Of History and Petty Tribalism

As you know, I’m a bit of a recovering nationalist. There was a time (when I was approximately 14 years old or so) when I believed that Canada could do no wrong, neither in the present, nor in history. Oh, there were a few slip-ups, I might acknowledge: the Residential Schools chief among them, but be we were very sorry for that, and in any case, it was mostly the churches’ fault. This is actually a pretty productive (I’m not going to say “good”) attitude to have when you are a high school student, from an academic perspective. It is, of course, the attitude that whoever drafted the curriculum wants you to have*. But it has the effect of warping your understanding of the world. It is difficult to break-out of the trap, but it can be done, and I will explain how:

If you want to learn the lessons of history, there is one very critical fact that you must first accept: Your ancestors, countrymen, or predecessors were not on the morally correct side of every issue.

Once you accept this–once you acknowledge that your great grandfather might have been a racist asshole, or that some of your nation’s wars might have been criminal enterprises, or even that your ideological or religious fellow travellers may have committed some very dubious acts in the name of their stated ideals–your view of the world will become vastly simpler and far more accurate. You will able to examine context which you had previously ignored for being inconvenient, and you will able to dispose of all of those ridiculous ideological scaffolds that you have built-up in your imagination to justify or explain-away those things which do not fit neatly into your worldview.

It goes without saying that you will have a better picture of the past; but history is continuous, so it will also give you a more accurate view of the present, and very likely of the future as well, at least in a general sense. Somewhat less obviously: you will also become a better person.

Let me justify this last claim. If you do not have a well-defined concept of yourself as an individual, then you will most likely strongly associate yourself with one or more group identities, if only as a means of understanding who you are. Nation and religion are always popular for this purpose, but any old identity will do**. You will naturally tend to claim the virtues and accomplishments of this group as your own, whilst minimizing or denying their vices***. This, of course, is what motivates a distorted view of history. But breaking yourself of the idea that your forebears were tautologically on the side of the angels can be a first step in breaking yourself of the idea that present members of your group are tautologically on the side of the angels. And then you will have no choice but to seek out your own virtues.


*If you believe that your country doesn’t teach even a little bit of propaganda in its history classrooms, then I am very sorry but you have probably inhaled a lethal dose of it.

**There are a large number of people, in fact, who associate themselves with that most paradoxical of group identities: “Individualist.”

***A good example of this phenomenon in action, at the time of writing, is the white Americans rallying around Darren Wilson, the cop who killed an unarmed black teenager in Missouri. They support him because acknowledging the racism of the act hurts their group identity.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Medical Incompetence

I’m tempted to call this “medical abuse,” but honestly, I would prefer to think that it was simply a mistake made on my Doctor’s part, and so I shall refrain from going so far. The fact of the matter is that, for the last several months, I have not had an adequate supply of hormones for transition. When I left the city in which I did my Master’s Program, my GP gave me a year’s worth of refills for HRT prescriptions. These expired in June, and GPs are notoriously hard to come by in my home city. There is a clinic here which specializes in transgender-related healthcare, but the doctor there works only one day a week, and so it is booked solid for about six months in advance. Therefore, when my prescriptions were on the verge on expiring, I went to a normal walk-in clinic to have them refilled.

The doctor seemed sympathetic enough, at the time. He admitted that he had never, to his knowledge, treated a transgender patient before, but seemed perfectly willing to write me a new prescription. It was only when I took it to the pharmacy several weeks later that I realized that there was an issue. Apparently, the prescription had, in some way, not been filled out properly. The pharmacist was required to call the walk-in clinic to get verification. I can only assume that there was some miscommunication there, because when I was given my prescription, I discovered that, without any consultation whatsoever, my dosages had been changed–presumably by a man who, by his own admission, had no experience treating transgender patients. In particular, my dosage of anti-androgens had been cut by two thirds; my estrogen dosage had been cut in half; and my progesterone dosage (which had been kept low on account of how progesterone can induce depression) has been raised by a quarter.

I have not been able to get my prescriptions changed back to their original state without a note from either my GP or my endocrinologist, which somewhat inconvenient, as you might imagine, as they are both on the other side of the continent. Over the summer, I have watched in disgust as the dosages have taken their physiological toll.

