Thoughts Over Greenland

July 31st, 2008

This was written while I was on my flight back from Russia and heading over Greenland. Listening to Cut Copy. 6 more hours in the flight. I’d already watched 2 movies, and I only had 3 hours of battery time remaining on my beast of a laptop.


The beauty of the pristine environment below just makes me think of the unseen effect that we are having on the environment. I look at the glaciers flowing to the sea and the many icebergs floating upon it, and I just wonder how and if we will survive the changes ahead.

I know that many people are not convinced about the climate change situation facing us, but I think many more people are thinking about the possibilities than 30 years ago.

My grandfather, over 90 and well intentioned, didn’t believe the speculation about the population problem, and he doesn’t believe that climate change is an issue either. Well, in his lifetime, we have not observably exceeded the limits of this planet.

However, we are not able to feed millions of people in the less resource rich areas of the world. Is Africa succeeding? Is India succeeding yet? The rich are doing fine wherever they are, but the poor are doing ever poorer. Is that a failing of the planet? I don’t think so. It is a human failing. A political failing.

Cold, cold,
Deep blue hue.
The ice water resembles
A cocktail sipped poolside in
Miami heat.
Hot, hot,
Red, orange.
The earth dark brown
Like chocolate in a silver wrapper.
Shivering with enjoyment,
The snow ever moving
Ever slipping off the edge of the pool
In a white bikini showing
More skin than the prettiest girl.
Ice, ice,
Water, ocean.
Our earth.
Here at the northern pole
The atmosphere wraps it in clouds
And fog like the most demure maiden.
It sizzles and burns openly further south,
But here, here,
It is the ice queen.
The snow maiden
Vasilisa the Fair.
We watch,
As she gives herself to the sea.

That Which Divides

July 30th, 2008

This morning I am struck by an article in the New York Times about testing of athletes in the Olympics, and this time it’s not drug testing. It’ s testing for sex.

According to the article sex testing has been a part of the Olympics since the days of Soviet-era steroid doping. Steroids are a class of hormones, which function by affecting changes in the activity of target cells, and are responsible for modulating physiological processes ranging from sexual differentiation to kidney function to inflammation. The type of steroid with which most people are familiar in the sporting arena is the anabolic steroid, or ‘roid.

Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced compounds that mimic the “male” sex steroids, or androgens. They are commonly used to increase muscle mass, and have secondary effects often resulting in masculinization. Consequently, they have become popular among both male and female athletes in the quest to increase performance level in a variety of sports. In the 50’s-60’s, the Soviets used steroids institutionally as a part of the training regimes for state athletes. It became common to question the sex of the very masculine appearing female athletes, and testing was instated for verification.

Now, steroids are still used, but not in such an overt manner. Many female athletes appear quite masculine, but is it because they take drugs to get a competitive edge?

I’m forced to consider our classification of the human sexes as a binary system. Historically, we have averted our eyes to anything that does not fit the mold, but evidence suggests that human sexual characteristics reflect more of a continuum rather than a neat categorical division. According to the NYT article, the results of some sex tests have surprised even the athlete being tested. Can you imagine thinking that you are female, being raised as a female, only to have a test at an international sporting event tell you otherwise — that you have a Y chromosome?

From the article:

“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine.

There are men with no Y chromosomes or too many, women with Y chromosomes, men and women with the appropriate chromosomes who don’t feel like they are the right sex. A study came out recently that underlines the complexity of sexuality and our limited understanding of what makes a person’s sex, which loosely links a particular gene variant to transsexual behavior. It is becoming more and more obvious that chromosomal sex, while an important part, is not the only factor involved in sex determination. We also need to consider hormonal environment within the womb, genes apart from the X and Y chromosomes, and epi-genetic factors.

The situation is obviously not very cut-and-dried, and the testing seems an extreme invasion of privacy. Maybe, instead of testing athletes to see whether they fit neatly into a competitive category, our system should be changed to reflect the variety of forms that make us human.

