Sunday, June 26, 2011

Looking for a neighborhood

I've spent the last several months wrapping my head around the weird real estate world that is New York City. I've been learning the city's strange logistics (brokers for renting and the enormous amounts of cash you need up front) as well as trying to figure out what neighborhood I want to live in. Now, I think I've finally decided: I have one first-choice neighborhood and four back-up choices.

How did I narrow it down? First, I had two non-negotiable requirements:
  1. I have to be able to afford an apartment, even if it's tiny (and they're all tiny); and
  2. It has to be a commute of less than 30 minutes via subway to my job, which is in Midtown Manhattan.
So, for example, there is literally nothing in my price range in Tribeca or Soho. Brooklyn, Staten Island, large parts of Queens, the Bronx, and the northernmost parts of Manhattan (Inwood/Washington Heights) are all out due to distance. And I reluctantly discarded Morningside Heights for a special reason of its own: Trying to move into a college neighborhood for August 1 is destined to end in heartbreak.

That still leaves a lot of Manhattan and parts of Queens, so that's where a second tier of considerations came into play. One, it has to be reasonably safe. I'm not paranoid, but I am a single female. (That said, distinguishing reports of real crime issues from "I don't feel safe around black and brown people" kind of comments is more work than it should be in 2011.)

Two, I want Stuff in the neighborhood. Grocery shops, coffee shops, that kind of thing. In my job, I don't always have to work on campus, so I want to be able to pop down the street and look busy at my laptop while eavesdropping on conversations about Sartre. (Kidding. Not a fan of Sartre.)

Third, I wanted ethnic and racial diversity. I'm not moving to NYC to live in a 88 percent white neighborhood, for crying out loud. But as recent images show, Manhattan is extremely segregated. Of course, income still tracks far too strongly with race in this country, so the more expensive the neighborhood gets, the whiter it also tends to be. And neighborhoods that are primarily non-white aren't necessarily diverse - witness Chinatown.

And therein lies the Hipster Trap (not to be confused with the art installation that made the rounds of the Internet recently). You want to live somewhere affordable with diversity, local institutions, personality, charming old buildings … and up-to-date-appliances, ready access to a Whole Foods, and a subway line. That way lies gentrification, and the loudest complainers about it are the very ones causing it. Oh, sure, the folks who got displaced complain too, but they don't get column space in the NYT to write about it.*

Which is to say, I wasn't sure there was a neighborhood that could give me everything I want, because I want to live a hip, post-racial, slightly socialized fantasy.

The thing is - I think I've found it. The runners-up all came close: One isn't in Manhattan, one offers terrible value for the money, another doesn't have very many residents and closes up shop at night. But this neighborhood, I think, can give me everything I'm looking for.

I'm afraid to actually say here what it is, as if that'll jinx it. I will say it is not a neighborhood anyone has suggested to me, as much as I appreciated everyone's suggestions. (Some more on target than others, of course.)

Now, I just have to get up there and see apartments in real life and convince a landlord to let me in.

*To be sure, this isn't as bad as government attempts at gentrification, as have happened in parts of Harlem, where municipally-incentivized developers hope that "if you build it they will come." They come - and take taxis home in fear after nights out in hipper neighborhoods, while complaining about the poor people and lack of Whole Foods.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Creativity for academics

Read an interesting article in the penultimate Review of Higher Education that links "absorptive capacity" to scholarly productivity. Absorptive capacity was not a concept I was familiar with, but it refers to the ability to absorb new ideas. It depends on a lot of things, one being subject knowledge (which, one hopes, all faculty have). Scholars have different levels of "potential absorptive capacity," which they defined as ideas for research. This comes from exposure to others' ideas, as in when I go to an academic conference and come away with at least one research idea generated by reflecting on someone else's research, as well as personal factors (creativity, hard work). Then, various factors affect what they called "realized absorptive capacity" - i.e., productivity, but a big factor is organizational support. No surprise there, either; research funding and teaching load affect how many of those ideas one can make use of.

I should note here that this article only sets up a model; it does not test it. It sets up a series of predictions, many of which are unsurprising, i.e., institutional policies affect output.

The problem I see is that, in my experience, creativity has nothing to do with research output.

Yup, nothing. Scholars who publish a lot are very smart, very hard-working, and usually have institutional and personal support - but their approach to research is iterative and formulaic. In other words, they have standard operating procedures; the negative connotations of "formulaic" are unintended here. They have one standard methodology and use it to "mine" an area until that approach is exhausted in that area, then move on.

Real-life examples: A scholar who finds datasets and applies a particular econometric technique to variables that have been ignored in the past. A scholar who has a system for being the synthesizer of findings; once he/she has written the book on it, well, that's the book. A scholar who has honed a particular survey and analysis methodology and applies it to a series of related questions.

