Now what?

It’s fall, so that means I’m firmly ensconced in classwork again, this time in two theory courses. Theory is an interesting thing; it’s such a wide-open world, and it’s exciting to plummet into the depths of it, but it doesn’t always translate well to practice. The goal of the program I’m in is to help translate theory into practice – something that’s sometimes easier said than done. That got me to musing a bit about my academic career…

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Data philosophizing

As I will tell anyone willing to listen to me wax poetic about how a person with two degrees in literature ends up becoming a data analyst, data (as a concept) is a narrative. The data you gather are all threads that, when woven together, tell a story.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently cleaning data, which is always a tedious task. Analysts are nothing if not tenacious in this regard, but even we get a bit weary of making sure every little detail is as valid as possible. It’s also a lonely task. Even though I often listen to music when doing things like this, my mind still manages to wander.

I started thinking about data purity. There’s this idea that quantitative data is the purest form of narrative; “the numbers don’t lie,” after all.

I had a conversation recently with someone about this concept, and how so many people, some quantitative analysts included, don’t recognize (sometimes willfully) how easy it is to introduce bias into numbers. Anytime you have humans involved in a process, you have bias. Bias can be introduced through study parameters, during analysis, or in the conclusions drawn and recommendations given. Many people bend data to fit a narrative that’s been pre-ordained.

What I like about qualitative analysis, which is my specialty, is that it doesn’t hide or deny bias. It encourages the researcher to think about and state their biases very clearly. Some methodologies actually use the researcher’s bias as part of the study. It’s impossible to completely put aside your own perspective, so why not channel it?

I’m starting to tackle with a lot of philosophical questions about qualitative analysis, and bias, and constructing studies that are useful operationally but true to what qualitative analysis is at its core. It’s an interesting place to be floating for a while, and gives me a lot to think about as clean, and check, and clean, and recheck the quantitative data I’m slowly polishing into something meaningful.

At the heart of it all, that’s really what all data analysis is about, be it quantitative or qualitative – finding meaning.

And meaning, and what meaning is, can launch a hundred different discussions and poetic manifestations…

It’s important to stop and look at the owls

I was a bit late to work this morning because I stopped at the end of the street to watch a large owl that landed on a neighbor’s roof, and proceeded to look around excitedly for a while. I leave so early in the morning that there were no other cars around, and I could safely idle in the middle of the street for a bit.

Yesterday while taking a break and walking over to a local coffee shop, a coworker and I stopped to watch a squirrel fight with a crow. The squirrel won, though the crow was twice his size. The spat was over a piece of food that it appeared that the squirrel had found and the crow was attempting to steal, so a fair win for the squirrel.

We have some really fragrant flowers blooming on campus just now, and I intentionally take certain paths when walking to meetings so that I can enjoy them.

It occurs to me that while this won’t solve all the horrible things going on in the world, it certainly helps recenter things in my world. Our president has a way of inspiring existential dread, and my Lupus caused me to have to drop a class because I couldn’t handle it. I’m pissed off about living in a country that will elect a hateful narcissistic madman then applaud when he drops bombs that he shouldn’t be dropping. I’m pissed off that I have limits to what I can handle because of my damn immune system.

That’s why it’s so important to stop and look at the owls. Even if all it does is remind you that Not Everything Is Horrible…well, that’s a pretty big Something, I think.

Playlists are the new tea leaves

On Friday on my way home from work, I was thinking about the removal of toxic people from my life. I know some people don’t like describing other people as toxic. In this case, I don’t mean that the people themselves are toxic, but that they’re toxic to me, or we’re toxic to each other. (But should anyone think that a person can’t possibly be toxic, just look at the U.S. government.)

The one lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t completely rid yourself of anyone who has been impactful in your life in any way. Sometimes this is a wonderful thought, because all those people who influenced you for the better are, in some ways, still with you. But sometimes this is a rather distressing thought, because you realize that the bad shit has influenced you, too, and you can’t fully rid yourself of those influences. Our experiences and our brain wiring make us who we are, and we can’t control or undo either.

