Archive for: November, 2016

On reading

Nov 28 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

This morning I was reading a great article in the NYTimes magazine. It was about a cook, a person who is a chef at their own restaurant, putting together a meal for friends, a meal at which she could sit down and enjoy. The recipes are interesting, and some of them maybe worth trying.

But what hit me, when I was done, was the writing. This chef runs some fancy-pants restaurant in New York. I probably couldn't get a reservation there. But when I was reading this, I felt that I'd like to know this woman. I felt that she had opened up a part of herself, and that I understood some of those parts. I could make the leap from chef to scientist and see things about myself in what she said about herself.

I know lots of people who "don't have time for reading". Reading in it and of itself is just a stand-in for getting information, knowledge, stuff flowing into your head. Reading is just an efficient way to do that. To cut oneself off from that flow, to limit that flow to things that one already knows, to things in one's own narrow sphere, is to cut one's self off from life.

We do not know where our ideas come from (for the most part). We do not know what will nudge us one way or the other, in our professional lives, in our personal lives. But if we do not read, we will certainly miss out on many opportunities to be nudged. To grow. To change. Change is good. It is life itself.



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Dementia is an Insidious Disease

Nov 21 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

When the experts, of which my mother had been one, say a disease is insidious they mean the symptoms may not be obvious at first. Other definitions:

An insidious disease is any disease that comes on slowly and does not have obvious symptoms at first. The person is not aware of it developing.

A disease existing without marked symptoms but ready to become active upon some slight occasion; a disease not appearing to be as bad as it really is.

In my book: a disease that lets you fake it for a rather long time.

Insidious in common parlance has a very strongly negative sense: evil that lurks and only gradually emerges. That part of the definition seems just right for thinking about dementia. Dementia is an evil disease, more so than the fact that all diseases, all illnesses are evil.

Is it worse to lose your mind or your body? Let's set aside for a moment that one's mind is part of one's body. This dichotomy may or may not be particularly useful for understanding health and illness. Yet, if you talk to the elderly (and I don't mean functional bluehairs and greybeards, I mean the folks staring hard at the end of their life), they make a very clear distinction in this.

My father lived well into his 90s. He was physically slower, but could still get roused for a good argument about what my (my!) CV should look like, why this or that politician was full of it, or whatever cause-du-jour attracted his attention. But he could barely move; years of playing handball, running and lifting weights had destroyed his knees. I am pretty sure he was depressed for all sorts of reasons, including that my mother's dementia precluded their massive arguments about everything. Yet, he could set that depression aside to tell me the truth about whatever he had just read on the internet. His favorite site, btw, was Arts & Letters Daily (a good compendium of ideas, thoughts and stuff you had no idea was as interesting as it proves to be).

Physical decline is less insidious: its there and obvious and in your face each day when you wake up in pain. From his perspective, his body, gradually to be sure, failed to keep its half of the bargain with his mind. When my father died, he was tired. He went to sleep and didn't wake up. My mother never thought she'd outlive him. But she did. By many years. But she never knew this, and never will.

She was in complete and entire denial that anything was wrong, and that is part of the cruelty. My mother came from less-than-working-class family. My grandparents were illiterate, and had gone to work in factories as young children in New York City. Her mind, her brain, her personality is what carried her out of poverty to being a med school professor in the days when such women were counted in single digits at any school. I can imagine there was nothing more terrifying to her than losing that by which she defined herself. Her response differed only slightly from aging athletes who know, deep down know, that they cannot recreate the triumphs of their youth.

This is the evil part, but what about insidious? All of my immediate family had large arguments about what was happening to my mother. I saw signs before my sibs and father. One of them actually said: "you really hate Ma, don't you? You want her to be demented." My mother and I never got along. She was a marvelous mentor, and I loved her, as a daughter loves a good mother. But, we fought bitterly through my adolescence. We struggled to define a good relationship in my adulthood. But irrespective of that relationship, I was not anxious to see her ill or see her demented. We fought, but I did not, do not, wish dementia on anyone. I didn't know why this scared me so much at the time, but the caretaking I've done over the last 15 years gives me exquisite hindsight.

My mother has died. What was it, what, 3 weeks ago, already? More? It still feels like yesterday to me. I know it was time for her. But, for me, why did it have to be so soon?

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Ode to Friends

Nov 18 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

This post was going to be about my mother. But I realized as I wrote it in my head that it was really about my girlfriends.

A few days ago, I was feeling sad about my mother, and I saw a picture, taken at some local fundraising event, of me with six of the most marvelous women in the world. They are marvelous because they are my friends.

