Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cal Dining Great!

I have a few more posts that relate with training but not a whole lot of time to write them, so I will intersperse them with more current posts throughout the next week or so.

In cleaning/organizing my room/piles of stuff, I found this pamphlet I picked up at the local residential dining hall, which made me smile. The front cover's text reads as follows:

Social Responsibility

Cal Dining is committed to being a socially responsible program that supports the campus and local communities. We constantly strive to increase our environmental efforts and help educate our customers to do the same. From having the first two green facilities on Cal's campus to becoming the first organic certified University dining program, Cal Dining will continue to evolve.

Only in Berkeley can you find the phrase "Social Responsibility" emblazoned on dining hall brochures.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dominant and Subordinated Groups

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

Back over a week ago, I introduced the topic of dominant (“normal”) and subordinate (“targeted”) echelons of diversity, and how we as individuals among a sea of people are ranked in said categories by genetics and societal norms, despite our awareness or desire to be ranked a certain way. While one may argue that there are more aspects of diversity that these two echelons compose than just the eight I mentioned (ability, age, class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and sexuality), let’s delve deeper into discussion with these as examples. Recognizing our membership in dominant and subordinate rankings of diversity is the first step in owning our privileges and ostracism in society. Let’s go over these eight aspects with examples:

Ability: the physical and mental capability for individual movement and mobility without outside aid.

The example I gave earlier involved a wheelchair-user: albeit the optimistic nature of the person to work his way up in the world and the facilities stemming from good upper-body strength that will assist him in getting around permit this person to claim he is dominant in society by his own standards, the fact is that wheelchair-accessible routes are few and far to come by, that laws were required to change access standards and build this paucity of routes, and that roads and buildings typically have been and are currently designed to appeal to a public that can walk, i.e. the dominant, functioning group. A wheelchair-user is a victim of socialization, where what is considered “normal” by others contrasts with the inherent needs of the individual. Here, the perception of a dominant trait contrasts with the reality of the targeted group situation.

Being made aware of his membership in a subordinate echelon of ability, the wheelchair-user can now better understand his own background and his biases when addressing issues of diversity.

Age: the level of maturation of a person and how it effects an impression on others.

Most interesting about age is the fact that every member of a society will progress through intermittent stages of dominance and subordination as they get older, which is often not the case with other aspects of diversity that are dictated solely by chance, such as race or gender. We can use a growing child as an example:

As a young girl up through her teenage years, she is subordinated by society because she is not fully aware of the consequences of her actions and too immature to know better. Her voice is not important to political leaders because of the absence of voting power, while her parents and teachers will invariably know the correct choices to decisions she makes by their wisdom that comes with age. She is the future of our nation but needs constant care and maintenance to make it that far.

Past these awkward years, she becomes an adult, possesses the faculties to make informed choices about her life and to grow from experiences individually without an outside mentor. She has a representative voice, is considered capable of sustaining herself, and has accumulated enough wisdom to maybe initially be seen as wise. She is in a dominant group and more productive than she will ever be in her life.

Fast-forward a few decades, and she becomes a wizened old-lady who is expected to retire and watch The Price is Right every weekday morning. She is past her prime. She is wise beyond her years yet will inevitably need someone to care for her. Her age-group is the most vocal in terms of voter turnout only because she has nothing better to do with her time. And besides, her ultra traditional ways do not represent a new, growing America.

These were generalizations that society can make about a person going through stages of life, and are what society bases many such decisions on, as we can delineate through additional analysis of other facets of diversity.

Class: the socioeconomic status that dictates a social hierarchy.

Simply put, if you are reading this on your own computer at home, you most likely constitute the dominant level of class diversity, because you or your family can afford these voluntary items and services like computers and an internet connection, choices out of the reach of many poor families. Society expects its members to be able to pay for the food, clothing, and well-being all of their families require, and if for whatever reason a family cannot meet this norm, it is considered dysfunctional, and it needs government assistance mainly due to a lack in work ethic and proper expenditure planning. Those who accept welfare and other forms of monetary aid from the government are often considered inferior by those who can succeed without the aid.