To put it another way - I'm allowed to use management-speak now, right? - they are hedgehogs that know one thing well, not foxes. Scholars who move across methods or topics (even closely related ones) don't publish as much. A hedgehog's first idea may have been highly creative, certainly, but the subsequent applications aren't. Once we've come up with the idea of a blind taste-test to determine consumer preferences for brands of strawberry jam, it's not creative to do the same thing with raspberry jam. It's not creative even if you move on to grape jelly after hearing the world's top tastebud scholar talk about grape jelly.

Simply, not all idea generation is creative.

Quick, make a list of things one can do on a date. Creativity will play a big role in how many different ideas you can come up with. But I'm betting that the number of dates you go on (or - even second dates) has little to do with how creative they are. As long as you can think of, "OK, coffee, dinner and a movie, and, um, dinner and drinks," you're doing fine.

Ergo: Take two scholars at the same institution and department, rendering the institutional variables irrelevant. Both have supportive spouses and no children. They have the same IQ and graduated from the same PhD program; both work hard. All that differs is their ability to come up with new research questions. I argue the more creative one will not publish any more than his or her colleague - because idea generation occurs much, much faster than follow-up. The minimum level of creativity necessary is met by practically every professor; more than that is irrelevant …

… except, perhaps, that too much might hurt your productivity. Spend a lot of time exploring new ideas or questioning things, and you're butting into the time required to research efficiently publishable ideas. A little creativity goes a long way: Too much, and you end up being Thorstein Veblen or China Mieville.*

Overall, I thought the model was interesting and probably useful; I just don't think creativity belongs in it.

* Given the choice, I would recommend "successful novelist" over "unable to hold an academic job," but your mileage may vary.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nothing much here

Cummins Falls by TheTurducken
Cummins Falls, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
I've been busy this week with a lot of work. But here's a pretty photo of Cummins Falls from last weekend. Long in private hands, Cummins Falls was sold to a developer - but when the housing bubble popped, his loss was our gain. Nearly enough money has been raised to pay to make the property a new Tennessee state park - find out more here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Not a linkdump

"A.C. Grayling’s decision to open a private liberal-arts college in London reveals higher education as a strictly luxury good." Puh-lease. Consider the following sentences and then tell me whether it would have even been worth my time to follow the link the article:

"Percy Bongelmorton III's decision to open a mink-only fur store in New York reveals coats as a strictly luxury good."

"Tawny Rodriguez's decision to open a Lotus dealership in Hollywood reveals cars as a strictly luxury good."

"Pat Green's decision to open a Whole Foods in Peoria reveals food as a strictly luxury good."

Sorry, syllogism FAIL.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New look

After a long wait, our capoeira uniforms are finally in. (Here I am cheesing it up on command.) Having a uniform at long last makes me feel somehow more official. On the other hand, the physical reality of is taking some getting used to.

The pants, for example, don't quite stay up on the hips; I'm working on getting the drawstring tight enough, but I'm afraid it will induce bruises if I pull any farther. What I really need is a cordao to hold it up. You don't just go out and buy one of those, though, and I suspect a nice leather belt would get me laughed out of class. The pants don't fit perfectly - then again, no pants really fit me, aside from the occasional yoga pants. How is it possible for apparel to grip the buttocks tightly enough to cause panty lines while simultaneously sliding down the hips? Mind you, the panty lines wouldn't be there if I hadn't put a few more pounds on just in time for bikini season.

They aren't sliding that far, though; we're not talking about sagging here. Once I hem the pants, it won't be an issue. And it's eminently reasonable for the pants to be longish, because hemming is easier than the reverse.

The t-shirt is slightly bigger than I usually wear - I have to thank my mestre for talking me out of a medium and into a small - and while this isn't exactly an existential crisis, I do need to get used to it falling down slightly and sticking to my lip balm when I'm upside down. That, or tuck it in. Tuck it in? Do people still do that?

But the part about feeling more official - mostly, I just feel more guilty for any deficiencies. My butt needs to be lower in meia lua de compasso? But I'm representing Mestre Gulliver and Capoeira Angola Palmares! It says so right here on my shirt! Mestre No is probably feeling anti-axe from my sloppy form all the way down in Brazil. Giving your mestre indigestion is undoubtedly the sort of thing that lands you in The Other Place after death.

Which means I have to practice, and to hem my pants.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sequels that thankfully were never written

For every amusing, high-quality sequel (think Gormeghast), there's a sequel the author should have backed slowly away from (think Little Men). On the bright side, it could be much worse - the following sequels could have been written. Thank goodness they weren't.