The Russian Experience

July 28th, 2008

So, the following basically consists of my journal entries for the past month. I visited Russia, and loved it. The words that follow don’t come close to capturing everything about the experience. Unfortunately, I’m not a good enough or dedicated enough writer to get all of my thoughts down and recorded for posterity. But, it’s a start. I hope you enjoy my tales of Russia. There may be more to come. I do have hours of video that I still need to edit and upload.

Journey to Russia

I’ve wanted to travel to Russia for years. The opportunity simply has never been presented. That is, until now. Thanks to a chance email and a few conversations I am finally here. For the next three weeks, I’m teaching English to Russian science students just outside of a town called Tambov.

The program is run through a government affiliated organization called the Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), which was originally created by an act of Congress, but now gets its funding from private organizations. The goal of CRDF is assist other countries in their research needs, and in particular to help foreign scientists collaborate with their American counterparts.

Here, we (I and 8 other teachers – four scientists, four language specialists, and one director) are working with 64 students from Russian universities to improve their English language aptitude. I’ve developed my own syllabus around the idea of contemporary issues in science. Each class will focus on a different topic: “The Hobbit”/Homo floresiensis, Epigenetics, Robotics, Climate Change, and Cosmology. The flow of ideas centers around our perception of ourselves as humans and our place in the universe… pretty deep, right?

I think there is more than enough fodder for discussion within these few topics. I just hope that I can get the students talking. I’m by no means an ESL teacher, and I have relatively little training in teaching foreign students. Yet, I do have a passion for science and teaching. I hope that that will make up for what I lack in experience.
Past experience aside, this trip in itself is quite the experience so far, and promises to continue to be for the weeks to come.

I left San Francisco and the comforts of home early on a Thursday morning. The plane trip took just five hours to reach Atlanta, and thankfully I slept through most of it. I deplaned in the Atlanta airport, grabbed a bite to eat and a coffee, and headed to my connecting flight. At the gate I met a few of my fellow teachers. Everyone seemed a bit tired, but ready to get moving.

We got on our plane, and soon were on our way across the north Atlantic Ocean. The flight took about 11 hours to get to Moscow. I was entranced by the way we seemed to have the sun on a leash off the left wing of the plane. It followed us for hours, slowly inching toward the horizon. It finally hit the horizon with the most spectacular display of reds and oranges I have ever seen. It was also the longest sunset I have ever witnessed. I couldn’t take my eyes from it.

When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, the glow from the great furnace never really left the sky. Perpetual dawn/dusk was the view from my little window. I napped some, but spent many hours enjoying the rare view of such a polar experience.

Some hours later the sun decided to peek back up over the edge of the earth, and begin its climb back into the sky. We landed in full sunlight at 10:30am in the Moscow morning. From there, our little crew made it through baggage claim and customs with little trouble.

A van was waiting for us outside, which took us as swiftly as possible through the traffic jungle to central Moscow and our hotel. We met a few more team members at the hotel, rested and freshened up a bit, and then headed out into Moscow.

We drove past a few monument/memorial sights taking in everything in its Russian grandeur. Our destination for the afternoon, however, was the Red Square. St. Basil’s cathedral towered over us with its beautiful, colorful minarets. We walked through the Square and, finding an outdoor café on its perimeter, shared an hour over tasty beverages taking in the incredible location. I couldn’t help but have a glass of Prosecco. It just seemed decadent to sit on the edge of the Red Square people watching with a glass of bubbly in hand.

After the Square we headed to dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Since none of us were familiar with Georgian food our director, Stuart, ordered for us. We ended up with an amazing feast consisting of delicious dips and bread, fresh vegetables, eggplant wraps, and meat skewers that stuffed even the hungriest among us.