Race and Ethnicity: the inherent physical and cultural characteristics that largely shape the experiences of an individual.

Another simple pair of aspects to analyze: if you are Caucasian, you are a dominant group in our society, whereas non-Caucasians fall into the targeted group. I have found that this is often difficult for Californians to understand, particularly college students, because we are so used to seeing large Hispanic and Asian-American populations in our communities. This large presence that we are accustomed to, however, does not dictate that the rest of American society views these groups favorably, or as normal.

For starters, underrepresentation is a tribulation many groups deal with constantly, even here in California. The Fall 2005 ethnic distribution at Berkeley showed that, not including the large representation of Chinese and Chinese-Americans (~20%), each separate and individual Asian ethnicity makes up only ~3% of the population at Cal. Together, that does correspond to a grand total of 40% Asian-American identity on campus, but many tend to conflate this with a very large representation of Asian culture, when in fact each ethnicity under the Asian/Asian-American title, with inherently different cultures and norms, has a relatively small voice compared with the 31% Caucasian presence.

Also compare this presence with the total African-American/Black voice, which hits only 3.5%.

Of course, one might argue that the same could be said for Caucasians, that the ethnicities and cultures of the various European nations which compose this set of students are similarly represented in small numbers. The difference is that, because Caucasian culture is the dominant group in American society, well-represented in the media, in the government, and in the workforce, there is little need for Caucasians to coalesce and push for representation, nor is there a significant desire to support the individual ethnicities that compose the Caucasian title because of said representation. Our voice at Cal is 31% strong, much more powerful still in America as a whole, and so the small number representation of various European ethnicities is essentially counteracted by our membership in this dominant group.

For those few that identify strongly with their European ethnicity and believe they are underrepresented even when admitting their membership in the dominant Caucasian category, I would be willing to agree to a certain extent. While European ethnicities can be very important to Caucasians, and Greek representation, for example, not readily seen, neither at Cal nor in American society, the key difference is that we as Caucasians still owe certain characteristics to the “normal” echelon of diversity, which Asian/Asian-Americans and African-Americans do not possess. Being White brings with it substantial privilege and power, no matter what nation you hail from.

I will continue with gender, religion, and sexuality (not sex drive) sometime tomorrow.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Time to update: I'm still alive, just swamped with work for welcome week and planning out this semester with my staff. I should have some time later today to write again, and so I will force myself to take initiative, instead of fall asleep or something else less productive but more desirable.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Move-In Day Tomorrow

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

I have a couple more posts to add in wrapping up my training experience, but my time over the past couple of days has been dominated by preparing the halls for 1500 students moving into their new communities by tomorrow morning. I anticipate a post by the end of this weekend. Until then, I'm holding my breath.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Retreat 1 of 1

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

Our Hall Staff retreat was phenomenal. We ventured up into the mountains near Petaluma—a camp site called the Walker Creek Ranch, after an early morning bus ride at 8am Sunday morning, and returned promptly by 5pm Monday. Interspersed between diversity sessions with our Unit 1 staff (30 staff members) and with the entire amalgam of Berkeley hall staffs (~150 students and directors) lay the coveted reward of free time, spent by most of us at a nearby lake called Turtle Pond, where swimming, canoeing, and sun bathing were well represented.

During the day, one could visually witness the lake, the hike leading up to the lake, and the creek that fed off from the lake, but a nighttime hike, without the distractions afforded by the sun, was required to fulfill this experience. At one point along the path to Turtle Pond, through descents and inclines, foliage and waterways, there lay a giant clearing of soft terrain granting unhindered movement, where in the dark you literally felt as if you could simply diffuse out into the great and wild nothingness that surrounded you, with one long exhale. Memories overcame me at this time, where I was reminded of the important exchanges I shared at the same training retreat of last year. I remembered the smell, the taste of the air, the subtle glow of the nightlights from camp that illuminated a distant part of the forest in front of us.