When I see a picture like this, one of Urusala LeGuin's short stories pops into my head. It's a story set in her universe from Left Hand of Darkness, a powerful book unto itself. The story is framed as a series of snapshots, a this device that echoes one of the themes of the story, how our memory is often frozen like a picture.

The picture with my friends is still fresh, it was only last week. But in a month or two, I will remember the event, but not feelings exactly at that moment.  Maybe in a year or two, I will not remember even where we were at the time.

I look at the picture, and I know similar ones exist, ones with a different mix of people's faces in them. I know, because I've seen them. And while I don't know the faces in those pictures, on Facebook, on Twitter, in miscellaneous blog posts, I know the feeling.

These women love me and each other. And it doesn't matter how smart or thin you are. It doesn't matter if you work in a factory (as one does) or teach school (as another does) or have several squillion NIH dollars (or not). It doesn't matter if you are fat or fit. It is a friendship born out of shared time together, of helping when things are tough, and looking out for someone else.

I have not always had time for women like this in my life. And now, looking back, I know why I didn't have time. I am not even sure, as wonderful as having such women in my life is, I am not sure that I would be here, now, where I am if I had. Family and job often sucked everything out of me. But there were also times and places in my life when I thought these women didn't exist, or at least exist for me. And that was wrong.

When I moved to almost-MRU in the Middle-of-fracking-nowhere (as it seemed to me at the time, I know better now), I was emotionally devastated. I had probably hit 5 or 7 of the top 10 stressors in life (although not getting funded by NIH isn't on most standard lists, it is on ours). As I have at other times in my life, I plastered "I can make this work" smile on my face, and stood up and taught large classes of frequently indifferent students. I sat in front of a computer and lost myself in data. Or in grant proposals. But I was not happy in my Potenmkin Village of life.

And I found these women. They didn't just fall into my life, although that is possible. I found them, and made an effort towards friendship. Without meaning to, they saved my life. I know that I have, on occasion, saved theirs. These women are there for you. They are worth finding. They are worth the energy of reaching out to. They will save your life.



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The comfort of small work

Nov 14 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The world is full of challenges, for all of us: professional, political, personal. Sometimes challenges and sorrows cross those lines. An intersectionality of sorrow.

Today, I am grading. I am part of a large team-taught course. We give a practical exam that must be graded by hand, and then scored for the computer. The exam is given in thirds, so we start grading at about 9:30 when the first group is done. If we are good, if everyone shows up, we are done by 5pm, although there are times it has gone later. My contribution is Pandora-mix station that appeals, after a fasion, to everyone from blue-hairs to head-banging millenials.

Today I am grateful for grading. It takes my attention. It will last all day. It must be done, and at the end of the day it will be done.

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Thoughts on Voting as a Spiritual Activity

Nov 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

First off, I am not a spiritual person. Never really have been. But, I have many spiritual friends who try and reach out to me and help me see what I am missing. I am not sure about that either. But, from one such friend (who is part of a interfaith get-out-the-vote group...)

A reflection from Dr. Mel Scult (biographer of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan) on the spiritual meaning of voting as well as other ways of participating in the democratic process in our country: Dr. Scult writes, “Democracy for Kaplan meant far more than majority rule, but rather a whole culture built on the encouragement of certain values and certain kinds of behavior which were basic to an ethical life. . . Democracy, therefore, was no mere political system; it was a way of life that, if successful, penetrated the inner core of one’s being, one’s entire consciousness.” One of the ways that Kaplan applied this idea was to compose a prayer book that addressed all of the holidays of the American civic calendar, including Election Day. For him it was critical that we understand walking into a voting booth as a sacred act.

This friend also sent along a prayer for voting. While this friend is one of our Jewish brothers and sisters, I believe it will work for our siblings of other faiths. Whether I believe in anything is aside from the point. What I do find is the alt-right's deathgrip on religiousity to be irritating at best, and ugly at worst. Thus, for all my brothers and sisters and siblings of indeterminate gender, I share this with you:

May it be Your will, at this season of our election, to guide us towards peace.

By voting, we commit to being full members of society, to accepting our individual responsibility for the good of the whole. May we place over ourselves officials in all our gates…who will judge the people with righteousness (Deut 16:18), and may we all merit to be counted among those who work faithfully for the public good.

Open our eyes to see the image of God in all candidates and elected officials, and may they see the image of God in all citizens of the earth.

Grant us the courage to fulfill the mitzvah of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and place in our hearts the wisdom to understand those who do not share our views.

As we pray on the High Holidays, “May we become a united society, fulfilling the divine purpose with a whole heart.”