But thankfully, I will not have to wait much longer; the first thing that I do when I return to University will be to schedule an appointment with my endocrinologist.


Posted in Personal Stuff | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Surplus Value of (my) Labour

So apparently, the agency that I work for pays me less than a third of what they charge for my editing services, and that’s just for the economy package.

Time to ask for a raise, I think.

Posted in editing, Employment | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lessons Learned in Montréal

Yesterday, I returned from my month-long sojourn in Montreal; while it was certainly a wonderful thing to regain some measure of independence (no matter how temporarily), I am certainly happy to see the end of 24-hour work days*. I learned a great many things about myself and the world in Montreal, and,  in no particular order, I shall relate some of them to you now.

  1. It’s impossible to be a freak in Montreal. This was one thing that I learned rapidly. Montreal is by far the largest city in which I have ever spent an appreciable amount of time, and it is also the only city in which I have lived where nobody gave me any funny looks for being a two hundred pound trans woman. There are too many different kinds of people living in too close proximity to one another for any one type of person to stand out as appreciably weirder than the rest, and this is glorious.
  2. I know French. Really, I do. I have all of the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax locked up in my brain somewhere; what I don’t have is the experiential alchemy necessary to transform my knowledge of the technical details into actual fluency. But I am confident that, given another month or two, I could learn it. When I first arrived, none of the conversations I overheard made any sense. But after the first two weeks or so, I started to be able to get the gist of many of them.
  3. Social interaction is not like riding a bicycle. I have never been particularly skillful at social interaction, but after a few years on my Master’s degree, I learned to navigate my way through most encounters with other Human Beings. But then I returned from Strasbourg, with nothing to do, and my social life went into the deep freeze. I’m afraid that it is somewhat worse for the wear, and I have returned, unfortunately, to my usual frigid self.
  4. I don’t actually like heavy drinking, loud clubs, or staying up until 4 AM in association with either of these things. Part of the problem that I encountered in point 3 was that all of the modes of social interaction allowed by the program involved one or both of these things, and, at the risk of wasting my twenties, I would rather not spend my time in this manner. Couldn’t we order pizza and watch movies, or perhaps play board games?
  5. Neither religion, nor the lack of it, can do anything for your personality if you are, at heart, a douchebag. As you may have guessed, the greatest part of my work in Montreal centred around editing a report on the subject of extra-solar planets. One part of the report, given the interdisciplinary nature of the program, was an attempt to trace the idea of other worlds existing elsewhere in the Universe throughout history and culture. This was primarily done through the prism of religion. But 20-something STEM graduates don’t tend to be the most theistic of people, and there is a vocal sub-class of atheists who are incapable of getting through a discussion of religion in any context without launching into a tirade about “how it has been the major force holding Humanity back throughout history” and how, implicitly, they are intellectually superior to believers. This is how you get things like an utterly-irrelevant two page discussion of a study that shows how average national IQ is inversely proportional to average religiosity** in a section that is supposed to be about Democritus.  But before you start ragging on the atheists here, I should add that, not three hours after I had excised that particular discussion, I overheard two Catholics in a greasy spoon diner claiming that God had retroactively given Stephen Hawking Lou Gehrig’s  disease in preemptive punishment for his statements of disbelief. Sometimes I just hate people so much.
  6. Toxic Masculinity is almost always a mask for a lack of basic competence. One “charming” new experience that I got to endure for the first time was sexual harassment in the workplace. I didn’t even notice it at first (because I prefer to assume everyone’s good faith, and because I tend to be pretty oblivious to matters of passive aggression), but it soon became clear that every single time I went into the computer lab, this one gentleman would manage to bring a male/female gender-bender (the electronic device) up in conversation. This same fellow later started making “make me a sandwich” jokes to all of the women working on the project. Needless to say, his jokes were not a tenth as funny as his hilariously bad writing. 
  7. I’m secretly a very good manager. Those 24 hour work days to which I alluded earlier never happened to me last year, when I was actually on a project. This was because I planned everything out six weeks beforehand and got my team organized and working early so that none of us would ever have to pull an all-nighter. This year, however, I was working to the team editors’ schedule, and (if I do say so myself) it was not as well-planned as mine had been.
  8. Everyone who has ever attended the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal is my mortal enemy. A number of attendees of this annual event in the cultural life of Montreal spent the final week of the program in the student residence where I stayed. To them, I can only ask: WHAT COULD EVER MAKE YOU THINK THAT PLAYING MUSIC AT FULL BLAST AT FOUR THIRTY IN THE FUCKING MORNING IN THE COURTYARD OF A STUDENT RESIDENCE IS AN OK THING TO DO? Right outside of my window, no less! You people should have your skeletons boiled down for glue!
  9. Taking courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences improves your report-writing skills. I remember that one introductory political science course that I took back in 2005; when assigning our first essay, the professor, in his wisdom, counselled us against writing a clichéd introductory paragraph, such as one which (to use his memorable parlance) “hearkened back to the mists of time***.” Ever since then, I have tried to avoid such paragraphs. But apparently the people writing this report had never had this professor or anyone like him, and so a report on gravitational wobbles began with several paragraphs on the subject of cave paintings.
  10. I need to get my life back. After a year on ice, I was allowed to feel–fleetingly–like a person again. I need to have that permanently. I’ve been waiting around too long already, and one way or the other, I need to take some risks.