These feelings flowed through my body like blood, pulsing a course that was designed to reinforce the trust I had built with this place a year ago; hall staff took much learning and self-discovery away from last year’s retreat and consequently this recent trip had a lot to live up to, which it did. This atmosphere, this developed sense of trust, solidified from experiences a year prior and over the last week with a new dedicated staff, engendered the perfect environment for further discovery and self-awareness.

We encountered a laundry list of activities that broadened our perspectives, the first being an open discussion about dominant and subordinated groups in society. A key aspect we addressed at training was furthering an understanding of our individual backgrounds and biases, an understanding of these groups salient to such a topic.

As members of the US society, we are categorized by society in the media, workplace, and government, within dominant (“normal”) or subordinate (targeted) groups of diversity including, but not limited to: ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and sexuality. Our membership in these diversity groups is decided unconsciously by the system we live in and by our genetic material, which makes consciously becoming aware of these divisions a necessary task. However, consciously choosing to deny one’s identity and group membership does not make it so: as an example, a wheelchair-user who believes he or she is dominant, or “normal”, in terms of ability because of a prowess to take care of him/herself does not compensate for the fact that wheelchair-accessible routes are few and far to come by, that laws were required to build this paucity of routes and change access standards, and that roads and buildings typically have been and are currently designed to appeal to a public that can walk, i.e. the dominant, functioning group. Here, the perception of a dominant trait contrasts with the reality of the targeted group situation.

As a short breather and activity, attempt to define what groups you identify with in terms of each of the above eight features of diversity, both in the eyes of yourself and in light of the system. Compare your own perceptions versus the truth in relation to society: before and after this activity, how aware were you of your own dominance and subordination? What group are you most and least comfortable identifying with, both confidentially and to others? And did this activity elicit any particular response from you?

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Single Starfish

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

Back from training, have lots to say, as you can imagine, but we'll first start with a story.

On one certain sporadic peregrination across the residential hall complex when I got back, I happened upon a small handful of papers, all spanning the color spectrum from roy through gbiv, and all settled gently and slightly in disarray on a folding chair inside a lounge. No one was nearby, and the multitude of hues and shades naturally interested me, so I furtively snuck in and stole a glance. On each paper was a copy of the story, "A Single Starfish" by Loren Eiseley, and it was entirely fitting for the occasion and the mood I was in upon arriving back in Berkeley, so I thought I'd post it here:

One day an old man was walking along the beach. It was low tide, and the sand was littered with thousands of stranded starfish that the water had carried in and then left behind. The man began walking very carefully so as not to step on any of the beautiful creatures. Since the animals still seemed to be alive, he considered picking some of them up and putting them back in the water, where they could resume their lives.

The man knew the starfish would die if left on the beach's dry sand but he reasoned that he could not possibly help them all, so he chose to do nothing and continued walking.

Soon afterward, the man came upon a small child on the beach who was frantically throwing one starfish after another back into the sea. The old man stopped and asked the child, "What are you doing?"

"I'm saving the starfish," the child replied.

"Why waste your time?... There are so many you can't save them all so what does it matter?" argued the man.

Without hesitation, the child picked up another starfish and tossed the starfish back into the water.... "It matters to this one," the child explained.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

I promised to update every couple of days with something worth reading, but I'm actually on my way out for an overnight retreat, so expect something at the soonest by Monday night. Cheers!

Friday, August 11, 2006

MTV and 'social satire'

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

I'm still recovering from this week, and I have a few difficult tasks ahead of me which prohibit an effective exchange of my experiences with your attention. For now, I'd like to just tag this article concerning MTV and 'social satire':

A new MTV cartoon depicting black women squatting on all fours tethered to leashes and defecating on the floor is drawing fire from several prominent African Americans who call the episode degrading.

