Category Archives: life in general


Via James Fallows, a link to a slideshow by Monica Tan:

[…] what (apart from BMI) would distinguish a white American within a crowd in Berlin or Manchester, or an Asian American walking down the street in Seoul or Beijing. The answers involved clothing, hair styles, heft, even head shapes — but most of all body language and the way people carry and present themselves.

Monica Tan is a writer from Sydney now working in Beijing, who may or may not be pictured at right.

I put it that way because Tan has produced a wonderful slide show challenging readers to apply their “judging nationality by appearance” skills. She includes a photo of herself, a Chinese Australian, among photos of eight Chinese-Chinese women of similar age. Thumbnails of all nine pictures are below. I encourage you to go to her site and page through the nine-picture slide show to see if you can tell which one of these women grew up in a rich Western country, versus the rest who were born and raised in China. Then, you can go down to the very bottom of her post, where she reveals who is who.

Indeed. Fallows claims that he picked out Tan right away, and so did most of his readers, according to his follow-up post. Here’s one quote:

I’ve never traveled in Asia or Australia, but I immediately picked out the Chinese Australian among the Chinese Chinese women in the slideshow at first glance. I looked at the photos several more times to attempt to figure out why it had been so easy, and the best I can come up with is that Monica Tan’s smile is bigger, she’s standing straighter, and her shoulders are more open.

Fallows and others mentioned posture, directness, confidence of stance. And that got me thinking…

Some of you know well enough what I look like. For those who don’t, here are a couple of photos from the last 2 years. The quality isn’t great. I don’t have many photos of myself – never got into that habit – and of those, there are fewer still that show me standing and facing the camera, as in Monica Tan’s photos. I’ve thought of having a photo taken specifically for the purpose of this post, then decided against it.

And this is me in 1981, at the age of 15.

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Filed under life in general

The varsity sports and the musical instruments

This time of year, everyone is applying somewhere. Graduate admission and scholarship applications, postdoctoral applications, tenure-track applications were due recently or will be soon. I’ve helped with a record number of graduate and postdoc applications this year, and that got me thinking about what’s required for such applications and how they’re sometimes evaluated on the flimsiest of criteria.

At one extreme, there’s NSF. Their grants are hard to get, their webpage can be difficult to navigate and I don’t always agree with their decisions, but if you apply for their postdoctoral fellowship in mathematics, you submit a research statement, a CV and the supporting letters, all of which are basically about your research. Even the “synergistic activities” and “broad impact” are expected to be work-related – organizing seminars, say, or perhaps volunteering on a Math Olympiad circle, as opposed to the college basketball team or the musical instruments you’ve played. You don’t have to arrange for a notarized copy of your undergraduate transcripts to be sent by snail mail, either.

The Canadian tri-agency criteria, on the other hand, consist of “academic excellence”, “research potential” and “interpersonal, communication and leadership skills”. NSERC weighs them 30/50/20 at the Ph.D. level. The first two criteria are clear enough; the third, less so. According to these guidelines:

Reviewers will assess evidence of leadership both within university and outside; communication skills as evidenced by publications, presentations; and interpersonal skills as evidenced by reference letters and other work experience.

Communication skills can be reasonably easy to evaluate: if we can’t make out heads or tails out of your research description, we mark you down. But leadership? Interpersonal skills? The funding agencies don’t really place any restrictions on what should or should not be included. Some of the candidates are confused by the whole idea. Others list everything they can think of: the high school choir, the soccer team. I can’t blame them.

A Killam postdoctoral fellow at UBC should:

Be likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in a profession. A Killam scholar should not be a one-sided person. . . Special distinction of intellect should be founded upon sound character.

I wonder if this Harvard student might be a perfect candidate:
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Filed under graduate program, life in general

Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience

The Vancouver Opera has just concluded a run of 4 performances of Lillian Alling, a new opera by John Estacio and John Murrell based on a true story. Lillian Alling was allegedly a Russian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island sometime in the 1920s and travelled across the continent, mostly on foot, with the stated intention to return to Russia via Alaska and Siberia. In 1927, she was arrested for vagrancy and possession of an unlicensed gun and sent to prison in present-day Burnaby. She then continued her journey to northern British Columbia and may have reached Alaska; her ultimate fate is unknown. The writers took more than a little bit of creative license with this material, inventing a fictional backstory for Alling and an ending with a twist.

This is the second new opera that the Vancouver Opera staged this year, after Nixon in China, which I have also seen. Nixon was an unqualified masterpiece. It had the larger than-life theme, the grandeur, the mystery. The score moved back and forth between soaring Philip Glass-like orchestral pieces and sonic dissonances reminiscent of experimental jazz. The libretto… forget everything you’ve heard about opera librettos being silly and disposable. It was brilliant, poignant, poetic. The breathtakingly choreographed scenes, and especially the theatre performance within the opera, will remain with me for a long time.

You can probably see where this is going. Lillian Alling didn’t even come close. Musically, it was far more conventional, entertaining enough but not that memorable. The story didn’t necessarily benefit from the rewrite, either. The real-life Alling must have been a fascinating character, a woman travelling alone through any number of rough places. I would imagine her like Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, determined and resourceful; there’s even a vague physical resemblance. I don’t know whether I would have identified with her, but I think I would have admired her at the very least. Alling the opera character is inconsistent: somewhat silly at first, then sympathetic once her true motives are revealed in the second act, then… then she does something far too naive for a woman who’d grown up in Russia, not exactly a kinder, gentler place, and then crossed the continent on foot. Give me Sharon Stone any time.

I’ve been asked whether I could identify or connect with Alling’s “immigrant experience” as presented in the opera. The answer is no. Here’s her immigration experience in a nutshell: her English gets mocked a few times early on (all good-natured, of course), then during her journey she takes a moment now and then to look around and exclaim that this land is so wide (or so peaceful, or whatever) – and that’s all. We’re given to understand that within a few years nobody will be able to tell her from an honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon Canadian. That’s par for the course in opera where realism isn’t anyone’s top priority and characters are supposed to be drawn with wide brushstrokes. But I can no more identify with her character than I would with a recycled Christmas gift of someone else’s Mary Sue.

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Filed under life in general, music