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Scented evocations

This morning I committed the cardinal lupie sin of sitting for two hours without moving much. So, as my Access database was being a little asshole and decided to freeze up rather than export my data, I decided to stumble downstairs to the bathroom, which is inside the university administrators’ suite. One of them occasionally uses a lot of hairspray – sometimes when you go into the restroom, which is pretty small, it just reeks of that chemical smell.

I guess today she decided to do her hair in her office, because the whole hallway reeked of it. I can’t move too quickly when my joints are pissed off, so I was trudging my way down the hall, and suddenly, it was 1992. I guess the administrator in question switched hairspray brands to whatever the other girls in my junior high school were using in the early 90s. I don’t know what the early 90s were like elsewhere, but in rural Ohio, big crunchy bangs were still very much in vogue. I did not have bangs, or use hairspray. But I remember going into the girls’ rooms in the big ugly building that housed 7th and 8th graders and smelling that particular hairspray. It just lingered. So now, in my brain, that’s what the early 90s smell like.

The mid-90s smell like incense and burning candles. Had one of my first “oh shit I like girls” moments over a few lit candles somewhere circa 1996. Not that that’s a bad thing, but at the time, I had to keep my burgeoning bisexuality hidden from my mother. She was hyper-vigilant for anything “abnormal,” so even my candle usage became suspect. Apparently I was doing some sort of pagan rituals in my room. Like most teenage girls in the mid-90s, I read about Wicca and really really loved The Craft for about 5 minutes. Buuuut as far as making sacrifices to Satan or summoning the pagan gods or communing with Sauron, I was completely innocent.

I will say there’s a certain candle scent that brings back vivid memories of a certain night spend listening to Enigma’s Le Roi et Mort, Vive Le Roi in a friend’s bedroom. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, running our fingers through the candle flame. I even remember what we talked about.

I came here to say something about how scent triggers the most vivid memories for me. Are others like that?* Seeing something or hearing something can bring back dream-like memories, or pieces of things, or evoke general feelings. But one whiff of that particular hairspray this morning, and I recalled with perfectly clarity what the girls’ room on the second floor of the building that I went to junior high in looked like. I recalled with perfect clarity the face of the girl who had the biggest, crunchiest bangs that all the other girls aspired to be like. I even remembered her name, and not only were we never friends, but I haven’t seen or thought about her since 1994.

Upon emerging from junior high with the raging hormones typical of fourteen year olds, I was forced to go to the Catholic high school, which always smelled like floor wax and preached a lot about suppressing things. I opted against suppression. I had a vivid flashback to the hallways of my high school in the fall when they waxed the floors before orientation weekend. I remembered the institutional green walls – they were that mint green that was so popular in the mid-20th century, that always evoked the feeling of a psych ward to me. Or maybe that’s just because that’s how high school felt – like I was locked up with a bunch of weirdos and psychos, run by a bunch of quacks who wanted to instill in me a sense of shame for who I was becoming.

Luckily it didn’t work on me, but a lot of people I went to high school with still roam those mint green hallways…literally (several now teach there) and metaphorically (many are still very, very Catholic and hyper-vigilant for anything “abnormal”). And I think those sorts of metaphorical hallways have contributed to the state of the States these days.

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*Because I’m a nerd, I looked it up and yep…there’s a 2004 study that indicates that scent does evoke more intense memories than other senses. Click here to read it, if you don’t mind wading through a very academic article. (If you want the Cliff’s Notes version, go to page 377, second column, the paragraph that begins, “Our results provide strong support…” That will give you a neat summary of the study.)

Blankets

The temperature fell into the negatives here in Colorado this weekend. Looking out your window at a world covered over in white is always a peaceful feeling, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere. This weekend, I was lucky to have no plans or obligation. I’ve spent the past two days avoiding leaving the comfort of my house, and the past two nights burrowed under the pile of blankets on my bed.

Being warm in a comfortable bed is a lovely thing, a thing of privilege, and anyone who has such a privilege should be immensely thankful for it. But as thankful as I am to have these basic comforts, for me, it also invokes some not so comfortable memories.

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