I'd like to say abso-goddamn-lutely to the degrading comment, but there are those who feel this cartoon is simply satirical, and that critics have missed the context of this cartoon, which is a parody of Snoop Dogg's posse's strange attire. How on earth depicting black women as shitting dogs is appropriate social satire is beyond me, not to mention the fact that the cartoon appeals to a younger audience who doesn't even know what context means, let alone know the context of the cartoon was a strange sighting of a popular rap star. We've got your double-whammy reinforcement of genderism and racism in society, all wrapped up in a cute cartoony form with toilet humor. Grand.

I'm also halfway disgusted by one of the phrases used in the article:

A statement released this week by the Viacom Inc.-owned cable network, whose president, Christina Norman, is black, defended the episode in question as social satire.

Yes, she's black, so what does that fact change, and why include it? Why would her background somehow add or detract from the statement she supports? The implication is that, because the president of the network is black, she is qualified to speak for the black community on this racist cartoon, and her words somehow hold more value for this reason, or, since one black person said such-and-such about this issue, it then follows that it is a valid argument and raises dissent among the entire black community, when it is merely just another argument that anyone could make.

We are so accustomed to this type of logic when discussing perspectives of underrepresented groups. As an example, how weird for you would it be to read:

"Chris Smyr, who is a male, feels strongly about supporting women's rights."

Am I somehow not expected to support women because I am a man? Further, is it necessary to explain that I am a male to suggest that at least some males believe in sexual equality between men and women? And are we operating under any assumption of the male perspective that dictates one response to women's rights and not another? Not at all, and the descriptive term is nonsense. In general, there is no assumption of the male perspective, but there is for the black community in the article and often in other situations.

We're often fed this faulty notion of minority representation by the media, and it is important to remain cognizant of it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

HST: Race

(This is a collection of my experiences from training. Start at the beginning for more information.)

Let's try an open thread to get *some* discussion.


Hall Staff Training I

The GREs will have to wait. And who really wanted to hear me gripe about them? They're outdated and inefficient, like many institutions our education system is structured upon (a later entry, perhaps).

I write this plea for respite from such a post because, one, I don't want to think about the implications of my low verbal score, and two, I've recently moved into a new room in the dorms, my home away from Home, meaning hall staff training at Unit 1 is definitely in session.

One of the points I had touched on earlier is my interest in actually blogging this event, to consign these magnanimous events to incoming college student posterity, and to my future self as a way to remember these experiences and how they've had an impact on me. There are limitations to this adventure, namely from the long hours bestowed on us (13 hours today, 12 hours tomorrow), but more importantly for the sake of trust for my fellow staff; we've touched on several personal issues tonight that I will remain silent on, as is bound to happen again this week.

Maybe we should start off on a lighter note: what does training for hall staff imply and entail? Anytime I tell my friends outside of staff about this, they look at me like I’ve signed up for boot camp, start sizing me up and asking if I’m doing more push-ups lately. Really, it is a significant mental exercise more than anything, to prepare us for the enormous task of building up and caring for a community comprised of a handful of incoming freshmen (sprinkled with the occasional upper division student), to shape their experiences for the better and encourage development socially and academically both now and for the remainder of their early years. For two full weeks before residents even move in, we as a staff address key issues of diversity, of community development, and of addressing our own biases and proclivities, not to mention constructing a cohesive staff and simply getting to know other staffs from all around the Berkeley campus.

A typical day will begin with a few ice breakers and light activities to crank up the blood circulation to the brain-o, lead into classes detailing specific expectations that describe our job title, and be followed by discussions on practicing inclusion of diversity and private sessions to reflect on and digest what we have experienced as a group. Yes, that averages out to 12 hours a day, this fact alone being irrefutable proof that we work damn hard for this free housing.