*On average I worked 8 hours a day, but the workload was poorly distributed. There were many days when I had nothing to do at all, and many others, mostly towards the end, where there was virtually no time to sleep at all, and I was therefore forced to fuel myself with cans of Monster energy beverage until I was tremulous with exhaustion.

**Needless to say, this study put northern Europe and Canada at the top and the various African nations down somewhere near the bottom, and didn’t bother to consider how things like average national income or the last three hundred years of colonialism might work as hidden variables. Stephen Jay Gould spins in his grave.

***Apparently this professor had read one too many essays which began with something like: “Ever since that lost age of remotest antiquity when the first proto-hominid crawled out of the primordial ooze, looked to the heavens, and declared ‘I am man!,’ people have pondered one fundamental question: Is a triple-E senate a good fit for Canada?”

Posted in Academics, editing, Employment, Personal Stuff | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Of Exoplanets

My generation will be the last in Human history to grow up with only nine planets in the known Universe*. This fact amazes me when I think about it.

The planets of the Solar System were one of the first things that I remember learning about as a child. The Voyager planetary missions were still ongoing when I was born, and scientists were learning in detail about the outer planets for the first time, so there were no shortage of beautiful, full-colour photographs to fill-out the pages of children’s books. There was Mercury, crater-pocked and baked by the sun; Venus, where it rained acid and where diamond-shielded probes lasted only hours; Earth, where of course, all of the interesting chemical processes were taking place but which I wished to leave; Mars, where the soil was red with dust; Jupiter, where a storm larger than the Earth had been raging for at least three hundred and fifty years with no sign of abating; Saturn, with it’s magnificent rings, and a density that would let it float in bathwater; Uranus**, which had been turned sideways by an ancient catastrophe; Neptune…kind of nondescript as gas giants go, but nevertheless, a rich and royal shade of blue; and Pluto, smallest and furthest, orbiting outside of the plane of the other planets. But all of these planets, in all of their diversity and majesty, just made me wonder whether there was anything more.

When I was only five years old, the first planets to be found orbiting other stars were detected. Now there are more than 1,800 of them known to exist, with several thousand more awaiting confirmation. I have been following this field intensely for years. Imagine it, though: thousands of worlds, each one as strange and unique as any of the planets around our sun.

Of course, I know that I care about it more than people in the future will; for me, it will always be a glorious expansion of Human knowledge. To people in the future, it will just be the way that things are.


*Pluto is, of course, not a planet, but it was still classified as such when I was a child.

**Don’t laugh. Seriously this pissed me off so much as a kid.

Posted in Physics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Wasted Year

Tomorrow, I’m going to Montreal for the first time in eleven years. It seems that the staff of the International Space University were sufficiently impressed by my work last year in Strasbourg that they are inviting me back, with food, accommodations, and a stipend, to help edit their documents this year. I’m glad that they noticed my work, and I look forward to the trip.

However, there is one moment that I am dreading, and that is the moment at which I meet up with some of my old peers and they start asking me awkward questions. Questions such as: “What have you been doing for the last year?” And I confess, I have painfully little to tell them in reply.