We left the restaurant with full bellies and emptier wallets to grab our bags from the hotel. After reloading the van with all of our bags, we headed to the train station with a stop along the way at some big giant cathedral, the name of which I can’t remember. It was big though. The story goes that there was once a giant cathedral in that same location, but it was destroyed. Then something else, I think it was a swimming pool, stood in its place for many years, until the government decided to rebuild the cathedral to its original grand design.

Now, it is a hulking figure with grand gold domes on its roof, and larger than life sized bronze figures lining its walls. We spent some time walking around this place until we couldn’t put off the train any longer.

The train station was busy as any station would be on a Friday evening. People coming into the city for a weekend of excitement, and going away from it to leave behind the constant activity of the place. We found our train (thank goodness for the Russian speaking individuals in our group. I would have floundered on my own.) with relatively little trouble. Two to a sleeping car, we distributed ourselves among the reserved bunks in our car on the train to Tambov.

Within the hour we were on our way. The Russian beers came out, and everyone seemed relaxed and happy to be traveling again. Moscow is quite a marvelous city. However, it is expensive, and not really a true representation of Russian culture. Everyone I spoke with about it agreed that getting out of Moscow was something they looked forward to.

Exhausted, we fell into our bunks around midnight. I slept fairly well considering the noise and movement of the train. I know that not many others fared as well. I woke up feeling fairly refreshed at 6am. Not able to sleep any more, I sat and read and looked out the window for the last hour or so of the ride.

We arrived in Tambov at 7:30am. Everyone in the group looked pretty haggard from the journey, but good spirits prevailed as we maneuvered our baggage off of the train and into the morning bustle of the station. Our Tambov contacts loaded us into cars and vans, and we hit the road for the camp.

The drive took us outside of Tambov into the countryside. Thirty or forty minutes later we rounded a corner that took us into the confines of a pine forest, and the facility came into view. It turns out that where we are staying is known as a sanitorium, or health camp. Good. I was just about due for a healthy retreat.

I lived in a little room at the end of a long hall on the third floor of the sanitorium. Three flights up a set of uneven stairs I turned left several times a day to head back to my space in Russia. It wasn’t much, but it was mine while we were there.

So, the rooms were dormitory style, but thank goodness I got one multiple occupancy room to myself. The students had to bunk four to a room. Some of the teachers were given nicer rooms with air conditioning, but I enjoyed my little suite. I think it was only at the end of the camp when the temperatures began to rise that I wished I had an AC unit. Aside from that, I was quite content with my balcony to the forest, my decrepit little shower (should I say orange water dispenser?), my twin bed, and the smell of sulfur and mildew.

In between classes I would come back to my room to work on class planning or to edit videos that I had taken, to read, or just to sleep sometimes. I got used to staring at the nice shade of greenish blue on the walls and ceiling. The sun coming in through the sheer floor length curtains added a certain amount of pleasant under the sea feeling to the place.

In the suite were two bedrooms; one on the left and one on the right. In the beginning, the staff had made up one bed in the bedroom on the right, but when I walked into the room I was immediately drawn to the room on the left. It was interesting to look at the two nearly identical rooms to try to discern what could possibly be the difference that made me prefer one to the other. In the end I decided that it all came down to the shade of green-blue on the walls and curtains.

In the end the room on the left was the winner. It could also be that Zoolander made me turn that way.

Oh, the cafeteria. The thing I loved most about this place was the feeling of community that it gave our camp. There really is something to be said about the sharing of food with people. It builds relationships where there were none to begin with.

I wonder how much we have lost as a society with so many living alone and eating alone. My many dinners in front of the television are a testament to the loss of communication in preference of artificial sociality. I can sit with my dearest friends and share nothing more than what we view. Each person absorbed in their own thoughts reactions to the box, ignoring the real people next to them because the person in the box is so much more entertaining.

My meals in Russia really made me stop to reconsider family, friends, and sharing of experiences.

That said, the meals themselves were very simple. Good for a carnivore, but not so good for someone who doesn’t eat meat or milk products. I waited with baited breath for eggs in the mornings, and was rewarded once or twice a week. The rest of the time it was bread, butter and cheese, and kasha (hot cereal from any number of grains).