Our first official day of training was today, and was blessed with all the afore mentioned hallmarks. One of the key points discussed that resonated with me was that, as hall staff, we are given all this responsibility and training to inspire growth within incoming high school graduates, and the biggest downer of this exchange is that we almost never see a visible, effected impact on our residents. We synthesize as much information as we can into bite-sized morsels, but seeing actual growth result from our efforts, on the scale of less than a year, is impossible; we plant all of these seeds of knowledge and don’t often witness blooming minds.

There are certainly exceptions to this, as no statement here can be absolutely definitive, but for the most part growth does not occur so quickly. It’s just too fast for expanding intellect.

To paraphrase a quote that was said, we cast our bread along the river so others who hunger downstream can feast. It is one of the reasons our job is so difficult: we are feeding a hunger that is not manifest immediately, a hunger for social awareness and education, and so over the years as that hunger grows, it can be sated with some of the guidance we provide. In effect, we’re basically public school teachers of the halls, except no one is expected to learn the stuff we teach while they are in our classroom. We’re simply expected to trust that our initial impact and interactions over a year will be enough to afford such a change at a later date, requiring inordinate amounts of confidence with the issues and with ourselves. I truly can’t think of another job that dictates such a dynamic.

And-it-is-breath-tak-ing. The rush we get—I get—from learning more about each other and outside perspectives, and from knowing our efforts possess the possibility to engender powerful change in growing minds, is amazing. The progress afforded can be so grand that it is simply worth the wait, so to speak.

I had some further thoughts but need to wrap this up to catch some winks. More later!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Moving On Up

Took the GRE yesterday. I'll write more about it later. Right now: it's time to PACK for the move back into the DORMS and for TRAINING!

Friday, August 04, 2006


And I thought I had it tough (from the GRE website):

Important Updates

GRE testing is suspended in Beirut, Lebanon until Friday, August 18, 2006.

They are planning on resuming testing in two weeks??

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Re: Fume Hoods?

A commenter asked why the fuss about fume hoods? She also asked me to post my reply, and I'm just such an obliging person:

Why do I mention fume hoods? Because the Berkeley Hood would save billions of dollars and be a huge step in the push for energy conservation. We HAVE fume hoods all over the place in a science laboratory (hundreds in just our building alone), but they are products of antiquated technology and use comparatively WAY too much energy.

A simple analogy would be the Energy Star light bulbs. They emit comparable amounts of light yet only use 1/3 the energy of normal bulbs, which translates into HUGE energy savings. Taken straight from the .gov website:

"If every American home changed out just 5 high-use light fixtures or the bulbs in them with ones that have earned the ENERGY STAR, each family would save more than $60 every year in energy costs, and together we'd keep more than one trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of our air – equal to the emissions of 8 million cars. That's a $6 billion energy savings for Americans, equivalent to the annual output of more than 21 power plants."

Conserving energy is as simple as swapping out your moribund light bulbs with their smiling, sanguine Energy Star counterparts (collectable Candy Filled Bulb not included). Actually, the Energy Star bulbs don't give off the "I'm-a-bulb-rapist" vibe, as our friend pictured here does.

No matter. We as a society urgently need to look into alternative ways to manage our energy consumption, and given a choice between using Energy Star brand appliances and Berkeley Hoods, or quenching our usage of said machines cold turkey, the pragmatic choice is clear.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Certified Energy (Death) Star Appliance

Dylan writes about a reply he received from the campus energy manager at his school (ssssss) in response to his query: does a fume hood in a laboratory really use up more energy than an entire house? Well, it does.

Yes, it is true that a single fume hood uses as much energy as a whole house. The key word is 'energy'’ since it is not just the electricity to run the exhaust fan (which is significant) but also all of the energy that went into cooling and heating the air that gets sent out the stack. None of that air can be recirculated as it would be in an office building since it might be contaminated with dangerous chemicals.