The truth is that I have mostly been fumbling around unsuccessfully looking for employment while living in my parents’ house, working odd-jobs that are frankly far below my actual skill level, and taking courses in first year statistics so that I don’t have to start paying my student loans. There have been a few highlights, to be sure: getting published was certainly one of them, giving a talk at a physics symposium another.  But by and large, I find myself in the same, “temporary” place that I have been since I left Strasbourg. I haven’t even unpacked my boxes from Grad School, out of hopeless optimism that it wouldn’t be too long before I could get a  grown-up job* and win back my independence.

What the hell happened? When I came back last time, I felt sure of myself like never before. I was going to earn some money for a year and then enter into grad school to earn my PhD! But then finding a job, temporary or otherwise, proved more difficult than I ever anticipated, and I couldn’t find the right PhD program until about two weeks after it became too late to register. So here I am adrift in limbo.

But not for much longer.

Because there comes a point (and mine is the one year mark) where you just have to say “fuck it, this isn’t working,” and try taking a some ridiculous, stupid chance. So here’s the plan:

I’m going to go to Montreal. I’m going to impress the pants off of everyone, once again. I’ll leverage my contacts, and if I can score a job while I’m there–even if it necessitates my relocation to the USA or Europe–I will take it. If not, then no matter: I’m still not going to spend another year living in a state of perpetual teenagerhood. You see, I have registered for courses at the University where I obtained my Master’s Degree: a combination of things that I’ve always wanted to take, and things which are liable to bolster my employability. I am going to live off of student loans, freelancing, tutoring, and a TA position if I can get one, while I continue to look for work. The University in question is a lot closer to several major urban centres with high-tech industry than my present living situation, so frankly I think that my prospects will be much better. And then I will file grad school application on time for next year, and get back to the business of living my life.


*There have been a few times that I’ve been maddeningly near.


Posted in Academics, Employment, Personal Stuff | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Competitive Global Market Place

Nothing in this world does more to boost my ego than rejecting a job offer that I consider to be insulting.

As you know: I have, for the last several months, been eking out a meagre existence editing scientific papers on a freelance basis. Right now, I’m only freelancing for one agency but, with a view towards expanding my income base and getting more regular hours, I have been applying to freelance with other companies–the hope being that if I get enough of these contracts, I can cobble them together into something resembling a full-time job*.

Now, for those who have never applied for such work, the standard practice is this: you find these companies, make reasonably sure that they’re not scams, e-mail them your résumé, and then wait a few days for them to get back to you with an editing test that they will use to evaluate your skill level and decide whether they want to offer you a contract. So it was with this particular company.

These tests generally consist of a page of instruction, followed by one or more samples of badly-written academic text for you  to correct. What stood out about this company’s test was that the instructions themselves were rife with basic grammar and syntax errors, to the extent that I considered correcting them as well in my finished document, before deciding that that would be too cheeky for a work application. Anyways, I sent this test in, and thought very little about it for the next month and a half or so, until last week they got back to me with an evaluation of my test. Their committee graded my editing skills as 8.5/10 which, in practical terms, meant that:

Your editing is close to good, but you have missed at least one minor grammatical error, and left out some text needing style improvement. You will join us as trainee and you can improve considering our feedbacks[sic].

This, I will remind you, was a communiqué from professional, English language academic editing company. They concluded the e-mail by informing me that they needed a few days to consider whether to offer me a contract. Already, I could feel my heart soar at the prospect of considering their feedbacks so as to bring my editing ever closer to good!

This very morning, my prayers were answered! The company sent me a fresh e-mail, offering me a contract by which I would substantively edit scientific manuscripts, and for which I would be paid…some compensation amounting to appreciably less than the minimum wage in my province. “We realize this may sound low,” they said, “but it is what is necessary to compete in this globally competitive industry.” Which, frankly, I would have been a lot more likely to believe if their direct competitor (operating out of the same city, no less) wasn’t already paying four times this amount for the same service.

So I very politely told them to go to hell. It feels good to know that I’m not that desperate.

In my mind’s eye, I can imagine this company’s Human Resources staff sitting around scratching their heads, saying “but that’s the tenth graduate degree holder to turn down our offer in the last month; I don’t understand it!”

The moral of the story is that you get what you pay for.


*At least until I find a real full-time job.


Posted in Employment | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments