waving people possible to represent America. The fact that these people exist is bad enough, but to make an entire movie in which they represent our country to the world is simply one more ax-swing at a country that simply does not need to be cut down any more than it has been already. Fellow Holland-houser Carl defended us best: “It would be like filming in just northern England and making the assumption that all English people are uneducated.”

    Saturday, March 3, 2007


    At the beginning of the semester, I attended a church service and one Alpha class with my Singapore friends Angela and Michelle. Michelle is very Christian; Angela is not, but goes along to see what everything is about and to keep Michelle company. That was what I decided to do, also: see how things would go and keep my new friends company. Well, the overpowering message at that service was, “We are Christians and the world hates us, so be strong! Be different! They’re the evil ones!” and at Alpha, everything was concentrated on being “feel-good.” Everyone was telling stories—mostly “witness” stories about how they became Christians because they received signs from God or heard his voice or whatever—so I decided to tell the story about how, when I was ten or twelve, I went to a Christian camp where, when I asked my counselor what would happen to my dad when he died, because he was a Jew, she told me very bluntly that he was going to hell. I explained that this was unacceptable to me on a personal level and also because the Jews were God’s chosen people; surely he wouldn’t be so unmerciful. However, the group pretty much ignored me and went on to listen to a guy who said that he had come to Alpha to learn about Christianity because every time he was feeling down, a light bulb behind him would blow out, and when he turned around, it would magically come back on. Everyone was really nice and polite and impressed. That was the first and last time I attended that church.

    Today, Angela went along with Michelle to a “Holy Spirit” day, a five hour long preaching praying marathon. Everything went fine until lunchtime; Angela said it was pretty much what she expected, with people preaching about the Trinity and how the Holy Spirit can change your life and such. However, after lunch, everyone was instructed to divide into two groups: people who were already Christians on the right, people who wanted to accept Christ into their lives, on the left. Angela said that when she turned to Michelle, Michelle said, “You can leave, but I’m staying.” So Angela left. Only one other girl ran out of the room, and Angela said she was in tears.

    How manipulative. I can just imagine what would have happened if Angela had asked the question she told me was on her mind: so where does the third group stand? She would have been ushered into the “save your soul” group, forced to act out a ritual to make the rest of the church feel relieved that they had rescued another soul from the fires of hell, and left feeling guilty that she had not had the courage to stand up for what she did or did not believe.

    What would I have done, had I been there alone? Would I have gone along to the right, pretending I am the Christian I once was? Would I have had the courage to walk out? Or does it even matter at all where you stand amongst a bunch of people who are so terribly misled?

    Why I'm giving up my iPod

    Ipods are good for blocking out the world. Have a bad day? Pop those earbuds in, and you have a reason to ignore every human being around you. Don’t want people sticking fliers in your face on the streets? (Let me tell you, these flier-hander-outers occupy more street corners than the homeless do in Brighton. And they pester you more, too.) Your iPod is a perfect excuse not to have “seen” them.

    I went to pick up my photos from SnappySnaps today. (I’m entering an international student photo contest at Sussex University, so I needed to get a few prints developed. SnappySnaps is a digital photo developer on Western Road.) On my way out the door, I forgot to grab my iPod, which has accompanied me virtually everywhere since I arrived in England. It wasn’t worth it to go back just for that, since I was just traveling a few blocks and back, so I continued on my way, sans music.

    The girl cattycorner to me on the bus had at stud through the skin above her lip. It was a stupid place for a stud, because her upper jawbone forced it to jut out of her face like a mini antennae. She and her friend, who sat across from her, wore matching coats in different colors: one taupe, one army green, both with fake matted fur on the hoods. They could only have been twelve or fourteen, but they had already mastered the art of stuffing themselves into the tightest jeans possible—a feat made apparent from the roll of skin forced up between the waistband of this girl’s jeans and the hem of her short jacket. Black eyeliner was the finishing touch.

    I doubt I would have really looked at this girl, were I listening to my iPod. Did my observation matter? Not really. But I could feel my “writer’s mind” assessing her, and I need to cultivate that mind as much as humanly possible.

    I guess I can sacrifice my iPod on at least one bus ride a day.

    Friday, March 2, 2007

    Turkish Delight

    Let’s just say that Edmund was completely out of his mind. I cannot imagine any child being willing to give up his waxy Hershey’s chocolate bar for a bit of Turkish Delight, never mind betray his entire family. Here’s what Turkish Delight is: extra-congealed jelly (usually covered in chocolate) that tastes almost fruit-like…but not quite. I now have a £1 box of Turkish Delight Thins to bring back with me in case anyone would like to have a taste. It’s worth the experience, I suppose. Try to imagine being in the White Witch's sleigh when you eat it--it might taste better.

    Another British specialty curiosity induced me to try was bubble chocolate. Now, the description I was given made it sound unnecessarily unappealing: “It’s just chocolate with carbonation, or air bubbles through it; you know, kind of like Swiss cheese.” The idea, I suppose, is to make it lighter on your tongue. I bought a bit for a pound (Cadbury’s, of course), and it does kind of fizz on your tongue, in a way. I’m bringing that with me, as well, for any interested American to sample. I’m really kind of shocked bubbly chocolate hasn’t swept the candy industry of America. After all, it’s a killer combination: carbonation + chocolate. They could call it “fizzy chocolate” (since we like to be so different, after all). What kid could resist candy like that?

    Thursday, March 1, 2007

    On being home sick

    Homesickness is not actually so much missing home. Besides, after a certain point in life, it is difficult to determine what should be called “home,” anyway. Where my parents live. But what about when they move to somewhere other than where you grew up? Is that still home? And what happens when they die? Where I spend the most time. That’s in a college dorm room. I’m not sure that qualifies for “home.” Where I return from work/school/practice every day. This changes seasonally. So if I can’t define home, how can I miss it?

    The feeling we call homesickness is more the realization that no matter how far we travel and how much time we spend “away,” we can never leave our selves behind. This realization comes after the novelty of the new place wears off, once we have a routine in place that allows us to go about the necessities of life automatically enough to resume our old habits and neuroses. Then, homesickness is missing the creature comforts and the little familiarities that, once in a while, helped us to forget that we are stuck with ourselves, no matter where we go.