Lunch consisted of soup and bread, and whatever starch and meat they decided to serve. Lunch was definitely the heartiest meal. But I often left it craving something more. Most likely because I was missing out on the protein front.

Dinner left me feeling like a child sent to bed without dinner most nights. I ate the bread, and I ate the potatoes, and I drank the tea.

I ate so many potatoes in Russia. Please, no more potatoes for a while. I’ll even cut down on the bread. I can’t believe that the carb addict has carbed out. I can’t wait to get home and eat red thai curry and brown rice, or a good spicy Mexican burrito, or a great Indian dinner. Yummmmm!!!

One of the best things about the sanitorium was the river. The camp was located on the banks of the river Sna. It was beautiful and peaceful; loaded with wildlife the sunsets took on a life of their own.

One of my favorite things to do was to visit the beach (they trucked in sand from somewhere the day after we arrived to make it a nice beachfront property) during the class periods I had off. All the other teachers and students were in class, but I was free. I would go to the river, lie in the sun, and swim with only my own thoughts to distract me. The quiet of the river made me smile with a simple contentment for the place I was experiencing and the life that brought me to it.

Other times at the river were more active with the students out of class or volleyball matches trying to beat the sudden Tambov heat wave of the last week of our stay. The students were all so young and lithe, bikinis and swim-trunks made me shy away from the exposure of the beach. As their teacher, I didn’t think hanging out in bikini beachwear was very appropriate.

Two days after our arrival classes began, and I was struck by the disparity between my expectations of the student proficiency level and the actuality of the situation. The students were broken up into 6 groups, A-F, with A being the highest level and F being the lowest in terms of proficiency.

I think I was lulled into a bit of a fairy tale by the people I spoke with prior to the program. They called the students scientists, but they were just students. Yes, science students, but still just students. I will reserve my consideration of the term scientist for people who are paid and practicing in the research field, or with credentials proving their experience or training.

I can’t remember if I was told the students would be working at a higher level or if I just expected them to be what with the moniker of scientist attached to their descriptions. Either way, after the first class I realized that my syllabus would have to change. The students would never be able to deal with all the work that I was expecting of them even though it would be nothing to a high level speaker/reader.

Group A was fantastic for the large part with highly functioning English speakers throughout the group. At our first meeting I realized that they would be able to converse on the most esoteric levels, which excited the scientist and theorist in me. Group F, however, was the lowest performing group as a whole. I was scared that I would not be able to perform my duties as an instructor the first time I met with them. It was like pulling teeth to get them to talk.

So, I dumped a few expected readings and added a couple of in-class activities. I think in all the changes were successful. The students responded well overall. They seemed to like my lessons, and they talked more and more as the weeks progressed. However, to do it again, I would be more prepared for the low proficiency levels with more in-class activities to get them talking and using more vocabulary words. I’m not sure if I would change my expectations for the higher level students. Maybe. There are likely to be many things I could do to get even the high level students working at an even higher level. Hmmm… for consideration in the next year maybe… 😉

The lack of internet access was both a blessing and a curse. I know that me at the distant end of a Skype connection is not what people want to listen to, but there wasn’t much else I could do. Also, the podcast was unreliably posted as a result of the computer difficulties, which I’m sure has annoyed more than a few listeners.

But, I have had a freedom from the shackles of TWIS that has been rare in the last 8 years. In Tambov am free from all the internet stuff that I’ve been working so hard on, and it has been wonderful. I have to say that I haven’t been so content in a very long time.

I wasn’t striving for anything. I wasn’t reaching for anything. I was just being and doing something I felt was worthwhile, and for the brief period that it lasted I was truly content.

The first week I did feel as though I had lost something, or that I was missing something, but once the feeling of missing faded away I was just me and my life and it was good.

I’ve been striving for some undefined thing for years. I don’t know anymore whether it’s because I want to strive or because I feel like other people expect it of me, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just something that I do. I have this thing that I want to do, but I don’t know the best way to do it, so I do everything and I work really hard at it all the time and feel really terrible that I’m not living up to this undefined goal of success. And, that’s no way to be. And, being away from the internet for the past few weeks has really made that apparent.

The internet is my soporific and my potential. Something needs to change in my relationship with technology because it is sour.

Movies and Games
The students loved all my American movies. I hosted a couple of movie nights in a large room on the second floor of the sanitorium. One of the students had the responsibility of the LCD projector, and we put together a fairly good approximation of a private movie theater with surround sound and big screen. I had a good time watching the films with the students. I wonder though how much of the movies the students understood. I’m fairly sure that they barely understood Snatch. I have a hard time with that film. They all seemed appreciative for the movies, and wanted to copy them from my hard drive. I am now an international movie pirate.

The students were from all over Russia. I had a difficult time imaging what they would be like before meeting them, but the experience taught me that Russians are as varied as Americans in their tastes, experiences, and beliefs.

Interestingly, the majority of the Russian students weren’t “Christian”. Many of them don’t even believe in God, which makes the number of Americans on Christian missions that I met in the airports and planes in my travels there and back make a bit more sense.

The students were all younger than I expected them to be. It took some adjusting to, but in the end was great. It felt good to interact with young Russia, and to know that I was helping to teach them about both science and America. Maybe my work will help our two countries get along better in the future. I know, a little pretentious thinking, but who knows.

The students were very serious about the program, which made the whole thing better for me in the end. I think that I would have been much less content if the students hadn’t been serious.

The teachers were a great bunch of people: Serious Stuart who led us all with a professionalism I didn’t know was possible; Steven who brought us all together and really was our glue; Michelle the linguist; Wes the Republican; Don the Quaker; Joanna the poet; Eric the sporty lawyer; Mike the color scientist who never failed to surprise; and me, the internet and science news junkie.

We all got along, which was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t spend time with everyone equally, but I did have some good times with everyone. Beers with with Wes, Mike, and Don; coffee with Stuart and Steven; walks and champagne with Michelle; beach with Joanna and Eric.

And then there was volleyball. I haven’t played v-ball in years. And here in the forest of Tambov I was on a team because they needed two girls on the team, and Michelle didn’t want to play. It turned out to be fun even though every fiber of my brain and body wanted to run away from the team involvement.

I didn’t want to be so attached to something here in this place in the middle of Russia, but I was. It was fun, too, so what was my problem? We played well, not great, but well. I made some good plays. We made it to the finals in our camp tournament beating every other team at least once.

That felt good, but I couldn’t help but be on the side of the students. We gave the students homework, and then we beat them at sport in their freetime. What a downer. I was secretly happy when one of the student teams finally beat us in the final set. And, it was group F’s team. How great that the lowest of the English speaking groups could totally own us on the sandy volleyball court?!? It made the students so happy to win.

I couldn’t relate to the competitive streak in the other teachers who actually wanted to win against the students. What would that have accomplished?

Day in Tambov
Two weeks into the routine of our English camp we had a break for a day, and got to go into Tambov for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the Tambov State Technical University found out that we were coming to town, and scheduled the teachers for a tour of various departments at the University.

Blah, blah, blah… I can appreciate all the work they are doing to make their university more of a world-class institution (They were the first to bring internet to that local area in Russia), but it felt like one of those time-share seminars you have to sit through to get a free dinner or trip to Hawaii. But, instead, we just got to be in Tambov, and had to miss most of the free day for the seminar.

I think I would have rather gone with the students to see Hancock in a bad Russian dub instead. But, no luck, it was a morning of the Russian insititutional system.

In the afternoon we got a taste of Russian pizza. Kind of like focaccia bread with stuff on it, but it was good. Then we wandered around the streets of Tambov, viewing the sights, and buying tchotchkies for friends and family at home.