And as the Psalmist sang, “May there be shalom within your walls, peace in your strongholds. For the sake of my brothers and sisters and friends, I will speak peace to you.” (Ps. 122:7-8)

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Meet The Editors at SfN

Nov 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Meet the Editors at Society for Neuroscience
Attending the 2016 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego? If so, please stop by the American Physiological Society Booth (booth 3816) to meet the Editors.  Provide your feedback about the Journal and learn more about our initiatives.  Also, register for prizes and giveaways!

Sunday, November 13 10 AM - 3 PM Bill Yates
Monday, November 14 9 AM - 10 AM Jianhua Cang
Associate Editor
10 AM - Noon Stefan Everling
Associate Editor
Noon - 2 PM Christos Constantinidis
Associate Editor
2 PM - 4 PM Patsy Dickinson
Associate Editor
Tuesday, November 15 10 AM - Noon Dan Merfeld
Associate Editor
Journal of Neurophysiology, 110 Eye and Ear Institute, Pittsburgh, PA 15232
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Things that make one happy: Good reviews from study section

Nov 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

From the Resume and Summary of Discussion:

However, these issues did not diminish the high enthusiasm for the application, which actually increased after the discussion. Overall, reviewers agree this application is outstanding.

Be still my beating heart.

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(more) NIH instructions on writing grant reviews

Nov 02 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

From a previous post: I am ad-hoc'ing on a study section, again. I have received more, and new to me instructions on writing reviews. I repeat why I'm including this here:

One of the best lessons ever: the more you understand about how NIH works, the more likely you are to get funded.

I want to specifically address the problem (from questions in the Twittosphere): why did I get a "29" if there are no weaknesses mentioned in the review?

Compared to 20 years ago, when I stared reviewing, NIH (CSR) sends a tremendous amount of pre-review information and instructions. This is from the (longer) cover email to reviewers titled "General guidance for all sections of the critique".  Let's take a look at what NIH tells its reviewers about scoring (earlier thoughts here).

  • Scores of 1-3 should be supported by clearly articulated strengths.
  • Scores of 4-6 may have a balance of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Scores of 7-9 should be supported by clearly articulated weaknesses (or lack of strengths).

We were told, over and over that to start with a 5, and move up or down from there. We were told, over and over, to use the whole range. More detail, the emphasis mine:

Scores of 1-3 e.g. Applications are addressing a problem of high importance/interest in the field. May have some or no weaknesses.


Scores of 4-6  e.g. Applications may be addressing a problem of high importance in the field, but weaknesses in the criteria bring down the overall impact to medium.


e.g. Applications may be addressing a problem of moderate importance in the field, with some or no weaknesses


Scores of 7-9 e.g. Applications may be addressing a problem of moderate/high importance in the field, but weaknesses in the criteria bring down the overall impact to low.


e.g. Applications may be addressing a problem of low or no importance in the field, with some or no weaknesses.

Understand that a worse score is not just weaknesses in the proposal. It can be a lack of "importance". There may be nothing wrong with the importance of the proposal, it just doesn't rise to a level that gets above 3. Importance (significance and innovation) are critical. From an old post:

impact = function of {importance (significance, innovation), feasibility (approach, investigator, environment)}

Two parts of impact, the importance and the feasibility. These are not my thoughts. These are taken from various NIH web pages (of which there are many, many, many) talking about writing proposals.

So, how do you get to importance, significance and innovation? That is, if there are no weaknesses, what can one do to ensure that reviewers think the work is important? Firstly, figure out what the target IC wants to fund. But the rule before even that, is figure out what the target IC for the proposal is in the first place. Here is one thing and another I wrote a while back on IC's and finding one. Secondly, do your NIH RePORTER homework. Figure out what is currently being funded. This is often a problem for snowflakes. Or even people who are not snowflakes, but live in an echo chamber department, where What We Do is The MOST Important Thing in the World. Take a good hard look at why your problem is an important problem. Try explaining to your mother or your nutsy Uncle Fester. If they can't get it, likely the SS won't either.


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Chess Records

Nov 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Phil Chess has died.

Chess Records was one of the most prominent of the independent labels — Atlantic in New York and Sun in Memphis were among the others — that became successful in the 1950s by finding little-known performers, recording them and persuading radio stations (not infrequently with the help of cash payments) to play their records.

Here is an interview with Phil & Leonard (other brother). Many of my very first albums where Chess recordings.

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memory and mental time

Nov 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Mental time, memory time is far more flexible than real time. But since, or maybe because, memory time is the main way we see the past, it's what we've got. Some of these mistakes seem like they happened yesterday, and some have faded into the way way distant past.

Music, specific smells, particular colors are things that make the feelings more acute.


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