She went on to quote some actual monetary figures, and even sent me Lokey'’s power bill for the month of June. I will not reproduce those details here but suffice is to say it was an astonishing amount of money, about 7x more than a similar sized hood-free building. For the rest of the day I felt the pang of self-guilt that comes from being associated with such an energy-hungry association. The grand total aside, I was informed that each fume hood costs ~$5,000/year (~$420/month) to operate.

Self-guilt is right. Five-frickin'-thousand a year, Lobster Scientistfor one lousy fume hood? For those not in the know, fume hoods are simply exhaust fans placed on top of benches where scientists can safely work with hazardous/volatile chemicals, as pictured to the right, behind the, uhm, lobster scientist.

In my lab, on the 8th floor of Latimer Hall, there are roughly 40 of these energy death star fume hoods, amounting to a $200000+ yearly fee just to keep these suckers running all day long, and that's only for our floor. These, along with the building's ventilation system, are important to feed the rooms with a constant negative air pressure, meaning that air is constantly sucked out of the rooms through exhaust vents, allowing for quick removal of any toxic/smelly fumes that may permeate the lab from chemicals/graduate students. This importance precedes the exorbitant energy usage they require, yes, but are there any ways to reduce this expenditure and are we pushing for this to happen? Of course.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) actually is at the forefront of new hood technologies. Aptly titled the Berkeley Hood (hold your puns), it utilizes separate fans near the front of the bench to assist in removing vapor contaminants, and allows for a significantly decreased rate of air flow from the exhaust; you can see it visually with this nifty flash animation.

Tests have shown (and a more interesting movie clip) that this new technology is just as effective as standard energy-whoring hoods, and LBNL estimates that the air flow savings in 'da Hood will conserve 75% more energy. Always at the pinnacle of scientific excellence, Berkeley is also well-known by another phrase: treading knee-deep in bureaucracy.

See, the Berkeley Hood was created way back at the turn of the millennium, and possibly earlier (the earliest article I could find was in 2001), but only recently has seen some success in procuring the Go Ahead for new field tests. As it turns out, the California Occupational Safety and Health program (Cal/OSHA), an enforcer of California laws and regulations related to workplace safety and health, also regulates laboratories for safe practices and equipment, including fume hoods. Cal/OSHA adopted a standard over 30 years ago that proclaimed an air flow of 100-feet-per-second as the minimum rate a hood can be operated at. Even in the face of new technologies that could safely lower that air flow considerably, Cal/OSHA is reluctant to change precedent: researchers were asking to perform field tests with the Berkeley hood back in 2002, and just this year have been approved to begin.

In the midst of all of this Berkeley-esqe pseudo-progress, it is recommended that we simply close our hoods to decrease the air flow. Maybe we should just give up and patent that.

Science Careers Forum

Desperate for some actual advice about my future goals that didn't involve a personality test from the Berkeley Career Center, I stumbled upon this online community of performing scientists that bounce employment advice off each other and answer questions related to pursuing a solid career as a scientist. Their description:

The Science Careers Forum is a professional, industrial, academic, and postdoctoral forum covering topics related to employment and career development in scientific and engineering careers, as well as alternative career choices for scientists and engineers.

I was going to simply place this in my links, but it has already been so helpful to me that it deserves some sort of introduction, no matter how slight.

"I'm going for a reddie tonight"

I know soccer is the sport of American champions only during the World Cup Finals, but this new penalty card idea for heavy drinkers sounds too rich to pass up:

A yellow card [which sanctions alcohol from being served to the recipient for a specific period of time] is shown to imbibers who may be heading towards trouble during a night at the pub, while a red card removes them from the bar.

Patrons who leave with "good grace" are entitled to return another time and present their red card for a free drink, Robertson said.
I doubt that any policy would eliminate their target "obnoxious, loud or messy" populace that frequents bars, but the red card would give a good incentive to leave when someone's had enough and return again the next night for another round. Hell, that would be a fun game.