Paradise on Proteus: A Straightforward Heterotopia (Samuel R. Delany)
Nolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
The Yiddish Policeman's Union Scab (Michael Chabon)
Lonesome Duck (Larry McMurtry)
The Next Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
The Sit (Stephen King)
Anna Banana Fo Fanna (Leo Tolstoy)
The Pinkest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Tiffany of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
The Condo of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
A Boxing Day Carol (Charles Dickens)
Hey I Found One More Mohican (James Fenimore Cooper)
To Revive a Mockingbid (Harper Lee)
Riddley Jogger (Russell Hoban)

Hiking up Table Rock

Top of Table Rock a video by TheTurducken on Flickr.
As promised, here is the story of our hike up Table Rock.

Table Rock is a flat-topped mountain on the opposite side of the gorge where we were staying. There is only one bridge across the gorge; at some seasons, it's crossable in other places, but the water was still too high for us to try. That wasn't a big deal, though, as the bridge starts the Spence Ridge Trail, which affords relatively easy access to Table Rock.

We started off by packing up and moving camp less than a mile north. After setting up, we put our much lighter packs on and went further north on the Linville Gorge trail until we reached the bridge that starts Spence Ridge. The Linville Gorge trail, by the way, was by far the worst-maintained trail we encountered, even though it had been worked on only a few months ago. This didn't make going up and down along the shore any easier. By contrast, the Spence Ridge trail was wide and smooth - albeit seriously uphill.

We had to hike out of the gorge in order to reach Table Rock, some 1800 feet. Once we were close to the top, we would be faced with a choice; continue on Spence Ridge, hit the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and then access Table Rock via a final, short, access trail. Or we could take the much more challenging Little Table Rock trail to that same access trail. We did not plan to do the latter.

However, the terrible signage in the gorge proved to be our undoing. We reached a three-way junction where the only sign indicated the trail we had just come from was Spence Ridge (or "S Ridge," a poor abbreviation). We concluded therefore that the left fork would take us to the Chimneys, while the right would lead to Table Rock. We began to wonder what was going on when we reached first one junction and then a second that didn't seem to correspond to our maps - not that any of the three different ones we had agreed. There are an unfortunate number of "unofficial" trails in the area, and we had no way to tell what the trails we encountered were.

It became clear, finally, that we had ended up on the Little Table Rock trail, with all its unnecessary elevation gain and loss. We were beat by the time we reached the top of the mountain.

On the way down, we turned off the access trail onto the Mountains-to-Sea trail, which was clearly marked, and it dumped us out at the top of the Spence Ridge trail. We finally found where we had gone wrong. Remember the "S Ridge" sign? Spence Ridge actually continued as a left turn, while the right went to Little Table Rock. The sign is therefore only useful for folks coming from the top, not from those coming up.

Still, Table Rock was worth it, as you can see from the video.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Linville Gorge backpack

Pinch-In Panorama
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
This past weekend I crossed two goals off my list - do a multiple-night backpack and see Linville Gorge. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to combine the two, especially when the summer heat finally decided to come out, but why aim low?

Friday night we camped at the rim of the gorge, around 3,600 feet. We kicked around and looked at the waterfall, "hiking" maybe a mile. The next day we packed up, left the car, and headed down the Pinch-In Trail to the bottom of the gorge, around 1,800 feet. The Pinch-In trail is steep, but I liked it because it had spectacular views most of the way down, something the Spence Ridge and Conley Cove trails lack. We wandered south on the Linville Gorge trail for a bit before heading north.

We set up camp (next to these guys).

On day two we headed up to Table Rock, which I think deserves its own post, after moving camp about a mile north. (We wanted to get past some yellowjackets and be closer to the trail we'd hike out with on day three.) Our new site had terrific swimming hole access, but more garbage than any wilderness area ought to. People, don't be pigs: Pack it in, pack it out.

On our last day, we headed up Conley Cove until we reached a choice: Head down the Rock Jock trail, which came out on the road fairly close to our car, or continue up a little ways and hike about three miles on the road. At that point, we were all suffering - or, rather, three of us were; our fourth is indefatigable - from carrying packs on steep terrain for three days plus, even more importantly, hiking in the heat and humidity. The body needs to acclimate to working in the heat, and mine sure hadn't. We unanimously elected to take the easier road hike. It was relatively pleasant for a road hike, as it was a dirt road with shade and little traffic, but the uphill still seemed endless. Seeing the jeep in the parking lot was a really exciting moment, but not quite as exciting as eating dinner in a restaurant, and that was not quite as exciting as getting to take a shower.

A final note: We ate at Famous Louise's in Linville Falls, and we didn't see what the fuss was about. I didn't expect (or find) many vegetarian options, but my omnivorous friends declared their food mediocre at best. Cute atmosphere, though.