At one point we wandered into the park and came across the first gypsies of our time in Russia. They are so beautiful and pitiful, and I wanted to give them everything I had. The childrens’ eyes pleaded with us as we walked past, but I had nothing to give. Nothing that they wanted anyway, so on I walked feeling the pain of their needing and my own remorse that people have to need at all.

Last day in Moscow
The last day in Tambov was definitely bittersweet. So many students were so sad at the fact that the program was coming to an end. Many of the girls were driven to tears when people started the process of filing onto the buses that would take us to the train.

The awards ceremony on the last day was the sweetest moment of the three week program. I never really understood before those last moments how much the camp meant to some of the kids. It really was the only experience of that kind that they had ever had. Most of the students had never left their home villages or towns and were studying at a local university. The idea of “going away” to college had no meaning for them. This camp was the furthest they had ever been away, and maybe ever would be.

I can only hope that the itch to experience more from life has been planted, and that I might see them again someday as fully realized scientists on the international scene.

The train took us overnight to Moscow. I had originally planned to spend time with some of the students in Moscow, but the situation didn’t work out as planned and we all ended up going our separate ways in the early morning hour of our train’s arrival into Moscow.

The stark morning lighting matched the mood of the separation. But, it was good to sever the cord and let the students go. I will see who stays in touch and who does not.

I spent the day wandering through Moscow with Michelle. We both had flights out the next day, so it seemed natural to share these last moments in Russia together. We visited the Darwin Museum, and I got to look at beautifully preserved bird specimens. It seems like such an arcane way to study animals; kill them and stuff them and put them in a glass case. Anyway, I did enjoy the museum. Then we ate at a Russian cafe, and bought vodka to bring home as gifts. I fell asleep for a couple of hours back at the hotel, and then Michelle and I shared a glass of champagne in the late evening. Michelle and I wandered around a bit more, and finally turned in for the night. I couldn’t sleep, so I went back out for more walking. The streets were dark and deserted at 11pm on Sunday night. It was a little unnerving to be out alone in this strange city, so I headed back to the hotel and to bed.

I woke up early so that I could try my walk again. This time it was much better. People were just heading to work. Some people were out for their morning runs. Just like any other city. But, not like any other city. The morning light is different this far north. The signs on the buildings, the advertising banners, the street signs; all of these things are different. The sounds in this city are different. Car horns, cell phones, the voices sound different.

I soaked up the similarities one last time, and then went to the hotel to catch my cab to the airport.

And Home
I guess the question is whether knowing what I know now about the program would I return next year? I don’t know. It was good for me as a person and as a teacher, but not so much for me as the video/radio personality.

So, on the plane I’m struck by the distance between the USA and Russia. Culturally there are some but not many points of discrepancy. Mainly, I’m struck by the language barrier. That one thing plus history remains a major factor in the future of relations between these two amazing countries. The dollar is low these days, so it’s pretty much the same experience in Moscow as in San Francisco if you’re out for a night out. If you want to be a high roller, it’s the same anywhere.

Checking the price of gas on the way out of Moscow, it was 25.00 rubles per liter. That’s about the same as a 4-5 dollars for a gallon of gas. We have officially caught up to (slowed down so others could reach us?) the rest of the world.

People want the USA to stay ahead of the rest of the world with an amazing exchange rate and luxury exports, but the reality of our planet is finally catching up to us. We need to pay for what we use. And, we use a lot, so lets ante up.

The moral of the story is that people are people, wherever you go. Nobody wants to give up what they have, but if we don’t do something who will have anything in the future?

24 hours of travel and I’m home, jiggety-jig.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

July 24th, 2008

Hahahaha! I love the picture accompanying Michael Shermer‘s latest article in Scientific American. OMG, I think my face says everything you need to know about how I feel about the wheatgrass juice I just swallowed. According to the very nice gentleman who gave us the wheatgrass: the worse it tastes, the more toxic you are. I decided there and then that I must be the government’s next superfund site.