Sunday April 4th

Academia as Collaterized Debt Obligations

I am up again (Insomnia)

  • I have had a lot of anxiety about having to go back to school, and being on campus again. I don’t like large crowds, and I stick out like a sore thumb here. It also means I have to restock on wipes, because crowds and large numbers of people mean germs, and the possibility of getting sick, which means a loss of productivity. And often, my schedule is packed, so I am committed to staying as healthy as possible in terms of not getting sick. Additionally, often, I feel invisible, and in one such class, I’ve felt so invisible that I don’t even bother to contribute anymore, instead opting to keep my camera on during “Zoom University”, and reading papers instead, or, in one instance, taking an entirely other class in this one professor’s class, while they are listening to the sound of themselves talk. Doing a PhD is all about prioritizing one’s time anyways, right? And mine is limited, particularly if I have concluded that my input isn’t appreciated or useful. I’ve started to feel very productive in that class, but not for reasons that are obvious to my professor. I don’t have to take part in this delusional charade, and not engaging with the students in your class is essentially pedagogical masturbation.

Bullying, Trolling and Leaving

  • A friend of mine laughed when I told them what I had been doing; they had long grown used to seeing through the curtain, and my group has never been filled with people who accept things as they are, anyways.
  • I began to think about bullying, and why people bully others. Someone on Quora described it as someone leaving a bag of leaves on one’s lawn, and expecting you not to do anything about it. You can either do two things; you can stand up and say “move your mess!”, and they can back down, or you can say nothing, and they continue to get away with it, and continue to put bags of leaves on your lawn, while you continue to receive additional criticism by others about having the bully put leaves on your lawn, in your space, as a blatant sign of disrespect. I’ve thought about this in relation to open source, too.
  • I mention this because I’ve never thought about it until yesterday, but I can remember few times in an Academic situation where someone has not at least tried to bully me. In high school, there was one person, and in schools I often hopped around, it was the same. I would mouth-off because I would always stand up for myself, but it was always something that someone would try to do, to push the limit. Would she sit there and take it? Can I have a safe, new target to make me forget my own insecurities, my own fears? Often, it would involve someone’s projection of some sort of pedigree they were resentful that I had, which I haven’t wrapped my head around. I have no control over this, because my parents raised us this way (to be intellectuals, regardless of whatever we would choose personally to pursue). I remember a friend of a relative once telling me that someone in my family “needed to get over that”, and be brought down. I didn’t say anything, but I often wonderered why it was important to them. It has little bearing over their own life, so why bother; after all, we suffer the consequences of our own actions. I didn’t realize until later on how much it might be problematic for others, but I was raised a very particular way that seemed unsettling to them. I recently found a quote by someone I had kept, where they accused me, in front of the entire class, of making copies of a summary of my project for the class for my group’s presentation. It angered them, and they said that “it must have cost a lot”, when in fact, I had obtained the copies for free, because the owner of the store liked my positive disposition. In my typical fashion, I mouthed off at them that I had, in fact, obtained the copies for free, and that perhaps they could, too, if they tried being a nice person instead. To complicate things further, someone who looks like myself in the United States has, for some groups, a narrative they are expected to play out within, so there is also a conflict of expectations by one group of persons, and resentment by others. In short, it’s exhausting to navigate. Sometimes, I just want to go home. With all of this naivete about who I am and people’s projections based on their expectations, how does one navigate that in Academia? How does one deal with students who you might be asked to mentor or advise, who blatantly disrespect you, or perhaps think that you should be knocked down a few pegs? Academia tells you that after your PhD you have earned this respect, this stature, but this isn’t necessarily true in all circles. If you hang out in certain departments, or hear certain faculty talk about how other members talk over them, disrespect them, etc, it’s very apparent. Your degree doesn’t put you even within the same level as some of your peers, although theoretically it should. But it doesn’t even work because the structure of schools and tiers themselves have structural hierarchies, and so do departments (ie this department > other department). So what is this meritocracy about, and how is it defined? Is every field’s work really valued similarly in terms of an admittance of being held to the highest standards of “academic rigor”? And if we agree that they are not, how might this impact how one’s work is regarded, regardless of the quality of output, the actual merit of the work? I don’t think this is really discussed a lot, but I’d be interested to hear from others who have navigated these conflicts of identity.
  • I once asked a professor “If it’s about meritocracy and academic rigour (British spelling now) is all that matters, then why are we all rushing to get into prestigious post-docs, or appointments at well-known institutions? Shouldn’t the quality of work be enough if it is, in fact, a meritocracy?”. The person’s response was to chuckle and say that they enjoyed chatting with me, and that speaking with me felt like speaking with a peer (this person is long tenured). But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only smart-ass who has asked this question before.
  • But anyways, back to identity; How do you make a space for and balance who you are while others seem to, in ways that are tone-deaf, project onto you who they think you should be?

Synthetic CDOs

  • I was thinking today that the currency of Academia, and of the treatment that some endure, or enforce upon others, is very much like Synthetic CDOs. It’s a promise of a payout that is many times derived, that may or may not be redeemable, because it really isn’t based on anything real. It’s a promise of a promise of a promise. We train under advisors, with the expectation, the promise, that it holds some value that will be paid off at a later time, that is accued over time, based on something that isn’t real. The person who advised me promises that I am now worth enough that I can promise that if you train with me, you will have value, and you can also continue to train others, who by your value will result in perpetuating that legacy of having some compounded value. But who is shorting these positions? Somehow, for many of us, we’ve convinced ourselves that no one is, so we stick it through, we treat others the way we do, because surely we won’t be the ones holding the bag. It’s funny. No one ever believes they will be the one holding the bag; no one believes they will be the sucker. Surely, all of us will be stars. After all, we’ve made it this far, right? Humans can often believe incredible amounts of crap, and deceive themselves, if there is an imagined payoff.


  • I’ve been reading a bit lately on particular type of Cryptographic Scheme, and I dug into Signal’s protocol. What was surprising to me was the motivation for something better, that wasn’t solely based on money or prestige, or clout. Sometimes I wonder what it would mean or take for a person to work on something that is solely for a good, rather than for one’s ego. And what is the line between those two things. In my world, often the line is blurred. You learn to self-posture and a sense of self-importance is proportional to one’s ability to be taken seriously. To be heard. But what if we imagined other ways; something new, where people used different metrics? What if the power dynamics were different? Would the same persons be incentivized? Would it be easier for persons who weren’t necessarily as known to collaborate with those who were? And would an unknown’s ideas have value, in the same way we ascribe many times more value, an expectation of compounded value, on someone who is known? I guess once again, I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve just been thinking about these power dynamics, about ego and selfishness, power and arbitrage.

And that’s it

Written on April 4, 2021