Saturday, January 31, 2009

Better news

In light of my last post, I thought I'd give a short update on some of the good things going on here at Stony Brook.

Classes started last week and although I'm going to be busy reading millions of articles, my courses look to be both intellectually stimulating and enjoyable. My course on memory looks to be especially interesting... which is good considering memory research is a large part of what I'm doing here.

In terms of research, I'm starting work on my first year project and finally learning how to design experiments and work with fMRI images. Its a lot of programming and things that I never thought I'd be doing but its pretty enjoyable so far. Now if I could figure out how to work spm5, I'd be all set.

My lab is taking a new student this year, so I've been meeting with prospective students and responding to e-mails. So far the candidates have been strong with at least one of them already receiving an offer from the department. Hopefully at least one accepts lest I be the only student in my lab next year.

Finally, after 3,000 years of epic battle with the mailroom, I've been able to secure a new mailbox key. Feel free to send me letters, cookies, howlers, or whatever else.

This post will be 30% shorter due to budget cuts

So the reality of the economic situation, like the identity of the final five cylons, has finally been fully revealed. TA lines are being cut all across campus, there is little (if any) departmental funding after for students after their fourth year, and the psychology department has been asked to cut its non-salary budgets a number greater than humanly possible.

What does this mean for the graduate students? Well, it places significant pressure on my class to finish as soon as possible. Many labs in the department (including my own) have students well past their fourth year and while grant money can still be used to support such students, its unlikely many labs will be able to make up the difference without departmental support. In the past, fifth and sixth year students have been able to secure TA positions, but the outlook for the current fourth year class is not so good. International students (who require funding or else face the possibility of having their visas revoked) will now be competing for scarce TA positions and advanced domestic students may not receive any departmental funding.

In the past when this has happened, professors have worked together to support students using grant money and other sources. There has already been talk of professors using their grant money to support students outside of their own labs as well as multiple labs splitting the cost of supporting a single student.

However, there is potentially some light at the end of the tunnel. The stimulus package working its way through congress includes billions of dollars for education. While this wouldn't solve the problem overnight, it would comfort some anxious minds.

In terms of myself, I am left relatively unaffected so far. I still have 3.5 years of guaranteed funding and it is very likely that I will be able to receive grant funding after that if need be. Still, the pressure is on to finish as quickly as possible. Frankly, I only allowed myself to get discouraged about this for a few hours. Things will probably get better and if they don't... well I'm trying to graduate in four years anyway. If anything, this just strengthens my resolve and gives me an additional reason to apply for outside funding. No graduate student from the psychology department has ever been able to secure an NSF graduate fellowship... I aim (seriously) to be the first.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire

As I mentioned in the last post, I've been busy getting ready for the coming semester. Even though classes haven't even started, work has been surprisingly stressful. Therefore, as usual, I've watched a lot of movies.

The Wrestler

This might be the best movie of last year. Don't get me wrong, The Dark Knight is still my favorite, but The Wrestler is one of the best pieces of cinema I've ever seen.

Superficially, the story is very simple. A former wrestling superstar is offered a chance for one last big match. However, this isn't Rocky II, not by a long shot. The Wrestler is one of the most frank depictions of professional wrestling and the cost of entertainment I've ever seen.

Throughout the film, we see wrestlers planning their matches and discussing how to manipulate the crowd. At the same time, we also see the physical toll these matches have. In one particularly disturbing sequence, we see the aftermath of a brutal hardcore match in which both wrestlers involved are left broken and bloody, their bodies full of staples and shards of glass.

The main character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is so consumed by his need to hear the roar of the crowd that he has lost everything else. Played spectacularly by Micky Rourke, you can see the profound physical toll that years of wrestling have taken on Randy. Even after suffering a heart attack, Randy can't give up wrestling. His daughter hates him and he spends his meager pay from working in a grocery store on steroids, painkillers, and fake tanning rather than his rent.

What makes The Wrestler even more profoundly depressing is how real it is. The characterization of broken down entertainers, used up and discarded by society is sad enough, but even worse is the fact that the wrestlers and promotions depicted in the film (aside from Randy) are all real. Dylan Summers, who wrestles in the hardcore match in the film, does the same thing in real life. Some promotions are even touting the fact that they have wrestlers just like Randy "The Ram." As if that is a good thing.

I'm going to try to see The Wrestler again and I'll certainly buy it when it comes out on DVD. But while its amazingly well done, I don't think I'll be able to watch it very often. If you see this film, and I really recommend that you do, go on a nice sunny day and with a lot of friends. Alternatively, do what I did and see a much more uplifting movie right after.

Slumdog Millionaire

If any film could be the diametric opposite of The Wrestler, it would be Slumdog Millionaire. Probably the most uplifting film of last year, I am amazed that a film this good could be made using Who Wants to be a Millionaire as the basis for the narrative.

It's really difficult to categorize or summarize Slumdog Millionaire. Basically, its the story of a street kid named Jamal going on a game show to find his lost love. Flashbacks to Jamal's childhood and adolescence demonstrate how he comes to know (or not know) the answer to each question. In addition the film comments on classism, the emergence of India as a global power, and what people do in order to survive. While Jamal's story is incredibly compelling and dramatic, the film can also be genuinely funny such as the sequence where Jamal and his brother pretend to be tour guides at the Taj Mahal.

Despite dealing with a melange of topics, crossing multiple genres, and incorporating elements from two very different film industries, Slumdog Millionaire holds together really well. When I first heard about it, I thought the story sounded absolutely ridiculous. But it really works the result is one of the most vibrant and uplifting films I've seen in awhile. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Plus... there is a dance sequence at the end.

Miscellaneous News

Stony Brook is finally starting to show some signs of life after what has seemed like weeks of hibernation. The undergrads are slowly returning, I can't park on campus anymore, and the internet in my apartment has slowed to its normal glacial pace.

We are all gearing up for the start of classes next week. Personally, it'll be nice to have a structure to my week again. As much as I like making my own hours, it does not result in me being terribly productive. Its likely that this semester is going to be busier than the last as I'm adding some research projects onto my normal insane course load.

In terms of what I've been doing recently, I finally got the hang of SPM2... only for it to completely change when we updated to SPM5. As much as the program does the same things and behaves in the same way, the interface is completely different. Its not unmanageable, but its going to take some getting used to. I've also been processing some image using Photoshop and this nifty little program called ImageJ. It turns out that standardizing brightness and contrast levels for hundreds of images is not as easy as it sounds.

These images are the stimuli for a behavioral experiment that I will be running this semester, depending on its outcome, follow-up experiments will be done with fMRI. Basically, this is the irst part in a larger research programme that will hopefully include my first year project, master's work, and possibly even my dissertation.